Calay and Gaz laid out their plan. It was just like old times. Except instead of Syl and Booter and Kardel, he was working with an entirely different trio of mental cases. And they weren’t planning anything nearly as fun as a heist. Yet still the bottoms of Calay’s feet tingled with the excitement. His mouth watered the way it did when he walked past a bakery.
He and Gaz would go in first. Calay planned to throw everything he had at the trees, and there was no shortage of weapons in his arsenal. Gaz would corral Vosk, then make for the opposite side of the basin. The others were to step in only if Calay got into trouble. If not, they’d slink around a ways upriver and everyone would rendezvous on the other side.
“You sure you’re all right with this?” he asked Torcha, hovering two bloodied fingers over her rifle. He was going to glyph it up again, leave nothing to chance. She’d given it to him willingly.
Their dynamic had… changed, since the Bridging. He couldn’t quite describe how. It wasn’t as though he could read her thoughts, but he could read her face better. When she flattened her mouth and closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath, he saw the expression for what it was: resignation, not the sign of fury about to boil over. He’d sensed that well of fury in her, how deep it ran, but after they’d Bridged, she had yet to turn it on him.
No, he couldn’t read her mind. But he understood her. And more importantly, she seemed to understand him. It left him with a sticky residue of unease, a nauseatingly vulnerable feeling, to wonder what she’d glimpsed when she peered inside his head.
They’d have to talk later. Once all this blew over. He and Gaz, too.
“I don’t like it,” Torcha said. “But you got a point–if we gotta rush in and bail you out, that means things have gone so wrong regular guns won’t make much of a difference.”
When she said that, Adal and Riss shared a look. Then they too passed their weapons over.
Calay prepared them all, fighting to suppress the smile that threatened at his mouth every time the distant figure in the river shivered and fell with each sweep of his bloodied hands.
“Well this is definitely the stupidest thing you’ve ever signed me up for,” Gaz whispered as they crept down into the riverbed, their steps softened by Calay’s magicks.
“How’s about this?” Calay spared him a brief sideways grin, unsure if he was even looking. “You choose the next job.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
They were close enough that the strange crack and rattle of the crawling trees was all around them. Calay had no frame of reference for the noise, his own life one of stone and streets and men. It chilled him even as he wondered whether regular trees sometimes made such sounds.
He felt no fear. Just a steady, eager hunger to get even. And even then, it was tempered with a cool-headedness that his prior violent sprees had lacked.
“No last words?” Gaz paired the question with a chuckle that betrayed his own nerves.
“Nope.” Calay dipped his hand into the flagon of Vosk’s blood–he was scraping the bottom now. All the more reason to save the fucker. The second he croaked, what little blood remained would significantly decrease in efficacy.
“Actually.” He swept his fingers through the air, tracing a complicated series of sigils. “I do have a few: let’s get this over with.”
He hadn’t conjured a blade in some time. The risk on the streets back home was far, far too great. A cutpurse whose feet were preternaturally quiet? That could be explained by skill or inattentive guards. An assassin who could slip past an entire retinue of the city’s finest? Again, skill or luck. A screaming spear of living shadows was a bit tougher to explain.
His hands still knew the way, however rusty he was.
With a snap and flash of sizzling magick, a dark rip opened up in reality. Calay reached his hand inside and pulled, dragged the shadow lengthwise. It shrieked, a high wail that carried on the wind like a rabbit in a predator’s jaws. There was no hiding their approach now. The shadow solidified beneath his fingers. He formed a shaft about three feet long, tapered to a brutal point. Sweeping one hand in an arc, he extended the blade, shaping it from a spear into a scythe. It screamed again, and just ahead of him, the trees all ceased their creeping and clattering. They didn’t turn toward him–didn’t need to, lacking faces and all–but the branches near Vosk ceased their slithering. Instead, their ‘back’ branches stiffened. He didn’t like that either. It wasn’t natural, fighting something without a face. Not knowing if it was even turned your way.
He gave the scythe a testing sweep, dragging another scream out of it. At his side, Gaz grimaced. He’d never liked those. Calay could hardly blame him.
“Well,” he said, trying to steer Gaz’s mind off the screaming. “Wish me luck.”
He didn’t hang around to hear any well-wishes.
Calay charged in. He let his feet lead him, mind falling back into the quiet place it lurked when he moved on instinct. He’d glyphed himself to the teeth, reflexes moving quicker than his brain could process. He swept the scythe in a circle ‘round his person, severing branches everywhere he turned. Wood flew in chips and splinters. The blade kept on shrieking. From the corner of his eye, he saw Vosk cower in the water. Everything happened at half speed.
All the while, he counted down in his head. The spikes of shadow never lasted longer than half a minute or so. The first few times they’d failed on him, he’d decided he’d never take that chance again. He discarded them after thirty seconds. Better safe than sorry.
Thirty. Twenty-nine. He danced a path through the trees to Vosk, clearing the way for Gaz to rush through.
Twenty-two. Twenty-one. Gaz arrived on heavy feet, grabbing Vosk around the middle before he could try anything funny. Calay turned the scythe on the trees before him rather than trying to plow back the way they’d come. Shadow tore through bark. The air rung with fresh screams.
Ten. Nine. Gaz dragged Vosk past the last of the trees, branches grasping wildly at their backs. Twigs tore through clothes. Gaz stumbled. Calay was on him, beating the tree back, the pitch-dark slice of void in his hands turning everything he touched to mulch.
Two. One. He tossed the thing to the ground. Still two trees between him and Gaz. Gaz not yet far enough away. His hands made all the calculations and adjustments without him, body happy to follow the zig-zag orders of his augmented subconscious.
Far away, sensed the way a voice might sound from up a flight of stairs, something nagged at him. A tug, an itch. A scratch in the palm of his still-growing hand. The bark in his body felt its kin nearby, and he shuddered at the thought.
He blooded his fingers and readied the fire. He’d burn the whole grove down if he could. Digging his fingers in, he tore a strip from the ragged hem of his shirt. He sketched bloodied fingertips across the fabric and sparked it to light. Jogging back and away from the nearest tree, he drew another figure in the air, then twirled the burning fabric through it. It stretched, elongated, and crackled. Now armed with a whip of writhing flame, he turned his eyes on the nearest tree.
Sickly grey-barked and tilted at a precarious angle, the tree that crawled toward him was slimmer than the one they’d blown up. Tattered rags and curtains of dried-up moss dangled from its canopy, and it smelled of moist, rich earth. As he moved in for the kill, Calay couldn’t spy anything living melded with its bark, only hints of age-smooth grey bone protruding from the trunk. Small bones. Bird bones.
He cracked the whip of fire across it, the wood sizzling and scorching on impact.
In the same instant, something seized his right arm, a pain so sharp and searing it stole his breath and drove him to his knees. He fell, yanked the whip back, smelled smoke. He was able to scramble back, moving through the river’s shallows. Nothing held his arm. He’d thought he’d felt it, a sharp yank that would wrench his shoulder from its socket, but then–
Water rushed over his forearms, dulling the pain somewhat. Steam hissed up as the river swallowed both the whip and his burning arm. When he lifted his right hand free, he saw black scorch marks lanced across the bark.
The bark in his body had found its kind. Something about the void-scythe had nullified the link, but when he’d burnt the trees, he’d burnt himself to a crisp. Perhaps he’d just been careless. Maybe his fingers had slipped. He had to hope…
The others had seen him falter. The backup plan sprang into action like a mousetrap. Things went off with a brilliant synchronicity, considering how unused to magick Riss’ mercenaries were. Considering they hadn’t rehearsed.
Blasting a barrel-sized hole through the tree before him, the first shot was probably Torcha’s. He imagined it was, at least. Seemed like her. Those were the last coherent thoughts his mind could string together before he felt the impact, the jarring rush of fire and kinetic force blasting through him as though it had been him she’d shot. Howling, Calay dove into the river, rolling sideways and attempting to keep himself moving.
He felt every impact from the gunshots to the tiny, shivering creaks of the branches above him. Felt the pull of them, the way the bark called to him like water felt the call to run downstream.
Gasping, he tried to call out to Torch and Riss, to warn them, to ward them off. But he couldn’t catch his breath. Each fresh round that cracked overhead spiked the breath right out of him.
He’d told them to open fire and shred the things to bits if anything went wrong. And he was going to suffer through every single shot.