Winterdim

Chris Howard

21

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.

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