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 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 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 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 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?