I kept the smile on my face until Silf was out of sight. I thought it might be one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
Then I let my face fall, and sat down heavily, leaning against the tree behind me. The legionnaire–Sumi–sat down beside me, laying his crutches on the ground. He looked calm, almost peaceful–a great deal calmer, I expected, than I looked or felt.
There would be a great deal of work to do soon, and it would have to be done quickly. But first, I thought I was entitled to a moment for myself, to come to grips with what had just happened.
It wasn’t every day a man had to sign his own death warrant, after all. And for it to happen now, when I had finally seemed to be safe, when I had finally told Silf the truth and her response hadn’t been the condemnation I’d expected after all, made the blow even more brutal. It was terribly, viciously painful, and a part of me wanted to just cry out in frustration at the sheer unfairness of it all.
But that wasn’t going to solve anything, and if I was going to sell my life, I wanted it to at least buy something worth the selling. So I bottled that immature frustration up, shoved it deep down inside, and then shrugged out of my pack. I placed the pack on the ground next to me and pulled open the flap, reaching inside. The pack itself was a simple traveler’s rucksack, the sort of large, heavy backpack which all sorts of travelers carried for long journeys. Inside, though, was a cavernous space, several times larger than what the pack should have been able to hold.
Folding space on itself was one of the most impressive pieces of alchemy, one of the things which caused the uninitiated to gasp when it was mentioned in stories, or to draw back with a shocked stare when they saw it in person. The irony of it was that it was actually very simple, as alchemy went, the geometry and technique very straightforward. Blackwater infused into silk, charged glass, and finely drawn silver wire, all folded through a simple four-dimensional polytope and stabilized with charged wolframite. The reason it was so rare had nothing to do with it being difficult; charged, purified wolframite was just hellishly expensive, and you needed exponentially more of it as the size you were warping grew. Expanding an entire room with it would be the sort of expense that probably only the emperor of Akitsuro could afford. A bag using those principles, though, was something that almost every veteran combat alchemist used. It was too damn hard to carry all your tools, otherwise.
I brushed my fingers over the contents, the jars and flasks and pouches. I tallied up what I had available, mentally working through how I could most usefully weaponize and deploy it in the narrow window of time I had remaining.
I’d always thought best when I had a deadline. It turned out that a literal one was no exception. My mind swiftly began drawing connections, pulling various things together and twisting them into place, arranging and rearranging at a million miles a minute. I fell so far into the diagrams and calculations that the world around me faded into the background by comparison. The aches and pains of the day, the worry and fear, the frustration, the dread, it all fell away.
It felt good. Fantastic, even. It had been so very long since I was presented with a really challenging project. I was good at this, once upon a time. One of the very best.
Finally, the picture in my mind’s eye was complete. I spent a moment surveying it, comparing lengths and angles, checking and rechecking my calculations. I changed a few things slightly where I’d made minor errors, where the system I was creating could be refined slightly, made more efficient, where slight vulnerabilities and exploits could be patched.
I would almost certainly have to adapt it. It was how things worked. Plans always had to be adapted to changing circumstances. But it was something to work from.
I blinked, refocusing on my immediate surroundings, and found that Sumi had moved. The legionnaire was standing beside me, leaning against the tree to balance without his second foot. His sword was drawn, hanging easily by his side.
I hadn’t even noticed him moving. It was why I had accepted his offer to stay and keep watch for me, why I would have asked for it if he hadn’t volunteered. I’d always had a tendency to sink so far into my calculations that I didn’t notice what was right in front of my face. It was a useful trait when I had to concentrate in the middle of a battle, but it also left me vulnerable when I was working.
Sumi noticed my shifting, and grunted. “Ready?” he asked.
I simply nodded, shouldering my pack. First, though, I took out a small vial of fire-oil. The clear, viscous liquid shifted slightly within the smoked glass, somewhere between oil and honey in its viscosity. Slightly thicker than what was normally used, slightly more concentrated. The vast majority of the time, what people thought of as fire-oil was actually cut with a relatively high proportion of regular oil. It stretched it further, and burned almost as well. This was diluted in that way as well, but not as heavily.
I placed the vial against the ground at the base of the tree, then took out a hand drill and carefully drilled through the stopper. I slid one end of a spool of cord through the stopper, down into the oil, and clipped it to the vial to make sure that it wouldn’t slide out. Then I hung the spool from my belt and began walking. Sumi sheathed his sword, grabbed his crutches, and followed me.
I didn’t go inwards, not yet. Time enough to go into the valley the ghouls had claimed later. For now, I would do the preparatory work outside of it.
As we walked in a slow circle around the valley, I stopped at irregular but frequent intervals to place another vial of oil down. Each of them had that specially prepared cord inserted into it, some of them using fresh spools and others splicing into one that was already running.
In many ways, this was the most delicate part of the entire process. Setting traps was always a delicate affair, as much art as science. When those traps were relying on a relatively imprecise type of fuse, it complicated matters further. Set the fuses too long, and they would be uselessly delayed. Too short, and they would trigger this ring before the ghouls were inside it.
That was unacceptable. For this to work, as many of the enemy as possible had to be inside before the outer ring of fires started. With luck it would trap many of them between the two fires and leave them to be burned to death with no escape. Without luck, it would at least trap and delay them long enough for the others to get far, far away.
Sumi was calm and silent as he watched me work. I could tell that he’d been around combat alchemists before. There was a degree of familiarity in how he watched me, a degree of understanding.
It took a while, to go all the way around the valley at enough of a distance to keep from alerting the things inside. We weren’t moving too quickly; Sumi was on crutches, I was concentrating on getting my placements right, and we had to stop frequently to place more of the fire-oil. Just as well; we didn’t want to draw the monsters in before the others got far enough away.
That was, after all, the point.
In this, if nothing else, I had to thank Hideo, or whatever his name really was. He’d had a rather gratuitous amount of the fire-oil with him, enough to leave the village of Branson’s Ford nothing more than a field of cinders. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that was to cover his tracks when he left, or because he knew that having that happen would destroy me. From what I’d seen of the Imperial agent, I was guessing both.
Now, though, it was serving a very different person, protecting instead of destroying.
There was enough of it to weave a very thorough web through the forest. Some of the vials were left lying against the trees’ roots, others up in the branches. A handful I very carefully opened and painted over the bark, or poured into the undergrowth. It wouldn’t burn on contact with air, not at this concentration. But having some of it already applied would help to ensure that the fire burned steadily, rather than in a single flash when the flasks lit off.
That was, of course, also the point of leaving the flasks full and stoppered. When the fire-oil caught it would expand too rapidly for the glass to bear, leaving it to shatter and spray flaming oil in all directions. Between that and the natural spread of fire in a forest, it would close off the gaps in the pattern rapidly.
Finally, we reached the tree we’d started at again. I checked the placement of the oil against my mental blueprints, confirming that there were no gaps, and then turned to Sumi. “Have to go inside for this,” I said, the first I’d spoken since sending Silf off with a lie and a smile.
He nodded. “There will be resistance inside,” he said. “We’ll have to work fast.”
“Yes,” I agreed simply. I glanced at the clockwork device I’d wound just after they left. It was designed to allow drops through it at regular intervals, allowing for the gradual and consistent addition of a liquid to a mixture. In a pinch, though, the amount by which it had wound down provided a decent estimate of time. “Seven minutes,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “That’s how long it will be until they’re far enough away for us to start.”
He nodded amiably, sinking down to rest again. His expression was pained. I couldn’t imagine how he had done all this with one leg. I had to respect him for that. It took one tough son of a bitch to do what he had done, let alone to do it while crippled.
“Why did you stay?” he asked, suddenly breaking the silence. “I couldn’t have made it out anyway, but you could.”
“I could have,” I said. “But they couldn’t.”
“And you’re willing to die for them?”
I was silent for a long moment. “They had a saying, where I grew up,” I said. “Back before it was annexed. ‘A man who has no one he would die for is not fit to live.'” I wasn’t talking about the villagers, and we both knew it.
Sumi didn’t pretend otherwise. “She seems like a good girl,” he said. “Strong. I’m sorry I won’t get to see her once she’s grown. She’ll be something great, I think.”
“If she makes it out,” I said.
“She will,” Sumi said, confidently.
“Do you really believe that?”
The legionnaire shrugged and grinned wryly. The expression made him look so much older, somehow. “I used to sit with the rookies before their first battle,” he said. “Every time. Seems near every one of them had someone they were worried about. Would their brother live, would their mother remember, would their lover be faithful, you name it. Every time, I told them it would be fine, even if I knew that the brother was in a unit that was going to be dead to a man by morning, and the lover was lying down with five other legionnaires in my century alone. You know why?”
“Because it gave them a reason to fight.”
“No,” he said. “Because you have to believe in something.” Sumi gestured with one hand, the motion somehow conveying the feeling of a shrug. “If they lived, they could turn things around. Do better. And if they died, well, at least they didn’t die feeling empty.” His expression turned deadly serious. “Sometimes people need to get better than what they deserve. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
I nodded thoughtfully. “She forgave me,” I said. I wasn’t sure quite why I was saying it, except that you had to talk to someone, sometimes. And what did it matter, anyway? We were both going to be taking this conversation to our graves. “That was…I never expected that. Not after what she went through. What I put her through. That forgiveness was…a gift I don’t think I deserved.”
Sumi’s eyes were piercing. “Anyone can forgive a person, I think,” he said. “But I reckon there’s only one that can really absolve you, and that’s yourself.”
I nodded. “I think…I think this might be my absolution,” I said. “This. Today. Not that you have to die to be absolved, I don’t think. But a long time ago, I made something that was supposed to help people, to protect them, and someone else turned it into something horrible. They used it to kill, to destroy so many lives. Now, today, I get to turn that around. I get to make it into something good again, I get to protect people. I get to save someone who was ruined by the consequences of my actions before.”
“There’s a fairness to that, I think,” the legionnaire said. “It isn’t right, but it’s fair. Balanced.”
I nodded again. “What about you?” I said. “Anything you need to talk on before we finish this?”
Sumi smiled wryly again and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Don’t have anyone left who’ll miss me, and there’s nothing I need to confess, either. Don’t get me wrong, I have my share of sins weighing me down, but I found my absolution a long time ago. I won’t say I’ve always done the right thing, but I’ve tried to do the fair thing. I did the best I could with what I had, and I made my peace with that. If I die today, I’ll die clean.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I glanced at my improvised watch instead. It said that we were a minute overdue for my estimated time. “Right,” I said. “Let’s roll.” There was a weight to the words, a finality.
Sumi nodded and stood, supporting himself with the crutches. I slung my bag over my shoulders, and took up my arbalest. I’d had the weapon ever since my Legion days. It had served me well, over the years. In a strange way I was more sorry that it was about to meet its end than that I was. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from bringing it with me, though. Letting it fall into the hands of these monsters would be…catastrophic.
We started into the valley, cresting the hill and continuing. We weren’t making a huge fuss about it, but we weren’t exactly being secretive, either. Attracting attention was, after all, the whole point of this endeavor. It would be silly to worry too much about being caught.
Still, I’d placed three of the interior detonation points before we encountered the first ghoul. I didn’t even realize it when we did, for a moment, being too busy notching a large, heavy jar of the fire-oil into fork between two branches. Any disturbance would make it fall, and break, splashing the contents over the grass and trees around it. When I turned around, Sumi was leaning on just one crutch, the other hand holding his sword. Said sword was buried two-thirds of the way to the hilt in the face of some vaguely froglike ghoul.
“They’ll know we’re here, then,” I said, unnecessarily. I hurried forward, reaching into deeper pockets of the bag, for things that weren’t so benign as fire-oil. At the next tree I took out a pair of small metal devices, a chisel, and a length of wire. I licked my lips nervously, and then started working.
Using another alchemist’s work was always a risky thing. Once you got beyond apprentice work, the lamps and iceboxes and such, every alchemist had their own style. The geometry, the folding, the ratios…hell, even materials could vary widely between one person’s work and another. It tended to produce odd quirks and idiosyncrasies of use, which were hard to predict if you weren’t familiar with the style.
Modifying another alchemist’s work, on the other hand, wasn’t just risky, it was outright foolish. Trying to patch one style of work into another, trying to use your own technique on someone else’s foundation, was an exceedingly difficult and delicate endeavor. It was the sort of thing best undertaken with great care, preparation, and a great many safety features and failsafes. I had a talent for it, and even so I wouldn’t normally dream of trying to modify a completely foreign working without at least a day of preparation.
I was reasonably confident that I knew what these two did, though, and I had very little to lose. So I quickly incised a set of glyphs which would provide a different track for the magic to take flowing through the devices, adjusting the geometry of the structure without fundamentally altering it. The length of charged wire I wound around one, touched to the other, and then pushed the end into the tree.
Once the improvised explosive was in place, I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and turned around. I found three ghouls closing in, rapidly. Sumi was leaning on his crutch, sword in hand.
It was a simple weapon, that sword. Almost crude. A plain, straight sword, short enough to use without interfering with the person next to you. You could teach someone to use it in a matter of hours, and even masters tended to use mostly simple, brutal strikes.
It was easy to underestimate it as a result. I knew better.
As the first of the ghouls stepped in, I lifted my arbalest, quickly sighted along it, and fired. The bolt shot forth with awful speed, almost a blur, and slammed into the ghoul’s face, solidly between its eyes. The momentum of the projectile carried its head backwards, and its feet flew up in front of it as a result, leaving it to slam unmoving to the ground.
I’d always been a rather good shot. Nothing like a master arbalester, but I had very good coordination and an excellent grasp of trajectories. The skills transferred more than I would have guessed.
The next closed in before I could reload, lunging at Sumi. It had clearly identified the crippled man as the lesser threat.
It was quickly shown the foolishness of that view. He brought the crutch up in a sweeping motion, brushing its claw easily aside. It left him off balance, which he compensated for with the backswing of his sword, which opened the ghoul’s throat. Moments later, the next ghoul was struck twice with the tip of the crutch, expertly placed strokes to the throat and eye. It fell, moments before the legionnaire himself overbalanced and had to plant the tip of his sword into its chest to support himself.
It was an impressive display. No more so than many other legionnaires I’d seen, and less than some, but impressive nonetheless.
I didn’t bother saying anything as I hurried forward, grasping the staves of my arbalest and pulling them back. They came easily, pulling back until they clicked into place. In a bit of alchemy that I was inordinately proud of, the staves of the crossbow were stronger in one direction than the other, taking the force that should have been required to pull it back and instead adding it to the power transferred to the bolt when they sprang back. In combination with the alchemical engines augmenting the force of my pull, it was no harder to draw back the heavy steel staves than a moderately firm longbow.
I’d barely slotted the next bolt in when I had to fire it, launching the bolt into the chest of a strangely-shaped ghoul with scythes for hands.
That general pattern repeated itself several times over the next few minutes. Ghouls came, faster and faster and faster, and the two of us could barely clear them out long enough to buy me the space to work. I’d always done my best work under pressure, but now even I was pushed too far, forced to do fast work rather than good work. The geometry of my kludgy alterations to Hideo’s work was beyond clumsy, the materials only barely suitable.
At the fourth tree, there were half a dozen ghouls. Too many for us to reliably handle. Instead of jury-rigging another trap out of the other alchemist’s weapons, I simply threw a handful into the crowd.
Pressure triggers are the most common in alchemical weapons. They’re simple to use, unlikely to go off by accident, and easy to make.
This bunch of trinkets exploded with silent light. One of the ghouls shattered–kinetic force bound up in a spring structure, most likely. Another collapsed as the flesh in its legs melted and ran–something akin to an acid-based attack, probably using charged quicklime augmented with purified charged lye. Two more rippled strangely before collapsing with blood running from their ears–almost certainly a sonic resonance, targeting the delicate tissues of the brain and using a crystalline glass structure and slate. That last was actually clever.
The last two were quickly removed, and this time I used one of my own devices instead, a mixture of charged salts separated by a thin glass wall. Break the glass and the salts would mix, setting off a violent chemical and alchemical reaction which would burn rapidly and uncontrollably. It was a refined version of one of my earlier, failed attempts at fire-oil.
Half a dozen points later, we were at the keystone of my design. It was at the center of the valley, in the very heart of their territory.
It was a vile, disgusting place. The trees all around were covered in unnatural growths, tendrils of pulsating wet flesh growing all over them. The ground squished underneath our feet with a sick sound; ugly experience in the legions had taught me enough to know that it sounded like we were walking on exposed intestines. The air was moist, and thick with a heavy organic scent, somewhere between a birthing room and a slaughterhouse.
“This is the place,” I said. “It’ll take me a moment to set this up.”
Sumi nodded. His face was visibly strained, and he was starting to waver, barely able to stand. “Give me the bow,” he said, slurring slightly. “One of ’em got my wrist, can’t use the sword.”
I nodded and handed the arbalest to him without comment before kneeling. I reached into the bag, and then, very delicately, I drew out a cask.
This one was much, much larger than the vials I’d used before–where they had been the size of a single drink, this was a cask the size of a small keg. Made of heavy green-black wood, it weighed far more than its size would indicate, enough that I grunted with effort as I lifted it out of the bag. Part of that was the wood itself; lignum vitae was among the densest woods available to most folk. Much of the weight, though, was the contents, which were far more dense than the diluted fire-oil I’d used elsewhere in the trap.
For a long time, after the Whitewood, I hadn’t touched fire-oil. I’d nearly burned my notes on it, I had been so distraught at what it was used to do.
In the end, though, I was too much the alchemist to abandon the idea so easily. Fire-oil had been my creation, my great innovation, and even though just thinking of that made me sick now, I still couldn’t make myself entirely abandon it. Doing anything related to it made me feel like the weight of guilt burdening me was too great to bear, but there was a part of me that felt that I deserved to feel terrible. And so, over the years, I’d continued to refine the recipe, purifying and improving it.
This cask was the result. This fluid was to ordinary fire-oil what that substance was to the sort of oil harvested from olives. A drop of this thick golden syrup was enough to scorch someone to the bone; a vial would be enough to immolate them entirely.
And I had a keg of it.
I drew a dagger, the blade of which was high-quality steel augmented with a simple alchemical sharpening in charged copper, and slashed at the ground. The ground had a strange texture, somewhere between packed dirt and meat, and the sound it made when parting was more akin to the latter. With quick, hard strokes I chopped out a hole in the ground, using the fine blade like a shovel.
Before I could do more than that one of the ghouls tackled me from behind, dragging me to the ground. It clawed me across the back of the neck, opening a minor artery and ripping the muscle in my left shoulder. I managed to writhe around and stab it under the skull, the dagger sinking deeply into its brain. I shoved it off of me and stood, a bolt flying past my head into another ghoul’s chest as I did.
They were pressing in all around, now, too fast to clear out. I had to work fast, because if I wasn’t finished in the next few seconds this would all be for nothing.
Rather than drill carefully into the cask, as I would have preferred, I stabbed it with the dagger. Thick, golden fluid leaked out around the blade, barely visible in the darkness. I hadn’t even realized that it was getting dark, I’d been so focused on my work. I shoved the ends of the various fuses into the hole and then tossed the cask into the hole I’d dug, frantically pushing dirt back into place around it. The cask would be impressive enough on its own, but the explosion would be far greater if it were contained. Fire-oil didn’t require air to burn, but it still heated the air around it, and the resulting expansion if it were contained would be enough to level much of this valley.
I heard a sharp sound like breaking wood and I knew that my time had run out. I dumped my bag out onto the ground, hoping that some of the things still in it would trigger from the heat and pressure of what I was about to do, and grabbed one last vial of fire oil out of it. This one was rigged with a container that would spark when broken, setting off the contents.
Before I could stand again, I felt a sudden impact in my guts. At first I thought I’d been punched, and was merely out of breath. Then I felt the warmth running down my side, and realized that one of the ghouls had just stabbed me with my own dagger that I’d thrown aside in my hurry.
I looked up, and saw dozens of the things closing in all around. Sumi was standing, blade in hand. He parried a claw, slashed and just barely missed the throat of another monster, and then met my eye. His gaze was calm, serious, and peaceful.
Another ghoul came upon him from the side, reaching forward with a hugely oversized claw. It tore the legionnaire’s throat out, and he fell.
I stood, grinning, the flask in hand. I felt…clean. One of the ghouls came up behind me, reaching around. Its limb ended in a long, bony scythe.
“Come and get it, fuckers,” I said, tossing the vial hard at the bundle of fuses over the buried keg.
Some of the ghouls, perhaps getting more from their group intelligence than others, started to run. Others stood and watched. I watched with them as the glass shattered, the charged iron woven through the glass sparked, and the fire-oil caught.
The world burst into a bright, glorious rush of heat and light. I was grinning widely, staring up into the midnight sky, feeling clean for the first time in years.
Then I felt a burning on my neck, a wetness, and the world went away.