Chapter 40

Food had a way of soothing the psyche as it soothed the body. The rudimentary stew they’d fashioned resembled the cuisine of Adal’s childhood only in staple ingredients, yet it was enough to transport him to a much healthier, less precarious mental place.

He recalled a favored dish of his childhood: whole silvergill stuffed with water chestnuts in a sticky, spicy sauce that the family cook never did elaborate on. It was, as his mother would have said, a meal for entertaining. Something they only had when occasions necessitated use of the great House Altave dining hall. Adal always looked forward to those dinners as a child.

Riss took Vosk off in search of his ill-gotten loot, so Adal checked in with the others.

“Torcha,” he asked. “You all right for next watch?”

“Of course.” She picked her teeth with a fishbone. “I’m feeling pretty rested.”

Adal nodded. “You and Gaz, then, once Riss is back.”

Around the fishbone, Torcha’s mouth formed a small, cross line.

“With him?” She shifted a look toward Gaz and eyed him with open disdain.

“Calay was with me on mine,” he explained. “We’ve got to keep cycling watches so everyone gets enough rest. It isn’t ideal, but this is not an ideal situation.”

She made that deep, dubious grunt that said she thought something was bullshit but wasn’t going to voice that opinion. Adal had been on the receiving end of that little vocalization a few times in his life.

Torcha had a tendency to view things with a paucity of nuance. She’d been that way since they’d found her—or rather since she’d found them—back in the thick of the war. It felt unfair to ascribe it all to her uncultured upbringing, but the truth was that many in the Lower Deel and the outer textile regions lived fairly blunt, black and white lives.

In wartime, that thinking had been an asset. It had seen Torcha through unknown horrors, the specifics of which she’d never discussed with the Fourth.

But the situation with Calay and Gaz required a soft, careful touch. At least for the time being. With every night’s rest, those two would be recovering. Adal estimated Calay would be sturdy on his feet come morning, and then they’d have to take precious care to ensure that neither of the northerners deduced that Riss intended to sell them out.

Across the fire, Calay inhaled his stew voraciously, as if thoughts of double-crossing and wary intrigue couldn’t have been further from his mind.

“I have to say…” He smacked his lips. “When you told me you were a spearfisher, I thought you were joking. Or perhaps coming on to me.”

Adal exhaled through his nose, not quite a laugh. Before he could reply, Torcha stepped in to defend his honor.

“Yeah, well, looks like everybody on this expedition is more than what they seemed.” She coupled the words with a hard, bitter stare across the fire, eyes on Calay.

Calay opened his mouth, but for once, nothing came out. He shut it with a click of teeth. He looked, to Adal’s surprise, genuinely chagrined.

“Uh, either way… I think he was trying to say thanks for the fish.” Gaz set his bowl in the stack, then rubbed the bandages wound around his upper arm. As soon as Adal noticed, he couldn’t help but glance toward Calay’s right arm, or at least the lump beneath his duster where he kept it hidden away.

“He’s not your fucking friend, Narlie,” Torcha snapped.

“Torcha.” Adal put up a palm. “I can defend myself, thanks.”

Her eyes narrowed, this time on Adal. “Then why aren’t you? Why are you just letting them talk to you like we’re pals? Like they’re still on the right side of all this?”

With a gust of a sigh, Adal sat up. He’d take her for a private walk ‘round the pool, discuss things with her as he had with Riss. That would settle her. Except…

Damn. He couldn’t leave Calay and Gaz alone. Frustrated, he ground his molars for a moment.

Loth, in a lot of ways it really was just like being back on the front. The complete lack of privacy, at least.

He took a moment to swallow his frustration. Torcha’s anger was not her fault. It might have been inconvenient to the diplomatic approach he was trying to take, but the blame was solely Calay’s. He couldn’t hold her natural, understandable reactions against her.

Besides, this was the Torcha who had mellowed substantially compared to the girl they’d taken under wing after liberating Semmer’s Mill. She’d been younger then, with a temper the gods themselves would be right to fear. Her fury had seemed uncontrollable at first, but they’d discovered one presence in all the world that soothed her. Someone she looked up to enough that she’d shut up and listen even when in the depths of her rage.

And that person was presently occupied elsewhere.

“I get it. I really do. I’m not downplaying anything. I’m just…” There really wasn’t any better excuse than the truth. “I’m exhausted, Torcha. I am too tired to spare any energy on anger.”

Which was true. But as soon as he said it, he knew it also wasn’t the entire truth. He had felt flickers of familiarity, of relaxation if not quite kinship, during their meal. Everyone had shut their mouths and enjoyed their food, even if it was just a big stupid game of play pretend–much like the collective delusions that House Altave contained a cheery family within its dining hall.

Adal was used to wringing humanity out of less-than-ideal circumstances. It didn’t mean his heart was softening. Or that he’d forgotten the betrayal. But Torcha didn’t see it that way.

“You don’t have to be spittin’ mad.” She shifted the fishbone to the other side of her mouth, unimpressed in her regard of him. “But you’re treating them like people.”

Adal’s thoughts came to rest at an ideological blockade he didn’t know he had.

He disagreed with her there. He’d never realized it until that moment, but when she phrased it that way, his mind was quick to counter: They are people, Torcha. A sorcerer was not a thing that masqueraded as a person. A sorcerer was a person who learned to do a thing that let them masquerade as something else.

Despite what Gaz and Calay had done to them, Adal still saw them as fundamentally human. Torcha apparently did not. This was dicier than he thought it was.

The thump-crunch of boots on stone announced Riss’ return not a moment too soon. She arrived tossing a small suede pouch back and forth between her hands. Vosk limped stiffly before her, his expression a tired grimace.

“Well that was illuminating.” Riss retook her seat near the fire, tossing the pouch toward Torcha. “Have a look at these.”

Torcha blinked, her ire forgotten for now. She caught the bag and peered inside.

“Huh.”

From inside the pouch, she fished out a single pinky nail-sized pearl, its shade a creamy rose gold. She held it up for a moment, admiring the shine of firelight on its surface.

“Lotta beads like that,” said Riss. “Gemstones, too. Some fancy glass. Nice silks. I didn’t go through it all, but it’s likely more than we can even carry. So lay off Adal and let him go to sleep with visions of moneybags dancing in his head, hm?”

Adal blinked. “You heard all that?”

“I heard enough.” Riss beckoned Torcha up with a crook of her finger. “C’mere, resident textile expert. I need someone to tell me what’s worth carting out of here.”

Torcha rolled to her feet, limber and young and eager to please the boss. They strolled back into the rear of the cave. Vosk watched them go.

The sun had yet to set, but Adal wasn’t going to waste any opportunity for sleep between watches. He tethered Vosk’s hands again, and when the man complained, Adal decided he was about due for a pat-down as well. But he hadn’t acquired any weapons or stowed any contraband on his person, at least not yet.

“Gonna do us next?” Calay asked, baring his teeth in the first smile Adal had seen on him since he’d been shot.

Adal stared him down. “Do I have to?”

Calay and Gaz shared a look between the two of them.

“Reckon not,” said Gaz.

“Shame,” said Calay. “It’s been so long since I felt the tender touch of a man.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Vosk growled.

For all the hearty meal had rejuvenated him, Adal had just about had it with all the bickering. He knocked the toe of a boot warningly against the back of Vosk’s shoulder.

“Enough out of you,” he said. “Regardless of anything else that’s happened on this expedition, the fact remains that only one among us tried to murder someone.”

Maybe Torcha’s solution was right after all. Diplomacy was growing awful tiring. As he turned away from Vosk, Adal’s spine tingled most unpleasantly. He felt eyes on his back. When he returned to the fire, he saw Calay observing him in silence, firelight accentuating the deep shadows of his face. Convalescent though he might have been, his attention hadn’t wavered at all throughout Adal’s entire conversation with Torcha. He’d heard every word.

Alone at the fire with only Calay, Gaz, and Vosk for company, Adal felt as though his allies were very far away. Nonetheless, he schooled his mouth into a calm smile, never one to let a little malice ruin a good meal.

<< Chapter 39 | Chapter 41 >>

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Chapter 39

First you pay your dues, then you get to weave.

Murfrey Lupart’s voice echoed in his daughter’s ear: fatigued, parental, disappointed at having to explain the same old thing for the twentieth time.

Torcha tied her smock on and wondered–also for the twentieth time–if it was worth it.

She knew she’d been given a rare opportunity. She knew that apprenticeships at Madem Yelisey’s were highly sought-after. Doing this bitchwork–and that’s what it was, bitchwork–would open up worlds to Torcha that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Smock and boots in place, she opened the door to the bug room.

The sawdust-musty smell and constant chitter-clitter-clack of thousands of caged beetles all hit her at once. Whenever Madem Yelisey started paying her, the first thing she was going to purchase was something to plug her ears. For now she used torn-off bits of cotton from the spinning room, and those barely blocked any of it out.

Despite everything that everybody said, despite the blatant envy in the eyes of the village girls when Torcha told them where she worked, she wondered if she’d been sent to this place as punishment.

Whether it was punishment or not, she still had to do the work. Holding her breath, Torcha pulled on her gloves and flipped open the lid on the first tank. The bubbly, poor-quality glass was so opaque that she could barely see the glittering emerald-green beetles within, but as soon as she dumped in the first few handfuls of mealworms, the beetles swarmed across the tank’s floor and she could see them through the opening. Shiny, thumbnail-big, teeming by the dozen.

She fed them all, tank by tank. Some ate mealworms. Some ate the last few scraps off deer legs and the cracked-open marrow inside. Some ate clippings from Madem’s garden. Torcha shoveled the feed in with casual indifference. Feeding them was the easy part.

“Madem Yelisey?” she called through the bug room door, once all the beetles were eating. “What are we making today?”

A rough, feminine grunt from down the hall. Then Madem Yelisey’s voice, like a bleating goat:

“Red dye today, Torcha.”

She looked aside to a row of tanks where crimson beetles nibbled on sweet potato stalks.

“Sorry, bugs,” she said, and went to fetch the boiling nets.

Scooping up a net of writhing beetles, Torcha marched over to the vats. Madem Yelisey had the chemicals all ready to go–a secret mix the apprentices weren’t allowed to know. The fires beneath the big copper-bottomed drums burned hot, and Torcha gave the bellows a squeeze. Already, the liquid within was boiling.

She dunked the bug-net below the bubbling surface of the liquid and left it there.

Within seconds, the screaming started.

Don’t you worry, Torcha remembered her father telling her. I know it sounds terrible, but the whistling noise is just steam bubbling through their shells. They aren’t actually screaming. They’re just insects.

She gave the handle of the net a stir, then dragged it upward, chemical-stinky water streaming down off half-cooked carcasses. The beetles weren’t squirming anymore, though a few had legs that still twitched a little, feebly. She turned the net inside out and plunged them into the bath.

Shaking dry the net, she grabbed the long-handled masher off its spot on the tool rack.

With a soft grunt of effort, Torcha leaned over the vat as close as she could, its astringent vapors biting at her eyes. She flipped the switch on the side, counted to five as Madem Yelisey instructed, and drained some of the liquid. Then she heaved the switch back up the other way.

Then she started mashing.

The bugs only had to boil for half a minute or so to get nice and soft. Like a butter churn, Torcha worked the handle in her hands, the liquid in the vat blooming from light rose pink to a deep, dark, bloody red. She huffed and panted with the effort, breaking out into a sweat. If she kept at this for as many years as the Madem, soon her hands would have those same calluses along the innermost knuckles, even through the gloves. Her hands might resemble the spiders and insects they boiled and crushed.

It doesn’t matter, daddy, she’d said.

What doesn’t matter?

If the bugs are screaming for real or not.

She twisted as she mashed down, grinding the insects in the vat into a fine paste. Sometimes stuff just had to die for people to make a living. She was only ten and she understood that. She couldn’t figure out what her father’s hang-up was.

###

Daddy, you’re making a mistake.

How could her father keep doing this, with as bad as things were getting? Weavers were disappearing from the village left and right. Half the Madem’s apprentices didn’t come to work anymore, too scared to travel the roads or their entire families long since fled.

Still, Murfrey dropped his daughter at the Madem’s every morning. He told her these skills were too vital not to learn. She could mix dye now, and spin yarn, and dye cloth. The Madem was letting her weave two years early, for lack of able hands to do the work. Her education was too important.

Important enough to risk getting fucking shot? Because when the Narlies arrived, that’s what they were going to do.

Every day, the same argument: Torcha told her father she had to go. She had to go to the mustering. The girls at the Madem’s, they said their fathers and aunties and siblings were going. Some big-dick soldier from the Inland Empire was taking recruits. They called him the Shrike. Torcha was certain he’d take her once he saw what she could do with a rifle.

You’re fourteen, girl. That’s insanity.

But it wasn’t. Someday soon, this town would need her.

So she packed her rifle with her every morning. Her father couldn’t stop that. And after her lessons and her weaving, she marched to the edge of the woods, beneath the grasping legs of all the dangling spiders, and practiced.

###

When they finally came for Semmer’s Mill, it was just Torcha and the Madem left.

And still, that very last morning, Murfrey held her to their routine. She’d wonder about that for the rest of her years. Was he just too scared to act? Did he hope that if he somehow acted like nothing had changed, nothing would?

Their officers were polite. They called everyone to the town square, announced their intentions. They’d only bivouac for a matter of days. They would requisition supplies and move on. That those supplies would come from the locals’ cupboards as an unspoken understanding.

Torcha went to the Madem’s, as ordered. She ground the bugs and grit her teeth and trembled with the magnitude of her own anger.

The Shrike’s men pinched in from the northwest.

Days turned into weeks.

They left Torcha’s parents alone, but everyone knew not to let their children out after dark.

Then one day, the Madem wasn’t at the shop.

It was time to step up where her father would not.

They were the beetles now. She would not be boiled.

<< Chapter 38 | Chapter 40 >>

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Chapter 38

Riss sank down onto her bedroll, cross-legged on the mossy cave floor. By the time ass met ground, she was fading. Sleepless days and nights on the march were nothing new to anyone who’d been with her in the Fourth, but circumstances being what they were, there was more weighing on her frayed nerves than merely sleep deprivation. Little flickers of motion played at the corners of her vision, merely tricks of tired eyes, but out here that couldn’t be dismissed with a shake of the head. Out here the phantoms stood too good a chance of being real.

Stretching out on the thin mat, Riss assessed the camp one last time. The early afternoon sun shined warmly into the cavern, bright enough that it chased a lot of her wariness away. She knew it was bullshit false comfort, but human minds were like that, weren’t they. Gaz was, like her, borderline too tired to walk. He’d conked out a few minutes earlier, already dozing with his back to her. Torcha slept on Riss’ other side, snoring into the crook of an arm. Vosk sat further back in the cave’s shallow recess, still bound. And their first watch of Adal and Calay sat at the cavern’s mouth, silhouetted by sunlight.

Riss didn’t quite miss Geetsha. Wasn’t exactly grieving her. But as her eyes strayed toward Vosk one last time, a fleeting regret passed through her. Tarn and Geetsha had some sort of agreement. Would her people retaliate once they learned she’d been killed? Were her people even people? Was there something worse to fear out in the swamp than mimics and monsters?

Fortunately, fear was rather like grief. Riss simply didn’t have time for it. And in the rare moments she had time, she was too tired to dwell on it for long.

###

Waking to commotion was starting to become a habit. Riss blinked awake to the sound of a scuffle, bodies rising up off the ground. Yet as her senses asserted themselves and she surveyed the camp, the scuffle seemed to be more one of curiosity than an immediate response to danger.

“Something’s splashing around outside,” said Calay, eyes trained off toward the boulders that largely blocked the clearing from view.

“It doesn’t sound like a large something, for a change,” added Adal. And my, didn’t the pair of them seem chummy. Adal even gestured to Calay to follow him as he rose up from his seat, readying his pistol. Gaz, who had also awoken, lifted a questioning look to Calay, who gave him a tiny headshake.

“We’re only poking our noses out,” he said.

They crept off to investigate. Riss held her breath, opening her mouth slightly to train an ear toward the wilderness, an old recon trick. She heard two pairs of human footsteps, one much lighter than the other. And a few little splashes that sounded as though they were coming from the pool at the forest’s edge.

A moment later, she heard a most peculiar sound: surprised and jubilant laughter. Adal had a warm, deep laugh that she’d have known anywhere. The muted chuckle that followed must have been Calay.

Despite the fact that Torcha was still asleep, she couldn’t resist calling out.

“Everything all right out there?”

“Better than all right!” Adal answered. “We’ll be right over!”

Turning a look toward Gaz, Riss gave her head a skeptical tilt. Gaz, similarly befuddled, gave his bullish shoulders a roll.

“Calay seem all right when we went to sleep?” she asked him. “Neither of them seemed…” She wasn’t even sure what the word was. Delirious? Was there a chance either of them had actually cracked? Paranoia prickled up the back of her neck. Had Calay done something somehow? Some trick he could play without blood?

“They just sound happy,” said Gaz, in the tone of voice of a person who understood just how fucked up that was given the status of things.

They sat there dumbfounded until Adal and Calay slipped back between the boulders. They carried something strange and shiny in their arms. Something so incongruous that Riss needed a minute before her brain clicked on what the objects actually were: thick-bodied, silvery-scaled fish.

“They were leaping for the midges,” said Adal.

“How did you catch ‘em?” Gaz rubbed a hand over his scalp.

Adal clucked his tongue. “I’m a Deel boy,” he said. “If you can’t learn to spearfish they pack you to a raft and send you downriver to the potato farmers.”

Riss exhaled a faint gust of laughter. “It’s true,” she said. “You should see him with a polearm.”

She trailed off and turned a look from face to face. Any further laughter died in her throat. Don’t get too familiar, she warned herself. Calay and Gaz weren’t crew anymore. If she forgot that, if she let her caution lapse, she knew without a doubt that Calay would take advantage. He and Gaz were in it for themselves, their own survival. Riss wouldn’t be their stepping-stone to escape.

Adal cleared his throat, the sound spiking through the tension.

“At any rate,” he said. “They appear to be regular silvergills. Nothing mutated or horrific about them. I say we fillet them up and see how they taste.”

“Vosk and Calay can test ‘em out.” Torcha piped up from her bedroll, where she rested with her arms behind her head.

That wasn’t a half-bad idea.

Adal got the fish gutted and cleaned. He’d claimed with much swagger that his touch with a filleting knife was legendary, back the first time he and Riss had been in the field. His work lived up to the hype. Soon the fish sizzled with promise in the cookpan over the fire, everyone crowding around.

Riss and Torcha sorted through their provisions, putting together a rudimentary broth of sweet potatoes, salt, and the last of their mushrooms. Fine cuisine it was not, but it smelled more hearty than anything they’d nibbled on in the last two days.

“I can’t believe you two can still eat sweet potatoes,” said Adal, watching them while occasionally minding the fish.

“Pardon you.” Torcha ticked her nose in the air. “I could eat sweet potatoes every day ‘til the day I died.”

“Lucky for us that might end up being roundabout, say, tomorrow.”

Riss cocked her brow at Adal. “Dark,” she said.

Gaz, who had sequestered himself away somewhat with Calay at his side, regarded them curiously from his side of the fire.

“What’s wrong with sweet potatoes?”

Torcha finished chopping a fungus and dumped it in the pan, then leveled the blade of her small knife Gaz’s way.

“Absolutely nothing, that’s what.”

“When we were in the field, we ate a lot of them,” Riss explained. “The area near Torcha’s hometown is full of sweet potato plantations. It was easier to dig ‘em up most nights than to carry our own provisions.”

“Easier plus we were thieving from the Narlies.” Torcha sparked a grin, then tidied her things, folding up into a slouch against the cavern wall. “We didn’t all get the luxury of going home halfway through the war to our estate full of chefs.”

Adal pursed a small frown. “I had a collapsed lung,” he said.

“A collapsed lung and endless excuses.”

“Nasty business,” said Vosk from Riss’ opposite side. “I popped a lung once. Took a while to recover.”

Adal merely grunted. Things had shaken out in a way that Riss found mildly surprising: Vosk seemed on thinner ice than Calay where the company’s temper was concerned. But then again, she supposed she could see a certain logic in it. Calay had, thus far, merely hidden something terrible. Vosk had sabotaged their mission from the get-go, and whatever the story had been with Geetsha, he’d still killed her.

His hands were bound. Calay’s, for the time being, were not.

In these quiet moments, when things felt close to normal, that was when Riss found herself missing Gaspard the most. During their long days and cool, damp nights spent on the march, the Fourth’s forward scouts grew close. Gaspard had a way about him, a talent for setting restless soldiers at ease. He always had a story, a way to pass the time. If Riss closed her eyes and focused, she could still hear the muted twang of his gut-string guitar, often strummed quietly beside the fire while they made camp.

Adal took over cooking duty, dumping the deboned fish in with everything else. He seasoned it with a little pinch of something from his belt, then left it to simmer. Riss saw him slip a sliver of the white meat into his own mouth to test it first.

The aroma drew a straggler out from the treeline: the shaggy-furred hound that had trailed them on and off. The dog sniffed around the entrance to the cavern, wary of stepping inside until Torcha invited it with a soft, beckoning whistle. It crept closer, caution evident in its lowered ears and raised tail, until she coaxed it close enough to stroke its muzzle.

Notably, the dog didn’t approach Vosk at all. Riss sighed, rubbing at her face.

They ate in weary silence, portioning out a bit of fish and potatoes for the dog. The stew had a fortifying, steadying effect. As long as they had it in themselves to create a proper meal, they weren’t losing it. Cooking was a little nook of civilization they could carve out for themselves.

“So.” Riss forked a bit of sweet potato up to her mouth and took a bite. While chewing, she levelled a long look at Vosk. They’d untied his hands so he could eat, and his wrists were rough and rope-bitten.

He grunted acknowledgment and kept eating.

“Now that we’ve got all our cards on the table, this’ll be easier. What’s the fastest route out of here and how long do you estimate it will take?”

Vosk bristled at the question. He seemed annoyed. Tough shit. He explained that there was a route out that would take about two days on foot if they kept up a good pace. Riss nodded along, listening.

“All right,” she said. “Once you’ve finished your supper, you’re gonna show me where you stashed those traders’ belongings.”

###

Riss trusted Adal and Torcha to keep the peace at camp. She let Vosk lead her off on her own, mindful to keep enough distance between them that he couldn’t spin and advance on her easily. She didn’t like the idea of cutting him down before he could be brought back to Adelheim to face proper punishment, but she’d do it if she had to.

He led her to a smaller cave in the rear of the hole-riddled hillside, this one cramped enough that they had to crouch to duck inside. As promised, several canvas rucksacks were stacked up in the rear of the cave, their drab brown color a near match for the wall. As far as camouflage went, it couldn’t have worked better if it had been intentional. Riss imagined Vosk’s ill-gotten gains could have gone undiscovered for some time.

“Awful convenient how you were the only witness to make it out alive,” Riss said, neutral. She untied the top of a sack and peered inside. Bolts of deep red silk woven through with shimmering golden thread were folded within, as well as a small suede pouch of pearls.

Vosk’s brows drew together as he watched her. “I had friends on that expedition,” he said. “I’d been on that crew for months. It was not convenient. It was horrifying.”

She remembered those earlier moments, when the crew had first set out. How she’d sensed in Vosk a sort of old soldier’s kinship, the shared understanding of loss. Now, Riss was too tired to sift through whether or not that was bullshit.

“It’s been hard times in the valley,” Vosk said, continuing to try to justify himself.

Riss lifted her armored shoulders. “I bet,” she said. “Plenty of folks turn highwayman when times get desperate. I’m not judging you, Harlan. At least not for that. Your troubles now lie in the fact that a woman is dead and my crew has suffered our own hardships on a snipe hunt due to you.”

He didn’t have anything to say to that. She continued inventorying a few more bags. There were twelve in total, plenty to make the trip worthwhile, as well as some bundled limbs of dark-veined wood stacked in a corner. Silk, pearls, assorted gemstones, a sack of australs stamped with the insignia of a Meduese bank she recognized. Likely more than one bird could haul out.

“Riss.” Vosk’s voice was strained. His eyes had a sunken desperation to them. “You’re a reasonable woman. And the Baron’s a cheapskate. Name your price.”

She thought back to that evening in Tarn’s sitting room. The pang of camaraderie in her guts. The trust he’d put in her. The way he just knew how important this job was, an opportunity for her to right herself, to get the crew pointed in a good direction again. The trust. And then the risk–not to her own self, but to the few people on the Continent she’d ever been close to.

“You can’t meet my price, Vosk.” She tied up the bags, dusting off her hands. “You’re probably going to hang for what you did. Life’s rarely so tidy, but sometimes a man comes face to face with his consequences.”

And she was happy to help facilitate that.

<< Chapter 37 | Chapter 39 >>

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Chapter 37

Concern niggled at Adal like a pebble in his boot. Riss’ reaction to Vosk’s revelations worried him. He’d been expecting her to boil over with anger–and hells, who could blame her–but instead she’d just… crumpled. She would never have done that in front of her unit, be it soldiers or mercenaries. Or so he’d thought.

They had too many pieces in play to afford a breakdown. He had to know he could count on her.

He stepped up and took over leading the group back to their campsite. With a recaptured moa in tow, they were able to pack the tents and provisions. They wouldn’t have to dial back on rations just yet. Losing all the meat meant they’d have to eat more to fill themselves up, but they’d manage. The dog followed them at a distance, visible sometimes through gaps in the foliage. They had no scraps to spare it, but it didn’t seem deterred by that.

They returned to the ruined logging camp. Vosk admitted he could lead them out from there, as the routes he and Lukra took were well-trod enough. Calay glared sunken-eyed murder at him. Gaz just trudged along, silent.

He again refused Calay’s offer of eyedrops. The stars dancing across his vision had mostly subsided.

“So what did you do with all the cloth?” Torcha asked, gazing at the lumpy, doubled-over remains of a crawling tree, faint traces of bone bubbled beneath the surface of its bark. Adal thought he could spy a legbone of some sort, a femur perhaps, warped and curved as it had bent beneath the tree’s bark.

Torcha made a good point. If Vosk and his few survivors had looted the caravan, they couldn’t have snuck that past Tarn.

Vosk paused, silent, as if he might object. Torcha growled low in her throat. Adal had always found her voice too high, too young to be remotely threatening. But he supposed Vosk hadn’t known the girl since she was fourteen. The growl had the desired effect on him.

“There’s a series of caves in one of these hillsides, on the route back.”

Torcha swung an interested look toward Riss.

Encouragingly, Adal nodded. “We might as well salvage something out of this. If nothing else it’s proof of our version of events for Baron Tarn.”

Riss huffed. “What kind of caves?” she asked Vosk. “I am tired of things trying to eat me.”

“Shallow caves,” Vosk promised. “More like overhangs, really. Likely can’t even fit the lot of us.”

They paused for a short break, eating slices of cheese on hardtack and dried fruit. No one spoke, each likely contemplating just how close they’d come to making the march on starvation rations.

###

The walk to the caves was blessedly uneventful. Adal brought up the rear, vision fully recovered. None of the prisoners tried any funny business. Nothing leapt from the shadows intending to make a meal of them.

And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the environment turned almost beautiful. They gained elevation gradually, walking through clumps of reedy, bug-infested marsh and into a slightly drier area. Rolling hills surrounded them, dotted with low bushes. The strange, fragile-looking paper lantern fungi returned.

A small burbling creek bisected their trail. Vosk nodded down toward it.

“Cut left along the creek here, off the path. That’ll take you to the caverns.”

Though Adal couldn’t help but be wary, they did as instructed. Vosk had lied about nearly everything when they’d first met him. It was risky to trust him now. But they had reached a point where the second he ceased to be useful, he’d be crippled and trussed up on the moa and carried to Tarn as a screaming, wounded wreck. He seemed to grasp that.

The sound of running water was a relief. Adal, a child of the Deel River and its temperamental god, had grown up around it. It meant an end to the rank stagnation of the swamp. It meant a way out–if things got truly dire, they could follow the creek to its source, most likely. Higher ground.

Running water always meant good things.

The caves were in the correct location and just as described. Adal would have described them more as crevices, really. Little overhangs and cracks in between some rocky outcrops that made up a perilous, crumbling hillside. The hill had crumbled at some point, forming a natural dam in the creek, and a rocky pool now glimmered in the sunlight.

Sunlight?

Adal glanced up. The sight of blue sky took his breath away. It had been days since he’d seen more than a glimpse of it. Riss noticed him looking and glanced up too. Soon, all six of them were staring upwards, marveling at the stretch of blue overhead. Trees still crowded in on three cardinal directions, but it was as close to a glimpse of the outside world as they’d had in a week. That patch of blue sky felt like the first breath after a long underwater swim, a sensation of coming up for air, of resurfacing, of re-emerging into the world.

“Would you look at that.” Calay gave a delighted little laugh, turning his face into the sunlight. A thin haze of clouds zig-zagged across their little slice of sky, diffusing the sunlight. But Calay bathed his face in it regardless, still chuckling. In fresh natural light, he looked ghastly. Recovered from the state he’d been in earlier, sure, but that was like saying a freshly-deceased corpse looked better than a Meduese mummy.

For a fraction of a moment, Adal almost forgot what Calay was. Almost let the secret slip from his mind. For a blink, he was just another mercenary relieved to see the sun come out. A brother-in-arms emerging from the muck alongside Adal and Riss and Torcha.

The sorcerer took Adal’s eye as an invitation to conversation, like he’d caught a glimpse into that vulnerability and intended to seize it like a viper.

“The Janel coast is a dreary, foggy place,” he said. “This much sunlight makes a fine day back home.”

“Mm.” Gaz grunted agreement alongside him. “A day you could put the washing out.”

“We’re in a swamp,” Adal reminded them. “I wouldn’t hang your laundry out regardless of the amount of sunlight.”

Riss grabbed everyone’s reins then, clearing her throat and hooking a gesturing hand toward the series of crevices and outcrops. She didn’t bother speaking, just whipped her hand and everyone followed. Apart from a nap and a couple aborted nights, Adal had barely slept. Nobody else was in any better shape. A strong grunt and orders to follow worked wonders when one was half-asleep on one’s feet.

Riss shoved Vosk to the fore of the group, marching him ahead of her. She kept a hand clasped on his shoulder despite his bound hands, clearly just as aware as Adal was that the man could not be trusted. Vosk led them past the pool and a pair of shed-sized boulders which had tumbled down the crumbling hill in whatever landslide had dammed the creek. They passed from sunlight into shadow, the shade noticeably cooler. But here, with stone underfoot, it was a dry cool. It was refreshing in its own way. Adal sniffed the air, breathed in the aroma of sun-baked stone. It smelled somehow clean, or at least less terminally damp.

The path between the boulders was a tight squeeze; they had to take it single-file. Vosk led them through, Riss following closely behind. They filed into an area just as Vosk had described: a shallow cave, more of an overhang than anything. It was perhaps the size of a small wagon-hold, or a cabin on one of the Altave paddleships, with a low ceiling that twisted with gnarled roots. Vosk, Riss, and Gaz all ducked inside–Gaz with some difficulty, the large man having to adopt a slight crouch–but Calay hesitated. He fixated on the roots, hand tensing at his side, and that little twitch of trepidation made Adal pause midstep. Were it anyone else, his instinct might have been to ask if he was all right or offer some words of assurance. Instead, he glanced away, studying the lichen-dappled stone until the man moved on.

As Vosk promised, the cave was a tight fit. They spilled into a second overhang, another nook in the same eroded hillside. Torcha wasn’t able to get the moa through the narrow passage, so she tethered it just outside and left it to nose at the ground. They unpacked their things. Nobody needed to discuss it–they were camping here long enough to rest.

Sunlight. Dry air. The sensation of sinking down onto a bedroll. Adal had to consciously remind himself that they were still in the shit. Circumstances may not have been as dire as when the war was at its worst, but they were far from home clear.

Once everyone was settled, Riss clucked her tongue his way.

“You got a minute?”

“Rather busy,” he said, glugging water from his canteen. “I have an evening massage scheduled as well as supper with the Generals.”

Riss stared at him like she’d temporarily forgotten what a joke was. Then she laughed, a tiny disbelieving sound, and rose up with a groan.

“That’s where I’m headed soon as all this is over,” she said.

Much of their time on Entitlement had been spent in a particular massage parlor, enjoying perfumed baths and endless rub-downs and therapeutic needles and teas that were likely laced with something only semi-legal.

“Well, all we gotta do is stay alive a few more days.” Torcha’s cheery interjection came with a little wag of her pistol, which was still trained in Gaz and Calay’s direction.

Riss cast a look down the barrel of Torcha’s gun as she headed out.

“I’m too tired to give anyone a speech about what a bad idea it would be to try anything,” she said. “Torcha, if anyone moves, just do what’s gotta be done.”

Riss led him out of earshot of the cavern, following the rocky edge of the pool. All the old Recce tricks were second nature: walk on bare stone when you could, put moving water between yourself and anyone you didn’t want to hear you. They stood where the creek emptied into the pool, watching it flow, a couple of river kids taking solace in the sound of home.

As always, Riss wasn’t one to waste time with small talk.

“I’ve made up my mind about the witch,” she said. “I’m giving you an opportunity to reason me out if it if you disagree.”

Adal hiked his eyebrows up and listened.

“If they’re traveling on foot and taking odd jobs, I reckon there’s a price on this fellow’s head.” Riss scratched at her teeth with a thumbnail. Adal watched her reflection in the rippled surface of the pool. “If he hadn’t run afoul of someone, he’d still be doing whatever the hells they were doing back in Vasile. A fellow that educated doesn’t just pack up and hop south to do merc work. Unless they’re you, I suppose.”

He couldn’t argue with any of that.

“My only concern is whether he deduces that and decides there’s nothing left to lose.” Blood sorcery was such a seldom-practiced art that nobody knew the true extent of its capabilities, even in Adal’s family circles. If Calay felt himself cornered, he was likely capable of defense measures they couldn’t counter.

“There’s the question of what we’d do with him once we returned to Adelheim,” Adal added, thinking aloud. “Whatever bounty there might be on him definitely hasn’t reached the Deel or else we’d have heard. I can’t remember the last time I heard word of a sorcerer in these parts. Possibly never. Tarn would have heard.”

Riss’ brows lifted. She kicked a pebble into the pool and made a thoughtful sound.

“Tarn. There’s an idea. Maybe we just hand him over to Tarn.”

Adal searched the cobwebbed recesses of his brain for any provincial knowledge. Was sorcery in and of itself illegal in the Deel? It was certainly feared and hated, the way all bogeymen from childhood nightmares were. But sorcerous practitioners themselves were so rare that most places who hadn’t dealt with one in living memory didn’t even bother to outlaw their presence. What was the point of making something illegal if it didn’t exist outside of spooky stories?

“We’ve been out here long enough,” Riss said, turning from the pool and walking toward the treeline. “Let’s gather some firewood and at least put up a pretense we weren’t plotting behind Calay’s back. He’s a canny guy. I think he’ll be aware.”

Adal followed her, seeking out a few thick branches among the deadfall. The wood here would burn better, dry as it was. If it weren’t for how completely to shit everything else had fallen, this might be their first pleasant afternoon on this whole damned expedition.

“So we’re staying the night?”

Riss shot him a look across the clearing. Her eyes were deeper set than usual, framed with harsh, tired lines.

“I don’t know about you,” she said. “But I’ve needed real sleep ever since Vosk tipped this expedition on its ass.”

They returned to camp with the Calay question as yet unanswered.

<< Chapter 36 | Chapter 38 >>

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Chapter 36

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

Gaz beside him wasn’t faring much better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz grunted, then called Riss over by name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sight was equal parts hypnotic and horrifying.

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

Wary, Calay stepped back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have something for that,” Calay said.

“I bet you do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not the reaction Calay expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, boss?” asked Torcha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a mess they were.

<< Chapter 35 | Chapter 37 >>

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Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Report.”

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

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

“Uh-huh.” She wasn’t buying it.

Calay stepped into the conversation.

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

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

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

Beside her, her Second cleared his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone else all right?”

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

“Vosk, bring the bird up here.”

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

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

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

“Eight?” she asked, dumbfounded.

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

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

<< Chapter 34 | Chapter 36 >>

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Chapter 34

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

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

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

“You aren’t worried?”

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

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

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

The words made Riss go a little green.

“Well. Poor bastard.”

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

“What?”

“Your eyes.”

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

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

“But you’ll be all right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

“On your knees!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Problem, boss?” he asked Riss.

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

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

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

“We’re not letting you do shit.”

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

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

Riss nodded over toward Torcha in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 33 | Chapter 35 >>

 

Chapter 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man’s ability to understate was a gift.

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

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

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

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

“Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

While he freed the knife, Calay noticed Adalgis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The things you did for your friends, hey.

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

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

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

“I’m bleeding more.”

A sickly, nervous laughter passed between them.

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

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

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

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

“Here goes, then.”

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

Gaz’s teeth clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as for his other hand…

“What is that.”

The numb horror in Adalgis’ voice said it all.

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 32 | Chapter 34 >>

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Chapter 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Adal squashed that notion.

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

A pair of female voices reached him through the rain.

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

“Believe me, I took that into consideration.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss grunted. “For the bounty?”

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

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

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

“Yes, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And he’s volunteering his own?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I feel brains are less useful out here.”

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

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

Adal’s eyebrows crept up toward his hairline.

“You’re not going to ehm, supervise?”

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a part of him always wondered.

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

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

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

Adal leaned a little closer, watching.

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

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

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

<< Chapter 31 | Chapter 33 >>

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Chapter 31

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

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

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

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

“Riss. Shit, Riss. Are you…”

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

“I’m uninjured,” she said.

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

“Did you…”

“Dream? Yes.”

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

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

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

Torcha was on her feet, her rifle leveled at…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

Riss surveyed the ruins of their campsite.

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

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

And the moa were both gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine. On to a different problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something wet touched the very tip of Riss’ nose.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to–” he started to say.

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

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

Soon, the drum of rain on canvas was deafening.

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

<< Chapter 30 | Chapter 32 >>