Chapter 56

Harlan ran for his life.

The second Gaz shoved him aside, he drew on the last of his strength and took off down the rocky riverbed. Calay hadn’t looked well. The others were distracted. He didn’t pause to look and he didn’t slow to catch his bearings. None of what he’d accomplished, none of the careful moves he’d made to cover his tracks in town, nothing at all would matter if he was not able to put distance between himself and these fucking mercenaries.

He’d been dealt a poor hand in life, but he always managed to land on his feet. It was just like Fortune to set him on an expedition with the only mercenary crew for miles that had a collective conscience. But where deceit, bribery, and cajoling wouldn’t work, there was always one last option: to run like hell and never look back.

Splashing through the shallows, he kept to the river to fend off the trees. He could follow the river all the way to the crossroads if he needed to, crawl out underneath Breakfalls Bridge. While he didn’t know exactly how far downriver he was, he had a general idea. And most importantly, the out-of-towners knew even less.

That was all his harried brain could muster as it forced his weakened, shivering body forward.

Would distance lessen the effect the sorcerer’s curses had upon him? He could only hope. He felt as though his bones had been hollowed from the inside out. Like firewood after the wood-mites got to it: full of tiny holes that made the whole structure brittle.

Something rustled in the trees by the riverbank. Harlan ducked low, moving slower than he liked but still onward. He’d fled some angry boars in his life, but this was different. Compared to the things that pursued him now, a boar was blunt and stupid.

He couldn’t shake the feeling of an intensely malevolent presence following close behind, an unseen terrible something that pursued him beyond the veil of trees.

But when he finally looked over his shoulder, nothing.

The air smelled cleaner now. When he peered up either bank of the river, he saw gaps in the trees. Lazy late afternoon sunlight glanced off the river’s surface, illuminating rocks below in the shallower stretches. On a sandy stretch of riverbank, he spotted the remnants of a fishing camp: an ashen campfire, a scrap of discarded net, a tidy heap of picked-clean bones.

He had passed back into the world of the living.

But even though he couldn’t see it, that darkness, that terrible thing which lurked in the heart of the swamp, it didn’t feel far away. The thing that had cried for help and impersonated a crying woman. The thing that had caused the thorns to writhe around Geetsha. The whole damn place had evil at its core. He’d heard the stories growing up–they all had. Something pitch-black and terrible lurked in the heart of that place and it was sorcery that birthed it. Yet there went Riss, siding with the sorcerer. She deserved whatever befell her.

Harlan considered the shallows, then took a calculated risk. He attempted to walk the river, gasping as he sank thigh-deep into the water. The current bowled him over, but he was expecting that. He floated on his back kicking sideways, aiming for an outcrop of rocks, then shoving off them with the flats of his boots. He half-swam half-scuttled this way, knowing it was no use to attempt to fight the current, and when he finally rolled up onto the opposite bank, he breathed a sigh of relief.

The chilly water had slapped fresh life into his tired arms and legs, too, and when he rose his strength felt renewed. A quick check of sun against sky confirmed that he was on the western bank, as he’d hoped.

With each step, his boots sloshed. Water dripped down his heavy, weighted clothes. It stung the rope-marks on his wrists. But Harlan didn’t care. He hauled himself up the bank and into the sparse forest, where the tree trunks were thinner and nothing sinister lurked at the corners of his eyes.

Still, he didn’t slow. He kept up the fastest pace he could, so much so that when he finally found the road, he didn’t notice it until he’d run halfway across the thing. Suddenly, the ground beneath his soles felt flat. When he sniffed the air, he tasted dust. He looked up and down, then realized he was standing in the path. He looked down, spying fresh footprints: horses, people, wagon tracks.

His knees buckled with relief. Tears springing to his eyes, he bent his brow to the ground and actually kissed it. Solid earth beneath him. Plain, silver-grey beech trees all around him. Birdsong. A distant clump of fresh horseshit. Civilization.

Footsteps crunched up the road behind him, leisurely slow.

“Nice out, isn’t it.”

As the voice spoke, a shadow passed behind him. Something stepped between Harlan and the sun.

He spun on all fours in the dust, pushing up.

There was no way. There was no possible way. He’d gotten a head start. He’d run as fast as he could. He’d followed a path he knew that the others did not.

Yet there stood the sorcerer, backlit by the sunset. He had his hands in his pockets, no visible weapons on him. His duster hung neatly off his shoulders. Save the ragged edges of his clothes and the streak of blood up his face, he looked like he’d just stepped off a carriage rather than out of the nightmare they’d all just suffered through.

Harlan clutched his shard of flint, the one thing he had left. Gritting his teeth, he set it between his fingers and faced Calay head-on.

The sorcerer glanced to the flint and chuffed out a soft laugh. He took a step closer.

“I wanted you to feel this,” he said as he neared. “To almost get what you wanted. To almost get away.”

He lifted the misshapen mess of his right arm. It had grown since Harlan had last seen him up close. In fact, it had sprung flowers. Calay stepped closer still. He flexed his fingers. Long, wickedly-curved talons of bone unsheathed themselves from the bark and ivy of his hand.

Harlan took a step back. Calay stepped with him. The muscles in Harlan’s legs twinged, an animal urge to run, the way a rabbit never stops trying to sprint away, even when it’s caught in a snare. He lifted one boot off the ground, wondered how far he could actually make it.

His father would have said it was more honorable to stand and fight. Harlan didn’t give a toss about honor, though. That’s the thing those old-timers never seemed to realize: honor didn’t keep wood in the stove. Honor didn’t stop some cashed-up kingdom from trampling your homeland and declaring it theirs. That was storybook bullshit, and he’d never had the time for–

He made it a single step before Calay was on him, pouncing like a cat, surging forward and tackling him to the ground. He was heavier than he looked. They stumbled and rolled a single time, then Calay pinned him hard, a knee to either side of his body.

With his taloned hand, he grabbed Harlan by the face. He was careful, the tips of his claws just barely sinking into skin. Harlan swallowed, afraid to breathe too hard last he scrape his throat along those edges.

“It’s kind of funny.” Calay leaned forward, his haggard face filling Harlan’s field of vision. “I was so intent on catching you, so intent on killing you, and now that I’ve got you here I don’t quite know what to do with you.”

He squeezed, the claws biting into Harlan’s cheek and neck. He swallowed a whimper, not wanting to give the sorcerer the satisfaction.

Maybe someone would happen upon them. Maybe there’d be a carriage coming round the bend. He was daring, showing off those claws of his on a public road. Or insane.

He should have known Calay was unnatural from the beginning. Looking at him now, it was so obvious. He wasn’t right. It was written all over his face. His eyes looked like they’d never seen sleep.

“Just do it,” Harlan hissed, trying not to move his jaw. “You’ve got what you want.” He lacked the vocabulary for what he wanted to say. Calling him a monster or a wretch was pointless. The marsh had tried to kill this man again and again, and he kept rising back up. What harm would words do?

Calay leaned into him, close enough that he could feel the cool gust of the man’s breath on his cheek. He smelled like soil and peat.

“Riss wouldn’t like that,” he murmured. “Besides. You’ve got something I need.”

A thought dawned on Harlan. He laughed. He couldn’t help it.

“My blood. You won’t kill me because you still need my blood.” His laughter turned sad. He was a man who could endure much. His whole life had been one kick in the shins after another, really. But this was not how he’d envisioned the last few days (hours?) of his life, kept alive to burn as a sorcerer’s lantern oil.

“No, no.” Calay dug his talons in one last time, then released Harlan’s face. He rolled up to his feet with an easy, effortless athleticism, then planted a boot on Harlan’s chest.

“It’s not your blood I want,” he said. “You took something from me. Something I can’t ever get back.”

Harlan’s eyes strayed to the clawed limb that grew where Calay’s arm once was.

He felt the first, tentative tickles of an all new fear bloom in his belly.

“So, what.” He tried to put on a brave face. “You’ll hack my arm off? Torture me?” That’s what they did, magick users. The stories had to come from somewhere, old wives’ tales of baby-bone fetishes bound in human sinew. Torture techniques beyond men’s comprehension, designed to prolong fear and suffering.

“I could.” Calay didn’t apply much pressure with his boot, standing over Harlan like he’d almost lost interest. “Might have, back in the day. But the game’s changed now. I can’t waste time on grudges. I’m going to take from you the one thing you have left that could endanger me.”

He stooped down and grabbed Harlan by the collar. He hauled him up one-handed with an easy, unnatural strength, then dragged him from the road, back into the shadows of the forest. His feet stumbling over one another, Harlan attempted to wrest himself more upright, but Calay gave his arm a vicious downward jerk. He forced Harlan’s eyes onto the ground, forced him to walk with his back bowed.

How could Harlan endanger him? He’d lost it. There wasn’t a single trick in Harlan’s book that could possibly endanger such a creature.

Calay laid him down in the shade of a birch tree, on a bed of soft grass. His mouth twitched up in an eager smile as he held Harlan in place with his good arm, grip like steel.

He crept his talons toward Harlan’s mouth, probing at his lips with sharp edges.

“Open up,” he said. “Or I’ll open it for you.”

The fear blossomed. Harlan held his breath. Something sharp raked along his gums and his mouth spasmed open, less of his own accord than out of surprised, pained reflex. And Calay forced his bladed fingertips in, wrenching Harlan’s jaw wide. Bark and bone scraped painfully against his teeth as the sorcerer dug in.

His eyes rolling back, Harlan stared at the peeling bark of the tree, silver-grey and sheeting off in little curls. Is this what it felt like when the tree had him?

He knew then what Calay intended to steal. The one last thing Vosk possessed that could still endanger him: his testimony to Tarn about the sorcerer’s true nature.

His voice.

He blacked out soon after Calay got to work, but before he did, he could have sworn he saw tiny purple flowers blooming up through cracks in the birch tree’s bark.

<< Chapter 55 | Chapter 57 >>

Thanks for reading! If you’d like, click here to give us a vote on TopWebFiction.

Chapter 55

They’d returned to the river. And because they were on the river, Adal dared to hope. He’d never felt the intimate spiritual touch of the god his family worshipped, had no stories like the River Navy’s paddleboat captains with their tales of how Loth had rescued them from certain death. But the river was home turf. The river was familiar.

When the sorcerer stumbled and fell into the water, Adal dared to hope that Loth was pressing a thumb upon the scales in their favor. What if, after all that, Calay simply died? That would solve so many of his problems, tie off so many loose threads. He couldn’t believe his luck.

Then Torcha leapt into action to save him, and all hopes of a tidy ending blew up in his face.

Something had happened to them when they’d been separated from him and Riss. He’d known that from the moment they walked back into view. But he hadn’t anticipated that she’d rush to his aid like an old friend, flipping up her rifle and blasting the closest tree apart before Riss could even give the order. Adal and Riss caught one another’s eye through the gunfire, and her face was tough to read.

She didn’t look surprised. Or pleased with this turn of events. But they piled onto Torcha’s coattails, opening fire now that they were given no choice. Calay had lent Riss his pistol, which she wielded in an awkward, two-handed grip. She reloaded it slowly, uncertainly, and the awkward pull and latch of her fingers gave Adal a smile that was wholly inappropriate for the moment. She and Gaspard like two stubborn children, resistant to the changing landscape of war. He’d teased them both for it during happier times.

But something wasn’t right. They’d driven the trees off Calay, but he wasn’t getting up.

Again, Adal dared to hope, but it was out of his hands now. He wasn’t going to hold back. They’d kicked the hornet’s nest, and now they had to settle the swarm.

“You two cover me,” Riss said, pushing up and readying the pistol.

He trusted her to pull back if the odds didn’t look good. She knew Calay wasn’t one of them. She wouldn’t put herself in a dangerous spot for him. But still his stomach seized when he watched her jog toward the mass of splintered trees. It was easy–too easy–to remember her lying in the mud.

Calay had yet to move. Adal squinted through the trees toward the river’s opposite bank, where Gaz had Vosk pinned. He didn’t give his prisoner so much as a glance, gaze fixed on where his friend had fallen.

Torcha was all business, putting round after round into the trees. Each shot detonated with a fury that shook the blades of the grass they crouched in. Calay had amplified their weapons something terrible. Adal didn’t fire, watching Riss through his sights, ready to intervene if anything made a grab for her. She ran up the path Calay had chopped, heading straight for him. A squat, wide-trunked tree swiveled toward her, and as it turned Adal spotted the badly-decayed lower halves of two human bodies dangling from its back. The legs hung skinny and useless, bone jutting from where flesh had worn away. He swallowed and fired, blasting the tree off course.

The rifle kicked back hard against his shoulder, a snap of recoil that stung all the way down his arm. He shook out his hand before flicking the bolt and readying another round.

Riss reached Calay. Torcha clucked her tongue.

“You oughta get down there,” she said to Adal. “I can cover y’all just fine up here, but pistols might be better on those roots and Riss has only got the one.”

Adal checked his sidearm, then left his rifle at Torcha’s feet when she offered him another. Rank be damned, he’d be a fool to ignore her advice when it came to matters of blowing parts off things with gunfire.

Skidding down the talus and into the riverbed, he took a path through the wooden wreckage that was part Calay’s doing and part Torcha’s. Shards and splinters of bark littered the riverbed now, and with it came the sticky brown-black sludge that leaked out of the trees when they disgorged their half-digested contents. He coughed, eyes stinging–the smell of putrefaction was overwhelming. By the time he reached Riss, she’d dragged Calay out of the water. Four trees remained mobile enough to be a threat, by Adal’s extremely uneducated estimation.

Panting, Adal looked to the man slumped at Riss’ feet.

“Is he…?”

Calay coughed, pushing himself up on his good arm, his elbow wobbly. “You wish,” he croaked, spitting out water.

Adal deigned not to answer that.

Yet he discovered, deep down in his gut, a strange wellspring of relief. He was glad to see the sorcerer lift his head, squint up at him with defiance in his bruise-ringed gaze.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Calay said, struggling up to his feet. Adal couldn’t see any wounds on him, but his eyes were sunken pits. His expression was grave. “When that tree took my arm, I bonded with it somehow. I can feel their pain. It’s fucking me up.”

Nobody bothered to dwell on that. Instead, Riss leapt straight into an exit strategy. Adal hung back, levelling the long barrel of his pistol at the closest tree.

“All right,” she said. “Calay, I’m gonna run you back to Gaz. Take Vosk and get as far away as you have to. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Calay’s thin silver-blond brows rose a little, and he stared at Riss for half a beat with an expression of muted surprise. Then another of Torcha’s rounds blasted through the trees and he collapsed again, cradling his right arm to his body. Riss grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him up.

“On your feet,” she growled. “I can get you most of the way there but you gotta walk yourself.”

Adal sought an opening, readying his pistols. He ticked the barrel of one toward a gap between two trees, one relatively undamaged and the other blown to fragments. Riss clocked the opportunity, nodded, and took off running. She dragged Calay along with her, only half under his own power. As they moved, Adal fired twice into the tree closest to them, rewarded by a powerful rush of fetid, rank-smelling air as a pocket of decay inside it ruptured. Mindful of the trees at his flank but trusting Torcha to keep him covered, he started to reload.

He never saw Riss and Calay reach the others, preoccupied with minding his own skin, but he knew they must have when Gaz abruptly trampled up to his side, crushing bark under his boots.

Then on his heels came Riss, heaving up her machete in preparation for a strike. She warned Adal and Gaz back with a holler, then swung. Her blade slammed into a tangle of roots, the steel flaring white, and when she pulled her arm back, a jagged schism of light split the tree from its base to the tips of its branches. With a crack of thunder, it split up the middle as if struck by lightning.

Adal and Gaz ducked and covered, shielding their eyes. Panting, Riss yanked her machete up for another strike, swinging laterally this time into the trunk of another tree. Whatever terrifying curse Calay had laid upon her weapon shot through the tree like nothing Adal had ever seen. Each strike crackled through bark and wood with ease, white-hot fissures appearing in the trees’ skins. They glowed and flashed and split. Riss was cutting through the forest like a living knife.

Adal hung back a step and simply observed. His own contributions felt unnecessary at that point. Gaz yanked him hard by the shoulder to steer him aside from some branches that blew past. Righting himself after being pulled, Adal swung to keep an eye on their rear guard. He yelped.

“Gaz! On your left!”

Then the blade of Gaz’s axe was whizzing past Adal’s face, far too close for comfort, biting into sickly white-yellow bark. The tree was close enough that Adal heard gasps and wheezes from something trapped within it. He closed his eyes and fired into it point blank, not wanting to see the source of those sounds.

The wheeze became a pained rasp, a gurgle like a sucking drain.

The tree fell forward instead of back, snagging tendrils of sharp roots reaching for Adal’s boots.

Then Riss was on them both. Her machete shimmered through the air, glowing white-hot in her hands, and she slammed into the tree with the force of a hurricane. It didn’t just crack and split–it erupted into pieces.

Falling back, Adal reloaded. He kept guard while Gaz dispatched some twitching, grasping branches that had yet to realize they were dead. One well-placed shot over Gaz’s shoulder was enough.

By the time Riss was finished, not a single tree was left intact. And the two that stood at all were bisected up the middle like a fish for gutting. Riss stood amid the inert wood, panting, her shoulders rising and falling. She smeared the back of a hand across her brow, lips parted as she caught her breath.

“You all right?” Adal called.

She reacted to him much slower than she had to the trees, turning her head and considering her answer in silence before she spoke.

“Yeah.” She sounded bewildered.

Torcha loped down the skree, sliding on stones and skidding to a halt at the heap of wreckage. She let out a triumphant whoop, then threw her head back and cackled at the sky.

“Boss, that was amazing!”

Adal rubbed at his cheek with a thumb. “I’m assuming Calay did… whatever that was?”

“Mhm.” Riss turned the machete over in her hand. The blade didn’t glow or hum or anything exotic. It looked the same as it always had. “He said he was giving it all the blood he had left. I gave him a head start. He seemed to think distance was all he needed.”

In concert, they all glanced up and down the river’s banks. No sign of Calay or Vosk. Water burbled peacefully down the shallow braid of the Deel. A single bird cawed in the distance. The quiet rang in Adal’s ears after so much noise. When he breathed, he could still taste the odd metallic tingle on the air that seemed to follow Calay’s magicks.

Torcha tossed Adal his rifle and he slung it over his shoulder. Then she went back to fetch the animals.

“Should we be hurrying?” Riss asked, glancing to her right down the riverbed. Adal presumed that’s where she’d sent Calay running off.

“I don’t think it matters.” Gaz’s voice was soft and contemplative, possessed of a certain morbid finality. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s planning on killing the guy. But even if he was, we couldn’t really…”

Adal’s lips twitched. “No, I suppose we couldn’t stop him.”

He wondered how it must feel, that bond Gaz and Calay shared. It reminded him of his relationship with Riss, in a way. Though he knew nothing of their history, Gaz’s indifference to Calay’s magicks and the latter’s secretive demeanor spoke of a hard-won closeness. Friendship forged under less-than-ideal circumstances.

But unlike Riss, Calay was a monster. Adal kept reminding himself. How did it feel, knowing your closest confidant possessed such terrifying powers? Had he known from the beginning?

A pang of guilt whispered in his ear: and how did it feel, knowing his own closest confidant only drew breath because of those magicks?

“We should get to the rendezvous point downstream,” Torcha said, leading the moa back.

“You think he’ll show?” Adal was on the fence.

Torcha pursed her mouth in thought, then took a swig from her canteen. “Yeah,” she said. “I reckon he will.”

They gathered their things and set off toward where the treetops lightened. Patches of blue sky dared to show between the treetops as the swamp thinned. The air grew drier, thinner, less oppressive in indefinable tiny ways. Adal and Riss noticed at almost the same time, taking in a deep breath each and savoring how easy it came.

Is this really it, he wanted to ask. Are we really on the way out? But having been betrayed by luck only minutes before, Adal didn’t feel like risking it. Instead, he fished a half-austral from his pocket. He flipped the silvery coin up into the air, watched it spin, then caught it in his glove. He didn’t bother looking to see whether it landed face-side up before he tossed it into the river, a modest offering for a god who probably wasn’t even watching.

<< Chapter 54 | Chapter 56 >>

Thanks for reading! If you’d like, click here to give us a vote on TopWebFiction.

Chapter 54

Calay and Gaz laid out their plan. It was just like old times. Except instead of Syl and Booter and Kardel, he was working with an entirely different trio of mental cases. And they weren’t planning anything nearly as fun as a heist. Yet still the bottoms of Calay’s feet tingled with the excitement. His mouth watered the way it did when he walked past a bakery.

He and Gaz would go in first. Calay planned to throw everything he had at the trees, and there was no shortage of weapons in his arsenal. Gaz would corral Vosk, then make for the opposite side of the basin. The others were to step in only if Calay got into trouble. If not, they’d slink around a ways upriver and everyone would rendezvous on the other side.

“You sure you’re all right with this?” he asked Torcha, hovering two bloodied fingers over her rifle. He was going to glyph it up again, leave nothing to chance. She’d given it to him willingly.

Their dynamic had… changed, since the Bridging. He couldn’t quite describe how. It wasn’t as though he could read her thoughts, but he could read her face better. When she flattened her mouth and closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath, he saw the expression for what it was: resignation, not the sign of fury about to boil over. He’d sensed that well of fury in her, how deep it ran, but after they’d Bridged, she had yet to turn it on him.

No, he couldn’t read her mind. But he understood her. And more importantly, she seemed to understand him. It left him with a sticky residue of unease, a nauseatingly vulnerable feeling, to wonder what she’d glimpsed when she peered inside his head.

They’d have to talk later. Once all this blew over. He and Gaz, too.

“I don’t like it,” Torcha said. “But you got a point–if we gotta rush in and bail you out, that means things have gone so wrong regular guns won’t make much of a difference.”

When she said that, Adal and Riss shared a look. Then they too passed their weapons over.

Calay prepared them all, fighting to suppress the smile that threatened at his mouth every time the distant figure in the river shivered and fell with each sweep of his bloodied hands.

###

“Well this is definitely the stupidest thing you’ve ever signed me up for,” Gaz whispered as they crept down into the riverbed, their steps softened by Calay’s magicks.

“How’s about this?” Calay spared him a brief sideways grin, unsure if he was even looking. “You choose the next job.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“Deal.”

They were close enough that the strange crack and rattle of the crawling trees was all around them. Calay had no frame of reference for the noise, his own life one of stone and streets and men. It chilled him even as he wondered whether regular trees sometimes made such sounds.

He felt no fear. Just a steady, eager hunger to get even. And even then, it was tempered with a cool-headedness that his prior violent sprees had lacked.

“No last words?” Gaz paired the question with a chuckle that betrayed his own nerves.

“Nope.” Calay dipped his hand into the flagon of Vosk’s blood–he was scraping the bottom now. All the more reason to save the fucker. The second he croaked, what little blood remained would significantly decrease in efficacy.

“Actually.” He swept his fingers through the air, tracing a complicated series of sigils. “I do have a few: let’s get this over with.”

He hadn’t conjured a blade in some time. The risk on the streets back home was far, far too great. A cutpurse whose feet were preternaturally quiet? That could be explained by skill or inattentive guards. An assassin who could slip past an entire retinue of the city’s finest? Again, skill or luck. A screaming spear of living shadows was a bit tougher to explain.

His hands still knew the way, however rusty he was.

With a snap and flash of sizzling magick, a dark rip opened up in reality. Calay reached his hand inside and pulled, dragged the shadow lengthwise. It shrieked, a high wail that carried on the wind like a rabbit in a predator’s jaws. There was no hiding their approach now. The shadow solidified beneath his fingers. He formed a shaft about three feet long, tapered to a brutal point. Sweeping one hand in an arc, he extended the blade, shaping it from a spear into a scythe. It screamed again, and just ahead of him, the trees all ceased their creeping and clattering. They didn’t turn toward him–didn’t need to, lacking faces and all–but the branches near Vosk ceased their slithering. Instead, their ‘back’ branches stiffened. He didn’t like that either. It wasn’t natural, fighting something without a face. Not knowing if it was even turned your way.

He gave the scythe a testing sweep, dragging another scream out of it. At his side, Gaz grimaced. He’d never liked those. Calay could hardly blame him.

“Well,” he said, trying to steer Gaz’s mind off the screaming. “Wish me luck.”

He didn’t hang around to hear any well-wishes.

Calay charged in. He let his feet lead him, mind falling back into the quiet place it lurked when he moved on instinct. He’d glyphed himself to the teeth, reflexes moving quicker than his brain could process. He swept the scythe in a circle ‘round his person, severing branches everywhere he turned. Wood flew in chips and splinters. The blade kept on shrieking. From the corner of his eye, he saw Vosk cower in the water. Everything happened at half speed.

All the while, he counted down in his head. The spikes of shadow never lasted longer than half a minute or so. The first few times they’d failed on him, he’d decided he’d never take that chance again. He discarded them after thirty seconds. Better safe than sorry.

Thirty. Twenty-nine. He danced a path through the trees to Vosk, clearing the way for Gaz to rush through.

Twenty-two. Twenty-one. Gaz arrived on heavy feet, grabbing Vosk around the middle before he could try anything funny. Calay turned the scythe on the trees before him rather than trying to plow back the way they’d come. Shadow tore through bark. The air rung with fresh screams.

Ten. Nine. Gaz dragged Vosk past the last of the trees, branches grasping wildly at their backs. Twigs tore through clothes. Gaz stumbled. Calay was on him, beating the tree back, the pitch-dark slice of void in his hands turning everything he touched to mulch.

Two. One. He tossed the thing to the ground. Still two trees between him and Gaz. Gaz not yet far enough away. His hands made all the calculations and adjustments without him, body happy to follow the zig-zag orders of his augmented subconscious.

Far away, sensed the way a voice might sound from up a flight of stairs, something nagged at him. A tug, an itch. A scratch in the palm of his still-growing hand. The bark in his body felt its kin nearby, and he shuddered at the thought.

He blooded his fingers and readied the fire. He’d burn the whole grove down if he could. Digging his fingers in, he tore a strip from the ragged hem of his shirt. He sketched bloodied fingertips across the fabric and sparked it to light. Jogging back and away from the nearest tree, he drew another figure in the air, then twirled the burning fabric through it. It stretched, elongated, and crackled. Now armed with a whip of writhing flame, he turned his eyes on the nearest tree.

Sickly grey-barked and tilted at a precarious angle, the tree that crawled toward him was slimmer than the one they’d blown up. Tattered rags and curtains of dried-up moss dangled from its canopy, and it smelled of moist, rich earth. As he moved in for the kill, Calay couldn’t spy anything living melded with its bark, only hints of age-smooth grey bone protruding from the trunk. Small bones. Bird bones.

He cracked the whip of fire across it, the wood sizzling and scorching on impact.

In the same instant, something seized his right arm, a pain so sharp and searing it stole his breath and drove him to his knees. He fell, yanked the whip back, smelled smoke. He was able to scramble back, moving through the river’s shallows. Nothing held his arm. He’d thought he’d felt it, a sharp yank that would wrench his shoulder from its socket, but then–

Water rushed over his forearms, dulling the pain somewhat. Steam hissed up as the river swallowed both the whip and his burning arm. When he lifted his right hand free, he saw black scorch marks lanced across the bark.

The bark in his body had found its kind. Something about the void-scythe had nullified the link, but when he’d burnt the trees, he’d burnt himself to a crisp. Perhaps he’d just been careless. Maybe his fingers had slipped. He had to hope…

The others had seen him falter. The backup plan sprang into action like a mousetrap. Things went off with a brilliant synchronicity, considering how unused to magick Riss’ mercenaries were. Considering they hadn’t rehearsed.

Blasting a barrel-sized hole through the tree before him, the first shot was probably Torcha’s. He imagined it was, at least. Seemed like her. Those were the last coherent thoughts his mind could string together before he felt the impact, the jarring rush of fire and kinetic force blasting through him as though it had been him she’d shot. Howling, Calay dove into the river, rolling sideways and attempting to keep himself moving.

He felt every impact from the gunshots to the tiny, shivering creaks of the branches above him. Felt the pull of them, the way the bark called to him like water felt the call to run downstream.

Gasping, he tried to call out to Torch and Riss, to warn them, to ward them off. But he couldn’t catch his breath. Each fresh round that cracked overhead spiked the breath right out of him.

He’d told them to open fire and shred the things to bits if anything went wrong. And he was going to suffer through every single shot.

<< Chapter 53 | Chapter 55 >>

Thanks for reading! If you’d like, click here to give us a vote on TopWebFiction.

Chapter 53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I reckon we all stink,” Torcha agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torcha’s brows drew together.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“It is,” said Gaz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Riss—” he started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 52 | Chapter 54 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

Chapter 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, there’s one of the birds.”

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

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

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

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

Calay tipped his head back and sniffed the air.

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a ready grunt, Gaz unslung his axe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 51 | Chapter 53 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

Chapter 51

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

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

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

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

“Either of you object?”

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

Torcha fired. Nothing worked like it was supposed to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boss?” Gaz sounded worried.

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

It tapped a finger against his bark-armored knuckles.

His arm changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Geetsha’s dead,” he said, uncertain.

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

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

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

The being’s rippled face regarded him sightlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Can he be removed?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goosebumps tightened across his skin.

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

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

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

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

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

The glowing motes drifted westward, forming a definite line.

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

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

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

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

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

[We are Bridging.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 50 | Chapter 52 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

Chapter 50

Adal followed after Riss, as he always had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’d reached the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adal followed. He always would.

<< Chapter 49 | Chapter 51 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

 

Chapter 49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz saw no reason to lie to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz let his breath out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaz decided to intervene before things simmered over.

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

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

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

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

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

Calay stepped in.

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

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

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

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

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

Something moved at the treeline.

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

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

<< Chapter 48.5 | Chapter 50 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

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 >>

If you’re enjoying the story, please consider voting for us on TopWebFiction! Thanks!

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 >>

If you’re enjoying the story, please consider voting for us on TopWebFiction! Thanks!