Chris Howard



We stood in the grand oak cathedral, staring at the twined branches and perfectly lined up leaf arrays, row on row, like green-fingered scales on a fish. Helodes led us inside, still holding the freed and very eager dimensional renderer as if it was nothing more important than a hat or raincloak. She smiled and chatted about Kraneia’s travels through every glade and wood across this world, and her stops—sometimes for years—in various favorite forests and homes of friends.

“Took her twelve years to program the growth of these trees.”

It was Brazley, her neck tilted as far back as it would go, who said, “Astonishing.”

She didn’t appear to be the talkative type and there was a meekness—a beaten down quality about her I didn’t like, but that one word “astonishing” struck a set of memories inside. One of my old trainers, a guy named Generao See, used to throw up advice every day, most of it worthless, but some of the things he said actually stuck. Generao had been a handler for dangerous renderers—although I always knew he was really an operative doing secret work for my mother. He once told me, “One word will give you away. Know your voice, the voice of the role you’re playing, and don’t show them another unless you want them to discover who you really are, want to hand them an advantage—or hand them your head.” Generao was also a paranoid old shit. Of course, he did die horribly at the hands of some Rootworld oceanic tart he’d betrayed.

I stored the measure of Brazley’s competence for later, dismissed the memories of Generao, and elbowed Reed, leaning right up against his ear to whisper. “Do you want to try out Shirley for a while?”

He edged away from me. “What?”

“Give her a test run—if she’ll let you?” I put some flirt into my tone. “Come on. You might like it.”

He glanced behind me, down my back, presumably to get Shirley’s take on this deal. “Does she know what you’re asking me?”

Another elbow, harder. “Of course! She’s from the Winterdim, but you think she can’t hear? She likes you, too.”


“Well, she wasn’t too clear at first, but now she is.”

Reed moved closer, still doubtful. “What’s involved?”

“Not much. She can just jump over to you.”

He kept glancing at Shirley. “Then what? How long do I get to keep her?”

“Long as you need to. Couple weeks. It’s really up to her. The first thing she’s going to do is see if we’re a matching pair. She knows me inside and out, has pretty much confirmed the story we put together with Archippa. All these years, and I thought what drew her to me was my charming personality. Turns out I have a buried store of treasure from Winterdim royalty or something. I think she should check you out internally and tell us if you have the other half of it—she calls it a ‘Lord’—that thing my uncle let into our world. Let’s get that out of the way first. You can trade with Shirley for power and paths later. I told her to go easy on you, let you play a little, see what kinds of things you’re capable of. Teach you some things you’re not aware you can do.” He looked worried so I punched him. “You’ll do fine. You managed some pretty wild modifications and fabrication when we took on Folesh’s night team.”

“What if I can feel her weight?”

“Yeah, that’ll be interesting.”

Helodes turned to us. “And who wants this bundle of energy?”

She was looking at me and I nodded back. “I’ll take him for now.” Turning to Reed. “You ready? You don’t have to move closer. Just tell me you’re ready.”

He pulled in a breath, let it out, and by the shift of his eyes, watching Shirley climbing to the edge of my right shoulder. “I am.”

And that was it. She was gone. I felt the emptiness—one of maybe a handful of times in my entire life that I’d been without a renderer. There was a wave of confusion in my muscles, a wobbliness between the top and bottom halves of my body, as if losing Shirley cut out everything between the bottom of my ribcage and the top of my pelvis, and getting my legs to move and behave was like getting someone else’s legs to move.

It only lasted a minute, then I felt the new renderer hop to me, tentative steps around my body, climbing inside, careful with someone else’s arrangement. Shirley was a pretty tough renderer, and if she came home and found a hair out of place, there’d be a price to pay.

I was only half paying attention to Reed trying to get accustomed to Shirley.

Thinking of my own new renderer, “I’m going to name you...” I felt around for distinguishing features, a distinctive walk, preference for motion, location on or in my body...

He just kept digging under my skin, tickling me around the ribs, sloshing like a fish through my organs, mumbling to himself about the things he was seeing—me from the inside. Then he’d pop out of one thigh, slide up my side, jump the hip, and he was under my arm to auger in again. Augie... “Augustine. You shall be called Augustine.”

“Good enough name.” Helodes clapped once, smiling. “How are you doing, Reed?”

He looked up, holding his arms out as if he’d spilled something sloppy down the front of his shirt, a look of horror slowly drifting into wonder on his face. “I...guess...I think I’m okay. She doesn’t hurt, she’s very light. Oh, you can’t see her. She has sharp claws, kind of crablike, but she doesn’t sink them all the way in.”

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s...talking to me. She wants to try something a little test my abilities and strength.”

The way he was hunched over was strange. “Talking to you from your knees?”

“Yeah. Well, that’s where she is right now. She’s moving all over.” He straightened as he said it, twisting his neck to follow her over his shoulder. “Hang on.”

Reed raised his hands over his head, and one after the other, curled them into fists, his knuckles going white with strain.

Helodes, Andreus, and Brazley backed away. He was even starting to scare me. “What is she having you do? Reed?”

He stared up, holding on, the muscles in his arms bulging. Then he pulled down the sky.

Rain came cutting through the trees, tearing through the leaves and pine needles, and Reed hung on, closing his eyes tight against the water driving into his face. Andreus and Brazley ducked against the downpour, and Helodes’ cackle cut through the roar of the storm.

He let it go, his arms dropping like anchors to his sides, the draw of power sliding off his face. I threw the water out of my hair, and jumped to catch Reed as he fell, collapsing from the strain. I caught him under the arms, the back of his neck hit me in the shoulder, his full weight tugging me forward. I kicked my legs apart, grabbing the earth with my roots, sliding my mouth against his ear. “Got you, Reed. I got you.”

“Well done.” Helodes looked up, smiling at the cloudy sky through leaf shreds and snapped tree branches, tugging pine needles out of her hair. “That was wonderful.”

Andreus stepped past his mother, stood over Reed’s footprints—two deep rents in the ground, and circled slowly, staring up. He spoke in his low gravelly voice. “I think he made a funnel.” He waved over Brazley, his student, pointing up. “A gravity funnel, pulling everything above the height of the trees toward him. See where the trees started to break. That was the wind and rain doing that, the weight of water in the air, not the pull of his weathercast.”

Brazley leaned against Andreus, holding his shoulder, her head thrown back so far her hair dragged on the ground at her heels. “Frightening.”

Another one of those telling words. Who is this girl?

I squatted low and dropped on my butt, pulling Reed into my lap, then sat him down between my legs, leaning his back against the curve of my body. He sagged into me, breathing hard, too weak to open his eyes. He mumbled a few things, thanked me, I think. I pulled up my roots and swung my legs around his waist, holding on, digging my chin into his shoulder to make enough contact to read everything going inside his body, his heart, bloodflow, brain activity, tapping into his sensory stream to feel what he was feeling.

I was careful at first, not wanting a repeat of the connection we’d made with our internal Winterdim parts. His skin felt warm, normal, and nothing dangerous clicked between us.

Could have been stress related to Brazley appearing with a whole Catch of renderers—just too much Winterdim to deal with?

Shirley crossed to me, but just for a minute, enough time to tell me that she was—in her words—“very impressed with Reed Gossi.”

It struck me suddenly that Brazley spoke like Shirley—schoolbook correct English, as if she’d mentally ingested half a dozen language texts. It also occurred to me for the first time that Shirley didn’t have my voice. She could sound like me if she wanted, but she had her own, even though she hadn’t left my side—so to speak—for more than a week or two since my mother offered me up at six months old. I grew up with Shirley, and I learned to speak with her on my back, drilling vocab lessons into me. But she had her own voice. How strange was that? Definitely seemed important enough to understand its causes, but it was something I’d have to get back to when I had the time. Reed was waking up in my arms.

“Thea?” His voice came out a dry whisper.

“I’m here, Reed.”

“I felt it in my hands...clouds were like foam, thick enough to push my fingers into, solid enough to collect, hold, and shape into whatever I wanted. I felt the water on my face, an electric charge in my arms. Did I grab the storm?”

I smiled, and he felt it against his neck. He smiled back.

“I did, didn’t I?”

“Yes. Shirley is very impressed.”

He turned, the skin of his cheek against my lips. I gave him a kiss.

“But are you impressed, Theodora Viran?”

I ignored Helodes, Andreus, and Brazley standing over us, watching us, my legs curling around Reed Gossi.

“Sure—and you may not realize this, might even come as a shock to you, but I am not easy to impress.” I looked up at Helodes, nodded to her. “Let’s get some rest. Sleep tonight under the protection of the witches of the Mississippi. Tomorrow, we can begin doing some real stuff—some training. Shirley knows a lot of my tricks and she can fill you in on her own time, but that’s always been my game—to make everything new, to fit the response to new terrain, a sprout coming up through the soil never knows what it’s going to face, how much sunlight, crowding, barriers, root choking—it adapts, it out-maneuvers the enemy through unpredictability.”

We got to our feet, brushing off dirt and needles.

Helodes walked with us back to the Rennonvorah, her little village on the banks of the Mississippi. I kept an eye on Reed, but he was absorbed in activities with Shirley, even looked like he was having fun.

Helodes stuck out her chin at Reed. “How long do you plan to train?”

“A few days, maybe a week. As long as it’s safe here.”

She came back eagerly, “And when you go, you’ll take Andreus with you?”

I shrugged, held in a sigh. “Sure. We can always use the help.”

“You know I cannot come with you.”

“I figured. Mother offers her son for the job, it’s because she can’t make it.”

“I protect thousands of people. I have to defend the Rennonvorah. I cannot leave my river. The Mississippi has my power chained in its flow.”

“Sure. I understand. And the Leaf Father cannot cross?”

“Not without wings, and not while I’m here to defend it.

“Leaf Father with wings. Scary thought.”

“He’s grounded—never been off the ground in fact.” Helodes waved away the notion of flight. “I was thinking that you should be able to run down the west bank to the Gulf, stay hidden, and with luck, the Leaf Father cannot sprout his roots, cannot call for help, won’t be able to find you for a long while.” Helodes clapped me on the shoulder, smiling roguishly. “And I know who rules the oceans. She’s not much of a forest girl. Just doesn’t have much in the way of feelings for trees, in fact.”

That sort of soured it for me. “Oh yeah, that’s what I want to hear.” After a pause, I added, “We have met—sort of. She’s come to me in my dreams.”

Helodes nodded thoughtfully.

“But she hasn’t brought up her feelings for trees—one way or the other.”

Still nodding, Helodes said, “You should go talk to her—in person. If you’re near the Gulf she’ll find you. It’s all saltwater, but she can help.” Helodes looked around as if options grew on trees. She frowned. She didn’t seem to find what she was looking for. “I don’t think you have a choice. The Leaf Father will get around the river at some point. He’ll go north and come down this side. And he has the forests—you may not be safe in them while he’s looking for you” She swung her jutting chin south. “Go see Poseidonis.”

Helodes said the name like Po-say-denise.

“That’s her name?”

The old witch looked concerned for a moment, as if they were talking about the wrong ruler of the oceans. “What did she tell you it was?”

“She didn’t. She called herself Kassandra’s daughter.”

Relieved, Helodes made a quick snorting laugh. “Of course. Her mother was the real power, the original one who pulled every cubic kilometer of seawater together under one throne.” Her voice went soft, eyes fixed somewhere in the past. “I knew Kassandra when she was just a girl, finding her way to the waves. Had a demon for a friend, Ephoros...” Helodes’ voice trailed off in sadness.

I shrugged. “Demon for a friend sounds promising to me.”

Still lost in some ancient sorrow, Helodes said, “Yeah, you would have liked Kassandra.” Then the witch’s gaze landed on me, and I felt the weight. “She grew up in the middle of Nebraska—as far from the sea as her murdering grandfather could stick her.”

Far from the sea... Starting to like her even more.

“My advice, Thea, is to go to the coast.” She pointed south. “Get your feet wet, talk to the Sea.”

I shook my head. “That’s an ugly start, but I can live with it. I think you’re saying I should go where the Leaf Father cannot follow.” I was pointing south now, hand shaking as I jabbed a finger in the direction of the Gulf. “Out to seaTo live.”

Helodes shrugged. “That’s the most favorable option.”

Still shaking my head. This was horror—like the dreams this Poseidonis built inside my head. Nightmares actually.

I don’t think I can live without trees, without the forest around me—not for long. My face was getting hot, anger building. What kind of sick trap is this, that it forces me to leave the woods and live. Or remain in them and dieI am the fucking woods!

Reed touched me lightly on the shoulder, a spark snapped loudly in my ears, and I felt the stab of something powerful inside him leak through my shirt, into my skin. I shrugged off his touch, ignored him—and the thing inside him.

Right now I had more important things to do, like rein in the dangerous mix of reactions in my head.

Really crazy thoughts rooted deeper into my brain, questions that scared me: would I have to sacrifice myself in order for Reed to survive? Why would I even think that? What kind of shit is this? Had I changed so much in the last month of running?

Draw a breath. Let it out. Control it. Stop the panic. I swung my arms together, holding my body tight. Take control. That’s how you will survive this.

What was happening to me?

I tried to hold on to Archippa’s words, letting them sift through my fingers. The world was changing under my feet, shifting alliances, betrayal by the kings and queens of the forest. The trees aren’t always your friends, Theodora Viran, nor will they always be on your side.

But the fucking OCEAN? This snotty bitch from the sea? That’s my choice? I am so screwed.

Helodes glanced over, kept her mouth shut when she saw what I imagine was an expression of epic struggle on my face. I spent a few long minutes sucking in deep breaths, letting them out, looking for strength or rage, and found myself lacking. I even whispered, not very loud, “There has to be another way. Running and hiding cannot be the answer. There’s something missing. Inside.” And then after a bit of scrounging, I thought I found it, my anger sulking in a corner of my head babbling like a damn baby. I told it to get its ass in the front row where it belongs.

And it listened to me. It better.

My anger quelled the dangerous ideas, knuckled up the space between my brows, and one satisfyingly good Old-Thea thought surfaced to shout behind my eyes: This is not about me or the ruler of the oceans. It’s the Leaf Father at the root of all this pain and displacementThere is nothing in this green earth that’s going to make me step off it into ungodly saltwater, not betrayal, not the loss of love, certainly not some fuckwit Leaf Father made of gray wood bones breathing the ash of burning forests—even if he is seven meters tall.

The Leaf Father was just going to have to... leave.

Because I certainly wasn’t.

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