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.

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