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.
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.