Calay detested weakness. All of his lowest, most shameful moments could be tied back to weakness in childhood or weakness when life had got the better of him. And as he struggled to catch his breath after the boulder creature’s departure, he felt weakness in his bones so keenly. It evoked memories of starvation–of feeling spent, empty, running on fumes.
Gaz beside him wasn’t faring much better.
On some level he still couldn’t quite believe Gaz had done that. The amount of blood he’d given for the spell–that was quite a risk. Gaz had seen the effects blood sorcery had on donors. He’d done it anyway.
Calay felt like he should say something. Like he should impress upon Gaz that he knew what a sacrifice that had been. But there just hadn’t been a good moment. Riss wasn’t giving them an inch of space alone, and then they’d barreled straight into the path of that golem. Now they were chasing another loose end, when all Calay wanted was to sit back down and be nice and immobile for a while.
They walked a narrow trail through marshland that grew wetter and wetter, until deep stagnant pools flanked either side of their path. The water reeked and heavy, buzzing clouds of insects hugged low to its surface. Mindful that they could be bloodsuckers, he reached into his belt, then grimaced when the sharp, tapered bone of his missing right hand pinged off the buckle. He hoped the thing would grow some damn fingers. Apart from being hideous to look at, having to left-hand his way through basic tasks was a growing annoyance.
He knew he should consider himself lucky that ‘a growing annoyance’ was the worst he had to deal with, considering how close to the brink he’d come. He also knew, if he examined himself at any level beyond the basic and shallow, that his annoyance masked deeper fears and uncertainties.
Riss signaled for them to halt. Past a curtain of low-hanging moss, Calay caught glimpses of a campsite over her shoulder. She led them closer, and he had to appreciate how silent she was on her feet. Calay had a reputation back in the alleys for quiet, skillful work in the shadows, but he cheated and used a weave to cushion his footfalls. Riss, on the other hand, was all skill.
Which made it all the more frustrating that he now had to consider her a threat.
She led them straight into the campsite without calling for a hail, which meant it was deserted. Once they brushed past the moss, Calay could see the state of things–an aged campsite in a state of similar mess to their own, nature already busily reclaiming the cleared spots.
Gaz grunted, then called Riss over by name.
“Look,” he said. “This was a logging camp.”
Indeed, he’d spotted a couple heaps of sawdust near the remnants of a fire. And as they explored further, they discovered a grove of shorn-off stumps. Crawling trees whose roots were withered and dead. Calay couldn’t help but think of them as decapitated rather than chopped down.
They found the dog not far away, curled up at the base of another cluster of stumps. It did appear to be the same dog, tall and tawny and shaggy, though it appeared significantly thinner than when they’d last seen it.
Perking up as they neared it, the dog lifted its head and ears. Riss approached it slowly, cautiously, like she didn’t quite trust it. A wise move, considering Geetsha’s ominous warnings about mimics in the muck. The canine sniffed her hand and gave a little whuff of acknowledgment, though, and after that Riss seemed fine with it.
Even in his half-alert state, something about the stump caught Calay’s eye. He stepped closer, clambering up onto one of the massive, dead roots to get a glimpse at the flat top.
Embedded within the many concentric rings were smooth and compressed grey-white bones. Warped by what Calay assumed were the tree’s natural growth processes, the bones had been squeezed thin, wrapped around the core of the trunk in little half-moons, forced to take the shape of the rings of bark.
The sight was equal parts hypnotic and horrifying.
Was it just his imagination, or did the bark woven around his stump feel… itchy?
Wary, Calay stepped back.
“Take a look at this,” he said to the others. “This must be what it looks like long after it’s absorbed something.”
“I’ve seen this before.” Riss’ expression was pensive, but her voice carried a note of disgust. “The castle at Adelheim uses wood like this.”
“Meldwood.” Vosk spoke up from the rear of the group. Calay had avoided looking at him for the entirety of their walk, lest vengeful urges bubble up while he was still far too weak to act on them.
“I think it’s about time Vosk gave us some answers,” Calay snipped. He couldn’t help himself.
“That’s rich coming from you.” Torcha, glowering.
Calay rubbed his fingers along the sharp bone shard that projected from his stump. Slowly, new flesh was growing down and covering it. The spell was still working, albeit at a crawl. It wasn’t quick enough that he could sense progress while looking at it, but every time he glanced down, the arm looked a little thicker, suffused with a little more hints of human skin tone. The knuckles had yet to completely cover over, and he wondered if he’d feel them click into place when they did.
“If we have to beat it out of him, please let me.” Gaz this time.
However he’d acted while Calay had been convalescing, Harlan Vosk did not seem to have made himself any friends.
The dog hadn’t moved from its spot at the base of the tree. Torcha crouched and scratched it below the chin. Something sparked in Calay’s tired mind.
“The trees ate his owners, didn’t they,” he said. His eyes fell on Vosk, and he could tell by the tic through the man’s face that he was on to something.
“Come on, Harlan.” Riss’ voice was weary. “Don’t make us threaten it out of you.” Putting himself in the mercenary boss’ boots, Calay actually had some empathy for her. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Everyone was worn thin.
Adalgis intercepted that. “You aren’t asking the questions, Calay.”
Vosk sank down atop a nearby stump, bending slowly and seeming to crumple a little. He moved with obvious discomfort, and his words carried a subtle lisp now. Someone must have handed his ass to him while Calay was out. Good.
“You’re right,” Vosk sighed the words as much as spoke. His shoulders sagged. His eyes drooped at the corners. He had the look of a man defeated. “The trees ate the dog’s owners. And the owners were clothing merchants. I don’t…” He trailed off, mouth drawing in a wide, split-lipped grimace. “I don’t know how Geetsha could have known that.”
Everyone quieted to listen. Calay folded his legs and sat atop the stump, bones be damned. He was too tired to care if he looked weak in front of the others. It felt as though the spell was still draining him, still siphoning away some vital essence. Gaz slumped down heavily beside him, looking wan himself.
“It’s all simpler than you might think.” Vosk sounded glum. Calay didn’t care. Finally, some answers.
“I was on Lukra Gullardson’s logging expedition. Several of them. This time, at the crossroads we came across a caravan out of the western coast, carrying back cloth and beads. They had mounts to spare and we’d had a better run at the trees than usual. We had more wood than we could carry back.
“Lukra struck a deal with them: a cut of the lumber in exchange for use of their packbeasts. We caravaned back to the grove together.”
He grew reticent, the words coming slower until they dried up completely.
“Well? Out with it.” Adalgis sounded impatient. He kept rubbing at his eyes, which were swollen and a little red.
“I have something for that,” Calay said.
“I bet you do.”
Was this how everyone was going to react to his offers for assistance now? Dripping with sarcasm? That would get old in a hurry.
“Eye drops,” Calay deadpanned. “I have eye drops.”
Riss gave Vosk a kick in the shin. He bit back a grunt of pain and leveled a narrow, baleful look up at her. But he did keep going.
“Our first intrusion had disturbed the trees, and they’d moved closer while we hauled the first load of wood away. We were set upon. Lost several men, between the merchants and ourselves.”
“Here?” Riss swept a glove around the clearing.
“Yes. Here.” Vosk’s mouth tightened. “We got the trees under control, but…”
This time, it was Riss who seemed to have the epiphany. She jerked back from Vosk, physically recoiled from him.
“You got greedy, didn’t you.” She stated it flatly, not even intoning it as a question. “You turned on them. That’s why Geetsha was telling you to tell us about the merchants. Because you and Lukra killed the rest of them.”
That explained the complete lack of survivors on the caravaners’ part. Why only Tarn’s men appeared to have made it out. Calay had to admit, he might have done the same thing.
“You’re mercenaries. Don’t act like you’d be here if not for the money.”
Except Calay got the distinct impression that Riss wasn’t. Sure, she’d mentioned the effort she’d gone to negotiating the contract and their rates. And the rates she was offering him and Gaz were generous. But Calay could sniff an avaricious rat, and she didn’t give off that odor.
“So what happened to Lukra?” she asked. “That’s the whole reason we’re here, Vosk.”
“Lukra died in the initial skirmish. I took over. I was the one who made the call to jump the merchants.” He said it with this sad twinge of distaste, as though his conscience had finally caught up to him and only now his actions had prompted dismay.
Riss went utterly blank. She stared off into the middle distance for a beat, dumbfounded.
“So you’ve known where Baron Tarn’s heir was this entire time,” she said.
Vosk tensed up, anticipating a blow. “Yes.”
No blow came. Riss tensed up, shoulders stiffening. She snapped her eyes shut hard, then sucked in air and simply sat down. She sank down onto the ground cross-legged, then held her face in her hand.
It was not the reaction Calay expected.
Adalgis however was on the case. He stepped self-importantly closer to Vosk, picking up where Riss left off.
“So you’re saying this entire enterprise has been for nothing.”
Calay could not believe the balls on that man. What had Vosk anticipated would happen?
“I was just going to lead you to the campsite, search for ‘survivors’, and lead you back out. None of this other shit was supposed to happen.”
“Well,” Calay interjected, “best-laid plans.”
Out of all the monsters they’d stared down, it was simple, stupid human greed that had killed the nobleman. Calay might have laughed were it not for the fact that these revelations meant he had been mutilated for nothing. Gaz had suffered for nothing. Anger, black as tar, licked at his insides in the moments he wasn’t too tired to indulge it.
“Well indeed.” Riss’ voice, from down at ground-level. “We have a new objective now, then.”
“Yeah, boss?” asked Torcha.
“Mhm.” Riss rose back up, her momentary spell of whatever-that-had-been over. “Investigation’s off. All we have to do now is get out of this Loth-damned swamp and bring Vosk to face Tarn.”
A flicker of hope. She seemed so single-mindedly focused on Vosk now. Perhaps the mercenaries’ coverage would slip and Calay and Gaz might be able to finagle an out.
He flexed his fingers, still disconcerted by the lack of motion, the lack of feeling where his right arm ended. Intrusive thoughts flickered through him a dozen a minute. The things he’d do to Vosk if the others turned their backs long enough.
But… no. Vosk was going to hang regardless. Or Riss would do worse to him. That was all the vengeance necessary, wasn’t it? Calay remembered the last time he’d insisted on personal revenge, up close and bloody. It had felt invigorating at the time, but his actions had hauled an entire city down on his people.
Maybe he didn’t need revenge. Maybe justice would be enough. And as much as Riss was no longer on his side, he trusted her to do the just thing. It seemed baked into her. The Domain had spat out a single soldier that wasn’t a grifter and he’d somehow stumbled upon her. Would have been funny were it not such a wrench in the works.
They took a short rest. Gaz passed him some cheese on hardtack. The dog circled around for scraps, but it gave Calay a wide berth.
What a mess they were.