Wister’s skin steams.
Sonder’s face is wreathed in it, vapor that licks the air and frames her within its reaching arms. Wister can hardly feel the cold of their own ice. If not for the steam, Wister might not even realize the frostbomb went off. As it is, Wister only notices it because they are staring at Sonder, at Sonder’s face, her face, and the steam is there, half-obscuring their field of vision. There is something about the whole image that’s almost hypnotic, and Wister finds themselves unable to - unable to…
“Go away,” Wister mumbles. That stop-time slow-motion feeling is all around them; Sonder is charging at them with blades crossed, and Fairest is rising up to meet her, slow, so slow. “I told you to go away..”
Wister jerks their head involuntarily, a sharp flinch to one side, struggling to hold Fairest in place. Their body spasms. Somewhere deep inside, this strange, foreign piece of their mind rises again, insistent: So, what, Wister? You’re going to just sit here? Hiding behind your shield? That’s not how we win.
“There’s no we,” Wister hisses. “There is only me. And I will fight this battle the way I want, gunkhead.”
You’re lying to yourself. You’ve boxed half of yourself away out of fear and you will lose. Let me out, at least.
No, Wister thinks, and pushes again, as hard as they can, trying to bury the voice. Inside their mind, the girl screams, pushing back, and Wister -
“Ah,” she-Wister says, smiling as she takes the body from they-Wister, putting her whole back into Fairest to stand her ground. Sonder’s blades grind against the surface of the shield; the shield drags against the sand, oscillating by inches. “You’re trying too hard, my girl. You’re impressive, I doubt anyone’d deny that, but the whole darkness-and-despair act is a little overdone, don’t you think?” The blades press harder against Fairest and she-Wister gives a little ground, grunting -
“Bourreau!” they-Wister screams, taking control again. “Get OUT!” Their voice breaks on the last word and they slip, falling, falling, back into the recesses of the mind, the intangible -
“Bourreau?” she-Wister muses. Her whole weight bears against Fairest; as she speaks, entertaining they-Wister, keeping them at bay, she begins to let the kaleidoscope loose - millimeters at a time, it seems, too slowly for they-Wister to notice too easily. Too subtly for they-Wister to stop her. “You nicknamed me Bourreau? Executioner? In French?”
I THOUGHT IT WAS FITTING FOR YOUR BLOODTHIRSTY LITTLE -
“Ha,” Bourreau murmurs, shaking her head. The kaleidoscope is just past Fairest’s edge now, Wister directly in the middle of it. “I guess you aren’t wrong. But really…who do you think you’re impressing? So you think you’re all sophisticated, using French, ooh-la-la, but you literally named me executioner. Isn’t that a bit on the nose?”
Her head jerks, twisting suddenly. They-Wister’s eyes blaze.
“You are a tiny piece of me,” they snap. “I tried getting rid of you. You should be gone. I’m the real Wister now. Get out of my -”
Another twist, another jerk. She-Wister laughs even as she strains against Fairest, teeth gritted. “If you’re the real one,” she says, her eyes dancing as she speaks, “why are you so weak?” Her hands are white-knuckled against Fairest, her gaze locked on Sonder’s face. They-Wister, buried inside her mind, feels another piece coming loose - how? I didn’t call the kaleidoscope; they-Wister flinches, trying to fight her, but she-Wister is strong, the executioner, the strongest of them all, and -
“You know, Wister, I’d have thought it’d be easier for us to win. You think any of these idiots can handle the kaleidoscope at its fullest strength? Ha! Let them try.” She laughs again, harsher. The kaleidoscope, they-Wister thinks, reaching out, and feels it faintly around them, like a flickering flame. Ah. She-Wister is still talking, angry now. “I know you feel bad about those kids we messed up. But what’s the big deal? What does it compare to locking me away for decades? I never got to say GOODBYE TO MY HOME!”
Bourreau, drop the kaleidoscope.
“You want me to drop it? Then drop it. We’re the same person, remember? That’s our whole thing.”
No, they-Wister thinks. They aren’t the same person. They can’t let themselves believe they are. There’s a reason they’ve separated she-Wister, locked her away, made sure she’s gone. There’s nothing that can convince them Bourreau deserves to be freed -
You’re not the only one who gets a say in that. Another voice, this one male; another fragment of Wister, excavated. And she’s got a right to be a little hotheaded. You did lock her up for decades, like she said.
I didn’t lock her away for decades, they-Wister thinks, softly. We haven’t even lived that long yet. And it was my only defense -
“You’re only saying that because time is relative and non-periodic and somewhat random on the Forever Isles,” Bourreau interrupts. “Which, fine, is an argument, so maybe you’re not exactly wrong. But let’s just say you’re not exactly right, either, since time makes no sense where we come from. All that matters was that it was a long time. And…I never got to say goodbye.” Her voice drops in pitch, softening.
“Maybe. Maybe you are. But I’m just trying to keep us alive. And win, which you weren’t doing so well with.”
Maybe you should let her take over, he-Wister suggests, a little reluctantly.
No. I’m sorry, Abacus, but I can’t.
He-Wister sighs. Abacus?
Well, you’re very frustrating, pretty outdated, and only somewhat intellectual. So I figured it made sense.
Just shut up and listen to she-Wister. Please.
She-Wister - Bourreau - snorts. “The first she-Wister. Please. You know there’s tons of us.” They-Wister laughs.“Or just Wister,” she-Wister suggests. They-Wister stops laughing.
Just Wister. Is that really what she’d said? Just Wister?
He-Wister hesitates. For a strange, rebellious moment, they-Wister thinks he-Wister might actually agree with her; but of course, he-Wister knows better than any of them how the technicalities work. He’s like…a computational intelligence, almost. Maybe not the most intuitive, but he understands rules like no one else. You’re not, technically, the dominant, so just Wister would be inaccurate -
“Oh, please. They may have had the body longer, but what I lack in temporal-ment, I make up for in temperament -” she-Wister stops, tilting their head at Sonder. “Fine, it’s a bad joke. I just mean that I’ve got more…passion than they-Wister, you know? A little more joie de vivre. A little more willing to go all in for the job.”
They-Wister feels a blush of anger. No, she-Wister, you’re just vicious. And I refuse to be.
He-Wister grimaces. They-Wister does have a point -
“Like I said. I get the job done. Give the kaleidoscope another minute and I would bet Sonder will go down like a bag of rocks -”
A MINUTE?! No. No no no no no -
Bourreau, we can’t last a minute! He-Wister is flailing, pushing, trying to unseat she-Wister; they-Wister can feel it, this internal battle. They push, too, focusing on the feeling of getting rid of she-Wister, except the only way to do it is to take control themselves, and that just makes it harder for he-Wister. So, finally, they-Wister lets go, feeling the surface fall away, feeling themselves suppressed.
HE’S RIGHT, they-Wister says instead. Come on, Bourreau. Give it up. You’ll turn us crazy if you keep that kaleidoscope up that long.
She-Wister laughs. “Look, do you want to have fun, or noooooot -”
He-Wister attacks from inside, brutal. She-Wister lets go.
He-Wister takes control of the body and the pain is like an avalanche; vaguely, Wister hears themselves screaming. The kaleidoscope around Wister twists and spirals and shatters, pieces flying everywhere, reflections of a thousand different voices, all the tiny pieces of Wister deconstructed, shimmering, iridescent like fireworks. The sand is flash-freeze-cold and steams like dry ice. Sonder’s face bears into Wister’s. Where their eyes meet, pain spreads through his body, burning frigid in Wister’s veins.
Get out, they-Wister says.
“But I’m our most strategic option,” he-Wister protests.
She-Wister laughs, deep inside, halfway buried. But I’m the sharpest knife in our drawer -
No. Neither of you. They-Wister hesitates: I need Andréa.
He-Wister hesitates, too. There’s something there, they-Wister senses: reluctance, acknowledgement, acceptance…resignation. The knowledge - or wisdom - that they-Wister is right, at least this once.
She-Wister scoffs. Why does she get the normal name?
“It’s not that normal,” he-Wister assures her, even as his psyche withdraws…
Beneath them, a pillar of ice rises, and a new she-Wister emerges, jaw set, staring down directly into Sonder’s eyes, her shoulders back as she stands tall. “Do your worst,” she says, trying not to gasp at the fierceness of the pain. Her red hair ripples in the wind, white streaks shot through with fire. Her eyes glow hard as rock, white and unyielding. Her hands hold Celsius and Fairest - her grip firm, but steady. Her knuckles are no longer white. “Push me down, knock me down, keel me over, I will just keep getting back up.”
For the moment, every other fragment retreats, and this facet of Wister has full and complete control.
She turns inwards, speaking to all of the Wisters within, and whispers: “Come back. All of you. I need you. We’re going to do this together - as a team.” She sets her chin and swallows the memories. “We’re going to take the hits until our body gives out, and then we’ll keep going, over and over…until we’re dead.”
She smiles slightly, spinning Celsius in her hand. “We owe the Time-Beyond-Times this much.”
Wister inhales sharply, all of the pieces of their personality snapping back together - one person, one fragile, fractured mind - and crouches atop the pillar, shield and spear at the ready, prepared to meet their past.