Chapter 33

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.

<< Chapter 32 | Chapter 34 >>

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Chapter 32

Adal focused on the percussion of the rain. If he stared off into the middle distance and relaxed his eyes and ears, the drum of rainfall on the tent became soothing white noise that almost drowned out the sounds of Calay’s quiet agony on the floor.

Twisted up against himself in a protective hunch, Calay cradled his arm stump to his chest. He continued to bleed. His teeth chattered. His face had gone the shade of curdled milk.

Adal had bundled some canvas from a ruined tent beneath him–so as to spare their functional tents the staining–but beyond that he’d provided no aid or comfort. Nor did the suffering on display tempt him to.

If he were being completely honest with himself, he resented having to babysit the traitor as he died. He wanted to be with Riss. They needed to hash out a plan. They needed to take a more thorough inventory of all food and water, including what was in their packs. Among a dozen other things.

On their march back toward camp, Torcha had explained what she’d seen. How Calay had taken something from his belt, spilled blood down himself, and invoked a bright light that appeared to have both healed his gunshot and awoken the tree. They had no reason not to believe her. Adal had known Torcha since her young teens, and though she carried with her a library of puzzling superstitions and traditions, she’d never chased her legends or phantoms to the detriment of their unit.

Her account lined up with what Adal knew of blood sorcery. Which was more than his fellow mercenaries right expect.

In his semi-conscious stupor, Calay murmured something incoherent. His fingernails scratched against canvas, as if he were gripping at something only he could see.

A few years ago, Adal might have found the sight of such a cocky man brought so low rather gratifying. But he wasn’t that person anymore. The war had stamped that out of him. Now, the knowledge that their medic had not only betrayed them but was likely going to bleed to death just left him with a weighty foreboding. It was one more thing gone horribly wrong.

He did look pitiful in his current state. Adal had disliked something about him from the get-go, but if he looked back, was he lending too much credit to his intuition? Now that he was no longer strutting around like he owned the woods, Calay looked younger than Adal expected. He wondered if Calay might number among the sorcerers his family had discreetly hired over the years, but he looked like he wasn’t yet thirty. And he was northern. So unlikely. It was odd, encountering a sorcerer in the wild like this. Finding that he could put on such a normal mask.

It was odder still when he followed that line of thought and realized that in a way, he’d continued his parents’ tradition. Only he had hired his own discreet magicker unknowingly.

A tempting thought wormed its way in: if they opted to save him rather than let him bleed, his loyalty could be a powerful thing.

But Adal squashed that notion.

There was no guaranteeing he’d be loyal, for one. And for two, it wasn’t his call to make. He might suggest it to Riss, feel her out, but their situation was precarious. He wouldn’t risk complicating the odds of their own survival for a potential pay-off. Especially not at the hands of someone who’d already proven untrustworthy.

A pair of female voices reached him through the rain.

“You know how I feel.” Torcha, unfazed as ever by the newest looming crisis. “Put a bullet in all three and we’ve got twice the food and water for us.”

“Believe me, I took that into consideration.”

“Yet you’re makin’ this mistake anyhow.”

The flap of his tent flipped up. Riss ducked inside, stepping over Calay and kneeling. She smeared rain-wet hair aside from her eyes and set a haggard stare on Adal. She had that look on her face that she always got before she said something she knew he wasn’t going to like. Just a hint of a grimace buckling her mouth the way a structure bent before it collapsed.

“Second,” she said. “I need your counsel.”

He had to laugh. Rocking back on his backside, Adal got comfortable. She cracked a smile.

“It’s good to feel needed for more than just negotiating rates,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m thinking of allowing Gaz to fix him up.” Though there was no ambiguity about who he referred to, she still slanted a look down to Calay upon the floor.

Adal didn’t bother masking his surprise. It was hopeful surprise, though. Riss had, for her own reasons, come to the same conclusion he was toying with.

“You don’t look as annoyed with me as I thought you would.”

“I’m not so predictable, am I?” It felt almost normal, just conversing with her like this. Like for a moment they could ignore how badly this entire endeavor had gone. “Give me some credit, Riss. I was considering the same thing.”

Riss grunted. “For the bounty?”

Bounty? Adal hadn’t dwelled on that, but once she said the word, it did make sense. It would explain Calay’s travels so far south.

“Partially.” A split-second consideration of what he knew of Riss revealed that her opinions on magick were a murky unknown. “It’s possible he could be useful. Depending on what we encounter on our way out of here. And Gaz could become less useful if he dies.”

“You mean Gaz could lose it and try to hack all our heads off.”

“Yes, that.”

Riss had, for the entirety of their friendship, followed the law. Laws grew blurry during wartime, but the worst of what they’d done had always been under Gaspard’s banner. Therefore it had carried with it the weight of the Empire’s tacit permission.

In a place like this, where the rule of law felt like a distant afterthought, where exactly would Riss stand?

On the tent’s floor, Calay groaned. Adal strayed a look down to him, but there was no trace he’d woken. Chances were he wouldn’t unless they intervened.

“I’m not completely unfamiliar with the likes of him,” Adal said at length. “If it’s as Torcha described, he needs blood to conjure the things he does. We could keep a lid on that well enough.”

“Gaz confirmed that, yeah. He needs blood.”

“And he’s volunteering his own?”

Riss nodded, her mouth pressed closed. She stared at him, inquisitive in her silence.

“I expected you to talk me out of it,” she said after several seconds of rainy quiet. “Or at least try.”

Adal steeled himself. He summoned up bravery from that strange psychic reserve that soldiers and mercenaries develop. That mental well where courage seeps in slowly and drowns out the horrors of the day-to-day. It was incredible, the compartmentalization he’d learned. It didn’t come as easy to him as it seemed to come to Riss, but she had her own reasons for that, growing up with the father she did.

“What does your gut say?” he asked, hoping to surprise her again.

“Since when does your brain care what my gut says?”

“I feel brains are less useful out here.”

Riss shifted a look toward the tent flap, her dark eyes darker still in the gloom. She glared at nothing, but then that glare dissolved into a cavalier grimace of a grin.

“Fuck it,” she said. “He’s an asset, and if he ceases to be, well, a bullet took him out once. I’ll send Gaz in.”

Adal’s eyebrows crept up toward his hairline.

“You’re not going to ehm, supervise?”

“Makes my skin crawl.” Riss hiked up from the floor and crawled toward the tent flap. “Rather not. Besides, if you think three’s a crowd in this tent with just us, wait til you share one with Gaz.”


The dark interior of the tent had turned Riss’ expression stormy and serious, but Adal found it had the opposite effect on Gaz. With his wide-set eyes and the way he had to hunch to avoid the struts, he had the look of a sullen teenager preparing for a scolding. During the rare moments he took his eyes off his fallen friend, that is.

“So, your plan?” Maintain control, Adal told himself. Regardless of what he was letting them do. He didn’t need to spell out to Gaz that this was a favor. His voice said enough.

“I’m not sure.” Gaz grimaced. “I’ve never done this before.”

He didn’t appear to be lying. He looked thoroughly disconcerted. When Adal didn’t speak again, Gaz started thinking out loud.

“I figure we gotta wake him up somehow. He’s got smelling salts and things for that. We get him awake enough to draw the symbol, and all he needs is a bit of blood.”

“Riss tells me you’ve got that covered.”

Gaz’s features crinkled with distaste. He took a big, heaving breath and looked down, watched Calay bleed.

“Yeah,” he said. The word had a certain resigned gravity.

Something twinged in Adal’s gut. He suddenly wasn’t sure he wanted to watch. As much as it had seemed important to stay in charge, he now second-guessed himself. Did he have an ulterior motive there?

He recalled the day his mother first brought a sorcerer to House Altave’s grotto. Well, it likely wasn’t the first time she’d done so. But it was the first time he witnessed it at an age when he was old enough to understand.

She’d stood with her collar buttoned to her chin, rigid as ever, the man beside her dressed comparatively plainly. Plainly-dressed commoners weren’t an unusual sight around the vaulted halls of House Altave, but usually they were faces Adal recognized. They were maids he knew by name, Altave Shipping employees, River Navy officers in familiar uniforms.

The man beside his mother was a stranger. An unnerving, sunken–eyed man whose skin had been ravaged by sickness at some point in his youth. Pock scars dented his features and his smile revealed a mouthful of blackened, broken teeth.

Why in watery hell had his mother brought a person like that into their home? Into their grotto, their private place of worship?

Adal made his offerings to Loth by the riverside that day, under a big open sky and far, far away from that man.

But a part of him always wondered.

And a part of him wondered now, watching as Gaz bent over Calay, searching through his belt.

“Smelling salts only,” Adal said. “I’ll be taking anything else in there.” He wouldn’t leave them any blood to use as an escape route.

Gaz didn’t say anything, only nodded. He eventually found what he was looking for: a small opaque vial with a wax stopper.

Adal leaned a little closer, watching.

He told himself it was because he had to supervise. To keep things under control.

He told himself it had nothing to do with the same curiosity he’d felt as a boy. The urge to peek around the doorway, past the shell-lined walls and catfish statues, to watch whatever morbid ritual his parents had brought the broken-toothed man into his home to perform.

Even now, he was a child peeking through his fingers, trying to look like he wasn’t looking.

<< Chapter 31 | Chapter 33 >>

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Chapter 31

Riss stirred, waking slowly. Wagon wheels thundered in her head, fading, fading, then the dream evaporated as she sat up.

Grief punched a hole right through her. She wound an arm around her middle as if to stave off a physical blow.

Gaspard had felt so close. She’d dreamed of him before, but never like that.

Staring upward, she focused on the sky, which boiled with dark grey clouds. Rain was coming. She needed a moment to collect herself. As details returned–Geetsha, Calay, Vosk–she knew a moment was all she had.

“Riss. Shit, Riss. Are you…”

Adal’s voice beside her. He wasn’t sure whether to use the word okay.

“I’m uninjured,” she said.

Dirt streaked up the side of his cheek, Adal sank down beside her. He looked her up and down, face taut with concern. Then, out of nowhere, he threw an arm around her and pulled her into a short, one-armed embrace. Riss didn’t fight it, resting her temple against his neck. She felt his pulse for a moment–strong, steady. It reassured her in ways his voice hadn’t.

“Did you…”

“Dream? Yes.”

They spoke in terse half-sentences. Riss wanted to know more. She wanted to know what had prompted him to ask that. What had he dreamt of? Had he simply noticed her distress, or were his own dreams similarly upsetting?

But a scuffle broke out behind them. They didn’t have time.

That was the thing about grief. Riss just never had time for it. So she bottled it up in the same place she always did and squeezed Adal tight for one final second, then pivoted in the dirt, already reaching for her machete.

Torcha was on her feet, her rifle leveled at…

Riss watched, wordlessly astonished, as Gaz started to dismember her medic.

With a few powerful sawing motions, Gaz sliced through Calay’s arm. Then he twisted himself around, braced the elbow backward, dislocated the joint, and snapped the rest as if it were a maneuver he’d practiced an unsettling number of times. They left the severed arm dangling from the tree, where Riss could now see the roots had begun to absorb it, flesh melding with bark. Calay ragdolled, lolling over Gaz’s shoulder, and she was about to step in and ask what she could do to help before Torcha waved her off and stepped neatly between Riss and Gaz, ordering them to halt.

Gaz, stricken, looked just as pale as Calay, though he appeared completely uninjured.

“Torcha, what’s–” Riss stopped short of asking her what was going on. She was fairly certain nobody knew exactly what was going on.

“Geetsha isn’t the witch, boss.” Torcha closed one eye, the barrel of her gun levelled with Gaz’s face. “It’s our physician.”

Riss didn’t argue. Geetsha was definitely not normal, whatever the status of Calay was. But Geetsha was dead, so that didn’t matter. She trained her eyes on the man draped across Gaz’s back, who appeared unconscious, a rudimentary tourniquet doing little to stem the blood pouring from his stump.

“He did something to himself. Healed his gutshot up. I saw it.”

Riss’ throat tightened. She ground her teeth together. How many more disasters was this mission hiding up its sleeve?

“I trust you,” she said. And she did. Torcha and Calay had been getting along just fine. She wouldn’t turn on him without a reason. And Torcha’s eyes were keen. And she had no reason to lie.

Riss’ eyes now fixed on Gaz. Gaz was about to become a problem. But behind Gaz, the tree–which had until now moved little, save occasional trembles through its root structure–swayed. Dislodging clumps of soil, it teetered toward them, a slumbering giant now roused. The poor bastard still tangled in its grasp wheezed in pain at the motion, dragged along for the ride.

And in the dirt, Vosk began to stir, pushing up to his elbows, his face still spattered with white flecks of whatever had been inside Geetsha.

Things were about to unravel. Riss had to get a hold of the situation, and fast. What would Gaspard do in a time like this? She did what she knew best: barked orders.

“Adal, Torcha: guns on these two. We’re retreating to the camp. We can’t take that tree in our current state.” And even if they could, she wouldn’t turn her back on Gaz in a fight now.

Stalking over toward where Vosk was gathering his senses, Riss grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.

“No time,” she snarled, yanking him to his feet. She kept hold of him, grabbed his pistol from the ground, and marched.


Riss surveyed the ruins of their campsite.

She took a moment to catch her breath, panting slightly after double-timing it up the hill. She didn’t release her grip on Vosk, holding him tight by the collar like a misbehaving schoolboy.

The largest tent lay in tatters, its canvas shredded, its poles snapped. Provisions and scraps of bedroll and campfire ash were scattered over the hardpack. Drag marks in the dirt hinted that something immense and heavy had moved through, likely when they were all taking their unplanned nap. The tracks were difficult to discern, hard as the topsoil was, but they resembled no paw or claw Riss had ever seen.

And the moa were both gone.

They found the remains of one not far from the campsite, or at least enough traces of it that Riss could conclude it dead. The bird’s harness had snapped during the struggle, spilling their belongings over the ground, and half the twisted remnants of a taloned foot seeped blood onto the dirt.

Finally, Riss let go of Vosk. She took a short, controlled breath and tried to put a lid on herself, but she found she could not. Her soldier’s discipline had abandoned her. She was pissed as hell.

Their guide was dead. Vosk had turned on Calay. Calay had betrayed them. And now their packbeasts were gone, much of their food and water with them. That horrible fucking dream. And it had all started when Vosk snuck away in the night to do who knows what.

Fingers curling into a fist, Riss hauled back and slugged Vosk straight in the mouth, gloved knuckles connecting with his teeth. She felt one of them give and couldn’t keep a nasty smile from rising to her face. He stumbled back with a gasp, clutching at a split lower lip.

“You’re lucky you still owe me answers or you’d be choking on more than teeth,” Riss snarled.

Still held at gunpoint by Torcha and Adal, Gaz walked Calay over to one of the tents that remained standing. He knelt, unfurled a bedroll, and carefully laid the man down. Torcha lorded over him, rifle unwavering.

“Please,” Gaz said, staying on his knees. “Let me try to fix him.”

Torcha hocked and spat in the dirt beside Gaz’s boot.

“Fix him? Like the way he fixed himself? You a witch too?”

Gaz put a hand to the tourniquet wrapped around Calay’s stump, which Riss could now see was just a belt.

“No,” he said, sounding lost. “I’m not a witch. I’m not even a sawbones.”

Well you sawed something off just fine, Riss didn’t let herself say.

Calay groaned, his eyes fluttering. The fingers of his remaining hand jerked. He’d gone even paler than usual, his eyes sunken. That tourniquet wasn’t going to be enough. Riss supposed they could cauterize the wound, but–

She cut herself off that line of thought. A problem solver by nature, she was already looking for the solution. But it occurred to her that they didn’t have to help him. Whatever Torcha had seen, it had edged her toward not blinking twice before blowing them both away.

Fine. On to a different problem.

“Torch, keep ‘em in the tent.” She jerked a thumb toward the mess strewn all over the ground. “Adal, see what’s still usable.”

Searching the shreds of fabric and leather scraps amid the dirt and ash, Riss snatched up a length of leather cord. Gathering Vosk into a headlock, she bound his hands behind his back.

“You’re crazy,” he muttered, though he didn’t really fight back. “I won’t be able to defend myself. Something killed our birds. What if it comes back?” And then, when she didn’t respond, “I had to do it. Geetsha and Calay both. You saw it. Something unnatural…”

She restrained herself from punching him again. It would solve nothing. And she might bust a knuckle.

“Well.” She released him and squatted so that she could look him in the eye. “You forgot the part where that wasn’t your call to make. As soon as camp’s fixed, you’re explaining everything.”

Grabbing him by the arm, she walked him over to one of the remaining tents and shoved him inside, then stood guard outside the flap while Adal cleaned up around her. She kept her eyes on the treeline, searching for any sign of motion, any hint that the trees nearby were the unfriendly kind. Panicked thoughts began to flood her: the dream, a mental inventory of how much food she had on her person, a mounting dread of how lost they’d be without Geetsha. She dismissed them all. One thing at a time.

Drawn back into the world she’d glimpsed in her sleep, she recalled those first awestruck days under Gaspard’s tutelage. Word had filtered through the ranks that Gaspard Marcinen himself would be handpicking members of the Third and Fourth for special training and assignments. She remembered the numb shock in her chest when he’d stepped into the barracks, cast a glance over the many faces inside, and said with no preamble, Altave, Chou, Cazier. Pack your things.

Cue night after night in the forest, the steppes, the swamps. Training in all terrain. Muted skirmishes behind enemy lines. Weaving in and out of the fronts like treaty-defying ghosts.

Gaspard had taught them well. He’d taught them to handle crises just like this one. Riss tried to draw on those memories as a source of strength rather than anguish. It half-worked.

Adal salvaged what he could from the ground, piling it into four heaps beside the ashen remnants of their campfire: food and water, medical supplies, ammunition, and everything else.

They’d split their provisions equally between the two moa just in case something like this happened. And of course Riss always carried some in her satchel as well. All things considered, they could have been in worse shape. But that didn’t make the outlook good.

“I’d wager we’ve got about a third of our total stocks remaining. Water is all fine. Only one filter broke. Almost all the meat is gone. Whatever got the bird didn’t touch the dry goods or the cheese.”

Something wet touched the very tip of Riss’ nose.

Blinking, she glanced up at the sky. The dark, heavy clouds had begun to disgorge their rain. Fat drops plummeted down to their campsite, slow at first but beginning to multiply. And of course, it was their roomiest tent that had been destroyed.

She and Adal checked the integrity of the three remaining tents. One had a leak, but they all looked like they’d survive a patch of rain.

Riss didn’t like splitting up the prisoners, but they were low on options. She didn’t want Calay and Gaz together. Her questions for Vosk would have to wait.

“Adal, you in with Calay. Torcha, you’re on Vosk. I’ll keep an eye on Gaz.” She didn’t trust Torcha not to throttle Calay in his sleep, or let him bleed out. She wasn’t sure what to do with him yet, but she didn’t want that.

Still on his knees, hovering uselessly over his wounded friend, Gaz let out a grunt of distaste.

“I don’t want to–” he started to say.

“You don’t get a choice,” said Torcha.

Resigned, his bloodied shoulders drooping, Gaz rose and joined Riss. Together, they ducked beneath the flap of the cramped two-man tent. It was made for two average-sized humans, which meant one Gaz and maybe a toddler. Riss scooted into a corner, a hand on the hilt of her machete.

Soon, the drum of rain on canvas was deafening.

Every instinct in her body screamed to move forward, to act, to do something. Riss had no choice but to sit and wait.

<< Chapter 30 | Chapter 32 >>

Chapter 30

Gaz rolled upright, still dizzy, and suppressed the urge to vomit. His head kicked like a bad hangover; even his tongue somehow hurt. When he breathed, it was like he’d inhaled sawdust: rough and dry. A sick shiver worked its way through his stomach when he remembered what the ‘sawdust’ was made of.


Shoving up to his hands and knees, he crawled across the muddy ground. He wasn’t quite in full control of his limbs yet, but a sense of urgency drove him forward until his body properly cooperated. Shit, Calay had fallen right into the tree’s grasp. Gaz didn’t know how long it had been since he’d gone under. The tree could have had hours to work its nasty business. Might be a blessing if the gunshot got him first.

But no, Calay was a scrapper. He’d probably already cast some magickal thing on himself to keep safe, even if that meant they’d be facing a whole new slew of problems as far as their allies were concerned.

The tree leaned there like a half-toppled ruin, shiny metallic threads twisted along its upper branches. It tilted at a precarious angle, as though something had slowed it or stopped it mid-crawl. The thick-trunked tentacles of its exposed root structure heaved up higher on one side than the other.

Just as Gaz reached the tree, blinding white light erupted from down below it. He shielded his eyes and felt the magick flash past and over him, hot enough that it singed the stubble of his scalp. The flash, the sizzle, that strange smell like rain on hot pavement–that was Calay all right. The high, panicked gasp of pain that followed–shit, that was him too.

The view Gaz had of the bodies caught up in the tree was obstructed–the roots were livelier now, swaying slowly, and he only just had the presence of mind to glance toward the fire. It had gone out. Shit, the tree would be waking up proper then. Gaz dove for the big, flat-bladed knife tucked in the leg of his boot. Shoving forward without thinking, he slashed and hacked until he’d chopped away several sections of wriggling root from the tree’s undercarriage. They wriggled on the ground like bark-armored worms.

Calay sprung up almost instantly, still snared by the right arm. He tried to pull himself free, then howled instead when the tree tightened its grasp. The angle of its grip on his arm forced to his knees, unable to fully stand, his back bent awkwardly. Like it was pulling him down.

“Cut it off cut it off cut it off–” he hissed, his voice borderline unrecognizable. Wild fear shone in his eyes. Gaz could see the whites of them. He had never, ever seen Calay so scared.

In a few short, hard strokes he cleared away the smaller roots that gripped at Calay’s arm, but soon he saw the ‘it’ in question that his friend referred to: one of the vines had twisted its way all around Calay’s right hand, up to his forearm. The bark had already begun to merge with his skin, rendering it a sickly grey, the fingers clutching and unclutching in mindless spasms, like how a snake didn’t know it was dead yet even after its head had been chopped off.

“I don’t know if I can,” Gaz whispered. “It’s… on you.”

Swallowing hard, Calay crab-walked backward a pace, propped up on his heels and an elbow. He tried to take take the pressure off his trapped arm without moving any closer to the tree’s center mass. Gaz knelt to see if he could assist.

“The arm, take the whole fucking arm if you have to.” Calay’s jaw clenched. A tremble started in his brow and tried to overcome the rest of his face. Gaz watched him suppress it, expression tightening into a hard sneer, eyes closed.

He didn’t know if he could do it.

He didn’t voice his hesitation. He didn’t have to. Calay peeked an eye open, pinning him with a haggard stare.

“You can do this, Gaz,” he breathed through his teeth. “You are–” A wheeze, a suppressed twitch through his cheek. “–the only one I trust to do it.”

Gaz had cleaved a limb or ten off a person in his life. He’d worked as a bruiser for a few folks. A bodyguard for others. He and Calay hadn’t fought in the war, but they’d fought on the streets, and that could be just as bloody. He wasn’t squeamish. And it wasn’t even that it was Calay. Sure, he didn’t want to hurt him. But he knew that sometimes in order to help a person, you had to do things that hurt. He’d seen Calay perform enough surgeries to know how that went.

But… what if he fucked it up?

The tools he used were not surgical tools. His work would not be that precise.

Even as he thought that, he reached for the haft of his axe. He hesitated, though. A clean swing from the axe would be ideal. Less painful even, maybe, if such a thing could be rendered less painful. But he couldn’t brace Calay against the trunk and he was too high off the ground. At this angle, he couldn’t prop the arm against anything… the impact from the axe would likely break things that didn’t need breaking. It took a lot of force to cut through joints.

The fingers of his off-hand twitched onto the knife.

Calay, who never missed a thing, caught the motion and thinned his mouth.

“I get it,” he hissed. “Just do it.”

Gaz shuffled forward on his knees, winding an arm around Calay’s back to hold him in place. Every muscle up his back felt wracked with spasm, tight and tense. From this angle, it was apparent that he’d patched up the wound in his abdomen. The skin beneath his bloody, shredded clothes appeared immaculate.

“You can do this,” Calay wheezed. “I’ll patch myself up after. What’s the worst that could happen.” He tried for a laugh; it sounded more like a sickly cough.

“You’ll probably pass out first,” Gaz answered, stoically matter-of-fact.

“Yeah. Hmph.” Calay grunted. “Probably.”

“Count of three,” said Gaz. He braced the serrated edge against the inside of Calay’s sleeve, not bothering to roll it up first. He didn’t look too close, fascinating as the transition from bark to skin was. The creeping grey that began at his hand reached to just below the elbow. Elbow would do it, then.

Calay probably had a tourniquet somewhere, but he had no time to ask. He slid his own belt loose, wrapped it, pulled it until it was tight enough that Calay gasped.

He started cutting on ‘two.’

Ignoring the sharp sounds of distress in his ear, Gaz sawed. He sawed until he hit bone. Then he twisted and bent the joint backward ‘til it buckled. It’s just like boning a deer, he thought, then hated that he thought it. At the snap Calay fell slack in his grip. He ignored the blood and the shaking and the hairs on his neck standing on end and cut and cut until something gave and they fell the short few inches to the blood-muddied ground.

Hands slick and red, Gaz stumbled back from the tree and threw his knife on the ground. He didn’t ever want to touch it again. He scooped Calay up over a shoulder, keeping the stump of his arm elevated. The man was dead weight in his arms, groaning groggily, and Gaz was so shell-shocked by what he’d done that he didn’t even realize he was walking straight into the barrel of a rifle until it was mere feet from his face.

“Stop,” growled Torcha. “Not one more fuckin’ step.”

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