Riss’ anger burned out quicker than Adal anticipated, though not because it had waned into apology. He could see it in the lethargic drag of her feet, the slide in her step, how she wasn’t picking her boots up all the way. Calay had hauled her back from the brink of death, but it had exhausted her. She did not have the energy to batter him with as much anger as she thought he deserved.
He would not comment on her weakness. Nor would he attempt to wrest the reins of the operation from her, even for her sake. He respected her too much.
So he tidied camp, let her direct Gaz and Calay to pack what they could carry. Gaz asked about the valuables. Riss told him to take what he could. Adal checked on Vosk, found the man half-curled in a puddle, murmuring dark and incomprehensible things. He couldn’t tell whether he was asleep or awake. Until the rain finally broke, it didn’t matter. And when it did, they all moved with a renewed urgency, their exit from the caves hasty.
Calay’s magicks had left Vosk a shuddering wreck. In the end, they had to heave him up over the back of the surviving moa. He’d slow them down no matter how they hauled him; at least this way the bird would keep pace. But it meant their backs were more laden than anticipated. This cursed, profane swamp showed them not a single mercy.
They walked. Adal’s feet were used to walking. Perhaps it was the extra pack strapped to his shoulders. Perhaps it was Torcha’s conspicuous absence. Perhaps it was the dull, spent fury wafting off Riss like steam. Whatever it was, he found each step harder than the last. His eyes lapsed into a natural tunnel vision, all the world around him a tired blur save for Riss before him, leading the way despite how wretched she clearly felt. She would march Vosk out of the swamp on bleeding stumps if she had to.
At one point, he caught a blur of motion to his left side, a glimpse of red. He turned his head, brain already leaping to excited conclusions. Torcha?
But no. It was Calay beside him. The red he’d glimpsed was a swath of dried blood clinging to the sorcerer’s cheekbone, arcing up toward his temple. Vosk’s. Riss’. Who even knew. He hadn’t even bothered to wipe it off, the savage.
Shamefully, the rise and fall of that moment–the elation, then the disappointment, the realization that he’d been hoping foolish hopes–sprung tears into his eyes. He turned his face away so Calay wouldn’t see, then coughed into his hand to stave off the tightness in his throat.
You don’t know she’s dead, he tried to tell himself. But that somehow hurt even more, because on the heels of it came an even worse thought: Nothing in this swamp stays dead. If we find her again, she may not be the same.
During the few hours they walked, they spoke not a word.
Gaz noticed it first: the bird was lagging, its steps resembling the slow shuffle of Riss’ boots. Unused to the weight of a passenger as well as half their packs, it walked with its beak lower than usual, its snorted exhalations audible.
And so they rested. Gaz hauled Vosk down, but he just sat with his head between his knees, his skin possessed of both the color and thin, fragile texture of parchment. Adal cast a glance up to Calay for a moment, as if to ask him is this supposed to be happening? Calay only shrugged. Adal had not forgotten that he held an axe to grind there. Vosk had shot him. Vosk shooting him and Geetsha was what had kicked this whole catastrophe off. Calay could have done something with his blood, infected him with some slow malady. Adal found that he trusted Calay not to kill him. But he wouldn’t put it past him to make Vosk suffer.
They settled down on the dryest ground they could find, an uncomfortable outcrop of broken, lichen-covered stones. Adal’s boots reeked, caked with foul-smelling muck. He used a twig to scrape at them as best he could.
On any other day, he might have commented that the first thing he planned to do upon escaping this nightmare was to spend a full day in the bath. Riss might have waxed nostalgic about her favorite masseuse. He couldn’t help but wonder what a man like Calay did during his down time. Was it even possible to relax, on the run and burdened by such gruesome talents?
But he couldn’t say those things. Because Torcha wasn’t there to answer. Her absence was a gaping wound.
He said it before his brain had finished thinking it.
“I’m going back for her.”
Nobody had been talking, yet Adal felt the distinct sensation of a room slipping into silence. Riss looked up from her boots. Calay and Gaz looked up from each other. Even Vosk hefted his head a little, regarding Adal through squinted, bloodshot eyes.
“It makes sense,” he said, although nobody had objected, at least not yet. “Long arms fire seems to be the only thing that really held that thing off. She’ll be getting low on ammunition. But if I go back with my rifle, the two of us can likely put it down, or at least get her away from it.” The qualifier hung there unspoken at the end of his statement like a forgotten punctuation mark: provided she’s still alive.
He knew Riss would protest. He could think of a dozen reasons why. Some of them were valid. Some weren’t.
Rising up on his mud-splattered boots, he walked around to where she sat and eased down by her side. He wished they were alone. These conversations felt too intimate for the company they were presently forced to keep. Gods, things had been easier in the war. Back when everyone in earshot was incontrovertibly on the same side.
“Riss.” He spoke quietly, lending her at least the illusion of privacy. “I know you’re steaming mad. And I know saying this won’t help. But you’re in no shape to go after her yourself. You owe it to Tarn to come out of here alive with the answers you promised him.”
She rubbed at her eyelids, trying to summon the energy to explode at him. He could tell. All she managed was a frustrated growl.
“Tarn will get his answers whether it’s me who delivers them or you,” she said.
And that wasn’t… exactly… what he expected her to say. What did she mean by that? They’d be making their report to Tarn together.
“It’ll be both of us, I suspect,” he said. “I’m not going back there to die, Riss. I’m not charging off to boldly sacrifice myself. You have to admit: I’m a little more self-centered than that.” He hoped a joke might throw her anger off balance. “I wouldn’t be offering to do this unless I was fairly certain of success.”
Off in the depths of the swamp, a bird gave a shrill, unnerving cry. Adal cut himself off. Their heads all turned on a swivel, bodies tensing nervously. Even the exhausted moa stiffened.
When nothing rushed out of the murk to eat them, he spoke again, his voice soft but possessed of a quiet conviction.
“I’ll bring her back, Riss. She’s not dead. Nobody has to die. You can be pissed at me all you want once I’ve returned.”
She grimaced so hard that it looked like she’d brought the expression to bite one’s tongue to life. She swallowed.
“Take every last box of rifle ammunition with you,” she said, speaking through her teeth. “Put that thing in the ground.”
He wanted to embrace her. To promise her this wouldn’t end like Gaspard. He wanted her to feel as sure as he did. A sense of propriety held him back. Not in front of the men. The war might have been over, but decorum among the chain of command lived on. Besides, for all he knew, once she had a bit more kick in her, she’d be blisteringly angry again. And he’d weather that as long as he had to. Because at least she was alive.
Adal, raised on a healthy diet of emotional repression and societal restraint, held himself back. He gave her a pat on the glove, then rose and walked over to the bird. Unpacking one of their rucksacks, he began to inventory boxes of ammunition, checking to see if the rain had got to any.
Despite his many reservations regarding their current company and the state of their mission, Adal felt a calm, meditative certainty that he could do it. He could find her. He could retrieve her. Together, they’d take the creature down or at least hold it off long enough to bail out. He owed it to Torcha. She’d bought them enough time to save Riss. He was not walking out of that swamp without at least trying.
He stacked boxes of cartridges methodically upon a flat stone, counting in his mind as he went. He was so wrapped up in his numbers and his convictions that he barely heard the footsteps approaching him. When someone behind him cleared their throat, he finally glanced up.
Gaz loomed beside him, his bruised and mud-splattered frame tall and wide enough that it would have blocked out the sun if there were any.
“Adalgis,” he said in his basso grumble of a voice. “Don’t. We’ll go.”
And… surely Adal had misheard him. What?
“You’ll what?” he asked, dumbfounded. He shifted a look from Gaz over to Calay, who stood on the fringes of their small gathering, his blood-flecked features impassive. When Adal tilted his head, seeking confirmation, Calay thinned his lips and nodded. His face was unreadable as a book in a foreign language.
“I don’t understand,” Adal admitted. “What makes you think–”
But that was an idiotic argument, and he knew why. Gaz explained regardless, as if he were patiently laying something out for a child.
“We can do… stuff… to it that isn’t long arms fire.” He spared them the details.
“Absolutely not.” Riss shoved up from where she sat. “Abso-fucking-lutely not. While you’ve been behaving yourselves the last couple days, don’t think I’ve forgotten that you lied to me. You endangered this entire expedition.”
Calay stepped in then. “So it follows that it’s in our best interests to make you happy, right?”
Riss bristled like a guard dog.
“I hate to be so mercenary about it,” Calay kept his ruined arm tucked away into his duster, showed Riss his other palm. “But it’s the truth. You know it. I know it. When this mission has come to an end, Gaz and I have essentially two options: do our best to see everyone out of this swamp alive and whole or ensure there isn’t a single survivor.” He glanced over toward Adal for some reason. “I know it’s a little uncouth, laying it all out there like that, but don’t pretend it hasn’t crossed your mind. Playing dumb doesn’t suit you.”
Adal hated to admit he was right. That was perhaps the most infuriating thing about working with Calay. Despite all he’d hidden from them, despite the frequent glimpses of his worse nature, he was often correct. And he was never humble about it.
“You know things about us that we’d prefer stayed quiet.” Calay took a step closer to her. “If we keep you happy, you’re less inclined to share those things around. I won’t insult your intelligence and pretend this is all out of the goodness of my heart.”
“So, what?” Riss gave him a challenging tick of her chin. “I send you off into the swamp to fetch Torcha and expect you to actually come back? You’ll head for the road. You’ll leave her to die. You have no reason to help her once I let you go.”
For a fraction of a second, Adal considered it. The firepower someone like Calay could bring to that fight, no longer limited by the need to conceal his abilities… it was staggering to think about. But Riss was right. There was no insurance they’d behave.
Adal bent in close to Riss’ ear, murmuring low. “We could always not do that thing we talked about. Could let them leave town unimpeded.”
Riss rolled a shoulder, regarding him sidelong. Her dark, tired eyes were tough to read. More than anything, she looked like she wished to sleep for a thousand years. He couldn’t blame her. That was next on his agenda after that bath.
Adal danced around his own ulterior motive there. Calay’s blood insurance. Riss didn’t know about that yet, and he had no idea how to break it to her. He had a dog in the fight of Calay’s future–either the man had to die or he had to pass through Adelheim unmolested.
“I can’t believe you’re taking their side in all this.” Riss exhaled through her nose. They’d argued plenty over the years. Sometimes it grew heated. But this was the first time in Adal’s life that he’d heard disgust in her voice when she spoke to him. It stung.
“Fine. Do it your way. Second, dispense your orders.” Disgust turned to dismissal. She twisted the knife, left him standing there. It hurt worse than if she’d exploded at him. He gave her a stiff nod, then looked back to Gaz.
“Get on, then,” he said. He tapped the top of a stack of small boxes. “And take Torcha some of this. If you bring her back to us, we’ll see about facilitating your clean exit out of town.”
He’d hitched his wagon to a dangerous, manipulative man to keep Riss safe. Now, in order to keep his own secrets, he was openly defying her and taking the sorcerer’s side. Which meant the manipulation had worked. Worst of all, when he weighed things in his conscience, the ends justified the means. He was compromised, but it barely warranted a mention on his moral register anymore.
Good reasons. He’d had good reasons. Even if he’d done bad things.
When they got out, he’d make it up to her. He’d fall back into line. Riss depended on him, on his being a trustworthy Second with sound judgment. He wouldn’t fail again.