Chapter 53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I reckon we all stink,” Torcha agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torcha’s brows drew together.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“It is,” said Gaz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Riss—” he started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 52 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 52

Once, when Gaz was real young, Kitta had sent him on an errand to the canal district. It was unfamiliar territory, a thin slice of Vasile that ran from the docks to the heart of the city, a borderland zone between the prosperous suburbs and more familiar working-class turf.

He’d crept over the cobbles, over piers, and through the shadows to deliver a parcel, and on his way home, he’d walked over the Grand Canal in the dead of night for the very first time.

For the rest of his life, he’d remember how it looked: flickering torches and wall-sconces lining the shopfronts, their lights reflected in mirror image on the still waters of the canal below. Each bridge that passed over the canal had its own strings of lamps and lanterns to warn punters of their ceilings. They formed archways of gold-orange light, so entrancing he couldn’t bear to leave until hurried along by a night watchman.

The trail they followed through the swamp, lit by the Indefinite-Collective, recalled those softly-shining tunnels of light in a way that warmed his stomach with nostalgia. Boy, that had been a simpler time.

Now, instead of working as a package boy, he tracked through the mud with Calay and Torcha at his sides, following a sparkling trail given to them by a rubbery, melted corpse. But Calay hadn’t hesitated. So Gaz didn’t either. And once they’d… Bridged… Gaz now knew deep in his belly that the Collective meant them no harm.

He now knew a lot of other things, too. But he wasn’t sure exactly what to do with them. The memories of Torcha’s village, the raw and visceral hate and fury that had scorched across from her the second they touched. And behind it, a matching fury from Calay, though his was more measured, a steady burn instead of an explosion. Gaz was aware of all that, but in the way a man whose apartment was burning down was aware that his neighbor’s apartment might be burning down, too: there were bigger things on his mind.

Descending into a foul-smelling ditch thick with mosquitoes, they followed a half-dry creek bed for a time, the stink of stagnant water and algae overpowering. The little spots of light continued to twinkle on tree trunks and boulders along the marsh’s soggy floor, and Gaz noticed when he passed close by some that they were in fact mushrooms. Those delicate, paper-thin fungi that resembled lanterns. They’d seen them on the way in.

“Look, there’s one of the birds.”

Torcha spotted it first, one of Riss’ moa tethered to the low branch of a bent-trunked softwood tree. It pecked at a cluster of red-purple berries amid the foliage, appearing unharmed if suspiciously unattended. An empty rucksack sat at its feet, as did a canteen.

Calay briefly inspected the bags lashed to the bird’s harness.

“All the silks and most of the supplies are still here. They wouldn’t have left this unless it was serious. And it’s tethered, so it didn’t walk off.”

He dipped a finger into the flagon that hung from his belt, then touched at his own face, sketching a three-pronged character beneath his eye. The glyph sizzled and flashed, the blood drying instantly upon his skin. Gaz looked reflexively to Torcha, ready to beg her settle down, but she was staring off past a field of puddles with cool disinterest.

Calay tipped his head back and sniffed the air.

“Torcha,” he asked. “Find something on the bird that belongs to Riss or Adal?”

She approached the moa with slow, measured steps, watching Calay all the while. Digging through a couple of the different packs secured to the beast, she eventually withdrew a patterned scarf of deep blue linen. Gaz recognized it as one he’d seen upon Adalgis at the pub what felt like years ago.

He brought the scarf to his nose, then held it to his face and inhaled deeply, closing his eyes.

“Is that… are you gonna… track him like a sniffer dog?” Torcha scratched a hand through her hair.

Calay yanked the scarf down from his face. “It’s the most effective method.”

“Huh.”

Gaz enjoyed the wrinkle of confusion that passed over Torcha’s face. He supposed it was a little unusual, but he’d seen Calay do it so many times that the unusual had become normal for him.

“I guess I just thought it would be more…” She couldn’t seem to find the words. Gaz filled in a few ideas. Magicky? Threatening? Dramatic? Either way, he was glad she’d lost interest in shooting Calay. She could make fun of him all she wanted.

Gaz grabbed the moa and led it alongside them as they took off, following Calay. The dog, which had determinedly trotted along at Torcha’s heels, gave the bird an interested sniff. It stamped a taloned foot to warn the canine off.

He led them through a field of puddles that possessed a shiny, iridescent sheen, and they quickly found bootprints in the mud. Calay tilted his face side to side, his eyes narrowed in concentration. He moved like an animal when he was on the hunt, swinging his head to and fro, movements slow and prowling like a dockyard cat.

“The trails diverge here,” he murmured. “Vosk went one way. Adal went the other.”

Then he jerked to his feet. He swept an arm in a sudden beckoning gesture, his eyebrows lifting.

“There’s something else here,” he said, starting to jog before he’d even finished speaking. “I can hear it. It’s with them. It’s big.”

With a ready grunt, Gaz unslung his axe.

Calay led them to the riverbank, where mud sucked and pulled at their boots with every step. They heard the shrill squeals and shrieks before they saw anything. Gaz followed Calay’s lead and ducked low behind some brush, peering past.

A mass of twisting, thrashing semi-see-through worms swarmed over the river bank. The bodies moved in concert, though they weren’t all connected to any central mass. A thick, fleshy thing like a giant sea flower appeared to be the source of the shrieking, its fronds feeling in all directions as its slimy legs sought their prey.

Riss and Adal were holding their own, standing amid a heap of severed tentacles, their armor slick with the creature’s blood, but they looked tired. Adal only had a knife to his name, the crazy bastard. The slithering tentacle tangle had backed them up against the water, which rushed past worryingly fast. Vasa kids grew up with a deep respect for the power of water, and that river was not swimmable.

Before Gaz or Calay could so much as suggest what to do, Torcha was firing. Her rifle sang out straight past Gaz’s ear. One of Calay’s enchanted bullets blew apart on impact with the beast, which glowed and pulsed blue-purple in agony or surprise. Chunks of wobbly flesh like dessert gelatin sprayed off its trunk.

“Well there goes the element of surprise,” Calay muttered, rising up. He bloodied his fingers and charged in. Gaz peeled off toward Riss’ flank, hoping to open a path for them to cross back onto dryer land. His axe slished through the wriggly bits with ease, and soon he was waving Riss and Adal over. A slippery, barb-tipped limb lashed through the air, but they both managed to slip past it and into the grass.

“Good to see—” Gaz started to greet them, but they both jogged right past him to Torcha.

Well. That wasn’t surprising. Coughing a little, Gaz got back to work, aware of but not feeling entitled to the happy reunion taking place behind him.

At the end of its tether, the moa stiffened and then lowered, fluffing up its feathered wing-stubs and trying to make itself look bigger. It regarded the monster—which resembled a big, slithering jellyfish—with a cock of its beak, talons flashing as it danced from foot to foot.

“Someone might want to watch her…” Gaz dropped the lead and stepped aside from the agitated bird.

Calay cried out over the sound of a heavy, wet impact. Gaz couldn’t see him, but he saw another piece of twitching jelly-body go flying. That seemed as good a cue as any. He dove back into the fray for lack of better orders, wetly hacking his way toward Calay.

A sizzle and flash exploded over his head, and for a moment he thought it was Calay working magick, but then Torcha whooped excitedly, lobbing another of her flares at the mass of tendrils. The flare broke apart upon impact, fire sizzling and boiling up the beast’s wet skin. It shrieked in upset, limbs thrashing and going momentarily rigid.

“Get the lanterns!” Riss hollered. “All the oil you can get your hands on!”

Gaz and Calay’s lanterns didn’t run on oil; Calay’s tricks were a discreet, all-weather option. When Gaz reached him, he was slathered in green goo and grinning like a hungry dog. He sloshed blood across his hand, sketched spindly signatures in the air, then snapped his fingers. Fire erupted across his palm, and he slapped his hand to the closest tentacle, cackling as the flames raced over its membranes, which steamed and crackled.

Riss threw lantern oil over the same flames, splashing accelerant over every surface of the creature she could reach. It moved slower now, bleeding and burnt.

That smell of sizzling oil jogged a memory from the depths of Gaz’s mind: he and Calay splashing oil up the walls of a dilapidated tenement, laughing to stave off their nerves. The Butchers heist. Their first big—

One of the creature’s thicker arms snaked around Gaz’s middle, and he batted at it with the blade of his axe, not quite able to sever it. The wormlike thing ended in a series of curved, tapered claws which snapped in toward him with unearthly speed. He couldn’t avoid the strike, but he took it on the blade. He stumbled to one knee, ducked, moving without thinking. He hacked upward as something sailed over his head, then was rewarded with a spray of sweet-smelling ichor directly in the face.

“Fucking—” He coughed, spat. It didn’t taste as nice as it smelled.

From the corner of his eye, he caught Riss hauling in to finish the job. She climbed up the side of the creature’s center stalk, slashing wildly at its fronds, then emptied an entire lantern down its sucking mouthpiece. Calay slapped his sparking hand to its exterior and all three of them instinctively stumbled back and away, toward where Adal and Torcha waited.

Smoke began to gutter from the hole in the creature’s face. It billowed out thickly, like something over-baked in an oven, and it bellowed out a furious, shrieking wheeze. Its body sloshing forward, it lashed out at Riss one last time, but she was moving with confidence, quick on her feet. She spun and met its grasping limbs with her machete, not giving an inch.

Her shoulders drooped. He could hear her hard breath. With a final hah of effort, she wrenched her blade in a corkscrew fashion, twisting the arm nearest her clean off the beast’s trunk, sweat streaming down her face.

The monster cooked alive, both from the inside and out, thrashing as it died. By the time it fell still, it was covered in scorch marks and patches of crisped skin. It reeked like a burnt pie made with too-ripe fruit. Gaz’s stomach gurgled.

Calay passed him a rag, which he used to wipe the foul substance off his face.

Adalgis cleared his throat. “I believe that’s my scarf.”

Gaz spat out ichor and then dabbed at his mouth. “Yep,” he said. He offered it back, soaked and dripping. Adal took it between two hesitant fingers, pinching the cloth like a man who’d just changed a diaper for the first time.

Torcha leapt into Riss’ arms. Gaz scrubbed the last of the ick off his scalp. The fight was over. His pulse chugged back to its slow, steady baseline. And his mind, no longer preoccupied with keeping alive, strayed back to the Bridging.

He was far from an expert on people, but Gaz had a feeling that maybe you weren’t supposed to get such an intimate glimpse at the things your friends held back. That maybe it was better if they sat you down themselves and told you, once they trusted you enough.

In the midst of all of Torcha’s crunching bugs, he’d glimpsed something from Calay’s childhood that he wished he hadn’t seen. That he felt uncomfortable knowing. A skinny kid on his hands and knees, down on the ground with the garbage, forced to grip shards of broken glass while other, taller kids stomped on the backs of his hands.

He’d cleaned cuts like that off Calay’s palms before. And Calay had never, ever spoken of what had happened. Gaz got the story eventually, of course, gossip traveling as it did. But the story he’d been told didn’t quite explain the catastrophic, violent overreaction that followed.

“You all good, big guy?” Calay stepped around into his field of vision. Gaz coughed and hesitated to meet his eyes.

“All good,” he said, but he didn’t feel good at all. Something felt weird. Something felt wrong. He kept seeing those cuts in his mind’s eye. He glanced down toward Calay’s hands, trying to recall just how many scars he had along his palms. But of course Calay only had one palm now. And his other hand was caked with dried blood and ash.

Calay’s expression changed. He huffed, an annoyed look crossing over his blood-caked face, and pushed past Gaz with a mutter.

“What about you?” Gaz asked his back. “All good?”

“Weird, Gaz,” he said. “Times are weird. I was gonna offer you a smoke, but I still can’t do that, can I.”

“I’ll roll ‘em from now on if you buy,” Gaz offered.

He could handle this. He could deal with ‘weird.’ The ever-growing pile of stuff he was trying not to think about teetered like a heap of poorly stacked dishes stored on a too-high shelf. The whole thing was gonna tumble down sooner or later, but as long as it didn’t crash now he could deal.

<< Chapter 51 | Chapter 53 >>

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Chapter 51

The corpse wobbled toward them with unsteady steps. And it was a corpse—Calay could smell it now. Like a marionette steered by an inexperienced puppeteer, it approached, its skin a smooth dry brown-black that stood out like a sore amid all the green and grey.

The too-smooth contours of its body resembled cooled volcanic stone, and a flaking husk of grey-black fabric clung to it with all the crinkly translucence of the outer layers of an onion. He had difficulty placing it, as the sight of one walking around was so anachronistic to even his mind—which had seen weirder things than most—but soon he realized what he was looking at: the flaking canvas was a shroud. It was a bog body, someone who had been stitched up and buried in the marsh.

That did not explain why it was shambling about, though. He didn’t want to wait around and find out.

Torcha appeared to be of a similar mind. She lost interest in him and Gaz entirely, swinging the barrel of her rifle around. She regarded the thing through a squint, then spoke without looking toward him.

“Either of you object?”

Calay was happy to have her aiming at something else. “By all means.”

Torcha fired. Nothing worked like it was supposed to.

The enchanted bullet zipped through the air, but before it could impact its target, it fragmented. In the air before the melted contours of the corpse’s face, the slug shattered into tiny glittering fragments.

Calay dipped a finger into his flagon, sketched a sign in midair. The air before him shimmered briefly, the atmosphere thickened by magick. Just in case.

The twinkling shards of Torcha’s shot fell harmlessly to the ground. At the same moment, Calay stepped forward, angling himself in front of both her and Gaz. He trusted her not to shoot him in the back if only because it would be tactically disadvantageous.

As he took a step closer to the corpse, a furious tingle danced up the palm of his mangled bone and bark hand, the brush of a butterfly’s wings mingled with the scrape of a spider’s legs. A spasm ran through his knuckles, and the sharp spiny fingers that had begun to grow back into place twitched eagerly, of their own accord.

Something about the things in this swamp. His arm reacted to them now. Were he safe at home observing this all under laboratory conditions, he’d have been fascinated. Instead, the sensation tightened his throat with foreboding.

He had his shield, at least. For a man who prided himself on contingencies, on foreseeing possible futures, little made him as antsy as having no idea what would come next.

The mummified corpse lifted its right arm. Calay’s right arm jerked up too. He tried to ball a fist, but he didn’t quite have control of it. Rolling the wrist and attempting to yank his blade-hand back down, he instead swiped at the air before him, muscles not responding to his brain’s commands.

Step by shuffling step, the bog body approached, until it stood near enough that he felt obligated to shoot it. He lifted his pistol, leveled it at the thing’s face.

Up close, he could see now that the paper-thin whitish blisters upon its face looked like egg sacs of some kind. Blown open from the inside, traces of powdered white dotting the outside. Something had escaped from inside it. The thought made his skin crawl.

Yet he hesitated. He didn’t shoot. As it neared him, the tingling in his arm died down. A cool sensation washed over the limb instead, like a soothing balm. It felt genuinely pleasant, and he felt compelled in the most minor way to delay pulling the trigger.

“Boss?” Gaz sounded worried.

The corpse slowly stretched its raised right hand to Calay’s. It moved with a sentient purpose, slow enough that he somehow didn’t feel threatened. He had time to marvel at how well-preserved the fingers were upon its gnarled hands. The nails remained intact, chipped though they might have been. When he inhaled, the deep, peaty aroma of its flesh reminded him a little too intimately of whiskeys he’d sipped.

It tapped a finger against his bark-armored knuckles.

His arm changed.

That cool, soothing sensation rushed over his skin anew. Burrowing up from from atop the bony claws of his hand, tiny green vines erupted. They stretched into the sunlight, then unfurled toward the sky. Bell-shaped flowers bloomed from delicate stems upon his knuckles, purple and gold and orange. His jaw fell open. Mesmerized, he watched a little garden spring to life upon his flesh. The flowers weren’t some illusion, either. They possessed a tart, floral scent that held the putrefaction of the swamp at bay.

With his flesh and blood fingers, he touched at the petals, a tender exploration. They were so small. He’d be careful. He wouldn’t let anyone—

“What’s going on?” Gaz again, on edge, and Calay understood why. He’d forgotten in the wonder of the moment that he was standing before a reanimated corpse, that the flowers had an origin he shouldn’t trust. They’d been entrancing.

He narrowed his eyes. He tried to find a feature of the thing’s face to focus upon, as it swayed there before him. Its features appeared melted, rippled and smooth like well-oiled leather, mouth and nose sagging down one side of the face while the eye sockets stared, vacant and unseeing. Yet when he shifted from foot to foot, the thing’s head turned minutely. Eyeless as it was, it saw him somehow.

It removed its finger from his arm. Then it spoke without opening its mouth.

[We are the Many of the Indefinite-Collective, gardener.]

The voice existed in his mind, yet his ears heard nothing. He was aware of the words the way he was aware of his own memories.

“Hello?” Under any other circumstances, he would have hated the tremor in his voice, the uncertainty. But this was no time for a power play.

Again, words formed in his mind, and he knew the corpse was the source.

[We-who-are-undefined are unused to this method of {???} and seek to communicate in a way that Defined-as-Calay will understand.]

There was a gap in the sentence, like he’d momentarily stopped listening. A concept came to mind, like an abstract image: communication racing between two beings, thoughts arriving almost simultaneously, an innate understanding, the way a mind knows when a finger has been pricked.

[After the Collapse of mycelial projection Geetsha, defense mechanisms were activated. These mechanisms nurtured the Bridge, and your {???} within the roots has further Bridged you.]

Geetsha. The strange pattern of speech, the unusual wording. It reminded him of her. He jerked a half-step back, staring at the body now in search of some resemblance, some familiar feature. But it didn’t resemble her at all.

“Geetsha’s dead,” he said, uncertain.

[Knowledge hums through the Indefinite-Collective. Geetsha has ceased to hum, but the knowledge hums on.]

He felt like a man at a seance, or watching a parody of a seance play out in a theatre. What was he supposed to say? The consciousness invading his own was an alien presence. He couldn’t guess at its motivations.

“Why are you here?” His voice had steadied, at least.

The being’s rippled face regarded him sightlessly.

[Defined-as-Calay performs a gardener’s duties to the Definite. You perform {???} and medicine to purge single-bodies-single-minds of infection.]

“That’s correct…” How exactly it knew that he didn’t dwell on. If it could imprint thoughts into his mind in such a way, who knew what other abilities it possessed. Or They. As it seemed to be a representative of a greater… tribe?

[The attack on mycelial projection Geetsha has triggered an immune response. The Indefinite-Collective has formed an agreement with Defined-as-Tarn that you shall not be {treated?} when the {fever?} strikes.]

He sensed it as an idea more than as words: Geetsha’s death had triggered some sort of defense system inside the swamp itself. And the retaliatory strike was coming.

He felt no malice from the being. It was merely a messenger.

“What are we supposed to do?” Not that he was game to take orders from a psychic corpse, but it was goading him toward something. Otherwise, why warn him?

[Remove the source of the {infection?} before the immune response.]

“The source of the infection?” Calay tilted his head. The swamp saw them as infectious bodies, to be purged from its system?

[Not you. The mycelial projection was attacked by an Unbridged single-mind defined as Harlan.]

“Oh. Vosk.” Relief. “So, what, just kill him?” Riss wouldn’t want Vosk dead. He didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with her.

“No!” Torcha’s voice rose from behind him, an ornery drawl. “I can’t let you do that. We got orders to bring him back. You know that. A shiv in the neck is too easy for what he did.”

The being did not acknowledge Torcha at all. Calay’s shoulders tingled. He wondered if she was watching him through her sights.

Calay didn’t give a rat’s ass whether Vosk made it to the gallows. But he had to keep up appearances, or Riss’ trigger-happy grunt would object.

“We can’t… kill him,” Calay said, unsure if the thing before him even understood the concept of dead. Geetsha had been shot in the face. She certainly wasn’t humming on.

[Can he be removed?]

A thought occurred to him. He glanced over his shoulder. “Can you guys… uh, hear this?”

Gaz and Torcha shook their heads, both skeptical in their regard of him.

“I can hear it,” he explained. “In my head. It says the swamp wants Vosk to be removed. Or else there’s a… response coming.”

“Well that’s the whole goal, isn’t it?” asked Gaz. “Get him outta here, get him back to Tarn’s, tip him off the gallows, never set foot in this place again?”

Calay swung his attention back to the melted face that still hovered far too close to his own. He sniffed involuntarily, felt disgust at the hunger the scent of whiskey and sweet flowers evoked.

“You said you had an agreement with Tarn? To get Vosk out of here?” How did Tarn fit into all this? Calay’s mind strained with the effort to try to piece it all together. He liked to think he had a superior intellect compared to most, but he was lost.

[Defined-as-Tarn informed the Collective that a family of Definite would arrive. We agreed that no harm would come to the Definite, but the immune response is a {reflex?} and cannot be {helped?}.]

Calay had to laugh. He cawed out a single, harsh laugh that rang off the treetops, a laugh so rough he coughed in the aftermath, thumping a fist against his sternum. He stared the creature down without a shred of horror now, so amused was he by that statement.

“No harm would come to us? You think this counts as no harm coming to us? Geetsha got shot in the face. Riss and Adalgis almost died. I lost my fucking arm—”

[There are things which hum within the marsh outside the Indefinite-Collective.]

Goosebumps tightened across his skin.

He couldn’t believe he was about to say it, but—

“Help us, then. Help us get to Vosk. We’ll remove the infection. You’re correct. I’m a… gardener. I can do it, but we’ve wasted a lot of time hiking all over this swamp with no clue where to go.”

A pulse of consideration seeped through the being’s hand and through his arm. He felt it consider his offer. Then, despite how motionless it had stood up until that point, it nodded its rippled head.

[The Collective shall network the way. Defined-as-Calay will fight the infection. The agreement is fulfilled.]

The corpse turned away from him. Calay watched in astonishment as little specks of light blinked into existence, hovering midair around its head. It wheezed, and the glowing particulates erupted from the sores upon its face and neck, the little flecks of white Calay had noticed earlier.

The glowing motes drifted westward, forming a definite line.

“It… wants us to follow,” Calay said, hesitant again. “It says it’s with Geetsha? And, ehm. It says it will lead the way to Vosk?”

“You got all that from just staring at its face?” Torcha sounded skeptical. He didn’t blame her.

“Torcha, here,” he said. “Give me your hand.”

She didn’t step forward. He shifted his eyes to Gaz instead and beckoned, curling his fingers inward.

Gaz joined him, though he kept a wary distance from the corpse, which now stood inert as a tree—the regular kind of tree. Calay reached out and grasped Gaz’s hand in his own, threading their fingers together. He couldn’t explain how he knew that touch would work, that he could serve as a conduit for the creature’s thoughts to Gaz. He just knew.

[We are Bridging.]

Gaz’s eyes widened, growing huge. He gripped Calay’s hand tighter as he squeaked out a surprised breath.

“It doesn’t want to hurt us,” Gaz murmured, looking to Torcha. “It’s impossible to describe. You can just… tell.”

Torcha was unconvinced. “Unless it’s witching you both.”

But before she could argue, Gaz reached out and grabbed her by the forearm, pressing a few fingers to the gap in her glove and sleeve.

Together, the three of them experienced the Bridging. Incomprehensible feelings and sensations: knowledge racing and humming through all the roots and fungi in the swamp, the simultaneous Knowing that threaded the whole place together, like blood vessels working in tandem to keep a body alive.

And through the pulses of those veins, they felt it: a point of throbbing discomfort. A lesion. A boil that required lancing.

And it wasn’t just the Collective that Calay bridged with. When he’d been tangled in the roots of the crawling tree, he’d sensed within them a vague recollection of scarlet-shelled beetles. Bugs that needed crushing. Of fire and loss and care and concern, feelings much larger than those he’d ever felt within himself.

He saw the Bug Room, heard the soft squeak of Madem Yelisey’s wheel as she spun fibers into yarn.

He saw the Indigents’ Clinic, felt the soft tugs of worry in Gaz’s stomach as he tended the patients there, as he watched the door and waited, as dark grew closer and he tried to stomach the nightly fear that the one person he had ever really loved might not make it home.

And oh… oh shit, oh no. What had Gaz and Torcha seen inside him?

A soft whine sounded from the dog, which warily regarded the corpse from where it hunkered.

That broke the spell. They snapped their hands away from one another all at once. Calay cradled his mangled arm to his chest, breathed in the perfume of his newfound flowers.

Gaz and Torcha had tears in their eyes. When he blinked, his eyes felt wet too. He needed a moment to right himself, to sift through that cacophony of thought and sensation and figure out which slivers of it were his own. To swallow back the mounting fury and aggression, to divert the weird impulses to ascertain that everyone was all right. Gods, what the fuck, Gaz cared about people so much—

“I see it now.” Torcha looked past the corpse, toward the trees. “The Collective, they’ve lit the way.”

A sparkling trail cut through the dusky swamp, clear as day, begging them to follow it.

<< Chapter 50 | Chapter 52 >>

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Chapter 50

Adal followed after Riss, as he always had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’d reached the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adal followed. He always would.

<< Chapter 49 | Chapter 51 >>

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Chapter 49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz saw no reason to lie to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz let his breath out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz decided to intervene before things simmered over.

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

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

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

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

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

Calay stepped in.

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

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

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

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

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

Something moved at the treeline.

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

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

<< Chapter 48.5 | Chapter 50 >>

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Chapter 48.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even if he escaped Riss and her lap dog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his way out started at the river.

<< Chapter 48 | Chapter 49 >>

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Chapter 48

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

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

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

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

How had this happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adal, grimacing tightly, managed to laugh that off.

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

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

“He won’t have made it far.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s spent,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 47 | Chapter 48.5 >>

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Chapter 47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

“Just like old times,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 46 | Chapter 48 >>

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Chapter 46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

He said it before his brain had finished thinking it.

“I’m going back for her.”

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

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

“Adal, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And… surely Adal had misheard him. What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss bristled like a guard dog.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 45 | Chapter 47

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Chapter 45

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

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

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

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

“May I?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It got me, didn’t it.”

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

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

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

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

“What did he do to me?”

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

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

“Riss, you’re fine.”

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

When she breathed in, was anything gurgling unusually?

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

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

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

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

Adal cut her off, his voice low.

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

“I don’t hate you. I just—”

“You were meat, Riss.”

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

You were meat.

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rain had washed away even her footprints.

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sudden voice from below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

Riss should have seen this coming.

<< Chapter 44 | Chapter 46 >>

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