Winterdim

Chris Howard

5

Dead with Rends



“Thea?”

Reed’s voice had a soft current of shame, and I pulled him harder, my fingernails digging into the back of his hand. “What is it?”

“I’m so tired.” He sounded lost. “Where are we going? Where are you taking me?”

I wanted to answer the question he was really asking. No, you’re never going home. “We’re running, Reed. Just running. We can’t stop now.” Ever? It’s possible. Maybe Helodes can smooth things overJust need to get over the Mississippi.

I ducked a branch and blew a sapling whistle to command all of them to let us through without trouble, stems and trunks bending, crinkling bark, young leaves waving as we passed. The Holly trees didn’t move, but they’re an ornery and independent bunch in a full warm spring—at the best of times. I avoided them. They’re not worth the hassle.

“What happened...” I felt Reed turn as we walked, looking over his shoulder. “...back there?”

“Do you feel hungry?”

His head shake was so vigorous I felt it through the grip I had on his hand. “It’s because you ate.”

“No, I mean...” His fingers felt cold, another rush of shame through his body. “The thing that was talking to me, showing me how to open my hands, how to bare my teeth, how to run low, how to change my form, how to lure prey, how to kill.”

“There’s an inside and an outside.” I skidded down a muddy bank and jumped a creek, arm twisting and towing Reed like luggage on one good wheel. “The ones who can come at you on the inside have found you because the ones on the outside sent along your address—basically where your mind is in the universe. They wouldn’t know where or how to find you without you giving up your location to one of their renderers—ones that can shift into our world. And you were never taught to set up defenses.”

I stopped, too sudden for Reed, and he ran into me. I took his forearm and momentum across the breasts, his right ankle twining with my legs, and we both went down. He ended up on top.

Now my fingers were shaking. I was close to vine strangling him. I damped it down, and forced an apologetic smile on my face. I even gave him a light kiss on the cheek.

“I’m going to teach you, Reed. When we get some space to breathe, I’m going to train you. I’m going help you set up your defenses, the gates, keys, passwords, everything you’ll need to manage entry into your head from those who use the inside path.” I gave him a gentle slap on the cheek. “After that? Who knows? Maybe we can get to the real stuff—some combat training.”

He lifted himself off me, blinking, confused, as if he was still trying to catch up to reality. He dropped one hand absently to help me up, but I don’t think he even realized we had fallen down, or that he had landed full-weight on top of me.

“What about the outside? Those...” He made a vague waving gesture to the world. “...that exist out here?” He ended up pointing at me.

I pushed my smile all the way up to admiration but kept it just inside the border. I wasn’t that pleased with the situation.

But it did call for affection, and I lifted one hand to his face, slowly unfolding my fingers across his cheek. “I will teach you about them as well, and there’s the difference between you and me. You’re beyond me there. I can control several dimensional renderers at once if I have to. But I cannot see them.” I leaned closer, almost touching his lips with mine, felt him tense up when we locked eyes. “I’m not sure what you are, or how you acquired such a special ability.”

I cupped one of his ears with my fingers. Who the fuck is your father, Reed Gossi?

“I don’t either.” He looked away.

I pulled back and slapped him on the arm. “Let’s move. We’re not safe anywhere—even in the beautiful tangled forests—until we hit the banks of the Mississippi. And I want to get some distance between us—” I shot a gaze over his shoulder “—and them.

We ran at a good steady pace through the woods of old Ohio, managed our breathing. We took as many safe paths as we could find through the rockier areas.

Reed seemed to have calmed down, enough for me to start him on some introductory trance theory and a few simple innerdimension violation techniques. Something besides the rich green of the woods to take me home. It was like my mother teaching me all over again.

He took it in like the straight A student he’d always been, asked some good questions, and even tried a few attacks on me.

I still led him by the hand, steering for level ground, slow weaves between the trees, and with all the trust in the world, he closed his eyes and let me.

“Wonder.” He said the word in a sharp vocal burst, let it ride out alone, and I looked over my shoulder and smiled at the change in his expression, muscles tight around his mouth, a nostril flare, a shudder of worry in his brows. This all looked good to me.

He’s getting it, and faster than anyone I’ve known.

Then he said, “I think I have something.”

And I felt him prying around the edges of my mind.

“Very good, Reed.” I set my voice low and soft, didn’t want to distract him. “Keep going. Yes, you’re trying a behavior pattern manip.” What have I got here? Behavior manipulation is something a ten-year student can’t master without a nurturing mother or father with the ability, or special tutoring. Maybe he’s a witch? Something else to ask Helodes when we find her. And not that he’s mastered it yet, but he’s doing very we—

My right foot twisted behind my left, caught on the heel. My panicking fingers slipping out of Reed’s, swung up to catch me, and I went face first into the forest rot. He tripped me! The link was so subtle, I only felt it after I knew he had latched on to me. I rolled on my back, staring up at him, spitting dirt. I bit back the spike of anger, slammed my hands into the wet leaves, and launched my body upright.

Calm down.

After a minute’s show of brushing forest detritus off my skirt, I looked up, locked eyes, folded my arms.

“Okay, who taught you that?”

He made a confused sound in his throat, the start of some word he’d called back. He looked at me hard, a lot going on behind his eyes. He was trying to figure out what I meant by the question. He ended up going with honesty.

You just did.”

I stood there staring at him a moment, fingers tightening into fists, and then I let it all flow out of me, anger draining away. “I guess I did.” I had to stop my head nodding and my teeth from chewing a hole through my lip. Looking down, I took his hand. “You’re just a better student than I’m used to.”

Better than I ever was.

We walked another kilometer without a word, stopping to catch our breaths in the wildlife pass-through of a fairly new highway. The pass-through was basically a big round hole running under the road to let animals get from one side to the other without having to cross the surface road above. I studied the smooth concrete walls, up along the perfect arched ceiling. The tunnel—maybe forty meters end to end—led into more forest, mostly pines, on the south side of the road. The floor was damp from rain, lumpy with muddy flood drift. There was an old campfire midway through. I kneeled, smeared the ash in my fingertips, and then tasted it. A year at least, long before the deer droppings at the north entrance, before the hard nugget shit of some kind of cat at the other.

Reed stared up at the smooth gray ceiling of the underpass. “Who built this road? It’s not that old, which means it leads somewhere important.”

I shook my head. “Don’t know. I think this is safe for a little while.” I flattened my hand against the wall, cold concrete, hundreds of kilometers of road above, and I couldn’t feel anything within ten.

“Thea?”

I put a finger to my lips. He ignored me.

“You have a beautiful renderer. A little scary, but...beautiful.”

I swung away from the wall, trying—with some effort—to show pleasant curiosity. His eyes were pinned to something over my right shoulder. God damn, I couldn’t help myself. “What do you see?”

He leaned forward, studying the space just above my shoulder. “It’s pale bluish gray with red spots and speckles—almost like it was splattered at a murder.” He made some kind of lifting gesture. “It has something like wings, but they don’t look large enough to lift it off the ground.”

I whispered, “An atmosphere with air and one earth gravity is not the only medium supporting flight.”

He nodded. “It has a snout, almost dog-like, but the rest of it...it’s armored, like it’s related to a crab or lobster—a blue-gray blood-speckled lobster with a head like a dragon crossed with a wolf. It has legs that end in points, like a crab. There are flattened plates that swivel directionally, I think they’re ears.”

“Eyes?”

“Two of them, a very rich green.” He shifted his gaze to my face then back to my dimrend. “They almost match your eyes. Could be four of them if you count the stalks with little glassy globes on the ends. Not sure what those are. They jut out of the wing joints at the shoulders, on either side of the spines.”

“Spines? Plural?”

“It has two ridges along its back.” He frowned with a head shake. “And you don’t feel that? She moves all over your body, in front as much as back. It has to weigh something.”

“It’s a she, Reed. Her name’s Shirley.”

“Shirley?” He looked as if he was about to laugh, but wasn’t sure if that would offend me.

“Okay, I was eight years old when I named her. I do feel her, but she’s only partly here, so there’s little weight or shift in motion, and she’s pretty good at hovering.”

“And she doesn’t like me looking at her.”

“Probably not used to it. I mean, seriously, you’re the only one. I grew up with these things in my playpen, sharing sippy cups and probably spitting up on them. And my mother...when she’s not sleeping in the woods, my mother has full demons working with her—not from the Winterdim, but from the Rootworld. That big guy back there? Folesh? He worked for my mom years ago. You’ve met my dad a couple times, still teaches at Dartmouth.”

Reed nodded with a worried expression, as if my parents were completely ordinary, and I was slandering their good names. “Anthropology?”

“If you widen the ‘anthro’ to include all sentient and semi-sentient beings. All he does is study our interactions with dimensional renderers through history. Our house would be turned upside down if he knew you could actually see them.”

Reed gave me a shrug, a response to show that he still didn’t understand.

I lowered my voice cautiously. I hadn’t been aware of how loud and excited I’d become. “I’m going to speculate that there are others who want you for just that ability. Trust me, Reed. You can’t fall into their hands.” I showed my teeth, riding a wave of sickness rolling up from my gut, and memories of sterile white walls and steel bars and a nurse with lipstick like strawberry candy and a smile that fed on my fear. I shook it off, holding my arms tight across my middle. “It won’t be hands that you’ll fall into, believe me. It’ll be sharp, and it’ll be deadly.”

“How many...do you think want to find me?”

I wiped sweat off my forehead, a response to that painful glimpse of memory. “I don’t know. Many.” I pointed to the tunnel’s opening at the north of the road. “At least two groups are out there following us.”

“Then how come you—”

“Quiet!” Both my hands were against the concrete. “There’s someone coming, up on the road. Sounds like something big, maybe a freight truck. It’s east of us, heading west.”

“Let’s see if we can get a ride.”

We exchanged a quick agreeing look. “What I’m thinking.”

Then we climbed the embankment to street level, waving our arms and shouting.

It was a truck hauling a big white trailer on what looked like thirty wheels, and it stopped for us.

The driver just asked where we were headed. He looked... somewhat normal, maybe mid-sixties. I didn’t catch any gender pref vibe off him, but I’m assuming it was me, the way he held my gaze a few seconds longer than Reed’s, trying not to look down the front of my shirt. And, of course, I’d pulled up my skirt above mid-thigh, showing some leg. He smiled, and I wished he hadn’t. It suddenly made the whole thing even creepier, a murder-plotting smile with roadside diner gravy filming his teeth.

No, not very attractive.

But... he was giving us a ride, at least as far as “Springfield Ill”, which didn’t sound like someplace I wanted to visit, much less be dropped off with hunters on our tails.

The trucker had just agreed to take us that far, and then we had nearly lost the opportunity. I say “we” but it was really Reed—weirding out on me. Reed had been shaking his head as soon as the driver dropped down from his cab to give us a look. Okay, fine, I didn’t like him either, but the driver was going to put a few hundred kilometers between us and them.

And I made my intentions pretty clear.

We climbed up, Reed holding me tight, pulling my shirt, practically groping me, but he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He couldn’t take his eyes off the driver, teeth grinding, tension like electricity running through his body, and—being the gentleman—gave me the middle while he pressed himself as flat as he could against the door—as far from the driver as he could get in the truck’s cab.

“It’s going to be fine.” I whispered a song to Reed, ran my fingers through his hair, keeping the driver, the travel speed, and the horizon at the edge of my peripherals.

The truck was fast. Mr. Creepy Trucker had us up well over 220 k’s with nothing but open forest-lined road to the crests of far off hills.

Reed wouldn’t let go of me, even holding my gaze, making an almost funny downward pull on his mouth, and then darting eyes at the driver, trying to signal something. His voice was so low I barely caught the words. “They’re like war trophies.”

I leaned in, right up against his ear. I didn’t need him going south on me. “What are you talking about?”

“His renderer.”

I caught myself turning around as if I’d be able to see it. “I take it you’ve never seen one like this guy’s before?”

The navigation panels and window display lit the cab, and I glanced over. The driver smiled again, apparently not minding his passengers whispering to each other. He kept his hands on the wheel, and didn’t say much, which was fine by me. Nothing worse than some stranger rambling on about crap you care less than sand about, or worse, one who couldn’t keep his hands on the wheel.

Reed lifted his chin to something beyond me, then turned so that his mouth was right next to my ear. “It’s nothing like yours.” His voice was rigid, cold, coming out in an angry whisper. “It’s made up of people.”

In other circumstances that would have been funny. Revising my opinion, I inched closer to Reed, away from the hauler.

“It’s see-through, sort of oily, like sausage casing arms and legs stuffed with pieces of rotting people and fluid. There’s hair and smeared faces and bone fingers, and it has its own head—where a head should be. But there are others. I mean there are real human heads...sort of...grafted to it. Five of them, three men, two women, attached and growing out from it, around its waist. The hair’s been cut short on all of them—not very neatly.” He shuddered. “And they’re still alive.”

“How do you know?”

“They’re looking at me.”

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