Chapter 23

Calay inhaled and held it. He had options. They all had their drawbacks.

He could approach Vosk in a friendly, nonthreatening fashion. Act like he hadn’t seen a thing. Because of course, normal eyes couldn’t see that far into the dark. He could slip back to the camp and grab the others. But that might not give him enough time. If Vosk was trying to harm their would-be patient, those few minutes might make all the difference.

The sound of murmured voices reached his ears. Vosk and the survivor were speaking, but he couldn’t quite make out what was being said.

And the other question: to ward himself or not? Should anything unusual happen, he wanted the protection. Wards were easy enough to sketch onto his skin. However, that too had a downside: if anything made contact, the flash and sparkle would be a dead giveaway that something about him wasn’t natural.

Calay fingered the vial of blood still tucked away against his palm. Coming at Vosk magickal guns blazing wouldn’t help the situation any. And perhaps Vosk was just checking in on the man. Perhaps that’s all it was. Maybe Calay’s paranoia was not serving him well in this case.

This was exactly the sort of situation he needed Gaz for. Not for his muscle, but for his calm, clear consideration of the basic facts of things. Calay often tangled himself up in layers of deception and his concern for the far-off, as-yet-unforeseen consequences of his actions. What, he wondered, would Gaz do?

Gaz would ask simple questions with simple answers.

Did Calay trust Vosk? No. When he asked himself, he found he did not. But did he trust himself enough to defuse this situation–whatever type of situation it turned out to be–without magick?

Yes, he did.

He could talk his way out of plenty. And when that failed, regular violence often sufficed.

That wasn’t so hard, he thought. Thanks, buddy.

From the brambles, he called out, “Vosk, you aren’t tree-food, are you?”

Across the clearing, the stooped-over shadow stiffened. Vosk hesitated before he replied.

“Checking on our man here,” he called.

He emerged from the brambles, passing through the flutter of threads and into the coal-lit clearing. Tangled thorny branches and old, dead wood glowed orange-red all around him, and the filaments gleamed like molten gold up in the tree’s boughs.

Vosk stepped back from the tree, which sat unthreatening and still.

“How is he?”

As Vosk moved closer, Calay’s eyes caught the presence of something in the man’s hand: a small glitter of glass. The painkiller cocktail he’d given Vosk for his ribs.

“Not making much sense. Mostly groaning. Occasionally asking where and who we are. Asked for water.” Was Vosk’s voice tighter than usual? Tense?

Vosk’s eyes, dark in the night, slid sideways and down. He’d spotted Calay looking at his hand. Calmly, he slipped his hands beneath the drape of his cloak, and though it made sense that he’d be secreting the bottle somewhere for safekeeping, Calay’s instincts screamed gun gun he’s going for his gun.

“Glad you didn’t run into anything nasty out here.” Calay flashed him a quick, disarming smile.

From low to the ground, a ragged voice whispered:

“Lying. He’s…”

Startled at the sudden intrusion into their conversation, Calay looked down. Twisted through the roots of the tree, the shiny, wet eyes of its half-digested meal peered up at him, wide and imploring.

“… Lying.” The man wheezed. Calay steeled himself.

He heard rather than saw the rustle of fabric as Vosk adjusted his cloak. Calay already knew what he’d see when he turned around: the barrel of Vosk’s pistol pointed squarely at his midsection. From this close, he wouldn’t miss.

So this is how it’s going to be, then.

Calay had several tricks up his sleeve, but he wasn’t sure how many he could weave quick enough to divert lead from point blank range. He turned the situation over in his mind, detached and analytical. It wasn’t the first time he’d been held at gunpoint and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. All he needed to do was divert Vosk’s attention for a half-second, then he could spring any number of traps. Failing that, Gaz would be rousing the others soon.

He noticed Vosk hadn’t said anything.

“Not even going to try to justify yourself?” he asked. He was genuinely curious. Betrayals were a fact of life in Calay’s line of work. Each one was like a sunset: so many layers, so many colors, no two the same.

“Would it make any difference?” Vosk kept the barrel of the pistol leveled at him and lifted a tiny shrug, like a kid caught misbehaving.

“It would satisfy my curiosity.” Calay unfurled his hands, showed Vosk his palms. He’d play the good hostage for now. “I figured out that you were trying to dose our man here, yes, but I have no idea why.”

“How about ‘why doesn’t concern you.’”

“Fine by me.” Calay tried to get a read on the man’s temperament. Generally speaking, there were three types of people who had ever held a knife to Calay’s throat in the alleys: nervous kids with something to prove, common thugs who had no idea who they were fucking with, and stone-cold professionals who knew what they were up against. The impassive cast to Vosk’s features and the steady calm with which he trained his muzzle on Calay suggested it was some combination of the second and the third.

He sees me as just another obstacle between him and whatever he wants. Now, how to exploit that?

Before Vosk could speak again, Calay figured he may as well try the oldest trick in the book.

“I’m going to turn around now,” he said. “Very slowly.”

He spun on his boots, a slow-motion pirouette, and continued to show Vosk his empty hands. In his slightly too-shiny, altered vision, Vosk’s eyes seemed to glow.

“Look,” said Calay. “I’m not here because of my loyalty to your war profiteer Baron and the grand army of Emperor who-gives-a-shit. I’m here to get paid. You pay me, I saw nothing.”

A minute tremble across Vosk’s mouth: a micro-expression he tried to suppress. He was considering it.

The man trapped in the base of the tree wheezed a protest, mangled words Calay couldn’t understand.

“Hells,” he said, ticking his chin downward. “Slide me a little extra and I’ll take care of him myself.”

Vosk, despite the tense draw of his lips, exhaled a near-soundless laugh.

“Some medic you are.”

The fire beside them crackled. Calay steeled himself, willed his body not to jump at the sound. Any sudden movements could end badly for him, even though by his calculations, Vosk seemed to be listening to reason.

“Well, I was trained as a medic.” Tuck a little truth into the pocket of the lie and people bite all the way down. “But I’m not like Riss. You can tell with her already. Too much heart for this line of work. If you’re here to sabotage her, she’s a source of income to me, nothing more.”

The barrel of the pistol angled downward some. A subtle shift of the hand–subtle enough it might have even been subconscious on Vosk’s part–but a telling one.

The fire crackled again. Then again. And this time, both Vosk and Calay shifted a look toward it. The crackling grew in both volume and frequency, like snapping twigs or popping knuckles on either side of their ears.

“… That’s not the fire, is it,” Calay said aloud. Treat him as an ally against the possibility of an external threat. He’ll mirror it.

All around them, the thorns began to clatter. The brambles came alive, shivering like bodies in the cold.

“Vosk,” said Calay, voice lifting with restrained alarm. “Please let me draw my gun.”

<< Chapter 22 | Chapter 23.5 >>

Enjoying the story so far? Your vote on TopWebFiction helps us find new readers!

Chapter 22

“It can’t be time yet,” Calay muttered. But it was. He hauled his sluggish body up, trying to orient his even-more-sluggish brain. Gaz and Torcha had already hunkered down, the latter somehow snoring louder than the former. Calay groped around for his canteen, then took a hearty swig and splashed a little water on his face for good measure. He dabbed it away with the inside liner of his coat.

Vosk stoked the fire, perched on a section of an old, pitted log. He gave Calay a nonchalant two-finger wave, then pointed toward his rucksack.

“Fancy a plum?” he asked, and Calay blinked, still waking. Plums? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even seen a plum for sale, let alone eaten one.

Calay savored each bite of that plum, trying not to dwell on how strange it felt to eat this way. To just have fresh fruit on order like that, even while traveling as a hired sword. Sometimes he felt that by stepping out of his old life, he’d inadvertently stepped into that of a much richer man. Someone like Adalgis.

Instead, he just thanked Vosk for the plum and set his eyes on the darkness beyond the campfire.

“First watch see anything noteworthy?” he asked. Vosk shook his head, the answer Calay had expected. A thread of nerves ran through them all at the moment, camping just up the hill from that tree. If anything unusual had happened, he had a feeling the watch would have woken the entire camp.

So he sat, once again surrounded by that odd, oppressive silence, grateful to hear it broken by human snoring.


“Someone ought to go check the other fire,” Vosk said once the plums–delicious, soft, juicy, sweet–had been consumed. Calay glanced over, hoping that Vosk hadn’t said someone and meant him. He didn’t relish the thought of skulking off down there alone.

The other man seemed to read his mind. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it,” he said. Calay chuffed a laugh, then rolled his shoulders back.

“We should go together,” he said. “It seems unwise to get any closer to that tree solo.”

“Mate, I’ll be keeping the fire between that thing and myself, believe me.”

Grunting quietly, Vosk eased up from beside the fire and patted himself down. He checked his pistol and blade at his waist, then shrugged his cloak off. Despite his assurances to Calay that he’d be keeping the fire between himself and the tree, he was stripping kit for a fight. Just in case.

Calay ticked an upnod to the man as he stepped outside the perimeter of their camp. Quiet-footed, he disappeared into the dark. Calay cocked his head and listened to the footsteps, though soon enough those faded, too.

Despite the snoring bodies surrounding him, he couldn’t help but feel alone. They were a long way from civilization, and longer still from home. Back in the twisting alleys of Vasile, he was feared. He knew the city like the lines of his palm, and over time, he and Gaz had acquired a skilled and loyal following.

Out here in this place, magickal augmentation aside, he was just as vulnerable as any of them. That made the bottoms of his feet itch.

One night not long into apprenticeship, he had been asked to stay after dark. At the start, old Mr. Linten didn’t ask him to stay after often. Perhaps because he didn’t quite trust Calay yet or perhaps because a nine-year-old had limited capacity for usefulness. After a couple years though, when he was taller and had more of a brain about him, he started to get extra work after-hours.

He’d been in one of the supply closets inventorying pottles of creams and vials of eye-watering oils when he heard it: a muted thump from outside, the rustle of commotion that someone was trying to conceal. If he hadn’t left the closet door open for light, he may not have heard it at all.

Creeping to the doorway and peeking just outside, Calay watched as the clinic door edged open. A tall, underfed man whose features were so pallid they almost seemed to glow stepped inside. He bolted the door closed behind him. The hair on the back of Calay’s neck stood up. The intruder carried a truncheon in his hand, and though he wasn’t big, he’d dispatched the guard outside with hardly a scuffle. He crept past the beds of sedated patients like one of the wraiths out of Calay’s childhood scary stories.

Calay considered the possibilities: maybe Mr. Linten owed money to someone. Maybe one of their patients had enemies. Maybe Mr. Linten had enemies.

And maybe, the biggest oh-shit of all, he was some sort of junkie looking to score painkillers or sedatives from the supply vaults. Such as the one Calay was currently hiding in.

His eyes swept around for a weapon. He had his belt knife in the sheath at the small of his back–never left home without it–but knives meant getting close enough to use them, and that was a risk he didn’t want to take unless his hand was forced. Apart from its shelves of glass and ceramic, the supply closet contained a rack of spindly medical syringes, but again, those were worryingly close-quarters. He considered running, but the hallway that led further into the clinic was too far away across a well-lit room. There was no way he wouldn’t be seen. Apart from all that, there was the broom. Calay grabbed it with a sigh. A broom could put distance between his body and that of a grown adult. And it gave him the chance to play stupid.

Straightening up from his ready crouch, he turned three-quarters of his back to the door and began sweeping.

A tall, dark shape loomed in the periphery of his vision, filling the doorway. He turned as if expecting his boss, then startled visibly when confronted with a stranger instead.

“Oh,” he said, pitching his voice a little higher than normal. He hoped his smaller build and a lighter voice might make him look younger, more unassuming. “Can I help you, sir?”

The intruder, his features pale and pointed, eyes narrow and sunken, fixed on Calay with a little sniff.

“The man who owns this place,” he murmured, his voice low. “He has something for me.”

Calay played dumb. “Like a prescription?”

He didn’t like the way the man’s eyes never left him. If he were some junkie looking for laudanum, he’d be combing the room for it. If he were desperate enough for a fix, he might ignore Calay altogether.

“Where does your employer keep the blood, young man?”

Calay stiffened.

“Blood? I don’t think we keep any blood, sorry.”

That wasn’t even a lie.

This man meant them harm. Instinct told Calay to prepare for a fight. He adjusted his grip on the broom at the same moment the intruder took a slow step forward. It wasn’t the first time someone had cornered Calay in quarters this tight. And he was smaller, more nimble than his would-be assailant. Despite his youth, he had years of scrapping under his belt, and even if he went down, he wasn’t going to make it easy for this asshole–

“Hello? Who’s that over there?”

Mr. Linten’s voice from just outside the doorway.

“Calay, are you all right?”

It was just the split second of distraction he needed. The tall man turned toward the exit. Clearly he’d misjudged this broom-carrying child as a negligible threat.

Calay ran at him, smashing the broom into his gut to knock him off balance. At the same time he screamed for Mr. Linten.

Years later, he didn’t really remember what he’d yelled. Only that the man had toppled, and before he could right himself, Calay was on him with the knife. Instinct had taken over then, blade biting into tendon. He hamstrung his would-be attacker and had him bleeding on the floor just in time for Mr. Linten to round the corner and hurriedly put a boot to the man’s throat.

When he was on the floor, he didn’t look so wraithlike. He was just another threat Calay left wheezing on the ground.

That night, Mr. Linten showed Calay where he kept the blood, and from then on the nature of his apprenticeship changed.


With a blink, Calay returned to the present, surrounded once more by sleeping mercenaries and the still-glowing coals of the campfire. Vosk wasn’t back yet.

Out of all the times to suddenly reminisce…

It struck him as a little odd that he’d taken that particular trip down memory lane. He didn’t ponder his early childhood much. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat by a fire and looked back on his apprenticeship, at least the parts of it prior to Alfend Linten revealing his secret.

Something about that feeling, that intuitive scratch in his feet and hands, the way he’d felt sized up…

He’d felt echoes of it when he and Gaz had wondered if Vosk was sizing them up.

Easing up off his seat, he stretched and checked his pistol and punch-daggers. He was probably being paranoid, but paranoia had kept him alive through enough gang warfare and enough of life’s funny little surprises that he wasn’t about to give it the cold shoulder.

Creeping over sleeping bodies, he crouched low beside Gaz. He curled a hand, touching his knuckles to the sleeping man’s chin, hand ready to slap over his mouth if he made too much noise. Instead, though, Gaz’s eyes just shot open, and he turned a bleary look up toward Calay.

“Keep an eye on camp,” he whispered. “Vosk’s gone.”

Gaz grunted and levered himself up on his elbows. When he spoke, his voice was thick with sleep, a suspicious mutter.

“Bad idea to go after him alone. What do you mean ‘gone?’ Something took him?”

“No.” Calay jerked his chin in the direction of the path down the hillock. “He said he was going to check on the fire, but I got a weird feeling about it.”

“Again, if you’ve got a weird feeling, we should go together.”

He patted a hand to Gaz’s shoulder and squeezed.

“They’re all safer here with you watching them.” Gaz issued forth another sour grunt. He knew when he was being flattered. But he relented, letting Calay rise up.

“If I’m not back soon, rouse everyone.”

Gaz didn’t look convinced, but he let Calay go. And really, it made sense: of the two of them, Calay was the one that could handle himself if Vosk was in trouble. Or–as his suspicious mind had begun to believe–if Vosk made trouble. If it was just the two of them, Calay had the upper hand by a mile. Vosk wouldn’t know what hit him.

As he crept away from the camp, he slipped a vial of blood free from his pocket. Dashing some onto his palm, he traced the sign that let him see in darkness. Armed with fresh eyes, he hurried down the vaguely-stomped path between the two bonfires.

Once he’d descended most of the slope, he could see the glow of the fire beyond the thorns. It was still lit.

Hanging back, he brushed through the glittery threads that hung like a curtain over the brambles. He strayed just close enough, crouching in the dark, searching the clearing for signs of anything unusual.

Vosk stood at the base of the gold-spun crawling tree. He was crouched over something, visible as a sloped silhouette. He crouched, touching at something in the darkness of the tree’s roots.

The survivor. What was Vosk doing to him?

<< Chapter 21 | Chapter 23 >>

Chapter 21

Peering through the labyrinth of roots, Calay tried to survey the damage. Behind him, Riss and Vosk had the old bonfire blazing once more, superstitions about doubling up on campfires be damned. The extra light helped, but he still couldn’t quite tell where the root structure began and the victim ended. The man was wrapped up as if in the tentacles of some legendary sea-beast. Calay couldn’t see any evidence of wood melding into his flesh, but he was bound up tightly and twisted through the spine.

“There’s a good chance his back is broken.” He rose up from his crouch and patted one of his belt pouches. “I can give him pain relief, but we’ll have to wait for dawn if we want to try cutting him loose.”

“If we keep the fire stoked all night, that should keep the tree inert,” said Vosk.

“Have you asked him what he wants?” Torcha hopped up onto a dead branch beside him, peering downward.

“He’s barely conscious. We’ll see if the laudanum gets him talking.”

Calay extracted a dropper from his belt, then squinted down into the tangled roots. He rocked forward onto the balls of his feet, then stopped. He had to be careful. The last thing he wanted was to touch some still-living part of that tree and merge with it.

“Here,” said Torcha. She offered him a hand.

Balancing carefully, Calay gripped her hand in his right, then leaned down, dropper in hand, over his newest patient. Torcha’s hold on him was strong enough that it surprised him–for someone who came up to maybe his shoulder and didn’t look especially sturdy, she had a grip on her.

“If you’re awake, open up.” He spoke down to the man, angling his hand. The man groaned out a wordless response, jaw hanging as agape as ever. At least it was easy enough to get a couple droplets down his gullet. With Torcha’s assistance, Calay leaned back up.

“That will take the edge off,” he said, unsure whether the man could even hear him. “I’m sorry we can’t do more until morning.”

A memory struck him, fleeting and startling: similar words spoken to a young woman with a broken jaw at the Indigents’ Clinic, Calay painstakingly sucking blood free of her airways. It was so easy then, gathering blood. Yet out here in the damp, mud-caked nowhere, the other side of the job was easier: out here he didn’t have to pretend he was performing charity out of the goodness of his heart. Riss was paying him to do a job. And he was a professional. He’d do it.

Torcha, though. She was easy to like. If a tree sucked her up and tried to absorb her guts or whatnot, Calay would shoot it with earnest dislike in his heart.

“How’s he doing?” asked Vosk, speaking up from beside the crackling fire. Calay lifted his shoulders in response.

“Far too early to tell. Once we’ve got full light, we’re going to try to cut him free. We’ll see then how badly he’s hurt beneath all that.”

“He said anything useful?”

Calay only shook his head.

Torcha’s mouth scrunched to one side. She chewed the side of her cheek for a moment, squinting toward the tree with its strange eruption of gold and crimson glitter.

“Any idea what the hells is all that, then?” she asked.

Calay didn’t have a clue. Truth be told, he didn’t like looking at it. Murderous trees trying to eat them? He could deal with that. They’d blown one apart rather handily, and beyond that he had his magicks. But this weird color-spouting nonsense, the threads in the brambles, all of that was beyond his experience, beyond his understanding. Attention to detail had kept Calay alive more than any other skill of his over the years. Having a handful of details with no clue how they fit together and no idea what they meant for the future was not ideal.

He sought out Riss. She’d proved a competent sergeant thus far and if ever there was a time to voice his concerns, it was now.

“I don’t like this,” he told her, sidling up to where she and Adalgis stacked firewood.

“You’ll have to be more specific,” said Adal. “There’s rather a lot about the last few days to dislike.”

Calay grunted half a laugh. Adal was growing on him.

“I know what you mean, though.” Riss dusted off her hands after stacking the last of the deadfall.

Calay sliced a hand toward the glittering tree, its golden threads shining in the firelight.

“This isn’t like the last one. It may be dormant now, but there’s no guarantee it isn’t going to wake up in the middle of the night. Vosk’s advice on smoking it down is all well and good, but…” He trailed off. He wanted to leave room for Riss to alleviate his worries without him voicing them. He’d learned over the years how to handle these conversations as a second-in-command, or a whisperer-in-the-ear. It wouldn’t help his case to tell Riss we’d be stupid to camp down here because that would imply he thought she was stupid enough to do it. She didn’t seem that reckless.

“I completely agree. Vosk’s advice is handy to have, but there’s no sense in risking our entire crew on it.” Riss rolled her shoulders and smothered a yawn with the back of a hand. “We’ve been working hard. We walked longer than planned. I’m sweaty and sore. We need good sleep tonight, not the type of sleep we’ll get a stone’s throw from that thing.”

“Shall we start making camp up top then?” asked Adal.

Calay took a moment to observe him. Adalgis appeared to have softened some in his exhaustion, or perhaps he’d just decided he could trust Calay after all. Before, his mouth had possessed this almost permanent downturn, as if he were perpetually mildly peeved. But now he looked like just another tired soldier after a long march. Flecks of muck on his face, leftover tree-stink on his armor, the whole bit.

There were a lot of unkind words for people like him in the slums of Vasile. He was much more tolerable when he was dirty and tired.

“Camp up top sounds splendid.” Calay flashed a sharp smile at the pair. “I don’t know about you but I’m knackered.”


Once camp was made, they lit another fire. Calay sank down beside it, sitting knee-to-knee with Gaz. His body was exhausted but his mind couldn’t quite settle down yet. Which was a problem, given he was on second watch. Gaz and Torcha kept a languid eye on the camp while everyone else busied themselves with settling down and tiredly collapsing. The moa, walked harder and father than usual, sank down beneath the drape of a willow at the fringes of the firelight.

“It’s just crazy you two weren’t in the war,” Torcha was saying to Gaz, shaking her head.

“It was deliberate,” Calay chimed in. “Wasn’t a thing we wanted part of.”

Gaz gave a little nod, digging through a small toiletry bag at his foot. He withdrew a pocket mirror, a razor, and a tin of grease.

“What he says. City makes a lot of money off a war, but most Vasa folks aren’t patriotic enough to take up a sword.”

“And they wouldn’t conscript you? At least you, Calay?” She sounded disbelieving.

She was right about that. Medics had been in short supply on both fronts. Had Calay been a licensed practitioner in a mid-city clinic, he might very well have had a knock at the door and a letter from the Leycenate.

“Think of it this way,” he said. “There’s degrees of north. Down here in the Deel, you’d call this place the southlands, yeah? But you wouldn’t call the fisher-islands part of the southlands.”

Gaz slicked up his palms and smoothed them along the sides of his head.

“It’s funny,” said Torcha. “So many folks don’t really give a shit about the war now that it’s over. I honestly never think how many of ‘em didn’t give a shit while it was on, either. It’s hard to imagine being so far removed.”

“Geography makes it easy.” Calay worked his mouth in a sympathetic grimace. “And I imagine the opposite was true in your case.”

“Mhm.” Torcha turned to the side, watching as Gaz began to shave the sides of his stubbled scalp. “We got occupied.”

Something in the fire popped and everyone glanced toward it. Beyond, in the dark, the forest was oddly silent. All the little background signs of life–buzzing midges, distant birds, the sound of little rodent feet scuttling through underbrush–were absent here. Geetsha was right. Nothing else dared to live where the crawling trees did.

Calay wanted to ask her more. She was clearly younger than the others, possibly by as much as ten years or so. And given the comments she’d made about stumbling into the war with Riss’ lot, there was clearly a good story to be had.

But he was tired. And pushing her for more would mean that he’d have to reveal more about himself. Or make it up. He and Gaz had a well-rehearsed cover story sprinkled with just enough truth to make it real, but inviting someone to test its boundaries seemed like a needless risk.

“You oughta sleep, boss,” said Gaz, wiping goo off his razor.

“I really ought to.” Calay rubbed his thumb along the bridge of his nose. He unfolded from his seat and trudged over to his bedroll, stepping past the sleeping bulk of Adalgis and Geetsha as he went.

Under his thin blanket, rolled onto his side, he listened to the silence of the world. Gaz and Torcha’s conversation died away as soon as Calay left. All he could hear was the crackle of the fire and the breath of his companions. Someone sounded like they too weren’t quite asleep either, but he couldn’t tell who. He couldn’t blame them. If they weren’t running themselves half-ragged on foot, how could anyone sleep in this place?

He blinked his eyes closed, and in what felt like the next instant Vosk was shaking him awake for watch.

<< Chapter 20 | Chapter 22 >>

Chapter 20

Riss held her breath as Geetsha passed through the colorful, fluttering curtain… but nothing happened. The strange multicolored fibers didn’t sink into her flesh, or twist around her threateningly, or any of the other split-second nightmare scenarios Riss’ mind had conjured. She moved to follow Geetsha through and took a deep breath.

When she breathed in deep, she smelled it: the unmistakable rank stench of decay. The same scent that had curdled her guts when they confronted that tree.

“I smell another one of those things,” she said for the others’ benefit. Then she hurried through, swishing the threads aside with a hand and shouldering her way through the brambles. Stray thorns trying to retake the trail dug into her armor, but she paid them no mind. Like hell was she going to leave her guide alone with one of those trees. Whoever Geetsha was, however much she could or could not be trusted, she was the one who knew the way out.

Riss stepped free of the brambles, then nearly lost her footing. The trail crumbled a little as the plateau dissolved into swamp once more, the ground mucky and wet. She spotted Geetsha near another firepit, more evidence in the lantern-lit dark that someone had once camped here. But why this spot? Back among the fetid standing water and the thorns? On the low ground? Though the thorns might have provided some cover, it was hardly a prime position…

Her lantern’s light caught a glitter of gold. A fan of threads like wool all strung through a loom, or strings of lanterns through the trees at a wedding. And at the foot of it all, the gnarled branches and trunk. A crawling tree and the remains of a lone human victim slumped against its base.

“Geetsha,” Riss whispered. “Help me understand. I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing.”

It looked like the shiny golden thread had erupted out of the man’s back.

“I believe it is rejecting something it ate,” said Geetsha. The words came out slow and flat, as if she were thinking aloud. Lacking her usual sense of cryptic omniscience, Geetsha too just stared. The moment suffused Riss with a sort of strange, tense relief: it was comforting to see their awkward, otherworldly guide expressing the same confusion and horror that she herself felt.

Behind Riss, the rest of their caravan arrived. She held up a fist, warding them back. She didn’t need to shush them; as soon as their eyes fell on the strange tableau strung through the tree’s branches, the mercenaries all fell into stunned silence.

Unlike the tree they’d engaged prior, this one appeared… shriveled somehow. Unhealthy. Its roots had curled in against themselves, tangled and dry, flaking bark in places. Several branches lay upon the muddy ground. Riss couldn’t tell if they’d been severed or if they’d fallen off.

Was it… dying? Or like Geetsha said, just suffering from indigestion?

As if it sensed her curiosity, the tree gave a little shudder. Riss’ hand flew to the hilt of her machete, an immediate reflex. But the tree didn’t move toward them. It just shook, like an animal ridding its coat of dust.

The man tangled through its roots let out a pained whimper. Riss froze.

“He’s alive,” Adal said from behind her, voice low with restrained horror.

“Must have been what Geetsha heard,” said Vosk.

But what, if anything, could they do about it? And even if they could help, should they? Riss squinted through the gloom. It was tough to make out anything through the roots and the dark, but the man didn’t appear to be wearing Adelheim’s colors.

“Does he look like one of yours?” she asked Vosk, swinging her lantern toward him.

Vosk studied the man, his mouth pursing. The man’s face was sunken and tight with dehydration, wrinkles edging his eyes and mouth. Despite that, Riss thought he looked young. His hair was long, not a military cut. She couldn’t see much of his physique, but the hair alone edged her away from assuming he was one of Tarn’s.

“He doesn’t look familiar,” Vosk said at length.

The tree gave another quiver, its dry and spindly branches shaking. The hundreds of filaments–mostly gold and deep red–shimmered with its movements.

“Does that mean we aren’t gonna lend a hand?” Torcha sounded dubious, unconvinced.

“Not necessarily.” Riss didn’t want this to turn into some sort of moral debate. She ran through possible scenarios: delays, potential injuries to her men, whether or not the man would just die anyhow. They didn’t have enough light to judge the severity of his injuries, or how… absorbed… he was.

“I could give him pain relief at least,” said Calay after a moment. “If I could get close enough.”

“It’s possible he knows something,” said Adal, ever her compass.

That part was hard to ignore. Whether the man was one of Tarn’s or not, he may have seen or heard things. The swamp didn’t exactly suffer from an excess of human through traffic.

“Adal, Torcha, Vosk, guns on the tree.” Riss crooked a finger to Calay, then took a few steps forward. The medic, light on his feet, crept behind her. “Gaz, keep the birds back. I don’t want them getting spooked.” She didn’t have to tell him twice.

Calay and Riss halved the distance between themselves and the tree, finding the ground drier and drier with each step forward. Was the tree merely lacking water? That seemed like such an impossibly simple ailment.

Closer up, the survivor’s status did not appear any better. In the flicker of her lamp, Riss could see the sunken shelves of his cheekbones, the way his eyes were low in their sockets. He resembled more than anything the mummified remains she’d once glimpsed in a funerary procession as a child. A trio of mountain climbers had disappeared while attempting to summit Santieze Peak. They hadn’t returned, and for five winter seasons their bodies were lost among the glaciers. When their remains were finally brought home, the entire town had celebrated. But Riss had been unable to tear her eyes from the too-wide grins, the peeling gums, the strange jerkylike texture of their flesh…

“It’s possible we could cut him free,” Calay said at her flank. “I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it, but it’s possible.”

At that moment, the man groaned lowly, as if he’d heard Calay’s words. Riss was wary of making too much noise, but the tree seemed sickened and dormant. She had gunners at her back. She weighed the risks, then gave a little whistle, attempting to catch the injured man’s attention.

“… Hello?”

Loth’s teeth, the man was conscious. Riss glanced at Calay sidelong.

She made her decision then and there: regardless of the risk, regardless of the delay it might cause, she would attempt to cut him free. If he’d been hovering unaware at death’s door, like that wheezing horse, she might have been able to walk on past. But if he was alert? If he could feel what was happening to him? If he had heard a potential rescue walk by without stopping…?

Years of hunting living things with her father had hardened Riss. So too had the Inland Army thickened her calluses. But there were some things she simply couldn’t allow.

<< Chapter 19 | Chapter 21 >>

If you’re enjoying Into the Mire, I’d be delighted if you took a moment out of your day to give it a vote on TopWebFiction. I don’t advertise so it helps get us fresh eyes. Thanks!