Poem/Story: With Unmatched Fury / Mere-Wife’s Curse

So this one is a doozy. But I wrote it for Lit class. College and stuff has been taking up a lot of my time lately! And with good reason, I expect. Soon I’ll be transferring- just this semester to go and I’ll be off to earn a degree in english and creative writing! Hopefully….

This was my creative option- and the paper was actually due today. (Yes, I did turn it in!)

So enjoy. I hope to have enough time to write more of this type of thing. Yes, those are line numbers next to the poem / story. No, I’m unlikely to do them for all the poems I write.

—–

With Unmatched Fury / Mere-Wife’s Curse

The fists fall swift, battering at the abomination

Her, he lifts, high in the air, squeezing both with his arms

And with the armor that coated him,

Trying in vain to crush the life from his foe.

It is against unmatched fury she squirms free of his hold, (5)

The steel-vice grip of his armor’d hands.

 

The fingers that held and rent at her flesh but moments before bite

No longer,

And her eyes flash fire that dares him to come for her again, (10)

To test his might against her beauty and wonder.

 

Swift, with steps long as shadows,

He tries,

Forward, forward with arms stretched wide

As if to embrace her as any husband would (15)

Again, those arms close around and about her frame

Again they are rebuffed with the slick of her home’s cold fame,

By the slipping and sliding of the water from the mere

Where it drenches her curls and the skin at her sides,

The arms that she ducked made to look like a fool’s. (20)

 

As he steps for her again, Beowulf of Hrothgar’s Halls,

Beowulf the Lord– but not Lord yet,

The warrior who under the lake now is set,

To finish the task that was started with Grendel–

fiercest of all the fighters of hell, heaven and the vice-land (25)

He grasps at her wrist with fingers as those on an ice-man

Tugs her close to him and falls to be sure he can have her

Pinning her down to the ground underneath her,

Snaring her close with the form that needs her,

And has needed her once before he is sure, (30)

Though from where this thought comes his mind can’t lure

As he forces her down to the stone and makes good

On the oath to the Lord of the land- or would

But the mere-wife is slippery and slides from his grasp,

Yet again avoiding her fate and his wrath. (35)

 

He reaches out with hands and digits,

These fingers that fight, fret to finish her now,

Look like her son’s-

Just like the ones

Grendel’s hands had in birth been endowed. (40)

 

And Tall is the Geat who faces her down,

Tall and strong and fast as the wind,

Wild and fierce as the hill-grass wends,

Covered in thorns like the thistles in the fens,

And armor in husk like the beetles that crawl (45)

On the forest floor outside of her watery hall–

In the glade and the grotto where the mere must lie.

None of it matters to her in minds eye;

If the fight with this man goes on she will die.

 

“Stay hands, stay arms, husband dear!” cries she, in fear, (50)

About face struck, and body, there, here,

Leaving bruises like those as if done by a bear

Wrestling forgot in the warrior’s despair,

The black heart of rage that seethes from within

Threatens to swallow the mere-wife as it did her kin. (55)

 

As the blows still fall she catches one, then two,

Holding his fists with the strength of ten men.

Beowulf, though, has the strength of twice that,

And grinds her against the stone wall flat,

Slamming her there with a fury in his eyes (60)

That words soothing or pleading cannot from them prize

To this wild man she will strangle or bake

Left to dry in the sun’s bright wake

 

“Curse you to death, kin-slayer,” the mere-wife rasps,

As all life is wrenched away from her grasp. (65)

 

With every moment that he pins her there,

Throat in hands that another time ran through her hair,

The Geat remembers yet more of his past

A daring, youthful time that couldn’t last

The truth of his power is a hidden affair (70)

Both from his mind and the men who yet dare

To call him a hero.

But these cursed words from the man’s rage now snap him,

Catch him and taunt him as his old love lies

As dead and still as dry peat dies. (75)

Here, the wolf of the Geats stares down,

At the form of the wife he meets– now with a frown,

On the blood and skin they shared by vow–

How now can he stand it, indeed- how now?

Cast in doubt by the sight that lingers in his eyes (80)

He staggers to his feet, struggles to rise-

But outpaced is he by the corpse of his son-

Dark is the cave

But still he can see

The vengeance to be wrought on him (85)

Beyond the grave.

Sorrow is writ upon his dead brood’s face,

A matter that is nothing which he wishes to contend,

So, Gods help him and fates forfend,

He reaches out blindly as clawed hands close, (90)

Hands that he helped to create in his woes and the loneliness

He’d found beneath grotto and mere

Where a strange, beautiful wife had once begged him to give her–

For true and for dear–

A child to do combat with the loneliness queer. (95)

A son he’d now killed for fame and reward,

Justice to be done in the name of just Lord

Who presides over the castle that he’d rightfully took,

From a rival long ago,

Whose name is lost in a nook or cranny (100)

Of time.

 

Sobbing, no, weeping, he reaches for the sword,

A sword he’d found buried once where there was no ford,

In the middle of the mere and the depths down fair

In the depths of the grotto where now lurks fear (105)

Or the death he deserves for killing his wife

It is his son who now reaches to stab with a knife

On the ends of each of his cold dead fingers, as black as his hands,

Twisted to claws to meet dark soul’s demands.

 

If truly the father is just like his son, (110)

If truly this work is his to have done,

Then it is Beowulf who reaches and grasps at the sword

That remained the only sign of his kind

The monsters from beyond a time after time,

Ancient with blade as sharp as a grin, (115)

A sword he had lusted after once and again

In the night where treasure glints dangerous as sin

And beckons all men to fights they cannot win.

 

Twice and then thrice he strikes at the body,

Which glistens in the half-light of the cave, (120)

Wherein lurks his wife whom he’d sent to the grave-

But no yet she stirs and he feels an urge-

To strike her down and with a new victory emerge,

To tell a tale that all the world would see.

 

But defeat for the mere-witch who watches him now? (125)

Accusing eyes tell the story, and how!

Surely she couldn’t have meant this to be,

To be slain by the love who’d twice crossed the sea,

In search of adventure and wonder and beauty

Who’d loved her as only a proper man should (130)

When alone he had found her, alone in the wood.

 

As he stares at his wife who gasps for breath on the floor,

He remembers his oath

An oath made in silence beneath the stone cave

An oath made in waters as ancient and grave (135)

As any which touched the lips the gods gave

And had given him strength and power untold

This well and spring deep under earth bold

Now he remembers his disregard

For the oath he had made to this beautiful creature (140)

To drink not once but twice from the depths

Had a curse on him laid- to be kin-slayer

Except-

Now he decides he will never go through

Even as her stare holds hatred in truth (145)

He gazes down at her with sorrow and fear

 

His stare she returns with intensity and life,

The same vibrancy which had drawn him first there,

So long ago, in search of a wife

A pulsing, a rhythm, a strength in the air. (150)

From her, wondrous things, and her silky black hair

A smile as sad, sullied and sobering as the sea

The same one now that on her tired face is free’d

As the Geat turns to walk, to swim away.

 

A woman whose strength glimmers brighter than the sun, (155)

What fault has he for giving her a son?

Only now that he took it away is he sure

That deep down in the depths of black hell

His soul will be taken as soon as he has fell

To blade, arrow, tooth or claw, (160)

And demons there will his essence gnaw.

 

To Beowulf, here in the cave of stone raw,

It is made plain by the water-lapping waves

As they crash

On the rock-gilt floor no one can brave, (165)

That he is a man no god would save.

No one but Beowulf, champion of Hrothgar’s Hall,

Knows the truth of his pact or the truth of his thrall,

Knows he is not really a hero, brave and tall

No, in truth, he knows that he is nothing at all. (170)

 

Nothing at all as he swims towards the surface,

Taking the sword with him and finding his purchase,

In lake and in mere’s side he pulls himself up,

And out onto the bank where he tests his luck

By standing and staggering back towards the hall, (175)

Vowing to speak of his wife not at all.

 

A monster beset him and hall, that’s right,

A monster he knew would come in the night

After the death of his son and hers-

Not knowing the tried and true nature of the beast (180)

He had slain

Is no excuse for this monstrous, morbid feat.

To his wife whom had taught him his warrior’s oath,

Taught him the ways of the sword,

For the mere-wife who lies on that cold cave floor, (185)

Gathering the strength to again form words,

He cannot even weep for leaving her there,

Not out here in the cold, open air

Not with all of his men hanging here

In the shimmering, shining, soulful sun. (190)

 

He vows to her now he will leave her alone,

Vows to return now victorious and stone,

Victorious and stoic and empty of his task,

But truly happy only in mask.

A lie for his Lord and a lie for himself (195)

To keep in his soul on some forgotten shelf.

 

Her curse weighs heavily on mind and in hand,

In the hilt of the sword that burns like a brand,

The sword that he brings back as proof of success,

The sword to remind him of his wife and of home. (200)

Into the hall strides Beowulf the bold, surrounded by men and warriors, young and old,

Demanding the tale of his victory, victory from the Geat who lived ‘cross the sea,

But defeat mires heart, where truth eternal bides,

While from his false lips spring naught but

Lies. (205)

——

©October 2013, Sam Oliver (Eris)

Short Story: Darkest Radiance

His eyes are closed, as he ascends the stairs to the gallows. That strikes me as odd. I’d always assumed that he would die as a criminal of his stature lived– like a king, eyes open, not pleading, but staring at us all and cursing us with his last regal breath. Still, I feel an odd terror in my stomach as he takes his place on the trapdoor and a noose is tightened around his neck.

Then the royal bookkeeper, who obviously would rather not be here, takes his place next to the axeman and begins reading out a list of his crimes. The whole thing seems surreal.

“Treason,” he says, then clears his throat. “Murder of the first degree, willful manslaughter, arson, embezzlement, fraud, wartime desecration, assault whilst armed….”

It’s then that I notice the criminal’s mouth. It’s open in a wide grin, every listed crime only seems to make it grow wider. Lips peel back from teeth stained red and razor sharp. I tap father on the shoulder. He’s deep in conversation with someone aiming to buy a wand from him. Hardly paying any attention to the execution.

“Not now, Iren,” he snaps. “I’m in the middle of an important conversation. Don’t make me regret taking you here in the first place.”

When I look back at the criminal, he’s turned into a monstrous wolf-like creature, roared defiance at the sky and torn through his bonds. The axeman brings up his namesake too slowly, eyes wide, and with one swipe the beast knocks it away, axe over handle. A second turns his chest to bloody ribbons of flesh. The big man stumbles back and falls over in a bloody heap, while the bookkeeper flees. I can only watch in horror as the monster closes the distance in two strides before its teeth close on the bookkeeper’s head and tear it free with an almighty wrench. The creature spits it out in another moment, and turns right towards me.

Wolfish eyes focus on me, set in a body taut with muscle. It leaps down and reaches me in two strides

and I’m brought back, breath catching, caught and left alone as the vision fades. “Look out!” I shout up at the executioner and the bookkeeper, interrupting the latter mid-sentencing. “He’s a skinshifter! He’ll kill you both!”

The executioner stares at me, eye to eye for a moment, and then nods and pulls the lever without hesitation. The bookkeeper is outraged. I can see it in his face. My father is also outraged. I can feel it coming off of him in waves, though he keeps his face a mask. I want to shrink away, but I stay still. The crowd is strangely silent.

The noose goes taut.

The criminal’s neck snaps, and he turns limp. He hangs there like some ghastly puppet. There he’ll stay until the axeman cuts him down, and I can see that my friend is certainly not in a hurry to do that.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately feel disgust boiling inside of me as well, staring at the body and somehow unable to pull my eyes away. I watch fur flicker over its arms for a moment, and about lose my control, about throw up right there in front of everyone. Instead I swallow the rising bile as it burns my throat and turn away.

“Iren, why don’t you head back to the castle?” father asks me quietly. “I can see you’re ill. We’ll talk about this tonight.”

My heart sinks in my chest, but I nod and turn away from the crowd. My feet ache from standing in one place for so long, but I manage to make my way down the stone steps leading away from the stone platform and Judgement Square. I stumble on the last step, and a rough calloused hand catches me by the shoulder and pulls me upright again. I nearly collapse the other way, but manage to steady myself. My body feels weak and sick.

I look up into the scarred face of the axeman, hoodless now that he’s down from the stand of the gallows. He gives me a smile and shakes his head.

He leads me away from the group of people, hand firm on my arm. It’s terribly improper, and I find myself blushing behind my veil, but I don’t think I could resist even if I were so inclined. No one else notices. I’ve always been puzzled about that. It’s like even being associated with the hangman at all makes me completely invisible.

The executioner takes me down a back alleyway and down into its dark embrace we go. There, we both sit. When I’m sure no one can see us, I take a deep breath and let my radiance show.

It’s a gift from my father, I think. For all his strict, bitter ideals, he does try his hardest.

Light flows outward from my body, bathing the two of us. The hangman brings out a scrap of yellowed material I instantly recognize. I smile weakly. “You found some paper!”

He nods happily, takes out an old piece of charcoal, and begins to write. I sit and watch and read, and after a time, I answer.

I think about the axeman’s name as I walk back towards the castle. It’s much later than I’d wanted to let it become. The axeman had wanted to walk me home, but my father would have him punished in a moment if he knew. There’s a touch of irony there I’m sure, in punishing a punisher. My father would likely relish that.

If he even so much as suspected where I spent my evenings then he would tear the place apart to find me.  The path up the castle is guarded by tall, gnarled, leafless oak trees. I hate how they look in the later seasons. It isn’t quite cold enough for there to be frost forming on the ground, but it’s certainly chilly enough out here for me to shiver.

“What’s a pretty thing like you doing out here?” a voice calls from the left side of the path. My heart skips a beat. I look over to see Cain stepping onto the path, sword at his belt and a big grin on his face. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to walk alone at this time of night?”

He steps up next to me and matches my stride– with a little difficulty. He’s nearly a foot taller than me. Compared to the giant of a headman that’s nothing, really.

“Prince Cain,” I start quietly. “How nice to see you.”

“Princess Iren,” he says, careful exaggeration twining around impertinent sarcasm. “It’s a fine night for a walk, but your dad is gonna kill you if the thieves and brigands don’t get you first.”

“You’re one to talk,” I retort, with a glance at his sword. “Do you think you’ll escape unscathed every time?”

“Nope!” he says cheerfully. “I got cut this time, too!”

I stop and round on him, then, folding my arms across my nearly bare belly, veil twirling with my body. “Show me,” I demand.

He stops too, turns to me with a sheepish grin and holds his arm out proudly. He’s such a child.

His arm is cut– not deep. It’s just three scratches, long and thin. They bleed sluggishly.

All of a sudden the wounds seem to ooze pus and blood, then rot rapidly before my eyes. I hear the ghost of a scream before the vision fades, and I’m staring at his arm, bare but for a few shallow scratches.

Acting quickly, I reach down and tear a piece of my dress hem away, straightening again and wrapping it around the wound, tying it tight– but not too tight. “Come with me, Cain,” I say quietly. “Okay?”

He raises his eyebrows, but then sighs and shrugs. “Fine. Your father still thinks I’m an honorable man.”

I grin, at that. “Or a charming scoundrel. Hard to tell which.”

He’d appeared out of nowhere, actually, a few months back. Cain is nearly a complete unknown, foreign, from some far off kingdom where all the men have blonde hair and blue eyes, and tales are told of seraphs and angels like they’re something from legend instead of cold, hard fact. I’ve wondered about that place for a while. At least since Cain showed up.

We continue down the path until we reach the front gates, which stand there, iron and immobile. I wrap my hand in silk from my dress and touch it against the iron of the gate. It slowly slides open.

“Why do you always do that?” Cain asks.

It catches me off guard. “Do what?”

“Touch the gate with your dress.”

“I don’t like how the metal feels on my skin,” I answer. “It’s frigid at this time of the starcycle anyway.”

Cain rolls his eyes. “Pretty delicate, Iren.”

I shrug, and we move up, the gates closing behind us. The path here is cobblestone, and the courtyard is filled with willows that weep, their long strand-like leaves swaying. My dress is swaying in the wind, too, as we approach the doors. A pit of dread yawns open in my stomach. Damn Cain. If he hadn’t been hurt, I could have gotten to my room unnoticed.

Cain is the one who reaches for the doorknocker, and the boom it makes as it strikes the full metal door is probably heard for miles and miles around. Stars shine down on us, glittering in the sky as we wait there. At some point he’d slipped his hand into mine. Now I can feel its warmth and I’m glad for it.

The left door opens, and Prissy sees us in. She closes the door behind us and takes Cain’s coat. I can feel a flash of jealousy as her eyes flick down to my hand in Cain’s as she puts it away. “Your father is furious,” she says quietly. “But I thought Cain might come back with you, so you can use the guest room. It’s already spelled.”

“Actually, Prissy,” I answer quietly, “Take Cain to the infirmary. He has three scratches on his arm that will develop into a severe necrotic infection if they aren’t treated.”

Her eyes light up for a moment, then her pretty eyebrows come together and she frowns at me. Her otherwise attractive brown eyes darken with worried suspicion. “Your father…”

“I’ll deal with him,” I reply wearily. “Go.”

Cain squeezes my hand, with a sigh that sounds betrayed. I can feel his worry mix and twine with Prissy’s. “You could have told me, you know,” Cain says, without turning to look at me.

“You know you wouldn’t have believed me,” I answer quietly. “Go.”

They hesitate one second more, then proceed down the main hall and disappear to the left towards the infirmary. I take the stairs to my right, climbing one at a time, slowly. I may need to face my sire, but there’s no reason to hurry. Dread makes my legs weak. I finally reach the top step, and take a deep breath.

My father’s study is down the hall to my right. The hall is filled with tapestry, mostly, commissioned by my father for one occasion or another. The floor is loud as can be here, also commission work by my father. I’ve never heard him make a noise stepping on it, but my sandals clack on it with every step. What had the dwarf who forged them called them? Thieves’ tiles.

I reach the door to father’s study and open it, turning the golden handle and pushing my way in. It clicks closed behind me, and a spark of silver magic locks it tight. I hear Prissy’s muffled shout behind it, and then an outline of more silver magic cuts off all noise from outside the study as well. My heart is pounding in my chest.

Father is sitting behind his desk. The tip of a willow wand– held in his right hand– glistens with silver energy for a moment before it fades. It’s the wand he’s planning to sell, I bet. That’s the only reason I can think of for him to have one with him in the first place.

Father lowers the wand, setting it on the desk again. He stands and walks around in front of it, facing me. He folds his hands behind his back. Pure rage is flowing from him in waves. I have never seen him so angry. Three intensely strong visions strikes all at once.

I see him picking up the wand and hurling a bolt of silver magic towards me. I see him stride to me, hand raised to deliver a blow. I see him break down and weep and wail, tearing at his hair.

The bolt obliterates me, the hand comes down on my face, delivering a ringing slap, and the wailing tears at my heart.

I am hit with a hot wave of shame, standing before him in the once-beautiful white dress, reduced now to a dirty stained thing from my time in the alley, the hem torn from where I bound Cain’s wounded arm.

Father does none of the things from my visions, as is often the case. Instead, he nods once as I stand there, a dreadful fear clutching at my heart that aches. My whole body feels consumed by silver magic flame, the sting of that vision where he slapped me making me raise a hand to my cheek, to the red mark that surely must be forming. I wonder why my body is not blackening from the silver flame that feels like it covers every inch of me.

The pain is excruciating. I stand my ground, staring him down, shaking on my feet.

Finally he speaks. His voice is iron, and it burns and freezes my heart at the same time. The ache doubles as the emotion in his words lashes out at me like an obsidian blade.

“I am very disappointed in you, Iren.”

I feel a shudder run through me, and I can’t speak. I want to make an excuse or run, or scream and throw something, to move or to shout, but my voice won’t return to me.

His anger is searing. He doesn’t move any closer to me, but it feels like he presses me against the wall. It feels as though I am naked before his wrath. Like the silver flames have burned my dress away, leaving me bare and ashamed.

“Do you understand why?”

I hold myself, hugging my shoulders tight and shutting my eyes, unwilling, unable to talk to him at all.

“Answer me, Iren.”

The words are like blows, each one a harder than the last. I shut my eyes and finally manage to open my mouth. I can feel his fingers around my neck even though I know him to be across the room from me. I can feel those manicured nails digging into my skin. My skin will be red for days after this.

“I– I know why you are disappointed in me, Father,” I answer as clearly as I can. My voice still comes out as little more than a squeak.

“Tell me.”

I barely manage to speak at all again. My heart is beating wildly. “I d-disobeyed you. I put myself and the line of t-the kingdom in danger. I interrupted the execution and denied a criminal his last words. Again.”

“Correct. And?” That voice is blank as cold steel. Only I could detect the emotion behind it. Only I can feel the terrible anger and the bitter sorrow.

“I am the Princess of the realm. I have done wrong by the line.” Something in my words must reach him.

“You volunteered to be the Princess, Iren,” Father admonishes quietly, all hints of anger suddenly gone, leaving only sadness in its wake. “I can’t hold something you can’t control against you. I said I would make it official, and I still mean to no matter how disobedient you are. I’ve been studying up on the spells necessary. But you also must remember what that means. If I am to make this official, you still must obey me as you would your mother. You are a free spirit, but also vital to the survival of this kingdom. Do you understand that, Iren?”

“I do,” I reply quietly. “I’m sorry for disobeying you, father. It won’t happen again.”

“Come here.”

I don’t look at him as I approach. I can feel the weight of the dress around me fall away at a touch. Stinging, then, as his hands press here or there on my body, taking note of every scratch or bruise, of the stinging red mark on my cheek.  Father pauses when he reaches my belly. It’s then that I remember the rune I’d had drawn there earlier, with the hangman. We’d run out of paper, so we’d drawn it in charcoal. Just a game, really, but it’d been quite fun. Improper, of course, but I’ve never really bothered with that.

“This isn’t your handwriting,” Father notes with a frown. “Who drew this on you, Iren? Who have you let see you– as you are?”

“Well, there’s Cain,” I begin. He cuts me off.

“I already know about Cain. Who else?”

“Prissy,” I breathe, heart falling. “Azrael. Marka.”

“Prissy is your handmaid, Azrael your ex-mate and you try my patience by mentioning your old form Marka, Iren.”

I take an involuntary step back, away from his hands. He straightens and folds his arms. “I won’t tell you,” I say quietly. “You’ll hurt him.”

He blinks, at that. Then pauses. “You’ve been having visions again.”

I’m aghast. I thought he’d realized that already. “Of course. Why else would I force an execution forward?”

He sighs and shakes his head. “A man’s foolishness. I thought my daughter was being fickle and tormenting the poor hangman. I didn’t recognize it for what it was until now. Such is the nature of the curse. I hadn’t even thought of that.”

I let a creeper of hope grow in my belly.

“You are dismissed, Iren. I’m sorry.”

I breathe a sigh of relief and force myself to walk from the room. As soon as I’m outside of his study I run down the hall to my room on legs barely strong enough to hold me.

***

Cain is sitting on my bed. He stares at me as I walk in, completely naked, then sighs. “He sure doesn’t go easy, does he?”

“I don’t think my father knows the meaning of the word,” I sigh.

“Come sit by me, little seraph,” Cain says softly, beckoning me with a finger. I sit down next to him. I can feel him look me over.

“You lost your clothes,” he remarks. I collapse against him, and he tugs my head into his lap, stroking my white hair like silk. It’s not completely white. It’s streaked with brown too.

I feel Cain looking at the scars crisscrossing my back, at my pale skin, bare, blank chest, blank skin from my belly down to my feet, bare of blemishes. “How do you do that?” he asks. “Turn neutral like that. You’re not a man and not a woman, either. You don’t have any– you know, aspect.”

I stare up at him and his honest blue eyes. “Seraph,” I hazard. I’m actually not sure myself. “Maybe?”

He smiles. “So you don’t even know.”

“I’m not the one who does it. Father did it the first time,” I admit. “It was an accident that I learned how to shift back and forth. And I can’t keep it up for too long.”

“I remember that accident pretty clearly,” Cain says dryly. “I don’t know about ‘too long’. I’d say it lasts long enough.”

I almost hit him. I feel a blush creep onto my skin and take a deep breath. Though he doesn’t show it, Cain is feeling embarrassed too. I feel his thoughts drift to our night together, and give him a light nudge.

“What did Azrael have to say?” I ask quietly, after a while of somewhat awkward silence. I’m enjoying the heat of his body close to mine, but there are more important things on my mind right now.

“Hm?” Cain shakes himself out of his steamy reverie. “Nothing. He gave me a look, though. You know the one. The why-did-you-bring-wolf-scratches-to-my-attention look.”

“Mhm.”

Silence for a while. Warm, soft silence. Almost enough that I can fall asleep. I feel my eyes flutter a little, but Cain’s voice snaps me out of it again.

“That guy. He sort of gives me the creeps.”

“He’s a good guard,” I mumble.

“Yeah, sure. He’s also one of the most powerful magi in the kingdom and he’s under your father’s complete bloody control,” Cain says sharply. “If I were you I’d be worried.”

It’s my turn to smile. “You mean you’re worried for me.”

The bed creaks a little as he shifts his weight uncomfortably, but he keeps stroking my hair, as if deep in thought. Finally, he nods, when 

there’s a tremendous crash. The door to my room is crushed into splinters, shrapnel that is flung every which way, tearing through Cain in an instant and pinning him to the headboard of the bed, a spike driven into my arm, piercing me, crushing the bone on its way out the other side.

Red sprays, paints the walls, the scent of ozone and terror, the scent of viscera and rot, the feel of incredible pain that lingers forever and I lie there on the bed, bleeding out and uncaring because Cain is surely dead.

 the vision leaves me gasping, and I sit bolt upright. Cain blinks, but doesn’t say anything. He also doesn’t notice that my arm is bleeding. He can’t feel it stinging where my vision exacted its price. I tremble, then. No one in this room but me knows what I saw. The vision involves Cain, so he won’t believe me. My mind races furiously, trying to find a way around it. After what seems like an eternity I know what I need to do.

“Cain,” I breathe. “Corner. Please.”

His eyes meet mine. I know I don’t have much time. “Now?”

“Yes!” I gasp, and turn to face him fully. “Now. Right now. Okay?”

“It’s just- this bed is really comfortable,” Cain starts reluctantly, but he stands and lifts me up and gods above bless him, he carries me to the northwest corner of my room and sets me against the wall. “And how do you want to start this, Princess-” is as far as he gets before I stand up on tiptoe, using the wall for support, and kiss him on the mouth, pulling him tight against me with a desperation that is all too real.

He stiffens, though. I can feel it as I pull back from the kiss. “Iren…” he says quietly. “You’re bleeding.”

I take a chance. “Vision,” I whisper.

His eyes have a chance to widen before the door explodes outward. Wood gives way in an immense, thunderous boom, and the candlelight in the room is extinguished, plunging it into shadow. I pull Cain down on top of me, hitting the floor as quietly as I can, ducking, curling into the corner. I can see him open his mouth, but he snaps it shut again and, arms wrapped around me, gives me a quick squeeze. I watch, in the near pitch darkness, his hand stray to his sword.

It is completely silent. No sound but a soft drip-drip sort of noise

A sword erupts from Cain’s chest and pricks my middle and I scream.

Blood soaks my skin, sticky and hot.

and then vision releases me. I can’t help but sob, and I pull away from Cain and stand up. “What are you-” he starts to ask, but I don’t answer.

I erupt with radiance, bathing the room with it. I let the light shine from me with as much force as I can muster, skin slick with sweat from the effort, sucking in a breath. “Here I am!” I snap. “Come for me, if your sight is still with you!”

Five diminutive, humanoid creatures, each no more than three feet high, stand in the room with me. Their lizard-like faces show teeth as they snarl and hiss, eyes shut tight against the blaze of light that illuminates the whole room. Scaly tails flick behind them. Kobolds.

A cloaked man also stands there, eyes screwed up, hand covering his face. His other hand clutches a sword. He curses in a foreign tongue, then rattles something out in a different language like hissing and clicking. His sword is blue with blood.

Blue with Prissy’s blood. Her fey blood. Who else is fey in this house?

His eyes open, then, his hand falls away, he raises his blade. Those eyes glint at me, glint yellow.

Cain stands up and strides in front of me, sword out.

“Get Azrael!” he hisses to me over his shoulder. “Find Azrael! These can’t be all of them!”

“Like hells I will,” I whisper furiously. “There are too many for you to fight on your own.”

“Idiot-” he starts, and then snarls in frustration as the man recovers fully and lunges. Cain parries twice quickly, and–

always on the retreat, the third strike sinks into his chest to the hilt. Cain lets out a strangled gasp and collapses. The man withdraws his blade with a grunt, kicks Cain out of the way and starts towards me as I cry out.

–the vision lets me go. I knock Cain aside completely, out towards the door of the room. The tip of the man’s blade hisses in the air between us as I stumble back. Cain makes a decision– he starts for me, when a scream echoes into the room, momentarily disrupting everyone, stopping us all dead. Cain goes white. I feel his heart wrench. I feel him turn and run.

The assassin turns to me, and then I cut my radiant light off completely.

I hear him growl a curse and feel him lunge blindly, feel the shape of him moving toward me more than I see it. His emotions carve an outline of him in the air as he moves, their trails sometimes blurry and confusing, but plain as day right now. The patter of scaly feet mark the kobolds chasing after Cain.

I skip to the side of the assassin’s wild thrust, wary of that deadly blade even in the dark.

The sound of metal boots on the thieves’ tiles outside my father’s study drown out the world. When the echoes die away, all that’s left is the breathing from the assassin and me, as if we’re completely alone.

“There you are,” he whispers darkly, from what feels like right next to my ear. I know him to be in front of me, though, and his attack swings for the wall. It scatters sparks as it scrapes along the stone, and I slam into him from the side as he snarls another curse. The sword is knocked away onto the floor as I bear him to the ground, knees on his belly. I reach for his throat

and he knocks my hands aside, rolls me over onto my back and slams my head into the floor once, twice, three times. Dazed and dizzy, his leg forces mine apart, as his own hands wrap around my neck and squeeze. I can’t catch a breath, pain blazing through my body like lines, like waves, like the essence of fire itself. Shame and disgust and terror welcome me into the murky abyss as the last of my breath is squeezed from my throat in a whimper.

the vision leaves me. He knocks my dazed hands aside and rolls over on top of me, but as he tries to put a leg between mine, I beat him to it and slam my knee into his crotch as hard as I can. My throat is sore even though he hasn’t touched it truly, but he gurgles and collapses to the side with something like a whimper and a wheeze.

The kind of idiot assassin who attempts rape in the middle of a castle full of unknowns is the same type that would want to make the act as convenient as possible. A codpiece would be out of the question for such a man. I crawl, then stand and stagger away, shining again as bright as I can, sweat running down my bare belly, arms, cheeks, dripping from my nose as I push power out from me for the third time this day. I need to see.

My sight, blurred, clears quickly. The sword is only a few feet away.

I pick up the sword, and the man on the floor, curled in a fetal position, gets a split second of hesitation too much from me. He struggles to his feet, and as I start for him, stumbles to the nearest window and crashes through it in a shower of beautiful, glittering shards. I run to the arched window, heedless of glass that fell around it, and hear a shouted word like slick darkness. By the time I can search for him, all that’s left is a puff of brimstone.

I release my power, letting the light fade to a glow, and, hand still wrapped around the hilt of the sword, I manage to make it out the door and into the hall. I remember hearing the metal boots on the tiles before my father’s study. I remember hearing the scream. It came from the infirmary and I’ve no doubt in my mind it belonged to Prissy. The kobolds ran after Cain and I know he didn’t have time to see them.

I dart down the hall to the stairs, taking the steps four at a time and doing my best not to let the sword slide into my thigh. It’s a long thing with sharp edges and a plain, joyless hilt. To skewer someone with such a weapon would be dull and soulless. It’s perfect for an assassin, though why he would use a sword rather than an easily concealable dagger is beyond me. Perhaps he’d been an amateur.

I run down the main hall– the doors are wide open!– hearing a shout from behind me, two voices raised as one. I recognize neither of them, so I drop to my hands and knees at the last second as I turn to the hall Prissy took Cain to.  There’s a thrum and a moment later an audible thunk as a bolt slams into the wood, head height, just above my eartip as I crawl, staggering to my feet and running again. The infirmary and the kitchen, left and right. I reach for the left door 

and, rushing in, skewer myself on Cain’s sword, collapsing with the barest of gasps and slipping into darkness eternal in mere moments, my blood pooling on the floor, Cain pleading with me to come back, to stay with him, shouting, helplessly trying to staunch the dreadful wound with one, both hands.

and open it carefully as I can, easing it back and stepping through. My chest is slick with sweat and blood from a cut that stings bitterly. It’s a deeper price than usual, and the flow is constant.

Cain greets me with a hug rather than a sword, squeezing me tight and letting out a big, helpless sob into my shoulder.

For my part I hug him back. It smells of charred flesh in here, and I look around him to see Prissy smiling weakly, waving a hand. It’s smeared with blue blood, bleeding slowly. It looks like she stopped a sword with it. Around her are five charred kobolds, scales rent by lightning. Prissy’s left hand is clenched, and sparks crackle around it in a cloud. Most fey have some power over electricity.

An almighty crash makes all three of us jump. Someone new has discovered the thieves’ tiles, I think. We huddle together in the infirmary, Prissy and I sitting on the farthest bed, Cain at the door with his sword at the ready.

“What happened?” I ask, voice raw. My throat still aches.

“A man came in– at least, I think it was a man,” Prissy starts weakly. Her dress is torn in half a dozen places. She’d be exposed were it not for her arm over her chest. “He had a wolf’s head and claws– big, long, claws. He had another man with him who tried to cut me, but I– stopped his sword. The first one, oh gods– Iren, he slashed at me with those claws and tore up my dress. He scratched me once and said that was enough, and then he left. He just left! He said he had other business to take care of, and said he’d be back for me. I couldn’t even scream until he and his– his friend left! I couldn’t say anything!”

I nod, letting out a sigh. I stare at Prissy’s wound hard for a while, daring another vision to hit, but it doesn’t. Nothing bad will come of it then, I hope.

I look around and nearly jump as I catch sight of a man, dead on the bed across from the one Prissy and I sit on. At least, I assume he’s dead. His chest is rent open. I note that he seems to be bald, and that his glazed eyes are brown. She nods at it and takes in a shuddering breath before she speaks.

“Cain killed that one. Ran him through. He– was going to attack me after they left. These men are monsters, Iren,” she adds with a grimace. “Complete scum. I hope your father kills them all.”

My father.

I stand up straight and stare at the wall a moment. “Father,” I breathe. “Damn!”

I dart to the door. Cain stops me with one hand, eyes fixed on it. “Don’t, Irenna.”

He must feel my eyes boring into the back of his head. “What do you mean?”

“I mean don’t run off. Whoever went after your father was well aware of what he was capable of. If you run back out there- well, think about it.”

I do. I take a moment to think about it, to wonder about the pain it would cause him if I were killed. I stare at nothing for a few moments, then snap my eyes shut and lean against Cain’s shoulder, feeling helpless. “What can I do?”

“Stay here where it’s safe.” 

The door bursts open. A snarling creature with a wolf’s face, the monster the criminal would have become, charges in. Cain shouts, runs it through with his blade, and it pauses but a moment before smashing him aside with one huge fist, knocking him away, grabbing me around the waist, growling and then fleeing, black blood running down its chest. 

“Cain-” I start. There must be something I can do to change his mind. There must be some way I can help Father. And

 the door bursts open. A snarling creature with a wolf’s face, the monster the criminal would have become, charges in. Cain shouts, runs it through with his blade, but it disembowels him with one swipe. I am not in the room.

It starts on Prissy next and her shriek wrenches at me from my unseen vantage point.

— I clutch at my head and sink to my knees, trying to block out the visions, opening my eyes to see Cain staring down at me with sudden concern.

“Iren? Irenna? Are you okay?”

Three more visions hit, to no avail. In two I am gone from the room. They end in the death of Cain and Prissy without exception. In the third, we all three leave the room only to be met by the beast in the hall. It kills Cain and Prissy both, who were in front of me to protect me, then snatches me and runs.

— There is no way out of this. No way out but one.

“Cain, back away from the door,” I say quietly. I straighten and stand. I know my legs are trembling and I don’t care. “Please.”

He stares down at me. I look up into his eyes, sapphire blue, framed by blonde hair he always lets grow too long. His face is sharp, but smooth, free of scars. Prissy likes her men with scars.

I lean up, standing on tiptoes again, and kiss him on the lips, lingering for as long as I feel is safe, the warmth of his mouth on mine making me wish I could stay longer. As I draw back I feel my heart sink. I can almost feel the burning rage of that man who should have died near the gallows. I can almost feel the burning, inhuman fury that will come for me. It seems to surround me, even as Cain wraps his arms around me and mashes me tight against him, relaxing only when I push at him.

“Iren-”

“Don’t follow,” I whisper. “Or you’ll get yourself killed. Find Azrael. He’ll know what to do.”

“Like hells-” he starts, but doesn’t get to finish as I shove him aside, throwing him out of the way.

The door bursts open, and an apparition from living nightmare takes me.

***

The ride is rough. The wolf-beast drags me along with brutal force, this creature that once was a man. I’d just managed to pull myself up onto its swinging arm and cling, because it’s either that or risk it trying to catch me again and killing me. Weak as I am from losing blood to visions and the exhaustion of the day, I am certain that I won’t be killed yet.

We pass through the woods surrounding the castle, dragged away from the safety of the courtyard. I struggle for breath. Its hand is around my throat. Twice I watch the sky painted with purple suffocation, barely hanging on to consciousness. Twice I fight stars back and dig my hands into the furred one around my neck.

Finally the nightmarish journey is over, and it stands in front of a man I recognize. His axe is set with the handle in the dirt and his hand on the head. He gives me a cheerful nod. The wolf-creature throws me at his feet.

“So the tracking rune did work,” he says nonchalantly. As if he had always been able to speak. “Among other things.”

“How-” I start weakly. I cough suddenly, helplessly. My throat aches horribly and I find it hard to speak. “Who are you?”

“Isn’t that much obvious, little seraph?” the hangman asks quietly. “Don’t you recognize your old ex?”

His form shifts and swims before me. A young man, as tall as the sky, bathed in black radiance, stands before me. His axe turns into a staff. In one hand he holds a small, broken piece of charcoal, which he tosses at my feet. Azrael smiles a wicked smile. My heart stops, frozen solid in my chest.

“No,” I spit, snapping the word out into the starlight. “I don’t recognize you.”

“Pity,” he says. Stands of golden power gather around me and lift me up, locking my limbs out spreadeagled and bare in front of him. I stare at him steadily. “Do you know why I brought you here, Marka?”

“Address me as Irenna,” I say coldly.

“At risk of sounding terribly cliché, you’re hardly in a position to demand anything from anyone. I asked you a question, and–” he flicks his fingers. Arcing, hot, sickening pain spears through me once and then fades slowly. “I expect an answer.”

I endure the pain soundlessly, lips tight together. “I don’t know why you brought me here,  servant, but Orion–”

“Don’t call me that, Mark– or Iren, if you’d prefer,” he snarls. I notice his fingers flex, but no pain follows and I breathe a short sigh of relief that I know he can hear even if he pretends not to notice. “I am no one’s servant any longer. Your father can’t stop my freedom.”

“If you’re going to monologue,” I say wearily. “Get it over with so I can die and I don’t need to listen to your idiocy anymore. Azrael.”

We glare at one another for a time, but he doesn’t answer. “You know people have died for you,” I snap. “At least one assassin and a hand of blameless kobolds.”

Azrael raises his eyebrows. “I paid for no such thing. The only agent I sent was Kharn. I knew of no attack planned for the night.”

I blink, at that. “You didn’t call any assassins?”

“No, I didn’t. I swear on my honor as a sorcerer of the ninth degree.”

I roll my eyes at that. “Fine, I believe you. Curious that they’d strike the same night as you. Prissy said that Kharn was associating with one of them.”

“It was mere lucky circumstance that I was able to imprint a tracking rune on you tonight,” Azrael says with a shrug. “Ideally it would be placed at a time when you were vulnerable, so I could imprint the spell and remain undetected. I thought about capturing you then and there, but in a crowded square with so many people? Many of them higher order sorcerers, come to see this famous criminal killed? Such a blatant display of raw talent would have gotten me killed, surely. As to why Kharn would work with one of them– that is most curious. Perhaps they were associated when Kharn was alive? I gave him no orders about dealing with your allies. I’d expected the castle to be relatively empty.”

As he talks, I grow more and more puzzled. He’s not lying. I’d feel it if he was.

“I admire your tenacity, by the way, for holding onto that sword all this time,” Azrael remarks dryly. “Quite strong willed. Doesn’t it burn?”

“I’m only half seraph,” I say plainly, a little confused. “My mother was human. If I was full it would burn. It just stings a bit, that’s all. I’m used to that.”

Azrael blinks, then his eyes widen. “Half-seraph? Your mother was human? You mean-“

A beam of incandescent light bursts from the sky and smites Azrael to ash where he stands. He hasn’t even a chance to breathe or think or cast a spell.

“Azrael!” I shout as the vision leaves me, spots still shining in my eyes, half-blinded. “Move! Father is here! I had a vision!”

I’m not sure what possesses me to say it. Whether it’s lingering attraction or idiocy or some foolish sense of justice. I can’t just let him die. I can’t do it.

Instead of moving, Azrael calmly stands there, facing me, an expression of disbelief clouding his face, a face darkened by hate at the mere mention of Father. “Hm?”

A bolt of bright light lances down from the sky, but I observe Azrael spinning before it even appears. He deflects it with the wave of his hand, sending it refracting harmlessly over the town with a brilliant flash.

Orion, my father, gazes at Azrael where the sorcerer stands. He stares down at the human in quiet solemnity, hovering there in midair. His wings are out, fully extended– though he doesn’t need to move them to fly– his eyes flaring with light, silver power sparkling over his hands. He is dressed only in robes as always, and the wind catches his golden hair.

“You dare to steal my daughter from me?” Orion asks, in a voice like a hundred starshine swords.

“I do dare,” Azrael says amicably. “Anything to pull you from that nasty study of yours. Filled with so many tricks and traps, that you nearly never leave.”

“How did you do it?” Orion thunders. “How could you? She is the last of my line. Would you truly jeopardize everything I’ve held dear in favor of some… childish prank?

“Is that what you think this is?” Azrael asks now, his voice dangerously quiet. “I’m merely claiming my freedom, as is my right as a humanborn sorcerer. No longer will I bow to you.”

I sigh audibly. Both of them shoot me withering looks, and I roll my eyes again and just hang there. Far be it from me to interrupt. I turn my attention to the golden magic surrounding my limbs. Azrael has always been one for intricate magic. And powerful though he is, I’m half seraph. There’s something I can do without even needing to wrestle with it. I can understand it.

I burrow into it, past walls of it, through columns of intricate formulae that all boil down to one thing: Capture. There isn’t much I can do with that. It’s what is sealing the movement of my limbs, and it seems to be a closed loop. There’s nowhere to put a new equation into the mix even if I knew how. I turn my attention to the wellspring of power that it comes from. Failing to find that, I stare at Azrael’s undead servant.

It’s being funneled to by a series of complex necromantic magic equations, all relying on one thing– that the creature being controlled is a werewolf, and that it is dead. Both apply to Kharn, Azrael’s current pet. It’s a simple tag system. I’ve seen enough of Azrael’s charms to recognize it.

Kharn is tagged ‘dead’ and ‘werewolf’, ergo it is both dead and a werewolf. It has a few other extraneous tags that don’t do anything much. Since it’s both dead and a werewolf it can and is affected by the control spell. There should be a similar cluster of tags around me.

I am tagged many things at once. In my head, I can see the shape of the golden magic wrapped around my arms and legs.

They are tagged ‘seraph’, ‘radiant’ and ‘genderless’, because I guess Azrael doesn’t like a lack of thoroughness. ‘Genderless’ nags at me.

How do you do that?

I smile, remembering Cain’s words. Just long enough, huh?

I take a deep breath. Azrael and Orion are still talking. I don’t think they’ve flung any spells at each other yet, for which I’m thankful.

With barely a thought, I change. I shift from neutral to female. I focus all my power inward and let the change hit, concentrating on that and just that. I am a girl. A young seraph woman. Girl. Everything that makes me me is the same. I’m just a girl. A daughter. Father’s daughter. Orion’s daughter.

I am Irenna.

Not for long, of course. It’s too chilly to be full female for very long.

Chains of golden power evaporate as the new tag is read. The formula holding his spell together collapses, the waveform dissolving. I hear a snarl behind me and whirl.

Kharn is not being held by the spell anymore. It was a dependent spell loop. It was relying on the fact that I was being tracked. Without further instruction, Kharn is released. I take all that in in just one second, and it’s still almost not quick enough.

Kharn’s claws come down on the ground in front of me, right where I was a moment before. I roll back to my feet, breath catching in my throat. Its eyes are burning with fury. I can feel its anger. “Oh,” I say quietly. “Right.”

It leaps for me.

A helix of silver and gold magic, incomprehensible in its complexity, spirals past me and drives itself into Kharn’s open, snarling mouth. The undead abomination flashes into golden sparks and silver shards of stone, then fades into motes of dust.

I glance over at Azrael and Orion. Both of them have faces of cold, concentrated anger, but this time directed at the few sparkling motes that remain to show Kharn ever existed. Slowly, they turn to look at one another. I half-expect them to deny that they worked together, but they don’t. They simply stand there, shoulder to shoulder, Azrael’s left arm against Orion’s right. They lower their arms with an almost comical simultaneity. I burst out laughing, and then cry until I can’t stand anymore.

***

The castle is dark in its courtyard, as Azrael, Orion and I all appear from thin air. Two men, the only souls about and standing before the main door, are there to greet us. They shout, one drops a sword, the other raises a crossbow. Golden magic flashes out like lightning and melts the crossbow to ash. The man screams a curse and flings its remnants down before kissing the dirt in an almost sickening reversal, cowering before the wrath sure to follow. Azrael’s short black hair and his impressive stature spell doom for any who know of our castle. These men must be foreigners. Like Cain, they can’t be part of this kingdom.

The man who dropped his sword struggles to pick it up again, sees Azrael’s cold, furious face, and thinks better of it. He gets down on his knees and keeps his hands out, empty and for all to see.

“One escaped,” I say. “He spoke a word I didn’t recognize and disappeared. I think it was infernal magic, though.”

“Brimstone?” Azrael asks quietly.

“Yes. I’m sure you consider this irrelevant, but what did you do with the old executioner?” I ask. I have a feeling I know the answer, but I do want to know.

“He’s sleeping at home,” Azrael replies smoothly. “Before you ask, I’d never impersonated him once before today.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

Orion strides inside impatiently, and Azrael and I follow after him.

Prissy stands just inside the door, sparks coalescing in her hands. When she sees Orion, though, she lets them fade. As he stalks past her, she grabs his shoulder to get his attention. I wince, but she seems determined. “Sir, please– it’s Cain!”

Orion stops dead. “Cain?”

“He’s turning– I thought it was just wolf scratches at first, but–”

Orion frowns, then sighs. “Ah. I’ll deal with this personally. Azrael, can you take Iren up to my study?”

“Yes. As a friend?”

“As a friend,” Orion says warily. “I release you from my service, Azrael, here and now, and later officially.”

“Then certainly,” Azrael replies dryly. “Let us go there at once.”

He wraps an arm around my waist. Orion arches an eyebrow, then sighs and nods. He turns and heads towards the infirmary, Prissy following after him.

Azrael teleports us directly outside the door to the study, and for once we bypass the horrid thieves’ tiles. I’m thankful. I have a splitting headache. 

Azrael opens the door, and a bolt hurtles right through him and keeps going. Blood sprays all over me. Lovely.

— I push Azrael aside and open the door, shifting away from the center and letting it swing in fully. I hear the thrum and watch the bolt zip past on its way down the hall, then I stride into the study. “Alright,” I snarl. “I’ve had enough of this.”

The assassin from earlier feverishly attempts to load a crossbow, covered in cuts from where he burst through my window. Or should I say thief?

I think I have it figured out now. “It was a setup.”

Azrael steps up beside me and then sighs, flinging a bolt of power at the thief who drops the crossbow, tries to scramble to his feet, and turns to stone as the golden magic wraps around him.

“Do tell,” Azrael murmurs. “How, exactly, were we set up?”

I shake my head. “There was a man at the execution. Talk to father about it. I bet you anything this is that same man. I didn’t get a good look at him, but I bet you he is. He’s quite incompetent, actually. But he knew Kharn. I think they worked together and he talked to Kharn when he got here. He also hired those two men at the front gates. They couldn’t talk to us, but I bet you anything they could talk to him. They speak the same language.”

My ex-mate arches an eyebrow and smiles. “Is that so?”

I nod and suddenly feel a yawn coming on. I cover it with my hand and let out a sigh instead. “Yes. You know, for a man who planned to kill my father and punishes impertinence with pain, you aren’t really that bad,” I half-tease. I’m quite tired.

Azrael blinks. “Pain?”

I stare at him. “You hit me with a wave of it earlier. When you captured me. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“I what? I… oh, I must have tagged it incorrectly,” he says lamely. “I can’t imagine why.”

Jealousy is flashing through him, but I’m too tired to argue the point. It’s just one more thing to worry about, and I honestly don’t want to worry about it anymore. In a moment, Father will be here, and there will be more questions. I resolve to let Azrael answer them.

When I wake up, I’m sitting in the chair before his desk, listening to Orion and Azrael talk. My nose is stuffy and I’m pretty sure I’ve caught something nasty.

***

Days pass, as they are wont to do when you spend a week recovering from a cold. I really should have thought to put on clothes before I was captured by a monster.

***

“Thieves,” Father says quietly. “Are truly the worst of humanity.”

It’s the tenth lecture of the week. We’d buried the man and the kobolds in the castle cemetery, more out of pity than any true obligation. The statue of the thief, complete with petrified wand, are on display in the courtyard. Cain put a sign around his neck reading, ‘Restore me and I’ll steal my way out of your debt!’

I think it’s a bit too long winded for a prank, but Cain cracks up every time he sees it, and it did make me giggle a little, I’ll admit.

It’s the morning, and I’m sitting together with Cain. Prissy is busying herself about the castle, tidying, while we sit in the main dining hall. Azrael had left in the morning, off to study his own spells for a month or two. Honestly I don’t mind. He’s a good enough guy, but it would be awkward having him around with Cain here too. I don’t know what to make my my feelings for either of them, but Cain has at least never sent giant undead werewolves after me. Can I say as much for Azrael? I think not. Plus, I’d gathered that he hadn’t helped Cain when he was first approached, even though he could easily recognize them as werewolf scratches. Someone as jealous as that I’m sure I left for a reason.

I’m not even really listening to Father, but I nod every once in a while to show I’m an obedient girl. In a few more days it’ll even be official. I smile at that.

“Cain?” I ask quietly, so only he can hear.

“Mm?” he answers, obviously trying to at least pretend to pay attention to Orion. I can see his eye flick towards me, though, and take it as an affirmation.

“Stay here a while longer, before you head back to the embassy,” I say softly. “Before you go home.”

“I wasn’t planning on leaving,” Cain replies, his voice barely above a whisper. His deep blue eyes meet mine. There, in front of Father and the rising, radiant sun, we kiss. We don’t even stop when he coughs. He can just deal with it.

The vision before me is so sweet I could cry.

—-

©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)

—-

It’s done. I didn’t know I wanted to write it until early this morning. It took hours and hours. It’s done. Enjoy.

<3s,

Eris

Three Hearts: Chapter Four

A Change rite always ends with a full transfer from boy form to girl form or the other way around. Never had it been done alone, never had anyone excepting Mesdan attempted and made the decision to change all on their own. Generally it was to be for the good of a particular village, or area. There were plenty of his… type… scattered throughout the villages, but never had they changed on their own before. There also had not been a full change in years and years. To do so would require a very specific knife, of a glass Mesdan just happened to find and hone years back.

The idea of one freely changing back between forms is nearly heretical. Even for Outsiders, the concept of it is simply impossible.

So it is that, when Danni takes over as Mesdan falls and Mesdan’s body changes, Sojourn is so shocked that he loses hold of her hair.

Danni shifts into place with effortless, fluid  grace, dancing back away from Sojourn and the three slavers. One of them- with his skull-patterned shirt- raises what Danni instantly recognizes as a weapon, thought it appears as nothing more than a metal stick. The earth’s knowledge flows into her feet and then swirls up through the rest of her body, and the memory of Kesta being shot with it, a mere cycle ago, screams for her attention. The blast from it is light-fast, and invisible. The only warning she’ll have is a glow.

According to this memory, she won’t have any time to act.

Danni doesn’t act, just reacts, shifting her body to the side quick as a blink. She isn’t quick enough, though. The heat of the ray as it is fired is simultaneous with a crackling hiss and a streak of burning pain along her side.

Impassively, face as cold as Sojourn’s had been, she ducks behind Kesta’s traitorous brother as the masked outsider holding the weapon– which is long and thick with a silvered tip– sweeps it towards her. Brush on the ground catches flame, smoking as that invisible magic catches it. The traitor who had held her hair seconds before is still too stunned to move. He only starts to turn his head as she darts behind his legs.

Sojourn barely has time to yell as Danni slams her thin shoulder against the back of his knees, forcing them to bend. The beam strikes him full in the chest; Danni can hear it burning through skin and hissing at his bones, can hear some of his blood flash into steam.

Danni rolls away from Sojourn’s falling body, rises. As she runs for the cover of the trees, she hears a shout from one of the outsiders, unintelligible. A brief argument ensues, two sentences from the voice of the brightly-dressed outsider that come too fast to understand. The skull-shirted one’s voice rebuffs it with a single word she can certainly understand: “No.”

A lance of searing agony cuts along her leg and topples her over onto her hands and knees. She twists onto her back, brings up a hand, barely thinking. Before the weapon can turn on her again and focus her into ash, she gathers mana from around her and, without an incantation, without a word, hurls it into a barrier before her, a desperate shield made of desperate energy. The grass around her lends its life to the spell, turning grey and dead, drying and withering away in a moment.

The beam sweeps towards her, visible only as a ripple cutting through the afternoon air.

The heat blast crackles when it strikes her hasty mana shield. She can’t tell whether it begins to burn through it or not, but it doesn’t sound like her shield will last long.

She tries to stand, to duck behind trees, to leave her barrier as cover for her escape, but her leg will not move. She can’t move at all except in a crawl.

At any moment her shield could give way.

She hurls it at the outsiders.

The field of mana, visible only as a blue sheen in the air, sweeps away from her and washes forward like a wave, flattening grass before it, sending Sojourn tumbling aside, crashing towards the skull-shirted outsider directly. He stands his ground, though, either unaware of the danger or unafraid of it.

Whether because his mask drains it away or because of sheer bad luck, Danni watches her barrier disappear. She still isn’t in cover- the trees remain yards away, yards that feel like miles.

For a moment, the skull-shirted outsider just stares at her from behind that impassive mask. He doesn’t fire his weapon.

Suddenly, with the trickle of blood slipping down her chest, Danni realizes what he’s staring at. Her bandages have come undone, exposing her ebon-skinned breasts.

After she follows his gaze, she can’t help but stare as well. What in the heart of mana?

There’s a thunk, quickly followed by another, then another.

Danni looks up in time to see every single outsider drop to the ground facefirst, in time to wonder at Thaneen stepping over their motionless bodies.

He rushes to her, then stops a few feet from her, the wooden cudgel held loosely in one fist, dangling by his side as he stares at her, at her chest, then at her face. Thanee always was easy to read.

“Danni?” He asks in disbelief. “What has happened?”

“I… don’t know,” Danni answers cautiously, truthfully. “Honestly I haven’t the faintest. Ah…”

She shudders, dropping a hand down to her leg, to the cracked, burned skin on the back of her right leg, breath hissing between her teeth. The pain is excruciating.

Thaneen forgets himself, dropping his cudgel and kneeling down next to her, lifting her foot up onto his lap and away from the roughness of the forest floor

“Where did you…? Oh. Are you well, Danni? Are you going to stay conscious?”

She nods once, hugging her chest and feeling terribly vulnerable. “Yes.”

“You’re a witch now.” It isn’t a question. “Does the earth remember what happened here?”

Again, Danni nods.

“What happened?” Thanee asks quietly. One finger traces the charred skin on the back of her leg, sending a line of white pain from thigh to her spine and making her tremble.

“Than-”

“Why is Sojourn dead? Who are these people, these outsiders? Why is Kesta over there, barely alive, and where is the rest of the village? What’s going on?”

His finger presses at her wound, digging in too hard,

“Ah- OW- Thanee, stop! Stop, and I’ll tell you!” Danni snaps sharply. “You’re acting like a child!”

Thaneen blinks, then pulls his finger away, curling it into a fist, ivory knuckles gone paler than usual. His face is white as well, his mouth set in a tight line.

“I just don’t understand,” he whispers. “The whole village- empty. Everyone is gone but me, you and Kesta, and Kesta might die soon. I went out to the shrine earlier in the morning, then out to hunt- when I come back I find all the huts deserted, all the houses empty. I see Sojourn dead on the ground and three men near you, watch you put up the shield. I sneak around and- I kill those people, those Outsiders.”

“Than,” Danni says softly. “I understand. They came here to take us. Slavers.”

He nods, then turns his face away so she won’t see his tears. “We need to stop them. For Sojourn and Kesta’s sake.”

Danni’s heart hardens at Sojourn’s name, but she shoves it aside. The man had lived among them for a long time.  Now that he is dead, she doesn’t feel that it would be respectful to the memory of who he was to claim he had died doing anything other than defending the village. She isn’t sure if Kesta knows that his adopted brother betrayed him, but she is certain that if he doesn’t, he doesn’t need to know now.

“Well don’t run off before I’ve a chance to heal Kesta,” Danni replies. “And don’t mourn him before I give it a shot.”

“I have some questions about that, actually,” Thaneen starts, but Danni cuts him off.

“Save them,” she snaps. “I’ll need to concentrate. Can you get me to Kesta? I can’t move, my leg isn’t working.”

“Yes.”

Thanee pulls her up into his arms, lifting her easily. She weighs as little as a child, as Danni, is easy to lift. He carries her to where Kesta lies and sets her down beside him.

“Thanks,” she says absently, and gets to work, leaning over her friend.

Kesta is bleeding sluggishly from a mass of cracked and blackened skin.  It must have been his chest at one point. It would have made Mesdan sick to his stomach, but as Danni she feels only a hollow regret. She could have stopped this if she hadn’t been busy trying to become a shaman. She should have been here to protect the village. Whatever magic reversed her Change rite must truly wish to torture her; barely an hour earlier and she could have fought off the outsiders as they came.

Now, however…

“Can you heal him?” Thaneen asks.

Danni looks up at him. “As a witch? No. As a shaman? Yes.”

Thanee folds his arms. “We don’t have time for you to undergo another Change rite, Danni. If you can’t do this thing, the rest of the villagers will be lost. Only Kesta knows what happened. Your link to the earth is powerful, but not powerful enough to find what happened hours ago.”

“You think I don’t know any of that?” Danni snaps. “Hush for a moment. I’m trying to think.”

Change rite or not, reversed or not, she should still have that connection to the shaman side of her heart. She reaches inside of herself…

A cough from Kesta breaks her concentration. She jerks awake again, staring at him. He isn’t coughing up blood, and she supposes that must be a good thing. When he tries to sit up, though, he winces and groans, sliding back down again, gasping for breath.

His eyes focus again, finding first Thaneen, then Danni. His breathing steadies somewhat after a while.

“You went through the Change rite. You shouldn’t look like that,” he observes. “What happened?”

“That,” Thaneen says, “is what I want to know.”

Danni bites her lip and turns her head. Long black hair falls around her shoulders in a manner too familiar for comfort. She’d had a sneaking suspicion– for a while now– that she knew exactly what had happened. The knife’s magic had been severed somehow. When Sojourn had gripped Mesdan’s short hair, he’d done something…

It’s odd, all of Mesdan’s aches and little cramps from sitting in one position seem to hurt Danni as well now. She feels a separate person from the man she’d chosen to become– it’s obvious, though, that they share a body. She stares down at herself, as if to reaffirm it in her mind. Yes, her breasts, her body, her dark skin.

She hadn’t missed it. She feels as if she never left it, as if Mesdan and his hopes and dreams were simply that– hopes and dreams.

Something warm and liquid is trickling down her chest and over her belly. She’d almost forgotten that she was bleeding.

The cuts on her chest also reopened, from Mesdan’s shaman magic earlier. They aren’t bad and it’s not urgent, but she takes the time to rebind her bandages. When she’s finished with that, though, Danni feels no closer to figuring out what went wrong.

She becomes aware of something else, suddenly, something unrelated to any of the disastrous things that have happened. It overwhelms all attempts at rational thought.

Kesta and Thaneen are staring at her expectantly. Her stomach growls.

“I’m really hungry,” she says quietly. “Before we do anything else, I’d like something to eat.”

Kesta forces a smile. “Fine. No use thinking on an empty stomach. Truth be told, I’m hungry too.”

“You’re both in luck,” Thaneen murmurs hollowly. “My hunting trip was a success.”

 

 

 

 

©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)

——–

So here it is finally, the next chapter. One whole week after the third one was delivered! Crazy! Why, back in Demimind’s day I used to be getting like two whole chapters out a week! What is this madness? I’ll never get a story done with just one a week!

Pssh, it’s alright. If I’m lazy it gives folks a chance to catch up. No big hurry. I need to get all the writing this though, if I want a schedule of tuesday to continue.  Can’t be lazing about on Chapter Four. Gotta speed it up now in order to get Chapter Five out too. This is the last buffer’d page. Everything else will be fresh. And hey! A chapter where the main character DOESN’T fall unconscious! And it’s not really a cliffhanger, either. What the heck is wrong with me?

Anyway, enjoy.

-Eris

Three Hearts: Chapter Three

Chapter: Initiation (3)

The landscape of Mesdan’s mind is fiery, an immense plain of verdant greenery now reduced to ashes by a rolling wave of liquid rock. In the distance, the red haze signals the fire’s rapid approach. Mesdan stands on the plain, gasping for lost breath. There’s still that awful nauseous feeling in his stomach. If anything it feels stronger here, where the scent of burning grass is mingled with the sickly sweet scent of burning flesh. Beside him, a girl, standing there with black skin like his and long, black hair, a girl with a thin, child-like body and soft blue eyes stares at him. Behind her there is a taller girl, more- more adult-like, more filled out with longer hair, closer to what he’d had before the Change rite. Her eyes are hard. He recognizes both of them, of course.

“Mesdan,” Danni says sharply, nodding to him from behind Dessdan. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Of course,” he replies shortly. “Where is the one I must fight?”

“Idiot,” Danni snaps. “Patience is required to be a shaman, as well as insight. Have you neither?”

“The monster is that way,” Dessdan whispers quietly, pointing towards the red haze on the horizon, towards the approaching wall of flame. “Be careful, Mesdan.”

“Thank you,” Mesdan says simply. He starts off through long grasses and sand, over the burning plains holding his fate.

It is a long and painful eternity that passes as he pushes onward.

The plain seems to go on forever. When he finally approaches the fire, when he can feel the heat of it on his skin and the sand between his toes, he watches the colors dance along the edges of the flame and understands.

There, standing before it, strolling leisurely towards him, is himself. 

No. It is as if he were a shaman all along. It is as if he had never been a witch. That is who stands before him, the version of him who is, was, and always will be a man. The man before him is tall, built quite strong, with flecks of grey in his close-cut hair, though Mesdan knows he is young in truth. His body is weathered and hard, like old earth, and his eyes would be soft and warm were they not filled with disgust.

In an instant, he attacks, while Thaneen and Kesta, both standing behind him, watch with folded arms. The two appeared near silently, but Mesdan can’t be surprised. After all, if this is to be his initiation, his worst fears would be brought before him.

Fears of a better him, fears of a real him, instead of the fake status brought by a Change rite. The bandages feel tight around his chest as the other-Mesdan strikes.

Mesdan is borne to the ground as other-him strikes him, knocking the air from his lungs  with a gasp. The other-him raises a hand like leather, curls fingers into a fist, and brings it down in one fluid movement, jabbing Mesdan in the gut.

Again. His ribs, his arms as Mesdan raises them to protect themself– a blow catches him on the cheek, the shoulder, the stomach. His shaman-self is strong. Too strong to fight back against properly. Pain explodes along his temple and blossoms against his chest as ribs crack. 

“Ah-!” He hears himself gasp. A strike to his chest makes his head spin, the pain, red hot and swollen, spreads in waves along his chest and back as the beating continues. A strike to the throat leaves him breathless, coughing.

Still, he does not fight back. He says not a word in response.

I am an abomination, he thinks. I deserve this.

He feels no emotion now, as his ideal double smashes him in the ribs, arms and head over and over. Nothing, and it’s alien, this feeling of emptiness. It’s as if the mere presence of this impostor is draining his energy. It’s as if with every blow, his own helplessness is vindicated and he just doesn’t care.

“Your weakness is going to get you killed!” Kesta is shouting.

“You are nothing,” his shaman-self snarls. “You are worthless, less than dirt, an abomination, a natural reject. Half-man! Half-woman! What are you but a freak?”

The weight of his shaman-self is crushing his ribs. Mesdan stares up at the face of his dream, of his idealized self, of the person he could have been if he had only been born a man, and finally a shock of anger wipes away all traces of his own apathy, of his unwillingness to fight back. A very real flush of rage forces his weak boy’s body to move. Too long as a girl has made his hands weak, his reliance on mana outside his own body has caused entropy to grasp at his muscles, but he closes fingers into fists and, summoning a burst of energy, pushes back up, struggles, blocks a blow from his other-self. He can’t breathe.

There is no mana in his mind. Nothing to draw on to fight back. The ambience of his mind is not something he can drain in order to cast a spell or incantation to reduce his shaman-self to ash. All he has is his body. His weak witch body.

His weak witch body with her sharp, sharp teeth.

He sinks them into his other-self’s arm as it comes down again, grabbing hold of it and wrenching it to his mouth.

His teeth dig deep enough to draw blood, and his shaman-self yells, smashing a fist into Mesdan’s temple and knocking him senseless. Blood coats his tongue, his and his. Dizzied, seeing stars, he rolls in vain, struggling as his shaman-self grabs his own arm and shouts something foul.

Half-man? Half-woman? Anyone who is at all a man or woman from birth cannot undergo a Change rite! When has Mesdan ever regretted being the way he is? Such words from something, anything like what he sees above him, on him now, anything that looks like what he once wanted to be– they are poisonous, bitter, toxic. He can’t believe they come from something shaped like his mouth.

His cracked ribs flare in agony as his other-self bears down on him again with his good arm, but Mesdan grabs the first blow as it hisses through the air towards his face. He feels bones grate with the effort. His shaman-self is still very strong.

“You don’t scare me!” Mesdan snaps. “You aren’t who I want to be anymore! Anyone as awful as you is nothing more than a nightmare!”

The world flashes red, stars dart in and out of Mesdan’s vision. His heart pounds and his eyes flutter as vision blurs, as the pain rises to a roar. But it isn’t new. It’s the pressure on his heart, it’s the fire already in his ribs. His double is staring down at him.

As he sees himself through his double vision, he watches his shaman-self smile.

“Good,” is all he says. “Then if you so swear to heal those who hurt and to guard the villagers from spirits and their inner selves and demons, I pronounce this initiation-“

“-complete,” Sojourn’s voice finishes.

His eyes are the first thing Mesdan sees as he comes back to consciousness. Sojourn looks tired. Mesdan feels tired, all over, aching and horribly stiff. Sojourn rises and reaches down to Mesdan where he sits. The new shaman smiles as he clasps Sojourn’s leather’d hand.

Sojourn is Kesta’s brother– well, adopted brother– and his tan skin feels warm against Mesdan’s hand as he lets Sojourn pull him upright, to his feet.

Mesdan notices the light next. It must be midday. No one is cheering, but he can feel the sun beating down on him and that itself is encouraging. He’s alive. Not only did he survive, now he is shaman. The two go hand in hand.

His ribs feel raw. The wound on his chest feels ready to split open again. Did he use mana while he was unconscious? Was it real? His skin must be covered in bruises.

The dream shell feels heavy in his hands.

Mesdan nearly drops it. He stumbles, nearly drops to the forest floor, nearly collapses face first onto the ground. He feels queasy, every part of him feels sick. Sojourn doesn’t move to catch him, and Mesdan falls to the ground, hands out to catch his fall. They nearly collapse when they strike the earth, nearly can’t support his wait.

He coughs, feels another wave of nauseating pain writhe through his guts, and empties his stomach on the ground. Sojourn is stepping back, an impassive look on his face.

“Sojourn-” Mesdan starts, staring up at him. Then he notices that he doesn’t seem to be in the same part of the forest he started. The people aren’t cheering because they don’t look like his people, his villagers.

The other shaman stares at him. His hand had been warm, but his face is cold.

“Well?” He asks, turning to the people. “I brought you a mana-user.”

Mesdan stares at them. There are three in total. All of them are dressed in the clothes of the rich, jeans and nearly new t-shirts. One of them has a strange device around his neck and the dyes that cover his shirt seem strange, patterned oddly. He lifts the device, aims it at Mesdan. Then he says something, and it’s in the language of Mesdan’s people- just twisted a little. The words can be made out, but no sense can be drawn from them.

“Cam er ah, flash foe toe.”

A second, no two seconds later, there is a blinding burst of light right in Mesdan’s eyes, offsetting the natural gloom of the jungle and burning the outlines of the three people into his memory.

They are human, there can be no doubt of that. They wear odd masks and have long heavy boots on their feet, but they must be human. He cannot see the color of their skin or eyes or hair- the masks are thorough.

“Who is she?” one asks. Its use of Mesdan’s language is slightly flawed. On its shirt, an immense skull pattern, stylized and embellished to a magnificent degree, stares back at Mesdan.

“Her name is Danni,” Sojourn replies. “I will give her to you for ten shells.”

“Steeper than usual,” the skull-shirted one comments. “But I have the shells.”

Mesdan struggles to stand. When he reaches his feet, however, he finds himself  on his back, staring up at the sky, at Sojourn’s cold eyes and outstretched fist. His chest is in blinding agony now. It feels like the blow cracked some of his ribs. He didn’t even see the shaman move.

The third person, whose face is hidden by that mask, and whose business shirt seems to be much crisper than the others, says something Mesdan can’t make out. From the way those masks occasionally turn to regard him, a chill feeling sinks into his spine and settles there.

It occurs to him. They’re talking about selling him. Her. Selling Danni? And with her, he will go. His mind spins in his head, pain arcing through his insides again.

He isn’t Danni any longer, though she lives in his head. How can they sell someone who doesn’t exist except in Mesdan’s mind?

Why would Sojourn betray him so?

The iron tang of blood reaches his nose. This time Mesdan rolls over onto his belly to look around. He is a few feet off of the path leading through the main village. Before him he can see Eliss’s cabin.

The door to Eliss’s old cabin is open. The smell of dried blood is wafting out of it. Slumped against the bloodied door frame, a very familiar face is softened further in  repose. His chest is burned terribly, the skin bubbled and cracked around his ribs. It smells of burnt skin and charred hope.

Kesta.

He’s breathing, but shallowly. If Mesdan can’t get to him to help him, he could die…

A hand is suddenly in Mesdan’s hair. His short, black, hair. It squeezes, grabs hold close to the base of his skull, and yanks him upright. For his part, Mesdan tries a kick, which Sojourn, still hanging on, sidesteps.

The pain in his skull intensifies, and spots dance before Mesdan’s vision. It swims and sways and his eyes blur with sudden tears.

“Sojourn-” Mesdan whispers weakly. “What are you doing?”

“As the Outsiders say: Making moh knee. It’s a simple enough plan.”

“So this is how you repay your brother and the others?” Mesdan snaps,.

Sojourn shakes him by his hair and snarls right back. “My ‘brother’ is a fool for taking me in. Five years I spend waiting for a raid, waiting for a chance to go back. Now that I have it, not even a so-called ‘brother’ will stop me from returning to the people I know.”

As pain flashes through Mesdan like fire, his mind finally gives in, and he blacks out completely…

…forcing Danni to the forefront.

The Shifting Flames – 1

Silver-Fur-Shining crouches on the plain, her tail and body set low in the tall grasses, looking for all the world like an immense cat ready to pounce, rather than any wolf. She is far too large for any regular wolf, as well, nearly twice the size of a well fed horse. Her wolf pack is a hundred yards distant, herding an immense scaled creature with armor-like hide and flames for its breath. Its name is lost to Silver-Fur-Shining, but she is certain that it is not like the winged creature which took her home from her so long ago. While the monster’s breath is as flame, its form is more bull-like, albeit an especially large one. Rather than hooves, it has long scaled talons for feet, and its tail bears a spitting serpent’s head.

Normal wolves would never be so foolish as to try to take such a creature down. In fact, though Silver’s pack is made entirely of large, powerful dire wolves, they would not be able to kill such a creature under normal circumstances, though they hurt it by raking its metallic scales and nipping at its tail, which already has fallen limp, whether from exhaustion or damage.  The wolves had taken several injuries from those claws and its tail.

She settles back again, panting slightly from the heat. It’s midday on the plains. Padding from behind her marks the arrival of Silver’s mate, Claw-Scars-Many. Claw settles down next to her almost lazily.

“Anxious, little girl?” he asks lightly. The old wolf’s fur is streaked near white with age.When he had first found her he had been old. Forty seasons later he is older still.

“No more than I should be, dear one,” she answers quietly. Then, “Are you prepared?”

“You know what I think of your chase after these monsters,” Claw replies in a soft growl. “But this beast has killed too many of our pack for me not to be ready.”

Claw is nearly twice as small as Silver-Fur-Shining. It hadn’t always been that way. Silver is the largest of any wolf in the pack, the largest any dire wolf has ever been, according to Claw, but she doesn’t mind.

Nor could she help it if she did.

Of all the things she gave up to enter this pack, she is sure that the memories of her human life had been some of the hardest to let go.  The others were either easily dropped, or the pain had been negligible. She’d been treated like a child until, by dire wolf standards, she was a child no more. It hadn’t been easy- at least, at first, as the runt of her pack. She remembers that she’d been the only pup in the pack for five whole seasons after she first was accepted. Gradually though, things changed. She had grown. She had become stronger.

The few wolves who still remembered that she was a shapeshifter had either left the pack or died seasons before she mated with Claw.

The tale had not been perpetuated, so only Claw was around to remember the truth.
Then, she’d stayed on with Claw-Scars-Many, risen to pack leader after beating him in a contest of strength, and let him stay with her for advice.

Her pack now consists mostly of her children, whether by Claw or by other foreign dalliances. She cares for them all dearly, and is proud of their work here, in a vague sort of way. She feels, however, a certain emptiness in her heart, even as her big moment slowly stampedes closer, even as the great scaled bull comes within twenty five yards and Claw coils like a spring. The woman-wolf pushes it aside, however. She’ll need all her focus for this moment.

Silver ducks down further, staring up as it tramples down grass. She waits for her moment as the beast finally stands before her on those scaled legs and rears back a little, horse-like. Its head is turned away from her and its neck is exposed. Claw, however, is the one to move first. He darts underneath the creature and rakes sharp iron claws along its soft underbelly. The thing bellows, kicking out with one leg, twisting and turning, and presenting Silver with its back.

As Claw-Scars-Many jumps away, Silver leaps up atop the creature’s exposed flank, digs her claws in and closes her massive jaws on the beast’s metallic neck, snapping them shut and feeling her teeth scrape and then puncture right through its scaled hide, warm, copper blood splashing her fur, staining her teeth greenish blue. It smells good, filling her nose with a colorful splash of metal and honey.  The taste, however, is just a little too sweet for her.

She’d gag if she could, but instead she bites down harder and wrenches to the side sharply, tearing the metal scales and snapping the iron bones making up the monster’s spine. It breathes a single jet of flame from its nostrils, kicking out, bucking weakly before its blazing red eyes darken and it collapses with Silver’s weight bearing it down.

Silver steps off of its massive corpse, more than a little pleased with herself, for all the loss this monster brought. Her plan had worked fairly well, considering the prey they’d decided to try to take. It would be prudent for her to have the pack move to the kill rather than to try to move the kill itself.

“The scales are tough,” Claw observes from her side. “Like metal. How does it taste?”

Silver licks her muzzle, sits back on her haunches and stares Claw-Scars-Many down. He holds her gaze for a few long moments, then turns away.

Finally, Silver answers him. “Too sweet, for me, though the meat is good. Divide it up amongst our hunters. Make sure you get first pick, my love.”

Something is eating at her heart right now, some unfamiliar feeling. With the killing done, she feels she can focus on it. Whatever it is is ruining her appetite.

The woman-wolf pads away to find a place to be alone, curling up near the edge of a tall, tall tree, crouched in its shade. When she feels she must be completely alone, she lets herself relax. For a time, she can let her thoughts run free.

She can’t remember the name she had as a human. She only vaguely remembers how old she was then. She remembers, to some extent, being small. But then, compared with Claw-Scars-Many, as a human she would have always been small.

Her memories of being a pup are blurred. She had taken wolf shape at a time where her body could accept meat and drink and walk on its own. From the very start she had been allowed to eat portions of any kill brought back- so long as the adults ate first.

Silver closes her eyes a moment. Dreams had haunted her every night for as far back as she could remember. Claw couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Dreams of winged monsters. Dreams of fire breathing, scaled creatures flying across the sky, eclipsing the moon. Dreams of dragons.

Their scales fill her mind when she sleeps. Even thinking about them in her off time gives her an odd thrill. How she longs to be meet one of them. How she wishes she could find one of them, speak to its shape. Grace, power and beauty mixed as one. She doesn’t remember where she saw them first, to make her dream this way, but that doesn’t matter.

“Pack leader,” a voice calls in a soft growl. Her eyes snap open. One of her children, Chase-The-Wind, approaches her, padding over quietly. Everything about his snow-white form is nervous, his tail between his legs, his eyes downcast. “Shadow-With-Teeth is issuing an open challenge for leadership. He came here with his whole pack.”

Silver-Fur-Shining rises to her four paws, stretches out slowly. “Thank you. I’ll take his challenge now.”

She knows Chase is curious. Normally she’d wait a few days after a kill before accepting any challenge. Something preoccupies her, however. She wishes only to get the fight over and done with so she might continue alone with her thoughts.

To that end, she is surprised to see Shadow-With-Teeth muzzle to muzzle with Claw-Scars-Many. The two are snarling and snapping at one another. The words are hard to make out, but she gets the gist of it.

“You think that Silver-Fur-Shining is weak? You dare step here in my pack, issue formal challenge to the leader and pretend not to know who she is?” Claw-Scars-Many growls sharply. “Were she here-”

“Where is she then, if she is as strong as you boast?” Shadow-With-Teeth snaps. “Is she too craven to accept my challenge?”

Claw stares him down, and the two are so intent that it isn’t until Silver physically steps between them that they take note of her. Claw abruptly sits back on his haunches and does not meet her eyes. Shadow stares her down defiantly, of course, but she can read fear in his gaze, even if the wind does not bring her his scent.

“I accept your challenge,” Silver says quietly. “And I have no fear.”

“The terms?” Shadow asks. His stance is tense and his eyes never leave hers.

“If you lose, you and your pack fall under my command,” Silver replies evenly.

“If you lose, you will be my mate and your pups will be the strongest of any ever known,” Shadow growls. “We will hunt on the plains until the stars burn out.”

Silver almost lets go with a wolfish grin after that, but represses it. “You won’t win.”

They begin to circle.  The wolves surrounding them scatter, both packs looking on. Silver eyes her opponent warily. His steps mark him for an experienced fighter. He is remarkably large for a dire wolf, nearly as large as Silver is, and it makes her uneasy. His fur is somewhat matted and scarred in places, and black as shadows ought to be.

They wait, each watching the other. Tension gathers in Silver’s heart. He should move. She knows he’ll strike first. They always do. Impatient.

He does. In a flash, he strikes, moving like lightning. His breath fills her nostrils as his teeth snap down, as she nimbly ducks away from those razor fangs. She launches herself forward, driving her shoulder towards his throat. He bunches his legs and jumps, though, taking it to the chest instead, letting himself get bowled over. She doesn’t chase him down, but backs away, eying him, still wary. A less experienced wolf would have tried to pin him, and a less experienced wolf would have lost a paw. Never underestimate your opponent.

Shadow rolls back onto his paws again, rising slowly and glaring at her from burning red eyes. A red that captures her for a moment, holds her for far, far too long…

The moment fades as he moves, and she steps to the side, avoiding a charge and smashing into his side with her shoulder.  She tumbles after him this time, rolling on top, pinning his form down, teeth pausing at his throat, staring down at him. Her eyes meet his again, locked as she is like this. Something about him feels strange. Feels… familiar…

He gives a little whine and a whimper in submission, and she lets up, easing away, eying him warily.

It’s good that she does, for he rolls back to his paws and swipes for her the moment she lets him free. Iron-hard claws draw three red hot lines along her muzzle, and her blood runs blue as the sky. He’d moved faster than lightning. He’d been less than a blur.

The blow stuns her a moment, and in a flash his teeth are in pause like hers were, a mere moment from piercing Silver’s throat. A growl, soft and threatening escapes past her bare teeth as her blood soaks the fur of her muzzle.

“Trickery,” she snaps. “What manner of wolf are you?”

Those razor’d teeth graze her neck through her fur, though. Hating herself for it, Silver whimpers in submission without further complaint. To her shock and shame, those teeth nip one of her ears before they draw away, neatly puncturing it. Without the threat of his jaws around her neck, Silver shakes her head to clear it, and storms away, leaving her mate with her victorious rival and trying very hard not to think about what it means that she lost.

To her further surprise, Shadow doesn’t follow her.

When Claw finds her later, she crouches under her tree with Chase-The-Wind, who is busily licking away the dried and drying blood from the wound on her muzzle, cleaning her as if she were a pup and Chase were a mother. Of all his children, Claw likes Chase the best.

He isn’t Silver’s favorite– the girl-wolf doesn’t pick favorites– but he comes pretty close.

You just ran off to sulk? is what Claw thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud because he isn’t feeling cruel. Of course, he doesn’t need to say it. It’s implied in every muscle in his body.

“Come to mock me, Claw?” Silver asks, without looking at him. “Come to taunt me for my mistake?”

“No,” he replies, staring at her steadily. “I have not.”

“Then why are you here?” she snarls. “Perhaps you wanted one last roll before I become beholden to Shadow-With-Teeth?”

“If you had not run away like a stung pup, you’d realize that you won as well,” Claw says lightly. “A point that, if argued between packs, I’m sure you would win. You always tell me that I have trouble with my temper.”

“You do.”

Claw ignores that. “You are letting your anger cloud your mind. We are more than giant wolves– you have helped me see that over the seasons, little one, whether you know it or not. I suggest you act like it.”

Silver-Fur-Shining shakes her head, but it’s only to push Chase-The-Wind away. She stretches and stands, chest heaving in an immense sigh. “Fine.”

Chase stands with her, but Claw pads over to him and leads him away. “Let her deal with this on her own,” he growls softly. “This is something your mother must do.”

Silver arrives at the clearing- a place of dirt and grass- where her pack has dragged their kill. No one meets her eyes. Her children all seem downcast– as well they should be, to witness their mother lose. It wrenches at her heart to see them like this, but she shoves that aside, instead stalking past them to where Shadow-With-Teeth sits alone. A leg from the massive scaled monster lies unworried or touched next to him. He meets her eyes fearlessly, tauntingly, with his own crimson ones.

Silver restrains the snarl and snap that try to curl her lips back from her teeth. He dares to challenge her authority?

But she lost.

“Eager to start?” he growls quietly. “You should wait for me to call you, little girl.”

The words from Claw would earn the old fool a playful cuff. Those words from Shadow earn him a growl from somewhere deep in Silver’s throat. Anger rises in her heart, but something in Shadow’s eyes forces it back down again. He’s being careful in his words. He’s choosing them very deliberately. He hasn’t shown true anger yet, not during the fight, not now. Every move he makes seems to be and have been calculated.

Silver stops when she is no more than a few yards away from him, settling back on her haunches. She cleans herself in front of him, ignoring him completely and forcing her rage back, instead giving herself time to think. This wolf is much more dangerous than he would seem at first. In a head-on fight he is also craftier. She isn’t sure if she has the energy to fight him now. He is devilishly intelligent, that much is for certain. She vastly underestimated him.

Shadow waits silently, watching her intently. Though his body seems eager and his eyes are filled with malice, his scent remains calm. She realizes it had been calm the entire fight, in the brief moments she had been able to catch it.

She finishes cleaning her fur. She slowly raises her eyes to his and does not look away. “I have not come here to mate with you, Shadow-With-Teeth. I have come here to talk.”

His eyes laugh at her. For all that she keeps her steely demeanor, Silver feels her heart sink.

It may be and may end as a hundred different things, but she is certain that this is not going to be easy.

 

 

 

 

©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)

—–

Here it is, part one. Next up should be the long awaited chapter three of Three Hearts, or maybe some poetry or maybe both. Time to get back in gear- and yes, there will be a page devoted to this serial short. Promise.

<3s,

Eris

The Shifting Flames – 0

She holds herself. Her hands are red and cracked, her eyes are downcast, her mouth set in a line. Fingers curl against her skin as ashes blow around her feet. Dead ashes. Cold ashes.The fingers are hers.

The ashes are hers. Of hope, of dreams, of a life that now means nothing. Has meant nothing. She stares at her fingernails, caked with grey. All of it had been for nothing. The life here with this family had been for nothing. There is nothing to rebuild, not even the shadow of a glimmer of hope. The girl knows that there is nothing left here.

Feet help her rise, her hands pull at nothing, as much a stretch as a need for aid in standing. Her muscles ache from kneeling there for so long.

Before her, smoke hisses and sways in the breeze. Around her, shades of people she once knew flit here and there, carrying buckets both empty and full, fighting for life and limb amidst the smoking sand that had once been her home. She has no name.

The villagers around her do not see her, do not touch her, do not think of her as they rush by. Many children are sitting as she did, near the grasses or in the ashes of their old houses, staring numbly at nothing. She is but another broken child, like a doll worn and finally torn from overuse or mistreatment. She is of no use to the village, being barren and small and frail besides.

The day goes by and the blaze is fought down to nothing, the flames eventually burning down to cinders, and the cinders cool in the coming night. Still the girl stands there, in her rags and tatters and the singed remains of a dress that might have been pretty before it was coated in the ashes of the dead. The grey remains cling everywhere, her body painted with them.

She stares into the darkness as it falls, the night moonless, the stars eclipsed by clouds. Her stomach rumbles and her head pounds. Her lungs are weak, and she coughs with near every breath in, from the smoke.

The girl isn’t sad that her old family is dead. She doesn’t mourn the loss of her house. That she has nowhere to stay is of no consequence to her. She looks at the ashes that remain of her old home and in her mind, thoughts race.

They are focused on but one thing, as the smell of charred flesh is finally swept away on the night wind, a wind that chills her legs and arms and sends gooseflesh down her back. She is thinking of the dragon.

After a time, how long if asked she could not say, a pack of wolves comes forward from the grass of the plain surrounding the village. Those humans left without homes flee for the remaining standing houses, hoping for shelter, and these wolves– which are wild ones, dire ones, each the size of a horse– chase them down. Methodically they pick the old or the weak of the survivors out from the rest, herding them away from the safe shadow of the dwellings.

The girl does not look up as their screams echo into the night. Mercifully for the families locked in their houses, they do not last long.

The girl does not turn around until the pack leader approaches her from behind. A wolfish muzzle nudges her front, and razor teeth bared in a snarl meet her eyes as she finally snaps free from her near trance. Hot breath against her face does not make her tremble.
Instead, the girl reaches up and strokes the jaws of the alpha wolf, who stares down at her. The wolf speaks first.

“Why do you choose such a weak and vulnerable shape, shifter?” his voice is kept soft, but the threat of a growl is palpable in the air in each pause.

The girl simply smiles, and shrugs, a human habit. “I know of no other.”
“I could show you a shape. We would roll together in grass, feel the plains beneath our paws. The scent of the stars would be within your grasp, and you would learn what a true soul is like,” the dire wolf whispers. “Come with me, shifter. Learn to be free.”

The words are not apparent from lips alone. All of the creature’s body shows it, in the tensing of its muscles, in its stance and the way its tail slowly sweeps, side to side, the way its silver-green eyes stare into hers.

“No freedom comes without cost. To take your shape is to lose a part of me, great wolf,” the girl replies. “Should I give up such a thing and offer you myself for no gain of my own?”
“The gain is your life, shifter,” the wolf snaps, jaws closing bare inches from the girl’s hand. She yanks it away, but stands her ground. “If you do not come with me, you will remain a human, and prey.”

The girl folds her arms, and feels her heart rise and fall with the deep breath she takes. For her apparent eleven years, she seems far older in that moment, and far more tired than she should be.

“There is a catch, is there not?” she asks sharply. “If I go with you, if you share your form there is always a price. What do you wish of me?”

The alpha wolf’s stance denotes anger, then, hackles rising. “Do you want to die, little human? What price would not be worth life?”

“We all die sooner or later,” the girl answers calmly. “If you wanted to kill me, you would have done so when you first drew in my scent. Something about me piques your interest. What is it?”

The alpha wolf snarls, then rises and lashes out, knocking her back into the ashes of her home, throwing her right off her feet and forcing the wind from her lungs, sending searing tracks across her chest. Stabbing, overwhelmingly sharp pain indicates that the blow may have cracked her ribs. A sharp, cold fear runs through her now, as she stares up at the monstrous wolf standing above her. Will he kill her now? Despite her brave words, she isn’t sure she is ready to die.

“No price will be taken now,” he growls. “When you are older.”

Ah, the girl thinks wryly. That explains it, then.

A haze of pain hangs over her every movement. It makes it hard to think, breathe and speak. “Come here then, pack leader,” she whispers, voice trembling. “I’ve made my choice.”

She reaches up as he approaches her and settles next to her, in the ashes of her former home. The cold night air clings to her skin and as she buries a hand in the wolf’s fur, she buries her mind inside of herself.

Frayed memory greets her as she drifts in the vast, galactic expanse of her own ego, rolling, twisting to look at shimmering stars of vague wants, recollections of some of her earliest forms that are locked away from her and unlabeled, forgotten. As her spiritual form floats in that space, she realizes she can feel the dire wolf’s jaws closed on her physical body’s hand, the teeth but a moment’s pressure from wrenching it away from her.

Even now he’s being cautious, the girl notes silently. As he should be, of things he doesn’t understand.

She rises in her mind, buoyed upward on willpower alone, rising up through the galaxy of forms spiraling to either side of her, unused, untouched. Finally she reaches the surface, the ceiling, where she can see the specific spiritual signature of the dire wolf she clings to.

She rocks herself around it, a bead of light, dark and crimson red hanging in space, in her own head. The girl reaches out, takes it in one hand, and pulls it against herself. The sucking emptiness where it used to be demands something from her, and, helpless to refuse it, some of her essence, her glowing, radiant mind, parts from her soundlessly.

Searing ghost-pain rolls down her body the moment that piece of her leaves, and in the ashes, clinging to the alpha wolf’s fur, she hears herself whimper.

With a new bead hanging there, proclaiming itself to be the essence of her old form, she absorbs the mental bead of light, that dire wolf spirit, into herself and begins to change.
Her spine curves. Her arms turn to forelimbs, the whole structure of her body changes, from head to foot, toes shrinking, the littlest ones disappearing altogether. They form great paws, tipped with iron-sharp claws. Her face lengthens, twists and changes to form a long canine muzzle, teeth sharpening, lengthening, some of them disappearing, mostly specialized for rending meat. Her stomach grows, its emptiness more acute, her whole body grows out, fur covering every inch of her skin, the dress torn to pieces. The cuts on her chest turn tiny in comparison with her new size, her breasts shrink and disappear, growing out along where her human belly had been as two rows of little teats.

The alpha wolf slinks back, withdrawing his mouth from her forepaw as she finishes changing, watching the girl become wolf-like with a passive expression.

Ludicrously, her first instinct when the transformation is over is to find more clothes. She feels exposed. Her bones are hard as any metal now, though, and her skin has become more like hide, and rough to the touch. The fur warms her up, and she shakes herself, sitting back on her haunches, eyes downcast as the alpha stands. He towers over her still. Though she is much larger than any normal wolf, she is still young by dire wolf standards.
Many dire wolves could live as long as two hundred seasons. She is still but a child. A pup.
The pack leader’s stance is somewhat disappointed, but the girl-wolf is sure he didn’t expect much else, for it is also resigned.

“Come with us now, shifter,” he says quietly. “There is nothing in the ashes of this human den. Not for you, and not for the pack.”

The girl-wolf does not argue. He is her leader now. While she is slightly unsure, her body knows what it must do, so she lets it follow the pack leader away onto the plains, planting new paw-feet unsteadily, one after the other, until she is lost in the night.

 

 

 

 

©2012 Eris (Sam Oliver)

—-

So basically I’ve been kicking around this story along with Mesdan’s Three Hearts. It’s shorter- more a serial short rather than a serial novel. I’ll finish it eventually, this is just part ‘zero’ as I like to call it. I thought I’d share, because I do so love to write. I should be getting more of that done soon.

Memory: An Age of Dust

So I dunno. A lot of people believe in past lives and talk about how blurry they are. How dream-like they are. How they can’t remember really detailed things except in specific cases.

For me… my past lives are crystal flipping clear. They come in so clearly that I remember them about as well as I do my current life here. Whether it’s my mind filling stuff in or it’s actually real, they’re there, they’re powerful, and they are all lifetimes and lifetimes and LIFETIMES of stories. To that end, I’ve decided to start sharing some of them.

The streets are empty. The houses are deserted. The whole town- if you could even call the run-down shacks here part of a town- is filled with dust and age. I don’t remember who I am.

I don’t remember where I came from or what my name was. I don’t remember anything except that I don’t need to eat, sleep or drink. As far as I know, there isn’t anything to eat, there’s nothing to drink, and though there are ‘beds’, they’re ancient and fragile.

It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. It sounds like the end of the world. But it’s real. I feel the dust between my toes, I look at my hands and down at my feet and can still feel the heat of it.

The town itself is filled with nothing but run down shacks. I remember walking into a few of them. I never speak, just walk in here and there. I’m not afraid, even when the sun is below the horizon and it gets dark. There’s simply nothing for miles and miles and miles.

It’s eerily peaceful. I pass the days doing not much of anything. The ground is dust, there aren’t any streets. I draw in it with sticks or with my fingers. I sit or stand around staring at nothing.  The sun beats down on me, but I’m never too hot or too cold. I poke myself on a nail once, while exploring a shack, but I’m not wearing any clothing to use as a bandage, so I favor my right foot instead and don’t think much of it. It bleeds green for a while. Something sticky, like sap.

I don’t know anything about it, though. I don’t know what it means or what it is. It’s just what I bleed. It surprises me the first time it happens, but after that I don’t care so much. I’d barely even felt the nail, just been aware of it poking through my skin.

After a while- I don’t know how much time passes, I don’t have a precise day count- I feel an unfamiliar sensation, like… like I’m dry around the edges. Withered, I guess. I don’t know where to go, if there were maps in the shacks I wouldn’t know how to read them. Since the whole town is empty of water or liquid of any kind, I decide to walk in a straight line until I find some. I don’t know what direction I chose. If this world is like the one we’re on, I was going towards the sun during morning hours.

I couldn’t smell anything. I could taste the dust, sort of (dry and gritty, like sand). I didn’t have a mouth, or at least, something that I could open and close. I seemed to taste things with my feet. My eyes were pretty good. I could see things around me well. There weren’t any artificial lights that in retrospect I could understand, so the night sky was always ablaze with stars and the moon, making it easy to see and to find my way.

It was just dull, at first, walking. I never got tired, though I could never go beyond a fast walk- whatever my muscles were made of wouldn’t allow it. A few days passed like that. Three I think, counting the times the sun came out and went down again. I always felt at my best during the day.

The fourth day I got lucky. Thoughts like this felt a little blurry and had been getting a little blurrier by the day. But I reached a stream, after a time, a small expanse of water trickling quite slowly. I went to stand next to the bank, where a few reeds were growing. Instinctively I felt they might interfere, so I bent down and pulled them up. They were weird, like the seeds along their tips had a natural adhesive. In retrospect it might have been a survival mechanism. In any case, I pulled them up and away out of the ground, roots and all, and set them aside. Then I dug my feet into the muddy dust near the bank of the river and waited. My body seemed to know what to do. My brain itself was having trouble thinking during this time.

I remember being aware of the sun coming up, and the sun going down. It happened a few times but I didn’t count how many.  In that time, I felt something soothing, like the water was flowing against my toes. I could feel how they’d burrowed into the ground and dug into the side of the river.

I suppose I felt happy, then, to know that I’d succeeded, and, taking a moment to look to either side of me, I saw that there were other large plants rising, towering up into the sky. I remember feeling a vague longing, and hopefulness that one day I might be as tall.

There, along that river, I remember coming back alive while being still, feeling the witheredness fade, replaced by life. There, along the river, I remember I just stood, thinking about all sorts of things, but mostly just living.

Just being alive, luxuriating in it, in the feel of the water against my roots and the peaceful days ahead. No strife or war or worries. Sun, water, the dusty earth. Moon, stars, the pleasant cool of the night. Whether I was the only one of my kind or not, I felt at peace there. I don’t know my story or where I came from, but without the pressure of others like me, my curiosity stayed right where it was.

There’s more to this life than that, but it was just a few moments I wanted to share.

 

 

©2012 Eris (Sam Oliver)

Sometimes that memory comes back to tease me, on days that are particularly stressful. Most of the time I think it helps me have a laid-back, peaceful outlook on life, and gives me the strength I need to know that I can sit… and sit… and wait… and never feel like it’s dull or wrong. I can live in each moment and take it for what it is. That’s the gift I took away from that life. It’s just one of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands I could share. Ones I remember, no better than stories here, no better than myths or legends. But they are mine, all of them, mine and part of my mind, part of who I am. So I’ll take them, cherish them, hold them and try to understand them.

And I’ll share them with you all, if you like. I hope they bring peace or feeling of some kind, the way they do for me.

-Eris

Three Hearts: Chapter Two

Chapter: Shadowed Ground (2)

 

The whole village plans to be gathered to see it. It is to take place in a small patch of ceremonial ground, twenty feet off the beaten path that runs through the village and surrounded by trees and vines of all shapes, sizes and purposes. People have already started to prepare, but Mesdan is not with them.

Mesdan is in Kesta’s quarters, with Eliss.

It’s just beyond second twilight, with neither moon nor sun in the sky. Eliss’s family– which consists almost entirely of brothers now, those who had been away hunting when the shapeshifter struck, on month-long excursions– is either missing or dead. Eliss is arguing with Mesdan, scribbling with charcoal on a long, dry leaf.

Her throat has healed, yes, but she still cannot speak. Kesta worries that perhaps she never will again, but neither he nor Mesdan wishes to tell Eliss that. She rests on Kesta’s bedroll, surrounded by gifts of stone or spice, condolences on her family and blessings for her survival.

Let me watch!”

Even the way she writes now is furious, scrawled angrily rather than written with care. It isn’t so much a want as a demand.

She hands him the leaf, fuming. Her whole body is weak from her ordeal. The fates only know when she’ll recover, Mesdan thinks. But she will recover. Even if it means missing out on my initiation.

“You’re still weak,” Mesdan observes. “You know how grueling the initiation is. I will not allow you to be present, let alone stand– rather, lie– vigil and wait for me to return.”

Elissa scrawls something on the leaf as he hands it back to her. Her writing is agitated and shaky.

“If you were a man you would let me do as I please.”  

Mesdan reads it, sighs, and shakes his head wordlessly. Eliss herself knows it isn’t true. What can he say to that? Besides that he is a man. He’s gone through the Change rite and everything.

He slips the leaf back to her when she reaches out for it. It seems she might already regret those words, but no amount of rubbing them out will rub them from Mesdan’s mind now. Eliss doesn’t consider him a true man. The knowledge makes him burn.

“It’s selfish! Let me watch! You didn’t let me watch the witch one either!”

Mesdan arches an eyebrow quizzically as he reads her latest message. “I wasn’t even here for that, Eliss. You’re being too impulsive-”

And that isn’t fair. Mesdan regrets the words as soon as they come out, and bites back the rest of the sentence. He turns away, handing the leaf to her and heaving another sigh.

“Please?”

The next reply is written carefully and she places it against his half-curled fingertips with a certain delicate hopefulness he finds heartbreaking. It hurts even to read it. As a shaman, his duty should be to keep the villagers happy and to defend their souls. As a witch, his duty should be to keep the villagers safe and protect their bodies. Mesdan is being torn to pieces between the two– or at the least stretched. But this is to be his shaman initiation, after all.

Eliss is his friend. He wrestles for a moment, with himself, with his witch training.

“Fine,” Mesdan says quietly. “But Kesta won’t be able to watch you. He’ll be busy administering initiation.”

“Actually,” Kesta interjects from directly behind Mesdan’s left ear. “That’s not true. I’ll be watching over Eliss.”

Mesdan stops himself whirling around through sheer will alone, stops the witch response bursting from him, and pulls his calm together as only a shaman should. “Oh.”

He forces himself to turn his head slowly.

Kesta smiles at him apologetically. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Mesdan replies dully. “I expected it.”

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Mesdan glances up to find Thaneen staring back at him. The freckled, pale white skin is recognizable all throughout the village– and the short, bright red hair is easily the most conspicuous. Thanee is one of– well, had been one of– Danni’s best friends. Mesdan, however, having just completed his rite, turns his head, hot shame creeps from somewhere down near his chest all the way up to his cheeks. He feels nearly naked– and really, he is.

“Than–” Mesdan starts, and for a split second it’s like the Change rite meant nothing. Thanee bowls his sentence right over.

“I was okay with the Change rite, you know that, it’s just– aren’t you still feeling– weak from that? Wouldn’t it make sense to give it time?”

Mesdan gazes at Thanee steadily, meeting the boy’s eyes. “Yes. It would make sense. But this village can’t survive another month without another Shaman to watch over it. When Feskun fell to the charm of the Queen, I knew that I needed to take the Change rite and take his place. I have taken the Change rite– though I know it hurts you to see me this way. Now I have only to become Shaman through this initiation.”

Thanee puts a hand on Mesdan’s shoulder, and for a moment Mesdan feels a horrible wrenching indecision. It vanishes as Thanee’s next words fall out in a rush.

“If you do this, Danni-”

“My name is Mesdan,” he replies quietly. “Or does the rite mean nothing to you either? How many times must I say it? I’m different. I’m not a witch anymore. I’m a shaman. I took the rite. I’ve diverged from that path and there’s no telling when I will return. This village needs no witch. I will be a shaman.”

He takes a deep, shuddering breath, trying to gather his wits again. He doesn’t shrug Thaneen’s hand away, but he doesn’t move to accept the gesture either. After a few more moments, Thanee drops his hand and sighs.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I meant no offense. I’m just not used to it yet, I guess.” He pauses, then shakes his head ruefully. “I never wanted to share you with anyone. Now I suppose I don’t need to worry about that, at least.”

Mesdan smiles weakly. Always right to the point, with Thanee. “Yeah. You can have me all you want once I’m shaman. I promise you won’t have to share at all. At least wait until I’m healed up though.”

Thanee punches his shoulder playfully. It still makes Mesdan wince. Seeing his expression Thaneen leans in close, enough that his forehead nearly touches Mesdan’s. “A tough man like you? You’ll be ready by tomorrow’s end,” he whispers. “Just wait and see.”

Mesdan feels acutely aware of how close Thanee’s fingers are to his hips and for a moment, he is literally left speechless. The closeness of his freckled friend takes him by surprise, and the heat between them is something to be savored in the chilling air. Mesdan’s eyes wander, taking in the curve of Thanee’s shoulder, the familiar fang-shaped birthmark on his right cheek, those warm brown eyes and the sturdy– though a little thin– frame. He’s close enough to kiss.

He comes back to himself. “Than-”

“Right,” his friend replies, voice choked, pulling back. He turns away, hiding his face. Mesdan catches a glimpse of Thaneen’s reddening cheeks before the boy stalks off and leans against a tree. Mesdan takes a calming breath, lets his heartbeat return to normal, and forces his attention back to his work.

Creating dream shells is hard enough without worrying about feelings for Thanee, or the reciprocation of those feelings BY Thanee. Mesdan can’t afford to split his attention now.

He rethreads the bone needle, and tries again. He’d been doing pretty well before Thanee had interrupted him. He retraces the heart-weave, taking another calming breath. When he finishes tracing out the intricate semi-circle triple pattern and the helix down the middle for support, he takes the shell fiber from the hole in the needle and, very carefully, snaps the needle in two. By the time he looks up, Thaneen is gone. He probably slipped away to find his relatives in the crowd of villagers gathering.

The shaman initiate glances back down at his dream shell and sighs heavily. His newest work, his grand pattern, spread right across the heart-weave, is Thaneen’s name in witch-rote. Well.

Mesdan makes a face, drops the old dream shell and picks up new fiber and a new bone needle. Closing his eyes and trying very hard not to think of Thanee again, he starts over.

Midnight comes far too fast for Mesdan’s comfort. The moon, rising into the sky through the forest canopy, shines down like a second sun. It won’t last. A shamanic initiation will require complete darkness. Kesta himself had spoken with the sky and asked it to cover the moon for the night. Mesdan shivers a little. The light is a comfort. Especially knowing that he will spend the remainder of the night- and the next- alone, outside, and in total blackness.

He can’t remember a time in his life when he’s enjoyed being in the dark. Not a single time. The darkness hides monsters, demons and otherwise. To enjoy it would go against every ounce of his witch training. To enjoy it would go against his very nature. Still, it seems a nonissue compared to the immense task before him. Initiation for shamanhood would require many things of Mesdan, things he isn’t sure even now he’s ready for. His dream shell is complete and he has the support of Kesta, Thaneen and Eliss to count on, but he still knows that it will be dreadfully difficult. With that knowledge haunting him, he tries his best to find his center now. He doesn’t know and won’t be told who will administer the initiation. Kesta only tells him things like that because the two of them are close. Much closer than they should be, to be frank. Thaneen would be jealous if he knew. But there are some things Thaneen can never understand.

Some things Thaneen shouldn’t understand. Mesdan’s relationship with Kesta is one such thing.

The crowd around him– the entire village, really– isn’t murmuring or talking at all. They simply stand and wait. At a witch’s initiation, jeers and catcalls are relatively commonplace– whistles of appreciation, perhaps, things meant to test the discipline of the girl who is to become a witch. Test it as hard as can be. This is necessary. In order to hunt monsters, one must make their heart like stone. In order to defend the bodies of those around them with the mana and the life-force of the air, the moon, the stars and the earth, one must have iron discipline lest they fall to that power and become like the creatures they seek to destroy.

Whole villages could be annihilated by rogue witches. Their power could level all but the strongest of log cabins and turn brave warriors to nothing but ash and dust as easily as it could do the same to a monster.

His thoughts drift back to the present. It’s growing darker now. A glance at the sky tells the tale of a forgotten and forlorn moon, and of a lone cloud as black as the darkest soil sweeping across the sky and hovering there maliciously over it, under it, sending the whole of the jungle into shadow.

No words still. He is alone with his thoughts, and in the darkness. Alone, though as a shaman he can feel the presence of the crowd nearby. It hasn’t begun then. Surely it would soon.

Mesdan closes his eyes. It’s meaningless. He can’t tell the difference between the black of the back of his lids and the light of opening his eyes. There is no difference. It’s shadow, shadow and shadow all around him. He can’t let it set in that he truly IS alone, that despite being able to feel the crowd out there, they cannot and will not lift a finger to help him during this initiation. He is to face this trial alone. His ordeal is all alone.

While he waits for his first test to start, he can feel the panic start to gnaw at him. To distract himself, he lets his mind wander again.

When he had been a her, before the Change rite, he remembers going through the witch initiation as Danni. The dream shell in his hands chimes. He opens his eyes, looks down at the hypnotic, glowing weave of it sitting in his fingers, and is swallowed up by the past.

 

[Memory]

 

“A slip of a girl cannot undergo witch training, Dessdan,” Ginna snaps. “If you grow to become strong, return to me, but not before you are truly ready.”

Danni flushes red from where she lies. As Ginna withdraws, she pulls the shell blade from Danni’s neck. Danni hates it when Ginna calls her Dessdan. It’s a girl’s name, not a witch’s, and no matter what anyone says Danni will become a witch.

“I am not a slip of a girl!” Danni hisses, her eyes stinging with tears, stupid, weak tears. “I’ll prove how strong I am.”

Ginna arches an eyebrow, but says nothing as Danni pulls herself to her feet and glares at the old witch defiantly. For a time, silence is all that passes between them, then:

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, little girl, but if you truly wish to show me how strong you are, seek out the eldest shaman in the village and defeat him. I care not whether it is with skill, magic or the strength of your scrawny arms. Find him, challenge him, and defeat him. Then I shall let you train under me.”

Ginna doesn’t seem to find this a likely possibility at all.

When Danni reaches the shaman’s hut, she expects him to be outside, working in the garden. He isn’t, but a familiar face is there to greet her. The eldest shaman in the village is named Wesdal.  The shaman’s hut is secluded and while he doesn’t often get visitors, he walks down the path every day. His apprentice, Keeta, looks up and smiles as Danni approaches down the worn path.

“Good eve, Dessdan-” He starts.

“It’s Danni,” she snaps, irritable already. A witch doesn’t have much use for manners. Still, she shakes her head apologetically before she continues. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. Can you go get Wesdal for me?”

Keeta just smiles at her apology, then seems to brighten up even further at her request, nodding and turning to enter the hut.

She hadn’t meant to be rude to him. Of course, Keeta would never say it, but she’s sure that he doesn’t like her very much.

She likes him well enough. Keeta is a little weird, but then again, so is Danni, so she doesn’t mind. His eyes don’t wander the way other boys’ do. Danni isn’t sure what to make of that, but it does seem strange to her that he never… well, looks at her. He must just not like her very much. She simply can’t imagine any other reason.

“So, here to challenge me?”

Wesdal’s warm voice breaks her out of her daze. He’s a tall, thick built man with soft amber eyes and weathered features, like old stone. He isn’t old, really, but all shamans get like that. Wrinkly and dry before their time. She stares up at him blankly a moment before the sharp part of her mind smacks her out of it again.

“Oh!” she almost yelps, snapping alert. “Yes! Ginna won’t let me train under her until I defeat you.” Danni pauses a moment, then stares at her feet. “I don’t think she wants me to be a witch at all.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Keeta whispers.

Danni isn’t listening, though. She raises her head and meets Wesdal’s expectant eyes with her own hard, blue pair.

“Fight me.”

Her words are like iron.

 

[Present]

 

Mesdan shakes himself awake and alert again, drawing his eyes up and away from the dream shell. Darkness has surrounded him completely. The glow of the shell shimmers for a few more seconds and then fades away. His heart begins to pound and Mesdan becomes terribly aware of how alone he is in the darkness. It takes a few deep, calming breaths to remember his purpose here.

The past is the past. The present is the present. This is not the witch initiation. His foes will be beatable.

This time. Now that he knows more.

“Danni.” A voice calls from the darkness. “You must learn to face your fear, or you will never be able to protect your village.”

He can’t place the villager’s voice. He nods anyway, sure that whoever it is can’t see him. Mesdan wonders whether or not there’s anything really there, or if it’s simply the dream shell’s hypnotic influence plaguing him still. His whole body aches from his ordeal the night before.

The dark around him grows more so, swirling in like a velvet caress. Its chill touch makes his ebon skin break out in a sweat. He wills his body to move, to pull itself up, to push away from his seat on the ground. It doesn’t listen. With a shock, Mesdan realizes that he’s completely paralyzed.

A nightmarish haze hangs on his heart, on his hair, all over his aching body. It clings to him, dirtying him. He feels filthy, profaned, like his mind is being sullied somehow by this invasive presence. It seeps into him, into his self, and shakes him to his heart, to the core of his soul. He can feel it eating away at him.

“Lost yourself so easily, little girl?”

Ginna’s voice is so cold it chills him to the bone. It echoes at him out of the dark.

“You have no right to claim shamanhood. Do you mean to betray your oaths as a witch?” the voice mocks. “What sort of vows were they, to be broken like this?”

The words have literal bite to them. He can feel the marks they leave on his bare skin, on arms. This is, after all, shaman initiation. He was stupid to believe the foe he must face would be a physical one.

He would cry out at the pain, but his mouth won’t move. His whole body is still.

Yet apprentice shaman must survive this test! He can scarcely believe it- the pain of this first obstacle alone is excruciating. Without incantation, though, with barely any movement at all needed, a shaman could heal or hinder with a thought, with the sheer force of their own mana, their own spirit.

He hesitates a moment more, trying to gather himself as the haze penetrates deeper into his mind and the sick feeling in his belly grows riotous. It builds to a point, then sinks back down. His heart throbs in his chest and he feels a convulsion shudder through him. If this keeps up, he’s certain he’ll die.

Mesdan forces his mind inwards. Around him, the silence deepens. As he dives deep into his own psyche, his heartbeat slows and his body relaxes.

A few moments later, and the darkness swallows him completely, devouring his motionless body as surely as night follows day.

 

 

©2012 Sam Oliver [Eris]

Cliffhanger. Split the original chapter 2 up into 2 chapters instead- chapters two and three-  to make it more sane. Finals week is NEXT week, but it’s nowhere near as hectic as this one, sooooooo…. I can get a regular schedule by next week instead????

Was that enough question marks??????

Probably.

<3s to all,

Eris

The Afterword

It’s cold out. Not REALLY cold out, because it never gets that way in Florida, but it’s cold enough to make me shiver. I started work on and nearly finished an epilogue to go with this rather strange end to a rather strange book, but instead ended up scrapping it (I may rewrite/complete it and release it at a later date).

The characters have come a long way and learned quite a bit since the very start of this book, and so have I. Learning with them has been a experience I know I’ll treasure. It’s strange though- throughout the whole thing I never once really thought of it as ‘writing a book’ or ‘writing a novel’. It was just one chapter, one scene at a time.

Happily enough, it’s Winter that I started on and Winter that I ended with, and in a rather wonderfully lovely bit of serendipitous fun, my story ended not quite a year after I began it. I’d put ‘END’ or something after it, but no, I think I’m just going to leave this as part of the book instead and say that it’s been immense fun watching these characters grow, from Summer to Winter to Spring to Fall, from Thomas and Silky, to any of the Dragons. I’ve really enjoyed the heck out of myself writing this story out. I can’t wait to see how it’ll end up- but in the meantime, in what I’m going to call the ‘Writer’s Rest’, I’m gonna be putting it down and not even looking at it for as long as it takes to finish my next project. It’ll remain here until I see fit to go back and edit it, piece be piece, and I’ll only allow myself to touch it after I first step back and let it lie the way it is.

Of course, what I mean by this is that I’m going to be taking full advantage of this break to be pumping out short stories, mini-projects and other things until I can get a firm start on my next main. I don’t imagine it’ll make the site any more cluttered and hopeless to navigate than it already is. I won’t start posting the main project until I get a decent buffer up, but do check back because, believe it or not, I have a few short story ideas that I want to set up here, and I just love it when people read my work whatever they have to say about it afterwards.

To pad out the length of this already comfortably long afterword even more, I’d like to pay thanks to all the supportive family, friends and acquaintances who helped me make this book and site a possibility.  So thank you kindly, everyone. I hope you continue to read if you do so often, and if you don’t I hope that you take it up. Words are some of the most important things I feel we ever share.

Happy holidays and a joyful new year,

-Eris

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the very tail end of the book ‘Demimind’. If you’re reading this and wondering what I’m talking about- which, with the number of people who actually check back to this site, is unlikely- you are probably not in the right spot. Near the header at the top of the page, the one with the wintery tree, there is a black band underneath the image with links to the book itself- as well as a link to a chapter page.

NOTE ON THE AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you like reading books back to front, though, do continue and disregard everything I said above. Far be it from me to tell people how they should read an online representation of my creativity and skill (or lack of either) as a writer.

NOTE ON THE AUTHOR’S NOTE, NOTE: Can you tell I’m feeling giddy about finishing this story? In case it isn’t perfectly obvious by now, I’m feeling giddy about finishing my story.

 

Demimind: Chapter 32

Short and sweet. Enjoy Chapter 32, I’ll see about a bonus update on Friday or sooner, to make up for my illness last week. ❤

Love you all,

-Eris

(32) Season’s Refuge

In time, things change. In time, Summer, Winter, Fall and Spring make the journey to Season’s Refuge along with Silk. Thomas and the orphaned girl already live there- they’d transferred shortly after the… well, the Resolution.

Season’s Refuge stands on a low field, and rises near fifty feet up from the earth. The courtyard is enormous and open- no iron gates bar entry by foot. The walls are worn from disrepair. The path up to the great wooden doors is weathered. In the courtyard a great oak tree snakes up to the sky, and as a wind blows across the plains its branches sway and creak.

It’s Winter who leads Fall- who carries Summer’s baby- past the worn walls girding the courtyard. He stumbles on cloven hooves, trying to keep up with her, bent over almost comically as he leans down to follow her beyond the worn walls and onto the path.

The baby, who Summer had promises to name once she found one she liked, is sound asleep. Fall had taken to him instantly, to Winter’s surprise- and despite the poor experiences the infant may have had when he was kidnapped by Fall, the baby boy had been able to sleep soundly every night, and didn’t seem perturbed at all by the horned man’s care.

“Really,” He says quietly. “You could pretend to show a little restraint, you know. Have some reverence for your home.”

Silk, just clearing the courtyard and obviously a little uncomfortable, trails along behind the pair of them slowly.

Winter ignores them both, shoving the big doors open one handed and stepping into the Refuge, letting Fall’s hand go as she races inside.

It’s exactly as she pictured it, as she remembers it. Still, Winter’s eyes tear up as she takes a step into the great hall. Columns stretch up into forever. Before her, an immense stone table with finely crafted wooden chairs set around it, for more than two score guests to sit at. It strikes her at once as both wonderful and horribly lonely at the same time. It’s a bit of a relief that she’ll never have to be all alone now, not with Summer and Autumn and Spring here.

Dust has been disturbed- everything is neat and tidy. The Seasons rarely actually used the great hall for anything other than entertaining guests. The only people who actually ate things at it were Fall, whose energy was always decaying, Summer, who enjoyed the tastes, and any servants they might keep around. Said servants were all long gone by now, surely.

The stone here is near soft underfoot from overuse, but still sparkles in Winter’s eyes. She hugs herself then, slowing down, taking everything in at once.

“Miss Winter?” A voice calls. “Miiss?”

Winter looks up and around, and smiles when she spots Miri, dwarfed by the great stone table she sits at.

The girl smiles back, but it’s clear something is on her mind. She’s sharp, Winter thinks to herself. I hope she’s done well here with Thomas.

“Miss Winter? I dreamed you were going to come today,” She says shyly. “You’re gonna come live with me an’ Thomas now, aren’t you?”

Winter grins and nods. “Mhm! Where is he, do you know?”

Miri shrugs indifferently. “He’s around here somewhere. This place is big!”

Independent, too, Summer murmurs admiringly. I wonder who taught her that?

Winter turns to go look for him. Miri’s hand on her arm stops her dead.

Winter stares at her uncertainly. “Yes?”

“Your baby, Miss Winter?” Miri asks quietly.

“It’s not my-”

“She’s in trouble.”

Winter blinks. There’s a certainty in the child’s eyes that’s just plain disconcerting. And she?

A cry from the direction of the courtyard takes Winter’s attention, and it’s Summer who shifts, pushing Winter out of the way and taking over.

She runs across the stone of the hall, throws open the door to the castle and finds Fall standing there, backing away into the hall. A mass of people is gathered before the courtyard- a score in all. A few men stand around in white armor holding torches, swords or spears.  Women bearing bags of goods or food, maybe personal belongings, women holding babies or holding the hands of children.

They gather together. It’s midday- the torches can’t be to provide mere illumination.

“We’ve drawn quite a crowd,” Fall says wryly.

Someone steps forward from the gathered people. His blond hair is familiar to Summer, as are his eyes.

His armor shines, and his voice is steady. In one hand he holds a torch, the other a long knife. “We are the descendants of the Ivory Templar, journeyed here from Wheel. We’ve come to take back Black Refuge in our ancestors’ names.”

Let me handle this, Spring urges.

“Miss Summer?” Thomas whispers, right next to her ear.

She jumps, then steps aside as he brushes past her.

Looks like that job is being taken care of, Fall observes to Spring. Aloud, he says “Careful, Tom.”

Thomas just grins back at him before he stands in front of the man. All he carries is the haft of his spear.

“What’s your name, sir?” He asks politely.

Winter shifts in while Summer isn’t paying attention, and she reaches out for the baby. Fall hands him to her gently.

The child hadn’t cried once the entire way to Season’s Refuge.

“I am called Mark Danehood. And you?” Mark’s tone is wary.

“I go by Thomas. Just Thomas,” He replies easily. His entire posture is relaxed, and his completely nonthreatening attitude seems to take Mark by surprise. Still, he recovers.

“Well, just Thomas, who do you stand with?”

“I should think that’s pretty obvious, sir,” Thomas says, with just a hint of reproach. “I’m standing with the Seasons.”

“This land is ours by right,” Mark says quietly. “If you are with the Seasons, you stand against us.”

“I’m sure we can work something out,” Thomas says lightly. His posture is open, and Winter wants to tug him out of harms’ way.

But something in his stance eases her fears. This is a man who has been through more than mere mortals can dream, Winter remembers. Still…

It isn’t until he turns his head slightly and winks at Fall that she lets herself relax.

Winter cradles the baby in her arms thoughtfully before she walks back into the Refuge.

Thomas can probably handle this, especially with Fall at his back.

What’s important is that you got my son out of that potentially nasty situation, Summer whispers. But how did the girl know that was going to happen? And how did they get here?

Portal, Winter replies as the idea strikes her. They came here through the portal, journeyed from Everspring to Season’s Refuge, probably almost the same time we set out.

Still, something else doesn’t quite fit.

“Miri?” Winter calls.

“Miss Winter!” Miri’s voice calls back excitedly. “I’m in the study! Come see!”

Winter remembers where the study is by sheer luck. Summer nudges her in the direction of the door. It opens as if on greased hinges, swinging silently aside. Winter takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and steps inside.

Her eyes open again, and what she sees takes her breath away. Stacks and stacks of books, piled high, teetering here and there. There are so many of them that it makes her dizzy, stretching high into the air, some on shelves, some on the tile floor.

Miri sits in the middle of the room, legs crossed, grinning widely and holding a book. It’s title is in Eldritch, and Winter recognizes it as Poems, Songs and Sonnets from Ages. It appears ragged around the edges, as though it has definitely seen better days. The paper is old and  yellowed.

“Look!” Miri giggles. “It’s like the words you and Miss Summer use.”

“You can’t read that-” Winter starts, but Summer silences her. Miri opens the book and, flashing Winter a grin, begins to read.

No, not to read. To sing, in a wavering, but soft, pretty voice.

“Souls in cycle, follow along

Writ for wrote

Word for song

Souls in cycle, lead my heart

From place to place

From past to start

Beginning to end

First and now last

Find my heart in a looking glass

When demi of mind meets demi of soul

Push both together

And make them whole.”

Miri finishes, giggling, obviously pleased with herself. Then she frowns a bit. “What does it mean, Miss Winter?”

Winter blinks, smiles down at her and shakes her head. “It’s just a song. It’s a nice song, though.”

Like hell. That’s the song Fall taught you, Summer says flatly.

Yeah, Winter replies quietly. I think I understand what he meant by it, too.

Miri shrugs, though, obviously not accepting Winter’s answer, but not questioning it openly either. She stands up again. “Can I have it? The book, I mean?”

Summer’s baby stirs in Winter’s grip. Winter finds herself wondering at who his father could have been, and she’s so lost in thought that she almost forgets Miri’s question altogether.

“Mm? Oh! Yes, of course! You live here too!” Winter says hastily. “Just… well, be careful with it.”

“Yes, Miss Winter,” Miri says quickly, and scurries off, the book tucked under her arm.

What did he mean? Summer asks curiously, prompting her. Winter is about to answer her when she hears a clicking on the tile behind her.

Winter turns, and finds Silk standing in front of her, all of her arms folded.

“Half a mind and half a soul, both here together as one,” Silk says quietly. “With the Cycle broken and mended, with everything you could ever ask for right here…. can you forgive me, from so long ago?”

Winter blinks, then takes in a breath. In that instant, Silky puts a clawed finger to her lips, hushing her instantly. “No, don’t talk yet. I haven’t told you what I did and what I am asking of you. I haven’t told you what you’ve done.”

Winter quiets herself, curbing her own curiosity while Summer grumbles.

“Winter,” Silk says quietly. “Your daughter is mine by blood right. That is the oath I made to you long ago, that I would take your child.”

Winter nods slowly.

“The child you carry is yours as much as it is Summer’s,” Silk whispers. “Being of your blood, she is mine now by my law.”

Now wait just a second! Summer snarls in Winter’s head. Winter shakes herself, trying to make sense of it.

“What are you talking about?” She asks finally, heart sinking. “This child is a boy.”

“The boy is the dominant soul, yes,” Silk replies gently. “But underneath his shell and in his heart beats your blood, and with your blood a piece of you, Winter, as much as he is a piece of Summer.”

“How…?” Winter starts weakly.

“There was no union between you and any mortal man,” Silk says, and her voice is tempered by guilt. “Nor was there any such union between Summer and another. You two are bound together, but more than that- when your souls touched, I…” Silk closes her eyes for a moment, opens them again, her posture relaxing, claws falling to her sides. “I took advantage of your vulnerability. I used magic- my peoples’ magic- to create a child within you. I worried- and foolishly- that you would be incapable of having a child on your own so…” She pauses and then sighs. “I… violated your trust, my love.”

“Spells like that exist?” Winter asks, stunned, horrified, and wondering all at once. “And you cast one on me- you used magic on me without me knowing it?”

“It… It is more that I provided a spark for your own magic to use. But it was a spark made of all Seasons, from pieces of their magic that I plucked and spun together,” Silk says quietly. “All of you- Summer, Winter, Autumn, Spring- every one of you is a part of this being. Four children in one.”

“Why did you do this?” Winter pries, frowning. “Silk, you were- are- one of my most trusted friends.  Why? And why keep it from me, or from Summer?”

“You wouldn’t remember,” Silk says quietly. “And hopefully now you will never have reason to. It’s fine now- it’s worked out the way it needed to.”

“I don’t understand,” Winter says wearily. “But by now I think I’m used to that. I’ll figure it out later.”

“Are you going to run?” Silk asks quietly, as Winter starts to turn. There’s something almost desperate, something soft and hurt in her voice. Winter isn’t angry. She’s hurt. Like Silk is.

Feelings fight, boil and die in Winter’s heart. Running now feels like the only thing she can do… It’s too much for her to deal with right now, if she could just…

She’s a spider, Summer warns. She’ll lie and manipulate to get her way. I told you I had a bad feeling about her.

Winter wrestles with herself, takes another step, pauses. She’ll betray you again.

Summer means well. She means the best for her sister, truly she does. But…

Winter shakes her head, frowns, and stops, arms folded. “No,” She says finally, breaking into a grin. “I think I’ll walk.”

She turns to face Silk and reaches out. Silk stretches out her own clawed fingers to meet the fourth Season’s tentatively, gazing down at Winter, clearly a little worried for her love’s sanity. “Winter?”

“I don’t forgive you now,” Winter answers slowly. “And I’m not sure what to think. But I’d rather we found out together. I’ve spent too long without you, for all that I remember- that I’m starting to remember doing with you. I trust you, Silk, and I’m disappointed in you for not telling me the truth, but I won’t leave without you. And we won’t be gone forever.”

She cracks a smile, then, her eyes meeting Silk’s. For a moment, her heart skips a beat and she feels light. Silk returns the smile, obviously confused, but relieved. “Come on,” Winter says gently. “I think you’ve done enough moping.”

She grasps Silk’s hand and leads her away from the study, with the Seasons’ baby in the crook of her arm, unsure of where she’s going, but certain of where she belongs.

Demimind: Chapter 31

What? You say my character Winter falls unconscious too often? Pshaw.

-Eris

(31) Duet

White on black, like the threat of a supernova, deep, deep in space. White, like a flash in all spectrums, flooding everything and burning into Winter’s mind, into Summer’s mind.

It seems to Winter that it comes in symbols, and she reads them without thinking. They are written in Eldritch, and they are the meanings that they portray rather than merely conveying them. The twisting sigils twist and turn and spark in her mind.

Once apart, then joined, once whole, then broken- without one, the other is meaningless, without both, the world is gone. Find the balance between one, and you shall find the balance for the other.

Summer hears a voice, instead, and it seems to her to be made up of a strange mixture of every voice she had ever heard herself, Winter, Fall and Spring speak in, with echoes and overtones spread throughout, intertwined with and dependent on one another.

“The lightning strike carries life, death, regrowth and decay all in a single blow- separate the elements, the seasons, the rules and the laws are all for nothing. If you cannot find the balance between these forces, there will be no balance forever. Remember, apart you appear stronger, but only together are you whole.

“Stop this now before your chance is lost.”

“I don’t know what you just did,” Spring is saying, his back to Winter as her eyes open. “But I’ve had enough of this.”

He strides over to Winter as she lies on her back and, reaching down, pries her fist open, fingers an inch from closing on the illmetal bead within.

Thin, bronzed fingers wrap around Spring’s wrist.

“You killed Thomas,” Summer whispers quietly. “That was your first mistake.”

Spring’s eyes have time to widen in shock before Summer’s other hand closes over his throat in an iron grip.

The Second Season, Summer-Heat-Rising stands over her sister’s fallen form. With a sledgehammer strike, she slams a fist into Spring’s diaphragm and tosses him aside. His frail body lands a few feet away heavily, and then, coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath, he pushes himself upright, eyes blazing with anger.

“We had a deal!” He snarls. “What are you doing?”

“Do you think I’m deaf, dear brother?” Summer hisses back. “What deal do you suppose we had when you led Fall to bind me within Winter permanently? Where is the deal when you handed over my own son to Fall?”

The ground trembles at her younger brother’s name, and seems to quake even more as her next words escape, snapping into the air like licks of flame.

“You snake-tongued bastard!” Summer growls. “I’ll-”

Winter reaches up and grasps Summer’s hand. Summer blinks, looking down at her. Her little sister’s grip is like ice.

“Together,” Winter whispers. “He has too much- power. You can’t… face him without me.”

“Cute,” Spring snarls, rubbing his throat. “Oh, too cute. The kind-hearted cripple and the righteous whore. I’m shaking, truly.”

He raises his hands again. The ground seems to ripple around him, just as Summer pulls Winter to her feet.

“We’re not running this time,” She says to Winter, and her sister cracks a grim smile in response.

“Right.”

Hand in hand, the two stand their ground. Winter lifts her hand up. Her chest feels as though it’s on fire, and her hand is burning where it touches Summer, but in a good way.

It reminds her that she’s alive.

There barely seems to be enough power between them to do anything though, and Winter can feel Summer trembling.

“Toughen up, you wuss,” Winter whispers. “Or we’ll both die.”

Summer nods, almost imperceptibly.

“Life for life,” A familiar voice purrs quietly. “Do you understand?”

Winter doesn’t dare turn her head. Summer does, though. “Silk?” She asks incredulously. “What?”

Spring stares openly. Then he curses, snarls at her. “Twice now, doubly crossed by you. Wretched spiders spin their webs and more fool me for walking into them. No matter!”

“I crossed no line that you have not yourself stepped over many times now, Bringer-of-Spring. I’ve simply come to see the end.”

“And you’ll have it!” Spring sneers. He throws a hand forth. A pillar of the earth descends on the spider queen, who stands there unmoving. In a flash, though, the pillar is shattered into a hundred pieces.

A woman stands there, hand outstretched, side by side with Silk. Her eyes burn with hate, and her skin is ebon as night. Her hair is wild, but her form is younger than Aura. Summer takes a wild guess in her mind, but keeps quiet about it.

“For the crimes against my people, we hold and condemn you, Spring of the Four Seasons. Your reckless war against your brother has cost too many of us our lives for us to forgive you. You’ll excuse the lack of trial, Summer, Winter?”

Summer shrugs, then gives the woman a grin. “Yeah. I suppose I will. How the hell do you even remember me?” Seeing the girl’s expression, Summer adds, more than a touch bitterly, “Weren’t most of your ‘people’ dead shortly after I came and went?”

“If you hadn’t asked me to give you a ride to the Lair of Servants, I would be dead along with most of the Council,” Corevin replies steadily. “Instead I was captured. But that isn’t important. What’s important is that this worm-” She jerks her head towards Spring. “Is brought to justice. Fulfill your destiny, Summer of the Four Seasons. Then we’ll talk.”

Winter leans against Summer a little, and Summer takes her weight without comment.

“Are you ready?” Summer asks of her sister quietly.

Winter nods. The time Aura’s daughter Corevin had bought them by appearing along with Silk had no doubt been spent well. Winter seems better ready for the fight ahead, and after a moment she takes her weight herself, standing a little unsteadily.

Spring stares at the pair of them with obvious disdain. Winter notes his arrogant posture- he had yet to strike at them. With so much power, he was letting it rule him- and with good reason. Winter can’t think. She can’t come up with a strategy.

Spring, who has power over time, who can step into the past, probably already knows everything they are about to do.

“No time to worry about that now,” Summer says quietly.

“I’m waiting,” Spring taunts. “Do show me what the power of friendship is capable of, little sisters!”

He’s mad, Winter thinks plainly, suddenly. He’s completely mad! Why is he waiting for us to attack?

Summer hardens her stance and, drawing a hand back, gathers her power. Hot-headed Summer.

“I’ll wipe that grin off your face, you smug bastard!” Summer snarls, and snaps out at Spring with her power, a thin ray of pure heat scalding cobbles, glassing the dirt around him. But it doesn’t touch him. He just stands in the midst of it, laughing.

“Is that all?” Spring sneers. His normally kindly face has changed almost completely, almost bestial in its unlimited fury. But Summer can see sweat beading on his face, and she isn’t fooled. Before she can act on it, he seems ready to get serious.

He claps his hands together and pushes them towards Summer and Winter. A ripple forms in the ground, and it moves like water towards them, rising up and cresting like a wave of stone and earth ready to bury them.

Winter goes cold inside. Summer freezes.

“Move!” Winter shouts.

It’s Winter who shoves Summer aside as the earth crashes down, it’s Winter who propels them both out of the way on a stream of ice, sliding along the ground together. It’s Summer who picks herself up first, Winter who coughs, clutching her chest, spitting out grit and blood brought up from the fall.

Summer hurls another bolt of heat Spring’s way. The nearly invisible blast washes over her brother without even touching him. Again he laughs at her.

This time he makes a sharper wave of his hand, a flick of his fingers. It sends sharp spears of stone arcing from the ground up through the air towards Summer and Winter.

Summer freezes again, mouth open, unable to fathom why her attack hadn’t worked. Winter, on her knees, throws her hands up, closes her eyes and forces her power into a field around the two of them.

“Shield!” She whispers fiercely. The formula clicks into place and falls into cold being around her- the air thickens to the consistency of iron, so cold it makes Summer shake.

Razor sharp stone punches through her shield and hisses to a halt barely a span from Winter’s face, near an inch from Summer’s open mouth.

Summer gulps in the silence that follows. Winter shatters and redirects the energy of her shield, forcing her power out, in a stream towards where Spring was last.

As the stone spears are flung away and her vision clears of ice and sleet, she realizes that Spring is standing right next to them and that now all her power is streaming from her in a roaring- but ineffective blizzard.

“Oh,” She mumbles weakly.

“Yes!” Spring replies cheerfully.

His long leg snaps out, blurring with speed. Summer doesn’t even have time to blink, and Winter doesn’t even see it move.

Suddenly she’s gasping, arms around her chest to stop blood from oozing from the newly cracked ice holding her insides in.

Summer yelps, then snarls something. From her vantage point on the ground where she’d rolled, Winter watches her siblings fight. It’s surreal, and her eyes flick back and forth between the pair.

Spring and Summer exchange a few titan blows- and after a blackened eye and the wet crack of a rib breaking, Spring steps back with a grunt that echoes in Winter’s ears. That’s right, Winter thinks weakly. Summer has the advantage close in.

Her vision swims. In it, she can see a hazy Summer advancing on Spring. She sees Spring withdraw something from a pocket, a long, slim something- wand! Hears his voice, low and threatening. Summer’s bitter retort, then her scream.

Winter tries very hard not to black out with the pain, her shattered ribs aching horribly where Spring’s foot had struck them.

Her eyes close for a moment. If she could just be with her sister… now she’s sure she knows what she needs to do. She summons her power, one last time.

On the ground, Winter disappears.

And now she feels what Summer feels.

Summer feels the line of magic carving into her, and for a panicked moment she forgets herself and blood trickles down her belly. Then, with one smooth movement, she reaches down, yanks the tendril of it away and crushes it. Her fingers sting and her abdomen is a line of fire, but she stands firm again, warily as Spring, holding the wand unsteadily, grins the manic grin of a man truly at his wits’ end.

“You should just give in,” Spring hisses. “Even without Winter holding you down you are no match for me.”

Summer’s eyes narrow. Suddenly she can’t breathe for her anger. “Holding me down?”

How can she fight, though? Her anger is a weak one. She is tired.

Rose, Winter reminds her. The Rose!

Summer blinks as another line of magic lashes at her, hops back as Spring flicks the wand at her again, dangerously, conjuring stinging lashes of cutting power- of his own power.

Summer holds out a hand while Spring laughs madly. “That’s right, Summer! Even with your pathetic waste of a sister gone you’re helpless before true power!”

The flicking tendril of his magic carves a line along her arm and then her shoulder as she shifts to avoid a killing strike. It’s pain she barely feels through the pure, fiery anger burning in her body, burning all over.

“Who says she’s gone?” Summer whispers. Spring freezes for one moment.

His eyes dart, then, to where Winter last lay, and then widen. His mouth opens, and Summer moves.

Her Rose snaps into the air at her side, and then shatters as she drains all of its energy at once- the thorns dig into and then melt into her hand as she crushes it. All of a sudden she’s impossibly strong, impossibly fast, and impossibly furious.

In a flash, she moves, staggering towards him with speed borne of fury. Spring takes a step back and slashes at her with the wand. The tip draws a line of white pain along her arm as she grips him by the throat, lifts him up, and then slams him down into the ground hard enough to rattle his teeth.

“You fucking bastard!” She whispers. “Winter is-”

She kneels on his chest, one hand wrenching the twisted magic around her arm free, the other squeezing Spring’s neck until his face bulges. “-and always will be-”

“My sister and my friend. How- dare you!

Her fist rises, then falls, a bare inch away from Spring’s face, trembling with her restraint.

Summer blinks, feeling the blood run down her arm and her shoulder. Feeling her killer instinct subsiding. Feels Winter in her mind with her, one with her. Watching. Feels the cold of Winter’s power in her fist along with her own heat, her own blaze.

Feels Winter gently guiding her fingers away from her brother’s throat, looks down and sees the tears streaming from Spring’s tightly shut eyes.

Then there’s a spark inside. Something missing is returned, something like lightning jumps through her, from the tips of her toes to the breath she breathes in- to scars- all over- glowing bright. It fades after a few seconds, but sparks of errant power still jump over her- the pure life energy from Winter and the last of the Rose’s strength joined together, one and the same.

When Summer’s voice returns to her and her mouth opens, the sound is like a mix, like a harmony between Winter’s and hers.

“More than that,” Winter/Summer says quietly, smiling, suddenly sure. “We’re always together. How can someone who’s been with you always ever hold you down? We know each other too well. And you should too! You’re our own brother!”

Spring’s sob comes out choked and raw. “You b-bitch. I was so close!”

Sumer/Winter still kneels on his chest for a moment, but slowly she moves away, stands again, staring down at him with something like pity. “In attempting to remove Fall from the Cycle, you would only perpetuate it. Your belief in the Cycle’s imbalance is correct, but the way you’re going about it is wrong. The Cycle is flawed, yes, and inherently, by design. We can’t deal with that by killing one another!”

“I suppose you think you’ve found the answer in your notes,” Spring growls weakly, pushing himself up. His hair is withered completely black now- the last of his power totally spent.

Winter/Summer shakes her head. Then, as if it had just struck her, she remembers the urchin, she remembers Thomas.

It turns out the former had watched the fight in relative safety- she’s crouched behind rubble and trembling in fear when Summer/Winter reaches out to find her.

Thomas is lying still.

His heart has stopped. His eyes are glazed. His fingers are closed and curled. He isn’t breathing. His head is twisted at an impossible angle and his hair is spread in a pool of blood. His long body is broken, another mortal killed senselessly, and for whose benefit? Worse, he was her friend.

Spring steps up behind her. “So your boyfriend is dead.”

Winter/Summer straightens. Then she smiles. “Not for long.”

“Rebirth and regrowth is my domain,” Spring snaps. “I’m powerless thanks to you, and there’s nothing you can-”

He stops.

Winter/Summer is not listening. Her eyes are closed and her pale-bronze skin is glowing- scars all over her, Winter’s scars- are glowing white with sudden, impossible, unfathomable power.

In it, there is the scent of new flowers blooming, and growing. In it, there is the laughter of children and the taste of sunshine. In it, the soft chill of winter and the warmth of the sun, the heat and the sheer, limitless power of life itself. It gathers around Winter/Summer, and streams from her fingers down into Thomas. There’s no Word of Power, there’s no eldritch gesture- it’s as smooth and natural as if it were meant to be.

Before Spring’s eyes, the man coughs, sits bolt upright, neck slowly turning back into position. It isn’t flawless- he gasps for breath and his heart is beating too fast, his eyes are wild, then narrowed in fury and shock as they rest on Spring. His hand scrabbles for his spear, but finds only the broken shaft.

“You-!” He starts. But his eyes fall on Winter/Summer, on the bronzed tan against the pale of her skin, on her freckled face and her warm smile, and his jaw drops. His gaze wanders a little too long before he forces his eyes closed.

“Summer? No- Winter! Hold on- you’re both, aren’t you?” Thomas finishes weakly. He tries again, opening his eyes and looking away. “You… you brought me back.”

“A bit more efficiently than last time,” Summer/Winter says dryly. “Cut out the middleman in your case. For some reason your soul didn’t want to scatter. Something keeping you here, maybe?”

“That’s extremely unlikely,” Spring grumbles quietly. “He’d have to have some impressive willpower to keep himself together for longer than a few seconds.”

He stares at Thomas for a moment, then shakes his head, sighing heavily. “But then, you shouldn’t be alive at all regardless even of that. What have you done, little sisters, to surpass me in my own field?”

The rage seems to have left him now that he’d been beaten. Without enough power to go back and fix his ‘mistakes’ it seems the fire has gone out of her brother.

His gaze is still hate-filled as it rests on Fall, though, and Winter wonders at what happened between the two of them to create such a gap in feelings.

Summer/Winter fingers the jagged scar along her neck idly. “We’ve grown. You’ve stayed the same, dwelling in the past instead of the present. Why do you have such a grudge against Autumn?” She asks Spring. “What has He done to you? Did you ever stop to think about it?”

“Of course I think about it!” Spring snaps. “He’s a murderer. Down the generations He’s killed-”

“I didn’t ask you what He’s done to other people. We both know that Refraction creates in Him an uncontrollable imbalance. I asked what He did to you.”

Spring is silent, so it’s Fall who answers, laughing weakly.

“Sisters, oh, so clever. No, it’s nothing I did. He simply blames me for a certain attack on his village oh so long ago- an attack by dragons, I believe.”

“Dragons you sent!” Spring snarls. “I-”

“Idiot,” Summer/Winter whispers. “In meddling with the past you’ve broken your own future. When did the dragons attack your village? Before or after you struck back at them and used their souls? Past, present, or future?”

Spring stops for a moment, caught off guard. But he is not slow. His eyes shut, then, and his face contorts in bitter anguish. “I’m such a fool,” He whispers quietly. “Cycle around, but I am such a fool.”

“Hah,” Fall says bitterly. “You are the fool? Had it not been for Winter restoring my senses- had it not been for the cold and for seeing you here attacking her- I would not have seen myself reflected in you, brother. If you have been foolish, I have been more so. I chased her and struck at her for what? The solution was in front of me all along. Blinded by power, and now without it, I think I finally see.”

Fall shakes His horned head, pushes Himself up one handed, slowly rising with the creak of ice on His limbs.

“Alas,” He says morosely. “I fear that this bout of clarity is short-lived. I can feel the darkness of my power returning to me, and in time I think I will descend again into madness. Sisters, if you would?”

Winter/Summer stares at Him. Then she lifts the illmetal bead and smiles.

The column- yes. Now she can see what it meant. So long ago when she touched the column, she was really touching the earth. Earthmetal then, was the key. She looks around at Thomas, who, standing next to her- silently watching the exchange- gives her a tired smile. “I could really use a drink,” He says weakly. “Food, too, really.”

“Give me your spearhead, Thomas,” Winter/Summer says quietly. “I think I’ve solved a puzzle.”

Thomas stares at her for a moment, then nods. It takes him a while to find it, but after searching fruitlessly for it on the ground, he picks it up and holds it out for Winter/Summer.

Winter/Summer takes a deep breath and folds her fingers over Thomas’s. Instead of being blazing hot or ice cold, he notices that for the first time they’re simply warm, like any human hand.

They shake when they touch the earthmetal spearhead- the iron stings Summer/Winter’s palm.

“What are you-” Fall starts.

“Winter!” Spring says sharply.

Silk just smiles, and next to her Corevin looks on with disdain.

Winter/Summer can feel the power building in her.

But as she lets her breath out in a gasp, something jumps from her into the bead in her palm. She can feel it humming like a part of her, can feel it aching for her command. She only has one, and her wish flees her heart and explodes outward from the bead in a nova.

The Four Seasons stand, two in one body, two in their own, and for a few moments they’re outlined as the light envelops them.

Then the white light overwhelms and swallows them.

It is many incarnations before, and many incarnations back.

The four Seasons stand together and apart. Fall and Winter, Summer and Spring stare at one another, distant in a loose circle.  The field around them is dead- blistered from old and intense heat, scarred by magic and battle. The bodies of the fallen lie, rotting.

None of it touches the four Seasons, though. The stench is dispelled by a cool breeze, the light around them bright enough to make the world beyond their little circle seem muted and grey, for all its morbidity.

They seem to be debating something.

“What did you do?” Spring-Eldest-Season asks sharply.

“Made things right,” Winter says softly. “This is how it should be. If we’re all apart, we can’t hurt anyone anymore.”

“That’s stupid, Winter,” Summer-Fire-Heart snips. “And anyway, I haven’t been hurting anyone lately, have I?”

Fall blinks, as though coming out of a trance. “I… I don’t understand. Why are we separate?”

“This isn’t the solution.” Spring’s voice is grave. “In fact, I think, sister, that you may have made things worse.”

“We’ll see in time,” Winter-Pure-Snow replies, and she smiles.

Winter-Long-Frost straightens, and opens her eyes. They seem to be her eyes. She can feel Summer stir in her head, and she takes a deep breath. Everything is as it should be if her sister is in her mind again.

Spring stares at Winter. His hair is green again, his whole body seems rejuvenated, and his mouth opens, then closes. “You… you gave me my power back.”

Winter almost giggles at him. “That’s not all I gave you.”

I could get used to this, Fall whispers in Spring’s head. The lack of murderous rage in particular is very nice so far.

“You-!” Spring starts, astonished, outraged.

“Don’t you understand?” Winter asks quietly. “You can stop any time you want. We’re meant to flow together. We’re meant to be together, to be able to meld and bond and share our power. We’re the Seasons. If we’re all apart we’ll bicker and fight. Have we ever been a true family before?” Her eyes flash, laughing at him.

Despite being, well, Winter, she has elements of Summer’s body- she’s bigger, her skin is a lighter shade of bronze than Summer’s, and her hair is longer- though still white.

“It’s too late for this nonsense,” Spring snaps irritably.

“It’s never too late for family,” Winter responds lightly. “We never were a proper one before.”

She has a point, Fall says quietly. Together maybe we can check one another’s power and prevent each other from growing out of control again.

“I know that,” Spring gripes. “I may acknowledge that you never started that attack, but that doesn’t mean I forgive you yet.”

He closes his eyes, then seems to gather himself. When they open, they’re filled with tears. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and tries again.

“Why would you do this?” He asks Winter. “I tried to kill you and Summer not twenty minutes ago. I killed Thomas.”

“I’m still alive, actually,” Thomas says cheerfully. “And I figure, after you paying my wages for so long and, you know, giving me a living, I probably owed you a bit anyway.”

Spring isn’t sure he believes that at all. In fact, he’s not quite sure what he believes, or if he believes anything.

Winter shifts to Summer in a flash of heat. It seems that some of Winter’s figure has rubbed off on Summer as well- she’s thinner than before, and her hair is shorter than usual, though still blonde-white. Her eyes spark with amusement, and she smiles. Thomas, familiar with the expression, takes a step back.

“Spring, brother dear…. For being the eldest of us, you know Winter the least, so let me tell you why she wants us to try this. It’s a big secret, so get ready,” She says sweetly. She pauses for dramatic effect before going on.

“Winter is a softie,” Summer says quietly. “If it were up to me, I’d pulverize you. But for once in my life, I’m feeling soft too. We’re just going to be all giggles and cheer. Believe me, you’ve got a lot of ground to make up, and if you slip, we’re going to tear you to pieces. You have a lot of explaining to do and a lot of apologies to make, and we’re ready for every single one. Winter wants us to live in harmony, and if you spoil this for her, I will break you.

Summer’s fingers twitch at the last words. Spring nods weakly. It had been no less than he expected.

Is that even right? Winter asks. I thought I said I wanted us to get along!

“Baby steps. We have to trust one another before we get along, right?” Summer replies simply. “And I have ideas about that.”

She grins, rubbing her hands together. Spring, to his credit, makes an effort to smile.

Oh boy, Fall whispers. Can’t wait.

“First,” Summer says quietly, staring Spring, and thus Autumn, in the eye. “Fall is going to take me to my child.”

Demimind: Chapter 30

I’ll save the rant I have about this for another time.

-Eris

(30)Reckoning

Thomas gives a shout, of relief, of terror, as Winter appears. He reaches down and picks up the girl on the ground and drags her back with him to stand next to Winter. The former gateguard is shaking visibly.

“I knew you’d come, sisters,” Fall says, his voice rank with decay. “After all, who can resist the bonds of love?”

Winter takes a step towards her mad brother cautiously, staring at him with a mixture of pity and her sister’s pent up fury. Summer steals her lips. “Give me my son.”

“No,” Fall replies simply, smiling. “I don’t think I will.”

“Give him back!” Winter shouts- and for a moment, just one moment, Summer shouts with her. Their voices intertwine, and their power mixes. Summer can see it flowing out from Winter’s- her- lips. She can see it twisting, coiling around Fall and seeding itself in Him, flowing into Him.

It staggers Fall for a moment, the sisters can see that. Winter watches Him struggle- and as He does, she watches the baby stir. Her heart melts a little, her breath escapes in a sigh, and Fall takes full advantage of her weakness.

He recovers from her magic too quickly. Rippling, sickening colors surround an outstretched hand. With the other, He pushes Summer’s sleeping child into a hole which, after appearing, disappears just as rapidly, swallowing him.

“No!” Winter gasps, starting, taking a step forward.

Fall flings the technicolor power gathered in his fingers right towards her, and it descends on Winter with a noise like a hundred tortured wasps of light.

Winter doesn’t have time to think, doesn’t have time to scream.

It’s Summer who reaches out as the blast washes towards them, and it’s Summer who forms the formulae that Winter had taught her and taps into Winter’s power to form a calm area around herself- to form a zone where no tempest- no matter how powerful- could touch her.

Shield!” Summer shouts through Winter’s lips. Winter’s power floods her consciousness with cold.

She shudders inwardly, then cowers as the flood of her brother’s power slams into the shield. Even with the power of the Word behind it, her zone of calm shudders and shakes under the strength of the mighty blast.

Redirect it! Summer shouts at Winter. Come on! Snap out of it or everyone is dead!

Winters eyes dart to Thomas beside her, to the girl. Then up to her brother and the sparkling, howling helix of energy he’d directed at her, to his expression of anger and contempt.

Then, drawing on a reserve of energy she’d felt inside since she’d fed on the energy back in the hut, she slowly pulls the decaying magic inside her shield, takes it between her fingers and palms, and grinds it into nothingness.

She can see where the blast had really been directed. She can see Fall’s eyes fixed on Thomas.

Her hands burn coldly where they grasped at Autumn’s attack, but her heart screams bloody rage.

She focused, gathering the strength inside for a killing bolt, gathering her power at her hand, forcing it to listen to her, forcing more and more energy into a single, deadly blast. When she can barely control it, when her magic power shrieks for release, she hurls it forth, powering it with a Word, twining it around another.

Ice Bolt.”

The words twist her tongue and her throat raw. They leap out from her and coalesce in a sheath around her hand just as she lets her power free towards her brother.

Unlike the ripple he’d thrown towards her before, this power is pure hoarfrost- it shines in the air so brightly and so blue that it’s almost white, and as it streams out from her, the ground under its passage flash freezes.

Her brother raises a hand and smashes it aside. The blast keens, curves, and strikes a house, from which there isn’t even a scream- only the tinkle as bits of ice and frozen wood crumble to the ground. There’s a clean hole through the structure, and the rest of it seems likely to disintegrate under the pressure.

Fall isn’t smiling. His is a dark and terrible rage. Sweat has broken out on His skin, and His whole left hand is frozen blue.

“You mean to kill me,” He says flatly. “When I know where your son is being kept. Who is the mad one?”

“Don’t talk to me of madness, brother! You chase me from one end of the world to the other for this?” Winter shouts. She holds up the illmetal bead in trembling fingers- it appears there as if always meant to be. “Don’t plead innocence when the proof of your guilt is locked in my heart!”

“With that bead, I could set everything right again!” Fall hisses. “Don’t you understand? I could undo so much evil!”

Winter falters for a moment. Her brother is staring at her, pleading with His eyes even as the rainbow power of His entropy magic gathers in His hands, even as He readies himself to kill her.

Her resolve, hardened until then, wavers.

A thin streak of cold, visible as a hiss, a ripple in the air, snakes out from Winter’s fingertips and just barely grazes the rock face they’d been using as a target. It isn’t even close to where she’d been aiming.

“You need to want to use your power, Winter. You can’t just sit here and wish for things to happen- if you don’t have clear intent, you can’t do anything with all the magic you have.”

Winter backs away from Fall a few steps, then turns towards the rock wall again and gives him a shy smile. “How do you know so much? You’re younger than me an’ Spring an’ Summer.”

The boy’s brow furrows. He shrugs. He’s not spindly, like Spring, but has the beginnings of muscle definition, even as young as he is.

“‘unno. Guess I just… know.”

Winter giggles at the contradiction. “That’s stupid,” Summer says through her mouth, and Winter frowns at her sister’s intrusion. “No it isn’t,” She argues irritably. “You’re stupid.”

You’re just mad ’cause you like him. You should let me talk to him. You don’t have the guts to do anything cool around him. He’ll never like you.

“That’s not true!” Winter snaps. Fall, blinks at her, taken aback.

“What’s not true?” He asks. “What’s she saying to you?”

“She says I’ll never do anything cool. She’s so mean,” Winter gripes, then wipes her eyes hastily to hide tears. “Not that I care,” She adds quickly.

“Winter,” Fall says seriously. She looks up at him. “Everything you do is cool.”

He grins, and Winter grins back.

For a few moments at least, everything is okay.

Winter’s power crackles around her again, so strong that Thomas drags the girl further away from the Season, his hands trembling, numb.

“Miss Winter,” He starts. “I-”

“Go, Thomas,” Winter whispers. “I’ll come for you when this is over.”

“Not this time,” He replies quietly. “This is something I want to see. And frankly, miss, I don’t think it’ll matter if I’m a mile aw-”

Winter catches Fall’s lazy blast with one hand, and, gasping for breath, crushes it as before. There’s a terrible screeching noise, hellish and high, and then the power evaporates into nothing.

Winter studies Fall carefully. She can’t help but agree with Thomas’s assessment of the situation, now. If he were to run, Fall would just track him down. At least here he would be under Winter’s protection. Winter’s hands are shaking with shock and rage.

Thomas has done nothing wrong. The only reason he would be a target for Fall is his affiliation with Summer. Her anger rekindled, she directs a flurry of bolts at Fall, taking a step forward.

Fall, however, isn’t there. A blow like a hammer falls against her cheek, snapping her head to the side and burning like comet ice.

She reels, knocked aside, and Fall again takes the opportunity to gather a bolt meant to turn Thomas to dust.

Winter reaches out, gathers the bitter bite of an arctic wind- with none of the chill- in her fingertip and lets it jump, head spinning.

Somehow her aim is still true.

Something like white lightning draws a bright track along Fall’s chest and hurls him back. His raiment shreds under the force of the power. It had struck like a blade. There’s a long, curving- and puckered- scar along his shoulder now, and it bleeds even as it shrivels and fades, dripping blue for a few moments before the wound closes and becomes nothing but a long, fine white line.

Entropy! Decay! If Spring is the abundance of time, Fall is the inexorable crush of it!

“Translation?” Winter whispers, staring at the scar, wanting to flee but frozen to the spot in defense of Thomas and the girl.

He’ll heal anything in an instant! His magic can make things age to death in seconds- that includes wounds! Summer warns urgently. Be careful!

She doesn’t have time to be careful.

Fall whips a tendril of beautiful colors at her, flicking it towards her face, legs, and midriff, forcing her to take a step back or be struck.

She trips. Her ankle twists, pain jarring her slightly- the sudden crack startling her as her foot is caught in a hole- and she stumbles, staggers back throws a hand out to catch herself and suddenly finds a blazing tendril of color hovering directly before her face.

Her mouth opens to scream, too slowly, terror suddenly wiping out all thought.

Her brother stares down at her, face calm, eyes laughing.

It strikes.

“All of us make sacrifices for the ones we love,” Silky whispers to Winter quietly. “Isn’t that true for you, too?”

“I don’t know.”

“Winter, do you know anything Summer doesn’t tell you?”

Urgh. That really doesn’t feel good, Summer groans in Winter’s head.

Winter thrusts a hand out, lashing without thought. Cold seizes every part of Fall’s body, trapping Him as surely as a moth in amber. The air around Him is so thick with frost that he can barely even move. She tightens her grip when she comes to her senses, pouring the pressure on until she realizes that the whimpering is coming from His lips rather than hers, that she’s breathing hard, that cold fury has found an outlet, and it’s her brother that she’s killing.

“AH!” She gasps, when she can find her voice.  Her entire body feels as though it’s being eaten away. What’s worse, it feels familiar.  Her skin feels as though it could slough off at any moment.

She shudders, shaking where she lies.

“C-cold,” Fall whispers, and for a striking moment, she sees Him as He is- not a good man or an evil monster, but as a scared child, staring at her in blind terror of death and an end, of power He can’t possibly understand. “S-sister-”

Entropic energy crackles over her skin as she stands, and for a scary moment she can’t find her feet. Then her toes dig into the ground, her whole body burns, and she straightens unsteadily.

Share it.

“What?” Winter breathes weakly.

Redirect it to me! Let me take some of it, or you’ll die!

For a moment, Winter can’t understand what it is her sister is saying. Then a part of her pulls the words apart and picks at the meaning underneath. As her skin is eaten by the corrosive energies running rampant through her body, she gathers some of it in a wrap of her own power, and pushes it towards her sister, towards Summer in her mind. It’s as easy as sharing a thought.

Summer’s yelp in her mind frightens her for a moment, but it feels much better to shove that awful magic away from herself, so she respects her sister’s sacrifice. Between the two of them, they weather the entropic storm.

Blood is running, no, coursing down her body from where her skin and blood vessels ruptured. She takes a deep breath, skin crimson with it, her lungs aching.

You have the p-power, Summer stammers, voice weakening in Winter’s mind. Stop bleeding!

She flash freezes the blood and the wounds on the outside of her body, forcing her decaying power out on a sub-dermal level and wrapping herself in ice like a cloak, like a skintight suit.

Fall, wrapped in ice himself, closes his eyes. Winter guesses that he probably passed out.

Idiot! We… we need him for something… Summer’s voice is weak. The magic from Fall hurts her deeply- Winter can feel it eating away at them both.

“Your son,” Winter whispers.

Yeah… my… son… um…

Winter walks over to Fall, releasing her power from Him. Predictably, He springs at her, eyes open, face a snarl, mixed pain and triumph in his eyes.

Winter catches His fists with hers, and with the strength and force of grinding stone, pushes Him back to the ground.

“I have a bone to pick with you, brother,” She says lightly. “Understand?”

“G-give me the bead,” He whispers weakly, powerless in her grip, joints frosted over. “Please.”

“You don’t frighten me,” Winter replies sadly. “Not anymore.”

“Sister- you don’t understand,” Fall breathes, eyes half-closing. “He must be stopped.”

Winter’s expression changes. With slow, grim realization she closes her own eyes and pulls back.

Who? Summer asks woozily.

“Spring,” Winter says quietly. Then, “Spring, Spring, Spring!”, the name like a curse. It falls from her lips over and over, an echo. It almost drowns out the crunch of feet on dried grass next to her, and it almost drowns out the whisper of the wind in her ear.

She turns and faces her eldest brother. “Me!” He says simply, flashing her an exuberant smile.

The cold flicker in his eyes makes her take a step back, but it doesn’t stop the earth from rippling, forming a stony fist and slamming her under her ribs. White fire licks across Winter’s consciousness and tortures her body, all along a chest that seem to have cracked, a spine that seems to have given way.

Pain lances through her and pummels the breath from her lungs.

Winter blacks out.

“I knew you’d choose him over me,” Spring-Eldest-Season growls. “You’re as traitorous as Summer in that regard. Your love is commendable, if completely misguided.”

Pure-Winter-Snow opens her eyes and regards Spring where he stands. Even with all of his power over time he had been completely unable to stop her from freezing him in place.

“I didn’t choose him,” Winter says quietly. “I just didn’t choose you. You’re becoming dangerously unstable, Eldest.”

His arrogance had led him to first face her without once stepping into the past. Her predecessors had left her notes to help her fight him. Now had been different than before- she’d decided to face him first and foremost, rather than attempting to strike a bargain with him. A bargain he had faithfully broken every time down the Cycle.

Spring. His hair, withered black and dry, his eyes almost literally blazing with fury. She wants to cringe away from that gaze. As the youngest of the seasons, perhaps she should.

She doesn’t. Winter stands tall and resolute- as tall as she can.

“I already know why you want this, why you need this power,” Winter says slowly. “I already know why you want to kill Fall, to erase him from the cycle altogether.”

“Do tell, while you’re in the monologuing mood,” Spring hisses quietly. “I’m hardly in a position to ignore it.”

“You want his power,” Winter says simply. “The truth of it is you’ve become as corrupt as him.”

“Wrong, dear sister,” Spring replies. But Winter isn’t listening.

“All the lies and deceit, all the things you told me- none of it was really true, about wanting peace, about wanting the Cycle’s balance to be restored…”

“It’s amazing you’re still alive, really,” Spring says without moving his lips.

Winter pauses, staring at him. “After all, that blow shattered your ribs,” Spring’s voice continues. “No doubt you’re bleeding to death on the inside. I wonder what you’re dreaming of?”

The memory dissolves into white agony.

When Winter surfaces from the oblivion of unconsciousness, the first thing she sees is Spring’s hand above her face, waving almost comically, as if in an attempt to get her attention. Only the magic sparkling at his fingertips hints otherwise.

Her whole body screams at her as she rolls, and her shattered ribs clatter together in her chest as she forces her hands into the ground and shoves herself up onto unsteady legs.

Spring’s eyes flash in amusement. “Oh, faster than usual, sister dear.”

Winter! Are you… are you okay? Summer pries.

How long was I out? Winter asks weakly.

I dunno, a coupla seconds! Listen, you have to pull yourself together! Spring isn’t going to be an easy fight!

Tell me something I don’t know, Winter replies bitterly.

“Come now, I expected more of a fight than this! Or has Fall already worn you down?” Spring taunts.

Winter closes her eyes for a few moments to shut out the white pain. Summer screams a warning.

Instinctively, her body moving to the infinite protest of her chest, she ducks out of the way of a tendril of stone that makes an audible whoosh as it misses her face.

Spring’s arms are up, his hands working like a puppeteer’s, glowing green. His hair is blackened, but not totally dead, like in her memory. Winter wonders at that.

“All the better for me if he has,” Spring hisses quietly. “Be a dear and hold still.”

Winter stares at him for a few seconds. She isn’t sure she could move if she tried. Her eyes catch a glimpse of movement behind him, though, and maybe it’s that which gives Thomas away.

Spring whirls in an instant, and a tendril of the earth reaches up and snaps Thomas’s spear in two with a single blow. The tendril reaches up then and the crack it makes when it smacks into Thomas’s skull is sickening.

Summer uses Winter’s voice to scream.

“No! NO!

Spring whirls on them, grinning, triumphant. “Yes!” He shouts, and suddenly Winter can barely breathe, a sense of foreboding, washes over her and freezes her to the spot. Her muscles won’t move an inch. Summer strains at it, trying to force Winter’s arm to move, to raise, to fight.

An instant later, though, she sees why.

Sparks of green are climbing up her body from the ground, a trail of them leading out from Spring’s hand- still pointed at her. How?

Time! Summer whispers, voice choked. Damn it! He has all the time he needs to learn our moves, to learn what will happen! How long has he planned this?

Was it pointless from the beginning? Winter wonders. The pain in her shattered ribs threatens to drop her again, if her body would allow her to drop.

A movement catches Winter’s eye. Still covered in frost, Fall moves. Winter sees His eyes snap open. For the first time since Winter had seen Him after the Refraction- since the first time she had seen Him- He grins. Not a smile, not the calm, self-assured visage He usually exudes, but a sheepish, shy, almost apologetic grin. He raises one frost-coated hand, almost painfully slowly.

“You can’t best me,” Spring says quietly. “Not in terms of experience. Not in terms of anything, little sisters. You should have just done as I asked! You should have given me the bead! Getting Fall to bind Summer inside you was the smartest move I think I’ve ever made, Winter.”

“And that, elder brother,” Fall begins quietly. It’s clear to Winter that it’s taking almost all of his strength just to stay conscious. “Is exactly why they’re going to kick your ass now.”

For a moment she thinks He’s lapsed back into unconsciousness as his eyes close. Then there’s a jolt, a blinding flash of scintillating light. Something familiar about the energy- smelling of sweet lavender and the bitter-honey taste of decay. It’s Fall’s! She can feel it!

Spring’s yelp of surprise is cut short by an overwhelming wave of silence and deep, deep darkness.

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?”

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 26

All I can say about this one is that I’m sorry it’s late! I know, I know, falling behind and that- but it’s been pretty busy at the college and at home. In attempting to write and get ahead, I have written and gotten behind. Enjoy- I should have a new short story, Unyielding Blue [Working Title], out in a week or less. That’s what’s caught some of my attention.

-Eris

(26)Bargain

“Why are you-” Summer begins, but Autumn cuts her off, pleasant demeanor vanishing.

“I don’t have time to play games. The illmetal bead, now. I’ll take it from you by force if I must,” Lord Autumn snarls. “Now give it to me.”

Summer tries feigning ignorance.

“You can’t be serious- illmetal? Why would we have-”

You were conscious when she stole it from me. You must have been. Give it to me or die, sister.

Fall’s voice is loud enough to shake the whole world. Summer feels her legs tremble, despite herself. She takes a step back, and Fall takes a step forward.

“I don’t have it,” Summer snaps.

Fall’s hand strikes her cheek, snapping her head to the side. Summer takes another tottering step back. All her power seems to have fled her, and the slap burns on her cheek, ice and fire.

“You lie,” He hisses. “How could you not? You are the same as Winter. Illmetal is the single rarest element there ever has been, I need it for one simple deed and then I will be done. I will never bother you again. Give it to me.

Summer wipes her cheek with a trembling hand, glaring at her brother. This close and without rage to fuel her, He seems far too strong. Every part of her body feels filled with lead, and her hand fights her, by her side. Her heavy feet want to run.

“I am not, brother,” She answers quietly, with calmness she doesn’t feel. “How could I be the same as her? We are one being, but divided in this form, for better or worse. You saw to that.”

Autumn snarls at her. “Are you saying you don’t have the illmetal bead?”

“I already said that, but you didn’t believe me. Ought I say it again?”

Lord Autumn’s hands clench, unclench in fury. “You-!”

“I don’t have it, brother! Think about it! Her body is separate from mine- if she had it in a pocket, where would it go? Do you think you can simply tear it from my mind?” Summer asks, voice rising. “If you wish to continue making a fool of yourself, by all means! Every second you waste is another you could be spending trying to find the other beads.”

Autumn pauses, at that. “Other beads.” It isn’t a question.

“Look around you, Lord,” Summer says mockingly, desperate to hide her fear. “This city is filled with humans. Surely the creation of a bead wouldn’t be so difficult here.”

“You would know how to do something like that, would you?” Autumn muses. “And what’s to stop me torturing you to find out what I need to know?”

“I don’t know how. But there were tomes in Season’s Refuge that might teach you what you need to-”

“Stupid bitch,” Autumn hisses. “I’m not about to fall for that. You could be a hundred leagues away by the time I returned.”

“If I’m right, why would you need to return?” Summer asks slyly. “If you need proof of my goodwill, I’ll tell you another secret. In a grove back in Evercold Forest, there was a bead of illmetal in a thicket near where spiders spin their webs.”

“With the Spider Queen. How do you know this?” Fall asks sharply. “Did you see it?”

“Yes, we visited there for a time. It was there while we were. Someone may have taken it after we left,” Summer says simply, eyes showing nothing. She can see Lord Autumn wrestling with Himself.

You dirty, lying little thief, Winter whispers. I love you. I hope you know what you’re doing.

The Lord of Season’s Refuge narrows His eyes. “I’ll take your word on faith this one time, Summer, but know this- I’ll always know where you are. There is nowhere you can run and nowhere you can hide- because all fall prey to decay eventually.”

His smile is horrible to behold. Summer matches it with a shining one of her own. “Fuck off,” She snaps, smile evaporating. “You don’t have time to fool around here.”

Lord Autumn turns on his heel, carves a hole in time and space, and disappears. The hole shimmers in the air for a moment before it curls in on itself and, like Autumn, vanishes.

Summer’s trembling legs near drop her, but she staggers up the steps to the portal and leans against it for support.

You need to get to Spring, Winter says quietly. We need to get to Spring. He said to meet him at the Shrine- well, now seems to be the time.

“Right,” Summer manages. She’d faced fire and death and heard the bitter sound of the guardians of the dead, but she had never- and never would again, with any luck- felt quite so helpless as she had been standing in front of her brother. Fall’s presence had struck her like a ton of stone, crushing her. What was the difference between the power He’d had in the cavern and the power now? He had been so strong she could barely move.

She feels rage stirring in her chest like fire, and with one trembling hand, smashes the stone on the dais, rapping a few sigils quickly, from memory.

Everspring appears in the gateway.

“Time to get some answers,” Summer growls, and strides through.

After she leaves,  a few saffron robed men step down from the guild’s shattered entrance and approach the enormous stone dais. Their steps are cautious, as if daring more legends to appear before them. When none come forth, they just stand there, one staring at the ashes that had been their second-in-command and the other warily approaching the shimmering portal.

“What in the Cycle was that all about?” the leader asks, peering into the gate where Summer can be seen storming up to the city.

“Politics,” The other replies. “I’m going to go have a drink.”

“Borigg is dead,” The mourner says hollowly. “Who’ll be Master now?”

The leader turns to him and shrugs. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? When monsters like those two are running around, it sort of brings your own insignificance into sharp perspective, right?”

It takes no time at all to find the Shrine. She stalks past the drowsy gateguard, who pays her almost no mind. The couples in the street, and the warm breath of eternal spring are not so comforting anymore. They seem to only cloud matters further for her, and it irritates her that her elder brother could be so frivolous. Carefree.

She storms up the walk into the courtyard of the Shrine, and there, to her surprise, stands Spring. He gives her an apologetic smile and spreads his arms. “Summer. You’re late, and- my goodness me, what’s happened to your face?”

“I’m right on time,” She replies grimly. “And don’t give me that, time-traveler. You know very well why I’ve got this.”

Her jaw hurts, a frozen burn. She’s surprised it doesn’t smoke. There’s a livid scar across her cheek, she’s sure and while normally she’d want to look at it, right now she’d rather forget she got it.

“Very well. Why are you here, other than the reason I called you?” Spring asks wearily. There’s a sort of exhaustion to his features, a fatigue that goes so much deeper than the skin. It seems to cling to the very bones of his frame, and as she looks at him, it seems to her that he looks much older than when last she saw him.

“I want to know more about who we are,” Summer says sharply. “Winter and I, I mean. Nothing has been explained. We’ve just been running, learning nothing, using knowledge we didn’t know we had- what are we? Why are we?”

“Well, that is a long tale. Shouldn’t we go inside?” Spring asks, chewing on his lip. “No? Hmm. Where to start.”

“I find the beginning to be a good spot,” Summer says dryly. Spring doesn’t seem to hear her.

“At the beginning of all things, after the final war was fought, the Cycle was made, and everything was in peace and harmony, four beings were created to govern the Laws, as their personifications. In this new universe, created by… er… whoever created it… there would need to be four original beings. It was to function on laws entirely unlike the universe before it. The original four beings, Sense, Wave, Space, Time, created more sub-beings to govern different sections of different worlds. For the world as we know it- named, rather unimaginatively, World, there are many such personifications. We four, the Seasons, govern only a relatively small part of it,

“First, there was me. Er. Spring. I was made to govern renewal and regrowth, as well as time, to a certain extent. I was the first created- but only by a few seconds. Summer, you were made next, and due to some form of cosmic joke, you were tied together with Winter when she was finally created. You were life incarnate, filled with conceit and arrogance and joy. Your job is- and was- to make every living thing understand that it was alive. Of course, no created creature can be perfect, it’s one of the fundamental laws of the universe. So occasionally you make a subconscious error and allow things that were born to be created without that spark of life.

“Then, there was Autumn, who was declared lord of decay, entropy and misery. Not to never know joy, of course… but to see to it that it remained in order, and that, when the time came, everything was to fall to pieces as it should. Of all of us, Autumn was to be the one most aloof from the others… And I think that may have been a mistake.

“Finally, of course, there was Winter, and you know her as well as I do, I’m afraid. She’s a bit of a strange one- not only does she govern death, but also, I believe she is responsible for the cold in the world, and, being tied to you, also is tied to every living being in a different way. It is up to Winter to see to it that everything dies, and to guide- subconsciously, of course- every soul to the continuation of the Cycle.”

Winter wonders at that, but Summer is more vocal about it.

“So what does that mean? Why is Winter bound to me?”

“It is as I said- there was a mistake. Her creation- and thus each incarnation afterwards- was imperfect. Lord Autumn feels that it is His job to correct that- for that He seeks the illmetal bead, so He might complete His Refraction and take over both Winter and His own duties.

“Unfortunately, if He were to do that, He would likely go completely insane. I believe that it is unavoidable at this point. It is only a matter of time until he seizes the illmetal from you, Winter. He will try to come for it as soon as you change again, Summer, though I doubt He knows when exactly that will be.”

Spring pauses, then stops completely, sighing heavily. “If only I had completed my research a day or so sooner.”

“Research,” Summer says flatly. “What were you researching?”

“The process by which you and Winter were created,” Spring replies ruefully. “I felt that if I were able to correct the mistake that caused you two to be created together…. well, we could somehow solve everything at once.”

“How?” Summer asks sharply.

Finally, some answers, Winter mutters.

I hope we can trust them, Summer replies silently.

“Firstly,” Spring says slowly. “We would need to create a shell for Winter- or separate her shell from yours. Then it would be a simple matter of transferring her soul.”

“That doesn’t sound so hard,” Summer says cautiously. “So what’s stopping you?”

“The amount of power it takes- well, I was researching easier energy sources,” Spring replies, equally wary now. “Ones… less costly… than what the spell originally called for.”

Make him tell us what the original sources were, Winter says grimly. I have a bad feeling about this.

“Spring,” Summer says quietly. “What was originally used?”

“Life force,” Spring says edgily. “Er.”

“How much life force?” Summer presses.

“You’ve visited Barrier,” Spring replies sadly. “How much do you think?”

Summer doesn’t get it at first, but Winter suddenly goes cold in her sister’s head. “What do you-”

The original spell to create us stole the life from everything in the Barrier. It wasn’t a wasteland before. That’s what he means, Winter says distantly.

Summer rocks on her heels, as if from a blow. “What?” She asks weakly. The prospect of that much death shocks even her- so much life snuffed for their sake? Who could possibly make such a call?

“Barrier is miles- leagues long, and at least a third as wide. It wraps around this patch of the world and isolates it near completely from the rest. So many creatures died that there is a permanent gateway from Barrier to the Pockets of the Dead. To draw on that much energy again would be unforgivable,” Spring says grimly.

“What other energy source did you research?” Summer asks hastily, changing the subject before it dizzies her further. “Didn’t you find anything else?”

Spring nods grimly, and then holds out a hand. “Summer, in order for us to accomplish this transfer, I will need the illmetal bead you have.”

Winter snaps back, thinking hard.

“I still have more questions,” Summer says quietly.

“They aren’t important,” Spring presses. “The bead, please. When the transfer is complete, we can worry about answering your questions.”

“What about my child?” Summer asks.

Spring hesitates just a second too long. “Safe. Of course it’s safe- in the Shrine.”

“Let me see him,” Summer says grimly. “When I have my child, then I’ll give you the bead.”

Summer… Winter whispers. What are you doing? I hate to say it, but isn’t this a little more important? He’s safe. Don’t worry.

Summer ignores Winter, just gazes at Spring steadily.

“I-” Spring stares at Summer’s expression, again looking old and weak. He stares at his feet, green hair waving gently in the breeze. “Sister- the truth is that your child is gone.”

Summer’s heart freezes, her hands and legs shake.

“What?” She asks blankly. Had she heard him correctly? “What do you mean?”

“Shortly after you departed the Shrine the first time, Lord Autumn came and-” Summer isn’t even listening anymore, cold, terrible rage wreathing her in flames. “He stole my baby,” She says, voice flat. “He came and took my child.”

“He said something about it being insurance. Sister- oh, I fear this is all my fault,” Spring whispers. “I told Him about the baby, you see. I didn’t know He was that far gone…”

Summer shakes her head. She hadn’t really known her child at all. But the baby was still- is still- hers. To leave him in Lord Autumn’s hands for any longer would be sickening. Especially not when she thinks she can do something about it.

“You’re a fool,” She snaps grimly. “How could you have been such a fool? If He is after me, of course He would take my child. Now I have no choice.”

“What are you going to do?”

“When I have my boy,” Summer repeats slowly. “I will give you the illmetal bead. Not a moment before.”

“Don’t do anything rash,” Spring chides. “Summer, if you strike at Him now He will not hesitate to kill you or your offspring.”

“Then I will die,” Summer says simply. “And I will deserve it.”

From the way her shoulders are set, the way her eyes flash with an internal, unquenchable anger, Spring can see that she means it. He’d seen this look in several Summers from the past, on many different incarnations. It frightens him now.

Summer turns away from Spring. “If you desire to see me return with the bead then you will give me anything you have that might ease this task.”

“I can give you only information,” Spring replies warily. “But it is good information. Fa- Lord Autumn… He cannot harm you with spells as strong as Words, for fear of destroying the illmetal along with you. He will fight you in a weaker state until forced to lash out. It… should be noted that the place He currently resides- in Season’s Refuge… It’s impossible to teleport within ten miles of the place. He has shielded it thus to keep our enemies out.”

Summer cracks a smile, which Spring can’t see. It’s a hollow smile indeed. “We’ll see.”

She pauses. “There is a girl and a man- Thomas. Take care of them while I am gone, brother. I have a few places Winter will need to go. This is my last day, and I mean to make it count. I have a few things I need to do…”

Summer frowns at that. The first place she needs to visit is Winter’s sanctum. There isn’t a doubt in her mind that some of her brother’s servants will lie in wait for her, if he even has servants.

Spring shrugs and sighs. “I’ll be busy enough, but I will take care of the girl. And Thomas can resume employment as my gateguard if he wants. I told his partner that he was gone, never to be seen again, so I imagine this will be good news- and Summer?”

Summer turns slightly, pausing at the gates.

“Be careful,” Spring says quietly. “Autumn may share your blood, but that only goes so far. In the state He is in, He may kill you before you have a chance. Take care of your sister, too.”

“I will.”

Summer, displaying restraint very unlike her, carefully opens the gate and steps out of the shrine courtyard. The air is thick with the smell of rain, but there isn’t a drop ready to fall anywhere- the only drops falling struggle their way down Summer’s face and drip down her chin.

But her formulae are clear as crystal as she works her way through a gate spell. She tears a shimmering line through the air in front of her, a single finger peeling back the layers of space one by one. When she steps through, it closes behind her.

Demimind: Chapter 25

A bit late, but here it is. Yesterday I was a procrastinatory mess. Today I no longer have to worry about the test or the speech I had to give in class, because I’m posting this in the interim between them. On the bright side I’m done with the speech and the test. On the negative side, I’m done with the speech and the test.

Enjoy.

-Eris

 

(25) Ash And Snow

Summer doesn’t get any more sleep that night. She sits, shaking still, on the edge of her bed, staring at Thomas’s sleeping form and the unconscious body of the man.

When the sun finally rises, it shines through, and Thomas opens his eyes to find her standing over him. “What-” he starts blearily.

“We’re leaving,” Summer says shortly.

“Right,” Thomas mutters.

Thomas leads Summer on through the city. Panicked on the inside, she still consents to the former gate guard buying provisions- food, mostly for him.

Summer isn’t hungry. Her Rose feeds her, trapped in the pocket of her tee. A sort of bitterness has settled over her. Thomas can’t understand it.

Winter can’t understand it.

Not even Summer really understands it, despite being the one who feels it pulling at her. Tugging at her.

Thomas had wanted to kill the man where he lay. Summer had let him. It had been quick, and Winter hadn’t complained. Why, then, had she stopped Summer last night?

Summer doesn’t know.

Buildings loom out at her, as she waits outside the shop- Iron Spoke.

A strange name for a shop, but she hadn’t dared to comment. The innkeep, whether he was dead or alive, hadn’t called pursuit on them. Summer is thankful for that. She feels like she should be thankful to be alive.

If not for Winter using her body, she feels like she would be dead. Mostly, though, she feels hollow.

“Maybe we should go back,” Summer whispers to herself.

Why?

Summer shrugs.

He’ll kill us.

“There are worse things.”

He might do them.

“Doing nothing is worse,” Summer says, loudly. “It’s worse not to do anything at all.”

People are staring, but Summer ignores them.

You didn’t think so a day ago!

It begins to rain.

There are no clouds in the sky, but it falls nevertheless.

Summer rubs the crusted blood on her hand. It had healed in the time she was sitting there, on the bed.

People seem to keep their distance from her, now, breaking in the stream of humanity, flowing around her like water ’round a stone in tide.

She closes her eyes a moment, leaning back against the shop door. It had boldly stated, in writing she could not read, that women were not allowed inside. A glamour could probably have fixed that. Or, failing that, she could have made herself look like Winter. Winter’s boyish body would do. Flat as a sapling and skinny besides, no one would question her.

But she doesn’t feel like it now, for some reason. Whether she’s lost her nerve or interest, following Thomas into the shop had not been at the forefront of her mind.

She can trust him.

Someone is approaching her, lifeforce breaking off from the stream around her. She opens her eyes and stares the child in the face as she steps towards her. The girl’s legs are quaking.

Summer just watches.

“What do you want?” She asks quietly.

“Please, lady- are you a hero?”

She blinks at that. “No.”

“O-oh. It’s just, my parents have been c-captured.”

Summer shrugs. But the girl is persistent.

“I t-thought you might h-help. You have the look of a noble.”

“Captured by who?” Summer asks. She’s surprised to find that she actually cares, and Winter acts as the guilty conscience wondering why she should be surprised.

The girl looks as if she wants to say more, but Summer can see the glowing tail of an enchantment about her lips. It hisses bright red as she opens her mouth, and she can see sweat break out on the girl’s skin. Something is preventing her from speaking her mind.

Summer reaches forward, grasps the magic, and gently pulls it away.

The Rose feeds on the energy, glowing brighter.

The girl blinks, then smiles quaveringly. Her face- which would be very pleasant if it weren’t for the dirt and grime covering it- looks about ready to burst into tears. “Lady-”

“Who did this to you?” Summer interrupts. “I imagine they thought it funny to leave the child unable to point them out to the proper authorities and tormented with the knowledge that no one could help them. And you are pretty brave. So just tell me who they are now, and I’ll beat ten kinds of shit out of them for you.”

Summer doesn’t know why she feels like she should do this. She’d never really even cared about humans much before. Except maybe Thomas. And that was a partnership of… convenience.

Right?

Will this help you find out more?

“It certainly won’t hurt,” Summer mutters.

The girl doesn’t notice. “P-please, milady, it was the Mage’s Guild.”

Thomas- how long had he been leaning with her?- stares. “Summer. Attacking the Guild- in any city- would be suicide.”

“We’re not going to attack,” Summer says simply, a plan forming in her head even now. “Lead the way, girl. And my name is Summer-Heat-Rising.”

The girl shows not a flicker of recognition, but she leads them on. The girl is probably too traumatized to introduce herself.

“Do you mean to just walk up to the gates and take her parents away from them? Lady Summer- have you gone crazy?” Thomas asks bluntly.

“Yeah, probably,” Summer replies lightly. “Come on.”

The Guild rises high into the air, an enormous stone structure. It doesn’t seem to be connected to the ground- rather, it floats, hovering gently, held up by magic- or possibly invisible pillars. The construction seems unreal to Thomas, but he’d seen enough strange things by now not to question it.

Summer frowns, though. That sort of magic could not have been worked lightly. She can feel it, can see it spread like an immense web. Winter may have the sight for magic words- Summer feels confident in her ability to see magic itself and the framework around it.

Before them, an immense gate. To either side the street widens, and fewer and fewer people linger here. Standing before the gate is one man wearing a grey robe, and in his fist he holds a large white staff. Whether painted or natural, Summer can’t tell.

It has no knob, and doesn’t appear to be very elaborate at all.

Humans. Robes are completely impractical for combat.

Summer strides towards the gate. She notes a large stone archway next to the gate, and a terminal similar to the one she’d seen in the past- the Serpent’s cave. The raised dais has different symbols on it, but she thinks she knows what would need to be done. But that isn’t foremost on her mind yet.

Though it might be useful later, Winter notes.

The man- who Summer can only imagine is the guard- stares at her. “Come no further, wench,” He says gruffly. “The Guild of Magi has no need of witches.”

“I am Summer-Heat-Rising,” She says quietly. “Second Season. Who are you to bar my path?”

The guard smirks, arches an eyebrow, and doesn’t answer for a moment. “I’m called Geoff. No fancy titles or nothin’. Just Geoff. And if you come near me, girl, I’ll knock your block off your pretty shoulders. Shouldn’t be wavin’ titles like that if you don’t know who they’re for”

All formal pretense officially dropped, Summer torches his lips off with the flick of a finger. In this city, with life all around her and the Rose at her hip, her magic hisses towards the guard’s mouth in a jet of invisible heat.

As he screams and paws at his face, running in comical little circles, Summer kicks his legs out from under him as she passes. Then she turns and punches down the fancy embroidered gate with one hand.

The crash it makes is deafening- spell-wrought iron slamming into the ground, the hinges splintering, the marble pillars cracking.

Her hand aches, but doesn’t blister- the iron isn’t naturally made, just as she’d thought. If it had been she’d have been jumping back and sucking on crackled knuckles.

Summer storms up the bridge towards the hall, power sheathing her in a heat cloak. Thomas and the girl just stare.

Summer enters the guild through the courtyard.

The guard stands up, rubbing his lips- which, while scalded, hadn’t actually been torched off.

“Are you alright?” Thomas asks.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” The guard mumbles weakly. “That was Summer of the Four Seasons.”

“I know. You should have believed her,” Thomas says, not unsympathetically. He walks over to stand next to the guard, dragging the girl with him.

“I always heard she had long blonde hair and was shaped more… you know, shapely. I guess the skin should’ve been a giveaway. Ow.

“She’s been ill,” Thomas replies dryly.

The guard doesn’t bother replying to that. He just leans back against the pillar and keeps his mouth open so that his tender lips don’t have to touch.

Summer, meanwhile, is busy.

The inside of the guild is filled to the brim with fancy decor- marble and ivory, pillars inset with precious stones. Engravings of wizards doing wizardly things are set in the stone on pillars and walls. Summer, however, is oblivious to any of it. She’s deep in conversation with the wizard in front of her- and it’s taking all of her concentration not to just roast the smug git and be done with it.

“Madam, we’ve no record of any urchin’s parents being held here. In any case, even if we did, the sheer amount of paperwork required to retrieve her would be ridiculous. I recommend you attempt to contact some form of personal detective for this work, rather than inserting yourself into what is obviously guild affairs and none of yours.”

The bearded man- wizard or not- is proving troublesome. Summer has developed a unique way of dealing with problems over the years, and she’s suddenly aching to use it. Something about him is irritating her.

“I’ve no time for this. You’re a sorcerer, are you not?” Summer asks sharply. “Show me her parents if you want to live.”

“Are you threatening me, madam?” The man asks dangerously. His beard twinkles at her. Who puts glitter in their beard? Cycle, who puts glitter in anything?

What a twerp.

Summer reaches forward, and her hand rebounds from an invisible field- well, semi-invisible. She can see it now, a shining field of red in the air between her and the man. So he knows a trick. She grits her teeth, but then stands straight and folds her arms. She glares at him, the barrier of his power all that separates him from incineration.

“I could break you one-handed,” Summer snarls. “All I want is the location of that ‘urchin’s’ parents. I’ll leave with them and that’s the last you’ll see of me.”

“My dear woman, what makes you think we’ll let you leave?”

Summer smiles grimly. “Do I look like I’m going to let you stop me?”

She lifts a hand. As power gathers there, she flings fingers of it at the wizard, who arches an eyebrow as the heat lashes his shield almost tenderly, breaking on it like waves against sand.

She twists her fingers and the shield, so strong before, blazes with heat again, boils on all sides.

“You’re good, for a hedgewitch,” the wizard concedes. “But not good enough. My guards will be here any moment, and they’ll soon overwhelm you.”

Summer forces a burst of heat, twisting and writhing, white light, to funnel forth from her hand. It splashes across the shield again, which glows in the air. The wizard takes a step back, visibly sweating.

Summer, no longer smiling, pushes the light again. That such a mortal could dare defy her… Worse, that he could near succeed in fending her off…

It’s simultaneously disturbing and exhilarating, to have something of a challenge. A flick of her fingers cuts the heat short, just shy of snapping the wizard’s shield into splinters. “You still have no idea who I am, do you?” Summer asks, feeling smug, but also hurt. The people of this city are either stupid, or simply don’t believe her. She’s not sure which one of those options she likes least.

The wizard, lips pressed into a tight line, answers by dropping the shield and unleashing a torrent of energy- cold and hideously powerful. It snaps into existence with a flash of blinding light, white and red twisted together. The tendril lashes at her, but Summer deflects it, power for power, drawing on the life in the city and sending the magic blow spinning aside. Nearby, a pillar liquifies, melting into molten, sparking dust. Part of her is shocked, and part of her is disgusted. To spend so much power without even thinking about the consequences- the arrogance of this human makes her sick.

She lifts her hand again, narrowing her eyes. She’ll end this man-

We need him!

Summer drops her aim, and the coil of her power strikes once- not at the wizard’s head, but at his belly. A blazing digit of power slams outward and carves a line across his midriff. His scream is satisfying.

As the wizard folds, Summer strides towards him. He’s clutching his stomach- which is an angry black and red, his robes burnt out around them. Staring at her in shock and rage, he lifts one hand, looks as if his mouth would form the words to a spell.

She doesn’t recognize it, but it doesn’t matter. Her hand reaches the man’s throat and she lifts him off the ground, heat gathering around her in a cloak. “Defy me again and I’ll boil your blood. I am Summer-Heat-Rising, and you are in my way.”

The man’s eyes flicker, and Summer throws him down again. She hears the clatter of staves on stone around her. Guards, no doubt. But she doesn’t really care right now.

The wizard, moaning and clutching at his stomach still- the blackened wound leaks red at an alarming rate. The blood should make her feel something, but Summer can’t pity him. She pities him even less as the other robed men- who by now surround her- catch her attention by raising their staves. And only now does she begin to feel a little vulnerable…

Their crimson robes make her sick in a fashion she can’t quite fathom. There’s something awfully familiar about them.

“Summer-Heat-Rising-”

She lashes out, spinning spreading her hands and hurling a blast of heat all around her, drawing the power in and letting it expand in a shockwave that forces everyone except the writhing wizard back, pushing them away from her with such force that two of them fall over, skulls smacking stone.

“Season or no, you’re violating the Guild law practicing offensive magic here!” A man shouts, though he shields his blue eyes from the blistering wave of heat. She rounds on him, hand curled, fingers extended. A single bolt should do, reduce him to ash. Winter, of course, realizes her intent.

No! If we start a war, we won’t find them! I know what you want to do, Summer, but this was never about you! We need these wizards- not only do they have the child’s parents, they might be able to send us to the shrine! You saw the portal outside, the gates- if it truly is one, we might be able to get to Spring and come back before Autumn finds us! We can get your child and be away before he knows what happened!

Summer hesitates a moment too long.

“Fates above, guide my hand- bind this woman with a brand!”

The chant is familiar, as if from a dream or a long lost memory, and its effects are immediate.

Searing pain caresses Summer’s back suddenly, and she snarls, whirling and loosing an instinctive tendril of energy at the source of the noise. A girl- could she be more than twelve?- stumbles back, Summer’s power crackling over her form as she falls. Her skin is blistered and it cracks under the heat. If the girl is screaming, Summer can’t hear it. Or anything, really. She stares blankly as the girl squirms in agony.

Part of her heart dies for a moment, catching in her chest, and she pushes it away.

She can’t move, she can’t hear, she can’t talk- nothing will work, and for a moment she wonders if this is what shock is, to be stunned by your actions, to be stunned into panic and to lose your life because of it. But…

The brand. The sigil that girl just cast- it’s draining your power, binding you.

Oh. That makes it a little more simple.

Summer twirls the Rose in her pocket, pulls it up and out, then squeezes, digging the thorns into her hand. Power fills her up, its wrath making her giddy, crackling over her arms and legs and shattering the sigil on her back.

She turns, Rose blazing bright in one hand. Her other hand sweeps up, and the men surrounding her fall back before it, cowering away from her fingers.

Don’t you care about what you’ve done?

Summer bites her lip, but such weakness could be the end of her here, so she swallows it down.

“Is that it? A girl can do better what men cannot do at all?”

“She is our head seer, little more than a child,” A man says listlessly. “And the Master of Light was also gravely injured.’

“I don’t want to fight. All I want are the urchin’s parents,” Summer says plainly. Her emotions roar at her, boiling beneath her skin. Right.

Crimson robes shuffle back a little. Her tone is gentle, but her green eye is blazing with fury, a trick she’d learned from Fall.

“They might be kept in the dungeon,” the same brave man hazards, gazing at her directly. He hadn’t stepped far. “Isiah, why don’t you go fetch them?”

“What- ah. Okay.

Summer stares at them suspiciously. But she has more questions, however shifty the answers she gets might be. “Fine, but what of the portal outside?”

“What of it? The gate has been closed for ages,” The man says quietly. “In a time before time it was sealed, by powers we cannot begin to imagine. We built this city up around it.”

Summer regards him warily. Green eyes and crimson robes, a sallow face and hands like wax run over a flame. This is what lesser magics will do.

Summer sighs, tosses her hair and releases her magic slowly, letting it seep back. “I can activate it again,” She says quietly. “But in return I want passage through and back, and the urchin’s parents.”

Every part of her is screaming at her to kill them all. But for once, Summer doesn’t quite feel like listening to herself.

“How will you atone for this?” The wizard asks of her, indicating the fallen Master and the burnt Head Seer.

“Blood shall be paid,” Summer replies steadily. “As a season, there must be balance. Take heart in that- it may not happen right now, but it will happen.”

“That hardly seems appropriate,” The man says mildly. “You’ve potentially killed two of our highest order.”

“I hardly think you’re in a position to demand more,” Summer snarls softly, temper flaring hot. “Or did you forget that I nearly killed two of your highest order?”

The sallow man’s eyebrows rise, then curl in anger. Those with power seldom feel good about losing it.

He glances at the Head Seer and the Master again. The Master has curled up and is breathing shallowly, the Head Seer is utterly motionless.

Summer watches the man wrestle with himself. But he seems to gather control again, for he looks up at her with a passive expression, even when behind his eyes he plots murder. Summer can read him easily enough, but his lack of fear she finds disturbing. There’s nothing she can really use here.

“I’ve got the girl’s parents,” A boy- can’t be more than twelve- volunteers, staring between Summer and the sorcerer with mixed fascination and terror.

Summer eyes him. He isn’t Isiah- Isiah was much older. She wonders where that one got to. His fire red hair had struck her as strange, and the blood of his robes had seemed strange too, marked with human runes. Nonsense, really.

Then her eyes travel to a pair of metallic spheres grasped in the boy’s hand. “What are those?” She asks quietly.

“T-travel spheres, miss,” The boy responds, shaky at having been addressed. “It’s- it’s a spe-”

“Irrelevant,” snaps the wax-skinned man. “Thank you Jeras. Dismissed.”

He turns to Summer. There’s a sort of jerkiness to his movements, as though controlled through extreme stress.

“Sir.” The Jeras boy deposits the spheres in the sorcerer’s hand and then scampers off.

“The rest of you- you all have work to do I imagine,” the sorcerer says quietly. “See to it. I’ll handle miss Summer.”

The circle of red robes scatters. A few seem to attend the Head Seer and Master, a few more simply fade, walking out of the stone arena and into the courtyard or passing through halls.

The green-eyed wizard turns to Summer and holds up the hand with the spheres. “These are the girl’s parents.”

“Release them.”

“Your bargain, miss Summer,” He growls. “First that, or I crush them and that’s the end of it.”

“What gives you the right-” One of the other red-robed men asks, but the look from the green-eyed one is murder, and he falls silent.

Summer is taken aback by how swiftly the tables have turned on her, but she shrugs. She was going to open the portal anyway, to get where she needed to go.

“What do you need the gate open for?” She asks quietly.

“Do you know how long we’ve existed on this side of the Barrier?” the man asks her. His voice, already dry, seems crackly now. “The Wheel has been here for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Summer stares at him. “What, exactly, is your point?”

“I want out,” He says quietly. “That portal- it can take you anywhere, yes?”

Summer shrugs. “Maybe. But there’s only one place I want to go. Then I can come back and continue on my way.”

“Well then. Lead on,” The man says.

She does, turning on her heel and walking out of the hall and into the courtyard, then down the bridge to meet Thomas and the girl. The portal stands dormant, the arch completely still and stone. Somber and solidly silent.

Summer walks up to the terminal, to the raised dais.

“We have tried every key, every combination of runes and sigils,” the sallow-faced man says. The girl, the urchin, is staring at him with something like complete hatred, and if Thomas were to let go of her arm, Summer feels she’d probably try to kill him.

“You don’t know the language,” Summer replies, wrenching her gaze away from the girl’s face. “How the fuck could you? All you know is fake magic, copied magic.”

“I think you seriously underestimate us-” He begins, but then stops as Summer presses one sigil and speaks one word, a word in a language beyond any reckoning, one that no human living had spoken.

“Fire.”

Summer’s hand blazes, the sigil flashes red, then sparks and crackles. Without further fanfare, the arch shimmers, then glows, bathed in a ruddy radiance. The portal is activated. Now all one needs to do is put in the right sequence of characters and-

A scream. A girl’s scream, Summer whirls, stares, sees a man- the sorcerer- wreathed in power, sees gold strands wrapped around the young girl, connected to his fingers. On the ground lie, still and cold, the bodies of two people- a man and a woman, side by side, hand in hand. Summer knows instantly, can feel that they are dead.

Her eyes lift to the man, who opens his mouth to say something, but Summer acts.

She punches her power at him before the words can escape his mouth, and his voice turns into a whine and the whistle of steam before his bones, incandescent white with heat, fall to the cobbles and collapse into ashes. The sallow-faced wizard is dead.

She slams one hand on the terminal as the girl falls, still wrapped in gold, in magic. She can feel the girl’s life-force ebbing.

The dais responds to her need, if not to her force, three symbols flashing in the air. The portal opens for her, showing a land of endless snow through the gate. Summer stares at Thomas, who stares back.

“Go,” She says shortly. “I knew it wouldn’t be this simple. Take her to Spring, he’ll know how to save her.”

He seems like he’s about to argue. His mouth opens.

“GO NOW!” Summer roars.

Thomas flees, picking up the girl- she must weigh nothing- and running through the portal. He looks back at her once from the snow before Summer slams her fist into the dais again, and the stone goes dark, before reverting to the blank ruddy red.

Whether or not she could fight all of the wizards in the guild was never the question. Whether she could protect Thomas and the girl both at once while doing so however…

You idiot! Why didn’t you just go after them and destroy the gate when you went through?

“We need to go back through!” Summer hisses. “Besides that, I don’t know that I even can destroy it. I only know the word to ignite it, I can’t put it out again! This way at least Thomas and the girl will be safe!”

Winter stops the mental retort, thinking about it.

Summer redirects the portal to the wastes of the Barrier. She twists the strands of power in the dais, taps out another few sigils….

But something is fighting her, and the terminal, the gateway, cracks under the pressure.

The red turns blue, cold and piercing, and impossibly, red-brown death lines the metal supporting the stone dais. A few runes glow sickly on the dais, and a sense of horrible foreboding overwhelms Summer’s senses. It can’t just be the destination- someone is fighting her from another side. But where could that be from-?

The runes are to a place she had never seen, but the title above them is quite familiar.

“Fall,” She breathes, disbelieving, backing away as the letters form.

The ground underneath her rumbles ominously, pitching back and forth, power crackling. She tumbles, rolling down the steps of the dais and landing on her belly.

Her body feels bruised, and she caught her elbow a nasty crack on the stone, but the shaking slows and then stops.

She pushes herself to her feet, turns towards the portal and comes straight face to face with her cold, blue-eyed brother. The clacking of His hooves on the stone is hideously loud in the sudden silence as He steps down towards her.

“That is my name,” Lord Autumn says pleasantly. “It is good to see you again, sister.”

Summer has a horrible feeling that he means it.

Demimind: Chapter 24

Well, I have been working on getting a new short story done, but it will be a while before I can get the flow right. In the meantime, here’s another update. I think the length of this upcoming one will satisfy the most greedy of you- in terms of the chapter I’m actually on– well, let’s just say that the one I just finished is larger than any other chapter in this novel so far. I can’t wait to post it.

-Eris

(24) Red Ivory City

The sun dares to set, and it does so slowly, a red ball in the distance. Invisible in the Barrier, a disc of ruddy light here. It doesn’t seem as important as the city that now stretches before Summer as she steps down onto stone.

“Humans,” She breathes, barely daring to believe it. “What in the Cycle-”

Of course, two spears are pointed right at her face, but the men holding them relax when they see her face. Summer can’t for the life of her remember them.

“Ah, Glory. With your hair, we didn’t really recognize you,” one of them volunteers. “Sorry.”

Their armor is bronze, and the spear heads are black rock- probably lava glass. Her late incarnation’s tastes tended on the overdramatic. It wouldn’t surprise Summer at all if that were the case.

Thomas steps through after her, brushing grit off of himself and staring around blankly.

Summer catches a glimmer of movement, and is reminded of where she is  again.

Buildings, of ivory and red ceramic, stretch out almost as far as the eye can see. In all directions. To either side of her, pillars of marble, and above her an immense granite block. So. A portal, or a gate.

How they had missed it at all escapes her. Some magic or glamour perhaps.

Wait, had they just called her Glory?

Her attention snaps to the guards, who don’t seem to even look at Thomas as he steps through. “Where is this?”

“Lady Glory?” This guard has red hair. It isn’t often seen on men, Summer finds herself thinking. Or on anyone. But lately she’d been seeing a lot of that. Thomas, with his mousy brown hair, doesn’t seem to notice. He glances back at her and waits.

“I’m not Glory,” Summer says quietly. “I am Summer-Heat-Rising. I don’t remember you, I’m afraid.”

The guard frowns at that, and then shrugs. “Well whoever you are, you made it here okay so you must have known where we were. Welcome to the city of Wheel. And my name is Corwin, miss.”

Summer wrinkles her nose at that. “Weird name.”

“No worse than Summer,” He replies, and smiles.

Summer hates him instantly.

Just keep moving. People are people, not toys, Summer.

“Yeah, yeah,” She replies, forcing her temper cool.

She steps down after Thomas.

“Are you going to go find an inn? I don’t fancy the idea of staying outside all night,” Thomas says quietly.

“Night?” Summer asks, feeling a little lost. “What?”

“The sun goes down,” Thomas replies.

“Oh.”

Summer stares up at the sky and the sun, then shrugs. She’d heard the word before. And of course the sun went down. She just had never associated the two things.

She begins to get the feeling that she’s been in this body too long.

“You can have your turn now,” She mutters.

Aww, is it getting too hard for you, sister?

“You probably don’t even remember what it’s like,” Summer hisses, as Thomas leads her down crowded streets. People aren’t paying her any mind, really- well, no undue attention. Her eyes catch flickers of movement from men in saffron robes, though. Robes… Saffron robes. Where had she seen those before?

She remembers now that her clothing consists entirely of a shirt made of gossamer strands of heat and pants made of twisted light.

“Well, maybe you do,” She mumbles distractedly. She hadn’t heard Winter reply.

There’s something missing.

Thomas stops in front of moderately sized building. “What do you have for coin?” He asks Summer warily.

“Coin?” Summer asks, before she can stop herself. “What?”

“Money for trade,” Thomas explains patiently. “What do you have for money?”

“Uh,” Summer starts.

“Nevermind,” Thomas says quickly, and sighs heavily. “Just as well I’ve got some on me.”

It strikes Summer that she should- and Thomas too, of course- be extremely hungry. And so she is.

Thomas leads her into the building, stepping past the wooden doors and into a room nearly empty.

A thin-looking, dark-faced man looks up and smiles at them. “Welcome to the Wheel’s finest inn and hostel.”

“Really?” Thomas says skeptically, staring about him. The floor seems fine enough, but the sign outside had been faded, and the paint, thinly applied and gaunt as the man behind the counter, seems to be peeling in places. Though it is a calming pink and blue.

Thomas stamps on the floor once. The boards are made of ironwood. Not metalwood, Summer notes. But ironwood of some kind. Possibly a strong oak. The walls  and ceiling seem to be made of… ivory? Summer finds it hard to believe that such a wealth of the material exists.

“Your girl knows the truth of it,” the man replies, and gives Summer a wink. “Got yourself a regular witch there, don’t you?”

“She’s not mine, sir,” Thomas replies sharply. “She’s her own.”

The man’s eyebrows shoot up as if spring loaded. “You don’t say! A wild one, then?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Thomas says cautiously. “Is that bad?”

“If your money is good and you don’t start trouble, what business is it of mine who shares your room? And who would dare call the Guild on such a lovely lady? Certainly not I,” The man replies quickly. Summer feels that he even means it, the poor fool.

But the Guild… if it reaches out this far… Robes. Yes, the Guild wears the saffron robes. Now she remembers.

Thomas pays the man without incident. It surprises Summer, but Winter doesn’t seem to find it strange that they- the humans- have their own currency.

You spend so much time thinking about yourself it’s a wonder you notice anything about the humans whose lives you ruin, Winter grumbles. If you paid more attention to them you’d learn they weren’t so different from us.

“This from my memoryless sister,” Summer snaps.

“What?”

Summer looks up at the innkeeper. “Just talking to myself,” She says casually. “Didn’t mean to say that out loud.”

Thomas rolls his eyes, takes the key from the innkeeper with a smile and a murmured thanks, and tugs Summer away to the stairs.

He drags her up to the top floor of the building. The stairs are smooth and hard underfoot.

Polished ivory shines even as her gritty feet and Thomas’s boots stamp on it. Small wonder, too. Summer can feel enchantment on it, can taste its tang in her mouth. Along with a vicious hunger.

Thomas walks past a few elaborate- if faded- doors. The key hums in his fingers suddenly, and he blinks, stops, and pushes the key into the lock of the door on the right.

But Summer is drawn to the one on the left- for it stands wide open, and inside there is red, a sea of it, red and ill omen both smelling so strong that it threatens to send her reeling away. She practically falls into her own room after that. Thomas didn’t seem to notice, and how could he, pathetic, weak little human that he is.

She shakes her head, trying to clear it. Her eyes snap back to the present, lingering on the door across the hall. It’s closed. Closed. It was never open.

Summer collapses on the bed, while Thomas starts setting up a pallet next to it. She looks over at him as he uncovers a mat. How he’d hidden the bedroll in his pack for so long is beyond her.

“What are you doing?” Summer asks, staring at him. This whole place feels alien somehow. She’d never seen, or felt, so many humans gathered in one place. Here she feels alone, and it frightens her into curiosity.

What does it look like he’s doing? Winter asks.

Thomas looks up at her, eyebrows raised. “Begging your pardon, milady Summer, I’m setting up camp.”

“Come up here and sleep with me instead,” Summer whispers.

Thomas shakes his head, though he smiles a little. “Sorry, miss, but I can’t do that. You’re beautiful. But I’m a gate guard. Besides that, you’ve got someone out there whose already made you theirs, right? You were with child not that long ago.”

“You really are simple, aren’t you,” Summer snips irritably.

“Simple I may be, miss, but smoking pile of ashes I am not,” Thomas replies quietly. “I’d rather not risk your lover’s wrath. I’m sure he is a much greater man than me.”

Or had you forgotten that you’d had a baby? Winter chides. What’s wrong with you?

She had forgotten. Now she feels ashamed for it, so she rolls over and stares at the wall, not answering Thomas, and not willing to let him see her tears, either.

Surely more days and nights had passed. But she couldn’t remember them. It isn’t so much that she feels alone… just that she feels like she couldn’t be with someone even when they’re right in the same room as her that rankles. She closes her eyes, though, in the night, and lets time pass.

It seems like an eternity slips by before she’s finally beginning to drift off. The bed is so huge and dark- truly it was meant for two to share.

She rolls onto her back as Winter dozes in her head, then sits up as she hears a creak at the door…

Her eyes pierce the darkness and find nothing there, not a shape, not an image or a hint, and the nothing moves into the room, raises sharp claws, and leaps at her.

For a moment she doesn’t register it, she can’t fathom it. Her heart pounds in her chest, she’s wide awake, and her hand is lifting, slowly, too slowly. The nothing passes right through her and keeps going.

Summer, shudders, lowers her shaky hand. She’s drenched in sweat. Was it a waking nightmare? A vision?

There’s something sticky between her thighs, and after a moment she reaches down and her fingers come up covered in red.

Her other hand- she can’t feel it. A stump! She lifts it up and stares at it as blood soaks her wrist and pours down her arm, as the slash on the back of her leg reopens and soaks the sheets. Her head pounds, her body aches all over and she twists, turns, stares into a grinning skull not three feet from her face- Jane’s skull, a serpent’s skull- and…

She screams, eyes snapping open, gasping, taking in a shuddering breath. Another.

Lord Autumn. Horned visage, terrible rage, crackling power, raised hand.

Jane, dead, dying, torn to pieces. So many pieces. Putting her back together would be impossible.

Summer hugs herself, steadying her breathing, not daring to move. All this power.

She stares at the hand she’d lost, at where a stump should be. It’s started to regain its former color.

She snaps her fingers, quietly, summons the Rose to her, hand clenched around it tight enough to draw blood. It glows in the darkness, ruining her night vision, but she doesn’t mind. Its presence, the sting of its thorns in her hand… they’re familiar things compared to the frightening dark.

Compared to the dreams.

Summer breathes out, shivering, though not from cold. Her heart slows to a reasonable pace. But… the hand holding the rose, the fingertips are stained red, still, and her thighs still feel sticky.

She blinks at that, wondering. That had never happened that she could remember…

How much do you know about your own body? Winter asks quietly.

“Enough,” Summer answers weakly.

Who made you- you know- pregnant?

“I don’t know,” Summer whispers.

Will you find out here?

Summer shrugs helplessly, staring at the Rose in her hand and the blood on her fingers. “I don’t know.”

You’ve changed…

“I was certain before.”

Now nothing is certain.

“Now I’m not certain,” Summer agrees, and she slips out of bed. Using ambient life-force from all around her, drawing on the energy from everyone near her, she fashions a glowing skirt and tee, dons them both, and steps over Thomas to reach the door.

As if from a long way away, she sees herself reach for the handle. Her fingers close around it, and she tugs the door open. A voice in her head drowns out Winter’s alarmed question. It issues from everywhere, but paints a clear line- the doorway to the room filled with red.

Free us.

Summer takes another step out and, when the handle before her refuses to budge, closed and locked, she presses her hand against it and pushes, harder and harder until the hinges finally give and it slams into the polished floor.

It’s so dark. Had she woken in the night? They had gone to sleep so early.

The polished ivory here is awash in red.

It’s old, stained into the floor and the walls, covering everything in a dizzying sheen. Her eyes penetrate the dark, and she hold the Rose aloft like a torch regardless, as blood runs down her palm, forms a drop and splashes on the floor to join the sea.

The discarded bodies, five, six, seven, eight- they lie in a pile before her, stacked aimlessly against a window, a sacrifice to nothing. A sacrifice to everything, the beckoning night and the horrible darkness.

Summer finds her legs shaking, but she strengthens her resolve and takes another step into the room, even as dread bites at her heart. The throats, the wrists, the ankles and thighs of each victim- neatly slit, neatly cut to let the blood flow the better. Her eyes catch on runes on the floor, and in the presence of so much death, even her Rose seems to dim as the darkness around her closes in.

Nothing surrounds her, then, in saffron robes. She can feel them on their way, to investigate her intrusion, but it’s the innkeep who arrives first, stepping into the room, covering his nose.

“By the gods- what IS this?” He shouts, momentarily forgetting himself. His eyes fall on Summer, whose hands drip red, but thankfully he has a moment of sanity. The corpses here are obviously old.

“How-” He starts, taking a step forward. An immense force slams into him, eliciting a mental shriek from Winter. He stumbles into the room, whirling, hand dropping to cover a wound on his side, red leaking from his fingers and falling into the wash of it. In the other he draws a weapon like a cross with a string. He aims it at the doorway one handed.

Summer, still frozen, watches the string flick forward. Watches the razor bolt as it leaves the nock, watches it disintegrate midair. Into nothing.

A figure stands in the doorway, surrounded by terror, a cloak of it that rushes forward and seizes her heart, seizes the innkeep’s heart.

It squeezes hers until she feels it burst. But it’s the innkeep, nameless and now forever unnamed, who drops forward onto the floor.

She forgets herself, forgets who she is, instead, with Winter finally heard over the drowning whispers of the dead, she screams.

It explodes out of her. It flees her fingers. It erupts from her hands in a wall, a bolt, a blast of fire, a sheet of it that washes the walls clean white with heat.

But the darkness sucks it back in again, and the Rose in her hand drops from nerveless fingers. The figure takes a step in, runs at her, fingers like talons reaching towards her, a mouth visible in the dark, razored teeth bared. An unnameable shape that screeches something primal.

It’s Winter who moves her, who forces her forward to meet it, taking advantage of lifeborne strength to reach out and grab the creature’s neck and, empowered by panic and terror, twists its head off. The severed part falls to the floor, smacks it soundly.

Shaking, weeping in fear, Summer stumbles out of the room.

A man in saffron robes meets her, whirling in front of the open door to her room. His eyes, shocked, in his hand a sword. He has no room to swing it, so he draws it back for a quick stab.

His mouth frames ‘Witch!’.

Summer doesn’t see it, or him, but her hands seem to. Her fingers find his throat and she chokes the word before it leaves his mouth. Chokes it out of him one handed.

Summer feels her heart slow again, feels the terrible fear leave her in a wave. Her hand feels weak, but she tightens her resolve and her grip, watching the man’s eyes bulge in a mixture of fury and wide-eyed fear.

She studies him, fury boiling in her now, as horrible as the fear was. She can still smell the corpserot from the room behind her. She can feel the man’s thoughts, but they give her no hint. He was holding a blade, and whether it was meant for her, Thomas or the innkeep she cannot say and does not care.

She reaches down, grips the steel, and gently twists it into a loop. The screeching it makes soothes her frayed nerves. Her hand finds his arm and, using two fingers, she twists it like a green twig, feeling it bend and then snap. Her hand chokes the noise, though, and-

Stop, Summer!

An irritating voice in her head demands something of her, but she pays it no mind as the man’s face turns blue and then spotty purple. His mouth is open and his tongue is lolling and she can’t help but feel it’d look so much better if she just tore it right o-

Her hand is fighting her suddenly, unclenching, letting the man drop unconscious.

Summer wants to kill, she was scared and now she’s angry. She can feel the energy gathering in her, she needs something to kill now, and her body is fighting her every step of the way. Her nails dig into her palm, her fingers grinding at the holes where the Rose pierced her skin.

Bronze and pink, her arm and hand slowly fall to her side.

Summer feels the breath come in and leave her in a sob, feels the tears as they run hot down her face. She shakes, all over.

Summer.

She can’t answer, won’t answer. She will not answer. The dead have no hold over her.

Summer. Calm down. It’s over. It’s okay. Calm down. 

You’re alive.

It’s different when you’re in the body and feeling the deaths. It’s different when you know that every time you kill someone you’ve shut their potential, shattered them whole. It’s different, nothing like she remembered, nothing like the thrill Glory had taken, that she had taken from it. And the terror!

The fear, the stark madness that gripped her!

Had she been exhilarated by it at one point? Had such things made her happy, excited even? Had she ever taken pleasure from slaughter? She had! She had been Summer, mistress of heat and storm, capable of reducing mere mortals to dust, of taking anything she wanted when she wanted it!

Summer, the Heat Rising. Summer-Heat-Rising. That’s who she is now. She’s sure of it. Not Summer-Glory.

Bile rises in her throat, and she forces it down again. She hadn’t killed this time. Nothing human.

And she can’t face the thing she had killed. Not right now.

Demimind: Chapter 23

Gettin’ closer to thirty! Sorry I missed an update. Friday was busy- I just didn’t have the time.

Hope chapter twenty-three will make things better! Maybe this time Summer can catch a break.

-Eris

(23) Lost

Summer smacks into the gritty ground. She lies there only a few moments before she pushes herself to her feet. She’s abominably hungry, for some reason. From that she surmises she needs to draw energy from something to sustain her body. She summons the Rose, grasps it. The sting of its thorns remind her that she’s really, truly alive and in the present again.

She siphons some of the plant’s energy, then dismisses it. It disappears in a puff of smoke.

A familiar human groan sounds next to her. She looks around and spies a familiar human figure to go along with it. “Thomas?” She asks incredulously.

“Miss Summer? What’s happened?” Thomas asks blearily.

He hasn’t pushed himself to his feet yet- which doesn’t seem right. Had they both really arrived at the exact same time? That doesn’t even sound possible. But then, they shouldn’t have been able to get back in the first place, really.

“Have you heard the saying ‘you can’t cheat Fate’?” Summer murmurs, staring around at the Barrier. Nearby, a familiar scrap of paper tumbles off. On the horizon, a thunderous flash sends a shock of pain behind her eyes, and when she opens them again, the map is vanishing off into the distance.

There doesn’t seem to be much chance of catching it.

“Yes Miss,” Thomas replies warily. “What about it?”

“We’re being taught why you shouldn’t try.”

“Ah. Spring sent us back.”

Summer walks over to Thomas and helps him up one-handed. “Do you remember where we were- where we are?”

“Yes,” Thomas replies weakly. “Barrier, right next to the Line. In theory, all we have to do is cross it- though what lies beyond the Line is uncharted, I’ve heard tell from travelers that there are people there. And Miss, you might not be feeling it, but I’m tired and hungry to the point of delirium.”

Summer wouldn’t admit her own flaws to anyone if she could help it, but she gives Thomas a small nod anyway. He’s the only one who can help her out of here, after all.

He turns, squinting at the mess of black horizons and flashing lines of lightning in the blistering heat. The wind changes, and suddenly it’s freezing cold instead and Summer hugs herself, shivering, teeth chattering.

Thomas is silent for a while.

“Yes?” Summer prompts, feeling a bit impatient, and maybe testy thanks to the cold. “So?”

“We should try to find a crossing,” Thomas says suddenly. “Lord Autumn is looking for us, and so far seems to have found us everywhere we go. It may be that he can’t see us if we cross over. That and there’s sure to be settlements if we go far enough. I shouldn’t think there’s any way we’d make it to one in just one day, but there’s no point if we don’t even try.”

There’s an idea, Winter whispers.

“Mm,” Summer seems noncommittal. She nods, though, and Thomas starts a new path through the dust, along the edge of the Line. It seems like it just goes on forever- and it almost appears to be a simple line all the way into forever.

The voices- the whispers from the past- are gone. She wonders whether that’s because they did what they wanted, or because the one who sent the message was killed. In fact, who had sent the message?

“Who do you think told us to come here in the first place?” Summer asks. “Thomas, you seemed the most inclined to talk with them. What did they say?”

“They said they were the spirits of those who have died,” Thomas replies flatly. “I was inclined to believe them, Miss, just because they seemed pretty earnest about it.”

A hot desert wind washes over the pair of them. Thomas won’t look Summer in the eye. “They told me they could restore something to me.”

“Well, we know where at least one spirit of the dead is,” Summer says grimly.

“Your Servant?” Thomas asks sharply. “You said before that she was dead in this time.”

“Yes. But if we’re leaving it behind, it won’t matter,” Summer replies softly. “If it means we’re safe and out of this, maybe it doesn’t matter that she’s dead. She was doing what she wanted to do.”

There’s a heartbeat’s pause before Winter explodes.

Are you insane? Winter hisses. She’s the only reason we’re alive- we’re the only ones with the power to bring her back, and you say we should leave her?

“What happened last time, Winter?” Summer whispers hotly. “We almost died! You lost your way, without me to push you through, we all would have been dead! For good!”

“Er-” Thomas tries to cut in. Winter, oblivious, bowls right over him, drowning out his interruption and muddling Summer’s thoughts.

Don’t give me that bullshit! Don’t tell me you’re afraid! Winter snarls.

“Oh come on! She would have snapped us up at the first opportunity. We’ve saved her once already, the debt has been repaid!”

Winter goes silent after that, but Summer can feel the chill of her fury.

The sisters walk in silence for a while, following their human guide through the sand.

I hate you, She says eventually.

“We’re here,” Thomas says wearily. “And what great company the two of you have been, if I do say so myself.”

“Thomas,” Summer starts.

“Shut up already, Miss,” Thomas interrupts irritably. “The two of you arguing just isn’t my idea of fun. By my ancestors and parents both, I was raised with the fear of Gods in me, but from everything I’ve seen you’re just like normal people. Worse, you’ve got a spoiled attitude, Summer, and you’re far too soft, Winter, if you can even hear me.”

He pauses, then turns away again. “And we’ve arrived. Beyond this bridge there’s uncharted territory.”

The ‘bridge’ is hardly even a long, precarious ledge near two feet across, stretching on into dust and blowing grit, an invitation to the suicidal.

Summer stares at it, unbelieving, momentarily distracted from Thomas’s angry funk. “Bridge,” She says flatly. “I-”

“Look, just take what you get, and if you die at least you come back, alright?” Thomas snaps. “Sweet Cycle willing, we won’t cross this way again.”

The wind howls over the gorge, the only sound as the echoes of Thomas’s voice fade.

Summer, to her own surprise as much as to Thomas’s, shuts up.

Then, to her further surprise, she finds herself moving in front of Thomas. After all, if she dies than she does come back.

The same might not be true for Thomas, or for Jane.

As soon as she takes that first step onto the rock, she feels something must be wrong. A voice hisses in her head, and her heart pounds in her chest, bruising her ribs.

You dare to trespass on my territory?

She trembles on the rock bridge as the wind picks up again, blistering cold caressing her skin. Of course her shirt is no help. She shivers again, taking a long, shuddering breath before she takes another step forward.

Leave!

Leave! Leave!

A multitude of hissing voices now, dry and scaled. Summer shuts her eyes, and takes another step.

I will feast on your petrified corpse, mortal!

“The tales are true?” Thomas asks incredulously.

“Tales?” Summer asks weakly. “What tales?”

“The canyon hisses. The Line is filled with it.”

“You don’t understand what they’re saying?” She asks cautiously. Of course he can’t, Winter gripes. He’s human.

“Not a word, Miss. It’s just echoes anyway, it’s not like it’s actual speech. Snakes can’t talk.”

“Right,” Summer replies warily, edging forward and trying to ignore the dire warnings that follow her every movement.

Turn back!

“Sorry,” Summer whispers, trying to focus on not being blown off the edge. “There’s a man much scarier than a little hissing following me.”

We were going to go to Season’s Refuge, Winter notes.

“Plans change,” Summer mumbles. In this case, they change very quickly, Summer thinks to herself.

Your bones will fuel my furnace!

“Shut up.”

Summer pushes forward against a sudden furious burst of wind. The bridge disappears into fog ahead. Behind her, Thomas seems not to care about the fury of the sand and wind, nor that the canyon edge they left from has likewise disappeared into a cloud of stinging grit. The way he advances without a care in the world makes Summer grind her teeth.

“Nice view,” Thomas comments, looking over the edge.

“How the hell can you tell? I can’t see a damn thing!” Summer snarls.

“Over the edge, Miss. It’s clear all the way down to the bottom.”

Summer risks a glance, bites her lip, and keeps moving, trying hard to prevent her stomach from doing a somersault. It’s a long, long way down. She can see spikes of rock jutting upwards from the canyon floor. She might miss them if she falls.

It doesn’t seem to help.

After an eternity, with the voices hounding her every step of the way, Summer finds herself at the other end of the bridge. The edge is in sight, and finally she can take a shaking step onto the other side.

She takes a deep breath, brushing herself off. She turns and tugs Thomas up after her, and, perched on the edge of the canyon, she gestures expansively. Beyond is a wide wasteland. Desolate as the Barrier before.

“I can see why no one would want to cross,” Summer says dryly.

Thomas stares at it, then sighs. “Should we go back? I… could probably last a day or two. Could be that if we go back now and head back the way we came, we could find the edge of Barrier and be into open plains in no time at all.”

“Autumn has seen to it that we can’t go back,” Summer replies. “We have to keep going. I don’t know how far away he is, but knowing him it won’t take more than a week or so before he catches up with us. And in that time I want to be a long way away from here.”

“If you say so, Summer,” Thomas says easily. “Let’s go this way.”

The former gate guard starts off into the waste and, Summer, not knowing what else to do, follows after him.

They don’t have to walk far.

The air is cooler mere meters from the edge. Summer can feel a draft, pulling at her, tugging at her feet and calves. She shivers, despite herself, following bravely after Thomas anyway. But something is nibbling at her awareness.

After a while, she figures it out, noticing the sand near her feet being drawn… forward. With her.

“Thomas, the wind is pulling us towards something.”

“Yes,” is his reply. “Sure.”

She probably should have expected that. But something about his tone catches her a bit off guard. Feeling reproachful, she starts again.

“Thomas-”

“Look, miss, I’m sure this is fascinating and everything, but I’m trying to figure out where we are,” He says patiently. “If you have something relevant to add-”

Summer’s gaze falls on a patch of sand- which is swirling thickly around a central point. As they pass it, she feels a shift in the wind, and feels grains of grit scrape one leg. It seems to blow much harder, in a miniature cyclone, near this one little area. All of the wind is being drawn to this spot.

“That’s weird,” Thomas mutters.

Summer blinks and stares at him for a moment.

You should kill him, a part of her whispers.

It’s been doing that for a long time now. Summer grits her teeth, fighting it down for a few moments. But it’s quite strong, a part of her based heavily in habit and instinct.

He’s a connection to Spring, and through Spring, Autumn. You should kill him and leave him here to rot in the Barrier.

No one will miss him.

Summer’s gaze falls to her hands.

She’s grown weak over the years. Here, where practically no life lives, all she has is her strength. Her body’s strength. Her body, lithe and very strong even without life surrounding her. It would be simple enough to crush Thomas’s unsuspecting skull.

The thoughts are dark as they swirl in her head, and cloud over reason quickly.

When was the last time she’d killed? She feels hungry for it now.

She never told Winter that part. Sure the dark days are behind her. But that was because she was sure she’d have some opportunity to… well, to kill to maim to burn things later. Her self-control is really astounding, just like every other part of her.

Summer clenches her hands into fists and then looks up at Thomas, who is now a good twenty meters away and fading into the fog.

He turns suddenly, mouths something at her. Shouting at her, though she can’t hear it. Because of the wind? No, it shouldn’t be that strong…

She turns towards the patch of sand, swirling as it is. She just has this feeling….

She can always kill Thomas later, after all. The voice inside roars at the thought.

She beckons to him wordlessly, not trusting herself to speak without voicing a growl, and then takes a step towards the tiny sandstorm.

What are you doing?

She stops, one stride away, and glowers at Winter internally, but says nothing.

What’s happening to you, Summer? I can feel you, sort of, you’re not really acting…. uh… like you usually do, She finishes lamely. What’s going on?

“Gnn,” Summer manages, eyes half-closing, fighting back a literal killer instinct. “Ngh.”

That’s not helpful.

Neither is this stupid bitch, if you could kill her you would, dig your claws into her scalp and tug until her head just pops right off. Yes. That would be fun.

Summer grits her teeth and takes another step to drown out her own mind. She doesn’t think about it as her foot slips through the stinging sand and into nothing. Her heart pounds and her head aches, but she ignores it and forces herself forward.

Everything swirls.

Everything crackles. The world around her dissolves.

And she steps into another.

Demimind: Chapter 22

Last of the super short updates, folks. Necessarily short- perhaps I should have made it a two part chapter! Anyway, enjoy as always. Maybe I’ll spend some time working on another short story this week.

-Eris

(22) More Bloody Time Travel

Summer gathers heat in her hand, but keeps it there, narrowing her eyes as her predecessor approaches. “What do you want?”

“That’s pretty simple,” Glory says quietly, her voice like leaves crackling dry in the sun. “I want you gone. I want you to go back to your own time.”

“In many ways we’re the same,” Summer points out cautiously. “Couldn’t we… work together?”

Winter cringes at the idea of that, but says nothing. Summer isn’t seriously thinking about that, surely.

“Don’t compare me with you, Summer! I am everything you can never be. I don’t want you dead- I just want you back where you belong. I’ve already paid our mutual brother a visit and convinced him of his own stupidity. I told him you were dead, and I sent your guard back to his original time as well. With a little luck, Fall can start down his own path soon.”

“You bitch!” Summer hisses. “Why the hell would you want Fall to become like Autumn?”

“It’s his destiny!” Glory snaps. “The power he’ll learn to wield will crush mountains and right wrongs- he must become the true embodiment of entropy!”

“Now hold on a second-” Casper starts.

“You’re insane. Fall can’t use that power and stay the same! You’re effectively killing the man Winter loves!”

Wait, I’m supposed to love him? Winter asks.

Shut up! Summer snarls.

“And what if I am? Winter is a spineless, worthless piece of fey trash, there’s no reason she should have anything! If Fall is too weak to survive without Winter, than maybe it’s time he evolved!”

Okay. I’d vote to kill her, but I’m not in the mood for suicide, Winter says dryly. I sincerely wish it was my turn, though.

Summer steps away from Casper, who just shrugs and backs off. Azzy steps back from Glory, who is now radiating heat like a barrier.

In unison, the two seasons begin to circle.

Summer clenches the Rose in her fist, digging sharp thorns into her palm.

“Who is Autumn?” Casper asks.

Glory answers. “Autumn is the final incarnation of the four seasons! His power has rendered Him immortal, and He has promised a world without conflict.”

“He’s a loony who tried to kill me and Winter, bound me permanently within Winter’s head. Now we have to trade places with some weird pill Spring has developed,” Summer replies grimly. “We’re trying to stop Him.”

Azzy shrugs. “It is not our business, then.”

Casper seems to think it over.

But the rest of the dragons seem to agree with Azzy.

The circling continues- now Summer stands near Azzy, and Glory stands near Casper.

Summer lifts her hand, takes a deep breath, and hurls a bolt of pure heat at Glory. In a flash, her twin grabs the power from the air as if catching a baseball, staring back at Summer with a smile. “Now, why did you think that would work?”

Heat flares around her suddenly, and Casper has to take a step back.

Summer takes a cautious step forward, and Glory lashes out, hurling the bolt back double- it leaves a hissing, smoking trail as it burns the air between them, an invisible blast of pure energy.

Summer catches it casually, curls it into a string between her fingers. She lashes the floor beside her with a flick of her wrist. It’s hot, but nowhere near hot enough, even as stone flashes into steam, and her heart snarls with anger.

“You’re a fool, Summer! All that power and what do you use it for?” Glory taunts. “We’re far from the same! The difference between a mere immortal and a goddess!”

She hurls a crackling blast of energy at Summer, a burst that would fry the meat from a normal human’s bones. Summer walks through it like a warm breeze, advancing on the self-proclaimed goddess. “You’re right,” Summer says calmly. “We are far from the same. You’re a spoiled little brat. I used to be just like you, not even two weeks ago. I used to want the same things you did, I remember what it was like to think the world was my toy.”

Summer narrows her eyes. “There’s a big difference between the two of us, do you want to know what it is?”

A second wild lash of heat energy glances off of Summer’s shoulder with more force than before, actually making her flinch. But she rights herself and strides towards Glory, who backs away. Casper has to shield her face from the heat.

“We both treat the world like a toy. I just don’t want to share it with filth like you,” Summer snaps, closing the remaining distance between herself future and past. Her slap flings Glory aside like a doll.

She pulls herself to her feet, brings her hand up to finger the bruise, rage fueling a wild snarl as she leaps towards Summer.

Summer steps back once and holds her hands up to meet the blows she’s sure will follow- but they don’t.

Spring, who holds Glory by the collar of her gossamer shirt, gazes at her amiably before turning a stony glare on Summer herself. “You really shouldn’t be here,” He says quietly. “Glory here has the right of it.”

“I have business here,” Summer says sharply.

When did this green-haired bastard show up? But then, that’s always his way. Spring can be anywhere at any time he wishes- but he always turns up exactly when things are about to get out of hand. It doesn’t seem to matter whose hands things are about to leave, only that he stops the things from leaving said hands. What a twerp.

“It was an easy way out of the situation back in the Barrier, I’ll grant you that,” Spring says cheerfully. “And it’s not that I don’t approve of running, you see. But I must send you back like I sent Thomas. Neither of you belong here. You could ruin the whole of the timeline this way.”

“What about Autumn?” Summer asks incredulously. “Will He be forced back as well?”

“Of course. He knows where you’ll next be, naturally,” Spring replies gently. “Since you were destined to visit His other self- Fall- here, He was inevitably drawn here as well. It is, after all, where He began.”

“What…?” Summer starts. “But-”

“Did you think that you could stop it?” Spring asks sadly. “Don’t be ashamed- such thoughts are common, but everything that has happened has already happened. It’s called the Cycle for a reason, dear Summer.”

“Then why must we go back?” Summer asks desperately. “Why does it have to be this way?”

“Because it has already happened this way,” Spring explains patiently. “Please, just let go. The past is the past- it is the future, which, while it too has already happened, is the only place you can possibly live.”

Spring smiles pleasantly, waves a hand, and vanishes from Summer’s sight.

Unsurprisingly, so does everything else, as Summer also disappears in a flash of cold spring dew.

Spring turns to Casper and frowns. His grip on Glory is like iron- she can’t move a muscle. “And what are you waiting for, little human?”

The one thing the Cycle could not possibly account for- the works of mortals are ever being written. Only the immortals are set in stone. It was, of course, always troubling to talk to someone whose ways you could not see.

Casper shrugs. “I could ask the same of you, you sad magic sod. You look a bit like an elf lambasted with quick-gro.”

Spring smiles briefly. “Did you want to go with them?”

Casper frowns, then shrugs again. “Just take me to somewhere with humans, if that’s in your power. I think I’ve had enough of being a pet.”

Azzy steps forward, looks as if he’s about to say something, and then doesn’t, dropping his hands to his sides and shaking his head ruefully.

Casper catches the movement out of the corner of her eye and turns slightly. “I don’t belong with you people,” She says quietly. “You’ll all outlive me, you all can’t care for me. I can’t live here.”

Azzy shrugs helplessly. “Go then,” He says, haltingly. “I’ll find you eventually.”

Casper feels an unfamiliar smile on her lips, and, sheathing her sword, steps forward towards Spring. “I’m ready,” She says confidently.

“No you aren’t,” Spring replies amicably. “So long!”

Casper vanishes. Azzy sighs and shakes his head, staring at the cavern floor for a few moments. The rest of the dragons- the gray-scale and Aura- wander or limp away.

Spring, after giving Glory a gentle peck on the cheek, shoves her forward one handed. She has time to pick herself up and launch herself back at him before, smiling faintly, Spring disappears as well, this time for good.

The dew left on the cavern floor from his passage makes Summer-Glory slip and fall on her butt.

Demimind: Chapter 21

(21)Prisoner

An open, tortured plain stretches on into the distance. Withered patches of grass and old, dried mud litter the ground. Two children, a boy, tall and thin, and a girl with long blonde hair beyond her years sit next to each other. They’ve never seen each other before. In fact, they’ve just met. But the girl feels a kinship with the boy all the same.

“Summer,” the girl says uncertainly, brushing out tangles from her long hair. “My name is Summer. What’s your name?”

“Spring,” The boy replies quietly. His hair waves in the breeze. It’s fresh green and stands straight up, reeds growing from the top of his head. “But there are more of us.”

“How do you know?” The girl called Summer asks, staring at him. The boy frowns, and then shrugs his thin shoulders.

“I just do,” He answers lamely. “Come on, we can’t stay here.”

“Spring is a stupid name,” the girl says sharply, giving Spring a glare. “And why is your hair so weird?” She doesn’t know why she’s acting mean, and she regrets it as soon as she says it. But she can’t take it back, either, so the silence stretches on between them.

Spring doesn’t answer. He simply stands and walks off across the plain. The landscape is pockmarked with enormous craters and holes- the grass has overgrown them, twining around twisted bits of shining rock that jut up out of the ground.

Summer, not knowing what else to do, follows him.

Summer comes awake with a start. She is lying on a bed of straw. It isn’t the first time that she’s felt it under her. What disturbs her most is her lack of clothes, and the fact that she’s slept long enough to have developed another scar from the earthmetal blade that struck her.

She rolls over onto her belly, then pushes herself up to a standing position. Her hands hang loosely by her sides for a moment. She isn’t wearing an earthmetal collar, fortunately. No iron binds her. But there’s so little life around her she feels it can’t really matter. There hardly seems to be any way she could fashion new clothes. It’s quite dark here, and she simply can’t see anything from where she stands.

She concentrates, lifts a hand, and wills a flame into existence. Unsurprisingly, nothing happens. If she’d slept more than a few hours, it would probably be the lack of any living life source near her that did it. Combined with the lack of food for her physical body in some weeks… yes.

No wonder she hasn’t a speck of power left. She’s only alive because it’s still functioning on a vital level, preventing her from being hungry.

She walks to the edge of the cell and raps on the door sharply. It’s made of stone, but she barely notices. She feels weak- and it’s only confirmed when the door doesn’t snap to little splinters. The thuds her fingers make are swallowed up by the stifling dark.

And then she remembers the Rose.

She’d kept it with her. Nothing short of the works of another Season could have kept it from coming with her. She snaps her fingers and grasps it by the thorny stem as it appears. The sting as the translucent thorns scratch her hand reminds her she’s alive.

Hey- Winter says. What are you doing?

“Getting us out of here,” Summer replies quietly. “We don’t have time for this!”

She sucks in a breath, lifts a hand again, and wills the door to melt away. Threads of power, drawn in through the thorns of the Rose, thrum into action.

Heat discord vibrates through the stone. It turns molten cherry red for a moment, and then slides aside as Summer steps through. Pure energy flows through her veins- she feels giddy with it, almost consumed by it. It tingles in her arms and legs, and some of her old confidence returns.

Careful. I don’t know exactly what happened, but judging by the scar you’ve got, all that power didn’t help before. That girl cut you, and you dropped.

“She caught me off guard,” Summer hisses, and then stops, pauses in the doorway. An earthmetal sword would slice through anything she could conjure in a moment. Only true heat barriers would stop something like that, and even with all of her power it hadn’t been enough to stop that metal blade from carving her up. Whoever the girl Casper is, it seems suddenly prudent to have every assurance possible, should she run into her again.

At the same time, it feels almost as if it won’t make a difference. It still helps her steal the courage she needs to take a few more steps down the forbidding hall. It’s all made of stone, and the walls bleed wet at her as she passes. It’s cold enough that the heat surrounding her hisses and crackles.

Rose clenched in one fist, her other hand sheathed in flame, she continues into the darkness.

She comes to a turn in the smooth stone hall, rounds it, and is confronted with another long, dark hallway, as bland as the first. Presently, as she walks, she notices that the stone surrounding her is covered in marks, glyphs in the stone. She finds herself wishing it were Winter in this mess. Winter would know to read them, she’s sure. Though Eldritch had never been her strongest reading point… what she understood of it was basically limited to what she’d seen Winter read for her in the past.

Of course, asking for Winter’s help in the matter would be pointless. For whatever reason, magic like the Eldritch language would refuse to work unless read out loud, and unless one knew the word required… well, suffice to say that a helping thought from Winter would not be of assistance. Such work would take much longer than Summer feels she has.

It wasn’t, actually, the official language of magic. No, Eldritch was drawn from even more ancient roots. It wasn’t so much that it was defined by the structures of the creatures and trees around it as it was that it defined them. Naturally only words alone would not be able to completely define a whole world, so it was that several other languages, based on sight, sound or smell, also had been responsible for creation. At least, that was the theory she’d studied, so long ago. Where had that been? She doesn’t remember, but it must have been a different age.

She’d had more time then. Now, with the dimming of immortality, it seems to slide in her memory, as if slipping away from her. So much is lost with eons.

She rounds the next corner. This hallway is not a hallway at all. A double turn. There is a small, boxed room here, opened into from the tunnel. And up above, the sun shines down, raining light from above. If Summer could fly, she could escape in seconds.

She could be free in a blink.

She can’t fly.

A door prevents her from continuing. She doesn’t even bother with the handle, instead hurling a blast of heat at it. The door is blown off its hinges, charred to a crisp and turning to ash as it strikes the stone.

Summer steps through the doorway incautiously. So, the idiots had sought to keep her prisoner?

Careful! Winter snaps. Do you want to get us killed?

And just then, the corridor opens up into an enormous cavern. It isn’t as important as the grey-scaled man standing in front of her. He looks up as she enters, opens his mouth, framing the word ‘You-‘.

And is blown backwards, a fireball blossoming on his chest and sending him tumbling. Into the cavern steps Summer, lowering her hand and staring ahead- at the far end of the room is another door.

Does it lead out?

“I don’t know.”

She walks slowly, taking deliberate steps towards the door, though every instinct screams at her to run as she crosses the open hall. A flash to her left, a flicker of wild hair, movement. The patter of bare feet on stone. Words, shouted, in a language- not Eldritch, thankfully- she can’t understand.

Summer takes a deep breath and points to her left. Wall.

There’s a yelp and a scream. Aura couldn’t stop herself from running smack into it, and now the sick-sweet smell of burnt flesh fills Summer’s nostrils.

She falters, suddenly feeling an overwhelming pang of regret, half-turning before she catches herself.

No! Just keep walking! She’ll be fine. You don’t even like her, what’s wrong with you?

“I…” Summer starts, and then curses with feeling, whirling, backing towards the door but staring at the wall of flames. Aura stands to the right of it, clutching her arm and staring at Summer in a mixture of fear and hate. Her black skin is charred from the heat.

Summer backs away slowly, fire surrounding her like a blanket. A queer, unfamiliar feeling comes over her. She feels her body begin to tremble.

Abruptly, she feels a cold blade grazes the skin of her neck. And just like that, Summer’s magic drains away. Casper’s voice, from behind her.

“Don’t move.”

She feels the heat leave her in a flood. Suddenly she’s too tired. She lets it go, feels the fire slipping out of her grasp.

“Why?” She whispers. “Why are you keeping me here?”

“The way I see it, you know something.”

“I know nothing of Aura’s sister. She brought me to the Lair and when I emerged she was gone. That’s it,” Summer says wearily. “Let me go.”

“I don’t think we can do that in good conscience,” Casper replies quietly.

The grayscale is approaching- brushing cinders from his chest, and the silver-haired girl from before appears to be tending to Aura. As the grayscaled man stands before her, Summer drops her arms to her sides. Casper withdraws the blade, and in a rush, Summer feels her magic return. Its momentary flight from her body had been disheartening.

She stumbles away from Casper, but the girl keeps her within arm’s length. “I can’t stay,” Summer growls. “A Season lies in wait for me at Everspring’s shrine. You must let me go.”

“It seems to me you are out of your league, little Season,” Aura’s voice taunts. “You’ll pay for what you’ve done to my daughter.”

“You’re a dumbass,” Summer snaps. “Seriously- I haven’t touched your stupid daughter! Don’t you have some stupid dragon trial or something? I remember that last time I was here.”

Dragon trial? Really?

“Shut up,” Summer hisses to Winter. “They aren’t proper dragons if they don’t have a dragon trial. It’s how it works!”

The grayscale stops midstep, standing right in front of Summer and staring at her. “We’ve never seen you here before, Season. Am I right in deducing that you are Summer of the Four, then?”

“Yeah, I’m Summer,” Summer snaps. “I was going to tell you before. But my name is Summer-Heat-Rising.”

“She fainted,” Casper notes. “From earthmetal.  I didn’t know you were that vulnerable to it. Not even fey are hurt that much by it.”

“To be honest, it’s just me and Winter who suffer from that. I think it’s us being bound together, our weaknesses sort of overlap,” Summer admits. “I’m not sure whose it was at first.”

“Winter-Long-Frost is with you as well?” the grayscale asks incredulously. “How did she come to be bound within her opposite?”

“Oh, it’s always been like that,” Summer says vaguely. “I dunno if you’ve ever met Summer-Glory?”

“The current incarnation of Summer has that name,” Aura says, rage apparently curbed by curiosity. “Is she still around?”

“Yeah,” Summer grumbles. “And, you know, just so it’s clear- I’m from the future. I’m the next incarnation of Summer.”

Casper rolls her eyes. “Pull the other one.”

Azzy’s voice calls from the other side of the room. “I think she’s telling the truth.”

“And what the hell gives you that idea?” Casper asks, turning. Summer watches her eyes narrow, and turns as well, to see what she’s staring at.

A woman, bronze skin blazing with long blonde hair, walks with Azzy towards Summer. Her smile is triumphant.

“Found you,” Glory says.

Oh shit, Winter whispers.

Summer couldn’t agree with her more.

Demimind: Chapter 20

I’m sorry for the long wait! It was an extremely busy week. Do enjoy the new update. In addition, I have a new story I plan on posting- all done, and of the short variety. I’ll probably put that on a separate page from the main to make things easily accessible. Remember that all additional pages may be found in the black band just below the main picture- like the Chapters page and the About section. Knight In Stone will be put up in a page of its own soon. Thanks for reading!

-Eris

 

(20)Trial

She screams, shuddering, hugging herself in the sudden light. Every part of her aches, her breath comes in short gasps, stabbing pain strikes her brain squarely.

She opens her eyes, her mouth shut again, determined to let that be the only outburst dragged from her. She pushes herself up to her knees- she was lying prone- and, shakily, looks around herself. She feels slick with something, something hot all over her naked body.

Saliva. Spit. She can feel it all over her.

It’s bright here, and for one crazed second she thinks she might be dead again. Had it swallowed her up?

No. Her hands are touching stone. She is on the floor of something stone. Beside her- no, in front of her- an immense crack nearly a foot deep spreads across. Beside her also, and, upon turning, she sees it behind her. It is grey stone. She is on… a tile.

It’s cold here as well, and smells faintly of sulfur. She finds herself shivering, despite the heat of the spit all over her. She stands up, feeling alone, her legs feeling like they can barely support her weight.

Where is here?

She stands in the middle of a pool of light from an unseen source. All around her is darkness, cut off by the tile lines.

The clack of claws on stone surrounds her. Click clack.

Shapes move in the light, shadows that slowly resolve themselves as they step closer. Black scales flash, along with teeth the size of swords.

The dragon who brought her here stands before her and stares down at her with piercing red eyes.

How she wishes she were Winter. Winter could understand what they were saying without needing to feel as if her mind were being torn to pieces.

To her surprise, however, the black dragon doesn’t talk to her first. Instead, there’s a bright flash of light, and a nude, dark, wild-haired woman stands before her instead of the dragon. Her skin is black as night and her eyes are the same red as before. She folds her arms and stares at Summer steadily.

Taken aback by the shapeshift, Winter is the first to point out that more are coming from the darkness.

Look, She whispers. They’re all different.

A slimy green-scaled dragon shapeshifts as well, into a long-haired human-dragon hybrid with blonde hair, so covered in scales that she couldn’t guess as to its actual gender.

A cold blue-eyed man steps forward from the shadows beyond her pool of light to stand at the edge of her tile. He wears naught but a belt, breeches and a sword at his waist. His musculature is impressive, but Summer is more focused on the glow from the scabbard. The sting from Autumn’s attack on her legs has long since faded, but she finds herself still feeling wary of the weapon. The one her brother had carried deflected her spells.

A few others step forward- a grey skinned, brown-haired man with a few snow white scales on his arms. A silver-haired girl, shorter than the rest with pure white eyes and a short stubby tail.

But they all stand to the side of her, even the wild one who brought her. They stand and stare expectantly into the dark. And even though she tries as hard as she can she is unable to hear a sound. Its approach is so silent, that when a hand grips her around the neck gently, and from behind, she doesn’t register it until something clicks into place. There’s the flash of a dark cloak in front of her. An old, old man, hair so grey it’s almost white, skin wrinkled with age, strides to the front of her tile and turns with frightening speed.

Someone so old shouldn’t be able to move that fast, Summer thinks to herself.

And then her legs buckle underneath her, strength sapped through the earthmetal collar around her neck. Her head is very heavy, but she lifts it to stare up at the dragons surrounding her.

How are we going to get out of this? Winter whispers. Weren’t we going to visit Spring, and from there head to Season’s Refuge?

Fate seems to have other ideas, Summer directs back weakly. And I can’t grab on to a pocket world like this. I suppose if you were in control you could kill them all-

I’m tired of killing, Winter says warily. I hate it.

Well that’s fine, because there’s no way that plan would work anyway. They’re highly resistant to magic- protection given long before we Seasons were born.

“So,” The old man says, facing her and shrugging his shoulders. He wears a long cloak that covers what must be a truly massive body. He stares down at Summer with something like kindly disdain, as if she were insignificant, but nevertheless to be pitied, like a tiny fly with its wings cut.

Summer half-closes her eyes. All of her strength is being sucked out through the damnable collar- what is it made of, bronze, iron?

No, worked metal like bronze wouldn’t hurt her. Iron, though… she’ll have welts there, blisters there for ages. It stings abominably.

“Why is such a pathetic creature disgracing the council with its presence, Aura?” The old man asks. His voice is deep, rich and strong, belying his obvious old age.

The wild-haired one, with her dark skin and burning eyes, answers. So she must be Aura, Summer thinks blurrily.

“It has information pertaining to the whereabouts of my sister,” She says, and there’s a sharp, bitter tone to her voice, etched firmly in place. It sounds like a cold night.

“I see,” The elder says quietly. “Does anyone have anything to say before we begin?”

“What are you going to do?” Summer asks, feeling dread stir in her belly.

“The poor thing has no idea where it is,” The grey-scaled one drawls drly, arms folded. He looks incredibly bored. “Perhaps we should inform it before it dies.”

“You are in the heart of the Council of Ten,” The old man informs her solemnly. “And to answer your question, we will burn you- or I will, at least- and glean the information from your ashes.”

At that, Summer suppresses a lunatic smile. Burn her. An ironic death. She once claimed to be master of fire. That was so long ago- well, relatively. Now she suspects it’s only been a short while. Summer-Glory is testament to that. She wonders, through a haze of panic, whether or not the flame will hurt her if she is touching iron…

“Now, if that is all, shall we begin?” All of them nod as one. It’s almost comical- human gestures from human-shaped dragons. Perhaps the myths were true and they were growing soft.

There’s surprisingly little fanfare. The old man steps forward to the very edge of the light.

“Don’t worry,” the silver-haired girl says brightly. “It will be over soon.”

The old man says no magic words. Dragons don’t need magic words to work their spells. He doesn’t wave his hands or otherwise indicate that he is about to hurl fire or call down lightning- he simply stands there, and, as the dread peaks in Summer’s heart and she lifts her head, he nods- just a fraction.

Fire leaps up around her, heat, incredible, overwhelming, bone-searing heat. It’s there for a flicker, for an instant. Any longer, any hotter, and it would’ve killed her instantly. Instead, it vaporizes the earthmetal collar around her neck.

Enough of this, Winter says quietly. The heat is making her dizzy. She finds herself thanking Spring profusely in her head, the pain coming over her in a hot, fierce torrent. Summer is drenched in sweat.

Summer’s skin bakes as the flames disappear. Heat rises off of her like steam, rippling the air around her, washing over her in waves. And she stands. The old man seems uncertain for a moment. Then,

“I don’t know how you survived that at first, but this time I’ll-”

Summer draws on the life of every dragon near her, all six, their power flashing through her and making her truly giddy. She does it without words. It’s innate to her, unique to her, and it floods her like fire in her veins. Winter is unconscious now, naturally, passing out from the force of the power within her sister.

But Summer doesn’t care. She’s laughing, giggling helplessly, as if the impotency of the flames around her had been the world’s biggest joke.

The tile beneath her, unscathed by the intense fire before, melts and bubbles under the sheer power which blazes from Summer’s body.

“You should better learn to understand those you capture, Aura, if that is really your name,” Summer says sharply. “I am Summer, mistress of all heat and life. You can’t hurt me with fire.”

She tosses her long hair and stands straighter, no longer feeling naked, but rather confident. She’s at her peak, here, at her strongest with the life-energy of such magnificent, powerful creatures surrounding her and flowing through her. Magnificent- and stupid.

The old man arches an eyebrow, but says nothing.

The way the dragons seem unimpressed eats at her confidence a little.

And then, in the blink of an eye and a roar of noise, she’s on her side, clutching at her ribs and trying to catch her breath. And her ribs are smoking. There’s steam rising off of her where her sweat flash-evaporated, steam rising from the stone floor beneath her. And that can’t be right, she’s staring at the tile she was on, and the semi-circle of dragons, from forever away, meters and meters.

She was flung. The echoes of the thunder shook the stone. She was sent tumbling by a bolt of lightning with the force of a titan’s swipe. She’d skidded to a rest here.

Her back feels raw and her skin, tough though it is, had been unable to reject the heat of the bolt. She pushes herself to her shaky feet and stares as the blue-eyed, bald man breaks from the group and strides towards her, sword still sheathed. Or recently sheathed- the scabbard is smoking. She stares at him as he advances, watches him raise a hand.

There’s a flicker of his attention, the feeling that his look is piercing her right through. It’s the only warning she gets.

That, in itself, does nothing to prepare her. A moment later, she’s again gasping, trying to catch breath from lungs that won’t work. She tries to stand, her legs and hands, her arms twitching, crackling with electricity. Lightning. He had struck her with lightning. Yes, she remembers now. Her heart begins to beat again, faster, too fast, erratic and wild. It sends arcs of pain through her, her hands clenching spasmodically.

It hadn’t been as strong this time. Did the distance have something to do with that?

She rises again. Is it a duel? No other dragon is bothering with her.

“How dare you still live, mortal?” The blue-eyed man asks softly. His voice is deadly. “After mocking my sire your life is forfeit. I don’t know how you think to match one of the Seasons when a little lightning is enough to break your bones.”

She stands straight. He’d lowered his hand again, a mistake.

“Of course I’m Summer!” She snaps. “What human has power like this?”

She snaps her fingers, shouts a Word: Strike.

Her eyes indicate her challenger, and she doesn’t notice the sound of footsteps on stone until a boy- how did he appear here?- suddenly appears right in front of her intended target. She registers several things. His manacles, his height- had she ever seen a man so large? He’s as tall as Autumn!- and his sword, grasped in thin arms, long and sharp. His hair falls about his shoulders, a pale, sickly brown.

Then she releases her power, gathered into a lightning fast whip of energy. It snaps out in a blink, and just as fast flashes into nothing, seemingly before it can touch either of them.

Did she misjudge? No. It was a Word. How could she have misjudged? The formula for it is timeless. It does not allow for error.

Winter stirs again, for the cavern itself is cool without Summer’s power heating the air around her.

And she’d gathered it all into that strike, hadn’t she?

Where did it go?

She focuses on the blue-eyed man, whose cold demeanor has broken into one of shock, and… fear?

And the next words, all on their own, explain everything.

“Casper! How on earth did you get here?” The words come from Aura’s mouth, as if she can’t believe them.

The boy’s voice, and with a shock she realizes the ‘boy’ is a girl the moment words escape, is accented. “First why don’t you tell me what the bloody hell you idiots think you’re doing?”

She stabs her sword into the ground, and it sticks, sliding through solid stone like dirt. She lifts her eyes and stares at Summer steadily. Clearly she’d just done something distasteful by interrupting the duel.

“When did the whelp get here?” The grey-scale asks dryly. “Wasn’t it you who was to keep an eye on it, Azzy?”

The blue-eyed man responds, so Summer can only assume his name is ‘Azzy’. “She was in her quarters sleeping when I came down,” He says cooly, but his voice is hiding something very close to anger. “I’ll deal with her-”

“Actually, I think she should stay,” The silver-haired girl says quietly. “She shares at least some heritage with our new prisoner, does she not?”

The girl called Casper shrugs her shoulders and draws the sword out of the stone. “I’m not a child anymore,” She says irritably. “And I’m a human- from what I’ve seen, this… thing isn’t. Are you stupid or something? It’d take years and years of training to become anything like as skilled as it’s shown, and it can’t be more than a few years old. Probably just a bloody fairy or something, we’ve already got enough of those.”

She pauses a moment, then grins. “I’ll handle it.”

The one called Azzy stands back, staring doubtfully. “If that’s what you wish.”

The elder remains silent.

Casper advances on Summer, sword at the ready. Her manacles seem earthmetal- was it mere coincidence they’d been set on Summer? Or had they known her weakness to it?

It seems likely that it was a coincidence. Summer backs away slightly. Winter is being loud and obnoxious.

You can’t kill her! She’s a girl!

“So?” Summer hisses. “She’s trying to kill us!”

Well at least try to reason before you blow her fool head off!

“Fine. Hey! Come any closer and I’ll blow your head off!” She shouts at the advancing child. She can’t be any more than fourteen. Underfed and malnourished, but she carries the sword as if it were a toy. Summer is dwarfed by her, too- the girl is tall and lean. Instead of answering, she changes tack, striding quickly. It’s clear she’ll try to end it in one blow.

Summer thinks for a moment. “We’ll do things your way,” She whispers. She gathers her power and flings it at the girl’s feet. Burst, She commands.

The stone under the girl ripples and explodes, hurling the skinny frame a good twenty feet into the air.

“Whoops,” Summer remarks callously. “Didn’t mean to hit quite that hard.”

But Casper lands on her feet lightly, doesn’t seem fazed in the slightest. She wasn’t even injured, and Summer barely has time to register that before the girl is a mere ten feet away, sword raised.

Summer gathers her power again, lets the strength of the dragons fill her in an eyeblink, and holds up one hand to stop the arc of the blade as it falls towards her. Casper, however, just isn’t there anymore.

The blade strikes from behind. Summer whirls in time, can feel it pass a hair’s breadth from her face. She reaches out and grasps Casper’s arm as it passes, yanks the girl close, wraps her other arm around the teen’s thin neck, and begins to squeeze.

The girl’s strength is unreal.

Casper breaks free with apparent ease, turns and brings the sword down. The tip whistles through the air and draws a line of singing agony across Summer’s midriff, carving clean through skin and clipping a rib before she draws the blade away. Blood drips from the blade. And the blood is red.

Summer claps a hand to the wound. Red oozes around her fingers, and her lips clamp shut. She suddenly feels weak in the knees. She expects the bite to come again, expects to be killed, but her opponent is distracted.

Casper stares at the edge of her sword. She lowers it after a moment, then turns a glare on the elder, who shrugs.

“She’s human,” Azzy says quietly. “Interesting.”

“She’s not fey, at least,” Casper grumbles. “But if she were some kinda sorcerer, how did she learn that kind of magic so fast?”

Tell them, Winter says grimly. Now is the only chance we’re likely to get.

Summer opens her mouth to respond. She really does mean to say something.

But suddenly, it’s too much just to stand up, and she collapses into darkness.

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 18

(18)Pockets of the Dead

Winter pushes herself to her feet shakily. She feels at her throat and, upon finding it unharmed, stares down at the ground, searching for Summer.

“I’m over here, doofus,” Her sister says from behind her. A bronzed hand clasps hers. Winter turns and gazes into her sister’s eyes.

“What have you done?” She asks weakly. “Are we dead?”

“Yeah,” Summer replies flatly. “Sort of.”

Winter stares at her. “Sort of?”

The ground underfoot is soft, like a meadow, and sprinkled with white, like snow. The air is comfortably cool for her. “What do you mean?” She asks, feeling stupid. “Sort of dead?”

“Yeah. This is a pocket dimension. Or universe or whatever. It’s where our spirits go before we’re reborn. The seasons can’t die, that’d cause complete chaos. I don’t know how I know that…” Summer says slowly. “But it’s just how it is. We can figure it out later. We need to move fast.”

“How fast?”

“Well… I’m no student of medicine like Spring, but how long would you say I have to live after a wound like that?” Summer asks, picking her way through long grass and tugging Winter with her.

“Ummm…” Winter begins. “Depends. About twenty seconds, probably.”

“We have twenty seconds,” Summer says shortly. She moves faster, pushing through the grass towards a familiar white wall at the edge of the meadow. Silver shapes move on it- it’s a translucent barrier. It all seems quite familiar to Winter. Yes, that’s right. It’s like the pocket dimension she was in before with Thomas.

Summer pulls her further, dragging her along the soft ground. As they approach the translucent barrier, they step onto a writhing, twisting area of white tendrils that tug, clutch at their feet and hold them fast.

“Shit,” Summer says in a whisper. “Twenty seconds?”

“You’re dead by now,” Winter hisses. “Whatever we need to do, do it fast and do it now.”

There’s an abrupt growling rumbling noise, and a low hum builds in her bones from her feet. The tendrils are vibrating, and they feel like they’re dragging her into the ground.

Summer focuses heat in her whole body, hoping against hope she doesn’t injure Winter.

Nothing happens. No lifeforce here. Everything is dead here!

Her expression turns to panic.

I’m mistress of the dead though, Winter thinks to herself. Summer can’t do anything here, there’s nothing alive. That means it’s up to me, and-

“Winter,” Summer whimpers. “Do something!”

Winter takes a deep breath- completely pointless, since she’s dead- and sighs. “Let us go, please,” She says quietly.

The tendrils relinquish their grip and withdraw back into the ground.

“We’re here to save a friend,” Winter continues slowly and clearly. “Can you help us find her? Her name is Jane. She’s a giant serpent thing. She died a short time ago.”

There’s a soft rumble in response, and then the membrane of the bubble opens wide, the barrier parting to let them past. Nothing but darkness lies beyond it.

Summer, eyes wide, leads Winter through it and into the blackness.

The membrane closes behind them, plunging them into pitch dark. Now there is nothing here but a ruddy red glow, and the heavy breathing of something massive. Summer tries to get a hold of herself.

Winter walks forward on stone of lime, fumbling in the dark- dark that even her eyes cannot pierce- until her hands touch something dry, hot and scaly. Her breath catches in her throat, and a sudden, irrational fear fills her. Then a double-pair of eyes gaze down at her from the darkness. Motion behind her, and a tongue flicks along her back. Oh, right. She’s naked.

-You taste familiar,- A deep rumbling, less a hiss than an earthquake, and one that makes her legs tremble. -You’re the fourth season. Winter. To what do I owe the pleasure of your… visit?-

Summer moves behind her to stand next to her sister. It’s very strange. She’d never been here with Winter like this, never been next to her like this, side by side. From as far back as Summer can remember the two of them had been together- but trapped. Bound within one another.

Now, to be next to her sister like this is… surreal.

She reaches out and grabs Winter’s hand, gives it a squeeze. Too soft. Her sister has always been too soft.

“Toughen up,” Summer whispers in Winter’s ear. “You’re shaking.”

Winter steadies herself, stands straight, and squeezes Summer’s hand back. “I’m here to take you back,” Winter says firmly. “Or at least Jane. You’re Goliath, aren’t you?”

The rumble comes again, stuttering a little in a chuckle. -Yes. That is my name. Jane is sleeping, but I tire of this place already. If you can take me from here, this land of eternal warmth and darkness, I will be shocked. Truly and to my dry scaled core. But then, you are the mistress of the dead. The doomed understand and are understood by you, and all of us are doomed, are we not? Lead me from here, little girl, if you dare.-

“Is there a price?” Winter asks quietly.

-There is always a price, Winter-Long-Frost. Always,- Goliath hisses, snorting a cloud of glowing red smoke. It sheds shadow and light in the dark, dark cavern. -But it is not a price you are unwilling to pay, or in the future I would be dead.-

Winter rubs the scaled muzzle in front of her. Hmm, She thinks. Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s probably not important that she doesn’t know what will happen in the future. What’s important is doing what’s right.

She owes her Servant already, for saving her. And even Summer, who doesn’t seem to care about anyone but herself, wants Goliath/Jane back. Right.

Winter lets out a soft sigh. “Yeah. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, even if I don’t know what it is.”

She pulls away from the scaled heads, and they watch her expectantly.

“Um,” She says weakly. What the hell is she supposed to do now?

“We have to get back to my body, Winter,” Summer whispers. “But I don’t know the way. It’s dead, so the pocket that holds it should be here somewhere. You have to find it.”

Winter looks down at her feet and stares for a while, thinking hard. When I came here first, the world changed to match my wants. So…

I want to find Summer’s body.

She thinks it as hard as she can, but nothing seems to happen, and she frowns. But it occurs to her that the world wouldn’t know who Summer is, would it…

She pictures Summer’s body now- about five feet and a few inches tall, golden brown skin, lithe and long with a scar across her belly- though her skin is otherwise mostly unmarked, unlike Winter’s- and long, flowing white hair. Summer.

Summer.

Hands smooth, unweathered by hard labor and soft, one green eye and one blue- but mirrored to her own, as if she’d taken what was left after Winter chose hers. A round nose, but slightly pointed ears. She pictures the shape of her breasts and the curves of her hips, things that Winter herself used to want. That she remembers she used to want.

Summer.

The cavern blazes unexpectedly, light flooding in from one wall- the wall to Winter’s left. It shimmers, and then ripples form on its surface for a few moments, the stone giving way to a murky, pearly substance. Shapes form there, and eventually it seems that she’s looking down on Summer’s body, which, as a bonus, appears to be lying on top of her Servant’s body still. There’s an awful lot of blood- and with a shock, she realizes it’s mostly hers. Or her sister’s. Theirs.

“Summer, is this a good idea?” Winter asks quietly.

“Too late to ask that, sister,” Summer replies ruefully. “We’re already in too deep.”

Summer takes her hand and they both walk to the edge of the cavern, where the real world is separated by a pearly portal. Goliath shifts, bringing herself closer, nudging Winter slightly with a scaled snout. -Well?- 

“All I need to do is walk through with you hanging on,” Winter says uncertainly, and realizes she knows it as soon as the words are out. “Just stay with me. I think this will work. Summer will do the rest.”

Summer nods, though she’s not smiling. Her face is grim and set. If it doesn’t work, they could be dead forever.

Winter is about to step through when Goliath nestles in beside her. She wraps an arm around her Servant, burying her hand in Goliath’s soft fur near the nape of her first scaled neck.

“Together,” She says weakly. “Ready?”

-I am prepared, little one.-

“Let’s go,” Summer says firmly.

Together, the three enter the portal.

Beyond it is utter chaos.

Bitter cold freezes Summer’s body. Boiling heat scalds Winter’s hands and feet both as she takes her first step through. Her eyes are half-screwed shut against what feels like a driving rain of acid- searing her, burning her. Patches of white hot pain hiss on her legs and arms. Knives are dragged down her back, slicing into her pale skin- though she still is too shocked to voice a cry. She almost forgets what she’s done, what’s happening, her spirit and body both near dead with shock. Her whole body is shaking. She can feel Summer next to her trembling as well.

The first step is complete torture. With monumental effort, ignoring the awful pain and the roar of Goliath next to her, of Summer’s labored gasp, the clutch of her sister’s hand as it tries to grind her bones together, Winter takes another step.

And it all fades away as quickly as it’d come. The pain leaves the two sisters gasping. In its place, there is cold, just chilling, numbing cold. At first it’s a relief, but very shortly it becomes uncomfortable, even for Winter. It smells, here, of decay and rot. A realm after her brother’s own heart…

In another three steps, they could be back in the cave- the portal, its eerie white light shining, is but three stripes away. They are standing on an endless plain of alternating bands- red and black. Right now they stand on a black band, about a foot across. Or at least, Winter stands there- the other two, her companions, shuffled forward to match her. She looks around and notices bubbles floating, and that the bands stretch on into the sky, that the bubbles have shapes moving in their translucent walls. And she remembers.

 –

“You are the mistress of death, Winter. You can take spirits away from the Pockets of the Dead, lead them through the doorway into their bodies- if you can brave the Band,” For some reason she can’t see who it is talking. But it doesn’t bother her- it’s a memory, and in the memory at least, she feels safe. 

“What’s the Band?” Winter wonders aloud. “What’s so bad about it?”

“The Band is an unfathomably enormous stretch between the worlds, connecting every conceivable area of the living with the Pockets of the Dead. Though rarely will you ever travel in it for longer than a few seconds, it is the most dangerous of places imaginable. Black stripes- sometimes represented in your mind as white bands- will allow you reprieve from the red. Briefly- if you linger longer than a minute trying to gather your strength, you will lose your way…”

“The red?” Winter asks, trying to keep her eyes open and yawning a little.

“Best you don’t ask,” The voice answers quietly. “Just remember- whatever you do, don’t let go of the people you guide, or you’ll lose them forever. You shouldn’t have to worry about such things- you’re still young. I don’t want to give you nightmares.”

“I want to worry!” Winter replies sharply. “I want to grow up-“

 –

The memory cuts short and Winter is flung into the present.

“We have to keep moving,” She mumbles. Summer doesn’t answer with anything but a weak nod. Goliath says nothing, but she can feel the serpent quaking under her hand.

A feeling of indescribable dread falls over her, clenching her heart like the cold clutching her feet. She stares at the three bands separating them from the portal.

“We have to step on each one,” She whispers to herself. “So-“

Winter takes another step forward.

By the powers of divine mercy alone she is spared from being thrust into unconsciousness, and she maintains her grip on Summer, as tight as she can manage, though her hand is suddenly slick with blood. Blood that runs down her skin in a sick wave.

Her skin feels as though it’s been flayed, all at once, and through the sheer shock of it she’s kept from screaming.

There are no words to describe the pain- every single nerve is ablaze, every part of her body is on fire, if she could catch her breath she’d scream until she couldn’t stop.

And it doesn’t abate. It won’t abate. She can hear Summer next to her through the roar in her ears, she can hear her shriek and wants to do the same, but instead, she tugs Summer forward one more step, onto the black band, lifts a foot sticky and slippery with blood, and steps forward.

She trembles, shakes, her body barely capable of standing upright, her heart pounding in an insubstantial chest. She can only imagine what it’s like for Goliath. With such an enormous body the pain would’ve been much more intense- with more of it to attack and more nerves to affect.

She gasps, trying to get her breath back. And her heart freezes, as in the distance, far off, and heard easily above her heavy breathing, there is a chilling, horrible moan.

How long have they been standing here?

She doesn’t know now. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days.

Too long. The dread is back, turning her feet to lead. The portal becomes a haze in her vision, though it’s another step away. So close she could almost reach out and touch it.

“Please don’t,” Summer whimpers, and she squeezes Winter’s hand. “We can’t stop. Please just hurry. Two steps. Come on. We’ll make it.”

Winter takes one step as the moaning comes again, closer. She pulls Summer with her, tugs on Goliath’s fur and forces all three onto the band adjoining the pearly portal.

It puts the previous bands to shame. The respite had dulled it, had even wiped the memory of it clean. The steps before it had attacked their nerves, attacked their senses. This one strikes at her heart and mind.

Something tears into her, rips her memories away, slicing through everything, ripping through certainty.

Who is she?

What is she doing? Where is this? There’s a glow ahead. What’s a glow?

Her body is unrecognizable. Someone is clutching at her hand and tugging her. Forward. Towards the glow. What’s going on? Who is this? There’s an immense monster right beside her! She wants to run, but the hand is keeping her in place.

The girl’s mind breaks, shudders with every new assault. Something is tearing her up inside.

Summer is shielded from it for some reason. Through the connection with Winter, though, she can feel her sister’s anguish and pain, feel her fear. Summer’s empathy cracks under the pressure.

Winter is out of it. Summer stares at the portal. It’s close enough to touch.

“Winter,” She whispers. “Winter!”

The girl hears it, hears the name and clings to it, just long enough to listen, just long enough to hear this woman’s words, to stare at her, into her green and blue eyes.

“Take one step forward. Step through the portal! We can’t go until you do, and-“

A horrific groan, tainted with a slippery, slick evil comes from directly behind Summer. They’ve already lingered too long.

She doesn’t turn around. Instead she shoves Winter with her body and bites down on a cry of fear. “Toughen up, you wuss! We’ll all die!”

Winter fights off the memories, fights off the pain, and stumbles through the portal, dragging Summer and Goliath through with her. As they leave that space between worlds, the portal snaps shut behind them.

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 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.”

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 12

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!

-Eris

(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.

Season’s Refuge.

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.

“Okay.”

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?

“Yes.”

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.

“Miss!”

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.”

“Right.”

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.

That was-

“Yes.”

You want her back, don’t you.

“Yes.”

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.

“Fight. Come.”

Winter sighs. “For one thing I’m not sure-“

“I’ll go.”

“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-

“Come.”

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.