Winterdim

Chris Howard

42

Orphne’s Palace of Death and Destruction



I closed my eyes, listened to the sounds in the corridor around me, heard them breathing, my wonderful Reed, Fritzy and his kick-ass boyfriend Carlos, Brazley right behind me, shallow, rapid breathing. I reached back to take her hand.

“Don’t worry, Braze. I’m not going to let anything happen to you, promise.” I shrugged off my own climbing fear. “What you’ve been through in your life? You’ve twice the backbone of all of us put together. You can probably take down what we’re about to face by yourself.” A glance back to show her my smile. “But I’m not going to let you.”

A hollow in my body filled with a familiar weight, a familiar taste in my mouth. Didn’t even realize she was gone. “Shirley? Where were you?”

Reed came to my side, grabbed my other hand. “She was filling me in on some things. Interesting stuff. Tell you about it later.”

Gave his hand a squeeze, and stared up at a pair of giant, ten-meter-high, carved wooden doors, living thriving trees and sunlight high on the arched shapes, the structures of life breaking down in the middle, nothing but death and decay at the bottom—not very attractively placed at our height, the bottom two meters or so.

Had to be Orphne’s front door. “Looks like we’re here.”

I let out a meter of vines, green, flexible, whippy, let them coil around me, hold me together. Then wheeled, put my back to the door, braced one hand against the very cold wood. I let my gaze shift slowly, left to right, stopping on Brazley, Fritz, Carlos, Reed, and even held our friendly everglades witch’s eyes for a moment.

“I know this is probably the wrong to time to say this. But I love all of you. I still may not understand why you’re helping me, but I’m glad you’re here. With me. Really. I never would have made it this far without you, without your strength to hold me up.” I let out a breath, felt my shoulders relax. “Thank you.”

Smiles and nods from my loves, and a long silence with nothing but the sound of trickling blood.

Dovie cleared her throat and spoke up, gave me a serious stare, jerking her thumb over shoulder. “This all sounds exciting, but I can’t leave my river behind—not for long. Like the air I breathe. So, this is where I turn back, Theodora Viran.”

I gave her a smile. “Of course, Dovie. Don’t know if we got here before or after the Leaf Father, but we’re here because of your help. Thank you.”

With a nod and a “good luck to y’all”, Dovie turned and walked away, vanishing back along the creek.

Reed caught my gaze, slid a hand gently up my arm, and I got a charge at the feel of his fingertips. Liked that, but this wasn’t the place for it, and threw it off. He smiled and let go, gesturing at the door. “You going to knock?”

“Fuck no. I’ve been invited here.” I grabbed the handles and yanked open the doors.

Then I led my friends inside, keeping a step ahead. I wanted to get between them and whatever was coming next.

And who’s standing in the goddamn foyer? The Leaf Father, all knobbed limbs twisting into the sky and nets of hanging moss, old bone arms like ancient wood, and the old fuck’s laughing at me.

What a dickhead.

A chorus of growling noises, and there was Orphne leaning against the wall on my right, tall and slender and deadly beautiful, one finger twirling through her silvery hair. I’m sure her wolves would continue to look sweet and cuddly with blood in their teeth and gnawing our bones.

Orphne, Queen of the Dead—or whatever she really was, straightened, clapped her hands. Her wolves snapped alert, ears slanted at an angry angle. “I just love visitors.” Her pale lips smeared on one side into a smile. “Right after unrequited love.”

I turned my gaze to the Leaf Father, my head all the way back. “Oh, I plan to requite. Don’t worry.”

The Leaf Father looked down at me, the greenest eyes in any world, deep as the paths he and my mother and my uncle and everyone—everything—else took from the Rootworld. Not worldly eyes, but many-worldly—and not one promise in them. Not a single fucking promise in them. The Leaf Father went to one knee, coming down to about four meters off the shuddering floor, his breath stinking of lies and broken friendship.

“You killed trees. You hurt my friends.”

I whispered the words, but they carried the force of the forests I’d befriended, every forest floor my feet had touched, every drop of blood I’d given back, the hearts of every tree sacrificed to get me here. “What the fuck do you know about love?”

The Queen of the Dead laughed, light and full of enjoying this too much.

I slid my gaze to her, my brows knuckling up on their own. “And you, whatever you are. Your name’s Orphne. I know that. What’s your role in all this, except to play shit-headed hostess with your pet entourage and maybe provide light entertainment value?”

Behind me, Fritz laughed, cut it short when it was clear that not everyone shared our sense of humor.

A gasp of horror on my left, a burst of shock with my name in it, “Thea!” I held Orphne’s gaze a moment, long enough to feel how cold she really was, her smile gone, sharp little white teeth showing through a gap of pale lips.

On the left side of the room, in the shadows behind the Leaf Father was...my mother, tall and slender and the same weight of other worlds in her eyes. Kraneia, perfect skin, pale like new shoots in spring, hair in waves and rolls the color of rich soil, coiling bands of gold and other metals up her slender arms and along her fingers, a net of curling gold branches and leaves crowning her head. My mother, the goddess in a long pale gown that flowed past her feet, across the stone floor in ripples of material like scattered leaves in early autumn.

And she stood in the shadow the Leaf Father like a fucking servant.

“Thea, run!”

“No, mom. All I’ve done so far. I think I’ll stand my ground.”

Her gaze met mine, and there was pleading in her eyes, her voice following in a whisper, way behind the stream of thoughts she hurled at me. “He wants your ties to the Winterdim. He has my heart, against my will, he makes me do—

“Keep silent!” The Leaf Father held up one fist. One guess what was inside.

Our hostess had recovered and seemed to want to drag this out. “It is you against all, Thea.” She said my name like we were old friends.

I shook my head, reached back to take Reed’s hand. He stepped to my side, straightened his shoulders. That’s my man.

“No. There are three sides. Not just mine and yours.” Brazley’s neat carving up of sides discussion came back to me. But that’s the way it used to be, when things were simple. “And no one is on any one side. Least of all, me.” I glanced back at Reed. “Though, if I have to pick one. We are here in this world representing a whole other one, the Winterdim. If you wish to deal with that world that lies between, you will have to go through us. But there’s more than this.”

Intrigued, Orphne made a please-continue gesture.

I flattened my hand over my chest, glanced around the room. “A piece from the Rootworld, a piece from the Dawnworld, and a piece from the Winterdim. I am all of them and more.” I heard Andreus’ voice in my head, I’m not like you, or anyone. Just need a new...mother.

I turned to Orphne, who was starting to snarl a question at me, one side of her mouth raised, baring sharp teeth.

I cut her off. “Even a piece of you.” I pointed at her, extended my arm steadily and jabbed a finger. “You are on my side, queen.”

Orphne rubbed at the ears of one of her pets, her eyes fixed on mine, whatever she’d been about to say was quickly reeled in.

She didn’t ask for it, but I continued anyway. “You don’t know, do you?” I let go of Reed, opened both arms, welcoming her as if for a hug. “Come meet your new daughter in law, or surrogate daughter, or whatever I’ve become.”

Orphne lost most of her strength, had to grab the wall to keep her feet, no more leaning back like some snotty sharp-toothed bitch with her big dogs, loving the exhibition of pain she’d put together.

“I have your dear Andreus. Your blood. Your son. I have his materials, and I have his pattern, his reality, his friendship, his promises—and my promises to him. You’re on my side queen, because I’m going to bring Andreus back into this world. Without me you will lose him forever.”

Dead silence in the room. I didn’t have to listen to pick up the heart beats of my friends. They were always with me.

The Leaf Father looked more impatient than concerned about the possible loss of one of his allies. “Theodora?”

I held up a hand to him, waiting for—and finally got a pouty fucking nod of assent from—Orphne, Queen of the Dead. Snapping to the Leaf Father, “Keep your damn leaves on. I’ll get to you next.”

“Thea, he will kill you all!” It was my mother’s scream of shock.

The Leaf Father swung to her, and shouted, “No more from you!”

I held the queen’s eyes a moment longer, even felt the softening of her mood, and my Uncle Theo’s words about Orphne came to me, but she’s also open to other paths and allies.

I gave her a respectful nod. “Sorry, Orphne. That was cruel, and Andreus—he was my friend, but he is your son. Apparently he chose me. I’m the new surrogate, and I will care for him when he decides to return.”

She held my eyes a moment, nodded, and looked down, tears running down her face, down her body, pooling on the floor—more tears than any normal person carried around. She waved her wolves back.

A weird mourning silence swept the room, and then it was gone.

I swung one hand loose behind my back, didn’t even look around, whispered, “Can I borrow your echoSaw, Braze?”

A soft rustle of her pack, and it was in my hand, shutdown, a tingle of energy coming into my skin through the grip. I caressed the trigger, a harder touch and the pale green beam would hum to life. I curled my finger out of the way, let the weight of the saw pull my arm vertical, the device’s hard molded body and cooling fins pressing into my leg.

Over my shoulder, “Fritz, can I get some theme music here?”

“You got it.”

“Carlos? Think that old bastard’s eyes are bullet proof?”

“Probably not.”

“Reed, any way you can give me the wisdom to get all of us through this alive?”

“You already possess it, Thea.”

“Theodora Viran.” The Leaf Father’s voice came out commanding, a law of nature.

“Your turn.” I fought down the urge to thumb on the saw and charge. “What do you want?”

Wood creaking, his mouth closed and twisted into a smile. “I have what I want—what I have wanted for many years. What I have waited for.” He opened his bird’s nest hand, sent my treeheart floating above the palm, spinning slowly like some kind of collected prize in a showcase.

My treeheart.

There were tears in my eyes. I was a lot closer—closer than I’d been the last time he’d shown it to me in that field northeast of Watseka, the field where Andreus had died, where I took his materials and stored them inside me. Where my new oak tree towered over the field.

The field where this fucker said he loved me.

I forgot to breathe. This close to my heart, a small and polished knot of hardwood, dark and light shades of brown, with lines of deep red like a net of veins.

His raspy unfriendly voice cut into me. “I finally have you, Theodora.”

Slowly, the Leaf Father withdrew his hand, pulling my heart away from me. An ache in my chest, the chains of an anchor sewn into my bones, tugging at them. Gods I wanted to follow it.

“You are mine. Come here, child.”

My right foot shot out, took me off balance, and I followed it forward, bringing my left in behind it and right past for another step. Another step. I stopped at his feet, staring up at his brilliant green eyes.

“I feel your struggle, your hatred for the world. Do not forget I love you, Theodora.” His gaze lifted to my friends, a few steps behind me. “And that I am the only one you will love. I have taken away your capability of loving anyone else.”

I took a step back, but it hurt, pain shooting through my chest. Made my knees weak.

And he thinks he’s just got to hold up my heart and whistle and I’d come running?

The Leaf Father didn’t seem that put out by Orphne’s switch of sides. He didn’t appear to be afraid of me or my friends. Confident bastard. Confident that he knew every move, every thought I could possibly come up with. But how could he? I wasn’t even clear on what I was going to do next. I just wanted to hurt him—for everything he had done, for Archippa, for the burning trees along the old Illinois River. Maybe even for my mother.

Holding my treeheart out of reach, he bent forward, nearly curled into a ball to get down to something like my height. His eyes fixed on mine, his creaky smile still in place, a stumpy row of teeth, and gusts of breath with the stink of dying forest.

He rumbled, “Step closer, Theodora.”

I crouched, pulled everything Shirley had stored in the Numezhin account, and put it to work.

My wings unfolded, burning the dust in the air, extending meters on either side of me. Reed, standing at my side, leaned closer and fed more of the power of Winterdim.

Fritz’s music, on top of heartening us all, burst and lit the room like a star, blinding everyone in front of me.

Reed’s whisper in my ear, “Take care of him, Thea. I know you can.”

Eyes closed down to slits of fiery green, the Leaf Father attacked.

My toes left the floor in a bounce, my fingers slipping from Reed’s. Folded my legs, tucked them up, and pumped the wings down, shooting me toward the ceiling.

A glance between my knees at the floor meters below. Reed swept off his feet, one of the Leaf Father’s bony arms swinging low, caught my love, knocked him against the front doors.

Brazley’s voice sounded strong—even angry, shouting up at a forest god. “I have a piece of your hand in my pack—along with a pair of carving knives from the Winterdim. Want to add to my trophy collection? Go on, give me something to take!”

The hard “k” sound echoed off the stone walls of Orphne’s palace of death and destruction.

The Leaf Father glanced at me, rocketing over his head, and ducked, went to a crouch with one of his hands out for death.

A jet of fire squirted at Brazley, caught the ends of her hair—she was already halfway up the back wall, grippy shoes catching the stones, muscles propelling her straight up, an insect-quick vertical sprint that couldn’t end well. Brazley was tough, smart, and had lots of useful gadgets. I was the only one with wings.

Her climb had taken her almost to the ceiling—had to be twenty meters up. She reached the limit of her strength, lunged forward, savagely grabbing the air above her, then fell, momentum lost, soles coming loose, her other hand twisting to the smoldering ends of her hair, pulling the bundle under her arm to smother it.

I snapped my wings up, let the air go, and fell to the earth with Brazley, letting my vines out in long braided curls.

I hit the floor, dropped into a squat, let the wings curl under and take my weight.

With my back to Brazley, I had three vines shooting at her, one thumping against her back to steady her tumble, two under her arms, then I was in the air again, shot to the ceiling, passing Brazley on the way and reeling out more vines—about my limit because it wrenched back my neck, flipped me upside down, the tips of my toes grazing the ceiling of the impossibly large entrance hall.

I caught a good half a second of what was going on at floor level, enough to see that I’d taken up some of the speed out of Brazley’s fall, got it below a total splatter, and hoping it would keep as many organs intact, as many bones unbroken as possible.

Also saw Carlos, tumble left out the Leaf Father’s reach, popping off rounds, sharp little snaps in the air.

And then it became clear I’d made a crucial error showing the Leaf Father my wings—and letting him walk away with enough health for a follow-up showdown. I’d handed him an advantage that could end this right now.

In his favor.

The Leaf Father reached up and snapped me out of the air, his fingers curling around me, crushing, the fire in my wings doing very little to hurt him. He even seemed to like it.

Holding me over his head like a toy with broken wings, he squeezed the breath from my lungs.

“Theodora, I do not want to hurt you.”

Too late for that.

My wings faded and died, left the two hard stalks hot on my back. He loosened his grip, letting me slide into the lumpy palm of his hand, and glanced down at some commotion from the floor.

Reed, on his feet—barely—leaning against the doors, not quite steady, all his strength on one leg, was roaring like a lion, hurling insults.

I was one my feet, grabbing for something solid, a second of free fall as the Leaf Father crouched to about half his height—his other hand in a fist around my treeheart, twisted on end like a hammer about to crush my love into the stone floor.

His gaze still mostly with me, his breath like the air over a dead forest, the Leaf Father leaned in, really got in my face this time, the green of otherworlds in his deep eyes.

“Theodora, do not fight me. You will lose.”

I felt the rush of air. Somewhere below me his fist came down and the earth shook. I could feel the force of it standing in the palm of the Leaf Father’s hand.

I didn’t look down, just screamed and braced my legs apart.

The Leaf Father looked away from me, his gaze dropping, something not right in the twist of wood muscle cords across his face.

My mouth opened and my voice came out lethally soft. “You killed my love. Nothing will save you now.”

I jammed my finger against the trigger. The echoSaw came alive in my fist, humming and bucking, begging to carve and slice through wood. I thumbed the extender wide open, over a meter long, and shoved the cutting beam into his face. It bit in just below the cheek, and I brought my arm across in a level sweep, the beam slipping easily through solid wood and the sharp tips of teeth. Softer tissue burst, splattered me with a clear oozy sap. I felt the pushback about halfway through and leaned into it, nearly stumbling over the echoSaw when the beam cut through the other side of his face into open air.

The bottom of the Leaf Father’s jaw dropped away in one solid heavy piece of wood-bone, a rattling of teeth bouncing across the stone floor.

He roared, a volcano’s mouth of damp heat and the eruption of pain. The echoSaw flew from my hand, twirling over my shoulder, the safeties kicking in to cut the beam.

The sound of the Leaf Father shook my bones, loosened my skin, a burn of tearing muscle. My teeth locked shut, blood and a chunk of my own tongue wobbly in my mouth.

I landed on my back, slid across the stones, a hard thump of my head hitting next, and I was rolling, my legs coming up loose and out of control like a thrown doll.

Ringing in my ears dulled the sounds around me. Couldn’t open my eyes, my arms felt heavy, the darkness so comforting.

I think it was Brazley saying, “Oh fuck” that woke me—and my own response riding over the pain and the urge to slip under and fade into unconsciousness. Did Brazley just use abusive language?

Reed and Carlos grabbed me under the arms, and hauled me to my feet, Fritz singing something that shoved a jolt of energy up my spine, Shirley shouting internal repair stats and kicking Augie’s ass all over the place to get more done.

Wait a second...Reed?

But my mind wouldn’t slow down to deal with that one, jumping to other questions, and taking in a million pulses of sense data from the battle around me.

Groggily looking up at my enemy, I was suddenly thinking, fuck, Orphne has a big house, it’s a damn palace, if the Leaf Father has combat room inside the foyer! Then reality caught up to me. Now he’s going to kill me, crush my heart, take my ability to control myself. Probably make me kill my own friends.

My only friends.

The Leaf Father shoved one hand against the floor of Orphne’s entry room, throwing his upper body straight. Still kneeling on the stones, he twisted his mangled face toward the Queen of the Dead, a blaze of betrayal in his eyes.

He lowered his free arm, the fist still curled around my heart. Opening it up, his fingers spread with fire, my heart in the center of it, glowing, edged in bright white veins as it split apart and pumped ashes into the air. Flames licking savagely at his fingers, up his arm, and my treeheart twisted and blurred, the skin and burned tissue lifted away, a red coal glow at its core. The fire died and my heart had been consumed.

I slumped to the stones, thumped my head again, still managed to keep my eyes open and on my enemy.

The Leaf Father’s own hand crumbled, split burned wood and shuddered ashes everywhere. He had sacrificed it to destroy my treeheart.

Minutes stepped by, soft seconds counting through the lumps of ash tumbling out of the Leaf Father’s ruined hand, caked gray pieces splashing like fluid when they hit the floor.

And I just wanted to close my eyes and turn away from it.

Reed leaned over me, kissed me, one hand under my neck, lifted me toward him. “Don’t leave me, Thea. He can’t do this!”

My mouth sagged open, dry, but with the taste of blood, my lips sticking to my teeth. I heard Fritz singing and plucking a slow thrum somewhere. My eyes swiveled left and Brazley stood over me, the echoSaw recovered and shaking in her hand. Her SIG automatic in the other. I could hear Carlos’ cleated boots against stone paving above my head.

I blinked, brought my focus back to Reed, wanted so desperately to say, hold me. Wait a second. I thought you were dead.

He must have understood because he answered me, “Fritz did something, sang a barrier that even the Leaf Father’s fist couldn’t crush. He saved me.”

I tried to smile. Don’t know what showed on my mouth. “Help me up, my love.”

He almost let go, his fingers clutching madly into the back of my neck.

“Up?”

I pulled one leg up, managed a good jab of my knee into his side. “Am I going to have to ask someone else?”

Reed scrambled sideways, brought his other arm around, under my waist, and in one motion, he hopped to his knees, and then his feet, dragging me off the floor.

The room swung into view and I was standing.

I threw an arm over his shoulders.

The Leaf Father’s eyes narrowed, a stunned anger through the pain of losing half his face—and one hand. The end of one arm was a smoldering stump. He gasped and growled more words that made no sense, spewing thick fluid from the wounds.

Didn’t matter. I knew what he was thinking.

Bracing my legs apart, I kept one clawed hand locked to Reed for support, and lifted my gaze to the Leaf Father’s, a snarl twisting my lips. Breathing hard, Shirley doing damage control and Augie burning supplies, backfilling more for the strength I’d need in a few minutes. I love you ShirleyKeep up the good work, my man, Augie.

Then I was smiling, but it felt cruel and fake, and I let it reshape into what I hoped was an amused look. My mother had slid along the wall, halfway around to my side, watching me with open awe. She’s a goddess, and she was in awe of me.

Felt tears in my eyes as I stared at the Leaf Father, slumped and in pain.

I slid my free hand up my thigh, up the middle of my body, slowed the slide past my navel, and stopped between my breasts, flattening my hand, felt the thump of my human heart.

“You don’t even know...what love is.” My words came out slurred, but I think everyone got them. “I have grown a new treeheart. I do not need my old one—or the replacement my mother made for me. I have learned balance and love and friendship and loyalty from Fritz and Carlos and Brazley, Reed and Shirley and Augie.”

I swallowed a lump of pain.

“And Andreus.”

I raised a hand. “I do not need you, or anything once mine that you possess.” I stabbed a finger at him. “There is nothing I can learn from you but deception and betrayal. You are nothing to me, a tree of lies, a tree of death, of pain and blood spilled without purpose or need.”

I had to stop to catch my breath, leaning forward, huffing for another minute. “In this world, or any, in one forest or a million forests, you don’t matter.”

He let out a low petulant growl with the shapes of words that could have been, “I am the Leaf Father!”

I shook my head. “You’re not my Leaf Father.”

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