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.
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.