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.”
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.