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 15

(15)Of Spring and Healing

Summer stumbles when the change hits her. Winter’s body disappears- Summer’s pregnancy weakened body stumbles forward. Her hands slap the ground- she can’t seem to find her breath.

No one moves to help her either- Thomas is determined to look the other way, the mute man just stands and stares, and Fall, who seems to be taking some sort of bizarre revenge on Glory through her, just sits on the bed and pretends she doesn’t exist.

She manages to sit up, but her whole body feels raw, and her stomach- her womb- feels as if it’s been sliced open. She rubs her belly to make sure this isn’t the case. It isn’t- though she has blood on her hand when she takes it away. Summer takes a deep breath, and breathes it out slowly.

Feeling okay?

“Yes,” She lies, coughing once and giving herself a weak smile. “I’m feeling just fine, Winter.”

Thomas clears his throat. “I don’t suppose you’d care to put some clothes on?”

Summer blushes. She catches Fall smiling and snaps a glare in his direction. Then she closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. Drawing on the life in the room, she materializes a gauzy shirt and skirt, made out of summer gossamer and fading sunbeams. She slips into them easily, and they tighten snug about her figure, shining bright and literally blindingly beautiful.

“Better,” She says quietly. “You can look now, Thomas.”

He turns back toward her, obviously relieved that she’s wearing something more than her skin. Fall looks at her directly now too, half a smile on his face.

“For the record, I’d rather you were seeing me improper than leaving me to stumble and smack the ground,” Summer comments dryly. “Though admittedly I don’t plan on being so weak next time that I fall like that.”

Fall folds his arms and just watches her. Thomas leans down and offers a hand, which she accepts gratefully. She feels about a hundred pounds lighter with the baby gone. And strangely empty.

Thomas pulls her to her feet with frightening ease. “Miss, you’ve lost weight,” He says, trying a grin.

She offers him weak smile in return. “How untoward of you to notice.”

He blushes, but holds her smile until Fall coughs meaningfully.

“Summer, you’ve a task before you,” He points out.

“We need to be somewhere with more life to it,” She replies. “There isn’t enough for me to heal something like that. Not at my present power.”

A voice, at the door makes everyone jump. “I have something that might help.”

Spring walks into the shack boldly, his green skin and brown-tipped hair bright in the cool light of the moon shining through the window. When he arrives at the center of the room, he reaches into a pocket in his jeans and tugs out a flower- a rose, in fact. He sets it on the table. Summer stares at it.

It isn’t a normal rose. It glows brightly, and seems made of incandescent light rather than actual flower.

“Where did you get this?” She asks.

“What is it?” Fall demands. “Why are you here, brother? Are you for us or against us?”

“I am what I am,” Spring says quietly. “I am neither for you nor against you. I cannot help you and I cannot hurt you. I don’t much appreciate what you will do in the future, brother.”

“How could you know?” Summer asks sharply. “And you haven’t answered my question.”

Thomas remains silent, watching the display, face blank. Whether he knows what’s going on and is remaining quiet or is just confused isn’t obvious.

Spring smiles. “I am a product of past, present and future, my dear sister and brother. I am here, there, and all around, waiting for my time to come. That’s always how it’s been- so!” He rubs his hands together.

“Let’s get down to business,” He says seriously. “That rose is something special to you, Summer, is it not? I took the liberty of liberating it from your past self. You’re calling her Glory at this point, are you not?”

“Yes,” Fall says slowly. “What in the time of the Cycle are you going on about?”

“Patience. I’ll explain,” Spring soothes. “First, answer my question, Summer.”

“Yes,” Summer says, narrowing her eyes. She reaches over and picks up the rose. “I believe I remember now.”

“Excellent.”

“I remember you stealing this from me and disappearing,” She says sharply. “Start explaining.”

“I did not actually steal it from you,” Spring says cheerfully. “That was me from another timeline.”

“Horseshit,” Summer growls. “I didn’t fall for it then, I won’t fall for it now. This ‘timeline’ business is a myth. If there is one, there’s only one.”

Spring sighs a little, but looks amused at Summer’s deduction. “It’d be easier if just once you would believe me. You’re right, of course. The truth of it is that  there is no difference between the us of now and the us of later- not really. We are all predestined to do the things we eventually do. Summer from here- Glory- knows this, and seeks to set it all in motion. She needn’t bother, she would do it whether or not she tried to avoid it.”

He nods at Fall. “You, dear brother, will become a monster eventually. There is nothing that can stop that.” He glances at Summer. “And you, dear sister, will redeem yourself- or try to- for your past sins by killing Fall when he becomes the Moonlord. It’s a part of the grand Cycle, something we’ve done for ages. The Seasons are at war with one another. They can work together, but only for a time and only towards one goal- the destruction of one another.”

“How do you know?” Thomas asks suddenly, arms folded. “That sounds a little ridiculous, milord. Shouldn’t you at least try to fight it?”

“Well-” Spring starts, but Fall cuts him off.

“It’s obvious rubbish,” Fall snaps. “After hearing about what I’ve done? There’s nothing in this world that’d make me go that far off the deep end.”

Spring shrugs, then gives Summer a smile. “Bring that rose along with you, when you visit the shrine tomorrow.”

Summer sighs and sets the rose back on the table. “Fine, brother. But you’ll have a lot of explaining to do in the future.”

Spring steps back and takes an expansive bow. “Just don’t use it all up at once.”

He straightens, then vanishes in the breeze, taking another step backward and disappearing completely. A few leaves drift to the floor with his passage.

What a tool, Winter comments. He’s nothing like he’ll be later.

“Yeah,” Summer says quietly. She turns to the mute man, who stares at her. “Ready?”

He nods. His dark eyes flash at her. Something about his stare makes her more than a little uncomfortable.

Still, Winter wants him healed. She owes Winter a lot. Much more than this  healing could repay. She has to start somewhere… May as well be here.

She takes a deep breath and reaches inside of herself. Then, drawing a hand around the tight ball of her power, she weaves threads around her fingers and casts them out around her, making sure they touch everything but the man. Her eyes close, then open and open wide.

-You see me,- He says silently. -Will you still help me?-

What’s going on? He just lost a tongue, Winter wonders. Are you okay? You’ve been standing here for a while now.

Summer breaks out in a sweat, but doesn’t let the fear show on her face.

The man is not a man. He is a dragon. Or she. The voice is feminine, and cloaked in a mental hiss. She can’t make out the creature’s scales to know whether it’s evil or good. She can’t remember which scales mean what anyway.

“Yeah, I guess I will,” She says quietly. “Open your mouth.”

The man-illusion opens its mouth, baring the gaping hole. Taking another deep breath, Summer pushes her hand- still covered in glowing threads- into the illusory man’s mouth. She feels a dragon tongue curl around her hand and flick her arm. Razor sharp teeth hedge in her hand. She feels her legs shaking, and keeps them still.

Summer?

Thomas can only see her stuffing her hand into the illusion’s mouth, but he feels something must be wrong. “Milady, what-”

“Now bite,” She says, eyes shut tight. “And swallow.”

Well. Blood for blood-

The dragon bites down, severing Summer’s hand at the wrist. The tongue curls around the severed limb and the creature swallows it whole.

Had she judged right? Summer can’t help but wonder that, stepping back, one hand clutching the bleeding stump where her hand used to be and calmly applying pressure. Thomas is shouting, scrabbling for his sword- his iron armor lies on the stand in the corner of the shack. Fall is rising from his seat, a mixture of fury and concern written across normally placid features.

Summer feels her blood streaming past her fingers. Only for a moment. Through force of will she cuts the flow, using a single thread she saved- and connected to the rose- to hold her blood in place with her power.

She still feels woozy, and searing pain climbs up her arm in waves.

There’s an interminable pause, and Summer gets the feeling that perhaps she’d failed- but then the dragon’s scales rip through skin that was never there.

She sees Thomas shrink back. The illusory man fades, and the shack crumbles as the dragon regains its normal height, length, temperament and power all at once.

Fall stands firm, though his face goes white.

“Oh,” He says weakly.

She’s a dragon? Wasn’t expecting that, Winter remarks. Her mental voice is shaky, weak with pain. Summer had almost forgotten that it transfered through their link. She’s feeling shaky herself.

Summer sways on her feet. She can feel her body, now doubly weakened, almost stumble. Fear from the dragon’s presence is making it even harder to keep her balance. She leans against the table as bits of the shack’s roof rain down.

In the moonlight the dragon’s black scales gleam. An enormous, sinuous tail, ending in a long spade, flicks out spines reflexively as the creature stretches. Beryl eyes stare at her, a feral glimmer in them.

Summer has to commend Thomas on his bravery. He steps forward, having recovered his iron armor and struggled into the shoulders of it, at least. His sword is drawn too, though the tip weaves and he seems to be shaking in his boots.

Fall shakes his head slowly, clearly disbelieving it.

Summer, for her part, draws on the power of the Rose, letting the thread thicken. She wraps her arm in it, slowly, concentrating as hard as she can, drawing out the faint outline of her hand in her mind. Now heal.

Her hand reforms, skin and bone wrapped in one, tendons and nerves all coiling into place, fingers next, nails. Her skin, pale and pink, contrasts sharply with the bronze of her form, but at least it’s functional. Well, technically. She can’t move it just yet, and-

A familiar dragon muzzle opens in front of her, baring dagger-long teeth. It snaps closed an inch from her face. She hears Thomas drop his sword and scramble trying to pick it up.

-Are you frightened?- The dragon hisses, its tail flicking this way and that, curling and twisting like an agitated snake. Blood shines on its teeth as its lips curl back.

Yes, Winter whispers.

“No,” Summer says calmly, looking up and into its eyes. It’s not really a lie. Fear is knotted in her belly. But she doesn’t feel afraid.

-Why?- The voice roars in her head. The dragon hisses, its tongue flashing out and flicking across Summer’s face like a slap. Its saliva stings and burns like acid. But Summer simply stands there, still leaning on the table. There’s a burning trail across one bronze cheek, but she reaches up and wipes it off with her uninjured hand.

“You don’t scare me. I saved you. There is a binding on you now. You can’t hurt me.”

Are you sure? Winter hisses. I mean, are you really sure?

Summer tries to ignore her.

-I could crush you,- The black dragon growls. -You are lower than dust. I needed your help, but that doesn’t mean I am beholden to you, season Summer. You may have risen among humans, but you are no match for a dragon!-

“I never said I was,” Summer says mildly. “I have shed blood for you. I expect you to do the same for me. You should know how it works.”

The dragon hisses, long and low.

“You can’t harm me again,” Summer says simply.

-Just give me the chance,- It snarls.

“Open your mouth,” Summer says quietly.

The dragon roars at her.

Summer waits patiently until it’s done, and then slips her other hand into its mouth, letting it hover just above the dragon’s tongue.

It tries to snap its jaws shut, but something stops its mouth from closing all the way. It strains and hisses, clawing tracks in the dirt with its foreclaws. But it can’t manage it. She knew it wouldn’t be able to, somehow.

Summer watches the dragon struggle. Only when it stops moving entirely and just glares at her does she withdraw her hand. She meets its gaze steadily and pats it on the muzzle. “I healed you. It cost me deeply.”

-You’ll regenerate fully within the hour,- The dragon sneers. -What cost is that?-

“I drain things I love constantly in order to save myself. That is the cost. You know the balance- you’re a dragon, not a fool,” Summer says sternly. “You are being brash, you are filled with the arrogance of your race, and you know it. You wish you could control it, you want to thank me, but how does a dragon thank someone? It can’t. Everything is a dragon’s toy. I am not your toy, dragon. I am your equal. I saved your life of my own will. You are bound to me.”

The dragon answers with sullen silence. It snorts, puffing a cloud of acrid, sulfurous smoke from its nostrils.

Summer strokes its muzzle still, eyes watering. “It’s okay,” She murmurs quietly, wiping her eyes with the back of her recently regenerated hand. “You were in pain. You don’t want to trust me. It’s okay. I’m here to help. I wouldn’t have saved you otherwise.”

-They lied to me,- The dragon says, hissing softly. Its tail settles on the ground with a thud, and it settles lower. -They promised gold, tribute. They trapped me with a Word.-

Without quite realizing why, the dragon has moved closer and set its head next to Summer. The creature is enormous- almost a full thirty feet in length from head to tailtip. Its wings are little more than ornamental- no monster that size could ever fly without the aid of magic.

“Who?” Summer asks, voice soft as a gentle wind blowing through summer wildflowers. “Who did this to you?”

-The Slayers. The ones at Black Refuge. Humans.

“Well,” Fall says weakly. “That’d explain a lot, actually.”