They’d returned to the river. And because they were on the river, Adal dared to hope. He’d never felt the intimate spiritual touch of the god his family worshipped, had no stories like the River Navy’s paddleboat captains with their tales of how Loth had rescued them from certain death. But the river was home turf. The river was familiar.
When the sorcerer stumbled and fell into the water, Adal dared to hope that Loth was pressing a thumb upon the scales in their favor. What if, after all that, Calay simply died? That would solve so many of his problems, tie off so many loose threads. He couldn’t believe his luck.
Then Torcha leapt into action to save him, and all hopes of a tidy ending blew up in his face.
Something had happened to them when they’d been separated from him and Riss. He’d known that from the moment they walked back into view. But he hadn’t anticipated that she’d rush to his aid like an old friend, flipping up her rifle and blasting the closest tree apart before Riss could even give the order. Adal and Riss caught one another’s eye through the gunfire, and her face was tough to read.
She didn’t look surprised. Or pleased with this turn of events. But they piled onto Torcha’s coattails, opening fire now that they were given no choice. Calay had lent Riss his pistol, which she wielded in an awkward, two-handed grip. She reloaded it slowly, uncertainly, and the awkward pull and latch of her fingers gave Adal a smile that was wholly inappropriate for the moment. She and Gaspard like two stubborn children, resistant to the changing landscape of war. He’d teased them both for it during happier times.
But something wasn’t right. They’d driven the trees off Calay, but he wasn’t getting up.
Again, Adal dared to hope, but it was out of his hands now. He wasn’t going to hold back. They’d kicked the hornet’s nest, and now they had to settle the swarm.
“You two cover me,” Riss said, pushing up and readying the pistol.
He trusted her to pull back if the odds didn’t look good. She knew Calay wasn’t one of them. She wouldn’t put herself in a dangerous spot for him. But still his stomach seized when he watched her jog toward the mass of splintered trees. It was easy–too easy–to remember her lying in the mud.
Calay had yet to move. Adal squinted through the trees toward the river’s opposite bank, where Gaz had Vosk pinned. He didn’t give his prisoner so much as a glance, gaze fixed on where his friend had fallen.
Torcha was all business, putting round after round into the trees. Each shot detonated with a fury that shook the blades of the grass they crouched in. Calay had amplified their weapons something terrible. Adal didn’t fire, watching Riss through his sights, ready to intervene if anything made a grab for her. She ran up the path Calay had chopped, heading straight for him. A squat, wide-trunked tree swiveled toward her, and as it turned Adal spotted the badly-decayed lower halves of two human bodies dangling from its back. The legs hung skinny and useless, bone jutting from where flesh had worn away. He swallowed and fired, blasting the tree off course.
The rifle kicked back hard against his shoulder, a snap of recoil that stung all the way down his arm. He shook out his hand before flicking the bolt and readying another round.
Riss reached Calay. Torcha clucked her tongue.
“You oughta get down there,” she said to Adal. “I can cover y’all just fine up here, but pistols might be better on those roots and Riss has only got the one.”
Adal checked his sidearm, then left his rifle at Torcha’s feet when she offered him another. Rank be damned, he’d be a fool to ignore her advice when it came to matters of blowing parts off things with gunfire.
Skidding down the talus and into the riverbed, he took a path through the wooden wreckage that was part Calay’s doing and part Torcha’s. Shards and splinters of bark littered the riverbed now, and with it came the sticky brown-black sludge that leaked out of the trees when they disgorged their half-digested contents. He coughed, eyes stinging–the smell of putrefaction was overwhelming. By the time he reached Riss, she’d dragged Calay out of the water. Four trees remained mobile enough to be a threat, by Adal’s extremely uneducated estimation.
Panting, Adal looked to the man slumped at Riss’ feet.
Calay coughed, pushing himself up on his good arm, his elbow wobbly. “You wish,” he croaked, spitting out water.
Adal deigned not to answer that.
Yet he discovered, deep down in his gut, a strange wellspring of relief. He was glad to see the sorcerer lift his head, squint up at him with defiance in his bruise-ringed gaze.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Calay said, struggling up to his feet. Adal couldn’t see any wounds on him, but his eyes were sunken pits. His expression was grave. “When that tree took my arm, I bonded with it somehow. I can feel their pain. It’s fucking me up.”
Nobody bothered to dwell on that. Instead, Riss leapt straight into an exit strategy. Adal hung back, levelling the long barrel of his pistol at the closest tree.
“All right,” she said. “Calay, I’m gonna run you back to Gaz. Take Vosk and get as far away as you have to. We’ll take care of the rest.”
Calay’s thin silver-blond brows rose a little, and he stared at Riss for half a beat with an expression of muted surprise. Then another of Torcha’s rounds blasted through the trees and he collapsed again, cradling his right arm to his body. Riss grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him up.
“On your feet,” she growled. “I can get you most of the way there but you gotta walk yourself.”
Adal sought an opening, readying his pistols. He ticked the barrel of one toward a gap between two trees, one relatively undamaged and the other blown to fragments. Riss clocked the opportunity, nodded, and took off running. She dragged Calay along with her, only half under his own power. As they moved, Adal fired twice into the tree closest to them, rewarded by a powerful rush of fetid, rank-smelling air as a pocket of decay inside it ruptured. Mindful of the trees at his flank but trusting Torcha to keep him covered, he started to reload.
He never saw Riss and Calay reach the others, preoccupied with minding his own skin, but he knew they must have when Gaz abruptly trampled up to his side, crushing bark under his boots.
Then on his heels came Riss, heaving up her machete in preparation for a strike. She warned Adal and Gaz back with a holler, then swung. Her blade slammed into a tangle of roots, the steel flaring white, and when she pulled her arm back, a jagged schism of light split the tree from its base to the tips of its branches. With a crack of thunder, it split up the middle as if struck by lightning.
Adal and Gaz ducked and covered, shielding their eyes. Panting, Riss yanked her machete up for another strike, swinging laterally this time into the trunk of another tree. Whatever terrifying curse Calay had laid upon her weapon shot through the tree like nothing Adal had ever seen. Each strike crackled through bark and wood with ease, white-hot fissures appearing in the trees’ skins. They glowed and flashed and split. Riss was cutting through the forest like a living knife.
Adal hung back a step and simply observed. His own contributions felt unnecessary at that point. Gaz yanked him hard by the shoulder to steer him aside from some branches that blew past. Righting himself after being pulled, Adal swung to keep an eye on their rear guard. He yelped.
“Gaz! On your left!”
Then the blade of Gaz’s axe was whizzing past Adal’s face, far too close for comfort, biting into sickly white-yellow bark. The tree was close enough that Adal heard gasps and wheezes from something trapped within it. He closed his eyes and fired into it point blank, not wanting to see the source of those sounds.
The wheeze became a pained rasp, a gurgle like a sucking drain.
The tree fell forward instead of back, snagging tendrils of sharp roots reaching for Adal’s boots.
Then Riss was on them both. Her machete shimmered through the air, glowing white-hot in her hands, and she slammed into the tree with the force of a hurricane. It didn’t just crack and split–it erupted into pieces.
Falling back, Adal reloaded. He kept guard while Gaz dispatched some twitching, grasping branches that had yet to realize they were dead. One well-placed shot over Gaz’s shoulder was enough.
By the time Riss was finished, not a single tree was left intact. And the two that stood at all were bisected up the middle like a fish for gutting. Riss stood amid the inert wood, panting, her shoulders rising and falling. She smeared the back of a hand across her brow, lips parted as she caught her breath.
“You all right?” Adal called.
She reacted to him much slower than she had to the trees, turning her head and considering her answer in silence before she spoke.
“Yeah.” She sounded bewildered.
Torcha loped down the skree, sliding on stones and skidding to a halt at the heap of wreckage. She let out a triumphant whoop, then threw her head back and cackled at the sky.
“Boss, that was amazing!”
Adal rubbed at his cheek with a thumb. “I’m assuming Calay did… whatever that was?”
“Mhm.” Riss turned the machete over in her hand. The blade didn’t glow or hum or anything exotic. It looked the same as it always had. “He said he was giving it all the blood he had left. I gave him a head start. He seemed to think distance was all he needed.”
In concert, they all glanced up and down the river’s banks. No sign of Calay or Vosk. Water burbled peacefully down the shallow braid of the Deel. A single bird cawed in the distance. The quiet rang in Adal’s ears after so much noise. When he breathed, he could still taste the odd metallic tingle on the air that seemed to follow Calay’s magicks.
Torcha tossed Adal his rifle and he slung it over his shoulder. Then she went back to fetch the animals.
“Should we be hurrying?” Riss asked, glancing to her right down the riverbed. Adal presumed that’s where she’d sent Calay running off.
“I don’t think it matters.” Gaz’s voice was soft and contemplative, possessed of a certain morbid finality. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s planning on killing the guy. But even if he was, we couldn’t really…”
Adal’s lips twitched. “No, I suppose we couldn’t stop him.”
He wondered how it must feel, that bond Gaz and Calay shared. It reminded him of his relationship with Riss, in a way. Though he knew nothing of their history, Gaz’s indifference to Calay’s magicks and the latter’s secretive demeanor spoke of a hard-won closeness. Friendship forged under less-than-ideal circumstances.
But unlike Riss, Calay was a monster. Adal kept reminding himself. How did it feel, knowing your closest confidant possessed such terrifying powers? Had he known from the beginning?
A pang of guilt whispered in his ear: and how did it feel, knowing his own closest confidant only drew breath because of those magicks?
“We should get to the rendezvous point downstream,” Torcha said, leading the moa back.
“You think he’ll show?” Adal was on the fence.
Torcha pursed her mouth in thought, then took a swig from her canteen. “Yeah,” she said. “I reckon he will.”
They gathered their things and set off toward where the treetops lightened. Patches of blue sky dared to show between the treetops as the swamp thinned. The air grew drier, thinner, less oppressive in indefinable tiny ways. Adal and Riss noticed at almost the same time, taking in a deep breath each and savoring how easy it came.
Is this really it, he wanted to ask. Are we really on the way out? But having been betrayed by luck only minutes before, Adal didn’t feel like risking it. Instead, he fished a half-austral from his pocket. He flipped the silvery coin up into the air, watched it spin, then caught it in his glove. He didn’t bother looking to see whether it landed face-side up before he tossed it into the river, a modest offering for a god who probably wasn’t even watching.