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.
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.”
“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.”