Chris Howard



Pine needles under my feet and I knew we were home. Pine needles and the heat. I was already sweating and I shed my winterwear, stripped to my bra, bare feet, kept my pants on, and wadded everything else up in the pack.

Reed and I came through holding hands, but I immediately spun to run through a roll call for the invisibles. I felt Shirley with me, and Augie was here.

Squeezing Reed’s hand, “You got your three Lazaros—even the jellyfish twins?”

“All present and accounted for.”

I looked up at the bright sky through the puffy silhouettes of pines, spinning, wheeling Reed into an orbit with me. “So, where the hell are we?” I tasted the air. “No season change. It’s like we haven’t been gone more than a week.”

And Reed came right out with my worry. “Which side of the Mississippi?”

Shirley suggested some ground sensing, and I went with it, released Reed and went to my knees, dropping to press my hands through the pine needle matting, into the wet under-rot, into the soil. A centipede crawled over my hand, tickling. Gods, they’re so cute.

And there it was, the heart of this forest of pine and hickory and river birch. They welcomed my matronage, they told me their place in the world, and I teased out some gifts for them, a flow of some of the last of the materials from the dead Andreus and Brazley and I had shut down outside that town called Virden. Also bit my tongue and let some of my blood dribble between my fingers into the dirt. “Thank you, my loves.”

I released the forest’s heart, and stood, wiping my hands together.

“Okay, we’re good. West of the river.” Pointing southeast, I clapped Reed on the shoulder. “Let’s move. About eight kilometers that way.”

We jogged and discussed possible methods for connecting Shirley to some physical manifestation that would allow her to operate on her own in this or the Rootworld. After weeks of having her around for real, I really missed her.

I’m not sure how Reed worked it, but the Lazaros—our group name for the three rends from Lazaro—opened up to him, told him things I’d have never guessed. One revelation stood out, and just as I missed the real Shirley being with me, I also missed Andreus—he just knew so much about weird stuff. Lazaro apparently wasn’t prismdead, but alive, living copies in both the Dawn and Rootworlds.

Elbowed Reed. “One guess at what Coldur Greg is.”

He nodded, didn’t need to answer. He had questions of his own. “What does it mean, ‘living copies’?”

“Never heard of it working like that—or what I think that means. We should really ask Braze, but this is what I know—got this a long time ago from my Uncle Theo. Here’s the way he put it: there’s an infinite number of prismatic views between the worlds, and they’re pentagonal. A prism with five sides can transmit complete copies through a right angle without distortion or inversion—without affecting the transmitted form’s handedness like a triangular prism or mirror does. What we see is an exact copy of the thing, with whatever mods and clothes the controller has the power to implement and buy.”

“Is it really in this world at all then?

“With prismdead, the thing’s not living in any world anymore, but it can be raised in the Rootworld, transmitted through the prism, and with some manipulation, can walk and talk and act in this world—and if it’s real enough they can even wear living skin and nice clothes. What they can’t do is host a being from the Winterdim, like Shirley, Augie, or your three Lazaros. Only something that’s alive can.”

“That’s where the prism-alive thing comes in?”

I shook my head. “No idea. We can ask Brazley. Or my uncle.” I gestured south. “Next thing I need to do is find that river in Florida, and get my Uncle Theodore away from this Orphne death bitch.”

“Who seems to have taken a liking to him.”

I elbowed Reed again, tried to sound disappointed. “He’s just playing the game.” That’s what I said, but I didn’t want to look too clearly down that road. Not yet. I kept my mouth shut the rest of the way to the Rennonvorah.

* * *

Brazley was waiting for us at the edge of Helodes’ vegetable fields, and the old river witch was coming up the path twenty steps behind her.

She looked different, definitely tanner and still dressing like a proper gardener, but there was something else.

“Are you well, Reed? What was another world like, Thea?”

She held out her hand, and I took it, squeezed and let go.

Reed opened his arms, managed to get in a quick, “Yup, I’m fine.”

Then I started in. “The usual. You know. Oppressive regime, starving populace, fucking politics, restricted royal citrus orchards, and Reed and I stirred up some real shit, then left this guy Azhelros to deal with it for a while.” Which reminded me. “Hey, when is your—

Her eyes were different, not the matte lack convex staring back at me.

Brazley held up a hand, spread a thumb and finger under her eyes. “Carlos reconfigured my eyeplants while you were away. He gave me the iris color I’ve always wanted. And they move like real eyes, see?”

“Irises like amber.” I leaned in to get a better look, and she obliged with an upward glance that she held still. “I love them.”

Reed nodded. “Beautiful.”

Putting a hand on her shoulder, I had to get something rolling because it would require planning. “When’s your birthday, Braze?”

She dropped her gaze to mine, shook her head. “I don’t have one.”

“Pretty sure that’s just an oversight. What’s today?”

Helodes looked up at the sky for a second, then said, “October the third.”

I settled it right then. “Okay, tomorrow’s your birthday. We’re going to have a little celebration.” Exchanged a look with Helodes, and she had that scheming witch smile that was poisonously sinister if she wasn’t on your side, but world-changingly sweet and delicious if she was.

Of course Helodes had bakery connections.

Something good was going to happen tomorrow. I’d already worked a deal with the orange cutter in the Winterdim for a pair of his razor-edged pink knives—complete with a fancy carved clamshell case made of some light stone from the Winterdim.

I looked around. “Where’s Fritz? Carlos?”

Helodes gestured back the way they’d come. “I sent them to the river to drive in the marshrunners.” Complete expression shift, the worry held off until now, and it surfaced with full force. “I thought you’d be back soon. Didn’t want your swiftest means of running where you wouldn’t be able to reach them.” She tried to smile, and only revealed that it took some effort. “Let’s keep them nearby. Just in case.”

“In case what? Where’s the Leaf Father? Still camped out on the east side?”

“Yeah, he lost you—lost interest for a day or so as we suspected he might, got a bit restless, went south to the Gulf, and then came right back, and he hasn’t moved. Waiting for you to get back.”

Shit. I folded my arms, blew out a breath and locked eyes with the old witch. She looked tired. “It’s your call, Helodes. I’ve brought enough trouble to your doorstep—and you’ve done so much for me already. If you want me out of here, tell me.”

She cocked her head. I heard it, too. Brazley turned around, nodding before either of us. The marshrunners thundered through the trees at the far end of Helodes’ fields, swung into single file up the path and stopped. Carlos dumped the engine, swung a leg over the bars, and jumped off the first one, Fritz jogged up behind him, grinning at me.

He looked over, gave Reed a nod. “That didn’t take very long. Back in one piece? No pain?”

“There’s some strange thing with the time—feels like we’ve been gone too long.” Reed did his open armed gesture again. “It worked, though. Best medical facilities in the Winterdim right there in my palace.”

I jabbed him with an elbow, gave him a look. I know it’s good to be the king, but you’re such a silly snobby bastard.

Helodes turned all the way around, put her hands on her hips, cranked up the cheer in her voice. “Who’s up for Brazley’s birthday party tomorrow?”

Guess that answered my question.

Fritz froze, shock on his face, clearly that’s tomorrow—why didn’t you tell us sooner?

Carlos said, “Yeah, we’re in. Happy birthday, Brazley.”

* * *

The party was simple and fun, with the six of us, me, Reed, Carlos, Fritz, Helodes, and the birthday girl, Brazley. There was dense sweet vanilla cake we sang over and sliced. Helodes mostly handed out advice for gifts.

Reed and I had stuff for everyone, things we’d collected in the Winterdim. Brazley first with the set of pink razor knives in the case. She loved them.

For Fritz, a tiny stringed musical instrument created and played by Bizhasen—“renderers like Shirley” and he immediately went off to play with it.

With a flourish I handed over a vial of water from a boiling lake to Helodes.

I hugged Carlos and Reed unrolled a map of Numezhin’s palace and surrounding urban area.

So, looking to be a hit at the party? Gifts from another world, that’s the secret.

We had a light dinner, mostly salads and some slender barbecued fish, and then we sat back and talked the rest of the evening, Fritz off in one corner getting a pretty good tune out of the Winterdim strings.

I came over and joined our hostess by herself at the other end of the room, looking for answers to questions. “Helodes?”

She looked up from her vial of Winterdim water with a crazy smile and faraway eyes. Then blinked and focused on me.

“Ever heard of anything prism-alive? Like one of the prismdead except they’re alive in both worlds?”

Her mouth opened and she showed her teeth in a little snarl. “What are you talking about?”

“Lazaro and the driver for OKF, guy named Coldur Gregg. Both of them were prismdead—I thought so anyway, until we found out they hosted renderers. Lazaro, three of them. And Coldur, one sick fucker of a renderer with human heads grafted onto it.”

Helodes recovered her serious witch expression. “How do you know they were prismdead?”

“With Coldur, he shifted into his dead form before attacking—so I saw it with my own eyes. Lazaro’s renderers told us he was a prism transmission, but that he was alive.”

Helodes played with her hair—something I’d never seen her do before, her bony fingers weaving in and out of her long black locks, looping, curling, her thumb running up and down. It was another sign she was nervous.

Had to be the Leaf Father biding his time on the east bank.

I waved the discussion away. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something we’ve run into twice now, and...just wondering if that’s the trend. If it’s something OKF’s doing. Seriously, don’t worry about it. Priorities.”

I stood, waved the group to me. “Just a feeling, everyone.” I let that sink in, took a sip of water, set the glass down, and looked up at the chunk of lit-up moon coming through rainclouds overhead. “I’m out of here tomorrow or the next day, heading for Florida by the only way that won’t take me across land that bows to the Leaf Father.” I swallowed a shiver, turned the expression rising to my face into something distasteful. “That means over water—seawater, along the Gulf Coast.”

A rumble of thunder emphasized my words.

Reed caught my hand. Knew he was with me. Pretty sure Brazley didn’t want to leave me. But I didn’t want to speak for anyone else—or even suggest it.

I opened my free hand flat, held it parallel to the earth. “Feel that anyone? Something’s stirring, and it’s not the rainstorm that’s going to dump on us in forty minutes, not a shift in seasons—not yet, and we’re long past feeling the energy of spring. The only thing on my list I haven’t crossed off is one fucking giant tree god with misplaced affection camping on the other side of the Mississippi.”

Brazley stood up, panicked, and came to my side. “I am going with you.” She already had her pack on her back.

Fritz exchanged a look with Carlos, and both raised glasses of whatever they were drinking—something fiery orange out of Helodes’ locked cabinets, sure as hell wasn’t water.

Carlos said simply, “We’re with you, Thea. To Florida!”

Fritz cheered, “To misplaced affection!”

Even Helodes laughed. Gods, I love these guys.

With a smile, my hand gentle on her back, I shoved Brazley away. “Tomorrow, Braze. Tonight it’s your birthday. Have fun.”

Then I sat down, folded one leg over Reed’s, sighed to everyone else. “But I’d pack for the trip tonight.”

The evening wound down quickly after that, Helodes going off to take up watch of the river. After loading all our gear on the marshrunners, Carlos and Fritz got into a game of chess against Brazley, and she’s good—but took her damn time running through the future of the board in her head, sometimes fifteen minutes plodding by before moving a piece.

Perfect time to ask a favor, and with the briefest of scowls—quickly tucked away—Brazley agreed to host Shirley and Augie—and the Lazaros—for the night.

Free of my renderers and with a few hours to kill—with luck the whole night—I grabbed Reed and led him into the woods.

Even in the dark with a waning moon and gathering thunder clouds, it didn’t take us long to find the clearing where we had dropped dead tired after the day of training. Even found one of the spoons still tucked into the branches of a blackhaw, a flash of metal and black berries and leaf edges already hinting at fall red.

I plucked it out, tapping the spoon up and down Reed’s arm.

And the storm opened up on us.

Felt Reed’s instinctive pull at my hand, but I tugged back, made sure we stood in the open middle of the clearing, the rain pouring over us. Thunder off to the north.

I let it roll out, and whispered, “Saved your present for last.”

Reed took the spoon from me, and tossed it away. “Enough gifts, Thea.”

There was a tight shiver of energy in his voice, and I heard the thud of his heart, the charge of blood in his body. In response, my hair spiraled out smooth green, flexible and looking for something to hold.

The rain hit us hard.

I pulled off my shirt, tore away the seams, let it drop, and slid everything else to my ankles. Stepped out of it, flung my arms wide, legs apart, holding my face to the sky, my hair and vines heavy with water.

Lightning, and there’s a flash of my dream—Reed in the shower with me, and then I’m back in the clearing in the woods, standing naked in the rain, legs open, Reed on his knees, his lips touching me just above the naval. A spasm up my right leg, almost kneed him with the rush, his hands slipping up my thighs, his breath on my skin warmer than the rain. Then his lips again, a harder kiss, his mouth open and hungry and wetter than the rain, moving lower, one hand cupping my ass, the other pressing into the base of my spine. I tried to shift my body, but felt that oak-strong rooted to the earth sense, and it was Reed holding me there, holding my body to the earth, upright. Wouldn’t let me go, and I spread my arms wider, threw back my head and opened my mouth to cry for thunder.

I went to my toes, climbing into the air, pumping my hips over his mouth, his tongue jammed inside me, and the rain came down with the taste of summer and wet leaves.

I sent vines coiling into the sky to catch a set of heavy branches. They pulled at my body for more play—anything you wish, reeling out slack and they took it up, a hundred meters of it, binding me to the trees.

A piece of the moon cut through a break in the clouds, cold light washing over us. I felt the energy through my eyelids, and choppy through the thunder, I was screaming for more.

I felt lighter, didn’t even remember lowering my arms, sliding them across my body, slick against my breasts, elbows locked. My hands shoved past my hips, and my fingers were in his hair, holding his head between my legs.

Above me, my vines played out violent, winding through the trees, webbing the space in the clearing. Another four twisted around me, paired off, two coming up between us to catch Reed’s ankles and coil up his body.

Surprised by the feeling, he started to pull away. Instant reaction in my hands, grabbing handfuls of his hair, grinding against his mouth.

“Not yet, Reed.”

Loops of vines around my legs, under my arms, the other pair fingering the snaps and seals, ready to peel off Reed’s pants and everything else at my command.

“Now,” gusted out of me, and I pulled Reed to his feet, halfway there by the hair, then my hands were slipping over his wet skin, his shirt hanging loose, working my way up his chest with my teeth, biting just on the wrong side of playful. Slid one hand down between his legs as my vines climbed up his body to take control.

I leaned back, my mouth gasped open. “Go for a ride?”

We locked eyes, and then we were off the ground, Reed swinging under me. His hands came up, cupping one breast, fingers kneading, sucking my other into his mouth.

I opened my legs around him, my knees gripping hard at rain-slick skin, my heels locked against the backs of his thighs as I felt my way down his body, the press of his hip bones inside my thighs, the soft bowl of muscle around his naval, took the head of his cock inside me and hung there, rolling right at the slippery edge of what I needed.

Made me moan before I got one out of him.

I eased all the way down on him, gave him a few languid thrusts, and then I was pumping my hips, synching the motion with my vines lifting us in rhythmic jumps into the crown of the trees.

Lightning shattered the sky around us, hit the ground, showed me a flash of intensity in Reed’s face.

And I called for more. Begged for it.

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