Chapter 17

Riss took a moment to appreciate the team she had put together. She had read Calay and Gaz right. They’d leapt into action immediately; their level of training was in fact on par with what they claimed it to be. In the mercenary world, that wasn’t always a given. Both had conducted themselves well. Even Vosk, the odd man out, had stepped up and made himself useful, even going so far as to get between her sharpshooter and the creature.

It was paradoxical to most. To those who hadn’t been there. Stepping into a firefight like that and walking out the other side with blooming confidence in your men, that was a more addictive sensation than the effects of anything Riss had ever smoked or snorted or imbibed.

Despite the fact that she was slathered with foul-smelling ichor and the sights she’d seen inside that tree would haunt her for weeks, she felt better. She felt newly confident. On the walk back to their campsite, she had to fight to keep the simmering beginnings of a grin off her face.

Their campsite was, thankfully, unmolested upon their return. But no one was in the mood to settle down and cook dinner just yet. And where was Geetsha?

Adal had hurriedly tied the moa down before rushing to their aid, and now the birds stalked in agitated circles, heads tugging sideways, pulling at their leads. Was it the gunfire that had upset them, or was it something more? Could they hear something beyond what Riss’ human ears could measure? Who could say. Riss gave one of the birds an awkward pat on the flank while she pawed through a satchel of provisions.

“Geetsha will have heard us,” she said to nobody in particular. She received scattered grunts and nods in reply.

Adal crawled into his tent, then emerged a moment later with a hefty rectangular bar of soap. He offered it to Riss with a grim smile.

“Scrub while we wait?”

“You always know just what to say.”

Riss shucked off the outermost layers of her armor–flexible, layered panels of leather studded with brass–and snatched up a water jug. Up on the steppes, in the scraggy forests of her home, wasting water on hygiene would have been unthinkable. Despite how foul it was, the endless puddles of standing water in the swamp were in some ways an asset. If they started to run low on well water, they could always break out the filtration kits. It took time and tasted a little gunky, but it was perfectly drinkable.

She set to working up a lather, scraping and scrubbing the worst of the caked-on gore away before it could dry.

Geetsha arrived before she’d even finished her chest piece. Hurrying in on foot, pale and ethereal as a ghost, she scurried into camp and straight up to Riss’ side. She took a moment to catch her breath before speaking.

“You found one,” was all she said, not even a question. Riss’ hand paused in its scrubbing. She turned a look to the younger woman, then inclined a silent nod.

“I didn’t see any others.” Geetsha lifted a satchel off her hip, unbuttoning the flap to let Riss have a glance inside. “Plenty of mushrooms. No birds.” She paused momentarily. “Although where the trees grow there are often few birds.”

Riss didn’t spend too long dwelling on that. Again, those flicker-flutters of suspicion rose to mind, but she wasn’t sure how to address them. Geetsha had said some pretty alarming things, but how exactly did one bring that sort of thing up in conversation? Riss was halfway to just asking her so if you aren’t human, what the hells are you? but that seemed counterproductive. And was now, when they appeared to be deep in the most dangerous thickets of their journey thus far, a good time?

Gaspard would have known what to do. He had a knack for people. Both people-people and things that masqueraded as people. Things like whatever Geetsha was. What Geetsha maybe is, she corrected herself.

A pained groan stole her attention away from her private thoughts. She glanced over in the direction it came from and found Vosk holding his arms overhead. He stood still, grimacing while Adal and Calay both scrubbed lather-soaked armor brushes over his torso. The sight was so startlingly ridiculous that Riss couldn’t help but laugh. And she was surprised at the depth, the volume, the warmth of her own laughter. Damn, it felt good to laugh like that: with a competent crew at her muster and a foe dead at her feet.

“I think I’ll take some of that what’s-it-called after all,” Vosk said through a clenched grimace. Calay whisked the armor brush off him for a moment, then dug around in his belt.

“No shame in it,” he said, selecting a small glass vial. He slapped it into Vosk’s palm. Vosk twisted it open, extracted the eye dropper from the cap, and gave the concoction within a curious sniff.

“Up to four drops at a time,” Calay instructed. “I’d start with two and see how you go.”

“Two little drops?” Vosk hiked up an eyebrow, studying the vial while Adal continued to scrub blown-apart bits of tree goo off his back.

“My work is potent, darling.” Calay even went so far as to give him a wink. “Trust me.”

So Riss was’t the only one still riding that post-gunfight high, then. She wiped her armor down and whistled for Adal, tossing his soap back.

When she next set eyes on Geetsha, she felt less agitated, soothed by the antics of her mercs.

“Our packbirds seem antsy,” she said to the girl. “Do you think there’s a chance more of those things are lurking nearby?”

Geetsha’s face gave a little twitch and her lips thinned, as if she were slow to process the required facial expression, so deep was her thought.

“… They are drawn to noise,” she said after a moment, with the customary delay that often prefaces bad news.

“How far away should we get?”

Riss realized again that despite her misgivings, she still trusted the information Geetsha gave her.

“You shouldn’t measure it in distance,” said Geetsha. She closed her eyes, features calm and meditative. A strand of her wispy white hair fell into her eyes. Riss noticed a twig tangled up in her bangs. “You should measure elevation. They have difficulty climbing.”

Riss thought back to the tree slowly lurching up the river bank, pushing up its rumpled curtains of mud.

“That makes sense. Where’s the best high ground?”

“You are on it.” Resigned, Riss glanced down to her boots. They sat atop a mild slope, hardly an obstacle.

“Is there anything better in walking distance?”

Riss trained a look toward the pair of moa, who still hadn’t settled from their agitated tugging. One paced in a slow, repetitive figure eight. The other stood at the perimeter of their torchlight, staring off into the blackness as if its sharp avian eyes were fixed on a threat only it could see.

“Perhaps three or four hours from here, at our current pace.”

Riss toothed at her bottom lip in thought, then nodded in assent.

“We’ll go there,” she said to the girl. Raising her voice to the others, she shouted: “Let’s pack up. Geetsha says more of those things will be drawn by the noise, but there’s higher ground to camp on further down the trail. Apparently they’re bad with hills.”

Despite how efficiently they’d all pitched camp less than an hour ago, nobody seemed to mind being asked to pack down. Riss observed in their faces the faint, edgy lines of tension: they didn’t want to be sleeping if a whole flock–or would it be called a copse–of those things descended on the clearing en masse.

In short order, the tents were packed and lanterns were lit and everyone was ready to go. Riss juggled up their marching order somewhat: one moa at the front and one at the back. Torcha up ahead with her and Geetsha, Adal and Vosk at center, Calay and Gaz still bringing up the rear. She wanted to ensure their party’s wounded members–and yes, she still thought of Adal as wounded–had as much protection in the dark as possible. It wasn’t much, but it was what she could offer, and they had earned it with their conduct in that fight.

<< Chapter 16 | To Be Continued >>

Chapter 16

Rifle fire was loud. So much louder than he could have anticipated. He was slightly more used to explosions, being capable of causing such through his magicks, but in the aftermath of that gunfire and explosion both, he was left dazed and dumb. In the rare event that the thugs of Calay’s childhood could afford firearms, matchlocks were as good as it got. He hadn’t even acquired his first cartridge pistol until he and Gaz went on the run. The sheer noise rendered him briefly mute.

Breathing hard through his mouth, he took a moment to focus his senses.

The first sense to return to him in full was, unfortunately, smell. He took a deep breath and stifled an immediate retch. The gore-stuffed hollows of the tree now littered every available surface and it reeked. Calay felt along his hip and dipped a finger into his belt-pouch, seeking through some vials until he found what he was looking for: amirin cream, commonly used to stave off the smell in the autopsy room or when working with unsavory body fluids in less medically sanctioned contexts. He dabbed a smear of the stuff beneath his nostrils, then snorted in a breath. The cream possessed a minty menthol aroma, eye-wateringly strong, but blinking back those tears beat smelling what had to have been years of liquefied corpses.

Once he could breathe through his nose again, he closed his mouth and looked over his shoulder. He offered the vial to Adalgis first, a conscious show of respect.

“Impeccable timing,” he said to the man. “Here, this will take the edge off.”

Adalgis wasted no time in applying the cream, then passed it on to Torcha. It made the rounds. Calay didn’t care if they finished it or not; he had loads. Next on his mental to-do list while the adrenaline in his system boiled itself off was to make himself useful. Riss had hired him on as a medic, after all. Time to inventory the wounded.

Gaz and Riss had done the brunt of the hands-on damage to the creature, but they were up and about; their wounds were superficial. Both waved him off. He noted with quiet, well-concealed discomfort that Gaz had a cut across his cheek, but the amount of minor rends in Gaz’s tough-guy hide that he’d stitched closed over the years… Calay knew his number-one patient well. It could wait. He passed the man a cotton pad, then turned his attention to Vosk.

He’d been reloading when Vosk had gone down, but he’d heard the impact. A crushing injury of some sort. Calay approached with a lift of his hand, finding Vosk sitting upright in the mud, his expression a familiar one. Calay could empathize with the tight-browed, tight-mouthed expression a soldier’s face adopted when something hurt like a motherfucker and he was determined not to show it.

Crouching, he looked the man up and down. Vosk had a soldier’s understanding of the role he played in the patient-medic relationship, as well. He sat there silently and lifted his chin and arms, letting Calay do what he would.

“Anything feel busted?” he asked. Vosk was well-armored and he hadn’t fallen far, but Calay wasn’t entirely sure what kind of strength a tree packed.

“My pride,” said Vosk through a wince. “Perhaps a couple ribs, but only when I breathe.”

“Well avoid doing that, then. Here. I’ll have a feel.” Calay waited while Vosk unlaced his cuirass up the sides, then lifted the whole thing up and over his head. His movement wasn’t too bad, nothing stiff or spasming in the back and shoulders. Calay then palpated his ribs in turn and found them satisfactory. If any were cracked, there wasn’t much to do beyond wear sturdy armor and treat the pain. He had Vosk take a few deep breaths just to be sure, but nothing sounded worrying.

“I think your initial diagnosis was right on the nose,” he said. “Let’s get you on your feet and see how you feel.”

He offered Vosk a hand down. The man took it and rose slowly, moving with the air of an injured man attempting to conserve energy rather than the jerky, spasmodic motions of someone with debilitating injury. Calay gave his hand a fraternal squeeze, then clapped him on the shoulder.

“You had good instincts to get between Torcha and that thing,” he said. Perhaps it was unkind of him, but he wouldn’t have expected it. Possibly not from Riss, or from the others. Certainly not from Tarn’s man, who had his own motivations and his own loyalties.

“She was hurting it the most.” Vosk hitched his shoulders up in a modest, diverting shrug.

“All the same,” Torcha chimed in, “we worked well together.”

Calay turned a little look over the group, a small, thin smile touching his mouth. “That we did.”

He set his eyes on Riss, who was picking over the tree’s remains. And the… remains-remains. Calay wasn’t sure what to make of the mess. Riss flipped a meter-long shard of greyish trunk over with the blade of her machete, regarding it coolly. After a moment, she shrugged.

“None of these pieces are large enough to bother carting back,” she said. “As gratifying as it was to blow that thing all to shit, we can’t sell it now.”

Torcha’s young, freckled face crumpled with disappointment. She blinked it away, then cleared her throat.

“Sorry, sir,” she said. “Next time I’ll ask.”

Riss seemed caught off-guard by that response. She tilted her chin to one side, then after a hesitant moment, a warm laugh chased the last traces of mercenary cool off her face. She walked up to Torcha and thwacked the flat of her machete’s blade to the woman’s boot.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said. “You did fine.” She lifted her voice just a touch. “You all did. Selling anything we find out here is an afterthought, unless we stumble over some of Tarn’s fancy trees and they don’t try to eat us first.”

Calay left Riss to her mercenaries and, satisfied nobody was in the process of bleeding to death, stole over to Gaz’s side. He stood more or less where Calay had left him, looming over the wreckage of the tree, battleaxe replaced upon his back. His cheeks were still flush with exertion and his shoulders rose and fell with each breath, his body slow to cool down after the wind-up of engagement.

“How you feeling?” Calay asked. “And I gave you that rag for a reason. You going to mop that cut up or not?”

Gaz glanced down to his hand, which still gripped the little square of cotton Calay had handed him. Pristine and bloodless, it clearly hadn’t been used. Calay snatched it back.

“Ungrateful little…” he started, then crooked a finger to beckon Gaz downward. Gaz bent a little at the knee. Calay spat upon the cloth and, finding his patient’s face at a more amenable level to reach, wiped the half-clotted blood clear of Gaz’s cheek. He dashed some antiseptic on the cloth, then cleaned the wound out. Gaz just crouched there silently, enduring it all, no stranger to this treatment.

“I’m still trying to figure out what to make of what we just did,” Gaz mumbled, studying some broken shards of bark down by his boots. “What we just saw, even. What sort of magick can even create something like that?”

“If it was even magick at all.” Calay concluded his fussing, then dabbed the wound dry one last time. He had a serum he could paint over the top, scab it over more or less instantly, but that would be overkill. No need to waste his supplies on minor scratches.

“You don’t think so?”

Calay held his tongue. Exactly what magick was and wasn’t capable of, that was a subject of spirited debate. A subject he held rather strong opinions about. But he’d sooner hand himself over to the Vasile Guard than delve into magickal philosophy around this lot. The less they knew about his opinions–and knowledge–on the matter, the better.

“Well,” he said instead, “all the local legends and such. People have been avoiding this swamp and occasionally pilfering its spooky wood spoils for years upon years. That’s a bit much to be the work of some wayward sorcerer.”

Gaz grunted, as much of a reply as Calay was going to get. He stretched up to his full height; Calay’s hand dropped away. He folded the bloodied rag away into his belt, a force of habit. There was barely enough blood on there to be useful, but…

“The root cause of it may be magick, far far back, sure. But I think Vosk was right when he told us back when that sometimes, in some places, the natural world just goes… a little bit less natural.”

The last of their precious sunlight dwindled, but despite their bolstered camaraderie, nobody was quite in the mood to set up camp. While walking back to their intended campsite, they reached a murmured consensus that pushing on through a few hours of dark might not be a bad idea, depending on what Geetsha said.

If Geetsha even turned back up. She had yet to resurface from her supposed mushroom gathering.

<< Chapter 15 | Chapter 17 >>

Chapter 15

Riss moved, pure instinct. She brought her machete up and hacked it downward, body leaping and twisting sideways before her brain caught up. Gaz at her flank moved similarly: he shed his knife and hefted his battleaxe, swinging it in a wide arc in anticipation of a collision.

When the creature caught up to them, their blades were already flashing, and Riss juddered with the impact as her machete bit bark.

Lurching forward, eerily quiet save for the hiss-slither of its roots and the dreary, asthmatic whinnies as its equine head breathed, the creature seemed to move almost without purpose. Its branches sought out with the same blind groping as the roots had; those branches showered splinters in all directions as Riss and Gaz met it halfway.

Behind her, Riss heard Torcha calling, “Down!”

She ducked. The whole movement–leap, chop, pull, chop, duck–took mere seconds, flowed smooth as water. Riss pressed herself into the muck and the resounding, chest-thumping boom of Torcha’s rifle punctured the stale swamp air. The trunk of the tree blew bark in all directions. Someone followed up with a volley of pistol fire, Vosk or Calay, and Riss squinted through the muzzle smoke and watched the horror above her as it tilted precariously…

The creature staggered to its side, its horse legs clawing blindly. The horse issued forth a panicked wheeze, then Gaz was thundering toward it, heaving his axe up with all his strength. He cleaved the horse’s head clean off in a single strike, showering Riss with a gout of foul-smelling brackish liquid that wasn’t quite mammalian blood. The head fell into the mud with a wet, sad thwuck and for a moment, all was still.

Riss swallowed her raspy breath, then rose up, glancing behind her. A shard of bark protruded from the front of her padded leathers; she yanked it free with a grunt. Gaz smeared blood from his eyes and likewise patted himself down.

A silent look passed between them before both set their eyes upon the monster. The two hoofed front legs that protruded from the tree trunk still spasmed with  purposeless motion even as the neck stump bled freely. Though neither Riss nor Gaz had voiced it, there had been an understanding that had manifested in both their minds, a logical conclusion based on years of felling both beast and man: cut off the head and the rest will die.

This proved not to be the case. Thick, twisting ropes of root lashed out from the base of the trunk as the tree began to crawl forward. It didn’t seem to care that it had toppled sideways, nor did it take care to right itself. It just dragged itself to Riss’ left, toward Torcha and the others, labored now by its blown-apart bits but crawling just as determinedly forward.

“Fucking hells,” Calay hissed from behind her. “How is it still alive?”

“I don’t think the horse had much to…” Riss started to speak, but the smell hit her in a wave. Her words drowned in a retch and gag as she smeared at her face, attempting to wipe the creature’s blood from her skin and clothing. However, after a split second, she realized the foul, stomach-churning odor seemed to emanate from the tree itself, not from the blood it had spilt on her.

“Hold it off!” Torcha scampered back some, hands working at the bolt action of her rifle. “I’m reloading!”

Vosk leapt up from behind her, putting himself between the sharpshooter and the creature. He had one pistol in hand and pulled another from his belt. Riss hauled her machete up and slashed downward just as Vosk fired. He pulled both triggers at once and the front of the tree’s trunk blew open, grey-green bark cracking and chipping away.

A half-rotted humanoid face, glistening and wet, peered at Riss from the newly-opened fissure in the bark. A human’s arm tumbled free from the hollow in the tree, dangling lifelessly, dripping sick-sweet decay. It swung like a pendulum when the tree crawled forward. Riss forced herself not to look too long, noted with slow-rising terror that behind the dangling corpse were the tangled, twisted appendages of yet more bodies. She caught a glimpse of more hooves, more tangled skeletons, and then she tore her eyes away and flailed her machete downward with all she had.

“It’s using the roots and branches to drag itself!” She bellowed to the others between harsh, heavy breaths. “Cut them off! Even if we can’t fucking kill it we can cripple it!”

Gaz rounded to the tree’s other side. She couldn’t see him, but she heard the chunk of his axe digging in.

Riss’ ribs rattled as Torcha blew another heavy round into the tree’s trunk, sending cracks shuddering through its root base. It toppled yet further, laying all but horizontal in the muck. Riss sidestepped the thrashing roots, neatly severing them with swipes of her blade, and kicked writhing tentacles of root off into the distant mud.

“Calay? Vosk?” Torcha squinted at the two men through the haze of muzzle smoke. “Which of you’s the better shot?”

We don’t have time, Riss thought. Don’t let this turn into some pissing contest.

Vosk, bless him, defied her expectations. He deferred to Calay while reloading, nodding aside with a simple, “Probably him.”

Calay sniffed sharply, then looked to Torcha for guidance. She drew her duster open, then fished around in one of the many pouches that hung from her belts and bandoliers. Just meters away, the tree thrashed and writhed in the mud. Gaz continued hacking at it with abandon, sending meter-long chunks flying through the air.

“I’m gonna chuck this bomb in it.” Torcha unpacked a fist-sized glass sphere from her belt. “But I don’t have time to set a fuse. You think you can pop it?”

Calay popped his hat off and tossed it carelessly behind him, taking a knee half-behind Vosk.

“I can certainly try.”

Torcha popped the cork off the small glass bomb, then tipped a shimmering powder from another vial inside. The concoction looked inert to Riss’ eyes, but she trusted Torcha’s judgment. Torcha stoppered up the bomb again, then pointed toward the corpse-stuffed fissure in the tree’s trunk.

She wound up, then threw. Her aim was a damn sight better than Riss’ would have been. The glass sparkled as it sailed through the air, seemed to hover in slow motion, and landed straight inside the tree’s trunk.

Calay’s pistol cracked a split second later. Shards of bark erupted from the creature’s flank, several inches wide. In a sudden, sweeping grab, the tree lurched up one of its last remaining branches, lashing out in the direction the pistol fire kept coming from. It slammed squarely into Vosk, knocking him sideways with a worrying crunch. Riss knew better than to leap into the path of where her gunners were firing, so she went low, trying to slice the branch off at its base.

“Riss! Fall back! Incoming!”

For a moment she didn’t recognize the voice. Her brain spit up an inane, confused Gaspard? and she staggered backwards, ducking away from whatever was–

A rifle shot screamed past her. The tree exploded in a shower of bark and gore. Bones and liquefied tissue and twigs in equal measure rained down from the sky in the aftermath of Torcha’s bomb. Riss curled her arms over her head, wary of the larger chunks as they impacted the wet ground around her.

Her ears ringing, she lifted her head and glanced back to the others.

Adal stood at the rear of the party, rifle still at the ready. He lowered it slowly, staring at the blown-apart tree with round, surprised eyes.

The tree wasn’t moving anymore.

<< Chaper 14 | Chapter 16 >>