Rain pelted Adal’s face, sharp stinging needles of it. He wasn’t aware Calay and Gaz were trying to get his attention until someone grabbed him. He spun reflexively, machete up, but it was only Gaz, who withdrew his glove as soon as he made eye contact.
“Get over here,” he said. “She’s still breathing.” Then he hollered at Vosk to get the moa settled down. Necessity bred strange bedfellows, didn’t it.
They hurried under the overhang, where Calay had dragged Riss out of the mud.
It was just as bad as Adal feared, save for the fact that she still clung to life. Calay crawled to Riss’ side, holding a lantern aloft to survey the damage. In the moment, he seemed to have cast aside any questions of loyalty or intent, tending to her with the same care and alacrity that Adal had seen from any medic worth his salt. He withdrew a sweater from his own pack, rolling it and shifting it gently beneath Riss’ neck, trying to ease her breathing.
But how long could she keep breathing? Her ribcage was splintered. From the neck down, she was a crushed mess of bone and blood. The sight of it sent cold dread flooding through him, as dark and mortal a fear as he’d felt when he’d sustained such injuries himself.
He forced himself to put up that wall again, to focus on the immediate.
“So what can you do for her?” he asked, watching Calay work.
Riss sputtered, forcefully expelling blood. Calay held her by the cheek, turned her head.
“I can make her comfortable,” he said.
Adal listened to the rain, tried to focus on that instead of the hideous, sucking gurgle that rose each time Riss attempted to breathe.
“No.” He snapped his eyes to Calay’s. “I mean what can you do.”
Calay’s hands stilled. He regarded Adal with newfound wariness, then looked immediately to Gaz.
Gaz, similarly wary, looked Adal up and down. He rolled the knuckles of one hand, the way a man does in a bar the instant before a fight breaks out.
For all Calay liked to talk like he was the one in charge, it was clear that he was asking permission. And with a nod, Gaz granted it.
“This is going to take a lot of blood, you realize.” Calay shrugged his coat off, rolling up his sleeves. It was laborious work with his sole remaining hand, and it revealed the gnarled, bark-and-bone deformity that now grew from his elbow. “And I can’t make any promises. This is… it’s beyond medicine. And some things are beyond magick, too.”
“Do your best,” Adal said. “I’ll get you blood.”
“And as much as it pains me to be so mercenary about this…” Calay trailed off. Adal instantly caught the meaning behind that statement. “This goes a bit beyond the scope of my initial contract.”
Adal grit his teeth so hard he thought his molars might snap.
“Name your price,” he said, and he meant it.
Calay merely nodded, his gaze dropping back to his patient. He flexed the fingers of his remaining hand, looming over Riss like a gargoyle.
“The blood, then,” he said, intoning it like an order.
Adal shoved up to his feet, scouring the campsite. Just beyond the cavern, Vosk had done as told and gotten the moa under control. He flinched when Adal caught his eyes.
That’s right, Adal thought. You’d better. But he disciplined himself into calm. He disengaged.
“Vosk. You’ve got a chance to bargain yourself off the gallows. Know that if you don’t come willingly, I’ll blow out your knees and leave you here in the mud.”
Vosk was not the only man who had to make a bargain.
Calay waited like a statue until they had their blood donor all trussed up, his shoulders held by Gaz and a tourniquet binding his arm. He regarded Vosk with clinical dispassion, then set his eyes on Adal.
“We should talk terms before I start this,” he said. Adal could have slapped him. There wasn’t time to barter. Each time Riss inhaled, each time he heard that thick, wet gurgle from her throat, he wondered if she had it in her to draw another.
“I don’t care about terms,” he said. “I meant it when I said name your price.” He doubted the sorcerer would demand money. If riches mattered to him, it seemed well within his power to acquire them. Adal didn’t give a damn about hammering out the details until Riss was stable. Despite the small, quiet fear lodged in him like an old splinter, he knew there was no price Calay could command that would deter him.
He’d never noticed it until now, but in the ember-glow, Calay’s eyes shone like a beast’s.
“Insurance,” he said, those strange shining eyes fixed on Adal’s with all the sympathy of a reptile. “Vosk’s blood to fix her, your blood to secure our passage out of here.”
The small, quiet fear bloomed into something chilling and terrible. Had he felt this cold a moment ago? His clothes were still sodden. That had to be it.
Adal worked his jaw in silence. Riss gurgled and choked. He forced himself to look at the mangled wreckage of her ribs to hasten his courage.
“Fine,” he spat. “So be it. Now or after?” He unbuttoned his cuff, then rolled his sleeve to show he meant business.
“Oh, later is fine.” Calay ticked a little nod aside to his partner. “There are more pressing matters.”
How had they ever mistaken him for a man like them?
At that gesture, Gaz grabbed Vosk up tightly, an elbow pressed between his shoulder blades. The skinnier man winced, caught in the arm-lock, and Calay slipped a thin, tapered blade from his belt. With no ceremony or even a cursory warning, he slit a line of red along the interior of Vosk’s elbow, then wrenched his arm over one of their stew bowls.
“Flex your fist,” he ordered, voice quiet and curt.
It was clear Calay still struggled with his newfound disability. He moved slow, a study in caution, and little twitches of his deformed limb hinted at muscle memory that hadn’t yet atrophied. He ran a studious look up and down the length of Riss’ torso as if unsure where to even begin. Vosk meanwhile did as told and pumped blood into the bowl. Over the sick, wet rasp of Riss’ breath, Adal heard blood dribbling on stone.
Vosk turned his cheek, unwilling to look. Disgust or nerves, who knew. He did an admirable job of looking neutral, but when Calay dipped two fingers into the blood, a nervous twitch shook him.
What they’d done to Calay had hurt Gaz a great deal. Would it kill Vosk to patch Riss back together? Adal considered that a fair trade. Perhaps even karmic.
Features tight with concentration, Calay hovered his blood-wet fingers over Riss. Anxiety ticked through Adal’s fingers, his heart a nervous rabbit. Why wasn’t he starting yet? Why was he wasting time?
“Why aren’t you—”
Calay shushed him. “I’m thinking.”
What was there to think about? Adal tilted his head.
“It’s her cuirass.” His mouth pulled to one side, a frustrated scowl. “These glyphs work best on bare skin. But her armor is the only thing holding everything together.”
Unbearable nausea flooded through Adal’s guts at those words. He swallowed.
“Just fix her,” he said. He refused to believe this sorcerer could outwit the Vasa Leycenate and slither so far south without enough canny to solve such a basic fucking problem.
Calay snapped his eyes up to Adal’s.
“I don’t actually want her to die, you know. I am trying.”
Meanwhile, a nervous tremor had possessed Vosk’s entire body. Still he bled into the bowl, which had over half filled.
Calay reached down with the mangled mass of bark and bone that had once been his right hand, then he yanked it back.
“Gaz,” he said. “Tilt her chin up a little.”
Gaz did as asked, cupping Riss’ chin in his massive palm and carefully angling her head up. He handled her gently. Adal was grateful for that.
“Vosk,” he was just spitting orders now. “Slosh some blood down her neck.”
Vosk tipped the bowl, the three of them working for now in concert.
Riss’ sandy golden-brown skin was shades paler than it should have been, and the splash of blood stood out too bright. Calay bent down and dipped his bloodstained fingers into the wash of red. He pressed his fingers into the armor that bound Riss’ chest, then began to sketch jagged, incomprehensible characters across the leather.
“I’ll try to get her stable enough. Be ready to cut it off, Gaz.”
“I don’t understand.” Adal warily averted his eyes, remembering the flash that had stung him. “It’s magick. Why will it only maybe work?”
“This weave works best against bare skin. The closer to the heart the better. I’m not conjuring whole new things into her body. I’m fortifying what she already has.”
Clean, cool-toned light sizzled through the cavern, chasing away the orange cast of the firelight.
Riss screamed and bucked against Gaz’s grip. Vosk screamed along with her, biting into his sleeve. Adal scrambled to make himself useful, working the laces up Riss’ side. He knew how hard she’d worked for those leathers. She’d be devastated if Gaz cut them off. As he yanked the armor down, just enough to expose her undershirt, something bony in her body shifted and popped against his arm. He recoiled. Calay shoved cloth aside and kept on scribbling, streaking red over now-bare skin. Adal buried his face in his shoulder, unable to watch.
In the moments his eyes were closed, he lacked other distractions. Without them, he couldn’t quite keep the panic at bay.
It wasn’t that he thought Riss immortal. It wasn’t that he felt he couldn’t go on without her. Nothing quite so melodramatic. Since Gaspard, they’d all learned in a hurry that nobody was immune. Even living legends were a single misstep away from the same death as anyone else.
No. Adal knew Riss would die someday, just like he would. But until it became a tangible possibility, he hadn’t realized how scared it would make him.
Losing Berin had been terribly sad. The loss of a sibling couldn’t come without grief, even if the siblings in question hadn’t been particularly close. Because the death of family rippled outward—you had to watch the people you earnestly loved suffer. And you lost the chance to ever care to the same depth they did. When Berin died, Adal had lost a potential future in which they might have one day been friends and his mother might have one day held them in the same regard.
And as for Gaspard, the sadness he’d felt had been mostly on Riss’ behalf. He’d admired Gaspard, considered him as much a friend as a subordinate can consider a commander. But he hadn’t needed Gaspard like she had.
Berin had been his brother, Gaspard a respected elder. But Riss was the most cherished friend he had ever had. A friend that came around once in a century. When he imagined a future where that friendship was commuted to merely memory, bleak terror seized him and made his insides tremble.
More light. More screaming. Riss fell slack. Vosk wept, bent-backed, drool hanging from his mouth. He shivered and collapsed.
It all happened so fast that Adal felt physical whiplash, yet it had also been the longest few seconds of his life.
He didn’t know how much time Torcha had bought them, but he was hesitant to move until at least one of Riss or Vosk was mobile. He’d neglected to pay much attention to Vosk’s suffering when the spell was cast. Bigger issues at hand and all. But now he took a moment to examine the man, who had curled into a fetal position on the rain-damp cavern floor. He shook periodically, his features gone grey-yellow. Adal couldn’t rouse any sympathy.
In the aftermath of her thrashing, Riss remained unconscious. Calay had explained this was normal—the spells he’d used, how he’d referred to it as ‘fortifying’ what the body already had—used the body’s own energy to repair itself. It was an exhausting process, he’d said. And Adal had seen that firsthand when both he and Gaz had emerged in a half-sick stupor from repairing Calay’s arm.
For the moment, Adal sat by Riss’ side while Calay observed both her and Vosk. Gaz drifted behind them, packing up camp. Urgent impatience scratched at Adal’s back. He wanted to get moving as soon as they could, didn’t want to waste Torcha’s sacrifice. For the time being, he’d cobbled together a loose best case scenario of get Riss out of the swamp, then double back for Torcha with whoever’s willing and able.
“Hey.” Calay gently cleared his throat, drawing Adal out of his thoughts.
“I’m confident she’ll recover fully.” He sniffed, rubbed at the dark circles that sagged beneath his eyes. “We had to improvise with the first weave, but the second couldn’t have gone better.”
Adal only nodded, unsure what was even worth saying. It was easier now, sitting and speaking to Calay, even aware of what he was. Over such a short time, he was growing desensitized, at least as long as Calay kept his arm covered.
A nonstop onslaught of horror would do that to a person, he supposed.
To his surprise, Calay kept talking.
“None of this was supposed to work out this way.” He glanced over his shoulder, watching Gaz for a moment. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. For any part I played in turning your mission into a fiasco.”
Adal, raised in the ranks of Altave Shipping and Mercantile, knew a sales pitch when he heard one. This was Calay ensuring his own survival by way of remorse. Or softening the blow before he asked for his pint of blood.
“I don’t think any of us could have known.” He wondered though, about Tarn. Riss had implied at the inn that Tarn suspected ulterior movies in Lukra’s disappearance. Had he suspected Vosk? Had he let them go in blind?
Tarn was a problem for the future, though. Adal studied Calay’s face, found it inscrutable. He looked tired. That was all.
“I suppose you’ll want your payment.” He saw no point forestalling the inevitable.
Calay cleared his throat. “I wasn’t going to bring it up until she was up on her feet.”
Adal lifted a shrug. His shoulders felt leaden.
Calay explained his price. It was simple enough: a flagon of Adal’s blood as insurance.
He claimed he’d destroy it after a month if nobody came for him via Adelheim. Adal wasn’t sure he believed that. It didn’t matter at all one way or the other. Whether he trusted Calay or not, he was on the hook.
In the mad rush from the moment Riss had fallen to the time she drew her first unimpeded breath, Adal hadn’t spared much thought for what he’d agreed to. He hadn’t had the luxury of time to weigh the pros and cons. But all the deliberation in the world would not have affected the outcome.
He’d have done far worse.