Chapter 62

Adal woke at some point in the night, fuzzy-headed and warm all over. He, Riss, and Torcha had all fallen asleep, the latter two atop the bed and him upon a folded sheepskin on the floor, his back to the frame. He knew by the vague tilt to the floor and the way his thoughts were slow to catch up that he was still nice and drunk, but even in that state he decided to be kind to his back and retreat to his own bed. After all, he was on the wrong side of thirty now. Aches and pains didn’t always vanish on their own anymore. The occasional twinge of pain still shot up his calf from where the rock creature had grabbed his leg–he’d tried not to think about it. Tried not to think about it still even as it flared up again.

He left the girls to their rest and slipped out into the hallway, making the short walk to his own chambers in silence. Days-old muscle bruises throbbed when he moved certain body parts, even through the drink, aches that wouldn’t quite go away. But as he settled in beneath the quilts and sheepskins upon his own bed, he found he didn’t mind the pain.

Rolling his foot, he felt the little twinges through his leg. Remembered how sharp it had felt, that wrench up his hip. Remembered even earlier in the mission that sensation of needlelike fangs piercing his skin.

All the little aches and pains of a body that had survived another campaign.

He rolled over onto his side and let his eyes fall closed. Loth, it was good to see Riss smile again. At her lowest, she hadn’t believed she could come out of this on the other side. But he’d had faith. And she’d proven his faith correctly placed once again.

He let the gentle rocking of the floor lull him back to sleep.

###

Breakfast on the grounds of House Gullardson was nowhere near as organized an affair as it was in the structured halls of House Altave. Tarn’s senior staff–who he could spot by their livery–and a gaggle of assorted guests all threaded in and out through the dining chambers, none lingering too long.

When people passed by his table, they slowed. He felt their gazes on his back, though no one commented. Were they simply wondering who these strangers were? Or had word of their expedition attained some dubious mythology in the hamlet?

Gossip around the castle said the Baron was due back around midday. Adal listened but did not care to speak, happy to find a chair at a side table and munch down fruit tarts with great, heaped spoonfuls of thick eggy custard. He ate ravenously, like his body had forgotten what bread was and immediately decided it was experiencing a dire shortage. Torcha and Riss sat catty-corner to him, their table otherwise empty. None of the passers-by who stopped to ogle the three of them were brave enough to stop and strike up a conversation.

A half-hour into their meal, Adal spotted a familiar lumbering silhouette skirting the very edges of the dining hall. Gaz walked like a man hurrying through a room full of sleeping babies. When Veslin, the housemaster, cornered him, he said few words and nodded a lot. Veslin directed him toward Adal and Riss’ table, and Adal lifted a hand to guide him over.

Interestingly, Gaz was alone. Adal swept a look all around the dining chamber and didn’t see his partner in crime.

Gaz seemed moderately flustered by all the activity around the tables, the servers swooping in and asking did he take tea and if so how. He sat too-straight in his chair, eyes a little wide, and looked relieved when the interrogation was over.

“All well?” Riss asked, teacup in hand.

Gaz scrubbed a palm over his freshly-cut hair. His answer took a moment. “Yeah. Think so.” When Riss glanced pointedly to the empty seat beside him, he followed the look and then went ah. “… He’s sleeping.”

“Can’t blame him,” said Torcha. The two of them shared a look between them, then a subtle nod. Adal was a little lost.

“I think we all needed a bit of rest,” said Riss, doing her best to be diplomatic.

Gaz located a bowl of boiled eggs atop the table, then dragged it a little closer to himself. He plucked up a couple, then set about attempting to peel them with fingers that were far too large for the task. He fixed the egg in his hands with an intense stare while he worked, to the exclusion of all other subjects at the table.

Something was definitely up. He didn’t seem as relaxed as a man who’d just survived a death march through that hell-swamp should have been. But if Riss wasn’t going to pursue that line of questioning, Adal sure wasn’t going to bother either.

Adal took another cup of tea when Veslin offered it. Down this way, the tea of choice was a blood-red root of some kind, shaved thin and dried and boiled. It had a pleasantly earthy flavor with a hint of sweetness to it. Little by little, the tiny pleasures of civilized life were revealing themselves once more, chipping away at the layers of tiredness and desolation and anxiety that had gripped him for days. Rather like Gaz determinedly chipped away at that eggshell.

It felt like coming back from the war all over again. Only this time, he’d come back to the people he chose rather than the family he happened to be born with.

He watched as Gaz stuffed an entire egg into his mouth.

Well, he’d chosen some of the people.

The next time Veslin drifted by, he and Riss shared a few quiet words. Riss downed the last of her tea, snatched up an apricot for the road, and gestured off down the hallway.

“I’m going to prep for our briefing with the Baron,” she said. “When the horn sounds, consider yourselves wanted back here, but until then you’re off-duty. Take advantage of it. That’s an order.”

When she rose up, she plucked the napkin off her lap and folded it. Then she adjusted the drape of her jacket–a threadbare green linen thing with golden embroidery that Adal hadn’t seen on her in some time. It was a little odd, seeing everyone out of their arms and armor. Their bodies looked strangely small and vulnerable.

“You’ll make sure Calay makes it down for the briefing?” Riss glanced down to Gaz, who was busy picking the crust off a roll without eating it. His hands paused when she addressed him.

“Will do,” he said. “And I’ll make sure he’s…” He gestured to his right arm. “Y’know.”

Riss made an agreeable sound and headed off, housemaster in tow.

Torcha speared a sausage off a platter and chewed on it, watching the crowd as it began to thin. “I still can’t believe these people all work for Tarn,” she said, sounding vaguely mystified.

Adal, who’d grown up in a household full of his own maids and servants and hangers-on, didn’t comment on that. Yawning, he too folded his napkin and set it upon his plate. He’d forced himself to curb his appetite–too much bread after living on field rations for days tended to have a soporific effect. The last thing he wanted was to nod off mid-briefing on account of a bread nap.

“I’ve got to return our bird to the stockyards,” he said. Glancing to Torcha, then to Gaz, he lifted a palm. “If either of you felt like tagging along.”

“Why not,” said Torcha.

Gaz rubbed the back of his neck, then glanced off in the direction of the staircase. “Suppose,” he said. “You know if there’s a decent leatherworker in this town?”

Adal rose up and shrugged his coat back on. “I can show you one. Can’t promise he’s decent.”

“Good enough.”

They thanked Tarn’s staff for their hospitality, then hit the streets of Adelheim.

###

The man who ran the stockyard was not impressed that Adal was only returning one bird. He prattled on about how expensive it was to rear them into adulthood, how he could have worked a good ten thousand australs out of the lost one over the course of her life.

“Well, you can take that up with the Baron,” Adal said, not in the mood to argue. “Simply bill it to the garrison. It was a hazardous expedition.”

He couldn’t bring himself to pay full attention to the vitriol being thrown his way. A new acquisition in the yard had stolen his eye, a beast that hadn’t been there when they’d first embarked.

Lurking in a large pen all to itself, across the dusty yard and segregated away from the rest of the stables, a massive galania sat immobile as a spider. The quadrupedal, low-bellied lizard was the size of a carriage, its tail twice as long. Its scales were the same dusty deep red as Adelheim’s claybricks; its hide looked as thick as the castle walls, too. As he watched it, the thing flickered its tongue in and out of its mouth, tasting the air.

He hadn’t seen one up close since the war. And now that he had, he found he didn’t dislike them any less. Big reptiles unnerved him on some sort of childhood-instinct level. You couldn’t gauge them by their body language like you could a horse or a dog. He’d been given the opportunity to attend Cavalry Academy in training, but he’d have sooner licked wet paint. Cavalry wasn’t just horses anymore, not since the war-wagons took over.

Beside him, Gaz let out a low, amused heh.

“What?” Adal glanced over at him, tilted his head.

“Oh, nothing. Got in a scrap with one of those, back in the day.”

Adal waited to see if he’d continue, eyeballing the man with blatant curiosity.

“Just weird.” Gaz shrugged, his voice quiet with contemplation. “After the last couple weeks, a big bastard lizard doesn’t really strike fear into the heart anymore, does it.”

Speak for yourself, Adal thought. But Gaz had a point. They’d faced down worse. If you shot a galania in the face, it would probably die. Still, he preferred not to find that out the hard way.

“You want to buy it or are you just gawking?” asked the stockman, butting in.

“Look, I’m sorry about the bird–” Adal tried to be diplomatic, but Torcha cut him off. She stepped between he and the stockman and flipped up a rude two-fingered hand gesture.

It was about time they got going anyhow. Adal dragged Torcha out of the yard by her shoulder. Gaz followed along behind them. The stockman yelled something at their backs, but Adal didn’t catch it and he didn’t particularly care. For lack of a better option, he steered Torcha across the road and up the hill toward the pub.

Only the pub didn’t prove a more peaceful alternative.

Outside, the usual assortment of loiterers and smokers were relaxing, a loosely-gathered handful of them. It was the middle of the workday and there they stood, pointedly not seeking gainful employment. They relaxed in the shade of the building’s sagging porch, and all their conversation dried up to a trickle and then silence as soon as Adal neared them.

At first he wondered if Gaz or Torcha had antagonized these gentlemen prior to today, but the group didn’t seem to be singling either of them out. The trio all drew the same level of wariness, a sort of edgy, tight-lipped quiet like the kind that gripped Privates when a notoriously hard-nosed Sergeant was on the prowl for a whipping boy in the drill yards.

Gaz didn’t approach the building any closer. Behind Adal, he cleared his throat.

“Gonna go find that leatherworker,” he mumbled, avoiding the crowd. One of the men on the steps must have heard his accent, though, because he spat in the direction Gaz walked off.

“That’s hardly necessary,” said Adal. He felt a little spark of defensiveness, which surprised him. Gaz wasn’t even around to see Adal defend his honour, but by Loth he felt compelled to.

“Speak for yourself.” The spitter in question was a tall, too-thin man with ruddy cheeks and loose-hanging clothes. He squinted at Adal from beneath a straw hat that was on the verge of fragmenting to pieces, loose-woven grass jutting brokenly from the brim. “We’ve had enough trouble with these narlanders kickin’ around. Then you lot roll in.”

“We’re not here to cause any disturbances,” said Adal, polite but also not retreating. Torcha took a step closer.

The man threw his head back and laughed, cradling a hand to his head to keep his hat in place. “A man pokes his nose in every cursed schowe and weald he comes across, but he doesn’t want to cause any disturbances.

Adal straightened. He hadn’t left the castle with the intent to deck a man in broad daylight, but he wasn’t about to let himself be used as a pincushion for a peasant who’d had a bad week.

Torcha jutted up her chin and murmured a few low words at the men in a language Adal barely recognized. He forgot she spoke Sunnish sometimes, as little as they’d ever had to use it in the field. Hideous language, with all those strung-together vowels. No crisp diction in it.

Whatever she said, the words hadn’t had an ameliorating effect. The man in the hat flung a hand up, making a warding gesture at her. Adal couldn’t understand the words he spoke back, but he knew what beat it looked like in any language. Torcha did not step back.

“Torcha,” he warned her. She gave him a stiff little shrug, unapologetic as ever.

Before Adal could get another word in, the bellow of a distant horn cut through the tense quiet in the yard. All heads turned toward the drawbridge at the base of the hill. The Baron’s party was returning, then.

The horn kept bellowing, though. It was a different pattern to the one Adal had heard before, the single drone to announce the incoming entourage. He shot a quick look toward the locals, whose faces all bunched up with concern and confusion at the sound. Some sort of emergency signal, if he interpreted their expressions correctly.

All business, he looked back to the man in the hat, hoping recent events were enough to put the past five minutes behind them. “Shall we arm ourselves?”

“Do whatever the fuck you like,” the man said, shoving past.

Adal let him go. The street didn’t quite empty entirely, a few curious onlookers remaining in doorways. But mothers shooed their kids inside. The guards up on the ramparts stiffened and more guards arrived behind them. Adal and Torcha made for the fence that ringed the pub, the best available cover.

“You packing?” he asked, aware that all he had on him was a bootknife.

“Is the sky blue?” Torcha grumbled and reached for her belt, though she didn’t draw yet.

They watched in tense, breath-held silence as a plume of dust rose up from the road beyond the bridge. Adal noted that the soldiers at the guard tower hadn’t raised the drawbridge yet, which meant whatever was approaching wasn’t an enemy army or some monster crawled out of the swamp to drag them back. He checked a glance up toward the castle. Even if he and Torcha legged it, they wouldn’t make the gates in time.

He hoped Gaz had the good sense to put himself somewhere secure. Riss and the others, at least they had the keep to retreat to.

Whatever was happening, he and Torcha would have to face it as they were.

<< Chapter 61 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 61

Calay felt cleansed. The bath had helped scour the last of the swamp away, sure, but this–this felt like an exorcism. Sighing and relaxing back on his side, he luxuriated in the sensation of clean bedding beneath him and sweat cooling on his skin.

Gaz’s fingers brushed one of his hipbones, a light touch at first and then more confident, his whole palm settling there in a loose, comfortable drape.

“Don’t you get shy on me after,” Calay teased.

He felt more than heard the laugh in response, a warm gust of air on the back of his neck.

“It’s not that.” Gaz dragged a thumb along the crest of his hip, pensive. “Just… this is a bit new.”

“Mm.” Calay liked that when he thought about it. “Yeah.”

His mind was quieter than it had been in months. And though he remained tired and rather sore from his run-in in the pub, the ache in his jaw was now coupled with that pleasant, whole-body ache of muscles well-used in the pursuit of far more enjoyable activities.

Gaz’s fingers traced up the lines of his ribcage. They found the pale path of an old, time-faded scar and followed it.

Back in the mire, there had been so much Calay felt they needed to talk about but couldn’t. So many plans to consider, contingencies to secure, suspicions to share. And they’d been able to speak of next to none of it due to the ever-present ears of Riss and her company.

None of that had changed now that they were alone. The same concerns still hung in his mind like jagged stalactites: whether Riss would keep his secret, whether anyone from Vasile had cottoned onto their trail, whether the thing growing inside his arm would need to be excised. Good concerns. Practical concerns.

Yet now that they were alone, he found he didn’t care to voice any of it. He couldn’t control Riss, nor the bounty hunters. The arm perhaps, in that he could always cut it off again, but who knew whether that would fix things or make them aggressively worse.

The subject of the Bridging loomed, too. How best to address it. If he wanted to address it. Addressing it would open up a line of questioning for what Gaz might have seen when he’d peeked beneath the veil of Calay’s thoughts.

The thought calcified inside him: He can’t pity me. I’ll lose it. I’ll fucking lose it.

“How you feeling?” Gaz asked, prescient as ever when it came to shifts in Calay’s mood.

“Better.” He meant it.

Now Gaz’s hand wandered across his chest. He exhaled another amused whuff of air as his fingertips brushed a hickey that darkened Calay’s collarbone, then he ghosted his fingers up and over his shoulder. He trailed light, affectionate touches down Calay’s bicep, then paused where flesh terminated and bark began.

“Can I?” he asked.

“Mhm.”

He’d been surprised earlier when Gaz had grabbed him by the wrist. Surprised that he’d felt it through all the strange shit growing there. How his arm felt like both a part of him and not. Both a thing that belonged to him and not.

Gaz continued his idle explorations, fingers traversing the cracks and veins in the bark, carefully gliding over the sharp bones beneath. He touched gently at the slim blade of a claw; that sent a pleasurable shiver through Calay’s gut.

Something in that shiver transitioned to something else, something a little chillier, by the time it reached his chest.

“Hey,” he murmured, voice low. “I…” Rumbling wagon. Gulls wheeling through the sky. The scent of beetles boiling to their deaths by the dozen. “I don’t think I ever thanked you. For doing what you had to do back there.”

Gaz’s fingers stilled. He cradled Calay’s talons against his much-larger hand.

His reply was typically blunt. “It’s the worst thing I ever did.”

Calay knew. He’d felt that too. When they’d Bridged, he’d glimpsed inside Gaz and Torcha’s minds, seized on moments when they’d felt their lowest and most blazingly enraged. Torcha’s helplessness as outsiders wrenched away her way of life a piece at a time. The fury and triumph of her revenge.

Gaz, though.

Everything he’d glimpsed through Gaz’s eyes was familiar.

Knots of worry in his stomach when a black-lacquered carriage pulled out of sight. Terror and disbelief at watching Calay dragged from the Clinic by watchmen, his frantic begging to Rovelenne Talvace to spare the facility. Shards of glass pried from palms already riddled with scars.

He’d felt Gaz’s cold dread when he’d awoken to find Calay gone that morning, equal parts fearing seeing him again or not. How he sank further still, then near fully broke when Calay staggered home, saturated with blood and unable to speak of what he’d done.

He’d felt now–both inside himself and outside himself–Gaz’s seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness.

Swallowing hard, his throat tightening up again, Calay tried not to dwell on it. He tried not to remember the hollow resignation, the grief which lapped past sorrow and all the way to numbness again. When they’d strung Calay up from the gallows tree, Gaz had thought of ransacked buildings, shells of things once tall and proud that had since been emptied of anything of value, never again to feel the warmth of life within them.

Every horrible thing that dwelled in Gaz’s head had been Calay’s fault.

They’d been through some shit together prior to that, of course. Before House Talvace, before the gang wars, before the gallows tree, when they were just two kids sleeping on cots in the surgery room, they already shared an unspoken understanding. There’d never been any question that they had each other’s backs. But Calay hadn’t until that moment grasped the scope of how much Gaz had gone through to keep that promise.

And when he racked his brain for any possible explanation, any reason behind why a person would endure so much for another–for the person who had caused it all in the fucking first place–the answer came as easy as a slap to the cheek.

It’s what you do when you love someone.

Breathing was suddenly difficult. His chest felt tight. His talons twitched, though he was mindful not to clench a fist around Gaz’s fingers. That old urge rose in him again, a sneering phantom, the urge to ball up his fists and just hit something. To pummel the world until it all made sense again.

“Hey, hey…” Gaz leaned in against his back, scooping his other arm up and under Calay from beneath. “Relax. You’re shaking like a leaf.”

He’d felt the hot tears that stung at Gaz’s eyes when he wrenched the knife into Calay’s arm. The disgust, the fear, the determination–it was all a part of him now, like two shades of ink splashed together in the same vial.

“I felt how hard it was for you,” Calay whispered into the crook of Gaz’s arm. “How hard… all of it has been. I put you through the fucking wringer, didn’t I? Shit. Then everything else.”

Again, Gaz’s fingers idly descended on Calay’s claws. He squinted one eye, expression pensive as he carefully examined the sharpened blades that now grew where fingers once were.

“Don’t really think it’s fair to blame yourself for this,” he said, tapping a fingertip to one of Calay’s knuckles.

“I wasn’t talking about the arm. More… everything that led up to this.”

“What, you mean the part where you murdered a shitload of people in cold blood and had to be smuggled out of the city?” Despite the words, Gaz’s tone was casual, far from biting. He lifted Calay’s clawed hand in his own, then brought it to his face. “Yeah, all that was on you. But not this.”

Calay hiked up an eyebrow. “Thanks, I think.”

Gaz kissed his knuckle, the same spot where the tiny purple flowers had bloomed.

“I’ve been thinking.” Calay cleared his throat, able to rein in his emotions once more. “About what you said. You remember back when we first took this contract? You said sooner or later, we’d have to stop running and actually establish cover.”

“Sounds like something smart I’d say,” Gaz’s tone was glib. He had yet to relinquish Calay’s hand. Calay found he didn’t mind.

“Well… what if we stopped running? What if we… stayed here.” When he said it aloud, it sounded like an utterly foreign concept. Like a combination of words spoken by someone who wasn’t fluent in common. Like nonsense.

Staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea. Not because it was dangerous–Calay reasoned it was likely rather safe. They were far from the Leycenate’s reach and Adelheim itself was such a spit-fleck on the map that any would-be prizehunters would have to travel far off the beaten tracks to even sniff it out.

No, staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea because of Riss. Because of what her company knew of them. Instinct, conventional wisdom, common sense, everything Calay knew told him that staying put in a place where someone knew his secret was bad news. They’d parted ways in the castle atrium on good enough terms, he’d thought. Riss understood that he’d given her Vosk as a favor. Adalgis had his own reasons for behaving. Torcha… well, Torcha was an odd case. All he could say for certain was that he knew she had no designs to kill him anymore.

But… Calay looked around the room, studying the heavy stone walls and the patterned tapestries that dampened their chill. One of them depicted a row of farmers bent over yam hills, digging out yams and looking far too thrilled about it. He admired the gleam of the copper bathtub, the shine of the oil lamps. He sagged back against the warm, solid weight of Gaz against him in a real, timber-framed bed with a feather-stuffed mattress. They had clean sheets. Warm food. Solid walls between them and the outside world.

If he allowed himself a moment of vulnerability to reflect on why, he knew the answer: this was the safest he’d felt since they’d fled.

“We could stay, sure,” Gaz said, his answer simple and offhand. Like Calay hadn’t just proposed something momentous. Like he hadn’t just suggested a betrayal of their entire strategy. He said it like the choice meant nothing to him, like he was happy to go along with whatever Calay decided.

“It’s a bad idea.” Calay never could help arguing with himself.

“Maybe.” Gaz’s tone of voice didn’t change.

“What would we even do?” They’d have australs to last a while after Riss paid them out. But there was no work here. Riss and Adal and Torcha, they at least had the option of joining the Baron’s garrison. Calay was not a soldier. He never would be. Hated the very idea.

“I’m sure a physik could find work anywhere.”

“A physik with one hand who has to hide his bone arm from his patients?”

In response to that, Gaz lifted Calay’s ruined hand to his mouth again and calmly kissed his palm. The sensation was damnably pleasant. Calay had wondered how much feeling he’d ever regain there, but he’d only considered it in terms of pain or temperature or pressure.

“We could get you a glove.” Gaz hitched a one-shouldered shrug.

“You seem so unbothered by any of this.” Calay brushed his hair out of his eyes, gazing up at Gaz in the waning lamplight. His broad, heavy-featured face was lax with calm. A hint of a smile curved his mouth in the most unconscious way. It had been a long time since Calay had felt as free as Gaz looked.

“I can let it bother me in the morning.” Gaz’s answer had a relaxed finality to it. “Right now I feel… pretty good. I’d rather just enjoy that.”

He made it sound so easy. Calay tucked himself more fully into the loose embrace that held him, sighing and attempting to banish every last scheme from his head.

“I think I said I want to stay because I feel good too,” he mumbled into Gaz’s forearm. “And… maybe if we don’t leave, we can just… keep feeling good.”

Perhaps they could disappear into the belly of this castle and see it as a sanctuary, not a dungeon. Perhaps he could train himself to be the kind of person who could be happy in a place where yams were a noteworthy enough event to be celebrated in tapestry.

Gaz yawned, stretching his legs and arching his back. He slouched deeper into the soft nest of their bedding, pulling Calay in against his chest. Calay let himself be affectionately manhandled, happy to fall wherever Gaz dropped him.

In all their speculating on the future, they hadn’t addressed what had happened between them. The sudden, explosive nature of it had left Calay reeling a little, though reeling in a satisfied and comfortable way, somehow. He recognized the impulse for what it was–born from the same compulsion that drove him to the bar fight. Some combination of frustration, momentum, pent-up aggression, and let’s face it, standard-issue human horniness. Just like back home, when he hadn’t been able to get it out of his system one way, he’d found another. In Vasile it had been nights at the Gilded Hand. Here in Adelheim, it was apparently… this.

Hellpits, he had some messes to clean up and he couldn’t stop making new ones.

Soft snoring reached his ears as Gaz drifted off. Calay considered blowing out the lamp, but that would mean moving. So instead he just turned his face away from the light, eyes closing.

Gaz was right. They’d discuss the repercussions of whatever this was in the morning.

The world was soft and warm and slow. Perhaps, for a time, there could be peace.

###

What a feeling it is to simply let go.

Since the day Alfend Linten disappeared, since the day he inherited the mantle of sorcerer and doctor at once, forced yet again to grow up too soon, this thing has been building in him. It’s pressure, it’s steam, it’s a kettle nestled in a fire’s coals. The pressure built in him through the riots in the Vasa streets, when he did his best to tend to those the Leycenate had set their dogs upon. Mauled in life by the jaws of the city, then mauled in death by teeth that were less metaphorical.

It built in him further as they picked his empire apart bone by bone, dismantling the things he’d built and all the good they’d set out to do. Yes, he’d overreached. Yes, he’d caused harm. He wasn’t innocent. But none of them were either.

From the day he was born, he’d never been as free as the moment he stepped out of that cell.

They lead him out of the twisting, turning guts of Leycenate House’s dungeons. He’s in the square now, and it’s packed with people. Some sprawl up onto the monument’s stairs, sitting at the feet of the Founders for a better view. The Founders’ brassy, blank stares are turned toward the sea, as if even in statue form they won’t stoop to pay him any attention.

Get on with it, he wants to say. But they’ve stuffed a gag in his mouth. They’ve also bound his hands behind his back, unaware of the futility of such precautions. Watchmen march him through the crowd, which is packed elbow-to-elbow. Toward the rear of the teeming mass, someone’s erected seating for the Landed Lords and Ladies. He doesn’t dignify the stands with a glance, wondering instead how exactly to best mime the face of a man condemned.

He only has to pretend a little longer.

They drag him beneath the sprawl of the Gallows Tree, the old gnarled presence that has lurked in the Square since history can remember. It’s ancient. It’s dead. Its twisted boughs throw writhing, tentacular shadows on the aged stone, but Calay isn’t scared of it. He grits his teeth into the rag that gags him, biding his time.

As they haul him up onto a stool, some dignitary whose name he can’t remember bellows out his crimes. It’s a satisfyingly lengthy list. The crier imbues the words with appropriate menace. He flits the tiniest glance off toward the Landed in their marquee. Shame Lady Rovelenne couldn’t join you, he wishes he could say.

He does not search the crowd for his friends. Doesn’t want the memory of their haunted eyes to wake him at night. Gaz is out there somewhere. Syl, too. And he imagines Loy might be there, if only because watching him die would be of scientific curiosity.

Turn away, he wishes he could tell them. You don’t need to watch this part. It’ll all be over in a minute. Right now, they’re holding their breaths and awaiting something awful. They don’t know they’re watching a magic trick. Don’t know the coin’s about to reappear in their palm, safe and sound.

The dignitary doesn’t offer him the chance to say any last words. He loops the noose around Calay’s throat like a man helping a child learn to tie a scarf–gentle, careful.

He curls his hands into fists, testing the binds at his back. They’d be enough for most men, but he’s no mere man. All the long nights in darkness and captivity, they were mitigated by the knowledge that the fuckers upstairs had no idea what they were dealing with.

They read out his sentence and kick the stool out from under his feet without further ceremony. A roar rises up from the crowd. He likes to think some of them sound upset.

He falls. He flexes his arms. With a hard twist and a sudden snap, the ropes at his back fray and burst apart. The noose bites in. His head whips back. It hurts, but only for a minute. It should have broken his neck, but it doesn’t. He reaches up for the rope around his throat and summons the strength he was hiding, the blood-fortified power and potency–

When he pulls on the rope, the whole bough shudders. It cracks at the base, drooping down from the tree. Hollow, old, unstable, it snaps off from the trunk and falls into Calay’s waiting hand. A gasp rises from the crowd. Bodies warily retreat. Watchmen scramble for their rifles.

Calay snaps off a smaller branch and whips it through the air, smashing it into the temple of the man who hanged him. When he falls, Calay is on him in an instant, scooping his fingers into the wound that gushes from his scalp.

He paints his face. Light sizzles through the air. There was enough blood in a rat, but there’s a lot more in a man.

###

Calay’s heart was still pounding when he woke. That particular dream hadn’t accosted him in a while. Breathing out hard, he tried to wipe at his face but found that Gaz was slumbering on his good arm, snoringly oblivious.

Sighing, he counted heartbeats in his mind, slowed his breath deliberately until everything settled down. When he closed his eyes, he could already feel the stirrings of paranoia and agitation, the doubt creeping in to erode at the calm he’d felt when he and Gaz discussed their future.

He tried to recapture that hopefulness, that restful feeling. It slipped through his fingers like the details of his dream, which receded until all they left him with was a vague throb of adrenaline in his chest and a sneaking suspicion that they had to keep moving. Or else.

<< Chapter 60 | Chapter 62 >>

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Chapter 60

Thrones, Calay’s knuckles ached. And so did his face. When the servants arrived and filled his bath, his first order of business once they’d gone was to snuff every last light and climb into the tub in utter blackness.

He sank into silent, meditative dark, water lapping at his shoulders. The bandages unwound themselves from around his arm; he left them floating there, not giving a shit. Time passed. Who knew how much. His heart gradually slowed. He slouched back into the bath until the waterline neared his nose. As a child, he’d sustained a break to the jaw once. That old pain throbbed to the surface now, causing him to grit his teeth.

Footsteps approached his room. The latch creaked, then the door swung inward ever so slightly, a crack of orange light beyond. He might have reached for his pistol, but he knew those footsteps anywhere.

“Thought I might find you here.” A pause. “Didn’t expect the bathtub in complete darkness, though.”

Gaz stepped in without asking permission, his big silhouette blocking out most of the light he let in.

Calay wasn’t sure quite what to say to that. He knew it must look odd. But he didn’t much care what it looked like.

“I stopped by the pub.” Gaz’s expression was only just visible, a furrow to his thoughtful brow. “Heard you caused a scene.”

“And what?” Calay rolled the knuckles of his good hand. “You expect me to be penitent?”

“Nah.” The sound of something scraping. A match flickered, then a lantern glowed to life. Gaz lit the small bedside lamp but left all the others untouched, allowing Calay to retain some measure of his darkness.

He walked over to where the bathtub sat in the middle of the floor, then sagged down beside it, resting his back against the copper. Calay took a moment to look him over. He’d bathed and changed clothes, wearing a loosely-draped shirt with loose sleeves that must have been on loan from the Baron’s estate. He’d shaved both his face and the sides of his head.

“Well aren’t you looking fresh,” Calay said, not disapproving.

“Had to occupy myself somehow while you were off picking fights.”

Irritation scorched through him like a rash. He shifted in the warm water, slouching against the opposite side of the tub with a scowl.

“Yes,” he deadpanned, “how unreasonable of me to feel angry after losing my arm. Poor form, I know.”

Gaz clunked two knuckles to the tub. Calay couldn’t see his face from his newfound slouch, and maybe that was for the best. He could somehow hear the eyeroll, though.

Grabbing up one of his little cakes of soap, Calay started to scrub it through his hair, lathering up one-handed.

“Why are you even here?”

“Wanted to make sure you hadn’t had your face bashed in.”

He had to fight the urge to keep his right arm submerged, twenty-eight years of muscle memory informing him that washing one’s hair took two hands.

“You and I both know there isn’t a single peasant in this rat-spit town who could get one over on me.”

“I’m aware.” There was an undercurrent of something to Gaz’s voice, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

“So what then?” Some dim corner of his mind was aware that needling like this was cruel, unnecessary. But spite was a tempting vice.

“I’m not worried some yam-digger is going to whoop your ass. I’m worried about how you stormed outta here, got blasted drunk, picked a fight with one arm, and are now taking a bath in the dark. After how careful we’ve been to keep our heads down…”

Below the water’s surface, his bladed hand clenched. He felt a shift, a crack beneath the surface of the bark. Felt claws tickling at their sheaths for any excuse, any reason whatsoever. Thrones, he was tired. He didn’t have it in him for anger. Not anymore.

Stiffly, he cupped water over his hair, washing away the soap.

“Well I won’t do it again, if that’s what you’re so concerned about,” he spat. “Your cover is safe.”

“You make it hard to look out for you sometimes.”

“I don’t recall asking you to.”

Every time he spoke, Gaz was getting quieter. “You’re doing a hell of a job of minding yourself if that shiner is any indication.”

Finally, a little spark of that fury seized him so hard he couldn’t stand it. He smashed his taloned hand against the copper and it rang like a gong, the strength behind the blow unearthly. Gaz flinched and sat up, glancing over his shoulder like he trusted the structural integrity of the bathtub no longer.

“What would you have me do?” Calay hissed. “What the fuck expectation of yours am I failing to meet? I lost an arm, Gaz. I got sucked into that tree and I felt every person who’d ever died in it. I felt it when Torcha blew the grove to shit. I felt–I felt–”

A wrench and twist and pop of ligaments and joints, roiling nausea, terror so profound it whited out the rest of the world–

I felt you do it, Gaz. I felt you rip my arm off. I felt it through you. How bad it fucked you up. I’ve been outside myself and inside myself and I don’t know whose horror is whose anymore.

Swallowing, he picked up the pieces of that sentence before it could careen down a deep, maudlin hole.

“I can’t even shave,” he laughed instead. “Can’t hold the razor right all cuddywift. Tore the button-holes on my trousers after taking a piss.”

Gaz tactfully sidestepped everything that came before that.

“So let me,” he said. “How hard can it be to shave someone else’s face? Ain’t cut off my own nose yet.” A pause. “You’re on your own with the pissing, though.”

Gaz dragged the lantern along the floor, then rose up. He returned a moment later with Calay’s satchel, dropping it onto the floor and digging through it. Calay watched him, brows knit.

“Hey,” he said. “I got private stuff in there.”

Eventually locating it, Gaz withdrew a leather-wrapped toiletries kit and unfurled it. He sorted through it and extracted the razor, touching at the blade and letting out an appreciative grunt.

Calay sat up slowly in the tub, draping his good arm over the rounded lip of it. He rested his chin atop his knuckles.

“You’re actually going to do this,” he said.

“I have this theory that if you look less like shit you’ll behave like less of a shit.”

He wasn’t about to sass a man with a straight-razor in his hand, so he merely flicked a few disdainful drops of water in Gaz’s direction.

“Either lather up your face or pass me the soap, would you?”

Calay wrinkled his face in annoyance. “I’m not an infant,” he said. “I can lather my own damn face.”

He reached down and snatched the brush from the shaving kit, then sought his forgotten bar of soap. Cupping it in the palm of his ruined hand, he was able to work up a frothy lather just the same as if he’d had a human palm. He lathered up his cheeks, then his jaw, sniffing. The soap had an evergreen tickle to it.

“How should I sit?” he asked. I guess I’m fully committed to this idiocy.

“Beats me.” Gaz searched a look around the room. “I told you I’ve never done it before.”

Gaz shoved up again, then returned a moment later with a short footstool. He plopped himself down upon it and stretched out the leather strop over his knee. He certainly looked like he knew what he was doing.

“Chin up,” he said, and Calay scooted forward as best he could, angling his face upward. Looking at the ceiling in the murky lampglow had an oddly soothing effect. He let his eyes relax into the woodgrain.

Fingers grabbed him by the chin. Calay flinched back, his momentary relaxation evaporated in an instant.

“Whoa there.” Gaz gave him a look.

Sniffing again, Calay cleared his throat. “You could have warned me.” He felt childishly defensive. Hadn’t been aware his reflexes were so twitchy. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not used to being grabbed by the face.”

“Yeah, well,” Gaz leaned forward, gesturing for him to sit back up again. “Comes with the territory. Sorry.”

Squinting his eyes closed, Calay gestured. On with it.

This time, when Gaz took him by the chin, he stayed still. He felt rough-textured fingers prodding at his cheek a moment, then retracting. Gaz thumbed near his right eye-socket, then rested the blade against his skin. That sensation sent all kinds of horrible itches through Calay’s fingertips. Never in his entire life had he let someone hold a blade to his face. It felt like trying to breathe underwater, wholly wrong on every possibly level. He’d have had better luck telling his body to swim open-mouthed through Vasile’s Grand Canal.

“I know this’ll be tough for you,” Gaz said as he started to rasp the razor down, “but try not to talk.”

Calay didn’t dignify that with a response. He sat immobile as instructed, trying to will away the alarms ringing at the base of his skull. It’s Gaz, he told his nerves. But regardless of who the hand belonged to, it was still a hand holding him by the head while someone scraped a razor down his face. He tried to divert his thoughts off toward something calming, something pleasant. He ran through the preparations of an herbal poultice in his mind, reciting ingredients.

Gilea sap. Dartweed leaves. Blackgrass boiled in water and reduced to paste. A spread of honey over the wound before application. He pictured the preparations in his mind’s eye: the mortar, the pestle, the honey dipper.

Soon, he’d relaxed however much he could. Gaz dragged the blade down his cheek, shaving with the grain, hands commendably gentle. He steered Calay’s chin side to side with his fingers; Calay let him.

Gradually, at some point he couldn’t determine, the sensations themselves became the source of his relaxation rather than his medicinal meditations. His shoulders loosened. He puffed out a long-held sigh. Gaz’s fingertips were point of cool contrast against his bath-flushed face.

“See, there we are.” Gaz sounded like he approved of this turn of events. “Isn’t going to kill you.”

Squinting his eyes open, Calay peered obliquely toward the razor that hovered near his lip and hmphed.

“Chin up,” Gaz instructed. “Let me get your neck.”

That reluctance crept back in. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he said. But Gaz had a way about him. He could persuade with a look where Calay took hours to argue the same point. He did as instructed and further lifted his chin.

Like a sawbones seeking a pulse, Gaz put a hand to the side of his neck. That sent a twitch through the fingers of his good hand. Gaz dug his thumb in a little, drawing the skin of his throat taut, and his fingers curled around against his nape and wait, wow, wait–

“Shit, sorry, you okay?”

Calay swallowed dryly. “Uhm?”

“You flinched. I thought I nicked you.”

Blinking hard, Calay opened his mouth and gulped in air like a fish on land. He hadn’t noticed, but Gaz was right–he’d tensed up. He was clutching the lip of the bathtub so hard the pads of his fingers hurt.

“Nah,” he said.

“Well settle down, then. Almost done.” Gaz slid the razor over the strop, then reached for him again.

This time, when Calay felt a hand at the back of his neck, he tried to take a mental step back. Tried to obtain some distance from himself. But he found he couldn’t. Every little scrape of razor and brush of fingertips shushed his thinking brain into submission.

This feels nice, he thought. Nice like laying on a road: all warm and strangely appealing, but a terrible idea and not a habit to grow accustomed to. But Gaz had nice hands. Big hands. Warm hands. He found himself struggling to string together words any longer than four letters. Everything was big and nice and warm and now.

Then the hands were gone, and Calay was extremely disappointed. Gaz dipped a cloth into the lukewarm water, then dabbed the rest of the lather off his cheeks. Calay watched him with wide, owlish eyes, tracking his hands with interest.

“How’s it feel? Miss anything?” he asked, shamelessly angling for a little bit more of that… whatever it was.

Gaz hiked up an eyebrow but then relented, dragging the back of a knuckle along Calay’s cheek to check for rough spots. But it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t quite good enough. Calay turned his head sideways and nuzzled his whole face into Gaz’s palm the way a hound might greet its keeper.

“You’re in a mood,” Gaz said, his voice unreadable. But he didn’t draw his hand away.

Calay reached up, grabbed him by the wrist. He moved like a man in a knife fight, on blind instinct and proprioception. With a demanding jerk of his arm, he pulled Gaz forward over the bathtub, splashing water all up the front of his clean new shirt. Calay’s brain had approximately half the time necessary to formulate a thought of I want this, yes, okay before the rest of him was acting more or less without his brain’s permission. He surged up and crushed his mouth to Gaz’s, steadying himself on his claws to prop them both up.

Gaz faltered but didn’t quite fall in. He stuttered out a halting grunt of surprise against Calay’s lips. But then he slid a hand around the back of Calay’s head, fingers threading through his damp hair.

Calay heard the razor clatter to the floor. It sounded a thousand miles away.

Strictly physically, kissing Gaz felt just about how one would expect kissing Gaz to feel. His mouth was broad, his lips were chapped. But there was a certain cozy familiarity to it somehow, despite the fact that they’d never kissed before. It felt like walking down a long road to a familiar destination. Gods, he hadn’t kissed anyone in a while. He’d forgotten all the little ways in which it was pleasant.

Gaz kept his fingers wound through Calay’s hair, then snaked his other arm around behind, half-holding Calay upright. Calay relinquished his wrist and relaxed into his grip. Might as well let the one with two fully functional arms do all the heavy lifting.

When their mouths finally parted, Gaz exhaled hard. His basso grumble came out a little breathless.

“Are you…” he started to say. But Calay shushed him, putting a finger to his mouth.

“Unless you’re speaking up because you absolutely don’t wanna do this, can we…. not?”

“Not what?”

He dragged his thumb along the seam of Gaz’s lips. “Talk.”

This time it was Gaz who swallowed dryly. Calay heard his throat click.

“There is one thing we’ve got to work out.” Gaz grazed a knuckle over the ridges of his lumbar spine. He shivered. “Am I climbing in there with you or are you climbing out?”

Calay looped his arm around Gaz’s neck by way of an answer, standing only half under his own power. Their feet tangled as Gaz half-walked half-carried him across the chamber, leaving a trail of sodden footprints on the cool stone floor toward the bed. Deprived now of the warmth of the water, Calay was quick to burrow into the bedcovers. He pulled Gaz down atop him, unwilling and unable to stop now, trailing kisses up the underside of his jaw. He bunched handfuls of Gaz’s shirt, enjoying the way his shoulders moved beneath it, then–

A hiss of pain in his ear.

In his excitement, Calay had grabbed Gaz’s back with both hands. He’d raked Gaz’s shoulder with the bone-shard tips of his bad hand’s fingers, each sharp as a filleting knife. Chastened, he released his grip and let the claws fall to the mattress.

“Shit, shit shit shit, I didn’t mean to–”

Gaz wrapped one big hand around his right hand’s wrist, leaning down against him with a calming, claiming pressure that Calay found particularly enjoyable.

“Shh. You said no talking, remember?”

Calay shut up.

<< Chapter 59 | Chapter 61 >>

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Chapter 59

It was over.

It was finished.

Riss was running out of synonyms.

Freshly bathed and clad in a borrowed tunic and soft leggings, Riss perched on the edge of her big, stupid bed. She ran her fingers through the soft wool of one of the sheepskins piled upon it, combing idly. The mattress would have taken up half the floor space in her childhood cottage. It was just stupid big. She laughed as she petted it.

Harlan Vosk was sequestered, grey and silent, in the castle dungeons. Adal and Torcha were safe, warming by the hearths in their respective rooms, all three of them returned to a place where walls were secure and mattresses were stupid-big and blankets were soft and food was plentiful.

Tarn would return shortly. She’d brief him on their expedition. She’d pass on her sincere apologies that the news about his son wasn’t good. And then they’d watch the man responsible hang by the neck until he died.

Other spectres crowded in the rear of her mind, of course: what of the sorcerer and his friend? What of the magick that corrupted her body? And what exactly came after all this?

But she found that even when she tried, she simply could not force herself to give a shit about all of that now. For now, peace settled on her like freshly-fallen snow. When she breathed in deep, she swore she could almost smell it: a clean, fresh scent. Sunlight baking fresh rain off stone. Drying laundry.

A knock at the door jarred her out of her thoughts.

“Come in,” she hollered.

When Adal stepped in, she wasn’t surprised. An easy smile lifted her mouth. Any lingering anger she’d felt toward him simply wasn’t worth clinging to, not anymore.

He too had bathed, and now he wore a set of his own civilian clothes: an open-chested linen shirt and fine black trousers. Riss was dressed like a stablehand by comparison. She barked a laugh when that thought came to mind, and Adal laughed too, whether he understood why or not.

“I had one of Tarn’s men fetch our things from the inn,” he said. “In case you were missing your own woollies.”

Riss stretched her arms overhead, the billowy sleeves swooping with the motion, and then fell back onto her back on the mattress with a soft fwump.

“I could not care less,” she said. “I’m reveling in being clean even if I’m dressed like I should be offering to brush your horses.”

Adal grabbed the chair from the desk and dragged it over, spinning it to face her. He sank down into it with a relaxed sigh, then lifted his left hand to reveal what it carried: a long-necked bottle crafted of glimmering, translucent brown glass.

“I don’t know about you,” he said. “But I think a toast is in order.”

Outside the watchful eyes of their company, relieved of the burden of command and all the reputation that implied, Riss did not sit up. Instead, she oozed over to the side of the bed, dangling her head over the edge of the mattress. She stared at Adal upside-down, her hair a dark curtain that dangled nearly to the floor. When she let her arms drape down, her knuckles brushed the rug.

“Toasts can wait for the wake,” she said.

Adal tilted his chin to one side, observing her.

She expected him to make some crack about how ridiculous she looked. To chide her for her immaturity or at least get in a dig about how it was good to see her let her hair down, literally.

Instead, he merely watched her for a moment, and the edges of his eyes tightened in that funnily identical way that sometimes foretold a smile and sometimes foretold tears.

“What?” She flicked her knuckles at him, impetuous.

“I missed this you,” he said, his voice muted with gratitude.

That surprised her. Shoulders twitching a little, she sat up just enough to stall the flow of blood to her face.

“I’m the same me I’ve always been,” she said, but even as she said it, that felt like a load of crap.

“You’re relaxed,” he said. “Really relaxed.”

He didn’t say the rest of it, but she heard it in her mind anyhow. He meant she was relaxed in a way she hadn’t been since Gaspard died. And it was the truth. At some point, when Riss wasn’t looking, the heavy shackles of her grief had fallen off her ankles. Or perhaps she’d simply stepped out of them.

She could still conjure the old hurt when she consciously thought his name, of course. She imagined she always would. But that quiet fresh-snow feeling, the cool calming peace like sips of minty tea, that was a sensation she hadn’t felt since losing him. Somehow, she smelled pine trees. The scent of needles in frosty air.

The snow had fallen. And when it melted, she’d discovered something. He was still dead. Nothing was ever going to fix that. But the parts of herself she’d thought she’d buried with him, they weren’t gone.

She put out a hand toward Adal, sitting up some.

“Actually,” she said. “Fuck it. How about that toast, Second.”

He twisted the stopper free of the bottle and gave the contents a sniff.

“Hum.” He swirled the dark liquid inside the bottle, then looked back to Riss. “I swear I had something quite poetic and profound for this. But it’s slipped through my mind and out my ear.”

Riss smirked and tapped a finger to her chin, waiting.

“To getting through,” he finally said. “And getting out.”

He passed the bottle to her first, those six words apparently enough.

There wasn’t much else to say beyond that. The bottle’s contents turned out to be a rich, complexly-flavored Talvace brandy. They passed it back and forth. Soon they were laughing, snorting, recounting old anecdotes from years that had previously been too painful to revisit.

Torcha found them like that, laughing uncontrollably, a half-hour later. She trudged into the room without knocking, wearing a night-shift that fell to her skinny ankles.

“You two fixing to raise the dead in the family crypt?” she groused, palming at her face. Her hair was unbound now, a crazy bird’s nest of tangles around her cheeks.

Adal cleared his throat. He’d been in the process of relating to Riss a story about some moron lieutenant who’d crashed a war-wagon down a ravine.

“Hey.” Riss objected with a wave of her hand. “Hold up. He wasn’t done yet.”

Torcha marched up to Riss’ bed, her flat feet thumping, and then sat down at the foot of it.

“Yeah, Adal,” she drawled. “By all means.”

So Adal started over from the beginning. He passed the brandy down so Torcha could have a swig, and she in turn passed it back up to Riss. They traded wartime escapades, wry observations, and increasingly giddy laughter.

Riss wasn’t even that drunk. Sure, a pleasant warmth buzzed through her veins, but it was more the cathartic act of cutting loose that had her laughing like a child.  

The conversation did one of those funny things: everyone’s laughter all sort of petered out at once, like all three of them were responding to some subtle cue. Riss glanced toward the door, used the moment of silence to listen for any sounds down the hall. The thick walls kept their secrets. The silence revealed nothing.

“Hey.” Adal cleared his throat.

“‘Hey?’” she echoed. “You are drunk.”

Adal let that roll off his back. He stretched out his arms, slouching further forward, his chest to the back of the chair.

“At any rate. I was going to say… just leave it. Leave it for one night. We’ll figure out what to do with them in the morning.”

“Them?” Riss knew who he meant the second she said it.

“I thought you were considering checking in on our guests from the north,” said Adal.

Riss hadn’t consciously planned to be. But perhaps if she’d heard something. Or perhaps she’d done it out of habit, used to her headcount. Whether that had been some subconscious intent or not, Adal was right. She could leave it for a night.

Torcha spoke up before Riss could reply. “They don’t mean us any harm.”

Adal and Riss both glanced at her sidelong. She currently had the bottle in-hand. She gestured with it, hand visibly wobbly.

“I felt it. Y’know. When Geetsha’s people tinkered with our brains. Couldn’t really describe it at the time. Or now. Not in a way that makes sense. But either way. Calay and Gaz, they ain’t gonna fuck us over unless we fuck them first.”

Tinkered with our brains. Riss slid her tongue over her teeth. She was either far too drunk for this or nowhere near drunk enough.

“You reckon you know this for sure?” Riss entertained her for now.

“I do.” Torcha’s expression changed subtly: her mouth and eyes drew further closed, like her features themselves were withdrawing under scrutiny. Her voice grew quieter. “The Collective, Geetsha’s folk. When they touch you, you see things. I saw things, but not like shit-that-wasn’t-real things. I saw… it was like I dreamed some dreams through their eyes.”

“And their dreams told you that they’re… what, good fellows deep down?” Adal sounded skeptical. Riss couldn’t blame him.

“Nah, nah.” Torcha shook her head and brushed a sloppy red curl from her eyes. “Not their dreams. It felt like a dream to me, but I’m pretty sure what I saw was just their lives. Shit they’d been through.”

She took another swig from the bottle, then passed it back to Riss.

Summarily, as if she were stating a fact about the weather, or informing Riss that dirt was brown, she said, “All those two care about is gettin’ through the next day and makin’ sure the other one doesn’t die. If we let ‘em be, we’ll probably never see ‘em again.”

Torcha made it sound so simple. Riss took the bottle and swigged deeply. The way she’d phrased it–all they care about is getting through the next day–struck a familiar place in Riss’ heart. Gods knew she’d felt that way more than she cared to admit. All the crazy bullshit about feeling their feelings and living their memories aside, Torcha seemed serious. The girl didn’t always have the calmest head or the most sensible judgment, but Riss trusted Torcha to never lie to her. Whatever weird shit she was saying, she believed it to be true.

“Well,” said Riss, passing the bottle to Adal. “I promised not to betray them.” Like every single person in the room wasn’t aware she’d been considering doing it anyway, promise or not.

Adal had fallen strangely quiet. Drunk Adal normally spoke even more than sober Adal, but he’d lapsed into thoughtful silence, sipping and watching them.

“What’s your read on all this, Second?” Riss asked.

Again, Adal’s silence was pointed. He tapped his finger against the neck of the bottle, a quiet little rhythm, then finally answered. “The more I think on it, the more I think Torcha’s right.”

He seemed nervous, but Riss wasn’t going to chase him for the reason. They were all coming down off their various nerves; perhaps he just needed to smoke something potent and sleep for a week.

It was so strange, the idea of doing what Torcha suggested: just going about her business like she’d never learned the truth of Calay’s nature. Was it possible to simply step back into everyday life once you’d met a sorcerer? Once your body had been knit back together, dragged back from the brink? Was it possible to return to her old routines knowing such beings still existed, that history wasn’t quite so far in the past as she’d believed?

Tarn had Vosk to blame. He’d have the truth of what had happened to Lukra. Would keeping a teensy card or two to her chest really count as betraying his trust?

“Suppose we can see what they plan on doing,” she said. “If they plan on moving on… no reason we can’t just let them move on.”

To say nothing of the new, tangible awareness that bit in like a pebble in the bottom of her boot: now that she’d seen the whole of what Calay was capable of, who the hells was she to fuck with him? They all saw what he’d done to Vosk.

“Tarn would gut us. If he knew we knowingly let a sorcerer sleep in his home, he’d hang us by our own entrails.” She had to say it. Had to have some token objection on the record.

Incongruously, Adal cracked up laughing. He laughed hard, resting his forehead to the back of the chair, and then wheezed out a snicker as he tried to contain himself.

“Oh for Loth’s sake,” he laughed. “You say that like we didn’t spend an entire war sneaking around doing shit our commanders would have gutted us for. Like ‘Tarn would kill us for this!’ isn’t the second most common combination of words to ever fall out of your mouth.”

Riss couldn’t help but catch his laughter. She lurched forward and grabbed for the brandy bottle, swinging her arm out. He let her catch it.

“Fuck off,” she said quickly, around a grin. She yanked the bottle from Adal’s hand. “Wait, what was the first?”

In the same instant, Adal and Torcha both put a finger to their mouths and went shhh. Riss glanced between them, squinting.

“Forgive me for wanting our recon unit to be quiet in the field,” she muttered.

She took a deep swig from the brandy. It had a note of dried apricot in it, somewhere deep down, and the drunker she got the more she liked it.

“Tell you what,” Torcha said. “It’s almost like Gaspard never left us. You transformed into an old man before our very eyes.”

And wouldn’t you know it, Riss laughed. It still stung a little, in a far-off way, but she laughed.

<< Chapter 58 | Chapter 60 >>

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Chapter 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fucksake,” he growled through his fingers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 57 | Chapter 59 >>

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Chapter 57

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they were losing daylight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss hesitated, watching him, expectant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell that to your dog.”

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

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

Well, perhaps he was their dog now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each of those propositions sounded better than the last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How strange, to walk once more among the living.

<< Chapter 56 | Chapter 58 >>

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Chapter 56

Harlan ran for his life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But when he finally looked over his shoulder, nothing.

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

He had passed back into the world of the living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footsteps crunched up the road behind him, leisurely slow.

“Nice out, isn’t it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His voice.

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

<< Chapter 55 | Chapter 57 >>

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Chapter 55

They’d returned to the river. And because they were on the river, Adal dared to hope. He’d never felt the intimate spiritual touch of the god his family worshipped, had no stories like the River Navy’s paddleboat captains with their tales of how Loth had rescued them from certain death. But the river was home turf. The river was familiar.

When the sorcerer stumbled and fell into the water, Adal dared to hope that Loth was pressing a thumb upon the scales in their favor. What if, after all that, Calay simply died? That would solve so many of his problems, tie off so many loose threads. He couldn’t believe his luck.

Then Torcha leapt into action to save him, and all hopes of a tidy ending blew up in his face.

Something had happened to them when they’d been separated from him and Riss. He’d known that from the moment they walked back into view. But he hadn’t anticipated that she’d rush to his aid like an old friend, flipping up her rifle and blasting the closest tree apart before Riss could even give the order. Adal and Riss caught one another’s eye through the gunfire, and her face was tough to read.

She didn’t look surprised. Or pleased with this turn of events. But they piled onto Torcha’s coattails, opening fire now that they were given no choice. Calay had lent Riss his pistol, which she wielded in an awkward, two-handed grip. She reloaded it slowly, uncertainly, and the awkward pull and latch of her fingers gave Adal a smile that was wholly inappropriate for the moment. She and Gaspard like two stubborn children, resistant to the changing landscape of war. He’d teased them both for it during happier times.

But something wasn’t right. They’d driven the trees off Calay, but he wasn’t getting up.

Again, Adal dared to hope, but it was out of his hands now. He wasn’t going to hold back. They’d kicked the hornet’s nest, and now they had to settle the swarm.

“You two cover me,” Riss said, pushing up and readying the pistol.

He trusted her to pull back if the odds didn’t look good. She knew Calay wasn’t one of them. She wouldn’t put herself in a dangerous spot for him. But still his stomach seized when he watched her jog toward the mass of splintered trees. It was easy–too easy–to remember her lying in the mud.

Calay had yet to move. Adal squinted through the trees toward the river’s opposite bank, where Gaz had Vosk pinned. He didn’t give his prisoner so much as a glance, gaze fixed on where his friend had fallen.

Torcha was all business, putting round after round into the trees. Each shot detonated with a fury that shook the blades of the grass they crouched in. Calay had amplified their weapons something terrible. Adal didn’t fire, watching Riss through his sights, ready to intervene if anything made a grab for her. She ran up the path Calay had chopped, heading straight for him. A squat, wide-trunked tree swiveled toward her, and as it turned Adal spotted the badly-decayed lower halves of two human bodies dangling from its back. The legs hung skinny and useless, bone jutting from where flesh had worn away. He swallowed and fired, blasting the tree off course.

The rifle kicked back hard against his shoulder, a snap of recoil that stung all the way down his arm. He shook out his hand before flicking the bolt and readying another round.

Riss reached Calay. Torcha clucked her tongue.

“You oughta get down there,” she said to Adal. “I can cover y’all just fine up here, but pistols might be better on those roots and Riss has only got the one.”

Adal checked his sidearm, then left his rifle at Torcha’s feet when she offered him another. Rank be damned, he’d be a fool to ignore her advice when it came to matters of blowing parts off things with gunfire.

Skidding down the talus and into the riverbed, he took a path through the wooden wreckage that was part Calay’s doing and part Torcha’s. Shards and splinters of bark littered the riverbed now, and with it came the sticky brown-black sludge that leaked out of the trees when they disgorged their half-digested contents. He coughed, eyes stinging–the smell of putrefaction was overwhelming. By the time he reached Riss, she’d dragged Calay out of the water. Four trees remained mobile enough to be a threat, by Adal’s extremely uneducated estimation.

Panting, Adal looked to the man slumped at Riss’ feet.

“Is he…?”

Calay coughed, pushing himself up on his good arm, his elbow wobbly. “You wish,” he croaked, spitting out water.

Adal deigned not to answer that.

Yet he discovered, deep down in his gut, a strange wellspring of relief. He was glad to see the sorcerer lift his head, squint up at him with defiance in his bruise-ringed gaze.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Calay said, struggling up to his feet. Adal couldn’t see any wounds on him, but his eyes were sunken pits. His expression was grave. “When that tree took my arm, I bonded with it somehow. I can feel their pain. It’s fucking me up.”

Nobody bothered to dwell on that. Instead, Riss leapt straight into an exit strategy. Adal hung back, levelling the long barrel of his pistol at the closest tree.

“All right,” she said. “Calay, I’m gonna run you back to Gaz. Take Vosk and get as far away as you have to. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Calay’s thin silver-blond brows rose a little, and he stared at Riss for half a beat with an expression of muted surprise. Then another of Torcha’s rounds blasted through the trees and he collapsed again, cradling his right arm to his body. Riss grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him up.

“On your feet,” she growled. “I can get you most of the way there but you gotta walk yourself.”

Adal sought an opening, readying his pistols. He ticked the barrel of one toward a gap between two trees, one relatively undamaged and the other blown to fragments. Riss clocked the opportunity, nodded, and took off running. She dragged Calay along with her, only half under his own power. As they moved, Adal fired twice into the tree closest to them, rewarded by a powerful rush of fetid, rank-smelling air as a pocket of decay inside it ruptured. Mindful of the trees at his flank but trusting Torcha to keep him covered, he started to reload.

He never saw Riss and Calay reach the others, preoccupied with minding his own skin, but he knew they must have when Gaz abruptly trampled up to his side, crushing bark under his boots.

Then on his heels came Riss, heaving up her machete in preparation for a strike. She warned Adal and Gaz back with a holler, then swung. Her blade slammed into a tangle of roots, the steel flaring white, and when she pulled her arm back, a jagged schism of light split the tree from its base to the tips of its branches. With a crack of thunder, it split up the middle as if struck by lightning.

Adal and Gaz ducked and covered, shielding their eyes. Panting, Riss yanked her machete up for another strike, swinging laterally this time into the trunk of another tree. Whatever terrifying curse Calay had laid upon her weapon shot through the tree like nothing Adal had ever seen. Each strike crackled through bark and wood with ease, white-hot fissures appearing in the trees’ skins. They glowed and flashed and split. Riss was cutting through the forest like a living knife.

Adal hung back a step and simply observed. His own contributions felt unnecessary at that point. Gaz yanked him hard by the shoulder to steer him aside from some branches that blew past. Righting himself after being pulled, Adal swung to keep an eye on their rear guard. He yelped.

“Gaz! On your left!”

Then the blade of Gaz’s axe was whizzing past Adal’s face, far too close for comfort, biting into sickly white-yellow bark. The tree was close enough that Adal heard gasps and wheezes from something trapped within it. He closed his eyes and fired into it point blank, not wanting to see the source of those sounds.

The wheeze became a pained rasp, a gurgle like a sucking drain.

The tree fell forward instead of back, snagging tendrils of sharp roots reaching for Adal’s boots.

Then Riss was on them both. Her machete shimmered through the air, glowing white-hot in her hands, and she slammed into the tree with the force of a hurricane. It didn’t just crack and split–it erupted into pieces.

Falling back, Adal reloaded. He kept guard while Gaz dispatched some twitching, grasping branches that had yet to realize they were dead. One well-placed shot over Gaz’s shoulder was enough.

By the time Riss was finished, not a single tree was left intact. And the two that stood at all were bisected up the middle like a fish for gutting. Riss stood amid the inert wood, panting, her shoulders rising and falling. She smeared the back of a hand across her brow, lips parted as she caught her breath.

“You all right?” Adal called.

She reacted to him much slower than she had to the trees, turning her head and considering her answer in silence before she spoke.

“Yeah.” She sounded bewildered.

Torcha loped down the skree, sliding on stones and skidding to a halt at the heap of wreckage. She let out a triumphant whoop, then threw her head back and cackled at the sky.

“Boss, that was amazing!”

Adal rubbed at his cheek with a thumb. “I’m assuming Calay did… whatever that was?”

“Mhm.” Riss turned the machete over in her hand. The blade didn’t glow or hum or anything exotic. It looked the same as it always had. “He said he was giving it all the blood he had left. I gave him a head start. He seemed to think distance was all he needed.”

In concert, they all glanced up and down the river’s banks. No sign of Calay or Vosk. Water burbled peacefully down the shallow braid of the Deel. A single bird cawed in the distance. The quiet rang in Adal’s ears after so much noise. When he breathed, he could still taste the odd metallic tingle on the air that seemed to follow Calay’s magicks.

Torcha tossed Adal his rifle and he slung it over his shoulder. Then she went back to fetch the animals.

“Should we be hurrying?” Riss asked, glancing to her right down the riverbed. Adal presumed that’s where she’d sent Calay running off.

“I don’t think it matters.” Gaz’s voice was soft and contemplative, possessed of a certain morbid finality. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s planning on killing the guy. But even if he was, we couldn’t really…”

Adal’s lips twitched. “No, I suppose we couldn’t stop him.”

He wondered how it must feel, that bond Gaz and Calay shared. It reminded him of his relationship with Riss, in a way. Though he knew nothing of their history, Gaz’s indifference to Calay’s magicks and the latter’s secretive demeanor spoke of a hard-won closeness. Friendship forged under less-than-ideal circumstances.

But unlike Riss, Calay was a monster. Adal kept reminding himself. How did it feel, knowing your closest confidant possessed such terrifying powers? Had he known from the beginning?

A pang of guilt whispered in his ear: and how did it feel, knowing his own closest confidant only drew breath because of those magicks?

“We should get to the rendezvous point downstream,” Torcha said, leading the moa back.

“You think he’ll show?” Adal was on the fence.

Torcha pursed her mouth in thought, then took a swig from her canteen. “Yeah,” she said. “I reckon he will.”

They gathered their things and set off toward where the treetops lightened. Patches of blue sky dared to show between the treetops as the swamp thinned. The air grew drier, thinner, less oppressive in indefinable tiny ways. Adal and Riss noticed at almost the same time, taking in a deep breath each and savoring how easy it came.

Is this really it, he wanted to ask. Are we really on the way out? But having been betrayed by luck only minutes before, Adal didn’t feel like risking it. Instead, he fished a half-austral from his pocket. He flipped the silvery coin up into the air, watched it spin, then caught it in his glove. He didn’t bother looking to see whether it landed face-side up before he tossed it into the river, a modest offering for a god who probably wasn’t even watching.

<< Chapter 54 | Chapter 56 >>

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Chapter 54

Calay and Gaz laid out their plan. It was just like old times. Except instead of Syl and Booter and Kardel, he was working with an entirely different trio of mental cases. And they weren’t planning anything nearly as fun as a heist. Yet still the bottoms of Calay’s feet tingled with the excitement. His mouth watered the way it did when he walked past a bakery.

He and Gaz would go in first. Calay planned to throw everything he had at the trees, and there was no shortage of weapons in his arsenal. Gaz would corral Vosk, then make for the opposite side of the basin. The others were to step in only if Calay got into trouble. If not, they’d slink around a ways upriver and everyone would rendezvous on the other side.

“You sure you’re all right with this?” he asked Torcha, hovering two bloodied fingers over her rifle. He was going to glyph it up again, leave nothing to chance. She’d given it to him willingly.

Their dynamic had… changed, since the Bridging. He couldn’t quite describe how. It wasn’t as though he could read her thoughts, but he could read her face better. When she flattened her mouth and closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath, he saw the expression for what it was: resignation, not the sign of fury about to boil over. He’d sensed that well of fury in her, how deep it ran, but after they’d Bridged, she had yet to turn it on him.

No, he couldn’t read her mind. But he understood her. And more importantly, she seemed to understand him. It left him with a sticky residue of unease, a nauseatingly vulnerable feeling, to wonder what she’d glimpsed when she peered inside his head.

They’d have to talk later. Once all this blew over. He and Gaz, too.

“I don’t like it,” Torcha said. “But you got a point–if we gotta rush in and bail you out, that means things have gone so wrong regular guns won’t make much of a difference.”

When she said that, Adal and Riss shared a look. Then they too passed their weapons over.

Calay prepared them all, fighting to suppress the smile that threatened at his mouth every time the distant figure in the river shivered and fell with each sweep of his bloodied hands.

###

“Well this is definitely the stupidest thing you’ve ever signed me up for,” Gaz whispered as they crept down into the riverbed, their steps softened by Calay’s magicks.

“How’s about this?” Calay spared him a brief sideways grin, unsure if he was even looking. “You choose the next job.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“Deal.”

They were close enough that the strange crack and rattle of the crawling trees was all around them. Calay had no frame of reference for the noise, his own life one of stone and streets and men. It chilled him even as he wondered whether regular trees sometimes made such sounds.

He felt no fear. Just a steady, eager hunger to get even. And even then, it was tempered with a cool-headedness that his prior violent sprees had lacked.

“No last words?” Gaz paired the question with a chuckle that betrayed his own nerves.

“Nope.” Calay dipped his hand into the flagon of Vosk’s blood–he was scraping the bottom now. All the more reason to save the fucker. The second he croaked, what little blood remained would significantly decrease in efficacy.

“Actually.” He swept his fingers through the air, tracing a complicated series of sigils. “I do have a few: let’s get this over with.”

He hadn’t conjured a blade in some time. The risk on the streets back home was far, far too great. A cutpurse whose feet were preternaturally quiet? That could be explained by skill or inattentive guards. An assassin who could slip past an entire retinue of the city’s finest? Again, skill or luck. A screaming spear of living shadows was a bit tougher to explain.

His hands still knew the way, however rusty he was.

With a snap and flash of sizzling magick, a dark rip opened up in reality. Calay reached his hand inside and pulled, dragged the shadow lengthwise. It shrieked, a high wail that carried on the wind like a rabbit in a predator’s jaws. There was no hiding their approach now. The shadow solidified beneath his fingers. He formed a shaft about three feet long, tapered to a brutal point. Sweeping one hand in an arc, he extended the blade, shaping it from a spear into a scythe. It screamed again, and just ahead of him, the trees all ceased their creeping and clattering. They didn’t turn toward him–didn’t need to, lacking faces and all–but the branches near Vosk ceased their slithering. Instead, their ‘back’ branches stiffened. He didn’t like that either. It wasn’t natural, fighting something without a face. Not knowing if it was even turned your way.

He gave the scythe a testing sweep, dragging another scream out of it. At his side, Gaz grimaced. He’d never liked those. Calay could hardly blame him.

“Well,” he said, trying to steer Gaz’s mind off the screaming. “Wish me luck.”

He didn’t hang around to hear any well-wishes.

Calay charged in. He let his feet lead him, mind falling back into the quiet place it lurked when he moved on instinct. He’d glyphed himself to the teeth, reflexes moving quicker than his brain could process. He swept the scythe in a circle ‘round his person, severing branches everywhere he turned. Wood flew in chips and splinters. The blade kept on shrieking. From the corner of his eye, he saw Vosk cower in the water. Everything happened at half speed.

All the while, he counted down in his head. The spikes of shadow never lasted longer than half a minute or so. The first few times they’d failed on him, he’d decided he’d never take that chance again. He discarded them after thirty seconds. Better safe than sorry.

Thirty. Twenty-nine. He danced a path through the trees to Vosk, clearing the way for Gaz to rush through.

Twenty-two. Twenty-one. Gaz arrived on heavy feet, grabbing Vosk around the middle before he could try anything funny. Calay turned the scythe on the trees before him rather than trying to plow back the way they’d come. Shadow tore through bark. The air rung with fresh screams.

Ten. Nine. Gaz dragged Vosk past the last of the trees, branches grasping wildly at their backs. Twigs tore through clothes. Gaz stumbled. Calay was on him, beating the tree back, the pitch-dark slice of void in his hands turning everything he touched to mulch.

Two. One. He tossed the thing to the ground. Still two trees between him and Gaz. Gaz not yet far enough away. His hands made all the calculations and adjustments without him, body happy to follow the zig-zag orders of his augmented subconscious.

Far away, sensed the way a voice might sound from up a flight of stairs, something nagged at him. A tug, an itch. A scratch in the palm of his still-growing hand. The bark in his body felt its kin nearby, and he shuddered at the thought.

He blooded his fingers and readied the fire. He’d burn the whole grove down if he could. Digging his fingers in, he tore a strip from the ragged hem of his shirt. He sketched bloodied fingertips across the fabric and sparked it to light. Jogging back and away from the nearest tree, he drew another figure in the air, then twirled the burning fabric through it. It stretched, elongated, and crackled. Now armed with a whip of writhing flame, he turned his eyes on the nearest tree.

Sickly grey-barked and tilted at a precarious angle, the tree that crawled toward him was slimmer than the one they’d blown up. Tattered rags and curtains of dried-up moss dangled from its canopy, and it smelled of moist, rich earth. As he moved in for the kill, Calay couldn’t spy anything living melded with its bark, only hints of age-smooth grey bone protruding from the trunk. Small bones. Bird bones.

He cracked the whip of fire across it, the wood sizzling and scorching on impact.

In the same instant, something seized his right arm, a pain so sharp and searing it stole his breath and drove him to his knees. He fell, yanked the whip back, smelled smoke. He was able to scramble back, moving through the river’s shallows. Nothing held his arm. He’d thought he’d felt it, a sharp yank that would wrench his shoulder from its socket, but then–

Water rushed over his forearms, dulling the pain somewhat. Steam hissed up as the river swallowed both the whip and his burning arm. When he lifted his right hand free, he saw black scorch marks lanced across the bark.

The bark in his body had found its kind. Something about the void-scythe had nullified the link, but when he’d burnt the trees, he’d burnt himself to a crisp. Perhaps he’d just been careless. Maybe his fingers had slipped. He had to hope…

The others had seen him falter. The backup plan sprang into action like a mousetrap. Things went off with a brilliant synchronicity, considering how unused to magick Riss’ mercenaries were. Considering they hadn’t rehearsed.

Blasting a barrel-sized hole through the tree before him, the first shot was probably Torcha’s. He imagined it was, at least. Seemed like her. Those were the last coherent thoughts his mind could string together before he felt the impact, the jarring rush of fire and kinetic force blasting through him as though it had been him she’d shot. Howling, Calay dove into the river, rolling sideways and attempting to keep himself moving.

He felt every impact from the gunshots to the tiny, shivering creaks of the branches above him. Felt the pull of them, the way the bark called to him like water felt the call to run downstream.

Gasping, he tried to call out to Torch and Riss, to warn them, to ward them off. But he couldn’t catch his breath. Each fresh round that cracked overhead spiked the breath right out of him.

He’d told them to open fire and shred the things to bits if anything went wrong. And he was going to suffer through every single shot.

<< Chapter 53 | Chapter 55 >>

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Chapter 53

The sheer depth of the gratitude Riss felt at seeing Torcha surprised her. Not that she’d expected to be ungrateful—far from it—but she didn’t know she still had it in her to feel so overwhelmed. Not after all the swamp had put them through. She’d thought she was a lantern running on the last gasps of its oil. More surprising still was how Torcha responded with equal fervor, bounding across the mud and leaping into her arms as soon as the fight was won. Riss encircled the smaller woman in a fierce hug and squeezed her tight.

“Never, ever do that again,” she ordered.

Torcha’s voice was muffled by the folds of Riss’ cloak. She let out an indignant huff into the filthy fabric. “I did what I had to, sarge.”

Something nudged into Torcha from behind, throwing her off balance a little.

“Hah,” she said. “And look. I even found this little guy again. Doesn’t that just beat all?”

Looking equal parts mud and fur, the dog sat near Torcha’s boots, its tail giving an enthusiastic wag once she finally acknowledged it.

Her heart still pounding from the exertions of battle, Riss took a moment to catch her breath. She mussed Torcha’s hair, then stepped back, surveying her team. The instinctual peripheral-vision head count she always performed in the back of her mind felt off. Adal stood close by, giving Torcha a brief and candid little smile that spoke volumes. Gaz and Calay loitered near the twitching corpse of the monster. Calay squatted and prodded one of the dead beast’s limbs with his knife, inspecting it.

She was still expecting to look up and see five others. But Vosk was gone, wasn’t he.

That revelation didn’t just take the wind out of her sails. It sank the whole ship. They’d let Vosk give them the slip. Then that critter had worn him like a skin-suit. Now they had nothing to take back to Tarn but their own slapdash version of the story and the news that they’d gotten his guide killed. They hadn’t even been able to recover Lukra’s remains. Carrying Vosk back to Adelheim to be dealt with, that was the absolute least they could have done. And now…

The misery floated up from her guts and straight onto her face, a grimace she couldn’t scrub off. She distracted herself by taking a pull from her canteen, gulping down water.

Just take satisfaction in knowing Torcha’s safe, she told herself. But that did little to stem the tide of could-haves and should-haves that bulged against the levees of her mind, threatening to overrun her.

Calay approached, reeking strongly of sulfur and smoke. Riss sniffed and wrinkled her nose. He let out an affronted noise and flapped his sleeve, squaring his shoulders.

“I know I stink, thanks,” he said, more lighthearted than she expected.

“I reckon we all stink,” Torcha agreed.

Riss flitted a look between the two of them. So they were getting along now? She had to wonder what had occurred when the northerners had gone to fetch her. She’s talking to him like he’s people again.

“Stink can be remedied,” said Adal. “And it can be remedied much easier than any of the other misfortunes that might have befallen us.”

A thin, sharp grin edged its way up Calay’s mouth. “Are you saying you’re glad I’m not dead? Ah, Adalgis, I knew you’d come around.”

Riss couldn’t take it. She was glad on one level to see them laughing off that close call, to see her team existing as a cohesive unit, however troubling the implications of that might have been. But when she reached inside herself to try to join in the banter, she found her reserves empty. She couldn’t make it happen. She swallowed and took a single, wide step away from the entire conversation, turning to face the swamp lest her face give her away.

In the Fourth, she’d earned a reputation as a militant hardass in an army full of militant hardasses. Though she later grew to learn that dispassion did not in fact make one stronger, a façade of dispassion lent strength to those under your command. No one liked seeing their commanding officer break down like a fucking baby.

But they noticed. Of course they did. If not her sudden reluctance to join in, they noticed Vosk’s conspicuous absence.

“So I can’t help but notice…” Torcha trailed off, appearing at Riss’ side once more.

“Yeah.” Riss’ voice was low, the single word forced out in a curt little grunt. “I know. He’s gone.”

Torcha looked to Calay, for some reason. “Gone?”

“Mhm.” Riss ticked her chin toward the limp, slimy remains of the creature coiled on the ground. “He’s gone.” Forcing the words out felt like spitting broken glass.

Torcha glanced to Calay again, then off toward the trees. “What do you mean gone?”

“I mean the thing we just killed got to him first.” Her shoulders tensed. She fought to keep her voice steady. Speaking the words aloud felt like admission of failure.

“I think it was one of those mimic-beasts Geetsha warned us about.” Adal regarded the corpse as he spoke. “It wore Vosk like a disguise to get to us. Then it just sort of… shed him off.”

Torcha’s brows drew together.

“That don’t make any sense,” she finally said. Then she looked to Calay again. Whatever rapport the two of them had gained while out of Riss’ sight, it had her constantly looking to him, almost as if for guidance. That was… odd. Riss didn’t like it. But it was so far down her present list of problems that it barely warranted a second thought.

Calay glanced around, turning in a slow circle. Gaz and Torcha followed his gaze, the three of them studying the riverbank. Riss couldn’t see whatever it was they were fixating upon.

“You’re sure it got him?” Calay sounded uncertain.

“I can’t be sure of anything out here,” Riss said, her voice a dour mutter. “I’m not sure how long it was pretending to be him. Possible it got him a long time ago.”

Calay strayed his remaining hand to the blown-glass canteen that dangled at his hip. He hovered his fingers over it, then looked up toward Riss again, then back, like he was trying to take measure of her.

“What?”

“There’s a test I can perform,” he said. “But I didn’t want to try it without warning you. Lest you bury that machete in my face and all.”

“This isn’t the time to be fucking cute about your abilities, sorcerer.” Riss turned on him with an anger that surprised her more than it appeared to surprise Calay, who didn’t budge.

“The trail’s still sparkling,” said Torcha, and Riss had no earthly idea what she was on about.

“It is,” said Gaz.

Riss was starting to feel like she was always the last one to find out. But she didn’t ask.

“Perform your test,” she said to Calay, in a tone that added a silent and that’s an order.

Calay dipped two fingers into the spout of his flagon. When he withdrew them, they were shiny and dark red with blood. He flicked a few droplets onto himself, then made a warding gesture before his face, fingers forming a brief sign. The air before him shimmered briefly, his sharp features fading into softer relief. For half a second, Riss viewed him as though through a dirty window. Magick. Riss knew the thing she was observing was magick. But it was frankly not as flashy as she’d expected. The dirty window effect faded and the air between her and Calay returned to normal.

Calay sniffed, then spoke with complete certainty and zero hesitation. “He’s alive.”

Everyone but Gaz stared at him with varying degrees of curiosity and skepticism. The little spell he’d rendered had been so mild, so anticlimactic. How could it explain anything about what had befallen Vosk? He hadn’t even looked in the direction of the creature that might have killed him.

Calay cottoned on to their cumulative desire for an explanation, then waved a hand.

“It’s his blood,” he said. “The blood I harvested from him. It still works. If something had topped him off, this blood would be next to useless.”

That seemed like valuable knowledge to remember for later. Riss pursed her lips. “I see.”

“And like Torcha says, the trail’s still sparkling.” He slanted a glance toward Torcha, then to Gaz.

“Geetsha’s people,” he explained. “They lit a trail for us, to Vosk. They didn’t outright say it’d disappear if he did, but between that and the blood…”

“What trail?” Adal looked all around, staring at the roots of a nearby tangle of trees, then elevating his gaze all the way to the sky. Riss too saw nothing.

“I don’t think you two can see it,” said Torcha. “Geetsha’s folks uh, did something to us.”

Riss almost asked. She reminded herself to pursue that in detail later. But for now, she seized on the fact that her people seemed to think Vosk remained alive. Exactly who Geetsha’s people were and what they had done to Torcha—an ominous phrase if ever she’d heard one—could wait.

She also wondered whether Geetsha’s people had shared their thoughts on Riss getting their envoy killed, but nobody volunteered that information and she wasn’t about to ask.

If they’d lit a trail toward Vosk through some sorcerous means, they knew who was responsible.

“So this trail,” she said, unsure whether to direct her enquiry to Torcha or Calay. “How exactly do we follow it?”

Calay glanced off toward the river, then angled his head, studying something in the distance.

“It’s spores or some such,” he said. “Something in the mushrooms. Do you see anything glowing up ahead?”

Riss gazed off in the direction he looked. She saw some tangled brambles, a squat colony of thick-stalked mushrooms, and one of the mimic-creature’s severed tentacles, still oozing away onto the muddy ground.

“Glowing?” she asked, wondering if she just wasn’t looking in the right place.

“Trust me, you’d know it if you saw it,” Calay said. He gestured that way, knifing a hand through the air. “The Collective say Vosk is this way. And they led us straight to you all, so we have no reason to doubt them yet.” He paused. “Them? It? I can’t tell if I’m phrasing that right.”

The whole interaction left Riss with more questions than answers, but the end result was the same. They walked in the direction Calay indicated, Torcha concurring that some unseen force was lighting their way.

###

Soon, regardless of whatever arcane methods Geetsha’s people had used to mark Vosk’s trail, Riss picked up sign. Until the moment she set eyes on the first footprint, she’d been uneasy and unsure. She trusted Torcha with her life. She trusted Calay less, but oddly she trusted him not to outright bullshit her. The two of them together made for a powerful argument. But until she saw proof of Vosk’s passing through with her own eyes, she’d really wondered.

It was a bootprint, nothing more. But it was fresh, and it had an elongated profile, a hint of drag to the impression in the mud. Like the person who’d left it had been running hard.

Now she was able to firmly wrest control of her doubt and focus on her objective. Vosk was alive. There was nobody else out here to leave such a print, and the mud he’d trudged through was still wet to the touch. Like a hound that had scented blood, Riss pushed forward with renewed vigor.

She didn’t dare to ask what arcane methods Geetsha’s people had used to “mark a trail” for Torcha and Calay. Whatever it was, it appeared to be working—Riss hung back, following their lead. The two worked in concert now, silent gestures and glances between them, fingers pointing the way.

“Looks as though somebody bonded while we were away,” Adal said, watching their backs.

“I’m not even going to try to guess. One crisis at a time.”

“Is it really a crisis that they don’t want to shoot one another?”

That got a brief laugh out of her. She was about to explain that it was less a crisis and more a change that any good leader should keep track of when an anguished, desperate scream split the quiet of the marsh. Shrill with terror though it was, Riss was fairly certain the voice was male. Ahead of her, Calay froze in his tracks.

“Uh oh,” he said. “This might be the immune response.”

Riss did not have the patience to ask for the hundredth explanation she’d needed in the last ten minutes, but she noted the wariness that colored his voice.

“He can’t be far.” Torcha heaved her rifle up, double-checking the bolt. Adal grabbed his own off the back of the moa.

They came upon another braided fork of the river, the ground dropping away to a shallow sprawl of gravel and river-worn pebbles that was blessedly free of mud.

Harlan Vosk cowered in the water on his hands and knees, trees closing in around him. The river rushed past him at shoulder height, and he hunkered down in it as low as he could. On either side of the water, trees leaned their grasping limbs toward him, their branches trembling restlessly. One dragged the half-absorbed remnants of a cart in its wake, wheels creaking.

Would they pursue him into the water? Could they? Riss had no idea. She counted seven of them. The trees had them outnumbered. For the moment, she had the high ground. But she recalled how quick those things could move.

She signalled and the team dropped down amid some sharp-tipped flax for cover.

“This problem looks like it’s solved itself.” Torcha was careful to keep her voice to a minimum. Riss looked to Adal.

“Riss—” he started.

She could already tell what he was thinking from that tone.

“Absolutely not. I’m not leaving him.”

The very idea that Adal considered Vosk an acceptable loss stung. It felt like a rejection of her trust. Of her principles. Even if he considered going home to Tarn empty-handed an acceptable outcome, surely he could see how much it mattered to her.

“You can’t be suggesting we rescue him. Look how many there are. We took down one before, and it took concerted effort.”

Again, Riss got that nagging feeling that she was on the wrong side of every argument. That her gut feelings were steering her off course. Fuck you, Gaspard, she seethed. She wished he were there in person, a target for her spite. I trusted myself so much more before.

But now was not the time. Perhaps she’d visit his cairn later. Vent her feelings. Get roaring drunk. Assuming they all lived.

Someone quietly cleared their throat. “She’s right.”

It simultaneously surprised her and also didn’t that Calay was the first to speak up on her behalf. She could guess at his reasons—it wouldn’t be satisfying to lose the man who shot him to a tree. And as much as he still made her skin crawl, he’d brought Torcha back.

“What would you even know about her reasoning there?” Adal regarded Calay through the sharp blades of the flax.

“I don’t need to know a thing about her—or you—to have an opinion here. All I know is that you’ve come awful far to give up and slink home now.”

That got Adal’s hackles up. Riss had to gesture at him to keep his voice down as he growled back at Calay.

“There’s a difference between ‘giving up’ and refusing to dive headlong into needless danger. Our wounds don’t magickally heal. Our hands don’t spout fire. We need to be more tactical with our risk-taking.”

Calay sniffed, then set his eyes on Vosk once more. Vosk was doing an admirable job keeping free of the trees, wobbling on his hands and knees, trying to stand in the middle of the river. The current threatened to tug him over. Trees just below him sent seeking feelers into the water, but it seemed to disrupt their senses. They groped blindly rather than reaching with intent.

“So let me do it,” Calay finally said.

That’s what it had come down to, then. The sorcerer heroically stepping between her team and another insurmountable crisis. Adal had all but twisted her arm last time. Torcha treated him like he was one of the unit now. She wanted to ask him why, wanted to clarify his motives. But even if she asked, who’s to say his answers would be honest. Maybe he’s just building up capital in the hopes we won’t sell him out, she thought. Or maybe this was even simpler. Maybe he wanted to save Vosk because he planned to torment the man himself, to steal him away before justice could be served.

Riss thought about all that, crouched there in the mud, watching her target writhe and avoid the trees. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized she didn’t care. She’d known her answer immediately.

“Fine,” she said. She hated how the word tasted in her mouth. But this time at least she wasn’t on the side of yet another losing argument.

<< Chapter 52 | Chapter 54 >>

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