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.

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