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.