Gaz rolled upright, still dizzy, and suppressed the urge to vomit. His head kicked like a bad hangover; even his tongue somehow hurt. When he breathed, it was like he’d inhaled sawdust: rough and dry. A sick shiver worked its way through his stomach when he remembered what the ‘sawdust’ was made of.
Shoving up to his hands and knees, he crawled across the muddy ground. He wasn’t quite in full control of his limbs yet, but a sense of urgency drove him forward until his body properly cooperated. Shit, Calay had fallen right into the tree’s grasp. Gaz didn’t know how long it had been since he’d gone under. The tree could have had hours to work its nasty business. Might be a blessing if the gunshot got him first.
But no, Calay was a scrapper. He’d probably already cast some magickal thing on himself to keep safe, even if that meant they’d be facing a whole new slew of problems as far as their allies were concerned.
The tree leaned there like a half-toppled ruin, shiny metallic threads twisted along its upper branches. It tilted at a precarious angle, as though something had slowed it or stopped it mid-crawl. The thick-trunked tentacles of its exposed root structure heaved up higher on one side than the other.
Just as Gaz reached the tree, blinding white light erupted from down below it. He shielded his eyes and felt the magick flash past and over him, hot enough that it singed the stubble of his scalp. The flash, the sizzle, that strange smell like rain on hot pavement–that was Calay all right. The high, panicked gasp of pain that followed–shit, that was him too.
The view Gaz had of the bodies caught up in the tree was obstructed–the roots were livelier now, swaying slowly, and he only just had the presence of mind to glance toward the fire. It had gone out. Shit, the tree would be waking up proper then. Gaz dove for the big, flat-bladed knife tucked in the leg of his boot. Shoving forward without thinking, he slashed and hacked until he’d chopped away several sections of wriggling root from the tree’s undercarriage. They wriggled on the ground like bark-armored worms.
Calay sprung up almost instantly, still snared by the right arm. He tried to pull himself free, then howled instead when the tree tightened its grasp. The angle of its grip on his arm forced to his knees, unable to fully stand, his back bent awkwardly. Like it was pulling him down.
“Cut it off cut it off cut it off–” he hissed, his voice borderline unrecognizable. Wild fear shone in his eyes. Gaz could see the whites of them. He had never, ever seen Calay so scared.
In a few short, hard strokes he cleared away the smaller roots that gripped at Calay’s arm, but soon he saw the ‘it’ in question that his friend referred to: one of the vines had twisted its way all around Calay’s right hand, up to his forearm. The bark had already begun to merge with his skin, rendering it a sickly grey, the fingers clutching and unclutching in mindless spasms, like how a snake didn’t know it was dead yet even after its head had been chopped off.
“I don’t know if I can,” Gaz whispered. “It’s… on you.”
Swallowing hard, Calay crab-walked backward a pace, propped up on his heels and an elbow. He tried to take take the pressure off his trapped arm without moving any closer to the tree’s center mass. Gaz knelt to see if he could assist.
“The arm, take the whole fucking arm if you have to.” Calay’s jaw clenched. A tremble started in his brow and tried to overcome the rest of his face. Gaz watched him suppress it, expression tightening into a hard sneer, eyes closed.
He didn’t know if he could do it.
He didn’t voice his hesitation. He didn’t have to. Calay peeked an eye open, pinning him with a haggard stare.
“You can do this, Gaz,” he breathed through his teeth. “You are–” A wheeze, a suppressed twitch through his cheek. “–the only one I trust to do it.”
Gaz had cleaved a limb or ten off a person in his life. He’d worked as a bruiser for a few folks. A bodyguard for others. He and Calay hadn’t fought in the war, but they’d fought on the streets, and that could be just as bloody. He wasn’t squeamish. And it wasn’t even that it was Calay. Sure, he didn’t want to hurt him. But he knew that sometimes in order to help a person, you had to do things that hurt. He’d seen Calay perform enough surgeries to know how that went.
But… what if he fucked it up?
The tools he used were not surgical tools. His work would not be that precise.
Even as he thought that, he reached for the haft of his axe. He hesitated, though. A clean swing from the axe would be ideal. Less painful even, maybe, if such a thing could be rendered less painful. But he couldn’t brace Calay against the trunk and he was too high off the ground. At this angle, he couldn’t prop the arm against anything… the impact from the axe would likely break things that didn’t need breaking. It took a lot of force to cut through joints.
The fingers of his off-hand twitched onto the knife.
Calay, who never missed a thing, caught the motion and thinned his mouth.
“I get it,” he hissed. “Just do it.”
Gaz shuffled forward on his knees, winding an arm around Calay’s back to hold him in place. Every muscle up his back felt wracked with spasm, tight and tense. From this angle, it was apparent that he’d patched up the wound in his abdomen. The skin beneath his bloody, shredded clothes appeared immaculate.
“You can do this,” Calay wheezed. “I’ll patch myself up after. What’s the worst that could happen.” He tried for a laugh; it sounded more like a sickly cough.
“You’ll probably pass out first,” Gaz answered, stoically matter-of-fact.
“Yeah. Hmph.” Calay grunted. “Probably.”
“Count of three,” said Gaz. He braced the serrated edge against the inside of Calay’s sleeve, not bothering to roll it up first. He didn’t look too close, fascinating as the transition from bark to skin was. The creeping grey that began at his hand reached to just below the elbow. Elbow would do it, then.
Calay probably had a tourniquet somewhere, but he had no time to ask. He slid his own belt loose, wrapped it, pulled it until it was tight enough that Calay gasped.
He started cutting on ‘two.’
Ignoring the sharp sounds of distress in his ear, Gaz sawed. He sawed until he hit bone. Then he twisted and bent the joint backward ‘til it buckled. It’s just like boning a deer, he thought, then hated that he thought it. At the snap Calay fell slack in his grip. He ignored the blood and the shaking and the hairs on his neck standing on end and cut and cut until something gave and they fell the short few inches to the blood-muddied ground.
Hands slick and red, Gaz stumbled back from the tree and threw his knife on the ground. He didn’t ever want to touch it again. He scooped Calay up over a shoulder, keeping the stump of his arm elevated. The man was dead weight in his arms, groaning groggily, and Gaz was so shell-shocked by what he’d done that he didn’t even realize he was walking straight into the barrel of a rifle until it was mere feet from his face.
“Stop,” growled Torcha. “Not one more fuckin’ step.”