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.
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.