Chris Howard



Shirley always knew best.

I cupped my free hand, felt a silky pile of my Chimeric-L waiting for my breath and direction. I let it go and saw the terror in the Leaf Father’s eyes, his mouth—what was left of it—gaping and taking in the poison. He couldn’t close it, couldn’t fight off the rapid paralysis spread, the slackening of muscle tissue, the gnawing at his soul.

It’s some deadly bad shit, Chimeric-L. Maybe even the deadliest I have on the menu.

Meters of weathered timber, forest-killing limbs and saw-savaged face crashed against the far wall of Orphne’s entry chamber, bent in half, and thundered to the floor, loosening the stones under my feet.

The dust was still settling when I reached for Brazley. “Going to need to borrow your saw again, please.”

I crossed the room with a little help from my friends.

I climbed unsteadily up on the Leaf Father’s corpse, breathed out my antidote to kill off what was left of the poison, and thumbed on the thin humming beam of the echoSaw.

Straight across the torso, through old splintery wood, chips of it sticking in my hair, flying on all directions, I wheeled and cut along the side of the Leaf Father’s mid-section. A few more minutes of carving, shaving and touch up work, I kicked away the panel on a deep block of shadow.

Haloed in sawdust, I reached into the hole and lifted out a knot of glowing gold wood. Kraneia cried and rushed forward to take it in her shaking hands. She stared at me, her daughter, Leaf Father Killer and maker of treehearts, and she bowed, a shudder of shame and tears like the rain staining the front of her spring gown.

“I love the winter, you know?” Her whisper brought me all the way around.


“It was a curse. He punished me for loving Thomas, made me return to my treeform every fall, and he only allowed me out in the spring because I had you, my child. He wanted you from the beginning. I wanted you so much to be more like your sweet father. It wasn’t clear at first that you would have my powers. When it became clear—” She pointed at the corpse of the Leaf Father. “—he hungered after you, watched you growing up, watched you run through the woods, waiting to take your heart.”

She choked on more words, then started over again, a bit hesitant as if she wasn’t sure she’d be allowed to say them. “And he brought the OaK leaF to us, to find others like us, to break us, and control us.”

I nodded. Pretty much what I’d already concluded. “And the no touching Reed thing? I've been all over him since the beginning.”

She almost smiled, but that faded sharply. “Of course you have. That was my intent.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I gave Reed a smile that didn't fade. Also gave him a come-here tilt of my head before turning back to my mother. “What about Folesh?”

She glanced away, an involuntary shudder with it as she focused on the Leaf Father—dead. “Folesh was always doing a little work for me. When he could.”

I grabbed Reed’s hand. “And the OKF?”

“Folesh spends much of his time infiltrating that organization.” Her shoulders dropped, a sigh signaling some sort of breakdown. “I am so sorry, my light of dawn daughter, my first green shoots of spring. The Leaf Father allowed me to roam free when he was in the mood, but I was always tied to him.”

Kraneia wiped away a tear, and then looked up with a gasp when she focused on the man emerging from a door on the other side of Orphne. The Queen of the Dead was still leaning against the stone wall with her pets, watching us, no hint of the cool amused bitch on her face.

She stroked the ears of one of the wolves, turned toward me with a thoughtful look. “Theodora Viran, you were right.” She nodded, her gaze wandering off, the look gone distant as if calculating something. “You have paid his debt to my satisfaction.”

Then my Uncle Theodore was here, slowing cautiously to take in what had become of the Leaf Father.

He looked like he needed something to distract him.

So I handed him his heart, and my tough and crazy old Uncle Theo held it with both hands, stared up at me, and cried, tears rolling down his face, off his chin.

Then I dug deeper—the deepest—into the shadow in the center of the Leaf Father’s chest, both my hands around a knobby globe of wood striped with dark and pale woods, veined with roots, and decorated with a hundred aggregated plant features, thorns, curls of vine, bitter scents, and a damp section that, when I brought my fingers to my tongue, tasted like saltwater—for those lovely mangroves.

The heart of the worldforest felt warm in my hands, and when I pulled it close, it became a part of me.

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