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.
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.