Discomfort gripped Calay by the bones, slowing his every step. He and Gaz were no stranger to bizarre, life-threatening situations, but the swamp had a way of evoking a rarer type of fear that he was less acquainted with. It wasn’t the dark; jail cells were dark, the slums were dark, he could handle darkness. It wasn’t the shrieking, which continued to plague them as they walked, ringing out at irregular intervals and–if his nerves weren’t deceiving him–growing fractionally closer.
“I hate this,” he hissed toward Gaz, walking much closer to him than he had yesterday.
Gaz had done away with the hand-at-the-belt posturing. He’d unstrapped his battleaxe from his back and carried it openly, tilted up at his shoulder, attention divided between his flank, Calay, and their backs.
“I shouldn’t be this freaked out.” Calay squared his shoulders and huffed an indignant little breath, irritated with himself. Gaz ticked up a half-smile at him in sympathy but didn’t say anything. Some of their most productive conversations over the years had consisted of Calay just speaking at Gaz until he arrived at his own conclusions.
Geetsha led them up and over a small rise, then down the other side. The backside of the small hill was dotted with flat-topped fungi, their edges curled and dried. They grew in great heaping piles against the bases of almost every available tree, and Calay wasn’t quite certain, but he thought he could gauge a difference in the temperature. The air grew tangibly humid, thick and murky as the puddles of swamp water that blotted the ground.
“Sure is getting warm,” Torcha said up ahead.
“I’d hoped I was finished sweating,” Adalgis muttered.
They came to a stop once the path flattened out again. This section of the trail was broad and hard-trampled. Calay swept a look around the clearing, but nothing stood out as dangerous or noteworthy. The trees that flanked the path were skinnier, more jagged, and after staring at them for a moment, he realized they were dead. He was staring at the hollowed-out trunks of trees that had turned to dry, flaking bark a long time ago.
“Grab fresh water if you need it,” Riss said, unpacking a couple waterskins from one of the birds. “Geetsha says our filters won’t work on the hot spring water up ahead.”
Ah. Hot springs. That explained the heat. A hot spring sounded positively relaxing, but Calay had a feeling that the waters here were nothing like the steam baths at Colimar.
While Calay topped himself up on water and dried fruit, Vosk–the Baron’s man–approached he and Gaz with a little nod of greeting. Or rather he approached Gaz. When Calay returned the gesture with a little upnod of his own, Vosk didn’t even glance at him. So Calay busied himself with making a show of sorting through his medic’s kit while he eavesdropped.
“You see anything behind us?” Vosk asked. “I’ve been keeping a lookout up ahead.”
Gaz shook his head and drummed his fingers on the haft of his axe.
“Ain’t seen a thing,” he said. “Heard plenty of that weird screaming, but nothing’s come that close.”
Vosk let out a grunt that could have been agreement or just acknowledgment.
“We heard screams like that,” he muttered sourly. “When we were on our way out of here. Never did see what was making ‘em. I assumed at the time that it was someone the trees were eating.”
Gaz’s nostrils flared as he took a sharp breath. “You keep saying that. Trees eating folks.”
“Aye.” Vosk carried on. “I don’t really know a better word for it. I don’t know if they’re eating people for sustenance exactly. So ‘eating’ might not be the word. It’s real tough to describe until you’ve set eyes on it. You’ll see once we get further in.”
“I hope I don’t have to see. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Gaz didn’t even try to hide the distaste in his voice. Calay supposed there was no point playing tough in a place like this. If something horrible leapt up out of the swamp at them, they’d all likely shit their pants in unison and any posturing would go out the window.
Vosk looked between Gaz and Calay then, acknowledging Calay for the first time. He tilted a curious look over Calay’s satchel. Was he angling for a peek inside without quite trying to look that way?
“That was some work you did on Riss’ boy,” he said, and Calay got the strange sensation that it wasn’t quite meant as a compliment. More that Vosk was surprised, somehow.
“They did bring me along for a reason.” Calay smiled thinly. “And it isn’t just my companion’s large axe.”
Vosk chuckled. “Of course not. Though I notice you aren’t so laden with weaponry yourself. Just a sawbones, then?”
In the back of Calay’s mind, the skinny street kid he’d grown up as rose from a sort of slumber, paced around the interior of his consciousness. The kid who’d grown up having to gauge whether any stranger met in a back-alley was sizing him up as game. There was a certain instinct he’d honed, a feeling that stirred inside him when he’d looked other kids in the eyes and realized they saw him as prey.
“I’m handy with a few things beyond the bonesaw.” Calay spoke easily, demurely. He coupled the words with a modest shrug.
Instinct told him that maybe it was better if Vosk didn’t know the precise location and capabilities of his pistols, punch-daggers, and other, more arcane bits and pieces he’d picked up over the years. Instinct also told him that Riss ought to know he was feeling this feeling. As far as foreboding feelings went it was among the more minor Calay had ever felt, but the degree of trust he put in his gut was second only to the degree of trust he put in Gaz’s gut.
“Either way,” said Vosk. “It’s good to have you with us.”
Calay put on a smile. “Likewise,” he said. “You’ve been deeper in this muck than any of us. I imagine your expertise will be invaluable.”
Was he laying it on too thick? He couldn’t quite tell. Vosk seemed genuinely placated by the statement, though. He gave them a quick smile of parting and ambled off.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Calay glanced up to Gaz, who was busy staring at Vosk’s back.
“Was that odd to you?” he asked. Gaz shifted a look his way and puckered his lips inward, wordless for a time.
“I can’t pinpoint why that was weird, but that was weird,” he said.
“I get the distinct sensation he’s feeling us out.” Calay took a swig from his waterskin, licking his lips after. His lips had gone dry and cracked when they’d traveled through the mountains, but he was pleased to find his skin was recovering in the lowlands.
And that’s when it hit him, a minor epiphany of sorts: his discomfort with the swamp stemmed from how wet and alive it all was. He’d grown up in an environment shaped almost wholly by man, a jungle of cobblestones and cutpurses and bricks. Just as dangerous in its own ways, but inert. Predictable.
In a place where even the trees crawled with life, anything could be a threat. Any aspect of the flora or fauna could veil some lurking horror.
The longer he thought on it, the more Calay considered it a testament to his own fortitude that he was only tense and wary rather than borderline terrified. The swamp itself felt like a living, breathing, unsettlingly-organic enemy and he didn’t know which of its weapons it would draw first.
They made good progress once they set off again. The trail narrowed and grew sodden, each footstep producing a wet shlup, the mucky earth clinging to Calay’s bootsoles. Riss sent the birds to the rear of their little convoy, and Calay and Torcha took their leads. Gaz maintained guard at the rear.
Calay had never led a moa before. He anticipated it might set him further on edge, however once he took the creature’s lead in his hand, he found it conveyed a little safety. The giant, domesticated bird paced him harmlessly, towering over him and peering alertly all about. He held no illusions about the thing defending him should something leap at them from the shadows, but if nothing else he imagined having it at his side made him a far more intimidating target.
The bird walked along slightly behind him, its wide footsteps oddly quiet given the size of it. A faintly acrid smell wafted past his nose, and for a moment he thought it must be the moa’s feathers or its birdshit or something, but then Adalgis was asking up ahead, “Do you smell that?” and everyone murmured their uncomfortable agreement.
A gradual haze built in the air as they walked, and Calay’s sharp eyes spotted hints of motion out in the puddles of dark, muddy water beyond the trail. The motion, he realized after a moment’s observation, was bubbles. The hot spring, then.
On either side of the raised earth that made up their trail, the swamp began to bubble. It wasn’t the excited, frothing churn of something thrashing toward them in the water. It was more the slow, sludgey boil of a pot of too-thick gruel, viscous and unappealing. The waist-high mist that hung in the air appeared to be the source of the smell, a corrosive tang like some acid from a smithy. Calay reached down to his throat and untied his scarf, then wound it over his mouth and nose, securing the knot at his throat.
Beside him, his moa chirped irately, ruffling its long, scalelike feathers.
“I know,” he said aside to the creature, sympathetic. “This place stinks.”
The joke didn’t help his mood any. All the constant, bubbling motion in the background of the swamp drew his eye this way, then that, giving his instincts little false starts. Every time he thought he glimpsed threatening motion in the distance, all he saw upon further study was swamp bubbles. He noticed absently that the boughs of the spiny, thin-trunked trees that dotted the bubbling swamp were absent of spiders. In fact, apart from scattered bird calls and the buzz of insects, there were few signs of animal life at all.
That was far from reassuring. It just made Calay wonder whether the lack of swamp hens or stoats or wild pigs meant that something worse called this stretch of trail home.
Riss was the one who set eyes on it first.