Chapter 51

The corpse wobbled toward them with unsteady steps. And it was a corpse—Calay could smell it now. Like a marionette steered by an inexperienced puppeteer, it approached, its skin a smooth dry brown-black that stood out like a sore amid all the green and grey.

The too-smooth contours of its body resembled cooled volcanic stone, and a flaking husk of grey-black fabric clung to it with all the crinkly translucence of the outer layers of an onion. He had difficulty placing it, as the sight of one walking around was so anachronistic to even his mind—which had seen weirder things than most—but soon he realized what he was looking at: the flaking canvas was a shroud. It was a bog body, someone who had been stitched up and buried in the marsh.

That did not explain why it was shambling about, though. He didn’t want to wait around and find out.

Torcha appeared to be of a similar mind. She lost interest in him and Gaz entirely, swinging the barrel of her rifle around. She regarded the thing through a squint, then spoke without looking toward him.

“Either of you object?”

Calay was happy to have her aiming at something else. “By all means.”

Torcha fired. Nothing worked like it was supposed to.

The enchanted bullet zipped through the air, but before it could impact its target, it fragmented. In the air before the melted contours of the corpse’s face, the slug shattered into tiny glittering fragments.

Calay dipped a finger into his flagon, sketched a sign in midair. The air before him shimmered briefly, the atmosphere thickened by magick. Just in case.

The twinkling shards of Torcha’s shot fell harmlessly to the ground. At the same moment, Calay stepped forward, angling himself in front of both her and Gaz. He trusted her not to shoot him in the back if only because it would be tactically disadvantageous.

As he took a step closer to the corpse, a furious tingle danced up the palm of his mangled bone and bark hand, the brush of a butterfly’s wings mingled with the scrape of a spider’s legs. A spasm ran through his knuckles, and the sharp spiny fingers that had begun to grow back into place twitched eagerly, of their own accord.

Something about the things in this swamp. His arm reacted to them now. Were he safe at home observing this all under laboratory conditions, he’d have been fascinated. Instead, the sensation tightened his throat with foreboding.

He had his shield, at least. For a man who prided himself on contingencies, on foreseeing possible futures, little made him as antsy as having no idea what would come next.

The mummified corpse lifted its right arm. Calay’s right arm jerked up too. He tried to ball a fist, but he didn’t quite have control of it. Rolling the wrist and attempting to yank his blade-hand back down, he instead swiped at the air before him, muscles not responding to his brain’s commands.

Step by shuffling step, the bog body approached, until it stood near enough that he felt obligated to shoot it. He lifted his pistol, leveled it at the thing’s face.

Up close, he could see now that the paper-thin whitish blisters upon its face looked like egg sacs of some kind. Blown open from the inside, traces of powdered white dotting the outside. Something had escaped from inside it. The thought made his skin crawl.

Yet he hesitated. He didn’t shoot. As it neared him, the tingling in his arm died down. A cool sensation washed over the limb instead, like a soothing balm. It felt genuinely pleasant, and he felt compelled in the most minor way to delay pulling the trigger.

“Boss?” Gaz sounded worried.

The corpse slowly stretched its raised right hand to Calay’s. It moved with a sentient purpose, slow enough that he somehow didn’t feel threatened. He had time to marvel at how well-preserved the fingers were upon its gnarled hands. The nails remained intact, chipped though they might have been. When he inhaled, the deep, peaty aroma of its flesh reminded him a little too intimately of whiskeys he’d sipped.

It tapped a finger against his bark-armored knuckles.

His arm changed.

That cool, soothing sensation rushed over his skin anew. Burrowing up from from atop the bony claws of his hand, tiny green vines erupted. They stretched into the sunlight, then unfurled toward the sky. Bell-shaped flowers bloomed from delicate stems upon his knuckles, purple and gold and orange. His jaw fell open. Mesmerized, he watched a little garden spring to life upon his flesh. The flowers weren’t some illusion, either. They possessed a tart, floral scent that held the putrefaction of the swamp at bay.

With his flesh and blood fingers, he touched at the petals, a tender exploration. They were so small. He’d be careful. He wouldn’t let anyone—

“What’s going on?” Gaz again, on edge, and Calay understood why. He’d forgotten in the wonder of the moment that he was standing before a reanimated corpse, that the flowers had an origin he shouldn’t trust. They’d been entrancing.

He narrowed his eyes. He tried to find a feature of the thing’s face to focus upon, as it swayed there before him. Its features appeared melted, rippled and smooth like well-oiled leather, mouth and nose sagging down one side of the face while the eye sockets stared, vacant and unseeing. Yet when he shifted from foot to foot, the thing’s head turned minutely. Eyeless as it was, it saw him somehow.

It removed its finger from his arm. Then it spoke without opening its mouth.

[We are the Many of the Indefinite-Collective, gardener.]

The voice existed in his mind, yet his ears heard nothing. He was aware of the words the way he was aware of his own memories.

“Hello?” Under any other circumstances, he would have hated the tremor in his voice, the uncertainty. But this was no time for a power play.

Again, words formed in his mind, and he knew the corpse was the source.

[We-who-are-undefined are unused to this method of {???} and seek to communicate in a way that Defined-as-Calay will understand.]

There was a gap in the sentence, like he’d momentarily stopped listening. A concept came to mind, like an abstract image: communication racing between two beings, thoughts arriving almost simultaneously, an innate understanding, the way a mind knows when a finger has been pricked.

[After the Collapse of mycelial projection Geetsha, defense mechanisms were activated. These mechanisms nurtured the Bridge, and your {???} within the roots has further Bridged you.]

Geetsha. The strange pattern of speech, the unusual wording. It reminded him of her. He jerked a half-step back, staring at the body now in search of some resemblance, some familiar feature. But it didn’t resemble her at all.

“Geetsha’s dead,” he said, uncertain.

[Knowledge hums through the Indefinite-Collective. Geetsha has ceased to hum, but the knowledge hums on.]

He felt like a man at a seance, or watching a parody of a seance play out in a theatre. What was he supposed to say? The consciousness invading his own was an alien presence. He couldn’t guess at its motivations.

“Why are you here?” His voice had steadied, at least.

The being’s rippled face regarded him sightlessly.

[Defined-as-Calay performs a gardener’s duties to the Definite. You perform {???} and medicine to purge single-bodies-single-minds of infection.]

“That’s correct…” How exactly it knew that he didn’t dwell on. If it could imprint thoughts into his mind in such a way, who knew what other abilities it possessed. Or They. As it seemed to be a representative of a greater… tribe?

[The attack on mycelial projection Geetsha has triggered an immune response. The Indefinite-Collective has formed an agreement with Defined-as-Tarn that you shall not be {treated?} when the {fever?} strikes.]

He sensed it as an idea more than as words: Geetsha’s death had triggered some sort of defense system inside the swamp itself. And the retaliatory strike was coming.

He felt no malice from the being. It was merely a messenger.

“What are we supposed to do?” Not that he was game to take orders from a psychic corpse, but it was goading him toward something. Otherwise, why warn him?

[Remove the source of the {infection?} before the immune response.]

“The source of the infection?” Calay tilted his head. The swamp saw them as infectious bodies, to be purged from its system?

[Not you. The mycelial projection was attacked by an Unbridged single-mind defined as Harlan.]

“Oh. Vosk.” Relief. “So, what, just kill him?” Riss wouldn’t want Vosk dead. He didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with her.

“No!” Torcha’s voice rose from behind him, an ornery drawl. “I can’t let you do that. We got orders to bring him back. You know that. A shiv in the neck is too easy for what he did.”

The being did not acknowledge Torcha at all. Calay’s shoulders tingled. He wondered if she was watching him through her sights.

Calay didn’t give a rat’s ass whether Vosk made it to the gallows. But he had to keep up appearances, or Riss’ trigger-happy grunt would object.

“We can’t… kill him,” Calay said, unsure if the thing before him even understood the concept of dead. Geetsha had been shot in the face. She certainly wasn’t humming on.

[Can he be removed?]

A thought occurred to him. He glanced over his shoulder. “Can you guys… uh, hear this?”

Gaz and Torcha shook their heads, both skeptical in their regard of him.

“I can hear it,” he explained. “In my head. It says the swamp wants Vosk to be removed. Or else there’s a… response coming.”

“Well that’s the whole goal, isn’t it?” asked Gaz. “Get him outta here, get him back to Tarn’s, tip him off the gallows, never set foot in this place again?”

Calay swung his attention back to the melted face that still hovered far too close to his own. He sniffed involuntarily, felt disgust at the hunger the scent of whiskey and sweet flowers evoked.

“You said you had an agreement with Tarn? To get Vosk out of here?” How did Tarn fit into all this? Calay’s mind strained with the effort to try to piece it all together. He liked to think he had a superior intellect compared to most, but he was lost.

[Defined-as-Tarn informed the Collective that a family of Definite would arrive. We agreed that no harm would come to the Definite, but the immune response is a {reflex?} and cannot be {helped?}.]

Calay had to laugh. He cawed out a single, harsh laugh that rang off the treetops, a laugh so rough he coughed in the aftermath, thumping a fist against his sternum. He stared the creature down without a shred of horror now, so amused was he by that statement.

“No harm would come to us? You think this counts as no harm coming to us? Geetsha got shot in the face. Riss and Adalgis almost died. I lost my fucking arm—”

[There are things which hum within the marsh outside the Indefinite-Collective.]

Goosebumps tightened across his skin.

He couldn’t believe he was about to say it, but—

“Help us, then. Help us get to Vosk. We’ll remove the infection. You’re correct. I’m a… gardener. I can do it, but we’ve wasted a lot of time hiking all over this swamp with no clue where to go.”

A pulse of consideration seeped through the being’s hand and through his arm. He felt it consider his offer. Then, despite how motionless it had stood up until that point, it nodded its rippled head.

[The Collective shall network the way. Defined-as-Calay will fight the infection. The agreement is fulfilled.]

The corpse turned away from him. Calay watched in astonishment as little specks of light blinked into existence, hovering midair around its head. It wheezed, and the glowing particulates erupted from the sores upon its face and neck, the little flecks of white Calay had noticed earlier.

The glowing motes drifted westward, forming a definite line.

“It… wants us to follow,” Calay said, hesitant again. “It says it’s with Geetsha? And, ehm. It says it will lead the way to Vosk?”

“You got all that from just staring at its face?” Torcha sounded skeptical. He didn’t blame her.

“Torcha, here,” he said. “Give me your hand.”

She didn’t step forward. He shifted his eyes to Gaz instead and beckoned, curling his fingers inward.

Gaz joined him, though he kept a wary distance from the corpse, which now stood inert as a tree—the regular kind of tree. Calay reached out and grasped Gaz’s hand in his own, threading their fingers together. He couldn’t explain how he knew that touch would work, that he could serve as a conduit for the creature’s thoughts to Gaz. He just knew.

[We are Bridging.]

Gaz’s eyes widened, growing huge. He gripped Calay’s hand tighter as he squeaked out a surprised breath.

“It doesn’t want to hurt us,” Gaz murmured, looking to Torcha. “It’s impossible to describe. You can just… tell.”

Torcha was unconvinced. “Unless it’s witching you both.”

But before she could argue, Gaz reached out and grabbed her by the forearm, pressing a few fingers to the gap in her glove and sleeve.

Together, the three of them experienced the Bridging. Incomprehensible feelings and sensations: knowledge racing and humming through all the roots and fungi in the swamp, the simultaneous Knowing that threaded the whole place together, like blood vessels working in tandem to keep a body alive.

And through the pulses of those veins, they felt it: a point of throbbing discomfort. A lesion. A boil that required lancing.

And it wasn’t just the Collective that Calay bridged with. When he’d been tangled in the roots of the crawling tree, he’d sensed within them a vague recollection of scarlet-shelled beetles. Bugs that needed crushing. Of fire and loss and care and concern, feelings much larger than those he’d ever felt within himself.

He saw the Bug Room, heard the soft squeak of Madem Yelisey’s wheel as she spun fibers into yarn.

He saw the Indigents’ Clinic, felt the soft tugs of worry in Gaz’s stomach as he tended the patients there, as he watched the door and waited, as dark grew closer and he tried to stomach the nightly fear that the one person he had ever really loved might not make it home.

And oh… oh shit, oh no. What had Gaz and Torcha seen inside him?

A soft whine sounded from the dog, which warily regarded the corpse from where it hunkered.

That broke the spell. They snapped their hands away from one another all at once. Calay cradled his mangled arm to his chest, breathed in the perfume of his newfound flowers.

Gaz and Torcha had tears in their eyes. When he blinked, his eyes felt wet too. He needed a moment to right himself, to sift through that cacophony of thought and sensation and figure out which slivers of it were his own. To swallow back the mounting fury and aggression, to divert the weird impulses to ascertain that everyone was all right. Gods, what the fuck, Gaz cared about people so much—

“I see it now.” Torcha looked past the corpse, toward the trees. “The Collective, they’ve lit the way.”

A sparkling trail cut through the dusky swamp, clear as day, begging them to follow it.

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10 thoughts on “Chapter 51

  1. WHAT!!! I’ve been reading this serial since December and I loved it from the beginning but this took the story to a whole new level. I can’t stop thinking about where it’s going to go next and I can’t stop wondering what’s going to happen to Gaz and Calay. I can’t stop wondering if Geetsha is coming back. I get so upset when stories and fics I love end up abandoned and unfinished but this is the first serial I’ve ever read where I will uglycry if I don’t get to find out what happens.

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely words. I hope the end doesn’t disappoint you! There’s definitely a lot more Gaz and Calay in the future.

  2. Wow, what a twist! And finally some concrete explanation for Geetsha. The swamp has some factions or possibly renegade creatures which means it’s still dangerous in a general sense. Immune response though… I’m guessing the rock monster was the equivalent of a hunter-killer cell.

    1. Not to get too spoilery but you are right on the money. 😀 Thanks for staying with the story this long, it means a lot.

  3. Suddenly the whole swamp seems a bit more benevolent than before.
    However I’m very curious: What exactly makes Harlan Vosk an infection, yet the others are not? And apparently Tarn has some deal with the collective swamp. I can imagine it would be a mutually beneficial deal. A benevolent monster swamp is a great way to get rid of undesirables and the valuable meldwood might be acquired in mutual understanding with the swamp. Especially given the infection terminology. The melding of trees with creatures might be similar to a T-cell response and might involve the death of the tree and require that the dead tree is removed, similar to how an infected wounds ooze a pus that is mixed foreign material and dead T-cells.

    1. Mostly that Harlan shot Geetsha and the swamp didn’t take too kindly to that. 😉

      Your physiological theories are right on the nose. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

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