Riss had no sensation of having slept, so it would have been difficult to say she woke. She transitioned, somehow, from the rain and the thunder and the swift dance of battle to a dark and prolonged agony. Disoriented, weakened, and above all freezing, she curled in against herself on the cavern floor, rolling onto her side.
Adal spoke from above her, told her to be careful, not to move too much. When she didn’t reply, he asked her if she was all right.
Something had happened. She had no idea what. The pain had been blinding. There was a gap in her memory. She snarled in frustration, wordless, and shoved herself up with an elbow. Her teeth clacked in uncontrollable chatters, deep cold gripped her bones like the floor of a tomb. Each breath was a mission.
Adal swept a blanket around her shoulders, and on any other day she might have objected to being so babied. This time, however, she wound it around herself and burrowed in. When and how had it grown so cold? The swamp had been many horrible things, but its atmosphere had remained steadily warm and humid. There had been no surprises there.
Adal, with an arm out. Riss appreciated his asking permission. She nodded stiffly, and then he bundled her up and pulled her to his shoulder. He held her tighter than she expected.
It was then that she got an inkling of what might have happened.
“I am very glad to see you up.” His voice was a subdued whisper, the tone of it implying that her waking was an uncertain prospect.
Beneath the blanket, Riss patted herself down. She felt no obvious wounds, but every part of her ached with a general malaise. A sense of being beaten all to shit. The full-body pains that preceded a flu.
What was the last thing she remembered? Rain. Thunder. Hauling Adal from the pool. All of them rounding on the rock creature as a unit, struggling to haul it down. Frustration that she couldn’t see shit. Worry that she’d have to put trust in Calay and Vosk to tackle it. And then…
“It got me, didn’t it.”
Adal, who was yet to let her go, nodded against her hair.
It was an odd prospect to face. Did she even want to know more? Given the lack of damage to her person, she then had to face another odd and discomfiting truth: Calay must have patched her up using whatever dark methods he’d used upon himself. Stiffening, she ran her hands down her front and along her arms. The realization sent a whole new cold coursing through her. The growth that now jutted from Calay’s arm, would that start growing inside her?
Hands spasming in alarm, she threw the blanket off and shoved away from Adal, falling back on her rear and looking herself over. Her armor was spattered with blood, though her skin appeared clean and undamaged. She felt at her ribs, her throat, her face. She paused and considered the beat of her heart, skittish with fear but feeling roughly the same as ever.
“Riss…” Adal started to say something, but she interrupted him, eyes blazing.
“What did he do to me?”
Adal hesitated. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “He saved you. We had no choice.”
Visions of bone-spurred horrors and twisted, grey-barked abominations raced through her mind at runaway speed. She held a hand to her chest. Did everything feel normal? And what of the parts of herself that she couldn’t touch to be sure? She imagined spikes of bone erupting from her back, scythelike shards of it exploding out of her like shrapnel, shredding her from the inside out until her flesh dripped away and she resembled one of the horrors that called this place home.
“Riss, you’re fine.”
But who was he to say that? Who was he to judge? How could Adal know that for sure? Calay hadn’t even been able to properly fix himself.
When she breathed in, was anything gurgling unusually?
“What have you done,” she whispered through her teeth, as much to herself as to him.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Adal repeated. “It was… bad. You had minutes left. It was either let Calay work on you or lose you entirely.”
She gulped in air in an attempt to calm herself, but calm was a faraway place. Calay had touched her with his sorcery now. Even if it didn’t disfigure her for life, what of the consequences? Did he have power over her now? Could he magick her at will? Were there unseen side effects? Had Adal considered any of that?
“I can’t believe you.” She palmed at her face, rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands in the vain hope that she might wake up again, that this was a nightmare interlude that would soon pass. “Didn’t you consider that—”
Adal cut her off, his voice low.
“I considered the only options we had. Hate me if you want. I made the call. I had to.”
“I don’t hate you. I just—”
“You were meat, Riss.”
She closed her eyes again. To steady her clenching fingertips, she threaded them through her hair. Then she combed them over her scalp, driven by terrified compulsion to palpate the contours of her skull. The smooth curvature of the bone did nothing to reassure her. What could be growing inside it? Just below the surface, where she couldn’t see or feel?
You were meat.
But was she still the same meat she used to be?
She heard voices further down the cavern, Calay and Gaz engaged in quiet conversation. But she didn’t hear Torcha. Or Vosk. Smoothing her fingers through her hair, she swallowed. Her mouth felt terribly dry. She didn’t want to ask Adal for water. She didn’t want to ask him for a damn thing. Selfish as it might have been to grind him down in her anger, she needed that anger to spark herself forward. As long as she was pissed off at something, she wouldn’t sink into despair.
“We need to get moving.” Adal rose up from where he’d been sitting, a stiff shove to his feet. “Torcha led the thing off, but there’s no telling whether it will be back.”
The air in Riss’ lungs felt heavy, thick as sludge. “Led it off? Alone?”
Hot, aimless fury ricocheted around her insides with nowhere to go. Riss levered herself up, smacked away the hand Adal offered. He stood there in the face of her anger, ready to absorb more if need be. But she found she couldn’t inflict it on him. As much as she wanted to scream in his face. Gods, her legs hurt. She felt sick with frustration. Was she shaking with exhaustion or rage?
“We’ll get her back,” said Adal, and it just wasn’t enough. No words were enough.
Nauseated and dazed, moving through the world like it was all some terrible dream, Riss packed up camp. She directed Gaz to pack what he could, ditching all but the largest tent. She sent Adal to gather Torcha’s things, because she knew he’d treat them with the care and respect they deserved. Hitches of panic squeezed at her insides when she surveyed the camp and found Torcha absent. And when her eyes fell on Calay, she looked away immediately. If he so much as stared her in the eye, she wouldn’t be able to hold it in anymore.
The hostility she felt for Adal, it was really meant for Calay. He was the one who’d befouled her. Whatever he’d done. Adal had thought he was helping. He’d panicked in the heat of the moment. As the tide of her anger ebbed, she was able to acknowledge that. At least internally. It might be some time yet before she could swallow her bile and say it to his face.
And then she found the source of the blood they’d used to fix her: Vosk, still pallid and quivering on the cavern floor. They coaxed him from his fetal position and, after a moment’s deliberation, slung him over the back of the moa. Riss considered leaving him, but the promise she’d made to Tarn wouldn’t let her do that. The man needed to face his punishment. Tarn deserved to hear the truth. So much of this job had spiraled completely beyond her control that she seized on justice with a fanatic’s grip. She’d sooner march herself to death than let Vosk escape.
The rain, at some point, had abated. The dog, at some point, had disappeared again. Riss felt the threads of control slipping through her fingers. She wondered what Gaspard would have done.
Numb with fatigue, they abandoned camp and returned to the trail, cut from seven to five. Riss stared off into the murk of the forest, the trunks of trees wreathed in low fog, and looked for any sign of Torcha. But it was like she’d never passed through at all.
The rain had washed away even her footprints.
How many times had Torcha saved them, Riss wondered. The Fourth had owed their lives to her from the moment they’d crossed paths.
The siege at Semmer’s Mill was a memorably shit five days in the midst of several shit months in the middle of a big shit war. Unlike many of the smaller settlements scattered around the textile district, the northlanders had taken Semmer’s Mill early and driven most of the locals out. Riss would have done the same thing, were she in charge of the campaign. Locals couldn’t be trusted to be friendly, unless you had the manpower to ensure their compliance.
She could still feel the warm, dry heat of the high-summer sun, scorching both her skin and the thatch of the roof she lurked upon. Everything was so dry it crackled. Growing up on the steppes as she had, where the winds were cold and vicious, she’d learned to relish sunlight in whatever form she could take it.
Atop the low roof of a stable, though, that was pushing it. There was some definite waft drifting up in the heat. Gaspard, who lay on his belly beside her, the both of them as low to the thatch as possible, seemed unbothered.
How is he so relaxed? Riss felt a stab of envy for her commander. They could find us at any moment.
The Fourth was currently holed up in a farmstead outside of town. Gaspard and Riss had patrolled toward town, then been forced to duck down the streets when they were surprised by a unit of northerners patrolling the other way. As best she could tell, they hadn’t been spotted. Gaspard was as quick on the streets as he was in the bush, and he’d led her to the rooftops in a heartbeat.
“The stables?” She’d been skeptical. “Every single one of their riders will stop here. Every last one.”
Gaspard had merely hefted his shoulders, scratched through his beard, and laid down, like that hadn’t been a consideration in the beginning and it wasn’t about to become one.
The better part of a day had come and gone. Below them, exhausted soldiers wearing the brown and gold of Zeyinade’s army milled around. They pissed in alleyways, ate hardtack, tended to their horses. Riss was never an ideologue of any sort, let alone a nationalist so rabid that she thought her enemies inhuman. Still, it was odd to watch them go through the motions of everyday life. It produced in her a strange tension. She’d have felt more at ease if they were tearing the town apart hunting for her.
Gaspard, by comparison, didn’t give a dry fart. He popped one of those vile salted liquorice candies into his mouth and sucked on it boredly, baking in the sun.
Twilight fell. Riss’ stomach grumbled. Gaspard silently offered her a candy. She refused.
Within the hour, she relented and ate one. Clacking the hardened liquorice against her molars, she noticed that the intense salty flavor did have a stimulating effect. It was so unpalatable that it woke her up. Was that the secret of his attachment to the damn things?
A shot rang out somewhere in the long shadows of the millyard. Riss stilled. Beside her, Gaspard lifted his head, single eye asquint, as if he’d been waiting for such a disturbance all along.
After the shot came a man, wailing piteously as he staggered down the road. He hurried toward the welcoming light of a house where his fellows were bivvied, steps arrhythmic and stumbling. The light was fading, but Riss could see the dark trail he left behind him.
He reached the doorway, and just as he threw the door open, his temple blew open and he sagged to the ground. A hair later, Riss heard the shot.
Gaspard put a palm between her shoulder blades, shoving her down into the thatch. They hunkered there in silence, barely breathing, as more distant shots rang out. The stables and house below exploded into noise. Riss strained to pick apart details in the commotion but found it difficult.
A woman shouted, her voice an authoritative bark that was cut off mid-syllable.
The retorts were deep, heavy. Some sort of large-caliber rifle. Riss was far from an expert on firearms, reliant on the silence of a bow in her line of work. As far as she knew, there were no other Inland remotely nearby. Was this some sort of internal scuffle? Unruly townsfolk? Firearms were unusual in these parts, far too expensive, but not unheard of.
Her curiosity got the best of her. She had to know. Rolling sideways, she attempted to peek over the crest of the roof, but a hard arm rolled her backward. Gaspard pinned her down with a forearm to the shoulder, shaking his head. He signaled with his palm, tipped two fingers downward. Wait.
Soft, agonized wailing rose up from the road. It didn’t sound like anyone was still moving around down there. Until the sound of heavy, booted footsteps reached Riss’ ears. A lone individual on foot, approaching from the right, from whence the shots had come. Gaspard’s brows drew low. He waited. Riss waited. Interminable waiting. She hated it.
A sudden voice from below.
“I saw you up there! You can come on out!” A young woman’s voice, her accent a relaxed twang. Someone was calling them out, like a parent beckoning her kids back from playing too close to the creek.
“Come on! I even left one alive for you!”
Riss looked to Gaspard for orders. He seemed as baffled as she was. Finally, with a lift of his shoulders, he peeked up over the rooftop. Riss stayed low until he signaled. They both rose to their feet, startled by the sheer scope of the violence that greeted them.
Six men and women lay dead, blown apart to various degrees. One woman in gilt-edged officers’ clothes remained living, buckled on her knees, her hands folded behind her head. She was bleeding, or splashed with blood. It was tough to tell from so high up.
She knelt at the feet of a short, skinny figure in a dingy grey coat. The woman—and it was a woman, Riss was pretty sure from the voice—carried an enormous rifle over her shoulder, and presently she held a smaller pistol to the officer’s eye socket. Lit only by the faint glow of candles and lanterns through windows as she was, Riss couldn’t make out any details.
“You wanna interrogate this gal or should I just crack one through her skull?” the hooded woman asked. “I’m not bothered one way or the other, but her crying is real tiresome.”
Gaspard was never one to turn away a gift. When they clambered down, his first order of business was securing the hostage and ensuring she couldn’t call for help. Which left Riss alone to survey the damage, to stare in stunned bewilderment at the puddles of blood congealing in the pitted cobbles.
She wasn’t new to violence. War was messy. Life was cheap. Every cliché in the books rang true now that she’d lived it. But this had not been a battlefield engagement. This was wholesale slaughter of people—regular people—who’d been grasping at the chance to take a breather.
Which is why, when the perpetrator finally revealed her face, Riss was startled speechless.
Holstering her pistol, the mystery woman flipped her hood back, revealing that she was not a mystery woman at all, but a mystery girl. It wasn’t just her height. Her cheeks were baby-chubby, dotted with freckles. What Riss had mistaken for malnourishment was just the knock-kneed skinniness of a body that hadn’t yet filled out.
She picked a fleck of brain matter out of her brassy red-orange hair, patted herself down, then asked Gaspard to check their prisoner’s pockets for a handkerchief.
Torcha had been unpredictable since the beginning. Wild, itinerant, angry. Prone to acting out.
Riss should have seen this coming.