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.