Chris Howard


Bringing Down the House

The Leaf Father became the house, seeping into the floorboards, into the massive central load-bearing tree, into the framing, into every branch in the support trees. He became the leaves and their fluttery shadows against the windows.

Carlos was looking down at the color leaching out of the floor under his feet. Fritz was singing something tentatively, probably not knowing what he was facing. Andreus reached for Brazley’s hand like a father to a child entering a dangerous neighborhood. Reed’s hands were shaking, fingers hooked into claws, one of them on my arm, nails biting into my skin. His neck was yanked back, his eyes angry squints pointed at the ceiling, blinking against the dust as the wooden slats groaned over our heads.

Whatever Fritz was singing, it seemed to affect the air, making it stifling warm, syrupy thick, threads of his song weaving into our world, into the light, all motion slowing to a walk, and it even went as deep as the attack on his house. His eyes swiveled slowly to me, locked on, a question in them he knew I could answer.

I whispered back, “Leaf Father.”

Fritz was halfway through a nod, his head tilting up, when the beautiful treehouse he and Carlos has created, broke apart. Wood popping, a roll of thunder, and the Leaf Father’s face oozed out of the central tree’s surface, deep set eyes—more like rough cut burned out pits in the wood, glassy green centers shifting toward the six of us standing in the center of the living room. His mouth opened, half of it below the floor, a top row of jagged teeth lifting through splintering boards, gaping like a cave.

The stink of burned wood and wet rot hit me, and I turned away, threw out a fist defiantly.

Then our side of the house, the side with the circular room, tipped vertical, a bone shaking squeal of ripping timber, a bucking animal under our feet, then open air. Bench cushions and mugs falling with us. Frozen smears of steeped tea somehow slower and graceful, like long angular wet eagle’s feathers.

I fell into Andreus on the way down. He had his legs apart, standing on the side of the clear cylindrical table, one arm stretched out, fingers clawing for Brazley as she fell with us, upside down, her feet standing straight up, pointed, and she stared at me with those eyes—are you my friend, Thea? Fritz was swinging my way, mouth locked open, for what, I don’t know, but it looked more scream than song. Carlos was rolling, knees up against his chest, curled into a knot as if some automated training had misfired and told him to tumble.

Damn, this wasn’t going to end well.

I kicked off the watery table, which remained as solid as ever, set it spinning under Andreus unfortunately. But I managed to set my own body into a spin, the earth coming at me headfirst—thirty meters of vines first. I planted them, let them curl and bow with my weight, calculating as fast as I could to manage the sudden additional estimated two-hundred and sixty kilos. I fanned out five and caught my friends by whatever was nearest, whipping them unceremoniously—painfully, I am certain—sideways, out from under half the treehouse coming down with us.

Thunder behind us, and the ring of impact-resistant anti-projectile windows sent way over their stress limits, shattering in bursts of high-velocity advanced polymer wedges—which probably would have come through us like lightning, leaving bloody holes—especially me. I was the only one on my feet, my vines wheeling me around for a not so gentle running landing, forced me to race my momentum into the ground. Everyone else, thrown with a coil of my vines, skidded over the grass in front of me, bouncing, impact grunts, and one wood-crackly bone fracture.

Fritz was on his back in a rapid slide up a lump of marsh grass, his voice back, his fingers plucking the air. A wall gusted up behind me, right at my heels, and met the incoming polymer shards. Death made a nice toasty splattering sound at my back, and then the soft plinking of the window pieces dropping harmless to the grass.

The earth still shaking, the upper floors of the treehouse still coming apart and falling behind me. “Fuck, that was close. We have to run.” I grabbed Carlos, shoved him forward, bent to help Brazley, but she snapped up like trap, her backpack nearly swinging over her head—loaded with her woodcutting toys, and who knows what else.

She caught me off balance. Her hands were on my arms, fingers digging in firmly, protectively, a whisper so soft, it must have been for her own ears. “I knew she was my friend.”

No time for a reaction to that. She was looking over my shoulder. Couldn’t tell by her expression—nothing in her eyes, but by the line of her sight, I knew what she was looking at. How many seven-meter-tall bipedal monsters walk the fucking earth anyway?

I bent to grab Reed’s hands as he was getting to his feet, limping, his left foot twisted bad. My first thought was to get Shirley on it—have her start repairs now, Reed. My next thought was screw the ankle or whatever’s broken. Time enough later to fix it, if we survive. I released one hand, reached up and grabbed the back of his head, my fingers curling into a fist around his hair. I pulled his face to mine, kissed him hard, and tried to get in touch with the Winterdim Lord.

Reed grabbed my wrist, jerked me away. “Thea! What are you—” And then he was looking at the Leaf Father, the monster disentangling himself from the treehouse’s central tree, turning back to blow a gust of fire into the mix.

I twisted out of his grip. “I need the Winterdim Lord.”

He looked at me, a funny expression sliding onto his face way too slow for the trouble bearing down on us. He blinked. I felt a shudder run through him under my fingers.

“What is it?” It was Reed’s voice and Reed behind it, but there was something different.

His eyes cleared, focused on me, not quite a smile appearing—just for a moment, then his lips compressed into a stiff decisive line. “I am the Winterdim Lord—the power source. You have the weapons. Use them. Just stay in contact with me.”

I turned, still holding Reed by the hand, my fingers digging in possessively. Then, thinking of the fire wings, I tugged Reed around. “Stand next to me.”

The Leaf Father took two steps and he was standing over us, a tower of dead wood and bleached stalagmite teeth, long strands of tree-root hair fanning across the heavens, his dark world-deep green eyes pinned to me.

And I opened up another world at his feet.

Cold and immeasurably deep, an icy wind blowing, I pulled back on this world and opened a kilometer-long chasm into the Winterdim. Okay, this is the kind of tool I can get into. I couldn’t keep my eyes away, trying to focus on the actual edge of this world and where it crossed into the one between. We were all staring—even the Leaf Father. “Well, get a good look at—

Reed’s voice cut me off, cold as the void in front of us, the same voice that spoke to me at OKF. It sounded like something else using Reeds voice. “Go ahead. Step into my world. I’ll make you dance like a puppet. Leaf father of no one, enemy of all, destroyer of worlds.”

Oh yeah, let’s taunt the Leaf Father, Mr. Broken AnkleI’m trying not to piss in my pants, and you’re throwing challenges out like this is a damn game.

I backed away from the edge, pulling Reed with me. He whispered confidently, “Shirley’s fixing my leg, should have it pinned and usable in ten minutes.”

“Tell her to work faster. Give her what she’s asking for payment, too.” A glance over my shoulder showed me one expression—besides the clear ahhhh, it’s the fucking Leaf Father!—repeated over everyone’s faces: will you be able to close that up when we’re through?

Oh you mean this wide swath of otherworld at my feet? I shot back an easy no-problem shrug. Like I know what the fuck I’m doing here.

Maybe I do... The ground suddenly felt firmer under my feet. But it was Augustine, prodding me on the inside, he’d completed a nice nasty batch of Chimeric-L with the eldritch variant. It was bad stuff, one of my own secret poisons. Can’t tell anyone what it is either because once word gets out, it’s something you’ll have to prepare to face at some point. Another rule—really a warning—of my mother’s, right up there with “axes suck” and “fire will kill you”. Don’t let anyone have your recipes.

And if you use one, make sure they can’t come back and serve it to you.

I nearly released Reed, then clutched tighter with my fingertips, at the surge of fear that I’d lose the Winterdim opening between us and the Leaf Father. Okay, I’d just have to do this one-handed, which was going to be tricky with the distance—toe to toe—my cute toes to the Leaf Father’s hideous rotting bark toes—about fifteen meters.

I brought up my right hand, fingers cupping. All I needed to do was call up the soft Chimeric-L dust and let the wind carry it high to—

The Leaf Father backed up, shook the earth, and bent to one knee. We were still a ways away from eye to eye, but at least I wasn’t staring straight up. The move made me hesitate, and I pulled back on the poison release.

“What’s he doing?” Reed’s voice loud in my ear, made me jerk away. I held on to him for dear life.

I shook my head, “His own poison? Something airborne to breathe at us?” Yup, he cupped his hands, both of them together looked like the prow of an ancient sailing ship. I was already swinging my free arm around, circling in the air, calling up a gust of wind.

Whatever the Leaf Father was passing out, didn’t leave a trace in my senses. A tingle up my arms, and I felt his breath against my face, my mind going blank, roots of my toes oozing tight in my shoes. My arm stopped swinging. CrapHe’s making me go into my treeform.

My limbs stiffened, elbows freezing open. Reed wheeled, grabbed me with is other hand, shaking, screaming at me.

So far away.

A shadow in front of my eyes, Reed blocking the light, uncomfortably close. Hey, he’s kissing me, his voice in my head, blow his poison back at him, TheaNow, before he takes you away from me.

A burn in my throat, anger storming around inside. The fingers on my right hand hooked, made a slow fist, and what I wanted was a strong gust of cold wind to blow up out of the depths of the Winterdim opening. No one, not even the Leaf Father is going to take me away from Reed.

My head cleared, and the sting in my eyes made me blink, but I knew where I was again. In the field near the treehouse—Carlos and Fritz’s beautiful home—now a big stack of burning broken beams, jutting posts, and the lumpy surfaces of what once were floors and the roof. All of it on the ground, tangled in the trunks, at the feet of the grove that had held it up, and all of it swallowed in flames.

Tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away.

The Leaf Father was on his knees—both of them now, in the field on the other side of a gap of darkness. That’s right. It was coming back to me, the stickiness in my head running a little smoother. That was mine. I’d made that, opened up the Winterdim between us and death.

What else had I done?

As if answering my question, Reed said, “You sent his breath back at him.”

“And something else.” Fritz was at my side, felt his fingers on my shoulder, then a low repetitive song on his lips.

“I’m doing the analysis,” came Andreus’ voice right behind me. “Very complex toxin.”

I whispered, “Don’t give out the recipe.”

“Whatever it is, it’s making him root into the ground,” added Carlos from the other side of Reed.

“No, I think that’s the effect of the Leaf Father’s own poison. Thea blew it back at him with the wind from below.” Couldn’t see her, but I imagined Brazley pointing across the lightless void in our world—maybe teasing the Leaf Father with the piece of finger she was still carrying around. “See, he is sending out roots, becoming more like a tree, just as Thea was made to do.”

Carlos came back with some doubt. “Right, he’s fighting off something else. He’s shaking.”

Long stiff branches grew down from the Leaf Father’s elbows, right into the ground, stems splitting off to grab more of the earth, each of them sending out root runners. The green glassy eyes weren’t looking at me, but down at his knees, half closed, concentrating on some way to stop the progress of his own nature...and my Chimeric-L.

I released Reed, felt the sudden drop in that thrum of power through my body, and the wide gap in our world closed like a door, the grass swaying with the breeze, carrying the last of the scent of oranges from the Winterdim. Next time we get chatting, I have to ask about that citrusy goodness I’ve been picking up from the world between. Or better still, how about a quick visit at some point?

I reached out with one hand, caught Reed’s arm again, wiped the other on my pants before grabbing Fritz on my right. “Help me up. We have to run. Go west.”

They looked down at my feet, pale finger-width roots looping through the soles, through torn webbing material along the sides of my shoes, into the earth. “What are you waiting for? Help me tear them out.”

“Won’t it hurt?” Reed’s voice quiet and concerned in my ear.

“No, it’s going to feel like a fucking holiday. I can deal with that, just can’t deal with him—” I pointed at the Leaf Father. “—when he frees himself and neutralizes my poison. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Augustine in my head telling me that he’d completed a small potent batch of Homily, which was one of my crueler slow acting PTs—phytotoxins. You want to get on your knees, feel your insides hollowed out? Breathe in a little of that. I blew the word “nice” through my teeth at the skin-tearing pain that shot up my legs, a wave of fever heat chasing it,

Reed and Fritz had both my legs free in seconds, holding me up by the elbows as we jogged away from the Leaf Father and the destruction of one more home. That’s all I seem to be able to do well, drive people from their homes—and then get them to carry me around.

Fritz glanced over his shoulder once, a final look back at what was left of the roar of fire over the treehouse.

“I’m sorry, Fritzy.”

He didn’t say anything, just looked at me a moment, a hint of a question in his eyes, and then he sang something that loosened the joints in my legs.

Then we were all running hard, Reed limping, no weapons except what Brazley had hidden in her pack, and what Fritz and Andreus and I could summon, no extra clothing, food, or any other travel supplies. I tried to think about the path back across the Mississippi and a homecoming at the Rennonvorah, but let it slip out of the back of my mind, too far in the future, unlikely to ever happen—unlikely that we’d live that long.

If we could just find the right paths, the right friends, enough food, and above all, time to make our way to the Mississippi’s west bank, we’d be free.

Another question shot to my mouth. “Why doesn’t the Leaf Father just go around the north?” I had no idea where the river’s source was, but it couldn’t be that far.

Andreus picked that up with the briefest shadow of context I’d given, and he sounded far from certain. “He’s afraid of the Spheres? The proximity dangers of the near Chicago?”

I saw a quick exchange of glances between Fritz and Carlos, not sure what that was about, but I didn’t push it. My legs were free, every last root pulled in tight, my feet working again, and I pulled ahead.

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