I slept poorly. It was starting to feel like I’d never slept any other way. I’d slept most of the previous day, but somehow I still woke feeling restless and uneasy. I went through my usual routine and left my room, stumbling slightly.
I actually forgot to lock my door, and had to turn around halfway down the hall to go and do it. That had never happened before.
Downstairs, things were somehow back to normal. Corbin was up before me, and now he was in the kitchen, building up the fire. I went past him to the taproom, and I unlocked the front door. The old, worn broom was in the corner like usual. It barely whispered against the floor as I started brushing the floor of the room. We hadn’t been keeping up the usual routine of fanatic cleanliness, so there was actually some dirt and debris to sweep out today.
With Black gone, and the mounting panic of the village safely outside the door, it felt almost normal. Like the chaos was gone, and we were back to our routine, our safe little world where everything was always the same. I could almost think that the past few days had been just a bad dream.
You’d expect the things that happened in that room to leave a mark. But there was nothing, not even a stain on the floor where I’d lied on it and come so close to bleeding out. Corbin had coated the floor with an alchemical sealant that kept it from staining, and he’d scrubbed everything after that night.
He came out and started to work on the fire in this room, not saying a word. That was also normal, but the silence didn’t feel the same. There was a tension to it, a wrongness. It wasn’t a comfortable silence anymore.
Just like usual, I walked past him into the kitchen, and went down to the cellar to get things for soup. By the dim light of the alchemical lamp, I wandered around, tossing things into a sack. Potatoes, sweet onions, beets and turnips. Rice. A few carrots, which weren’t there a few days earlier. Corbin must have bought them from one of the farmers while I was busy being maimed and lying around unconscious.
I bumped into one of the suits of armor, a particularly ugly thing with spikes on the shoulders and gauntlets. It startled me, even though it shouldn’t have, and I jumped away with a strangled squeak. I ended up next to the icebox, and opened it on a whim. There was a thick slab of venison inside. Black’s work.
I stared at the meat for a moment, then took it upstairs as well.
The work went by too fast. It wasn’t long at all before the soup was cooking, and the bread was rising, and everything was neatly cleaned and put away. Corbin and I were sitting in the taproom together, silently. On the surface, everything was the same as it always was.
Underneath, nothing could ever be the same again.
“Black’s gone,” I said, finally, breaking a silence that was starting to feel as confining as a cage made of glass.
Corbin nodded, not looking surprised. “She never stays,” he said. “It’s always been that way. She’ll help–she’ll do amazing things–but when things get hard she leaves. I’d hoped it might be different this time.” He paused. “I guess maybe she hoped so, too. But that’s how it goes.”
I nodded. I could understand what he meant by that. It seemed we never really changed.
“Sigmund got hurt the other day,” Corbin commented after a few moments. “Rather badly. Wouldn’t say what happened, but it looked familiar.”
I paused, considering how to answer that. “He said some things he shouldn’t have,” I said finally.
Corbin nodded, not looking terribly surprised. “Anything that needs to be dealt with?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that was true, since Sigmund had certainly been saying some…concerning things. Even leaving aside what he’d said about me, the idea of him taking the wards and leaving was something that could be a very serious problem. But I thought that I’d scared him and shamed him enough to keep him from doing that.
And regardless, I didn’t want Corbin helping with either of those things. Not right now.
He didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded.
I must have been showing the tension there more openly than I thought, though, because Corbin went silent. He was staring at the bar, the floor, the ceiling–anything at all to avoid looking at me. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow and halting, an awkward pause after every word. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For what I said the other day. If you want to leave, I understand.”
I shook my head, vehemently. “Not your fault,” I said.
He smiled. It was a sad, wry smile, one that made him look a great deal older than he was. “Oh, Silf,” he said. “I appreciate the thought. But there’s no denying what I did.”
I shook my head again, even more forcefully than before. “You tried to do good,” I said. “Did a good thing. Not your fault.”
His smile now was even more sad and broken than before. “You’re so young,” he said, gently. “But it’s kind of you to say that.”
I noted that he hadn’t agreed with me. But I couldn’t see a point in saying anything else. I truly didn’t believe that Corbin was guilty for what happened, now that I’d had a chance to think about it more. But I knew damned well how easy it was to feel guilty for things that weren’t your fault, and I knew how hard it was to argue against that feeling.
After all, even knowing that he hadn’t really done anything wrong, I still couldn’t look at him the same way, and I’d only had a matter of days for that to color my view. He’d had years to stew in it.
“I’m concerned about how things are developing,” he said after a few minutes of silence. It felt more comfortable than the choking, echoing silence earlier, though it still wasn’t comfortable. “Things can’t be good, but with no one coming around here, I can’t keep a finger on the pulse.”
I knew what he was getting at, and why. It made sense. Someone had to make sure that Branson’s Ford wasn’t actually tearing itself to pieces, and I was guessing Corbin didn’t want to be too visible right now. Not with everyone still so acutely aware that he’d pieced together one of the most complicated, secret bits of alchemy there was.
So when he said, “Would you go and take a look around?” I was already nodding. He laughed, wry and only slightly bitter, and shook his head. “All right,” he said. “Eat something before you go, at least.”
Any argument I could have made was overruled by a well-timed grumble from my stomach, and with a half-smile of my own I settled in to eat before I left.
Breakfast consisted of yesterday’s bread, a sharp cheese and a few slices of a spicy sausage, and a pair of fresh apples. I drank a cold hibiscus tea from Akitsuro that didn’t have any of the stimulants of actual tea, while Corbin had cider. It was richer than we would normally eat, but it was hard to care about that at this point.
Feeling somewhat better, I left Corbin sitting alone in a silent inn, and went for a walk.
Things were bad. About as bad as I’d ever seen, I was pretty sure. Even when the city was under siege, the atmosphere hadn’t been so…hopeless.
A few days earlier, the village had felt tense and scared, like a kicked dog. But there’d still been a bit of fight to it, a bit of optimism. People had been treating this menace as something that was bad, a hard time for Branson’s Ford, but ultimately no different than other disasters–a bad flood, a fire, a bout of pox. Things were hard, people died, but life went on. You put on a brave face for the kids, and went to work in the fields, and quietly hoped that you and your family would make it through.
Now that veneer of positivity was gone. No one, not a single person, was working in the fields that I could see. I saw a handful of people as I walked through town, but they weren’t going about their usual routines. Some of them hurried furtively from one building to another, while others were sitting around or wandering aimlessly, like they weren’t sure where to go or why to bother.
No one smiled, or waved, and everyone was armed. Even the few children I saw were carrying knives.
I shivered, and kept walking. I didn’t look too long at what was now the legion headquarters, though I did wonder what the family which had lived there was doing now. There were empty buildings to spare, so at least they probably had a place to stay, but still, it wasn’t easy losing your home and everything you’d built over your life.
I kept walking north, and soon found myself at the edge of the village again. I was about to turn around when I saw someone sitting on a rock, looking out at the river. I hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to think, and then I shrugged and went to join him.
The stump of Sumi’s leg was wrapped in bandages, and he had a pair of simple wooden crutches. But his eyes were very clear, with none of the unfocused look of someone on an alchemical sedative. He looked at me as I sat down next to him, and nodded. “Silf,” he said.
“Nothing to do with us,” I said, quoting what he’d told me about the legion’s purpose here.
He knew exactly what I was referring to. I could tell by the way he flinched away, and then went back to staring at the water. He looked almost ashamed. “Hadn’t realized quite what the plan was when I said that,” he said, apologetically. “I wouldn’t have led you wrong if I’d known.”
I considered that for a moment, then shrugged and nodded. On the whole, I thought I believed him. Sumi would, I was confident, stab me in a heartbeat if that was what he had to do. But he wouldn’t lie about it. He wasn’t that sort of man.
“I don’t care for this sort of thing,” he continued, still staring out over the river. “Doesn’t seem right to sacrifice people this way.”
“So stop it.”
Sumi snorted. “With what?” he asked. “Give me a full cohort and alchemical support, and I could do it, sure. But I might as well ask for a score of Dierkhlani warriors and a battery of channelers as to get that here.” He shook his head. “Saving this village isn’t in the cards, Silf.”
His words hit me like a punch to the gut. I thought it was the tone that did it. Sumi didn’t sound hostile, or despairing. He was almost…apologetic. He made it sound like he really, truly wished that what he was saying wasn’t true, but it was.
If a veteran legionnaire thought the situation was that hopeless, I wasn’t sure I could really argue with his analysis. Sumi had a great deal more in the way of military training and experience than I did, after all. I’d be a fool to ignore that.
“What will you do?” I asked.
He shrugged. “The plan was always for us to leave after this village was destroyed,” he said. “We can travel light when we need to, and we had enough force to handle anything short of a major assault. Now…I don’t know. I can’t exactly keep up like this.” He gestured vaguely at his missing leg. “And they can’t afford any delays if they’re going to outrun the ghouls. So I expect I’ll die here with the rest of you.” His tone was very calm, very casual.
I winced. There was something almost painful about hearing a man describe his own imminent death in the tone and words that someone else might use to talk about a not particularly interesting game of chess.
“Has to be a way out,” I muttered. The words were barely audible.
He smiled sadly. “Sometimes there isn’t,” he said. “I know it feels like there should be. But every battle I ever fought, the other side thought that. They thought they could find a way out, a way to beat us.” He paused. “They couldn’t.”
I grimaced, and nodded. It made sense. If there was anyone who was in a position to know about lost causes, it was a career legionnaire. He’d seen plenty of them, and they hadn’t found a miraculous route to victory at the last moment.
I didn’t have to ask about that. The history of the legions was right in front of me, writ large across the world. All the hopes and dreams of their enemies hadn’t ever amounted to much in the face of superior numbers and alchemical weapons.
“It isn’t hopeless,” he said, likely sensing where my thoughts were going. “You’re smart, and you can take care of yourself. I’m guessing you’ll be all right in the end. But you have to be realistic about these things. Getting you out alive, that’s a realistic goal. Getting everyone out alive? Less so. Actually winning?” He shook his head. “It isn’t going to happen.”
I nodded. I felt almost numb. It was…hard to accept that the village I’d made my home was doomed, damned, simply and utterly hopeless. But everything was pointing in that direction, and trying to pretend that facts weren’t real had never helped anyone.
Which, I supposed, just left one question. What did I do now?
I sat on the rock and stared silently over the river for a while. What were they doing out there, I wondered? Were they sitting and staring back at us, waiting for anyone to poke so much as a finger out of the wards? Were they sharpening their claws and licking their lips in anticipation of the coming feast?
Or perhaps they were doing the same thing we were, in the other direction. Maybe they were so confident of their victory that they didn’t need to worry about preparation. Maybe they were just…going about their lives, doing whatever it was that ghouls did when they weren’t tearing people to pieces. I didn’t actually know.
There was something oddly comforting about that idea. I wasn’t sure why.
After a while I stood, and looked at Sumi. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He just smiled, and watched the river. He didn’t seem to be thinking any of what I’d been considering. He was just…watching the water pass him by. “Life goes on,” he said. “Come what may, life goes on.”
I left him there, sitting on a stone and watching the river as he waited to die.