Winterdim

Chris Howard

16

Sold Out



When I returned to the dining hall and the house, they were deserted. Looking at the sky through the branches, it was about the same time we’d eaten yesterday. Where was everyone?

I found Helodes and most of the Rennonvorah community around the pier where Archippa’s boat was still tied. I pushed through the crowd to discover they were performing some sort of ceremony that involved blood spewing from a man into the Mississippi and the soft watery plunks of severed body parts going in after it.

Really didn’t look like something I wanted to interrupt, but Helodes turned and caught my gaze. She held me in her power, like nails raking into the sides of my face, holding me steady, forcing me to watch what she was doing with a knife in one hand and some poor man in the other.

Damn river witches...

Nah. My guess was that he probably deserved it, and spent a couple threads of thought to wonder about what a man would have to do to get a queen river witch to cut him up, drain his body of fluids, and dump him in pieces into the river.

Steal all the silverware from her dining hall?

For one horrified moment I focused on the bloody figure dangling upside down from Helodes’ fist. She held him high as if he weighed nothing and blood ran down his body, his face, a dark red slick into his hair.

Reed?

I didn’t hear his name outside my own head, but I must have choked up some sound. Helodes nodded, her face cruel, pointed teeth snarling. But her voice came out gentle. “I am sorry, my dear one.”

“But...”

“He is gone. They took him in the night, set down their soothing spells to calm the earth and forest, even my river.”

Found my voice, but it was weak. “Reed?”

“Yes, dear. They carried him north, and sold him.”

It took some strength, but I pointed at what was left of the man in her hands. “That’s not...”

Helodes looked disgusted, and heaved the rest of the corpse into the river, calling up a slosh of green water to wash her hands and feet. “They did it under my watch, my guests, my village.” She pointed at the lump of something drifting downriver. “No. He was in on it, spilled the story to me—what he knew of it.”

I spun north. “But where’s Reed?”

An old river witch, one of Helodes’ confidantes, rested cold wrinkly fingers on my shoulder, gave me a comforting squeeze. She removed her hand when I shot her a look. “Touch me again and I will kill you.”

Helodes swept up the pier in her long black dress of rags. “Thea, I should not have—”

“Shut up. I trusted you. I let my guard down.” My fists tightened, and the trees twisted their roots, the banks of the Mississippi shuddered, shaking half the leaves from their branches. “One question. One simple answer. Anyone touches me or says anything else and they’re going to follow the bloody cut-up guy into the water. Now where the FUCK is Reed Gossi?”

Half the crowd fell to their knees, hands over their ears, and half my senses seemed to have burned away with my anger. I only heard my voice as a whisper, a leaf rustle deep in the woods. Helodes remained on her feet, standing straight at the foot of the pier, watching me. Everyone around her was on the ground.

“He’s been taken to OKF.”

Took me a few seconds to take that in. “Thank you.”

I turned and ran back through the village, stopping at Helodes’ house to grab my backpack and then Reed’s backpack. I was going to get him back, and when I did, he was going to need some extra clothes. And I’d be happy to bury anyone who wants to argue with me.

My clothes were dirty, still churning through their self-cleaning cycle. My shoes were ruined—had root holes right through the soles. I had a new dimrend who was unfamiliar with my body and what it needed to keep me on my feet, but it better learn quickly, because I was running at my limit as soon as I hit the paths north of the Rennonvorah.

A kilometer outside the village I picked up two pursuers. If it wasn’t Andreus and Brazley then my unknown followers were dead when—or if—they caught me. If it was Andreus and his student, well, then... I’d think about sparing them.

I ran hard along the west bank, darting through vine nets, down winding deer paths, always keeping the sound or a view of the river on my right. The trees blurred by, and I had plenty of time to run through my memories of Coldur Gregg the prismdead trucker and the small pieces of information he’d let fall. Some place called Portland—working for OKF up in Portland.

Why would he tell us he was working for a pre-V banned institute that did foul things? On purpose? There was nothing else that marked the truck as hauling frozen human bodies for who knows what kinds of barbarity. But I hadn’t reacted to Coldur’s statement. The name OKF was vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t something I’d ever dealt with—I have dealt with organizations like it, and strawberries were suddenly sliding through my thoughts; had to shove them aside—and not without a shudder. I’d learned more about this mysterious org in the last week than I had in all the preceding years of my life. My impression was that OKF liked to keep their whereabouts and howabouts a secret. Was Coldur trying to gauge our reaction, studying us while he gave away only what he wanted?

Troubling...

The other giant thorn in my thoughts was how someone or something had managed to slip into the clearing with me right next to Reed, and take him without waking me, without tripping any of my sensetraps. It was nearly impossible. Maybe the Leaf Father could do that... or my mother. Couldn’t be either one, of course. One would have brought me out of sleep to strangle me, the other to kiss me—not telling you which is which because it could go either way. After my mother and the Leaf Father, the task of stealing Reed right out from under my nose was open to only a handful of high order beings of which I was aware and that would have any interest in Reed Gossi—probably plenty out there in the wide world I’d never had dealings with.

Whoever or whatever it was, had pulled the fucker off. That meant I was up against some pretty deep badness.

A pine branch caught me in the face, needles whipped a sting of blood along my cheek, and I automatically commanded Augustine to seal it up for me. I ducked another spread of branches, sprinting at a crouch to pick up a parallel deer path for a kilometer, but it ended up angling northwest, away from the Mississippi. As long as it didn’t steer me too far out of the way, it was clear and easy ground to run.

Behind me, Andreus and Brazley closed the distance, which meant a couple things: they were quick—could afford to run at a better pace because they didn’t have to spend any sense energy looking for Reed’s captors. They just had to follow me. They didn’t rest, crawl down the bank to gulp down liters of the river when I did. They carried their own water and refilled on the run. They were equipped for this journey—better than I was with two backpacks of clothes and nothing to eat. And it wasn’t like that girl Brazley, the SeedCatch dimrend-breeding-ground OKF exile was slowing down Andreus. She could really be handy if they got Reed inside the facility before I caught up to them. Andreus was some sort of prismdead expert. He hunted them, and what had Helodes said? The bones of the dead oozed out of the ground like jelly and made their oozy way to him to be absorbed. Helodes said he can “use all that bony material he accumulates” whatever that meant. Extra bones? Does he make stuff with them? Weapons? Armor? Funny hats?

And Helodes is his mother? They don’t look at all alike. Bone structure, eyes, nose, lips, the features that tell you a son and mother are related. Nothing in any of those. Both of them are way over on the lacking color scale. Helodes was pale. All the river witches were. I’m sure they got some sun, but they all looked cloudy-sky white next to me. Andreus was orders of magnitude paler, some freakishly bland tint that could only be placed somewhere on the other side of pasty, washed out, bleached, pick a nasty sounding shade.

Brazley was also pale, as if Andreus’ lifestyle had rubbed off on her. What else could it be? It had to be the dead-chasing job that took all the lively normal colors out of their skin. Still didn’t account for the differences in appearance.

Save the questions for later. They’d make useful additions to my team.

And I didn’t even know I had a team. Reed and I weren’t a team... exactly. I wasn’t much of a team player anyway—never had been, but I was pretty sure the desire to do your teammates wasn’t typical—or the desire to kill them. I’d had bouts of both with my new team experience.

I released a long sigh.

Teams? Teamwork? What was going on with me? I had become a completely different person since taking on the promise to protect Reed. Which, come to think of it, was about the stupidest thing I’d ever done.

Try not to make it your final stupid thing.

I cut through a thick growth of marshgrass, lumpy and ankle-treacherous ground to run, but it brought me to a wide dirt path along the riverbank. Time to stop, take a breath, get something to drink, see what I could see across the mighty river on the far bank.

And wait for the rest of my team to catch up.

Oh yeah, there was one more question nailed to the front of my brain: From what I understood, OKF was on the east side of the Mississippi, up around the Great Lakes, which meant I’d have to cross back into Leaf Father territory—Reed may already have. And even though I could probably take a stab at an answer, the question of what the Leaf Father would do if he caught me or Reed loomed pretty damn high and hot.

How did I manage to make an enemy of the most powerful of my gods?

Taking off my shoes and socks—both full of holes, I washed my feet in the cool river water. I toughened the skin along the bottoms of my toes, bridge, heel. I would run barefoot from here out. I spent another fifteen minutes guiding Augustine in how to care for my aches and keep my joints flexible and lungs from burning, then another fifteen missing Shirley. I’d never been away from her for long, and I had always been certain she’d be back. On the good side, she was with Reed and could really help out in a tough spot.

What the hell is that? Doesn’t sound like me. I shook the idea of helping anyone out of my head.

Then sent out a few sense runners, picked up the rest of my team coming in low and quiet across the marsh grass.

I raised a hand, waved, and whispered, “Andreus? Brazley? Over here.”

They straightened and jogged to meet me, both of them looking dead with exhaustion. No, that’s just the way they always look. Ha. Ha.

We exchanged nods and then all at once, we dropped to the middle of the path, Brazley handing over two blood-red ripe plums and a strip of unappetizingly hard meaty substance that I sniffed and tongue-touched to find out was fish jerky. Tasted pretty good, too. And no poison.

The meal was over in three minutes and we were back on our feet. Andreus pulled out two thick barreled tacGuns, checked the magazines, thumbed off the safety, eyed some little blue lights, then slid it back on. He tossed one to Brazley, didn’t even ask if I wanted to one. She slung it in a holster under her arm.

Andreus did some magic trick, and the gun vanished in the air. “We’re ready.”

Hope it worked both ways. Who knows what kind of conventional weapons the guys we were up against carried.

I scooped up my packs, and we were off, running along the path, a dim drip of light coming through the trees up ahead. It was a dying campfire, a small boat pulled up on the bank, and an ancient cabin with dark windows squatting among the trees.

Andreus waved me back along the path, making hand signals, his finger pointing at his open mouth and touching his ear. Okay, he wants to talk. We huddled in a thicket just south of the camp, Andreus digging in his pack, Brazley helping him.

“I thought you’d like to see this.” He pulled out a small round clear container. It was flat with a threaded lid. He unscrewed it and held it up to his nose, pulling in a deep breath, his eyes closed, brows tight in thought.

What the hell was he doing?

He lowered it, and extended his hand with the container, an irregular sheet of lumpy wet material growing across the bottom.

“And just what am I supposed to do with that?”

He looked puzzled, exchanged a look with Brazley, then returned to me. “It will help you track Reed Gossi.” And when I kept my eyebrows up in an exaggerated show of bewilderment, he added, “It is his skin. I took a sample after your first meal and cloned it.”

That called for a few deep calming breaths. I closed my eyes and tried to rub some fatigue from them.

See, this is why I don’t like teamsYou always end up having to deal with freaky shit like this.

Swallowing the saliva pooling in my mouth, I lowered my brows, gave him a serious glare. “And is there anything you can tell me about his location?” I swallowed again and jutted my chin at the offered lab dish of cloned Reed Gossi skin. “From this?”

Andreus looked across the Mississippi, nodding. “We will need the boat. Reed and his captors have already crossed the water.”

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