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.