Demimind: Chapter 14

Maybe this will clear things up!

-Eris

(14)Past and Present

“She’s awake!” comes a gleeful cry.

“Good,” Fall’s voice drifts. “The food won’t go to waste this time.”

Winter’s eyes open. Someone in ragged clothing lies before her, weeping. His eyes meet hers, and he snivels pathetically. She reaches out, lets her fingers touch his hair, stringy and greasy. And she- Winter- she is so hungry.

“Overexertion, dear sister,” Fall’s voice says casually. “You should have something to eat. We caught you this man- he was wandering the wastes and in fair condition.”

“Food?” She asks weakly. “But I don’t eat people.” She tries to get her brain in working order. It doesn’t seem to be operating near full capacity.

“Why not?” Fall asks. She looks over at Him. He’s at a table, watching her carefully. Searching for something.

“I can drain the life force of anything,” Winter says, sitting up. She is so hungry. “Why would I eat people when I can have anything else? People are people, not food. We’re people, not monsters.”

Fall breathes a sigh of relief. “Good, you’re still you.”

“You’re testing me,” Winter accuses, still muzzy from a mixture of exhaustion and aches. “Have I woken before and tried to eat people? You stopped me, didn’t you?”

“No, you haven’t tried to eat anyone. I don’t know what separates you from the Summer/Winter pair we have roving this timeline, what makes them so much more ruthless. I didn’t believe it at first, until your guard Thomas and, uh, your Summer apprised me of events.”

He pauses. He turns away and won’t meet Winter’s eyes. “What I said before, below the wall, I…”

“Talk after you give me something I can drain,” She says irritably. “I’m very hungry.” Confessions can wait, Winter thinks. Besides that, there’s no telling what he might say. And, unused to the idea of a Fall who isn’t actively trying to kill her, Winter isn’t sure what she’ll say either.

Thomas steps forward. “I caught you something, Miss.”

And yes, she can feel it, too, an immense lifeforce contained within a tiny thing, clamped in a jar between Thomas’s hands. He holds it out near her, and she takes the jar from him quickly, nearly fumbling it in her hurry. Curiosity stays her power, though.

Butterfingers, chides Summer. Careful. Don’t want that thing out of the jar.

“What is it?” She asks. The light looks almost like the orblight that her brother can generate, but it’s infinitely wilder, twisting, writhing constantly behind the glass and sending out streamers of rainbow energies. And how the hell did you catch it? Summer adds silently.

“It’s a will’o’wisp,” Thomas replies cheerfully. “It should get you back up to full power in no time flat.”

“You truly are a man of hidden talents if you managed to catch one of those troublesome creatures,” Fall comments. “They always evaded me when I was interested in catching them, I found.”

“I wasn’t interested at first,” Thomas admits. “They only come near you when you’re lost or doomed. They’re supposedly poor omens, but I’ve never had trouble with them.”

Winter looks at the creature in the glass. It pulses with what seems like rage and anger. She finds herself feeling more than a little sorry for it, despite its eerie appearance.

Oh come on!

“What?” Winter asks. “It can’t help its nature.”

Summer thinks for a while. Yeah, I guess you’re right. But you need to eat.

“Yes. I do.”

Winter sighs, reaches inside of herself, and opens the channel, focusing on the will’o’wisp. It’d taste of sadness, probably, of cold, dark emptiness and loneliness, the dread of being doomed and the pain of dying alone. Things that it in turn would feed on if it was given the chance…

The will’o’wisp is sucked away, its lifeforce siphoned off to feed Winter’s hunger. Interestingly enough, it seems to pass right through the glass and into her spirit. How long was she out, for her to have become so hungry? It’d probably only been a few hours or so- she was already starting to get a little hungry when she passed out.

The will’o’wisp’s energy does indeed fill her up, but darkly, distressingly so. She feels empty even though she’s full, and her frown must tip off the men to her plight.

“Was that not right, Miss?” Thomas asks. “I could’ve grabbed a pixie. I saw one of those.”

“You’re a fool,” Fall grumbles. “Now she’ll have evil thoughts.”

“Hardly,” Winter snaps. “It was… fine, Thomas. Thank you. I really needed it.”

The gateguard beams at her from his chair and gives Fall a smug smile. “See? No problem at all.”

Aches suddenly hit every part of Winter’s body. She finds herself shuddering all over, and lays back down on the bed, sighing. “Why is this ragged man really here?”

She probably should be more polite. It isn’t like her at all to be rude to someone she’s just met, but then, she isn’t feeling all herself either. And the aches aren’t going away.

“He hasn’t said anything. I was wondering if you knew him,” Fall says.

Her eyes fall on the man. His clothes are tattered, ruined from months and months of travel, and stained with dirt and blood. His eyes meet hers steadily, and there’s a sort of fierce determination in them.

“What do you have to say for yourself? Why are you here?” Winter asks.

The man opens his mouth and where his tongue should be there is nothing. Not the hint of a chopped edge of tongue or tooth, just a yawning black abyss which makes Winter sick to her stomach. She shudders and looks away. Who did this? Summer asks.

“Who did this?” Winter echoes, gripping the sheets, and once again meeting the man’s eyes. “Where can I find them?”

He stares at her for a moment.

He can’t write, Summer says flatly. He can’t read, he can’t write. He’s a peasant. The only reason he made it this far is his determination to see you.

“Heal him, Summer.”

Summer winces mentally, but knows Winter can’t see it. Sweetie, you know I wish I could. It’s just… I don’t have my body. I can’t do shit without my body. And the pill won’t wear off until midnight.

Which means… she was out for a little over five days. Incredible. Well, it does explain why she was able to talk to Thomas. No doubt it was a strain on her body to be forced to move with Summer’s will.

“Stay here until midnight, and Summer will heal you,” Winter says quietly. The man stares at his feet. He seems to curl up a little, but nods.

Winter lays back on the bed and stares at the ceiling. It’s too hot and stuffy in this place. With her new power, she decides she may as well cool it down a bit. “Thomas, why don’t you go occupy this young man’s time for a while,” Fall says slowly.

“With respect, Fall, sir, you can shove it,” Thomas replies. “I can’t leave you here with miss Winter alone. Last time you were with her you tried to kill her, and I don’t know much about timelines, but I’m a firm believer in destiny, milord.”

“Well said. Now get out.

Thomas’s legs carry him outside. Halfway to the door he beckons to the mutilated man. Thomas’s skin is white as new paint, and Winter can see him fighting it, but when the man arrives he just gives up and lets the power take him outside the shack.

“Now that we’re alone,” Fall says quietly. “I think it’s time you told me what I’ve done.”

Winter stares at him blankly for a moment. “In the future, where I was, you tried to kill me,” She says quietly. “You attacked and nearly killed Summer, but ended up binding her within me so that we can’t switch at will. Rather than being a freedom, to be wrestled with between us, you locked her inside. I could only switch by being subjected to great stress or heat. It was a binding on both of us. I believe it was meant to drive us insane.”

Fall looks taken aback. “Really?” He asks. He actually seems incredulous about it, and Winter’s resolve falters a moment.

“As well, you… well, there was something about your name. Fall. When spoken, it makes mountains shake, there. In that timeline your power is palpable, even when you’re at ease,” She shudders as she remembers. “And for some reason you were after this.”

Without knowing quite why, she reaches into her pocket- and pulls out the illmetal bead.

But hadn’t her clothes fallen away before? Did it stay with her because she owns it? Did it stick to her skin?

She knows only that she felt its presence before she mentioned it. It was just there.

Fall leans forward, piercing eyes gazing on it intently for a moment before he simply nods. “Yes, that sounds about right.”

“What?” Winter asks. “You mean you knew you would try to kill me in the future?”

“Something of that nature. I was just about to take precautions against it, actually. You’ve distracted me a bit, dear sister,” He says impishly. “The process I was thinking about undertaking- I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s called refraction. It involves splitting one’s soul and shining pieces of it through each other. It multiplies power, but the cost is obvious.”

He pauses. “This was shortly after you disappeared,” He says grimly. “I thought you went to strike at the human group who took over Refuge.”

“Season’s Refuge?”

He laughs at that. “No, Winter, the Black Refuge. It’s long been theirs- for longer than I can remember, certainly. We’d talked- jokingly I imagine- about assaulting it before. I’m sure you don’t remember that. Is it called something else in your time?”

“Season’s Refuge,” Winter mutters.

We’re a long way back.

And a long way from home. Wherever that is.

“That suggests we took it,” Fall muses. “It would’ve taken power unimaginable- their magi aren’t overpowerful, but they are an amazingly prolific race, humans. They’ve no doubt infested all of it. Or had. And it was called Season’s Refuge in your time?”

“Yes,” Winter says. “I remember living there with Spring and Summer and Fall. That Fall. He was the same as you are, he… he cared for me and he looked after me, as far as I can remember. But… how did we take it, then, if-“

The past rolls into the present, and her mind sparks and hisses in protest.

Winter, are you sure about this?

“We need it done,” She answers. Her hands shake as she lifts the vial to her lips.

It will change us. Maybe hurt us.

Winter closes her eyes and drinks it. It has no flavor, no substance, like drinking cloud, like drinking water. But it isn’t water.

It burns, it hisses inside of her like an enraged snake and makes her twist. She can hear Summer screaming in her head, and her body shudders all over. She’s broken into a sweat. Her skin feels like knives. She can’t see, she can’t hear, her mind is rent in a dozen different ways, twisted and pulled until she can’t stand it and finally, after an eternity, after a second, it’s over.

And all she can hear now is her breathing.

And all she can feel now is cold.

She opens her eyes again. But something is different. She feels powerful.

She feels incredibly powerful.

Frost cracks across her body, twirls around her in a cyclone. Blue energy crackles around her wrists and sparks about her legs as she pushes herself to her feet again. The tiles underfoot are covered in the pure, untempered power. They tremble under every step.

Winter’s eyes are closed, but they open again, wide. She steps away from the shrine, draws a single shimmering sigil in the air, and vanishes.

Distance. She moves from the shrine in a small clearing at the edge of Black Refuge to the glade her brothers have been occupying for years now. Only one brother is here.

She reappears, steps out from the air, and makes Fall, jump. For a moment he seems ready to strike, but then he realizes it’s his sister that’s entered.

“Sister- what are you doing?”

“Making us a home,” Winter hisses, voice leaving cool trails in the air, every word flashing and then disappearing without really being heard- just felt. “Would you like to watch?”

“I took it,” Winter says weakly. “We did, I mean, Summer and I.”

“Took Black Refuge?” Fall asks. “Alone?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. I just know that we did,” Winter replies wearily. “I’ll need to see it in order to know how, I think. It’s where I was going in the future anyway.”

“I’m going to be here soon,” Fall says flatly. “In order to complete refraction I’d need a bead of Illmetal, and you carry the only piece anyone has been able to find.”

“I could give it to Him- you- I guess,” Winter says doubtfully. “But I’m not so sure that’d be a good idea at all. From what I’ve seen you’ve gone mad with power already- future you, anyway.”

“If I am allowed to complete refraction, I’m not likely to keep what’s left of my sanity,” Fall’s tone turns grim. “Do stop me, sister.”

“This is the last thing I expected to do,” Winter comments dryly. “I thought I’d be dead when I saw you approaching the wall.”

Fall smiles and then shrugs. “I certainly wasn’t expecting a warm welcome from you at first. But the Winter I knew surely isn’t the same as you are.”

“This time travel is confusing me,” Winter says weakly. “I think I’ll call you Fall, and the future you Autumn.”

“In the future my name shakes mountains,” Fall grins. “Really, you flatter me.”

“Don’t compare Autumn to yourself, brother. You haven’t seen him,” Winter says, and sighs.

“I think I shall call you Winter. The Winter who lives in this time I’ll call Frost,” Fall says quietly. “Much more fitting for her- like first frost, she’s flighty and shy. I’ve never known her to make a decision without first listening to Summer. Er.” He stops and rolls his eyes.

“She gets a name too,” Winter says. Then, “Let’s call her Evil Bitch.”

Fall looks thoughtful.

“Tempting, but not exactly catchy,” He says. “How about Blazing Butthead?”

“Alliteration,” Winter observes. “That’ll make it easier to remember. Shortened to BB?”

“Sure,” He says graciously. “I don’t mind.”

Fall gets up and sits on the edge of the bed.

They sit like that, in comfortable silence, smiling. A thought strikes Winter.

“Actually, what’s her name? Is it different, here?” She asks.

“I don’t know,” Fall admits. “I think her name is Summer-Glory.”

“My Summer’s name is…”

Summer-Heat-Rising.

“Summer-Heat-Rising,” Winter finishes. “Your turn.”

“To name?” Fall says, then grins. “Fine. My Summer can be Glory, formally. Otherwise I think BB will fit.”

I’d like to stay Summer, if it’s all the same to you, Summer puts in, with the dryness of a midseason day.

“Summer says she’d like to remain Summer,” Winter says, and then giggles, feeling a little giddy.

“That sounds good,” Fall says, but he’s not smiling anymore. “What will you do?”

Winter blinks, then sighs heavily. “I need to stop Autumn, I need to get to Season’s Refuge, in the future. There are memories there I need to get back.”

“Since Spiritfell took you here, it can probably bring you back,” Fall replies seriously. “As for stopping Autumn, the best way to do that is to study up to become more powerful than He is. Here you have as much time as it’ll take for him to arrive.”

“It’s a different timeline,” Winter says slowly, barely daring to hope. “Can he even come here?”

“If he’s undergone partial refraction, it’s within the realm of possibility,” Fall says darkly. “We can’t ignore that.”

The sisters and brother are quiet for a while. The only noise in the shack is the creak of old timber and the gentle hum of the Illmetal bead in Winter’s hand. Even Summer is quiet, though that could be just because of the falling temperature.

“Well, let’s list our assets,” Winter starts. “I have you, Summer… Thomas…”

“Your Servant too,” Fall points out.

“In the future she’s dead,” Winter says bitterly. She fights back tears for her guardian. “Before I even really knew her.”

“She’s alive here. You should go and ask her for help,” Fall says grimly.

“You don’t sound too happy about it,” Winter observes.

“She’s loyal to Frost and BB, here,” Fall grumbles. “Likely as not she’ll flat out refuse and try to eat you.”

“We’ll handle her last, then,” Winter says, shrugging.

“Unfortunately, we may not have a choice,” Fall sighs. “If we wait too long, Glory will try to cement her Servant’s loyalty a little further on the off chance that you might be successful.”

“She may’ve already done that!” Winter argues. “What’s the point of going?”

“She’s extremely strong, Winter. If she’s against us, what little chance we have could be crushed,” Fall says simply. “We’ll deal with Goliath first.”

“Okay,” Winter says, stifling a yawn. “So what do we do now?”

“I’ve got a song I’ve been meaning to teach you, if you wouldn’t mind spending the last hours of freedom learning it with me,” Fall says sheepishly.

Winter doesn’t even know if she knows how to sing. But her brother’s face is so hopeful she gives in. “Fine, but you better not laugh,” She replies, a touch ruefully.

“Wouldn’t dare.”

Demimind: Chapter 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 9

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

-Eris

(9)Flight or Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She doesn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her feet shake under her.

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

Fight because of her.

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

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

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

Who is about to lose everything.

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

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

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

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

Feed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footsteps, crunching on frozen grass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

Thomas disappears.

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

You complete and total dumb-…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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