Monthly Archives: September 2016

Cracks 1.30

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I just stood and stared. Some of the people with me were saying things, in hushed whispers. I was hardly aware of the voices, couldn’t have said what any of the words were. It hardly seemed to matter. What could they say that would make any difference at this point?


We didn’t have a chance. Not against this. I didn’t know much about war; I wasn’t a soldier. But I knew that most battles were decided by numbers, in the end. The ghouls had them. We didn’t. It was as simple as that.


In spite of everything, I’d really thought this would work. Oh, I’d known it was a long shot, intellectually. But it hadn’t felt like an extreme gamble. I’d really thought, on some level, that we could pull this off, that once we finally started working together and taking it seriously this could be done.


I found myself smiling bitterly as I stared out into the valley. It seemed Hideo had been right all along. Branson’s Ford had never really had a chance.


A flicker of motion caught my eye, and my gaze focused slightly. At the base of the valley, not that far away, there was a break in the sea of deformity. There was a person down there–a person I recognized, even, although I couldn’t put a name to him. One of the villagers, who had been sent back with the injured.


Any hope the sight might have given me, though, was promptly undermined by the circumstances he was in. He had a ghoul standing on either side of him, one the height of a man with long, flexible arms, while the other looked to be half the height but twice the weight of the first. The man was struggling, but the two ghouls dragged him along, not seeming to care about his efforts in the slightest.


I raised one shaky hand to point at it, only to find that the rest were already watching the scene. “Watch what they do,” Black said. Her voice was the barest whisper, hardly audible even a few feet away.


As though any of us could have looked away. I couldn’t even blink as the ghouls dragged the man along. He was still fighting them, but from a distance it looked as though his struggles were getting weaker. He was tiring, perhaps.


They half-carried, half-dragged him up to one of the trees. They stopped next to one of those strange, cancerous lumps of meat–a particularly large one, easily the size of the man itself. I could clearly see that when they held him up in front of it, not seeming to struggle with the weight at all. They stood like that for a few seconds, and then began pushing him into the protrusion. It parted smoothly, slowly around him, like he was sinking into quicksand.


“Bloody ashes,” Marcus said softly. “What are they doing to him?”


“They’re killing him,” Egill said. The mayor’s voice was equally quiet, though I wouldn’t have described it as calm. There was a quiet rage simmering just under the surface that made me shiver slightly.


He was right, I realized. I might not know the details of it, the hows and whys. But they were killing him.


I started forward, without thinking, no idea of what I would do. I hadn’t taken a step before I felt Black’s hand on my shoulder. It was a gentle grip, but there was no give to it at all. “We can’t save him,” she said, in a voice that had all the gentle finality of dirt falling on a coffin’s lid. “Let’s go.”


I grimaced, but I could see that she was right. Now that I thought about it, instead of just reacting, there was no doubt about that. Even if we could somehow kill all of those ghouls–and that seemed impossible, even with everyone who had come–we could never do so before they killed him. He was beyond our ability to save.


He was already dead, and we had to focus on saving the living.


None of us breathed easy until we were most of the way down the ridge again, out of earshot of the monstrous horde on the other side. Not that we were safe, precisely. I was acutely, painfully aware that all it would take was one noise carrying just right, or one ghoul deciding to see whether there was anything interesting happening over here, for us to be caught.


Back where we’d left everyone else, things seemed to be quiet. People were sitting around, a few of them eating food they’d brought. The sight reminded me that it had been a long while since I’d eaten myself, but just the thought was enough to make me feel ill. I could still smell the sick, musky decay of the ghoul’s valley, and it didn’t go well with the fear in the pit of my stomach.


“Let me grab Sumi,” Aelia said quietly as we got close. “We don’t want to tell everyone what’s over the hill until we have a plan.”


“Would just panic them,” Marcus agreed. “Go get him.”


Some of the people looked curiously at Aelia as she walked through the group, and I’m sure that some of them could see us a short ways away. But none of them were making a fuss about it, at least not yet. I couldn’t hear what she told him, but he was moving at a fast hobble as they started towards us, and his expression was concerned enough that I could see it from here.


“What did you see?” Sumi asked once he was close enough to do so quietly. His expression was strained, and I could see that managing this pace with one leg had been hard on him, but it didn’t show in his voice.


“Lots of ghouls,” Marcus said simply. “I put enemy numbers at roughly two hundred and fifty. They’re bunkered in over this rise, and they’re organized.”


Sumi took a breath in through his nostrils and let it out slowly. “Two hundred and fifty,” he repeated. “You’re sure?”


“Can’t be sure,” Marcus replied. “But I’d estimate that many or more, yes.”


“There’s more,” Corbin said. His voice was similarly crisp, falling into the same patterns and inflections as the other men. Legion-style, I assumed. “The enemy were pushing civilians into some sort of Changed pod. Looked vaguely ghoulish, but I haven’t seen anything like it before.”


“You think that’s how they’ve been reproducing?” Sumi asked.


“Not quite,” Black interjected. “I watched them putting other things into the pods. Deer, rabbits, even some plants. At a guess, I’d say it’s more likely that they’re just using them for organic mass.”


“Meaning?” Ketill asked. The old farmer sounded like he was badly out of his depth, and he knew it.


“They’re eating them,” Corbin explained. “Break them down and make ghouls out of the parts.”


Ketill paused, frowning. “So if they kill us,” he said. “They’ll make more of them out of us. Be even more of a problem for the next guy.”


“Probably how there’s so many of them,” Marcus said. “We aren’t that far from the other villages that were overrun. They probably dragged the bodies out here.”


“There’s more, though,” Black said, cutting them off before they could get any further into speculating. I felt rather grateful to her for that, since I was starting to feel a bit ill again just thinking about it. “I spent a good while scouting this area out. I didn’t see anything else like this valley, and it looked like they were all dragging bodies back here. I think this is the only place that was Changed like this.”


She and Corbin exchanged a meaningful look. I could see that there was some significance to it, some meaning that was shared between them, but I couldn’t have put a name to it. There was a history and a complexity there that I wasn’t privy to, and I knew it.


“I’d say that makes our job here rather clear,” Corbin said.


“We don’t have the numbers to attack that group,” Sumi said. “We’d be annihilated.”


“The point of this attack was never to defeat the enemy,” Corbin said. “It was to escape.”


I frowned. Something about that phrase was…concerning to me.


Before I could pin it down, Aelia spoke up, in the same thoughtlessly formal inflections as the other legionnaires. The imperial legions were many things, but not even their worst detractors could accuse them of being undisciplined. “You never had difficulty with our security in the war,” she said to Black. “Think you can get past theirs?”


Black frowned, tapping one finger against her other arm. “Possible,” she said after a few moments. “But if Hideo was right about them having some shared consciousness, I don’t know how long I could keep it up. Probably couldn’t take down more than a dozen of them before they noticed.”


“Shouldn’t need that,” Aelia said. “Can you get a piece of one of those pods for me? There’s something I want to check.”


Black frowned for a moment, and then nodded once, decisively. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and then slipped away up the hill before anyone could say anything else.


We were left waiting in tense, frightened silence. I caught myself rolling a coin around in my hand, and when I noticed, I clenched my fist around it rather than put it back into my pouch. The solidity, the cool metal, the faint connection I could feel through it, were…calming. Soothing, even. Corbin had a faraway look in his eyes, and he was moving his fingers, lips moving slightly. Aelia took a moment to check the bandages on the stump of her ruined hand.


None of it covered for the fear. I could see it in every movement, in the way we were standing. At any moment Black might get caught, and while I’d seen firsthand that she was a terror in a fight, even someone with her experience and phenomenal raw strength would have no chance against the numbers in that valley. If she got caught, the first we’d likely know of it was when the horde came over that hill.


Minutes passed. I was breathing hard now, my hand clenched so tightly around that coin that my claws were digging into the skin of my hand. Aelia had that light arbalest out and was checking the gears, applying some oil out of a small bottle from her belt. Corbin was still doing the same thing, but there was more purpose to the movements now.


Finally, after far too long for comfort, Black came out of the trees. Literally out of the trees; she dropped to the ground less than ten feet away from us, landing on her feet smoothly and easily. I jumped, and I wasn’t alone.


But she had a lump of meat in her hands, which she handed to Aelia with a self-satisfied smile.


Up close, the stuff was far worse than it had been at a distance. It smelled rank, decay and dry musk and some vile corruption of a spice that I couldn’t quite name. It looked like meat, but there was something wrong with that as well. It was covered in a thick slime, and the surface was strangely soft, almost reminiscent of viscera. Where Black had torn it away I could see the interior, and it was a bizarre one, red and raw without any visible structures or organs. It looked like a cross of flesh and fungus, meat with the blank, undifferentiated nature of a mushroom.


Aelia took it, looking faintly disgusted. “Anyone have a flint?” she asked.


Corbin silently produced an alchemical match, and Aelia grinned. “Even better,” she said. “Light it off, please.”


He struck the match against his thumbnail, and it sparked to life with a hiss and a moment of pale green flame before it settled into a more traditional fire. He touched the match to the chunk of meat.


It burned. It burned vigorously, like it had been soaked in oil. It wasn’t burning quite like meat, or wood. There was a strange quality to it, like different parts of the thing were burning at different paces. Fire ran through it like worms through an apple, following some trails that I couldn’t see, and burned it from the inside out. Aelia had to drop it within a few seconds.


The smoke was vile. Even worse than the smell of the thing had been before, by far. I retched and nearly vomited; Ilse actually did vomit, thin bile spattering onto the ground.


Aelia stomped the fire out before it could spread. “They’re scared of fire,” she said simply. “Think we know why, now. It can burn out their nests.”


“If they’re really that concerned by it, they’ll put it out,” Sumi said. “They have the numbers and coordination to just swamp it in bodies.”


Corbin snorted. “We might not have a fire channeler,” he said. “But we have his kit, and Hideo had a fair bit of kit as well. Not to mention mine.”


Sumi looked, to put it mildly, dubious. “You think that’s enough?”


Corbin glanced at me before answering. He had that distant look again. “It’s enough,” he said simply.


Sumi grunted. “You’re the alchemist. I’ll take your word for it.”


“Won’t kill them,” Corbin said. “Not all of them. But if we’re right, it’ll keep them from making more, and it’ll keep them busy.”


Sumi nodded. “I understand,” he said. His tone was grave. Those words had a weight to them. “I’ll give you a hand with it.”


Corbin looked at the crippled legionnaire, seeming surprised. “You sure?”


Sumi nodded again. “Someone has to watch your back while you work.” He turned and looked at Marcus. “You’re in charge of getting this back to the legion,” he said. “The legate has to know what we found here.”


Marcus nodded, once. “Yes, sir,” he said simply. “See you on the other side.”


“Time to move, ladies and gentlemen,” Corbin said. “We have a great deal of work ahead of us, and not much time before nightfall.” He looked at me, and for a moment it seemed he would say something else.


And then the moment passed. We went back to the rest of the group, where Sumi quickly explained the new plan. Marcus took over after that, marshaling the people to movement again. There were a few grumbled complaints, as stiff muscles were forced to move again, and weight was put onto blistered feet. But anyone who was considering arguing was persuaded otherwise by the quiet, cold gravity in Marcus’s tone.


Corbin and Sumi, meanwhile, went a bit aside from the rest. Corbin had dropped his pack, and was pulling out various alchemical implements, jars and reagents and braziers. It seemed remarkable that he could fit so much into the pack, large and bulging though it was.


I walked over to them as the rest were getting ready to move on. I didn’t say a word, just stood near them.


Corbin looked up at me and smiled. It was a strained expression. “Silf,” he said. “You should go get ready.”


“Could stay,” I said. “Help you.”


He shook his head. “Too many people would just get in the way,” he said. “I’ve got Sumi to keep watch, and they shouldn’t even know we’re here. We’ll slip away in the chaos, and catch up to you later.”


I frowned. “You’re sure?”


He nodded. “Absolutely. And…thank you, Silf.”


I smiled at him. Then, impulsively, I darted forward and put my arms around him, hugging him close.


He froze for a moment, then returned the hug. He was slow and careful in the movement, not squeezing. He knew how upset I could get by physical contact, how easy it could be to make me feel trapped. He just rested his arms lightly on my fur for a few moments.


Then he let me go, and made a shooing gesture. “Go on,” he said. “I’ll see you on the other side.”


I smiled at him again, and then turned and walked back to the others. Black was waiting for me at the center of the group. She looked at me for a moment, and then looked past me to Corbin. She nodded.


We walked away. I didn’t look back, though the temptation was great. It was bad luck to look back in moments like that one, and we needed all the luck we could get.

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Cracks 1.29

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In the aftermath of the attack, we were left reeling, trying to figure out what had just happened. It took nearly a minute for the legionnaires to calm people down and start bringing order to the chaos.


There hadn’t actually been that many ghouls. Three that dropped from the trees, and another four that had rushed us on the ground while we were distracted. They’d been trying to flank us. It was the same tactic that they’d been using all along–distract us, draw us out and hit us from where we weren’t looking–and it had very nearly worked. Without quick work by those of us who’d kept their heads, and without the timely arrival of Black, those few ghouls might well have been enough.


As it was, we’d put them down, but not without cost. There were three dead, and another five badly injured.


The worst part was that the ghouls themselves had barely done any damage to us. They’d killed the man I saw, and ripped into three others. But two of the dead had been killed by their own allies. One woman slipped while shooting and put an arrow into the back of one of our less experienced fighters, and then a lumberjack had gotten too eager and chopped into another man’s neck. The other two incidents of friendly fire weren’t as extreme, but one of the younger girls with us was barely able to use her arm, and Egill was limping badly. The mayor had been shoved by accident, and sprained an ankle in the fall.


It was, to say the least, a mess.


I took a minute, on the edges of the group, to get myself under control again. I was trembling, badly. I was breathing too fast, and my heart was racing, and I was starting to get a dangerously blurry feeling once again, my mind going blank.


By the time I’d got myself under control again, Black was standing at the center of the group again, with the other important members of our little expedition. I stumbled closer, listening for what they were saying.


“Can’t say I expected to see you again,” Ketill was saying as I walked up. He was looking at Black, and he sounded like he wasn’t entirely sure whether he was glad to have been wrong.


She just shrugged. “I thought about leaving.”


“What changed your mind?” he asked. “You ain’t exactly known for staying on with lost causes, let alone coming back after you leave them.”


Black seemed to consider that for a few moments. “You have to hope that things will get better,” she said at last. “Sometimes hope’s all you have. Sometimes it’s enough.” She was talking to Ketill, but she looked at me as she said it.


I recognized the words. I’d said them to Hideo, on the night Black left. She’d heard me. She’d listened, even if he hadn’t.


I smiled.


Ketill paused, clearly not understanding the byplay, and then frowned. “Nice words,” he said. “But we’re going to need more than hope to get out of this alive.”


“Ah,” Black said. “And that’s the other reason I came back. I may have more than hope to offer.”


“What do you mean?” Egill asked. His face was tight with pain, but his voice was calm and controlled.


“We should get moving,” Black said. “Northwest from here. I might have a way out, but we have a long way to go and not much time. We really don’t want to be out here after dark. I’ll explain as we go.”


I could tell that no one was happy with having to wait, but they could see the sense in what she was saying. And besides, what did it matter? Deep down, I thought, we’d all suspected that this was hopeless, just a way to die with honor rather than wait for the monsters to kill us slowly. If Black’s plan didn’t work, or if she were for some reason betraying us, it could hardly make things worse.


I was impressed at how quickly the legionnaires got the group moving again. They handled the aftermath of the attack in a rather brutally straightforward way. The dead were set to the side to be, in all likelihood, consumed by scavengers; a proper burial was a luxury we did not have time for. The few people too wounded to continue were sent back to the village with a small group of able-bodied guards.


I noted that those guards were the same people that had been causing problems for us. Those who had caused the worst of the chaos, the ones who’d injured their allies, the ones who were more liability than asset. The legionnaires had taken the opportunity to weed them out, it seemed.


They were bait. A group of wounded, lightly and incompetently guarded? It was too tempting a target to pass up on. They were going to distract the ghouls, drawing fire from the rest of us.


The chances of them reaching the village alive were minimal. They were being sent to die. I wondered whether they knew it.


In any case, after only a few minutes we were moving again. Egill and Ketill were in the center now, other veterans taking their positions at the corners. It was less than ideal, but the villagers would never go along with Black’s plan unless it was presented by people they trusted. Egill had been the mayor for years, and Ketill was broadly respected.


I ended up with them at the center once again. Corbin and Black both refused to let me out of reach; it seemed any stumble on my part was quickly followed by them asking whether I was all right. It was simultaneously irritating and immensely comforting.


Once we were properly moving again, Black resumed speaking. “When I left earlier, I wasn’t exactly running away,” she said. “I was going to find the answer to a question. You see, we all know that there are an enormous number of these ghouls–dozens, at least. But it occurred to me that we didn’t really know why there were so many. We had no idea how there got to be so many of the things. And so I thought I’d start with where regular ghouls come from.”


“They’re Changed folk,” Ketill said. “Everyone knows that.”


“That’s not entirely true,” Corbin said quietly. “Or rather, it is, but there aren’t enough humans who Change dramatically enough to become ghouls to explain why there are so many of them. The accepted theory is that they must have some way to reproduce–probably asexually, since the broad range of physical characteristics they show would make normal reproduction impossible.”


Black nodded. “Exactly. So I figured there has to be a reason there’s so many more of these things than usual ghouls. They have to be coming from somewhere.”


“And?” Egill sounded impatient, almost angry.


“And I found it,” Black said. In contrast to the former mayor, her voice was calm, almost empty. It had a sort of numb quality that reminded me a bit of refugees I’d known who had seen too much to bear, and been left damaged by the experience. “That’s why I came back.”


“What is it?” Corbin asked.


Black just shook her head. “I can’t explain,” she said. “You’ll see soon enough.”


And on that ominous note, we kept walking.

Black led us further and further north and west, straight away from the village. We’d been marching for hours; my feet were starting to hurt, and some of the older and more infirm among us were visibly flagging, struggling to keep the pace. It was late afternoon by now, edging into evening; if we were out here much longer it would turn to night. I knew, with a sick certainty in the pit of my stomach, that we did not want to be out here after dark.


We were far, far past anywhere I had any experience with. I didn’t think that any of the other villagers likely did, either. It was dangerous to range so far from the wards, and there was nothing out here that couldn’t be had closer to home. The forests in these parts had nothing of great value; there were no alchemical reagents or precious metals, no rare herbs or Changed beasts of note. The forests around Branson’s Ford yielded only lumber and game, and those could be harvested without traveling nearly so far.


It was Livy who noticed it first. The mayor’s daughter was walking near me, at the center of the group–less because of her father, I thought, than because despite her naïveté she was a remarkably adept shot with a sling. “Is that tree…alive?” she said, pointing.


I followed her finger with my eyes, and frowned. The tree she was pointing to was a normal enough one, at a glance, a large spruce not far from the game trail Black had us following. It wasn’t moving, or doing anything else that was particularly lively.


Then I took another step, and saw what Livy already had. The tree’s bark had a faint sheen to it, glistening in the sunlight. It didn’t look wet, exactly, or at least not wet with water. Oil, perhaps, or something altogether stranger.


“We’re close,” Black said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. She hadn’t so much as glanced at the tree Livy was pointing to. “Everyone be quiet.”


The mood hadn’t exactly been celebratory before, but at that it became positively funereal. No one spoke, and we were all trying to be silent, creeping along one slow step at a time.


It soon became painfully obvious that many of the villagers were absolutely terrible at being quiet. Almost every step there was a jangle of metal, or a loud footstep as someone stumbled. Invariably this was followed by glares and hushing from those near the offender, usually making more noise than the initial misstep. Like a candle in a dark forest, these noises didn’t so much break the silence as emphasize how deep it was.


Livy was the first to point it out. But as we continued further into the forest–into the domain of the monsters, because I had no doubt now that Black was leading us in the right direction–I began to see more and more signs that something was deeply, profoundly wrong. Trees that were oozing that strange, glistening liquid; I couldn’t convince myself it was sap, no matter how I tried. Grass tangled into mats with some thick, tarry substance that stank of anise and decay. Something that looked like mold, but rather than any of the usual colors of mold it was a bright blue marked with swirls of violet and amber.


It wasn’t until I saw that last that I realized what this was. These things were Changed.


Plants were less susceptible to being Changed than animals–thankfully so, else we’d all have died long since. Barring human intervention, it was quite rare for it to happen. It took a surge of magic of the sort that came along only a handful of times in a decade, if that.


I shuddered and edged further away from the mold. Ghouls were bad enough; Changed plants were almost worse. I’d heard stories of flowers so toxic that just breathing the air around them could kill, trees coming to life and crushing the people walking past, even grass so sharp and strong it dragged people down and cut them to pieces. The vast majority of Changed plants were harmless, as I understood it, but there was something incredibly disturbing about the notion of the forest itself turning against me.


“Just over that ridge,” Black said at last, after we’d been walking through that forest of nightmares for half an hour or so. “Only a few people should go. We really don’t want to be seen.”


Sumi nodded, and gave a few quiet orders. Most of the group stood and waited warily as a handful split off. Corbin went, all but dragging me with him, and Black, and then all the people I would have expected–Ketill and Egill, Marcus and Aelia, Jakob and Ilse. I was a bit surprised by that last, but Ilse moved to join us with the sort of assurance that brooked no dissent, and no one tried to turn her away.


The ridge Black led us to was a steep one. It was easier for me to move on all fours than on two legs, which my aching back was quite relieved to learn, and some of the humans had to grab the trees and pull themselves up. She kept the pace slow enough for us to move quietly, though I could tell she was itching to move faster, and when Ilse started breathing hard she stopped for us to rest.


Black really didn’t want us to make any noise.


I found out why when we reached the top of the ridge.


The other side was a canyon of sorts, narrow enough to fire an arbalest from one side to the other. It looked much like the rocky, forested ground near the village. I was guessing that it had been a peaceful sort of place, gentle breezes and rustling leaves, perhaps a brook running along the bottom of the valley.


Now, it was a glimpse into hell.


The smell, oddly, was the first thing that struck me. The air coming off that canyon was fetid, somewhere between musk and decay, and too warm, something like the breath of an unimaginably vast predator. There was something strange about it, almost reptilian.


The next thing I noticed was the vegetation. It was wrong, in a way that dwarfed any strangeness we’d seen up to this point. The trees were twisted and warped, deformed. Some of them were bent almost double under the weight of enormous, cancerous lumps. The growths looked more animal than vegetable, slick pinkish things that seemed to pulse slightly.


Through that strange, corrupted forest walked ghouls. It was hard to say how many of them there were; the trees were sparser than elsewhere in the forest, but there were still trees, blocking my view of much of the ground. But there were dozens of them, maybe hundreds.


We were outnumbered. Not just a little outnumbered, not just slightly outnumbered. We were horribly, laughably, overwhelmingly outnumbered.


I let out a choked sound, almost silent. I wasn’t sure whether it was a laugh or a sob, and I wasn’t sure it mattered.

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