Chapter 17

Riss took a moment to appreciate the team she had put together. She had read Calay and Gaz right. They’d leapt into action immediately; their level of training was in fact on par with what they claimed it to be. In the mercenary world, that wasn’t always a given. Both had conducted themselves well. Even Vosk, the odd man out, had stepped up and made himself useful, even going so far as to get between her sharpshooter and the creature.

It was paradoxical to most. To those who hadn’t been there. Stepping into a firefight like that and walking out the other side with blooming confidence in your men, that was a more addictive sensation than the effects of anything Riss had ever smoked or snorted or imbibed.

Despite the fact that she was slathered with foul-smelling ichor and the sights she’d seen inside that tree would haunt her for weeks, she felt better. She felt newly confident. On the walk back to their campsite, she had to fight to keep the simmering beginnings of a grin off her face.

Their campsite was, thankfully, unmolested upon their return. But no one was in the mood to settle down and cook dinner just yet. And where was Geetsha?

Adal had hurriedly tied the moa down before rushing to their aid, and now the birds stalked in agitated circles, heads tugging sideways, pulling at their leads. Was it the gunfire that had upset them, or was it something more? Could they hear something beyond what Riss’ human ears could measure? Who could say. Riss gave one of the birds an awkward pat on the flank while she pawed through a satchel of provisions.

“Geetsha will have heard us,” she said to nobody in particular. She received scattered grunts and nods in reply.

Adal crawled into his tent, then emerged a moment later with a hefty rectangular bar of soap. He offered it to Riss with a grim smile.

“Scrub while we wait?”

“You always know just what to say.”

Riss shucked off the outermost layers of her armor–flexible, layered panels of leather studded with brass–and snatched up a water jug. Up on the steppes, in the scraggy forests of her home, wasting water on hygiene would have been unthinkable. Despite how foul it was, the endless puddles of standing water in the swamp were in some ways an asset. If they started to run low on well water, they could always break out the filtration kits. It took time and tasted a little gunky, but it was perfectly drinkable.

She set to working up a lather, scraping and scrubbing the worst of the caked-on gore away before it could dry.

Geetsha arrived before she’d even finished her chest piece. Hurrying in on foot, pale and ethereal as a ghost, she scurried into camp and straight up to Riss’ side. She took a moment to catch her breath before speaking.

“You found one,” was all she said, not even a question. Riss’ hand paused in its scrubbing. She turned a look to the younger woman, then inclined a silent nod.

“I didn’t see any others.” Geetsha lifted a satchel off her hip, unbuttoning the flap to let Riss have a glance inside. “Plenty of mushrooms. No birds.” She paused momentarily. “Although where the trees grow there are often few birds.”

Riss didn’t spend too long dwelling on that. Again, those flicker-flutters of suspicion rose to mind, but she wasn’t sure how to address them. Geetsha had said some pretty alarming things, but how exactly did one bring that sort of thing up in conversation? Riss was halfway to just asking her so if you aren’t human, what the hells are you? but that seemed counterproductive. And was now, when they appeared to be deep in the most dangerous thickets of their journey thus far, a good time?

Gaspard would have known what to do. He had a knack for people. Both people-people and things that masqueraded as people. Things like whatever Geetsha was. What Geetsha maybe is, she corrected herself.

A pained groan stole her attention away from her private thoughts. She glanced over in the direction it came from and found Vosk holding his arms overhead. He stood still, grimacing while Adal and Calay both scrubbed lather-soaked armor brushes over his torso. The sight was so startlingly ridiculous that Riss couldn’t help but laugh. And she was surprised at the depth, the volume, the warmth of her own laughter. Damn, it felt good to laugh like that: with a competent crew at her muster and a foe dead at her feet.

“I think I’ll take some of that what’s-it-called after all,” Vosk said through a clenched grimace. Calay whisked the armor brush off him for a moment, then dug around in his belt.

“No shame in it,” he said, selecting a small glass vial. He slapped it into Vosk’s palm. Vosk twisted it open, extracted the eye dropper from the cap, and gave the concoction within a curious sniff.

“Up to four drops at a time,” Calay instructed. “I’d start with two and see how you go.”

“Two little drops?” Vosk hiked up an eyebrow, studying the vial while Adal continued to scrub blown-apart bits of tree goo off his back.

“My work is potent, darling.” Calay even went so far as to give him a wink. “Trust me.”

So Riss was’t the only one still riding that post-gunfight high, then. She wiped her armor down and whistled for Adal, tossing his soap back.

When she next set eyes on Geetsha, she felt less agitated, soothed by the antics of her mercs.

“Our packbirds seem antsy,” she said to the girl. “Do you think there’s a chance more of those things are lurking nearby?”

Geetsha’s face gave a little twitch and her lips thinned, as if she were slow to process the required facial expression, so deep was her thought.

“… They are drawn to noise,” she said after a moment, with the customary delay that often prefaces bad news.

“How far away should we get?”

Riss realized again that despite her misgivings, she still trusted the information Geetsha gave her.

“You shouldn’t measure it in distance,” said Geetsha. She closed her eyes, features calm and meditative. A strand of her wispy white hair fell into her eyes. Riss noticed a twig tangled up in her bangs. “You should measure elevation. They have difficulty climbing.”

Riss thought back to the tree slowly lurching up the river bank, pushing up its rumpled curtains of mud.

“That makes sense. Where’s the best high ground?”

“You are on it.” Resigned, Riss glanced down to her boots. They sat atop a mild slope, hardly an obstacle.

“Is there anything better in walking distance?”

Riss trained a look toward the pair of moa, who still hadn’t settled from their agitated tugging. One paced in a slow, repetitive figure eight. The other stood at the perimeter of their torchlight, staring off into the blackness as if its sharp avian eyes were fixed on a threat only it could see.

“Perhaps three or four hours from here, at our current pace.”

Riss toothed at her bottom lip in thought, then nodded in assent.

“We’ll go there,” she said to the girl. Raising her voice to the others, she shouted: “Let’s pack up. Geetsha says more of those things will be drawn by the noise, but there’s higher ground to camp on further down the trail. Apparently they’re bad with hills.”

Despite how efficiently they’d all pitched camp less than an hour ago, nobody seemed to mind being asked to pack down. Riss observed in their faces the faint, edgy lines of tension: they didn’t want to be sleeping if a whole flock–or would it be called a copse–of those things descended on the clearing en masse.

In short order, the tents were packed and lanterns were lit and everyone was ready to go. Riss juggled up their marching order somewhat: one moa at the front and one at the back. Torcha up ahead with her and Geetsha, Adal and Vosk at center, Calay and Gaz still bringing up the rear. She wanted to ensure their party’s wounded members–and yes, she still thought of Adal as wounded–had as much protection in the dark as possible. It wasn’t much, but it was what she could offer, and they had earned it with their conduct in that fight.

<< Chapter 16 | To Be Continued >>

Chapter 16

Rifle fire was loud. So much louder than he could have anticipated. He was slightly more used to explosions, being capable of causing such through his magicks, but in the aftermath of that gunfire and explosion both, he was left dazed and dumb. In the rare event that the thugs of Calay’s childhood could afford firearms, matchlocks were as good as it got. He hadn’t even acquired his first cartridge pistol until he and Gaz went on the run. The sheer noise rendered him briefly mute.

Breathing hard through his mouth, he took a moment to focus his senses.

The first sense to return to him in full was, unfortunately, smell. He took a deep breath and stifled an immediate retch. The gore-stuffed hollows of the tree now littered every available surface and it reeked. Calay felt along his hip and dipped a finger into his belt-pouch, seeking through some vials until he found what he was looking for: amirin cream, commonly used to stave off the smell in the autopsy room or when working with unsavory body fluids in less medically sanctioned contexts. He dabbed a smear of the stuff beneath his nostrils, then snorted in a breath. The cream possessed a minty menthol aroma, eye-wateringly strong, but blinking back those tears beat smelling what had to have been years of liquefied corpses.

Once he could breathe through his nose again, he closed his mouth and looked over his shoulder. He offered the vial to Adalgis first, a conscious show of respect.

“Impeccable timing,” he said to the man. “Here, this will take the edge off.”

Adalgis wasted no time in applying the cream, then passed it on to Torcha. It made the rounds. Calay didn’t care if they finished it or not; he had loads. Next on his mental to-do list while the adrenaline in his system boiled itself off was to make himself useful. Riss had hired him on as a medic, after all. Time to inventory the wounded.

Gaz and Riss had done the brunt of the hands-on damage to the creature, but they were up and about; their wounds were superficial. Both waved him off. He noted with quiet, well-concealed discomfort that Gaz had a cut across his cheek, but the amount of minor rends in Gaz’s tough-guy hide that he’d stitched closed over the years… Calay knew his number-one patient well. It could wait. He passed the man a cotton pad, then turned his attention to Vosk.

He’d been reloading when Vosk had gone down, but he’d heard the impact. A crushing injury of some sort. Calay approached with a lift of his hand, finding Vosk sitting upright in the mud, his expression a familiar one. Calay could empathize with the tight-browed, tight-mouthed expression a soldier’s face adopted when something hurt like a motherfucker and he was determined not to show it.

Crouching, he looked the man up and down. Vosk had a soldier’s understanding of the role he played in the patient-medic relationship, as well. He sat there silently and lifted his chin and arms, letting Calay do what he would.

“Anything feel busted?” he asked. Vosk was well-armored and he hadn’t fallen far, but Calay wasn’t entirely sure what kind of strength a tree packed.

“My pride,” said Vosk through a wince. “Perhaps a couple ribs, but only when I breathe.”

“Well avoid doing that, then. Here. I’ll have a feel.” Calay waited while Vosk unlaced his cuirass up the sides, then lifted the whole thing up and over his head. His movement wasn’t too bad, nothing stiff or spasming in the back and shoulders. Calay then palpated his ribs in turn and found them satisfactory. If any were cracked, there wasn’t much to do beyond wear sturdy armor and treat the pain. He had Vosk take a few deep breaths just to be sure, but nothing sounded worrying.

“I think your initial diagnosis was right on the nose,” he said. “Let’s get you on your feet and see how you feel.”

He offered Vosk a hand down. The man took it and rose slowly, moving with the air of an injured man attempting to conserve energy rather than the jerky, spasmodic motions of someone with debilitating injury. Calay gave his hand a fraternal squeeze, then clapped him on the shoulder.

“You had good instincts to get between Torcha and that thing,” he said. Perhaps it was unkind of him, but he wouldn’t have expected it. Possibly not from Riss, or from the others. Certainly not from Tarn’s man, who had his own motivations and his own loyalties.

“She was hurting it the most.” Vosk hitched his shoulders up in a modest, diverting shrug.

“All the same,” Torcha chimed in, “we worked well together.”

Calay turned a little look over the group, a small, thin smile touching his mouth. “That we did.”

He set his eyes on Riss, who was picking over the tree’s remains. And the… remains-remains. Calay wasn’t sure what to make of the mess. Riss flipped a meter-long shard of greyish trunk over with the blade of her machete, regarding it coolly. After a moment, she shrugged.

“None of these pieces are large enough to bother carting back,” she said. “As gratifying as it was to blow that thing all to shit, we can’t sell it now.”

Torcha’s young, freckled face crumpled with disappointment. She blinked it away, then cleared her throat.

“Sorry, sir,” she said. “Next time I’ll ask.”

Riss seemed caught off-guard by that response. She tilted her chin to one side, then after a hesitant moment, a warm laugh chased the last traces of mercenary cool off her face. She walked up to Torcha and thwacked the flat of her machete’s blade to the woman’s boot.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said. “You did fine.” She lifted her voice just a touch. “You all did. Selling anything we find out here is an afterthought, unless we stumble over some of Tarn’s fancy trees and they don’t try to eat us first.”

Calay left Riss to her mercenaries and, satisfied nobody was in the process of bleeding to death, stole over to Gaz’s side. He stood more or less where Calay had left him, looming over the wreckage of the tree, battleaxe replaced upon his back. His cheeks were still flush with exertion and his shoulders rose and fell with each breath, his body slow to cool down after the wind-up of engagement.

“How you feeling?” Calay asked. “And I gave you that rag for a reason. You going to mop that cut up or not?”

Gaz glanced down to his hand, which still gripped the little square of cotton Calay had handed him. Pristine and bloodless, it clearly hadn’t been used. Calay snatched it back.

“Ungrateful little…” he started, then crooked a finger to beckon Gaz downward. Gaz bent a little at the knee. Calay spat upon the cloth and, finding his patient’s face at a more amenable level to reach, wiped the half-clotted blood clear of Gaz’s cheek. He dashed some antiseptic on the cloth, then cleaned the wound out. Gaz just crouched there silently, enduring it all, no stranger to this treatment.

“I’m still trying to figure out what to make of what we just did,” Gaz mumbled, studying some broken shards of bark down by his boots. “What we just saw, even. What sort of magick can even create something like that?”

“If it was even magick at all.” Calay concluded his fussing, then dabbed the wound dry one last time. He had a serum he could paint over the top, scab it over more or less instantly, but that would be overkill. No need to waste his supplies on minor scratches.

“You don’t think so?”

Calay held his tongue. Exactly what magick was and wasn’t capable of, that was a subject of spirited debate. A subject he held rather strong opinions about. But he’d sooner hand himself over to the Vasile Guard than delve into magickal philosophy around this lot. The less they knew about his opinions–and knowledge–on the matter, the better.

“Well,” he said instead, “all the local legends and such. People have been avoiding this swamp and occasionally pilfering its spooky wood spoils for years upon years. That’s a bit much to be the work of some wayward sorcerer.”

Gaz grunted, as much of a reply as Calay was going to get. He stretched up to his full height; Calay’s hand dropped away. He folded the bloodied rag away into his belt, a force of habit. There was barely enough blood on there to be useful, but…

“The root cause of it may be magick, far far back, sure. But I think Vosk was right when he told us back when that sometimes, in some places, the natural world just goes… a little bit less natural.”

The last of their precious sunlight dwindled, but despite their bolstered camaraderie, nobody was quite in the mood to set up camp. While walking back to their intended campsite, they reached a murmured consensus that pushing on through a few hours of dark might not be a bad idea, depending on what Geetsha said.

If Geetsha even turned back up. She had yet to resurface from her supposed mushroom gathering.

<< Chapter 15 | Chapter 17 >>

Chapter 15

Riss moved, pure instinct. She brought her machete up and hacked it downward, body leaping and twisting sideways before her brain caught up. Gaz at her flank moved similarly: he shed his knife and hefted his battleaxe, swinging it in a wide arc in anticipation of a collision.

When the creature caught up to them, their blades were already flashing, and Riss juddered with the impact as her machete bit bark.

Lurching forward, eerily quiet save for the hiss-slither of its roots and the dreary, asthmatic whinnies as its equine head breathed, the creature seemed to move almost without purpose. Its branches sought out with the same blind groping as the roots had; those branches showered splinters in all directions as Riss and Gaz met it halfway.

Behind her, Riss heard Torcha calling, “Down!”

She ducked. The whole movement–leap, chop, pull, chop, duck–took mere seconds, flowed smooth as water. Riss pressed herself into the muck and the resounding, chest-thumping boom of Torcha’s rifle punctured the stale swamp air. The trunk of the tree blew bark in all directions. Someone followed up with a volley of pistol fire, Vosk or Calay, and Riss squinted through the muzzle smoke and watched the horror above her as it tilted precariously…

The creature staggered to its side, its horse legs clawing blindly. The horse issued forth a panicked wheeze, then Gaz was thundering toward it, heaving his axe up with all his strength. He cleaved the horse’s head clean off in a single strike, showering Riss with a gout of foul-smelling brackish liquid that wasn’t quite mammalian blood. The head fell into the mud with a wet, sad thwuck and for a moment, all was still.

Riss swallowed her raspy breath, then rose up, glancing behind her. A shard of bark protruded from the front of her padded leathers; she yanked it free with a grunt. Gaz smeared blood from his eyes and likewise patted himself down.

A silent look passed between them before both set their eyes upon the monster. The two hoofed front legs that protruded from the tree trunk still spasmed with  purposeless motion even as the neck stump bled freely. Though neither Riss nor Gaz had voiced it, there had been an understanding that had manifested in both their minds, a logical conclusion based on years of felling both beast and man: cut off the head and the rest will die.

This proved not to be the case. Thick, twisting ropes of root lashed out from the base of the trunk as the tree began to crawl forward. It didn’t seem to care that it had toppled sideways, nor did it take care to right itself. It just dragged itself to Riss’ left, toward Torcha and the others, labored now by its blown-apart bits but crawling just as determinedly forward.

“Fucking hells,” Calay hissed from behind her. “How is it still alive?”

“I don’t think the horse had much to…” Riss started to speak, but the smell hit her in a wave. Her words drowned in a retch and gag as she smeared at her face, attempting to wipe the creature’s blood from her skin and clothing. However, after a split second, she realized the foul, stomach-churning odor seemed to emanate from the tree itself, not from the blood it had spilt on her.

“Hold it off!” Torcha scampered back some, hands working at the bolt action of her rifle. “I’m reloading!”

Vosk leapt up from behind her, putting himself between the sharpshooter and the creature. He had one pistol in hand and pulled another from his belt. Riss hauled her machete up and slashed downward just as Vosk fired. He pulled both triggers at once and the front of the tree’s trunk blew open, grey-green bark cracking and chipping away.

A half-rotted humanoid face, glistening and wet, peered at Riss from the newly-opened fissure in the bark. A human’s arm tumbled free from the hollow in the tree, dangling lifelessly, dripping sick-sweet decay. It swung like a pendulum when the tree crawled forward. Riss forced herself not to look too long, noted with slow-rising terror that behind the dangling corpse were the tangled, twisted appendages of yet more bodies. She caught a glimpse of more hooves, more tangled skeletons, and then she tore her eyes away and flailed her machete downward with all she had.

“It’s using the roots and branches to drag itself!” She bellowed to the others between harsh, heavy breaths. “Cut them off! Even if we can’t fucking kill it we can cripple it!”

Gaz rounded to the tree’s other side. She couldn’t see him, but she heard the chunk of his axe digging in.

Riss’ ribs rattled as Torcha blew another heavy round into the tree’s trunk, sending cracks shuddering through its root base. It toppled yet further, laying all but horizontal in the muck. Riss sidestepped the thrashing roots, neatly severing them with swipes of her blade, and kicked writhing tentacles of root off into the distant mud.

“Calay? Vosk?” Torcha squinted at the two men through the haze of muzzle smoke. “Which of you’s the better shot?”

We don’t have time, Riss thought. Don’t let this turn into some pissing contest.

Vosk, bless him, defied her expectations. He deferred to Calay while reloading, nodding aside with a simple, “Probably him.”

Calay sniffed sharply, then looked to Torcha for guidance. She drew her duster open, then fished around in one of the many pouches that hung from her belts and bandoliers. Just meters away, the tree thrashed and writhed in the mud. Gaz continued hacking at it with abandon, sending meter-long chunks flying through the air.

“I’m gonna chuck this bomb in it.” Torcha unpacked a fist-sized glass sphere from her belt. “But I don’t have time to set a fuse. You think you can pop it?”

Calay popped his hat off and tossed it carelessly behind him, taking a knee half-behind Vosk.

“I can certainly try.”

Torcha popped the cork off the small glass bomb, then tipped a shimmering powder from another vial inside. The concoction looked inert to Riss’ eyes, but she trusted Torcha’s judgment. Torcha stoppered up the bomb again, then pointed toward the corpse-stuffed fissure in the tree’s trunk.

She wound up, then threw. Her aim was a damn sight better than Riss’ would have been. The glass sparkled as it sailed through the air, seemed to hover in slow motion, and landed straight inside the tree’s trunk.

Calay’s pistol cracked a split second later. Shards of bark erupted from the creature’s flank, several inches wide. In a sudden, sweeping grab, the tree lurched up one of its last remaining branches, lashing out in the direction the pistol fire kept coming from. It slammed squarely into Vosk, knocking him sideways with a worrying crunch. Riss knew better than to leap into the path of where her gunners were firing, so she went low, trying to slice the branch off at its base.

“Riss! Fall back! Incoming!”

For a moment she didn’t recognize the voice. Her brain spit up an inane, confused Gaspard? and she staggered backwards, ducking away from whatever was–

A rifle shot screamed past her. The tree exploded in a shower of bark and gore. Bones and liquefied tissue and twigs in equal measure rained down from the sky in the aftermath of Torcha’s bomb. Riss curled her arms over her head, wary of the larger chunks as they impacted the wet ground around her.

Her ears ringing, she lifted her head and glanced back to the others.

Adal stood at the rear of the party, rifle still at the ready. He lowered it slowly, staring at the blown-apart tree with round, surprised eyes.

The tree wasn’t moving anymore.

<< Chaper 14 | Chapter 16 >>

Chapter 14

If Riss wasn’t on high alert before, she certainly was now. She instructed half the crew to light their lanterns, even though dark was falling slowly. They had plenty of light for the time being. There was a method to her madness, though: if there were something out here mimicking humans, perhaps it was so used to the swamp’s natural gloom that its trickery might be more obvious in artificial light.

She could hope, at least.

And she was going to have words with Geetsha once they had made camp. Something about the girl had been odd from the get-go, but the things she’d said back there were downright bizarre, even if they’d been helpful on the surface.

Still, though: Tarn had mentioned her. Tarn had negotiated with her. So clearly she couldn’t be some swamp apparition. Swamp apparitions didn’t have the ability to leave the swamp and waltz up to Adelheim to strike deals. Surely. Not that Riss even believed in apparitions or ghosts. A creature of some sort imitating a human to lure prey didn’t qualify as a ghost, not in Riss’ mind. It was arguably worse than a ghost.

Heading up the party, she slid her machete free from her belt and walked with it at the ready. The trail’s overgrowth was negligible, but the heft of it felt comforting in her hand. The others didn’t take it as a call to arms, but Gaz had unslung his battleaxe some time ago. They were well past that point. And if they happened upon some harmless swamp-dwellers who wondered why they had their weapons drawn, they had a damn good reason.

As soon as they left the mangled woman behind them, the shrieking stopped. It didn’t taper off; it just ended, severed abruptly, forgotten.

That, more than anything, convinced Riss their suspicions were correct. It was as though the source of the moaning realized they weren’t taking the bait and called it a night. That spoke to a level of intelligence Riss didn’t want to tangle with.

“Geetsha,” she asked while they walked. “Are we coming up on a suitable campsite soon?”

She realized with some surprise that despite her reservations about Geetsha’s character, she still assumed the girl would more or less tell the truth. Or at least she was consulting her. She straddled a line there, skepticism ready in-hand just like her machete.

Geetsha carried on as though she were entirely oblivious to Riss’ concerns.

“Yes,” she said. “There is a little hill. Dry.”

“Good.” Riss gazed up the trail, past the spindly thickets of trees that stretched their bony arms toward the twilit sky. There did seem to be a slight hump on the horizon, a hillock where the tree growth clustered a little thicker. She noted leaves still stubbornly clung to some of the broad-trunked trees in the distance, a different varietal to the dead-looking, skinny ones.

“We’ll be making camp upon this hill ahead,” she called to the group. “I don’t know about you lot, but I’m not keen walking through the dark with whatever we just encountered back there.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” said Calay.

“Sure thing, boss,” said Torcha.

Gaz just grunted, giving a little tug on the lead of the moa he was minding. The bird picked up the pace, looming at the rear of their little procession.

They reached the hill without incident, but the prospect of setting up camp in this place left Riss wary. Rather than looking forward to resting her aching feet and enjoying an evening meal, she kept looking over her shoulder, expecting to see something vaguely humanoid waiting just beyond the shine of her lantern.

*

By now, everyone made and broke camp with a fuss-free, well-oiled synchronicity that reminded Riss of the war. March, pack, rest, pack, repeat. They had space for the tents this time, and the trio of tents clustered tight around the fire like lonely old friends glad to share a meal together once more. Geetsha said there were edible mushrooms to be found, and though Riss had her reservations, she let the kid scamper off to forage. Despite her concerns, nothing Geetsha had done thus far had endangered them. In fact, she’d been a valuable asset. What did Riss stand to gain from ordering her to remain within camp?

Their campsite was a flat patch of earth, a smaller section of a broad clearing. Evidence of old logging dotted the fringes: a few sad leftover stumps that had once been a copse of thick, sturdy trees. Smaller shrubs and scrubby vines had moved in, providing what Riss hoped was at least something of a barrier against the local wildlife.

Glad to shrug her pack off, Riss took one of the moa for a forage at the camp’s perimeter. She tried to spend a little time each night with the birds. Tried to acclimate herself to them. While the sensation of eyes on her back still left her fleetingly disconcerted, she was forcing herself to grow accustomed to their presence.

The big bird at Riss’ side shoved its face down into the underbrush, searching for something to snack upon, and she kept one eye on it, one eye on the others while they made camp. Calay and Torcha set to work on the fire. Vosk had disappeared into his tent. Adal’s ass was visible hanging out of his tent as he set down his bedroll. Gaz, still in possession of the other moa, walked the perimeter like she did. She gave him a little wave when he glanced her way, and he upnodded in return.

She still wasn’t certain what to make of the pair from up north.

Vasile, Calay had said. Riss had only been once. She held no prejudices toward the city or its population.

They’d performed just fine when needed, she supposed. Adal’s health was evidence of that. With how Gaz had readied his axe when the shrieking started, she was glad to have him on her side. He had a brawler’s instincts. He wouldn’t hesitate if the worst happened. She watched his big, broad silhouette stir the mist as he walked the moa to a patch of brambles. He peered down and studied the ground, then reached up and rubbed at the back of his bald head. His heavy brow wrinkled.

Riss read his body language and started walking over before he even called out, “Hey boss?”

“Something interesting?” she asked, gazing down at the ground where Gaz stood. He waved a hand through the air, parting the thin gauze of mist, and gestured downward.

“Would you look at that,” he said. “Hoofprints.”

“Shoed hoofprints no less.” Riss pointed to the imprints in the earth, fresh enough that their edges were still crisp. She crouched and put a fingertip to the mud. It was wet to the touch.

“Geetsha,” she started to call out, but then remembered their guide was off digging for mushrooms. She’d ask if there was another path nearby later. It seemed prudent to investigate. If there was another logging party out here, or bandits, or anyone on horseback that could come upon them in their sleep, that took a more immediate priority over the threat of any distant, lurking monsters that may or may not engage a party their size.

She rallied the others in a matter of minutes. Adal volunteered to keep guard at camp, and Riss saw that for what it was: he’d worked hard at sweating that snakebite from his system. He’d be more good to them with his ass on a seat and a rifle in hand than tangling with whatever they might find in the bush.

The hoofprints took a winding trail through still-drying mud, occasionally sinking in deeper as the rider apparently struggled to keep the animal from straying into too-soft ground. Riss spotted no other tracks and definitely no sign of any other horses. The tracks ran astride what appeared to be an old creekbed, though the water running through it had long since turned stagnant, the same patchy puddles that composed most of the swamp’s floor.

“Looks like a solo rider,” she said. “Barring two people sharing the same saddle, I think we’re looking for…”

She trailed off and raised a finger to the others to quiet them. Had she just heard something? Cocking an ear to the open, swampy air, Riss waited.

The sound came again: a whuff of breath snorted through big nostrils, the sort of snort a bull might make. Or a horse. Riss pointed to her left, creeping away from the tracks and onto the gnarled roots of a grey-barked stump. Mindful of where she placed her boots, keeping free of the muck, she tilted a look around the jagged crown of the stump and toward the direction of the noise.

A puzzling shape loomed in the murk.

If she’d spotted the mauled woman’s silhouette by virtue of some pattern recognition, the thing before her now had the exact opposite effect on her brain. She stared at it, recognizing that she was seeing something, but the specific features of the beast were so baffling that for a moment it felt as though her mind refused to register she’d seen anything at all. She blinked. When she opened her eyes again, it was still there.

A great, heaved heap of mud was slouched up against the base of a nearby tree, as if the tree had bent to lap it up. From the tree, a horse protruded. That was the simplest way to describe something that utterly defied explanation. It was as though the tree had been hollowed out and some great giant had grabbed a horse by the ribcage and stuffed it inside, backend first. Its body was tilted at an acute upward angle, so that its forelegs dangled awkwardly, knees and ankles still taut with a tension that suggested that somehow it was still alive.

“What the fuck,” Torcha hissed from behind her, and Riss put her hand up again, signaling her gunsmith to shut it.

A slow undulation of movement curled through the tree’s branches and roots. As they watched in stunned silence, the tree-horse amalgamation tilted to one side, toward the mud that was bunched up along the creekbed. Riss realized with a start that the mud was slopped that way by the force the tree exerted. It was shoving its way up and out of the creek and onto dry land. Inexorably slow, but yes– it was moving.

Vosk had been right all along. She understood the term crawling wood now, watching the tree drag its mammalian burden slowly upward. Each of the horse’s snorted breaths sounded more laborious than the last, yet it made no sounds of a creature in pain. Watching it move sent bile rising in Riss’ throat. She fought it down, breathed slow and steady through her mouth, despite the visceral disgust that crawled along her palms.

Something tugged on the drape of Riss’ cloak. She started, jerked a look sideways, but it was only Calay. With wide eyes, he beckoned her wordlessly over to her right, pointing. Just beyond the gnarled tangle of the dead stump, where Gaz crouched, a snakelike tendril of root emerged from the muck, seeking out blindly, feeling its way along. Gaz remained frozen with saucer-huge eyes. He’d lifted his boot-knife, clutched it ready, but his eyes sought hers for guidance.

Silently, Riss shook her head. They had to keep things quiet. Had to fall back. She gestured, jerked her thumb over a shoulder, and started to creep back toward the hoofprints.

The crack of a pistol rang out, ear-shatteringly loud in the silence.

Riss spun, had a split second to take in the sight of Torcha and Vosk both kicking tangles of viney plant growth from their boots. Smoke twisted in a thin trail from the muzzle of Vosk’s pistol as he drew his sidearm. At her other side, Gaz lunged, slashing his knife through the root beside him as he scrambled away.

In the same instant, a ponderous creak rose from the trunk of the horse-tree as it pivoted, ceasing its slow crawl up the bank.

When it turned and lurched toward them, it moved much faster.

<< Chapter 13 | Chapter 15 >>

Chapter 13

Riss was the first to spot the mangled woman.

The water on either side of their narrow trail was boiling, sulfurous muck. It stung the eyes and nose, and every one of them wound a scarf or bandana across their nose to stave off the worst of it. With as much as Riss’ eyes were watering, it was a wonder she saw the figure at all. Yet something about the lay of a particular set of shadows and debris caught her eye, some subconscious sense of pattern recognition that drew her attention and said to her is that a person?

Riss held up a hand, urging those behind her to slow, then stop. She squinted off to the right of the path, past a patch of bubbling swamp water, through the veil of mist that hung in suspended patches about a meter off the ground. She gestured to the silhouette, which appeared at first to be no more than a series of curved slopes, vaguely suggestive of a human body laying on its stomach, legs stretched out of view.

“Do you see that–” she started to ask, but a choked, wretched wail rose up from the body, and soon everyone was seeing what Riss saw.

They’d found the source of that screaming.

Her eyes adjusted only a smidge more to the murk, so it was tough to pick out more details. Evening was beginning to fall, though, and soon visibility would fade yet further. Riss hurried to light a lantern, hitting flint to the strikeplate and lifting it overhead as soon as the flame flickered to life.

The lantern barely helped.

Sprawled nearly face-down in the muck, a woman lay with her cheek in the mud. She’d fallen in a patch that was blessedly free from the bubbling, but judging by her pitiful wails, she was injured in some way. Perhaps she’d fallen into the boiling water from some other patch of dirt? Riss scanned the trail for tracks aside from their own and saw nothing fresh.

“Hells,” whispered Vosk, his voice softened to a whisper.

“She look like one of yours?” Riss asked, glancing over.

Vosk drew a hand down his face, thumbing along his jaw as he gazed off into the distance. He squinted, tilted his head a touch, seemed to be thinking something through.

“I can’t possibly say,” he said. “We had a couple women with us, both had long hair like hers, but that’s the fashion around here. I’d need to see her uniform or her face.”

Riss took in a short, foul-smelling breath and then pitched her voice across the bog.

“Hello there!”

The woman’s head lifted a little in response, and a twitch went through one of her arms. She’d fallen as if something had struck her down while fleeing toward the trail, a thought which sent a little twitch up Riss’ spine.

Despite the fact that her vocal cords plainly weren’t damaged, the woman didn’t holler a reply. Instead, she just groaned again, a low note uneven with pain.

“She’s clearly hurt,” said Vosk, lips curled down a hint. Riss couldn’t quite peg the expression–was it an empathic wince or merely distaste?

“Geetsha?” Riss glanced behind herself.

Summoned, Geetsha stole up to her side. She walked up to the very edge of the trail, staring outward. She was short enough that Riss could just peer over her shoulder, continuing to observe the injured woman from a distance of a good ten meters.

“Are there any other trails near here?” Riss asked. “Somewhere she could have stumbled in from?”

“Not quite trails.” Geetsha made a little gesture, flapping her too-long sleeve about. “But plenty of solid ground. Roots to climb on. It is possible to traverse this place without a trail. Just not easy.”

A new worry lurked in the rear of Riss’ thoughts: what if she wasn’t one of Vosk’s, but instead one of Geetsha’s? Her settlement or tribe or whatever they might call themselves. A local. With the mist and the distance, Riss couldn’t pick out any identifying details at all beyond a mess of dark-colored hair and the sloped profile that suggested a woman’s waistline.

“Could she be one of yours?” Riss asked of the girl, posing the question gently.

Geetsha stilled for a time. She lapsed into what almost looked like a short trance, her pale eyes foggy with thought. After a lengthy silence, she heaved her narrow shoulders up.

“She isn’t one of mine,” she said at last. “I’m not sure she’s even one of yours.”

Riss blinked.

“One of mine?” Riss cocked her head. A creeping cold seemed to chill through her as she considered the ramifications of what Geetsha might mean.

“One of yours.” Geetsha waved her sleeve again. “A person.”

Before Riss could press her further on exactly what the fuck that meant, another series of broken wails warbled up from the injured woman’s throat. She lifted her head, voice a roughly-choked sob. Her shoulders quivered as she tried to lift herself up, pressing down on her palms, but she didn’t seem to have the strength. When she fell forward once more, Riss caught a glimpse behind her: she seemed to be half-submerged in one of the puddles, her legs below the waterline. At the sight, Riss recoiled.

“Fuck me.” Riss was going to be sick. “She’s fallen in one of the pools.”

Riss wasn’t sure of the exact nature of the foul-smelling water that surrounded them, whether the source of the hiss and bubble was acidic in origin or due to the temperature. When the options were being boiled alive or being eaten through by acid, did it even matter which?

Adal curled a fist and held it to his mouth, averting his eyes, even though the mist hid whatever gory details there were to see.

Behind them, Torcha and the others seemed to come to the realization at around the same time. She heard Calay mutter a soft curse. For a moment, she felt a fleeting impulse to shield Geetsha’s eyes. She was a little too young to be…

But then she remembered Geetsha’s words. One of yours. A person.

Again she needed to confront that, but again she was interrupted. She took a step forward, attempting to put herself directly in Geetsha’s line of sight, but someone grabbed her by the arm.

She yanked hard on reflex, whirling to the side to see who’d grabbed her, but she stilled when she saw it was Adal. He gripped her firmly by the wrist, and when she glared at him in preparation to ask what exactly he was doing, she saw his attention wasn’t even on her. He was staring off into the muck, eyes cut in a shrewd narrow.

“Don’t go any closer,” he hissed, releasing Riss’ arm. “Look.”

She turned, gazing back toward where the woman’s body lay, but nothing looked any different. Just the tumbled limbs of the figure, the spread of hair, the backdrop of gauzy off-white mist and spindly trees.

“I don’t understand.” The words came out in a whisper, though, so on some level she was certainly heeding Adal’s warning even as her brain searched for reasons why.

Adal lifted a gloved hand, pointing levelly toward the woman. Or, if Riss followed the gesture exactly, slightly behind her.

“Look at that log behind her back,” he said. “It’s submerged in the same puddle.”

“So?” asked Vosk, not getting it. Riss wasn’t quite following either.

“Look at the bit that’s up on land.”

It looked like a regular log, hollowed out and dried like many others they’d passed. Riss raised questioning eyebrows at Adal, waiting.

“If that log’s the same thickness all the way through, like logs tend to be, that water is at most a few inches deep. Look. You can see it continuing on behind her, and it’s not even a third of the way submerged.”

Riss traced the outline of the fallen tree, noted the water level, acknowledged all that. Something about the scene did prick at her, the way patterns sometimes leapt at the eye if one looked too long at those woven Vasa rugs.

“… So where’s the rest of her?” Vosk’s words cut, blunt and ominous, through the silence.

“That’s what I’m saying.” Adal swallowed audibly. “There can’t be a rest of her. At least not down there.”

Perhaps she was laying on her legs somehow. Or perhaps it was a trick of the eye, some sort of perspective game. Riss searched for an explanation.

“Yes,” said Geetsha at last, speaking up after a prolonged silence. “I do not think that is a person.”

The contents of Riss’ stomach did a little flip. She shifted her boots in the slightly-muddied ground, focusing on the weight of bootsole to earth. She anchored herself that way, showing nothing, just listening until she’d arrived at her conclusion.

“Either way, what we are all saying is that body can’t or shouldn’t be alive.”

Adal nodded near-imperceptibly. He’d begun to sweat a little, his cheeks shining in the glow of Riss’ lantern. It lent depth to the subtle lines upon his features, the fear that tensed through his expression.

“What is it then, Geetsha, if it’s not a person?” Riss asked the question pointedly, direct.

Geetsha lapsed into another one of her pauses, then shook her head after a few seconds passed.

“I don’t recognize it,” she said.

“I think it’s a trap,” said Adal. And in the end, regardless of what precisely was causing the illusion or whatever it was, Adal was right. Nobody–or no thing, a voice in the back of Riss’ mind suggested–would imitate a person who needed help unless it was trying to lure them closer.

Riss shook her head, turning back to face the others. She made deliberate eye contact with Torcha, then gave her head a small shake.

“We’re going to keep moving,” she said.

At that same moment, the body behind her groaned again, a burbling sound half-strangled by the mud. Riss didn’t even look back.

“Whatever that is–” She gestured behind herself for emphasis. “–It’s bad news. If it’s really a girl, she’s sustained severe injuries and we can’t help her.”

Gaz worked his jaw, discomfited.

“What do you mean if it’s really a girl?”

Beside him, Calay lifted a stilling finger and shook his head, a quick snap of motion.

“If Vosk was right, if this is one of those places with those… energies, where things get a little strange? Then there could be all sorts of stuff in here that mimics human life.”

For some reason, Riss’ eyes were drawn toward Geetsha when Calay spoke. Beside her, the girl appeared normal enough, her gaze somewhat vacuous, wandering from person to person as they spoke. When her stare fell upon Riss, she didn’t startle or look away beneath the scrutiny. Instead, she brushed her stark white bangs aside from her face and turned a look up the path.

“We should keep moving,” she said. “It can probably hear us.”

<< Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 >>

Chapter 12

Discomfort gripped Calay by the bones, slowing his every step. He and Gaz were no stranger to bizarre, life-threatening situations, but the swamp had a way of evoking a rarer type of fear that he was less acquainted with. It wasn’t the dark; jail cells were dark, the slums were dark, he could handle darkness. It wasn’t the shrieking, which continued to plague them as they walked, ringing out at irregular intervals and–if his nerves weren’t deceiving him–growing fractionally closer.

“I hate this,” he hissed toward Gaz, walking much closer to him than he had yesterday.

Gaz had done away with the hand-at-the-belt posturing. He’d unstrapped his battleaxe from his back and carried it openly, tilted up at his shoulder, attention divided between his flank, Calay, and their backs.

“I shouldn’t be this freaked out.” Calay squared his shoulders and huffed an indignant little breath, irritated with himself. Gaz ticked up a half-smile at him in sympathy but didn’t say anything. Some of their most productive conversations over the years had consisted of Calay just speaking at Gaz until he arrived at his own conclusions.

Geetsha led them up and over a small rise, then down the other side. The backside of the small hill was dotted with flat-topped fungi, their edges curled and dried. They grew in great heaping piles against the bases of almost every available tree, and Calay wasn’t quite certain, but he thought he could gauge a difference in the temperature. The air grew tangibly humid, thick and murky as the puddles of swamp water that blotted the ground.

“Sure is getting warm,” Torcha said up ahead.

“I’d hoped I was finished sweating,” Adalgis muttered.

They came to a stop once the path flattened out again. This section of the trail was broad and hard-trampled. Calay swept a look around the clearing, but nothing stood out as dangerous or noteworthy. The trees that flanked the path were skinnier, more jagged, and after staring at them for a moment, he realized they were dead. He was staring at the hollowed-out trunks of trees that had turned to dry, flaking bark a long time ago.

“Grab fresh water if you need it,” Riss said, unpacking a couple waterskins from one of the birds. “Geetsha says our filters won’t work on the hot spring water up ahead.”

Ah. Hot springs. That explained the heat. A hot spring sounded positively relaxing, but Calay had a feeling that the waters here were nothing like the steam baths at Colimar.

While Calay topped himself up on water and dried fruit, Vosk–the Baron’s man–approached he and Gaz with a little nod of greeting. Or rather he approached Gaz. When Calay returned the gesture with a little upnod of his own, Vosk didn’t even glance at him. So Calay busied himself with making a show of sorting through his medic’s kit while he eavesdropped.

“You see anything behind us?” Vosk asked. “I’ve been keeping a lookout up ahead.”

Gaz shook his head and drummed his fingers on the haft of his axe.

“Ain’t seen a thing,” he said. “Heard plenty of that weird screaming, but nothing’s come that close.”

Vosk let out a grunt that could have been agreement or just acknowledgment.

“We heard screams like that,” he muttered sourly. “When we were on our way out of here. Never did see what was making ‘em. I assumed at the time that it was someone the trees were eating.”

Gaz’s nostrils flared as he took a sharp breath. “You keep saying that. Trees eating folks.”

“Aye.” Vosk carried on. “I don’t really know a better word for it. I don’t know if they’re eating people for sustenance exactly. So ‘eating’ might not be the word. It’s real tough to describe until you’ve set eyes on it. You’ll see once we get further in.”

“I hope I don’t have to see. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Gaz didn’t even try to hide the distaste in his voice. Calay supposed there was no point playing tough in a place like this. If something horrible leapt up out of the swamp at them, they’d all likely shit their pants in unison and any posturing would go out the window.

Vosk looked between Gaz and Calay then, acknowledging Calay for the first time. He tilted a curious look over Calay’s satchel. Was he angling for a peek inside without quite trying to look that way?

“That was some work you did on Riss’ boy,” he said, and Calay got the strange sensation that it wasn’t quite meant as a compliment. More that Vosk was surprised, somehow.

“They did bring me along for a reason.” Calay smiled thinly. “And it isn’t just my companion’s large axe.”

Vosk chuckled. “Of course not. Though I notice you aren’t so laden with weaponry yourself. Just a sawbones, then?”

In the back of Calay’s mind, the skinny street kid he’d grown up as rose from a sort of slumber, paced around the interior of his consciousness. The kid who’d grown up having to gauge whether any stranger met in a back-alley was sizing him up as game. There was a certain instinct he’d honed, a feeling that stirred inside him when he’d looked other kids in the eyes and realized they saw him as prey.

“I’m handy with a few things beyond the bonesaw.” Calay spoke easily, demurely. He coupled the words with a modest shrug.

Instinct told him that maybe it was better if Vosk didn’t know the precise location and capabilities of his pistols, punch-daggers, and other, more arcane bits and pieces he’d picked up over the years. Instinct also told him that Riss ought to know he was feeling this feeling. As far as foreboding feelings went it was among the more minor Calay had ever felt, but the degree of trust he put in his gut was second only to the degree of trust he put in Gaz’s gut.

“Either way,” said Vosk. “It’s good to have you with us.”

Calay put on a smile. “Likewise,” he said. “You’ve been deeper in this muck than any of us. I imagine your expertise will be invaluable.”

Was he laying it on too thick? He couldn’t quite tell. Vosk seemed genuinely placated by the statement, though. He gave them a quick smile of parting and ambled off.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Calay glanced up to Gaz, who was busy staring at Vosk’s back.

“Was that odd to you?” he asked. Gaz shifted a look his way and puckered his lips inward, wordless for a time.

“I can’t pinpoint why that was weird, but that was weird,” he said.

“I get the distinct sensation he’s feeling us out.” Calay took a swig from his waterskin, licking his lips after. His lips had gone dry and cracked when they’d traveled through the mountains, but he was pleased to find his skin was recovering in the lowlands.

And that’s when it hit him, a minor epiphany of sorts: his discomfort with the swamp stemmed from how wet and alive it all was. He’d grown up in an environment shaped almost wholly by man, a jungle of cobblestones and cutpurses and bricks. Just as dangerous in its own ways, but inert. Predictable.

In a place where even the trees crawled with life, anything could be a threat. Any aspect of the flora or fauna could veil some lurking horror.

The longer he thought on it, the more Calay considered it a testament to his own fortitude that he was only tense and wary rather than borderline terrified. The swamp itself felt like a living, breathing, unsettlingly-organic enemy and he didn’t know which of its weapons it would draw first.

###

They made good progress once they set off again. The trail narrowed and grew sodden, each footstep producing a wet shlup, the mucky earth clinging to Calay’s bootsoles. Riss sent the birds to the rear of their little convoy, and Calay and Torcha took their leads. Gaz maintained guard at the rear.

Calay had never led a moa before. He anticipated it might set him further on edge, however once he took the creature’s lead in his hand, he found it conveyed a little safety. The giant, domesticated bird paced him harmlessly, towering over him and peering alertly all about. He held no illusions about the thing defending him should something leap at them from the shadows, but if nothing else he imagined having it at his side made him a far more intimidating target.

The bird walked along slightly behind him, its wide footsteps oddly quiet given the size of it. A faintly acrid smell wafted past his nose, and for a moment he thought it must be the moa’s feathers or its birdshit or something, but then Adalgis was asking up ahead, “Do you smell that?” and everyone murmured their uncomfortable agreement.

A gradual haze built in the air as they walked, and Calay’s sharp eyes spotted hints of motion out in the puddles of dark, muddy water beyond the trail. The motion, he realized after a moment’s observation, was bubbles. The hot spring, then.

On either side of the raised earth that made up their trail, the swamp began to bubble. It wasn’t the excited, frothing churn of something thrashing toward them in the water. It was more the slow, sludgey boil of a pot of too-thick gruel, viscous and unappealing. The waist-high mist that hung in the air appeared to be the source of the smell, a corrosive tang like some acid from a smithy. Calay reached down to his throat and untied his scarf, then wound it over his mouth and nose, securing the knot at his throat.

Beside him, his moa chirped irately, ruffling its long, scalelike feathers.

“I know,” he said aside to the creature, sympathetic. “This place stinks.”

The joke didn’t help his mood any. All the constant, bubbling motion in the background of the swamp drew his eye this way, then that, giving his instincts little false starts. Every time he thought he glimpsed threatening motion in the distance, all he saw upon further study was swamp bubbles. He noticed absently that the boughs of the spiny, thin-trunked trees that dotted the bubbling swamp were absent of spiders. In fact, apart from scattered bird calls and the buzz of insects, there were few signs of animal life at all.

That was far from reassuring. It just made Calay wonder whether the lack of swamp hens or stoats or wild pigs meant that something worse called this stretch of trail home.

Riss was the one who set eyes on it first.

<< Chapter 11 | Chapter 13 >>

Chapter 11

Once the morning’s drama was well and concluded, they got moving again. Calay was glad for it. He appreciated the opportunity to make himself useful, but he couldn’t help feeling agitated. Had Geetsha been spying on them? Was he going to have to worry about her? Not that she seemed to have any clue as to his identity or his nature, but a naturally inquisitive nose-about was problem enough.

Adalgis was sluggish on his feet when they began walking again, but he didn’t complain. Riss parked him up front, presumably to help set the pace, and Calay volunteered for rear watch. He wanted distance between himself and the frog-voiced girl. And now that he thought about it, distance between himself and Torcha was probably smart, too. As much as he enjoyed talking to her–that was genuine, she was a hoot–it occurred to him that asking him too many questions about her homeland and the war might reveal a little too much about what he himself didn’t know. He didn’t want anyone making assumptions by subtraction.

Of course, that meant he and Gaz skulking around together, separate from the others, and that was its own type of ill-advised. They were going to have to mingle just enough to look normal.

Gaz was eager to hang back. He’d been staring holes in the back of Calay’s head since the snakebite incident. Calay could imagine what he was about to ask, but better to let him ask it.

Their slower pace meant that Calay had more time to study his surroundings. Camping so close to dark meant he’d seen little of the deeper swamp by full daylight, and it was… interesting. Thick swathes of spiderweb and moss alike bridged the upper trees. Everything was gauzy, draped in the stuff. The trees looked like brittle bones beneath aged skin. Like the hands of some arthritis-gnarled old man.

The swamp had a particular aroma, too. Deep and earthy and–if Calay admitted to himself–not entirely unpleasant. Growing up deep in the urban heart of Vasile, he was new to such earthy smells. The depth of it fascinated him.

The longer they walked, the wetter things seemed to get. Calay had the vague sensation of walking at an angle, the slightest downward slope. The trail they took was hard-packed dirt, obviously manmade, or at least man-assisted, free of the muck and packed at a slight elevation to avoid the seeping mud. It appeared well-maintained enough. Geetsha’s people, he presumed. Or perhaps more loggers like Vosk and the Baron’s men.

Calay took a couple quicker steps, until he was walking beside Gaz rather than behind him.

“So,” he said. “I get the impression you need to talk.”

Gaz peered down at him sidelong and huffed, amused. “Just wondering how prepared I gotta be for a potential shitstorm.”

“Potential shitstorm? This entire contract is a potential shitstorm.” Calay smiled sweetly. “You’ll have to specify.”

Gaz rolled a big shoulder and pointed none-too-subtly toward the fore of the group, where Adal and Geetsha walked the pair of moa along.

“That whole thing.” One of Gaz’s thick eyebrows hiked up. “Was that your genuine medicinal quick wits or did you scribble up a cure for him?”

Ah. So it wasn’t quite what Calay had expected him to ask. He’d expected Gaz to be equally curious as to how Geetsha knew what type of snakebite to treat. Of course, when he thought about it longer than five seconds, he realized Gaz hadn’t been privy to all that. It was easy to assume Gaz just knew everything he knew and shared all his suspicions, joined at the hip as they’d been since fleeing the city.

“I most certainly did not.” Calay reached up and gave Gaz a quick one-two pat on the shoulder. “I would never risk our cover for something so minor.”

“He seemed… really weirded out by you, is all.”

Gaz had a point. Calay had picked up on an air from Adalgis that wasn’t entirely friendly.

“I think he’s annoyed the others all like me so much,” Calay said without a shred of irony.

Gaz’s laugh thundered from the rear of their little caravan. He laughed so hard he slapped himself across the chest.

“Sorry!” he called when the others all cast inquisitive looks their way. “Sometimes my friend here is unintentionally hilarious.”

Calay was midway through preparing some smart remark when a shriek rang out through the marsh, loud enough that Gaz physically startled at his side. Everyone stopped moving. Up ahead, the moa snapped their heads upward, feathers rustling, sharp and alert.

The sound did not come again, and in the following silence, Calay shifted his eyes up to Gaz’s, wordlessly questioning.

Gaz swept his attention left; Calay looked right. They took inventory of the swamp around them: rotten logs, patchy and sodden holes in the earth, cobwebs. Nothing looked out of place. Of course, Calay wasn’t certain what native to the swamp could have made a sound like that.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose. He reached up, rubbing at the back of his collar. His fingers felt goosebumps.

Nobody moved for quite some time. The silence was palpable, thick, broken only by murmured chatter from up ahead, too quiet for him to make out the words. Female voices. He spared a glance toward the fore, where Riss and Geetsha were conversing lowly, but he didn’t take his eyes off the trail behind them for long. Gaz’s hand lingered on his belt.

By creeping, relieving degrees, the sounds of the swamp returned: insects began to buzz again. One of the moa chirruped. Calay exhaled a breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding. The swamp seemed to resume its breath in the same instant, a great release of tension, the way the sea might swirl and churn when something massive has just passed through it, unseen.

<< Chapter 10 | Chapter 12 >>

Chapter 10

Riss was only eleven years old when her father took her on their first hunt. Stalking patiently through the bush alongside him, she’d killed a boar with nothing but a spear. Sure, her father had been standing by with a matchlock pistol, but that hadn’t made the threat any less lethal. The fear hadn’t been any less real.

She was seventeen when she first killed a man. Shot him point blank through the face when he and his brigand friends had waylaid a client’s carriage. In the seconds before she’d pulled the trigger, the fear had gripped her by the throat.

The war? That was year upon year of fresh new fear, fear for her life and fear for those under her command.

She was thirty-one when she’d led Gaspard and the crew into that ambush, then dragged him bleeding into the wagon. The fear then was a new fear, a fear of loss. It had been insurmountable.

Every time she’d felt that fear, she’d smothered it. For her father. For her clients. For her crew. For Gaspard.

She was an expert at swallowing fear and appearing stonefaced. And she swallowed that same fear when it rose in her like bile at the sight of Adal sprawled out on that bedroll, his eyes sunken, his face beset by an eerie pallor that reminded Riss far too much of a dead man. She ground her boot into the fear’s throat and glanced aside at Calay, who observed the sickly man with a physician’s distance.

“Give him an hour.” Calay’s voice was smoothly confident. Riss wasn’t always the best judge of character–that’s what she kept Adal around for–but his confidence didn’t sound to her like that of a man trying to convince himself. He sounded sure.

Funny, then, that his companion Gaz kept looking to him so nervously. Like Calay were the one he was worried about rather than the one who’d been bit by the snake.

Riss made a mental note to come back to that later. She had bigger things to worry about. She lifted her voice for the benefit of the entire camp.

“I’d give him ten hours if I had to.” She made a point of glancing around, making eye contact. “Same as I would for any of you.” Another pause. She nodded slightly over to Vosk. “Besides. It isn’t as though we’ve got other options for an apothecary, given the circumstances. Take all the time you need, Calay.”

Every hour they weren’t moving forward was an hour that whittled the already-slim chances of survival for the missing logging party. It meant another hour spent in unfamiliar terrain with resources that would further dwindle. Riss was aware of all that. But she wouldn’t risk Adal’s health unless it became a do-or-die necessity. And even then…

Calay rolled a slim shoulder and rose up from his crouch.

“I’ve done all I can for him. Water and rest are all he needs. If we’ve got the right antivenin he’ll be right as rain.”

The words didn’t soothe Riss’ fear as much as she’d hoped they would. She trusted Calay as much as she trusted any short term hire for a contract like this. Which meant she trusted him to do his job like a competent professional. Nobody got paid if they all died. And if her Second died on his watch, Calay’s medic share would certainly suffer for it. He wanted to get paid just like any other. He wouldn’t screw this up.

“It was just bad luck.”

Riss’ ear caught the tail end of a conversation happening over by the fire. Geetsha and Torcha sat, conversing in quiet murmurs, and when Torcha’s eyes met Riss’, her mouth bowed into a sympathetic grimace.

“The snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them,” said Geetsha in her odd, creaky voice.

The present moment was just a little too much for Riss. Too much chaos, too much creepy swamp girl, too much worry for her dear friend. She pinched the bridge of her nose and let her eyes fall closed, inhaling deeply. She took a moment so simply shut it all out. To take inventory of tasks that needed completing: breakfast, packing up the camp, readying themselves to move once Adal was able.

At her side, someone softly cleared their throat. A male. Riss peeled an eye open.

Vosk stood beside her, rubbing at his chin. He stared awkwardly aside for a moment, then spoke askance, briefly:

“This place doesn’t hesitate to show its hand early.”

Riss furrowed her brows.

“What I mean to say is I’m sorry about your friend. This swamp is a horrid place. I wish I’d never set foot in it.” Vosk continued to observe her from a sort of oblique angle, as though he feared her wrath should he face her head on. Riss shrugged minutely, as if physically shrugging his comments off.

“Adal is a veteran and a fighter,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”

She wasn’t about to let one of Tarn’s guards comfort her like some weeping willow.

“Of course.” Vosk took a step aside. He gave her a there-and-gone smile that was just as much in apology as sympathy. “I’d never imply otherwise.”

It occurred to Riss that perhaps Vosk had been speaking to her for his own benefit rather than hers. Who knew the details of exactly what horrors he’d experienced, stuck out here for as many nights as he’d been. Perhaps Vosk was just blowing off steam, the way someone stuck in a shit-sack swamp would do to someone else who had just been victimized by said shit-sack swamp.

Now defying both her fear and her natural tendency to rebuff kindness, Riss gave Vosk a quick little smile of her own.

“It’s a minor setback,” she said. “Certainly not how we’d prefer things, but well within our capabilities.”

She hoped to strike the right balance between confident camaraderie and empathy for the terrors he’d witnessed. And it appeared to work, because Vosk buckled with what looked like genuine relief.

“I knew you were the right one for this job,” he said. “The Baron told us about you. He said we’d be in good hands.”

Flattery, though, was where Riss drew a line.

“I’m sure he did,” she said. “And I’m sure he grossly exaggerated half of it, bless him.”

“Riss?” Calay called out to her across the encampment. He’d returned to Adal’s side, adopting a loose kneel.

She rushed over, taking wide steps and attempting not to look as hurried as she actually was.

A hint of color had returned to Adal’s face, which appeared drier. Residual sweat still dampened his bangs and skin, but when Calay mopped it away, it stayed mopped.

“His sweat’s broke,” Calay announced, stating the obvious. “Like I said, he’ll be just fine.”

Riss allowed herself a smile, her heart beating so frantically that it was a wonder the entire company couldn’t hear it.

###

Breakfast was a tense, quiet affair: leftover swamp hen eaten in silence punctuated by the sounds of Adal’s uneasy slumber. He murmured through his unconsciousness, twitching occasionally, and Riss kept glancing over, half-expecting him to be pale as death again. But no. He appeared to be improving, despite his obvious discomfort.

Geetsha offered to take the moa for a forage. Everyone dispersed to their own business. Riss crossed her legs and settled down beside Adal’s bedroll, at a loss for what else to do.

When he awoke, it was sudden and swift, as though he’d been roused from a nap. He jerked upright, blinking furiously, and scrubbed a hand down his face. His gaze held the disoriented quality of a man in a foreign place, until he set eyes on Riss and relaxed.

“Lieutenant,” she said, swinging him a casual little two-fingered salute. “It is very good to see you.”

Adal fell back onto the bedroll with a relieved groan.

Riss didn’t bother to ask him how he felt. He probably felt like shit. Instead, she took a more productive approach.

“Thirsty? Hungry?”

He was both. She’d saved him some stewed hen, which he accepted in rapacious silence, and he asked to have his water topped up three times. Riss watched him eat, mindful of his pace, and couldn’t help but laugh a little.

“Save some for the rest of us,” she said, and he paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth.

The severity in his eyes surprised her. He stared for a moment, then glanced back down into the bowl.

“I feel like I’ve been asleep for days,” he said. “Like I haven’t eaten for half a week.”

That explained the appetite, Riss supposed. She lifted a hand.

“Maybe your body was working overtime to get that snakebite out of you. Needs extra fuel.”

Adal’s shoulders hunched in a wary shrug. He kept eating, though slower now.

“How long has it really been?” he asked.

Riss glanced up at the sky. Tough to gauge the position of the sun given the encroaching treetops, but she could see enough for an estimate.

“An hour, maybe closer to two.”

Adal squinted at her. “You’re not bullshitting me, are you,” he finally said. As if she ever had.

“I dreamt it took days,” he added after a moment. When he finished his stew, he licked the spoon clean. “It feels as though it took days. I expected to wake up with a beard.”

Riss thought it might be better not to ask him, but curiosity got the best of her.

“Dream anything else interesting?” she asked, slowly gathering to her feet.

Adal’s silence said a lot. She didn’t press further.

<< Chapter 9 | Chapter 11 >>

Chapter 9

​For several strange moments, all Adal could hear was his own heartbeat thundering in his ears.

Time had a peculiar way of slowing down during certain moments. Moments of intense concentration. Moments that necessitated intense quiet, such as creeping through the underbrush behind enemy lines. Moments when his body seemed to all but shut down and take the clock with it, freeing his mind up to think through its next move.

It’s just like last time, he thought with some dismay. The first casualty. It’s going to become a running joke.

He had the presence of mind to stretch out his legs, bracing himself against the log where he sat by leaning his weight through his arms. He stared down at his calf, dumb with shock. He’d barely even felt it.

So what next, then?

Time sped up, slingshotting him into the present. Calay arrived in a scramble, half-dressed with his satchel slung over-shoulder. When his eyes met Adal’s, they were wide with surprise, if not quite worry. The medic was quick on his feet, dashing over and folding himself into a neat, careful kneel beside Adal’s boots.

“Did you get a good look at it?” he asked.

Adal blinked. “What’s there to see? It’s just two holes in my leg.”

Calay also blinked, but it was the prolonged blink of a long-suffering parent, the type who regrets telling their child there are no stupid questions.

“The snake,” he said, voice flat. “Did you get a look at the snake.

Oh. He had not.

“It was just a blur and ripples. It was half in the water. I barely saw a thing.” Adal’s mouth tightened as he spoke. Because upon saying those words, he realized what he was admitting to: that he had no idea what type of treatment to suggest. No idea what path to set Calay down. He still didn’t trust the man, something about him set Adal’s teeth on edge. Now Adal had no choice but to… listen to him. To trust his purported wisdom. To listen to some smooth-talker with a northern accent get all father-knows-best.

“All right,” Calay said, inhaling. He reached down and grabbed the cuff of Adal’s pant leg. He rolled it up, yanking the canvas up without asking permission. Adal might normally have voiced complaint, but something strange was occurring inside his body.

His heart began to pound. That heartbeat which had rushed in his ears earlier now doubled in time, the beats of it no less strong and no less steady, just faster. Urgent. He swallowed. Was his heart racing because of the venom? Already? Or was his heart racing because he was afraid at the prospect of what the venom might do? Was there even any way to tell? Were his palms getting sweaty because of some bodily response, or was it just nerves?

Sitting stiffly, Adal wiped his palms on the knees of his trousers while Calay examined the wound.

“It’s impossible to say what did this,” the medic said after a short inspection. “There are three common venomous snakes on this island. They’re all rather different. Katangas and the vipers like that are more common in the northlands. In the south, you get blackmouths and rattlers and that sort. Did you hear a rattle?”

Adal tried to think back. He tried to school his body into calm by force of will alone. It was not working. The calm with which Calay addressed him, the way he spoke with an almost academic detachment about the potential poisons that could be working their way through Adal’s body that very instant, did little to quell the little peaks of fear beginning to rise in him.

“I don’t think so,” he said at last.

Calay’s fine silver-blond brows knit together in a look of consternation. He flipped his satchel open and extracted a small dark-wood box. Flipping open the hinge, he revealed inside a glittering array of glass vials, each filled with a scant amount of liquid and stoppered with wax. The liquids inside ranged from deep pine green to various shades of sickly, rotten brown.

“Well, Adalgis,” he said, and something about the way he said Adal’s full name was like the scrape of a fork on fine china. “I’ve got nine doses of antivenin for snakes. But most of them are fairly different. You a gambling man?”

Adal sat up straighter. His brows shot down low over his eyes.

“Fuck you,” he growled. What kind of bedside manner was this? Who had taught this man to be a physician? A bloody hangman?

“Give him the blackmouth.”

The voice that piped up from behind Adal’s shoulder was young, almost prepubescent.

Geetsha stood there, dressed in nothing but her undershift, which fortunately fell all the way to her knees. She was barefoot. She stood in a patch of moss, twisting it through her toes as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

“I saw it,” she said. “Was a blackmouth. Give it to him or he’ll fall sick shortly.”

Adal’s heart twitched in his chest. That time was definitely nerves. The way Geetsha spoke, with an almost otherworldly confidence that seemed to come from somewhere outside her small, scrawny body…

Really, out of anyone to be at his side in his moment of need, anyone in this party, did it have to be Geetsha and Calay?

Calay regarded Geetsha with open distrust, eyes locked on her in a puzzled glare that approximated exactly what Adal felt inside. How long had she been standing there? How had she seen the snake? Hells, had she been watching him relieve himself?

“Where did you see it?” Calay asked, even as his fingers moved toward one of the vials in the box.

Adal’s palms grew sweatier still. He felt beads of sweat beginning to form upon his brow. Each breath seemed to come a little shallower than the last, as though he were trying to catch his breath after a long swim. He breathed in slow and deep to steady himself, or at least he tried to, because halfway through it just felt… difficult. Like filling his lungs all the way was a lot of work.

“There.” Geetsha lifted a long sleeve and pointed off into the swamp. Adal peered the way her arm gestured, but he didn’t see anything. Just stagnant puddles and mud.

Calay turned his head, also following the gesture, and let out a noncommittal grunt. Looking back to Adal, he shifted a little closer.

“Well,” he said. “You’re starting to look a little pale. If it was a blackmouth, you’ll be winded in twenty minutes and your heart will give out within the hour.”

Adal couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“Where did you learn medicine, lad?” He gasped. He started to say something else, a stronger admonition, but all that resulted from his efforts was a wheeze. “The… the muh…”

His voice sounded shrill with panic. Oh, how he hated that. But Calay did something that surprised him then. He reached up with his vial-free hand and settled it on Adal’s knee. Speaking calmly and clearly, he looked Adal straight in the eye.

“I learned from a man who knew what he was doing. I know what I am doing. If Geetsha really saw a blackmouth out there, all we’ve got to do is get this down your gullet, treat the wound, and you’ll feel fluey for a couple days but otherwise carry on living.” He took a short breath, then gave Adal’s knee a squeeze.

“But in order for me to treat you, you have to stop being a gigantic fucking baby.” Calay said that last bit with a smile that was knife-edge thin.

Adal couldn’t even think of an appropriate comeback.

“Churchbells, you’re a little shit,” he grumbled. He was glad to get that all out in a single breath. He put out his hand for the vial all the same.

###

Things got worse before they got better.

For starters, Calay’s antivenin tasted like garlic-slathered rot. Adal gagged as he swallowed it. Calay stood beside him, crouching to eye level, and coaxed him through drinking it down. He passed Adal a canteen afterward and told him to chase it with as much water as his stomach could hold.

“You’re astute,” Calay said in between all of Adal’s short-winded griping. “It does have wild garlic in it.”

He managed to hold it down, but he suspected that was simply due to the fact that he had yet to eat.

Calay rinsed and dressed the two tiny punctures in his calf. The man’s fingers were light; Adal barely felt it. His limbs felt somewhat far away. Far away and heavy, like they were each hundreds of miles long and burdened with millstones. Sitting up all the way was a chore. He watched the top of Calay’s head as he worked, deft hands spreading some sort of cream along the punctured skin, then winding a neat cloth bandage into place. It was tidy enough work. He’d received worse in field hospitals. And he’d recovered from all that.

“We ought to get you back to camp,” said Calay as he rose from his crouch. “You’re going to need a bit while this stuff works through your system.”

As Adal soon found, that was a marked understatement.

The stomach cramps kicked in not long after. Adal shuddered up off the log where he sat, and as loath as he was to accept the assistance, Calay had to help him down the path back to the campsite. Geetsha stood near the fire, conversing with Riss. Presumably she’d told Riss what was the matter, because Riss kept glancing over Adal’s direction, and when she finally saw him walking toward her, she blew Geetsha off in a hurry and raced to his side.

“Please don’t say anything,” Adal begged her through clenched teeth.

But Riss didn’t look like she was busy formulating any smart remarks. She looked sincerely worried. Which meant he must have looked as garbage as that concoction had tasted.

“Let’s get you down,” Riss said, and she moved to his other side. One arm each around Riss and Calay’s shoulders, Adal let himself be all but carried back to his bedroll. Muscle cramps started in his calf and worked their way upward into his guts, strange little flexes of the body that he had no control over whatsoever. When they hit near his diaphragm, his already-labored breath grew even more difficult. Be it the stress or the poison or the cure or what, his heart hammered against his sternum like it was trying to escape.

He sank down onto his bedroll with a soft, weary sigh. When he turned his head, he found the bedroll already wet, such was the sweat that was pouring from his brow.

“You’re sure he’ll be fine?” Riss asked Calay from far, far above him. He could see their boots, but their faces seemed a thousand miles away.

“If that’s what bit him, he’ll be fine.” Calay’s confidence was stern, almost soldierly. Almost. He lacked the discipline, Adal already knew. There was no way he’d served. He was too…

“Hey, old fella. You need more water?”

He ticked his eyes sideways. Towering over him like an ancient, ageless tree, Torcha peered down. She moved so quick that tracking her made him dizzy. Adal forced his eyes to close even though he was far, far too keyed up to even consider sleeping. The strange, distorted height was just a little too much taken with the cramping and the breathing and the sweating. The last thing he needed was to empty the remnants of dinner onto his bed for the next week and a half.

“I’m fine,” he said through tightly-grit teeth.

“Give him a little space, Torch.” Riss again. Footsteps sounded near his head. He couldn’t tell if they were moving closer or away.

Cramps rolled through his body in dizzying waves. He tried to find that far-off, silent place inside himself. The place he’d learned to go to that had gotten him through battlefield hospitals and long, agonizing wagon rides, when they’d carried him away from the front a mile at a time, his lung collapsed and his mind wild with what passed for army painkillers. But all that training felt like something from long, long ago. From another lifetime.

Through the cramps and the sweat and the too-recent memories itching their way to the surface, he focused on the sound of Riss’ voice. He could no longer make out exactly what words she was saying, but the calm, confident manner in which she was saying it gave him something to hold on to when the room started spinning in earnest.

<< Chapter 8 | Chapter 10 >>

Chapter 8

All the marching sent memories of Adalgis’ army days swirling to the forefront. So many hours spent rigorously training in his months at the officers’ academy. So many years spent in the field sloppily undoing all that training and replacing it with practical real-world experience. And always in some backwater. And almost always in the forest. And almost always on foot.

He would be a liar if he said he hadn’t missed it at least a little.

Adal watched Riss and their new guide from a few paces behind. The girl–and she was a girl, a pale-faced knobby-jointed thing that certainly didn’t qualify as a woman yet–had taken a natural liking to their leader. Like many did. Or if not a liking at least a respect.

The chatter from the back of their little caravan wasn’t quite so respectful. He could hear snippets of it, when they weren’t crunching too many twigs and leaves underfoot. Torcha and that northerner Calay talking about druids and mosses and other such fanciful crap. While there was no denying that certain places were afflicted–the term used in polite society–Adal had seen worse. A swamp where some trees bore the remnants of an old world curse wasn’t something to be taken lightly, but it also wasn’t worth all the gossip.

Calay was bringing out the worst in her. Adal tried to focus on what was ahead of him rather than worrying about Torcha’s superstitious streak. He didn’t like how this new medic had immediately zeroed in on the youngest member of their team. Adal was far from an overprotective fatherly sort–Hells, his experience with his own father was enough to put him off that sort of behavior for life–but something about the man’s actions seemed predatory in a way he couldn’t pinpoint. And Torcha could be easily distracted at times. Prone to chattiness in the field. She hadn’t been through the Academy or even field training like the rest of them. It was like Calay had honed in her lack of discipline and leeched himself to her side as an easy in when it came to the group.

Or perhaps he just wanted to sleep with her. Maybe Adal was reading too much into it. All he knew was that he was irked.

It was remarkable, the change in scenery. Mere hours before, they’d walked upon what more or less constituted dry land. To the point of where Adal was starting to wonder if ditching the horses really had been necessary. But not long past the idol-decorated tree that passed for a welcome sign in this territory, things got soupy.

Geetsha was good. The trail they followed was thin and winding and, to Adal’s untrained eye, nearly invisible. Yet if they followed in her footsteps, their boots stayed dry. She was light on her feet, but as he was following after Riss and Vosk, he just had to step where they stepped. Even the mud wasn’t so bad, so long as one was careful with the placement of one’s feet.

It rather reminded him of gavotte lessons. And he’d been good at those.

Suddenly, a voice from behind him, low with a gasp of wonder:

“Adal, look up there! Silkpók!”

He hadn’t been looking up. But at Torcha’s call, Adal raised his eyes toward the treetops. He couldn’t quite see what she was talking about at first. But he scanned to his left, then to his right, and he finally saw it lurking in the droopy, yellow-green branches midway up a willow. A big orb weaver spider. Its bulbous body lay perfectly still in a shimmering web that sparkled with dew. For all it moved, the spider may have been dead. Adal’s shoulders twitched a little as an intrusive thought crept into his mind: passing beneath one at an inopportune moment, scrabbly little legs flailing as a gust of wind or just plain malicious bad luck knocked the spider from its perch and straight onto his face below.

It wasn’t a phobia as such. Who liked the idea of a spider falling on their face?

“What’s that word you just used?” Calay was asking Torcha. Adal kept walking, eager to pass beneath the spider and out of range. Just in case.

“This type of spider weaves a real fine silk,” Torcha explained. “In the textile districts, they farm them.”

“They farm spiders on purpose?” Calay sounded dubious. Adal couldn’t blame him.

“Well, more like they set up shop where the spider colonies already lived, would be my guess.” Torcha laughed a little. “Otherwise that sounds like a pain in the ass. Silkpók is what they call the fabric once it’s finished. But it can mean the spider too.”

“That, my friend, is vile.” Calay’s voice was kindhearted as he said that, edged with a little humor.

Was he flirting with her? Adal restrained a sigh. That was the last thing Riss needed to deal with at the moment. It had been easier in the army, keeping the unit from fraternizing. They were all simply too exhausted all the time. There was no time for amorous extracurriculars when that time could have been spent sleeping.

Now that Adal bothered to look up, he saw a few more spiders spread out among the trees. They were high enough up and far enough back in his field of vision that their size seemed diminished, though, so he didn’t experience that crawling sensation upon his palms. Just so long as they didn’t make camp near many.

###

By the time they were ready to make camp, Adal couldn’t have cared how many spiders were lurking overhead. The darkness was thick, crowding, inky. They could barely see any trees past the fire. And all their bedrolls were crowded around it so closely that Adal dismayed more at falling victim to a random elbow or foot in the night than creepy-crawlies.

Geetsha explained this was the largest patch of dry land for a while, so despite how crowded it would be, it was either camp here or keep marching after things had grown uncomfortably dark.

Riss wisely chose to stay put. And as soon as Adal sit down, the fatigue washed over him like waves on the surf. He was perhaps a little out of shape compared to the peak of their marching days, and his feet tingled some.

They crammed their bedrolls onto the available land as best they could, letting the fire burn down to coals in the encampment’s center. Space enough for tents was out of the question. Crammed together like sardines in a tin, everyone attempted to wriggle into their bedrolls with as much personal space as possible.

“Ah, it’s just like the good old days,” Torcha said from somewhere on the other side of the fire. Adal snorted.

“You joke,” said Calay, “but where I grew up this sort of arrangement wouldn’t have been uncommon. Except there were top bunks, too. And someone was always jerking off on the top bunk. And you always knew.”

Sleep was upon him before Adal could think of anything to say in response to that.

###

As usual, Adal was the first besides the watchman to wake. Laying still in his bedroll, he took a moment to experience the sounds of the marsh.

Midges buzzed in the distance, and some sort of bird cawed out a few times. The call was far enough away that it echoed some. Or perhaps there were simply two of them. Adal wasn’t sure if that was what had woken him.

Something scratched and snuffed through the grass not far from where the others slept. For a moment Adal steeled himself, worried at the prospect of some predator nosing toward their camp, but then one of the moa paced into view. It was bent down, big taloned feet sinking into the mud without a care. It yanked its beak down into a patch of scrubby moss at the shore of a puddle, digging around for… grubs or whatever. He wasn’t sure what lived down there.

Careful to be quiet about it, Adal inched out of his bedroll and rose to his feet. He left his armor in its bag, though he did grab a sweater and pulled it on. The last of the spring chill hadn’t quite abandoned the mornings, and why not be comfortable when one had the option. He stepped into his boots but didn’t bother to lace them up.

Stepping over and past all the sleeping bodies, he nodded over to Calay, who sat upright beside the waning coals of the fire.

Struck by the sight of Calay resting on his boulder, Adal couldn’t help but be reminded of a crow or a vulture or some sort of carrion bird. He sat there sharply, just watching, and gave Adal only the faintest nod of recognition as he passed.

“Quiet night?” Adal asked, voice just shy of a whisper.

“Very.” Calay yawned and knuckled at an eye, his raven’s pose disrupted. “Geetsha didn’t see anything on first watch, either.”

Adal reckoned that was a good sign. He walked past the man and toward the trail, the way they’d come the night before. He walked down it and stepped around the trunk of a willow, just far enough from camp so as to be out of view. Then he unlaced the front of his longjohns and got to his morning business, urinating down into the moss.

Once he finished up, he took a single step away from the tree and back toward the trail. He never saw the snake coming. Truth be told, he didn’t even feel the bite until a couple startled seconds had passed. There was simply a surge of motion, a faint heat along his calf, and then a thrash and a warning hiss as he instinctively kicked the creature off his leg. Scaled body churning and writhing, it raced off into the water, leaving ripples in his wake.

Back at camp, people were stirring. Calay called over, asking if all was well.

Had he yelled? He must have yelled. Adal took a couple steps back down the path, then sank onto a fallen log. His heart began to pound as the reality of what had just happened set in.

“Adalgis?” Calay called again.

“I’m here,” he answered. “Snake. A… fucking snake. I’ve been bitten.”

“I’ll get my bag!” The urgency in Calay’s voice was worrying. Adal sat there, trying not to move, trying to recall what kind of snakes even lived in these marshes and exactly how venomous they were.

<< Chapter 7 | Chapter 9 >>