Book 2, Chapter 21

Gaz was tougher than most purely by build and dumb parental luck. While he’d never met his parents, he figured they must have been big. Growing up in a series of charity homes, bounced from household to household like so many of the Sunken Quarter’s unwanted boys, he’d had to grow tougher still. The littler ones, the ones with something to prove, they always tried to challenge him. He supposed it was human nature for people to look for the tallest tree in the forest and try to chop it down. Was a way for people to trick themselves into thinking they’d accomplished something. 

He’d toughed all that out.

But he knew, after hours of walking in the salt flats, that he could not tough this one out.

Calay had done what he could for Gaz’s leg by means of lizard blood and good old fashioned regular medicine. All in all, he’d done a bang-up job. And as always he had a truly exquisite selection of painkillers on hand. But while the wound no longer bled or hurt, his leg didn’t quite support his weight properly. His stride felt off. He tried adjusting his steps, even the way he held his hips, anything to put the weight down a little differently.

But after gods-knew-how-many hours, he just couldn’t keep it up anymore.

He didn’t allow himself to stumble. The first time he felt his ankle roll, he corrected, then came to a stop. Calay, who’d been walking beside him in stony-faced silence, stopped as well.

For a quiet moment, they held still and watched the others keep walking. Watched the flicker of Riss’ torch bob a little further off in the darkness. Watched Adal and Torcha, who stuck close together, their faces half in shadow. It was easy to believe, if one was a paranoid sort, that if neither Gaz or Calay said anything, they might just keep walking forever, leaving them at the mercy of the desert.

But of course they didn’t. Riss stopped, likely having heard their footsteps slow, and looked back.

Riss regarded him with soft, apologetic eyes in the fireglow. She didn’t say anything. Neither did he. 

“Think we’ve all gone ‘bout as far as we can for now,” said Torcha. Gaz didn’t quite believe she meant it, but he appreciated the cover.

They shared water, then settled down right where they’d stopped. Gaz wasn’t any recon specialist like the others, but he figured it out: no sense in looking for a campsite in terrain like this. Salt was salt. 

Hunkering down, they unpacked what little they’d carried. Gaz unrolled a length of patterned orange fabric from his pack, meant as a sun shelter but now serving as a blanket. He plopped his pack onto the hard salt, let his ass hit the ground, and laid back. He didn’t care that he hit the ground and rolled over before anyone else had even sat; he had nothing to prove. So conversations carried on above him at standing level: should we build a fire, yes the desert will probably feel mighty chilly once we aren’t walking, how long should we rest, I have no idea my hourglass was on the wagon. The chatter all sort of melted together.

He dozed, didn’t realize he was dozing, then found himself roused by a gentle shake to the shoulder. Calay crouched beside him, now backlit by a small fire, and he had a small cookpot in his hand.

“Thought you’d want us to wake you for food,” he said. And that was the correct answer, because whatever the crew had cooked up smelled fruity and spicy and sweet and absolutely mouth-watering. 

“Go ahead,” he said. “Finish it off.”

Gaz took the pot by its stubby handle and stirred the contents with the wooden spoon inside. Stewed pears with a bit of oats, if his nose didn’t deceive him. Blinking curiously and looking past Calay, he sought out the others around the tiny, guttering firepit dug into the salty crust.

“Fancy food for a night like this,” he called out toward Riss, who sat alone by the fire, attempting to consult the map by its light.

“I was saving them,” she said. “For… I don’t know, something special. A good day. Seemed a waste to leave them on the wagon.”

“Pears are full of water,” Calay helpfully chimed in. “Good choice on a trek like this where we have to mind our supply.”

Gaz wanted to ask exactly how far off Riss thought they were. And whether she judged their water supply adequate to get there. But when he took the first bite of spicy stewed pear, the crust of brown sugar crunching pleasantly in his teeth, he decided he could put such dire and depressing questions off. At least for a while.

Half in darkness, further off away from the fire, he spied the lounging figures of Adal and Torcha. Adal slept sitting up, snoring lightly, back propped against the heap of backpacks. Torcha leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder. The closest she ever got to admitting that she could feel sincere worry for someone.

“How’s he doing?” Gaz asked. Nobody had to ask him to clarify.

“Tired,” said Calay. “I brewed him some of the tea with the good leaves before we took off. But herbs can only kick your ass along the road so long. Figured he was going to crash hard.”

It had taken every last drop of human blood they had left to patch Adal back together and convince him he had the energy to make the walk. Gaz–who had years as a physik’s assistant under his belt, present for all kinds of awful work on stabs and burns and illnesses, who had snapped Calay’s arm off when he had to–grimaced at the memory. Granted, he didn’t stop eating his pears. But when he thought back, his heart felt heavy. Subtle nausea rippled through his stomach.

Adal had been borderline unrecognizable when they’d found him. Calay had diagnosed it: a crack up the skull, bleeding in the brain. And he hadn’t had to diagnose the shattered jaw, the teeth visible through the gash torn in his cheek. 

When Gaz blinked, he still saw Adal’s eyes. The vacant, empty questioning expression, like he didn’t know what had happened. Gaz took another bite of pear, chewing slowly. He’d seen that before, back in Vasile. Like something in the body used the last of its dying energy to shield a person from what had become of them.

When his teeth bit down, they encountered something crunchy inside his mouth, some husk of a seed or spice pod. That, that was what got his stomach fully queasy. That sudden crunch, the thought of teeth, teeth not quite looking right… he swallowed and felt ill.

“And how are you?” Riss had her attentive eyes on him now, the map forgotten.

“Fine-ish.” Gaz answered honestly. “Barely hurts. Leg feels a little weak. You made the right call. We didn’t have any to spare.”

“I know I did.” 

Good old Riss. Gaz had to chuckle a little when she said that. But she kept going.

“I hope you know it wasn’t easy. If I didn’t trust Calay to look after you, I wouldn’t have.”

Gaz tried another bite and found whatever skin-crawling sensory upset he’d endured at the crunch was gone. He chewed, then smirked in Calay’s direction.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s all right, ain’t he.”

“Careful,” Calay said, voice low and tired. “I’ll kick you in the good leg.”

Once Gaz had all but licked the pot clean, he lurched up and helped Riss pack up what they needed to. Stretching out his leg helped. He ambled off, took a piss, all the usual nighttime crap. 

“I’m afraid we won’t be sleeping through the night,” said Riss once he returned. “We’ve got to keep moving and we’ll move best when it’s cool.”

Gaz understood. He didn’t like it, but he understood.

He curled back up beneath his patterned blanket, trying to ignore the dull ache surfacing in the meat of his thigh. Rolling over, stretching out, curling up again–he couldn’t find a position that was completely comfortable.l

And naturally, this draw Calay over, because if there was one thing he knew about Gaz from all their years spent so close together, it was that Gaz had never been a restless sleeper.

Salt crunched and crackled as he took a seat beside where Gaz sprawled.

“Hey,” he said. “Can I… get you anything?”

Gaz stretched out his arms, arching his back and groaning like a sad old man. “Nah.”

“You sure?”

“Just getting comfy.” Gaz adjusted the pack he used as a pillow, sitting up slightly. Then, to his despair, it was yanked out from behind his head. He grumbled and swiped at the offender, but soon Calay replaced it, now with something softer pillowed atop it. 

“Is that your jacket?”

“Nah.” 

Gaz rested his head back atop the pack, leaning down cautiously. Something wooly and soft now blanketed the tanned leather.

“… It’s Torcha’s jumper,” Calay admitted. 

Gaz leaned up, reaching behind his head. “Oh come on. That’s–”

“Shh, shh, she’s asleep. She’s not using it.”

Calay palmed him by the face and shoved him back into a prone position. Not hard, but hard enough that Gaz gave up with his protestations. He mumbled an unintelligible few syllables in Torcha’s defense, then slouched back down.

“Admit it,” Calay didn’t remove his hand. “It’s cozy.”

Gaz scrunched up his face beneath the invading palm that rested across his mouth and nose. “Are you trying to smother me to sleep?”

In answer, Calay drummed his fingertips across Gaz’s forehead. Gaz nudged at him halfheartedly, then just gave up. He’d slept under stranger circumstances. Eyes falling shut, he breathed out a weary sigh against Calay’s hand and tried not to wonder how long until Riss would wake them.

The fingers upon his face relaxed. Calay shifted, then drew his thumb along the curve of Gaz’s eye socket, tracing down toward the tiny tattoos upon his cheek. Poorly-conceived to begin with and executed just as badly, the trio of minuscule knives inked on his skin was a remnant of his time with Kitta’s crew, the Three Blades. It was no small source of amusement to Calay, who almost never passed up an opportunity to rib him for it.

Yet now Calay was quiet. He traced his thumb along each faded little knife with a solemn, quiet affection that Gaz didn’t need his eyes open to sense. 

“Relax,” Gaz muttered. “‘M’gonna be fine.”

Calay’s hand stilled. “I know,” he said. “Just…”

The fire crackled in the silence that fell while Calay sorted out his thoughts. On such a dark, mildly chilly night, the sound of the fire tricked Gaz into feeling a little warmer. Reminded him of his boyhood sleeping habit: always by the hearth if he had a say in the matter.

Calay finally broke his silence. “You called me heartless, once.”

“… I didn’t mean it.” Gaz recalled the argument in that vague way a mind never quite lets go of past embarrassments. “Also, that was ages ago.”

“I know.” Calay’s exhale had a hint of a laugh to it. “But Riss said something that reminded me. And… I don’t know. It feels pertinent to say.” Gaz stayed quiet, prompting him to ramble on. “You asked me if it hurt having to watch our patients die, knowing that I could witch them healthy if I was willing to expose myself. Knowing how many more people we might have saved.”

“That was an asshole thing for me to say,” Gaz said. “I was mad. And I’m pretty sure I already apolo–”

Calay shushed him. “Shh. Just. Let me finish. I was trying to say that I’ve discovered it hurts way, way worse when the patient is you.”

Calay had always handled affection roughly the same way a stray cat did: aloof with a touch of demanding, always needing it on his own terms and never for too long all at once. Idle, physical things he was fine with–like a kitten permitting cheek-scratches and providing head-butts in turn–but even since the first time they’d slept together, he’d shied away from admitting anything so frankly. And Gaz, ever familiar with the temperament of strays, hadn’t pushed him. If there was one thing he’d learned in their years as new friends, then old friends, then whatever the hell they were now, it was this: Calay had to figure things out at his own pace or else he’d blitz through them with brass knuckles on.

All the same, the words stoked a little curl of contentment in Gaz’s chest.

He couldn’t help but ask.

“Did you really leap down the ravine to rescue me?”

Leather and cloth rustled. Salt cracked. Something heavy fwumphed down nearby, then Calay stretched out with his back to Gaz’s. He tucked up his legs some, getting comfortable.

“I had my charms on,” he said. “I knew I’d be fine.”

“You always land on your feet,” Gaz conceded, the last coherent thought he had before he lapsed into a tired, dreamless sleep.

A few times in the night, he stirred, roused by some noise or another. First it was the whistle of wind through the ravine, a lonely whoosh and scrape. Then it was crickets, rhythmically chirping off in the darkness. He tried to take comfort in that second bit the same way he took comfort in the sound of his slumbering friends around him. Surely the crickets would flee if the scorpions were that close, right? Animals had a sense for that, right? Like seabirds taking flight before a big squall. Like butterflies knew how to migrate.

Unless…

An uncomfortable thought lodged in him like a splinter.

Unless the crickets had no idea what was coming. Just chirping on obliviously with no clue of the danger that lurked just around the corner.

Sleep came harder after that.

<< Book 2, Chapter 20 | Book 2, Chapter 21.5 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 20

Renato Cassi adjusted the long, gold-trimmed cuffs of his uniform jacket, boredly inspecting his sleeves while he staked out Riss Chou’s house. A bit of dried blood darkened one of the shiny, star-embossed buttons on his coat, catching his eye by virtue of its drab crustiness. Frowning, he scratched it off with his thumbnail. He did all this while keeping one eye sort-of-kind-of on the front gate. Chances that he’d miss anything of import were very, very low.

For three days in a row now he’d kept watch from a parked carriage, ambling by when he could. He’d changed up the time of day a few times, coming by twice in the evening and once in the morning. After this much surveillance, he was satisfied that he had the housekeeper’s schedule in hand: she came by in the morning, about halfway between dawn and noon-bell, and stayed for a mere couple hours.

She’d left when the sun was far higher in the sky. No one else had come by since. In fact, the house hadn’t had a single visitor apart from her. Which tracked with Renato’s suspicions about the state of Riss Chou’s social life. She hadn’t changed much.

Fingering the set of slender, hook-tipped iron lockpicks in his pocket, Renato made the call. Tonight was the night.

He pulled his warden’s cap on, tugged it securely over his ears, and climbed out of the carriage. Back straight, he strode up to the gate and let himself in without hesitation, making for the front door. As a member of Medao’s finest—if tangentially—he had no need to skulk about like a common thief. If any neighbors happened to spy him ferreting about in Chou’s yard, they’d assume he was there on official business. Which was why he gave the door a solid knock, waiting patiently on the front steps. 

There was, of course, no reply. This left Renato free to skirt around to the side fencing. He groped through strands of thick ivy and unlatched another gate, letting himself into the high-walled drive between the home itself and its disused carriage house.

Though the house looked handsome from the street, its carriage house was half-collapsed, a heap of useless brick with a caved-in roof that didn’t even promise useful storage space. It appeared wholly neglected, and as Renato let himself into the interior courtyard he saw similar signs of disrepair in the masonry and fountains. The garden looked like a cake someone had stopped icing halfway through, the tufts of greenery and growth visible here and there only drawing further attention to the bald spots. There were a truly baffling number of lion statues, all of which needed a wash.

So the company was doing well, but not that well. He felt the tiniest spike of malicious enjoyment there, he had to admit. The shaded, tree-lined street was in a decent part of town, but not a neighborhood without its fixer-uppers. The old, high, narrow brick homes were expensive to staff—Riss was making a rookie mistake by not hiring a live-in housekeeper. And not just because a housekeeper would have kept Renato out.

Crossing the yard, watched by a half-dozen immutable stone lions, he checked the two doors that granted access. One led into the kitchen, a narrow green-painted wooden door with a small window inset in the top. He jiggled the handle and found it locked, but the door rattled promisingly in its frame the way that old, easily-beguiled doors did. 

Renato slid his tools from his pocket and got to work. Within minutes he was in. Courtyard doors always were weaker than the front ones; the rickety lock felt ancient, its tumblers easy to manipulate. Heavens, had Riss even changed the locks when she’d moved in?

The small, blue-tiled kitchen was cool and quiet in its abandonment, its hearth vacant of a fire for some time. Renato crept through it without really looking, uninterested in its contents. 

What was he interested in, though? Pacing down a short hallway, well-illuminated with natural light thanks to the many windows, he glanced at closed doors and wondered what they might hold. Wondered what he was actually looking for. 

In the end, Renato supposed he was merely nosy.

He wanted to see how the old crew was doing. Wanted to see how the people he once called friends were carrying on without him. Perhaps—tch, how gauche—he was looking for evidence that they were miserable without him. Or at least not as secure and financially comfortable as they might otherwise have been. 

Walking the halls of Riss’ home felt like walking through a vision of his own alternate future: a few bedrooms, modest furnishings, a well-built but unimportant house on a nice but unimportant lane. He breezed through the sitting rooms, unsurprised to find them bare of personal touches. Riss treated everywhere she ever lived like a tent: sparse, unadorned, and ideally bare of any belongings that weren’t capable of being emptied out and carried away upon one’s shoulder. Her family was a few generations removed from their Carbec steppe nomad heritage, but perhaps such impulses lived on in the blood. Who knew.

After prowling a while, poking around through a modest armory and a sparse bedroom on the first floor, he began to wonder if there was even anything juicy to find.

And what was ‘juicy’ to him now? Come, he thought. He might as well be honest with himself. The bitter, nasty side of him—normally kept on a sturdy, short leash—was hoping to find some evidence that Riss was miserable. That moving on without him, dumping him like a mistress she’d outgrown, had been the wrong call. He doubted he’d find concrete evidence that she regretted parting ways with him, but there were other tells: opium and laudanum in excessive amounts (unlikely), a maudlin diary (extremely unlikely), a preponderance of alcohol among the stores (perhaps the most likely of the three). Thus far he’d seen no evidence of any of that. Perhaps she was stolid and boring even in her grief.

Finally, he came to a small wooden door inset with squares of red-stained glass. When he tried the handle, he found it locked. Interest piqued, he selected a spidery torsion wrench and a fine, hooked pick from his set. This one was meatier than the courtyard door, though only by a narrow margin, a newer tumbler lock that took some genuine finessing. He held the wrench steady, working the pins free, and felt a spark of elation when all clicked into place.

Behind the door was a modest office, all wooden walls and wooden furniture. The desk looked new, a heavy walnut construction that still smelled of fresh polish. Several items he recognized adorned the walls: Riss’ old hornbow, a crossbow made from the spiralled horns of a steppe antelope. Then there was a buckler bearing old Fourth Recce insignia. A big picture window let in plenty of light from the courtyard and opposite its panes hung a massive, hand-drawn map of Continental geography. It covered everything from the northernmost crags of the Janel Coast and Vasile’s big, crescent-shaped bay to the dozens of tiny islands south of Medao, few of which were inscribed with names. Riss had jotted notes here and there, added a few additional roads. At a glance, most of her notes seemed uninteresting.

The desk, though. That drew Renato in as if by gravity. He sidled around behind it, took a seat in the green-cushioned chair. The plump leather seat was comfortable. He could see it: Riss decorating this room shortly after moving in, allowing herself this one luxury. Telling herself she’d earned it.

His own desk at home was much nicer. But he could see why she’d chosen this one. It was well-built, the lines of it speaking to quality even where they’d spared ornamentation.

Renato tried the drawers one at a time, sliding each open and using the tip of his torsion wrench to flip through papers. He found the usual assortment of ledgers, paged through them without much expectation. Riss kept neat books, surprising nobody. She also didn’t seem to be up to any particularly salacious business.

He found a drawer populated by neatly-organized correspondence, mostly letters to and from clients. There was a red-sealed Letter of Commendation from the Baron of Adelheim among the lot, a letter from Tarn Gullardson thanking her for her bravery and duty and blah blah blah. Renato had heard Tarn’s lot had endured some horrifying weirdness in the swamps there; it barely perked his eyebrows to discover Riss had been involved. In that same drawer was a ledger of her personal accounts: preferred restaurants, a… massage parlor?, a leatherworker’s, and a place that looked like it was probably a brothel. What sort of person only hit the brothel monthly?

The bottom-right side of the desk was home to a big cabinet rather than more drawers. And when Renato tried it, he found the handle didn’t budge. Curious, he squatted down and discovered a subtle lock tucked beneath the handle itself.

She was ever uncreative in her habits. Well, he instantly knew where the juiciest secrets in the house would be.

Desk locks existed more to deter children and suspicious spouses than any determined picklock. Renato sprung the cabinet open with ease.

Inside, the cabinet contained two small storage boxes, a paper-wrapped stack of books, and a velveteen bag. One of the boxes was packed with letters—he recognized the loopy handwriting as Adalgis’—and the other with odd little treasures. There were pearls, some silverwork, an impressive choker of filigree gold and garnets. A smaller bag inside contained signet rings he didn’t recognize as well as a fine, hand-painted silk scarf, the kind that cost more in the shops than even Renato made in a half-month. Curious but ultimately unmoving. He packed the boxes as he’d found them and went for the books.

He expected more ledgers, but what he found was far, far more interesting.

Peeling the paper back, he tilted his head and read the spines of the books, forehead wrinkling. By the time he’d reached the last in the stack, his eyebrows were on a collision course with his hairline. Northener history? Librida Sorcieri? What the fuck?

Selecting the volume with the juiciest title, a grey-bound hardback entitled Sorcery and the State, Renato rifled through the pages with a baffled tilt of his head.

Rocking back on his haunches on the office floor, he scrubbed a hand beneath his hat as he read some bone-dry introduction about the historical purge of sorcerers from within Vasile’s city walls. He kneaded the stubble on his scalp as if in the hopes he could massage a stroke of inspiration right out of his skull.

When that failed to work, he just said, “Hunh.”

Though it might surprise civilians to learn such, one of the most important tools in a jailer’s toolbox was empathy. Interrogations were just a great, exhausting marathon of empathy, trying to inveigle a person into sharing their innermost thoughts by means of inhabiting their state of mind. Trying to see where others were coming from in order to explain the acts they committed. Using empathy to gauge who among the newly-released who was truly remorseful versus those who were likely recidivists.

From his time as disciplinarian in the Fourth to his new career in Medao’s dungeons, Renato had made his fortune on empathy more than anything else.

Yet for all he tried, no matter how many angles from which he considered the pile of books in his hands, he could not fucking fathom why Riss Chou, the least interesting person Carbec had ever barfed up, would own a bunch of books about sorcery.

Suddenly, he had an investigation on his hands.

<< Book 2, Chapter 19 | Book 2, Chapter 21 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 19

In a twisted, discomfiting way, Riss was almost glad that things had gone completely pig-shit. Had only one thing gone wrong, seeing Adal like that might have broken her. It was only by virtue of the completeness, the totality of the failure cascade that she was able to push through unburdened with emotion. 

Not that there were no emotions. Oh, they were there. They prowled at the fenceline, half in shadow, circling her like wolves. Just you wait, they warned her.

Now, however…

“Good news,” Torcha reported, rolling a wooden cask across the ground so that it came to rest near Riss’ feet. “At least one of these is intact.”

Riss knocked it and was rewarded with the deep thunk that signified it was nearly full.

If they were going to traverse the last of the Flats on foot, they’d need all the water they could carry. 

Torcha climbed back up and into the wreckage. Riss rolled the water cask over to the small heap of supplies that was gradually accumulating in the shade. By her estimate, they had about five hours before it would be time to set off. After Calay had cautiously, carefully pieced Adal back together, he and Riss had made the call together: they’d travel after dark, both to take advantage of the cooler temperature and to allow their wounded friends a little rest.

Currently, Calay was doing what he could for Gaz’s leg with old fashioned non-sorcerous medicine and a bit of lizard blood. Riss wasn’t sure how it all worked, but he’d explained the basics: blood was at its best when it was human and the person who’d bled it was still alive. A lizard’s blood would suffice for what he called “minor works.” A dead lizard, that was trickier.

He can have some of mine, Riss had offered without hesitation. But Calay had put that idea to rest with a shake of his head. He reminded her of Harlan Vosk, how badly he’d suffered when they’d used him as an unwilling donor during their trek through the swamp. 

She recalled the shaking, the night sweats, the chattering teeth. Vosk had appeared as though in the grips of a terrible fever. He’d been unable to walk on his own. And apart from the pain and weakness, there was his unsettling behavior back in Tarn’s dungeon. Riss wasn’t sure how much of that was a side effect of the blood magick and how much might have simply been Calay taking his revenge.

Either way, if they were crossing the Flats on foot, Calay was right: be it one man with an injured leg or one man with a healed leg and a donor who was wobbly in the knees, their options were limited.

Once he had Gaz fixed up, Calay intended to dig through the wreckage for his supplies. If by some miracle he found the rest of his blood, they’d be in business. Riss and Torcha were occupying themselves with more mundane concerns: food, water, ammunition. 

Crouching near their cache, Riss took inventory. On some level she knew she was doing this to avoid turning her head, to avoid looking that last little bit to her right, to avoid letting her eyes fall on the bloody smear upon the rocks where Adal had landed.

Two pistols. Three empty waterskins.

She hadn’t even seen him fall.

Fourteen cartridges. One map case.

Heavy, slightly-lopsided footsteps crunched up behind her.

“Hey,” she said, pushing up and turning around. “How’s the leg?”

Gaz, who had loomed up behind her, rocked his weight from side to side. “Still testing it out,” he said.

Whatever Calay had managed to wring from the lizard blood had cleared away the clots of bruising at Gaz’s temples and eyes. The scrapes, too, had mostly healed. The wide wrap of gauze around his thigh had been reinforced with what appeared to be a strip of curtain. 

Riss recalled the haste, the urgency with which she’d screamed at Calay to cease treating him and felt an abrupt need to apologize.

“Listen,” she started. “About earlier. I’m…”

She was sorry. But sorry felt like too small a word.

“… You don’t deserve to be in pain,” she finally said. It was completely stupid, but she felt responsible, somehow. She was in charge. She’d made the call. She’d deemed Gaz’s pain less worthy than Adal’s.

Gaz stilled, looking down at her. His brows knit. With slow, deliberate, careful movements, he turned the water cask upright onto its side and sank down atop it, using it as a stool. 

Resting his elbows on his knees, back slumped tiredly, he stared at her for a long while.

“Nobody deserves to be in pain,” he finally said. 

Riss wasn’t sure about that. She could think of a few. But she realized that wasn’t what he meant. 

“I know,” she said. “But… I feel like I shouldn’t have done that. Like I was overstepping. Even though I know I had to.” Even though she’d have done it again.

Gaz picked at the skin around one of his thumbnails, tired eyes falling from her to his hands.

“We both know what would have happened if Adal didn’t get every last drop of that blood,” he said. “There was no way.”

She hadn’t ever really looked at the top of Gaz’s head before. He usually towered over all of them, even her and Adal. For the first time, she noticed the fine latticework of scars that decorated his scalp, just barely visible through the stubble. Most were old and minor, mere lines of faint pale discoloration. But there were a couple that weren’t. 

That was a lot of scars for a man whose best friend could heal wounds with a wave of his finger. Years and years of scars.

“You’re right.” She stared at those scars. “That’s the funny thing. The stupid thing. I know we just did what had to be done… But it still feels wrong. Like I shouldn’t have given you an order like that.”

Gaz’s big, blunt fingers ceased their idle picking.

“You and him both said that,” he said. “But I don’t recall anyone giving me any orders.”

“We’re all in this together,” Riss said. “Nobody needs to–”

“To what?” 

To martyr themselves. The words got clogged up somewhere between her brain and her tongue. 

“Riss.” Gaz grabbed her attention before her thoughts could venture much further. He looked up at her with clear, steady eyes. When he spoke, the words were possessed of an even-keeled calm. The man’s conscience was a serene, cloudless blue sky.

“Neither of you have seen just how difficult it is to force me to do something I don’t want to do.” His eyes crinkled mischievously for a moment, but then his expression went somber. “It was my choice. I made it. You don’t get to turn it into an order just because you feel bad.”

And… what could she possibly say to that? Gaz didn’t often jam a wrench in her logic, but when he did, he was a tough man with whom to pick an argument.

“Suppose there’s no point feeling guilty about something completely outside my control.” Riss gave him a wan half-smile of commiseration.

“Nope.” 

He pushed up off the water cask, rolling his weight on his foot, testing out a few steps on his bandaged leg. 

Already, Riss could feel her emotions crystallizing into a sharp, many-pointed shard of something she could actually use: a slicing, decisive motivation to get the hells out of the gulch and get them somewhere that would have what Calay needed to set things right.

“I’ll get you blood,” she said as parting words, striding off toward the wreckage. That she was so ready to promise blood for sorcerous purposes didn’t even give her pause until after the fact. My, the difference a year could make.

Everyone scavenged what they could from the shattered wagon. Then, one by one, fatigue claimed them all. They napped.

When Riss awoke, she noticed that they’d all piled their bedrolls close together, as if huddling around the warmth of a fire that didn’t exist. As if circled against some threat they couldn’t yet see.

Only once she’d roused everyone did they actually build that fire, both for light and one last warm meal before the push. Shadows came on thick and heavy on the ravine’s floor before the sun had even fully set.

“Right,” Riss said beside the fire. “Calay has kindly volunteered to rig the rope for our ascent. According to the map, the mountains to the north are closest. We won’t have much time to rest, but it’s doable.” In theory. “I wouldn’t waste the weight on anything other than water and the necessities, but you all know that already.”

Every last one of them was a soldier or a vagrant. They were used to leaving things behind. Just how exactly they’d arrange a meeting with Rill having lost their primary bargaining chip, well… Riss would think of something on the walk.

###

Riss marched up front because Riss always marched up front.

She didn’t think of herself as The Leader in the pompous, proper noun in capital letters sense, but she was the commander of this expedition. She was the owner of the company, had been ever since Gaspard’s death. It made sense to march up front. 

She marched up front because she was handier with a machete than a firearm. Guns at the back. That, too, made sense.

Listening to the repetitive crunch and grind of crystallized salt crushed beneath weary, heavy feet, she knew one other reason why she marched up front: those lurking, prowling emotions that she’d worked hard to stave off. 

There was far, far less to distract her now. The purple gradient of the sky, the endless salt, the distant rise of mountains, the dry, still air–they were unmoving and still and constant and thus in danger of becoming a backdrop, becoming surroundings that would fade and leave her thoughts front and center.

One set of those weary, dragging footsteps behind her was Adal’s. The ones directly behind her, in fact. Blinking her eyes as if to dislodge some grit, she rubbed at her face, brushing that notion away.

Someone sped up so that they could walk beside her, the crunch-crunch quickening. She tried to guess who it was by sound alone and found she could not. She glanced to her left, finding Calay there. His skin looked pale and cool in the purple cast of the deep twilight. When he looked up to meet her eyes, his shone with an unnatural glimmer, reflecting ambient light like a nocturnal animal’s.

“Hells,” she said, staring at him. “You look like a possum.”

Calay’s face wrinkled in a fine, delicate way, just a little twitch around the eyes and nose.

Hmph.” He ticked his chin up at her. “And here I was coming to see how you were.”

“Out of everyone out here? I think there are patients of yours more deserving of a check-in,” she deflected.

“Yeah, well,” Calay folded his arms across his narrow chest as he walked alongside her. “Funny thing about shock. It doesn’t restrict itself to the injured.”

“I’m not in shock,” Riss promised him.

And once she took a moment to consider, she knew it was true. She’d felt the numbing bite of shock before, felt the way it held her in its muffling grip and dulled the world and made it all not make sense. Things were crisp now. She was thinking clearly. 

Briefly, she considered whether she could be a little more honest. She thought back to their conversation, standing over Adal, Calay bristled with tension at the thought of leaving Gaz’s leg untreated. He hadn’t liked the way Gaz so easily conceded. 

“I appreciate what you did back there,” she said rather abruptly. “For Gaz. You stand up for the people you care about.” Even to me. 

Calay all but spit-taked. He coughed a little, footsteps stutter-stopping, and then wielded those big, shiny reflective eyes up at her in accusation. She waited for his reply, assumed it would be something sufficiently witty or perhaps just exasperated. Of course I stood up for him. I may be a liar and a highway robber and a sorcerer, but I’m not a complete bastard. 

But her words seemed to have stunned him silent for a time. And when he finally did speak, it wasn’t what she expected at all.

“You were right, though. Gaz is walking all right. Adal needed it more.” 

Riss recalled how furious she’d been when Adal had sought the same treatment for her. How she woke righteously angry, carried that anger in her like a mouthful of bile. How dead certain she’d been that Calay’s ministrations would deform her somehow, damage her, tarnish her person way down in her soul–which was funny, given she barely believed in souls and never paid her own much thought.

A thought struck her then for the very first time:

Calay had worked as a physiker in Vasile for years, but he’d no doubt concealed his secret. He’d had to stand by and watch his patients suffer and die, knowing all the while that he had an instant cure up his sleeve.

How had he managed that? Had it hurt him as much as Riss imagined it would hurt her?

She didn’t phrase it that way, though.

When she finally spoke again, she swallowed once and said, “It must be a relief not having to hide it anymore.”

For the second time in a day, she left Calay speechless. That must have been some sort of record. 

Night was rapidly winning its battle against the loitering traces of sunlight. The last image Riss was able to fully make out before the dark grew too murky was of Calay regarding her sidelong, his mouth lifted at the corners in a smile. Not a smirk, not a self-satisfied grin, but a small, warm smile that sanded down the innate sharpness of his features.

She chose to carry that image in her mind rather than everything prior. It warmed her more than the thoughts of shattered wagons and too-far-away mountains and the horrible, red-white mess of blood and broken teeth that had been Adal’s mouth when she’d found him.

“I’m… gonna check on our walking wounded,” Calay murmured in the dark. Riss heard him moving off. A torch sputtered to life behind her, throwing wobbly shadows into the night.

Riss raised her voice. “Let me know when you need a rest,” she said for Adal and Gaz’s benefit.

You’re more resilient than the last time this happened, she told herself. You’ve been through so much more. 

But she still couldn’t bring herself to look back. She knew she’d cry, and there was enough gods-damned salt on the ground. No point in contributing to it.  

<< Book 2, Chapter 18 | Book 2, Chapter 20 >>

Book 2, Chapter 18

It’s Riss who finds him.

The sky is dark and fast and it is all he can see until he’s also seeing her. When she sees him her face goes pale and she looks sick to her stomach. Adal doesn’t feel good either. His ‘not good’ is very non-specific. Maybe it’s a small thing or maybe it’s everything. He isn’t sure.

When he tries to talk, his teeth hurt. Hurt isn’t a big enough word, but he can’t remember any bigger ones. Riss leans over him and touches him on the neck and he tries to sit up but she pushes him back down. Something is loose in his mouth. Things feel loose all over.

“Don’t move,” she says. “I’ll get Calay.” 

Riss is smart. Adal trusts Riss. He always has. He tries to nod. She grabs him again.

“Don’t. Move.”

Then she’s gone. He’s alone with the sky again. The sky is getting lighter. The storm is blowing away. He remembers being afraid of the storm but he isn’t afraid now. The clouds are fast and high and lighter than they were. Looking at them makes him tired. He can’t focus. But when he closes his eyes the pain feels like it’s getting closer. 

He waits for Riss. There are other things he could be doing, maybe, but he can’t think of any.

He broke his arm once when he was a boy. Fell while climbing a tree. On the long walk back to the big house, he felt like if he didn’t look at it, it didn’t hurt as bad. 

The big house is called the Estate. He remembers that now.

Riss is gone for a long time. Long enough that the sky turns blue again. It’s washed-out blue, like someone poured too much water in it. There’s a word for that. Adal does not know it anymore. 

He hears voices but he can’t see people. He wants to turn his head, but Riss told him not to move. She was very serious about it. 

“I don’t–I think he fell.”

“… All the way from the top?”

Did he fall? He isn’t sure. The last thing he remembers is being afraid of the storm. For some reason, this thought makes him nervous. His heart speeds up. The next time he breathes, something in his chest feels sharp and out of place.

“My bag’s still in the wagon. I’ve only got this much left.”

“He’s breathing, though?”

Boots crowd around him. Two of them belong to Riss. He can tell. 

“Hey,” she says. Her eyes are wet. “Just hold tight. We’re going to fix you up.”

He tries to talk but his mouth is loose and all the little shards of things in his mouth hurt and it bothers him that he can’t remember what they’re called. Not knowing things is starting to scare him and make him angry.

His chest feels weird. His legs feel far away. His hands are numb. The list of small things that feel not right is growing.

Calay leans over him. His mouth his flat. His eyes aren’t as cold as normal. Adal is surprised by how young he looks. 

“I gotta say, pretty boy…” He reaches down and unbutton’s Adal’s shirt. “You are some combination of phenomenally lucky and much, much tougher than you look.”

“What’s…” Adal tries to talk. All the tiny shards of pain in his mouth come back. Something is really wrong. His face feels like it’s burning. He tries to lift his head so he can see what is wrong, because once he knows he can try to fix it, but Riss is holding him down again and Calay’s hand on him is very heavy and it takes all his energy just to keep his eyes open.

There’s another voice.

“Go ahead.” It’s Gaz. Adal can’t see him.

Calay moves away.

“I told you to sit down.”

“Walking kinda takes my mind off it.”

“Calay.” Riss again, speaking over him. “We don’t have time.”

“Well I don’t have enough blood. I’m trying to–fuck, let me think.”

“Just do as she says. I’ll be okay.” 

People talk around him. Adal stares at the sky. Calm, clear, watered-down blue. Like a pool. He remembers feeding the little things that live in his family’s ponds. Orange and silver things. Fast things. Why is he forgetting so many words?

Riss walks past him. She’s walking back and forth. Sometimes he sees her, sometimes he doesn’t. She isn’t talking anymore.

“Are you sure?” Calay sounds angry. Adal isn’t sure who he’s mad at. Him?

“It’s my choice. You don’t get to make it for me. Riss is right.”

“… I’ll do what I can. Later. I promise.”

Calay told him once that life never let him be soft. But he isn’t always as sharp-edged as he thinks he is. 

When Calay comes back, he’s got his jacket off. He rolls up his sleeves. He pulls a face when he looks at Adal. Riss comes back, too. She reaches down and holds his hand.

“You stay real still,” Riss says. “Calay’s only got enough blood to try this once.”

He can’t see her, but he can hear Rodelinde sniffling. She always hides when she cries. She doesn’t want Mother and Father to see.

“It’s okay,” he tells her through the needling pains in his mouth. It hurts too much to say the rest. 

It’s okay, he wants to tell her. I miss Berin too. 

He tries to swallow but the things in his mouth are thick and clattery and wrong. 

Calay tells him to close his eyes.

Calay is kinder than he thinks he is.

In the calm, slow dark, the sniffling stops.

Diluted. That’s the word he was looking for. The sky, it looked diluted. Washed out. Weak.

<< Book 2, Chapter 17 | Book 2, Chapter 19 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 17

Calay’s final year in Vasile had been one of exuberant highs and disastrous lows. Before he’d fled the city in the aftermath of his own would-be execution, he’d been a valued contractor of the Landed House Talvace, taken under Lady Rovelenne’s wing and fluttered through the vaulted halls of their Estate, their vineyard, even the city’s Leycenate House, where laws were ratified and kids from Blackbricks rarely got to tread.

Talvace was the city’s penultimate Landed family, second in wealth and power only to Ambarro. In a city that stressed egalitarianism, that promised its subjects they had no kings, where thrones was a curse for a reason, Rovelenne Talvace’s word had still carried royal weight.

But before all that, before the veil had been pulled from his eyes, before he’d been kicked to the curb, paid the thieves’ toll with so many of his own fragile tendons, Calay had been a believer. He hadn’t trusted Lady Rovelenne as closely as he trusted, say, Gaz. Didn’t trust her with his life like he did Sylvene. But he’d gotten all wrapped up in her legend. Gotten swept away on the swell of her knowledge of history and procedure, which seemed infinite. He’d gotten carried away on the currents of his own daydreams about what doors she could open.

And before he’d been a believer, he’d been a guest. Lady Rovelenne had invited him into her personal retinue for a day, asked if he wanted to see the halls of the Leycenate, where the Landed and the Common both worked together to regulate the swaggering economic juggernaut that was Vasile during wartime. 

Vasile’s Leycenate House loomed prominently in the city skyline. Its ancient grey stones were each half Calay’s height, a foundation so solid that all the earthquakes and all the great waves and all the coastal storms that had ravaged the city over the centuries had barely even discolored it. Moss eked out a tenuous existence in the grout, but even it was dutifully scraped away by city workers when it dared poke its fuzzy head out where Landed eyes might see.

Inside, the building smelled of old stone and ghostly wakes of perfume left behind when prominent citizens passed through. Its high windows let in diffuse, mist-muted sunlight, each frame a tall archway with a little peak on top.

Though its lines were elegant and every facet of its decor–thick carpets, runners on the stairs, sparse white marble patterned with slate across the floors–was built to last, the building didn’t radiate wealth like Calay expected it might. Apart from the city insignia tiled over the doorways and impressed in relief beneath the light sconces, there was little distinguishing it as a civic building. It might have been a monastery for some well-heeled anonymous cult. A union hall. It was austere, an ageing yet venerable eagle perched by the side of the road.

This was intentional, Lady Rovelenne explained when he voiced these thoughts.

Leycenate House was the building where the Landed worked for the good of the people. If the city splashed out heaps of australs on gilt and stained glass, that wouldn’t be a responsible use of public funds now, would it? Responsible use of public funds was a phrase oft on the lips of the Landed since Anvey Rill’s riots.

On the second floor, though, there were drawings. Out of all the impressions he took back from his tour of that building, it was the drawings that registered most prominently in his memory. They were en route to House Talvace’s offices, which were up many flights of steps, occupying prime upper floor ground where the heat rose and the ground floor damp couldn’t reach.

By Landed standards, the sketches were simple. Later on, Calay would glimpse colorful works of art at Talvace’s actual properties. But the sketches displayed in the hallways of Leycenate House were the first artistic masterworks he’d ever seen up close. They depicted the story of Vasile’s founding told in serialised panels, each rendered in charcoal on the purest, most crisply white paper Calay had ever seen. Paper that looked like it had been milled by some fae spirits, the grain was so fine.

The first panel depicted a ship at sea, its sails full of wind. Rays of sunlight pierced the high, fluffy clouds that stretched over a frothy, lifelike ocean. Which meant the second panel was of course the shipwreck. Even Blackbricks kids with no formal education knew the story of the Far-Leaper, the first vessel to explore the far northern coast. 

The next few panels portrayed a clean, idealized version of the Far-Leaper survivors’ story: washing ashore, gathering debris, building a shelter in the shoreline caves. And then the arrival of the dogs. Their tall, high-eared silhouettes prowled around the survivors at first, sketched in black. It was the dogs, historians said, who protected the settlers from the Things Below, the hard-shelled creeping evil that once kept the Vasa bays to itself. First the dogs were sketched in shadow, then in negative space, a cool-toned white, their color evolving as their status shifted from threat to friend. 

The human mind was a funny thing. 

In all his anatomical training from Alfend, Calay had never really covered it beyond the basics: how to recognize signs of concussion and dementia and bleeds in the brain. How to wiggle little chips of skull free from a head wound without causing further damage. He knew,  though, that there was a line between the brain and the mind. The brain was the spongy stuff inside your skull. When crushed, it snuffed a man’s life out even quicker than a bolt through the heart. But how that lumpy, boiled-cauliflower looking thing worked, how it animated an inert lump of flesh and bone into a person… that was a mystery he was unsure he’d ever know the answer to.

All of that was to say Calay had no earthly idea why he was reminded of the artwork in Leycenate House as he watched the lizard rear, flip the wagon onto its side, and drag it into the ravine.

The human mind was very, very funny.

Rooted into place on the salty ground with the force of his shock, he sprung into motion embarrassingly late. Running flat-out, he dashed through peals of soul-rattling thunder and skidded to a stop near the ravine’s edge. Riss, who’d been on the other side of the galania, arrived at his side a split second later.

In the chaos and noise, it took them both a hesitant moment to agree, eyes roaming in all directions, that Adalgis was not present.

Neither were Torcha and Gaz, because they’d been in the wagon.

It was not until that exact moment, until he thought he words in the wagon that the full implication of that statement punched its way into Calay’s head. He dropped his eyes to the jagged darkness of the ravine. The wagon rested down–far, far down–on the sandy floor, pitched forward at a steep angle amid a halo of shattered wood and glass that fanned out in all directions. Its back wheels turned in a slow, useless wobble, dangling above the ground. All the wreckage was swallowed by shadow.

When lightning next lanced across the sky, Calay used it to survey the ravine floor. His eyes took it in, a brief flash: the lizard’s crushed body, no sign of anything moving.

Riss was saying something. Either the storm muted her or his brain simply didn’t care enough to register the words.

The walls of the ravine were more craggy than sheer, well eroded by wind, riddled with nooks and crannies for a determined climber. His eyes traveled a path down the wall, searching out the more promising handholds, measuring their prominence against the wall–too long, too long, it would simply take too fucking long.

Ducking a hand into the stash pocket inside his coat, he snatched up one of the three precious vials hidden inside. He didn’t dwell on the fact that the rest of his supplies were gods-knew-where in the wreckage. Didn’t dwell on the fact that it might not be prudent to waste blood when there might be two people down below who needed it. His mind touched on those thoughts like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake: barely there, passing through to other, more important places.

He did not have time to climb.

Popping the vial open with his thumb, he tugged the neckline of his shirt open, dashed blood against his skin. His feet were already moving as his fingers sketched the glyphs, symbols he’d memorized from Alfend’s old journals: density, weight, stone.

He flung himself off the edge, hands not quite done yet.

When he fell, he fell quickly. The canyon wall sheered past. He understood why his memories had conjured those images from Vasile: in the flash of lightning, life almost seemed to move as a series of still pictures. Magick sizzled and flickered; his body greedily absorbed the blood and with it the instructions he’d written.

He hit the ground, formed a small crater. But his bones were sturdier now. He stumbled up and out, toward the wreckage, fighting through the wave of dizziness generated from the impact. His skeleton held.

The bottom of the ravine felt too quiet compared to the windy chaos above. The comparably still air, the sand instead of salt, it was like he’d fallen through the crust of the earth and into another world. He jogged toward the wreckage, stepping through the puddled blood of the crushed galania. In a pinch, he could use it. The effects would be weak, growing weaker still as the magickal properties dissipated as it dried, but at that quantity at least he had a lot to work with–

Torcha climbed out the frame of a window, balancing lightly on her feet. She did a double-take when she spotted him, then glanced up toward the ravine’s edge.

“I took a shortcut,” he said. And then: “Where is he?”

“Dunno yet.” Torcha wiped her hair out of her eyes, stepping away from the wreckage. “I’m callin’ for him, but he ain’t…” She took a moment to collect her thoughts. “He was inside when it crashed. Headed for upstairs.”

Well, best make use of the charms he’d put on himself while they were active. He’d been sparing with the blood; the spells wouldn’t last long. Calay stomped up to the shattered wagon, heaved its crooked, leaning door aside, and climbed in. The cargo hold slumped at a high, awkward angle, but from inside, it was evident that the rear of the wagon wasn’t in terrible shape. Unfortunately, the central corridor with all the ladders and hatches to the second floor was buggered. Cursing, Calay peeled planks and overturned furniture out of his way like it weighed nothing. The giddy high he normally felt when the fun kind of magick was coursing through his blood was nowhere to be found.

Thunder grumbled distantly. The storm was whipping past, off to terrorize another patch of salt. Something nagged at him, something he couldn’t quite place, something he would definitely come back to later but it was not a priority now.

Finally, after shoving heaps of debris aside, he found a trapdoor to the second floor. Its frame was warped, squished into a thinned diamond and bowing visibly with the weight of the wagon’s structure atop it. Climbing through that would be stupid; if it collapsed it could slice him in half… 

But it was the quickest way up. And he was clever with his hands and careful where to put his feet. He pulled himself up and through, into the listing wooden-walled barracks.

Everything not nailed to the floor had come loose. Chairs, supplies, the contents of their cargo nets, some of the nets themselves, all but the big meeting table which remained bolted down. The barracks looked like it had been hit with one of Anvey Rill’s bombs.

“Gaz?” His voice came out quieter than anticipated, less that of a confident rescuer and more a man cautious of waking a sleeping dragon. He cleared his throat and tried again. Everything was such a mess. He had no idea where to begin looking.

A rough, cough-rattled groan answered him from somewhere in the wreckage. Calay tried to zero in on its source, walking carefully on the steeply-pitched floor. He skidded and slid a couple times, gradually nearing the wagon’s bow and the biggest heaps of debris. It felt like walking through a shipwreck, treacherous corners and jagged wood snatching at his clothes with every step.

“I’m here,” he said, watching where he put his feet. “Just gotta–rgh–find you!”

There came a knock to his right, then another, deliberate. Turning and nudging a precariously-balanced crate out of his way, he picked through the wagon’s wreckage like a vulture at a carcass. Finally, when he began to shift a rolled-up carpet away from the wall, he heard a wheeze from beneath. Gripping the carpet by the edge, Calay lifted and shoved in a single motion. He could feel the effects of the blood sorcery ebbing; it was harder work than it would have been merely minutes ago. But still he managed.

Tangled in the wreckage, red in the face, was Gaz. He’d fallen onto the wall directly overhanging the pilot’s bench, then been showered in debris when everything had come loose. He was conscious, and though he was beaten moderately to shit and the proud owner of numerous shallow cuts and bruises, he didn’t appear hurt hurt. His eyes fixed on Calay with a groggy slowness. His eyebrows lifted.

“What took you so long?” he grumbled, spitting out a wad of dust and grit.

Now that his arms were free, he reached down, attempting to shove the cracked frame of a dresser off his legs. Calay stooped down and pulled on the opposite end. Thrones, it was heavy. Actually heavy. The legs scratched and scraped along the floor, catching on every gods-damned thing as they moved it, but finally the two of them were able to wrench it aside enough for Gaz to sit up. He winced as he did so, a hand immediately going to his thigh.

“Can you–”

Calay leaned down, way ahead of him. He looped Gaz’s arm over his shoulder and stumbled up the incline, not providing as much leverage as a taller person might have but still capable enough. 

“You good until we get outside?” Calay asked, wary that the wagon might collapse under its own weight if left too long.

“Yeah,” Gaz muttered. “I’ll live.” He sounded tired, but he could walk. He limped along as Calay shuffled them both sideways.

Rather than deal with that dubious trapdoor sans magickal protections, Calay kicked out a window. He climbed out first, then helped Gaz through, and together they navigated the wreckage in a careful climb, emerging into disorienting sunlight. The storm had blown past.

Gaz collapsed into the dirt, hissing. Calay fell back beside him, exhausted. Torcha scurried over and found them both just lying there, catching up on breathing.

“Tadivach’s tits, Gaz. Your leg.”

Calay lifted his head, propped himself up to look down.

A shard of wood as long as his forearm protruded from Gaz’s thigh. Calay’s stomach turned to look at it.

“The fuck!” He rolled up into a sit, reaching into his jacket for his vials. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Gaz–who, come to think of it, did look a little pale in the sunlight–let out an awkward, pained wheeze of a laugh. He tried on a reassuring smile which came out looking more like a grimace.

“Nothing that couldn’t wait,” he said through his teeth. “But… yeah… please fix that now.”

He had enough blood for that. But first he’d have to yank the thing out, and that wasn’t going to be pleasant. And once they got Gaz all fixed up, there were bigger problems to confront. Such as the rest of Calay’s supplies being lost somewhere in the wagon. And the hundreds of thousands of scorpions they now had to outpace on foot.

One disaster at a time. Calay put his hand on Gaz’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Afraid this isn’t going to be pleasant,” he said. 

Gaz closed his eyes. It was admirable, the amount of effort he put into trying to look calm. “Just like pulling out a big splinter,” he said.

“You’re all right,” Calay said, and all at once the relief caught up with him just as the exhaustion had. A crack in the dam, the moment before the flood. He directed Torcha to help him, readying a cloth that he wished was a little cleaner.

Thunder ran its drumroll off over the Flats. Something about that storm, he thought again. But then Torcha yanked the shard free and Gaz yelped and Calay held tight on the compress and the weather was the last thing on his mind.

Putting pressure on the wound, he nodded his thanks to Torcha and readied the vial. He felt useful again, felt like he was salvaging some control from this clusterfuck.

Noise exploded across the sand, a stampede of footsteps and yelling. Riss rushed over to where they sat, telling him to stop, stop, hold on, don’t use the blood yet. Her face was a color he’d never seen before; she hadn’t gone that pale even when she’d nearly died. 

Adal still wasn’t with her.

<< Book 2, Chapter 16 | Book 2, Chapter 18 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 16

Lightning hadn’t ever worried Torcha growing up. It wasn’t a problem for her the way it was for other folks. In the textile districts, floods were a bigger worry. Everything was too marshy to burn, too wet to catch even when lightning struck. But all that rain had to go somewhere. Hence why all the towns were balanced up on hilltops like little crowns.

But even Torcha knew it was bad news to be sitting in a wagon this tall on a plain this flat during a lightning storm. 

For a while, she could hold onto the fiction that they might outrun the clouds. Riss was pushing the lizard hard and it had more stamina than Torcha gave it credit for. But it could only go whole-hog for a couple hours. Soon its run slowed to a dragging, exhausted lope, each of its footsteps scraping hard and loud against the salt. Neither she nor Riss had any idea how much longer it would last.

The mountains were closer, no longer vague suggestions on the horizon, but they weren’t close.

In the meantime, the sky grew darker. The wind shifted. Huddled on the pilot’s bench, Torcha shared a long look with Calay behind Riss’ back. He knew it was coming, too. 

When Calay got scared, he didn’t really look scared. He just looked wild, like a spooked dog, ears perked and back stiff, whites of his eyes showing. 

Straight ahead, the low, dusty mountains beckoned them like a mirage. The Flats threw off her sense of distance. There was no sense of scale, nothing to compare anything else to. Exactly how close they were was anyone’s guess.

“We’re not gonna make it,” Riss declared, watching the lizard from above. Its sides flared out with quick, hard-rasping breaths. It lashed its tail stump side to side, threatening and irritable.

“So we shelter under the wagon?” Calay asked, considering the sky.

“No,” Riss said. “Too risky. Unless we unhitch this guy, he could pull the wheels right over us if he spooks.”

“We should unhitch him regardless,” said Calay. “If the wagon catches fire, it’ll burn him up. And he’s our only ride out of here.”

“We could shelter in the ravine,” said Adal. “Climb down in, find a ledge or something…”

“There’s an idea.” Riss nodded.

Torcha was up in an instant, grabbing Gaz by the arm. They hurried into the barracks and began loading up packs with food and water and ammo. Torcha could lose the wagon. She couldn’t lose water. Not out here.

Thunder rumbled through the wagon’s walls. Strange. She only just noticed, but that was the first thunder she’d heard since they’d spied the storm on the horizon. That wasn’t normal…

But there was no time to ponder that. Food and water and guns secured, they hurried outside.

Out on the salt, wind whipped glittering dust through the air. If you squinted, you could trace them: currents of sparkles, salt thinned out to ribbons on the wind. Riss, Adal, and Calay surrounded the lizard on all sides, slowly closing in, attempting to pacify it and free it of its tether. 

“What if it runs off?” Torcha called. 

“It’s massive,” said Gaz. “And this place is flat as. We’ll be able to see it for miles if it does.”

The wind began to squeal, shrieking through the ravine below. Riss said something. Torcha didn’t hear it. She put a hand to her ear, signalling. Riss gestured, pointing toward the wagon. Was she asking her to stay back? Torcha backpedalled, then tucked herself into the doorway, sheltering herself from the wind. Gaz hurried up a moment later, ducking low, jacket raised up over his head to shield his face from shards of windborne salt.

“What?” Torcha called.

“Calay’s bag.” He squeezed past her into the hall. “He says he can calm it down, but he’ll need blood to–“

Thunder cracked directly overhead. It sounded like the ground beneath their feet was tearing apart. Torcha’s ears rang. She didn’t hear the rest of what Gaz said, but she got the gist. She found it hard to care whether Calay witched the lizard. Apart from her general mistrust of witching, a lizard was a lizard and it wasn’t a person and it wasn’t her, so he could do what he liked. Anything that would get them out of there any quicker.

Through the howl of the wind, she couldn’t hear any rain. A dry storm then. Like Adal had said. 

Voices outside caught her attention. She clambered up onto the pilot’s bench, wondering if there was anything she could do, some rope or harness she could unhook from here to assist.

Riss and Adal had got half the lizard’s harness off. It had puffed up threateningly, facing Calay with an open mouth and a hiss that might have been a hiss or might have been the wind. Torcha had never seen a galania angry before. It gave a warning stomp, claws digging into the salt just beside Calay, who faced it down calmly, without moving. His spooked-dog look was gone, replaced by an icy scowl of concentration.

The air took on a funny smell, sharp and crisp and acidic.

Then another funny thing happened: Torcha’s hair rose up, curls lifting off her neck. Goosebumps prickled up her arms.

She didn’t have long enough to fully form a thought, to wonder what was going on.

Electric blue light exploded across her eyes. Lightning struck something outside, whiting out her vision. Something squealed–lizard? wheels? wind? person?–and the floor tilted and shook. Bright-edged dark blobs danced through the air, afterburns like from looking at the sun too long; she couldn’t see shit. Grabbing for the closest doorway, Torcha held on tight as the wagon veered abruptly sideways. Something outside gave a horrible crunch. The walls shuddered and cracked and the sound of thunder and wind all roared together. All her senses but touch were flooded; she tasted copper in her mouth.

Funnily enough, there was just too much going on for panic to set in. Torcha dug her nails in, then braced one boot against each corner of the doorway. She held on tight as the wagon whirled, dragged all off-kilter. Had the lightning struck the lizard? She couldn’t say. 

Her ears rang like someone had fired a rifle indoors. She wondered if Gaz was all right upstairs. All these thoughts came as split-second flashes as she reacted more with her body than her brain.

Through the high ring of endless, off-tune bells in her ears, she caught one word: out!

But before she could throw herself out the door, the wagon trembled once more, the planks beneath her feet vibrating and flexing as though they might fly apart at any moment. This was bad. They had to cut that lizard free, kill it if they had to. If Torcha had a clear shot, she’d ready her rifle and put one right between its eyes.

She never got the chance. The next impact jolted the wagon crazily. Her world tipped onto its side. She held on tight but then lost her grip as debris smashed into her from behind, something sharp impacting directly between her shoulder blades.

When she caught her last glimpse out the pilot’s window, she realized she couldn’t see the ground anymore. Only sky. A dark, boiling sky lit up blue from within, ribs and veins of lightning streaking across it like a glowing, living skeleton. 

The wagon bounced, skidded. The sky was snatched away. Darkness swallowed her from beyond the windows and something deep within the wagon’s structure groaned and crunched.

Gravity punched her sideways into the doorframe as the panicked lizard dragged them down into the ravine.

###

When she came to, everything hurt. But hurt was good. It meant nothing was broken bad. In the early days of the woodland cells, their patchy camps beneath fat, dangling silkspiders in their webs, Jalacho had given lectures on rudimentary first aid. Torcha hadn’t really listened, young and angry and distractible as she was, but she remembered vividly his descriptions of what it felt like to get shot. He’d talked about slow, spreading numbness and pain and pain and pain until his brain grew kind of overloaded and the pain became an absence.

She’d always liked that morbid stuff. 

She was tangled in what appeared to be a curtain or awning, a disorienting swaddle of scratchy dark canvas. Crawling up out of it, Torcha felt smooth wood under her palms, bonked her elbow into a light fixture, and realized she was laying on the ceiling.

Outside, the storm still raged, but at such a distance her nerves couldn’t summon concern about it. 

She blinked and thought back to Mosz’s story. The boy in the ravine, pursued by his far-off pile of hungry, vengeful bones. She wondered if this was the ravine from the story. She wondered if any bones awaited them. If anything was gaining on them besides thousands of scorpions.

But those thoughts were soon replaced by more practical concerns. 

Could she walk? Yes. 

Okay. 

So where was Gaz?

And what had happened to everyone else?

And–at this, her hand went to her belt–was there a pissed off building-sized lizard down here with her?

Her sidearm was gone. Her shoulders throbbed. Feeling along the wall, aided by the occasional flash of lightning, she groped around in the dark until she found the curtain rod. Bracing her boot against the wall, she pulled hard until it snapped free in her hands. Then she felt for which end was the sharpest, the most splintered, and aimed it out before her like a spear.

It barely felt like being armed.

Was it bad that she hoped the lizard had died in the fall? Sure, it was their only way out of the Flats, but firstly, this disaster was its fault and therefore it was a bastard. Secondly, she wanted to call out to Gaz, but if the damned thing was down there, pissed off and wounded, lashing out as critters were wont to do when hurt…

Broken wood crunched under her feet with each step. It was slow going through the ruined wagon, ducking and crawling through spaces too narrow for most people. But the sporadic lightning helped her. Soon, she spied a way out: a busted maintenance hatch that led down toward the wheels and axles. She slid through it at a steep angle, feeling along with the tip of her curtain rod. The big front axle was splintered; no matter the state of the rest of the wagon, it wasn’t going anywhere. But even broken, it served a purpose: she was able to follow it out to freedom.

Falling onto her stomach, Torcha had to wiggle on her front to escape the wagon’s wreckage. She pulled herself along the ground, which was still dusted with salt even down this far.

She planted her palms on the ground to lever herself free. They touched something slimy and wet and warm.

With a heave of her arms, she dragged herself entirely free of the wreckage, palms slip-sliding in dark, viscous liquid. Rolling onto her side, she emerged from the wagon’s shadow, saw the slick stuff down her arms and torso was the lizard’s blood. She stayed like that for a moment, sitting at the bottom of the ravine, eyes raised toward the spread of storm clouds overhead. 

The dry air tingled when she breathed it. Wind whipped past the ravine’s mouth, screaming up above like a vengeful ghost. The impact had scattered her brain so fiercely she couldn’t remember any warding words, any good prayers, anything from the old town that might lend a scrap of ritualistic calm. 

She couldn’t see a trace of the others. It was like she’d fallen down into hell.

Slow, wobbly on her feet, she took a walk around the wreckage. She had to step back, to give it some distance to really take in what had happened. Up close, it was all just a mess of wood and lizard meat. Distance gave her the perspective she needed. 

The wagon had careened into the gulch nose-down, crushing the lizard from behind. Its bow was embedded in the galania’s back. The lizard’s forelegs were twisted and mangled beneath itself; its head lolled sideways, tongue a slab of sticky meat upon the salty floor. Possible the fall had killed it. Possible it had bled out after. The very front of the wagon had taken the worst damage, its axle cracked, wheels bowing out awkwardly. The pilot’s bench and the frontmost frame of the upper floor and roof were crunched in against each other in a folded v-shape. 

But that wagon must have been made of sturdy stuff, because the bits that hadn’t directly impacted the ground looked all right. In fact, apart from the fact that it was tipped forward and its wheels weren’t touching the ground, the back half looked almost driveable. Torcha had just been unlucky enough to end up in the squished bits.

Gaz, though. Where had he been? 

It was unfamiliar, this immediate nagging concern for others in the aftermath of a catastrophe. She hadn’t really felt that in the war, at least not ‘til the end.

This was new. It was inconvenient. But now that she felt it, she couldn’t just ignore it.

“Gaz?” She cupped a hand around her mouth and hollered in toward the wreckage. The wagon stayed silent. Nothing stirred inside.

Torcha planted the butt of the curtain rod onto the crunchy ground. She was going to have to climb back in there, wasn’t she.

“Gaz!” she yelled again. “C’mon big guy, at least tell me which window to crawl in!”

Nothing.

She just had to find him, that was all. He was in there somewhere. No way he could have tumbled out. He couldn’t even fit out the windows if given the opportunity.

Oddly enough, it didn’t even occur to her to worry that he might be dead. Somehow, on a level so deep she didn’t even consciously think it, Torcha assumed that if he was dead, she’d know. That whatever fucking unknowable fungus bullshit had Bridged them in the swamp had left some permanent smear across their minds. The three of them were mingled dye bleeding together over the edge of paper or cloth. 

It wasn’t like she could read their minds, the boys from Blackbricks. It didn’t work like that. But ever since that moment, there’d been a strange thread of understanding woven through them. Gaz especially. He had a mind so unlike her own. So gentle and careful. Not in a nervous way. Not in a walking-on-eggshells way. More like he treated every person he ever met as though he was handling a newborn kitten: something precious and important that you had to be real careful with, not because you were worried you might destroy it but because it was alive and all things that were alive mattered. 

Gaz had a fundamental goodness in him that Torcha wasn’t quite sure what to do with. A goodness she was cynically surprised Calay hadn’t exploited yet. 

She’d feel it if that goodness got snuffed out of the world. If something so rare and unique was suddenly gone. 

The world was vast and uncaring. But the Collective, the thing that had put its mark on all three of them, was not.

Wiping half-dried lizard blood off her hands, she climbed back into the wagon’s wreckage.

He was in there. She just had to find him. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 15 | Book 2, Chapter 17 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 15

(Short author’s note – I’m finally back in my regular time zone and from next week forward, updates will be less erratic!)

Sleep came and went. Dawn came and went, too. No one roused Calay for watch. In fact, the barracks was entirely empty when he awoke. Waking to see sunlight streaking through the windows was disorienting, even if it was the fresh, infant sunlight of an early dawn. The dry air of the Flats lent itself well to reusing linens; his shirt and glove still felt crisp and dry when he pulled them back on. He didn’t bother buttoning the shirt nor belting his trousers as he climbed all over the wagon in search of the others. The polished wood of the wagon’s floor was appealingly cool against his feet. 

He found Torcha on the roof. She looked like she’d been awake for hours, or like she hadn’t slept through the night at all. Either was possible. Bent low beneath the glow of a lantern, she was in her element: stripping and oiling the parts of someone’s sidearm or another. Adal’s, by the look of it. 

“Warm out already,” Calay said by way of greeting. “Gonna be a hot one today.”

“Hope the sun don’t put our lizard to sleep,” she said, twisting a pipe cleaner down the barrel of the pistol.

Calay’s brow wrinkled. “Does that happen?”

Torcha shrugged with just her head, tilting her chin. “Well, little ones do it…” Trailing off, she finished her cleaning and then started to piece the pistol back together, hands moving with the absent, mindless confidence of repetition. “Anyway. Everyone’s down below.”

She didn’t mean the cargo hold, nor the pilot’s bench. So Calay climbed out of the wagon and beneath it. There he found Adal and Gaz inspecting the wheels and axles, the most important ritual of the morning.

“How’s she looking?” Calay asked. 

Gaz gave him a wordless affirmative gesture. Adal, shimmying around with a lantern, nodded from where he crouched. 

“I was curious how the wheels would handle the salt,” he said. “Never traversed this terrain on wheels before. And technically speaking, we’ve been off-road this entire time…”

Calay tuned out, listened to the drone of Adal’s technical explanation as merely background noise. Riss arrived a minute later carrying a hefty woven basket and one of those leather-strap slings all the Beddos used instead of bags. She was laden down with interesting-smelling food, loaves of some bread that used ground rice instead of flour and bottles of black and red berry spirits. 

“I figure interesting booze might buy us friends when we rendezvous with the Rill gang,” said Riss. 

“What’s our plan for all that, anyway?” Calay asked. “We ought to discuss it in more detail…”

“C’mon.” Riss beckoned him up top. “We’ll chat while we drive.”

###

Tightening up the wagon, rousing the galania, and setting off was something that came quicker and with greater efficiency every morning that passed. It took mere minutes this time. Soon Calay was sitting on the bench alongside Riss, who flashed a mirror in the sun, signaling to the Beddo wagon. Both began their steady trundle across the dawn-pink salt.

“So,” Riss said. “The plan for Nuso Rill.” 

Calay listened with interest even as his eyes swept the horizon. 

“We’ll follow this ravine north by northwest,” she said. “It crosses almost the entire Flats; should reach the other side in two, maybe three days. Due north from where the ravine terminates, there’s the canyon Leonór told us about. Inside that canyon is a spit-fleck of a stopover called Frogmouth, up in the canyon wall itself–“

Calay had to cut in. “I’m sorry, called what?”

“Frogmouth. You heard me.”

Calay laughed from deep down in his diaphragm, surprised by the force of his own laughter. Frogmouth. How daft. Sure didn’t sound like the sort of place to search out a famous outlaw. An apothecary who sold dodgy portions to horny old men, maybe…

“And Rill will be there?” he asked.

“He’s been sighted there, at least.” Riss nodded. “It’s a known haunt for all sorts of disreputables looking to fence ill-gotten gains. We’ll hang around town, see if we can send word that we’re looking to offload this wagon. If at all possible, we’re to find out where Rill camps.”

Reclining back on the bench, Calay sniffed the dry, salty air.

“All right,” he said. “So we roll into Frogmouth and see if Rill wants to have us over for tea.”

“Mhm. All we have to do in the meantime is avoid thousands of scorpions.”

As far as plans went, it was diabolically simple. So few moving parts. So few opportunities for things to go wrong. 

###

It had just gone midday when Calay first spied the ravine on the horizon. The sun was punishing, hovering straight overhead as if to scold anyone who’d dare be out at this hour. So when Calay saw what appeared to be a shadow on the horizon, he had to double-check. Heat shimmer made everything wobble and waver, but soon they drew close enough to confirm it. 

What began as a crumbling crack in the salty ground soon opened up into a wide gulf easily four or five times the width of their wagon. When Calay peered down its steep, salt-encrusted sides, he couldn’t quite see the bottom due to the angle. Riss directed the galania to give the ravine a generous berth. The Beddos did likewise. 

Something inside Calay relaxed. The old twinge in his jaw unclenched. They’d made it. And not a single scorpion in sight. 

He took a turn manning the rear guard for a while, rifle balanced in his lap. Not that there was a soul behind them. Only the dance of heat off the flat, off-white ground.

More uneventful hours passed. Calay’s mind retreated into that quiet, contemplative place where he considered his goals: Frogmouth, Rill, the postwoman’s mysterious collection of letters. Then Riss shouted something, a relaxed-sounding order directed down below. 

There was no urgency in her voice. The wagon rolled to a gentle stop. Calay climbed down to see what was the matter.

Nothing, it turned out. They were merely parting ways with their caravan companions. The whole Beddo family came out to say their goodbyes. Calay lingered at the edge of the crowd, standing in the wagon’s shadow as Riss bade them all farewell. He picked up bits and pieces of their conversation. The Beddos were heading straight west from this bend in the ravine, climbing up into the distant mountains and into plateau country. Continental geography still twisted his brain into knots a little, but the plateaus weren’t far from where Riss grew up, if he had it right. No wonder she was making nice with the traders.

Calay had played it out in his mind a few times, how he’d respond if he ran into fellow Vasa travelers. He could not envision a scenario in which they weren’t sent to kill him.

The elder Beddo woman spotted him, waving to his spot in the shade.

“And you,” she called over. “How did you sleep?”

Calay gave her a thin, shadowed smile. 

“Like a baby,” he said. 

As he watched their small, gaudy wagon disappear into the distance, he once again felt that subtle, seismic tug. Felt like the Flats were thinning their numbers.

###

It hadn’t been that impressive when it was merely a mark on Riss’ map, but soon the ravine crumbled and tumbled deep into the earth. Calay appreciated it over his left shoulder from where he lounged at the rear boarding plank. It was there whenever he turned his head, providing a comfortable barrier against the flood of incoming scorpions. They had time on their side now. 

So when he heard Torcha whistle the alert, he wondered what could be the matter. It certainly wasn’t scorpions.

Climbing up onto the roof, he was joined by everyone but Riss. Torcha sat beneath her sun-shade, eyes to the east, her mouth a thin flat line.

“You’re right,” Adal was saying. “I don’t like the look of them.”

Calay followed their stares out toward the horizon. From where he’d been watching, south and down below, he hadn’t seen the clouds mounting. They looked unlike any storm clouds he’d ever seen, lacking the grey-black-brown gradient of the storms that ravaged the coasts of his youth. These clouds were grey-red, towering higher than any he’d ever seen. They looked like great heaps of dishes in the sky.

“Doesn’t look like rain…” he started.

“No,” said Adal. “But keep watching.”

It only took a couple seconds. They all watched the distant clouds as lightning lanced from one to another, forking out in all directions. 

“That doesn’t look like any storm I ever saw,” said Gaz. There was no curtain of rain beneath it at all.

“Storms behave differently out here over nothing but dry land,” said Adal. “The plateau near Carbec, down the dry side you can get dry lightning. Thunderstorms with no rain. They can develop into dust storms, too. Sudden gusts of wind, grains of sand like knives. They’re real bastards.”

“But do you reckon it’s headed this way?” asked Torcha.

Adal thinned his lips. “Hard to say. I’m not familiar with the terrain here. And we’re on a moving wagon, makes the wind tough to gauge.”

“I’d say our first order of business ought to be finding out,” said Calay. 

Something unseen raced through his blood, dread and anticipation rising through the hair on his arms like steam. Was it the charge of the storm? Was it normal to feel them even this far off? Adal disappeared down the hatch, calling out something to Riss down below.

“That ain’t a dust storm,” Torcha said, as if in some attempt to comfort him. “They’re like a solid wall of red coming at you.”

Calay’s shoulders twitched.

“I’m more worried about the lightning,” she said. “All this wood we’re sitting on. And we’re the tallest thing for miles.”

Beneath their feet, the wagon juddered. The ravine began to speed by quicker. Riss was urging the lizard into a run. 

The wagon’s occupants all leapt into frantic action. With the same expedience they’d shown in their morning routine they now latched and shuttered all the windows. Torcha rolled up the awnings. Calay ducked inside, slid down the ladder, and met Riss on the bench. Her jaw had tensed, her eyes on the distant storm. Calay watched it for a while too, peering past her.

“Headed our way, then?” he asked.

“Adal seems to think so. Could miss us depending on how hard it’s rolling, but I’d rather not take that chance.”

Calay slid his tongue over his teeth. Nerves prickled in his mangled arm. “Is there anything I can do?”

Riss didn’t look up. “Not unless you can control the weather.”

Calay didn’t know if his talents could ever extend that far. There was so much he’d never learned, so many characters in the alphabet he’d never practiced. He wondered where his skills might be if Alfend Linten hadn’t disappeared. If he’d had an actual tutor showing him the way rather than scraps of diaries and notes and wary, careful experimentation.

“Afraid not,” he said. “But… I can put out fires, at least.” 

That one had been a priority after the riots in Blackbricks. Flames needed air to feed themselves; he could swallow the air above them, muffle them with shadow. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the closest he’d been able to teach himself.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Riss said.

Calay wished it wouldn’t, but as the wind turned and began to pick up speed, licking through his hair with a chill that seemed almost beckoning, he didn’t hold out hope. 

Soon they’d secured every loose item they could. Riss urged the galania into a full-on run, its massive claws churning up salty spray as it dashed along the alkali fields. The wagon behind it shuddered and bumped and creaked, dragged along at a speedier pace than its groaning structures were used to.

Calay couldn’t tell at first, with the height of the clouds and the width of their spread. Hard to see whether they were coming or going. But soon he felt the telltale drop in his lungs and his gut, the sensation of weather turning. Their wagon wasn’t a ship; it lacked a barometer. But Calay didn’t need one to know the storm was hot on their heels.

<< Book 2, Chapter 14 | Book 2, Chapter 16 >>

 

Book 2, Chapter 14

“And it’s a good thing that Petrilo dug, too.” The old woman, Mosz, leaned forward in her sling chair as her story entered the home stretch. “When his fingers cracked through the salt, he heard down below him the scratch and drag of the lang-dolac’s footsteps. In a frantic scramble, Petrilo dug his way free. He smashed through the salt, pushing his head through like a bird hatching from an egg. He took his first breath of fresh dawn air. Then he wriggled his shoulders free.

“His imagination filled his head with thoughts of sharp, cold bones grabbing at his ankles as he dragged himself up and onto the salt. The scratching beneath him drew nearer, nearer…” The old woman bounced her thick grey brows a single time. “But it never breached the surface. That day, Petrilo discovered something that would serve his people for generations to come: things bewitched can’t cross the barrier between salt and sky.”

She hesitated for a moment on that note, allowing those gathered around the fire to absorb that wisdom. Calay hadn’t noticed that he’d been holding his breath, but he released it in a slow exhale. He’d been hanging on her every word.

“These restless bones walking beneath the salt, these creatures, some say this explains the poison.” Mosz gestured with a gnarled hand. “Why some colors of salt turn you ill.”

Calay spent a long while pondering her words. At first he’d been ready to dismiss the story as an old wives’ tale–literally, given the age of the woman telling it. If certain varieties of salt from the Flats made people sick when they ingested it, that must be due to the chemical composition. Something in it turned the stomach. That could be useful in medicine, he knew–emetic powders were tough to measure, difficult to come by in Vasile. Expensive compared to the mostly-effective if crude method of suggesting a nauseous patient consume charcoal.

Now, though, he found his mind open to more unnatural possibilities. The swamp at Adelheim had changed him. No alterations in chemical composition could explain the way those trees moved. Or the strange mental connection that withered corpse had opened between he and Gaz and Torcha. The blinking motes of light inside his consciousness, little eyes opening and closing in the swamp like so many doors.

He knew it was silly that those experiences had shaken him so fundamentally. He was a sorcerer, for fuck’s sake. But the thing about sorcery that regular humans didn’t understand was that sorcery was simply a language. Sorcery had rules. Calay’s magicks sometimes had effects that weren’t as powerful as anticipated. Rarely they exceeded his expectations. Sometimes a new combination of glyphs had an effect that wasn’t quite what he was aiming for. But by and large, sorcery was simple mechanics. It was levers and wheels. It behaved in a predictable way that he could rely upon when needed.

If Alfend Linten’s teachings had opened Calay’s eyes, the last year of his life had opened a third one. 

There were things out there beyond his understanding. Beyond medicine. Beyond anatomy. Possibly even beyond sorcery. A campfire tale of forgotten bones doomed to shuffle eternally beneath the salt, poisoning everything above it… good, spooky entertainment though it might have been, Calay was unable to fully write the idea off.

Mosz’s son–or was it her brother?–passed around a bottle of something strong, a tart red liquor. Everyone took a parting swig and thanked the elder woman for her story. Calay left Riss to sort out the watch schedules and left Adal to dole out dessert.

He stood at the very fringe of the fire’s light, face turned toward the stars. Closing his eyes, he tried to clear his mind. Tried to focus on the gentle rasp of wind over salt, the crackle of the fire. Tried to figure out if he could sense anything. He was a sorcerer; surely if there was anything mystical or unusual about these parts, he should be able to tell.

All he felt was a little chilly, frankly. His road clothes were loose, breathable, comfortable for the hot confines of the wagon. But the hot desert turned brisk at night. 

The stars, though. They sure were something out here. It was silly, he knew, to be so constantly taken aback by the flatness of a region called the Alkali Flats. And yet he was. He’d never been in a place so flat. Even the widest squares in Vasile were nothing by comparison. There wasn’t a tree in sight, nor any hills or mountains. The old woman had said they’d spy the mountains by tomorrow. For now, there was nothing to indicate any one direction differed from another. Just the sun and the stars–far more stars than he was accustomed to seeing even when out of doors. Whole ribbons of them, little waterfalls of faint light that rippled across the sky.

Solid footsteps crunched at his back. He glanced over, expected to find Gaz towering at his side. Intead, to his surprise, it was Mosz who’d joined him. She wasn’t much taller than him, but her heavy feet had fooled him.

“You have a look to you,” she declared. Her tone of voice didn’t reveal whether she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. 

Calay said nothing, merely tilted his head, inviting her to explain.

“A quiet man with a loud mind,” she said. Her tone had a vague, world-weary sympathy to it, as if his was a problem suffered by a loved one or Mosz herself.

You don’t know me, Calay nearly snapped. But he restrained himself. The Beddos were, for the time being, their traveling companions. They’d engaged in no suspicious behavior. And he had to grudgingly admit that he’d enjoyed the lively story that Mosz had told, had enjoyed following Petrilo’s ups and downs.

“It’s been a long ride,” Calay conceded. “For many months before this one.”

If he were the type to share that sort of thing, he might have elaborated further on the strange feelings the Flats conjured in him. The way the vast, empty bigness of nature made him feel disconcertingly small. How the lack of walls triggered some primal, ancient prey mentality in the back of his mind. A constant low-key warning to run run run, because there was no shelter, because he was out in the open like a plump mouse in a barren field, cluelessly unaware of the circling hawks overhead.

Calay had always preferred to see himself as the hawk. He hated that vulnerability.

“Where I come from,” he told the woman instead. “It’s easy to see where you fit. Out here…” Too much horizon, too much space, it blurred the edges of everything together.

“Out here a man is alone with his own bones,” said Mosz. “Just your bones and the sky.”

That sent a little twitch through Calay’s shoulders. “Right,” he said.

“We have something that can help you sleep,” she offered. “Bottle of black spirits. Tastes of salted liquorice and calming mixed herbs.”

That sounded like an intriguing flavor profile. Calay wasn’t entirely sure. But then again, he could afford it. And they had a wagon to haul it. And building a bit of extra goodwill with these traders seemed like a smart move. All those justifications stacked up and he passed Mosz a handful of australs. She met him at the door to his wagon a few minutes later, waddling back with a skinny, long-necked glass bottle. She patted the back of his gloved hand as she passed it over, promising him pleasant dreams.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, unsure how to react to any of that. 

If she felt anything abnormal beneath the kidskin of his glove, she didn’t comment. She didn’t even glance down.

Everyone retreated to their respective wagons for the night. Calay didn’t trouble himself with the specifics of who was keeping which watch–he figured someone would wake him when it was his turn. There was a time not many years ago when he’d have never been able to take such a hands-off approach to his own safety. A time when he’d have insisted on first watch to take a measure of everyone else. To watch his own back.

Was he growing that comfortable with his companions or was he merely confident that none of them could kill him? He supposed he’d never know the answer to that.

When his brain got too thoughtful or the world got too weird, he had only one thing to do. He sought out the familiar, the calming. 

Gaz was alone in the second floor barracks when Calay finally found him. The big, thick-walled wagon was generous with its space. You could hardly guess five people slept aboard. 

“I have a mystery drink from our caravan companions,” Calay announced when he strolled in. “Pleasant dreams or your money back.”

Gaz, who was in the process of making up his bunk, finished shaking out a quilt. The skinny mattress of the bunk was built into a recess in the wall, an awkward shape and size. He hovered the quilt over it as though unsure which angle from which to attack.

“My dreams are already nice,” he said casually, without looking up. Finally, he just draped the quilt into place and left it there with a big, pensive shrug.

“Well aren’t you blessed.”  Calay rummaged around in the nook at the rear of the barracks, searching for a glass. 

“I like to think so.”

By the time Calay had located the pair of cups, Gaz had made up his bed for the night and taken up a seat beside the closest window. There weren’t any window slits or portholes beside the bunks. This made sense for safety and security purposes, Calay knew, but at the same time he understood his friend’s desire to have eyes on the sky. Being cooped up in a wagon in a strange wilderness with no sense of one’s place or position in the world made him uneasy. With all the shades drawn down, you couldn’t even tell the time of day.

“I wonder if this is how it is when you’re at sea,” Calay said. He poured two slim measures of thick, shiny black liquor and pressed one into Gaz’s hand.

“Think this place would be awful cramped if we were.” Gaz took the liquor, sniffed it. “Loy says sleeping on a ship is a nightmare. Everyone’s shoulder to shoulder in tiny hammocks. Ship’s only big enough to sleep a third of her crew at once.”

That was the first time he’d discussed Loy in such depth for… well, since they’d left her. Calay couldn’t even articulate how much had changed since then. He felt an impetus to apologize then, to tell Gaz that he knew how badly he’d misjudged his feelings for Loy and that he was sorry, truly sorry, for the cruel things he’d said.

But the funny thing about all those years, all that distance, was that he found the more he thought about it, the more it didn’t matter. Was it worth apologizing for something that occurred an emotional lifetime ago? Was a sincere apology worth doing if you had to tug open old wounds to do it? At what point did one outweigh the other? These, too, Calay figured he’d never know the answer to.

“I meant more the… spatial strangeness of it,” he said, staying focused on boats. “Having a sense of motion without a sense of place. Feeling the wheels moving without being able to see where you’re going or even where you are.”

Gaz sipped his liquor, then made a pleased noise. “Nice,” he said. “And… that part is horrible, yeah.”

Calay glanced down and discovered his cup was empty. He’d slugged his own drink down without even tasting it. Or noticing he’d done it. Too many questions rattling around in his head. 

“We’d be terrible sailors,” he said as he poured himself another drink.

Footsteps creaked quietly across the roof. Calay paused, glancing up, but soon he knew the heel-heavy stomps as Torcha’s. Then Adal’s, tapping with his toes. Riss was the only one he didn’t hear yet; she rolled her feet a little when she walked, a hint of the recon bowman’s woodlands crawl never having left her. When he heard these patterns, he found them calming.

She joined the pair a moment later, strolling sedately across the roof.

Gaz’s features were inscrutable as he studied the Flats outside the window. Or perhaps the stars. There were all sorts of questions and conversations that could have filled these quiet moments, yet the stark state of the land outside seemed to request his silence. Involuntarily, his thoughts snapped back to the sharp sizzle of connection, the flood of racing thoughts and sensation he’d felt from Gaz and Torcha both when they’d touched hands with the Collective. The Bridging. 

This flat, empty place seemed to stretch every human connection thinner. Its silence and stillness wedged into the gaps between people, encouraging vastness between them.

Calay had a lot of questions he could have asked. Were apologies worth it if they unearthed old hurts? Was he starting to call these familiar footsteps his friends? When exactly was one of them going to cave and broach the subject of what are we, exactly, these days? 

Yet as he studied the fire through the window and watched the flames flicker, all that came to mind was a sinister interpretation of the Flats’ quiet. This quiet is trying to spread us out, he thought. Because it’s easier to pick us off one by one. 

He tasted his drink by the third glass. It didn’t quite tuck him into a cozy liquorice bed the way Mosz promised, but it did help him sleep. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 13 | Book 2, Chapter 15 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 13

If you’re looking for a story of the Flats to pass around at night, there is none quite like the story of the salt-digger Petrilo. Years and years ago, when the wave of the First Wasting spread across the maps, many in the Flats grew ill. Petrilo, a young man of only seventeen, was sent into the vast and uncaring salt to seek a burial place for his ailing parents. 

A plague creeping its way across the Continent, his own parents perilously ill, you would think Petrilo was juggling enough problems. But his trials were only just beginning.

###

Petrilo shuddered, trying to catch his breath without slowing down. He’d been walking for hours, ever since his horse had finally given out a few miles back. The sun had since dipped below the horizon, but still the Flats radiated heat up into his face. Sweat poured down his brow, the bottoms of his feet throbbed in his rawhide boots, and a persistent ache in his side stabbed toward his lungs with each breath he choked down.

Still he kept walking. And he only walked because he’d run out of stamina to run.

Still the forgotten bones pursued him.

Bleached white by the unforgiving desert sun, the bones had rested in a neat and fleshless pile when he’d first rode past. The salt was well on its way to subsuming them, glittering in multifaceted crystals. Petrilo spared no worries for the old ways, for the stories his grandmother had told him growing up. The stories about how bones in this part of the world don’t stay still unless properly interred. He didn’t ride close for the purpose of inspecting them, nor out of a sense of deliberate disrespect… but he rode too close regardless.

He woke them.

The clatter at his back had spurred his horse into a frenzied gallop. It ran until it dropped dead. Yet no matter how fast it ran, each time Petrilo looked over his shoulder, a lurching silhouette studded with shining crystals loomed in the distance behind him.

A lang-dolac. Bones, once forgotten, now spiteful.

Petrilo couldn’t bear to look back. He couldn’t stand the sight of the thing, the way its head drooped in a painful-looking wobble, weighted down by salt. The way it moved, unnatural and swaying, bobbing like an owl swallowing a mouse. 

He could hear it, could tell its nearness by the drag of its club foot across the salt. Each dragging skrrrtch sent a fresh tremor of fear through him, stabs of fright and breathlessness all but cleaving his chest in two.

It was too late to send a prayer up to his grandmother, to apologise for his foolishness. He’d set out to search for a burial plot for his parents, burdened with illness back at camp, but it seemed he’d only found his own grave. 

Something caught his eye: a shadow on the horizon, too persistent to be a trick of the light or a side effect of his exhaustion. 

The only thing that could save Petrilo now was a shelter, some fortress the lang-dolac couldn’t tear apart with its bony forelimbs. A shadow on the ground wasn’t that. But it at least gave him something to focus on, some target to strive toward. Forcing down a struggling breath, Petrilo redoubled his efforts and broke out into a slow jog, salt crunching under his soles.

A ribbon of black stretched across the horizon, opening up as he struggled closer. Soon, his eyes could pick out enough detail and perceive enough depth that he recognized it as a chasm in the ground. Several hundred handspans long, the rend in the earth was a pitch-black hole, its jagged edges like a wound torn by dogs’ teeth. 

If he could find a crevice narrow enough to wriggle into, it might buy him time. The bone and crystal creature loomed as tall as a horse, its bony limbs thick with inches of crusted salt. Petrilo was smaller, nimbler, and if he could find a narrow place to hide…

His shoes reached the ravine’s edge. Panting, he peered down into the dark. He could scarcely see a thing. 

Behind him, the salt skrrrtch-ed with each dragging footstep the creature took.

Petrilo couldn’t help it. He looked back. 

A jagged, dark skeleton on the horizon, the lang-dolac trudged resolutely forward, walking with ageless patience. It dragged one of its arms now, too. Doubled over, it resembled a hideous, lopsided monkey, its jaw nearly scraping the salty earth. The salt crystals that studded its bones glowed subtly, lit from within by a ghostly bluish light.

Petrilo stared, jaw agape, as the creature lifted its head. He felt rather than saw it make eye contact. Blue fire blazed to life in its crystal-edged eye sockets.

Yelping, Petrilo threw himself over the edge of the ravine. He sought footholds at an awkward scrabble, more sliding than climbing, spurred forward by an adrenal surge of pure terror. His hands scraped at rocks and missed. Sharp stone shredded his tunic and pierced through one sole of his shoes. By the time he hit the bottom, he was more falling than climbing, battered and scraped.

Above him, a sliver of sky glowed with starlight, threads of purple and vivid blue blotched across the murky black.

He took a moment to catch his breath, dry-mouthed and panting. Then he reached into his sling, seeking a torch. He’d pushed his arms to the limit on the climb and now he paid the price: his hands trembled, unwilling to comply with his brain’s demands. Finally, he fished out his flint and struck a light, already edging away from the cliff he’d climbed down.

Red-brown stone walls held him in a close embrace, just enough space between them to shimmy through. He picked a direction at random, working his way through the tight-fitting slot canyon. Within moments, he heard it at his back: a far-off, distance-muffled skirrrrrr-ch.

Shoving forward, he launched through the slot canyon as quick as his feet could carry him, uncaring of the sting when stone scraped at his shins and elbows. There was a tumbling clatter-clack behind him as the creature threw itself into the ravine, mindless of pain or damage in its single-minded pursuit of him.

Just as he was growing out of breath once more, Petrilo spied an opening in the sheer stone wall: a thin crack of cave, just the sort of passageway he’d hoped he could wriggle into, far too short for the lang-dolac to crawl inside. 

Drawing in a breath and turning his shoulders sideways, Petrilo squeezed inside. He had to hold his torch at an awkward angle, the flames guttering each time they brushed against hard stone. He crept as quietly as he could, taking the narrow passage deep into the wall of the ravine. The narrow passage twisted and turned, sloping downward, and soon he could no longer see the sky. It was as though the earth had swallowed him, pushed him down its rough stone esophagus.

His pulse slowed, then his footsteps did likewise. Aching all over, he leaned against the cavern wall and exhaled harshly. The creature could no longer see the light from his torch; with luck, it would pass him by entirely. Could it smell? Could it hear? How was it tracking him, anyway? The old stories, they never had pertinent information about how their horrors hunted. The thought sent a dry, dusty laugh bubbling out of Petrilo’s chest, though he muffled it with a fist.

He began to wonder how long he should stay put, how long he could hide down here before he could be sure the creature wandered off. Though he was still aware of his fear, with each minute of silence that passed, it grew a little further away. And with that distance came clarity: he could survive this. He would survive this. Soon, this would be just another story passed among his aunties and uncles at the fireside. 

Reaching back into his sling, Petrilo splashed a scant measure of water into his mouth. He said a silent prayer of thanks to Mother Salt and Father Water. Each year it seemed the young along the salt trails believed in Mother and Father less, but Petrilo wanted to cover all his bases. If anyone actually intervened back there, he thought, thanks. Then he chuckled to himself. What his grandmother would say if she’d heard him praying such foolishness. His chuckle died in his throat. She’d probably get the belt, is what she’d do. A devout woman for all her days–

Distorted by the high stone walls, a horrible crack echoed down the corridor. Followed by another. And another. It was the sound of a buzzard’s beak rending carrion apart. The sound a horse’s hooves made when they trampled a man to death. A twisting, pulling, rending-apart sound, a louder version of the crunch when Petrilo snapped at the ribs of roast suckling piglets.

Then came the dragging. Skrrrtch. 

Stowing his water immediately, Petrilo shoved off the wall and started scrambling down the stony passage anew. How had the creature found him? He’d been so quiet, so still… It must be smell, he reasoned. Or some innate sixth sense. A glowing monster of crystal and bone? Perhaps it could hear his very heartbeat. Or his thoughts. He was a fool to think he’d outwitted it.

When one of his calves seized up with cramp, he ignored the pain. Then, to his eternal, cursing frustration, the narrow tunnel broadened up before him. The crack broke through into a cavern proper, the big footstep-echoing kind with dripping stalactites and bands of darker color rippling through the reddish stone. He’d have taken a moment to appreciate the marbled beauty of it were it not for death snapping at his heels.

And now, in this bigger space, the lang-dolac would be able to move about freely. 

Petrilo’s fingers trembled on the shaft of his torch. The rough-walled chamber was so broad that the torchlight didn’t reach its far walls. He put a hand to his heart, murmured a small prayer to quiet its frenzied beating. The torch wouldn’t be an asset here. It would be a beacon, drawing the creature toward him in such a visible, open space.

An idea occurred to him. Edging as quick as he could along the cavern wall, he sought out a narrow passageway to the left. He navigated the first turn in its corridor, then paused. If this idea worked, it would buy him time. Time to do what his brain hadn’t exactly decided, but time was what he needed.

There were many members of Petrilo’s family who were famed for their smarts. His grandmother and grandfather, for example, had dedicated their lives to studying the game trails and migratory patterns of the Flats’ native creatures. Their study combined with the other families’ hunting and trapping techniques had ushered his people into an era of modest prosperity. They’d sired six children between the two of them, and of the four who survived to adulthood, all were hailed as quick thinkers and solvers of problems. His own father was a leatherworker, already one of the camp’s best despite his comparatively young age. 

This was all to say that in Petrilo’s youth, there had always been an expectation placed upon him. The burden of future success had weighed him down through the many failures of his childhood. Each time he failed to achieve something great or woke one morning thinking he’d come up with some genius only to discover it was a bold, idiotic stinker of an idea, he feared more and more that he’d inherited none of the mettle and wit that graced his lineage.

In that moment, when he dropped his torch and left it guttering on the ground, Petrilo didn’t know it, but he was making his smartest decision yet. 

Picking a tense, quiet path back into the main cavern, Petrilo sought off in the opposite direction to the light. He could only hope the lang-dolac was tempted by his cunning lure. He could hear it, if he paused and strained itself. The scrape of its footsteps was uneven now, sharper than before. 

Creeping to the far right side of the cavern, Petrilo ducked down a passageway, guiding himself by feel alone. He’d glimpsed his options in the torchlight back when he had it. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been long enough to make a mental map of ground hazards or low-hanging stalactites, but he swept his hands out before him like a man in a dust storm, slowly inching along without maiming himself.

Time melted away to an abstract, far-off concept. All that mattered was putting distance between himself and the old bones before they figured out his ruse. It occurred to him at some point that he’d been creeping along in total blackness for at least an hour. Maybe more. It felt like forever. So he began to count in his mind, so at least he had some measure of how long had passed. The counting served a second purpose, too: it distracted his mind from obsessing over his ears, from straining hard to hear the rasp of the creature’s footsteps coming for him. 

His counting passed one hundred. Two hundred. Three. Still, he had yet to hear the creature. He also had yet to find a way out for himself, but that was a secondary concern. Petrilo had heard tales in his youth of men lost in the wilderness, how quickly they died up top from water-lack. Here, though, he was down below. And he had water on his person. By lost wilderness person standards, he was a prince. 

His count had reached sixteen hundred and eighty when he passed beneath the light.

Blinking and startling back, Petrilo turned his eyes toward the cavern ceiling. Faint pink light warmed the passageway from above. The tunnel itself was three times Petrilo’s height, perhaps taller at its apex, but in the faint new light provided from up top, he could spy great, thick stalactites spearing down from the ceiling like teeth.

Climbing to the light would be trivial. For a moment, he wondered if he should. But instinct quashed that thought quickly: light could only come from one source out here, in this place where nothing was man-made. Light meant the sun. Meant a way out.

So Petrilo climbed. He whipped his sling back over a shoulder and shimmed up the closest stalagmite, gaining a few handspans of elevation. Then he swung a foot out, bracing himself between two of the narrow stone pillars. He shimmed up between them, climbing like a lemur, then swung onto the stalactite proper, inching his way up it while hugging it with both arms. It was slower going than this description makes it sound, friends. Petrilo wasn’t quite a great thinker like his parents, but woe be to him, he was not a great athlete either. Still, he persisted upward. 

And a good thing, too. Because after many minutes of slow, persistent climbing, he heard the first telltale kerrrrshkt down the tunnel. 

His heart fell down into his toes. How could the creature have possibly found him? He’d lured it away. He’d been creeping along for hours. There was simply no way.

Yet his ears did not betray him. He heard another dragging footstep, then another. He had no way of knowing how far off they were.

So Petrilo climbed with renewed urgency, inching his way up toward the ceiling of the cave. He discovered the source of the light only when he neared it: the first rays of sunlight peeking through a hard-caked layer of salt. The rosy glow of dawn filtered through hundreds upon hundreds of tiny salt crystals, tinging his skin pink and all the surrounding stone with it–it was among the most beautiful sights Petrilo had ever seen. He paused for a breath, as if hoping to absorb the sunlight’s splendor, and for a brief, beautiful moment it drove all thoughts and worries of the creature from his mind.

Skrrrrch. That didn’t last long. 

Whipping a hand out behind him, Petrilo reached into his sling. He withdrew his digging stick, a sharp-tipped whittled antler used to break up clumps of salt when foraging.

Petrilo had been digging salt his whole life. This was something he knew. 

Slow, persistent, careful to conserve his strength, he began to dig toward the light. He dug for his life. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 12 | Book 2, Chapter 14 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 12

(Author’s note – Sorry this update came late! I’ve experienced a time zone change when transiting from NZ to Portugal and I lost a day!)

Riss’ suspicions about the ravine route proved correct. When they roused themselves in the morning and drifted into the closest pub for a hot breakfast, she found that there were around two dozen travelers just like herself who were preparing to make the same journey.

They took bowls of savory rice porridge at the end of a long communal table. Riss took a bite of the thick, glutinous stuff and tried to pick out all the fillings by flavor: two types of onion, some sort of nutty tasting root, and of course the sticky yolk of the soft-fried egg on top. After days of road food, the meal was a welcome luxury.

Adal found a stumpy, scar-faced woman further down their table and introduced her to Riss as a caravan master.

“Her folk are heading the same way as us,” he said to Riss. Then to his new friend, he said, “I thought I’d see how you felt about caravaning together.”

“Safety in numbers,” the woman said through a thick Plateau accent. They flattened all their vowels in the plateau up past Carbec, pronouncing every sound like an ‘e.’

Riss scratched at an eye, digging sleep grit out with her thumb. “I thought if those scorpions caught up to us numbers wouldn’t matter.”

The woman cocked a look up at her, unimpressed. “More dangers in the Flats than scorpions, Carbecer.”

Riss smiled a little. The Plateau region where this caravan boss hailed from, it wasn’t far from the steppes where she’d grown up. Just that tiny thread of familiarity was enough to put Riss at ease regarding the prospect of traveling together. Besides, the more practical and paranoid part of her reasoned, if they try to jump us, it’s their funeral.

“How many tagging along with you?” Riss relaxed her speech a little, let her hometown roughen up her syllables.

“Six,” said the woman. “Two outriders on horseback, the rest of us in our wagon. All family. Big, fast horses. But we’ll pace them so we don’t outrun you.” A wink flashed in the depths of her squinty, pox-scarred face.

They spat and shook on it, then Riss turned her focus toward finishing her porridge before it cooled. Nobody liked a cold fried egg.

###

Everyone who set off from Esilio that morning took slightly different routes. The Beddo clan, whose names Riss was struggling to keep straight due to the hurried nature of their introduction, were the only ones who stuck close by. Every mile or so, more riders peeled off on their own routes. After a few hours’ travel, the Beddos’ small trader wagon before them was their only company. 

Riss, currently playing navigator while Adal steered the lizard, took a sip from her canteen.

“I still feel weird about this,” she admitted. “But if all these other travelers are chancing it, we aren’t risking ourselves unnecessarily.” Not that large groups of people couldn’t make stupid decisions. Far from it, in Riss’ experience. But these were locals, people who knew the route. The elder Beddo woman, Mosz, had placated her worries with a dismissive grunt. In a rig like that? With lizard that size? You’ll get to the ravine a full day before any danger. 

Riss found that if she listened to her gut, she felt quietly confident. And unlike their last excursion far from home, self-doubt no longer plagued her every thought. In the year since Adelheim, she’d cultivated a wary, callused sort of confidence. 

“Feeling weird is natural,” Adal said, echoing her thoughts even as she thought them. “You’re in unfamiliar territory traveling with strangers. Frankly I’d be concerned if you felt indifferent.”

It was nice hearing horses again. The clop of their hooves on salt rose up from the compact, gaudy wagon ahead of them. As the sun cleared up over the ever-present haze of horizon dust, it glinted off the metallic paint splashed in curlicues along the wagon’s trim. Riss noted it had a fold-out panel up one side. Traveling merchant families like the Beddos, operating a family store out of the same wagon they lived in, had been a staple of Riss’ childhood. Over the years, the popularity of the profession had waned. As firearms grew cheaper and easier to use, their proliferation had caused a staggering rise in general banditry. Far, far easier to be a highwayman if you could just blast a hole in anyone who didn’t comply with you.

Anyone that old still running a trade wagon had seen some shit. Riss smiled a little to herself.

“They mention what they’re hauling?” she asked.

“Spirits, apparently. They’re distillers. Just made a delivery to Esilio.”

Wood creaked behind them. Riss heard a series of light, thumping footsteps wandering around on the roof, then the murmur of idle conversation.

“Say,” came Calay’s voice from above. “How will we actually know what to look for when keeping an eye out for scorpions? Can you even see scorpions from that far away?”

“That’s why I’ve got a spyglass,” Torcha answered. “I might even let you use it.”

“Might?”

“Well you’ll owe me a favor…”

Riss relaxed, pulling the sun-shade down so that it fully shielded her. High sun in the Flats was going to be brutal. But for now, the morning was shaping up to be a damn nice one.

###

Tempting as it was to push on through the night, the Beddos’ horses didn’t have the stamina. Riss wondered for a moment if it was at all feasible to park the smaller wagon and its team inside her war-wagon–she was fairly certain it would fit in the cargo hold–but in the end, that sounded like a lot of work. When she suggested the idea to Mosz, the elderly woman just laughed. She promised Riss they had plenty of time.

“Besides,” she said. “Surely your eyes are getting tired. You deserve rest as much as any horse.”

Riss had to concede that.

So they circled their wagons, as best as two wagons could form a circle. One of the younger Beddos built a bonfire; Gaz and Adal sorted out contributions to a group meal: boiled sweet potatoes and venison shanks with gravy. Afterward, they got a bread pudding cooking. Adal was certain they had just enough milk left over for a caramel sauce, but he wasn’t entirely sure he remembered how to make it. Riss chuckled as she listened to him recite the recipe, mumbling under his breath while sorting through tins and boxes.

“Surprised you can cook anything at all,” Calay teased him. “Wasn’t that a job for your servants?”

Adal rolled his eyes. “I’ll have you know I’ve been living on my own for over a third of my life, thank you.”

Riss relaxed back, looking up at the stars. There were fewer visible than she thought there would be, given the lack of city light. That ever-present haze of salty dust made visibility difficult the further off one looked. Sure didn’t seem like a rainy season was coming or going. Everything was dry as a bone. From where she lounged in her sling-chair, she reached down with two fingers and felt at the salty ground.

“Pretty wild, ain’t it.” Torcha noticed what she was doing. She tapped the heel of a boot against the salty earth. 

“Especially when you consider how expensive salt is up-Continent,” said Riss. “We’d make millions in Vasile if we hacked a bunch of this up and carted it northward.”

Someone made a quiet noise of disagreement. Mosz stomped up behind them, sorting through the contents of a carrying sling she wore over her shoulder.

“Not quite,” she said. “This isn’t good eating salt. Eating salt comes from mines to the north.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Riss. She’d never given salt a second thought beyond using it to cure meats back home when she and her father had killed more than two people could eat or trade.

“Colour,” said Mosz. “And… the salt from the Flats here, sometimes kills you if you eat it.”

Riss blinked hard. “Huh.” Well, that was good to know.

“How?” asked Torcha, turning so that she could give the old woman her full attention.

“You figure that out,” Mosz said, “that’s when you make millions in Vasile. Nobody knows. Years and years ago, stories said it was a curse. But if a curse, it’s a sloppy one. A curse who targets people at random? Lazy curse.”

Riss had to admit she was interested, too. Her childhood had been so isolated, just she and her father off in the plains and later the woods. She’d missed out on all the folklore that lingered in the hills outside Carbec. Apart from people saying his name in passing profanity, she’d never even heard of Adal’s river god until she was in her twenties.

“What kind of stories?” She flashed Mosz a little grin. “Even if you don’t believe them, there’s always a skeleton of truth in those old tales, isn’t there?”

Mosz dragged her chair closer to the fire. She shrugged off her outer two layers, shaking out the baggy dress she wore beneath. Despite the sunspots upon her skin and her evident age, her arms were still wiry with muscle when she rolled up her sleeves. She checked the heavy iron oven within the coals, a sweet custard-and-caramel smell wafting out when she opened it.

“Was a time when I charged hard coin for storytelling,” she said.

Riss patted the coinpurse at her hip. “If you have any bottles of your wares left over after the drop at Esilio,” she said. “We’d take them off your hands. Perhaps you could throw a story or two in as an extra?”

“Cheeky,” said Mosz.

But that must have done the trick, because a moment later she beckoned everyone around the fire. 

And oh, it had been a while since Riss had sat around a fire and heard a real, salt-and-blood elder tell a story. Growing up out where she had, so far removed from both her father and her mother’s families, she’d missed out on such experiences. Later, when she made passing friends in the closest village to her homestead, she’d heard their second and thirdhand accounts, the stories and legends and traditions their families had passed on. It had always left her wanting, aching in a sad strange way for something she couldn’t quite articulate. She wondered if she’d missed out on a fundamental part of growing up.

Perhaps that was why she’d gravitated toward books.

Why she’d gravitated toward Gaspard, an old soldier brimming with stories who wasn’t too aloof to share them with the greenhorns.

Leaning forward in her sling-seat, Riss watched fire and shadow lick across Mosz’s face as she wove her tale. Her voice dropped low during the story’s valleys, rose high during its peaks. 

Soon, every member of the caravan was leaning forward on the edge of their seat, hanging on the old woman’s every word. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 11 | Book 2, Chapter 13 >>