Winterdim

Chris Howard

4

Dead in Old Ohio



We ran.

We jumped rides on aircargo barges and westbound nuketugs, but mostly we just ran.

Not fast enough.

By the time we got to what used to be Ohio, it was a total floodplain mutiny. We were surrounded by a night-team of prismdead, packs of lower snarling things, and I had even spied at least one of the upper fellows from our droomhidden across the concrete-walled canal.

There was a whole slaughter of bad guys this time. The damned in the Long Wild behind our neighborhood had finally found us, tracked our moisture, aerial spies, used our own heat against us, who knows?

They were closing in.

And you know how it is. The water’s rising, and no one looks to the leader for guidance because that’s the idiot who got you into the mess in the first place. Me—I’d led Reed far from home, into the woods, through stinking mall caverns, fields of broken glass, empty urban mazes, burned down hotels, sleeping in parks floored with rotting garbage from another age.

And there was something growing inside Reed the whole time. It wasn’t just his rage—who wouldn’t be fucking upset? It just wasn’t Reed. Something took control of him in short angry self-destructive bursts and directed Reed’s feelings and fists at me.

I just managed to get my mouth closed, my tongue seated behind my teeth. Reed’s fist came around, caught me just below the right eye. A jab of heat through my head that went right out the back, taking brain cells with it, then a few seconds of blindness—the loss of all my senses, and the next thing I know I’m spitting wet grass from my mouth. Damn, he was getting quicker. Whatever powers he had on his own—and whatever was controlling him—were bigger and badder than I am.

Soon, he’d be too quick for me.

Reed stood over me, fists tight, his whole body hunched in rage, blade lines on his skin.

He’d spent the last six days going through self-destruct, cutting his arms and legs to feel his body bleed, jumping off roofs four meters up, rarely sleeping, always counting, tugging individual eyebrow hairs from the follicle, and limit-testing the fullness of his lungs and the strong machine of his heart.

“You lied to me.” He sat down hard, cross-legged, leaning forward to give me vulture eyes. Fingers that almost looked like claws in the dark, he picked mud from the chunky soles of one hiking boot without looking down, throwing it over my head.

I lifted my face from the forest rot, and spit again. “I’m protecting you from things that can hurt you—are hurting you.”

“My dead mother? How was she going to hurt me?”

That’s what some of this was about. I closed my eyes, sighed. “Waste is a contradiction. If not me, then something else would have taken her materials.” I let my eyelids rise slowly, fixed him with a stare. “There’s always something ready to spin down the unneeded. Always. Just a matter of what or who.”

Reed glanced away for a moment. “What does that matter now? You can’t bring her back. No one can.” His voice went rough with pain. “Stop looking at me, Thea.” He blocked my eyes with an open hand, and a ring of claws like a scorpion’s snapped out of his palm, flexed and plied the air, tasting my presence. Metallic brown exoskeletal pillows filled with muscle, triangular joints, squared shafts that came to points with rows of tiny gripping teeth and hundreds of stiff hairs arranged over the shells, oozing glitter and poison.

Nice defense mechanism. Man, he’s loaded. But that can’t be him—can’t be just himSomething’s feeding him fabrications like this.

I crawled backward, low to the ground, my hair starting to twist into vines a meter over my head. I kept my eyes on his, but focused wide to catch movement around his mouth, a twitch in the outer corner of his left eye. I didn’t see any sign of something on the outside controlling him. Reed was in pain, and he was taking it out on the world, and there was something inside him giving him a hand. I just happened to be the closest thing that would respond to it.

That’s when the lights came on.

A dancing trail of luminescence spiraled over our heads, bright as a sun, and everything in the park’s clearing came into full view. The trees shook, old foliage rattling loose and scurrying away.

They weren’t a noisy bunch, these prismdead fellows. They didn’t make scary wet shrieks or fiery rumbles deep in their throats. Not that it would affect me. I had a whole series of audio defenses to weed out the purely frightening from the usable in the air.

I didn’t have anything to protect me from the silence. That’s scary.

Reed came up straight like a puppet on strings, right out of a cross-legged position on the ground. I gave him a one-sided smile and turned my back on him to face the ring of dead.

Gravecrawlers, every one of them. Too bad none of them were as nicely dressed as the one at Reed’s house. They looked human, or once human. Their skulls were a bit elongated, ridged at the crest, mostly exposed graying bone. The angled channels between the cheekbones and jaw were too long, carrying too many teeth. Imaginative mod. Whoever created these guys had some biodesign experience.

There were six full prismdeads, followed by a couple packs of low-deads, mindless biting teeth and claws, some of them walking upright, most on all fours. Then their leader came into the light.

He was clearly the power guy, one of the young demons, three meters up, legs and arms like thick beams and structural muscle supports, hair like braided cable, a thousand strands falling down his back, swaying gently with metallic pops and pings at each footfall. He stopped outside the rings of his hunting party, flexing his long twig fingers. Then he kicked a tree over to show us that he could. He kicked it right out of the ground, roots and all. He sent it cartwheeling through a pack of his own low-deads, who jumped back squealing. Leaves went everywhere, spinning with the force, leaf-shapes like a mob of folding hands scattered in the night.

I caught one, the soft symmetric green waves of a grand old oak leaf. Rolled it and stuck it in my mouth, across my tongue. The stem was a little stiff in my teeth, but it went down nicely, and for a moment... I smelled the sweet green smell of home. It was so far away now, but there was warmth at this moment in time, and it pleased me that one fresh leaf from an oak could bring it to me so easily.

I tilted my head back and focused.

I knew this guy, used to go by the name Foleshlinonen—or something like that. Used to work for my mother way back.

He looked down at me, and there wasn’t much like recognition in his expression or eyes; beams of light forked from his chin then coiled like whips that tasted the air, an array of sensors lit up one side of his face.

One hand on my hip, don’t show any fear. “Folesh? It’s me. What do you think you’re doing?”

One of his eyebrows went up curiously, then dropped back into a steep scowling slope. “You are on the wrong side as usual, Thea.”

I smiled because at least he remembered something, but from what I could tell, there wasn’t much left of the demon than associating my name with the signature of my presence. It looked as if he had given up control to something even more dangerous and powerful... a while ago.

Folesh gave his killers a flick of one finger, and they lunged at us. Still not a lot of noise out of this group, except for a few yelps from the lower ones. My hair was already ten meters long and growing, coiling into whips that spun clockwise from my position, into the trees for bracing. I sent them rolling back into the clear in angry loops. They dipped into the fray, snapped and gripped, and hauled the six prismdead off their feet by their throats.

Nice and neat. The way I like it.

Reed—or his controller—launched into the rest at a sprint, arms out low, head tucked in, teeth bared, an array of blade weapons jutting and sparkling from his fists. He went through them without slowing down, pieces of the neatly-sliced dead tumbling through the air, limbs, ears, toes, and whole skulls with jaws gaping around cut-off screams.

I pulled tight, popped off the heads of the prismdead guys, and let everything fall to the ground in Reed’s wake. They wriggled around, claws scrabbling for a hold in the age-softened garbage and leaf rot.

We had turned Folesh’s night-team into the unneeded in seconds.

Folesh looked down at us—mainly at Reed—with something in his face, shock, maybe understanding. Then he turned and lumbered away.

I was just starting to pull in my hair, ring my claws, catch my breath, and ponder Folesh’s retreat when I felt it in the air. Something even worse was on its way—something faint and horrible...and familiar.

Not my mother... but something like her. Something big and bad from the Rootworld.

I turned to Reed who was hunched over his kills, breathing hard and pawing the ground.

“Calm the hell down. We have more trouble on our trail—probably half a day away, which only gives us a few hours to eat and rest.” I sighed heavily. “You sure are one hot item.”

He blinked at me, struggling with his controller, and broke free. Suddenly he wasn’t much different from the frightened and sorrowful Reed Gossi I had led from home a week before.

“What do we do now, Thea?”

I pointed at the scattered bodies of the prismdeads and low-deads, stepping over arms and unrecognizable parts. Then I showed him how I feed, and I spoon-fed him out my materials to build up his strength.

* * *

I had to close my eyes after feeding, and Reed rested with me—I made him. Ingestion, chemical conversion, breakdown, and storage can take a lot out of you, especially with the numbers we had reduced.

Sleep came on quick, and I slipped right into a dream of a girl from the forest choking on saltwater, drowning in the laughter of the tides, looking for clean air, and finding only despair and salt when she saw the dark blue ocean in every direction. Then she was gone—or I became her, and I dreamt of sinking ships and sailors’ fears, twisted imagery that told me I was forgetting how to live. The voice of the dream told me every memory of my life would be discarded and lost by those who called themselves alive. I forgot to breathe, and let the dreams continue.

Numbered and nearly forgotten are the ships that went to the floor with every soul lost. But countless are the sailors in airless graves of metal and wood who have vanished from the surface of the world without whispering a trace of their names...

The woman who ruled the Dawnworld’s oceans spoke to me in my dreams, her voice soft as the tides sliding over sand, ice-smooth—and just as cold.

“Theodora?” She called my name, sounding a bit urgent.

The Sea wanted to talk. I didn’t, and I rolled over, folding my dreams into something hostile—dry wastelands that hated the seas as much as the trees.

She called me again, still sounding polite. I ignored her, calling up the memories of the low-deads lumbering through the woods, teeth jutting, eyes fixed on prey. I wrapped my dream in the ink-shadows from Folesh’s light coming through the spaces between the trees, the raspy hiss of an indrawn breath, the smells of old forest decay and new human chop-rot.

“Let’s not do this, Theodora.”

“I don’t want to talk to you!”

“You don’t have to talk. You only have to listen.”

The colors faded with the darkness, and I was standing with the ocean up to my knees.

I screamed. She was manipulating my dreams.

“Theodora?” She sounded a little bothered now. “Listen to me.”

“And if I don’t want to?”

“Then I will make you.”

I slid a thick mare-wall between us, and she made it porous as a sponge, my dreams leaking through, and her manipulations pouring over the top. Wherever I turned and ran, she was there before me. When I created doors to close, she was already breaking the hinges and the locks—salt-crusted metal crumbling to dust.

She took my own dreams, everything that I could recall to feed them, and turned them against me—left me nothing to hold onto in her deep blue universe.

Damn, my toes hurt.

I couldn’t even keep my focus still enough to see clearly, just enough light and clarity to make out a young woman in blue armor, hair cut short or braided and pulled back, out of site, and a crown that blinded me.

Saltwater stung, and it was my own frightened voice screaming at her, “What do you want from me?”

The Sea smiled in the drowned cities and gloom of my dream. “You weren’t listening, Theodora. I already told you.”

And there was saltwater in my mouth. I tasted it, smelled it, nailing my senses to the wall of some underwater cavern. I fought her control, and she stood over me, one hand raised in time with the words of her song, in time with my will breaking. My skin had already broken. I tasted the salt in my own blood.

I gave up the fight, slumping forward. The caves and abyss-dark drifted off like debris after a storm. That’s when I scraped up enough strength to look up at her. “Who are you?”

She nodded gravely. “I am Kassandra’s daughter.”

Who?” Apparently I was supposed to know who Kassandra was.

Her voice was the thunder of the surf in my ears. “I am the Sea, Theodora. I possess something you value, that your mother has given me to keep safe. I will care for your loved one as long as you need me to. When you have completed your journey, and have discovered what you are meant to be, I will be here with knowledge and treaties and gifts. I will be ready. For now, you must be.”

“Be what? Ready?”

The Sea smiled again. “Get some rest, Theodora Viran. You will need it.”

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