Riss snapped awake. She sensed a presence hovering over her face, and by instinct she threw an elbow toward it. Fingers closed around her wrist.
“Shh,” Adal whispered in her ear. She relaxed her fingers. He relaxed his.
In the dead of night, lit only by half-spent coals, Adal and Gaz crouched near her bedroll. Something was wrong. She was fully awake in seconds.
“Vosk and Calay are gone,” Gaz whispered. Adal edged off to rouse Torcha.
“Gone as in eaten, or–”
“Gone as in Calay told me he thought Vosk was up to something and was going to check it out. It’s been a few minutes now and he hasn’t come back.”
Riss grunted. She considered reprimanding the sellsword for letting that happen, but no point in it now. If anything happened to Calay, Gaz’s guilt would be punishment enough. Riss instructed Gaz to tie the moas’ leads to something, and in under a minute she and Torcha were fully awake and armored up. This particular journey, Riss had opted to sleep with her boots on. Looks like it was paying off.
A moment later, Adal’s voice, low and cautious: “Geetsha’s gone, too.”’
Well, shit. Again, that suspicion reared its head. Geetsha sure managed to disappear a lot during convenient moments.
By gesture more than words, she led the four of them down the trail. Adal held up a lantern, kept it mostly-hooded to lend them a scrap of an advantage. But Riss knew they’d be easily spotted regardless. Whether it was Vosk threatening Calay as Gaz seemed to think, or something jointly trying to absorb both the men, their light would give them away to the threat. She somehow doubted Geetsha had attacked them, but she tried to remind herself that at this point it was foolish to rule out anything.
They descended the slope and found their path was gone. The colorful filaments were still woven through the thorns, but the thorns themselves were so thickly overgrown across the trail that firelight from the other side barely peeked through.
She slid a look aside to Adal, whose mouth had narrowed. He ticked his head side to side, a tiny disbelieving shake. She wasn’t going crazy, then; this had definitely been their way through.
“Fan out,” she whispered through her teeth. “Not too far apart from one another. Look for gaps.”
The wall of thorns proved impassable. Unnaturally so. They converged back where they started a few moments later, everyone signaling in the negative. No dice.
From the other side of the thorns, a male voice suddenly shrieked in agony.
At the scream, Gaz stiffened and turned toward the wall of thorns.
“We’re going through,” he informed Riss, calm as anything, as if he were commenting on the time of day.
Riss grabbed her gloves from her belt and yanked them on, then tugged up her hood in hopes to shield her face against the thorny debris. She drew her machete and got to work. Torcha likewise covered her face, as did Adal. Gaz just started hacking away, swinging his axe in broad arcs that sent thorned branches flying every which way.
They plowed through in seconds. Riss felt the bite of a few thorns on her skin and against her clothes, but she wasn’t concerned. Leave it to the medic, she thought. Once we’re sure we still have one.
The fire in the clearing still burned, flames feeble, coals glowing. It stood between Riss and the strange trio of Geetsha, Vosk, and Calay.
Riss knew a stand-off when she saw one. Vosk held Geetsha at gunpoint. Calay stood not far away, crouched down near the roots of the great, slumped tree. Another scream. One of Calay’s hands worked down in the roots where Riss couldn’t see.
He was cutting the survivor free. Riss could only imagine what collateral damage that was doing to his body.
“Stay back, all of you!” yelled Vosk. “She isn’t human!”
He held up a palm to Riss and the others, all the while keeping an eye on Geetsha.
“Harlan,” said Geetsha, her voice calm. “You are making a mistake.”
A soft, feminine grunt of effort sounded out as Torcha unshouldered her heavy rifle. She looked at Riss aside, patted the stock of it.
“Aim me, boss,” she said.
Riss held up a hand, stalling her for the time being. Geetsha had stirred up intrigue and suspicion long enough. It was time to get to the bottom of what was wrong with her. Vosk hadn’t exactly found a diplomatic way to force the discussion, but at least they’d finally be clearing the air.
“Everybody calm down.” Riss lifted her voice, pitched it across the clearing. She addressed them like soldiers: short, curt.
“She fucking moved the thorns,” Vosk hissed, his eyes thin slices in the firelight. “She’s some kind of sorcerer!”
The word turned Riss’ sweat cold. ‘Witch’ was a common enough epithet in these parts of the lowlands. Every dust mote-sized village on the map had local healers and apothecaries, herbalists who worked folk “remedies” and shriveled old augurs who promised to read your tea leaves and tell the future. To the uneducated who believed in such things, it was all varying degrees of witchery.
Sorcerer, though. That meant something different.
Riss signaled to Torcha with a twist of her hand. Torcha didn’t have to be told twice. She took a knee and levelled her rifle at Geetsha.
“Geetsha,” Riss started. “I think it’s time we had a talk. You haven’t been entirely honest with us.”
There was no way around it. This confrontation had been brewing for some time. Now Riss just had to hope that if the deception begat violence, it would be the kind of violence a slug through the skull could actually solve. If Vosk was correct and Geetsha possessed some sort of sorcerous power…
Riss had heard stories. She’d never been at a sorcerer’s mercy before. But magick, real magick, the type that didn’t come from old biddies boiling chicken bones to divine your future husband, it could bring whole platoons to their knees.
“There are things I haven’t told you,” Geetsha freely admitted. She never raised her voice. And she didn’t sound the slightest bit alarmed, despite the multiple guns pinning her in place.
“How about you tell us now?” asked Riss, to keep her talking.
“There are more important things to discuss.” Geetsha then turned her eyes from Vosk to Riss and back again. In the firelight, she seemed even paler than usual. Ashen, even.
“Harlan,” Geetsha asked once her attention returned fully to Vosk. “What did you do with the cloth-men?”
Vosk visibly startled. He took a step away from Geetsha, then for some reason spun to face Calay. For a half-second, the barrel of his pistol levelled on Calay, as if to warn him back.
“The who?” Vosk whipped back around to face Geetsha.
Riss had heard a lot of men lie under duress. Vosk was nowhere near among the more talented.
“I already know,” said Geetsha. “Say it for their benefit.” She took a single step toward Vosk, who merely watched her, transfixed.
This was going to end badly. Riss could already tell. She had to intervene.
“Vosk!” Riss called over. “Back down. Torcha’s got a rifle on her. Just stand down! Geetsha, hands up and hold still!”
Geetsha stopped moving. She lifted her palms, loose sleeves dangling down her thin, childlike wrists. She turned her head fractionally toward Riss.
Vosk took the opening. He steadied his hand and fired, blowing Geetsha’s face apart from mere feet away.