Book 2, Chapter 23

(See a quick author’s note in the comments of this chapter–sorry I disappeared for a bit!)

The Meduese woman and her second-in-command with the melted face offered Adal and Calay a ride in what they called the “more comfortable” wagon, the bigger of the pair. It was a narrow walnut-wood construction, three stories tall, and had a canvas awning spread across the top. If Adal squinted, he could make out what appeared to be potted palm trees on the roof. While it didn’t quite stack up to the big war-wagons the narlies dragged across the maps during the war, it was easily the size of a riverboat. Standing outside it and peeking through the door gave him the same crawling sensation as he got when staring down the mouth of a cave. This is foreign territory and you won’t have the upper hand here. 

“I’ll stick with—” He was about to say you to Riss, but she waved a hand to cut him off.

“They’re splitting us up on purpose,” she murmured. “A group of five is a big risk on a wagon.”

As much as that offended his sense of dignity and manners, she was correct. Five passengers of unknown origin was potential hijacking territory. Their rescuers were simply taking the same precautions Adal himself would take in their shoes. Oddly, that realization made him feel better. The fact that their rescuers saw them as a potential threat meant they weren’t bugs to be squished underfoot.

“We’ll be fine,” said Riss, ticking up a tired smile. “Look after yourself. We’ll see you in Frogmouth.”

She was awful quick to dismiss him, quick to turn her back and trudge toward the smaller wagon in the distance. Torcha followed her, asleep on her feet, boots audibly dragging on the salt.

That left Gaz and Calay, who regarded each other in that strange silence that often passed between them. Adal got it, sort of. A lot could pass between two people with a look, and for every year of history between two people, that silent vocabulary grew.

“He should come with us,” Calay said, glancing over to the curly-haired woman. What was her name again? Melada? Adal’s sun-dizzy mind wasn’t grasping onto details with its usual tenacity.

“No room.” She popped a reed into her mouth, began to chew it. “Sorry.”

Calay gestured toward the bandages around Gaz’s thigh. “His leg’s buggered,” he protested. “I’m his medic.”

“The hammocks here might actually be worse if he’s got a busted leg,” she said. “I’m afraid neither of our haulers are particularly spacious.”

Gaz put a hand to the middle of Calay’s back and assured him all was fine. Nobody voiced it, but they were all far more worried about Calay at the moment. He looked like absolute dogshit, having picked up shakes and night sweats sometime in the last two nights. The dark circles commonly found beneath his eyes now bloomed like fresh bruises. It wasn’t like him to protest this vocally about being separated from Gaz for all of a few hours; Adal wondered if his brain might be fevered.

“Come on,” Adal said. “The sooner we mount up, the sooner we get to Frogmouth.”

“You’ll feel better once you’ve got some water in you,” said Gaz.

They didn’t embrace or speak any well-wishes or even say goodbye. They just nodded at one another and went their separate ways. 

Stepping inside the wagon was a borderline euphoric experience. Though it was hot and stuffy inside, being shut away from the sun did wonders. All his cave-mouth trepidation fled him in a moment as soon as he stepped into the shade. The woman—Maf, the crew called her—led them inside and through a series of low-ceilinged hallways, cramped and poorly lit and caked with dirt. Every possible interior surface that could be converted into storage space had been, from cargo nets and crate mounts to long shelves lining every possible wall, their contents lashed into place with twine and cord. Some of the shelves were so shallow and precarious that their contents were lashed into place with fraying twine, which bulged at the seams to contain books and bottles and pots and jars.

She ushered them up a zig-zagging set of stairs and into a smoky, window-lined lounge. Hammocks hung from the woodplank ceiling, which was painted with a bright floral mural of eye-wateringly high contrast reds and greens and purples and golds. It was all a little much for Adal’s senses to keep up with.

A short, bald woman passed him a cool ceramic bottle. Maf produced another, passing it over to Calay.

“Drink up,” she said. “Careful not to take too much at once; it might upset your stomach.”

Adal popped the wax stopper free with his thumb, bottle halfway to his mouth before Calay spoke up.

“This isn’t just water.” Wary as ever. “What’s in here?”

Maf smiled, the apples of her cheeks dimpling.

“Mostly water,” she assured them. “Little bit of basil. Little bit of citrus cordial. Fruit’s good for the body if you’re sunstruck.”

Adal sipped. The drink tasted just as she’d described—sweet and tart with an herbal note on the nose. It was the most refreshing thing he’d ever imbibed in his entire thirty-plus years. He had to restrain himself from glugging the rest down in seconds.

Low cushions and bean bags littered the floor. Their host stepped around them toward a table in the corner, where Adal only just now noticed her crew were all staring at him with blatant curiosity.

“Guys,” said Maf. “This is Adalgis and Calay. Their wagon went off the road and we’re helping them back to Frogmouth. You be good hosts, yeah?”

Adal couldn’t help but wonder what business this woman was actually in. She’d said something to Riss about being an archaeologist, but Adal had never seen an archaeologist or geologist who travelled around with their whole dig crew in tow. They were traveling more like the Beddos, some big nomadic family, but a glance at the diversely shaped and colored crew around the table told Adal they were quite unlikely to be blood relatives.

… She was right. A bit of sun and a bit of water really was bringing his brain back.

“May I sit?” he asked.

Maf swept a hand toward the bay of hammocks. “Any seat that isn’t occupied is yours. Your healer’s got the right idea.”

Adal glanced over and discovered that Calay had already collapsed into a hammock, an arm draped over his sunken eyes. He’d stripped off his coat and his shirt, sagging back in nothing but his undershirt and trousers. Adal spied purple-blue bruising along his chest. When the hells had he acquired that?

“I appreciate your hospitality,” Adal said, trying to put on an appropriate social face regardless of the circumstances. “We’re very grateful.”

Maf—her full name occurred to him, he’d heard Riss call her Mafalda—waved dismissively at him, her smile relaxed. “Think nothing of it,” she said. “It’s part of the code out here. You pass a traveller in need, you help them if you can. People remember if you leave folk to die by the roadside. Long memories in this part of the world.”

“Still,” said Adal. “You’re going out of your way.”

“And I’m sure you’ll pay the favor forward the next time someone needs it.”

That he would.

Mafalda strolled over to join in her crew’s gaming. They had seercards, dice, every common distraction from a bored soldiers’ barracks. Adal considered joining them, but he knew he was cognitively not up to the task. He dragged a bean bag over to Calay’s hammock, propping it up against the wall. Just as he turned his back on those sitting at the gambling table, his ear caught a snatch of conversation: some of Mafalda’s crew weren’t pleased to be heading back to Frogmouth. In fact, one wondered blatantly what was worth turning the fuck around and heading straight back. So they’d come from Frogmouth in the beginning…?

Adal didn’t have time to continue speculating. A series of whistles relayed through the crew, signals to the driver no doubt. Moments later they were moving. He spilled down into his seat, tucking his bag in beside him, and sighed immediately in the relief of being off his feet. Even more relieving, once the wagon began to move, air circulated wonderfully through the many slat-lined windows. Within minutes, the temperature inside the lounge dropped. A cool breeze caressed his cheek.

He was nearly alone on a wagon full of strangers, his only companion visibly ill, but the paranoid parts of him just didn’t have the energy to surface. He enjoyed the relief for what it was: cool and shady.


The journey was, like all wagon travel, plodding and monotonous. Adal napped, woke, had more water, then napped again. He checked in on Calay, who mumbled that he was awake but suffering a headache and please don’t take this the wrong way but unable to cope with human voices for the time being.

Mafalda’s staff rotated, the crew in the lounge departing for their watch. They were replaced by an equal number of dusty, sinewy, tattooed individuals. One of them, a dark-skinned woman called Cori, offered him free rein over her collection of novels heaped upon one of the wagon’s many shelves. Adal selected one at random, tried to read, and found that reading on a wagon made him terribly motion sick. Unfair, but that was wagon travel for you.

They rolled on through the night. Adal slept again, then woke to morning light glaring in through the slats.

This morning, Calay seemed better. His color had improved, skin no longer carrying a grey-yellow tinge. 

Adal wasn’t sure how to approach him. While they were comfortable with one another now, they weren’t exactly friends. Adal wanted to know how he was doing. Genuinely cared, even. But he respected that the man seemed to value his space and his silence.

Breakfast arrived in the form of a platter of dark grain crackers with tinned fish and sliced tomatoes and herbs. Not at all what Adal was expecting. Migraine or no migraine, he thought fish might be worth rousing Calay from slumber. Northerners liked their fish terrible and salty, didn’t they?

Calay didn’t grouse at him for the intrusion, taking a couple crackers with a mumbled thanks. Adal sat back down on the floor. They ate side by side in silence, crunching crackers and thinking their separate thoughts. He hoped Riss and the others were well. He hoped they’d reach Frogmouth soon. Now that his wits had returned to him, they had a mission to salvage.


An indeterminate crawl of hours later, Mafalda summoned them both up onto the roof. Calay was moving much better, no longer dragging his feet, though he lurked behind Adal on their journey through the wagon’s bowels and didn’t say much.

Up top, a dry salty breeze whispered through his hair the second they emerged from the hatch.

“Thought you might enjoy the view,” said Mafalda, propping a boot up on a rung of the thin safety rail that caged them in.

Past the railing, the Salt Flats exploded into desert colors, a warm-toned palette reminiscent of spice jars and dried chilis in Medao’s city markets. Smooth, low hills rippled up out of the salt, streaked with orange and red and deep, dusky purple, and beyond them rose wind-smoothed sandstone cliffs of banded orange and red. Calay whistled.

“That’s about the most colorful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

“We’re headed straight up the middle of it.” Mafalda pointed out a canyon, a little shadowed squiggle between the sandstone bluffs. Greenery grew out of its mouth in scraggly tufts, hinting at a river or spring nearby.

Though he no longer wandered the desert on foot, dehydrated and disoriented, Adal’s throat still seized when he saw those treetops. That human instinct, the draw to water as a source of life and safety, thrummed through him like blood. Children of the Deel felt it stronger than most, people said. His fingers twitched.

He glanced back behind their wagon, through the dust trail it kicked up, and spied the smaller wagon trundling determinedly behind. Riss and the others were fine.

“We’ll be nestled up in Frogmouth before sundown,” Mafalda said. “You’ll have some time to stretch your legs and find your bearings. Might be tough finding five beds given the scorpion problem, but you all seem like resourceful sorts.”

You haven’t the half of it, Adal thought.

Up and into the canyon they went, following a well-worn path that followed parallel to a trickly river. From his perch up on the roof, relaxed beneath the flapping canvas awning, Adal spied the broad, tan backs of gold panners crouched in the stream.

They passed into shade, an immediate relief, and soon passed into Frogmouth itself.

Adal didn’t realize he was looking at the town until Mafalda pointed it out: a series of holes and burrows dug into the sandstone, small caves with tarps and flags and bric-a-brac hanging along their gaping mouths. Riss hadn’t been kidding when she said Frogmouth was dug into the canyon itself.

Around a bend in a road, he spied more traditional structures: stilt houses hovering above the river, catwalks and rope ladders balancing precariously between them all. A few bigger structures perched atop one sandstone hill, crafted of mismatched wood that the wind had bullied into submission, every plank peeling and warped.

When he breathed in, the air felt humid in his lungs and smelled of water and fresh green growth. It was like smelling springtime itself. Intoxicating.

The wagon passed beneath the mismatched structures, following the road to a large drift of packed-down sand where several other wagons loitered. The biggest was a hulking war argosy, cannon shutters lining its flanks. Though he couldn’t be sure without a peek inside, it looked as though it were still packing a full broadside. Most of those had been decommissioned after the war, their cannons fixed to city walls and fortresses.

The sight of it flooded his stomach with unease. Many a wagon had passed into private hands after the war, but the sort of private hands that could command a wagon like that were above his paygrade. The big war-wagons took easily thirty or forty hands to crew. They cost as much as a small fortress. 

Distantly, his body remembered the throb of cannon-fire, the way it bit into his bones and shook like little earthquakes.

He glanced over to Calay, who appeared wholly untroubled by such thoughts, gawking upwards at the hidey-holes with an eager little smile edging at his mouth.

Adal supposed everything was a new and exciting sight to someone who’d rarely ventured outside their hometown. 

“I can’t thank you enough for your assistance,” Adal said to Mafalda. “I know I keep saying it, but you saved our proverbial bacon.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to repay me,” she said.

Then she winked at him, dropping back through the hatch, leaving he and Calay free to reconvene with the crew and explore.

Somewhere in all those tunnels, or behind the shutters of that hulking war-wagon, or perhaps sipping whiskey in whatever passed for a tavern here, Nuso Rill was waiting. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 22 | Book 2, Chapter 24 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 22


Mafalda could almost taste the crunchy-fried fish wraps, the crisp fresh cabbage, her mother’s famous sweet potato and shrimp boil-up. It wasn’t right, working so far away from the sea for so long. A girl could only subsist on venison and beans and eggs and flatbreads for so long. Where was the flavor?

Reclined back in a hammock aboard their little trundler wagon, Mafalda and Blitt swapped daydreams about the city and the coast, trading homesick anecdotes back and forth while passing around a bottle of Beddo plum wine. 

“What’s the first thing you’re gonna eat when we hit the coast?” Mafalda asked, taking a swig of the thick, sweet wine. She peered across the cargo bay to Blitt, who relaxed in a hammock identical to hers. Only he just about spilled out of his, on account of not being as conveniently-sized as Mafalda. The sight of him gave her a shoulder-shaking giggle, though she conceded at least part of that might be due to the wine.

Blitt lurched over and swiped the wine from her hand, a grin crinkling up his ruined face.

“Crab fritters,” he said, gravely. “I’ve tried making them myself, but–”

Mafalda spoke in unison with his last few words:

“But they never turn out like Jacilla’s.” She rolled her eyes at him good-naturedly as she mimicked the line he often repeated around camp. “You know, most fellas at camp jerk it to thoughts of their wives’ bodies, not their food.”

Blitt went red as a beet, at least the parts of his face which weren’t all melted with scar tissue. That just shoved Mafalda overboard into laughing anew, and bless him, Blitt knew she didn’t mean it, because he was laughing too, and the others playing dice at the hold’s small table were laughing, and it was going to be amazing finally being home again. If Maf closed her eyes, she could smell the sea breeze already.

The pilot hollered for her, an unmistakable three-syllable bellow. 

Leaning upright, Mafalda shoved some errant dark curls out of her eyes, glancing aside to Blitt. He shrugged. She shrugged back. It took her a couple moments to find her feet and trust them enough to heave up out of the hammock. She wobbled a little with the wagon’s motion, bare feet scuffing along the dusty planks of the floor. It was a short walk across the cargo trundler’s hold, then a climb up one short ladder and then another. The wagon was built almost more vertically than horizontally, a towering thing that crept across the flat desert terrain like an ambling townhouse when in motion.

Mafalda reached the roof, knocked the trapdoor open, and hauled up beneath the sunshade. She then dropped down onto the pilot’s perch from above, landing with the fluid grace of the intoxicated beside Nuso’s best driver, Wiggen.

“Morning Wigs,” she said, even though the sun was well past that point in the sky. “To what do I owe the honor?”

Wiggen, a wiry Meduese fellow with a smattering of dark freckles across his arms, pointed out toward the horizon. When Mafalda followed his pointing finger, she spotted a dark smudge across the featureless expanse of salt. Given the distance and the waver of heat off the salty ground, she couldn’t make out much detail, but she guessed the dark spots might be tents.

They’d spied smoke in the distance the day prior. Nothing too unusual about that most of the time, but it had piqued her interest a little given the time of year. Anyone with half a head’s worth of sense was quickly moving on from the Flats to ensure they didn’t become a scorpion pincushion.

Mafalda rubbed at her chin.

“Does it look like they’ve moved?” she asked. “Or is that roughly the same position as the fire yesterday?”

Wigs rolled a narrow shoulder and consulted the horizon.

“Tough to say,” he said. “But my guess is it’s the same. Like someone’s stuck out there and they ain’t moving.”

Mafalda had traveled the length of the Flats for many a season. She could probably guide a wagon from the Teags to Esilio with her eyes closed. 

“They’re on the ravine route, aren’t they.”

Wigs nodded, already catching what she was getting at with that comment.

“Aye,” he said. “We could turn back that way, investigate, if it pleases you.”

They were headed inland, leaving the ravine and the coming scorpion horde behind. But the tentlike smudges in the distance were close enough that it wouldn’t put them in any danger to sniff it out.

“It isn’t about what pleases me,” said Maf, clapping the pilot on his shoulder. “We’ll vote on it. The boys might not be feeling the raiding spirit. Everyone just sort of wants to get home and sleep in their own beds and eat some fish and catch up on lost time with their partners.” She paused, scritching a hand through her hair.

Wigs made a noncommittal hum in the back of his throat, though he agreed to the vote nonetheless. 

Mafalda called it out through the hatch, explaining the situation: camp on the horizon, didn’t appear like the inhabitants had moved for a time, possibility it was anything from a caravan in need of rescue to a lawman’s trap. Only Blitt voted in the negative, surly old sod that he was. He took his being overruled in good spirits.

Regretfully, this turn of events meant that more wine was off the cards. Mafalda cracked open a fresh cask of water, determined to sober up before the gang descended on the campsite. When representing the Continent’s most infamous band of outlaws, it would not do to show up drunk and giggly. 


Any possibility of raiding these travellers for coin evaporated as soon as Mafalda got a good look at their campsite. Even the word “campsite” was a stretch. A pair of ragged lean-tos slouched half against one another, the posture of their struts defeatedly saggy. Deflated-looking leather rucksacks and a few canvas bags littered the ground nearby. Were it not for the fact that they’d seen fire less than a day ago, Mafalda might have assumed the camp to be deserted.

Still, as sorry as it looked, there were precautions to be taken. 

Maf and Blitt headed up a small recon party, dismounting the wagon and approaching on foot. Back in skinnier times, when they’d needed to be creative to fund their digs, Nuso had pioneered more than one variety of roadside explosive. The charges didn’t have to be enough to destroy a wagon, just cripple it. Mafalda was glad those days were behind them, but Nuso’s tricks had been replicated now. They were out there in the world. No wagons close to any roadside bags. Ever.

“Ahoy there!” she called out, approaching the tents unarmed. She knew Blitt had a rifle trained over her shoulder, and that was to say nothing of the six others on the wagon and the second wagon loitering just behind her own.

“Shit,” Blitt muttered behind her. “Look at you. Nuso would have a fit.”

Mafalda twirled around to face him, struck a pose, and stuck out her tongue. “Shame he isn’t here!”

The time for playful banter came to an end when movement shuddered up one of the tents. A darkly-tanned woman crawled out from inside. Once she freed herself of the tent flap, she crouched in eerie, unmoving silence. She had pin-straight charcoal hair and wore a deep green cloak, though hair and cloak both were stiff with salt and tousled by wind. Her deep-socketed stare and the visible sinew on her neck looked like a textbook case of water-lack. 

She stared at Mafalda in a silence that seemed even more total thanks to her lack of movement. Sat there like a wild animal caught in the crosshairs, she made no move to reply to Maf’s friendly greeting.

“It’s all right,” Maf said, and something in the woman’s stare twitched. She sniffed the air.

That wild animal look, it wasn’t doe or rabbit. It was more like a boar. She wasn’t spooked; she was sizing Mafalda up.

“You’ll have to forgive me.” When the woman finally spoke, it was deep-voiced and articulate. “We’ve been alone out here a while. You spooked me.”

She stood up fully, stretching, and swept the drape of her cloak back over one shoulder, revealing a loose-fitting linen blouse and a pair of wide-legged trousers, sashed at the waist in the far southern style. She was almost a full head taller than Mafalda, with a competent and broad-shouldered build. Even in her visibly dehydrated state, she looked like what Nuso might call an ass-kicking sort.

“We?” Mafalda asked, glancing toward the tent. She wondered how many there were with her.

Nodding stiffly, the woman took a step toward her. She didn’t seem deterred by Blitt’s rifle.

“Four others,” she said. “My friends. Two of them are in a bad way.”

Hooking a thumb through the belt loop of her trousers, Mafalda slouched her weight on one foot and studied the woman’s calm, dark eyes.

“Not surprising,” she said bluntly. “You’re insane to be out here on foot this time of year. Scorpions get them?” She doubted it; there would be screaming if so.


Intriguing how this stranger hadn’t introduced herself yet. She had seven kinds of foreigner wafting off her–Meduese slacks, Carbecer steppe accent, cluelessness about the ins and outs of Salt Flats travel.

“I’m Mafalda,” Maf said, saluting off her brow with an empty hand. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself and your friends and we’ll see what we can do to help ‘em out.”

The woman’s eyes tracked her hand. She swept one of her own palms across her chest at shoulder-height, a gesture of greeting. Maf had seen it before in riverfolk types.

“Well met, Mafalda. I’m Riss Chou.” She pronounced Maf’s name with an Inland flattening of the vowels. More like Mefalda. But Maf held her tongue. She was dehydrated all to hell and looked a little lost. 

The woman–Riss–turned toward the tents and tilted a little nod.

“Inside is my Second, Adalgis of House Altave. And my gunner, scout, and medic. We’re armed but we certainly won’t raise them at you without provocation.” Her chapped lips tweaked up in a brief smile. “We know when we’re outgunned.”

“Where you bound for?” Maf asked, taking the nod as an invitation to stroll over toward the camp. She passed the remains of the fire, the scent of ash mingling with salt on the air. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you there’s nothing out here for miles.”

At that, Riss gave a low grunt. “We’re bound for Frogmouth,” she said. “Up in the canyons. And no, you needn’t tell me that. We were traveling by wagon but suffered a bit of misfortune en route.” She spoke in a measured meter that immediately lulled Maf’s sense of bandit’s wariness. A calming presence. It was easy to see why she was in charge of this operation, even if her Second had a fancy name.

Mafalda broke the bad news.

“You won’t make Frogmouth on foot,” she said. “Not before the migration. And possibly not at all, given your water-lack.”

At that, Riss’ smile grew weary and resigned around the eyes.

“Well then we’re lucky you wandered by. We can pay handsomely for escort out of the Flats. Doesn’t matter which way you’re headed. We’ll take what we can get.”

Mafalda appreciated her pragmatism. It wasn’t the first time she’d come across wanderers lost in the salt. Certainly wouldn’t be the last. Code was if you saw someone in distress this deep in the salt, you helped them. You never knew when it might be your turn next. This Riss, she was coping with it better than most others Maf had rescued, to such a degree that it invited begrudging admiration. While Maf watched, Riss slipped into the closest tent, murmured something inside it.

“My crew’s coming out now,” she said. 

“Her folks are coming out!” Maf called over her shoulder to Blitt. “Rifle away. They’re no threat to us.”

“You’re playing this awful casually,” Blitt warned her. But Maf waved him off. If Riss was lying about the contents of those tents, if her crew were bloodthirsty marauders, if Riss herself suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a giant snake, their riflemen on the wagon would take care of it. Maf’s faith in her crew was unwavering.

A skinny girl with frizzy orange-red hair crawled out first, locking eyes with Mafalda in a challenging glower. Riss put a hand to her shoulder, said something under her breath to shush her. The girl huffed, her cheeks puffing out, and Mafalda saw then that she wasn’t quite as young as she appeared–just short and thin, clothes hanging off her like they were borrowed from an older sibling.

“So what’s your business in Frogmouth?” Mafalda asked. Nobody went to Frogmouth for above-board business. The cover stories were always entertaining.

Riss considered her through narrow, pensive eyes. “We’re mercenaries,” she finally said. “We came into possession of that wagon of ours and I’m told the fences in Frogmouth can work wonders.”

That sparked Mafalda’s interest. 

“What happened to the wagon?”

At that moment, a blond man slipped out into the camp, peeling the tent flap back. He was about Riss’ height once he stood, with sun-kissed skin that bore only a few superficial scars. Mafalda pegged him as the Second immediately; the elements had sanded off his fine-bred edges a little, but there was no mistaking the hair and skin and general hale quality of someone who’d had a privileged start at life. He’d settled into working life by the look of his traveler’s garb and tan, but this specimen would always be easy on the eyes.

“This is Adalgis,” said Riss. “And regarding the wagon, well…” She turned her eyes toward the jagged dark chasm that cleaved the flats in two. “It’s down the bottom of that gulch, I’m afraid.”

Mafalda cupped her chin in a hand. “Unfortunate.”

“Sure is.”

Yes, this mercenary was definitely new to the Flats. She didn’t seem to know that a wagon crash, while not quite common, was not the game-over catastrophe she seemed to think it was. Gears began to turn pleasantly in Mafalda’s mind. The crew could always use another wagon. And this one might come at the bargain price of zero if she played her cards right.

“You left it where you dropped it?” she asked, eyebrows perking.

Riss blinked. “There’s only five of us. Repairs did not seem to be an option. That and the galania…”

“Didn’t make it,” Adalgis said.

“Splat,” said the redhead.

Mafalda had to swallow a grin down. She couldn’t believe her luck. They’d just left it there. Hadn’t even thought to send an outrider to Frogmouth for a tow. Unless the thing was shattered to absolute smithereens, even the broken shell of a galania-sized wagon was priceless. Waiting lists for new frames were years-long. Something about how they specially treated the timber, the builders said, how they processed it to toughen it up to withstand the cannon mounts and recoil. Axles, wheels, interior walls, the peripherals, those could all be rebuilt. But if the body was intact…

There was only one downside. One major, major downside.

“I’m afraid I’m just coming from Frogmouth,” Mafalda said. “I’m headed west. We’d just turned off the ravine route when we spotted the smoke from your fire.”

The line of Riss’ pursed mouth faltered. She looked disappointed for a half-second.

“I’ve been looking forward to my mother’s home cooking for weeks now,” Mafalda said. “I’ve got to be blunt with you, miss Chou: it would take a lot to convince me to turn back.”

Riss rolled her eyes. “We can pay,” she said. “I promise you that. We’ve got accounts at Meduese Imperial. Which I’m assuming you’re familiar with, by your accent.” She paused. “And we’ve got a cache of small-batch Beddo wine back on the wagon. It’s yours if you get us to Frogmouth.”

Inside, Mafalda was less conflicted than she pretended to be. The wagon that had made up her mind. The wine, well, the boys would appreciate it at least. 

Still. She felt a pang of regret in her stomach. Home. Some damn thing always seemed to get in the way. Dig schedules, lawmen, scorpions. A big, big wagon was getting in her way now. Big enough to haul more workers and more artefacts. To carry more supplies back to their dig site when the scorpions cleared off.

Gods damn it. 

Tapping a finger to her cheek, Mafalda put on a show of sighing in resignation.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll take your folks to Frogmouth, Miss Chou. You’d best pack up quickly.”

Only once they were dismantling the tents did the final two members of Chou’s mercenary crew emerge out into the sunlight. A big, tanned man ducked out first, stripped down to a singlet and breeches. He had a freshly-shaved and freshly-sunburnt scalp and a raggedy strip of multicolored cloth binding one of his legs. The man that crept out after him was smaller in every way: short, pale, wan, sickly, and silent, with his arm in a sling and a haunted quality to his eyes. 

They introduced themselves at Riss’ prodding, along with the redhead. They were called Torcha, Gaz, and Calay. 

She had to be careful not to pause a beat when she heard that last name. She introduced herself with a smile, unoffended that the unwell-looking man didn’t offer to shake her hand. She observed him for a while, watched the way he leaned on his big friend, followed him like a pale and wary shadow.

Calay was a common first name in Vasile. Common enough that her momentary flash of familiarity might have been misplaced. But the longer she observed him, the more she was certain she’d seen those haunted eyes staring out at her from a wanted poster.

How interesting. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 21.5 | Book 2, Chapter 23 >>

Book 2, Chapter 21.5

Boy, it was hot.

After that first day, Gaz vowed that he would forever shut his mouth any time a southerner claimed that Vasa folks couldn’t handle the heat. The salt flats had redefined what heat was. All the times in Gaz’s life when he’d been sweaty and swampy and overheated were just precursors. Warm-ups, if he allowed his sense of humor to get that morbid.

Considering how terrible they all felt by nightfall on day three, morbid wasn’t starting to look too far out of the question.

The mountains were closer, there was no denying that. Before night fell and veiled them from view, Gaz guessed they’d more than halved the distance they needed to reach the foothills. The ravine still gaped across the salt to their right. More than once they’d discussed whether it was worth climbing in to walk in the shade. Unfortunately, unless Calay could get his hands on some blood, that option no longer seemed viable. While they had plenty of food, they were down to their last day or two of water. The heat was baking their brains to custard in their skulls.

If they climbed down now, Gaz wasn’t sure any of them would be strong enough to climb back out again.

Their nighttime walks were growing shorter and shorter. Adal had been the first to admit their pace was just too much for him. He’d either developed a tolerance to whatever uppers Calay had been feeding him or they’d simply run out. Calay had stumbled next, unwilling to ask for extra rest breaks himself but first to fall asleep whenever they stopped walking.

Gaz, on the other hand, was feeling a little better. His leg was holding together all right. He felt a little shitty, improving while the others began to falter. He had no real explanation for it beyond the fact that he’d always been a hardy sort. Riss, who was of similar stock, also seemed to be struggling less than the rest.

On this particular break, it was Torcha who seemed to be feeling it hardest. While Riss built up the fire, Torcha kicked pebbles over the edge of the ravine, unbothered by her closeness to it even in the near-complete dark.

“Doesn’t that spook you?” Gaz asked, watching her in the glow of his lantern-staff.

“Nah,” she said. Kick, kick. “Heights don’t bug me none.”

Which Gaz knew already. He was too tired to attempt making further conversation, sinking slowly to the ground. He thought of rooftop chases back in Vasile, he and Calay racing across crumbling tenements into the decay of the Sunken Quarter. Heights hadn’t bothered them none, either.

When Torcha stepped over to join him, she stumbled. And unlike she usually might have, she couldn’t catch herself. She skidded down to the salt on her ass, cursing, and landed with a great, discordant clang like a clock going off.

Everyone turned to look at her, puzzled by the noise.

“The hell was that?” Riss asked. “Sounds like someone dropped a piano.”

“My guitar,” Torcha mumbled, rolling over. She swung her pack around into her lap, withdrawing the little guitar Gaz and Calay had stolen for her in the pit-stop town of Wishes. Fortunately, the impact didn’t seem to have broken it.

Riss stared at her in abject bewilderment. She scratched a hand across the scar at her temple.

“You carried your guitar all this way?”

With care she typically reserved for her rifle, Torcha turned the guitar over in her hands and inspected it. She twisted a tuning peg and plucked a single string. Gaz watched all this, slightly puzzled. He’d never been one to form much in the way of emotional attachments to possessions. Stuff tended to come and go out of his life. Sometimes he missed a particularly nice tool when life’s twists and turns eventually parted it from him. But most of the time, stuff was stuff, and it seemed to be the role of ‘stuff’ in life to disappear eventually.

Everyone bunked down, too tired to give Torcha shit for the guitar thing. She continued tinkering with it, trying out a few slow, cautious chords. She was getting better in the same way that a snakebite ‘got better’ after a few days. 

“What a way to go,” Calay mumbled, curled up on his side. “Always hoped the soundtrack to my inevitable death would be a bit more dramatic.”

“Ha ha.” Riss tossed a pebble at him; it didn’t hit its mark. “Nobody’s dying, I’m afraid.”

That was all the banter they had energy for. Everyone nodded off, glad to be off their feet. Gaz kept an ear cocked as he settled down on his side, wondering if he’d even be able to tell what thousands of scuttling scorpions sounded like. Would they just wake one morning to find the ravine alive and wiggling and full of them? Would they–

He must have fallen asleep mid-thought, because when he was shaken awake an indeterminate time later, he couldn’t remember what he’d been wondering.

They woke.

They walked.

This time, nobody said a thing.

Gaz’s feet felt heavy. His leg was healing up well, but the rest of him felt slow to respond, like he was sleeping off a big night of drink. 

Cheeks scorched with sunburn, face tucked beneath one of Torcha’s scarves, Adal and Riss kept them all at it, mindful drill-masters with a pack of cadets that couldn’t keep up.

Calay had trouble walking in a straight line.

The distant sky began to glow pink. Dawn was coming. Gaz hated it, hated the heat the coming day would bring. Throughout the course of his entire life, he’d had had very little energy to hate things. Now it felt like he hated the daylight with all the hate he’d ever had in him. Honestly, though, hating left him really tired. He wasn’t sure he could keep it up.

The mountains were close, but not as close as they’d hoped.

They rested.

They got back up.

They rested again. Was it on purpose, or did someone simply fall?

It was getting tough to keep track.

<< Book 2, Chapter 21 | Book 2, Chapter 22 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 21

Gaz was tougher than most purely by build and dumb parental luck. While he’d never met his parents, he figured they must have been big. Growing up in a series of charity homes, bounced from household to household like so many of the Sunken Quarter’s unwanted boys, he’d had to grow tougher still. The littler ones, the ones with something to prove, they always tried to challenge him. He supposed it was human nature for people to look for the tallest tree in the forest and try to chop it down. Was a way for people to trick themselves into thinking they’d accomplished something. 

He’d toughed all that out.

But he knew, after hours of walking in the salt flats, that he could not tough this one out.

Calay had done what he could for Gaz’s leg by means of lizard blood and good old fashioned regular medicine. All in all, he’d done a bang-up job. And as always he had a truly exquisite selection of painkillers on hand. But while the wound no longer bled or hurt, his leg didn’t quite support his weight properly. His stride felt off. He tried adjusting his steps, even the way he held his hips, anything to put the weight down a little differently.

But after gods-knew-how-many hours, he just couldn’t keep it up anymore.

He didn’t allow himself to stumble. The first time he felt his ankle roll, he corrected, then came to a stop. Calay, who’d been walking beside him in stony-faced silence, stopped as well.

For a quiet moment, they held still and watched the others keep walking. Watched the flicker of Riss’ torch bob a little further off in the darkness. Watched Adal and Torcha, who stuck close together, their faces half in shadow. It was easy to believe, if one was a paranoid sort, that if neither Gaz or Calay said anything, they might just keep walking forever, leaving them at the mercy of the desert.

But of course they didn’t. Riss stopped, likely having heard their footsteps slow, and looked back.

Riss regarded him with soft, apologetic eyes in the fireglow. She didn’t say anything. Neither did he. 

“Think we’ve all gone ‘bout as far as we can for now,” said Torcha. Gaz didn’t quite believe she meant it, but he appreciated the cover.

They shared water, then settled down right where they’d stopped. Gaz wasn’t any recon specialist like the others, but he figured it out: no sense in looking for a campsite in terrain like this. Salt was salt. 

Hunkering down, they unpacked what little they’d carried. Gaz unrolled a length of patterned orange fabric from his pack, meant as a sun shelter but now serving as a blanket. He plopped his pack onto the hard salt, let his ass hit the ground, and laid back. He didn’t care that he hit the ground and rolled over before anyone else had even sat; he had nothing to prove. So conversations carried on above him at standing level: should we build a fire, yes the desert will probably feel mighty chilly once we aren’t walking, how long should we rest, I have no idea my hourglass was on the wagon. The chatter all sort of melted together.

He dozed, didn’t realize he was dozing, then found himself roused by a gentle shake to the shoulder. Calay crouched beside him, now backlit by a small fire, and he had a small cookpot in his hand.

“Thought you’d want us to wake you for food,” he said. And that was the correct answer, because whatever the crew had cooked up smelled fruity and spicy and sweet and absolutely mouth-watering. 

“Go ahead,” he said. “Finish it off.”

Gaz took the pot by its stubby handle and stirred the contents with the wooden spoon inside. Stewed pears with a bit of oats, if his nose didn’t deceive him. Blinking curiously and looking past Calay, he sought out the others around the tiny, guttering firepit dug into the salty crust.

“Fancy food for a night like this,” he called out toward Riss, who sat alone by the fire, attempting to consult the map by its light.

“I was saving them,” she said. “For… I don’t know, something special. A good day. Seemed a waste to leave them on the wagon.”

“Pears are full of water,” Calay helpfully chimed in. “Good choice on a trek like this where we have to mind our supply.”

Gaz wanted to ask exactly how far off Riss thought they were. And whether she judged their water supply adequate to get there. But when he took the first bite of spicy stewed pear, the crust of brown sugar crunching pleasantly in his teeth, he decided he could put such dire and depressing questions off. At least for a while.

Half in darkness, further off away from the fire, he spied the lounging figures of Adal and Torcha. Adal slept sitting up, snoring lightly, back propped against the heap of backpacks. Torcha leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder. The closest she ever got to admitting that she could feel sincere worry for someone.

“How’s he doing?” Gaz asked. Nobody had to ask him to clarify.

“Tired,” said Calay. “I brewed him some of the tea with the good leaves before we took off. But herbs can only kick your ass along the road so long. Figured he was going to crash hard.”

It had taken every last drop of human blood they had left to patch Adal back together and convince him he had the energy to make the walk. Gaz–who had years as a physik’s assistant under his belt, present for all kinds of awful work on stabs and burns and illnesses, who had snapped Calay’s arm off when he had to–grimaced at the memory. Granted, he didn’t stop eating his pears. But when he thought back, his heart felt heavy. Subtle nausea rippled through his stomach.

Adal had been borderline unrecognizable when they’d found him. Calay had diagnosed it: a crack up the skull, bleeding in the brain. And he hadn’t had to diagnose the shattered jaw, the teeth visible through the gash torn in his cheek. 

When Gaz blinked, he still saw Adal’s eyes. The vacant, empty questioning expression, like he didn’t know what had happened. Gaz took another bite of pear, chewing slowly. He’d seen that before, back in Vasile. Like something in the body used the last of its dying energy to shield a person from what had become of them.

When his teeth bit down, they encountered something crunchy inside his mouth, some husk of a seed or spice pod. That, that was what got his stomach fully queasy. That sudden crunch, the thought of teeth, teeth not quite looking right… he swallowed and felt ill.

“And how are you?” Riss had her attentive eyes on him now, the map forgotten.

“Fine-ish.” Gaz answered honestly. “Barely hurts. Leg feels a little weak. You made the right call. We didn’t have any to spare.”

“I know I did.” 

Good old Riss. Gaz had to chuckle a little when she said that. But she kept going.

“I hope you know it wasn’t easy. If I didn’t trust Calay to look after you, I wouldn’t have.”

Gaz tried another bite and found whatever skin-crawling sensory upset he’d endured at the crunch was gone. He chewed, then smirked in Calay’s direction.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s all right, ain’t he.”

“Careful,” Calay said, voice low and tired. “I’ll kick you in the good leg.”

Once Gaz had all but licked the pot clean, he lurched up and helped Riss pack up what they needed to. Stretching out his leg helped. He ambled off, took a piss, all the usual nighttime crap. 

“I’m afraid we won’t be sleeping through the night,” said Riss once he returned. “We’ve got to keep moving and we’ll move best when it’s cool.”

Gaz understood. He didn’t like it, but he understood.

He curled back up beneath his patterned blanket, trying to ignore the dull ache surfacing in the meat of his thigh. Rolling over, stretching out, curling up again–he couldn’t find a position that was completely comfortable.l

And naturally, this draw Calay over, because if there was one thing he knew about Gaz from all their years spent so close together, it was that Gaz had never been a restless sleeper.

Salt crunched and crackled as he took a seat beside where Gaz sprawled.

“Hey,” he said. “Can I… get you anything?”

Gaz stretched out his arms, arching his back and groaning like a sad old man. “Nah.”

“You sure?”

“Just getting comfy.” Gaz adjusted the pack he used as a pillow, sitting up slightly. Then, to his despair, it was yanked out from behind his head. He grumbled and swiped at the offender, but soon Calay replaced it, now with something softer pillowed atop it. 

“Is that your jacket?”


Gaz rested his head back atop the pack, leaning down cautiously. Something wooly and soft now blanketed the tanned leather.

“… It’s Torcha’s jumper,” Calay admitted. 

Gaz leaned up, reaching behind his head. “Oh come on. That’s–”

“Shh, shh, she’s asleep. She’s not using it.”

Calay palmed him by the face and shoved him back into a prone position. Not hard, but hard enough that Gaz gave up with his protestations. He mumbled an unintelligible few syllables in Torcha’s defense, then slouched back down.

“Admit it,” Calay didn’t remove his hand. “It’s cozy.”

Gaz scrunched up his face beneath the invading palm that rested across his mouth and nose. “Are you trying to smother me to sleep?”

In answer, Calay drummed his fingertips across Gaz’s forehead. Gaz nudged at him halfheartedly, then just gave up. He’d slept under stranger circumstances. Eyes falling shut, he breathed out a weary sigh against Calay’s hand and tried not to wonder how long until Riss would wake them.

The fingers upon his face relaxed. Calay shifted, then drew his thumb along the curve of Gaz’s eye socket, tracing down toward the tiny tattoos upon his cheek. Poorly-conceived to begin with and executed just as badly, the trio of minuscule knives inked on his skin was a remnant of his time with Kitta’s crew, the Three Blades. It was no small source of amusement to Calay, who almost never passed up an opportunity to rib him for it.

Yet now Calay was quiet. He traced his thumb along each faded little knife with a solemn, quiet affection that Gaz didn’t need his eyes open to sense. 

“Relax,” Gaz muttered. “‘M’gonna be fine.”

Calay’s hand stilled. “I know,” he said. “Just…”

The fire crackled in the silence that fell while Calay sorted out his thoughts. On such a dark, mildly chilly night, the sound of the fire tricked Gaz into feeling a little warmer. Reminded him of his boyhood sleeping habit: always by the hearth if he had a say in the matter.

Calay finally broke his silence. “You called me heartless, once.”

“… I didn’t mean it.” Gaz recalled the argument in that vague way a mind never quite lets go of past embarrassments. “Also, that was ages ago.”

“I know.” Calay’s exhale had a hint of a laugh to it. “But Riss said something that reminded me. And… I don’t know. It feels pertinent to say.” Gaz stayed quiet, prompting him to ramble on. “You asked me if it hurt having to watch our patients die, knowing that I could witch them healthy if I was willing to expose myself. Knowing how many more people we might have saved.”

“That was an asshole thing for me to say,” Gaz said. “I was mad. And I’m pretty sure I already apolo–”

Calay shushed him. “Shh. Just. Let me finish. I was trying to say that I’ve discovered it hurts way, way worse when the patient is you.”

Calay had always handled affection roughly the same way a stray cat did: aloof with a touch of demanding, always needing it on his own terms and never for too long all at once. Idle, physical things he was fine with–like a kitten permitting cheek-scratches and providing head-butts in turn–but even since the first time they’d slept together, he’d shied away from admitting anything so frankly. And Gaz, ever familiar with the temperament of strays, hadn’t pushed him. If there was one thing he’d learned in their years as new friends, then old friends, then whatever the hell they were now, it was this: Calay had to figure things out at his own pace or else he’d blitz through them with brass knuckles on.

All the same, the words stoked a little curl of contentment in Gaz’s chest.

He couldn’t help but ask.

“Did you really leap down the ravine to rescue me?”

Leather and cloth rustled. Salt cracked. Something heavy fwumphed down nearby, then Calay stretched out with his back to Gaz’s. He tucked up his legs some, getting comfortable.

“I had my charms on,” he said. “I knew I’d be fine.”

“You always land on your feet,” Gaz conceded, the last coherent thought he had before he lapsed into a tired, dreamless sleep.

A few times in the night, he stirred, roused by some noise or another. First it was the whistle of wind through the ravine, a lonely whoosh and scrape. Then it was crickets, rhythmically chirping off in the darkness. He tried to take comfort in that second bit the same way he took comfort in the sound of his slumbering friends around him. Surely the crickets would flee if the scorpions were that close, right? Animals had a sense for that, right? Like seabirds taking flight before a big squall. Like butterflies knew how to migrate.


An uncomfortable thought lodged in him like a splinter.

Unless the crickets had no idea what was coming. Just chirping on obliviously with no clue of the danger that lurked just around the corner.

Sleep came harder after that.

<< Book 2, Chapter 20 | Book 2, Chapter 21.5 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 20

Renato Cassi adjusted the long, gold-trimmed cuffs of his uniform jacket, boredly inspecting his sleeves while he staked out Riss Chou’s house. A bit of dried blood darkened one of the shiny, star-embossed buttons on his coat, catching his eye by virtue of its drab crustiness. Frowning, he scratched it off with his thumbnail. He did all this while keeping one eye sort-of-kind-of on the front gate. Chances that he’d miss anything of import were very, very low.

For three days in a row now he’d kept watch from a parked carriage, ambling by when he could. He’d changed up the time of day a few times, coming by twice in the evening and once in the morning. After this much surveillance, he was satisfied that he had the housekeeper’s schedule in hand: she came by in the morning, about halfway between dawn and noon-bell, and stayed for a mere couple hours.

She’d left when the sun was far higher in the sky. No one else had come by since. In fact, the house hadn’t had a single visitor apart from her. Which tracked with Renato’s suspicions about the state of Riss Chou’s social life. She hadn’t changed much.

Fingering the set of slender, hook-tipped iron lockpicks in his pocket, Renato made the call. Tonight was the night.

He pulled his warden’s cap on, tugged it securely over his ears, and climbed out of the carriage. Back straight, he strode up to the gate and let himself in without hesitation, making for the front door. As a member of Medao’s finest—if tangentially—he had no need to skulk about like a common thief. If any neighbors happened to spy him ferreting about in Chou’s yard, they’d assume he was there on official business. Which was why he gave the door a solid knock, waiting patiently on the front steps. 

There was, of course, no reply. This left Renato free to skirt around to the side fencing. He groped through strands of thick ivy and unlatched another gate, letting himself into the high-walled drive between the home itself and its disused carriage house.

Though the house looked handsome from the street, its carriage house was half-collapsed, a heap of useless brick with a caved-in roof that didn’t even promise useful storage space. It appeared wholly neglected, and as Renato let himself into the interior courtyard he saw similar signs of disrepair in the masonry and fountains. The garden looked like a cake someone had stopped icing halfway through, the tufts of greenery and growth visible here and there only drawing further attention to the bald spots. There were a truly baffling number of lion statues, all of which needed a wash.

So the company was doing well, but not that well. He felt the tiniest spike of malicious enjoyment there, he had to admit. The shaded, tree-lined street was in a decent part of town, but not a neighborhood without its fixer-uppers. The old, high, narrow brick homes were expensive to staff—Riss was making a rookie mistake by not hiring a live-in housekeeper. And not just because a housekeeper would have kept Renato out.

Crossing the yard, watched by a half-dozen immutable stone lions, he checked the two doors that granted access. One led into the kitchen, a narrow green-painted wooden door with a small window inset in the top. He jiggled the handle and found it locked, but the door rattled promisingly in its frame the way that old, easily-beguiled doors did. 

Renato slid his tools from his pocket and got to work. Within minutes he was in. Courtyard doors always were weaker than the front ones; the rickety lock felt ancient, its tumblers easy to manipulate. Heavens, had Riss even changed the locks when she’d moved in?

The small, blue-tiled kitchen was cool and quiet in its abandonment, its hearth vacant of a fire for some time. Renato crept through it without really looking, uninterested in its contents. 

What was he interested in, though? Pacing down a short hallway, well-illuminated with natural light thanks to the many windows, he glanced at closed doors and wondered what they might hold. Wondered what he was actually looking for. 

In the end, Renato supposed he was merely nosy.

He wanted to see how the old crew was doing. Wanted to see how the people he once called friends were carrying on without him. Perhaps—tch, how gauche—he was looking for evidence that they were miserable without him. Or at least not as secure and financially comfortable as they might otherwise have been. 

Walking the halls of Riss’ home felt like walking through a vision of his own alternate future: a few bedrooms, modest furnishings, a well-built but unimportant house on a nice but unimportant lane. He breezed through the sitting rooms, unsurprised to find them bare of personal touches. Riss treated everywhere she ever lived like a tent: sparse, unadorned, and ideally bare of any belongings that weren’t capable of being emptied out and carried away upon one’s shoulder. Her family was a few generations removed from their Carbec steppe nomad heritage, but perhaps such impulses lived on in the blood. Who knew.

After prowling a while, poking around through a modest armory and a sparse bedroom on the first floor, he began to wonder if there was even anything juicy to find.

And what was ‘juicy’ to him now? Come, he thought. He might as well be honest with himself. The bitter, nasty side of him—normally kept on a sturdy, short leash—was hoping to find some evidence that Riss was miserable. That moving on without him, dumping him like a mistress she’d outgrown, had been the wrong call. He doubted he’d find concrete evidence that she regretted parting ways with him, but there were other tells: opium and laudanum in excessive amounts (unlikely), a maudlin diary (extremely unlikely), a preponderance of alcohol among the stores (perhaps the most likely of the three). Thus far he’d seen no evidence of any of that. Perhaps she was stolid and boring even in her grief.

Finally, he came to a small wooden door inset with squares of red-stained glass. When he tried the handle, he found it locked. Interest piqued, he selected a spidery torsion wrench and a fine, hooked pick from his set. This one was meatier than the courtyard door, though only by a narrow margin, a newer tumbler lock that took some genuine finessing. He held the wrench steady, working the pins free, and felt a spark of elation when all clicked into place.

Behind the door was a modest office, all wooden walls and wooden furniture. The desk looked new, a heavy walnut construction that still smelled of fresh polish. Several items he recognized adorned the walls: Riss’ old hornbow, a crossbow made from the spiralled horns of a steppe antelope. Then there was a buckler bearing old Fourth Recce insignia. A big picture window let in plenty of light from the courtyard and opposite its panes hung a massive, hand-drawn map of Continental geography. It covered everything from the northernmost crags of the Janel Coast and Vasile’s big, crescent-shaped bay to the dozens of tiny islands south of Medao, few of which were inscribed with names. Riss had jotted notes here and there, added a few additional roads. At a glance, most of her notes seemed uninteresting.

The desk, though. That drew Renato in as if by gravity. He sidled around behind it, took a seat in the green-cushioned chair. The plump leather seat was comfortable. He could see it: Riss decorating this room shortly after moving in, allowing herself this one luxury. Telling herself she’d earned it.

His own desk at home was much nicer. But he could see why she’d chosen this one. It was well-built, the lines of it speaking to quality even where they’d spared ornamentation.

Renato tried the drawers one at a time, sliding each open and using the tip of his torsion wrench to flip through papers. He found the usual assortment of ledgers, paged through them without much expectation. Riss kept neat books, surprising nobody. She also didn’t seem to be up to any particularly salacious business.

He found a drawer populated by neatly-organized correspondence, mostly letters to and from clients. There was a red-sealed Letter of Commendation from the Baron of Adelheim among the lot, a letter from Tarn Gullardson thanking her for her bravery and duty and blah blah blah. Renato had heard Tarn’s lot had endured some horrifying weirdness in the swamps there; it barely perked his eyebrows to discover Riss had been involved. In that same drawer was a ledger of her personal accounts: preferred restaurants, a… massage parlor?, a leatherworker’s, and a place that looked like it was probably a brothel. What sort of person only hit the brothel monthly?

The bottom-right side of the desk was home to a big cabinet rather than more drawers. And when Renato tried it, he found the handle didn’t budge. Curious, he squatted down and discovered a subtle lock tucked beneath the handle itself.

She was ever uncreative in her habits. Well, he instantly knew where the juiciest secrets in the house would be.

Desk locks existed more to deter children and suspicious spouses than any determined picklock. Renato sprung the cabinet open with ease.

Inside, the cabinet contained two small storage boxes, a paper-wrapped stack of books, and a velveteen bag. One of the boxes was packed with letters—he recognized the loopy handwriting as Adalgis’—and the other with odd little treasures. There were pearls, some silverwork, an impressive choker of filigree gold and garnets. A smaller bag inside contained signet rings he didn’t recognize as well as a fine, hand-painted silk scarf, the kind that cost more in the shops than even Renato made in a half-month. Curious but ultimately unmoving. He packed the boxes as he’d found them and went for the books.

He expected more ledgers, but what he found was far, far more interesting.

Peeling the paper back, he tilted his head and read the spines of the books, forehead wrinkling. By the time he’d reached the last in the stack, his eyebrows were on a collision course with his hairline. Northener history? Librida Sorcieri? What the fuck?

Selecting the volume with the juiciest title, a grey-bound hardback entitled Sorcery and the State, Renato rifled through the pages with a baffled tilt of his head.

Rocking back on his haunches on the office floor, he scrubbed a hand beneath his hat as he read some bone-dry introduction about the historical purge of sorcerers from within Vasile’s city walls. He kneaded the stubble on his scalp as if in the hopes he could massage a stroke of inspiration right out of his skull.

When that failed to work, he just said, “Hunh.”

Though it might surprise civilians to learn such, one of the most important tools in a jailer’s toolbox was empathy. Interrogations were just a great, exhausting marathon of empathy, trying to inveigle a person into sharing their innermost thoughts by means of inhabiting their state of mind. Trying to see where others were coming from in order to explain the acts they committed. Using empathy to gauge who among the newly-released who was truly remorseful versus those who were likely recidivists.

From his time as disciplinarian in the Fourth to his new career in Medao’s dungeons, Renato had made his fortune on empathy more than anything else.

Yet for all he tried, no matter how many angles from which he considered the pile of books in his hands, he could not fucking fathom why Riss Chou, the least interesting person Carbec had ever barfed up, would own a bunch of books about sorcery.

Suddenly, he had an investigation on his hands.

<< Book 2, Chapter 19 | Book 2, Chapter 21 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 19

In a twisted, discomfiting way, Riss was almost glad that things had gone completely pig-shit. Had only one thing gone wrong, seeing Adal like that might have broken her. It was only by virtue of the completeness, the totality of the failure cascade that she was able to push through unburdened with emotion. 

Not that there were no emotions. Oh, they were there. They prowled at the fenceline, half in shadow, circling her like wolves. Just you wait, they warned her.

Now, however…

“Good news,” Torcha reported, rolling a wooden cask across the ground so that it came to rest near Riss’ feet. “At least one of these is intact.”

Riss knocked it and was rewarded with the deep thunk that signified it was nearly full.

If they were going to traverse the last of the Flats on foot, they’d need all the water they could carry. 

Torcha climbed back up and into the wreckage. Riss rolled the water cask over to the small heap of supplies that was gradually accumulating in the shade. By her estimate, they had about five hours before it would be time to set off. After Calay had cautiously, carefully pieced Adal back together, he and Riss had made the call together: they’d travel after dark, both to take advantage of the cooler temperature and to allow their wounded friends a little rest.

Currently, Calay was doing what he could for Gaz’s leg with old fashioned non-sorcerous medicine and a bit of lizard blood. Riss wasn’t sure how it all worked, but he’d explained the basics: blood was at its best when it was human and the person who’d bled it was still alive. A lizard’s blood would suffice for what he called “minor works.” A dead lizard, that was trickier.

He can have some of mine, Riss had offered without hesitation. But Calay had put that idea to rest with a shake of his head. He reminded her of Harlan Vosk, how badly he’d suffered when they’d used him as an unwilling donor during their trek through the swamp. 

She recalled the shaking, the night sweats, the chattering teeth. Vosk had appeared as though in the grips of a terrible fever. He’d been unable to walk on his own. And apart from the pain and weakness, there was his unsettling behavior back in Tarn’s dungeon. Riss wasn’t sure how much of that was a side effect of the blood magick and how much might have simply been Calay taking his revenge.

Either way, if they were crossing the Flats on foot, Calay was right: be it one man with an injured leg or one man with a healed leg and a donor who was wobbly in the knees, their options were limited.

Once he had Gaz fixed up, Calay intended to dig through the wreckage for his supplies. If by some miracle he found the rest of his blood, they’d be in business. Riss and Torcha were occupying themselves with more mundane concerns: food, water, ammunition. 

Crouching near their cache, Riss took inventory. On some level she knew she was doing this to avoid turning her head, to avoid looking that last little bit to her right, to avoid letting her eyes fall on the bloody smear upon the rocks where Adal had landed.

Two pistols. Three empty waterskins.

She hadn’t even seen him fall.

Fourteen cartridges. One map case.

Heavy, slightly-lopsided footsteps crunched up behind her.

“Hey,” she said, pushing up and turning around. “How’s the leg?”

Gaz, who had loomed up behind her, rocked his weight from side to side. “Still testing it out,” he said.

Whatever Calay had managed to wring from the lizard blood had cleared away the clots of bruising at Gaz’s temples and eyes. The scrapes, too, had mostly healed. The wide wrap of gauze around his thigh had been reinforced with what appeared to be a strip of curtain. 

Riss recalled the haste, the urgency with which she’d screamed at Calay to cease treating him and felt an abrupt need to apologize.

“Listen,” she started. “About earlier. I’m…”

She was sorry. But sorry felt like too small a word.

“… You don’t deserve to be in pain,” she finally said. It was completely stupid, but she felt responsible, somehow. She was in charge. She’d made the call. She’d deemed Gaz’s pain less worthy than Adal’s.

Gaz stilled, looking down at her. His brows knit. With slow, deliberate, careful movements, he turned the water cask upright onto its side and sank down atop it, using it as a stool. 

Resting his elbows on his knees, back slumped tiredly, he stared at her for a long while.

“Nobody deserves to be in pain,” he finally said. 

Riss wasn’t sure about that. She could think of a few. But she realized that wasn’t what he meant. 

“I know,” she said. “But… I feel like I shouldn’t have done that. Like I was overstepping. Even though I know I had to.” Even though she’d have done it again.

Gaz picked at the skin around one of his thumbnails, tired eyes falling from her to his hands.

“We both know what would have happened if Adal didn’t get every last drop of that blood,” he said. “There was no way.”

She hadn’t ever really looked at the top of Gaz’s head before. He usually towered over all of them, even her and Adal. For the first time, she noticed the fine latticework of scars that decorated his scalp, just barely visible through the stubble. Most were old and minor, mere lines of faint pale discoloration. But there were a couple that weren’t. 

That was a lot of scars for a man whose best friend could heal wounds with a wave of his finger. Years and years of scars.

“You’re right.” She stared at those scars. “That’s the funny thing. The stupid thing. I know we just did what had to be done… But it still feels wrong. Like I shouldn’t have given you an order like that.”

Gaz’s big, blunt fingers ceased their idle picking.

“You and him both said that,” he said. “But I don’t recall anyone giving me any orders.”

“We’re all in this together,” Riss said. “Nobody needs to–”

“To what?” 

To martyr themselves. The words got clogged up somewhere between her brain and her tongue. 

“Riss.” Gaz grabbed her attention before her thoughts could venture much further. He looked up at her with clear, steady eyes. When he spoke, the words were possessed of an even-keeled calm. The man’s conscience was a serene, cloudless blue sky.

“Neither of you have seen just how difficult it is to force me to do something I don’t want to do.” His eyes crinkled mischievously for a moment, but then his expression went somber. “It was my choice. I made it. You don’t get to turn it into an order just because you feel bad.”

And… what could she possibly say to that? Gaz didn’t often jam a wrench in her logic, but when he did, he was a tough man with whom to pick an argument.

“Suppose there’s no point feeling guilty about something completely outside my control.” Riss gave him a wan half-smile of commiseration.


He pushed up off the water cask, rolling his weight on his foot, testing out a few steps on his bandaged leg. 

Already, Riss could feel her emotions crystallizing into a sharp, many-pointed shard of something she could actually use: a slicing, decisive motivation to get the hells out of the gulch and get them somewhere that would have what Calay needed to set things right.

“I’ll get you blood,” she said as parting words, striding off toward the wreckage. That she was so ready to promise blood for sorcerous purposes didn’t even give her pause until after the fact. My, the difference a year could make.

Everyone scavenged what they could from the shattered wagon. Then, one by one, fatigue claimed them all. They napped.

When Riss awoke, she noticed that they’d all piled their bedrolls close together, as if huddling around the warmth of a fire that didn’t exist. As if circled against some threat they couldn’t yet see.

Only once she’d roused everyone did they actually build that fire, both for light and one last warm meal before the push. Shadows came on thick and heavy on the ravine’s floor before the sun had even fully set.

“Right,” Riss said beside the fire. “Calay has kindly volunteered to rig the rope for our ascent. According to the map, the mountains to the north are closest. We won’t have much time to rest, but it’s doable.” In theory. “I wouldn’t waste the weight on anything other than water and the necessities, but you all know that already.”

Every last one of them was a soldier or a vagrant. They were used to leaving things behind. Just how exactly they’d arrange a meeting with Rill having lost their primary bargaining chip, well… Riss would think of something on the walk.


Riss marched up front because Riss always marched up front.

She didn’t think of herself as The Leader in the pompous, proper noun in capital letters sense, but she was the commander of this expedition. She was the owner of the company, had been ever since Gaspard’s death. It made sense to march up front. 

She marched up front because she was handier with a machete than a firearm. Guns at the back. That, too, made sense.

Listening to the repetitive crunch and grind of crystallized salt crushed beneath weary, heavy feet, she knew one other reason why she marched up front: those lurking, prowling emotions that she’d worked hard to stave off. 

There was far, far less to distract her now. The purple gradient of the sky, the endless salt, the distant rise of mountains, the dry, still air–they were unmoving and still and constant and thus in danger of becoming a backdrop, becoming surroundings that would fade and leave her thoughts front and center.

One set of those weary, dragging footsteps behind her was Adal’s. The ones directly behind her, in fact. Blinking her eyes as if to dislodge some grit, she rubbed at her face, brushing that notion away.

Someone sped up so that they could walk beside her, the crunch-crunch quickening. She tried to guess who it was by sound alone and found she could not. She glanced to her left, finding Calay there. His skin looked pale and cool in the purple cast of the deep twilight. When he looked up to meet her eyes, his shone with an unnatural glimmer, reflecting ambient light like a nocturnal animal’s.

“Hells,” she said, staring at him. “You look like a possum.”

Calay’s face wrinkled in a fine, delicate way, just a little twitch around the eyes and nose.

Hmph.” He ticked his chin up at her. “And here I was coming to see how you were.”

“Out of everyone out here? I think there are patients of yours more deserving of a check-in,” she deflected.

“Yeah, well,” Calay folded his arms across his narrow chest as he walked alongside her. “Funny thing about shock. It doesn’t restrict itself to the injured.”

“I’m not in shock,” Riss promised him.

And once she took a moment to consider, she knew it was true. She’d felt the numbing bite of shock before, felt the way it held her in its muffling grip and dulled the world and made it all not make sense. Things were crisp now. She was thinking clearly. 

Briefly, she considered whether she could be a little more honest. She thought back to their conversation, standing over Adal, Calay bristled with tension at the thought of leaving Gaz’s leg untreated. He hadn’t liked the way Gaz so easily conceded. 

“I appreciate what you did back there,” she said rather abruptly. “For Gaz. You stand up for the people you care about.” Even to me. 

Calay all but spit-taked. He coughed a little, footsteps stutter-stopping, and then wielded those big, shiny reflective eyes up at her in accusation. She waited for his reply, assumed it would be something sufficiently witty or perhaps just exasperated. Of course I stood up for him. I may be a liar and a highway robber and a sorcerer, but I’m not a complete bastard. 

But her words seemed to have stunned him silent for a time. And when he finally did speak, it wasn’t what she expected at all.

“You were right, though. Gaz is walking all right. Adal needed it more.” 

Riss recalled how furious she’d been when Adal had sought the same treatment for her. How she woke righteously angry, carried that anger in her like a mouthful of bile. How dead certain she’d been that Calay’s ministrations would deform her somehow, damage her, tarnish her person way down in her soul–which was funny, given she barely believed in souls and never paid her own much thought.

A thought struck her then for the very first time:

Calay had worked as a physiker in Vasile for years, but he’d no doubt concealed his secret. He’d had to stand by and watch his patients suffer and die, knowing all the while that he had an instant cure up his sleeve.

How had he managed that? Had it hurt him as much as Riss imagined it would hurt her?

She didn’t phrase it that way, though.

When she finally spoke again, she swallowed once and said, “It must be a relief not having to hide it anymore.”

For the second time in a day, she left Calay speechless. That must have been some sort of record. 

Night was rapidly winning its battle against the loitering traces of sunlight. The last image Riss was able to fully make out before the dark grew too murky was of Calay regarding her sidelong, his mouth lifted at the corners in a smile. Not a smirk, not a self-satisfied grin, but a small, warm smile that sanded down the innate sharpness of his features.

She chose to carry that image in her mind rather than everything prior. It warmed her more than the thoughts of shattered wagons and too-far-away mountains and the horrible, red-white mess of blood and broken teeth that had been Adal’s mouth when she’d found him.

“I’m… gonna check on our walking wounded,” Calay murmured in the dark. Riss heard him moving off. A torch sputtered to life behind her, throwing wobbly shadows into the night.

Riss raised her voice. “Let me know when you need a rest,” she said for Adal and Gaz’s benefit.

You’re more resilient than the last time this happened, she told herself. You’ve been through so much more. 

But she still couldn’t bring herself to look back. She knew she’d cry, and there was enough gods-damned salt on the ground. No point in contributing to it.  

<< Book 2, Chapter 18 | Book 2, Chapter 20 >>

Book 2, Chapter 18

It’s Riss who finds him.

The sky is dark and fast and it is all he can see until he’s also seeing her. When she sees him her face goes pale and she looks sick to her stomach. Adal doesn’t feel good either. His ‘not good’ is very non-specific. Maybe it’s a small thing or maybe it’s everything. He isn’t sure.

When he tries to talk, his teeth hurt. Hurt isn’t a big enough word, but he can’t remember any bigger ones. Riss leans over him and touches him on the neck and he tries to sit up but she pushes him back down. Something is loose in his mouth. Things feel loose all over.

“Don’t move,” she says. “I’ll get Calay.” 

Riss is smart. Adal trusts Riss. He always has. He tries to nod. She grabs him again.

“Don’t. Move.”

Then she’s gone. He’s alone with the sky again. The sky is getting lighter. The storm is blowing away. He remembers being afraid of the storm but he isn’t afraid now. The clouds are fast and high and lighter than they were. Looking at them makes him tired. He can’t focus. But when he closes his eyes the pain feels like it’s getting closer. 

He waits for Riss. There are other things he could be doing, maybe, but he can’t think of any.

He broke his arm once when he was a boy. Fell while climbing a tree. On the long walk back to the big house, he felt like if he didn’t look at it, it didn’t hurt as bad. 

The big house is called the Estate. He remembers that now.

Riss is gone for a long time. Long enough that the sky turns blue again. It’s washed-out blue, like someone poured too much water in it. There’s a word for that. Adal does not know it anymore. 

He hears voices but he can’t see people. He wants to turn his head, but Riss told him not to move. She was very serious about it. 

“I don’t–I think he fell.”

“… All the way from the top?”

Did he fall? He isn’t sure. The last thing he remembers is being afraid of the storm. For some reason, this thought makes him nervous. His heart speeds up. The next time he breathes, something in his chest feels sharp and out of place.

“My bag’s still in the wagon. I’ve only got this much left.”

“He’s breathing, though?”

Boots crowd around him. Two of them belong to Riss. He can tell. 

“Hey,” she says. Her eyes are wet. “Just hold tight. We’re going to fix you up.”

He tries to talk but his mouth is loose and all the little shards of things in his mouth hurt and it bothers him that he can’t remember what they’re called. Not knowing things is starting to scare him and make him angry.

His chest feels weird. His legs feel far away. His hands are numb. The list of small things that feel not right is growing.

Calay leans over him. His mouth his flat. His eyes aren’t as cold as normal. Adal is surprised by how young he looks. 

“I gotta say, pretty boy…” He reaches down and unbutton’s Adal’s shirt. “You are some combination of phenomenally lucky and much, much tougher than you look.”

“What’s…” Adal tries to talk. All the tiny shards of pain in his mouth come back. Something is really wrong. His face feels like it’s burning. He tries to lift his head so he can see what is wrong, because once he knows he can try to fix it, but Riss is holding him down again and Calay’s hand on him is very heavy and it takes all his energy just to keep his eyes open.

There’s another voice.

“Go ahead.” It’s Gaz. Adal can’t see him.

Calay moves away.

“I told you to sit down.”

“Walking kinda takes my mind off it.”

“Calay.” Riss again, speaking over him. “We don’t have time.”

“Well I don’t have enough blood. I’m trying to–fuck, let me think.”

“Just do as she says. I’ll be okay.” 

People talk around him. Adal stares at the sky. Calm, clear, watered-down blue. Like a pool. He remembers feeding the little things that live in his family’s ponds. Orange and silver things. Fast things. Why is he forgetting so many words?

Riss walks past him. She’s walking back and forth. Sometimes he sees her, sometimes he doesn’t. She isn’t talking anymore.

“Are you sure?” Calay sounds angry. Adal isn’t sure who he’s mad at. Him?

“It’s my choice. You don’t get to make it for me. Riss is right.”

“… I’ll do what I can. Later. I promise.”

Calay told him once that life never let him be soft. But he isn’t always as sharp-edged as he thinks he is. 

When Calay comes back, he’s got his jacket off. He rolls up his sleeves. He pulls a face when he looks at Adal. Riss comes back, too. She reaches down and holds his hand.

“You stay real still,” Riss says. “Calay’s only got enough blood to try this once.”

He can’t see her, but he can hear Rodelinde sniffling. She always hides when she cries. She doesn’t want Mother and Father to see.

“It’s okay,” he tells her through the needling pains in his mouth. It hurts too much to say the rest. 

It’s okay, he wants to tell her. I miss Berin too. 

He tries to swallow but the things in his mouth are thick and clattery and wrong. 

Calay tells him to close his eyes.

Calay is kinder than he thinks he is.

In the calm, slow dark, the sniffling stops.

Diluted. That’s the word he was looking for. The sky, it looked diluted. Washed out. Weak.

<< Book 2, Chapter 17 | Book 2, Chapter 19 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 17

Calay’s final year in Vasile had been one of exuberant highs and disastrous lows. Before he’d fled the city in the aftermath of his own would-be execution, he’d been a valued contractor of the Landed House Talvace, taken under Lady Rovelenne’s wing and fluttered through the vaulted halls of their Estate, their vineyard, even the city’s Leycenate House, where laws were ratified and kids from Blackbricks rarely got to tread.

Talvace was the city’s penultimate Landed family, second in wealth and power only to Ambarro. In a city that stressed egalitarianism, that promised its subjects they had no kings, where thrones was a curse for a reason, Rovelenne Talvace’s word had still carried royal weight.

But before all that, before the veil had been pulled from his eyes, before he’d been kicked to the curb, paid the thieves’ toll with so many of his own fragile tendons, Calay had been a believer. He hadn’t trusted Lady Rovelenne as closely as he trusted, say, Gaz. Didn’t trust her with his life like he did Sylvene. But he’d gotten all wrapped up in her legend. Gotten swept away on the swell of her knowledge of history and procedure, which seemed infinite. He’d gotten carried away on the currents of his own daydreams about what doors she could open.

And before he’d been a believer, he’d been a guest. Lady Rovelenne had invited him into her personal retinue for a day, asked if he wanted to see the halls of the Leycenate, where the Landed and the Common both worked together to regulate the swaggering economic juggernaut that was Vasile during wartime. 

Vasile’s Leycenate House loomed prominently in the city skyline. Its ancient grey stones were each half Calay’s height, a foundation so solid that all the earthquakes and all the great waves and all the coastal storms that had ravaged the city over the centuries had barely even discolored it. Moss eked out a tenuous existence in the grout, but even it was dutifully scraped away by city workers when it dared poke its fuzzy head out where Landed eyes might see.

Inside, the building smelled of old stone and ghostly wakes of perfume left behind when prominent citizens passed through. Its high windows let in diffuse, mist-muted sunlight, each frame a tall archway with a little peak on top.

Though its lines were elegant and every facet of its decor–thick carpets, runners on the stairs, sparse white marble patterned with slate across the floors–was built to last, the building didn’t radiate wealth like Calay expected it might. Apart from the city insignia tiled over the doorways and impressed in relief beneath the light sconces, there was little distinguishing it as a civic building. It might have been a monastery for some well-heeled anonymous cult. A union hall. It was austere, an ageing yet venerable eagle perched by the side of the road.

This was intentional, Lady Rovelenne explained when he voiced these thoughts.

Leycenate House was the building where the Landed worked for the good of the people. If the city splashed out heaps of australs on gilt and stained glass, that wouldn’t be a responsible use of public funds now, would it? Responsible use of public funds was a phrase oft on the lips of the Landed since Anvey Rill’s riots.

On the second floor, though, there were drawings. Out of all the impressions he took back from his tour of that building, it was the drawings that registered most prominently in his memory. They were en route to House Talvace’s offices, which were up many flights of steps, occupying prime upper floor ground where the heat rose and the ground floor damp couldn’t reach.

By Landed standards, the sketches were simple. Later on, Calay would glimpse colorful works of art at Talvace’s actual properties. But the sketches displayed in the hallways of Leycenate House were the first artistic masterworks he’d ever seen up close. They depicted the story of Vasile’s founding told in serialised panels, each rendered in charcoal on the purest, most crisply white paper Calay had ever seen. Paper that looked like it had been milled by some fae spirits, the grain was so fine.

The first panel depicted a ship at sea, its sails full of wind. Rays of sunlight pierced the high, fluffy clouds that stretched over a frothy, lifelike ocean. Which meant the second panel was of course the shipwreck. Even Blackbricks kids with no formal education knew the story of the Far-Leaper, the first vessel to explore the far northern coast. 

The next few panels portrayed a clean, idealized version of the Far-Leaper survivors’ story: washing ashore, gathering debris, building a shelter in the shoreline caves. And then the arrival of the dogs. Their tall, high-eared silhouettes prowled around the survivors at first, sketched in black. It was the dogs, historians said, who protected the settlers from the Things Below, the hard-shelled creeping evil that once kept the Vasa bays to itself. First the dogs were sketched in shadow, then in negative space, a cool-toned white, their color evolving as their status shifted from threat to friend. 

The human mind was a funny thing. 

In all his anatomical training from Alfend, Calay had never really covered it beyond the basics: how to recognize signs of concussion and dementia and bleeds in the brain. How to wiggle little chips of skull free from a head wound without causing further damage. He knew,  though, that there was a line between the brain and the mind. The brain was the spongy stuff inside your skull. When crushed, it snuffed a man’s life out even quicker than a bolt through the heart. But how that lumpy, boiled-cauliflower looking thing worked, how it animated an inert lump of flesh and bone into a person… that was a mystery he was unsure he’d ever know the answer to.

All of that was to say Calay had no earthly idea why he was reminded of the artwork in Leycenate House as he watched the lizard rear, flip the wagon onto its side, and drag it into the ravine.

The human mind was very, very funny.

Rooted into place on the salty ground with the force of his shock, he sprung into motion embarrassingly late. Running flat-out, he dashed through peals of soul-rattling thunder and skidded to a stop near the ravine’s edge. Riss, who’d been on the other side of the galania, arrived at his side a split second later.

In the chaos and noise, it took them both a hesitant moment to agree, eyes roaming in all directions, that Adalgis was not present.

Neither were Torcha and Gaz, because they’d been in the wagon.

It was not until that exact moment, until he thought he words in the wagon that the full implication of that statement punched its way into Calay’s head. He dropped his eyes to the jagged darkness of the ravine. The wagon rested down–far, far down–on the sandy floor, pitched forward at a steep angle amid a halo of shattered wood and glass that fanned out in all directions. Its back wheels turned in a slow, useless wobble, dangling above the ground. All the wreckage was swallowed by shadow.

When lightning next lanced across the sky, Calay used it to survey the ravine floor. His eyes took it in, a brief flash: the lizard’s crushed body, no sign of anything moving.

Riss was saying something. Either the storm muted her or his brain simply didn’t care enough to register the words.

The walls of the ravine were more craggy than sheer, well eroded by wind, riddled with nooks and crannies for a determined climber. His eyes traveled a path down the wall, searching out the more promising handholds, measuring their prominence against the wall–too long, too long, it would simply take too fucking long.

Ducking a hand into the stash pocket inside his coat, he snatched up one of the three precious vials hidden inside. He didn’t dwell on the fact that the rest of his supplies were gods-knew-where in the wreckage. Didn’t dwell on the fact that it might not be prudent to waste blood when there might be two people down below who needed it. His mind touched on those thoughts like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake: barely there, passing through to other, more important places.

He did not have time to climb.

Popping the vial open with his thumb, he tugged the neckline of his shirt open, dashed blood against his skin. His feet were already moving as his fingers sketched the glyphs, symbols he’d memorized from Alfend’s old journals: density, weight, stone.

He flung himself off the edge, hands not quite done yet.

When he fell, he fell quickly. The canyon wall sheered past. He understood why his memories had conjured those images from Vasile: in the flash of lightning, life almost seemed to move as a series of still pictures. Magick sizzled and flickered; his body greedily absorbed the blood and with it the instructions he’d written.

He hit the ground, formed a small crater. But his bones were sturdier now. He stumbled up and out, toward the wreckage, fighting through the wave of dizziness generated from the impact. His skeleton held.

The bottom of the ravine felt too quiet compared to the windy chaos above. The comparably still air, the sand instead of salt, it was like he’d fallen through the crust of the earth and into another world. He jogged toward the wreckage, stepping through the puddled blood of the crushed galania. In a pinch, he could use it. The effects would be weak, growing weaker still as the magickal properties dissipated as it dried, but at that quantity at least he had a lot to work with–

Torcha climbed out the frame of a window, balancing lightly on her feet. She did a double-take when she spotted him, then glanced up toward the ravine’s edge.

“I took a shortcut,” he said. And then: “Where is he?”

“Dunno yet.” Torcha wiped her hair out of her eyes, stepping away from the wreckage. “I’m callin’ for him, but he ain’t…” She took a moment to collect her thoughts. “He was inside when it crashed. Headed for upstairs.”

Well, best make use of the charms he’d put on himself while they were active. He’d been sparing with the blood; the spells wouldn’t last long. Calay stomped up to the shattered wagon, heaved its crooked, leaning door aside, and climbed in. The cargo hold slumped at a high, awkward angle, but from inside, it was evident that the rear of the wagon wasn’t in terrible shape. Unfortunately, the central corridor with all the ladders and hatches to the second floor was buggered. Cursing, Calay peeled planks and overturned furniture out of his way like it weighed nothing. The giddy high he normally felt when the fun kind of magick was coursing through his blood was nowhere to be found.

Thunder grumbled distantly. The storm was whipping past, off to terrorize another patch of salt. Something nagged at him, something he couldn’t quite place, something he would definitely come back to later but it was not a priority now.

Finally, after shoving heaps of debris aside, he found a trapdoor to the second floor. Its frame was warped, squished into a thinned diamond and bowing visibly with the weight of the wagon’s structure atop it. Climbing through that would be stupid; if it collapsed it could slice him in half… 

But it was the quickest way up. And he was clever with his hands and careful where to put his feet. He pulled himself up and through, into the listing wooden-walled barracks.

Everything not nailed to the floor had come loose. Chairs, supplies, the contents of their cargo nets, some of the nets themselves, all but the big meeting table which remained bolted down. The barracks looked like it had been hit with one of Anvey Rill’s bombs.

“Gaz?” His voice came out quieter than anticipated, less that of a confident rescuer and more a man cautious of waking a sleeping dragon. He cleared his throat and tried again. Everything was such a mess. He had no idea where to begin looking.

A rough, cough-rattled groan answered him from somewhere in the wreckage. Calay tried to zero in on its source, walking carefully on the steeply-pitched floor. He skidded and slid a couple times, gradually nearing the wagon’s bow and the biggest heaps of debris. It felt like walking through a shipwreck, treacherous corners and jagged wood snatching at his clothes with every step.

“I’m here,” he said, watching where he put his feet. “Just gotta–rgh–find you!”

There came a knock to his right, then another, deliberate. Turning and nudging a precariously-balanced crate out of his way, he picked through the wagon’s wreckage like a vulture at a carcass. Finally, when he began to shift a rolled-up carpet away from the wall, he heard a wheeze from beneath. Gripping the carpet by the edge, Calay lifted and shoved in a single motion. He could feel the effects of the blood sorcery ebbing; it was harder work than it would have been merely minutes ago. But still he managed.

Tangled in the wreckage, red in the face, was Gaz. He’d fallen onto the wall directly overhanging the pilot’s bench, then been showered in debris when everything had come loose. He was conscious, and though he was beaten moderately to shit and the proud owner of numerous shallow cuts and bruises, he didn’t appear hurt hurt. His eyes fixed on Calay with a groggy slowness. His eyebrows lifted.

“What took you so long?” he grumbled, spitting out a wad of dust and grit.

Now that his arms were free, he reached down, attempting to shove the cracked frame of a dresser off his legs. Calay stooped down and pulled on the opposite end. Thrones, it was heavy. Actually heavy. The legs scratched and scraped along the floor, catching on every gods-damned thing as they moved it, but finally the two of them were able to wrench it aside enough for Gaz to sit up. He winced as he did so, a hand immediately going to his thigh.

“Can you–”

Calay leaned down, way ahead of him. He looped Gaz’s arm over his shoulder and stumbled up the incline, not providing as much leverage as a taller person might have but still capable enough. 

“You good until we get outside?” Calay asked, wary that the wagon might collapse under its own weight if left too long.

“Yeah,” Gaz muttered. “I’ll live.” He sounded tired, but he could walk. He limped along as Calay shuffled them both sideways.

Rather than deal with that dubious trapdoor sans magickal protections, Calay kicked out a window. He climbed out first, then helped Gaz through, and together they navigated the wreckage in a careful climb, emerging into disorienting sunlight. The storm had blown past.

Gaz collapsed into the dirt, hissing. Calay fell back beside him, exhausted. Torcha scurried over and found them both just lying there, catching up on breathing.

“Tadivach’s tits, Gaz. Your leg.”

Calay lifted his head, propped himself up to look down.

A shard of wood as long as his forearm protruded from Gaz’s thigh. Calay’s stomach turned to look at it.

“The fuck!” He rolled up into a sit, reaching into his jacket for his vials. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Gaz–who, come to think of it, did look a little pale in the sunlight–let out an awkward, pained wheeze of a laugh. He tried on a reassuring smile which came out looking more like a grimace.

“Nothing that couldn’t wait,” he said through his teeth. “But… yeah… please fix that now.”

He had enough blood for that. But first he’d have to yank the thing out, and that wasn’t going to be pleasant. And once they got Gaz all fixed up, there were bigger problems to confront. Such as the rest of Calay’s supplies being lost somewhere in the wagon. And the hundreds of thousands of scorpions they now had to outpace on foot.

One disaster at a time. Calay put his hand on Gaz’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Afraid this isn’t going to be pleasant,” he said. 

Gaz closed his eyes. It was admirable, the amount of effort he put into trying to look calm. “Just like pulling out a big splinter,” he said.

“You’re all right,” Calay said, and all at once the relief caught up with him just as the exhaustion had. A crack in the dam, the moment before the flood. He directed Torcha to help him, readying a cloth that he wished was a little cleaner.

Thunder ran its drumroll off over the Flats. Something about that storm, he thought again. But then Torcha yanked the shard free and Gaz yelped and Calay held tight on the compress and the weather was the last thing on his mind.

Putting pressure on the wound, he nodded his thanks to Torcha and readied the vial. He felt useful again, felt like he was salvaging some control from this clusterfuck.

Noise exploded across the sand, a stampede of footsteps and yelling. Riss rushed over to where they sat, telling him to stop, stop, hold on, don’t use the blood yet. Her face was a color he’d never seen before; she hadn’t gone that pale even when she’d nearly died. 

Adal still wasn’t with her.

<< Book 2, Chapter 16 | Book 2, Chapter 18 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 16

Lightning hadn’t ever worried Torcha growing up. It wasn’t a problem for her the way it was for other folks. In the textile districts, floods were a bigger worry. Everything was too marshy to burn, too wet to catch even when lightning struck. But all that rain had to go somewhere. Hence why all the towns were balanced up on hilltops like little crowns.

But even Torcha knew it was bad news to be sitting in a wagon this tall on a plain this flat during a lightning storm. 

For a while, she could hold onto the fiction that they might outrun the clouds. Riss was pushing the lizard hard and it had more stamina than Torcha gave it credit for. But it could only go whole-hog for a couple hours. Soon its run slowed to a dragging, exhausted lope, each of its footsteps scraping hard and loud against the salt. Neither she nor Riss had any idea how much longer it would last.

The mountains were closer, no longer vague suggestions on the horizon, but they weren’t close.

In the meantime, the sky grew darker. The wind shifted. Huddled on the pilot’s bench, Torcha shared a long look with Calay behind Riss’ back. He knew it was coming, too. 

When Calay got scared, he didn’t really look scared. He just looked wild, like a spooked dog, ears perked and back stiff, whites of his eyes showing. 

Straight ahead, the low, dusty mountains beckoned them like a mirage. The Flats threw off her sense of distance. There was no sense of scale, nothing to compare anything else to. Exactly how close they were was anyone’s guess.

“We’re not gonna make it,” Riss declared, watching the lizard from above. Its sides flared out with quick, hard-rasping breaths. It lashed its tail stump side to side, threatening and irritable.

“So we shelter under the wagon?” Calay asked, considering the sky.

“No,” Riss said. “Too risky. Unless we unhitch this guy, he could pull the wheels right over us if he spooks.”

“We should unhitch him regardless,” said Calay. “If the wagon catches fire, it’ll burn him up. And he’s our only ride out of here.”

“We could shelter in the ravine,” said Adal. “Climb down in, find a ledge or something…”

“There’s an idea.” Riss nodded.

Torcha was up in an instant, grabbing Gaz by the arm. They hurried into the barracks and began loading up packs with food and water and ammo. Torcha could lose the wagon. She couldn’t lose water. Not out here.

Thunder rumbled through the wagon’s walls. Strange. She only just noticed, but that was the first thunder she’d heard since they’d spied the storm on the horizon. That wasn’t normal…

But there was no time to ponder that. Food and water and guns secured, they hurried outside.

Out on the salt, wind whipped glittering dust through the air. If you squinted, you could trace them: currents of sparkles, salt thinned out to ribbons on the wind. Riss, Adal, and Calay surrounded the lizard on all sides, slowly closing in, attempting to pacify it and free it of its tether. 

“What if it runs off?” Torcha called. 

“It’s massive,” said Gaz. “And this place is flat as. We’ll be able to see it for miles if it does.”

The wind began to squeal, shrieking through the ravine below. Riss said something. Torcha didn’t hear it. She put a hand to her ear, signalling. Riss gestured, pointing toward the wagon. Was she asking her to stay back? Torcha backpedalled, then tucked herself into the doorway, sheltering herself from the wind. Gaz hurried up a moment later, ducking low, jacket raised up over his head to shield his face from shards of windborne salt.

“What?” Torcha called.

“Calay’s bag.” He squeezed past her into the hall. “He says he can calm it down, but he’ll need blood to–“

Thunder cracked directly overhead. It sounded like the ground beneath their feet was tearing apart. Torcha’s ears rang. She didn’t hear the rest of what Gaz said, but she got the gist. She found it hard to care whether Calay witched the lizard. Apart from her general mistrust of witching, a lizard was a lizard and it wasn’t a person and it wasn’t her, so he could do what he liked. Anything that would get them out of there any quicker.

Through the howl of the wind, she couldn’t hear any rain. A dry storm then. Like Adal had said. 

Voices outside caught her attention. She clambered up onto the pilot’s bench, wondering if there was anything she could do, some rope or harness she could unhook from here to assist.

Riss and Adal had got half the lizard’s harness off. It had puffed up threateningly, facing Calay with an open mouth and a hiss that might have been a hiss or might have been the wind. Torcha had never seen a galania angry before. It gave a warning stomp, claws digging into the salt just beside Calay, who faced it down calmly, without moving. His spooked-dog look was gone, replaced by an icy scowl of concentration.

The air took on a funny smell, sharp and crisp and acidic.

Then another funny thing happened: Torcha’s hair rose up, curls lifting off her neck. Goosebumps prickled up her arms.

She didn’t have long enough to fully form a thought, to wonder what was going on.

Electric blue light exploded across her eyes. Lightning struck something outside, whiting out her vision. Something squealed–lizard? wheels? wind? person?–and the floor tilted and shook. Bright-edged dark blobs danced through the air, afterburns like from looking at the sun too long; she couldn’t see shit. Grabbing for the closest doorway, Torcha held on tight as the wagon veered abruptly sideways. Something outside gave a horrible crunch. The walls shuddered and cracked and the sound of thunder and wind all roared together. All her senses but touch were flooded; she tasted copper in her mouth.

Funnily enough, there was just too much going on for panic to set in. Torcha dug her nails in, then braced one boot against each corner of the doorway. She held on tight as the wagon whirled, dragged all off-kilter. Had the lightning struck the lizard? She couldn’t say. 

Her ears rang like someone had fired a rifle indoors. She wondered if Gaz was all right upstairs. All these thoughts came as split-second flashes as she reacted more with her body than her brain.

Through the high ring of endless, off-tune bells in her ears, she caught one word: out!

But before she could throw herself out the door, the wagon trembled once more, the planks beneath her feet vibrating and flexing as though they might fly apart at any moment. This was bad. They had to cut that lizard free, kill it if they had to. If Torcha had a clear shot, she’d ready her rifle and put one right between its eyes.

She never got the chance. The next impact jolted the wagon crazily. Her world tipped onto its side. She held on tight but then lost her grip as debris smashed into her from behind, something sharp impacting directly between her shoulder blades.

When she caught her last glimpse out the pilot’s window, she realized she couldn’t see the ground anymore. Only sky. A dark, boiling sky lit up blue from within, ribs and veins of lightning streaking across it like a glowing, living skeleton. 

The wagon bounced, skidded. The sky was snatched away. Darkness swallowed her from beyond the windows and something deep within the wagon’s structure groaned and crunched.

Gravity punched her sideways into the doorframe as the panicked lizard dragged them down into the ravine.


When she came to, everything hurt. But hurt was good. It meant nothing was broken bad. In the early days of the woodland cells, their patchy camps beneath fat, dangling silkspiders in their webs, Jalacho had given lectures on rudimentary first aid. Torcha hadn’t really listened, young and angry and distractible as she was, but she remembered vividly his descriptions of what it felt like to get shot. He’d talked about slow, spreading numbness and pain and pain and pain until his brain grew kind of overloaded and the pain became an absence.

She’d always liked that morbid stuff. 

She was tangled in what appeared to be a curtain or awning, a disorienting swaddle of scratchy dark canvas. Crawling up out of it, Torcha felt smooth wood under her palms, bonked her elbow into a light fixture, and realized she was laying on the ceiling.

Outside, the storm still raged, but at such a distance her nerves couldn’t summon concern about it. 

She blinked and thought back to Mosz’s story. The boy in the ravine, pursued by his far-off pile of hungry, vengeful bones. She wondered if this was the ravine from the story. She wondered if any bones awaited them. If anything was gaining on them besides thousands of scorpions.

But those thoughts were soon replaced by more practical concerns. 

Could she walk? Yes. 


So where was Gaz?

And what had happened to everyone else?

And–at this, her hand went to her belt–was there a pissed off building-sized lizard down here with her?

Her sidearm was gone. Her shoulders throbbed. Feeling along the wall, aided by the occasional flash of lightning, she groped around in the dark until she found the curtain rod. Bracing her boot against the wall, she pulled hard until it snapped free in her hands. Then she felt for which end was the sharpest, the most splintered, and aimed it out before her like a spear.

It barely felt like being armed.

Was it bad that she hoped the lizard had died in the fall? Sure, it was their only way out of the Flats, but firstly, this disaster was its fault and therefore it was a bastard. Secondly, she wanted to call out to Gaz, but if the damned thing was down there, pissed off and wounded, lashing out as critters were wont to do when hurt…

Broken wood crunched under her feet with each step. It was slow going through the ruined wagon, ducking and crawling through spaces too narrow for most people. But the sporadic lightning helped her. Soon, she spied a way out: a busted maintenance hatch that led down toward the wheels and axles. She slid through it at a steep angle, feeling along with the tip of her curtain rod. The big front axle was splintered; no matter the state of the rest of the wagon, it wasn’t going anywhere. But even broken, it served a purpose: she was able to follow it out to freedom.

Falling onto her stomach, Torcha had to wiggle on her front to escape the wagon’s wreckage. She pulled herself along the ground, which was still dusted with salt even down this far.

She planted her palms on the ground to lever herself free. They touched something slimy and wet and warm.

With a heave of her arms, she dragged herself entirely free of the wreckage, palms slip-sliding in dark, viscous liquid. Rolling onto her side, she emerged from the wagon’s shadow, saw the slick stuff down her arms and torso was the lizard’s blood. She stayed like that for a moment, sitting at the bottom of the ravine, eyes raised toward the spread of storm clouds overhead. 

The dry air tingled when she breathed it. Wind whipped past the ravine’s mouth, screaming up above like a vengeful ghost. The impact had scattered her brain so fiercely she couldn’t remember any warding words, any good prayers, anything from the old town that might lend a scrap of ritualistic calm. 

She couldn’t see a trace of the others. It was like she’d fallen down into hell.

Slow, wobbly on her feet, she took a walk around the wreckage. She had to step back, to give it some distance to really take in what had happened. Up close, it was all just a mess of wood and lizard meat. Distance gave her the perspective she needed. 

The wagon had careened into the gulch nose-down, crushing the lizard from behind. Its bow was embedded in the galania’s back. The lizard’s forelegs were twisted and mangled beneath itself; its head lolled sideways, tongue a slab of sticky meat upon the salty floor. Possible the fall had killed it. Possible it had bled out after. The very front of the wagon had taken the worst damage, its axle cracked, wheels bowing out awkwardly. The pilot’s bench and the frontmost frame of the upper floor and roof were crunched in against each other in a folded v-shape. 

But that wagon must have been made of sturdy stuff, because the bits that hadn’t directly impacted the ground looked all right. In fact, apart from the fact that it was tipped forward and its wheels weren’t touching the ground, the back half looked almost driveable. Torcha had just been unlucky enough to end up in the squished bits.

Gaz, though. Where had he been? 

It was unfamiliar, this immediate nagging concern for others in the aftermath of a catastrophe. She hadn’t really felt that in the war, at least not ‘til the end.

This was new. It was inconvenient. But now that she felt it, she couldn’t just ignore it.

“Gaz?” She cupped a hand around her mouth and hollered in toward the wreckage. The wagon stayed silent. Nothing stirred inside.

Torcha planted the butt of the curtain rod onto the crunchy ground. She was going to have to climb back in there, wasn’t she.

“Gaz!” she yelled again. “C’mon big guy, at least tell me which window to crawl in!”


She just had to find him, that was all. He was in there somewhere. No way he could have tumbled out. He couldn’t even fit out the windows if given the opportunity.

Oddly enough, it didn’t even occur to her to worry that he might be dead. Somehow, on a level so deep she didn’t even consciously think it, Torcha assumed that if he was dead, she’d know. That whatever fucking unknowable fungus bullshit had Bridged them in the swamp had left some permanent smear across their minds. The three of them were mingled dye bleeding together over the edge of paper or cloth. 

It wasn’t like she could read their minds, the boys from Blackbricks. It didn’t work like that. But ever since that moment, there’d been a strange thread of understanding woven through them. Gaz especially. He had a mind so unlike her own. So gentle and careful. Not in a nervous way. Not in a walking-on-eggshells way. More like he treated every person he ever met as though he was handling a newborn kitten: something precious and important that you had to be real careful with, not because you were worried you might destroy it but because it was alive and all things that were alive mattered. 

Gaz had a fundamental goodness in him that Torcha wasn’t quite sure what to do with. A goodness she was cynically surprised Calay hadn’t exploited yet. 

She’d feel it if that goodness got snuffed out of the world. If something so rare and unique was suddenly gone. 

The world was vast and uncaring. But the Collective, the thing that had put its mark on all three of them, was not.

Wiping half-dried lizard blood off her hands, she climbed back into the wagon’s wreckage.

He was in there. She just had to find him. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 15 | Book 2, Chapter 17 >>

If you’re enjoying Book 2, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction or if you’d like, come say hi on our discord server!

Book 2, Chapter 15

(Short author’s note – I’m finally back in my regular time zone and from next week forward, updates will be less erratic!)

Sleep came and went. Dawn came and went, too. No one roused Calay for watch. In fact, the barracks was entirely empty when he awoke. Waking to see sunlight streaking through the windows was disorienting, even if it was the fresh, infant sunlight of an early dawn. The dry air of the Flats lent itself well to reusing linens; his shirt and glove still felt crisp and dry when he pulled them back on. He didn’t bother buttoning the shirt nor belting his trousers as he climbed all over the wagon in search of the others. The polished wood of the wagon’s floor was appealingly cool against his feet. 

He found Torcha on the roof. She looked like she’d been awake for hours, or like she hadn’t slept through the night at all. Either was possible. Bent low beneath the glow of a lantern, she was in her element: stripping and oiling the parts of someone’s sidearm or another. Adal’s, by the look of it. 

“Warm out already,” Calay said by way of greeting. “Gonna be a hot one today.”

“Hope the sun don’t put our lizard to sleep,” she said, twisting a pipe cleaner down the barrel of the pistol.

Calay’s brow wrinkled. “Does that happen?”

Torcha shrugged with just her head, tilting her chin. “Well, little ones do it…” Trailing off, she finished her cleaning and then started to piece the pistol back together, hands moving with the absent, mindless confidence of repetition. “Anyway. Everyone’s down below.”

She didn’t mean the cargo hold, nor the pilot’s bench. So Calay climbed out of the wagon and beneath it. There he found Adal and Gaz inspecting the wheels and axles, the most important ritual of the morning.

“How’s she looking?” Calay asked. 

Gaz gave him a wordless affirmative gesture. Adal, shimmying around with a lantern, nodded from where he crouched. 

“I was curious how the wheels would handle the salt,” he said. “Never traversed this terrain on wheels before. And technically speaking, we’ve been off-road this entire time…”

Calay tuned out, listened to the drone of Adal’s technical explanation as merely background noise. Riss arrived a minute later carrying a hefty woven basket and one of those leather-strap slings all the Beddos used instead of bags. She was laden down with interesting-smelling food, loaves of some bread that used ground rice instead of flour and bottles of black and red berry spirits. 

“I figure interesting booze might buy us friends when we rendezvous with the Rill gang,” said Riss. 

“What’s our plan for all that, anyway?” Calay asked. “We ought to discuss it in more detail…”

“C’mon.” Riss beckoned him up top. “We’ll chat while we drive.”


Tightening up the wagon, rousing the galania, and setting off was something that came quicker and with greater efficiency every morning that passed. It took mere minutes this time. Soon Calay was sitting on the bench alongside Riss, who flashed a mirror in the sun, signaling to the Beddo wagon. Both began their steady trundle across the dawn-pink salt.

“So,” Riss said. “The plan for Nuso Rill.” 

Calay listened with interest even as his eyes swept the horizon. 

“We’ll follow this ravine north by northwest,” she said. “It crosses almost the entire Flats; should reach the other side in two, maybe three days. Due north from where the ravine terminates, there’s the canyon Leonór told us about. Inside that canyon is a spit-fleck of a stopover called Frogmouth, up in the canyon wall itself–“

Calay had to cut in. “I’m sorry, called what?”

“Frogmouth. You heard me.”

Calay laughed from deep down in his diaphragm, surprised by the force of his own laughter. Frogmouth. How daft. Sure didn’t sound like the sort of place to search out a famous outlaw. An apothecary who sold dodgy portions to horny old men, maybe…

“And Rill will be there?” he asked.

“He’s been sighted there, at least.” Riss nodded. “It’s a known haunt for all sorts of disreputables looking to fence ill-gotten gains. We’ll hang around town, see if we can send word that we’re looking to offload this wagon. If at all possible, we’re to find out where Rill camps.”

Reclining back on the bench, Calay sniffed the dry, salty air.

“All right,” he said. “So we roll into Frogmouth and see if Rill wants to have us over for tea.”

“Mhm. All we have to do in the meantime is avoid thousands of scorpions.”

As far as plans went, it was diabolically simple. So few moving parts. So few opportunities for things to go wrong. 


It had just gone midday when Calay first spied the ravine on the horizon. The sun was punishing, hovering straight overhead as if to scold anyone who’d dare be out at this hour. So when Calay saw what appeared to be a shadow on the horizon, he had to double-check. Heat shimmer made everything wobble and waver, but soon they drew close enough to confirm it. 

What began as a crumbling crack in the salty ground soon opened up into a wide gulf easily four or five times the width of their wagon. When Calay peered down its steep, salt-encrusted sides, he couldn’t quite see the bottom due to the angle. Riss directed the galania to give the ravine a generous berth. The Beddos did likewise. 

Something inside Calay relaxed. The old twinge in his jaw unclenched. They’d made it. And not a single scorpion in sight. 

He took a turn manning the rear guard for a while, rifle balanced in his lap. Not that there was a soul behind them. Only the dance of heat off the flat, off-white ground.

More uneventful hours passed. Calay’s mind retreated into that quiet, contemplative place where he considered his goals: Frogmouth, Rill, the postwoman’s mysterious collection of letters. Then Riss shouted something, a relaxed-sounding order directed down below. 

There was no urgency in her voice. The wagon rolled to a gentle stop. Calay climbed down to see what was the matter.

Nothing, it turned out. They were merely parting ways with their caravan companions. The whole Beddo family came out to say their goodbyes. Calay lingered at the edge of the crowd, standing in the wagon’s shadow as Riss bade them all farewell. He picked up bits and pieces of their conversation. The Beddos were heading straight west from this bend in the ravine, climbing up into the distant mountains and into plateau country. Continental geography still twisted his brain into knots a little, but the plateaus weren’t far from where Riss grew up, if he had it right. No wonder she was making nice with the traders.

Calay had played it out in his mind a few times, how he’d respond if he ran into fellow Vasa travelers. He could not envision a scenario in which they weren’t sent to kill him.

The elder Beddo woman spotted him, waving to his spot in the shade.

“And you,” she called over. “How did you sleep?”

Calay gave her a thin, shadowed smile. 

“Like a baby,” he said. 

As he watched their small, gaudy wagon disappear into the distance, he once again felt that subtle, seismic tug. Felt like the Flats were thinning their numbers.


It hadn’t been that impressive when it was merely a mark on Riss’ map, but soon the ravine crumbled and tumbled deep into the earth. Calay appreciated it over his left shoulder from where he lounged at the rear boarding plank. It was there whenever he turned his head, providing a comfortable barrier against the flood of incoming scorpions. They had time on their side now. 

So when he heard Torcha whistle the alert, he wondered what could be the matter. It certainly wasn’t scorpions.

Climbing up onto the roof, he was joined by everyone but Riss. Torcha sat beneath her sun-shade, eyes to the east, her mouth a thin flat line.

“You’re right,” Adal was saying. “I don’t like the look of them.”

Calay followed their stares out toward the horizon. From where he’d been watching, south and down below, he hadn’t seen the clouds mounting. They looked unlike any storm clouds he’d ever seen, lacking the grey-black-brown gradient of the storms that ravaged the coasts of his youth. These clouds were grey-red, towering higher than any he’d ever seen. They looked like great heaps of dishes in the sky.

“Doesn’t look like rain…” he started.

“No,” said Adal. “But keep watching.”

It only took a couple seconds. They all watched the distant clouds as lightning lanced from one to another, forking out in all directions. 

“That doesn’t look like any storm I ever saw,” said Gaz. There was no curtain of rain beneath it at all.

“Storms behave differently out here over nothing but dry land,” said Adal. “The plateau near Carbec, down the dry side you can get dry lightning. Thunderstorms with no rain. They can develop into dust storms, too. Sudden gusts of wind, grains of sand like knives. They’re real bastards.”

“But do you reckon it’s headed this way?” asked Torcha.

Adal thinned his lips. “Hard to say. I’m not familiar with the terrain here. And we’re on a moving wagon, makes the wind tough to gauge.”

“I’d say our first order of business ought to be finding out,” said Calay. 

Something unseen raced through his blood, dread and anticipation rising through the hair on his arms like steam. Was it the charge of the storm? Was it normal to feel them even this far off? Adal disappeared down the hatch, calling out something to Riss down below.

“That ain’t a dust storm,” Torcha said, as if in some attempt to comfort him. “They’re like a solid wall of red coming at you.”

Calay’s shoulders twitched.

“I’m more worried about the lightning,” she said. “All this wood we’re sitting on. And we’re the tallest thing for miles.”

Beneath their feet, the wagon juddered. The ravine began to speed by quicker. Riss was urging the lizard into a run. 

The wagon’s occupants all leapt into frantic action. With the same expedience they’d shown in their morning routine they now latched and shuttered all the windows. Torcha rolled up the awnings. Calay ducked inside, slid down the ladder, and met Riss on the bench. Her jaw had tensed, her eyes on the distant storm. Calay watched it for a while too, peering past her.

“Headed our way, then?” he asked.

“Adal seems to think so. Could miss us depending on how hard it’s rolling, but I’d rather not take that chance.”

Calay slid his tongue over his teeth. Nerves prickled in his mangled arm. “Is there anything I can do?”

Riss didn’t look up. “Not unless you can control the weather.”

Calay didn’t know if his talents could ever extend that far. There was so much he’d never learned, so many characters in the alphabet he’d never practiced. He wondered where his skills might be if Alfend Linten hadn’t disappeared. If he’d had an actual tutor showing him the way rather than scraps of diaries and notes and wary, careful experimentation.

“Afraid not,” he said. “But… I can put out fires, at least.” 

That one had been a priority after the riots in Blackbricks. Flames needed air to feed themselves; he could swallow the air above them, muffle them with shadow. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the closest he’d been able to teach himself.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Riss said.

Calay wished it wouldn’t, but as the wind turned and began to pick up speed, licking through his hair with a chill that seemed almost beckoning, he didn’t hold out hope. 

Soon they’d secured every loose item they could. Riss urged the galania into a full-on run, its massive claws churning up salty spray as it dashed along the alkali fields. The wagon behind it shuddered and bumped and creaked, dragged along at a speedier pace than its groaning structures were used to.

Calay couldn’t tell at first, with the height of the clouds and the width of their spread. Hard to see whether they were coming or going. But soon he felt the telltale drop in his lungs and his gut, the sensation of weather turning. Their wagon wasn’t a ship; it lacked a barometer. But Calay didn’t need one to know the storm was hot on their heels.

<< Book 2, Chapter 14 | Book 2, Chapter 16 >>