Chris Howard


The Dangerous Man

Carlos backtracked through the shields, squinting through the sunlight across the field, waved for a look at the magnifier.

Fritz glanced my way. “You okay?”

“We’re good. So far. I don’t think any of these little guys are getting through my wings.” I scanned the grass just in case, didn’t see anything reddish, or their new form, a sort of mottled light brown—going to be tough to see some of them squirming on the ground.

Brazley was feverishly working some kind of portable analysis hardware to determine the nature of the little thready beasts—as feverish as she ever gets. You know, one eyebrow lowered, maybe her teeth showing a bit, and that’s about it. Nothing shaking. No sheen of sweat. No tension in her shoulders. She didn’t even have any nervous habits like twirling her hair, which seemed to have grown another handful of centimeters in the last week, hanging in twisting black shiny curls around her knees. Her bangs were razored straight across her forehead—so I know she spent at least a few minutes grooming.

Reed stamped his feet. “They’re getting through on the ground.”

I dragged him sideways, scorching the earth in front of me as we went.

“Brazley? Anything?” I said as I turned to take in the battle going at the other end of the field.

Folesh was pinned against the forest edge, his hair coming alive like a thousand tentacles. Nice. Lazaro conjured up a mass of tiny U-shaped things, looked metallic, but I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to do—except harass Folesh. They must have been dangerous. The demon was spending a lot of time swatting the things out of the air with his tentacular hair.

Lazaro turned back to us, gestured at the sky and brought down a cloud of silence. A tickle in my ears, and I could hear my own voice in my head, but the rest of the audible world was dead.

I can see why the Winterdim Lord thought he was dangerous. I’d never even heard of anything like this. It wasn’t perfect. Weapons rarely need to be.

A crackling noise, a thump deep in my head, and I could hear again. The silence cloud drifted over us, and there were gaps and thin spaces, allowing sound to work.

Fritz, his existence depending on sound, was nearly powerless, frantically plucking to keep the magscreen lit and focused. His shields went dull, almost opaque, flickering on a failing power source.

On the far side, Folesh went to one knee, his face and arms bleeding. Several strands of his metallic hair had been cut, and coiled ineffectively on the ground. He kept one giant clawed hand across his eyes to protect them. He was in trouble.

Carefully keeping in contact with Reed, I stepped through the line of fading shields, driving deep with my vines, three long strands of them, tips pointed, rooting through the soil, driving through seams of hard clay, breaking rocks when they got in my way. They shot through the surface a hundred meters away, spiraling up Lazaro’s legs, locking him to the earth.

Andreus spotted my attack, and dashed across the field with his gun and the long spear of bone, twirling it, juggling it, flipping it into the air like a baton.

Gaining speed, he moved through one of the silence clouds, and started off with the tacGun. I saw his fingers move, the safety coming off, the trigger squeeze, again, the repeated sparks of rounds firing, but no sound, and the cloud moved over us, the dull heaviness in my ears, a blanket that absorbed every sound.

Whatever Andreus was firing slowed to a crawl by the time the rounds reached Lazaro, circular shivers in the air like a finger touch on the surface of a still pond.

Tiny slivers of something metallic hung in the air, frozen, and Lazaro wiped them away with a hand and a shower of tiny pinpoint lights. Whatever Andreus’ tacGun was throwing wasn’t even a nuisance to Lazaro Gossi.

The Dangerous Man returned to examining my vines creeping up his legs, one tip had reached his crotch. I gave him a punch, a solid stiff thump of heavy green wood in the balls.

Okay, he felt that, choking on whatever was about to spill from his opening mouth.

I glanced over at Fritz’s magnifier. Lazaro bent against the pain, not quite doubling over, his hands digging through his pants pockets, a frantic scramble for something he’d jammed in them—looked like he was hoping to get it out before my vines were up to his waist, winding around his body from the hips down.

A crackle in my ears, and the deadsound cloud had passed over us. “Fritz, what’s he getting from his pockets?”

“Don’t know. Yet.” Fritz made a gesture over the magnipanel, a flutter of fingers, tapping the surface in different places, and the image broke into four, coming back with the raw image, spectral data, and whatever else was radiating off the man.

“What’s the fourth screen showing?”

“It’s looking for chemical differences, doing the analysis, shading on variance with standard biochemical sets. Here we go. He’s pulling a knife, something sharp and edged. Looks like it’s grooved with a poison, something subtle because I’m not picking anything up.”

“Sure it’s loaded? Could be he’s just going to try to cut my vines off.”

Carlos, looking over his shoulder, rattling off words in bursts, “No. Something’s there. Not picking up a cytotoxic target from analysis. He’s going to use more than the blade there. Consider it broadly active. No way to really know until it’s used.”

I was starting to uncoil, not really wanting it to be used—not on me anyway.

Withdrawing the whipping spirals of vine around his knees, Lazaro reached down, his fist around the handle of the blade, and stabbed through my hard green bark, split the wood, a couple of my thorns raking through the skin of his wrist. He yanked the blade back for another swing, but he was careful, slowed by caution. Last thing he wanted was to accidentally miss a vine and drive it into his leg.

And then I was screaming, pain racing up the poisoned vine just ahead of the necrosis. “Cut it off!” I yanked it from the earth, slapped it flat in the grass in front of the group.

Brazley dropped her analysis gear, had already pulled the echoSaw from her pack, thumbed it on, the bright humming beam slicing through the wood, and then pain in my head as if she was carving up my skull. Gasping, vision blurred with tears, and that damn deafness Lazaro had cast across the field. I felt the pounding in my ears, the thump of my heart beating.

Augustine acted quickly, sent an empassive through my veins, not his soothing voice, but a direct chemical language that spoke to my body in its own words. He was getting better at this.

By the time Brazley cauterized the white woody end of the severed vine, I was on my knees, clawing at the dirt with my free hand, nails digging into the back of Reed’s. The echoSaw thumped on the ground next to me, the beam dead with the trigger released.

“Andreus!” an unfamiliar voice, a girl’s scream.

I looked up at Brazley running across the field, Carlos chasing her. Andreus, closing in on Lazaro, tossed away the gun, let the spear slide to the end of his grip and heaved it straight up. He kept moving, not waiting for it to drop. He had fistfuls of bone needles, firing them at Lazaro, who stood his ground, crouched, gestured, deflecting the darts.

Lazaro glanced up once to track the spear’s trajectory, but he probably couldn’t find it any easier than we could from our side of the field. He advanced, knife in one hand, his other working something in the air.

Reed let go of my hand, and the wings faded from my back. He shot me a look over my shoulder. “Have to help him. Andreus can’t take him on by himself.”

We charged across the field in three waves, Brazley and Carlos, then Reed sprinting by himself, his hands coming up armored, fingers hooked through loops of metal gripping on two swords. Fritz and I took up the rear, me dragging my vines, Fritz plucking at the air, sending the path of one song toward Folesh to help him.

Brazley was ten steps away when Lazaro danced into Andreus’ defenses, brought the blade around to slice his face, cut deep. Andreus flailing, backed up a step. Lazaro lunged at him, stopped the pummel against his open left hand and drove the blade to his fist into Andreus’ chest.

Andreus went down, back arching in pain, legs kicking, one hand clawing at the hole in his armor, his face trying to twist around to his attacker. He’d fallen facing us, his goggles skewed, pale eyes wide with pain.

Lazaro straightened over him, whipped the blade sharply to throw off the blood, and bared his teeth at Brazley, coming at him with nothing but her fists.

Out of the blue...the bone spear Andreus had thrown into the sky a few moments before, came straight back down, slammed into the top of Lazaro’s head, locking his mouth open, drove right through his body, the point coming out high on his left thigh into the earth, pinning him there, standing up.

Lazaro swayed, cavern of a mouth with all his teeth showing, eyes blinking, then going wide and shifting right then left, confused about the pain and the sudden immobility. He seemed like a very organized fellow faced with something not going according to his plan.

Then his dimrends deserted him, as many as three. I couldn’t really tell, but I know they jumped the Lazaro ship for Reed, because I sensed the shift in the air, and then I felt Shirley’s return to me. Hard not to smile at her complaining about Reed’s low standards for accepting stray—and possibly dangerous—renderers from serious bad guys.

We closed around Andreus, and I collapsed into Reed, my legs folding under me, one last look up at the Dangerous Man—his eyes frozen wide open, fixed on something over our heads.

I dropped my gaze to more important things. A friend was down.

Brazley had one of Andreus’ pale hands, her fingers clutching at his with far more strength than he was giving back.

I sent Shirley over to check the wound, told her to work with Carlos, who’d lost all his medical gear back at the treehouse, but he worked with what he had, his bare hands, two of the bone needles Andreus had conjured up.

Fritz put one gentle hand on Brazley’s shoulder, sang something softly that focused a bright beam of light over us all.

Andreus caught Carlos by the hand, shoved him away from the open wound in his chest.

“I need everyone to hear this.” He tried to get up, waving weakly, a spurt of blood from his mouth, gums splitting open, oozing more blood.

Oh shit. Poison. Some kind of rapid tissue breakdown.

I pressed him back, held him there, sent a command to Shirley to do what she could—likely nothing with a stranger and against some speed-acting toxin. I had no idea what Andreus was going to say, but it could be a dying man’s wish. Don’t care what it is. Grant the damn thing.

Reed, Carlos and Fritz moved closer, Brazley, on her knees on the other side of Andreus, scooted a little to make room.

“Go on, Andreus. We’re all here. What do you want to tell us?”

He looked at me, near-colorless eyes fixed with purpose. A hard sob hit him, ran through his body and made him shake. He started crying, tears rolling into his hair, pooling in the lenses of his ridiculous goggles.

“Want you hear this. Thea is going to take my...mat...materials. Please.” He coughed blood, tried to shake his head. “I’m not like you, or anyone. Just need a new...mother.” He broke into more coughing, tried to find Brazley and gave up. “Chose Thea. She is good... Let her do it.”

Brazley lifted her head slowly, pinned me with a glare, her mouth turned down, lips shuddering, holding back a sob.

“Promise me, more.”

I rubbed my eyes. They were starting to get wet and heavy. I firmed up my voice. “Name it, Andreus.”

His raspy whisper started as wheezing noises, slowly resolving into words. “Promise me you will care for Brazley. She is like family.” He gave me a weird knowing look—eyes widening with his words—and it wasn’t pain. He followed that with a smile at Brazley—the bastard, the knowing didn’t include me. He said, “She is your friend. She is your family, will be anyway.”

His pale eyes came back to me. “Just as I will be, Theodora, and in the end, you will care for me, too.”

I was crying now, my tears running off my chin, soaking into the sleeve of Andreus’ shirt. “I promise you.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Didn’t care.

Then Brazley really broke down, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Don’t leave me, Andreus. Please.”

A soft fading smile. “I am not, Brazley. Leaving you for long.” He closed his eyes, stopped breathing, then shuddered and took another breath. “Thea...I promised your...promised her... Kra...” His face tightened with strain. He tried to open his eyes, failed, his lips going slack, peeling back from his teeth, his body shaking, demanding more air.

I leaned forward, put my ear to his mouth, and his final words slipped out with his life.

“...nother...Seeee...secret. Your uncle, he came to the witch...” Andreus hesitated as if trying to remember a name. “Archippa... Long time ago...Theodore commanded her to help...”

“Commanded Archippa to help who?”

One last gasp of a word. “You.”

I snapped back, fingers curling into claws, my hair coiling together around me—trying to comfort me, and then too many things happening at once, piling on each other.

Fritz’s voice on my left. “Folesh is leaving.”

Carlos looked up, gesturing madly. “Lazaro is gone.”

I jumped at Reed’s shout in my ear. He squirmed away from me, clawed at one hand with the other, pinching at something a little darker than the tan of his skin, one of Lazaro’s threads. It wriggled at the base of his index finger, thinned to a hair’s width, and went into the palm of his hand, slipping up the wrist just under the skin, and then diving deeper into Reed’s arm.

Shit. A war of numbers, and my bet would be that with these guys you only needed one to get through the do whatever they’d been programmed to do.

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