Still in a crouch of his own, Shaw began to struggle out of the ephemera that was strapped to him. Josephine snatched up the tracking device he had cut loose and threw it back at him, striking his shoulder.
"You won't get clear... " she promised, watching him upend his pack and gather what he needed. "She'll spill everything when they get her in the chair..."
"This place is fucking empty, she doesn't know shit and you..." Breaking off, he lunged forward after Susan's hands, too late to stop their lashing strike. She punched the split length of silvered pine butted in her fists into Josephine's thigh, committing her entire weight to the assault; driven deeply, the dry wood pierced her skin, skidding then stubbed blunt between the knot of bones and sheaths inside her knee. The woman retched out a rasping cry, clutching the leg as the shard shifted in the flesh contracting round it and Susan launched herself at her, clubbing furiously at her face with both bound hands. They slid together down the wet slope; Shaw shouted after them, but as he struggled to his feet it was the sucking crack of a bullet loosed from the ruin that stilled the women struggling below.
His head snapped forward on his neck and opened, expelling wet red and thick sodden pink through the outward dissolution of his features. The hot matter struck the side of Susan's face; his body listed, dropping to and falling forward from its knees. On the ledge the remaining conscript caught a second round and toppled before the sound of the first had died away. Susan kicked back from the woman underneath her, fingers sliding on a small stretch of half-buried black, a pistol jogged from its holster and stamped into the thin snow. Snatching it up, she planted her boots against the woman's hip and aimed the weapon at her face.
Her shot threw the pistol backward in her hands. A knocking report swept down the hillside as a booming seashore echo, leaving a dark puncture in the snow by Josephine's left ear, but before she could amend her aim, a grasp closed on her jersey and hauled her sideways; keeping his hold on her, Sachiin swung his rifle from his shoulder and struck the stranger senseless with its stock.
The soft sound of his voice puzzled Susan, seeming new to her while behind them his brother cast fresh snow over the ledge in dropping from it, holding his rifle clear. The chain still bound her to the nameless woman and she exclaimed in sudden and visceral repugnance, casting up screeds of dirty snow as she pounded her boot against the latters' arm and ribcage until Sachiin cut the black cuffs from her wrists. With her freed, he sat down on the slope as though his legs had failed him, finding the hand that hung by her side with his own and breathing a prayer of thanks, his eyes still wide and holding a ghost of their commonplace shade. Shaw's stricken body shifted weakly in a slow, petering contraction, closing on itself with a series of little shudders, like a child wracked by the distant passage of a dream.
Susan cleared her throat and slid her hand from his to push back her loosened braids. The snow wandered against her face as she drew her sleeve down over her wrist and used it to wipe the thick pink spatter from her mouth.
Blushing pulses of pain roused Josephine to the sight of dark eyes in a pale scowl blurred down to lithic tones and shifting, misted shapes. The girl wrestled her black boot from her left foot, wrenching the leg that had swollen around the shaft of wood still buried in its knee. With her head to the foot of the ruin, Josephine saw the curving wall loom in a dreadful grey parabola, black cuffs securing her hands at the small of her back, though she could no longer feel them. Her former captive shuffled her feet into the warmth of the stolen boots, walking a short distance and stopping to rock back and forth, then stooping to lace them with her best hand. Josephine's rifle slid forward against the back of her head from where it hung across her shoulders.
The small party had chosen sparingly from the vanquished corps' equipment, satisfying necessity more than preference, Susan taking obsessive care to locate those samples wrested from her person. Having segregated them in the midst of the clearing, she looked again toward the survivor and stamped her new boots over the fragile receptacles, splintering and kicking them into oblivion. Behind her, Sachiin lifted her pack to test the balance of the load, cheating Fyodor's questing snout of the rations stowed in its compartments. Shaw's body lay like refuse, limbs left skewed by their passage over the stony ground; a florid drag had trailed the remaining portions of his head like effluent bleeding from a rusting pipe.
Josephine did not know that her weatherproof garments had been awarded to Susan, feeling only random and dissonant elements of her own exposure, pinching pain and blue-hued absences. The fraternal creatures standing before her claimed the whole of her faltering attentions, the fauna of a lost continent that drifted away slowly while they walked its distant shore, a paradox that crowded all else backward. Snow embraced them as surely as it reviled her, closing like the jungle around the oscillated feline and leaving nothing to explain. She ate what she could get of them until the memory began to seize and fracture, choked with their detail, closing her eyes only when the frowning girl complained to a companion of her stare.
The shadow had been scoured from the wall beneath the steps since Petrouchka's demise. Sachiin followed its curve to her remains, where his hands moved in a simple observance, articulating sorrow and gratitude. That which had been spared by her immolation was already half-interred by snow, its sated darkness consumed in turn.
"I don't think she did it for us." Susan ventured, standing at his side. He half-turned to pick her up and held her dumbly. "Breathe." she urged into his ear, appraised of the suspension he still suffered despite her warmth and sentience. His brother brought tape from Josephine's kit and Sachiin set her down to wrap her injured fingers; she watched their crushed colours disappear, letting him go to make a final sweep of their surrounds.
"They could have had us all by now. You should have gone." she told Kala'amātya. He did not reply.
"I put my foot down." Sachiin admitted.
"Again?" Susan's face slackened into a half-formed smile, but it was dismissed by the purpose that turned her back toward Kala'amātya and prompted her to trail him as he performed his own final survey of the debris broadcast around them. "Petrouchka was lying..." she whispered, wiping stiffened hair from her cheek and awaiting some sign that he was attending to her communique, "She told me Helaine was happy, and then sad... not the other way around." His acknowledgement was wordless and delayed, evinced as an expression he turned away from her, but she was gratified, and stood to work a glove over her injured hand. He emptied the rifle he had used to kill Shaw and the conscript, laying it out beside Josephine in an act that Susan came slowly to appreciate. "That cow was the one who did this to my fucking hands." She leaned once more over the woman's leg, examining the wound she had inflicted with a satisfaction as plain as carbon daubed across her face. "It looks bad..."
Josephine's gaze continued to mine the precious values of Kala'amātya's surface. He returned her stare with something forged beyond the windblown, fox-grey span of prosaic indifference.
"Will she walk, if she makes it out of here?"
"Eventually." he conceded. Susan squinted at her own irresolution when his silence became expectant.
"So it's up to me..."
"She's your mark. You get the horns."
"I think I'll leave it. It sort of feels like throwing back a live grenade." she declared, taking out the pistol and directing it at Josephine in passing. "It won't be your fucking knee next time." she promised her, joining Sachiin as he moved out, the piglet trailing him closely.
They skirted the stiffening remains of the corps; Susan held her companion's hand in negotiating the drop onto the snow-blurred trail, blowing the flakes from her fringe and urging him onward. The narrow way curved to the east with the hollow leading from the weathered spur, the clouds lowering to graze the apex of the tallest pines. Where the steps diverged they halted, the brothers murmuring to one another, Kala'amātya offering a handgun and a fold of bills to Sachiin and accepting a camouflaged bag in the exchange. The latter lifted Fyodor from the snow and over his shoulder, stuffing the small animal under the cowl of his pack.
"Sis'thle bai'in." he said softly, addressing the brief courtesy to his brother.
"What's this? Where are you going?" Susan demanded.
"West." replied Kala'amātya.
"East." Sachiin confirmed when she looked back to him.
"But... when will..." The question's plaintive irresolution and the expression that accompanied it took them both by surprise, Kala'amātya shifting the rifle to his left shoulder. He waited momentarily, then lifted the hood of his sweatshirt, stepping up onto the westward flight. She caught his arm and turned him back toward her. "Wear you teeth, and don't be such a bastard." she whispered, wresting something small from the pocket of her jeans and pushing it into his grasp. "It's got a filling, but don't throw it away... it's definitely lucky."
He looked down at the tooth in the palm of his hand, then turned again and began the long climb toward the wooded ridge, his footprints first softened, then obliterated by snow. Blowing on her hands, she watched her breath curl in plumes as he was lost to them, still frowning to herself.
"Do you know where he's going?" she asked her remaining companion.
"Yeah..." Sachiin admitted through a seasoned scowl. "I'm pretty sure I do."
He held out his hand and she stepped down with him in the opposite direction, beside the course of an infant spring, its silvered flux slicing through the snow in its desire for the darkness of the gorge.