Chapter 36

Calay detested weakness. All of his lowest, most shameful moments could be tied back to weakness in childhood or weakness when life had got the better of him. And as he struggled to catch his breath after the boulder creature’s departure, he felt weakness in his bones so keenly. It evoked memories of starvation–of feeling spent, empty, running on fumes.

Gaz beside him wasn’t faring much better.

On some level he still couldn’t quite believe Gaz had done that. The amount of blood he’d given for the spell–that was quite a risk. Gaz had seen the effects blood sorcery had on donors. He’d done it anyway.

Calay felt like he should say something. Like he should impress upon Gaz that he knew what a sacrifice that had been. But there just hadn’t been a good moment. Riss wasn’t giving them an inch of space alone, and then they’d barreled straight into the path of that golem. Now they were chasing another loose end, when all Calay wanted was to sit back down and be nice and immobile for a while.

They walked a narrow trail through marshland that grew wetter and wetter, until deep stagnant pools flanked either side of their path. The water reeked and heavy, buzzing clouds of insects hugged low to its surface. Mindful that they could be bloodsuckers, he reached into his belt, then grimaced when the sharp, tapered bone of his missing right hand pinged off the buckle. He hoped the thing would grow some damn fingers. Apart from being hideous to look at, having to left-hand his way through basic tasks was a growing annoyance.

He knew he should consider himself lucky that ‘a growing annoyance’ was the worst he had to deal with, considering how close to the brink he’d come. He also knew, if he examined himself at any level beyond the basic and shallow, that his annoyance masked deeper fears and uncertainties.

Riss signaled for them to halt. Past a curtain of low-hanging moss, Calay caught glimpses of a campsite over her shoulder. She led them closer, and he had to appreciate how silent she was on her feet. Calay had a reputation back in the alleys for quiet, skillful work in the shadows, but he cheated and used a weave to cushion his footfalls. Riss, on the other hand, was all skill.

Which made it all the more frustrating that he now had to consider her a threat.

She led them straight into the campsite without calling for a hail, which meant it was deserted. Once they brushed past the moss, Calay could see the state of things–an aged campsite in a state of similar mess to their own, nature already busily reclaiming the cleared spots.

Gaz grunted, then called Riss over by name.

“Look,” he said. “This was a logging camp.”

Indeed, he’d spotted a couple heaps of sawdust near the remnants of a fire. And as they explored further, they discovered a grove of shorn-off stumps. Crawling trees whose roots were withered and dead. Calay couldn’t help but think of them as decapitated rather than chopped down.

They found the dog not far away, curled up at the base of another cluster of stumps. It did appear to be the same dog, tall and tawny and shaggy, though it appeared significantly thinner than when they’d last seen it.

Perking up as they neared it, the dog lifted its head and ears. Riss approached it slowly, cautiously, like she didn’t quite trust it. A wise move, considering Geetsha’s ominous warnings about mimics in the muck. The canine sniffed her hand and gave a little whuff of acknowledgment, though, and after that Riss seemed fine with it.

Even in his half-alert state, something about the stump caught Calay’s eye. He stepped closer, clambering up onto one of the massive, dead roots to get a glimpse at the flat top.

Embedded within the many concentric rings were smooth and compressed grey-white bones. Warped by what Calay assumed were the tree’s natural growth processes, the bones had been squeezed thin, wrapped around the core of the trunk in little half-moons, forced to take the shape of the rings of bark.

The sight was equal parts hypnotic and horrifying.

Was it just his imagination, or did the bark woven around his stump feel… itchy?

Wary, Calay stepped back.

“Take a look at this,” he said to the others. “This must be what it looks like long after it’s absorbed something.”

“I’ve seen this before.” Riss’ expression was pensive, but her voice carried a note of disgust. “The castle at Adelheim uses wood like this.”

“Meldwood.” Vosk spoke up from the rear of the group. Calay had avoided looking at him for the entirety of their walk, lest vengeful urges bubble up while he was still far too weak to act on them.

“I think it’s about time Vosk gave us some answers,” Calay snipped. He couldn’t help himself.

“That’s rich coming from you.” Torcha, glowering.

Calay rubbed his fingers along the sharp bone shard that projected from his stump. Slowly, new flesh was growing down and covering it. The spell was still working, albeit at a crawl. It wasn’t quick enough that he could sense progress while looking at it, but every time he glanced down, the arm looked a little thicker, suffused with a little more hints of human skin tone. The knuckles had yet to completely cover over, and he wondered if he’d feel them click into place when they did.

“If we have to beat it out of him, please let me.” Gaz this time.

However he’d acted while Calay had been convalescing, Harlan Vosk did not seem to have made himself any friends.

The dog hadn’t moved from its spot at the base of the tree. Torcha crouched and scratched it below the chin. Something sparked in Calay’s tired mind.

“The trees ate his owners, didn’t they,” he said. His eyes fell on Vosk, and he could tell by the tic through the man’s face that he was on to something.

“Come on, Harlan.” Riss’ voice was weary. “Don’t make us threaten it out of you.” Putting himself in the mercenary boss’ boots, Calay actually had some empathy for her. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Everyone was worn thin.

Adalgis intercepted that. “You aren’t asking the questions, Calay.”

Vosk sank down atop a nearby stump, bending slowly and seeming to crumple a little. He moved with obvious discomfort, and his words carried a subtle lisp now. Someone must have handed his ass to him while Calay was out. Good.

“You’re right,” Vosk sighed the words as much as spoke. His shoulders sagged. His eyes drooped at the corners. He had the look of a man defeated. “The trees ate the dog’s owners. And the owners were clothing merchants. I don’t…” He trailed off, mouth drawing in a wide, split-lipped grimace. “I don’t know how Geetsha could have known that.”

Everyone quieted to listen. Calay folded his legs and sat atop the stump, bones be damned. He was too tired to care if he looked weak in front of the others. It felt as though the spell was still draining him, still siphoning away some vital essence. Gaz slumped down heavily beside him, looking wan himself.

“It’s all simpler than you might think.” Vosk sounded glum. Calay didn’t care. Finally, some answers.

“I was on Lukra Gullardson’s logging expedition. Several of them. This time, at the crossroads we came across a caravan out of the western coast, carrying back cloth and beads. They had mounts to spare and we’d had a better run at the trees than usual. We had more wood than we could carry back.

“Lukra struck a deal with them: a cut of the lumber in exchange for use of their packbeasts. We caravaned back to the grove together.”

He grew reticent, the words coming slower until they dried up completely.

“Well? Out with it.” Adalgis sounded impatient. He kept rubbing at his eyes, which were swollen and a little red.

“I have something for that,” Calay said.

“I bet you do.”

Was this how everyone was going to react to his offers for assistance now? Dripping with sarcasm? That would get old in a hurry.

“Eye drops,” Calay deadpanned. “I have eye drops.”

Riss gave Vosk a kick in the shin. He bit back a grunt of pain and leveled a narrow, baleful look up at her. But he did keep going.

“Our first intrusion had disturbed the trees, and they’d moved closer while we hauled the first load of wood away. We were set upon. Lost several men, between the merchants and ourselves.”

“Here?” Riss swept a glove around the clearing.

“Yes. Here.” Vosk’s mouth tightened. “We got the trees under control, but…”

This time, it was Riss who seemed to have the epiphany. She jerked back from Vosk, physically recoiled from him.

“You got greedy, didn’t you.” She stated it flatly, not even intoning it as a question. “You turned on them. That’s why Geetsha was telling you to tell us about the merchants. Because you and Lukra killed the rest of them.”

That explained the complete lack of survivors on the caravaners’ part. Why only Tarn’s men appeared to have made it out. Calay had to admit, he might have done the same thing.

“You’re mercenaries. Don’t act like you’d be here if not for the money.”

Except Calay got the distinct impression that Riss wasn’t. Sure, she’d mentioned the effort she’d gone to negotiating the contract and their rates. And the rates she was offering him and Gaz were generous. But Calay could sniff an avaricious rat, and she didn’t give off that odor.

“So what happened to Lukra?” she asked. “That’s the whole reason we’re here, Vosk.”

“Lukra died in the initial skirmish. I took over. I was the one who made the call to jump the merchants.” He said it with this sad twinge of distaste, as though his conscience had finally caught up to him and only now his actions had prompted dismay.

Riss went utterly blank. She stared off into the middle distance for a beat, dumbfounded.

“So you’ve known where Baron Tarn’s heir was this entire time,” she said.

Vosk tensed up, anticipating a blow. “Yes.”

No blow came. Riss tensed up, shoulders stiffening. She snapped her eyes shut hard, then sucked in air and simply sat down. She sank down onto the ground cross-legged, then held her face in her hand.

It was not the reaction Calay expected.

Adalgis however was on the case. He stepped self-importantly closer to Vosk, picking up where Riss left off.

“So you’re saying this entire enterprise has been for nothing.”

Calay could not believe the balls on that man. What had Vosk anticipated would happen?

“I was just going to lead you to the campsite, search for ‘survivors’, and lead you back out. None of this other shit was supposed to happen.”

“Well,” Calay interjected, “best-laid plans.”

Out of all the monsters they’d stared down, it was simple, stupid human greed that had killed the nobleman. Calay might have laughed were it not for the fact that these revelations meant he had been mutilated for nothing. Gaz had suffered for nothing. Anger, black as tar, licked at his insides in the moments he wasn’t too tired to indulge it.

“Well indeed.” Riss’ voice, from down at ground-level. “We have a new objective now, then.”

“Yeah, boss?” asked Torcha.

“Mhm.” Riss rose back up, her momentary spell of whatever-that-had-been over. “Investigation’s off. All we have to do now is get out of this Loth-damned swamp and bring Vosk to face Tarn.”

A flicker of hope. She seemed so single-mindedly focused on Vosk now. Perhaps the mercenaries’ coverage would slip and Calay and Gaz might be able to finagle an out.

He flexed his fingers, still disconcerted by the lack of motion, the lack of feeling where his right arm ended. Intrusive thoughts flickered through him a dozen a minute. The things he’d do to Vosk if the others turned their backs long enough.

But… no. Vosk was going to hang regardless. Or Riss would do worse to him. That was all the vengeance necessary, wasn’t it? Calay remembered the last time he’d insisted on personal revenge, up close and bloody. It had felt invigorating at the time, but his actions had hauled an entire city down on his people.

Maybe he didn’t need revenge. Maybe justice would be enough. And as much as Riss was no longer on his side, he trusted her to do the just thing. It seemed baked into her. The Domain had spat out a single soldier that wasn’t a grifter and he’d somehow stumbled upon her. Would have been funny were it not such a wrench in the works.

They took a short rest. Gaz passed him some cheese on hardtack. The dog circled around for scraps, but it gave Calay a wide berth.

What a mess they were.

<< Chapter 35 | To Be Continued >>

Chapter 35

Churning up underbrush and chewing through saplings, a four-limbed monstrosity burst forth from the swamp in hot pursuit of the moa. It looked like a chunk of hillside come to life. Like the earth itself had surged up, animated by some otherworldly force.

“Split!” Riss hollered, hoping that maybe if they cleared a path, it might just barrel past.

The creature towered over even the tallest moa Riss had ever seen, easily fifteen feet in height, with a sloped and hunched body construction and no discernible head in sight. Its limbs, which appeared to be crafted from boulders suspended in twisted roots and vines, were thick and blocky and asymmetrical, curved somewhat like the clawed forelimbs of a sloth. Jagged rocks were caught up in its body seemingly at random, grown into part of the mass of its torso and studding its joints. She was reminded of the tumor-riddled rats in Medao, the bane of every cheap inn on Entitlement weeks. The creature looked lumpy and diseased.

A wash of stink, the bottom of a freshly-dredged riverbed, rushed over them as it hurtled closer.

Riss threw a glance over her shoulder. Gaz and Vosk had actually managed to settle the moa down, which meant even if the creature ignored them, its prey was right there…

She didn’t have to tell the unit to ready up. Adal, Calay, and Gaz dove to the left side of the path, Adal already lifting his rifle. Torcha lurched in front of Riss, guns up, and there was no way in even her wildest dreams that the thing was going to let them carry on unimpeded. She gave the call to fire.

Adal and Torcha fired simultaneously. Torcha’s shot plowed straight into its center mass, sending needle-sharp shards of grey stone flying in all directions. Adal, despite being closer, merely winged it on one stony shoulder. The creature, surprised by the shots, stumbled back, and as it fell Riss whipped Vosk’s pistol from her belt. She stepped forward, providing covering fire while Torcha reloaded. For all the good covering fire from a pistol would do against a living heap of stone.

Gaz came charging up from the rear. He parked himself in front of Calay and Adal, axe up. A deep, terrible grinding sound–like being trapped in the heart of a building collapse–rumbled from the creature as it righted itself.

It rolled and leapt, meeting Gaz just as the big man settled in. It swiped a tree trunk-sized limb laterally, claws angled for Gaz’s middle, and Gaz swung to meet the blow, parrying it as best he could. The strength behind the swipe knocked him sideways into the mud. He rolled to his feet, took a hack at one of its woodiest-looking parts, but if the creature felt the axehead thwucking into it, it didn’t show.

That grinding rumble came again and this time the creature brought a forelimb down hard from above. Gaz sidestepped. A forearm-wide fist pummeled the ground beside Gaz’s boots. The impact shivered through Riss’ feet. One blow from that thing would likely crush a man, armor or not.

“Gunners,” she called, warning. “How we looking?”

Adal answered by firing. His shot went wide. His eyes were still fucked, weren’t they?

Growling through her teeth, Riss finished reloading Vosk’s sidearm and followed up after Torcha’s shot. Their shots blew chunks of its torso clean away, but that seemed to have no effect on its locomotion. Was it even alive? Could it even be killed? Riss considered these thoughts in mere split-second glimpses. None of that mattered while they were trying not to get splattered.

The creature bowled Gaz over with a sweep to the feet and pounced on Calay.

Snarling, unarmed, Calay hunkered down and tried to dodge its swiping arms. He slid low into the mud, then threw his duster aside. The creature slammed a claw toward him and this time the crazy bastard leaned into the blow. What was he doing? Trying to get eviscerated? Riss’ palms itched warily.

Calay had produced some sort of bone-bladed sword from nowhere and he caught the blow on the blade. Magick? The impact shook him, but he remained standing.

Torcha took the opportunity to blow a large chunk out of one of the creature’s back limbs. Rock shattered everywhere. She hooted victoriously.

Riss spied an opening. Tucking the pistol away, she readied her machete and rushed forward, eyeballing the creature’s vulnerable, viney structures. She went for the same leg Torcha did, ducking around the creature’s flank while it tangled with Calay and Gaz.

The machete bit in to a satisfying depth. Riss slashed at it a few times, and a length of vine snapped free. The creature’s leg shivered and shook. It rounded on her. Even if it couldn’t be killed, otherworldly construct or not, it could be dismembered.

“Adal!” Riss called. “Now would be an excellent time to stop fucking missing!”

Rather than a verbal reply, he responded by burying a shot in the creature’s chest. It spun sideways. Good enough.

Rushing around the beast to continue attacking the same limb, Riss caught a glimpse of something worrying: Gaz, down in the mud, on a knee, getting up too slow.

Calay, seeming to glimpse the cards in play at the same moment Riss did, parked himself between the creature and Gaz.

“Adalgis,” he called. “Pistol. Please. Please.

They were crowding it now, moving in, tightening the noose. Riss could sense the momentum of the fight shifting–they were acting, not reacting. Enough firepower piled on quick enough could put it down for good, she hoped.

“Do it,” she ordered Adal. “He knows how quickly Torcha can put one in his friend if he steps out of line.”

And the time for talk was over. Riss and Torcha staggered their blows. The creature moved slower now. It swung wildly, aimlessly, no clear target discernible. Riss recognized that–it was thrashing like prey caught in a trap. One of its blows whiffed against the blade of her machete. She stumbled at the force of it, kept going. Small shots punctuated between Adal’s–Calay’s sidearm.

Gaz, back on his feet, adopted a similar strategy to hers. He slammed the full weight of his axe into one of its knee joints. Vines twisted and frayed and snapped. The creature rumbled–in anger, fear, pain, who knew–and teetered, as if on the verge of falling. Riss slashed at it one last time, caught the meat of a vine, and pulled with all her strength. The vine split and sprung, tension in it unwinding, and several boulders that composed the creature’s leg scattered to the ground like loose debris.

Its rumble turned to more of a howl as it slipped and slid in the mud, righting itself, scuttling like a crab. Its gait was an awkward lurch as it trundled down the path it had ripped through the underbrush, gradually gaining speed until it was full-on galloping away in retreat.

Breathing hard, Riss stared at the rocks it had dropped. Heavy, craggy grey things with sharp edges and a coating of fuzzy deep green moss. Now that they were disconnected from the bulk of the body, they were unremarkable.

Once she’d recovered her breath, Riss sheathed her machete and looked over the others.

“Report.”

She looked to Gaz first. Whatever damage he’d taken in the engagement, she hadn’t seen it happen. He stood fine enough at the moment, though he was doubled over and absolutely gasping with exertion, his face red and strained.

“I’m fine,” he wheezed when he caught her looking.

“Uh-huh.” She wasn’t buying it.

Calay stepped into the conversation.

“The… thing we did. It weakens the body. He’s not injured.”

Riss’ nose wrinkled in distaste. Whatever arcane ritual they’d engaged in, it appeared to have the side effect of some sort of vampirism. Calay looked much healthier than when they’d dragged him to the tent–to the point where he was even walking around at all. Gaz looked like he’d been caught flat-footed on the wrong end of a ten-mile march.

“And where the fuck did you get a sword?” Riss snapped. Calay had helped them drive the creature away. He hadn’t acted directly against them. But she still rankled at both the fact that he’d managed to slip a weapon past Adal and that he’d been so continually dishonest in the first place. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but someone was going to have to impose some order.

Beside her, her Second cleared his throat.

Adal had a certain way of looking at people, sometimes. His lips pursed just a tiny amount, then he sort of puffed his cheeks out. He thinned his mouth. His shoulders dropped a little. He looked that way at people when they said things he found stupid, and that was the look he was giving Riss now.

“What?” She smeared sweat off her brow, staring at him.

Calay drew his duster open. Slowly, she turned her stare off Adal and onto him.

From a distance, it had looked like he was holding a scimitar or cutlass with a bone-white blade. But she could see now that the bone appeared to growing out of his own body. Right at the elbow, where Calay’s arm had been severed, flesh seemed to be in the process of rearranging itself into the proper anatomy. However, tendrils of grey-brown bark twisted down the length of the bone, gnarled like arthritic fingers. The growth had no hand to speak of, just the sharp bone blade and the bark protrusions.

Riss gawked for a beat, unsure what to say, if it was worth saying anything at all.

“I don’t think it will stay like that,” Calay said as though that somehow helped.

“Does it hurt?” Morbid curiosity, despite her reservations.

“It’s strange,” Calay said. He rotated his arm, staring down the length of the growth. “It looks like it should hurt, doesn’t it. But I can’t feel a thing.”

On to other concerns, then. Riss couldn’t ponder that one too hard at the present moment.

“Everyone else all right?”

She took a quick visual inventory. Everybody was upright and uninjured. She’d half wondered whether Vosk would try to sprint away with the remaining moa, but he had stayed put, dutifully holding the bird’s tether. He must have known–quite truthfully–that Riss could hunt him down if he pulled a runner.

“Vosk, bring the bird up here.”

He did as ordered, awkwardly leading the moa up to the others with his hands still bound behind his back.

When Vosk snatched the bird’s lead, it let out an ungainly, peevish squawk. He wrestled with it for a moment, clearly struggling with his impaired grip, and finally Adal walked over and snatched the tether away from him.

Riss jolted in surprise when something answered the bird’s cry: the high, mournful whine of a dog from somewhere among the trees.

“Eight?” she asked, dumbfounded.

Corraling everyone, Gaz still somewhat labored in his steps, Riss surveyed the ground. She spotted traces of a faint trail through the skinny trees. Investigating the sound of a dog of all things seemed pointless, but at the moment, they didn’t have any better option. She’d been curious when Eight had run off, but now that it was evident things with Vosk were not as they appeared, that made a little more sense.

Fuck it, she couldn’t think of any better idea. The dog didn’t sound far off. Might as well have a look before they looped back toward camp with their remaining bird.

<< Chapter 34 | Chapter 36 >>

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Chapter 34

Riss heard a faint commotion through the patter of the rain. Groaning. A single well-suppressed grunt of pain. Then nothing for a while. Curiosity itched at her like a rash, but she kept to her tent. Eventually, Adal crept inside on his hands and knees. The drained, stricken look upon his features recalled his reaction to what he’d seen down the well all those years ago.

“That bad, huh?” Riss wasn’t even sure which part of the potential events she was referring to. All of it. The entire mission.

“He’s drugged himself out. I left Gaz with him.” Adal rubbed at his eyesockets with wet hands.

“You aren’t worried?”

“I’m not.” He lowered his hands from his face, expression curdled with disgust. “The tree has done something to him. Merged with him somehow. He conjured some spell that… well, I don’t believe it was supposed to do that.

Riss’ brow scrunched up. She couldn’t help but wonder. Adal was not a squeamish man. At least not as squeamish as he’d been when they were younger.

“We’ll see what it looks like when it’s finished growing,” he concluded.

The words made Riss go a little green.

“Well. Poor bastard.”

Adal shed his outer layers in a damp heap and fell back onto the bedroll Riss had been planning to use for herself. She let him do it. Whatever he’d seen in there had him a little… wait a minute. Blinking, she leaned over him for a moment. He startled when she moved closer.

“What?”

“Your eyes.”

His pupils were tiny pinpricks. They had yet to adjust to the dim inside the tent.

“They’ll be fine.” He closed them. “It made a flash. The magick. I didn’t look away in time. Vision’s still dancing.”

“But you’ll be all right?”

Dead guide, she could deal with that. Suspicious and coincidentally crippled medic, she could deal with that. Low provisions, she’d marched on worse. If something happened to Adal or Torcha, that changed things. At the moment, the mission was a disaster to be salvaged. If serious harm came to those two, salvage might be off the table.

Adal sighed wearily. He pinched the bridge of his nose, massaged one eyebrow with his thumb.

“We’ve got a medic I can ask if it doesn’t come right within a few hours. I’m… going to try to sleep.”

Riss considered crawling out to the other tent to keep watch on Gaz, but judging by the state of Adal, she doubted he’d be up to causing any mischief. And if Calay had put himself to sleep on account of… whatever he’d done to himself… then Gaz wouldn’t leave without him.

Sleep was awful tempting. She’d dashed from crisis to crisis and hadn’t really had a chance to consider how exhausted she was. How crushing the burden of failure could be.

Feeling around for the other bedroll, she unfurled it and slipped out of her cloak. All her armor stayed as-is this time. Just in case.

It’s not failure yet, she told herself. You can turn this around.

###

Riss didn’t feel as though she’d slept for long, drawn awake by a shake at her shoulder. Her initial impressions: the rain had tapered off. Adal was tense about something. And someone outside was shouting.

“On your knees!

Torcha was pissed. On the heels of her shout came a fleshy thwuck of impact.

Cloak forgotten, Riss rolled up and shoved her way out of the tent, Adal close behind. They poured out into the muddy campsite to a scene out of a wartime execution.

Torcha stood in the center of camp, Vosk on all fours before her. His hands and legs were muddy, the ground thick and viscous with the stuff. He was breathing hard and the split in his lip had reopened. Or, more accurately, Torcha had reopened it. She too was panting, the muzzle of her side-arm held level with his face.

“What’s the ruckus?” Riss directed the question toward her gunner, ignoring Vosk entirely.

“Son of a bitch tried to throttle me.” Torcha turned her head so that Riss could see her face and neck more clearly. Rough red ligature marks bit into her throat, fresh and raw.

Anger roared in Riss like a beast. This time she didn’t even try to rein it in.

She crossed to Vosk in a heartbeat and grabbed him by a handful of hair. She yanked him to his feet, enjoyed the sensation of scalp stretching beneath her fingers. For emphasis, she gave him a good shake.

“You were already on borrowed time and you pull that shit?”

Torcha had been right. Put him down and share his food among the rest. She didn’t regret saving Calay, but this waste of skin…

“I’m your best hope to get out of here,” Vosk growled. “I’m the only one who knows the trails.”

“Bullshit.” Riss jerked his hair again. “If you knew the way, Tarn wouldn’t have sent Geetsha.”

Gaz clambered out of his tent, hand on the haft of his axe. He rose up like a bear from its den, looming over Vosk and Torcha with a glower.

“Problem, boss?” he asked Riss.

He sounded ready to follow orders. Riss was glad her mercy had bought her that much. She was not feeling very merciful now.

“I know more than I’ve been letting on,” said Vosk from her grip. “I can show you to the old logging camp, if you let–”

Riss drove an elbow into his gut, threw him to the ground and followed it up with a full-force kick in the ribs. Something cracked beneath her boot in a gratifying fashion. Vosk cried out.

“We’re not letting you do shit.”

It felt good to let loose a little. She was tempted to keep going. Fortunately for Vosk, a shrill inhuman cry rose up from the swamp. Riss planted a boot between the man’s shoulder blades to keep him down and cocked an ear toward whence the noise had come from. The sound didn’t come again for a few tense seconds. Another high, long trill squawked out.

“That sound like our missing bird to anyone else?”

Riss nodded over toward Torcha in agreement.

“If we hustle, we might get to it while it’s still alive. And even if we don’t, we might find our packs.”

Carting the tents out without a single packbeast was an interesting proposition. But if they were charging headlong into a fight, better to leave them for the time being. They’d have to risk camp getting ransacked again. Worth it, in Riss’ estimation. Even if they couldn’t save the bird, finding their supplies would ease the burden of survival significantly.

The flap of the smallest tent unfurled. Slowly, with a tentative and shuffling stride, Calay climbed out from inside it. The camp fell silent, all eyes turning his way. Except Vosk, who choked mud. Riss still didn’t move her boot.

The medic–the sorcerer, Riss reminded herself–looked pale and wan. He staggered up to his feet, his right arm cradled within the drape of his duster, unseen. The sleeve hung ominously empty. He darted a wide-eyed look around the camp, paying little mind to the humans there.

“… You all heard that?” he asked after a moment. He seemed genuinely unsure whether he was hallucinating.

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “We’re gonna go get our bird back.”

###

Riss took point, following sign of both the moa and the creature that had chased it off. Despite the rain, she could spy ample evidence: the crack of a twig here, a discarded feather there. A strange, disjointed nostalgia took root in her mind whenever she tracked, be it during wartime or in the present. She always wondered whether she’d break through the next thicket of trees and find her father standing there, yapping to their client of the week. And every time the trees parted and revealed no one, she felt quiet relief.

She led them–all of them, couldn’t trust anyone back at the campsite alone–through thin-trunked trees and scraggly bushes and rank puddles and clattering reeds.

An agitated squawk trilled out from just up ahead. She signaled to Adal and Torcha, who didn’t need any reminding. They unslung their rifles and readied them. The choke of the bush would make it difficult to get a shot off.

“Adalgis,” hissed Calay through his teeth. “My pistol.”

Riss shook her head. Too risky. Calay was only along because he was a liability. He wasn’t to assist. Same for Vosk, whose hands were now bound so tight behind his back that the lack of blood flow would likely wither them. She couldn’t have cared less if he tripped and got eaten.

Their moa burst from the foliage in a chorus of squawking and splashing. Its talons flashed with each lurching step; Riss leapt aside and let it bowl past her.

“Gaz!” she called to the only one of them hopefully strong enough. “Grab it!”

She wouldn’t have a chance to see whether he succeeded.

A weighty impact shuddered the ground beneath her feet. The trees up ahead bent and collapsed inward. Something gigantic tore up the underbrush, barreling straight toward them. Riss spun to face it.

<< Chapter 33 | Chapter 35 >>

 

Chapter 33

Gaz felt like he’d swallowed moths, like little wings were fluttering around in his stomach and stirring up his nerves. What if it didn’t work? He snapped the stopper free of the smelling salts and waved the vial beneath Calay’s nose. He tried not to think about how it was his own knife that had led to this. Tried not to look down at all the blood.

He was used to blood. Blood didn’t bother him. Or at least he thought it didn’t, until the blood was Calay’s. And it wasn’t even that he and Calay hadn’t been in scraps before. Back in Vasile, with Sylvene and the others, there had been scraps aplenty. But no matter how fucked up things got, Calay had always been in charge. He’d always had a grip on things. Even when the Leycenate’s thugs dragged him to the gallows, he’d seemed like he was in control. He kept things structured.

Calay was not in control now. Nobody was. They were far from any place where words like structure or control had meaning.

“Come on,” he said, a gentle coax as he waved the vial. “You aren’t gonna like this, but it’s the only plan we’ve got.”

Calay let out an abrupt wheeze. His eyelids fluttered open and he lifted his head, his whole face contorting into a grimace of both pain and disgust.

His eyes were so light a blue that in the dark, they looked like shiny ice. When he opened them, he just stared at Gaz for a second, a long enough second that Gaz was starting to worry if everything was all right in his upstairs.

“Fuck me,” he hissed. “This is bad. Ah. Bad.” He flexed the fingers of his good hand, felt down his maimed arm.

The man’s ability to understate was a gift.

“Easy,” said Gaz. “We’ve got you in a tent. Fix yourself up.”

The rest could wait. The many ways in which their current situation was completely messed up were only a distraction. It was like Calay had taught him back in the day, when he’d shown Gaz the very basics of first aid in the Clinic. Staunch the bleeding and keep the airways open, almost anything else came second.

“Blood’s in my belt,” Calay said through a tight wince.

“Think you used it all, or dropped the rest.” Gaz was being truthful there. All he’d discovered in the pouches were smelling salts, painkillers, and a couple medicinal resins.

“Shit.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got blood to spare.” Gaz tried to put a grin on, despite how sick he felt. “Been saving it, you know.”

Calay struggled up into a half-sit, propped up on his arm. He didn’t seem to notice Adalgis sitting beside them at all. That wasn’t too surprising, though. He looked like death, features ashen and shiny with sweat. The little muscles of his face had a disconcertingly slack quality, like his body had decided it was too much energy to keep them working properly. Only once had Gaz ever seen him so drained, and he didn’t like to remember that day.

With his remaining hand, Calay wiped his hair from his eyes. He stared at Gaz for a few seconds, then slowly nodded. His eyes had the hollow, tired quality of one of their old patients, someone who was only halfway home.

“All right,” said Gaz, rolling up his sleeve. “We’d better do this quick.”

Gaz reached for his belt, then remembered he’d left his knife in the muck. Without asking, he drew aside the leather of Calay’s duster and reached across for one of his. He found one at the back of a boot, wrestling it free, its owner too limp and shell-shocked to protest.

While he freed the knife, Calay noticed Adalgis.

“Gaz…” On edge now, he gave a weak tug at Gaz’s sleeve.

“Don’t mind me.” Adalgis sat there impassively as Gaz settled down cross-legged, close to Calay’s face.

“So they…” Calay didn’t seem able to say it. Or his thoughts were still catching up with him.

“Yeah.” Gaz gave him a grim, resigned little smile. “They know. But you’re still breathing. So let’s do this and figure out the rest later.”

He didn’t want to waste another second. Calay was in bad shape. Who knew how long it would take for the weave to fix a wound like that. And a tiny part of him was concerned he might lose his nerve. He’d done things in their past, going back years. Violent things. Messy things. But sawing Calay’s arm off like that had bunched up his stomach in a way he didn’t know it could get bunched up anymore.

Gaz tugged up his shirtsleeve as far as it would go, then tore it at the seam so as to roll it up past his elbow. A little nick to his palm would have done the trick, but he’d be using those palms later if he needed his axe. Just past his elbow on the upper arm, that would work. He’d been sliced there before. It had bled plenty.

“You’d better get right quick so you can stitch this up,” he said with an awkward laugh. Calay’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Be careful,” he murmured. “This is gonna be… worse than what we practiced.”

Gaz had a feeling it would be. He’d been trying not to think about that part. In the early days, before they had a reliable supply, they’d relied on their own bodies. Calay had never used his blood for anything more than simplistic little spells–softening their footsteps, darkening the shadows where they crept on some heist or another. Nothing like this. Anything big he saved for people who deserved it. Which implied it hurt a lot.

“We do what we have to.” Gaz meant that. He didn’t want to think of it in such desperate terms, didn’t want to think of them as trapped rats, but it was a backs-to-the-wall situation. He flipped the small, hiltless steel throwing dagger into position. It was a puncture blade, not a slicing edge. He’d have to really dig it in.

“I watched them drag you off to the gallows once, y’know,” he said. Then he grit his teeth and pushed. He dug the knife in, then slid the blade sideways, a quick little jerk of his hand. He poorly smothered a croak of pain.

Calay, with outstretched fingers, reached up to cup his hand beneath Gaz’s arm.

Gaz didn’t finish the rest of that statement out loud. I watched them try to hang you once, and if it hadn’t been for Syl, I would have killed at least a dozen of them before they got me.

The things you did for your friends, hey.

Teeth grinding together, Gaz flexed his hand into a fist, then relaxed it, then flexed it. Blood trickled from the slash in his bicep, dribbling down the crook of his elbow and eventually into Calay’s waiting palm. He noticed with concern the visible tremor that shook Calay’s hand, the difficulty with which he held himself steady. If this glyph didn’t work, there was not much they could do.

“Gaz.” Calay coughed a little. He stared down at the floor, swaying dizzily. Gaz reached up with his free hand and clapped his palm to Calay’s shoulder, steadying him.

“Easy,” he said. “I’m the one bleeding over here.”

“I’m bleeding more.”

A sickly, nervous laughter passed between them.

After a few more seconds, Calay deemed the amount of blood sufficient. He pulled his hand back from the wound, then moved his stump, awkwardly waggling it. Gaz realized that he’d gone to cup the blood in both hands, and of course…

“Damn,” he said. Gaz held tight to his shoulder.

“Well, brace yourself.” Calay coughed weakly, sat up as best he could. His eyes were grave as he considered Gaz for a long moment. “This will hurt. I’m sorry.”

“All right. Come on. Get it over with.” Gaz wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up the bravado.

“Here goes, then.”

Calay brushed his collar aside. Older flecks of blood clung to his neck and collarbone, the remnants of some prior glyph. Unceremoniously, he dumped the blood down his front, smearing it along his skin, down his neck and chest, where it shone dark and wet in the murky light. Then he wiped his bloodied palm on the stump of his right arm, just above the tourniquet. He reached up for more, dragging a finger through the trickle of blood that still spilled down Gaz’s arm.

Gaz’s teeth clenched.

Calay pulled up the remnants of his sleeve and began to sketch. He drew a seven-pronged cuneiform character on his skin, and as soon as he’d completed the first few strokes, a strange cold crept into Gaz from some unseen source. It felt as though he’d swallowed icy water, a sudden plummet in his core temperature that seemed to come from nowhere. It spread up from his stomach to his esophagus and his teeth began to chatter.

Fingers nimble, Calay finished the sketch, as sloppy a rendition as it was.

Light flickered into existence upon his skin. He tensed and looked away, shielding his eyes. Gaz did likewise. Adalgis didn’t catch the warning. A sudden strobe of white-hot light flashed through the interior of the tent.

“Loth!” Adalgis cursed, hiding his face in the crook of an arm.

The cold inside Gaz grew monstrous and hungry. He felt less like he’d swallowed chilly water and more like he’d been thrown from the docks and into the Bay in the midst of a brutal Vasa winter. Muscle spasms seized up his arms and he just dropped. No blow had ever dropped him like that. Hunched over on the floor of the tent, he shivered, goosebumps racing up his arms. Each breath was a struggle, cold squeezing his lungs. His fingers curled into claws and he shook and shook and shook.

The white flash flickered away, leaving in its wake the strange smell of weather turning. Lightning on cold stone.

Calay groaned, but it was now the groan of a man burdened by a traumatic hangover rather than impending death.

Gaz pushed up slowly, holding down bile, and surveyed the results. Another tug at his clothing. Gaz glanced further down. Calay’s flesh and blood hand had at some point gripped a tight handful of his tunic. His knuckles were white.

And as for his other hand…

“What is that.”

The numb horror in Adalgis’ voice said it all.

Cradled in protectively against Calay’s chest, his right arm had begun to regrow. Gaz wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Some sort of there-and-fixed magick instant regeneration? He definitely hadn’t expected the bark. Or the visible bone.

A long, bony shard extended from Calay’s elbow, tapering to a dangerous-looking point. Thin, deep-brown tendrils of bark wove and twisted down the bone, bubbling at times with pale flesh beneath, none of it quite in the right shape to resemble a human hand. All the elements were there–bone, flesh, knuckles, but nothing was in the right place.

Calay took one look at himself and reached for his belt, his features impassive.

“Laudanum,” he ordered. Gaz handed it over. Adalgis simply stared.

<< Chapter 32 | Chapter 34 >>

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Chapter 32

Adal focused on the percussion of the rain. If he stared off into the middle distance and relaxed his eyes and ears, the drum of rainfall on the tent became soothing white noise that almost drowned out the sounds of Calay’s quiet agony on the floor.

Twisted up against himself in a protective hunch, Calay cradled his arm stump to his chest. He continued to bleed. His teeth chattered. His face had gone the shade of curdled milk.

Adal had bundled some canvas from a ruined tent beneath him–so as to spare their functional tents the staining–but beyond that he’d provided no aid or comfort. Nor did the suffering on display tempt him to.

If he were being completely honest with himself, he resented having to babysit the traitor as he died. He wanted to be with Riss. They needed to hash out a plan. They needed to take a more thorough inventory of all food and water, including what was in their packs. Among a dozen other things.

On their march back toward camp, Torcha had explained what she’d seen. How Calay had taken something from his belt, spilled blood down himself, and invoked a bright light that appeared to have both healed his gunshot and awoken the tree. They had no reason not to believe her. Adal had known Torcha since her young teens, and though she carried with her a library of puzzling superstitions and traditions, she’d never chased her legends or phantoms to the detriment of their unit.

Her account lined up with what Adal knew of blood sorcery. Which was more than his fellow mercenaries right expect.

In his semi-conscious stupor, Calay murmured something incoherent. His fingernails scratched against canvas, as if he were gripping at something only he could see.

A few years ago, Adal might have found the sight of such a cocky man brought so low rather gratifying. But he wasn’t that person anymore. The war had stamped that out of him. Now, the knowledge that their medic had not only betrayed them but was likely going to bleed to death just left him with a weighty foreboding. It was one more thing gone horribly wrong.

He did look pitiful in his current state. Adal had disliked something about him from the get-go, but if he looked back, was he lending too much credit to his intuition? Now that he was no longer strutting around like he owned the woods, Calay looked younger than Adal expected. He wondered if Calay might number among the sorcerers his family had discreetly hired over the years, but he looked like he wasn’t yet thirty. And he was northern. So unlikely. It was odd, encountering a sorcerer in the wild like this. Finding that he could put on such a normal mask.

It was odder still when he followed that line of thought and realized that in a way, he’d continued his parents’ tradition. Only he had hired his own discreet magicker unknowingly.

A tempting thought wormed its way in: if they opted to save him rather than let him bleed, his loyalty could be a powerful thing.

But Adal squashed that notion.

There was no guaranteeing he’d be loyal, for one. And for two, it wasn’t his call to make. He might suggest it to Riss, feel her out, but their situation was precarious. He wouldn’t risk complicating the odds of their own survival for a potential pay-off. Especially not at the hands of someone who’d already proven untrustworthy.

A pair of female voices reached him through the rain.

“You know how I feel.” Torcha, unfazed as ever by the newest looming crisis. “Put a bullet in all three and we’ve got twice the food and water for us.”

“Believe me, I took that into consideration.”

“Yet you’re makin’ this mistake anyhow.”

The flap of his tent flipped up. Riss ducked inside, stepping over Calay and kneeling. She smeared rain-wet hair aside from her eyes and set a haggard stare on Adal. She had that look on her face that she always got before she said something she knew he wasn’t going to like. Just a hint of a grimace buckling her mouth the way a structure bent before it collapsed.

“Second,” she said. “I need your counsel.”

He had to laugh. Rocking back on his backside, Adal got comfortable. She cracked a smile.

“It’s good to feel needed for more than just negotiating rates,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m thinking of allowing Gaz to fix him up.” Though there was no ambiguity about who he referred to, she still slanted a look down to Calay upon the floor.

Adal didn’t bother masking his surprise. It was hopeful surprise, though. Riss had, for her own reasons, come to the same conclusion he was toying with.

“You don’t look as annoyed with me as I thought you would.”

“I’m not so predictable, am I?” It felt almost normal, just conversing with her like this. Like for a moment they could ignore how badly this entire endeavor had gone. “Give me some credit, Riss. I was considering the same thing.”

Riss grunted. “For the bounty?”

Bounty? Adal hadn’t dwelled on that, but once she said the word, it did make sense. It would explain Calay’s travels so far south.

“Partially.” A split-second consideration of what he knew of Riss revealed that her opinions on magick were a murky unknown. “It’s possible he could be useful. Depending on what we encounter on our way out of here. And Gaz could become less useful if he dies.”

“You mean Gaz could lose it and try to hack all our heads off.”

“Yes, that.”

Riss had, for the entirety of their friendship, followed the law. Laws grew blurry during wartime, but the worst of what they’d done had always been under Gaspard’s banner. Therefore it had carried with it the weight of the Empire’s tacit permission.

In a place like this, where the rule of law felt like a distant afterthought, where exactly would Riss stand?

On the tent’s floor, Calay groaned. Adal strayed a look down to him, but there was no trace he’d woken. Chances were he wouldn’t unless they intervened.

“I’m not completely unfamiliar with the likes of him,” Adal said at length. “If it’s as Torcha described, he needs blood to conjure the things he does. We could keep a lid on that well enough.”

“Gaz confirmed that, yeah. He needs blood.”

“And he’s volunteering his own?”

Riss nodded, her mouth pressed closed. She stared at him, inquisitive in her silence.

“I expected you to talk me out of it,” she said after several seconds of rainy quiet. “Or at least try.”

Adal steeled himself. He summoned up bravery from that strange psychic reserve that soldiers and mercenaries develop. That mental well where courage seeps in slowly and drowns out the horrors of the day-to-day. It was incredible, the compartmentalization he’d learned. It didn’t come as easy to him as it seemed to come to Riss, but she had her own reasons for that, growing up with the father she did.

“What does your gut say?” he asked, hoping to surprise her again.

“Since when does your brain care what my gut says?”

“I feel brains are less useful out here.”

Riss shifted a look toward the tent flap, her dark eyes darker still in the gloom. She glared at nothing, but then that glare dissolved into a cavalier grimace of a grin.

“Fuck it,” she said. “He’s an asset, and if he ceases to be, well, a bullet took him out once. I’ll send Gaz in.”

Adal’s eyebrows crept up toward his hairline.

“You’re not going to ehm, supervise?”

“Makes my skin crawl.” Riss hiked up from the floor and crawled toward the tent flap. “Rather not. Besides, if you think three’s a crowd in this tent with just us, wait til you share one with Gaz.”

###

The dark interior of the tent had turned Riss’ expression stormy and serious, but Adal found it had the opposite effect on Gaz. With his wide-set eyes and the way he had to hunch to avoid the struts, he had the look of a sullen teenager preparing for a scolding. During the rare moments he took his eyes off his fallen friend, that is.

“So, your plan?” Maintain control, Adal told himself. Regardless of what he was letting them do. He didn’t need to spell out to Gaz that this was a favor. His voice said enough.

“I’m not sure.” Gaz grimaced. “I’ve never done this before.”

He didn’t appear to be lying. He looked thoroughly disconcerted. When Adal didn’t speak again, Gaz started thinking out loud.

“I figure we gotta wake him up somehow. He’s got smelling salts and things for that. We get him awake enough to draw the symbol, and all he needs is a bit of blood.”

“Riss tells me you’ve got that covered.”

Gaz’s features crinkled with distaste. He took a big, heaving breath and looked down, watched Calay bleed.

“Yeah,” he said. The word had a certain resigned gravity.

Something twinged in Adal’s gut. He suddenly wasn’t sure he wanted to watch. As much as it had seemed important to stay in charge, he now second-guessed himself. Did he have an ulterior motive there?

He recalled the day his mother first brought a sorcerer to House Altave’s grotto. Well, it likely wasn’t the first time she’d done so. But it was the first time he witnessed it at an age when he was old enough to understand.

She’d stood with her collar buttoned to her chin, rigid as ever, the man beside her dressed comparatively plainly. Plainly-dressed commoners weren’t an unusual sight around the vaulted halls of House Altave, but usually they were faces Adal recognized. They were maids he knew by name, Altave Shipping employees, River Navy officers in familiar uniforms.

The man beside his mother was a stranger. An unnerving, sunken–eyed man whose skin had been ravaged by sickness at some point in his youth. Pock scars dented his features and his smile revealed a mouthful of blackened, broken teeth.

Why in watery hell had his mother brought a person like that into their home? Into their grotto, their private place of worship?

Adal made his offerings to Loth by the riverside that day, under a big open sky and far, far away from that man.

But a part of him always wondered.

And a part of him wondered now, watching as Gaz bent over Calay, searching through his belt.

“Smelling salts only,” Adal said. “I’ll be taking anything else in there.” He wouldn’t leave them any blood to use as an escape route.

Gaz didn’t say anything, only nodded. He eventually found what he was looking for: a small opaque vial with a wax stopper.

Adal leaned a little closer, watching.

He told himself it was because he had to supervise. To keep things under control.

He told himself it had nothing to do with the same curiosity he’d felt as a boy. The urge to peek around the doorway, past the shell-lined walls and catfish statues, to watch whatever morbid ritual his parents had brought the broken-toothed man into his home to perform.

Even now, he was a child peeking through his fingers, trying to look like he wasn’t looking.

<< Chapter 31 | Chapter 33 >>

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Chapter 31

Riss stirred, waking slowly. Wagon wheels thundered in her head, fading, fading, then the dream evaporated as she sat up.

Grief punched a hole right through her. She wound an arm around her middle as if to stave off a physical blow.

Gaspard had felt so close. She’d dreamed of him before, but never like that.

Staring upward, she focused on the sky, which boiled with dark grey clouds. Rain was coming. She needed a moment to collect herself. As details returned–Geetsha, Calay, Vosk–she knew a moment was all she had.

“Riss. Shit, Riss. Are you…”

Adal’s voice beside her. He wasn’t sure whether to use the word okay.

“I’m uninjured,” she said.

Dirt streaked up the side of his cheek, Adal sank down beside her. He looked her up and down, face taut with concern. Then, out of nowhere, he threw an arm around her and pulled her into a short, one-armed embrace. Riss didn’t fight it, resting her temple against his neck. She felt his pulse for a moment–strong, steady. It reassured her in ways his voice hadn’t.

“Did you…”

“Dream? Yes.”

They spoke in terse half-sentences. Riss wanted to know more. She wanted to know what had prompted him to ask that. What had he dreamt of? Had he simply noticed her distress, or were his own dreams similarly upsetting?

But a scuffle broke out behind them. They didn’t have time.

That was the thing about grief. Riss just never had time for it. So she bottled it up in the same place she always did and squeezed Adal tight for one final second, then pivoted in the dirt, already reaching for her machete.

Torcha was on her feet, her rifle leveled at…

Riss watched, wordlessly astonished, as Gaz started to dismember her medic.

With a few powerful sawing motions, Gaz sliced through Calay’s arm. Then he twisted himself around, braced the elbow backward, dislocated the joint, and snapped the rest as if it were a maneuver he’d practiced an unsettling number of times. They left the severed arm dangling from the tree, where Riss could now see the roots had begun to absorb it, flesh melding with bark. Calay ragdolled, lolling over Gaz’s shoulder, and she was about to step in and ask what she could do to help before Torcha waved her off and stepped neatly between Riss and Gaz, ordering them to halt.

Gaz, stricken, looked just as pale as Calay, though he appeared completely uninjured.

“Torcha, what’s–” Riss stopped short of asking her what was going on. She was fairly certain nobody knew exactly what was going on.

“Geetsha isn’t the witch, boss.” Torcha closed one eye, the barrel of her gun levelled with Gaz’s face. “It’s our physician.”

Riss didn’t argue. Geetsha was definitely not normal, whatever the status of Calay was. But Geetsha was dead, so that didn’t matter. She trained her eyes on the man draped across Gaz’s back, who appeared unconscious, a rudimentary tourniquet doing little to stem the blood pouring from his stump.

“He did something to himself. Healed his gutshot up. I saw it.”

Riss’ throat tightened. She ground her teeth together. How many more disasters was this mission hiding up its sleeve?

“I trust you,” she said. And she did. Torcha and Calay had been getting along just fine. She wouldn’t turn on him without a reason. And Torcha’s eyes were keen. And she had no reason to lie.

Riss’ eyes now fixed on Gaz. Gaz was about to become a problem. But behind Gaz, the tree–which had until now moved little, save occasional trembles through its root structure–swayed. Dislodging clumps of soil, it teetered toward them, a slumbering giant now roused. The poor bastard still tangled in its grasp wheezed in pain at the motion, dragged along for the ride.

And in the dirt, Vosk began to stir, pushing up to his elbows, his face still spattered with white flecks of whatever had been inside Geetsha.

Things were about to unravel. Riss had to get a hold of the situation, and fast. What would Gaspard do in a time like this? She did what she knew best: barked orders.

“Adal, Torcha: guns on these two. We’re retreating to the camp. We can’t take that tree in our current state.” And even if they could, she wouldn’t turn her back on Gaz in a fight now.

Stalking over toward where Vosk was gathering his senses, Riss grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.

“No time,” she snarled, yanking him to his feet. She kept hold of him, grabbed his pistol from the ground, and marched.

###

Riss surveyed the ruins of their campsite.

She took a moment to catch her breath, panting slightly after double-timing it up the hill. She didn’t release her grip on Vosk, holding him tight by the collar like a misbehaving schoolboy.

The largest tent lay in tatters, its canvas shredded, its poles snapped. Provisions and scraps of bedroll and campfire ash were scattered over the hardpack. Drag marks in the dirt hinted that something immense and heavy had moved through, likely when they were all taking their unplanned nap. The tracks were difficult to discern, hard as the topsoil was, but they resembled no paw or claw Riss had ever seen.

And the moa were both gone.

They found the remains of one not far from the campsite, or at least enough traces of it that Riss could conclude it dead. The bird’s harness had snapped during the struggle, spilling their belongings over the ground, and half the twisted remnants of a taloned foot seeped blood onto the dirt.

Finally, Riss let go of Vosk. She took a short, controlled breath and tried to put a lid on herself, but she found she could not. Her soldier’s discipline had abandoned her. She was pissed as hell.

Their guide was dead. Vosk had turned on Calay. Calay had betrayed them. And now their packbeasts were gone, much of their food and water with them. That horrible fucking dream. And it had all started when Vosk snuck away in the night to do who knows what.

Fingers curling into a fist, Riss hauled back and slugged Vosk straight in the mouth, gloved knuckles connecting with his teeth. She felt one of them give and couldn’t keep a nasty smile from rising to her face. He stumbled back with a gasp, clutching at a split lower lip.

“You’re lucky you still owe me answers or you’d be choking on more than teeth,” Riss snarled.

Still held at gunpoint by Torcha and Adal, Gaz walked Calay over to one of the tents that remained standing. He knelt, unfurled a bedroll, and carefully laid the man down. Torcha lorded over him, rifle unwavering.

“Please,” Gaz said, staying on his knees. “Let me try to fix him.”

Torcha hocked and spat in the dirt beside Gaz’s boot.

“Fix him? Like the way he fixed himself? You a witch too?”

Gaz put a hand to the tourniquet wrapped around Calay’s stump, which Riss could now see was just a belt.

“No,” he said, sounding lost. “I’m not a witch. I’m not even a sawbones.”

Well you sawed something off just fine, Riss didn’t let herself say.

Calay groaned, his eyes fluttering. The fingers of his remaining hand jerked. He’d gone even paler than usual, his eyes sunken. That tourniquet wasn’t going to be enough. Riss supposed they could cauterize the wound, but–

She cut herself off that line of thought. A problem solver by nature, she was already looking for the solution. But it occurred to her that they didn’t have to help him. Whatever Torcha had seen, it had edged her toward not blinking twice before blowing them both away.

Fine. On to a different problem.

“Torch, keep ‘em in the tent.” She jerked a thumb toward the mess strewn all over the ground. “Adal, see what’s still usable.”

Searching the shreds of fabric and leather scraps amid the dirt and ash, Riss snatched up a length of leather cord. Gathering Vosk into a headlock, she bound his hands behind his back.

“You’re crazy,” he muttered, though he didn’t really fight back. “I won’t be able to defend myself. Something killed our birds. What if it comes back?” And then, when she didn’t respond, “I had to do it. Geetsha and Calay both. You saw it. Something unnatural…”

She restrained herself from punching him again. It would solve nothing. And she might bust a knuckle.

“Well.” She released him and squatted so that she could look him in the eye. “You forgot the part where that wasn’t your call to make. As soon as camp’s fixed, you’re explaining everything.”

Grabbing him by the arm, she walked him over to one of the remaining tents and shoved him inside, then stood guard outside the flap while Adal cleaned up around her. She kept her eyes on the treeline, searching for any sign of motion, any hint that the trees nearby were the unfriendly kind. Panicked thoughts began to flood her: the dream, a mental inventory of how much food she had on her person, a mounting dread of how lost they’d be without Geetsha. She dismissed them all. One thing at a time.

Drawn back into the world she’d glimpsed in her sleep, she recalled those first awestruck days under Gaspard’s tutelage. Word had filtered through the ranks that Gaspard Marcinen himself would be handpicking members of the Third and Fourth for special training and assignments. She remembered the numb shock in her chest when he’d stepped into the barracks, cast a glance over the many faces inside, and said with no preamble, Altave, Chou, Cazier. Pack your things.

Cue night after night in the forest, the steppes, the swamps. Training in all terrain. Muted skirmishes behind enemy lines. Weaving in and out of the fronts like treaty-defying ghosts.

Gaspard had taught them well. He’d taught them to handle crises just like this one. Riss tried to draw on those memories as a source of strength rather than anguish. It half-worked.

Adal salvaged what he could from the ground, piling it into four heaps beside the ashen remnants of their campfire: food and water, medical supplies, ammunition, and everything else.

They’d split their provisions equally between the two moa just in case something like this happened. And of course Riss always carried some in her satchel as well. All things considered, they could have been in worse shape. But that didn’t make the outlook good.

“I’d wager we’ve got about a third of our total stocks remaining. Water is all fine. Only one filter broke. Almost all the meat is gone. Whatever got the bird didn’t touch the dry goods or the cheese.”

Something wet touched the very tip of Riss’ nose.

Blinking, she glanced up at the sky. The dark, heavy clouds had begun to disgorge their rain. Fat drops plummeted down to their campsite, slow at first but beginning to multiply. And of course, it was their roomiest tent that had been destroyed.

She and Adal checked the integrity of the three remaining tents. One had a leak, but they all looked like they’d survive a patch of rain.

Riss didn’t like splitting up the prisoners, but they were low on options. She didn’t want Calay and Gaz together. Her questions for Vosk would have to wait.

“Adal, you in with Calay. Torcha, you’re on Vosk. I’ll keep an eye on Gaz.” She didn’t trust Torcha not to throttle Calay in his sleep, or let him bleed out. She wasn’t sure what to do with him yet, but she didn’t want that.

Still on his knees, hovering uselessly over his wounded friend, Gaz let out a grunt of distaste.

“I don’t want to–” he started to say.

“You don’t get a choice,” said Torcha.

Resigned, his bloodied shoulders drooping, Gaz rose and joined Riss. Together, they ducked beneath the flap of the cramped two-man tent. It was made for two average-sized humans, which meant one Gaz and maybe a toddler. Riss scooted into a corner, a hand on the hilt of her machete.

Soon, the drum of rain on canvas was deafening.

Every instinct in her body screamed to move forward, to act, to do something. Riss had no choice but to sit and wait.

<< Chapter 30 | Chapter 32 >>

Chapter 30

Gaz rolled upright, still dizzy, and suppressed the urge to vomit. His head kicked like a bad hangover; even his tongue somehow hurt. When he breathed, it was like he’d inhaled sawdust: rough and dry. A sick shiver worked its way through his stomach when he remembered what the ‘sawdust’ was made of.

Calay.

Shoving up to his hands and knees, he crawled across the muddy ground. He wasn’t quite in full control of his limbs yet, but a sense of urgency drove him forward until his body properly cooperated. Shit, Calay had fallen right into the tree’s grasp. Gaz didn’t know how long it had been since he’d gone under. The tree could have had hours to work its nasty business. Might be a blessing if the gunshot got him first.

But no, Calay was a scrapper. He’d probably already cast some magickal thing on himself to keep safe, even if that meant they’d be facing a whole new slew of problems as far as their allies were concerned.

The tree leaned there like a half-toppled ruin, shiny metallic threads twisted along its upper branches. It tilted at a precarious angle, as though something had slowed it or stopped it mid-crawl. The thick-trunked tentacles of its exposed root structure heaved up higher on one side than the other.

Just as Gaz reached the tree, blinding white light erupted from down below it. He shielded his eyes and felt the magick flash past and over him, hot enough that it singed the stubble of his scalp. The flash, the sizzle, that strange smell like rain on hot pavement–that was Calay all right. The high, panicked gasp of pain that followed–shit, that was him too.

The view Gaz had of the bodies caught up in the tree was obstructed–the roots were livelier now, swaying slowly, and he only just had the presence of mind to glance toward the fire. It had gone out. Shit, the tree would be waking up proper then. Gaz dove for the big, flat-bladed knife tucked in the leg of his boot. Shoving forward without thinking, he slashed and hacked until he’d chopped away several sections of wriggling root from the tree’s undercarriage. They wriggled on the ground like bark-armored worms.

Calay sprung up almost instantly, still snared by the right arm. He tried to pull himself free, then howled instead when the tree tightened its grasp. The angle of its grip on his arm forced to his knees, unable to fully stand, his back bent awkwardly. Like it was pulling him down.

“Cut it off cut it off cut it off–” he hissed, his voice borderline unrecognizable. Wild fear shone in his eyes. Gaz could see the whites of them. He had never, ever seen Calay so scared.

In a few short, hard strokes he cleared away the smaller roots that gripped at Calay’s arm, but soon he saw the ‘it’ in question that his friend referred to: one of the vines had twisted its way all around Calay’s right hand, up to his forearm. The bark had already begun to merge with his skin, rendering it a sickly grey, the fingers clutching and unclutching in mindless spasms, like how a snake didn’t know it was dead yet even after its head had been chopped off.

“I don’t know if I can,” Gaz whispered. “It’s… on you.”

Swallowing hard, Calay crab-walked backward a pace, propped up on his heels and an elbow. He tried to take take the pressure off his trapped arm without moving any closer to the tree’s center mass. Gaz knelt to see if he could assist.

“The arm, take the whole fucking arm if you have to.” Calay’s jaw clenched. A tremble started in his brow and tried to overcome the rest of his face. Gaz watched him suppress it, expression tightening into a hard sneer, eyes closed.

He didn’t know if he could do it.

He didn’t voice his hesitation. He didn’t have to. Calay peeked an eye open, pinning him with a haggard stare.

“You can do this, Gaz,” he breathed through his teeth. “You are–” A wheeze, a suppressed twitch through his cheek. “–the only one I trust to do it.”

Gaz had cleaved a limb or ten off a person in his life. He’d worked as a bruiser for a few folks. A bodyguard for others. He and Calay hadn’t fought in the war, but they’d fought on the streets, and that could be just as bloody. He wasn’t squeamish. And it wasn’t even that it was Calay. Sure, he didn’t want to hurt him. But he knew that sometimes in order to help a person, you had to do things that hurt. He’d seen Calay perform enough surgeries to know how that went.

But… what if he fucked it up?

The tools he used were not surgical tools. His work would not be that precise.

Even as he thought that, he reached for the haft of his axe. He hesitated, though. A clean swing from the axe would be ideal. Less painful even, maybe, if such a thing could be rendered less painful. But he couldn’t brace Calay against the trunk and he was too high off the ground. At this angle, he couldn’t prop the arm against anything… the impact from the axe would likely break things that didn’t need breaking. It took a lot of force to cut through joints.

The fingers of his off-hand twitched onto the knife.

Calay, who never missed a thing, caught the motion and thinned his mouth.

“I get it,” he hissed. “Just do it.”

Gaz shuffled forward on his knees, winding an arm around Calay’s back to hold him in place. Every muscle up his back felt wracked with spasm, tight and tense. From this angle, it was apparent that he’d patched up the wound in his abdomen. The skin beneath his bloody, shredded clothes appeared immaculate.

“You can do this,” Calay wheezed. “I’ll patch myself up after. What’s the worst that could happen.” He tried for a laugh; it sounded more like a sickly cough.

“You’ll probably pass out first,” Gaz answered, stoically matter-of-fact.

“Yeah. Hmph.” Calay grunted. “Probably.”

“Count of three,” said Gaz. He braced the serrated edge against the inside of Calay’s sleeve, not bothering to roll it up first. He didn’t look too close, fascinating as the transition from bark to skin was. The creeping grey that began at his hand reached to just below the elbow. Elbow would do it, then.

Calay probably had a tourniquet somewhere, but he had no time to ask. He slid his own belt loose, wrapped it, pulled it until it was tight enough that Calay gasped.

He started cutting on ‘two.’

Ignoring the sharp sounds of distress in his ear, Gaz sawed. He sawed until he hit bone. Then he twisted and bent the joint backward ‘til it buckled. It’s just like boning a deer, he thought, then hated that he thought it. At the snap Calay fell slack in his grip. He ignored the blood and the shaking and the hairs on his neck standing on end and cut and cut until something gave and they fell the short few inches to the blood-muddied ground.

Hands slick and red, Gaz stumbled back from the tree and threw his knife on the ground. He didn’t ever want to touch it again. He scooped Calay up over a shoulder, keeping the stump of his arm elevated. The man was dead weight in his arms, groaning groggily, and Gaz was so shell-shocked by what he’d done that he didn’t even realize he was walking straight into the barrel of a rifle until it was mere feet from his face.

“Stop,” growled Torcha. “Not one more fuckin’ step.”

<< Chapter 29 | Chapter 31 >>

Chapter 29

Nothing in the Academy had prepared him for this.

Adalgis was no pampered nobleboy. Despite his upbringing and despite what barracks chatter would have the grunts believe, he had experienced hardship. But everything in the Inland Army had to be a cock-waving contest. Which, if considered on a philosophical level, made a certain degree of sense. War was the ultimate cock-waving contest, wasn’t it.

Their unit was in the process of clearing a village, long-abandoned by the look of things. Overgrown fields. The Narlanders had dug up what they could eat and moved on. Locals never came back. Some recent tracks according to Sergeant Chou. Scavengers, possibly. It was the fifth such village in as many days.

Adal directed his team to sweep the remaining structures, and when that turned up nothing, he directed them to take a short break. In the central clearing, what may have passed for a trading square in happier times, a squat stone-ringed well promised fresh water. After a hard day’s recon, a sip of well-cool water sounded like Adal’s idea of paradise.

Yet the smell that greeted him when he bent over the well sent bile and his meager lunch threatening at the back of his throat.

Something wasn’t right.

“Roan, Chou,” he called. “One of you have a torch?”

The ring of stones gaped like an abyss. It likely only went down a couple hundred feet, but without a light, who was to say.

All eager for a drink, the rest of the Fourth Recce crowded around him. He wasn’t the only one to comment on the smell.

Corporal Roan produced a torch, and Adal struck flint to light it. He leaned down, thrusting the oily rags as far into the dark as he could, and what stared back robbed him of his breath.

From the gape of the well, sunken-eyed corpses peered up at him, their mouths and eyesockets thick with writhing grubs. Bodies were heaped there in the dark, no sense of ceremony to the way these dead had been disposed of. Men, women, children, all thrown together in a limp, lifeless pile. Though some did not appear to have been lifeless when they were dumped: ragged-tipped fingers, their nails flaked off, still clung to the slick stone walls.

The face closest to his own had only just begun to slough, sunken cheeks and lips peeled too far back begging silently upward for hope that never came. When he could next breathe, he caught a lungful of the smell.

His scream rang off the wellstones.

Reeling backward, lunch returning with a vengeance as he spewed all over his officers’ boots, Adal steadied himself against the well. But touching it, Gods, touching it just disgusted him further. He bent double, hands on his knees, retching.

The torch fell from his shaking fingers and caught a small drift of dry grass alight. Riss Chou stomped over and crushed it out, grinding her bootheel on the ground. She must have been watching over his shoulder, because a crack had appeared in her staunch exterior. She too looked on the verge of throwing up.

A bolt sliced through the air inches from Adal’s face, splintering into fragments as it impacted the well. Splinters bit into his cheek.

Another bolt buried itself in Roan’s throat, and he went down screaming, hand to his neck.

“Ambush!” Adal yelled, as if that weren’t obvious. “Take cover!”

He rushed to Roan, kneeling. The young man–still so young his face was flecked with acne–gurgled horribly, trying to dislodge the projectile from his airway. For all the good it would do. It wasn’t the bolt that was choking him; it was his own blood.

“Come, lad, sit up,” Adal urged him, a hand to his shoulder. Roan, wheezing crazily, grabbed at the offered hand and pulled at him, a high-pitched keening bubbling half from his mouth and half from his ruptured neck.

Adal tried to steady himself, yanked off balance by the panicking soldier dying at his feet. More arrows were coming, along with a scattered blast of buckshot that tore chunks off scenery and body alike. He hunched over Roan, angling his shoulders to shield the man as best he could with his own mass. Arrows alone might have been bandits. But if they had firearms, chances are this was Narlish Army. A setup? How had he walked right into–

“Lieutenant get fucking down!”

He turned toward the voice as if in a dream. Private Bissett crouched against the frame of a dilapidated building, beckoning him.

He’d waltzed them right into this mess. They were never going to reach Gaspard in time if–

A body slammed into his own, freeing him from Roan’s bloodied grasp.

Adal tried to protest, but someone shouted leave him in his face and it was all he could do not to whimper yes ma’am and then Sergeant Chou, Riss Chou, the hardass, she was dragging him behind the well and out of the line of fire, pushing herself against him, slapping a hand over his stammering mouth.

“Lieutenant, shut your face and listen to me.” Eyes boring into his like daggers. “We can’t do anything for Roan or the people in the well.”

He knew it was true but he didn’t want to say it. It felt like a personal failure on his part.

“Aren’t consciences daft,” he croaked, eyes welling with tears. She snarled and grabbed him harder by the jaw. Her grip was enough to grind his teeth together.

“I can get you out of this,” she hissed. “But you are relinquishing command of this unit to me before you get us all fucking killed.”

###

They billeted in the next village over, also abandoned. It didn’t feel far enough away.

Riss, true to her word, had gotten them out of it. She and a couple of the lighter-footed scouts successfully flanked the gunners and the crossbowman, drove them into the waiting arms of Adal and Bissett. It was swift and precise and nothing Adal would have been able to accomplish on his own.

Nobody was in a talking mood. Roan’s ribbons weighed heavy in his pocket, like they were lead instead of gold. He and Riss would pin them on Bissett later. He’d earned them. But not now.

Everyone retreated to their own private silences and grief.

Adal staked out the backroom of their chosen billet, a semi-private space with a brick fireplace and a disused altar. He peeled the mostly-melted nubs of a few candles off the altar table, tucked them into the fireplace, and lit them.

“That’s about three different kinds of bad luck, Lieutenant.”

Riss’ broad-shouldered frame filled the doorless doorway. She leaned against the wood, gazing down at him, her expression tough to read.

“No smoke on patrol, yes yes, I know.” Adal had no excuses. He simply couldn’t bear to spend the night in the dark, not after what he’d seen.

“Chimney should eat the worst of it. Won’t do the same for the vengeful spirits whose worship you’re fuckin’ up, but hey.”

“I’ll leave an offering in the morning, perhaps.” The last thing on his mind was someone else’s provincial hearth god or pissy ancestors.

Riss slid down the doorway until she was cross-legged on the floor. She made herself at home beside his bedroll, not asking permission. Not that he’d have withheld it after what she did. Envy flashed in him like lightning, there and gone. She always looked so comfortable, like she belonged everywhere she chose to plant her ass by virtue of simply choosing to sit there. Adal wondered what it was like to move through the world like that. To not constantly wonder whether one was out of place.

“Come to lay down the rules of the new command?” He meant it as a joke. Mostly. It came out more bitter than he intended.

Riss’ eyebrows knit together.

“No, uh.” She looked surprised he’d even suggest such a thing. “I wanted to see how you were feeling. And to apologize.”

How he was feeling?

“Not the best,” he admitted.

“Yeah, no shit.” She drummed her fingertips on a knee. For once, she seemed mildly agitated. The nervous motion was unlike her. For all their time together in the Fourth Recce–and it had been half a season now–she’d never shown a lick of anxiety.

“I’ll survive.” Adal lifted a hint of a smile. He meant it, too. The day had veered sharply from horror to dismay to embarrassment, but it was far from the worst he’d ever suffered.

“With me looking out for you? You sure will.” Her eyes narrowed. A joke?

Seconds ticked by. Adal turned his head and watched the tiny flames of the candles dance. Riss hadn’t left yet. He wasn’t sure why. He was a little nervous about asking. They’d shared no bad blood, but they weren’t exactly close.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

He choked back a full-on guffaw.

“You’re practically sitting on my pillow, Sergeant. Permission by this point is implied.”

Riss unwrapped something from her belt with a crinkle of wax paper. It was a small bar of chocolate impressed with a four-point seal. Amaveloro’s, a luxury trader out of Medao. Contraband goods if caught in the hands of someone wearing their uniform.

“I swiped this off one of the dead Narlies,” she said, snapping the bar in two. “Promise.”

Adal took the chocolate, dumbfounded. It was dark and smooth, leaning more toward bitter than sweet. He took slow, nibbling bites, savoring it. With the blockade in place, who knew when he’d get the chance to savor northern chocolate again.

“It was a dumb, dumb thing you did back there,” said Riss. Ah, so the chocolate was to soften the blow. Adal puffed out his chest a little and prepared to take his licks. A lecture from his Sergeant was a predictable finale to a day like this.

He didn’t disagree with her that he’d chosen poorly.

“Nothing you could have done could have saved him. And you know that. And I think you knew it then too.” Oh. She was talking about Roan. Adal remained silent while she continued.

“Roan and I came up through Selection together.” A pause. “When I saw him go down, I duck-and-covered. It was the practical thing to do. You went to him instead.”

Adal’s stomach tightened. He didn’t know what she wanted him to say. He didn’t know what he wanted to say. It had been reflex. Some insane, impractical part of him had thought Roan stood a chance.

“I was tough on you. Tougher than I should have been. You have every right to discipline me for saying what I did.”

“It wasn’t incorrect,” Adal said, atonal. “The unit would likely fare better under your command.”

Riss could scout circles around most of them. Gaspard Marcinen had his eye on her. She was destined for bigger and better things–and wetter, quieter work–than most of the Fourth. They were lucky to have her as long as they had.

“It was out of line.” Riss leaned back into his field of vision, her short fringe falling into her eyes.

“What do you want, Sergeant? Want me to whip you or reprimand you in earshot of the others?”

That got a laugh out of her.

“No, sir.” Her expression took on a more serious cast, her lips tight. “But… I want to help you. Like you tried to help Roan. The Academy spits out a lot of brass who only care about earning jewelry for their lapels. And a lot of sadists with short man syndrome who’d have had my hide for what I said to you. You aren’t either of those.”

They were scouts, sure, but the parts of him the Academy had hammered smooth still rang with her insults. Yet she wasn’t wrong. He knew both those types. But it was terribly impolite to say all that.

Wearily, Adal sized her up. Still waters ran deep, he supposed. There was more to her than he’d assumed.

After the day they’d had, he was too tired to remind her of decorum.

“Thank you,” he said instead.

The Army made compatriots out of strangers. And friends out of the most unlikely people.

“We can look out for one another,” Riss said, like he’d already signed some blood pact.

“I believe that’s the goal already,” he deadpanned. “Keep one another alive. Ideally the whole unit.”

“You know what I mean.” She eased back to her feet, straightened her coat. “I’m a conscript. I didn’t volunteer for this crap. So you’d better believe I’m getting more out of this war than simply staying alive.”

Adal hadn’t ever thought of it that way, but she had a point.

<< Chapter 28 | Chapter 30 >>

Chapter 28

Once, when Calay Maunet was young, before he was even Calay Maunet, he came down with a fever. For five days and nights he alternated between shivering and sweating, vacillated between exhausted and manic. He spent his days in the blurred barrier between asleep and awake. Snatches of consciousness were hazy, their edges ill-defined. He couldn’t ever be certain if he was fully alert.

After Geetsha blew apart, and in the heavy darkness that followed, he awoke in a similar way.

He opened his eyes to a writhing sky.

Dawn had come while he was asleep. It was a stormy dawn, the sky choked with thick and ominous clouds. Woven through the clouds were dark, tapered tentacles, darker still than the storm overhead, and they curled and twitched like the feelers of the jellies that sometimes washed up on the Vasa shores. Like they belonged to a dead thing stirred into motion by some unseen current.

None of it made sense.

When he tried to move, he found he couldn’t.

Then the pain hit him, far away at first, but slowly sharpening into focus as seconds passed. His body felt tired, weighted down. He could breathe, but he sensed a slippery, disconcerting not-rightness in his abdomen. When he tried to lift his head, he found he didn’t have the strength to raise it all the way.

Fragments returned: Geetsha, the living thorns, Vosk. Then stranger splinters: dreams of peculiar red beetles, the rumble of distant wagon wheels.

That’s right. Calay had been shot.

Well he must have lived through that, then. Which was fortunate, as he had enough blood on him to return his body to an unharmed state, provided he could reach it and manipulate it in the proper way. Struggling to lift his left hand, he felt down toward his belt, reaching, groping.

When he tried to lift his right hand, he encountered a strange resistance. A resistance that made him uneasy, because it wasn’t the sluggish delayed response of an injured limb. Something had him physically trapped in place. This new worry took precedence in his mind, and he gave his hand a little tug, trying to slip it out from under whatever had landed atop it.

Pain, sharp and barbed, licked immediately up his fingers and arm. A pain so intense and sudden that it drove a startled, strangled yelp out of him. He twitched and thrashed, and every motion seemed to invite further agony. It felt like trying to pull fishhooks from his skin, yet every time he tried to pull away they dug in deeper.

Shivering, whimpering, he turned his head. He grit his teeth until the spasms in his throat stopped. He schooled himself into silence.

He saw that there were no tentacles in the sky. What he was seeing were the roots of the crawling tree closing over his face. He’d fallen right into it. Which meant that the pain he felt whenever he moved his arm must be…

Calay bit back a fresh round of screaming. Hissing, whining, desperate, he attempted to shift his center mass away from the tree while moving his arm as little as possible. Further pain–this pain a deep, punching ache–jolted him through the middle. Warm wet spilled down his sides. He tried not to pay attention to the fishhook sensation, the little pulls and tugs he felt on his skin. Tried not to imagine it as the mouths of dozens of tiny leeches all burrowing in at once. Tried not to think about how he could not die like this.

Where was Gaz? Where were the others? Fuck’s sake, why wasn’t someone helping him?

Something must have happened to Vosk, or else the man would have marched up and put one in his head to finish him off. Vosk wanted him silent, not mortally wounded. With Geetsha dead–if she’d even been alive to begin with–Calay alone knew that Vosk had tried to kill the survivor. And Geetsha’s cryptic last words hinted at a reason why.

But none of that mattered if a tree fucking ate him.

His left hand’s fingers closed around a vial in his belt. He tried to calm himself, tried to think through his options, tried to keep a lid on the panic.

Remember what happened the last time you lost control.

Most days, Calay actively suppressed the memory of his last few weeks in Vasile. It was still too fresh, too raw. But he conjured a specific memory now: that kicked-dog sensation of being dragged to the Vasa dungeons, begging Gaz not to intervene, to let it happen, because he’d gotten himself into this mess and he wasn’t about to let his friends get killed on his account.

None of that would have happened if he’d kept a level head. 

A cold shiver swept over him like a tide. The fishhooks felt further away. Not a good sign.

Focus. Come on. Two major concerns: the gut shot and the tree. Which was it best to tend to first? If he closed the wound in his stomach, he could focus on freeing himself. Hack his arm off if he had to. He wasn’t sure he had enough blood on him to fix that, hadn’t ever tested his magick to that extreme a degree, but if it was his only option, he’d take it in an instant over being absorbed slowly into a tree.

His thoughts slurred. He grounded himself in what he could feel: his left hand’s fingers held a vial. Vial. The vial was blood. He needed blood to patch himself up. Two vials would be better. He grabbed for both, lifted them to his mouth, bit through the waxy seals.

Hesitation. What if the others see? They saw him get shot. If they saw him un-shot things would get messy. But messy is a preferable outcome to dead. Things were already messy. Hesitation. He wondered if they’d turn on Gaz, too. Gaz can look out for himself.

He made the decision. With shaking, bloodstained fingers, he tore open the top few buttons of his shirt.

Calay turned his head, spat wax, and poured. Two vials of blood, harvested from the unwilling bodies of Vasa guards who’d crossed him, spilt down his chest. He sloppily sketched the seven-pronged character of su upon his skin, and as soon as his finger traced the final line, warmth surged through his body from the inside out. It hit him like a slap; his teeth snapped shut on his tongue. That pain was a drop in the bucket.

The strange stretching heat of a wound healing from within still unsettled him. The warming sensation grew hotter, and as broken skin and viscera knit back together, the heat rocketed up to near-unbearable levels. Tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, Calay held his breath and let the magick run its course. He’d never felt it burn so hot for so long now, but then again, he’d never had to clean up a wound this messy before, at least not on his own body.

Somewhere far away, the poor bastard who’d ‘donated’ this blood would share his searing red-hot agony. Splitting the pain between two bodies was the only thing that made it bearable.

Something deep in his core clicked and cracked; he felt a grinding sensation shimmy its way up his spine, a part of which must have been blown askew. As ribs and vertebrae burrowed back into place, he reflexively reached for his torso with both hands, and then his right arm sang out in fresh misery that put the burning in his guts to shame. The fishhooks seized him by the skin and the magick of su immediately tried to counteract, but something wasn’t working right. Above him, the tree shuddered, then its roots tightened their grasp around both Calay and the other body held in their tangles.

He recalled Vosk’s words, recalled the horrifying sight of the horse encased in the tree trunk. If Vosk hadn’t been lying about that too, then the tree was already melding with him. Any magick he worked on himself would–

Oh shit oh shit oh shit, had he just healed the tree?

Rolling onto his side as best he could, not even taking a moment to marvel at his newly-repaired torso, Calay groped for a blade. He had to cut himself loose, even if it meant taking off the entire arm.

When he blinked, a strange vision glittered before his eyes: sunlight sparkling on water. He heard laughter, faint and far away. His heart ached, a bone-deep nostalgia, and he couldn’t pinpoint why.

Across the clearing, bodies began to stir. Groaning quietly, Torcha rubbed at her head, groping for her rifle. He caught a glimpse of open eyes through the tangle of her hair.

Calay smelled salt now. He heard gulls. He could tell to some extent that the phantom smells and sounds must be hallucinations, as he couldn’t see anything that would have caused them. But that didn’t make any of it less real.

He would deal with Torcha when he was free, depending on what she’d seen.

Fumbling one-handed, he managed to unsheath one of the punch-daggers from his belt. He grit his teeth. The inside of his mouth still tasted like blood. He thought back to the slow, steady patience he’d shown in the city dungeons. He had the willpower to do this. Except this time, he’d have more in common with the screaming, wriggling rat that he’d trapped, down to the part where it had tried to gnaw off one of its own legs in its frantic rush to escape.

<< Chapter 27 | Chapter 29 >>

Chapter 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t want to get any ick on him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

“This your kid?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re still here.”

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

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

“Funny,” said the medic.

“Everything’s funny to you.”

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

“Not everything. Just you.”

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not kicking you out.”

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

“I’m Gaz,” he said.

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

“So you help run this place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. Over on the Eastside?”

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

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “Blackbricks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe he’d finally get to see it all.

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

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

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