Winterdim

Chris Howard

31

Ghosts



Is good fondue worth its weight in gold? It is, isn’t it? Helodes couldn’t cook worth a damn, but she knew people who could, and when we reached the witch’s house, dinner was ready, spread out for us, half a dozen steaming pots and skewers and mounds of bread and vegetables.

And no fucking fish.

The million questions waited for an hour, after dinner, with a high moon and an incoming swarm of weird chittering nocturnal animals in nearby trees, drawn closer by the scents of cooking—and the apparent lack of aggressiveness in the diners.

I sipped tea, picked a sharp wedge of bread crust from my teeth with my tongue, and jutted a chin at Helodes. “How do you know what’s inside Reed? What’s been going on while we were up north?”

“The thread?” She sighed. “The Rootworld isn’t like this one. Beings from the Winterdim are not permitted there—on pain of death, that sort of thing. I’ve seen weapons like this thread of Lazaro’s before. They are used to seek out anything alive from the Winterdim.”

“Lazaro’s from the Rootworld then. What else has happened?”

Helodes looked tired, swiveled her gaze to me—she’d been staring Fritz up and down for the last half hour. “Oh, you know.” She pushed her cup of tea at me, a warped thick-walled mug that looked like it had been loosely shaped of sludge, glazed with a river’s pollution-slick, and kilned. It was hideous, and I couldn’t help watching the thing bob in her fist with her words. “The ghost of Theodore Balanon, your damned uncle, visited me two nights after you left.”

That snapped up my gaze, and we locked eyes. It was hard not to glare at her. “A ghost?”

She waved the mug around, sloshing some of the tea over her fingers. She didn’t appear to notice it. “Ghost, remote dimensional image, whatever. Enough of him was here to let me in on a few secrets.” She caught me looking at the mug, and pulled it in possessively. “Andreus made this for me when he was little. It’s my favorite.”

Her reaction startled me. It was embarrassingly childish. I glanced over at Brazley across the room, but the girl just watched respectfully, no sign of a response in her blank eyes—I’m going to have to ask her if she wants someone to program those so she has irises.

I turned back to Helodes, caught a shudder and more spilled tea before she could lock it down.

So, it does hurt to lose someone you raised and loved, but the mighty witch Helodes cannot let anyone see what she’s feeling on the inside.

I reached out slowly. It felt dangerous, what I was about to do. Stopped the motion halfway there, and then—because it just felt right—extended my arm all the way, caught her wrist in one hand, and slid my fingers over her cool dry skin.

“I know, Helodes. Andreus was special. I don’t know why he charged across the field without us. I was in trouble, the same poison running through my vines. Brazley saved me from the same death. But Andreus was already out there, taking on Lazaro by himself. To help Folesh—who I think was also in trouble? Whatever his reasons, it wasn’t to die without one—a reason—or without payment.”

Helodes looked at me, eyes bloodshot. “Or without a gift.”

I looked over at Reed sitting quietly, staring at the ceiling, still working with the new knowledge about the thread’s purpose, mumbling to himself. Brazley was now deep in some musical discussion with Fritz and Carlos—she and Carlos had their SIGs out, locked and loaded, and Fritz was doing something to them, finally caught Fritz’s whispered words, “The song’s a phantom play, make the solid moving mechanisms in anything, a gun, a vehicle, anything that depends on enclosures or friction or gearing. Gears will spin through each other, ghost teeth that will catch nothing, locking mechanisms depending on a hook slotting into another piece...just come free, two ghost pieces passing through each other.”

He was explaining his methods for shutting down weapons and unlocking doors. To a musicman—or Child of the Sun, whatever he was, it was like me giving out recipes, the workings of the badass things I could do. Fritz was giving away his recipes, and I felt a pull in my chest, the tug of opposing forces, one that felt it was fatally wrong, the other exactly right.

I turned away, inclined to go with right, simply because it was the reverse of everything I had held dear for all my life up to now.

“You can let go of me, now.” Helodes caught my attention again with a touch on my gripping hand. I released her, hadn’t even felt my fingers tightening into her wrist.

“Let me tell you something, Thea...mother to future mother.”

It was tough to let that go without a scowl—come on, I hadn’t even had time to give Reed a good fucking.

Helodes waved the words past, and kept talking in her low while-we-have-this-moment-alone voice. “I have children, two sons and a daughter—one son living in the Rootworld, crossed back when he was a teenager, and never returned. Andreus wasn’t my real child.”

“I gathered that.”

“He was older than I was when we met. And he died saving my life.”

Had to stop my tongue picking at my teeth. “Okay, I don’t think I understand that.”

“I didn’t either, for a long time. Andreus dies and is reborn. That’s his never ending cycle. He’s—biologically—the only son of Orphne.”

“Queen of the Dead? Same Orphne?” The one I owe a shitload of something to—thanks to my uncle.

She nodded. “He is ancient—probably thousands of years old. He dies when he’s passed on enough knowledge to a student—who then becomes his teacher.” She flicked finger at me, her voice coming out hesitant. “And when he has found the next mother.”

An electric jolt, all the muscles in my body tightening, clamping at sphincter and vagina, rolling up my stomach and spine into my shoulders. First reaction, hold it all in. Or maybe, don’t let anything out of my body I didn’t make myself.

Like a baby!

Or even better, shift the focus to someone else. I coughed, jutted my chin across the room. “Brazley’s the teacher?”

Helodes nodded, swung everything right back to me. “You’re the surrogate mother.”

Fuck.

It was her turn to take my hand. “Sorry, Thea.”

I folded my own fingers over hers, shrugged, tried to lighten the tone of my voice. I was stronger than this. “No problem. There have been few things in my life that have hurt me as much as Andreus dying.”

Brazley was right behind me again, having given up on the boys and their guns. “Thea made an oak tree grow where Andreus fell.”

Helodes glanced at her, then back at me. “Very...”

Thought she was going to say “nice.”

“Unusual for you, Thea. Different. Very kind. Must have taken a lot.”

That bit deep, but it didn’t linger, and I shook my reaction off. “There’s more. Actually...this may sound unusual coming from me, but the Andreus mothering thing isn’t the biggest problem we have. Glad to know about it, but there are too many other things to worry about.”

“Really? Reed has something—that weaponized thread—inside him that’s going to kill him?”

I nodded. “Top of the list.”

“What’s after that?”

“Oh, the Leaf Father’s in love with me, and he has my long lost treeheart.”

* * *

I spilled the rest to Helodes, and followed Reed to bed four hours later, stepped out of my pants, tugged my shirt over my head, and got under the sheets behind him. I just held on, pressed my body against his, my face buried in his hair at the back of his neck.

I smelled oranges. Something about Winterdim and oranges I’d have to ask about in the morning.

I wasn’t asleep long before Uncle Theodore showed up, all gaunt, chalky and floating. Half expected him to moan and rattle some chains like a damn ghost, too, but he just hovered there, arms folded, maybe a little disappointed—as if I was slacking off. Nope, haven’t killed that goddamn Thea-loving Leaf Father yet. I’ll get to it in the morning, Uncle Theo! But first I have to get my heart away from him.

He appeared to be half there, but his voice came out as if he was in the room. “Get dressed. I’ll be in the forest.”

And he left.

I dragged my clothes on, took two steps, and stopped at the door. I was back in bed in a second, kneeling, running my hands over Reed’s shoulders. “Reed? Get up.”

He rolled toward me, the weight of his body against my legs, a startled edge in his voice. “What is it?”

“I need you to come with me. My Uncle Theo’s here to talk.”

He stared at me, not making the connection.

“I want you to be there with me.”

He sat up, some disbelief surfacing with his sleepy voice. “Really? Okay. I’ll get dressed.”

He rolled back, and slid off the other side of the bed, the sheets falling away, and he was down to tanned skin, his muscled back, and dark blue briefs that hugged...

I looked away. Not the right time.

We stepped through Helodes’ house quietly, and didn’t run into anyone, stopping at the edge of the courtyard, to get our bearings. I closed my eyes, sniffed the air, something familiar on my left.

“This way.” I took off at a jog, Reed at my side. I caught the questions in his glance. “My uncle isn’t all the way here. He’s doing something remotely.” I could tell that opened up another roomful of questions, but he closed the door and jogged with me through the trees.

A clearing opened up a kilometer into the woods west of Helodes’ house, and in the center, floating half a meter off the pine needle bed, was my ghostly Uncle Theo. He looked the same, tall, very thin, long straight gray hair, hollowed cheeks and eyes, a gentle smile—that slipped away as we walked into the clearing.

He jabbed a hand at Reed. “Alone, Thea. Send him away.”

“No.”

His voice came back quiet. “What I have to say is for your ears, your thoughts alone.”

I grabbed Reed when his feet shifted, poised to walk away, the feeling in him that he was intruding in my personal matters. “He’s staying. Reed’s been through everything I have and more in the last month. We hold the Winterdim Lord and his tools inside us. And you’re damn well going to answer some questions about that. If you can’t say whatever you’re going to say in front of Reed, I don’t want to hear it.”

Theodore looked down at me, eyes widening, the rest of his features seemed to sag with indecision. “This is unexpected. You have changed, Thea.”

Yeah, I guess I have. “Well, it’s been that sort of month.”

Uncle Theo jumped right in.

“I have sold my life to find out this information.”

What?” I choked on my defiance. “Sold to who?”

“You remember my final words to you? You are my namesake, we will either triumph in this or you will assume my debt here.” He made a puzzled expression, mouth half-open, eyes focused up and to my right. “There may be a middle road, but I can’t see it working that way.”

I swallowed hard, forced myself not to turn to Reed, who was watching me, not my uncle. “I know your final words, Uncle Theo, by heart.”

His sharp focus snapped back to me. “Your heart...”

“I know, the Leaf Father has it.”

“He possesses all our hearts. It’s his way of controlling the forest. He took Kraneia’s not long after we entered this Dawnworld. Mine soon after. He possesses the heart of the Worldforest itself. Yours is the youngest heart he has ever taken—and that means he thought you would become a problem.” He blinked at me as if my last statement hadn’t caught up to him until now. “How did you find out the Father of Leaves has your heart?”

“He told me. He showed it to me.”

Uncle Theo sighed, folded his arms uncomfortably, looked away for a moment, then back down to me. “Are you angry with me?”

“What for?”

“Not finding you soon enough.”

“In the OaK leaF? You did what you could. When you could. All of us did.” I waved behind me. “I found Fritz. You remember Fritz?”

“The boy who sings?”

“The same.”

He nodded, then leaned forward, over me. “I do not have much time. You must find me and bargain with Orphne. She and the Father of Leaves have allied against us, but she is...not so rigid in her view of power, and has a certain respect for me, your mother, and you.

Which means you’ve been charming—possibly even fucking—the Queen of the Dead, crazy old Uncle Theo. “She’s using you.”

“Of course she is, but she’s also open to other paths and allies.” He shook his head. “Not the Father of Leaves. He will burn down any rival. Make no bargains. Force us all to obey.”

I shook my head. “He told me he’s in love with me.”

Uncle Theo’s mouth dropped open.

I kept my laugh short. “Yeah, my reaction as well.”

“Do not trust him. You must find me.”

“Turn thrice on river stones? Where’s this river? Tell me and we’ll find you. It’s not just me in this. I have friends.”

He bent forward even more, eyeing me as if there was a possibility that I wasn’t the real Theodora Viran. Finally satisfied, he said, “I found one in Florida.”

I was expecting something more dramatic. “So the Queen of the Dead lives in Florida?”

He shook his head, irritated, pointing down at the floor under him—wherever he was. “She lives here. There are many doors, but I found one there in the old state of Florida.”

“I’ve seen maps of the place. Lot of saltwater. And there are a lot of rivers. Can you be specific?”

He nodded, glancing off to his right. “You will know it, you’ll feel it. A tributary off Lostmans River. I must go.”

“Wait!” Reed and I said it at the same time.

Uncle Theo turned back, one eyebrow raised.

“What about the Winterdim Lord you let into this world?”

He waved airily. “We made a simple deal—a deal we worked with Numezhin long before your mother and I entered this world. He gave up autonomy in exchange for the power to appear physically in all the worlds. He wasn’t allowed there. My sister—your mother—and I did not agree with the ban on Winterdim, but we would have been killed for dealing with Numezhin in the Rootworld. We had to be quiet. Enemies everywhere, agents of the Leaf Father. Didn’t go as planned.” He looked right at Reed when he said this. Then shrugged. “But well enough. For the rest, why don’t you ask him?”

I turned to Reed to get his reaction. He was going to ask the same thing. “Who?”

“Numezhin, Lord of the Winterdim.” He pointed at Reed. “Talk to yourself. He is you.”

Uncle Theo looked off to his right again. This time his shoulders tensed up, and without another word, he vanished.

I took Reed’s hand on the way back to the house, but I was too tired to do anything, just got back in bed, and slept.

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