Winterdim

Chris Howard

22

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?”

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