Chris Howard



Andreus leapt in the air, landing in a crouch next to me, slammed all his weight on his knees, bracing them apart for balance. He pulled out a stubby bone-colored tube with telescoping rings at one end, extended it to a meter-long sharp stick, took a quick measure of the length of my forearm to figure out where my hand would be underground, and stabbed down at a steep angle, catching the Leaf Father somewhere around the wrist.

It had to hurt. I felt the grip of claws slip, cutting through skin, sharp tips catching the tendons in my hand, pulling and tearing. The earth groaned under us, a disconcerting shift under my toes. I dug my nails into the splintery wooden hand that held me, getting my knees up for leverage, using the strength in my legs to lift my body—and arm—from the Leaf Father’s grasp. Andreus was yanking out his spear and stabbing over and over, and I felt more slipping. Gave him a quick look and nod. It’s working. He rammed the spear deeper.

I was pulling so hard that when I cut free, the force launched me into the air in a roll, tumbling backward, and through a blur of light behind me, an angry grabbing fist of woody bones punching through the earth, clawing at the air for me. More of it came out of the ground, heaving dirt aside, bone gray fingers uncurling. Looked like someone pushing a dead tree up through the soil roots first—except it bent at the wrist fingering the earth, blindly trying to find me.

Brazley dashed in, grabbed Andreus by the collar of his camo suit and dragged him backward, out of the way. He helped her by crab-crawling, one fist still tight around his extendible spear of bone. Then she was back inside the range of the Leaf Father’s claws, unslinging a handheld echoSaw, it’s pale green beam charged, and she was cutting into old dead demon fingers like a lumberjack wave-clearing a hillside.

My stomach twisted into a knot at the humming sound, the smell of timberflesh burning, and the crazed-killer-shudder in Brazley’s back and shoulders as she worked the cutter. Curling roots and chips of wood in her hair, ricocheting off her suit, a sliver of gray wedged in her smiling teeth. She had a chunk of the Leaf Father’s index finger severed and squirming on the ground before the old fuck finally yanked his hand back into the earth, retreating.

The humming stopped and I uncovered my ears, stomach still lurching over the smell. One side of my face was warm with blood. I looked at my right hand. It was a broken claw, skin torn, bones snapped and mangled, exposed muscle. I was a mess, the pain cutting into my thoughts—still didn’t prevent one thought ramming insistently to front: get your ass off the ground.

If the Leaf Father can get to me under the earth, he may be able to get to me above it.

I crawled to my feet, lifting my good hand to the nearest tree, hooked my fingers to get me up off the carpet of pine needles, then with my vines, I was off the floor and into the branches. I wished for Shirley’s presence, but Augie would have to do. I put him on repair-my-hand duty, and told him don’t stop until the job’s done.

Andreus followed my lead, getting his feet off the ground. “Thea? What now?”

Brazley was the last into the trees. Apparently she wasn’t leaving without taking the piece of the Leaf Father’s dead finger, holding it up like a trophy, tucking it under her arm and climbing up one-handed.

I didn’t look up from my hand, the blood still running off my fingers, down my pants. Augie was closing up the ripped skin along my wrist. “Give me a minute to stabilize this, and then let’s get going. Reed’s captors are still moving. We’re never going to catch them before they reach OKF.”

Twenty minutes later, my head still buzzing with pain, we dropped back to earth and continued our pursuit. With my injuries, I did the only thing I could do. I held my arm against my chest and let Augustine do his thing. He was slower than Shirley, slower at everything, unfamiliar with my body and how it worked. He managed in the end, but I spent the next hour blind with the burn of exposed bone and tissue, stumbling after Andreus, hoping he was leading right, not enough strength or the ability to concentrate to verify his path. It would just have to do, adding it to the list of things I hoped for—the first being the untraceability of our steps by the Leaf Father. Yeah, that’s all we’d need right now is for the seven-meter-tall badass to come up from the path in front of us and sweep aside all our lives.

What was odd—and growing odder—was that he didn’t. That’s certainly what I would have done.

Then someone just as scary and inscrutable surfaced in my pain-dreams—the Sea. And she seemed very pleased to find me alive, stumbling along after Brazley and Andreus, with half my wits and power.

“Theodora. You have traveled far, and you are growing. There are lessons in every footstep. Learn from that growth.”

What the fuck do you want? Little busy here.

No change in the Sea’s voice in my head, the same calm solemn tone. “I have come to ask a favor from you.”

I couldn’t answer at first, even in my head. That’s not what I was expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know it wasn’t offering anything I possessed to some bitch from the sea who could enter and manipulate my dreams on a whim.

As if she could feel my anger—which she probably could, she added, “It is nothing that you do not already have the power to give. I am simply asking you to take care of Brazley. She is special to me.”

That’s not what I was expecting either, and I blinked away the shreds of the dream and fought my way through the pain to focus on Brazley, that beautifully swift and fearless girl running through the field ahead of me.

I was already nodding my head. “I will.” I don’t know if the Sea heard me or not. No soft tidal-motion response. And then it struck me as funny that I had pretty much said the same thing to Reed’s mother, Andrea.

“And look at the fucking hell I’ve landed myself in because of it.”

The pain diminished over the time it took us to run the next ten kilometers. We were gaining on Reed and his captors. And OKF couldn’t be far. We rounded a hill and the crumbling city of Portland crouched on the edge of Lake Michigan, broken towers and walls and cracked weed lined streets, ancient rusted bands of empty railroad yards. Another dead city of broken concrete and metal spires off in the distance, the southern edges of what I guessed was once Chicago.

Some lights on over there, though. Most of the major cities had a bit of resettlement, limited but intact power and communications infrastructure.

We didn’t stop for the view, just kept running.

A glance at Brazley showed that she was getting more and more apprehensive about coming back. I had no idea what OKF did to returning escapees, but I’m certain it wouldn’t include homecoming cakes or hugs from the directors, torturers, sentries, and deathsquad leaders. People like that just weren’t the friendly sort.

And for a moment I thought, neither am I. I didn’t know what that meant, or in what way I was like the torturers, sentries and deathsquad leaders. It meant something, but I couldn’t get my thoughts around it.

Brazley looked over, caught my attention, and I even thought I could see concern through the solid, matte black wedges of her eyes, a little squeezing at the brows and the bridge of her nose. “Is your hand repaired now, Thea? I do hope the Winterdim inhabitant from my catch is serving you well, Thea?”

She kept saying my name, which pulled some deep strings I didn’t like.

I nodded. “He is.”

“Thea, I have saved something for you.”

Jogging right alongside me, she tugged her pack over one shoulder to sling it in front. “The Leaf Father’s finger, Thea.” She pulled it from her pack, and held it up. “I can keep it for now, if you like? When we have time, we should do some analysis, see what he’s made of. It could be useful when we need to kill him.”

When I didn’t reach for it, she slid it back into her pack.

Kill the Leaf Father? Gods I wanted to slap the shit out of her for that, and yet she was as fearless as anyone I’d ever met. Okay, I couldn’t help liking her. She hunted the dead, she’d kept up with our insane pace without complaint, she had jumped in with her echoSaw and took on the Leaf Father without hesitation. And she was helping me, helping Reed—people she didn’t even know. Worst of all, she was returning to a place, organization, absolute hell that—by all accounts—relished in its abilities to modify humans, harbor demons, gene-merge otherworld species, manage large scale prismdead distribution and operations, and provide extensive tailored services in areas like the capture, imprisonment, and the lasting torture of my... my friends?

Brazley said when we need to kill the Leaf Father.

We. Not just me.

She gave me a nod and smiled—a sad smile, sure, but it was a smile.

I returned one, feeling an unfamiliar ache inside, as if I had been missing something all my life, and I’d just discovered it—even though I was till piecing together what it was. “Thank you.”

First Reed, my overly-polite neighbor who can see Winterdim inhabitants in our world. Now Andreus and Brazley, the skin-culturing, camo-wearing, dead stalkers? I’d need some time to sort this out, but... it can’t be...

Holy Tree, I think I’ve made friends.

* * *

“What does the O.K. stand for, anyway?” We crawled to the ridge’s grassy edge, looking down through a fence of sun burned stalks at six tall concrete structures arranged evenly in a hemisphere, rows of slotted windows running up each face to the roof on each. There wasn’t a tree in three kilometers of the structures. Someone had done their security homework. No place to hide, tough to approach without being detected. I’m sure the ground under us was crawling with bots and signal gear.

And we’d failed. I lost Reed Gossi. Just not quick enough.

We’d chased Reed and his captors to the barrens around OKF without ever getting a good look or a clear shot at them. They were met a few klicks out and escorted by a squad of armored sentries—remote or autonomous vehicles roaming the complex territory.

Brazley signaled something to Andreus, flat against the ground on my other side. “Ossdelf and Knowledgenix.”

“Ossdelf, Knowledgenix, Formanix?” I put some are-you-kidding? in my tone. That was the stupidest set of names ever sewn together.

She nodded. “They do not sound right with each other, do they? Three very old companies that came together into one organization just before the Vanishing—to build that.” She pointed at the complex.

Andreus nodded thoughtfully. “Two of them, Ossdelf and Knowledgenix were the brains and gods behind the Spheres. Ossdelf on the physical structures, energy, and security. If you ever get close enough to see a Sphere with your own eyes—that is all Ossdelf work. The soul is pure Knowledgenix—they did all the lifeStructures, intelligences, animex and personifex constructs, the actual internal building and human integration systems.” As if quoting someone, he said, “Like gods, they created the engine of the infinite worlds that hosts more than ten billion souls.”

Crazy fucking humans. “So what’s the Formanix part?

Andreus gave Brazley a meaningful glare, more than a hint of concern. She picked up the question but I could tell she didn’t want to answer it. “Formanix purchased the O and K properties after their owners went sphereward. Formanix came out of the First to Wake—demons, a handful of them, crossing over just before the humans Vanished. They—we—surrendered everything to them.”

I didn’t feel like reminding my new friend that she was a “we” and I was a “them”—technically half “them.” My father, Thomas Viran, was human, grew up along the southwest coast of Africa—one of the Wild Children who remained behind and didn’t follow the rest of humanity into their virtual existence inside the Spheres.

I felt the shift in the breeze coming off the lake, very subtle, but it was there, something happening.

Brazley looked frightened—which scared me. I felt it in my hands as Andreus said it, a sharp whisper. “We’ve been tagged. We’d better run.”

There was a splash of light, very dim blue light that washed over us, then swung back to pin our location. We were up and running before the launch sound of something bad headed our way, a soft crump noise from the edge of the OKF facilities and the soft shredding sound of a very fast projectile ripping through the wind behind us.

The earth snapped under the impact, sent a tingle through my feet, up my legs. We ran hard, maybe even harder than we’d run on our hundred kilometer dash up the east side of the Mississippi. I expected whirling pieces of sharp metal, spikes, fragments of some skin burning compound.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the whoosh of pale pink rolling toward us, shouted, “TOXIN!” and clamped my mouth closed.

Andreus worked his goggles and mask down, fingering the seam closed up the back up his head, one long tail of black hair swung down between his shoulders. Brazley was running at my side, waving madly, taking deep breaths—while she still could—every other footfall, eyes steady, fixed somewhere ahead of her, deadly focus on staying in front of the cloud.

A sting up the back of my legs, my skin going warm, then a wave of burning in tiny needle points up to my thighs. Brazley stumbled, one hand over her mouth and nose, her cold dark eyes still open—they probably weren’t affected by many of the materials that normally cooked away the cornea, iris, ciliary muscles.

She tumbled forward, her hands and arms swinging wild to catch her fall, nearly knocked me to the ground ahead of her. Andreus skidded to a stop in front of me. I kicked off a sharp wedge of brown flaky stone, and with my vines played out, did a complete revolution, coming up behind Brazley, scooping her up. She was light, half my weight—we dryads may be slender, but we’re a solid woody lot, and we’re a lot stronger than we look.

My fingers digging into Brazley’s suit just above her hips, I tossed her up, caught her lower, about mid-thigh, and dropped half her body over my right shoulder. Her gun swung around and caught me sharp in the ribs, cut up my shirt and skin underneath. Andreus had his gun out, magically sliding into view in his hands, and he squeezed out twenty rounds in our wake before dashing after me.

His face completely covered in his mask, Andreus still oozed distress for his student. I could see him glancing over, checking on me, too. I nodded back, mouth closed tight, my own eyes narrowed to glimmers coming through my lashes. I didn’t really need them, not with the grass and saplings ahead telling me exactly where to place the next footstep—the darlings.

Andreus’ concerned face blurred past me, a look over his shoulder to see what was following us through the aerosol toxin. I shifted Brazley, balanced her weight to glance back. A squad of OKFers in black banded armor and sleek anti-chem helmets were after us, a tight formation sprinting through the cloud, several of them riding open framed trail vehicles. I’d seen these things before, people driving them insanely fast along narrow tracks in the woods.

“LAVs—light attack vehicles,” said Andreus. “We can’t outrun them.”

We didn’t need to.

We hit a taller ridge of grass, and then we were in the woods, under the bough shade, protected. I sucked in a breath, kept running. And the commandos opened fire, snaps and pops, leaves shredding, splintered wood flying, Andreus firing madly over his shoulder, and not single rounds, but emptying magazines along our path, the gun making a menacing growl as it fired. He dropped spent cases, ramming new ones home as the racked and ready ammo crawled out of his pack and along his arms, black rectangular mouths open and loaded, waiting for the call.

I had Brazley’s gun and whatever ammunition she carried, but I wasn’t really experienced with the tech, anything shooting bullets, needles, slivers, whatever these things fired. I knew enough to be dangerous to everyone around me.

Commandos were everywhere in the forest, their armor and helmets dusty with the toxin, a couple of them limping with bullet wounds. Only a couple of them were down. Reed would die in some OKF torture cell, and the three of us would be cut apart in the cool shade of the woods. That thought flickered to life in my head. I killed it mercilessly.

If I had a damn second to plan, I could slow them down.

Then the music started and the noise of battle died, empty locking clicking noises, guns dying in soldiers’ hands, the attack vehicles gliding unpowered into trees and stumps, neutralized. The commandos still worked, and made their way cautiously into the forest after us, signaling each other, breaking into two groups of ten and swinging wide to gain some flanking ground.

The music was soft, plucked natural strings, a winding course of piping that flowed over and under the main theme notes.

The forest responded, birds singing, an autumn breeze tickling my face, my hair spinning out ten, twenty, fifty meters. I didn’t know where the music was coming from, or if it was friendly, but this had suddenly become my kind of battle. Put away the firearms boys and step a bit closer so I can strangle you.

I bent forward, set Brazley down easy. She was starting to wake, but was still too groggy to stand, her solid black eyes staring up at me, lifeless and dull—as ever.

Andreus made a hand signal at me, which I didn’t understand. He noticed, and whispered, “Not working,” looking up into the trees, “My gun’s dead. The’s doing something to the machinery. The OKF soldiers cannot use their vehicles.”

Murder was going through my mind. “Music’s just leveled the playing field, that’s all.”

“But whose music?”

I was just about to say, “who gives a fuck?” when the musician dropped out of the trees, a tall slender man in frayed blue denim pants and a white shirt with buttons—but not one of them buttoned—open and flapping in the breeze. Without a glance at us, he walked toward the OKF commandos, arms up, delicate hands strumming the air, a rhythm in his walk, his long dark hair shifting with the tune.

The soldiers cowered, throwing down their guns, crawling away with their black-gloved hands pressed and clawing the sides of their helmets—their air-tight helmets, helmets that only let in the sounds a soldier would need to hear, full distraction filtering and command elevation. OKF had equipped these guys with some nice gear, and weird sloppy music guy was plucking air strings, whistling short stabbing notes that rose and fell with his song, and he was through their audio defenses, needling into their heads.

He drove them back. The thin string music and piping floated deadly around him, and he danced on the chests and faces of those who surrendered, kicking them until they got to their knees and crawled toward OKF, empty-handed.

Took him no more than twenty minutes to wrap things up—clearly someone worth dealing with. Andreus and I spent most of it getting Brazley back in working order.

Then he came back, a serene smile on his face, short growth of beard, eyes hard and vibrant blue—deep summer sky eyes. He looked down at Brazley—awake but blinking and still coming back online. He sang a short string of notes, and she snapped alert, stood up, a little shaky, but apparently back in business.

Just like that.

I pulled in my vines, sighing loudly, one hand finding my hip to prop itself on. “And who are you supposed to be?”

Musicman cleared his throat, straightened his back, let his open shirt flutter around his arms. He had a bit of a smile going, showing us a playful side. “I am Apollon.” And when that wasn’t abundantly self-evident to us—we just stared at him, he added, “Apollo?” He frowned, maybe starting to think we were struck dumb. “Phoebus?”

Andreus did his gun disappearing trick again, fiddled his goggles loose, and let a calm smile appear just for an instant on his face. “My name is Marsyas, the satyr.”

Without breaking the beat, Brazley lifted her eyebrows. “I am Saraswati, goddess of all arts and knowledge, mother of the Vedas and the repository of Brahma’s creative intelligence—except on Thursdays when I play George Harrison in a Rennonvorah Beatles tribute band.”

We all stared at Brazley—even Andreus who nearly dropped his goggles. More words out of her mouth in a row than I’d heard on this trip yet. Then they turned to me expectantly.

I shrugged. “I’m Tom fucking Bombadil.”

Apollo sniffed, a bit put out by our shenanigans. “No, really. I am.”

“Sure.” I shrugged. “I’m not kidding either. What’s your mother-given name?” He frowned at the word “mother,” dropped his shoulders, said quietly, “Fritz.”

“Fritz Apollo? Please. That’s even worse.” He shook his head. “Fritz Zulkowski.” He pointed back through our path into the woods, presumably at OKF. “Apollo’s what they used call me.”

I didn’t breathe for a moment. Fritz Zulkowski. Fritz Z. I had to grab the tree next to me, nails clawing into it, struggling to keep my feet on the ground, my eyes magnetically fixed on...Fritzy.

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