Chapter 48.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even if he escaped Riss and her lap dog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his way out started at the river.

<< Chapter 48 | Chapter 49 >>

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Chapter 48

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

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

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

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

How had this happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adal, grimacing tightly, managed to laugh that off.

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

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

“He won’t have made it far.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s spent,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 47 | Chapter 48.5 >>

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Chapter 47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

“Just like old times,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 46 | Chapter 48 >>

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Chapter 46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

He said it before his brain had finished thinking it.

“I’m going back for her.”

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

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

“Adal, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And… surely Adal had misheard him. What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss bristled like a guard dog.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 45 | Chapter 47

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Chapter 45

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

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

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

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

“May I?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It got me, didn’t it.”

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

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

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

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

“What did he do to me?”

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

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

“Riss, you’re fine.”

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

When she breathed in, was anything gurgling unusually?

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

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

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

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

Adal cut her off, his voice low.

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

“I don’t hate you. I just—”

“You were meat, Riss.”

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

You were meat.

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rain had washed away even her footprints.

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sudden voice from below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

Riss should have seen this coming.

<< Chapter 44 | Chapter 46 >>

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Chapter 44

Once Calay had his insurance, he left Adalgis sitting vigil over his fallen friend. A sepulchral atmosphere had settled over the cavern; he felt like he was intruding on something very private. He felt like a man who’d coughed during the moment of silence in a funeral, despite the fact that nobody had died.

His stump itched. He resisted the urge to scratch at the bark, though he did spare a glance down at what was growing from his arm. Sharp-knuckled metacarpals sheathed in bark rather than flesh had begun to take shape roughly where a hand should have been. He preferred not to ponder what eventual shape it might take.

Silent, drained from his exertions patching Riss back together, Calay stalked to his abandoned satchel and dug inside. He’d avoided his cigarettes for the entirety of the trip, cognisant of the risk of smoking in the field. When they were trying to move unseen, it could give away their position to things and people unsavory. He’d assumed Riss would tell him to snuff it, so he hadn’t bothered lighting up. Now, well… Riss wasn’t in the picture at the moment, and also there was no doubt in his mind that every single evil thing in this entire cursed swamp knew just where to find them. They may as well have been straw-stuffed archery targets.

He unfurled his pouch of tobacco, sliproot, papers, and other sundries. The speed with which he moved one-handed annoyed him; he grit his teeth as he worked. He didn’t bother with any clever blends. He’d had that nice high going back in Adelheim, but dulling his senses at the moment seemed like a poor idea. He went for straight tobacco, laying the desiccated leaves out along the parchment. Then he braced the edge of his bone-shard limb against the paper and attempted to crimp and roll it with his remaining fingers.

Gaz found him that way minutes later, staring down at a crinkled mess of paper and tobacco, his shoulders held so stiff they trembled.

Letting a few sacks of silks and pearls hit the cavern floor, Gaz made an inquiring sound, peering down at where Calay sat.

Calay was, for once in his life, caught speechless. The frustration that welled up in him was unlike anything he ever felt. It wasn’t that insane, white-hot anger that had moved him to cut a bloody trail through the Vasa Nobles’ Quarter. It was more like the bitter anger-sorrow cocktail that came from losing a childhood pet to old age or disease.

Everything felt unjust. Every gods-damned thing in the entire world.

But what came out instead, the words twangy and unsteady with emotion, was: “My hands. They always go after my fucking hands.”

Gaz sank down beside him in a heartbeat, reaching for all the paraphernalia.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I got it.”

I know, Calay wanted to say. You’ve always got it. If there is anything I for some reason do not have, you always have it. But a man should be able to roll his own fucking smokes, and instead of rolling a smoke to get through this, I’ve got a thing growing out of my arm and I have to deal with that instead.

Instead, he shut his trap and rubbed at his face. When his thumb skimmed close to an eye, he found the corner of it wet. Curse the swamp and everything in it.

He watched as Gaz folded the paper anew, then tapped in the ground tobacco and smoothed it with his finger. His hands–massive, scarred, thickly callused–had a gentler touch than their appearance suggested, and he pinched and rolled the small joint with dexterous ease. Then he licked the gum, sealed it shut, and presented it to Calay, although only for a moment. He seemed to think better of something, seeking out Calay’s matchbook and lighting the cigarette first. He gave it a single puff, enough to get it really burning, and then passed it over.

Calay took the smoke in his fingers, tucked it into his mouth, and mumbled a thank-you.

“I was gonna roll one for you and Adal, too,” he said, and Gaz made a thoughtful noise. His hands kept working. Paper, herb, crease, tap, roll, pinch, twist. It was strangely calming, the everyday mundaneness of such a process. The smell of the tobacco as much as the experience of smoking it sharpened his brain, that fake-but-workable faux alertness he’d leaned on during many a dreary morning preceded by a sleepless night. Thoughts occurred to him all at once in a great flood, as if they’d been held back until chemically permitted.

He thought of Adal and his silent vigil over Riss.

He thought of Sylvene back home in Blackbricks, how deep his old betrayal must have cut her.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, he even briefly thought of Kella. He hoped she’d found success. He imagined she never thought of him at all.

He spared a moment for Torcha, who seemed to hate him now about as much as Syl. Torcha off in the rain. Perhaps dead, perhaps alive.

He watched Gaz’s hands again, noted the flecks of blood that darkened the undersides of his fingernails. Whose blood even was it at this point? This misguided endeavor had bled them all dry.

“Gaz,” he said, abrupt. “Have I taken you for granted?”

Gaz’s fingers didn’t even slow on the smoke he rolled. “Weird question.”

Calay was articulating himself poorly. The tobacco helped, but he still felt unsteady, head crowded with too much emotion: pain, frustration, the loss of his arm, a dread for the future that he rarely ever felt. The future had always been his for the taking. When things were good, he shot for the stars. When he was down in the shit, the future meant redemption and new opportunities. Now, though, this thing growing out of him… he feared it. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he feared it, the concept was just so foreign to him that he had no idea what to say.

“Let me start over.” He stole a look out the cavern’s mouth, where the rain was tapering off into grey daylight. “We haven’t really had a moment since all… that shit… happened. I wanted to thank you. For that and… all the other times.”

Gaz had a hard face, but it had never hidden a hard heart. He smiled immediately, a crookedly amused lift of his mouth.

“I get it,” he said. “But no, I don’t feel like you take me for granted.” His lips pursed to one side in hesitation, but no further words came.

“Sounds like there was going to be more.” Calay prompted him. “Don’t get cold feet on me now.”

Gaz gathered up the finished smokes and tucked them with care into the pouch. He kept one for himself, sliding it behind an ear.

“It was a little unkind,” he said.

Calay glowered at him. “I can handle unkind. I’m a grown man.”

Gaz spread his fingers, a shrug with only his hand. “Fine. I don’t feel like you take me for granted, or anyone anymore, because you learned a lot since Syl.”

Calay grimaced like he tasted something foul. He puffed smoke and inhaled again, hard.

“Hmph.” He said. “Well.”

Damn, that was a little more honest than Gaz had strictly needed to be there. And yet… Calay supposed he wasn’t wrong.

He spared a moment’s mourning for the trio that once was. Now a partnership. And that was nobody’s fault but his.

Casting a look over his shoulder, he watched Adalgis sit there, hand on the forearm of his sleeping friend. He was far enough away that Calay couldn’t make out the words of his indistinct murmured comfort, but he heard the tone of it: warm, encouraging, a little scared.

An odd, bitter envy bit into him then. He wished he had that empathy and ease of expression that Adalgis possessed. He supposed it was easier to grow up learning those traits and valuing them when you weren’t hurting for basic necessities. Shoulder to shoulder with sixty other brats just as shitty as him in the same crowded orphanage, Calay hadn’t had the time or inclination to practice warmth and appreciation for his fellows. He’d focused on survival. He’d had to.

Gaz had done for him what Adal had done for Riss. At tremendous risk to his own person. The mercenaries would have been well within their right to execute the both of them. To never let him practice magick again.

He finished his cigarette and ashed it on the ground.

“I’d be completely fucked without you, you know.” He said the words to Gaz as he rose, an abrupt cough of speech. He dusted off his trousers, like such an admission was just another aspect of his dawn routine.

Gaz tilted his head. Calay caught a glimpse of his look of surprise, but he didn’t hang around to hear any reply. He couldn’t sit still after all that. All those phantoms crowding in his head, they were getting him twitchy. He had to keep moving.

Pacing out into the humid grey morning, he surveyed the perimeter of their camp. It looked like a small-scale military skirmish had taken place, there were so many crazy tracks through the mud. He found Adal’s rifle caked in the muck and dug it free with his fingers for lack of anything else productive to do. He propped it where Adal would see it, near the mouth of the cavern, then decided to test his luck with a little climb.

The missing hand made it tougher than he anticipated, but he levered himself up atop one of the larger boulders, then leapt up onto the outcrop, where the stone was still slick with leftover rain. Sat on a rocky precipice hemmed in by tufts of yellow, fluffy-topped grass, he stared down into the pool. Its surface reflected the grey clouds above, rendering it silvery and molten.

That itch came over his palms again. It occurred to him consciously for the very first time: I used to scratch at my scars when I was thinking. And now I can’t. No wonder it’s bugging the shit out of me.  

Faded with both time and care, the faint silvery lines upon his palm looked older than they were. Alfend Linten had showed him a recipe once, when he was a child. A cream made from beeswax and fruit pits that lessened the appearance of scars if applied while things were healing. Just gift that Mr. Linten had given him before he’d abruptly vanished, leaving the clinic in Calay’s care.

Very few people had ever been dear to him. And for such a small number, they all had one trait in common: they seemed to vanish from his life at an alarming, unstoppable rate.

Gaz found him that way: sitting atop the camp, tapping the bladed edge of his mangled hand against his remaining palm, tangled up in the past.

“Heck of a thing to say to someone and just stalk off,” he said. He had a canteen in hand, and when he twisted the stopper free, steam coiled from its spout. He offered it down to Calay, who took it without even asking what was inside. When he stuck it under his nose, it smelled of grassy, minty tea.

“Well.” Calay’s shoulders stiffened again. He felt tense and defensive for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint. He pissily sipped his tea.

“Nah. I get it.” Gaz kicked a pebble over the precipice and watched it tumble down, into the mud. A chorus of frogs had started up in the distance, all croaking at a slightly different pitch.

“You do?” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Gaz. More like he wanted to hear it articulated. Maybe hearing someone else talk through their thoughts would settle his own.

“Sure.” Gaz grabbed the canteen off him and took a sip of his own. “It’s just… grief, isn’t it?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Seeing him with her, it dredged up a lot of stuff from back home.” Gaz cleared his throat. “What you said, about how we never got a minute to talk about what happened. I know you meant when you got shot, but it goes back further than that. We haven’t had a minute for a long time.”

Calay ran his tongue over his teeth, tasting the cool mint of the tea. Gaz was, as usual, correct. They’d fled the city immediately after the pandemonium of his would-be hanging. They hadn’t stopped running since. He got shot. He lost his arm. Gaz sacrificed his own blood and safety to ensure he lived. Still they hadn’t stopped.

“It catches up to a person,” Gaz said, like he was speaking from experience.

Calay had lost a lot more than a hand, hadn’t he. And apart from one glorious, sun-soaked swim along the Janel coast after they’d escaped to freedom, he’d scarcely had a moment to breathe since seeing his whole empire torn down. He couldn’t escape the sensation, the cold pit-in-your-stomach truth that the law was yapping at their heels. Or maybe Syl. Or any number of the Landed Families.

“Not us.” He clenched his remaining hand into a tight fist. “They won’t catch up to us.”

Gaz rolled his jaw for a moment, regarding Calay in lengthy silence.

“Not a them, boss. An it. The grief.” He settled a big, heavy hand on Calay’s shoulder and squeezed.

“Well what do you do about it?” Calay rankled at the thought that there was some great, unwieldy gunk of emotion clogging up the filters in his brain, making him stupid.

“Beats me. Try to live a better life. Do stuff that makes you happy. That sort of shit.”

Who had time for that? For what had to be the thousandth time since they had met, Calay wondered how he and Gaz could suffer through such similar upbringings and emerge such completely different people. The same forge that had hardened all his edges had softened all his friend’s in a way that somehow made him no less effective, no less keen.

It wasn’t just Adalgis he envied.

“C’mon.” Gaz pressed the canteen back into his hand. “Tea’s getting cold.”

Maybe this was their moment. Maybe it was the only moment they were going to get. They traded sips until they’d finished it, keeping watch over the camp, listening to the frogs.

<< Chapter 43 | Chapter 45 >>

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Chapter 43

Rain pelted Adal’s face, sharp stinging needles of it. He wasn’t aware Calay and Gaz were trying to get his attention until someone grabbed him. He spun reflexively, machete up, but it was only Gaz, who withdrew his glove as soon as he made eye contact.

“Get over here,” he said. “She’s still breathing.” Then he hollered at Vosk to get the moa settled down. Necessity bred strange bedfellows, didn’t it.

They hurried under the overhang, where Calay had dragged Riss out of the mud.

It was just as bad as Adal feared, save for the fact that she still clung to life. Calay crawled to Riss’ side, holding a lantern aloft to survey the damage. In the moment, he seemed to have cast aside any questions of loyalty or intent, tending to her with the same care and alacrity that Adal had seen from any medic worth his salt. He withdrew a sweater from his own pack, rolling it and shifting it gently beneath Riss’ neck, trying to ease her breathing.

But how long could she keep breathing? Her ribcage was splintered. From the neck down, she was a crushed mess of bone and blood. The sight of it sent cold dread flooding through him, as dark and mortal a fear as he’d felt when he’d sustained such injuries himself.

He forced himself to put up that wall again, to focus on the immediate.

“So what can you do for her?” he asked, watching Calay work.

Riss sputtered, forcefully expelling blood. Calay held her by the cheek, turned her head.

“I can make her comfortable,” he said.

Adal listened to the rain, tried to focus on that instead of the hideous, sucking gurgle that rose each time Riss attempted to breathe.

“No.” He snapped his eyes to Calay’s. “I mean what can you do.”

Calay’s hands stilled. He regarded Adal with newfound wariness, then looked immediately to Gaz.

Gaz, similarly wary, looked Adal up and down. He rolled the knuckles of one hand, the way a man does in a bar the instant before a fight breaks out.

For all Calay liked to talk like he was the one in charge, it was clear that he was asking permission. And with a nod, Gaz granted it.

“This is going to take a lot of blood, you realize.” Calay shrugged his coat off, rolling up his sleeves. It was laborious work with his sole remaining hand, and it revealed the gnarled, bark-and-bone deformity that now grew from his elbow. “And I can’t make any promises. This is… it’s beyond medicine. And some things are beyond magick, too.”

“Do your best,” Adal said. “I’ll get you blood.”

“And as much as it pains me to be so mercenary about this…” Calay trailed off. Adal instantly caught the meaning behind that statement. “This goes a bit beyond the scope of my initial contract.”

Adal grit his teeth so hard he thought his molars might snap.

“Name your price,” he said, and he meant it.

Calay merely nodded, his gaze dropping back to his patient. He flexed the fingers of his remaining hand, looming over Riss like a gargoyle.

“The blood, then,” he said, intoning it like an order.

Adal shoved up to his feet, scouring the campsite. Just beyond the cavern, Vosk had done as told and gotten the moa under control. He flinched when Adal caught his eyes.

That’s right, Adal thought. You’d better. But he disciplined himself into calm. He disengaged.

“Vosk. You’ve got a chance to bargain yourself off the gallows. Know that if you don’t come willingly, I’ll blow out your knees and leave you here in the mud.”

###

Vosk was not the only man who had to make a bargain.

Calay waited like a statue until they had their blood donor all trussed up, his shoulders held by Gaz and a tourniquet binding his arm. He regarded Vosk with clinical dispassion, then set his eyes on Adal.

“We should talk terms before I start this,” he said. Adal could have slapped him. There wasn’t time to barter. Each time Riss inhaled, each time he heard that thick, wet gurgle from her throat, he wondered if she had it in her to draw another.

“I don’t care about terms,” he said. “I meant it when I said name your price.” He doubted the sorcerer would demand money. If riches mattered to him, it seemed well within his power to acquire them. Adal didn’t give a damn about hammering out the details until Riss was stable. Despite the small, quiet fear lodged in him like an old splinter, he knew there was no price Calay could command that would deter him.

He’d never noticed it until now, but in the ember-glow, Calay’s eyes shone like a beast’s.

“Insurance,” he said, those strange shining eyes fixed on Adal’s with all the sympathy of a reptile. “Vosk’s blood to fix her, your blood to secure our passage out of here.”

The small, quiet fear bloomed into something chilling and terrible. Had he felt this cold a moment ago? His clothes were still sodden. That had to be it.

Adal worked his jaw in silence. Riss gurgled and choked. He forced himself to look at the mangled wreckage of her ribs to hasten his courage.

“Fine,” he spat. “So be it. Now or after?” He unbuttoned his cuff, then rolled his sleeve to show he meant business.

“Oh, later is fine.” Calay ticked a little nod aside to his partner. “There are more pressing matters.”

How had they ever mistaken him for a man like them?

At that gesture, Gaz grabbed Vosk up tightly, an elbow pressed between his shoulder blades. The skinnier man winced, caught in the arm-lock, and Calay slipped a thin, tapered blade from his belt. With no ceremony or even a cursory warning, he slit a line of red along the interior of Vosk’s elbow, then wrenched his arm over one of their stew bowls.

“Flex your fist,” he ordered, voice quiet and curt.

It was clear Calay still struggled with his newfound disability. He moved slow, a study in caution, and little twitches of his deformed limb hinted at muscle memory that hadn’t yet atrophied. He ran a studious look up and down the length of Riss’ torso as if unsure where to even begin. Vosk meanwhile did as told and pumped blood into the bowl. Over the sick, wet rasp of Riss’ breath, Adal heard blood dribbling on stone.

Vosk turned his cheek, unwilling to look. Disgust or nerves, who knew. He did an admirable job of looking neutral, but when Calay dipped two fingers into the blood, a nervous twitch shook him.

What they’d done to Calay had hurt Gaz a great deal. Would it kill Vosk to patch Riss back together? Adal considered that a fair trade. Perhaps even karmic.

Features tight with concentration, Calay hovered his blood-wet fingers over Riss. Anxiety ticked through Adal’s fingers, his heart a nervous rabbit. Why wasn’t he starting yet? Why was he wasting time?

“Why aren’t you—”

Calay shushed him. “I’m thinking.”

What was there to think about? Adal tilted his head.

“It’s her cuirass.” His mouth pulled to one side, a frustrated scowl. “These glyphs work best on bare skin. But her armor is the only thing holding everything together.”

Unbearable nausea flooded through Adal’s guts at those words. He swallowed.

“Just fix her,” he said. He refused to believe this sorcerer could outwit the Vasa Leycenate and slither so far south without enough canny to solve such a basic fucking problem.

Calay snapped his eyes up to Adal’s.

“I don’t actually want her to die, you know. I am trying.

Meanwhile, a nervous tremor had possessed Vosk’s entire body. Still he bled into the bowl, which had over half filled.

Calay reached down with the mangled mass of bark and bone that had once been his right hand, then he yanked it back.

“Gaz,” he said. “Tilt her chin up a little.”

Gaz did as asked, cupping Riss’ chin in his massive palm and carefully angling her head up. He handled her gently. Adal was grateful for that.

“Vosk,” he was just spitting orders now. “Slosh some blood down her neck.”

Vosk tipped the bowl, the three of them working for now in concert.

Riss’ sandy golden-brown skin was shades paler than it should have been, and the splash of blood stood out too bright. Calay bent down and dipped his bloodstained fingers into the wash of red. He pressed his fingers into the armor that bound Riss’ chest, then began to sketch jagged, incomprehensible characters across the leather.

“I’ll try to get her stable enough. Be ready to cut it off, Gaz.”

“I don’t understand.” Adal warily averted his eyes, remembering the flash that had stung him. “It’s magick. Why will it only maybe work?”

“This weave works best against bare skin. The closer to the heart the better. I’m not conjuring whole new things into her body. I’m fortifying what she already has.”

Clean, cool-toned light sizzled through the cavern, chasing away the orange cast of the firelight.

Riss screamed and bucked against Gaz’s grip. Vosk screamed along with her, biting into his sleeve. Adal scrambled to make himself useful, working the laces up Riss’ side. He knew how hard she’d worked for those leathers. She’d be devastated if Gaz cut them off. As he yanked the armor down, just enough to expose her undershirt, something bony in her body shifted and popped against his arm. He recoiled. Calay shoved cloth aside and kept on scribbling, streaking red over now-bare skin. Adal buried his face in his shoulder, unable to watch.

In the moments his eyes were closed, he lacked other distractions. Without them, he couldn’t quite keep the panic at bay.

It wasn’t that he thought Riss immortal. It wasn’t that he felt he couldn’t go on without her. Nothing quite so melodramatic. Since Gaspard, they’d all learned in a hurry that nobody was immune. Even living legends were a single misstep away from the same death as anyone else.

No. Adal knew Riss would die someday, just like he would. But until it became a tangible possibility, he hadn’t realized how scared it would make him.

Losing Berin had been terribly sad. The loss of a sibling couldn’t come without grief, even if the siblings in question hadn’t been particularly close. Because the death of family rippled outward—you had to watch the people you earnestly loved suffer. And you lost the chance to ever care to the same depth they did. When Berin died, Adal had lost a potential future in which they might have one day been friends and his mother might have one day held them in the same regard.

And as for Gaspard, the sadness he’d felt had been mostly on Riss’ behalf. He’d admired Gaspard, considered him as much a friend as a subordinate can consider a commander. But he hadn’t needed Gaspard like she had.

Berin had been his brother, Gaspard a respected elder. But Riss was the most cherished friend he had ever had. A friend that came around once in a century. When he imagined a future where that friendship was commuted to merely memory, bleak terror seized him and made his insides tremble.

More light. More screaming. Riss fell slack. Vosk wept, bent-backed, drool hanging from his mouth. He shivered and collapsed.

It all happened so fast that Adal felt physical whiplash, yet it had also been the longest few seconds of his life.

###

He didn’t know how much time Torcha had bought them, but he was hesitant to move until at least one of Riss or Vosk was mobile. He’d neglected to pay much attention to Vosk’s suffering when the spell was cast. Bigger issues at hand and all. But now he took a moment to examine the man, who had curled into a fetal position on the rain-damp cavern floor. He shook periodically, his features gone grey-yellow. Adal couldn’t rouse any sympathy.

In the aftermath of her thrashing, Riss remained unconscious. Calay had explained this was normal—the spells he’d used, how he’d referred to it as ‘fortifying’ what the body already had—used the body’s own energy to repair itself. It was an exhausting process, he’d said. And Adal had seen that firsthand when both he and Gaz had emerged in a half-sick stupor from repairing Calay’s arm.

For the moment, Adal sat by Riss’ side while Calay observed both her and Vosk. Gaz drifted behind them, packing up camp. Urgent impatience scratched at Adal’s back. He wanted to get moving as soon as they could, didn’t want to waste Torcha’s sacrifice. For the time being, he’d cobbled together a loose best case scenario of get Riss out of the swamp, then double back for Torcha with whoever’s willing and able.

“Hey.” Calay gently cleared his throat, drawing Adal out of his thoughts.

“Mm?”

“I’m confident she’ll recover fully.” He sniffed, rubbed at the dark circles that sagged beneath his eyes. “We had to improvise with the first weave, but the second couldn’t have gone better.”

Adal only nodded, unsure what was even worth saying. It was easier now, sitting and speaking to Calay, even aware of what he was. Over such a short time, he was growing desensitized, at least as long as Calay kept his arm covered.

A nonstop onslaught of horror would do that to a person, he supposed.

To his surprise, Calay kept talking.

“None of this was supposed to work out this way.” He glanced over his shoulder, watching Gaz for a moment. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. For any part I played in turning your mission into a fiasco.”

Adal, raised in the ranks of Altave Shipping and Mercantile, knew a sales pitch when he heard one. This was Calay ensuring his own survival by way of remorse. Or softening the blow before he asked for his pint of blood.

“I don’t think any of us could have known.” He wondered though, about Tarn. Riss had implied at the inn that Tarn suspected ulterior movies in Lukra’s disappearance. Had he suspected Vosk? Had he let them go in blind?

Tarn was a problem for the future, though. Adal studied Calay’s face, found it inscrutable. He looked tired. That was all.

“I suppose you’ll want your payment.” He saw no point forestalling the inevitable.

Calay cleared his throat. “I wasn’t going to bring it up until she was up on her feet.”

Adal lifted a shrug. His shoulders felt leaden.

Calay explained his price. It was simple enough: a flagon of Adal’s blood as insurance.

He claimed he’d destroy it after a month if nobody came for him via Adelheim. Adal wasn’t sure he believed that. It didn’t matter at all one way or the other. Whether he trusted Calay or not, he was on the hook.

In the mad rush from the moment Riss had fallen to the time she drew her first unimpeded breath, Adal hadn’t spared much thought for what he’d agreed to. He hadn’t had the luxury of time to weigh the pros and cons. But all the deliberation in the world would not have affected the outcome.

He’d have done far worse.

<< Chapter 42 | Chapter 44 >>

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Chapter 42

Adal went down hard. The impact drove the air from his lungs, and then he was tumbling into the water, unable to regain his breath. Crashing down below the surface of the pool, he twisted and thrashed and kicked, trying to discern which way was up. The creature had splashed in with him, but as he swept his limbs all around, he didn’t feel it. Or anything solid.

Righting himself, head still underwater, he opened his eyes long enough to watch bubbles. He coughed out a small amount of air, watched them travel upward, then oriented himself that way and kicked. When he broke the surface, it wasn’t much drier, rain pouring down as it was. He managed to gulp in a breath, choked on rainwater, then swam the short distance toward the shore.

The dark was near-impenetrable. He had no idea where his rifle had fallen.

Before he could climb up out of the pool, something heavy sloshed within it, sending a gentle, tell-tale current pulling at his legs.

He had a half-second to suck in air before the creature pulled him under. The water slowed the velocity of its weighty arms, so the blow didn’t hurt, but it swept him down and then pinned him below the surface, grinding against his back and pressing his chest against the sharp rocks that littered the ground. They dug into his armor, which held, fortunately, but he would be out of air soon.

Bullets whizzed through the water, leaving odd little trails above him. The foot upon his back wavered. Adal kicked, trying to wrench himself free, but couldn’t quite get enough leverage.

He’d been swimming for all his life. He’d grown up along the river, the source of all prosperity in the Dominion from their crops to their shipping lanes. The river gave and the river took–which is why his family placed such importance on paying their tolls to Loth.

Adal never expected he would drown.

Above the pool, he heard and felt the shudder of a great impact. Light flared across the rippled surface, illuminating the outline of the hulking monster that pinned him. Again, Adal kicked as hard as he could. This time he managed to free himself from the press of weight atop him, and he kicked like mad for the surface, his chest burning for want of breath.

He broke through. He breathed. He gulped and yelled, but the voice that came out was a shallow imitation of his own. Or perhaps his ears were still damaged. Bloody Torcha, firing that rifle in a cave–

Gunfire cracked over his head. He hiked in air and dove down, swimming to the side of the pool. Something swiped at his leg. He kicked at it blindly; it hooked him fast. Then that same sharp something bit into his thigh, sudden and tender, the shock of it enough to make him yelp in pain. Bad move. Water flooded his mouth. He coughed and choked and struggled up just enough to heave a breath that was half air, half water.

The rank, gungy water tasted of algae. It snapped Adal back to a far-off place in time, a whiplash back to his childhood.

Age fourteen, knees on the riverbank, a hand planted in the mud. His face was hot with embarrassment; his eyes burned with tears.

They’d scattered Berin’s ashes that morning, over the river he skippered so long.

Adal had known he was gone. He’d rushed down to the pier as soon as he’d heard the Sondrio had gone down. They’d brought survivors in on ferries and rafts and every dinghy the town could muster, yet he’d known somehow that Berin wouldn’t be among them. That his brother would be coming home under a tarp.

The ashes, though. This made it final. This made it real. Berin had been returned to the waters.

He’d made the mistake of approaching his parents’ chambers after. He wished to relay his sympathies to his mother. He knew he couldn’t go to her with his own sorrows, at least not expecting anything in return. But he felt compelled to reach out to her, to acknowledge her own suffering. He had lost a brother, but she had lost a boy.

And he’d hesitated outside the door when he’d heard her weeping.

Out of all of them, why him? Why not Adal? Why not Rode?

Adal had swallowed his grief and walked to the riverside, sitting beneath the willows, unsure where to even begin to unravel his despair. Berin had always been the favorite, that he’d known, but to hear his mother speak it aloud, to hear her blatantly confess that she’d have traded them…

He plunged his face beneath the water and screamed. He screamed his throat raw, crushing mud between his fingers, venting out all the anger and poison in him in a place only Loth could hear.

And when the water rushed back in, he held his head under just a few seconds longer, marveling at the sensation. He didn’t want to die, no. But he wanted to know how it felt. He coughed and sputtered and wiped at his face, wondering if it had tasted the same when it flooded Berin’s mouth–

One last heavy impact threw shockwaves across the pool. Adal kicked against whatever held him, managed to twist his leg free. He crawled up into the shallows, heaving himself up, unwilling to look behind him. Riss and Calay appeared at his side, each of them grabbing one of his shoulders. They all ran together, the pair half-dragging him. The ground trembled as the rock creature lurched up out of the water, crashing to ground and clawing at their heels.

They ran for the rocks that sheltered the cavern, aiming for the narrow crevice between.

Light exploded across the campsite. In the flash, he saw Torcha silhouetted atop one house-sized boulder. She sparked a fuse and hurtled another bomb behind them. When it exploded, Adal felt heat lick at his back.

But it wasn’t enough. Perhaps, made of stone as it was, heat and fire didn’t deter the creature like they would have any normal, mortal being. Shrieking, it blitzed them, swiping Adal ass-over-end in the mud. He rolled, smashed into a fallen tree, choked on mud.

He lifted his head just in time to see the thing bear down on Riss, who’d fallen on her front. Calay, who’d fallen beside her, spun and lifted his pistol. He squeezed the trigger again and again, but it didn’t fire.

Somewhere, the dog was barking furiously.

Adal watched, helplessly far away, as the creature heaved its massive forelimbs up and brought them down on Riss’ back with a nauseating crunch. She never even tried to get up.

He had no time for his horror. He shoved up and back into the fight, losing battle though it may have been. Finally, he spied his rifle in the mud, though it was so choked with dirt and moisture it was rendered useless when he lifted it. He growled and ran for where Riss had fallen, reaching her at the same time as Gaz.

“This fucking rain,” he heard Calay shouting. “My gun’s fucked.”

He grabbed Riss’ machete from the muck without thinking, charging toward the creature’s towering outline.

“Get her to shelter!” he bellowed at anyone who would listen. He had no time to see whether Gaz and Calay obeyed.

Fresh gunfire from the mouth of the cavern. Adal glanced aside long enough to see Vosk, hands now freed, manning one of the extra rifles. He had yet to hit the thing.

And then the monster was upon him. Stumbling, his sore leg far more sore than he anticipated, Adal barely managed to weave aside from its first swipe. He danced around behind it, sliding in the mud, tried to find the same openings Riss had hacked at. But it was a damn sight harder in the nighttime. He couldn’t see shit.

He slashed, cursed when the machete pinged off stone. He tried again. Still nothing.

Wind whipped past his face as a heavy blow missed him by a hair. His mind had switched off; he was all instinct and intuition now, body moving faster than his tactical brain ever could.

It gave his mind a brief, quiet interval for thought. We’re going to die out here. Riss already has.

Fierce, white-hot light erupted from nearby. Adal squinted. That could only mean Calay was magicking again. Nausea flooded through him when he wondered if the bastard was using Riss’ blood.

But then the source of the light moved closer: a short figure swaddled in a brilliantly-dyed scarf, red hair plastered to her face with rainwater.

Torcha dashed between the creature and Adal, whistling hard.

“Hey!” She hollered above the crash of thunder. “Hey, over here! That’s right, motherfucker, this way!”

She carried her lantern overhead, and Adal could see that she’d stuffed one of her explosives inside it. A flare of some kind. She waved it over her head a couple times, trying to catch the creature’s attention. It didn’t seem to have eyes or a face of any kind, but it spun toward her, drawn to the distraction.

Torcha’s eyes fell on his. He could see then how much she’d grown. Not that she’d ever been a child, even back when they’d first met. She never got a chance to be.

“Get her out of here,” she called. “Get them all out of here. Adal, go!”

She started to back away, slowly at first, then she turned when it became apparent the monster followed. Turning and hauling tail toward the trail they’d come down, Torcha reached the cover of the trees before the creature did. It rushed after her, hot on her tails, its stride listing and limping but barely slowed.

Splashing through after both of them, the dog barked crazily, giving chase.

Adal, struck wordless, watched Torcha’s lantern bob and flicker in the darkness. Then she moved beyond where his eyesight could reach. Or something had doused the flame. He had no way of knowing.

Riss and Torcha, both gone. Just like that.

Adal lowered his hand. The tip of the machete rested in the mud. His clothes were soaked through. They felt so heavy. Everything felt so heavy. He tried to force himself to turn around, to heed Torcha’s wish and take command, but he was terrified of what awaited him.

<< Chapter 41 | Chapter 43 >>

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Chapter 41

The dog appeared to be taking a liking to Torcha. When Riss led her off to Vosk’s secret stash, the canine picked a path over the roots and boulders behind them. It kept polite distance from Riss, but it circled back around to Torcha periodically for a head scratch or to sniff at her heels.

“Do you really need me to inventory the silks?” Torcha asked, sounding highly skeptical. “Or are you here to tell me off for what I said to Adal?”

Riss snorted. “Adal’s an adult. He’ll cope. I really do want you to take a look at this stuff. Less to inventory it and more because I thought you’d appreciate it.”

Much of the cloth—especially the spider silks, the ones in blue and navy—appeared to be native to Torcha’s home district, or at least close to it. Riss didn’t have much of an eye for textiles, but she’d found similar stashes secreted away in deserted homes and basements in Semmer’s Mill. The weavers had tried to conceal their prized cloth from the northlanders with varying degrees of success. And who could blame them? The occupiers all but ground artisanship in the area to a halt, diverting resources to more “necessary” industries.

Riss considered all this in silence while Torcha pawed through a bag, having fallen quiet as well.

Finally, she spoke up. “A lot of this is…”

“From home?”

She blinked. “Yeah.”

“Hence why I thought you’d like to have a look.”

Riss dropped to a crouch beside the shorter woman, peering over her shoulder. Torcha drew out a striped length of silk, dyed in bold primary colors. She fingered the weave of it, then flipped it around her neck like a scarf.

“Still smells fresh,” she said. “They must be dyeing again, back at the bug farms.”

Unlike most of Gaspard’s mercenaries, Torcha hadn’t gone home after the war. She said she saw no need to. She’d stuck with Riss, following her through Medao, seeing her through those hard, lean weeks after Gaspard’s death. She’d followed Riss back to the grounds of House Altave to retrieve Adal. And she’d followed Riss to Adelheim.

There was a certain irony to that. All throughout the war, Riss had assumed Renato was the loyal one, that the traumas and hardships that made Torcha so callous had also made her aloof.

“I want to make something clear to you,” she said. “You know Adal and I have a great deal of trust in you, right?”

Torcha’s shoulders tensed a little. Her thumb stopped stroking the fabric.

“I know,” she said. “But Adal just… it rubs against my grain to hear him do that thing he does. Trying to please everybody. Talking to Calay like he’s just another person. Like he wasn’t lying to us.”

“Adal can’t help it. That’s his family’s whole thing.”

“Yeah. I know. I didn’t say I won’t tolerate it. Just that it’s slimy.”

“There’s a reason for that.” Riss saw no point in concealing it. “We’re fairly certain Calay and his man have a price on their head from up north. If we let him think he’s in the clear, he won’t expect it when we come to collect.”

Torcha blinked, swiveled her muddy green eyes from the fabric to Riss.

“Bold,” she said.

“Mhm.”

“You think he can even die?”

Riss lifted a shoulder. “He seemed to come awful close before. I figure he would have if we hadn’t intervened.”

The wiry-haired hound passed between them, sniffing along the cavern floor in its explorations. Riss watched it for a while.

“Well, tell you what.” Torcha adjusted the scarf around her neck, having confiscated it for good. “You say the word, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and put him down.”

“What word, you think?”

Torcha pursed her mouth in thought. “Tadivach. Just say it like a curse.”

Riss was somewhat familiar with the term. Tadivach was a deity local to the textile districts, the god of the loom. She wasn’t sure how devout Torcha’s family had been, but when the unit had first taken the girl into their care, she’d explained that the tapestries mounted over doors and walls and weaving rooms weren’t just decoration, they were offerings.

It was as good a code word as any. “Got it,” said Riss. “I hope it won’t come to that, but if an opportunity arises, we’d be foolish not to take it.”

The conversation came to a natural end; they started back toward camp.

“Thanks,” said Torcha. “For explaining all that. I just hope Adal’s on the same page.”

“Don’t you worry about Adal. He and I had a chat similar to this already. I’d have conferred with you both, but it’s damn hard, things being how they are.”

“No privacy in a bivvy,” Torcha agreed.

Sometimes she sounded wiser than her nineteen years, when she wasn’t being a complete brat.

###

Riss slept through her whole shift. No chaos or bullshit or dramatic interruptions this time. It was glorious. She’d feared that dreams of Gaspard’s death might continue to haunt her, but those fears seemed unfounded. Either the dream was a one-off or she was just too damn tired to dream at all.

Torcha and Gaz relinquished their watch to Riss and Vosk. Ever since she’d declined his proposition, Vosk hadn’t been chatty. That suited Riss just fine.

They took a short patrol of the camp’s perimeter, noting nothing of interest. Adal had buried the chum from the fish, just in case. Riss wasn’t sure such precautions would help much out here. They’d learned to conceal traces of their movements in the bush from all sorts of human adversaries, but Riss doubted any care on their parts could hide them from the many eyes and noses of nature.

“I always feel like this swamp is watching me,” Riss said, walking past the pool and back toward the caverns. “I have to say, Harlan, going in here time after time to cut down trees… it takes a pair.”

Vosk gazed off toward the treeline. “Yeah, well, we never stayed out here this long.”

In the steppes and mountains where she’d grown up and first learned her trade, Riss felt at home on the forest floor. Sure, there were all sorts of things that could kill you. Snakes, bandits, lania. The boars they hunted, even. But there were patterns to the movements of both animal and human life. If you learned them, you could generally pass unseen through both their worlds. And even if you couldn’t, it rarely took more than one or two timely shots from a good rifle.

Riss crept around the sleeping bodies and the dog nestled at Torcha’s feet, settling atop a boulder that gave her a good view past the cavern’s mouth. Clouds choked away any moonlight that might have made it through to where they camped, but the pool reflected the fire, which lent enough illumination to see by.

Ripples ghosted over the surface of the pool. Raindrops. Soon, rain pattered down onto the stones, running in little rivulets down the hillock and over the rocky ground.

Relaxing her eyes, Riss stared off into the curtains of rain. She scanned the wilderness slowly. The little jerks and tumbles of raindrops called out to her brain: motion, motion! But she ignored them.

Until she spotted it. An irregularity in the sheets of rainfall. A patch of dark blended in with what little she could see of the stony backdrop. It was less that her eyes saw something and more that they spotted an absence of something: a tall, wide swathe of air where rain should have been falling but wasn’t.

Riss averted her eyes from the light, looked askance toward the dark patch. She tried to keep it in her peripheral vision, another of Gaspard’s old tricks for moving under cover of night.

She tilted her head.

The dark patch tilted, too, as if mirroring her movements.

Her entire body goosefleshed.

Still sat on her rock, she slowly uncurled her legs. She moved at a glacial pace, no sudden movements, and edged her boot toward the closest sleeping body it could find: Calay’s. She nudged him, very slight, and thankfully the motion was enough to jog him awake.

Rolling onto his back, Calay blinked up at her. Riss watched him sidelong, hoped her wide eyes and grave stare toward the rain would say enough. Come on, Calay. You’re a smart fellow. Be smart here.

He inhaled a sharply-hissed breath. He’d seen it too.

A chain of crawlingly-slow, silent communication passed through the camp: Calay roused Gaz. Gaz’s broken snore roused the dog, who shifted and roused Torcha. Adal and Vosk slept too far away to be reached.

And all the while, Riss stared at the void in the rain.

“Orders?” Calay whispered. Riss had no clue how best to deploy him. She knew Torcha slept with her rifle at the ready, heard the telltale shuffle-click of her readying it. Gaz would do what Gaz did best.

Thunder grumbled in the distance, a low roll over the marshlands.

Riss counted the seconds ‘til the lightning, out of childhood habit.

When light streaked across the sky, it illuminated their patch of shadow: a sloping, asymmetrical body of stone and moss, notably missing a chunk of hind leg.

Riss crept a hand toward her belt.

Through the rain, the creature surged toward them.

As soon as it roared into the fireglow, Torcha let loose. She fired directly into its chest, and sharp slivers of stone flew in all directions. Riss hissed as some bit into her skin. The shot echoed off the enclosed space of the cavern walls, rocketing Adal and Vosk awake and rendering everyone temporarily deaf-struck. Rubbing at her head, Riss leapt from where she sat and sought cover as the creature rounded on Torcha.

Calay darted past on her other side. The moa shrieked.

Riss attempted to flank the creature as she had before, but it caught her creeping this time. It swung one of its blocky limbs toward her, the whole thing the size of a wagon wheel, and she slid out into the rain to escape the blow. It glanced her back, knocking her to the ground, and she rolled away from the swiping arm.

Torcha–or maybe Adal, she couldn’t see–fired again, the shot sending more showers of stone erupting from the creature’s body. They drove it back from the mouth of the cavern, and Riss took a swipe at the vines that held its joints in place.

The creature spun, its lurching footsteps shuddering the ground beneath her. It moved unlike anything Riss had ever seen: graceful, sweeping arcs of its forelimbs and juddering, jittery footsteps that made its movements difficult to predict. Likewise, the way it spun and opened up its back to the gunners surprised her.

Riss flailed back as a fist came down. Her boots slid on the slick, wet stone. Adal, Torcha, and Calay pummeled it with gunfire, then Gaz flew into it from the side, bashing its weak leg with his axe enough to send it toppling off-balance. Riss hollered at him to flank it on the opposite side, but she couldn’t hear her own cries over the ringing in her ears. Shit.

The creature ducked low and lurched toward the cavern mouth, squeezing over the top of the boulders that protected it. It swiped down with an arm. Adal and Torcha fled, Torcha ducking between the boulders and Adal slipping out toward the pool. She couldn’t see Vosk.

Gaz leapt atop it, but it rolled and threw him off. Sliding down the rain-slippery rock, it grappled at Torcha but couldn’t reach her. Spinning, lurching, it set its sights on Adal just as he finished reloading.

Picking up speed, the creature rushed him. Adal stood his ground. Lightning lanced across the sky, illuminating the scene just long enough for Riss to watch in slack-jawed horror as the golem crashed into Adal just as he fired. He blew it off-balance, and in return it snared a stony arm around him, tackling both of them into the dark, burbling pool.

<< Chapter 40 | Chapter 42 >>

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Chapter 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that person was presently occupied elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh.”

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

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

Adal blinked. “You heard all that?”

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

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

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

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

Adal stared him down. “Do I have to?”

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

“Reckon not,” said Gaz.

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

“For fuck’s sake,” Vosk growled.

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

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

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

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

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