Chapter 14

If Riss wasn’t on high alert before, she certainly was now. She instructed half the crew to light their lanterns, even though dark was falling slowly. They had plenty of light for the time being. There was a method to her madness, though: if there were something out here mimicking humans, perhaps it was so used to the swamp’s natural gloom that its trickery might be more obvious in artificial light.

She could hope, at least.

And she was going to have words with Geetsha once they had made camp. Something about the girl had been odd from the get-go, but the things she’d said back there were downright bizarre, even if they’d been helpful on the surface.

Still, though: Tarn had mentioned her. Tarn had negotiated with her. So clearly she couldn’t be some swamp apparition. Swamp apparitions didn’t have the ability to leave the swamp and waltz up to Adelheim to strike deals. Surely. Not that Riss even believed in apparitions or ghosts. A creature of some sort imitating a human to lure prey didn’t qualify as a ghost, not in Riss’ mind. It was arguably worse than a ghost.

Heading up the party, she slid her machete free from her belt and walked with it at the ready. The trail’s overgrowth was negligible, but the heft of it felt comforting in her hand. The others didn’t take it as a call to arms, but Gaz had unslung his battleaxe some time ago. They were well past that point. And if they happened upon some harmless swamp-dwellers who wondered why they had their weapons drawn, they had a damn good reason.

As soon as they left the mangled woman behind them, the shrieking stopped. It didn’t taper off; it just ended, severed abruptly, forgotten.

That, more than anything, convinced Riss their suspicions were correct. It was as though the source of the moaning realized they weren’t taking the bait and called it a night. That spoke to a level of intelligence Riss didn’t want to tangle with.

“Geetsha,” she asked while they walked. “Are we coming up on a suitable campsite soon?”

She realized with some surprise that despite her reservations about Geetsha’s character, she still assumed the girl would more or less tell the truth. Or at least she was consulting her. She straddled a line there, skepticism ready in-hand just like her machete.

Geetsha carried on as though she were entirely oblivious to Riss’ concerns.

“Yes,” she said. “There is a little hill. Dry.”

“Good.” Riss gazed up the trail, past the spindly thickets of trees that stretched their bony arms toward the twilit sky. There did seem to be a slight hump on the horizon, a hillock where the tree growth clustered a little thicker. She noted leaves still stubbornly clung to some of the broad-trunked trees in the distance, a different varietal to the dead-looking, skinny ones.

“We’ll be making camp upon this hill ahead,” she called to the group. “I don’t know about you lot, but I’m not keen walking through the dark with whatever we just encountered back there.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” said Calay.

“Sure thing, boss,” said Torcha.

Gaz just grunted, giving a little tug on the lead of the moa he was minding. The bird picked up the pace, looming at the rear of their little procession.

They reached the hill without incident, but the prospect of setting up camp in this place left Riss wary. Rather than looking forward to resting her aching feet and enjoying an evening meal, she kept looking over her shoulder, expecting to see something vaguely humanoid waiting just beyond the shine of her lantern.

*

By now, everyone made and broke camp with a fuss-free, well-oiled synchronicity that reminded Riss of the war. March, pack, rest, pack, repeat. They had space for the tents this time, and the trio of tents clustered tight around the fire like lonely old friends glad to share a meal together once more. Geetsha said there were edible mushrooms to be found, and though Riss had her reservations, she let the kid scamper off to forage. Despite her concerns, nothing Geetsha had done thus far had endangered them. In fact, she’d been a valuable asset. What did Riss stand to gain from ordering her to remain within camp?

Their campsite was a flat patch of earth, a smaller section of a broad clearing. Evidence of old logging dotted the fringes: a few sad leftover stumps that had once been a copse of thick, sturdy trees. Smaller shrubs and scrubby vines had moved in, providing what Riss hoped was at least something of a barrier against the local wildlife.

Glad to shrug her pack off, Riss took one of the moa for a forage at the camp’s perimeter. She tried to spend a little time each night with the birds. Tried to acclimate herself to them. While the sensation of eyes on her back still left her fleetingly disconcerted, she was forcing herself to grow accustomed to their presence.

The big bird at Riss’ side shoved its face down into the underbrush, searching for something to snack upon, and she kept one eye on it, one eye on the others while they made camp. Calay and Torcha set to work on the fire. Vosk had disappeared into his tent. Adal’s ass was visible hanging out of his tent as he set down his bedroll. Gaz, still in possession of the other moa, walked the perimeter like she did. She gave him a little wave when he glanced her way, and he upnodded in return.

She still wasn’t certain what to make of the pair from up north.

Vasile, Calay had said. Riss had only been once. She held no prejudices toward the city or its population.

They’d performed just fine when needed, she supposed. Adal’s health was evidence of that. With how Gaz had readied his axe when the shrieking started, she was glad to have him on her side. He had a brawler’s instincts. He wouldn’t hesitate if the worst happened. She watched his big, broad silhouette stir the mist as he walked the moa to a patch of brambles. He peered down and studied the ground, then reached up and rubbed at the back of his bald head. His heavy brow wrinkled.

Riss read his body language and started walking over before he even called out, “Hey boss?”

“Something interesting?” she asked, gazing down at the ground where Gaz stood. He waved a hand through the air, parting the thin gauze of mist, and gestured downward.

“Would you look at that,” he said. “Hoofprints.”

“Shoed hoofprints no less.” Riss pointed to the imprints in the earth, fresh enough that their edges were still crisp. She crouched and put a fingertip to the mud. It was wet to the touch.

“Geetsha,” she started to call out, but then remembered their guide was off digging for mushrooms. She’d ask if there was another path nearby later. It seemed prudent to investigate. If there was another logging party out here, or bandits, or anyone on horseback that could come upon them in their sleep, that took a more immediate priority over the threat of any distant, lurking monsters that may or may not engage a party their size.

She rallied the others in a matter of minutes. Adal volunteered to keep guard at camp, and Riss saw that for what it was: he’d worked hard at sweating that snakebite from his system. He’d be more good to them with his ass on a seat and a rifle in hand than tangling with whatever they might find in the bush.

The hoofprints took a winding trail through still-drying mud, occasionally sinking in deeper as the rider apparently struggled to keep the animal from straying into too-soft ground. Riss spotted no other tracks and definitely no sign of any other horses. The tracks ran astride what appeared to be an old creekbed, though the water running through it had long since turned stagnant, the same patchy puddles that composed most of the swamp’s floor.

“Looks like a solo rider,” she said. “Barring two people sharing the same saddle, I think we’re looking for…”

She trailed off and raised a finger to the others to quiet them. Had she just heard something? Cocking an ear to the open, swampy air, Riss waited.

The sound came again: a whuff of breath snorted through big nostrils, the sort of snort a bull might make. Or a horse. Riss pointed to her left, creeping away from the tracks and onto the gnarled roots of a grey-barked stump. Mindful of where she placed her boots, keeping free of the muck, she tilted a look around the jagged crown of the stump and toward the direction of the noise.

A puzzling shape loomed in the murk.

If she’d spotted the mauled woman’s silhouette by virtue of some pattern recognition, the thing before her now had the exact opposite effect on her brain. She stared at it, recognizing that she was seeing something, but the specific features of the beast were so baffling that for a moment it felt as though her mind refused to register she’d seen anything at all. She blinked. When she opened her eyes again, it was still there.

A great, heaved heap of mud was slouched up against the base of a nearby tree, as if the tree had bent to lap it up. From the tree, a horse protruded. That was the simplest way to describe something that utterly defied explanation. It was as though the tree had been hollowed out and some great giant had grabbed a horse by the ribcage and stuffed it inside, backend first. Its body was tilted at an acute upward angle, so that its forelegs dangled awkwardly, knees and ankles still taut with a tension that suggested that somehow it was still alive.

“What the fuck,” Torcha hissed from behind her, and Riss put her hand up again, signaling her gunsmith to shut it.

A slow undulation of movement curled through the tree’s branches and roots. As they watched in stunned silence, the tree-horse amalgamation tilted to one side, toward the mud that was bunched up along the creekbed. Riss realized with a start that the mud was slopped that way by the force the tree exerted. It was shoving its way up and out of the creek and onto dry land. Inexorably slow, but yes– it was moving.

Vosk had been right all along. She understood the term crawling wood now, watching the tree drag its mammalian burden slowly upward. Each of the horse’s snorted breaths sounded more laborious than the last, yet it made no sounds of a creature in pain. Watching it move sent bile rising in Riss’ throat. She fought it down, breathed slow and steady through her mouth, despite the visceral disgust that crawled along her palms.

Something tugged on the drape of Riss’ cloak. She started, jerked a look sideways, but it was only Calay. With wide eyes, he beckoned her wordlessly over to her right, pointing. Just beyond the gnarled tangle of the dead stump, where Gaz crouched, a snakelike tendril of root emerged from the muck, seeking out blindly, feeling its way along. Gaz remained frozen with saucer-huge eyes. He’d lifted his boot-knife, clutched it ready, but his eyes sought hers for guidance.

Silently, Riss shook her head. They had to keep things quiet. Had to fall back. She gestured, jerked her thumb over a shoulder, and started to creep back toward the hoofprints.

The crack of a pistol rang out, ear-shatteringly loud in the silence.

Riss spun, had a split second to take in the sight of Torcha and Vosk both kicking tangles of viney plant growth from their boots. Smoke twisted in a thin trail from the muzzle of Vosk’s pistol as he drew his sidearm. At her other side, Gaz lunged, slashing his knife through the root beside him as he scrambled away.

In the same instant, a ponderous creak rose from the trunk of the horse-tree as it pivoted, ceasing its slow crawl up the bank.

When it turned and lurched toward them, it moved much faster.

<< Chapter 13 | Chapter 15 >>

Chapter 13

Riss was the first to spot the mangled woman.

The water on either side of their narrow trail was boiling, sulfurous muck. It stung the eyes and nose, and every one of them wound a scarf or bandana across their nose to stave off the worst of it. With as much as Riss’ eyes were watering, it was a wonder she saw the figure at all. Yet something about the lay of a particular set of shadows and debris caught her eye, some subconscious sense of pattern recognition that drew her attention and said to her is that a person?

Riss held up a hand, urging those behind her to slow, then stop. She squinted off to the right of the path, past a patch of bubbling swamp water, through the veil of mist that hung in suspended patches about a meter off the ground. She gestured to the silhouette, which appeared at first to be no more than a series of curved slopes, vaguely suggestive of a human body laying on its stomach, legs stretched out of view.

“Do you see that–” she started to ask, but a choked, wretched wail rose up from the body, and soon everyone was seeing what Riss saw.

They’d found the source of that screaming.

Her eyes adjusted only a smidge more to the murk, so it was tough to pick out more details. Evening was beginning to fall, though, and soon visibility would fade yet further. Riss hurried to light a lantern, hitting flint to the strikeplate and lifting it overhead as soon as the flame flickered to life.

The lantern barely helped.

Sprawled nearly face-down in the muck, a woman lay with her cheek in the mud. She’d fallen in a patch that was blessedly free from the bubbling, but judging by her pitiful wails, she was injured in some way. Perhaps she’d fallen into the boiling water from some other patch of dirt? Riss scanned the trail for tracks aside from their own and saw nothing fresh.

“Hells,” whispered Vosk, his voice softened to a whisper.

“She look like one of yours?” Riss asked, glancing over.

Vosk drew a hand down his face, thumbing along his jaw as he gazed off into the distance. He squinted, tilted his head a touch, seemed to be thinking something through.

“I can’t possibly say,” he said. “We had a couple women with us, both had long hair like hers, but that’s the fashion around here. I’d need to see her uniform or her face.”

Riss took in a short, foul-smelling breath and then pitched her voice across the bog.

“Hello there!”

The woman’s head lifted a little in response, and a twitch went through one of her arms. She’d fallen as if something had struck her down while fleeing toward the trail, a thought which sent a little twitch up Riss’ spine.

Despite the fact that her vocal cords plainly weren’t damaged, the woman didn’t holler a reply. Instead, she just groaned again, a low note uneven with pain.

“She’s clearly hurt,” said Vosk, lips curled down a hint. Riss couldn’t quite peg the expression–was it an empathic wince or merely distaste?

“Geetsha?” Riss glanced behind herself.

Summoned, Geetsha stole up to her side. She walked up to the very edge of the trail, staring outward. She was short enough that Riss could just peer over her shoulder, continuing to observe the injured woman from a distance of a good ten meters.

“Are there any other trails near here?” Riss asked. “Somewhere she could have stumbled in from?”

“Not quite trails.” Geetsha made a little gesture, flapping her too-long sleeve about. “But plenty of solid ground. Roots to climb on. It is possible to traverse this place without a trail. Just not easy.”

A new worry lurked in the rear of Riss’ thoughts: what if she wasn’t one of Vosk’s, but instead one of Geetsha’s? Her settlement or tribe or whatever they might call themselves. A local. With the mist and the distance, Riss couldn’t pick out any identifying details at all beyond a mess of dark-colored hair and the sloped profile that suggested a woman’s waistline.

“Could she be one of yours?” Riss asked of the girl, posing the question gently.

Geetsha stilled for a time. She lapsed into what almost looked like a short trance, her pale eyes foggy with thought. After a lengthy silence, she heaved her narrow shoulders up.

“She isn’t one of mine,” she said at last. “I’m not sure she’s even one of yours.”

Riss blinked.

“One of mine?” Riss cocked her head. A creeping cold seemed to chill through her as she considered the ramifications of what Geetsha might mean.

“One of yours.” Geetsha waved her sleeve again. “A person.”

Before Riss could press her further on exactly what the fuck that meant, another series of broken wails warbled up from the injured woman’s throat. She lifted her head, voice a roughly-choked sob. Her shoulders quivered as she tried to lift herself up, pressing down on her palms, but she didn’t seem to have the strength. When she fell forward once more, Riss caught a glimpse behind her: she seemed to be half-submerged in one of the puddles, her legs below the waterline. At the sight, Riss recoiled.

“Fuck me.” Riss was going to be sick. “She’s fallen in one of the pools.”

Riss wasn’t sure of the exact nature of the foul-smelling water that surrounded them, whether the source of the hiss and bubble was acidic in origin or due to the temperature. When the options were being boiled alive or being eaten through by acid, did it even matter which?

Adal curled a fist and held it to his mouth, averting his eyes, even though the mist hid whatever gory details there were to see.

Behind them, Torcha and the others seemed to come to the realization at around the same time. She heard Calay mutter a soft curse. For a moment, she felt a fleeting impulse to shield Geetsha’s eyes. She was a little too young to be…

But then she remembered Geetsha’s words. One of yours. A person.

Again she needed to confront that, but again she was interrupted. She took a step forward, attempting to put herself directly in Geetsha’s line of sight, but someone grabbed her by the arm.

She yanked hard on reflex, whirling to the side to see who’d grabbed her, but she stilled when she saw it was Adal. He gripped her firmly by the wrist, and when she glared at him in preparation to ask what exactly he was doing, she saw his attention wasn’t even on her. He was staring off into the muck, eyes cut in a shrewd narrow.

“Don’t go any closer,” he hissed, releasing Riss’ arm. “Look.”

She turned, gazing back toward where the woman’s body lay, but nothing looked any different. Just the tumbled limbs of the figure, the spread of hair, the backdrop of gauzy off-white mist and spindly trees.

“I don’t understand.” The words came out in a whisper, though, so on some level she was certainly heeding Adal’s warning even as her brain searched for reasons why.

Adal lifted a gloved hand, pointing levelly toward the woman. Or, if Riss followed the gesture exactly, slightly behind her.

“Look at that log behind her back,” he said. “It’s submerged in the same puddle.”

“So?” asked Vosk, not getting it. Riss wasn’t quite following either.

“Look at the bit that’s up on land.”

It looked like a regular log, hollowed out and dried like many others they’d passed. Riss raised questioning eyebrows at Adal, waiting.

“If that log’s the same thickness all the way through, like logs tend to be, that water is at most a few inches deep. Look. You can see it continuing on behind her, and it’s not even a third of the way submerged.”

Riss traced the outline of the fallen tree, noted the water level, acknowledged all that. Something about the scene did prick at her, the way patterns sometimes leapt at the eye if one looked too long at those woven Vasa rugs.

“… So where’s the rest of her?” Vosk’s words cut, blunt and ominous, through the silence.

“That’s what I’m saying.” Adal swallowed audibly. “There can’t be a rest of her. At least not down there.”

Perhaps she was laying on her legs somehow. Or perhaps it was a trick of the eye, some sort of perspective game. Riss searched for an explanation.

“Yes,” said Geetsha at last, speaking up after a prolonged silence. “I do not think that is a person.”

The contents of Riss’ stomach did a little flip. She shifted her boots in the slightly-muddied ground, focusing on the weight of bootsole to earth. She anchored herself that way, showing nothing, just listening until she’d arrived at her conclusion.

“Either way, what we are all saying is that body can’t or shouldn’t be alive.”

Adal nodded near-imperceptibly. He’d begun to sweat a little, his cheeks shining in the glow of Riss’ lantern. It lent depth to the subtle lines upon his features, the fear that tensed through his expression.

“What is it then, Geetsha, if it’s not a person?” Riss asked the question pointedly, direct.

Geetsha lapsed into another one of her pauses, then shook her head after a few seconds passed.

“I don’t recognize it,” she said.

“I think it’s a trap,” said Adal. And in the end, regardless of what precisely was causing the illusion or whatever it was, Adal was right. Nobody–or no thing, a voice in the back of Riss’ mind suggested–would imitate a person who needed help unless it was trying to lure them closer.

Riss shook her head, turning back to face the others. She made deliberate eye contact with Torcha, then gave her head a small shake.

“We’re going to keep moving,” she said.

At that same moment, the body behind her groaned again, a burbling sound half-strangled by the mud. Riss didn’t even look back.

“Whatever that is–” She gestured behind herself for emphasis. “–It’s bad news. If it’s really a girl, she’s sustained severe injuries and we can’t help her.”

Gaz worked his jaw, discomfited.

“What do you mean if it’s really a girl?”

Beside him, Calay lifted a stilling finger and shook his head, a quick snap of motion.

“If Vosk was right, if this is one of those places with those… energies, where things get a little strange? Then there could be all sorts of stuff in here that mimics human life.”

For some reason, Riss’ eyes were drawn toward Geetsha when Calay spoke. Beside her, the girl appeared normal enough, her gaze somewhat vacuous, wandering from person to person as they spoke. When her stare fell upon Riss, she didn’t startle or look away beneath the scrutiny. Instead, she brushed her stark white bangs aside from her face and turned a look up the path.

“We should keep moving,” she said. “It can probably hear us.”

<< Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 >>

Chapter 12

Discomfort gripped Calay by the bones, slowing his every step. He and Gaz were no stranger to bizarre, life-threatening situations, but the swamp had a way of evoking a rarer type of fear that he was less acquainted with. It wasn’t the dark; jail cells were dark, the slums were dark, he could handle darkness. It wasn’t the shrieking, which continued to plague them as they walked, ringing out at irregular intervals and–if his nerves weren’t deceiving him–growing fractionally closer.

“I hate this,” he hissed toward Gaz, walking much closer to him than he had yesterday.

Gaz had done away with the hand-at-the-belt posturing. He’d unstrapped his battleaxe from his back and carried it openly, tilted up at his shoulder, attention divided between his flank, Calay, and their backs.

“I shouldn’t be this freaked out.” Calay squared his shoulders and huffed an indignant little breath, irritated with himself. Gaz ticked up a half-smile at him in sympathy but didn’t say anything. Some of their most productive conversations over the years had consisted of Calay just speaking at Gaz until he arrived at his own conclusions.

Geetsha led them up and over a small rise, then down the other side. The backside of the small hill was dotted with flat-topped fungi, their edges curled and dried. They grew in great heaping piles against the bases of almost every available tree, and Calay wasn’t quite certain, but he thought he could gauge a difference in the temperature. The air grew tangibly humid, thick and murky as the puddles of swamp water that blotted the ground.

“Sure is getting warm,” Torcha said up ahead.

“I’d hoped I was finished sweating,” Adalgis muttered.

They came to a stop once the path flattened out again. This section of the trail was broad and hard-trampled. Calay swept a look around the clearing, but nothing stood out as dangerous or noteworthy. The trees that flanked the path were skinnier, more jagged, and after staring at them for a moment, he realized they were dead. He was staring at the hollowed-out trunks of trees that had turned to dry, flaking bark a long time ago.

“Grab fresh water if you need it,” Riss said, unpacking a couple waterskins from one of the birds. “Geetsha says our filters won’t work on the hot spring water up ahead.”

Ah. Hot springs. That explained the heat. A hot spring sounded positively relaxing, but Calay had a feeling that the waters here were nothing like the steam baths at Colimar.

While Calay topped himself up on water and dried fruit, Vosk–the Baron’s man–approached he and Gaz with a little nod of greeting. Or rather he approached Gaz. When Calay returned the gesture with a little upnod of his own, Vosk didn’t even glance at him. So Calay busied himself with making a show of sorting through his medic’s kit while he eavesdropped.

“You see anything behind us?” Vosk asked. “I’ve been keeping a lookout up ahead.”

Gaz shook his head and drummed his fingers on the haft of his axe.

“Ain’t seen a thing,” he said. “Heard plenty of that weird screaming, but nothing’s come that close.”

Vosk let out a grunt that could have been agreement or just acknowledgment.

“We heard screams like that,” he muttered sourly. “When we were on our way out of here. Never did see what was making ‘em. I assumed at the time that it was someone the trees were eating.”

Gaz’s nostrils flared as he took a sharp breath. “You keep saying that. Trees eating folks.”

“Aye.” Vosk carried on. “I don’t really know a better word for it. I don’t know if they’re eating people for sustenance exactly. So ‘eating’ might not be the word. It’s real tough to describe until you’ve set eyes on it. You’ll see once we get further in.”

“I hope I don’t have to see. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Gaz didn’t even try to hide the distaste in his voice. Calay supposed there was no point playing tough in a place like this. If something horrible leapt up out of the swamp at them, they’d all likely shit their pants in unison and any posturing would go out the window.

Vosk looked between Gaz and Calay then, acknowledging Calay for the first time. He tilted a curious look over Calay’s satchel. Was he angling for a peek inside without quite trying to look that way?

“That was some work you did on Riss’ boy,” he said, and Calay got the strange sensation that it wasn’t quite meant as a compliment. More that Vosk was surprised, somehow.

“They did bring me along for a reason.” Calay smiled thinly. “And it isn’t just my companion’s large axe.”

Vosk chuckled. “Of course not. Though I notice you aren’t so laden with weaponry yourself. Just a sawbones, then?”

In the back of Calay’s mind, the skinny street kid he’d grown up as rose from a sort of slumber, paced around the interior of his consciousness. The kid who’d grown up having to gauge whether any stranger met in a back-alley was sizing him up as game. There was a certain instinct he’d honed, a feeling that stirred inside him when he’d looked other kids in the eyes and realized they saw him as prey.

“I’m handy with a few things beyond the bonesaw.” Calay spoke easily, demurely. He coupled the words with a modest shrug.

Instinct told him that maybe it was better if Vosk didn’t know the precise location and capabilities of his pistols, punch-daggers, and other, more arcane bits and pieces he’d picked up over the years. Instinct also told him that Riss ought to know he was feeling this feeling. As far as foreboding feelings went it was among the more minor Calay had ever felt, but the degree of trust he put in his gut was second only to the degree of trust he put in Gaz’s gut.

“Either way,” said Vosk. “It’s good to have you with us.”

Calay put on a smile. “Likewise,” he said. “You’ve been deeper in this muck than any of us. I imagine your expertise will be invaluable.”

Was he laying it on too thick? He couldn’t quite tell. Vosk seemed genuinely placated by the statement, though. He gave them a quick smile of parting and ambled off.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Calay glanced up to Gaz, who was busy staring at Vosk’s back.

“Was that odd to you?” he asked. Gaz shifted a look his way and puckered his lips inward, wordless for a time.

“I can’t pinpoint why that was weird, but that was weird,” he said.

“I get the distinct sensation he’s feeling us out.” Calay took a swig from his waterskin, licking his lips after. His lips had gone dry and cracked when they’d traveled through the mountains, but he was pleased to find his skin was recovering in the lowlands.

And that’s when it hit him, a minor epiphany of sorts: his discomfort with the swamp stemmed from how wet and alive it all was. He’d grown up in an environment shaped almost wholly by man, a jungle of cobblestones and cutpurses and bricks. Just as dangerous in its own ways, but inert. Predictable.

In a place where even the trees crawled with life, anything could be a threat. Any aspect of the flora or fauna could veil some lurking horror.

The longer he thought on it, the more Calay considered it a testament to his own fortitude that he was only tense and wary rather than borderline terrified. The swamp itself felt like a living, breathing, unsettlingly-organic enemy and he didn’t know which of its weapons it would draw first.

###

They made good progress once they set off again. The trail narrowed and grew sodden, each footstep producing a wet shlup, the mucky earth clinging to Calay’s bootsoles. Riss sent the birds to the rear of their little convoy, and Calay and Torcha took their leads. Gaz maintained guard at the rear.

Calay had never led a moa before. He anticipated it might set him further on edge, however once he took the creature’s lead in his hand, he found it conveyed a little safety. The giant, domesticated bird paced him harmlessly, towering over him and peering alertly all about. He held no illusions about the thing defending him should something leap at them from the shadows, but if nothing else he imagined having it at his side made him a far more intimidating target.

The bird walked along slightly behind him, its wide footsteps oddly quiet given the size of it. A faintly acrid smell wafted past his nose, and for a moment he thought it must be the moa’s feathers or its birdshit or something, but then Adalgis was asking up ahead, “Do you smell that?” and everyone murmured their uncomfortable agreement.

A gradual haze built in the air as they walked, and Calay’s sharp eyes spotted hints of motion out in the puddles of dark, muddy water beyond the trail. The motion, he realized after a moment’s observation, was bubbles. The hot spring, then.

On either side of the raised earth that made up their trail, the swamp began to bubble. It wasn’t the excited, frothing churn of something thrashing toward them in the water. It was more the slow, sludgey boil of a pot of too-thick gruel, viscous and unappealing. The waist-high mist that hung in the air appeared to be the source of the smell, a corrosive tang like some acid from a smithy. Calay reached down to his throat and untied his scarf, then wound it over his mouth and nose, securing the knot at his throat.

Beside him, his moa chirped irately, ruffling its long, scalelike feathers.

“I know,” he said aside to the creature, sympathetic. “This place stinks.”

The joke didn’t help his mood any. All the constant, bubbling motion in the background of the swamp drew his eye this way, then that, giving his instincts little false starts. Every time he thought he glimpsed threatening motion in the distance, all he saw upon further study was swamp bubbles. He noticed absently that the boughs of the spiny, thin-trunked trees that dotted the bubbling swamp were absent of spiders. In fact, apart from scattered bird calls and the buzz of insects, there were few signs of animal life at all.

That was far from reassuring. It just made Calay wonder whether the lack of swamp hens or stoats or wild pigs meant that something worse called this stretch of trail home.

Riss was the one who set eyes on it first.

<< Chapter 11 | Chapter 13 >>

So what’s all this, then? A brief introduction

I told myself I wasn’t going to start a blog for this site. I’ve started blogs before and I usually end updating them twice and never looking at them again. But enough people have asked me about this project that I figured I’d put together an introduction post at least to explain a little about why I chose this medium and why I’m publishing Into the Mire the way I am.

So why a web serial? Why publish Into the Mire as web fiction rather than writing it and publishing it all in one go on say Amazon? Or why not publish it on a site like Wattpad with an inbuilt audience and rating system?

The characters and world behind Into the Mire have been kicking around in my head a long time. Riss as a character sprung from a short story idea I was working on a few years ago, but I decided that the background I was writing in my head took up more space than a short story had to offer.

I’m no stranger to longer works, having professionally ghostwritten a number of novels now. I’ve also completed NaNoWriMo twice and completed two unpublished novels that I keep telling myself I’ll edit and shop around one day. So when my scattered story ideas started coalescing into something that more closely resembled a novel, I wasn’t ever worried about whether I’d be able to finish it.

I was more worried about when I’d ever start it.

The problem with being a professional writer in any capacity is that client work tends to take precedence over passion projects. I can’t speak for everyone, but on a personal level, I tend to feel guilty working on personal projects when I have paying work waiting to be completed. Plus there’s that whole thing where I like being able to buy groceries and pay the electric bill.

While outlining the book that would eventually become Into the Mire, I kept telling myself I’d start working on it when I could. “Could” was nebulous and ill-defined. Sometimes it meant when my arthritis wasn’t acting up. Sometimes it meant when I didn’t have a bunch of client work on the backburner. Sometimes it meant when I was feeling a little less overworked.

When working on a ghostwriting project, I’m capable of sitting down and churning out a book in about a month or less. My first NaNoWriMo project clocked in at 88,000 words and was written before the deadline expired. My most recent ghostwritten novel clocked in at 74,000 words written in about 30 days. So when I envisioned myself writing Into the Mire I envisioned myself taking a month off from all other work and then just sitting down and writing the thing in one month-long orgiastic Scrivener spasm.

But that month kept not happening. Unexpected expenses came up. My health intervened. I got invited onto new volunteer projects that ate up free time. I just kept not having a spare month to sit down and write a book.

So then a completely unheard-of idea occurred to me. I could… write the book gradually. A chapter or so at a time. While working on other stuff.

AMAZING, right? Why didn’t anyone else ever think of that!

Sarcasm, aside, slowly working on projects over lengthy spans of time is not normally how I write. My history in journalism and ghostwriting has led to a tendency to set tight deadlines and keep them.

So I decided to publish Into the Mire as a web novel specifically because that was a completely different approach to my usual.

I liked the idea of setting a weekly deadline. Nothing too crazy, just a chapter a week so that I’d for-sure stick with it. A chapter a week meant I could happily work on client projects and wouldn’t have to stress if I had a bad health week, and all that has been true so far.

As for publishing it on my own site rather than Wattpad or Webnovel or Radish or any of those other sites, well, it all kind of boils down to impatience and a vague sense of art. Not that I think stuff published on those platforms can’t be art. Not that I think stuff you pay for can’t be art. Those are silly notions and I wish more artists would disabuse themselves of that school of thought.

I guess it’s more artistic control. Having never written on Wattpad or Webnovel or Radish, my explorations of their sites just didn’t quite look like what I wanted my reading platform to look like. Sort of like a printed book, I wanted this project to have a particular feel. As close to a textural element as you can get on a mobile-responsive WordPress site. Short of actually throwing in illustrations and animations (the former of which I’m actually looking into, as funds allow), I wanted it to have a visual theme element.

The colours, the typography, the little rotating spoopy swamp header images – I’m a firm believer that all those little visual touches add up to the atmosphere, even in a small way. Chalk it up to playing a lot of video games and reading a lot of graphic novels as a kid. I think little bits and pieces like that can clue one into the atmosphere of a story. I like having control over them. I do plan on compiling Into the Mire into ebooks as volumes are completed, and rest assured they will be lushly-formatted little things. (I know a professional formatter; she’s amazing.)

There’s also an element of impatience. If I just sit down and put it all together myself, I can put it together when I want to, daddy, damn it, not later. Self-publishing on my own site means I can indulge my inner Violet Beauregarde and satisfy my visual control freak tendencies at the same time.

I hope this has explained a little behind my motivations. I think web fiction is a fantastic medium, and while it may not be as lucrative as other options and this platform may not draw a large readerbase like promoting on Wattpad might, I’m all right with that.

Thanks very much for reading either way. I hope you enjoy the story. If you’ve read all the way through to Chapter 11, you’re in for a real mess* as things progress.

*The fun kind of mess.

If you’d like to get in touch with me for any reason, I’m easily accessible on Twitter as @CaseyLucasQuaid.

Happy reading,

Casey

Chapter 11

Once the morning’s drama was well and concluded, they got moving again. Calay was glad for it. He appreciated the opportunity to make himself useful, but he couldn’t help feeling agitated. Had Geetsha been spying on them? Was he going to have to worry about her? Not that she seemed to have any clue as to his identity or his nature, but a naturally inquisitive nose-about was problem enough.

Adalgis was sluggish on his feet when they began walking again, but he didn’t complain. Riss parked him up front, presumably to help set the pace, and Calay volunteered for rear watch. He wanted distance between himself and the frog-voiced girl. And now that he thought about it, distance between himself and Torcha was probably smart, too. As much as he enjoyed talking to her–that was genuine, she was a hoot–it occurred to him that asking him too many questions about her homeland and the war might reveal a little too much about what he himself didn’t know. He didn’t want anyone making assumptions by subtraction.

Of course, that meant he and Gaz skulking around together, separate from the others, and that was its own type of ill-advised. They were going to have to mingle just enough to look normal.

Gaz was eager to hang back. He’d been staring holes in the back of Calay’s head since the snakebite incident. Calay could imagine what he was about to ask, but better to let him ask it.

Their slower pace meant that Calay had more time to study his surroundings. Camping so close to dark meant he’d seen little of the deeper swamp by full daylight, and it was… interesting. Thick swathes of spiderweb and moss alike bridged the upper trees. Everything was gauzy, draped in the stuff. The trees looked like brittle bones beneath aged skin. Like the hands of some arthritis-gnarled old man.

The swamp had a particular aroma, too. Deep and earthy and–if Calay admitted to himself–not entirely unpleasant. Growing up deep in the urban heart of Vasile, he was new to such earthy smells. The depth of it fascinated him.

The longer they walked, the wetter things seemed to get. Calay had the vague sensation of walking at an angle, the slightest downward slope. The trail they took was hard-packed dirt, obviously manmade, or at least man-assisted, free of the muck and packed at a slight elevation to avoid the seeping mud. It appeared well-maintained enough. Geetsha’s people, he presumed. Or perhaps more loggers like Vosk and the Baron’s men.

Calay took a couple quicker steps, until he was walking beside Gaz rather than behind him.

“So,” he said. “I get the impression you need to talk.”

Gaz peered down at him sidelong and huffed, amused. “Just wondering how prepared I gotta be for a potential shitstorm.”

“Potential shitstorm? This entire contract is a potential shitstorm.” Calay smiled sweetly. “You’ll have to specify.”

Gaz rolled a big shoulder and pointed none-too-subtly toward the fore of the group, where Adal and Geetsha walked the pair of moa along.

“That whole thing.” One of Gaz’s thick eyebrows hiked up. “Was that your genuine medicinal quick wits or did you scribble up a cure for him?”

Ah. So it wasn’t quite what Calay had expected him to ask. He’d expected Gaz to be equally curious as to how Geetsha knew what type of snakebite to treat. Of course, when he thought about it longer than five seconds, he realized Gaz hadn’t been privy to all that. It was easy to assume Gaz just knew everything he knew and shared all his suspicions, joined at the hip as they’d been since fleeing the city.

“I most certainly did not.” Calay reached up and gave Gaz a quick one-two pat on the shoulder. “I would never risk our cover for something so minor.”

“He seemed… really weirded out by you, is all.”

Gaz had a point. Calay had picked up on an air from Adalgis that wasn’t entirely friendly.

“I think he’s annoyed the others all like me so much,” Calay said without a shred of irony.

Gaz’s laugh thundered from the rear of their little caravan. He laughed so hard he slapped himself across the chest.

“Sorry!” he called when the others all cast inquisitive looks their way. “Sometimes my friend here is unintentionally hilarious.”

Calay was midway through preparing some smart remark when a shriek rang out through the marsh, loud enough that Gaz physically startled at his side. Everyone stopped moving. Up ahead, the moa snapped their heads upward, feathers rustling, sharp and alert.

The sound did not come again, and in the following silence, Calay shifted his eyes up to Gaz’s, wordlessly questioning.

Gaz swept his attention left; Calay looked right. They took inventory of the swamp around them: rotten logs, patchy and sodden holes in the earth, cobwebs. Nothing looked out of place. Of course, Calay wasn’t certain what native to the swamp could have made a sound like that.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose. He reached up, rubbing at the back of his collar. His fingers felt goosebumps.

Nobody moved for quite some time. The silence was palpable, thick, broken only by murmured chatter from up ahead, too quiet for him to make out the words. Female voices. He spared a glance toward the fore, where Riss and Geetsha were conversing lowly, but he didn’t take his eyes off the trail behind them for long. Gaz’s hand lingered on his belt.

By creeping, relieving degrees, the sounds of the swamp returned: insects began to buzz again. One of the moa chirruped. Calay exhaled a breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding. The swamp seemed to resume its breath in the same instant, a great release of tension, the way the sea might swirl and churn when something massive has just passed through it, unseen.

<< Chapter 10 | Chapter 12 >>

Chapter 10

Riss was only eleven years old when her father took her on their first hunt. Stalking patiently through the bush alongside him, she’d killed a boar with nothing but a spear. Sure, her father had been standing by with a matchlock pistol, but that hadn’t made the threat any less lethal. The fear hadn’t been any less real.

She was seventeen when she first killed a man. Shot him point blank through the face when he and his brigand friends had waylaid a client’s carriage. In the seconds before she’d pulled the trigger, the fear had gripped her by the throat.

The war? That was year upon year of fresh new fear, fear for her life and fear for those under her command.

She was thirty-one when she’d led Gaspard and the crew into that ambush, then dragged him bleeding into the wagon. The fear then was a new fear, a fear of loss. It had been insurmountable.

Every time she’d felt that fear, she’d smothered it. For her father. For her clients. For her crew. For Gaspard.

She was an expert at swallowing fear and appearing stonefaced. And she swallowed that same fear when it rose in her like bile at the sight of Adal sprawled out on that bedroll, his eyes sunken, his face beset by an eerie pallor that reminded Riss far too much of a dead man. She ground her boot into the fear’s throat and glanced aside at Calay, who observed the sickly man with a physician’s distance.

“Give him an hour.” Calay’s voice was smoothly confident. Riss wasn’t always the best judge of character–that’s what she kept Adal around for–but his confidence didn’t sound to her like that of a man trying to convince himself. He sounded sure.

Funny, then, that his companion Gaz kept looking to him so nervously. Like Calay were the one he was worried about rather than the one who’d been bit by the snake.

Riss made a mental note to come back to that later. She had bigger things to worry about. She lifted her voice for the benefit of the entire camp.

“I’d give him ten hours if I had to.” She made a point of glancing around, making eye contact. “Same as I would for any of you.” Another pause. She nodded slightly over to Vosk. “Besides. It isn’t as though we’ve got other options for an apothecary, given the circumstances. Take all the time you need, Calay.”

Every hour they weren’t moving forward was an hour that whittled the already-slim chances of survival for the missing logging party. It meant another hour spent in unfamiliar terrain with resources that would further dwindle. Riss was aware of all that. But she wouldn’t risk Adal’s health unless it became a do-or-die necessity. And even then…

Calay rolled a slim shoulder and rose up from his crouch.

“I’ve done all I can for him. Water and rest are all he needs. If we’ve got the right antivenin he’ll be right as rain.”

The words didn’t soothe Riss’ fear as much as she’d hoped they would. She trusted Calay as much as she trusted any short term hire for a contract like this. Which meant she trusted him to do his job like a competent professional. Nobody got paid if they all died. And if her Second died on his watch, Calay’s medic share would certainly suffer for it. He wanted to get paid just like any other. He wouldn’t screw this up.

“It was just bad luck.”

Riss’ ear caught the tail end of a conversation happening over by the fire. Geetsha and Torcha sat, conversing in quiet murmurs, and when Torcha’s eyes met Riss’, her mouth bowed into a sympathetic grimace.

“The snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them,” said Geetsha in her odd, creaky voice.

The present moment was just a little too much for Riss. Too much chaos, too much creepy swamp girl, too much worry for her dear friend. She pinched the bridge of her nose and let her eyes fall closed, inhaling deeply. She took a moment so simply shut it all out. To take inventory of tasks that needed completing: breakfast, packing up the camp, readying themselves to move once Adal was able.

At her side, someone softly cleared their throat. A male. Riss peeled an eye open.

Vosk stood beside her, rubbing at his chin. He stared awkwardly aside for a moment, then spoke askance, briefly:

“This place doesn’t hesitate to show its hand early.”

Riss furrowed her brows.

“What I mean to say is I’m sorry about your friend. This swamp is a horrid place. I wish I’d never set foot in it.” Vosk continued to observe her from a sort of oblique angle, as though he feared her wrath should he face her head on. Riss shrugged minutely, as if physically shrugging his comments off.

“Adal is a veteran and a fighter,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”

She wasn’t about to let one of Tarn’s guards comfort her like some weeping willow.

“Of course.” Vosk took a step aside. He gave her a there-and-gone smile that was just as much in apology as sympathy. “I’d never imply otherwise.”

It occurred to Riss that perhaps Vosk had been speaking to her for his own benefit rather than hers. Who knew the details of exactly what horrors he’d experienced, stuck out here for as many nights as he’d been. Perhaps Vosk was just blowing off steam, the way someone stuck in a shit-sack swamp would do to someone else who had just been victimized by said shit-sack swamp.

Now defying both her fear and her natural tendency to rebuff kindness, Riss gave Vosk a quick little smile of her own.

“It’s a minor setback,” she said. “Certainly not how we’d prefer things, but well within our capabilities.”

She hoped to strike the right balance between confident camaraderie and empathy for the terrors he’d witnessed. And it appeared to work, because Vosk buckled with what looked like genuine relief.

“I knew you were the right one for this job,” he said. “The Baron told us about you. He said we’d be in good hands.”

Flattery, though, was where Riss drew a line.

“I’m sure he did,” she said. “And I’m sure he grossly exaggerated half of it, bless him.”

“Riss?” Calay called out to her across the encampment. He’d returned to Adal’s side, adopting a loose kneel.

She rushed over, taking wide steps and attempting not to look as hurried as she actually was.

A hint of color had returned to Adal’s face, which appeared drier. Residual sweat still dampened his bangs and skin, but when Calay mopped it away, it stayed mopped.

“His sweat’s broke,” Calay announced, stating the obvious. “Like I said, he’ll be just fine.”

Riss allowed herself a smile, her heart beating so frantically that it was a wonder the entire company couldn’t hear it.

###

Breakfast was a tense, quiet affair: leftover swamp hen eaten in silence punctuated by the sounds of Adal’s uneasy slumber. He murmured through his unconsciousness, twitching occasionally, and Riss kept glancing over, half-expecting him to be pale as death again. But no. He appeared to be improving, despite his obvious discomfort.

Geetsha offered to take the moa for a forage. Everyone dispersed to their own business. Riss crossed her legs and settled down beside Adal’s bedroll, at a loss for what else to do.

When he awoke, it was sudden and swift, as though he’d been roused from a nap. He jerked upright, blinking furiously, and scrubbed a hand down his face. His gaze held the disoriented quality of a man in a foreign place, until he set eyes on Riss and relaxed.

“Lieutenant,” she said, swinging him a casual little two-fingered salute. “It is very good to see you.”

Adal fell back onto the bedroll with a relieved groan.

Riss didn’t bother to ask him how he felt. He probably felt like shit. Instead, she took a more productive approach.

“Thirsty? Hungry?”

He was both. She’d saved him some stewed hen, which he accepted in rapacious silence, and he asked to have his water topped up three times. Riss watched him eat, mindful of his pace, and couldn’t help but laugh a little.

“Save some for the rest of us,” she said, and he paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth.

The severity in his eyes surprised her. He stared for a moment, then glanced back down into the bowl.

“I feel like I’ve been asleep for days,” he said. “Like I haven’t eaten for half a week.”

That explained the appetite, Riss supposed. She lifted a hand.

“Maybe your body was working overtime to get that snakebite out of you. Needs extra fuel.”

Adal’s shoulders hunched in a wary shrug. He kept eating, though slower now.

“How long has it really been?” he asked.

Riss glanced up at the sky. Tough to gauge the position of the sun given the encroaching treetops, but she could see enough for an estimate.

“An hour, maybe closer to two.”

Adal squinted at her. “You’re not bullshitting me, are you,” he finally said. As if she ever had.

“I dreamt it took days,” he added after a moment. When he finished his stew, he licked the spoon clean. “It feels as though it took days. I expected to wake up with a beard.”

Riss thought it might be better not to ask him, but curiosity got the best of her.

“Dream anything else interesting?” she asked, slowly gathering to her feet.

Adal’s silence said a lot. She didn’t press further.

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