Chris Howard



It took far longer to get started than I’d hoped. I was imagining throwing on a set of fire wings, opening up a hole in the ground and dropping into it—then we get Reed healed and pop right back. Carlos and Brazley brought me back from the brink, showed me how much more secure this would be with a little planning.

I sighed, lowered my arms. Okay...

We needed armor, clothing with long sleeves, winterwear—all of it powered and self-repairing. There’s a reason the place is called Winterdim. Even with full daylight it was about half as bright as the Dawnworld, except for the Lord’s Palace, which—according to Reed—was apparently lit up like a volcano, and around it the world ran on at low light levels.

Helodes brought in her designers, commissioned the work, but we wouldn’t have anything before midnight.

Shirley had some interesting things to say. Not sure I got it all, but the Winterdim ran at a slower pace—as in time passed slower than here, which I took to mean Reed and I could spend a nice relaxing six-month holiday and it would be like a week going by here.

Interesting...I caught the betrayed look in Brazley’s eyes, nothing strong, just a drop of I thought you were never going to leave me?

I shook my head, squeezing Reed’s hand hard. “That’s a promise, Braze. We’re going to get this Lazaro thing fixed, we’ll put you out of danger, and then we’ll be back.”

Her matte black eyes fixed on me, I didn’t need to see the churn of thoughts in her head, and the Brazley I knew came back with a very honest Brazley question: “Why would you return to face the Leaf Father when you can remain in the Winterdim, and be free of him?”

I didn’t know what I had become, what these people had turned me into, but this was me now, felt the words hang in my throat for a moment, and then the caring just came out. “Because I cannot leave you here. You, or Fritz or Carlos. I will be back, and if I need to find a way to bring you there, I will—if that’s what we have to do.”

That seemed to make her more thoughtful, than working to dispel any worries.

She had her pack slung over one shoulder, and therefore everything she owned in the world, including the chunk of Leaf Father finger she’d cut and grabbed as a trophy/experimental sample for poison testing.

“Remember when you told me that we’ll find a way to kill the Leaf Father?”

She nodded, a birdlike tilt of her head, a frown forming as if she wasn’t sure where I was suddenly taking this.

I smiled. “Come on, I wouldn’t miss a chance at that for any world.”

Later, when I told Fritz and Carlos that if anything happened to Brazley while I was gone, I’d kill them, they both swung around to see if I was joking. I was...sort of. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t kill them. They agreed anyway.

I hugged and kissed them both, saved another couple for Braze, and sometime around two in the morning, we were ready, new clothes with built in advanced combat weave underclothing, fancy sleeves that went over the tops of my hands with rings for my fingers. “To keep your sleeves down and snug while in flight” they told me. Damn, Helodes had some interesting design connections.

“So, what do we do first?” Those were Reed’s final words in this world, the so-called “Dawnworld”—called that by the beings from Rootworld.

Then I grabbed Reed, opened up a hole into the Winterdim, stretched my wings of fire, and we fell into another world.My first thought was that everyone was wrong. This isn’t between two worlds, but an entire world itself. The Winterdim just appeared to be narrow at the top, something that seemed like a crawl-space, just one of many narrow paths into this world. Yeah, it was dark, and it was cold, both winter and dim, but there was a light from below, beams of summer light coming through the clouds selectively, and there was life circling and shifting in the light, clouds of some flocking creature.

Other than one well-lit hotspot, there was near-darkness all around us, with stabs of pale moon glow shooting past our feet, not really catching anything reflective.

Swinging my legs around Reed’s waist, I locked my ankles in front, dug in deeper with my arms, sent one hand clawing across his chest, the other up to his throat, fingering the wedge of light under his chin. His hair blew soft against my face, and I shoved my lips against his ear, “Just let me know when you want me to slow down.”

An edge of panic in his voice, his words coming out stiff, “Yes, I will.”

Bringing my voice lower, “Shhh. I have this under control. Relax.” With a matching gentle scribbling of my fingers along his collar bone, then circling the Adam’s apple, my thumb pressed into the joint of his jaw, tips cupping his chin, pinky playing with the corner of his mouth. “Take in the view. Look down, there’s more light. I think...”

“Someone’s misnamed this world.” His words came out in a burst, shouting into the wind.

I let my hand slide away with his words, palm flat against his chest, my chin digging into his shoulder as I tried to look over him, directly below us.

Blinding light cutting through clouds, but it was a focused beam, as if all the light of a sun had been harnessed and directed somewhere, cutting sharply across the sky, leaving the rest of the world in gloom.

Dim. Like winter.

“Or it was named by someone with very limited access. By someone who only had one foot in—”

What the hell? I turned at a sharp pull on my shirt, and nearly dropped Reed when three claws—from some animal clinging to my back—came into view under my arm, digging through the material into my skin. I felt a fear-of-heights shiver run through them, and lifting my right arm to get a better look at them, the obvious answer slid into my thoughts. “Augustine? That you?”

He didn’t answer, but I felt his fear, and I knew it was, also felt the little claws, like something on a very large Koala, clutch harder. I tried to bend forward, but not far enough, and I couldn’t see his face. I didn’t want to imagine it either...dammit, couldn’t help it, had to wonder what the face might look like on an animal with six feet. That’s what I felt clawing into my back and right side, three identical pairs of five fingered claws.

I looked up, past Reed, and the wind was whipping through my hair, and I squinted against it, and stretched my fire wings to the limit, cupped the night, and let it lift us.

A minute passed and I unfolded the wings again, and soared across the heaven of another world. Less gravity in the Winterdim—I could feel the lack of it, a floating sensation that wasn’t there in my world when we’d rolled fast off the OKF building three roof.

I can see beings from this world.

There were creatures of every kind circling us as we dropped through the clouds, all of them keeping a deferential distance.

“What kind of Winterdim being is that?”

Reed twisted around, pulling at my hold as if surprised by the question, indicated the snowy dragon-dog looking thing with a jut of his chin. “She’s a Bishasen.” He repeated the word, roughening the “sh” to “Bizhasen.” He nodded suddenly, coming too close to butting me in the nose with the back of his head. “You know who she is, right?”

“She?” Choked on the end of the word, and took me a couple seconds to get my voice back. “Is that Shirley?”

He nodded again, and I could feel a smile on his face, even felt a hint of condescension in it.

I pinched him hard, and he flinched. “Stop your damn head-nodding and speak to me. Twice now you’ve nearly caught me in the face with the back of your head.”

He started to nod and stopped, turning his head. “Just trying to keep the chatter down. There are many here in this world who know English and several other languages from ours. Keep that in mind when we are among them.”

“Will do. What’s your plan?”

Reed pointed, and I banked right, brought my wings up, pumping them to get some lift, leaning forward then pulling them back, letting them fold into a delta that brought clouds ripping by my face, smears of gray, tears running free from my eyes into my hair, and over my head in trailing dots of vapor when they hit the wings.

Closed my eyes, squeezed out a gush of tears, whispered into his hair, “Where are we going?”

“Palace. My palace—well, our palace.” He grinned back at me. “I’m nothing without my toolbox.”

“And when we show up instead of the Winterdim Lord?”

“Don’t worry.” He sounded like me. “I know what to say.”

“Fly in like we own the fucking place?”

He smiled, one sharp corner of his mouth in view. “We do own the fucking place. The lord owns everything, even the light from the star, doling it out to favored courtiers and family.”

“He has family?” For some reason the thought shocked me.

“No one he cares about, and he’s never taken a bride. Doesn’t trust anyone. Can you believe that? What a weirdo.”

My voice came out shaky. “Friends?”

Reed nodded, “Not like you and me. More like accomplices—or better, confidantes with a hierarchy that’s always going to get in the way.”

I tightened my legs around Reed, squeezed and then loosened it up. Friends like you and me.

We flew without speaking for another hour, the wing-roar in our ears, Shirley keeping pace on my left. Augie still dug in deep and low at my hip, curving with my butt, to sink another set of claws into the back of my right thigh.

As far as I could tell—it was difficult to look down, Reed’s three additional renderers from Lazaro all clung to his legs and ankles. We probably looked like a traveling circus—just the clowns.

Another hour or so looking around, and then it was back to business. I breathed deep, started analysis, whispered back hoarsely, “It really is a new world, isn’t it Reed?”

The air smelled funny, a residue of burned oil, some kind of fuelsource or volcanic mixture I couldn’t identify. We cut through hot clouds of high-altitude smoke and cooler banks of some natural source of steam like fifty-kilometer high drifts off a boiling ocean of freshwater.

I didn’t feel any urge to drop lower to investigate, just pumped the wings hard, hissing in the mist with long ribbons of condensation coming off the tips. We gained altitude, and I tucked them back into a long speed dive toward sharp cliffs of bluegreen, millions of teeth at the hazy edge of this world.

It turned out to be a close guess, rows of jagged rocky structures as far as I could see, solid, or at least coated with a substance that softened the facets and points, the color standing out more green than blue when we got close.

What is all this shit? Bacteriological? Is it farmed, an infestation, natural habitat for it?

I pumped the wings again, rising over a clearer space of land where the territory of green teeth thinned, grew in sparse, and like an alpine treeline, cut off abruptly into empty plains of dusty brown with wind-pattern swirls.

I pointed under Reed’s arm.

The air wasn’t empty. There were airships, but like nothing I’d ever seen in any sky or vid in the Dawnworld, flat stacks of linked elongated pancake lifters holding up something the size of our whole town—kilometer-wide payload and passenger space. We banked and came in alongside one, ripping by and over the bow, rows of Winterdimmers staring, some of them lowering their bodies to the deck, others bowing long antlered heads.

“Even appearing as me—and not Numezhin, they recognize me.” Reed’s whisper drifted back to me. “They hate me. They fear me. I have made them miserable. Shattered this whole world with my power grabbing and cruelty.”

“Not you. That was Numezhin the Terrible.”—that’s what I’d started calling him. I put some upbeat into my tone. “Come on. Think of the opportunities we have. We now have a chance to make it better. You and me. At the very least, we can stir some shit up and go home.”

He glanced back doubtfully.

But I was already on to other things. I thought about Brazley and my promise. “How sure are we that we can retrace this flight path and get through that door?”

Instead of looking back at me, Reed looked down and to his left, shouting in another language—nothing recognizable in the syllables or tone. He could have gone suddenly mad for all I knew.

But it turned out he was just talking to Shirley. She swung in close, matching my speed with her wings tucked in, her real voice coming out silksmooth, feminine and far older and wiser sounding than I’d ever felt her to be. She sounded...human inside my head, a girl’s voice, not really like my own, but still a girl’s voice. Here, I expected her audible voice to be a bit growly to match the fierce winged wolf-crab-dragon shape.

Reed snapped off something that could have been a command.

Shirley came back—in her real voice—with what was clearly, “I have been storing every movement we have made since the door opened, your honor. I know how to return if that is what you desire to do. But I do not think Thea needs to use the same door twice. She can open that one to go home whenever she likes.”

Reed answered with something short that sounded like, “Majoovarim” and tilted his head back to me, shouting, “You got that?”

I sure did. I also understood, with an ache of shame, that Shirley wasn’t a part of me—and I should never have thought she was. She wasn’t something to be ordered around, treated like my servant, even if she did overcharge for her services. I had always admired her, felt she knew me better than I knew myself sometimes, but she was never a separate living being in my mind.

Reed shouting over the wind. “Thea? What’s wrong?”

I clutched him harder, and called over his shoulder to Shirley. “Oh, I owe you a million apologies. Even that name—”

“I love the name Shirley.”

“It was something an ignorant kid—me—slapped on you like you were piece of property.” I felt a lurch of acid in my gut. “I’ve treated you...badly.”

Thinking back to Reed’s revelation, that he could see beings from the Winterdim, maybe it was fear inside me, horror at the idea that I’d have to face Shirley someday—face-to-face—and deal with her like another person, not like some half-realized interloper with names like “dimensional renderer” and powers that could be exploited.

“You real. I’m so sorry.” I couldn’t say her name. “I can’t call you...don’t know what to call you now, here, in your own world—where I’m the outsider.” Everything started falling down around me, and it took everything I had left to keep my wings straight. “You saved me. You taught me everything I know. You got me out of the OaK leaF...alive. I did nothing but damn you for it. I’d have never had a fucking backbone without you. And I’ve never known what a friend really is. But I hoped, always hoped and thought you were my friend. My only friend growing up.”

With teeth showing—sharp enough to rip easily through any animal—she smiled, tilting her wings a little to move closer. “I hoped you would see it that way, Thea. And you should call me Shirley. That’s not just my name, it’s what I want to be called.” She extended one of her sharp gray claws, pointing at the horizon. “Even here.”

Gods, then she said something that started tears in my eyes. I had to blink them away, and almost lost control of the flight trying to rub them on my shoulder.

“This isn’t my world, Thea. You are.”

Table of contents

previous page start next page