Winterdim

Chris Howard

17

Cross the River



We came through the camp like ghosts and had the boat in the Mississippi in seconds. I hadn’t even noticed the dogs, two black as night wolfish looking cuties with raging sharp teeth and hackles standing like reeds along a riverbank. By the time they started barking we were in the boat, soft-paddling through the shallows, and by the time the boat’s owner came out of the cabin to find out what the noise was about, we were out in the strong currents, riding them at an angle to meet up with the far bank several klicks south of where we started out on the west bank.

“Andreus?” He was in front of me in the boat, and I tapped him on the arm. “Wouldn’t Helodes know when they touched her river and stop them?”

He looked over his shoulder, nodding. “Normally, yes. They flew—very high to avoid her detection.”

“Aircraft? Demon with flight?”

He kept nodding, and said quietly, “Chicago Sphere’s proximity net is probably too close.”

The prox nets around the Spheres would track and eliminate any aircraft close enough to be deemed a threat. The problem had always been that those numbers weren’t clearly marked anywhere, and differed among Spheres, some taking a very cautious vaporize-anything-that-moves-within-two-hundred-kilometers-of-us-in-any-direction.

Brazley stretched like a cat on the fore bench, elbows on the rails, her long hair trailing in the water.

I was okay with boats, but didn’t want to think about what would happen to her if she ended up in the river, flailing around, kicking and screaming for her life. Wait, would she scream?

I just said, “Please be careful, Brazley.”

She looked back at me with her solid blank stare, a faint smile on her lips. “It’s okay. I can swim like a fish—better than some. And I can’t drown.” She shrugged. “I’ve tried.”

I looked over at Andreus, but he seemed just as intense. Just a glance at his student, and then he was studying the skies.

Brazley followed his gaze, nodding her head after a minute. “It was a demon.” She kicked out her legs, heels propped on Andreus’ bench, nudging him in the hip with her toe. “I can feel a trail of him in the air. I recognize the signature from a long time ago at OKF.”

I leaned forward, kept my voice low. “Yeah, and they’re on foot now. If it was mechanized flight, they’d have remained in the air longer, landed somewhere farther east, and then headed to Portland.”

When I mentioned the place—Portland, Brazley shot me a look so full of fear I felt a wave of heat across my own face. I felt embarrassed for bringing it up, and had to look away. What the fuck did they do to her up there? They had already turned her into a honeypot for monsters and other creatures from the Winterdim, irresistible ground for planting, injecting, laying sheets of eggs. I don’t know anything about how that’s done, but I gathered it’s not an easy process.

We hit the east bank. I set my foot down on the Leaf Father side and had to clamp down a full-body shudder. Then scanned the forest tentatively. He was out there somewhere, and I didn’t know enough about his methods to know what not to do. Did it matter if I sent out my senses, used the trees and entire forests to scan the terrain ahead? Would he be able to feel that? Did I have a choice?

We dragged the boat up the bank, dropped it on dry ground, and immediately jumped on the nearest river following track, heading north.

Andreus brought out his Reed skin scent-o-meter, and got a vague notion of our direction and what was happening in the world.

I couldn’t handle vague.

I tried to weigh the pain of losing Reed against the threat of the Leaf Father, and I found with some surprise that I was just going to have to risk it.

I called for a halt, and pressed my hand to the earth, caught a fan of roots, linked them to the nearest spread of trees, pushed harder to gather more of the flora, a burst of incoming traces hit me when I’d extended out about twenty kilometers.

“They’re on foot. Still. Over twenty klicks that way.” I pointed, looking up at Andreus and Brazley. They just nodded back, exchanged a look.

Then we were off again, running hard, on their trail. Every couple hours my bare feet hit the earth where Reed had passed, my toes and heel falling right over his bootprint. Gave me a bit of a warm feeling. He was alive, well enough to be on his feet.

We ran right down the main streets of dead towns, with the wind etching old paint from the sun bleached walls of an office building, whistling through the broken windows of a home—someone’s long lost home, ragged curtains still fluttering in a few.

Andreus warned me of the small army an hour before we reached it. Or they reached us, stalking south along the same road Reed’s captors were taking north. We met them in a wide stretch of prairie outside another ghost town, a place once called Virden—good name. Actually, I guess it was still called Virden because the sign was still standing.

A hundred prismdead spread out across the field, marching toward us through the high grass, silent monsters from the other world, stalking ours, arms relaxed, swinging up and back as they walked—and these guys walked steadily, confident they’d be gargling our blood in fifteen minutes. A hundred or so of them. Three of us.

“Yeah, I’ll give you something to swallow, you dead fucks.”

My hair was twisting, reeling out a meter every second. A glance to my right showed that Andreus was working something of his own, and I slowed my response to see what he and the girl were up to. I mean, these were their kind of enemies. Andreus kicked into the air, lifting his knees, his hands pressed flat against an invisible barrier at hip height. On my left, Brazley shot out toward the ranks of dead in a sprint, arms out like half-flexed wings, long black hair streaming behind her.

She was running right at them!

Andreus hung in space a moment, and when he hit the earth a band of blurry air fired out from his hands, expanding across the field, mowing the grass level as it went. I made a panicked run for Brazley. She was going to get caught in the air blade’s path, cut in two, but she twisted around as she ran, caught some piece of it, split it in two, and swung it around like swords in each fist.

Then she was into the dead, cutting through them, arms and clawed fingers raining down in her path. Holy Tree, that girl’s trouble.

I just stared. “I knew it the moment I saw her.”

The rest of Andreus’ air blade continued through the ranks and beyond, slowing and drifting away with the breeze as it reached the edge of the wood. I stood there waiting, seconds ticking by, a slow crawl of time as one by one the first rows of prismdead toppled over in two pieces, some of them looking down, a bit confused to see their lower halves not obeying the top anymore.

Dumb-asses.

Brazley was through the group of dead, turning around to face strays and prevent retreat. The rest of the army fell, collapsing ten at a time like a sand cliff crumbling before an angry ocean. A handful had been smart enough to jump in the air, clearing Andreus’ blade, and they were just spinning, trying to reassess the battle plan, and then Brazley swept through, cutting arms, heads, hands off. When her air swords drifted from her fists, she swung up her tacGun and popped single rounds into anyone dead and still standing.

Very scary. I like her.

I managed to catch one dead guy fleeing from the scene, snapped him off his feet with a long curl of vine, let him struggle a few meters off the ground, digging his fingers under several spirals of my green wood and thorns. I smiled at him and yanked it tight, crushing his spine.

I turned to Andreus, gave him a nod, as the three of us regrouped in the clearing’s center. I reeled in my hair, letting a few strands drag in the grass behind me.

“Nice work.” I saved a broad smile for Brazley. “Anyone hungry?” Made a sweeping gesture over the field of bodies. “This is way too big a meal for me alone.”

Andreus frowned at me, tilted his head as if puzzling something out, and came back with his low calm voice. “Explain yourself.”

Brazley walked up quietly, still hunched in stalk and kill mode, stopping next to her teacher to pick wet chunks of dead-mess off her sleeves.

Waiting a few seconds to see if they’d follow me, I walked in a circle, pressing down the grass into a nice seat and clear space. “You guys don’t feed on them?”

“Of course we do.”

“You didn’t think anyone else did?”

They looked at each other, a hint of disgust showing in the twitch at the corners of their mouths. And then in the immense effort it took to reveal a tiny shred of what he was thinking, Andreus lifted one eyebrow. I took it to mean mild curiosity.

I shrugged and sat down, crossed my legs and planted my open hands flat on the ground. Neither of them moved, satisfied to watch me take my fill. To each her own. My fingers dug in, earth slipping up to the knuckles, soft, chewy earth with the taste of ammonia, as if this field had at one time been a garden or farm.

“Ninety-two of them,” I whispered, looking up at my companions. “Last chance to grab a bite. Nah, just kidding. I can only handle eighteen or nineteen of them.”

Andreus shook his head. Brazley appeared to be too curious to show any expression on her face. She stood with her arms folded, looking down at me, and then spun in surprise at the rustle in the surrounding grass.

I had let out my runners, cold silvery threads, tugged at eighteen of the bodies, just about my limit, all mostly intact—and I’m counting one body in two pieces as mostly. Come on, AugustineLet’s bring home the goods.

Andreus and Brazley stood over me, uncomfortable, even looking a little queasy—which I found hard to believe. “What’s up? What do you two do after battle to control waste, take resources, spin down the dead?

Brazley shook her head. “I rarely take anything.” She lifted one finger off her arm to jab it at Andreus.

“And I like them deader. These are a little fresh for my...taste. And I only take the bones.”

“Okay, suit yourself. This will only take a moment.” I closed my eyes, and released my perfume, the sweet dust of destruction and rebirth that knew my arrangement well. It clung to the source bodies I’d marked, and I crawled across the field, mapping them, leaning in to taste each, cut through flesh with my teeth to take samples and inject my ownership and consolidation protocol. It would guide the threads in their fan sweep of the remains.

Then I sat back, cross-legged, and turned it on. My renderer, Augustine was fairly new at this as well. I had to tell him how I liked things stacked, stored, labeled for easy retrieval, but as soon as he was ready, I sent the division and scatter commands down my runners, down the shimmery hoses in the long grass, breaking into a million or more threads at each source, stitching into the organs, bones, piping into fluid systems, draining them into a separator and conversion factory, funneling processed materials to the conveyer system, and then inside me.

In seven and half minutes I was full, wiping the blood and drool off my chin, licking it off my lips.

In eight, we were back in hunt mode, running across the rest of the field and then back under the canopy of leaves, the scent and tree-warnings of another prismdead battle group half a kilometer in front of us.

Brazley ran on my left, Andreus on my right, passing messages with their hand signals.

Andreus waited to get a little closer, and then jumped in the air, using the same air blade attack method in the forest, except it wasn’t just cutting down the dead. It cut through trees, slicing old trunks, wood groaning and thirty meter pines going down in every direction, pale wooden sores opening up, the screech of ripping timber and sap squirting.

“Holy Tree!” I jabbed Andreus in the side, just above the hip bone, fingers sliding into his armor and soft flesh. My other fist came around, took him in the back of the head, hammered him into the ground. He spun onto his back, his hands going to claws, arrays of bone darts popped out of his suit, ready to fire at whatever had surprise-attacked him.

He stared at me for a moment, then focused on my pointing finger.

“Not the TREES! You cut one more down and I’ll cut you into little pieces and sauté you for lunch. Clear?”

He let out a breath, nodded curtly at me, then took my open hand to get to his feet. I gripped his hand tighter, blinked back tears in my eyes.

“Please don’t harm the trees. I’m sorry about hitting you. I didn’t expect your attack to be so...indiscriminate.” I released his hand, and pointed at the earth. “Let me handle these guys when we’re in the woods, okay?”

I dropped to the ground, Andreus standing aside without the least bit of animosity showing, watching as I rammed my hand deeper into the earth, feeling around for the forest’s heart. There it was, warm and slippery in my fingers, waiting for my command. Almost too easy to find, which...was strange. I worked my magic, selling off heartbeats to Augie as easily as breathing, found the right trees, the ones that needed to be involved, and told them what to do. The trees bent, grabbed, stripped the prismdead of flesh and left bones piling up in the leaf rot. Ancient bark curled opened like wounds, the hardwood unraveling, splintering off, throwing long fibers that pinned the dead to the ground. Roots sprang from the earth, lifted the struggling prismdead into the mouths of trees that swallowed them whole, held them in place, buried with their internal functions running while the wasps and groove beetles and wood-boring mites were invited in to spin through softer flesh, plant their larvae that fed and would, over time, make the prismdead sleep forever.

I opened my eyes—hadn’t even remembered closing them, just remembered the hate I’d passed on to the trees and a detailed list of how they were to carry out my commands. Sometime between my orders to map the forest to locate the remaining prismdead and the suggestion that we allow insects to bury their eggs and millions of meal-requiring live young in the dead flesh, Andreus had left me to find Brazley.

The two of them jogged up, talking softly as I was digging deeper into the earth, a new forest heart calling me. Strange. I’d never been in a forest with two. They usually merged...but there were trees—like the Redwoods way out west—who were loners, who didn’t really follow the heart of the rest of the wood.

I heard Andreus asking his student, “Are you well? What happened to the dead?”

Brazley made a gesture behind her, indicating the clearing she’d been sweeping when my commands ran through the forest. “The trees took them. All of them.”

Andreus nodded to me. “Do not harm the trees. We’ll let Thea handle the dead in the woods. We’ll take the ones in the clear.”

Brazley nodded then she stopped suddenly, eyes fixed on me.

Something was wrong. Something hurt. Andreus and Brazley came over, both scowling in response to whatever expression was on my face. Then I was screaming, my arm going numb. Something in the earth had its claws on me, digging into my skin, tugging me to the ground. It dragged me down, my right arm in the ground up to the elbow.

“Help me! It’s the Leaf Father. He has my hand.”

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