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.

Advertisements

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 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 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.

Demimind: Chapter 11

I am so glad to be back from vacation! (wow is that weird)

Next update on monday, bonus update next sunday? Yeah, let’s make this really confusing! Oh, I dunno, two updates a week seems plenty, really. No need to make it harder than it is. I’ll toss out a bonus update sometime. Until I have concrete data on when it would be prudent to do this, I’m gonna leave the date variable. Feel free to suggest in a comment! Remember, updates are usually Mondays and Fridays!

-Eris

(11)Paths

Winter scrubs her hair with her fingers. It isn’t exactly like using a washcloth or a brush, but it’s what she needs for the moment. She lets the white water cascade over her and run down her shoulders and chest. It’s freezing, but that’s just the way she likes it, and it shuts Summer up for a while. Spring had said that she wouldn’t go nuts as long as she had the pill working.

Assuming he was telling the truth, she has six days now until she’ll lose control and Summer will be left in her weakened post-pregnancy state. Winter isn’t really sure how she should feel about that. If one of them dies, would it cause the other to die too? It’s impossible to tell.

Not without experimenting.

Thomas isn’t awake yet.

Winter runs a bar of white soap down her legs. She won’t stay here forever. Not for the rest of the seven days. She needs time to learn about her power and about what she’s going to do next. Actually, really all she needs to do is find out where she needs to go. That’s what she went into town to figure out in the first place, right?

She has a native of the land. Or at least, of where she was. Does space work like it does in… the real world… here? There are so many questions she has. She can’t really afford to not get any answers for them.

Winter draws the soap up over her bare chest and along her back. A relatively calm moment, really. She soaps down her arms and feet, half-smiling at the thought of some peace and quiet. Two things she’d never thought she’d have.

The ice cold water takes away aches all over, soothes the burns on the back of her hand. Had she forgotten those?

Perish the thought. It had merely been very busy, yesterday. Too busy to notice such small wounds.

She sits down, letting the shower drench her all over. White suds drip down her feet, slide off her toes and pour into the long white grasses here. Really the place could do with some color.

But that’s not the first time she’s thought as much today, and since the place doesn’t seem inclined to just jump up to the task she decides there must be a limit to her control over it.

Shrugging it off, Winter cuts the water flow, banishes the cloud, and tries some magic. She’s drenched in the white stuff now. Now if the white impostor fluid is anything like actual water, it should be a simple matter… 

She gathers the power she stole from the orb yesterday where it rests inside her. She makes an effort to will it into being around her like a sheath, to surround herself with her power like she did before in her fight with Fall. It doesn’t surprise her when nothing happens. If it were that simple, people like Thomas could do it all the time. 

Summer had many insights into his head this morning, not least of which was that he was just like any other pig-headed man. It had occurred to Winter to ask why Summer insisted on spending so much time focused on him then, but it would’ve done no good to antagonize her mind-mate. At least not like that. Not right then.

Maybe later she can have some sort of reve-

-a shout cuts Winter off. Startled, she loses track of her thoughts. She pulls on her frost jeans and frost shirt- remade this morning in an attempt to keep tidy. There was Summer’s problem, never being tidy. If only she had some way to keep her from being so dirty all the time she’s sure she could tolerate half the stuff Summer did with their- sorry, her body-

A second shout- this time with a clear name in its center- pulls her attention. “Winter!”

She pushes through the veil of white she’d drawn around her little shower enclosure. It parts for her as soon as she lets it.

And suddenly, just like that, she sees what’s wrong. Thomas is being pulled through the white ground by tendrils of… stuff. He’s already halfway in and being sucked down to his chin.

She dashes over as the world twists and turns about her as violently as it did before, when she had first come here. What?

No, wait. She… remembers this. Yes!

Winter pulls Thomas out as soon as she reaches him, grabbing his hands and tugging him up beside her. She’s surprised at her strength. He’s as light as a feather in her grip.

His eyes are frightened, but he forces a smile. “Thanks, that was close. What’s going on?”

“Instability pocket,” Winter says calmly. “It’s okay though, we need to leave anyway.”

She tugs him away from the broken and breaking terrain. There’s an edge to the wild of this pocket, and wherever she walks, order comes back, cloud becoming soft under her feet, white swirling back in to banish the dark, stormy feel to the area swirling around her. It looks like she’ll be forging her own path. Can she remember how to get back here if she leaves?

Can she remember how to leave?

Summer isn’t awake yet. She’ll ask when she is, then.

“Miss? Does this usually happen?” Thomas asks.

“No,” Winter replies shortly. “It doesn’t.”

“Oh.”

She slips her hand down to grasp his more firmly, and leads him along. “Stay close. I’m not sure how long we’re walking or where we’re going, but it’s not safe here, and it definitely isn’t safe anywhere without me, so don’t run whatever you do.”

She can feel a familiar cool determination sliding down her spine. Now her heart is slowing. She may not know what to do when there’s just small talk to be made and a shower to take, but this- now, this feeling of control, of knowledge of the unknown and the unshakable solid belief behind her instinct- is something she’s handled since she came into this world. Well, since she can remember coming into this world. Maybe not at the very start. But since midday yesterday at least. That’s a long time, right?

The path she’s been taking is a winding one. Now she stands at the edge of a fading ‘bubble’, of her own ‘pocket’, the limits of her limited memory. Here, at the edge, just beyond her shower enclosure, is a translucent veil of white that forms a dome, arcing up above her head. From far away, she can convince herself the sky is there somewhere, white, but still with the same texture, at least. The unknown lies before her, in a vast, dark expanse. It’s translucent- but there isn’t any light shining. It’s as if there is truly nothing beyond the dome. Thomas clutches her hand tighter.

“Toughen up,” She says, much more confidently than she feels. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

She steps through the veil- it has all the substance of a sheet of water- and starts to pull Thomas along after her when she sees what she’s stepped into.

“Well,” Winter whispers weakly, staring around her.

“What is it, Winter?” Thomas asks, muffled from behind the veil. She gives him a tug and he steps through, stumbles and drops as Winter’s loose grip breaks. He pushes himself up and dusts himself off.

“If you want my definite opinion, Miss,” Thomas says. His voice is achingly cheerful and fake. “This is an improvement!”

He gestures expansively, taking in the complete desolate wasteland that surrounds the two of them.

Well done, Summer whispers in her ear dryly. You’ve stumbled into Barrier.

Winter sits down in the grit and holds her head in her hands. She’d begun to enjoy the peace and quiet.

Demimind: Chapter 10

Well! It’s the tenth chapter. A milestone, if I do say so myself. Actually it’s the eleventh, if you count the prologue. Remember that you can read any of the chapters by navigating up to the black bar at the top of the page and clicking on Demimind chapters. 

Enjoy.

-Eris

(10)Memory

Winter’s eyes are open, but she doesn’t register what she sees until Summer screams at her the third time.

Winter!

The world around her is in utter chaos. Twisting, writhing tendrils of light and dark lash out from all around. Thomas, the gateguard, stands by her side, holding onto her hand with the attitude of a scared, confused child lingering close to his mother. There is no consistency in this place.

No up, no down- everything is an agonizingly bright sea, or a coarse dark wasteland. It shifts and rocks and rolls in her vision, though she feels very firmly planted on the ground. Hissing, bubbling and shrieking fills the air, the whole world is a tortured temporal mess that wriggles and squirms in her vision until she feels she might be sick.

“Stop,” She says softly. She can feel the truth of her words as she says them, and the chaos doesn’t frighten her. “I know where I am and what this used to be. This is not how I left it.”

The world around her stops moving and falls, slowly, into place, colors and shapes changing- almost apologetically.

She turns, sees clouds of white in the ceiling- the sky?- and the twisting tendrils that once slipped up from the floor instead still, forming white grass. Everything is white here, different shades of brightness, but white all the same. Before her, three steps forward, is a table. The horizon becomes white, the earth underfoot is white.

“A pocket world,” Thomas whispers to himself, and Winter gives him a strange look.

“How did you know that?” She asks, genuinely surprised. Inside she wonders how she knew that. “I didn’t take you for a magic user. I don’t see how anyone but a magician could know.”

Thomas clears his throat and looks away. “I’m not a magic user. My dad was, but I’m not. Before the world went to hell and back- pardon my language, miss- my family was right respected. Long history of keeping portals of one kind or another. As it happens, my granddad used to tell my dad stories about pocket worlds. Folds in space, he called them. Places the Gods lived.”

“We’re not Gods,” Winter says quietly. “I’m not a God. There is no God. We’re just regular people.”

“Begging your pardon, miss, but you know at least two Words of power,” Thomas responds mildly. “If that ain’t God material, what is?”

Winter thinks about that. “There’ve been sorcerers who knew Words of power, haven’t there?”

Thomas shakes his head ruefully. “If there were, miss, I never learned about ’em. Sorry.”

Winter decides it’s time for a change of subject. She goes to take a seat in the white grass- but no sooner does she think of sitting down than a chair appears and forms under her butt from the vastness of white around them.

Creepy, Summer remarks. Never got used to this dimension.

“What do you know about Bringer-of-Spring?” Winter asks.

Thomas shrugs, then smiles, taking a seat as well. The world seems not to care what he thinks- when he sits, he sits down in the grass.  “What do you want to know about him, miss?”

“My name is Winter, it’s… kind of weird when you call me miss like that,” Winter says wearily. “As for what I want to know- tell me about how he is, what he does. Just about him, I guess. I didn’t have the chance to know him very well before we were… separated.”

“He built the town I was born in, mi- Winter. He’s sort of like a local, ah, God there,” Thomas starts, then stops, plainly uncomfortable now that he actually has to think about it. “He never really did much magic- but, strangest thing, it was in the middle of the snow plains, where he built it. Somehow he made it so that the snow and cold is sort of… surrounding it, but not affecting it. Like he took it… out of time or something.”

“What’s the name of the town?” Winter asks curiously. “There’s no sign or anything.”

“Uh, Everspring.”

“Very nice,” Winter says politely. A bit boring and cliché, Summer snips.

“Well, the town is always just warm enough to be outside, without ever being too hot or too cold. It’s sort of stuck between the two seasons- well, you know how Spring is, right?”

The man or the season? Summer asks dryly.

“Yes,” Winter replies.

“The town never sees winter- er, your pardon, not you, but the time of year- and it never sees summer or fa-” Thomas stops himself in time, looking around fearfully before he continues. “Or autumn. The trees are always healthy and the crops always grow and harvest time comes whenever Bringer feels like it. It’s magic, pure and simple, and it’s legend- and truth- that it was Bringer-of-Spring who did it.”

There’s admiration in Thomas’s tones, so much that Summer wonders how much is an act. Winter has no such thoughts, nodding for Thomas to continue. “Did he ever say anything about Words of power?”

“No, miss Winter. He never did. Not to my family at least, and we were closer’n most to him,” Thomas says. He sighs heavily again. “Sorry I don’t know much about him. He’s pretty mysterious.”

“He is,” Winter says shortly, suddenly lost in thought.

He saved you, you know. Summer volunteers. Let you run away when you needed to.

“Yes,” Winter replies quietly. “He did.”

“Sorry, miss?” Thomas asks, forgetting himself.

For a moment, a blissful, blessed moment, Winter is left alone in her head and can think. She figures she may as well make the most of it. She stands, looking around this white world. It seems safe from Fall, for now. She wonders at her brother. Where did He come from? What does He want? What had Summer taken from Him? Or had He meant Winter? Had she herself taken something from Him? If only she could remember.

She half-expects a book to appear out of the ether at that, with all of the answers. She’s almost disappointed when it doesn’t. Summer seems to guess at what she wants.

This place, as I understand it, is made from memory, Winter. It can’t remember what you don’t for you. I remember you told me there was a place that you stored your memories once, I remember watching you do it. But I can’t for the life of me remember how to get into that place.

“We’ve got seven days to kill,” Winter says to no one in particular. “Why not?”

Not knowing exactly what she’s doing, she walks off through the white grass. Thomas, not knowing what else to do, follows.

After a time- with a white forest of needled trees visible in the distance- she reaches a white pond set in white earth, flowing and swirling- a pond of opaque fluid, like glue or paint. She reaches down and cups some in her hand- but it feels as insubstantial as cloud. She watches it slip between her fingers and trickle back into the greater mass.

It triggers…. something, a memory rushing from the blackness of her mind and striking her squarely.

– 

A pond. She is near a pond, a blue pond, clear crystal blue, like the sky. Trees are visible off in the distance, but around her green grasses tangle with her feet. Green grass tipped with brown.

No, she sits with her knees up near her chest, and at her feet, half in the water and half out, there lies Spring on his back, his strange hair tickling her toes. His head rests on his arms.

“You should go home, Winter-Long-Frost,” he says, tone gentle as wind through leafy branches.

“You… you can’t tell me what to do,” Winter says, in barely more than a whisper. “Summer said to be out here. So I’m going to stay out here until she says for me to go inside.”

“She’s probably just pulling a prank, Frost,” Spring remarks. “I’d thought you’d get better at recognizing them, but Summer is right- you’re too easy to manipulate.”

“I don’t need your sympathy,” Winter snipes back, her sharpness surprising her. “I only listen to her because she’s older than me.”

“Summer will always be older than Winter,” Spring says mildly. “Are you going to let that dictate your life forever? What would it take to make you do things for yourself? It kills Fall a little when you get hurt, you know, and Summer will laugh every single time.”

“Fall?” Winter asks. She stares down at Spring suspiciously. “What about The-Leaves-Fall? Why should he care if I get hurt?”

“Winter, it’s almost painful watching you lie. Fall is ever so much more than a ‘brother’ to you. We’re all family, but you and Fall are like lovers, that much is no secret.”

Winter feels a sharp blush creeping up, starting with her tickled toes. “You really are shameless. I really hate you sometimes, you know that?”

You really hate me, not Summer? That’s a start.”

 –

“Winter!” Thomas hisses. “Miss Winter, what are you doing?”

Winter. You’ve just been standing there for close to ten minutes now. We have days to kill, but this is ridiculous.

Winter’s eyes focus and she comes back to herself. She gazes into the pool still, calling up a memory of Autumn’s face now. It swirls into shape in the liquid, formed of whiteness but still visible as the contours of the horned man’s visage. To Winter, it rises from the pool and stares back at her. She reaches out, leaning perilously close to the edge, her hand outstretched, seemingly completely oblivious to Thomas’s pleas or Summer’s admonition.

After a few seconds it becomes apparent she’s out of it.

“What is she doing?” Thomas asks himself. His eyes are drawn to the figure in the pool, flat in the strange white liquid. It looks startlingly similar to an old portrait of Lord Fa- Autumn He can’t help but wonder if it was drawn from life. 

Summer sighs mentally and rolls her figurative eyes.

If I knew I’d tell ya. If I knew and you could hear me, anyway.

 –

“Lord Autumn. What will you do to help us?”

The merchant is quaking in his boots. This close to the horned man it’s extremely difficult to keep your wits, its said his gaze can cause insanity, and the merchant looks as if he believes it.

Lord Autumn shrugs his shoulders expressively, half a smile creasing his lips. “I suppose that depends. Dear sister, what do you think is the best course of action?”

Summer grins and looks the merchant dead in the eyes. “You want me to decide a peasant’s fate? Lost your touch of mercy?”

“If I wanted mercy I’d let Bringer decide,” Fall says, his tone bored. “I think this case requires your rather unique touch.”

Summer regards the merchant. He’s a bit of a short, fat man, sweaty and covered in the thick stench of fear and apprehension. His face is one of a tired traveler. He stands before two legends. Things couldn’t have gone well to bring him here in the first place.

Summer shrugs. Empathy she might have, but sympathy has never been her strong point. She decides to defer this decision to her younger sister. Should be worth a laugh. 

In a flash, she shifts shape, becoming Winter, and leaving her mind-mate confused and too hot in what used to be Summer’s seat and wearing what used to be Summer’s clothes.

Here, Winter. Decide this case for me, Summer says. I’m too bored to bother.

Winter’s eyes, two piercing blue orbs, rest squarely on the merchant. She’s about to open her mouth when Fall interrupts her thought.

“She wants you to go home, pick two of your finest wares, and deliver them to the nearest temple of Winter. When you have done that you will be cleansed of evil, and you may converse freely with your rival without fear of hatred or anger,” Fall says. His expression is stormy, but it’s not the merchant’s fault, Winter is sure of that.

The merchant, however, flees anyway after the necessary farewells and thank yous.

When he is gone, Summer forces her way back into Winter’s body, shoving her weaker sibling aside and letting her resume her usual position- watching.

“Well that was boring,” She grumps. “You should have let Frosty decide.”

“Summer, I do not approve of you using our sister like that,” Fall says, his tone amiable, though his expression is murder. “It hurts her to have to make decisions so quickly.”

“It was just a joke. You ruined it,” Summer snaps. “I’m older than both of you, you can at least pretend that makes a difference.”

“To me it most certainly does not,” Fall says dryly. Leaves crackle in his voice. “A few moments difference is hardly something to go by. Bringer-of-Spring came before you. In any case, I was prepared to accept your interesting punishments for the poor man. That does not mean you needed to take Winter out into this hot throne room and force her to make snap decisions about his life.”

“She may be your lover, but that’s-“

Lord Autumn’s eyes glint dangerously. “Did I say I ask this out of love?”

“No, but-“

“Then do not place words in my mouth. You delight in tormenting her. You may be older, but I am more powerful, and I will not have you picking on your twin sister. There will be order, or there will be no mischief whatsoever, and you may find yourself imprisoned.”

Summer nearly snorts, but stops herself in time. She isn’t a fool. “Fine, brother. But one day I won’t need to listen to you.”

“When that day comes, I shall make pigs fly in celebration,” Fall says solemnly. “Perhaps also the world will cease to spin and the Cycle will stop turning.”

 –

Winter pitches forward into the pool face first. It surprises her so much she forgets herself, and takes in a lungful of the liquid.

You really are a ditz, you know that?

She surfaces after a moment, blinks. The liquid doesn’t seem to obstruct her breathing at all. She still coughs it up. It’s uncomfortably warm, even if it has all the substance of a cloud.

“Winter? Er. Miss Frost?”

Winter stares up at Thomas. “How do you know more of my name?” She asks, thickly. Her head feels full of white foam.

“You were mumbling. Staring at the… the water, and mumbling,” Thomas says sheepishly. “I just guessed.”

He’s lying, Summer says flatly. An image, complete with sound, appeared in the pool. He watched the whole thing. Now he’s terrified of you, I’d guess.

Winter sighs. She runs her fingers through her hair. It’s sticky and greasy. After the events of the today, well, that probably shouldn’t be so surprising.

“I need a bath,” She remarks. “Probably two.”

“You’re on the right track,” Thomas says without thinking. He looks like he regrets it immediately.

Seeing his expression she almost laughs. “You don’t need to look like that. I’m not going to bite, Even if I remembered how. And you’re right anyway.”

She steps out of the pond, wiping off the… stuff… from her frost jeans and shirt. It’s pleasantly cool here. She sits on the bank of the little pond and lies down in the grass. It’s been so long. Maybe in the morning she can worry about where she’ll go next or what she’ll do.

Mirroring her thoughts, the world darkens around her, white sky turning black. Thomas is greatly disturbed by this.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m going to sleep,” Winter says irritably. “Stop being such a baby. You can rest too.”

She closes her eyes. She neither sees nor cares what Thomas does, so long as she can finally get some rest. The power of the orb seems to have settled down the moment she set foot in this place.

It’s a bit of a comfort knowing she doesn’t have to worry about Fall here.

It’s a bit more of a comfort knowing she doesn’t need to worry about anything at all until morning.

Her dreams take her quickly, surrounding normally white thoughts with black until there’s no white at all.

Demimind: Chapter 9

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

-Eris

(9)Flight or Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She doesn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her feet shake under her.

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

Fight because of her.

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

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

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

Who is about to lose everything.

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

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

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

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

Feed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footsteps, crunching on frozen grass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

Thomas disappears.

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

You complete and total dumb-…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demimind: Chapter 8

(8)To All A Light Devoured

“You’re a monster.”

Winter stands, facing Summer with arms folded. The latter of the two takes a step back from the heat of that strange-eyed gaze. It’s one they share, though Summer’s is mirrored to hers- one green and one blue.  They stare, not like accusing orbs, more like accusing suns.

An accusing son.

He stands there now too, by Winter’s side. The concentrated force of their eyes makes her shrink away. The boy’s eyes are pale white. Blind? 

Her son.

Where did she learn that?

“Will you pay for what you’ve done?” The boy asks. His voice is like a dagger, cutting at her belly, its razor edges parting her skin, and now blood covers her lower body. She’s drenched in it, it cascades in a flood, a dam that has burst, dripping down her thighs and onto the cold, unforgiving nothing. Oblivion. She is standing on the edge of oblivion now, watching the blood spiral away into nothingness, the nothingness she’ll fall in, she’ll topple in if she gives way even for a moment.

She teeters, waves her arms for balance, but a hand reaches out of the slit in her belly and pulls her forward, grasping her neck, stretching impossibly long. Spring’s hand, Spring’s head has also slid forth from the cut in her womb and it grins at her, baring razor sharp fangs, no, not Spring, it is the Spider Queen, it is that fell eight armed monster and it hurts, it hurts so badly, she can feel her muscles tightening, tightening until they threaten to snap.

She pitches forward into oblivion, and for a few moments, hangs there.

Then she drops, a stone, a stone with a strangely aching cheek, as if something hard struck it, like a stone, like herself. For she is a rock. She is falling as a rock.

And now she is falling.

And now, she is falling.

Now.

now.

“Now!” Spring says sharply. And his hand is already swinging when she opens her eyes, so he strikes her cheek. Her gaze is a glare. It startles him so much he jumps, loses hold of the blade and hears a thunk as it slides to the hilt into a crack between the floorboards, missing his already sore toe by a hair.

And there she is, lying on the mat in front of him.  It’s Winter. Her cheek stings, Spring can feel it stinging, he can also feel his belly slit open. He glances at Winter’s belly- it’s whole, and decidedly unpregnant, for which he is grateful. He isn’t certain if unpregnant is a word, but he’s certain that it’s what he would use to describe her condition.

Yes.

He breathes a short sigh of relief, letting go of some of his tension. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. If Winter’s eyes are open, she’ll be awake soon, and with some luck she’ll also respond to the cold favorably.

No twins, then. He stares at the bundle wrapped in the cloth, wrapped in the grasses from the skirt and shirt, the woven magics of Summer. He strokes the baby’s hair absently. Strangely enough it doesn’t seem inclined to cry. It breathes, though, so he doesn’t need to give it a swat. Besides that he’s not sure if that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. He’d only done a few births that had worked out. What happens if it doesn’t work out?

Summer nearly died. There had been more blood than Spring could’ve credited, it had taken the combined magic strength of the wand and the heat from the whole of his territory to provide enough magic power to heal her again. She’ll still have a scar.

Is it a boy? He studies the baby carefully. Or is it a girl?

Its skin is what worries him. Its skin is bronzeish peach from the waist down and incredibly pale, like fresh snow, from the waist up. It reminds him of Summer’s skin- the bronze, that is, and the pale could only belong to Winter. Very curious. In all his time pretending to be a doctor he’d never seen anything like it. Generally babies resembled both father and mother, but not having seen the father Spring can’t fathom what he looked like.

He decides it’s just a mystery. No sense finding out now. As his grandfather had always said: “It’s nothing to do with the money, all I really want is a drink, so here’s a hundred coins, go out and buy me a damn good drink or I’ll lop your ear off.”

Actually, when he’d got older he’d just sort of learned to take the coins and buy himself the drink. After his grandfather was dead, anyway. It’s not like he was going to use the coins. But ah, the mind does wander in old age. What was he thinking about?

The baby, that was it. Summer and Winter’d probably notice the difference in skin color and have a row, but it’s no big deal to Spring.

It’s not his baby, after all.

Winter stirs on the mat, and he starts, staring at her again. Will she wake?

She does.

Her eyes snap open, and she sits bolt upright, rubbing her arms, and sweating profusely already. Her eyes wander about the room until they lock onto Spring.

“Who are you?” She asks sharply.

“My name is Bringer-of-Spring,” He says smoothly. “You are Winter-Long-Frost, I suppose. We’re brother and sister.”

She seems to think about this for a moment.

“Yes. My belly feels sticky.”

She looks down at her belly, then turns and seems to notice the redness that soaked into the mat. Summer’s blood.

“Is this a hospital?”

Spring thinks for a moment about how he should answer that. “Yes and no. It’s more a refuge for the faint of soul.”

Winter, ever sharp, shrugs and sighs. “What’s going on? Why is it so hot?”

She focuses then, stares at the bundle in Spring’s arms. “That’s Summer’s baby,” She says flatly. “Why do you have Summer’s baby?”

“Well, aside from giving her hospitality, she had a forced birth on the mat you’re sitting on,” Spring replies dryly, all cheerfulness replaced by the tired feeling of explanation. “And, since you ask, I am holding this baby because Summer, obviously, cannot hold it herself.”

“It’s hard to think,” Winter says blearily, though it’s unlikely she heard herself. Her eyes are drooping for some reason. It’s the heat. Yes, that’s it. Heat saps her strength. She remembers that now. “It’s very hot.”

Spring blinks, then smacks his forehead and snaps his fingers, murmuring a word which drops into the air like flash-ice. Immediately a cool breeze floods the room, blowing in through a window and over Winter, clearing her thoughts and blasting through the heat fog.

“Ah!” She cries. “Summer’s baby! Is she hurt? Summer is bound, I can’t take care of her baby for her! I don’t know the first thing about it!”

Spring rolls his eyes and gives her a lopsided grin. “Well actually I think I’m the one meant to take care of it. Seeing as I helped to birth it and have a degree in medical science. Not that science is really valid here, I suppose. But if it were then I would be overqualified.”

Winter’s eyes narrow. “A bit overeager, aren’t you?”

“My dear woman, my sweet sister, why would I lie to you?” Spring asks quietly. His voice sounds as weary as Winter looks. “Think.”

“Well,” Winter begins, and then stops. “I don’t know. Who are we? Are you my brother? Really?”

Bringer-of-Spring stands up, easing tension in first one leg, and then the other. “Yes. We are related by blood. Only Summer knew of it. Well, technically only Summer is related to me by blood, but you’re both in one package.” He smiles. “You are related to me by mind.”

“That,” Winter says slowly. “Is a bit of a stretch. I barely know you and it’s a bit of a-“

“What I mean is,” Spring interrupts hastily. “We’re alike because we are both outshined and outmatched by our older siblings. Well, to be frank, your older sibling. Not your body-mate- in that you are sisters by coincidence.”

“My older sibling?” Winter says, though there’s a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach and she can’t say why.

“Better known by his name and title, Fall.”

At the precise moment that Spring utters the name, there is a rumbling beneath Winter’s rear- beneath the foundations of the shrine itself. Before she can react, everything is twisting and trembling.

The entire shrine is shaken to its very rafters, the lamp hanging from the wall guttering, the flame finally doused by its violent shaking and in a flash of sparks, a crash as it strikes the floor. It burns there, a tiny flickering fire, before a cold wind douses it again.

After the aftershocks fade away, and Spring relights and replaces the lamp, and only after that, does he talk again.

“Sorry, ah, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains,” Spring says sheepishly. “I forgot.”

“How the hell do you forget something like that?” Winter asks irritably, rubbing her head where it smacked into the floor. She sits up again.

Spring’s only response is a shrug.

“Hey! You changed the subject on me!” Winter accuses. “Why are you so eager to look after Summer’s baby?”

“Why are you?” Spring snipes back, cradling the baby as if it were truly his own. “Tell me that, eh?”

“I’m not,” Winter snaps. “I’m just-“

“Excellent! Then I’ll do it!”

He rushes over to the desk on the far side of the room, picks up a quill from its surface and begins to write. There isn’t a chair for him to sit in, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.

“So what do we do?” Winter asks, peering over Spring’s shoulder. Her mind-brother shrugs again, flashes her a grin.

“That all depends on what you’re willing to give up,” He says quietly. “What would you do to have Summer unbound?”

“Would it solve my memory problems?” All Winter can think about is how nice it would be to have her memory back.

“Yes and no,” Spring hazards. “To be honest, I have no idea what it will do. I’ve never had need of it before.”

“How encouraging,” Winter mutters to herself. She glances again at what Spring is bent over. On the desk in front of him, the baby cradled in one arm, he draws frantically with a quill in what she prays is red ink. From the smell, though, thick in her nostrils, it’s probably something closer to liquid red licorice. The scroll he writes on is almost smoking, and his hand is moving in a blur she can barely even see.

“Why aren’t you using a pen?” She asks. She picks one up from the table and stares at it. Something about its length, about the words written on the plastic catches her eye…

“Put that down,” Spring answers without looking up. “They’re much more dangerous than mere pens, or I’d have more than two of them. It’s a wand.”

Winter arches an eyebrow, but says nothing, setting it back. Part of her feels uncharacteristically sharp, and she can’t put her finger on it…

I’m here, you doofus.

“Oh,” She says, very quietly. “I wondered when you’d wake up again. Did you know you had a baby?”

Yes. Spring is holding it.

“So you have paid attention,” Winter says, more dryly than she means to. Her belly is boiling with something like anger. It also still hurts, as if she’d been cut instead of her sister. “Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”

I didn’t think it’d come up so fast!

“Well how much time were you going to allow for it?

Look, I never thought that time would progress for me while bound. Sure I was on the brink of bearing when I challenged He-Whose-Name-Shakes-

“You knew about the baby and you still decided to fight him?” She shouts, and then stops. Spring is giving her a queer look.

“Ladies,” He says softly. “Please calm down. You’re scaring the baby, and if it wakes up and decides it’s time to cry, if I get one rune wrong, this entire shrine could explode. While I’m sure I’d be fine, it’d hurt the townsfolk and probably kill you and Summer in your weakened states. Kindly save the shouting match for later. Thank you.”

His voice is quite soothing, so Winter decides to force a smile and a nod. On the inside she’s stone cold, and every single part of her trembles with barely contained fury. Summer had the nerve to talk to her as if she had no right! Clearly the woman has no sense of honor or duty or anything, always going on as if she can…

Her memory buzzes for a moment, hisses in her ears and her mind. There’s a splitting sharp pain searing through the top of her head. It drops Winter to one knee before it passes. What happened? What was she thinking about? As the pain fades, she straightens and leans on the desk. Suddenly her thoughts are worse than ever. But…

Yes, Summer. She really had no right to the baby. Winter is sure she can take care of it just as well as the woman in her head could. Which is a full change from before when she was equally sure she couldn’t, but she’s not about to admit it.

What is she going to do about Summer, anyway? How could she go about getting rid of her? The woman has been nothing but trouble so far, after all. Nothing but… trouble.

Winter stares at the desk, and at her hand splayed on the desk. Her vision swims, and for a single moment, her skin flashes bronze from pale white.

“Steady! Winter!” A voice says sharply, near her ear. She sways, is unsurprised when an arm wraps around her waist and a too-hot hand covers her mouth for a moment, forcing something between her lips.

“Swallow.”

Whatever it is in her mouth feels like a red hot coal, but she swallows it without thinking and lets it burn. At least the horrible chill will leave her for a moment. She’s so cold in a moment she’s sure she’ll be shivering. And so angry.

The arms release her. Her vision clears and her head stops spinning. She shakes herself to clear the feeling as well, but the cold doesn’t quite leave her. Which is right. She’s Winter, yes?

She turns and glances at Spring, who is shaking off frost and snow. She glances down at the floor of the shrine and notices, for the first time, that snow and ice have taken root in the floor- for want of better word- snaking in lines wherever her feet touch.

“Do try to stay calm,” Spring pleads. “It’s best for us all when I don’t have to touch you in order to keep you from going bonkers.”

“Oh,” Winter replies stupidly. “Well then. What have you made?”

“It’s… a latent ability preparation system. Or LAPS for short.”

“Laps,” Winter says flatly. “Really?”

“Oh shut up,” Spring snips irritably. “Anyway, it’s a pill which will keep you from needing to switch places with Summer for seven days. At the end of the seven days it releases the energy built up and allows Summer to function in her body for seven days. Then the cycle should, in theory, repeat.”

“What, forever?” Winter asks suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that Summer’ll have to let you out at all,” Spring says dryly. “The only reason I’ve developed this at all is because it’ll piss her off to know she’ll need to allow you any time. And because I know it’s best to let Summer out as well as Winter. You can’t have one facet without the other- it damages your memories. This device-“

“It’s a pill,” Winter points out. “You can just say ‘pill’. I had it. Tasted like a burning hot coal.”

“-will make sure that you don’t go insane,” Spring finishes, ignoring Winter’s interruption.

Now that piques Winter’s light-headed interest. “Insane?”

Spring sighs. “When one of you is trapped, the other one gets all the stress of being confined. You’ll feel caged and it will get on your nerves to the point where you eventually snap. You have to feel both Summer’s and your own emotions, as well as the terror of being trapped which Summer can’t feel because the chemicals in her body aren’t active. Only yours are, so only you will feel it. Don’t ask me why it works that way, our brother is responsible for it,” He finishes smoothly. “As for why Fa- er, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains- did this, I have no idea. I’m sure Summer could tell you some things.”

Winter listens carefully. She understands completely, of course. It all makes perfect sense. She nods when Spring seems to have finished. “Okay. I think I’ve got the idea. Thanks!”

Spring rolls his eyes and stands up straight. “It’s the least I could do, really. My sisters, now I need your help.”

Awfully to the point, isn’t he?

“You remember him, does he usually do this?” Winter hisses back.

Yeah, pretty much.

Spring ignores this and waits.

“Well, you did help us. What do you need?” Winter asks warily.

“A drop of blood,” Spring replies, suddenly sheepish and not looking at Winter’s face.

“I should think you got enough of Summer’s,” Winter says flatly. “It’s all over the mat.”

“Yes, yes,” Spring says hastily. “No, I mean I need some of your blood in particular.”

“How can Summer help with that?” Winter isn’t feeling so comfortable about this. But the man did help her, after all.

“She already has,” Spring says. “No, all I really need is for you to hold still and hold your arm out.”

Winter lifts the limb and stares at her brother warily. “What are you going to AH-“

She immediately tugs it away, clutching a hand over her arm, crimson seeping out between her fingers. Spring didn’t appear to move. One moment she’d stood there, arm out, the next Spring is holding up a vial filled with her blood and she’s clutching her cut limb.

And then as Spring returns to the desk and gently replaces the vial back on its surface, Summer notices the silence.

Something is wrong. It’s day still, isn’t it? There are no crickets, no birds. It’s dead quiet out there. And look at the windows!

Winter glances around. Darkness has flooded the world. It can be seen through the bare windows of the room. While never exactly bright, the shrine is now so shrouded in the black from outside it reminds Winter of the cave, back with her Servant.  She hadn’t noticed at first. Her eyes had just adjusted to the gloom. She’d assumed night had fallen…

But even then there’d be owls and similar making noises, right? But there’s not a sound from outside, and as Spring straightens and turns back, she can see that his smile has turned to a tight-lipped frown.

“Night comes awfully early around here,” He says quietly. “But it most certainly does not come this early. Something else is at work-“

The lamp flickers and gutters as another cold breeze hisses in through the windows. Spring moves to close it and reels back as another gust of wind hurls a flood of red and yellow leaves into the shrine. “Oh,” He says quietly, adjusting the baby in his arms. “Well.”

There’s the distant sound of the double gate guarding the entrance slamming open, then footsteps on stone.

Moments later a man bursts into the room, and Summer, still watching from Winter’s head, recognizes him as Thomas the gate guard. The baby, quiet until now, decides it’s time to cry.

“Bringer-of-Spring!” He shouts, panting for breath, trying to be heard over the baby’s wails and Spring’s desperate attempts to get it to hush. “A man, hooded, has appeared at the gates! He claims his name is forbidden and that he seeks a woman- by short name name of Winter! What should we do?”

Spring’s eyes lift from the baby- which hasn’t stopped crying- and pierce Winter, nailing her to the spot. Her blood runs hot under the pressure of that gaze. “I think it’s about time you told me why you’ve got your brother’s binding upon you in the first place, Winter,” He says grimly. “And I don’t even care which one of you it was who provoked Him.”

Outside and on cue, the wind howls as it tries to tear the shrine down around them.

Demimind: Chapter 7

I’ll make a long story short and just say that it’s been complicated lately. I’ll post more about it monday, maybe sooner. Until then, enjoy Chapter Seven (7).

Oh, and about that. It was sort of wrong, for me, when I wrote it. It’s not that I think it goes too far, just that the way it was originally written did not quite fit the characters. I’ve since gone through and messed and tweaked and snipped at it to my satisfaction, and in some places it’s been completely rewritten. But that’s fine, because I do like the end result better than the original.

While not necessarily more concise, it gets the point across less clumsily than before. And believe me, it’s possible- I was fevered when I first wrote the chapter.

Anyway, enjoy, again,

-Eris

(7)Shrine

“Do come in!” Spring says cheerfully, nearly dragging Summer bodily into the interior of the shrine. “We have so much to discuss. How long have you been with child?”

What? “What?” Summer asks, bewildered. “I’m with-“

“Child! Is it a boy, a girl? Did the doctors tell you a bunch of nasty lies? Don’t listen to them, you know, can’t trust doctors. They’re all bastards, take it from me- I used to be a doctor.”

Memories come back to Summer in a trickle. “You used to be a policeman, too,” She says warily, trying to focus. There’s a crunching noise and Spring lets go of her hand. She shakes it absentmindedly, and stares at the man. There’s a nagging voice in her head that won’t go away. Her belly feels peculiar, too, though she’d never admit it aloud.

“Yes, yes!” Spring shouts, hopping on one foot for a moment and rubbing his toe. It would appear he rammed it into the last stone step on the way up. “I was once an officer of the law as well! It’s fortunate I ran into you before you met up with the gate guards, but how on earth did you get in?”

Here is a long hallway, lined with torches and lit by candles. The torches are not even aflame, which strikes Summer as odd. Still, Spring hops down the hall and into the room beyond, circular by what shape of it is visible. When Summer steps in after him, she affirms this for herself. Yes. It is circular.

She pauses in the doorway, unwilling to continue in. It’s not that she doesn’t trust him, of course. She just doesn’t trust him.

“Oh, you know,” She replies vaguely. “I gave them what they wanted.”

“What did they want then?” Spring asks brightly. “Coin? A dinner date?”

“A show,” Summer says flatly. His attitude is actually starting to wear on her nerves, and she’s just now begun to remember why she never liked him in the first place. She gazes around again.

All around the walls curve- she’d always been fascinated by that sort of wavy element to Spring’s shrines. There Spring is, massaging his foot, sitting on the mat in the middle of the floor, still beaming and smiling so wide his mouth endangers the sides of his face. He’s short- the size difference outside was due to him standing on an upraised stone step- barely an inch taller than Summer. His strange hair waves a little as he looks up at her.

Though his hair is short, sticking straight up it looks long and extends a good foot upward from his head. His body is long and lanky, and very thin, like sticks held together by spit and sheer brightness. Summer can only stare.

She realizes she has so many questions and she’s not at all sure she can ask them of this man. She knows so little about who he is, despite being related to him as one of the Seasons. She opens her mouth to speak, to accuse or shout or something, when it happens.

It is by no means gentle- it’s a squeezing, as if every muscle in her belly and thighs tightened up at once, painfully so.

Summer’s belly feels heavy all of a sudden. There’s a jolt, and suddenly she’s leaning against the doorway for support. “What?” She whispers. Her free hand drops down to her belly, strokes it incredulously through the impromptu woven garment. Is she pregnant? There’s a kick, from inside, and it frightens the life out of her for a moment.

You can’t remember? Well I have no idea. It’s not part of my memory. All I can do is watch when you do something stupid.

Spring’s face is still cheerful. “So when is it due?” He asks bluntly. His piercing blue gaze locks onto Summer’s. “The baby.”

“I don’t know,” Summer mumbles.

Why are we even here? Why are we talking to this man, we don’t even know who he is! Or at least, I don’t. I think. Have we met him before?

“Really? How long have you been carrying it?”

“Carrying…?” Summer’s head is ringing, her arms and legs feel far too heavy. Lead. In her body. In her blood, weighing her down. And there’s another frightful contraction, thighs burning, head spinning again. It hurts. Is it supposed to hurt?

“The baby!” Spring says sharply. “Summer?”

“I….” There’s a gripping, sharp pain in her stomach for a moment. It recedes slowly, ebbing away. She takes a deep breath, and then shakes herself to clear her fogging mind. Her body feels so heavy. “What’s going on?”

Then her voice again, answering herself, free from the pain. “You’ve lost your memory, Summer.”

Spring stands up abruptly, expression blank. “Who are you?”

“I am Winter. I remember meeting you now, at least a little,” Summer feels herself answer. “Do you remember me?”

“Winter was shorter,” Spring says sharply. “So you’re in Summer’s body.”

“I am currently bound within Summer, yes.”

“How are you talking?” Spring asks.

“I don’t know,” Winter admits through Summer’s voice. “But the important thing is that I remember some of what I didn’t before, and now Summer is the one who has forgotten, and-“

Summer feels her whole body tighten, tense up again, burning agony now in her belly and her blood, like fire, like a star in her womb. It tears at her, and for a few moments she’s blind, her eyes are shut tight. Her limbs lock up and her fingers suddenly clench with pain. It eats at her, tearing her up from the inside. What’s happening?

Blood, something slippery, inside of her. She can feel it running down her arms and legs, though when she looks, panicked, they’re bare.

And pain hits again, in a wave, in a stream, gripping her waist and her abdomen all at once and shaking her, twisting her like a fist, though she can feel her feet on the floor. Her legs shake for a moment, and her mind snaps out like a candle.

Her head smacks the floor with a thud.

Spring stares, pausing for a heartbeat, then curses loudly, striding to the desk on the far wall, then turning and staring at Summer again, shaking his head.

Stupid!

While no true expert in medical science, Spring feels as if the situation has turned more than a little dire. This is no time to be going through his notes. It is written: Hesitation is failure, failure is death. He’d said that himself, some time or another.

Spring takes three steps and kneels next to Summer. He snaps his fingers, and a tendril of wood grows up from the floor, like a new sapling, tiny and thin, and he snaps it loose quickly. It takes a new shape in his hand, forming a long wand. He mutters to himself for a moment.

“No, it’s complicated now,” He murmurs quietly. “It won’t do to lose them both, whatever it is that’s happening is not normal. The nearest doctor is… nonexistent, in this time. Damn. Not just Summer, but Winter too? Unacceptable. And in her condition she wouldn’t survive that kind of magic.”

He draws the new wand down across Summer’s garments, cutting it all loose in a flash. With a businesslike flick of its tip, he marks her bronze skin- below her navel. A word drops into the air, flashing, smoking, and where the smoke collects on Summer’s body, lines appear. Her vital lines, her life lines, the place where a cut would mean death. Spring’s spell hums in his mind.

Carefully, lips pressed together, Spring taps the tip of his instrument to Summer’s belly. Yes. He can feel the baby, twisted around, unable to move, wanting out too soon, exercising power it shouldn’t have. Some strange lifeforce, hot and cold at once, burning with the power of a nova and yet frozen in her as a chunk of pure winter. No wonder the poor girl passed out. The baby doesn’t feel quite developed, but there are ways to… speed things along, for which Spring is profoundly thankful.

“I’m sorry, Summer,” He says, and there’s not hint of a tremor in his voice, though his hand shakes. “I’m sure, were you yourself, you’d want me to stay out of this, but Fate is a fickle mistress.”

He takes a deep breath, steadies himself, and makes his first incision.

Demimind: Chapter 6

(6)Summer-Heat, Spring-Bringer

“There’s a naked woman at the gates!” A guard yells to his partner. “What do we do?”

“Is she good looking?” His partner asks, plainly bored.

“Yes!”

“Just gawk at her until she leaves. If she doesn’t have any clothes she’s probably a prostitute, and we’ve no shortage of prostitutes.”

Summer hears all of this as she’s walking up, and has half a mind to incinerate both of them. She’s not sure what stops her, really. It’s as if a part of her rebels against the idea on general principle. Strange.

“Hey!” She shouts up at the guards. “Let me in! I need to talk to Bringer-of-Spring!”

“You and every other pregnant smith’s daughter around here, milady. What makes you so special as to take Spring’s ear? He’s a very busy demigod,” The bored guard replies, though not impolitely.

“My name is Summer-Heat-Rising. I’m here to talk with Spring about a very important problem. And he isn’t a demigod, I can tell you that much!” She says fiercely. Boy, she really is tired of… wait, what was her problem again? She blinks. She knows she had it a second ago.

What is it about being physical that makes memory so weird? She shakes her head to clear it. “Look, just let me in! I’m not a prostitute, I just want the chance to talk to Bringer-of-Spring!”

The gate guard sighs. He seems to think for another few seconds, tapping his chin and staring at Summer intently. Then he nods to himself before he answers.

“Okay. My partner here can show you around town-” the gatekeeper says, glancing across at his friend’s shocked face. His partner hasn’t said anything since Summer started talking. Admittedly the woman has a nice voice, but there isn’t really any call for that sort of behavior. Totally unprofessional.

“I don’t need any help,” Summer says cheerfully. “Just open the gates and I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Begging your pardon, milady, but you’re not even half dressed. If you pop on in here lookin’ like that…. Well, I should think the madness of Spring spread in half the men’s heads- without an escort you’ll end up on your back and bearing well before your nine months is up and might earn another baby besides! Let Thomas here walk you around town, even the madness won’t let men touch taken women.”

Summer blinks at that, and then looks at her belly, which is rounded, moreso than usual, and maybe a little heavier than she’s used to. She’s pregnant?

She rubs her belly doubtfully. She doesn’t feel pregnant. She doesn’t remember doing anything to get pregnant! But her stomach is much warmer than usual too, and it doesn’t fit with her small frame. Or what used to be small. As Summer-Heat-Rising- she changed, right?- she is almost five foot six inches, taller than most men.

She hears a sigh and looks up. Thomas is giving her a look one part frustration and one part longing. She gives him her brightest smile instead of torching his lips off. Men can want her if they like. It doesn’t bother her like it used to. Does it?

She beckons. “Come on down then… Thomas? Show me around the city, won’t you?”

“Y-yes ma’am. Right away,” The guard comes to himself, snapping out of his stare with a blush. Now he’s making a point of not looking at her as he walks down the ramp leading up to the tower and closes the wicker gate that leads up to it.

He walks right up next to her, pointedly keeping his eyes on her face, though she notices them flick down over her body out of reflex several times. Hm. It was fun to be naked before. What makes it less fun now? She forces the beginnings of a blush down. This feeling is making her uncomfortable.

Summer-Heat-Rising can’t help but feel that it might be better, under the circumstances, to have enough coverage to keep people from staring nonstop. Whatever she might tell herself, she gets the feeling she doesn’t actually like being naked in front of lots of people.

Good to see you’ve some common sense, a cool voice whispers in her mind.

Summer pays it little enough mind, at first, but it occurs to her that it wasn’t her thought. Strange.

She gathers her power, pulls it into herself, and forces strands of it outward, lips pressed tight with concentration. Grass uproots itself, twines around her tightly, weaving breeches- and then a skirt- long enough and woven delicately as any work by hand. She twines it, tweaks it with little flicks of her power until it also forms a T-shirt- all green- and the two articles connect, woven as strongly as a second skin, flexing with her body and her curves.

Thomas just watches, open-mouthed, barely daring to believe his eyes.

Once Summer is done, she gives Thomas a smile, coyer than the last and indicates the city with a wave of her hand. “Do show me around. That’s what you’re here for, right?”

Thomas the gate guard nods weakly, and leads her past the open gates and into the bustle of the town.

Summer, for what  it’s worth, follows after. She isn’t quite skipping, but it’s only a matter of time. She feels light and happy for some reason.

All eyes are preoccupied, in the town, much to Summer’s relief. Thomas can’t help but think that’s rather strange- Summer is very noticeable, even in her makeshift grass clothing- perhaps especially with it. But there’s a certain something in the air that seems to have infected all the people. Couples giggle, strolling around, hugging, kissing openly. Stalls and stores are left unattended. Houses are left with their doors wide open.

“Why isn’t anyone working?” Summer wonders aloud. She knows Thomas will answer her before he opens his mouth. So simple.

“It’s Spring, miss. The first day, he came and now- well, every fortnight he holds a grand festival, every three days he declares a day of rest, and he encourages people to make merry and love in the streets.” Thomas blushes and doesn’t meet her eyes. “I thought you said you knew him, miss?”

Summer shrugs her curved shoulders and gives him a silly grin. “I may and I mayn’t.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

She rolls her eyes. For a moment Thomas can’t help but feel that she’s making fun of him constantly. “An answer to everything.”

He is very careful not to let out the derisive snort that wants so badly to escape. It doesn’t work, of course. Summer can read him like a book. He can keep nothing from her- and they’ve just met. But it’s like that way with everyone, for Summer.

“Don’t believe me?” She asks innocently.

“Miss, you do play me for a fool,” He says quietly. They walk down the street, occasionally stepping over a coupling couple. It isn’t quite that obscene, Summer thinks. But there are people sleeping together in the streets, even if they aren’t sleeping together in the streets.

She finds the experience distinctly odd.

“You could just tell me straight off that you don’t want to say anything on the subject. Oh- we’re here,” Thomas says, stopping short directly in front of the entrance to a grand, luxurious building. The words ‘Spring Shrine’ are emblazoned on the sign at the top in Eldritch. Summer recognizes them immediately, of course. How she’d forgotten them… she can’t quite remember- it’s as if her memories are slipping through her figurative fingers.

She knows she’s seen similar runes before, but for the life of her she can’t remember where.

“This is it?” Summer asks. She doesn’t need clarification, but it pays to keep up appearances.

“Yeah,” Thomas mumbles. “Uh.”

“We can talk more when I come out. Do be a dear and go back to your post. Thomas, right?”

“Yes miss. And you’re Summer. Nice meeting you- I’ll just, ah. I’ll just go, I guess. Give me a shout if you need anything!” He says brightly. He starts off towards the gate, and Summer walks up to the entrance to the shrine.

It’s built of hard wood- mahogany reinforced with iron. Around the edges of the roof- which slants sharply- there’s copper, and pillars of brass hold the structure up. It’s quite extravagant, and Summer can’t help but admire the use of such pretty metals. Hm.

There’s that voice again.

Iron… oh, that sounds dangerous… do be careful…

Summer scratches her head, but the itch in her mind doesn’t go away. What was it about iron?

It weakens us on contact, you dummy. You sure forget a lot when I’m gone….

The cold voice sparks recall, all at once. Just as the man known as Bringer-of-Spring steps in front of her, out from behind a pillar where he’d been waiting all along. He smiles warmly. “Well. I wondered how long it’d be before you came. I’m glad you’re here now, though, it saves me the trouble of finding you again.”

Summer is about to take a step back, but her foot moves forward instead, and she finds herself standing too close to him. Her skin heats up, and she means to step back, really she does, but her body doesn’t want to obey her. Bringer-of-Spring grins down at her, showing off too-white teeth. This close, he isn’t warm, but cool, frighteningly cool. Summer shivers, despite herself. Too warm for Winter, too cold for Summer, she thinks.

Spring’s skin is greenish. He stands much taller than Summer- by almost a foot. His hair stands straight up from his head in a moronic fashion, and one tooth is missing, giving his smile a gap-toothed effect. It’s probably his genuinely punchable face, Summer decides. He’s full of life, animated, but in a way that reminds her of a plant or a sapling being pushed by wind rather than any animal she could care to remember and name.

And just then, with Spring looming over her uncomfortably, the clouds in the sky obscure the sun and rain begins to fall. She feels distinctly uneasy. Part of it is her gut, but mostly it has to do with the face staring down at her, with the eyes. Those cold, cold blue eyes that gaze at her, eyes she remembers. That piercing gaze had last been set on her by He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains.

But those same blue eyes rest in the skull of Bringer-of-Spring, and his expression, though on the outside speaks of genuine joy, on the inside hides sparkling ambition and lies, Summer thinks. I recognize it. He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains had a look on His face just like that when He was chasing us around. Well, sort of. It was more like actual good cheer.

Of course, it could just be her imagination. Summer gazes at Spring for a while, letting the moment drag out into an awkward staring contest. Yes, Summer decides, staring up at Spring’s innocent grinning face, it’s probably her imagination.

No one with hair green on the bottom and brown at the tips- standing straight up and waving like grass in a breeze- could be anything other than a complete idiot. If she had something to fear from morons she wouldn’t have let that man- Thomas?- lead her about. It stands to reason that Spring isn’t a threat, or she wouldn’t have been headed here in the first place.

Well then, Winter says in Summer’s head. Are you going in, or are you going to stay out here in the nice cold rain?

Demimind: Chapter 5

Sixth official story post, fifth official chapter! Enjoy. Also, in an effort to give the new people here a better chance at reading the story from the beginning: Prologue. As well as a link to the chapter page: Chapters. It’s not very visible- it’s in the black bar across the top of the blog. The chapter page has all of the chapters- including this one- from the beginning! Now, without further ado….

(5)SnowBound

It takes a few seconds for Winter to get her bearings. When she is sure Seven-Spinner is gone….

“Summer.”

I’m still here.

“Where do I go?”

It may be a good idea to… well, you know. Find out where you are first.

Winter thinks for a few seconds, then nods. “Okay. In order to do that I should probably find…” She searches her limited memory. “A city?”

A town, a city, a village. It doesn’t really matter which. Any of them have people, and you can ask people for directions.

Winter walks away from the Spider Queen’s domain. Gradually frost laden branches give way to the open area of the forest. Without so many trees blocking her sense, she can feel a strong concentration of life she didn’t notice before, far, far off to the north. It may just be that she’s getting hungry again, but that’s something she doesn’t really want to think about.

Keep moving or I really will fall asleep.

“Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.”

Winter turns east one last time, glancing towards the bowed and broken branches that lead into the nest. She tries to hold it in her mind so she can get back if she needs to. It seems to work, but without any way to test it, it’s hard to tell. She shakes her head, turns to the north, and begins to walk.

At first it seems easy enough. It’s pleasantly cold, and Winter enjoys herself- had she always liked brisk walks through cold forests? It’s difficult to say, but she does know that she likes the way her feet crunch on the cold snow, likes the way the wind whistles through frozen trees. She likes everything about it, even though Summer sleeps soundly in her head.

Actually, maybe she likes it because Summer is asleep in her head. Winter really doesn’t know what to make of her. All she really knows is that Summer is in her mind, talks as if they’ve been together forever, orders her around and takes charge during emergencies- to the dismay of anyone trying to hurt her. Some bits of Summer’s past seem to have leaked through as well. She remembers that Summer had a body, separate from hers but still the same, so that whenever Summer took over people could know which one was which.

She doesn’t know for sure how long Summer has been bound, really, or anything beyond her memory barrier. For all she knows, Summer could be the one who bound herself. It’s a disturbing thought.

And then there is that strange, dangerous entity who murdered Jane. What was His name? He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains is kind of a mouthful. Even if His name shakes mountains she’d almost rather say it instead of have to deal with the alternative. And just what is He?

And her memory. When would she remember everything again? Bits and pieces sort of drift back to her, but beyond when she first came to- in that circle of briar and in the stone room- she can’t remember anything at all. Her earliest memory is of Summer laughing and killing those men. It’s not exactly the most pleasant of things to dwell on. Worse than a blur, most of the stuff before that is simply gone. She doesn’t know who she is- except that she has control of some kind of magic- or what she is, either.

Winter looks up at an out-of-place birdcall. There shouldn’t be any birds at all out in the cold. What she sees takes her breath away.

Without quite realizing it, Winter has walked right to the edge of the forest. And miraculously, here snow seems to stop. The ground in front of her, beyond the edge, is covered with grass which, rather than being stiff and frozen, waves as if in a warm breeze. Small insects hop over the blades of grass mere inches from ice and snow that would freeze them in an instant. As she watches, a butterfly flutters out over a small patch of wildflowers, alights on one, and begins to drink nectar.

She’s standing at the very brink of winter and… summer? No… No, the bloom of life reminds her more of spring… And memories stir as she stands there and stares.

She reaches out, pushes her hand beyond her snow horizon, and it’s as if she’s thrust her hand into the path of a blowtorch. The heat beyond her forest of frost is stifling, ridiculously powerful. She shudders as she draws her hand away. She expects it to be blistered, but her skin is unblemished. It’s a matter of perspective, then, if she wasn’t burned up.

It wakes Summer right up.

Whoa. Yeah, wait, I remember this place. Bringer-of-Spring lives in the town just over there.

Winter follows the thought and sees a collection of small buildings, nestled in the crook of a valley. It isn’t an expansive plain of heat, it’s a little spark in the midst of a cold, foreboding woodland.

“Bringer-of-Spring?”

Yeah. He’s… a relative of ours.

“That’s just spring? How am I going to get by?” Winter asks. She looks around to see if she can see something- like a path of snow up to the gates, or a break in the barrier of heat- but she can’t see heat, of course, she just feels a bit silly.

What, it’s not like a wall or anything. Toughen up-

“No way,” Winter growls, surprising herself. “You’re completely nuts if you think I’m setting one foot through.”

And you’re nuts if you think you can stop me from making you.

And just like that, Summer takes control. Winter doesn’t know where her power goes, whether being in the heat weakened her somehow, or whether she just dropped her guard without thinking. Suddenly, Summer is making her body slide through, step on into the sun and the heat. Trying to dig her heels in does no good- the heat wipes away mind and strength both too quickly, burning her resolve to ash. This is spring? It feels like she’s stepped into a fire.

Winter wants to scream, but she has no mouth. Her body won’t obey her. It’s not her mouth, it’s Summer’s mouth. Summer, who smiles as if it’s the most glorious thing in the world, Summer, who does a little twirl in the long grass, letting it tickle her legs. Winter can’t make her body respond, and the eyes she looks out from no longer feel hers.

“Oh, it’s good to be back!” Summer cries, the widest grin on her face. “So, so good!”

She looks herself all over, and despite Winter’s feeble protests, proceeds to take off all Winter’s conjured clothing. It’s just as well- it had begun to melt in the heat of the sun of this strange new domain. It’s almost sad, watching it hiss and bubble in the dirt as it changes quickly from frost magic to water and then sinks into the soil. Winter saves her sorrow for her predicament- it seems the situation has taken a complete turn- a full reversal from mere moments before. Summer has somehow taken control.

Winter struggles to hang on to her fading mind, as the warmth blasts through layers and layers of carefully structured- if slightly disarrayed- consciousness, a furnace vaporizing a snowflake. Over in an instant, but lasting forever.

When Summer looks down at her arms, Winter notices- dizzily, since the unbearable warmth is taking its toll very quickly- that they are golden brown skinned now instead of pale white, and that her hair has grown into long, flowing white locks instead of her short cut. Her bronzed body is still lithe, still thin, but taller, too, and much stronger. There’s a heaviness in her- well, Summer’s- belly that wasn’t there before. It’s a completely different body, but one that’s familiar to her. She can’t remember now from where it came to her.

Summer takes another few steps forward, then stops, apparently confused. She’d been muzzy before, when Winter had first decided where to go. It doesn’t explain why she’d suddenly forget where the town was, and that much disturbs Winter a little, insofar as it’s possible with her mind boiling away.

“Where was I going?”

North, Winter mumbles weakly, and then she whites out, losing consciousness.

Summer, unperturbed by the loss of her mind-mate, hums to herself as she strolls north, and thus towards the town, enjoying the feel of the grass on her legs and the smell and scent in the air. She’s sure this will be a lovely day, and it’ll be all the lovelier without that fussy fool of a sister behind the wheel.

Demimind: Chapter 4

(4)Spider Queen

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

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

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

Of that she is sure.

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

What would you have done without my help?

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

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

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

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

She just stares at it for a while.

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

“Yeah,” Winter says absently.

Do you remember how to build the pillar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Neither! She is a friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t tell her I’m bound.

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

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

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

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

What? Why the hell would I have done that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demimind: Chapter 3

(3)Banished

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

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

Did you mean to bring the Illmetal with you?

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

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

It’s useless without the column though.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh oh. Magehunting squad by the feel of it.

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

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

“I seem to recall you being much more-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems in fine enough health to me.”

“A bit rigid, perhaps.”

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

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

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

Winter backs away slowly, unfreezing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter just stands there, stunned.

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

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

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

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

And that seems to be that.

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

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

Their deaths are on Summer’s conscience. Right?

Are they dead? Yes. Their lifeforce is gone.

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

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

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

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

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

“Liar.”

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

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

Summer is silent for a moment.

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

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

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

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

Keys. Summer grumbles. They go in the locks.

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

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

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

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

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