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.