Adal followed after Riss, as he always had.
He was conscious of her weakened state and wanted her to set the pace. Though his calf ached and now his throat stung, Calay’s magicks had eaten at her in a way that superficial wounds couldn’t compare to. Besides, she had always been the superior tracker between the two of them. On a half-healthy day, she’d have won any race if they were counting.
She tracked Vosk through the trees, finding sign of him easily enough: a footprint here, dislodged dewy grass there. At one point he’d stumbled through a thorny thicket, his path of broken thorns the only reason they were able to shove through themselves.
The trees gradually changed, growing thin and tall, with few branches down low. Their pale bark was dotted with black and grey knots. Adal recognized these trees—he’d seen them at their very first campsite. They were nearly free of the swamp, then. His heart leapt for it, and then guilt immediately sank him. There was no celebrating, not yet. Not with Vosk free and Torcha missing. Still, he savored a study of the treetops: golden-brown, the sort of leaves that saw sun.
Wherever they ended up after this, he’d sit beneath the sun a while. He wanted to feel it on his face, drying and baking away the damp.
His boot sunk low into a thick, viscous puddle. Grimacing, Adal wrenched himself free of it, and then he stilled when Riss tapped his arm.
“Look,” she said. “You can see where he passed through.”
Strung between the trunks of several clustered trees, glistening cobwebs were draped like jewelry round a noblewoman’s neck. The webs were wet with dew or rain, catching and reflecting all ambient light. Riss pointed to a spot where several strands had been broken through, an obvious trail leading through the thicket. They followed.
Ahead of them, they heard a distinctly humanoid coughing sound. A male voice. They couldn’t be far away.
Careful to avoid further puddles, of which there were many, Adal followed Riss through the patches in the webbing, which grew more frequent but never more dense, always thin and gossamer. Adal’s shoulders twitched at the thought of fat, plump-fanged spiders waiting in the treetops, but thus far he hadn’t seen any.
When he breathed in, he caught a faint sweetness on the air. Like the scent of a breeze blown through a distant garden, not quite close enough to see the flowers but enough to smell them. The scent brought to mind mornings spent along the river shores, the tangled gardens of House Altave replete with morning glories.
Ahead of him, Riss stilled. She signaled, folding her fingers in toward her palm, and Adal crouched low. Once she too crouched, he could see up ahead what stilled her.
Harlan Vosk stood in a small clearing, doubled over and panting. He had his back to them, and his shoulders lifted with labored breath as if hyperventilating. Calay must have seized upon his blood. They’d lucked out.
The vicious, satisfied smile that curved up Riss’ mouth was both a relief and delight. Adal checked his pistol, readied it, then signaled to her. She nodded assent and signaled him forward, their hands flying in the old cant of the Fourth by habit.
“I warned you about those kneecaps,” Adal said as he broke from the trees, leveling the pistol at Vosk and trudging up behind him. “Drop whatever’s in your hands, then turn and face me. Slowly.”
As soon as the thing moved, Adal realized his mistake. He flailed backward in an instant, opening his mouth to shout a warning to Riss, but he was just a hair too slow.
The labored breathing that lifted and lowered Vosk’s shoulders wasn’t breathing at all. It was an unnatural undulation, like a flag flapping in wind, only the flag was an entire human skin, deflated like an empty wineskin and shuddering around whatever hid inside it.
The thing that wore Vosk as a disguise shrugged free of its cover. Tanned flesh melted away to sticky, translucent sap. Tufts of blond hair fell away as if from an animal diseased with mange. The thing’s limbs stretched and elongated, and even as Adal screamed and sank his first bullet into its body, his mind summoned a detached observation—
—just like the anemones where the river meets the sea. The blue and black ones, waving in the current—
He watched the gunshot ripple across the thing’s body like it was water. Nothing gushed forth from the wound; it absorbed the projectile, and if he squinted, he could see it twinkling there, still moving just a little.
Something seized up from the puddle nearest his boot with a wet, sucking shluck. A vinelike appendage of the same translucent flesh, veins of murky green-brown pulsing through it, wrapped around his leg. The strength of it surprised him, and it squeezed so hard he started to fear for his bones, but within an instant Riss was on it, severing the limb at its base with a single arc of her machete.
The puddles around them sprung to life, glistening gelatinous horrors inching forth from every pocket of water. No two appendages were alike. Adal had to be careful where he put his feet. Some of the slithering limbs had taken on the character of nearby roots and rocks, their edges jagged or gnarled or in one case even pale with grey-black knots, mimicking the trees. One attempted to sweep around his boots, but he leapt nimbly clear, boots splashing as he landed.
Adal missed his scimitar in that moment. He’d have settled for a sword of any kind. Reaching for his bootknife, he had to make do with something much shorter. He clamped the knife in his teeth while he reloaded, though he was unsure how much use it would be.
At his side, Riss erupted into shrieking fury. All traces of her earlier lethargy left her as she tore into the growths that sprung from the puddles. She hacked and slashed at them like they were weeds, blade clearing through the strange jelly of their bodies with terrible ease. Wet, writhing pieces plopped around her feet, and she leapt over the sticky slime they oozed to shove Adal forward, past the thick anemone trunk that had shed Vosk’s skin like a scab.
Adal didn’t have to be told. He stumbled forward, shooting and stabbing at anything that drew close to his feet. When he looked down, he saw that the puddles they ran through weren’t full of water at all. That sweet smell seemed to emanate up from them, and as his boots splashed through, something viscous and opalescent clung to the leather.
A roar approached, and for a half-second he feared it heralded the arrival of some new terrible beast, but when he took a moment to listen, he knew the truth.
They’d reached the river.
The Deel River wove its way in a many-braided fashion through a flat, wide trough. Forks of it overflowed, dried, and overflowed again with time. The end result was a sprawl of stony basin that held several braids of river running through it at any time, provided the flood season was merciful.
Adal cupped a hand to his ear, yanked Riss’ arm to guide her left. He ran for the water. Trees rustled and erupted behind them as the many-armed horror tore through the bush in pursuit.
They broke through the trees, only to find themselves back in puddle-dotted marsh.
Adal didn’t understand. He listened, but the rush of water seemed to come from the right now. He strained to hear over the sound of his own ragged breath. The river seemed eastward now, away from the sun, but that was impossible unless they’d somehow crossed it.
Time, time, he didn’t have time. They skirted the edge of the trees. Something twinged up his throat, and he knew his cut was bleeding freely again, but that was the least of his concerns.
Riss slowed, then stopped. She stared down at something, body going rigid.
They’d crossed their own footprints. They were running in circles.
“Geetsha was right.” Riss spoke atonally, turning to face him. She didn’t look at him though. She lifted her eyes to confront the thing that chased them.
Adal caught her meaning. Geetsha had warned them of a mimic creature. They’d heard it, even glimpsed it when it had posed as an injured woman in the marsh.
They’d never heard the river. The river might still be a day’s walk away. Whatever was mimicking the sound, it was only trying to tire them out.
Adal adjusted his grip on his knife. The thing was barely a forearm long including the hilt, with a curved blade that made efficient work of anybody he’d put it through to date.
“You said carrying a sword into a swamp was idiotic,” he said to Riss, backing up close to her, pistol in his other hand. “I wished to point that out, in case we die.”
He expected her to laugh, to say something that might buoy his spirits one last time. But when he looked at her sideways, her features were shadowed. She’d shuttered the doors behind her eyes and faced the threat with a dead-eyed stare, like the slithering tangle of limbs was just another object in her way.
Something wasn’t right. Beyond everything else that wasn’t right. But Adal could only fight one fire at a time.
Rearing up with a shrill, high-pitched screech that strained his eardrums, the swamp horror caught them, its translucent body shimmering. Pulsating sparks of bioluminescence sparked through its slimy interior, purple and blue and white against a core of sickly green-grey veins.
Riss didn’t wait. She charged it head on, sending up a spray of sweet-smelling ichor as her blade bit home.
Adal followed. He always would.