Chris Howard



Reed glanced over his shoulder, scratched his arm, red with mosquito bites. “Where do you think we’re going?”

Wherever the damn boat takes us. “To see another river witch—that’s what I had planned anyway. This one—her name’s Helodes—has a lot more power than Archippa.” I kept my tone firm as if I had some power over our direction, but I was really just waving with it, assuming Archippa knew who would be my choice up the chain from her. And the boat seemed to know where to go, riding the currents down the old Illinois River, Archippa’s head—what was left of it—keeping me company in the stern.

Reed sat with his back to me, facing the bow, the remaining oar across his knees like a weapon. The breeze—autumn-promise cool—ruffled his hair, which was getting a bit long. He’d always been rather neat cut. No one would recognize him now, his dark hair long enough to curl at the ends. He’d shaved at Archippa’s camp, but he was already getting a little rough. He looked much better in the new clothes Archippa had made for him, too. The jacket and travel pants fit well, and had some subtle camo patterning function built into them. I hadn’t noticed it under the tree shade—they just looked dark, but under an open sky in the river’s center, they took on shifting pale gray and blue tones, Archippa’s love of her river coming out in everything she did.

“Very nice work.” I patted the top of Archippa’s skull, and burned bits of hair came off in my palm. I absorbed them.

Reed started to turn around at the sound of my voice, and then thought better of it.

I smiled at his back, leaned against the portside rail, let my fingers drift in the river, drawing some of it inside me. I loved the feel of the water’s tug on my skin, and for the first time in weeks, I voluntarily relaxed, watching for movement in the shoreline trees and marsh grass beds—not looking for trouble, but for wildlife—lone fish-stalking herons, a thousand-wing cloud of Snow Geese that rose from the west bank and wheeled north, crow families eyeing us quietly from distant trees, sleek black smears with sharp beaks, blending in the branches. I nodded back at them, told them I loved them. One of them squawked at me, a little sadly.

“Yes, the forest has changed.” The Leaf Father is now my enemy.

I leaned almost all my weight against the rail, closed my eyes, letting the water slide by, checking on Reed every half an hour. We swung around a few bends in the flow, the boat keeping to the middle, even when rivulets branched off to run parallel with us, and from our low vantage, doubling the width of the Illinois.

Reed pointed ahead and a little to the west. “That’s the confluence. We’re almost there, Thea.” He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes dropping to see if Archippa’s skull still rested on the bench next to me. It did—even appeared to be smiling a bit, and he quickly looked away.

The sky was clouding over when we met the Mississippi River, darker deeper water with roaring currents, three flows of it, each of them the width of our flow of water, the strong river running wild over the land splitting islands and winding together like some god’s massive unraveling and raveling fluid stretch of rope.

“A heavy storm line to the northwest coming our way.” Reed pointing.

I gave Archippa another soft thanks, this time for the poncho in my backpack. Scanning the clouds bearing down on us, I was going to need it. I sighed loud enough for Reed to hear over the rushing water and jammed the witch’s skull inside my backpack.

Sitting up straight on the bench, I suddenly wondered what was going to happen once the Illinois—Archippa’s river—dumped us into the Mississippi, someone else’s river. The boat clearly knew where to go, followed some course set by the witch in advance, and her river clearly cooperated with her. I half expected to be shoved to the bank for some sort of payment before the Mississippi took over ownership of a mere tributary’s watercraft.

It didn’t happen. We kept to the middle, sliding along at the same pace. The scenery changed a bit. Children jumped from a pier into the green water far off on our right. None of them waved, but a couple of them stood guard atop rotting pilings, arms folded, fixing their gazes on us suspiciously.

We passed small settlements along both sides of the river, most of them just clusters of huts and out buildings around some concrete structure from the past. One village looked like it started out life as a vast riverside neoclassical mansion—rows of dirty white columns holding up a frescoed facade—that over time had oozed low gray tubular structures up the hill behind it, into the surrounding forest, and down to meet the river’s edge.

Swinging around another bend in the Mississippi, the remnants of an ancient power plant—probably old at the time of the Vanishing—loomed on our right, giant walls and bunkers, bird shit and the crumbling spires of cooling towers, all of it decorated with tangles of chainlink and barbed wire wreaths, some catastrophic—probably historic—Mississippi flood’s leavings.

There were boats out on the river with us now, all of them turning out of our way. They looked like regular river traffic, small cargo flats and stubby nuke-tugs pulling barges of chained-down mining equipment—tracked drilling devices and haulers—and mounds of what looked like potatoes. Everyone avoided us.

Maybe they knew what a witch’s boat looked like?

We passed the remains of a once vast city, now just rows of crumbling brick and broken windows and what looked like giant gates—two twisted pieces of metal jutting into the sky. No idea what the place had been called once upon a time. The city still had a few citizens, some of them boating or watching us from the bank, and the first friendly people we’d met so far: a mother and her child waved to us, and we waved back, a nice touch of human in the world long ago lost to them—or given up by them.

Reed looked back at me, then swiveled to plant his shoes on either side of the fore bench, his back to the portside. He noticed the apparent skull-lessness in my half of the boat, and conceded. “We’re not going to stop?”

“I’m thinking Archippa had destination plans for us—and her boat. Let’s ride it out a few more hours, see what she’s up to.” I patted the bench next to me. “We haven’t yet passed the Rennonvorah, where we’ll meet up with an older witch I know.” Reed nodded. “Helodes.” He’d been listening. “Archippa said something about a son? Andreus or something like that?”

“Never met him.”

We slipped by in the Mississippi’s grip, under a dead witch’s control, apparently with plans for us further down the flow. So far, it was all still going according to my own plans, so I wasn’t about skip overboard.

Ten klicks south of the friendly old city with the broken metal gateposts, the forest and grassbeds had reclaimed everything along the banks, trees leaning out over the water, bending sunward as if caught and frozen mid-fall, and all around us I felt the coming autumn, the cold curl of leaves, the fade in once bold green.

We landed just before sunset, just ahead of the storm, the boat sliding evenly from the central channel and making a slow angling run for the shore where a man in a green shaggy overcoat greeted us at the landing. He looked at us with some kind of scanning gear, wrinkly pale green and flexible like leaves of cabbage pasted to one side of his face, then spent another thirty studying the boat.

He dropped his defensive stance and waved us over.

“Friends of Archippa, welcome to the Rennonvorah.”

Reed nodded, watching me for cues.

I nodded at the shaggy-coated man. “Good to be here.”  Friend? That remains to be seen.

Then I waved Reed ahead of me up a path of perfectly set octagonal brown stones, smooth and easy on walking feet and boat-sore muscles, and I followed with my backpack slung over one shoulder, full of my second clothing set, my new poncho, and one charred witch’s skull.

There was a perfume in the air, sweet like dogwood blossoms. Smelled like home, like a lure someone had set out for me, not to trap me, just a line to follow to the source—a line someone wanted me to catch, but that wouldn’t be noticed by anyone else.

“This way.” I pointed through the woods, the stone path branching with one way leading south and curving back toward the Mississippi. The other angled right a bit and headed into a thick linked arch of vines, a tunnel that led into a cathedral of oaks, thirty meter pillars of ancient trees with branches crossing the sky, joining in an even row of points down the center of the wide vaulted space.

Reed looked up, mouth hanging open, following the lines of branches, symmetric angles and clusters of leaves, boughs thick as his forearm, from four different trees, meeting in the center, handshaked, beautiful sequences of limb knots, an artist’s work.

I just glanced up to see that I was in the right place. I’d dreamt of these joined oaks since I was a little girl. “My mother made this a long time ago, a gift for the one we’re seeking here.”

“Is she stronger than Archippa?”

“Much older and stronger, with memories in her head of the world before the Vanishing, when humans filled every open space on the earth.” Reed paused, then jogged to catch up and keep pace with me. “You say ‘humans’ as if you don’t count yourself at all among us.” I glanced back to see if he was joking. Nope. “Nor should you, Mr. Winterdim.”

“Not even a little?”

“Technically I’m half, but I’ve never known the human side—except in my looks.” I felt the smirk, not sure how much of it showed on my mouth. “It’s fun to pretend sometimes. I used to do it more back in college, trying to fit in with the others, going to parties, meeting students at the coffee shop, and taking in what they thought of their world. It got boring. And if you asked them if they wanted to go for a run in the woods in the middle of the night they’d look at you funny.”

“I would, too.” Reed looked up as we reached the far end of the oak cathedral, passing through a beam of sunset orange glow through the clouds just before it faded into dark.

Then I followed him, listening to the patter of rain on the leaves, the start of the storm we’d seen on our boat ride.

“Your mother really built this?”

I spun in place, neck arched back to take it all in one more time. “Created. Told the trees how to grow, how to turn, where to branch, where not to.”

“Beautiful.” Reed took my hand, gentle fingers sliding with mine.

And I let him.

We stood there, side by side for a few minutes, before the lure of the marker scent reminded me, and I led Reed through the tunnel opening. We emerged along the main street of a village, rows of cottages, houses in the trees, a range of tech going, short beam lighting, high powered ambients that made one house and surrounding foliage glow blue, next to a cottage with real oil lamps hanging from cord strung between posts.

Reed and I stood out, obvious outsiders strolling through their little community, but we weren’t met with anything more problematic than staring. So I stared back, widened my eyes, made goofy faces, the whole time keeping my nose on the scent.

It led us through one side of the village and out the other, down a winding deer path that swung back toward the Mississippi.

“Noise up ahead.” Reed pointed through the trees silhouetted against a raging bonfire. The canopy of trees was so tight it hardly let any of the rain through.

I lost the trace at the edge of the clearing, lost it in the stink of burning wood. Annoyed at being led this far and so cleverly to find out it’s just a bunch of crones laughing at ancient news, singing ancient songs, and rocking like fire dancers around...a giant waste of energy.

I tugged Reed hard through the shadows, into the hot light, and swallowed the heave of fear so much fire in one place stirred in me.

Get it under control. “Come on. Want you to meet the big badass witch around here. Pretty sure she’s this way.” I looked around.

“Who is it? Helodes?”

“Who is she.” A brush of cold across my skin, little hairs going erect. “She has to be here.”

Who else would have set a lure of Dogwood blossoms?

“She’s been around a long time, knows a lot, has to be a hundred and eighty or so.”

The sound died as we approached the ring of kindling-holders around the fire. The rocking field of stokers turned and parted for us, all shadows and twigs and feather curls of smoke in black smudged white cloaks.

Then I felt her gaze, a woman with long black hair across the fire, staring at me right through the fierce light. I forced a smile and gripped Reed’s hand. “There she is.”

“She doesn’t look that old.” I caught Reed’s glance in my peripherals. “You sure she’s a hundred and eighty?”

“Also said she’s a witch, or a naiad, or both.”

I smiled and the woman—who didn’t look anywhere near one-eighty—gave me one right back, perfect teeth, the lower row sharpened to points. She made some hand signals to the much older looking women gathered around her, telling them to remain seated. Then she stood and shadowed her way right through the flames, stepping over the bonfire’s mantle of ash and crumbled black discards from yesterday’s fire to emerge on our side.

I bowed, tugging Reed down with me. “Holy mother, may the current run swift, the boughs shade the banks, the sun bright in the sky—”

“Oh, don’t be so damned formal, Theodora Viran.” She squinted one eye, looking over Reed like an antiques dealer eyeing something unexpected at a yard sale. Then back to me, adding an intrigued smile. “Who’s this?”

“My friend, Reed Gossi.” Did I just say friend?

She held out her hand to shake his, her fingers snapping him up, not letting go. “I am Helodes, Reed Gossi who is a friend of Thea. You have just spent a good deal of time in a boat on my river. What brings you this far from your home—and you certainly are far from home, aren’t you?”

Helodes glanced at me, but spent another minute studying Reed before letting him go, releasing her grip on his hand.

Reed looked over with a you want to take this? look.

I bowed my head again. “I have some bad news, Helodes.”

“Has Archippa sent me a message?”

“You could say that.” I unslung my backpack and pulled out Archippa’s skull.

The singing and laughter died, and left the bold fire to fill my ears with its roar, sent the burn of fear down my throat.

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