Chapter 23.5

The clacking, quivering thorns writhed like a sea of snakes. They formed a solid, sharp-limbed wall, encircling the clearing. A tiny aperture appeared not far from Vosk. Then it widened. Densely-choked brambles untwisted as the bushes themselves wriggled free of one another, allowing a short figure in a ragged green cloak to step through the barrier.

Geetsha’s skin seemed to glow in the firelight, an iridescent blue-green. Calay wasn’t certain if this was the magick augmenting his eyes–or something else.

Vosk spooked and startled, twisting so that he leveled his pistol at the woman. She stepped calmly toward them, then stopped when he jabbed the muzzle toward her, as if mere bullets could ward off something that had just peeled the cover of the marsh away around them.

Calay was a man who always had a plan. He’d planned to strike Vosk with a short spell, something to render him unconscious, then bash him once upside the temple. But now he found his boots frozen on the spot.

He didn’t trust Vosk, but did he trust their strangely-glowing swamp guide even less?

Geetsha stared at the pistol in Vosk’s hand like she was unsure what it even was. She tilted her head, bone-white bangs falling into her eyes. With his enhanced vision, Calay noticed details about her that he hadn’t seen before. Or perhaps they hadn’t been there before. It was impossible to tell. Her skin had a strange texture in the shimmery light: powdery almost, like a layer of dust had at one point settled over her skin and never been dislodged.

She addressed Vosk in a curious whisper, voice showing no trace of fear.

“You are threatening one of them, Harlan.” At the usage of his first name, Vosk jerked as if he’d been struck.

Calay decided this fight wasn’t for him. He wasn’t about to get caught in the middle of whatever this fucking was. Trusting that Vosk was fully distracted, he spun and darted toward the path. Fuck saving the survivor. Fuck eavesdropping on whatever Geetsha was confronting Vosk about. Self-preservation came first, and hanging around to find out what happened wasn’t going to help him preserve his own skin.

Thick, snakelike brambles blocked his path. When they’d parted to allow Geetsha through, they’d closed off his initial pathway through the thorns. Calay felt the blood drain from his face. For the first time in many years, real animal fear–the type he couldn’t logic his way out of–surged through his stomach.

Come on, Gaz, he thought, trying to stifle his panic. Notice I’m missing.

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