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.