Author Update – A minor formatting change and bonus update

Hi all! This is an incredibly short blog post just to note that I’ve changed the formatting slightly in all dream sequences and flashback chapters. This is more for backend purposes so it will be easier to give them custom formatting when Vol 1 is finished and I compile the ebooks, but I wanted to warn you. If you use a screen reader or other accessibility software and it interrupts your reading process, please let me know because there are options I can tweak and it’s no big deal to tweak them.

And since I’m talking flashbacks, I couldn’t help but post a bonus update.

Thank you so much for your comments on chapters and for your continued support. Writing this serial and getting to post updates has become a favourite part of my week.

I hope you continue to enjoy the story!

Chapter 29

Nothing in the Academy had prepared him for this.

Adalgis was no pampered nobleboy. Despite his upbringing and despite what barracks chatter would have the grunts believe, he had experienced hardship. But everything in the Inland Army had to be a cock-waving contest. Which, if considered on a philosophical level, made a certain degree of sense. War was the ultimate cock-waving contest, wasn’t it.

Their unit was in the process of clearing a village, long-abandoned by the look of things. Overgrown fields. The Narlanders had dug up what they could eat and moved on. Locals never came back. Some recent tracks according to Sergeant Chou. Scavengers, possibly. It was the fifth such village in as many days.

Adal directed his team to sweep the remaining structures, and when that turned up nothing, he directed them to take a short break. In the central clearing, what may have passed for a trading square in happier times, a squat stone-ringed well promised fresh water. After a hard day’s recon, a sip of well-cool water sounded like Adal’s idea of paradise.

Yet the smell that greeted him when he bent over the well sent bile and his meager lunch threatening at the back of his throat.

Something wasn’t right.

“Roan, Chou,” he called. “One of you have a torch?”

The ring of stones gaped like an abyss. It likely only went down a couple hundred feet, but without a light, who was to say.

All eager for a drink, the rest of the Fourth Recce crowded around him. He wasn’t the only one to comment on the smell.

Corporal Roan produced a torch, and Adal struck flint to light it. He leaned down, thrusting the oily rags as far into the dark as he could, and what stared back robbed him of his breath.

From the gape of the well, sunken-eyed corpses peered up at him, their mouths and eyesockets thick with writhing grubs. Bodies were heaped there in the dark, no sense of ceremony to the way these dead had been disposed of. Men, women, children, all thrown together in a limp, lifeless pile. Though some did not appear to have been lifeless when they were dumped: ragged-tipped fingers, their nails flaked off, still clung to the slick stone walls.

The face closest to his own had only just begun to slough, sunken cheeks and lips peeled too far back begging silently upward for hope that never came. When he could next breathe, he caught a lungful of the smell.

His scream rang off the wellstones.

Reeling backward, lunch returning with a vengeance as he spewed all over his officers’ boots, Adal steadied himself against the well. But touching it, Gods, touching it just disgusted him further. He bent double, hands on his knees, retching.

The torch fell from his shaking fingers and caught a small drift of dry grass alight. Riss Chou stomped over and crushed it out, grinding her bootheel on the ground. She must have been watching over his shoulder, because a crack had appeared in her staunch exterior. She too looked on the verge of throwing up.

A bolt sliced through the air inches from Adal’s face, splintering into fragments as it impacted the well. Splinters bit into his cheek.

Another bolt buried itself in Roan’s throat, and he went down screaming, hand to his neck.

“Ambush!” Adal yelled, as if that weren’t obvious. “Take cover!”

He rushed to Roan, kneeling. The young man–still so young his face was flecked with acne–gurgled horribly, trying to dislodge the projectile from his airway. For all the good it would do. It wasn’t the bolt that was choking him; it was his own blood.

“Come, lad, sit up,” Adal urged him, a hand to his shoulder. Roan, wheezing crazily, grabbed at the offered hand and pulled at him, a high-pitched keening bubbling half from his mouth and half from his ruptured neck.

Adal tried to steady himself, yanked off balance by the panicking soldier dying at his feet. More arrows were coming, along with a scattered blast of buckshot that tore chunks off scenery and body alike. He hunched over Roan, angling his shoulders to shield the man as best he could with his own mass. Arrows alone might have been bandits. But if they had firearms, chances are this was Narlish Army. A setup? How had he walked right into–

“Lieutenant get fucking down!”

He turned toward the voice as if in a dream. Private Bissett crouched against the frame of a dilapidated building, beckoning him.

He’d waltzed them right into this mess. They were never going to reach Gaspard in time if–

A body slammed into his own, freeing him from Roan’s bloodied grasp.

Adal tried to protest, but someone shouted leave him in his face and it was all he could do not to whimper yes ma’am and then Sergeant Chou, Riss Chou, the hardass, she was dragging him behind the well and out of the line of fire, pushing herself against him, slapping a hand over his stammering mouth.

“Lieutenant, shut your face and listen to me.” Eyes boring into his like daggers. “We can’t do anything for Roan or the people in the well.”

He knew it was true but he didn’t want to say it. It felt like a personal failure on his part.

“Aren’t consciences daft,” he croaked, eyes welling with tears. She snarled and grabbed him harder by the jaw. Her grip was enough to grind his teeth together.

“I can get you out of this,” she hissed. “But you are relinquishing command of this unit to me before you get us all fucking killed.”


They billeted in the next village over, also abandoned. It didn’t feel far enough away.

Riss, true to her word, had gotten them out of it. She and a couple of the lighter-footed scouts successfully flanked the gunners and the crossbowman, drove them into the waiting arms of Adal and Bissett. It was swift and precise and nothing Adal would have been able to accomplish on his own.

Nobody was in a talking mood. Roan’s ribbons weighed heavy in his pocket, like they were lead instead of gold. He and Riss would pin them on Bissett later. He’d earned them. But not now.

Everyone retreated to their own private silences and grief.

Adal staked out the backroom of their chosen billet, a semi-private space with a brick fireplace and a disused altar. He peeled the mostly-melted nubs of a few candles off the altar table, tucked them into the fireplace, and lit them.

“That’s about three different kinds of bad luck, Lieutenant.”

Riss’ broad-shouldered frame filled the doorless doorway. She leaned against the wood, gazing down at him, her expression tough to read.

“No smoke on patrol, yes yes, I know.” Adal had no excuses. He simply couldn’t bear to spend the night in the dark, not after what he’d seen.

“Chimney should eat the worst of it. Won’t do the same for the vengeful spirits whose worship you’re fuckin’ up, but hey.”

“I’ll leave an offering in the morning, perhaps.” The last thing on his mind was someone else’s provincial hearth god or pissy ancestors.

Riss slid down the doorway until she was cross-legged on the floor. She made herself at home beside his bedroll, not asking permission. Not that he’d have withheld it after what she did. Envy flashed in him like lightning, there and gone. She always looked so comfortable, like she belonged everywhere she chose to plant her ass by virtue of simply choosing to sit there. Adal wondered what it was like to move through the world like that. To not constantly wonder whether one was out of place.

“Come to lay down the rules of the new command?” He meant it as a joke. Mostly. It came out more bitter than he intended.

Riss’ eyebrows knit together.

“No, uh.” She looked surprised he’d even suggest such a thing. “I wanted to see how you were feeling. And to apologize.”

How he was feeling?

“Not the best,” he admitted.

“Yeah, no shit.” She drummed her fingertips on a knee. For once, she seemed mildly agitated. The nervous motion was unlike her. For all their time together in the Fourth Recce–and it had been half a season now–she’d never shown a lick of anxiety.

“I’ll survive.” Adal lifted a hint of a smile. He meant it, too. The day had veered sharply from horror to dismay to embarrassment, but it was far from the worst he’d ever suffered.

“With me looking out for you? You sure will.” Her eyes narrowed. A joke?

Seconds ticked by. Adal turned his head and watched the tiny flames of the candles dance. Riss hadn’t left yet. He wasn’t sure why. He was a little nervous about asking. They’d shared no bad blood, but they weren’t exactly close.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

He choked back a full-on guffaw.

“You’re practically sitting on my pillow, Sergeant. Permission by this point is implied.”

Riss unwrapped something from her belt with a crinkle of wax paper. It was a small bar of chocolate impressed with a four-point seal. Amaveloro’s, a luxury trader out of Medao. Contraband goods if caught in the hands of someone wearing their uniform.

“I swiped this off one of the dead Narlies,” she said, snapping the bar in two. “Promise.”

Adal took the chocolate, dumbfounded. It was dark and smooth, leaning more toward bitter than sweet. He took slow, nibbling bites, savoring it. With the blockade in place, who knew when he’d get the chance to savor northern chocolate again.

“It was a dumb, dumb thing you did back there,” said Riss. Ah, so the chocolate was to soften the blow. Adal puffed out his chest a little and prepared to take his licks. A lecture from his Sergeant was a predictable finale to a day like this.

He didn’t disagree with her that he’d chosen poorly.

“Nothing you could have done could have saved him. And you know that. And I think you knew it then too.” Oh. She was talking about Roan. Adal remained silent while she continued.

“Roan and I came up through Selection together.” A pause. “When I saw him go down, I duck-and-covered. It was the practical thing to do. You went to him instead.”

Adal’s stomach tightened. He didn’t know what she wanted him to say. He didn’t know what he wanted to say. It had been reflex. Some insane, impractical part of him had thought Roan stood a chance.

“I was tough on you. Tougher than I should have been. You have every right to discipline me for saying what I did.”

“It wasn’t incorrect,” Adal said, atonal. “The unit would likely fare better under your command.”

Riss could scout circles around most of them. Gaspard Marcinen had his eye on her. She was destined for bigger and better things–and wetter, quieter work–than most of the Fourth. They were lucky to have her as long as they had.

“It was out of line.” Riss leaned back into his field of vision, her short fringe falling into her eyes.

“What do you want, Sergeant? Want me to whip you or reprimand you in earshot of the others?”

That got a laugh out of her.

“No, sir.” Her expression took on a more serious cast, her lips tight. “But… I want to help you. Like you tried to help Roan. The Academy spits out a lot of brass who only care about earning jewelry for their lapels. And a lot of sadists with short man syndrome who’d have had my hide for what I said to you. You aren’t either of those.”

They were scouts, sure, but the parts of him the Academy had hammered smooth still rang with her insults. Yet she wasn’t wrong. He knew both those types. But it was terribly impolite to say all that.

Wearily, Adal sized her up. Still waters ran deep, he supposed. There was more to her than he’d assumed.

After the day they’d had, he was too tired to remind her of decorum.

“Thank you,” he said instead.

The Army made compatriots out of strangers. And friends out of the most unlikely people.

“We can look out for one another,” Riss said, like he’d already signed some blood pact.

“I believe that’s the goal already,” he deadpanned. “Keep one another alive. Ideally the whole unit.”

“You know what I mean.” She eased back to her feet, straightened her coat. “I’m a conscript. I didn’t volunteer for this crap. So you’d better believe I’m getting more out of this war than simply staying alive.”

Adal hadn’t ever thought of it that way, but she had a point.

<< Chapter 28 | Chapter 30 >>

Chapter 28

Once, when Calay Maunet was young, before he was even Calay Maunet, he came down with a fever. For five days and nights he alternated between shivering and sweating, vacillated between exhausted and manic. He spent his days in the blurred barrier between asleep and awake. Snatches of consciousness were hazy, their edges ill-defined. He couldn’t ever be certain if he was fully alert.

After Geetsha blew apart, and in the heavy darkness that followed, he awoke in a similar way.

He opened his eyes to a writhing sky.

Dawn had come while he was asleep. It was a stormy dawn, the sky choked with thick and ominous clouds. Woven through the clouds were dark, tapered tentacles, darker still than the storm overhead, and they curled and twitched like the feelers of the jellies that sometimes washed up on the Vasa shores. Like they belonged to a dead thing stirred into motion by some unseen current.

None of it made sense.

When he tried to move, he found he couldn’t.

Then the pain hit him, far away at first, but slowly sharpening into focus as seconds passed. His body felt tired, weighted down. He could breathe, but he sensed a slippery, disconcerting not-rightness in his abdomen. When he tried to lift his head, he found he didn’t have the strength to raise it all the way.

Fragments returned: Geetsha, the living thorns, Vosk. Then stranger splinters: dreams of peculiar red beetles, the rumble of distant wagon wheels.

That’s right. Calay had been shot.

Well he must have lived through that, then. Which was fortunate, as he had enough blood on him to return his body to an unharmed state, provided he could reach it and manipulate it in the proper way. Struggling to lift his left hand, he felt down toward his belt, reaching, groping.

When he tried to lift his right hand, he encountered a strange resistance. A resistance that made him uneasy, because it wasn’t the sluggish delayed response of an injured limb. Something had him physically trapped in place. This new worry took precedence in his mind, and he gave his hand a little tug, trying to slip it out from under whatever had landed atop it.

Pain, sharp and barbed, licked immediately up his fingers and arm. A pain so intense and sudden that it drove a startled, strangled yelp out of him. He twitched and thrashed, and every motion seemed to invite further agony. It felt like trying to pull fishhooks from his skin, yet every time he tried to pull away they dug in deeper.

Shivering, whimpering, he turned his head. He grit his teeth until the spasms in his throat stopped. He schooled himself into silence.

He saw that there were no tentacles in the sky. What he was seeing were the roots of the crawling tree closing over his face. He’d fallen right into it. Which meant that the pain he felt whenever he moved his arm must be…

Calay bit back a fresh round of screaming. Hissing, whining, desperate, he attempted to shift his center mass away from the tree while moving his arm as little as possible. Further pain–this pain a deep, punching ache–jolted him through the middle. Warm wet spilled down his sides. He tried not to pay attention to the fishhook sensation, the little pulls and tugs he felt on his skin. Tried not to imagine it as the mouths of dozens of tiny leeches all burrowing in at once. Tried not to think about how he could not die like this.

Where was Gaz? Where were the others? Fuck’s sake, why wasn’t someone helping him?

Something must have happened to Vosk, or else the man would have marched up and put one in his head to finish him off. Vosk wanted him silent, not mortally wounded. With Geetsha dead–if she’d even been alive to begin with–Calay alone knew that Vosk had tried to kill the survivor. And Geetsha’s cryptic last words hinted at a reason why.

But none of that mattered if a tree fucking ate him.

His left hand’s fingers closed around a vial in his belt. He tried to calm himself, tried to think through his options, tried to keep a lid on the panic.

Remember what happened the last time you lost control.

Most days, Calay actively suppressed the memory of his last few weeks in Vasile. It was still too fresh, too raw. But he conjured a specific memory now: that kicked-dog sensation of being dragged to the Vasa dungeons, begging Gaz not to intervene, to let it happen, because he’d gotten himself into this mess and he wasn’t about to let his friends get killed on his account.

None of that would have happened if he’d kept a level head. 

A cold shiver swept over him like a tide. The fishhooks felt further away. Not a good sign.

Focus. Come on. Two major concerns: the gut shot and the tree. Which was it best to tend to first? If he closed the wound in his stomach, he could focus on freeing himself. Hack his arm off if he had to. He wasn’t sure he had enough blood on him to fix that, hadn’t ever tested his magick to that extreme a degree, but if it was his only option, he’d take it in an instant over being absorbed slowly into a tree.

His thoughts slurred. He grounded himself in what he could feel: his left hand’s fingers held a vial. Vial. The vial was blood. He needed blood to patch himself up. Two vials would be better. He grabbed for both, lifted them to his mouth, bit through the waxy seals.

Hesitation. What if the others see? They saw him get shot. If they saw him un-shot things would get messy. But messy is a preferable outcome to dead. Things were already messy. Hesitation. He wondered if they’d turn on Gaz, too. Gaz can look out for himself.

He made the decision. With shaking, bloodstained fingers, he tore open the top few buttons of his shirt.

Calay turned his head, spat wax, and poured. Two vials of blood, harvested from the unwilling bodies of Vasa guards who’d crossed him, spilt down his chest. He sloppily sketched the seven-pronged character of su upon his skin, and as soon as his finger traced the final line, warmth surged through his body from the inside out. It hit him like a slap; his teeth snapped shut on his tongue. That pain was a drop in the bucket.

The strange stretching heat of a wound healing from within still unsettled him. The warming sensation grew hotter, and as broken skin and viscera knit back together, the heat rocketed up to near-unbearable levels. Tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, Calay held his breath and let the magick run its course. He’d never felt it burn so hot for so long now, but then again, he’d never had to clean up a wound this messy before, at least not on his own body.

Somewhere far away, the poor bastard who’d ‘donated’ this blood would share his searing red-hot agony. Splitting the pain between two bodies was the only thing that made it bearable.

Something deep in his core clicked and cracked; he felt a grinding sensation shimmy its way up his spine, a part of which must have been blown askew. As ribs and vertebrae burrowed back into place, he reflexively reached for his torso with both hands, and then his right arm sang out in fresh misery that put the burning in his guts to shame. The fishhooks seized him by the skin and the magick of su immediately tried to counteract, but something wasn’t working right. Above him, the tree shuddered, then its roots tightened their grasp around both Calay and the other body held in their tangles.

He recalled Vosk’s words, recalled the horrifying sight of the horse encased in the tree trunk. If Vosk hadn’t been lying about that too, then the tree was already melding with him. Any magick he worked on himself would–

Oh shit oh shit oh shit, had he just healed the tree?

Rolling onto his side as best he could, not even taking a moment to marvel at his newly-repaired torso, Calay groped for a blade. He had to cut himself loose, even if it meant taking off the entire arm.

When he blinked, a strange vision glittered before his eyes: sunlight sparkling on water. He heard laughter, faint and far away. His heart ached, a bone-deep nostalgia, and he couldn’t pinpoint why.

Across the clearing, bodies began to stir. Groaning quietly, Torcha rubbed at her head, groping for her rifle. He caught a glimpse of open eyes through the tangle of her hair.

Calay smelled salt now. He heard gulls. He could tell to some extent that the phantom smells and sounds must be hallucinations, as he couldn’t see anything that would have caused them. But that didn’t make any of it less real.

He would deal with Torcha when he was free, depending on what she’d seen.

Fumbling one-handed, he managed to unsheath one of the punch-daggers from his belt. He grit his teeth. The inside of his mouth still tasted like blood. He thought back to the slow, steady patience he’d shown in the city dungeons. He had the willpower to do this. Except this time, he’d have more in common with the screaming, wriggling rat that he’d trapped, down to the part where it had tried to gnaw off one of its own legs in its frantic rush to escape.

<< Chapter 27 | Chapter 29 >>

Chapter 27

Thick, oily smoke belched up into the sky, blotting out the skyline. Stomach sinking, Gaz rounded the corner, already knowing what he’d find. He’d spotted the first plumes from the market, and he knew the streets like the back of his hand.

Someone had torched the squat. Lawmen, rival gang, some idiot puffing cigs and falling asleep, who even knew.

Standing in the middle of the alley, hands in his pockets, Gaz watched his home go up in flames.

The squat was far from the only home he’d ever known. It had been shelter for the last few months. Kitta, the landlord, gave him occasional work. He menaced in doorways when tenants didn’t pay up, then menaced a few stalls in the bazaar when Kitta wanted protection money. He hadn’t had to hurt anyone yet. Which was a relief, because he wasn’t sure he could. Gaz balanced on that precarious edge between child and adult, a boy in a teen’s body, larger in frame than his ambitions and his courage.

A soft, pathetic cough croaked out from the debris. Hunched near a collapsed lean-to, a young girl sat in the dirt, a smear of ash across her brow. Her oily hair, days unwashed, clung to her face and stuck up in the back.

Gaz didn’t recognize her. How long had she been sitting there? Had she crawled out from inside?

The kid turned her big, wet peepers onto him and just stared. She didn’t cry. She coughed sometimes. The two of them stood in a silent stalemate.

“Are… do your folks live here?” he asked, quiet.

He couldn’t pinpoint how old she was. It was tough, with slum kids. They were always too skinny, stunted, looked younger than they were. She could have been two or she could have been a malnourished six. Gaz didn’t grow up around kids. What age did kids even start to talk, anyway?

The girl said nothing. He shuffled a little closer. Instead of flinching and skittering off, she just watched him, head turning marginally.

He crept closer until he loomed over her, staring down at her greasy little head. She had sores, he could see now, little pustules on her skin. Some sort of disease. They festered, uncared-for, red at the edges, weeping from beneath the few rags that wrapped her bony body.

“Oh man,” he said, looking around the alley, wide-eyed. “We should… find your ma.”

But he knew there wasn’t any ma coming. Nobody who lived around here had parents. At least not parents who birthed them. At the rate healthy babies could fetch at the slavers’ stalls, there was no need to bring up extra mouths to feed in this part of town. And bluntly, she didn’t look like anyone loved her enough to keep her around on purpose.

Still, what if? If she had parents, he wouldn’t want to cross them.

He stood there in the alley beside the silent, staring girl until the squat was a heap of coals. No one came for her.

“We oughta… we oughta get you to the clinic,” he said at last, tiptoeing that last bit closer as though his words might frighten her. Maybe she didn’t speak northern.

He found a half-rotted grain sack in the midden and wrapped the child in it. She didn’t complain. Binding her up tightly, Gaz checked that none of her exposed skin touched his as he lifted her up in his arms.

“Sorry,” he said, though he doubted she’d never suffered worse indignities. “You’re sick and stuff.”

He didn’t want to get any ick on him.

So he carried her through the alleys, keeping to the quiet side-streets. For her part, she said and did nothing, limp and listless in his arms, weighing no more than his bag of protection coin and assorted bribes. Bribes that Kitta wouldn’t be collecting now, as she was either dead or driven underground. The leg of meat, the jars of preserves, the money, the jewelry–it was all his now.

So he could afford to take the girl to the Indigents’ Clinic. And it was the right thing to do.

He dropped her off, then mumbled something to the old man about having to run some errands. He didn’t want to hang around. It was embarrassing, showing up on the fringes of the middle-city all shoeless and smelling like he did.

Gaz spent a portion of his newly-acquired wealth on a pair of sandals and two full hours at the midtown public baths. For one of those hours, he simply lounged in the warm water, staring wide-eyed as attendants carried jug after jug of the stuff in. All that water, and it never ran cold.

But then, freshly bathed, he couldn’t bear to put his old tunic and breeches on. They smelled like shit.

So he nicked a pair that looked about his size off a peg in the antechamber. People who used the public baths could afford new pairs of pants.

A shirt was trickier. Not many folks had shoulders as broad as his. So in the end he bought that too. Spent sixteen australs on it. Sixteen! It wasn’t anything fancy, just tightly-woven sailcloth. But it would last for ages if he tended it.

And as he walked back into the clinic, looking to see what had happened to the kid, it felt nice to not smell like garbage anymore.


Gaz hated the Indigents’ Clinic. Not because it reminded him that he’d grown up in the piss-pot of the city, but because sickness and deformity gave him the heebies. He kept to himself, peeking across the rows of beds. The poor treated in this place weren’t afforded any privacy, beds stacked eight to a row in a large open bay. The whole place stank in a different way to the slums.

The little girl was curled up on a bed in the far corner, her face reeking of strong-smelling salve. It glistened wetly on her pale cheeks, and she slept a hard and medicated sleep. Adrift on an adult-sized mattress, she looked impossibly tiny.

“This your kid?”

The source of the voice was a short, slender boy with close-cropped flaxen hair. Well, he was short by Gaz standards. He was probably average human height. Neatly dressed in a slate-grey linen smock, he wore gloves and a bandolier dotted with surgical instruments–long tweezers, scissors, a magnifying glass, a spool of thread.

He looked a little young to be carrying all that around.

“Yep,” said Gaz, finally answering the question. Then it occurred to him the medic might have meant your kid as in your kid, so he suddenly shook his head.

“I mean she’s my kid like I brought her here. But she’s not my kid like my-kid my kid.”

A strangely-delayed smile spread across the blond boy’s mouth, like he was amused by something very private that only had halfway to do with anything Gaz had said.

“So she’s not your kid, but you brought her here. Funny.” He spoke softly, amusedly, again like something about this whole situation was hilarious.

The medic tottered off, tending to the other patients without further word.

Gaz pulled up a stool and sank down by the girl’s bedside, unsure of what else to do with himself. He had no squat to go back to. He had a purse full of coin he didn’t know how to spend. If he ventured back into the alleys, someone would nick it off him for sure. And probably his sandals, too. But he didn’t know how you got a room in midtown. Were there squats in places like this? Rooms you could rent by the night?

He puzzled through his dilemma one wandering thought at a time. For the first time in his life, Gaz had nowhere to be and no pressing needs. No threat to his person in the form of violence, starvation, or a master who’d wonder where the hells he’d got to.

So he spent his hours at the girl’s bedside, waiting to see if she’d wake up. He fished a jar of jam out of his satchel and sucked little mouthfuls of it off his finger. Good jam. Plum jam.

He had a jam-hand crammed in his mouth when that medic boy reappeared, finding his way to Gaz’s side. The street outside had gone dark. Gaz hadn’t noticed.

“You’re still here.”

Gaz wasn’t sure what to say. That hadn’t been a question.

“Yep,” he said, popping the lid back on the jam. Street kid reflex: he didn’t plan on sharing, so hide the food away.

“Funny,” said the medic.

“Everything’s funny to you.”

The medic efficiently undressed the bed beside the girl’s, stripping it of its bloodstained sheets. He folded the cloth in his arms, smirking at Gaz while he did it.

“Not everything. Just you.”

Gaz flipped him a rude hand gesture, starting to wonder what the fuck this guy’s problem was. And the boy slipped off again, tidying bedclothes in all the unoccupied cots and checking on those who slept in the occupied ones.


Gaz didn’t know what else to do, so he stayed there. Around him, relatives filtered in and out of the clinic, checking in on patients and sometimes leaving with them. A man came in holding a badly-crushed hand, twisted fingers swollen and broken and leaking blood. The young medic seemed to be something of an assistant in the place, directing some people to the scruffy old guy who worked in the back room and taking care of others himself. Gaz half-watched, interested by virtue of there being nothing else going on.

Sometimes, the girl seemed close to waking. She mumbled incoherently a few times, then finally spoke up clear enough that Gaz could hear. She was asking for a drink.

“Hey,” said Gaz the next time the young medic wandered by. “She’s asking for a glass of water.”

The boy glanced down, nodded a little, and said that was a good sign. Then he flitted off into the bowels of the building where Gaz couldn’t see him.

When the medic returned, he was carrying a small wooden tray. Upon it were two tall clay cups of water, a heap of sliced bread, and a small chunk of cheese. He set it on the foot of the unoccupied cot beside Gaz’s stool.

“Here you go,” he said, perfunctory. “Thought it might go well with your jam.”

Gaz’s mouth watered. He explored the contents of the tray while the medic tried to coax the little girl into drinking. He had moderate success. She hiccuped and laid back down.

Still still here,” Gaz said, pulling the jam jar out of his satchel.

“I’m not kicking you out.”

Plunking the jar onto the tray with the rest of the foodstuffs, Gaz offered an introduction.

“I’m Gaz,” he said.

“Calay,” said the medic. His smile was odd and quick, like he wasn’t used to doing it or was expecting something to go wrong.

“So you help run this place?”

Gaz smeared jam on a slice of rich, fibrous brown bread. It was still soft on the inside, still fresh, thin-crusted. He was careful not to appear too eager, although he’d only had bread this nice maybe twice in his life.

“I do.” Calay sliced cheese with a thin horn-hilted knife, offering Gaz a small wedge. “I’m the apprentice here. I work for Mr. Linten.”

It was amazing, the type of conversations you could have when you had clean shoes and a clean shirt. A physician’s apprentice, that was the sort of person who normally crossed the street when they saw Gaz coming. He was so learned for someone so young. So well-spoken. And he had a real job you had to know stuff to do.

“It’s good that you guys do this,” Gaz said. He was on uneven footing, conversationally. What did people like this talk about?

“It is,” agreed Calay. He seemed to use one word for every five Gaz used.

Gaz ate slower than he wanted to, taking small bites and actually chewing them. He ate like Kitta did when she met with her business colleagues. Sometimes Gaz watched the door during those kinds of meetings, and while the conversations were always insufferably boring, they usually fed him after.

The bread crumbled on his tongue, intensely flavorful and dark. The sweet jam and the soft, sweet cheese combined for a truly pleasurable eating experience. Gaz, despite his best efforts to not inhale it, didn’t actually speak again until he’d finished the slice.

“Thanks,” he said, licking crumbs off his thumb.

Calay’s slim shoulders lifted in a modest shrug. “It’s nothing,” he said. Then he pursed his mouth, regarding Gaz with a subtle tilt of his chin. He leaned back on the cot, relaxing slightly. The bloodstained mattress didn’t seem to bother him at all. Which Gaz supposed made sense, given how many hours a day he probably spent in the clinic.

“So why are you still here?” he finally asked. He looked at Gaz like Gaz was a puzzle with a missing piece.

Gaz was easily swayed by food, and not the type to lie unless a situation really warranted. So he just told the truth.

“I guess I don’t really have anywhere else to go?” He sipped his water, then gave a shrug of his own. It was enough of an answer.

“You live on the streets?” Calay kept up the questions, although Gaz didn’t feel pressured or interrogated. He asked like he was just curious.

“Sort of. But not really. I lived in a tenement. But it burned down.”

“Ah. Over on the Eastside?”

Built on a series of hills, Vasile was a place that made it easy to gauge where folk came from. The further west you lived, the better off you were. The far eastern neighborhoods were crumbling slums, no longer maintained by the city and left to the likes of folks like Kitta.

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “Blackbricks.”

Calay nodded near-imperceptibly, like he was actually familiar with the neighborhood. Gaz thought that unlikely.

“So where do you plan to go when we close up?” With a slender, spidery hand, he gestured to the darkness beyond the windows. “We’re not open all night, I’m afraid.”

Gaz chewed the inside of his cheek. He reached for another slice of cheese, layering it atop bread with jam for grout.

“Dunno,” he admitted. “I’ll figure out something.”

The answer earned him a quiet laugh. Then, after laughing, Calay hesitated. He cleared his throat a little, then glanced toward the short staircase that led up into the backrooms.

“I might be able to help you with that,” he said after a moment. Gaz blinked.

“How?” he asked. “You have a spare bed somewhere?”

Calay pursed his lips. “Sort of,” he said. “We’ve had some break-ins here the last few years. Mostly people looking for drugs or supplies. You’re a big fellow, and having a doorman would likely deter criminal activity. You probably wouldn’t even have to tangle with any of them.”

Well that was a line of work Gaz was familiar with.

“I’ve done that before,” he said. “Even the tangling part.” Although only in self-defense.

“Let me talk to my boss,” said Calay. “You can have the last of this. I’ll finish up my rounds and speak to Mr. Linten.”

Gaz sucked in a breath through his nose and tried not to hold it. A strange nervousness fluttered in his stomach. He felt like he had to be on his best behavior. The clean shirt and shoes had really done it. Maybe this was his big break. His ticket to… well he wasn’t sure what it was a ticket to. Better things than what he’d had. He was so unfamiliar with the wider city, beyond what little he could glimpse from the right vantage points, up on a roof or a hill or whatnot.

Maybe he’d finally get to see it all.

“Hey,” he said, as Calay stood. “Thank you.”

Calay smiled that quick, short-lived smile again, then told Gaz he’d try his best. Gaz got the feeling this kid was smart. That when he tried, he got what he wanted.

<< Chapter 26 | Chapter 28 >>

Author Update – Cover art has arrived and bonus chapter coming tomorrow!

Hi everyone!

I don’t write on the blog here terribly often as I let the story speak for itself, but I wanted to say hello to the recent spike in new readers. It’s great to see the story gaining traction and I enjoy reading all your comments. Since Mire is a labour of love, it’s encouraging and motivating to see such nice feedback.

I’d also like to reveal an INCREDIBLY BITCHIN’ ‘cover’ art done by George of Cotronis and Sons Illustration. There’s a Riss and a Calay variant, and they are so cool my heart basically stops every time I look at them.

I’ll be re-tooling the website some to incorporate the new art over the next few days, so don’t be alarmed if you notice any sudden changes.

I wanted to share a little bit about my upcoming plans for the series, since I’ve had some free time to do a lot of juicy outlining lately. I do intend for Mire to be ongoing after Adventure #1 continues. As well as the continued adventures of Riss & Co. as their mercenary reputation grows and their clients grow stranger, there are also volumes planned for party backstories.

I’ve completed outlines thus far for the following books:

1. The story of Gaspard Marcinen’s journey from death row to the Inland Army, and how he grew to become one of its most notorious figureheads.

2. Calay’s rise to power in the Vasa underworld, culminating in the betrayal that led to his arrest and eventual outing as a sorcerer.

3. The formation of the mercenary company as told through a series of letters between Adalgis as he recuperated from his war wounds and Riss while she was still serving on the southern front.

4. The actual Adventure #2, which involves a legendary outlaw being chased across the continent by a murderous postal worker, and how they both attempt to enlist the help of our favourite mercenaries to take the other out.

I’m so thrilled with the response this story has generated online. Thank you sincerely to each and every one of you who has read, commented, voted on TopWebFiction, left a review, or just shared the link with friends and family. It’s great to see people are enjoying reading this story as much as I’m enjoying writing it.

To celebrate how jazzed I am about the cover art, I’ll be releasing an extra bonus chapter tomorrow. 🙂

Chapter 26

Rocking like a ship on rough seas, nuts and bolts barely holding it together, the wagon shuddered down the road. Torcha had them racing along at a breakneck, dangerous pace, but Riss didn’t care.

“Can we go any faster?” she screamed through the door toward the piloting chamber.

“Not if we want to control where we’re going!”

Sprawled across Riss’ lap, Gaspard choked. His labored breath came in gasps and wheezes, dark blood flecking his silver-grey beard. His lone eye rolled upward, still alert, still watching her. She glanced away, not quite able to look him in the face.

The wagon impacted something in the road, likely just a small rock, but at the speed they were going, it sent a shiver of impact through the entire wooden frame. The wheels held fast. Gaspard erupted into coughing.

“Don’t worry,” Riss said, unsure whether he could even hear her over the ruckus. “We’re almost there.”

She tightened her grip on the compress wadded against Gaspard’s chest. The splintered shaft of a crossbow bolt protruded from the blood-soaked fabric squished wetly in her fingers. Riss knew better than to try to move or withdraw it, so she stemmed the bleeding as best she could, tearing fresh strips from both her cloak and his when the cloth soaked through.

A shotgun blast thundered through the air and the shutters of the wagon’s back window blew into pieces, lending Riss a sliver of the view outside: snow-burdened evergreens and patches of bluebird sky.

Another shot. Chunks of the wooden frame exploded away, showering Riss and Gaspard with splinters. She angled forward, shielding him as best she could with her shoulder.

“Sounds like they have more than just a crossbow,” he wheezed in her ear.

“Yeah, yeah.” Riss growled, voice acidic with self-loathing. “I fucked up. I know.”

Before Gaspard could argue with her–which he’d do, she knew it, even in his injured state–Riss twisted again and hammered her fist against the driver’ s partition.

“Torcha! Get back here or get up top! They’re blowing the back of the wagon off!”

Torcha hollered something indistinguishable. Riss couldn’t hear over the rumble of wheels on dirt. Then louder thumping, someone moving around on the wagon’s roof. Adal or Renato could take over driving; they needed Torcha’s eye. If she could pick the shooters off, or their horses, it would buy them enough time…


Gaspard hiked in air through his teeth, dragging bloodied fingers down her arm.

“Just hang in there,” she murmured without looking, eyes on the open window. It was useless, pleading at him. Words like that never worked. Not on the battlefield, not in infirmaries, not anywhere.

Riss.” Gaspard’s voice, even whittled away to a croak, had an iron backbone to it. She looked down this time.

“Get the fuck out there and help your crew.”

“They’ll be fine.” She dared a glance down at his face and regretted it. The full, stern weight of his dark stare was on her now, his brows drawn. His expression was one of intense pain tempered with a restrained disapproval. Without saying a word, his eye said to her, after all this, you choose to disobey me now?

“I’m not saying they won’t.” He grunted and used an elbow to lever himself into a sitting position. Fresh, hot blood gushed through Riss’ fingers. “I’m saying…”

He paused, smothered a cough.

“I’m saying you can’t help me.

The words stung. Riss worked her mouth in silence, then shifted so that she rested in a kneel on the wagon’s wooden floor. All around them, strapped-down cargo quivered against the ropes that held it down. Another shake, another forceful impact as they careened over an obstacle in the road.

“I’ll be fine,” he rasped. “If they blast the ass-end of the wagon off to shoot me again, you’ll have–” Another wheeze. “–bigger problems than mourning me.”

He was right. Riss wasn’t any kind of sawbones. If they got into town in time, if they managed to get into town at all without getting blown completely to fuck, that would be the time to talk medical attention.

Until then, there was nothing she could do. Yet she still didn’t want to leave him.

She squeezed his shoulder once, fingers digging in, reluctant to let go. She told him to keep applying pressure, then slid the partition into the wagon’s cab open. It was more of a window than a door, but Riss could wiggle through. Kicking and twisting, she fell in a heap of leather onto the piloting chamber floor.

As she landed, the coachman let out a yelp of surprise, clenching the reins even tighter. Renato sat on the bench beside him, leaned around the wall, pistol in hand.

“They both up top?” asked Riss, of Torcha and Adal. The coachman nodded, barely looking aside at her as he struggled to keep up the pace.

“I won’t let ‘em flank us,” Renato called. “Get up there!”

Up front, with so many layers of hard timber between herself and the gunshots, without Gaspard bleeding out in her lap, Riss felt calmer. She could hear herself think.

Hauling hand-over-hand, she climbed up onto the roof of the wagon, knuckling down near Torcha and Adal’s feet. They were both laid out along the rooftop, taking pot shots at the riders who pursued them. Just as Riss arrived, one of Adal’s shots struck home: a horse stumbled and fell, red spraying from its leg.

Riss couldn’t shoot for shit. Not like those two. So she made herself useful in other ways: hurriedly reloading their rifles while they rotated to the pistols at their belts, all three of them clinging on for dear life.


The wagon rolled to a juddering halt, limping into the yard, its team panting. The horses twitched their necks and threw their heads, muscle spasm visible below their hides. Riss climbed down from the roof as the coachman bellowed for water.

All around them the wagonyard bustled, porters loading and unloading other coaches.

Riss’ heart gradually slowed. As it did, a sudden exhaustion sapped her. She felt spent, as if she’d run down the mountain herself on foot. Beneath her boots, the ground seemed to shudder and buck as though she were still in motion.

Walking around to the rear doors, she grabbed the nearest porter by the arm.

“You,” she said, barely glancing down at the boy, who couldn’t have been out of his teens. “Send into town for a physician.”

She shoved him away without waiting for acknowledgment. The blood spilled down the front of her leathers said enough.

Heaving the lockbar up, she stepped aside as the door and loading plank fell backward into position. Buckshot and hard traveling had bitten whole chunks out of the wagon’s backside, but the important parts appeared intact, for all Riss cared. She gave the wagon itself only a cursory look on her way inside.

She twisted past a row of crates, still lashed to the cargo hold’s walls by some miracle, and crouched.

Gaspard lay right where she’d left him, back propped up on a rucksack, fingers clutching the compress to his gut.


The second she set eyes upon him, she knew.

Riss had seen a lot of people die. She’d seen people die in shitty, war-torn tent hospitals. She’d seen people die by her own hand, when she stood over them on the battlefield and slit their throats to make it quick. She’d held her soldiers while they cried for their husbands and wives and begged for painkillers that had run out months ago.

She couldn’t take a single step closer to his body. It was as though the same sharp, soul-deep magnetism that drew people to Gaspard in life repelled her in death.

Riss walked to the cargo hold doors, then sat down on the loading ramp.

The bastard. The absolute bastard. He’d known. He had known it was about to happen and he’d sent her off so she wouldn’t be there. Like a wounded family pet crawling off under the deck to die alone, so its masters wouldn’t be troubled.

Adal found her there later, still staring into space, the blood spilt down her jerkin yet to dry. She had no idea how much time had passed. The medic arrived; Adal waved him curtly away. He knew, then. She heard Ren and Torcha barking orders at someone, but the words mattered so little that her brain didn’t retain them.

Adal sat down next to her, but a good foot away. Like she’d acquired the same repellent aura that drove her away from Gaspard’s cooling corpse.



<< Chapter 25 | Chapter 27 >>

If you’re enjoying the story, I’d appreciate your vote on TopWebFiction! It’s all the advertising I do!

Chapter 25

For all his caution, for all his magickal possibilities, the bullet caught Calay just below the navel and blew a hole straight through his back. He crumpled, felt the force of the wound before the pain. He tried to breathe and found his lungs were intact. Coughing, sputtering, he gripped his abdomen and fumbled for his belt.

He could sketch that wound away. He just needed the vial. Any of the vials. It didn’t matter whose blood he used, just so long as it wasn’t his own.

Groping sluggishly, he found his hands responded with a worrying slowness.

All around him, he heard bodies hit the ground. The sound of full-grown men and women tumbling into the soft, muddy earth.

He turned his head just in time to see Vosk fall to his knees, then faceplant into the dirt, his still-smoking pistol falling from his grip. A snarl built upon Calay’s mouth, but a thought held him back: he didn’t have much time. If this was it, he wasn’t going to waste his last breath cursing that bastard.

Movement to his other side: the man caught in the tree’s roots–nearly excised with Calay’s help–also fell limp.

Twisting onto his stomach, vision blurring crazily, Calay tried to rise to a kneel. Something slippery nudged at his fingers. He didn’t look down, well aware of what that meant. Slapping a hand into place, he held his entrails in. With every passing second, his own body felt further and further away from the rest of the world.

Someone was yelling. Was it his name they were yelling?

And why was it snowing?

He took in a short, pained breath and it had the odd, gritty texture of dusty air from a room long-undisturbed. Like he’d just walked into a tomb.

Before everything greyed out, he caught a glimpse of Gaz crawling toward him. He lifted a foot, tried to walk, but his knees weren’t behaving.  Stumbling, he pitched forward into the twisted roots of the great crawling tree. It accepted him with open, inhuman arms.

<< Chapter 24.5 | Chapter 26 >>

Chapter 24.5

Geetsha didn’t bleed. Riss didn’t know how to describe it. The girl came apart in a shower of white powder, as if Vosk’s shot had penetrated a bag of flour rather than a living person.

Drifting like ash from a forest fire, flakes of white scattered down all along the clearing. One landed on Riss’ machete. She lifted the blade toward her face and touched the substance, marveling at it as it flaked away into smaller pieces, disintegrating at her touch.

“What the fuck,” whispered Torcha. Then she sneezed.

Riss glanced over, saw Torcha wiping an ashen smear off her face. Flaky bits of Geetsha rained down on all of them, and then the world went blurry. Riss blinked. Torcha staggered. The barrel of her rifle wavered.

Vosk stared at the spot where Geetsha had been standing, aghast, his face dusted white. Her clothing, blown apart by the force of the powdery explosion, settled in shreds on the ground. His features stricken, Vosk gagged, turning aside.

When he turned, he spotted Calay, still crouched near the tree. He’d partially freed the man trapped in the roots, and he froze like a cornered animal when Vosk’s attention centered on him.

“Don’t do it,” Calay murmured. White flakes drifted down into his eyes and he blinked, coughing.

In that moment of distraction, Vosk drew his other pistol and shot Calay in the stomach.

He fell like a normal man, clutching his midsection as blood erupted from his back.

No no no. Everything was spiraling out of control. Riss had to put a stop to this, or at least slow it all down somehow, before anyone else got hurt. She tried to call out to Vosk, but her tongue felt swollen and useless against her teeth.

Riss took a step forward, or rather tried. Her body wasn’t behaving. A tingling sensation started in her feet and hands, then spread up her limbs.


She tried to say Torcha’s name. Tried to ask if she was all right. Torcha’s rifle tumbled with a muted thunk to the ash-dotted earth. She collapsed atop it.

Riss’ legs buckled. Somewhere, Adal said her name, but her peripheral vision was a haze of grey.

She hit the ground hard, unconscious before she got there.

<< Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 >>

Chapter 24

Riss snapped awake. She sensed a presence hovering over her face, and by instinct she threw an elbow toward it. Fingers closed around her wrist.

“Shh,” Adal whispered in her ear. She relaxed her fingers. He relaxed his.

In the dead of night, lit only by half-spent coals, Adal and Gaz crouched near her bedroll. Something was wrong. She was fully awake in seconds.

“Vosk and Calay are gone,” Gaz whispered. Adal edged off to rouse Torcha.

“Gone as in eaten, or–”

“Gone as in Calay told me he thought Vosk was up to something and was going to check it out. It’s been a few minutes now and he hasn’t come back.”

Riss grunted. She considered reprimanding the sellsword for letting that happen, but no point in it now. If anything happened to Calay, Gaz’s guilt would be punishment enough. Riss instructed Gaz to tie the moas’ leads to something, and in under a minute she and Torcha were fully awake and armored up. This particular journey, Riss had opted to sleep with her boots on. Looks like it was paying off.

A moment later, Adal’s voice, low and cautious: “Geetsha’s gone, too.”’

Well, shit. Again, that suspicion reared its head. Geetsha sure managed to disappear a lot during convenient moments.

By gesture more than words, she led the four of them down the trail. Adal held up a lantern, kept it mostly-hooded to lend them a scrap of an advantage. But Riss knew they’d be easily spotted regardless. Whether it was Vosk threatening Calay as Gaz seemed to think, or something jointly trying to absorb both the men, their light would give them away to the threat. She somehow doubted Geetsha had attacked them, but she tried to remind herself that at this point it was foolish to rule out anything.

They descended the slope and found their path was gone. The colorful filaments were still woven through the thorns, but the thorns themselves were so thickly overgrown across the trail that firelight from the other side barely peeked through.

She slid a look aside to Adal, whose mouth had narrowed. He ticked his head side to side, a tiny disbelieving shake. She wasn’t going crazy, then; this had definitely been their way through.

“Fan out,” she whispered through her teeth. “Not too far apart from one another. Look for gaps.”

The wall of thorns proved impassable. Unnaturally so. They converged back where they started a few moments later, everyone signaling in the negative. No dice.

From the other side of the thorns, a male voice suddenly shrieked in agony.


At the scream, Gaz stiffened and turned toward the wall of thorns.

“We’re going through,” he informed Riss, calm as anything, as if he were commenting on the time of day.

Riss grabbed her gloves from her belt and yanked them on, then tugged up her hood in hopes to shield her face against the thorny debris. She drew her machete and got to work. Torcha likewise covered her face, as did Adal. Gaz just started hacking away, swinging his axe in broad arcs that sent thorned branches flying every which way.

They plowed through in seconds. Riss felt the bite of a few thorns on her skin and against her clothes, but she wasn’t concerned. Leave it to the medic, she thought. Once we’re sure we still have one.

The fire in the clearing still burned, flames feeble, coals glowing. It stood between Riss and the strange trio of Geetsha, Vosk, and Calay.

Riss knew a stand-off when she saw one. Vosk held Geetsha at gunpoint. Calay stood not far away, crouched down near the roots of the great, slumped tree. Another scream. One of Calay’s hands worked down in the roots where Riss couldn’t see.

He was cutting the survivor free. Riss could only imagine what collateral damage that was doing to his body.

“Stay back, all of you!” yelled Vosk. “She isn’t human!”

He held up a palm to Riss and the others, all the while keeping an eye on Geetsha.

“Harlan,” said Geetsha, her voice calm. “You are making a mistake.”

A soft, feminine grunt of effort sounded out as Torcha unshouldered her heavy rifle. She looked at Riss aside, patted the stock of it.

“Aim me, boss,” she said.

Riss held up a hand, stalling her for the time being. Geetsha had stirred up intrigue and suspicion long enough. It was time to get to the bottom of what was wrong with her. Vosk hadn’t exactly found a diplomatic way to force the discussion, but at least they’d finally be clearing the air.

“Everybody calm down.” Riss lifted her voice, pitched it across the clearing. She addressed them like soldiers: short, curt.

“She fucking moved the thorns,” Vosk hissed, his eyes thin slices in the firelight. “She’s some kind of sorcerer!”

The word turned Riss’ sweat cold. ‘Witch’ was a common enough epithet in these parts of the lowlands. Every dust mote-sized village on the map had local healers and apothecaries, herbalists who worked folk “remedies” and shriveled old augurs who promised to read your tea leaves and tell the future. To the uneducated who believed in such things, it was all varying degrees of witchery.

Sorcerer, though. That meant something different.

Riss signaled to Torcha with a twist of her hand. Torcha didn’t have to be told twice. She took a knee and levelled her rifle at Geetsha.

“Geetsha,” Riss started. “I think it’s time we had a talk. You haven’t been entirely honest with us.”

There was no way around it. This confrontation had been brewing for some time. Now Riss just had to hope that if the deception begat violence, it would be the kind of violence a slug through the skull could actually solve. If Vosk was correct and Geetsha possessed some sort of sorcerous power…

Riss had heard stories. She’d never been at a sorcerer’s mercy before. But magick, real magick, the type that didn’t come from old biddies boiling chicken bones to divine your future husband, it could bring whole platoons to their knees.

“There are things I haven’t told you,” Geetsha freely admitted. She never raised her voice. And she didn’t sound the slightest bit alarmed, despite the multiple guns pinning her in place.

“How about you tell us now?” asked Riss, to keep her talking.

“There are more important things to discuss.” Geetsha then turned her eyes from Vosk to Riss and back again. In the firelight, she seemed even paler than usual. Ashen, even.

“Harlan,” Geetsha asked once her attention returned fully to Vosk. “What did you do with the cloth-men?”

Vosk visibly startled. He took a step away from Geetsha, then for some reason spun to face Calay. For a half-second, the barrel of his pistol levelled on Calay, as if to warn him back.

“The who?” Vosk whipped back around to face Geetsha.

Riss had heard a lot of men lie under duress. Vosk was nowhere near among the more talented.

“I already know,” said Geetsha. “Say it for their benefit.” She took a single step toward Vosk, who merely watched her, transfixed.

This was going to end badly. Riss could already tell. She had to intervene.

“Vosk!” Riss called over. “Back down. Torcha’s got a rifle on her. Just stand down! Geetsha, hands up and hold still!”

Geetsha stopped moving. She lifted her palms, loose sleeves dangling down her thin, childlike wrists. She turned her head fractionally toward Riss.

Vosk took the opening. He steadied his hand and fired, blowing Geetsha’s face apart from mere feet away.

<< Chapter 23.5 | Chapter 24.5 >>

Chapter 23.5

The clacking, quivering thorns writhed like a sea of snakes. They formed a solid, sharp-limbed wall, encircling the clearing. A tiny aperture appeared not far from Vosk. Then it widened. Densely-choked brambles untwisted as the bushes themselves wriggled free of one another, allowing a short figure in a ragged green cloak to step through the barrier.

Geetsha’s skin seemed to glow in the firelight, an iridescent blue-green. Calay wasn’t certain if this was the magick augmenting his eyes–or something else.

Vosk spooked and startled, twisting so that he leveled his pistol at the woman. She stepped calmly toward them, then stopped when he jabbed the muzzle toward her, as if mere bullets could ward off something that had just peeled the cover of the marsh away around them.

Calay was a man who always had a plan. He’d planned to strike Vosk with a short spell, something to render him unconscious, then bash him once upside the temple. But now he found his boots frozen on the spot.

He didn’t trust Vosk, but did he trust their strangely-glowing swamp guide even less?

Geetsha stared at the pistol in Vosk’s hand like she was unsure what it even was. She tilted her head, bone-white bangs falling into her eyes. With his enhanced vision, Calay noticed details about her that he hadn’t seen before. Or perhaps they hadn’t been there before. It was impossible to tell. Her skin had a strange texture in the shimmery light: powdery almost, like a layer of dust had at one point settled over her skin and never been dislodged.

She addressed Vosk in a curious whisper, voice showing no trace of fear.

“You are threatening one of them, Harlan.” At the usage of his first name, Vosk jerked as if he’d been struck.

Calay decided this fight wasn’t for him. He wasn’t about to get caught in the middle of whatever this fucking was. Trusting that Vosk was fully distracted, he spun and darted toward the path. Fuck saving the survivor. Fuck eavesdropping on whatever Geetsha was confronting Vosk about. Self-preservation came first, and hanging around to find out what happened wasn’t going to help him preserve his own skin.

Thick, snakelike brambles blocked his path. When they’d parted to allow Geetsha through, they’d closed off his initial pathway through the thorns. Calay felt the blood drain from his face. For the first time in many years, real animal fear–the type he couldn’t logic his way out of–surged through his stomach.

Come on, Gaz, he thought, trying to stifle his panic. Notice I’m missing.

<< Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 >>