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.
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.