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.
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.