“It can’t be time yet,” Calay muttered. But it was. He hauled his sluggish body up, trying to orient his even-more-sluggish brain. Gaz and Torcha had already hunkered down, the latter somehow snoring louder than the former. Calay groped around for his canteen, then took a hearty swig and splashed a little water on his face for good measure. He dabbed it away with the inside liner of his coat.
Vosk stoked the fire, perched on a section of an old, pitted log. He gave Calay a nonchalant two-finger wave, then pointed toward his rucksack.
“Fancy a plum?” he asked, and Calay blinked, still waking. Plums? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even seen a plum for sale, let alone eaten one.
Calay savored each bite of that plum, trying not to dwell on how strange it felt to eat this way. To just have fresh fruit on order like that, even while traveling as a hired sword. Sometimes he felt that by stepping out of his old life, he’d inadvertently stepped into that of a much richer man. Someone like Adalgis.
Instead, he just thanked Vosk for the plum and set his eyes on the darkness beyond the campfire.
“First watch see anything noteworthy?” he asked. Vosk shook his head, the answer Calay had expected. A thread of nerves ran through them all at the moment, camping just up the hill from that tree. If anything unusual had happened, he had a feeling the watch would have woken the entire camp.
So he sat, once again surrounded by that odd, oppressive silence, grateful to hear it broken by human snoring.
“Someone ought to go check the other fire,” Vosk said once the plums–delicious, soft, juicy, sweet–had been consumed. Calay glanced over, hoping that Vosk hadn’t said someone and meant him. He didn’t relish the thought of skulking off down there alone.
The other man seemed to read his mind. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it,” he said. Calay chuffed a laugh, then rolled his shoulders back.
“We should go together,” he said. “It seems unwise to get any closer to that tree solo.”
“Mate, I’ll be keeping the fire between that thing and myself, believe me.”
Grunting quietly, Vosk eased up from beside the fire and patted himself down. He checked his pistol and blade at his waist, then shrugged his cloak off. Despite his assurances to Calay that he’d be keeping the fire between himself and the tree, he was stripping kit for a fight. Just in case.
Calay ticked an upnod to the man as he stepped outside the perimeter of their camp. Quiet-footed, he disappeared into the dark. Calay cocked his head and listened to the footsteps, though soon enough those faded, too.
Despite the snoring bodies surrounding him, he couldn’t help but feel alone. They were a long way from civilization, and longer still from home. Back in the twisting alleys of Vasile, he was feared. He knew the city like the lines of his palm, and over time, he and Gaz had acquired a skilled and loyal following.
Out here in this place, magickal augmentation aside, he was just as vulnerable as any of them. That made the bottoms of his feet itch.
One night not long into apprenticeship, he had been asked to stay after dark. At the start, old Mr. Linten didn’t ask him to stay after often. Perhaps because he didn’t quite trust Calay yet or perhaps because a nine-year-old had limited capacity for usefulness. After a couple years though, when he was taller and had more of a brain about him, he started to get extra work after-hours.
He’d been in one of the supply closets inventorying pottles of creams and vials of eye-watering oils when he heard it: a muted thump from outside, the rustle of commotion that someone was trying to conceal. If he hadn’t left the closet door open for light, he may not have heard it at all.
Creeping to the doorway and peeking just outside, Calay watched as the clinic door edged open. A tall, underfed man whose features were so pallid they almost seemed to glow stepped inside. He bolted the door closed behind him. The hair on the back of Calay’s neck stood up. The intruder carried a truncheon in his hand, and though he wasn’t big, he’d dispatched the guard outside with hardly a scuffle. He crept past the beds of sedated patients like one of the wraiths out of Calay’s childhood scary stories.
Calay considered the possibilities: maybe Mr. Linten owed money to someone. Maybe one of their patients had enemies. Maybe Mr. Linten had enemies.
And maybe, the biggest oh-shit of all, he was some sort of junkie looking to score painkillers or sedatives from the supply vaults. Such as the one Calay was currently hiding in.
His eyes swept around for a weapon. He had his belt knife in the sheath at the small of his back–never left home without it–but knives meant getting close enough to use them, and that was a risk he didn’t want to take unless his hand was forced. Apart from its shelves of glass and ceramic, the supply closet contained a rack of spindly medical syringes, but again, those were worryingly close-quarters. He considered running, but the hallway that led further into the clinic was too far away across a well-lit room. There was no way he wouldn’t be seen. Apart from all that, there was the broom. Calay grabbed it with a sigh. A broom could put distance between his body and that of a grown adult. And it gave him the chance to play stupid.
Straightening up from his ready crouch, he turned three-quarters of his back to the door and began sweeping.
A tall, dark shape loomed in the periphery of his vision, filling the doorway. He turned as if expecting his boss, then startled visibly when confronted with a stranger instead.
“Oh,” he said, pitching his voice a little higher than normal. He hoped his smaller build and a lighter voice might make him look younger, more unassuming. “Can I help you, sir?”
The intruder, his features pale and pointed, eyes narrow and sunken, fixed on Calay with a little sniff.
“The man who owns this place,” he murmured, his voice low. “He has something for me.”
Calay played dumb. “Like a prescription?”
He didn’t like the way the man’s eyes never left him. If he were some junkie looking for laudanum, he’d be combing the room for it. If he were desperate enough for a fix, he might ignore Calay altogether.
“Where does your employer keep the blood, young man?”
“Blood? I don’t think we keep any blood, sorry.”
That wasn’t even a lie.
This man meant them harm. Instinct told Calay to prepare for a fight. He adjusted his grip on the broom at the same moment the intruder took a slow step forward. It wasn’t the first time someone had cornered Calay in quarters this tight. And he was smaller, more nimble than his would-be assailant. Despite his youth, he had years of scrapping under his belt, and even if he went down, he wasn’t going to make it easy for this asshole–
“Hello? Who’s that over there?”
Mr. Linten’s voice from just outside the doorway.
“Calay, are you all right?”
It was just the split second of distraction he needed. The tall man turned toward the exit. Clearly he’d misjudged this broom-carrying child as a negligible threat.
Calay ran at him, smashing the broom into his gut to knock him off balance. At the same time he screamed for Mr. Linten.
Years later, he didn’t really remember what he’d yelled. Only that the man had toppled, and before he could right himself, Calay was on him with the knife. Instinct had taken over then, blade biting into tendon. He hamstrung his would-be attacker and had him bleeding on the floor just in time for Mr. Linten to round the corner and hurriedly put a boot to the man’s throat.
When he was on the floor, he didn’t look so wraithlike. He was just another threat Calay left wheezing on the ground.
That night, Mr. Linten showed Calay where he kept the blood, and from then on the nature of his apprenticeship changed.
With a blink, Calay returned to the present, surrounded once more by sleeping mercenaries and the still-glowing coals of the campfire. Vosk wasn’t back yet.
Out of all the times to suddenly reminisce…
It struck him as a little odd that he’d taken that particular trip down memory lane. He didn’t ponder his early childhood much. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat by a fire and looked back on his apprenticeship, at least the parts of it prior to Alfend Linten revealing his secret.
Something about that feeling, that intuitive scratch in his feet and hands, the way he’d felt sized up…
He’d felt echoes of it when he and Gaz had wondered if Vosk was sizing them up.
Easing up off his seat, he stretched and checked his pistol and punch-daggers. He was probably being paranoid, but paranoia had kept him alive through enough gang warfare and enough of life’s funny little surprises that he wasn’t about to give it the cold shoulder.
Creeping over sleeping bodies, he crouched low beside Gaz. He curled a hand, touching his knuckles to the sleeping man’s chin, hand ready to slap over his mouth if he made too much noise. Instead, though, Gaz’s eyes just shot open, and he turned a bleary look up toward Calay.
“Keep an eye on camp,” he whispered. “Vosk’s gone.”
Gaz grunted and levered himself up on his elbows. When he spoke, his voice was thick with sleep, a suspicious mutter.
“Bad idea to go after him alone. What do you mean ‘gone?’ Something took him?”
“No.” Calay jerked his chin in the direction of the path down the hillock. “He said he was going to check on the fire, but I got a weird feeling about it.”
“Again, if you’ve got a weird feeling, we should go together.”
He patted a hand to Gaz’s shoulder and squeezed.
“They’re all safer here with you watching them.” Gaz issued forth another sour grunt. He knew when he was being flattered. But he relented, letting Calay rise up.
“If I’m not back soon, rouse everyone.”
Gaz didn’t look convinced, but he let Calay go. And really, it made sense: of the two of them, Calay was the one that could handle himself if Vosk was in trouble. Or–as his suspicious mind had begun to believe–if Vosk made trouble. If it was just the two of them, Calay had the upper hand by a mile. Vosk wouldn’t know what hit him.
As he crept away from the camp, he slipped a vial of blood free from his pocket. Dashing some onto his palm, he traced the sign that let him see in darkness. Armed with fresh eyes, he hurried down the vaguely-stomped path between the two bonfires.
Once he’d descended most of the slope, he could see the glow of the fire beyond the thorns. It was still lit.
Hanging back, he brushed through the glittery threads that hung like a curtain over the brambles. He strayed just close enough, crouching in the dark, searching the clearing for signs of anything unusual.
Vosk stood at the base of the gold-spun crawling tree. He was crouched over something, visible as a sloped silhouette. He crouched, touching at something in the darkness of the tree’s roots.
The survivor. What was Vosk doing to him?