Once, when Gaz was real young, Kitta had sent him on an errand to the canal district. It was unfamiliar territory, a thin slice of Vasile that ran from the docks to the heart of the city, a borderland zone between the prosperous suburbs and more familiar working-class turf.
He’d crept over the cobbles, over piers, and through the shadows to deliver a parcel, and on his way home, he’d walked over the Grand Canal in the dead of night for the very first time.
For the rest of his life, he’d remember how it looked: flickering torches and wall-sconces lining the shopfronts, their lights reflected in mirror image on the still waters of the canal below. Each bridge that passed over the canal had its own strings of lamps and lanterns to warn punters of their ceilings. They formed archways of gold-orange light, so entrancing he couldn’t bear to leave until hurried along by a night watchman.
The trail they followed through the swamp, lit by the Indefinite-Collective, recalled those softly-shining tunnels of light in a way that warmed his stomach with nostalgia. Boy, that had been a simpler time.
Now, instead of working as a package boy, he tracked through the mud with Calay and Torcha at his sides, following a sparkling trail given to them by a rubbery, melted corpse. But Calay hadn’t hesitated. So Gaz didn’t either. And once they’d… Bridged… Gaz now knew deep in his belly that the Collective meant them no harm.
He now knew a lot of other things, too. But he wasn’t sure exactly what to do with them. The memories of Torcha’s village, the raw and visceral hate and fury that had scorched across from her the second they touched. And behind it, a matching fury from Calay, though his was more measured, a steady burn instead of an explosion. Gaz was aware of all that, but in the way a man whose apartment was burning down was aware that his neighbor’s apartment might be burning down, too: there were bigger things on his mind.
Descending into a foul-smelling ditch thick with mosquitoes, they followed a half-dry creek bed for a time, the stink of stagnant water and algae overpowering. The little spots of light continued to twinkle on tree trunks and boulders along the marsh’s soggy floor, and Gaz noticed when he passed close by some that they were in fact mushrooms. Those delicate, paper-thin fungi that resembled lanterns. They’d seen them on the way in.
“Look, there’s one of the birds.”
Torcha spotted it first, one of Riss’ moa tethered to the low branch of a bent-trunked softwood tree. It pecked at a cluster of red-purple berries amid the foliage, appearing unharmed if suspiciously unattended. An empty rucksack sat at its feet, as did a canteen.
Calay briefly inspected the bags lashed to the bird’s harness.
“All the silks and most of the supplies are still here. They wouldn’t have left this unless it was serious. And it’s tethered, so it didn’t walk off.”
He dipped a finger into the flagon that hung from his belt, then touched at his own face, sketching a three-pronged character beneath his eye. The glyph sizzled and flashed, the blood drying instantly upon his skin. Gaz looked reflexively to Torcha, ready to beg her settle down, but she was staring off past a field of puddles with cool disinterest.
Calay tipped his head back and sniffed the air.
“Torcha,” he asked. “Find something on the bird that belongs to Riss or Adal?”
She approached the moa with slow, measured steps, watching Calay all the while. Digging through a couple of the different packs secured to the beast, she eventually withdrew a patterned scarf of deep blue linen. Gaz recognized it as one he’d seen upon Adalgis at the pub what felt like years ago.
He brought the scarf to his nose, then held it to his face and inhaled deeply, closing his eyes.
“Is that… are you gonna… track him like a sniffer dog?” Torcha scratched a hand through her hair.
Calay yanked the scarf down from his face. “It’s the most effective method.”
Gaz enjoyed the wrinkle of confusion that passed over Torcha’s face. He supposed it was a little unusual, but he’d seen Calay do it so many times that the unusual had become normal for him.
“I guess I just thought it would be more…” She couldn’t seem to find the words. Gaz filled in a few ideas. Magicky? Threatening? Dramatic? Either way, he was glad she’d lost interest in shooting Calay. She could make fun of him all she wanted.
Gaz grabbed the moa and led it alongside them as they took off, following Calay. The dog, which had determinedly trotted along at Torcha’s heels, gave the bird an interested sniff. It stamped a taloned foot to warn the canine off.
He led them through a field of puddles that possessed a shiny, iridescent sheen, and they quickly found bootprints in the mud. Calay tilted his face side to side, his eyes narrowed in concentration. He moved like an animal when he was on the hunt, swinging his head to and fro, movements slow and prowling like a dockyard cat.
“The trails diverge here,” he murmured. “Vosk went one way. Adal went the other.”
Then he jerked to his feet. He swept an arm in a sudden beckoning gesture, his eyebrows lifting.
“There’s something else here,” he said, starting to jog before he’d even finished speaking. “I can hear it. It’s with them. It’s big.”
With a ready grunt, Gaz unslung his axe.
Calay led them to the riverbank, where mud sucked and pulled at their boots with every step. They heard the shrill squeals and shrieks before they saw anything. Gaz followed Calay’s lead and ducked low behind some brush, peering past.
A mass of twisting, thrashing semi-see-through worms swarmed over the river bank. The bodies moved in concert, though they weren’t all connected to any central mass. A thick, fleshy thing like a giant sea flower appeared to be the source of the shrieking, its fronds feeling in all directions as its slimy legs sought their prey.
Riss and Adal were holding their own, standing amid a heap of severed tentacles, their armor slick with the creature’s blood, but they looked tired. Adal only had a knife to his name, the crazy bastard. The slithering tentacle tangle had backed them up against the water, which rushed past worryingly fast. Vasa kids grew up with a deep respect for the power of water, and that river was not swimmable.
Before Gaz or Calay could so much as suggest what to do, Torcha was firing. Her rifle sang out straight past Gaz’s ear. One of Calay’s enchanted bullets blew apart on impact with the beast, which glowed and pulsed blue-purple in agony or surprise. Chunks of wobbly flesh like dessert gelatin sprayed off its trunk.
“Well there goes the element of surprise,” Calay muttered, rising up. He bloodied his fingers and charged in. Gaz peeled off toward Riss’ flank, hoping to open a path for them to cross back onto dryer land. His axe slished through the wriggly bits with ease, and soon he was waving Riss and Adal over. A slippery, barb-tipped limb lashed through the air, but they both managed to slip past it and into the grass.
“Good to see—” Gaz started to greet them, but they both jogged right past him to Torcha.
Well. That wasn’t surprising. Coughing a little, Gaz got back to work, aware of but not feeling entitled to the happy reunion taking place behind him.
At the end of its tether, the moa stiffened and then lowered, fluffing up its feathered wing-stubs and trying to make itself look bigger. It regarded the monster—which resembled a big, slithering jellyfish—with a cock of its beak, talons flashing as it danced from foot to foot.
“Someone might want to watch her…” Gaz dropped the lead and stepped aside from the agitated bird.
Calay cried out over the sound of a heavy, wet impact. Gaz couldn’t see him, but he saw another piece of twitching jelly-body go flying. That seemed as good a cue as any. He dove back into the fray for lack of better orders, wetly hacking his way toward Calay.
A sizzle and flash exploded over his head, and for a moment he thought it was Calay working magick, but then Torcha whooped excitedly, lobbing another of her flares at the mass of tendrils. The flare broke apart upon impact, fire sizzling and boiling up the beast’s wet skin. It shrieked in upset, limbs thrashing and going momentarily rigid.
“Get the lanterns!” Riss hollered. “All the oil you can get your hands on!”
Gaz and Calay’s lanterns didn’t run on oil; Calay’s tricks were a discreet, all-weather option. When Gaz reached him, he was slathered in green goo and grinning like a hungry dog. He sloshed blood across his hand, sketched spindly signatures in the air, then snapped his fingers. Fire erupted across his palm, and he slapped his hand to the closest tentacle, cackling as the flames raced over its membranes, which steamed and crackled.
Riss threw lantern oil over the same flames, splashing accelerant over every surface of the creature she could reach. It moved slower now, bleeding and burnt.
That smell of sizzling oil jogged a memory from the depths of Gaz’s mind: he and Calay splashing oil up the walls of a dilapidated tenement, laughing to stave off their nerves. The Butchers heist. Their first big—
One of the creature’s thicker arms snaked around Gaz’s middle, and he batted at it with the blade of his axe, not quite able to sever it. The wormlike thing ended in a series of curved, tapered claws which snapped in toward him with unearthly speed. He couldn’t avoid the strike, but he took it on the blade. He stumbled to one knee, ducked, moving without thinking. He hacked upward as something sailed over his head, then was rewarded with a spray of sweet-smelling ichor directly in the face.
“Fucking—” He coughed, spat. It didn’t taste as nice as it smelled.
From the corner of his eye, he caught Riss hauling in to finish the job. She climbed up the side of the creature’s center stalk, slashing wildly at its fronds, then emptied an entire lantern down its sucking mouthpiece. Calay slapped his sparking hand to its exterior and all three of them instinctively stumbled back and away, toward where Adal and Torcha waited.
Smoke began to gutter from the hole in the creature’s face. It billowed out thickly, like something over-baked in an oven, and it bellowed out a furious, shrieking wheeze. Its body sloshing forward, it lashed out at Riss one last time, but she was moving with confidence, quick on her feet. She spun and met its grasping limbs with her machete, not giving an inch.
Her shoulders drooped. He could hear her hard breath. With a final hah of effort, she wrenched her blade in a corkscrew fashion, twisting the arm nearest her clean off the beast’s trunk, sweat streaming down her face.
The monster cooked alive, both from the inside and out, thrashing as it died. By the time it fell still, it was covered in scorch marks and patches of crisped skin. It reeked like a burnt pie made with too-ripe fruit. Gaz’s stomach gurgled.
Calay passed him a rag, which he used to wipe the foul substance off his face.
Adalgis cleared his throat. “I believe that’s my scarf.”
Gaz spat out ichor and then dabbed at his mouth. “Yep,” he said. He offered it back, soaked and dripping. Adal took it between two hesitant fingers, pinching the cloth like a man who’d just changed a diaper for the first time.
Torcha leapt into Riss’ arms. Gaz scrubbed the last of the ick off his scalp. The fight was over. His pulse chugged back to its slow, steady baseline. And his mind, no longer preoccupied with keeping alive, strayed back to the Bridging.
He was far from an expert on people, but Gaz had a feeling that maybe you weren’t supposed to get such an intimate glimpse at the things your friends held back. That maybe it was better if they sat you down themselves and told you, once they trusted you enough.
In the midst of all of Torcha’s crunching bugs, he’d glimpsed something from Calay’s childhood that he wished he hadn’t seen. That he felt uncomfortable knowing. A skinny kid on his hands and knees, down on the ground with the garbage, forced to grip shards of broken glass while other, taller kids stomped on the backs of his hands.
He’d cleaned cuts like that off Calay’s palms before. And Calay had never, ever spoken of what had happened. Gaz got the story eventually, of course, gossip traveling as it did. But the story he’d been told didn’t quite explain the catastrophic, violent overreaction that followed.
“You all good, big guy?” Calay stepped around into his field of vision. Gaz coughed and hesitated to meet his eyes.
“All good,” he said, but he didn’t feel good at all. Something felt weird. Something felt wrong. He kept seeing those cuts in his mind’s eye. He glanced down toward Calay’s hands, trying to recall just how many scars he had along his palms. But of course Calay only had one palm now. And his other hand was caked with dried blood and ash.
Calay’s expression changed. He huffed, an annoyed look crossing over his blood-caked face, and pushed past Gaz with a mutter.
“What about you?” Gaz asked his back. “All good?”
“Weird, Gaz,” he said. “Times are weird. I was gonna offer you a smoke, but I still can’t do that, can I.”
“I’ll roll ‘em from now on if you buy,” Gaz offered.
He could handle this. He could deal with ‘weird.’ The ever-growing pile of stuff he was trying not to think about teetered like a heap of poorly stacked dishes stored on a too-high shelf. The whole thing was gonna tumble down sooner or later, but as long as it didn’t crash now he could deal.