Monthly Archives: June 2016

Cracks 1.12

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


For the second time in a handful of days, I was following a group of people through the forests west of town with Black. This time, though, felt entirely different. Before I’d been afraid, but it was a vague, uncertain sort of fear. I knew that something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was.


Now, I was scared, and it had none of that comforting distance. I knew what was wrong, and it was everything. There was nothing about this situation that wasn’t wrong and ominous and threatening.


I hadn’t told Black about the warding post being gone. I wasn’t entirely sure why, except that I was still too confused myself to feel comfortable talking to anyone else about it. Warding posts didn’t just disappear. They were solidly built, dug several feet into the ground and anchored into rock. It was only every few years that one came loose and fell over, and I could only remember one breaking once. And either of those would have left the post on the ground nearby, which it hadn’t been.


That left, essentially, two possibilities. The first was that someone had removed it. The second was that I was wrong about there having ever been a warding post there.


I didn’t like either of those explanations. The first simply didn’t make sense. Animals had no reason to interfere with the posts, and anything more Changed than I was couldn’t get near the things, let alone actually damage them. A person could have removed it, I supposed, but why? It was simultaneously too risky for a prank and too ineffectual to be sabotage. One post being gone wasn’t enough to leave a serious vulnerability in the wards, even if someone had a reason to sabotage them, and I had no idea what that reason might be.


At the same time, though, I knew this forest. We were close enough to the inn–and, more specifically, to my hiding place in the woods behind the inn–that I’d been through this area quite often. I knew where the warding posts were. It was like when I Changed, almost. I hadn’t ever spent that much time looking at my hands, but when I glanced at them and saw claws, it still felt profoundly alien. Similarly, I didn’t really focus too much on the warding posts, but seeing a gap in their sequence was incredibly jarring.


So those, basically, were the possibilities I was confronted with. Either something absolutely bizarre and inexplicable had happened, or I was going crazy. I wasn’t entirely sure which was more frightening.


Black set a fairly hard pace, keeping to the less-used paths through the hills. She didn’t ask me for directions, and she knew exactly where the paths were. Clearly, she’d been getting better acquainted with the area over the past few days.


“Do you have the axe I gave you?” she asked, when we’d been out of the village for a few minutes.


I nodded. I’d been carrying it more or less constantly since she gave it to me. I still wasn’t convinced it would help–I wasn’t any good with it, after all. But I couldn’t deny that the weight of it was comforting.


“Good. And metal for channeling?”


“Coins,” I said.


Black glanced at me. “That must get expensive.”


I shrugged. “Iron is cheaper than blood.”


Her lips twitched in a brief, wry smile. “True enough,” she said. “Hopefully it won’t be necessary, but it’s good to have in case.”


“What are we doing, anyway?” I asked.


“With luck we’re just here to watch,” Black said. “There’s an outside chance they’ll be able to deal with this as well as they think they can. If not, well, we’ll have to see what this actually is before I can really say what to do.”


I nodded. It made sense. I didn’t know much of anything about fighting monsters, but I knew that trying to do the same thing with different beasts could land you in a very ugly place. The magic could take things in very strange directions, sometimes, and some of the Changed needed special treatment. Doing the same thing with a basilisk that you would with a shade was a very good way to become very dead.


It wasn’t much longer before we heard the villagers coming. They weren’t being very subtle. The whole crowd of them was stomping along, talking and rattling weapons. It wasn’t a good sort of talking. I couldn’t make out words from here, but I could make out tone, and the tone was an ugly, aggressive one.


I’d thought that Black was underestimating them. That made me less sure of that. Any chance they had of sneaking up on the ghoul-things out here was ruined if they were talking. It wasn’t even useful talking, laying out a plan or something of that sort. They were just talking to make themselves feel brave.


“There we go,” Black said, not sounding surprised to hear them. “Do you think that you can follow them closely enough to have a decent view of what’s happening without them seeing you?”


I smiled a little, and climbed into one of the trees. They wouldn’t be looking up there, not when they were basically hunting ghouls. There were monsters that moved through the trees, but ghouls weren’t one of them.


Black grinned broadly, and disappeared. I didn’t bother asking how she would follow them without being noticed. Black was a hunter, and I was getting the distinct impression that she was the sort to sneak up on people in the war, too. If she didn’t want to be seen, they weren’t going to see her.


Moving through the trees was harder than usual, with my leg still giving me a bit of trouble. But I was pretty good at this, and it wasn’t terribly hard to figure out a way to work around it. It just meant that I did less jumping than usual, and I let my other leg carry a little more of the weight. Nothing that difficult.


It was easy to find the villagers. I winced when I did. They looked…almost painfully rustic. A couple had actual weapons and armor, legion-issue, though even that equipment looked ancient, and obviously hadn’t been maintained well. It was still better than the rest. Most of the villagers had no armor at all, and their weapons were…eccentric at best. A couple of them had spears. Friedrich was carrying a forge hammer. Ketill had a scythe, of all things.


Black gods. Even I was better armed than this lot.


They weren’t moving too quickly, and I was able to keep pace easily enough, looking down on them from the treetops. They didn’t even look up, as I’d expected. And if they did, what of it? Grey fur and brown clothing faded into the branches and shadows easily enough. It just wasn’t terribly likely that they would see me.


I caught a glimpse of Black, every now and then, lurking in the trees just off the path. I didn’t doubt that it was because she wanted me to see her, to know that I wasn’t alone out here, since otherwise she might as well have been invisible. It was…not as comforting as she likely intended it to be.


Things continued like that for several minutes, as the villagers gradually fell silent. Then I saw something up ahead. They’d taken pains to hide themselves from the ground, but not from above, and from my vantage point I could pick them out readily enough.


I debated warning someone. Then I decided against it. This should be entertaining, and relatively harmless.


The villagers were taken completely by surprise when they walked past the legionnaires. The funny thing, though, was that the legionnaires were also taken completely by surprise by the villagers. Their hiding places had been very thorough, but also designed in a way that didn’t offer much visibility from inside.


When they leapt out of hiding, they did so ready for battle. Andrew was holding a strip of flash paper, and both Sumi and Marcus had their swords out. Even Hideo was holding a sword in one hand, and looked far more comfortable with it than I would have guessed. Naturally, the villagers responded by falling back a step and bringing their own weapons to bear. It was equally impressive, I thought, if only because they were far more numerous.


I giggled. Hopefully they were too preoccupied to notice.


After a second or two, Hideo lowered his sword to his side, prompting people on both sides of the “ambush” to lower weapons and shuffle around sheepishly. “What are you doing here?” Hideo demanded, sounding distinctly irritated.


“Hunting ghouls,” Ketill said in response, his tone almost openly hostile. “Or whatever you got out here.”


“We’re dealing with it,” Hideo said. “Go back to your little village.”


“You’re dealing too slow,” Ketill said. “We ain’t got time for you to play around with mapping the bloody hills.”


I could almost see Hideo take a deep breath and let it out. “I suppose more bodies can’t hurt anything,” he said, in a very pleasant, level tone. “You can come along, then. Just don’t get in the way.”


The tense standoff continued for several seconds longer before Ketill nodded stiffly, and the tension eased slightly.


I was guessing that Hideo was using the villagers as bait. They were disposable, people he could throw to the monsters without really losing anything. I wondered if they realized it.


“So what now?” Ketill asked.


“We’ve been waiting for the ghouls to pass through for us to ambush them for some time,” Hideo said. “As you are in such a hurry, though, I doubt that tactic will appeal to you. I suppose instead we should split out and search the area for a trail of some sort.”


“Better idea,” Ketill said. “Jakob was hunting a bit northwest of here today, and he ran across them. So we go out that way and see if they’re still there.”


“Sounds reasonable,” Hideo said. I noticed he didn’t ask what happened to Jakob. “Lead on, then, good sir.”


The villagers ended up taking the lead as a group, with the legionnaires following behind. I suspected it wasn’t an accident.


I also suspected it wasn’t an accident that Sumi, at the very back of the group, looked directly at me as they started moving. But that was something to worry about later.


The villagers had already stopped with the boasting and chatter. But their mood had still been fairly light. Now, it was…very much not. The mood was tense, and people were spending as much time watching each other as the forest around them. Even following at a distance, I found myself feeling distinctly nervous.


After around ten minutes of the whole lot of them marching west, they paused. “That’s not right,” Ketill said, quietly enough that I could barely make the words out. I probably couldn’t have, but we were in a narrow valley, and we were in the right respective positions for the hills to direct the sound in my general direction.


“What is it?” Friedrich asked. The blacksmith sounded nervous.


“Those rocks,” Ketill said. “Been through here before, and those don’t look right.” He paused, and then turned around. “Bones and ashes,” he shouted. “Run!”


He’d barely started moving when the rocks that he’d been looking at shifted. More specifically, they started to roll.


There were trees in the way. But those rocks were very large, and they had a fair amount of momentum by the time they hit the trees. Things splintered, loudly enough that I winced where I was sitting. For a few seconds I was concerned for the security of my own perch, but it looked like the only rocks moving were well in front of me, and while the falling trees dragged some smaller trees down with them, it didn’t extend anywhere close to where I was.


The people on the ground weren’t so lucky, though. Those rocks had more or less completely blocked off the valley. No one was getting past that blockage without doing a fair bit of climbing.


At almost the exact moment the rocks fell, I saw movement under my tree. Dirt and debris flew up, revealing pits dug into the ground, and a dozen monstrosities burst out of them.


I stared. They’d dug themselves into the ground, buried themselves in to keep the pits from being visible, and arranged a rockslide to give themselves a perfect ambush.


These were not ghouls. I didn’t know what they were, but they were not ghouls.


I had to admit, I was impressed again with how quickly the legionnaires reacted. They were attacked out of nowhere, from a direction they thought was safe, at the same moment that the situation in general changed dramatically. They still reacted in a matter of seconds.


Andrew, somewhat to my surprise, was the first to respond. He was already holding a strip of flash paper. It only took him a heartbeat to tear it, setting off the alchemical compounds in the paper. A gout of emerald flame bloomed.


I couldn’t use fire as a channel. I had no connection to it at all. So I couldn’t feel what he did at that point.


But I saw the fire suddenly blossom, spreading through the air in a broad cone of light and heat that completely encompassed one of the things and scorched another badly. Both of them fell to the ground, smoldering.


The rest of them continued, and found the legionnaires waiting for them. Marcus and Sumi were standing ready, blades already drawn, with Hideo and Andrew behind them. The legionnaires didn’t do much to really hurt the things–it didn’t look like they were even particularly trying to–but they held them off, pushed them back. It was easier to go around them than through.


The same could not be said of the villagers behind them.


The leading monsters hit the villagers, and just kept going like a hot knife through butter. The people of Branson’s Ford had come here expecting to fight ghouls, and they’d gotten something completely different. These things were smart, even on an individual scale. They didn’t just throw themselves at people teeth-first. They feinted and pulled them out of position, tripped them, maneuvered to make people get in each other’s way.


Black had been right. You had to know what you were up against to make plans. They’d made theirs before they had any idea of what was out here, and that was a lethal mistake.


I barely even saw that, though. I had a death grip on my tree, hyperventilating, barely even aware of what was going on. I could smell smoke, and burning meat, and I could hear screaming, and I was a million miles away.


Andrew made another tear in the paper, bringing up more fire and sinking my claws even further into the tree’s bark, and sent the flames to consume another of the monstrosities. The rest of the legionnaires seemed content to hold their defensive position for the moment, as the things continued to rip into the villagers.


And then they reached the front of the line.


Earlier, I’d thought it ridiculous that Ketill had a scythe. It was a farming implement, not a weapon. No one in their right mind would bring a scythe to a fight.


I had, perhaps, forgotten that he was a farmer, and had been all his life. He knew his way around a scythe.


More importantly, he’d spent a year living as a rebel in the middle of the bloodiest, nastiest theater of the war in Skelland.


The first of the monsters to reach him dropped instantly as he put the blade of the scythe through the side of its skull. He stepped around it as it fell, dodging the claws of the next, and bashed it on the side of the head with the haft. It stumbled back, stunned, giving him enough time to slice out its throat, and then catch the third with an upward stroke that slit it open from groin to throat.


All right, I thought, with the abstract part of my mind that wasn’t occupied with remembered terror. So some of the villagers know what they’re doing.


On the other side of the path, Black stepped out of the trees, spear in hand. She threw the spear, putting it completely through one of the monsters, and kept walking.


I’d known that Black was strong. It was something that could happen to the Changed. Having a drastically different physiology meant that you could be far better at something than a human. I healed quickly; Black, I’d seen, was stronger than a person of her build could possibly be.


I hadn’t realized quite how much stronger.


She didn’t have a weapon. She didn’t need one. She picked the monsters up bodily and threw them around like toys. One, she snapped over her knee like a stick; another she slammed to the ground hard enough to cave its skull in. She was fast, stepping away from their attacks, but it was nothing like Ketill’s precise dance. She was just so damn strong that she didn’t need to worry overly much about precision.


Between those two and the legionnaires, they made short order of the rest of the things, dropping the last of them to the ground in a few seconds. I finally managed to make myself move, climbing through the trees towards them, though I was still hyperventilating, and gripping the branches more tightly than was strictly necessary. I was looking around constantly, feeling inexplicably certain that someone was sneaking up behind me with a knife.


I was, as a result, quite possibly the only person present who saw what happened next.


Behind us, at the other end of the valley, half a dozen more of the monsters stepped up and pushed more rocks, sending them rolling down to block that side of the valley.


I realized what was happening as the rocks started moving, and scrambled down, almost falling in my haste to reach the ground.


The things had hurt us badly, probably already killed half the villagers. But more importantly, they’d made sure we were all here, bunched up and stopped.


I’d just made it down when the first of the trees fell.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.11

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


The next time I woke up, it was morning, the sun was glaring in my window, and I was hungry enough to eat a horse. I’d eaten very well the previous night, but that sort of hunger was rather common when I was injured. I healed very quickly ever since I was Changed, but it took something out of my body to sustain that effort.


It was worth it, though. When I tested the leg this time, there was only a dull ache, and it could hold my weight without any weakness. It would be another day or two before the pain was fully gone, but it was already almost completely functional.


I went through my usual morning routine and then made my way downstairs. I was barely limping when I made it to the bottom of the stairs, a far cry from last night.


Corbin was already working on cooking something, which seemed somewhat more ambitious than the usual soup. A slab of meat–likely the rest of the venison from last night–was sitting on the counter, along with some herbs and a handful of pans, and I could hear noises coming from the cellar. He’d clearly anticipated that I would be hungry, though; there was a plate sitting out with a slab of bread covered in butter and honey, and a large cup of milk. I took them and carried them out to the taproom.


Normally I would have expected it to be empty so early in the morning. It was hours before any of the farmers would be in for lunch, and the legionnaires were out hunting something that only looked like ghouls. Black…well, it was anyone’s guess where Black was or what she was doing, but she didn’t seem to spend much time at the inn.


I’d forgotten, though, that I wasn’t the only one wounded. Aelia was in the taproom, sitting at the bar. She was drunk, and in the process of getting drunker; the cup of vodka in her hand was plenty of evidence for that.


Her left hand was a mass of bandages. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to be doing much with it.


“Oy,” she said as I walked in, looking at me. Her head was a little loose, not quite in a steady upright position, and her words were slightly slurred. “Silf, right? Pull up a chair, I could use some company.”


I took a seat a few feet down the bar from her, and started eating, taking small, quick bites of bread. “How do you feel?” I asked. It was easier than it often was; my throat barely even gave a twinge.


“Hurts like a bitch,” she said frankly. “But a bit of sedative takes the edge off, and vodka takes care of the rest.”


“Sumi said you would lose the hand.”


“I will,” she said, with just a trace of bitterness. “You want to see?”


I was silent for a moment, then shrugged. I wasn’t entirely sure why I did.


Aelia grinned, and started unwrapping the bandages. It took a while.


When she was done, I regretted asking. Her left hand, from the wrist down, was ruined. There was simply no other way to put it. The bones were shattered, the flesh torn; the fingers were bent and tangled into knots.


“That doesn’t get better,” she said, turning it back and forth and staring at it with an expression of vague disappointment. “Just waiting for a medic to take it off. Might do it sooner, don’t want it to get infected.”


I stared, unable to look away from the mess of meat and bone that had once been a human hand. “You don’t sound upset.”


“Oh, I am,” Aelia said, beginning to wrap it again. She flinched slightly as she started winding the bandages around the maimed extremity. “Never shoot again. But this was my last run anyway. Ready to be done.”


“How long have you been in the legion?”


“A long time,” she said, glancing at me. “Sumi said you were in the Whitewood.”


I nodded.


“I was there,” she said. “Got sent to the river. Put arrows in people while they were trying to swim away from the fires.” She took another drink, almost emptying the cup. “I still remember the way they screamed,” she said. “There was this kid, had half his face burned off. He was carrying a shovel, trying to fight with it. I put a bolt through his chest, but he didn’t die right away. Lay there in the mud bleeding out with people dying all around.” She was silent for several seconds. “I see him when I sleep sometimes.”


I shivered. Just hearing about it was…it was ugly. I could almost smell the smoke again.


Aelia seemed to realize the effect her words were having on me, and stopped. “Anyway,” she said. “I’m ready to be done. That wasn’t what I had in mind when I went out for the legion.”


“What did you have in mind?”


She was silent for a few seconds. “Guess it was my only way out,” she said. “My parents were fishers. We could barely afford food a lot of the time. I wanted more than that out of life.” She went to take another drink, and frowned when she realized that there was nothing there. “I’ve got citizenship coming after this,” she said. “Going back to the homeland, I think. I’ll buy a shop or a farm or something, settle down.”


“With one hand?”


She shrugged. “There are alchemists that make new hands,” she said. “Not perfect, but they work. I should be able to get one, since I lost mine in the legion. Veterans get a lot of respect back home.”


I nodded. “It sounds nice,” I said. “I hope it works.” I stood, taking her cup, and filled it from the barrel behind the bar.


“Thanks,” she said, taking the cup back and sipping at it. “What about you? How’d you end up out here?”


I shrugged. “Wasn’t much to stick around for after the Whitewood burned, so I went south. Got sick here, got stranded, and stayed after I got better.”


“Bit of a fall,” Aelia said. “The Whitewood was a beautiful city. I didn’t see the inside until…well. But it was beautiful. One of the most amazing cities I’ve ever seen. This, well, isn’t.”


I snorted, and nodded. “Have you seen many? Cities, I mean.”


She shrugged. “Some. The Whitewood, of course, Brunwich, Gansburg, Parcia. None of them hold a candle to the capital, of course.”


“The capital of Akitsuro?”


Aelia nodded. “Old Aseoto,” she said. “There’s nothing like it. The Whitewood was the only thing I’ve seen that came anywhere close, and it’s gone now.”


I leaned forward slightly. “Tell me about it,” I said. “Tell me about Aseoto.”


Aelia’s eyes lit up at that, and she set the vodka aside, forgotten.


I spent the next hour or so listening to her talk about the city. It was fascinating, and if I hadn’t been so very hungry I suspect that I’d have forgotten to eat, too enraptured by what she was saying. I’d heard of Aseoto before–everyone had, it was the heart of Akitsuro and Akitsuro had made itself the heart of everything. But I’d never spoken to someone who had actually been there.


Even accounting for the exaggerations of the drunk and patriotic, the picture she painted was an amazing one. Walls around the city a hundred feet high, every stone carrying the same alchemy that went into making the warding posts. Towers high enough to touch the clouds. A harbor that stretched so far that the masts of the ships looked like a forest. Alchemical lights so plentiful that the streets were bright at night. Festivals that went on for days.


More than anything, though, what struck me was the passion in her voice. It might have just been that she was drunk and on some kind of alchemical sedative, but I didn’t think so. Aelia loved the city; it showed in every word, every gesture. She loved the sights and sounds and smells, loved the streets and the canals, and as she described them it felt so real that I almost imagined I could see the capital around me.


It reminded me, almost, of home. Of the way my parents had spoken about the Whitewood.


Corbin was present for the whole thing. He wasn’t cooking now; I couldn’t hear him moving around. But he stayed in the kitchen, leaving us well alone.


Aelia could, I suspected, have gone on in that vein all day if I’d sat and let her talk. But she was still injured, and badly. Eventually the drugs and the drink and the exhaustion of her wounds caught up with her, and she pitched over onto the bar asleep.


I looked her over, feeling concerned, but it looked like she was just asleep. It seemed like the best thing for her, so I sat back, and drank the last of my milk.


Corbin walked out of the kitchen a minute or so later, and set another piece of bread in front of me. “Sounds like she’ll be all right,” he said. “Eventually.”


I nodded, and started eating the bread. I was still hungry.


After a few moments of silence, I paused in eating. “Have you ever been to Aseoto, Corbin?” I asked.


He didn’t answer for a few moments. “Yes,” he said eventually. “Once.”


“While you were in the legion?”


“You’ve been talking to Black,” he said. It wasn’t a question.


There didn’t seem to be much point in denying it, so I nodded and took another bite.


He sighed. “No. That was before I joined the legion.”


I nodded, and finished eating the bread.

Aelia woke up after another hour or so, mumbled something, and stumbled upstairs to her room. Corbin and I busied ourselves with the usual work of the inn. Things had actually been somewhat busy lately, which meant that the cleaning and maintenance we habitually did was actually necessary. Mikhail Karlson came by with a load of apples from their orchard, which looked rather tired; it hadn’t been a good year for them. Corbin bought most of what he had anyway, and then we spent some time sorting them into those which could be stored, those which had to be cooked or eaten promptly, and those which were already only good for cider.


Time passed. It was what time did.


Midday came, and a handful of people came for food and drink to break up the monotony of their days. Black came in with them, smelling like sweat and forest, and looking rather pleased with herself, and sat by the fire.


Then we heard the screaming.


People were up and moving in a matter of seconds. You didn’t hear screaming in Branson’s Ford, as a rule. Oh, the occasional yelp or shout, but not real, full-throated screaming. The villagers were a hardy lot, and stoic; it took a lot to get a genuine scream out of them.


Corbin hung back–it would have been strange for him to leave, and people would want to be able to find him at the inn. But he gave me a pointed look that let me know in no uncertain terms that he wanted me to go with them and find out what was happening. Since that was what I would have been doing anyway, I didn’t hesitate to do so.


The screaming was coming from the west, and a bit north, out in the fields. We probably wouldn’t have been able to hear it all the way to the inn, but there were quite a few people screaming, shouting, generally making a great deal of noise. It carried.


We ran over in a mass to see what the commotion was. People were running over from other fields, but we were the first to reach them, and see what they had.


Jakob was lying in the field, and he was a mess. Blood was flowing freely from his face, where it looked like something had torn away his cheek and eye. His arm was visibly broken, and there was more blood on his arm, his chest, his leg. He still had his bow with him, but it was cracked, almost broken.


He looked more dead than alive. I had to check again to be sure that he was still breathing.


It didn’t take long for most of town to be gathered there, looking down at him. A couple of people who had some idea what to do went to work, binding the wounds, but there were far more people there than could help, and mostly we just stood and looked at him.


Ketill was the first to speak. The grizzled old farmer had looked shocked when he arrived, but that expression had darkened as he stood there, and now he looked furious. “He was hunting out west today,” he said. “About the same place you got hurt, Silf?”


I nodded. It was, and I’d already made the connection.


Ketill spat to the side. “Them legionnaires are out there,” he said. “Stirring up trouble.”


“You reckon Jakob ran into the same ghouls they did?” someone asked. I couldn’t see who, and it wasn’t a voice I heard enough to recognize.


“Piss on that,” Friedrich said. The blacksmith had been late to arrive, having been in the middle of hammering out a plow, but he was here now, stinking of smoke and with a sheen of sweat on his skin. “I thought it was strange legionnaires lost to some ghouls, but I figured they were raw recruits or something. But I’ve known Jakob all my life, and there ain’t a ghoul alive that could have done this to him.”


I hesitated for a few seconds, then said, “Maybe they weren’t ghouls.”


Every eye turned towards me, and I shrank away a bit under the attention. “You was there,” Ketill said. “You ought to know.”


I shrugged. “Was a little busy,” I said, which got a laugh from a few people. “The surveyor said they were ghouls, but I’m not quite so sure.”


“Figures,” Ketill said darkly. “Legion don’t even know what they saw.”


“Let’s not go pointing fingers,” the mayor said. It was the first thing he’d said the whole time, and the first thing I’d heard from him in months; he wasn’t the sort to come to the inn. “Won’t help anyone anyway.”


Ketill grunted. “Maybe,” he said. “Don’t matter anyway. What we’ve got is something out west can take down Jakob.”


“The legion is taking care of it,” Sigmund said.


Ketill snorted. “Letting the legion take care of it might have got Jakob killed,” he said. “We gave them a shot. It’s time we deal with this ourselves.”


There was a generalized murmur of agreement, and within a matter of seconds the crowd had completely shifted focus. Two people were set to carry Jakob to the inn, since that was one of the few places in the village with a public room to put him in. A handful of others were sent to carry the news of what was happening to the handful of people who weren’t here, bring in the people working too far from the village center to be safe, and such.


Around a dozen of the remaining people went to get weapons to go out and kill the “ghouls.” They were mostly older people, old enough to have fought in the war. It wasn’t a group that I often saw together, because…well, they’d fought in the war, and not all for the same side.


I had to appreciate the speed and coordination with which the response was organized. Branson’s Ford was generally divided, to say the least. There were wounds in this town that would never heal. But when there was a genuine emergency, all that went away, and they closed ranks. The mayor took charge and coordinated things, but for the most part they barely needed it. It was almost like the villagers were acting as a unit rather than disparate individuals.


I waited until it had been decided what would be done, and who was doing what. Then I left to tell Corbin what was happening.


I was just over halfway back when Black materialized next to me. I wasn’t sure where she’d come from; one seconds I was walking alone, and the next second Black was walking next to me. “Silf,” she said. “You heard what happened?”


I nodded.


“You heard what they’re doing about it?”


I nodded.


“Good,” she said. “Less I have to explain. Come on, we want to get ahead of them.”


I paused. “What?” I asked. “Why?”


“They’re going to get massacred.” I must have looked dubious, because Black sighed. “I’m sure they have their skills,” she said. “But those ghouls took down an imperial legionnaire in a fair fight. These villagers are not prepared to deal with that.”


“So what are you doing?”


We,” she said, emphasizing the word, “are going to even the scale a bit.”


I eyed her skeptically. “They can’t do this, but we can?”


“I have a plan,” she said. “Trust me.”


I thought for a few seconds, then shrugged and nodded. Black smiled, and then started west, into the forest.


I followed her silently, and then paused. Something was…not quite right.


Black kept going for a couple seconds before she realized that I’d fallen behind, and turned towards me. “Silf?” she said. “Is something wrong?”


I shook my head, and started moving again. I’d realized what was bothering me, anyway.


One of the warding posts was missing.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.10

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Waking up was slow, and hard. Normally I woke up all at once, the transition between unconsciousness and awareness passing so fast that I wasn’t even aware of it happening. I’d always had a tendency towards that, especially after being Changed, but it had really gotten to be a habit in the refugee camps. In that environment, people that didn’t react quickly to changes in their surroundings tended to come down with a nasty case of death.


This time, though, I spent what felt like hours on the cusp between sleeping and waking. I woke, considered opening my eyes, and then drifted off into hazy dreams again. It got to the point that I wasn’t even sure what was real and what only existed inside my head.


What eventually drove me out of the fog was boredom, more than anything else. There was only so long you could spend half-asleep before it got tedious, and since it didn’t seem like I was going to be lapsing fully into sleep again any time soon, I thought I might as well wake up.


I was in my room, lying on my bed. Judging by the light coming in my window, it was late afternoon or early evening. I could hear activity downstairs, people talking and walking.


My first reaction was one of near panic. I’d lost consciousness down in the taproom, so clearly someone had been in my room to move me up here.


After a few moments, though, I relaxed. The door was locked, the box was locked. The books on the dresser were still where they belonged. Everything was where it belonged. I was even still wearing the same bloody clothes from earlier. It looked like whoever had carried me in here had just set me on the bed and left.


My breathing calmed again, and I was able to consider my own situation clearly.


The wound in my leg still hurt. It was more or less just a dull ache, something I was aware of, but not something that overwhelmed my world. My back was actually more uncomfortable, likely from being dragged back to town on a travois over rough ground.


I was more interested in what had been done to the injury, though. I’d seen medics suture wounds back in the camps. The stitching on my leg looked as neat anything I’d seen them do. It was better than anyone could reasonably hope to do without specialized training.


I stood, carefully, testing the leg before I put any real weight on it. It turned the dull ache to a sharp, burning pain, and I could feel the stitches pulling a bit, but the limb seemed functional, and I couldn’t feel anything actually tearing inside me. On the whole, not terrible.


I stripped out of the filthy clothing I was wearing, giving it a critical look as I did. I was guessing it would have to be relegated to the rag pile. It was all irreversibly stained, and physically damaged, too. The leg where the ghoul’s claw had caught me was almost shredded, nothing left but ragged threads, all stained a dull red-brown.


I shivered a little as I looked at that. It was hard not to. I’d come uncomfortably close this time. Had that claw landed slightly differently, or cut even a little bit deeper, it might well have hit a major vein. I didn’t think that I’d have made it back if that had happened.


It was an unsettling feeling, realizing that my choice of clothing that morning had quite likely saved my life.


I tossed the clothes to the floor, and grabbed fresh to pull on instead. It hurt a bit to get dressed, but I managed it. I left, locking the door behind myself.


Stairs were hard with a wounded leg. I leaned heavily on the wall getting down, and I was still pale and shaky by the time I made it to the bottom of the stairs. I paused for a few moments to recover, and then limped out into the taproom.


It wasn’t as busy as I would have expected. Not empty, by any means, but not busy the way it had been for the past few days. It was back to a more typical evening crowd here at the inn, which meant not really a crowd at all.


Corbin turned and stared at me as I walked in. “Silf?” he asked, sounding surprised. “What are you doing up and about?”


I shrugged. “Heard you down here,” I said.


He rolled his eyes. “Sit down, at least,” he said. “Bones and ashes, I wasn’t expecting you to be awake until tomorrow.”


I shrugged, and took a seat at the bar. I wasn’t going to say it, but the truth was that I was just as glad for the chance to take a load off my leg. It hurt more than I would have guessed to walk.


The conversation had gone silent when I walked into the taproom, perhaps unsurprisingly. It wasn’t every day that someone got mauled by ghouls, and my particular history just made it more awkward.


“Heard what happened,” Gunnar said after a few moments, breaking the silence. “Glad you made it all right.”


My head whipped around to stare at him. I wanted to scream at him for his hypocrisy, but my throat seized up at just the right moment, and it came out as a sort of sullen, strangled grunt instead. Just as well, probably.


Gunnar got the message, though. And, credit where credit was due, he had the good grace to look ashamed. He flushed, and looked at the floor, and mumbled something that I couldn’t make out.


Sigmund was the next to speak up. “What were you thinking, going out there?” he asked. Then, before I could retort, he looked away. “Sorry,” he said, sounding more sulky than sorry. “It’s just…we were worried about you.”


“That’s sweet,” Black said. She was sitting almost on top of the fire; I hadn’t even seen her when I walked in. “But I need to check Silf’s stitches, so we’ll be going now.”


She stood and stalked over to me. The villagers moved out of her way without even seeming to realize it; Black just moved with a confidence that assumed the world wouldn’t get in her way, and they assumed she knew what she was talking about. When she reached me she took my hand and led me behind the bar, into the kitchen, and up the stairs.


I was a bit startled by how strong she was. Black didn’t look like all that, but she almost carried me up the stairs, and she didn’t even look like she was trying.


“The stitches are fine,” I said quietly as we started up the stairs.


“I know,” Black replied, just as quietly. There was no way anyone back in the taproom would hear it. “Thought you might want to get out of there. It was getting…tense.”


I snorted, nodded. “Thanks,” I said.


“I should check them, though,” she added. “And make sure there’s no sign of infection.”


I shivered, and nodded.


Black unlocked the door of her room, and waited for me to go in, and then locked it again behind us. The room looked almost exactly as it always did, empty and impersonal. Black hadn’t done much to the place, hadn’t really left any mark on the space. There were a couple of bags on the floor, one of which I recognized as one of the bags which had held weapons during our little training session. The rest weren’t familiar.


“Sit down,” Black said, pointing at the bed. As I obeyed she opened one of the other bags, a plain black one, and took out a smaller pouch which was black marked with a bright red circle. “How does it feel?”


“Hurts a bit,” I said. “Bit unsteady when I put weight on it. Not bad otherwise.”


“How bad would you say the pain is, on a scale of one to ten?”


“Two or three,” I said. “If one is low.”


She paused and stared at me for a second. “Two or a three,” she said. She snorted and shook her head. “I think your scale is broken, Silf.”


I smiled, and shrugged. It was entirely possible that she was right.


“All right,” she said, pulling a few metal tools out of the bag. There was a needle, and forceps, and what looked like a set of probes. “Let me take a look at it, then.”


I pushed my pants down, letting Black get at the wound, and looked at the wall. I wasn’t too uncomfortable with having it happen, but actually watching her prodding at me felt…awkward. “Where are the legionnaires?” I asked, mostly just to have something to talk about.


“Out hunting ghouls,” Black said, taking a probe and pushing the fur out of the way to get a better look at the gash. “Excepting Aelia, but I wouldn’t worry about her noticing anything. She’s sedated heavily enough I don’t think she’d wake up if the building was on fire.”


I swallowed. “What happened?”


“Pure bad luck, as I hear it. She was reloading and the arbalest malfunctioned somehow, crushed her hand.”


I frowned. “A legion arbalest snapped?”


Black shrugged. “I guess so. Normally I’d expect legion equipment to be a bit more reliable than that, but I guess if you build enough arbalests, you’ll build a bad one. Her bad luck to get it.” She paused. “This is healing very well. At this rate it should be almost good as new in a few days.”


I shrugged. “I heal fast.”


“That’s good. Doesn’t look like it’s infected, either. I’ll keep checking up on it, but it’s looking like you should be fine.” Black sat back and started putting her tools back into the bag. “Do you mind if I ask you a question, Silf?”


I shrugged.


“What was the problem earlier?” she asked, apparently taking that for agreement. “Down there, when that man was talking to you. You were clearly upset, and it seemed like he knew why, but there was some context that I wasn’t catching.”


“Oh,” I said. “That.”  I frowned, trying to think of how to wrap the whole thing up in a few words. “After the Whitewood,” I said eventually, “I didn’t have anywhere to go. Ended up with some refugees heading south, to Akitsuro. I got burned in the city, and it got infected. In Branson’s Ford–this was back when people traveled through here a bit–it got bad enough I couldn’t walk. So they left me.”


“They just left you?” Black asked, sounding indignant.


I shrugged. “We weren’t close. And they had to keep going. Anyway, the people here tried to take care of me. But it was already a hard year. Gunnar said they should just kill me quick, since if the infection didn’t get me I’d starve anyway.”


Black just stared at me for a few seconds. “You’re telling me,” she said slowly, “that a sick, wounded, orphaned, Changed refugee was stranded here. And he suggested that they should kill her?”


I nodded.


“I’m going to skin him,” Black said, standing. She didn’t sound like she was kidding.


I grabbed her sleeve, stopping her. “He was scared,” I said.


“That doesn’t excuse that.”




Black stood there for a few seconds, then sighed and sat back down. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m doing this for you, not for him.”


“Thanks,” I said, letting go of her. “Can I ask you a question?”


Her lips twitched. “Go ahead.”


“How do you know Corbin?”


If Black had been about to smile, that smile was a stillborn one now. “That’s a long story,” she said, very softly.


I sat back on the bed, making it clear that I had no intention of moving any time soon.


Black let out a quick snort of laughter, though she didn’t sound particularly happy. “It started a long time ago,” she said. “It would have been around the time you were born, actually, down in Akitsuro. We were…not friends, exactly, but acquaintances. We knew of each other, we’d spoken a few times. And we had some friends in common whom we both loved dearly. So we spent a fair bit of time together.”


“What happened?”


Black shrugged. “Oh, nothing too dramatic. We both moved on. I went back home–I was born in Skelland, you know, only went south to see the world a bit. And then after a while the war came, and…we saw each other again then.”


“You fought together?”


Black shook her head. Her eyes had a faraway look to them, now; I wasn’t even sure she was really seeing the room around us. “No,” she said. “No, we were on different sides.”


Ah. She’d been at war with her friend, then. It was…a more common story than anyone liked to remember. It was that sort of war.


“Corbin joined the legions after I left,” she said. “And when Akitsuro invaded Skelland, I…wasn’t inclined to take it lying down, the way so many people were.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s about it. It was all…a very long time ago, now.”


I nodded. “Do you hate him?”


Black was silent for a long moment, long enough that when she did answer it came as a surprise. I’d been sure that she wasn’t going to. “Not anymore,” she said. “For a while I did. I only saw him once during the war, and then…I would have killed him then, I think, if I could. I was so angry, and I was so sure that we were in the right. Now…well.” She shrugged. “Things don’t seem so simple these days. I’m not so sure he was in the wrong, really.”


“They burned the Whitewood,” I said quietly.


“And the Whitewood sent agents to poison them,” Black replied. Her tone was very level, very calm. “Killed close to two thousand legionnaires in one night, and twice as many camp followers. I’m not saying the legions were innocent, even before the Whitewood. But things aren’t so black and white. Both sides had their sins to bear when the legions took Skelland, and when the legions took the Whitewood. And I’m guessing that even now, when they’ve made it all the way up to the Tears, things still aren’t simple.”


I frowned, and didn’t say anything.


“Now,” Black said, in a tone of obviously forced cheer. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to bring some food up for you. There’s venison and apple cobbler tonight, to go with the soup. You’re going to eat it, and then you’re going to go to bed, and when you wake up again you’re going to feel better. Sound good?”


I wasn’t so sure that it would go as well as she was describing. I was still…troubled by this whole thing, and not least by the revelation that Corbin had been in the legions. But I had to answer Black somehow, so I nodded, and smiled.


“Good,” she said firmly. “Let me go get that food.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.9

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


The next clear impression I had was of warmth and shouting. My back hurt, my leg hurt, and with my hearing shouting was always unpleasant. I tried to move, whether to cover my ears or to curl up into a position that was more comfortable for my back I wasn’t sure, and found that I couldn’t.


That was enough to wake me up in a hurry. My eyes shot open wide and I struggled, straining against my restraints. I couldn’t budge them, and the attempt made my leg hurt a lot more.


In a way, the pain was good. It brought things into focus again. If before my surroundings had felt blurry, now they were crystal clear, a clarity so sharp it almost didn’t feel real.


I was still lying on the travois. My limbs were tied to it with what looked like leather straps, and there was a scrap of cloth tied around my thigh. It was stained red. I was in the inn, in the taproom, and Corbin was there, and he was furious.


Corbin acted angry rather often. There were plenty of reasons; a villager had said or done something to annoy him, or a guest ran out without paying, sickness and bad weather and accidents. There was never a shortage of things to be angry at in Branson’s Ford. When those things happened he played the part, red in the face and shouting and pounding his fist on the bar. He was very good at playing the part of the angry innkeeper.


I’d only seen him really, truly furious a very few times, though. And the experience was entirely different. When he was genuinely in a rage Corbin was not demonstrative and overblown. He did not pound on the bar. His voice was quiet and precise, every sound enunciated crisply. His hands hung loose at his sides. And his expression made you want to cower in the corner and hope that he didn’t notice you. That wasn’t just me, either. When Corbin got like that, the villagers had a tendency to scatter and not come back for some time. The sound of the door closing suggested that it had just happened again.


I was just glad that the shouting had stopped for the moment.


“Someone,” Corbin said, “had better explain how this happened. Immediately.”


“Your assistant is clearly in need of medical attention,” Hideo said. I couldn’t see him from my current position, but his voice was unmistakable. “Don’t you think that takes priority over talking about how it happened?”


I could just make out Corbin raising one arm to point at Hideo. “You,” he said. “Be silent. If you say another word right now, I’m liable to do something that I’ll regret.”


I was expecting Hideo to have a mocking response to that. It seemed like an obvious setup, and the surveyor clearly enjoyed needling Corbin, for whatever reason.


Instead I heard a quiet click of teeth as he closed his mouth.


“Silf showed us up into the hills,” Sumi said into the silence that left behind. “Wandered around a little, seeing what the terrain looked like, and then got jumped by some ghouls. One of them got its claws into her before we could stop it.”


“Thank you,” Corbin said. “Now kindly leave. I have work to do.”


“Make sure you clean that wound out,” Hideo said. “Ghouls are known to carry all sorts of illnesses. And you know what they say. It’s best to clean out an infection completely, lest it come back to trouble you later.”


Corbin went very still at that, and his already cold expression went entirely blank. He had murder in his eyes. It was something I’d seen before, though not from Corbin. But I’d seen others with that look to them, that intent. I couldn’t put a word to it, couldn’t say quite what I was seeing, but I knew what I was looking at.


Someone was going to die in the next few seconds. And I was on the floor, tied to a sled and unable to move a muscle.


I whimpered in fear, and pulled against the straps again. I couldn’t help it. It didn’t even occur to me to stop it; I wasn’t aware of what I was doing until it was done.


Corbin glanced down at me, and his expression…didn’t soften, precisely, but it shifted. “Get out,” he said. “Right now. Any of you show your faces in my inn in the next three hours and you will regret it.”


Apparently Hideo decided that he’d pushed his luck far enough already, because he didn’t say anything. The next thing I heard was the door closing again.


Corbin stood there silently for a few seconds, apparently waiting. Then he said, “I know you’re watching. Hurry up and get out here.”


I was confused for a few seconds. Then Black moved into my field of view, kneeling down next to my head. “Oh, my,” she said. “You did get yourself into some trouble, didn’t you, Silf?”


“How bad is it?” Corbin asked. His voice was tight now, still not expressive like usual, but less because there was nothing there and more because he was holding it back.


“Looks fairly minor,” Black said. “I wouldn’t leave her like this, but it should heal well. Unless there’s something I should know about that?”


I shook my head. I had some problems from being Changed, but healing had never been one of them. Rather the opposite, if anything.


“All right,” Black said. “Let me get you off this thing and take care of that, then. What medical supplies do you have here, Corbin?”


“Anything you’d find in a legion hospital,” he replied instantly.


Black paused, and if I was reading her expression properly, she was surprised. “Excellent,” she said after a moment. “Bring me needle and cord, tincture of iodine, alcohol, clean water, anaesthetic, and a clean dressing.”


Corbin nodded and left. A moment later I heard him on the stairs down to the cellar.


Black produced a knife from somewhere. It was a large, heavy knife, slightly curved with one edge. It had seen some heavy use. The leather of the grip was stained from wear, and the blade had a number of stains and nicks in it. The cutting edge, though, looked to be in very good shape.


“Sorry about this,” she said, leaning closer. “But you’ll be all right, Silf. Promise.”


I heard that, and saw the knife, and for a moment I was afraid. But no, she just cut the ties off. It felt good, circulation returning to my hands and being able to move again. I stretched a bit as she moved on to my feet.


I noted, though, that she left the blood-soaked cloth on my thigh well alone. I was guessing I knew why. The tear might be relatively small–it had to be, really, for me to have made it this far without bleeding out. And the improvised bandage wasn’t tied tight enough to be a tourniquet. But that didn’t mean that taking pressure off it was a good idea. I didn’t know much medicine, but I’d seen enough with the refugees to know that much.


Corbin returned a minute or so later, carrying a black wooden box. “This should be everything,” he said to Black. “I’ll be right back with the water.”


Black nodded and opened the box, pulling out a number of glass vials. She looked at each in turn and then selected a tiny one of very dark glass, dark enough that I could just barely see liquid inside. She eyed me for a moment and then pulled out a small metal spoon.


“Have you ever had an alchemical anaesthetic before?” she asked, unscrewing the cap.


I shook my head.


“It’ll make you feel numb,” Black said. “Maybe a bit sleepy, or you might feel like you’re floating. I have to stitch this closed, and this will make it so it doesn’t hurt.”


“Don’t really need it,” I said.


“Don’t argue with the doctor,” she said, with a trace of a smile. “We know you’re tough, Silf. You’ve got nothing to prove here. So be quiet and take your medicine.”


I debated arguing with her. Then I decided to be quiet and take my medicine.


The anaesthetic was a thick, syrupy liquid that looked bad and smelled worse. Black poured a spoonful of it and stuck it into my mouth. I swallowed, and immediately regretted doing so. It tasted foul, bitter and biting.


“All right,” Black said, standing. “Just need to wait for that water now.” She stood, taking a candle from the box, and went to the fire.


“It’s right here,” Corbin said, from somewhere out of my sight. “Just filtered it.”


“Good enough,” Black said, setting the lit candle on the table. She sat down next to me, and a moment later I felt something prodding at my leg. It was sharp, and cold, and I flinched without meaning to, but there was a sort of dullness to the sensation, almost a disconnect, like it was happening to someone else and I was just watching it. Black sat back to wait some more.


Corbin walked over and sat down next to me. He rested my head in his lap, and stroked my fur gently. “Bones and bloody ashes,” he said. “What happened to you out there, Silf?”


I stared up at him. He looked very far away. The room seemed like it was spinning, or I was, I wasn’t entirely sure.


I knew what an anaesthetic was. I’d never had one before, but I’d heard of them, and I knew a bit about them. Even back in the Whitewood there had never been enough of them. I’d heard the doctors there complaining about it. Alchemical anaesthetics, they’d said, were far too hard to come by, too hard to manufacture.


That bottle was easily worth gold. Even the dose Black had just given me was quite possibly worth as much as what all of the imperials would pay for this entire stay.


Why was Corbin so nice to me, anyway? It wasn’t like I was worth much to him. Just a Changed girl. Probably dead in a few years, and I didn’t exactly have a lot of skills in the interim. Everyone else had left me to die when the infection got too bad for me to walk, and he didn’t even know my name.


“Silf?” Corbin said, pulling my attention back to the present.


“Sorry,” I said, and then yawned widely. “Got fuzzy there. Nothing much happened, really. We were jumped by some ghouls.”


“Legionnaires don’t lose to ghouls,” Black said quietly.


“They won in the end,” I said. I yawned again. “We were outnumbered. Guess we just got unlucky.”


Corbin frowned. He didn’t say anything.


I yawned again, longer than before. I saw Black set the jug down and realized that she’d just washed the wound out with the water. I could smell blood. Funny that I hadn’t felt what she was doing. She was holding the needle now, rolling it in her fingers. She put it into the candle flame, almost above the flame, and held it there, passing it slowly back and forth through the fire. She held it up in front of herself and the metal was glowing yellow.


For a moment, I was somewhere else, another place and another time. I was trapped and I couldn’t see and the smoke was so thick and I could hear screaming and I was lost and the street was blocked and he was there and I could smell burning hair and there was blood on my hands and my throat hurt and–


And it was just Black. Just a needle. Just me bleeding on the floor of the inn.


Nothing bad at all.


“You look blurry,” I said, and then the darkness settled in again.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.8

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Back at the inn, Hideo was…holding court, almost, was the only way I could think of it. He was standing in the center of the taproom, surrounded by a crowd of villagers stopping in for lunch, and he was playing the crowd like a violin. They were hanging on his every word, and he knew it.


I stood in the corner behind the bar, and watched. It was, from my perspective, an interesting performance. Hideo spoke just fast enough to keep the people listening off balance, not giving them a chance to really react to something before he was moving on. He bounced between topics, too, never sticking on one long enough for it to build into a real conversation. One minute he was talking about how a few damaged shipments in a row had caused the price of ice in Akitsuro to skyrocket, the next he was telling a slightly embarrassing but ultimately flattering story about the emperor.


It was impressive. Hideo was surrounded by a crowd of people who’d all come here, I was very confident, specifically to get information out of him regarding what he was doing here and the details of this hypothetical road. Instead, they were going to leave knowing nothing more about his actual purpose here than they’d known when they came. And they’d do it thinking that he was an open, outgoing, and friendly man, too.


I had to respect him. He had them dancing on his strings, and they didn’t even know it. That took talent.


Finally, just as people would have to be wrapping up here and getting back to the fields, Hideo tossed back the last of his beer and set the mug down on the table with a sigh. “It’s been a pleasure,” he said, in a regretful tone good enough that I genuinely wasn’t sure whether it was sincere. “But I have to get back to work. We’re looking for hazards today, making sure the area isn’t too dangerous for an imperial road.”


Immediately, the villagers started clamoring about how there was no danger near here, not a thing to threaten travelers. I wanted to slap them. It was so obviously a front. If Akitsuro wanted a road through somewhere, a few ghouls wouldn’t stop them. Worst case, the emperor could just send a full legion in and raze the entire area to the ground before laying a road over the ashes. But, of course, they were blinded by their hope, and the presentation was too abrupt to give them a chance to think things through.


It was a brilliant performance.


“I know, I know,” the surveyor said, raising his hands with a laugh. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. But I can’t go back to the legate and tell him that I didn’t even look into it. You know how it is.” He paused, dragging it out for a few moments. “That said, maybe you can help speed it along a bit,” he said. His tone was alluring now, almost seductive. “If you aren’t busy, I mean. I’m sure we can manage on our own, but having someone who knows the area along can make our jobs a lot easier.”


The villagers hesitated, glancing at each other. I could almost see the thoughts running across their faces. They wanted to help, wanted to do whatever they could to make sure that this “road” happened. But at the same time, it was a field day. There was never any shortage of work to be done.


I hesitated a few moments, then raised my hand.


Corbin glared silent daggers at me from across the room, making it very clear that I was supposed to lower that hand right now. I pretended that I didn’t see him, and after a few seconds Hideo noticed me.


“Ah,” he said, looking at me. “You know your way around here, then?”


I shrugged, nodded.


“Excellent,” he said, beaming. “Thank you for your help. We’ll leave in a few minutes, then.”


I nodded stiffly, and didn’t move out of my corner. I was acutely aware of the weight of the hatchet under my shirt. Black had insisted I take it, even though I was quite confident I’d be better off running from any fight than trying to use the axe.


Minutes ticked by. The villagers settled their tabs, grousing lightly about how much more they were spending over the past few days, and left. Corbin kept glaring at me, but when it became clear that I wasn’t going to listen, he seemed to relent and went back to cleaning up.


I was almost sorry about that. Now that the moment was past, I was starting to regret volunteering. Having an excuse to back out would have been…not entirely unwelcome.


He didn’t give me one, though, and I wasn’t going to back down on my own. The idea of going out and showing a bunch of legionnaires around was unsettling, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as knowing they were out running around and doing something, but not having any idea what they were doing.


I was tired of being in the dark about what was going on here. It was getting old.


A few minutes after the last of the villagers left, Hideo stood and brushed his robes off with a smile. “I think it’s time for us to go,” he said, the words clearly directed at me. “If you’re ready?”


I nodded. The gesture felt stiff, and it probably looked a bit jerky, but it got the point across.


“Excellent,” he said, sweeping towards the door  as the legionnaires stood and followed him.


Outside, I was stumbling a little, a touch unsteady on my feet. It wasn’t dramatic, or obvious, but I could feel it. It felt like I was surrounded by enemies, and it was getting to me.


Sumi gave me an encouraging smile as he was pulling his helmet on. It helped a bit. Not enough to make me feel really comfortable, but a bit.


“So, madam,” Hideo said, still with a broad smile that he probably thought was charming. “You’ll pardon me, I hope, but I didn’t catch your name earlier.”


“Silf.” My voice was a bit stilted, abrupt, but for once I could blame it on something other than my throat being ravaged by the Change.


“A fine name,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you, Silf. My name is Hideo. My associates are named Sumi, Marcus, Aelia, and Andrew.”


The only name I hadn’t heard from that list was Marcus. Presumably, that was the other swordsman, the one who hadn’t come down to eat dinner last night. I wasn’t entirely sure what that might suggest about him.


“So, Silf,” Hideo said, smiling broadly. “You heard what we were looking for in there. Where would you say there are monsters in these parts?” He gestured expansively, as though to take in the entirety of Branson’s Ford and the surrounding countryside.


“River, sometimes,” I said. “Usually some vodyanoy, the odd serpent or rusalka. Saw a mermaid once.”


“Fascinating,” the surveyor said. “Not quite what I had in mind, though. Aquatic creatures aren’t generally a threat to people.”


I stared at him dubiously. Vodyanoy might be the name the scholars used for the strange Changed humanoids that lived in the water, but there were reasons that the common folk usually called them drowners or rippers.


“Well, not on a scale that would impede trade,” Hideo corrected hastily. “In any case, that’s not really what we’re looking for right now. Are there any monsters that live on land?”


“Usually some vargs east and south of here,” I said. “They don’t usually bother anyone, though. Occasionally a Changed wolf or bear in the forest. Jakob swears he saw a basilisk in the marsh once.”


“Closer, but not quite. Those sound too sporadic to really be a significant impact on commerce.”


I sighed irritably. “I could find what you’re looking for better if you told me what it was,” I said.


“I told you,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure that there aren’t any hazards in the area that would make putting a road through the area impractical. Sometimes things really are simple, Silf.”


I stared at him.


We stood there in silence for close to a minute before Hideo sighed and shook his head. “All right,” he said. “If you must know, we’re looking for a location where ghouls might live around here. Not one or two, mind, but a full group of the things.”


I frowned. “There are some ghouls out west,” I said. “Forest or the hills. Hills have some caves that a group could use for shelter.”


“The hills it is, then,” Hideo said. “Lead on, my lady.” He dipped into a low, elaborate bow.


I rolled my eyes and started walking west.

Once we were outside the wards, the legionnaires fell into the same marching order I’d seen early that morning. It made sense, I supposed. From their perspective, we were in enemy territory. I could understand why a military group would adopt a strict marching order the second they were outside the wards.


Similarly, I couldn’t blame them for putting me at the center, next to Hideo. I was a civilian, after all. In a fight, I was unreliable at best; at worse I was actively a detriment. It made sense that they would want to put me in the middle, as far from any attacker as possible.


The fact that it left me walking with Hideo was…slightly unfortunate, but not unexpected.


He was enthusiastic. I had to give him that; either he genuinely was a surveyor and he loved his work, or he was an incredibly dedicated actor. It seemed like he had another question for me every few seconds, asking what kind of rock a specific outcropping was composed of, or what was on the other side of a hill, or what a plant was. He was enthusiastic as a child, all expansive gestures and loud voices.


I answered mostly in monosyllables, when I answered at all, and let Hideo run his mouth to his heart’s content. Otherwise, I spoke only to offer the occasional course correction to Sumi. He didn’t need much help, but there were some paths in the hills that were very easy to overlook, and more efficient than the obvious ones.


The legionnaires were almost silent. Their attitude was more or less the same as what I’d seen earlier: very tense, ready for an attack. That was enough to tell me that, however casually Hideo presented it, their business here was very serious. The legionnaires weren’t joking the way I was used to, weren’t casually bantering. Even Aelia was quiet.


The hills west of Branson’s Ford weren’t terribly impressive, from what I’d heard. The closest I’d been to mountains was seeing the Tears of Kveld from a distance, though; I hadn’t even spent time in any particularly serious hills. So from my perspective they were plenty intense, all steep slopes and sudden drops. It was rocky ground, with little vegetation beyond some grasses and the occasional shrub; there were copses of trees, but they weren’t common.


We were around an hour out into the hills, well away from the town, when we saw the monster. I wasn’t entirely sure how something could have hidden in that sort of open ground. But it had. The first I saw of the ghoul was when it dug itself up out of the ground, moving so rapidly that it was hard to believe it was real.


The thing looked intimidating enough that I fell back an involuntary step upon seeing it. A bit over six feet tall, it looked like half a dozen nightmares rolled together. Its arms hung down to its knees, and were tipped with three long, pale claws. Its skin was red and raw, looking disturbingly slick; it flexed and pulsed in a way that suggested something might be pushing against it from the inside. Flat plates of what looked like bone covered its chest, legs, and neck.


Most disturbing, though, was its face. It didn’t really have one, not in the sense I was used to thinking of the word. It had two small, beady black eyes on the top of its head, and it had a huge, circular mouth.


It was, in short, a great deal like a typical ghoul. It was everything you never wanted it to be, a warped creation with very little to it but hunger and violence. There wasn’t much room in that head for a brain; it was all mouth and no intellect.


Things that had been extensively Changed were seldom pleasant. But there was a reason that when people wanted to complain about Changed monsters, ghouls were always the first thing to be mentioned.


The thing took a step forward, mouth opening to reveal row after row of chipped teeth. They pointed inwards from all directions, making me think of a lamprey, and its mouth dripped coal-black slaver.


I fell back another step as the stench hit me, a potent, fetid reek of rotting meat and sour milk and the stench of a life lived without any nod to hygiene. It was uniquely, indescribably unpleasant.


That was all the time I had before Aelia responded. The legionnaire’s reaction was calm, cool, and utterly professional. She brought her arbalest up in one smooth movement and fired, too fast to have aimed.


The bolt slammed home into the ghoul’s eye, an incredible shot from twenty feet away. The raw impact of it took the thing off its feet, and it hit the ground as a loose, twitching pile of limbs.


I gulped. That was…a rather impressive shot, to say the least. I wanted to think that it was a lucky fluke, but the way the others took it completely in stride suggested otherwise, that Aelia was simply that good of a shot.


“That can’t be it,” Sumi said, walking over and prodding the twitching corpse with his sword. It didn’t respond.


“It’s possible the stories were simply overblown,” Hideo said, walking over to the body as well. The rest of the legionnaires followed him. “But yes, I would say it’s rather unlikely.”


“Thing went down easy,” Aelia said. “One bolt and boom, down like a shot of vodka. Hard to believe anyone was really threatened by that.”


They were all focused on the corpse. I was the only one that heard the scratching noise. Not that it would necessarily have mattered–my hearing was considerably better than theirs, and I could barely make it out. But still, it suggested some things.


“Watch out,” I said, as loudly as I could–which, of course, wasn’t very loud at all. But it was enough to get Hideo’s attention. The surveyor turned to look at me, then grabbed Andrew’s sleeve and stepped away from the corpse, pulling the other man along with him.


They were just in time to be out of the way as the ground underneath the ghoul collapsed, leaving a pit ten feet across. Sumi was quick enough on his feet to jump aside even without the warning. Aelia and Marcus, though, weren’t as lucky; they both tumbled down into the hole.


An instant later, a pair of ghouls pulled themselves up from the pit. At the same time, another pit opened next to me, and a third ghoul climbed up from that one.


I stared for a few seconds, then stumbled away, towards the legionnaires. I might not like the legions much, but I knew better than most just how good they were at dealing death. There were certainly worse people for me to have between me and a ghoul than them.


Sumi was already paired off with one of the ghouls. I could hear the clang of its claws striking his shield, as I stumbled blindly back. I could hear screaming from the pit, not just a quick yelp of surprise, but genuine, pained screaming. Someone had gotten hurt, in the fall or after it. The other ghoul was following me, and ghouls weren’t renowned for their speed, but it was faster forward than I was backward, and I could tell that I wouldn’t be able to keep ahead of it for long.


And then I heard a whoosh, and a pained hiss, and I felt a wave of heat against my back.


I glanced back, and saw Andrew. He looked more scared than I felt, but he was standing steady next to Hideo, one hand raised. He was holding a scrap of flash paper in it, which was burning brightly from the alchemical compounds the paper was treated with. It was, clearly, the initial channel he’d used to start the fires.


Once they were started, he’d turned them to more destructive purposes. One of the ghouls was burning like a torch, bright orange flames licking up its body. Its skin was charring and flaking off as it stumbled around, patting vaguely at a flame that simply would not go out.


I bolted. I knew it was stupid, knew it was insane, but I couldn’t help it. I bolted.


The ghoul that had been chasing me hadn’t been expecting me to suddenly turn and run towards it instead. It hadn’t been expecting it, but it certainly didn’t hesitate to capitalize on it; after a momentary hesitation, it lashed out at me with one arm.


That hesitation was almost enough to save me. I was light on my feet, and small, and it was neither of the above. I almost managed to get by it before it could respond.




Instead, its flailing arm caught me on the leg, jerking me instantly to a halt and slamming me to the ground. I felt the talons cut through cloth and fur and slice into my skin almost without any pause. There was no pain, not yet, just a shock of sensation and a wash of warmth as blood started leaking out past the claws.


Then it pulled me close, and now I felt the pain, as it ripped the gashes wider. I twisted onto my back, tearing the wounds even more around the ghoul’s claws, and I saw it standing over me. Its expression, insomuch as it had one, was blank and careless. Its other arm was upraised, about to descend.


I was sure that my time was up, that I’d had all the lucky breaks I was going to get and this was the end of the road. As the ghoul started to swing, as the sunlight gleamed off those pale claws, I caught myself wondering what target it would go for. Would it rip out my throat and leave me gasping and bleeding into the dirt? Tear my guts out and leave me to die slowly from infection? Break my ribcage and pull it open to expose my chest cavity?


I felt almost curious as I watched the claw coming down, waiting to see what it would do.


Instead, Sumi hit it from the side with a flying tackle. Its claws were ripped violently out of my leg, sending another shock of pain through me, as the ghoul was knocked to the side. The two of them hit the ground and rolled a few times, but in the end Sumi came out on top. He had a short, ugly knife in his hand now, and he punched out with it, stabbing the ghoul again and again, until the thing stopped twitching.


I just watched. The screaming from down in the pits had stopped, and I couldn’t hear the sound of approaching ghouls, so presumably we’d won. For a certain value of “we,” at least.


Sumi stood, and brushed himself off, and walked over to me. He pulled my pants away, getting a better look at the wound.


It took a few moments for me to clear my head enough to talk. When I did, I said, “Thanks.”


“No problem,” the legionnaire said, setting my leg down again. “Looks like a fairly minor wound. It’ll hurt like a bitch, and it’ll be hard for you to walk for a while, but it looks like it should heal all right.”


“And Aelia?” Hideo asked. It sounded like he was fairly far away.


“Lia’s going to lose the hand,” Sumi said. “Don’t see a way around that. But she should live if we can get her somewhere safe soon.”


“Let’s take the wounded back, then,” Hideo said. “I think we’ve found our ghouls.”


“Those aren’t ghouls,” someone said. It took a moment to realize that it was me.


“Excuse me?” he asked. I could almost hear his mocking smile, his slightly raised eyebrow.


“Ghouls don’t do that,” I said. “They’re stupid. They don’t plan, they don’t lay bloody ambushes.”


“I see,” he said. “Listen up, Silf, because I’m going to tell you something very important. If anyone asks, they were ghouls. They were perfectly normal, dimwitted ghouls, and we were just outnumbered and unlucky. And if you forget that, well, we’ll have a problem.” He paused, and again, I could almost hear the grin. “That said, you’re exactly right. We came out here to investigate reports of an atypically intelligent, aggressive group of ghouls. It seems they weren’t exaggerated.”


“Why do you care?”


“Why, the divine emperor cares for all of his subjects, my dear,” he said, not even hiding the mockery in his voice. “Now, unless you want to bleed out, we might want to move along. Aelia might be able to walk, but with that leg you clearly aren’t. Sumi, can you manage a travois?”


“Absolutely,” he said. “Give me a couple minutes to put something together.”


I was sure I’d passed minutes slower than those. I just couldn’t remember when they were.


Finally, just when I was sure I couldn’t take another minute of lying there, I felt someone scoop me up and then set me down onto a slightly more flexible surface. A moment later, it started moving; I could hear the scrape of wood on dirt under me.


For a while that was the whole of my experience of the world. There was pain, and darkness, and movement.


Then, after an amount of time I couldn’t label, I heard a voice. “I’m curious, Silf,” Hideo said. “You seem to be an intelligent girl, you keep your head fairly well. So what made you run?”


I seriously debated not answering. Then, because I remembered how very easy it would be for him to kill me right now, I said, “I was in the Whitewood.”


“Ah,” he said. “Afraid of fire, then?”


I nodded tensely, eyes still closed shut.


“Understandable,” he said. “That was a dark time in the history of our nation. Those who were responsible were sentenced harshly, I assure you.” There was a pause. “Thank you for telling me that, by the way,” he said, his tone even and conversational. “I’d wondered why Corbin had taken you in. That explains a great deal.”


I must have looked confused, because Hideo continued. “Come now, girl,” he said. “You didn’t really think that he’d taken you under his wing out of the goodness of his heart, did you?”


“Corbin is a good man,” I said, a bit tightly.


“That’s arguable, at best,” he said. “But does he really appear to be a terribly generous man? I mean, if nothing else, you have to wonder why he helped you. Or I did, at least. He obviously doesn’t extend that sort of assistance to every orphan girl who needs a place to stay, so what made you special? And now I know.” I could hear him smiling. “Guilt.”


“You’re just making things up,” I said. “Trying to drive a wedge between us.”


“Maybe so,” Hideo said lightly. “But if so, well, you have nothing to fear from asking, do you? Ask him why he took you in. Ask him where he was the day the Whitewood burned. I dare you.”


He fell silent after that. I lay on the travois until it rocked me into a troubled, pained sleep.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


I was tired, but it was still a struggle to get to sleep again after that. I tossed and turned, and spent a lot of time staring out the window. When I did manage to drift off, my sleep was restless, troubled, and brief. It was almost a relief when the sun came up and gave me an excuse to stop trying.


For once, I was the first one downstairs. Corbin was still in his room, though he wasn’t asleep; I could hear him moving around in there, fiddling with something. The guests were either asleep or doing a convincing imitation of it.


I got down to the taproom, and stopped, hesitating. It was cool, and dim, and silent. Empty.


The first thing that should be done was getting the fires started again. Everyone knew that; it was the first thing you did in the morning. Even if we hardly needed them half the time, it was…what you did.


But I didn’t deal with the fires. I didn’t start them, didn’t feed them. Corbin had always been very insistent upon that, even when I protested that I could do it. After the events of the past few days, I wasn’t sure I should argue with him on that particular topic.


So I left them alone, and went about my usual routine. I opened up the taproom, cleaned everything up again, and then went down to the cellar to collect things for the soup. I grabbed Changed beets and barley, onions, potatoes and turnips, a head of cabbage. After a brief pause, I grabbed meat, as well, the last of the lamb and the rest of the rabbit Black had killed. It wasn’t enough meat to feed everyone anyway, and putting it into the soup would help to stretch it out.


I took my time in the cellar, lingering over things. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave, really. The cellar wasn’t a safe place, exactly, but it was a comfortable one. It was private. And it was…I knew it. I knew what to expect down here, knew what the rules were. Compared to the uncertainty and fear surrounding what was happening in the village lately, it was a relief to know.


But in my experience, hiding from problems was usually a temporary solution at best. Eventually, you had to do something about them. So after a few minutes, I took the food and went back upstairs.


Corbin was in the kitchen when I got there, making bread. “You’re up early,” he commented, not pausing as he mixed the dough. It was a simple sort of dough, as such things went; flour and salt, sugar and water, a bit of starter to add yeast to the mix. Corbin didn’t measure. He never did.


“Couldn’t sleep,” I said, setting the bag of vegetables and meat on the counter.


He did pause now, for just a moment, before resuming his mixing. It wasn’t so much a break as a stutter, a momentary hesitation before he remembered what he was doing. “Nightmares again?” he asked, trying and failing to keep a light, pleasant tone.


I nodded.


For a few seconds the only sounds in the kitchen came from the mixing of the dough and the crackle of the fire. “We can make them leave, if you want,” he said at last. “Just tell them they aren’t welcome to stay here.”


I shook my head. “Better we can see them,” I said.


Corbin smiled slightly. “That’s a good point,” he said. “Well, it’s your choice. You’re the one who has to deal with having them around. But if it gets to be too much…well, just tell me.”


I nodded gratefully, and grabbed a knife to begin cutting the vegetables.

I’d just finished hauling in water when Black walked into the kitchen. She looked cheerful and energetic and, all things considered, disgustingly perky for how little sleep she’d gotten. I felt exhausted, and I knew that she must have slept less than I did, but to look at her I’d never have guessed that.


I was starting to wonder whether we’d been Changed in opposite directions. I needed more sleep than a human to be functional, and it was starting to seem like Black didn’t sleep at all.


“Come on, Silf,” she said to me, beckoning. “I want to show you something, and we should get going before the others wake up.”


I looked at Corbin. He laughed and shook his head. “You might as well go with her,” he said. “Black usually gets what she wants, I’ve found. I can take care of things here for a while.”


I shrugged, and followed Black out the back door.


“All right,” she said, pausing just outside the inn. “Do you know somewhere we won’t be interrupted? Fairly nearby, hopefully; I’d rather not lose too much time walking.”


I thought for a moment, then shrugged and led her to my secret place, the hollow in the rock where I went when I needed to get away. It was a bit cramped for two, but it was nearby, and I’d never been interrupted there.


Just inside the trees, Black grabbed a pair of packs off the ground. I was reasonably confident that they hadn’t been there when we went through in the dark earlier that morning, so she must have carried them out before she came downstairs. The one she handed me was the smaller of the two by a considerable margin, but it was still a large pack, and heavy. It made me feel very glad that it was only a few minutes to our destination.


Black seemed rather dubious when she saw the rock outcropping. But once she’d followed me through the crack, squeezing a bit to fit through with the pack, she grinned widely. “Oh, this is perfect, Silf,” she said. “This is excellent.”


I shrugged. “I like it,” I said simply.


“I can see why,” she said, walking over and sitting down at the edge of the pocket. “It’s a nice place.”


I shrugged again, and hopped onto my usual rock. I curled up there, watching her.


Maybe a minute passed in companionable silence before Black spoke again. “I didn’t do this just to get you out of the inn,” she said. “I actually do have something to show you. Do you know how to defend yourself at all?”


I shrugged, a gesture that probably came across a bit oddly given that I was curled up on a rock. “I channel,” I said.


“You said you knew a bit. Is it enough for that, do you think?”


Rather than answer, I reached into my purse and pulled out an iron half-penny. I held it up in front of me, staring at it.


Everyone I’d talked to had their own words for channeling. Or, well, everyone who could do it; most people didn’t have the knack. Those who did all experienced it differently, though. It was a very personal sort of experience.


The best analogy I’d ever come up with was a river. Not a stream, like the one we’d used earlier, or even the river north of town. No, this was a real river, like the Blackwater at its stronger points, and in flood at that. The magic was like that, something so much bigger and stronger and more than me that any comparison was absurd. The scale was simply too different for there to be a meaningful comparison.


To continue the analogy, then, channeling was quite literally channeling the force of that water. Sometimes it went as far as building water wheels and levies, but that was difficult and dangerous. Most of the time it was more a matter of just putting a pipe into the river, aiming it more or less where you wanted the water to go, and hoping that nothing went wrong.


I opened myself up to the magic, and gasped as it hit me. I felt a sort of vibrating tension in my body, butterflies in my stomach and my fur standing on end. At the same time, I could feel my awareness expanding, a buzzing pressure against senses that had no name from every direction.


I focused that awareness on the coin in my hand, concentrating. And the I opened a channel.


The bit of iron shot across the pocket, slamming into the rock hard enough to shatter the coin.


“Damn,” Black said, staring at the broken half-penny. “That’s pretty good. Very good, for someone without training.”


I shrugged, struggling to close myself off again. It was always harder to block the magic out again than it was to let it in. It took a few moments, but eventually I was alone in my body again, the sense of pressure fading. “Metal is all I have,” I said, relaxing again. “They did some tests, when I first showed potential, and it was pretty definitive. Decent in metal, but no potential at all in anything else. They probably would still have trained me eventually, but…”


“But the attack happened first.”


I nodded.


“Can you do other things with it?” Black asked. “Move larger things, maybe?”


I nodded. “A few things,” I said. “Not much, but I know a few tricks.”


“All right,” she said. “Well, I’ll trust your judgment on that. I can’t channel, and metal wasn’t a common channel in the war, so you probably know what you can do with it better than I can.”


I smiled wryly, and shrugged.


“It won’t work inside the wards, though,” she said. “Will it?”


“Not well,” I said. The wards kept the vast majority of magic out, which meant that you didn’t have to worry about being Changed inside them, but it also made channeling almost useless.


“You still need to be able to defend yourself there,” she said. “Which is why I brought this.”


I’d known what was in Black’s pack, generally speaking. I could feel the metal in it while I was channeling, and there were only so many reasons to be carrying that much metal. But it was still a bit of a shock when she dropped her pack, and opened it, and I saw what was inside.


Weapons. Lots and lots and lots of weapons.


There were knives in there, blades meant for piercing armor or carving flesh rather than the daily tasks most knives were put to. A legion-issue short sword in it sheath. A light hatchet that obviously wasn’t meant to be used on wood. A pair of long, curving blades that I didn’t recognize. Even a slightly smaller version of the spear she carried with her.


“Go ahead and drop yours,” Black said. “There’s a bow and some arrows in there. I think that’s probably the best place to start.”


It was only a couple of minutes before I had the bow out and drawn, and I was taking shots at an oddly colored rock on the other side of the pocket. Black stood behind me, coaching me on how to hold myself and aim.


The first few shots went reasonably well. I was wildly inaccurate, of course, even at such a small distance. It was painful, too, forcing the muscles in my arms and back to work in ways that they weren’t built for. But I could do it.


The fourth shot was different. I knew, as soon as I released the string, that something was wrong. I felt a sudden spike of pain, and something pulled me off balance.


The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground, the bow lying on the ground next to me. My finger hurt like hell, and there was a fair bit of blood on my hand and the ground.


“Silf?” Black said, sitting next to me. “What happened?”


“String caught on my claw,” I said, stumbling over the words a little. I held my hand up, trying to keep it from shaking too much. “Tore it out completely, it looks like,” I said, looking at my forefinger.


“I didn’t realize you had claws,” Black said, grabbing my finger and squeezing it to staunch the bleeding.


“Not very long,” I said. “And they retract. Just caught it wrong.”


She grimaced, grabbing the bow with her other hand. “Right there,” she said, setting it down and pointing at the string. “Looks like you cut it almost completely through.” She paused, obviously thinking. “Will the claw grow back?”


I nodded.


“All right,” she said. “Bow probably isn’t the answer, then. And with how your hands and arms are built, I don’t think you’ll be able to use a sword properly. Axe or spear, then. I’m thinking axe is more likely. Are you ready to keep going, or do you want to wait?”


I shrugged. “I’ll be fine once the bleeding stops,” I said. “Losing a claw hurts like a bitch, and it’ll be tender for a while, but it’s not really serious.”


Black seemed like she was about to say something, but then she closed her mouth, and grabbed the hatchet from the bag.

An hour or so later, I was sitting on a rock at the edge of the fields west of town. I should probably have gone back to the inn with Black, but I wasn’t ready to deal with it quite yet. I’d have to deal with the legionnaires at some point, but at the moment I just didn’t quite feel up to it.


So I went here, instead, to watch the river. There was something very calming about it. The motion, the sound, the way the light sparkled off its surface.


It was peaceful. I felt like I needed something peaceful right now.


I’d been sitting there for maybe three minutes when I heard a voice. “You mind if I join you?”


I glanced over and saw Sumi, the older legionnaire of the group. I tensed briefly, then shook my head sharply and went back to staring at the river.


He sat down next to me with a sigh that made me think of tired muscles and creaking bones. I noted that he left a few feet between us, leaving me plenty of personal space. “What’s your name?” he asked. “I didn’t catch it the other night.”




“I’m Sumi,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”


I nodded, a bit stiffly.


“You don’t like us very much,” he asked. “Do you?”


“Don’t know you.”


“But you got stiff when you saw it was me,” he said. “And the other day, when we showed up, I thought you were about to bolt.”


“Not fond of the legions.”


He nodded. “I figured it was something like that. We’re not here for your friend, if that’s what you’re thinking. Hideo was trying to scare him the other day, but the truth is, nobody cares anymore.”


I was tempted to ask what he was talking about. Clearly he knew something about Corbin’s history, which was something I’d been wondering about for a few years now.


But, then, even if I asked, could I trust what a legionnaire said about it? Probably not. So I just shrugged.


I expected him to say something else at that point, or just leave. But instead he sat there, letting the silence thicken until I felt pushed to fill it. “I grew up in the Whitewood,” I said. “And I was there when it burned.”


Sumi sighed, a long, quiet sound. “Ah,” he said. “That wouldn’t leave you with good memories of the legions.”


I shook my head.


“I was there, too,” he said. “The whole Fourth Skellish was, we were the backbone of the assault force. I was just a foot soldier, didn’t have anything to do with the orders. But it was still…I’m not proud of what we did.” He shrugged. “Don’t expect that makes it any better, but it’s all I have to offer.”


“Where is the road going?” I asked quietly.


He snorted. “There is no road,” he said. “You already knew that, I’m guessing.”


I nodded.


“They’re going to keep saying there is,” he said. “Keep stringing people along. But I’ve never been much of a one for the cloak and dagger.”


“What are you doing here, then?”


Sumi smiled at me. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said, standing. “It’s nothing to do with you.” He looked down at the river for a moment, looking pensive. “This place reminds me of Kaido Shrine in the capital,” he said. “Sometimes people go there to get clean.”


He shook his head abruptly, and started to walk away. “Good luck, Silf,” he said. “I’ll see you around.”


I watched him go, leaving me alone with the river.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


I wasn’t sure what woke me, at first. I was awake, but it wasn’t clear why; there was no sound of movement from below, no sunlight coming in the window.


Then I heard the tapping again. It was a quiet sound, very quiet, barely audible even to my ears. But it was there, and it was too regular to be explained by the wind.


I looked out the window, more carefully this time.


Black, clinging to the wall, smiled at me through the window, and waved. Her skin looked very dark under the light of the moon.


I frowned, worried. Then I got out of bed, and walked over to the window, and undid the catch.


“What are you doing here?” I asked, my voice catching in the middle of the sentence. I coughed, and a spike of pain went through my throat; if I didn’t know better I would have thought I’d torn something.


Well. Today, it seemed, was not going to be a good day.


“Our imperial friends are leaving,” Black said, not taking any obvious notice of my lapse. “Very quietly, in the dark. I want to know where they’re going, and I thought you might too.”


I didn’t hesitate a moment before nodding. I was curious enough that I would have probably wanted to know anyway, but the events of the past few days settled any doubts I might have had. There was something strange going on here, and I needed to know what it was.


I couldn’t afford for anything to happen to Branson’s Ford. It was a terrible, dying little town in the middle of nowhere, but it was all I had.


“All right,” Black said. “Go ahead and get dressed, then. They were moving pretty slowly, I think we should be able to catch them. You do all right in the dark, I’m guessing?”


“Eyes aren’t bad,” I said, throwing on a simple wool cloak. “Ears are better. I get by.”


“That’s good,” she said. “I’m counting on you knowing the terrain better than them to keep us out of sight. Come on.” She dropped rapidly out of sight.


I followed her out, latching the window behind myself. It looked like Black had fallen straight to the ground, but I wasn’t comfortable with taking that much of a fall, and I took the tree down like usual.


“This way,” she said, the instant I was on the ground, starting around the corner of the inn. “They left their horses. Probably wanted to avoid the noise and the delay. But it means we should be able to catch up to them pretty easily.”


I nodded, and hurried to catch up to her.


Black moved through the trees with perfect confidence, heading southwest into the trees. I was impressed, though I supposed it made sense. Her eyes were huge; it fit that she would be able to see in the dark.


I couldn’t see so well in the dark. Better than human, but certainly not as well as a cat; things were little more than grey blurs in the moonlight. But Black hadn’t been wrong; I knew this ground about as well as anyone. I wasn’t worried about stumbling.


We kept going, heading southwest into the forest. I didn’t see any signs of a trail, but I trusted Black’s judgment. If she said they went this way, she was probably right.


I still raised an eyebrow when I realized we were going past the warding posts, though. Not so much that Black was going outside the wards; she was as Changed as I was, after all, and had about as much to fear from the magic outside the wards. But everything I’d heard suggested that the people of Akitsuro went to great pains to stay inside warded areas. They’d had the wards long enough now that whole generations had grown up with them, being taught from birth to think of them as their bulwark against the dangers of the outside world.


What was so interesting in this forest that it had brought the imperial contingent out from behind their wards? What was so secret that they had to do it in the dark hours of the morning?


We kept going for a few minutes. Then I heard a voice, drifting towards us on the wind.


It was speaking Tsuran, rather than Skellish or the pidgin of the two that people in Branson’s Ford mostly used. I knew Tsuran, but it had been years since my language lessons, and this was true imperial, not the accented version I’d grown up with. Between that and the distance, I couldn’t quite pick out words.


But I could pick out the sound. That was Andrew’s voice, and he sounded nervous.


I stopped dead where I stood, and looked around. “This way,” I said after a moment, turning slightly to the north. “Stream.”


“What do you want that for?” Black asked, following along.


“They have a fire channeler,” I said, picking up speed. “Can feel your heat. Wet our cloaks and he won’t feel us.”


“Ah,” Black said. “I didn’t realize he was fire.”


It only took a minute or two for us to reach the stream I was thinking of. It barely deserved the name, really; it was barely a trickle, running along the bottom of a small ravine. It was dry more often than not, and only running now because of the heavy rains we’d had earlier in the summer.


But it was water, and it was cold, and that was what mattered. I took off the heavy cloak I’d thrown on earlier, and shoved it in the water, making sure to soak the whole cloak. Then I pulled it out, wrung out enough of the water that it shouldn’t drip, and draped it around my shoulders again.


A shiver ran through me as the wet fabric settled onto me. But it was a momentary thing, almost more a trained response than something that was really justified. The fur on my shoulders and down my spine was enough to keep the fabric from lying flush against my skin, and it would take time for the cold water to reach my skin.


Black did the same thing just downstream from me, not even flinching as she put her cloak on again. Though she had clothing on underneath, which probably mitigated the shock somewhat.


We kept going, moving back towards their path. I kept to the higher areas, thinking that it might give us a better line of sight on them. I wasn’t expecting to actually see them, not with lighting this bad, but I thought Black might be able to.


As it turned out, I’d misestimated them. They were carrying an alchemical lamp, one much brighter than I was used to seeing. It shed enough light that, from above, I could actually see them before I could hear them.


All five of them were there, and looking ready for a war. Sumi and the man whose name I didn’t know both had their short swords drawn; Sumi was at the front of the group, and the other man was at the back. Aelia, just behind Sumi, had her arbalest drawn and loaded, and in front of the other swordsman Andrew was carrying the lamp in one hand and a knife in the other.


The only exception was the surveyor–Hideo–who looked completely at ease. He was wearing his imperial robes rather than armor or anything more suited to the wilderness, and he didn’t have any weapons in sight. He looked so spectacularly casual that if I couldn’t see his surroundings I might think he was strolling in a city park.


“I don’t get it,” Andrew said, glancing around nervously. “I thought the sightings were east of town.” I could hear him quite clearly now, though we were still plenty far enough away to avoid being noticed. Being Changed had its advantages.


“Yes,” Hideo said, in a tone of obviously forced patience. “And the townsfolk didn’t react when we said we were attacked there.”




Aelia was the one to answer him this time, clearly taking pity on Hideo. “Towns like this love to ask strangers questions,” she said. “Gossip is half of what there is to do in these towns. So if there were ghouls east of town, they would have gone into stories about them when we said that.” She paused, glancing at some perceived noise in the underbrush, before continuing. “They’re denning somewhere else and just attacking to the east,” she said. “Bet on it.”


I paused. “What’s she talking about?” I asked, in a whisper.


Black shook her head. “First I’ve heard of it,” she said. “Odd that they would send this group to deal with ghouls, if that is what they’re here for.”


I nodded. Ghouls were…well, they were certainly dangerous, in their own way, but it was a constant sort of danger. They could kill you if you made a mistake, but they were a monster that everyone learned to live with. The empire might send a few legionnaires to deal with a ghoul outbreak, but they wouldn’t send a scholar.


Irritatingly, they fell silent after that, leaving me with more questions than I’d had before. I supposed we’d gotten lucky to hear as much as we had, but still, it was irritating having them only explain the barest part of what was going on.


“What’s the other half?” Andrew asked suddenly around a minute later.


“What?” Aelia asked, sounding a bit annoyed now. She might be more willing to answer his questions than the rest, but clearly she wasn’t thrilled about dragging the rookie along.


“You said gossip was half of what there was to do in a town like this one,” he said. “What’s the other half?”


“Get bored, get drunk, and get laid,” she said. “Usually in that order.”


I had to chuckle at that. Aelia might be a bit crude, but she clearly understood places like Branson’s Ford well enough.


“Enough,” Hideo said sharply, his voice cutting through the night like the crack of a whip. “We’ve gone far enough, and not seen any sign of the ghouls. We need to head back if we’re going to reach the inn before dawn.”


“That’s our cue, kid,” Black whispered to me. “We want to stay ahead of them.”


I nodded, and started heading back. I knew a more direct route back to the inn than the one they’d taken out.

Back home, Black followed me up through the tree to my room. She waited for me to slip the latch open again, and then waited for me to go inside.


“I’ve got a question, if you don’t mind,” she said, sitting down on the floor next to the window.


I shrugged, and went to the closet, pulling out more clothing. I didn’t really need it for warmth, not on a warm summer night, but now that we weren’t in a rush it was worth making the nod to propriety.


“You’re obviously a pretty young girl,” she said. “It can be hard to tell with the Changed, sometimes, but I’m usually fairly good at recognizing that, and you don’t give me that feeling. You can’t be much above eighteen, can you?”


“Seventeen,” I said, sitting on my bed and looking at her.


“I figured it was something like that,” she said. “But you seem rather mature, for your age. And you know how to hide from a fire channeler.”


“I know about channeling,” I said, shrugging.


“Can you channel, then?”


“A bit,” I said. “Metal. I taught myself some things.”


“But not fire,” she said. “And you don’t have a formal education in it.”


I shook my head.


“But you know what to do about it,” she said. “That’s the exact trick we used in the war. You’re fast enough to keep up with me, and you speak Tsuran. And then there’s the way you look at the people in this village. The way they look at you.”


I just waited. Black had a point, and she’d get to it; it wasn’t worth wearing out my throat to push her.


“You’re not from around here,” she said. “Are you?”


I shook my head. “I was in the Whitewood,” I said. “Came south after.”


Black went very, very still. “I see,” she said, and she did seem to be looking at me in an entirely different way, now. She looked like she suddenly understood a great many things. “Your parents,” she said, in a tone that made me think of someone handling something fragile. A bird’s egg, perhaps, or an irreplaceable work of art. “Did they…?”


I shook my head again. “They died in the attack,” I said. “I got lucky and made it out.”


I could almost see the thoughts running through Black’s head, as she looked at me. I could see her picturing me, trying to get out of the Whitewood at the end. Picturing a Changed girl, injured and alone, on the road south afterward, with all the other refugees. I could see her reconsidering how she thought of me.


“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, her voice suddenly sounding softer than I’d heard it before.


There it is, I thought, having to work to contain a bitter laugh. What did you do in the war? Well, now you know.


It didn’t look like Black was enjoying the knowledge. It was a revelation, but not something anyone was happy to hear. The sacking of the Whitewood was one of the ugliest stories from a very ugly war. People were happier to forget that it had happened.


I couldn’t blame them. I would have liked to forget it, too.


“You said you fought,” I said. “Here?”


“In Skelland, yes,” she said. “Not in this exact area; I was mostly fighting north of the Blackwater.”


“What did you do?”


She stared at the floor, and didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I killed people,” she said, finally. “A lot of people.”


“I don’t understand how you could do that,” I said. I was looking out the window, now, not at her. I could just see the sky beginning to lighten to grey with the coming sunrise.


“I thought it was necessary,” she said. “We all did. I know it seems monstrous, now, the things we did. But at the time, we had our reasons.”


“Was it worth it?”


Black sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. “At the time, I thought so. I really believed in what we were doing. But now, looking at you, it’s…not quite as simple as that.” She fell silent again, brooding. “It seems like nothing is ever simple.”


I nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”


“Thank you for listening,” she said. “You should get some sleep, Silf. Morning isn’t far away now.”


I nodded. She climbed out the window, and dropped to the ground. Presumably she would climb back in at her own room.


I latched the window again behind her, and then I went and sat on my bed.


I spent a long, long time staring at the locked box at the foot of the bed. I didn’t open it, didn’t even reach for the key that I always, always carried. I just looked at it.


And then I curled up, and I went back to sleep.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


The rest of the day was uneventful, but…tense. There was a sort of nervous energy in the air, a sense of barely concealed anxiety. It wasn’t just me, either. Corbin’s face was far away as he went about the daily chores, and when it was done he didn’t polish bottles or find other work to keep his hands busy. He just stood behind the bar, staring at nothing. Black was still out in the forest, and I wasn’t sure whether she’d be coming back.


Around noon, we once again had a few people come in for food and drink at the middle of their workday. The crowd was actually larger today, and younger. They were clearly hoping to see the imperial surveyor. They would have known he arrived before he even reached the inn; it was hard to keep secrets in a town like Branson’s Ford.


If that was what they were expecting, though, they were disappointed. The surveyor and his staff were tucked away in their rooms, and seemingly not inclined to leave. Not a one of them had so much as poked their head downstairs since they went up.


Somehow that didn’t make me feel any better. I was just as glad not having the legionnaires around, but I couldn’t forget that they were here. It felt…ominous.


I was agitated through lunch, distractible. I wasn’t quick to respond the way I usually was; several times people had to remind me that they’d said something. They noticed, too. Ketill’s young son Karl joked about how I was probably mooning after the surveyor, and that was why I was distracted. Gunnar looked uncomfortable when he heard that, and he looked at the floor, but he didn’t correct the boy.


I laughed it off, and for once I was glad that my throat was so damaged. My laugh sounded strange enough that it was hard to tell when it was forced. I went back to work, and managed to keep my focus more clearly on what I was doing.


It wasn’t so long before they left, after that. It was becoming clear that the surveyor wasn’t going to be attending lunch, and with Black still absent they had nothing much to gawk at. Roughly an hour after they got there, each of the workers tossed back a last drink for the road and handed over a few coins. Corbin handed back their change, instant and exact as always, but his face was distant, and his movements were mechanical. He didn’t talk, or laugh, and his expression was so blank and empty it was barely an expression at all.


Once the taproom was empty again, I had my own lunch. The soup didn’t have any rice today, since that was a bland staple in the south, but I’d thrown in a Changed variety of beet that was apparently a delicacy in Akitsuro, and it tasted good enough. I ate two bowls of soup, and a slice of coarse bread, and a lightly roasted leg from the rabbit Black had killed the previous day.


After lunch, I spent an hour in the silent taproom with Corbin. We didn’t work, or look at each other. Then I went to the woods behind the inn and was quietly, violently sick.

Hours passed. The imperials still hadn’t come down from their rooms. A part of me wanted to sneak up and see if I could eavesdrop on them, and figure out just what was so bloody interesting up there. Another part wanted nothing more than to run, and keep running as far as my lungs could carry me.


I tried to slip out to my hollow for a nap, since I hadn’t quite gotten enough sleep the previous night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a nightmare. I was screaming and running and I was so confused and I didn’t know where to go and it hurt and I couldn’t breathe and everywhere there were screaming running people and my throat hurt and I couldn’t see and there was blood everywhere and–


And I woke up. I was soaked in a cold sweat, breathing hard, whimpering. Long minutes passed before I could get my breathing under control again. When I tried to stand, my legs were shaky, and I had to sit down.


It had been a while since the nightmares came last. I wasn’t happy to see them again, but it was, under the circumstances, probably to be expected. Somehow, I didn’t think I was going to be sleeping much for a while. Old habits, as they say, die hard. Sometimes I wonder whether they die at all; it doesn’t feel like it. You can cover them up, but scratch the paint and there they are, good as new.


I went back to the inn, and drew a mug of beer to take the edge off the memories. Corbin watched, and he didn’t say a word.


It was around sunset when our guests showed themselves again. Or, well, one did. It was the legionnaire who’d been in the heavier armor, I was pretty sure, the mage. He wasn’t in the armor now, though; he was wearing casual clothes of some light fabric I didn’t recognize.


“Corbin?” he said suddenly, poking his head into the taproom from the kitchen. I jumped slightly, but managed to control my reaction quickly; it was easier, without the armor. “That’s the name, right?”


“That’s me,” Corbin confirmed, sounding wary. “Did you need something?”


“If it’s not too much trouble,” he said, with a wry sort of smile. “You mentioned food earlier, I was wondering when that was. Stomach woke me up, and rations are getting old.”


“Soup and bread are ready now,” Corbin said. “Pie is in the oven, and I was about to put on the lamb, so those will be done shortly.”


“I can wait for that,” he said, smiling more broadly now. “Thank you kindly, I’ll be down in a few minutes.” He pulled his head back through the door, and I heard his footsteps on the stairs.


“Polite young man,” Corbin said quietly, watching him go. “And he’s wearing cotton this far north, too. He must be new.”


Black came back around five minutes later, and went straight to the fire. She didn’t say a thing, just sat down as close to it as she could physically get without scorching the chair and rested her spear against the wall. The villagers began trickling in at around the same time; unsurprisingly, there were many more of them than usual. There were people there that I hadn’t seen in months, Harald and Johannes, Livy the mayor’s daughter. Everyone in Branson’s Ford had heard what was happening now, and every one of them was acutely aware of what it might mean.


For the first time in a long time, things felt hopeful in that taproom. The laughter wasn’t forced, it didn’t have an edge of desperation to it.


Which was good, because it helped to cover the raging anxiety I still felt. It covered for Corbin’s empty expression, and the way Black kept glancing at the door.


The legionnaire walked into the taproom a few minutes later, as we were still handing out soup and bread to everyone that wanted it. He seemed a bit surprised to see how rapidly the taproom had filled up, but he took it in stride, taking a seat at the bar. Two more of the imperials followed him in a moment later, the woman and one of the swordsmen; the other swordsman and the surveyor were nowhere to be seen.


“What can I get you folks?” Corbin said to the legionnaires with a smile, as I continued fetching bowls of soup, and slices of bread, and plates of lamb in gravy.


“Food for all of us, I think,” the mage of the three said. “And…do you have any alchemical liqueur?”


“That I do,” Corbin said. “Cherry, blackberry, grapefruit, and mint.”


“The blackberry sounds perfect,” the legionnaire said.


“That’s a silver penny a glass,” Corbin said, retrieving a tall, slender bottle from the shelf behind the bar. It wasn’t one that I’d seen him open before; if not for the constant cleaning it would likely have had a thick layer of dust on it.


“That’s a bit steep,” the legionnaire said.


Corbin shrugged. “Not many alchemists around here,” he said. “I couldn’t charge less or I’d be losing money on the deal.”


“Fair enough,” he said, smiling again. “Ah, hell, it’s worth it.”


“Says you,” the other man said, snorting. “I’ll stick with beer, thanks.”


“Vodka for me,” the woman said. “And a cup of water.”


Corbin nodded and started pouring drinks, while I got their food and the water. Once that was done, I went to stand in the corner behind the bar. It was the darkest, quietest corner of the room, far from the fireplace and the tables. I stood there, and I watched.


The villagers were intimidated, I could tell. It was hard not to be intimidated by the representatives of the legions. I wasn’t the only one with bad memories on that topic, either; Ketill kept shooting them dark looks, and Ilse left within a few minutes of their arrival.


But the people of Branson’s Ford weren’t shy by nature, as a rule, and again, they were desperate. It wasn’t long before they were asking questions, pestering the legionnaires, who put up with it in good humor. Standing in the shadows, and listening, I heard a great deal. More than any of them would likely have guessed.


The mage’s name was Andrew, a more northern name; he was probably born after the expansion started. He was younger than the rest, and it bothered him, though he tried not to let it show. He was unfailingly polite, and seemed as intimidated by the villagers as they were by him. He was indeed a channeler, and specialized in fire. He got drunk rapidly, and when he did he became expansive, loud, and apologetic.


The other man was the oldest of the bunch, a man named Sumi. He was quiet, and not as relaxed as the others; he kept looking at the exits, checking his balance. He had a great many scars, and he moved like someone who was starting to get old, starting to slow down and get stiff. He drank beer, and not much of that, not enough to get drunk; he was clearly irritated that Andrew was drunk.


The woman was named Aelia, and appeared to be somewhat intermediate between the other two in personality. She seemed more experienced than Andrew; she talked to him in a way that made me think of a woman talking to a younger brother she was fond of. But she was more expansive than Sumi, and far more talkative. In particular, she seemed to have an endless string of dirty jokes, some of which were impressively obscene.


That was the general impression I got of them on a personal level. It was comforting, in some ways. They were surprisingly human, with the armor off. After a few hours I could almost see them as people rather than legionnaires.


Apparently they’d been resting most of the day; they were attacked by a group of ghouls on the road east of the village, and while none of them had been injured, it had turned into a lengthy running battle and left all of them feeling like they could use a day to recover. Andrew, in particular, was clearly shaken by the whole event.


Beyond that, though, they were far less forthcoming on the topic of what they were here for. The villagers questioned them repeatedly on that topic, with very little result. Sumi just grunted, Andrew was immensely proud to be on the mission but obviously didn’t know the details, and Aelia told them to ask the surveyor. Hideo, she called him, very informally.


They didn’t provide any real information. But then, that was informative in itself. There were only so many reasons why they wouldn’t be telling the villagers all the details, and none of them lined up with the official purpose for their visit.


It was worrying. As though there were anything about this whole situation that weren’t.


The night went on longer than most nights did, and it ended on a happier note than any night I could remember in that inn, at least for the villagers. But morning was still early, and the impromptu celebration had to end. The villagers made their way to their homes, and the legionnaires went up to their rooms.


Corbin and I stayed in the taproom for a time, cleaning and putting everything in order. Notably, Black stayed below as well. She didn’t say a word, but she and Corbin were giving each other very significant looks, the sort that made me think they knew something I didn’t.


Not that I didn’t know enough. There were no ghouls to the east of Branson’s Ford. It was bad terrain for them; too much competition with beasts from the river, and not enough cover. There were sometimes ghouls in the forests to the south, or the hills to the west. But never to the east.


Everything was silent when I went upstairs, the surveyor and his legionnaires sleeping in their rooms. Every door was locked. I made my way to my own door, at the other end of the hall with plenty of empty rooms between them, and unlocked it.


Inside, everything was the way I’d left it. Nothing had been touched, nothing had been disturbed. The locked box was still very securely locked.


I let out a sigh of relief, and locked the door.


I stripped, moving slowly and feeling like I was in a daze. I set the clothes aside, and checked the lock on the door again, making very sure that it was locked. After a few moments I barred it as well. Then I curled up on the bed, and stared out the window.


Sleep took a long time to find me.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


The lunch crowd wrapped up their business fairly shortly after that, and left. There was no surprise there. There was work to be done in the fields–and, for one of them, at the forge–and any break from that work to sate their curiosity had to be a short one. You had to make hay while the sun was shining. It was the way of things.


After they were gone, and the taproom fell silent once again, Black got increasingly fidgety. Corbin and I were both used to it, and we settled easily into our routines; he polished the bottles behind the bar until they sparkled in the light from the alchemical lamp, while I swept the floor again and made sure that the furniture was all right where it belonged, to the inch.


Black, though, wasn’t used to sitting in an empty taproom waiting for something to do, and it clearly grated on her. She got fidgety, and then she got twitchy, and then she jumped to her feet abruptly. “I’m going to go take a look around town,” she announced.


“Silf can show you around,” Corbin said, not seeming surprised. He didn’t even pause in polishing a sealed bottle of red wine from the western coast, where grapes tended to grow better than they did here.


I nodded, rather eagerly, and got to my feet. Black laughed, and said nothing.


Giving a tour of Branson’s Ford wasn’t something I’d been called on to do before. Most of our guests weren’t terribly interested in the village; it was a place you passed through, nothing more.


It wasn’t a hard thing to do, though, as such. There wasn’t a lot of village to tour.


Black was taller than me, but didn’t know the area and didn’t move as quickly, so we ended up keeping more or less the same pace. That was actually rather impressive; more often than not I found myself waiting on people. I supposed that if she was a hunter, though, she spent a great deal of time walking, mostly through rough terrain. And she was Changed.


I started with the center of town, such as it was. There was a cluster of nine buildings, all rather simple in construction. Where the inn had a good stone foundation, thick wooden walls, and a slate roof, these were built on dirt and roofed with thatch. The walls, at least, were sturdy enough; lumber was easy enough to find here.


“Is this it?” Black asked, looking around.


I shook my head. “Some of the farmers live out by the fields,” I said. “This is just the town proper.”


My tone was a little defensive, but mostly it was dismissive. I could understand her confusion; the town center of Branson’s Ford was not an impressive sight. There was the blacksmith’s, which was currently still and cold; coal was expensive, and there wasn’t enough work to be worth lighting the forge every day. There was the general store, which acted more as storage than anything, since Ilse’s stock was basically just whatever she bought off traveling merchants or villagers who went to the market. There were some houses, only half of which were even inhabited. None of the buildings, not even the mayor’s house, had a second floor.


A bustling metropolis, it was not. The only person in sight was Sigmund, sorting through a pile of metal scraps outside the smithy. He waved when he saw us, and then apparently fumbled something, because he flushed and went back to focusing on his work.


We kept going, and it wasn’t long before the trees thinned out and we saw the fields. They were…well, more expansive than the town center, but not necessarily more impressive. There were a few houses, and we could just barely see the orchards to the southeast, but by and large it was just flat fields out to the trees. To the southwest they ran up against the hills instead, where the sheep and goats were taken out to graze.


And to the north, across the fields, was the source of the village’s name. The Blackwater was a rather impressive river, and mostly it was too deep and fast to cross safely. No one in their right mind, no matter how much of a rush they were in, would set foot in the rapids of the Blackwater.


Here, though, the river spread out. It was broad, and shallow, and slow. Branson’s Ford was the only actual ford across the river for a hundred miles in either direction.


“That the mill?” Black asked, nodding towards a large structure on the bank of the river to the west. We couldn’t see the wheel from this angle.


I nodded.


“Does the miller live out there, then?”


I shook my head. “Big house back in town,” I said. “He’s the mayor.”


Black snorted. “Of course,” she said. “So he pretty much completely runs town, then. Lovely.” She paused. “Maybe you can answer a question for me, then. Something seems off about this place. The fields are fairly extensive, that’s a large mill. And if a Count lived here, it must have been fairly important. How did it go from that to…this?” She gestured vaguely back at the center of town.


“The ford,” I said. “It was important, brought merchants through. Then the empire came. Legion engineers built a bridge over the river east of here. Not as far out of their way.”


“Ah,” she said. “And with an easier route, the trade dried up.”


I nodded.


“That’s why people were so excited to hear about the surveyor, isn’t it?” Black asked, sounding like she already knew the answer. “If they build a road through here, it will bring the merchants back. It might make Branson’s Ford matter again.”


I nodded.


“Thanks,” she said, thoughtfully. “That explains some things.”


On the way back to the inn, she killed a rabbit and a squirrel with a sling. When I looked at her oddly, she said that it wasn’t good for a growing girl to eat nothing but soup and bread, and she wanted to make sure I got some meat tonight.

The next morning came early, too. I’d gone to sleep earlier this time, and I felt almost rested. I wasn’t expecting Black to wake me, since she’d said she would go hunting in the morning. But I wanted to get my sleeping done earlier, so that I wouldn’t have to waste hours on it while she was around.


Instead, I was woken up by someone pounding on the front door, hard enough to rattle it in its frame. “Open up,” he shouted, before pounding on the door again.


I sat bolt upright in my bed, startled out of sleep. My heart was racing. There was something…very familiar about that voice. It took me a long second to remember where I was. To remember when I was.


When I did, I could calm myself a little. I wasn’t back then; things were better, now. It hadn’t been a fever dream.


But I was still distinctly concerned. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but something about this situation felt…distinctly foreboding.


Moving as quickly as I could, I threw on clothing and went downstairs, locking the door behind myself.


As fast as I’d gone, though, Corbin was faster. I’d barely made it to the taproom when he was at the door, undoing the locks. They slid home with a soft click-click-click, and he leaned the bar against the wall, and he pulled the door open.


The person standing outside was in legion armor. One set of armor looked a lot like another, but this was regulation-issue, I’d recognize it anywhere.


I flinched away, and took a couple steps back until my back was against the wall next to the kitchen door. I was whining softly, and my ears were laid back flat against my head. I got the noise under control after a moment, and started breathing again, but I was still tense, legs bent and ready to run at a moment’s notice. Not for the door, that would be too obvious, but the stairs were close. I could get out my window and lose them in the trees; there wasn’t a chance the branches would hold them, not in that armor. If I could make it to the warding posts, I would be fine.


Corbin shot me a quick glare and then turned back to the legionnaire. “Come in,” he said, stepping out of the way.


The legionnaire did, and then more came behind him. There were four of them in total, three men and a woman, all human. Of course they were human; there weren’t many of the Changed in Akitsuro, from what I’d heard. Two of the men had the standard short sword on their belts, while woman was carrying an arbalest. The last man was wearing heavier armor than the rest, and carrying a number of leather pouches, but didn’t have an obvious weapon. Almost certainly an alchemist or a channeler, then, which made him the most dangerous of the group by far. I’d only seen legion war magic once, but if he was anything like that he could kill everyone in Branson’s Ford and never even break a sweat.


My attention was mostly caught by the fifth person in the door, though. He was…striking.


It would have been hard to find a stronger contrast to the rest of the group. He was shorter than they were, and looked nothing like a soldier; he barely had more muscle than I did. If anything, he reminded me of a scribe I’d known back in the Whitewood, a kind older man who’d given me candy and a place to hide when the other children wanted to pick on the Changed girl.


But I knew enough to be afraid of him anyway. He was wearing robes in the black and gold of Akitsuro, which meant he was an imperial officer of some kind. And that meant that he was, in all probability, in charge of the legionnaires.


“Good morning,” he said, sweeping into the taproom with a broad grin and a confident stride. “I am Surveyor Hideo Azukara, with the Akitsuro Engineering Corps.” He held out his hand.


Corbin stared for a second before he shook it. When he did, I was guessing he almost crushed the smaller man’s hand in his grip, though the surveyor didn’t show any sign of pain. “Corbin,” he said, his tone flat. It sounded strange after the surveyor’s much more grandiose introduction, abrupt and almost threatening.


“I’m sure,” the surveyor said with a charming grin. “The legion sent me to look into the possibility of building a road through this area for easier access to the western coast,” he said.


“I’m sure,” Corbin said, letting the other man’s hand go. “Which legion?”


The surveyor’s grin got a little wider. “Fourth Skellish,” he said, almost smugly. It meant nothing to me, but Corbin actually flinched.


“I see,” the innkeeper said.


“My guards and I will be in the area for some time,” the surveyor said. “I have to examine the surrounding territory, you understand, make sure that it’s suitable. As this appears to be the only inn in town, we’ll be looking to rent rooms here for several days.”


“Silver penny a night,” Corbin said instantly. “Per room.”


I gaped. I’d never, not even when the inn was at its most crowded, seen him charge more than a bronze penny for a night. He was asking the legionnaires for ten times what anyone else had to pay.


And none of them batted an eye, either. The surveyor pulled out a black cloth purse, and handed over a large silver noble, worth five silver pennies in itself. It was a coin that I’d only seen the wealthiest of merchants use before. “A pleasure doing business,” he said, smiling. “It’s wonderful dealing with a man who can keep his word, isn’t it?”


Once again, I found myself wondering what I was missing. I didn’t understand what he meant by that parting comment, but Corbin looked like he was about to strangle the surveyor on the spot. He might have tried, if not for the legionnaires standing right there. “Food will be ready in the evening,” he said, almost snarling. “Charged separately.”


“I look forward to it,” the surveyor said. “In the meantime, we have horses that need cared for.”


Corbin looked at me. I took the hint gladly, darting for the back door so that I wouldn’t have to actually go past the legionnaires. I didn’t have that much experience stabling horses, but I knew more or less what to do. And given that these were legion mounts, I was guessing that they were very well trained.


As I walked around to the side of the building where the stables were, I saw Black. She was standing out past the stables, far enough into the trees that she could vanish at a moment’s notice. She was staring at the inn, and she looked…worried.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Filed under Uncategorized

Cracks 1.3

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Upstairs, I went to my room, and locked the door behind myself. I glanced around the sparse room, more by habit than anything else.


Everything was where it should be. The bed in the middle of the room, the desk, a few books. The locked box was still locked, and it didn’t look like anyone had tampered with it.


I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.


I thought about grabbing a book on my way out, but a yawn decided me against it. I went straight to the window, undid the latch, and slipped out to stand on the ledge outside. It was a sturdy wooden ledge, the sort that had been fashionable in these parts around fifty years earlier. It had been put in more for aesthetics than any structural reason, and I wouldn’t have trusted it to hold much weight. Which was fine by me, since I didn’t weigh much.


A bit of string was enough to close and latch the window behind myself, and then I turned away from the window. There was a sizable oak tree growing outside my window, one that had been old when I got here. The nearest branch was plenty thick enough to hold my weight, and it was just a few feet away, an easy jump from my ledge. It was a familiar, practiced movement, and I didn’t have any trouble at all in making it.


For most people, I thought, clambering around the branches of the tree might have been frightening. I was around thirty feet above the ground, jumping from branch to branch. For someone that grew up in the Whitewood, though, this was familiar ground. I knew which branches were thick enough to be safe and which weren’t, I knew how to recognize damaged wood that I couldn’t trust my weight to.


I walked easily in to the trunk, then hopped up to a higher branch and climbed out the other way, around the corner of the inn. A quick jump took me across the gap to another tree, this one a spruce. I swung to the next branch down, ran and jumped to another spruce, and then hopped to the ground.


I was grinning by the time I felt dirt under my feet again. I liked climbing. It was like carrying water, in a way. Comforting.


I started to jog off through the trees, then caught myself yawning again and had to slow to a walk.


It still only took a few minutes to reach the edge of the village. The manor had only barely been included within the wards, and that reluctantly. The old Count was not popular with the people.


A couple minutes later, I reached the edge of the village. It wasn’t obvious, at a glance, where it was. At a glance, it looked like any other patch of trees.


It wasn’t until you looked closer that you saw the warding posts.


Some alchemical items were flashy and dramatic. Others, like the filter I’d used earlier, or the icebox, didn’t look like much at all. They did their job without any fuss at all.


The warding posts were one of those. They looked like simple poles of black iron, around a foot taller than me, spaced out roughly every fifty feet. Up close it was easy to see that there was more complexity to it than that. A complex web of geometric designs was traced out over the surface of each post in what looked like silver, bronze, glass, and stranger substances. The whole thing was covered in a layer of alchemical enamel to keep the patterns from being marred.


I didn’t know how the warding posts worked. No one did, really, except for the imperial engineers who installed and maintained them.


But I knew what they did. The posts were what maintained the web of wards around the village. They kept the monsters out, kept the magic out. There was one like it around almost every settlement claimed by Akitsuro. They were the emperor’s great invention, the reason why Akitsuro had gone from a minor coastal kingdom to an empire in the space of a few decades.


The warding posts were fragile, and imperfect. Occasionally something slipped through. But they protected people. Even the most fervently anti-imperial people of Branson’s Ford were glad to have the warding posts, and there weren’t many of them that would willingly set a foot outside the wards.


I stepped past the invisible boundary they marked without a second thought. I wasn’t concerned about ghouls so close to the village, and the magic itself wasn’t really a concern. There wasn’t much it could do that hadn’t already been done to me.


The forest here was, for all practical purposes, the same as that inside the wards. But it felt different. It felt…remote, and private. The hushed air under the trees felt more peaceful, and less ominous.


I kept walking, more slowly now. There were no real paths out here, but I knew the way, and there was no hesitation in my stride as I turned and started off to the south. The ground got rougher here, steeper. That was the other reason the inn was at the edge of the wards, when in other directions they extended out to the enclose the farms. The ground here was too steep to farm readily; it wasn’t even worth the effort of logging.


It was perfect for me, though. There were lots of large trees around, and it was steep enough that I could go on all fours to relieve some of the strain on my back. It wasn’t really any easier–the changes to my spine and hips weren’t dramatic enough to make walking on four feet easy, even on a slope where my arms could comfortably reach the ground. But it was a different posture, and that helped.


I walked for a few more minutes, up into the hills, until I saw my destination. The rock outcropping was distinctive, and large enough to easily see over the trees. It wasn’t precisely impassable–I could probably have climbed it–but it was harsh enough to discourage the casual interest.


I made my way to the base of the rock, where a raspberry bush concealed a narrow crack. I dropped to my knees and squeezed past it, accepting a few scratches as the cost of doing business. After a moment of crawling through the dark I emerged into a sort of pocket in the rock, maybe fifteen feet across.


I’d found the crack picking berries, and looked inside out of curiosity. Since then the hollow had become my secret place, where I could go to get away from things.


There wasn’t much there. A flat rock that would be in the sunlight once the sun rose a bit further, a scraggly pine tree, some thin grass. As private places went, it was far from extravagant.


But it was mine.


I climbed onto the rock, and curled up, and went to sleep.

Judging by the position of the sun it wasn’t so much later when I woke up. A few hours, maybe; it was somewhere around noon.


It’s amazing what a difference a few hours can make. When I woke up again my head felt much clearer; I was able to focus properly, I felt less jittery. It was still less sleep than I was accustomed to, but I knew better than to try for any more right now. I was rested enough that curiosity was outweighing fatigue, and that meant that more sleep was impossible.


I hopped off the rock, and made my way back to the inn. I very much doubted that I’d see anyone in the woods out back of the inn, but I was still slow and cautious on the way back, checking every few seconds to be sure that no one was there to see me. When I got close I climbed back into the trees to enter my room by the window.


It was probably unnecessary. But Corbin was the only one who knew about this particular habit, and I’d rather keep it that way. Explaining things to anyone else would be…difficult. Far simpler to just pretend that I’d been up in my room resting.


Once I was in, and my window was securely latched behind me, I took a moment to check my appearance in the mirror. It was a full-length mirror, quite possibly the only one in the village. The alchemical treatment to produce mirrored glass was relatively simple, but it involved some expensive materials, and even a scrap of one was a luxury. One as tall as I was was…beyond extravagant.


I’d found it in the cellar, not long after I moved in. Presumably, it had once belonged to the late Count. Occasionally I thought about what scenes might have been caught in the mirror back then, but not often. I’d heard enough stories to know that I didn’t want to know.


Right now, I just wanted to make sure that I looked relatively presentable. Anything past that was out of my reach, but I could at least look like I’d been in my room rather than running around in the woods.


So I pulled my black hair back from around my face, combing out most of the knots and pulling out the pine needles that had lodged in it. The patchy fur on my face was generally too short to catch anything, but I brushed my fingers through it just in case.


The clothing, at least, I didn’t have to worry about. I was wearing wool homespun and leather, the same as almost everyone else in the village did. It was too tough to show much in the way of wear, and if there were burrs or pine needles in it people would assume that they’d been stuck there since I was last out fetching wood.


Once I was satisfied, I left, locking the door behind myself, and went downstairs.


Corbin was in the kitchen, staring at the stove. I could smell another pie baking, but at present he was just standing there, and it was obvious that keeping an eye on the pie was just an excuse not to be in the taproom. He barely even glanced at me as I walked past.


Black, unsurprisingly, was sitting tight by the fire. She looked bored, which I couldn’t really blame her for. I was rather well acquainted with being bored in that room.


“Silf,” she said, turning to look at me immediately. “Have a nice nap?”


I shrugged, smiled, and grabbed a mug from behind the bar. I found that I was thirsty after the walk back to the inn.


There were a great many bottles behind the bar, and two large barrels–one of beer, one of vodka. The vast majority, though, I didn’t touch. Corbin wasn’t insistent upon it, but I knew he disapproved of me drinking strong alcohol. More importantly, so had my parents. So mostly I drank water, or milk, or cider. Occasionally a cup of small beer or wine.


I was in a self-indulgent mood today, though, and it was a special day. So instead I opened a small, sealed bottle and poured it into the cup. It looked vaguely like watered-down milk, but it was actually a thin drink made from rice and spices. It was, apparently, popular in the heartland of Akitsuro, where those were more readily available; this far north it was an expensive luxury.


I took the cup and went to sit with Black, though I left rather more room between myself and the fire than she had. I took a slow sip of the drink, savoring the sweet-spicy taste, and waited.


Black seemed content to sit in silence for as long as necessary, so in the end I was the first to speak. “When are you leaving?” I asked, barely loud enough to be heard over the fire.


She started to speak, hesitated, then shrugged. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I don’t really plan my travel out much anymore. I just stay in places as long as it feels right, and then I move on. I’ll probably be here a few days at the least, though.”


I nodded. She hadn’t really answered me, but then, that was an answer in itself.


“You seem a little desperate for company,” she said. “How long has it been since you had any guests here?”


I frowned, thinking. It was harder than it should have been to put a number to it; the days tended to fade together. “A little over a month,” I said eventually, not sounding as confident as I’d have liked.


If Black had looked any more shocked at that, I think she’d have actually sprayed cider across the floor. “A month?” she asked. “That’s…a month? How do you even stay open as an inn if you go a month between guests?”


I shrugged. “The manor was sitting empty before Corbin got here,” I said. “The Count died in the war, and nobody else needed the space. And we are usually more busy than this. It’s just…been a bit of a dry spell.” I swallowed tightly and took another sip of the rice drink to soothe my throat a bit.


Black looked dubious, but she nodded. “I can see why you’d want to have someone around, though,” she said. “It must get boring being all on your own here.”


I shrugged again, and started to answer. Then I paused. I could hear footsteps outside.


Ah, of course. Today was a field day, but the farmers had to be dying to find out more about Black. They wouldn’t actually take the day off–they were far too practical for that, as a rule, and the harvest waited on nobody. But some of them would certainly take the excuse to come to the inn for a bit of lunch, and if they happened to see her there, well, what a nice coincidence.


I held up one hand, tossed back the rest of the rice drink, and then went to stand behind the bar.


The door opened a few seconds later, and half a dozen people walked in, five farmers and Sigmund, the blacksmith’s apprentice. They were in high spirits, talking and laughing; apparently they’d been telling some joke at Sigmund’s expense, because the young man was blushing furiously, and Kurt elbowed him lightly in the ribs as they walked in.


Gunnar was the one to speak up, though. The middle-aged farmer looked at me, just for a moment, then looked at the floor. “Is Corbin here?” he asked, rather lamely. Gunnar was always rather awkward around me. He still remembers what happened when I first got to Branson’s Ford, and he knows damned well that I won’t forget.


I nodded and ducked back into the kitchen, where he was taking the pie out of the stove. It was steaming gently, the crust a perfect golden color. Corbin’s pies were always perfect.


“Lunch crowd?” he asked rhetorically. “I’ll be out in a moment then.”


Less than a minute later we were both out in the taproom, playing out the same old dance as usual. We served out bowls of soup and slabs of bread, and mugs of beer and cider. Corbin was everywhere at once, always right there to take coins and toss out change, passing over another cup almost before the first one ran empty.


I tried to find work at first, but there was barely enough to keep me occupied, and it was obvious that even that was more Corbin making sure that there was something for me to do than anything. Six people, and familiar people at that, just did not need two people working. After a few minutes, I gave up and ladled out a bowl of soup to sip at while I stood behind the bar and watched.


The talk was lively today, and lighter than it had been in a long while. The weather was good, and it looked like we might finish out the summer without any more flooding. Even better, Karl Anders had just gotten back from taking a load of raw wool to the market, and he had news. Apparently the empire was sending an assessor to Branson’s Ford to look into the possibility of building a road in this direction for trade.


Black just sat by the fire, and listened. If she had any thoughts at the idea of an imperial road through town, she didn’t show them.


We all knew what was coming, though, and I’d barely finished my soup when it happened. It was Otto who broached the subject. He’d been putting back vodka with his soup rather than beer, and was already starting to show it. Not surprising; it was common knowledge that their fields had been flooded out at the start of summer, and it would take a miracle for them not to go hungry this winter.


It might have been that he was drunk, or that he was desperate, or just that someone had to do it. But I knew as soon as he opened his mouth what was about to happen.


“So,” Otto said to Black, in a casual tone so forced it was almost painful. “What did you do in the war, eh?”


And there it was. The other question that every stranger was asked. The question that had come to define an entire generation, on numerous levels. No one wanted to know the answer, not really, and yet they couldn’t keep from asking.


I was just glad that people seldom thought to ask me about it. I looked too young to have been involved in the war, and the people who knew better also knew better than to ever mention it.


Black was silent for a long moment, long enough that I wasn’t sure she’d answer at all. When she did finally speak, her voice was barely above a whisper, and her tone was bleak. “I fought,” she said. And then she fell silent again.


“That all you have to say?” Otto asked.


She considered that for a moment as well. “Yes,” she said at last. “That’s all.”


Otto nodded, and went back to the banter. I was guessing that was the last that would be said on the topic, at least for the moment. It was generally understood that if someone didn’t want to elaborate on an answer like that one, you didn’t want to press.


Within a few seconds Corbin was back to his usual routine, talking and laughing with the rest of them, his hands resting on the bar when they weren’t busy. If the laughter was a little forced, and the good humor seemed to have gone out of him, no one would remark on it. It wasn’t an unusual reaction when someone mentioned the war.


I was guessing I was the only person in the room who could hear the wood of the bar creaking when he gripped it. And only someone who knew him would note how his gaze lingered on Black, and see the hate and the hurt buried there.

Previous Chapter                                                                                    Next Chapter


Filed under Uncategorized