Chris Howard



Reed ran with me in a gloom, a deep forest silence on his shoulders. His sorrow created a deeper shade than the things in the starlight around him, and all I could do was guide him away from his home, the only rooms and open grass spaces he’d ever known. There was no going back—not for a long while—with the kinds of things chasing us.

The questions about motives hung around my neck, and after a couple kilometers into the Long Wild, they were slipping down to my ankles, tiring me when I should have just been running.

Reed said he used to be able to see them... with his eyes closed.

Used to...

Then why would anyone want him? Why bother? He didn’t have the ties anymore, or the perch for the faceless little demons and dimensional renderers. He had no way to know they were there, no way to tap their power. Used to be able to see them meant he used to have it, and now he didn’t. He knew they existed—that there were other things with us in this world. Maybe he even had the power to merge with them at some point, but had lost it?

I took Reed’s hand and lifted him to his feet. “Come on. We can’t stay for long.”

He pulled back, breaking the grip on my fingers.

“What happened to my mother?” Reed bent over his knees, clutching at them as he tried to catch his breath.

I put one hand on his shoulder, trying to sooth him. “Welcome to my dead alive world, Reed. Nothing goes to waste. What grows up must...”

The words dried up in my mouth. I spun in the dead leaves, all my close prox senses going off bright and glaring. There was a quick flash of something human-shaped beside me, one of the Smokes coming into existence

Reed pointing, jabbing his finger into the air a meter to my right. “They’re right there!”

I jumped into a toe spring, shooting forward in a dive and roll, uncurling upright, spinning with a bounce and standing on the other side of the glade, Reed’s back to me now. There were a couple of them there before me.

I leaned away from a swing of something thin and bladed next to my face; a hiss of air and then blood was sliding into my mouth, warm and metallic.

“Thea!” Reed moved in a halo, his arms waving, fingers pointing. “Two of them, either side of you. One has a knife!”

I dropped on my butt, somersaulting backward, my fingernails going long and stringy. They whipped around my head, coiling up the legs of the two Smokes beside me, holding them in their corporeal forms. I pulled them in, ignoring the one with the knife for the moment because he was busy trying to cut his own legs off to get away from me. I fingered up a dusty phytotoxin that looked like a sphere of silver mist, and probably just ran up another 100K heartbeat debt for me.

There was a burning at the corners of my mouth. The poison went to work on their lungs, instant bronchial swelling. They sagged in my nail vines, and the knife pitching forward from the Smoke’s limp fingers, heavy grip giving it another cycle of momentum. The sharp tip slid through my skirt, deep into my thigh. I bit down on the scream, looking over my shoulder at Reed just standing there at the edge of the glade.

“Why aren’t they going after you?”

“They can’t see me. I can make myself...” He shrugged. “Not visible to them if I concentrate on it.”

I choked on a little of my own poison, coughed out the words, “Holy Tree! You can see them...” And then it hit me hard, what Reed had really meant by used to be able to see them. “Reed, you can see them with your eyes open? You see what they look like?”

That’s an entirely different dimensional render problem. I didn’t know it was even possible. It’s not like they’re from this world. Some of them don’t even know we exist—can’t even see us.

Reed darted one way, waving a broken tree branch behind him, and one of the remaining Smokes went visible, clawed hands ripping through leaves and stems. Reed let it go, made a face to show that that had been too close.

He moved quietly to one side of the clearing and whispered, “I’ve always been able to see them with my eyes closed, just not distinct, shadows through my eyelids. A couple days ago, I opened my eyes and they were everywhere, following people on the street, sitting on a girl’s shoulder outside the Shoe Barn, gliding from the trees.” He slowed down, his knees wobbling, tears running down his cheeks. “Killing my mother.”

With that last line—words dropping to below a whisper—he became something else, something angry. Something not Reed Gossi.

I rolled over the two dead Smokes, uncoiling my vines, and brought them around like whips.

“Where are they, Reed? Stay with me. Point them out, and I’ll take care of them.”

He hunched his back, ignoring me, his shaking hands curling into fists. He looked savagely at a point in the air three meters to my left and about as many off the ground.

“How many, Reed? Don’t attack them.”

I was on my feet, all my weight on my left leg.

“Let me do it.”

There were two Smokes left. Reed caught one, just snapped it out of thin air by the throat, his fingers digging in for a solid crushing hold. The thing clawed up Reed’s arms, face, tore a long strip of cotton from the front of his shirt. Then it died, never really becoming visible.

The final Smoke howled in frustration, giving away its location to me. I swung my vines, caught something, maybe enough to trip him, but nothing more.

It fled. Reed started after it in a rage, and I had to put him down, snatched up his pants legs and tipped him face first into the dead leaf matt of the forest.

He came up spitting, turning his anger and fists on me. I pulled in all my vines, holding up my open hands. That didn’t stop Reed Gossi. Something else did. Something else in the woods with us had caught the last Smoke and was snapping bones and draining the life out of the Rootworld creature. The Smoke was squealing and choking and making a mess of its final living seconds. Seconds.

That’s all the time we had.

I grabbed Reed’s hand and ran, limping, blood running slippery into my shoe.

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