The dog appeared to be taking a liking to Torcha. When Riss led her off to Vosk’s secret stash, the canine picked a path over the roots and boulders behind them. It kept polite distance from Riss, but it circled back around to Torcha periodically for a head scratch or to sniff at her heels.
“Do you really need me to inventory the silks?” Torcha asked, sounding highly skeptical. “Or are you here to tell me off for what I said to Adal?”
Riss snorted. “Adal’s an adult. He’ll cope. I really do want you to take a look at this stuff. Less to inventory it and more because I thought you’d appreciate it.”
Much of the cloth—especially the spider silks, the ones in blue and navy—appeared to be native to Torcha’s home district, or at least close to it. Riss didn’t have much of an eye for textiles, but she’d found similar stashes secreted away in deserted homes and basements in Semmer’s Mill. The weavers had tried to conceal their prized cloth from the northlanders with varying degrees of success. And who could blame them? The occupiers all but ground artisanship in the area to a halt, diverting resources to more “necessary” industries.
Riss considered all this in silence while Torcha pawed through a bag, having fallen quiet as well.
Finally, she spoke up. “A lot of this is…”
She blinked. “Yeah.”
“Hence why I thought you’d like to have a look.”
Riss dropped to a crouch beside the shorter woman, peering over her shoulder. Torcha drew out a striped length of silk, dyed in bold primary colors. She fingered the weave of it, then flipped it around her neck like a scarf.
“Still smells fresh,” she said. “They must be dyeing again, back at the bug farms.”
Unlike most of Gaspard’s mercenaries, Torcha hadn’t gone home after the war. She said she saw no need to. She’d stuck with Riss, following her through Medao, seeing her through those hard, lean weeks after Gaspard’s death. She’d followed Riss back to the grounds of House Altave to retrieve Adal. And she’d followed Riss to Adelheim.
There was a certain irony to that. All throughout the war, Riss had assumed Renato was the loyal one, that the traumas and hardships that made Torcha so callous had also made her aloof.
“I want to make something clear to you,” she said. “You know Adal and I have a great deal of trust in you, right?”
Torcha’s shoulders tensed a little. Her thumb stopped stroking the fabric.
“I know,” she said. “But Adal just… it rubs against my grain to hear him do that thing he does. Trying to please everybody. Talking to Calay like he’s just another person. Like he wasn’t lying to us.”
“Adal can’t help it. That’s his family’s whole thing.”
“Yeah. I know. I didn’t say I won’t tolerate it. Just that it’s slimy.”
“There’s a reason for that.” Riss saw no point in concealing it. “We’re fairly certain Calay and his man have a price on their head from up north. If we let him think he’s in the clear, he won’t expect it when we come to collect.”
Torcha blinked, swiveled her muddy green eyes from the fabric to Riss.
“Bold,” she said.
“You think he can even die?”
Riss lifted a shoulder. “He seemed to come awful close before. I figure he would have if we hadn’t intervened.”
The wiry-haired hound passed between them, sniffing along the cavern floor in its explorations. Riss watched it for a while.
“Well, tell you what.” Torcha adjusted the scarf around her neck, having confiscated it for good. “You say the word, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and put him down.”
“What word, you think?”
Torcha pursed her mouth in thought. “Tadivach. Just say it like a curse.”
Riss was somewhat familiar with the term. Tadivach was a deity local to the textile districts, the god of the loom. She wasn’t sure how devout Torcha’s family had been, but when the unit had first taken the girl into their care, she’d explained that the tapestries mounted over doors and walls and weaving rooms weren’t just decoration, they were offerings.
It was as good a code word as any. “Got it,” said Riss. “I hope it won’t come to that, but if an opportunity arises, we’d be foolish not to take it.”
The conversation came to a natural end; they started back toward camp.
“Thanks,” said Torcha. “For explaining all that. I just hope Adal’s on the same page.”
“Don’t you worry about Adal. He and I had a chat similar to this already. I’d have conferred with you both, but it’s damn hard, things being how they are.”
“No privacy in a bivvy,” Torcha agreed.
Sometimes she sounded wiser than her nineteen years, when she wasn’t being a complete brat.
Riss slept through her whole shift. No chaos or bullshit or dramatic interruptions this time. It was glorious. She’d feared that dreams of Gaspard’s death might continue to haunt her, but those fears seemed unfounded. Either the dream was a one-off or she was just too damn tired to dream at all.
Torcha and Gaz relinquished their watch to Riss and Vosk. Ever since she’d declined his proposition, Vosk hadn’t been chatty. That suited Riss just fine.
They took a short patrol of the camp’s perimeter, noting nothing of interest. Adal had buried the chum from the fish, just in case. Riss wasn’t sure such precautions would help much out here. They’d learned to conceal traces of their movements in the bush from all sorts of human adversaries, but Riss doubted any care on their parts could hide them from the many eyes and noses of nature.
“I always feel like this swamp is watching me,” Riss said, walking past the pool and back toward the caverns. “I have to say, Harlan, going in here time after time to cut down trees… it takes a pair.”
Vosk gazed off toward the treeline. “Yeah, well, we never stayed out here this long.”
In the steppes and mountains where she’d grown up and first learned her trade, Riss felt at home on the forest floor. Sure, there were all sorts of things that could kill you. Snakes, bandits, lania. The boars they hunted, even. But there were patterns to the movements of both animal and human life. If you learned them, you could generally pass unseen through both their worlds. And even if you couldn’t, it rarely took more than one or two timely shots from a good rifle.
Riss crept around the sleeping bodies and the dog nestled at Torcha’s feet, settling atop a boulder that gave her a good view past the cavern’s mouth. Clouds choked away any moonlight that might have made it through to where they camped, but the pool reflected the fire, which lent enough illumination to see by.
Ripples ghosted over the surface of the pool. Raindrops. Soon, rain pattered down onto the stones, running in little rivulets down the hillock and over the rocky ground.
Relaxing her eyes, Riss stared off into the curtains of rain. She scanned the wilderness slowly. The little jerks and tumbles of raindrops called out to her brain: motion, motion! But she ignored them.
Until she spotted it. An irregularity in the sheets of rainfall. A patch of dark blended in with what little she could see of the stony backdrop. It was less that her eyes saw something and more that they spotted an absence of something: a tall, wide swathe of air where rain should have been falling but wasn’t.
Riss averted her eyes from the light, looked askance toward the dark patch. She tried to keep it in her peripheral vision, another of Gaspard’s old tricks for moving under cover of night.
She tilted her head.
The dark patch tilted, too, as if mirroring her movements.
Her entire body goosefleshed.
Still sat on her rock, she slowly uncurled her legs. She moved at a glacial pace, no sudden movements, and edged her boot toward the closest sleeping body it could find: Calay’s. She nudged him, very slight, and thankfully the motion was enough to jog him awake.
Rolling onto his back, Calay blinked up at her. Riss watched him sidelong, hoped her wide eyes and grave stare toward the rain would say enough. Come on, Calay. You’re a smart fellow. Be smart here.
He inhaled a sharply-hissed breath. He’d seen it too.
A chain of crawlingly-slow, silent communication passed through the camp: Calay roused Gaz. Gaz’s broken snore roused the dog, who shifted and roused Torcha. Adal and Vosk slept too far away to be reached.
And all the while, Riss stared at the void in the rain.
“Orders?” Calay whispered. Riss had no clue how best to deploy him. She knew Torcha slept with her rifle at the ready, heard the telltale shuffle-click of her readying it. Gaz would do what Gaz did best.
Thunder grumbled in the distance, a low roll over the marshlands.
Riss counted the seconds ‘til the lightning, out of childhood habit.
When light streaked across the sky, it illuminated their patch of shadow: a sloping, asymmetrical body of stone and moss, notably missing a chunk of hind leg.
Riss crept a hand toward her belt.
Through the rain, the creature surged toward them.
As soon as it roared into the fireglow, Torcha let loose. She fired directly into its chest, and sharp slivers of stone flew in all directions. Riss hissed as some bit into her skin. The shot echoed off the enclosed space of the cavern walls, rocketing Adal and Vosk awake and rendering everyone temporarily deaf-struck. Rubbing at her head, Riss leapt from where she sat and sought cover as the creature rounded on Torcha.
Calay darted past on her other side. The moa shrieked.
Riss attempted to flank the creature as she had before, but it caught her creeping this time. It swung one of its blocky limbs toward her, the whole thing the size of a wagon wheel, and she slid out into the rain to escape the blow. It glanced her back, knocking her to the ground, and she rolled away from the swiping arm.
Torcha–or maybe Adal, she couldn’t see–fired again, the shot sending more showers of stone erupting from the creature’s body. They drove it back from the mouth of the cavern, and Riss took a swipe at the vines that held its joints in place.
The creature spun, its lurching footsteps shuddering the ground beneath her. It moved unlike anything Riss had ever seen: graceful, sweeping arcs of its forelimbs and juddering, jittery footsteps that made its movements difficult to predict. Likewise, the way it spun and opened up its back to the gunners surprised her.
Riss flailed back as a fist came down. Her boots slid on the slick, wet stone. Adal, Torcha, and Calay pummeled it with gunfire, then Gaz flew into it from the side, bashing its weak leg with his axe enough to send it toppling off-balance. Riss hollered at him to flank it on the opposite side, but she couldn’t hear her own cries over the ringing in her ears. Shit.
The creature ducked low and lurched toward the cavern mouth, squeezing over the top of the boulders that protected it. It swiped down with an arm. Adal and Torcha fled, Torcha ducking between the boulders and Adal slipping out toward the pool. She couldn’t see Vosk.
Gaz leapt atop it, but it rolled and threw him off. Sliding down the rain-slippery rock, it grappled at Torcha but couldn’t reach her. Spinning, lurching, it set its sights on Adal just as he finished reloading.
Picking up speed, the creature rushed him. Adal stood his ground. Lightning lanced across the sky, illuminating the scene just long enough for Riss to watch in slack-jawed horror as the golem crashed into Adal just as he fired. He blew it off-balance, and in return it snared a stony arm around him, tackling both of them into the dark, burbling pool.