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.