Winterdim

Chris Howard

12

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.”

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