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.
“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.