Gaz felt like he’d swallowed moths, like little wings were fluttering around in his stomach and stirring up his nerves. What if it didn’t work? He snapped the stopper free of the smelling salts and waved the vial beneath Calay’s nose. He tried not to think about how it was his own knife that had led to this. Tried not to look down at all the blood.
He was used to blood. Blood didn’t bother him. Or at least he thought it didn’t, until the blood was Calay’s. And it wasn’t even that he and Calay hadn’t been in scraps before. Back in Vasile, with Sylvene and the others, there had been scraps aplenty. But no matter how fucked up things got, Calay had always been in charge. He’d always had a grip on things. Even when the Leycenate’s thugs dragged him to the gallows, he’d seemed like he was in control. He kept things structured.
Calay was not in control now. Nobody was. They were far from any place where words like structure or control had meaning.
“Come on,” he said, a gentle coax as he waved the vial. “You aren’t gonna like this, but it’s the only plan we’ve got.”
Calay let out an abrupt wheeze. His eyelids fluttered open and he lifted his head, his whole face contorting into a grimace of both pain and disgust.
His eyes were so light a blue that in the dark, they looked like shiny ice. When he opened them, he just stared at Gaz for a second, a long enough second that Gaz was starting to worry if everything was all right in his upstairs.
“Fuck me,” he hissed. “This is bad. Ah. Bad.” He flexed the fingers of his good hand, felt down his maimed arm.
The man’s ability to understate was a gift.
“Easy,” said Gaz. “We’ve got you in a tent. Fix yourself up.”
The rest could wait. The many ways in which their current situation was completely messed up were only a distraction. It was like Calay had taught him back in the day, when he’d shown Gaz the very basics of first aid in the Clinic. Staunch the bleeding and keep the airways open, almost anything else came second.
“Blood’s in my belt,” Calay said through a tight wince.
“Think you used it all, or dropped the rest.” Gaz was being truthful there. All he’d discovered in the pouches were smelling salts, painkillers, and a couple medicinal resins.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got blood to spare.” Gaz tried to put a grin on, despite how sick he felt. “Been saving it, you know.”
Calay struggled up into a half-sit, propped up on his arm. He didn’t seem to notice Adalgis sitting beside them at all. That wasn’t too surprising, though. He looked like death, features ashen and shiny with sweat. The little muscles of his face had a disconcertingly slack quality, like his body had decided it was too much energy to keep them working properly. Only once had Gaz ever seen him so drained, and he didn’t like to remember that day.
With his remaining hand, Calay wiped his hair from his eyes. He stared at Gaz for a few seconds, then slowly nodded. His eyes had the hollow, tired quality of one of their old patients, someone who was only halfway home.
“All right,” said Gaz, rolling up his sleeve. “We’d better do this quick.”
Gaz reached for his belt, then remembered he’d left his knife in the muck. Without asking, he drew aside the leather of Calay’s duster and reached across for one of his. He found one at the back of a boot, wrestling it free, its owner too limp and shell-shocked to protest.
While he freed the knife, Calay noticed Adalgis.
“Gaz…” On edge now, he gave a weak tug at Gaz’s sleeve.
“Don’t mind me.” Adalgis sat there impassively as Gaz settled down cross-legged, close to Calay’s face.
“So they…” Calay didn’t seem able to say it. Or his thoughts were still catching up with him.
“Yeah.” Gaz gave him a grim, resigned little smile. “They know. But you’re still breathing. So let’s do this and figure out the rest later.”
He didn’t want to waste another second. Calay was in bad shape. Who knew how long it would take for the weave to fix a wound like that. And a tiny part of him was concerned he might lose his nerve. He’d done things in their past, going back years. Violent things. Messy things. But sawing Calay’s arm off like that had bunched up his stomach in a way he didn’t know it could get bunched up anymore.
Gaz tugged up his shirtsleeve as far as it would go, then tore it at the seam so as to roll it up past his elbow. A little nick to his palm would have done the trick, but he’d be using those palms later if he needed his axe. Just past his elbow on the upper arm, that would work. He’d been sliced there before. It had bled plenty.
“You’d better get right quick so you can stitch this up,” he said with an awkward laugh. Calay’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Be careful,” he murmured. “This is gonna be… worse than what we practiced.”
Gaz had a feeling it would be. He’d been trying not to think about that part. In the early days, before they had a reliable supply, they’d relied on their own bodies. Calay had never used his blood for anything more than simplistic little spells–softening their footsteps, darkening the shadows where they crept on some heist or another. Nothing like this. Anything big he saved for people who deserved it. Which implied it hurt a lot.
“We do what we have to.” Gaz meant that. He didn’t want to think of it in such desperate terms, didn’t want to think of them as trapped rats, but it was a backs-to-the-wall situation. He flipped the small, hiltless steel throwing dagger into position. It was a puncture blade, not a slicing edge. He’d have to really dig it in.
“I watched them drag you off to the gallows once, y’know,” he said. Then he grit his teeth and pushed. He dug the knife in, then slid the blade sideways, a quick little jerk of his hand. He poorly smothered a croak of pain.
Calay, with outstretched fingers, reached up to cup his hand beneath Gaz’s arm.
Gaz didn’t finish the rest of that statement out loud. I watched them try to hang you once, and if it hadn’t been for Syl, I would have killed at least a dozen of them before they got me.
The things you did for your friends, hey.
Teeth grinding together, Gaz flexed his hand into a fist, then relaxed it, then flexed it. Blood trickled from the slash in his bicep, dribbling down the crook of his elbow and eventually into Calay’s waiting palm. He noticed with concern the visible tremor that shook Calay’s hand, the difficulty with which he held himself steady. If this glyph didn’t work, there was not much they could do.
“Gaz.” Calay coughed a little. He stared down at the floor, swaying dizzily. Gaz reached up with his free hand and clapped his palm to Calay’s shoulder, steadying him.
“Easy,” he said. “I’m the one bleeding over here.”
“I’m bleeding more.”
A sickly, nervous laughter passed between them.
After a few more seconds, Calay deemed the amount of blood sufficient. He pulled his hand back from the wound, then moved his stump, awkwardly waggling it. Gaz realized that he’d gone to cup the blood in both hands, and of course…
“Damn,” he said. Gaz held tight to his shoulder.
“Well, brace yourself.” Calay coughed weakly, sat up as best he could. His eyes were grave as he considered Gaz for a long moment. “This will hurt. I’m sorry.”
“All right. Come on. Get it over with.” Gaz wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up the bravado.
“Here goes, then.”
Calay brushed his collar aside. Older flecks of blood clung to his neck and collarbone, the remnants of some prior glyph. Unceremoniously, he dumped the blood down his front, smearing it along his skin, down his neck and chest, where it shone dark and wet in the murky light. Then he wiped his bloodied palm on the stump of his right arm, just above the tourniquet. He reached up for more, dragging a finger through the trickle of blood that still spilled down Gaz’s arm.
Gaz’s teeth clenched.
Calay pulled up the remnants of his sleeve and began to sketch. He drew a seven-pronged cuneiform character on his skin, and as soon as he’d completed the first few strokes, a strange cold crept into Gaz from some unseen source. It felt as though he’d swallowed icy water, a sudden plummet in his core temperature that seemed to come from nowhere. It spread up from his stomach to his esophagus and his teeth began to chatter.
Fingers nimble, Calay finished the sketch, as sloppy a rendition as it was.
Light flickered into existence upon his skin. He tensed and looked away, shielding his eyes. Gaz did likewise. Adalgis didn’t catch the warning. A sudden strobe of white-hot light flashed through the interior of the tent.
“Loth!” Adalgis cursed, hiding his face in the crook of an arm.
The cold inside Gaz grew monstrous and hungry. He felt less like he’d swallowed chilly water and more like he’d been thrown from the docks and into the Bay in the midst of a brutal Vasa winter. Muscle spasms seized up his arms and he just dropped. No blow had ever dropped him like that. Hunched over on the floor of the tent, he shivered, goosebumps racing up his arms. Each breath was a struggle, cold squeezing his lungs. His fingers curled into claws and he shook and shook and shook.
The white flash flickered away, leaving in its wake the strange smell of weather turning. Lightning on cold stone.
Calay groaned, but it was now the groan of a man burdened by a traumatic hangover rather than impending death.
Gaz pushed up slowly, holding down bile, and surveyed the results. Another tug at his clothing. Gaz glanced further down. Calay’s flesh and blood hand had at some point gripped a tight handful of his tunic. His knuckles were white.
And as for his other hand…
“What is that.”
The numb horror in Adalgis’ voice said it all.
Cradled in protectively against Calay’s chest, his right arm had begun to regrow. Gaz wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Some sort of there-and-fixed magick instant regeneration? He definitely hadn’t expected the bark. Or the visible bone.
A long, bony shard extended from Calay’s elbow, tapering to a dangerous-looking point. Thin, deep-brown tendrils of bark wove and twisted down the bone, bubbling at times with pale flesh beneath, none of it quite in the right shape to resemble a human hand. All the elements were there–bone, flesh, knuckles, but nothing was in the right place.
Calay took one look at himself and reached for his belt, his features impassive.
“Laudanum,” he ordered. Gaz handed it over. Adalgis simply stared.