"Skull traveled mighty far, didn't it?"
Gin grins. Her hand is held out expectantly for coins that tumble into it. She counts them with flourish while Dismas rolls his eyes, noticing with each pass of the dungeon his satchel growing lighter. Sly and quick, she's just like a fox. All it does is enable Dismas into the next bet.
"Ten pieces," he says.
"Right. Your turn, love. One chance. Bounce a bullet off an old bone's shield and make a headshot out of it."
Dismas pretends to think on it and amends with, "Twenty pieces."
"Too easy for ya, isn't it?"
Gin scoffs, hands falling to her hips. Dismas keeps a straight face, unruffled by her accuracy. It comes with playing the game and they've both been in the game far too long.
"What, can't ask for the price to match the challenge?"
"Hah." She shakes her head with a warm grin back on her lips. "I know you well, too well, Dismas. Why, you'd claim you squeezed blood from a stone if you could. Gambling Hall knows it too."
Eyes kept steady, Dismas smirks underneath his handkerchief.
"Fine, fine. Fifteen pieces. Best not lose."
"Must you two keep at it?!" Oz calls from behind them, dusty map from the curio clutched in her hand. A thin film of dust still clings to her goggles, but she pays it no mind, attention fixed on her companions. "What bet are you even on now, twenty?"
Both rogues chime in, "Thirty two."
The Plague Doctor ughs in disgust.
"Thought you saw everything with those sharp eyes o' yours." Gin replies playfully. The knife in her hand flips in the air once before she catches it with her fingertips.
"Why not let the blade cut you for once." Oz ignores the teasing completely, desire leaking in her voice. Desire for science. "I need another blood sample from you."
Gin scowls at that tone, "The hell ya do. Ver's collected enough of my blood already."
"Tell your batty wife to share her vials with me, then!"
Dismas easily breaks the growing spat up, "Oi. Gnat's returned up ahead. Back into formation."
"Odd. Would've thought we'd hear her coming along. After all, she broke down every door in the Weald two weeks ago. Had those filthy swine wishing they'd impaled themselves, fat drippings crackling in the flames.
"Hungry for rabies, Oz? The stink of those fouls put me off food for two days." Gin grimaces, "Mostly the milk and cheese."
"Curds," Dismas adds on solemnly.
"Weak stomachs, the lot of you. Can carve out skulls but can't bear to look inside and stick your hands in. You're lucky to have women like me, who treat the battlefield and the laboratory as one and the same."
Gin laughs, a warm, charmed sound. It dies into a contemplative hum when Gnat stands before them, a cultist's shoulder caught on her bardiche blade. A streak of blood overlaps her face paint, the very portrait of a rampage when she smiles, more teeth than lip.
"I tracked the Prophet by his pups wails. Six rooms east, five south. We will camp at the start of the southern halls."
Dismas grunts in agreement. Gin smothers a snort behind him but does not speak. Oz steps out of line to unfold the worn map, flicking her wrist so, gloved finger pointing at a scrawled destination. "Your bite is as effective as ever, but there's a secret to pillage three rooms north of here."
"Have we more need of jewels? It's the Prophets head we intend to take."
"Hah, you may take point but you are no leader of mine! I'd sooner listen to the dung scrapped along these halls."
The Hellion grins, her dark eyes bleeding into the kohl that lines them.
"I can pack your mouth in, so you can taste it as well."
Oz steps forward with a hiss, "Insolent brute--!"
Dismas holds out an arm to cut her advance short, the Plague Doctor hissing under her breath at him. Needles, vials, leeches in uncomfortable places. He ignores her, focusing on Gnat, whose harsh features grow darker with each wobble of the torch.
"Relight the torch. We will backtrack as the Heiress demands it."
"For gold and baubles." Gnat says dully.
"For the Hamlet."
Dismas tips his head to Gin who ignites the torch, a bright glow filling the room, a false sense of peace. Strangely, the light does not soften the Hellion, rather it outlines her large frame, making her bigger than ever. With a sharp crack and roll of her neck, she nods, ready to get on with it.
"If we must, I will lead the charge. Much like the warhawk, we will drop onto our enemies when they are unaware!"
Dismas looks to find Oz shuffling her way to the back again, sighing quietly into his handkerchief. Good. Another stressful moment averted. The Ruins nearly feel like home now, the dark forbidden sprawl of tunnels and doors, it does not ail him as it once did. But Gin, calm faced as always, is starting to feel the pressure. She is not Kudret, who he once ran a count of fourteen simultaneous bets with in the bowels of the warrens. Gin? She gambles, she plays, she goes home. She is their trap expert, lock picker, the inner and outer workers of a sarcophagus more dear to her than childhood memories.
She badly needs the distraction, not from the shadows, the spiders, or the undead.
But from man.
He whistles quietly when they turn the corner, a skirmish picking up when the blight grenade strikes. In the clearing fumes, shots and knifes fly - crippling targets before they can even move. A large decrepit warrior charges from the back, the large skeleton knight has been prevalent in this quest. From the beginning, using hoards of stragglers to lead them into trapped rooms, only to appear with a mighty sword or mace.
Gnat braces herself against the quake, roaring from her belly and it's a sound Dismas has never heard another human being make. Man or woman, she is terrifying, animal in her aggression. The undead creature skitters back, stunned, sensing bloodlust before the axe comes, armor and bony cartilage smashes, falling to pieces after a barrage of gunshots and blades.
They push her back to regroup, Dismas taking point with Gin behind, ready to fade away once the Hellion catches her breath. One room battle comes, the promised shield appears and Gin hisses in his ear, "Knew it." Oz passes her vials around when a particular heavy bleed hits the group, and Dismas is back at point, when Oz exclaims, "here!"
Slipping through the wall, Dismas' fingers dance through his satchel, grabbing their last skeleton key from its depths. Oz and Gin crowd him, curiosity and greed hovering over them. The gems nearly blind them with their shine when the torch light hits them. They nearly distract from the bag and its... odor.
"Eh?" Gin is the first to reach for it and open it, but Dismas is the first to see inside.
It's a head.
"Not doing that bloke any good now," Gin murmurs in amusement. Dismas is stuck in place, arms stiff but still seeing his hands moving, fingers carding through the hair to try and slick it back, not with grease, but black blood. His mouth is trembling when Oz's beak prods him, mask making it difficult to peer over his shoulder. With a huff, she pushes him aside.
A harsh bark escapes him and it's enough to draw Gin's attention, but not Oz. Caught up in her exam, she picks the bag up with the head exposed and swats away the drawing flies.
"What use do we have for it?" Gin laughs. "Won't fetch us much, if anything."
Oz shushes her. "No, it's for me. How fascinating. I want to know how long it's been decomposing."
"You talk about Ver, but you're a loony bird, yerself."
Dismas' hands are sweating inside his gloves. His back meets Gin's gaze when she looks, movements slow and calculated. He wants to scream. To claw the head out of the crow's hands and toss it, lose it like a children's toy, never to be found again.
Stress, like needles, pins his joints in place, one step feeling like one giant leap.
"Call it my glamour shot, Dis."
"Yah! We came to collect and now we leave!" Gnat's booming voice enters the small chamber, her furs wrapped in cobwebs after she enters. "HUH, HAHA. You found a trophy, after all." She points to the head in amusement, unfazed. Gin rolls her eyes, whips her hair back, and gives Oz a gentle push.
"Looks like, Oz wants it."
"I have it," the woman replies gleefully, setting to tie it proper to her belt. "The weight is a promise, not a hindrance."
"Right," Dismas snaps, voice hard yet steady all the same. "C'mon." Gnat's voice shook the stillness out of him, but all he feels is the adrenaline, fight or run, stab or die, shoot to kill. "Let's go kill something."
Gnat whoops. "Exactly! The Spirits do not wait and neither do I!"
Somehow, they settle back into their formation. Backtracking is peaceful, eerily so. The fiends make up for it once they breach new territory - wave after wave of enemies with splintering clubs and cultists who scream, who bleed for the Old Gods. Gnat takes a sharp blow to the head that sends her reeling, back behind Oz. Gin takes to the front with her pick axe, Dismas behind to provide assistance. His hand remains steady but his eyes flicker, from man to corpse, to man, to undead jesters with poison on their lips.
The madman is a surprise, running manic down the hall, he grabs Dismas by the shoulders and screams, not the gibberish that brings bad memories, but words, words he knows well, better than his own name. Squealer, cheater, coulda strung him up, shoulda, made him cry hAHAHA, dead, got the head, got the head, - and he hears the shot of a gun but sees his knife slick red from the man's open throat.
Gnat checks him out of the way, a harsh push into his ribs when the brawler's claws come at him. She impales him with her blade, shakes it hard to knock him lose, he makes no sound, save for the wet squish and plop of his organs falling.
They move and make for camp then, Dismas a ticking bomb, shying away from his companions eyes, using the shadows rapidly forming in the room.
Gin smacks at Oz when she tries to bring the head out, scowling darkly. It's the smell, she says, could Oz keep it in her robes for another day. "It ain't goin' anywhere, now stick it in me so I can get this blight out of my system."
"Of course." Oz snorts sourly, fixing one of her syringes to being to Gin's thigh. "Hold your breath now, it's potent, dear. More so than usual."
Dismas hears the hiss from where he sets up his bells and tries to stay with them, to stop his mind from chattering away, memories clashing over one another, he cut him but he thought he shot him and he shakes his head harshly.
"Quit it," he hisses to himself. Shut the fuck up.
They round up to eat and Gnat fixes her paint soon after, broad fingers drawing down thick lines over her eye and cheek. Not the act but her stillness and silence is what unnerves Oz, Dismas notes, keeping track of the body language in the loose circle. It's still not enough to distract him, not the soft creak of old wood or faint whistle of wind.
He feels as if he is falling, deep, deeper into madness. What he lacks is an intrusion,though his mind not receptive to visitors in the first place. He wants Reynauld, he knows. Wishes the old soldier were beside him by the fire, listening to him whistle tunes as he cleans his gun. Just the thought makes him guilty, sick.
'Ain't like he's your husband,' his mind whispers, quiet, like a terror creeping under his bed. He knows who it's talking about and he doesn't.
He gets up to check out his lines one more time and no one stops him.
When the torch dies out, they sleep. Or, Oz and Gin settle into a lazy sprawl together, stealing what warmth they can from each other. In the dark, Dismas can make out the outline of Gnat's figure sitting until she's standing, approaching him.
She eases down beside him with no hesitation.
"We should leave like this," she says. "In the dark while our enemies believe we slumber. Split their heads and thrash their hearts. They think we fear the night."
Dismas thinks of every expedition he's been on, the fear and horror of the last torch, before the job was done. The shameful weeping when they found one forgotten in its stand. The Antiquarian, desperately lighting the way, with her cursed lantern, determined with shaky steps.
Gnat scoffs, shoving a loose fist into his shoulder. It hurts more than he cares to admit.
"They do. You don't."
"Hazard of the job." It comes out dry. "Walked the road at night, I wasn't the only one."
"Whether your eyes are crusted with blood, mud, or dung, it doesn't matter. It's your mind's eye that needs to be clear, to know."
"Why you educating me if I already know?"
"Cause you're blind." She turns to face Dismas and he can barely see her lip curl in disgust. It pisses him off, twisted into himself as he is.
"Ever had your right eye blown out by a blind man?"
"Take more than that to scare me."
She grins, night twisting her features into a boogey man, stitched up in furs and blood. Dismas remembers her as the violent barbarian who killed twenty brigands before getting slashed up, her chest shredded and hanging off her body. She'd lived, growling and screaming through recovery in the sanitarium for weeks, before they released her. A pale thin thing with weight missing from her chest who ate and drank and stayed with the survivalist while her strength returned.
"I'm surprised you lived," he says honestly.
"They missed my heart. Flesh is flesh, fat for cubs I'll never have." She answers quietly. "'Course it hurts, living is all about hurting. You hurt and hurt, until you die. Not supposed to let it stop you, is all. Not until the end."
Dismas thinks of the scars on his hands and arms, slugs that he took in his leg. The vice on his heart love put and never took back.
"It's not the end."
Dismas stares, eyes widening before he can help himself, her eyes piercing through him, not unlike Isla, of all things.
"You have the heart of a panther. I can hear it purring..."
It's odd, out of place, but he hears the compliment, a sentiment she's never come close to sharing with him before. It's not the end.
"Must be asleep then." Dismas says quietly, watches Gnat's eyes crinkle in pleasure at his acceptance.
"Course it is."
She stands, rolling her shoulders, and moves to walk away.
Dismas catches her with one question, "What else your mind's eye know, Gnat?"
She turns, a slow sharp grin sliding over her lips.
"If it bleeds, I can kill it."
Dismas huffs a laugh, a grin finally making a home on his face before he waves her off. In the darkness, he listens for his bells and hears nothing, doesn't expect much, and is pleased. His mind still drifts, from smoke and warm hands, to Reynauld, the faint scar through his lip, and his straight strong back.
We are better than this, we will not be taken!
Not by the shadows, not by our own minds.
He settles in against the wall and exhales loudly.
How to start it off, he thinks. Maybe, had something like you did too. Not a wife, but a husband, much as I could. I get it, I do.
It's going to be hard. And sad. He sleeps until Gin wakes him with a curious expression and takes her hand when she offers it, his knees aching from the cold floor.
There's a Prophet to kill.