Chapter 50

Adal followed after Riss, as he always had.

He was conscious of her weakened state and wanted her to set the pace. Though his calf ached and now his throat stung, Calay’s magicks had eaten at her in a way that superficial wounds couldn’t compare to. Besides, she had always been the superior tracker between the two of them. On a half-healthy day, she’d have won any race if they were counting.

She tracked Vosk through the trees, finding sign of him easily enough: a footprint here, dislodged dewy grass there. At one point he’d stumbled through a thorny thicket, his path of broken thorns the only reason they were able to shove through themselves.

The trees gradually changed, growing thin and tall, with few branches down low. Their pale bark was dotted with black and grey knots. Adal recognized these trees—he’d seen them at their very first campsite. They were nearly free of the swamp, then. His heart leapt for it, and then guilt immediately sank him. There was no celebrating, not yet. Not with Vosk free and Torcha missing. Still, he savored a study of the treetops: golden-brown, the sort of leaves that saw sun.

Wherever they ended up after this, he’d sit beneath the sun a while. He wanted to feel it on his face, drying and baking away the damp.

His boot sunk low into a thick, viscous puddle. Grimacing, Adal wrenched himself free of it, and then he stilled when Riss tapped his arm.

“Look,” she said. “You can see where he passed through.”

Strung between the trunks of several clustered trees, glistening cobwebs were draped like jewelry round a noblewoman’s neck. The webs were wet with dew or rain, catching and reflecting all ambient light. Riss pointed to a spot where several strands had been broken through, an obvious trail leading through the thicket. They followed.

Ahead of them, they heard a distinctly humanoid coughing sound. A male voice. They couldn’t be far away.

Careful to avoid further puddles, of which there were many, Adal followed Riss through the patches in the webbing, which grew more frequent but never more dense, always thin and gossamer. Adal’s shoulders twitched at the thought of fat, plump-fanged spiders waiting in the treetops, but thus far he hadn’t seen any.

When he breathed in, he caught a faint sweetness on the air. Like the scent of a breeze blown through a distant garden, not quite close enough to see the flowers but enough to smell them. The scent brought to mind mornings spent along the river shores, the tangled gardens of House Altave replete with morning glories.

Ahead of him, Riss stilled. She signaled, folding her fingers in toward her palm, and Adal crouched low. Once she too crouched, he could see up ahead what stilled her.

Harlan Vosk stood in a small clearing, doubled over and panting. He had his back to them, and his shoulders lifted with labored breath as if hyperventilating. Calay must have seized upon his blood. They’d lucked out.

The vicious, satisfied smile that curved up Riss’ mouth was both a relief and delight. Adal checked his pistol, readied it, then signaled to her. She nodded assent and signaled him forward, their hands flying in the old cant of the Fourth by habit.

“I warned you about those kneecaps,” Adal said as he broke from the trees, leveling the pistol at Vosk and trudging up behind him. “Drop whatever’s in your hands, then turn and face me. Slowly.”

As soon as the thing moved, Adal realized his mistake. He flailed backward in an instant, opening his mouth to shout a warning to Riss, but he was just a hair too slow.

The labored breathing that lifted and lowered Vosk’s shoulders wasn’t breathing at all. It was an unnatural undulation, like a flag flapping in wind, only the flag was an entire human skin, deflated like an empty wineskin and shuddering around whatever hid inside it.

The thing that wore Vosk as a disguise shrugged free of its cover. Tanned flesh melted away to sticky, translucent sap. Tufts of blond hair fell away as if from an animal diseased with mange. The thing’s limbs stretched and elongated, and even as Adal screamed and sank his first bullet into its body, his mind summoned a detached observation—

—just like the anemones where the river meets the sea. The blue and black ones, waving in the current—

He watched the gunshot ripple across the thing’s body like it was water. Nothing gushed forth from the wound; it absorbed the projectile, and if he squinted, he could see it twinkling there, still moving just a little.

Something seized up from the puddle nearest his boot with a wet, sucking shluck. A vinelike appendage of the same translucent flesh, veins of murky green-brown pulsing through it, wrapped around his leg. The strength of it surprised him, and it squeezed so hard he started to fear for his bones, but within an instant Riss was on it, severing the limb at its base with a single arc of her machete.

The puddles around them sprung to life, glistening gelatinous horrors inching forth from every pocket of water. No two appendages were alike. Adal had to be careful where he put his feet. Some of the slithering limbs had taken on the character of nearby roots and rocks, their edges jagged or gnarled or in one case even pale with grey-black knots, mimicking the trees. One attempted to sweep around his boots, but he leapt nimbly clear, boots splashing as he landed.

Adal missed his scimitar in that moment. He’d have settled for a sword of any kind. Reaching for his bootknife, he had to make do with something much shorter. He clamped the knife in his teeth while he reloaded, though he was unsure how much use it would be.

At his side, Riss erupted into shrieking fury. All traces of her earlier lethargy left her as she tore into the growths that sprung from the puddles. She hacked and slashed at them like they were weeds, blade clearing through the strange jelly of their bodies with terrible ease. Wet, writhing pieces plopped around her feet, and she leapt over the sticky slime they oozed to shove Adal forward, past the thick anemone trunk that had shed Vosk’s skin like a scab.

Adal didn’t have to be told. He stumbled forward, shooting and stabbing at anything that drew close to his feet. When he looked down, he saw that the puddles they ran through weren’t full of water at all. That sweet smell seemed to emanate up from them, and as his boots splashed through, something viscous and opalescent clung to the leather.

A roar approached, and for a half-second he feared it heralded the arrival of some new terrible beast, but when he took a moment to listen, he knew the truth.

They’d reached the river.

The Deel River wove its way in a many-braided fashion through a flat, wide trough. Forks of it overflowed, dried, and overflowed again with time. The end result was a sprawl of stony basin that held several braids of river running through it at any time, provided the flood season was merciful.

Adal cupped a hand to his ear, yanked Riss’ arm to guide her left. He ran for the water. Trees rustled and erupted behind them as the many-armed horror tore through the bush in pursuit.

They broke through the trees, only to find themselves back in puddle-dotted marsh.

Adal didn’t understand. He listened, but the rush of water seemed to come from the right now. He strained to hear over the sound of his own ragged breath. The river seemed eastward now, away from the sun, but that was impossible unless they’d somehow crossed it.

Time, time, he didn’t have time. They skirted the edge of the trees. Something twinged up his throat, and he knew his cut was bleeding freely again, but that was the least of his concerns.

Riss slowed, then stopped. She stared down at something, body going rigid.

They’d crossed their own footprints. They were running in circles.

“Geetsha was right.” Riss spoke atonally, turning to face him. She didn’t look at him though. She lifted her eyes to confront the thing that chased them.

Adal caught her meaning. Geetsha had warned them of a mimic creature. They’d heard it, even glimpsed it when it had posed as an injured woman in the marsh.

They’d never heard the river. The river might still be a day’s walk away. Whatever was mimicking the sound, it was only trying to tire them out.

Adal adjusted his grip on his knife. The thing was barely a forearm long including the hilt, with a curved blade that made efficient work of anybody he’d put it through to date.

“You said carrying a sword into a swamp was idiotic,” he said to Riss, backing up close to her, pistol in his other hand. “I wished to point that out, in case we die.”

He expected her to laugh, to say something that might buoy his spirits one last time. But when he looked at her sideways, her features were shadowed. She’d shuttered the doors behind her eyes and faced the threat with a dead-eyed stare, like the slithering tangle of limbs was just another object in her way.

Something wasn’t right. Beyond everything else that wasn’t right. But Adal could only fight one fire at a time.

Rearing up with a shrill, high-pitched screech that strained his eardrums, the swamp horror caught them, its translucent body shimmering. Pulsating sparks of bioluminescence sparked through its slimy interior, purple and blue and white against a core of sickly green-grey veins.

Riss didn’t wait. She charged it head on, sending up a spray of sweet-smelling ichor as her blade bit home.

Adal followed. He always would.

<< Chapter 49 | Chapter 51 >>

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Chapter 49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz saw no reason to lie to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz let his breath out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz decided to intervene before things simmered over.

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

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

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

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

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

Calay stepped in.

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

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

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

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

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

Something moved at the treeline.

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

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

<< Chapter 48.5 | Chapter 50 >>

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Chapter 48.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even if he escaped Riss and her lap dog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his way out started at the river.

<< Chapter 48 | Chapter 49 >>

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Chapter 48

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

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

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

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

How had this happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adal, grimacing tightly, managed to laugh that off.

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

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

“He won’t have made it far.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s spent,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 47 | Chapter 48.5 >>

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Chapter 47

Calay wasn’t sure they were making the right decision. But Gaz had posed a convincing argument, as he often did. Calay’s brain tended to zing from thought to thought, a deer leaping between the trees to avoid a huntsman’s arrow. Gaz slowed him down, steered him in better directions.

Plus, after Adalgis and Riss relented, he got a few more minutes with Vosk, which was consolation of a sort. He’d bled the man through the thigh this time, collecting a weighty measure of his blood in a glass canteen. To aid them in rescuing Torcha, ostensibly. But Adalgis wasn’t stupid. He likely knew Calay would savor using it for weeks to come, provided they all lived that long.

And just like that, they turned straight back around the way they’d come, leaving the others to catch their breath. It might have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.

“We’re doing the right thing,” Gaz reassured him, as if reading his thoughts.

That had been his argument from the get-go. They’d conversed in low, quiet tones while Riss and Adal had their own discussion. Gaz had pointed out that it would serve their best interests to be helpful. Calay had been reluctant at first, but he had to admit that he trusted Gaz’s judgment more than his own. Especially now. The swamp, the lack of sleep, the horrific growth doing who-knew-what inside his body… it was all compounding, taking a toll on his ability to reason.

“I’m not arguing anymore,” he pointed out. “You were right. It’s a smart move for us to leave them indebted.” While he walked, he dashed a little of Vosk’s blood onto his arm. He sketched a simple glyph to enhance his hearing. As it flashed across his skin, he imagined the feel of it, pain like a thin blade twisting in Vosk’s ribs, and he smiled.

Gaz cleared his throat. “I mean it’s, you know, the right thing.”

“Ah, right.”

That bit hadn’t occurred to Calay at all. Who cared. Well, apart from Gaz.

It was strange, the way Gaz insisted on his morals. Always had been. From a young age, he’d had a clearly-defined sense of right and wrong that whooshed entirely over Calay’s head. They’d had similar childhoods–not that mean a feat for kids born in the dump they’d grown up in–but while Calay’s childhood had whittled him down to hard edges and sharp spines, Gaz’s appeared to have graced him with a sense of empathy and charity that was, frankly, incomprehensible.

On a better day, he might have engaged in some playful debate on the subject. Why exactly was it their moral imperative to save Riss’ wayward gunsmith? Torcha hated his guts now. Much as he’d liked her before, Calay’s heart was a door that could swing shut at a moment’s notice.

But it was not a better day. His stomach flipped and his hands gave a nervous twitch at the thought of what they were walking into.

Hands? Wait a minute. Blinking, Calay looked down.

The mangled, misshapen mass of flesh and bark he cradled to his chest had rearranged itself with agonizing slowness, knuckles dislocating and twisting, growing jagged claws, and he’d dosed himself again to keep from feeling it all. But he felt something now. Staring, he willed his fingers to move. A strange thing to order one’s body to do, when it had been so natural and thoughtless before. The sharp, scythelike blades of bone and bark that jutted from the mess responded, a tentative wiggle.

“Fuck me sideways,” he said. “I think this mess is growing back into a hand.”

The prospect didn’t soothe him as much as it might have. He tucked it back into his sleeve after letting Gaz have a gawk.

“Gross,” he said. “It looks worse like that than when it was a nub.”

Defensively, Calay squared his shoulders and puffed out an indignant breath. “Does not.”

All the while, he kept his ear turned to the swamp, listening for the report of gunfire.

###

Things were different now. He was facing the swamp on his own terms. He understood the appeal of it, why Adalgis had made that offer. And the further he and Gaz went, the deeper they retraced their steps, the more he found himself looking forward to the coming confrontation. Bloodlust bloomed in him like springtime. He felt a need to get back at the swamp for all it had made them suffer. To repay it tenfold. Was it possible to mete out street justice in a place that had no streets? To a place that had no streets?

Fuck this place. Fuck everything in it. Now that all the cards were on the table, Calay didn’t have to hold back anymore.

He heard laughter, low and vicious, leaking out into the muggy air. When Gaz glanced aside and gave him a querying look, Calay realized the laughter was his own.

Gaz understood, though. He always did. His mouth cracked in the tiniest hint of a grin. He shifted the axe on his shoulder, footsteps soggy in the mud.

“Just like old times,” he said.

Calay considered that. “Better than old times. I don’t have to hide anything anymore.”

He flexed his left hand, then gave a testing curl of the lopsided, stunted claws that now grew from his right. It was starting to feel more like a part of him with every passing minute.

He recalled the break-in that started it all, his daring heist from the Violet Room. He’d had the tools to get through that night without a scratch, but he’d been hamstrung by the need for secrecy.

Ever since Alfend Linten had taught him this peculiar language, bestowed upon him this strange and horrible gift, he’d held back. He’d always had to work his talents subtly: accentuating his natural aptitudes, his light feet and quick blade. In the Vasa underworld, he’d used magick to render himself lucky and skilled, but he’d always been so careful to hold back. He couldn’t be too lucky, or too useful, lest people start to wonder. Until the night it all came crashing down, he’d always restrained himself. And that night he’d been so blinded by anger, so consumed by his rage that his approach had been sloppy. He’d taken to the manor-lined avenues of the Landed Quarter like a frenzied animal.

Now, without that anger distracting him? He felt capable of anything. He had never tested his limits, not to that extent.

He was looking forward to that moment. It was going to be fun.

Finally, not far from Vosk’s stash of gems, he heard it: the crack of a rifle through the trees. He picked up the pace, loping toward it. As he did, he splashed blood down his throat and sketched the necessary precautions. He spiked newfound awareness into his senses, readied his body for the massacre he couldn’t wait to commit. His hunger for violence surprised him at first, but fuck it, he’d been through a lot. He’d earned this.

He and Gaz broke through the trees, dashing tirelessly toward the sound of gunfire and grinding stone, and by the time they arrived, they were laughing.

###

The creature had her boxed in, wedged down between the two great boulders that concealed Vosk’s little hidey hole. Or at least he assumed it did. He heard someone breathing down there, and the stone creature hammered ceaseless blows onto the boulders, attempting to dig at what they concealed. It wailed with frustration, a sound midway between grinding rock and an avian shriek.

Calay dashed up, whipped his blood-painted pistol free, and put a round through its back. The impact was explosive, far greater than a pistol shot should have been, and stone showered off the creature in splinters.

It rounded on them. Cackling, he ran forward to meet it, already tossing his own pistol aside and reaching for Vosk’s. Stupid hand. Couldn’t reload. His feet felt light. He was practically flying. His brain skipped along even faster than his feet, thoughts coming in bits and excerpts that contained only the most vital information. Speed, height, distance, proximity. Gaz pinched in from the left and he threw himself into the fray with a weightlessness he hadn’t felt in months.

“Torcha!” he hollered, pitching his voice above the creature’s grinding vocalizations. “Adalgis sent us!”

He sure hoped she was down there. But then again, in the heat of the moment, it didn’t matter whether she was. He and Gaz weren’t just going to kill this thing. They were going to dismantle it.

Gaz’s axe glittered, the blade sailing through the air before it chinked into the golem’s body. He caught it in the thigh, then wrenched the haft of the axe up and, with blood-augmented strength, attempted to pry the boulders of its leg apart from one another. Flailing, the creature swiped at him with its forelimbs, but Calay was ready. He went low, slipping between its tree-trunk-thick legs. He was tempted to fire straight up, but ricocheting stone was a nasty thing to catch with one’s face, magick or no magick. He maneuvered himself deftly away from the feet, then fired straight into its lower back. It toppled forward.

Torcha crested the boulders, sodden and muddy and looking like hell. Scaling the massive stone as she crawled out of her hiding place, she clutched her rifle with white knuckles. Instead of pointing it at the flailing creature, she levelled it at him. Her quickened breath whistled in his ear, loud as wind to his enhanced senses.

“Fuckin’ back off!” she hollered. “This is my fight!”

Stone smashed into stone. Gaz wrestled atop the golem, its fists flying every which way. Sawing down, he cleaved at the vines that bound its stony skeleton together.

“Finish it off then, if you’re in such a hurry!” Calay yelled. “I’m not fussed!”

Why hadn’t she shot it? Or for that matter shot him? He surveyed her for a moment with a narrow of his eye. She was tense. Taut as a bowstring. Pissed as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Blood rushing in his ears, chasing the high of a looming victory, he laughed. When he laughed, he knew he had her made. She scowled immediately and lifted her rifle’s sights to her eye.

“You can’t finish it off because you’re spent.” Calay snickered. Oh, this was good. “Which means you can’t blow a hole in me either.”

He saw it, a confirmation of his suspicions: a wrinkle of uncertainty across her brow. Her breath caught. He could only glimpse it for an instant, and a less aware man would not have, but she was afraid.

“Relax,” he said. He gripped Vosk’s pistol loosely, its barrel trained on the sky, a pose of surrender. “We didn’t come here to hurt you. Like I said, Adalgis sent us.”

A half-ton of stone slammed into him from the side, sending Calay tumbling arse-over-teakettle into the mud. He landed facedown in it, the slick, viscous ooze of it seeping into his mouth and nose. Torcha’s laughter, somehow simultaneously cheery and unkind, rang out through the trees. Groaning, Calay heaved up to his elbows, his bones unbroken thanks solely to his glyphs.

Torcha’s laughter turned to a squawk of alarm. The creature, having thought Calay defeated, had focused back on its original target.

Spitting mud, Calay indulged in a short, petty laugh of his own.

“All right!” he called to her, watching as Torcha took off down the slope and dove for one of the shallow caverns, the creature hot on her tail. “Your fight, then! Let us know if you need a hand!”

He couldn’t quite make out the words, muffled as they were, but he thought he heard her yell fuck you before slipping out of sight altogether. She yelled something, at least.

Gaz lumbered up to his side. He glanced down at Calay’s muddied features and pulled a bit of a face.

“Come on,” he said. “Remember what I said about doing the right thing? This is… not the right thing.”

Calay sighed on an inhale, chest inflating. Every time he breathed in, he tasted dirt.

“She is making the right thing a lot of work.”

<< Chapter 46 | Chapter 48 >>

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Chapter 46

Riss’ anger burned out quicker than Adal anticipated, though not because it had waned into apology. He could see it in the lethargic drag of her feet, the slide in her step, how she wasn’t picking her boots up all the way. Calay had hauled her back from the brink of death, but it had exhausted her. She did not have the energy to batter him with as much anger as she thought he deserved.

He would not comment on her weakness. Nor would he attempt to wrest the reins of the operation from her, even for her sake. He respected her too much.

So he tidied camp, let her direct Gaz and Calay to pack what they could carry. Gaz asked about the valuables. Riss told him to take what he could. Adal checked on Vosk, found the man half-curled in a puddle, murmuring dark and incomprehensible things. He couldn’t tell whether he was asleep or awake. Until the rain finally broke, it didn’t matter. And when it did, they all moved with a renewed urgency, their exit from the caves hasty.

Calay’s magicks had left Vosk a shuddering wreck. In the end, they had to heave him up over the back of the surviving moa. He’d slow them down no matter how they hauled him; at least this way the bird would keep pace. But it meant their backs were more laden than anticipated. This cursed, profane swamp showed them not a single mercy.

They walked. Adal’s feet were used to walking. Perhaps it was the extra pack strapped to his shoulders. Perhaps it was Torcha’s conspicuous absence. Perhaps it was the dull, spent fury wafting off Riss like steam. Whatever it was, he found each step harder than the last. His eyes lapsed into a natural tunnel vision, all the world around him a tired blur save for Riss before him, leading the way despite how wretched she clearly felt. She would march Vosk out of the swamp on bleeding stumps if she had to.

At one point, he caught a blur of motion to his left side, a glimpse of red. He turned his head, brain already leaping to excited conclusions. Torcha?

But no. It was Calay beside him. The red he’d glimpsed was a swath of dried blood clinging to the sorcerer’s cheekbone, arcing up toward his temple. Vosk’s. Riss’. Who even knew. He hadn’t even bothered to wipe it off, the savage.

Shamefully, the rise and fall of that moment–the elation, then the disappointment, the realization that he’d been hoping foolish hopes–sprung tears into his eyes. He turned his face away so Calay wouldn’t see, then coughed into his hand to stave off the tightness in his throat.

You don’t know she’s dead, he tried to tell himself. But that somehow hurt even more, because on the heels of it came an even worse thought: Nothing in this swamp stays dead. If we find her again, she may not be the same.

###

During the few hours they walked, they spoke not a word.

###

Gaz noticed it first: the bird was lagging, its steps resembling the slow shuffle of Riss’ boots. Unused to the weight of a passenger as well as half their packs, it walked with its beak lower than usual, its snorted exhalations audible.

And so they rested. Gaz hauled Vosk down, but he just sat with his head between his knees, his skin possessed of both the color and thin, fragile texture of parchment. Adal cast a glance up to Calay for a moment, as if to ask him is this supposed to be happening? Calay only shrugged. Adal had not forgotten that he held an axe to grind there. Vosk had shot him. Vosk shooting him and Geetsha was what had kicked this whole catastrophe off. Calay could have done something with his blood, infected him with some slow malady. Adal found that he trusted Calay not to kill him. But he wouldn’t put it past him to make Vosk suffer.

They settled down on the dryest ground they could find, an uncomfortable outcrop of broken, lichen-covered stones. Adal’s boots reeked, caked with foul-smelling muck. He used a twig to scrape at them as best he could.

On any other day, he might have commented that the first thing he planned to do upon escaping this nightmare was to spend a full day in the bath. Riss might have waxed nostalgic about her favorite masseuse. He couldn’t help but wonder what a man like Calay did during his down time. Was it even possible to relax, on the run and burdened by such gruesome talents?

But he couldn’t say those things. Because Torcha wasn’t there to answer. Her absence was a gaping wound.

He said it before his brain had finished thinking it.

“I’m going back for her.”

Nobody had been talking, yet Adal felt the distinct sensation of a room slipping into silence. Riss looked up from her boots. Calay and Gaz looked up from each other. Even Vosk hefted his head a little, regarding Adal through squinted, bloodshot eyes.

“It makes sense,” he said, although nobody had objected, at least not yet. “Long arms fire seems to be the only thing that really held that thing off. She’ll be getting low on ammunition. But if I go back with my rifle, the two of us can likely put it down, or at least get her away from it.” The qualifier hung there unspoken at the end of his statement like a forgotten punctuation mark: provided she’s still alive.

“Adal, no.”

He knew Riss would protest. He could think of a dozen reasons why. Some of them were valid. Some weren’t.

Rising up on his mud-splattered boots, he walked around to where she sat and eased down by her side. He wished they were alone. These conversations felt too intimate for the company they were presently forced to keep. Gods, things had been easier in the war. Back when everyone in earshot was incontrovertibly on the same side.

“Riss.” He spoke quietly, lending her at least the illusion of privacy. “I know you’re steaming mad. And I know saying this won’t help. But you’re in no shape to go after her yourself. You owe it to Tarn to come out of here alive with the answers you promised him.”

She rubbed at her eyelids, trying to summon the energy to explode at him. He could tell. All she managed was a frustrated growl.

“Tarn will get his answers whether it’s me who delivers them or you,” she said.

And that wasn’t… exactly… what he expected her to say. What did she mean by that? They’d be making their report to Tarn together.

“It’ll be both of us, I suspect,” he said. “I’m not going back there to die, Riss. I’m not charging off to boldly sacrifice myself. You have to admit: I’m a little more self-centered than that.” He hoped a joke might throw her anger off balance. “I wouldn’t be offering to do this unless I was fairly certain of success.”

Off in the depths of the swamp, a bird gave a shrill, unnerving cry. Adal cut himself off. Their heads all turned on a swivel, bodies tensing nervously. Even the exhausted moa stiffened.

When nothing rushed out of the murk to eat them, he spoke again, his voice soft but possessed of a quiet conviction.

“I’ll bring her back, Riss. She’s not dead. Nobody has to die. You can be pissed at me all you want once I’ve returned.”

She grimaced so hard that it looked like she’d brought the expression to bite one’s tongue to life. She swallowed.

“Take every last box of rifle ammunition with you,” she said, speaking through her teeth. “Put that thing in the ground.”

He wanted to embrace her. To promise her this wouldn’t end like Gaspard. He wanted her to feel as sure as he did. A sense of propriety held him back. Not in front of the men. The war might have been over, but decorum among the chain of command lived on. Besides, for all he knew, once she had a bit more kick in her, she’d be blisteringly angry again. And he’d weather that as long as he had to. Because at least she was alive.

Adal, raised on a healthy diet of emotional repression and societal restraint, held himself back. He gave her a pat on the glove, then rose and walked over to the bird. Unpacking one of their rucksacks, he began to inventory boxes of ammunition, checking to see if the rain had got to any.

Despite his many reservations regarding their current company and the state of their mission, Adal felt a calm, meditative certainty that he could do it. He could find her. He could retrieve her. Together, they’d take the creature down or at least hold it off long enough to bail out. He owed it to Torcha. She’d bought them enough time to save Riss. He was not walking out of that swamp without at least trying.

He stacked boxes of cartridges methodically upon a flat stone, counting in his mind as he went. He was so wrapped up in his numbers and his convictions that he barely heard the footsteps approaching him. When someone behind him cleared their throat, he finally glanced up.

Gaz loomed beside him, his bruised and mud-splattered frame tall and wide enough that it would have blocked out the sun if there were any.

“Adalgis,” he said in his basso grumble of a voice. “Don’t. We’ll go.”

And… surely Adal had misheard him. What?

“You’ll what?” he asked, dumbfounded. He shifted a look from Gaz over to Calay, who stood on the fringes of their small gathering, his blood-flecked features impassive. When Adal tilted his head, seeking confirmation, Calay thinned his lips and nodded. His face was unreadable as a book in a foreign language.

“I don’t understand,” Adal admitted. “What makes you think–”

But that was an idiotic argument, and he knew why. Gaz explained regardless, as if he were patiently laying something out for a child.

“We can do… stuff… to it that isn’t long arms fire.” He spared them the details.

“Absolutely not.” Riss shoved up from where she sat. “Abso-fucking-lutely not. While you’ve been behaving yourselves the last couple days, don’t think I’ve forgotten that you lied to me. You endangered this entire expedition.”

Calay stepped in then. “So it follows that it’s in our best interests to make you happy, right?”

Riss bristled like a guard dog.

“I hate to be so mercenary about it,” Calay kept his ruined arm tucked away into his duster, showed Riss his other palm. “But it’s the truth. You know it. I know it. When this mission has come to an end, Gaz and I have essentially two options: do our best to see everyone out of this swamp alive and whole or ensure there isn’t a single survivor.” He glanced over toward Adal for some reason. “I know it’s a little uncouth, laying it all out there like that, but don’t pretend it hasn’t crossed your mind. Playing dumb doesn’t suit you.”

Adal hated to admit he was right. That was perhaps the most infuriating thing about working with Calay. Despite all he’d hidden from them, despite the frequent glimpses of his worse nature, he was often correct. And he was never humble about it.

“You know things about us that we’d prefer stayed quiet.” Calay took a step closer to her. “If we keep you happy, you’re less inclined to share those things around. I won’t insult your intelligence and pretend this is all out of the goodness of my heart.”

“So, what?” Riss gave him a challenging tick of her chin. “I send you off into the swamp to fetch Torcha and expect you to actually come back? You’ll head for the road. You’ll leave her to die. You have no reason to help her once I let you go.”

For a fraction of a second, Adal considered it. The firepower someone like Calay could bring to that fight, no longer limited by the need to conceal his abilities… it was staggering to think about. But Riss was right. There was no insurance they’d behave.

Unless…

Adal bent in close to Riss’ ear, murmuring low. “We could always not do that thing we talked about. Could let them leave town unimpeded.”

Riss rolled a shoulder, regarding him sidelong. Her dark, tired eyes were tough to read. More than anything, she looked like she wished to sleep for a thousand years. He couldn’t blame her. That was next on his agenda after that bath.

Adal danced around his own ulterior motive there. Calay’s blood insurance. Riss didn’t know about that yet, and he had no idea how to break it to her. He had a dog in the fight of Calay’s future–either the man had to die or he had to pass through Adelheim unmolested.

“I can’t believe you’re taking their side in all this.” Riss exhaled through her nose. They’d argued plenty over the years. Sometimes it grew heated. But this was the first time in Adal’s life that he’d heard disgust in her voice when she spoke to him. It stung.

“Fine. Do it your way. Second, dispense your orders.” Disgust turned to dismissal. She twisted the knife, left him standing there. It hurt worse than if she’d exploded at him. He gave her a stiff nod, then looked back to Gaz.

“Get on, then,” he said. He tapped the top of a stack of small boxes. “And take Torcha some of this. If you bring her back to us, we’ll see about facilitating your clean exit out of town.”

He’d hitched his wagon to a dangerous, manipulative man to keep Riss safe. Now, in order to keep his own secrets, he was openly defying her and taking the sorcerer’s side. Which meant the manipulation had worked. Worst of all, when he weighed things in his conscience, the ends justified the means. He was compromised, but it barely warranted a mention on his moral register anymore.

Good reasons. He’d had good reasons. Even if he’d done bad things.

When they got out, he’d make it up to her. He’d fall back into line. Riss depended on him, on his being a trustworthy Second with sound judgment. He wouldn’t fail again.

<< Chapter 45 | Chapter 47

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Author Update – Calay variant cover & Patreon launch

Hi swamp friends, I’m finally getting around to posting an update. I got knocked down pretty hard over the holidays by acquiring whooping cough (yes, in 2019), but I’ve managed to maintain my update schedule and I’m pretty pleased for that.

A few people have asked in the comment section if/when I’d be starting a Patreon, and I can finally say that day is today! I don’t expect it to set the world on fire, but I am extremely flattered that people want to support my work, and I may as well give them the opportunity to do so.

If you’d like to check it out, the Patreon can be found here.

You’ll see on that Patreon header a handsome alternate cover art that I’ve been saving for just such an opportune moment. Thanks again to George Cotronis for his phenomenal work.

And a close-up, because ugh, it’s just so good.

If you can’t tell by the header images on the Patreon page, there is more art in the works, and I am dying to show it all off! I have the most talented friends/family/readers alive and there are currently three artists putting their collective noggins together to bring these characters to life.

Thank you as always for reading. And I’d like to note here that just because I now have a Patreon doesn’t mean I’m going to start locking things up behind a paywall. This is a project I started for fun, and while it would be cool to earn some money so I can spend more time on it, I appreciate the spirit of the internet of old, where content was free and easily accessible. Everything posted on the Patreon will eventually be published on the site, Patrons just get to see it a little sooner.

I’m looking forward to carrying this story into 2019 and wrapping up Volume 1! The next volume is fully outlined and ready to go and I can’t wait to share with you the continued adventures of the Swamp Squad.

Chapter 45

Riss had no sensation of having slept, so it would have been difficult to say she woke. She transitioned, somehow, from the rain and the thunder and the swift dance of battle to a dark and prolonged agony. Disoriented, weakened, and above all freezing, she curled in against herself on the cavern floor, rolling onto her side.

Adal spoke from above her, told her to be careful, not to move too much. When she didn’t reply, he asked her if she was all right.

Something had happened. She had no idea what. The pain had been blinding. There was a gap in her memory. She snarled in frustration, wordless, and shoved herself up with an elbow. Her teeth clacked in uncontrollable chatters, deep cold gripped her bones like the floor of a tomb. Each breath was a mission.

Adal swept a blanket around her shoulders, and on any other day she might have objected to being so babied. This time, however, she wound it around herself and burrowed in. When and how had it grown so cold? The swamp had been many horrible things, but its atmosphere had remained steadily warm and humid. There had been no surprises there.

“May I?”

Adal, with an arm out. Riss appreciated his asking permission. She nodded stiffly, and then he bundled her up and pulled her to his shoulder. He held her tighter than she expected.

It was then that she got an inkling of what might have happened.

“I am very glad to see you up.” His voice was a subdued whisper, the tone of it implying that her waking was an uncertain prospect.

Beneath the blanket, Riss patted herself down. She felt no obvious wounds, but every part of her ached with a general malaise. A sense of being beaten all to shit. The full-body pains that preceded a flu.

What was the last thing she remembered? Rain. Thunder. Hauling Adal from the pool. All of them rounding on the rock creature as a unit, struggling to haul it down. Frustration that she couldn’t see shit. Worry that she’d have to put trust in Calay and Vosk to tackle it. And then…

“It got me, didn’t it.”

Adal, who was yet to let her go, nodded against her hair.

It was an odd prospect to face. Did she even want to know more? Given the lack of damage to her person, she then had to face another odd and discomfiting truth: Calay must have patched her up using whatever dark methods he’d used upon himself. Stiffening, she ran her hands down her front and along her arms. The realization sent a whole new cold coursing through her. The growth that now jutted from Calay’s arm, would that start growing inside her?

Hands spasming in alarm, she threw the blanket off and shoved away from Adal, falling back on her rear and looking herself over. Her armor was spattered with blood, though her skin appeared clean and undamaged. She felt at her ribs, her throat, her face. She paused and considered the beat of her heart, skittish with fear but feeling roughly the same as ever.

“Riss…” Adal started to say something, but she interrupted him, eyes blazing.

“What did he do to me?”

Adal hesitated. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “He saved you. We had no choice.”

Visions of bone-spurred horrors and twisted, grey-barked abominations raced through her mind at runaway speed. She held a hand to her chest. Did everything feel normal? And what of the parts of herself that she couldn’t touch to be sure? She imagined spikes of bone erupting from her back, scythelike shards of it exploding out of her like shrapnel, shredding her from the inside out until her flesh dripped away and she resembled one of the horrors that called this place home.

“Riss, you’re fine.”

But who was he to say that? Who was he to judge? How could Adal know that for sure? Calay hadn’t even been able to properly fix himself.

When she breathed in, was anything gurgling unusually?

“What have you done,” she whispered through her teeth, as much to herself as to him.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Adal repeated. “It was… bad. You had minutes left. It was either let Calay work on you or lose you entirely.”

She gulped in air in an attempt to calm herself, but calm was a faraway place. Calay had touched her with his sorcery now. Even if it didn’t disfigure her for life, what of the consequences? Did he have power over her now? Could he magick her at will? Were there unseen side effects? Had Adal considered any of that?

“I can’t believe you.” She palmed at her face, rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands in the vain hope that she might wake up again, that this was a nightmare interlude that would soon pass. “Didn’t you consider that—”

Adal cut her off, his voice low.

“I considered the only options we had. Hate me if you want. I made the call. I had to.”

“I don’t hate you. I just—”

“You were meat, Riss.”

She closed her eyes again. To steady her clenching fingertips, she threaded them through her hair. Then she combed them over her scalp, driven by terrified compulsion to palpate the contours of her skull. The smooth curvature of the bone did nothing to reassure her. What could be growing inside it? Just below the surface, where she couldn’t see or feel?

You were meat.

But was she still the same meat she used to be?

She heard voices further down the cavern, Calay and Gaz engaged in quiet conversation. But she didn’t hear Torcha. Or Vosk. Smoothing her fingers through her hair, she swallowed. Her mouth felt terribly dry. She didn’t want to ask Adal for water. She didn’t want to ask him for a damn thing. Selfish as it might have been to grind him down in her anger, she needed that anger to spark herself forward. As long as she was pissed off at something, she wouldn’t sink into despair.

“We need to get moving.” Adal rose up from where he’d been sitting, a stiff shove to his feet. “Torcha led the thing off, but there’s no telling whether it will be back.”

The air in Riss’ lungs felt heavy, thick as sludge. “Led it off? Alone?”

“Yes. Alone.”

Hot, aimless fury ricocheted around her insides with nowhere to go. Riss levered herself up, smacked away the hand Adal offered. He stood there in the face of her anger, ready to absorb more if need be. But she found she couldn’t inflict it on him. As much as she wanted to scream in his face. Gods, her legs hurt. She felt sick with frustration. Was she shaking with exhaustion or rage?

“We’ll get her back,” said Adal, and it just wasn’t enough. No words were enough.

Nauseated and dazed, moving through the world like it was all some terrible dream, Riss packed up camp. She directed Gaz to pack what he could, ditching all but the largest tent. She sent Adal to gather Torcha’s things, because she knew he’d treat them with the care and respect they deserved. Hitches of panic squeezed at her insides when she surveyed the camp and found Torcha absent. And when her eyes fell on Calay, she looked away immediately. If he so much as stared her in the eye, she wouldn’t be able to hold it in anymore.

The hostility she felt for Adal, it was really meant for Calay. He was the one who’d befouled her. Whatever he’d done. Adal had thought he was helping. He’d panicked in the heat of the moment. As the tide of her anger ebbed, she was able to acknowledge that. At least internally. It might be some time yet before she could swallow her bile and say it to his face.

And then she found the source of the blood they’d used to fix her: Vosk, still pallid and quivering on the cavern floor. They coaxed him from his fetal position and, after a moment’s deliberation, slung him over the back of the moa. Riss considered leaving him, but the promise she’d made to Tarn wouldn’t let her do that. The man needed to face his punishment. Tarn deserved to hear the truth. So much of this job had spiraled completely beyond her control that she seized on justice with a fanatic’s grip. She’d sooner march herself to death than let Vosk escape.

The rain, at some point, had abated. The dog, at some point, had disappeared again. Riss felt the threads of control slipping through her fingers. She wondered what Gaspard would have done.

Numb with fatigue, they abandoned camp and returned to the trail, cut from seven to five. Riss stared off into the murk of the forest, the trunks of trees wreathed in low fog, and looked for any sign of Torcha. But it was like she’d never passed through at all.

The rain had washed away even her footprints.

How many times had Torcha saved them, Riss wondered. The Fourth had owed their lives to her from the moment they’d crossed paths.

###

The siege at Semmer’s Mill was a memorably shit five days in the midst of several shit months in the middle of a big shit war. Unlike many of the smaller settlements scattered around the textile district, the northlanders had taken Semmer’s Mill early and driven most of the locals out. Riss would have done the same thing, were she in charge of the campaign. Locals couldn’t be trusted to be friendly, unless you had the manpower to ensure their compliance.

She could still feel the warm, dry heat of the high-summer sun, scorching both her skin and the thatch of the roof she lurked upon. Everything was so dry it crackled. Growing up on the steppes as she had, where the winds were cold and vicious, she’d learned to relish sunlight in whatever form she could take it.

Atop the low roof of a stable, though, that was pushing it. There was some definite waft drifting up in the heat. Gaspard, who lay on his belly beside her, the both of them as low to the thatch as possible, seemed unbothered.

How is he so relaxed? Riss felt a stab of envy for her commander. They could find us at any moment.

The Fourth was currently holed up in a farmstead outside of town. Gaspard and Riss had patrolled toward town, then been forced to duck down the streets when they were surprised by a unit of northerners patrolling the other way. As best she could tell, they hadn’t been spotted. Gaspard was as quick on the streets as he was in the bush, and he’d led her to the rooftops in a heartbeat.

“The stables?” She’d been skeptical. “Every single one of their riders will stop here. Every last one.”

Gaspard had merely hefted his shoulders, scratched through his beard, and laid down, like that hadn’t been a consideration in the beginning and it wasn’t about to become one.

The better part of a day had come and gone. Below them, exhausted soldiers wearing the brown and gold of Zeyinade’s army milled around. They pissed in alleyways, ate hardtack, tended to their horses. Riss was never an ideologue of any sort, let alone a nationalist so rabid that she thought her enemies inhuman. Still, it was odd to watch them go through the motions of everyday life. It produced in her a strange tension. She’d have felt more at ease if they were tearing the town apart hunting for her.

Gaspard, by comparison, didn’t give a dry fart. He popped one of those vile salted liquorice candies into his mouth and sucked on it boredly, baking in the sun.

Twilight fell. Riss’ stomach grumbled. Gaspard silently offered her a candy. She refused.

Within the hour, she relented and ate one. Clacking the hardened liquorice against her molars, she noticed that the intense salty flavor did have a stimulating effect. It was so unpalatable that it woke her up. Was that the secret of his attachment to the damn things?

A shot rang out somewhere in the long shadows of the millyard. Riss stilled. Beside her, Gaspard lifted his head, single eye asquint, as if he’d been waiting for such a disturbance all along.

After the shot came a man, wailing piteously as he staggered down the road. He hurried toward the welcoming light of a house where his fellows were bivvied, steps arrhythmic and stumbling. The light was fading, but Riss could see the dark trail he left behind him.

He reached the doorway, and just as he threw the door open, his temple blew open and he sagged to the ground. A hair later, Riss heard the shot.

Gaspard put a palm between her shoulder blades, shoving her down into the thatch. They hunkered there in silence, barely breathing, as more distant shots rang out. The stables and house below exploded into noise. Riss strained to pick apart details in the commotion but found it difficult.

A woman shouted, her voice an authoritative bark that was cut off mid-syllable.

The retorts were deep, heavy. Some sort of large-caliber rifle. Riss was far from an expert on firearms, reliant on the silence of a bow in her line of work. As far as she knew, there were no other Inland remotely nearby. Was this some sort of internal scuffle? Unruly townsfolk? Firearms were unusual in these parts, far too expensive, but not unheard of.

Her curiosity got the best of her. She had to know. Rolling sideways, she attempted to peek over the crest of the roof, but a hard arm rolled her backward. Gaspard pinned her down with a forearm to the shoulder, shaking his head. He signaled with his palm, tipped two fingers downward. Wait.

Soft, agonized wailing rose up from the road. It didn’t sound like anyone was still moving around down there. Until the sound of heavy, booted footsteps reached Riss’ ears. A lone individual on foot, approaching from the right, from whence the shots had come. Gaspard’s brows drew low. He waited. Riss waited. Interminable waiting. She hated it.

A sudden voice from below.

“I saw you up there! You can come on out!” A young woman’s voice, her accent a relaxed twang. Someone was calling them out, like a parent beckoning her kids back from playing too close to the creek.

“Come on! I even left one alive for you!”

Riss looked to Gaspard for orders. He seemed as baffled as she was. Finally, with a lift of his shoulders, he peeked up over the rooftop. Riss stayed low until he signaled. They both rose to their feet, startled by the sheer scope of the violence that greeted them.

Six men and women lay dead, blown apart to various degrees. One woman in gilt-edged officers’ clothes remained living, buckled on her knees, her hands folded behind her head. She was bleeding, or splashed with blood. It was tough to tell from so high up.

She knelt at the feet of a short, skinny figure in a dingy grey coat. The woman—and it was a woman, Riss was pretty sure from the voice—carried an enormous rifle over her shoulder, and presently she held a smaller pistol to the officer’s eye socket. Lit only by the faint glow of candles and lanterns through windows as she was, Riss couldn’t make out any details.

“You wanna interrogate this gal or should I just crack one through her skull?” the hooded woman asked. “I’m not bothered one way or the other, but her crying is real tiresome.”

Gaspard was never one to turn away a gift. When they clambered down, his first order of business was securing the hostage and ensuring she couldn’t call for help. Which left Riss alone to survey the damage, to stare in stunned bewilderment at the puddles of blood congealing in the pitted cobbles.

She wasn’t new to violence. War was messy. Life was cheap. Every cliché in the books rang true now that she’d lived it. But this had not been a battlefield engagement. This was wholesale slaughter of people—regular people—who’d been grasping at the chance to take a breather.

Which is why, when the perpetrator finally revealed her face, Riss was startled speechless.

Holstering her pistol, the mystery woman flipped her hood back, revealing that she was not a mystery woman at all, but a mystery girl. It wasn’t just her height. Her cheeks were baby-chubby, dotted with freckles. What Riss had mistaken for malnourishment was just the knock-kneed skinniness of a body that hadn’t yet filled out.

She picked a fleck of brain matter out of her brassy red-orange hair, patted herself down, then asked Gaspard to check their prisoner’s pockets for a handkerchief.

###

Torcha had been unpredictable since the beginning. Wild, itinerant, angry. Prone to acting out.

Riss should have seen this coming.

<< Chapter 44 | Chapter 46 >>

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Chapter 44

Once Calay had his insurance, he left Adalgis sitting vigil over his fallen friend. A sepulchral atmosphere had settled over the cavern; he felt like he was intruding on something very private. He felt like a man who’d coughed during the moment of silence in a funeral, despite the fact that nobody had died.

His stump itched. He resisted the urge to scratch at the bark, though he did spare a glance down at what was growing from his arm. Sharp-knuckled metacarpals sheathed in bark rather than flesh had begun to take shape roughly where a hand should have been. He preferred not to ponder what eventual shape it might take.

Silent, drained from his exertions patching Riss back together, Calay stalked to his abandoned satchel and dug inside. He’d avoided his cigarettes for the entirety of the trip, cognisant of the risk of smoking in the field. When they were trying to move unseen, it could give away their position to things and people unsavory. He’d assumed Riss would tell him to snuff it, so he hadn’t bothered lighting up. Now, well… Riss wasn’t in the picture at the moment, and also there was no doubt in his mind that every single evil thing in this entire cursed swamp knew just where to find them. They may as well have been straw-stuffed archery targets.

He unfurled his pouch of tobacco, sliproot, papers, and other sundries. The speed with which he moved one-handed annoyed him; he grit his teeth as he worked. He didn’t bother with any clever blends. He’d had that nice high going back in Adelheim, but dulling his senses at the moment seemed like a poor idea. He went for straight tobacco, laying the desiccated leaves out along the parchment. Then he braced the edge of his bone-shard limb against the paper and attempted to crimp and roll it with his remaining fingers.

Gaz found him that way minutes later, staring down at a crinkled mess of paper and tobacco, his shoulders held so stiff they trembled.

Letting a few sacks of silks and pearls hit the cavern floor, Gaz made an inquiring sound, peering down at where Calay sat.

Calay was, for once in his life, caught speechless. The frustration that welled up in him was unlike anything he ever felt. It wasn’t that insane, white-hot anger that had moved him to cut a bloody trail through the Vasa Nobles’ Quarter. It was more like the bitter anger-sorrow cocktail that came from losing a childhood pet to old age or disease.

Everything felt unjust. Every gods-damned thing in the entire world.

But what came out instead, the words twangy and unsteady with emotion, was: “My hands. They always go after my fucking hands.”

Gaz sank down beside him in a heartbeat, reaching for all the paraphernalia.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I got it.”

I know, Calay wanted to say. You’ve always got it. If there is anything I for some reason do not have, you always have it. But a man should be able to roll his own fucking smokes, and instead of rolling a smoke to get through this, I’ve got a thing growing out of my arm and I have to deal with that instead.

Instead, he shut his trap and rubbed at his face. When his thumb skimmed close to an eye, he found the corner of it wet. Curse the swamp and everything in it.

He watched as Gaz folded the paper anew, then tapped in the ground tobacco and smoothed it with his finger. His hands–massive, scarred, thickly callused–had a gentler touch than their appearance suggested, and he pinched and rolled the small joint with dexterous ease. Then he licked the gum, sealed it shut, and presented it to Calay, although only for a moment. He seemed to think better of something, seeking out Calay’s matchbook and lighting the cigarette first. He gave it a single puff, enough to get it really burning, and then passed it over.

Calay took the smoke in his fingers, tucked it into his mouth, and mumbled a thank-you.

“I was gonna roll one for you and Adal, too,” he said, and Gaz made a thoughtful noise. His hands kept working. Paper, herb, crease, tap, roll, pinch, twist. It was strangely calming, the everyday mundaneness of such a process. The smell of the tobacco as much as the experience of smoking it sharpened his brain, that fake-but-workable faux alertness he’d leaned on during many a dreary morning preceded by a sleepless night. Thoughts occurred to him all at once in a great flood, as if they’d been held back until chemically permitted.

He thought of Adal and his silent vigil over Riss.

He thought of Sylvene back home in Blackbricks, how deep his old betrayal must have cut her.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, he even briefly thought of Kella. He hoped she’d found success. He imagined she never thought of him at all.

He spared a moment for Torcha, who seemed to hate him now about as much as Syl. Torcha off in the rain. Perhaps dead, perhaps alive.

He watched Gaz’s hands again, noted the flecks of blood that darkened the undersides of his fingernails. Whose blood even was it at this point? This misguided endeavor had bled them all dry.

“Gaz,” he said, abrupt. “Have I taken you for granted?”

Gaz’s fingers didn’t even slow on the smoke he rolled. “Weird question.”

Calay was articulating himself poorly. The tobacco helped, but he still felt unsteady, head crowded with too much emotion: pain, frustration, the loss of his arm, a dread for the future that he rarely ever felt. The future had always been his for the taking. When things were good, he shot for the stars. When he was down in the shit, the future meant redemption and new opportunities. Now, though, this thing growing out of him… he feared it. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he feared it, the concept was just so foreign to him that he had no idea what to say.

“Let me start over.” He stole a look out the cavern’s mouth, where the rain was tapering off into grey daylight. “We haven’t really had a moment since all… that shit… happened. I wanted to thank you. For that and… all the other times.”

Gaz had a hard face, but it had never hidden a hard heart. He smiled immediately, a crookedly amused lift of his mouth.

“I get it,” he said. “But no, I don’t feel like you take me for granted.” His lips pursed to one side in hesitation, but no further words came.

“Sounds like there was going to be more.” Calay prompted him. “Don’t get cold feet on me now.”

Gaz gathered up the finished smokes and tucked them with care into the pouch. He kept one for himself, sliding it behind an ear.

“It was a little unkind,” he said.

Calay glowered at him. “I can handle unkind. I’m a grown man.”

Gaz spread his fingers, a shrug with only his hand. “Fine. I don’t feel like you take me for granted, or anyone anymore, because you learned a lot since Syl.”

Calay grimaced like he tasted something foul. He puffed smoke and inhaled again, hard.

“Hmph.” He said. “Well.”

Damn, that was a little more honest than Gaz had strictly needed to be there. And yet… Calay supposed he wasn’t wrong.

He spared a moment’s mourning for the trio that once was. Now a partnership. And that was nobody’s fault but his.

Casting a look over his shoulder, he watched Adalgis sit there, hand on the forearm of his sleeping friend. He was far enough away that Calay couldn’t make out the words of his indistinct murmured comfort, but he heard the tone of it: warm, encouraging, a little scared.

An odd, bitter envy bit into him then. He wished he had that empathy and ease of expression that Adalgis possessed. He supposed it was easier to grow up learning those traits and valuing them when you weren’t hurting for basic necessities. Shoulder to shoulder with sixty other brats just as shitty as him in the same crowded orphanage, Calay hadn’t had the time or inclination to practice warmth and appreciation for his fellows. He’d focused on survival. He’d had to.

Gaz had done for him what Adal had done for Riss. At tremendous risk to his own person. The mercenaries would have been well within their right to execute the both of them. To never let him practice magick again.

He finished his cigarette and ashed it on the ground.

“I’d be completely fucked without you, you know.” He said the words to Gaz as he rose, an abrupt cough of speech. He dusted off his trousers, like such an admission was just another aspect of his dawn routine.

Gaz tilted his head. Calay caught a glimpse of his look of surprise, but he didn’t hang around to hear any reply. He couldn’t sit still after all that. All those phantoms crowding in his head, they were getting him twitchy. He had to keep moving.

Pacing out into the humid grey morning, he surveyed the perimeter of their camp. It looked like a small-scale military skirmish had taken place, there were so many crazy tracks through the mud. He found Adal’s rifle caked in the muck and dug it free with his fingers for lack of anything else productive to do. He propped it where Adal would see it, near the mouth of the cavern, then decided to test his luck with a little climb.

The missing hand made it tougher than he anticipated, but he levered himself up atop one of the larger boulders, then leapt up onto the outcrop, where the stone was still slick with leftover rain. Sat on a rocky precipice hemmed in by tufts of yellow, fluffy-topped grass, he stared down into the pool. Its surface reflected the grey clouds above, rendering it silvery and molten.

That itch came over his palms again. It occurred to him consciously for the very first time: I used to scratch at my scars when I was thinking. And now I can’t. No wonder it’s bugging the shit out of me.  

Faded with both time and care, the faint silvery lines upon his palm looked older than they were. Alfend Linten had showed him a recipe once, when he was a child. A cream made from beeswax and fruit pits that lessened the appearance of scars if applied while things were healing. Just gift that Mr. Linten had given him before he’d abruptly vanished, leaving the clinic in Calay’s care.

Very few people had ever been dear to him. And for such a small number, they all had one trait in common: they seemed to vanish from his life at an alarming, unstoppable rate.

Gaz found him that way: sitting atop the camp, tapping the bladed edge of his mangled hand against his remaining palm, tangled up in the past.

“Heck of a thing to say to someone and just stalk off,” he said. He had a canteen in hand, and when he twisted the stopper free, steam coiled from its spout. He offered it down to Calay, who took it without even asking what was inside. When he stuck it under his nose, it smelled of grassy, minty tea.

“Well.” Calay’s shoulders stiffened again. He felt tense and defensive for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint. He pissily sipped his tea.

“Nah. I get it.” Gaz kicked a pebble over the precipice and watched it tumble down, into the mud. A chorus of frogs had started up in the distance, all croaking at a slightly different pitch.

“You do?” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Gaz. More like he wanted to hear it articulated. Maybe hearing someone else talk through their thoughts would settle his own.

“Sure.” Gaz grabbed the canteen off him and took a sip of his own. “It’s just… grief, isn’t it?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Seeing him with her, it dredged up a lot of stuff from back home.” Gaz cleared his throat. “What you said, about how we never got a minute to talk about what happened. I know you meant when you got shot, but it goes back further than that. We haven’t had a minute for a long time.”

Calay ran his tongue over his teeth, tasting the cool mint of the tea. Gaz was, as usual, correct. They’d fled the city immediately after the pandemonium of his would-be hanging. They hadn’t stopped running since. He got shot. He lost his arm. Gaz sacrificed his own blood and safety to ensure he lived. Still they hadn’t stopped.

“It catches up to a person,” Gaz said, like he was speaking from experience.

Calay had lost a lot more than a hand, hadn’t he. And apart from one glorious, sun-soaked swim along the Janel coast after they’d escaped to freedom, he’d scarcely had a moment to breathe since seeing his whole empire torn down. He couldn’t escape the sensation, the cold pit-in-your-stomach truth that the law was yapping at their heels. Or maybe Syl. Or any number of the Landed Families.

“Not us.” He clenched his remaining hand into a tight fist. “They won’t catch up to us.”

Gaz rolled his jaw for a moment, regarding Calay in lengthy silence.

“Not a them, boss. An it. The grief.” He settled a big, heavy hand on Calay’s shoulder and squeezed.

“Well what do you do about it?” Calay rankled at the thought that there was some great, unwieldy gunk of emotion clogging up the filters in his brain, making him stupid.

“Beats me. Try to live a better life. Do stuff that makes you happy. That sort of shit.”

Who had time for that? For what had to be the thousandth time since they had met, Calay wondered how he and Gaz could suffer through such similar upbringings and emerge such completely different people. The same forge that had hardened all his edges had softened all his friend’s in a way that somehow made him no less effective, no less keen.

It wasn’t just Adalgis he envied.

“C’mon.” Gaz pressed the canteen back into his hand. “Tea’s getting cold.”

Maybe this was their moment. Maybe it was the only moment they were going to get. They traded sips until they’d finished it, keeping watch over the camp, listening to the frogs.

<< Chapter 43 | Chapter 45 >>

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Chapter 43

Rain pelted Adal’s face, sharp stinging needles of it. He wasn’t aware Calay and Gaz were trying to get his attention until someone grabbed him. He spun reflexively, machete up, but it was only Gaz, who withdrew his glove as soon as he made eye contact.

“Get over here,” he said. “She’s still breathing.” Then he hollered at Vosk to get the moa settled down. Necessity bred strange bedfellows, didn’t it.

They hurried under the overhang, where Calay had dragged Riss out of the mud.

It was just as bad as Adal feared, save for the fact that she still clung to life. Calay crawled to Riss’ side, holding a lantern aloft to survey the damage. In the moment, he seemed to have cast aside any questions of loyalty or intent, tending to her with the same care and alacrity that Adal had seen from any medic worth his salt. He withdrew a sweater from his own pack, rolling it and shifting it gently beneath Riss’ neck, trying to ease her breathing.

But how long could she keep breathing? Her ribcage was splintered. From the neck down, she was a crushed mess of bone and blood. The sight of it sent cold dread flooding through him, as dark and mortal a fear as he’d felt when he’d sustained such injuries himself.

He forced himself to put up that wall again, to focus on the immediate.

“So what can you do for her?” he asked, watching Calay work.

Riss sputtered, forcefully expelling blood. Calay held her by the cheek, turned her head.

“I can make her comfortable,” he said.

Adal listened to the rain, tried to focus on that instead of the hideous, sucking gurgle that rose each time Riss attempted to breathe.

“No.” He snapped his eyes to Calay’s. “I mean what can you do.”

Calay’s hands stilled. He regarded Adal with newfound wariness, then looked immediately to Gaz.

Gaz, similarly wary, looked Adal up and down. He rolled the knuckles of one hand, the way a man does in a bar the instant before a fight breaks out.

For all Calay liked to talk like he was the one in charge, it was clear that he was asking permission. And with a nod, Gaz granted it.

“This is going to take a lot of blood, you realize.” Calay shrugged his coat off, rolling up his sleeves. It was laborious work with his sole remaining hand, and it revealed the gnarled, bark-and-bone deformity that now grew from his elbow. “And I can’t make any promises. This is… it’s beyond medicine. And some things are beyond magick, too.”

“Do your best,” Adal said. “I’ll get you blood.”

“And as much as it pains me to be so mercenary about this…” Calay trailed off. Adal instantly caught the meaning behind that statement. “This goes a bit beyond the scope of my initial contract.”

Adal grit his teeth so hard he thought his molars might snap.

“Name your price,” he said, and he meant it.

Calay merely nodded, his gaze dropping back to his patient. He flexed the fingers of his remaining hand, looming over Riss like a gargoyle.

“The blood, then,” he said, intoning it like an order.

Adal shoved up to his feet, scouring the campsite. Just beyond the cavern, Vosk had done as told and gotten the moa under control. He flinched when Adal caught his eyes.

That’s right, Adal thought. You’d better. But he disciplined himself into calm. He disengaged.

“Vosk. You’ve got a chance to bargain yourself off the gallows. Know that if you don’t come willingly, I’ll blow out your knees and leave you here in the mud.”

###

Vosk was not the only man who had to make a bargain.

Calay waited like a statue until they had their blood donor all trussed up, his shoulders held by Gaz and a tourniquet binding his arm. He regarded Vosk with clinical dispassion, then set his eyes on Adal.

“We should talk terms before I start this,” he said. Adal could have slapped him. There wasn’t time to barter. Each time Riss inhaled, each time he heard that thick, wet gurgle from her throat, he wondered if she had it in her to draw another.

“I don’t care about terms,” he said. “I meant it when I said name your price.” He doubted the sorcerer would demand money. If riches mattered to him, it seemed well within his power to acquire them. Adal didn’t give a damn about hammering out the details until Riss was stable. Despite the small, quiet fear lodged in him like an old splinter, he knew there was no price Calay could command that would deter him.

He’d never noticed it until now, but in the ember-glow, Calay’s eyes shone like a beast’s.

“Insurance,” he said, those strange shining eyes fixed on Adal’s with all the sympathy of a reptile. “Vosk’s blood to fix her, your blood to secure our passage out of here.”

The small, quiet fear bloomed into something chilling and terrible. Had he felt this cold a moment ago? His clothes were still sodden. That had to be it.

Adal worked his jaw in silence. Riss gurgled and choked. He forced himself to look at the mangled wreckage of her ribs to hasten his courage.

“Fine,” he spat. “So be it. Now or after?” He unbuttoned his cuff, then rolled his sleeve to show he meant business.

“Oh, later is fine.” Calay ticked a little nod aside to his partner. “There are more pressing matters.”

How had they ever mistaken him for a man like them?

At that gesture, Gaz grabbed Vosk up tightly, an elbow pressed between his shoulder blades. The skinnier man winced, caught in the arm-lock, and Calay slipped a thin, tapered blade from his belt. With no ceremony or even a cursory warning, he slit a line of red along the interior of Vosk’s elbow, then wrenched his arm over one of their stew bowls.

“Flex your fist,” he ordered, voice quiet and curt.

It was clear Calay still struggled with his newfound disability. He moved slow, a study in caution, and little twitches of his deformed limb hinted at muscle memory that hadn’t yet atrophied. He ran a studious look up and down the length of Riss’ torso as if unsure where to even begin. Vosk meanwhile did as told and pumped blood into the bowl. Over the sick, wet rasp of Riss’ breath, Adal heard blood dribbling on stone.

Vosk turned his cheek, unwilling to look. Disgust or nerves, who knew. He did an admirable job of looking neutral, but when Calay dipped two fingers into the blood, a nervous twitch shook him.

What they’d done to Calay had hurt Gaz a great deal. Would it kill Vosk to patch Riss back together? Adal considered that a fair trade. Perhaps even karmic.

Features tight with concentration, Calay hovered his blood-wet fingers over Riss. Anxiety ticked through Adal’s fingers, his heart a nervous rabbit. Why wasn’t he starting yet? Why was he wasting time?

“Why aren’t you—”

Calay shushed him. “I’m thinking.”

What was there to think about? Adal tilted his head.

“It’s her cuirass.” His mouth pulled to one side, a frustrated scowl. “These glyphs work best on bare skin. But her armor is the only thing holding everything together.”

Unbearable nausea flooded through Adal’s guts at those words. He swallowed.

“Just fix her,” he said. He refused to believe this sorcerer could outwit the Vasa Leycenate and slither so far south without enough canny to solve such a basic fucking problem.

Calay snapped his eyes up to Adal’s.

“I don’t actually want her to die, you know. I am trying.

Meanwhile, a nervous tremor had possessed Vosk’s entire body. Still he bled into the bowl, which had over half filled.

Calay reached down with the mangled mass of bark and bone that had once been his right hand, then he yanked it back.

“Gaz,” he said. “Tilt her chin up a little.”

Gaz did as asked, cupping Riss’ chin in his massive palm and carefully angling her head up. He handled her gently. Adal was grateful for that.

“Vosk,” he was just spitting orders now. “Slosh some blood down her neck.”

Vosk tipped the bowl, the three of them working for now in concert.

Riss’ sandy golden-brown skin was shades paler than it should have been, and the splash of blood stood out too bright. Calay bent down and dipped his bloodstained fingers into the wash of red. He pressed his fingers into the armor that bound Riss’ chest, then began to sketch jagged, incomprehensible characters across the leather.

“I’ll try to get her stable enough. Be ready to cut it off, Gaz.”

“I don’t understand.” Adal warily averted his eyes, remembering the flash that had stung him. “It’s magick. Why will it only maybe work?”

“This weave works best against bare skin. The closer to the heart the better. I’m not conjuring whole new things into her body. I’m fortifying what she already has.”

Clean, cool-toned light sizzled through the cavern, chasing away the orange cast of the firelight.

Riss screamed and bucked against Gaz’s grip. Vosk screamed along with her, biting into his sleeve. Adal scrambled to make himself useful, working the laces up Riss’ side. He knew how hard she’d worked for those leathers. She’d be devastated if Gaz cut them off. As he yanked the armor down, just enough to expose her undershirt, something bony in her body shifted and popped against his arm. He recoiled. Calay shoved cloth aside and kept on scribbling, streaking red over now-bare skin. Adal buried his face in his shoulder, unable to watch.

In the moments his eyes were closed, he lacked other distractions. Without them, he couldn’t quite keep the panic at bay.

It wasn’t that he thought Riss immortal. It wasn’t that he felt he couldn’t go on without her. Nothing quite so melodramatic. Since Gaspard, they’d all learned in a hurry that nobody was immune. Even living legends were a single misstep away from the same death as anyone else.

No. Adal knew Riss would die someday, just like he would. But until it became a tangible possibility, he hadn’t realized how scared it would make him.

Losing Berin had been terribly sad. The loss of a sibling couldn’t come without grief, even if the siblings in question hadn’t been particularly close. Because the death of family rippled outward—you had to watch the people you earnestly loved suffer. And you lost the chance to ever care to the same depth they did. When Berin died, Adal had lost a potential future in which they might have one day been friends and his mother might have one day held them in the same regard.

And as for Gaspard, the sadness he’d felt had been mostly on Riss’ behalf. He’d admired Gaspard, considered him as much a friend as a subordinate can consider a commander. But he hadn’t needed Gaspard like she had.

Berin had been his brother, Gaspard a respected elder. But Riss was the most cherished friend he had ever had. A friend that came around once in a century. When he imagined a future where that friendship was commuted to merely memory, bleak terror seized him and made his insides tremble.

More light. More screaming. Riss fell slack. Vosk wept, bent-backed, drool hanging from his mouth. He shivered and collapsed.

It all happened so fast that Adal felt physical whiplash, yet it had also been the longest few seconds of his life.

###

He didn’t know how much time Torcha had bought them, but he was hesitant to move until at least one of Riss or Vosk was mobile. He’d neglected to pay much attention to Vosk’s suffering when the spell was cast. Bigger issues at hand and all. But now he took a moment to examine the man, who had curled into a fetal position on the rain-damp cavern floor. He shook periodically, his features gone grey-yellow. Adal couldn’t rouse any sympathy.

In the aftermath of her thrashing, Riss remained unconscious. Calay had explained this was normal—the spells he’d used, how he’d referred to it as ‘fortifying’ what the body already had—used the body’s own energy to repair itself. It was an exhausting process, he’d said. And Adal had seen that firsthand when both he and Gaz had emerged in a half-sick stupor from repairing Calay’s arm.

For the moment, Adal sat by Riss’ side while Calay observed both her and Vosk. Gaz drifted behind them, packing up camp. Urgent impatience scratched at Adal’s back. He wanted to get moving as soon as they could, didn’t want to waste Torcha’s sacrifice. For the time being, he’d cobbled together a loose best case scenario of get Riss out of the swamp, then double back for Torcha with whoever’s willing and able.

“Hey.” Calay gently cleared his throat, drawing Adal out of his thoughts.

“Mm?”

“I’m confident she’ll recover fully.” He sniffed, rubbed at the dark circles that sagged beneath his eyes. “We had to improvise with the first weave, but the second couldn’t have gone better.”

Adal only nodded, unsure what was even worth saying. It was easier now, sitting and speaking to Calay, even aware of what he was. Over such a short time, he was growing desensitized, at least as long as Calay kept his arm covered.

A nonstop onslaught of horror would do that to a person, he supposed.

To his surprise, Calay kept talking.

“None of this was supposed to work out this way.” He glanced over his shoulder, watching Gaz for a moment. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. For any part I played in turning your mission into a fiasco.”

Adal, raised in the ranks of Altave Shipping and Mercantile, knew a sales pitch when he heard one. This was Calay ensuring his own survival by way of remorse. Or softening the blow before he asked for his pint of blood.

“I don’t think any of us could have known.” He wondered though, about Tarn. Riss had implied at the inn that Tarn suspected ulterior movies in Lukra’s disappearance. Had he suspected Vosk? Had he let them go in blind?

Tarn was a problem for the future, though. Adal studied Calay’s face, found it inscrutable. He looked tired. That was all.

“I suppose you’ll want your payment.” He saw no point forestalling the inevitable.

Calay cleared his throat. “I wasn’t going to bring it up until she was up on her feet.”

Adal lifted a shrug. His shoulders felt leaden.

Calay explained his price. It was simple enough: a flagon of Adal’s blood as insurance.

He claimed he’d destroy it after a month if nobody came for him via Adelheim. Adal wasn’t sure he believed that. It didn’t matter at all one way or the other. Whether he trusted Calay or not, he was on the hook.

In the mad rush from the moment Riss had fallen to the time she drew her first unimpeded breath, Adal hadn’t spared much thought for what he’d agreed to. He hadn’t had the luxury of time to weigh the pros and cons. But all the deliberation in the world would not have affected the outcome.

He’d have done far worse.

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