Despite knowing what to expect, I was surprised to see the crowd that gathered outside the inn a few hours later. Surprised, and more than a little impressed. There were enough people there that it wasn’t worth getting an exact count, which meant that it had to be almost everyone in the village. As I’d predicted, even children were coming out to fight; the youngest person there couldn’t have hit puberty yet.
For a moment I was quietly furious that we were sending children out to fight, and maybe die. Then a more practical side of me kicked in and reminded me that if we failed here, they were dead anyway. We’d already established that this offensive, desperate though it was, was our last hope; we didn’t have a backup plan if this failed.
Which, in a way, was what made me think it might actually have a chance of success. Before, we’d been reluctant to commit fully to a plan. Half-measures afforded a measure of safety, but that hesitation had meant that we never quite had all our resources behind any of them.
That wasn’t going to be a problem this time. For better or worse, we were all in, now. Things would be decided here, now, one way or the other.
The legionnaires were the ones to organize things, telling people where to stand and what to do, in one case physically dragging a man into position when he was slow to move. Somewhat to my surprise, no one argued with them about it. Not even Corbin. Not even Ketill, and I would have sworn that I’d never see him taking orders from the imperial legions.
But then, it made sense. This was their sort of fight, after all. Ketill was a terribly dangerous man, and even before the legionnaires had been crippled I wouldn’t have bet on any of them lasting ten seconds in a fight against him. But Ketill fought on his own, always had. When it came to tactics, positioning, leveraging a group to make it more than the sum of its parts, no one beat the legions of Akitsuro.
The arrangement they formed us into was a simple diamond formation. The edges consisted of our best fighters. Most of those people had seen combat before, in the war, though some were just big and strong enough to earn a place there that way.
The points–the most dangerous and critical positions, even I could see that–were held by the genuine experts. Marcus was in the lead, and while he and I hadn’t gotten off on the right foot, I had to admit I was impressed by that. The legionnaire might not have been in favor of this plan, but now that it was time to go he didn’t complain or hesitate on his way to the front. To my left Ketill was holding his scythe again, face blank and distant. On the right of the diamond, Egill had a spear of some kind, though he looked far more nervous about his position than either of the other men. Bringing up the rear–in what should theoretically be the safest of the four key positions–was a young lumberjack who hadn’t fought in the war, but who likely had more raw muscle than the other three put together.
The interior of the diamond consisted largely of those who weren’t able to fight, not really. The young, the old, the infirm, the wounded. They all had weapons, but most of those weapons were…well, they didn’t inspire confidence. There were kitchen knives, fireplace pokers, crude spears, even a plank with a few nails hammered through it.
And then, at the center, were the people who could hope to do something at range. There were some slings, some bows, a single legion-issue arbalest that someone must have acquired during the war. Jakob was there, though the old hunter was obviously still in bad shape after having been almost killed the first time he met the ghouls.
I realized that I’d barely thought of him since he was injured, hadn’t even known whether he was still alive, and immediately felt bad about it. I liked Jakob, I really did–I could sympathize with a man who was scarred and set apart by what he’d seen in the war, after all. It was just…there had been so much happening, and so many people, and so little time.
There was never enough time.
Corbin took one look at the group, grabbed my hand, and all but dragged me to the center of the formation. Sumi and Aelia were there, as they finished arranging everyone else. It made sense; Aelia, even reduced to the lighter arbalest she could manage with one hand, was more use at a distance from the front lines, and Sumi wasn’t going to be fighting on crutches.
“She’s with me,” Corbin said to the two legionnaires who were now more or less in charge of things.
Sumi barely glanced at me. I could barely recognize, in those cool, measuring eyes, the man who’d sat with me looking over the river and talked of philosophy and feeling clean. “That’s fine,” he said, after barely a moment to consider it. “She’s better off throwing coins than mixing it up anyway.” Then he seemed to dismiss us entirely, going back to lining everyone up where they were supposed to be.
I swallowed hard and crowded in beside Corbin as close as I could get. There were so many people, and everyone was armed, and everyone was scared. It was starting to feel too familiar.
Corbin didn’t seem like himself. He carried himself differently, and there was a hardness in his eyes that had never been there when he was just an innkeeper. He smelled like alchemy instead of cooking, dust and smoke and acrid odors I had no names for. He was carrying his arbalest, and a heavy pack, and I could swear that I heard something humming in that pack.
When the order came to march, it took me by surprise. I couldn’t even see what was happening, crowded in the middle of the group like this; I barely even came up to the shoulders of most of the people here. I just had to focus on walking, keeping the pace and not bumping into anyone and making absolutely sure that I didn’t stumble, and trust the people who were choosing our course to know what they were doing.
I was worried that the legionnaires had put us too close together, crowded in like this. They knew their business, but in a way that was a problem, because it meant that they expected us to know ours. Some people could live up to their expectations–those who were familiar with legion tactics, who just knew how to fight. But there were plenty more who had no idea what they were doing, and packed in so closely they could easily get in the way of the people who did.
I was in the second group. I had no delusions about that. I was physically fit, and I could channel, but that didn’t translate to knowing what I was doing here. A few hours training with Black was not enough to make me competent.
I stumbled, and had to hurry for a few steps to keep from bumping into the person behind me. I tried not to think about the plan after that. Focus on my job, and trust the legionnaires to know theirs.
We were moving slowly, going west to where the ghouls seemed to make their home. None of the villagers was used to moving in formation, and we had too many walking wounded to make good time anyway. Our de facto commander was on crutches, for the black gods’ sake. It would have been comical, except that it was happening to me.
When we finally reached the wards, we all paused. Someone asked a question, and when they realized that we couldn’t hear they shouted it. “Should we take this ward Corbin made?”
Sumi seemed to consider it for a moment, then shook his head. “We can’t leave a gap in the wards,” he shouted back. “They could slip right by us into the village.”
There was a generalized murmur of assent, and we started moving forward again, at an even more glacial pace now that we were outside the safety of the wards. At least we’d had a chance to get used to moving in formation before the possibility of attack became an immediate concern.
“Ward isn’t worth it anyway,” Aelia muttered next to me, softly enough that probably only Corbin, Sumi, and I could hear. “Could keep a few people safe, but it’s not worth locking down our channelers.”
“What channels do we have?” Corbin asked back, at a similar volume. He was slotting into the interaction smoothly enough to make it hard not to remember that he’d been in the legions himself, once.
“Silf’s got metal,” Aelia said. “One other metal, and two kids with air that won’t be flying any time soon.”
“No fire?” Corbin asked.
“One woman has fire, but not so much as you’d notice.” Aelia sounded distinctly unhappy.
“I have Andrew’s bags,” Sumi offered quietly. “Flash paper, and some torches, I think.”
“That helps,” Corbin said. “Still, it’d be nice to have more channels.” He grimaced; I could hear it in his voice, even if I didn’t really have the attention to look. “Bones and ashes, this is an awkward sort of phalanx.”
“It’s what we have,” Sumi said.
Corbin grunted. “Too true.”
The conversation tapered off after that. There seemed to be nothing more to say.
Things continued more or less uneventfully as we started into the trees. People were on edge, fidgeting with weapons, looking for ghouls behind every tree and under every rock. But nothing happened. There was no sign of the hostile presence in these woods. There was no attack.
Until, suddenly, there was.
I couldn’t see what happened, at first. I just heard shouts of surprise from the leading edge of the formation, followed by the sounds of a scuffle. A few people in front of me raised bows, but without a better angle on what happened, for me to get involved would be stupid. Channeling, after all, was imprecise at the best of times.
The fight was over quickly, well before I–or most of our group–could really do anything. “Cervi,” someone shouted. After a moment I recognized the voice as belonging to Marcus.
“I thought they were supposed to be tame,” someone else said from the crowd behind me. I didn’t recognize this one.
“Not tame,” Sumi said. “But they aren’t usually aggressive. Something must have provoked them.”
I nodded along to what he was saying. I’d never seen a cervus before, but I knew that much about them. The things were, as I understood it, some sort of Changed deer, and they weren’t that much different from what they’d come from. Those horns weren’t just for show, but they didn’t attack people, as a rule.
People were looking around, talking. I forced myself to ignore it. If something strange was happening out here, it was a fool’s bet that these ghoul creatures were involved somehow. If there was one thing we’d learned so far, it was that we had to think when it came to them.
Assuming they had a reason to get the cervi to attack us, they must have expected to gain something from it. But it wasn’t actually hurting us. Cervi were dangerous in their way, but not to a group like this.
Thus far their attacks had largely followed a simple pattern. Draw us out, and then hit us in a way we weren’t expecting. If they were following the same pattern–and why would they change it when it demonstrably worked–then….
I looked up.
Ghouls in the trees. Three of them that I could see from where I stood, thin things that could blend into the branches. One was almost directly over my head.
I reacted quickly, instinctively. I’d already been holding a handful of coins in one hand, Black’s hatchet in the other. It only took a heartbeat to fling the coins up and channel through them. Outside the wards, with the metal of the hatchet to draw on, it was easy. The bits of bronze and iron shot up into the branches, sparkling brightly in the sunlight.
It was a very obvious, even flashy sort of attack. It drew the eye.
The good news was that it drew the eyes of the people with me, pulling their attention up to the threat. It served as the warning that I couldn’t shout to them.
The bad news was that it also made the ghouls very aware that they’d been caught, and drew their attention to me.
The one over my head was already dropping as the coins hit it. They cut into its flesh, but they were just coins. They weren’t going to stop the momentum of what had to be over a hundred pounds of ghoul falling at me.
I ducked to the side, and the world dissolved into chaos. I was squeezed between people, jostled around, pushed to the ground. People were shouting now, weapons raised, as the ghouls fell claw-first from the trees.
A part of me had to admire the cleverness of their tactic. They’d bypassed our outer perimeter, going straight for the more vulnerable people in the middle. I wanted to blame the legionnaires for leaving that vulnerability, but I couldn’t. They’d done what they could. And the legions weren’t used to being under attack from above; usually, they were the ones in control of the skies.
On the ground, things were even more chaotic and impossible to process than when I was standing. All I could see was a forest of legs, lacking all meaning. People were shouting and screaming and yelping. I tried to push myself to my feet, but my hand slipped in the mud, and someone stumbled into me as someone else pushed them, and a boot came down less than an inch from my head without its owner realizing a thing.
That was bad. If someone stepped on me wrong, I’d be as dead as if the ghouls got their claws on me.
Grimacing, I shifted back into the vaguely quadrupedal gait I sometimes used to relieve the pressure on my spine, still not coming above the waists of the people around me. Like that, I started moving out, not paying that much attention to where I was going, what direction I was moving. Anywhere, just to get out of the press, out of the chaos that might prove to be more deadly than our enemies could hope to be.
Progress was slow. I was slipping and sliding on ground that seemed infinitely more treacherous than it had moments ago. I was bumped and shoved, tumbling to the ground again and again, once in a tangle with another girl. I still hadn’t managed to fully stand, and I wasn’t sure that was a bad thing; it did not seem like the world above my head was a very safe place right now. Weapons were passing over my head, people were still shouting, and while I hadn’t seen anyone be wounded, I could smell blood.
Finally, after what felt like years but was probably better measured in seconds, I reached the edge of the press. I tripped on someone’s foot as I took that last step, tumbling to the ground in the open area beyond the crowd.
Even in the midst of the fall, I felt a certain relief. I was in the open air again, away from the chaos, the press, the heat and screaming and madness.
That relief lasted until I came to rest on my back, and focused enough to look around.
As it turned out, there were ghouls out here, too.
The one I could see was larger than those I’d noted in the trees, easily twice my size. Its skin looked something like a callus, thick callus embedded with dirt until the color of the skin underneath was lost to sight.
It was facing off against a young woman with a simple wooden spear, and what looked to be a middle-aged lumberjack holding his axe. Apparently they were doing decently well for themselves, because I could see places where that tough skin had been cut into, cut away.
But the ghoul was still standing, still fighting. And it wasn’t nearly finished yet. As I was still trying to get my bearings I saw the man swing for it, hard, and I saw the ghoul pull away. It wasn’t quite fast enough, and the axe bit into its skin just a bit. He snarled, turned the momentum of the follow-through into an even harder stroke at the ghoul’s head.
He was strong, predictably enough, and he knew how to handle an axe. But he didn’t know how to keep his head in a fight. He didn’t see that the ghoul was leading him on, getting him to overextend himself.
The axe whistled past just to the side of its face. Before the man could react, the monster surged forward, far faster than it had been a moment ago while dodging, and ripped his head from his shoulders.
The girl shrieked, shrinking away from it. The ghoul turned in my direction, stalking forward.
I tensed. I was still on the ground, but I’d somehow kept my grip on the hatchet through all that. I had the coins, and the other metal I’d brought, razors and wire and assorted sharp things. I should, I hoped, at least be able to keep myself intact for the few seconds it would take for someone else to realize what was happening and step in.
Before I could do anything with those weapons, something seized the ghoul from behind and pulled it backward, toward the trees. Except it wasn’t just pulling the ghoul. This was something far more sudden, powerful, and violent than that would suggest. The ghoul’s feet left the ground, and it didn’t touch down again as it was whirled in a circle and slammed into a sapling.
It hit hard enough to cave its chest in to the spine. It hit hard enough to break the tree, which fell away from the impact.
I stared. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.
Black let go of the ghoul, watching to be sure it didn’t start twitching again, and then she turned to me. “Hey, Silf,” she said, walking over to me. “Sorry I’m late.” She offered me her hand.
I stared a moment more, and then shrugged and took her hand, letting her pull me effortlessly to my feet.