Chapter 49

Riss Chou’s sharpshooter was proving to be one of the more stubborn people Gaz had ever worked with, and that included back when he helped fellow twelve-year-olds crack skulls on the streets.

The creature had Torcha pinned down in one of the stony alcoves, swiping and pummeling at the rock that shielded her. Calay seemed to be enjoying making her wait. Or maybe he just needed a moment to recover from getting knocked ass-over-face into the mud.

Gaz was about to suggest they intervene regardless of her pride when a quiet whimper reached his ear.

Clambering back down from atop the big boulders perched outside their old campsite, he sought around, looking for the source of the noise. When he found it, he let out a soft, surprised oh and crouched down toward the ground.

Wedged into the narrow crevice between the boulders was the dog. Vosk’s dog? Gaz doubted that was the case. The dog Vosk had pretended was his, anyhow.

“Torcha must have been protecting you,” he murmured, scooting in on hands and knees to lean in closer. He had to turn his shoulders sideways to fit into the narrow space, and he squeezed in just close enough to look the animal over.

Mud matted through its wiry brown fur, it hunkered down, favoring its left side. It kept one leg curled close to its body, and it pinned its ears to the side of its narrow skull as he neared it. Gaz didn’t know much about dogs. Some of the kids in his first gang had kept them, but they’d been nasty, just as liable to tear their owners apart as intruders. He’d avoided them.

He considered just manhandling the canine out, but that felt a little cruel. Plus, it was probably safer down there. Creeping back out, he jogged back over to Calay’s side.

“I found the dog,” he said, to which Calay offered only a tilt of his head. Gaz forgot sometimes, animals didn’t like him much. He rarely thought about it, considering how few animals one encountered in the Vasa slums.

“Come on,” he said to Calay, looking back toward where the golem, now blown full of holes, its stony surfaces all jagged edges, still furiously dug for its prey.

“Come on what? All she has to do is ask for help. She was a prick to us first.”

She was a prick to you, Gaz thought, but that seemed like an argument for another day.

Calay could be awful petty sometimes. Gaz understood it—he was a product of his upbringing, just like everyone was. But damn, sometimes it was worth playing nice.

“What if it breaks in and kills her and you’re left holding your dick, though,” he said. Calay rubbed at his chin, his mouth bowing down in a small, thoughtful frown.

“Your logic is unassailable as ever,” he said, sounding unhappy about it. “Here, pass me some of those cartridges.”

Carefully unpacking some of the red-and-copper cartridges from their box, Calay uncorked his blood flask and dipped a finger in. He sketched some simple, sharp-edged characters across the ammunition. The effect was subtle, a quick blue flash and a waft of what smelled like gunpowder. Gaz packed the things back into the box, then hefted it in a hand, ready.

“All right!” Calay hollered. “It’s your lucky day! I’ve made my point, now we’ve brought some ammunition from Adalgis!”

As his voice rang out, the creature ceased its digging. It rounded on Calay again, and Gaz had to assume that was part of Calay’s plan, because he’d already taken off running, strafing toward the treeline. Gaz wasn’t especially worried; glyphed to the gills as Calay was, he could shake the thing on his own if he had to. Could probably kill it on his own if he had to, too. But he had come to the same conclusion Gaz had: it was important to let the mercenary girl claim her kill herself.

The creature loped after Calay just as he intended. Gaz looped around behind, whistling for Torcha. When she poked her head out of a crevice, he waved and then chucked the box of cartridges her way. She scrabbled up and out of her hole to catch it, then immediately flipped it open and hit the bolt on her rifle, loading it.

In the near distance, a tree exploded into splinters as Calay weaved out of harm’s way. Gaz wasn’t sure if that was his fault or the golem’s.

Down on one knee, Torcha checked over the barrel of her gun. She gave a little satisfied sniff, then lifted it to her eye, bracing it against her shoulder.

“How come you’re here?” she asked, watching Calay engage the creature through her sights. “Where’s Adal and Riss?”

Gaz saw no reason to lie to her.

“Riss was hurt pretty bad. She’s recovering. Adal’s got to keep an eye on her and Vosk.”

Torcha grunted. She kept a finger on the trigger, still tracking the engagement at the treeline. Gaz was watching her now. Worry tingled up his spine. What was to stop her from pulling the trigger on Calay instead? Surely he’d thought of that, given himself appropriate protections. But sometimes he could be hasty. And as smart as he was, sometimes he could be very stupid…

Gaz could get to her before she could get another shot off, but…

He curled his fingers on the haft of his axe, tensing up as he took a deep breath.

Torcha squinted an eye shut and pulled the trigger. A shower of stone and wood and leaves exploded from the trees.

A moment later, Calay let out an exhilarated whoop. He came charging back toward them as Torcha reloaded.

Limping on all fours, half its torso blown away, the golem let out a grinding, agonized shriek and pursued him, but far far slower than it had been. He loped up to join Gaz and Torcha, and before the thing could cross half the distance to them, Torcha hit it once more and it blew completely apart, its pieces falling to the muddy ground as a heap of harmless, inert stone.

Gaz let his breath out.

“Nicely done,” Calay said, like he’d been rooting for her all along.

Torcha stared down at the barrel of her rifle, her small nose wrinkling in disgust. She looked to the box by her foot, then up to Gaz.

“You witched my ammo,” she said, voice flat.

Again, Gaz had a very low tolerance for lying. He merely spread his hands and shrugged.

“Riss sent us here to kill that thing and come get you,” said Calay. “You’re low on cartridges. They’re low on powder for their pistols. That thing was made of solid stone. Best to get it taken care of as quickly as possible.”

Gaz shot him a look, upturning one of his hands in a small sweeping gesture, as if to say come on. Calay got the message.

“… If you’re worried about side effects and the like, there aren’t any,” he said. He looked Torcha in the eye, scrubbing a last bit of mud off his face with his good hand. “I promise.”

She grunted, unconvinced. But she didn’t argue further. Gaz didn’t like this tension. Calay was right, she’d been rather testy with them. But he could see things from her point of view: they’d lied to her, and she could tell at a glance that Calay was the sort of person who had no qualms with slitting throats to get out of sticky situations with his skin intact.

He recalled what she’d said when they camped at the crossroads, her superstition about not building a fire on the ashes of another. Superstition was a powerful force in some parts of the world. Everyone alive was gripped by it to some extent or another. What superstitions about Calay’s kind had sprung up in her corner of the Continent?

Gaz decided to intervene before things simmered over.

“Look,” he said to Torcha. “You don’t have to trust us at all beyond trusting we’ll get you back to your people. You’re a mercenary. They’re mercenaries. We’re mercenaries. They hired us to make sure you made it out of here.”

Calmly packing up her rifle, Torcha rose and slung it over her shoulder. The barrel of the thing was three-quarters her height, but she handled the weight like she was used to it.

“And I’m sure you did that for your own completely noble reasons,” she drawled, voice rich with sarcasm.

Gaz slid a look sideways to Calay, who gave him a confirming upnod. They didn’t have to use words much these days. Months on the road had whittled their vocabulary to a series of gestures, nods, and grunts.

“Of course not.” Gaz gave her a big, affable smile. “We’re here for our reasons. Just like you ran off into the woods to distract that thing away for your reasons.”

Calay stepped in.

“What he’s saying is for now, our goals align. So I won’t put a hand on you if you won’t put a hole through the back of my head. Deal?”

Torcha worked her jaw to one side. She drew up her shoulders and took a deep breath and squared her boots on the ground before answering.

“I don’t see how I can trust a single word out your mouth at this point, but I don’t have a choice, do I.”

“None of us has a choice anymore,” Calay muttered, scooping up his pistol and sheathing it at his belt. “That’s one of the things that’s so insidiously terrible about this fucking cursed place. We’re all just stuck with one another.”

He lifted his bare palm to her, a sign of deference. She looked unconvinced, her eyebrows lowering. One of her small hands curled into a fist at her side, knuckles flexing. Gaz recognized that urge. Sometimes your hands just shook to punch something. Especially during times when punching was an inappropriate course of action.

Something moved at the treeline.

All three of them fell still and silent as a figure spilled out from the tangled thickets. It staggered unsteadily, moving like a wobbly drunk. And as it grew closer, Gaz could see that it wasn’t quite so much a figure as it was a shriveled husk. It looked like a long-mummified corpse. Strange pimply growths bubbled up one side of its sunken face, white spheres that reminded Gaz of the paper-thin fungi they’d seen lining the path what seemed like a lifetime ago.

“So, Torcha.” Calay tensely grabbed his pistol, his voice lowering a notch with implicit threat. “About that truce…”

<< Chapter 48.5 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 48.5

Harlan Vosk didn’t even pause to survey the damage he’d done. He just stumbled and fled as soon as Adalgis hit the ground. He clenched a sliver of flint tight in his fingers, secreted away from one of the firestrike kits. With awkward, sinking footsteps, he hurried away as quickly as he could, attempting to saw the flint along the rough cord that bound his hands.

He tripped, boot caught on a root half-submerged in a puddle, and went down on his face. The impact bit into him with sharper teeth than he anticipated. When his jaw cracked onto the ground, his whole skeleton seemed to shake with the force of it down to the roots of his teeth. Everything hurt more than it had a right to. Whatever that abomination was doing with his blood, it dug deep into his body with cold, squeezing fingers every time. It was unrelenting.

Get up, he ordered himself. He hadn’t come this far to falter now.

Struggling onto his elbows and knees, he raked flint across rope until it frayed and snapped. He rolled his wrists. Blood and feeling flooded back into his hands in equal measure.

Right. Hands were freed. Now he needed a weapon. And he needed, above all else, to keep moving. In this flat, low-lying section of the marsh, he knew that a steady westward trek would eventually carry him to the river. The others didn’t know that. Hopefully they’d cling to the trail, which took a wandering northwest route. The trail was dryer. Nominally safer. But with Riss and Adal on his tail, “safer” was relative.

Gods, he felt weak. Only one thing kept him on his feet: the knowledge that if he returned to Adelheim, Tarn would have him hanged. The fact that his stupid heir would have been in on the robbery had he lived was negligible. Everyone on that expedition was a fucking adult. They’d made their own beds. Nobody had held a pistol to Lukra’s head. Provided Harlan lived to sleep another night in a bed, his conscience wouldn’t keep him up at night.

And even in some fantasy world where Tarn was somehow lenient, Riss would run him through for misleading her.

And even if he escaped Riss and her lap dog…

No. He preferred the idea of Riss catching him over Calay. His teeth chattered at the thought of what the sorcerer might do.

Years ago, when he first came of age, Harlan’s father had taken him on their very first hunt. In their family, a man wasn’t a man until he killed a boar in the traditional way: knife and spear in hand, dogs at your sides. He remembered the warning edge in his father’s voice when they crept through the bush: the thing about the boar is that it’s his anger that makes him dangerous. You come at the boar, you’d best put it down. You’d best not need a second chance.

He’d come at the boar and missed. The relish in Calay’s thin little smile as he’d bled Vosk out was stomach-churning.

If Calay got to him before Riss did, he’d fall on his own blade and hope for the best.

But if he kept running, if he kept running and he made it to the river… maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be a need for drawing or falling on blades of any kind.

Struggling past the weakness that turned his feet to lead, he pushed forward.

He wouldn’t return to Adelheim. He’d make for the southern coast, one of the big cities where it would be easier to lose himself. He’d find work, keep his head down, and send word to Petra when he could.

Harlan was a survivor, from the boars of his childhood up through the war. No matter how dire things got, there was always a way out.

And his way out started at the river.

<< Chapter 48 | Chapter 49 >>

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Chapter 48

They rested only until the bird had caught its wind, then Riss was coaxing everyone up. Through what few gaps in the twisted, reaching treetops existed, she spied ominous grey clouds gathering. They had to keep moving, lest the rain catch them up again.

That and ordering everyone to keep moving felt like the only order she knew how to give anymore.

Before Calay had left, he’d told them not to wait. Put as much distance between yourselves and that critter as possible, he’d said. I can find you. I have my ways. He’d possibly meant to inspire confidence. Instead, the words had weighted Riss with a certain prophetic dread. But they’d let him go. They’d let him go because he was right—he and Gaz had the best odds against that creature, and it was in their best interests to see Torcha out of the swamp alive.

Calay had been right. Adal had been right. Riss was starting to feel like she was on the losing side of every argument. Oh, they all still paid lip service to her rank, but every time, she seemed to find herself on the opposite end of good sense and reasoning.

How had this happened?

Vosk was still in a bad way, scarcely able to lift himself off the ground. They heaved him up onto the bird, let him slump there in a sullen daze. Riss slung his arms over the harness and flashed back to many a hunt with her father, trussing up a stag for the long ride home across the steppes.

Riss rarely thought of her father. The moment she did, she looked to Adal to chase those thoughts away. She recalled with purpose a moment they’d spent on the march, reading passages to one another from Auvrey’s Continental Histories while Gaspard noodled on his guitar. For every poison, there was an elixir.

“What?” asked Adal when he noticed she was staring at him.

Just glad you’re still breathing, she almost said. But anger was as stubborn as the muck that clung to her boots. She couldn’t quite shake herself free. Riss was fully aware of how childish it was, but she wanted him to know it still stung. It would continue to sting each fresh time she remembered she was now touched by sorcery. And she’d had no agency in the matter.

They followed the trail, tracking through the mud, each stretch of spindly tree-trunks and tangled undergrowth much the same as the last. Riss ran through the beat of an old marching song in her mind, too tired to even mumble the words aloud.

Periodically, as they walked, Vosk cried out and convulsed upon the moa. He clenched fistfuls of his hair. He shook like a madman. The side effects of Calay using his blood, she imagined. Riss just hoped he was using it to ensure Torcha’s safety.

At some point on her interminable walk, a thought occurred to Riss that drove her to unsteady, delirious laughter. She’d fucked this expedition up so badly that she’d died. She had actually died, and the only reason her body kept walking was because Calay had dragged it back without her permission.

Followers of the sea and river gods often spoke of there being three hells, the three kingdoms inhabited by beings immortal and beings who had passed on. First there was the world the gods themselves called home. Then there was the domain over which they ruled: the domain of the dead, where all dead souls came to rest. The third was the Hell Beneath, an eternal watery smothering reserved for those who wronged the deities of the river. A hell where you drowned forever.

Riss wondered if any cultist had ever dreamed up a hell of eternal mud. If they had, even their nastiest dreams couldn’t have compared to her present reality.

###

The tree trunks thinned and the clusters of undergrowth grew lower to the ground. The swamp spilled out into a flat, soupy lowland composed of innumerable shallow puddles. Stalks of reeds grew in erratic clumps and dewdropped cobwebs clung to the upper reaches of the higher bushes. Mist wafted upwards and hung waist-high in a haze that curled and slid around their bodies.

As they walked further from the forest, the temperature plummeted. It wasn’t quite cold–especially not to someone who’d grown up on the steppes–but for the first moment in this entire undertaking, Riss felt as though she actually needed her cloak.

She almost remarked upon the weather, but when she glanced sideways to Adal, a little spark of held-over anger held her tongue. Her frustration with him waxed and waned. She was no longer furious with him for subjecting her to Calay’s treatments, but she couldn’t quite make small talk yet.

Riss already knew she would forgive him. But it felt like a disservice to her very valid anger to forgive him quickly.

If one were to strip away all exterior aspects of Adal’s person, to pry him open and peer inside him like an anatomist might, Riss suspected that one might find him to be a being of pure loyalty. Every stupid, wrong-headed thing he’d done throughout the entirety of their friendship had been with the best intentions. Underneath the embroidered trousers and too-fashionable haircut, he was the most unselfish person she’d ever met.

She held onto her silence, hoped he interpreted it for what it was. He always seemed to guess right.

Do you really think they’ll bring her back, she wanted to say. But that was another conversation she didn’t want to have. When Adal had spoken of fetching Torcha on his own, he’d done it with such conviction that she’d believed him. She trusted Calay much less.

They’d already lost Gaspard. Then Renato, albeit in a very different way. If their remaining trio was cut down to two, where would that leave them?

###

The puddled, sodden bog seemed endless. The trail had all but dissolved, and when the bird began to move lethargically once again, Riss signaled for a rest at the first patch of dry ground they came across. They’d made good distance. The dark clouds had yet to vent their rain. Dark would fall soon, and Riss wasn’t sure whether she wanted Calay’s “tracking methods” to work or not. If they worked and he returned Torcha to the party, that was acceptable. But she disliked the idea he could do that at all.

She felt like a woman in the last throes of an illness. That sort of clinging, stubborn weakness days before a body shook off a fever. It was infuriating.

Glugging water from her canteen, she sat, curling her toes inside her boots. The soles were well-worn; they were good marching shoes. But good shoes could only do so much.

“Let me know when you’d like to bed down,” said Adal. “I’ll ready the tent.”

Riss felt like she could not walk another step. But it felt early in the day to admit as much. Had they covered enough ground? She couldn’t tell whether her frustration with her weakness stemmed from falling short of realistic expectations or just plain feeling bad about herself.

“I’ll see how I feel after some water,” she said. And when she looked for that anger which had sustained her silence, it was all but gone.

Vosk had been silent too, but now he let out a rough, wavering groan. Adal moved to help him off the moa, sliding him to the ground. His pale, sunken face reminded her of Calay’s when he’d had his arm sawed off. But his eyes were more alert now. He looked between her and Adal, then turned his head and coughed dryly.

“Can I have something to eat?” he asked.

Riss wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, but she didn’t recall seeing him eat since the fish. If Adal hadn’t fed him while she was asleep, it had been almost a full day.

“Sure,” she said. And Adal was already on it, unpacking a rucksack from the bird and digging out a couple parcels. He doled out bread, dried fruit, and a bag of gelsa bulbs, which were commonly roasted around these parts and eaten like nuts. They had a pleasant, savory flavor and they’d been nicely salted. It all left Riss feeling even more thirsty than before, but she’d had worse snacks on the march.

“You ever feel a little bad, eating a bulb before it’s had the chance to grow a flower?” Adal asked as he crunched into one.

Riss stared at him for a time, expression blank. “No,” she finally said. “Don’t reckon so.”

From his slouch on the ground, Vosk gave another rattling cough. “Water?” he asked.

Adal eased up, dusting off his hands. He unpacked one of the big waterskins, then carried it over.

Riss wasn’t looking at them straight on, so she didn’t quite see what happened, only a rush of motion from the corner of her eye. She turned her head just as Vosk lurched upward, unsteady on his feet but moving quickly. He yanked his bound hands up, something clenched between them, and caught Adal with a clumsy two-handed uppercut.

Adal reeled back, a fine red gash spreading up his neck and the underside of his jaw. Riss leapt to her feet, all her aches forgotten, and ran to him. Vosk didn’t hesitate, taking off at a staggering, puddle-splashing run. Every muscle in Riss’ body twinged to chase him like a dog at the races, but no. She couldn’t. Not while—

She crouched, uncaring that her knees planted in wet mud. For a blood-chilling moment, all she saw was Adal on his back and red spreading over his skin and breathing was suddenly very difficult, thinking even more so, her every thought a harsh yank into the past where too many people had bled in her arms and she was equipped to help exactly none of them.

But Adal sat up. He sat up and clamped a hand to his neck and hissed out a piss like he’d nicked himself shaving.

“Are you—” Riss wasn’t sure how she wanted to finish that sentence. She grabbed the fallen waterskin and unstoppered it, squeezing some out over Adal’s fingers.

The long, thin cut that arced up his throat and jawline looked painful, but it was shallow. He was bleeding like a stuck pig, but only because everything did from the shoulders up. Riss let herself breathe.

“I thought he’d slit your throat,” she said, the words a sober contrast to the panic she’d felt.

Adal, grimacing tightly, managed to laugh that off.

“Barely nicked me,” he hissed, through what appeared to be a great deal of discomfort.

Riss looked out in the direction Vosk had run. He’d taken off toward the nearest copse of trees, no doubt wanting the cover. Then she searched for something to staunch the bleeding.

“He won’t have made it far.”

Riss found a kerchief in Adal’s pack, then passed it over. He held it to the wound, scowling belligerently.

“You sure about that?” she asked. “It’s possible he was faking his sickness.”

“No.” Adal smeared his bangs from his eyes with a bloodied hand. “Calay is definitely using his blood. He just caught me off guard. That wasn’t a blow from a hale, healthy man.”

“Do you need me to stitch that up?” Riss asked. It wouldn’t be pretty, but everyone in the Fourth had practiced a bit of embroidery on their comrades.

Heaving up one-handed, Adal tested himself on his feet. He didn’t appear woozy. Shaking his head, he delved around in his pack and retrieved a scarf, winding it around the compress Riss had pressed to the cut.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I’d rather not give him any more of a head start than he’s already got.”

Adal unpacked fresh ammunition, then checked over his pistol. Riss lashed their kit back to the bird. It didn’t get up. Frowning, Riss gave the big bipedal thing a nudge with a knee. The moa churred petulantly.

“It’s spent,” she said.

“All right.” Adal cocked his pistol and looked toward the trees. “We’re either leaving it or one of us stays with it. I don’t particularly like either of those options.”

Riss stepped away from the moa and all their belongings—their food, their pilfered silks, their antivenins. She gripped her machete hard enough that her knuckles twinged.

“I don’t give a shit about the bird, Adal.”

The swamp had made it clear. If she let the people she cared about out of her sight, it would pick them off one by one. No more of that.

By eye contact alone, they formed a silent agreement and made for the trees.

<< Chapter 47 | Chapter 48.5 >>

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