Author Update – New Discord server, upcoming prequel serial, and some fantastic art

Hi, guys! A couple people have commented asking if I’d be keen to start a Discord server. That’s a thing that never occurred to me before, but why not? You can now join the Into the Mire Discord here.

As promised in the one year anniversary post, I’ve got a lot of neat stuff lined up for the coming months. I’m especially excited to announce that Patreon subscribers on any level will soon have access to early drafts of a prequel serial featuring Gaz and Calay’s adventures in Vasile. This will roll out in May, so if you aren’t subscribed now and want to be, you’ve got plenty of time.

I’m very passionate about not locking content behind a paywall forever though, so if money is tight, don’t worry–everything posted on the Patreon will be public eventually. I just want to reward my supporters by letting them read my terrible early drafts. Seems more like a punishment than a reward, doesn’t it?

Lastly, I want to show off this amazing fanart done by cynthpop over on tumblr! I am blown away by her interpretations of Gaz and Calay, and since I’m already talking about their prequel book, it seemed like an appropriate time to show these off. 😀

 
 

Thanks so much for the fanart, wonderful comments, emails, and just being a reader for all this time. Every morning I wake up and find these things in my inbox it brings a smile to my face. I hope you all stick around after Book 1 wraps up and we start to swing into the real crazy shit next adventure!

Chapter 58

Calay’s hackles rose as he stepped into the vaulted hall of the castle. Though the reddish blocks that comprised it resembled nothing of the cold, ancient grey of the Vasa dungeons, the walls evoked a similar sensation. Thick, insulating. The type of walls designed to keep a man in or keep his screams contained. He kept his ruined arm tucked carefully within the folds of his duster as the attendant led them to their rooms.

Riss and Adal disappeared into theirs almost immediately. Torcha started some sort of scuffle with one of the servants.

Cracking the door of his room, Calay surveyed it from the hall. His stomach had that leaden quality to it, the way it felt when he was certain he was walking into a trap. Was there something to be wary of here–beside the usual? Was he picking up on some subconscious warning, or had the swamp gotten his reflexes all haywire?

He stepped into his room long enough to survey the furnishings. Timber bed. Wardrobe. Shelves. Wash basin. Low dresser. A high-arched window that overlooked the courtyard. The room was by no means a cell, but once he was inside it felt like one.

The basin was empty, but he couldn’t stand the thought of waiting for the Baron’s servants to draw a bath. So he emptied his canteen and waterskin inside. Shallow, but enough. Beside the basin sat a couple folded towels and small pressed bars of soap, a pattern of creeping ivy embossed upon their surface. He made a mental note to nick those later. Soap like that was expensive, good for barter on the road.

He wet a cloth and scrubbed at his face, awkwardly grasping with both hands before he remembered to keep his right hand clear of his eyes. The sharp, malignant growths that jutted from his arm now resembled more or less a hand, though with spikes of bark upon the knuckles and blades of fresh white bone where fingers should have been. He stared at it dumbly for a moment.

That thing was going to be attached to him for the rest of his life?

It was awkward, working up a lather with his one good hand, but he managed it. He washed his face, scrubbed the flakes of blood from his neck. By the time he’d finished drying his face, Gaz was standing in the doorway to his chambers.

Calay looked to him in the mirror’s reflection, eyebrows lifting. “Yes?”

Gaz lifted a shallow shrug. “Seeing how you were doing.”

Calay rubbed his jaw with a knuckle, consulting his own reflection. His eyes seemed deeper-set than they’d been just two weeks ago. His brow seemed permanently tensed. Several days of scruff darkened his cheeks and jaw in unkempt patches. He wasn’t sure what to say on the subject of how he was doing.

Sweeping a hand through his hair, he stepped away from the mirror, finding its contents thoroughly depressing.

“I don’t… I don’t think I can stay here, mate.” Fingers dragging down his face, he breathed out hard and tried to shake off those nervous shivers. He hated it when Gaz saw him like this. Better Gaz than the others, but better nobody at all. “I think I’m gonna head back to the bunkhouse.”

Gaz gave a doubtful grunt. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“It’s stifling in here.” Calay looked toward the window, peering through the bubbled, half-opaque glass. “Too much like the cells.”

Lifting a hand, Gaz gestured to his right shoulder, then made a little sweeping movement. “At least in here nobody’s going to be asking you about that. Big risk, sleeping in a public house with that hanging off you.”

Anger sparked in him like when flint struck steel. He ground his jaw. Gaz was right. He knew Gaz was right. As always, he was ever the mindful presence, an eye trained toward their long-term survival.

“What if they mean to hand us over?” he asked. “Or if we draw suspicion?”

Gaz levelled a look at him. Calay got the distinct impression that he wasn’t buying any of that bullshit.

“If that was the case, the bunkhouse wouldn’t be safe. Baron Tarn owns this whole town. If his people come after us, you won’t be any safer at the pub.”

Calay knew that too. But he couldn’t just relent. Couldn’t relent. The slow-stirring restlessness in his body was building like steam in a kettle. He was the boy who’d dragged himself to Alfend Linten’s doorstep again and again, each time more broken than the last, because he did not know when to lie down and admit enough was enough.

“Fine,” he spat. “I’ll sleep here. But I won’t relax here.” He heaved his satchel up, slung it over his shoulder. Adjusting the strap so that it pinned his ruined arm to his chest, he carefully straightened the drape of his duster. “I’m going out for a drink.”

“Dressed like that?” Gaz hadn’t budged from the doorway, intent on making an obstacle of himself.

Calay glanced himself over. Caked-on mud and flaking gore and strange-smelling ichors had become the new normal. He looked like shit, but he felt like shit so surely there wasn’t anything wrong.

“Here.” Gaz’s voice was gentle. He stepped in and held out a hand. “Let me.”

He wanted to object. Wanted to give the man a fight. But he was being sensible again. Even if the peasants never saw a glimpse of his arm, his appearance alone would warrant questions. Obediently, he stayed put while Gaz lifted the strap of his satchel off, then eased the duster down off his shoulders. He felt lighter without it, but also exposed.

Gaz sorted through his bag and found a shirt that was marginally less filthy. He tossed it to Calay, who caught it against his chest. He changed, then sat still as Gaz unpacked some lengths of bandage from the satchel and wrapped his right arm up and out of sight. He couldn’t help but notice Gaz was careful not to touch it, mindful of the bark, securing it away from view. They fashioned a simple sling out of some rags, and Calay adjusted it around his neck, trying it out.

“There.” Gaz seemed content enough with his work. “Now you’re just an old soldier returned from the road, with all the same wounds all the other ones got.”

Calay thinned his lips, not thrilled with that description. “Good idea,” he said. “Thanks.”

“I still think a bath would be helpful, especially before hitting the town.”

“I think I’ll take mine just before bed,” Calay said. “I like the idea of falling asleep clean.”

Which was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. He wanted nothing to do with his arm at the moment. Or his sunken, tired face. He felt unfamiliar in his own skin. He didn’t want to look at himself.

A knock came from the other side of the door. One of the Baron’s servants informed them the water was ready. Gaz cast a questioning look to the door, then back to Calay.

“I’ll be all right.” Calay squared his shoulders, snapping up his coinpurse from his bag. “You enjoy your bath. You’ve earned it. I’m sure you’ll find me.”

Visible hesitation pinned Gaz to the doorway for a moment, his hand lingering on the frame. But he nodded and slipped off, too enchanted by the prospect of a hot bath to argue. Calay couldn’t blame him. On another day, were horrifying things not growing out of his body, he’d have shared the sentiment.

Instead he took leave of the Baron’s big, expensive jail and strolled down the hill, intent on obliterating himself.

###

The village that held it may have been a speck on the map, but Adelheim’s public house was a structure Calay approved of. It looked older than the rest of the buildings, he reckoned. Its hearthstones were dark grey, and much of the clay was too, unlike the red stuff that composed most of the recent construction. That was life, wasn’t it. Layering new crap atop old ruins.

He was on his second drink and already navel-gazing about the architecture. Boy, the local spirits didn’t kid around. Alongside the usual ales and ports and a rancid-smelling cider, the pub served a sweet potato vodka that Calay found agreeable. It went down butter-smooth with a hint of lingering sweetness, very little burn.

Slouched at the bar, he immersed himself in the sound of background noise. Human chitchat, the crackle in the hearth, dice rattling on a back table, glasses thunking onto wooden tables. After so long in that dreary, silent swamp, this was what he needed: the everyday mundane noise of humans existing as a crowd. A reminder that the world was still out there, waiting for him to step back into it.

Sometimes, on the road, it was easy to forget that. Vasile felt far away, and with it the crew they’d lost. Sylvene, Nesdin, Karcey. He wondered if they’d found a new normal yet. If they’d achieved a new business-as-usual in his absence. He hoped so.

“Another one of these, my good man,” he said, sliding his cup across. The barkeep snatched a bottle off a high shelf and topped him up.

Calay felt eyes on him. He rolled his shoulders, peering down the length of the bar. He had empty stools to either side, but a few stools down, a big grizzled man in dingy wool was giving him the shit-eye.

Tilting his chin, Calay sipped from his refill, making pointed eye contact with the stranger. At first, his mind leapt in paranoid directions: bounty hunter? Agent of the Leycenate? But he didn’t look either type. Too ill-equipped. Too old.

“Problem, pal?” Normally he’d keep his head down, try to maintain a low profile. But that prowling restlessness itching in his gut was getting tempting.

“Interesting accent you’ve got,” said the old-timer, still staring. And ah, was that all it was. Geographical post-war cock-waving.

“Boy,” he said, “nothing gets past you, does it.”

The old man drowned his tankard, then sniffed, regarding Calay through bloodshot eyes.

“Big words from a little man with a broken arm.”

So that was how it was going to be, then. Calay too downed his drink, which burned when gulped so quickly. He slammed it down on the bar and swivelled to face the ornery peasant with a sharp, eager grin.

“Yeah, if I broke the other it might be a fair fight.”

Shooting up to his feet, the old-timer almost knocked his stool sideways. He rolled up the cuffs of his dirty undershirt, taking a menacing step forward. The barkeep said something in a pleading tone, but Calay didn’t hear it. He was spoiling for a fight and a bit of collateral damage wasn’t about to stop him.

The old man had burly, bearlike shoulders, and he swung a massive fist straight for Calay’s face. Feinting back, Calay evaded the slow strike easily, though he stumbled a bit and had to re-orient his feet. He was drunker than he thought. It was a quick adjustment, though.

Spinning back to face him, the old man hunched down, readying himself. Calay leaned his weight in through his toes, beckoning him forward. Eager murmurs rose up from the crowd. A couple patrons slunk off, not wanting to get involved, but those seated at their tables straightened up for a better view.

Calay was gonna give ‘em a show, all right. He flexed the fingers of his good hand, mindful not to move his bad arm beneath the bandages.

When the old man charged, Calay leapt in to meet him this time. He watched for the telltale twitch of muscle, the betrayal of the strike as telegraphed by the shoulders. Kella had taught him to always watch the shoulders and the feet, and while he couldn’t say the Captain of the House Talvace guard was a career bar-brawler, surely the principles were the same.

A fist sailed past his face. Calay leapt in and drove his fist into the old man’s stomach, connecting solidly. He couldn’t quite peel back as quick as he wanted, though, and took a glancing blow on the temple for his trouble.

It felt great, though. He felt like a kettle at full boil. Something had to release all that steam.

The backs of his calves bumped up against the overturned barstool. He glanced down for a moment, had to duck another swipe. Gods, the oldster was almost out of breath already. Calay had hoped it would all last a little longer.

With a whoop and a howl that was more excited than it was aggressive, he threw himself at the man in earnest. He jabbed with his left hand, missed, but connected with his elbow on the way back. Crowding his opponent up against the bar, Calay drew back and aimed an uppercut at his chin. He was just a little too slow though, all that sweet potato softening his edge. He leaned too far forward, fell, and was rewarded with a strange and splintering crash that exploded against the side of his face.

A moment after the sound exploded, pain exploded also, flaring up his face and momentarily blanking his vision. He felt frothy beer trickling down his hair and jacket. Touched his face, felt blood. When his eyes refocused, he caught the guilty party: the barkeep himself, still clutching the handle of the mug he’d shattered on Calay’s face.

“That’s hardly fair–” he started to say, but then the old man was on him, grabbing him by the back of his neck. He tried to haul Calay back, but Calay spun and wriggled free of his grasp.

He slugged the old man straight in the nose, felt it give beneath his hand with a satisfying crunch. Then a roar rose up from the crowd, who pressed in closer now, and a whole other fist belonging to some whole other bloke collided with his eye. Gasping, Calay staggered back, clutching his face in one hand.

“Fucksake,” he growled through his fingers.

When he lifted his head, the lamplight trailed funny little streaks. He blinked hard, couldn’t quite focus. It was more than just the vodka this time.

He only just noticed that he’d knocked the old man to the floor, where he was currently propped up in the arms of a much younger man who tended his gushing nose with a rag.

Calay’s pulse throbbed in his ears. He wanted to dive back in, wanted to keep going, wanted to tear through this pack of fuckers like a bullet through a deer. But when he clenched his fist anew, he hesitated.

“I reckon that’s enough,” said a voice at his back. “You’ve made your point.”

Calay glanced over his shoulder without turning all the way around. He wasn’t surprised by the presence of the pistol in the barkeep’s hand. His eyes lingered on the barrel for a moment. He recalled how badly it had gone the last time someone had aimed one of those on him at gut level.

Shoulders stiffening, Calay raised his good hand and stepped away from the bar.

“He started it,” he couldn’t help but say as he stepped over the toppled barstool and out toward the door.

<< Chapter 57 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 57

Riss knelt by the water and rinsed gore off her hands. They waited at the rendezvous point, a bend in the Deel far enough away from the wreckage of the trees that she could breathe. The air smelled clean here, no longer clogged with years of pent-up decay.

She wasn’t sure she’d ever fully wash it off, the different kind of stink that sorcery left behind. Part of her felt unclean, having let Calay do those things to her weapon. But the larger, more rational part of her knew that it was no worse than what he’d done to her person when she’d been incapacitated. The only difference being she’d let it happen that time, knowingly wielded his talents.

She had her justifications. Their backs had been to the wall. They’d had no other choice, save for leaving Vosk to his fate.

Anyone could justify anything, couldn’t they. She was starting to see how. Starting to imagine how it might get a little bit easier each time.

“He’ll come,” Gaz said to Adal, the two of them watching up and down the river. “Maybe they got jumped by something.”

They’d been waiting on Calay for close to an hour. It gave everyone time to scrub up, at least. The moa foraged. Torcha tended the dog.

But they were losing daylight.

“I’m not saying he won’t.” Adal tugged on his gloves after drying his hands. “I’m saying he has the means to track us. We could get moving. I’m certain both that he can catch up and that he’ll understand.”

Riss wasn’t enjoying sitting still. They’d caused quite a ruckus back there. She wanted out of the swamp before anything further could be drawn to their noise and lanterns.

Gaz rolled a shoulder at Adal, obstinate. “Don’t disagree with any of that. You can all go on ahead.”

Riss spoke up, not in the mood for squabbling. “We’re not splitting up.” She did some numbers in her head, tried to estimate how much sunlight they had left. “We’ll wait another quarter-hour.”

“I’m fully confident that he can handle himself out there,” said Adal.

Now that they’d all seen the true extent of what Calay’s powers could accomplish, Riss didn’t doubt that either. He’d been holding back before, when trying to go undetected. Once he threw that veil aside and got down to business, it was like nothing she’d ever seen. He could have taken a four-galania war wagon on his own. And now she had to hang the outcome of this expedition on him, hope he returned with their prisoner intact.

“Of course he can handle it.” Gaz sounded peeved.

Riss hesitated, watching him, expectant.

“I’m not leaving him because that’s not what you do. Even to people who can handle it.”

Adal didn’t have a good counter to that. None of them did. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary. A couple minutes later, Adal spotted two figures trudging toward them over the stony riverbed.

Calay was recognizable enough, but Riss did a double-take when she looked at the man beside him. He was Vosk’s height, sure, and he wore Vosk’s clothes, but the similarities ended there. The man that walked before Calay was shrunken in against himself, arms wrapped around his own torso, his face drawn and lined. His eyes bulged wildly, pupils shifting left to right, gaze never settling on any one thing. And his hair had gone grey-white, bleached of all color. He looked decades older.

Whatever had befallen him, it made him compliant. When Calay stopped walking, Vosk stopped too.

“Our friend here showed me a shortcut to the road,” Calay said. “Let’s get the fuck out and never come back.”

Gaz relaxed at the words and he was the first to jog up to meet them. Riss observed he and Calay from a distance. How close they stood to one another. The way Gaz regarded the sorcerer with such evident concern despite his being far and away the deadliest thing in the forest. There was a story there, to be sure. She’d probably never hear it.

There would be a reckoning later. There was no avoiding it. Soon, Riss would have to set terms and figure out exactly what to reveal to Tarn about what Calay was capable of. Or whether to reveal any of it at all.

For now, though, she agreed with the man’s sentiment completely.

“Pack up,” she told Torcha and Adal. “I don’t want to spend another night here.”

###

Calay led them upriver, then up a rocky, root-tangled slope. It was a short walk from there to the road, and if Riss was being honest, the moment was kind of anticlimactic. She expected to feel sun on her face. To hear the noise of traffic on the road, see sign of a passing caravan. Instead, they merely stepped out onto a dusty road, its surface rutted with deep old wagon tracks.

She glanced up the road, then down it, then toward the setting sun.

“Well,” she said. “I suppose we’ll run into Adelheim if we head north from here, no matter which road we’re on.”

They trudged up the road side by side, six weary souls who were not the same people who’d walked in.

She tried to get a closer look at Vosk while they walked, but he kept to himself, his head down. Blood had trickled down the corners of his chin and dried, like he’d devoured a too-rare steak too quickly. His eyes never ceased their frantic dance. Through all his searching and looking all about, he never found anything to settle down and stare at. Calay had done something to him. Riss decided she was content not knowing what.

A sharp bark sounded from behind her. The hound, which had limped along quietly at Torcha’s side for the entire walk, threw back its head. Barking again, it perked up its ears, then swished its tail. It loped in a small circle around Torcha, then trotted off down the road, still impeded by a slight limp.

Deja-vu swept through Riss like wind. The dog had circled them in a similar fashion when they’d first neared the crossroads. It had looped back around to Vosk, who’d lied to them from the moment he met them, claiming it as his. She strayed a look to the man, now pale-haired and blank-eyed. Whatever havoc Calay had wreaked on both his body and mind, he’d brought it upon himself.

A low baa sounded from up ahead. Then another. Around a bend in the road, they came upon a bridge. And on that bridge was a weathered man in a broad-brimmed straw hat, attempting to coax a flock of sheep across it. He shooed the dog away, glowering, then froze completely when the mercenaries walked into view. Riss could understand why. They were ragged, caked in mud. Her nose had grown used to it, but they likely reeked of ten kinds of death. Calay had blood splashed all down his front. Oh, and they were armed to the teeth.

Riss slowed up, too. They all stopped and stared at one another, the silence broken only by burbling river and bleating sheep. Riss never imagined she’d be glad to smell livestock, but the scent of lanolin and wool stoked something in the coals of her mind: you’re back where people live.

“I don’t want any trouble,” said the shepherd, his voice edged with an aged wariness.

With a single soft, disbelieving laugh, Riss shook her head. “Me either, old timer.”

“Tell that to your dog.”

The old man’s eyes strayed to the hound, which continued to pace in a perimeter around the sheep, eyeballing them eagerly.

“He’s not–” Our dog, Riss started to say. But she caught herself, glancing sidelong to Torcha.

Well, perhaps he was their dog now.

“Eight,” she tried, recalling the name Vosk had used. “C’mere, boy.” She gave a whistle. The dog looked at her with a cant of its long-whiskered snout, but it stayed put. Eventually, Torcha was able to tempt it away from the sheep with some jerky from her pack.

“All’s well at the village?” asked Riss, looking across the bridge. She was fairly sure Adelheim lay that way, given the position of the sun.

“Far as I’m aware,” said the shepherd.

So they walked into town together, a motley band of old soldiers and hired hands and about two dozen sheep. The sky darkened, but they made it to Adelheim before torches began to sparkle in the windows. The shepherd didn’t bother to say goodbye, driving his herd off toward the shearing quarters on the outskirts of town.

Riss stopped at the foot of the road that rambled up toward Tarn’s castle. She stared at it in the half-light, the crumbling masonry and fresh new wood, the figures that moved through its central gate and loitered at its rampart.

They’d made it out. She felt she ought to say something to the others. She recalled the way Gaspard would address the Fourth, the easy confidence of his voice, the way he molded human morale like clay. He always seemed to have words for a situation, be it a celebration or a dire moment when a rallying cry was desperately needed.

Riss looked sideways to Adal, pursing her lips. He was already unlashing his pack from the moa, hauling it up onto his shoulder, working through the motions like this was just another pack-down before making camp.

When he saw her, he paused, scritching at an eyebrow with his thumb. “Orders, boss?”

Torcha likewise looked her way. Then Gaz, then even Calay.

Riss spotted a figure at the apex of the hill, a short silhouette that slipped free of the castle’s gates and then began to jog down the path. It appeared to be heading toward them.

Riss didn’t have to say anything at all, did she. She turned that thought over in her mind for a moment, marveling at it. Just because Gaspard had done something didn’t mean she had to. Just because she’d learned from him didn’t mean she had to imitate him in all things.

She’d gotten them out. Well, they’d all gotten one another out. But in the end, everyone was still looking to her for orders. That meant they trusted her to see this through to the very end.

The Baron’s man arrived, kicking up dust as he hurried to where they stood. He was out of breath by the time he reached them.

“Sergeant Chou.” She had no idea why he was using her rank. Wasn’t as though she’d worn the same colors. “The Baron is in the field, but our doors are open to you. Quarters and facilities at the ready.”

Riss tilted a look up the darkening walls of the keep, pursing her lips. Well, it beat another night in the woods.

###

Tarn’s household staff were ludicrous in number. Riss had stretch her mind to imagine that they all belonged to him. She and her company were led up the hill, past the low, heavy-roofed dwellings of the village and through the imposing gates. Castles like these were old, relics of an age when wars were far more common and it made sense to sling thick stone walls around everything one valued. Riss had never liked them. A gate that big could keep a lot of people penned in, too.

They were shown what must have been the height of what passed for hospitality in Adelheim, busied into the castle by a series of silent, efficient footmen.

Finally, a man out of House livery appeared. He was narrow, almost as tall as Riss, dressed all in tidy black silk. Several flyaway strands had escaped the ponytail at his neck, lending him a harried, rushed appearance even when standing still.

“Sergeant,” he greeted her. “I’m Veslin. I mind the house when the Baron is on his tours.”

Riss ticked a nod of greeting. “Just Riss,” she said. “The war’s over. Pardon the state of us, Veslin.”

The man grimaced visibly as he looked each of them over. If he wondered at what horrors had transpired to lend them their current appearance, he didn’t say so.

“We have plenty of rooms to house you. If you follow me, we’ll launder your things. And I imagine baths and a warm meal might be in order.”

Each of those propositions sounded better than the last.

“There’s one matter of business first,” she said. Glancing past where Calay lurked, silent and watchful, she set her eyes on Harlan Vosk.

“This man,” she said, summoning up as much disdain as her weariness would allow, “is responsible for the death of Lukra Gullardson. As well as several of the Baron’s men. He confessed to his acts of betrayal and we’ve dragged him back so that appropriate justice can be meted out.”

She likely hadn’t needed to go full pomp and circumstance for that. But it felt good.

Veslin’s brow lowered. He looked Vosk over, studying the shaking husk of a man that Calay had marched through his door.

“I’ll prepare a cell,” he said, his voice chilly.

It wasn’t until Veslin showed Riss through the door of her room–a handsome, well-appointed chamber with its own sitting area and its own hearth–that reality sunk in, that Riss really felt it.

They were out.

Up the hallway, she heard Torcha arguing with one of Tarn’s men about whether the dog could lodge in her quarters.

Leader of the expedition though she might have been, Riss decided Torcha could fight that battle solo.

She swung the door closed, then slipped her cloak off over her head. One piece at a time, she loosened straps and buckles on her armor, shedding it piecemeal. A carved wooden armor stand stood near the door just for organizing such things, but she was far too tired to bother. Everything she stripped off ended up in a pile on the floor. Fuck it.

The soft thunk of leather and metal onto the rug sounded too loud. Silence felt unusual, uncomfortable. When she glanced to either side of her, there was no headcount to make, no packbeasts to mind, no wounded or afflicted friends to tend, no sorcerer to watch from the corner of her eye.

When Riss next exhaled, it felt like she’d exhaled the last of the swamp with her. That each breath she now took was solely her own, no longer fraught with duty.

Opposite the sprawling bed in her chamber, a heavy bookshelf sat waiting. Its many volumes were as varied a collection as one could imagine, only about a third of which even bore languages she recognized on their spines.

She could read, then, until the servants arrived with her bathwater. In fact, she took a moment to envision her entire evening: selecting a volume off the shelves, sinking into warm water, scrubbing the grit and blood away, then retiring straight to bed.

If they let her, she’d take her evening meal under the covers. As nice as it would be to break bread with Torcha and Adal in a safe haven, all of them healthy, Riss needed the peace and quiet more. They’d cope.

How strange, to walk once more among the living.

<< Chapter 56 | Chapter 58 >>

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Chapter 56

Harlan ran for his life.

The second Gaz shoved him aside, he drew on the last of his strength and took off down the rocky riverbed. Calay hadn’t looked well. The others were distracted. He didn’t pause to look and he didn’t slow to catch his bearings. None of what he’d accomplished, none of the careful moves he’d made to cover his tracks in town, nothing at all would matter if he was not able to put distance between himself and these fucking mercenaries.

He’d been dealt a poor hand in life, but he always managed to land on his feet. It was just like Fortune to set him on an expedition with the only mercenary crew for miles that had a collective conscience. But where deceit, bribery, and cajoling wouldn’t work, there was always one last option: to run like hell and never look back.

Splashing through the shallows, he kept to the river to fend off the trees. He could follow the river all the way to the crossroads if he needed to, crawl out underneath Breakfalls Bridge. While he didn’t know exactly how far downriver he was, he had a general idea. And most importantly, the out-of-towners knew even less.

That was all his harried brain could muster as it forced his weakened, shivering body forward.

Would distance lessen the effect the sorcerer’s curses had upon him? He could only hope. He felt as though his bones had been hollowed from the inside out. Like firewood after the wood-mites got to it: full of tiny holes that made the whole structure brittle.

Something rustled in the trees by the riverbank. Harlan ducked low, moving slower than he liked but still onward. He’d fled some angry boars in his life, but this was different. Compared to the things that pursued him now, a boar was blunt and stupid.

He couldn’t shake the feeling of an intensely malevolent presence following close behind, an unseen terrible something that pursued him beyond the veil of trees.

But when he finally looked over his shoulder, nothing.

The air smelled cleaner now. When he peered up either bank of the river, he saw gaps in the trees. Lazy late afternoon sunlight glanced off the river’s surface, illuminating rocks below in the shallower stretches. On a sandy stretch of riverbank, he spotted the remnants of a fishing camp: an ashen campfire, a scrap of discarded net, a tidy heap of picked-clean bones.

He had passed back into the world of the living.

But even though he couldn’t see it, that darkness, that terrible thing which lurked in the heart of the swamp, it didn’t feel far away. The thing that had cried for help and impersonated a crying woman. The thing that had caused the thorns to writhe around Geetsha. The whole damn place had evil at its core. He’d heard the stories growing up–they all had. Something pitch-black and terrible lurked in the heart of that place and it was sorcery that birthed it. Yet there went Riss, siding with the sorcerer. She deserved whatever befell her.

Harlan considered the shallows, then took a calculated risk. He attempted to walk the river, gasping as he sank thigh-deep into the water. The current bowled him over, but he was expecting that. He floated on his back kicking sideways, aiming for an outcrop of rocks, then shoving off them with the flats of his boots. He half-swam half-scuttled this way, knowing it was no use to attempt to fight the current, and when he finally rolled up onto the opposite bank, he breathed a sigh of relief.

The chilly water had slapped fresh life into his tired arms and legs, too, and when he rose his strength felt renewed. A quick check of sun against sky confirmed that he was on the western bank, as he’d hoped.

With each step, his boots sloshed. Water dripped down his heavy, weighted clothes. It stung the rope-marks on his wrists. But Harlan didn’t care. He hauled himself up the bank and into the sparse forest, where the tree trunks were thinner and nothing sinister lurked at the corners of his eyes.

Still, he didn’t slow. He kept up the fastest pace he could, so much so that when he finally found the road, he didn’t notice it until he’d run halfway across the thing. Suddenly, the ground beneath his soles felt flat. When he sniffed the air, he tasted dust. He looked up and down, then realized he was standing in the path. He looked down, spying fresh footprints: horses, people, wagon tracks.

His knees buckled with relief. Tears springing to his eyes, he bent his brow to the ground and actually kissed it. Solid earth beneath him. Plain, silver-grey beech trees all around him. Birdsong. A distant clump of fresh horseshit. Civilization.

Footsteps crunched up the road behind him, leisurely slow.

“Nice out, isn’t it.”

As the voice spoke, a shadow passed behind him. Something stepped between Harlan and the sun.

He spun on all fours in the dust, pushing up.

There was no way. There was no possible way. He’d gotten a head start. He’d run as fast as he could. He’d followed a path he knew that the others did not.

Yet there stood the sorcerer, backlit by the sunset. He had his hands in his pockets, no visible weapons on him. His duster hung neatly off his shoulders. Save the ragged edges of his clothes and the streak of blood up his face, he looked like he’d just stepped off a carriage rather than out of the nightmare they’d all just suffered through.

Harlan clutched his shard of flint, the one thing he had left. Gritting his teeth, he set it between his fingers and faced Calay head-on.

The sorcerer glanced to the flint and chuffed out a soft laugh. He took a step closer.

“I wanted you to feel this,” he said as he neared. “To almost get what you wanted. To almost get away.”

He lifted the misshapen mess of his right arm. It had grown since Harlan had last seen him up close. In fact, it had sprung flowers. Calay stepped closer still. He flexed his fingers. Long, wickedly-curved talons of bone unsheathed themselves from the bark and ivy of his hand.

Harlan took a step back. Calay stepped with him. The muscles in Harlan’s legs twinged, an animal urge to run, the way a rabbit never stops trying to sprint away, even when it’s caught in a snare. He lifted one boot off the ground, wondered how far he could actually make it.

His father would have said it was more honorable to stand and fight. Harlan didn’t give a toss about honor, though. That’s the thing those old-timers never seemed to realize: honor didn’t keep wood in the stove. Honor didn’t stop some cashed-up kingdom from trampling your homeland and declaring it theirs. That was storybook bullshit, and he’d never had the time for–

He made it a single step before Calay was on him, pouncing like a cat, surging forward and tackling him to the ground. He was heavier than he looked. They stumbled and rolled a single time, then Calay pinned him hard, a knee to either side of his body.

With his taloned hand, he grabbed Harlan by the face. He was careful, the tips of his claws just barely sinking into skin. Harlan swallowed, afraid to breathe too hard last he scrape his throat along those edges.

“It’s kind of funny.” Calay leaned forward, his haggard face filling Harlan’s field of vision. “I was so intent on catching you, so intent on killing you, and now that I’ve got you here I don’t quite know what to do with you.”

He squeezed, the claws biting into Harlan’s cheek and neck. He swallowed a whimper, not wanting to give the sorcerer the satisfaction.

Maybe someone would happen upon them. Maybe there’d be a carriage coming round the bend. He was daring, showing off those claws of his on a public road. Or insane.

He should have known Calay was unnatural from the beginning. Looking at him now, it was so obvious. He wasn’t right. It was written all over his face. His eyes looked like they’d never seen sleep.

“Just do it,” Harlan hissed, trying not to move his jaw. “You’ve got what you want.” He lacked the vocabulary for what he wanted to say. Calling him a monster or a wretch was pointless. The marsh had tried to kill this man again and again, and he kept rising back up. What harm would words do?

Calay leaned into him, close enough that he could feel the cool gust of the man’s breath on his cheek. He smelled like soil and peat.

“Riss wouldn’t like that,” he murmured. “Besides. You’ve got something I need.”

A thought dawned on Harlan. He laughed. He couldn’t help it.

“My blood. You won’t kill me because you still need my blood.” His laughter turned sad. He was a man who could endure much. His whole life had been one kick in the shins after another, really. But this was not how he’d envisioned the last few days (hours?) of his life, kept alive to burn as a sorcerer’s lantern oil.

“No, no.” Calay dug his talons in one last time, then released Harlan’s face. He rolled up to his feet with an easy, effortless athleticism, then planted a boot on Harlan’s chest.

“It’s not your blood I want,” he said. “You took something from me. Something I can’t ever get back.”

Harlan’s eyes strayed to the clawed limb that grew where Calay’s arm once was.

He felt the first, tentative tickles of an all new fear bloom in his belly.

“So, what.” He tried to put on a brave face. “You’ll hack my arm off? Torture me?” That’s what they did, magick users. The stories had to come from somewhere, old wives’ tales of baby-bone fetishes bound in human sinew. Torture techniques beyond men’s comprehension, designed to prolong fear and suffering.

“I could.” Calay didn’t apply much pressure with his boot, standing over Harlan like he’d almost lost interest. “Might have, back in the day. But the game’s changed now. I can’t waste time on grudges. I’m going to take from you the one thing you have left that could endanger me.”

He stooped down and grabbed Harlan by the collar. He hauled him up one-handed with an easy, unnatural strength, then dragged him from the road, back into the shadows of the forest. His feet stumbling over one another, Harlan attempted to wrest himself more upright, but Calay gave his arm a vicious downward jerk. He forced Harlan’s eyes onto the ground, forced him to walk with his back bowed.

How could Harlan endanger him? He’d lost it. There wasn’t a single trick in Harlan’s book that could possibly endanger such a creature.

Calay laid him down in the shade of a birch tree, on a bed of soft grass. His mouth twitched up in an eager smile as he held Harlan in place with his good arm, grip like steel.

He crept his talons toward Harlan’s mouth, probing at his lips with sharp edges.

“Open up,” he said. “Or I’ll open it for you.”

The fear blossomed. Harlan held his breath. Something sharp raked along his gums and his mouth spasmed open, less of his own accord than out of surprised, pained reflex. And Calay forced his bladed fingertips in, wrenching Harlan’s jaw wide. Bark and bone scraped painfully against his teeth as the sorcerer dug in.

His eyes rolling back, Harlan stared at the peeling bark of the tree, silver-grey and sheeting off in little curls. Is this what it felt like when the tree had him?

He knew then what Calay intended to steal. The one last thing Vosk possessed that could still endanger him: his testimony to Tarn about the sorcerer’s true nature.

His voice.

He blacked out soon after Calay got to work, but before he did, he could have sworn he saw tiny purple flowers blooming up through cracks in the birch tree’s bark.

<< Chapter 55 | Chapter 57 >>

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Author Update – Into the Mire is one year old today!

Adal & Riss by the wonderful @rabdoidal (check him out on twitter and tumblr!)

Raise a glass, swamp fiends. Today, Into the Mire turns 1! Thanks for sticking with me, whether you’ve been reading for a year or a week.

This week I’ll be dropping a bonus update and some additional bits and pieces to celebrate. I can’t thank you enough for reading and supporting this project of mine. It’s gotten me through some pretty rough times in the last 52 weeks and I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to share these characters with you all.

With the end of Book 1 rapidly approaching, I’m excited to open up the wider Continental world to you all. Just a couple days ago, I penned the final words on the outline of Book 5. There’s a lot more in store for our heroes and I hope you stay along for the ride.