Once, when Calay Maunet was young, before he was even Calay Maunet, he came down with a fever. For five days and nights he alternated between shivering and sweating, vacillated between exhausted and manic. He spent his days in the blurred barrier between asleep and awake. Snatches of consciousness were hazy, their edges ill-defined. He couldn’t ever be certain if he was fully alert.
After Geetsha blew apart, and in the heavy darkness that followed, he awoke in a similar way.
He opened his eyes to a writhing sky.
Dawn had come while he was asleep. It was a stormy dawn, the sky choked with thick and ominous clouds. Woven through the clouds were dark, tapered tentacles, darker still than the storm overhead, and they curled and twitched like the feelers of the jellies that sometimes washed up on the Vasa shores. Like they belonged to a dead thing stirred into motion by some unseen current.
None of it made sense.
When he tried to move, he found he couldn’t.
Then the pain hit him, far away at first, but slowly sharpening into focus as seconds passed. His body felt tired, weighted down. He could breathe, but he sensed a slippery, disconcerting not-rightness in his abdomen. When he tried to lift his head, he found he didn’t have the strength to raise it all the way.
Fragments returned: Geetsha, the living thorns, Vosk. Then stranger splinters: dreams of peculiar red beetles, the rumble of distant wagon wheels.
That’s right. Calay had been shot.
Well he must have lived through that, then. Which was fortunate, as he had enough blood on him to return his body to an unharmed state, provided he could reach it and manipulate it in the proper way. Struggling to lift his left hand, he felt down toward his belt, reaching, groping.
When he tried to lift his right hand, he encountered a strange resistance. A resistance that made him uneasy, because it wasn’t the sluggish delayed response of an injured limb. Something had him physically trapped in place. This new worry took precedence in his mind, and he gave his hand a little tug, trying to slip it out from under whatever had landed atop it.
Pain, sharp and barbed, licked immediately up his fingers and arm. A pain so intense and sudden that it drove a startled, strangled yelp out of him. He twitched and thrashed, and every motion seemed to invite further agony. It felt like trying to pull fishhooks from his skin, yet every time he tried to pull away they dug in deeper.
Shivering, whimpering, he turned his head. He grit his teeth until the spasms in his throat stopped. He schooled himself into silence.
He saw that there were no tentacles in the sky. What he was seeing were the roots of the crawling tree closing over his face. He’d fallen right into it. Which meant that the pain he felt whenever he moved his arm must be…
Calay bit back a fresh round of screaming. Hissing, whining, desperate, he attempted to shift his center mass away from the tree while moving his arm as little as possible. Further pain–this pain a deep, punching ache–jolted him through the middle. Warm wet spilled down his sides. He tried not to pay attention to the fishhook sensation, the little pulls and tugs he felt on his skin. Tried not to imagine it as the mouths of dozens of tiny leeches all burrowing in at once. Tried not to think about how he could not die like this.
Where was Gaz? Where were the others? Fuck’s sake, why wasn’t someone helping him?
Something must have happened to Vosk, or else the man would have marched up and put one in his head to finish him off. Vosk wanted him silent, not mortally wounded. With Geetsha dead–if she’d even been alive to begin with–Calay alone knew that Vosk had tried to kill the survivor. And Geetsha’s cryptic last words hinted at a reason why.
But none of that mattered if a tree fucking ate him.
His left hand’s fingers closed around a vial in his belt. He tried to calm himself, tried to think through his options, tried to keep a lid on the panic.
Remember what happened the last time you lost control.
Most days, Calay actively suppressed the memory of his last few weeks in Vasile. It was still too fresh, too raw. But he conjured a specific memory now: that kicked-dog sensation of being dragged to the Vasa dungeons, begging Gaz not to intervene, to let it happen, because he’d gotten himself into this mess and he wasn’t about to let his friends get killed on his account.
None of that would have happened if he’d kept a level head.
A cold shiver swept over him like a tide. The fishhooks felt further away. Not a good sign.
Focus. Come on. Two major concerns: the gut shot and the tree. Which was it best to tend to first? If he closed the wound in his stomach, he could focus on freeing himself. Hack his arm off if he had to. He wasn’t sure he had enough blood on him to fix that, hadn’t ever tested his magick to that extreme a degree, but if it was his only option, he’d take it in an instant over being absorbed slowly into a tree.
His thoughts slurred. He grounded himself in what he could feel: his left hand’s fingers held a vial. Vial. The vial was blood. He needed blood to patch himself up. Two vials would be better. He grabbed for both, lifted them to his mouth, bit through the waxy seals.
Hesitation. What if the others see? They saw him get shot. If they saw him un-shot things would get messy. But messy is a preferable outcome to dead. Things were already messy. Hesitation. He wondered if they’d turn on Gaz, too. Gaz can look out for himself.
He made the decision. With shaking, bloodstained fingers, he tore open the top few buttons of his shirt.
Calay turned his head, spat wax, and poured. Two vials of blood, harvested from the unwilling bodies of Vasa guards who’d crossed him, spilt down his chest. He sloppily sketched the seven-pronged character of su upon his skin, and as soon as his finger traced the final line, warmth surged through his body from the inside out. It hit him like a slap; his teeth snapped shut on his tongue. That pain was a drop in the bucket.
The strange stretching heat of a wound healing from within still unsettled him. The warming sensation grew hotter, and as broken skin and viscera knit back together, the heat rocketed up to near-unbearable levels. Tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, Calay held his breath and let the magick run its course. He’d never felt it burn so hot for so long now, but then again, he’d never had to clean up a wound this messy before, at least not on his own body.
Somewhere far away, the poor bastard who’d ‘donated’ this blood would share his searing red-hot agony. Splitting the pain between two bodies was the only thing that made it bearable.
Something deep in his core clicked and cracked; he felt a grinding sensation shimmy its way up his spine, a part of which must have been blown askew. As ribs and vertebrae burrowed back into place, he reflexively reached for his torso with both hands, and then his right arm sang out in fresh misery that put the burning in his guts to shame. The fishhooks seized him by the skin and the magick of su immediately tried to counteract, but something wasn’t working right. Above him, the tree shuddered, then its roots tightened their grasp around both Calay and the other body held in their tangles.
He recalled Vosk’s words, recalled the horrifying sight of the horse encased in the tree trunk. If Vosk hadn’t been lying about that too, then the tree was already melding with him. Any magick he worked on himself would–
Oh shit oh shit oh shit, had he just healed the tree?
Rolling onto his side as best he could, not even taking a moment to marvel at his newly-repaired torso, Calay groped for a blade. He had to cut himself loose, even if it meant taking off the entire arm.
When he blinked, a strange vision glittered before his eyes: sunlight sparkling on water. He heard laughter, faint and far away. His heart ached, a bone-deep nostalgia, and he couldn’t pinpoint why.
Across the clearing, bodies began to stir. Groaning quietly, Torcha rubbed at her head, groping for her rifle. He caught a glimpse of open eyes through the tangle of her hair.
Calay smelled salt now. He heard gulls. He could tell to some extent that the phantom smells and sounds must be hallucinations, as he couldn’t see anything that would have caused them. But that didn’t make any of it less real.
He would deal with Torcha when he was free, depending on what she’d seen.
Fumbling one-handed, he managed to unsheath one of the punch-daggers from his belt. He grit his teeth. The inside of his mouth still tasted like blood. He thought back to the slow, steady patience he’d shown in the city dungeons. He had the willpower to do this. Except this time, he’d have more in common with the screaming, wriggling rat that he’d trapped, down to the part where it had tried to gnaw off one of its own legs in its frantic rush to escape.