Chapter 20

Riss held her breath as Geetsha passed through the colorful, fluttering curtain… but nothing happened. The strange multicolored fibers didn’t sink into her flesh, or twist around her threateningly, or any of the other split-second nightmare scenarios Riss’ mind had conjured. She moved to follow Geetsha through and took a deep breath.

When she breathed in deep, she smelled it: the unmistakable rank stench of decay. The same scent that had curdled her guts when they confronted that tree.

“I smell another one of those things,” she said for the others’ benefit. Then she hurried through, swishing the threads aside with a hand and shouldering her way through the brambles. Stray thorns trying to retake the trail dug into her armor, but she paid them no mind. Like hell was she going to leave her guide alone with one of those trees. Whoever Geetsha was, however much she could or could not be trusted, she was the one who knew the way out.

Riss stepped free of the brambles, then nearly lost her footing. The trail crumbled a little as the plateau dissolved into swamp once more, the ground mucky and wet. She spotted Geetsha near another firepit, more evidence in the lantern-lit dark that someone had once camped here. But why this spot? Back among the fetid standing water and the thorns? On the low ground? Though the thorns might have provided some cover, it was hardly a prime position…

Her lantern’s light caught a glitter of gold. A fan of threads like wool all strung through a loom, or strings of lanterns through the trees at a wedding. And at the foot of it all, the gnarled branches and trunk. A crawling tree and the remains of a lone human victim slumped against its base.

“Geetsha,” Riss whispered. “Help me understand. I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing.”

It looked like the shiny golden thread had erupted out of the man’s back.

“I believe it is rejecting something it ate,” said Geetsha. The words came out slow and flat, as if she were thinking aloud. Lacking her usual sense of cryptic omniscience, Geetsha too just stared. The moment suffused Riss with a sort of strange, tense relief: it was comforting to see their awkward, otherworldly guide expressing the same confusion and horror that she herself felt.

Behind Riss, the rest of their caravan arrived. She held up a fist, warding them back. She didn’t need to shush them; as soon as their eyes fell on the strange tableau strung through the tree’s branches, the mercenaries all fell into stunned silence.

Unlike the tree they’d engaged prior, this one appeared… shriveled somehow. Unhealthy. Its roots had curled in against themselves, tangled and dry, flaking bark in places. Several branches lay upon the muddy ground. Riss couldn’t tell if they’d been severed or if they’d fallen off.

Was it… dying? Or like Geetsha said, just suffering from indigestion?

As if it sensed her curiosity, the tree gave a little shudder. Riss’ hand flew to the hilt of her machete, an immediate reflex. But the tree didn’t move toward them. It just shook, like an animal ridding its coat of dust.

The man tangled through its roots let out a pained whimper. Riss froze.

“He’s alive,” Adal said from behind her, voice low with restrained horror.

“Must have been what Geetsha heard,” said Vosk.

But what, if anything, could they do about it? And even if they could help, should they? Riss squinted through the gloom. It was tough to make out anything through the roots and the dark, but the man didn’t appear to be wearing Adelheim’s colors.

“Does he look like one of yours?” she asked Vosk, swinging her lantern toward him.

Vosk studied the man, his mouth pursing. The man’s face was sunken and tight with dehydration, wrinkles edging his eyes and mouth. Despite that, Riss thought he looked young. His hair was long, not a military cut. She couldn’t see much of his physique, but the hair alone edged her away from assuming he was one of Tarn’s.

“He doesn’t look familiar,” Vosk said at length.

The tree gave another quiver, its dry and spindly branches shaking. The hundreds of filaments–mostly gold and deep red–shimmered with its movements.

“Does that mean we aren’t gonna lend a hand?” Torcha sounded dubious, unconvinced.

“Not necessarily.” Riss didn’t want this to turn into some sort of moral debate. She ran through possible scenarios: delays, potential injuries to her men, whether or not the man would just die anyhow. They didn’t have enough light to judge the severity of his injuries, or how… absorbed… he was.

“I could give him pain relief at least,” said Calay after a moment. “If I could get close enough.”

“It’s possible he knows something,” said Adal, ever her compass.

That part was hard to ignore. Whether the man was one of Tarn’s or not, he may have seen or heard things. The swamp didn’t exactly suffer from an excess of human through traffic.

“Adal, Torcha, Vosk, guns on the tree.” Riss crooked a finger to Calay, then took a few steps forward. The medic, light on his feet, crept behind her. “Gaz, keep the birds back. I don’t want them getting spooked.” She didn’t have to tell him twice.

Calay and Riss halved the distance between themselves and the tree, finding the ground drier and drier with each step forward. Was the tree merely lacking water? That seemed like such an impossibly simple ailment.

Closer up, the survivor’s status did not appear any better. In the flicker of her lamp, Riss could see the sunken shelves of his cheekbones, the way his eyes were low in their sockets. He resembled more than anything the mummified remains she’d once glimpsed in a funerary procession as a child. A trio of mountain climbers had disappeared while attempting to summit Santieze Peak. They hadn’t returned, and for five winter seasons their bodies were lost among the glaciers. When their remains were finally brought home, the entire town had celebrated. But Riss had been unable to tear her eyes from the too-wide grins, the peeling gums, the strange jerkylike texture of their flesh…

“It’s possible we could cut him free,” Calay said at her flank. “I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it, but it’s possible.”

At that moment, the man groaned lowly, as if he’d heard Calay’s words. Riss was wary of making too much noise, but the tree seemed sickened and dormant. She had gunners at her back. She weighed the risks, then gave a little whistle, attempting to catch the injured man’s attention.

“… Hello?”

Loth’s teeth, the man was conscious. Riss glanced at Calay sidelong.

She made her decision then and there: regardless of the risk, regardless of the delay it might cause, she would attempt to cut him free. If he’d been hovering unaware at death’s door, like that wheezing horse, she might have been able to walk on past. But if he was alert? If he could feel what was happening to him? If he had heard a potential rescue walk by without stopping…?

Years of hunting living things with her father had hardened Riss. So too had the Inland Army thickened her calluses. But there were some things she simply couldn’t allow.

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