Chris Howard



“Where are you two headed?” It was a casual question, like something about the weather, and then then truck driver’s expression went from bored to unconcerned, as if the situation warranted some kind of dialogue and now that the forms had all been met, he could go back to staring at the road and shifting his hands on the steering wheel. He even managed to do that in a creepy slithery way.

Like I’d tell you where we’re going. I smiled, waved vaguely west, through the windshield, and said I had family in—I made up a name, “Rockland or Rockford, something like that.”

“Little Rock?”

I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t think it’s there anymore anyway. Went under with the Mid-Mississip Sphere.”

I looked over to get a good look at the age lines around his eyes and mouth. How old is this guy? He couldn’t be that old, didn’t look much older than my father, who was maybe seventy. I was afraid to dig deeper. Sending out exploratories would give me away.

The Spheres... I didn’t know much about them, like how many there were, how big they were. It’s way before my time. I just knew that that’s where most of the human population went in the Vanishing, tens of millions inside each of them, their own little worlds buried in the earth, core drills to bring up magma for energy, some kind of nano shielding around them. Even the gods can’t touch the Spheres without burning their delicate little fingers. “And they just left us here.” Those were my mother’s words, repeating—it just occurred to me—Andrea Gossi’s words. Reed’s mother had said that to my mother, who liked the phrase for some peculiar reason.

Very few of my mother’s reasons weren’t peculiar.

They just left us here.

How the hell old was Andrea Gossi? She couldn’t have been more than fifty.

Scowling at Reed who sat pressed to the passenger door window, I wondered whose words Andrea was repeating. They couldn’t be her originals. She was just too young to be around when everyone...went away. Almost everyone.

We called them the Wild Children, the humans who stayed behind, and refused to go into the Spheres, refused to leave the real behind.

The driver looked over, took one hand off the wheel to give us an openhanded gesture that he obviously assumed we’d take as some sort of friendly, inviting motion. Keep it on the wheel, buddy.

“I’m Coldur Gregg, master of this freight vehicle, working for OKF up in Portland. I didn’t get your names?”


He read my expression and spelled it for us.

My response came out of my mouth ready. “I’m Wilmy and this is my boyfriend, Matt. We’re from the east, out here looking for our relatives.”

“Wilmy and Matt.” He didn’t look at us, just repeated the names, and then shut up for another couple hours.

It was just past midnight when Coldur pulled over on the outskirts of the crumbling old city that he called “Springfield Ill”. A nearly full moon made more than enough light to get our bearings. We stood at a crossroads. The wide fresh-paved road continued north, nothing but branching broken concrete—old roads—leading east toward the city and west into more trees.

The driver climbed down with us. “Have to check my cargo.”

I slung one arm around Reed’s waist, and we stood at the side of the road, waiting for Coldur to move on. I didn’t want to give him any sense of the direction we were taking.

The trucker popped a row of seals along the doors at the back of the trailer. The hiss of pressure released made us back up a step. Reed looked over at me, and I shrugged. I had no idea what the guy was hauling.

“Sure you don’t need to go any further? I’m headed up to good old OKF. They’d love to have you. I have room back here for a couple more.”

He swung the doors wide dramatically.

The trailer was full of human bodies in racks that ran up the walls. I couldn’t tell if they were frozen or hibernating or fixed in place with adhesive. They weren’t moving. Not enough light to see them breathing, and I couldn’t feel any regular strong heartbeats, just a confused mass of idling rhythms, like fires banked so low it looked like cold gray ash until you stepped in it. There was a narrow aisle between the racks leading deep and dark into the trailer’s interior, and at the open end, facing us, nothing but the tops of victims’ heads and the bottoms of their feet showing clearly in the moonlight.

Coldur Gregg turned and laughed exactly like a guy with a dimrend—a dimensional renderer—made of human corpse parts.

Then he turned into one—a corpse, and he continued laughing, sagging flesh swinging from his jaw like snot, rows of teeth blackened with decay, finger bones clutching and clicking together.

What a dickhead.

He was prismdead, but I hadn’t sensed it the whole time we were in the truck’s cab together. Half a meter away from me—hours in a confined space, and I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t smelled it.

That sent a chill up my arms. It had to have been Reed’s description of the guy’s renderer. It had distracted me.

No, this is more than that.

The prismdead did not have dimensional renderers. It was impossible for them to have them, but that’s what Coldur was. And I felt a shift in the world, a sense of shock rolling like jelly between my ribs and pelvis. First Reed can see renderers with his eyes, and half this world’s powers are out there after him, and now prismdeads can be adapted to support renderers? Suddenly the universe didn’t make any sense.

I caught Reed’s arm and shoved him behind me. Coldur took a step toward us, his murder-plotting smile growing wider—and his dimrend was probably looking to add another couple heads to its belt.

The trucker’s words hit me. Where are you...two headed. Ha. Ha.

I decided to start with a light touch. “So, what are you? I mean, I know you’re prismdead. But you have your own renderer. What else are you?”

The prismdead aren’t dead in our world. They’re here physically, walking and talking to us, but they reflect the tidy descriptions of themselves—or the forms their masters have chosen for them—into our world. It’s like looking through one face of a prism and expecting to see straight through it to the decay—all the human senses are geared for direct perception, but what you’re actually seeing is the mirrored view from a different direction, the view the prism’s owner wants you to see. What’s usually on the other side is dead, it’s just not easy to detect the smell without experience. The truth isn’t lovely in this case, but the reflection may be. Hence the prismdead guy with the nice suit.

Coldur on the other hand, was absolutely fullsewer hideous, and clearly had no intention of apologizing for it. Nor did his not-much-of-a-talker behavior change with his form. He took another quiet menacing step toward us, but he still had his smile, though. Cheery fucking bastard.

My hair was already coiling out, whipping through the sky. I felt a pull from the nearest trees along the road, wanting to help me, branches clawing at the air and the snap and crack of old wood breaking—sadly too far away to be of service to one of their kind. My toes went right through the soles of my shoes, rooting under the asphalt as if it was sand, branching in fives and eights and thirteens, the sequence like a drug in my veins, like clean water and light energy flowing through me.

Coldur moved in, long skeletal arms with showy orange metallic tendons seizing and stretching with his movement. He spread his claws open, and when he folded them in, his fingers curled tight around the handle of an axe, its head a giant forest clearing blade. This guy was already showing me that he was sharper than any prismdead I’d ever come up against.

Not taking any chances, I quickly grew several more arms, threw my main—human—two out like I was being crucified, fists clenched, and I just managed to hold in the scream as six tree branches sprung from my back, tore through my shirt, three on each side, four meters long, bark-armored, ending in my own dangerous looking claws.

I pulled a few back to make a defensive structure around Reed. Then I went to work.

Anchored solidly to the earth, I put some muscle into my first attack, swept one long arm through the space...where Coldur had been. He was far quicker than any prismdead should be, jumping four meters into the air from a standstill. His axe came down through the fourth arm on my right, sheering it off at the middle joint. The blade hit like a hammer and cut roughly, a burst of splintered wood and high-velocity bark chips—and pain like fire down my spine, to the ends of my roots.

The severed part of my arm hit the road, finger branches cracking, oozing sap, and a deep seed hurt in the place where my heart used to be.

My hair, triple coiled and thick around as my forearm, swung in and took Coldur by the throat, lifted him off the ground. But not before he launched into another swing. His axe caught me in the side, halfway up my ribcage, the edge going through my armor into soft flesh with bone splitting momentum behind it; a burn of cold metal through me, my chest cavity caving in, taking a few ribs, muscle and lung tissue with it. There was blood coming up my throat from below, into my mouth, slick and hot around my teeth and tongue. I coughed up more, let it slide past my lips, off my chin.

My eyes stung with a cold wind, and I closed them. My mother’s stern warning screamed in my head—when I was eight, her fingers like delicate twigs on the back of my neck. Nothing worse than a trunk cut. I had felt fear growing up, often enough to be able to hold it at arm’s length, study it for what it was, and deal with it. I had never in my life felt that I was about to die. Didn’t even realize I could die.

Until now.

Reed Gossi—Leaf Father love him—came to my rescue. He repeated the strategy that had worked well against Folesh’s prismdead and lowers several days back. He came through my branches like a raging bear, hunched low, sharp blades bristling in his fists. Growling threats and pain the whole time, he cut into Coldur’s swinging legs, another slice across the middle, with gray-brown blood spewing from the wounds.

Coldur untangled my failing vines, scrambled back from the battle, and then bolted for his truck. The axe clattered to the street, and Reed was a step behind him, blades raised for the kill, roaring incoherently.

And then reality or the smell of my blood seized him. He froze, a shudder of horror visible up his legs, a jolt through his spine, snapping his shoulders up and broad. He turned back with death on his face, apparently forgetting all about Coldur, and then ran back to me, putting away all his killer’s tools.

Apparently, I was more important to him.

Trailer doors still open and swinging, the truck took off, stuttered a little at first, and then rocketed north along the road, weaving wildly. It vanished around a bend a moment later.

I pulled up roots, drew in my arms and hair, my whole body doing a sapling-sway in the soft breeze before collapsing into Reed’s arms. He carried me down the far side, into the forest, and I threw up blood all over him.

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