Chapter 42

Adal went down hard. The impact drove the air from his lungs, and then he was tumbling into the water, unable to regain his breath. Crashing down below the surface of the pool, he twisted and thrashed and kicked, trying to discern which way was up. The creature had splashed in with him, but as he swept his limbs all around, he didn’t feel it. Or anything solid.

Righting himself, head still underwater, he opened his eyes long enough to watch bubbles. He coughed out a small amount of air, watched them travel upward, then oriented himself that way and kicked. When he broke the surface, it wasn’t much drier, rain pouring down as it was. He managed to gulp in a breath, choked on rainwater, then swam the short distance toward the shore.

The dark was near-impenetrable. He had no idea where his rifle had fallen.

Before he could climb up out of the pool, something heavy sloshed within it, sending a gentle, tell-tale current pulling at his legs.

He had a half-second to suck in air before the creature pulled him under. The water slowed the velocity of its weighty arms, so the blow didn’t hurt, but it swept him down and then pinned him below the surface, grinding against his back and pressing his chest against the sharp rocks that littered the ground. They dug into his armor, which held, fortunately, but he would be out of air soon.

Bullets whizzed through the water, leaving odd little trails above him. The foot upon his back wavered. Adal kicked, trying to wrench himself free, but couldn’t quite get enough leverage.

He’d been swimming for all his life. He’d grown up along the river, the source of all prosperity in the Dominion from their crops to their shipping lanes. The river gave and the river took–which is why his family placed such importance on paying their tolls to Loth.

Adal never expected he would drown.

Above the pool, he heard and felt the shudder of a great impact. Light flared across the rippled surface, illuminating the outline of the hulking monster that pinned him. Again, Adal kicked as hard as he could. This time he managed to free himself from the press of weight atop him, and he kicked like mad for the surface, his chest burning for want of breath.

He broke through. He breathed. He gulped and yelled, but the voice that came out was a shallow imitation of his own. Or perhaps his ears were still damaged. Bloody Torcha, firing that rifle in a cave–

Gunfire cracked over his head. He hiked in air and dove down, swimming to the side of the pool. Something swiped at his leg. He kicked at it blindly; it hooked him fast. Then that same sharp something bit into his thigh, sudden and tender, the shock of it enough to make him yelp in pain. Bad move. Water flooded his mouth. He coughed and choked and struggled up just enough to heave a breath that was half air, half water.

The rank, gungy water tasted of algae. It snapped Adal back to a far-off place in time, a whiplash back to his childhood.

Age fourteen, knees on the riverbank, a hand planted in the mud. His face was hot with embarrassment; his eyes burned with tears.

They’d scattered Berin’s ashes that morning, over the river he skippered so long.

Adal had known he was gone. He’d rushed down to the pier as soon as he’d heard the Sondrio had gone down. They’d brought survivors in on ferries and rafts and every dinghy the town could muster, yet he’d known somehow that Berin wouldn’t be among them. That his brother would be coming home under a tarp.

The ashes, though. This made it final. This made it real. Berin had been returned to the waters.

He’d made the mistake of approaching his parents’ chambers after. He wished to relay his sympathies to his mother. He knew he couldn’t go to her with his own sorrows, at least not expecting anything in return. But he felt compelled to reach out to her, to acknowledge her own suffering. He had lost a brother, but she had lost a boy.

And he’d hesitated outside the door when he’d heard her weeping.

Out of all of them, why him? Why not Adal? Why not Rode?

Adal had swallowed his grief and walked to the riverside, sitting beneath the willows, unsure where to even begin to unravel his despair. Berin had always been the favorite, that he’d known, but to hear his mother speak it aloud, to hear her blatantly confess that she’d have traded them…

He plunged his face beneath the water and screamed. He screamed his throat raw, crushing mud between his fingers, venting out all the anger and poison in him in a place only Loth could hear.

And when the water rushed back in, he held his head under just a few seconds longer, marveling at the sensation. He didn’t want to die, no. But he wanted to know how it felt. He coughed and sputtered and wiped at his face, wondering if it had tasted the same when it flooded Berin’s mouth–

One last heavy impact threw shockwaves across the pool. Adal kicked against whatever held him, managed to twist his leg free. He crawled up into the shallows, heaving himself up, unwilling to look behind him. Riss and Calay appeared at his side, each of them grabbing one of his shoulders. They all ran together, the pair half-dragging him. The ground trembled as the rock creature lurched up out of the water, crashing to ground and clawing at their heels.

They ran for the rocks that sheltered the cavern, aiming for the narrow crevice between.

Light exploded across the campsite. In the flash, he saw Torcha silhouetted atop one house-sized boulder. She sparked a fuse and hurtled another bomb behind them. When it exploded, Adal felt heat lick at his back.

But it wasn’t enough. Perhaps, made of stone as it was, heat and fire didn’t deter the creature like they would have any normal, mortal being. Shrieking, it blitzed them, swiping Adal ass-over-end in the mud. He rolled, smashed into a fallen tree, choked on mud.

He lifted his head just in time to see the thing bear down on Riss, who’d fallen on her front. Calay, who’d fallen beside her, spun and lifted his pistol. He squeezed the trigger again and again, but it didn’t fire.

Somewhere, the dog was barking furiously.

Adal watched, helplessly far away, as the creature heaved its massive forelimbs up and brought them down on Riss’ back with a nauseating crunch. She never even tried to get up.

He had no time for his horror. He shoved up and back into the fight, losing battle though it may have been. Finally, he spied his rifle in the mud, though it was so choked with dirt and moisture it was rendered useless when he lifted it. He growled and ran for where Riss had fallen, reaching her at the same time as Gaz.

“This fucking rain,” he heard Calay shouting. “My gun’s fucked.”

He grabbed Riss’ machete from the muck without thinking, charging toward the creature’s towering outline.

“Get her to shelter!” he bellowed at anyone who would listen. He had no time to see whether Gaz and Calay obeyed.

Fresh gunfire from the mouth of the cavern. Adal glanced aside long enough to see Vosk, hands now freed, manning one of the extra rifles. He had yet to hit the thing.

And then the monster was upon him. Stumbling, his sore leg far more sore than he anticipated, Adal barely managed to weave aside from its first swipe. He danced around behind it, sliding in the mud, tried to find the same openings Riss had hacked at. But it was a damn sight harder in the nighttime. He couldn’t see shit.

He slashed, cursed when the machete pinged off stone. He tried again. Still nothing.

Wind whipped past his face as a heavy blow missed him by a hair. His mind had switched off; he was all instinct and intuition now, body moving faster than his tactical brain ever could.

It gave his mind a brief, quiet interval for thought. We’re going to die out here. Riss already has.

Fierce, white-hot light erupted from nearby. Adal squinted. That could only mean Calay was magicking again. Nausea flooded through him when he wondered if the bastard was using Riss’ blood.

But then the source of the light moved closer: a short figure swaddled in a brilliantly-dyed scarf, red hair plastered to her face with rainwater.

Torcha dashed between the creature and Adal, whistling hard.

“Hey!” She hollered above the crash of thunder. “Hey, over here! That’s right, motherfucker, this way!”

She carried her lantern overhead, and Adal could see that she’d stuffed one of her explosives inside it. A flare of some kind. She waved it over her head a couple times, trying to catch the creature’s attention. It didn’t seem to have eyes or a face of any kind, but it spun toward her, drawn to the distraction.

Torcha’s eyes fell on his. He could see then how much she’d grown. Not that she’d ever been a child, even back when they’d first met. She never got a chance to be.

“Get her out of here,” she called. “Get them all out of here. Adal, go!”

She started to back away, slowly at first, then she turned when it became apparent the monster followed. Turning and hauling tail toward the trail they’d come down, Torcha reached the cover of the trees before the creature did. It rushed after her, hot on her tails, its stride listing and limping but barely slowed.

Splashing through after both of them, the dog barked crazily, giving chase.

Adal, struck wordless, watched Torcha’s lantern bob and flicker in the darkness. Then she moved beyond where his eyesight could reach. Or something had doused the flame. He had no way of knowing.

Riss and Torcha, both gone. Just like that.

Adal lowered his hand. The tip of the machete rested in the mud. His clothes were soaked through. They felt so heavy. Everything felt so heavy. He tried to force himself to turn around, to heed Torcha’s wish and take command, but he was terrified of what awaited him.

<< Chapter 41 | Chapter 43 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

Chapter 41

The dog appeared to be taking a liking to Torcha. When Riss led her off to Vosk’s secret stash, the canine picked a path over the roots and boulders behind them. It kept polite distance from Riss, but it circled back around to Torcha periodically for a head scratch or to sniff at her heels.

“Do you really need me to inventory the silks?” Torcha asked, sounding highly skeptical. “Or are you here to tell me off for what I said to Adal?”

Riss snorted. “Adal’s an adult. He’ll cope. I really do want you to take a look at this stuff. Less to inventory it and more because I thought you’d appreciate it.”

Much of the cloth—especially the spider silks, the ones in blue and navy—appeared to be native to Torcha’s home district, or at least close to it. Riss didn’t have much of an eye for textiles, but she’d found similar stashes secreted away in deserted homes and basements in Semmer’s Mill. The weavers had tried to conceal their prized cloth from the northlanders with varying degrees of success. And who could blame them? The occupiers all but ground artisanship in the area to a halt, diverting resources to more “necessary” industries.

Riss considered all this in silence while Torcha pawed through a bag, having fallen quiet as well.

Finally, she spoke up. “A lot of this is…”

“From home?”

She blinked. “Yeah.”

“Hence why I thought you’d like to have a look.”

Riss dropped to a crouch beside the shorter woman, peering over her shoulder. Torcha drew out a striped length of silk, dyed in bold primary colors. She fingered the weave of it, then flipped it around her neck like a scarf.

“Still smells fresh,” she said. “They must be dyeing again, back at the bug farms.”

Unlike most of Gaspard’s mercenaries, Torcha hadn’t gone home after the war. She said she saw no need to. She’d stuck with Riss, following her through Medao, seeing her through those hard, lean weeks after Gaspard’s death. She’d followed Riss back to the grounds of House Altave to retrieve Adal. And she’d followed Riss to Adelheim.

There was a certain irony to that. All throughout the war, Riss had assumed Renato was the loyal one, that the traumas and hardships that made Torcha so callous had also made her aloof.

“I want to make something clear to you,” she said. “You know Adal and I have a great deal of trust in you, right?”

Torcha’s shoulders tensed a little. Her thumb stopped stroking the fabric.

“I know,” she said. “But Adal just… it rubs against my grain to hear him do that thing he does. Trying to please everybody. Talking to Calay like he’s just another person. Like he wasn’t lying to us.”

“Adal can’t help it. That’s his family’s whole thing.”

“Yeah. I know. I didn’t say I won’t tolerate it. Just that it’s slimy.”

“There’s a reason for that.” Riss saw no point in concealing it. “We’re fairly certain Calay and his man have a price on their head from up north. If we let him think he’s in the clear, he won’t expect it when we come to collect.”

Torcha blinked, swiveled her muddy green eyes from the fabric to Riss.

“Bold,” she said.


“You think he can even die?”

Riss lifted a shoulder. “He seemed to come awful close before. I figure he would have if we hadn’t intervened.”

The wiry-haired hound passed between them, sniffing along the cavern floor in its explorations. Riss watched it for a while.

“Well, tell you what.” Torcha adjusted the scarf around her neck, having confiscated it for good. “You say the word, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and put him down.”

“What word, you think?”

Torcha pursed her mouth in thought. “Tadivach. Just say it like a curse.”

Riss was somewhat familiar with the term. Tadivach was a deity local to the textile districts, the god of the loom. She wasn’t sure how devout Torcha’s family had been, but when the unit had first taken the girl into their care, she’d explained that the tapestries mounted over doors and walls and weaving rooms weren’t just decoration, they were offerings.

It was as good a code word as any. “Got it,” said Riss. “I hope it won’t come to that, but if an opportunity arises, we’d be foolish not to take it.”

The conversation came to a natural end; they started back toward camp.

“Thanks,” said Torcha. “For explaining all that. I just hope Adal’s on the same page.”

“Don’t you worry about Adal. He and I had a chat similar to this already. I’d have conferred with you both, but it’s damn hard, things being how they are.”

“No privacy in a bivvy,” Torcha agreed.

Sometimes she sounded wiser than her nineteen years, when she wasn’t being a complete brat.


Riss slept through her whole shift. No chaos or bullshit or dramatic interruptions this time. It was glorious. She’d feared that dreams of Gaspard’s death might continue to haunt her, but those fears seemed unfounded. Either the dream was a one-off or she was just too damn tired to dream at all.

Torcha and Gaz relinquished their watch to Riss and Vosk. Ever since she’d declined his proposition, Vosk hadn’t been chatty. That suited Riss just fine.

They took a short patrol of the camp’s perimeter, noting nothing of interest. Adal had buried the chum from the fish, just in case. Riss wasn’t sure such precautions would help much out here. They’d learned to conceal traces of their movements in the bush from all sorts of human adversaries, but Riss doubted any care on their parts could hide them from the many eyes and noses of nature.

“I always feel like this swamp is watching me,” Riss said, walking past the pool and back toward the caverns. “I have to say, Harlan, going in here time after time to cut down trees… it takes a pair.”

Vosk gazed off toward the treeline. “Yeah, well, we never stayed out here this long.”

In the steppes and mountains where she’d grown up and first learned her trade, Riss felt at home on the forest floor. Sure, there were all sorts of things that could kill you. Snakes, bandits, lania. The boars they hunted, even. But there were patterns to the movements of both animal and human life. If you learned them, you could generally pass unseen through both their worlds. And even if you couldn’t, it rarely took more than one or two timely shots from a good rifle.

Riss crept around the sleeping bodies and the dog nestled at Torcha’s feet, settling atop a boulder that gave her a good view past the cavern’s mouth. Clouds choked away any moonlight that might have made it through to where they camped, but the pool reflected the fire, which lent enough illumination to see by.

Ripples ghosted over the surface of the pool. Raindrops. Soon, rain pattered down onto the stones, running in little rivulets down the hillock and over the rocky ground.

Relaxing her eyes, Riss stared off into the curtains of rain. She scanned the wilderness slowly. The little jerks and tumbles of raindrops called out to her brain: motion, motion! But she ignored them.

Until she spotted it. An irregularity in the sheets of rainfall. A patch of dark blended in with what little she could see of the stony backdrop. It was less that her eyes saw something and more that they spotted an absence of something: a tall, wide swathe of air where rain should have been falling but wasn’t.

Riss averted her eyes from the light, looked askance toward the dark patch. She tried to keep it in her peripheral vision, another of Gaspard’s old tricks for moving under cover of night.

She tilted her head.

The dark patch tilted, too, as if mirroring her movements.

Her entire body goosefleshed.

Still sat on her rock, she slowly uncurled her legs. She moved at a glacial pace, no sudden movements, and edged her boot toward the closest sleeping body it could find: Calay’s. She nudged him, very slight, and thankfully the motion was enough to jog him awake.

Rolling onto his back, Calay blinked up at her. Riss watched him sidelong, hoped her wide eyes and grave stare toward the rain would say enough. Come on, Calay. You’re a smart fellow. Be smart here.

He inhaled a sharply-hissed breath. He’d seen it too.

A chain of crawlingly-slow, silent communication passed through the camp: Calay roused Gaz. Gaz’s broken snore roused the dog, who shifted and roused Torcha. Adal and Vosk slept too far away to be reached.

And all the while, Riss stared at the void in the rain.

“Orders?” Calay whispered. Riss had no clue how best to deploy him. She knew Torcha slept with her rifle at the ready, heard the telltale shuffle-click of her readying it. Gaz would do what Gaz did best.

Thunder grumbled in the distance, a low roll over the marshlands.

Riss counted the seconds ‘til the lightning, out of childhood habit.

When light streaked across the sky, it illuminated their patch of shadow: a sloping, asymmetrical body of stone and moss, notably missing a chunk of hind leg.

Riss crept a hand toward her belt.

Through the rain, the creature surged toward them.

As soon as it roared into the fireglow, Torcha let loose. She fired directly into its chest, and sharp slivers of stone flew in all directions. Riss hissed as some bit into her skin. The shot echoed off the enclosed space of the cavern walls, rocketing Adal and Vosk awake and rendering everyone temporarily deaf-struck. Rubbing at her head, Riss leapt from where she sat and sought cover as the creature rounded on Torcha.

Calay darted past on her other side. The moa shrieked.

Riss attempted to flank the creature as she had before, but it caught her creeping this time. It swung one of its blocky limbs toward her, the whole thing the size of a wagon wheel, and she slid out into the rain to escape the blow. It glanced her back, knocking her to the ground, and she rolled away from the swiping arm.

Torcha–or maybe Adal, she couldn’t see–fired again, the shot sending more showers of stone erupting from the creature’s body. They drove it back from the mouth of the cavern, and Riss took a swipe at the vines that held its joints in place.

The creature spun, its lurching footsteps shuddering the ground beneath her. It moved unlike anything Riss had ever seen: graceful, sweeping arcs of its forelimbs and juddering, jittery footsteps that made its movements difficult to predict. Likewise, the way it spun and opened up its back to the gunners surprised her.

Riss flailed back as a fist came down. Her boots slid on the slick, wet stone. Adal, Torcha, and Calay pummeled it with gunfire, then Gaz flew into it from the side, bashing its weak leg with his axe enough to send it toppling off-balance. Riss hollered at him to flank it on the opposite side, but she couldn’t hear her own cries over the ringing in her ears. Shit.

The creature ducked low and lurched toward the cavern mouth, squeezing over the top of the boulders that protected it. It swiped down with an arm. Adal and Torcha fled, Torcha ducking between the boulders and Adal slipping out toward the pool. She couldn’t see Vosk.

Gaz leapt atop it, but it rolled and threw him off. Sliding down the rain-slippery rock, it grappled at Torcha but couldn’t reach her. Spinning, lurching, it set its sights on Adal just as he finished reloading.

Picking up speed, the creature rushed him. Adal stood his ground. Lightning lanced across the sky, illuminating the scene just long enough for Riss to watch in slack-jawed horror as the golem crashed into Adal just as he fired. He blew it off-balance, and in return it snared a stony arm around him, tackling both of them into the dark, burbling pool.

<< Chapter 40 | Chapter 42 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

Author Update – Q&A this week

Hi everyone! I’ve noticed a few people have left lore- and story-related questions on some recent chapters, so I figured it seemed like a fine time to do an author Q&A.

I’ve set up a curiouscat account and will be taking questions this week, then posting an update with answers next weekend. I’ve rounded up questions from the last few blog comments and will be answering those too.

If you’ve ever wanted to know any specifics about who I am, other things I write, where I get my ideas, or world-specific questions that haven’t been answered in the text of the story, this is the place!

Please note some answers may be spoilery, but I’ll warn you if that’s the case.

Thanks for your interest in my work and I hope you’re all enjoying Vol 1 as it heads into its final act.

Chapter 40

Food had a way of soothing the psyche as it soothed the body. The rudimentary stew they’d fashioned resembled the cuisine of Adal’s childhood only in staple ingredients, yet it was enough to transport him to a much healthier, less precarious mental place.

He recalled a favored dish of his childhood: whole silvergill stuffed with water chestnuts in a sticky, spicy sauce that the family cook never did elaborate on. It was, as his mother would have said, a meal for entertaining. Something they only had when occasions necessitated use of the great House Altave dining hall. Adal always looked forward to those dinners as a child.

Riss took Vosk off in search of his ill-gotten loot, so Adal checked in with the others.

“Torcha,” he asked. “You all right for next watch?”

“Of course.” She picked her teeth with a fishbone. “I’m feeling pretty rested.”

Adal nodded. “You and Gaz, then, once Riss is back.”

Around the fishbone, Torcha’s mouth formed a small, cross line.

“With him?” She shifted a look toward Gaz and eyed him with open disdain.

“Calay was with me on mine,” he explained. “We’ve got to keep cycling watches so everyone gets enough rest. It isn’t ideal, but this is not an ideal situation.”

She made that deep, dubious grunt that said she thought something was bullshit but wasn’t going to voice that opinion. Adal had been on the receiving end of that little vocalization a few times in his life.

Torcha had a tendency to view things with a paucity of nuance. She’d been that way since they’d found her—or rather since she’d found them—back in the thick of the war. It felt unfair to ascribe it all to her uncultured upbringing, but the truth was that many in the Lower Deel and the outer textile regions lived fairly blunt, black and white lives.

In wartime, that thinking had been an asset. It had seen Torcha through unknown horrors, the specifics of which she’d never discussed with the Fourth.

But the situation with Calay and Gaz required a soft, careful touch. At least for the time being. With every night’s rest, those two would be recovering. Adal estimated Calay would be sturdy on his feet come morning, and then they’d have to take precious care to ensure that neither of the northerners deduced that Riss intended to sell them out.

Across the fire, Calay inhaled his stew voraciously, as if thoughts of double-crossing and wary intrigue couldn’t have been further from his mind.

“I have to say…” He smacked his lips. “When you told me you were a spearfisher, I thought you were joking. Or perhaps coming on to me.”

Adal exhaled through his nose, not quite a laugh. Before he could reply, Torcha stepped in to defend his honor.

“Yeah, well, looks like everybody on this expedition is more than what they seemed.” She coupled the words with a hard, bitter stare across the fire, eyes on Calay.

Calay opened his mouth, but for once, nothing came out. He shut it with a click of teeth. He looked, to Adal’s surprise, genuinely chagrined.

“Uh, either way… I think he was trying to say thanks for the fish.” Gaz set his bowl in the stack, then rubbed the bandages wound around his upper arm. As soon as Adal noticed, he couldn’t help but glance toward Calay’s right arm, or at least the lump beneath his duster where he kept it hidden away.

“He’s not your fucking friend, Narlie,” Torcha snapped.

“Torcha.” Adal put up a palm. “I can defend myself, thanks.”

Her eyes narrowed, this time on Adal. “Then why aren’t you? Why are you just letting them talk to you like we’re pals? Like they’re still on the right side of all this?”

With a gust of a sigh, Adal sat up. He’d take her for a private walk ‘round the pool, discuss things with her as he had with Riss. That would settle her. Except…

Damn. He couldn’t leave Calay and Gaz alone. Frustrated, he ground his molars for a moment.

Loth, in a lot of ways it really was just like being back on the front. The complete lack of privacy, at least.

He took a moment to swallow his frustration. Torcha’s anger was not her fault. It might have been inconvenient to the diplomatic approach he was trying to take, but the blame was solely Calay’s. He couldn’t hold her natural, understandable reactions against her.

Besides, this was the Torcha who had mellowed substantially compared to the girl they’d taken under wing after liberating Semmer’s Mill. She’d been younger then, with a temper the gods themselves would be right to fear. Her fury had seemed uncontrollable at first, but they’d discovered one presence in all the world that soothed her. Someone she looked up to enough that she’d shut up and listen even when in the depths of her rage.

And that person was presently occupied elsewhere.

“I get it. I really do. I’m not downplaying anything. I’m just…” There really wasn’t any better excuse than the truth. “I’m exhausted, Torcha. I am too tired to spare any energy on anger.”

Which was true. But as soon as he said it, he knew it also wasn’t the entire truth. He had felt flickers of familiarity, of relaxation if not quite kinship, during their meal. Everyone had shut their mouths and enjoyed their food, even if it was just a big stupid game of play pretend–much like the collective delusions that House Altave contained a cheery family within its dining hall.

Adal was used to wringing humanity out of less-than-ideal circumstances. It didn’t mean his heart was softening. Or that he’d forgotten the betrayal. But Torcha didn’t see it that way.

“You don’t have to be spittin’ mad.” She shifted the fishbone to the other side of her mouth, unimpressed in her regard of him. “But you’re treating them like people.”

Adal’s thoughts came to rest at an ideological blockade he didn’t know he had.

He disagreed with her there. He’d never realized it until that moment, but when she phrased it that way, his mind was quick to counter: They are people, Torcha. A sorcerer was not a thing that masqueraded as a person. A sorcerer was a person who learned to do a thing that let them masquerade as something else.

Despite what Gaz and Calay had done to them, Adal still saw them as fundamentally human. Torcha apparently did not. This was dicier than he thought it was.

The thump-crunch of boots on stone announced Riss’ return not a moment too soon. She arrived tossing a small suede pouch back and forth between her hands. Vosk limped stiffly before her, his expression a tired grimace.

“Well that was illuminating.” Riss retook her seat near the fire, tossing the pouch toward Torcha. “Have a look at these.”

Torcha blinked, her ire forgotten for now. She caught the bag and peered inside.


From inside the pouch, she fished out a single pinky nail-sized pearl, its shade a creamy rose gold. She held it up for a moment, admiring the shine of firelight on its surface.

“Lotta beads like that,” said Riss. “Gemstones, too. Some fancy glass. Nice silks. I didn’t go through it all, but it’s likely more than we can even carry. So lay off Adal and let him go to sleep with visions of moneybags dancing in his head, hm?”

Adal blinked. “You heard all that?”

“I heard enough.” Riss beckoned Torcha up with a crook of her finger. “C’mere, resident textile expert. I need someone to tell me what’s worth carting out of here.”

Torcha rolled to her feet, limber and young and eager to please the boss. They strolled back into the rear of the cave. Vosk watched them go.

The sun had yet to set, but Adal wasn’t going to waste any opportunity for sleep between watches. He tethered Vosk’s hands again, and when the man complained, Adal decided he was about due for a pat-down as well. But he hadn’t acquired any weapons or stowed any contraband on his person, at least not yet.

“Gonna do us next?” Calay asked, baring his teeth in the first smile Adal had seen on him since he’d been shot.

Adal stared him down. “Do I have to?”

Calay and Gaz shared a look between the two of them.

“Reckon not,” said Gaz.

“Shame,” said Calay. “It’s been so long since I felt the tender touch of a man.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Vosk growled.

For all the hearty meal had rejuvenated him, Adal had just about had it with all the bickering. He knocked the toe of a boot warningly against the back of Vosk’s shoulder.

“Enough out of you,” he said. “Regardless of anything else that’s happened on this expedition, the fact remains that only one among us tried to murder someone.”

Maybe Torcha’s solution was right after all. Diplomacy was growing awful tiring. As he turned away from Vosk, Adal’s spine tingled most unpleasantly. He felt eyes on his back. When he returned to the fire, he saw Calay observing him in silence, firelight accentuating the deep shadows of his face. Convalescent though he might have been, his attention hadn’t wavered at all throughout Adal’s entire conversation with Torcha. He’d heard every word.

Alone at the fire with only Calay, Gaz, and Vosk for company, Adal felt as though his allies were very far away. Nonetheless, he schooled his mouth into a calm smile, never one to let a little malice ruin a good meal.

<< Chapter 39 | Chapter 41 >>

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to support us, give us a vote on TopWebFiction by clicking here!

Chapter 39

First you pay your dues, then you get to weave.

Murfrey Lupart’s voice echoed in his daughter’s ear: fatigued, parental, disappointed at having to explain the same old thing for the twentieth time.

Torcha tied her smock on and wondered–also for the twentieth time–if it was worth it.

She knew she’d been given a rare opportunity. She knew that apprenticeships at Madem Yelisey’s were highly sought-after. Doing this bitchwork–and that’s what it was, bitchwork–would open up worlds to Torcha that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Smock and boots in place, she opened the door to the bug room.

The sawdust-musty smell and constant chitter-clitter-clack of thousands of caged beetles all hit her at once. Whenever Madem Yelisey started paying her, the first thing she was going to purchase was something to plug her ears. For now she used torn-off bits of cotton from the spinning room, and those barely blocked any of it out.

Despite everything that everybody said, despite the blatant envy in the eyes of the village girls when Torcha told them where she worked, she wondered if she’d been sent to this place as punishment.

Whether it was punishment or not, she still had to do the work. Holding her breath, Torcha pulled on her gloves and flipped open the lid on the first tank. The bubbly, poor-quality glass was so opaque that she could barely see the glittering emerald-green beetles within, but as soon as she dumped in the first few handfuls of mealworms, the beetles swarmed across the tank’s floor and she could see them through the opening. Shiny, thumbnail-big, teeming by the dozen.

She fed them all, tank by tank. Some ate mealworms. Some ate the last few scraps off deer legs and the cracked-open marrow inside. Some ate clippings from Madem’s garden. Torcha shoveled the feed in with casual indifference. Feeding them was the easy part.

“Madem Yelisey?” she called through the bug room door, once all the beetles were eating. “What are we making today?”

A rough, feminine grunt from down the hall. Then Madem Yelisey’s voice, like a bleating goat:

“Red dye today, Torcha.”

She looked aside to a row of tanks where crimson beetles nibbled on sweet potato stalks.

“Sorry, bugs,” she said, and went to fetch the boiling nets.

Scooping up a net of writhing beetles, Torcha marched over to the vats. Madem Yelisey had the chemicals all ready to go–a secret mix the apprentices weren’t allowed to know. The fires beneath the big copper-bottomed drums burned hot, and Torcha gave the bellows a squeeze. Already, the liquid within was boiling.

She dunked the bug-net below the bubbling surface of the liquid and left it there.

Within seconds, the screaming started.

Don’t you worry, Torcha remembered her father telling her. I know it sounds terrible, but the whistling noise is just steam bubbling through their shells. They aren’t actually screaming. They’re just insects.

She gave the handle of the net a stir, then dragged it upward, chemical-stinky water streaming down off half-cooked carcasses. The beetles weren’t squirming anymore, though a few had legs that still twitched a little, feebly. She turned the net inside out and plunged them into the bath.

Shaking dry the net, she grabbed the long-handled masher off its spot on the tool rack.

With a soft grunt of effort, Torcha leaned over the vat as close as she could, its astringent vapors biting at her eyes. She flipped the switch on the side, counted to five as Madem Yelisey instructed, and drained some of the liquid. Then she heaved the switch back up the other way.

Then she started mashing.

The bugs only had to boil for half a minute or so to get nice and soft. Like a butter churn, Torcha worked the handle in her hands, the liquid in the vat blooming from light rose pink to a deep, dark, bloody red. She huffed and panted with the effort, breaking out into a sweat. If she kept at this for as many years as the Madem, soon her hands would have those same calluses along the innermost knuckles, even through the gloves. Her hands might resemble the spiders and insects they boiled and crushed.

It doesn’t matter, daddy, she’d said.

What doesn’t matter?

If the bugs are screaming for real or not.

She twisted as she mashed down, grinding the insects in the vat into a fine paste. Sometimes stuff just had to die for people to make a living. She was only ten and she understood that. She couldn’t figure out what her father’s hang-up was.


Daddy, you’re making a mistake.

How could her father keep doing this, with as bad as things were getting? Weavers were disappearing from the village left and right. Half the Madem’s apprentices didn’t come to work anymore, too scared to travel the roads or their entire families long since fled.

Still, Murfrey dropped his daughter at the Madem’s every morning. He told her these skills were too vital not to learn. She could mix dye now, and spin yarn, and dye cloth. The Madem was letting her weave two years early, for lack of able hands to do the work. Her education was too important.

Important enough to risk getting fucking shot? Because when the Narlies arrived, that’s what they were going to do.

Every day, the same argument: Torcha told her father she had to go. She had to go to the mustering. The girls at the Madem’s, they said their fathers and aunties and siblings were going. Some big-dick soldier from the Inland Empire was taking recruits. They called him the Shrike. Torcha was certain he’d take her once he saw what she could do with a rifle.

You’re fourteen, girl. That’s insanity.

But it wasn’t. Someday soon, this town would need her.

So she packed her rifle with her every morning. Her father couldn’t stop that. And after her lessons and her weaving, she marched to the edge of the woods, beneath the grasping legs of all the dangling spiders, and practiced.


When they finally came for Semmer’s Mill, it was just Torcha and the Madem left.

And still, that very last morning, Murfrey held her to their routine. She’d wonder about that for the rest of her years. Was he just too scared to act? Did he hope that if he somehow acted like nothing had changed, nothing would?

Their officers were polite. They called everyone to the town square, announced their intentions. They’d only bivouac for a matter of days. They would requisition supplies and move on. That those supplies would come from the locals’ cupboards as an unspoken understanding.

Torcha went to the Madem’s, as ordered. She ground the bugs and grit her teeth and trembled with the magnitude of her own anger.

The Shrike’s men pinched in from the northwest.

Days turned into weeks.

They left Torcha’s parents alone, but everyone knew not to let their children out after dark.

Then one day, the Madem wasn’t at the shop.

It was time to step up where her father would not.

They were the beetles now. She would not be boiled.

<< Chapter 38 | Chapter 40 >>

If you’re enjoying Into the Mire, consider giving us your vote on Top Web Fiction! Just click this link right here.