Winterdim

Chris Howard

15

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.”

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