The demon head Duff Roman had cut off thumped into the long fronds of ferns to the right of its cave. The body thrashed in the mud, spraying droplets of black blood around the small clearing. Its six legs twitched and a puddle of goo spread under its body. A wave of acid-stink, with undertones of baked bread and fish, stung Duff’s eyes.
Damn, demons were hard enough to kill and then their blood continued to destroy skin it touched long after death.
Z, the leader of their crew, rubbed his shaved head and crawled into the demon’s cave. The cave might be a small chamber or a larger cavern.
Rin crossed in front of him to stand rigidly under a nearby tree. Even after all this time, she never said much to him. She’d answer questions only if she was asked directly.
A cough brought his attention to Gabriel. Their newest member wasn’t a Seer, but he certainly was weird. He was always braiding and unbraiding his long dark hair. He didn’t quite fit in, but had only been with the crew for three months. Even though Duff hadn’t been with the crew much longer, they’d been through so much that it felt far longer.
If Z found a Relic, it would be the first one they’d found since James’s death. Duff’s back and stomach knotted. Finding a Relic would allow them to replenish supplies that they’d bought three months ago, the last time they’d been in town. It would let him go back and see his family at the orphanage. He hoped the money he’d left last time he was in town had been enough for the kids to survive.
Duff wiped the ichor off his blade with a scrap of cloth. The black tar smoldered, filling the air with smoke. He parted the long green fronds to clear the pungent smoke. If demon blood stayed too long on a blade, it would rot the blade away.
He sat and unpacked the blade cleaning supplies. His gear not being in good shape could make the difference between life and death. Human’s didn’t belong on the planet Kalecca where almost everything was deadly to them and there were only a few things that were edible.
He sucked in air thick with moisture. A drop of water trailed off his hair into the deep groove in his whetstone. The stone was just about used up from sharpening blades. Sharpening stones were just one of many things this crew was running out of. The leaves snapped shut above him. He slotted the clean blade in the groove and found the rhythm. So many things might get you killed in the jungle, including a dull blade.
Anything dangerous made him think of Matilda. He hadn’t seen her since she’d joined the company. She was in more danger than he was in the jungle. Ravenne, the head of the company, had already tried to kill them all. Duff still had no idea why Matilda had joined the company.
Beneath the next tree over, Gabriel grunted. The light rain splattered around him, but not on his white cloth laid out on the red clay ground with the sides squared to the compass. His crossbow and six bolts lay on the North East corner, the machete on the North West corner, the set of knives along the South edge, lined up like teeth. He lifted each item and brought it close to inspect it. The white scar down the middle of his bulbous nose had been there the first time they’d met. Maybe from a knife that had gotten just a little too close while cleaning.
The wild gleam in Gabriel’s eyes when anyone got near said that wasn’t the cause of his scar. Not that Duff asked him or anyone else on the crew about anything personal. They all had secrets.
The scrape of his blade soothed him.
The hairs on the back of his neck rose. Duff tensed and his blade paused on the whetstone.
Rin moved to the center of the clearing on watch. The light rain slid down her black hair that was pulled up in some elaborate knot. Her back was straight, her hands tucked up in her shirt, while her gaze scoured the shadows beneath the tree where the noise had come from. With a flick of her wrist, a knife impaled a fat lizard. Dinner. Perhaps the only food they would eat tonight. Lizard was slimy and gritty, but better than starving. When he’d first joined Z crew, he’d had little idea what to expect. Lizard was not the worst thing he’d eaten lately.
Z stalked out of the cave. His face drawn, lips thin. Rin glanced his way and frowned, but covered it with her normal stony expression. Her expression held a hint of prim and proper. She tossed the lizard carcass to Z.
He caught the lizard, and sat next to Duff. Their leader gutted the lizard with practiced ease, started a small fire and put the lizard on a spit to cook.
The fire sputtered and crackled. The pucker of Z’s lips and the lines on his face meant he was just as worried as Duff. Z would have looked a whole lot happier if he’d found a Relic in the cave.
“Find any?” Duff kept his voice low and even to offset the burst of nerves. He still had mixed feelings about Z. When they’d first met, perhaps he would have asked more questions. But now, after finding out Z had been the one to kill his family, Duff wasn’t sure how to act around Z.
Z had been tricked into doing the terrible things he’d done and he’d prevented Duff from following the same path, becoming an assassin for the company. Really an assassin for Ravenne, but that left Duff confused about his trust in Z.
Z shook his head and rubbed his clean cut skull.
Duff glanced at the rest of the crew. At some point they would have to get a Seer or they would run out of money. After the money they’d spent to resupply and what they had donated to the orphanage, none of them had much in the bank.
No one would meet Duff’s gaze. He sighed and put away his supplies. “What now?”
“On to the next demon hole.” Z cut up the lizard and handed them each a portion.
No one grumbled. They’d killed more demons and checked more demon holes than anyone he’d ever heard of. So far they’d found no Relics.
Rin put out the fire with dirt.
Duff gobbled his lizard. The slimy flesh slid down his throat. He swallowed an extra time to keep it down. Food was food. Any provisions they had from town were long gone. Even Reds, the rundown dive on the edge of town with its questionable food, was starting to sound good.
He took a splash of water from his canteen, before hurrying after Z. Rin and Gabriel would follow.
Rin gasped. Something crashed in the brush. Duff turned to see that Rin had fallen into a bush at the edge of the clearing. Shock coursed through him, making everything seem louder and brighter. She had never taken a misstep before and had always seemed unconsciously nimble on her feet.
Duff and Z made it to her side at the same time.
Her face was twisted in pain.
Z knelt next to her. “What happened?”
She shook her head. “Wasn’t paying attention.”
Z’s face betrayed nothing as he pulled a thorn out of her left calf.
“That’s Dead Eye,” Gabriel said. “We need to get Rin to a healer in the next day.”
“Or what?” Duff glanced between Rin’s pale face and Gabriel.