Chapter 27

Thick, oily smoke belched up into the sky, blotting out the skyline. Stomach sinking, Gaz rounded the corner, already knowing what he’d find. He’d spotted the first plumes from the market, and he knew the streets like the back of his hand.

Someone had torched the squat. Lawmen, rival gang, some idiot puffing cigs and falling asleep, who even knew.

Standing in the middle of the alley, hands in his pockets, Gaz watched his home go up in flames.

The squat was far from the only home he’d ever known. It had been shelter for the last few months. Kitta, the landlord, gave him occasional work. He menaced in doorways when tenants didn’t pay up, then menaced a few stalls in the bazaar when Kitta wanted protection money. He hadn’t had to hurt anyone yet. Which was a relief, because he wasn’t sure he could. Gaz balanced on that precarious edge between child and adult, a boy in a teen’s body, larger in frame than his ambitions and his courage.

A soft, pathetic cough croaked out from the debris. Hunched near a collapsed lean-to, a young girl sat in the dirt, a smear of ash across her brow. Her oily hair, days unwashed, clung to her face and stuck up in the back.

Gaz didn’t recognize her. How long had she been sitting there? Had she crawled out from inside?

The kid turned her big, wet peepers onto him and just stared. She didn’t cry. She coughed sometimes. The two of them stood in a silent stalemate.

“Are… do your folks live here?” he asked, quiet.

He couldn’t pinpoint how old she was. It was tough, with slum kids. They were always too skinny, stunted, looked younger than they were. She could have been two or she could have been a malnourished six. Gaz didn’t grow up around kids. What age did kids even start to talk, anyway?

The girl said nothing. He shuffled a little closer. Instead of flinching and skittering off, she just watched him, head turning marginally.

He crept closer until he loomed over her, staring down at her greasy little head. She had sores, he could see now, little pustules on her skin. Some sort of disease. They festered, uncared-for, red at the edges, weeping from beneath the few rags that wrapped her bony body.

“Oh man,” he said, looking around the alley, wide-eyed. “We should… find your ma.”

But he knew there wasn’t any ma coming. Nobody who lived around here had parents. At least not parents who birthed them. At the rate healthy babies could fetch at the slavers’ stalls, there was no need to bring up extra mouths to feed in this part of town. And bluntly, she didn’t look like anyone loved her enough to keep her around on purpose.

Still, what if? If she had parents, he wouldn’t want to cross them.

He stood there in the alley beside the silent, staring girl until the squat was a heap of coals. No one came for her.

“We oughta… we oughta get you to the clinic,” he said at last, tiptoeing that last bit closer as though his words might frighten her. Maybe she didn’t speak northern.

He found a half-rotted grain sack in the midden and wrapped the child in it. She didn’t complain. Binding her up tightly, Gaz checked that none of her exposed skin touched his as he lifted her up in his arms.

“Sorry,” he said, though he doubted she’d never suffered worse indignities. “You’re sick and stuff.”

He didn’t want to get any ick on him.

So he carried her through the alleys, keeping to the quiet side-streets. For her part, she said and did nothing, limp and listless in his arms, weighing no more than his bag of protection coin and assorted bribes. Bribes that Kitta wouldn’t be collecting now, as she was either dead or driven underground. The leg of meat, the jars of preserves, the money, the jewelry–it was all his now.

So he could afford to take the girl to the Indigents’ Clinic. And it was the right thing to do.

He dropped her off, then mumbled something to the old man about having to run some errands. He didn’t want to hang around. It was embarrassing, showing up on the fringes of the middle-city all shoeless and smelling like he did.

Gaz spent a portion of his newly-acquired wealth on a pair of sandals and two full hours at the midtown public baths. For one of those hours, he simply lounged in the warm water, staring wide-eyed as attendants carried jug after jug of the stuff in. All that water, and it never ran cold.

But then, freshly bathed, he couldn’t bear to put his old tunic and breeches on. They smelled like shit.

So he nicked a pair that looked about his size off a peg in the antechamber. People who used the public baths could afford new pairs of pants.

A shirt was trickier. Not many folks had shoulders as broad as his. So in the end he bought that too. Spent sixteen australs on it. Sixteen! It wasn’t anything fancy, just tightly-woven sailcloth. But it would last for ages if he tended it.

And as he walked back into the clinic, looking to see what had happened to the kid, it felt nice to not smell like garbage anymore.

###

Gaz hated the Indigents’ Clinic. Not because it reminded him that he’d grown up in the piss-pot of the city, but because sickness and deformity gave him the heebies. He kept to himself, peeking across the rows of beds. The poor treated in this place weren’t afforded any privacy, beds stacked eight to a row in a large open bay. The whole place stank in a different way to the slums.

The little girl was curled up on a bed in the far corner, her face reeking of strong-smelling salve. It glistened wetly on her pale cheeks, and she slept a hard and medicated sleep. Adrift on an adult-sized mattress, she looked impossibly tiny.

“This your kid?”

The source of the voice was a short, slender boy with close-cropped flaxen hair. Well, he was short by Gaz standards. He was probably average human height. Neatly dressed in a slate-grey linen smock, he wore gloves and a bandolier dotted with surgical instruments–long tweezers, scissors, a magnifying glass, a spool of thread.

He looked a little young to be carrying all that around.

“Yep,” said Gaz, finally answering the question. Then it occurred to him the medic might have meant your kid as in your kid, so he suddenly shook his head.

“I mean she’s my kid like I brought her here. But she’s not my kid like my-kid my kid.”

A strangely-delayed smile spread across the blond boy’s mouth, like he was amused by something very private that only had halfway to do with anything Gaz had said.

“So she’s not your kid, but you brought her here. Funny.” He spoke softly, amusedly, again like something about this whole situation was hilarious.

The medic tottered off, tending to the other patients without further word.

Gaz pulled up a stool and sank down by the girl’s bedside, unsure of what else to do with himself. He had no squat to go back to. He had a purse full of coin he didn’t know how to spend. If he ventured back into the alleys, someone would nick it off him for sure. And probably his sandals, too. But he didn’t know how you got a room in midtown. Were there squats in places like this? Rooms you could rent by the night?

He puzzled through his dilemma one wandering thought at a time. For the first time in his life, Gaz had nowhere to be and no pressing needs. No threat to his person in the form of violence, starvation, or a master who’d wonder where the hells he’d got to.

So he spent his hours at the girl’s bedside, waiting to see if she’d wake up. He fished a jar of jam out of his satchel and sucked little mouthfuls of it off his finger. Good jam. Plum jam.

He had a jam-hand crammed in his mouth when that medic boy reappeared, finding his way to Gaz’s side. The street outside had gone dark. Gaz hadn’t noticed.

“You’re still here.”

Gaz wasn’t sure what to say. That hadn’t been a question.

“Yep,” he said, popping the lid back on the jam. Street kid reflex: he didn’t plan on sharing, so hide the food away.

“Funny,” said the medic.

“Everything’s funny to you.”

The medic efficiently undressed the bed beside the girl’s, stripping it of its bloodstained sheets. He folded the cloth in his arms, smirking at Gaz while he did it.

“Not everything. Just you.”

Gaz flipped him a rude hand gesture, starting to wonder what the fuck this guy’s problem was. And the boy slipped off again, tidying bedclothes in all the unoccupied cots and checking on those who slept in the occupied ones.

###

Gaz didn’t know what else to do, so he stayed there. Around him, relatives filtered in and out of the clinic, checking in on patients and sometimes leaving with them. A man came in holding a badly-crushed hand, twisted fingers swollen and broken and leaking blood. The young medic seemed to be something of an assistant in the place, directing some people to the scruffy old guy who worked in the back room and taking care of others himself. Gaz half-watched, interested by virtue of there being nothing else going on.

Sometimes, the girl seemed close to waking. She mumbled incoherently a few times, then finally spoke up clear enough that Gaz could hear. She was asking for a drink.

“Hey,” said Gaz the next time the young medic wandered by. “She’s asking for a glass of water.”

The boy glanced down, nodded a little, and said that was a good sign. Then he flitted off into the bowels of the building where Gaz couldn’t see him.

When the medic returned, he was carrying a small wooden tray. Upon it were two tall clay cups of water, a heap of sliced bread, and a small chunk of cheese. He set it on the foot of the unoccupied cot beside Gaz’s stool.

“Here you go,” he said, perfunctory. “Thought it might go well with your jam.”

Gaz’s mouth watered. He explored the contents of the tray while the medic tried to coax the little girl into drinking. He had moderate success. She hiccuped and laid back down.

Still still here,” Gaz said, pulling the jam jar out of his satchel.

“I’m not kicking you out.”

Plunking the jar onto the tray with the rest of the foodstuffs, Gaz offered an introduction.

“I’m Gaz,” he said.

“Calay,” said the medic. His smile was odd and quick, like he wasn’t used to doing it or was expecting something to go wrong.

“So you help run this place?”

Gaz smeared jam on a slice of rich, fibrous brown bread. It was still soft on the inside, still fresh, thin-crusted. He was careful not to appear too eager, although he’d only had bread this nice maybe twice in his life.

“I do.” Calay sliced cheese with a thin horn-hilted knife, offering Gaz a small wedge. “I’m the apprentice here. I work for Mr. Linten.”

It was amazing, the type of conversations you could have when you had clean shoes and a clean shirt. A physician’s apprentice, that was the sort of person who normally crossed the street when they saw Gaz coming. He was so learned for someone so young. So well-spoken. And he had a real job you had to know stuff to do.

“It’s good that you guys do this,” Gaz said. He was on uneven footing, conversationally. What did people like this talk about?

“It is,” agreed Calay. He seemed to use one word for every five Gaz used.

Gaz ate slower than he wanted to, taking small bites and actually chewing them. He ate like Kitta did when she met with her business colleagues. Sometimes Gaz watched the door during those kinds of meetings, and while the conversations were always insufferably boring, they usually fed him after.

The bread crumbled on his tongue, intensely flavorful and dark. The sweet jam and the soft, sweet cheese combined for a truly pleasurable eating experience. Gaz, despite his best efforts to not inhale it, didn’t actually speak again until he’d finished the slice.

“Thanks,” he said, licking crumbs off his thumb.

Calay’s slim shoulders lifted in a modest shrug. “It’s nothing,” he said. Then he pursed his mouth, regarding Gaz with a subtle tilt of his chin. He leaned back on the cot, relaxing slightly. The bloodstained mattress didn’t seem to bother him at all. Which Gaz supposed made sense, given how many hours a day he probably spent in the clinic.

“So why are you still here?” he finally asked. He looked at Gaz like Gaz was a puzzle with a missing piece.

Gaz was easily swayed by food, and not the type to lie unless a situation really warranted. So he just told the truth.

“I guess I don’t really have anywhere else to go?” He sipped his water, then gave a shrug of his own. It was enough of an answer.

“You live on the streets?” Calay kept up the questions, although Gaz didn’t feel pressured or interrogated. He asked like he was just curious.

“Sort of. But not really. I lived in a tenement. But it burned down.”

“Ah. Over on the Eastside?”

Built on a series of hills, Vasile was a place that made it easy to gauge where folk came from. The further west you lived, the better off you were. The far eastern neighborhoods were crumbling slums, no longer maintained by the city and left to the likes of folks like Kitta.

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “Blackbricks.”

Calay nodded near-imperceptibly, like he was actually familiar with the neighborhood. Gaz thought that unlikely.

“So where do you plan to go when we close up?” With a slender, spidery hand, he gestured to the darkness beyond the windows. “We’re not open all night, I’m afraid.”

Gaz chewed the inside of his cheek. He reached for another slice of cheese, layering it atop bread with jam for grout.

“Dunno,” he admitted. “I’ll figure out something.”

The answer earned him a quiet laugh. Then, after laughing, Calay hesitated. He cleared his throat a little, then glanced toward the short staircase that led up into the backrooms.

“I might be able to help you with that,” he said after a moment. Gaz blinked.

“How?” he asked. “You have a spare bed somewhere?”

Calay pursed his lips. “Sort of,” he said. “We’ve had some break-ins here the last few years. Mostly people looking for drugs or supplies. You’re a big fellow, and having a doorman would likely deter criminal activity. You probably wouldn’t even have to tangle with any of them.”

Well that was a line of work Gaz was familiar with.

“I’ve done that before,” he said. “Even the tangling part.” Although only in self-defense.

“Let me talk to my boss,” said Calay. “You can have the last of this. I’ll finish up my rounds and speak to Mr. Linten.”

Gaz sucked in a breath through his nose and tried not to hold it. A strange nervousness fluttered in his stomach. He felt like he had to be on his best behavior. The clean shirt and shoes had really done it. Maybe this was his big break. His ticket to… well he wasn’t sure what it was a ticket to. Better things than what he’d had. He was so unfamiliar with the wider city, beyond what little he could glimpse from the right vantage points, up on a roof or a hill or whatnot.

Maybe he’d finally get to see it all.

“Hey,” he said, as Calay stood. “Thank you.”

Calay smiled that quick, short-lived smile again, then told Gaz he’d try his best. Gaz got the feeling this kid was smart. That when he tried, he got what he wanted.

<< Chapter 26 | To Be Continued >>

Author Update – Cover art has arrived and bonus chapter coming tomorrow!

Hi everyone!

I don’t write on the blog here terribly often as I let the story speak for itself, but I wanted to say hello to the recent spike in new readers. It’s great to see the story gaining traction and I enjoy reading all your comments. Since Mire is a labour of love, it’s encouraging and motivating to see such nice feedback.

I’d also like to reveal an INCREDIBLY BITCHIN’ ‘cover’ art done by George of Cotronis and Sons Illustration. There’s a Riss and a Calay variant, and they are so cool my heart basically stops every time I look at them.

I’ll be re-tooling the website some to incorporate the new art over the next few days, so don’t be alarmed if you notice any sudden changes.

I wanted to share a little bit about my upcoming plans for the series, since I’ve had some free time to do a lot of juicy outlining lately. I do intend for Mire to be ongoing after Adventure #1 continues. As well as the continued adventures of Riss & Co. as their mercenary reputation grows and their clients grow stranger, there are also volumes planned for party backstories.

I’ve completed outlines thus far for the following books:

1. The story of Gaspard Marcinen’s journey from death row to the Inland Army, and how he grew to become one of its most notorious figureheads.

2. Calay’s rise to power in the Vasa underworld, culminating in the betrayal that led to his arrest and eventual outing as a sorcerer.

3. The formation of the mercenary company as told through a series of letters between Adalgis as he recuperated from his war wounds and Riss while she was still serving on the southern front.

4. The actual Adventure #2, which involves a legendary outlaw being chased across the continent by a murderous postal worker, and how they both attempt to enlist the help of our favourite mercenaries to take the other out.

I’m so thrilled with the response this story has generated online. Thank you sincerely to each and every one of you who has read, commented, voted on TopWebFiction, left a review, or just shared the link with friends and family. It’s great to see people are enjoying reading this story as much as I’m enjoying writing it.

To celebrate how jazzed I am about the cover art, I’ll be releasing an extra bonus chapter tomorrow. 🙂

Chapter 26

Rocking like a ship on rough seas, nuts and bolts barely holding it together, the wagon shuddered down the road. Torcha had them racing along at a breakneck, dangerous pace, but Riss didn’t care.

“Can we go any faster?” she screamed through the door toward the piloting chamber.

“Not if we want to control where we’re going!”

Sprawled across Riss’ lap, Gaspard choked. His labored breath came in gasps and wheezes, dark blood flecking his silver-grey beard. His lone eye rolled upward, still alert, still watching her. She glanced away, not quite able to look him in the face.

The wagon impacted something in the road, likely just a small rock, but at the speed they were going, it sent a shiver of impact through the entire wooden frame. The wheels held fast. Gaspard erupted into coughing.

“Don’t worry,” Riss said, unsure whether he could even hear her over the ruckus. “We’re almost there.”

She tightened her grip on the compress wadded against Gaspard’s chest. The splintered shaft of a crossbow bolt protruded from the blood-soaked fabric squished wetly in her fingers. Riss knew better than to try to move or withdraw it, so she stemmed the bleeding as best she could, tearing fresh strips from both her cloak and his when the cloth soaked through.

A shotgun blast thundered through the air and the shutters of the wagon’s back window blew into pieces, lending Riss a sliver of the view outside: snow-burdened evergreens and patches of bluebird sky.

Another shot. Chunks of the wooden frame exploded away, showering Riss and Gaspard with splinters. She angled forward, shielding him as best she could with her shoulder.

“Sounds like they have more than just a crossbow,” he wheezed in her ear.

“Yeah, yeah.” Riss growled, voice acidic with self-loathing. “I fucked up. I know.”

Before Gaspard could argue with her–which he’d do, she knew it, even in his injured state–Riss twisted again and hammered her fist against the driver’ s partition.

“Torcha! Get back here or get up top! They’re blowing the back of the wagon off!”

Torcha hollered something indistinguishable. Riss couldn’t hear over the rumble of wheels on dirt. Then louder thumping, someone moving around on the wagon’s roof. Adal or Renato could take over driving; they needed Torcha’s eye. If she could pick the shooters off, or their horses, it would buy them enough time…

“Riss.”

Gaspard hiked in air through his teeth, dragging bloodied fingers down her arm.

“Just hang in there,” she murmured without looking, eyes on the open window. It was useless, pleading at him. Words like that never worked. Not on the battlefield, not in infirmaries, not anywhere.

Riss.” Gaspard’s voice, even whittled away to a croak, had an iron backbone to it. She looked down this time.

“Get the fuck out there and help your crew.”

“They’ll be fine.” She dared a glance down at his face and regretted it. The full, stern weight of his dark stare was on her now, his brows drawn. His expression was one of intense pain tempered with a restrained disapproval. Without saying a word, his eye said to her, after all this, you choose to disobey me now?

“I’m not saying they won’t.” He grunted and used an elbow to lever himself into a sitting position. Fresh, hot blood gushed through Riss’ fingers. “I’m saying…”

He paused, smothered a cough.

“I’m saying you can’t help me.

The words stung. Riss worked her mouth in silence, then shifted so that she rested in a kneel on the wagon’s wooden floor. All around them, strapped-down cargo quivered against the ropes that held it down. Another shake, another forceful impact as they careened over an obstacle in the road.

“I’ll be fine,” he rasped. “If they blast the ass-end of the wagon off to shoot me again, you’ll have–” Another wheeze. “–bigger problems than mourning me.”

He was right. Riss wasn’t any kind of sawbones. If they got into town in time, if they managed to get into town at all without getting blown completely to fuck, that would be the time to talk medical attention.

Until then, there was nothing she could do. Yet she still didn’t want to leave him.

She squeezed his shoulder once, fingers digging in, reluctant to let go. She told him to keep applying pressure, then slid the partition into the wagon’s cab open. It was more of a window than a door, but Riss could wiggle through. Kicking and twisting, she fell in a heap of leather onto the piloting chamber floor.

As she landed, the coachman let out a yelp of surprise, clenching the reins even tighter. Renato sat on the bench beside him, leaned around the wall, pistol in hand.

“They both up top?” asked Riss, of Torcha and Adal. The coachman nodded, barely looking aside at her as he struggled to keep up the pace.

“I won’t let ‘em flank us,” Renato called. “Get up there!”

Up front, with so many layers of hard timber between herself and the gunshots, without Gaspard bleeding out in her lap, Riss felt calmer. She could hear herself think.

Hauling hand-over-hand, she climbed up onto the roof of the wagon, knuckling down near Torcha and Adal’s feet. They were both laid out along the rooftop, taking pot shots at the riders who pursued them. Just as Riss arrived, one of Adal’s shots struck home: a horse stumbled and fell, red spraying from its leg.

Riss couldn’t shoot for shit. Not like those two. So she made herself useful in other ways: hurriedly reloading their rifles while they rotated to the pistols at their belts, all three of them clinging on for dear life.

###

The wagon rolled to a juddering halt, limping into the yard, its team panting. The horses twitched their necks and threw their heads, muscle spasm visible below their hides. Riss climbed down from the roof as the coachman bellowed for water.

All around them the wagonyard bustled, porters loading and unloading other coaches.

Riss’ heart gradually slowed. As it did, a sudden exhaustion sapped her. She felt spent, as if she’d run down the mountain herself on foot. Beneath her boots, the ground seemed to shudder and buck as though she were still in motion.

Walking around to the rear doors, she grabbed the nearest porter by the arm.

“You,” she said, barely glancing down at the boy, who couldn’t have been out of his teens. “Send into town for a physician.”

She shoved him away without waiting for acknowledgment. The blood spilled down the front of her leathers said enough.

Heaving the lockbar up, she stepped aside as the door and loading plank fell backward into position. Buckshot and hard traveling had bitten whole chunks out of the wagon’s backside, but the important parts appeared intact, for all Riss cared. She gave the wagon itself only a cursory look on her way inside.

She twisted past a row of crates, still lashed to the cargo hold’s walls by some miracle, and crouched.

Gaspard lay right where she’d left him, back propped up on a rucksack, fingers clutching the compress to his gut.

Except…

The second she set eyes upon him, she knew.

Riss had seen a lot of people die. She’d seen people die in shitty, war-torn tent hospitals. She’d seen people die by her own hand, when she stood over them on the battlefield and slit their throats to make it quick. She’d held her soldiers while they cried for their husbands and wives and begged for painkillers that had run out months ago.

She couldn’t take a single step closer to his body. It was as though the same sharp, soul-deep magnetism that drew people to Gaspard in life repelled her in death.

Riss walked to the cargo hold doors, then sat down on the loading ramp.

The bastard. The absolute bastard. He’d known. He had known it was about to happen and he’d sent her off so she wouldn’t be there. Like a wounded family pet crawling off under the deck to die alone, so its masters wouldn’t be troubled.

Adal found her there later, still staring into space, the blood spilt down her jerkin yet to dry. She had no idea how much time had passed. The medic arrived; Adal waved him curtly away. He knew, then. She heard Ren and Torcha barking orders at someone, but the words mattered so little that her brain didn’t retain them.

Adal sat down next to her, but a good foot away. Like she’d acquired the same repellent aura that drove her away from Gaspard’s cooling corpse.

“Riss…”

“Don’t.”

<< Chapter 25 | Chapter 27 >>

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Chapter 25

For all his caution, for all his magickal possibilities, the bullet caught Calay just below the navel and blew a hole straight through his back. He crumpled, felt the force of the wound before the pain. He tried to breathe and found his lungs were intact. Coughing, sputtering, he gripped his abdomen and fumbled for his belt.

He could sketch that wound away. He just needed the vial. Any of the vials. It didn’t matter whose blood he used, just so long as it wasn’t his own.

Groping sluggishly, he found his hands responded with a worrying slowness.

All around him, he heard bodies hit the ground. The sound of full-grown men and women tumbling into the soft, muddy earth.

He turned his head just in time to see Vosk fall to his knees, then faceplant into the dirt, his still-smoking pistol falling from his grip. A snarl built upon Calay’s mouth, but a thought held him back: he didn’t have much time. If this was it, he wasn’t going to waste his last breath cursing that bastard.

Movement to his other side: the man caught in the tree’s roots–nearly excised with Calay’s help–also fell limp.

Twisting onto his stomach, vision blurring crazily, Calay tried to rise to a kneel. Something slippery nudged at his fingers. He didn’t look down, well aware of what that meant. Slapping a hand into place, he held his entrails in. With every passing second, his own body felt further and further away from the rest of the world.

Someone was yelling. Was it his name they were yelling?

And why was it snowing?

He took in a short, pained breath and it had the odd, gritty texture of dusty air from a room long-undisturbed. Like he’d just walked into a tomb.

Before everything greyed out, he caught a glimpse of Gaz crawling toward him. He lifted a foot, tried to walk, but his knees weren’t behaving.  Stumbling, he pitched forward into the twisted roots of the great crawling tree. It accepted him with open, inhuman arms.

<< Chapter 24.5 | Chapter 26 >>

Chapter 24.5

Geetsha didn’t bleed. Riss didn’t know how to describe it. The girl came apart in a shower of white powder, as if Vosk’s shot had penetrated a bag of flour rather than a living person.

Drifting like ash from a forest fire, flakes of white scattered down all along the clearing. One landed on Riss’ machete. She lifted the blade toward her face and touched the substance, marveling at it as it flaked away into smaller pieces, disintegrating at her touch.

“What the fuck,” whispered Torcha. Then she sneezed.

Riss glanced over, saw Torcha wiping an ashen smear off her face. Flaky bits of Geetsha rained down on all of them, and then the world went blurry. Riss blinked. Torcha staggered. The barrel of her rifle wavered.

Vosk stared at the spot where Geetsha had been standing, aghast, his face dusted white. Her clothing, blown apart by the force of the powdery explosion, settled in shreds on the ground. His features stricken, Vosk gagged, turning aside.

When he turned, he spotted Calay, still crouched near the tree. He’d partially freed the man trapped in the roots, and he froze like a cornered animal when Vosk’s attention centered on him.

“Don’t do it,” Calay murmured. White flakes drifted down into his eyes and he blinked, coughing.

In that moment of distraction, Vosk drew his other pistol and shot Calay in the stomach.

He fell like a normal man, clutching his midsection as blood erupted from his back.

No no no. Everything was spiraling out of control. Riss had to put a stop to this, or at least slow it all down somehow, before anyone else got hurt. She tried to call out to Vosk, but her tongue felt swollen and useless against her teeth.

Riss took a step forward, or rather tried. Her body wasn’t behaving. A tingling sensation started in her feet and hands, then spread up her limbs.

“Tuh…Tor…”

She tried to say Torcha’s name. Tried to ask if she was all right. Torcha’s rifle tumbled with a muted thunk to the ash-dotted earth. She collapsed atop it.

Riss’ legs buckled. Somewhere, Adal said her name, but her peripheral vision was a haze of grey.

She hit the ground hard, unconscious before she got there.

<< Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 >>

Chapter 24

Riss snapped awake. She sensed a presence hovering over her face, and by instinct she threw an elbow toward it. Fingers closed around her wrist.

“Shh,” Adal whispered in her ear. She relaxed her fingers. He relaxed his.

In the dead of night, lit only by half-spent coals, Adal and Gaz crouched near her bedroll. Something was wrong. She was fully awake in seconds.

“Vosk and Calay are gone,” Gaz whispered. Adal edged off to rouse Torcha.

“Gone as in eaten, or–”

“Gone as in Calay told me he thought Vosk was up to something and was going to check it out. It’s been a few minutes now and he hasn’t come back.”

Riss grunted. She considered reprimanding the sellsword for letting that happen, but no point in it now. If anything happened to Calay, Gaz’s guilt would be punishment enough. Riss instructed Gaz to tie the moas’ leads to something, and in under a minute she and Torcha were fully awake and armored up. This particular journey, Riss had opted to sleep with her boots on. Looks like it was paying off.

A moment later, Adal’s voice, low and cautious: “Geetsha’s gone, too.”’

Well, shit. Again, that suspicion reared its head. Geetsha sure managed to disappear a lot during convenient moments.

By gesture more than words, she led the four of them down the trail. Adal held up a lantern, kept it mostly-hooded to lend them a scrap of an advantage. But Riss knew they’d be easily spotted regardless. Whether it was Vosk threatening Calay as Gaz seemed to think, or something jointly trying to absorb both the men, their light would give them away to the threat. She somehow doubted Geetsha had attacked them, but she tried to remind herself that at this point it was foolish to rule out anything.

They descended the slope and found their path was gone. The colorful filaments were still woven through the thorns, but the thorns themselves were so thickly overgrown across the trail that firelight from the other side barely peeked through.

She slid a look aside to Adal, whose mouth had narrowed. He ticked his head side to side, a tiny disbelieving shake. She wasn’t going crazy, then; this had definitely been their way through.

“Fan out,” she whispered through her teeth. “Not too far apart from one another. Look for gaps.”

The wall of thorns proved impassable. Unnaturally so. They converged back where they started a few moments later, everyone signaling in the negative. No dice.

From the other side of the thorns, a male voice suddenly shrieked in agony.

#

At the scream, Gaz stiffened and turned toward the wall of thorns.

“We’re going through,” he informed Riss, calm as anything, as if he were commenting on the time of day.

Riss grabbed her gloves from her belt and yanked them on, then tugged up her hood in hopes to shield her face against the thorny debris. She drew her machete and got to work. Torcha likewise covered her face, as did Adal. Gaz just started hacking away, swinging his axe in broad arcs that sent thorned branches flying every which way.

They plowed through in seconds. Riss felt the bite of a few thorns on her skin and against her clothes, but she wasn’t concerned. Leave it to the medic, she thought. Once we’re sure we still have one.

The fire in the clearing still burned, flames feeble, coals glowing. It stood between Riss and the strange trio of Geetsha, Vosk, and Calay.

Riss knew a stand-off when she saw one. Vosk held Geetsha at gunpoint. Calay stood not far away, crouched down near the roots of the great, slumped tree. Another scream. One of Calay’s hands worked down in the roots where Riss couldn’t see.

He was cutting the survivor free. Riss could only imagine what collateral damage that was doing to his body.

“Stay back, all of you!” yelled Vosk. “She isn’t human!”

He held up a palm to Riss and the others, all the while keeping an eye on Geetsha.

“Harlan,” said Geetsha, her voice calm. “You are making a mistake.”

A soft, feminine grunt of effort sounded out as Torcha unshouldered her heavy rifle. She looked at Riss aside, patted the stock of it.

“Aim me, boss,” she said.

Riss held up a hand, stalling her for the time being. Geetsha had stirred up intrigue and suspicion long enough. It was time to get to the bottom of what was wrong with her. Vosk hadn’t exactly found a diplomatic way to force the discussion, but at least they’d finally be clearing the air.

“Everybody calm down.” Riss lifted her voice, pitched it across the clearing. She addressed them like soldiers: short, curt.

“She fucking moved the thorns,” Vosk hissed, his eyes thin slices in the firelight. “She’s some kind of sorcerer!”

The word turned Riss’ sweat cold. ‘Witch’ was a common enough epithet in these parts of the lowlands. Every dust mote-sized village on the map had local healers and apothecaries, herbalists who worked folk “remedies” and shriveled old augurs who promised to read your tea leaves and tell the future. To the uneducated who believed in such things, it was all varying degrees of witchery.

Sorcerer, though. That meant something different.

Riss signaled to Torcha with a twist of her hand. Torcha didn’t have to be told twice. She took a knee and levelled her rifle at Geetsha.

“Geetsha,” Riss started. “I think it’s time we had a talk. You haven’t been entirely honest with us.”

There was no way around it. This confrontation had been brewing for some time. Now Riss just had to hope that if the deception begat violence, it would be the kind of violence a slug through the skull could actually solve. If Vosk was correct and Geetsha possessed some sort of sorcerous power…

Riss had heard stories. She’d never been at a sorcerer’s mercy before. But magick, real magick, the type that didn’t come from old biddies boiling chicken bones to divine your future husband, it could bring whole platoons to their knees.

“There are things I haven’t told you,” Geetsha freely admitted. She never raised her voice. And she didn’t sound the slightest bit alarmed, despite the multiple guns pinning her in place.

“How about you tell us now?” asked Riss, to keep her talking.

“There are more important things to discuss.” Geetsha then turned her eyes from Vosk to Riss and back again. In the firelight, she seemed even paler than usual. Ashen, even.

“Harlan,” Geetsha asked once her attention returned fully to Vosk. “What did you do with the cloth-men?”

Vosk visibly startled. He took a step away from Geetsha, then for some reason spun to face Calay. For a half-second, the barrel of his pistol levelled on Calay, as if to warn him back.

“The who?” Vosk whipped back around to face Geetsha.

Riss had heard a lot of men lie under duress. Vosk was nowhere near among the more talented.

“I already know,” said Geetsha. “Say it for their benefit.” She took a single step toward Vosk, who merely watched her, transfixed.

This was going to end badly. Riss could already tell. She had to intervene.

“Vosk!” Riss called over. “Back down. Torcha’s got a rifle on her. Just stand down! Geetsha, hands up and hold still!”

Geetsha stopped moving. She lifted her palms, loose sleeves dangling down her thin, childlike wrists. She turned her head fractionally toward Riss.

Vosk took the opening. He steadied his hand and fired, blowing Geetsha’s face apart from mere feet away.

<< Chapter 23.5 | Chapter 24.5 >>

Chapter 23.5

The clacking, quivering thorns writhed like a sea of snakes. They formed a solid, sharp-limbed wall, encircling the clearing. A tiny aperture appeared not far from Vosk. Then it widened. Densely-choked brambles untwisted as the bushes themselves wriggled free of one another, allowing a short figure in a ragged green cloak to step through the barrier.

Geetsha’s skin seemed to glow in the firelight, an iridescent blue-green. Calay wasn’t certain if this was the magick augmenting his eyes–or something else.

Vosk spooked and startled, twisting so that he leveled his pistol at the woman. She stepped calmly toward them, then stopped when he jabbed the muzzle toward her, as if mere bullets could ward off something that had just peeled the cover of the marsh away around them.

Calay was a man who always had a plan. He’d planned to strike Vosk with a short spell, something to render him unconscious, then bash him once upside the temple. But now he found his boots frozen on the spot.

He didn’t trust Vosk, but did he trust their strangely-glowing swamp guide even less?

Geetsha stared at the pistol in Vosk’s hand like she was unsure what it even was. She tilted her head, bone-white bangs falling into her eyes. With his enhanced vision, Calay noticed details about her that he hadn’t seen before. Or perhaps they hadn’t been there before. It was impossible to tell. Her skin had a strange texture in the shimmery light: powdery almost, like a layer of dust had at one point settled over her skin and never been dislodged.

She addressed Vosk in a curious whisper, voice showing no trace of fear.

“You are threatening one of them, Harlan.” At the usage of his first name, Vosk jerked as if he’d been struck.

Calay decided this fight wasn’t for him. He wasn’t about to get caught in the middle of whatever this fucking was. Trusting that Vosk was fully distracted, he spun and darted toward the path. Fuck saving the survivor. Fuck eavesdropping on whatever Geetsha was confronting Vosk about. Self-preservation came first, and hanging around to find out what happened wasn’t going to help him preserve his own skin.

Thick, snakelike brambles blocked his path. When they’d parted to allow Geetsha through, they’d closed off his initial pathway through the thorns. Calay felt the blood drain from his face. For the first time in many years, real animal fear–the type he couldn’t logic his way out of–surged through his stomach.

Come on, Gaz, he thought, trying to stifle his panic. Notice I’m missing.

<< Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 >>

Chapter 23

Calay inhaled and held it. He had options. They all had their drawbacks.

He could approach Vosk in a friendly, nonthreatening fashion. Act like he hadn’t seen a thing. Because of course, normal eyes couldn’t see that far into the dark. He could slip back to the camp and grab the others. But that might not give him enough time. If Vosk was trying to harm their would-be patient, those few minutes might make all the difference.

The sound of murmured voices reached his ears. Vosk and the survivor were speaking, but he couldn’t quite make out what was being said.

And the other question: to ward himself or not? Should anything unusual happen, he wanted the protection. Wards were easy enough to sketch onto his skin. However, that too had a downside: if anything made contact, the flash and sparkle would be a dead giveaway that something about him wasn’t natural.

Calay fingered the vial of blood still tucked away against his palm. Coming at Vosk magickal guns blazing wouldn’t help the situation any. And perhaps Vosk was just checking in on the man. Perhaps that’s all it was. Maybe Calay’s paranoia was not serving him well in this case.

This was exactly the sort of situation he needed Gaz for. Not for his muscle, but for his calm, clear consideration of the basic facts of things. Calay often tangled himself up in layers of deception and his concern for the far-off, as-yet-unforeseen consequences of his actions. What, he wondered, would Gaz do?

Gaz would ask simple questions with simple answers.

Did Calay trust Vosk? No. When he asked himself, he found he did not. But did he trust himself enough to defuse this situation–whatever type of situation it turned out to be–without magick?

Yes, he did.

He could talk his way out of plenty. And when that failed, regular violence often sufficed.

That wasn’t so hard, he thought. Thanks, buddy.

From the brambles, he called out, “Vosk, you aren’t tree-food, are you?”

Across the clearing, the stooped-over shadow stiffened. Vosk hesitated before he replied.

“Checking on our man here,” he called.

He emerged from the brambles, passing through the flutter of threads and into the coal-lit clearing. Tangled thorny branches and old, dead wood glowed orange-red all around him, and the filaments gleamed like molten gold up in the tree’s boughs.

Vosk stepped back from the tree, which sat unthreatening and still.

“How is he?”

As Vosk moved closer, Calay’s eyes caught the presence of something in the man’s hand: a small glitter of glass. The painkiller cocktail he’d given Vosk for his ribs.

“Not making much sense. Mostly groaning. Occasionally asking where and who we are. Asked for water.” Was Vosk’s voice tighter than usual? Tense?

Vosk’s eyes, dark in the night, slid sideways and down. He’d spotted Calay looking at his hand. Calmly, he slipped his hands beneath the drape of his cloak, and though it made sense that he’d be secreting the bottle somewhere for safekeeping, Calay’s instincts screamed gun gun he’s going for his gun.

“Glad you didn’t run into anything nasty out here.” Calay flashed him a quick, disarming smile.

From low to the ground, a ragged voice whispered:

“Lying. He’s…”

Startled at the sudden intrusion into their conversation, Calay looked down. Twisted through the roots of the tree, the shiny, wet eyes of its half-digested meal peered up at him, wide and imploring.

“… Lying.” The man wheezed. Calay steeled himself.

He heard rather than saw the rustle of fabric as Vosk adjusted his cloak. Calay already knew what he’d see when he turned around: the barrel of Vosk’s pistol pointed squarely at his midsection. From this close, he wouldn’t miss.

So this is how it’s going to be, then.

Calay had several tricks up his sleeve, but he wasn’t sure how many he could weave quick enough to divert lead from point blank range. He turned the situation over in his mind, detached and analytical. It wasn’t the first time he’d been held at gunpoint and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. All he needed to do was divert Vosk’s attention for a half-second, then he could spring any number of traps. Failing that, Gaz would be rousing the others soon.

He noticed Vosk hadn’t said anything.

“Not even going to try to justify yourself?” he asked. He was genuinely curious. Betrayals were a fact of life in Calay’s line of work. Each one was like a sunset: so many layers, so many colors, no two the same.

“Would it make any difference?” Vosk kept the barrel of the pistol leveled at him and lifted a tiny shrug, like a kid caught misbehaving.

“It would satisfy my curiosity.” Calay unfurled his hands, showed Vosk his palms. He’d play the good hostage for now. “I figured out that you were trying to dose our man here, yes, but I have no idea why.”

“How about ‘why doesn’t concern you.’”

“Fine by me.” Calay tried to get a read on the man’s temperament. Generally speaking, there were three types of people who had ever held a knife to Calay’s throat in the alleys: nervous kids with something to prove, common thugs who had no idea who they were fucking with, and stone-cold professionals who knew what they were up against. The impassive cast to Vosk’s features and the steady calm with which he trained his muzzle on Calay suggested it was some combination of the second and the third.

He sees me as just another obstacle between him and whatever he wants. Now, how to exploit that?

Before Vosk could speak again, Calay figured he may as well try the oldest trick in the book.

“I’m going to turn around now,” he said. “Very slowly.”

He spun on his boots, a slow-motion pirouette, and continued to show Vosk his empty hands. In his slightly too-shiny, altered vision, Vosk’s eyes seemed to glow.

“Look,” said Calay. “I’m not here because of my loyalty to your war profiteer Baron and the grand army of Emperor who-gives-a-shit. I’m here to get paid. You pay me, I saw nothing.”

A minute tremble across Vosk’s mouth: a micro-expression he tried to suppress. He was considering it.

The man trapped in the base of the tree wheezed a protest, mangled words Calay couldn’t understand.

“Hells,” he said, ticking his chin downward. “Slide me a little extra and I’ll take care of him myself.”

Vosk, despite the tense draw of his lips, exhaled a near-soundless laugh.

“Some medic you are.”

The fire beside them crackled. Calay steeled himself, willed his body not to jump at the sound. Any sudden movements could end badly for him, even though by his calculations, Vosk seemed to be listening to reason.

“Well, I was trained as a medic.” Tuck a little truth into the pocket of the lie and people bite all the way down. “But I’m not like Riss. You can tell with her already. Too much heart for this line of work. If you’re here to sabotage her, she’s a source of income to me, nothing more.”

The barrel of the pistol angled downward some. A subtle shift of the hand–subtle enough it might have even been subconscious on Vosk’s part–but a telling one.

The fire crackled again. Then again. And this time, both Vosk and Calay shifted a look toward it. The crackling grew in both volume and frequency, like snapping twigs or popping knuckles on either side of their ears.

“… That’s not the fire, is it,” Calay said aloud. Treat him as an ally against the possibility of an external threat. He’ll mirror it.

All around them, the thorns began to clatter. The brambles came alive, shivering like bodies in the cold.

“Vosk,” said Calay, voice lifting with restrained alarm. “Please let me draw my gun.”

<< Chapter 22 | Chapter 23.5 >>

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Chapter 22

“It can’t be time yet,” Calay muttered. But it was. He hauled his sluggish body up, trying to orient his even-more-sluggish brain. Gaz and Torcha had already hunkered down, the latter somehow snoring louder than the former. Calay groped around for his canteen, then took a hearty swig and splashed a little water on his face for good measure. He dabbed it away with the inside liner of his coat.

Vosk stoked the fire, perched on a section of an old, pitted log. He gave Calay a nonchalant two-finger wave, then pointed toward his rucksack.

“Fancy a plum?” he asked, and Calay blinked, still waking. Plums? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even seen a plum for sale, let alone eaten one.

Calay savored each bite of that plum, trying not to dwell on how strange it felt to eat this way. To just have fresh fruit on order like that, even while traveling as a hired sword. Sometimes he felt that by stepping out of his old life, he’d inadvertently stepped into that of a much richer man. Someone like Adalgis.

Instead, he just thanked Vosk for the plum and set his eyes on the darkness beyond the campfire.

“First watch see anything noteworthy?” he asked. Vosk shook his head, the answer Calay had expected. A thread of nerves ran through them all at the moment, camping just up the hill from that tree. If anything unusual had happened, he had a feeling the watch would have woken the entire camp.

So he sat, once again surrounded by that odd, oppressive silence, grateful to hear it broken by human snoring.

###

“Someone ought to go check the other fire,” Vosk said once the plums–delicious, soft, juicy, sweet–had been consumed. Calay glanced over, hoping that Vosk hadn’t said someone and meant him. He didn’t relish the thought of skulking off down there alone.

The other man seemed to read his mind. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it,” he said. Calay chuffed a laugh, then rolled his shoulders back.

“We should go together,” he said. “It seems unwise to get any closer to that tree solo.”

“Mate, I’ll be keeping the fire between that thing and myself, believe me.”

Grunting quietly, Vosk eased up from beside the fire and patted himself down. He checked his pistol and blade at his waist, then shrugged his cloak off. Despite his assurances to Calay that he’d be keeping the fire between himself and the tree, he was stripping kit for a fight. Just in case.

Calay ticked an upnod to the man as he stepped outside the perimeter of their camp. Quiet-footed, he disappeared into the dark. Calay cocked his head and listened to the footsteps, though soon enough those faded, too.

Despite the snoring bodies surrounding him, he couldn’t help but feel alone. They were a long way from civilization, and longer still from home. Back in the twisting alleys of Vasile, he was feared. He knew the city like the lines of his palm, and over time, he and Gaz had acquired a skilled and loyal following.

Out here in this place, magickal augmentation aside, he was just as vulnerable as any of them. That made the bottoms of his feet itch.

One night not long into apprenticeship, he had been asked to stay after dark. At the start, old Mr. Linten didn’t ask him to stay after often. Perhaps because he didn’t quite trust Calay yet or perhaps because a nine-year-old had limited capacity for usefulness. After a couple years though, when he was taller and had more of a brain about him, he started to get extra work after-hours.

He’d been in one of the supply closets inventorying pottles of creams and vials of eye-watering oils when he heard it: a muted thump from outside, the rustle of commotion that someone was trying to conceal. If he hadn’t left the closet door open for light, he may not have heard it at all.

Creeping to the doorway and peeking just outside, Calay watched as the clinic door edged open. A tall, underfed man whose features were so pallid they almost seemed to glow stepped inside. He bolted the door closed behind him. The hair on the back of Calay’s neck stood up. The intruder carried a truncheon in his hand, and though he wasn’t big, he’d dispatched the guard outside with hardly a scuffle. He crept past the beds of sedated patients like one of the wraiths out of Calay’s childhood scary stories.

Calay considered the possibilities: maybe Mr. Linten owed money to someone. Maybe one of their patients had enemies. Maybe Mr. Linten had enemies.

And maybe, the biggest oh-shit of all, he was some sort of junkie looking to score painkillers or sedatives from the supply vaults. Such as the one Calay was currently hiding in.

His eyes swept around for a weapon. He had his belt knife in the sheath at the small of his back–never left home without it–but knives meant getting close enough to use them, and that was a risk he didn’t want to take unless his hand was forced. Apart from its shelves of glass and ceramic, the supply closet contained a rack of spindly medical syringes, but again, those were worryingly close-quarters. He considered running, but the hallway that led further into the clinic was too far away across a well-lit room. There was no way he wouldn’t be seen. Apart from all that, there was the broom. Calay grabbed it with a sigh. A broom could put distance between his body and that of a grown adult. And it gave him the chance to play stupid.

Straightening up from his ready crouch, he turned three-quarters of his back to the door and began sweeping.

A tall, dark shape loomed in the periphery of his vision, filling the doorway. He turned as if expecting his boss, then startled visibly when confronted with a stranger instead.

“Oh,” he said, pitching his voice a little higher than normal. He hoped his smaller build and a lighter voice might make him look younger, more unassuming. “Can I help you, sir?”

The intruder, his features pale and pointed, eyes narrow and sunken, fixed on Calay with a little sniff.

“The man who owns this place,” he murmured, his voice low. “He has something for me.”

Calay played dumb. “Like a prescription?”

He didn’t like the way the man’s eyes never left him. If he were some junkie looking for laudanum, he’d be combing the room for it. If he were desperate enough for a fix, he might ignore Calay altogether.

“Where does your employer keep the blood, young man?”

Calay stiffened.

“Blood? I don’t think we keep any blood, sorry.”

That wasn’t even a lie.

This man meant them harm. Instinct told Calay to prepare for a fight. He adjusted his grip on the broom at the same moment the intruder took a slow step forward. It wasn’t the first time someone had cornered Calay in quarters this tight. And he was smaller, more nimble than his would-be assailant. Despite his youth, he had years of scrapping under his belt, and even if he went down, he wasn’t going to make it easy for this asshole–

“Hello? Who’s that over there?”

Mr. Linten’s voice from just outside the doorway.

“Calay, are you all right?”

It was just the split second of distraction he needed. The tall man turned toward the exit. Clearly he’d misjudged this broom-carrying child as a negligible threat.

Calay ran at him, smashing the broom into his gut to knock him off balance. At the same time he screamed for Mr. Linten.

Years later, he didn’t really remember what he’d yelled. Only that the man had toppled, and before he could right himself, Calay was on him with the knife. Instinct had taken over then, blade biting into tendon. He hamstrung his would-be attacker and had him bleeding on the floor just in time for Mr. Linten to round the corner and hurriedly put a boot to the man’s throat.

When he was on the floor, he didn’t look so wraithlike. He was just another threat Calay left wheezing on the ground.

That night, Mr. Linten showed Calay where he kept the blood, and from then on the nature of his apprenticeship changed.

###

With a blink, Calay returned to the present, surrounded once more by sleeping mercenaries and the still-glowing coals of the campfire. Vosk wasn’t back yet.

Out of all the times to suddenly reminisce…

It struck him as a little odd that he’d taken that particular trip down memory lane. He didn’t ponder his early childhood much. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat by a fire and looked back on his apprenticeship, at least the parts of it prior to Alfend Linten revealing his secret.

Something about that feeling, that intuitive scratch in his feet and hands, the way he’d felt sized up…

He’d felt echoes of it when he and Gaz had wondered if Vosk was sizing them up.

Easing up off his seat, he stretched and checked his pistol and punch-daggers. He was probably being paranoid, but paranoia had kept him alive through enough gang warfare and enough of life’s funny little surprises that he wasn’t about to give it the cold shoulder.

Creeping over sleeping bodies, he crouched low beside Gaz. He curled a hand, touching his knuckles to the sleeping man’s chin, hand ready to slap over his mouth if he made too much noise. Instead, though, Gaz’s eyes just shot open, and he turned a bleary look up toward Calay.

“Keep an eye on camp,” he whispered. “Vosk’s gone.”

Gaz grunted and levered himself up on his elbows. When he spoke, his voice was thick with sleep, a suspicious mutter.

“Bad idea to go after him alone. What do you mean ‘gone?’ Something took him?”

“No.” Calay jerked his chin in the direction of the path down the hillock. “He said he was going to check on the fire, but I got a weird feeling about it.”

“Again, if you’ve got a weird feeling, we should go together.”

He patted a hand to Gaz’s shoulder and squeezed.

“They’re all safer here with you watching them.” Gaz issued forth another sour grunt. He knew when he was being flattered. But he relented, letting Calay rise up.

“If I’m not back soon, rouse everyone.”

Gaz didn’t look convinced, but he let Calay go. And really, it made sense: of the two of them, Calay was the one that could handle himself if Vosk was in trouble. Or–as his suspicious mind had begun to believe–if Vosk made trouble. If it was just the two of them, Calay had the upper hand by a mile. Vosk wouldn’t know what hit him.

As he crept away from the camp, he slipped a vial of blood free from his pocket. Dashing some onto his palm, he traced the sign that let him see in darkness. Armed with fresh eyes, he hurried down the vaguely-stomped path between the two bonfires.

Once he’d descended most of the slope, he could see the glow of the fire beyond the thorns. It was still lit.

Hanging back, he brushed through the glittery threads that hung like a curtain over the brambles. He strayed just close enough, crouching in the dark, searching the clearing for signs of anything unusual.

Vosk stood at the base of the gold-spun crawling tree. He was crouched over something, visible as a sloped silhouette. He crouched, touching at something in the darkness of the tree’s roots.

The survivor. What was Vosk doing to him?

<< Chapter 21 | Chapter 23 >>

Chapter 21

Peering through the labyrinth of roots, Calay tried to survey the damage. Behind him, Riss and Vosk had the old bonfire blazing once more, superstitions about doubling up on campfires be damned. The extra light helped, but he still couldn’t quite tell where the root structure began and the victim ended. The man was wrapped up as if in the tentacles of some legendary sea-beast. Calay couldn’t see any evidence of wood melding into his flesh, but he was bound up tightly and twisted through the spine.

“There’s a good chance his back is broken.” He rose up from his crouch and patted one of his belt pouches. “I can give him pain relief, but we’ll have to wait for dawn if we want to try cutting him loose.”

“If we keep the fire stoked all night, that should keep the tree inert,” said Vosk.

“Have you asked him what he wants?” Torcha hopped up onto a dead branch beside him, peering downward.

“He’s barely conscious. We’ll see if the laudanum gets him talking.”

Calay extracted a dropper from his belt, then squinted down into the tangled roots. He rocked forward onto the balls of his feet, then stopped. He had to be careful. The last thing he wanted was to touch some still-living part of that tree and merge with it.

“Here,” said Torcha. She offered him a hand.

Balancing carefully, Calay gripped her hand in his right, then leaned down, dropper in hand, over his newest patient. Torcha’s hold on him was strong enough that it surprised him–for someone who came up to maybe his shoulder and didn’t look especially sturdy, she had a grip on her.

“If you’re awake, open up.” He spoke down to the man, angling his hand. The man groaned out a wordless response, jaw hanging as agape as ever. At least it was easy enough to get a couple droplets down his gullet. With Torcha’s assistance, Calay leaned back up.

“That will take the edge off,” he said, unsure whether the man could even hear him. “I’m sorry we can’t do more until morning.”

A memory struck him, fleeting and startling: similar words spoken to a young woman with a broken jaw at the Indigents’ Clinic, Calay painstakingly sucking blood free of her airways. It was so easy then, gathering blood. Yet out here in the damp, mud-caked nowhere, the other side of the job was easier: out here he didn’t have to pretend he was performing charity out of the goodness of his heart. Riss was paying him to do a job. And he was a professional. He’d do it.

Torcha, though. She was easy to like. If a tree sucked her up and tried to absorb her guts or whatnot, Calay would shoot it with earnest dislike in his heart.

“How’s he doing?” asked Vosk, speaking up from beside the crackling fire. Calay lifted his shoulders in response.

“Far too early to tell. Once we’ve got full light, we’re going to try to cut him free. We’ll see then how badly he’s hurt beneath all that.”

“He said anything useful?”

Calay only shook his head.

Torcha’s mouth scrunched to one side. She chewed the side of her cheek for a moment, squinting toward the tree with its strange eruption of gold and crimson glitter.

“Any idea what the hells is all that, then?” she asked.

Calay didn’t have a clue. Truth be told, he didn’t like looking at it. Murderous trees trying to eat them? He could deal with that. They’d blown one apart rather handily, and beyond that he had his magicks. But this weird color-spouting nonsense, the threads in the brambles, all of that was beyond his experience, beyond his understanding. Attention to detail had kept Calay alive more than any other skill of his over the years. Having a handful of details with no clue how they fit together and no idea what they meant for the future was not ideal.

He sought out Riss. She’d proved a competent sergeant thus far and if ever there was a time to voice his concerns, it was now.

“I don’t like this,” he told her, sidling up to where she and Adalgis stacked firewood.

“You’ll have to be more specific,” said Adal. “There’s rather a lot about the last few days to dislike.”

Calay grunted half a laugh. Adal was growing on him.

“I know what you mean, though.” Riss dusted off her hands after stacking the last of the deadfall.

Calay sliced a hand toward the glittering tree, its golden threads shining in the firelight.

“This isn’t like the last one. It may be dormant now, but there’s no guarantee it isn’t going to wake up in the middle of the night. Vosk’s advice on smoking it down is all well and good, but…” He trailed off. He wanted to leave room for Riss to alleviate his worries without him voicing them. He’d learned over the years how to handle these conversations as a second-in-command, or a whisperer-in-the-ear. It wouldn’t help his case to tell Riss we’d be stupid to camp down here because that would imply he thought she was stupid enough to do it. She didn’t seem that reckless.

“I completely agree. Vosk’s advice is handy to have, but there’s no sense in risking our entire crew on it.” Riss rolled her shoulders and smothered a yawn with the back of a hand. “We’ve been working hard. We walked longer than planned. I’m sweaty and sore. We need good sleep tonight, not the type of sleep we’ll get a stone’s throw from that thing.”

“Shall we start making camp up top then?” asked Adal.

Calay took a moment to observe him. Adalgis appeared to have softened some in his exhaustion, or perhaps he’d just decided he could trust Calay after all. Before, his mouth had possessed this almost permanent downturn, as if he were perpetually mildly peeved. But now he looked like just another tired soldier after a long march. Flecks of muck on his face, leftover tree-stink on his armor, the whole bit.

There were a lot of unkind words for people like him in the slums of Vasile. He was much more tolerable when he was dirty and tired.

“Camp up top sounds splendid.” Calay flashed a sharp smile at the pair. “I don’t know about you but I’m knackered.”

###

Once camp was made, they lit another fire. Calay sank down beside it, sitting knee-to-knee with Gaz. His body was exhausted but his mind couldn’t quite settle down yet. Which was a problem, given he was on second watch. Gaz and Torcha kept a languid eye on the camp while everyone else busied themselves with settling down and tiredly collapsing. The moa, walked harder and father than usual, sank down beneath the drape of a willow at the fringes of the firelight.

“It’s just crazy you two weren’t in the war,” Torcha was saying to Gaz, shaking her head.

“It was deliberate,” Calay chimed in. “Wasn’t a thing we wanted part of.”

Gaz gave a little nod, digging through a small toiletry bag at his foot. He withdrew a pocket mirror, a razor, and a tin of grease.

“What he says. City makes a lot of money off a war, but most Vasa folks aren’t patriotic enough to take up a sword.”

“And they wouldn’t conscript you? At least you, Calay?” She sounded disbelieving.

She was right about that. Medics had been in short supply on both fronts. Had Calay been a licensed practitioner in a mid-city clinic, he might very well have had a knock at the door and a letter from the Leycenate.

“Think of it this way,” he said. “There’s degrees of north. Down here in the Deel, you’d call this place the southlands, yeah? But you wouldn’t call the fisher-islands part of the southlands.”

Gaz slicked up his palms and smoothed them along the sides of his head.

“It’s funny,” said Torcha. “So many folks don’t really give a shit about the war now that it’s over. I honestly never think how many of ‘em didn’t give a shit while it was on, either. It’s hard to imagine being so far removed.”

“Geography makes it easy.” Calay worked his mouth in a sympathetic grimace. “And I imagine the opposite was true in your case.”

“Mhm.” Torcha turned to the side, watching as Gaz began to shave the sides of his stubbled scalp. “We got occupied.”

Something in the fire popped and everyone glanced toward it. Beyond, in the dark, the forest was oddly silent. All the little background signs of life–buzzing midges, distant birds, the sound of little rodent feet scuttling through underbrush–were absent here. Geetsha was right. Nothing else dared to live where the crawling trees did.

Calay wanted to ask her more. She was clearly younger than the others, possibly by as much as ten years or so. And given the comments she’d made about stumbling into the war with Riss’ lot, there was clearly a good story to be had.

But he was tired. And pushing her for more would mean that he’d have to reveal more about himself. Or make it up. He and Gaz had a well-rehearsed cover story sprinkled with just enough truth to make it real, but inviting someone to test its boundaries seemed like a needless risk.

“You oughta sleep, boss,” said Gaz, wiping goo off his razor.

“I really ought to.” Calay rubbed his thumb along the bridge of his nose. He unfolded from his seat and trudged over to his bedroll, stepping past the sleeping bulk of Adalgis and Geetsha as he went.

Under his thin blanket, rolled onto his side, he listened to the silence of the world. Gaz and Torcha’s conversation died away as soon as Calay left. All he could hear was the crackle of the fire and the breath of his companions. Someone sounded like they too weren’t quite asleep either, but he couldn’t tell who. He couldn’t blame them. If they weren’t running themselves half-ragged on foot, how could anyone sleep in this place?

He blinked his eyes closed, and in what felt like the next instant Vosk was shaking him awake for watch.

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