Chris Howard



Helodes broke up the strain with a clap and a smile.

Andreus seemed about as happy joining Reed and I as we were to have him in our “club”, and when I say “we” I mean “I” because I think Reed was at least a little intrigued by our weirdish dead-tracking new ally with the crazy hat and goggles apparatus.

Helodes put one hand on my shoulder, rested her other on Andreus’ to steer us back along the path through the woods, toward the giant oak cathedral my mother had grown so long ago.

“What’s up with you Reed Gossi?” Helodes kept her focus on Reed, nodded to urge him to reply before I would jump in and tell only half the story.

Reed glanced at me, and turned back to Helodes, saying respectfully, “I have an unusual ability.”

Helodes laughed, then cut it short and said seriously, “Half this world wouldn’t be after you if you didn’t.”

Reed lifted his shoulders, pulled in a breath, and just said it. “I can see things from the Winterdim that are in our world.” He nodded at me, maybe for approval. I couldn’t really tell. “And we think I have half of something from the Winterdim buried inside me.”

Helodes stopped. Andreus followed. Reed and I took two more steps before turning around.

“It’s true.” I didn’t see the doubt in their eyes, more like interest, a hint of possessiveness—as in, what could I do with half a Winterdim being?

Helodes continued to stare at Reed, whispering to me, “You said he could see them when you told your story, and I let it go by, figuring it would come up later.”

I let my fingers uncurl, an offering gesture. Let’s see if Helodes bites, and what she can tell us. “And later’s now.”

Andreus had side-stepped behind Reed, studying him, the whole time fiddling with his headgear, probably tempted to slide it on and look at him with another set of tools. Instead, he closed his eyes, scrunching up his nose as if he smelled something foul. “I can taste something strong from the Winterdim here.” He paused, licking his lips. “But it’s much more than Reed and what he can carry or contain.”

I circled behind Helodes, putting ten paces between my position and Reed’s. Andreus spun, opening his eyes, hands coming up in fists. He’d just started calling his defenses, when he focused on me. He looked jumpy, startled by something more than just my dimensional renderer.

He didn’t sound startled at all, calmly looking at me, then Reed, and then back at me. The same low steady voice. “You, too?”

I nodded. “I was wondering if you’d detect more than Shirley.”

“I do detect something.” He looked confused for a moment. “There’s something more about you. Your renderer’s named Shirley?” Andreus even smiled. I liked that.

“Had her since I was a baby.”

Helodes folded her arms, which meant serious business for her. “Mind telling me what you think’s going on? Archippa wasn’t the only witch who heard your mother’s message, Thea. Kraneia broadcasted it over the world. But it was fuzzy, and she was rushed, sounded like she was in trouble, and the way it cut off before she could finish.” She frowned. “That’s... alarming.”

A weight dropped into my stomach. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the possibility of my mother being in trouble. It didn’t sound real, like the sun coming up purple or people living in those giant buildings in fabled Manhattan—and walking around with burning sticks in their mouths, breathing in the smoke.

Right. Who makes this shit up?

No news from my father was also alarming. Sure, he’d met everyone over the years, including the Leaf Father at some point, but he was defenseless, nothing he could do but run if confronted by one or more of the Great Powers. I really needed to ask the Sea—next time she intruded—what she was talking about when she said “loved one”.

And what would my mother do? Defend him, give him the keys to the world and then stand in front of him, and die shielding him from harm. No, no one can stand before the Leaf Father. But she’d have thought of a way out. She would have had allies and safe places arranged. Something. She could turn father into a thousand pieces and blow them into the wind like a dandelion’s seed sphere, with clues and rules for reassembling when the seasons were right again and everything had settled down.

That’s what I’d do.

My own voice came out soft as a dandelion pod. “I think she planted something in me, too.”

“The other half of the Winterdim spy?”

I turned to Reed. “Yeah. She really called you a spy? Isn’t a word I’ve heard her use often—not that that means anything.”

He thought about it a moment, and then shrugged. “I’d always thought she’d called me a spy, but I was nine, looking for the beautiful singer in the woods, and when I found her... I didn’t know there was anything else in the clearing with us. Never really doubted it was me she referred to, but what could I be spying on?”

“Perhaps it was the other trespasser in her forest clearing that was the spy? Not you.” Helodes rose off her feet, floating half a meter off the ground, closed her eyes, lifted her face to the sky, a gentle smile forming on her lips.

Andreus noticed our interest. “It’s something she does when she’s thinking. Makes her feel as if she’s in the river.”

Reed joined me on my side of the path, slipping a hand along my arm. He felt warmer than normal, a tingling coming through his fingertips into my skin. “It makes sense.”

I was looking up at our host drifting in the breeze. “You’re thinking of answers to some questions this raises, Helodes?”

“I am. The most important questions are who was it spying for and for what purpose?”

Reed frowned. “Archippa said Thea’s uncle let the thing into our world, opened a door. I think the real problem is that we’re unclear on what exactly it is. And my first thought was that it came here without a purpose. Would Kraneia call anything entering our world or her clearing uninvited a spy?”

I shrugged at the sudden attention. “Don’t look at me. I know more about what’s going on in Andreus’ mind here than I do my own mother’s. Makes perfect sense what you’re saying, but my mother and sense have a messy association on good days.”

Helodes dropped back to earth, opening her eyes. “These are good assumptions, though. We should go with them for now.”

“Helodes?” Andreus was sliding his goggles on, spinning to the dark woods, his fingers working adjustments or sense modes at his temples. “Why did you send away everyone from the bonfire?”

“I trust some of the witches around here about as far as I can throw them—underwater.” Helodes said it simply. “Not with something this big.”

Andreus clawed the air, caught something, plucking his fingers as if finding invisible strings to a puppet, and arranging it to move. He worked the air in gentle pulling gestures, and drew someone out of the woods.

A young woman dropped from a fan of low branches in an old pine, long black hair, cut straight just above her eyebrows, most of it falling down her back, past her waist, with two separate strands tangled around her throat and arms. She was dressed similarly to Andreus, all in gray and purple camo, tight pants, a long top of armorcloth plates. She didn’t have goggles, but had permaplants for her eyes, matte back ellipses.

She straightened up, but it wasn’t a movement she made on her own. She jumped and sagged, drunk walking toward us, the strain of fighting someone else’s control obvious in a sharp show of her teeth, the jerk of her shoulders at wrong angles, trying to twist her body out of Andreus’ grip.

She walked toward us, made a high pitched piping noise, then a long choppy intake of breath. She was close enough now that I could clearly see the fear on her face. Two tiny black tubes extended from the inner edges of her eyeware, and tears dribbled down her cheeks.

Helodes didn’t look angry at all, nothing to be afraid of. She even smiled a little. “Brazley? What are you doing in the dark in the woods? Working for your mom or dad?”

Brazley nodded jerkily. “My dad, my lady. Mom said it was too dangerous.”

“Your dad’s a dolt.” Helodes lifted a finger and Andreus jumped at the command, setting Brazley free.

“Come here, child.”

I backed away, grabbing Reed’s wrist to push him behind me, my hair winding up anxiously at my shoulders. He didn’t have to ask. I did. “I feel it, but what do you see?”

Chills running up Reed’s arms. “They’re all over her. Four, five...nine renderers, two of them so... inside her, their shoulders and the backs of their necks visible like ridging up her spine, other things like horns jutting out at her neck, the rest of the renderer bodies are completely buried in her skin. There are swellings on her legs. What are... are those eggs?

“Holy Tree, she’s a SeedCatch.” My fingers digging harder into Reed’s arm. He didn’t seem to feel it, caught so thoroughly by the sight of something so strange.

He took a step closer to Brazley “Wait. There’s far more than nine. Those are just the big ones. There are really too many to count. Tiny dimrends crawling all over her, some stacked up in long strings, individual animals but articulated, kind of like centipedes made up of a hundred holding each other. One is living in her right ear. The larger renderer embedded in the skin along her spine is looking at me.”

Helodes locked eyes with Brazley, but spoke to the rest of us. “Her biologic mother and father lost her to child-thieves soon after she was born, and the ’nappers sold her to OKF when she was an infant. She grew up there, not a person, but a subject. OKF says today’s Seed Catches don’t suffer much at all. Brazley is one of the originals.”

Andreus added, “She’s just one of many breeding experiments at OKF, to attract things from the Winterdim into our world to breed—in return for slavery and experimentation of a rendered parent.”

Reed was still enthralled by the rends crawling all over her, and apparently didn’t see the obvious issue. I wasn’t about to keep quiet. “Why’s she dressed like you, Andreus? And what’s with the eyeplants?”

He came back with the same low voice. “Works both ways. They take from her—the renderers—always have. But they can’t kill her, and what life she has to herself, she can use with their strength, their powers, their sight. OKF took her eyes when she was three years old... I think the renderers had started laying eggs inside them—presumably to use them to see into our world. Her adopted parents—” He seemed to be careful about mentioning their exact relationship to Brazley. “—haven’t been kind. They use her to collect intelligence, gossip, any information that can be used for advantage, revenue opportunities, social leverage. They paid for eye replacements—very high end set, and they took her in, fed her, gave her a home after they found her drifting with the garbage down the Mississippi—and that’s after she scaled the fence of the OKF facility blind and ran with the river south.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Andreus gave me a measured look. “Brazley is my student.” He pointed a pale finger at her. “Who should know better than to attempt to spy on her teacher, and shouldn’t have even bothered with my mother present.”

Helodes released Brazley—it hadn’t been clear that she was being held until she sagged with a long breath under the new freedom, then bent to grab her knees for more huffing and blowing, eyeing all of us suspiciously. Brazley’s hair hung nearly to her ankles, and I wondered if she could control it, braid it at will. She looked beaten, but managed a quick grin at Andreus. “Should have gone back to my dad with lies.”

He nodded back, playing the disappointed instructor, but there was softness under the stern shell. The teacher cared for his student. I looked at Reed to see if he’d caught any of that. Nope. He was still studying something at the nape of Brazley’s neck, and probably still counting newborn renderers.

I elbowed him, slid my fingers down to grab his hand. There was a click. I heard it in my head, and I felt Shirley digging in for a long fight. I’d made a connection with Reed, something strong that fought the twist of my arm, the flex of my fingers to break it—strong enough that I’d break Reed’s fingers disconnecting.

The thing inside me had found its other half, its mate, something that belonged together.

Reed turned, horror in his face sucking the courage out of him, and he screamed—and I mean like a girl, shrieking and clawing at the space in front of him, releasing my hand and tossing me a meter in the air. Wind whipping in my ears. I caught a handful of raindrops through the trees on my face, one landing in my jacked open mouth. My feet swung over my head, and my hair sprang into motion, unwinding, braiding thick and spreading into spokes to catch my fall, slowing me to a smooth cartwheel to the forest floor. I landed on my feet, body bending with the momentum. I ended up dancing a few paces away, roots playing out in my shoes, hands up and fingers hooked, readying for battle.

It wasn’t what I thought it was—or there were two things happening at once. I focused on the more pressing one. Reed was in trouble, something from the girl Brazley was after him.

Reed scraped at his legs, nails scratching madly at the material as he hopped backward, one hand coming up to swing defensively against something that I could feel in the air, but couldn’t see.

“What does it want?”

Andreus jumped in, grabbed Brazley, and yanked her off her feet as Helodes stepped in, took hold of something hovering over Reed, and wrestled it into submission. “There, there. He’s not going to let you unless you ask nicely.”

Still not answering, Reed crab-walked backward, kicking up dead leaves and black soil.

Helodes continued to struggle with the renderer. “It’s not your home, love, just feels and tastes like it, doesn’t it?” Her voice flowed through the air, soothing, almost made my mouth water. “So close to home, but it’s not really here. You have to trust me.” I slipped across the forest path, giving Helodes a wide space, and crouched next to Reed, reached out, but didn’t touch him. Looking up at Helodes, I asked, “What does it want?”

The witch made a smooth spinning motion, bringing her body around, still holding something invisible to my eyes, something about the size of my backpack. That would make it a decent-sized dimensional renderer. “He’s ready to leave the Catch”—she jerked her head over her shoulder to Brazley—“for a permanent home. He wants to bond with Reed, become his renderer. And he’s asking very nicely.”

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