Monthly Archives: July 2016

Cracks 1.22

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I woke not long after sunset, feeling like I hadn’t rested at all. I was shaky, and scared, and I knew what was happening but that didn’t mean that I could do a thing about it. I felt like a mouse under the paw of a cat, knowing it could press down at any time but not knowing why it wasn’t. My fingers were shaking so badly that it took close to ten minutes to dress myself.


The inn was still and silent. It must have been silent all day, for me to have slept as well as I did. No wonder. No one would be out and about on a day like this. I could hear faint noises coming from down the hall, though. Corbin was in his room, likely doing something with his machines and his reagents. I wasn’t sure what he was making. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.


I thought about moving the dresser barricading the door shut. Then I decided it was wiser to leave it where it was for the moment, and went out the window instead.


The front door of the inn was locked, but I had keys. I opened the locks, and let myself into the taproom, and then I locked it shut behind myself again. It was dark inside, and no one was there. There’d been a fire earlier in the day, though, and the banked coals still gave off plenty of heat.


By the dim light of a single alchemical lamp, I made tea. It was black, stronger than I liked, bitter and acrid. I drained the first cup in quick gulps and poured another. I drank that one more slowly, sitting on a stool at the bar. The bar was smudged and dirty; the floor was dusty. No one had cleaned today.


I was scared. I thought that I knew what was happening, but I didn’t have a clue of why. I couldn’t deal with this on my own and I didn’t know if I could trust anyone, not even myself. I couldn’t keep track of what was happening.


I drank a second cup of tea, and then a third. I had time. He wouldn’t want to move yet, not until it was fully dark.


When I left I was wired and jittery. I was slightly more calm, now, but my hands were still shaking as I locked the door behind myself. The tea had woken me up, but it came with a cost. My heart was racing, my breath coming too fast, my throat too tight. My legs felt like they were made of straw.


I gritted my teeth, and set my shoulders as best I could, and went into the trees anyway.


It was dark out, now, well past the point where you could make any case for it being twilight. But it wasn’t black. It was a clear night, crisp and calm with the promise of autumn on its way, and the moonlight was bright enough to cast shadows. I picked my way through the trees, not quite sneaking, but certainly not going out of my way to make noise.


And then I saw him, right where I’d known he would be. It was the only thing that made sense. By some quirk of luck I’d gotten just the right time, and he was standing there as I walked up. I didn’t think I was making much noise, nothing to show my approach, but he turned in my direction anyway as I got close.


“What are you doing out after dark?” Hideo asked. His voice was light, curious, just a touch mocking. “That’s against the rules, young lady.”


I got closer, so I could see him more clearly. He was dressed in his usual robes, crisp and sharp as though he were walking down an avenue in the capital rather than skulking around the forest at the edge of a village in the middle of the night. And he was standing, of course he was standing, right next to the ward Corbin had cobbled together to patch the hole in the net around Branson’s Ford.


“You broke the wards,” I said. I realized that I had a coin in my hand, palmed where he couldn’t see it, and then I wondered why that surprised me.


“And why would I do a thing like that?” he asked, with a touch of laughter in his voice. “Really, Silf, that’s quite a shocking accusation.”


“Test,” I said quietly. “See what they would do.”


It made sense. He’d come here knowing that these ghouls, or whatever they were, were out there. But he hadn’t been sent to kill them. Why send a surveyor to wipe out a nest of monsters? Why send him with just a handful of legionnaires?


“Are you accusing me of deliberately leaving a weakness in the defenses of this town just to see what would happen?” he asked. His voice was as quiet as mine, and deadly serious.


I nodded.


He laughed softly. “Well, good,” he said. “It’s about time someone said something. With how easily that mayor rolled over, I was starting to wonder whether anyone in this town had any fire in them at all.”


I paused, and stared at him in confusion. I’d been ready for a lot of things, when I said that. I’d been ready for blood and death, fire and screaming in the night, monsters and murderers and running from something I couldn’t fight.


Not a casual laugh, without even an attempt at denial. Not…this.


“What, cat got your tongue?” he asked, mocking.


I glowered at him. “Why?” I asked.


“Exactly what I said earlier,” he said easily. There wasn’t even a trace of shame in his voice. “We need to know about these things, Silf. How they think, how they function. And so I asked myself, what do they do when they see weakness?” He spread his hands. “And now we know. They attack, but they don’t attack in force all at once, no. They sent a small group–I suspect as small of a group as they can move in and still be reasonably intelligent. And look at how they attacked. A clear goal, and they went straight for it, no hesitation. Doesn’t seem that they hesitate at all to sacrifice themselves to achieve their aims, either. We learned a great deal from that attack, Silf.”


“And…this?” I asked, gesturing at the ward he was standing next to.


Hideo looked at me like he was a teacher, and I was the slow pupil in the class. “We saw how they start an attack with that,” he said. “But not how they finish one.”


I stared at him. He couldn’t be saying what I thought he was saying. He couldn’t be planning to let the entire village be destroyed.


Except I knew, even as I thought that, that he could.


“Knowing doesn’t help if they win.”


He sighed. “That’s what I hate about dealing with bumpkins,” he said. “Not to imply that you are one, I understand the situation is more complex than that, but you’ve let their mode of thought infect you. Living in a place like this makes you look at the world like it’s so small. Broaden your horizons, girl.”


I cocked my head to the side, confused. I didn’t understand what he meant.


He saw, and sighed again. “What on earth,” he asked, spacing the words out as though he were talking to an idiot, “makes you think this is the only group of these things?”






“Didn’t ask,” I said.


“Of course you didn’t,” Hideo said. “There was no reason for you to, any more than the rest of them did. Living in a place like this makes the world seem small. It makes you think that this is important. But the reality is that we’ve seen three other outbreaks of these things, all across the province. At first we thought they were isolated incidents, but at this point there’s clearly something going on.”


I stared at him, trying to adjust to that news. It was…quite a change in how I had to think of things.


“There’s your answer, Silf,” he said. His tone was mocking again, a wry smile bending one corner of his mouth. “That’s why we stand to gain by knowing more about them. The simple truth is that there’s far more to the world than this village. Our test is important for more than just you and me.”


“People died,” I said.


Hideo sighed. “Oh, don’t be naive,” he snapped. “You think they weren’t dead anyway? Please. If we weren’t here, what do you think would happen to this place? Would you really care to bet on them against the ghouls? This bunch of morons against that? There are a handful of people here who might be worth a damn–and I do count you in that group, for what that’s worth. But by and large, they’re too clueless and cowed to even fight back.” He snorted. “Face it, this town never had a chance. Even if the ghouls hadn’t come, it would have withered up and blown away. Bloody ashes, this place has been dead for years, it just hasn’t noticed.”


I frowned. What he was saying felt fundamentally, profoundly wrong to me. I wanted to find the words that would show him what he wasn’t seeing. And I could feel that I didn’t have many words left in me; my throat was already sore, and tight, and if I didn’t get it on the first try I probably wasn’t going to.


He just stood and waited as I gathered my thoughts, seeming infinitely patient.


“Have to hope things get better,” I said at last. “Sometimes hope’s all you have. Sometimes it’s enough.”


Hideo smiled again. As best I could read his expression in the half-light, it was a sad smile. “Oh,” he said. “You’re so young. It’s sweet.” He paused. “But I don’t deal in hopes and dreams. I deal in facts. And the fact of the matter is that the empire will gain more from me breaking that ward than this place can offer.”


“Can’t let you do that,” I said softly. I clutched the coin tighter in my hand, the edge digging into the skin.


“Your confidence is touching,” he said. “But, I’m afraid, misplaced.”


Before I could do anything else, he took something from his robe and threw it to the ground at my feet.


There was a flash of light, blinding and then some. I could hear a piercing noise at the edge of hearing, something that seemed to bypass my ears entirely and go straight to my spine, and a burning sensation in my nose and lungs as I breathed in some noxious bit of alchemy.


I fell, clutching at my face uselessly.


I wasn’t sure how long I spent like that, unable to see or move or breathe or think. Time never seemed to have much meaning when you felt that awful.


When my faculties did return, they did so gradually. I was curled up on my side on the ground, whimpering in pain. It was a weak sort of whimper, almost soundless. The air was clear, and while my ears were ringing, I could hear my breathing, so there probably wasn’t any permanent damage.


By the time my vision cleared, Hideo was gone. Of course he was. He’d had plenty of time to leave while I was lying there whimpering uselessly to myself. He could probably be on the other side of town by now.


But the ward was intact.


I smiled to myself through the pain, blinking back tears, and started back towards the inn. I was stumbling a bit, but I knew this ground, and I could probably have walked it completely blind. I made it to the inn, and I climbed up the tree, and I jumped over to the ledge outside my window.


And then I paused. The window wasn’t latched.


My heart started pounding again. I grabbed for the hatchet I was still carrying with one hand, and with the other I slowly pushed the window open. I crept inside.


The room was empty. But the desk I’d pushed against the door had been moved back to where it was earlier. A piece of paper was sitting on the desk, one that hadn’t been there before. It was impossible to overlook.


I took the paper, holding it gingerly in just the tips of my claws, and carried it to the window, into the moonlight. It was hard to read by light that dim, but I managed. The letter wasn’t complicated, anyway.


Silf, I have to go. Sorry. -Black


Well, at least she was clear.


I stared at the paper for a while before I folded it and set it back on the desk. And then I curled up on my bed, and went back to sleep.

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Cracks 1.21

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There was a disturbance when I got back to town. I wasn’t surprised. It was starting to feel like there was always a disturbance in town.


I could just hear voices as I reached the wards, and turned to follow them. I was just out of the trees when I saw the crowd gathered in the western fields. It looked like it had to be most of Branson’s Ford standing out there, and from the sounds of things they were not happy.


The crowd was too thick for me to see what they were upset about, at a distance, and the overlapping shouts and complaints were too chaotic for me to parse in any detail. I couldn’t make out words, just the emotions underneath–anger, fear, resentment. It sounded ugly. It sounded like there was about to be a riot.


I sped up, hurrying to get to a position where I could see what was going on. That put me in the thick of the crowd, which was more than slightly uncomfortable, but I wanted to know what was happening too much to let that stop me.


When I did get a good look at things, I was too stunned to even remember where I was for a moment.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus of the hostility was at the western edge of the crowd, and it was the imperials. Ketill was standing there with a glower that could melt steel, holding his scythe in a way that made it hard not to remember how efficiently he’d killed ghouls with it when we went on that disastrous hunting trip. Hideo, just a few feet away, looked smug and calm as ever. He had Marcus and, more surprisingly, Aelia with him, though, and both of the legionnaires were clearly on edge from the hostility.


All of that, though, was forgotten in a moment, completely overshadowed by what the imperials had with them.


The ghoul was on the small side, as such things went, certainly not as visually impressive as the ones I’d seen before. I thought it was probably shorter than I was, and it likely weighed only a little more. It wasn’t exactly intimidating, really. Its grey skin looked vaguely misshapen, like wax that had gotten soft in the sun and started to run, and rather than claws or talons its arms ended with three thick fingers that looked barely dexterous enough to grab a rock. The only threatening feature on its body was an oversized mouth with jagged yellow teeth, and even that was no more unsettling than a dog’s mouth.


Any thought that it was comical, though, was killed by the sheer, violent hate with which it moved. It was very thoroughly bound on the ground at Hideo’s feet, a full harness of rope that would keep it from moving any of its limbs more than an inch or two, but it still thrashed and strained at the restraints constantly. Glaring around itself, spitting, snapping at the air with those jaws…looking at it, I did not want it out of those bindings. Not in the least.


“All right,” Egill said, pushing his way to the front of the crowd. The villagers–even Ketill–were only too glad to give way, and let him be the one to deal with this. “Could you explain just what in hell you were thinking bringing that thing into the wards?”


“It’s quite simple, my good man,” Hideo said, with a perfectly calm, casual smile. You would never guess, from his expression and tone, that he was just a couple feet away from a violent monstrosity. “For some time now I’ve had a hypothesis about these things. This seemed to be the best way to test that particular hypothesis.”


“Testing a hypothesis?” Egill repeated. “That’s…you can’t be serious. People are dying here. We don’t have time for you to be running around playing at being a naturalist.”


“You had your chance to resolve the situation,” Hideo said. The playfulness had fled his voice entirely, leaving it positively icy. “I think we both recall how your approach ended. We clearly need to do something differently, and that means that we need to know more about the situation. The information we’ve gained from this is worth more than anything you could have done.”


“What are you talking about?” Egill snapped. The former mayor sounded frustrated.


“What, you can’t see it?” Hideo asked. He had a light, mocking smile playing about his lips.


I frowned, staring at the monster. Hideo was an ass, but my impression of him didn’t suggest that he would just make something like this up. If he said there was something important here that we weren’t seeing, there was something important here that we weren’t seeing.


And then I realized what he was talking about, and let out a faint, breathy laugh, more from shock than anything. “Stupid,” I said.


I didn’t say it very loudly. But even quiet speech is loud when no one else is talking at all. People turned to look at me. Some of them looked offended, others looked gratified. It took me a moment to realize that they thought I was talking about them, or possibly Hideo.


I swallowed tightly, and hurried to point at the ghoul-thing. “It’s stupid,” I said.


“Clever girl,” Hideo said with a broad smile. “I’m glad someone is paying attention.”


“I don’t get it,” someone in the crowd said.


“Look at this thing,” Hideo said, nudging the bound monster with his foot. It rolled over, snapping at him, but he was already well out of reach again. “It obviously wants out, but watch how it tries to get loose. It’s all brute force, no finesse or care to it at all. It doesn’t focus on weak points in the restraints, or try to undo the knots. It did when we first caught it, mind you, you’d have thought the thing was an eel from how hard of a time we had getting it tied up. But now it’s clumsy, no thought behind what it does at all.”


“So what changed?” Ketill asked.


“Exactly the right question,” Hideo said. The surveyor was positively beaming now. “And that brings us to my hypothesis. You see, we’re all aware that these creatures are more intelligent than ghouls should typically be. We’ve seen them plan and execute coordinated attacks; there’s plenty of evidence to show that they’re remarkably smart. But several times now I’ve noted that individual specimens don’t seem to have that intelligence. When there are just a few of them, or just one, they look like this.” He prodded the thing again, and again he drew away before it could bite him. “All mindless aggression, no thought or planning at all.”


Ketill snorted, but looked interested in spite of himself. “This is what a ghoul should look like,” he said. “They ain’t entirely stupid, but this is the kind of thing I’d expect from them. Smart like animals, not like people.”


“Precisely,” Hideo agreed. “And that’s the core of my hypothesis–which, with this experiment, I think I’ve found very strong evidence for. I don’t think this new strain of ghouls is actually smarter than what we’ve come to expect. Rather, they’re still roughly as intelligent as usual, but that intelligence is shared in some fashion. To put it crudely, if there are ten of them, each one is ten times as smart.”


“I still don’t see that that matters,” Egill said.


“No,” Ketill said, before Hideo could respond. “No, he’s right about this. If this is right, it changes how we got to think about this. They’ll want to stick together, won’t be spreading out. Changes how they’ll be approaching things.” The farmer grunted thoughtfully. “Might be a weakness we can use.”


“Just so,” Hideo agreed. The surveyor sounded almost surprised to be agreeing with Ketill. “This is, I think, the key we needed to start making progress on this problem.”


“So what do we do with that thing?” Ketill asked, jerking his chin at the monster on the ground.


Hideo glanced at it, and shrugged loosely. “I’d like to keep it around to study further,” he said. “Knowing what they’re doing isn’t enough without knowing how this new phenomenon works. But we don’t have the facilities to keep it contained safely, and I’d rather not take the chance of it escaping. So it’s probably for the best to simply put it down.”


Ketill nodded, and stepped forward, and slammed the blade of the scythe into the back of the creature’s head where it was lying helpless on the ground. It jerked, and twitched feebly, and went still. Ketill wrenched the scythe back out, and the monster was left limp on the ground, blood pouring out into the dust.


So quick, so easy, so simple to end a life. You thought, and you acted, and then something just…stopped. There was nothing to it.


Hideo left, saying something about having work to do. The legionnaires followed after him, without having said a word. Aelia had a glazed-over look to her eyes that suggested she was dosed with a sedative. Her mangled hand was, I noted, gone; there was just a stump there now, wrapped in blood-soaked bandages.


The villagers left as well, trickling away by ones and twos. Even now–even now–there was work to be done, after all. And you had to make hay when the sun was shining. It was the way of things.


I stood alone in that field for a time, staring at the corpse of the monster. Then I blinked, and came back to myself, almost like jolting awake. I started back towards the inn, stumbling only slightly. I needed to get some sleep. I thought I knew what would happen tonight, and I didn’t want to miss it.


I climbed a tree and jumped over to my window, rather than go through the taproom and take the chance of running into Corbin. Inside I checked that the door was locked, and I checked that the box was locked, and I checked that nothing had been disturbed. Everything seemed to be fine. I pulled the curtains tight, wrapping the room in darkness, and I stripped out of the clothes I’d been wearing since the monsters had attacked in the night, and I curled up on the mattress.


After a few minutes I got up again, and barricaded the door closed with my desk for the first time since those first months in Branson’s Ford.

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Cracks 1.20

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I wasn’t sure what to do, or what to think.


In the years since the fires consumed the Whitewood, I’d struggled with my demons in more ways than I could remember. Nightmares that left me shaking and soaked in cold sweat. Panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep if someone was moving in earshot. I was terrified of fire–for a time, looking at a candle had been enough to reduce me to an incoherent wreck, unable to stand or breathe. Being in a crowded room, or just hearing the wrong word said the wrong way, was enough to send me back to the refugee camps.


There were days it was too much to bear. Especially when I’d just been recovering from the infection. There had been days when I couldn’t get out of bed. Days when I sat in the corner and shook, struggling to breathe, struggling to remember where I was. Days when I thought I couldn’t take another moment of the agony, the fear and hate and pain and helplessness.


What had kept me going through it was the knowledge that that wasn’t my life now. I was safe, now. I was doing better. I could last out the fear, the memories, the nightmares, and once they were past I would be in a better place.


And Corbin was an enormous part of that. He was the one who saved me. When I was sick unto death, infected wounds and starvation and all the ills of life as a refugee, he was the one who took me in and nursed me back to health. When things were bad he was the one who was there–not pushing, just giving the me the space and the safety to work through it as best I could.


To a large extent I’d rebuilt my world around him.


And it had all been a lie. Every time I thought that he was there to help me, every time I used those thoughts to cope with the things that preyed on me, it had been a lie. Corbin wasn’t something that helped me with my demons. He was the reason for them.


Everything I’d ever known, everything I’d loved, was torn from me in a single day of fire and death. My family was murdered before my eyes, my home destroyed, my life destroyed. And the only person in the world whom I’d thought I could trust was revealed as the architect of that destruction.


Black gods. How was I supposed to cope with that? How was I supposed to handle learning that?


I should have listened when Corbin told me I didn’t want to know. For my picture of the world to have dark spots would have been better than setting it ablaze.


I was still moving, but I wasn’t at all sure where I was going, or why. The world felt blurry and distant, everything around me seen through a sort of haze. Once again, I had the experience of being almost a stranger in my body, watching with a sort of numb bemusement as it decided on its own what to do.


There were plenty of perfectly reasonable things that I could have done. But I wasn’t feeling reasonable. I wanted to feel safe, and I knew how to get that feeling. The fact that it was one of the stupider ideas I’d had didn’t seem to matter. So I left the inn, and stumbled out to the forest out back.


I could just see the ward Corbin had built to cover the gap, though I didn’t go to look at it closely. It looked nothing like the warding posts. Where they were small and simple, this was a strange, asymmetrical metal frame that sprawled across the ground. It was apparently effective, though. Or, at least, the monsters hadn’t come back yet.


I ignored that, and stumbled on through the trees. A part of me was expecting to be jumped by one of the ghoul-things. A part of me wasn’t sure whether I cared if I was.


A part of me was strangely, distantly proud that I made it to my secret place in the woods without breaking down. I found the rocks, and ducked through the bushes. The thorns tugged at me, tiny pinpricks of pain that I could barely notice. I stumbled into the pocket, and curled up on the rock in the sun, without losing my composure.


But when I did, my composure shattered. I lay there, curled up tight with my legs hugged to my chest, racked by silent sobs. I wasn’t aware of crying, but my cheeks were wet. I shook and trembled, whimpering just barely loud enough to hear. If there’d been anything in my stomach beyond tea and a few sips of blackwine, I would have been throwing it up.


I wasn’t sure how long that went on. It was hard to track time, hard to process anything through the misery and the fog that seemed to fill my mind. I knew that from experience. When I got like this seconds passed like minutes, and minutes passed like hours, and hours passed like days, and days blurred by in the blink of an eye.


Time flowed by. Eventually I opened my eyes again. The sun was bright and golden, and the world it lit was dark and grey. The rock beneath me was warm against my fur, and I felt cold inside.


It was an enormous effort to sit up. I was exhausted, terribly exhausted. It had been days since I’d gotten any real sleep, or eaten properly. Days of being battered and broken and cut and bruised and burned, and I wasn’t sure how much of that had happened and how much I was just remembering from nightmares, but it didn’t seem to matter.


I pushed myself up to a seated position, and took out an iron coin. This one wasn’t stained with blood, and I had to remind myself to add a yet to that statement. I rolled it around in my fingers, watching how it caught the light and threw it back. It was a dull metal, iron. It didn’t shine the way silver or copper or even steel might.


On one side was the flower of Akitsuro, the stylized blossom that was the most common symbol of the empire. On the other was a crudely drawn short sword. The weapon of the legions’ rank and file. It was a simple weapon. Easy to make, easy to use.


A sudden spike of anger hit me, cutting through the fog, and my hand seized around the coin. The magic flowed through me at the same time, channeling without thought or purpose or decision, and the iron penny in my grip snapped. It broke again, and then it shattered.


When I opened my hand the coin was in fragments. My hand stung; I’d gripped it too tightly, and the jagged edge of one of the pieces had dug into my skin. The frustration had faded, leaving me feeling exhausted and numb once again.


I heard a noise just outside the pocket, a rustling in the bushes. It was an effort to move my head enough to look in that direction. I felt like I should do something, but no thoughts of what to do were forming. No thoughts of anything were forming; my mind was dangerously blank, filled with fog and snow and white noise.


But it wasn’t a ghoul that walked into my sanctuary. It was Sigmund. The new blacksmith looked agitated, nervous, fearful, angry. He was holding a hammer in a too-tight grip, knuckles white. He relaxed slightly when he saw me, but only slightly.


“Silf,” he said. “What are you doing here?”


I shrugged listlessly. A part of me was both furious and terrified to see him here–in my place, my sanctuary, the one place in the world that was supposed to belong to me and me alone. But it seemed too hard to actually express any of that, or even feel it.


He took a deep breath and let it out, returning the hammer to the loop on his belt. “Maybe it’s just as well,” he said, as though I’d answered. “There’s something I needed to tell you. I have…I have a plan.”


I cocked my head to the side and looked at him. Even the curiosity felt muted and distant.


“Friedrich had some money cached in the smithy,” Sigmund said. “And supplies–food, weapons, that sort of thing. Now that he’s gone, it’s mine. We could take it and run, go to the city.”


“‘We?'” I echoed.


He nodded. “You and me,” he said. “We’d need a ward to get past the ghouls. You can’t move the warding posts, but I saw Corbin moving that thing he made around. We could take that.”


I stared at him. I was starting to understand what he was proposing, and the anger it aroused in me was enough that I could feel it through the fog. “They’d die,” I said. I realized that I was standing, that I’d moved closer to him.


To his–very slight–credit, Sigmund didn’t feign ignorance. “They’re dead anyway,” he said. “And we can’t all run. The ward wouldn’t cover all of us. But you and me, we could make it out.”


I stared at him. I wanted to yell at him, but I couldn’t think of what I could say that might even begin to convey what I felt in that moment, and even if I could have found the words, I couldn’t have said them. So I just stared.


Apparently my expression conveyed something of the revulsion I felt, though, because Sigmund flinched away. “I don’t like it either,” he said, defensively. “But we have to face facts. Branson’s Ford is doomed. The people here are doomed. But we can get away from it. We can make a life somewhere else.”


I didn’t quite spit in his face. But only because our relative heights made it difficult, and it ended up hitting him in the chest instead.


“With you?” I said contemptuously. I snorted.


Sigmund went bright red with embarrassment and anger. “You think you can do better?” he asked, too loud and harsh. “You’re just some Changed slut with no family or friends. You should be glad anyone would want you at all.”




So that was how this was.


Even Sigmund seemed to realize that he’d gone too far. He froze, not saying anything else, not looking at me.


But as I pushed past him, he grabbed me.


That wasn’t a very good idea.


Sigmund was a good deal bigger than me. And as the blacksmith–the blacksmith’s apprentice, I reminded myself, because like hell was I going to give him the honor of the position Friedrich had earned now–it went without saying that he was stronger than I was. You couldn’t do that job without layering on muscle. Any direct contest of strength between us would be laughably one-sided.


But like I’d told Black, I was stronger than I looked, and I was fast. And I knew what I was doing. And at the moment I was worked up, my already delicate temper pushed to the breaking point.


So the instant he touched me, the old habits that I’d built up in the camps took over again. I moved with the grab, putting him off balance, and then lashed out at his face.


I’d forgotten that I was missing a claw on that hand, which was the only reason I didn’t actually tear his eye out. The other claws were enough to tear bloody gashes across his cheek, his brow. He flinched away, giving me a chance to break his grip.


I started for the hole leading out of that pocket in the rocks again, and would have left it at that. But Sigmund was recovering his balance and coming after me again, and I wasn’t sure I could outrun him in my current state, and I wasn’t sure I could count on getting away from him if he got his hands on me again.


So I threw the fragments of the shattered coin at him, putting more than just muscle behind them.


I didn’t see the details of where they hit, or how badly they hurt him. He fell. That was enough. I turned and fled without checking to see if he would live, not entirely sure whether I wanted him to or not.

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Cracks 1.19

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Corbin spent most of the night working on his replacement for the wards. By the time he finished the sun was peeking over the horizon, and the rain had stopped. He walked into the taproom with the expression of a man who was absolutely exhausted, and quite satisfied with himself.


He stopped short when he saw me waiting for him.


I’d tried to sleep, earlier. I knew that I should. But sleep had disagreed with me on that point, and after a few hours of lying awake and waiting for it I’d accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. There was no point in pretending otherwise.


Corbin stared at me. I sipped tea. I didn’t drink it often; I didn’t care for the side effects it produced in me. But when sleep was impossible tea was a decent substitute, and the energy it lent me was worth the jitters and the racing heart and the difficulty breathing.


“Silf?” he asked, after a few seconds. “What are you doing up?”


“You know alchemy,” I said, not answering the question. “Deep alchemy, not a lamp or an icebox.”


He nodded. “I studied when I was young,” he said. “Some things you don’t forget.”


“And the supplies?”


He hesitated at that, seeming unsure of how to answer. “Sometimes travelers don’t know what things are worth,” he said. “And I’ve had years to collect them.” His tone was feeble at best.


I stared at him, and he flinched away slightly. “You fought with the legions,” I said slowly. “You know alchemy.”


He nodded. It didn’t look like he could make himself look me in the eye.


“Why did you take me in?” I asked. My voice was a rough, low whisper. “Where were you when the Whitewood burned?”


He still couldn’t look at me. “There are some questions that are better left unanswered, Silf,” he said. “And sometimes the past should stay safely buried.”


“Do I deserve to know?”


He flinched away again, and then nodded. “I suppose you do,” he said. “Spirits have mercy on me, you do. But are you sure you want to?”


Now it was my turn to hesitate. I knew only too well that there were some things I was happier being ignorant of. If Corbin said that I didn’t want to know the answers to these questions, I wasn’t going to lightly assume that he was wrong.


But that wasn’t how it worked. That was never how it worked. I’d already seen too much, seen things that made me question. I couldn’t go back to living in blithe ignorance when I’d already seen enough of the puzzle to suspect the worst. It was better to know than to live with that quiet dread of uncertainty.


So, before I could convince myself otherwise, I nodded. One time, sharp and quick and scared.


Corbin sighed heavily. “All right, then,” he said. “But I’ll tell you now, it’s a long story.”


He walked behind the bar, and dug around in the bottles on the shelves until he eventually came up with the one he wanted. It was a small bottle, steel and silver, and very firmly sealed.


I’d asked him why that bottle was so different from its neighbors, most of which were made of glass and far more visually interesting than it was. He’d explained that it was imperial blackwine. It was made from carefully Changed grapes, and every step involved alchemical treatment and extremely precise techniques. It was one of the most complicated and delicate brewing processes in the world, he’d said.


In the high households of Akitsuro, a toast made with blackwine was customary at certain special events–the closing of a contract, births and funerals, a very few holidays. At any other time, and for anyone other than nobility and very wealthy merchants, it was impractically expensive. Corbin had certainly never had cause to open this particular bottle; no one in this part of the world was going to pay for it.


He brought it to the table I was sitting at, and opened it with a quiet hiss of escaping air. He poured a small cup of it. Then, to my surprise, he poured another cup and set it in front of me.


“You’ll want it by the end,” he said. “Trust me.”


I nodded, and looked at the liquid which commanded such high respect among the rich and powerful of the empire. It was…odd. A thick, viscous liquid, it was indeed black–not just dark, but black, with an odd shimmer to it. Its odor was sweet and subtle, vaguely reminiscent of lavender and cacao.


Corbin took a sip, his eyes closed, and then set the cup down and put the cap on the bottle again. “I’m going to explain some things, then,” he said. “But I’ll tell you now, it’s a long story. And please don’t interrupt. If I get interrupted, I don’t know that I’ll be able to start again.”


I nodded, staring raptly. He took one more sip of the wine, and then set it aside.


“I was born not so long after the warding posts were developed,” he said. He had that faraway look in his eyes again, like he wasn’t really seeing the room we were in. “Just a few years afterwards. This was in a small town a good ways north of Aseoto, a farming community not too different from this one. I was four years old when a legion engineer installed wards around our village.”


He paused. “It’s hard, now, to remember what things were like before the wards. We’re accustomed to them. They’re simply an accepted part of life, a part of how things are. But back then, it was…it’s hard to overstate how much it meant to have them.” He chuckled wryly. “Not that I understood that at the time, of course. I was just a small child, after all. But I remember the way my mother explained it to me. She said that we were safe now.”


Corbin looked at me seriously. “Imagine that moment, Silf,” he said. “Imagine living your whole life in fear. Imagine being afraid to leave your house without a weapon, afraid that you’d be turned into a monster even if you did everything right. My mother had already lost a son to ghouls, and a daughter to a drowner. She’d spent thirty years living in fear of the magic. And then she learned that we were safe, that this threat had been removed.”


I imagined it. It was…hard to picture just how profound her relief must have been.


“That was my first experience with alchemy,” he continued. “And of course I didn’t understand what it meant or how it worked. I didn’t understand the broader context that the wards existed in, the social and political implications. All I knew was that these people had made us safe. They’d made our lives better. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be an alchemist. I wanted to help people.”


In spite of myself, I snorted.


Corbin smiled sadly. “Yes, well, being an alchemist isn’t quite that simple. But that all came later. At the time, all I knew was that alchemists worked miracles and made the world a better place.” He sighed. “Of course, the wards didn’t protect us from everything. When I was sixteen the pox came through, a particularly virulent strain of it. I survived it, but I was in the minority; most folk who took ill died, including my whole family.”


I made an appropriately sympathetic noise, which Corbin ignored.


“Well, after that there was nothing keeping me there, and I still wanted to be an alchemist. So I packed my bags and went to the capital. It took some doing, but eventually I got into the Imperial Academy. I studied everything they taught there, history and linguistics and mathematics and medicine. Most especially, though, I studied alchemy. I wanted to work wonders.”


He smiled now, a distant and beatific expression. “And the wonders we built there, Silf,” he said. “Bones and ashes, the things we made were…magnificent. Beautiful. Not just the alchemy you’ve seen, lamps and iceboxes and heat-stones. We built clocks that could run for a week and not lose a second. Glass as hard as steel. Sculptures of light, caged and bent by lenses and mirrors. Pulleys that would let a child haul a wagon into the air. It seemed there was a new wonder being turned out every week.”


I could almost see the picture as he described it. Vast workshops manufacturing wonders and miracles en masse. Things that would be astonishing, genius works of art anywhere else becoming so casual and everyday that they were hardly even worth noticing.


“But to rise in the ranks as an alchemist, it wasn’t enough to repeat the designs of someone else,” Corbin continued. “You had to make something new, something original. You had to improve on the state of the art. And that’s where it all went wrong.” He took a drink of the wine. “I wasn’t the first to think of making alchemical fire, not by a long shot. It makes sense, after all. There are plenty of substances that burn–oil, coal, tallow, plant products, the list goes on. It made sense that alchemical reagents could produce something more effective. But every time someone had tried, it went badly.”




“Too volatile,” he said. “The magic would surge and set the mixture off. By the time I was born alchemists had given up on it as too dangerous. But with the warding posts, the magic was dampened enough to make experiments safe. Or, at least, not more dangerous than any number of other things we worked with. So I started working on developing an alchemical fuel. That’s where I met Black; she was working as a supplier, providing alchemical reagents, and I needed more than just the usual for my experiments?”


“What happened?” I whispered. There was a part of me that was starting to seriously doubt whether I wanted to know, but it was too late to quit. It was like watching a building burn; I didn’t want to stare, but couldn’t look away.


“It worked,” Corbin said simply. “Eventually, I got the mixture right. Fire-oil, I called it. It was…perfect. Simple to manufacture, and it didn’t require any particularly expensive or rare reagents. It burned very hot, and very long; a small bottle and a properly designed lamp could burn for days. It was almost impossible to put out, too. It would burn in a high wind, or underwater. It was everything that I wanted it to be.”


I shuddered.


He noticed, but didn’t comment. “Everyone was thrilled, of course,” he said. “It was praised as one of the greatest alchemical inventions in years. Within weeks it was being produced in enormous quantities. There were plans to use it as an energy source for alchemical engines…someone started experimenting with using fire-oil instead of coal to heat forges. Cheaper, more compact, cleaner air. The emperor personally congratulated me, and offered me a position as a legion engineer. I was thrilled.


“And then I went north, and things…changed.”


Corbin was silent for a long, long moment. I took a sip of the blackwine, and was startled at the complexity of the taste. It was a rich, layered flavor, sweet and tart and bitter and sharp, with hints of lavender and chocolate and sweet peppers and things I had no name for. The sharp bite of alcohol was almost an afterthought, a counterpoint to the intricate flavors of the wine.


“You have to understand,” he said at last. “It was supposed to be something good. The fire-oil, I mean. It was supposed to help people. And at first, even as I was marching north with the legions, it was. It was lighter than the fuels they usually carried, which made it easier to haul. Even the camp followers hunted me down to thank me, told me they’d never been on a march with so few people freezing.”




“The legionnaires started using the fire-oil in other ways,” Corbin said softly. “At first, it was…benign, I suppose. When they burned out a section of forest to clear ground for the camp, I was…concerned, but it seemed harmless. Then they started using it for sabotage. Fire-oil burns quickly when it’s uncontrolled, and it’s very difficult to extinguish. So they would sneak into enemy encampments and use it to destroy their siege weapons, or their fortifications, or their supplies. And that was troubling, but I told myself it was a bloodless way to win, and that was better than the alternative.” He sighed. “And then we reached the Whitewood.”


He fell silent at that, and we both took a drink. We both had some memories that could use the dulling influence of alcohol, I was guessing. I was starting to feel pleasantly floaty by now. I didn’t have much of a head for liquor.


“It couldn’t be taken,” Corbin said. “Everyone said so. It was one of the great marvels of the world; a city that was grown instead of built, most everything made of living wood. It had never been taken by an enemy. It was likely the best-defended city in the world, after Aseoto. Even if the legions made it past the outer defenses, the city was a maze, and the defenders were extremely well-trained. Any battle on that ground would be a bloodbath. Everyone agreed that a siege was the only way, that any direct attack would end badly.”


“I remember that,” I said softly. The siege had gone on for…a few weeks, I thought. Not long.


He smiled. It was a crooked, warped expression with no joy in it. “I suppose you would,” he said. “Anyway. The smart thing to do would have been to wait. But the legate was a young nobleman who needed a dramatic victory to present to the emperor. A slow, drawn-out siege wasn’t what he had in mind. So he came up with a different plan.”


Corbin went to take another drink, and found that his cup was empty. He shrugged, opened the bottle again, and filled it before drinking it half away.


“The Whitewood was protected against fire,” he said softly. “Of course it was. They weren’t so foolish that they would overlook that, not in a city made of wood. The trees were Changed, and alchemically treated. But they hadn’t planned on fire-oil. How could they? It had only existed for a year. So the legate ordered them to load casks of fire-oil into the catapults and launch them over the walls. He ordered them to use it on people.”


I shuddered again. I remembered that. The fires that wouldn’t die, flame that clung and burned and would not stop. There was no way to put the fire out once it got on you. Water just spread it around, and trying to smother it usually just meant that whatever you were using to smother it caught on fire as well. There wasn’t much that fire-oil wouldn’t burn.


“I tried to stop it,” Corbin said. He was staring at the table now, unable to look at me. “Fire-oil was…it was supposed to help people. It was never meant to be a weapon. But I was just one man. The legate had me seized and put in irons, and the attack went forward.”


He closed his eyes, and his voice faded to a thin, rough whisper that sounded almost like mine. “They burned one of the greatest cities in the world,” he whispered. “Burned it to the ground, and sowed the ashes with salt. Tens of thousands of people burned to death, or killed trying to run from the fire. Hundreds of years of history wiped out. And it’s all because of me. Gods help me, I’m the man who made it all possible.”


I stared, and then pushed my chair away from the table. I stumbled for the door, almost running. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think. The world was so distant and so blurred that I wasn’t even sure if it was me running, or I was just watching as my body ran without me.


Corbin did not try to stop me.

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Cracks 1.18

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The shocked silence that fell over the group when they saw the broken warding posts was so profound that I genuinely wondered whether I could hear the quick, panicked rhythm of the villagers’ hearts in the space it left.


Runners were quickly sent to check on the rest of the wards. I didn’t expect them to find anything out of the ordinary; if the wards as a whole were damaged, the monsters wouldn’t have all been so desperate to get back to this spot. I wasn’t disappointed, either. One warding post was completely missing, and one post on either side of the gap was shattered. The rest of them were all intact.


Most of the villagers stood around at that point, debating what might have happened in hushed voices. A handful were standing at the gap and staring alertly out into the darkness, weapons at the ready. I wasn’t expecting another attack tonight–it wouldn’t make much sense with us already on alert–but I supposed it wouldn’t be a good idea to count on that.


I was more interested in who wasn’t there, though. None of the imperials had showed themselves, which couldn’t possibly be an accident. And Black and Corbin had walked off while everyone was busy with their shock.


I decided to follow them. Something told me that whatever had drawn their attention was more important than listening to the villagers hash out the same speculations I’d already gone over when I first found that the post was missing.


They stopped in a small clearing directly behind the inn–and, I noted, well inside the wards. Lit only by moonlight, they were little more than dark blurs speaking in hushed voices. I was twenty feet away and thirty feet up, and while Black had demonstrated that she could tell when I was on the other side of a thick wall, I didn’t think either of them was aware of my presence.


“How bad is it?” Black asked, sounding grim.


“Bad.” Corbin didn’t sound any happier than she did. “The network is designed to be redundant; it can lose two posts with minimal problems. But three in a row is enough to leave a gap. Around fifteen feet, if they’re using the standard model.”


“Can we just…move the posts closer together?”


He shook his head. “That’s not how the wards work,” he said. “The geometry of the warding posts has to be tailored to the location. Move any one of them more than a couple inches and it will start functioning erratically. Moving them enough to close the gap would make the whole web collapse.”


“Damn,” she said. “Can you…I don’t know, fix them somehow?”


“I don’t know how they’re made. He’s only let that secret out to his own inspectors. I could fix a scuff, a bit of damaged geometry, but something on this scale? They’d have to be rebuilt completely, and I can’t do that.”


“I’m sensing some hesitation there,” Black said. “What aren’t you telling me?”


Corbin hesitated a moment longer, and then said, “I figured out how to build wards. From scratch, I mean.”


Black stared at him for a solid five seconds in silence. “Are you serious?” she asked, finally.




Black kept staring. “That’s huge,” she said. “The emperor is the only person who’s figured out how to make wards. The only one. And even with warding posts around every damned village in the empire for almost fifty years, nobody’s reverse engineered them.”


Corbin shrugged. “My design works off a different set of principles,” he said. “It’s stronger than his, but not nearly as efficient. The geometry isn’t nearly as elegant.”


“Still,” she said. “This is incredible. And…useful. You can patch the hole with that, right?”


Corbin was silent for a long enough time that I knew his answer wasn’t going to be good. I thought for a moment, and then I started climbing down out of the tree.


“I could,” Corbin said. “But I can’t. I’m just a simple innkeeper, remember? I did my time in the war, I know my way around an arbalest. I’ve traveled a bit, and I’ve let on that I have a bit of education. I don’t practice alchemy. I very definitely don’t make my own designs, or build things that are supposed to be state secrets.”


“These people don’t need an innkeeper.” Black’s voice was quiet, and very intense. “They don’t even need an arbalist. They need an engineer. They need you.”


Corbin sighed, long and soft as snow falling on the trees. “That was a long time ago,” he said. His voice was…not sad, precisely, but sorrowful. Melancholy. “A lot of water has gone by since then. It’s been a long time.” He was silent for a moment. “I’m not that man anymore, Black,” he said at last. “I don’t think I can be him again.”


“No one else can.” I said it just loud enough to hear, from the trees at the edge of the clearing.


Corbin flinched away as though he’d been struck. He looked in my direction, and then looked away, at the ground next to his feet.


When he looked up again, he stood a little straighter. Gone was the tired man who’d sat and drank in an empty inn, and talked of how he couldn’t save a single person. He had a spark in his eye, now–not a fire, but something that was once, and just might be again.


“All right, then,” he said. “Come on. I’ll need a hand carrying this.”

In the inn, Corbin unlocked the door to his room, and went in. For the first time, he didn’t immediately close the door behind himself. He gestured for me to follow.


I went in, and gaped.


Corbin’s rooms were larger than mine. They also managed to be even more ascetic. He had a bed, which looked like it could hardly be large enough to hold him. The rest of the space–all of it– was given over to what had to be an alchemical workshop. It was full of machines, glassware and metal, complicated arrangements of gears and tubes and wires. I couldn’t guess at the purpose of half of it.


And there were the reagents that were the foundation of alchemy. Jars of powders and fluids, strips of metal, lumps of stone that shimmered with more than just reflected light. There were dozens–hundreds– of vials, each neatly labeled in Corbin’s precise hand.


Alchemy was expensive. Everyone knew that. Some things, simple things, could be made cheaply–a decent alchemical lamp could be had for a few silver pennies, even here, and things like alchemical heat-stones and iceboxes were only a minor extravagance. But the rarer reagents were terribly, brutally expensive. Something as simple as a pinch of powder, or a few drops of oil, could easily cost gold.


A laboratory of this sort was…I couldn’t even fathom how much it was worth. It was a noble’s ransom in alchemical reagents. It had to be worth more than this inn, and the village it was in, and likely the lives of everyone in it, all put together.


It was incredible to think that this had been here all along, with just a locked door hiding it from view.


“Hurry up,” Corbin said, striding inside. He was moving with a purpose that I couldn’t remember ever seeing from him before. “Black, grab that crate, and hold it steady.”


She complied, without saying a word. Corbin barely even glanced in her direction, collecting things from the tables and setting them aside. A pair of metal braziers, a complex web of glass tubes that hurt my head to look at, a bellows, what looked like a miniature grinding-mill operated by turning a crank. Once he was satisfied with his selection he started placing the items into the crate. It had to be terribly heavy, but Black didn’t make a sound, or show any strain in holding it.


“That should be the tools,” Corbin muttered, taking a smaller box from the floor and handing it to me. I took it, unsure of what I was supposed to do with it, but he was already turning away. He started taking vials and boxes off the tables and shelves, and putting them in the box I was holding.


Ah. So that was what it was for.


By the time he was done, there were close to twenty containers in the box. It was…not heavy, exactly, but weighty. This was more money than I’d ever held before, in the same sense that Aseoto was a larger city than Branson’s Ford. And it was so very, very fragile. One false step could cost a literal fortune, right now.


The fact that all of our lives were riding on getting this right was…just a bit of added spice.


“That should be it,” he said, after several minutes. “Let’s go.”


Black and I obediently filed out of the room. Corbin locked the door behind us, locking that laboratory safely away again, and then we went back outside.


It didn’t look like much had changed, back at the breach. People were still standing around, arguing in circles. Some of them had fetched more alchemical lamps, and things were near as bright as day. A few were standing at the edge of the wards, staring into the darkness and clutching weapons with the too-tight grip of men and women trying to convince themselves they weren’t afraid, and failing badly. It was obvious that no one knew what to do. Tellingly, none of the villagers was trying to pretend otherwise.


Corbin walked up to the group, still with that quiet assurance in his stride, and said, “I can fix it.”


Egill looked at him askance. “Appreciate the thought,” he said. “You did a damn fine job fixing up that inn of yours, I know that, but this isn’t just a bit of repair work. There’s deep alchemy in these things.”


“I can fix it,” Corbin said again. “I know enough alchemy to patch a hole.”


“If he says he can do it, he can do it.” Ilse’s voice was as unexpected as it was welcome. I wouldn’t have expected her to speak on Corbin’s behalf, but her tone was deadly serious, and brooked no disagreement. Ilse had brought four children into the world; her stern tone could make a grown soldier look at the ground and mumble acquiescence.


“Guess we might as well,” Ketill said. “Ain’t like we’re losing much if he can’t. Ain’t anybody else around has a better chance at it, I don’t reckon.”


Egill didn’t look entirely convinced, but he hadn’t kept himself accepted as mayor for decades by not knowing how to read the crowd. He knew that the general opinion was against him in this, and he ceded the point gracefully, nodding and falling back a step.


“Clear out, then,” Corbin said authoritatively. “I need some clear space to work.”


“And what happens if them ghouls come back?” someone asked.


“They won’t.” Corbin sounded perfectly confident of that.


“But what if they do?” the voice pressed. I recognized it, now, as belonging to Livy. That made the shaking quality in her voice more understandable. Egill’s daughter was…not naive, precisely, but sheltered in a way that few people in Branson’s Ford had the luxury of being. The past few days must have been a particularly ugly shock to her.


“I can take care of things,” Corbin said, tapping the arbalest meaningfully. I hadn’t even realized he was still carrying it. I’d never seen him actually carrying the thing around before, but he had a way of making it look very…natural.


That seemed to settle the matter. People started to drift away in ones and twos, yawning and stumbling a bit. I was guessing that most of them were going back to their beds, and that none of them would get a moment’s sleep for the rest of the night. I would have joined them, but I still had the box of reagents, and Corbin shot me a look that made it very clear that he didn’t want me to just set it down and leave.


Once it was just him, Black, and I left standing there, he turned to us. “Set those down,” he said. “Black, I need you to catch something. A deer, some rabbits, something like that. And bring them back alive.”


She nodded sharply. “Will do,” she said, starting out into the forest.


“Watch yourself,” he called after her. “Not even you can count on being safe out there tonight.” Then he turned to me. “Are you feeling up to running an errand?”


My leg hurt, and my ribs hurt. Just breathing was enough to make my throat feel raspy and rough. My heart was still beating too fast, my mind still struggling to keep past from bleeding into present. It was hard not to keep my shoulders hunched, as though expecting a blow to fall at any moment. I had seldom in my life felt so thoroughly not up to running an errand.


I nodded.


“Thanks,” he said. “Go to the smithy, and get three lengths of rod-iron. Iron, not steel.”


I nodded again, and took off through town. I was stumbling a little, not quite steady on my feet, but I was moving.


To my surprise, the smithy wasn’t empty. Sigmund was standing near the cold forge, fixing arrowheads to shafts. He saw me coming, and then looked again. “Silf?” he asked. “Is that you?”


I nodded, and looked at what he was doing curiously.


“I didn’t think I could sleep,” he explained, somewhat sheepishly. “And it seemed like we might need more arrows now. What with…you know…everything.” He paused, seeming uncomfortable with that line of thinking, and then shook his head. “Anyway,” he said. “Did you need something?”


I nodded again. “Three lengths of rod-iron,” I said. “For Corbin.”


“We have some in the back,” he said. “Let me grab it.”


Sigmund vanished into the building attached to the forge, and returned a moment later carrying several metal rods. They were a little thicker around than my thumb, and probably almost as long as I was tall.


He started to hand them to me, then hesitated. “Do you want a hand with these?” he asked. “Not to say that you can’t take them, it’s just…you’ve had a long night. You don’t look quite well.”


A part of me wanted to lash out at him. But, well, he wasn’t wrong. And the notion of carrying the rod-iron back myself wasn’t exactly a tempting one just now. So I just nodded.


I tried to carry one of the rods myself on the way back to the wards, but Sigmund wouldn’t hear a word of it, insisting on carrying all three himself. He handed them off to Corbin, who barely seemed to note the blacksmith’s presence, and left.


I stood nearby and watched, fascinated, as Corbin worked. There was only one alchemical lamp now, but there was still plenty of light. He had two metal braziers burning with a pale, almost white flame, and they were startlingly bright.


By that light, I watched as the innkeeper went about the business of what I could only assume was alchemy. A complex arrangement of tubes and retorts over one of the brazier held dozens of liquids and vapors, everything from what looked like black mercury to a pale yellow vapor that clung tightly to the glass. The other brazier was empty, but a broad silver bowl sitting next to it suggested that might not be the case for long. The bowl had what looked like the pieces of the shattered warding posts in it.


Corbin selected a bottle from the box and poured a thin stream of some thick brown fluid into the bowl, then hung it from a tripod over the brazier. It was barely on the heat before he was turning to the rod-iron. Somehow he’d already taken a hammer and chisel from the box of implements.


Then he paused and turned towards me, seeming to register my presence for the first time in several minutes. “You should go to sleep, Silf,” he said. “This will take a while. And you need your rest after tonight.”


I nodded, and walked away towards the inn. I couldn’t keep myself from looking back one last time, though.


Corbin was in constant motion, cutting and carving and pouring and mixing and measuring. His hands were always moving, quick and utterly certain; it seemed he never had to pause and think about what he was doing, or go back to fix a mistake.


But his expression was blank, and cold, and empty, and his eyes were far away as he worked.

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Cracks 1.17

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By the time I went back to the inn, the sun was sinking to the west, and the rain was coming down heavily enough that it looked like night. I was soaked to the skin and shivering a little, and from how the storm looked it wasn’t likely to move out before morning.


It was funny to think that a week ago this storm would have had people grumbling to each other over drinks. Farms needed rain, but this was the kind of rain that could and did cause floods, and it had already been a bad year for flooding. A week ago, having a storm like this roll in would have been bad news.


Now, with everything else that was going on, it was hard to care too much.


I walked in, and found the taproom still and empty. Corbin was sitting by the bar, Black was sitting by the fire. They weren’t talking, and I didn’t get the impression it was because I’d interrupted anything.


“Silf,” Corbin said, looking in my direction. “You want some hot cider?”


I nodded gratefully, sitting at one of the tables. He went to the fire, and then a few moments later set a large wooden mug in front of me. There was steam coming off of it, and it smelled like apples and spices.


Normally fur was more than enough to keep me warm. But this was a cold rain, the sort of rain that reminded you that autumn was getting close and winter wasn’t so far behind it, and it brought the wind with it. After a while of sitting still in that weather, I got cold, same as anyone else.


I sipped at the cider, singeing my tongue, and then I sat and looked at the cup, the floor, the wall–anything except the people in the room with me. “What’d they decide?” I asked at last, almost surprising myself with the noise.


“Nothing,” Corbin said with a heavy sigh. “They ended up deciding to wait for Hideo to give his orders first. Which he did, an hour ago. It’s all pretty typical stuff for martial law. Curfew at dusk, no one is to leave the wards, a handful of rights suspended.”


“Bloody tyrant,” Black said. Growled more than said, really. She was staring at the fire, and her hands were clenched at her sides like she was imagining wrapping them around Hideo’s neck.


“They’re not bad ideas,” Corbin said, in the patient, slightly annoyed tone of someone saying something he’d said ten times in the past hour.


“Doesn’t mean he should be able to make them,” she retorted. “Just walk in and take control of all these people’s lives without so much as a please or thank you? You can’t tell me that isn’t a system that encourages corruption and abuse.”


Corbin frowned, and didn’t say anything.


I sat, and drank cider, and thought. I thought about Hideo and his legionnaires. I thought about what I’d seen when the Whitewood burned. I thought about bloody coins and screaming. I thought about stains that didn’t come clean.


When the cider was gone, I went upstairs. Black and Corbin stayed in the taproom behind me, carefully not looking at each other, and not saying a word.

The rain had done something to help, but I still felt filthy, and sore, and now I was chilled as well. So I decided, before I went to bed, to take a bath.


The bath, like the mirror, was a luxury that I’d inherited when I moved into the former mansion, and one that probably no one else in the village had. It involved some very expensive, very complex alchemical engines. I didn’t understand how they worked; my knowledge of alchemy was almost nonexistent. It involved a set of gears designed to amplify physical force, and heating coils which siphoned some of the energy to heat the water.


The end result was that I turned a handle in the water closet in my rooms. The device amplified that force and used it to power a set of pumps, drawing water up from the well and heating it. A stream of steaming hot water poured into the tub a few moments later.


Turning the handle to provide the initial force was a bit of an effort–more so than it was supposed to be, according to Corbin; he’d said something about how it hadn’t been designed to work within the wards. But it was far, far easier than carrying water in, let alone heating it.


In my experience, people see that I’m Changed and they’re quick to see that it makes my life harder in a thousand ways. But they tend to see the ones that are large and dramatic. They ask things like whether I’ve ever been beaten, and whether it makes me prone to sickness, and whether I had to change my lifestyle when it happened. And those are, obviously, important things, and the answer to all of those questions is yes.


But what people don’t tend to see is the hundred tiny ways it makes day-to-day life more difficult. These things aren’t glamorous, they aren’t dramatic, but they ultimately affect me far more than the things that are. People tend not to think of things like having to sleep on a hard bed because my back isn’t quite the right shape for walking on two feet, and it hurts as a result. They don’t think about how I have to wear over-large clothing and sit on stools instead of chairs, because even a small tail is horribly uncomfortable otherwise. They don’t ask whether I need a different amount of sleep than I did when I was human, not because they don’t care, but because it simply never occurs to them to wonder.


Similarly, most people don’t seem to consider how fur changes grooming habits. Unlike some of the Changed, I’m not completely covered–my face has only patchy fur on it, and there’s none at all on my hands or parts of my chest and stomach. But I have more than enough to make it a consideration.


To those people, then, it would have been a surprise to see the array of things I took from the cabinet while the water cooled to a more bearable temperature. There were brushes and combs, since if the fur wasn’t kept orderly it tended to tangle and mat uncomfortably. A small pair of scissors–I couldn’t really get rid of the stuff and I wasn’t sure I even wanted to anymore, but I could at least keep it neat. A soap I made from lye and tallow, scented with lavender and mint.


Corbin had been surprised when I planted the stuff in the garden behind the inn, and more so when I told him why. When I explained that he could choose between that and me smelling like wet dog, though, he came around readily enough.


I took all of these things and set them next to the tub of water. It took a few trips. Once I had the water was a comfortably warm temperature rather than scalding, so I got into the tub.


By the time I’d finished washing out the dried blood and grime, the water was an unpleasant brownish shade, I wasn’t feeling cold, and my wounded leg wasn’t aching. I drained the water, which flowed out another set of pipes to the garden, and then drew a fresh bath to actually get clean without soaking in that soup of filth.


It would be wrong to say that the bathing made me feel good. There was too much looming dread, too much fear over everything that had happened and everything that might happen, for me to really feel good. But being clean again, and the routine, almost ritualized act of bathing, certainly made me feel better. I felt calm and relaxed as I finished, wiped most of the water off with a towel, and went to bed. I thought I might actually be able to sleep without nightmares tonight.


I was woken in the middle of the night by screaming.


Once again, my old instincts took over almost instantly. Before I’d even realized what woke me, I was on my feet and moving. I didn’t bother with clothing at all this time. There were higher priorities. I grabbed Black’s axe in one hand, and a fistful of coins with the other. It was tricky to manage the lock with both hands full, but I managed, and then I was in the hallway and going downstairs. I was faster than Black or Corbin this time. Considering that the screaming had been quiet even to me, it was possible they hadn’t heard it at all.


Downstairs, I ducked out the back door. It had fewer locks than the front, which made it easier to open in a hurry. I was moving at a run, now. The leg appeared to be healed; it didn’t even twinge as I ran.


The scream had come from the center of town, so that was the way I ran. A part of me was disturbed and confused at the fact that I was running towards the probable disaster. The rest was of the quite reasonable opinion that with how things had been going, being present for the disaster was better than not knowing what was happening.


It didn’t take me long to find out. I hadn’t even reached the city proper when I saw someone lying on the ground, and I smelled blood. Up ahead people were moving, and shouting. I could see light, shifting and dancing madly. This wasn’t the perfectly even glow of an alchemical lamp, or even the steady flame of a lantern. No, this was a torch, and one that was being swung wildly at that. It was guttering in the rain and the wind, barely alive at all. The shadows leapt and spun so strangely that it would have been confusing at the best of times. While still half-asleep and panicking, it was absolute madness.


In that chaos, I could barely make out what was happening. But what I could see was enough to make my blood run cold.


The ghoul-things were here. Four of them, inside the wards, in the middle of town. They were advancing on the house that had been converted into a legion headquarters, and they weren’t alone. There were half a dozen villagers around them, and more coming out of their houses now. People were shouting, and someone was screaming in pain, and dogs were barking.


As I was getting close I saw the figure with the torch–Ketill, I realized after a moment–swing it at one of the monsters. The creature flinched away instinctively, leaving itself open for a strike from the farmer’s other hand. What looked like a fire iron hit the monster in the side of the neck, hard.


It staggered, but didn’t fall, and a moment later it snatched the iron out of his hand. Ketill barely managed to duck away from its claws in time.


I stopped and stared. I suddenly didn’t feel so confident that I was happier being here than not.


I wanted to do something to help, but I wasn’t at all sure what it would be. Even if I could channel effectively here, it wasn’t exactly precise, and the fight was a chaotic, clustered mess; I wasn’t at all certain that I could do anything to the monsters without doing worse to the people. I still had the hatchet, but evidence suggested that getting close to these things didn’t end well for me.


As I stood, frozen, the door to the legion headquarters finally opened. Andrew stepped out, looking less asleep than I felt, a towel tied around his waist. He stood there, rubbing at his eyes, and I got the distinct impression that he was planning to ask what in the black gods’ name people thought they were doing making this kind of ruckus in the middle of the night.


Then he saw the monsters. His hand fell away from his face in a moment. His other reached towards the torch, beckoning.


Channeling was far more difficult within the wards. But if you were a trained, legion-grade channeler, and you had a good channel, that didn’t necessarily matter. It would make things harder for him. It would limit what he could do somewhat, and what he could do would take more out of him. But he was still a very, very dangerous man. Even with the wards, even with the rain still falling, he was a dangerous man.


He beckoned, and the flame answered.


The torch blazed up two, three times as high, so bright I had to shade my eyes and look away. It was roaring like a furnace now, like a bonfire. Ketill flinched away from it with a shout, but he managed to keep the torch held high.


Then the fire reached out and enveloped one of the monsters. It wrapped itself around the thing, and consumed it. There was no other way to put it. One moment there was a monster there, and the next there was just a burning husk falling to the ground.


The torch died a moment later, the air around it so utterly consumed by the momentary blaze that it couldn’t even smolder. Andrew, though, wasn’t done yet. He clenched his hand into a fist, letting out a shout that sounded like equal parts effort and pain as he did, and the flames on the corpse burst into similarly intense life. A tongue of flame reached out for another of the monsters, and another of the monsters fell to the ground on fire.


I cringed away. I was breathing hard and fast now, and my heart was pounding on my chest. I tried to scream, and all that came out was a pained, breathy hiss.


The rest of the monsters seemed hardly any better off than I was. They fell back, not turning away from the fire channeler. Someone–I couldn’t see who, not with so little light–fell on one of them with an axe, swinging like he was splitting wood and removing one of its arms with similar ease.


Andrew stepped out of the building entirely, trying to keep the monsters in his sight. It was common knowledge that channelers needed to see something to hit it, and fire channelers in particular struggled otherwise. They could sense body heat to aim, but once they got started there tended to be so much heat in the air that the warmth of a living body got lost in the noise.


And that was his fatal mistake. Andrew was a dangerous man, and he had a terrifying amount of raw power at his fingertips. But he didn’t have the experience to use it well.


The second monster he’d burned wasn’t dead. Horribly maimed, burned beyond any recognition or hope for recovery, but not dead. And as he stepped too close to it, confident that it was as good as dead, it showed him wrong by grabbing his foot in one clawed hand, and pulling.


The legionnaire fell, instantly, with a shout of surprise.


The other monsters reversed their course, so rapidly and smoothly that the retreat must have been a feint in the first place. They fell on him, in a mass, with claws and teeth and fists and spines.


It was quick. His death wasn’t clean, or pretty, or painless. But at least it was quick.


I thought that it would be irritating to put out the fires, now that the fire channeler was dead. Then I felt guilty for thinking that, and then I wondered why I felt guilty for a legionnaire.


While I was having that little personal crisis, the monsters finished their work. And they stood up. And they turned towards me. And they started moving.


There’s nothing quite like the prospect of imminent dismemberment to shake you out of a personal crisis.


As they started to move, so did I, running to the side. But my reactions were slow, and confused. I stumbled over my own feet. I was coughing, the smoke and the burning meat acrid and too sharp in my sinuses. It was hard to see. My feet were slipping on the wet ground. Everything felt too familiar.


I wasn’t sure what happened to the monsters. It was hard to track what was going on. All three that were still standing had turned in my direction, but now I was moving and they were moving and only one of them was bearing down on me, hands the size of my head swinging loose at its side.


I threw the handful of coins I was holding at it, and pushed on them. But I wasn’t a legion-trained channeler, and the channel I was using was just a handful of coins. Just a few scraps of iron. They hit it, but barely harder than if I’d thrown them with muscle alone. They might, possibly, have penetrated the skin. They didn’t stop it.


I lashed out with the axe as it got close, a short, clumsy stroke at its arm. I managed to connect with it, which surprised me on some distant, abstract level, but there was no real force behind the impact. It cut into the monster’s arm, it drew blood, but it didn’t matter. It kept coming.


It threw itself at me in a diving tackle, and we both hit the ground. My hand hit a rock, sending a spike of pain and numbness up my arm, and the axe spun out of my grip. We rolled, and the monster ended up on top of me. It wrapped both of its arms around me, and squeezed.


I was maybe half its size. Overpowering it was not a thing that was going to happen. But I was small, and agile. I could squirm around in its grip, at least enough to keep it from crushing me instantly.


But I couldn’t breathe, and I was trapped, and this couldn’t last. It was just a matter of time before it broke me like a twig. I clawed spastically at its face, its throat, and my claws were drawing blood, but it was too slow. One of my claws caught wrong on a particularly thick fold of that leathery skin, and snapped.


The monster set its grip, and started to squeeze tighter. I could feel something straining in my back, an odd sort of pain not quite like anything I’d felt before.


And then something hit the thing from behind, and caved its skull in like an empty nut.


The strength went out of those arms, instantly. But it wasn’t as much of a relief as I might have guessed. The corpse went completely limp on top of me as it did, and it was still twice my size. It was still crushing me under its sheer weight. I couldn’t breathe–considering the smoke, I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I’d been able to breathe properly. My vision was going grey around the edges, not that I could see anything except the corpse on top of me anyway, and my chest hurt. My body bucked against the weight without me telling it to, trying desperately to drag in a breath, and nothing happened.


It felt like a small eternity passed before I saw hands on the monster’s shoulders, half dragging and half rolling it off me. The second the weight was removed enough I took a deep, ragged breath, and then laid back still, breathing hard and struggling to keep some veneer of control. I could dimly see Sigmund standing over me. His forge hammer was on the ground next to him, the head stained with blood and brains.


“Silf?” he said, panting a little. Even for someone as strong as the blacksmith’s apprentice–the blacksmith now, I supposed, since his former master was quite dead–hauling that much dead meat off me couldn’t have been easy. “Are you all right?”


I didn’t trust my voice at all, for a multitude of reasons. So I just nodded, shakily, and then once more.


Sigmund’s shoulders slumped, some of the tension running out of him. “Oh, thank the white gods,” he said. “When you went down, I was sure it was…I thought you were gone.”


I smiled in what was hopefully a comforting manner, and pushed myself to my feet. I stumbled, and would have fallen if he hadn’t caught me.


It was easy to see why the other two monsters hadn’t joined in attacking me. They were both quite busy. One of them–the one that had been maimed earlier–was facing off against the same man who’d taken its arm off with an axe. I recognized him now as a farmer who worked in one of the apple orchards, and harvested wood from the forest the rest of the time. Small wonder he could chop a ghoul-thing up, then. This one looked to be just about done.


The other one had made it farther, running in the direction of the inn. Then it ran into Black and Corbin.


Black and the monster were grappling on the ground. The monster was on top, but it clearly wasn’t in control of the situation; it was lying on its back on top of her, and she had all of her limbs wrapped around its, holding it down. It bucked wildly against her grip, but as I’d seen, Black was phenomenally strong, and she was clearly actually trained at this. It didn’t have a chance.


There was an arbalest bolt sticking out of its hip. As I watched, Corbin walked up to it, holding the arbalest casually in his hands. He reloaded it.


Reloading an arbalest was not an inherently easy thing to do. They made models that used alchemical mechanisms to do most of the work, now, but Corbin’s wasn’t one of them. Most people used a winch to pull the staves back; at a minimum, you had to use the muscles of your legs, or brace it against your body so you could use both arms and your back.


Corbin just grabbed the staves and pulled them together in his hands, making it look easy as breathing. He slotted another bolt into it as he walked up to the pair on the ground. He sighted, slow and steady, looking completely unhurried.


A part of me, having heard something of the story behind them, and seen how they treated each other, wondered how Black would react in that situation. On the ground, fully occupied with keeping the monster busy, Corbin standing over her with a loaded arbalest? It was…to call it a vulnerable position was an understatement, to say the least.


But she didn’t so much as flinch as he pulled the trigger. And the bolt slammed into the monster’s eye, perfectly aimed. It jerked, and went still.


I realized, dimly, that the door to the legion house was closed again. They hadn’t even come outside, the bastards.


“Gods,” someone said. “What happened?”


Ketill snorted. He was busy smothering the last of the fires with what looked like a heavy wool blanket. “What do you think?” he said.


“But how did they get through the wards?”


I could almost hear the pause as the farmer considered that–likely for the first time, since the middle of a fight was a bad time for thinking about questions like that one. “That I don’t know,” he admitted after a moment.


Things fell silent. The fires were dying, between the rain still falling and the efforts of the villagers.


I stumbled over to the group, feeling a little more steady on my feet now. I had my breath back, mostly, though my ribs would be a single bruise by morning, and my hand hurt where I’d snapped the claw off. Two in a week.


I found Andrew’s body, and stared down at it. It was…mangled felt like too mild a word. Shredded, perhaps. If I hadn’t seen it happen I wouldn’t have realized it was him. I’d only have given it even odds that it was human.


Gunnar, likely realizing that I was naked, took off his cloak and draped it around my shoulders. I accepted with a quiet sort of gratitude. The rain was cold, and I was starting to shiver in reaction.


Something was bothering me about this whole thing. And not just that they’d been able to get inside the wards. Something about the way they’d acted. There was something here, something important.


And then it clicked.


These things, whatever they were, they were smart. Everything pointed to that. All I had to look at to be sure was what they’d done to Andrew. When he stepped out of the legion house, they’d recognized that he was the single greatest threat to them, and they’d acted on that understanding, instantly. They lured him out, tripped him, and swarmed him while he was down. That was a remarkably intelligent tactic, planned and executed almost instantly.


So why had they then attacked me? I wasn’t exactly a major threat. Even outside the wards, I wasn’t nearly as dangerous as someone like Ketill, or Black, or the legionnaires.


At first I thought they’d just gone after people who could channel, whether that meant anything or not. Then I realized that they hadn’t attacked me, not really. Only one of the three had actually attacked me, and that might just have been because I was in its way. The others had seemed more concerned with getting past me.


They hadn’t been running at me. They’d been running for where I came from. And it hadn’t had anything to do with the inn, either.


I started to talk, and coughed. With how much my ribs hurt, that was not much fun, and it left my throat feeling even rougher than before. When I did manage to get the words out they were a barely audible rasp.


“I know how they got in,” I said.


Everyone, no exceptions, turned towards me at that. The few who hadn’t heard looked because everyone else was looking, and then they realized what I’d said and they were staring at me the same as the rest.


I felt like I should have flinched away at that, and there was a part of me that really wanted to. But I was just too damn tired to act on it. So instead I turned and started walking back towards the inn.


“Bones and ashes, you can’t just say that and walk away,” someone said. After a few seconds I realized it was the mayor–Egill, rather, since he wasn’t the mayor anymore. Even if the legion hadn’t taken control of Branson’s Ford, you needed a town to be a mayor, and I was increasingly doubtful that this one would exist for more than a handful of days longer.


“If she said it, she’s got a reason,” Corbin said, cutting Egill off. “Might as well follow her. It’ll be simpler than trying to make her explain.”


I ignored the conversation, and kept walking. After a few seconds the entire group fell in behind me. I was just as glad, since if I was right there might be more monsters in front of me without warning.


At the inn, I went in, and found an alchemical lamp. I went back outside, and kept walking. I could tell that people were getting increasingly confused, but I didn’t say anything. It would be simpler to show them than explain my suspicions, even if I could talk, and right now I most definitely could not.


I kept going, into the woods out back of the inn. I found the gap, the hollow place like a missing tooth, where one of the warding posts wasn’t.


I didn’t expect that anyone else noticed that. Why would they? This wasn’t an area that people went to, as a rule. Certainly not often enough to notice something slightly off about it. That was, I suspected, the whole point.


I turned to the left, walking to the place the next warding post was supposed to be. As I’d expected, there was nothing there. This time, though, I could just see the light of the alchemical lamp glinting off something in the grass where it was supposed to be.


I walked over, and set the lamp to the side, and squatted down to pull the grass aside. A pall of total, horrified silence fell over the group as I did. I didn’t say anything to fill it. I didn’t need to.


Everyone could clearly see the shattered pieces of the warding post lying on the ground.

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Cracks 1.16

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We headed for the inn, out of habit and to inform Corbin of what just happened. It might be some time before anyone thought to tell him otherwise.


Before we even got close, though, I heard voices talking, loud and agitated. As we got close, I realized there was a bit of a crowd gathered outside the inn.


All of the imperials were standing out front, moving towards town. Aelia looked dazed from the drugs, and Sumi was almost unconscious, being carried by Andrew and Marcus. They were all there, though, and moving.


Behind them came a small crowd of villagers, led by Corbin. They were clearly nervous, or even afraid; they were shifting and fidgeting, murmuring in hushed, anxious voices. At first I wondered how they’d already heard about what happened when a group tried to leave. Then I realized that they probably hadn’t; there were, after all, plenty of other things to be nervous about.


If they were already this on edge, things would only get worse when they heard our news. Much worse.


“You’re insane,” Corbin said to Hideo as we got close enough to hear clearly. “He’s in no shape to travel.”


“You made it abundantly clear that you’d rather we not stay in your inn,” Hideo said cheerfully. He was marching along at the head of the whole procession with such a casually arrogant stride that I could almost think it was a deliberate parade and he was the leader. “Well, I do try to be polite, you know, so it’s only reasonable that we move on, don’t you think?”


“You can’t seriously mean to take them out on the road.” Corbin’s voice was openly hostile, now. “That’s a death sentence.”


“Oh, not at all,” Hideo said. He passed us, not even glancing in our direction, and we fell in with the group following along behind him. “No, I assure you, we aren’t leaving town at all.”


“Then what on earth are you playing at with this?” Corbin said.


“Well, it’s quite simple, really,” the surveyor said brightly. “This situation is clearly out of control. As such, by the power vested in me as a commissioned officer of the imperial legions, I’m declaring martial law, effective immediately. I’m also appropriating a building to serve as our temporary headquarters.” He pointed at one of the houses, seemingly at random. “Let’s go with that one.”


“That’s my house,” someone in the crowd said. After a moment I recognized the voice as belonging to Ilse, the closest thing Branson’s Ford had to a merchant.


“Not anymore,” Hideo said brightly, opening the door. It wasn’t locked. “I’ll be setting up our headquarters and reviewing resources. The first dictates will be posted this evening.”


He walked into the house, followed by the legionnaires. A moment later the door closed, and locked.


Ilse started to walk towards her house, looking like she was seriously considering lighting it on fire. After a moment Gunnar and her husband Otto caught her arms, holding her back. Their expressions were bleak, unsurprised, and hopeless. It was like looking at a kicked dog.


Nobody said a word, or made a move towards the building. They looked angry, but it was a blank, impotent sort of anger.


It was funny, in a way. They outnumbered the legionnaires, by far, even counting Aelia and Sumi. The legionnaires were better equipped, and probably better trained on the whole, but it was easy to see that any conflict between them would not go well for the imperials. But I was guessing that if Hideo were to walk back out, sentence someone to death for crimes against the state, and execute them on the spot, no one would lift a finger to stop him. They’d been shown that fighting back against the legions ended in death so many times that they couldn’t see any possibility for change.


“Typical imperial,” Ketill said under his breath. “Couldn’t even be bothered to take an empty house.”


Black and I both laughed quietly at that. I thought that there were plenty of empty houses in Branson’s Ford now, and then immediately felt guilty for thinking it. It could just as easily have been me that died, and I knew it.


“We need to talk,” the mayor–former mayor–said into the silence after a few moments. “Everyone, come along.”


I fell in with the crowd as we left. Ilse stared at her house for a long while before she followed us.

I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d thought the mayor was planning to go, but I hadn’t expected it to be the inn. It made sense, though. It was one of the few buildings in the village that could fit everyone, and given that it was starting to rain, they didn’t want to do this outdoors. It probably helped that the legionnaires, based on Hideo’s comments, almost certainly weren’t going to be dropping in there.


Corbin started handing out soup and bread as people found seats, and then started finding places to stand when all the chairs were taken.


Otto took one look at the food, and shook his head. “Don’t have money,” he said. “We were tight already, and then getting locked out….”


Corbin hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Don’t worry about money. It’s all on the house, tonight.”


I’d never seen Corbin waive payment before. He might stand a round on the house on special occasions, or take payment in kind when someone was in a rough patch, but nothing like this.


Oddly enough, that was what drove home just how bad things were. Why worry about payment? He might lose it all tomorrow anyway, to imperial requisition or ghoul attack.


“I know it’s bad news on top of worse,” Ketill said, as people settled in. “But I reckon you got to know. The folk were going to the city, they ain’t making it. Weren’t out of sight when the ghouls were on them. Killed them all.” He paused, letting that sink in. “The beasts were using bows. Bows and arrows.”


The taproom had been quiet before. It went dead silent at that.


“How?” someone said, barely above a whisper. Even with my hearing, I doubted I’d have heard it if things weren’t so very quiet.


“Why is the question,” Gunnar said, more loudly. His tone was grim, to say the least. “Nobody was attacked until the other day. Why now?”


I glanced at Black where she was sitting by the fire. She met my eyes across the room and nodded, very slightly. We both knew what was going on. But she couldn’t be the one to say it, not when she was an outsider to the village. And I wasn’t going to be saying enough to explain the situation. Not today. Today was a bad day, and I’d already strained my throat talking to Black. The soup was helping, but not enough.


Eventually Ketill spoke up, probably because he realized that no one else was going to. “It’s the same as what they did out there,” he said. “Control our movements, put us in a position where they can hit us hard. We’re safe behind the wards, but that means they know where we are and where we’d have to go to leave.”


“Are we even sure the wards will stop them?” someone asked. After a few seconds I recognized it as Samara, a rather shrill imperial woman whom I wasn’t particularly fond of.


“If the wards didn’t stop them, they’d have killed us all by now,” Ketill said flatly. “There’s no motive for them to have left us alone if they didn’t have to.”


“That gives us a certain amount of safety,” the mayor said. “But we can’t wait in here indefinitely, and help likely isn’t coming. We need to decide what to do now.”


“Oh, come off it, Egill,” someone called from the back of the room. “You’re not in charge no more, remember? That legion fellow is.”


“Is anyone confident in the legion?” Egill asked. I presumed Egill was his name, at least; I couldn’t remember having heard it before. He was just the mayor. “Half of them have been maimed fighting these things already, and one of the others isn’t more than a boy. Do you want to leave your lives in their hands?”


He paused. No one said anything.


“As I said,” he continued, with a faint smile that suggested he’d expected that response. “We need to decide what to do now.”


“Could take my plan,” Ketill said. “Take the initiative, wipe these things out.”


“How confident are you you’d win?” Corbin asked suddenly. “They’ve killed a lot of folks already.”


I saw the room react as that sank in. People looked around, looking for who was here, and thinking of who was already gone.


It was something I’d already thought of. There were around forty people in the taproom, by my estimate–far more than were usually here, but not exactly an army. I couldn’t think of many people in Branson’s Ford who weren’t here, either. A handful of recluses, people like Jakob’s friend, who’d come back broken from the war. A few herders who, given that they worked alone outside the wards, were more than likely dead already. Other than that I could only think of children.


Though I supposed I should count them too. If things kept going like this, they’d be holding spears with the rest of us before the end.


It was a line of thought I’d already followed. But I could see it hit Ketill as he realized what I already had. His face dropped as he suddenly saw, probably for the first time, that we might lose. That the whole village might be wiped out by these things that were most definitely not ghouls.


You didn’t hear about it often. I’d certainly never heard of one quite like this. But it did happen. Even with the warding posts, sometimes something went wrong and a village was slaughtered by Changed monstrosities. Everyone knew it happened.


You just…always assumed that it would happen to someone else.


“Numbers aside,” Egill said, breaking the silence before it could really make itself at home, “there’s one reason to think we can’t fight them and win. They don’t think we can.”


“Are you people sure you aren’t giving these things too much credit?” Ilse asked. “They’re clearly more intelligent than average ghouls, yes, but the way you talk about them you’d almost think they were people.” Her tone was angry, with a hint of hysteria.


“What I am saying is that they appear to have a considerably better understanding of our capabilities than we have of theirs.” Egill, at least, seemed completely calm. At times like this it was easy to see how he’d ended up as the mayor. “And given that they attacked, they obviously think that they’ll fare well in a confrontation. We’d be fools to ignore that fact.”


“We could wait for the legions,” Gunnar said, sounding like he was sucking a lemon. “We can stay in the wards for a long while.”


“The messengers were killed, remember?” Ketill said. “They don’t know we even need help.”


“They know.” It took me a moment to realize that it was my own voice saying that, and when I did I was as surprised as anyone. Thought I doubted that more than about half a dozen people heard, anyway.


One of those people was the mayor–Egill–though, and he turned to face me. “What makes you say that?” he asked, ensuring that everyone’s attention would be focused on me.


I flinched back slightly, then shrugged. “They know,” I said. “They’re here.”


“She’s right,” Corbin said, loudly enough to pull the focus of the crowd onto him instead. “They knew something was going on. Otherwise they wouldn’t have sent anyone at all.”


“That was a coincidence,” Samara said. “They were here surveying for the road. It was just a coincidence they ran into those…things.”


“Don’t be naive,” Ketill snapped at her. “The road was a dream they held in front of us to keep us from asking questions. It was never going to happen. I thought they were here for something else…but no, this must be it. They were asking about monsters, remember?”


I could tell that a few people did. They suddenly looked like they felt sick.


“What do we do, then?” Ilse asked. She sounded like the anger had run its course, and now she was just tired. Exhausted. “We can’t win ourselves, and the legions aren’t coming to help us.”


Nobody seemed to have an answer. People didn’t want to make eye contact, and a lot of them were drinking in earnest now. Corbin was pouring drinks from bottles that he usually didn’t touch at all, and nobody said a word about payment, now.


It was funny, in a not-very-funny sort of way. I’d wished for the taproom to be packed like this more times than I could remember. Now that it was, it didn’t feel good at all. There wasn’t a celebratory atmosphere at all. The people looked desperate, broken, hopeless.


It reminded me of the Whitewood, in the last few weeks. We’d been surrounded by that point, besieged by the legions. People had felt trapped, then, helpless and unsure of what to do. We’d thought things were as bad as they could get, until the fires came and proved us wrong.


It wasn’t a comfortable analogy to make.


I didn’t have any better answers than the rest of them, but I couldn’t stand there and watch it any more. It was too crowded, hot and close, and my grip on the present was starting to come loose. I set the empty bowl of soup on the table, and grabbed that bottle of the imperial rice-drink from behind the bar, and walked through the kitchen and out the back door. Corbin watched me go. I was guessing he knew exactly what was running through my mind.


I got out, and I ran.

I wanted to go to my secret place in the woods. But that was well outside the wards, and I wasn’t so foolhardy that I’d risk that now. Not after what I’d seen earlier. For all that I’d accused the villagers of underestimating these things, I saw now that I’d been guilty of the same thing. I probably only made it through that safely because they were busy getting ready for the group of messengers.


Instead, I wandered around the village. It looked like a ghost town, empty and silent. It was strange seeing the fields empty in the middle of a field day.


Ilse and Otto’s house was closed up, completely, the doors locked and the windows boarded over. I wasn’t sure what the imperials were doing in there. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.


I let my feet wander where they liked, not really paying attention. I was lost in thought, another place and another time and another me. When they carried me to a rock looking over the water, I was almost surprised.




I sat, and looked out at the river. It sparkled in the sunlight, a slow pattern made of a thousand other patterns. I could feel the breeze brushing across my skin, through my fur. The rain which had been threatening for some hours was falling, soft and quiet.


It felt peaceful. It was a toxic sort of peace, the calm before the storm, the quiet moment before the fire caught. But still. Peaceful.


I took out an iron penny and rested it on my finger, balanced between fingertip and claw. It caught the light dully. The metal was stained an ugly red-black. I’d never washed the blood off it after it…after I put it into a ghoul, and pulled it out again.


I could barely feel the coin I was holding. The magic was always weak, inside the wards. It left me feeling numb and tired, and it made channeling nearly impossible. A trade everyone in the village made without a second thought. It was worth it to keep people from being Changed. To keep them from being like me.


Sometimes people go there to get clean, Sumi had said.


It felt like it had been a long time since I was clean. I could wash away the blood, I could wash away the soot, but it seemed the stains never really went away.


I’d almost thought of them as people. I’d seen the things that set them apart from the mass–Aelia’s nightmares and the happy face she pasted over them, Sumi’s quiet philosophizing, Andrew’s anxiety. I’d let it fool me into forgetting. But no. Things never changed. They were still legion. Aelia might have bad dreams about putting a bolt into a boy trying to flee the fires, but that didn’t change the fact that she’d pulled the trigger.


It was easier to hate them when they weren’t people. When they could be just…enemies, helmets without faces underneath, the collective group that had destroyed my life. Things were simpler if they weren’t individuals, people with hopes and dreams and fears and regrets and loves and hates just like mine.


It seemed things were seldom simple.


I tossed the coin out into the river. It disappeared beneath the water without a trace.

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Cracks 1.15

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I ran as fast as I could on the way north. The only reason that Ketill and Black could keep up with me was the damage to my leg. I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I usually would have been able to, and it still didn’t take all that long before my leg was burning with pain.


I had a sinking feeling that I would be too slow to matter, anyway. It didn’t matter how fast I was. It had been too late before I realized what was happening. I was running the numbers in my head as we ran, and it was impossible to avoid that conclusion. Ketill would have left the meeting as soon as it was over, and I didn’t get the impression that he’d been waiting all that long.


But the people who were being sent to fetch the legions wouldn’t wait, either. Not when things were this urgent. They would stop to collect supplies–food, weapons, the various small things you needed on the road. And then they would have left. There was no reason for them to wait longer than they absolutely had to before they got on the road.


No matter how I tried to bend the numbers, I couldn’t avoid the conclusion. They’d already left.


We passed a few people on the way north. Most of them watched us go by curiously. A handful, who knew that when things were bad you followed anyone who looked like they had a plan, fell in behind us. Mostly they couldn’t keep up. Ketill was breathing hard by now, I could hear it, but the old farmer was still keeping pace surprisingly well.


We reached the fields, and I saw the group ahead of us. Half a dozen people and three horses, they were just pulling themselves onto the shore on the opposite side of the Blackwater. I could recognize most of them, if only because they were the people I would have expected to go on a trip like this. Karl and Lily Anders, who went to the city more often than anyone else in Branson’s Ford. Jacek, a Changed shepherd who was strong as a ram and damn near as big; it was always hard to miss him. I thought one of the others was one of Jakob’s friends, though I’d only seen him a handful of times. He came back broken from the war, and these days he was virtually a hermit, spending more time in the forest than in town.


“Oh, no,” I said, pulling up short.


It was too late. It would take time for us to get across the river–the ford was relatively safe, but that was a rather significant qualifier when it came to walking across the Blackwater. And they were already well outside the wards.


“Silf?” Black said, stumbling to a stop next to me. “What’s wrong?”


“They’re smart,” I said. “They plan. Do you think they didn’t plan for this?”


She frowned slightly. “I think you might be overreacting a bit,” she said. “They’re clearly smarter than the average ghoul, but I think you’re giving them a little too much credit.”


“Hope so,” I muttered darkly, staring after them. If not, it was too late to do anything about it now. Even if we were to shout a warning–I couldn’t manage anything remotely that loud, but Black might be able to–it was too late for them to do anything about it. They were well outside the wards, now.


They were in the enemy’s territory.


Moments rolled past, and I thought that maybe Black was right. Maybe I was just being paranoid. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, not by a long shot. I’d barricaded my door shut at night for my first few months in Branson’s Ford.


Then Karl Anders fell, tumbling off the horse and to the ground with a scream.


At first, I wasn’t sure what had happened. It didn’t look like they were either. They stopped and milled around in the middle of the road, like they weren’t sure what to do. Karl wasn’t standing up.


I saw the second one, a flicker of movement in the air. That one missed, but a few seconds another one followed, and this time Jakob’s friend was the one to cry out in pain.


Arrows. They were shooting arrows at them.


Whoever was shooting, they weren’t a very good shot. Arrows kept falling, and most of them went wide. The first shot that had dropped Karl in a heartbeat looked to have been a lucky fluke; even most of the ones that hit didn’t seem to do that serious of harm.


But they wounded, and the villagers were scared. I couldn’t blame them. Caught by surprise in the open like that, being shot at, it would scare anyone.


Including the horses.


They weren’t cavalry mounts, not by a long shot. Those animals were more accustomed to pulling a plow than carrying anyone. They weren’t trained to hold steady under fire. They could smell blood, and people were screaming around them, and probably at least one had been shot by now, and they panicked.


Whether because the people managed to get them to follow orders or simply because they wanted to go home, the horses bolted back towards the river. The people followed after them, though rather more slowly. Karl had been the only one of the group to be mounted; it looked like they’d been walking the beasts across the river.


It was a foolish thing to do, exactly what the monsters must have expected. I would have been more critical if I hadn’t done equally foolish things under pressure myself. It was impossible to think clearly and work through the logical consequences of your actions when people were screaming and bleeding and dying all around, and a stray arrow might claim your life at any moment.


The horses were around halfway across the river, and the people were in the shallows, when the water exploded into movement. Clawed arms reached up and dragged them down, into the water. It was hard to guess without seeing more of them than that, but from what I could see I was guessing there were only two or three of the monsters in the river.


The people were panicked, already wounded, caught by surprise, and up to their thighs in water. Two or three was enough.


Ghouls had to breathe. Everyone knew that; they were living things like any other, they had to eat and sleep and breathe like anyone else. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that applied to these things–I wasn’t feeling sure of anything when it came to them–but it seemed likely. But they could hold their breath for a time, and with how much diversity there was among ghoul bodies, some inevitably wound up with features that let them move underwater effectively.


One of the horses made it across safely, though it was limping badly with an arrow in one haunch, and it was anyone’s guess whether the thing would live. The rest of the group went down, and didn’t come back up. The Blackwater would carry the blood out to sea.


“Arrows,” Black said, her voice barely more than a whisper. She sounded distant, shocked, almost like she was in shock. “Bones and bloody ashes. Since when do ghouls use bows?”


“Those were Jakob’s arrows,” Ketill said. He didn’t sound a lot better than she did. “He has a special way of fletching them, says it’s good luck.”


“Some of the people with us earlier had bows,” I said. “Some of the ones they killed.”


“That would explain it,” Black said. She did not sound pleased. “I guess you were right. I’m sorry for not listening earlier.”


I shrugged. “Wish I weren’t.”


Ketill snorted. “Ain’t that how it goes,” he says. “Come on. We need to figure out what to do next.” He turned and started walking south, towards the center of town. After a moment, I followed him.


Karl’s body was still lying on the road. The ravens were starting to circle over it.

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Cracks 1.14

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Nightmares were not unfamiliar to me. They were very familiar, in fact. But that was because the vast majority of the time they were the same nightmares, the same scenes playing out inside my head again and again and again. They were nightmares of fire and death and screaming, blood on the ground and bodies in the streets. There was nothing ambiguous about them, nothing unexpected. The fact that I never seemed to be able to deal with them, that I couldn’t move past the things that had happened, didn’t make them any less predictable. There was nothing unclear in my nightmares.


This was a very different sort of nightmare. This was darkness and fog, limbs that wouldn’t move and eyes that couldn’t see. I wasn’t even sure what was going on, wasn’t sure why I was scared. I had a vague feeling, more an instinct than a thought, of being trapped and helpless. There was something bad out there, lurking in the darkness just out of sight, and it was closing in on me, and it was far too late to run.


When I woke, that feeling lingered. I was quietly desperate, unable to shake the cloud of dread that hung around me like a cloud. My fingers fumbled as I pulled on clothing. I was mostly dressed before I realized that I was putting on the same filthy, blood-soaked clothes from earlier, and I pulled them off almost frantically.


Not that it mattered. I was filthy; my fur was caked in dried blood and filth. I could smell myself, a foul, almost rancid odor that permeated the room. Usually I was very cleanly, but I hadn’t bathed in days, and they’d been rather intense days at that. But even if I wasn’t any cleaner than they were, I didn’t want to wear those clothes today. There was something about it that was just…morbid.


My steps were short and quick as I left, locking the door behind myself, and hurried downstairs. The feeling of dread from my dream was still lingering, pressing down on my like a cold weight between my shoulders. I felt like I should be running, and I wasn’t sure why.


The kitchen was the same as always. I could smell bread baking, and there was a pot of soup cooking. But it felt…hollow, somehow. The sunlight coming in the window was wan and pale, and the air felt too thin. I continued out into the taproom without pausing, and found Corbin standing at the bar and polishing it. There was no one else there.


“You slept almost a full day,” he said, not turning around as I came in. “I was concerned.”


“Sorry,” I said. “We were supposed to win.” I grimaced, feeling the tightness in my throat already.


“I don’t blame you,” he said.  “You weren’t in a position to know better.” He sounded about as convincing as a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.


I frowned, but dropped it. “What happens now?”


“They’re still deciding that,” Corbin said. “Ketill and a few of the other villagers want to take the fight to the ghouls. Bring everyone, push out with wards and exterminate them. The mayor is pushing to wait for legion support. And that surveyor wants to wait and see what they do next before we commit to anything.”


“Who’s winning?”


He shrugged. “They’re still talking about it now. Most of the village is there, I think. But my money is on the mayor. It’s hard to argue against putting the responsibility on someone else.”


My frown deepened slightly. Something about that seemed…wrong, to me. It was like an odd taste in a soup; I couldn’t place what was off, but something wasn’t quite right with this picture.


Not that it mattered. Even if I’d been able to put words to my feeling, I couldn’t have convinced anyone. There was a reason Corbin wasn’t at this meeting, after all. We were both relative newcomers, and in a place like Branson’s Ford that meant everything. In a village like this, you were an outsider unless you had family going back at least two generations.


“Why were you so upset?” I asked quietly. “Why do you care what happens to me?”


“Because you deserve better than you’ve gotten,” Corbin said, staring at the surface of the bar. I suddenly realized that he was drunk, something I’d never seen before. “Because I thought I could save one person. Just one person. But it seems even that’s beyond me.”


I stood there in silence for a minute, then turned and walked out the door. He didn’t ask where I was going.

On some level I knew it was foolish to leave the safety of the wards at a time like this. But the looming sense of dread from my nightmare was still following me, and I needed a refuge like seldom before.


I was on edge as I made my way out into the trees, ready for an ambush at any moment. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen if a ghoul-thing did jump out at me. Running seemed like a poor choice; with what they’d done already, it seemed rather likely that I’d run into another ambush, or a trap. But I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to fight even one of them, either.


I didn’t see or hear any sign of them, though. There were no traps, no sudden ambush leaping out of the shadows. As far as I could tell there weren’t even any unusual signs of passage in the area.


I slipped into the pocket in the rocks, and found that I wasn’t alone.


“I thought I might find you here,” Black said. She was looking slightly off to the side of me, not meeting my eye. “I owe you an apology, I think.”


“Corbin was upset,” I said. “He spoke in haste.”


“Which doesn’t make what he said any less true,” she said dryly. “I’ve lived a violent life, Silf. Even when I was young, killing was all I was good for. And Corbin was right. That life hasn’t exactly worked out so well for me. It was never good. I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone. I shouldn’t have pushed you to start down the same road I did.”


I was silent for a moment, walking over to sit on my favorite rock. Black moved aside to leave room for me. “Not sure either of us has a choice,” I said softly.


Black laughed, a harsh, bitter sound. “True enough,” she said. “It never seems to matter what I wish.” She glanced at me. “Life has carved out a particularly hard niche for you. You’ve been through so much already, and now this.”


I shrugged. “Life is hard.”


“You said you stayed here because you got sick,” she said. “What were you planning on doing until that happened?”


I was quiet for a moment. “Didn’t…plan, exactly,” I said. “But thought I’d go south to Aseoto. They say the Changed can get by there.”


“We can,” Black said, in a vaguely warning tone. “But it’s not easy. They put up with us, but one false step can end with you bleeding in a gutter. The guards tend to look the other way when someone causes trouble for us. And it’s hard to find work where you don’t get robbed.”


I looked away from her. “Thought I’d work in the water trade.”


Black was quiet for a few seconds. “Selling your body?” she said at last, sounding like she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.


I shrugged. “Or dancing. Or fighting.”


“I never worked in the water trade while I was down there,” Black said. “But…yes, the Changed can almost always find work there. We’re exotic down there, and while people might say they’re ashamed of the exotic, that never seems to stop them from paying to see it on display.” She paused again. “Not sure I should encourage you to see yourself as a commodity, though.”


“At least I’d be able to decide what happened to me,” I said. “More than some get.”


She sighed heavily. “Too true.” She was quiet again, and I got the distinct impression that she was struggling to frame what she said next. “I understand if you’d rather not answer,” she said, hesitantly. “But…were you attacked in the camps?”


I shook my head. “Some tried,” I said. “In the city, and then before I met up with the other refugees, I tagged along with a legion camp for a while. But I’m faster than they were. And…”


“And?” she prodded gently.


I stared at the ground, trying not to remember. “Nobody expects you to fight back,” I said, barely above a whisper. My throat felt raw and tight, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was the usual problems and how much was just that it was hard to talk about this. “I don’t…look like much, you know? But I’m fast, and stronger than I look. I have claws. And…there’s usually some metal around. A coin, a pin, something.”


“You killed people when they tried to attack you,” Black said. “Didn’t you?”


I nodded. “Three or four.”


Black sighed again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That isn’t enough, but I don’t know what else to say.”


I shrugged. I didn’t say anything.


“Yeah,” she said. “Never helped me, either.”


I laughed a little. “What about you?” I said. “How did it start?”


Black was silent for a few moments. “My parents were hunters,” she said at last. “Killing was a fact of life. It was something we did every day. The first time I killed a person was an accident, an argument in a bar. I just meant to push him, but I was angry, and you saw how strong I am. He hit his head, and that was that.”


That was that. I pushed him, and he hit his head, and that was that. I stuck a spike in behind his ear, and that was that. Such a simple story, for something as profound as ending a life. It seemed like it should be harder.


“It’s hard,” I said. “Remembering what I did.”


“It gets easier,” Black said. “We told each other that it didn’t, in the war. Guess we told ourselves, too. We didn’t want killing to be easy. But the truth is that it does get easier.”


I wasn’t quite sure whether I should be glad to hear that, or a bit disappointed. I thought probably a little of both.


“We should be getting back to the wards,” Black said, breaking a silence that felt as vast and deep and cold as the ocean. “This place isn’t safe anymore.”


I nodded, but it was a few moments before I could make myself move.

On the way back, I paused just inside the warding posts. Something wasn’t quite right. Black stopped right next to me, though she didn’t seem to know why.


It took a couple seconds for me to place what was wrong. When I did, I stared at the place where one of the trees wasn’t quite right, the shape of it just slightly wrong. I didn’t try to conceal what I was doing.


Ketill dropped from the tree a moment later, landing in a crouch and straightening in a moment. He was light on his feet, precise and confident.


The old farmer looked…not younger, precisely. It was more like the time weighed him down as heavily as ever, but the years had peeled away, and exposed what he’d been a lifetime ago. He looked lean and hard, eyes that were hard as flint and had just as much mercy in them.


I knew what I was looking at. Ketill had lived as a simple farmer in Branson’s Ford for a decade now, give or take. But old habits didn’t die. Scratch the paint, scrape away the life he’d made for himself, and the man he used to be was there, like it never went away at all.


He didn’t have his scythe. But I noticed that he was carrying a different knife on his belt than usual. This one was long, and heavy, and old.


“Good eye,” he said to me, not looking at me. His voice was very, very quiet, and rough. “Been looking to talk to you.” This was clearly directed at Black, not me.


“How’d you know where I went?” she asked.


He snorted. “You’re good,” he said. “But I did my time in the war. I know how to track a body, and I know these woods better’n anyone alive.”


She nodded. “Fair,” she said. “So what do you want to talk about?”


He glanced at me. “Might be better we were alone,” he said.


Black shook her head. “Silf can stay,” she said.


Ketill grunted. “Your call,” he said. “So. You’re the Lady in Black.”


Black didn’t so much as blink. “I’m flattered,” she said. “But the Lady in Black is a myth. A ghost story the legions came up with to put a name to what troubled them during the early years of the occupation.”


“That’s the official story,” Ketill said. “I expect you’re glad for that, and I ain’t going to be the one to tell it otherwise. But I was there at Karlton, on the hill. Didn’t recognize you at first, but when I saw you fight out there I knew it was you.”


Black went very still now, and then sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Yes, that was me. But that was a long, long time ago. It’s just Black now.”


He nodded. “Like I said, I ain’t going to tell nobody. We all got things we don’t want to remember from back then, and I reckon you got more than most. But there’s a thing I got to ask you, seeing as you’re here.”


“Ask.” Her voice was very flat.


“You going to stay this time?” he asked.


Apparently that wasn’t the question she was expecting. She blinked. “What?”


“You saved our asses at Karlton,” he said. “But you didn’t stay. You never stayed, that’s the story, everyone said so. After the fight was won you moved on, and the black gods care what happened to us after.”


“Ah,” she said. “And you’re afraid I’ll leave you high and dry again.”


He nodded.


“I’m staying,” she said. “For now, at least. If those legionnaires figure out who I was, I might have to leave whether I want to or not.”


“Why?” he asked quietly. “What’s worth staying for here when you left us hanging after Karlton?”


“I’m tired of running,” she said, her voice as quiet as his. “I’ve been running for a long time now. And I’m tired.” She was silent for a few seconds.


Ketill was silent for a few seconds. “I ain’t entirely satisfied with that,” he said. “But I guess beggars can’t be choosers, and Branson’s Ford is going to need all the help it can get, I reckon.”


“The mayor got what he wanted?” I asked.


He nodded. “A few folk are going to fetch the legions,” he said. “Or try, anyways. I ain’t so confident they’ll come to help, but I suppose there’s a chance.”


I nodded, and then paused. My eyes went wide as the vague feeling of dread that had been haunting me since I woke up finally coalesced into a clear thought.


“They’re going north?” I asked. It was the quickest way to the city–across the river, and northeast along the old trade road.


Ketill nodded.


“We’ve got to catch them,” I said. “Hurry.”


Ketill clearly didn’t know what I was talking about. But he was a soldier, and if there was one thing you learned in the war–one thing that even I’d figured out, while the Whitewood was burning–it was that if someone said something in that tone, you listened first and asked questions later. He took off to the north, with Black and me right behind him.


I had a sick feeling that we were already too late.

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Cracks 1.13

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The worst part was that it wasn’t that much of a surprise. It wasn’t exactly a brilliant scheme, and it wasn’t unfamiliar. It was, in fact, what the people of Branson’s Ford did on the occasions when the ghoul numbers around town actually did grow high enough to be a threat. Bait them in somewhere, and then trap them there and turn it into a killing ground. I’d seen it done enough to recognize.


It wasn’t so fun to be on the other side.


The trees didn’t all fall at once. The first one was near the rocks behind us, and then they started falling all around, one and two at a time, dragging more to the ground with them.


I realized, on some level, what must have happened. The monsters had undermined the trees, digging out the roots and collapsing the ground under them. It left them standing, but unstable, with nothing but inertia keeping them upright. The falling rocks had shaken the ground, upsetting them further, and then after a few seconds they started tumbling under their own weight. There were likely more of the things scattered through the forest to give them an extra push if they looked to be taking too long about it.


It was, on some level, admirable. A part of me had to respect them for the sheer ambition of the undertaking.


The rest was too busy dodging falling trees.


We were in a relatively open area within the woods, which was why I’d been able to have a clear view of the group from above. But under the circumstances, “relatively” open was a very serious qualifier. There were still more than enough trees around to be a major threat.


I’d barely reached the others when the first of the trees fell, and then a few seconds later another toppled in our direction. I had warning, and I was light on my feet, even with one leg still hurting. I ducked to the side easily enough, and easily avoided it; no one else was in a position to be threatened.


The divide in our group was showing, now. People didn’t know what was going on; they were shouting, confused, questioning what was going on. Hideo was trying to get them in order, but he couldn’t shout over them, and he clearly didn’t have any better idea what was going on or what to do than anyone else.


Another tree fell, this one on a course that took it straight towards our position. I saw it coming in plenty of time to move. The villagers were used to these forests, and they knew the threats here; they were watching for more trees.


But the legionnaires weren’t from around here, and not all of the villagers were able to move fast enough to be safe. This time Sumi went to the ground, his leg pinned under the trunk of the tree and obviously broken. Friedrich was right next to him, but the blacksmith was even less lucky; the trunk came down solidly upon his back.


Suddenly Black was standing next to me. She still didn’t have her spear, but she didn’t look wounded, and she was keeping her composure better than almost any of the rest of us. “Silf!” she shouted at me, from a couple feet away.


I stared blankly at her. Some part of me was aware that she was talking to me, but I couldn’t seem to connect that thought to anything, much less to a coherent response.


She grimaced and clapped her hands right in front of me. The sound was painfully loud, loud as a quiet explosion. It left my ears ringing painfully.


But it left me feeling a little less disconnected. I shook my head, clearing it, and then looked at her.


“Which way do we run?” she asked, sharply, speaking over the sound of another tree falling, this one further away.


Instantly, I pointed to the right. It took me a couple seconds to figure out why, but when I did follow my own thought process, it was a reasonable one. Right was north. North and a touch east would take us to the wide-open fields, and everyone knew that ghouls didn’t like open spaces. I wasn’t sure if that applied to whatever these were, but either way, staying in the trees was a bad idea, and that way was also the closest the wards came to where we were now.


“Good enough,” Black muttered, then bellowed, “This way!”


I winced again. From how quiet Black usually was, I would hardly have guessed that she was capable of being that loud.


But it did what it had to do. It got people’s attention, made them look at her and imposed some kind of sanity on the crowd.


They didn’t look pleased when she started moving north. I couldn’t blame them. It felt like a bad idea, viscerally, to move into the trees and start uphill. But waiting here wasn’t an option, and they didn’t know a better way to move. Lacking a better idea, most of them followed her.


I was with them, and then in front of them. I was still moving in a daze, watching from the outside as my body scrambled through the brush and up the hill, and it didn’t occur to me that being out in front on my own was a bad idea. Behind me I could hear a scream, and then the sharp fwoosh of flash paper and channeled fire. I wasn’t sure why. It didn’t occur to me to turn around and look.


I was faster and more agile than almost anyone present, even on a maimed leg. Black was probably the only one who could have kept up with me, and she didn’t know the terrain. Likely she was also taking it slow enough that the humans–and the Changed, I remembered that one of the farmers was Changed, but not in a particularly fast way–could keep up.


I was the first one to the top of the hill. There was another ghoul–or rather, another thing close enough to a ghoul that getting them mixed up might still be the death of all of us–waiting for me.


This one looked different from the last in every particular, and the same in generality, as was typical of ghouls. This one looked almost quadrupedal, with hugely overdeveloped arms. Instead of claws, it had oversized hands that looked strong enough to literally tear me limb from limb without trying. Instead of a lamprey-mouth, it had broad jaws lined with short, jagged teeth. Its eyes were huge and red.


I fell back a step, involuntarily. It took a step forward, staring straight at me. I thought about turning and running.


Then I remembered that I had nowhere else to go, and a more primitive, feral side of me took over. This wasn’t Silf of the Whitewood, the Changed girl who faced the same trials that a Changed girl anywhere did but was, in the end, a happy enough child. It wasn’t even Silf of Branson’s Ford, the scarred girl who lurked in the shadows and didn’t talk, who woke from nightmares and tried not to think too hard about yesterday or tomorrow.


No, this was the Silf that was born in the refugee camps. This was the hard, violent girl that lived her nightmares out in the light of day. I’d thought–hoped–that time and distance had killed her, that the gentle life with Corbin had turned that part of me into just a bad dream. But no. Old habits didn’t die. She might have gone to sleep, but scratch the paint and there she is again.


She stepped back again, quick and controlled, one hand going to the pouch at her side. She pulled out a handful of coins–iron, and here and there a glimmer of bronze. She tossed them into the air, shining in the sunlight. For just an instant, the barest sliver of time, a stutter-step between heartbeats, they hung motionless in the air.


They were beautiful.


Then she reached through them, through the gleam of reflected light and the scent of iron in the air and the ringing chime of metal on metal and the hard edge of the half-penny still in her hand. She reached through all those things and so many more, everything that made up the concept of metal, and through them she touched the magic.


Channeling is not, by nature, a precise art. When I channel, I’m tapping into an enormous and chaotic force, and trying to force it down a hole that’s far too small for it. The result is a clumsy and vaguely focused spray, and while people who were truly skilled at it could refine the technique somewhat, there were limits. It wasn’t like alchemy, with its mathematics and measurements and exacting care. It wasn’t even like directed Changing, a slow process of give and take and adjusting to situations. Channeling was far cruder and more simplistic, and not something that lent itself to delicacy or detail.


I opened the channel, and the handful of coins shot forward like bolts from a crossbow. They weren’t really aimed, as such–that was why I’d taken a handful, rather than a single coin. Some of them missed, shot wide and hit rocks or dirt or trees behind it.


Most didn’t.


The ghoul didn’t stop. But wounds blossomed on it, blood spraying from its shoulder and its chest where half a dozen bits of metal had just slammed into it. A bronze penny slammed into its throat at an angle, tearing it open and leaving the wound to flap obscenely. One of those crimson eyes burst, blood and humors splattering across its face, the cheekbone underneath shattering as the coin deflected into it.


It kept coming and I danced around it, light on my feet and faster than it had expected. I ducked under its reaching arm. I fumbled for the hatchet Black had given me, and I slowed, and it grabbed my wounded leg and squeezed. Stitches tore.


I gasped in pain, a raspy, breathy sound with no real force behind it. But the pain was…detached, somehow, not quite real, not penetrating to me. It didn’t stop me as I brought the hatchet up, channeling to put more force behind it than muscle alone could deliver, and buried it under the monster’s chin.


Blood fountained out, drenching me. So much blood. It had never occurred to me, until the Whitewood burned, just how much blood a person had in them. The ghoul–the monster, whatever it was–had enough to cover my face and torso almost entirely, fur stained scarlet and clothes soaked through to the skin.


But the ghoul stopped moving.


It collapsed on top of me, crushing me to the ground. I squirmed and pushed and, after a few seconds, crawled out from underneath. I was coughing. My eyes were stinging, and when I tried to wipe them clean my bloody hands just made them even worse.


It had taken a few tries to figure out how to channel the magic to undo this. But I’d had to learn. Back in the camps, I’d had too little money to waste any of it; a handful of iron half-pennies was a small fortune. Now, money wasn’t so much of a concern, but there might be more of the monsters between us and home, and I couldn’t afford to lose the metal.


I reached out, and found the coins buried in the ghoul’s body. A quick burst of magic tore them back out with noise of ripping flesh, and left a small cloud of metal around my hand, stained with blood and worse.


I grabbed the coins, gagging at the feeling of the monster’s innards in my grip, and shoved them into my pocket.


The rest of the group caught up a few seconds later. They saw me, covered in blood, bleeding from the leg. They saw the monster.


A few of the villagers nodded, and made vaguely respectful noises. They weren’t surprised. They’d known what I was capable of–I had, after all, been there when they culled the local ghouls a time or two. It wasn’t such a surprise.


The legionnaires looked to be more surprised. Marcus was looking at me oddly, and Andrew was staring at the monster like he was trying to figure out what I’d done. Sumi wasn’t looking at anything; they’d cut his leg off, and cauterized the stump with Andrew’s fire channeling. It had been faster than getting him out from under the tree, presumably.


Friedrich, who had been fully caught under the trunk, was nowhere to be seen. Neither were two of the villagers who’d been too injured to keep up. I would remember their names later, probably.


We kept going north, silent and scared. Black walked next to me, letting me lean on her; in truth, she was almost carrying me. I was too frightened and sick to mind.


I was sure that we would walk into an ambush at any moment. But we didn’t see any more of the ghoul-things on the way back. The walk passed in tense silence, until a few minutes later we were safely ensconced behind the warding posts.


A few seconds after we made it to the fields, I felt suddenly, violently ill. I stumbled away from Black and fell to my knees, and I threw up. I puked until there was nothing left in my stomach to bring up, and then I stayed there on my knees, coughing and trying to find some last trickle of acid to throw up.


I was expecting someone–one of the legionnaires, probably–to make a joke about how I seemed a lot sicker here than I had out there, or at least comment on how it was lucky timing for me to have a breakdown after we made it to safety if I had to have one. But no one said a word.


When I finally managed to stand again, people were standing around, arguing about what to do. I ignored them, and stumbled off towards the inn. Black was next to me in a couple of seconds, and now that we were safe I did just let her carry me; she was more than strong enough for it. I was starting to feel dizzy, anyway.


She walked in the front door, carrying me in front of her like a child, and found Corbin alone in the taproom, polishing bottles that already sparkled in the light of the alchemical lamp.


He looked at us for a long moment. I could see, as if from a distance, his expression. It was very, very blank; his eyes were hard as flint, and the muscles in his jaw were tense.


It was the expression that made the villagers want to run away when he got angry, in short.


When he finally spoke, his voice was very tight, and very cold. “Explain,” he said, biting the word off like it was a distasteful piece of meat.


“We went out to keep an eye on the people hunting the ghouls,” Black said, setting me down on the floor. A twinge of pain went through my leg when my weight landed on it wrong, but I shifted slightly and it went away. I mostly just felt…numb. The pain, the inn, it all felt very far away.


Corbin was dead silent for several seconds. When he spoke this time, his voice was still tight and cold, but now it sounded like he was taking a moment on every word, to make sure that he didn’t say something he would regret. “You took Silf out hunting monsters,” he said. “Knowing that they were dangerous enough to cripple a trained legionnaire. Knowing that there was a chance even her supposed allies would turn on each other.”


“And they might have all died if she weren’t there,” Black said.


“Bones and ashes, you think I care?” Corbin asked. “They can rot. You got Silf hurt chasing monsters.”


“She’ll be fine. The stitches tore a bit, but it’s nothing urgent, and it’ll heal in a few days. It was a measured risk.”


“Since when is that your choice to make?”


“Since when is it yours?” Black countered. “Children have to grow up sometimes, Corbin. You’re doing her no favors by trying to coddle her.”


“Whereas you’re trying to force her into the same life you’ve led,” Corbin said. If his tone was cold before, it was positively icy now. “And we both know how well that ended for you.”


Black flinched away as though she’d been struck. She stood there for a few seconds, looking hurt and confused. I got the impression she was waiting for Corbin to apologize.


He didn’t. He stood there, and looked at her, and didn’t do a thing to lessen the impact of what he’d just said.


Black shivered, a sort of spasm running through her shoulders, and then looked away. She didn’t argue. “Those stitches need fixed,” she said instead, not responding to what he’d said at all.


Corbin nodded, and went to get the medical supplies. I laid on the floor and stared at the ceiling. It seemed much further away than the actual distance accounted for. I idly wondered whether it had moved away from me when I wasn’t looking, or I had somehow moved away from it.


I welcomed the anaesthetic eagerly this time when Black put it to my lips. The notion of taking a break, and letting the world turn without me for a time, was tempting like water in the desert.


Things faded to white without Corbin or Black saying another word to each other.

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