Chapter 19

“Someone’s alive out here.”

Geetsha’s words fell on a silent crowd. They all stood there in the clearing, surrounding her in a half-circle, exchanging quiet looks between one another. No one was sure exactly what to say. Adal didn’t hear a thing. He looked to the moa. They stood with rigid back and necks, eyes alert and surveying the foliage beyond the clearing. But they’d been acting agitated since the gunfire, hadn’t they?

“You said someone, not something,” Torcha said, pointing out the obvious. “Does that mean a survivor?”

“Well we found a horse,” said Riss. “Horses need riders.”

That much was true. Adal squinted past the edge of the torchlight, toward where the clearing continued. The last traces of twilight were fast fading from the sky. Something tugged at his subconscious, a shape barely registered in the murk. He narrowed his eyes yet further, but the shapes refused to resolve.

“I’m going to take a look further across the plateau,” he said to the others. “I think I see something.”

And it wasn’t a something that got his hackles up. Only a few paces away from the others, he saw it: a metallic glint upon the ground. Half-buried in dirt, something man-made. He jogged the last few steps regardless of his exhaustion, powered forward by intrigue. He dug his toe into the earth, kicking soil aside, and crouched down.

A belt buckle. Still attached to a torn shred of leather that had yet to rot. Whoever had left it, they hadn’t left it long ago.

“I’ve found a buckle!” He flipped it over to Riss when she arrived at his side. “Geetsha’s right. There’s someone out here.”

Riss gave their wispy, white-haired guide another of those sideways looks. She was so obvious with her distrust. Again, Adal tamped down the urge to tell her to at least be subtle about it. But Geetsha didn’t seem to notice.

“There’s a trail down the other side of this plateau,” she said, her voice a contemplative whisper. “Perhaps someone fled up it. Or down it.”

They combed the clearing and found further evidence. It was laughably obvious once they put their torches to ground and covered a bit more area. Had they walked into the clearing at full daylight, Adal imagined they would have spotted the signs immediately: a few discarded torches, scattered piles of ash. A copse of normal trees–he hated that he had to qualify that–which had been partially felled for firewood. And at the far end of the clearing, a great central firepit.

Normally they might have taken some time to explore, to see what clues might be gleaned, but Riss trained her focus on Geetsha.

“All right,” she said. “You heard something. Where?”

Geetsha closed her eyes for a moment. She cupped her hands to either of her ears, just standing there. It went on long enough that Adal cast a sidelong look to Torcha, whose mouth scrunched up in skepticism.

Finally, Geetsha spoke up:

“Down the back side of the plateau. Further down the trail.”

Riss looked to Vosk and Adal, sizing them both up with a quick head-to-toe.

“Here or there, you two?” she asked.

“I can’t speak for Vosk, but I’m not keen on splitting up again.”

“Rather not,” Vosk agreed.

The night around them was pitch dark, only scraps of occasional starlight filtering through the tree cover. Though their lanterns burned brightly, it didn’t feel enough. Something about the darkness was pervasive. Adal couldn’t put his finger on what. Perhaps he was merely so tired that he was starting to… not quite hallucinate, but starting to tread that line, that border between fully alert and not.

They descended a steep, fungus-riddled slope, and as they climbed lower, the trees grew… colorful.

Adal had to blink a few times. He had to be certain what he was seeing was real. Perhaps he was more tired than he thought.

But no, the startled gasps from the others–and Torcha’s soft coo of delight–confirmed that what he was seeing was real.

The bottom of the path intersected with a thicket of twisted, sharp-thorned brambles. Someone had hacked a path through them, and the uppermost thorns were draped with strands of gauzy, colorful filaments, delicate as a multicolored spider’s web. It looked as though someone wearing many silken scarves had run through the thorns and left shreds in their wake, yet there were no disturbances in the growth, no broken branches and no signs that anything living had passed through in some time.

The soft, colorful threads draped over the path through the brambles, an undisturbed curtain. By torchlight, they looked maroon and orange and a ruddy green-brown that Adal suspected would shine emerald in sunlight.

It was beautiful.

“It looks like silk,” Torcha whispered. “Like spider silk. Or like they weave up in Patalban.”

Shuffling her way to the front of the queue and stepping between Riss and Geetsha, Torcha held out a hand. Riss reached aside and touched her forearm.

“Torcha!” she hissed, her voice low. “Careful. Stuff… melds to other stuff here, remember?”

Torcha tipped her head back and pulled down her hood, red curls rustling. She stood on her tip-toes, examining the strands of thread with a doubtful frown.

“Anyone have a hen bone?” She glanced back toward the packbirds. “If that stuff melds with bones and meat, we should be able to test it.”

Instead, Geetsha stepped forward and parted the thin, translucent curtain of threads with a hand. A bare hand, Adal noted.

“This is safe,” she promised. Riss’ back was rigid as she watched.

Adal and Riss locked eyes. Torcha scowled. For all of Geetsha’s confidence, nobody seemed in a hurry to take her at her word.

Geetsha slipped beyond the curtain into the darkness beyond. The threads fluttered in her wake like fringe on a dancer’s skirt.

<< Chapter 18 | Chapter 20 >>

Chapter 18

The looks Riss aimed toward Geetsha were anything but subtle. Adal shared her suspicions, but he wondered if it might be worth asking his commander to tone it down for the sake of diplomacy. Then he thought about the shit-storm that might stir up and the completely inappropriate timing of such a shit-storm given their present predicament. He opted to keep his mouth shut.

Not that Riss never listened to him, or that she considered her behavior beyond criticism. Hardly. She relied on Adal for just such advice. But Adal knew how Riss operated. If he broached the subject, there was a high chance she’d decide the best way to deal with her suspicions would be a direct confrontation. She was much like the machete she carried: a heavy, blunt blade that saw to cut to the bone of whatever ailed her. It was just not the time or place for that.

Marching along on foot beneath tendrils of wispy moss and high, straight-stalked trees, Adal tried to keep his mind off the possibilities of what could be lying in wait beyond the reach of their lanterns. The flickering lantern glow deepened every shadow, lent some shadows a writhing, living quality.

He also tried to ignore the exhaustion that weighted his boots, made his every step an act of effort. His body had fought hard to rid itself of that venom–with Calay’s help, of course–and he was now paying the price.

If he turned his head and glanced behind him, he could see the same exhaustion writ on the tight, tired lines that framed Harlan Vosk’s eyes and mouth. He walked with the same heavy, deliberate steps that Adal took. Perhaps the painkiller he’d been given was some sort of sedative.

Adal decided to try to take both their minds off it.

“So tell me,” he said, conversational. “You’re a logger. You work with a crew of other loggers. Clearly we don’t practice the same methods of tree disposal given you require the wood to be usable afterwards.”

Vosk glanced up. He nodded along as Adal spoke, then grunted out a semblance of a laugh after.

“That is true.” He took a deep breath and adjusted the strap of his bag so that it fell lower across his abdomen. Adal caught the faint wince that tightened his features.

He’s still in pain, he thought. Good to keep him engaged.

“So how do you do it?” He pressed.

Vosk made a small gesture, lifting a hand and then letting it fall.

“Same as you kill any tree, at least in the end. With an axe. Metal blades, that’s the important part. They seem to have difficulty absorbing metal. But first you light a fire near them, if you can. Smoke bothers them. Seems to settle them down, makes them move slower. Hells if I know why, or how it works.”

Adal slid his tongue across his mouth, pursing his lips in thought. Perhaps that explained the dozens of campfires dotted all along the crossroads. If fire kept the trees at bay, it could be the locals lit excessive fires even outside their territory. A sort of just-in-case. Adal could hardly blame them.

“I see,” he said, still thinking it through. Vosk continued talking. Apparently Adal had struck a vein of conversation worth mining. The man had certainly softened some since they’d first met. He’d radiated a sort of military chilliness when first speaking to Riss. But a few days on the trail together and he’d loosened up, spoke more readily.

“Ideally you get one alone. Hack down everything near it so it can’t absorb more wood. Then burn what you’ve cut down until the smoke puts it to sleep. That’s why we travel through here in crews of seven to ten. You have to move quickly if you want to kill them quick enough to keep them in one piece.”

“It sounds less like logging and more like hunting to me.” Adal cast a look forward, his eyes falling onto Riss’ back. She walked ahead, speaking quietly to Geetsha, and while it could have been his imagination, she seemed to be walking a little taller, her shoulders held high, her chin up. The fight had invigorated her. As fights always did.

“You know,” he said to Vosk, pointing at the woman in question. “Riss here was a hunting guide some years back.”

Vosk let out a grunt that could have been faint surprise or just acknowledgment. Before Adal could speak again, a flurry of activity on the trail before them stunned the walkers into jittery silence.

Suddenly, up ahead, fluttering. Movement and the patter of wings in the air, just beyond the reach of their lights. Riss jerked back in surprise. Geetsha beside her smiled cautiously, then pointed at something. A fraction of a second later, a small flock of crows erupted from the ceiling of trees, spiraling upward, sleek black bodies outlined against the faint starlight.

“Look,” Geetsha said. “Birds. Birds are a good sign.”

Adal tilted his head, unsure for a moment what that meant. He put two and two together at the same moment Vosk chose to explain:

“Because birds won’t land where the tree branches absorb their feet. They tend to steer clear of the crawling groves.”

Helpful elaboration or not, the mental image sent Adal’s heart quickening for a few beats.


They walked for what felt like half a day but was likely only a few hours. Adal had more than a few zero-energy, dead-straight marches under his belt. There was a place in his mind he could recede to, letting his feet do all the work. Every soldier had it. Even the ones who’d been brought up in the Academy and sidestepped most of the harder work of soldiering.

When his mind receded to that distant, rhythmic marching place, he thought of Riss. How much better she seemed to be doing. How it warmed him to see her lead again. To see her trusting her instincts and her capabilities. She was healing. They all were. But her wounds had been carved deeper than his. A glimmer of quiet affection warmed him from the inside out at the thought. She’d be all right. He’d known it all along, of course, but it was good to see the evidence before his eyes.

They were, he thought, like the land itself: rebuilding after conflict. Picking up the pieces. Shoring up what had been damaged. Saying goodbye to the things they’d lost for good.

Geetsha led them up the steep side of a crumbling plateau, twisted roots protruding from its eroded hillside. Fragile white puffball fungi dotted the exposed root structure, reflecting their torchlight like sea jellies brought to the surface.

Were it not for the fact that Adal had resigned himself to the belief that every single thing in this gods-forsaken swamp was primed to kill them, he might have paused to appreciate their beauty.

Even if he had, he was interupted shortly after.

“Adal? Calay? Everybody up here,” Riss hollered. “We’ve found our camp spot, but Geetsha’s pretty sure she hears something. Can any of you hear it?”

Adal couldn’t hear a damn thing beyond the usual: the stomp of their feet, the huff of his exhausted breath. Everyone poured out into a flat, ash-dotted clearing to see what was the matter.

<< Chapter 17 | Chapter 19 >>


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Chapter 17

Riss took a moment to appreciate the team she had put together. She had read Calay and Gaz right. They’d leapt into action immediately; their level of training was in fact on par with what they claimed it to be. In the mercenary world, that wasn’t always a given. Both had conducted themselves well. Even Vosk, the odd man out, had stepped up and made himself useful, even going so far as to get between her sharpshooter and the creature.

It was paradoxical to most. To those who hadn’t been there. Stepping into a firefight like that and walking out the other side with blooming confidence in your men, that was a more addictive sensation than the effects of anything Riss had ever smoked or snorted or imbibed.

Despite the fact that she was slathered with foul-smelling ichor and the sights she’d seen inside that tree would haunt her for weeks, she felt better. She felt newly confident. On the walk back to their campsite, she had to fight to keep the simmering beginnings of a grin off her face.

Their campsite was, thankfully, unmolested upon their return. But no one was in the mood to settle down and cook dinner just yet. And where was Geetsha?

Adal had hurriedly tied the moa down before rushing to their aid, and now the birds stalked in agitated circles, heads tugging sideways, pulling at their leads. Was it the gunfire that had upset them, or was it something more? Could they hear something beyond what Riss’ human ears could measure? Who could say. Riss gave one of the birds an awkward pat on the flank while she pawed through a satchel of provisions.

“Geetsha will have heard us,” she said to nobody in particular. She received scattered grunts and nods in reply.

Adal crawled into his tent, then emerged a moment later with a hefty rectangular bar of soap. He offered it to Riss with a grim smile.

“Scrub while we wait?”

“You always know just what to say.”

Riss shucked off the outermost layers of her armor–flexible, layered panels of leather studded with brass–and snatched up a water jug. Up on the steppes, in the scraggy forests of her home, wasting water on hygiene would have been unthinkable. Despite how foul it was, the endless puddles of standing water in the swamp were in some ways an asset. If they started to run low on well water, they could always break out the filtration kits. It took time and tasted a little gunky, but it was perfectly drinkable.

She set to working up a lather, scraping and scrubbing the worst of the caked-on gore away before it could dry.

Geetsha arrived before she’d even finished her chest piece. Hurrying in on foot, pale and ethereal as a ghost, she scurried into camp and straight up to Riss’ side. She took a moment to catch her breath before speaking.

“You found one,” was all she said, not even a question. Riss’ hand paused in its scrubbing. She turned a look to the younger woman, then inclined a silent nod.

“I didn’t see any others.” Geetsha lifted a satchel off her hip, unbuttoning the flap to let Riss have a glance inside. “Plenty of mushrooms. No birds.” She paused momentarily. “Although where the trees grow there are often few birds.”

Riss didn’t spend too long dwelling on that. Again, those flicker-flutters of suspicion rose to mind, but she wasn’t sure how to address them. Geetsha had said some pretty alarming things, but how exactly did one bring that sort of thing up in conversation? Riss was halfway to just asking her so if you aren’t human, what the hells are you? but that seemed counterproductive. And was now, when they appeared to be deep in the most dangerous thickets of their journey thus far, a good time?

Gaspard would have known what to do. He had a knack for people. Both people-people and things that masqueraded as people. Things like whatever Geetsha was. What Geetsha maybe is, she corrected herself.

A pained groan stole her attention away from her private thoughts. She glanced over in the direction it came from and found Vosk holding his arms overhead. He stood still, grimacing while Adal and Calay both scrubbed lather-soaked armor brushes over his torso. The sight was so startlingly ridiculous that Riss couldn’t help but laugh. And she was surprised at the depth, the volume, the warmth of her own laughter. Damn, it felt good to laugh like that: with a competent crew at her muster and a foe dead at her feet.

“I think I’ll take some of that what’s-it-called after all,” Vosk said through a clenched grimace. Calay whisked the armor brush off him for a moment, then dug around in his belt.

“No shame in it,” he said, selecting a small glass vial. He slapped it into Vosk’s palm. Vosk twisted it open, extracted the eye dropper from the cap, and gave the concoction within a curious sniff.

“Up to four drops at a time,” Calay instructed. “I’d start with two and see how you go.”

“Two little drops?” Vosk hiked up an eyebrow, studying the vial while Adal continued to scrub blown-apart bits of tree goo off his back.

“My work is potent, darling.” Calay even went so far as to give him a wink. “Trust me.”

So Riss was’t the only one still riding that post-gunfight high, then. She wiped her armor down and whistled for Adal, tossing his soap back.

When she next set eyes on Geetsha, she felt less agitated, soothed by the antics of her mercs.

“Our packbirds seem antsy,” she said to the girl. “Do you think there’s a chance more of those things are lurking nearby?”

Geetsha’s face gave a little twitch and her lips thinned, as if she were slow to process the required facial expression, so deep was her thought.

“… They are drawn to noise,” she said after a moment, with the customary delay that often prefaces bad news.

“How far away should we get?”

Riss realized again that despite her misgivings, she still trusted the information Geetsha gave her.

“You shouldn’t measure it in distance,” said Geetsha. She closed her eyes, features calm and meditative. A strand of her wispy white hair fell into her eyes. Riss noticed a twig tangled up in her bangs. “You should measure elevation. They have difficulty climbing.”

Riss thought back to the tree slowly lurching up the river bank, pushing up its rumpled curtains of mud.

“That makes sense. Where’s the best high ground?”

“You are on it.” Resigned, Riss glanced down to her boots. They sat atop a mild slope, hardly an obstacle.

“Is there anything better in walking distance?”

Riss trained a look toward the pair of moa, who still hadn’t settled from their agitated tugging. One paced in a slow, repetitive figure eight. The other stood at the perimeter of their torchlight, staring off into the blackness as if its sharp avian eyes were fixed on a threat only it could see.

“Perhaps three or four hours from here, at our current pace.”

Riss toothed at her bottom lip in thought, then nodded in assent.

“We’ll go there,” she said to the girl. Raising her voice to the others, she shouted: “Let’s pack up. Geetsha says more of those things will be drawn by the noise, but there’s higher ground to camp on further down the trail. Apparently they’re bad with hills.”

Despite how efficiently they’d all pitched camp less than an hour ago, nobody seemed to mind being asked to pack down. Riss observed in their faces the faint, edgy lines of tension: they didn’t want to be sleeping if a whole flock–or would it be called a copse–of those things descended on the clearing en masse.

In short order, the tents were packed and lanterns were lit and everyone was ready to go. Riss juggled up their marching order somewhat: one moa at the front and one at the back. Torcha up ahead with her and Geetsha, Adal and Vosk at center, Calay and Gaz still bringing up the rear. She wanted to ensure their party’s wounded members–and yes, she still thought of Adal as wounded–had as much protection in the dark as possible. It wasn’t much, but it was what she could offer, and they had earned it with their conduct in that fight.

<< Chapter 16 | Chapter 18 >>

Chapter 16

Rifle fire was loud. So much louder than he could have anticipated. He was slightly more used to explosions, being capable of causing such through his magicks, but in the aftermath of that gunfire and explosion both, he was left dazed and dumb. In the rare event that the thugs of Calay’s childhood could afford firearms, matchlocks were as good as it got. He hadn’t even acquired his first cartridge pistol until he and Gaz went on the run. The sheer noise rendered him briefly mute.

Breathing hard through his mouth, he took a moment to focus his senses.

The first sense to return to him in full was, unfortunately, smell. He took a deep breath and stifled an immediate retch. The gore-stuffed hollows of the tree now littered every available surface and it reeked. Calay felt along his hip and dipped a finger into his belt-pouch, seeking through some vials until he found what he was looking for: amirin cream, commonly used to stave off the smell in the autopsy room or when working with unsavory body fluids in less medically sanctioned contexts. He dabbed a smear of the stuff beneath his nostrils, then snorted in a breath. The cream possessed a minty menthol aroma, eye-wateringly strong, but blinking back those tears beat smelling what had to have been years of liquefied corpses.

Once he could breathe through his nose again, he closed his mouth and looked over his shoulder. He offered the vial to Adalgis first, a conscious show of respect.

“Impeccable timing,” he said to the man. “Here, this will take the edge off.”

Adalgis wasted no time in applying the cream, then passed it on to Torcha. It made the rounds. Calay didn’t care if they finished it or not; he had loads. Next on his mental to-do list while the adrenaline in his system boiled itself off was to make himself useful. Riss had hired him on as a medic, after all. Time to inventory the wounded.

Gaz and Riss had done the brunt of the hands-on damage to the creature, but they were up and about; their wounds were superficial. Both waved him off. He noted with quiet, well-concealed discomfort that Gaz had a cut across his cheek, but the amount of minor rends in Gaz’s tough-guy hide that he’d stitched closed over the years… Calay knew his number-one patient well. It could wait. He passed the man a cotton pad, then turned his attention to Vosk.

He’d been reloading when Vosk had gone down, but he’d heard the impact. A crushing injury of some sort. Calay approached with a lift of his hand, finding Vosk sitting upright in the mud, his expression a familiar one. Calay could empathize with the tight-browed, tight-mouthed expression a soldier’s face adopted when something hurt like a motherfucker and he was determined not to show it.

Crouching, he looked the man up and down. Vosk had a soldier’s understanding of the role he played in the patient-medic relationship, as well. He sat there silently and lifted his chin and arms, letting Calay do what he would.

“Anything feel busted?” he asked. Vosk was well-armored and he hadn’t fallen far, but Calay wasn’t entirely sure what kind of strength a tree packed.

“My pride,” said Vosk through a wince. “Perhaps a couple ribs, but only when I breathe.”

“Well avoid doing that, then. Here. I’ll have a feel.” Calay waited while Vosk unlaced his cuirass up the sides, then lifted the whole thing up and over his head. His movement wasn’t too bad, nothing stiff or spasming in the back and shoulders. Calay then palpated his ribs in turn and found them satisfactory. If any were cracked, there wasn’t much to do beyond wear sturdy armor and treat the pain. He had Vosk take a few deep breaths just to be sure, but nothing sounded worrying.

“I think your initial diagnosis was right on the nose,” he said. “Let’s get you on your feet and see how you feel.”

He offered Vosk a hand down. The man took it and rose slowly, moving with the air of an injured man attempting to conserve energy rather than the jerky, spasmodic motions of someone with debilitating injury. Calay gave his hand a fraternal squeeze, then clapped him on the shoulder.

“You had good instincts to get between Torcha and that thing,” he said. Perhaps it was unkind of him, but he wouldn’t have expected it. Possibly not from Riss, or from the others. Certainly not from Tarn’s man, who had his own motivations and his own loyalties.

“She was hurting it the most.” Vosk hitched his shoulders up in a modest, diverting shrug.

“All the same,” Torcha chimed in, “we worked well together.”

Calay turned a little look over the group, a small, thin smile touching his mouth. “That we did.”

He set his eyes on Riss, who was picking over the tree’s remains. And the… remains-remains. Calay wasn’t sure what to make of the mess. Riss flipped a meter-long shard of greyish trunk over with the blade of her machete, regarding it coolly. After a moment, she shrugged.

“None of these pieces are large enough to bother carting back,” she said. “As gratifying as it was to blow that thing all to shit, we can’t sell it now.”

Torcha’s young, freckled face crumpled with disappointment. She blinked it away, then cleared her throat.

“Sorry, sir,” she said. “Next time I’ll ask.”

Riss seemed caught off-guard by that response. She tilted her chin to one side, then after a hesitant moment, a warm laugh chased the last traces of mercenary cool off her face. She walked up to Torcha and thwacked the flat of her machete’s blade to the woman’s boot.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said. “You did fine.” She lifted her voice just a touch. “You all did. Selling anything we find out here is an afterthought, unless we stumble over some of Tarn’s fancy trees and they don’t try to eat us first.”

Calay left Riss to her mercenaries and, satisfied nobody was in the process of bleeding to death, stole over to Gaz’s side. He stood more or less where Calay had left him, looming over the wreckage of the tree, battleaxe replaced upon his back. His cheeks were still flush with exertion and his shoulders rose and fell with each breath, his body slow to cool down after the wind-up of engagement.

“How you feeling?” Calay asked. “And I gave you that rag for a reason. You going to mop that cut up or not?”

Gaz glanced down to his hand, which still gripped the little square of cotton Calay had handed him. Pristine and bloodless, it clearly hadn’t been used. Calay snatched it back.

“Ungrateful little…” he started, then crooked a finger to beckon Gaz downward. Gaz bent a little at the knee. Calay spat upon the cloth and, finding his patient’s face at a more amenable level to reach, wiped the half-clotted blood clear of Gaz’s cheek. He dashed some antiseptic on the cloth, then cleaned the wound out. Gaz just crouched there silently, enduring it all, no stranger to this treatment.

“I’m still trying to figure out what to make of what we just did,” Gaz mumbled, studying some broken shards of bark down by his boots. “What we just saw, even. What sort of magick can even create something like that?”

“If it was even magick at all.” Calay concluded his fussing, then dabbed the wound dry one last time. He had a serum he could paint over the top, scab it over more or less instantly, but that would be overkill. No need to waste his supplies on minor scratches.

“You don’t think so?”

Calay held his tongue. Exactly what magick was and wasn’t capable of, that was a subject of spirited debate. A subject he held rather strong opinions about. But he’d sooner hand himself over to the Vasile Guard than delve into magickal philosophy around this lot. The less they knew about his opinions–and knowledge–on the matter, the better.

“Well,” he said instead, “all the local legends and such. People have been avoiding this swamp and occasionally pilfering its spooky wood spoils for years upon years. That’s a bit much to be the work of some wayward sorcerer.”

Gaz grunted, as much of a reply as Calay was going to get. He stretched up to his full height; Calay’s hand dropped away. He folded the bloodied rag away into his belt, a force of habit. There was barely enough blood on there to be useful, but…

“The root cause of it may be magick, far far back, sure. But I think Vosk was right when he told us back when that sometimes, in some places, the natural world just goes… a little bit less natural.”

The last of their precious sunlight dwindled, but despite their bolstered camaraderie, nobody was quite in the mood to set up camp. While walking back to their intended campsite, they reached a murmured consensus that pushing on through a few hours of dark might not be a bad idea, depending on what Geetsha said.

If Geetsha even turned back up. She had yet to resurface from her supposed mushroom gathering.

<< Chapter 15 | Chapter 17 >>

Chapter 15

Riss moved, pure instinct. She brought her machete up and hacked it downward, body leaping and twisting sideways before her brain caught up. Gaz at her flank moved similarly: he shed his knife and hefted his battleaxe, swinging it in a wide arc in anticipation of a collision.

When the creature caught up to them, their blades were already flashing, and Riss juddered with the impact as her machete bit bark.

Lurching forward, eerily quiet save for the hiss-slither of its roots and the dreary, asthmatic whinnies as its equine head breathed, the creature seemed to move almost without purpose. Its branches sought out with the same blind groping as the roots had; those branches showered splinters in all directions as Riss and Gaz met it halfway.

Behind her, Riss heard Torcha calling, “Down!”

She ducked. The whole movement–leap, chop, pull, chop, duck–took mere seconds, flowed smooth as water. Riss pressed herself into the muck and the resounding, chest-thumping boom of Torcha’s rifle punctured the stale swamp air. The trunk of the tree blew bark in all directions. Someone followed up with a volley of pistol fire, Vosk or Calay, and Riss squinted through the muzzle smoke and watched the horror above her as it tilted precariously…

The creature staggered to its side, its horse legs clawing blindly. The horse issued forth a panicked wheeze, then Gaz was thundering toward it, heaving his axe up with all his strength. He cleaved the horse’s head clean off in a single strike, showering Riss with a gout of foul-smelling brackish liquid that wasn’t quite mammalian blood. The head fell into the mud with a wet, sad thwuck and for a moment, all was still.

Riss swallowed her raspy breath, then rose up, glancing behind her. A shard of bark protruded from the front of her padded leathers; she yanked it free with a grunt. Gaz smeared blood from his eyes and likewise patted himself down.

A silent look passed between them before both set their eyes upon the monster. The two hoofed front legs that protruded from the tree trunk still spasmed with  purposeless motion even as the neck stump bled freely. Though neither Riss nor Gaz had voiced it, there had been an understanding that had manifested in both their minds, a logical conclusion based on years of felling both beast and man: cut off the head and the rest will die.

This proved not to be the case. Thick, twisting ropes of root lashed out from the base of the trunk as the tree began to crawl forward. It didn’t seem to care that it had toppled sideways, nor did it take care to right itself. It just dragged itself to Riss’ left, toward Torcha and the others, labored now by its blown-apart bits but crawling just as determinedly forward.

“Fucking hells,” Calay hissed from behind her. “How is it still alive?”

“I don’t think the horse had much to…” Riss started to speak, but the smell hit her in a wave. Her words drowned in a retch and gag as she smeared at her face, attempting to wipe the creature’s blood from her skin and clothing. However, after a split second, she realized the foul, stomach-churning odor seemed to emanate from the tree itself, not from the blood it had spilt on her.

“Hold it off!” Torcha scampered back some, hands working at the bolt action of her rifle. “I’m reloading!”

Vosk leapt up from behind her, putting himself between the sharpshooter and the creature. He had one pistol in hand and pulled another from his belt. Riss hauled her machete up and slashed downward just as Vosk fired. He pulled both triggers at once and the front of the tree’s trunk blew open, grey-green bark cracking and chipping away.

A half-rotted humanoid face, glistening and wet, peered at Riss from the newly-opened fissure in the bark. A human’s arm tumbled free from the hollow in the tree, dangling lifelessly, dripping sick-sweet decay. It swung like a pendulum when the tree crawled forward. Riss forced herself not to look too long, noted with slow-rising terror that behind the dangling corpse were the tangled, twisted appendages of yet more bodies. She caught a glimpse of more hooves, more tangled skeletons, and then she tore her eyes away and flailed her machete downward with all she had.

“It’s using the roots and branches to drag itself!” She bellowed to the others between harsh, heavy breaths. “Cut them off! Even if we can’t fucking kill it we can cripple it!”

Gaz rounded to the tree’s other side. She couldn’t see him, but she heard the chunk of his axe digging in.

Riss’ ribs rattled as Torcha blew another heavy round into the tree’s trunk, sending cracks shuddering through its root base. It toppled yet further, laying all but horizontal in the muck. Riss sidestepped the thrashing roots, neatly severing them with swipes of her blade, and kicked writhing tentacles of root off into the distant mud.

“Calay? Vosk?” Torcha squinted at the two men through the haze of muzzle smoke. “Which of you’s the better shot?”

We don’t have time, Riss thought. Don’t let this turn into some pissing contest.

Vosk, bless him, defied her expectations. He deferred to Calay while reloading, nodding aside with a simple, “Probably him.”

Calay sniffed sharply, then looked to Torcha for guidance. She drew her duster open, then fished around in one of the many pouches that hung from her belts and bandoliers. Just meters away, the tree thrashed and writhed in the mud. Gaz continued hacking at it with abandon, sending meter-long chunks flying through the air.

“I’m gonna chuck this bomb in it.” Torcha unpacked a fist-sized glass sphere from her belt. “But I don’t have time to set a fuse. You think you can pop it?”

Calay popped his hat off and tossed it carelessly behind him, taking a knee half-behind Vosk.

“I can certainly try.”

Torcha popped the cork off the small glass bomb, then tipped a shimmering powder from another vial inside. The concoction looked inert to Riss’ eyes, but she trusted Torcha’s judgment. Torcha stoppered up the bomb again, then pointed toward the corpse-stuffed fissure in the tree’s trunk.

She wound up, then threw. Her aim was a damn sight better than Riss’ would have been. The glass sparkled as it sailed through the air, seemed to hover in slow motion, and landed straight inside the tree’s trunk.

Calay’s pistol cracked a split second later. Shards of bark erupted from the creature’s flank, several inches wide. In a sudden, sweeping grab, the tree lurched up one of its last remaining branches, lashing out in the direction the pistol fire kept coming from. It slammed squarely into Vosk, knocking him sideways with a worrying crunch. Riss knew better than to leap into the path of where her gunners were firing, so she went low, trying to slice the branch off at its base.

“Riss! Fall back! Incoming!”

For a moment she didn’t recognize the voice. Her brain spit up an inane, confused Gaspard? and she staggered backwards, ducking away from whatever was–

A rifle shot screamed past her. The tree exploded in a shower of bark and gore. Bones and liquefied tissue and twigs in equal measure rained down from the sky in the aftermath of Torcha’s bomb. Riss curled her arms over her head, wary of the larger chunks as they impacted the wet ground around her.

Her ears ringing, she lifted her head and glanced back to the others.

Adal stood at the rear of the party, rifle still at the ready. He lowered it slowly, staring at the blown-apart tree with round, surprised eyes.

The tree wasn’t moving anymore.

<< Chaper 14 | Chapter 16 >>