The sheer depth of the gratitude Riss felt at seeing Torcha surprised her. Not that she’d expected to be ungrateful—far from it—but she didn’t know she still had it in her to feel so overwhelmed. Not after all the swamp had put them through. She’d thought she was a lantern running on the last gasps of its oil. More surprising still was how Torcha responded with equal fervor, bounding across the mud and leaping into her arms as soon as the fight was won. Riss encircled the smaller woman in a fierce hug and squeezed her tight.
“Never, ever do that again,” she ordered.
Torcha’s voice was muffled by the folds of Riss’ cloak. She let out an indignant huff into the filthy fabric. “I did what I had to, sarge.”
Something nudged into Torcha from behind, throwing her off balance a little.
“Hah,” she said. “And look. I even found this little guy again. Doesn’t that just beat all?”
Looking equal parts mud and fur, the dog sat near Torcha’s boots, its tail giving an enthusiastic wag once she finally acknowledged it.
Her heart still pounding from the exertions of battle, Riss took a moment to catch her breath. She mussed Torcha’s hair, then stepped back, surveying her team. The instinctual peripheral-vision head count she always performed in the back of her mind felt off. Adal stood close by, giving Torcha a brief and candid little smile that spoke volumes. Gaz and Calay loitered near the twitching corpse of the monster. Calay squatted and prodded one of the dead beast’s limbs with his knife, inspecting it.
She was still expecting to look up and see five others. But Vosk was gone, wasn’t he.
That revelation didn’t just take the wind out of her sails. It sank the whole ship. They’d let Vosk give them the slip. Then that critter had worn him like a skin-suit. Now they had nothing to take back to Tarn but their own slapdash version of the story and the news that they’d gotten his guide killed. They hadn’t even been able to recover Lukra’s remains. Carrying Vosk back to Adelheim to be dealt with, that was the absolute least they could have done. And now…
The misery floated up from her guts and straight onto her face, a grimace she couldn’t scrub off. She distracted herself by taking a pull from her canteen, gulping down water.
Just take satisfaction in knowing Torcha’s safe, she told herself. But that did little to stem the tide of could-haves and should-haves that bulged against the levees of her mind, threatening to overrun her.
Calay approached, reeking strongly of sulfur and smoke. Riss sniffed and wrinkled her nose. He let out an affronted noise and flapped his sleeve, squaring his shoulders.
“I know I stink, thanks,” he said, more lighthearted than she expected.
“I reckon we all stink,” Torcha agreed.
Riss flitted a look between the two of them. So they were getting along now? She had to wonder what had occurred when the northerners had gone to fetch her. She’s talking to him like he’s people again.
“Stink can be remedied,” said Adal. “And it can be remedied much easier than any of the other misfortunes that might have befallen us.”
A thin, sharp grin edged its way up Calay’s mouth. “Are you saying you’re glad I’m not dead? Ah, Adalgis, I knew you’d come around.”
Riss couldn’t take it. She was glad on one level to see them laughing off that close call, to see her team existing as a cohesive unit, however troubling the implications of that might have been. But when she reached inside herself to try to join in the banter, she found her reserves empty. She couldn’t make it happen. She swallowed and took a single, wide step away from the entire conversation, turning to face the swamp lest her face give her away.
In the Fourth, she’d earned a reputation as a militant hardass in an army full of militant hardasses. Though she later grew to learn that dispassion did not in fact make one stronger, a façade of dispassion lent strength to those under your command. No one liked seeing their commanding officer break down like a fucking baby.
But they noticed. Of course they did. If not her sudden reluctance to join in, they noticed Vosk’s conspicuous absence.
“So I can’t help but notice…” Torcha trailed off, appearing at Riss’ side once more.
“Yeah.” Riss’ voice was low, the single word forced out in a curt little grunt. “I know. He’s gone.”
Torcha looked to Calay, for some reason. “Gone?”
“Mhm.” Riss ticked her chin toward the limp, slimy remains of the creature coiled on the ground. “He’s gone.” Forcing the words out felt like spitting broken glass.
Torcha glanced to Calay again, then off toward the trees. “What do you mean gone?”
“I mean the thing we just killed got to him first.” Her shoulders tensed. She fought to keep her voice steady. Speaking the words aloud felt like admission of failure.
“I think it was one of those mimic-beasts Geetsha warned us about.” Adal regarded the corpse as he spoke. “It wore Vosk like a disguise to get to us. Then it just sort of… shed him off.”
Torcha’s brows drew together.
“That don’t make any sense,” she finally said. Then she looked to Calay again. Whatever rapport the two of them had gained while out of Riss’ sight, it had her constantly looking to him, almost as if for guidance. That was… odd. Riss didn’t like it. But it was so far down her present list of problems that it barely warranted a second thought.
Calay glanced around, turning in a slow circle. Gaz and Torcha followed his gaze, the three of them studying the riverbank. Riss couldn’t see whatever it was they were fixating upon.
“You’re sure it got him?” Calay sounded uncertain.
“I can’t be sure of anything out here,” Riss said, her voice a dour mutter. “I’m not sure how long it was pretending to be him. Possible it got him a long time ago.”
Calay strayed his remaining hand to the blown-glass canteen that dangled at his hip. He hovered his fingers over it, then looked up toward Riss again, then back, like he was trying to take measure of her.
“There’s a test I can perform,” he said. “But I didn’t want to try it without warning you. Lest you bury that machete in my face and all.”
“This isn’t the time to be fucking cute about your abilities, sorcerer.” Riss turned on him with an anger that surprised her more than it appeared to surprise Calay, who didn’t budge.
“The trail’s still sparkling,” said Torcha, and Riss had no earthly idea what she was on about.
“It is,” said Gaz.
Riss was starting to feel like she was always the last one to find out. But she didn’t ask.
“Perform your test,” she said to Calay, in a tone that added a silent and that’s an order.
Calay dipped two fingers into the spout of his flagon. When he withdrew them, they were shiny and dark red with blood. He flicked a few droplets onto himself, then made a warding gesture before his face, fingers forming a brief sign. The air before him shimmered briefly, his sharp features fading into softer relief. For half a second, Riss viewed him as though through a dirty window. Magick. Riss knew the thing she was observing was magick. But it was frankly not as flashy as she’d expected. The dirty window effect faded and the air between her and Calay returned to normal.
Calay sniffed, then spoke with complete certainty and zero hesitation. “He’s alive.”
Everyone but Gaz stared at him with varying degrees of curiosity and skepticism. The little spell he’d rendered had been so mild, so anticlimactic. How could it explain anything about what had befallen Vosk? He hadn’t even looked in the direction of the creature that might have killed him.
Calay cottoned on to their cumulative desire for an explanation, then waved a hand.
“It’s his blood,” he said. “The blood I harvested from him. It still works. If something had topped him off, this blood would be next to useless.”
That seemed like valuable knowledge to remember for later. Riss pursed her lips. “I see.”
“And like Torcha says, the trail’s still sparkling.” He slanted a glance toward Torcha, then to Gaz.
“Geetsha’s people,” he explained. “They lit a trail for us, to Vosk. They didn’t outright say it’d disappear if he did, but between that and the blood…”
“What trail?” Adal looked all around, staring at the roots of a nearby tangle of trees, then elevating his gaze all the way to the sky. Riss too saw nothing.
“I don’t think you two can see it,” said Torcha. “Geetsha’s folks uh, did something to us.”
Riss almost asked. She reminded herself to pursue that in detail later. But for now, she seized on the fact that her people seemed to think Vosk remained alive. Exactly who Geetsha’s people were and what they had done to Torcha—an ominous phrase if ever she’d heard one—could wait.
She also wondered whether Geetsha’s people had shared their thoughts on Riss getting their envoy killed, but nobody volunteered that information and she wasn’t about to ask.
If they’d lit a trail toward Vosk through some sorcerous means, they knew who was responsible.
“So this trail,” she said, unsure whether to direct her enquiry to Torcha or Calay. “How exactly do we follow it?”
Calay glanced off toward the river, then angled his head, studying something in the distance.
“It’s spores or some such,” he said. “Something in the mushrooms. Do you see anything glowing up ahead?”
Riss gazed off in the direction he looked. She saw some tangled brambles, a squat colony of thick-stalked mushrooms, and one of the mimic-creature’s severed tentacles, still oozing away onto the muddy ground.
“Glowing?” she asked, wondering if she just wasn’t looking in the right place.
“Trust me, you’d know it if you saw it,” Calay said. He gestured that way, knifing a hand through the air. “The Collective say Vosk is this way. And they led us straight to you all, so we have no reason to doubt them yet.” He paused. “Them? It? I can’t tell if I’m phrasing that right.”
The whole interaction left Riss with more questions than answers, but the end result was the same. They walked in the direction Calay indicated, Torcha concurring that some unseen force was lighting their way.
Soon, regardless of whatever arcane methods Geetsha’s people had used to mark Vosk’s trail, Riss picked up sign. Until the moment she set eyes on the first footprint, she’d been uneasy and unsure. She trusted Torcha with her life. She trusted Calay less, but oddly she trusted him not to outright bullshit her. The two of them together made for a powerful argument. But until she saw proof of Vosk’s passing through with her own eyes, she’d really wondered.
It was a bootprint, nothing more. But it was fresh, and it had an elongated profile, a hint of drag to the impression in the mud. Like the person who’d left it had been running hard.
Now she was able to firmly wrest control of her doubt and focus on her objective. Vosk was alive. There was nobody else out here to leave such a print, and the mud he’d trudged through was still wet to the touch. Like a hound that had scented blood, Riss pushed forward with renewed vigor.
She didn’t dare to ask what arcane methods Geetsha’s people had used to “mark a trail” for Torcha and Calay. Whatever it was, it appeared to be working—Riss hung back, following their lead. The two worked in concert now, silent gestures and glances between them, fingers pointing the way.
“Looks as though somebody bonded while we were away,” Adal said, watching their backs.
“I’m not even going to try to guess. One crisis at a time.”
“Is it really a crisis that they don’t want to shoot one another?”
That got a brief laugh out of her. She was about to explain that it was less a crisis and more a change that any good leader should keep track of when an anguished, desperate scream split the quiet of the marsh. Shrill with terror though it was, Riss was fairly certain the voice was male. Ahead of her, Calay froze in his tracks.
“Uh oh,” he said. “This might be the immune response.”
Riss did not have the patience to ask for the hundredth explanation she’d needed in the last ten minutes, but she noted the wariness that colored his voice.
“He can’t be far.” Torcha heaved her rifle up, double-checking the bolt. Adal grabbed his own off the back of the moa.
They came upon another braided fork of the river, the ground dropping away to a shallow sprawl of gravel and river-worn pebbles that was blessedly free of mud.
Harlan Vosk cowered in the water on his hands and knees, trees closing in around him. The river rushed past him at shoulder height, and he hunkered down in it as low as he could. On either side of the water, trees leaned their grasping limbs toward him, their branches trembling restlessly. One dragged the half-absorbed remnants of a cart in its wake, wheels creaking.
Would they pursue him into the water? Could they? Riss had no idea. She counted seven of them. The trees had them outnumbered. For the moment, she had the high ground. But she recalled how quick those things could move.
She signalled and the team dropped down amid some sharp-tipped flax for cover.
“This problem looks like it’s solved itself.” Torcha was careful to keep her voice to a minimum. Riss looked to Adal.
“Riss—” he started.
She could already tell what he was thinking from that tone.
“Absolutely not. I’m not leaving him.”
The very idea that Adal considered Vosk an acceptable loss stung. It felt like a rejection of her trust. Of her principles. Even if he considered going home to Tarn empty-handed an acceptable outcome, surely he could see how much it mattered to her.
“You can’t be suggesting we rescue him. Look how many there are. We took down one before, and it took concerted effort.”
Again, Riss got that nagging feeling that she was on the wrong side of every argument. That her gut feelings were steering her off course. Fuck you, Gaspard, she seethed. She wished he were there in person, a target for her spite. I trusted myself so much more before.
But now was not the time. Perhaps she’d visit his cairn later. Vent her feelings. Get roaring drunk. Assuming they all lived.
Someone quietly cleared their throat. “She’s right.”
It simultaneously surprised her and also didn’t that Calay was the first to speak up on her behalf. She could guess at his reasons—it wouldn’t be satisfying to lose the man who shot him to a tree. And as much as he still made her skin crawl, he’d brought Torcha back.
“What would you even know about her reasoning there?” Adal regarded Calay through the sharp blades of the flax.
“I don’t need to know a thing about her—or you—to have an opinion here. All I know is that you’ve come awful far to give up and slink home now.”
That got Adal’s hackles up. Riss had to gesture at him to keep his voice down as he growled back at Calay.
“There’s a difference between ‘giving up’ and refusing to dive headlong into needless danger. Our wounds don’t magickally heal. Our hands don’t spout fire. We need to be more tactical with our risk-taking.”
Calay sniffed, then set his eyes on Vosk once more. Vosk was doing an admirable job keeping free of the trees, wobbling on his hands and knees, trying to stand in the middle of the river. The current threatened to tug him over. Trees just below him sent seeking feelers into the water, but it seemed to disrupt their senses. They groped blindly rather than reaching with intent.
“So let me do it,” Calay finally said.
That’s what it had come down to, then. The sorcerer heroically stepping between her team and another insurmountable crisis. Adal had all but twisted her arm last time. Torcha treated him like he was one of the unit now. She wanted to ask him why, wanted to clarify his motives. But even if she asked, who’s to say his answers would be honest. Maybe he’s just building up capital in the hopes we won’t sell him out, she thought. Or maybe this was even simpler. Maybe he wanted to save Vosk because he planned to torment the man himself, to steal him away before justice could be served.
Riss thought about all that, crouched there in the mud, watching her target writhe and avoid the trees. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized she didn’t care. She’d known her answer immediately.
“Fine,” she said. She hated how the word tasted in her mouth. But this time at least she wasn’t on the side of yet another losing argument.