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…”