Chapter 38

Riss sank down onto her bedroll, cross-legged on the mossy cave floor. By the time ass met ground, she was fading. Sleepless days and nights on the march were nothing new to anyone who’d been with her in the Fourth, but circumstances being what they were, there was more weighing on her frayed nerves than merely sleep deprivation. Little flickers of motion played at the corners of her vision, merely tricks of tired eyes, but out here that couldn’t be dismissed with a shake of the head. Out here the phantoms stood too good a chance of being real.

Stretching out on the thin mat, Riss assessed the camp one last time. The early afternoon sun shined warmly into the cavern, bright enough that it chased a lot of her wariness away. She knew it was bullshit false comfort, but human minds were like that, weren’t they. Gaz was, like her, borderline too tired to walk. He’d conked out a few minutes earlier, already dozing with his back to her. Torcha slept on Riss’ other side, snoring into the crook of an arm. Vosk sat further back in the cave’s shallow recess, still bound. And their first watch of Adal and Calay sat at the cavern’s mouth, silhouetted by sunlight.

Riss didn’t quite miss Geetsha. Wasn’t exactly grieving her. But as her eyes strayed toward Vosk one last time, a fleeting regret passed through her. Tarn and Geetsha had some sort of agreement. Would her people retaliate once they learned she’d been killed? Were her people even people? Was there something worse to fear out in the swamp than mimics and monsters?

Fortunately, fear was rather like grief. Riss simply didn’t have time for it. And in the rare moments she had time, she was too tired to dwell on it for long.


Waking to commotion was starting to become a habit. Riss blinked awake to the sound of a scuffle, bodies rising up off the ground. Yet as her senses asserted themselves and she surveyed the camp, the scuffle seemed to be more one of curiosity than an immediate response to danger.

“Something’s splashing around outside,” said Calay, eyes trained off toward the boulders that largely blocked the clearing from view.

“It doesn’t sound like a large something, for a change,” added Adal. And my, didn’t the pair of them seem chummy. Adal even gestured to Calay to follow him as he rose up from his seat, readying his pistol. Gaz, who had also awoken, lifted a questioning look to Calay, who gave him a tiny headshake.

“We’re only poking our noses out,” he said.

They crept off to investigate. Riss held her breath, opening her mouth slightly to train an ear toward the wilderness, an old recon trick. She heard two pairs of human footsteps, one much lighter than the other. And a few little splashes that sounded as though they were coming from the pool at the forest’s edge.

A moment later, she heard a most peculiar sound: surprised and jubilant laughter. Adal had a warm, deep laugh that she’d have known anywhere. The muted chuckle that followed must have been Calay.

Despite the fact that Torcha was still asleep, she couldn’t resist calling out.

“Everything all right out there?”

“Better than all right!” Adal answered. “We’ll be right over!”

Turning a look toward Gaz, Riss gave her head a skeptical tilt. Gaz, similarly befuddled, gave his bullish shoulders a roll.

“Calay seem all right when we went to sleep?” she asked him. “Neither of them seemed…” She wasn’t even sure what the word was. Delirious? Was there a chance either of them had actually cracked? Paranoia prickled up the back of her neck. Had Calay done something somehow? Some trick he could play without blood?

“They just sound happy,” said Gaz, in the tone of voice of a person who understood just how fucked up that was given the status of things.

They sat there dumbfounded until Adal and Calay slipped back between the boulders. They carried something strange and shiny in their arms. Something so incongruous that Riss needed a minute before her brain clicked on what the objects actually were: thick-bodied, silvery-scaled fish.

“They were leaping for the midges,” said Adal.

“How did you catch ‘em?” Gaz rubbed a hand over his scalp.

Adal clucked his tongue. “I’m a Deel boy,” he said. “If you can’t learn to spearfish they pack you to a raft and send you downriver to the potato farmers.”

Riss exhaled a faint gust of laughter. “It’s true,” she said. “You should see him with a polearm.”

She trailed off and turned a look from face to face. Any further laughter died in her throat. Don’t get too familiar, she warned herself. Calay and Gaz weren’t crew anymore. If she forgot that, if she let her caution lapse, she knew without a doubt that Calay would take advantage. He and Gaz were in it for themselves, their own survival. Riss wouldn’t be their stepping-stone to escape.

Adal cleared his throat, the sound spiking through the tension.

“At any rate,” he said. “They appear to be regular silvergills. Nothing mutated or horrific about them. I say we fillet them up and see how they taste.”

“Vosk and Calay can test ‘em out.” Torcha piped up from her bedroll, where she rested with her arms behind her head.

That wasn’t a half-bad idea.

Adal got the fish gutted and cleaned. He’d claimed with much swagger that his touch with a filleting knife was legendary, back the first time he and Riss had been in the field. His work lived up to the hype. Soon the fish sizzled with promise in the cookpan over the fire, everyone crowding around.

Riss and Torcha sorted through their provisions, putting together a rudimentary broth of sweet potatoes, salt, and the last of their mushrooms. Fine cuisine it was not, but it smelled more hearty than anything they’d nibbled on in the last two days.

“I can’t believe you two can still eat sweet potatoes,” said Adal, watching them while occasionally minding the fish.

“Pardon you.” Torcha ticked her nose in the air. “I could eat sweet potatoes every day ‘til the day I died.”

“Lucky for us that might end up being roundabout, say, tomorrow.”

Riss cocked her brow at Adal. “Dark,” she said.

Gaz, who had sequestered himself away somewhat with Calay at his side, regarded them curiously from his side of the fire.

“What’s wrong with sweet potatoes?”

Torcha finished chopping a fungus and dumped it in the pan, then leveled the blade of her small knife Gaz’s way.

“Absolutely nothing, that’s what.”

“When we were in the field, we ate a lot of them,” Riss explained. “The area near Torcha’s hometown is full of sweet potato plantations. It was easier to dig ‘em up most nights than to carry our own provisions.”

“Easier plus we were thieving from the Narlies.” Torcha sparked a grin, then tidied her things, folding up into a slouch against the cavern wall. “We didn’t all get the luxury of going home halfway through the war to our estate full of chefs.”

Adal pursed a small frown. “I had a collapsed lung,” he said.

“A collapsed lung and endless excuses.”

“Nasty business,” said Vosk from Riss’ opposite side. “I popped a lung once. Took a while to recover.”

Adal merely grunted. Things had shaken out in a way that Riss found mildly surprising: Vosk seemed on thinner ice than Calay where the company’s temper was concerned. But then again, she supposed she could see a certain logic in it. Calay had, thus far, merely hidden something terrible. Vosk had sabotaged their mission from the get-go, and whatever the story had been with Geetsha, he’d still killed her.

His hands were bound. Calay’s, for the time being, were not.

In these quiet moments, when things felt close to normal, that was when Riss found herself missing Gaspard the most. During their long days and cool, damp nights spent on the march, the Fourth’s forward scouts grew close. Gaspard had a way about him, a talent for setting restless soldiers at ease. He always had a story, a way to pass the time. If Riss closed her eyes and focused, she could still hear the muted twang of his gut-string guitar, often strummed quietly beside the fire while they made camp.

Adal took over cooking duty, dumping the deboned fish in with everything else. He seasoned it with a little pinch of something from his belt, then left it to simmer. Riss saw him slip a sliver of the white meat into his own mouth to test it first.

The aroma drew a straggler out from the treeline: the shaggy-furred hound that had trailed them on and off. The dog sniffed around the entrance to the cavern, wary of stepping inside until Torcha invited it with a soft, beckoning whistle. It crept closer, caution evident in its lowered ears and raised tail, until she coaxed it close enough to stroke its muzzle.

Notably, the dog didn’t approach Vosk at all. Riss sighed, rubbing at her face.

They ate in weary silence, portioning out a bit of fish and potatoes for the dog. The stew had a fortifying, steadying effect. As long as they had it in themselves to create a proper meal, they weren’t losing it. Cooking was a little nook of civilization they could carve out for themselves.

“So.” Riss forked a bit of sweet potato up to her mouth and took a bite. While chewing, she levelled a long look at Vosk. They’d untied his hands so he could eat, and his wrists were rough and rope-bitten.

He grunted acknowledgment and kept eating.

“Now that we’ve got all our cards on the table, this’ll be easier. What’s the fastest route out of here and how long do you estimate it will take?”

Vosk bristled at the question. He seemed annoyed. Tough shit. He explained that there was a route out that would take about two days on foot if they kept up a good pace. Riss nodded along, listening.

“All right,” she said. “Once you’ve finished your supper, you’re gonna show me where you stashed those traders’ belongings.”


Riss trusted Adal and Torcha to keep the peace at camp. She let Vosk lead her off on her own, mindful to keep enough distance between them that he couldn’t spin and advance on her easily. She didn’t like the idea of cutting him down before he could be brought back to Adelheim to face proper punishment, but she’d do it if she had to.

He led her to a smaller cave in the rear of the hole-riddled hillside, this one cramped enough that they had to crouch to duck inside. As promised, several canvas rucksacks were stacked up in the rear of the cave, their drab brown color a near match for the wall. As far as camouflage went, it couldn’t have worked better if it had been intentional. Riss imagined Vosk’s ill-gotten gains could have gone undiscovered for some time.

“Awful convenient how you were the only witness to make it out alive,” Riss said, neutral. She untied the top of a sack and peered inside. Bolts of deep red silk woven through with shimmering golden thread were folded within, as well as a small suede pouch of pearls.

Vosk’s brows drew together as he watched her. “I had friends on that expedition,” he said. “I’d been on that crew for months. It was not convenient. It was horrifying.”

She remembered those earlier moments, when the crew had first set out. How she’d sensed in Vosk a sort of old soldier’s kinship, the shared understanding of loss. Now, Riss was too tired to sift through whether or not that was bullshit.

“It’s been hard times in the valley,” Vosk said, continuing to try to justify himself.

Riss lifted her armored shoulders. “I bet,” she said. “Plenty of folks turn highwayman when times get desperate. I’m not judging you, Harlan. At least not for that. Your troubles now lie in the fact that a woman is dead and my crew has suffered our own hardships on a snipe hunt due to you.”

He didn’t have anything to say to that. She continued inventorying a few more bags. There were twelve in total, plenty to make the trip worthwhile, as well as some bundled limbs of dark-veined wood stacked in a corner. Silk, pearls, assorted gemstones, a sack of australs stamped with the insignia of a Meduese bank she recognized. Likely more than one bird could haul out.

“Riss.” Vosk’s voice was strained. His eyes had a sunken desperation to them. “You’re a reasonable woman. And the Baron’s a cheapskate. Name your price.”

She thought back to that evening in Tarn’s sitting room. The pang of camaraderie in her guts. The trust he’d put in her. The way he just knew how important this job was, an opportunity for her to right herself, to get the crew pointed in a good direction again. The trust. And then the risk–not to her own self, but to the few people on the Continent she’d ever been close to.

“You can’t meet my price, Vosk.” She tied up the bags, dusting off her hands. “You’re probably going to hang for what you did. Life’s rarely so tidy, but sometimes a man comes face to face with his consequences.”

And she was happy to help facilitate that.

<< Chapter 37 | Chapter 39 >>

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Chapter 37

Concern niggled at Adal like a pebble in his boot. Riss’ reaction to Vosk’s revelations worried him. He’d been expecting her to boil over with anger–and hells, who could blame her–but instead she’d just… crumpled. She would never have done that in front of her unit, be it soldiers or mercenaries. Or so he’d thought.

They had too many pieces in play to afford a breakdown. He had to know he could count on her.

He stepped up and took over leading the group back to their campsite. With a recaptured moa in tow, they were able to pack the tents and provisions. They wouldn’t have to dial back on rations just yet. Losing all the meat meant they’d have to eat more to fill themselves up, but they’d manage. The dog followed them at a distance, visible sometimes through gaps in the foliage. They had no scraps to spare it, but it didn’t seem deterred by that.

They returned to the ruined logging camp. Vosk admitted he could lead them out from there, as the routes he and Lukra took were well-trod enough. Calay glared sunken-eyed murder at him. Gaz just trudged along, silent.

He again refused Calay’s offer of eyedrops. The stars dancing across his vision had mostly subsided.

“So what did you do with all the cloth?” Torcha asked, gazing at the lumpy, doubled-over remains of a crawling tree, faint traces of bone bubbled beneath the surface of its bark. Adal thought he could spy a legbone of some sort, a femur perhaps, warped and curved as it had bent beneath the tree’s bark.

Torcha made a good point. If Vosk and his few survivors had looted the caravan, they couldn’t have snuck that past Tarn.

Vosk paused, silent, as if he might object. Torcha growled low in her throat. Adal had always found her voice too high, too young to be remotely threatening. But he supposed Vosk hadn’t known the girl since she was fourteen. The growl had the desired effect on him.

“There’s a series of caves in one of these hillsides, on the route back.”

Torcha swung an interested look toward Riss.

Encouragingly, Adal nodded. “We might as well salvage something out of this. If nothing else it’s proof of our version of events for Baron Tarn.”

Riss huffed. “What kind of caves?” she asked Vosk. “I am tired of things trying to eat me.”

“Shallow caves,” Vosk promised. “More like overhangs, really. Likely can’t even fit the lot of us.”

They paused for a short break, eating slices of cheese on hardtack and dried fruit. No one spoke, each likely contemplating just how close they’d come to making the march on starvation rations.


The walk to the caves was blessedly uneventful. Adal brought up the rear, vision fully recovered. None of the prisoners tried any funny business. Nothing leapt from the shadows intending to make a meal of them.

And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the environment turned almost beautiful. They gained elevation gradually, walking through clumps of reedy, bug-infested marsh and into a slightly drier area. Rolling hills surrounded them, dotted with low bushes. The strange, fragile-looking paper lantern fungi returned.

A small burbling creek bisected their trail. Vosk nodded down toward it.

“Cut left along the creek here, off the path. That’ll take you to the caverns.”

Though Adal couldn’t help but be wary, they did as instructed. Vosk had lied about nearly everything when they’d first met him. It was risky to trust him now. But they had reached a point where the second he ceased to be useful, he’d be crippled and trussed up on the moa and carried to Tarn as a screaming, wounded wreck. He seemed to grasp that.

The sound of running water was a relief. Adal, a child of the Deel River and its temperamental god, had grown up around it. It meant an end to the rank stagnation of the swamp. It meant a way out–if things got truly dire, they could follow the creek to its source, most likely. Higher ground.

Running water always meant good things.

The caves were in the correct location and just as described. Adal would have described them more as crevices, really. Little overhangs and cracks in between some rocky outcrops that made up a perilous, crumbling hillside. The hill had crumbled at some point, forming a natural dam in the creek, and a rocky pool now glimmered in the sunlight.


Adal glanced up. The sight of blue sky took his breath away. It had been days since he’d seen more than a glimpse of it. Riss noticed him looking and glanced up too. Soon, all six of them were staring upwards, marveling at the stretch of blue overhead. Trees still crowded in on three cardinal directions, but it was as close to a glimpse of the outside world as they’d had in a week. That patch of blue sky felt like the first breath after a long underwater swim, a sensation of coming up for air, of resurfacing, of re-emerging into the world.

“Would you look at that.” Calay gave a delighted little laugh, turning his face into the sunlight. A thin haze of clouds zig-zagged across their little slice of sky, diffusing the sunlight. But Calay bathed his face in it regardless, still chuckling. In fresh natural light, he looked ghastly. Recovered from the state he’d been in earlier, sure, but that was like saying a freshly-deceased corpse looked better than a Meduese mummy.

For a fraction of a moment, Adal almost forgot what Calay was. Almost let the secret slip from his mind. For a blink, he was just another mercenary relieved to see the sun come out. A brother-in-arms emerging from the muck alongside Adal and Riss and Torcha.

The sorcerer took Adal’s eye as an invitation to conversation, like he’d caught a glimpse into that vulnerability and intended to seize it like a viper.

“The Janel coast is a dreary, foggy place,” he said. “This much sunlight makes a fine day back home.”

“Mm.” Gaz grunted agreement alongside him. “A day you could put the washing out.”

“We’re in a swamp,” Adal reminded them. “I wouldn’t hang your laundry out regardless of the amount of sunlight.”

Riss grabbed everyone’s reins then, clearing her throat and hooking a gesturing hand toward the series of crevices and outcrops. She didn’t bother speaking, just whipped her hand and everyone followed. Apart from a nap and a couple aborted nights, Adal had barely slept. Nobody else was in any better shape. A strong grunt and orders to follow worked wonders when one was half-asleep on one’s feet.

Riss shoved Vosk to the fore of the group, marching him ahead of her. She kept a hand clasped on his shoulder despite his bound hands, clearly just as aware as Adal was that the man could not be trusted. Vosk led them past the pool and a pair of shed-sized boulders which had tumbled down the crumbling hill in whatever landslide had dammed the creek. They passed from sunlight into shadow, the shade noticeably cooler. But here, with stone underfoot, it was a dry cool. It was refreshing in its own way. Adal sniffed the air, breathed in the aroma of sun-baked stone. It smelled somehow clean, or at least less terminally damp.

The path between the boulders was a tight squeeze; they had to take it single-file. Vosk led them through, Riss following closely behind. They filed into an area just as Vosk had described: a shallow cave, more of an overhang than anything. It was perhaps the size of a small wagon-hold, or a cabin on one of the Altave paddleships, with a low ceiling that twisted with gnarled roots. Vosk, Riss, and Gaz all ducked inside–Gaz with some difficulty, the large man having to adopt a slight crouch–but Calay hesitated. He fixated on the roots, hand tensing at his side, and that little twitch of trepidation made Adal pause midstep. Were it anyone else, his instinct might have been to ask if he was all right or offer some words of assurance. Instead, he glanced away, studying the lichen-dappled stone until the man moved on.

As Vosk promised, the cave was a tight fit. They spilled into a second overhang, another nook in the same eroded hillside. Torcha wasn’t able to get the moa through the narrow passage, so she tethered it just outside and left it to nose at the ground. They unpacked their things. Nobody needed to discuss it–they were camping here long enough to rest.

Sunlight. Dry air. The sensation of sinking down onto a bedroll. Adal had to consciously remind himself that they were still in the shit. Circumstances may not have been as dire as when the war was at its worst, but they were far from home clear.

Once everyone was settled, Riss clucked her tongue his way.

“You got a minute?”

“Rather busy,” he said, glugging water from his canteen. “I have an evening massage scheduled as well as supper with the Generals.”

Riss stared at him like she’d temporarily forgotten what a joke was. Then she laughed, a tiny disbelieving sound, and rose up with a groan.

“That’s where I’m headed soon as all this is over,” she said.

Much of their time on Entitlement had been spent in a particular massage parlor, enjoying perfumed baths and endless rub-downs and therapeutic needles and teas that were likely laced with something only semi-legal.

“Well, all we gotta do is stay alive a few more days.” Torcha’s cheery interjection came with a little wag of her pistol, which was still trained in Gaz and Calay’s direction.

Riss cast a look down the barrel of Torcha’s gun as she headed out.

“I’m too tired to give anyone a speech about what a bad idea it would be to try anything,” she said. “Torcha, if anyone moves, just do what’s gotta be done.”

Riss led him out of earshot of the cavern, following the rocky edge of the pool. All the old Recce tricks were second nature: walk on bare stone when you could, put moving water between yourself and anyone you didn’t want to hear you. They stood where the creek emptied into the pool, watching it flow, a couple of river kids taking solace in the sound of home.

As always, Riss wasn’t one to waste time with small talk.

“I’ve made up my mind about the witch,” she said. “I’m giving you an opportunity to reason me out if it if you disagree.”

Adal hiked his eyebrows up and listened.

“If they’re traveling on foot and taking odd jobs, I reckon there’s a price on this fellow’s head.” Riss scratched at her teeth with a thumbnail. Adal watched her reflection in the rippled surface of the pool. “If he hadn’t run afoul of someone, he’d still be doing whatever the hells they were doing back in Vasile. A fellow that educated doesn’t just pack up and hop south to do merc work. Unless they’re you, I suppose.”

He couldn’t argue with any of that.

“My only concern is whether he deduces that and decides there’s nothing left to lose.” Blood sorcery was such a seldom-practiced art that nobody knew the true extent of its capabilities, even in Adal’s family circles. If Calay felt himself cornered, he was likely capable of defense measures they couldn’t counter.

“There’s the question of what we’d do with him once we returned to Adelheim,” Adal added, thinking aloud. “Whatever bounty there might be on him definitely hasn’t reached the Deel or else we’d have heard. I can’t remember the last time I heard word of a sorcerer in these parts. Possibly never. Tarn would have heard.”

Riss’ brows lifted. She kicked a pebble into the pool and made a thoughtful sound.

“Tarn. There’s an idea. Maybe we just hand him over to Tarn.”

Adal searched the cobwebbed recesses of his brain for any provincial knowledge. Was sorcery in and of itself illegal in the Deel? It was certainly feared and hated, the way all bogeymen from childhood nightmares were. But sorcerous practitioners themselves were so rare that most places who hadn’t dealt with one in living memory didn’t even bother to outlaw their presence. What was the point of making something illegal if it didn’t exist outside of spooky stories?

“We’ve been out here long enough,” Riss said, turning from the pool and walking toward the treeline. “Let’s gather some firewood and at least put up a pretense we weren’t plotting behind Calay’s back. He’s a canny guy. I think he’ll be aware.”

Adal followed her, seeking out a few thick branches among the deadfall. The wood here would burn better, dry as it was. If it weren’t for how completely to shit everything else had fallen, this might be their first pleasant afternoon on this whole damned expedition.

“So we’re staying the night?”

Riss shot him a look across the clearing. Her eyes were deeper set than usual, framed with harsh, tired lines.

“I don’t know about you,” she said. “But I’ve needed real sleep ever since Vosk tipped this expedition on its ass.”

They returned to camp with the Calay question as yet unanswered.

<< Chapter 36 | Chapter 38 >>

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Chapter 36

Calay detested weakness. All of his lowest, most shameful moments could be tied back to weakness in childhood or weakness when life had got the better of him. And as he struggled to catch his breath after the boulder creature’s departure, he felt weakness in his bones so keenly. It evoked memories of starvation–of feeling spent, empty, running on fumes.

Gaz beside him wasn’t faring much better.

On some level he still couldn’t quite believe Gaz had done that. The amount of blood he’d given for the spell–that was quite a risk. Gaz had seen the effects blood sorcery had on donors. He’d done it anyway.

Calay felt like he should say something. Like he should impress upon Gaz that he knew what a sacrifice that had been. But there just hadn’t been a good moment. Riss wasn’t giving them an inch of space alone, and then they’d barreled straight into the path of that golem. Now they were chasing another loose end, when all Calay wanted was to sit back down and be nice and immobile for a while.

They walked a narrow trail through marshland that grew wetter and wetter, until deep stagnant pools flanked either side of their path. The water reeked and heavy, buzzing clouds of insects hugged low to its surface. Mindful that they could be bloodsuckers, he reached into his belt, then grimaced when the sharp, tapered bone of his missing right hand pinged off the buckle. He hoped the thing would grow some damn fingers. Apart from being hideous to look at, having to left-hand his way through basic tasks was a growing annoyance.

He knew he should consider himself lucky that ‘a growing annoyance’ was the worst he had to deal with, considering how close to the brink he’d come. He also knew, if he examined himself at any level beyond the basic and shallow, that his annoyance masked deeper fears and uncertainties.

Riss signaled for them to halt. Past a curtain of low-hanging moss, Calay caught glimpses of a campsite over her shoulder. She led them closer, and he had to appreciate how silent she was on her feet. Calay had a reputation back in the alleys for quiet, skillful work in the shadows, but he cheated and used a weave to cushion his footfalls. Riss, on the other hand, was all skill.

Which made it all the more frustrating that he now had to consider her a threat.

She led them straight into the campsite without calling for a hail, which meant it was deserted. Once they brushed past the moss, Calay could see the state of things–an aged campsite in a state of similar mess to their own, nature already busily reclaiming the cleared spots.

Gaz grunted, then called Riss over by name.

“Look,” he said. “This was a logging camp.”

Indeed, he’d spotted a couple heaps of sawdust near the remnants of a fire. And as they explored further, they discovered a grove of shorn-off stumps. Crawling trees whose roots were withered and dead. Calay couldn’t help but think of them as decapitated rather than chopped down.

They found the dog not far away, curled up at the base of another cluster of stumps. It did appear to be the same dog, tall and tawny and shaggy, though it appeared significantly thinner than when they’d last seen it.

Perking up as they neared it, the dog lifted its head and ears. Riss approached it slowly, cautiously, like she didn’t quite trust it. A wise move, considering Geetsha’s ominous warnings about mimics in the muck. The canine sniffed her hand and gave a little whuff of acknowledgment, though, and after that Riss seemed fine with it.

Even in his half-alert state, something about the stump caught Calay’s eye. He stepped closer, clambering up onto one of the massive, dead roots to get a glimpse at the flat top.

Embedded within the many concentric rings were smooth and compressed grey-white bones. Warped by what Calay assumed were the tree’s natural growth processes, the bones had been squeezed thin, wrapped around the core of the trunk in little half-moons, forced to take the shape of the rings of bark.

The sight was equal parts hypnotic and horrifying.

Was it just his imagination, or did the bark woven around his stump feel… itchy?

Wary, Calay stepped back.

“Take a look at this,” he said to the others. “This must be what it looks like long after it’s absorbed something.”

“I’ve seen this before.” Riss’ expression was pensive, but her voice carried a note of disgust. “The castle at Adelheim uses wood like this.”

“Meldwood.” Vosk spoke up from the rear of the group. Calay had avoided looking at him for the entirety of their walk, lest vengeful urges bubble up while he was still far too weak to act on them.

“I think it’s about time Vosk gave us some answers,” Calay snipped. He couldn’t help himself.

“That’s rich coming from you.” Torcha, glowering.

Calay rubbed his fingers along the sharp bone shard that projected from his stump. Slowly, new flesh was growing down and covering it. The spell was still working, albeit at a crawl. It wasn’t quick enough that he could sense progress while looking at it, but every time he glanced down, the arm looked a little thicker, suffused with a little more hints of human skin tone. The knuckles had yet to completely cover over, and he wondered if he’d feel them click into place when they did.

“If we have to beat it out of him, please let me.” Gaz this time.

However he’d acted while Calay had been convalescing, Harlan Vosk did not seem to have made himself any friends.

The dog hadn’t moved from its spot at the base of the tree. Torcha crouched and scratched it below the chin. Something sparked in Calay’s tired mind.

“The trees ate his owners, didn’t they,” he said. His eyes fell on Vosk, and he could tell by the tic through the man’s face that he was on to something.

“Come on, Harlan.” Riss’ voice was weary. “Don’t make us threaten it out of you.” Putting himself in the mercenary boss’ boots, Calay actually had some empathy for her. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Everyone was worn thin.

Adalgis intercepted that. “You aren’t asking the questions, Calay.”

Vosk sank down atop a nearby stump, bending slowly and seeming to crumple a little. He moved with obvious discomfort, and his words carried a subtle lisp now. Someone must have handed his ass to him while Calay was out. Good.

“You’re right,” Vosk sighed the words as much as spoke. His shoulders sagged. His eyes drooped at the corners. He had the look of a man defeated. “The trees ate the dog’s owners. And the owners were clothing merchants. I don’t…” He trailed off, mouth drawing in a wide, split-lipped grimace. “I don’t know how Geetsha could have known that.”

Everyone quieted to listen. Calay folded his legs and sat atop the stump, bones be damned. He was too tired to care if he looked weak in front of the others. It felt as though the spell was still draining him, still siphoning away some vital essence. Gaz slumped down heavily beside him, looking wan himself.

“It’s all simpler than you might think.” Vosk sounded glum. Calay didn’t care. Finally, some answers.

“I was on Lukra Gullardson’s logging expedition. Several of them. This time, at the crossroads we came across a caravan out of the western coast, carrying back cloth and beads. They had mounts to spare and we’d had a better run at the trees than usual. We had more wood than we could carry back.

“Lukra struck a deal with them: a cut of the lumber in exchange for use of their packbeasts. We caravaned back to the grove together.”

He grew reticent, the words coming slower until they dried up completely.

“Well? Out with it.” Adalgis sounded impatient. He kept rubbing at his eyes, which were swollen and a little red.

“I have something for that,” Calay said.

“I bet you do.”

Was this how everyone was going to react to his offers for assistance now? Dripping with sarcasm? That would get old in a hurry.

“Eye drops,” Calay deadpanned. “I have eye drops.”

Riss gave Vosk a kick in the shin. He bit back a grunt of pain and leveled a narrow, baleful look up at her. But he did keep going.

“Our first intrusion had disturbed the trees, and they’d moved closer while we hauled the first load of wood away. We were set upon. Lost several men, between the merchants and ourselves.”

“Here?” Riss swept a glove around the clearing.

“Yes. Here.” Vosk’s mouth tightened. “We got the trees under control, but…”

This time, it was Riss who seemed to have the epiphany. She jerked back from Vosk, physically recoiled from him.

“You got greedy, didn’t you.” She stated it flatly, not even intoning it as a question. “You turned on them. That’s why Geetsha was telling you to tell us about the merchants. Because you and Lukra killed the rest of them.”

That explained the complete lack of survivors on the caravaners’ part. Why only Tarn’s men appeared to have made it out. Calay had to admit, he might have done the same thing.

“You’re mercenaries. Don’t act like you’d be here if not for the money.”

Except Calay got the distinct impression that Riss wasn’t. Sure, she’d mentioned the effort she’d gone to negotiating the contract and their rates. And the rates she was offering him and Gaz were generous. But Calay could sniff an avaricious rat, and she didn’t give off that odor.

“So what happened to Lukra?” she asked. “That’s the whole reason we’re here, Vosk.”

“Lukra died in the initial skirmish. I took over. I was the one who made the call to jump the merchants.” He said it with this sad twinge of distaste, as though his conscience had finally caught up to him and only now his actions had prompted dismay.

Riss went utterly blank. She stared off into the middle distance for a beat, dumbfounded.

“So you’ve known where Baron Tarn’s heir was this entire time,” she said.

Vosk tensed up, anticipating a blow. “Yes.”

No blow came. Riss tensed up, shoulders stiffening. She snapped her eyes shut hard, then sucked in air and simply sat down. She sank down onto the ground cross-legged, then held her face in her hand.

It was not the reaction Calay expected.

Adalgis however was on the case. He stepped self-importantly closer to Vosk, picking up where Riss left off.

“So you’re saying this entire enterprise has been for nothing.”

Calay could not believe the balls on that man. What had Vosk anticipated would happen?

“I was just going to lead you to the campsite, search for ‘survivors’, and lead you back out. None of this other shit was supposed to happen.”

“Well,” Calay interjected, “best-laid plans.”

Out of all the monsters they’d stared down, it was simple, stupid human greed that had killed the nobleman. Calay might have laughed were it not for the fact that these revelations meant he had been mutilated for nothing. Gaz had suffered for nothing. Anger, black as tar, licked at his insides in the moments he wasn’t too tired to indulge it.

“Well indeed.” Riss’ voice, from down at ground-level. “We have a new objective now, then.”

“Yeah, boss?” asked Torcha.

“Mhm.” Riss rose back up, her momentary spell of whatever-that-had-been over. “Investigation’s off. All we have to do now is get out of this Loth-damned swamp and bring Vosk to face Tarn.”

A flicker of hope. She seemed so single-mindedly focused on Vosk now. Perhaps the mercenaries’ coverage would slip and Calay and Gaz might be able to finagle an out.

He flexed his fingers, still disconcerted by the lack of motion, the lack of feeling where his right arm ended. Intrusive thoughts flickered through him a dozen a minute. The things he’d do to Vosk if the others turned their backs long enough.

But… no. Vosk was going to hang regardless. Or Riss would do worse to him. That was all the vengeance necessary, wasn’t it? Calay remembered the last time he’d insisted on personal revenge, up close and bloody. It had felt invigorating at the time, but his actions had hauled an entire city down on his people.

Maybe he didn’t need revenge. Maybe justice would be enough. And as much as Riss was no longer on his side, he trusted her to do the just thing. It seemed baked into her. The Domain had spat out a single soldier that wasn’t a grifter and he’d somehow stumbled upon her. Would have been funny were it not such a wrench in the works.

They took a short rest. Gaz passed him some cheese on hardtack. The dog circled around for scraps, but it gave Calay a wide berth.

What a mess they were.

<< Chapter 35 | Chapter 37 >>

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Chapter 35

Churning up underbrush and chewing through saplings, a four-limbed monstrosity burst forth from the swamp in hot pursuit of the moa. It looked like a chunk of hillside come to life. Like the earth itself had surged up, animated by some otherworldly force.

“Split!” Riss hollered, hoping that maybe if they cleared a path, it might just barrel past.

The creature towered over even the tallest moa Riss had ever seen, easily fifteen feet in height, with a sloped and hunched body construction and no discernible head in sight. Its limbs, which appeared to be crafted from boulders suspended in twisted roots and vines, were thick and blocky and asymmetrical, curved somewhat like the clawed forelimbs of a sloth. Jagged rocks were caught up in its body seemingly at random, grown into part of the mass of its torso and studding its joints. She was reminded of the tumor-riddled rats in Medao, the bane of every cheap inn on Entitlement weeks. The creature looked lumpy and diseased.

A wash of stink, the bottom of a freshly-dredged riverbed, rushed over them as it hurtled closer.

Riss threw a glance over her shoulder. Gaz and Vosk had actually managed to settle the moa down, which meant even if the creature ignored them, its prey was right there…

She didn’t have to tell the unit to ready up. Adal, Calay, and Gaz dove to the left side of the path, Adal already lifting his rifle. Torcha lurched in front of Riss, guns up, and there was no way in even her wildest dreams that the thing was going to let them carry on unimpeded. She gave the call to fire.

Adal and Torcha fired simultaneously. Torcha’s shot plowed straight into its center mass, sending needle-sharp shards of grey stone flying in all directions. Adal, despite being closer, merely winged it on one stony shoulder. The creature, surprised by the shots, stumbled back, and as it fell Riss whipped Vosk’s pistol from her belt. She stepped forward, providing covering fire while Torcha reloaded. For all the good covering fire from a pistol would do against a living heap of stone.

Gaz came charging up from the rear. He parked himself in front of Calay and Adal, axe up. A deep, terrible grinding sound–like being trapped in the heart of a building collapse–rumbled from the creature as it righted itself.

It rolled and leapt, meeting Gaz just as the big man settled in. It swiped a tree trunk-sized limb laterally, claws angled for Gaz’s middle, and Gaz swung to meet the blow, parrying it as best he could. The strength behind the swipe knocked him sideways into the mud. He rolled to his feet, took a hack at one of its woodiest-looking parts, but if the creature felt the axehead thwucking into it, it didn’t show.

That grinding rumble came again and this time the creature brought a forelimb down hard from above. Gaz sidestepped. A forearm-wide fist pummeled the ground beside Gaz’s boots. The impact shivered through Riss’ feet. One blow from that thing would likely crush a man, armor or not.

“Gunners,” she called, warning. “How we looking?”

Adal answered by firing. His shot went wide. His eyes were still fucked, weren’t they?

Growling through her teeth, Riss finished reloading Vosk’s sidearm and followed up after Torcha’s shot. Their shots blew chunks of its torso clean away, but that seemed to have no effect on its locomotion. Was it even alive? Could it even be killed? Riss considered these thoughts in mere split-second glimpses. None of that mattered while they were trying not to get splattered.

The creature bowled Gaz over with a sweep to the feet and pounced on Calay.

Snarling, unarmed, Calay hunkered down and tried to dodge its swiping arms. He slid low into the mud, then threw his duster aside. The creature slammed a claw toward him and this time the crazy bastard leaned into the blow. What was he doing? Trying to get eviscerated? Riss’ palms itched warily.

Calay had produced some sort of bone-bladed sword from nowhere and he caught the blow on the blade. Magick? The impact shook him, but he remained standing.

Torcha took the opportunity to blow a large chunk out of one of the creature’s back limbs. Rock shattered everywhere. She hooted victoriously.

Riss spied an opening. Tucking the pistol away, she readied her machete and rushed forward, eyeballing the creature’s vulnerable, viney structures. She went for the same leg Torcha did, ducking around the creature’s flank while it tangled with Calay and Gaz.

The machete bit in to a satisfying depth. Riss slashed at it a few times, and a length of vine snapped free. The creature’s leg shivered and shook. It rounded on her. Even if it couldn’t be killed, otherworldly construct or not, it could be dismembered.

“Adal!” Riss called. “Now would be an excellent time to stop fucking missing!”

Rather than a verbal reply, he responded by burying a shot in the creature’s chest. It spun sideways. Good enough.

Rushing around the beast to continue attacking the same limb, Riss caught a glimpse of something worrying: Gaz, down in the mud, on a knee, getting up too slow.

Calay, seeming to glimpse the cards in play at the same moment Riss did, parked himself between the creature and Gaz.

“Adalgis,” he called. “Pistol. Please. Please.

They were crowding it now, moving in, tightening the noose. Riss could sense the momentum of the fight shifting–they were acting, not reacting. Enough firepower piled on quick enough could put it down for good, she hoped.

“Do it,” she ordered Adal. “He knows how quickly Torcha can put one in his friend if he steps out of line.”

And the time for talk was over. Riss and Torcha staggered their blows. The creature moved slower now. It swung wildly, aimlessly, no clear target discernible. Riss recognized that–it was thrashing like prey caught in a trap. One of its blows whiffed against the blade of her machete. She stumbled at the force of it, kept going. Small shots punctuated between Adal’s–Calay’s sidearm.

Gaz, back on his feet, adopted a similar strategy to hers. He slammed the full weight of his axe into one of its knee joints. Vines twisted and frayed and snapped. The creature rumbled–in anger, fear, pain, who knew–and teetered, as if on the verge of falling. Riss slashed at it one last time, caught the meat of a vine, and pulled with all her strength. The vine split and sprung, tension in it unwinding, and several boulders that composed the creature’s leg scattered to the ground like loose debris.

Its rumble turned to more of a howl as it slipped and slid in the mud, righting itself, scuttling like a crab. Its gait was an awkward lurch as it trundled down the path it had ripped through the underbrush, gradually gaining speed until it was full-on galloping away in retreat.

Breathing hard, Riss stared at the rocks it had dropped. Heavy, craggy grey things with sharp edges and a coating of fuzzy deep green moss. Now that they were disconnected from the bulk of the body, they were unremarkable.

Once she’d recovered her breath, Riss sheathed her machete and looked over the others.


She looked to Gaz first. Whatever damage he’d taken in the engagement, she hadn’t seen it happen. He stood fine enough at the moment, though he was doubled over and absolutely gasping with exertion, his face red and strained.

“I’m fine,” he wheezed when he caught her looking.

“Uh-huh.” She wasn’t buying it.

Calay stepped into the conversation.

“The… thing we did. It weakens the body. He’s not injured.”

Riss’ nose wrinkled in distaste. Whatever arcane ritual they’d engaged in, it appeared to have the side effect of some sort of vampirism. Calay looked much healthier than when they’d dragged him to the tent–to the point where he was even walking around at all. Gaz looked like he’d been caught flat-footed on the wrong end of a ten-mile march.

“And where the fuck did you get a sword?” Riss snapped. Calay had helped them drive the creature away. He hadn’t acted directly against them. But she still rankled at both the fact that he’d managed to slip a weapon past Adal and that he’d been so continually dishonest in the first place. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but someone was going to have to impose some order.

Beside her, her Second cleared his throat.

Adal had a certain way of looking at people, sometimes. His lips pursed just a tiny amount, then he sort of puffed his cheeks out. He thinned his mouth. His shoulders dropped a little. He looked that way at people when they said things he found stupid, and that was the look he was giving Riss now.

“What?” She smeared sweat off her brow, staring at him.

Calay drew his duster open. Slowly, she turned her stare off Adal and onto him.

From a distance, it had looked like he was holding a scimitar or cutlass with a bone-white blade. But she could see now that the bone appeared to growing out of his own body. Right at the elbow, where Calay’s arm had been severed, flesh seemed to be in the process of rearranging itself into the proper anatomy. However, tendrils of grey-brown bark twisted down the length of the bone, gnarled like arthritic fingers. The growth had no hand to speak of, just the sharp bone blade and the bark protrusions.

Riss gawked for a beat, unsure what to say, if it was worth saying anything at all.

“I don’t think it will stay like that,” Calay said as though that somehow helped.

“Does it hurt?” Morbid curiosity, despite her reservations.

“It’s strange,” Calay said. He rotated his arm, staring down the length of the growth. “It looks like it should hurt, doesn’t it. But I can’t feel a thing.”

On to other concerns, then. Riss couldn’t ponder that one too hard at the present moment.

“Everyone else all right?”

She took a quick visual inventory. Everybody was upright and uninjured. She’d half wondered whether Vosk would try to sprint away with the remaining moa, but he had stayed put, dutifully holding the bird’s tether. He must have known–quite truthfully–that Riss could hunt him down if he pulled a runner.

“Vosk, bring the bird up here.”

He did as ordered, awkwardly leading the moa up to the others with his hands still bound behind his back.

When Vosk snatched the bird’s lead, it let out an ungainly, peevish squawk. He wrestled with it for a moment, clearly struggling with his impaired grip, and finally Adal walked over and snatched the tether away from him.

Riss jolted in surprise when something answered the bird’s cry: the high, mournful whine of a dog from somewhere among the trees.

“Eight?” she asked, dumbfounded.

Corraling everyone, Gaz still somewhat labored in his steps, Riss surveyed the ground. She spotted traces of a faint trail through the skinny trees. Investigating the sound of a dog of all things seemed pointless, but at the moment, they didn’t have any better option. She’d been curious when Eight had run off, but now that it was evident things with Vosk were not as they appeared, that made a little more sense.

Fuck it, she couldn’t think of any better idea. The dog didn’t sound far off. Might as well have a look before they looped back toward camp with their remaining bird.

<< Chapter 34 | Chapter 36 >>

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Chapter 34

Riss heard a faint commotion through the patter of the rain. Groaning. A single well-suppressed grunt of pain. Then nothing for a while. Curiosity itched at her like a rash, but she kept to her tent. Eventually, Adal crept inside on his hands and knees. The drained, stricken look upon his features recalled his reaction to what he’d seen down the well all those years ago.

“That bad, huh?” Riss wasn’t even sure which part of the potential events she was referring to. All of it. The entire mission.

“He’s drugged himself out. I left Gaz with him.” Adal rubbed at his eyesockets with wet hands.

“You aren’t worried?”

“I’m not.” He lowered his hands from his face, expression curdled with disgust. “The tree has done something to him. Merged with him somehow. He conjured some spell that… well, I don’t believe it was supposed to do that.

Riss’ brow scrunched up. She couldn’t help but wonder. Adal was not a squeamish man. At least not as squeamish as he’d been when they were younger.

“We’ll see what it looks like when it’s finished growing,” he concluded.

The words made Riss go a little green.

“Well. Poor bastard.”

Adal shed his outer layers in a damp heap and fell back onto the bedroll Riss had been planning to use for herself. She let him do it. Whatever he’d seen in there had him a little… wait a minute. Blinking, she leaned over him for a moment. He startled when she moved closer.


“Your eyes.”

His pupils were tiny pinpricks. They had yet to adjust to the dim inside the tent.

“They’ll be fine.” He closed them. “It made a flash. The magick. I didn’t look away in time. Vision’s still dancing.”

“But you’ll be all right?”

Dead guide, she could deal with that. Suspicious and coincidentally crippled medic, she could deal with that. Low provisions, she’d marched on worse. If something happened to Adal or Torcha, that changed things. At the moment, the mission was a disaster to be salvaged. If serious harm came to those two, salvage might be off the table.

Adal sighed wearily. He pinched the bridge of his nose, massaged one eyebrow with his thumb.

“We’ve got a medic I can ask if it doesn’t come right within a few hours. I’m… going to try to sleep.”

Riss considered crawling out to the other tent to keep watch on Gaz, but judging by the state of Adal, she doubted he’d be up to causing any mischief. And if Calay had put himself to sleep on account of… whatever he’d done to himself… then Gaz wouldn’t leave without him.

Sleep was awful tempting. She’d dashed from crisis to crisis and hadn’t really had a chance to consider how exhausted she was. How crushing the burden of failure could be.

Feeling around for the other bedroll, she unfurled it and slipped out of her cloak. All her armor stayed as-is this time. Just in case.

It’s not failure yet, she told herself. You can turn this around.


Riss didn’t feel as though she’d slept for long, drawn awake by a shake at her shoulder. Her initial impressions: the rain had tapered off. Adal was tense about something. And someone outside was shouting.

“On your knees!

Torcha was pissed. On the heels of her shout came a fleshy thwuck of impact.

Cloak forgotten, Riss rolled up and shoved her way out of the tent, Adal close behind. They poured out into the muddy campsite to a scene out of a wartime execution.

Torcha stood in the center of camp, Vosk on all fours before her. His hands and legs were muddy, the ground thick and viscous with the stuff. He was breathing hard and the split in his lip had reopened. Or, more accurately, Torcha had reopened it. She too was panting, the muzzle of her side-arm held level with his face.

“What’s the ruckus?” Riss directed the question toward her gunner, ignoring Vosk entirely.

“Son of a bitch tried to throttle me.” Torcha turned her head so that Riss could see her face and neck more clearly. Rough red ligature marks bit into her throat, fresh and raw.

Anger roared in Riss like a beast. This time she didn’t even try to rein it in.

She crossed to Vosk in a heartbeat and grabbed him by a handful of hair. She yanked him to his feet, enjoyed the sensation of scalp stretching beneath her fingers. For emphasis, she gave him a good shake.

“You were already on borrowed time and you pull that shit?”

Torcha had been right. Put him down and share his food among the rest. She didn’t regret saving Calay, but this waste of skin…

“I’m your best hope to get out of here,” Vosk growled. “I’m the only one who knows the trails.”

“Bullshit.” Riss jerked his hair again. “If you knew the way, Tarn wouldn’t have sent Geetsha.”

Gaz clambered out of his tent, hand on the haft of his axe. He rose up like a bear from its den, looming over Vosk and Torcha with a glower.

“Problem, boss?” he asked Riss.

He sounded ready to follow orders. Riss was glad her mercy had bought her that much. She was not feeling very merciful now.

“I know more than I’ve been letting on,” said Vosk from her grip. “I can show you to the old logging camp, if you let–”

Riss drove an elbow into his gut, threw him to the ground and followed it up with a full-force kick in the ribs. Something cracked beneath her boot in a gratifying fashion. Vosk cried out.

“We’re not letting you do shit.”

It felt good to let loose a little. She was tempted to keep going. Fortunately for Vosk, a shrill inhuman cry rose up from the swamp. Riss planted a boot between the man’s shoulder blades to keep him down and cocked an ear toward whence the noise had come from. The sound didn’t come again for a few tense seconds. Another high, long trill squawked out.

“That sound like our missing bird to anyone else?”

Riss nodded over toward Torcha in agreement.

“If we hustle, we might get to it while it’s still alive. And even if we don’t, we might find our packs.”

Carting the tents out without a single packbeast was an interesting proposition. But if they were charging headlong into a fight, better to leave them for the time being. They’d have to risk camp getting ransacked again. Worth it, in Riss’ estimation. Even if they couldn’t save the bird, finding their supplies would ease the burden of survival significantly.

The flap of the smallest tent unfurled. Slowly, with a tentative and shuffling stride, Calay climbed out from inside it. The camp fell silent, all eyes turning his way. Except Vosk, who choked mud. Riss still didn’t move her boot.

The medic–the sorcerer, Riss reminded herself–looked pale and wan. He staggered up to his feet, his right arm cradled within the drape of his duster, unseen. The sleeve hung ominously empty. He darted a wide-eyed look around the camp, paying little mind to the humans there.

“… You all heard that?” he asked after a moment. He seemed genuinely unsure whether he was hallucinating.

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “We’re gonna go get our bird back.”


Riss took point, following sign of both the moa and the creature that had chased it off. Despite the rain, she could spy ample evidence: the crack of a twig here, a discarded feather there. A strange, disjointed nostalgia took root in her mind whenever she tracked, be it during wartime or in the present. She always wondered whether she’d break through the next thicket of trees and find her father standing there, yapping to their client of the week. And every time the trees parted and revealed no one, she felt quiet relief.

She led them–all of them, couldn’t trust anyone back at the campsite alone–through thin-trunked trees and scraggly bushes and rank puddles and clattering reeds.

An agitated squawk trilled out from just up ahead. She signaled to Adal and Torcha, who didn’t need any reminding. They unslung their rifles and readied them. The choke of the bush would make it difficult to get a shot off.

“Adalgis,” hissed Calay through his teeth. “My pistol.”

Riss shook her head. Too risky. Calay was only along because he was a liability. He wasn’t to assist. Same for Vosk, whose hands were now bound so tight behind his back that the lack of blood flow would likely wither them. She couldn’t have cared less if he tripped and got eaten.

Their moa burst from the foliage in a chorus of squawking and splashing. Its talons flashed with each lurching step; Riss leapt aside and let it bowl past her.

“Gaz!” she called to the only one of them hopefully strong enough. “Grab it!”

She wouldn’t have a chance to see whether he succeeded.

A weighty impact shuddered the ground beneath her feet. The trees up ahead bent and collapsed inward. Something gigantic tore up the underbrush, barreling straight toward them. Riss spun to face it.

<< Chapter 33 | Chapter 35 >>