Theodora Viran has a way with forests, blossoms, creeping vines, composting, paranoia, and sudden death. She sees deception in every shadow, a trap in every word, and the universe has always been someone else's manipulative game, but when she makes a promise to save the life of a childhood friend, it becomes a promise she cannot break without breaking her view of the world.

Winterdim is a fantasy set in the near future after most of humanity has "Vanished"--gone virtual, leaving behind crumbling cities, failing infrastructure, and the Wild Children, what remains of earth's human population. With a nearly empty world open to them, the oppressed, the dangerous, and the opportunists from the Rootworld have fled to earth to start over, form new alliances, and carve out empires.

Winterdim shares a few characters and takes place over a hundred years after the events in the Seaborn Trilogy (Saltwater Witch, Seaborn, Sea Throne), but is a stand-alone story.

For Alice. Always.


1 - Theodora Viran

I can only dream of mangrove trees because I’ve never seen them with my open eyes.

I used to imagine their faraway roots worming through sand and salty sea in the night, but under sunlight, I’ve always feared their saltwater skills, and given any chance to see them, I would refuse with both my eyes and my soul.

There are days when every moment is green leaf fresh and my muscles are ready—ready to climb the oaks in the Long Wild to their peaks. I walk their tops like a bird on the clouds, and if I turn east from there I can see—and sometimes hear—the Sea. The North Atlantic Ocean is there like the ache of an old wound, a dim fluid pain that’s always cold and keeps my kind away. For someone from the forest, one of the Hamadryádes, the sea is a wall without mercy, and without height. As low as the waves biting at the edge of the earth. But a wall nonetheless.

A wall I cannot step, leap, or grow over.

None of us can. Except for those damn mangroves.

Sometimes, on bitter winter days when my mother is off in the woods and my father’s up at the university, I dream of those faraway mangrove trees that have evolved with the salt, that made their homes in saline shallows and sloughs—or whatever they’re called. Some root-damned brackish environment that didn’t harm their bark or wood. Salt that didn’t seem to reach their hearts.

It hurts my toes just to think about it.

Salt couldn’t touch my heart, because I don’t have one. It was taken from me long ago. And—there is no secret here, as the days and seasons have passed, I seem to need it less. Or worse, I have forgotten why I ever needed it.

Today was one of those days.

It wasn’t warm, and the sun was fading in the west. I didn’t feel like climbing trees, and the dreams were quiet and still in my head.

Until I heard a call out of the past.

My Uncle Theo spoke to me, words too faint to catch the pattern of any meaning because they were carried on the wings—in the feathers—of Blue-headed Vireos, in the darting paths of bumble bees, but strong enough that I could feel the pull, and knew the message was for me.

I ran from the house, eager and blood-angry, wishing I could kill him and kiss him on the cheek. Both at once, because Uncle Theo had left the Northeast so long ago—to pay off a piece of debt to some “Queen of Death”.

Every thought of him made me angry, and I missed him dearly.

Uncle Theo could explain our place in this Dawnworld like no other, and he could protect us—me, my mother, and my father—from the things that had come here with us. Even from the things we had allowed to follow us.

So I ran, and chased the sound, and hoped it would not get away.

The back door of our house slammed behind me, the afternoon opened under my feet, and Uncle Theo's call brought my childhood back to me clean and morning bright, with the wind in the leaves, the stories of blood debts, and the dangerous laughter of a girl without fear. A girl who didn’t understand vulnerability, or the power she possessed in the lure of her stolen heart.

A girl who didn’t understand this new phase of an old old world.

Me.

2 - Nice Suit

Yeah, thanks a wide pile, Uncle Theo, for the bones and blood and unpaid debts. Just what I’ve always wanted. That, and a mouthful of cryptwords I can sift from memory treasure to play in my head:


I turned thrice on river stones, in rolling ice water, and set my feet down in a stream of blood, a bed of bones—and I left the way open for my namesake, the one who will follow me, the one who will take up my debt and pay it. I waved away the world of life tethered to season and breathing, the wet shade of the rooted cone and seed society—all that I will miss. I turned inside and looked over the barrens, someone’s drained life washing up my legs. Where is she, this charmed Queen of Death and Rot? I have followed her to life’s end for one favor and more than one cold kiss.


Those were his final words to me, his namesake—the final words of my Uncle Theodore Balanon, who came into this world way back in 1990, long before the Vanishing. He spent his whole life at the edge of the Viran family, a New England greenpath wanderer, a soul from the Rootworld lost in old New Hampshire. But apparently not too lost or crazy—or old, because my mother and father had thought it was perfectly fine to name me after him.

Actually, it’s Theodora, having hung on to my two X chromosomes. But that’s close enough for me to be worried. Who else in the family’s named after him? Who else could my uncle possibly be referring to?

Yeah, that “Queen of Death and Rot” is going to call in the payment for some favor of my dear uncle’s, and I’m going to be stuck with the fucking bill.

Just dead-finger-wiggling great.

My Uncle Theo’s message had haunted me for years—gloating rulers of the dead, faces rot-slippery and running into my dreams, pulling me down paths I had no intention of following—ever. And the corners of every night forest, which had always been safe, turned on me, and made me shake.

Even I had nightmares, and one of my scariest walks this earth. He or it rules most of it.

It’s standing in front of me, all knobbed limbs twisting into the sky with nets of hanging moss, old bone arms like ancient wood, and it’s laughing. I always have to smirk at that, because only an idiot laughs just before crushing a rival.

That’s a peek at where I will end up, complaining about the final steps in that river of blood and facing my dread.

But let me take you back a bit, and show you where it all started, with the death of Reed’s mother, those bone-breaker concrete steps, and the prismdead guy who’d had good custom tailoring connections. Really bad haircut, but man he could dress.

That’s when I last heard my Uncle Theodore’s words in the wood, his long-ago voice riding the wing rustle of a flight of birds, telling me to follow a bumble bee’s course, a dance and a waver and a buzz-lightning dart for the hive when the bee found my shadow. I ran after it, across the mowed grass field behind Reed Gossi’s house, into the tree shade, tearing through fern curl and aster bloom.

I wasn’t far under the canopy when I heard Reed’s mother scream, and I stopped to listen. It was a strange long scream with choppy silences cut into it, a sharp echoing-off-granite sound, and something with a hammer and chisel knocking holes through it. Then the scream died, and there was a ringing in the air, like an echo coming from deeper in the woods.

I turned to get a direct earful.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but I lost the bee—the path to my Uncle Theo’s call, and the voice from the tree shade had changed to a woman’s pleading, words bubbling in her broken teeth, spilling from her mouth. Andrea Gossi. Reed’s mother?

She told me to fight for her baby, and I turned and ran back to Reed’s house, her sobbing thick and wet in my ears, don’t let them get him.

I ran hard, making tighter fists, and the words gusted out of me. “I promise you I won’t let them.”

Reed Gossi grew up across the back field from me, went to grade school, high school, college with me—I never really liked him though. Too sensitive, too thoughtful, too pale, too...something that didn’t fit with me. Never hungry enough, Reed. He was hard to click with growing up, and I’ve never been a clickable kind of person.

But everything changed after Reed’s mother took all thirteen steps to the concrete basement floor way too quickly, and all the way down she had screamed pain and abuse at the ones who had pushed her. She was too ruined to whisper a word at the bottom.

Then she was dead.

I kicked through the back door, down the stairs, and found Reed on his knees next to her, tears flowing, the ancient phone in pieces, buttons and sharp clear wedges of the faceplate clinking diamond sweetly in his fingers. He stared at me, broken, sobbing that she had smashed it to prevent him from calling emergency services. His own mother had looked him right in the eyes and slammed the phone against the floor with the last of her strength.

I dropped to my knees next to Reed, put my arm around him, told him to breathe, repeating the phrase until it was worn out, that everything was going to be fine.

Reed’s whisper stung me. “I never told anyone. Never thought they were real.”

That’s when I knew I had to become his friend, and perhaps with time, something more.

He pulled away, crying harder, looking at me as if he didn’t know me, like I wasn’t all the way there. He said he was sorry, which I hate hearing from anyone.

He said he didn’t know they were dangerous.

Reed looked past my shoulder, said he used to be able to see them with his eyes closed, and that was the only time he knew they were there—a well-lit room, fire glow coming through his eyelids, the pinkish-brown backdrop of dreams, and then something darker would move in front of the light. When he opened his eyes, they were gone. Not gone like they were never there. Gone like a hole in the air, as if they got a signal the moment before his eyes opened, and they disappeared.

I just smiled, ran my fingers along his cheek, and nodded soothingly, as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. As if it was difficult to believe him—but I did. As if I hadn’t carried one or more of the dangerous things around with me for most of my life, fed off them, and let them use me, nurse me, even talk through me.

Following Reed to his feet, I dug my fingers into his arm to stay in contact. He dropped the pieces of the phone, shaking words out of his mouth like broken candy. “Sh...shall...”

I glanced up the basement stairs, sensing something wrong—just a tingle up the arms. Turning back to Reed, I nodded, encouraging him to speak.

His teeth clicked together, then parted with a burst of will. “Uh... shall...”

I set my tone low, warm morning soft, “Tell me, Reed.” I leaned closer, my fingers gliding along his throat, reassuring, a soft tug at his hair. “Come on. Say it. You shall...what?”

Then I felt a punch of energy through his skin and I let go. His body snapped rigid, his voice coming out in a stiff rap of syllables. “Shallow-dweller, don’t follow the rivers, but come in through port land.”

“Oh, great.” He already had something trying to possess him, use him, and it was trying to communicate with me. Riddles. Can’t they speak plainly? I always ask that even though I can’t myself—speak plainly. I lost the ability years ago. Drove the professors at school shiver mad.

Whatever was at the other end of Reed’s mouth dropped the link. Reed blinked once, his shoulders slumped, eyes rolled up to whites. He fainted, his body folding limply, a loose rolling weight to the floor, and I kicked my legs apart, felt my soles grip the concrete, bracing my body. I caught him under the arms just before impact, elbowed his face aside so the bruises wouldn’t show. His head rolled back, a soft thump he’d feel later, but nothing that would require a scan or physical.

If anyone was going to touch him, it was going to be me. I let my fingers slide along the sleeve of Reed’s shirt, over cotton folds, the rough pads of my fingertips catching fibers, and I let go of him, tugging a few threads loose, absorbing them to use another time.

I turned at a noise upstairs, my heart thumping hard in response.

The bad guys were here. The best I could hope for now was as few questions asked as possible, and keep the bruising to a minimum. The worst...well, the worst is what happened.

I stepped forward, put myself in front of Reed.

There were three of them, two muscle guys who’re probably used to beating the shit out of women like me, led by a tall pale guy in a blue silk suit who bent forward—almost in half—to take in the rest of the basement through the gaps in the stairway railings. He wanted to determine if I was alone.

I could overlook the bad haircut, a stiff, uneven buzz of silver gray. Very nice tailored clothes, very expensive. He might be worth dealing with. I was thinking of warming to him, and then he looked my way and I saw his face, quarry cut cheek hollows and lots of teeth, too many of them, too small for his mouth. He was prismdead, a “gone-over”—as in gone over to the other side and come back to make our lives miserable.

He smiled, a creaky wooden puppet smile. And the canker even knew my name.

“Miss Viran?”

That meant at most I had a few seconds to distract him. “It’s Thea.”

He tilted his head to one side, looked gravely at me as if he had orders to use surnames only, and he was an orders following fellow.

Still, I headed him off with a butcher’s smile. “You call me Theodora—or worse, Teddy—and I’ll kick your fucking teeth in.” Then I turned it into a snarl. “Every last one of them. Understand?”

The three of them had the sense to look relieved—combat was probably an acceptable alternative. The prismdead guy had obviously picked up my name, but only a trace off my skin history, close proximity stuff he’d caught in the air. It was clear he didn’t really know who I was.

And these were low ranking quick response guys. For a moment I wondered if they were the ones who had tossed Andrea Gossi down the stairs? We didn’t have time for questions, and I couldn’t afford to allow Reed to fall into the hands of the higher order types.

So I killed all three of them, the prismdead in the nice suit first. What else was I going to do? I had a promise to keep, Reed’s mother begging me, don’t let them get him.

The big tough guys cried like babies. Really pathetic. Can’t stand that.

I dragged them heels thumping down the stairs, arranged them neatly on the concrete. I fetal curled, letting my roots and vines play at their feet while I meditated and kickstarted the urge. Took a few minutes with everything going on. A few more and I smelled the sweet blossoms of home. Then I sucked the life from their cooling bodies, spun down their organs and bones into raw materials, whispering the hard-times mantra through the adrenalin shivers and blood drool, “Free shine, feather water, leaf pater, store for later.”

3 - Officers in the House

There was a knock on a door somewhere. I wiped my mouth and looked up the basement stairs, trying to pin the sound—sounded like the front door, and someone rapping on it with something hard and wooden. A billy club? Is that what they’re called?

A man’s muffled voice coming through the seams. “Mrs. Gossi? Andrea Gossi? It’s the police.”

Another hardwood rap on the door.

I wheeled to Reed, who was just waking, rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger, testing for pain around the bruise on the back of his head. He groaned and blinked at me.

I pointed up the stairs. “It’s the police. Go stall them!”

“But...” He jumped to his feet, arms swinging wide to keep his balance. “But who called them?” He caught the railing.

I jabbed my finger at the head of the stairs. “They may not even be real police. Just talk to them. Tell them your mother went shopping.”

Reed looked back at his mother on the floor, so still and pale, bruises up her arms where she’d tried to break her tumble down the stairs. I jerked my chin back at him. “I’ll be up in a sec.”

I kicked the phone pieces under a bookshelf, and bent to my knees over Reed’s mother. Oh man, I’m in so deep right now, and this is probably going to cost me another thirty-million heartbeats—almost a year’s worth of them. I closed my eyes, reached out, slipped my fingers over the cool soft skin of Andrea Gossi’s face.

It was over in a moment, another heartbeat year of debt to one of the things from the Winterdim that helps me—her name’s Shirley.

I reached the top of the stairs and heard Reed say something about his mother out shopping. I peeked around the corner. There were two of them. I could hear the beating of their hearts. One was wearing cologne that smelled dry with a soft pine edge. Didn’t recognize it, didn’t like it, but that’s all I could pick up in the air. Smelled like everyone had their masks on to me.

“Can we come in?” The officer had his fingers looped through the triggers of a small boxy underarm automatic. He had it pointed down, but he looked as if he could have it up and firing without thinking. He was twitchy.

Reed looked over his shoulder, still holding the door handle tight. “Uh...sure.”

“Anyone else home?”

The officers were in the house.

When I stepped out of the basement, all the way into view, the guns went up.

I held out my open hands. “Hey, I’m a friend of Reed’s. My name’s Theodora Viran.” I pointed vaguely in the direction of my house. “I live up the street.” I opened my hands wider. “What happened? Why are you guys here? We didn’t call you.”

“Someone did,” said the officer who wore the cologne. Officer Duperry. He looked at me as if it was my fault, some sort of crank call.

He pulled out his comm gear, cupping the device in his palm, and thumbed it into play. A woman’s scream, followed by her begging someone not to kill her. It didn’t sound exactly like Reed’s mother, just someone’s pretty good attempt at mimicking her.

Reed leaned against the wall next to the stairs leading to the second floor, and he was gripping the banister with one shaking fist. The officers were enjoying this, a show of tiny smiles, and officer Duperry’s partner even showed some teeth, glistening saliva and something dark and fibrous caught between the canine and second incisor on the left side.

The woman in the recording started choking, the audio cutting in and out as if her attacker had her by the throat, and with the other hand was trying to get to the phone. This was all wrong. There was more than one attacker in the real murder of Andrea Gossi. This was someone’s sham to get us into custody, defenseless and separated. Alone, Reed would be easy meat for the things that were apparently after him.

I laughed, elbowing Reed, and it cut right through the fear. “That doesn’t even sound like your mom.”

Duperry’s partner, officer Dathe, lost his smile and cut in quick with, “It came from your tel number, and this location.” He pointed to the floor to emphasize his point.

“Well, Reed’s mother is out shopping, and we’re the only ones home. We didn’t call you.” Because I knew the family vehicle was in the driveway, I added, “She went with Mrs. Roshe from Hampton. Left about an hour ago.”

Officer Dathe leaned into the comm in his left ear, listening to something. Then he looked straight at me. “You said your name is Viran? Theodora Viran?”

I only paused a moment, then I pushed my shoulders up cheerily and said, “That’s me.”

Dathe glanced over at Duperry. “Voice rec just came back, and it’s not a match. She didn’t make the call.”

“You’re recording this?” Reed’s panicked voice broke in, and both officer’s jumped on the trail of guilt in his tone.

Of course they’re recording this. Reed had looked on edge all along. Now he looked as if he’d gone way over. He was shaking noticeably. I gave his arm a squeeze.

“It’s fine, Reed.” I let my shoulders slump in embarrassed defeat, tipping my chin to officer Dathe. “I trust these guys. They’re not going to tell.” I straightened my stance, took Reed’s hand gently in mine, and said, “Look, me and Reed...we’re going out, and Mrs. Gossi’s pretty strict—she’s out of the house. I mean, we were just...”

Officer Duperry moved to the basement stairs. “Were you down here?”

Reed nearly tripped and fell without even taking a step. I caught him, and gently as I could, rammed him against the banister.

Nodding gaily, I said, “And up in Reed’s bedroom.” I waved and piled on the tease. “Feel free to look for DNA evidence.” But my skin went goosey, terror ridging up my back. We were in real trouble. I hadn’t actually been that clean with the prismdead guy or anyone else.

I turned to give Officer Dathe a friendly smile, and felt it again, something wrong in the air. The smile never materialized, and the officer frowned, clearly catching my last second shift in expressions.

Time to turn it on.

I whispered, “Feel that?”

There was a weird taste in my mouth. I felt the assassins, still in the house, waiting for the officers to leave...just like we were. I stuck out my tongue, sucked in air, and then tasted the residue on my lips and front teeth. Yup, at least four of them, smoke people who could come and go with any breeze, and if they had power—which these did, they could become corporeal; real life tangible things that could push people down basement stairs. I couldn’t see them, but I didn’t get that feathery brush against the ankles, which meant they were off the ground, probably upstairs hiding in the bedrooms, maybe even on the kitchen counters, buckled up against the cabinets.

Waiting.

I was somewhat familiar with Smokes, pretty sure they weren’t from the Winterdim, but creatures from the Rootworld. My mom or my Uncle Theo would know, but who the fuck knew where my mother was at any given time? Probably off in the woods dancing, and my uncle—as far as anyone knew—was still a prisoner of some Queen of the Dead.

I leaned forward, pulling Reed with me, and gave Dathe a serious stare. “They’re still in the house.” I put some spooky into my voice. “Something is here, waiting for you to leave. Then it’s going to get us.” Pull the pitch higher, a pleading edge, drop the volume almost to a whisper. Widen the eyes just a little. “Please protect us.”

I felt Reed tense up, and tightened my fingers reassuringly. Going to a stronger stance, I shifted my feet, and moved closer to Dathe, almost turning my back on him, getting my right shoulder lined up with his chest. It was calculated to make him feel in charge, as if we felt we needed to be under his protection. Put yourself in an obvious vulnerable position, your throat or your back exposed, and they won’t see it coming. Don’t turn around completely, only halfway, then spring it on them.

I lifted my right hand to my mouth as if to cover a frightened gasp, my fingers already stiffening into a jabbing weapon.

Dathe leaned close to me. “What’s that along your jaw? Is that blood?”

Fuck. I looked up at the ceiling, pretending to scowl at something there, maybe blood dripping down on me. Dathe followed, tilting his head back, exposing his throat.

I pulled every muscle in my body tight, ratcheted it down, and let it go. My rigid hand shot out, caught Officer Dathe under the chin, my nails and fingertips stabbing into soft throat tissue.

He went down gagging, weapon swinging wide, his eyes wider, knees bending, legs folding under gravity, and I pulled Reed right over him, stepping on his shoulder and bounding through the front door.

We didn’t look back, running at full speed into the Long Wild—the kilometers-wide stretch of woods between the Exeter River and the Atlantic coast that ran behind our neighborhood.

The police sirens, a shriek of oscillating high-pitched tones, started up a minute later. I looked over my shoulder at Reed and gave him a quick steady glare. “Don’t worry about them.”

Law enforcement of the official government was the last item on a growing list of problems. Like who sent the prismdead guy and his buddies when there were already killers in the house? Who called the police? Someone else wants to wipe out the Gossi family? What for? And where’s Reed’s father? What the hell does he do, that he’s on the road so much? I was already suspicious.

Oh, and there was a calm current in the air, enough of a breeze to wiggle the leaves, enough to carry the smoke people after us. And they would follow. They hadn’t finished their job yet.

4 - Smoke

Reed ran with me in a gloom, a deep forest silence on his shoulders. His sorrow created a deeper shade than the things in the starlight around him, and all I could do was guide him away from his home, the only rooms and open grass spaces he’d ever known. There was no going back—not for a long while—with the kinds of things chasing us.

The questions about motives hung around my neck, and after a couple kilometers into the Long Wild, they were slipping down to my ankles, tiring me when I should have just been running.

Reed said he used to be able to see them... with his eyes closed.

Used to...

Then why would anyone want him? Why bother? He didn’t have the ties anymore, or the perch for the faceless little demons and dimensional renderers. He had no way to know they were there, no way to tap their power. Used to be able to see them meant he used to have it, and now he didn’t. He knew they existed—that there were other things with us in this world. Maybe he even had the power to merge with them at some point, but had lost it?

I took Reed’s hand and lifted him to his feet. “Come on. We can’t stay for long.”

He pulled back, breaking the grip on my fingers.

“What happened to my mother?” Reed bent over his knees, clutching at them as he tried to catch his breath.

I put one hand on his shoulder, trying to sooth him. “Welcome to my dead alive world, Reed. Nothing goes to waste. What grows up must...”

The words dried up in my mouth. I spun in the dead leaves, all my close prox senses going off bright and glaring. There was a quick flash of something human-shaped beside me, one of the Smokes coming into existence

Reed pointing, jabbing his finger into the air a meter to my right. “They’re right there!”

I jumped into a toe spring, shooting forward in a dive and roll, uncurling upright, spinning with a bounce and standing on the other side of the glade, Reed’s back to me now. There were a couple of them there before me.

I leaned away from a swing of something thin and bladed next to my face; a hiss of air and then blood was sliding into my mouth, warm and metallic.

“Thea!” Reed moved in a halo, his arms waving, fingers pointing. “Two of them, either side of you. One has a knife!”

I dropped on my butt, somersaulting backward, my fingernails going long and stringy. They whipped around my head, coiling up the legs of the two Smokes beside me, holding them in their corporeal forms. I pulled them in, ignoring the one with the knife for the moment because he was busy trying to cut his own legs off to get away from me. I fingered up a dusty phytotoxin that looked like a sphere of silver mist, and probably just ran up another 100K heartbeat debt for me.

There was a burning at the corners of my mouth. The poison went to work on their lungs, instant bronchial swelling. They sagged in my nail vines, and the knife pitching forward from the Smoke’s limp fingers, heavy grip giving it another cycle of momentum. The sharp tip slid through my skirt, deep into my thigh. I bit down on the scream, looking over my shoulder at Reed just standing there at the edge of the glade.

“Why aren’t they going after you?”

“They can’t see me. I can make myself...” He shrugged. “Not visible to them if I concentrate on it.”

I choked on a little of my own poison, coughed out the words, “Holy Tree! You can see them...” And then it hit me hard, what Reed had really meant by used to be able to see them. “Reed, you can see them with your eyes open? You see what they look like?”

That’s an entirely different dimensional render problem. I didn’t know it was even possible. It’s not like they’re from this world. Some of them don’t even know we exist—can’t even see us.

Reed darted one way, waving a broken tree branch behind him, and one of the remaining Smokes went visible, clawed hands ripping through leaves and stems. Reed let it go, made a face to show that that had been too close.

He moved quietly to one side of the clearing and whispered, “I’ve always been able to see them with my eyes closed, just not distinct, shadows through my eyelids. A couple days ago, I opened my eyes and they were everywhere, following people on the street, sitting on a girl’s shoulder outside the Shoe Barn, gliding from the trees.” He slowed down, his knees wobbling, tears running down his cheeks. “Killing my mother.”

With that last line—words dropping to below a whisper—he became something else, something angry. Something not Reed Gossi.

I rolled over the two dead Smokes, uncoiling my vines, and brought them around like whips.

“Where are they, Reed? Stay with me. Point them out, and I’ll take care of them.”

He hunched his back, ignoring me, his shaking hands curling into fists. He looked savagely at a point in the air three meters to my left and about as many off the ground.

“How many, Reed? Don’t attack them.”

I was on my feet, all my weight on my left leg.

“Let me do it.”

There were two Smokes left. Reed caught one, just snapped it out of thin air by the throat, his fingers digging in for a solid crushing hold. The thing clawed up Reed’s arms, face, tore a long strip of cotton from the front of his shirt. Then it died, never really becoming visible.

The final Smoke howled in frustration, giving away its location to me. I swung my vines, caught something, maybe enough to trip him, but nothing more.

It fled. Reed started after it in a rage, and I had to put him down, snatched up his pants legs and tipped him face first into the dead leaf matt of the forest.

He came up spitting, turning his anger and fists on me. I pulled in all my vines, holding up my open hands. That didn’t stop Reed Gossi. Something else did. Something else in the woods with us had caught the last Smoke and was snapping bones and draining the life out of the Rootworld creature. The Smoke was squealing and choking and making a mess of its final living seconds. Seconds.

That’s all the time we had.

I grabbed Reed’s hand and ran, limping, blood running slippery into my shoe.

5 - Dead in Old Ohio

We ran.

We jumped rides on aircargo barges and westbound nuketugs, but mostly we just ran.

Not fast enough.

By the time we got to what used to be Ohio, it was a total floodplain mutiny. We were surrounded by a night-team of prismdead, packs of lower snarling things, and I had even spied at least one of the upper fellows from our droomhidden across the concrete-walled canal.

There was a whole slaughter of bad guys this time. The damned in the Long Wild behind our neighborhood had finally found us, tracked our moisture, aerial spies, used our own heat against us, who knows?

They were closing in.

And you know how it is. The water’s rising, and no one looks to the leader for guidance because that’s the idiot who got you into the mess in the first place. Me—I’d led Reed far from home, into the woods, through stinking mall caverns, fields of broken glass, empty urban mazes, burned down hotels, sleeping in parks floored with rotting garbage from another age.

And there was something growing inside Reed the whole time. It wasn’t just his rage—who wouldn’t be fucking upset? It just wasn’t Reed. Something took control of him in short angry self-destructive bursts and directed Reed’s feelings and fists at me.

I just managed to get my mouth closed, my tongue seated behind my teeth. Reed’s fist came around, caught me just below the right eye. A jab of heat through my head that went right out the back, taking brain cells with it, then a few seconds of blindness—the loss of all my senses, and the next thing I know I’m spitting wet grass from my mouth. Damn, he was getting quicker. Whatever powers he had on his own—and whatever was controlling him—were bigger and badder than I am.

Soon, he’d be too quick for me.

Reed stood over me, fists tight, his whole body hunched in rage, blade lines on his skin.

He’d spent the last six days going through self-destruct, cutting his arms and legs to feel his body bleed, jumping off roofs four meters up, rarely sleeping, always counting, tugging individual eyebrow hairs from the follicle, and limit-testing the fullness of his lungs and the strong machine of his heart.

“You lied to me.” He sat down hard, cross-legged, leaning forward to give me vulture eyes. Fingers that almost looked like claws in the dark, he picked mud from the chunky soles of one hiking boot without looking down, throwing it over my head.

I lifted my face from the forest rot, and spit again. “I’m protecting you from things that can hurt you—are hurting you.”

“My dead mother? How was she going to hurt me?”

That’s what some of this was about. I closed my eyes, sighed. “Waste is a contradiction. If not me, then something else would have taken her materials.” I let my eyelids rise slowly, fixed him with a stare. “There’s always something ready to spin down the unneeded. Always. Just a matter of what or who.”

Reed glanced away for a moment. “What does that matter now? You can’t bring her back. No one can.” His voice went rough with pain. “Stop looking at me, Thea.” He blocked my eyes with an open hand, and a ring of claws like a scorpion’s snapped out of his palm, flexed and plied the air, tasting my presence. Metallic brown exoskeletal pillows filled with muscle, triangular joints, squared shafts that came to points with rows of tiny gripping teeth and hundreds of stiff hairs arranged over the shells, oozing glitter and poison.

Nice defense mechanism. Man, he’s loaded. But that can’t be him—can’t be just himSomething’s feeding him fabrications like this.

I crawled backward, low to the ground, my hair starting to twist into vines a meter over my head. I kept my eyes on his, but focused wide to catch movement around his mouth, a twitch in the outer corner of his left eye. I didn’t see any sign of something on the outside controlling him. Reed was in pain, and he was taking it out on the world, and there was something inside him giving him a hand. I just happened to be the closest thing that would respond to it.

That’s when the lights came on.

A dancing trail of luminescence spiraled over our heads, bright as a sun, and everything in the park’s clearing came into full view. The trees shook, old foliage rattling loose and scurrying away.

They weren’t a noisy bunch, these prismdead fellows. They didn’t make scary wet shrieks or fiery rumbles deep in their throats. Not that it would affect me. I had a whole series of audio defenses to weed out the purely frightening from the usable in the air.

I didn’t have anything to protect me from the silence. That’s scary.

Reed came up straight like a puppet on strings, right out of a cross-legged position on the ground. I gave him a one-sided smile and turned my back on him to face the ring of dead.

Gravecrawlers, every one of them. Too bad none of them were as nicely dressed as the one at Reed’s house. They looked human, or once human. Their skulls were a bit elongated, ridged at the crest, mostly exposed graying bone. The angled channels between the cheekbones and jaw were too long, carrying too many teeth. Imaginative mod. Whoever created these guys had some biodesign experience.

There were six full prismdeads, followed by a couple packs of low-deads, mindless biting teeth and claws, some of them walking upright, most on all fours. Then their leader came into the light.

He was clearly the power guy, one of the young demons, three meters up, legs and arms like thick beams and structural muscle supports, hair like braided cable, a thousand strands falling down his back, swaying gently with metallic pops and pings at each footfall. He stopped outside the rings of his hunting party, flexing his long twig fingers. Then he kicked a tree over to show us that he could. He kicked it right out of the ground, roots and all. He sent it cartwheeling through a pack of his own low-deads, who jumped back squealing. Leaves went everywhere, spinning with the force, leaf-shapes like a mob of folding hands scattered in the night.

I caught one, the soft symmetric green waves of a grand old oak leaf. Rolled it and stuck it in my mouth, across my tongue. The stem was a little stiff in my teeth, but it went down nicely, and for a moment... I smelled the sweet green smell of home. It was so far away now, but there was warmth at this moment in time, and it pleased me that one fresh leaf from an oak could bring it to me so easily.

I tilted my head back and focused.

I knew this guy, used to go by the name Foleshlinonen—or something like that. Used to work for my mother way back.

He looked down at me, and there wasn’t much like recognition in his expression or eyes; beams of light forked from his chin then coiled like whips that tasted the air, an array of sensors lit up one side of his face.

One hand on my hip, don’t show any fear. “Folesh? It’s me. What do you think you’re doing?”

One of his eyebrows went up curiously, then dropped back into a steep scowling slope. “You are on the wrong side as usual, Thea.”

I smiled because at least he remembered something, but from what I could tell, there wasn’t much left of the demon than associating my name with the signature of my presence. It looked as if he had given up control to something even more dangerous and powerful... a while ago.

Folesh gave his killers a flick of one finger, and they lunged at us. Still not a lot of noise out of this group, except for a few yelps from the lower ones. My hair was already ten meters long and growing, coiling into whips that spun clockwise from my position, into the trees for bracing. I sent them rolling back into the clear in angry loops. They dipped into the fray, snapped and gripped, and hauled the six prismdead off their feet by their throats.

Nice and neat. The way I like it.

Reed—or his controller—launched into the rest at a sprint, arms out low, head tucked in, teeth bared, an array of blade weapons jutting and sparkling from his fists. He went through them without slowing down, pieces of the neatly-sliced dead tumbling through the air, limbs, ears, toes, and whole skulls with jaws gaping around cut-off screams.

I pulled tight, popped off the heads of the prismdead guys, and let everything fall to the ground in Reed’s wake. They wriggled around, claws scrabbling for a hold in the age-softened garbage and leaf rot.

We had turned Folesh’s night-team into the unneeded in seconds.

Folesh looked down at us—mainly at Reed—with something in his face, shock, maybe understanding. Then he turned and lumbered away.

I was just starting to pull in my hair, ring my claws, catch my breath, and ponder Folesh’s retreat when I felt it in the air. Something even worse was on its way—something faint and horrible...and familiar.

Not my mother... but something like her. Something big and bad from the Rootworld.

I turned to Reed who was hunched over his kills, breathing hard and pawing the ground.

“Calm the hell down. We have more trouble on our trail—probably half a day away, which only gives us a few hours to eat and rest.” I sighed heavily. “You sure are one hot item.”

He blinked at me, struggling with his controller, and broke free. Suddenly he wasn’t much different from the frightened and sorrowful Reed Gossi I had led from home a week before.

“What do we do now, Thea?”

I pointed at the scattered bodies of the prismdeads and low-deads, stepping over arms and unrecognizable parts. Then I showed him how I feed, and I spoon-fed him out my materials to build up his strength.



I had to close my eyes after feeding, and Reed rested with me—I made him. Ingestion, chemical conversion, breakdown, and storage can take a lot out of you, especially with the numbers we had reduced.

Sleep came on quick, and I slipped right into a dream of a girl from the forest choking on saltwater, drowning in the laughter of the tides, looking for clean air, and finding only despair and salt when she saw the dark blue ocean in every direction. Then she was gone—or I became her, and I dreamt of sinking ships and sailors’ fears, twisted imagery that told me I was forgetting how to live. The voice of the dream told me every memory of my life would be discarded and lost by those who called themselves alive. I forgot to breathe, and let the dreams continue.

Numbered and nearly forgotten are the ships that went to the floor with every soul lost. But countless are the sailors in airless graves of metal and wood who have vanished from the surface of the world without whispering a trace of their names...

The woman who ruled the Dawnworld’s oceans spoke to me in my dreams, her voice soft as the tides sliding over sand, ice-smooth—and just as cold.

“Theodora?” She called my name, sounding a bit urgent.

The Sea wanted to talk. I didn’t, and I rolled over, folding my dreams into something hostile—dry wastelands that hated the seas as much as the trees.

She called me again, still sounding polite. I ignored her, calling up the memories of the low-deads lumbering through the woods, teeth jutting, eyes fixed on prey. I wrapped my dream in the ink-shadows from Folesh’s light coming through the spaces between the trees, the raspy hiss of an indrawn breath, the smells of old forest decay and new human chop-rot.

“Let’s not do this, Theodora.”

“I don’t want to talk to you!”

“You don’t have to talk. You only have to listen.”

The colors faded with the darkness, and I was standing with the ocean up to my knees.

I screamed. She was manipulating my dreams.

“Theodora?” She sounded a little bothered now. “Listen to me.”

“And if I don’t want to?”

“Then I will make you.”

I slid a thick mare-wall between us, and she made it porous as a sponge, my dreams leaking through, and her manipulations pouring over the top. Wherever I turned and ran, she was there before me. When I created doors to close, she was already breaking the hinges and the locks—salt-crusted metal crumbling to dust.

She took my own dreams, everything that I could recall to feed them, and turned them against me—left me nothing to hold onto in her deep blue universe.

Damn, my toes hurt.

I couldn’t even keep my focus still enough to see clearly, just enough light and clarity to make out a young woman in blue armor, hair cut short or braided and pulled back, out of site, and a crown that blinded me.

Saltwater stung, and it was my own frightened voice screaming at her, “What do you want from me?”

The Sea smiled in the drowned cities and gloom of my dream. “You weren’t listening, Theodora. I already told you.”

And there was saltwater in my mouth. I tasted it, smelled it, nailing my senses to the wall of some underwater cavern. I fought her control, and she stood over me, one hand raised in time with the words of her song, in time with my will breaking. My skin had already broken. I tasted the salt in my own blood.

I gave up the fight, slumping forward. The caves and abyss-dark drifted off like debris after a storm. That’s when I scraped up enough strength to look up at her. “Who are you?”

She nodded gravely. “I am Kassandra’s daughter.”

Who?” Apparently I was supposed to know who Kassandra was.

Her voice was the thunder of the surf in my ears. “I am the Sea, Theodora. I possess something you value, that your mother has given me to keep safe. I will care for your loved one as long as you need me to. When you have completed your journey, and have discovered what you are meant to be, I will be here with knowledge and treaties and gifts. I will be ready. For now, you must be.”

“Be what? Ready?”

The Sea smiled again. “Get some rest, Theodora Viran. You will need it.”

6 - Dead with Rends

“Thea?”

Reed’s voice had a soft current of shame, and I pulled him harder, my fingernails digging into the back of his hand. “What is it?”

“I’m so tired.” He sounded lost. “Where are we going? Where are you taking me?”

I wanted to answer the question he was really asking. No, you’re never going home. “We’re running, Reed. Just running. We can’t stop now.” Ever? It’s possible. Maybe Helodes can smooth things overJust need to get over the Mississippi.

I ducked a branch, and blew a sapling whistle to command all of them to let us through without trouble, stems and trunks bending, crinkling bark, young leaves waving as we passed. The Holly trees didn’t move, but they’re an ornery and independent bunch in a full warm spring—at the best of times. I avoided them. They’re not worth the hassle.

“What happened...” I felt Reed turn as we walked, looking over his shoulder. “...back there?”

“Do you feel hungry?”

His head shake was so vigorous I felt it through the grip I had on his hand. “It’s because you ate.”

“No, I mean...” His fingers felt cold, another rush of shame through his body. “The thing that was talking to me, showing me how to open my hands, how to bare my teeth, how to run low, how to change my form, how to lure prey, how to kill.”

“There’s an inside and an outside.” I skidded down a muddy bank and jumped a creek, arm twisting and towing Reed like luggage on one good wheel. “The ones who can come at you on the inside have found you because the ones on the outside sent along your address—basically where your mind is in the universe. They wouldn’t know where or how to find you without you giving up your location to one of their renderers—ones that can shift into our world. And you were never taught to set up defenses.”

I stopped, too sudden for Reed, and he ran into me. I took his forearm and momentum across the breasts, his right ankle twining with my legs, and we both went down. He ended up on top.

Now my fingers were shaking. I was close to vine strangling him. I damped it down, and forced an apologetic smile on my face. I even gave him a light kiss on the cheek.

“I’m going to teach you, Reed. When we get some space to breathe, I’m going to train you. I’m going help you set up your defenses, the gates, keys, passwords, everything you’ll need to manage entry into your head from those who use the inside path.” I gave him a gentle slap on the cheek. “After that? Who knows? Maybe we can get to the real stuff—some combat training.”

He lifted himself off me, blinking, confused, as if he was still trying to catch up to reality. He dropped one hand absently to help me up, but I don’t think he even realized we had fallen down, or that he had landed full-weight on top of me.

“What about the outside? Those...” He made a vague waving gesture to the world. “...that exist out here?” He ended up pointing at me.

I pushed my smile all the way up to admiration, but kept it just inside the border. I wasn’t that pleased with the situation.

But it did call for affection, and I lifted one hand to his face, slowly unfolding my fingers across his cheek. “I will teach you about them as well, and there’s the difference between you and me. You’re beyond me there. I can control several dimensional renderers at once if I have to. But I cannot see them.” I leaned closer, almost touching his lips with mine, felt him tense up when we locked eyes. “I’m not sure what you are, or how you acquired such a special ability.”

I cupped one of his ears with my fingers. Who the fuck is your father, Reed Gossi?

“I don’t either.” He looked away.

I pulled back and slapped him on the arm. “Let’s move. We’re not safe anywhere—even in the beautiful tangled forests—until we hit the banks of the Mississippi. And I want to get some distance between us—” I shot a gaze over his shoulder “—and them.

We ran at a good steady pace through the woods of old Ohio, managed our breathing. We took as many safe paths as we could find through the rockier areas.

Reed seemed to have calmed down, enough for me to start him on some introductory trance theory and a few simple innerdimension violation techniques. Something besides the rich green of the woods to take me home. It was like my mother teaching me all over again.

He took it in like the straight A student he’d always been, asked some good questions, and even tried a few attacks on me.

I still led him by the hand, steering for level ground, slow weaves between the trees, and with all the trust in the world, he closed his eyes and let me.

“Wonder.” He said the word in a sharp vocal burst, let it ride out alone, and I looked over my shoulder and smiled at the change in his expression, muscles tight around his mouth, a nostril flare, a shudder of worry in his brows. This all looked good to me.

He’s getting it, and faster than anyone I’ve known.

Then he said, “I think I have something.”

And I felt him prying around the edges of my mind.

“Very good, Reed.” I set my voice low and soft, didn’t want to distract him. “Keep going. Yes, you’re trying a behavior pattern manip.” What have I got here? Behavior manipulation is something a ten-year student can’t master without a nurturing mother or father with the ability, or special tutoring. Maybe he’s a witch? Something else to ask Helodes when we find her. And not that he’s mastered it yet, but he’s doing very we—

My right foot twisted behind my left, caught on the heel. My panicking fingers slipping out of Reed’s, swung up to catch me, and I went face first into the forest rot. He tripped me! The link was so subtle, I only felt it after I knew he had latched on to me. I rolled on my back, staring up at him, spitting dirt. I bit back the spike of anger, slammed my hands into the wet leaves, and launched my body upright.

Calm down.

After a minute’s show of brushing forest detritus off my skirt, I looked up, locked eyes, folded my arms.

“Okay, who taught you that?”

He made a confused sound in his throat, the start of some word he’d called back. He looked at me hard, a lot going on behind his eyes. He was trying to figure out what I meant by the question. He ended up going with honesty.

You just did.”

I stood there staring at him a moment, fingers tightening into fists, and then I let it all flow out of me, anger draining away. “I guess I did.” I had to stop my head nodding and my teeth from chewing a hole through my lip. Looking down, I took his hand. “You’re just a better student than I’m used to.”

Better than I ever was.

We walked another kilometer without a word, stopping to catch our breaths in the wildlife pass-through of a fairly new highway. The pass-through was basically a big round hole running under the road to let animals get from one side to the other without having to cross the surface road above. I studied the smooth concrete walls, up along the perfect arched ceiling. The tunnel—maybe forty meters end to end—led into more forest, mostly pines, on the south side of the road. The floor was damp from rain, lumpy with muddy flood drift. There was an old campfire midway through. I kneeled, smeared the ash in my fingertips, and then tasted it. A year at least, long before the deer droppings at the north entrance, before the hard nugget shit of some kind of cat at the other.

Reed stared up at the smooth gray ceiling of the underpass. “Who built this road? It’s not that old, which means it leads somewhere important.”

I shook my head. “Don’t know. I think this is safe for a little while.” I flattened my hand against the wall, cold concrete, hundreds of kilometers of road above, and I couldn’t feel anything within ten.

“Thea?”

I put a finger to my lips. He ignored me.

“You have a beautiful renderer. A little scary, but...beautiful.”

I swung away from the wall, trying—with some effort—to show pleasant curiosity. His eyes were pinned to something over my right shoulder. God damn, I couldn’t help myself. “What do you see?”

He leaned forward, studying the space just above my shoulder. “It’s pale bluish gray with red spots and speckles—almost like it was splattered at a murder.” He made some kind of lifting gesture. “It has something like wings, but they don’t look large enough to lift it off the ground.”

I whispered, “An atmosphere with air and one earth gravity is not the only medium supporting flight.”

He nodded. “It has a snout, almost dog-like, but the rest of it...it’s armored, like it’s related to a crab or lobster—a blue-gray blood-speckled lobster with a head like a dragon crossed with a wolf. It has legs that end in points, like a crab. There are flattened plates that swivel directionally, I think they’re ears.”

“Eyes?”

“Two of them, a very rich green.” He shifted his gaze to my face then back to my dimrend. “They almost match your eyes. Could be four of them if you count the stalks with little glassy globes on the ends. Not sure what those are. They jut out of the wing joints at the shoulders, on either side of the spines.”

“Spines? Plural?”

“It has two ridges along its back.” He frowned with a head shake. “And you don’t feel that? She moves all over your body, in front as much as back. It has to weigh something.”

“It’s a she, Reed. Her name’s Shirley.”

“Shirley?” He looked as if he was about to laugh, but wasn’t sure if that would offend me.

“Okay, I was eight years old when I named her. I do feel her, but she’s only partly here, so there’s little weight or shift in motion, and she’s pretty good at hovering.”

“And she doesn’t like me looking at her.”

“Probably not used to it. I mean, seriously, you’re the only one. I grew up with these things in my playpen, sharing sippy cups and probably spitting up on them. And my mother...when she’s not sleeping in the woods, my mother has full demons working with her—not from the Winterdim, but from the Rootworld. That big guy back there? Folesh? He worked for my mom years ago. You’ve met my dad a couple times, still teaches at Dartmouth.”

Reed nodded with a worried expression, as if my parents were completely ordinary, and I was slandering their good names. “Anthropology?”

“If you widen the ‘anthro’ to include all sentient and semi-sentient beings. All he does is study our interactions with dimensional renderers through history. Our house would be turned upside down if he knew you could actually see them.”

Reed gave me a shrug, a response to show that he still didn’t understand.

I lowered my voice cautiously. I hadn’t been aware of how loud and excited I’d become. “I’m going to speculate that there are others who want you for just that ability. Trust me, Reed. You can’t fall into their hands.” I showed my teeth, riding a wave of sickness rolling up from my gut, and memories of sterile white walls and steel bars and a nurse with lipstick like strawberry candy and a smile that fed on my fear. I shook it off, holding my arms tight across my middle. “It won’t be hands that you’ll fall into, believe me. It’ll be sharp, and it’ll be deadly.”

“How many...do you think want to find me?”

I wiped sweat off my forehead, a response to that painful glimpse of memory. “I don’t know. Many.” I pointed to the tunnel’s opening at the north of the road. “At least two groups are out there following us.”

“Then how come you—”

“Quiet!” Both my hands were against the concrete. “There’s someone coming, up on the road. Sounds like something big, maybe a freight truck. It’s east of us, heading west.”

“Let’s see if we can get a ride.”

We exchanged a quick agreeing look. “What I’m thinking.”

Then we climbed the embankment to street level, waving our arms and shouting.

It was a truck hauling a big white trailer on what looked like thirty wheels, and it stopped for us.

The driver just asked where we were headed. He looked... somewhat normal, maybe mid-sixties. I didn’t catch any gender pref vibe off him, but I’m assuming it was me, the way he held my gaze a few seconds longer than Reed’s, trying not to look down the front of my shirt. And, of course, I’d pulled up my skirt above mid-thigh, showing some leg. He smiled, and I wished he hadn’t. It suddenly made the whole thing even creepier, a murder-plotting smile with roadside diner gravy filming his teeth.

No, not very attractive.

But... he was giving us a ride, at least as far as “Springfield Ill”, which didn’t sound like someplace I wanted to visit, much less be dropped off with hunters on our tails.

The trucker had just agreed to take us that far, and then we had nearly lost the opportunity. I say “we” but it was really Reed—weirding out on me. Reed had been shaking his head as soon as the driver dropped down from his cab to give us a look. Okay, fine, I didn’t like him either, but the driver was going to put a few hundred kilometers between us and them.

And I made my intentions pretty clear.

We climbed up, Reed holding me tight, pulling my shirt, practically groping me, but he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He couldn’t take his eyes off the driver, teeth grinding, tension like electricity running through his body, and—being the gentleman—gave me the middle while he pressed himself as flat as he could against the door—as far from the driver as he could get in the truck’s cab.

“It’s going to be fine.” I whispered a song to Reed, ran my fingers through his hair, keeping the driver, the travel speed, and the horizon at the edge of my peripherals.

The truck was fast. Mr. Creepy Trucker had us up well over 220 k’s with nothing but open forest-lined road to the crests of far off hills.

Reed wouldn’t let go of me, even holding my gaze, making an almost funny downward pull on his mouth, and then darting eyes at the driver, trying to signal something. His voice was so low I barely caught the words. “They’re like war trophies.”

I leaned in, right up against his ear. I didn’t need him going south on me. “What are you talking about?”

“His renderer.”

I caught myself turning around as if I’d be able to see it. “I take it you’ve never seen one like this guy’s before?”

The navigation panels and window display lit the cab, and I glanced over. The driver smiled again, apparently not minding his passengers whispering to each other. He kept his hands on the wheel, and didn’t say much, which was fine by me. Nothing worse than some stranger rambling on about crap you care less than sand about, or worse, one who couldn’t keep his hands on the wheel.

Reed lifted his chin to something beyond me, then turned so that his mouth was right next to my ear. “It’s nothing like yours.” His voice was rigid, cold, coming out in an angry whisper. “It’s made up of people.”

In other circumstances that would have been funny. Revising my opinion, I inched closer to Reed, away from the hauler.

“It’s see-through, sort of oily, like sausage casing arms and legs stuffed with pieces of rotting people and fluid. There’s hair and smeared faces and bone fingers, and it has its own head—where a head should be. But there are others. I mean there are real human heads...sort of...grafted to it. Five of them, three men, two women, attached and growing out from it, around its waist. The hair’s been cut short on all of them—not very neatly.” He shuddered. “And they’re still alive.”

“How do you know?”

“They’re looking at me.”

7 - Colder

“Where are you two headed?” It was a casual question, like something about the weather, and then then truck driver’s expression went from bored to unconcerned, as if the situation warranted some kind of dialogue and now that the forms had all been met, he could go back to staring at the road and shifting his hands on the steering wheel. He even managed to do that in a creepy slithery way.

Like I’d tell you where we’re going. I smiled, waved vaguely west, through the windshield, and said I had family in—I made up a name, “Rockland or Rockford, something like that.”

“Little Rock?”

I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t think it’s there anymore anyway. Went under with the Mid-Mississip Sphere.”

I looked over to get a good look at the age lines around his eyes and mouth. How old is this guy? He couldn’t be that old, didn’t look much older than my father, who was maybe seventy. I was afraid to dig deeper. Sending out exploratories would give me away.

The Spheres... I didn’t know much about them, like how many there were, how big they were. It’s way before my time. I just knew that that’s where most of the human population went in the Vanishing, tens of millions inside each of them, their own little worlds buried in the earth, core drills to bring up magma for energy, some kind of nano shielding around them. Even the gods can’t touch the Spheres without burning their delicate little fingers. “And they just left us here.” Those were my mother’s words, repeating—it just occurred to me—Andrea Gossi’s words. Reed’s mother had said that to my mother, who liked the phrase for some peculiar reason.

Very few of my mother’s reasons weren’t peculiar.

They just left us here.

How the hell old was Andrea Gossi? She couldn’t have been more than fifty.

Scowling at Reed who sat pressed to the passenger door window, I wondered whose words Andrea was repeating. They couldn’t be her originals. She was just too young to be around when everyone...went away. Almost everyone.

We called them the Wild Children, the humans who stayed behind, and refused to go into the Spheres, refused to leave the real behind.

The driver looked over, took one hand off the wheel to give us an openhanded gesture that he obviously assumed we’d take as some sort of friendly, inviting motion. Keep it on the wheel, buddy.

“I’m Coldur Gregg, master of this freight vehicle, working for OKF up in Portland. I didn’t get your names?”

Colder?

He read my expression and spelled it for us.

My response came out of my mouth ready. “I’m Wilmy and this is my boyfriend, Matt. We’re from the east, out here looking for our relatives.”

“Wilmy and Matt.” He didn’t look at us, just repeated the names, and then shut up for another couple hours.

It was just past midnight when Coldur pulled over on the outskirts of the crumbling old city that he called “Springfield Ill”. A nearly full moon made more than enough light to get our bearings. We stood at a crossroads. The wide fresh-paved road continued north, nothing but branching broken concrete—old roads—leading east toward the city and west into more trees.

The driver climbed down with us. “Have to check my cargo.”

I slung one arm around Reed’s waist, and we stood at the side of the road, waiting for Coldur to move on. I didn’t want to give him any sense of the direction we were taking.

The trucker popped a row of seals along the doors at the back of the trailer. The hiss of pressure released made us back up a step. Reed looked over at me, and I shrugged. I had no idea what the guy was hauling.

“Sure you don’t need to go any further? I’m headed up to good old OKF. They’d love to have you. I have room back here for a couple more.”

He swung the doors wide dramatically.

The trailer was full of human bodies in racks that ran up the walls. I couldn’t tell if they were frozen or hibernating or fixed in place with adhesive. They weren’t moving. Not enough light to see them breathing, and I couldn’t feel any regular strong heartbeats, just a confused mass of idling rhythms, like fires banked so low it looked like cold gray ash until you stepped in it. There was a narrow aisle between the racks leading deep and dark into the trailer’s interior, and at the open end, facing us, nothing but the tops of victims’ heads and the bottoms of their feet showing clearly in the moonlight.

Coldur Gregg turned and laughed exactly like a guy with a dimrend—a dimensional renderer—made of human corpse parts.

Then he turned into one—a corpse, and he continued laughing, sagging flesh swinging from his jaw like snot, rows of teeth blackened with decay, finger bones clutching and clicking together.

What a dickhead.

He was prismdead, but I hadn’t sensed it the whole time we were in the truck’s cab together. Half a meter away from me—hours in a confined space, and I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t smelled it.

That sent a chill up my arms. It had to have been Reed’s description of the guy’s renderer. It had distracted me.

No, this is more than that.

The prismdead did not have dimensional renderers. It was impossible for them to have them, but that’s what Coldur was. And I felt a shift in the world, a sense of shock rolling like jelly between my ribs and pelvis. First Reed can see renderers with his eyes, and half this world’s powers are out there after him, and now prismdeads can be adapted to support renderers? Suddenly the universe didn’t make any sense.

I caught Reed’s arm and shoved him behind me. Coldur took a step toward us, his murder-plotting smile growing wider—and his dimrend was probably looking to add another couple heads to its belt.

The trucker’s words hit me. Where are you...two headed. Ha. Ha.

I decided to start with a light touch. “So, what are you? I mean, I know you’re prismdead. But you have your own renderer. What else are you?”

The prismdead aren’t dead in our world. They’re here physically, walking and talking to us, but they reflect the tidy descriptions of themselves—or the forms their masters have chosen for them—into our world. It’s like looking through one face of a prism and expecting to see straight through it to the decay—all the human senses are geared for direct perception, but what you’re actually seeing is the mirrored view from a different direction, the view the prism’s owner wants you to see. What’s usually on the other side is dead, it’s just not easy to detect the smell without experience. The truth isn’t lovely in this case, but the reflection may be. Hence the prismdead guy with the nice suit.

Coldur on the other hand, was absolutely fullsewer hideous, and clearly had no intention of apologizing for it. Nor did his not-much-of-a-talker behavior change with his form. He took another quiet menacing step toward us, but he still had his smile, though. Cheery fucking bastard.

My hair was already coiling out, whipping through the sky. I felt a pull from the nearest trees along the road, wanting to help me, branches clawing at the air and the snap and crack of old wood breaking—sadly too far away to be of service to one of their kind. My toes went right through the soles of my shoes, rooting under the asphalt as if it was sand, branching in fives and eights and thirteens, the sequence like a drug in my veins, like clean water and light energy flowing through me.

Coldur moved in, long skeletal arms with showy orange metallic tendons seizing and stretching with his movement. He spread his claws open, and when he folded them in, his fingers curled tight around the handle of an axe, its head a giant forest clearing blade. This guy was already showing me that he was sharper than any prismdead I’d ever come up against.

Not taking any chances, I quickly grew several more arms, threw my main—human—two out like I was being crucified, fists clenched, and I just managed to hold in the scream as six tree branches sprung from my back, tore through my shirt, three on each side, four meters long, bark-armored, ending in my own dangerous looking claws.

I pulled a few back to make a defensive structure around Reed. Then I went to work.

Anchored solidly to the earth, I put some muscle into my first attack, swept one long arm through the space...where Coldur had been. He was far quicker than any prismdead should be, jumping four meters into the air from a standstill. His axe came down through the fourth arm on my right, sheering it off at the middle joint. The blade hit like a hammer and cut roughly, a burst of splintered wood and high-velocity bark chips—and pain like fire down my spine, to the ends of my roots.

The severed part of my arm hit the road, finger branches cracking, oozing sap, and a deep seed hurt in the place where my heart used to be.

My hair, triple coiled and thick around as my forearm, swung in and took Coldur by the throat, lifted him off the ground. But not before he launched into another swing. His axe caught me in the side, halfway up my ribcage, the edge going through my armor into soft flesh with bone splitting momentum behind it; a burn of cold metal through me, my chest cavity caving in, taking a few ribs, muscle and lung tissue with it. There was blood coming up my throat from below, into my mouth, slick and hot around my teeth and tongue. I coughed up more, let it slide past my lips, off my chin.

My eyes stung with a cold wind, and I closed them. My mother’s stern warning screamed in my head—when I was eight, her fingers like delicate twigs on the back of my neck. Nothing worse than a trunk cut. I had felt fear growing up, often enough to be able to hold it at arm’s length, study it for what it was, and deal with it. I had never in my life felt that I was about to die. Didn’t even realize I could die.

Until now.

Reed Gossi—Leaf Father love him—came to my rescue. He repeated the strategy that had worked well against Folesh’s prismdead and lowers several days back. He came through my branches like a raging bear, hunched low, sharp blades bristling in his fists. Growling threats and pain the whole time, he cut into Coldur’s swinging legs, another slice across the middle, with gray-brown blood spewing from the wounds.

Coldur untangled my failing vines, scrambled back from the battle, and then bolted for his truck. The axe clattered to the street, and Reed was a step behind him, blades raised for the kill, roaring incoherently.

And then reality or the smell of my blood seized him. He froze, a shudder of horror visible up his legs, a jolt through his spine, snapping his shoulders up and broad. He turned back with death on his face, apparently forgetting all about Coldur, and then ran back to me, putting away all his killer’s tools.

Apparently, I was more important to him.

Trailer doors still open and swinging, the truck took off, stuttered a little at first, and then rocketed north along the road, weaving wildly. It vanished around a bend a moment later.

I pulled up roots, drew in my arms and hair, my whole body doing a sapling-sway in the soft breeze before collapsing into Reed’s arms. He carried me down the far side, into the forest, and I threw up blood all over him.

8 - Archippa

I woke and the sun was up, and I could feel the crawl of the forest under me—a strange far-from-home forest, the smell of last autumn, dry and dying, the green scent of new leaves, and sunlight coming through the canopy in blazes and winks.

“Beautiful trees.”

My voice sounded weak, the words raw in my throat. I was on my back, a blanket covering me. A bee zipped by my ear, doubled back and landed on my shoulder—on my bare skin. Then it decided I was too much trouble to sting or deal with and darted away just as quickly.

Where’s my damn shirt?

Oh, yeah. I remembered the axe blade going into my side.

I looked down, following folds of dark rough material, felt the blanket’s weight like something from another era. There was a whole time-travel feel to it—as in this isn’t from my time. I felt my skin under that weight, but not against the coarse weave. It was smooth as ice, a thousand thread count sheet between me and the blanket. My head ached when I moved, but the curiosity beat out the pain.

I lifted the layers of covering, and found I was down to my underwear. I know I ruined my shoes, but everything? My side was healing nicely, a row of flowering bruises—a core of purple and rings of yellow, a line of scarring that would smooth over in a few days, eventually disappearing—my renderer working overtime to prevent her host from going straight to the compost pile. Way to go, Shirley.

Rather than move my head or neck, I tried swiveling my eyes as far as they would go, left and right. Couldn’t see a thing but forest roof. I smelled water, deep water, definitely a river nearby.

Then I heard him, Reed’s heartbeat very close, slow and even as if he was sleeping or very relaxed. He was on my left, so I slid my eyes in that direction.

“You have something you want to tell me, Mr. Gossi?”

Reed jumped up and moved into view, and the forest floor rumbled under me, pounding into my head. Leaf Father, that hurts!

“Thea.”

That’s all he said, my name mingled with a long surrendered gasp he had been holding on to for this occasion. Then he was hovering over me, grinning, the annoying prick.

I waved him away. It was worth the pain, and his motion in the air brought me the scent of the river again—and a sense of security.

“Deep water.” I propped myself up on my elbows, scanning a wide band of moving cold silver and a thick tree line along the far bank. “Please tell me that’s the Mississippi?”

A woman’s cold watery voice answered, “No. Most recently he was called the Illinois River.”

My body jumped into combat motion on its own, wrestling with the sheet and blanket, my hair spiraling, my fingers already calling the trees for assistance.

Pain lanced through me, made me stagger and blurred my vision. I also imagine I looked less than intimidating in my underwear.

Reed was smiling—I mean really happy to see me up and about smiling—I’ll bet, and the woman’s voice went on thoughtfully, “I do not know his new river name, or if one has been granted him. He flows into the grand Mississippi—she takes many lovers, but I believe he is her favorite.”

“It’s okay,” Reed was saying. “Lie down. This is Archippa. She lives by the river. She’s helped me care for you.” He pulled the sheet around my shoulders, covering me...caring for me. Fine, I take back the ‘annoying prick’ remark.

The old woman went on. “I’ve made you another set of clothes as well.” Archippa presented a neatly folded stack of pants and shirts in soft greens, purples, and on top, what looked like a striped brown and bold orange poncho with a hood. “You appear to be traveling lightly. Had packs made for you too. You’ll need something to carry your stuff in.”

Even with self-cleaning materials and embedded bios, it was nasty to wear the same things every day—as we had for the last week minus whatever I’d missed in unconscious recovery time.

Shirley fed me some data, including the time I had spent mending, and the running counter of my debt to her. I just nodded my head, accepting the price.

Archippa also offered an ancient shopping bag of bright blue woven plastics. “This is your original clothing, your skirt, shirt, socks, shoes. I’ve repaired them all. Your shoes were in bad shape.”

I looked down, felt my toes wiggling, but my feet were covered in the sheet. “You got me new shoes, too?”

“And helped this young man nurse you from the land of the dead.” She laughed, and I assumed meant well with her humor. “He wouldn’t give up on you—No, Reed Gossi wouldn’t let you go. Up to me, I’d have tossed your near-corpse into the river and be done with you.”

She continued laughing, holding the clothes in the crook of one arm and making a wiping her hands motion.

“Thanks.” I tried to make it an appreciation for the new clothing and shoes, but I was too weak to pull the snarl and sarcasm out of my voice.

She took it without any difference in her expression.

Archippa had all the old crone appearance settings dialed up, but she was far from what she appeared to be. There was real muscular strength in her limbs—the bent posture was a bad act. She had soldier’s hands, callused along her thumb and forefinger, a quick and elegant way of bending her fingers, grasping, gesturing, everything rigidly precise. Nothing shaky about this woman except who she really was.

I went along with the act, bowed my head, sending out a few receptive tendrils to catch what I could from her skin and bones. “Pleased to meet you, Archippa. Really, thank you for your help.”

Reed took the new stack of clothing for me, helped me back to the ground and under the covers, even spent a few minutes tucking me in.

I closed my eyes to concentrate. My head was starting to ache fiercely, but still not enough to stop me reeling in my receptors and finding out that Archippa was actually as old as she pretended to be, well over one hundred and twenty by my recept’s assessment of bone growth and telomere length. I couldn’t detect much in the way of dimensional renderer presence—except my own—in a hundred meters, and yet, through the haze of pain, Archippa still lit up like a sunrise.

Where the hell are river witches from anyway? Rootworld was my guess.

My brain was slipping. I’d spent all my new won strength jumping to my feet, and it was catching up to me. Reed put his hand on my shoulder, slid it gently up the slope of my neck, and I dropped all attachment to my proximity sense array, let it go. Too weak to do anything about any of it anyway.

“Can I get you anything, Thea?” Reed’s whispering voice slipped into my thoughts, but took me a while to comprehend.

“Tell me a story.” I opened my eyes a little, caught him staring down at me. “Please? Have anything with trees in it?”

Reed pulled his hand away. “I can tell you my story.”

That didn’t sound exciting, although it might put me to sleep. On the other hand, it might increase the pain. Wait, the pain’s already increasing. “That sounds lovely.”

I felt Archippa’s soft slide to the ground, legs folding easily under her, felt her smile—even her smile was too young for the age of her bones and the caps on her chromosomes. “If you don’t mind another listener, Reed Gossi, I’d love to hear it.”

Reed hesitated, then said, “No, that’s fine.”

He went silent for a few minutes, apparently gathering up the pieces of his story.

“It was a long time ago.” Reed coughed on something—sounded like a surge of pain—memory pain I had no idea he carried in his head. “Long ago when the world was crowded and I was nine years old, I entered the forest on Waking Day and never returned.”

My eyes shot open wide. How did he know about Waking Day?

Reed cleared his throat to cover a sob, and wiped away tears. I smelled the fresh fluid and salt in the air.

Archippa seemed surprised, too. “Really? Waking Day was—”

Reed cut her off. “Never, it seems, lasts around eighty years.”

I turned my head to the side, trying to focus on Reed. “How do know what Waking Day is?”

He was staring up into the trees. “She told me.” He said it simply, not a hint of guile in his tone. “She said we must pretend to sleep for a little while so that we can wake to a world remade.”

“But—”

He waved me off, dialing back the story to start over. “I went into the woods, deep into the Long Wild, seven days before the Vanishing deadline, and I found her waking up. My parents searched for me, and when the day came to get in line for the New England Sphere Joining, they didn’t go. They lived out their lives there in the house, gave everything up...they were dead twenty years when I reappeared—when she finally let me go.”

I started to get up, and he put a caring hand on my shoulder. “Andrea Gossi was my aunt’s granddaughter—and she was in her thirties, already married, when I came out of the woods—still nine years old. I was the kid who had lost his parents twelve years before he was born—or reborn. Andrea and Lazaro took me in, became my mother and father.”

Lazaro Gossi? That’s Reed’s father’s name? Not his biologic father then.

Reed looked up, deeper into the canopy of leaves. “She called me.” He smiled sadly, sounded confused, and ran his fingers through his hair. “I lost my Red Sox cap on the way. My grandfather gave me that hat.”

I gave Archippa a glance to see if she was confused. What’s a Red Sox cap?

He reached up, mimed taking something out of the air. “I caught a flower petal in my backyard and it led me into the forest that day. Heard her music—not quite singing, just long sorrowful notes. No one else seemed to hear it. Because I asked.” He opened his hands, made a pleading gesture, and then shrugged. “So, I went to find out who was making the song. The forest seemed brighter, as if more sunlight was allowed through the covering overhead. The song grew louder, and I followed it deeper into the Long Wild.” He stopped, clutching at his knees. “There’s a clearing six or seven kilometers in, ringed in oak and ash, a bed of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen. The sound of a small creek crossing the clearing on the east side. Right in the center there’s a tree, really tall with silvery bark. I didn’t see any fruit, but it looks like a cherry tree.”

I whispered, “It is a Dogwood tree,” and felt Reed and Archippa drop their gazes to me. “I know that tree. Sorry, go on.”

She was there, floating upside down right at the center of the tree’s highest point. Her feet pointed at the sky, her hair was long, winding along the branches, around the trunk, rooting right into the ground. And there were blossoms everywhere. I was breathing them in. They were in my hair, under my shirt, sliding into my shoes, in my mouth. They tasted like...warmth and soft melting petals of sugar. I walked into the clearing, still listening to the woman’s song. She didn’t see me at first. She just floated there, spinning slowly, her hair winding with the tree, making the blossoms dance, do her bidding. They made spirals and nets and shapes of animals and rivers of pink that became clear water—and I became thirsty. That became blood, and I became angry. That asked for meaning, and I told her my name. That became eternity... and my watch stopped for eighty years. She caught me, trapped me there—called me a spy, made me stand on that spot in the clearing—invisible—with the world and seasons changing around me, grass and saplings growing through my shoes, autumn leaves in my hair, winter ice up to my neck.

Reed closed his eyes for a moment, fought off a shudder of pain. “Right after I went missing, there were search teams with dogs combing the woods, looking for me. Two days after she caught me, my own parents came through, walked right by me, calling my name, and I could not answer them. I couldn’t move, couldn’t make any signal, or tell them what had happened. I couldn’t even cry. My mother and father lost everything with me—missed the Vanishing and all the promise of the Spheres, waiting their whole lives for me to come home, and they died never knowing I was right there in the woods.”

Archippa leaned over me, gaze leveled at Reed on my other side. “Who is She?”

“Kraneia. She told me her name.” Reed looked back, then rubbed his eyes and sighed. “She said her name was Kraneia.”

I was up on my elbows, the blanket rolling away to my waist, and pain like sharp iron in my head and side. I caught a shift in Archippa, as if she knew the name.

Reed looked haunted, his eyes rimmed red, looking back at me when he caught my movement. “You know this tree? A dogwood?” He seemed lost, the story pulling at wounds so deep he couldn’t find them to stop the bleeding. “Thea, please. What can you tell me about Kraneia?”

I tried to shrug, but it felt more like a shudder. “She’s my mother.”

And Archippa, that hag, laughed at me.

9 - A Matter of Time

I pulled the blanket around me. “Viran is my father’s name. My mother doesn’t have a family name.”

Reed was still catching up, still half dreaming his story, his ageless prison, the loss of everything—his family, his world, everything he had known. And he had trouble believing me. “But I’ve met your mother, and she...”

“She doesn’t recognize you as the nine-year-old boy in the Long Wild? Does a pretty good job of pretending she doesn’t?”

Reed shook his head, a slow knot of doubt forming at his brow. “But your mother is Kay Viran. She’s been to my house; she’s had coffee with...Andrea. I know who she is.”

He’d already jumped from calling her “mother”—the woman who had taken him in at nine and raised him, to Andrea. Detachment. It could have been a way to deal with grief. He had witnessed her death, but I didn’t like this change in him.

“It’s K, the letter K, which stands for—”

He sighed and said, “Kraneia.” He was keeping up.

“Yup. You caught her waking up, Reed, and eighty years for her is about as inconvenient as ten minutes to you. This could be part of some grand plan. It could be she doesn’t know what happened herself. She might not remember you. Sometimes she doesn’t remember who I am.”

“Well, I do,” said Archippa. “And I think your mother knew exactly what happened.”

I caught Reed’s sharp look just as I swung my own to the old woman. “How? I know a bunch of witches along rivers between here and the Atlantic coast, but I’ve never met you.” I picked up the suspicious vibe from Reed and let it flow into my voice. “Who are you, Archippa?”

Archippa dropped her gaze to her fingers working the stems of three dead leaves into a braid. “The trees have passed your story, Theodora Viran. I knew about you before Reed brought you to the banks of my river.” She shrugged. “Maybe even before that.”

Reed crawled closer to me—not sure what he was doing though—whether he thought I needed protecting or warmth or something. His tone came out with betrayal. “Your river?”

Archippa looked up, extending one arm with a dancer’s elegance, then stabbed a forefinger—trigger-knife quick—toward the silver sky reflection and soft gurgling rush of water over rocks. “I govern everything that flows between those banks, source to the joining with the Mississippi.” She didn’t sound angry, but her voice had a firm don’t-fuck-with-me tone. “Nothing crosses this water without my knowing. I hear the words of everything that touches him, every strum of sound in the reeds, the taste of every animal—human or otherwise—who takes a drink.”

I absorbed all the properties of her tone, and used it to shape my command. “Tell me what the trees are saying about me, Archippa of the Potameides.”

She raised an eyebrow curiously at my use of her family name. “That you are to be stopped. Rewards for those who hold you. Penalties for those who do not.” The “t” on the end was sharp as a thorn.

Reed almost fell on top of me, reaching out to Archippa, jamming a finger at her. “And what are you going to do?”

Archippa stared back calmly. “I have not changed my plans, Mr. Gossi. You and your friend—” She tipped her head at me. “—may take my boat when you are well enough to travel, to the Mississippi River’s far bank. And then you are on your own.”

I held her eyes for a minute, but she wasn’t giving anything up—and it was clear she would have betrayed us before now if she was intending to. I couldn’t read a thing behind her expression. I just had a feeling.

On the other hand, no sense in not being ready to move. “I’ve travelled with injuries worse than this.” And turning to Reed, “Give me my clothes.”

Reed handed them over, and I shuffled around under the covers, sliding my new pants on. They felt good, once the adjusters completed a couple rounds of bodyfitting reconfig.

Archippa watched me calmly for a moment, and then said, “Stay through the night. You have my word that you’ll be safe to the morning.” Then she rolled smoothly to her feet, and went to gather wood, some of it axe-cut, most dead boughs shed in storms and high winds. By the strength apparent in her arms, it was clear she could handle an axe. Two of the things that filled my nightmares: axes and fire. She built a pyramid of thicker branches, weaving in dried river grass and handfuls of twigs.

She lit the base, the rusty blades of old leaves, grass stalks catching, snapping, and fire-smiling like twisted monster’s teeth, long tendrils of glowing orange flaring bright and curling into black shreds, lighter than breath, feathering into the air, caught and carried in the soft breeze over the river.

I backed up a step, holding my arms around my body.

Not that I don’t like the warmth. It was the hot animal rumble, the dying wood shifting and splitting, the sense of a tree’s immobile helplessness in the face of fire that made me ache inside. Most of all, it’s the waste, feeding the air with ash, and no one gets anything out of it except a bit of heat.

And then Reed bent down, folded his legs and leaned into the glow, holding his hands open to the rage and hot destruction. I could have kicked him into the fire, but I hung back, aware of Archippa’s gaze on me.

I shrugged suddenly, nothing to hide. “I can feel the sap boiling in the limbs. It... makes me cold.”

Archippa nodded, understanding that, and showed me an open honest expression that I interpreted as do what you need to do. She jutted her chin at the river churning beyond the reeds along the bank. “You need to think on it, be alone for a bit. We’ll be here when you get back.”

So I took my pants right back off, folded them, and tossed them next to my pack—the pack Archippa had made for me. Something about Archippa’s help, her effort, her kind gesture felt...like spring, like a memory of something pleasant. The word “trust” came to mind, but I didn’t know enough about that to get behind it. Didn’t matter. There was enough generosity passed around to understand that Archippa wasn’t going to harm or betray us.

For now.

I turned away, gave Reed’s shoulder a poke. “I need to think and stretch my legs. I’ll be back in a while.”

Behind me, the river called, a soft murmuring, cold water lapping at the banks, sliding smooth over muddy flats, tugging at the stalks of canary grass. I went for a swim, needed to feel the mud slick in my toes, clinging to my legs.

I played in the shallows for an hour, then kicked into the currents and went under, riding the river’s strength a few klick’s south before swinging back to the east bank. My side still hurt, and there were long strings of pain deep within me, the reminders of my severed tree-arm. It would grow back. My renderer would see to it. Just a matter of time.

“Shirley, do your stuff.”

The forest at night was sweet like dessert, made my mouth water. I breathed it all in, the smell of wet trees, a hint of dusty rose, the promise of tomorrow’s bloom. I danced through the woods, rolling and wrapping my body in the moon’s shadows, hiding my laugh in the chirps of silver-haired bats and coyote calling it all wrong with a hunting pack running free and deep in the dark on my right.

All the forests are my home. They are mine like the air I breathe is invited inside my body, chemically rearranged and sent gusting past my teeth. I danced all the way back to Archippa’s camp, springing into the light, and even the fire couldn’t take it out of me.

Archippa gave me a questioning look, then bent to collect more wood, heading out of the clearing after a minute to give us a few moments alone.

“Thea?” Reed jumped to his feet when I dashed through the clearing half naked, arms out, mouth open, face tilted to the orange underglow across the leaf canopy.

I twirled around him, rubbed against him, spun my arms over his shoulders, fingers through his hair, tips tracing vine-spirals up the back of his neck. My mouth found his halfway open. I went on my toes, pushed him open all the way, tasted the campfire’s smoke in his mouth. When I pulled back, he was holding me, arms around my waist, fingers playing with the hem of my shirt.

A quick look into his eyes and it was clear there was a calculus going on, weighing the opportunity to go along with my mood over some doubt about my sanity. I leaned into him, breathed him in.

“I’m back, Reed.” I gasped the words against his throat. “I’m back. And you brought me back. I just needed to run in the woods for a while. Shirley’s got a handle on the last of the bruising and inner bleeding. I am whole again, and I owe you and Archippa for it.”

He didn’t meet my eyes. “She’s still on your shoulder, partway down your back.” He twisted a little. “I’m trying to hold you and not touch her.”

“She has her perch. She doesn’t need to be inside me to work magic. She can see right through me.” I turned with him, playing with the idea of moving my renderer closer to him. “Are you sure you can touch her? Seeing a renderer is extraordinary itself. Touching a being from the Winterdim shouldn’t be possible for one of us.”

“Winterdim?”

“It’s where they come from, where they live. It’s the cold space between—and a whole world beyond that.”

Reed waited to see if I was going to add something, then asked, “Between what?”

“Here and there.” I had to smile. “It’s the space that...let me show you.” I flattened out my right hand, tilted it vertical, my thumb on top. “We live along this...um...the world has an edge, or more like a face, and it’s right up against another world that is very much like this one—and I mean biologically.” I slid my flattened left hand against my right. “Only it’s not really flat like my hand. They touch in places, and doors can be opened.” I bent a couple fingers, cupped my palm. “It’s more like this.” I kept my left hand rigid. “Our world has lumps and pockets. Space. And some of the beings of the Winterdim—the dimrends—or renderers—have found a home there in the cold and dark between these two worlds.”

“Dimrends.” He said it slowly, unsure, like other-generational slang he wasn’t permitted to use. “Dimensional renderers—live between the two worlds?”

“And grow, operate, and make appearances in our world, although no one can see them—no one else. Most of us don't talk about Winterdim as a world, only as a set of doors into this one or the other—the Root.”

He looked at me funny, stalled over what he'd been about to ask, and changed his question. “Did they originally come from the other world then?”

“Oh no, they’ve always lived in the Winterdim. And the Rootworlders have hunted them for millennia.”

“What comes from the Rootworld?”

I shrugged. “Many things.” My mother, for one—and that part of me. That big guy back in Ohio, Folesh. The woman who rules the seas probably does.

He gestured toward Shirley. “And what are they? Does she just work for you? What does she do for you? And what do you do for her? What does she get out of this...arrangement?”

My mouth opened to answer, but nothing came out. I closed it, swallowed, started over. “She...well...we help each other out. She gets to work in this world...through me. Dimrends can’t do anything in our world without...that arrangement. I give her some of my time, materials, some of my strength.” The beat of my heart.

His brows came together thoughtfully. “But you’re something more...Thea.” I met his eyes when he said my name. “I mean, when I got the sight, I watched the people who had dimrends on or near them, and they’re normal. People who work in bakeries and students and bus drivers. They aren’t like you.”

“No. They’re not.”

“The tree thing?”

I gave him back a slow gentle nod, sighed a little. “My mother is a goddess in her own world. Here she’s twice that. Kraneia is hamadryas—of the family of trees. I am one, too.”

“So, does Shirley get more from you than the others?”

He struck close to home, the pain of guilt welling up inside me—something that should have been locked up. Keep it down. Don’t kill him. A casual back step, and Reed’s hands slid off my waist, swung back to his sides, but I still held his gaze. What are you made of, Reed Gossi? You don’t have a renderer—or I cannot feel it—which I doubt is a problem, but you have the ability to change and create, roll up defenses, and attack ferociously...as if you have a renderer on your shoulder. I looked up at the trees, tossing the questions around in my head, whispering, “Why is that?”

“What?” Reed grabbed my hand, and I didn’t pull away, just let him carry me, twining his fingers in mine

“Nothing. Just trying to figure something out.”

We sat down at the glowing edge of the dying fire, and Archippa came out of the dark on the far side with more wood to burn. My body stiffened; my spine locked up like ice, muscles between each vertebra seizing. It’s just fire, and you don’t know this forest that well.

I took the opportunity to get my clothes back on.

Archippa had the beast roaring and shooting sparks five minutes later, and I scooted on my butt, another half meter away, pretending I needed to repay Reed with a neck and shoulder rub. I dug in with my fingers, felt him wince a couple times, then loosen up. And I pulled up my knees, trying to fold entirely into his shadow.

Archippa stared at me through the flames, her eyes like lenses of cold blue that couldn’t be touched by such a simple burn of energy, and there was a question in them. I swallowed hard, nodded back at her, and she came around to our side of the campfire, taking more than the necessary time to get seated, arrange her shawl, smoothing the folds of a long skirt.

She leaned close to me. “Advice?”

“If you care to give it.” Uneasiness stirring in me, a gypsy moth flutter and a roll of acid up the walls of my stomach.

“The trees aren’t always your friends, Theodora Viran, nor will they always be on your side.”

I lashed out. “Nonsense. I’m made of these.” I waved at the branches over our heads. “What in the green earth would you know about my side and who’s on it?”

“Not just of these.” Archippa gave me one raised eyebrow. “You have your friend, your renderer?” Archippa moved and it made me flinch. She jammed a threatening old-lady finger at me. “And she has you.”

“You don’t have a dimensional renderer,” said Reed over my shoulder—presumably not the one on which Shirley perched. “You have something that glows, water on fire all around you, that’s what it looks like.”

I turned halfway around, feeling my own lips pull into a snarl along with Archippa’s.

The old witch beat me to a response. “Where are you from, Reed Gossi?”

“New Hampshire.”

Archippa laughed. “No, really. Where are you from? You can’t be from this side.” Then she said something dangerous. “So they’re after you, not Thea, because you’re not from here.”

Reed looked lost for a second, and then a cold serious look surfaced—almost as if he felt we were amusing ourselves with his ignorance. He looked like he was about to come back with something, a stir of anger in his expression.

Archippa cut him off. “You can see the lines and forms from the Root and Winterdim. That means you’re one of them. I will ask you again, Reed Gossi. Where are you from?”

Reed folded his arms. “I really don’t know what you mean. I can see your...glow. I can see Thea’s renderer. I can see everyone’s renderer. But I’ve never lived anywhere other than New Hampshire. I come from this side.”

Archippa folded up her fury in a nice neat package. “Have you always been able to see them?”

Reed shook his head. “Sort of. I used to see things—shadows mostly—with my eyes closed, and then only in a bright room. That changed a couple weeks ago. I woke up, the sun was out, and the world was full of them, these things—creatures—monsters I’ve never seen before. Suddenly they’re following people around, they’re sitting on their shoulders, standing on the heads of people.”

“What happened in the middle of the night?”

I shot Archippa a look. That’s a good question.

Reed froze, seemed to be pondering it, digging through long term memory—could also be he was staring stupidly into the dark, buying enough time to come up with something plausible. He came back to us blinking, genuinely trying to uncover something. He started to shake his head, and whispered, “Something did. Like the end of a fight that’s been going on inside me for a long time. It was finally over.”

“What was it? What were you struggling against?”

“I don’t know, but...”

I leaned forward with Archippa.

“I won. It was almost like having the flu—you know when you have a fever, aches, and all that.”

I glanced at Archippa, shook my head. Flu? Never heard of it. Reed didn’t notice and went on,

“No localized pain—it’s just that the whole world hurts, but I didn’t really think about what it was afterward. I knew I had beat it. Whatever it was—a door that had always been locked, or an enemy inside me, whatever it was, handed over everything it was—or had—to me.” Reed turned his hands up, cupping them in offering. “I had always been able to see shadows, and now I see clearly. I can see what the world really looks like—and even more—what really inhabits it.”

I don’t know what he intended by it, but he was looking at me as he said that.

10 - Two Halves

It was all about balance with Archippa—the wrinkly lumberjack-armed bitch, and how to tip people off theirs. She turned and looked straight at me, then made the tiniest of head tilts toward Reed, indicating his unusual abilities. “It’s getting late. Rest now, sweeties. We’ll talk about your Uncle Theodore and everything else in the morning.”

Over the horizon ballistics, the words fired me like a canon as far from sleep as it was possible to get. Heart thumping, I could feel my hair starting to turn and braid. “What about my Uncle Theo?”

“That’s what this is all about. Pretty sure Theodore started this river flowing way back in forty-one.”

River flowing? Damned river witches and their metaphors. I dropped my hand, fingers spread, touched the earth under me, and sent the message to my relations of the forest. Archippa jumped to her feet when the surrounding trees leaned in, creaking angrily, twigs scraping against bark, the slow whine of the torque of heavy old wood. The firelight wavered. A cold dying-animal moan circled us in the dark.

“Do not make me angry.” My voice came out steady, the ghosts of a thousand autumns in my mouth, my toes going pointed, ready to cut through the soles of my new shoes. I jabbed a finger at the earth. “Sit down. Now.”

I had completely forgotten about Reed until he rested a hand on my arm, his skin warm against mine. I loosened up a little at the touch, my shoulders dropping, and Archippa folded her legs under her, reclaiming her spot next to the fire.

She nodded at me—and I had no idea what she was trying to say with that. We’re even? You’re not going to kill me now? How about a game of chess later? No idea.

I gave her a curt nod back, and she dumped the story on us.

“Your Uncle Theodore Balanon made a doorway once, and let something through—something that shouldn’t have been allowed entry into our side. I think Reed’s eighty-year timeless prison is only half the story. Kraneia caught two beings in her clearing that day, one from this world—Reed, one from the Winterdim—something allowed in by her brother Theodore. It may have been a plot by both of them. Kraneia broke the otherworlder in two, planted one piece in herself, and the other piece in the boy she’d trapped. Presumably it was too powerful to keep in once piece. It took eighty years for the second piece to be absorbed into the boy.”

“How do you know this?”

Archippa sighed. “Theo gets around—used to anyway. Hasn’t been by in years. And two stories came through the woods days before Reed showed up with you in his arms. One from your—” She jerked her chin at Reed, then me. “—enemies. Enemies with ties to the forest. And then, while you were recovering, one from your mother. She sent a warning, and most of the whole story.”

Words so soft I had to slide closer to Archippa. I couldn’t make my voice any louder. “What was the warning?”

“We were to stop you from touching Reed Gossi. Anyone who found you—that was her command to the world.” Archippa looked at Reed. “Not that that could have been helped. He was carrying you the first time I set eyes on him. You two had already touched.”

The offense shot through my expression and drifted away. “What happens then? Yes, I’ve touched Reed Gossi, I’ve kissed him, we’ve curled together and slept in tree hollows and in the shelters and standing walls of dead cities. Why does that have significance... I mean beyond us?”

Archippa shrugged. “Just the messenger.”

“Yeah. Yeah. But a thoughtful one, a powerful one.” My head was shaking vigorously, practically on its own. “No, you’re less like the messenger sent by the queen, and more the queen making the journey herself. And you know my uncle. You tell me what you think is happening here?” I stabbed a finger at her. “Because I have no idea. I just know Reed’s in danger. His house was crawling with killers—of every kind. We have Low and Mighty after us, in dead teams, packs, solitary hunters chasing us across a thousand kilometers of wilderness and urban wasteland. I can’t trust anyone. I don’t know...”

Reed leaned against me, whispering, “You don’t know who’s on your side?”

Archippa had the grace to keep her serious expression. My teeth felt sharp in my mouth, cutting into my tongue. I had to work hard not to turn my head toward Reed, not to strangle him, not to think about strangling him later in his sleep. But he was right. And Archippa had something to say. She dropped her shield, let me see it in her eyes.

And I fell for it, whispering, “Please?”

The old river witch didn’t move for a moment. “You brought the outside thing—the second piece from the other world—with you. That thing your uncle allowed into our world? It’s inside Reed, and it wants its other half back.”

I felt Reed tense up beside me. The air around him bristled, and I swung a hand over, grabbed his out of his lap, slid my fingers between his. “We’re listening.”

Archippa swung her gaze to Reed, her fists opening. “I’m just telling you what I think I know. Kraneia probably had no choice, then, but to keep you locked up for eighty years. If she’d let you go...my guess—the thing inside you would have gnawed its way out, taken over your body, become something no one wants on their side of the Winterdim. She had to hold you together until she was sure you had a hold on it.”

It made sense. Sighing, I tightened my grip on his hand, caught his eyes. “Probably couldn’t even swallow the whole thing itself—too much for her, but cut it in two pieces to consume, one for her, one for the gentle boy who happened to hear her singing up a storm in the middle of the woods...you.”

Reed almost smiled. “Then why can’t I touch you?”

I squeezed his hand harder. “You mean, if my mother’s the one with the other half of the thing from the Winterdim inside her, why does she need to warn me about you?”

“Yeah.” He was wriggling free of my grip.

Archippa let out a sigh. “Kraneia—at some point—placed the other half in her daughter?”

She said it as if stating a fact. Damn witches. My own mother—who spends more of her time as a tree than with two legs—sticks a piece of some otherworldly being in her own daughter. That made sense in a twisted vine-like way. My own mother...

My skin went tight and cold. “My mother sent you most of the story? Why not all of it?”

“She couldn’t. Something interrupted her.” Archippa made a low groan. “My guess is your mother is dead.”

Again, the automated head shaking—Not possible. “Your guess is way off. There isn’t a monster on this side of the Root who can take on my mother and survive.”

“The Father of Leaves.”

“Is on her side. He wouldn’t be that foolish. She helped him into this world. She made the wood throne he sits his ass on, and from which he rules. She made the tree shade that is his cloak. She is his advisor.”

Archippa’s brows knotted up in disgust. “She is his rival. You are her daughter.” She stabbed a finger at Reed. “And who in the fucking deep knows what you are, Reed Gossi. An actual creature of the Winterdim? A human who has absorbed a significant part of a monster from the Winterdim?” She swung her rage back to me. “And your mother told the whole damned worldforest that the last thing she wanted you to do was touch him.”

I had to stop my teeth from gnawing a hole through my cheek. “But what does that mean?”

Archippa muttered something, swallowed her anger, flexing her fists. “I don’t know. Infectious? Something that can spread to another? Was she being literal? Or was this metaphoric touching? Don’t let him influence you, perhaps?”

It was hard not to roll my eyes. “My mother? Who knows? She could have said that just to dare me to touch him—which she knows I wouldn’t be able to resist. She knows how defiant I am.”

“That could be it. Send a message like that in the clear, maybe it’s the opposite she’s after.” Archippa lifted one brow. “I’ve seen her. From afar. Never met her, though. She’s always sounded like a bit of a nut—with way too much power.”

“You have no idea. Try growing up with a mother who takes winters off—as in roots gone deep, the flow of life dialed to a minimum, eyes closed, no sign of sensing the world around her for five or six months. And, gods, when she wakes up in Spring, she’s new, she’s glowing, she’s open to everything happening in the world. She’s insufferable.”

“You don’t sleep the winters away?”

“I can. Just don’t see the point in it.” I felt a shrug rolling up to my shoulders, and I let it have its way. “Besides, I love the snow.”

Reed touched my arm, and he was smiling. “You do. I remember sledding with you, years ago. We were probably ten or eleven.”

Took me a moment to dig that memory up, but it made me smile. “Yeah. You ran into the Olson’s shed, knocked in a window, broke your wrist.”

“I didn’t cry.” He sounded proud.

I had to nod back at him. “No you didn’t. I remember that, thought it was unusual for you.” The shrug rolled through my shoulders again. “Still didn’t make me like you any more, though. My mother was always pushing me toward you—but I wasn’t hearing any of that. She just never knew that we’d been out in the snow together all winter.”

“And you aren’t worried about your mother?”

“Not really.” The dream chat with that haughty bitch who ruled the sea swept through my thoughts—that she was keeping a loved on safe for my mother. “Did she send any word of my father? Is he well?”

“No word.” Archippa shifted to look behind her, into the dark of the forest, a new fear settling in. “I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe here. But just in case, my boat’s ready.”

I nodded my head. “The OKF trucker-slash-monster took us over 500 klicks in a few hours. It’s going to take our army of enemies some time to catch our trail—and that’s if they can stand each other.” I exchanged a look with Reed. “I think we have enough of a lead to get a night’s sleep. We’ll be off in the morning.”

“OKF?”

Reed shifted uncomfortably, then answered Archippa. “He told us where he was going.”

I added, “Trailer full of dead bodies and who knows what else. He invited us to join the cargo. Our little squabble was about us refusing to go.”

“This was the guy who attacked you? He was going to OKF, up by the Great Lakes?”

Reed stretched his legs out, his thigh sliding against mine. He was relaxing. “Yeah?”

I slid a hand along his leg. “Yup. He was different. A prismdead with very sophisticated illusioncraft—enough to fool me, and he had his own dimensional renderer. Never heard of anything like it. Didn’t even know that was possible.”

Archippa twitched noticeably, something shocking in what I’d just said.

“The dimrend was different, too, a scary as fuck thing with human heads grafted to its waist, and limbs squirming with blood, hair, faces, fingers.”

Archippa just wouldn’t let the three letters go. “You took a ride with someone—or something—with a connection to OKF?”

I exchanged a look with Reed. “Apparently. Yeah?” Flapped my hand around to say get on with it.

“OKF—O.K. Formanix is one of the old banned institutes, around well before the Vanishing. Lot of rumor about what they do. Others I know might have more on them, some of my brothers and sisters along the Mississippi. You know Helodes, or her son Andreus? Helodes can tell you more. I just know you don’t want to mix with them—with anyone with any connection to OKF.”

“We got away, and we’re okay. Smart advice, though. If that thing is what they’re cooking up at OKF, we’re not lifting our skirts and flagging down trucks again.”

The long forest silence slid around us, mist-like, darkness fingering our senses, soothing the fire. Archippa sat cross-legged, bent her face to her fingers playing with words in the dirt between her knees, and I brought a hand up Reed’s back, rubbing the tension from his neck, dragging my nails through his hair. I’d slept the last couple days, my body recovering, then I’d had that good run through the woods. I could sleep, but I’d have to make myself. Reed, on the other hand, was dropping off in my arms.

As if reading my thoughts, Archippa shook her head. “I’ll stay up tonight. You two sleep while I watch. I’ll get my river to help.” With that, Archippa slipped away from the fire, down to the bank of the old Illinois, singing spells, making magic, or whatever river witches did to deploy their powers.

I spread out my sheet and blanket for two, led Reed to bed. He dropped to his side, and fell asleep immediately, his breathing slowed, muscles relaxed, the calmest I’d felt him since...ever.

I sat up listening to the woods for a while, then curled under the thousand thread count sheet, under the heavy older-than-this-world blanket, under the forest shade and crossed branch canopy, under the night, under the stars, and I dreamed...of the Winterdim, of doors that opened and couldn’t be closed, old Uncle Theo letting in something from the cold, mothers from the other world who winter-slept. And I dreamt of running with the wild children, the humans left behind in their near-empty world after the Vanishing...

The wild children run worn tooth paths free from wire ghosts and wind-clothed phantoms. We’re running hard in a dying wood with diamond wedge sparks of light that play through the roof, starlight that fans across the floor, catching me and crossing my toes, sunny angles of them, and—in the corner of my eye—the curve of hips in the oak leaves falling, and they’re wilting, folding, fading from my dying world. I breathe deep because this breath could be my last.

We taste concrete dust, touch the dawn with iris green—not altered holes in rustwater veins and soundless souls in sliprot—lone and tame bones, serene in the fisher’s net. We run and never stop, still breathing. We are the children of light and knots and the borrow’s night. We stand tall and take the antler branch, the quiet fight, the dust in a band of forest light, and bury tomorrow’s ache deep.

We stop at the core, make a circle, holding hands. Our breathing is harder now.

In the core there is a seed, a world seed, and a new world grows in the old’s place. Surfacing crown first, the new king is the same old king, but he seeks a new kingdom, his arms holding up the sky, long bark-cut tree limbs with hands of a hundred fingers. He is the god of this new living wood, rooting deep into the ashes and stark bones and rage-cut trunks of the old wood. I can’t find my breath, a forest fire film on my teeth, the burn of it in my throat, and my skin is like paper in the fire-torrent.

And I can’t breathe...

That’s when the Sea decided to pay me a visit, toward the end of my dream. She wore different armor this time, something spiky and crab-like, that popped and snapped like bones when she sat down before me and crossed her legs. But she was smiling. “You have been difficult to find, my dear Theodora.”

She waved a hand and a dreamlike version of the bank of Archippa’s river faded in, becoming solid. The Sea even did something to bring in the rushing sound of the water. I sat up, folded my legs under me, and looked around. We were alone—although Reed was certainly beside me in the real world.

“You have found one of the naiads? Archippa? I have heard the name, but have never met her.”

I just nodded, still having trouble breathing, and afraid to choke on the forest-fire smoke from the earlier part of the dream.

“Where are you going, Theodora? What is your path?”

“I think...” I had made it perfectly clear when talking to Reed. Now I wasn’t so sure. “We are going to follow the river to the Mississippi to try to find Helodes. She’s an old family friend.”

The Sea—Kassandra’s daughter—looked pleased. “Yes. Do that. I know Helodes from a long time ago—I knew her sisters as well, Parresia and Limnoria. She is wise. She rules a village along the banks of the river, a place called Rennonvorah. Find it and you will find Helodes.”

Tired of her ordering me around, I tried to put some sarcasm in my tone. “Anything else?”

The Sea was suddenly on her feet, rising straight out of her sitting position, her arms swinging to her sides in a swimming gesture. Her voice went cold. “You must go.”

I nodded up at her, gesturing dismissively. “I know. I got it.”

“Now! Wake up, Theodora!”

11 - Leaf Father

I opened my eyes, looked up at the crisscross silhouette against a silver dawn sky, and the trees shifted, forest blurring, settling into a new configuration. “Okay, that can’t be good.”

I jumped from the blankets, kicking Reed behind the knees as I hopped away.

“What is it?” Reed rolled over, rubbing his eyes.

“Something’s wrong. Let’s go. Get to the boat.” I spun in place, sending out my senses. “I can’t see Archippa. Something’s coming our way, though.”

“From the east?”

I waved him toward the river. “Go. I’ll be right there. Take our packs. Get Archippa’s boat into the flow.”

Walking backward—way too slowly, Reed whispered, “What’s that noise?”

An awful sound, low growling from everywhere in the forest. I pulled in a deep breath, took it apart, studied it. “The woods are on fire, and it’s big, spreading all around us.” I wheeled to see Reed still backing up too slowly, and pointed at the river. “Get in the boat! I’ll be right there.”

The woods were burning half a kilometer in, and the heat was heading our way. I could feel it on my face, crisp little threads of warmth across my cheeks. My hair coiled nervously down my back, pulling on the roots and stabbing the air when big trees crashed to the earth a few hundred meters away.

Smoke rolled through the spaces between trunks, gray clouds swallowing the forest, dusting the leaves and needles, a soft threat hiding an orange glow soul, and running before it, teeth bared, were hundreds of the prismdead, streaming through the burning forest, arms swinging, some of them shrieking, all of them praying the river was closer than it appeared.

Running just ahead of them, singing shrill and killing, was Archippa, cloaked in something that hid her in mist—soft sprays of water from the Illinois, tracing her path into the woods, surrounding her, protecting her from the sight of her enemies.

She saw me...grimaced, and turned to face the army. She cast streams of water through the trunks, tripping prismdead, blades of it slicing through legs and arms, and there were bodies cartwheeling, stripped of clothing, hair, fingers.

Her command came through the rush of water, biting into me. “Go, Thea!” Then her voice leveled out, gained strength, and fed me a string of words as I ran for the banks of the old Illinois, dodging new waves of her weapons coming up from the dark green current, rows of them lapping hungrily at the shore. “I will hold them as long as I can, then I will seek refuge in my river. No one can harm me there.”

“I wish I could believe that, Archippa.” I jumped through our campsite, the wadded up blankets and pale sheets heaving into the air like the ghosts of animals, twisting to join the surge of water blades and blunt projectiles from the river.

Sprinting down the bank, I glanced back, caught sight of Archippa backing out of the rage of fire and prismdead, arms raised, her voice sharp with songs, her river weapons arrayed—ranks of spiky watery shapes, battering rams, walls of green with netted weeds and a fire-orange glow coming through them like sunset.

“It’s coming.” I whispered the words to no one but myself, and I felt the heat on my back.

Reed waved to me, drifting sideways in the currents, mouth wide, his teeth bared, shouting—but nothing that could be heard by any ears over the shaking earth and the deafening noise of the hooves of something shod in fire and thunder.

Water splashing up to my waist, holding me back when I didn’t want it to, and I went under, sliding like a fish into the cloudy green churn. It was quiet under the water. I kicked deep and came up an arm’s reach from the boat, Reed grabbing me and screaming at the sky.

“Shut up!” River water running into my mouth. “The fire isn’t going to reach the clouds, you fool.”

He gave my body a jerk, caught me under the arms and lifted me into the boat, my first thoughts on the quality of the clothing Archippa had made for us. It was light—wouldn’t even let me get wet; the river ran off me in slick sheets, and the material opened pores, squirting the rest out.

I stumbled into Reed, grabbed his outstretching arm for balance, and turned to see what the idiot was pointing at.

I fell back, one foot hooked on a bench, twisting, throwing me hard against the rails on the starboard side.

The world changed in that instant. Nothing fit anymore. I blinked, tried to think. There was nothing else to do, but stare up at it and shriek. “Leaf Father!”

Reed dropped onto the fore bench, throwing the oars around poorly, still staring up at the vine-skeletal figure striding through the trees, blowing fire from its bony hands, it’s long mane of braided tree roots flowing in the warm updrafts from the blaze around his feet.

“You’re always calling on the damn useless Leaf Father. We have bigger problems, like what is that?”

“That is the Leaf Father! I’m not taking his name in fucking vain this time. It’s really Him!”

The genius stopped rowing for a second to say something profound. “It looks like he wants to kill us.”

I shook my head, started to come back with something deadly, and then felt the drive to get away drain from my body, hands uncurling, arms falling heavily at my sides. I stood in the stern of Archippa’s rowboat, staring up at the thing I was supposed to trust, to respect, be in the forest-fucking awe of. “Why? I am one of them. I am of the trees. Why would he want to harm me?”

Reed stopped rowing, reached out one leg, kicked me in the ankle, ventured a guess by the tone of his voice. “Because you’re protecting me? You have the other half of me?”

I turned, ready to kick his ass. “Why would that be?” I gestured at the receding line of forest and the monster standing as tall as the bank-lining trees. “He’s the Leaf Father. He can sprout right out of the earth. He can hold off the change of the seasons. He can’t be stopped. Not by me. Certainly not by you.”

We were fifty meters from the east bank, Reed pointing back at Archippa still gesturing and singing into the woods, walled in on three sides by her river guardians.

“Get out of there.” I couldn’t get my voice to go louder than a whisper.

The Leaf Father pointed at his armies, his mouth opened, hollow like a cave of pale bone with floor and ceiling rows of sharp teeth. He pulled in the wind, the smoke, the breath of his path of smoldering waste and twisted black stumps.

Then he whispered a command. I felt the thrum of it through my fingers, up my arms stirring a sticky hate inside me—hate for Archippa. For a moment, even I wanted to hurt her.

The Leaf Father whispered and pointed at the witch.

A wave of fire erupted from the forest, trees snapping, splintering apart, a burning rush of gold and flickering reds that swept Archippa away, swallowing her, shooting over the water, dancing super-heated air and hollow roaring, a giant flame fist punching the river, just lapping at the boat’s stern before withdrawing, sucking back through a path of steam into the storm’s core. And there was Archippa still standing in her mist defenses, all bones and stiff smoldering blown back hair. Her face was burned down to the skull, her eyes gone, lips gone, clenched teeth with sizzling gum tissue still clinging to them.

Fire is the enemy. “Why is he doing this?” I can’t breathe...and I remembered my dream of the new world replacing the old through fire.

Reed choked on the stink of burned flesh and turned, throwing up into the currents, losing one of the oars in the process.

We didn’t need them anyway. I dropped to my knees, scraping my shins across the aft bench. The boat shuddered under me, gripped by something in the water that pulled the hull into the river’s center, into a quick moving channel. The war-charred bank pivoted and rolled behind us, and the Leaf Father stepped out of the woods, toes of old tree bones sinking in the muddy shallows.

Archippa’s last wooded defense came crashing down around him, a line of trees, tops blazing fiercely, fell into the river like a toppled fence, twisting in a tangle in the surge. The club-ends of roots caught in the currents, catapulting into the Leaf Father, some shooting between his legs, one catching him below the knee halfway up, snapping it off.

The Leaf Father reached one long arm out for me. We locked eyes, his mouth opening, words ready, about to command me. He staggered, and overbalanced trying to make a desperate grab, shifted one good leg under him, lurched backward and his whole skeletal frame made a slow heavy sweep through the burning branches behind him to the ground, taking another ten trees with him. The earth rumbled and sent a shiver dancing across the wide green Illinois.

I turned into the river’s flow, looking ahead. Staring past me, upriver, Reed didn’t even see me. He sat on the fore bench, holding the one oar tight across his knees, his fingers shaking and making sharp scrawling motions, empty motions, sorrow and a phantom pen and words running like the river water under the boat.

“Reed?”

It took him a minute to hear me, his lips twitching at my voice, showing his teeth.

“Listen to me, Reed.”

He slowly lowered his gaze to me, focusing, jerked back as if discovering he wasn’t alone in the boat. He just caught the second oar before it slid off his lap into the water. Then he found his voice. “Yes?” Just barely.

“You still with me, Reed?”

He frowned back, not understanding.

“We’re going to get some help. I know some people along the Mississippi. We just need to get across the river, and we’re safe for a while.”

“What happened to the Leaf Father?”

I glanced over my shoulder—hard not to. “Not sure. I think Archippa set a trap for him that triggered when he stepped into the water. Did you see that? The trees along the bank had just started burning, still strong, but they went over together, bending, some falling crosswise acting as a fulcrum, using gravity as a weapon, catching the weight of the first line of trees to fall, enough to launch the second line of trees.” I stopped to try to figure out what I’d just said. “Never seen anything like it. Brilliant really.” I had to focus on the words and concentrate to stop chewing my lip. “Archippa took down the Leaf Father with his own trees.” A light admiring whisper. “Simply brilliant.”

“Is he dead then? He fell in the fire.”

“The Leaf Father? Never. He can’t be killed like that.”

“Archippa can? Be killed like that?”

The strength drained from me, and I leaned forward. “I think so.”

We slid quickly down the Illinois, pulled by the current, hunched in the center of the boat, staring down at the bleached boards and bilge pools bedded with algae. I grabbed the bench when something bumped the hull, something light and hard, like a tree branch—sounded like something made of wood.

Bracing my feet apart, I leaned over the river on my right then my left, spotted something circular and dark an arm’s length under us, bobbing and rolling with the river’s flow.

“What is it?” Reed caught my focus on the water.

“Don’t know.” I waved Reed to the other side to balance our weight, kneeled to lean over the side, hooked my feet on a bench, and plunged into the water past my elbows, locked my fingers around it, something sharp biting into the fingers of my right hand, soft tendrils, crinkly like wadded up paper fluttering through the fingers on my left. It wasn’t heavy, just full of water. I pulled it aboard.

Reed started to get up to take a look and fell backward, tripped on the oar, and almost went over the bow, a mad clutch at the rails saving him.

I just shook my head. “Oh, no.”

I sat down quietly on the aft bench, holding Archippa’s charred skull in my hands, eye sockets gaping up at me, emptying river water over my knees, into my shoes.

12 - Rennonvorah

Reed glanced over his shoulder, scratched his arm, red with mosquito bites. “Where do you think we’re going?”

Wherever the damn boat takes us. “To see another river witch—that’s what I had planned anyway. This one—her name’s Helodes—has a lot more power than Archippa.” I kept my tone firm as if I had some power over our direction, but I was really just waving with it, assuming Archippa knew who would be my choice up the chain from her. And the boat seemed to know where to go, riding the currents down the old Illinois River, Archippa’s head—what was left of it—keeping me company in the stern.

Reed sat with his back to me, facing the bow, the remaining oar across his knees like a weapon. The breeze—autumn-promise cool—ruffled his hair, which was getting a bit long. He’d always been rather neat cut. No one would recognize him now, his dark hair long enough to curl at the ends. He’d shaved at Archippa’s camp, but he was already getting a little rough. He looked much better in the new clothes Archippa had made for him, too. The jacket and travel pants fit well, and had some subtle camo patterning function built into them. I hadn’t noticed it under the tree shade—they just looked dark, but under an open sky in the river’s center, they took on shifting pale gray and blue tones, Archippa’s love of her river coming out in everything she did.

“Very nice work.” I patted the top of Archippa’s skull, and burned bits of hair came off in my palm. I absorbed them.

Reed started to turn around at the sound of my voice, and then thought better of it.

I smiled at his back, leaned against the portside rail, let my fingers drift in the river, drawing some of it inside me. I loved the feel of the water’s tug on my skin, and for the first time in weeks, I voluntarily relaxed, watching for movement in the shoreline trees and marsh grass beds—not looking for trouble, but for wildlife—lone fish-stalking herons, a thousand-wing cloud of Snow Geese that rose from the west bank and wheeled north, crow families eyeing us quietly from distant trees, sleek black smears with sharp beaks, blending in the branches. I nodded back at them, told them I loved them. One of them squawked at me, a little sadly.

“Yes, the forest has changed.” The Leaf Father is now my enemy.

I leaned almost all my weight against the rail, closed my eyes, letting the water slide by, checking on Reed every half an hour. We swung around a few bends in the flow, the boat keeping to the middle, even when rivulets branched off to run parallel with us, and from our low vantage, doubling the width of the Illinois.

Reed pointed ahead and a little to the west. “That’s the confluence. We’re almost there, Thea.” He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes dropping to see if Archippa’s skull still rested on the bench next to me. It did—even appeared to be smiling a bit, and he quickly looked away.

The sky was clouding over when we met the Mississippi River, darker deeper water with roaring currents, three flows of it, each of them the width of our flow of water, the strong river running wild over the land splitting islands and winding together like some god’s massive unraveling and raveling fluid stretch of rope.

“A heavy storm line to the northwest coming our way.” Reed pointing.

I gave Archippa another soft thanks, this time for the poncho in my backpack. Scanning the clouds bearing down on us, I was going to need it. I sighed loud enough for Reed to hear over the rushing water and jammed the witch’s skull inside my backpack.

Sitting up straight on the bench, I suddenly wondered what was going to happen once the Illinois—Archippa’s river—dumped us into the Mississippi, someone else’s river. The boat clearly knew where to go, followed some course set by the witch in advance, and her river clearly cooperated with her. I half expected to be shoved to the bank for some sort of payment before the Mississippi took over ownership of a mere tributary’s watercraft.

It didn’t happen. We kept to the middle, sliding along at the same pace. The scenery changed a bit. Children jumped from a pier into the green water far off on our right. None of them waved, but a couple of them stood guard atop rotting pilings, arms folded, fixing their gazes on us suspiciously.

We passed small settlements along both sides of the river, most of them just clusters of huts and out buildings around some concrete structure from the past. One village looked like it started out life as a vast riverside neoclassical mansion—rows of dirty white columns holding up a frescoed facade—that over time had oozed low gray tubular structures up the hill behind it, into the surrounding forest, and down to meet the river’s edge.

Swinging around another bend in the Mississippi, the remnants of an ancient power plant—probably old at the time of the Vanishing—loomed on our right, giant walls and bunkers, bird shit and the crumbling spires of cooling towers, all of it decorated with tangles of chainlink and barbed wire wreaths, some catastrophic—probably historic—Mississippi flood’s leavings.

There were boats out on the river with us now, all of them turning out of our way. They looked like regular river traffic, small cargo flats and stubby nuke-tugs pulling barges of chained-down mining equipment—tracked drilling devices and haulers—and mounds of what looked like potatoes. Everyone avoided us.

Maybe they knew what a witch’s boat looked like?

We passed the remains of a once vast city, now just rows of crumbling brick and broken windows and what looked like giant gates—two twisted pieces of metal jutting into the sky. No idea what the place had been called once upon a time. The city still had a few citizens, some of them boating or watching us from the bank, and the first friendly people we’d met so far: a mother and her child waved to us, and we waved back, a nice touch of human in the world long ago lost to them—or given up by them.

Reed looked back at me, then swiveled to plant his shoes on either side of the fore bench, his back to the portside. He noticed the apparent skull-lessness in my half of the boat, and conceded. “We’re not going to stop?”

“I’m thinking Archippa had destination plans for us—and her boat. Let’s ride it out a few more hours, see what she’s up to.” I patted the bench next to me. “We haven’t yet passed the Rennonvorah, where we’ll meet up with an older witch I know.” Reed nodded. “Helodes.” He’d been listening. “Archippa said something about a son? Andreus or something like that?”

“Never met him.”

We slipped by in the Mississippi’s grip, under a dead witch’s control, apparently with plans for us further down the flow. So far, it was all still going according to my own plans, so I wasn’t about skip overboard.

Ten klicks south of the friendly old city with the broken metal gateposts, the forest and grassbeds had reclaimed everything along the banks, trees leaning out over the water, bending sunward as if caught and frozen mid-fall, and all around us I felt the coming autumn, the cold curl of leaves, the fade in once bold green.

We landed just before sunset, just ahead of the storm, the boat sliding evenly from the central channel and making a slow angling run for the shore where a man in a green shaggy overcoat greeted us at the landing. He looked at us with some kind of scanning gear, wrinkly pale green and flexible like leaves of cabbage pasted to one side of his face, then spent another thirty studying the boat.

He dropped his defensive stance and waved us over.

“Friends of Archippa, welcome to the Rennonvorah.”

Reed nodded, watching me for cues.

I nodded at the shaggy-coated man. “Good to be here.”  Friend? That remains to be seen.

Then I waved Reed ahead of me up a path of perfectly set octagonal brown stones, smooth and easy on walking feet and boat-sore muscles, and I followed with my backpack slung over one shoulder, full of my second clothing set, my new poncho, and one charred witch’s skull.

There was a perfume in the air, sweet like dogwood blossoms. Smelled like home, like a lure someone had set out for me, not to trap me, just a line to follow to the source—a line someone wanted me to catch, but that wouldn’t be noticed by anyone else.

“This way.” I pointed through the woods, the stone path branching with one way leading south and curving back toward the Mississippi. The other angled right a bit and headed into a thick linked arch of vines, a tunnel that led into a cathedral of oaks, thirty meter pillars of ancient trees with branches crossing the sky, joining in an even row of points down the center of the wide vaulted space.

Reed looked up, mouth hanging open, following the lines of branches, symmetric angles and clusters of leaves, boughs thick as his forearm, from four different trees, meeting in the center, handshaked, beautiful sequences of limb knots, an artist’s work.

I just glanced up to see that I was in the right place. I’d dreamt of these joined oaks since I was a little girl. “My mother made this a long time ago, a gift for the one we’re seeking here.”

“Is she stronger than Archippa?”

“Much older and stronger, with memories in her head of the world before the Vanishing, when humans filled every open space on the earth.” Reed paused, then jogged to catch up and keep pace with me. “You say ‘humans’ as if you don’t count yourself at all among us.” I glanced back to see if he was joking. Nope. “Nor should you, Mr. Winterdim.”

“Not even a little?”

“Technically I’m half, but I’ve never known the human side—except in my looks.” I felt the smirk, not sure how much of it showed on my mouth. “It’s fun to pretend sometimes. I used to do it more back in college, trying to fit in with the others, going to parties, meeting students at the coffee shop, and taking in what they thought of their world. It got boring. And if you asked them if they wanted to go for a run in the woods in the middle of the night they’d look at you funny.”

“I would, too.” Reed looked up as we reached the far end of the oak cathedral, passing through a beam of sunset orange glow through the clouds just before it faded into dark.

Then I followed him, listening to the patter of rain on the leaves, the start of the storm we’d seen on our boat ride.

“Your mother really built this?”

I spun in place, neck arched back to take it all in one more time. “Created. Told the trees how to grow, how to turn, where to branch, where not to.”

“Beautiful.” Reed took my hand, gentle fingers sliding with mine.

And I let him.

We stood there, side by side for a few minutes, before the lure of the marker scent reminded me, and I led Reed through the tunnel opening. We emerged along the main street of a village, rows of cottages, houses in the trees, a range of tech going, short beam lighting, high powered ambients that made one house and surrounding foliage glow blue, next to a cottage with real oil lamps hanging from cord strung between posts.

Reed and I stood out, obvious outsiders strolling through their little community, but we weren’t met with anything more problematic than staring. So I stared back, widened my eyes, made goofy faces, the whole time keeping my nose on the scent.

It led us through one side of the village and out the other, down a winding deer path that swung back toward the Mississippi.

“Noise up ahead.” Reed pointed through the trees silhouetted against a raging bonfire. The canopy of trees was so tight it hardly let any of the rain through.

I lost the trace at the edge of the clearing, lost it in the stink of burning wood. Annoyed at being led this far and so cleverly to find out it’s just a bunch of crones laughing at ancient news, singing ancient songs, and rocking like fire dancers around...a giant waste of energy.

I tugged Reed hard through the shadows, into the hot light, and swallowed the heave of fear so much fire in one place stirred in me.

Get it under control. “Come on. Want you to meet the big badass witch around here. Pretty sure she’s this way.” I looked around.

“Who is it? Helodes?”

“Who is she.” A brush of cold across my skin, little hairs going erect. “She has to be here.”

Who else would have set a lure of Dogwood blossoms?

“She’s been around a long time, knows a lot, has to be a hundred and eighty or so.”

The sound died as we approached the ring of kindling-holders around the fire. The rocking field of stokers turned and parted for us, all shadows and twigs and feather curls of smoke in black smudged white cloaks.

Then I felt her gaze, a woman with long black hair across the fire, staring at me right through the fierce light. I forced a smile and gripped Reed’s hand. “There she is.”

“She doesn’t look that old.” I caught Reed’s glance in my peripherals. “You sure she’s a hundred and eighty?”

“Also said she’s a witch, or a naiad, or both.”

I smiled and the woman—who didn’t look anywhere near one-eighty—gave me one right back, perfect teeth, the lower row sharpened to points. She made some hand signals to the much older looking women gathered around her, telling them to remain seated. Then she stood and shadowed her way right through the flames, stepping over the bonfire’s mantle of ash and crumbled black discards from yesterday’s fire to emerge on our side.

I bowed, tugging Reed down with me. “Holy mother, may the current run swift, the boughs shade the banks, the sun bright in the sky—”

“Oh, don’t be so damned formal, Theodora Viran.” She squinted one eye, looking over Reed like an antiques dealer eyeing something unexpected at a yard sale. Then back to me, adding an intrigued smile. “Who’s this?”

“My friend, Reed Gossi.” Did I just say friend?

She held out her hand to shake his, her fingers snapping him up, not letting go. “I am Helodes, Reed Gossi who is a friend of Thea. You have just spent a good deal of time in a boat on my river. What brings you this far from your home—and you certainly are far from home, aren’t you?”

Helodes glanced at me, but spent another minute studying Reed before letting him go, releasing her grip on his hand.

Reed looked over with a you want to take this? look.

I bowed my head again. “I have some bad news, Helodes.”

“Has Archippa sent me a message?”

“You could say that.” I unslung my backpack and pulled out Archippa’s skull.

The singing and laughter died, and left the bold fire to fill my ears with its roar, sent the burn of fear down my throat.

13 - River Witch

Helodes wheeled on the bonfire, didn’t do anything more—that I could tell—than give it a stern look, and the rage of heat and flickering light went black, reduced to a ring of smoldering branches and ash. There wasn’t even a sound that went along with it. The fire was there climbing into the sky... and then it wasn’t. An eye blink and it was yesterday’s dead bonfire. And there wasn’t much more than a hint of smoke.

Most of the crowd shook off the sudden dark and departed, grumbling about the rain. A few old witches lingered, but Helodes cut that short with a serious head shake. Finally, alone in the woods with the overwhelming smell of burnt wood and ash in the air, Helodes held out her open hand, motioning me to tell the story.

And I did, starting with the arrival of the well-dressed prismdead and his pain-buddies. I left out that I had heard Reed’s mother begging me to save her son—not really sure why, and just made it sound as if I was always over at the Gossi residence. It was pretty much the truth from there. Helodes listened quietly. She was particularly interested in Coldur Gregg, the prismdead truck driver with his own renderer, and in anything we could tell her about the Leaf Father, and how Archippa had been—her word—“defeated” by him. I thought defeat was a little light considering I was holding Archippa’s torched skull.

Witches... who really knew what they were thinking?

Helodes took the skull from me, a quick movement I hadn’t anticipated, scooped it right out of my fingers. She spent a few minutes looking in through the eye sockets, then gave me a solemn look. “You say you lifted this right out of the old Illinois River? It didn’t touch the waters of another course?”

“Right.”

“Good.” Helodes snapped her fingers and the bonfire returned as if she’d switched it on. Wow... Even I was impressed.

Before I could stop her, she lifted the skull over her head and lobbed it into the flames.

“What are you do—!”

Archippa stood up in the fire, arms at her sides, her face calm, smoothed of age, a younger version of the old witch we’d met, but... she wasn’t really alive, her skull and hollow eyes showing through when the shadows and darker columns of flame crossed her face.

Some sort of trick?

Helodes spoke softly. “Archippa?”

Archippa opened her eyes. “Yes?”

“Tell me what happened, dear. Tell me who did this to you.”

Archippa stared out from the fire, expressionless, as if she hadn’t heard the request. She blinked, and then started crying, hard jumpy sobs, tears running down her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around her middle, moaning like a child, her body rocking up and down. She wiped her nose as if it was running, and she stood in the middle of the bonfire, shaking and choking on the pitiful noises in her throat.

Helodes said a few soothing words, but didn’t make any demands, just let Archippa sob until she didn’t need to anymore. “Everything is going to be fine, dear. Now tell us what happened, Archippa.”

“I set out my perimeter guards ten kilometers into the forest.”

“Ten? That far?”

Archippa looked bitter. “That wasn’t enough. He came with prismdead, more than I have ever seen... in my life.” She stared over our heads, focusing on something in the distance only she could see. “They ran before the fire, howling, too many for me to stop. I tried, Helodes. I tried. Please. I tried to stop them, before they found and killed the young ones from the Winterdim. Then he walked through the woods afire like he belonged there... and I discovered that he does. The Leaf Father is... not right. He has become the rot of the forest, the dead heed him, come to him, kill for him. In the cycle of trees, he is the fall, the winter, the old oak brought down in a storm, the worm and insect decay in broken timber, the bloodpoison bacteria, the tracing of time in tree-ring cellulose death. He is the lightning that splits the pines, that burns the bark down to woody flesh, hollows it out, and devours it. His limbs are gray dead trees, fingers like dry sticks. He is the king of tree-death, the taste of deathcaps, crowned with nightshade, sharp rings of charcoal in place of gemstones.”

“What did the Leaf Father want?”

“Too much.” The witch shuddered. “He spoke to me, his voice old and soft, patient with me while the fire washed over my skin.” Archippa turned her eyes on me and Reed. “He said he could not permit one of them to live. The one named Reed Gossi.”

Then she broke down, sobbing, arms wrapping her body.

“Enough, Archippa. Thank you.” Helodes gestured to the fire and it died, the skull rolling from the ring of ash to her feet.

I caught Reed’s gaze, gave him a quick nod, and had to lock down the urge to shake. “The Leaf Father cannot permit you to live. We have to get out of here. Get to the west coast, cross the ocean? And I really have to find my mother. I don’t know how to stop him. She may know.”

Helodes picked up Archippa’s skull, tucked it under her arm. “Your mother... that reminds me. I’ve been waiting for you—knew you’d show up at some point. Made a few plans of my own to run by you when you stopped by. I think...” Helodes hesitated, frowned, scratched her neck with one long fingernail. “I think you have a long path ahead.”

CrapOne of the most powerful witches this side of the world is hesitant with her wordsMeans one thingThis isn’t going to be good.

She cleared her throat, her expression shifting to worry, some sort of prelude-to-imposition look forming in the muscles around her eyes and mouth. “Listen to me, Thea, I’m going to introduce you to my son. Where you’re going he’ll come in handy.”

Wasn’t expecting that. “Son?” Oh no you don’tI had to shut this down now. I lowered my voice. “Look, I’m already babysit—already responsible for one life. Don’t make it two. I’m just the wrong woman for this job. You know my mother, what she’s like?”

Helodes nodded sourly, one eyebrow going up. “Who can forget?”

“Yeah, and I have half the sense of responsibility she has. Most likely I’d forget about him, leave him sleeping in some clearing and head off into the woods, wondering three hours later if I’d packed everything.”

The witch kept her stern expression. And I knew better. There was no pushing back with Helodes. She’d made up her mind. Her son was going with us or...

No ‘or’ in the statement. Just an ‘is.’

Whoever he was, whatever power he possessed, it was now at my disposal—a good thing, I guess, but that didn’t mean I wanted some stranger I didn’t trust tagging along to coil things up or land in some deathpile he had to be saved from.

“Fine.” I sighed, leaned an elbow on Helodes’ shoulder, mirrored her stern expression. I had to ask the question, although I already knew the answer —because it felt like that would seal the deal. “So, what’s his name?”

She smiled, turned to take my hand. “I like dealing with someone who understands where I’m coming from, and how often I take the answer ‘no’.”

It was worth asking. “Never?”

She made a funny twist of her lip, a curious expression, as if no one ever asked her that. She had to think about it. “Wouldn’t say never, but pretty close to it. His name’s Andreus, and...” The hesitation again. “He’s a little different.”

Great. I kept my expression neutral. “In what way?”

Helodes pointed at the earth. “Get him near a graveyard—even an ancient one, and he can absorb the bones from the ground. They ooze right out of the graves, crawl to him, feed him. And he can use them.”

I don’t know what kind of face I was making—something unsavory. Helodes laughed. “I don’t really know what he’s capable of—not everything. Keeps secrets from his own mother—believe that?”

I was already nodding. “Sure do.”

“He’s good in a fight—he can use all the material he accumulates. And he can sense the dead—prismdead or otherwise—twenty klicks off.”

I caught myself nodding. Stopped it. “Okay. When do I get to meet Andreus?”

Reed put a hand on my shoulder. “When do we get to meet him?”

Helodes folded her arms, nodded into the woods. “Now, if you like.”

Reed and I turned.

Andreus stood in the dark, really tall, with cold glints of light across the wide rectangle lenses of his goggles, a black form-fitting bit of headgear that worked around most of the top of his head, encasing his left ear, his forehead bristling with some sort of sense array.

I was not impressed. “What the hell are you supposed to be?”

He reached over his shoulders, sticking his elbows at us as he worked some key sequence in the back of his head, unsealing the vision and alt-sense gear with a small gasp of released pressure. What a freak.

He locked gazes with Helodes, soundless, nothing but the tap of rain coming through the trees. Whatever communication session mother and son had, took about five minutes to complete, and then Andreus stepped out of the shadows and gave Reed and I a better look.

His eyes were clear, no color in his irises, just pinpoint pupils darting to my face, then to Reed’s. “I overheard the last of that. Mother has told me enough of the rest of your problems.”

His voice came out slow and rough like a roll of pebbles across sheetmetal, soft clicking of collected saliva in the back of his throat.

What a fucking freak. Our problem was The Leaf Father, which I seriously doubted shadowboy could dream of taking on without shitting in his pants.

On the other hand, I’m always up for a game. “Good. Then you know everything about stopping one of the Greater Beings from the Rootworld? When do we get started?” I had to fight to keep my hands calmly at my sides, and not plant one on my hip.

He stared at me, completely immobile for ten seconds, and then raised one eyebrow—his left.

“Do you speak of the Leaf Father?” He gestured, a flourish of one hand—his left, a smooth sequential uncurling of his fingers—perfect Renaissance courtier act. He just needed some sort of embroidered tunic, hose, maybe funny pointed shoes, and we could send him back in time to play his role.

Then I saw how he was dressed, and he probably could have passed without hitting the dressing room on the way. All in black, gray and purple in brush stroked angles. He had on a tunic-like garment of hard-cloth plates that covered him from his throat to just below his crotch, and damned if he wasn’t wearing very tight leggings, maybe the bottom half of a whole body suit that merged with some pretty tough looking super-grippy climber’s footwear. So, if you didn’t look at his shoes, he could have passed as a player out of some historical video. Although the whole rig would have been perfect with a floppy black felt hat.

I smiled. “I am.”

Andreus made a dismissive wave. “I will leave the Leaf Father for you to deal with. He is your kind, dryad. The dead are mine. I will detect and defend us against anything not of this chain of life that crosses our path. The only Greater I can deal with is Orphne, Winged Queen of the Lampades—she who rules the way of the dead.” He coughed, made an uncomfortable face. “She is my...we’re family.”

A sharp glance at Helodes. Really his mother or just a stand-in? 

“Great. Sounds wonderful.” The breath caught in my throat over my Uncle Theo’s last words about some Queen of Death. Oh, shit in the blooming trees. “Although I might not like to meet her—the queen. I may even owe her a debt.”

Andreus gave me another brow lift—yes, the left. “Debt?”

I copied his very dismissive wave, a curl of my fingers. “Nothing. Something my uncle has done and left for me. The tale another time.”

He copied my smile, captured perfectly the derision in my voice. “Sounds wonderful, Thea of the Hamadryádes.”

14 - Andreus

Helodes broke up the strain with a clap and a smile.

Andreus seemed about as happy joining Reed and I as we were to have him in our “club”, and when I say “we” I mean “I” because I think Reed was at least a little intrigued by our weirdish dead-tracking new ally with the crazy hat and goggles apparatus.

Helodes put one hand on my shoulder, rested her other on Andreus’ to steer us back along the path through the woods, toward the giant oak cathedral my mother had grown so long ago.

“What’s up with you Reed Gossi?” Helodes kept her focus on Reed, nodded to urge him to reply before I would jump in and tell only half the story.

Reed glanced at me, and turned back to Helodes, saying respectfully, “I have an unusual ability.”

Helodes laughed, then cut it short and said seriously, “Half this world wouldn’t be after you if you didn’t.”

Reed lifted his shoulders, pulled in a breath, and just said it. “I can see things from the Winterdim that are in our world.” He nodded at me, maybe for approval. I couldn’t really tell. “And we think I have half of something from the Winterdim buried inside me.”

Helodes stopped. Andreus followed. Reed and I took two more steps before turning around.

“It’s true.” I didn’t see the doubt in their eyes, more like interest, a hint of possessiveness—as in, what could I do with half a Winterdim being?

Helodes continued to stare at Reed, whispering to me, “You said he could see them when you told your story, and I let it go by, figuring it would come up later.”

I let my fingers uncurl, an offering gesture. Let’s see if Helodes bites, and what she can tell us. “And later’s now.”

Andreus had side-stepped behind Reed, studying him, the whole time fiddling with his headgear, probably tempted to slide it on and look at him with another set of tools. Instead, he closed his eyes, scrunching up his nose as if he smelled something foul. “I can taste something strong from the Winterdim here.” He paused, licking his lips. “But it’s much more than Reed and what he can carry or contain.”

I circled behind Helodes, putting ten paces between my position and Reed’s. Andreus spun, opening his eyes, hands coming up in fists. He’d just started calling his defenses, when he focused on me. He looked jumpy, startled by something more than just my dimensional renderer.

He didn’t sound startled at all, calmly looking at me, then Reed, and then back at me. The same low steady voice. “You, too?”

I nodded. “I was wondering if you’d detect more than Shirley.”

“I do detect something.” He looked confused for a moment. “There’s something more about you. Your renderer’s named Shirley?” Andreus even smiled. I liked that.

“Had her since I was a baby.”

Helodes folded her arms, which meant serious business for her. “Mind telling me what you think’s going on? Archippa wasn’t the only witch who heard your mother’s message, Thea. Kraneia broadcasted it over the world. But it was fuzzy, and she was rushed, sounded like she was in trouble, and the way it cut off before she could finish.” She frowned. “That’s... alarming.”

A weight dropped into my stomach. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the possibility of my mother being in trouble. It didn’t sound real, like the sun coming up purple or people living in those giant buildings in fabled Manhattan—and walking around with burning sticks in their mouths, breathing in the smoke.

Right. Who makes this shit up?

No news from my father was also alarming. Sure, he’d met everyone over the years, including the Leaf Father at some point, but he was defenseless, nothing he could do but run if confronted by one or more of the Great Powers. I really needed to ask the Sea—next time she intruded—what she was talking about when she said “loved one”.

And what would my mother do? Defend him, give him the keys to the world and then stand in front of him, and die shielding him from harm. No, no one can stand before the Leaf Father. But she’d have thought of a way out. She would have had allies and safe places arranged. Something. She could turn father into a thousand pieces and blow them into the wind like a dandelion’s seed sphere, with clues and rules for reassembling when the seasons were right again and everything had settled down.

That’s what I’d do.

My own voice came out soft as a dandelion pod. “I think she planted something in me, too.”

“The other half of the Winterdim spy?”

I turned to Reed. “Yeah. She really called you a spy? Isn’t a word I’ve heard her use often—not that that means anything.”

He thought about it a moment, and then shrugged. “I’d always thought she’d called me a spy, but I was nine, looking for the beautiful singer in the woods, and when I found her... I didn’t know there was anything else in the clearing with us. Never really doubted it was me she referred to, but what could I be spying on?”

“Perhaps it was the other trespasser in her forest clearing that was the spy? Not you.” Helodes rose off her feet, floating half a meter off the ground, closed her eyes, lifted her face to the sky, a gentle smile forming on her lips.

Andreus noticed our interest. “It’s something she does when she’s thinking. Makes her feel as if she’s in the river.”

Reed joined me on my side of the path, slipping a hand along my arm. He felt warmer than normal, a tingling coming through his fingertips into my skin. “It makes sense.”

I was looking up at our host drifting in the breeze. “You’re thinking of answers to some questions this raises, Helodes?”

“I am. The most important questions are who was it spying for and for what purpose?”

Reed frowned. “Archippa said Thea’s uncle let the thing into our world, opened a door. I think the real problem is that we’re unclear on what exactly it is. And my first thought was that it came here without a purpose. Would Kraneia call anything entering our world or her clearing uninvited a spy?”

I shrugged at the sudden attention. “Don’t look at me. I know more about what’s going on in Andreus’ mind here than I do my own mother’s. Makes perfect sense what you’re saying, but my mother and sense have a messy association on good days.”

Helodes dropped back to earth, opening her eyes. “These are good assumptions, though. We should go with them for now.”

“Helodes?” Andreus was sliding his goggles on, spinning to the dark woods, his fingers working adjustments or sense modes at his temples. “Why did you send away everyone from the bonfire?”

“I trust some of the witches around here about as far as I can throw them—underwater.” Helodes said it simply. “Not with something this big.”

Andreus clawed the air, caught something, plucking his fingers as if finding invisible strings to a puppet, and arranging it to move. He worked the air in gentle pulling gestures, and drew someone out of the woods.

A young woman dropped from a fan of low branches in an old pine, long black hair, cut straight just above her eyebrows, most of it falling down her back, past her waist, with two separate strands tangled around her throat and arms. She was dressed similarly to Andreus, all in gray and purple camo, tight pants, a long top of armorcloth plates. She didn’t have goggles, but had permaplants for her eyes, matte back ellipses.

She straightened up, but it wasn’t a movement she made on her own. She jumped and sagged, drunk walking toward us, the strain of fighting someone else’s control obvious in a sharp show of her teeth, the jerk of her shoulders at wrong angles, trying to twist her body out of Andreus’ grip.

She walked toward us, made a high pitched piping noise, then a long choppy intake of breath. She was close enough now that I could clearly see the fear on her face. Two tiny black tubes extended from the inner edges of her eyeware, and tears dribbled down her cheeks.

Helodes didn’t look angry at all, nothing to be afraid of. She even smiled a little. “Brazley? What are you doing in the dark in the woods? Working for your mom or dad?”

Brazley nodded jerkily. “My dad, my lady. Mom said it was too dangerous.”

“Your dad’s a dolt.” Helodes lifted a finger and Andreus jumped at the command, setting Brazley free.

“Come here, child.”

I backed away, grabbing Reed’s wrist to push him behind me, my hair winding up anxiously at my shoulders. He didn’t have to ask. I did. “I feel it, but what do you see?”

Chills running up Reed’s arms. “They’re all over her. Four, five...nine renderers, two of them so... inside her, their shoulders and the backs of their necks visible like ridging up her spine, other things like horns jutting out at her neck, the rest of the renderer bodies are completely buried in her skin. There are swellings on her legs. What are... are those eggs?

“Holy Tree, she’s a SeedCatch.” My fingers digging harder into Reed’s arm. He didn’t seem to feel it, caught so thoroughly by the sight of something so strange.

He took a step closer to Brazley “Wait. There’s far more than nine. Those are just the big ones. There are really too many to count. Tiny dimrends crawling all over her, some stacked up in long strings, individual animals but articulated, kind of like centipedes made up of a hundred holding each other. One is living in her right ear. The larger renderer embedded in the skin along her spine is looking at me.”

Helodes locked eyes with Brazley, but spoke to the rest of us. “Her biologic mother and father lost her to child-thieves soon after she was born, and the ’nappers sold her to OKF when she was an infant. She grew up there, not a person, but a subject. OKF says today’s Seed Catches don’t suffer much at all. Brazley is one of the originals.”

Andreus added, “She’s just one of many breeding experiments at OKF, to attract things from the Winterdim into our world to breed—in return for slavery and experimentation of a rendered parent.”

Reed was still enthralled by the rends crawling all over her, and apparently didn’t see the obvious issue. I wasn’t about to keep quiet. “Why’s she dressed like you, Andreus? And what’s with the eyeplants?”

He came back with the same low voice. “Works both ways. They take from her—the renderers—always have. But they can’t kill her, and what life she has to herself, she can use with their strength, their powers, their sight. OKF took her eyes when she was three years old... I think the renderers had started laying eggs inside them—presumably to use them to see into our world. Her adopted parents—” He seemed to be careful about mentioning their exact relationship to Brazley. “—haven’t been kind. They use her to collect intelligence, gossip, any information that can be used for advantage, revenue opportunities, social leverage. They paid for eye replacements—very high end set, and they took her in, fed her, gave her a home after they found her drifting with the garbage down the Mississippi—and that’s after she scaled the fence of the OKF facility blind and ran with the river south.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Andreus gave me a measured look. “Brazley is my student.” He pointed a pale finger at her. “Who should know better than to attempt to spy on her teacher, and shouldn’t have even bothered with my mother present.”

Helodes released Brazley—it hadn’t been clear that she was being held until she sagged with a long breath under the new freedom, then bent to grab her knees for more huffing and blowing, eyeing all of us suspiciously. Brazley’s hair hung nearly to her ankles, and I wondered if she could control it, braid it at will. She looked beaten, but managed a quick grin at Andreus. “Should have gone back to my dad with lies.”

He nodded back, playing the disappointed instructor, but there was softness under the stern shell. The teacher cared for his student. I looked at Reed to see if he’d caught any of that. Nope. He was still studying something at the nape of Brazley’s neck, and probably still counting newborn renderers.

I elbowed him, slid my fingers down to grab his hand. There was a click. I heard it in my head, and I felt Shirley digging in for a long fight. I’d made a connection with Reed, something strong that fought the twist of my arm, the flex of my fingers to break it—strong enough that I’d break Reed’s fingers disconnecting.

The thing inside me had found its other half, its mate, something that belonged together.

Reed turned, horror in his face sucking the courage out of him, and he screamed—and I mean like a girl, shrieking and clawing at the space in front of him, releasing my hand and tossing me a meter in the air. Wind whipping in my ears. I caught a handful of raindrops through the trees on my face, one landing in my jacked open mouth. My feet swung over my head, and my hair sprang into motion, unwinding, braiding thick and spreading into spokes to catch my fall, slowing me to a smooth cartwheel to the forest floor. I landed on my feet, body bending with the momentum. I ended up dancing a few paces away, roots playing out in my shoes, hands up and fingers hooked, readying for battle.

It wasn’t what I thought it was—or there were two things happening at once. I focused on the more pressing one. Reed was in trouble, something from the girl Brazley was after him.

Reed scraped at his legs, nails scratching madly at the material as he hopped backward, one hand coming up to swing defensively against something that I could feel in the air, but couldn’t see.

“What does it want?”

Andreus jumped in, grabbed Brazley, and yanked her off her feet as Helodes stepped in, took hold of something hovering over Reed, and wrestled it into submission. “There, there. He’s not going to let you unless you ask nicely.”

Still not answering, Reed crab-walked backward, kicking up dead leaves and black soil.

Helodes continued to struggle with the renderer. “It’s not your home, love, just feels and tastes like it, doesn’t it?” Her voice flowed through the air, soothing, almost made my mouth water. “So close to home, but it’s not really here. You have to trust me.” I slipped across the forest path, giving Helodes a wide space, and crouched next to Reed, reached out, but didn’t touch him. Looking up at Helodes, I asked, “What does it want?”

The witch made a smooth spinning motion, bringing her body around, still holding something invisible to my eyes, something about the size of my backpack. That would make it a decent-sized dimensional renderer. “He’s ready to leave the Catch”—she jerked her head over her shoulder to Brazley—“for a permanent home. He wants to bond with Reed, become his renderer. And he’s asking very nicely.”

15 - Rendering

We stood in the grand oak cathedral, staring at the twined branches and perfectly lined up leaf arrays, row on row, like green-fingered scales on a fish. Helodes led us inside, still holding the freed and very eager dimensional renderer as if it was nothing more important than a hat or raincloak. She smiled and chatted about Kraneia’s travels through every glade and wood across this world, and her stops—sometimes for years—in various favorite forests and homes of friends.

“Took her twelve years to program the growth of these trees.”

It was Brazley, her neck tilted as far back as it would go, who said, “Astonishing.”

She didn’t appear to be the talkative type and there was a meekness—a beaten down quality about her I didn’t like, but that one word “astonishing” struck a set of memories inside. One of my old trainers, a guy named Generao See, used to throw up advice every day, most of it worthless, but some of the things he said actually stuck. Generao had been a handler for dangerous renderers—although I always knew he was really an operative doing secret work for my mother. He once told me, “One word will give you away. Know your voice, the voice of the role you’re playing, and don’t show them another unless you want them to discover who you really are, want to hand them an advantage—or hand them your head.” Generao was also a paranoid old shit. Of course, he did die horribly at the hands of some Rootworld oceanic tart he’d betrayed.

I stored the measure of Brazley’s competence for later, dismissed the memories of Generao, and elbowed Reed, leaning right up against his ear to whisper. “Do you want to try out Shirley for a while?”

He edged away from me. “What?”

“Give her a test run—if she’ll let you?” I put some flirt into my tone. “Come on. You might like it.”

He glanced behind me, down my back, presumably to get Shirley’s take on this deal. “Does she know what you’re asking me?”

Another elbow, harder. “Of course! She’s from the Winterdim, but you think she can’t hear? She likes you, too.”

“Really?”

“Well, she wasn’t too clear at first, but now she is.”

Reed moved closer, still doubtful. “What’s involved?”

“Not much. She can just jump over to you.”

He kept glancing at Shirley. “Then what? How long do I get to keep her?”

“Long as you need to. Couple weeks. It’s really up to her. The first thing she’s going to do is see if we’re a matching pair. She knows me inside and out, has pretty much confirmed the story we put together with Archippa. All these years, and I thought what drew her to me was my charming personality. Turns out I have a buried store of treasure from Winterdim royalty or something. I think she should check you out internally and tell us if you have the other half of it—she calls it a ‘Lord’—that thing my uncle let into our world. Let’s get that out of the way first. You can trade with Shirley for power and paths later. I told her to go easy on you, let you play a little, see what kinds of things you’re capable of. Teach you some things you’re not aware you can do.” He looked worried so I punched him. “You’ll do fine. You managed some pretty wild modifications and fabrication when we took on Folesh’s night team.”

“What if I can feel her weight?”

“Yeah, that’ll be interesting.”

Helodes turned to us. “And who wants this bundle of energy?”

She was looking at me and I nodded back. “I’ll take him for now.” Turning to Reed. “You ready? You don’t have to move closer. Just tell me you’re ready.”

He pulled in a breath, let it out, and by the shift of his eyes, watching Shirley climbing to the edge of my right shoulder. “I am.”

And that was it. She was gone. I felt the emptiness—one of maybe a handful of times in my entire life that I’d been without a renderer. There was a wave of confusion in my muscles, a wobbliness between the top and bottom halves of my body, as if losing Shirley cut out everything between the bottom of my ribcage and the top of my pelvis, and getting my legs to move and behave was like getting someone else’s legs to move.

It only lasted a minute, then I felt the new renderer hop to me, tentative steps around my body, climbing inside, careful with someone else’s arrangement. Shirley was a pretty tough renderer, and if she came home and found a hair out of place, there’d be a price to pay.

I was only half paying attention to Reed trying to get accustomed to Shirley.

Thinking of my own new renderer, “I’m going to name you...” I felt around for distinguishing features, a distinctive walk, preference for motion, location on or in my body...

He just kept digging under my skin, tickling me around the ribs, sloshing like a fish through my organs, mumbling to himself about the things he was seeing—me from the inside. Then he’d pop out of one thigh, slide up my side, jump the hip, and he was under my arm to auger in again. Augie... “Augustine. You shall be called Augustine.”

“Good enough name.” Helodes clapped once, smiling. “How are you doing, Reed?”

He looked up, holding his arms out as if he’d spilled something sloppy down the front of his shirt, a look of horror slowly drifting into wonder on his face. “I...guess...I think I’m okay. She doesn’t hurt, she’s very light. Oh, you can’t see her. She has sharp claws, kind of crablike, but she doesn’t sink them all the way in.”

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s...talking to me. She wants to try something a little crazy...to test my abilities and strength.”

The way he was hunched over was strange. “Talking to you from your knees?”

“Yeah. Well, that’s where she is right now. She’s moving all over.” He straightened as he said it, twisting his neck to follow her over his shoulder. “Hang on.”

Reed raised his hands over his head, and one after the other, curled them into fists, his knuckles going white with strain.

Helodes, Andreus, and Brazley backed away. He was even starting to scare me. “What is she having you do? Reed?”

He stared up, holding on, the muscles in his arms bulging. Then he pulled down the sky.

Rain came cutting through the trees, tearing through the leaves and pine needles, and Reed hung on, closing his eyes tight against the water driving into his face. Andreus and Brazley ducked against the downpour, and Helodes’ cackle cut through the roar of the storm.

He let it go, his arms dropping like anchors to his sides, the draw of power sliding off his face. I threw the water out of my hair, and jumped to catch Reed as he fell, collapsing from the strain. I caught him under the arms, the back of his neck hit me in the shoulder, his full weight tugging me forward. I kicked my legs apart, grabbing the earth with my roots, sliding my mouth against his ear. “Got you, Reed. I got you.”

“Well done.” Helodes looked up, smiling at the cloudy sky through leaf shreds and snapped tree branches, tugging pine needles out of her hair. “That was wonderful.”

Andreus stepped past his mother, stood over Reed’s footprints—two deep rents in the ground, and circled slowly, staring up. He spoke in his low gravelly voice. “I think he made a funnel.” He waved over Brazley, his student, pointing up. “A gravity funnel, pulling everything above the height of the trees toward him. See where the trees started to break. That was the wind and rain doing that, the weight of water in the air, not the pull of his weathercast.”

Brazley leaned against Andreus, holding his shoulder, her head thrown back so far her hair dragged on the ground at her heels. “Frightening.”

Another one of those telling words. Who is this girl?

I squatted low and dropped on my butt, pulling Reed into my lap, then sat him down between my legs, leaning his back against the curve of my body. He sagged into me, breathing hard, too weak to open his eyes. He mumbled a few things, thanked me, I think. I pulled up my roots and swung my legs around his waist, holding on, digging my chin into his shoulder to make enough contact to read everything going inside his body, his heart, bloodflow, brain activity, tapping into his sensory stream to feel what he was feeling.

I was careful at first, not wanting a repeat of the connection we’d made with our internal Winterdim parts. His skin felt warm, normal, and nothing dangerous clicked between us.

Could have been stress related to Brazley appearing with a whole Catch of renderers—just too much Winterdim to deal with?

Shirley crossed to me, but just for a minute, enough time to tell me that she was—in her words—“very impressed with Reed Gossi.”

It struck me suddenly that Brazley spoke like Shirley—schoolbook correct English, as if she’d mentally ingested half a dozen language texts. It also occurred to me for the first time that Shirley didn’t have my voice. She could sound like me if she wanted, but she had her own, even though she hadn’t left my side—so to speak—for more than a week or two since my mother offered me up at six months old. I grew up with Shirley, and I learned to speak with her on my back, drilling vocab lessons into me. But she had her own voice. How strange was that? Definitely seemed important enough to understand its causes, but it was something I’d have to get back to when I had the time. Reed was waking up in my arms.

“Thea?” His voice came out a dry whisper.

“I’m here, Reed.”

“I felt it in my hands...clouds were like foam, thick enough to push my fingers into, solid enough to collect, hold, and shape into whatever I wanted. I felt the water on my face, an electric charge in my arms. Did I grab the storm?”

I smiled, and he felt it against his neck. He smiled back.

“I did, didn’t I?”

“Yes. Shirley is very impressed.”

He turned, the skin of his cheek against my lips. I gave him a kiss.

“But are you impressed, Theodora Viran?”

I ignored Helodes, Andreus, and Brazley standing over us, watching us, my legs curling around Reed Gossi.

“Sure—and you may not realize this, might even come as a shock to you, but I am not easy to impress.” I looked up at Helodes, nodded to her. “Let’s get some rest. Sleep tonight under the protection of the witches of the Mississippi. Tomorrow, we can begin doing some real stuff—some training. Shirley knows a lot of my tricks and she can fill you in on her own time, but that’s always been my game—to make everything new, to fit the response to new terrain, a sprout coming up through the soil never knows what it’s going to face, how much sunlight, crowding, barriers, root choking—it adapts, it out-maneuvers the enemy through unpredictability.”

We got to our feet, brushing off dirt and needles.

Helodes walked with us back to the Rennonvorah, her little village on the banks of the Mississippi. I kept an eye on Reed, but he was absorbed in activities with Shirley, even looked like he was having fun.

Helodes stuck out her chin at Reed. “How long do you plan to train?”

“A few days, maybe a week. As long as it’s safe here.”

She came back eagerly, “And when you go, you’ll take Andreus with you?”

I shrugged, held in a sigh. “Sure. We can always use the help.”

“You know I cannot come with you.”

“I figured. Mother offers her son for the job, it’s because she can’t make it.”

“I protect thousands of people. I have to defend the Rennonvorah. I cannot leave my river. The Mississippi has my power chained in its flow.”

“Sure. I understand. And the Leaf Father cannot cross?”

“Not without wings, and not while I’m here to defend it.

“Leaf Father with wings. Scary thought.”

“He’s grounded—never been off the ground in fact.” Helodes waved away the notion of flight. “I was thinking that you should be able to run down the west bank to the Gulf, stay hidden, and with luck, the Leaf Father cannot sprout his roots, cannot call for help, won’t be able to find you for a long while.” Helodes clapped me on the shoulder, smiling roguishly. “And I know who rules the oceans. She’s not much of a forest girl. Just doesn’t have much in the way of feelings for trees, in fact.”

That sort of soured it for me. “Oh yeah, that’s what I want to hear.” After a pause, I added, “We have met—sort of. She’s come to me in my dreams.”

Helodes nodded thoughtfully.

“But she hasn’t brought up her feelings for trees—one way or the other.”

Still nodding, Helodes said, “You should go talk to her—in person. If you’re near the Gulf she’ll find you. It’s all saltwater, but she can help.” Helodes looked around as if options grew on trees. She frowned. She didn’t seem to find what she was looking for. “I don’t think you have a choice. The Leaf Father will get around the river at some point. He’ll go north and come down this side. And he has the forests—you may not be safe in them while he’s looking for you” She swung her jutting chin south. “Go see Poseidonis.”

Helodes said the name like Po-say-denise.

“That’s her name?”

The old witch looked concerned for a moment, as if they were talking about the wrong ruler of the oceans. “What did she tell you it was?”

“She didn’t. She called herself Kassandra’s daughter.”

Relieved, Helodes made a quick snorting laugh. “Of course. Her mother was the real power, the original one who pulled every cubic kilometer of seawater together under one throne.” Her voice went soft, eyes fixed somewhere in the past. “I knew Kassandra when she was just a girl, finding her way to the waves. Had a demon for a friend, Ephoros...” Helodes’ voice trailed off in sadness.

I shrugged. “Demon for a friend sounds promising to me.”

Still lost in some ancient sorrow, Helodes said, “Yeah, you would have liked Kassandra.” Then the witch’s gaze landed on me, and I felt the weight. “She grew up in the middle of Nebraska—as far from the sea as her murdering grandfather could stick her.”

Far from the sea... Starting to like her even more.

“My advice, Thea, is to go to the coast.” She pointed south. “Get your feet wet, talk to the Sea.”

I shook my head. “That’s an ugly start, but I can live with it. I think you’re saying I should go where the Leaf Father cannot follow.” I was pointing south now, hand shaking as I jabbed a finger in the direction of the Gulf. “Out to seaTo live.”

Helodes shrugged. “That’s the most favorable option.”

Still shaking my head. This was horror—like the dreams this Poseidonis built inside my head. Nightmares actually.

I don’t think I can live without trees, without the forest around me—not for long. My face was getting hot, anger building. What kind of sick trap is this, that it forces me to leave the woods and live. Or remain in them and dieI am the fucking woods!

Reed touched me lightly on the shoulder, a spark snapped loudly in my ears, and I felt the stab of something powerful inside him leak through my shirt, into my skin. I shrugged off his touch, ignored him—and the thing inside him.

Right now I had more important things to do, like rein in the dangerous mix of reactions in my head.

Really crazy thoughts rooted deeper into my brain, questions that scared me: would I have to sacrifice myself in order for Reed to survive? Why would I even think that? What kind of shit is this? Had I changed so much in the last month of running?

Draw a breath. Let it out. Control it. Stop the panic. I swung my arms together, holding my body tight. Take control. That’s how you will survive this.

What was happening to me?

I tried to hold on to Archippa’s words, letting them sift through my fingers. The world was changing under my feet, shifting alliances, betrayal by the kings and queens of the forest. The trees aren’t always your friends, Theodora Viran, nor will they always be on your side.

But the fucking OCEAN? This snotty bitch from the sea? That’s my choice? I am so screwed.

Helodes glanced over, kept her mouth shut when she saw what I imagine was an expression of epic struggle on my face. I spent a few long minutes sucking in deep breaths, letting them out, looking for strength or rage, and found myself lacking. I even whispered, not very loud, “There has to be another way. Running and hiding cannot be the answer. There’s something missing. Inside.” And then after a bit of scrounging, I thought I found it, my anger sulking in a corner of my head babbling like a damn baby. I told it to get its ass in the front row where it belongs.

And it listened to me. It better.

My anger quelled the dangerous ideas, knuckled up the space between my brows, and one satisfyingly good Old-Thea thought surfaced to shout behind my eyes: This is not about me or the ruler of the oceans. It’s the Leaf Father at the root of all this pain and displacementThere is nothing in this green earth that’s going to make me step off it into ungodly saltwater, not betrayal, not the loss of love, certainly not some fuckwit Leaf Father made of gray wood bones breathing the ash of burning forests—even if he is seven meters tall.

The Leaf Father was just going to have to... leave.

Because I certainly wasn’t.

16 - Dandelions

Helodes’ house was right on the river. Part of it was in the river, or might as well have been—whole rooms damp and moldy, with tree branches running through broken windows, dripping lichen and snakes. Most of the time they seem so normal, but then sometimes they’ll do something, say something, show you where they live, and you’ll think, oh yeah, they’re witches. The place was just what you’d expect from a river witch’s house.

They really were an odd lot, old beyond our records, but young enough to live in the same world, hold a decent conversation with you, and know how to use eating utensils. Most had lived in this world before the Vanishing, and can tell you unsettling things, crazy things people used to do, like drive for hours, jam their cars together on concrete covered ground devoid of trees and most shrubs, just to walk another kilometer and crowd into a room to watch videos. What’s that about? I would never have believed the ridiculous story if Reed and I hadn’t walked across a few barren concrete fields on our way out. There was a bright side: In both the ones we’d crossed, the trees were reclaiming their land, rooting through cracks and reaching for the sun. I still couldn’t help thinking what outlandish lives the old humans led.

The oddness fed my thoughts and dreams.

I didn’t sleep well, up late listening to the frogs and nightbirds. Reed collapsed into his bedroll like the dead, a bag of bones he’d set to self-reanimate in the morning.

We got up early, a pale sky in the east, with absurdly loud birds in the trees.

On our way to breakfast, I slapped Reed on the back. I could afford one friendly gesture and a bit of honesty before the end of the day. “We have several days, maybe a week to ourselves, Mr. Gossi, and I’m going to teach you a few lessons.”

He seemed more than agreeable. “Sure.”

“Good. Shirley’s giving you a giant step up. Ready to learn to defend yourself? We’ll begin with combat—and I’m not going to go easy on you.”

“Fighting?” He didn’t look happy about that, but I felt an excitement in him. Some part of him really wanted to know what he could do.

It was early, and I wasn’t in the mood. “That’s what combat means.”

Helodes called us to breakfast not long after sunrise. We entered a dining hall already crowded with witches and their friends. It was self-service, grab a plate, and slop whatever they were serving onto it.

Of course. River witches rarely serve anything but fish.

Reed joined me at the table, dropping his plate hard. Half the fish, which he’d cut into dainty boneless bites, went sliding onto the placemat. He didn’t bother with it, too eager to get started, scooping up what he had left and spooning it into his mouth. “What are we going to train with?”

“With?”

“Will it be dangerous? Is there any kind of structure? Something I should read before we get going? We won’t need tools, fuel, weapons, special padding?”

I looked up from my plate of fish, still chewing, crushing fine fish bones in my teeth, opening my mouth to let him hear the crunch of the spine and caudal fin. “Special padding? I must be blind. Didn’t see the Leaf Father handing out the special padding when we ran into him the other day.”

He shook his head. “Just wondering. Never done anything like this before.”

“Wonder about this: don’t eat too much because I’m going to make sure you lose the contents of your stomach sometime this morning.” I smiled, let my hair out in three pretty twists. “Eat only what you don’t mind wearing down the front of your shirt.”

“Going to play rough?” Reed slid his chair back noisily.

“Who’s playing?”

Breakfast was going to have to wait.

Reed made the mistake of pointing at me with his fork. He was about to say something, and I stopped him.

I mean really stopped him.

I had him by the throat, vines tightening, his face going red and lumpy with veins bulging.

“I’m going to push you harder than you’ve ever been pushed, my dear Reed.”

His nose wrinkled up, teeth suddenly sharper and snarling. I laughed and he swung a hand under the table, up my pants leg, needle-claws puncturing the material, probably injecting toxin—yup, I felt it, heat under my skin, a flood of it heading north toward my heart, brain, spine, some part of me that made life worth living. The fuck! He’s going down for using poisons... so early in the game.

Setting aside a good chunk of brain processing and my dimrend to work out detox, I sent a fan of roots across the tiles, caught Reed’s feet before he could pull them back. He looked down, shocked, dropped his forkful of fish, picked up some other piece of cutlery.

I broke four of his toes—two on each foot, starting with the ones that go wee wee wee all the way home. Yeah, and I was just about to take him to the market.

He kneed the table into the air, ripped my roots off the floor, used his elbows to slam a hundred pounds of burnished oak slab into me—along with the plates, forks, placemats, water sloshing from cups. My chair caved under me, legs snapping, throwing splinters, broken back slats cutting through my shirt at the hips.

I vine-snaked the upside down table off me and heaved it sideways. On my right, a table of witches scattered as it landed on theirs, smashed their breakfast arrangement—dishes, glass, fish, flatware—flatter.

Augustine cut into my thoughts to let me know that the toxin was plant-based, working toward my nervous system, and he’d have it neutralized in a moment. There was blood in my mouth, tasted the warm metal fluid slippery against my teeth. My voice came out in a growl. “Good.”

Twirling off the ground, I withdrew my vines, slid my bark armor on, overlapping plates of it oozing out of my skin, forming to the shapes my arms, legs, middle.

Reed hunched low, almost wolfish, arms out, fingers splayed, breathing hard, a butter knife flipping playfully, over and under, between his fingers.

“Take it outside!” Helodes stood at the head of the lead table, shouting and pointing—very witch-like with a long bony finger—at the door. “And preferably a few klicks that away. Go! You can come back when you’re too tired to kill each other.”

Reed nodded at me. I nodded back. We both straightened, pulled in our weapons, and went for the door. I shouldered him out of the way to get through. “Ladies first.”

We headed quickly through the woods, took the nearest path, a narrow deer run that we nevertheless walked abreast, neither wanting to walk in front of the other. We weren’t a hundred meters from the hall when my prox alerts went off, and about that distance behind us, I picked up the soft tread of feet, two sets of them, following us.

“Andreus and his student.” Reed jerked a thumb over his shoulder, his gaze fixed on me.

“Yup.”

The old softer sympathetic Reed showed himself for an instant. “Should we warn them? This could get dangerous, right?”

“Nope.”

“Curiosity killed the...what?” He shot me a line from the rhyming game we’d played on the journey out.

“Vampire bat?”

Reed gave me an approving nod. “Good one. Fits our two pale prismdead hunters. Closest thing that worked and rhymed for me was ‘naked mole rat’.”

I sucked in a deep breath, let it trail out slowly, sent a few commands ahead to prepare the battlefield. My battlefield.

Reed raised his arm, pointed. “How far do we need to go?”

“Isn’t Shirley keeping count? Helodes said a few kilometers this way.”

“She is. She’s feeding me all kinds of data. Just didn’t know how literally you were going to take Helodes’ command. A few is three, four, what?”

I gave him half a smile—but it was genuine. “I’ll let you know when we get there.”

Andreus and Brazley picked up their tracking pace, sometimes moving through the trees, but mostly on the ground. They were pretty good. Eerily quiet.

A quick glance at the ground. “How are your toes?”

“Fine.” He looked over, hands going up defensively—as if any of my tricks would be that obvious. Through his fingers, he whispered, “Shirley’s mended the bones already.”

“What did it cost you?” I caught his gaze, returned a serious look. “Keep track. She’ll skin you if you don’t pay attention.”

“She said you’re trying to trick me.”

“Yeah, you keep thinking that.” I kept my smile, and attacked as soon as we stepped over the three kilometer line. Reed was ready. He jumped into the trees, a quick crouch and straight up into the branches, swinging through them, legs kicked off, reaching for the next limb, pulling his legs under him to find another foothold.

Damn, he was quick. I let him go.

“Fly, Reed.” I called after him.

He’d be back, but I wouldn’t be the same.

I spun at the sound of footsteps. Andreus and Brazley stalking through the brush. I leveled a gaze at them, put a finger to my lips. They exchanged a look, nodded back, and headed into the trees themselves, finding some nice seating about ten meters up.

And the training really began. A little slow at first, a lot of hide and seek, Reed running away at any hint of me—so it was mostly Reed hiding and me spending several hours seeking. When he did stand and fight, he was creative, even deadly, and he was quick. I had to be on the tips of my roots, ready to move. Somewhere around mid-day he’d gathered enough confidence to come after me with something interesting.

Closing my eyes, I focused my hearing on him, scanning the forest in an extending ring. He was coming around on my left, almost a full circle, and very careful, one silent footstep at a time. Not quick enough, Reed. Not close enough to catch me. Just in case, I opened my eyes, spun to make sure he wasn’t tricking me.

I’d need my key for this one, and I swallowed hard, and called it from my core.

The rootkey slid down my right arm from my heart, a folded ring of metal wide as the palm of my hand. It broke the skin just up from my wrist, the sharp turned bit coming through first, blood breaking and branching like lightning over my brown skin, pooling in my fingers. I spread them, and let the slick heat slide through them, dribbling to the ground.

“Feed my earth.”

Augustine made a few questioning sounds, probably wondering what I was up to. Bleeding couldn’t be a good thing. Everyone knew that, even dimrends that couldn’t bleed.

“Don’t worry, Augie. This is me. This is what I am, what I can become, what I hold close to my heart, and rarely show the world—even in winter.”

The rootkey snapped open on its own, a warm bloody heart-shaped ring that just fit my hands. The drilltip pointed out between them, looking like two question marks, one mirrored and then both pushed together. I gripped it tight, jammed my fists together, and kicked my legs in the air, straight up, ramming the key point into the earth.

It held me up, and I let my roots go. They oozed, pale and slick out of my throat, my mouth, ears; they coiled around my arms and went into the ground. I tightened my muscles, flexed my legs, opening them, pointing and spreading my toes at the sky. The bark seeped from my skin, stiffening around my trunk. A ring of five long branches uncurled from my waist. My body stretched and twisted into its new treeshape, a slow twirl, bringing up another eight slender branches to crown the first five.

Holy Tree, it had been a long time. My body felt so foreign, the pressure of the rings, layer on layer of them wrapping me, my blood slowing, thickening, and I pushed a surge of growth up my trunk, into my branches squeezing it out to my slender twigs. A rain of soft snapping, internal pressure on my buds, and a flutter of green leaves opened to the sun, unfurling like sails.

I had only one thought at that moment, that there is no gentler caring presence on the earth than a late summer breeze.

And I felt so strong, a part of the earth, an unbending oak, my roots grabbing a firm chunk of the ground like a fist.

I couldn’t really smile in my condition, but I smiled on the inside. Let’s see what you can bring to the fight, Mr. Gossi.

Reed crept into the clearing, sniffed the air, and went to his hands and knees to move right past me, even placed one hand on my bark, then a quick jerk of nervous pressure before he dashed across the clearing to get his back against an ancient ash tree.

Facing me, he looked up, scanning the branches high above, probably thinking I’d followed him into the boughs—or maybe looking for Andreus and Brazley. He knelt, pressing his hands together in front of him, bowing his head, the strain of a long-pull in the tightening and twitching around his eyes. He was definitely working on something big, pulling it toward us into the clearing.

Good, Reed. Play with your power. Do not let anything limit you.

I heard it long before I knew what it was, whispering objects in the spaces between the trees, coming toward us, ripping through open leaves, throwing stems and beads of juice into the air. The forest passed me messages, flashes of movement, tiny shiny objects butterfly flipping through dusty beams of sunlight, different shapes, but grouped somehow. Trees have never been down with similarities and taxonomy. They just don’t give a damn.

What the fucking hell is he pulling toward us?

Clinking noises, metallic objects, some no larger than my index finger, shapes that caught the draft of the preceding rank and fluttered against it, shapes that slid knifelike through the air, sleek gleams of metal leading the charge, curling through dense thickets, over lumps of thorn hedges, hundreds of pieces of metal on a rocketing terrain following path toward me.

Crap.

I could see Helodes shouting abuse at us right now. Reed had cutlery raining down around me, cutting through my beautiful and frail leaves, shredded green confetti everywhere, forks plinking off my bark, knives flipping and stabbing deep, spoons—serving, table, soup, and dessert, clacking together and scooping at my skin.

The guy’s a monster. A creative monster.

It looked as if he had pulled every piece of flatware from the dining hall, even the serving spoons from their trays, still bleeding fish sauce. He danced around me—yeah, it bothered the holy fuck out of me that he’d known which tree was me—fingers conducting the forks to jab and stick, knives to stab, spoons to rap hard with their convex bowls of steel.

My brain hurt, and I couldn’t come out of my shape without accepting the damage, pin-cushioned with silverware in my softer skin, not just my bark and hardwood rings. He’d worked this pretty damn well. I was even a little proud. He’d have to pay for it, of course, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t some fine and creative work.

I reached out with the surrounding air and caught one long serving spoon and set it windmilling through the air, snapping forks off their trajectories, knocking away a phalanx of butter knives—stubby useless little bastards. Go butter some bread. Then I pulled the spoon in and sent it to batter, scoop, and hammer any of the bark-embedded cutlery it found. I caught another spoon, and sent it to follow the first, another spoon, repeating the process. Reed was trying to work against me, but he gave up. It was a good attack. But he was just going to have to win some other way.

He dashed off into deeper woods, and I let all my surrounding trees follow him. They shed branches as he ran past, heavy chunks of wood and bark crashing through lower limbs, hitting the ground at his heels. I just needed him to think he had time.

I didn’t, spending mine on silverware cleanup and searching for the prize.

Took longer than I’d hoped, but I found it, the forest’s heart, a solid lump of life that etched paths to every single tree, every blade of grass; I urged every buried seed to yearn for the sky. And it was all mine.

The world was dim to my bound-within-my-treeshape eyes, but I had other means to sense and map the field of battle. Reed’s shape glowed pale blue across a plain of trees in gold and gray, lines of power touching them, bending them to my control, passing along my commands.

Reed—with Shirley to help him—was very quick, detecting my traps fractions of a second before triggering them, and that still gave him enough to time to leap into the air, roll over a grasping mass of ivy. He continued into a spin, upright, a tornado of corkscrew creepers and wedge-shaped greens that would have flayed half the skin from his bones if it had caught him.

He dodged my gate of tree roots, elbowed through them before they could interlock and bar his path. And he was safe in a clearing carpeted with dandelions and rich grass. He slowed his pace, spinning to walk backward into the center of the clearing, probably wondering if I was following him. I didn’t need to. I was there before him.

I had him.

In my treeshape, I was a vulnerable, sedentary, sitting fucking duck. On the other hand, I was also on the throne of this forest and ground. I had sway over the minds of every insect, every burrowing rodent. I was the water in the air, the sap in the trees, the acorns, buds, pinecones, needles, flowers. I was the gust of wind that whispered to Reed, “It’s a war of numbers,” and I took every tiny golden blade of every dandelion in the field—I lost track at nine million—and I made an army, shaped them with my thought, breathed life into them. They became birds that took flight and swarmed Reed Gossi.

It took almost everything I had in me to make it work and maintain it.

Reed turned at the flutter that was quickly becoming a roar of sunlit gold, his fists swinging through them, his momentum carrying him off balance, and my sweet-winged petals bulleted into his open mouth, rammed his nostrils, clogged his ear canals, sharp edges clawing at his eyes, coating each of his fingers in clingy yellow blades that scratched his skin and lips when he tried to dig my flower army from his teeth.

They’re in your lungs, Reed, you’re suffocating. Breathe them in and perish.

I let him dangle there on the edge of consciousness while I took my time disrobing. I felt Andreus and Brazley scramble down from their perch to see what was happening. They’d be too late—if it was up to them. Fortunately it wasn’t. Reed was under my care. I wasn’t going to let him die.

Just suffer a bit, enough make him realize the danger in a flower’s soft petals. Given a choice of a loaded gun and a bouquet of daisies? Give me the daisies. I can kill more men with a handful of them than any gun’s clip holds.

A few more seconds and I sent my flower army the command to retreat. I was drained to the core, and really hoped Mr. Gossi had had enough.

The bark slid off my body, warm hard sheets of it, and I blew a final message to Reed. “That’s for poisoning me earlier, you shit.” He didn’t answer, probably too busy flossing his teeth with a hundred thousand dandelion petals.

Took a few more moments of shedding and I was free of my treeshape. The blood rushed to my head, my knuckles hurt, fingers cramping around my dear rootkey. I relaxed, dropped my legs and came up standing, tugging the key from the earth, severing my control connection to the forest.

Then I crossed the clearing, twirling the rootkey on my pinky, wondering how Reed was coming along with his flower problem. My shoes were ruined, root holes through the soles. My pants and shirt were filthy, sticky with sap, dirt and dead leaves up my back.

I stopped. Reed Gossi stepped through the trees, looking as weary as I felt, his shoulders hunched, but a smile on his face. He gave me a nod and dropped to the ground cross-legged, a long yellow stalk of something hanging out of his teeth. He noticed me looking, widened his smile. “I turned a bunch of your dandelion petals to sugar candy, Thea. Passed them out to Andreus and Brazley.” He threw his hands behind his head and leaned back against a tree, untangling his legs, stretching them out.

I studied his face, proud bastard. He was clearly in my league, though. “Bet that took a lot.”

“Too much. I was already beaten up. Your damn dandelions did some serious damage. Shirley’s working on a hundred different problems. My throat’s raw. I’m still picking petals from my teeth. I have a broken tibia, fractured two vertebrae. I badly need some rest.”

“Sure. We’ll pick it up again tomorrow.”

He scooted down from the tree, and stretched out on his back. “I’m not moving.”

I sat beside him, my body also tired. The treeshaping and forest commands had taken a lot out of me. Holding out my hand for a shake, I said, “That’s your training for today, Mr. Gossi. I’ll let you rest. You’re going to need it.” He took my hand and shook it. “And just to keep your brain twiddling, I’ll tell you now that I have a surprise for you at dawn.”

I didn’t really have anything planned. Just liked the idea of keeping parts of his renderer, power, and brain busy while I spent all of mine focused on recovering.

Leaning over, I kissed him on the cheek, and then kicked my legs out next to him, got comfortable, closed my eyes, and let the music of home play in the back of my mind.

Andreus and Brazley passed quietly an hour later, collecting silverware as they headed back to the Rennonvorah.

Safe. We’re safe here with Helodes holding the line of the great Mississippi River. I really don’t think the Leaf Father can cross with her power intact, and with my senses this close to the earth, I’d feel anything from the forest sneaking up on us. It was time for some serious sleep and rebuilding. I told Augustine to dig out and use my reserve materials, mostly the stuff from the nicely-dressed prismdead and his assassin buddies at the Gossi’s house. It seemed so long ago, already fading. Only their carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and small chunks to traces of thirty-seven other elements in various storable compound forms remained to mark their passing. That, and the memory of that really nice suit.

Then sleep took me far away, to sweeter days, and I let my thoughts run through them, lost, plenty of time to collect them and play our training games in the morning.



I woke in an empty forest at dawn, and Reed Gossi was gone. Slapping my hand on the ground, I felt for him, a latent image next to me gone cold, a distant scent, very faint to my senses extending through the trees. I didn’t have much to go on. “North, I think.”

Was this some kind of trick? Was he close by, but making me think he’d run a hundred kilometers north? Was he planning to outfight me, run small sharp attacks from hiding, and then vanish into some kind of presence-conceal skin or shield? He was good, but he’d have had to work all night on this...and he wasn’t up to it. Couldn’t have been.

I crawled to my feet, skull aching, bones and broken muscle still healing. One thing I learned yesterday, we’re evenly matched. Reed was as battered as I was. “There’s just no way he had that kind of strength, not enough to spend hours planning and then jumping to get this kind of lead on me.”

17 - Sold Out

When I returned to the dining hall and the house, they were deserted. Looking at the sky through the branches, it was about the same time we’d eaten yesterday. Where was everyone?

I found Helodes and most of the Rennonvorah community around the pier where Archippa’s boat was still tied. I pushed through the crowd to discover they were performing some sort of ceremony that involved blood spewing from a man into the Mississippi and the soft watery plunks of severed body parts going in after it.

Really didn’t look like something I wanted to interrupt, but Helodes turned and caught my gaze. She held me in her power, like nails raking into the sides of my face, holding me steady, forcing me to watch what she was doing with a knife in one hand and some poor man in the other.

Damn river witches...

Nah. My guess was that he probably deserved it, and spent a couple threads of thought to wonder about what a man would have to do to get a queen river witch to cut him up, drain his body of fluids, and dump him in pieces into the river.

Steal all the silverware from her dining hall?

For one horrified moment I focused on the bloody figure dangling upside down from Helodes’ fist. She held him high as if he weighed nothing and blood ran down his body, his face, a dark red slick into his hair.

Reed?

I didn’t hear his name outside my own head, but I must have choked up some sound. Helodes nodded, her face cruel, pointed teeth snarling. But her voice came out gentle. “I am sorry, my dear one.”

“But...”

“He is gone. They took him in the night, set down their soothing spells to calm the earth and forest, even my river.”

Found my voice, but it was weak. “Reed?”

“Yes, dear. They carried him north, and sold him.”

It took some strength, but I pointed at what was left of the man in her hands. “That’s not...”

Helodes looked disgusted, and heaved the rest of the corpse into the river, calling up a slosh of green water to wash her hands and feet. “They did it under my watch, my guests, my village.” She pointed at the lump of something drifting downriver. “No. He was in on it, spilled the story to me—what he knew of it.”

I spun north. “But where’s Reed?”

An old river witch, one of Helodes’ confidantes, rested cold wrinkly fingers on my shoulder, gave me a comforting squeeze. She removed her hand when I shot her a look. “Touch me again and I will kill you.”

Helodes swept up the pier in her long black dress of rags. “Thea, I should not have—”

“Shut up. I trusted you. I let my guard down.” My fists tightened, and the trees twisted their roots, the banks of the Mississippi shuddered, shaking half the leaves from their branches. “One question. One simple answer. Anyone touches me or says anything else and they’re going to follow the bloody cut-up guy into the water. Now where the FUCK is Reed Gossi?”

Half the crowd fell to their knees, hands over their ears, and half my senses seemed to have burned away with my anger. I only heard my voice as a whisper, a leaf rustle deep in the woods. Helodes remained on her feet, standing straight at the foot of the pier, watching me. Everyone around her was on the ground.

“He’s been taken to OKF.”

Took me a few seconds to take that in. “Thank you.”

I turned and ran back through the village, stopping at Helodes’ house to grab my backpack and then Reed’s backpack. I was going to get him back, and when I did, he was going to need some extra clothes. And I’d be happy to bury anyone who wants to argue with me.

My clothes were dirty, still churning through their self-cleaning cycle. My shoes were ruined—had root holes right through the soles. I had a new dimrend who was unfamiliar with my body and what it needed to keep me on my feet, but it better learn quickly, because I was running at my limit as soon as I hit the paths north of the Rennonvorah.

A kilometer outside the village I picked up two pursuers. If it wasn’t Andreus and Brazley then my unknown followers were dead when—or if—they caught me. If it was Andreus and his student, well, then... I’d think about sparing them.

I ran hard along the west bank, darting through vine nets, down winding deer paths, always keeping the sound or a view of the river on my right. The trees blurred by, and I had plenty of time to run through my memories of Coldur Gregg the prismdead trucker and the small pieces of information he’d let fall. Some place called Portland—working for OKF up in Portland.

Why would he tell us he was working for a pre-V banned institute that did foul things? On purpose? There was nothing else that marked the truck as hauling frozen human bodies for who knows what kinds of barbarity. But I hadn’t reacted to Coldur’s statement. The name OKF was vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t something I’d ever dealt with—I have dealt with organizations like it, and strawberries were suddenly sliding through my thoughts; had to shove them aside—and not without a shudder. I’d learned more about this mysterious org in the last week than I had in all the preceding years of my life. My impression was that OKF liked to keep their whereabouts and howabouts a secret. Was Coldur trying to gauge our reaction, studying us while he gave away only what he wanted?

Troubling...

The other giant thorn in my thoughts was how someone or something had managed to slip into the clearing with me right next to Reed, and take him without waking me, without tripping any of my sensetraps. It was nearly impossible. Maybe the Leaf Father could do that... or my mother. Couldn’t be either one, of course. One would have brought me out of sleep to strangle me, the other to kiss me—not telling you which is which because it could go either way. After my mother and the Leaf Father, the task of stealing Reed right out from under my nose was open to only a handful of high order beings of which I was aware and that would have any interest in Reed Gossi—probably plenty out there in the wide world I’d never had dealings with.

Whoever or whatever it was, had pulled the fucker off. That meant I was up against some pretty deep badness.

A pine branch caught me in the face, needles whipped a sting of blood along my cheek, and I automatically commanded Augustine to seal it up for me. I ducked another spread of branches, sprinting at a crouch to pick up a parallel deer path for a kilometer, but it ended up angling northwest, away from the Mississippi. As long as it didn’t steer me too far out of the way, it was clear and easy ground to run.

Behind me, Andreus and Brazley closed the distance, which meant a couple things: they were quick—could afford to run at a better pace because they didn’t have to spend any sense energy looking for Reed’s captors. They just had to follow me. They didn’t rest, crawl down the bank to gulp down liters of the river when I did. They carried their own water and refilled on the run. They were equipped for this journey—better than I was with two backpacks of clothes and nothing to eat. And it wasn’t like that girl Brazley, the SeedCatch dimrend-breeding-ground OKF exile was slowing down Andreus. She could really be handy if they got Reed inside the facility before I caught up to them. Andreus was some sort of prismdead expert. He hunted them, and what had Helodes said? The bones of the dead oozed out of the ground like jelly and made their oozy way to him to be absorbed. Helodes said he can “use all that bony material he accumulates” whatever that meant. Extra bones? Does he make stuff with them? Weapons? Armor? Funny hats?

And Helodes is his mother? They don’t look at all alike. Bone structure, eyes, nose, lips, the features that tell you a son and mother are related. Nothing in any of those. Both of them are way over on the lacking color scale. Helodes was pale. All the river witches were. I’m sure they got some sun, but they all looked cloudy-sky white next to me. Andreus was orders of magnitude paler, some freakishly bland tint that could only be placed somewhere on the other side of pasty, washed out, bleached, pick a nasty sounding shade.

Brazley was also pale, as if Andreus’ lifestyle had rubbed off on her. What else could it be? It had to be the dead-chasing job that took all the lively normal colors out of their skin. Still didn’t account for the differences in appearance.

Save the questions for later. They’d make useful additions to my team.

And I didn’t even know I had a team. Reed and I weren’t a team... exactly. I wasn’t much of a team player anyway—never had been, but I was pretty sure the desire to do your teammates wasn’t typical—or the desire to kill them. I’d had bouts of both with my new team experience.

I released a long sigh.

Teams? Teamwork? What was going on with me? I had become a completely different person since taking on the promise to protect Reed. Which, come to think of it, was about the stupidest thing I’d ever done.

Try not to make it your final stupid thing.

I cut through a thick growth of marshgrass, lumpy and ankle-treacherous ground to run, but it brought me to a wide dirt path along the riverbank. Time to stop, take a breath, get something to drink, see what I could see across the mighty river on the far bank.

And wait for the rest of my team to catch up.

Oh yeah, there was one more question nailed to the front of my brain: From what I understood, OKF was on the east side of the Mississippi, up around the Great Lakes, which meant I’d have to cross back into Leaf Father territory—Reed may already have. And even though I could probably take a stab at an answer, the question of what the Leaf Father would do if he caught me or Reed loomed pretty damn high and hot.

How did I manage to make an enemy of the most powerful of my gods?

Taking off my shoes and socks—both full of holes, I washed my feet in the cool river water. I toughened the skin along the bottoms of my toes, bridge, heel. I would run barefoot from here out. I spent another fifteen minutes guiding Augustine in how to care for my aches and keep my joints flexible and lungs from burning, then another fifteen missing Shirley. I’d never been away from her for long, and I had always been certain she’d be back. On the good side, she was with Reed and could really help out in a tough spot.

What the hell is that? Doesn’t sound like me. I shook the idea of helping anyone out of my head.

Then sent out a few sense runners, picked up the rest of my team coming in low and quiet across the marsh grass.

I raised a hand, waved, and whispered, “Andreus? Brazley? Over here.”

They straightened and jogged to meet me, both of them looking dead with exhaustion. No, that’s just the way they always look. Ha. Ha.

We exchanged nods and then all at once, we dropped to the middle of the path, Brazley handing over two blood-red ripe plums and a strip of unappetizingly hard meaty substance that I sniffed and tongue-touched to find out was fish jerky. Tasted pretty good, too. And no poison.

The meal was over in three minutes and we were back on our feet. Andreus pulled out two thick barreled tacGuns, checked the magazines, thumbed off the safety, eyed some little blue lights, then slid it back on. He tossed one to Brazley, didn’t even ask if I wanted to one. She slung it in a holster under her arm.

Andreus did some magic trick, and the gun vanished in the air. “We’re ready.”

Hope it worked both ways. Who knows what kind of conventional weapons the guys we were up against carried.

I scooped up my packs, and we were off, running along the path, a dim drip of light coming through the trees up ahead. It was a dying campfire, a small boat pulled up on the bank, and an ancient cabin with dark windows squatting among the trees.

Andreus waved me back along the path, making hand signals, his finger pointing at his open mouth and touching his ear. Okay, he wants to talk. We huddled in a thicket just south of the camp, Andreus digging in his pack, Brazley helping him.

“I thought you’d like to see this.” He pulled out a small round clear container. It was flat with a threaded lid. He unscrewed it and held it up to his nose, pulling in a deep breath, his eyes closed, brows tight in thought.

What the hell was he doing?

He lowered it, and extended his hand with the container, an irregular sheet of lumpy wet material growing across the bottom.

“And just what am I supposed to do with that?”

He looked puzzled, exchanged a look with Brazley, then returned to me. “It will help you track Reed Gossi.” And when I kept my eyebrows up in an exaggerated show of bewilderment, he added, “It is his skin. I took a sample after your first meal and cloned it.”

That called for a few deep calming breaths. I closed my eyes and tried to rub some fatigue from them.

See, this is why I don’t like teamsYou always end up having to deal with freaky shit like this.

Swallowing the saliva pooling in my mouth, I lowered my brows, gave him a serious glare. “And is there anything you can tell me about his location?” I swallowed again and jutted my chin at the offered lab dish of cloned Reed Gossi skin. “From this?”

Andreus looked across the Mississippi, nodding. “We will need the boat. Reed and his captors have already crossed the water.”

18 - Cross the River

We came through the camp like ghosts and had the boat in the Mississippi in seconds. I hadn’t even noticed the dogs, two black as night wolfish looking cuties with raging sharp teeth and hackles standing like reeds along a riverbank. By the time they started barking we were in the boat, soft-paddling through the shallows, and by the time the boat’s owner came out of the cabin to find out what the noise was about, we were out in the strong currents, riding them at an angle to meet up with the far bank several klicks south of where we started out on the west bank.

“Andreus?” He was in front of me in the boat, and I tapped him on the arm. “Wouldn’t Helodes know when they touched her river and stop them?”

He looked over his shoulder, nodding. “Normally, yes. They flew—very high to avoid her detection.”

“Aircraft? Demon with flight?”

He kept nodding, and said quietly, “Chicago Sphere’s proximity net is probably too close.”

The prox nets around the Spheres would track and eliminate any aircraft close enough to be deemed a threat. The problem had always been that those numbers weren’t clearly marked anywhere, and differed among Spheres, some taking a very cautious vaporize-anything-that-moves-within-two-hundred-kilometers-of-us-in-any-direction.

Brazley stretched like a cat on the fore bench, elbows on the rails, her long hair trailing in the water.

I was okay with boats, but didn’t want to think about what would happen to her if she ended up in the river, flailing around, kicking and screaming for her life. Wait, would she scream?

I just said, “Please be careful, Brazley.”

She looked back at me with her solid blank stare, a faint smile on her lips. “It’s okay. I can swim like a fish—better than some. And I can’t drown.” She shrugged. “I’ve tried.”

I looked over at Andreus, but he seemed just as intense. Just a glance at his student, and then he was studying the skies.

Brazley followed his gaze, nodding her head after a minute. “It was a demon.” She kicked out her legs, heels propped on Andreus’ bench, nudging him in the hip with her toe. “I can feel a trail of him in the air. I recognize the signature from a long time ago at OKF.”

I leaned forward, kept my voice low. “Yeah, and they’re on foot now. If it was mechanized flight, they’d have remained in the air longer, landed somewhere farther east, and then headed to Portland.”

When I mentioned the place—Portland, Brazley shot me a look so full of fear I felt a wave of heat across my own face. I felt embarrassed for bringing it up, and had to look away. What the fuck did they do to her up there? They had already turned her into a honeypot for monsters and other creatures from the Winterdim, irresistible ground for planting, injecting, laying sheets of eggs. I don’t know anything about how that’s done, but I gathered it’s not an easy process.

We hit the east bank. I set my foot down on the Leaf Father side and had to clamp down a full-body shudder. Then scanned the forest tentatively. He was out there somewhere, and I didn’t know enough about his methods to know what not to do. Did it matter if I sent out my senses, used the trees and entire forests to scan the terrain ahead? Would he be able to feel that? Did I have a choice?

We dragged the boat up the bank, dropped it on dry ground, and immediately jumped on the nearest river following track, heading north.

Andreus brought out his Reed skin scent-o-meter, and got a vague notion of our direction and what was happening in the world.

I couldn’t handle vague.

I tried to weigh the pain of losing Reed against the threat of the Leaf Father, and I found with some surprise that I was just going to have to risk it.

I called for a halt, and pressed my hand to the earth, caught a fan of roots, linked them to the nearest spread of trees, pushed harder to gather more of the flora, a burst of incoming traces hit me when I’d extended out about twenty kilometers.

“They’re on foot. Still. Over twenty klicks that way.” I pointed, looking up at Andreus and Brazley. They just nodded back, exchanged a look.

Then we were off again, running hard, on their trail. Every couple hours my bare feet hit the earth where Reed had passed, my toes and heel falling right over his bootprint. Gave me a bit of a warm feeling. He was alive, well enough to be on his feet.

We ran right down the main streets of dead towns, with the wind etching old paint from the sun bleached walls of an office building, whistling through the broken windows of a home—someone’s long lost home, ragged curtains still fluttering in a few.

Andreus warned me of the small army an hour before we reached it. Or they reached us, stalking south along the same road Reed’s captors were taking north. We met them in a wide stretch of prairie outside another ghost town, a place once called Virden—good name. Actually, I guess it was still called Virden because the sign was still standing.

A hundred prismdead spread out across the field, marching toward us through the high grass, silent monsters from the other world, stalking ours, arms relaxed, swinging up and back as they walked—and these guys walked steadily, confident they’d be gargling our blood in fifteen minutes. A hundred or so of them. Three of us.

“Yeah, I’ll give you something to swallow, you dead fucks.”

My hair was twisting, reeling out a meter every second. A glance to my right showed that Andreus was working something of his own, and I slowed my response to see what he and the girl were up to. I mean, these were their kind of enemies. Andreus kicked into the air, lifting his knees, his hands pressed flat against an invisible barrier at hip height. On my left, Brazley shot out toward the ranks of dead in a sprint, arms out like half-flexed wings, long black hair streaming behind her.

She was running right at them!

Andreus hung in space a moment, and when he hit the earth a band of blurry air fired out from his hands, expanding across the field, mowing the grass level as it went. I made a panicked run for Brazley. She was going to get caught in the air blade’s path, cut in two, but she twisted around as she ran, caught some piece of it, split it in two, and swung it around like swords in each fist.

Then she was into the dead, cutting through them, arms and clawed fingers raining down in her path. Holy Tree, that girl’s trouble.

I just stared. “I knew it the moment I saw her.”

The rest of Andreus’ air blade continued through the ranks and beyond, slowing and drifting away with the breeze as it reached the edge of the wood. I stood there waiting, seconds ticking by, a slow crawl of time as one by one the first rows of prismdead toppled over in two pieces, some of them looking down, a bit confused to see their lower halves not obeying the top anymore.

Dumb-asses.

Brazley was through the group of dead, turning around to face strays and prevent retreat. The rest of the army fell, collapsing ten at a time like a sand cliff crumbling before an angry ocean. A handful had been smart enough to jump in the air, clearing Andreus’ blade, and they were just spinning, trying to reassess the battle plan, and then Brazley swept through, cutting arms, heads, hands off. When her air swords drifted from her fists, she swung up her tacGun and popped single rounds into anyone dead and still standing.

Very scary. I like her.

I managed to catch one dead guy fleeing from the scene, snapped him off his feet with a long curl of vine, let him struggle a few meters off the ground, digging his fingers under several spirals of my green wood and thorns. I smiled at him and yanked it tight, crushing his spine.

I turned to Andreus, gave him a nod, as the three of us regrouped in the clearing’s center. I reeled in my hair, letting a few strands drag in the grass behind me.

“Nice work.” I saved a broad smile for Brazley. “Anyone hungry?” Made a sweeping gesture over the field of bodies. “This is way too big a meal for me alone.”

Andreus frowned at me, tilted his head as if puzzling something out, and came back with his low calm voice. “Explain yourself.”

Brazley walked up quietly, still hunched in stalk and kill mode, stopping next to her teacher to pick wet chunks of dead-mess off her sleeves.

Waiting a few seconds to see if they’d follow me, I walked in a circle, pressing down the grass into a nice seat and clear space. “You guys don’t feed on them?”

“Of course we do.”

“You didn’t think anyone else did?”

They looked at each other, a hint of disgust showing in the twitch at the corners of their mouths. And then in the immense effort it took to reveal a tiny shred of what he was thinking, Andreus lifted one eyebrow. I took it to mean mild curiosity.

I shrugged and sat down, crossed my legs and planted my open hands flat on the ground. Neither of them moved, satisfied to watch me take my fill. To each her own. My fingers dug in, earth slipping up to the knuckles, soft, chewy earth with the taste of ammonia, as if this field had at one time been a garden or farm.

“Ninety-two of them,” I whispered, looking up at my companions. “Last chance to grab a bite. Nah, just kidding. I can only handle eighteen or nineteen of them.”

Andreus shook his head. Brazley appeared to be too curious to show any expression on her face. She stood with her arms folded, looking down at me, and then spun in surprise at the rustle in the surrounding grass.

I had let out my runners, cold silvery threads, tugged at eighteen of the bodies, just about my limit, all mostly intact—and I’m counting one body in two pieces as mostly. Come on, AugustineLet’s bring home the goods.

Andreus and Brazley stood over me, uncomfortable, even looking a little queasy—which I found hard to believe. “What’s up? What do you two do after battle to control waste, take resources, spin down the dead?

Brazley shook her head. “I rarely take anything.” She lifted one finger off her arm to jab it at Andreus.

“And I like them deader. These are a little fresh for my...taste. And I only take the bones.”

“Okay, suit yourself. This will only take a moment.” I closed my eyes, and released my perfume, the sweet dust of destruction and rebirth that knew my arrangement well. It clung to the source bodies I’d marked, and I crawled across the field, mapping them, leaning in to taste each, cut through flesh with my teeth to take samples and inject my ownership and consolidation protocol. It would guide the threads in their fan sweep of the remains.

Then I sat back, cross-legged, and turned it on. My renderer, Augustine was fairly new at this as well. I had to tell him how I liked things stacked, stored, labeled for easy retrieval, but as soon as he was ready, I sent the division and scatter commands down my runners, down the shimmery hoses in the long grass, breaking into a million or more threads at each source, stitching into the organs, bones, piping into fluid systems, draining them into a separator and conversion factory, funneling processed materials to the conveyer system, and then inside me.

In seven and half minutes I was full, wiping the blood and drool off my chin, licking it off my lips.

In eight, we were back in hunt mode, running across the rest of the field and then back under the canopy of leaves, the scent and tree-warnings of another prismdead battle group half a kilometer in front of us.

Brazley ran on my left, Andreus on my right, passing messages with their hand signals.

Andreus waited to get a little closer, and then jumped in the air, using the same air blade attack method in the forest, except it wasn’t just cutting down the dead. It cut through trees, slicing old trunks, wood groaning and thirty meter pines going down in every direction, pale wooden sores opening up, the screech of ripping timber and sap squirting.

“Holy Tree!” I jabbed Andreus in the side, just above the hip bone, fingers sliding into his armor and soft flesh. My other fist came around, took him in the back of the head, hammered him into the ground. He spun onto his back, his hands going to claws, arrays of bone darts popped out of his suit, ready to fire at whatever had surprise-attacked him.

He stared at me for a moment, then focused on my pointing finger.

“Not the TREES! You cut one more down and I’ll cut you into little pieces and sauté you for lunch. Clear?”

He let out a breath, nodded curtly at me, then took my open hand to get to his feet. I gripped his hand tighter, blinked back tears in my eyes.

“Please don’t harm the trees. I’m sorry about hitting you. I didn’t expect your attack to be so...indiscriminate.” I released his hand, and pointed at the earth. “Let me handle these guys when we’re in the woods, okay?”

I dropped to the ground, Andreus standing aside without the least bit of animosity showing, watching as I rammed my hand deeper into the earth, feeling around for the forest’s heart. There it was, warm and slippery in my fingers, waiting for my command. Almost too easy to find, which...was strange. I worked my magic, selling off heartbeats to Augie as easily as breathing, found the right trees, the ones that needed to be involved, and told them what to do. The trees bent, grabbed, stripped the prismdead of flesh and left bones piling up in the leaf rot. Ancient bark curled opened like wounds, the hardwood unraveling, splintering off, throwing long fibers that pinned the dead to the ground. Roots sprang from the earth, lifted the struggling prismdead into the mouths of trees that swallowed them whole, held them in place, buried with their internal functions running while the wasps and groove beetles and wood-boring mites were invited in to spin through softer flesh, plant their larvae that fed and would, over time, make the prismdead sleep forever.

I opened my eyes—hadn’t even remembered closing them, just remembered the hate I’d passed on to the trees and a detailed list of how they were to carry out my commands. Sometime between my orders to map the forest to locate the remaining prismdead and the suggestion that we allow insects to bury their eggs and millions of meal-requiring live young in the dead flesh, Andreus had left me to find Brazley.

The two of them jogged up, talking softly as I was digging deeper into the earth, a new forest heart calling me. Strange. I’d never been in a forest with two. They usually merged...but there were trees—like the Redwoods way out west—who were loners, who didn’t really follow the heart of the rest of the wood.

I heard Andreus asking his student, “Are you well? What happened to the dead?”

Brazley made a gesture behind her, indicating the clearing she’d been sweeping when my commands ran through the forest. “The trees took them. All of them.”

Andreus nodded to me. “Do not harm the trees. We’ll let Thea handle the dead in the woods. We’ll take the ones in the clear.”

Brazley nodded then she stopped suddenly, eyes fixed on me.

Something was wrong. Something hurt. Andreus and Brazley came over, both scowling in response to whatever expression was on my face. Then I was screaming, my arm going numb. Something in the earth had its claws on me, digging into my skin, tugging me to the ground. It dragged me down, my right arm in the ground up to the elbow.

“Help me! It’s the Leaf Father. He has my hand.”

19 - Musicman

Andreus leapt in the air, landing in a crouch next to me, slammed all his weight on his knees, bracing them apart for balance. He pulled out a stubby bone-colored tube with telescoping rings at one end, extended it to a meter-long sharp stick, took a quick measure of the length of my forearm to figure out where my hand would be underground, and stabbed down at a steep angle, catching the Leaf Father somewhere around the wrist.

It had to hurt. I felt the grip of claws slip, cutting through skin, sharp tips catching the tendons in my hand, pulling and tearing. The earth groaned under us, a disconcerting shift under my toes. I dug my nails into the splintery wooden hand that held me, getting my knees up for leverage, using the strength in my legs to lift my body—and arm—from the Leaf Father’s grasp. Andreus was yanking out his spear and stabbing over and over, and I felt more slipping. Gave him a quick look and nod. It’s working. He rammed the spear deeper.

I was pulling so hard that when I cut free, the force launched me into the air in a roll, tumbling backward, and through a blur of light behind me, an angry grabbing fist of woody bones punching through the earth, clawing at the air for me. More of it came out of the ground, heaving dirt aside, bone gray fingers uncurling. Looked like someone pushing a dead tree up through the soil roots first—except it bent at the wrist fingering the earth, blindly trying to find me.

Brazley dashed in, grabbed Andreus by the collar of his camo suit and dragged him backward, out of the way. He helped her by crab-crawling, one fist still tight around his extendible spear of bone. Then she was back inside the range of the Leaf Father’s claws, unslinging a handheld echoSaw, it’s pale green beam charged, and she was cutting into old dead demon fingers like a lumberjack wave-clearing a hillside.

My stomach twisted into a knot at the humming sound, the smell of timberflesh burning, and the crazed-killer-shudder in Brazley’s back and shoulders as she worked the cutter. Curling roots and chips of wood in her hair, ricocheting off her suit, a sliver of gray wedged in her smiling teeth. She had a chunk of the Leaf Father’s index finger severed and squirming on the ground before the old fuck finally yanked his hand back into the earth, retreating.

The humming stopped and I uncovered my ears, stomach still lurching over the smell. One side of my face was warm with blood. I looked at my right hand. It was a broken claw, skin torn, bones snapped and mangled, exposed muscle. I was a mess, the pain cutting into my thoughts—still didn’t prevent one thought ramming insistently to front: get your ass off the ground.

If the Leaf Father can get to me under the earth, he may be able to get to me above it.

I crawled to my feet, lifting my good hand to the nearest tree, hooked my fingers to get me up off the carpet of pine needles, then with my vines, I was off the floor and into the branches. I wished for Shirley’s presence, but Augie would have to do. I put him on repair-my-hand duty, and told him don’t stop until the job’s done.

Andreus followed my lead, getting his feet off the ground. “Thea? What now?”

Brazley was the last into the trees. Apparently she wasn’t leaving without taking the piece of the Leaf Father’s dead finger, holding it up like a trophy, tucking it under her arm and climbing up one-handed.

I didn’t look up from my hand, the blood still running off my fingers, down my pants. Augie was closing up the ripped skin along my wrist. “Give me a minute to stabilize this, and then let’s get going. Reed’s captors are still moving. We’re never going to catch them before they reach OKF.”

Twenty minutes later, my head still buzzing with pain, we dropped back to earth and continued our pursuit. With my injuries, I did the only thing I could do. I held my arm against my chest and let Augustine do his thing. He was slower than Shirley, slower at everything, unfamiliar with my body and how it worked. He managed in the end, but I spent the next hour blind with the burn of exposed bone and tissue, stumbling after Andreus, hoping he was leading right, not enough strength or the ability to concentrate to verify his path. It would just have to do, adding it to the list of things I hoped for—the first being the untraceability of our steps by the Leaf Father. Yeah, that’s all we’d need right now is for the seven-meter-tall badass to come up from the path in front of us and sweep aside all our lives.

What was odd—and growing odder—was that he didn’t. That’s certainly what I would have done.

Then someone just as scary and inscrutable surfaced in my pain-dreams—the Sea. And she seemed very pleased to find me alive, stumbling along after Brazley and Andreus, with half my wits and power.

“Theodora. You have traveled far, and you are growing. There are lessons in every footstep. Learn from that growth.”

What the fuck do you want? Little busy here.

No change in the Sea’s voice in my head, the same calm solemn tone. “I have come to ask a favor from you.”

I couldn’t answer at first, even in my head. That’s not what I was expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know it wasn’t offering anything I possessed to some bitch from the sea who could enter and manipulate my dreams on a whim.

As if she could feel my anger—which she probably could, she added, “It is nothing that you do not already have the power to give. I am simply asking you to take care of Brazley. She is special to me.”

That’s not what I was expecting either, and I blinked away the shreds of the dream and fought my way through the pain to focus on Brazley, that beautifully swift and fearless girl running through the field ahead of me.

I was already nodding my head. “I will.” I don’t know if the Sea heard me or not. No soft tidal-motion response. And then it struck me as funny that I had pretty much said the same thing to Reed’s mother, Andrea.

“And look at the fucking hell I’ve landed myself in because of it.”

The pain diminished over the time it took us to run the next ten kilometers. We were gaining on Reed and his captors. And OKF couldn’t be far. We rounded a hill and the crumbling city of Portland crouched on the edge of Lake Michigan, broken towers and walls and cracked weed lined streets, ancient rusted bands of empty railroad yards. Another dead city of broken concrete and metal spires off in the distance, the southern edges of what I guessed was once Chicago.

Some lights on over there, though. Most of the major cities had a bit of resettlement, limited but intact power and communications infrastructure.

We didn’t stop for the view, just kept running.

A glance at Brazley showed that she was getting more and more apprehensive about coming back. I had no idea what OKF did to returning escapees, but I’m certain it wouldn’t include homecoming cakes or hugs from the directors, torturers, sentries, and deathsquad leaders. People like that just weren’t the friendly sort.

And for a moment I thought, neither am I. I didn’t know what that meant, or in what way I was like the torturers, sentries and deathsquad leaders. It meant something, but I couldn’t get my thoughts around it.

Brazley looked over, caught my attention, and I even thought I could see concern through the solid, matte black wedges of her eyes, a little squeezing at the brows and the bridge of her nose. “Is your hand repaired now, Thea? I do hope the Winterdim inhabitant from my catch is serving you well, Thea?”

She kept saying my name, which pulled some deep strings I didn’t like.

I nodded. “He is.”

“Thea, I have saved something for you.”

Jogging right alongside me, she tugged her pack over one shoulder to sling it in front. “The Leaf Father’s finger, Thea.” She pulled it from her pack, and held it up. “I can keep it for now, if you like? When we have time, we should do some analysis, see what he’s made of. It could be useful when we need to kill him.”

When I didn’t reach for it, she slid it back into her pack.

Kill the Leaf Father? Gods I wanted to slap the shit out of her for that, and yet she was as fearless as anyone I’d ever met. Okay, I couldn’t help liking her. She hunted the dead, she’d kept up with our insane pace without complaint, she had jumped in with her echoSaw and took on the Leaf Father without hesitation. And she was helping me, helping Reed—people she didn’t even know. Worst of all, she was returning to a place, organization, absolute hell that—by all accounts—relished in its abilities to modify humans, harbor demons, gene-merge otherworld species, manage large scale prismdead distribution and operations, and provide extensive tailored services in areas like the capture, imprisonment, and the lasting torture of my... my friends?

Brazley said when we need to kill the Leaf Father.

We. Not just me.

She gave me a nod and smiled—a sad smile, sure, but it was a smile.

I returned one, feeling an unfamiliar ache inside, as if I had been missing something all my life, and I’d just discovered it—even though I was till piecing together what it was. “Thank you.”

First Reed, my overly-polite neighbor who can see Winterdim inhabitants in our world. Now Andreus and Brazley, the skin-culturing, camo-wearing, dead stalkers? I’d need some time to sort this out, but... it can’t be...

Holy Tree, I think I’ve made friends.



“What does the O.K. stand for, anyway?” We crawled to the ridge’s grassy edge, looking down through a fence of sun burned stalks at six tall concrete structures arranged evenly in a hemisphere, rows of slotted windows running up each face to the roof on each. There wasn’t a tree in three kilometers of the structures. Someone had done their security homework. No place to hide, tough to approach without being detected. I’m sure the ground under us was crawling with bots and signal gear.

And we’d failed. I lost Reed Gossi. Just not quick enough.

We’d chased Reed and his captors to the barrens around OKF without ever getting a good look or a clear shot at them. They were met a few klicks out and escorted by a squad of armored sentries—remote or autonomous vehicles roaming the complex territory.

Brazley signaled something to Andreus, flat against the ground on my other side. “Ossdelf and Knowledgenix.”

“Ossdelf, Knowledgenix, Formanix?” I put some are-you-kidding? in my tone. That was the stupidest set of names ever sewn together.

She nodded. “They do not sound right with each other, do they? Three very old companies that came together into one organization just before the Vanishing—to build that.” She pointed at the complex.

Andreus nodded thoughtfully. “Two of them, Ossdelf and Knowledgenix were the brains and gods behind the Spheres. Ossdelf on the physical structures, energy, and security. If you ever get close enough to see a Sphere with your own eyes—that is all Ossdelf work. The soul is pure Knowledgenix—they did all the lifeStructures, intelligences, animex and personifex constructs, the actual internal building and human integration systems.” As if quoting someone, he said, “Like gods, they created the engine of the infinite worlds that hosts more than ten billion souls.”

Crazy fucking humans. “So what’s the Formanix part?

Andreus gave Brazley a meaningful glare, more than a hint of concern. She picked up the question but I could tell she didn’t want to answer it. “Formanix purchased the O and K properties after their owners went sphereward. Formanix came out of the First to Wake—demons, a handful of them, crossing over just before the humans Vanished. They—we—surrendered everything to them.”

I didn’t feel like reminding my new friend that she was a “we” and I was a “them”—technically half “them.” My father, Thomas Viran, was human, grew up along the southwest coast of Africa—one of the Wild Children who remained behind and didn’t follow the rest of humanity into their virtual existence inside the Spheres.

I felt the shift in the breeze coming off the lake, very subtle, but it was there, something happening.

Brazley looked frightened—which scared me. I felt it in my hands as Andreus said it, a sharp whisper. “We’ve been tagged. We’d better run.”

There was a splash of light, very dim blue light that washed over us, then swung back to pin our location. We were up and running before the launch sound of something bad headed our way, a soft crump noise from the edge of the OKF facilities and the soft shredding sound of a very fast projectile ripping through the wind behind us.

The earth snapped under the impact, sent a tingle through my feet, up my legs. We ran hard, maybe even harder than we’d run on our hundred kilometer dash up the east side of the Mississippi. I expected whirling pieces of sharp metal, spikes, fragments of some skin burning compound.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the whoosh of pale pink rolling toward us, shouted, “TOXIN!” and clamped my mouth closed.

Andreus worked his goggles and mask down, fingering the seam closed up the back up his head, one long tail of black hair swung down between his shoulders. Brazley was running at my side, waving madly, taking deep breaths—while she still could—every other footfall, eyes steady, fixed somewhere ahead of her, deadly focus on staying in front of the cloud.

A sting up the back of my legs, my skin going warm, then a wave of burning in tiny needle points up to my thighs. Brazley stumbled, one hand over her mouth and nose, her cold dark eyes still open—they probably weren’t affected by many of the materials that normally cooked away the cornea, iris, ciliary muscles.

She tumbled forward, her hands and arms swinging wild to catch her fall, nearly knocked me to the ground ahead of her. Andreus skidded to a stop in front of me. I kicked off a sharp wedge of brown flaky stone, and with my vines played out, did a complete revolution, coming up behind Brazley, scooping her up. She was light, half my weight—we dryads may be slender, but we’re a solid woody lot, and we’re a lot stronger than we look.

My fingers digging into Brazley’s suit just above her hips, I tossed her up, caught her lower, about mid-thigh, and dropped half her body over my right shoulder. Her gun swung around and caught me sharp in the ribs, cut up my shirt and skin underneath. Andreus had his gun out, magically sliding into view in his hands, and he squeezed out twenty rounds in our wake before dashing after me.

His face completely covered in his mask, Andreus still oozed distress for his student. I could see him glancing over, checking on me, too. I nodded back, mouth closed tight, my own eyes narrowed to glimmers coming through my lashes. I didn’t really need them, not with the grass and saplings ahead telling me exactly where to place the next footstep—the darlings.

Andreus’ concerned face blurred past me, a look over his shoulder to see what was following us through the aerosol toxin. I shifted Brazley, balanced her weight to glance back. A squad of OKFers in black banded armor and sleek anti-chem helmets were after us, a tight formation sprinting through the cloud, several of them riding open framed trail vehicles. I’d seen these things before, people driving them insanely fast along narrow tracks in the woods.

“LAVs—light attack vehicles,” said Andreus. “We can’t outrun them.”

We didn’t need to.

We hit a taller ridge of grass, and then we were in the woods, under the bough shade, protected. I sucked in a breath, kept running. And the commandos opened fire, snaps and pops, leaves shredding, splintered wood flying, Andreus firing madly over his shoulder, and not single rounds, but emptying magazines along our path, the gun making a menacing growl as it fired. He dropped spent cases, ramming new ones home as the racked and ready ammo crawled out of his pack and along his arms, black rectangular mouths open and loaded, waiting for the call.

I had Brazley’s gun and whatever ammunition she carried, but I wasn’t really experienced with the tech, anything shooting bullets, needles, slivers, whatever these things fired. I knew enough to be dangerous to everyone around me.

Commandos were everywhere in the forest, their armor and helmets dusty with the toxin, a couple of them limping with bullet wounds. Only a couple of them were down. Reed would die in some OKF torture cell, and the three of us would be cut apart in the cool shade of the woods. That thought flickered to life in my head. I killed it mercilessly.

If I had a damn second to plan, I could slow them down.

Then the music started and the noise of battle died, empty locking clicking noises, guns dying in soldiers’ hands, the attack vehicles gliding unpowered into trees and stumps, neutralized. The commandos still worked, and made their way cautiously into the forest after us, signaling each other, breaking into two groups of ten and swinging wide to gain some flanking ground.

The music was soft, plucked natural strings, a winding course of piping that flowed over and under the main theme notes.

The forest responded, birds singing, an autumn breeze tickling my face, my hair spinning out ten, twenty, fifty meters. I didn’t know where the music was coming from, or if it was friendly, but this had suddenly become my kind of battle. Put away the firearms boys and step a bit closer so I can strangle you.

I bent forward, set Brazley down easy. She was starting to wake, but was still too groggy to stand, her solid black eyes staring up at me, lifeless and dull—as ever.

Andreus made a hand signal at me, which I didn’t understand. He noticed, and whispered, “Not working,” looking up into the trees, “My gun’s dead. The music...it’s doing something to the machinery. The OKF soldiers cannot use their vehicles.”

Murder was going through my mind. “Music’s just leveled the playing field, that’s all.”

“But whose music?”

I was just about to say, “who gives a fuck?” when the musician dropped out of the trees, a tall slender man in frayed blue denim pants and a white shirt with buttons—but not one of them buttoned—open and flapping in the breeze. Without a glance at us, he walked toward the OKF commandos, arms up, delicate hands strumming the air, a rhythm in his walk, his long dark hair shifting with the tune.

The soldiers cowered, throwing down their guns, crawling away with their black-gloved hands pressed and clawing the sides of their helmets—their air-tight helmets, helmets that only let in the sounds a soldier would need to hear, full distraction filtering and command elevation. OKF had equipped these guys with some nice gear, and weird sloppy music guy was plucking air strings, whistling short stabbing notes that rose and fell with his song, and he was through their audio defenses, needling into their heads.

He drove them back. The thin string music and piping floated deadly around him, and he danced on the chests and faces of those who surrendered, kicking them until they got to their knees and crawled toward OKF, empty-handed.

Took him no more than twenty minutes to wrap things up—clearly someone worth dealing with. Andreus and I spent most of it getting Brazley back in working order.

Then he came back, a serene smile on his face, short growth of beard, eyes hard and vibrant blue—deep summer sky eyes. He looked down at Brazley—awake but blinking and still coming back online. He sang a short string of notes, and she snapped alert, stood up, a little shaky, but apparently back in business.

Just like that.

I pulled in my vines, sighing loudly, one hand finding my hip to prop itself on. “And who are you supposed to be?”

Musicman cleared his throat, straightened his back, let his open shirt flutter around his arms. He had a bit of a smile going, showing us a playful side. “I am Apollon.” And when that wasn’t abundantly self-evident to us—we just stared at him, he added, “Apollo?” He frowned, maybe starting to think we were struck dumb. “Phoebus?”

Andreus did his gun disappearing trick again, fiddled his goggles loose, and let a calm smile appear just for an instant on his face. “My name is Marsyas, the satyr.”

Without breaking the beat, Brazley lifted her eyebrows. “I am Saraswati, goddess of all arts and knowledge, mother of the Vedas and the repository of Brahma’s creative intelligence—except on Thursdays when I play George Harrison in a Rennonvorah Beatles tribute band.”

We all stared at Brazley—even Andreus who nearly dropped his goggles. More words out of her mouth in a row than I’d heard on this trip yet. Then they turned to me expectantly.

I shrugged. “I’m Tom fucking Bombadil.”

Apollo sniffed, a bit put out by our shenanigans. “No, really. I am.”

“Sure.” I shrugged. “I’m not kidding either. What’s your mother-given name?” He frowned at the word “mother,” dropped his shoulders, said quietly, “Fritz.”

“Fritz Apollo? Please. That’s even worse.” He shook his head. “Fritz Zulkowski.” He pointed back through our path into the woods, presumably at OKF. “Apollo’s what they used call me.”

I didn’t breathe for a moment. Fritz Zulkowski. Fritz Z. I had to grab the tree next to me, nails clawing into it, struggling to keep my feet on the ground, my eyes magnetically fixed on...Fritzy.

20 - The OaK leaF

It hurts her eyes. The observation room is sterile, and too bright.

And it’s warm like a greenhouse.

After her age, that’s the first thing Thea remembers. She still remembers she’s nine-years old. She’s already starting to forget how she got here, that nice woman with a normal name in an orange-flowered blouse, talking to her about trees as if Thea’s a child, the differences between coniferous and deciduous, hinting at deeper phototropic processes, and nodding when Thea explains sugar conversion and carbon fixation, laying out long carbon chains and hydrogen bonds like toys on a tabletop...and let me tell you about storage—storage’s really important, ATPs and the role of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate. Thea’s excited because her mother’s asleep for the winter—she’s lonely, and someone knows what she is, what she can do, someone wants to know all about her, and even wants to take her to meet some friends of hers with funny names.

“Come on, it’s just through those trees. You know what we call it? You’ll love the name of our little branch facility. The main complex is faraway, but we’ll have so much fun in our local branch.” The friendly woman with the orange-flowered blouse points.

OaK leaF.

A man named Thimbleberry grabs Thea by the shoulders and puts a black bag over her head and through the fabric, puts a needle into the side of her neck, and then her whole body fills with a fluid warmth and her muscles don’t work anymore.

Thea’s nine, and the room is too hot. What do they think she is, a date palm, an acacia? This isn’t the tropics. It’s New Hampshire, zone five if you’re lucky, and that’s a mean winter temp of negative 25C. Good luck with your acacias in that.

She looks up as they enter the observation room, soft shoes sliding on the evertile self-cleaning floor—good for hosing out spilled blood and other biologic messes. Four of the eight take their places, a semi-circle around her, and Thea smiles because they hit her when she doesn’t smile.

Doctor Strawberry, Thea’s “handler,” nods approvingly, and smiles back down at her in her creepy red lipstick, too orange and metallic for her pinkish skin—like a thin sheen of drying blood up the sides of a stainless steel sink, darker at the corners of her mouth like the black-purple ring of still-wet blood around the hole of the drain. And when Strawberry opens her mouth, rows of white teeth and gums the color of used pencil erasers. Strawberry looks older today, tiny wrinkles around her eyes deeper than yesterday, soft lines in the skin around her chin, a single strand of white hair standing out in the rest of her long coffee colored hair, blending with her labcoat.

Thea thinks the four of them look a little older today, weary in a way she doesn’t understand. Dr. Blueberry isn’t happy, maybe because he looks as old as Strawberry this morning, the hair at his temples going a little gray, his white labcoat not quite as pressed and sharply-creased as usual. Raspberry, who isn’t a doctor, but some sort of torture technician, Thea thinks, because that’s all she ever does is hurt people. Raspberry’s eyes are red, bloodshot, her usual tight bun is lopsided, curling strands of hair hanging around the sides of her lean angry face. Her teeth haven’t changed, sharper than normal canines, and Raspberry’s baring hers at the Tissue Engineer, Blackberry, who’s the only one who bears any resemblance to his ridiculous name, pale with high cheekbones, summer green eyes, and his hair, black with cold blue highlights. Elderberry, Nannyberry, Boysenberry, and Thimbleberry huddle in their chairs on the other side of the command console, pieces of them visible through gaps between video screens, faces glowing, but it’s hard to make out any stress or aging from where Thea stands against the far wall, getting her Presence and Door Strength measured.

Whatever the hell that means.

And for the thousandth time, Thea asks herself, what’s with the childish names? Those can’t be their own.

She can’t ask them, not aloud, not again, because they’ll hit her stiffly in the neck or lower back—someplace that gives her lasting pain without messing up her face—“have to keep what the mirror shows you unbruised, Theodora.” Or they’ll give her drugs that make her fall down, that make her stupid. She’d rather feel their fists than that sliding sensation inside her head.

They always call her “Theodora”, and she hates them for it.

When Fritzy calls her Theodora, she pretends she hates it, but she doesn’t. Fritzy’s a little crazy, but that’s fine with her. So’s everybody in the OaK leaF. He’s her own age, and he loves music as much as she loves the trees, which means they have nothing in common and spend any time they have together arguing over stupid details where their two worlds come close to intersecting—whistling wind through the branches, Fibonacci sequence in flower petals and five tones in the Pentatonic scale, eight in the Diatonic, thirteen...

But all he has to do is sing for her, and she stops arguing. She listens. She can find that place to hide her sorrow. He even sings a song he calls the Great Sorrow, sort of a box for two, a place they can each stash their hardship, their pain, everything they have to endure, merge them, and lock them away...for a little while.

Thea never makes him sing, just waits for him to bring a song to her every Friday. Strawberry makes him sing—but not the same kinds of songs—on Mondays and Wednesdays, just as she makes Thea feed out her vines thirty meters every Tuesday and Thursday.

Fritz is her only friend left in the world. All she has left. When the nice lady in the orange-flowered shirt tricked her, Thea lost her mother, her father, her Uncle Theodore, everyone who once cared for her. They tell her she doesn’t have a mother or father, that they died, but she doesn’t believe them. She used to wonder what her mother and father were doing, if they were seeking her, but those dreams are fading with the months.

Fritz is her only hope, as she thinks—and hopes—that she is his. She runs through their schedule, grabbing him by the hair, pretending to be angry, really whispering in his ear. She agrees to help him, help herself, and escape their misnamed prison. She knows the Berries watch them every second, and hopes they haven’t seen a change in their behavior. Fritzy tells her not to worry. He has his music. He has it all under control.

Thea ducks, pulls in her shoulders so no one can pattern match her moving lips, and mouths the happy words: “one more day and we’re free”. They see each other at dinner, make eye contact, an entire language in the blinking and the arrangement of the items and food on their trays.

A day later, they are separated, moved to different wards, routes to mealtimes changed, new security protocols at every transfer point, new tougher looking guards. And Thea is certain these guys don’t have stupid names like Raspberry.

And she bites her tongue, waiting.

They open the door to her cell late in the evening...

To make her watch.

Raspberry makes Fritzy sing, makes him tell the Berries everything about the plans, their escape route, times, stored food, travel ideas beyond the OaK leaF, even a useful balance on an old cashcard Thea has snagged from Thimbleberry’s own pockets. Fritz sings his guts out, spits up everything he knows about Thea. They ask the questions, and he answers every single one with everything inside him.

They force Thea to sit through the interrogation, eight cams from different angles and heights in the room, Fritz sagging in a chair, his bony arms bent back and fastened behind him. And he’s drooling, blood seeping from a bandage at his throat. His voice is hoarse because Raspberry comes into the room, yanks his head up with a fistful of hair, and gives Fritzy something nasty to drink, a fluid, Strawberry tells her, that eats away the lining of this throat—probably temporary. They just don’t want him singing...for real.

Strawberry smiles down at Thea, fingers digging into her shoulder. “What a wonderful voice. You really thought you could plan an escape without us knowing about it? Really? We allowed you to go on with this as a security exercise, just to see where it would lead. And Fritzy’s been playing you the whole time, his easily tuned little instrument, Theodora. That’s all you are. That’s all you are to him. That’s all you are—or will ever be—to us. So, sit back and listen to Fritzy. He loves to sing, doesn’t he, Theodora?”

Thea tries to shrug off the grip. “Do not call me Theodora.” And she lets her anger build until it will be strong enough to unleash.



Theodore Balanon finds his niece sitting against a grand old oak tree, bent over her knees, sobbing hard, her body shaking, her vines played out straight and tight into the leaves and branches above her.

He doesn’t notice the bodies at first. They don’t make a sound, soft swaying shadows, mouths gaping for breath that won’t find them, eyes bulging, fingers limp, eight of them hanging by the necks from different branches in the surrounding trees, the vines from Thea’s hair standing in thick vertical spirals from her head, vanishing into the oak leaves above. They twist around the boughs, branching into pairs of eight that fan out to nearby gallows trees, the bodies of the Berries twisting from the end of each.

Her Uncle Theodore stands over her, looking up at the creaking vines, understanding, and she stares at his old scuffed brown boots caked with mud and pine needles.

“Come on, Thea. Let them go. I’m here to take you home.”

She raises her head and he sees she’s not crying normal tears, but blood seeping from her eyes, pooling across her forearms, the domes of her knees, down her legs into her shoes.

Uncle Theo can only whisper a very soft, very sad, “Oh my lady” as he bends to wipe her face. He pulls out a thin cloth from his shirt pocket, twists it around one index finger, pointing at her—maybe to show her that he’s not going to hurt her, before he touches her face and wipes away her tears, staining the white cloth dark.

Thea opens her mouth, full of blood, her teeth, gums sticky red, dribbling over her bottom lip and off her chin. One word seeps out wetly, “Just...” She’s shaking so hard the rest of the words bubble back into her mouth, down her throat. She coughs on them, a gurgling bark that splatters Uncle Theo’s shoes red.

He waits patiently, crouching down in front of her, holding up the cloth, already bleached white with the absorb layer working hard. It’s an expensive handkerchief. “I don’t want you to answer now, Thea, but I want to put some questions in your head. I want you to think about them, and when you’re ready, I’d like you to tell me what you think the answers are. Will you do that for me, Thea?”

She looks up at him, fresh wet red branching from her eyes, down her cheeks, collecting at the hinge of her jaw, running into her shirt. “I just want to forget. Can’t I do that?”

There is an infinitesimal tightening at one corner of his mouth. Everything else about Theodore’s expression is warm, gentle. He leans closer, his whisper as soft as a breeze. “I promise you I will find who is responsible for this and make them pay.” He wags a finger over his head, indicating the hanging corpses of Strawberry, Blueberry, and the others. “They did horrible things to you and they were horrible people, and they got what they deserved, but they were following someone else’s orders, Thea.” He sighs. “Please answer my questions when you can, and then you can forget, wipe all of this from your memory if you like.” He lowers his finger, makes a fist. “Would you like my advice on this?”

She stares blankly at him for a moment, and then nods.

“Do not ever forget what happened here.”

She spends another few moments staring at him, and then nods again, this time with purpose. Her face goes hard with the strain of reeling in all her vines. Then there’s the thumping of bodies hitting the earth, rolling into each other, crashing through bushes. But her voice is still soft, beaten. “What are your questions?”

“My first is, do you know a boy named Fritz?”

She stiffens. “Why?”

“He found me, tracked me down, and told me where to find you. Apparently they tortured him and he escaped from this—” He frowns at the name. “—OaK leaF, no friends, no shelter. Fritz starving in the woods, but singing his heart out about you, and the bad people, and something called the Great Sorrow. The Long Wild picked it up and shunted it along. I was out west and hurried home, found Fritz thin as a twig, almost dead in the forest, but still singing about you, Thea.”

It hurts her deep even to think the name Fritz. She has written him off as one more betrayer, and he...probably wasn’t. Strawberry was certainly a liar, no trust to betray. Thea bends until her forehead touches her knees, another shudder through her body, and now there are real tears running from her eyes, clear but with a pink stain of her shame.

When Uncle Theo takes her back to her forests, to her mother and father, Fritz is long gone—and Thea’s glad, the shame like negative magnetic poles pushing each other apart. Easier just to stay away.

21 - Treehouse

Fritz looked as if he wanted to get the hell out of there, but I shook my head, jerked a chin at the trampled path into the woods. “We have a friend in OKF. They just took him inside. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Fritz pulled in a deep breath, let it out. He nodded. “You need to get this friend out then.”

Brazley was checking her gun, eyeing Fritz suspiciously. I copied her. Andreus put a hand on her shoulder, and swung his gaze to Fritz. “Any suggestions?”

He looked us over one more time, made the decision. “We’ll help. It’s what we do.” It sounded a bit forced. “And I have ways to get in.” He started to turn, then gave us a stern look when we didn’t budge. “Not on me. I need to gather some supplies, and my partner. It’d be wise to plan a bit.”

Andreus looked at me, pale eyes steady. “Your decision.”

It was difficult not to turn and stare, hard to keep a mix of expressions off my face—pain, rage, something unfamiliar that I think people called “shame”. But I kept my gaze locked on Andreus. “I think...I would trust Fritz with my life.”

Out of my peripherals, I caught Fritz giving me a judicious look, then a frown, something he couldn’t figure out. He let it go, and was off, leading us through the woods. “This way.”

I waved Andreus ahead with Brazley, and I spun, sent out feelers for incoming trouble, didn’t feel anything near. I turned and sprinted after them.

We ran hard, closely following the same track we’d used to come north after Reed, then turning east for another ten kilometers, through a belt of marshland, with mist swirling around us, and into more forest and brush that grew denser with every step.

Slowing to a walk, we wound through a thick wood with almost nothing to guide us, no deer paths, creeks, a few clearings with open sky between the branches. A few kilometers in, Fritz was singing some kind of revealing song that lifted away the fog in the trees, and I knew I loved this guy, even at nine-years old, knew he was right and good. Also knew I couldn’t have him. He was already in love with someone, felt that just by the way he’d said “partner” in the woods up from OKF.

I stared into the thick grove of evergreens with Brazley and Andreus, and felt their approval as well—joy in the air around us. I couldn’t help saying, “This is good.”

Fritz lived in a goddamn treehouse, and I mean a full two floored living space with all amenities ten meters off the ground.

“Really beautiful, Fritz.” And he looked at me longer than the remark warranted. I didn’t meet his eyes, just kept my neck bent back, studying the structure high in the trees.

He led us up a ladder, two flights of switchbacked stairs, and onto an open deck, basically a platform with support columns every few meters and nothing but clean air and sight all the way around the lower floor.

Fritz came up last, calling “Carlos!” when we’d gathered at the head of the stairs. He held out an open hand as a pair of old-fashioned wood framed glass doors swung open. “This is my love, Carlos. Welcome to our home.”

Carlos stepped through the doors, crossed the deck with the controlled motion of a soldier—some scarily trained soldier, short cropped blond hair, intense blue eyes. Cleated boots, tight fitting natural color camo pants, a jacket of the same material with a stiff vertical collar, some sort of comm gear sewn into it in a row of black beads. Definitely something dangerous about him—probably many things. He kept his expression neutral, studying each of us in turn, and put an arm over Fritz’s shoulders. “Pleasure to meet you.” He kept glancing at Fritz for an explanation. Betting they didn’t have guests swing by their hidden treehouse often.

Fritz introduced us, one by one, getting our real names this time, and I shuffled to the left of Andreus to go last. He shook Andreus’ hand, then Brazley’s.

Then stopped.

One hand on Carlos’ shoulder, he started to say something and choked it back. He stared at me a second, Carlos reaching up to take his hand. He clearly felt something was wrong, and he was glaring at me now.

Fritz let it slip away, took a step toward me. “Do I know you?”

I let out the breath I’d been holding for three minutes, whispering, “It’s me Fritzy. Theodora from the OaK...” I blinked, almost missed the shock on Fritz’s face. “Holy fucking Tree. I never even saw it—in all these years, and with everything going on in the last month. The O, K, and F were all caps in OaK leaF.”

Shock melted off Fritz’s face, and he jumped forward, hugged me, and he felt right—and my tears tasted awful in my mouth. I swallowed them anyway. My guilt was a little tough going down.

Fritzy leaned away, just looking at me, full recognition in his eyes now.

I had to say something...stupid “Why didn’t you stay? Why did you leave before my Uncle and I got back from the OaK leaF?” The buried shame swarmed through my body, hot and prickly—as if I’d called it up from storage. “I’m so sorry. That sounded like an accusation. I was...shit this is hard... It wasn’t you. I was kind of glad you’d left. I didn’t know for certain that you hadn’t been on their side. I mean I knew you weren’t, but I was young and stupid and didn’t want to know. I’m so...self-absorbed, such a fool. I should have looked for you long ago.”

He smiled, the same Fritzy smile. “You would have found me—” He took Carlos’ hand again. “—us right here, doing what we can do to fight the OKF, looking for Strawberry and the others—to get the truth out of them, to bring you their heads—and their voices confirming the truth. I just wanted you to believe me, Thea. I didn’t think you would trust me again. So I left to look for the keys to that trust.”

“You think I’d believe some sick bitch who called herself Strawberry?” I tried to make it funny.

He shook his head, but said, “I wasn’t sure back then. It hurt—still hurts. They made me talk. I handed them everything I knew about me and you, and I couldn’t stop it.”

“They made you talk. It wasn’t you. We were kids, and they were monsters.” My voice was already low, dropping lower to add, “And you can stop looking for the Berries. I killed them all for what they did to us.” And I’ve never trusted another soul in my life, not really, not with anything that mattered.

There was silence for ten long seconds. No one wanted to break it. Fritz closed his eyes, breathing deeply, opened them again, whispering to me, “Thank you.”



We allowed ourselves a few minutes of stepping back through time along with a little storytelling, and then everything shifted back to the present, a flurry of motion, and Andreus was ripping through his pack for his medical gear, yanking out wipes for Brazley’s toxin exposed skin, reloading his gun, and jamming it back into its holster. Carlos called up maps of the OKF complex floating right out on the deck, large holoscreens with building layouts, grounds maps, and sim views we could walk through to get a spatial map, an automated sense of the scale and location of various maximum security cellblocks. Fritz did his music thing, showing us weapon shielding and a few offensive measures he could sing up. And I wanted to know where the damn bathroom was. Been holding it since this morning.

“Second door on the left.” Carlos pointed through the kitchen, followed me halfway there, turning off at a pantry with floor to ceiling supply racks to gather water bottles and food. I imagined similar stores of weapons somewhere in the house.

Sure enough, when I got back to the group, Carlos was already geared up, black body armor, stacks of ammo clips, two tactical assaults swinging lazily under his arms, similar to Andreus’ and Brazley’s, and a small pack on his back with who knows what else inside. I shuddered when my mind jumped automatically to the word, “incendiary.”

With a pointing finger and music, Fritz sketched out a map of the OKF grounds in mid-air, scaling up to bring in the surrounding territory, casually marking the southern edge of the Chicago Sphere’s proximity net in a red dashed line, one meandering finger in bright green marking the path Reed’s captors had taken to OKF. “I picked them up here. Three of them and your friend, Reed Gossi.”

Off to one side, Fritz used both hands, making circle gestures and then framing the space, four of them, each resolving into fairly clear still images of the group. Reed with a pair of restriction cuffs on his arms, a thin gray band around his head. He didn’t look injured. He looked...asleep, eyes half-closed.

Didn’t recognize the second and third, looked prismdead to me, a little too tall, too long-limbed for a normal human without mods. The rows of sharp teeth were also a dead giveaway.

I got a closer look at the final member of the raiding party, much taller than the rest, with meter long cable-hair and claws like a giant machine. “That’s Folesh.”

Carlos nodded, and Fritz and he exchanged a look.

Fritz pointed at the images. “Folesh-Lin-Ohnen is very dangerous. Not sure if he’s acting on his own or if someone controls him in our world, but we think he’s handed it over. He’s sort of an OKF independent contractor, working special cases for someone high-up in the org.”

Carlos added, “If Folesh-Lin-Ohnen ran the abduction then I know exactly where they will take Reed for... questioning.”

“Except for him, I would have intervened here.” Fritz gestured at the map. “I picked up the party heading northeast just above the Kankakee and Iroquois River confluence. Saw them coming through the trees, a rolling ball of a demon coming over the water, very high in the air, then into the trees on the north bank, snapping branches making a lot of noise. Only reason I noticed them.” He stopped, looked over at me. “What is it?”

“Uh...” The words scattered in my mouth. I coughed. I was suddenly battling a strong urge to open up with these guys—they seemed so direct, not holding back with anything they knew, jumping on my problems as if they were their own. Holy shit, they knew more about what was going on than I did.

And come on, it’s Fritzy, right?

I’m new at this trusting people thing, but still...this didn’t feel right, seemed way too fast. It kept me off balance. I turned to Fritz, forced the words out, “I knew Folesh before we met, not very well. He did some work for my mother twenty years ago or so. Barely remember him, but it’s the same guy.”

I had just said something very right or very wrong. Every eye in the place snapped to me, focusing laser sharp. Carlos and Fritz didn’t have to ask the question. I shrugged. “My mother is Kraneia. You know I’m the daughter of the one and only dryad in this world, right?”

Carlos let out a breath, almost a whistle, glanced at his partner, back at me. “Yeah, we knew it. Fritz said you were special.” He smiled, some hidden line of humor running through it, probably meant something to Fritz. “Didn’t realize just how special.”

“And one more thing. Reed and I met up with Folesh and a night-team on the way out here, somewhere in Ohio. We defeated them, strung up every one of Folesh’s guys, fed on them, and the old demon left us alone, just walked away. Gave me a weird line about being on the wrong side, and turned to go.”

That made Carlos go thoughtful, a deepening scowl he wore to the end of the strategy session. Andreus stood with his arms calmly at his side, goggles and other gear propped up on his head. He looked ready to take on the OKF. Brazley looked ready to take on the world.

Fritz hadn’t even buttoned his shirt. I gave him an approving shrug. I carried everything I needed with me, too.

Then we were off, back down the stairs, down the ladder, to the ground, Fritz singing to close some door he had opened to let us out. We hadn’t even made it to the marsh before Andreus had to stop to collect a mound of oozing ossi-friends. Apparently there was an old graveyard near, and all the bones had felt him pass by the first time, waiting for their master to return. He sank to his knees, appeared to cuddle the slippery looking bone mass, arms circling it, milky jelly-like stuff leaking through his fingers. Brazley joined him after he had the whole thing ready to consume.

I wasn’t the only one holding back a good acidy vomit. And these two were queasy when I took fresh materials from the prismdead? Fuck, get some perspective. Some of these bones could have been here three hundred years. That’s just nasty.

I nodded to Carlos and Fritz. “They’re hunters, prismdeads are their thing.” My arms folded, I jutted an elbow at Andreus and Brazley feeding, trying to make it sound casual with my stomach turning. “If it will help them help me get Reed back, I don’t care if they stop a few times to grab bones or bagels and coffee.”

Fritz looked sick. “Old friends of yours?”

“I have no friends.” I had to look away, but caught the hurt look on his face.

“What?” Carlos sounded genuinely amazed. “Everyone has friends.”

I shot him a glare. “I’m not everyone.”

Seeing Andreus and Brazley finishing up, he waved away my argument. “Tomorrow. When we get back to the treehouse. After some rest. I want to hear how you of all people have made it this far without friends.” He made a weird smile, made his doubt clear. “And I’ll get the truth out of you. Consider it a challenge.”

With Andreus still licking his lips, we jumped little grassy hills, clump to clump through the marshland, and then we were back into the woods, crossing ancient farmlands—fields that hadn’t been turned and tilled in a hundred years, but still looked like they were waiting for next year’s seeding.

Where in hell was the Leaf Father? Something eerie about his absence here, well into his side of the Mississippi, nowhere to run if he caught us.

I ran with Fritz, behind Carlos, Andreus and Brazley, the three of them sharing and comparing military sign language.

Five kilometers out from the complex, with the sun starting to set, Fritz and I jumped to the lead, and he went to work with his music, plucking the air, and although I couldn’t hear it, I felt the sense of pressure, something closing in around us, swallowing our voices, our heartbeats, our footsteps, every memory of our passing. We were invisible to the world—and more importantly to OKF, which wouldn’t limit things to just one world.

I grinned over at him. “You’re still pretty good with the noise, Fritzy.”

We reached one of the side gates without anyone sensing our approach, and the four guards—two of whom weren’t even human that I could tell, just pretending, didn’t even see my vines until they were tight around their throats, lifting them into the air, squeezing off countermeasures, breath, blood to the brain, life. Or whatever passed for life with the prismdeads.

I let them down easy, and Fritz, after a quick check, waved Carlos into the gate station to set everything on auto. He jacked into the panels, floated identity cards in hover trays at opposite ends of the station, barked a couple commands and responses to someone doing a routine status check.

I leaned into Fritz, still keeping an eye on his boyfriend. “What’s Carlos’ story?” Saw the sharpening edge of his smile coming around the side of his face.

“Carlos used to be chief of OKF perimeter security.”

My eyes went wide on their own. “Okay, after we get my Reed back, and skip through our little discussion about friendship—which won’t last long, I definitely want to hear about that.”

“You got it.” Fritz kept his smile, turned it to me, and said my name gently, as if a louder voice would break it, as if hearing it aloud might hurt his ears, or might stir up the pain. “Theodora.”

In seconds, we were past the defensive weaponry, inside the OKF grounds—after the Spheres, this world’s most secure chunk of property.

22 - Too Easy

Even the grass was crunchy, dark in the shadow of the towers with the sun setting behind them off to our left. What a fake nasty place. We crossed the open space in a straight line from the gate to a low concrete bunker at the foot of the central OKF tower, didn’t even bother keeping to the gravel path.

Carlos turned as we walked, breathing the word, “Relax.” The prep and planning he’d run through on the trip up came back to me. Don’t break ranks, walk together, act like you own the fucking place. We belong here. OKF’s a strange facility, and we won’t look out of place, five of us geared up, mix of civilian and military dress, unusual elements—by which he meant Fritz and I, dressed so casually that we must have invisible dangerous powers or we wouldn’t be inside the perimeter. We’ve been waiting to pull an op like this. Go in strong, straight up to the skychamber of Noldin—building three, grab Reed, one floor to the roof, and we’re outside, and we take their shuttle, flying southeast through the Columbus-Lorain corridor. Home free.

A squad of soldiers in full body armor and helmets jogged from the bunker, stubby antipersonnel weapons aimed at us, matte black blobs with arms and legs and blocky molded ammo storage, helmets like insect heads, neckless, merging with the body, two metallic orange ellipsoid screens for eyes. A cluster of blacker holes rolled across the group at hip level, the wide tubes for their first-choice weapons with some kind of take-them-down-without-killing-them round.

Carlos kept his pace, steering the group right for them, one hand going up sideways in what looked like a squashed “OK” gesture, his index finger curling into three sides of a square, tip digging into the tip of his thumb.

No idea what that meant, but it bought us about three seconds, a unanimous drop of poise in the approaching OKF squad, and Carlos, Andreus, and Brazley brought up their guns, popped off stiff single rounds, dropping the squad where they stood. One got off an antipersonnel charge, whistling wide, too high, a swarm of needles and poison mist fire-flickering in a beam of setting sunlight they caught between two of the towers.

We stepped around the group and stormed the bunker. The door was open, guarded—well, at least attended by some guy with a scanner. Carlos took that one out, left him crumpled on his desk, nosebleed, a couple bruises, unconscious.

Cutting through the concrete diagonals of personnel barriers without resistance, Carlos led us to what felt like the core of the bunker, a circular room deeper underground, and then we took a sharp left down a wide coldly-lit hallway. Fritz and I trailed the group, running backward, sending out our feelers and dropping traps.

Carlos made a few gestures, one that ended with his fingers making an N shape that meant, “We’re in Noldin tower,” another that meant something about going up.

What the fuck else are we going to do? I scanned the hard shiny alien unnatural walls, feeling sick...something’s wrong. I loved the underground, but this was like a tomb. This wasn’t the earth, this was so life hostile. Turning to Fritz, mouth opening, he stabbed a finger, stopped me from asking, put the finger to his closed lips and waved the other around like...got it, audio sensors.

He leaned close so I could mouth the words right in his ear. “Why is the building empty? This doesn’t feel right to me.”

He just nodded back, gestured to Carlos, and ran to close our gap with the others.

The lobby, that’s where everyone was—and by everyone, I don’t mean the living, I don’t mean crowds, I meant...three. That’s all there seemed to be between us and Reed. Three prismdead soldiers standing in front of the closed doors of the elevators.

Not even soldiers—they’re fucking elevator operators.

Andreus and Brazley jumped in front enthusiastically, Carlos having a few words with them before stepping sideways, snapped a round through each that burst on impact, made a mess on the elevator doors, but only put some indecision in the three operators. They moved forward, three skeleton-thin figures, completely at ease in their abilities to take down a couple dead hunters, a dryad, a musician of extraordinary talent, and the blond-haired guy who seemed to know every corner of OKF security.

I didn’t see much trouble going through them, but they were tall.

It was three times two and a half meters of noseless skulls, long thick strands of hair made from braided human skin, and eyes like flat round lime-green discs atop bodies of see-through tissue, distinctly non-human structural materials—some of it clearly biomech, arranged over pinkish brown organ shapes at the core. None of the three wore the least bit of clothing, nor showed any evident gender specific features—but I guessed male, something in the way they all turned to fix their ogling lime green eyes on Brazley.

One went for some comm gear on its forearm, punched in a code with long bone fingers, and the whole complex knew we were here, flashing blue emergency lights growing out of the polished stone walls just to let us know. Carlos frowned, but that was all.

Andreus pressed his hands together, slid one down the inside of his forearm, came away with an entire sword of pale, creamy bone. He crouched, sprang into the air with his crossed arms snapping wide, windmilling the weapon to his student. Brazley danced through the prismdead group, snapped up the flipping sword by the grip, and flowed with the spinning motion, used it to carry her forward. One grippy shoe caught the polished stone between the second and third elevator doors, a meter off the floor, launched her whole body into a graceful spin, black hair whipping around, the tip of the bone sword gliding up a spine, sliding deeper, coming straight out of the top of the skull, a quick jab to loosen one of the lime green eyes from its socket, and the prismdead elevator operator collapsed to the floor.

I looked at Fritz, but he didn’t seem concerned at all, leaning against a pillar, arms folded, watching the impending destruction. Swiveled a glance at Carlos, who’d backed off to let the experts at their prey, the same questions prodding me. Who were these guys—and why were they helping me?

Andreus stepped up to the prismdead on the left, whispered something, caught it by the throat, and one handed, forced it to its knees. It clawed feebly at his arm, fingers digging into his sleeve, green disc eyes staring up at him. Brazley took the head clean off the middle one, still dancing, kicked the pieces off to one side, clearing a path to the elevators.

Andreus got down on one knee, holding his victim. He nodded Brazley over to help him. A ridge of sharp points zippered up his back, rows of sharp pale needles poking through his armor on each side of his spine.

Brazley set down her sword, and took up position right behind Andreus, rolling her fists down his back, starting at the nape of his neck, picking up eight needles at once—four between the knuckles of each hand, tugging them from her teacher’s skin. She crouched on the left side of the prismdead and carefully slid the needles inside it, two in its throat, two in the armpit, four more in the spaces between ribs. She went back for eight more, coming around the right side of the prismdead to slide the needles into symmetrical sites. Eight more, and she had a line of bone needles running up the spine, four more in each thigh, a cluster at each knee and ankle. No more than two minutes and Brazley had the prismdead elevator op pincushioned, eye discs ringed with needles, a handful pinning the tongue to the bottom of its mouth.

Andreus released his slave, standing straight, waving for the thing to rise and bow to the rest of us.

We gathered around it, and Andreus whispered a command. Our new prismdead servant fingered the panel next to the leftmost elevator, opened the doors and graciously invited us inside.

Carlos nodded to Andreus, clearly approving of the way they’d taken down the prismdeads.

I stepped to the opposite wall of the cramped metal box, glared at Carlos and Fritz for letting this take so much time. “Okay, was that really necessary?”

Fritz jutted a chin at the prismdead. “They’re the only ones who can operate the elevators.”

Dead fingers tapped efficiently at a keypad on the inside. The floor flew up at us, doubled the gravity, bent my knees, slowed almost to a freefall and the red numbers above the door glowed, “77”

Top floor.

“Come on,” Carlos said aloud, glanced back at us. “Cover’s blown. They know we’re here.”

I caught him by the shoulder just outside the elevator, the lobby for the 77th floor too shiny and fucked up and as unnatural as the first floor. My anger was tilting into pain, a burn of a stronger acid that I put into my voice. “Then why has it been this easy to get up here?”

Carlos shrugged off my hand, and stalked forward, swung his gaze back to Fritz. “Because they were expecting us, allowed us to get this far. We have to keep moving.”

My vines reeled out, meters of it, deadly quiet curls braiding for strength. They caught Carlos by the throat, dragged him to his tiptoes. His right arm, tight against his body with his gun, swung away, perforated barrel, tiny blue auto-sighting lenses pinned to me, their damn internal machine voices clearly telling Carlos the target’s acquired, the shot is clear.

Breathing hard through my teeth, pushed my words through with it. “Do it. You’ll be dead—I’ll have your head snapped off before whatever your gun’s throwing will kill me.”

“Thea!” Fritz’s shout in my ear, his cool fingers on my throat, insistent pressure, not really threatening. Couldn’t keep that fucking Strawberry’s voice out of my head, Fritzy’s been playing you the whole time, his easily tuned little instrument, TheodoraThat’s all you are. Fritz’s open mouth, white teeth in my face, and there’s fear in his eyes—and it brings me all the way back to the OaK leaF, then a dizzying jump to the present. His shout has an edge I haven’t heard since the interrogation. “What is this?” He wheeled his body in front of me, putting himself between death coming from Carlos. “Stop, please. We’re helping you.”

Fritz was begging me, his face lined with fear—the musicman who’d leaned against the pillar in the first floor lobby, arms folded, tranquil expression.

I released Carlos, tucked in my thorns before I let my vines uncoil. He kept his gaze on me, but he let his gun swing free on its harness, gently probing for any damage I’d done to his throat, crushing the stiff armored collar into the soft skin under his jaw. I didn’t see any blood. He got off easy. I kept my you-are-DEAD steady gaze on him.

Fritz had his hands on my arms, a caring hold I could easily break, high up on my biceps. “We’re on the same side. We’re helping you. This may cost us our lives, Thea. Tell me what you’re thinking?”

“I’m not telling you a fucking thing. You’re the ones doing the talking now. Tell me why you’re helping me without so much as a blink or a skeptical fucking look. We just march into OKF—” gaze still fixed on Carlos. “—like we really do own the fucking place. Couple a bad guys with AP rounds? Those won’t even give me a playful sting. Where is everyone in this unnatural fucking place? And why are you helping me? You tell me that!”

Andreus cleared his throat, a faint edge of curiosity and stress in his level-as-the-dead voice. “Helping us. Why are you helping us?”

Carlos did an environment check, a quick scan up the long hall running off the elevator lobby—still empty, but I imagined whole teams out there had full sensory feeds to our game, probably laughing at the bunch of amateurs bickering among themselves.

He approached, hands up, palms out, still swallowing hard against lingering muscle pain in his throat. “A mother’s promise.” His voice was a raw whisper. He reflexively checked the armor latches at his collar. He’d feel the vines for weeks. It may even give him suffocating nightmares...here’s to hoping.

Fritz backed away from me to help Carlos, adding, “We didn’t know she was your mother. We didn’t expect to get out of here alive. She made us promise with our lives. We are here because Kraneia made us promise to help you.”

What?” I’d wished for a meddlesome mother growing up, begged for her attention, even the negative stuff. But where was she? Off in the fucking woods, wandering the earth, settling into her winterform, waking up in Spring with eyes focused on some other world and no recognition when she turned them to me. “My mother put you up to this?”

Carlos started to smile grimly, exchanged a look with Fritz that was hard to follow—weighed down with loving and dying and a mix other elements I couldn’t identify. “Wouldn’t say she put us up to anything.”

Fritz, singing under his breath, stopped and ran one gentle finger along Carlos’s jaw line, sliding along his throat, the pad leaving a trail of pale green, fading where it traced across his skin. Relief washed over Carlos, his expression slackened, his shoulders dropped. Fritz glanced over at me, maybe a little disappointment showing, but not much. “She was pretty clear. Rescue the captive Reed Gossi alive or die trying.”

“My mother threatened to kill you?” Barefaced threats didn’t sound like my mom.

Carlos frowned. “No.”

“Anything else—any other outcome—and she’d make us...kill each other.”

Ah, there you go, that sounds more like mom.

A flash of pain across Carlos’s face. “And she wasn’t threatening. Even ran us through a couple scenarios, her thoughts inside our heads, manipulating our muscles, faster than normal reflexes, playing with us like damned toys, brought each of us to the edge of killing the other.”

“Twice.”

“Sunk in after that. We let the captive pass with the demon Folesh when we knew you and your team were hunting them. The plan was to join forces with you—” His gaze panned across us. “—and do this.” He stabbed a finger at the floor, and I noticed, for the first time, the three-meter wide inset gold emblem, Ossdelf, Knowledgenix, Formanix crowned with oak leaves. Some line in Latin I didn’t understand.

“And they just let us walk in here without much of a fight?”

Fritz lifted his brows, didn’t bother shrugging.

“Apparently,” Carlos said sourly.

Brazley laughed, and I’m talking about a lilting soulfucked girlish giggle, that turned sort of shrieky at the end, swinging her gun down the empty hall. “And they’re all watching us now.” She followed that up, whispering with a creepy smile, “And they smile at us. Hurry. Smile back or they’ll hurt you.”

Andreus put a steady hand on her shoulder. “We’re so close, Brazley.” She jumped at his use of her name, and seemed to calm down.

Can’t imagine...actually I can imagine a very tiny piece of what she went through here.

I smiled out of solidarity, made it broad, sharpened the corners, showed my teeth. Brazley may have gone off the edge and in pain, but she was part of the team.

It fell off my face when I turned back to Carlos and Fritz. I pulled in a breath, let it out. Apologies are so shitty. “I’m sorry about the vines. I misunderstood, and...”

Brazley let out another burst of giggle. “She has trust issues.”

Fuck solidarity. I sent her a glare, let it slip away with a few calming breaths.

“Yeah, that.” I said it, because it was already headed to my mouth, and I couldn’t bother with cutting it short.

Something was happening. There was a hum in my fingers, a soft sweet tingle, not quite like home, but the promise of homecoming, of returning, connecting with the things that made me whole. Couldn’t place the feeling right away, but then it hit me. Not home. It didn’t feel exact, but I flowed with it.

“Reed?”

Andreus turned his steady pale gaze to me.

I nodded back. “I think I can feel Reed. He’s near.”

Carlos gave me one more questioning glance, didn’t ask anything, and turned to lead us down the hall, Andreus behind me, pointing back at our elevator operator. “Stay. Hold the door for us.”

The plan was to go off the roof in the OKF shuttle. Really hope we don’t have to go back through the building’s lobby and out through the bunker. I’m no high-security complex infiltration expert, but a fair guess told me there were more guys with guns downstairs than upstairs.

I followed Carlos, closing my eyes, sending out a couple sensory pulses to get my bearings. Not much in this place threw anything back to me. But I saw Reed, standing out like a damn beacon. “Thirty, maybe forty meters in that direction.” I pointed, saw the outline of Carlos turn as he ran, and off to my right, Brazley glowed like white fire, the horns of dimrends shimmering around her shoulders, rolling lumps of young and larval-stage rends up and down her body, excited, burning their energy freely—wastefully, waiting for their chance to—without walls between them—bask in the presence of that serious chunk of Winterdim they felt in Reed.

I’d never experienced anything like it. I had never seen even anything like the silhouette of something from the Winterdim. I could see their excitement.

Why don’t they treat me the same way? Don’t I have the other half? Didn’t my mother divide it up and put the second part inside me?

Fritz sang apart the locking mechanism of a heavy interrogation room door, smiled, casually gave it a few more bars to drop it off its hinges with a thud that must have ran down through the building, alerting those very last one or two OKF security force ops who hadn’t got the word—sitting on the toilet reading—that their most secure tower had been successfully breached and stormed by a handful of misfits—one with some serious trust issues.

Reed Gossi hung limp in flexchain manacles against the far wall, sweat running down his face, his chest heaving as if he couldn’t suck in enough air each time. His hair was soaked, and when I stroked his face, he jerked upright, fixed his eyes on mine, and it wasn’t just Reed Gossi looking back at me. It was the Lord of the Winterdim, something from that in between world, awake and staring out through Reed’s beautiful eyes.

I leaned closer, my fingers clawing through his hair, felt the heat coming off him, sting my face, and my mouth opening to breath it in, my lips against his, pressing hard. I felt his words in my head, unsteady words, an unfamiliar language he’d had to master in the last few seconds. Not the bodyThe body and the toolsKraneia divided it up along those lines.

My own thoughts sounded dry and weary. And I have the tools?

You do. The Winterdim Lord shifted the conversation to pressing matters. CarefulThere is a dangerous man here who knows Reed GossiI put them to sleep. All life from this world and mine within my rangeI could not reach this manDangerous.

He repeated Dangerous and then Fritz and Andreus had the chains off, ringing against the smooth stone interrogation room wall. Reed slumped into my arms. I caught him around the chest, reached down to grab what I could of the waist of his pants, curled a fist around it, and pulled him closer.

“This way,” Carlos said from the gaping doorless space, pointing along the corridor. “Stairs are this way. Andreus, Fritz...” He paused over whether or not to include Brazley in whatever charge he had planned for the roof.

Brazley seemed a different person, daring, full of energy—guessing it had something to do with her catch of dimrends going wild. “What are you standing around for?” She bolted past all three of them, gun tucked low, soft footsteps receding, dancing up the stairs. Another burst of laughter.

They chased her, and left me to carry Reed out on my own, his arms draped over my shoulders, down my back, his face buried in my neck, shoes dragging on the ground between my legs. Like I said, though, we dryads are stronger than we look. Still wouldn’t want to have to lug around a grown man for very long—even Reed, and there was a whole stormline of arguments forming in my head around manners and teamwork. They bolt and leave me with the fucking grunt work? Where’s the team in that?

Fritz returned to help, guiding me up the stairs, starting and stalling over the regret and confusion over the near death of his love, Carlos at the hands of a vine-wielding girl he once saved.

I just scowled through Reed’s sweaty hair, climbed the next set of stairs. “Shut up. We’ll talk about it later. Add that to your stupid friendship discussion if you want to. Just get the damn door. This isn’t as easy as it looks.”

The door slid aside, dumped us out on the roof, a stiff cold wind shoved us around, Reed heavy and shifting limply in my arms.

The landing pad was empty, Carlos snarling a curse off to the east at a distant set of aircraft running lights. And panic running through my bones, nowhere to run. Nothing but the flat roof, landing beacons, and a cutting wind. I swung my gaze south into darkness, the shadows of the lower three OKF towers, a blur of trapped animal movement brought me all the way around, directly north, nothing but the unbroken blue of Lake Michigan to the horizon. Then something in my peripherals, off to my left, a pale pinkish glow at the edge of the earth, a dome shape of light so distant it was fuzzy-edged, hard to look at and take in clearly. If I shifted my focus a little to the right of it, I could just make out bands of lighter pink coming off the thing, blocking out the stars.

It’s blocking out the fucking stars!

“Come on Thea.” It was Andreus, right in my ear. “We need to find another way out.”

Find what? I couldn’t find anything to care about except that burning sliver of pale pink fire, a fragment of a god with waves of something rolling off it, absorbing starlight. I propped Reed against me, pointed, couldn’t find any words.

23 - With Power Like This...

“Theodora?” Loose shirt whipping in the wind, Fritz was suddenly in front of me, reached over Reed’s slumped form, caught my face in both hands. “What’s wrong?”

He sprang back, hands flying wide as if I’d burned him. Burned? I felt ice cold, Reed in my arms growing colder. I staggered a little, spinning to Carlos, Andreus, and Brazley—glancing down at Fritz on his butt in a fearful scramble away from me—all of them staring back as if I’d grown...what the fuck?

Brazley was the first to say it, playing with the grip of her tacGun, her solid matte black eyes wide, mildly impressed. “You have grown wings, Thea.”

Wings of fire, tugging at thick stalks high on my back, stretching out behind me with what felt like the width of the entire OKF tower...wings, fire feathers, scorching the painted lines of the landing pad. I felt the heat down my back, collecting in the hollow of my spine, a burn that felt strong and good—along with a jolt of flight response—an urge to stretch my wings off the tower, take Reed with me, and leave everyone else here to die. Screw the team. Cataclysm and star-lust and world-change breathed in and out of me with a weight like life and death—a billion lives and deaths, and somewhere near in my thoughts I set a battle in motion between Day and Night—and wanted them both to lose, because then I could have both. I felt a hunger that fed on this world under my feet, and the next, and the cold dim world between them, doors opening, some of them big enough to fly through with my ten-meter wingspan. And I was still me at the heart of all this power, with all these tools to play with.

Hang on...

I have all the tools of the Winterdim Lord to choose from and its wings of fire? That’s what I open with? Yeah, why don’t I dig out an army of forest clearing and strip mining vehicles next, or maybe a batch of zombies with echoSaws tuned to go through hardwoods like butter?

It was Carlos—clearwater Nordic blue eyes, stiff blond hair shivering in the wind, and vine scars red and raw along his throat—who broke my dark bloody ash-shoveling tree-death-spiral reverie. “Thea. You can get us off the roof. Fly us back to our house. We did it. We freed Reed Gossi. We just need to get off this tower.”

And my mother won’t make you kill each other.

My brain shifted back to my new thoughts, measureless wells of energy, glorious things I can use against the Tree Father, against the world, against anyone from any world who gets in my way.

Tools.

Fists shaking, I curled in the wings, swept the roof of OKF clean, dozens of landing lights shattering in the heat, sparkling pops of ice white, and I made a wall of thee-meter high fire around my team.

Screaming the words over the wind and roar of flames. “And just how can I work these without burning the shit out of you?”

Andreus with his over-the-top curiosity again. “You don’t know how to use your own wings?”

Considering I just found out I have wings, no. I’d just have to find the answer somewhere else. I’d made a temporary connection to the thing inside Reed with a kiss. How about something a little more permanent?

I let Reed’s sagging head roll to one side, exposing the side of his throat, and I leaned in with my teeth sharp, bit deep, his blood in my mouth, thick and warm and tasting of orange rinds and iron powder and darkness.

Delicious.

A stir in my stomach like nervousness, as if I’d swallowed half a kilo of sugar, something sweet I needed to hold on to, taste with the tip of my tongue, but not devour. But, oh gods, devouring would be so good right now.

I tasted Reed and the Winterdim Lord, and...Shirley. I pulled my mouth off his neck, fought the urge to release my disassembly protocol that would dissolve Reed Gossi into something I could consume.

No.

I sucked in the blood through my teeth, and let it run down the back of my throat. Shirley was there, still clinging to Reed, bridging the power inside him, and feeding me the information I needed. How do I use my wings?

It was right on the tip of my...

Soft voices and the whisper of skin sliding against skin—hand gestures—in the open roof access door behind me, a team of OKF commandos, completely invisible in the shadows. I wheeled and jammed the tip of my right wing through the black opening, twirled it, scorched walls, a flare of gold and orange and screaming. A few wild gunshots, and then quiet again, except for my hard breathing mixing with the steady rushing noise of wind off the lake.

I bent over Reed again. “Thank you, Shirley. I owe you some heartbeats. Put me down for half a million.”

Creating a cooling shield sphere around my passengers wasn’t difficult. Using the Winterdim’s toolset, I just had to think about it, imagine its size and shape, color—one more tool, with seating arrangements, and it swelled up out of the roof around my team, taking them in gently, swirls of creamy blue slipping over its surface.

I also thought the wings were only for flying, had to be stretched out, catching the currents of air, soaring over the forests like a bird. I felt other designs and configurations, real memories in my head, and an ease of bringing them to life that felt like experience. Only they weren’t things I’d ever experienced.

Who cares?

I took a running leap, still clutching Reed, rolling my wings around me and my pod of passengers, tucked my body in, and cannonballed us off the top of the tower.

Not sure what it looked like from the outside—probably a giant fiery ball shooting across the sky, I got a blur of location imagery fed to me from my wings, the OKF complex rolling away under us, long tracts of forest, then we were tumbling with alternating frames of night sky and dark woods, star-lit rivers, ancient farmland clearings, momentary order in the sky, constellations bleeding together, streaking across heaven, then the earth again, cold and a thousand shades of blue in the night.

Ten, twenty, thirty kilometers passed under me.

So, maybe flying wasn’t the problem here. Landing, however, jumped right to the top of my list of things to get a quick handle on.

The ground was coming at me fast, entire trees reduced to darker smears against a lighter forest floor. I breathed deep, and ten meters off the earth, I spread my wings, cupped the air to slow down, and my bluish ball of passengers continued on, shattering trees, rolling across a field of tall grass, coming to a bumpy stop in the middle of a dry creek bed.

I caught some light air currents coming from the north, drifted with them, circling, and wondering if I’d just killed the rescue team. I came down fast, trying to hold on to Reed, the wings curling around me, pulling me back with a shudder. Beating down with my wings, hot pulsing air gusting over my legs, and Reed was slipping from my grasp.

I hit the earth, knees bending, kept my feet by shoving a wad of roots into the ground to anchor me.

Not a bad landing for a beginner, a little wobbly. A small brush fire started in the grass on my left, and I felt like a total idiot swinging a massive set of flaming wings around to stamp it out. What kind of showy nitwit thought wings of fire were a good idea? I lit up the whole field, flickering glow of yellow and orange, and me and my budding bonfire could probably be seen for ten klicks around.

What a fucking menace.

Didn’t have my shoes on, and my pack and Reed’s pack were at the treehouse. Shit. And the damn thing was spreading.

I set Reed down, let him roll to his back as gently as I could manage while keeping the wings as far away from the grass as possible. Time to let them go—I was already losing them with the loss of contact with Reed and the Winterdim Lord. Don’t know how long I could sustain the wings without them, but I felt the drain on my body, like a machine sucking the life out of me. It wasn’t that different from summoning and withdrawing a set of tree limbs, focusing on an end state, an array of branching arms or a more or less normal looking human back, spine, shoulder blades. Took me a few tries before it worked, and whoosh, the wings went out, folded up, curled in, and all I could feel were two hard burning lumps in the middle of my back.

Jumping to Reed’s feet, I spun off the fasteners and tugged his boots clear, jamming my own much smaller feet inside. It didn’t take long to stamp out the fire, and kick up a ridge of dirt around the smoldering ring.

“Thea?”

Thought it was Reed for a second, and then glanced over my shoulder to see Fritz coming through the grass followed by Carlos, Andreus, and Brazley, guns out, sides and six covered. Reed was still out cold, stretched across the grass, shoeless.

Turning to Fritz, I held up a hand. “How was the flight?”

Fritz ran his fingers over his chin as if really thinking about it. “Dreamlike.” He noticed, with one eyebrow raised and a slight smile, the meter-wide ring of burned earth. “You?”

I shrugged, kicking Reed’s shoes off my feet, crouching to shove them back on his. “Couple minor twists to work out. Didn’t have time for the safety guidelines, but nothing to worry about.”

We gathered around the burned patch of ground, Reed propped up, leaning against my legs. Carlos pointed southwest, used some location gear built into his armor to find the treehouse. He didn’t need to tell us where he thought we should regroup, instead he floated out something that was obviously puzzling him, not quite a question, something he thought we should mull over. “Someone got to the roof before us and took the shuttle, headed east, probably the same flight path we were going to take.”

I looked at him, watched his fingers come up automatically to rub at his throat, felt a stab of guilt. “The Dangerous Man. That’s what Reed—the Winterdim Lord told me.” I had everyone’s immediate attention. I reached down, ruffled Reed’s hair. “Reed and I, well, we have some extra...stuff. Reed’s carrying around, and has up to this point, kept it locked down, a lord or the Lord of the Winterdim. Not sure which.”

Andreus, curious again. “And what do you have?”

“I have all his tools. He called them tools. The wings? Those aren’t mine—like I’d have wings of fire. If I was making wings, they’d be leaves instead of feathers, a material like that. Not something that screams hazard and sets off alarms everywhere I’d go.” I waved away the rest of that path of explanation. “Anyway, the Lord—through Reed—told me he’d put everyone in the building to sleep. That’s what he said anyway, sleep possibly being a metaphor for several things. Which is why we had so little trouble getting to the top. The elevator ops probably don’t sleep, immune to the late shift. But there was one man who was ‘dangerous’ and the lord could not affect that one with his power. Someone at OKF—couldn’t have been Folesh. I don’t think anyone would call Folesh just a ‘man’—it’d be a demon or other Rootworlder—since he’s not from this one or the Winterdim. The Dangerous Man knew we were coming, saw his capture of Reed and the thing inside Reed falling apart, who knows how many in the assault team coming up the elevator, and he ran, took our aircraft.”

Smiling, Fritz reached out, was about to playfully ruffle Reed’s hair like I just had, but thought better of it, a sudden reminder—in the expression change on his face—of the burning in his hands when he’d touched me on the roof. He indicated Reed with an open hand, and a slightly more serious smile, “So, Reed is more than just Reed. And your mother is protecting him. You have in your possession, all the powers, accessories, tools of this Winterdim lord, and you didn’t tell—”

His voice pitched high, the L’s leaping right into a song, his fingers hopping along in invisible bank of strings in the air. We all swung in the direction Fritz was now facing, small clicks and rustlings of guns coming up, safeties latched off. I put out my senses, a wide net running through the earth under my feet, pushing it to the northeast, picked up something solid and powerful, but...alone. A single being. I sent out a couple reaction threads, see what I could pick up about it.

The grassy field stretched a kilometer across where we’d come down, twice that long, growing into a funnel shape that made a narrow gap between thin groupings of pines, a scattering of ash trees, thicker woods beyond it in both directions.

I crouched, grabbed Reed under the arms, and lifted him to his feet. He felt heavier, or I was getting tired, not a good thing either way, but I might need my connection to the Winterdim Lord if something bad was about to go down.

One of my sensory threads returned, and I took a deeper, calmer breath. “It’s not the Leaf Father.”

Brazley glanced at me with a brief smile, glimpse of white teeth.

Andreus had his goggles wedged in place, scanned the area, and said, “It’s a demon.”

Carlos was looking through the sighting mech on his gun. “It’s Folesh.”

My fingers sliding along Reed’s throat, the marks of my bite nearly sealed and healed—Shirley doing her job, taking her payment from Reed in return. I hoped she wasn’t skinning him alive for the work, but she probably was.

I ran my fingers over the teeth scars, and my mouth watered. “Alone?”

“Looks like it.” Carlos pointed east. “And not coming our way, unless he changes course. He’s going to walk right past us.”

I nudged Fritz. “Can he see us? What are you doing with your music?”

“Just putting up some defenses. He’ll be able to see right through them, but there’s six of us—a few of us special, and just him.”

“I’m not worried about him. Just wanted to know what’s on the playlist.”

Sure enough, Folesh strode out of the thicker woods, through the thinner patch of pines and ashes, turned his head to look at us as he crossed the clear space between the woods—the funnel’s neck, and without a word or break in pace, moved into the woods on the other side. No expression that I could make out at this distance, certainly not overly surprised to see us, and anything else he did or could have shown was too subtle. Hundreds of long steely cable-like bolts of hair swinging side to side with each stride, humanoid shape but twice as tall as anything native that’s ever walked bipedally across this planet. A sudden creep of loss in my gut, a flash of memory, of my little hands tugging at Folesh’s hair, and his long rolling deep laugh, a plaintive cry in my thoughts, why aren’t you on my side, Folesh? What changed in the world?

Eyes, guns, shoulders turning with him. Brazley commented, “He’s walking away from OKF.”

Good point. We stood there, ready, armed to the teeth, adrenalin pumped, with me relaying distance info in a whisper until I’d lost Folesh at the end of my sense net, and never detected a change in his direction.

Carlos swung his gun up, waved us west. “We’d better get moving.”

Fritz helped me with Reed, retying his boots, carefully holding the heels, avoiding contact with the skin—mine or Reed’s. He tapped his fingers together, singing low, plucking invisible strings with one hand, and Reed rose in the air, hovering around hip-height. We each grabbed an end, and carted him across the field behind Carlos with Brazley, Andreus taking up the rear, spinning and scanning the path we had already followed.

Reed was lighter under Fritz’s power, but I was getting tired. My shoulders aching, it was difficult to keep my thoughts going. It still wasn’t enough to shake Folesh’s old Ohio words out of my head.

I whispered, “Fritz? You with me?”

Loose shirt flapping around his waist, puffing the words out between steps. “Yeah, Thea?”

“Thinking about something. I told you we met up with Folesh and a group of prismdead and snarlings, back when Reed and I were crossing Ohio?”

“Yeah. Weird that he walked away there. Like his heart’s not in it.”

Brazley turned an ear to our conversation.

I spoke up to include the rest of the team. “He kept back, away from me. After we went through his team, literally cut them to pieces, Folesh recognized me, told me, ‘on the wrong side as usual.’ Why as usual? If you ask me, I’d say I’m on the right side more than I’m not.”

“Just not from his perspective?”

Anger starting to spark and snap deep inside me, felt it burning in the back of my throat, coming up to make trouble. “What is his perspective? Whose side is he on? How many sides are there?”

“Good questions, all of them.”

I shot him a glare. “Looking for answers here, not commentary on the quality of the questions.”

“Three sides,” said Brazley.

That snagged everyone’s attention, even Carlos so intent on keeping us moving. The team stopped for an elaboration. Without a word, Fritz and I took the opportunity to rest, lowering Reed to his hovering height.

Brazley glanced down at Reed, then shrugged. “This world.” Her gaze swung up to me. “The other—the Rootworld—that is home to those like your mother and Folesh-Lin-Ohnen, and then there is the Winterdim. Three worlds. Three sides.”

I folded my arms, suddenly cold, and just looked at her, long black hair hanging to her knees, strands of it curling around one wrist. “You’re right. And it’s easy for two of them to join forces against the third. Common schoolyard bullying tactic. OKF is somewhere in between, playing one side against another, demons from the Rootworld who have been here a long time, working with human power players, who knows where their loyalties lie. You’re brilliant, Brazley. I’ve told you that, right?”

She stared back for one long moment, solid matte black eyes fixed on me, unreadable. “But are you my friend, Thea?”

24 - Friendly

Time slipped by worryingly—and no sign of the Leaf Father or my mother.

We’d made the journey to the treehouse, and slept for hours. I did anyway, not sure how long my dead-hunting and OKF-thwarting associates ever closed their eyes. I was down for good, burning through my collected materials for most of that day, and when I wasn’t completely out, my mind fiddled with Brazley’s question.Is she my friend? Am I hers? I’d given her an uncommitted nod, and rode Carlos’s impatience to get home as an excuse to keep any real answers to myself.

Brazley had watched me as we crossed kilometers of field, and forest, bounding over decaying bridges—glancing back, a raised eyebrow, hoping to get more from me.

It was just going to have to wait.

Friends? I didn’t have any. I knew people, talked to them, I could even be considered friendly in the right circumstances, but it wasn’t real.

Reed was the closest thing to a friend to me, and what we had was far stormier than fair. I felt the idea forming like a seed splitting in a warm damp spring, an idea that had never occurred to me: this could all be my problem. It wasn’t Reed—he’d tried to be friendly, it wasn’t Brazley, Andreus, and now Carlos and Fritz.

It was me, something I wasn’t handling, performing, knowledge I didn’t possess, some area in my brain that didn’t work, a blindness that kept me from seeing...stop your damn whining.

It was like college all over again.

When I was younger than that—before college, schools had been easy to work with, simpler rules, hardly any effort at all to set up barriers and remain alone. Girls—mostly girls—talked to me, said ‘hello,’ sent out tentative feelers of friendship that I would shut down hard, and then it would get around that I wasn’t human—I looked like one, but my mother wasn’t from this world, and therefore neither was I—and deserved no friendship. Easy.

Everything changed in college. My father was teaching up at Dartmouth, edgy stuff even for their anthropology department, and that’s where I went—along with Reed and a few other neighbors. And everyone I’d known or hadn’t known, everyone who’d hated me, avoided me, shot snappy bitchy remarks at me in grade school on up, had changed. It’s like humans go back into the tank, ground, womb, whatever, and reemerge the same person stripped of their preconceptions, their shallowly held opinions they thought they had formed and held rather well a year before.

We’d grown up, and now everyone was interested in me all over again. All that hard work to create an avoidance curtain around me, had been shattered—or even closer to the truth, the humans came out rebirthed for college with a way to knock down my curtain, or see right through it like it wasn’t there. I was exposed, wide open to their eyes, their friendship, their eager questions, their prodding, and some seriously bad urges running through me: what am I going to have to do, kill someone?

And worse, most of the time my disinterest and outright hostility was taken as some sort of discriminatory take on the world, an eccentricity that somehow made me all the more desirable to be around. I repeat: what am I going to have to do?

Sure, most of humanity had gone away, into the Spheres, but there were still enough around to become a nuisance if you got them together in one place, like a school.

I didn’t have to live in the dormitories—praise all that is good and growing—and so I suppose it could have been worse. Most of the questions—although direct—were low intensity: what’s it like being a dryad? I’d love to meet your mother. Do those vines hurt your head? I’ve killed all the plants in my dorm room, forgot to water them during midterms. Can you revive them? Can’t tell you how many times I had to run to the bathroom to throw up.

I still got through it without friends. Everyone has to join the club, the college-brand-sweatshirt-wearing group, but I didn’t have to be friendly with anyone.

Until now...

Brazley was pinning me with her solid black stare every minute we were in the same room, demanding answers. Carlos was setting up some kind of strategy session to go over what we should do next, what to do about OKF, Folesh, the Leaf Father, that tree-hugging woman without any friends.

I saw it in their gestures, a glance my way, everything they did. It’s like they were conspiring against me.

I went to check on Reed when I felt too many eyes on me. Lack of friends and paranoid, nice work Thea. A couple threads in my head had been plying the problem, trying to triangulate on something that hung out there in the dark, intangible, but something at the heart of this problem.

We had to get out of here, but I wasn’t leaving without Reed. No sign of the Leaf Father, or any other undesirable, but I didn’t want to push probability on that one. Chance never seemed to be on my side.

Still, Carlos pushed back, wanted us to plan out our next moves thoroughly, which thoroughly disgusted me. Planning usually does. On the other hand Carlos said had been on the wave trying to get us some transportation, a couple all-terrain amphib vehicles he thought he could borrow for a few weeks. Nice.

Reed didn’t wake, just slept the hours away with an occasional tremor or twitch to show that something was going on inside. He ran a low grade fever, never dipping below 38C, never climbing high enough to start doing drastic things. Carlos was medically trained, and looked after the scrapes and bruises Reed had suffered in captivity.

Shirley couldn’t tell me much, or was afraid to with the Winterdim Lord out of the box, or, if not out of the box, at least able to listen in on our conversation. Shirley’s good. I’ve relied on her discretion in the past. I counted on it, and she’d come through for me again and again.

And the heart of my problem was on the tip of my tongue, floating just beyond reach—and wouldn’t let me pull it in.

In between packing for the trip back to the Rennonvorah, I went for walks with Fritz, while Carlos, Andreus, and Brazley typically spent the short bursts of downtime tearing shit up, shooting targets with different kinds of projectiles, mostly stuff that went into flesh, rooted around savagely and then exploded.

Fritz’s clothing preference didn’t change—except the patterns, light weave unbuttoned shirt, rolled up sleeves, and ancient faded jeans. He felt good to be around, but we didn’t spend much time talking about the past, no catching up, no regrettable looks back.

He couldn’t tell me much about my mother’s “promise.” And I tried to count back to the day she’d sent out her message through the forest to see if one came after the other, to see if she was still alive.

“Kraneia became the central tree in the house, the giant oak that runs up through the middle of the dining room on the first floor. She just walked out of it, and told us how it was going to be.”

“And when you said no?”

He laughed, slow at first, then a spike of it that died abruptly. “You still know me? Yes, we tried to refuse, of course. Slow it down, work the deal to our benefit. Kraneia slapped that down quick, and laid it out simply. Took each of us to the point of killing the other—more tears on the floor than blood, and then told us to find Reed Gossi, track him, recover him in whatever way we felt best. Goodbye.”

“Nothing about returning? No reward?”

“That was it.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I was assuming the reward was that we could continue living our lives. Then again, Reed’s not conscious, so maybe we’re not yet out of the woods.”

I shot him a glare because I hate that phrase, and then turned it on the knobby bark of the tree coming up through the floor. “Yeah, thanks mother.”

“You can’t call her?”

“Not without raising every alarm and trigger the Leaf Father must have set up. I’d only do it at the very end.” I held my thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart. “That close to death.”

“Anyone you trust with a message?”

The breath caught in my throat. That was the word I’d been looking for. Trust. That’s what I lacked, and without it I couldn’t really have friends.

I shook my head. No one I can trust.

A flicker of light, a soft dab of wet glittering on his cheek—just caught it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to Fritz, he had that side of his face against his shirt sleeve, arm raised, pointing into the trees at a family of crows, and he made a few squawking noises with them, a forced smile on his face.



I was feeling itchy for the road, stuffing the last shirt under the poncho in my pack when Carlos the philosopher-soldier sprang it on us, calling us all into the living room, summoning up write and map boards, with a presentation on defensibility, types of offensive measures OKF employs, and then near term plans for Reed.

I exchanged a quick smile with Fritz. Carlos was in his element, planning, structure, key goals along the way. I was finding it hard to breath. Andreus was eating it up, adding a long list of objectives he wanted to reach with Brazley’s training, most of it normal, but a few points got some raised eyebrows, like “acquire a pet, preferably a dog or bird” and “grave digging.”

Brazley was somewhere between the freakishly oppressive detailed schedulers and the freedom-loving let’s-play-it-by-ear camp—me and Fritz.

And slowly, inevitably, skillfully, the talk was nudged toward friendship. Fucking bastards. They’re all in on it, aren’t they? I felt a chill up my arms, longing, a wish for Reed to be next me—the two of us side-side, we could fend off these over-thinking, meddlesome twits.

I glanced back at the open doorway to his room, nothing but shadows and a couple twinkling operation lights on some medical gear racked next to the bed. I hadn’t checked on him since dawn, but I’d know if he was awake. Someone would have told me.

Unless they were all in on it.

Carlos looked right at me, and then turned to write on the board in very neat handwriting, talking over his shoulder with the pen squeaking on the board. “Each of us is going to tell a story about friendship. Let’s begin with something simple, something I think we can all agree on.”

No one would choose to live without friends, even someone who possessed all other good things—wealth, fame, health, etc.

Carlos backed up, hand with the pen dropping to his side, relaxed, satisfied. We all stared at the words for a few quiet contemplative moments. I heard a sigh of agreement off to my left, sounded like Andreus. Fritz was nodding seriously on my right. Brazley was looking right at me, probably wondering what was going through my head, what my reaction would be to this allegedly self-evident archaic-sounding line of...

“Oh for fuck’s sake. What kind of idiot spouted this nonsense? Pretty clear any so-called friends are just chummying up to get access to this guy’s all other good things.”

That got some looks. Andreus swung around so fast his single long tail of black hair whipped across his face, startled him. I caught the disappointed staring from Fritz, Brazley, Andreus, Carlos, okay everyone in the room. I waved for the discussion to continue.

“Friendship...” Carlos started solemnly, quoting from a page of something ancient that zoomed into view on the write board. “It’s not only necessary but also noble. For we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends. And again we think it is the same people...” He slid open other books and pages from philosophers, thinkers, crazy-people. Aristotle said this. Euripides compared friendship to such and such, Empedocles to this and that...friends, friendship, blah fucking blah. Heraclitus said about friendship: ‘from different tones comes the fairest tune’ and ‘all things are produced through strife’ Glanced at Fritz on this point, gave him a nod. Okay, Heraclitus is in, but the rest of them, damn, just take their words out with the trash.

Carlos’ gestures were getting more energetic. He was pointing and waving and holding imaginary principles high over his head in offering.

Holy Tree, what’s going on here?

“Those who think there is only one kind of friendship because it admits of degrees have relied on an inadequate blah, blah, blah...

Droning on and on...

And then it hit a scary low point: “The kinds of friendship can probably be cleared up if we first understand the object of love.”

Crap. Is anyone else uncomfortable with this line of inquiry?

I looked around, caught some gazes, let them go, didn’t really want to have any part of this opening oneself up to the scrutiny of others session we seemed to have going. Perfectly happy holding it all in. Can’t they see that?

Carlos set the pen down with precision and took the space between Fritz and I, taking Fritz’s hand, giving me a clear you’re-not-getting-out-of-this look. And he wouldn’t turn away, presumably wanting some reaction from me.

I was chewing through the inside of my lip, holding his gaze. Watch me.

Andreus cleared his throat, distracted us, and launched into a long story about Brazley, how she’d been caught stealing from Helodes—and how he’d been caught the previous day raising one of Helodes’ dead sisters from the graveyard, and the old witch had combined their punishments—basically Andreus had to do something that didn’t involve death—like teach Brazley not to sneak around and steal from others, and in return she wouldn’t flay him over the Mississippi and introduce him a piece at a time to her hungry eel pals.

Oh yeah, Helodes must have been a real cheer to grow up with.

“Brazley’s my friend and my student, but what am I really doing? I didn’t know it at first, but Helodes had a purpose that she revealed to me, and that became clearer with time. I am training my teacher. I will forget all of this—” he fanned his fingers across his chest, three fingers of his other hand pinned stiffly together and going to his temple. “—at some point, and I’m giving everything I know to the one person I trust to give it back to me when I need it again.”

Trust...there’s that word again.

I got the sense from Brazley’s odd look that even she didn’t have a clear understanding of Andreus’ remarks. She didn’t ask, and it didn’t sound like something I wanted to be involved in.

And then, fuck, Andreus turned to me next and asked—politely, “I will need a surrogate in this, someone to play the mother role. Will you do this for me, Thea?”

I blinked, hoping this wasn’t real, and then sighed when it was. Is this what friends do for each other? No wonder I’ve never wanted any part of it.

“I’ll think...” I gave Andreus a hard stare. My damn hands were shaking and I tucked them under my legs. “I’d like to think about it a little more.”

“Thea?” Carlos, who had stood and paced a few times, picked up the pen, gesturing with it. “Who are your friends? Tell us a story about friendship.” He backed up, arms open wide, giving me the floor, and they all looked at me expectantly.

“Uh...” Heavy weight dropping in my stomach. What the hell kind of trap was this? Friends? I don’t know what it means, not really. “I mean...I’m not ready for this.” Waving my hand around the room. “I’m packed up. Don’t you think we should be in the road?” Where we can waste all the time in the universe on this nonsense?

I closed my mouth with finality.

Carlos came over, leaned in to Fritz, whispered something, shared a nod, and backed up into the middle of the room. He planted his feet, made it pretty clear we weren’t going anywhere without some answers. He pointed an accusing finger at me.

“How do you know, Thea, that I’m not playing you all? I’m with OKF, chief of perimeter security, infiltrating an enemy’s team, plans, manipulating you all? Come on Thea, what’s keeping you on our side? You have your doubts. You nearly killed me in the middle of Reed’s rescue.” He pointed a finger at the space between me and Fritz and drew an imaginary line across the floor. “What’s keeping you on one side of the line or the other, Thea? I want to know.” His voice rose, a little more anger dialed into it. “Tell us! Why do think we’ll help you? Why do you think—

Where the hell is he planning to take this? “Because I trust Fritz. Now, sit down and—”

“No!” Carlos pointed at Fritz accusingly. “What does your trust mean, Thea? Didn’t Fritz betray you at the OaK leaF?”

“No.”

“He told them everything—everything they wanted to hear.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“Wasn’t it? You witnessed it, Thea. What else could it be?”

Keep it locked down. Couldn’t keep it out of my voice, and the words came out lethally soft, “You want to know why, Carlos? You want to bring this up, try to rile me, get me to talk, get me to admit to something. Fuck you! You weren’t there. I meant that it wasn’t some children’s fantasy story in which the nine-year-olds outsmart the adults. It was fucking real life. We were kids and they had us locked up, Carlos. And there were two ways out. Two.” I waved a hand at Fritz, couldn’t meet his eyes, though. “Yeah, we planned our escape, had every angle covered but one. We just didn’t know how high the last hurdle was going to be. What happened to Fritz, could have just as easily have been me. I’d have been in the interrogation room dosed to the eyes with drugs and spilling everything I knew. So, I don’t want to hear you needling me—or Fritz on this. You weren’t there. There was no clean way out.”

Arms folded, Carlos whispered, “You got away clean, didn’t you?”

I felt the tug at my hair, the rage starting the twist and braid on its own. “Use your ears. I said two ways out. We both had to jump that last high hurdle. You either stand up to their drugs and torture and the pain of having given everything away.”

“Or what, wait for Fritz to run to your family and he tells them where you are?”

Jumping to my feet, my hair was coiling out. “Shut the FUCK up!” I stabbed a shaking finger at him. “Two ways out. Neither of them clean. You either endure what Fritz endured to make them think you’re broken—but you’re not, and you make your escape.” I stopped the shout in my throat, sat down, whispered, “Or you kill them all.”

I made a quick glance at Fritz, saw the pain in his face. “And yes, he went to the forests and sang about me, called my family. My mother was in the middle of her winter treeform and heard nothing. By the time my Uncle Theodore got there, it was over anyway. I had already finished the job we had started. I went through the OaK leaF and I slaughtered them all. Forty-six people. Me, the nine-year-old girl who loved the trees. I was slopping through rooms ankle deep in their blood. I took the final eight, the Berries, and I strung them up from the oak trees outside the facility—and laughed while they choked and struggled and died. It was also the first time I took materials from the dead, my renderer Shirley explaining how the world works. She made me strong, she showed me how to get out of that place, but it cost me—more than you will ever know. She told me what to do, how to create the disassembly and ownership protocol, how to send out my collection threads. How to get on my fucking hands and knees like a fucking animal and eat the fucking people I’d just killed. They were warm, Carlos, a couple of them still alive, breathing, flinching when my teeth touched their skin. Do you know what that’s like? Do you know what that clean escape from the OaK leaF did to me? Is this what you wanted me to talk about, or admit to, to unbury?” I raised my hand, cupped around an invisible glass of wine—and dammit I was crying, tears rolling down my face. “Here’s to friendship, Carlos. Be glad you have Fritz and anyone else you count a friend. Be glad you can. But don’t go around posturing with your idealism and your pen, and pretend you understand what I need, what I’m lacking, what walls I’ve put up to keep people safely away. You weren’t fucking there.”

Carlos shrugged, tried to come back with something to lighten things up.

I jabbed a finger at him. “Why can’t you give this a rest?” There was a downhill rush of mental maneuvering, thoughts in my head crammed against the walls, leaping aside, not wanting to get caught in the way of a response that welled up out of my childhood. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”

25 - Stories

A long silence oozed into the room, everything done in autumn oranges and browns, a ring of my sullen rescue buddies hunched on the soft circular benches around a cylinder table of some stunningly clear material, a hard shape with sharp edges, but soft enough to make you think the whole thing was made of water—and anything you set down on it would drop right through the surface. I stared into crystal ball depths, focusing on the seams running up the front of Andreus’ boots, which came clearly through from the other side of the ring.

“Come on, Thea.” It was Fritz, reaching way over to touch me on the arm, some sort of diffusing tactic. “Because you’re not alone here.”

I shrugged him off, swept the room with a glare, returning to Fritz. Why wasn’t he outraged at his own love’s betraying remarks? Are they all in on it?

I felt the tears, heavy and wet across my eyes, and looked away, kept my mouth closed. Didn’t trust myself not to say something that would make me leave, and force me to bring about that state of being alone.

Andreus made a few gestures, talking to Brazley in their silent stalker language. It caught my eye, and I looked up, my gaze swiveling to my right, in the space between Fritz’s bench and the clear table.

I was on my feet, and didn’t even remember the desire. My hair looped out a meter, a cautious testing of the conflict waters. It took me a moment to figure out it was Augustine finally coming around, tapping into my not very subtle emotional pressure and feedback automation—way too late—and stirring up some shit.

It was probably the distant look that must have been on my face—me trying to figure what was going on in my own body. I was obviously broadcasting the right battle-prep vibe. Carlos assumed some sort of approved combat readiness stance, half crouch, one hand a stiff jabbing weapon, the other loose, a little curl in the fingers, ready to close into a fist or grab anything that came his way. His steady gaze found mine, and I took a step toward him, pushed back, threw a fist, feinted, stopped it halfway to fully extended. “You want to tell stories so bad, Carlos? Tell your own.”

I backed away from the situation slowly.

Actually...I wanted to hear Carlos’ story, but I couldn’t show that. I slid a sneer onto my lips, holding his gaze until I found my seat. The forest bitch rage and Augie’s response tampering passed without another word.

“Sure, Thea. I can go next.” Carlos brightened, straightened up, and turned to face Fritz, folded his hands together, and whispered softly, just loud enough for the rest of us to hear. “It was the music. His music. It just felt right in the trees. And the locks on doors? I suddenly saw as many keys as leaves. There is no door in any world that cannot be opened by us—Fritz and I.”

Okay Carlos the philosopher-solider really had a way with words. He spun slowly, swinging around with an open gesture. “I met Fritz in OKF building four—the “Death Tower”—and that’s not an overly dramatic name. It’s what it is. It’s almost entirely last resort lockup space, starvation diet, random daily shifts in light and dark cycles and a climate range from three to forty-five C.”

Fritz wore a faraway look and a grim smile. “Really screws with your system—never knowing when daylight will wake you, never knowing if night isn’t going to last forever. The temperature didn’t track with the light cycle. Complete darkness and forty degrees, counting seconds by the drip and tap of your own sweat running off your face and hitting the floor.”

Brazley leaning so far forward off her chair I thought she was going to go all the way over to the floor. She clutched her backpack like a nightmare-frightened child with a stuffed animal. Her long black hair was dragging at her feet. “How did you escape?”

Fritz shook his head, the distant look still in his eyes. “I didn’t escape. Carlos unlocked the door and set me free.”

Every gaze in the room shifted to Carlos, demanding the rest of the story. Even my own, dammit. They’d sucked me into their game like a damn power magnet.

Carlos shrugged easily, made his brows jump. “It was love. I wasn’t going to let him die in there.” He held Fritz’s gaze for a moment, then continued. “He sang, and I couldn’t hear him, but I knew...I knew he was special. I had to hear his voice. I had just been transferred off perimeter security to the interior division, and, although I held some rank, and had protected the fence line for years, I knew so little about what they actually did inside the walls of OKF. Fritz had been transferred—on the same day I’d been moved inside—to one of the ADOM chambers—basically a warm damp stable environment of dirt, trees, and bacteria waiting for him to die. Hellish stink in those places, too.”

“What’s ADOM?” He’d pronounced it like the name Adam, which had no special meaning for me.

“Aerobic Decomposition of Organic Matter, basically you stay in there until you die and become food for the chamber’s active microbial and macro-botanical community. In other words, a human compost chamber with very rich soil and a lot of trees.” Carlos put a hand to his nose, and although I expected a grin, some kind humorous expression, his face soured, and then slid into tight-muscled anger. “And there’s no sound in those chambers. It’s suppressed automatically by the systems in Building Four. I had to go pretty high and threaten a few to get command clearance to override the audio control for Fritz’s chamber. Told them I was doing some near-death experimentation, and needed to be able to communicate with the victim without being seen. I was bumped up to over-achiever status—which as long you’re hurting people, goes pretty far at OKF. So, I jumped right into the system flow from Fritz’s chamber and it’s...”

He sighed.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. He was singing to the trees, telling them that they would have a better life once they consumed his. That he was preparing them to take up that part of him that made music, that felt the beat of the world’s heart, that knew song even when silence reigned. And you know what?”

We were leaning forward for the answer, shaking our heads.

“They understood him. The trees grew taller, leaves greener, branches fanning out over the wet ground, blemishes in their bark faded in the song’s notes, the trees waiting and worshipping him. Fritz sang about the outside world, the unfiltered light of the sun, soft breezes from faraway lands rustling through the branches.” Looking over at me, Carlos whispered, “He sang to them about a girl he once knew who loved nothing but the trees. I listened to him for days, nine of them, watching him and falling love.”

“On the fourth day,” said Fritz. “You spoke to me. You told me your name.”

Carlos turned to us. “And everything else. That I would do anything I could to save his life. I wasn’t internal security—really, but perimeter security, so I told him I’d find a way to get him out of that chamber and to the front door of Building Four. From there, I could get through security without my eyes. Five more days, digging through building charts, door latch documents, threatening anyone in my way, and I got him out. We left together, and we looked back only to burn the image of our enemy in our thoughts.”

A heavy sigh from Andreus, a higher pitched one from Brazley.

Fritz this time. “Thea? You sure you don’t want to tell us anything more?”

I returned a what-do-you-think? look, then turned away.

“Thea?” Fritz pulled me back in with the tone of his voice, something valuable that included me. “Do you know how I learned to sing to the trees, to talk to them? I learned everything I know about trees from the months of Fridays we spent together in the OaK leaF, every week creating a new song for you.”

It softened my mood to the consistency of pudding. “Thank you. I’m still not going next.”

A voice behind me in the gloom, Reed’s tired voice. “It may be easier if I go next.” He stood, holding the doorjamb, his other arm hanging lazily at his side. “I have a friend, a very special friend. Someone I care deeply for—even when there are things inside me that have driven me to hurt her. She is someone who saved my life, and nearly lost hers protecting me. Let me tell you about her.” His voice was rough, probably from not being used, but he sounded right at the edge of sobbing. He looked right at me and said, “Her name is Theodora.”

I was crying, hard jerking sobs. They just burst out of me. I couldn’t help it, my heart thudding, and the adrenalin rush threw me to my feet, and then I was running in for a hug, even sent a handful of vines around his waist, down his legs, pinning him to me.

“You’re back.” I breathed the words into his neck, smelled the fever sweat, the faint burned earth and oranges smell of the Winterdim Lord, but when I touched his skin with my tongue, it was Reed. I tasted the faint electric charge of the thing inside him, but it had been shut away, back in its room with the locked door.

My Reed had returned.

His fingers were in my hair, tilting my head back to look into my eyes. “I heard what you said, heard your story about the OaK leaF and what they did to you and Fritz.”

I swiveled my gaze to Carlos, who had the edge of a smile on his lips.

“You knew he was awake, didn’t you?”

Carlos made a quick mocking shame gesture, hands going to his face. Then they dropped away with a stronger smile, an arm over Fritz’s shoulders. “I can’t take all the blame. Fritz was in on it too.” He held out a hand to Reed. “And the man of the hour, he went along with it. He woke before sunset, very weak, and I gave him tea and some Mazy8’s—those are military-issue endorphs, which didn’t do him a lot of good, took away the pain, but also made him dizzy and thoughtful.”

My rage slipped away, forgotten. Reed was back, and in my arms, and Carlos hadn’t really been the mean scab-pulling asshole he’d pretended to be—really just sort of playfully antagonistic, which I can understand, and even sounds like something I’d do. I tightened my vines around Reed to the point of pain, felt him tense up. I held Carlos’ gaze for a moment. “And a drugged up Reed was more agreeable to your get-some-info-out-of-Thea plan, I’ll bet?”

He made a short bow. “It did help.”

I was back to chewing the inside of my lip. “You bastards.” And I was laughing with them. “Okay, now I don’t know whether to be angry that you led me along or that you prodded my paranoia into high gear just to play your games.”

“Come on.” Fritz laughed lightly. “Either way we had fun. Although it was a little tense for a second. Thought I’d have to jump in to stop you from killing Carlos.”

Nodding, “Yeah, that was close. Believe me.” I twisted my smile into something cruel. “You wouldn’t have wanted to get in my way, Fritzy.”

26 - The Dryad and the Anthropologist

I helped Carlos make tea—the new feeling made me. It got me to my feet, opened my mouth, and I heard the words, but they sure as hell didn’t sound like anything I wanted to say at that moment, “I’m sorry. Let me help you.”

Holy Tree, it is meI feel guilty.

Guilt was my guess. I had no idea it ran so deep, in so many subtle little hair-needle pains, like the sting of a broken branch and then—in your heart—you feel a hundred separate stings of every leaf along it. Yeah, it hurt.

I gave my shaking hands something to do. Flashed the water to 66.6C, set out a nice assortment of teas—imported all the way from California—and three pots of hot water.

In the middle of the group, while passing it out, Carlos nudged me with a tray full of teacups, made them clink together. “You’re really not going to tell us anything, are you, Thea?”

“Nothing more about me, no.” I sighed at the crestfallen looks. Maybe a concession without conceding... “Look. I can tell you how my mother and father met? If you’re interested?”

That seemed to get the group’s attention.

“I would like to hear that,” said Brazley in a very soft voice—scary soft, echoSaw razor beam soft. She even had her pack full of toys with her, still slung over one shoulder. I looked over, tried to stare into her matte black eyes. Nothing.

I set down the tray, and found a place next Reed, took a sip of tea, waited for everyone to follow me. Reed set his cup down, and waited.

Deep breath. “Okay. This would be thirty-something years, four or five before I came into this world.” I’m gesturing wildly, something I know I do when I’m nervous. So I curled my hands into fists, dropped them heavily to my sides, cleared my throat, and went on. “Kraneia was on one of her foresting journeys along the southern coast of Africa—in Namibia, my father’s homeland, and she fell in love, first with a tree, then with a man. Yup, my dad. Dr. Thomas Viran saw her the first time standing at the foot of a giant tree, a Baobab. He was professor of anthropology at the university in Sesfontein, and he often walked hundreds of klicks through the countryside, and often past this very tree. He’d stop to think or read in its shade.” I looked up, hadn’t even noticed until then that I’d been staring into the steam off my mug of tea. I set it down.

I caught a couple questioning stares. I brought up my hands, spread my fingers, raised my arms like the limbs of a tree—something I’m pretty good at. “If you don’t know what a Baobab looks like, well, it’s an enormous tree—the trunks regularly get ten meters across—that’s diameter, with large white flowers when they’re in bloom.”

I lowered my arms, reached for my mug. The tea tasted good, but it was like a desiccant in my mouth, a promise of warmth and wet, and it—or my own body—turned on me ten seconds after each sip, dried up all the moisture inside. I looked into the brown fluid depths. What is this shit? Also noticed my breathing was hard, with the accompanying rapid heartbeat. Calm downDrink more tea. Tell them the damn storyWhat’s the fucking problem? It’s not even yours. I set the mug down.

“Anyway, that morning there was a woman standing at its foot, among the roots, still as stone, staring up into the branches. He watched her for a while, wondering what she was doing—she didn’t look like the typical tourist. Didn’t look like she came from anywhere near Namibia. He thought at first she was a visiting professor, maybe a botanist—although the Baobab tree is one of the most beautiful trees on earth, and you’d pretty much have to be blind to walk past one without looking up, wondering at its beauty. So, here’s this woman doing just that, only she holds up her arms like the branches of a tree, opens her hands, and the Baobab blooms for her, just one flower—blooms at her command. The blossom drops from the high branches into her hands, and she studies it. And still Thomas Viran stands silently and watches her. She dances at the tree’s foot and it bears fruit. He watches as she gently puts her fingers against the tree, then leans in to touch it with her tongue, and she even bites into the bark to taste it.”

I gave them a roll of the eyes. “My mother says she ‘knew Thomas was there the whole time.’ I don’t think so. I think he surprised her—but pleasantly so. My mom’s as tough as an old tree when she wants to be, tornado nasty, spiteful and blood-drawing as a mouthful of thorns.” I shot Fritz and Carlos a look and we shared a nod. They knew what Kraneia could be like. “But my dad won her heart with one line. When she asked him if the tree was his, he said, ‘No tree can belong to any man.’ Pretty obvious that would go over warmly with my dear mom.

“Anyway, they fell in love, traveled the world, counted a thousand Spheres, wandered through forests in north China, all through South America, every continent—even Antarctica to see the thriving groves of the Colonize Mars SimFabrik station, kilometers of gardens and lakes and living spaces—still there as far as I know. The whole place was supposed to be self-supporting for millennia—long after humans left earth.”

I had them all leaning forward. I leaned back, crossed my legs, slid one hand around Reed’s waist hooking my fingers under his shirt, took another longer sip of tea, sighed. “I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to get out of me.”

Carlos nodded resignedly, got up for more hot water, and jabbed his mug at Reed. “Disappointed, but more than I’d hoped for.”

I watched that same sentiment passed around the room in the expressions on faces, and ignored it.

“Forget about me.” I elbowed Reed. “I’ve been dying to hear your story—how they got you, what they did, what they were planning to do. I think I’ve pieced together most of it going back to how they managed to get you in Rennonvorah—Folesh with inside help, right? But the details are what I’m interested in.”

Reed set his mug down, rubbed his eyes, his face a little slack, still coming down off the reunion and whatever Carlos had dosed him with.

He smiled—although that was probably the endorphs too, and scooted left to fit easier into my arms, looked into my eyes. Yeah, it was the drugs.

Without any context outside his own head, Reed leaned closer and said, “It’s not that I absorbed him, you know. Your mother made certain that I became him.”

Blinking through weeks of memories, feeling the impatient weight of everyone else in the room, it took me a minute to get it. “The Winterdim Lord? And my mother just didn’t want him in this world with all his ‘tools’?” I shook my head, felt a twitch of vine in my hair. “I’m your goddamn toolbox? Not that that doesn’t sound like something my mom would do. Just I’m not that happy about it, if that’s my role.”

That’s what I had to say for the crowd, of course. Whole different story inside. Something warm in my stomach that went deep and way beyond possessing all the power-accoutrements of a world’s ruler, something about being tied to Reed. Something I didn’t really want to form clearly beyond the idea of the two of us needing each other to make the tools work. A little twinge inside, a rough roll of prickly skin up my arms. And from memory, I tasted Reed’s sweet blood in my mouth, and the power it contained, felt the lift in my body from those beautiful wings, the roar and ring of fast moving air past my ears, the untroubled snapping of some other tree’s branches, the blur of the earth below me, and the fire.

I swallowed it.

The mug of tea was shaking in my hand when I grabbed it off the table, needed something to wash the memory down, something to get that ringing out of my ears.

Reed had already launched into his story, Folesh had help inside the Rennonvorah, a woman who was never named—and he’d never learned her name, and a man named Higgins—who’d been the one Helodes had interrogated, cut up and fed to some fat happy Mississippi catfish and eels. Then it was just a lot of running and some flying north, and when they finally got to OKF, who’s there to greet Reed and his captors? His good old dad, Lazaro Gossi.

I wasn’t the only one who nearly dropped a mug. “What did you say to him?”

Reed grinned, a scary pain-bearing mask, his hand waving in greeting. “Hullo, Dad. How’s it going?” Reed’s head dropped, a tear rolling down his cheek. “No, actually I just stared at him, asked him why he killed Andrea. I didn’t know he was behind it; the question just came to me. You know what he said? She got in the way. He was fucking sorry about that. They were supposed to get me—that’s all, and ‘Andrea stood her ground and interfered with the outcome.’ It wasn’t even death to him.” Reed wiped his eyes. “It was an outcome—not someone’s life, just something unfortunate, unavoidable, like a fucking missed med appointment.”

One of the first differences in Reed I noticed was his shift in language—abusive language. Maybe I was rubbing off on him. Wash out my mouth all you want; you’re not taking the fuck-you out of me. And here’s articulate fucking Reed having become expletive-inserting Reed.

Maybe it wasn’t me, but something they did to him.

“What did they do to you? Inside the OKF, I mean. Or along the way?”

He shook his head. “Nothing on the way up. In fact, Folesh isn’t nearly as scary as he looks, even friendly. Once we got inside the OKF fenceline, everything changed. Colder, quieter, echoes off the stone smooth walls, and they stuck a bag over my head to keep me from seeing anything. Shirley kept me as up to date as she could.” Reed blinked, rooting around for descriptive words. “I couldn’t really see anything, but I could see the kinds of things around me. It was like a map she created for me, with markers, and sometimes names, where people...living or dead stood. The prismdead were everywhere, working there in the facility. We went up in an elevator, felt the pressure on my feet, so I know it was up. They staked me to the wall of a room, pulled off the bag, and someone in a white lab fullsuit—head to foot, couldn’t see anything but gray eyes through the lenses, and even those looked like placeholders for the person’s real eyes, just so I’d know where he or she was looking.” He frowned, suddenly going thoughtful and very Old-Reed. “I guess that makes sense. It wouldn’t be easy to hold a serious conversation with someone suited up when you couldn’t see if they were paying attention. That must be what they were—”

I gave him a stay-on-track gesture, waved a finger in front of his face, and slapped his knee for emphasis. “What about Lazaro? When did he show up?” And turning to Carlos, “Do you know him?”

Carlos nodded. “Never met him, but I know the name Lazaro, SPM—Special Projects Manager out of Building One, been with the company a long long time, his rep is that he’s scary, smart, dangerous...”

My gaze, drifting to Reed at this point, swung back, clicked with Carlos’, and at the same time we both nodded and said, “The Dangerous Man.”

“What?” Reed stopped, mouth half open, about to continue.

“I talked to you when the Winterdim Lord emerged, while we were up in the interrogation room working to free the wall fasteners on your arms. That part of you looked at me, and told me that he’d made everyone in the building stand down, fall asleep. From where he was—you were—being held on the seventy-seventh floor, locked in an interrogation room, he interfered with OKF security, diverted attention away from his rescue party. He cleared the path for us.” I swept the room with a hand. “He did all that, but he said he couldn’t affect one man, a ‘dangerous man’ who had escaped without facing us, up to the roof, and took our aircraft.”

Reed reached for his mug, but just held it, warming his hands. “Lazaro is the dangerous man?”

“Has to be.”

Andreus added, “He was not there, and when we climbed to the roof of Building Three, the shuttle was in flight, probably five minutes before we cleared the roof access door. If this Winterdim Lord disabled everyone else, then Lazaro was the only functioning man, the only one capable of piloting that craft.”

“Folesh?” Reed threw it out to think about, but you could tell he was far from certain.

“No way.” I jumped in. “Folesh is too big.”

Fritz had been quiet for a while, eyes closed, but the tension in his face showed that he was listening. He shook his head. “No. We met Folesh on the way back here. No way he could’ve taken the shuttle, landed, and returned, then backtracked to casually stroll through the forest so we’d see him. No matter how fast he can fly—and we know he can. We know he’s winged. He jumped the Iroquois River.” Fritz opened his eyes, glanced at me. “Very similar to the way you got us off the roof, Thea.”

“What? He didn’t use wings like they ought to be used?” I stretched out my arms, leaning forward, jutted my stubby nose like a beak, trying to be birdlike. “I thought it wasn’t the wise choice myself, but that’s what the Winterdim Lord wanted me to do.” And there was that taste again, iron and oranges, the heat and taste of Reed’s blood in my mouth, and the power... “Uh...through Shirley.”

Fritz caught my gaze, gave me a jump of his eyebrows, a friendly question about something he saw in my expression. I closed it down fast, gave him a glare as he was opening his mouth to ask what I was thinking.

“Not answering another question today.” I managed a smile. “If you can hold it for tomorrow, I’m there.”

The tip of my tongue hit the bridge behind my top teeth, sound coming up my throat, the L sound forming. I was about to say “Leaf Father save me,” and...he did.

I felt it. Him. I whispered, “We need to get back on the west side of the Mississippi.” The room felt unfamiliar, the air too hot, the smell of old rotting wood. I stumbled. My feet weren’t firm on the floor. The autumn colors of the room bled into gray. “What is this place?”

Brazley, on her feet across the circular space. “Thea? What do you see?”

“This isn’t right. Colors are turning. Where am I? We’re passing autumn.” Fighting that seasonal urge to sleep, and words were spilling from my mouth. “Fuck is going on?” And then my automated responses kicked in, passing directives to Augustine, start burning the fuel, my man, here’s a list of toxins I want prepared in the next thirty seconds. I need Chimeric-L, the eldritch variant, Proteant, and Homily. I don’t care how you get it done, how much it costs me. Just do it. And fast.

Fritz sprang to his feet, hands up, fingers playing something in the air. “I feel that, too. Thea, what is it?”

“We need to go.” I wheeled toward Fritz, arms out, my hair unwinding and braiding for battle, panic like teeth closing in around me. “Now! He’s here!”

27 - Bringing Down the House

The Leaf Father became the house, seeping into the floorboards, into the massive central load-bearing tree, into the framing, into every branch in the support trees. He became the leaves and their fluttery shadows against the windows.

Carlos was looking down at the color leaching out of the floor under his feet. Fritz was singing something tentatively, probably not knowing what he was facing. Andreus reached for Brazley’s hand like a father to a child entering a dangerous neighborhood. Reed’s hands were shaking, fingers hooked into claws, one of them on my arm, nails biting into my skin. His neck was yanked back, his eyes angry squints pointed at the ceiling, blinking against the dust as the wooden slats groaned over our heads.

Whatever Fritz was singing, it seemed to affect the air, making it stifling warm, syrupy thick, threads of his song weaving into our world, into the light, all motion slowing to a walk, and it even went as deep as the attack on his house. His eyes swiveled slowly to me, locked on, a question in them he knew I could answer.

I whispered back, “Leaf Father.”

Fritz was halfway through a nod, his head tilting up, when the beautiful treehouse he and Carlos has created, broke apart. Wood popping, a roll of thunder, and the Leaf Father’s face oozed out of the central tree’s surface, deep set eyes—more like rough cut burned out pits in the wood, glassy green centers shifting toward the six of us standing in the center of the living room. His mouth opened, half of it below the floor, a top row of jagged teeth lifting through splintering boards, gaping like a cave.

The stink of burned wood and wet rot hit me, and I turned away, threw out a fist defiantly.

Then our side of the house, the side with the circular room, tipped vertical, a bone shaking squeal of ripping timber, a bucking animal under our feet, then open air. Bench cushions and mugs falling with us. Frozen smears of steeped tea somehow slower and graceful, like long angular wet eagle’s feathers.

I fell into Andreus on the way down. He had his legs apart, standing on the side of the clear cylindrical table, one arm stretched out, fingers clawing for Brazley as she fell with us, upside down, her feet standing straight up, pointed, and she stared at me with those eyes—are you my friend, Thea? Fritz was swinging my way, mouth locked open, for what, I don’t know, but it looked more scream than song. Carlos was rolling, knees up against his chest, curled into a knot as if some automated training had misfired and told him to tumble.

Damn, this wasn’t going to end well.

I kicked off the watery table, which remained as solid as ever, set it spinning under Andreus unfortunately. But I managed to set my own body into a spin, the earth coming at me headfirst—thirty meters of vines first. I planted them, let them curl and bow with my weight, calculating as fast as I could to manage the sudden additional estimated two-hundred and sixty kilos. I fanned out five and caught my friends by whatever was nearest, whipping them unceremoniously—painfully, I am certain—sideways, out from under half the treehouse coming down with us.

Thunder behind us, and the ring of impact-resistant anti-projectile windows sent way over their stress limits, shattering in bursts of high-velocity advanced polymer wedges—which probably would have come through us like lightning, leaving bloody holes—especially me. I was the only one on my feet, my vines wheeling me around for a not so gentle running landing, forced me to race my momentum into the ground. Everyone else, thrown with a coil of my vines, skidded over the grass in front of me, bouncing, impact grunts, and one wood-crackly bone fracture.

Fritz was on his back in a rapid slide up a lump of marsh grass, his voice back, his fingers plucking the air. A wall gusted up behind me, right at my heels, and met the incoming polymer shards. Death made a nice toasty splattering sound at my back, and then the soft plinking of the window pieces dropping harmless to the grass.

The earth still shaking, the upper floors of the treehouse still coming apart and falling behind me. “Fuck, that was close. We have to run.” I grabbed Carlos, shoved him forward, bent to help Brazley, but she snapped up like trap, her backpack nearly swinging over her head—loaded with her woodcutting toys, and who knows what else.

She caught me off balance. Her hands were on my arms, fingers digging in firmly, protectively, a whisper so soft, it must have been for her own ears. “I knew she was my friend.”

No time for a reaction to that. She was looking over my shoulder. Couldn’t tell by her expression—nothing in her eyes, but by the line of her sight, I knew what she was looking at. How many seven-meter-tall bipedal monsters walk the fucking earth anyway?

I bent to grab Reed’s hands as he was getting to his feet, limping, his left foot twisted bad. My first thought was to get Shirley on it—have her start repairs now, Reed. My next thought was screw the ankle or whatever’s broken. Time enough later to fix it, if we survive. I released one hand, reached up and grabbed the back of his head, my fingers curling into a fist around his hair. I pulled his face to mine, kissed him hard, and tried to get in touch with the Winterdim Lord.

Reed grabbed my wrist, jerked me away. “Thea! What are you—” And then he was looking at the Leaf Father, the monster disentangling himself from the treehouse’s central tree, turning back to blow a gust of fire into the mix.

I twisted out of his grip. “I need the Winterdim Lord.”

He looked at me, a funny expression sliding onto his face way too slow for the trouble bearing down on us. He blinked. I felt a shudder run through him under my fingers.

“What is it?” It was Reed’s voice and Reed behind it, but there was something different.

His eyes cleared, focused on me, not quite a smile appearing—just for a moment, then his lips compressed into a stiff decisive line. “I am the Winterdim Lord—the power source. You have the weapons. Use them. Just stay in contact with me.”

I turned, still holding Reed by the hand, my fingers digging in possessively. Then, thinking of the fire wings, I tugged Reed around. “Stand next to me.”

The Leaf Father took two steps and he was standing over us, a tower of dead wood and bleached stalagmite teeth, long strands of tree-root hair fanning across the heavens, his dark world-deep green eyes pinned to me.

And I opened up another world at his feet.

Cold and immeasurably deep, an icy wind blowing, I pulled back on this world and opened a kilometer-long chasm into the Winterdim. Okay, this is the kind of tool I can get into. I couldn’t keep my eyes away, trying to focus on the actual edge of this world and where it crossed into the one between. We were all staring—even the Leaf Father. “Well, get a good look at—

Reed’s voice cut me off, cold as the void in front of us, the same voice that spoke to me at OKF. It sounded like something else using Reeds voice. “Go ahead. Step into my world. I’ll make you dance like a puppet. Leaf father of no one, enemy of all, destroyer of worlds.”

Oh yeah, let’s taunt the Leaf Father, Mr. Broken AnkleI’m trying not to piss in my pants, and you’re throwing challenges out like this is a damn game.

I backed away from the edge, pulling Reed with me. He whispered confidently, “Shirley’s fixing my leg, should have it pinned and usable in ten minutes.”

“Tell her to work faster. Give her what she’s asking for payment, too.” A glance over my shoulder showed me one expression—besides the clear ahhhh, it’s the fucking Leaf Father!—repeated over everyone’s faces: will you be able to close that up when we’re through?

Oh you mean this wide swath of otherworld at my feet? I shot back an easy no-problem shrug. Like I know what the fuck I’m doing here.

Maybe I do... The ground suddenly felt firmer under my feet. But it was Augustine, prodding me on the inside, he’d completed a nice nasty batch of Chimeric-L with the eldritch variant. It was bad stuff, one of my own secret poisons. Can’t tell anyone what it is either because once word gets out, it’s something you’ll have to prepare to face at some point. Another rule—really a warning—of my mother’s, right up there with “axes suck” and “fire will kill you”. Don’t let anyone have your recipes.

And if you use one, make sure they can’t come back and serve it to you.

I nearly released Reed, then clutched tighter with my fingertips, at the surge of fear that I’d lose the Winterdim opening between us and the Leaf Father. Okay, I’d just have to do this one-handed, which was going to be tricky with the distance—toe to toe—my cute toes to the Leaf Father’s hideous rotting bark toes—about fifteen meters.

I brought up my right hand, fingers cupping. All I needed to do was call up the soft Chimeric-L dust and let the wind carry it high to—

The Leaf Father backed up, shook the earth, and bent to one knee. We were still a ways away from eye to eye, but at least I wasn’t staring straight up. The move made me hesitate, and I pulled back on the poison release.

“What’s he doing?” Reed’s voice loud in my ear, made me jerk away. I held on to him for dear life.

I shook my head, “His own poison? Something airborne to breathe at us?” Yup, he cupped his hands, both of them together looked like the prow of an ancient sailing ship. I was already swinging my free arm around, circling in the air, calling up a gust of wind.

Whatever the Leaf Father was passing out, didn’t leave a trace in my senses. A tingle up my arms, and I felt his breath against my face, my mind going blank, roots of my toes oozing tight in my shoes. My arm stopped swinging. CrapHe’s making me go into my treeform.

My limbs stiffened, elbows freezing open. Reed wheeled, grabbed me with is other hand, shaking, screaming at me.

So far away.

A shadow in front of my eyes, Reed blocking the light, uncomfortably close. Hey, he’s kissing me, his voice in my head, blow his poison back at him, TheaNow, before he takes you away from me.

A burn in my throat, anger storming around inside. The fingers on my right hand hooked, made a slow fist, and what I wanted was a strong gust of cold wind to blow up out of the depths of the Winterdim opening. No one, not even the Leaf Father is going to take me away from Reed.

My head cleared, and the sting in my eyes made me blink, but I knew where I was again. In the field near the treehouse—Carlos and Fritz’s beautiful home—now a big stack of burning broken beams, jutting posts, and the lumpy surfaces of what once were floors and the roof. All of it on the ground, tangled in the trunks, at the feet of the grove that had held it up, and all of it swallowed in flames.

Tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away.

The Leaf Father was on his knees—both of them now, in the field on the other side of a gap of darkness. That’s right. It was coming back to me, the stickiness in my head running a little smoother. That was mine. I’d made that, opened up the Winterdim between us and death.

What else had I done?

As if answering my question, Reed said, “You sent his breath back at him.”

“And something else.” Fritz was at my side, felt his fingers on my shoulder, then a low repetitive song on his lips.

“I’m doing the analysis,” came Andreus’ voice right behind me. “Very complex toxin.”

I whispered, “Don’t give out the recipe.”

“Whatever it is, it’s making him root into the ground,” added Carlos from the other side of Reed.

“No, I think that’s the effect of the Leaf Father’s own poison. Thea blew it back at him with the wind from below.” Couldn’t see her, but I imagined Brazley pointing across the lightless void in our world—maybe teasing the Leaf Father with the piece of finger she was still carrying around. “See, he is sending out roots, becoming more like a tree, just as Thea was made to do.”

Carlos came back with some doubt. “Right, he’s fighting off something else. He’s shaking.”

Long stiff branches grew down from the Leaf Father’s elbows, right into the ground, stems splitting off to grab more of the earth, each of them sending out root runners. The green glassy eyes weren’t looking at me, but down at his knees, half closed, concentrating on some way to stop the progress of his own nature...and my Chimeric-L.

I released Reed, felt the sudden drop in that thrum of power through my body, and the wide gap in our world closed like a door, the grass swaying with the breeze, carrying the last of the scent of oranges from the Winterdim. Next time we get chatting, I have to ask about that citrusy goodness I’ve been picking up from the world between. Or better still, how about a quick visit at some point?

I reached out with one hand, caught Reed’s arm again, wiped the other on my pants before grabbing Fritz on my right. “Help me up. We have to run. Go west.”

They looked down at my feet, pale finger-width roots looping through the soles, through torn webbing material along the sides of my shoes, into the earth. “What are you waiting for? Help me tear them out.”

“Won’t it hurt?” Reed’s voice quiet and concerned in my ear.

“No, it’s going to feel like a fucking holiday. I can deal with that, just can’t deal with him—” I pointed at the Leaf Father. “—when he frees himself and neutralizes my poison. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Augustine in my head telling me that he’d completed a small potent batch of Homily, which was one of my crueler slow acting PTs—phytotoxins. You want to get on your knees, feel your insides hollowed out? Breathe in a little of that. I blew the word “nice” through my teeth at the skin-tearing pain that shot up my legs, a wave of fever heat chasing it,

Reed and Fritz had both my legs free in seconds, holding me up by the elbows as we jogged away from the Leaf Father and the destruction of one more home. That’s all I seem to be able to do well, drive people from their homes—and then get them to carry me around.

Fritz glanced over his shoulder once, a final look back at what was left of the roar of fire over the treehouse.

“I’m sorry, Fritzy.”

He didn’t say anything, just looked at me a moment, a hint of a question in his eyes, and then he sang something that loosened the joints in my legs.

Then we were all running hard, Reed limping, no weapons except what Brazley had hidden in her pack, and what Fritz and Andreus and I could summon, no extra clothing, food, or any other travel supplies. I tried to think about the path back across the Mississippi and a homecoming at the Rennonvorah, but let it slip out of the back of my mind, too far in the future, unlikely to ever happen—unlikely that we’d live that long.

If we could just find the right paths, the right friends, enough food, and above all, time to make our way to the Mississippi’s west bank, we’d be free.

Another question shot to my mouth. “Why doesn’t the Leaf Father just go around the north?” I had no idea where the river’s source was, but it couldn’t be that far.

Andreus picked that up with the briefest shadow of context I’d given, and he sounded far from certain. “He’s afraid of the Spheres? The proximity dangers of the near Chicago?”

I saw a quick exchange of glances between Fritz and Carlos, not sure what that was about, but I didn’t push it. My legs were free, every last root pulled in tight, my feet working again, and I pulled ahead.

28 - Pieces

We ran without a break, covering twenty kilometers in less than an hour—you can catch your breath while we’re running, and no slowing with the setting sun—fine by me. I do my best running at night. Carlos waved a little to the south, puffing words through his teeth, his spiky hair sweat-pasted down on one side of his head.

“Stock up... OKF bunker outside Watseka... Little food... Probably...weapons.” And then something that sounded like “Vehicles.”

Reed glanced over at me, then Andreus and Brazley. What, you guys don’t want some or all of those things?

“Hope it’s well guarded.” I gave Carlos a nod, and what I hoped was a sarcastic smile. “Sounds fun. Lead on.”

We ran into trouble ten kilometers northeast of the old city of Watseka. Fritz picked up some badness incoming on his ground song-mapping, something dangerous. I had my own senses played out through the surrounding grass and trees, and didn’t feel a thing until we were within half a kilometer of whatever it was.

Knew what it wasn’t. “It’s not the Leaf Father.”

Brazley ran side by side with Andreus, her pack slung in front and open. She handed over her tacGun and a stack of clips. At least someone was armed with conventional stuff.

And it struck me for the first time that we had an interesting mix here, some overlapping technologies, complementary tactics, energy sources, world-taps, knowledge, backgrounds, and we had a nice spread over the powers of three worlds; none of us except Reed was the master of any—and I suspected, even hoped, the Winterdim Lord was naked without his toolbox.

There was something about it that made me itch. It felt like manipulation to me, the pieces fitting a little too well to be natural.

Pieces. Puzzle pieces. Pieces on a game board. My inner paranoia jumped on all of it like stranglevines, setting up points of blame, linking players who’d ever suggested any direction to me, forms of retribution when I gathered enough evidence, all surrounding the feeling that I was being manipulated into this mess, into becoming part of this group, that this budding sense of friendship was someone else’s garden and they’d planted me in it.

Most fingers pointed back to my mother, possibly Uncle Theo, although he usually played so far behind the scenes that he was always difficult to pin down—and if I was remembering his last words correctly, right now he’d be doing some nasty business for some Queen of the Dead—possibly Andreus’ mother.

I sensed a map forming, a subconscious topography of peaks and wells of influence and gravity-draw around family members, friends, enemies, people, river witches, demons, and a death goddess I’d never even met, but who was going to look to me for payment at some point. Andreus looked over at me, made a grim smile, locked in a clip full of some flesh-shredding round of one type or another, his long very pale fingers slipping confidently over the grip and triggers. “Are you ready, Thea?”

I tried to shrug. “Usually am.” I felt weak, too much of my head trying dig up answers on why this was happening, not enough to go around on the present life-or-death situation.

So, Lazaro killed Andrea Gossi, but he had also sent the killers for Reed. I heard Andrea’s scream as she went down the basement steps. It came through clear from Reed’s house. Then I heard a woman’s voice coming from the forest, and she made me promise to protect Reed—“her baby.” Couldn’t have been Andrea. It had to be someone else. I tried to recall the exact voice, but whatever my brain did to store it, it came out sounding just like Andrea Gossi to me. What if it wasn’t? And who made the call to the police? I know that wasn’t Andrea. My mother? This Orphne bitch, Queen of the Dead, I’m indebted to? I didn’t think my Uncle Theo had the vocal skill to pull off a dying woman’s voice. Maybe I’m not supposed to—Andreus grabbed my arm, Reed’s hand going to my shoulder on my left at the same time.

Blinking, I froze, looked around, and noticed I’d passed up Fritz and Carlos, who’d stopped abruptly as if they’d run up against a barrier. Fritz waved me back, putting a finger to his lips. Then I felt it, and swung around, facing whatever was out there, walking backward to Fritz’s proximity line.

We stood just inside the north end of an open field, knee-high grass swaying gently, something in the way a pair of butterflies skittered toward us revealed the presence of something at the other end of the space. I strained to see anything in the air, a shimmer, anything. Then stood on tiptoes to study the grass for depressions, uncharacteristic movement. It all looked normal.

I bent to my knees, placed a hand on the ground to get a sense of...something out of my childhood. I smelled home, soft sweet blossoms. My mother? No, I’d know if she was here. It was at the least the scent of her hand in whatever was going to happen.

Reed kept glancing over his shoulder, and I stood up fast, looked back along our path. Throwing an arm over his shoulders, I leaned into his ear, whispering, “What is it?”

He shook his head, a fractional movement, as if he didn’t have enough unoccupied thought to spend on motor skills, just enough to get an answer to me. He turned slowly, his fingers flexing, getting ready for a fight.

Glanced to my right, I saw Brazley digging around in her pack, Carlos was flipping a knife in his hand, spinning it in the air, catching it by the grip. This would be up to me and Fritz and Andreus, maybe Reed—he had the power and, at will, could do some pretty deadly body modifications. Carlos and Brazley, without long range weapons, wouldn’t be in the fight until we were all down.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Not like this is the Leaf Father again.

Reed caught my hand—the one I’d draped over his shoulders, and I felt his voice, unclear until I turned to look into his eyes.

Where’s the Leaf Father?

I shrugged, thumbed the space over my shoulder. Not hereThis isn’t himWhatever we’re feeling—and it’s not right, something differentCan’t pin it downBut I know it’s not the Leaf Father. Then he asked one of the questions I’d just asking myself.

Why not? Why isn’t he here to kill us? It’s not like your poison and the rooting thing were going to hold him back for long.

I felt a little ground give way inside my head, a short slide of loose footing, a prelude to something massive, as deep as my soul went—something that felt like it would rip me into pieces if it ever came apart. But maybe...there was a chance that if I let it come apart in tiny increments, I’d survive.

Maybe if I let little pieces of myself go, one at a time—and over time, I’d make it out of this on my feet? I shook my head, stared into his beautiful brown eyes for a moment. I have the same question.

This feels like a trap to me. The whole thing does. Right back to someone making me promise to protect you—I thought it was Andrea Gossi. But now I don’t.

That shocked the fuck out of him, and he was suddenly scowling at me, trying to back his head off his shoulders as if I was too close to get his eyes focused. You promised to protect me?

Why do you think I showed up when I did? I kicked the back door in, and I was in your house seconds before the real killers would have finished their task, half an hour before the fake call to the police brought them cruising up. A woman—I thought it was Andrea at the time—spoke to me, told me to protect you, “don’t let them get him”—you.

Why don’t you think it was Andrea?

I shook my head. Someone placed that call. Someone called me from the forest and pleaded with me to save her baby. And we get all the fucking way out here, and I smell home like old memories.

Home?

It smells like my childhood when...I suddenly knew what it was. Not my mother, just wrapped around her like curling vine tendrils out of my old memories.

I let go of Reed, stepped forward scanning the field, left to right. Near the far right side at the edge of the forest, I felt it, and now that I knew what to look for, I caught it.

I didn’t have to put more than a whisper in my voice. “Folesh. What do you think you’re doing?”

The demon showed himself, shivered into reality at the opposite end of the field like a holoform, static and dusty lines of transparency, and then he was there, in the flesh, towering over the earth—half as tall as some of the trees, braided-cable-like hair in a thousand pinging strands, teeth as long as my fingers, oozing magic, stores of lightning, and plenty of whatever his kind used for muscular strength.

Folesh-Lin-Ohnen nodded to me respectfully, like the ancient being he was, like a demanding teacher acknowledging initiative in a particularly poor student. “Something I should have done long ago, Theodora.”

I started to run toward him, but stopped at the shouts from my friends—and at the snapped up open-hand gesture Folesh shot back at me.

And at the sense of something in the field with us. I’d felt Folesh’s presence. Fritz was tuned into something else. He was building a wall against it, his fingers plucking strings, the sound of defensive structuring coming up around us in tiered walls like a castle. Shimmery planes in the air at steep reflective angles facing anything projected across the field at us.

And that’s what we got, a hail of sharp red threads, millions of hair fine darts.

“Center of the field.” Carlos was pointing. “That’s where they came from. Not from Folesh. Something’s there.”

Brazley cupped her hands around her implanted eyes. “Just can’t see it.”

The red darts, so many in the air they were just a smear of red now, hit Fritz’s shielding, skidded along the angled planes, nothing even close to a perpendicular face for the darts to stick into. That was part of the plan. The things were smart. Halfway up the slope of the shield over my head, the darts went all squirmy, softening to pulsing threads, slowing to not more than a crawl at the shield edge, and raining down on us.

“Oh fuck.”

A handful landed in the grass next to me, curling and binding together. It reminded me of the climbing spurs of poison-ivy—or any blend-in nasty forest understory plant looking for a nice tree to climb. The thing rose viperously, a fringe of red threads running up each side. A knot at the base slid up the thickening stalk, forming a head with a sense array. I didn’t wait for the mouth of poisonous teeth to debut.

I wheeled, grabbed Reed by the hand, and called the wings.

The roar and heat went right to my shaking knees. I locked them, stiff, bending at the waist, twisting to catch the nearest stalk of breeding red threads and torched it to the ground. I vaporized two more, running the burning wings through the thread rain off the shields, killing them by the hundred-thousands, before swinging back to check on any root systems the first two had left behind planted.

Sure enough, the fucker I’d just torched a meter to my right was coming back through the grass, stems poking cautiously, winding, gathering stray red threads. The head was forming again, rising through the thickening stalk like a reptile with a lump of live food.

Hands gloved, Brazley snapped one red thread out of the air, examining it while it wriggled and tried to perform whatever it had been programmed to do. So far, none of them had reached a state of weapons readiness—not that I’d know when that happened.

My strategy was to prevent them from getting anywhere near that far, concentrating on two continuously shifting modes, sweep the sky with my fire wings, sweep the ground for community building little devils—and keep one ear tuned to Brazley’s conclusions, “This is an aggregate system. I am running toxicity tests and they are coming back empty. I do not believe they are dangerous in that way.”

I swept the sky clean with my wings of fire—one more time, ash raining down on us. “Just please be careful, Brazley.”

She glanced up at me, a smile starting to form, growing when we locked eyes for a moment. She mouthed the words, “I will.” I turned away at the stab of...something I didn’t really want to feel. Sympathy? Holy fucking Tree. That’s what it was. I was...sympathetic.

I already considered them friends. I was starting to care for them. What, now I’m projecting their feelings, interpreting them, and reacting to them?

I’m going soft.

“Folesh is in the game!” Carlos shouting from the exposed side of Fritz’s shielding. He’d walked right through, Andreus with him, tacGun aimed a little to the left of the old demon. He was using the scope, and then he popped off a couple rounds, a repeated sharp “fip” sound from the gun, a forceful crack against someone’s shielding across the field.

I cleared the ground of two regrowing stalks, rammed a wing tip into the dirt to get at the roots. They were coming up slow, their numbers dwindling. Looking up through the shimmer of the shielding over our heads, they’d changed tactics, swarming together toward me.

No.

They were going after Reed. I flicked away one inch-worming across his shoulder.

I waved to Brazley, brought my hand to gesture at the funneling smear of red above us. “Reed’s the target. What can you tell me?”

Brazley stared at Reed for several seconds, blank matte black eyes fixed. “Interesting.” I folded my wings over my head, shouting through the fire’s roar. “Reed. Don’t let them get on you.”

Nodding back at me, he brushed away three that had managed to get through the fire, bending to flick away another crawling up one boot, his hands open, ready to wipe off any others he found. “Things are everywhere.”

“Their color is shifting,” said Brazley behind me.

Reed turned in front of me, fingers digging in, holding my hand tighter. “Shit, what are these things?”

I flexed the wings a bit, a fiery umbrella appeared to be working for the moment.

Looking over Reed’s shoulder at the real action, Folesh stepped into the middle of the field, his long arms swinging fluidly, each bending along two elbowed joints, casting something.

I blinked. A violent flash of color, streaks of gold and ultramarine painting the world, a curtain that shifted with the wind, making normal colors more vibrant, lifting the invisibility shielding off a single man standing in the middle of the field.

Fritz flattened his hands, made a rectangular space between us, then curled his fingers in, leaving the forefinger on each hand to scroll, the tips brushing the surface, making music across the space. I tried to follow his movements, trying to determine his purpose, and then he was done before I could get ahead of him.

He held up a rectangular lens that showed us a magnified image of a scarily ordinary looking man in the middle of the field. Business attire, warm-weather jacket of some smooth cream color, dress shoes, and a gold wedding band on his left hand.

We definitely got a good look at him. It didn’t matter which way Fritz tilted it, angled it, the view always came from Fritz’s position and height. He held it out for Reed and I, then passed it to his other hand to hold it for Andreus and Brazley to have a look.

Reed glanced up, squinting as if trying to compare what he thought he saw across the field and what was on the screen. He was the first one to speak—and I think he noticed the ring.

“It’s Lazaro.”

29 - The Dangerous Man

Carlos backtracked through the shields, squinting through the sunlight across the field, waved for a look at the magnifier.

Fritz glanced my way. “You okay?”

“We’re good. So far. I don’t think any of these little guys are getting through my wings.” I scanned the grass just in case, didn’t see anything reddish, or their new form, a sort of mottled light brown—going to be tough to see some of them squirming on the ground.

Brazley was feverishly working some kind of portable analysis hardware to determine the nature of the little thready beasts—as feverish as she ever gets. You know, one eyebrow lowered, maybe her teeth showing a bit, and that’s about it. Nothing shaking. No sheen of sweat. No tension in her shoulders. She didn’t even have any nervous habits like twirling her hair, which seemed to have grown another handful of centimeters in the last week, hanging in twisting black shiny curls around her knees. Her bangs were razored straight across her forehead—so I know she spent at least a few minutes grooming.

Reed stamped his feet. “They’re getting through on the ground.”

I dragged him sideways, scorching the earth in front of me as we went.

“Brazley? Anything?” I said as I turned to take in the battle going at the other end of the field.

Folesh was pinned against the forest edge, his hair coming alive like a thousand tentacles. Nice. Lazaro conjured up a mass of tiny U-shaped things, looked metallic, but I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to do—except harass Folesh. They must have been dangerous. The demon was spending a lot of time swatting the things out of the air with his tentacular hair.

Lazaro turned back to us, gestured at the sky and brought down a cloud of silence. A tickle in my ears, and I could hear my own voice in my head, but the rest of the audible world was dead.

I can see why the Winterdim Lord thought he was dangerous. I’d never even heard of anything like this. It wasn’t perfect. Weapons rarely need to be.

A crackling noise, a thump deep in my head, and I could hear again. The silence cloud drifted over us, and there were gaps and thin spaces, allowing sound to work.

Fritz, his existence depending on sound, was nearly powerless, frantically plucking to keep the magscreen lit and focused. His shields went dull, almost opaque, flickering on a failing power source.

On the far side, Folesh went to one knee, his face and arms bleeding. Several strands of his metallic hair had been cut, and coiled ineffectively on the ground. He kept one giant clawed hand across his eyes to protect them. He was in trouble.

Carefully keeping in contact with Reed, I stepped through the line of fading shields, driving deep with my vines, three long strands of them, tips pointed, rooting through the soil, driving through seams of hard clay, breaking rocks when they got in my way. They shot through the surface a hundred meters away, spiraling up Lazaro’s legs, locking him to the earth.

Andreus spotted my attack, and dashed across the field with his gun and the long spear of bone, twirling it, juggling it, flipping it into the air like a baton.

Gaining speed, he moved through one of the silence clouds, and started off with the tacGun. I saw his fingers move, the safety coming off, the trigger squeeze, again, the repeated sparks of rounds firing, but no sound, and the cloud moved over us, the dull heaviness in my ears, a blanket that absorbed every sound.

Whatever Andreus was firing slowed to a crawl by the time the rounds reached Lazaro, circular shivers in the air like a finger touch on the surface of a still pond.

Tiny slivers of something metallic hung in the air, frozen, and Lazaro wiped them away with a hand and a shower of tiny pinpoint lights. Whatever Andreus’ tacGun was throwing wasn’t even a nuisance to Lazaro Gossi.

The Dangerous Man returned to examining my vines creeping up his legs, one tip had reached his crotch. I gave him a punch, a solid stiff thump of heavy green wood in the balls.

Okay, he felt that, choking on whatever was about to spill from his opening mouth.

I glanced over at Fritz’s magnifier. Lazaro bent against the pain, not quite doubling over, his hands digging through his pants pockets, a frantic scramble for something he’d jammed in them—looked like he was hoping to get it out before my vines were up to his waist, winding around his body from the hips down.

A crackle in my ears, and the deadsound cloud had passed over us. “Fritz, what’s he getting from his pockets?”

“Don’t know. Yet.” Fritz made a gesture over the magnipanel, a flutter of fingers, tapping the surface in different places, and the image broke into four, coming back with the raw image, spectral data, and whatever else was radiating off the man.

“What’s the fourth screen showing?”

“It’s looking for chemical differences, doing the analysis, shading on variance with standard biochemical sets. Here we go. He’s pulling a knife, something sharp and edged. Looks like it’s grooved with a poison, something subtle because I’m not picking anything up.”

“Sure it’s loaded? Could be he’s just going to try to cut my vines off.”

Carlos, looking over his shoulder, rattling off words in bursts, “No. Something’s there. Not picking up a cytotoxic target from analysis. He’s going to use more than the blade there. Consider it broadly active. No way to really know until it’s used.”

I was starting to uncoil, not really wanting it to be used—not on me anyway.

Withdrawing the whipping spirals of vine around his knees, Lazaro reached down, his fist around the handle of the blade, and stabbed through my hard green bark, split the wood, a couple of my thorns raking through the skin of his wrist. He yanked the blade back for another swing, but he was careful, slowed by caution. Last thing he wanted was to accidentally miss a vine and drive it into his leg.

And then I was screaming, pain racing up the poisoned vine just ahead of the necrosis. “Cut it off!” I yanked it from the earth, slapped it flat in the grass in front of the group.

Brazley dropped her analysis gear, had already pulled the echoSaw from her pack, thumbed it on, the bright humming beam slicing through the wood, and then pain in my head as if she was carving up my skull. Gasping, vision blurred with tears, and that damn deafness Lazaro had cast across the field. I felt the pounding in my ears, the thump of my heart beating.

Augustine acted quickly, sent an empassive through my veins, not his soothing voice, but a direct chemical language that spoke to my body in its own words. He was getting better at this.

By the time Brazley cauterized the white woody end of the severed vine, I was on my knees, clawing at the dirt with my free hand, nails digging into the back of Reed’s. The echoSaw thumped on the ground next to me, the beam dead with the trigger released.

“Andreus!” an unfamiliar voice, a girl’s scream.

I looked up at Brazley running across the field, Carlos chasing her. Andreus, closing in on Lazaro, tossed away the gun, let the spear slide to the end of his grip and heaved it straight up. He kept moving, not waiting for it to drop. He had fistfuls of bone needles, firing them at Lazaro, who stood his ground, crouched, gestured, deflecting the darts.

Lazaro glanced up once to track the spear’s trajectory, but he probably couldn’t find it any easier than we could from our side of the field. He advanced, knife in one hand, his other working something in the air.

Reed let go of my hand, and the wings faded from my back. He shot me a look over my shoulder. “Have to help him. Andreus can’t take him on by himself.”

We charged across the field in three waves, Brazley and Carlos, then Reed sprinting by himself, his hands coming up armored, fingers hooked through loops of metal gripping on two swords. Fritz and I took up the rear, me dragging my vines, Fritz plucking at the air, sending the path of one song toward Folesh to help him.

Brazley was ten steps away when Lazaro danced into Andreus’ defenses, brought the blade around to slice his face, cut deep. Andreus flailing, backed up a step. Lazaro lunged at him, stopped the pummel against his open left hand and drove the blade to his fist into Andreus’ chest.

Andreus went down, back arching in pain, legs kicking, one hand clawing at the hole in his armor, his face trying to twist around to his attacker. He’d fallen facing us, his goggles skewed, pale eyes wide with pain.

Lazaro straightened over him, whipped the blade sharply to throw off the blood, and bared his teeth at Brazley, coming at him with nothing but her fists.

Out of the blue...the bone spear Andreus had thrown into the sky a few moments before, came straight back down, slammed into the top of Lazaro’s head, locking his mouth open, drove right through his body, the point coming out high on his left thigh into the earth, pinning him there, standing up.

Lazaro swayed, cavern of a mouth with all his teeth showing, eyes blinking, then going wide and shifting right then left, confused about the pain and the sudden immobility. He seemed like a very organized fellow faced with something not going according to his plan.

Then his dimrends deserted him, as many as three. I couldn’t really tell, but I know they jumped the Lazaro ship for Reed, because I sensed the shift in the air, and then I felt Shirley’s return to me. Hard not to smile at her complaining about Reed’s low standards for accepting stray—and possibly dangerous—renderers from serious bad guys.

We closed around Andreus, and I collapsed into Reed, my legs folding under me, one last look up at the Dangerous Man—his eyes frozen wide open, fixed on something over our heads.

I dropped my gaze to more important things. A friend was down.

Brazley had one of Andreus’ pale hands, her fingers clutching at his with far more strength than he was giving back.

I sent Shirley over to check the wound, told her to work with Carlos, who’d lost all his medical gear back at the treehouse, but he worked with what he had, his bare hands, two of the bone needles Andreus had conjured up.

Fritz put one gentle hand on Brazley’s shoulder, sang something softly that focused a bright beam of light over us all.

Andreus caught Carlos by the hand, shoved him away from the open wound in his chest.

“I need everyone to hear this.” He tried to get up, waving weakly, a spurt of blood from his mouth, gums splitting open, oozing more blood.

Oh shit. Poison. Some kind of rapid tissue breakdown.

I pressed him back, held him there, sent a command to Shirley to do what she could—likely nothing with a stranger and against some speed-acting toxin. I had no idea what Andreus was going to say, but it could be a dying man’s wish. Don’t care what it is. Grant the damn thing.

Reed, Carlos and Fritz moved closer, Brazley, on her knees on the other side of Andreus, scooted a little to make room.

“Go on, Andreus. We’re all here. What do you want to tell us?”

He looked at me, near-colorless eyes fixed with purpose. A hard sob hit him, ran through his body and made him shake. He started crying, tears rolling into his hair, pooling in the lenses of his ridiculous goggles.

“Want you all...to hear this. Thea is going to take my...mat...materials. Please.” He coughed blood, tried to shake his head. “I’m not like you, or anyone. Just need a new...mother.” He broke into more coughing, tried to find Brazley and gave up. “Chose Thea. She is good... Let her do it.”

Brazley lifted her head slowly, pinned me with a glare, her mouth turned down, lips shuddering, holding back a sob.

“Promise me, Thea...one more.”

I rubbed my eyes. They were starting to get wet and heavy. I firmed up my voice. “Name it, Andreus.”

His raspy whisper started as wheezing noises, slowly resolving into words. “Promise me you will care for Brazley. She is like family.” He gave me a weird knowing look—eyes widening with his words—and it wasn’t pain. He followed that with a smile at Brazley—the bastard, the knowing didn’t include me. He said, “She is your friend. She is your family, will be anyway.”

His pale eyes came back to me. “Just as I will be, Theodora, and in the end, you will care for me, too.”

I was crying now, my tears running off my chin, soaking into the sleeve of Andreus’ shirt. “I promise you.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Didn’t care.

Then Brazley really broke down, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Don’t leave me, Andreus. Please.”

A soft fading smile. “I am not, Brazley. Leaving you for long.” He closed his eyes, stopped breathing, then shuddered and took another breath. “Thea...I promised your...promised her... Kra...” His face tightened with strain. He tried to open his eyes, failed, his lips going slack, peeling back from his teeth, his body shaking, demanding more air.

I leaned forward, put my ear to his mouth, and his final words slipped out with his life.

“...nother...Seeee...secret. Your uncle, he came to the witch...” Andreus hesitated as if trying to remember a name. “Archippa... Long time ago...Theodore commanded her to help...”

“Commanded Archippa to help who?”

One last gasp of a word. “You.”

I snapped back, fingers curling into claws, my hair coiling together around me—trying to comfort me, and then too many things happening at once, piling on each other.

Fritz’s voice on my left. “Folesh is leaving.”

Carlos looked up, gesturing madly. “Lazaro is gone.”

I jumped at Reed’s shout in my ear. He squirmed away from me, clawed at one hand with the other, pinching at something a little darker than the tan of his skin, one of Lazaro’s threads. It wriggled at the base of his index finger, thinned to a hair’s width, and went into the palm of his hand, slipping up the wrist just under the skin, and then diving deeper into Reed’s arm.

Shit. A war of numbers, and my bet would be that with these guys you only needed one to get through the defenses...to do whatever they’d been programmed to do.

30 - Treeheart

I tried to take my time.

The field was clear of enemies and tentative allies, both of them more or less vanishing, and leaving all of us on edge.

Reed sat cross-legged next to me, reaching out every few minutes to touch my arm—fingertips to my wrist, to make a connection with some threatening “tool” on my Winterdim belt.

He and Shirley interrogated the three new renderers from Lazaro. Still no sign of any effect of the skin-digging thread, now holed up—according to Shirley—just inside a rib bone next to Reed’s right lung—and nothing to tie it to any kind of respiratory attack. Shirley felt the threat. She just hadn’t determined what it was yet. She had determined that it would fragment and scatter if she attempted to remove it, and thought it best, for now, to leave it alone. At least we knew where it was. And she’d keep working on it, telling Reed that she should be able to figure out what the thing would do to him once it went active.

And I’m on my knees looking down at a friend.

Andreus was dead, pale eyes staring up at the sky, his directive and my promise to follow it hanging thick in the air.

Brazley stood, arms folded, looking down at me like I’m the one who killed him, tears flowing, something raw and shaking loose inside her.

I tried to get started, but couldn’t with her watching me—couldn’t make it happen, couldn’t smell the sweet blossoms of home, which always hit me just as my ownership protocol was ready.

The way Shirley put it to me so many years ago, the smell has to do with your nature, and with you, it is the forest, the spring, the plants, your home.

And to my damaged nine-year-old mind, she related what I was about to do with Andreus’ materials to what a plant’s factories do in creating everything from the pigments in flowers to the sweetness in fruit. You do not pull raw sugar out of the ground, or colors, or fruit, you create everything you need out of the raw materials at hand.

Shirley’s suggestively simple logic tipped me on the right side: At hand for you, dear Thea, is everything and everyone in your wayThe world contains all the materials you will ever need to live, survive, enough to defend any forest, and take control.

I glanced over as Carlos and Fritz swung back in from a perimeter check, Fritz walking backward, arms over his head, playing something in the wind, Carlos hunched over the tacGun Andreus had discarded, scanning the rim of the field.

Brazley didn’t look up from me, but she heard their approach, felt the impatience, the need to keep moving in the vibe coming off Carlos—and showed it in the eagerness in her voice directed at me. “What are you waiting for?”

Goddamn, I’m so tired of this. “I don’t know.”

Nothing but running with losing odds, picking up more enemies and betrayal than friends, far more questions than answers, hard certainties dissolving to fluid under my feet.

And for the first time in my life, I cared about someone—six someones—even had to include Andreus—maybe especially Andreus.

I’d made promises.

I closed my eyes, rubbed them hard, turning my focus inward to look back over my memories, ignored Augustine busying himself somewhere on the borders. I brought up what the world looked like before all of this started, and I didn’t recognize it, didn’t even recognize myself running through it.

And here I was kneeling in the grass, far from home, an exposed mess inside, walls split, structural mental timber lightning blasted, vaults of experience—that I never wanted to experience again—broken open, spilling their contents across my insides like chain-acid gnawing through the walls of every buried thought—activating them, and then a stain sliding over the surface of it all to color every new thought sparking to life in my head.

I dropped my hands in my lap, looked up at her. “I’m so sorry, Brazley. I can’t do this.” There were tears in my eyes, no match for hers, but they ran down my cheeks, tickled me under the mouth. I wiped them away.

She stopped, rubbed her own away, and bent down with me. “You will take everything that is Andreus?” She gestured to her teacher.

I shook my head. “I can’t. It hurts too much.”

She sucked in another rush of tears. “It is what he wanted you to do, Thea.”

Nodding. “I know.”

“Will...” She opened her hand over Andreus’ chest, fingers and thumb spread, guessing it was some sort of inclusive gesture. “You will...mix his materials?” She pulled her hand in to lay it gently on my arm. “You understand what I am asking?”

I nodded, then shook my head. “No. I’ll keep everything that was Andreus in a special place.”

“I think that is good.” She brightened a little, pulled a knife from her pack, and brought it up past her face away from me, her fingers shifting to get a better grip. I grabbed her arm, leaned hard against her, kept the blade away.

She didn’t fight me, just turned and looked puzzled. “I want to give something of myself, Thea, if you will accept it?”

My voice came out rough, scared, my fingers tightening around the bend of her wrist. “What are you going to give?”

“A long lock of hair.”

I let out a breath—one far deeper than my lungs seemed to have ever held. Made my chest burn. My arms were lead-heavy, and the strain slipped away, chased by a chill that shot up from my toes, hit my spine like melting ice.

I let her go. “Oh Brazley, you really frightened me.”

She stared at me, not understanding.

I shook my head. “No, I thought you were going to do something...bad with the knife. To yourself.”

The knife still in her hand, she lunged, grabbed me, swung her arms around me, and hugged me, sobbing into my neck, the butt of the weapon digging into my shoulder blade. Folds of her hair against my cheek, she gusted out fragments of words between shaking and choking breaths, and I felt her tears running to the hollow of my collarbone.

I didn’t even think about reacting. I sent out three long braids of vines to curl around her. I held her tight.

“It’s going to be okay, Brazley. Just cry it out, as much as you’d like to. I am your friend. I’m here, I won’t leave you. Ever.”

I glanced over at Reed, scowled as he reached out a hand for me. Can’t the interrogation wait a bit? My thoughts must have been clear in my expression, because he nodded back, got to his feet to stand with Carlos on the other side of Andreus’ body. Fritz was off singing up a fog that spilled across the field like slow-motion milk, hiding us from anyone using normal vision.

I knew everyone wanted to keep moving—hell, I did too. And I kept my mouth shut. I kneeled on the ground, and held Brazley for another hour, trusting to Fritz’s defenses and, if anything happened to get through, to Carlos’ battle skills. Reed wandered in circles, still in talks with the three renderers from Lazaro. It seemed to have died down now, less threatening expressions, and even an occasional laugh.

Gods of all worlds, I was even in love with him.

What a different thing I had become. The words that could have been used to describe me a year ago would no longer apply. Those words wouldn’t work now. Almost as if I’d broken something, or maybe the other way around, grown something. Wings?

...of fire.

The word metamorphosis surfaced in the back of my thoughts. Oh, yeah, caterpillar goes into the cocoon, and sure, I was as delicate as a butterfly.

I wanted to laugh, but there was nothing funny about it. There was a mildly attractive idea that, with the wings of fire, it was more like breaking out of the cocoon to find out I was a dragon. Maybe on the outside. It was the certainty that somewhere inside I had become more like the fragile butterfly and that really scared the shit out of me.

I had also learned so much in such a short time—and that had to give me strength, right?

How could I possibly have thought Reed wouldn’t be able to handle any of this? That I needed to drag him all the way out to Helodes—and who the fuck knows where after that—like a child, like he didn’t have the courage or the knowledge.

Still...I just never saw it growing up. Reed Gossi had always been the quiet, mannered boy living in the house across the back field. How could someone like that grow up into the guy pacing up and back in front of me, solid measured steps, plotting things with three renderers. A lord of another world. How?

Brazley’s shuddering calmed to rapid breaths, then deeper slower breathing, and the tears dried up. She whispered softly. “I do not want to see it happen.”

“You don’t have to.” I let my vines slip loose around her, rolling in lumps in the grass.

She nodded, her hair tickling my face, and then she pulled away, let go of me, and crawled backward, the knife still in one tight fist. She brought it up, her gaze drifting to Andreus’ immobile chalky face. Then she tugged around half a meter of black hair, about a finger’s thickness, and sliced it off. She slid the knife back into her pack with one hand, and extended her offering to me with the other, not making eye contact.

Then she got to her feet and walked away, her shoulders slumped, her steps careful but uncertain.

I knelt there with her long cut of hair and watched her vanish in the fog.

Tears still running down my face, I turned and draped Brazley’s offering over Andreus, and called up my disassembly and ownership protocol. Holding Brazley had helped me relax, and I smelled home a second later, my teeth feeling sharp in my mouth, a tingle of anticipation up my arms.

I was ready. I looked down at Andreus, pale eyes with a faraway look. I kissed him on the cheek, and then slid off his goggles. “You really looked pretty silly with these on.” I shook my head. “I don’t think you knew that. But it’s true. Even I didn’t have the heart to tell you. No that doesn’t make sense. In this case I had too much heart to tell you. Everything was so serious for you. But you know what changed it for me? It was a sudden, silly thing—but important.” I paused to see if he’d answer. “You smiled when I told you my renderer’s name was Shirley. Remember that? I liked you for that, Andreus.” I touched his face one more time, just the tips of my fingers, and then bent my head. “I’m ready. You?” Let a minute go by. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

It was over a few minutes later. Everything, including Andreus’ armored clothing and super grippy shoes. All of it.

I told Augustine to keep everything separate. Andreus didn’t need to go into the common stores—couldn’t allow that. Inside, I made an entire separate wing to house his materials, and even directed him to make a little shrine for the fibrous proteins and other compounds that had made up Brazley’s hair.

I stood, a little shaky with the adrenalin rush, brushed the loose grass off my shirt and pants. I was done, everything that had once been Andreus now tucked away in neat little packages.

I caught Carlos’ eye, gave him a nod. I’d be through here in a minute. I turned to the flattened two-meter stretch of grass where Andreus’ body had been. Took a few deep breaths, glanced up to see Brazley—scarily soft and quiet—appear like a ghost out of the fog. She stopped on the other side of the pressed down space.

It might raise alarms along forest tracts for a hundred kilometers. I didn’t care. I went to my knees, pushed my flattened hand into the center of the ghostly space of Andreus, and called for the nearest oak tree. A drop of my blood for an acorn. Who will honor me with a seed, my loves?

I bit my tongue, cut it deep, and let a smooth bitter flow of it slide to the tip, opened my mouth wide, and planted a drop in the grass between my spread fingers. A thump in the earth under me, an unknown friend in a far off forest returning my call.

Brazley backed up a step.

The seed opened at my command, uncurling, sprouting, a finger of white snapping through the soil. Two tiny green leaves unfolded. They divided again, more leaves fanning out. The stem stiffened and grew taller, half a meter standing up between my spread fingers. A sapling. I breathed on it, closed my eyes, and wished for a tower of an oak, a tree that would shade and protect this field, that would repel any storm, defy the lightning, honor the friend that was Andreus.

The oak grew, catching my fingers, opening my hand and carrying it up, the bark rough under my skin, a branch lifting like the rung of a ladder for me. I stepped up, both my hands pressed into the trunk as the tree grew thicker and taller, towering over the field.

I leaned in to press my lips against the tree’s coarse skin.

I let go, standing at the crown of a twenty-five-meter oak, a mass of heavy branches, its roots holding the earth together under it. Twisting around to take in the view, just poking through Fritz’s bank of fog, I raised one hand to the sun floating warmly in the western sky.

“Here’s to you Andreus. Farewell.”

I sent out a few vines to help me down, spiraling among the limbs, weaving a path around the core of the tree, my bare feet landing softly, toes curling, and then I was bounding around the other side, down into the massive lower branches.

I pulled in my vines and jumped to the ground.

Brazley stared up at the tree and then at me—actually they were all staring at me. Brazley was the only one able to speak. “I see what you can do. You are a goddess, Thea. Why do not act like one?” It was an innocent question.

I waved it away even as I felt my eyes tearing up. “Nah. Goddesses are demanding, self-centered, sociopathic bitches without any real friends. Come on. That’s just not me.”

Fritz was the first to laugh. I followed him. A couple more chuckles passed around, but it died pretty quickly. It wasn’t that funny.

We all gave Andreus’ tree one last touch goodbye and we turned southwest, back on our course toward Carlos’ promised OKF supply bunker outside Watseka.

And, fuck, we didn’t even make it to the edge of the field before trouble showed up—Trouble with a capital T, as in big malevolent Tree.

I wheeled, fell on my ass, turned it into a roll that brought me up standing. The ground shook under us, and the Leaf Father sprouted up from the field, gray limbs bending crablike, extending to lift out meters of knotty tree trunk, clawing their way through rolls of brown earth.

My mind jumped right to the ready batch of Homily that Augustine had made.

Reed took my hand automatically, almost made me smile. We stood our ground between our friends and the mightiest forest god in this world. I lifted a cupped hand in offering, my fingers curled air-tight around the soft, almost silky gold powder that made up my Homily recipe.

“What do you want to do, Thea?” Reed’s hoarse, tired voice next to my ear.

I leaned in, elbowed him playfully, whispered, “What do you think? I want to kill the fucker.”

Completely out of the ground, the Leaf Father bent to his knees, almost as if he was trying not to appear so frightening. He extended his right fist toward me, a giant block of grooved and knuckly wood the size of a small house.

A voice like thunder and breath that stank of wet ash and rot. “Theodora, leaf daughter of Kraneia. I have your heart.” He opened his hand, too many skinny twig fingers unfolding like a birds nest, and floating in the air above it, a small knot of smooth glossy brown wood. My heart. He had my treeheart.

My voice came out quiet, but he heard it. “Why?”

His voice rumbled in my ears. “I love you, Theodora.”

The earth went dead silent, and I just stood there blinking, felt the worry wrinkling across my face. The words left me trying to catch my breath and making “wha...?” motions with my mouth.

When I didn’t answer—couldn’t answer—the Leaf Father probably assumed I was thinking it over, and he continued, “Together, there will be nothing that can stop us in this Dawnworld, or the Rootworld, and even the Winterdim. With you in my forest, I will let you become the Leaf Mother.”

I was still gaping like a fucking fish.

He closed his fist around my heart. “Decide or I will decide for you, Theodora.”

That unlocked it for me. I shut my mouth, grinding my teeth, and then opened it up. “Do not call me Theodora.” It still sounded like some insignificant animal’s tiny scream of outrage.

And there was a hint of pain in my gut, an ache like welling tears, something not right inside, a connection to my treeheart—that I didn’t even possess.

It wasn’t as sharp as I’d expected it to be.

I glared up into his green eyes. Love? You had the chance, and you spent it cheap, yapping about something you don’t even understandYou should have killed me, you murdering, forest-burning stumpfucker.

“Decide?” I raised my hand, opened it up, and blew my entire pile of Homily at the Leaf Father. “You can go ram a splintery pine tree up your ass. How’s that for a decision?”

Then we ran like hell.

31 - Thread rhymes with...

We hit the supply bunker outside Watseka hard and fast, left three OKF soldiers down, two men and a woman, bleeding but breathing. I created a special tangle of grasses that braided up their arms and legs, and kept them immobile and quiet while we did our work.

Carlos had been right. There wasn’t much in the way of food, but he made sure we loaded up on weapons, armor, and other gear, throwing perfCrates of ammunition, rope, camocluster canisters, and a dozen fresh out of the box snub-nosed SIG tactical autos.

We bolted the crates to a pair of amphibious marshrunners—matte green military hover-speeders with seating for five, room for a small ops deployment and their gear. We shot south, overland, right at the edge of vehicle safety limits, Reed piloting one, Carlos the other. My body pressed against Reed’s, my legs spread around him, I had a good hold on his shirt, my right arm coming up his front, a handful of shirt-cloth in my fist. My left clawed into his shoulder. Behind me, her fingers digging into my skin at the hips, sat Brazley wearing Andreus’ goggles, which I had to admit looked a lot better on her.

Running at a shallow southwestern angle, we hit Archippa’s river, the Illinois, an hour later, and turned south with it, Reed and Carlos opening up the marshrunners on the water to two and twenty klicks an hour.

I closed my eyes against the blasts of air coming over the forward shields, and spent the next few hours in my own head, teeth clamped against the jarring, wondering how the Leaf Father could possibly have gotten his fucking hands on my treeheart.

That’s like him having half of me. On the other hand, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had the heart inside me. I was a kid. And it hadn’t ever seemed to matter once my mother helped me make my rootkey. Yeah, that’s a mother-daughter moment I want to remember. Me, eleven years old, bleeding from a dozen deep offering punctures in my body, bleeding all over my bare feet and damp forest detritus, screaming about the pain, and my mother working as quickly as she can, molding and shaping the hinged metallic thing with hand-grips and a nasty looking sharp screw tip sticking out of the bottom of a heart-shaped...key.

Heart-shaped... Replacement.

The pain hadn’t really been that bad. I’d endured so much more since, but that wasn’t more than a couple years after the OaK leaF. I was sensitive, cultivating the first shoots of hate for my mother for not hearing my call, for not waking to save me, for letting them do those things...

That’s when I’d lost my heart. Had to be at the OaK leaF. My uncle’s words dropped into my head like the first strong taps of storm rain hitting dry forest-floor leaves. They did horrible things to you and they were horrible people, and they got what they deserved, but they were following someone else’s orders, Thea. I saw coughed up blood splattered across Uncle Theo’s boots.

They were following someone else’s orders—someone who’d wanted my treeheart.

Well, they got it. He got it.

And my mother had told me nothing, and replaced my treeheart with the rootkey.

What else?

It seemed as if I’d made it over some hard ground, and had firmer footing, but I still had a long way to go before I understood what was going on.

I dredged up Andreus’ final words. Didn’t catch it all, but what I did, sounded like my Uncle Theo’s deeply involved, too. Pictured it...my mother and her brother, Theodore Balanon, working their way across the country, cajoling, bullying, threatening—sowing the seeds of protection for me. So it wasn’t just a witch here, a soldier there, but a whole fucking garden of manipulation planted, watered, and set to grow.

Okay, that sounded ridiculous, and I spent another hour trying to work that in plausibly, gave up, and tossed it away. There’s just no reason for them to go through all that work way in advance. How would they have known I’d need help, protection, friends—that I’d be running from the Leaf Father?

We hit the Mississippi a few hours later, followed the bends of dark water, scared off just about everything on the river with us, and pulled into the Rennonvorah around dusk.

And I hadn’t had to answer a hard question yet.

It was way too noisy and bouncy on the trip to ask questions, talk things over, hold embarrassing conversations.

The only communication between marshrunners came in hand signals through Brazley and were passed over to Carlos, and all of those had been quick direction questions.

Still getting our legs firmly on the earth, I hoped for silence.

But you know. Hope never seemed to be worth a shit when you really needed it.

Ten paces along the path into Helodes’ village, Reed came right out and said it. “That’s why the Leaf Father’s been going easy on you.”

A flash of Archippa’s skull and the stiff charcoal stalks of her hair in my fingers. “Oh yeah, easy, not killing me, just turning anyone who helps me into bones and cinders.”

They were all staring, wanting answers, and that’s when I really felt the loss of Andreus’ pale eyes. I missed him so much already, and I hadn’t even started worrying about what I was going to tell Helodes.

I snapped my fingers angrily at Reed. “Leaf Father has a woody for me, and what, I’m supposed to lie back and spread my legs? I don’t think so.”

Brazley’s soft questioning voice. “He has your heart?”

Damn. I could tell the questions had been piling up on the trip south.

I placed an open hand on my chest. “Not my human heart. My treeheart—the heart that gives a tree balance, a sense of being part of a forest.” I didn’t want to come right out and tell them, but with my tree heart in his possession, the Leaf Father could control me.

Fritz shook his head. “Isn’t it supposed to be part of you? Wouldn’t you know it’s gone? Wouldn’t you miss it?”

Reed whispered, “How—how did he get it?”

I stared at him, lost, and shook my head. “I’m not really sure how.” I think I know when. My hands slid over my stomach, tightening around me. “I lost it. A long time ago.” I don’t think I ever needed it. Never wanted to become part of a forest, never wanted balance in my life.

But now that I’d seen it—my treeheart floating in the air over the Leaf Father’s open hand—along with his offer, I felt a wide world of empty inside me.

Carlos and Fritz whispering together, nodding heads, thinking. Carlos finally spoke up. “And were you aware of the Leaf Father’s... uh... affection... for you before now?”

I looked at the sky through a dark mass of pine boughs, couldn’t look at any of them.

“What do you think? This whole damn world’s coming down around our ears, there’s some big nasty business going on, old alliances carved up, players cut out, shifting deals, three sides warring over who really knows what? No. I had no idea this was happening when Reed and I left the east. I thought we were all on the same side until everything blew up at Archippa’s, and the Leaf Father came storming through the burning woods to slaughter everything in his path.” The strength in my voice drifted away. “I missed so much. Didn’t even see what was happening. Almost like I was looking at the world with a completely different set of eyes. The Leaf Father...after he’d killed Archippa, he looked at me, our eyes met, he even reached out for me. He was going to speak to me, but then he fell over, went crashing to the floor of the woods. There were a lot of things going through my head then, and it never occurred to me that I’d have to guess what the Leaf Father was about to tell me. He was clearly going to say something along the lines of, ‘I’m going to get you’ or—” I brought my voice low and menacing. “—‘There is no forest in this world that will hide you from me.’ Or, maybe, ‘I’m going to burn your body down to the bones, eat your toasty brain, and wear your skull on a necklace’. But never, in any possible perspective on how things have gone for up to now, would I have anticipated the Leaf Father to...you know, say he loves me.”

Fritz gave me one raised eyebrow as if he didn’t find it that surprising.

Felt my own face scrunch up in disgust. “That’s just sick.”

“Yes,” said Brazley. “But you can at least understand why a Greater Being like the Leaf Father would want to possess you?”

I made a fist at that, really wanted to hit someone. I’m just a fucking possession?

I relaxed my hand and nodded. The answer came to me.

Like someone else hasn’t owned this game all along. The tension slipped out of me before it had a chance to take hold. Like I’m nothing but a pawn in the game. Yeah, sounded about right. Like I’m just a fucking toolbox.

Carlos tapping the safety on his SIG and walking backward along the path to the village. “And the Leaf Father cannot cross the Mississippi?”

I shook my head along with Brazley. “Helodes—Andreus’ mother, will not allow—”

Helodes stood like a pillar in the middle of the path, and I nearly ran into her.

“It has been a long time.” I thought the words were for me, but she walked around me, ignored me even, and weaved through our group to Fritz, stopping a moment to stare into his eyes, and then circled him slowly, hands clasped together in front of her, but her fingers twitched and stroked the air, longed to reach out and touch something. “What is your name?”

“Fritz.” He was starting to scowl, fingers gently plucking some soft tune none of us could hear. “What’s been a long time?”

Helodes stopped, and her hands came apart, reached out low—apparently she couldn’t resist temptation. “Can I see your hands?”

Fritz glanced at me, his shoulders coming up defensively. Behind him, I caught Carlos’ concerned look. I nodded back.

He held out his hands, palms up, and Helodes cupped each in her own bony pale hands, gently lifting them closer to her eyes as if each was some rare specimen of flower. Bent over, she tilted her head back, looked straight into Fritz’s eyes. “I am Helodes. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this close to a Child of the Sun, Fritz.”

She swung to me, almost angry, maybe impatient with me for withholding something important. “Where did you find him?” I thought of flowers again, as if Fritz was some sort of uncommonly difficult to find orchid.

I shrugged, smiled at my musicman. “Oh, Fritz and I go way back.”

She straightened, still holding Fritz’s hands, and leaned toward me in her don’t-fuck-with-me way.

I shrugged her off. “Fritz saved my life once. The least I could do is repay with him with a trail of destruction and pain back here where he can be treated with all the dignity of a botanical experiment gone awry.”

Helodes let Fritz’s hands slide from hers, her face shifting from the “Child of the Sun” to me, right along with a shift in her expression from awe to a chained-down rage, a sharp twitch in her lips, one of her eyes narrowing at me more than the other one. “Thea? Where is Andreus?”

Brazley had been at my side. Now she was ducking behind me, one of her hands high on my right arm, clawing into my skin.

I pulled in a long breath. “He’s dead.”

The witch didn’t move for a long moment, staring right through me, one hand still visible, a floating chalk-white fist against long folds and layers of black and gray rags. “That’s not what I asked you.”

My voice came out in a low whisper, couldn’t muster anything stronger. “I took his materials. He asked me to.”

The solemn moment lasted another second, and then Helodes cheered up noticeably. “Oh good. I thought you were going to say you buried him or—” She waved vaguely north. “—left his corpse lying in some field for the scavengers to pick over.”

Her words slid into me like knives, unfeeling cold and sharp. Brazley’s face pressed into my back, felt her sob—or at least the thump of her body holding one in.

This was going too far—even for me. “The fuck is wrong with everyone?” I stabbed a finger at Helodes. “You don’t care that your son—or whatever he was to you—is dead? He’s gone Helodes. Dead at the hands of some poison-wielding dangerous OKF operative. He is not coming back.”

She showed me a sad smile. “Yes he is. He just had to find a teacher and a surrogate.”

Something funny must have surfaced on my face because she laughed. I made a fist.

Fucking witches.

Helodes came around, tugged Brazley out from behind me, put her arms over our shoulders and gave the rest of my team a this-way nod of her head, tossing long damp black hair over us.

“Tea and something to eat at my house. I can tell you haven’t eaten today. We’ll talk more when you’ve settled in a bit. I have room, beds, food, seclusion—and no one knows you’ve returned. I’ll have my own people guard your vehicles.”

Without looking back, Helodes shook her head and said, “Mr. Gossi? Looks like you’re carrying around a little something that you shouldn’t allow too close to your inner Winterdim lord.”

I felt him stumble before his words came out choppy and revealed the misstep. “You—you can see the thread? Shirley is still trying to solve it, and Lazaro’s old renderers don’t seem to know how it works.”

“Lazaro?” Helodes did manage a glance over her shoulder with a frown at Reed while keeping her course along the path, walking briskly with Brazley and I under each arm. “Well, it appears that Lazaro would like nothing more than to see the Lord of the Winterdim dead because that’s what the thread is going to do—in time. I believe you have a week or so.” She shrugged. “And it’ll probably take you with it. I mean, it’s not like the lord is really a separate autonomous part anymore. If we’ve pieced it all together correctly, you are the Lord of the Winterdim, Reed Gossi.”

32 - Ghosts

Is good fondue worth its weight in gold? It is, isn’t it? Helodes couldn’t cook worth a damn, but she knew people who could, and when we reached the witch’s house, dinner was ready, spread out for us, half a dozen steaming pots and skewers and mounds of bread and vegetables.

And no fucking fish.

The million questions waited for an hour, after dinner, with a high moon and an incoming swarm of weird chittering nocturnal animals in nearby trees, drawn closer by the scents of cooking—and the apparent lack of aggressiveness in the diners.

I sipped tea, picked a sharp wedge of bread crust from my teeth with my tongue, and jutted a chin at Helodes. “How do you know what’s inside Reed? What’s been going on while we were up north?”

“The thread?” She sighed. “The Rootworld isn’t like this one. Beings from the Winterdim are not permitted there—on pain of death, that sort of thing. I’ve seen weapons like this thread of Lazaro’s before. They are used to seek out anything alive from the Winterdim.”

“Lazaro’s from the Rootworld then. What else has happened?”

Helodes looked tired, swiveled her gaze to me—she’d been staring Fritz up and down for the last half hour. “Oh, you know.” She pushed her cup of tea at me, a warped thick-walled mug that looked like it had been loosely shaped of sludge, glazed with a river’s pollution-slick, and kilned. It was hideous, and I couldn’t help watching the thing bob in her fist with her words. “The ghost of Theodore Balanon, your damned uncle, visited me two nights after you left.”

That snapped up my gaze, and we locked eyes. It was hard not to glare at her. “A ghost?”

She waved the mug around, sloshing some of the tea over her fingers. She didn’t appear to notice it. “Ghost, remote dimensional image, whatever. Enough of him was here to let me in on a few secrets.” She caught me looking at the mug, and pulled it in possessively. “Andreus made this for me when he was little. It’s my favorite.”

Her reaction startled me. It was embarrassingly childish. I glanced over at Brazley across the room, but the girl just watched respectfully, no sign of a response in her blank eyes—I’m going to have to ask her if she wants someone to program those so she has irises.

I turned back to Helodes, caught a shudder and more spilled tea before she could lock it down.

So, it does hurt to lose someone you raised and loved, but the mighty witch Helodes cannot let anyone see what she’s feeling on the inside.

I reached out slowly. It felt dangerous, what I was about to do. Stopped the motion halfway there, and then—because it just felt right—extended my arm all the way, caught her wrist in one hand, and slid my fingers over her cool dry skin.

“I know, Helodes. Andreus was special. I don’t know why he charged across the field without us. I was in trouble, the same poison running through my vines. Brazley saved me from the same death. But Andreus was already out there, taking on Lazaro by himself. To help Folesh—who I think was also in trouble? Whatever his reasons, it wasn’t to die without one—a reason—or without payment.”

Helodes looked at me, eyes bloodshot. “Or without a gift.”

I looked over at Reed sitting quietly, staring at the ceiling, still working with the new knowledge about the thread’s purpose, mumbling to himself. Brazley was now deep in some musical discussion with Fritz and Carlos—she and Carlos had their SIGs out, locked and loaded, and Fritz was doing something to them, finally caught Fritz’s whispered words, “The song’s a phantom play, make the solid moving mechanisms in anything, a gun, a vehicle, anything that depends on enclosures or friction or gearing. Gears will spin through each other, ghost teeth that will catch nothing, locking mechanisms depending on a hook slotting into another piece...just come free, two ghost pieces passing through each other.”

He was explaining his methods for shutting down weapons and unlocking doors. To a musicman—or Child of the Sun, whatever he was, it was like me giving out recipes, the workings of the badass things I could do. Fritz was giving away his recipes, and I felt a pull in my chest, the tug of opposing forces, one that felt it was fatally wrong, the other exactly right.

I turned away, inclined to go with right, simply because it was the reverse of everything I had held dear for all my life up to now.

“You can let go of me, now.” Helodes caught my attention again with a touch on my gripping hand. I released her, hadn’t even felt my fingers tightening into her wrist.

“Let me tell you something, Thea...mother to future mother.”

It was tough to let that go without a scowl—come on, I hadn’t even had time to give Reed a good fucking.

Helodes waved the words past, and kept talking in her low while-we-have-this-moment-alone voice. “I have children, two sons and a daughter—one son living in the Rootworld, crossed back when he was a teenager, and never returned. Andreus wasn’t my real child.”

“I gathered that.”

“He was older than I was when we met. And he died saving my life.”

Had to stop my tongue picking at my teeth. “Okay, I don’t think I understand that.”

“I didn’t either, for a long time. Andreus dies and is reborn. That’s his never ending cycle. He’s—biologically—the only son of Orphne.”

“Queen of the Dead? Same Orphne?” The one I owe a shitload of something to—thanks to my uncle.

She nodded. “He is ancient—probably thousands of years old. He dies when he’s passed on enough knowledge to a student—who then becomes his teacher.” She flicked finger at me, her voice coming out hesitant. “And when he has found the next mother.”

An electric jolt, all the muscles in my body tightening, clamping at sphincter and vagina, rolling up my stomach and spine into my shoulders. First reaction, hold it all in. Or maybe, don’t let anything out of my body I didn’t make myself.

Like a baby!

Or even better, shift the focus to someone else. I coughed, jutted my chin across the room. “Brazley’s the teacher?”

Helodes nodded, swung everything right back to me. “You’re the surrogate mother.”

Fuck.

It was her turn to take my hand. “Sorry, Thea.”

I folded my own fingers over hers, shrugged, tried to lighten the tone of my voice. I was stronger than this. “No problem. There have been few things in my life that have hurt me as much as Andreus dying.”

Brazley was right behind me again, having given up on the boys and their guns. “Thea made an oak tree grow where Andreus fell.”

Helodes glanced at her, then back at me. “Very...”

Thought she was going to say “nice.”

“Unusual for you, Thea. Different. Very kind. Must have taken a lot.”

That bit deep, but it didn’t linger, and I shook my reaction off. “There’s more. Actually...this may sound unusual coming from me, but the Andreus mothering thing isn’t the biggest problem we have. Glad to know about it, but there are too many other things to worry about.”

“Really? Reed has something—that weaponized thread—inside him that’s going to kill him?”

I nodded. “Top of the list.”

“What’s after that?”

“Oh, the Leaf Father’s in love with me, and he has my long lost treeheart.”



I spilled the rest to Helodes, and followed Reed to bed four hours later, stepped out of my pants, tugged my shirt over my head, and got under the sheets behind him. I just held on, pressed my body against his, my face buried in his hair at the back of his neck.

I smelled oranges. Something about Winterdim and oranges I’d have to ask about in the morning.

I wasn’t asleep long before Uncle Theodore showed up, all gaunt, chalky and floating. Half expected him to moan and rattle some chains like a damn ghost, too, but he just hovered there, arms folded, maybe a little disappointed—as if I was slacking off. Nope, haven’t killed that goddamn Thea-loving Leaf Father yet. I’ll get to it in the morning, Uncle Theo! But first I have to get my heart away from him.

He appeared to be half there, but his voice came out as if he was in the room. “Get dressed. I’ll be in the forest.”

And he left.

I dragged my clothes on, took two steps, and stopped at the door. I was back in bed in a second, kneeling, running my hands over Reed’s shoulders. “Reed? Get up.”

He rolled toward me, the weight of his body against my legs, a startled edge in his voice. “What is it?”

“I need you to come with me. My Uncle Theo’s here to talk.”

He stared at me, not making the connection.

“I want you to be there with me.”

He sat up, some disbelief surfacing with his sleepy voice. “Really? Okay. I’ll get dressed.”

He rolled back, and slid off the other side of the bed, the sheets falling away, and he was down to tanned skin, his muscled back, and dark blue briefs that hugged...

I looked away. Not the right time.

We stepped through Helodes’ house quietly, and didn’t run into anyone, stopping at the edge of the courtyard, to get our bearings. I closed my eyes, sniffed the air, something familiar on my left.

“This way.” I took off at a jog, Reed at my side. I caught the questions in his glance. “My uncle isn’t all the way here. He’s doing something remotely.” I could tell that opened up another roomful of questions, but he closed the door and jogged with me through the trees.

A clearing opened up a kilometer into the woods west of Helodes’ house, and in the center, floating half a meter off the pine needle bed, was my ghostly Uncle Theo. He looked the same, tall, very thin, long straight gray hair, hollowed cheeks and eyes, a gentle smile—that slipped away as we walked into the clearing.

He jabbed a hand at Reed. “Alone, Thea. Send him away.”

“No.”

His voice came back quiet. “What I have to say is for your ears, your thoughts alone.”

I grabbed Reed when his feet shifted, poised to walk away, the feeling in him that he was intruding in my personal matters. “He’s staying. Reed’s been through everything I have and more in the last month. We hold the Winterdim Lord and his tools inside us. And you’re damn well going to answer some questions about that. If you can’t say whatever you’re going to say in front of Reed, I don’t want to hear it.”

Theodore looked down at me, eyes widening, the rest of his features seemed to sag with indecision. “This is unexpected. You have changed, Thea.”

Yeah, I guess I have. “Well, it’s been that sort of month.”

Uncle Theo jumped right in.

“I have sold my life to find out this information.”

What?” I choked on my defiance. “Sold to who?”

“You remember my final words to you? You are my namesake, we will either triumph in this or you will assume my debt here.” He made a puzzled expression, mouth half-open, eyes focused up and to my right. “There may be a middle road, but I can’t see it working that way.”

I swallowed hard, forced myself not to turn to Reed, who was watching me, not my uncle. “I know your final words, Uncle Theo, by heart.”

His sharp focus snapped back to me. “Your heart...”

“I know, the Leaf Father has it.”

“He possesses all our hearts. It’s his way of controlling the forest. He took Kraneia’s not long after we entered this Dawnworld. Mine soon after. He possesses the heart of the Worldforest itself. Yours is the youngest heart he has ever taken—and that means he thought you would become a problem.” He blinked at me as if my last statement hadn’t caught up to him until now. “How did you find out the Father of Leaves has your heart?”

“He told me. He showed it to me.”

Uncle Theo sighed, folded his arms uncomfortably, looked away for a moment, then back down to me. “Are you angry with me?”

“What for?”

“Not finding you soon enough.”

“In the OaK leaF? You did what you could. When you could. All of us did.” I waved behind me. “I found Fritz. You remember Fritz?”

“The boy who sings?”

“The same.”

He nodded, then leaned forward, over me. “I do not have much time. You must find me and bargain with Orphne. She and the Father of Leaves have allied against us, but she is...not so rigid in her view of power, and has a certain respect for me, your mother, and you.

Which means you’ve been charming—possibly even fucking—the Queen of the Dead, crazy old Uncle Theo. “She’s using you.”

“Of course she is, but she’s also open to other paths and allies.” He shook his head. “Not the Father of Leaves. He will burn down any rival. Make no bargains. Force us all to obey.”

I shook my head. “He told me he’s in love with me.”

Uncle Theo’s mouth dropped open.

I kept my laugh short. “Yeah, my reaction as well.”

“Do not trust him. You must find me.”

“Turn thrice on river stones? Where’s this river? Tell me and we’ll find you. It’s not just me in this. I have friends.”

He bent forward even more, eyeing me as if there was a possibility that I wasn’t the real Theodora Viran. Finally satisfied, he said, “I found one in Florida.”

I was expecting something more dramatic. “So the Queen of the Dead lives in Florida?”

He shook his head, irritated, pointing down at the floor under him—wherever he was. “She lives here. There are many doors, but I found one there in the old state of Florida.”

“I’ve seen maps of the place. Lot of saltwater. And there are a lot of rivers. Can you be specific?”

He nodded, glancing off to his right. “You will know it, you’ll feel it. A tributary off Lostmans River. I must go.”

“Wait!” Reed and I said it at the same time.

Uncle Theo turned back, one eyebrow raised.

“What about the Winterdim Lord you let into this world?”

He waved airily. “We made a simple deal—a deal we worked with Numezhin long before your mother and I entered this world. He gave up autonomy in exchange for the power to appear physically in all the worlds. He wasn’t allowed there. My sister—your mother—and I did not agree with the ban on Winterdim, but we would have been killed for dealing with Numezhin in the Rootworld. We had to be quiet. Enemies everywhere, agents of the Leaf Father. Didn’t go as planned.” He looked right at Reed when he said this. Then shrugged. “But well enough. For the rest, why don’t you ask him?”

I turned to Reed to get his reaction. He was going to ask the same thing. “Who?”

“Numezhin, Lord of the Winterdim.” He pointed at Reed. “Talk to yourself. He is you.”

Uncle Theo looked off to his right again. This time his shoulders tensed up, and without another word, he vanished.

I took Reed’s hand on the way back to the house, but I was too tired to do anything, just got back in bed, and slept.

33 - Gardenwear

The five of us met outside the dining hall in the morning—no sign of Helodes. I had the sense that river witches only pretended to stay in the house, but really went off to their rivers after everyone else fell asleep.

We had leftover crusty bread and warmed up cheese, took everything outside in the courtyard. It was quiet, a few birds but that was all, a bright sun breaking through the trees over the Mississippi.

For five minutes I could pretend everything was normal. The dew on my bare feet, slick between my toes. Food that tasted good. Some heavy shit on my shoulders, but nothing I couldn’t postpone for a few.

No one trying to hunt us down and kill us...at the moment.

I was even okay with Carlos, Fritz, and Reed drinking coffee—the nasty stuff. They moved to the other side of the courtyard to lean against a fence rail, discussing something about the forest, maybe the way the light came through, touching the floor.

I didn’t even try to fish for words out of Reed’s low voice, just watched his mouth when he spoke, when he smiled, laughed, his mouth opening over the smooth lip of the mug, the warm liquid over his tongue, down his throat.

I got a core buzz just looking at him, had the urge to knock the coffee out of his hands, lure him into the shower, vine bind him to the faucets, get him in my mouth, and suck him till he was sore... Water running down his body, his wet skin sliding up and down my face, my fingers digging into the back of his thighs, shoulder against his hip, shoving him against the tiles, the tension in my neck—pulling and floating with my rhythm, my mouth open and taking him—

“Thea?”

Blinking, I stared around—gods it was bright out here, couldn’t even tell who’d called my name.

“Are you okay?”

I was breathing deep, a fluid warmth lapping around my insides, hard pinpoints of heat in the depths.

I turned and was staring at Brazley, a gardener’s trowel in one hand, a thin stalk of a pepper plant with the dangling tendrils of the rootball in the other.

I swallowed. “Uh, yeah. You?”

“I am well. Helodes gave me a planting job to do last night. Will you help me understand gardening?”

“Sure.” I stopped on the pepper plant, let my gaze trail to her boots. “What are you wearing?

Brazley looked down at her own grayish-purple urban camo leggings and cloth-armor tunic. “Is something wrong with these clothes?”

“Everything.” I shook my head, waved her to follow. “That won’t do. Not for gardening.” I glanced back, wagged a finger at her hands and what they were holding. “Put those down. Follow me.”

Back in the bedrooms of Helodes’ house, I dragged Brazley in, shut the door, and pulled out a thin yellow top from my pack. “Can you detach the shoes from your pants, leggings, whatever those are?”

Brazley looked down. “I can. Should I not wear shoes for gardening?”

“Not on this beautiful end-of-summer morning. Off with them. Take that top off, too.”

Brazley sat on the edge of the bed to finger in the reconfig on her pants, sliding off her boots when they unsealed from the cuffs.

“No socks. Bare feet only. Roll up the legs on your pants, about mid-calf.”

Brazley followed my orders, peeled off her socks, touched her fingers along the hem of the tunic, and then confirmed something in the armor with a thumb print. Her top split down the back, loosened, and curled off her body. She folded her arms over her chest.

“This is how you garden?”

“All the time. Put this on.” I tossed her my yellow top—basically a tube with microstraps, stepping back to get a good look at her, smiling as she played nervously with the high shirt hem cutting across the middle of her body, just above the soft jutting of her ribcage.

She looked at me, a little worried. “It’s very short.”

“It’s fine. You look good. Now come on.”

She followed me outside—hesitant. “Andreus would not allow me to wear...”

“Andreus barely knew how to dress himself. He’d no idea what a girl or a gardener should be wearing. You think he knew more about being a girl or gardening than I do, you’re welcome to go put your armor back on. No? Then let’s get dirty.”

I spent the rest of the day pretending there weren’t murderous tree gods out there, stumping through the forests, killing anything in their way, writing love letters to me. I spent most of it gardening with Brazley, which turned out not to be nearly as dull as I’d anticipated.

Helodes needed her fall harvest of greens planted and started—a whole field of lettuce, spinach, and cabbage. We also planted cauliflower, radishes, and kohlrabi. The lone pepper plant went into a decorative pot for the kitchen.

Out in the fields I tasted the soil, sifted thousands of seeds through my fingers, pre-soaking them, breathing on them, got them growing, and after we’d finger-depthed the seedlings in long rows, Brazley and I sat back and planned tomorrow’s garlic crop.

Helodes drifted through at mid-day, river water running from her hair, her long black-rag drape pasted to her body, sharp elbows and shoulder-blades jutting, a caring smile on her face.

She walked up and down the rows of seedlings, muddy feet and crouching to inspect our work. “Thea, you’ve done wonderfully—”

“Not just me. Brazley did as much work.”

Helodes went to her knees, one hand in the soil, fingertips of the other brushing gently through the sprouts I’d sparked from the dirt. She looked up at my interruption, fixed her gaze on me, thoughtful and a little frightened.

Brazley noticed, and spoke first. “Helodes, what is wrong?”

The witch sounded far away, not really talking to us, her focus floating away from me, up into the trees and higher, catching a wind-driven cloud, a ray of sunlight. “Why can’t pain be painful and joy or pleasure be just that? Why must the two mix? Why must we feel the lift of one and the stab of the other?”

The old witch straightened without a glance at Brazley or I, and wandered off in the direction of the Mississippi, presumably to ponder that some more. Brazley looked at me, I shrugged, and said, “I think she thought highly of your gardening.”

“Do you?”

I caught her eyes—still and black with a dull reflective convex shape. “You don’t need my judgment, Brazley. Your hands are dirty. That’s really all I need to see.” The thought of programming her eyes from stealth military black to show irises of some color floated back into my head. “Hey, you want to reconfigure your eyeplants? Give you some fun colors on the menu, let you change the optical ranges? Bet we can get Carlos to do some interesting and useful things with those.”

She came back with an interested smile. “I’ve always wanted to have eyes the color of amber.”

I got up, held out my hand for her, and we set off to find the boys. Carlos, Fritz, and Reed had been repairing the roof, window framing, painting, and other chores for Helodes. We came around the southern corner of the house, and there they were, the three of them in Adirondack chairs, legs stretched out, tall glasses of iced tea.

Reed raised his to me in greeting, his arms speckled with lavender paint—the new exterior color for one of the tool sheds. Carlos smiled.

Fritz had his back to me. I reached his chair, dropped a hand to his shoulder. “Hey, Child of the Sun.”

He looked up, frowning. “I think I prefer any nickname anyone’s ever given me—including the OKF with their stupid “Apollon” to that one.”

I squeezed his shoulder. “You’ll always be Fritzy to me.”

“Fritz Z is my name.”

Carlos pulled his legs in, sat up. “You’re done with the planting?”

I looked at Brazley, let her take the response.

“Today. Tomorrow we have promised Helodes a fresh winter crop of garlic.”

“What about you guys?” My thoughts were already toying with ways to get the paint off Reed’s hands.

Helodes came around the corner before anyone answered, back to her normal mood, half a smile on her mouth, her long black hair pulled around to her right shoulder to hang in curling wet clumps.

“You think the house runs itself? Why’s everyone sitting around?”

Reed tipped his glass of tea at her. “You’re a witch Helodes. Doesn’t it run on your power?”

Carlos, always serious, set down his glass. “We intend to pay for your hospitality, Helodes. We were just taking a short break from the work.”

“Shut up Carlos. The real reason?” I smiled down at Fritz. “The Child of the Sun told us we could have the rest of the day off.”

Helodes made a serious go at trying to take that seriously, and then laughed with us, setting aside something grim sitting just inside her head. She let the fun run on its own momentum, and waited a few minutes after we’d quieted down.

Then she told us the news.

“The Leaf Father reached the east bank last night.” Helodes pointed at me with one pale bony finger. “I think you’d better get out of here. Run for the Gulf, or head west. I can stop him from crossing the Mississippi...for a while.”

That put some chill in the air. I folded my arms because I needed that being-held feeling—and then, really strange, I was thinking about someone else but me. “We can’t leave without removing Lazaro’s thread from Reed.”

And that’s when Reed came through with something out of this world. “What if Thea isn’t here?”

Well, he didn’t come right out with it, made it all mysterious and confusing at first.

Helodes glanced at me, then around at the others, put on a deep witch scowl. “I believe that’s what I just suggested.”

Reed set his glass down, and came around to stand beside me. “No. I mean, together Thea and I can literally leave this world—the Dawnworld, and make our way into Winterdim. I can have someone there cut out the thread.” Then he tapped the side of his head twice and gestured to me. “After all, the Winterdim is our world.”

Dead silence for a few minutes—certainly not what Helodes had suggested.

I looked over, locked eyes with Reed, pushed a question at him, wanted to see if he was serious. He nodded back.

“You have new info out of Lazaro’s renderers?”

He drew a breath, seemed determined to try to hold on to it as long as possible. “I do.” The two words sounded strained.

“How much time do you have?”

“A few days. Maybe.” He shrugged. “Maybe a little more. Before it opens up and kills the Numezhin part of me.”

“Can you actually talk to Numezhin...as my Uncle said?”

“Sort of. There was a piece I’d always kept locked down—the piece that spoke to you at OKF when I wasn’t in any condition to speak, the piece that put the building to sleep. I opened it, let it inside me. It really is like talking to myself, like sifting through old memories. I know the Winterdim as if I grew up there, wiped out rivals, ruled it, fought over it. I am not a nice guy at all, a real old style tyrant. But I have wealth, doctors at my call, a whole world that belongs to me. We’ll be fine there, and I can get rid of Lazaro’s little weapon.”

That settled it for me. “Okay. We also have wings. Let’s go.”

34 - Winterdim

It took far longer to get started than I’d hoped. I was imagining throwing on a set of fire wings, opening up a hole in the ground and dropping into it—then we get Reed healed and pop right back. Carlos and Brazley brought me back from the brink, showed me how much more secure this would be with a little planning.

I sighed, lowered my arms. Okay...

We needed armor, clothing with long sleeves, winterwear—all of it powered and self-repairing. There’s a reason the place is called Winterdim. Even with full daylight it was about half as bright as the Dawnworld, except for the Lord’s Palace, which—according to Reed—was apparently lit up like a volcano, and around it the world ran on at low light levels.

Helodes brought in her designers, commissioned the work, but we wouldn’t have anything before midnight.

Shirley had some interesting things to say. Not sure I got it all, but the Winterdim ran at a slower pace—as in time passed slower than here, which I took to mean Reed and I could spend a nice relaxing six-month holiday and it would be like a week going by here.

Interesting...I caught the betrayed look in Brazley’s eyes, nothing strong, just a drop of I thought you were never going to leave me?

I shook my head, squeezing Reed’s hand hard. “That’s a promise, Braze. We’re going to get this Lazaro thing fixed, we’ll put you out of danger, and then we’ll be back.”

Her matte black eyes fixed on me, I didn’t need to see the churn of thoughts in her head, and the Brazley I knew came back with a very honest Brazley question: “Why would you return to face the Leaf Father when you can remain in the Winterdim, and be free of him?”

I didn’t know what I had become, what these people had turned me into, but this was me now, felt the words hang in my throat for a moment, and then the caring just came out. “Because I cannot leave you here. You, or Fritz or Carlos. I will be back, and if I need to find a way to bring you there, I will—if that’s what we have to do.”

That seemed to make her more thoughtful, than working to dispel any worries.

She had her pack slung over one shoulder, and therefore everything she owned in the world, including the chunk of Leaf Father finger she’d cut and grabbed as a trophy/experimental sample for poison testing.

“Remember when you told me that we’ll find a way to kill the Leaf Father?”

She nodded, a birdlike tilt of her head, a frown forming as if she wasn’t sure where I was suddenly taking this.

I smiled. “Come on, I wouldn’t miss a chance at that for any world.”

Later, when I told Fritz and Carlos that if anything happened to Brazley while I was gone, I’d kill them, they both swung around to see if I was joking. I was...sort of. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t kill them. They agreed anyway.

I hugged and kissed them both, saved another couple for Braze, and sometime around two in the morning, we were ready, new clothes with built in advanced combat weave underclothing, fancy sleeves that went over the tops of my hands with rings for my fingers. “To keep your sleeves down and snug while in flight” they told me. Damn, Helodes had some interesting design connections.

“So, what do we do first?” Those were Reed’s final words in this world, the so-called “Dawnworld”—called that by the beings from Rootworld.

Then I grabbed Reed, opened up a hole into the Winterdim, stretched my wings of fire, and we fell into another world.My first thought was that everyone was wrong. This isn’t between two worlds, but an entire world itself. The Winterdim just appeared to be narrow at the top, something that seemed like a crawl-space, just one of many narrow paths into this world. Yeah, it was dark, and it was cold, both winter and dim, but there was a light from below, beams of summer light coming through the clouds selectively, and there was life circling and shifting in the light, clouds of some flocking creature.

Other than one well-lit hotspot, there was near-darkness all around us, with stabs of pale moon glow shooting past our feet, not really catching anything reflective.

Swinging my legs around Reed’s waist, I locked my ankles in front, dug in deeper with my arms, sent one hand clawing across his chest, the other up to his throat, fingering the wedge of light under his chin. His hair blew soft against my face, and I shoved my lips against his ear, “Just let me know when you want me to slow down.”

An edge of panic in his voice, his words coming out stiff, “Yes, I will.”

Bringing my voice lower, “Shhh. I have this under control. Relax.” With a matching gentle scribbling of my fingers along his collar bone, then circling the Adam’s apple, my thumb pressed into the joint of his jaw, tips cupping his chin, pinky playing with the corner of his mouth. “Take in the view. Look down, there’s more light. I think...”

“Someone’s misnamed this world.” His words came out in a burst, shouting into the wind.

I let my hand slide away with his words, palm flat against his chest, my chin digging into his shoulder as I tried to look over him, directly below us.

Blinding light cutting through clouds, but it was a focused beam, as if all the light of a sun had been harnessed and directed somewhere, cutting sharply across the sky, leaving the rest of the world in gloom.

Dim. Like winter.

“Or it was named by someone with very limited access. By someone who only had one foot in—”

What the hell? I turned at a sharp pull on my shirt, and nearly dropped Reed when three claws—from some animal clinging to my back—came into view under my arm, digging through the material into my skin. I felt a fear-of-heights shiver run through them, and lifting my right arm to get a better look at them, the obvious answer slid into my thoughts. “Augustine? That you?”

He didn’t answer, but I felt his fear, and I knew it was, also felt the little claws, like something on a very large Koala, clutch harder. I tried to bend forward, but not far enough, and I couldn’t see his face. I didn’t want to imagine it either...dammit, couldn’t help it, had to wonder what the face might look like on an animal with six feet. That’s what I felt clawing into my back and right side, three identical pairs of five fingered claws.

I looked up, past Reed, and the wind was whipping through my hair, and I squinted against it, and stretched my fire wings to the limit, cupped the night, and let it lift us.

A minute passed and I unfolded the wings again, and soared across the heaven of another world. Less gravity in the Winterdim—I could feel the lack of it, a floating sensation that wasn’t there in my world when we’d rolled fast off the OKF building three roof.

I can see beings from this world.

There were creatures of every kind circling us as we dropped through the clouds, all of them keeping a deferential distance.

“What kind of Winterdim being is that?”

Reed twisted around, pulling at my hold as if surprised by the question, indicated the snowy dragon-dog looking thing with a jut of his chin. “She’s a Bishasen.” He repeated the word, roughening the “sh” to “Bizhasen.” He nodded suddenly, coming too close to butting me in the nose with the back of his head. “You know who she is, right?”

“She?” Choked on the end of the word, and took me a couple seconds to get my voice back. “Is that Shirley?”

He nodded again, and I could feel a smile on his face, even felt a hint of condescension in it.

I pinched him hard, and he flinched. “Stop your damn head-nodding and speak to me. Twice now you’ve nearly caught me in the face with the back of your head.”

He started to nod and stopped, turning his head. “Just trying to keep the chatter down. There are many here in this world who know English and several other languages from ours. Keep that in mind when we are among them.”

“Will do. What’s your plan?”

Reed pointed, and I banked right, brought my wings up, pumping them to get some lift, leaning forward then pulling them back, letting them fold into a delta that brought clouds ripping by my face, smears of gray, tears running free from my eyes into my hair, and over my head in trailing dots of vapor when they hit the wings.

Closed my eyes, squeezed out a gush of tears, whispered into his hair, “Where are we going?”

“Palace. My palace—well, our palace.” He grinned back at me. “I’m nothing without my toolbox.”

“And when we show up instead of the Winterdim Lord?”

“Don’t worry.” He sounded like me. “I know what to say.”

“Fly in like we own the fucking place?”

He smiled, one sharp corner of his mouth in view. “We do own the fucking place. The lord owns everything, even the light from the star, doling it out to favored courtiers and family.”

“He has family?” For some reason the thought shocked me.

“No one he cares about, and he’s never taken a bride. Doesn’t trust anyone. Can you believe that? What a weirdo.”

My voice came out shaky. “Friends?”

Reed nodded, “Not like you and me. More like accomplices—or better, confidantes with a hierarchy that’s always going to get in the way.”

I tightened my legs around Reed, squeezed and then loosened it up. Friends like you and me.

We flew without speaking for another hour, the wing-roar in our ears, Shirley keeping pace on my left. Augie still dug in deep and low at my hip, curving with my butt, to sink another set of claws into the back of my right thigh.

As far as I could tell—it was difficult to look down, Reed’s three additional renderers from Lazaro all clung to his legs and ankles. We probably looked like a traveling circus—just the clowns.

Another hour or so looking around, and then it was back to business. I breathed deep, started analysis, whispered back hoarsely, “It really is a new world, isn’t it Reed?”

The air smelled funny, a residue of burned oil, some kind of fuelsource or volcanic mixture I couldn’t identify. We cut through hot clouds of high-altitude smoke and cooler banks of some natural source of steam like fifty-kilometer high drifts off a boiling ocean of freshwater.

I didn’t feel any urge to drop lower to investigate, just pumped the wings hard, hissing in the mist with long ribbons of condensation coming off the tips. We gained altitude, and I tucked them back into a long speed dive toward sharp cliffs of bluegreen, millions of teeth at the hazy edge of this world.

It turned out to be a close guess, rows of jagged rocky structures as far as I could see, solid, or at least coated with a substance that softened the facets and points, the color standing out more green than blue when we got close.

What is all this shit? Bacteriological? Is it farmed, an infestation, natural habitat for it?

I pumped the wings again, rising over a clearer space of land where the territory of green teeth thinned, grew in sparse, and like an alpine treeline, cut off abruptly into empty plains of dusty brown with wind-pattern swirls.

I pointed under Reed’s arm.

The air wasn’t empty. There were airships, but like nothing I’d ever seen in any sky or vid in the Dawnworld, flat stacks of linked elongated pancake lifters holding up something the size of our whole town—kilometer-wide payload and passenger space. We banked and came in alongside one, ripping by and over the bow, rows of Winterdimmers staring, some of them lowering their bodies to the deck, others bowing long antlered heads.

“Even appearing as me—and not Numezhin, they recognize me.” Reed’s whisper drifted back to me. “They hate me. They fear me. I have made them miserable. Shattered this whole world with my power grabbing and cruelty.”

“Not you. That was Numezhin the Terrible.”—that’s what I’d started calling him. I put some upbeat into my tone. “Come on. Think of the opportunities we have. We now have a chance to make it better. You and me. At the very least, we can stir some shit up and go home.”

He glanced back doubtfully.

But I was already on to other things. I thought about Brazley and my promise. “How sure are we that we can retrace this flight path and get through that door?”

Instead of looking back at me, Reed looked down and to his left, shouting in another language—nothing recognizable in the syllables or tone. He could have gone suddenly mad for all I knew.

But it turned out he was just talking to Shirley. She swung in close, matching my speed with her wings tucked in, her real voice coming out silksmooth, feminine and far older and wiser sounding than I’d ever felt her to be. She sounded...human inside my head, a girl’s voice, not really like my own, but still a girl’s voice. Here, I expected her audible voice to be a bit growly to match the fierce winged wolf-crab-dragon shape.

Reed snapped off something that could have been a command.

Shirley came back—in her real voice—with what was clearly, “I have been storing every movement we have made since the door opened, your honor. I know how to return if that is what you desire to do. But I do not think Thea needs to use the same door twice. She can open that one to go home whenever she likes.”

Reed answered with something short that sounded like, “Majoovarim” and tilted his head back to me, shouting, “You got that?”

I sure did. I also understood, with an ache of shame, that Shirley wasn’t a part of me—and I should never have thought she was. She wasn’t something to be ordered around, treated like my servant, even if she did overcharge for her services. I had always admired her, felt she knew me better than I knew myself sometimes, but she was never a separate living being in my mind.

Reed shouting over the wind. “Thea? What’s wrong?”

I clutched him harder, and called over his shoulder to Shirley. “Oh, I owe you a million apologies. Even that name—”

“I love the name Shirley.”

“It was something an ignorant kid—me—slapped on you like you were piece of property.” I felt a lurch of acid in my gut. “I’ve treated you...badly.”

Thinking back to Reed’s revelation, that he could see beings from the Winterdim, maybe it was fear inside me, horror at the idea that I’d have to face Shirley someday—face-to-face—and deal with her like another person, not like some half-realized interloper with names like “dimensional renderer” and powers that could be exploited.

“You are...so real. I’m so sorry.” I couldn’t say her name. “I can’t call you...don’t know what to call you now, here, in your own world—where I’m the outsider.” Everything started falling down around me, and it took everything I had left to keep my wings straight. “You saved me. You taught me everything I know. You got me out of the OaK leaF...alive. I did nothing but damn you for it. I’d have never had a fucking backbone without you. And I’ve never known what a friend really is. But I hoped, always hoped and thought you were my friend. My only friend growing up.”

With teeth showing—sharp enough to rip easily through any animal—she smiled, tilting her wings a little to move closer. “I hoped you would see it that way, Thea. And you should call me Shirley. That’s not just my name, it’s what I want to be called.” She extended one of her sharp gray claws, pointing at the horizon. “Even here.”

Gods, then she said something that started tears in my eyes. I had to blink them away, and almost lost control of the flight trying to rub them on my shoulder.

“This isn’t my world, Thea. You are.”

35 - The Throne of Numezhin

I hadn’t really thought about it, but it just seemed normal that we’d come through in the middle of the night, and there happened to be enough reflected light from whatever star powered this place to guide us.

So it turns out, it really was dim, Winterdim, all the time.

But it’s not natural.

Give you one guess whose fault that is. Yup. Our illustrious overload, Numezhin the Terrible.

Dimness brought to you by the same fuckwit who brought you wings of fire.

How do you rub it in with those who live in the dark in a world under your oppressive thumb? Right you are. Big bad-ass and bright wings of fire.

And I thought I felt like an idiot sporting them in the middle of a dry grass field. In Winterdim it was like driving a tanker truck full of water through a desert of people dying of thirst—and fucking honking the horn the whole time just to let them know what they couldn’t have.

No sun to speak of? My first thought was how do they live? And then I thought of whole habitats at the ocean floor with a chemosynthetic foundation and suddenly I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

I hate the fucking ocean. And flying through the air’s not much better.

I couldn’t wait to get on the ground. Walk among whatever passed for trees here.

Where were all the orange groves? I smelled rich citrus every time I made some intimate contact with Reed and the Winterdim. Show me the oranges.

We settled for Numezhin’s palace, which stood about as far from the ground as a small mountaintop, and it was bright as midday back home. The bastard had done something Reed called “reflective magic” to direct all light from the star where he wanted. He generated a layer that blocked up most of the light, moved with the rising and setting star, and then removed specific sections to focus the light on particular targets—mainly his palace and a few other selected sites.

This seemed like an even dumber play than the fire wings.

A thousand questions popping up through the soil, but they’d have to wait until Reed and I were alone again. I had to fly us up the front steps. Apparently Numezhin was like two or three times taller than we were.

Then we were on polished paving stones, red and purples veined in bright blue. The household of the lord, his guard, servants, and a hundred courtiers waited for him...I mean us.

I just kept thinking, act like you own the place. Walked in holding Reed’s hand, trying not to stare around like a damn tourist. That was the tough part.

This was all new, new world, new people...entirely different kinds of people. Whole new biologic shapes to take in and process.

Tall vertical gray armless, legless towers that floated a meter off the ground, with one upside down smile slot of an eye, and a silvery lower face with a projectile mouth full of glassy needle teeth.

Augustine dropped off my back, and walked beside me as if he, too, owned the fucking place—or at least was on good terms with the owners. He was. Pretty confident for one weird looking dude. I liked him immediately.

“Augustine’s a Mirm.”

Six short gray-furred legs with a bunch of big three or four knuckled fingers on each—and all of them looking the same. I couldn’t see any difference in the limbs. That was the normal part of him. His head sort of ran on thick flexible cabling within a central body tube, and could pop up at either end of the body—or between any of the limb joints. The legs were covered in short hair, the rest of his body nearly transparent with layers of skin and bridging connective tissue. The see-through option was a bit odd for me, but made sense if he could pull his entire head inside his body. How else was he going to see in that position?

We marched right through the gate, the gravity a bit lighter than earth, and it made you feel like you could skip in ten meter strides over the smooth road surface. I was tempted to jump, but reined it in, and did things with dignity.

Sure the fire wings were an idiot’s toy, but it didn’t mean they couldn’t be used to make an entrance.

I flew Reed to the top of a set of giant’s stairs, twenty of them rising above the square, with facings a meter high. No way we could climb of jump up those without looking ridiculous. They were steps for something far larger than we were.

“Numezhin was one big guy?”

Reed nodded back, straightening his shoulders, trying to appear as tall as possible.

We strode through the crowd.

Hushed voices—almost human sounding—along with some high-pitched chirping.

A crowd of various kinds of beings from the Winterdim spread thin—one or two deep—along the walls of the hall. I looked up at the gold ceiling so far away. There was a platform at the far end with a massive carved stone—carved in the shape of flowing waves—that had one horizontal cropping that must have been the seat for the Winterdim Lord. That was our throne. Cool.

We were met at the open end of the throne room by a being no shorter than three meters tall, roughly human in structure with limbs thick as mature oak trunks, but all striped and shimmery with paint or tattoos, and clothing or armor that slid in and out of his skin, smooth curves at his neck, across the dome of his skull, faceted rolls over his arms, interlocking muscular bulges and planes jigsawed across his chest and middle. He had a band of glowing blue running from a knot high on the right side of his head across his eyes, down his left cheek, over the joint of his jaw and into a stiff vertical collar. Little trickles of blue running into his mouth, which was full of bright green triangular teeth. I didn’t understand the purpose of the veined blue that I eventually traced to his feet, branching across his skin and clothing like some kind of exposed neural system.

But he was smiling, and that had to be good, right? Even if the smile was a little hungry.

Reed stopped, and I stopped with him, at his side, holding his hand. A glance down showed me that Shirley and Augustine were both behind us now.

Reed looked up and spoke in the court language. The giant’s eyes narrowed, a firm respect in his voice, but no sign of obeisance.

Reed was talking to a respected underling, rattling off what could have been a greeting. Then the two of them went into a serious back and forth word-lobbing, the giant asking a set of questions, Reed responding with short bursts of words.

The giant smiled, pulled his dark blue lips from his teeth.

And Reed looked up as if at an old confidante, making a sideways tilt gesture with his head. “Azhelros.”

Azhelros turned, lifted his arms like an offering, wide open palms at the sky. He sang to the world, a rolling deep voice that carried far.

I leaned in, whispered, “That’s his name? What’s he singing?”

Reed nodded. “He’s announcing us, me, the Lord and you, his Lady from the upstream world.”

“Upstream?” I understood. “Upstream is the Rootworld, and we grew up in the downstream, the Dawnworld?”

“Yup.”

Interesting that they’d positioned themselves—and their own world—in between when anyone’s normal first reaction would be to put themselves on top.

Azhelros leaned over us, still smiling, and said something for Reed’s ears only, although it carried enough for the nearest of the trailing courtiers to hear—and then to gasp in shock over. A sharp turn of his head, the smile vanished, and it was as if Azhelros hadn’t really heard himself say something offensive to his lord.

He dropped to his knees, both his clawed hands going to his throat, ripping open his armor, exposing softer pale blue flesh underneath.

Reed leaned in close to me, breathed the words, “Give me a sword.”

“What?”

“Make a sword appear, any kind of sword, some kind of bladed weapon, the fancier the better. Think court blade, decorative, probably get you killed in a real fight, but still sharp enough to cut skin. Something flashy.”

I had it, and then my fist was curled around a long slender sword scabbard, a grip surrounded by a fancy net of metal blooming like a gold flower out of the end. It looked like some overly ornate useless weapon out of a cheap history flick. Apparently it was exactly what Reed was looking for. His face lit up, his hand took the grip, and drew the sword with a flourish, bringing the tip around to Azhelros, whipped it into a couple figure-eights, and lunged, the tip cutting handily though skin in a ten-centimeter straight line.

I tried to sound a little disappointed. “Thought you were going to carve your name, and maybe our initials in a heart. What happened? Lost your nerve.”

Reed gave me a funny smile. “This is serious, Thea—complex social structure. My friend, commander of all my armies, ruler in my place, Azhelros has said something to insult me—called me ‘small’. Punishment is required for this breach of etiquette, but the nature of the punishment is up to me. I could have cut off his head or made a mark with my ultra-fancy sword. Something had to be done. The only thing I couldn’t do, was ignore it.”

“Doesn’t sound complicated.”

“You haven’t seen the Orange Ceremony yet.”

Reed released my hand, made an open swinging gesture with both of his. And I stood there frozen, hoping I wouldn’t disappear, become immaterial, fade from Reed’s side without my contact with him.

Reed continued, unconcerned. He hadn’t noticed that he’d let go of me.

“My subjects...”

Augustine climbed up one leg, then up my back to my shoulder, to whisper the English translation in my ear. Subjects? Man, Reed was really getting into monarch mode with this. Shirley’s claws bit into my leg, and then she, too, climbed up to my shoulder, her wings fluttering to take the the weight off.

“I return to Winterdim the same lord, the same power, the same soul that departed so many years ago. Remained the same, even as the journey has changed me, divided my form in two.” He gestured to himself then to me. “I have sealed alliances, spread the fear of my power wide, joined with these two up and downstream world beings. I have extended my dominion over those two other worlds.”

What a pompous asshole.

I looked around at the gathered courtiers, too many to get a clear look at, but the closer ones showed approval—as far as I could tell, a universal serious focus on all of them, different responses depending on the kind of being, some symmetric ear swiveling—from the ones like Augustine. A sort of gyrating wing motion from the Bizhasen—like Shirley. Others stood absolutely still, which at least didn’t come across as disapproval.

Reed brought one hand to indicate his right side, about halfway up his ribcage. “I do not plan to remain long, because there is more work to do to harden these alliances. I have returned—for a short time—because I am injured.”

The gasps of shock didn’t sound otherworldly at all. Azhelros rushed to Reed’s side, whispered something, Reed put a hand on his forearm—about as high as Reed could reach, and stepped through what sounded to me like a series of commands.

“Thea?” It was Shirley breathing my name in my left ear. A flick of my eyes in her direction.

“What is he telling Azhelros?”

“He’s arranging the surgery to investigate and remove the thread.”

“Are these doctors trained well?”

“The lord’s? I would think there are no better doctors in this world.” She flapped a wing to change the subject. Apparently Reed was in good hands. “Thea, you have noticed that you remain in the Winterdim without the skin connection to Reed Gossi?”

“I did. Find it mildly interesting that I’m still around—when I was absolutely certain I needed that connection to Reed to make all of this world work for me.” I gave her a raised eyebrow. “I wouldn’t happen to have you to thank for this, would I?”

Shirley came back matter-of-factly with, “All the work I performed for Reed from the day I jumped to him in the Rennonvorah?”

“I’m guessing it was a lot because he spent the next several days a captive of OKF forces.”

“And I charged hazard rates the entire time. Guess who paid the bill?”

“It wasn’t Reed?”

“Not exactly. I charged everything to the Numezhin account, and he paid in full. When I returned to you after the ordeal, I deposited the lot. I was pretty sure it would be useful.”

“Holy Tree, I owe you Shirley.”

I didn’t know what else to say. Nothing I could promise her. Nothing I owned was valuable enough to repay her.

Reed finished up his homecoming speech, joined me again, put his arm around my waist.

“I think you’re going to like this.”

36 - Orange Trees

“The lord’s garden is his treasure.”

“Well, he doesn’t sound too bad, then.”

“He is.”

Reed jerked his chin at the approaching tray-bearer and worshipping entourage.

“What are they doing?”

“Just watch.”

Reed waved them forward after they all performed a synchronized flow of gestures and colors, the light coming through the dome ceiling and firing up their sleeves, a dance of it off their fingertips.

I just watched, waiting for meaning to be revealed. The four of them in front wore soft hats that hung around the sides of their heads like hoods. All of them except the actual tray bearer were the same kind of being as Azhelros, only about half his height, though.

The colorful well-lit group, marching in perfect timing, stopped at the foot of the dais, and fanned out, turning to face away from us, some of them unfolding what looked like bladed weapons as part of the dance.

And in the middle of the tray, the centerpiece in this elaborate ceremony, was a single ripe orange.

A fucking piece of fruit—I mean it looked perfect, I just didn’t get the ceremony unfolding around it.

I glanced over to a lower platform on my left, one reserved for the lord’s guests. Shirley stood on all ten of her pointy legs, a little ahead of everyone else, Augie and the three from Lazaro, one of them a mirm like Augustine, the other two nothing like I’d seen before. They were a mirrored pair of jellyfish looking things with eyes on stalks, breathing flaps that pulsed rhythmically between a glassy blob of internal organs and a web of what could have been flexible milky rib bones.

Couldn’t really tell, but they received a couple sidelong glances from some of the courtiers, and I’d taken that to mean that they were as unusual here as anywhere else.

How many different forms did the Winterdimlings take? Question one-thousand and one.

Pondering question one-thousand and two—how do you make clothing that you can move both outside and inside your skin?—I nearly missed the acrobatic latecomer with the whirling pink knives.

Another one like Azhelros, he or she—couldn’t determine that—bounded off the floor, flipped over the line, landing with a springy bounce, facing away from us. In a flurry of metallic pink, the knives leapt out over the tray, crossing, slicing, dividing, and then vanished. The acrobat stepped back to reveal the finished work of art.

In the center of the tray, a perfectly cut orange.

Reed leaned in, whispering. “You don’t understand?”

I started to scowl, and shoved it aside for a perhaps-you-can-enlighten-me gesture.

“An orange is a citrus fruit from a tree...”

“Yeah, I do have a halfway decent knowledge of trees, Mr. Gossi.”

“...from our world. It’s a fruit so rare here, that one drop of juice from an orange is worth more than most lives in the Winterdim.”

Then it hit me. I kept my voice low, sudden thought that there could be listeners in the room. “And Numezhin has stolen all the world’s light for his own use, to power his own garden of earthly plants. What a dipshit.”

“Keep your voice down. You want to guess how Numezhin managed to get his hands on otherworldly seeds?”

I thought about it, grew impatient. “Tell me?”

“He—and now we—opened up the slave channels to the OKF. The sick fucks in their towers up by old Lake Michigan performed some botanical magic that allowed seeds from the Dawnworld into the Winterdim as physical objects—then provided years of gardening expertise to a handful of the lord’s servants.” He made a painful expression, his mind stuck on something. “In our world that was probably a month or two. There’s some weird compression of time between the Winterdim and the Dawnworld. I actually don’t get it, but I’m sure we can get someone here—or at the OKF—to explain it.”

Reed gestured to the orange, pulling the conversation back what was important.

“What you see there is more wealth than any other single being in this world possesses—in the light required to grow trees, the nutrients required to bear sweet fruit, the time, the soil, the protection from thieves, in the actual time invested in the gardeners—in the very lives of the gardeners.”

He stood, held out his hand for mine, and we descended the dais to the traybearer.

Reed selected one slice out of the perfect open flower of thirty-two. It seemed amazing that anyone could cut an orange with that precision. Like to have a look at those pink knives sometime.

Bet Brazley would like a set for her birthday.

He handed the slice to me, and took another for himself. Tip of tongue first, just a tap to see if I detected anything that shouldn’t have been there. Sweet, nice tart edge. This was a damn good orange. But, come on, worth more than anyone here? I glanced up and every eye in the place was on the floor. They weren’t even allowed to observe us eating an orange.

What a bunch of shit.

“Shirley?” I waved her over. “Would you like a slice? You too, Augie.”

Reed’s look of shock turned savage for a moment, as if I’d just done something to tear apart the world. Maybe I had. It took him a few seconds, but he understood, lifted two slices out for Shirley and Augie, ignoring the quick glances and shocked murmur in the dance troupe and courtiers.

Reed straightened and held a hand up to Azhelros. “My friend, a slice to bind our friendship further.”

Azhelros approached quickly, speaking low, as if Reed had stepped way over the etiquette line and he was embarrassed. Reed waved him to silence.

Loud enough to be heard throughout the throne room, Reed said, “I have returned a generous ruler. In the Dawnworld, oranges grow on trees everywhere the climate will support them, bearing fruit in the poorest gardens, even in the wild.” He followed that up with the translated version.

Then he held out an orange slice. “Try it, they’re delicious.” He said it in English, and Azhelros reached out a hand cautiously, fingers approaching the wedge as if it might fly away.

Then Reed scattered what was left of Winterdim social order in pieces at his feet. He lifted another slice and offered it to the traybearer, in the same motion grabbing the tray and holding it out to others in the ceremonial orange party, alternating in the native language and English, “Take one.”

Reed handed out the rest to the orange carriers and sent them off for more, as many as it required to let everyone in the room have a slice.

Turning to Azhelros, he made a gesture toward the back of the throne room, and sent for the gardeners.

Alarmed, some even fearing for their lives, the gardeners flocked into the throne room, bent and shivering. All of them were Bizhasen like Shirley, a winged mix of wolf, dragon, and crab. One had a foreclaw severed neatly at the first joint. Not an accident, but punishment.

Reed called that one out of the group, waved him forward, and spoke to him in a calm tone.

Turning to me, he held an open hand toward the gardener. “His name is Hoalerandin. I had him punished with the loss of one arm for allowing a single orange seed to rot and die in its bed.” Reed slid an arm over my shoulder. “How should I attempt to make up for this?”

I held Reed’s eyes for a long moment. You didn’t punish this gardenerHe did.

“I have an idea. Follow my lead.”

I closed my eyes, set more of my mind on the task than I ever needed to back home. Here I wasn’t sure. But it all worked as designed. I spun out ten meters of vines, coils whipping under Reed, across the floor to curl into a platform of interlocking cloverleaf loops beneath the Bizhasen with nine claws.

He looked frightened, shaking, his mouthful of sharp teeth opened in a wide flat panicking gape. Then a wheeze of sharp breaths, his eyes closed, and he made some sort of life-saving gesture with three free claws, the points like a tripod, he held out an orange seed at the vertex like a jewel.

In Winterdim, it was a jewel, a prize beyond all means of measuring.

“Hoalerandin? I am a creature of the forests of the Rootworld, and I have a gift for you.” Didn’t need to tell him I had never actually set foot in the Rootworld, but that’s where Kraneia’s from, and I’m her daughter. Shirley translated for me, while I sent out another vine, a slender greener one, to lift the orange seed off the top.

This was a bit tricky because it weighed almost nothing.

He shuddered through a short string of words, which Shirley passed along as, “I have protected the seed with my life.”

I dropped it into my hand, lifted it to my mouth and pulled it in with an artful curl of my tongue. I knew I’d get a reaction out of them. I think there were courtiers fainting in the back of the room, and Hoalerandin, shaking now, didn’t look much steadier.

The seed rolling around my tongue, I told him, “The orange tree blooms with perfect flowers, my good gardener. Means the blossom contains both a stamen and pistil—the reproductive parts for both genders. Which further means I think you simply need more seeds.”

The change complete, I opened my mouth and dropped the seed of seeds into my hand, tilting it to let it drop to the stone floor with an insignificant tap and rattle. The thread that I’d tied to the seed was so thin, I was probably the only who knew it was there, the tiniest conveyer that sourced my store of useful organic compounds.

More horrified voices along with the soft thumps of another round of fainting.

Okay, I was starting to enjoy myself. Maybe too much. I could feel the draw on my reserves, feeding the seed I had dropped on the floor.

Then the thunder rolled in, the single seed dividing, then those two dividing, the rumble became of roar of division, and when it completed the number of cycles I’d specified, I was standing in a pile of orange tree seeds up to my knees.

“How many?” asked Reed after a long space of silence.

I felt the conveyer thread dissolve. “Exactly eight million, three hundred and eighty-eight thousand, six-hundred and three.” I picked up a single seed off the mound, held it up to my eye between my thumb and forefinger. “Including the original.”

It started to sprout in my hand, a curl of pale green, twin leaves opening like an umbrella, twisting, then another set of leaves. I pulled my vine platform with Hoalerandin to me, and held out the seedling.

“For you, dear Hoalerandin. Not for the lord’s garden, but for yours, your family’s, wherever you believe it will receive care and bear fruit.”

He made a quiet, thankful gesture, and followed it with an even quieter request that Shirley translated as, “A tree will only grow where there is the light of the star.”

“I see.” I was already feeling around the corners of the toolbox. “I think I will just have to fix that.”

Reed grabbed my arm, fingers digging into my skin. Come on, we’re shaking up a world here. I turned, wondering what was so important as he collapsed.



Azhelros commanded Numezhin’s physicians to save Reed, which I gathered by the strain I picked up from them, was a tall order—that, or Azhelros had promised they’d be following their lord into death.

Yeah, they hopped right to it.

Reed’s only command, which stunned Azhelros and me both, was to have Shirley oversee all procedures.

And then my Reed was out, eyes closed, the tiny weapon inside him breaking into pieces and hunting for the seams of the Winterdim lord, some place they could burrow, divide, or splinter the two different lives.

The lord’s surgeons worked for what felt like hours, rooting through Reed with hundreds of tiny hair-fine scopes, his naked body stretched out on the operating table, thousands of red pin marks on his skin.

The operating room looked...biologically focused, not the hard shiny plastic and metal walls, fixtures, tools in human hospitals. I was no expert on medical treatment, but there seemed to be far more tubes, cooling fluid suits, and nets of flexible piping hanging from the ceiling than anything I’d ever seen.

Looked more like a jungle than an operating room.

Reed woke once in the middle of surgery screaming in another language, arms flailing, heaving three of his doctors into the air, carts and tables of gear and instruments crashing to the floor. I also think they were afraid to hold their lord down. So, I jumped in, grabbed him, one of his wrists in my hand, sent out a spread of vines to bind him to the table.

A day passed, even the starlight Numezhin harnessed for his orange garden went dim—the night cycle, I supposed. My eyes hurt, but I still rubbed them. My muscles were sore, but I didn’t move from the viewing seats above the operating room.

Shirley flew to my side, slid one wing along my back. “I believe they have removed all of it, Thea. They have saved your Reed.”

I let out a breath, a few tears slipped from my eyes with it. “Shirley?” I opened my arms. “Can I hold you for a little while?”

She climbed into my arms.



Reed spent almost three weeks in bed recovering—and that’s going by the day and night cycles of Winterdim. There were at least five of the lord’s doctors with him at every second.

I found myself in a world I didn’t know. I was nearly on my own, Shirley with me on my shoulder working as translator whenever I went out.

Finally, when Reed was back in business it called for a celebration, something wild, different, but I had my doubts when he told me what he was up to—and even more when he said he required my help.

We had this back and forth contest going to see who could push the edge one more step, but what he’d planned while recuperating—it was even crazier than anything I planned to do.

I had had some time to get a better view of how roughly things were being run in this world, and I didn’t know how far we could push things before they’d collapse. “These are sophisticated people with a sophisticated society. Are you sure you want to turn the order upside down? Completely?”

Another thing that started to bother me—just a little—was Reed staying in character and saying things like, “I have access to the Winterdim, the Rootworld, and the Dawnworld, with friends and wealth in two of them. Why should I not share my rewards?”

“Okay, at least stop with the fake monarch talk.”

“That is the way he speaks.”

Ostentatious? Looking up at the gold ceiling lit by a medium bright sun focused on one point in the entire world. Wow, never would have guessed.

I jabbed him playfully. “You’re doing the job so well, how do I know you’re the real Reed? Still in control? Maybe they did more in surgery than open you up and remove Lazaro’s little thread.”

“Oh, you’ll know. I warned you.” He grinned—all Reed. “Now watch this.”

Serious again, he waved over Azhelros—who followed us everywhere we went at a discreet distance. In even tones, but I gathered they were commands, Reed stepped through a list of things he wanted done.

I could have called for Shirley to translate, but I’m fond of surprises.

Within the hour, Reed had an army of the mirm—Winterdim creatures like Augustine—carrying the hundreds of bags we’d filled with orange seeds down the long spiral ramp from the palace to the streets of Winterdim’s capital, with the very fun name of Frinwibelliam.

Sounded like a disease...or someplace where there’s a party every night.

It was neither.

My wings burst open, I grabbed Reed, and we soared around the palace, taking a slow winding descending path to the streets below. There was a kilometer-wide thoroughfare running from the floor level of the palace to the horizon, and that’s where I was planning to land.

Near the palace, it was clear, many of the buildings and land plots received some overspilling sunlight, and they showed off their good fortune in garden spreads, mostly stubby burgundy branched plants that looked like splatters of blood hardened and stood up on end, apparently random branching and sharp ridged circular leaves. I like patterns in growth, but I couldn’t figure some of these plants out.

Edible? I wasn’t going to try it.

We landed in the middle of the giant central thoroughfare. Thousands of people walked, marched, floated across it. And when we touched down, fire wings flexed and roaring, every living being from the Winterdim dropped to the ground, flattening themselves against the paving stones—and that was as far as I could see. The word spread. The Lord was here, and you’d better get your ass and face on the ground.

Or what? We’d have you whipped, kill you, sell you, your family, and everyone you had ever known into Dawnworld slavery? The amount of fear in the air, I went with the last.

We waited, but I was already shifting weight foot to foot, doing the minimal patience dance. I could only let the surprise drag out so long. “What’s going on?”

“We’re waiting.” He fixed his collar, gazing straight ahead.

“Yeah, I got that. How long.”

“For our seeds to arrive.”

I glanced over my shoulder, frowning. All movement on the road had stopped to wait with us. Gods, we’re a damn inconvenient pair of world rulers. Everything halts when we appear anywhere? Must be a real productivity killer.

Didn’t take that long, but then I wasn’t on my knees with my eyes pointed at the ground, just trying to breathe and not draw attention to myself.

Reed—and I knew it was really him and not Numezhin just from the look in his eyes— turned to me and said, “I don’t care for this level of obedience. This will be the last time.” He called over Azhelros, who’d come down the long way with the bags of seeds.

Reed spoke to him, ending in English, “See that it is done, that everyone understands that this is no longer proper.”

He dismissed Azhelros and waved over the lead mirm with the bag of seeds, crouching to speak softly to him. Reed nodded, pulled out a seed, and slid it into a pocket in the mirm’s ten-armed garment.

Giving the flattened bowing thousands another pass of his gaze, Reed took my hand and we stepped into the street.

A tiny flapping creature rose in our path, a child, and the mother scrambled to her feet to catch wings and feet—and all without raising her own eyes to ours. Fear rolled off her, and she was shaking.

Shirley tucked in close to my ear to translate.

“Forgive me, oh please,” she begged Reed, slamming flat on the paving at his feet. “He is young, and...”

And what? Doesn’t give a shit what this alleged ruler of the world says or does—and rightly so.

Reed finished her sentence. “Doesn’t know his place?”

The mother made a gesture, two hands flat and open, then she was shaking harder, her face knotted in pain.

The Lord of the Winterdim crouched down, touched the woman on the side of the face, and straightened. “Rise.”

The mother got to her feet, four of them, fearfully, her winged baby boy curled in her arms, staring out with defiance.

Reed just smiled, waved over the lead seed carrier, plucked one out, and handed it to the boy. “This is a seed from the orange trees in my garden. It is yours.”

The mother stared at him, and I added to her shock by focusing my tools on Numezhin’s sunlight curtain, cutting a pinhole in it, and refocusing the beam to follow the seed anywhere it went and was eventually planted.

A sharp flash of light in the dim, and the seed rested in the child’s hand in a wash of gold light.

I reached out, picked it up. “May I?” The boy didn’t understand me. Didn’t matter.

Holding the seed closer, I breathed, then let it drop through my fingers into the palm of my hand where I commanded it to sprout, uncurl from its home, and grow. A moment later, I returned a ten-centimeter-tall orange seedling to the child.

“Do not plant it too deep, love this plant, and it will bear fruit.”



Everything seemed to move faster in the Winterdim, even time.

It took us another month to distribute all the seeds, flying to the giant thoroughfare, and with each seed given away, I released a starbeam that followed the new gardener home.

Reed set up a gardening school, an impromptu education facility—with tents and umbrellas and floating practice gardens, right in the middle of the street, scheduled daily classes with time spread among his own royal gardeners.

Every day started with a new set of seeds and giveaways, and we moved further from the palace, and everywhere we landed, crowds of Bizhasen and Mirm and the tall toothy ones called Hawrjins walked and flew and hovered around us.

It seemed to be working so far. We hoped the slow bending and changing of the rules, and the slow distribution of wealth wouldn’t run into trouble. Hope wasn’t the only thing we had. We had a lot of help—especially from Azhelros.

In the evenings, we threw open invitation parties at the palace—ringed with tethered airships opened up as dining rooms, guests who would have never been invited in Numezhin’s day, passed out gifts, and Reed and I told otherworld stories.

Thinking of Brazley and what she had been through at OKF, what those from Winterdim had been forced to endure, I had one final demand, and Reed charged ahead with it without question. We started a project to end the passing of slaves to the Dawnworld, broke all channels and treaties between Numezhin and OKF, and created a special service with trained agents to seek out and close the doors Numezhin had used. Shirley really came in handy with the agent’s training—she can be devious and dangerous when she wants to be.

Which is where I get some of it from.

Change was everywhere, and we knew that everyone wasn’t going to accept it—fewer still would understand it.

Azhelros, baffled by the behavior of his lord and friend, finally broke down and begged for understanding. “Why are you doing this, my lord? This is your treasure.” He thrust a shaking hand into the last of the seed bags. Then he was bowing, apologizing at the edge of pleading for forgiveness.

Reed waved him to his feet—which put Azhelros way over our heads. He towered over us—like a tree himself.

“Old friend, because I have learned a new way.”

“But the trees are yours alone.”

Reed shook his head. “A wise man from the Dawnworld once said, ‘no tree can belong to any man’.”

I added, “One of the wisest.” I did one of my best tree poses. “A tree grows, its roots spread into the ground, it takes up the air, it becomes a part of a grove, a forest, a world.”

“Azhelros, you who have ruled Winterdim and will rule it again in my place, I am giving you my entire garden—for you to enjoy, to share with your family, to offer as gifts. To do with what you will.”

And the giant second in command bowed his head.

We walked to one of the balconies overlooking the city, and I took Reed’s hand, my fingers curling, digging in, and we both felt the click between us, his power and the Numezhin persona inside now aware of its tools.

For luck I pulled him closer and kissed him—started soft, my lips on his, just gentle pressure, a hint of my taste, and then I opened up, played with him for a second before taking his breath away and letting him go.

I saw it in his eyes. Whole palace to ourselves—whole world actually. And we currently controlled it all. A king and queen. Oh yeah, and I have wings. Not a question of where, but where can’t we fuck?

I shrugged my shoulders, gave him half a smile. “You got me.”

Reed nodded, and I punched one fist into the air, opened up the sky, withdrew the night curtain Numezhin had folded over this world, and the star blazed down on every facing garden.

It wasn’t as bright as the Dawnworld—earth. Never would be. It’s just a dimmer star, but now Winterdim was neither winter nor dim.

We stayed another week or so—hard to tell the length of individual days or how much time had already passed, but I was counting nights after we’d brought down Numezhin’s idiotic obsession with hoarding the starlight.

Reed handed over power to Azhelros with a vastly different set of rules and judgments than the ones he’d originally been given to keep order in Winterdim—along with the promise that we had a couple tactical and diplomatic services to perform and then we’d be back to check on things.

Then we said goodbye.

37 - Dawnworld

Pine needles under my feet and I knew we were home. Pine needles and the heat. I was already sweating and I shed my winterwear, stripped to my bra, bare feet, kept my pants on, and wadded everything else up in the pack.

Reed and I came through holding hands, but I immediately spun to run through a roll call for the invisibles. I felt Shirley with me, and Augie was here.

Squeezing Reed’s hand, “You got your three Lazaros—even the jellyfish twins?”

“All present and accounted for.”

I looked up at the bright sky through the puffy silhouettes of pines, spinning, wheeling Reed into an orbit with me. “So, where the hell are we?” I tasted the air. “No season change. It’s like we haven’t been gone more than a week.”

And Reed came right out with my worry. “Which side of the Mississippi?”

Shirley suggested some ground sensing, and I went with it, released Reed and went to my knees, dropping to press my hands through the pine needle matting, into the wet under-rot, into the soil. A centipede crawled over my hand, tickling. Gods, they’re so cute.

And there it was, the heart of this forest of pine and hickory and river birch. They welcomed my matronage, they told me their place in the world, and I teased out some gifts for them, a flow of some of the last of the materials from the dead Andreus and Brazley and I had shut down outside that town called Virden. Also bit my tongue and let some of my blood dribble between my fingers into the dirt. “Thank you, my loves.”

I released the forest’s heart, and stood, wiping my hands together.

“Okay, we’re good. West of the river.” Pointing southeast, I clapped Reed on the shoulder. “Let’s move. About eight kilometers that way.”

We jogged and discussed possible methods for connecting Shirley to some physical manifestation that would allow her to operate on her own in this or the Rootworld. After weeks of having her around for real, I really missed her.

I’m not sure how Reed worked it, but the Lazaros—our group name for the three rends from Lazaro—opened up to him, told him things I’d have never guessed. One revelation stood out, and just as I missed the real Shirley being with me, I also missed Andreus—he just knew so much about weird stuff. Lazaro apparently wasn’t prismdead, but alive, living copies in both the Dawn and Rootworlds.

Elbowed Reed. “One guess at what Coldur Greg is.”

He nodded, didn’t need to answer. He had questions of his own. “What does it mean, ‘living copies’?”

“Never heard of it working like that—or what I think that means. We should really ask Braze, but this is what I know—got this a long time ago from my Uncle Theo. Here’s the way he put it: there’s an infinite number of prismatic views between the worlds, and they’re pentagonal. A prism with five sides can transmit complete copies through a right angle without distortion or inversion—without affecting the transmitted form’s handedness like a triangular prism or mirror does. What we see is an exact copy of the thing, with whatever mods and clothes the controller has the power to implement and buy.”

“Is it really in this world at all then?

“With prismdead, the thing’s not living in any world anymore, but it can be raised in the Rootworld, transmitted through the prism, and with some manipulation, can walk and talk and act in this world—and if it’s real enough they can even wear living skin and nice clothes. What they can’t do is host a being from the Winterdim, like Shirley, Augie, or your three Lazaros. Only something that’s alive can.”

“That’s where the prism-alive thing comes in?”

I shook my head. “No idea. We can ask Brazley. Or my uncle.” I gestured south. “Next thing I need to do is find that river in Florida, and get my Uncle Theodore away from this Orphne death bitch.”

“Who seems to have taken a liking to him.”

I elbowed Reed again, tried to sound disappointed. “He’s just playing the game.” That’s what I said, but I didn’t want to look too clearly down that road. Not yet. I kept my mouth shut the rest of the way to the Rennonvorah.



Brazley was waiting for us at the edge of Helodes’ vegetable fields, and the old river witch was coming up the path twenty steps behind her.

She looked different, definitely tanner and still dressing like a proper gardener, but there was something else.

“Are you well, Reed? What was another world like, Thea?”

She held out her hand, and I took it, squeezed and let go.

Reed opened his arms, managed to get in a quick, “Yup, I’m fine.”

Then I started in. “The usual. You know. Oppressive regime, starving populace, fucking politics, restricted royal citrus orchards, and Reed and I stirred up some real shit, then left this guy Azhelros to deal with it for a while.” Which reminded me. “Hey, when is your—

Her eyes were different, not the matte lack convex staring back at me.

Brazley held up a hand, spread a thumb and finger under her eyes. “Carlos reconfigured my eyeplants while you were away. He gave me the iris color I’ve always wanted. And they move like real eyes, see?”

“Irises like amber.” I leaned in to get a better look, and she obliged with an upward glance that she held still. “I love them.”

Reed nodded. “Beautiful.”

Putting a hand on her shoulder, I had to get something rolling because it would require planning. “When’s your birthday, Braze?”

She dropped her gaze to mine, shook her head. “I don’t have one.”

“Pretty sure that’s just an oversight. What’s today?”

Helodes looked up at the sky for a second, then said, “October the third.”

I settled it right then. “Okay, tomorrow’s your birthday. We’re going to have a little celebration.” Exchanged a look with Helodes, and she had that scheming witch smile that was poisonously sinister if she wasn’t on your side, but world-changingly sweet and delicious if she was.

Of course Helodes had bakery connections.

Something good was going to happen tomorrow. I’d already worked a deal with the orange cutter in the Winterdim for a pair of his razor-edged pink knives—complete with a fancy carved clamshell case made of some light stone from the Winterdim.

I looked around. “Where’s Fritz? Carlos?”

Helodes gestured back the way they’d come. “I sent them to the river to drive in the marshrunners.” Complete expression shift, the worry held off until now, and it surfaced with full force. “I thought you’d be back soon. Didn’t want your swiftest means of running where you wouldn’t be able to reach them.” She tried to smile, and only revealed that it took some effort. “Let’s keep them nearby. Just in case.”

“In case what? Where’s the Leaf Father? Still camped out on the east side?”

“Yeah, he lost you—lost interest for a day or so as we suspected he might, got a bit restless, went south to the Gulf, and then came right back, and he hasn’t moved. Waiting for you to get back.”

Shit. I folded my arms, blew out a breath and locked eyes with the old witch. She looked tired. “It’s your call, Helodes. I’ve brought enough trouble to your doorstep—and you’ve done so much for me already. If you want me out of here, tell me.”

She cocked her head. I heard it, too. Brazley turned around, nodding before either of us. The marshrunners thundered through the trees at the far end of Helodes’ fields, swung into single file up the path and stopped. Carlos dumped the engine, swung a leg over the bars, and jumped off the first one, Fritz jogged up behind him, grinning at me.

He looked over, gave Reed a nod. “That didn’t take very long. Back in one piece? No pain?”

“There’s some strange thing with the time—feels like we’ve been gone too long.” Reed did his open armed gesture again. “It worked, though. Best medical facilities in the Winterdim right there in my palace.”

I jabbed him with an elbow, gave him a look. I know it’s good to be the king, but you’re such a silly snobby bastard.

Helodes turned all the way around, put her hands on her hips, cranked up the cheer in her voice. “Who’s up for Brazley’s birthday party tomorrow?”

Guess that answered my question.

Fritz froze, shock on his face, clearly that’s tomorrow—why didn’t you tell us sooner?

Carlos said, “Yeah, we’re in. Happy birthday, Brazley.”



The party was simple and fun, with the six of us, me, Reed, Carlos, Fritz, Helodes, and the birthday girl, Brazley. There was dense sweet vanilla cake we sang over and sliced. Helodes mostly handed out advice for gifts.

Reed and I had stuff for everyone, things we’d collected in the Winterdim. Brazley first with the set of pink razor knives in the case. She loved them.

For Fritz, a tiny stringed musical instrument created and played by Bizhasen—“renderers like Shirley” and he immediately went off to play with it.

With a flourish I handed over a vial of water from a boiling lake to Helodes.

I hugged Carlos and Reed unrolled a map of Numezhin’s palace and surrounding urban area.

So, looking to be a hit at the party? Gifts from another world, that’s the secret.

We had a light dinner, mostly salads and some slender barbecued fish, and then we sat back and talked the rest of the evening, Fritz off in one corner getting a pretty good tune out of the Winterdim strings.

I came over and joined our hostess by herself at the other end of the room, looking for answers to questions. “Helodes?”

She looked up from her vial of Winterdim water with a crazy smile and faraway eyes. Then blinked and focused on me.

“Ever heard of anything prism-alive? Like one of the prismdead except they’re alive in both worlds?”

Her mouth opened and she showed her teeth in a little snarl. “What are you talking about?”

“Lazaro and the driver for OKF, guy named Coldur Gregg. Both of them were prismdead—I thought so anyway, until we found out they hosted renderers. Lazaro, three of them. And Coldur, one sick fucker of a renderer with human heads grafted onto it.”

Helodes recovered her serious witch expression. “How do you know they were prismdead?”

“With Coldur, he shifted into his dead form before attacking—so I saw it with my own eyes. Lazaro’s renderers told us he was a prism transmission, but that he was alive.”

Helodes played with her hair—something I’d never seen her do before, her bony fingers weaving in and out of her long black locks, looping, curling, her thumb running up and down. It was another sign she was nervous.

Had to be the Leaf Father biding his time on the east bank.

I waved the discussion away. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something we’ve run into twice now, and...just wondering if that’s the trend. If it’s something OKF’s doing. Seriously, don’t worry about it. Priorities.”

I stood, waved the group to me. “Just a feeling, everyone.” I let that sink in, took a sip of water, set the glass down, and looked up at the chunk of lit-up moon coming through rainclouds overhead. “I’m out of here tomorrow or the next day, heading for Florida by the only way that won’t take me across land that bows to the Leaf Father.” I swallowed a shiver, turned the expression rising to my face into something distasteful. “That means over water—seawater, along the Gulf Coast.”

A rumble of thunder emphasized my words.

Reed caught my hand. Knew he was with me. Pretty sure Brazley didn’t want to leave me. But I didn’t want to speak for anyone else—or even suggest it.

I opened my free hand flat, held it parallel to the earth. “Feel that anyone? Something’s stirring, and it’s not the rainstorm that’s going to dump on us in forty minutes, not a shift in seasons—not yet, and we’re long past feeling the energy of spring. The only thing on my list I haven’t crossed off is one fucking giant tree god with misplaced affection camping on the other side of the Mississippi.”

Brazley stood up, panicked, and came to my side. “I am going with you.” She already had her pack on her back.

Fritz exchanged a look with Carlos, and both raised glasses of whatever they were drinking—something fiery orange out of Helodes’ locked cabinets, sure as hell wasn’t water.

Carlos said simply, “We’re with you, Thea. To Florida!”

Fritz cheered, “To misplaced affection!”

Even Helodes laughed. Gods, I love these guys.

With a smile, my hand gentle on her back, I shoved Brazley away. “Tomorrow, Braze. Tonight it’s your birthday. Have fun.”

Then I sat down, folded one leg over Reed’s, sighed to everyone else. “But I’d pack for the trip tonight.”

The evening wound down quickly after that, Helodes going off to take up watch of the river. After loading all our gear on the marshrunners, Carlos and Fritz got into a game of chess against Brazley, and she’s good—but took her damn time running through the future of the board in her head, sometimes fifteen minutes plodding by before moving a piece.

Perfect time to ask a favor, and with the briefest of scowls—quickly tucked away—Brazley agreed to host Shirley and Augie—and the Lazaros—for the night.

Free of my renderers and with a few hours to kill—with luck the whole night—I grabbed Reed and led him into the woods.

Even in the dark with a waning moon and gathering thunder clouds, it didn’t take us long to find the clearing where we had dropped dead tired after the day of training. Even found one of the spoons still tucked into the branches of a blackhaw, a flash of metal and black berries and leaf edges already hinting at fall red.

I plucked it out, tapping the spoon up and down Reed’s arm.

And the storm opened up on us.

Felt Reed’s instinctive pull at my hand, but I tugged back, made sure we stood in the open middle of the clearing, the rain pouring over us. Thunder off to the north.

I let it roll out, and whispered, “Saved your present for last.”

Reed took the spoon from me, and tossed it away. “Enough gifts, Thea.”

There was a tight shiver of energy in his voice, and I heard the thud of his heart, the charge of blood in his body. In response, my hair spiraled out smooth green, flexible and looking for something to hold.

The rain hit us hard.

I pulled off my shirt, tore away the seams, let it drop, and slid everything else to my ankles. Stepped out of it, flung my arms wide, legs apart, holding my face to the sky, my hair and vines heavy with water.

Lightning, and there’s a flash of my dream—Reed in the shower with me, and then I’m back in the clearing in the woods, standing naked in the rain, legs open, Reed on his knees, his lips touching me just above the naval. A spasm up my right leg, almost kneed him with the rush, his hands slipping up my thighs, his breath on my skin warmer than the rain. Then his lips again, a harder kiss, his mouth open and hungry and wetter than the rain, moving lower, one hand cupping my ass, the other pressing into the base of my spine. I tried to shift my body, but felt that oak-strong rooted to the earth sense, and it was Reed holding me there, holding my body to the earth, upright. Wouldn’t let me go, and I spread my arms wider, threw back my head and opened my mouth to cry for thunder.

I went to my toes, climbing into the air, pumping my hips over his mouth, his tongue jammed inside me, and the rain came down with the taste of summer and wet leaves.

I sent vines coiling into the sky to catch a set of heavy branches. They pulled at my body for more play—anything you wish, reeling out slack and they took it up, a hundred meters of it, binding me to the trees.

A piece of the moon cut through a break in the clouds, cold light washing over us. I felt the energy through my eyelids, and choppy through the thunder, I was screaming for more.

I felt lighter, didn’t even remember lowering my arms, sliding them across my body, slick against my breasts, elbows locked. My hands shoved past my hips, and my fingers were in his hair, holding his head between my legs.

Above me, my vines played out violent, winding through the trees, webbing the space in the clearing. Another four twisted around me, paired off, two coming up between us to catch Reed’s ankles and coil up his body.

Surprised by the feeling, he started to pull away. Instant reaction in my hands, grabbing handfuls of his hair, grinding against his mouth.

“Not yet, Reed.”

Loops of vines around my legs, under my arms, the other pair fingering the snaps and seals, ready to peel off Reed’s pants and everything else at my command.

“Now,” gusted out of me, and I pulled Reed to his feet, halfway there by the hair, then my hands were slipping over his wet skin, his shirt hanging loose, working my way up his chest with my teeth, biting just on the wrong side of playful. Slid one hand down between his legs as my vines climbed up his body to take control.

I leaned back, my mouth gasped open. “Go for a ride?”

We locked eyes, and then we were off the ground, Reed swinging under me. His hands came up, cupping one breast, fingers kneading, sucking my other into his mouth.

I opened my legs around him, my knees gripping hard at rain-slick skin, my heels locked against the backs of his thighs as I felt my way down his body, the press of his hip bones inside my thighs, the soft bowl of muscle around his naval, took the head of his cock inside me and hung there, rolling right at the slippery edge of what I needed.

Made me moan before I got one out of him.

I eased all the way down on him, gave him a few languid thrusts, and then I was pumping my hips, synching the motion with my vines lifting us in rhythmic jumps into the crown of the trees.

Lightning shattered the sky around us, hit the ground, showed me a flash of intensity in Reed’s face.

And I called for more. Begged for it.

38 - Misplaced Affection

I felt the pain before I knew what it was, grabbed the earth, felt around for the source—knew my own body and where it hurt. This was something outside. Opened my eyes, blinking to clear my vision. I was on my back, staring up at a pale pink dawn sky, and flung my arms wider, slapped both my hands to the ground, dug in with my nails.

Helodes is in trouble.

I jumped to my feet, kicked Reed, naked and soundly sleeping on his stomach, one leg bent, pointed at the sky.

He was up in a few seconds, alert, wiping off wet leaves, rubbing his arms, while I tugged on wet pants and a top, bending to work out the soreness in my own body.

The words fired out of my mouth. “Helodes. Trouble.” I wrung out his shirt, whipped it back into something shirt-shaped and tossed it to him. “Shoes later. Let’s go”

We ran out our own aches in the kilometers back to the house. Fritz was already on a hovering marshrunner with Brazley strapped into the rear seat swiveled sideways, her gun across her lap. She waved, and without a word, let Shirley and Augie return home.

Fritz swung around. “Carlos just went back in the house to see if we have everything.”

“Where’s Helodes?”

Fritz shrugged, lifted his hands from the wheel, and started plucking the air, making music. “Never came back last night. In her river would be my guess. I felt something wrong when I woke, and got everyone going.”

“Why’s she in pain?” I glanced back to see Reed climbing into the second marshrunner’s pilot’s seat, thumbing the fire shields higher, nearly missed Fritz’s reaction.

I didn’t need to ask the question. “Leaf Father’s here?” I climbed on behind Reed, leaned into his ear. “Get to the river.”

Carlos glanced up, climbing onto our runner in the backseat, strapping in, two guns swinging in holsters.

“Where to?” He shouted over the smooth roar of the engines.

Swiveling around so both Fritz and Carlos would hear me. “I can’t leave without seeing Helodes first, need to see that she can handle herself.” There was hesitation all the way around, felt it in the tension in Reed. “I’m not leaving another friend to be incinerated by the fucking Leaf Father, okay?”

Carlos nodded, passed a few signals to Brazley, and we shot off through the woods, Reed banking hard, taking the path a little too fast for my comfort, but then comfort’s never been a high priority with me.

I held on, fingers digging into Reed’s hips, Carlos, in the back, taking the full force of the turns, his boots locked in, gun barrel facing right. Fritz and Brazley hugging our wake, her position mirroring Carlos, gun facing left, the stock high up on her arm.

“Duck!” Reed’s shout hit me at an auto-response level, shoved me back as a fan of needley pine branches ripped through the space where my head had been.

I grinned at Carlos hunkering lower in his seat, scowling.

A minute later we hit the bank of the Mississippi. I didn’t even recognize it, glowing green, a fringe of purple where a massive chain—links the size of one of my head—rode the surface north-to-south, running straight down the center of the river.

I slapped Reed’s shoulder, and he slowed the marshrunner, nosing the vehicle into a turn, pointing us east. Fritz, following some sort of prearranged tactical procedures, edged in to the right of us to keep his gunner—Brazley—facing away.

Standing on the glowing water, in the middle of the river with her legs braced apart, Helodes had the dripping chain pulled up in each outstretched hand, a loop of slack links swinging behind her back, spurts of purple fire running along the links out of her grip on each side.

The chain looked impressive, but I didn’t know what Helodes really had there. What was she going to do, trip enemies who crossed the river?

Standing above the line of trees on the far bank, the Leaf Father kicked over a pair of old willows, then turned to snap the tops off a cluster of ten meter pines, clearing the bank of obstacles, testing the shallows with his feet.

Then he noticed me, brilliant green eyes fixed on mine, and I felt their pull along with a massive weight landing on my shoulders.

I looked away, leaned in to Reed to whisper, “Wait for it. Don’t go south on the river, but cut back in through the Rennonvorah. We’ll head south in from the river once we’re out of sight. I have a feeling he can just crop up in front of us on the east bank and ambush us at some narrows along the way—in fact, he’s spent the last week moving between here and Gulf, probably has it planned. We should stay off the water, run south well into the west side, until we get to the delta.”

“And if he’s waiting for us there?”

Didn’t like saying it, but I know it would work. “We go out to sea...and hope we don’t run into a storm.”

“You don’t like the ocean?”

“Saltwater.” I shuddered. “I’ve never set a foot in it. Makes my skin crawl...literally.”

Fritz shouted, “Here he comes!”

Carlos made some rapid gestures across the space, then leaned forward to tap me on the back, trying to talk over Reed throttling up, “North, pass behind Helodes, out of sight, we’ll run up the bank and double back.”

“Like it!” I passed it on, and Reed spun us north, getting the marshrunner up to racing speed, shooting by Helodes, who remained like a statue in the middle of the river. At the last minute, she turned her head, glanced at us, no expression other than the strain of wielding the chains.

The Leaf Father stumbled in the river shallows, climbed up out of the water, marching through the trees. No way he could outrace us, but he kept his steady stride through the woods, snapping and shoving whole trees aside when they got in his way.

Looking back, I saw Helodes, still holding the chains, slide into the river and vanish, not even a swirl of foam, and I felt the release of tension in my body.

Helodes is safe from the Leaf FatherShe held him offShe’s aliveWe got out of here in time, and she didn’t have to die to save meThis wasn’t a replay of Archippa’s last stand.

Andreus’ final words pooled in my head, something about being different, needing something new. He’d promised Kraneia...something, but fuck, who wasn’t promising my mother stuff these days. Busier than she’d ever been in her life. The part about my Uncle Theodore and Archippa stood out. He’d told her to help me?

Took us an hour or so, gunning it north, but we were out of sight, and the west side had a nice shallow slope of weeds and slime, perfect for us to cut back. Half a dozen hand-signals later, Reed was flying up the bank and into some low woods, taking paths that seemed to look clear and kept a west or southwest heading.

Carlos’ voice over my shoulder. “Ten klicks in? Then turn south?”

I nodded back, passed it on to Reed, who glanced down to mark speed and distance.

The woods grew thick and the path narrow, forcing us to single file, but Reed kept up the racing spirit until some woman and her pets got in the way.

I grabbed Reed late, and my fingers dug in, probably hurt, as he spun the marshrunner right, to avoid hitting what looked like some pretty big fucking dogs or...

“They’re damn wolves,” said Helodes.

Helodes? What the fuck?

Helodes stood beside our marshrunner as if she’d just jumped right out of the earth.

Helodes—nodding sagely at the pack of lounging wolves. “Yes, that’s what they are.”

I pointed back the way we’d come. “Aren’t you supposed to be holding off...you-know-who? How the hell did you get here so quickly?”

“Easy.” She pointed at her feet. “You’re following what used to be an old riverbed. Rivers... It’s in my blood.”

We both looked up at the same time at what—or who—blocked our path.

A woman in black stood on one side of the creak-twisty path through the wood, leaning against an ash tree, one white hand against the bark, the pack of wolves lounging in the dirt around her, anger and limitless hunger rolling off them, but with bright gold eyes blinking and only mildly attentive, as if we were nothing more than caged food and would provide very little in the way of fun to kill and devour.

And there was something else very wrong. Felt a surge of vomit in my stomach, along with the hollow pain in the tree under her cold white hand. Rings of rot and decay spread from her touch, rippling to the tree’s base and up into its branches.

She looked right at me, and...I almost came apart, felt fibers splintering, my heart thudding in my chest.

Helodes stepped in front of us, her voice coming out weary. “What do you want?”

“Imagined I’d be late? After you lost him? You no longer possess the means to hold me off, witch.”

Helodes sighed, not entirely unhappy. “Late? Well, I could hope, couldn’t I?”

The woman in black sniffed. “There’s no such thing. Hope. I’ve never run across it in all my years.”

Helodes glanced at her, not particularly frightened. “Open the door, light the way, and I’m yours, queen.”

“Helodes?” I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but I begged her to listen.

She smiled pleasantly. “It’s my time, dear, and I think I am buying you a little time.”

Felt my eyes getting heavy with tears. Helodes you really are one tough ass-kicking witch. I was fucking holding my bladder steady when this woman turned her gaze on me, and you’re casual about this.

The woman in black swept the space along the path with one hand, and a narrow tunnel opened in the world, slim orange lights running along the floor, reflecting in alternating convex and concave patterns across the polished floor, fading a hundred meters in.

Helodes, witch of the Mississippi River, turned at the opening, gave me a respectful nod, smiled a little. “You’re close to figuring this out. Sounds like someone else already has some ideas about it. Just keep thinking. You’ll get it.” She moved one foot inside the tunnel, glanced over her shoulder, and started singing, “She won’t come from river water, but from the soil, a girl of the forest will light your way...hold your sway? Oh, shit. I’ve forgotten the goddamn song. It’s something like that... Light your way doesn’t sound right.”

Helodes stepped through, still singing—or trying to pick up the song at different points, her words fading, echoes of her voice against the tunnel walls colliding with each other, and ten steps in, everything she said was unclear.

Then silence.

The woman in black stared after Helodes, held the door open a few moments after the witch had entirely disappeared, then she turned her hate on me, we locked eyes, and she knew me—my name, who I was, her cold fingers prying into my memories, knew me like a medical examiner knows the inside of a corpse. A rush of fever swept through me, a wet chill across my skin.

“You’re the girl who will owe me a debt.”

Oh fuckIt’s Orphne the death bitch.

She smiled with sharp white teeth, a glisten of saliva, her pale pink tongue easing out to lick her lips. She looked as hungry as her pets.

“Come with me, Theodora Viran. Leave these children behind. Your uncle Theodore Balanon is my guest, and he’s been waiting for you.”

My heart stalled... then jumped into motion, and I felt the warmth of my friends around me. They would support me, hold me up, catch me if I fell.

Suddenly it felt easy. I swung one leg behind Reed, and jumped down. Damn, the Queen of the Dead is tall. I’m no shorty, and she’s at least a head taller.

Reed reached out and clutched my wrist. I felt the snap of power connect between us.

Glancing over my shoulder, I gave my love a nod.

Then I stretched my wings. Had to lean forward, take another step or risk burning Carlos right off the back of the marshrunner. I glanced left to my former OKF security chief friend and smiled. He returned a calm one right back.

When I looked up at Orphne, she appeared to be intrigued by my burning flying gear, kept her smile, but looked me up and down as if I’d stepped out of some disguise and shown her someone new and different to deal with.

I put some bitch into my voice, and ran with it. “Yeah, I’ll come see you. But I’ll walk in through the front door, in my own time, and on my own feet, if you don’t mind. And you’re going to release my Uncle Theo...without his debt.”

Orphne raised a thin eyebrow, a hint of a smile remaining. “Or?”

“What do you think?” Presumptuous bitch needs a threat? “Or my friends and I are going to come knocking on your door and there’s going to be some fucking trouble.”

Orphne took her hand from the tree, and I felt the pain in my gut drift away. She stepped off the path, and her wolves eased themselves up, stretched, yawning with mouths full of jagged carnivore’s teeth and curling tongues. A couple had their hackles up like spikes of river grass along the bank, eyeing us with sharp beams of gold.

The path was clear, back to its natural state, and Orphne gestured us through. “I look forward to greeting you at the front door then, Theodora, in your own time, on your own feet, and hearing what you have to offer in return for your uncle’s precious life.”

39 - Bridges

We stopped to rest after a three-hundred kilometer dash to the south, swinging back in toward the Mississippi on some map and course guidance from Carlos. My ass was sore, my legs didn’t want to work, and I felt a humming pressure in my bones and brain—but only when I faced southwest.

Damn humans.

Not the living breathing walking in this world ones—what remains of them. They’re fine. Damn the billions who went into the Spheres a hundred years ago, the ones who went completely virtual. Their security technology fucking god-handled my senses.

I tasted something in the air from the east, could have been the Leaf Father, but I think it was just people, recovering towns. Could have been a whole series of towns. Hard to tell.

And it was faint.

We’d kept inland from the river, and whatever it was in the East, drowned in what my senses snagged from the southwest.

Carlos, looking up from the map display on Fritz’s runner, pointed along the direction of my weird pain. “The Mid-Mississippi Sphere is that way.”

“Little Rock?”

He looked at me, but not quite focused, rooting around in his memory. Then he fingered through the map display. “Possibly. A city? I’ve heard the name before. Where do you know it from?”

Reed turned around, caught some of the discussion.

I elbowed him. “We hitched a ride with a trucker on the way out. He mentioned a city called Little Rock in connection with the ‘Mid-Mississip Sphere’ and I figured they’re the same place.”

Carlos touched his way through the map another minute and came up with, “Could be the city was consumed in the making of the Sphere. Happened in a lot of places. I heard all of Houston is gone. Also heard Yokohama’s completely gone.”

“Where’s that?”

“Place called Nippon—or Japan.”

Carlos was a rather worldly soldier. “How many are there—I mean total?”

“Spheres? Guessing somewhere around two thousand worldwide, enough for eleven and a half billion souls. They were regional—some covering and consuming the populations of several whole countries. I know the UK and northern and central France map moderately well...”

I nodded, passive listening, recalling the power I’d felt out of a tiny sliver of the Chicago Sphere showing itself over the horizon. That was some serious world-making technology.

Pulling the runners under some trees, we napped for an hour, and then we were back on the road.

We picked up an ancient asphalt highway, dried and age-crumbling to the consistency of packed sand. The vehicles kicked up dust and Brazley sped up to run alongside us as we approached rows of low buildings, what looked like the edge of an old town or city.

More signs of ancient civilization coming at us.

Standing over the road, a billboard for some long gone mental healthcare agency or provider proclaimed in giant white letters on a solid purple background—long faded to lavender,


We can know everything that’s going on inside your head.

Understanding ... and making a difference.

That’s the bridge we will have to build together.

Come see us. Sign up is free.

Open enrollment now!


Exchanged a glance with Fritz, shared a shrug.

The sun was right above us, the air moist and warm, when we slid into a town called West Frankfurt—well, what used to be called West Frankfurt. The big welcome sign still had the word “Welcome” in fancy script, and the word “West” was pretty clear, but we got the rest off faded store signs, West Frankfurt Laundry and West Frankfurt Pizza—which was “Best in the State.”

“Which state?” someone asked.

I shrugged.

Fritz rubbed his hands, played a tune, suddenly vigilant. Yeah, he felt it, too. Place wasn’t as deserted as it appeared. Carlos killed the engine on our runner when we heard the baby crying. Brazley, driving with Fritz in the back, spun her marshrunner perpendicular to ours, nose pointed out, and then edged closer, shifting the shields all the way up.

Carlos jumped up, stood on his seat, scanned the storefronts and second story apartments of the quaint old town of West Frankfurt, both hands shading his eyes. When he’d made half the circuit he noticed Brazley’s perfect combat readiness maneuver and laughed, nodding at her approvingly.

“What, you read the entire op manual and tactical docs?”

She shrugged, still looking around warily, thumbing the safety off her gun. “Mostly. What else was there to do on the drive down?” Clearly quoting a line out of the manual, “’They nearly drive themselves.’ One of my renderers read them also and we traded knowledge. So, I believe I have most of both books down, yes.”

Carlos covered the rest of his circuit, looking back up the path we’d just come down. “Well done.”

I swung one leg over the third seat, stood up and stretched to the sky, arms over my head, on the left side running board, then hopped to the street. Old gray cracked pavement, weeds growing up through it in busy zigzags. Twenty meters further along, the street Y’d around a central grassy area with broken curbing and one lonely tree, lightning shattered, in the center.

Looked like my turn to go.

I felt some concern behind me as I broke from the group toward the central green, but I wasn’t going to get a read through the concrete. Didn’t matter how wide it was cracked.

I stopped at the edge of grass, bent to brush away the caked mud off a block of stone with a tarnished metal plaque.


Ramirez Green

Dedicated to the memory of Arthur N. Ramirez

for tireless service to country and community


The grass was brittle under my feet, a little dry, but the whole block of life in the middle of Main Street seemed alive and charged—felt a lot more than green and ghosts through my skin. Standing in the middle of it, I placed a hand against the old tree, looked up into broken branches and scattered clusters of green leaves, whispering, “You still waiting for Arthur Ramirez to come home, old man? Or are you just keeping his name alive in a world that left everything behind?” I patted the bark, leaned away to get a better feel for what was going on in this town. “Well, you’re doing a fine job.”

The baby cried again, off to my right in one of the open second story windows.

“The one with the curtains blowing in,” said Reed, pointing—not with his gun, praise all that is green and good.

“Don’t bother mom and the baby. Fritz? You have a second. I want you to feel something.”

I slid to my knees in the center of the green and pressed my hands into the ground, moist grass coming through my fingers, felt good, felt...more than I expected. A shudder and I jumped right back to my feet, sprinted to the street, spinning to run backward, almost expecting something monstrous to come clawing out of the ground at my heels.

Fritz was at my side, plucking invisible strings. “What is it?”

I shook my head, still a bit stunned. “Don’t know. It felt Rootworldish to me, but nothing I’ve come across before. Big. Under the ground. It felt... very big.”

Fritz took my arm and pulled me back a step, nodding off to his right. “I feel it, but there’s something else moving, restless, about a klick that way.”

He made a palm out gesture, then snapped his other hand up and over his head, signaled everyone else to heightened alert. A snap of guns and other weaponry behind us.

Carlos, at the scanners, called, “Blow in at noon.”

All of us looked up.

A thin man in a full-length jacket whipping around his body was coming up Main Street.

Fritz gave me a questioning jump of his eyebrows.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s not Art Ramirez.”

“Who?”

I waved it away, folding my other hand across my brow to block the light and get a better look. “Our caller’s carrying something, looks like a serving bowl.”

Sending out a couple traces to see if the newcomer—a “blow in” in whatever Carlos sourced for jargon—was human or not, I glanced over Fritz’s shoulders, caught some motion through an open doorway, across the dark interior backlit by a window.

I felt a good tension-curl in my toes. “Yeah, we’re not alone here.”

Fritz shrugged, but I felt the fear, a twitchy response he’d cranked down. “I know. Let’s see what this guy has to say before we pull out and go around.”

Wind blowing and my heart beating—and I counted a nice square one-twenty-one beats before the guy with the bowl was close enough to chat with. A glance at Fritz to see what he was doing, his eyes half-closed, focused on some power or other he employed. I just glared and gave our new friend a good up and down study.

He didn’t look like trouble. Not exactly.

But I never would have guessed the first line out of the mouth of our bowl carrying man about town. Never, even if I had a million years to guess

He stopped at a cautious distance, at the edge of the green, right over whatever had made an underground home for itself there. He was nearly bald, way too thin to be eating normally, with sad sunken eyes and fingers shaking. He extended the bowl toward us, tilted it a little, lumps of bloody meaty stuff in the garish orange and vivid blue party pattern painted around the bowl’s rim.

He sounded younger than he looked, voice coming out smooth. “We believe it’s a human liver.”

Certainly not something you hear every day—if ever in my line of work, trees and green growing things. I don’t normally do livers, human or otherwise.

I curled my fingers around Fritz’s arm, gave the malnourished man a jut of my chin. “What are you looking for? Confirmation?” I’m sure Fritz or any of our renderers could identify the stuff.

But Brazley got there first, walked right past us, gun swinging along her back, right up to the man, and looked into the bowl, sniffed the contents, even prodded at it with one finger.

“No.” She shook her head, her mind made up. “It’s two livers. Both human.”

“Great. Demons who take out human organs. My fave.” I spoke up. “What’s your name?”

“Michael Jevard. I’m a doctor.”

“But those aren’t your livers, right?”

He shook his head. “Started about a year ago. Anyone who died, disappeared.”

“Except their livers?”

“No. First time I seen this.”

I waved up and down the street. “How many live here?”

Michael the Doctor gave it some serious thought. “Ninety-eight, if you count the Aravedoes.” He pointed west. “Live just this side of the canyons.”

I nodded as if “the canyons” meant something to me.

Fritz sank lower in his stance, eyes going to squints, arms out, fingers still playing something discordant. Reed or Carlos, one of them, shouted a warning from their direction, but Fritz was into something deep, and didn’t even flinch.

Michael the Doctor looked up, cocked his head one way to follow Reed’s extended arm.

Then he dropped the bowl.

Blood and livers went everywhere.

Dr. Jevard raised a hand hesitantly and called, “Vince? That you?”

The second confirmed citizen of good old West Frankfurt came walking out of the blue.

Vince looked to be in better shape, long strides, arms swinging. He wasn’t whistling a chipper tune, but he looked like he ought to be.

I gestured toward our newer-comer. “Vince looks like he’s been getting enough to eat. What’s your excuse?”

Michael gave me a worried look. “Vince was dead eight days ago.”

I turned all the way around, gestured to Brazley to check it out. Dead, and eight days later striding into town with the high spirits of a guy who just got a hell of a good fucking. That seemed a little unusual.

I sent out some remotes, let them roll off the ends of my toes, planted a net of them all the way down the street in little patters of dust, glancing at Brazley as she fingered the interface of some analysis gear she’d pulled from her pack. Vince was clean. Brazley and I exchanged a nod.

Whatever was going on, didn’t appear to have harmed Vince, just revived him.

I was about to ask Jevard if he was sure Vince was dead...but, he was a doctor. I assumed he could handle that much.

The doctor wheeled away from me, and yelled, “Helen!”

A woman and two teenage boys slipped from the shadows into the sunlight, edging cautiously along the store fronts toward us. Four more West Frankfurters crept from their homes. The woman with the crying baby, looked to be around my age, brushed aside the curtains, and glared down at us.

In ten minutes, twenty people had gathered to welcome Vince—who, I have to say, looked absolutely glowing, a new man, about as far from dead as anyone ever gets. He was mid-sixties, a bit gray, strong on his feet, and everything my senses picked up told me he could run a nice 30 minute 10k and still have strength for some post-race activities with Helen. Bravo, Vince.

Helen, who I took to be Vince’s love, shot out from the group at a sprint, arms over her head, starts and stops of screams—all of them joyful. I think she’d been confused, Dr. Michael calling her out from hiding. Pretty clear she’d been expecting some explanation about my friends and I, not that her eight-day-dead boyfriend / husband / possibly father of these teenagers was strolling back into West Frankfurt.

It was beautiful. Like something out of a story. Two lost lovers find each other in an abandoned town on the edge of nowhere.

They met, hugged, a flurry of kissing, tears glistening on both their faces in the noon sun.

Like I said. Beautiful.

I turned back to Dr. Michael, pointing at the livers. “So, I assume neither of these belongs to Vince? He’s as hale as can be, better than most men his age. You want to give us a little more info on your loose human organ collection, doctor?”

“I...I don’t know...”

He had trouble getting started, but I waited patiently, set my face with a calm smile—not easy for me. I mean, sure, I have kin who are trees, I possess some interesting botanical qualities, can do some wild things in the forest, but patience isn’t part of the package. I had to work really hard at it.

“Please, tell us what you think. We can help. We just need to know what’s going on.”

Felt Brazley looking over at me, wondering at my offer of assistance. I know. I know. It isn’t me.

But I’m looking around at my friends, and, well, we make a pretty intimidating group. What’s an organ hungry demon going to do against the five of us?

I stepped toward Michael, opened my hands, kept my voice soft. “Seriously, Dr. Jevard, we don’t scare that easy. Tell us everything. I’m sure we can help you out of trouble.”

He broke down, not all the way, but the cracks opened, and he stumbled. I caught him. We locked eyes. I smiled. He jumped in my grip, frightened. Could have been something in my expression. Maybe I grabbed him too hard, too firmly. Hey, I was solid, both feet on the ground. It’s going to take more than a skinny old man to move a dryad with roots deeper than a fucking core-line.

I nodded at the look in his eyes. “Right. I’m not entirely from this world, Dr. Jevard.” Glancing down, “Neither is the thing under the ground there.”

“But you look...”

“Human?” I shrugged. “Close. I’m half.” Then I let my hair twist and braid, and spun out ten meters of vines, let them coil in the air, a bit showy, but it made the point. “Why does that matter? I’m also willing to help.”

The crowd had backed up, some of them tripping and crawling away from me. Brazley came to stand at my side, glaring at the doctor as if he’d stirred things up and she might have to make him real quiet.

“No problem here, Braze. The kind doctor is about to tell us what’s happening so we can help him, help his town, help everyone here.”

Fritz moved closer, only half paying attention, still pushing some elaborately trilling vocals into the earth, felt it tickle my toes.

Michael Jevard looked around at the frightened faces of his fellow West Frankfurters, got some nods back, and he spilled it all. “We’ve had four deaths in the last year, and not one funeral. Any time someone dies, or it’s a terminal case...” He pointed up the road at Vince still grinning like a kid between minutes of excited talk and clinging to the face of Helen. “Vince died. No pulse, no brain activity, nothing. I have gear, and I have my own eyes and senses...Miss?”

“Thea. Call me Thea.”

Jevard held his hands open, useful steady hands that knew how to use tools down to microsurgery scales. “Vince was the last death. Marilynn died eleven months ago, eighty-seven years, heart failure. It broke our community. Marilynn held us together, she was like a mother for the whole town.”

Something about the way he said her name. “She was your wife?”

Jevard jerked, threw his hands out for support.

I grabbed one, glancing around, a quick read of expressions. “And not everyone has a mother. Marilynn was mother to—”

“Marilynn’s dead.” He caught the loose-running edge in his reaction, reeled it in. “We never buried her. Her...body vanished the night before the funeral service.”

“And the other two?”

“The same. Only Kenny Bromlen was young, early twenties, fell from some mine rigging, broke his skull and everything inside. Nothing I could do.” His hands started to shake, and I squeezed the one I held.

“I think I understand.” I gestured behind me. “So the same goes for Vince, only he—”

“No. Helen kept Vince hidden. Of course, I knew he’d died, signed the notification, but there were only two of us who did. Me and Helen. Even their boys didn’t know. Vince vanished in the night, right out of Helen’s house.”

Fritz spoke softly from somewhere faraway. “And no one knew about Vince’s death but you two?” He nodded to himself, not waiting for an answer.

From somewhere between a total trance and clowning around, Fritz waved everyone off the green, jabbing a finger at the bowl and pair of loose livers. Jevard shoved them back in the brightly colored bowl and backed away from the grass, wiping his hands on his shirt.

I gave him a nod. I liked a guy who could wipe someone else’s blood off on his shirt.

Fritz crawled over the curb, and then he was on the ground, stretched out, singing with his lips brushing the tips of the grass, his eyes closed.

“What can you tell us, Fritz?”

It was like talking to someone on another planet, a three minute delay before he even knew there was a conversation going on. He swiveled his head, eyes blinking before they fixed on me. “Welldwellers and physicians always travel as a pair.”

Which made about as much sense as anything else I’d heard so far.

Fritz rolled slowly to his knees, took a few more deep breaths and climbed to his feet. He looked worn out.

Waving to Carlos, a hand signal that everything was fine, he turned to the citizens of West Frankfurt. “I’d say you are blessed. A welldweller and his physician have chosen to make their homes among you, to keep your health, to make your lives long, your burdens lighter.”

Fritz was starting to get preachy, and I poked him with a stiff finger.

“So, what’s a welldweller?”

He nodded back at me. “Like you suspected. A Rootworlder.”

“Why here?”

“His name is Inwenorran—if I got that right.” Fritz held Dr. Jevard’s gaze for a bit, then took in the rest of the townspeople. “He says, they were invited here.”

Michael snapped a look around at his fellow citizens as if one of them had called a few organ swapping demon buddies for an extended vacation.

“By who?” Echoes of my question sputtered through the crowd.

“Not someone. It was your big printed invitation that called them.” Fritz pointed back down the road we’d come in on. “The purple sign at the edge of town.”

“Billboard?” Someone asked, think it was one Helen’s boys, the red-headed one named Jason.

“The welldweller says he and his physician partner stopped and moved in because they wanted to help ‘build the bridge’. Enrollment was open, and you offered an opportunity to build a bridge between ‘understanding’ and ‘making a difference.’” Fritz only gave us a few moments to let that sink in. “You’re broadcasting to the world what you want, and this welldweller and his physician took the job. He says they just wanted to make a difference, as it says on the sign.” Fritz, always the showman, turned and smiled. “Perhaps you would like to meet them. This isn’t their world, and they don’t like mixing openly, but I can persuade them if you like?”

“Can’t you make them leave?” One of the late arrivals, didn’t get his name. He already sounded hysterical. Dimwit.

Fritz gave him an easy shrug. “How long would any of you like to live? That’s a serious question. Think about it, and tell me. Would you like to live and enjoy nearly perfect health for a long time? For centuries? Forever maybe?” He gestured at Vince as a shining example—and with something in his smile that added the fact that Vince will be having fun later with Helen.

A couple nods, some more vigorous than others. There was certainly some indecision, but I didn’t catch one “no” in the crowd.

“Then you want to make sure your welldweller and his partner physician feel at home.” Fritz let his gaze slide over them. “Because they can. I mean it. Keep you alive as long as you like. It’s what they do. It’s what they live for.”

No one seemed overjoyed to meet something called a “welldweller”. I was even a bit shaky on it. Fritz called him anyway.

“Here he comes. He’s quite large when fully expanded, doesn’t weigh a lot, but he’ll have ten or so twenty-meter long legs in a radial spread. You’ll see when he comes out of the ground. He uses them to feel what the populace is feeling, takes readings on your health, your pain, your troubles. Very good at what he does.”

Fritz turned back to the center green, lifted his arms, playing notes and singing under his breath. The ground shifted, a spider web of cracks cut across the old asphalt, lifting in places to expose the foundation of hard packed gravel.

“Fritz? He better not bother my tree!” I shouted the command over the rumble of ground motion.

He danced into action, arms raised, singing a different tune, and the head of the welldweller broke through the surface in the space between the tree’s roots and the north corner of the central green.

Took almost twenty minutes, but it was worth the wait. We lost three of the good citizens to fainting. It was that good.

The welldweller’s body stood about four meters high, pointed at the top and base like a giant seed or maybe something fired out of a gun—a giant gun. His skin, streaked in dirt, showed some functioning organs and structures underneath, ridges that expanded and contracted, gill-like, nothing that looked like eyes. Made sense for something called a welldweller. No light, no eyes necessary. His legs were the most magnificent things, twelve of them, at least twenty meters long, articulated and skinned in a metallic covering, the tips pointed and bristling with some kind of sense array. He pulled them out of the ground under him, four at a time, bracing his body on giant coiled loops of his own limbs.

Fritz stood right next to him, a tiny human form beside a Rootworld creature that stood almost as tall as the commemoration tree. He placed one hand on his skin, fingers sliding through some of the caked-on dirt.

“I’d like you all to meet Inwenorran. He’s a little shy, not used to being above the ground. Isn’t he beautiful?”

No one answered right away.

Fritz pointed. “And here comes his partner, the physician.”

The physician was a completely different kind of being, almost entirely made of a shadowy body and thick appendages that smeared through the air like oily smoke.

He walked into town, past Reed and Carlos on the runners. He even appeared to walk through obstructions, or maybe he oozed around them. But he had legs and a roughly human form.

Fritz spent another twenty speaking to the physician—whose name was something like “Ulrendalen”, and also male. Fritz told him that the people of the town were afraid, that they didn’t understand the purpose or nature of beings like a welldweller and physician.

To Dr. Jevard, Fritz explained that the livers were nothing more than a misunderstood offer of communication—both being fully developed cloned copies of Vince’s liver, and meant to represent the abilities of the pair of Rootworlders.

Oh yeah, clear as water, that.

You know, Fritz even organized an impromptu medical class there, signing up doctor Jevard, a woman—I didn’t get her name, and Jason, one of the teenage sons of Vince and Helen.

He was a natural at this getting people and Rootworlders together. I just watched him proudly, my cherished friend, my musicman.

Fritz then used his people handling skills in maneuvering the town closer to the two new celebrities, while shifting Brazley and I with him through the crowd, a soft touch at my elbow, a gentle nudge, shifting his feet to keep us moving. Before I knew what was happening, the three of us stood behind everyone else, Carlos and Reed even farther back, still manning the runners, watching us and exchanging a few words and questions.

I still had one of my own.

I poked him in the shoulder, trying to knock the smile off his face. “Back at the treehouse—your beautiful treehouse. When we were all talking?”

He lost his smile. “Yeah?”

“We never heard your story.” I gave him elbow jab. “Why not?”

He froze, clearly not sure how to respond, ended up settling on something light, elbowing me right back, his smile resurfacing. “Carlos has been trying to get it out of me for years.”

“You fuck.” I was laughing. “You guys broke me down like a damn reusable box, and you’re telling me, you’ve been with Carlos for how long, and you still haven’t told your story?”

“Carlos, sure he can needle, but he’s just one guy. You’re all going to have to band together if you want my story, Thea. It’s buried that deep.”

He kept the smile, but it was masklike, and I let it go, put my arm around his shoulders.

“We can wait.” I jerked a chin at the crowd. “We’re not done here yet, are we?”

“Almost.”

“Want to tell them what they’ve won?”

“Sure do.”

I let him go. He had one more important message.

Fritz stepped to the edge of the crowd, held out his hands to the welldweller and the physician, his gaze shifting over the townspeople of West Frankfurt. There were nearly seventy now, just about everyone in calling distance had gathered. They’d come to see the gift, the otherworlders, the thing that lived under their town and—“if you took the word of these helpful strangers”—kept an eye on our health and feelings and corrected problems.

Fritz called for some serious listening. “Just so you know...in their world—the Rootworld, if a welldweller and physician move or are driven away, it’s considered a curse. There have been whole populations of cities who have given up their lives, poisoned themselves, because they lost their welldweller and partner.” Fritz shrugged, but he held Doctor Jevard’s eyes with a hard stare. “Just something to keep in mind.”

40 - Posey

We took the marshrunners east along the Gulf Coast, the salt spray coming over the shields like poison. Saltwater’s in my mouth and in my hair. I almost threw up my lunch.

It had taken us two more careful days down the west bank of the Mississippi River, all the way through Louisiana, then out to the Gulf, where the Leaf Father couldn’t track us. Another day and we’d cut across the Upper Gulf and were most of the way down the west side of what was once Florida.

Late in the evening we pulled up to rest next to an island clustered with trees a hundred meters from the shore.

Lostmans River couldn’t be far.

The marshrunners got all of us—tired, jittery and starving, but intact—to our saltwater-surrounded haven. I slept in my seat, feet kicked out. Brazley, Carlos and Reed climbed around on the loops of tree roots—at least they looked like roots in the dark.

So, the place couldn’t be all that bad.

The sun rose, and I got to see what the island really looked like, what it was made of, and it was like someone had tipped the damn world on edge, shook the box of everything normal and opened it up to see what strange new things were available.

I mean shit like...

There were trees—whole fucking trees—growing in the ocean, roots like delicate arches looping over and under each other, masses of them holding up an entire grove of trees. There was no island, or the trees were the island. There was certainly nothing solid above the waterline. I’d heard of them, of course, read about them, but never believed them to be real until I saw them with my own eyes.

“They’re called mangrove trees.”

I spun in my seat. Carlos, up early as usual, snapped alert, slid the safety off his gun. Reed jolted awake, draped across the mangrove roots on one of the runner’s tear-away seat cushions. It didn’t take long for the danger vibe to spread to Fritz and Brazley who’d been up the latest on watch.

A young woman in pearlescent body-fitting green to the throat, wrists, and ankles stood on the water, glassy smooth and hard as diamond under her bare feet. Arms folded, a quick shake of sea-drops from her bobbed black hair, an intense blue stare, one eyebrow lifted, a slight smile tempting her lips.

The whole package was murderously haughty. What the hell did this kid want? She couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty.

“Many times that. I’m a hundred and thirty-two years old.”

I swallowed hard. “I wasn’t asking.” Not aloud anyway.

“You want to know what I want?” She tapped her chin thoughtfully, slid a lock of hair behind one ear, her smile gone. “I want... let’s see. Interesting. I don’t want many things. Let’s start by understanding why you are here where you do not seem to belong.”

I gestured at the loops of roots holding the mangrove trees above the saltwater. “I came to look at trees.” I turned away, slid a hand along the curve of a prop root, tried to appear to be unconcerned.

“You are Thea?”

It was barely a question.

That stopped the breath in my lungs, a flood of fever heat running up my back. Few people—or gods—knew to call me that right off. Just family, and now the friends I’d made. No one else.

I turned, started breathing again, kept it neutral. “Who wants to know?”

“You are younger than I thought you would be, younger than I pictured you, but you have something of your mother’s looks, more of your father’s. You know who I am, Thea? Kassandra’s daughter?”

I just glared at her. One thing to meet her in my dreams. Another to stand before her, a lone mangrove tree at my back and surrounded by saltwater.

The woman smiled, but it was like some ancient being’s response to a child’s feistiness. “I thought I would try politeness first. I can finger through every thought in your head, Thea, if that is what you’d like me to do?” She held up a hand and wiggled her fingers in a walking through the air gesture, still smiling.

I shook my head, cold damp fear flaring in points all over my body, behind my knees, between my breasts, under my chin—made my jaw ache. “You’re right. I’m Thea.”

“The daughter of Kraneia and the anthropologist, Thomas Viran?”

What else could I do? This woman knew it all.

I nodded, and she crouched over the water, dropped her hand, flattened it across the surface, and there was my father in some dark soggy sea cave.

Felt my anger ratchet down a few clicks, and the trigger bright and shiny in my grasp.

“He is safe, Thea. Under my protection.” She gestured, encouraging. “Look deeper.”

I leaned forward. My father turned right, laughed to someone not in the scene, and held up a glass of some light red liquid.

“A root tea? What’s he drinking?”

There was a hint of surprise in Miss Know-it-all’s shift in expression and focus on the scene. She shook her head. “Something your mother brought with her.”

“And he’s safe?”

As if hearing my next question. “And he is not a prisoner.”

I asked anyway. “He can leave any time he likes?”

“Kraneia came to me for protection.”

That didn’t sound like my mother. Can’t she protect dad herself? Why’d she have to bring this...sea witch, whoever she is into this? My mother loathes saltwater.

“These are her words, Thea, what she told me: the Leaf Father has her treeheart, and she cannot face him without coming under his control. He can make your mother kill your father if he wishes it. And I am not to tell you where your father is. She doesn’t even know where Thomas Viran is.”

What about protecting me?

“She needs you to face the Leaf Father for her. She can’t. She hopes you can.”

I thought of Orphne dismissing hope. There’s no such thing. Hope. I’ve never run across it in all my years.

And my mother hoped I could?

Oh yeah, take off, go into winterform, just when things get deadly. Here, Thea, face the threat alone. That sounds just like my mom.

The woman from the sea watched me, sadness in her eyes, a rush of concern in her features. She even reached out for me, ready, as if I was going to topple out of my seat right there.

Who the hell would she be concerned about?

She pulled back her hand, and I pulled in my feelings, nodded back to her. “What’s your name?”

The water softened under her feet, and she slid into it smooth and natural, her suit as slick and shiny as a dolphin. “Call me Posey. All my friends do.”

Like the flower? Like that ancient song... pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down...She must have read something else inside me, a deeper line of questions. “Yes, Thea, I have many friends. It’s not worth living this long without them.”

I nodded, still taking that in when she turned to go. The sea lapping around her shoulders, she glanced back at me and laughed. “No, not the like the flower.”

She went under.

41 - Everglades

We edged south along the coast, cutting into the Gulf to get our bearing, Fritz conjuring up all kinds of scanning and telescopic gear to look for the wide inlet mapped as the mouth of Lostmans River.

We slid slowly past a house on a headland, thick with trees and ivy growth. The windows were broken, chimney cracked and missing bricks in places, and the entire roof was a soft field of moss.

A woman sat on a chair on the front porch, skin darker than mine, hair like a wind-swept pine with beads and feathers woven through it. Her gaze fixed on us as soon as we drifted into view, engines humming.

She waved, stood and walked to the edge of solid ground. “Come on over. You lookin’ for anything?”

She seemed a bit over-eager to me.

I sensed something threatening, but I didn’t think it was her.

Reed and I stood in the second and third seat on our runner, Carlos driving since the turn of the coastline from east to south. He glanced back to me, shrugged. “She looks nice, and sure as hell knows more about this area than any of us.”

I nodded back, waved Brazley over. She was driving the other runner, with Fritz in the back playing gunner.

I jumped to the edge of earth, holding out my hand. “I’m Theodora. These are my friends, Reed, Brazley, Carlos and Fritz.”

“Dovie Mouton. Lived around here for years. Where are you headed?”

Fritz hopped over to land, shook Dovie’s hand “We need to get to Lostmans River.”

Dovie looked at him, quiet for a moment, backing up a little to get a full view. “You’re a sunchild aren’t you? You wouldn’t happen to be a son of Phaithusa?”

Fritz stared at her, started to shake his head, unsure. “I don’t know. I know that name, seen it written before.” He looked at me, the memory dawning. “I saw the name Phaithusa in my records at OaK leaF.”

Dovie went on, the matter settled, “Knew you looked familiar. Met Phaithusa once long ago. I was a little girl, and she was lovely as can be, and she watched over us—me and my brothers.” She waved impatiently. “Anyway, you five looking for Lostmans, right? Don’t worry. That’s my river. Know it forwards and back, born in those waters. First drink of water was from Lostmans.”

It wasn’t easy fending off the all-witches-who-help-us-are-doomed vibe from most of the group. “Dovie, you wouldn’t happen to be a witch?”

She frowned at me, surprised, as if I’d asked if she walked on two legs. “Sure I am. I can take you up the river, anywhere you want to go. Any particular sight or spot you looking for?”

I wasn’t the only one holding up my hands, palms out in sort of a pushing away gesture. “No, please don’t help us. We’re fine on our own.”

“Are you...” She clamped her mouth shut, frightened by something, but her hands uncurled, shaking with what I guessed was excitement. Seemed a bit incongruous to me.

Then she opened up. “Are you Theodora of the soil and trees?”

Oh, fuck.

I couldn’t keep the raw sarcasm out of my voice. “Wait, don’t tell me. My mother, Kraneia—or maybe my Uncle Theodore—swung by on a trip to who the hell knows where, and told you to help me?”

She shook her head, eyes wide with what now looked like awe—and at me. “I know the name Kraneia. Never met her though.”

I barely heard her. There was another explanation. “Oh, yeah. One or both of them threatened to kill you if you didn’t help me? That’s it then, right?”

Her head kept shaking, and she stood, moving closer, eyes wild and fixed on me like long lost buried treasure.

I was looking for easy exits when she produced one I hadn’t heard before.

“Oh, rivers of all worlds. You’re the girl of the forest. Heard your name in some forest chatter several months back. You could be her.” She was pointing, accusing and delighted recognition at the same time. “I have waited my long life to see you. We all have.”

Then, fuck, she started singing. “She will rule the worldforest and everything between every edge and seashore, the rain and spring and rivers...more. Sorry, I’ve forgotten the goddamn song. It’s been so long.” She made some rhythmic gestures, her index finger dancing to some tune only she had a handle on, and then she picked it up again, “She won’t come from the water, but from the soil, a girl of the forest will light your way...”

My hands came up again, repeating the same pushing away gesture. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. We’re just sliding on through, looking for a river...uh, a tributary off Lostmans River.”

Reed stepped in to help me out. “If you can just point us in the right direction. That’s all we need. Get us headed toward Lostmans River.”

Fritz wasn’t being helpful at all. “That’s the same song Helodes was singing when she...left.”

Dovie perked up even more than she already was. “You’re a friend of Helodes?”

“Oh, fine.” I sighed, shot an angry look at Fritz. “If we’re going to throw out names. What about Archippa?”

“Archippa, way up in old Illinois? Sure. I met her once, thirty, forty years back.”

My turn to get impatient. “We really need to find this river, Dovie.”

“I’m coming with you then. Lot faster that way.” She looked down at the two marshrunners, gave Carlos, Reed, and Brazley measured looks. “Nice machines you have, too. Perfect for this sort a trip.”

I saw Reed give me his quick head shake. I know. I know. But Dovie hopped lightly to Brazley’s runner, walking up the side like she belonged there. “Come on. Thought you’re in a hurry. Let’s get these babies moving.”

With a glance back, I jumped back to my runner between Reed and Carlos.

With Fritz on board, we pulled into the currents, Dovie pointing and talking, calling birds, not by genus, but by names like “Ferdinand” and “Monte,” and every fifteen minutes she pointed, made sure we stuck with her directions.

Carlos brought us right alongside the other runner, and Dovie gushed with knowledge and stories and funny things that happened in the glades. She told us about ghosts that haunted low tides, and bacteria that sometimes poisoned the water, and how she’d been married twice and had three children—all in the Spheres. She told us about river witches living in the Rootworld—which she pronounced ruht-world—with copies of themselves “prismed through to this Dawnworld.”

I reached across the space between the runners, cupped her bony shoulder firmly, the tips of my fingers against her warm skin, felt her pulse, her living body. “You’re alive here and there?”

“Course we are.”

A flood of memories coming through in flashes, Helodes saying Archippa—with me holding her charred skull—was “defeated” and not using a more precise word, something like annihilated.

“Because she wasn’t really gone. Only from the Dawnworld. Why? What’s your purpose?”

“Oh, that stupid story. We all heard it growing up. The songs, the adventure. It’s like a prophecy, the girl from the soil will win it all. We wanted so bad for it to be true.”

Carlos looked a little suspicious. “And you think this prophecy’s going to come true?”

Dovie waved him away. “Oh, hell no. That’s why all prophecies are a load of shit, always have been. I mean, who can really remember all the songs and details and general prophesying?” She jabbed me in the arm. “Take this one for instance. We have a song about a woman from the soil. Could be you. Could be any tramp with a trowel and a damn watering can, right?”

Caught Fritz grinning at me out of the corner of my eye—Brazley, too. Yeah, that’s all I really am, just a tramp with watering can. “What’s this woman from the soil supposed to do?”

“Oh, you know how the ocean has just one ruler? Not up here. It’s all divided into rivers, forests, any geographical feature you care to distinguish. Well, we river witches think there’ll be a ruler from the forests to take the throne of everything on the surface.”

Fritz glanced at me then back to Dovie. “Do you believe that?”

“Don’t know.” She shrugged and looked over the trees. “It does give you something to talk about when you meet other witches, though.” She pointed, mildly curious. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day. A great big story to tell, smack in front of us.”

Brazley spun the wheel wild, and nearly rammed us. It was tough to keep our eyes ahead. Couple klicks in, there he was, the Leaf Father striding through the swamp, birds screeching and taking flight with the distant crackling of trees going down in his path.

It was pretty obvious where he was going.

I reached up, slapped Carlos on the shoulder. “Let’s see if we can beat him to Orphne’s door.”



Lostmans River turned out to be a good place to get lost.

But with Dovie on our side, we found it, and not long after, I found the tributary that would open a path to Orphne’s...place. I tried not to imagine what that would be like, not yet.

Let’s get our feet wet first.

The runners came up hovering ten kilometers up the tiny winding water track off Lostmans. Wasn’t much more than a creek when I waved us off the water. Carlos and Braze parked our two amphibious vehicles nose out from the bank, shields up to full.

I touched the water, cool and a little muddy on my toes with a rocky bed. This can’t be right. But there was something here, I felt the tightening up my legs, almost a sting. I glanced at Fritz to get his read. He shrugged, shook his head.

Yup, just as I thought. It was only here for me. Like the scent of blossoms coming through the village of Rennonvorah.

I took Brazley’s hand on my left, Reed’s on my right. “Take hands, form a chain, and follow me.”

I closed my eyes, not sure if that was necessary, but I figured I’d have a few tries before getting it right.

Turn thrice on river stones...

I opened my eyes, looked down, and it wasn’t muddy water.

Blood washing up my legs.

Dovie snorted, only mildly surprised. “Never seen this much blood in all my life.”

I was grinding my teeth, stopped them long enough to whisper, “I have.”

Light was coming across the river, broken beams of it behind me, but when I turned, the path sealed behind us, shut like a vault, and my first thought climbed right to my mouth. “Everyone with me?”

A long scary silence.

Then Dovie spoke up. “Who’s taking their shoes off? Well I am. My damn socks are soaking this up like teabags.” I felt her bony old fingers digging into my shoulder for support.

“Dovie? Where is everyone else?”

42 - Promise, Trust, Friendship, and Love

The corridor is dark.

Brazley turns away from Thea, drops back, and the wall’s lined with the raised dead, twenty tall skinny human bodies with see-through oily skin and pale bones showing, some of the organs standing out in different shades of orange like an anatomical study.

Her fingers work automatically, sliding back the safety on her SIG. Looking up, the rest of the team, with Thea leading, walks on without noticing the new threat.

Brazley feels a stab of loneliness, a bad taste in her mouth, and lets them go, saying, “I will take these guys, and catch up in a minute.”

Shuffling footfalls of naked feet, the dry flesh of the dead on the stone floor.

She shoves the gun on its strap around her back, crouching to focus on the gathered source inside her. It isn’t difficult because Andreus taught her well. The next part is the most painful, and the dead draw nearer. Brazley squeezes out two rows of command needles up and down her arms.

And she screams, the tips of bone sliding through her skin, through her armor, an uneven ridge of standing needles, ready for her to draw. She ignores the warm seep of blood between her skin and the flexible armor sleeves.

Folding her arms across her chest, she rolls her knuckles over the needles, tightens her fists and slides eight of them out, snapping her arms open in one motion, throwing her weapons.

Eight of the dead tumble to the floor, knees buckling under them, and Brazley folds in for another needle array. She lets every dart fly, her aim flawless, and eighteen of the dead have dropped.

The gun’s swinging low on her back at her right hip, and she elbows it, grabs it coming around, and uses single round shots to drop the last two.

“Twenty.” The word gusts out of her.

Brazley looks around, but she’s moved with the combat and it’s so dark she can’t see which way the corridor leads, forward and back look the same. She whispers, “Thea?” hoping for answer, or at least an echo, some way to get her position.

A woman’s voice slides into her ears. Thea is gone.

Brazley turns, gun raised, trying to pin down its direction.

She left you alone, Brazley.

“Who are you?” Shame at the sound of fear in her voice.

Ask yourself, who is Thea? That’s the important questionAnother might be, why are you here?

The questions burn and Brazley’s legs feel weak, fold under her, and she drops to the floor.

You are alone.

The dead are piled around her, still moving, fingers clawing at the floor, finger bone pressure through her leggings, something holding her left boot, tugging at her.

“She promised me.” Brazley’s sobbing now.

What does her promise mean? Her promises are worth nothing. The voice is getting sneery, and there’s something familiar about it.

Why are you following her? You think she will keep her promises? You believe she will remain with you when she has what she wants? She has no feelings for anyoneShe cares less for you than any random weed she passesShe will leave you behind, and not look backShe will let you go, worthless, forgotten.

Brazley shakes her head. “She will not forget. Thea carried me into the wood when the poison from the OKF—

You think she can save you from them? Portland and the OKFIt hurts to hear those names, doesn’t it? And you better smile Brazley or I will hurt youYou are a broken toy to TheaYou cannot be fixedShe can’t make you whole, take away your painShe isn’t your sister, and she doesn’t want to beShe isn’t your family; she isn’t your friendShe isn’t here!

“I don’t want to be alone!” Brazley shrieks the words, her head bowed, the zip of the strap over her shoulder and the clatter of the gun on the floor.

You are alone, BrazleyYou think she can take away your loneliness? You think she cares?

Brazley holds back her tears, rising to her feet, throwing off the dead hands clawing at her. “Shut up! Thea is here. I know she is. I am not alone.” Brazley picks up the gun, grips it with shaking fingers. “You are wrong. Because of Thea, I am not alone, I know she cares. She created an oak tree for Andreus because she cares. She promised him and she promised me. I have seen what she can do—

You only see what you want to see.

“She has shown me her feelings. She cried, and she showed us her pain, and she told me she is my friend. Because of Thea... I am stronger, I have friends, I have family, I know what a garden is, and I have a birthday. Thea brought me a gift from another world. She will not leave me alone. I have her promise.”

Then I will ask you a last time. How much are her promises worth? I have a scale, and on one side I place your life. On the other, Thea’s promises. How do you think these will measure up?

Brazley stands up, looking for the source of the voice, swings her gun around, pins of bone sliding from her knuckles on her left hand, ready to be drawn. Through the shudder of pain, Brazley’s voice comes out steady. “They will not balance.”

No? The voice sounds a little surprised, and almost happy about it.

“Thea’s promises weigh a little more...than my life.”



Fritz turns, walking backward, plays a few notes, but he isn’t concerned until they don’t come back.

He wheels to tell someone...and they’re gone.

“Thea?” He doesn’t like the sound of the echoes of his voice.

Are you sure they’re not dead?

“Who are you?” Fritz wheels, plucks a few notes and something in the air damps the tones to nothing. He tries whistling a note and the air burns his lips.

Dead because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut?

Fritz tilts his head, to try to find the source of the voice, tries to keep it light, smiles. “I haven’t said anything yet.”

But you willYou’ll sing just like you did at the OaK leaFI’ll make you sing.

Fritz freezes, not because he’s afraid the woman’s going to follow through on the threat, but because he thinks he recognizes her voice. It’s familiar.

You don’t know me, Fritz.

“It’s not just your voice. Something about your use of words, inflection, something sounds familiar. Give me a minute. I’ll figure it out.”

Unfortunately, I don’t intend to give you that long.

“You sort of sound like Brazley.” Fritz smirks. “And fortunately, I’m quick.”

Maybe she’s betrayed you? How much do you trust her?

“I don’t think so. I trust Brazley.”

Maybe it’s not her?

“Now you sound like Reed.”

Reed Gossi will never trust youYou betrayed Thea.

“You’re full of shit. I have no problem with Reed’s trust. He knows we risked our lives to enter OKF to save him. We’re on the same side.”

You did move through OKF perimeter security without a problem.

The voice changes and it scares him. “You are not Carlos!”

Carlos steps out of the shadows, combat crouch, advancing on Fritz, eyes fixed on him. Fritz faces him, hesitant, his arms up, fingers poised, not certain what song he should play. “You’re a fake.”

Carlos attacks, a rigid hand stab below the ribcage catches Fritz, shoves the breath from his lungs. Carlos steps in, fist braced high, forearm blocking, then a leg sweep.

The earth slips under Fritz’s feet, and he hits the floor. Spread to pluck strings, his hands come up to break the fall, but not quick enough. Bones break.

His head feels like it’s in pieces, his cheekbone pressing into his eye, and cold smooth stone under broken hands.

Carlos holds his head against the floor, bones grinding together, a burst of pain in his temple and jaw. He kicks and Carlos jabs a fist behind the knee, locks out his legs.

Then he shoves the side of Fritz’s head against the floor and rams a slender metal spike through his ear, drives it through the eardrum, cutting through tissue and bone underneath.

Fritz screams and he feels it through the stone floor.

You can still hear me, FritzIt’s not too late.

“You’re not Carlos!”

Carlos vanishes in the shadows.

Of course I’m notI’m TheaTime to get even, Fritzy.

“No. This is a trick. You’re not Thea.” The pain is starting to make his voice sound sloppy. “Thea trusts me, she trusts me with her life. She told Andreus that in the forest up from OKF.”

Before you make that call, let me run something by you FritzyCarrying our lunch trays at the OaK leaF? Remember our language—our secret code— in the arrangement of the items on the tray? Three-quarter full vitamin juice upper right side? What did that mean?

“I never told the Berries that. Never. How do you know...”

I fucking rememberBecause I’m TheaIt meant that they’re on to usCancel the escape, we have to plan for another day.

Fritz is sobbing, tears running off his cheeks to the floor, mixing with the flow from a bloody nose. “But you can’t be Thea.”

Yeah? How do you know?

“Because I didn’t betray her and she knows it. I saw it in her eyes, heard the certainty in her voice when she told her story. Her story, it took away the last of my pain. You sound like Thea, but you’re not her.”

A fork tipped up on its side on the left ridge of the tray? It meant I can’t wait to hear a song from you on Friday, Fritzy.

Fritz holds up one broken hand. “Stop this. Please.”

A scraping sound across the floor, and a short barreled handgun slides into Fritz’s right arm.

Pick it upWeigh it in your handI haven’t broken the necessary fingers on your right hand.

“I don’t know how you know about our messages coded in the arrangement on our lunch trays...”

Pick up the gun!

Fritz curls his fingers around the grip, slides off the safety, and slips his forefinger over the trigger.

He tries to lift his head to find the voice. “But you’re not Thea.”

Yeah? Let’s play a game called How Strongly Do You Believe That? If you stick the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger, then I’m not Thea—and I’ll even go as far as stating that Thea trusts you. On the other hand, if you can’t pull the trigger, Fritzy, well then I guess you have doubts. Therefore, I am Thea, and I don’t trust you.

Strength slides into his body, and the pain fades as if it’s not really there—like it’s all some sort of illusion.

“No, this is simple. You’re not Thea.” Fritz smiles, blood running from his nose. “You know how I know?”

Put the fucking gun in your mouth and pull the trigger then!

“Sure.” Bleeding all over the floor, his hearing destroyed, half his fingers broken, Fritz sounds confident. “Thea wouldn’t have bothered with the safety.”

Click.



A tightening in his throat—he can’t breathe, and Carlos grabs his collar, rips it open, the feel of Thea’s vines crushing him, the nightmare of suffocation. His heart drums in his chest.

Is Thea your friend, Carlos?

He looks around the dark corridor, and he’s alone. He looks up and back, trying to figure out what just changed, how he could have taken a step and lost everyone else.

“Who’s asking?”

She nearly strangled you during the rescue at OKFShe’s no friend of yours.

“And why would I take your opinion on who is or isn’t my friend?” He looks along the ceiling, barely visible in the shadows. Then points at the floor. “Why don’t you come out in the open and we can talk about this?”

There’s no needI’m not your friend.

“Then I’m afraid we have nothing more to discuss. If you’ll just point me back toward me friends?”

You mean Thea? That’s what I’m telling youShe has no friends, she pretends, puts on a decent show for the dupes like you, but in the end, they mean nothing to herShe can’t be your friend—isn’t even capable of friendship.

An impatient prodding in his head to get moving, but he’s starting to warm to the discussion. He laughs. “You think you know Thea?”

Yes, very well.

Carlos waves his gun around, puts on a jovial smile. “Can’t be that well, can it? I mean you’re not even her friend.”

Some hesitation in the voice. And why do you think I am not—

“You’re not Thea’s friend because you said she has no friends—that includes you. No friends. It means you’re just another dupe of Thea’s, and that you mean nothing to her.”

I am the except—

“Don’t give me that exception crap. No means no. If it doesn’t then I’m also an exception—and a very close friend of Thea’s—probably a better friend than you are.” Carlos let the silence slip by another couple heartbeats. “Right?”

The voice comes back, clipped with finality. Would you bet your life on Thea’s friendship?

Carlos lowered his gun. The words come out easily. “Sure, I’ll take that bet.”



Reed Gossi?

Reed turns around, wonders why no one else hears the voice. “Yes?”

He turns back and doesn’t spend much time wondering where everyone else has gone. Doesn’t waste his breath calling them. The world shifts around him, similar to the corridor they’d all been walking, only darker, shadowy, and he’s alone...with a voice he recognizes.

Thea only has room in her heart for one, and that’s Thea.

The voice doesn’t sound that convincing.

Reed’s scowling now. “Shirley? What do you think you’re doing?”

Silence for one long moment, then a long sigh out of the dark.

Shit.

Clicking noises on the stone and Shirley walks into view on her sharp crab legs, wings bent in frustration. I’m trying to determine if one of you is going to betray my Thea.

Reed looks around. “Where are the others?”

Shirley flaps one wing. Oh, I’ve already been through themThey’re as solid as can be. None of them.

Reed relaxes. “Okay, come on. Let’s catch up.”

They start walking, Shirley pumps her wings to shoulder height, lands lightly, her breathing in his ear. He glances over, likes her weight on him.

“Shirley?”

The Bizhasen turns with a lifted wing.

“How do you know it’s not me?”

Oh, damn, because you are in love with TheaPlain as the dayI know exactly what she thinks of you and what you think of her—from the inside, so to speakI mean she has full detail plans for you, with you, doing some interesting things to you, both of you doing things she’s just beginning to dream aboutI’ll fill you in when we have more time.

“Do that.” Reed swallows hard, trying to keep the reaction out of his voice. “Then what’s this about?”

Just being careful Reed Gossi, that’s all. The end is on us, and I can’t afford to allow anyone to cross my valued-beyond-all-worlds TheaI wasn’t certain at first, but she trusts all of you—completely—blindly! She has changed —you and the others have changed her. I can’t let anyone stab her in the back at the moment she has the one chance to get it all.

“Where is she?”

Standing right in front of you.

Reed stops, still not seeing anyone. “What did you do with the others, Fritz and Carlos, Brazley?”

Oh, not much, just played a game, asked them some questions, wanted to see where each of them stoodThey’re here with us, tooSee?

43 - Orphne’s Palace of Death and Destruction

I closed my eyes, listened to the sounds in the corridor around me, heard them breathing, my wonderful Reed, Fritzy and his kick-ass boyfriend Carlos, Brazley right behind me, shallow, rapid breathing. I reached back to take her hand.

“Don’t worry, Braze. I’m not going to let anything happen to you, promise.” I shrugged off my own climbing fear. “What you’ve been through in your life? You’ve twice the backbone of all of us put together. You can probably take down what we’re about to face by yourself.” A glance back to show her my smile. “But I’m not going to let you.”

A hollow in my body filled with a familiar weight, a familiar taste in my mouth. Didn’t even realize she was gone. “Shirley? Where were you?”

Reed came to my side, grabbed my other hand. “She was filling me in on some things. Interesting stuff. Tell you about it later.”

Gave his hand a squeeze, and stared up at a pair of giant, ten-meter-high, carved wooden doors, living thriving trees and sunlight high on the arched shapes, the structures of life breaking down in the middle, nothing but death and decay at the bottom—not very attractively placed at our height, the bottom two meters or so.

Had to be Orphne’s front door. “Looks like we’re here.”

I let out a meter of vines, green, flexible, whippy, let them coil around me, hold me together. Then wheeled, put my back to the door, braced one hand against the very cold wood. I let my gaze shift slowly, left to right, stopping on Brazley, Fritz, Carlos, Reed, and even held our friendly everglades witch’s eyes for a moment.

“I know this is probably the wrong to time to say this. But I love all of you. I still may not understand why you’re helping me, but I’m glad you’re here. With me. Really. I never would have made it this far without you, without your strength to hold me up.” I let out a breath, felt my shoulders relax. “Thank you.”

Smiles and nods from my loves, and a long silence with nothing but the sound of trickling blood.

Dovie cleared her throat and spoke up, gave me a serious stare, jerking her thumb over shoulder. “This all sounds exciting, but I can’t leave my river behind—not for long. Like the air I breathe. So, this is where I turn back, Theodora Viran.”

I gave her a smile. “Of course, Dovie. Don’t know if we got here before or after the Leaf Father, but we’re here because of your help. Thank you.”

With a nod and a “good luck to y’all”, Dovie turned and walked away, vanishing back along the creek.

Reed caught my gaze, slid a hand gently up my arm, and I got a charge at the feel of his fingertips. Liked that, but this wasn’t the place for it, and threw it off. He smiled and let go, gesturing at the door. “You going to knock?”

“Fuck no. I’ve been invited here.” I grabbed the handles and yanked open the doors.

Then I led my friends inside, keeping a step ahead. I wanted to get between them and whatever was coming next.

And who’s standing in the goddamn foyer? The Leaf Father, all knobbed limbs twisting into the sky and nets of hanging moss, old bone arms like ancient wood, and the old fuck’s laughing at me.

What a dickhead.

A chorus of growling noises, and there was Orphne leaning against the wall on my right, tall and slender and deadly beautiful, one finger twirling through her silvery hair. I’m sure her wolves would continue to look sweet and cuddly with blood in their teeth and gnawing our bones.

Orphne, Queen of the Dead—or whatever she really was, straightened, clapped her hands. Her wolves snapped alert, ears slanted at an angry angle. “I just love visitors.” Her pale lips smeared on one side into a smile. “Right after unrequited love.”

I turned my gaze to the Leaf Father, my head all the way back. “Oh, I plan to requite. Don’t worry.”

The Leaf Father looked down at me, the greenest eyes in any world, deep as the paths he and my mother and my uncle and everyone—everything—else took from the Rootworld. Not worldly eyes, but many-worldly—and not one promise in them. Not a single fucking promise in them. The Leaf Father went to one knee, coming down to about four meters off the shuddering floor, his breath stinking of lies and broken friendship.

“You killed trees. You hurt my friends.”

I whispered the words, but they carried the force of the forests I’d befriended, every forest floor my feet had touched, every drop of blood I’d given back, the hearts of every tree sacrificed to get me here. “What the fuck do you know about love?”

The Queen of the Dead laughed, light and full of enjoying this too much.

I slid my gaze to her, my brows knuckling up on their own. “And you, whatever you are. Your name’s Orphne. I know that. What’s your role in all this, except to play shit-headed hostess with your pet entourage and maybe provide light entertainment value?”

Behind me, Fritz laughed, cut it short when it was clear that not everyone shared our sense of humor.

A gasp of horror on my left, a burst of shock with my name in it, “Thea!” I held Orphne’s gaze a moment, long enough to feel how cold she really was, her smile gone, sharp little white teeth showing through a gap of pale lips.

On the left side of the room, in the shadows behind the Leaf Father was...my mother, tall and slender and the same weight of other worlds in her eyes. Kraneia, perfect skin, pale like new shoots in spring, hair in waves and rolls the color of rich soil, coiling bands of gold and other metals up her slender arms and along her fingers, a net of curling gold branches and leaves crowning her head. My mother, the goddess in a long pale gown that flowed past her feet, across the stone floor in ripples of material like scattered leaves in early autumn.

And she stood in the shadow the Leaf Father like a fucking servant.

“Thea, run!”

“No, mom. All I’ve done so far. I think I’ll stand my ground.”

Her gaze met mine, and there was pleading in her eyes, her voice following in a whisper, way behind the stream of thoughts she hurled at me. “He wants your ties to the Winterdim. He has my heart, against my will, he makes me do—

“Keep silent!” The Leaf Father held up one fist. One guess what was inside.

Our hostess had recovered and seemed to want to drag this out. “It is you against all, Thea.” She said my name like we were old friends.

I shook my head, reached back to take Reed’s hand. He stepped to my side, straightened his shoulders. That’s my man.

“No. There are three sides. Not just mine and yours.” Brazley’s neat carving up of sides discussion came back to me. But that’s the way it used to be, when things were simple. “And no one is on any one side. Least of all, me.” I glanced back at Reed. “Though, if I have to pick one. We are here in this world representing a whole other one, the Winterdim. If you wish to deal with that world that lies between, you will have to go through us. But there’s more than this.”

Intrigued, Orphne made a please-continue gesture.

I flattened my hand over my chest, glanced around the room. “A piece from the Rootworld, a piece from the Dawnworld, and a piece from the Winterdim. I am all of them and more.” I heard Andreus’ voice in my head, I’m not like you, or anyone. Just need a new...mother.

I turned to Orphne, who was starting to snarl a question at me, one side of her mouth raised, baring sharp teeth.

I cut her off. “Even a piece of you.” I pointed at her, extended my arm steadily and jabbed a finger. “You are on my side, queen.”

Orphne rubbed at the ears of one of her pets, her eyes fixed on mine, whatever she’d been about to say was quickly reeled in.

She didn’t ask for it, but I continued anyway. “You don’t know, do you?” I let go of Reed, opened both arms, welcoming her as if for a hug. “Come meet your new daughter in law, or surrogate daughter, or whatever I’ve become.”

Orphne lost most of her strength, had to grab the wall to keep her feet, no more leaning back like some snotty sharp-toothed bitch with her big dogs, loving the exhibition of pain she’d put together.

“I have your dear Andreus. Your blood. Your son. I have his materials, and I have his pattern, his reality, his friendship, his promises—and my promises to him. You’re on my side queen, because I’m going to bring Andreus back into this world. Without me you will lose him forever.”

Dead silence in the room. I didn’t have to listen to pick up the heart beats of my friends. They were always with me.

The Leaf Father looked more impatient than concerned about the possible loss of one of his allies. “Theodora?”

I held up a hand to him, waiting for—and finally got a pouty fucking nod of assent from—Orphne, Queen of the Dead. Snapping to the Leaf Father, “Keep your damn leaves on. I’ll get to you next.”

“Thea, he will kill you all!” It was my mother’s scream of shock.

The Leaf Father swung to her, and shouted, “No more from you!”

I held the queen’s eyes a moment longer, even felt the softening of her mood, and my Uncle Theo’s words about Orphne came to me, but she’s also open to other paths and allies.

I gave her a respectful nod. “Sorry, Orphne. That was cruel, and Andreus—he was my friend, but he is your son. Apparently he chose me. I’m the new surrogate, and I will care for him when he decides to return.”

She held my eyes a moment, nodded, and looked down, tears running down her face, down her body, pooling on the floor—more tears than any normal person carried around. She waved her wolves back.

A weird mourning silence swept the room, and then it was gone.

I swung one hand loose behind my back, didn’t even look around, whispered, “Can I borrow your echoSaw, Braze?”

A soft rustle of her pack, and it was in my hand, shutdown, a tingle of energy coming into my skin through the grip. I caressed the trigger, a harder touch and the pale green beam would hum to life. I curled my finger out of the way, let the weight of the saw pull my arm vertical, the device’s hard molded body and cooling fins pressing into my leg.

Over my shoulder, “Fritz, can I get some theme music here?”

“You got it.”

“Carlos? Think that old bastard’s eyes are bullet proof?”

“Probably not.”

“Reed, any way you can give me the wisdom to get all of us through this alive?”

“You already possess it, Thea.”

“Theodora Viran.” The Leaf Father’s voice came out commanding, a law of nature.

“Your turn.” I fought down the urge to thumb on the saw and charge. “What do you want?”

Wood creaking, his mouth closed and twisted into a smile. “I have what I want—what I have wanted for many years. What I have waited for.” He opened his bird’s nest hand, sent my treeheart floating above the palm, spinning slowly like some kind of collected prize in a showcase.

My treeheart.

There were tears in my eyes. I was a lot closer—closer than I’d been the last time he’d shown it to me in that field northeast of Watseka, the field where Andreus had died, where I took his materials and stored them inside me. Where my new oak tree towered over the field.

The field where this fucker said he loved me.

I forgot to breathe. This close to my heart, a small and polished knot of hardwood, dark and light shades of brown, with lines of deep red like a net of veins.

His raspy unfriendly voice cut into me. “I finally have you, Theodora.”

Slowly, the Leaf Father withdrew his hand, pulling my heart away from me. An ache in my chest, the chains of an anchor sewn into my bones, tugging at them. Gods I wanted to follow it.

“You are mine. Come here, child.”

My right foot shot out, took me off balance, and I followed it forward, bringing my left in behind it and right past for another step. Another step. I stopped at his feet, staring up at his brilliant green eyes.

“I feel your struggle, your hatred for the world. Do not forget I love you, Theodora.” His gaze lifted to my friends, a few steps behind me. “And that I am the only one you will love. I have taken away your capability of loving anyone else.”

I took a step back, but it hurt, pain shooting through my chest. Made my knees weak.

And he thinks he’s just got to hold up my heart and whistle and I’d come running?

The Leaf Father didn’t seem that put out by Orphne’s switch of sides. He didn’t appear to be afraid of me or my friends. Confident bastard. Confident that he knew every move, every thought I could possibly come up with. But how could he? I wasn’t even clear on what I was going to do next. I just wanted to hurt him—for everything he had done, for Archippa, for the burning trees along the old Illinois River. Maybe even for my mother.

Holding my treeheart out of reach, he bent forward, nearly curled into a ball to get down to something like my height. His eyes fixed on mine, his creaky smile still in place, a stumpy row of teeth, and gusts of breath with the stink of dying forest.

He rumbled, “Step closer, Theodora.”

I crouched, pulled everything Shirley had stored in the Numezhin account, and put it to work.

My wings unfolded, burning the dust in the air, extending meters on either side of me. Reed, standing at my side, leaned closer and fed more of the power of Winterdim.

Fritz’s music, on top of heartening us all, burst and lit the room like a star, blinding everyone in front of me.

Reed’s whisper in my ear, “Take care of him, Thea. I know you can.”

Eyes closed down to slits of fiery green, the Leaf Father attacked.

My toes left the floor in a bounce, my fingers slipping from Reed’s. Folded my legs, tucked them up, and pumped the wings down, shooting me toward the ceiling.

A glance between my knees at the floor meters below. Reed swept off his feet, one of the Leaf Father’s bony arms swinging low, caught my love, knocked him against the front doors.

Brazley’s voice sounded strong—even angry, shouting up at a forest god. “I have a piece of your hand in my pack—along with a pair of carving knives from the Winterdim. Want to add to my trophy collection? Go on, give me something to take!”

The hard “k” sound echoed off the stone walls of Orphne’s palace of death and destruction.

The Leaf Father glanced at me, rocketing over his head, and ducked, went to a crouch with one of his hands out for death.

A jet of fire squirted at Brazley, caught the ends of her hair—she was already halfway up the back wall, grippy shoes catching the stones, muscles propelling her straight up, an insect-quick vertical sprint that couldn’t end well. Brazley was tough, smart, and had lots of useful gadgets. I was the only one with wings.

Her climb had taken her almost to the ceiling—had to be twenty meters up. She reached the limit of her strength, lunged forward, savagely grabbing the air above her, then fell, momentum lost, soles coming loose, her other hand twisting to the smoldering ends of her hair, pulling the bundle under her arm to smother it.

I snapped my wings up, let the air go, and fell to the earth with Brazley, letting my vines out in long braided curls.

I hit the floor, dropped into a squat, let the wings curl under and take my weight.

With my back to Brazley, I had three vines shooting at her, one thumping against her back to steady her tumble, two under her arms, then I was in the air again, shot to the ceiling, passing Brazley on the way and reeling out more vines—about my limit because it wrenched back my neck, flipped me upside down, the tips of my toes grazing the ceiling of the impossibly large entrance hall.

I caught a good half a second of what was going on at floor level, enough to see that I’d taken up some of the speed out of Brazley’s fall, got it below a total splatter, and hoping it would keep as many organs intact, as many bones unbroken as possible.

Also saw Carlos, tumble left out the Leaf Father’s reach, popping off rounds, sharp little snaps in the air.

And then it became clear I’d made a crucial error showing the Leaf Father my wings—and letting him walk away with enough health for a follow-up showdown. I’d handed him an advantage that could end this right now.

In his favor.

The Leaf Father reached up and snapped me out of the air, his fingers curling around me, crushing, the fire in my wings doing very little to hurt him. He even seemed to like it.

Holding me over his head like a toy with broken wings, he squeezed the breath from my lungs.

“Theodora, I do not want to hurt you.”

Too late for that.

My wings faded and died, left the two hard stalks hot on my back. He loosened his grip, letting me slide into the lumpy palm of his hand, and glanced down at some commotion from the floor.

Reed, on his feet—barely—leaning against the doors, not quite steady, all his strength on one leg, was roaring like a lion, hurling insults.

I was one my feet, grabbing for something solid, a second of free fall as the Leaf Father crouched to about half his height—his other hand in a fist around my treeheart, twisted on end like a hammer about to crush my love into the stone floor.

His gaze still mostly with me, his breath like the air over a dead forest, the Leaf Father leaned in, really got in my face this time, the green of otherworlds in his deep eyes.

“Theodora, do not fight me. You will lose.”

I felt the rush of air. Somewhere below me his fist came down and the earth shook. I could feel the force of it standing in the palm of the Leaf Father’s hand.

I didn’t look down, just screamed and braced my legs apart.

The Leaf Father looked away from me, his gaze dropping, something not right in the twist of wood muscle cords across his face.

My mouth opened and my voice came out lethally soft. “You killed my love. Nothing will save you now.”

I jammed my finger against the trigger. The echoSaw came alive in my fist, humming and bucking, begging to carve and slice through wood. I thumbed the extender wide open, over a meter long, and shoved the cutting beam into his face. It bit in just below the cheek, and I brought my arm across in a level sweep, the beam slipping easily through solid wood and the sharp tips of teeth. Softer tissue burst, splattered me with a clear oozy sap. I felt the pushback about halfway through and leaned into it, nearly stumbling over the echoSaw when the beam cut through the other side of his face into open air.

The bottom of the Leaf Father’s jaw dropped away in one solid heavy piece of wood-bone, a rattling of teeth bouncing across the stone floor.

He roared, a volcano’s mouth of damp heat and the eruption of pain. The echoSaw flew from my hand, twirling over my shoulder, the safeties kicking in to cut the beam.

The sound of the Leaf Father shook my bones, loosened my skin, a burn of tearing muscle. My teeth locked shut, blood and a chunk of my own tongue wobbly in my mouth.

I landed on my back, slid across the stones, a hard thump of my head hitting next, and I was rolling, my legs coming up loose and out of control like a thrown doll.

Ringing in my ears dulled the sounds around me. Couldn’t open my eyes, my arms felt heavy, the darkness so comforting.

I think it was Brazley saying, “Oh fuck” that woke me—and my own response riding over the pain and the urge to slip under and fade into unconsciousness. Did Brazley just use abusive language?

Reed and Carlos grabbed me under the arms, and hauled me to my feet, Fritz singing something that shoved a jolt of energy up my spine, Shirley shouting internal repair stats and kicking Augie’s ass all over the place to get more done.

Wait a second...Reed?

But my mind wouldn’t slow down to deal with that one, jumping to other questions, and taking in a million pulses of sense data from the battle around me.

Groggily looking up at my enemy, I was suddenly thinking, fuck, Orphne has a big house, it’s a damn palace, if the Leaf Father has combat room inside the foyer! Then reality caught up to me. Now he’s going to kill me, crush my heart, take my ability to control myself. Probably make me kill my own friends.

My only friends.

The Leaf Father shoved one hand against the floor of Orphne’s entry room, throwing his upper body straight. Still kneeling on the stones, he twisted his mangled face toward the Queen of the Dead, a blaze of betrayal in his eyes.

He lowered his free arm, the fist still curled around my heart. Opening it up, his fingers spread with fire, my heart in the center of it, glowing, edged in bright white veins as it split apart and pumped ashes into the air. Flames licking savagely at his fingers, up his arm, and my treeheart twisted and blurred, the skin and burned tissue lifted away, a red coal glow at its core. The fire died and my heart had been consumed.

I slumped to the stones, thumped my head again, still managed to keep my eyes open and on my enemy.

The Leaf Father’s own hand crumbled, split burned wood and shuddered ashes everywhere. He had sacrificed it to destroy my treeheart.

Minutes stepped by, soft seconds counting through the lumps of ash tumbling out of the Leaf Father’s ruined hand, caked gray pieces splashing like fluid when they hit the floor.

And I just wanted to close my eyes and turn away from it.

Reed leaned over me, kissed me, one hand under my neck, lifted me toward him. “Don’t leave me, Thea. He can’t do this!”

My mouth sagged open, dry, but with the taste of blood, my lips sticking to my teeth. I heard Fritz singing and plucking a slow thrum somewhere. My eyes swiveled left and Brazley stood over me, the echoSaw recovered and shaking in her hand. Her SIG automatic in the other. I could hear Carlos’ cleated boots against stone paving above my head.

I blinked, brought my focus back to Reed, wanted so desperately to say, hold me. Wait a second. I thought you were dead.

He must have understood because he answered me, “Fritz did something, sang a barrier that even the Leaf Father’s fist couldn’t crush. He saved me.”

I tried to smile. Don’t know what showed on my mouth. “Help me up, my love.”

He almost let go, his fingers clutching madly into the back of my neck.

“Up?”

I pulled one leg up, managed a good jab of my knee into his side. “Am I going to have to ask someone else?”

Reed scrambled sideways, brought his other arm around, under my waist, and in one motion, he hopped to his knees, and then his feet, dragging me off the floor.

The room swung into view and I was standing.

I threw an arm over his shoulders.

The Leaf Father’s eyes narrowed, a stunned anger through the pain of losing half his face—and one hand. The end of one arm was a smoldering stump. He gasped and growled more words that made no sense, spewing thick fluid from the wounds.

Didn’t matter. I knew what he was thinking.

Bracing my legs apart, I kept one clawed hand locked to Reed for support, and lifted my gaze to the Leaf Father’s, a snarl twisting my lips. Breathing hard, Shirley doing damage control and Augie burning supplies, backfilling more for the strength I’d need in a few minutes. I love you ShirleyKeep up the good work, my man, Augie.

Then I was smiling, but it felt cruel and fake, and I let it reshape into what I hoped was an amused look. My mother had slid along the wall, halfway around to my side, watching me with open awe. She’s a goddess, and she was in awe of me.

Felt tears in my eyes as I stared at the Leaf Father, slumped and in pain.

I slid my free hand up my thigh, up the middle of my body, slowed the slide past my navel, and stopped between my breasts, flattening my hand, felt the thump of my human heart.

“You don’t even know...what love is.” My words came out slurred, but I think everyone got them. “I have grown a new treeheart. I do not need my old one—or the replacement my mother made for me. I have learned balance and love and friendship and loyalty from Fritz and Carlos and Brazley, Reed and Shirley and Augie.”

I swallowed a lump of pain.

“And Andreus.”

I raised a hand. “I do not need you, or anything once mine that you possess.” I stabbed a finger at him. “There is nothing I can learn from you but deception and betrayal. You are nothing to me, a tree of lies, a tree of death, of pain and blood spilled without purpose or need.”

I had to stop to catch my breath, leaning forward, huffing for another minute. “In this world, or any, in one forest or a million forests, you don’t matter.”

He let out a low petulant growl with the shapes of words that could have been, “I am the Leaf Father!”

I shook my head. “You’re not my Leaf Father.”

44 - Leaves

Shirley always knew best.

I cupped my free hand, felt a silky pile of my Chimeric-L waiting for my breath and direction. I let it go and saw the terror in the Leaf Father’s eyes, his mouth—what was left of it—gaping and taking in the poison. He couldn’t close it, couldn’t fight off the rapid paralysis spread, the slackening of muscle tissue, the gnawing at his soul.

It’s some deadly bad shit, Chimeric-L. Maybe even the deadliest I have on the menu.

Meters of weathered timber, forest-killing limbs and saw-savaged face crashed against the far wall of Orphne’s entry chamber, bent in half, and thundered to the floor, loosening the stones under my feet.

The dust was still settling when I reached for Brazley. “Going to need to borrow your saw again, please.”

I crossed the room with a little help from my friends.

I climbed unsteadily up on the Leaf Father’s corpse, breathed out my antidote to kill off what was left of the poison, and thumbed on the thin humming beam of the echoSaw.

Straight across the torso, through old splintery wood, chips of it sticking in my hair, flying on all directions, I wheeled and cut along the side of the Leaf Father’s mid-section. A few more minutes of carving, shaving and touch up work, I kicked away the panel on a deep block of shadow.

Haloed in sawdust, I reached into the hole and lifted out a knot of glowing gold wood. Kraneia cried and rushed forward to take it in her shaking hands. She stared at me, her daughter, Leaf Father Killer and maker of treehearts, and she bowed, a shudder of shame and tears like the rain staining the front of her spring gown.

“I love the winter, you know?” Her whisper brought me all the way around.

“What?”

“It was a curse. He punished me for loving Thomas, made me return to my treeform every fall, and he only allowed me out in the spring because I had you, my child. He wanted you from the beginning. I wanted you so much to be more like your sweet father. It wasn’t clear at first that you would have my powers. When it became clear—” She pointed at the corpse of the Leaf Father. “—he hungered after you, watched you growing up, watched you run through the woods, waiting to take your heart.”

She choked on more words, then started over again, a bit hesitant as if she wasn’t sure she’d be allowed to say them. “And he brought the OaK leaF to us, to find others like us, to break us, and control us.”

I nodded. Pretty much what I’d already concluded. “And the no touching Reed thing? I've been all over him since the beginning.”

She almost smiled, but that faded sharply. “Of course you have. That was my intent.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I gave Reed a smile that didn't fade. Also gave him a come-here tilt of my head before turning back to my mother. “What about Folesh?”

She glanced away, an involuntary shudder with it as she focused on the Leaf Father—dead. “Folesh was always doing a little work for me. When he could.”

I grabbed Reed’s hand. “And the OKF?”

“Folesh spends much of his time infiltrating that organization.” Her shoulders dropped, a sigh signaling some sort of breakdown. “I am so sorry, my light of dawn daughter, my first green shoots of spring. The Leaf Father allowed me to roam free when he was in the mood, but I was always tied to him.”

Kraneia wiped away a tear, and then looked up with a gasp when she focused on the man emerging from a door on the other side of Orphne. The Queen of the Dead was still leaning against the stone wall with her pets, watching us, no hint of the cool amused bitch on her face.

She stroked the ears of one of the wolves, turned toward me with a thoughtful look. “Theodora Viran, you were right.” She nodded, her gaze wandering off, the look gone distant as if calculating something. “You have paid his debt to my satisfaction.”

Then my Uncle Theodore was here, slowing cautiously to take in what had become of the Leaf Father.

He looked like he needed something to distract him.

So I handed him his heart, and my tough and crazy old Uncle Theo held it with both hands, stared up at me, and cried, tears rolling down his face, off his chin.

Then I dug deeper—the deepest—into the shadow in the center of the Leaf Father’s chest, both my hands around a knobby globe of wood striped with dark and pale woods, veined with roots, and decorated with a hundred aggregated plant features, thorns, curls of vine, bitter scents, and a damp section that, when I brought my fingers to my tongue, tasted like saltwater—for those lovely mangroves.

The heart of the worldforest felt warm in my hands, and when I pulled it close, it became a part of me.

45 - Reborn

My mother wouldn’t get near the water—saltwater. She stayed up on the concrete breakwall at the edge of the beach, and stared out at the angry gray Atlantic Ocean, gulls wheeling with thin mournful cries. I walked among the beached seaweed, long cables of brown and green with air bladders and ripple-surfaced blades.

Bending to my knees, I let the slick skins of the weeds run through my hands, heavy sand-gritty rolls of plants. “So beautiful.”

And when I looked up, she was there, the woman from the sea. She was with my dad, walking down the sand from the north end—this time she was dressed in what looked like bodyfitting armor of crab carapaces, points and rings of bloodred and pale white bone.

Posey stopped, kept her feet in the sloshing Atlantic, and let go of my father’s hand.

A glance up at my mom, crinkle of happiness around his eyes, and he rushed up the beach, grinning with open arms toward me. I swung mine under his, coiled out a couple vines into the mix, and spun in the sand, a tight hug bringing us all the way around.

“So worried about you.” His hands in my hair, cradling my head, tilting my face down to kiss me on the forehead, lifting it to hold my eyes for a moment. “I want to hear all about it tonight, Theodora Light of the Dawn and Spring of the World.”

I kept the hug going another couple seconds. “You got it, Dad. Bring up the chairs from the basement. I have guests.”

He stopped, gave me a curious smile, nodded, and walked up the beach to my mom, a look back with some advice and another happy crinkle around his eyes, “Let’s don’t let your mother cook.” He winked at me.

I was still laughing when I turned back to the sea. Posey raised a hand, gray green waves lapping around her waist. “So, you’re Leaf Mother, ruler of the worldforest—and apparently much more.” She bowed to me, a graceful open gesture with one hand, and I felt the power in the motion. “Well done, Thea.”

The words spilled nervously from my mouth, and Posey was nodding before I even asked, “Can I talk to you, Posey? I mean when you have some free time, ask you how...you...I don’t know.” A slide of cold in-over-my-head shame up my arms—and the weight of the world forest inside me. I felt like a child asking this know-everything to help me. I pushed the words out. “How to just live...like this?”

“Sure.” She said it simply, lightly, so solid and confident. “Any time you wish. Just come to the shore—any shore, get your feet wet, and I’ll find you.”

I nodded, folded my arms against the chill, stared down at my feet, then back up at her.

I called out just before she went under. “Posey? What do you rule?”

She glanced back with a smile, shrugged. “Nothing solid. Just all the oceans in this world.”



Brazley made a trophy for me in the shape of an oak leaf. She carved it from the chunk of the Leaf Father’s finger she had cut and then carried around in her pack for months.

I gave Brazley a crow.

She can do the graveyard thing on her own—whatever that actually meant. The pet—a “dog or bird”—was the other item on Andreus’ to-do list for her. Got a bird. Check.

And I loved crows. I thought it was going to be trouble having one in the house, but they have that wonderful way of laughing and I fell in love with its cheer.

A month later I brought the next Andreus into the world. It wasn’t how I expected, didn’t follow any reproductive course I’d ever heard of. No thrusting involved. Damn. No vaginal stretching. Always good. Hardly any work at all, except one exceptionally sweaty night, a burning fever that ravaged my body for hours. I temporarily lost my sight, finally passed out, and woke up with a baby in my bed.

That’s all there was to it.

And all the materials I’d taken from the prior Andreus? Half gone according to Shirley.

My dad got all paternal, drove halfway to Florida and back, stopping at a dozen towns and near-abandoned cities—anything with a store or yard sale—and bought a stroller, bassinet, crib, pastel orange paint and sprayer for “the baby’s room,” and filled the pantry with nutrient fluids, toast sticks, and a bunch of other baby junk I had to label-read to figure out. Reed didn’t know any more about it than I did.

It was December, and the baby was a couple months old when I really knew it was Andreus.

Not that I had much doubt.

I was sitting up late, rocking and singing softly. Brazley was on the couch reading something about marine mammals and playing chess with my dad at the same time.

The baby looked up at me, a fierce stare and an open hungry mouth, bubbles of saliva and sharp pink gums.

And something glistening and oozing at my feet. Thought it was something else at first—babies, they’re always ejecting fluids of some kind.

Nope, the little guy was a beacon, and oozing bones came calling—and you know New England, there’s a damn graveyard on every corner.

I thought of Helodes and laughed, glanced over my shoulder at Brazley and my dad, then back down at the baby.

“Welcome to the Dawnworld, Andreus.”



Around ten degrees outside, with air so dry it made my bones ache. I let everyone else—Reed, Fritz, Carlos, Brazley and the baby—sleep, and felt a smile come to life on my face at the sound of my dad up early and pacing around downstairs like some rudderless ship in a winter-closed harbor.

I got up, made him coffee—myself a pot of tea, and we sat in the big chairs facing the field behind the house, sipping warmly, and watching the storm, sheets of cold and nothing alive out in the open, but the whole world in motion, drifts of snow breaking against the strong gray trunks at the forest edge.

My dad looked over at me, raised his mug in a feeling of cheer that clearly took some effort, pulled the blanket around his feet with the other hand, “Your mother will have completed her work by now.”

I nodded, sighed, picking up the loneliness in his voice.

Happy winter, mom.

Reed was the next one downstairs, rubbing his eyes, and rummaging around the cupboards for a coffee mug. Carlos followed him down ten minutes later. They leaned against the counters in the kitchen, talking quietly.

I sat up, almost spilled my tea when I caught a faint shift of motion against the white storm. Someone was walking through deep snow, strong marching steps that brought out the figure clearly against the cold trees and bands of solid white. It was a woman—I felt her breathing and the beat of her heart through the storm, through the double-paned windows, her long dark hair like restless shadows of winter branches above her head, ends snapping like whips, a playful anger.

She walked directly at us, lifting her arms, her fingers opening gracefully, face raised to the sky.

My dad was sitting up now, coffee cup halfway to his lips, his mouth open but his breath caught behind his teeth, little wrinkles around his eyes tightening when he focused on her.

She came around the north side of the house, dancing now, the snow swirling in winter flowers around her kicking feet.

Kraneia, my mother, opened the front door, let in gusts of ice and snow, throwing it out of her hair, and she was smiling at me, peeling off her thin coat of autumn.

“My heart has told me not to sleep away this winter, my loves.” Her gaze dropped to the mugs in our hands. “I hope someone’s left enough tea for me.”



ABOUT

Chris Howard is just a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books, 2008), Salvage (Masque/Prime Books, 2013), Nanowhere (Lykeion, 2005), and a shelf-full of other books. My short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines and anthologies—latest is “The Mermaid Game” in Paula Guran's anthology, Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep (Prime Books, 2015). “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” was in Fantasy Magazine. My story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. My essay “How to Build Worlds without Becoming the Minister for Tourism” is in Now Write! (Penguin, 2014). I write and illustrate the comic Saltwater Witch, as well as the comic edition of Salvage. My art has appeared on dozens of book covers, in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of books, blogs, and other interesting places.


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