Winterdim

Chris Howard

27

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.”

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