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.