Chris Howard


Misplaced Affection

I felt the pain before I knew what it was, grabbed the earth, felt around for the source—knew my own body and where it hurt. This was something outside. Opened my eyes, blinking to clear my vision. I was on my back, staring up at a pale pink dawn sky, and flung my arms wider, slapped both my hands to the ground, dug in with my nails.

Helodes is in trouble.

I jumped to my feet, kicked Reed, naked and soundly sleeping on his stomach, one leg bent, pointed at the sky.

He was up in a few seconds, alert, wiping off wet leaves, rubbing his arms, while I tugged on wet pants and a top, bending to work out the soreness in my own body.

The words fired out of my mouth. “Helodes. Trouble.” I wrung out his shirt, whipped it back into something shirt-shaped and tossed it to him. “Shoes later. Let’s go”

We ran out our own aches in the kilometers back to the house. Fritz was already on a hovering marshrunner with Brazley strapped into the rear seat swiveled sideways, her gun across her lap. She waved, and without a word, let Shirley and Augie return home.

Fritz swung around. “Carlos just went back in the house to see if we have everything.”

“Where’s Helodes?”

Fritz shrugged, lifted his hands from the wheel, and started plucking the air, making music. “Never came back last night. In her river would be my guess. I felt something wrong when I woke, and got everyone going.”

“Why’s she in pain?” I glanced back to see Reed climbing into the second marshrunner’s pilot’s seat, thumbing the fire shields higher, nearly missed Fritz’s reaction.

I didn’t need to ask the question. “Leaf Father’s here?” I climbed on behind Reed, leaned into his ear. “Get to the river.”

Carlos glanced up, climbing onto our runner in the backseat, strapping in, two guns swinging in holsters.

“Where to?” He shouted over the smooth roar of the engines.

Swiveling around so both Fritz and Carlos would hear me. “I can’t leave without seeing Helodes first, need to see that she can handle herself.” There was hesitation all the way around, felt it in the tension in Reed. “I’m not leaving another friend to be incinerated by the fucking Leaf Father, okay?”

Carlos nodded, passed a few signals to Brazley, and we shot off through the woods, Reed banking hard, taking the path a little too fast for my comfort, but then comfort’s never been a high priority with me.

I held on, fingers digging into Reed’s hips, Carlos, in the back, taking the full force of the turns, his boots locked in, gun barrel facing right. Fritz and Brazley hugging our wake, her position mirroring Carlos, gun facing left, the stock high up on her arm.

“Duck!” Reed’s shout hit me at an auto-response level, shoved me back as a fan of needley pine branches ripped through the space where my head had been.

I grinned at Carlos hunkering lower in his seat, scowling.

A minute later we hit the bank of the Mississippi. I didn’t even recognize it, glowing green, a fringe of purple where a massive chain—links the size of one of my head—rode the surface north-to-south, running straight down the center of the river.

I slapped Reed’s shoulder, and he slowed the marshrunner, nosing the vehicle into a turn, pointing us east. Fritz, following some sort of prearranged tactical procedures, edged in to the right of us to keep his gunner—Brazley—facing away.

Standing on the glowing water, in the middle of the river with her legs braced apart, Helodes had the dripping chain pulled up in each outstretched hand, a loop of slack links swinging behind her back, spurts of purple fire running along the links out of her grip on each side.

The chain looked impressive, but I didn’t know what Helodes really had there. What was she going to do, trip enemies who crossed the river?

Standing above the line of trees on the far bank, the Leaf Father kicked over a pair of old willows, then turned to snap the tops off a cluster of ten meter pines, clearing the bank of obstacles, testing the shallows with his feet.

Then he noticed me, brilliant green eyes fixed on mine, and I felt their pull along with a massive weight landing on my shoulders.

I looked away, leaned in to Reed to whisper, “Wait for it. Don’t go south on the river, but cut back in through the Rennonvorah. We’ll head south in from the river once we’re out of sight. I have a feeling he can just crop up in front of us on the east bank and ambush us at some narrows along the way—in fact, he’s spent the last week moving between here and Gulf, probably has it planned. We should stay off the water, run south well into the west side, until we get to the delta.”

“And if he’s waiting for us there?”

Didn’t like saying it, but I know it would work. “We go out to sea...and hope we don’t run into a storm.”

“You don’t like the ocean?”

“Saltwater.” I shuddered. “I’ve never set a foot in it. Makes my skin crawl...literally.”

Fritz shouted, “Here he comes!”

Carlos made some rapid gestures across the space, then leaned forward to tap me on the back, trying to talk over Reed throttling up, “North, pass behind Helodes, out of sight, we’ll run up the bank and double back.”

“Like it!” I passed it on, and Reed spun us north, getting the marshrunner up to racing speed, shooting by Helodes, who remained like a statue in the middle of the river. At the last minute, she turned her head, glanced at us, no expression other than the strain of wielding the chains.

The Leaf Father stumbled in the river shallows, climbed up out of the water, marching through the trees. No way he could outrace us, but he kept his steady stride through the woods, snapping and shoving whole trees aside when they got in his way.

Looking back, I saw Helodes, still holding the chains, slide into the river and vanish, not even a swirl of foam, and I felt the release of tension in my body.

Helodes is safe from the Leaf FatherShe held him offShe’s aliveWe got out of here in time, and she didn’t have to die to save meThis wasn’t a replay of Archippa’s last stand.

Andreus’ final words pooled in my head, something about being different, needing something new. He’d promised Kraneia...something, but fuck, who wasn’t promising my mother stuff these days. Busier than she’d ever been in her life. The part about my Uncle Theodore and Archippa stood out. He’d told her to help me?

Took us an hour or so, gunning it north, but we were out of sight, and the west side had a nice shallow slope of weeds and slime, perfect for us to cut back. Half a dozen hand-signals later, Reed was flying up the bank and into some low woods, taking paths that seemed to look clear and kept a west or southwest heading.

Carlos’ voice over my shoulder. “Ten klicks in? Then turn south?”

I nodded back, passed it on to Reed, who glanced down to mark speed and distance.

The woods grew thick and the path narrow, forcing us to single file, but Reed kept up the racing spirit until some woman and her pets got in the way.

I grabbed Reed late, and my fingers dug in, probably hurt, as he spun the marshrunner right, to avoid hitting what looked like some pretty big fucking dogs or...

“They’re damn wolves,” said Helodes.

Helodes? What the fuck?

Helodes stood beside our marshrunner as if she’d just jumped right out of the earth.

Helodes—nodding sagely at the pack of lounging wolves. “Yes, that’s what they are.”

I pointed back the way we’d come. “Aren’t you supposed to be holding How the hell did you get here so quickly?”

“Easy.” She pointed at her feet. “You’re following what used to be an old riverbed. Rivers... It’s in my blood.”

We both looked up at the same time at what—or who—blocked our path.

A woman in black stood on one side of the creak-twisty path through the wood, leaning against an ash tree, one white hand against the bark, the pack of wolves lounging in the dirt around her, anger and limitless hunger rolling off them, but with bright gold eyes blinking and only mildly attentive, as if we were nothing more than caged food and would provide very little in the way of fun to kill and devour.

And there was something else very wrong. Felt a surge of vomit in my stomach, along with the hollow pain in the tree under her cold white hand. Rings of rot and decay spread from her touch, rippling to the tree’s base and up into its branches.

She looked right at me, and...I almost came apart, felt fibers splintering, my heart thudding in my chest.

Helodes stepped in front of us, her voice coming out weary. “What do you want?”

“Imagined I’d be late? After you lost him? You no longer possess the means to hold me off, witch.”

Helodes sighed, not entirely unhappy. “Late? Well, I could hope, couldn’t I?”

The woman in black sniffed. “There’s no such thing. Hope. I’ve never run across it in all my years.”

Helodes glanced at her, not particularly frightened. “Open the door, light the way, and I’m yours, queen.”

“Helodes?” I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but I begged her to listen.

She smiled pleasantly. “It’s my time, dear, and I think I am buying you a little time.”

Felt my eyes getting heavy with tears. Helodes you really are one tough ass-kicking witch. I was fucking holding my bladder steady when this woman turned her gaze on me, and you’re casual about this.

The woman in black swept the space along the path with one hand, and a narrow tunnel opened in the world, slim orange lights running along the floor, reflecting in alternating convex and concave patterns across the polished floor, fading a hundred meters in.

Helodes, witch of the Mississippi River, turned at the opening, gave me a respectful nod, smiled a little. “You’re close to figuring this out. Sounds like someone else already has some ideas about it. Just keep thinking. You’ll get it.” She moved one foot inside the tunnel, glanced over her shoulder, and started singing, “She won’t come from river water, but from the soil, a girl of the forest will light your way...hold your sway? Oh, shit. I’ve forgotten the goddamn song. It’s something like that... Light your way doesn’t sound right.”

Helodes stepped through, still singing—or trying to pick up the song at different points, her words fading, echoes of her voice against the tunnel walls colliding with each other, and ten steps in, everything she said was unclear.

Then silence.

The woman in black stared after Helodes, held the door open a few moments after the witch had entirely disappeared, then she turned her hate on me, we locked eyes, and she knew me—my name, who I was, her cold fingers prying into my memories, knew me like a medical examiner knows the inside of a corpse. A rush of fever swept through me, a wet chill across my skin.

“You’re the girl who will owe me a debt.”

Oh fuckIt’s Orphne the death bitch.

She smiled with sharp white teeth, a glisten of saliva, her pale pink tongue easing out to lick her lips. She looked as hungry as her pets.

“Come with me, Theodora Viran. Leave these children behind. Your uncle Theodore Balanon is my guest, and he’s been waiting for you.”

My heart stalled... then jumped into motion, and I felt the warmth of my friends around me. They would support me, hold me up, catch me if I fell.

Suddenly it felt easy. I swung one leg behind Reed, and jumped down. Damn, the Queen of the Dead is tall. I’m no shorty, and she’s at least a head taller.

Reed reached out and clutched my wrist. I felt the snap of power connect between us.

Glancing over my shoulder, I gave my love a nod.

Then I stretched my wings. Had to lean forward, take another step or risk burning Carlos right off the back of the marshrunner. I glanced left to my former OKF security chief friend and smiled. He returned a calm one right back.

When I looked up at Orphne, she appeared to be intrigued by my burning flying gear, kept her smile, but looked me up and down as if I’d stepped out of some disguise and shown her someone new and different to deal with.

I put some bitch into my voice, and ran with it. “Yeah, I’ll come see you. But I’ll walk in through the front door, in my own time, and on my own feet, if you don’t mind. And you’re going to release my Uncle Theo...without his debt.”

Orphne raised a thin eyebrow, a hint of a smile remaining. “Or?”

“What do you think?” Presumptuous bitch needs a threat? “Or my friends and I are going to come knocking on your door and there’s going to be some fucking trouble.”

Orphne took her hand from the tree, and I felt the pain in my gut drift away. She stepped off the path, and her wolves eased themselves up, stretched, yawning with mouths full of jagged carnivore’s teeth and curling tongues. A couple had their hackles up like spikes of river grass along the bank, eyeing us with sharp beams of gold.

The path was clear, back to its natural state, and Orphne gestured us through. “I look forward to greeting you at the front door then, Theodora, in your own time, on your own feet, and hearing what you have to offer in return for your uncle’s precious life.”

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