We had one lucky break, this time. The ghouls were in front of us, rather than in our midst already. It meant that our best fighters were the first to encounter them.
The initial exchange was devastating, to both sides. Black smashed one of the monstrosities into another, and left both broken on the ground. Marcus fell to the ground with another in a tangle of limbs and blades. One of the ghouls slipped through the front line and fell upon one of the young women in the second row who was using a crude wooden spear; claws batted the weapon aside and tore her face off before anyone could react.
It was a loud, chaotic, gory mess, and no one had any real idea what was going on. I pressed forward, pushing against the person in front of me just as the person behind was pushing me. We were all pressing forward, trying to overrun the ghouls by sheer mass, and it was working. I saw one of them fall, and hands rose and fell over it, stabbing at it with spears and pitchforks and whatever else people could find. By the time I reached it, there was nothing left but a mess of torn meat and broken bones, so mutilated that I couldn’t even tell what sort of ghoul it had been.
There were more of them in front of us, though I wasn’t sure where they’d come from. I was struggling to see past the people in front of me, struggling to see what was going on. I saw another person fall, and as I walked past I saw that his leg was crushed just below the hip. He couldn’t walk, and more than likely he was dying already. I’d seen people die like that in the refugee camps; the bone in their thigh broke, and they bled out into their own leg, never even showing a wound.
Finally, I saw a ghoul. It was low to the ground, built more like a hound than a person, and it had slipped through the legs of the people in front who were too occupied with its larger brethren to notice.
I froze and stared at it. There were only a handful of feet separating us; no one else was close enough to do anything. I looked at it, and it looked at me, seeming almost as surprised as I was.
Then it jumped, a truly incredible leap. It didn’t even come up to my knee, but that didn’t stop it from flying at me at around my head height, extending long, sharply hooked claws at my face.
I sidestepped with more luck than skill, and caught it with my arm. It dug one of those claws in just above my wrist, tearing a long furrow, but I managed to throw it away.
It hit another of the people nearby–Ilse, I realized after a moment–and made her stumble just long enough to have her arm nearly torn off by another ghoul. The one I’d just thrown was already back on its feet and about to pounce again.
This time, though, I wasn’t startled. I threw the fistful of jagged metal in my hand, and reached out to the world around me, the swords and axes and scattered armor of the villagers. I called on it, called it up, and let the magic rush through me in a sudden ecstatic wave. I saw the metal hang suspended in the air, and then I saw it moving forward, almost slow in that moment of perfect harmony though I knew that it was terribly fast.
Then the world snapped into focus again, and the metal leapt forward, into the ghoul. I’d done better at focusing my channeling than usual, or just gotten luckier; none of the shrapnel missed it. Sharp, jagged edges bit into its flesh, punching into it. One edge caught on its skin and tore it off, ripping its throat wide open.
The ghoul collapsed instantly, falling backwards. Next to it, Ilse stumbled forward, blood spraying from the deep gash in her arm, but she retained enough focus to swing her cleaver and catch the ghoul that did it in the throat.
Slowly but surely, we pressed forward. I was walking on ground that was soaked with blood, now; my foot fell on a length of intestine from some poor, disemboweled soul, and I almost fell as it slipped. I had another fistful of metal, this one a web of thin wire; I wasn’t sure when I’d grabbed it.
In the press, it was hard to see what was happening, where we were. I didn’t realize we’d neared the edge of the forest until I stepped out onto the plain. I didn’t realize that the others had stopped until I stumbled past them without meaning to.
Once I had, I saw what was in front of us, and I understood why they’d stopped. There were still more monsters in front of us, a dozen ghouls and even more stranger things in front of them. Walking plants, some pale beast with icicles hanging from its fur. A handful of vargs appeared to be collared and leashed with some sick-looking, pulsing flesh; it reminded me uncomfortably of the growths on those trees, back where the ghouls had the center of their power.
So many of them. How were there so many of these things? It seemed unreal, impossible. So many of them, and so few of us. I couldn’t take the time to see how many of us were still alive, still moving, but it couldn’t be many. Perhaps ten, at most.
I wanted to laugh, or cry, but all that came out was a thin whine. It was almost the sound a distressed dog would make. I stumbled forward a few steps more, unsteadily. My legs felt weak, like I was about to fall on my face.
The monsters stood still where they were, impassive and silent. I looked at them. They looked at me. Not a sound broke the silence.
It was almost peaceful, in a way.
In the back, the ghouls shifted. Raised bows, aiming high to lob their arrows over their allies. It would be imprecise, but it didn’t matter. There were many of them, and few of us.
I felt tears on my face. I couldn’t believe the sheer unfairness of it all, that we’d made it this far and survived all this, just to be cut down when we finally made it to safety.
The ghouls looked like they were moving through honey as they raised the weapons and loosed their arrows. The shafts rose, rose, high up into the sky. They hit the top of their arc and began, in a loose mass, to fall.
I could see the metal of the arrowheads gleaming in the moonlight as they began to fall towards us. It reminded me of days gone by. Of watching a coin sparkle as it fell towards the river.
I felt like I was in a dream as I reached out, calling to the magic.
I was tired, exhausted even. My mental focus was at an ebb. But what I was doing was simple, far more so than most of what I’d used the magic for. Metal wanted to fall, after all. This was nothing I hadn’t done before, plenty of times. Just…never on such a scale.
I called the magic, as strongly as I could, feeling it flowing through me like a river in flood. I jerked my arm down.
In front of me, two dozen arrows dropped straight down, as suddenly as rocks dropped off a building. The cruel, sharp arrowheads that had been meant for us hit the front ranks of the monsters instead.
They were completely unprepared for it. All across the line, they stumbled and fell. With their own weight backing my channeling, the arrows hit hard, sinking deep into flesh wherever they hit. I kept channeling even after the initial impact, pushing the monsters down.
I stood alone, arm outstretched, and a dozen monstrosities out of humanity’s worst nightmares fell to their knees before me.
One didn’t, and I was too tired and focused to even notice. The enormous, frozen beast was too strong and simply too large to be pushed down the way the others were. It broke into a lumbering run towards me, ready to impale me on its sharp tusks.
Before it could, Gunnar was there, stepping into its charge with more grace than I’d have believed the old farmer possessed. He shoved his boar spear up under its chin, driving into the soft flesh under its jaw. It groaned in agony, a noise that was peculiarly close to the chattering of an otter, and tried to recoil.
Gunnar followed it, bracing that spear against the ground and keeping steady pressure on it. As the icy beast pulled back he pushed it a little harder, and it toppled. A quick thrust and twist, and it was gushing blood from a tear in its throat, bleeding out so rapidly that even a creature that size would sure be dead in moments.
The farmer stepped up beside me, and grinned at me. There were gaps in his smile that hadn’t been there before. “Told you we’d take care of you,” he said to me. There was genuine caring in his tone.
I blinked, holding back tears suddenly. I’d never really believed that I fit in with the villagers; I’d always secretly suspected that they would be just as glad if I’d died, way back when I first showed up. But now…even Gunnar, who had been the most outspoken against me when I first arrived, had just risked his life to save mine.
They cared. They really did care.
I started to stammer out some sort of thanks, though I knew that I couldn’t even begin to express how much that meant to me. Even if I’d been able to speak properly, it would have been a struggle to fit even the tiniest part of that feeling into words.
Before I could even try, Gunnar suddenly jerked. He looked down, and I followed his gaze.
A long, bony spike was protruding from his chest. It was about as thick as my arm, and it was right where his heart should be.
A moment later it pulled back. Gunnar fell into a pool of his own blood.
I stared at the body, even as I saw Black tackle the ghoul that had done it.
It’s not fair, I thought, numbly. The coil of wire fell from my hand. I fell to my knees, crying openly now. I could barely even see.
And then, suddenly, the emotions were calming. I was fading now, falling back into my own mind, as another me took center stage. This was the Silf that had been born of the siege, the attack, the refugee camps. The Silf that was a dangerous, brutal, uncaring killer.
And she was angry. The kind of cold, detached anger that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Not since the camps, and the things I’d seen there.
I watched as she stood, and turned towards the ghouls and their pet monstrosities. I watched as she pulled her pouches open and let the contents fall to the ground. I saw as she raised her arms high, looking up towards the sky. Tears were still running down her face.
I closed my eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath. It smelled awful, blood and smoke and death. I could hear the screaming, see the flames. I was back there, back then, real as ever.
And then I opened my eyes, and I reached for magic. I called the metal, and the metal answered me.
All around, it began to vibrate, and then to rise into the air. It didn’t matter what it was; coins, swords, sling bullets, all of them answered my call. They drifted forward to me, hanging suspended in the air all around me. I felt powerful, in my element and with dominion over it. I felt like the stories they told of fire channelers walking amid the wildfire.
Mine, I thought, the first coherent thought I’d had in some time. This belongs to me. I trailed my fingertips over the hatchet Black had given me, which was hovering right next to my cheek, and smiled faintly.
And then I threw my arms forward, feeling magic run through me on a scale I’d never even imagined before this moment. If before it had been a river in flood, this was a dam bursting, a wall of water shattering everything in its path.
The cloud of metal flew forward, all at once. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of cold, hard death shot towards the monsters as fast as if they’d been shot from an arbalest.
The ghouls and their pets had been charging us. It didn’t matter. When the front edge of that mass of bronze and iron and steel hit them, they stopped dead in their tracks or even flew backwards. I couldn’t even follow individual projectiles; it looked more like a single, solid mass of metal, slamming into them with all the cheated rage of a girl who had been hurt and abused and spat on and stabbed and raped and kicked and starved and broken and Changed.
Ghouls are tough creatures, hard to kill. They could keep fighting long past the point any normal creature should be dead. Some of their minions were actual trees, and Changed plants were notoriously difficult to harm.
None of that mattered. Large or small, weak or strong, when my working hit them they died. They all died.
As the last of them fell, I let my arms fall to my sides. I was breathing hard, and crying steadily. As the reality of what I’d just done began to set in, I felt the physical consequences of trying to channel so much energy at once. My legs went weak, and I fell to the ground, struggling to see through the most painful headache I’d ever had.
I could hear people talking, but the words washed over me without making an impression. It was just noise, meaningless babble. I couldn’t process it right now. I barely even twitched as Black picked me up and we started walking, continuing away from the forest. She held me cradled in front of her, like a child. When I twitched or moaned, she made soft, comforting noises, and didn’t try to talk.
I wasn’t certain how long passed like that. It was difficult to keep track of time at all; I was falling into that dangerously blank state of mind that I sometimes did, my mind filled with fog and snow and white noise. I’d been exhausted even before that little display; now I was so far beyond merely exhausted that calling it the same thing felt like an insult. I would have lost consciousness, except that my head hurt far too much to permit it.
I wasn’t entirely sure what brought me back to myself. Some sound, perhaps, or just an awareness that something had changed. I stirred slightly, blinking and looking around, trying to figure out what had shifted.
Then I saw the shadows extending out in front of people, and thought that I’d fallen asleep after all, that the sun was rising.
Then I realized that this light had to be coming from the wrong direction to be the sunrise.
I squirmed in Black’s arms feebly, trying to look behind us.
What I saw was a scene from my worst nightmares. The forest was burning. Tongues of flame stretched up, up, higher than any building I’d ever seen. They twisted and twined around each other, leapt and sparked like mad dancers. I couldn’t see from this distance, but I knew all too well what it must look like, inside that firestorm. Trees torched to cinders in an instant, flames spreading faster than you could run, coughing and smoking from the smoke.
I couldn’t see precisely how large the firestorm was, beyond “large enough.” It looked like it was miles across, and if it wasn’t, it surely would be soon. I could feel the heat of it on my face from here.
I stared, fascinated and enthralled and terrified by the vision of the flames. I was breathing faster now, my hands clenching weakly at my sides without me meaning to do it.
And then I remembered that Corbin was back there.
I stared for an entirely different reason, now. I was trying to figure out how in the black gods’ names he could have managed that. He would have had to set it off at a distance, to be safe from the blaze when it was so very large. And how would he get through all the ghouls it would bring in to meet us? Or the things the fire would bring in, the salamanders and fire spirits and scorchers? It seemed impossible.
And then I saw Black’s face, and I knew the truth.
“Never met a braver man,” someone said. It took me a moment to recognize it as Marcus, the legionnaire’s voice unusually solemn.
“Keep moving,” Black said. Her voice was think with unshed tears. “It doesn’t matter if we stop now.”
I struggled, trying to get loose from Black’s grip. I might as well have been pushing against a stone wall.
“Hush,” she said to me, trying to smile and failing. In the light from the fires I could see tears in her eyes. “It will all be okay. You’re safe now.”
I shook my head stubbornly, still trying to work my way free. “Corbin,” I said, and then again, louder. “Corbin.” A third time, this one loud enough to hurt deep inside me, I shouted “Corbin!”
“Someone get my bag,” Black said urgently. “I have a sedative in there.” Someone rushed to get it for her, and hurried voices were exchanged.
I ignored it all. I screamed, and didn’t stop screaming until I felt the drug entering my blood. It rose up to drag me down into alchemical blackness, and I went gladly.