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?”

Demimind: Chapter 27

…and I am an awful liar. I wanted to get done with Unyielding Blue this week, but it’s proving a toughy. Here, you can have this piece of work while you wait.

Enjoy, as always,

-Eris

PS: This is probably the biggest chapter in the history of ever.

(27)Homecoming

Winter knows this place.

It feels familiar, resonating with her in her bones and her memory. She doesn’t remember where it is, in the same way that someone can’t remember exactly where an old haunt is in relation to the world- as if it were outside of time and space entirely and existed only in their memory until they discovered the path that led them there the first time.

But she does remember it. It seems as though it’s been forever since she last set foot here, and in some ways perhaps it has been. In the last few weeks she has changed- Summer has changed- they have both changed so much that it seems almost impossible to imagine it happening in so little a time.

But two weeks prior to this, who was she but a tiny voice in Summer’s head? Less a sister and more of an annoyance.

So her memories remind her, what little she can recollect. Something else presses at her.

“If you could use the gate, before, when we first came here- why did we need to use the stone one to get to the Shrine?” She asks quietly. The still dust in the room she is in- her old sanctuary of stone, all spells of defense broken- swallows the noise. But Summer hears her.

Idiot. My spells are short-range. The city we were in held enough life to power a jump to Spring’s shrine, yes, but to get back would require more life than that tiny village held. It isn’t so far from the shrine to here- and it took negligible life-force in order to come here. Use of pocket worlds takes just a little too long.

“And drains our life-force.”

Right.

The pillar is silent and still when she catches sight of it, picking her way through junk- shattered crystal from the guardian, broken shards of glass and equipment, torched books and ruined pages. The first thing Summer had done on arrival had been to set up a defensive ward. The second thing had been a strange locator spell, a simple search for Lord Autumn to be sure of where He was. After that she had fallen unconscious- the power required for both had been beyond her, in this place devoid of life.

Surprisingly, she had found herself again in Winter’s head.

Where are you going? Summer asks as Winter rounds a corner and opens a door leading out of the main hall- the main part of her sanctum.

“I don’t know,” Winter replies. “I don’t remember this place.”

She doesn’t, she realizes, the words true as she says them. This is a part of her sanctum she simply can’t remember existed. She steps over the broken crystal arm of her former guardian and steps through the door she opened.

It comes to her.

Her heart freezes in her chest, and the bitter clutch of memory drags at her breast. She clenches her fingers and creeps forward, numb with disbelief as all around her snow falls indoors.

This section is little more than hollowed rock. But grass grows- or grew- frosted over with snow and ice, enormous, thick plates of ice. Her feet stick to it. It’s comfortably cold here, in a way that grinds at her bones and soothes the aches of the day- or rather, of the night she switched with Summer.

Something had gone awry in her plans, somewhere. She had never meant to end up here.

She takes a few hesitant strides into the cavern, the room making her nervous. There’s something so familiar about it… Yet…

Her mind will not focus.

The whole thing feels off, as if there is something horrible going on beneath the surface. Something is trying to gain access to her mind, had been from the moment she set foot in the room. It disturbs her greatly- here in her sanctum she should be safe. Winter frowns, stops in the middle of the room- as far as she can tell. She is surrounded by tall, winter-touched trees. Is it this place that stirs up memory…?

Give in.

Without thinking, Winter lets the presence invade her mind, and all at once she feels a flood- no, a torrent of memory. So powerful, so strong is it, that it drives her to her knees. Winter covers her eyes. It doesn’t help, but it makes her feel better. It rages in her soul, tearing into her mind and changing everything she thought she knew.

Winter? Summer asks worriedly. Of course she can’t know.

Memories. They flash through her head. A phantasm appears before her- she can feel it there, it’s Silky. Her eyes are shut, tears streaming down her near-human face, all eight hands- claws- clenched, lips pursed. She bares her fangs suddenly, and her expression is one of rage and pain, eyes snapping open, staring at Winter. Agony in that gaze, in her eyes.

“Why? Winter- why?”

Winter hears a voice, then, and shudders in shock when another phantom appears in front of her- she can feel, taste the scent of herself, and when her eyes snap open she realizes that she just passed through herself, as well.

“I- I don’t-” Her old self- Frost- whimpers. “I don’t k-know- Silk, I’m sorry, Summer told me to-”

“You’ve killed my people! Brothers, sisters, children-!”

A hollow feeling, her heart freezing solid, her mind, her body tense as a rod, Winter watches memory unfold.

Long-Frost steps away from Ever-Widowed, who chases her, striding towards her, claws outstretched. Her form is twisted in pain, her eyes streaming tears. Every part of Silk is clenched with grief.

\\We assumed you must not have been in control at the time.

A lie.

This is what really happened. And I’ll show you one day, because I- and you- must remember this always.//

Summer’s voice cuts in. Winter!

Winter ignores it.

Frost raises her hands to ward the vengeful Queen off, falling to her knees and sobbing. But Ever-Widowed reaches her and scoops her up in four strong arms. The gesture might have looked tender if not for the razor sharp claws. If not for the claw at her throat, and the claws in her hair, forcing Winter-Long-Frost to stare into Silk’s eyes. The irises are vibrant red and the pupils are split. Her eyes are alien, and frighten the life out of the fourth season. Frost shuts her eyes tight.

“Look at me, Frost!” Silk shouts, her voice tight with anger. The claws clench, drawing red lines along Frost’s bare skin. Frost opens her eyes again. Her voice is weak, begging, almost.

“S-silk-”

“No. You will not call me by that name. I am Ever-Widowed, and you have betrayed me- you have betrayed all of my people. You cannot begin to comprehend what you have done! You’ve single-handedly killed off my entire race, all of my people are gone! Were it not for the eggs I carry- how can you not see? Are you so blind?”

“Silk!” Winter/Frost’s voice is trembling, almost a wail. “It hurts-”

“As it should!” Silk snarls, her grip tightening. Red drips down Winter-Long-Frost’s legs.

Frost begins to cry, sobbing helplessly in Silk’s grip. The Spider Queen’s fierce gaze softens, at the sight of Winter’s tears. Even so, her grip remains hard, rough, even as her limbs shake with rage.

“S-summer made me d-do it,” Winter whispers weakly. “D-don’t you k-know what it’s like? S-she hurts me in my h-head! I’m s-so s-sorry-”

“There is nothing you can say that will heal this ill deed, Winter,” Silk whispers. “To repay this monstrosity, you must pay with blood of your own. When you have a child, bring her to me.”

“W-what will you do-” Frost struggles in Silk’s grasp, but the Spider Queen shakes her savagely, and with a clipped sob of terror, Frost holds herself still again.

A clawed hand sets itself against Frost’s belly, against her womb. “She will be mine. Blood for blood.”

“You don’t know that my baby will be a girl!” Frost says weakly, but fiercely. She doesn’t know why she focuses on this.

“I do. Your child will be a woman, just as Summer’s shall be a boy. It is a part of the pattern, as sure as you will have four children between you. You cannot dispute it. You cannot argue with it. What will happen will happen, Long-Frost! As an immortal, you cannot fight your fate.

“You’re an immortal too!” Frost whimpers. She hates herself for being so weak. “Why are you fighting yours?”

Silk’s eyes turn cold, and they freeze even Winter to her very core. “I am no immortal, Winter-Long-Frost. One day my children- my beautiful, lovely children- will feed on me, and the one who consumes my heart shall become the new Queen. When my body fails- and it will fail…”

“I-”

“Silence, Winter-Long-Frost! You will be quiet when I am speaking!”

“Y-yes-”

“Yes who, Frost?”

“Y-yes, miss Silk.”

A claw swipes Winter across the face, delivering a ringing slap and leaving a stinging track.

“Try again!” Silk hisses.

“AH! o-ow… y-yes, Ever-Widowed-”

“As I was saying- when my body fails, My child will take my place.”

Silk’s grip loosens, and she suddenly holds Winter close to herself. The girl sobs against Ever-Widowed’s chest, blood on her cheeks smeared by her tears. Something vital has changed in the Spider Queen’s stance, in the way she holds herself. As if the bite has gone from her entirely.

“Why have you done this to me?” Silk asks softly, her voice bare of edge. “Why, Winter, my love?”

“S-summer-”

“Had nothing to do with this, Long-Frost. I’ve told you, I’ve cajoled and pleaded with you not to listen to her, sweetness. And now all I’ve been taught, all tradition demands your blood and, curse you, I can’t do it. I can’t kill you to save my honor. I can’t punish you for doing  what Summer told you. She is all you know.”

Frost sniffles and bites her lip, nestled close against Silk’s warm body.

“You must break away from her, Winter. She is a hard, awful monster, this Summer-Glory. She laughs in your head, and she won’t show herself, she won’t fight me.”

“I’m s-sorry-” Frost whispers.

“No. Do not be sorry. Become better. Become better than her, Winter. Don’t let her push you around! If I were anyone else, I would kill you! Do you understand now that Summer-Glory has nothing in mind for you but pain?” Silk’s voice is soft, but fierce all the same.

“I ha-hate her!” Winter blurts out, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her body is wracked by the tears, her sobs shaking her wretchedly. Her vision blurs and then her eyes shut again. “She’s s-so horrible!”

“She is who she is, Winter,” Ever-Widowed whispers. “I hate her as well. Do not let her tell you who to be, Winter, my heart. You are so much stronger than that. I will have my payment from you for this betrayal, and from Summer, too, but…”

“I love you, Silk,” Winter says, so softly she’s not sure if the Spider Queen can hear it.

But she does, because her hard, sharp gaze turns into a smile, and Winter knows that even if everything isn’t right yet, maybe it will be again soon.

“I cannot forgive you yet, but I understand why you’ve done this, Winter. I love you, too.”

Winter pants, blood dripping down her legs, her arms and her cheek. She’d fallen to her knees. She pushes herself up to her feet unsteadily, swaying, barely daring to believe that the memory is over. Winter?

Summer’s voice is worried, shaky as Winter feels.

Winter!

“I can h-hear you,”  Winter-Long-Frost whispers, barely audible.

What happened?

“Memory,” Winter replies shortly. “I’m okay.”

Like hell! You’re covered in cuts!

Winter looks herself over, hands clenched. Everywhere, little scrapes and nicks cover her. Her fingers relax- she realizes her body may be cut, but it isn’t dead of blood loss yet, despite the trickles of red.

“I’ll heal,” Winter says with a sigh. “It was not a good memory.”

What was it about?

“Nothing.” She’s not sure how she’d feel about telling Summer any details. Or anything at all. She isn’t sure what she feels about anything, really.

Silk lied to her, Summer lied to her. Didn’t Summer share the same memories with Summer-Glory? It made sense. Of course she did. And yet….

Why had she lied?

Winter walks a few steps further into the white of the room, until the door behind her becomes obscured by snow falling, and a voice nothing like her sister’s echoes in her head. It sounds different, like a shadow of her own voice, all new frost and bitter cold.

\\If you want to learn the truth, keep walking, Winter-Long-Frost.//

Her hands shake for a few moments at the thought of another memory similar to the one she’d just experienced.

\\Coward.//

I am no coward, Winter thinks to herself weakly, curling her fingers into fists. She closes her eyes, and takes another step forward.

The world is spinning. Her head hurts, her hands and feet quake. She can smell something, a crisp, sickly sweet smell in the air. It nauseates her. She pushes herself back up to her feet, hands cloaked in uncertain frost. Fall stands before her, staring at her- staring at part of her. What’s wrong? From his face…

Slowly, with a growing feeling of dread, Winter looks down at her stomach, where Fall’s gaze lies.

The sight makes her reel. She sways where she stands, feeling the frost dissipate as she loses control, as she drops to her knees, as Summer screams in her head.

No! Winter, you idiot!

And Fall, staring at her coldly now, coldly, she realizes. His eyes are boring into her. She sways again, on her knees. Her hand comes away from her middle, covered in red. Her whole body shakes helplessly. She stares at Fall, uncomprehending, her mouth moving to frame a word.

Why?

Winter? Winter!

And inside, a quiet, quiet voice whispers, so softly she can barely hear it: This is the way I will end. This is the way all of us will end.

Winter sobs, her breath coming out in a long, drawn out whimper. She realizes that here is an agonizing, burning pain in her middle, and part of her feels it needs to act- now.

There’s a heat in her belly, agonizing, hot, sticky, covered in blood- she can see it on her fingers, though she forces her eyes away from the hole where her stomach used to be.

Winter! Summer hisses. What the hell is going on? It feels like my- your- stomach- AAH. It hurts!

Winter’s hand glows with frost as she presses it against her awful wound. It takes mere moments for the pain to numb and the horrible flow of blood to cease, but those moments feel an eternity. Winter totters where she stands. Her lips feel numb, her head is filled with a hundred needles. Her vision blurs, and she pushes her hand further into the nasty hole where her belly should be, as much to remind her she still has a hand as to numb herself further.

What have you d-done? Summer whimpers.

Winter shakes her head grimly, and forces herself another step forward. Blood is dripping around her hand now.

Winter?

Winter-Long-Frost takes a deep, shuddering breath, sending spikes of pain into the frayed nerves near her stomach. After a moment, that pain is gone too, and the cold overwhelms everything. Swaying, unable to steady herself, the fourth season staggers off through the snow.

Her crunching footsteps stop as she finds a door. She doesn’t dare remove her hand from her abdomen, but she reaches out with her free hand, grasps the handle, and tugs the door open.

It creaks, the hinges shuddering, then giving way, grinding into rust as she watches. In her dizzy vision, flecks of metal fall onto snow dappled with red. Her eyes half-shut. She feels cold the likes of which she’d never felt before consuming her. Her very bones ache with it.

She makes it through the door and into this new room, her breathing heavy, ragged at the edges. She doesn’t close the door after her- with the hinges gone, what’s the point?

The scent of iron is thick here. All around her it presses in, suffocating her, making her head spin. Where is she?

Her mind wavers, crumbles under the abuse, and she collapses to the floor.

Visions come and go. Voices work in and out of her awareness incessantly, sparking in her mind in flashes, sounds. Sometimes she opens her eyes, but she can’t see anything but the cold- a blue haze that crackles and hisses. Sometimes she thinks she can hear Summer calling her name.

The hissing darkness strikes at her, a snake of shadow biting at her head. The burning sensation in her stomach is getting worse as she loses concentration. She can feel her heart pounding in her chest, drumming away. She doesn’t remember dying.

But she doesn’t remember how or why she got here, she doesn’t remember where she is.

In the dark as she lies there, with no sense of time, her sickened thoughts turn again to Jane, to Silk, to the girl she left with the Spider Queen.

To Spring, who seemed so set in the future he refused to believe in the present. To Fall, who had hounded her and Summer both relentlessly as far back as she could truly remember. To the confusing, dizzying thought of death, of being reborn, of losing everything she had learned.

What had she learned?

She trembles, rolling onto her back, hand clutching a belly whole but drenched with sweat. Her eyes are open but see nothing, the crushing dark pressing in all about her like a vice.

The scent of it, so thick in the air- she can smell the earth, the tang of iron- her blood, or the room? It nauseates her. She rolls over onto her hands and knees, retching, and surprises herself by feeling something sticky on her hand as she reaches up to wipe her lips. The taste of blood and bile makes her cough.

Her hands burn. Her whole body burns. The ground here is iron- she can smell it!- and she feels her magic seeping away. Why did she come here?

Where is here?

Slowly, every moment a torturous eon, she rises to her feet. Her hands and feet feel blistered where they touched the ground, her knees feel raw and her fingernails feel split.

How long was she lying like that? An hour? A day?

She feels ravenous.

Not simply hungry, but starving.

There’s a searing pain where the cuts on her legs, arms and hands had brushed the iron on the floor. She can feel the burn of the poison metal running in her blood.

And above it all, she feels a queer cold enter her mind, familiar, clear and rational, and it says: unless I receive medical attention, I am going to die.

“Why did I build this place?” Winter whispers to no one, her voice without strength.

Her legs feel weak, but she finally decides to look for a lightsource. Groping blindly on the wall, her fingers touch the familiar plastic nub of a switch, and she presses on it desperately.

There’s a hum, and then she’s momentarily blinded by stabbing pain as the lights flare, and her eyes adjust. For a strange moment it feels as though she’s back in the circle of thorns, her first memory of the heat and the terrible light. But it’s cooler, calmer here, even though she feels dizzied and sick.

Despite the agony of her wounds and the unintentional iron cramps in her arms and legs, she feels safe. It’s ludicrous, but she feels completely secure.

The metal shines below her- she is indeed standing on a metal floor, an iron floor- the grey surface is ruddy, and shiny with both her sweat and the blood smeared on it. Her blood.

And, mere feet from where she lay, the floor ends abruptly and turns stone, like a cave. She totters towards it, nearly collapses as her legs try to trip her, ends up on her hands and knees again- this time on blessed rock. It’s smooth and cool on sorely abused skin. But it isn’t cool enough. She feels her skin- it’s burning up. Her whole body feels aflame. A shiver runs through her, and she fights down another wave of nausea.

There’s a desk, a stone desk set in the far wall, and before it, a chair. Wood, metal, stone. Living rock, worked marble, a metal throne and floor. She can’t wrap her mind around it. It just seems too much to bear.

Summer is dormant in her mind. Her mind-mate seems to have blacked out entirely from the pain of the metal. But not Winter. Had she always been this strong?

All along?

The hum of the ceiling lights- she wonders what powers them- is equaled only by the pounding in her head and chest.

Slowly she pushes herself to her feet again, gathering her strength. There are papers set on the desk. Paper. Not parchment. Why is that significant?

More important even than the paper is the trapped glow, and the feeling- waning with the poison of iron- of life. There are things in bottles on the desk, and she can feel- something. Stored something. Life.

In the bottles.

She stumbles, catches herself on the seat of the metal throne- it’s long and rigid, black metal that doesn’t feel like iron should. If anything, it feels the opposite. Cold. Calming.

She sits down and lies back for a few moments, catching breath that she didn’t know she had. The cool of the metal brings peace, soothes aches. But how can that be? She wonders. What type of metal is this?

The clear part of her mind shakes her. The papers have words written on them in a language she knows. They’re written in English. She’d written it down in English instead of Eldritch. And they are hers. She remembers writing them- albeit in a blurry fashion. The words grab at her.

It is clear now that my brothers have gone mad…

Her eyes don’t believe what they read. She can’t make sense of it now- the part of her mind still thinking clearly suggests she should drain something. Anything. Even the things in the bottles might do.

What are they?

She looks at one, a bottle all covered in designs- hexagons of crystal patterned into the glass. The label on it says something, and as she looks closer, she can see the glow inside of it pulsing at her as if alive.

And it is alive. She can feel it. It’s calling to her.

Paper. It’s important. The label says something, written in English again.

The human language. Or one of them.

[Distilled Life]

(Soul Energy)

Winter closes her eyes.

She only means to close them for a second, but when she opens them again, the world is spinning and her head is pounding worse than ever. The burning sensation has spread to her insides as well, she feels as if she is boiling from within.

Her whole body afire.

She feels sparks jumping on her arms and her legs, down her belly and back. They tingle as they pass over her, through her. Her eyes shut again.

Distilled life. She can feel it still, so close to her. It’s powerful. She should take it.

It would heal her. Help her heal. She needs it.

Without thinking, her hand slides around the crystal of the bottle. She reaches out with her mind, brushes the life in the bottle tentatively. She hasn’t fed in a while- not since before Summer’s turn came. Her fingers shake, tremble as she opens the conduit.

The life-force feels… strangely familiar. Her mouth is alive with the taste of lavender- and- and… the life energy is flooding her.

Feed, she thinks, as strongly as she can, letting her thoughts guide her desire and her power.

Her whole body is suddenly cooler. Her aches, her pains vanish- her fingers and toes are tingling, her eyes snap open. The sparks on her skin are blue. She feels blue, electricity flashing through her veins- pure, cold power.  Her heart is hammering out a wild rhythm in her chest, and the force of the strength in her limbs makes her cry out- she can feel her body stiffen. She curls up into a ball and waits for the eruption of energy to subside.

Finally, after what seems like forever, she carefully lets her limbs relax.

Her body feels incredible. Every part of her- from her hands to her feet- feels strong. It’s more powerful than the orb she absorbed, more powerful than anything she has ever felt before- but it’s so familiar.

And it strikes her now, as she stares at the bottle and the glow within. The vial she’d taken- the potion she’d drunk from- it had tasted similar to this energy. Almost the same. That’s how she had taken Black Refuge.

This is the power from her memory. Her very fingertips crackle with it. As she starts to stand up- she realizes that her scars are burning, standing out lividly from her body as her magic fills her up. All she can hear is the sound of her heart beating and the slow crick crack of fresh frost on the metal near her.

Her mind is clear as crystal now. She can feel it. She’s at the peak of mental and physical power.

It takes an effort of will to stop herself from screaming out with it.

She almost stands, but reminds herself of the paper. Her words wait for her comprehension, written down as a note to herself. Whether a dire warning or mere field notes- she feels the urge to know more fresh in her heart.

Slowly, settling back down in her seat, fingers trembling with restrained energy, she spreads the papers before her and begins to read.

Demimind: Chapter 4

(4)Spider Queen

I was only trying to help, Summer gripes. God and Cycle, you get so angry sometimes… It’s really kind of childish.

“Drop it, Summer,” Winter says quietly. “We’ve been over this.”

She feels edgy for some reason. It isn’t her power levels- she still feels full up from the two men she… she murdered. No, that’s not the problem. Something is off, as she trudges through the snow, the unconscious woman over one shoulder. It’s not just the still air, either. The trees are all bent inward, creating perpetual shade. Underbrush is so thick it creates actual barriers in places, and she is forced to clear them, one handed, from her path before moving on. But the lifeforce she sensed from so far off is very near.

Of that she is sure.

Summer’s prior behavior disturbs her. Summer’s inclination for murder, even to stay alive, disturbs her. Winter shudders a little at the thought. It’s a small part of her, but there IS a piece of her that enjoyed taking that lifeforce, taking their energy.

What would you have done without my help?

Winter doesn’t know the answer to that. She lets her lips settle into a tight line and continues moving east. The crunch of her feet on the hard ice and snow is the only noise. Yes, it’s certainly an uneasy silence…

And it’s… much warmer here, somehow. As if the whole of the forest is heating up as she moves deeper into its clutches.

The sun will be gone soon, and then it will be truly dark. Winter doesn’t know how she knows this. It just feels like the truth.

She comes to a bush, a hedge about head-height, and she’s about to tear it aside when something catches her eye. There’s something shining in the middle of it. Without thinking, she reaches out, reaches in and wraps her fingers around it, tugging it out. Silken strands stick to her hand as she does so, but with her spell augmented strength, it matters very little. Winter pulls it out. It’s little more than a bead, and she recognizes the material immediately. Illmetal. Like the stone in her pocket.

She just stares at it for a while.

Hey! You can use this stuff to wish me unbound again! Summer cuts in.

“Yeah,” Winter says absently.

Do you remember how to build the pillar?

“Vaguely. Bronze, silver, copper. Twine it in veins around lime and stone.” The recitation comes as from a long lost dream, or a memory. She tries to catch hold of it, but it slips through her fingers and drops out of sight.

Winter pockets the tiny piece of magic metal in the back of her jeans. It’s then that she sees the silken strands all around her, and feels the lifeforce she’d tracked stir. After another few moments, something huge and spider-like drops down behind her. Summer shouts a warning, but Winter turns around slowly.

“I know you. Who are you?” She asks simply. “I felt I needed to come here. Are you who I came to see?”

It’s a damn great spider! You never told me about it!

No, it’s not a spider,  Winter thinks to herself. It’s too tall and the wrong shape.

She’s right, she can see that as the spider-creature steps a little closer. It’s really more like a human-spider hybrid.

It has a glossy, smooth yellow carapace dappled with red over its abdomen, and four spider legs joined smoothly to a woman’s waist to support the abdomen- which is smaller than Winter expected. It has the upper half of a woman as well, reared up where its head normally would be. Her bald head nearly brushes the ceiling. She seems to have the normal number of eyes at least- two- and a sharp nose. Her ears are missing, which Winter finds a little strange, but she decides not to comment.

The spider-woman opens her mouth, baring four fangs. Rather than speaking with it, she clicks a foreleg against her other, supplementing the gesture with snaps from her fingers and the occasional hiss.

Like when Jane had first talked to her, Winter imagines words in the noises, a hidden language. She finds herself recovering from her shock quickly.

[With respect, it must be the greatest of heroes to our people, Long-Frost. You are unaware of who you are to us?]

“I’ve… been out of touch,” Winter replies, and then sighs. “Who are you?”

[This humble servant is Seven-Spinner. I can take Long-Frost to see Ever-Widowed, if it would please her.]

“Could you take my charge here, as well?”

[Yes! It is customary to take gifts to Ever-Widowed. Is it slave or food?]

“Neither! She is a friend.”

The spider-woman blinks. Then she shrugs- it’s complicated, for Winter notices now that she has four arms in addition to her four legs. Very strange.

[If Long-Frost wishes to bring friend to give to Ever-Widowed, this is fine as well?]

Just get it over with and fry her before she makes a move, will you?

“Take me to Ever-Widowed, then.” Winter says, ignoring Summer.

The spider-creature leans forward, pulls Winter up into her grip bodily- along with the nameless woman- hangs, for a moment, by threads before she begins reeling herself back in. The silk strands are surprisingly durable.

Winter feels more than a little uncomfortable, so close to a virtual unknown. Summer seems to share her unease.

This is not going to end well, Summer warns. They’re a people I know virtually nothing about, and I don’t know what they’re saying.

Winter doesn’t want to open her mouth to respond, so she just holds the unconscious form of her rescued acquaintance closer. The ride is fast and sickening- landscape, trees, branches, leaves- air, it all flies by in a blur. Unsure exactly where she’s being yanked, she figures it can’t hurt to just close her eyes and wait for the sense of motion to stop.

Mercifully, it is only a few minutes of that heart-wrenching treatment before they seem to have arrived.

Something is different, though. Here it is warm, and out of the wind. Winter opens her eyes. Summer watches, mental lips pursed, as Winter tries to get her bearings.

When the world stops spinning, she sees that they are surrounded by spiders, spider-creatures similar to the one who brought them here- all female-, and standing before them is a woman with eight arms and two legs. She is otherwise nothing truly extraordinary.

Further, they are standing on a funnel of smooth spider silk. The ground under them is swaying slightly, as if in a breeze, and Winter gets the distinct feeling that she is quite high off the ground here.

You’re insane. This is insane. You’re going to get us killed, Summer says grimly.

“Shut up,” Winter hisses. “Not helping.”

“There’s a language I haven’t heard in a while,” The woman says. Her eight arms come right out from her shoulders, which are massive in comparison with the rest of her body. They’re thin, but her fingers end in claws, and when she speaks her mouth bares fangs. It’s a bit of a surprise that Winter can understand her at all. Summer is equally surprised that it’s a language she can understand.

She speaks English? That’s a little weird, Summer remarks quietly.

“How do you know me?” Winter asks, ignoring Summer. She gets the feeling she’ll be doing a lot of this reintroduction stuff, at least until she can get her memory back.

The eight-armed one smiles. “Oh, Winter. My people call you ‘Long-Frost’. We were childhood friends. We’ve known one another for a long, long time. I hear you’ve lost your memory.”

Winter frowns and folds her arms. “I may’ve,” She says uneasily. How could she have heard? It’d been all of a day since she had, right? Maybe less.

“If you can’t remember me, I find it unlikely you haven’t lost your memory. Is Summer still around, or did you finally find a way to rid yourself of her?” There’s an edge to her voice.

“Who are you. Tell me who you are, first.”

“My name is Ever-Widowed. But I’d feel better if you called me Silk. It might help your memory return. My servant is Seven-Spinner, and these-” She waves a hand grandly, including all the spiders, the entire silken cavern. “-are my subjects, my people. Now…”

“Summer is still in my head. She’s been-”

Don’t tell her I’m bound.

Winter pauses for a moment, then continues. “She’s asleep, Silk.”

“Well I’m sure the heat will wake her up. So let’s cool it down a little. Seven-Spinner, be a dear and chew a hole in the ceiling, won’t you?” The named spider-creature bows at the waist and then hurries off to do as she’s told. There’s a very distinct ripping noise somewhere high above them both.

“Why?” Winter asks as cool air leaks in from the ceiling. “What’s wrong with Summer?”

“Why, last time you were here and she was awake, she went on a murderous rampage and killed over half of my people! I’m not surprised she didn’t tell you, as I’m sure she’d rather you didn’t know,” Ever-Widowed says sharply. “We assumed you must not have been in control at the time.”

What? Why the hell would I have done that?

Summer is genuinely bewildered. I’d think I’d remember doing something like that. I mean, it’d be sticking in my head if I had to kill that many spiders. And I’ve never even seen their kind before.

That doesn’t really make sense, no, Winter thinks to herself. Why indeed? Summer is spiteful, sure, and occasionally mean, but there’s no way she’d attack so many people for no good reason. There’d be no challenge if they were innocent, and in all her memories of Summer being in control, there are none where she has willfully killed people who weren’t actively threatening her. Summer may occasionally be careless, but she’d never hurt a bystander. That’d mean that Ever-Widowed’s people probably attacked first.

Which, in itself is rather a scary thought. Still, it’s probably just a mistake. Don’t burn any bridges. Or cut any silken cords, or whatever.

But she can’t bring it up- she claimed Summer was asleep, after all.

The warmth- uncomfortable for Winter- seeps away, and a welcome chilly breeze leaks in instead. Summer finds herself getting a little drowsy again.

“So what brings you here, Winter? Why did you decide to come?” Silk asks quietly. “Or, if your memory is truly broken, what prompted your return? What gave you the idea that this might be safe?”

She shakes her head. “I came here because I felt life in this direction, and-”

“Did you come here to feed?” Ever-Widowed asks sharply. “I haven’t got servants to spare for that. Seven-Spinner is the only one I have left, really.”

Winter shudders openly, shakes her head again vehemently. “You’re mad if you think I want to- to do that ever again. I came here because this woman was being held captive and she’s dreadfully cold and I don’t know what to do with her,” She says, indicating the woman she’d brought. Even as she lies there she seems to shiver with the chill.

“Well you’ll need to feed eventually,” The Spider Matriarch responds. She seems to relax a little. “As to your friend, I’m not sure why you’d bring her to me. I’m not really known for my warm hospitality- I live in a forest that’s been cold as long as you’ve been alive. There’s rumors about that we eat our guests, can you believe that?”

She smiles. “It’s good to see you’ve still breath in your lungs, Winter. I’ve missed you.”

Winter is taken aback by that. No one had ever- as far as she could remember- missed her before.

It’s a trap. Without a doubt, Summer warns, stifling a mental yawn.

Comforting, Winter thinks, though she doesn’t respond.

“Now, do you need a place to stay?” Silk asks quietly. She takes a half-step forward towards Winter, but seems to think better of it, and returns to where she was. There’s something like uneasiness between them, and Winter can’t tell if it’s because the Spider Queen wants to stay clear of Summer or doesn’t want to frighten her. Either way is fine with Winter- she’s not sure if she’d like being too close to this strange old friend now, however friendly they used to be.

“I really just want you to take care of this girl for me, if that’s not too much trouble,” Winter says firmly. “I have some unfinished business I need to take care of, and I’m not really that sleepy.”

“Oh,” Silk says, sounding more than a little disappointed. “I can do that for you. You’ve done much for us. Maybe when you remember it you’ll understand I mean you no harm.”

Winter is about to say something, but stops herself, and just watches. Ever-Widowed gives her another smile, but it’s fleeting.

Something is weighing heavily on her, Winter thinks. I really will have to come back, and not just to make sure she hasn’t done anything nasty to my sleeping friend.

“Well, Seven-Spinner can show you the way out. Just leave your new friend here, I suppose. Do come back when you’ve finished with your “business”. I enjoy your company.” The Spider Queen half-turns away, arms folded.

Summer, for her part, finds herself going over spell formula in case Silk decides to turn nasty unexpectedly. Still, it’s nice to know she won’t be obvious about trying to keep Winter here forever. That sort of silly villainy always did make Summer a little sick.

Winter, on the other hand, waves to Ever-Widowed and moves to join a waiting Seven-Spinner. “Let’s go then,” she says. “Just put me back where you found me.”

[This I do,] Is the spider-creature’s reply.

The world spins again as the servant of the spider queen picks her up and whisks her away.

After a torturous descent, she is deposited on the snow once more, and after a short, clipped farewell, she is alone with Summer again.