Calay wasn’t sure they were making the right decision. But Gaz had posed a convincing argument, as he often did. Calay’s brain tended to zing from thought to thought, a deer leaping between the trees to avoid a huntsman’s arrow. Gaz slowed him down, steered him in better directions.
Plus, after Adalgis and Riss relented, he got a few more minutes with Vosk, which was consolation of a sort. He’d bled the man through the thigh this time, collecting a weighty measure of his blood in a glass canteen. To aid them in rescuing Torcha, ostensibly. But Adalgis wasn’t stupid. He likely knew Calay would savor using it for weeks to come, provided they all lived that long.
And just like that, they turned straight back around the way they’d come, leaving the others to catch their breath. It might have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“We’re doing the right thing,” Gaz reassured him, as if reading his thoughts.
That had been his argument from the get-go. They’d conversed in low, quiet tones while Riss and Adal had their own discussion. Gaz had pointed out that it would serve their best interests to be helpful. Calay had been reluctant at first, but he had to admit that he trusted Gaz’s judgment more than his own. Especially now. The swamp, the lack of sleep, the horrific growth doing who-knew-what inside his body… it was all compounding, taking a toll on his ability to reason.
“I’m not arguing anymore,” he pointed out. “You were right. It’s a smart move for us to leave them indebted.” While he walked, he dashed a little of Vosk’s blood onto his arm. He sketched a simple glyph to enhance his hearing. As it flashed across his skin, he imagined the feel of it, pain like a thin blade twisting in Vosk’s ribs, and he smiled.
Gaz cleared his throat. “I mean it’s, you know, the right thing.”
That bit hadn’t occurred to Calay at all. Who cared. Well, apart from Gaz.
It was strange, the way Gaz insisted on his morals. Always had been. From a young age, he’d had a clearly-defined sense of right and wrong that whooshed entirely over Calay’s head. They’d had similar childhoods–not that mean a feat for kids born in the dump they’d grown up in–but while Calay’s childhood had whittled him down to hard edges and sharp spines, Gaz’s appeared to have graced him with a sense of empathy and charity that was, frankly, incomprehensible.
On a better day, he might have engaged in some playful debate on the subject. Why exactly was it their moral imperative to save Riss’ wayward gunsmith? Torcha hated his guts now. Much as he’d liked her before, Calay’s heart was a door that could swing shut at a moment’s notice.
But it was not a better day. His stomach flipped and his hands gave a nervous twitch at the thought of what they were walking into.
Hands? Wait a minute. Blinking, Calay looked down.
The mangled, misshapen mass of flesh and bark he cradled to his chest had rearranged itself with agonizing slowness, knuckles dislocating and twisting, growing jagged claws, and he’d dosed himself again to keep from feeling it all. But he felt something now. Staring, he willed his fingers to move. A strange thing to order one’s body to do, when it had been so natural and thoughtless before. The sharp, scythelike blades of bone and bark that jutted from the mess responded, a tentative wiggle.
“Fuck me sideways,” he said. “I think this mess is growing back into a hand.”
The prospect didn’t soothe him as much as it might have. He tucked it back into his sleeve after letting Gaz have a gawk.
“Gross,” he said. “It looks worse like that than when it was a nub.”
Defensively, Calay squared his shoulders and puffed out an indignant breath. “Does not.”
All the while, he kept his ear turned to the swamp, listening for the report of gunfire.
Things were different now. He was facing the swamp on his own terms. He understood the appeal of it, why Adalgis had made that offer. And the further he and Gaz went, the deeper they retraced their steps, the more he found himself looking forward to the coming confrontation. Bloodlust bloomed in him like springtime. He felt a need to get back at the swamp for all it had made them suffer. To repay it tenfold. Was it possible to mete out street justice in a place that had no streets? To a place that had no streets?
Fuck this place. Fuck everything in it. Now that all the cards were on the table, Calay didn’t have to hold back anymore.
He heard laughter, low and vicious, leaking out into the muggy air. When Gaz glanced aside and gave him a querying look, Calay realized the laughter was his own.
Gaz understood, though. He always did. His mouth cracked in the tiniest hint of a grin. He shifted the axe on his shoulder, footsteps soggy in the mud.
“Just like old times,” he said.
Calay considered that. “Better than old times. I don’t have to hide anything anymore.”
He flexed his left hand, then gave a testing curl of the lopsided, stunted claws that now grew from his right. It was starting to feel more like a part of him with every passing minute.
He recalled the break-in that started it all, his daring heist from the Violet Room. He’d had the tools to get through that night without a scratch, but he’d been hamstrung by the need for secrecy.
Ever since Alfend Linten had taught him this peculiar language, bestowed upon him this strange and horrible gift, he’d held back. He’d always had to work his talents subtly: accentuating his natural aptitudes, his light feet and quick blade. In the Vasa underworld, he’d used magick to render himself lucky and skilled, but he’d always been so careful to hold back. He couldn’t be too lucky, or too useful, lest people start to wonder. Until the night it all came crashing down, he’d always restrained himself. And that night he’d been so blinded by anger, so consumed by his rage that his approach had been sloppy. He’d taken to the manor-lined avenues of the Landed Quarter like a frenzied animal.
Now, without that anger distracting him? He felt capable of anything. He had never tested his limits, not to that extent.
He was looking forward to that moment. It was going to be fun.
Finally, not far from Vosk’s stash of gems, he heard it: the crack of a rifle through the trees. He picked up the pace, loping toward it. As he did, he splashed blood down his throat and sketched the necessary precautions. He spiked newfound awareness into his senses, readied his body for the massacre he couldn’t wait to commit. His hunger for violence surprised him at first, but fuck it, he’d been through a lot. He’d earned this.
He and Gaz broke through the trees, dashing tirelessly toward the sound of gunfire and grinding stone, and by the time they arrived, they were laughing.
The creature had her boxed in, wedged down between the two great boulders that concealed Vosk’s little hidey hole. Or at least he assumed it did. He heard someone breathing down there, and the stone creature hammered ceaseless blows onto the boulders, attempting to dig at what they concealed. It wailed with frustration, a sound midway between grinding rock and an avian shriek.
Calay dashed up, whipped his blood-painted pistol free, and put a round through its back. The impact was explosive, far greater than a pistol shot should have been, and stone showered off the creature in splinters.
It rounded on them. Cackling, he ran forward to meet it, already tossing his own pistol aside and reaching for Vosk’s. Stupid hand. Couldn’t reload. His feet felt light. He was practically flying. His brain skipped along even faster than his feet, thoughts coming in bits and excerpts that contained only the most vital information. Speed, height, distance, proximity. Gaz pinched in from the left and he threw himself into the fray with a weightlessness he hadn’t felt in months.
“Torcha!” he hollered, pitching his voice above the creature’s grinding vocalizations. “Adalgis sent us!”
He sure hoped she was down there. But then again, in the heat of the moment, it didn’t matter whether she was. He and Gaz weren’t just going to kill this thing. They were going to dismantle it.
Gaz’s axe glittered, the blade sailing through the air before it chinked into the golem’s body. He caught it in the thigh, then wrenched the haft of the axe up and, with blood-augmented strength, attempted to pry the boulders of its leg apart from one another. Flailing, the creature swiped at him with its forelimbs, but Calay was ready. He went low, slipping between its tree-trunk-thick legs. He was tempted to fire straight up, but ricocheting stone was a nasty thing to catch with one’s face, magick or no magick. He maneuvered himself deftly away from the feet, then fired straight into its lower back. It toppled forward.
Torcha crested the boulders, sodden and muddy and looking like hell. Scaling the massive stone as she crawled out of her hiding place, she clutched her rifle with white knuckles. Instead of pointing it at the flailing creature, she levelled it at him. Her quickened breath whistled in his ear, loud as wind to his enhanced senses.
“Fuckin’ back off!” she hollered. “This is my fight!”
Stone smashed into stone. Gaz wrestled atop the golem, its fists flying every which way. Sawing down, he cleaved at the vines that bound its stony skeleton together.
“Finish it off then, if you’re in such a hurry!” Calay yelled. “I’m not fussed!”
Why hadn’t she shot it? Or for that matter shot him? He surveyed her for a moment with a narrow of his eye. She was tense. Taut as a bowstring. Pissed as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Blood rushing in his ears, chasing the high of a looming victory, he laughed. When he laughed, he knew he had her made. She scowled immediately and lifted her rifle’s sights to her eye.
“You can’t finish it off because you’re spent.” Calay snickered. Oh, this was good. “Which means you can’t blow a hole in me either.”
He saw it, a confirmation of his suspicions: a wrinkle of uncertainty across her brow. Her breath caught. He could only glimpse it for an instant, and a less aware man would not have, but she was afraid.
“Relax,” he said. He gripped Vosk’s pistol loosely, its barrel trained on the sky, a pose of surrender. “We didn’t come here to hurt you. Like I said, Adalgis sent us.”
A half-ton of stone slammed into him from the side, sending Calay tumbling arse-over-teakettle into the mud. He landed facedown in it, the slick, viscous ooze of it seeping into his mouth and nose. Torcha’s laughter, somehow simultaneously cheery and unkind, rang out through the trees. Groaning, Calay heaved up to his elbows, his bones unbroken thanks solely to his glyphs.
Torcha’s laughter turned to a squawk of alarm. The creature, having thought Calay defeated, had focused back on its original target.
Spitting mud, Calay indulged in a short, petty laugh of his own.
“All right!” he called to her, watching as Torcha took off down the slope and dove for one of the shallow caverns, the creature hot on her tail. “Your fight, then! Let us know if you need a hand!”
He couldn’t quite make out the words, muffled as they were, but he thought he heard her yell fuck you before slipping out of sight altogether. She yelled something, at least.
Gaz lumbered up to his side. He glanced down at Calay’s muddied features and pulled a bit of a face.
“Come on,” he said. “Remember what I said about doing the right thing? This is… not the right thing.”
Calay sighed on an inhale, chest inflating. Every time he breathed in, he tasted dirt.
“She is making the right thing a lot of work.”