Cracks 1.32

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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.

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Cracks 1.31

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We kept moving, heading at an angle to the direction we’d been going so far–south, rather than northwest. I wasn’t totally sure of our location; I hadn’t been keeping track of it well, too focused on the immediate to care. But I thought that if we kept going this way we would pass through the forest and come out on the road southwest of Branson’s Ford. There wasn’t much in that direction, but following that road to the east would bring us to the main imperial roads and the major cities of the province.


Not that I had the attention to spare thinking about that. Black and Marcus started pushing us harder once we left Corbin behind. Not that we’d been dallying before, but there had been a certain amount of leeway to it. They would slow the pace when people were breathing hard, pause for a moment every now and then.


Now, we weren’t. The pace never slacked, not even slightly; if someone had literally collapsed from exhaustion, I suspected that Black would simply leave them behind. And it wasn’t an outlandish possibility, either. I knew that I was physically stronger than many of the people with us, and I was exhausted. I was just stumbling along, unsteady on my feet from fatigue. My legs were burning, my back ached, even my arms were sore. Looking around, in the brief moments when I could manage it, I didn’t think that I was alone. More than a few of us were looking unsteady on our feet.


In spite of that, though, not a single person complained or asked for a break. Word had spread of what we’d seen on the other side of that ridge, and everyone was acutely aware of what it meant. Everyone knew, in the back of their minds, that to slow now was death. The feeling of desperate urgency hung over our little army like a cloud, and if any of us were inclined to flag, all it took was one thought of what lay behind us to spur us forward again.


I wasn’t sure how long we’d been moving. It felt like hours, but I knew that was in my head. The constant dread and fatigue were taking their toll, making every moment feel like it was taking ages to pass at the same time that time seemed to be slipping past me far too quickly.


I knew it couldn’t be too long, because the sun was still inching its way down towards the hills. It was low enough now to paint the clouds a brilliant golden orange, and I found myself turning my face away to keep from being blinded. But it was still light out, for at least a little longer.


I was having to focus on the ground right in front of me to keep from stumbling into someone; I didn’t look up, didn’t know where we were going beyond broad directions and the person in front of me. Thus, it came as a surprise when we abruptly ground to a halt and I heard Black say, “I take it that isn’t supposed to be there.”


Startled out of my exhausted trance, I looked up, blinking against the light.


We were in a steep-walled valley, high enough into the hills that there was little in the way of vegetation. What few trees managed to grow looked more like bushes, and even the grasses were struggling to find a foothold on the steep, rocky ground. Ahead of us the hills closed in to a narrow notch before, presumably, opening up again and beginning to drop towards the plains below.


And there was the problem Black had pointed out. That notch was entirely blocked with rubble and debris. The bulk of it appeared to consist of boulders and rocks, but there was a substantial quantity of mud and brush as well.


“That’s fresh,” Ketill said confidently. “And it ain’t the right season for rockslides around here.” He spat on the ground. “Ghouls rigged it somehow, more than likely.”


I stared, dismayed, and I wasn’t the only one. It was easy to see that we would have to climb over that whole pile to proceed. It had to be forty feet up, across steep, rough terrain.


Some of us couldn’t do that. I wasn’t even sure if I could, not after the past few hours, and the past few days before that. And that wasn’t even considering the possibility that the ghouls might have left a special surprise of some kind in there, or even be there themselves.


“Is there any way around?” Marcus asked.


“This is the only trail that leads this way,” Ketill said. “We’d have to double back a long way to go around, and we don’t have time.”


“I know a way,” Jakob interrupted. The old hunter sounded exhausted, and he looked terribly worn, having to lean on a spear to walk. Between his age and his injuries, this must have been an incredibly draining journey. But he was still standing and walking, and there was a grim determination in his voice. “Next valley east, there’s another path.”


“There’s no path there on any map I’ve ever seen,” Ketill said.


Jakob snorted. “I been here,” he said. “There’s a path.” Without waiting for a response, Jakob turned and started walking slowly east, moving through the crowd.


“Do we follow him?” Marcus asked.


Ketill looked at Egill. Egill looked at Ketill. Almost in unison, the two men shrugged. “Jakob’s a crotchety old bastard,” Ketill explained. “But he knows these hills better than anyone. If he says he’s been here, he was here. Coulda been thirty years ago, though, and no way to tell if that path is still there.”


“We don’t have a better idea,” Black said decisively. “Let’s go.”


Jakob was not as pleasant of a guide to follow as Black and Ketill. He set an erratic pace, one moment skipping ahead and the next slowing to a crawl, for no reason that I could identify. He led us up to the hill on our left, then ducked into a crack between two rocks. I’d have sworn it went nowhere, but he slipped behind a thorny raspberry bush and kept going.


For a moment I was reminded of my secret place behind the inn, and a bittersweet smile flitted across my face. But this was a much smaller hollow than that, barely large enough for a person to stand in. Jakob scrambled up the side of the wall, surprisingly adroitly, and then waited impatiently as we worked to get everyone else up the rock behind him. I had no trouble with it, but most of us weren’t as accustomed to climbing, and needed help to get to the top. Black had to bodily lift Egill up; the former mayor’s injured ankle was getting increasingly painful, and he didn’t trust it climbing up the rocks.


Up top, Jakob promptly ducked down the other side, dropping down the side of the hill. He was moving far more smoothly now, his spear held at the ready rather than being used as a cane. It was like looking at a different man entirely; this wasn’t an old, tired, broken man, but a hunter in his element, trained and deadly. He made Black look graceless.


The rest of us weren’t as lucky. We were as much climbing as walking, and while that was a good thing for me most of the group was visibly struggling with it. Our pace had slowed dramatically, and a number of people were slipping and stumbling as we descended.


Jakob stopped halfway down the hill at a game trail that I didn’t even see until we were already on it. I would have thought it was nothing more than a momentary break in the vegetation, but Jakob started along it, and it kept going, winding through the trees.


I followed along gamely, trying my best not to flag. Our pace was still troublingly slow; that last climb had taken something out of people. Our orderly formation from earlier was gone, now, as people simply struggled on however they could. To call it ragged would be kind.


When someone finally fell, it came out of nowhere. It was a man I couldn’t put a name to through the haze of fatigue, who looked to be in his late forties. He stepped wrong, and his ankle twisted out from under him. He stumbled to the side and overbalanced, tumbling forward. When he tried to catch himself his damaged foot couldn’t hold his weight and he tumbled, rolling down the hill. Within seconds he was out of sight, screened by the angle and the trees.


We all stopped and stared for a  moment. “Should we go help him?” Egill asked finally, in a small voice.


Black shook her head. “No time,” she said. “We have maybe half an hour before dark. We must keep moving.”


“That’s my cousin,” someone said. “I’m not leaving him.”


“Then you can die with him,” Black said. Her voice was harsh, even brutal. “But you will not drag all of us down with you.”


“Better that than abandoning him,” the same voice said.


Marcus had almost the same tone as Black–harsh, perhaps even cruel, not out of malice but because it was the simple reality of the situation. “He broke his ankle. Even if we could find him he can’t keep this pace, and we can’t afford to wait.”


I waited, idly wondering whether the objector would actually put their actions behind their words, and stay to wait with the man we were abandoning.


No one stepped out to stay behind, and after a few moments we continued down the path, following Jakob.


More time passed. It was measured in footsteps now rather than seconds, and not enough of those. Several times I marched for what felt like hours, only to glance back and see that I wasn’t even out of sight of where I’d started at. My legs were starting to actively burn now, and I could feel my feet blistering. I wanted to ask for a rest, but I didn’t dare. Not only could we not spare the time, but if I sat down now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand up and keep walking.


When something changed, I was almost too exhausted to realize it. Almost. But, luckily, not quite. I heard a noise from up ahead, a rustling, and I knew that it wasn’t us.


Almost on reflex, I flung my arm out, catching Black in the midsection.


Instantly, she looked at me. “Something wrong?” she asked, terse and quiet.


I nodded quickly and pointed forward. Black held up her hand, signaling a halt, and glanced to the side. “Ghouls, you think?” she asked.


Marcus grunted. “Sucker’s bet,” he said. The legionnaire grimaced. “Can’t say I ever thought I’d get killed by ghouls. That’s just a humiliating way to go.”


“Can we go around them?” Egill asked. The mayor was in visible pain now, and his ankle had swollen grotesquely.


Black shook her hand. “We don’t have much time before Corbin lights their nest off,” she said. “Can’t afford the delay in finding a way around.”


“Can’t go around,” Ketill said. “And can’t go back.” The old farmer tightened his grip on his scythe, and showed his teeth in an expression that was nothing like a smile. “Guess we have to go through, then.”


“One moment,” Egill said quietly. Then, raising his voice loud enough to be heard by our entire group, he continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, I know the past days have been trying. Some of our number have fallen, and more may fall in the next few minutes. The gods know that this is…not what I expected to be faced with when I became your mayor. I’ve not been perfect, and I know we’ve all had our disagreements. But I could not be more proud of you. You have faced incredible demands in the past days, and you still stand against those that threaten your homes and your families.”


He paused and swallowed, hard enough that I could clearly hear it, before continuing. “But now you are called upon to face another trial. A group of these monsters is waiting for us, and the gods have dictated that we must fight them to pass. I know you are tired; I know you are scared. But we are all that stands between these creatures and our home. We cannot fail. And should I fall, I want you to know that it has been an honor to serve as your mayor for all these years. Thank you.” He bowed his head a moment, then glanced at Black and nodded.


It wasn’t exactly a stirring speech, and the group he was talking to wasn’t exactly a battle-ready force. Unsurprising, then, that the response was solemn nods and murmured prayers rather than cheering. But I thought it did what it was supposed to do. It reminded the villagers of what they were fighting for, and put a little spine back into them with it. Hands tightened on weapons, people stood a little straighter, and murmurs of encouragement spread through the ranks.


We weren’t ready for this. But we’d have to do.


The march forward wasn’t a traditional battle charge. It couldn’t be; we didn’t know where they were, precisely, and our ranks were broken up the trees. It was more of a tense, wary shuffle forward, waiting anxiously for the ghouls to show themselves.


Black rested her hand momentarily on my shoulder, then moved forward to stand in the front lines. It was necessary. She was very probably our strongest and most experienced fighter, and we were not so numerous that we could afford to spare that.


I stayed where I was, clenching a fistful of jagged metal pieces. They were pressing into my skin, hard enough that some of them might well have drawn blood. I couldn’t seem to make myself slacken that grip, though. My breath was coming too fast, my eyes darting all around. I thought for a moment that I smelled smoke, but no. It was just a memory. Just the past, intruding into the present. I shook my head to clear it and shuffled another step forward.


Instants later, a dozen ghouls dropped from the trees and lunged towards us.

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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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Cracks 1.28

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Despite knowing what to expect, I was surprised to see the crowd that gathered outside the inn a few hours later. Surprised, and more than a little impressed. There were enough people there that it wasn’t worth getting an exact count, which meant that it had to be almost everyone in the village. As I’d predicted, even children were coming out to fight; the youngest person there couldn’t have hit puberty yet.


For a moment I was quietly furious that we were sending children out to fight, and maybe die. Then a more practical side of me kicked in and reminded me that if we failed here, they were dead anyway. We’d already established that this offensive, desperate though it was, was our last hope; we didn’t have a backup plan if this failed.


Which, in a way, was what made me think it might actually have a chance of success. Before, we’d been reluctant to commit fully to a plan. Half-measures afforded a measure of safety, but that hesitation had meant that we never quite had all our resources behind any of them.


That wasn’t going to be a problem this time. For better or worse, we were all in, now. Things would be decided here, now, one way or the other.


The legionnaires were the ones to organize things, telling people where to stand and what to do, in one case physically dragging a man into position when he was slow to move. Somewhat to my surprise, no one argued with them about it. Not even Corbin. Not even Ketill, and I would have sworn that I’d never see him taking orders from the imperial legions.


But then, it made sense. This was their sort of fight, after all. Ketill was a terribly dangerous man, and even before the legionnaires had been crippled I wouldn’t have bet on any of them lasting ten seconds in a fight against him. But Ketill fought on his own, always had. When it came to tactics, positioning, leveraging a group to make it more than the sum of its parts, no one beat the legions of Akitsuro.


The arrangement they formed us into was a simple diamond formation. The edges consisted of our best fighters. Most of those people had seen combat before, in the war, though some were just big and strong enough to earn a place there that way.


The points–the most dangerous and critical positions, even I could see that–were held by the genuine experts. Marcus was in the lead, and while he and I hadn’t gotten off on the right foot, I had to admit I was impressed by that. The legionnaire might not have been in favor of this plan, but now that it was time to go he didn’t complain or hesitate on his way to the front. To my left Ketill was holding his scythe again, face blank and distant. On the right of the diamond, Egill had a spear of some kind, though he looked far more nervous about his position than either of the other men. Bringing up the rear–in what should theoretically be the safest of the four key positions–was a young lumberjack who hadn’t fought in the war, but who likely had more raw muscle than the other three put together.


The interior of the diamond consisted largely of those who weren’t able to fight, not really. The young, the old, the infirm, the wounded. They all had weapons, but most of those weapons were…well, they didn’t inspire confidence. There were kitchen knives, fireplace pokers, crude spears, even a plank with a few nails hammered through it.


And then, at the center, were the people who could hope to do something at range. There were some slings, some bows, a single legion-issue arbalest that someone must have acquired during the war. Jakob was there, though the old hunter was obviously still in bad shape after having been almost killed the first time he met the ghouls.


I realized that I’d barely thought of him since he was injured, hadn’t even known whether he was still alive, and immediately felt bad about it. I liked Jakob, I really did–I could sympathize with a man who was scarred and set apart by what he’d seen in the war, after all. It was just…there had been so much happening, and so many people, and so little time.


There was never enough time.


Corbin took one look at the group, grabbed my hand, and all but dragged me to the center of the formation. Sumi and Aelia were there, as they finished arranging everyone else. It made sense; Aelia, even reduced to the lighter arbalest she could manage with one hand, was more use at a distance from the front lines, and Sumi wasn’t going to be fighting on crutches.


“She’s with me,” Corbin said to the two legionnaires who were now more or less in charge of things.


Sumi barely glanced at me. I could barely recognize, in those cool, measuring eyes, the man who’d sat with me looking over the river and talked of philosophy and feeling clean. “That’s fine,” he said, after barely a moment to consider it. “She’s better off throwing coins than mixing it up anyway.” Then he seemed to dismiss us entirely, going back to lining everyone up where they were supposed to be.


I swallowed hard and crowded in beside Corbin as close as I could get. There were so many people, and everyone was armed, and everyone was scared. It was starting to feel too familiar.


Corbin didn’t seem like himself. He carried himself differently, and there was a hardness in his eyes that had never been there when he was just an innkeeper. He smelled like alchemy instead of cooking, dust and smoke and acrid odors I had no names for. He was carrying his arbalest, and a heavy pack, and I could swear that I heard something humming in that pack.


When the order came to march, it took me by surprise. I couldn’t even see what was happening, crowded in the middle of the group like this; I barely even came up to the shoulders of most of the people here. I just had to focus on walking, keeping the pace and not bumping into anyone and making absolutely sure that I didn’t stumble, and trust the people who were choosing our course to know what they were doing.


I was worried that the legionnaires had put us too close together, crowded in like this. They knew their business, but in a way that was a problem, because it meant that they expected us to know ours. Some people could live up to their expectations–those who were familiar with legion tactics, who just knew how to fight. But there were plenty more who had no idea what they were doing, and packed in so closely they could easily get in the way of the people who did.


I was in the second group. I had no delusions about that. I was physically fit, and I could channel, but that didn’t translate to knowing what I was doing here. A few hours training with Black was not enough to make me competent.


I stumbled, and had to hurry for a few steps to keep from bumping into the person behind me. I tried not to think about the plan after that. Focus on my job, and trust the legionnaires to know theirs.


We were moving slowly, going west to where the ghouls seemed to make their home. None of the villagers was used to moving in formation, and we had too many walking wounded to make good time anyway. Our de facto commander was on crutches, for the black gods’ sake. It would have been comical, except that it was happening to me.


When we finally reached the wards, we all paused. Someone asked a question, and when they realized that we couldn’t hear they shouted it. “Should we take this ward Corbin made?”


Sumi seemed to consider it for a moment, then shook his head. “We can’t leave a gap in the wards,” he shouted back. “They could slip right by us into the village.”


There was a generalized murmur of assent, and we started moving forward again, at an even more glacial pace now that we were outside the safety of the wards. At least we’d had a chance to get used to moving in formation before the possibility of attack became an immediate concern.


“Ward isn’t worth it anyway,” Aelia muttered next to me, softly enough that probably only Corbin, Sumi, and I could hear. “Could keep a few people safe, but it’s not worth locking down our channelers.”


“What channels do we have?” Corbin asked back, at a similar volume. He was slotting into the interaction smoothly enough to make it hard not to remember that he’d been in the legions himself, once.


“Silf’s got metal,” Aelia said. “One other metal, and two kids with air that won’t be flying any time soon.”


“No fire?” Corbin asked.


“One woman has fire, but not so much as you’d notice.” Aelia sounded distinctly unhappy.




“I have Andrew’s bags,” Sumi offered quietly. “Flash paper, and some torches, I think.”


“That helps,” Corbin said. “Still, it’d be nice to have more channels.” He grimaced; I could hear it in his voice, even if I didn’t really have the attention to look. “Bones and ashes, this is an awkward sort of phalanx.”


“It’s what we have,” Sumi said.


Corbin grunted. “Too true.”


The conversation tapered off after that. There seemed to be nothing more to say.


Things continued more or less uneventfully as we started into the trees. People were on edge, fidgeting with weapons, looking for ghouls behind every tree and under every rock. But nothing happened. There was no sign of the hostile presence in these woods. There was no attack.


Until, suddenly, there was.


I couldn’t see what happened, at first. I just heard shouts of surprise from the leading edge of the formation, followed by the sounds of a scuffle. A few people in front of me raised bows, but without a better angle on what happened, for me to get involved would be stupid. Channeling, after all, was imprecise at the best of times.


The fight was over quickly, well before I–or most of our group–could really do anything. “Cervi,” someone shouted. After a moment I recognized the voice as belonging to Marcus.


“I thought they were supposed to be tame,” someone else said from the crowd behind me. I didn’t recognize this one.


“Not tame,” Sumi said. “But they aren’t usually aggressive. Something must have provoked them.”


I nodded along to what he was saying. I’d never seen a cervus before, but I knew that much about them. The things were, as I understood it, some sort of Changed deer, and they weren’t that much different from what they’d come from. Those horns weren’t just for show, but they didn’t attack people, as a rule.


People were looking around, talking. I forced myself to ignore it. If something strange was happening out here, it was a fool’s bet that these ghoul creatures were involved somehow. If there was one thing we’d learned so far, it was that we had to think when it came to them.


Assuming they had a reason to get the cervi to attack us, they must have expected to gain something from it. But it wasn’t actually hurting us. Cervi were dangerous in their way, but not to a group like this.


Thus far their attacks had largely followed a simple pattern. Draw us out, and then hit us in a way we weren’t expecting. If they were following the same pattern–and why would they change it when it demonstrably worked–then….


I looked up.


Ghouls in the trees. Three of them that I could see from where I stood, thin things that could blend into the branches. One was almost directly over my head.


I reacted quickly, instinctively. I’d already been holding a handful of coins in one hand, Black’s hatchet in the other. It only took a heartbeat to fling the coins up and channel through them. Outside the wards, with the metal of the hatchet to draw on, it was easy. The bits of bronze and iron shot up into the branches, sparkling brightly in the sunlight.


It was a very obvious, even flashy sort of attack. It drew the eye.


The good news was that it drew the eyes of the people with me, pulling their attention up to the threat. It served as the warning that I couldn’t shout to them.


The bad news was that it also made the ghouls very aware that they’d been caught, and drew their attention to me.


The one over my head was already dropping as the coins hit it. They cut into its flesh, but they were just coins. They weren’t going to stop the momentum of what had to be over a hundred pounds of ghoul falling at me.


I ducked to the side, and the world dissolved into chaos. I was squeezed between people, jostled around, pushed to the ground. People were shouting now, weapons raised, as the ghouls fell claw-first from the trees.


A part of me had to admire the cleverness of their tactic. They’d bypassed our outer perimeter, going straight for the more vulnerable people in the middle. I wanted to blame the legionnaires for leaving that vulnerability, but I couldn’t. They’d done what they could. And the legions weren’t used to being under attack from above; usually, they were the ones in control of the skies.


On the ground, things were even more chaotic and impossible to process than when I was standing. All I could see was a forest of legs, lacking all meaning. People were shouting and screaming and yelping. I tried to push myself to my feet, but my hand slipped in the mud, and someone stumbled into me as someone else pushed them, and a boot came down less than an inch from my head without its owner realizing a thing.


That was bad. If someone stepped on me wrong, I’d be as dead as if the ghouls got their claws on me.


Grimacing, I shifted back into the vaguely quadrupedal gait I sometimes used to relieve the pressure on my spine, still not coming above the waists of the people around me. Like that, I started moving out, not paying that much attention to where I was going, what direction I was moving. Anywhere, just to get out of the press, out of the chaos that might prove to be more deadly than our enemies could hope to be.


Progress was slow. I was slipping and sliding on ground that seemed infinitely more treacherous than it had moments ago. I was bumped and shoved, tumbling to the ground again and again, once in a tangle with another girl. I still hadn’t managed to fully stand, and I wasn’t sure that was a bad thing; it did not seem like the world above my head was a very safe place right now. Weapons were passing over my head, people were still shouting, and while I hadn’t seen anyone be wounded, I could smell blood.


Finally, after what felt like years but was probably better measured in seconds, I reached the edge of the press. I tripped on someone’s foot as I took that last step, tumbling to the ground in the open area beyond the crowd.


Even in the midst of the fall, I felt a certain relief. I was in the open air again, away from the chaos, the press, the heat and screaming and madness.


That relief lasted until I came to rest on my back, and focused enough to look around.


As it turned out, there were ghouls out here, too.


The one I could see was larger than those I’d noted in the trees, easily twice my size. Its skin looked something like a callus, thick callus embedded with dirt until the color of the skin underneath was lost to sight.


It was facing off against a young woman with a simple wooden spear, and what looked to be a middle-aged lumberjack holding his axe. Apparently they were doing decently well for themselves, because I could see places where that tough skin had been cut into, cut away.


But the ghoul was still standing, still fighting. And it wasn’t nearly finished yet. As I was still trying to get my bearings I saw the man swing for it, hard, and I saw the ghoul pull away. It wasn’t quite fast enough, and the axe bit into its skin just a bit. He snarled, turned the momentum of the follow-through into an even harder stroke at the ghoul’s head.


He was strong, predictably enough, and he knew how to handle an axe. But he didn’t know how to keep his head in a fight. He didn’t see that the ghoul was leading him on, getting him to overextend himself.


The axe whistled past just to the side of its face. Before the man could react, the monster surged forward, far faster than it had been a moment ago while dodging, and ripped his head from his shoulders.


The girl shrieked, shrinking away from it. The ghoul turned in my direction, stalking forward.


I tensed. I was still on the ground, but I’d somehow kept my grip on the hatchet through all that. I had the coins, and the other metal I’d brought, razors and wire and assorted sharp things. I should, I hoped, at least be able to keep myself intact for the few seconds it would take for someone else to realize what was happening and step in.


Before I could do anything with those weapons, something seized the ghoul from behind and pulled it backward, toward the trees. Except it wasn’t just pulling the ghoul. This was something far more sudden, powerful, and violent than that would suggest. The ghoul’s feet left the ground, and it didn’t touch down again as it was whirled in a circle and slammed into a sapling.


It hit hard enough to cave its chest in to the spine. It hit hard enough to break the tree, which fell away from the impact.


I stared. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.


Black let go of the ghoul, watching to be sure it didn’t start twitching again, and then she turned to me. “Hey, Silf,” she said, walking over to me. “Sorry I’m late.” She offered me her hand.


I stared a moment more, and then shrugged and took her hand, letting her pull me effortlessly to my feet.

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Cracks 1.27

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Corbin was not as practiced at medicine as Black. This wasn’t to say that he was incompetent; he clearly knew what he was doing. But he wasn’t nearly as smooth or quick about it as she had been, fumbling with the needle as he stitched the wounds I’d taken.


I didn’t particularly care. I was drifting on a cloud of alchemical sedative and distance and sheer exhaustion. I didn’t actually lose consciousness, this time. But I wouldn’t say that I was precisely awake, either. I just say there, watching the world pass around me without quite being cognizant of what was happening.


Once again, the inn was being used as a meeting place. This time, however, the tone was very different. Everyone had heard what happened to Hideo. Everyone knew that the empire’s plan had never involved saving us.


It hadn’t quite occurred to me, until I saw the reaction that news provoked, quite how much we all depended on it. Even the people who hated the empire. Even Ketill. We might not like it, but we’d gotten used to knowing it was there. Losing that sense of security, of being a part of something larger than just Branson’s Ford, was like walking a tightrope and having the safety net removed from underneath.


Everyone could feel it. I could see it in their eyes, in how they moved. Before the atmosphere in the village had been one of fear, dread, even desperation. But now there was an element of anxiety, of uncertainty, to it that hadn’t quite been there before.


By the time everyone had finished trickling in, Corbin was just finishing his work. He’d put bandages with some cool cream on the burns, and stitched the cuts and stabs on my back. Judging by his expression some of those were worse than I’d realized. Corbin looked concerned, and there was a darkness about his expression that worried me.


He picked me up, having no difficulty with my weight, and carried me over to a stool in the corner and set me down. He took a moment to fuss over me, making sure I wasn’t about to fall over or upset the bandages, and then went to start getting food and drink. He must have used a lower dose of anesthetic than before, because I was conscious enough to look around the taproom.


It was packed. Not that it hadn’t been busy the last time a meeting of this sort happened, but there were even more people there now. I wasn’t sure it would be exaggerating to say that every person in Branson’s Ford was there, from babes in arms to an old man who used two canes and still needed help walking.


No one wanted to miss this. No one.


The room was quiet as Corbin handed out food, once again refusing to take any kind of payment. There were some whispered conversations, people asking questions and sharing fears. But it was very hushed, very subdued. The talk didn’t so much break the silence as underline its presence.


I took my food with the rest. There was the usual bread and soup, but also two cheeses, sausage, and somehow, even with everything that was happening, Corbin had found the time to make apple pie. After a moment he came back and set a steaming cup of tea on the floor next to me.


It took a few minutes for him to pass out the food to everyone. I was just surprised he’d made enough for this crowd. Maybe he’d expected something like this to happen today.


If the room had been quiet before, though, it went dead silent as Sumi made his way to the front of the room. The legionnaire was understandably slow, hobbling along with one leg and crutches. In a way, it lent an air of dignity, of gravitas to the scene. It gave people time to realize what was happening and fall silent.


The other legionnaires were present, as well. I could see Marcus standing next to the door, expression carefully blank. Aelia, on the other hand, made her way over to sit next to me as Sumi walked up. He climbed onto the bar, slowly and with evident difficulty, giving him a sort of improvised stage from which to address the crowd. A flash of irritation went through me as I saw feet on the bar I’d put so much effort into keeping clean down the years, but I suppressed it. It didn’t matter anymore.


I largely ignored Sumi as he spoke. He was just explaining what had happened, and I didn’t need to hear it. I’d been there.


I focused on eating instead. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I needed to focus on it; my hands were shaky, and all my motions were uncertain. After a few false starts Aelia started helping me, holding my hand steady and keeping me from spilling broth on myself. I hated that I needed help to feed myself–that I was so badly off that the woman with one hand was helping me, and I needed it. But there was no sense in pretending otherwise.


When he finished laying out the basics of Hideo’s plan in coming here, and what had happened to him, Sumi stopped talking. The echoing silence left behind when his voice stopped was almost startling in its sheer emptiness.


It was broken by Egill. Or the mayor, I supposed, since with Hideo’s death we probably weren’t under martial law anymore. Not that it was likely to matter, since I was feeling rather confident there wouldn’t be anything to be the mayor of shortly.


But the role still showed in his bearing, his attitude, as he stood. There was a sort of pride in how he held himself that was lacking in the rest of the villagers, by and large.


“With all respect,” he said, and his tone actually was respectful. “I don’t know that this matters, particularly. We’re still in the same position that we were before, aren’t we? We need a way to deal with these things, and we don’t have one.”


“There’s a very clear difference,” Corbin said from behind the bar. “We’re committed now. The last time we were gathered here, we didn’t decide anything because we were waiting to hear the empire’s plan for solving this problem. Well, now we’ve heard it, and it’s unacceptable.” He shook his head. “We can’t put this off any longer,” he said. “Here, now, we have to make a decision.”


“Now hold a moment,” Ketill said from the crowd. The old farmer was standing at the front of the group, near the bar, and he had one hand on his knife in a posture that was a touch too casual to be a coincidence. “You skipped over somethin’ there, Corbin. These imperial bastards were going to throw us to the wolves. Why should we be helping you now, eh?” He pointed at Sumi, forcefully, looking like he was stabbing at the air and wishing it was the legionnaire.


“We’re all standing in the same fire, here,” Sumi said from his perch on the bar. He sounded tired. “This isn’t you helping us, or us helping you. This is all of us recognizing that we’re in the same place right now, and we’re all going to die if we can’t work together.”


“And you’re why,” Ketill said. “Or are you going to say you didn’t come here planning to kill us?”


“I knew it could happen, but I wasn’t planning on it,” the legionnaire said. He sighed heavily. “I’ve made my share of mistakes. I doubt you’ll find a man or woman in this room who hasn’t. But if you want to talk about who started this fire, maybe we should wait until we’re out of it first.”


Ketill seemed to consider arguing further, then gave Sumi a begrudging nod instead. “I reckon that’s fair,” he said, stepping back slightly into the crowd.


“That still leaves us where we were,” Egill said, taking back control of the conversation so smoothly that I doubted most of those present realized he’d done it at all. “We are in a dire position, and we need to do something about it. I think it’s clear we can’t stay here and wait this out.”


“Could we talk to the ghouls, if they’re that smart?” Gunnar asked. “Parlay, or make some kind of deal?”


Ketill snorted. “You want to try, be my guest,” he said. “I reckon if you go out there with a white flag, you’ll get killed before you can say hello. They ain’t interested in talking.”


“Even if they were, why would they make a deal? They’re winning.” This voice came from the midst of the crowd, and it took several seconds for me to place it as the mayor’s daughter. Livy, her name was. I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t recognized her voice at first. Livy had always been, to put it bluntly, one of the most sheltered people in town. She wasn’t wholly innocent–no one was–but there was a sort of optimism about her. Now she sounded bleak, hopeless.


“That’s a fair point,” Corbin said. “Whether we try to talk or not, it might be worth asking. What do these things want?”


“Seems pretty clear they want to kill us all,” one of the farmers said–not one I knew, I thought, not one that came to the inn regularly. Her voice had a trace of bone-dry humor in it.


“Seems that way,” Egill agreed. “I’m not sure it matters why. Like the legionnaire said, that’s a question for after we get out of this fire.”


I paused in the middle of finishing my bread, then pushed the last of it into my mouth, thinking. There was something…off here, something that Egill’s words had reminded me of.


“Can we just run for it?” Ilse asked. She was scared–I could hear it in her voice–but it was a tightly contained sort of fear. Ilse had lived through the war, some of the worst of it; if that hadn’t broken her, this wasn’t going to either.


“Could,” Marcus said, speaking up from his position by the door for the first time. The legionnaire’s voice was calm, almost bored. “We’d have to make good time, though. Leave the old and injured here, they’ll slow them down enough for us to get a head start.”


“We aren’t leaving anyone behind,” Egill said firmly.


“It’s better than all of us dying here,” Marcus said. “Which is what happens otherwise.”


“It’s not an option.”


Marcus looked around, and apparently didn’t care for his odds with the crowd he saw. He shrugged. “Suit yourselves,” he said. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The legionnaire pulled out a small knife and started trimming his nails, seeming to ignore the conversation entirely.


“I hate to say it,” another farmer said. This one was Changed, though subtly enough that I had to look twice to be sure. I didn’t think he’d ever come to the inn before. “But he might have a point. Otherwise we’re left with, what? Fight them? We don’t have the numbers for that to be anything but suicide.”


No one seemed to have an answer to that. The room went silent again, but it was a very different sort of silence than it had been earlier. Before Sumi started talking, the silence had been an almost respectful sort of hush, waiting for something. This silence was more…aware, I thought, conscious of the gravity of the moment. Whatever was chosen in the next few moments would spell life or death for everyone here, and everyone knew it.


In that pause, I realized what had been itching at me. “Who were they scared of?” I said, blurting the question out as it occurred to me. It wasn’t loud, but I was speaking into the calm before the storm, and everyone heard.


“I’m not sure they’re really scared of anyone right now,” someone said. I wasn’t sure who, and at the moment I couldn’t afford the attention to figure it out.


I shook my head, and paused before what I said next. It was important to get every word right. “Only attacked twice,” I said. “Once was messengers.”


“Which was obviously to keep us from bringing the legions down on them,” Egill said.


I nodded. “Reason to attack,” I said. “But other time, they killed Andrew.”


Egill was frowning. “That could have just been an attack on the center of government,” he said. “Strike at the legion headquarters, disrupt what little we had in the way of a coordinated response.”


“No,” Ketill said slowly. “No, she’s right. The second he went down, they started trying to run. Thought they were scared, but dying don’t seem to matter to these things, does it?”


“So you think they were scared of him?” Egill said. “Why? Not to speak ill of the dead, but he didn’t seem that impressive.”


“Fire,” I said simply.


There was a pause, and then Ketill said, “You know, when they attacked, one of ’em flinched when I swung a torch at it. Didn’t think anything of it.”


“Even animals are afraid of fire,” Sumi said. He sounded thoughtful. “Could be it’s basic enough that it overrides that…shared mind they have.”


“Does it matter?” Livy said from the crowd. The girl still sounded utterly hopeless, beaten down. “We only had one man who could have done something with it, and he’s dead.”


I looked at Corbin. So, I noted, did Sumi. The legionnaire knew, then, or at least suspected. There were a few others who likely did as well–the mayor, Ketill, maybe a few of the other farmers. The older ones, who’d lived through the war.


It was Sumi that said something, though, picking his words with extreme care. “Hideo was an alchemist,” he said. “He brought a full load of reagents with him, in case. I don’t know what they are, but he said something about fire-oil.”


I kept looking at Corbin. He didn’t look back, couldn’t meet my gaze; he was focused on the bar right in front of him, like if he didn’t look away the rest of the world would ignore him, too. The room was silent once again, waiting. Most of them probably didn’t know why, but those of us who did showed it enough to tell them that something important was happening, even if they didn’t know what or why.


Seconds ticked past like that. I suspected Corbin was in the same place I had been, so recently–balanced on a knife over the abyss, rapidly being forced to the point where he’d have to choose a side, and there would be no turning back.


When the moment broke, it did so all at once. Corbin crumpled in on himself, shoulders slumping, head bowing. It looked like he’d aged thirty years in a heartbeat, and when he spoke, he sounded so tired I could have believed it. “I can make fire-oil,” he said, in the tone of a man admitting a mortal sin. “If he brought the components, I can make it.”


“Is that really our plan?” Marcus said from the back of the crowd. “Hope they’re scared of fire based on what one girl thinks was behind some random coincidence?” He snorted. “Some plan.”


“It’s the best we have,” Egill said simply. “Corbin? How long will it take for you to be ready?”


The innkeeper–or, rather, the engineer, because like Black had said, what we needed now was an engineer–shrugged. “A few hours,” he said. “It’s not complicated.”


Egill nodded. “You heard the man,” he said. “You have a few hours, and then we’re going to end this once and for all. Do what you have to do, and we’ll meet back here at an hour past noon.” For a moment it seemed as though he would say something else, before he just stared walking towards the door. The rest of the room followed his example–including Corbin, likely going to check on whatever alchemical supplied Hideo had brought. Within minutes the taproom went from absolutely packed to empty.


I stayed where I was. I’d already made my preparations, before going to confront Hideo. There was nothing left but to do or die, for me.


Aelia stayed seated next to me, watching the rest leave. When it was just the two of us in the room, and everyone else was gone, she looked at me. “You know we’ll probably still lose,” she said bluntly. “Even if you’re right, we’re probably going to die. We just don’t have enough people.”


I nodded.


“So why do it?”


I thought for a moment, and then said, “Gave them something to hope for.”


Aelia opened her mouth, then closed it again, looking thoughtful. After another moment she stood and left.

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Cracks 1.26

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I was not much of a fighter. I knew that.


Oh, I’d been in a few, and I’d survived them. But I had no illusions about how. I’d lived this long because people underestimated me. I’d run when I could, fought back with more ferocity and ability than people anticipated, and only attacked those weaker than myself. In an outright fight, without cheating or distractions or a place to run and hide, I was not that remarkable.


Hideo, on the other hand, was an alchemist.


In the camps, I’d learned an important lesson that everyone who lives on the edges of society learns sooner or later. I’d been fortunate in having it explained to me rather than having to learn firsthand how it worked. I’d heard it over a small fire and a scrap of bread from a woman who’d looked like she was made of shoe leather and gristle. She’d clearly been living on the edge far longer than I had, and it showed.


The way she’d put it to me was very simple. There were some people in this world, she’d said, about with whom one did not fuck.


A legionnaire was one thing, and bad enough. They were trained, in most cases veteran, soldiers. They were armed and dangerous and the simple fact of the matter was that if you weren’t similarly trained and equipped, and if they wanted to kill you, you would probably die. But at the same time, the strength of the legions wasn’t in individual brilliance. They’d made it as far as they were, won the battles and crushed their enemies, because they were numerous and coordinated. Alone, many of their strengths didn’t apply; they were still dangerous, but they could be beaten.


A channeler was worse. Someone who was trained in using channeling in combat was an absolute nightmare in a fight, with the potential for sudden, massive destruction. One act, just a single thought on their part was enough to lay waste to a whole crowd of people. But still, it had its limits. As I was acutely aware, channeling was only a fraction as effective inside imperial wards. Even outside that, they could be outthought, outmaneuvered. It lent itself very well to big, flashy things, and not nearly so well to the small and precise.


An alchemist, though, was another story entirely, a story best left well alone. They weren’t always that impressive–it was an extremely versatile art, after all, and there were plenty of alchemists who’d never so much as been in a fistfight. Even if they were practiced at violence, there wasn’t a lot of alchemy that you could do on the spot, as I understood it. If they weren’t ready for it, they might not be any better off than anyone else.


But for all that, an imperially trained alchemist was generally regarded as the single worst sort of person in the world to pick a fight with. Because while they might not have anything on hand that could simply annihilate you, they also might. There was, essentially, no predicting what an alchemist could do, what they were capable of. If they had the knowledge and the materials there was almost nothing an alchemist couldn’t do. And an alchemist who had been trained at one of the great academies in Aseoto, who had the backing of the legions, had the knowledge and materials to do a great deal.


I’d known that Hideo used alchemical weapons. The fact that he’d blinded me with one earlier had been a bit of a hint for that. But there was an enormous difference between having alchemy and being an alchemist. I’d known that he couldn’t be just a surveyor, at this point, but I had not come here ready for an actual alchemist.


Short of actually running into one of the Dierkhlani, it was hard to imagine anyone I was less equipped to fight than an imperial alchemist. Had I any choice in the matter at all, I would never have voluntarily put myself in a position where I had to.


But I didn’t, and here I was.


All that being said, he wasn’t one of the Dierkhlani. He wasn’t even Changed. Hideo was, beneath everything else, human. And he was as fragile as any other human.


So I didn’t say a word, didn’t do anything to give him warning of what was about to happen. As he looked down at his work, as he looked away from me for that critical moment, I struck. It was the best, and usually the only, way to beat an alchemist. If I could kill Hideo before he knew there was a fight, he wouldn’t have a chance to use the weapons he’d prepared.


I tossed the coin into the air, watching as time stretched out. The coin hung there, balanced on nothing between us, catching the cold light of the alchemical lamps and throwing it back at me.


I felt like I was balancing on the blade of a knife, standing over an abyss. Whatever I did in the next few seconds, I would fall to one side or the other, and there would be no turning back.


Then I reached out, seizing the coin, and the moment shattered. I channeled magic into it, as hard and fast as I could, and the bit of metal shot across the room. It wasn’t a terribly large projectile, but it was moving fast, more than fast enough to blast straight through Hideo’s skull.


Or, alternatively, fast enough that when it swerved aside at the last moment, it slammed into the stone wall of the cellar hard enough to shatter almost into dust.


He looked up at me and sighed, his expression not so much angry as disappointed. “Did you know,” he said conversationally, “that you can make an alchemical shield of sorts that deflects channeling? It’s a fairly simple feedback mechanism, actually relatively cheap to make–wolframite, an alchemically active pewter alloy, charged magnetite for metal.”


I grimaced, snatched out another handful of coins and threw them at him. Every single one swept aside without even getting close.


“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” Hideo said over the sound of metal clattering to the floor. “But I would have been a fool to ignore the possibility. I do apologize, Silf, it’s nothing personal.”


That was all he said before producing a small ceramic vial from his pocket and tossing it at me.


I was already moving, running towards the edge of the room, and it was the only reason I lived. When that vial hit the floor, it didn’t just break, it exploded, spraying a thick, oily liquid in a cloud. It had barely come into contact with the air when I saw a shimmer run over the surface of the liquid that was just slightly too bright to be the reflected light of the lamps.


Then, without warning, it burst into flame, a bright yellow flame that was more intense than it had any right to be.


I avoided the worst of it, but some of the oil got onto me, on my back and my arms. It ignited with the rest, a bright hot shock of heat on my skin. There was no pain, not at first, just heat.


I dove forward, helped along by the rush of hot air from behind me, and hit the ground in an awkward tumble. It put out the fires, at least, though it seemed that they were already dying all around. This wasn’t fire-oil, then, not the flames that clung and would not stop; this was something far shorter lived. Which made sense, if Hideo had been planning to use it down here; Corbin’s fire-oil would kill him, too, in this enclosed space.


The pain was hitting, now, making me gasp. But I tried to ignore it, pushing myself to my feet and stumbling forward, blinking back tears from the pain.


I couldn’t use channeling against him. That was a very, very big problem. I’d been counting on killing him with that first coin, or at the very least on having a weapon I could use against him.


I realized that I’d reached the edge of the room, and stumbled to a stop, turning to face Hideo. The hard, vicious side of me was taking over again, harsh and logical and brutal.


I was guessing that he’d used fire specifically because he knew that I was spooked by it, and he wanted to keep me from thinking rationally. If so, he’d made a mistake. He’d seen me panic at fire, but there was nowhere to run, and even a rabbit will bite if it’s cornered.


So. Consider, and plan. Hideo was holding that scalpel, but no other obvious weapons, not of the traditional sort. He was larger and stronger than me, most likely more experienced, but largely unarmed. I didn’t have to worry overly about that.


More concerning was what he was holding in his other hand. It was a bit of glass that had a spark of light caged inside it, along with some brilliant blue liquid. I’d seen something very similar right before a burst of light and sound and poison that had incapacitated me for several minutes, when I’d confronted Hideo in the night.


That time, he’d just left as I was lying moaning on the ground. I didn’t think I’d get as lucky this time if he incapacitated me again.


I looked around, trying to think of something I could do about it, and saw that I was standing right next to the spilled barrel of potatoes. It must have been largely empty already, because while there were only around a dozen potatoes on the floor, the barrel itself was virtually empty.


Not the best weapon I’d ever seen, but it would do. I heaved it off the ground, channeling enough through the metal bands around it to take some of the burden off my arms, and threw it at him at the same time as he threw his alchemical weapon at me.


I got lucky, and the two lined up how I’d hoped that they might. The bit of glass sailed into the barrel, and shattered there, rather than continuing on to me.


I heard a loud screech that made me want to curl up and whimper for a while, and saw bursts of light through the openings between the barrel staves. But I was spared from the worst of it by the obstacle between me and the detonation’s source, and it was only uncomfortable rather than debilitating.


The same could not be said of Hideo. The alchemist stumbled back a step with a shout of pain, raising his hands. The barrel crashed into his upraised arms–I wasn’t actively channeling through it since I’d thrown it, which seemed to be enough to keep his defense from deflecting it. Off balance as he was, it carried him straight off his feet and they crashed to the floor together.


I could have taken the opportunity to run. But that wouldn’t have settled anything, and this might be the most vulnerable I’d ever have Hideo.


I had to capitalize on this chance.


There were dozens of half-made pieces of alchemy around the room, and odds were good that many of them were weapons I could have used. But I didn’t know what they were, and using them without knowing that was just a fancy way to commit suicide. Better to rely on what I knew I could trust, and hope it was enough.


Hideo wasn’t affected anything like as badly as I had been. He was operating on merely human senses, after all; where the noise and light had crippled me, he was only inconvenienced. He was still coughing from whatever vapor was in that thing, shaking his head and blinking back tears, but he was standing as I reached him, tossing the barrel aside.


I dropped low and hit him at the knees, slamming my shoulders into his legs. It tore the freshly burned skin there, drawing another gasp of pain from me, but it worked, knocking him down again before he could finish standing.


I drew out the hatchet Black had given me and swung it at Hideo’s head, as hard as I could, as he was lying on the ground.


But I was off balance myself, and without thinking I channeled more force into the swing, putting just that little bit more behind the axe than muscle alone could provide. It was enough to trigger that protection, sending the hatchet swerving to the side. It still hit, biting into his shoulder rather than his skull, but it wasn’t anything like the decisive blow I’d hoped for.


Worse, that change to the direction of the swing caught me off guard, pulling me further off balance. I stumbled past him, and then my trailing foot caught his shoulder and I fell, hard. My grip clenched convulsively around the haft of the axe, and my fall had enough force to pull the weapon out of his shoulder, but when I hit the ground my hand slammed into the ground.


My hand went numb, and my grip went loose, and the hatchet spun off under one of the tables. I was unarmed with anything more impressive than a knife, and flat on my stomach on the floor.


Hideo was quick to capitalize on the sudden shift in fortunes. He was on his knees, still, but he had one hand in a pocket of his robes, likely pulling out some other bit of alchemy that would finish the job. I didn’t think I would be able to dodge this one, not in my current position.


If I’d been what I once was, just a normal human girl with a normal human life, that would have been the end of me.


But I wasn’t, and that mattered. My body was close enough to quadrupedal to fake it, at least a little. I got all four limbs under me and literally threw myself at Hideo, not bothering to stand first.


I was smaller than he was, but I had the advantage of momentum. I bowled him over, and the thing he’d been retrieving rolled away under another table. It looked like a bit of glass, but there was something wrong about it; it was twisted in ways that hurt to look at, like I couldn’t process everything I was seeing.


We rolled across the floor, locked together, and I ended up on top by pure luck. I drew the old legion-issue dagger I’d brought, and thrust it at his ribs.


Here, though, Hideo’s greater strength and experience showed. He twisted aside from the blade, and it did nothing more than graze his skin. Then he pulled some wrestler’s trick, easily overpowering any resistance I could muster, and ended up straddling me, pinning me to the floor. He was holding my knife hand down with one hand, and with the other he reached over and easily plucked the blade out of my grip.


I tried to squirm out, but he obviously knew this game better than I did, and he had no difficulty blocking any movement I could make. He took the dagger and drew back to thrust it into me. His teeth were bared in a snarl, any pretense of civility or humor shed now.


In doing so, though, he left an opening, one which the unusual articulation of my spine left me in a position to take advantage of. I lunged up towards him, teeth first, biting at his face.


My teeth weren’t as obviously inhuman as many of my other features. But they were still heavier and sharper than a person’s ought to be, somewhere between those of a human and a dog. They ripped into flesh and started tearing away chunks as I bit and bit again.


Hideo shouted in pain and surprise, caught off guard by that particular tactic. He tried to cut at me, but he didn’t have the position to do more than lightly slash at my back–wounds, certainly, but nothing that would kill me in a hurry. And all the while I was tearing at his face with my teeth. I could taste blood, and feel it flowing over my face, getting my fur wet.


He grabbed me and pulled me off him, slamming my head back into the floor hard enough to make me see stars.


But I’d seen worse, and now we were in my kind of fight. I squirmed again, and now he was too shaken up to stop me as I twisted and brought my arm up. My claws raked along the inside of his arm.


My claws were not as impressive as those of, say, a mountain lion. But they weren’t just decorative, either. The first stroke tore away the sleeve of his robe, ripping another of my claws out when it tangled in the fabric and I wasn’t willing to wait long enough to work it free. The second stroke, even without that claw, was enough to shred the arm underneath, cutting into the veins and tendons there.


He tried to cut my throat, but the damage I’d just done was enough that he could barely keep a grip on the dagger, let alone use it. I reached up and twisted it out of his hand as easily as he’d taken it from me, earlier. I took it, and set my feet on the floor.


When I stabbed him, I did it hard, arching my back up off the ground and pushing with my legs to put more force behind the blade. The dagger slammed home between his ribs, sinking deep enough that my hand was pressed tight to the blood-soaked fabric of his robes.


Hideo gasped and collapsed on top of me. But I didn’t stop there. I kept stabbing him, pulling the dagger out and slamming it back into him, again and again and again.


I wasn’t sure how long I spent like that. The next thing I was clearly aware, I was lying on the floor under the surveyor–the inquisitor’s–body, absolutely drenched in blood. He was most certainly dead, had likely been dead for some time now. My arm was tired from stabbing him so many times, and I hurt everywhere. It stank of blood and shit and smoke.


I was crying, a steady stream of tears running down my face. I thought I’d probably been crying for a while, too.


It felt like it took a year to lift my arms and slowly push the body off me, at least enough that I could slip out from underneath it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so tired, or so filthy.


And then I heard a very clear voice say, “Stop right there.”


I looked up through tired eyes, blurred by tears, and saw Marcus standing over me. He was wearing full legion armor, and had his sword drawn. He was looking directly at me, lying on the floor soaked in his commanding officer’s blood. And he did not look pleased.


I should probably have done what he told me. But it didn’t seem to matter. I was already exhausted, and hurt. I wouldn’t have bet on myself against a child at the moment, let alone a legionnaire. If he decided to kill me, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. So rather than stop, I slowly, painfully pushed myself to my feet.


Marcus snarled, and drew the sword back to swing at me. It was an overdramatic sort of strike, slow and obvious and far more than was necessary for someone like me. It didn’t matter, since I was far too tired and clumsy to dodge right now anyway.


And then there was a very simple, quietly threatening sort of click behind him. “Drop the sword,” Aelia said. I couldn’t see her from my angle, but from the sound of it she had to be a few feet behind him.


Marcus froze, but didn’t lower the blade. “She just killed an officer of the Crown,” he said, sounding more furious about that than Hideo had.


“And saved all our lives,” Sumi said from next to Aelia. “You heard the man. He was going to throw all of us away to cover his exit. If anything you should be thanking her for killing him before he could.”


Marcus grimaced, but didn’t argue.


“Drop the sword, Marcus,” Aelia said. “I won’t ask again.”


Marcus sighed, and threw the sword to the ground. The ring of steel on stone was shockingly loud. “Someone will have to answer for this,” he said, gesturing at the mangled corpse of the imperial inquisitor on the floor.


“Later,” I said in a thin rasp. “After.”


“We can settle all of this later,” Sumi said firmly. “Assuming any of us are alive to worry about it. For now, we have work to do.”


“I’ll get Silf patched up,” Aelia said, stepping around Marcus into view. She was carrying what looked like a lighter version of an arbalest in her one remaining hand. It should have been difficult, but her arm looked rock steady. “You two go get the village leaders. We still need a plan if any of us are going to make it out of here.”


They didn’t argue. I could hear Sumi’s crutches thumping on the floor as they left.


Aelia waited until they were out of earshot, then sighed and carefully returned the light arbalest to some sort of holster on her back. “Come on,” she said, offering me her hand. “Let’s get out of here.”


I didn’t argue as I let Aelia lead me up out of that cellar. I didn’t look back.


We left the broken body of Hideo Azukara, of His Imperial Majesty the August Emperor of Akitsuro’s Inquisition, forgotten on the ground behind us.

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Cracks 1.25

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I was, I had to admit, impressed at how much the legions had left their mark upon the house in just the short time they’d been occupying it. It had only been…I was losing track of time, but it could only have been a few days since they moved in here. Before that it had been a perfectly ordinary home for decades.


But to look at it now, without knowing better, I would not have guessed at that peaceful history at all. The place looked like a legion outpost, through and through. It smelled like blood, and sweat, and iron. Weapons were lying out almost at random, casually left sitting around the way that farming equipment might have been before–a sword leaning against the wall by the door, daggers on tables, a quiver of bolts spilled on the floor.


Marcus closed the door behind me, and locked it with a heavy, very final-sounding click. It was a new lock; the latch was very obviously newly added, bolted onto the door frame. It looked raw and ugly, but the lock itself was beautiful, black metal that shimmered like oil. When I felt for it, trying to channel, it had a slick feeling that could only belong to alchemical metal.


That lock wasn’t coming open without a key. I’d have an easier time breaking down a wall, I was guessing–and considering that they’d had days to work on them, I was guessing that the walls had been reinforced in some way too.


I was trapped here. My breathing quickened at that realization, and I realized that my hands were clenched, my claws digging into my own skin.


No way out but through, I reminded myself, forcing myself to let my grip relax.


“Wait here,” Marcus said, walking through the room to what looked like a kitchen.


It gave me a chance to look around the room, and see another side of it. I’d already noted that it was a legion building now, through and through. Now I saw how…mundane that could be. There were clothes lying out on the floor, most of them stained with blood. The weapons that were lying around all over the place had maintenance gear set out beside them–oils, sharpening stones, soft cloths. The table had a half eaten meal of bread and sausage sitting out on it; apparently I’d caught them in the middle of lunch.


Aelia was sitting at the table, watching me curiously. She waved vaguely at me with her one remaining hand as she noticed me noticing her. She was holding a hand of cards, and I could see what looked like a game of poker dealt on the table. The coins were all small–iron, for the most part, with here and there a glimmer of bronze.


Ah. So that was why they’d been slow to respond. They’d been in the middle of eating, gambling, trying to forget their circumstances.


Suddenly I resented Marcus less for having been an ass about it. I couldn’t say that I liked it, but I understood it now. As much as I hated the legions, as much as I loathed what they were doing here and everything it represented, it couldn’t be a picnic for them either. If I’d been in his position, trying to get away from that mess, and someone had interrupted me, I wasn’t sure I’d have taken it any better than he had.


I didn’t like following that line of thought. It was…easier, when you could tell yourself that the people you weren’t fond of were wholly in the wrong. It was easier when everything was black and white. Greys…complicated things.


After a few moments, Marcus walked back out, looking like he’d just bitten into a lemon. Possibly one which had just been sprayed by a skunk. “He’ll see you,” the legionnaire said, biting each word off like he was reluctant to let it leave his mouth. “Follow me.”


I moved towards him, as he turned and walked back into the other room. And then, as I passed the table where they’d been sitting, I beckoned for Aelia to follow me. It was something done on impulse, no pause between the initial thought and action for me to consider whether that initial thought had been insane. I hadn’t even finished the movement before I was regretting it.


I was guessing that it was going to be either a brilliant idea or a terrible one. It would depend on a lot of things that I couldn’t predict. Whether I’d correctly guessed what Hideo’s ultimate plan was, and how he’d react when I confronted him with it. Whether I’d judged Aelia’s character correctly. Whether, when push came to shove, her regret for the horrors she’d seen and the horrors she’d done would outweigh her fear.


It was a small gesture, little more than a twitch of my hand at my side. It would be easy to overlook. But Aelia was a career legionnaire, someone who’d spent years with her life riding on noticing small details. Distracted, with her edge dulled by drugs, she was still sharp enough to catch it.


She didn’t react overtly, though. I hadn’t said a word, and the gesture was tiny; it wasn’t hard to see that I didn’t want to make this obvious. And for whatever reason, whether it was because she wanted to help me or because she was suspicious already herself, she was willing to go along with that. I was watching her, and so I saw her eyes focus on my hand, and I noticed her head move in the tiniest of nods. But I was confident no one else noticed a thing.


The other room was, as it turned out, a kitchen, though it also showed the signs of its new inhabitants. I was confident that it had never, in all the time Ilse lived here, been quite this thorough of a mess. Dishes, cooking implements, and half-eaten food was lying on every available surface, weapons scattered through the room. It smelled vaguely foul, not so much a distinct stench as the generalized odor of careless use.


Marcus didn’t stop there, though, going to an open door at the side of the room and gesturing at it. He then promptly turned and went back to his meal, his expression one of mingled boredom and disdain. He didn’t bother to explain, or even wait for me to go in.


I went to the door, and found a set of stairs leading down into the earth. The masonry was old and worn smooth, but it had been fitted together with care, and what looked like some sort of alchemical mortar; it was sturdy. At the bottom was another door, also hanging open.


I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I shrugged and went down the stairs. I was, by this point, very thoroughly committed; there was no way out but through.


At the bottom, I went through the door and pulled it closed behind myself.


If I’d thought the rest of the house was changed, I’d had no idea. This space, now, this was changed from what it had been before the imperials came.


Before, it had been a cellar, not unlike that at the inn. I could still see the hints of that use in the barrels and sacks and crates which had been pushed carelessly to the edges of the space. One of the barrels had fallen and broken open, spilling potatoes across the floor which no one had bothered to pick up.


All of that, though, had been before. Now, it was something very different. Where before it had been a mundane storage area, now it was being turned to a far more exotic end. Tables had been dragged down here–they must have raided the other houses in the village to find so many. On these mismatched tables were dozens of vials and boxes of powders and dusts. A large iron brazier burned in the corner, making the room uncomfortably warm.


I wasn’t terribly well educated on the topic. But not even I could mistake this for anything other than an alchemical laboratory.


I hesitated as I realized that. It meant…well, it meant a great many things, most of which were distinctly ominous for my plans.


Hideo was standing at one of the tables, prodding at something with a scalpel. After a moment I realized that it was a chunk of meat, and judging by the claw it was attached to it must have come from one of the ghouls. The surveyor was wearing his usual heavy robes, his only concession to the heat being sleeves rolled up to the elbows.


“Hello there, Silf,” he said in his usual cheery tone. His broad, friendly smile didn’t touch his eyes at all. “Always a pleasure to see you, of course. I understand you wanted to talk to me about something?”


I licked my lips, listening closely. I could hear the cracking of the fire, the simmer of a liquid on the heat, Hideo’s calm breathing and my considerably faster breaths.


And, very faintly, a rustling outside the door.




“Questions,” I said.


“Excellent,” he said, laying the scalpel down on the desk with a quiet tap. “Questions are how we learn. Ask.”


I hesitated, and then said, “You’re not a surveyor.”


That wasn’t a question, but he answered it anyway. “I dabble in geography,” he said. “It’s better to know what you’re claiming to be, you understand. But no, I don’t primarily work with the Engineering Corps.” Still smiling that same mocking, false smile, he swept into an elaborate bow. “Hideo Azukara, with His Imperial Majesty the August Emperor of Akitsuro’s Inquisition, at your service.”




That was just great.


I nodded with a certain resignation. It was bad news, there was no doubt of that whatsoever, but it was ultimately not that surprising. It had been clear that he wasn’t a surveyor, not really; there was no reason to send a surveyor on this sort of job. But I could see why an inquisitor might end up with this sort of assignment.


We’d been doomed to fail from the start. If I’d had any lingering doubt of that, it was settled now. The imperial inquisition was a scary story told around the campfire, that special sort of myth that everyone secretly knows is real. No one really knew what they did, or how, or even why–which, in itself, spoke volumes about how seldom they acted openly. But everyone knew that inquisitors didn’t come out for good things. They didn’t come out for small things, either.


“Never had a chance,” I muttered, barely even aware of what I was saying.


“I did try to tell you that,” Hideo said helpfully. The smile he was wearing now was more honest, but not necessarily any better for it. It was a nasty sort of smirk, a smile that said he knew exactly how afraid this revelation made me and he wasn’t upset by it at all.


“What’s your out?”


“Excuse me?”


“Your plan,” I said. “You want to watch the ghouls attack, this place get destroyed. What then?”


“Ah,” he said. “You want to know how I’m planning to leave after it happens?”


I nodded.


“Your friend Corbin isn’t the only one who knows how to make a portable ward,” Hideo said. “They aren’t as efficient as the warding posts, but they work well enough for short distances.”


I nodded again. I’d expected something like that. It was why I’d come here, after all.


It was the same plan that Sigmund had proposed to me, essentially. Take the protection and run, leaving the rest of the village to die. The difference being that this version of that plan was far more deliberate, carefully plotted from the start. And knowing that explained quite a few things.


“Just you,” I said, out loud. It made sense. Whatever the relative qualities of his ward and Corbin’s, I was confident that whatever he was using couldn’t protect all that much ground. It had to be based on the same design as the warding posts, and those covered a very limited area.


And besides, it would explain so much. Why Hideo had been so cavalier with the legionnaires, taking them out to roam the hills hunting for ghouls. It would explain why he hadn’t seemed terribly concerned as they were maimed and killed.


“I’m afraid so,” Hideo said. He sounded about as grieved as a man sitting down to a three-course meal with acrobats and courtesans all around. “Though I might extend you an offer to the contrary. You seem to be an exceptionally clever young woman, and the empire could use your service.” He smiled again, and actually winked at me. “Think on it,” he said, picking up his scalpel once more.


Was he being sincere, I wondered? It seemed…unlikely. It was too convenient that he would make that offer here and now, when it would be oh so convenient for him if I was too busy chasing that scrap of hope to act on what I’d just confirmed. And besides, if he was going to take people out of here, why not the legionnaires? He could easily have brought more wards to shield them on the way out if he wanted to.


No, the intention had to be that Branson’s Ford was going to disappear, completely. No one would live to carry news out of here. The emperor couldn’t want that, after all. He had enough problems with resistance in Skelland already; if word got out that he’d chosen to let an entire village die when he had the means to save them, that could only add fuel to the fire.


Not that it really mattered, either way. I wasn’t interested. If I’d been willing to just cut and run and leave everyone else to their fate, I would have taken Sigmund’s offer.


For a moment I entertained the possibility of talking him out of it, convincing him to change his mind. But no. That couldn’t happen, and I knew it. He’d made it clear already that he wasn’t interested in working to save this town–that he considered it already dead, in every way that mattered.


And besides. Would they have given Hideo this job if they didn’t think he had the fortitude to carry it out to the bitter end?


No, talking wasn’t going to solve this. There was nothing I could say that would sway him, nothing I could do that would make him see that things didn’t have to be this way.


But there was one thing that could settle our disagreement. The imperials had taught me that a long time ago, and while I was slow to learn, I did not forget.


I took a deep breath, and took out a coin, rolling the iron around in my hand.

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Cracks 1.24

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I wasn’t sure how to proceed, at that point. Any hope I might have had that this would end well, any lingering assumption I might have had that things would be all right, had been rather thoroughly quashed by that conversation.


It wasn’t just what Sumi had said. It was how he’d said it, the attitude he’d had, everything about how it had been presented. That wasn’t an act, or a passing reaction, or the influence of the drugs. It was the quiet despair of a man who’d fully recognized how hopeless his situation was. It was the attitude of someone who knew that he was going to die, knew it with a certainty that left him at peace with the fact.


I knew that kind of attitude. I’d seen it in the last days of the siege, when it was clear that we could only expect one thing when it broke. Afterwards, in the camps, occasionally someone would get sick in a way that wasn’t going to get better, not in that environment. It was the same attitude, a desperation that had gone so far it wrapped around and became a strange sort of calm.


In an individual fight, I knew what I was doing. But I didn’t know anything about fights that were larger than that, not really. I didn’t have the experience, the grounding to see just how badly off we were. I’d known that things were bad; I’d known that we had a chance of losing.


The naive thing had been assuming that we had a chance to win.


But now that Sumi had pointed it out, now that he’d torn that thoughtless optimism away, I could see what I’d failed to recognize before. We were surrounded, and likely outnumbered. The ghouls–or whatever these things were, but I had to call them something–were coordinated and organized, when we were neither. They had a very good idea of what we were capable of, and they’d demonstrated that they could predict how we would react; we knew nothing about what they could do or what they wanted.


Hideo had said that Branson’s Ford didn’t stand a chance of survival, with or without his help. I’d argued with him, said that you always–always–had to have hope. And I still believed that. But, while his assessment had been harsh, I was no longer certain it had been wrong.


There was always hope. You had to have hope, but part of what that meant was finding something that you could actually hope for.


It had taken a lot for me to recognize it. I’d had to be told by a lot of people. But I was finally starting to see, now, that the survival of Branson’s Ford was not one of those things. Keeping this village intact was, at this point, simply not something that I could hope to achieve. It would take a miracle, and the simple truth was that most causes which needed miracles didn’t get one.


So it was time to start hoping for something else.


I paused in my stride as I realized that. It wasn’t much. A hitch in my step, a momentary pause in my breathing, a blink that went on just a little bit too long. I was almost proud of how little it showed, from the outside.


Then I opened my eyes, which were not going to shed the tears that I could feel welling up in them, and I started walking more purposefully towards the inn.


Once again, I ignored the door and snuck in through my window, barely even slowing as I scrambled up the tree. My leg seemed to be more or less entirely recovered, at least.


Back in my room, I ignored everything that I would normally have done upon returning. I went straight to the locked box at the foot of the bed, and I knelt down next to it.


The box had been a gift from Corbin, shortly after I woke up. It was made of alchemically treated oak, plated with steel, and the tumbler lock was even more complex and difficult to pick than those on the doors. He’d told me that he was giving me the only key, and while at first I’d been sure that he had a copy, when I’d briefly lost mine the only way he’d had to get it open would have involved an axe.


In short, it was a remarkably secure box, the sort of thing that a wealthy merchant might use as a safe.


I knelt down next to it, and pulled out the key. It was a small silver key, very plain in appearance; I kept it on a chain around my neck, rather than with my other keys. I put it into the lock and turned it, being careful to keep pressure on the concealed switch next to the lock as I did. The poison on the dart that would otherwise have gone into my hand wouldn’t have killed me, according to Corbin. But it would have made me very sick, likely too much so to stand, let alone escape with the contents.


When I opened the box, the contents hardly seemed sufficient to justify the security measures. There was a simple copper necklace, the sort of jewelry that was so obviously cheap that no one would even bother to steal it. A scrap of cloth, black long since faded to grey. A small book, the leather cover of which had been so thoroughly stained that sorting out the boundaries of any of the marks was impossible. A bit of quartz–the sort of stone that was pretty, but ultimately valueless–which had been rubbed until it was almost polished.


They looked, in short, very much like what they were–the small treasures of a child. To anyone else, they were almost worthless. To me, they were priceless.


I hadn’t had much, when I fled the Whitewood. We didn’t exactly have time to pack. The attack had come suddenly, and at first we hadn’t even realized it was an attack at all. We’d been too panicked to think, to consider the future beyond the next heartbeat. Of what I had taken as I ran, most of it had been taken from me in the refugee camps. I might have been able to defend myself, but I’d still just been a young girl, not canny enough to keep thieves at bay. All else aside, I’d been all alone, and even the most paranoid person had to sleep sometimes.


So piece by piece I’d lost the pieces of my former life, and replaced them with pieces I’d taken from other refugees in turn. It hadn’t taken so long before my peaceful, happy existence in the Whitewood was nothing more than a distant memory from another life. If someone from back then had seen me, they would never have recognized Silf the merchant’s daughter in the filthy, half-starved girl I’d become.


This was all that was left. A necklace my mother had given me when I was a girl, shiny enough to make a good ornament but not valuable enough to matter if it was lost. A scrap of the shirt my father had been wearing as we fled; it had torn off in my grip as I tried to pull him out from under the rubble, and hours later I’d found it still clutched in my hand, unable to let go even if I’d wanted to. A pretty stone that I’d started carrying for no other reason than that I liked how it looked. And, finally, the journal that I’d kept when I was young.


The scribe who taught me to read and write had encouraged me to keep a journal to practice. I’d found that the process helped me to cope. Even in a civilized city being Changed as a child made things hard, and there were always trials and stresses; writing helped me to put things in order and keep them from eating at me. I’d gotten out of the habit in the camps, since there wasn’t exactly time to sit down and write when you were running for your life, and then never picked it up again.


Not much to show for a life, really. But I knew that I’d gotten lucky. There were plenty of people who’d fled with nothing at all. There were plenty more who never made it out at all.


I stared at the handful of objects in the box for a long, long moment. It felt…strange. I’d kept these things because they meant far too much to me to give them up. But I didn’t actually look at them much; I hadn’t even unlocked this box in months. Now that I did, I remembered why. They felt…distant, alien, unreal. It was hard to remember, hard to even believe that the life these things were a part of had once belonged to me.


Once again, I felt like I was almost watching myself move rather than actually moving as I reached in and took the small tokens out, one by one. I gently folded the cloth, and tucked it into my pocket. The necklace went over my head. It fit tightly now, almost more of a choker, but it fit. I tucked the stone into another pocket, and slipped the journal into a bag. I kept that bag packed with everything I would need if it ever became necessary to run–food, clothes, money, a good knife–and even after years living in Branson’s Ford I was still extremely conscientious about keeping it ready to go. I wasn’t going to be forced to flee with nothing again, not if I had anything to say about it.


I sat there for a moment, and then I took out the rest of the things in the box.


Unlike the others, these weren’t in here for sentimental reasons. They weren’t locked away because they were private. There were entirely more practical reasons why I wouldn’t want anyone else having access to this particular group of objects.


The most benign was a leather pouch full of small, sharp metal objects. For most people it was nothing more than a novel way to cut their hands if they accidentally reached into it. For someone who could channel metal, though, they made significantly more dangerous ammunition than coins.


After that came a spool of thin wire, some needles, a razor–all things that had perfectly respectable, legitimate uses. All of them were also metal, and it wasn’t hard to turn any of them into a weapon.


The legion-issue dagger didn’t have even that veneer of respectability. It was a thin, sturdy blade, designed to punch through the joints in armor. It was meant for killing and little else, and there was no mistaking it for anything but a weapon.


And, finally, a small glass vial full of a thick black liquid. It was a sedative–not the sort that Black had used on me, the precise formulae and exacting care of an imperial alchemist. No, this was a much murkier sort of medicine, a blend of alchemy and herbalism that was more art than science. Even the tinker I’d bought it from had warned me that the results could be unpredictable; one or two drops was safe, but three could have side effects, and more than four was liable to be lethal. Which, in a pinch, made it a perfectly serviceable poison.


I stared at these things for some time. I’d pieced this collection together in those first few months in the village, back when everything and everyone was a threat and I’d badly needed something to make me feel safe. I’d never, in all the time since, had any need of any of it, aside from occasionally using the sedative on myself when sleep was proving particularly difficult.


It had come to be almost funny, a private joke I told myself. Keeping these things on hand had become a sort of game. Keeping them hidden away had become a way of reminding myself that those days, the time when I needed them, was in the past.


I would have loved for it to stay there.


But wishes weren’t enough to change anything, and with times being what they were now, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be needing all of this and more.


Once I had all of that situated to my satisfaction, I closed and locked the box, and then left the room by the window.

As I’d noted, the building which the imperials had taken over as their headquarters had almost an aura around it. There was a palpable feeling of dread hanging around it, and people were going out of their way not to walk too close to the place, or even look at it. I couldn’t blame them. Even without knowing what the legion’s plan for Branson’s Ford was, the reminder of the legion’s presence here was uncomfortable at best.


I tried to ignore that feeling as best I could as I walked up to the front door and rapped on it. I was only partially successful. I could make myself do it, but I was breathing hard as I did, and my hand was shaking as I knocked.


There was no response. I stood and waited for a minute or so before it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a response.


I knocked again. Still no answer.


For an instant I was irrationally concerned for the legionnaires, wondering whether a ghoul had somehow gotten through the wards, snuck through town, and killed them without anyone noticing. Then I heard something from inside–movement, a voice, a laugh. They were alive, all right, and they were in there. They were just ignoring me.


I grimaced at that, feeling a sudden and unexpected anger go through me. Bad enough that I had to listen to these people after everything they’d done to me. Now, with all our lives on the line, they couldn’t even be bothered to answer the door for me.


I debated doing something drastic, like breaking the window with a rock. I reconsidered quickly, though. That sort of thing wouldn’t exactly be inclined to cooperate with me.


Instead, I kept knocking. I pounded on the door with my fist until my arm got tired, and then I switched to the other arm. I even kicked it a few times, just to break up the monotony.


When the door finally opened, I was guessing it was mostly just to shut me up. I’d been standing there for several minutes by then, after all, and I was showing no signs of leaving any time soon.


It was Marcus standing in the door, which was disappointing. He was the only one of the legionnaires with whom I’d had no real interaction, which made it harder to guess how this would go.


Still, I’d come this far, and I didn’t have any other plans. So I just smiled sweetly at him as he opened the door and glowered.


“Go away,” he said, sounding distinctly grumpy.


“Need to talk to Hideo,” I said quickly, before he could close the door.


“The surveyor is busy,” Marcus said, smiling very slightly. “As you might have noticed, there’s a bit of an event going on. Come back later and maybe he’ll be less occupied.”


So he did have a sense of humor. Dry, perhaps, but there all the same. It made him seem more human.


“He wants to talk to me,” I said, insistently. It was, I thought, probably true. “He’s expecting me,” I added a moment later, which was definitely not true.


Marcus knew that, too. I could tell just looking at him that he knew I was making this up. But he couldn’t be sure, not absolutely sure, without actually checking. And if he was wrong, and Hideo somehow was expecting me, he could be sure that turning me away would not make his boss happy.


He didn’t really have a choice. I could see the change in his face as he realized it, too.


“Come inside,” he said gruffly, stepping back from the door the absolute minimum while leaving enough room for me to squeeze inside.


I froze for a moment, the mere notion of actually entering a legion headquarters momentarily leaving me in an absolute panic. My history with the legions had never been a good one, and knowing what I did about why they’d come here just made it worse.


But this was what I’d come here for. And as much as I hated this, I still couldn’t think of any other way to proceed.


So after a few seconds, I set my teeth, choked back the fear as best I could, and stepped inside.

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Cracks 1.23

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I slept poorly. It was starting to feel like I’d never slept any other way. I’d slept most of the previous day, but somehow I still woke feeling restless and uneasy. I went through my usual routine and left my room, stumbling slightly.


I actually forgot to lock my door, and had to turn around halfway down the hall to go and do it. That had never happened before.


Downstairs, things were somehow back to normal. Corbin was up before me, and now he was in the kitchen, building up the fire. I went past him to the taproom, and I unlocked the front door. The old, worn broom was in the corner like usual. It barely whispered against the floor as I started brushing the floor of the room. We hadn’t been keeping up the usual routine of fanatic cleanliness, so there was actually some dirt and debris to sweep out today.


With Black gone, and the mounting panic of the village safely outside the door, it felt almost normal. Like the chaos was gone, and we were back to our routine, our safe little world where everything was always the same. I could almost think that the past few days had been just a bad dream.


You’d expect the things that happened in that room to leave a mark. But there was nothing, not even a stain on the floor where I’d lied on it and come so close to bleeding out. Corbin had coated the floor with an alchemical sealant that kept it from staining, and he’d scrubbed everything after that night.


He came out and started to work on the fire in this room, not saying a word. That was also normal, but the silence didn’t feel the same. There was a tension to it, a wrongness. It wasn’t a comfortable silence anymore.


Just like usual, I walked past him into the kitchen, and went down to the cellar to get things for soup. By the dim light of the alchemical lamp, I wandered around, tossing things into a sack. Potatoes, sweet onions, beets and turnips. Rice. A few carrots, which weren’t there a few days earlier. Corbin must have bought them from one of the farmers while I was busy being maimed and lying around unconscious.


I bumped into one of the suits of armor, a particularly ugly thing with spikes on the shoulders and gauntlets. It startled me, even though it shouldn’t have, and I jumped away with a strangled squeak. I ended up next to the icebox, and opened it on a whim. There was a thick slab of venison inside. Black’s work.


I stared at the meat for a moment, then took it upstairs as well.


The work went by too fast. It wasn’t long at all before the soup was cooking, and the bread was rising, and everything was neatly cleaned and put away. Corbin and I were sitting in the taproom together, silently. On the surface, everything was the same as it always was.


Underneath, nothing could ever be the same again.


“Black’s gone,” I said, finally, breaking a silence that was starting to feel as confining as a cage made of glass.


Corbin nodded, not looking surprised. “She never stays,” he said. “It’s always been that way. She’ll help–she’ll do amazing things–but when things get hard she leaves. I’d hoped it might be different this time.” He paused. “I guess maybe she hoped so, too. But that’s how it goes.”


I nodded. I could understand what he meant by that. It seemed we never really changed.


“Sigmund got hurt the other day,” Corbin commented after a few moments. “Rather badly. Wouldn’t say what happened, but it looked familiar.”


I shrugged.


“What happened?”


I paused, considering how to answer that. “He said some things he shouldn’t have,” I said finally.


Corbin nodded, not looking terribly surprised. “Anything that needs to be dealt with?”


I shook my head. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that was true, since Sigmund had certainly been saying some…concerning things. Even leaving aside what he’d said about me, the idea of him taking the wards and leaving was something that could be a very serious problem. But I thought that I’d scared him and shamed him enough to keep him from doing that.


And regardless, I didn’t want Corbin helping with either of those things. Not right now.


He didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded.


I must have been showing the tension there more openly than I thought, though, because Corbin went silent. He was staring at the bar, the floor, the ceiling–anything at all to avoid looking at me. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow and halting, an awkward pause after every word. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For what I said the other day. If you want to leave, I understand.”


I shook my head, vehemently. “Not your fault,” I said.


He smiled. It was a sad, wry smile, one that made him look a great deal older than he was. “Oh, Silf,” he said. “I appreciate the thought. But there’s no denying what I did.”


I shook my head again, even more forcefully than before. “You tried to do good,” I said. “Did a good thing. Not your fault.”


His smile now was even more sad and broken than before. “You’re so young,” he said, gently. “But it’s kind of you to say that.”


I noted that he hadn’t agreed with me. But I couldn’t see a point in saying anything else. I truly didn’t believe that Corbin was guilty for what happened, now that I’d had a chance to think about it more. But I knew damned well how easy it was to feel guilty for things that weren’t your fault, and I knew how hard it was to argue against that feeling.


After all, even knowing that he hadn’t really done anything wrong, I still couldn’t look at him the same way, and I’d only had a matter of days for that to color my view. He’d had years to stew in it.


“I’m concerned about how things are developing,” he said after a few minutes of silence. It felt more comfortable than the choking, echoing silence earlier, though it still wasn’t comfortable. “Things can’t be good, but with no one coming around here, I can’t keep a finger on the pulse.”


I knew what he was getting at, and why. It made sense. Someone had to make sure that Branson’s Ford wasn’t actually tearing itself to pieces, and I was guessing Corbin didn’t want to be too visible right now. Not with everyone still so acutely aware that he’d pieced together one of the most complicated, secret bits of alchemy there was.


So when he said, “Would you go and take a look around?” I was already nodding. He laughed, wry and only slightly bitter, and shook his head. “All right,” he said. “Eat something before you go, at least.”


Any argument I could have made was overruled by a well-timed grumble from my stomach, and with a half-smile of my own I settled in to eat before I left.


Breakfast consisted of yesterday’s bread, a sharp cheese and a few slices of a spicy sausage, and a pair of fresh apples. I drank a cold hibiscus tea from Akitsuro that didn’t have any of the stimulants of actual tea, while Corbin had cider. It was richer than we would normally eat, but it was hard to care about that at this point.


Feeling somewhat better, I left Corbin sitting alone in a silent inn, and went for a walk.

Things were bad. About as bad as I’d ever seen, I was pretty sure. Even when the city was under siege, the atmosphere hadn’t been so…hopeless.


A few days earlier, the village had felt tense and scared, like a kicked dog. But there’d still been a bit of fight to it, a bit of optimism. People had been treating this menace as something that was bad, a hard time for Branson’s Ford, but ultimately no different than other disasters–a bad flood, a fire, a bout of pox. Things were hard, people died, but life went on. You put on a brave face for the kids, and went to work in the fields, and quietly hoped that you and your family would make it through.


Now that veneer of positivity was gone. No one, not a single person, was working in the fields that I could see. I saw a handful of people as I walked through town, but they weren’t going about their usual routines. Some of them hurried furtively from one building to another, while others were sitting around or wandering aimlessly, like they weren’t sure where to go or why to bother.


No one smiled, or waved, and everyone was armed. Even the few children I saw were carrying knives.


I shivered, and kept walking. I didn’t look too long at what was now the legion headquarters, though I did wonder what the family which had lived there was doing now. There were empty buildings to spare, so at least they probably had a place to stay, but still, it wasn’t easy losing your home and everything you’d built over your life.


I kept walking north, and soon found myself at the edge of the village again. I was about to turn around when I saw someone sitting on a rock, looking out at the river. I hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to think, and then I shrugged and went to join him.


The stump of Sumi’s leg was wrapped in bandages, and he had a pair of simple wooden crutches. But his eyes were very clear, with none of the unfocused look of someone on an alchemical sedative. He looked at me as I sat down next to him, and nodded. “Silf,” he said.


“Nothing to do with us,” I said, quoting what he’d told me about the legion’s purpose here.


He knew exactly what I was referring to. I could tell by the way he flinched away, and then went back to staring at the water. He looked almost ashamed. “Hadn’t realized quite what the plan was when I said that,” he said, apologetically. “I wouldn’t have led you wrong if I’d known.”


I considered that for a moment, then shrugged and nodded. On the whole, I thought I believed him. Sumi would, I was confident, stab me in a heartbeat if that was what he had to do. But he wouldn’t lie about it. He wasn’t that sort of man.


“I don’t care for this sort of thing,” he continued, still staring out over the river. “Doesn’t seem right to sacrifice people this way.”


“So stop it.”


Sumi snorted. “With what?” he asked. “Give me a full cohort and alchemical support, and I could do it, sure. But I might as well ask for a score of Dierkhlani warriors and a battery of channelers as to get that here.” He shook his head. “Saving this village isn’t in the cards, Silf.”


His words hit me like a punch to the gut. I thought it was the tone that did it. Sumi didn’t sound hostile, or despairing. He was almost…apologetic. He made it sound like he really, truly wished that what he was saying wasn’t true, but it was.


If a veteran legionnaire thought the situation was that hopeless, I wasn’t sure I could really argue with his analysis. Sumi had a great deal more in the way of military training and experience than I did, after all. I’d be a fool to ignore that.


“What will you do?” I asked.


He shrugged. “The plan was always for us to leave after this village was destroyed,” he said. “We can travel light when we need to, and we had enough force to handle anything short of a major assault. Now…I don’t know. I can’t exactly keep up like this.” He gestured vaguely at his missing leg. “And they can’t afford any delays if they’re going to outrun the ghouls. So I expect I’ll die here with the rest of you.” His tone was very calm, very casual.


I winced. There was something almost painful about hearing a man describe his own imminent death in the tone and words that someone else might use to talk about a not particularly interesting game of chess.


“Has to be a way out,” I muttered. The words were barely audible.


He smiled sadly. “Sometimes there isn’t,” he said. “I know it feels like there should be. But every battle I ever fought, the other side thought that. They thought they could find a way out, a way to beat us.” He paused. “They couldn’t.”


I grimaced, and nodded. It made sense. If there was anyone who was in a position to know about lost causes, it was a career legionnaire. He’d seen plenty of them, and they hadn’t found a miraculous route to victory at the last moment.


I didn’t have to ask about that. The history of the legions was right in front of me, writ large across the world. All the hopes and dreams of their enemies hadn’t ever amounted to much in the face of superior numbers and alchemical weapons.


“It isn’t hopeless,” he said, likely sensing where my thoughts were going. “You’re smart, and you can take care of yourself. I’m guessing you’ll be all right in the end. But you have to be realistic about these things. Getting you out alive, that’s a realistic goal. Getting everyone out alive? Less so. Actually winning?” He shook his head. “It isn’t going to happen.”


I nodded. I felt almost numb. It was…hard to accept that the village I’d made my home was doomed, damned, simply and utterly hopeless. But everything was pointing in that direction, and trying to pretend that facts weren’t real had never helped anyone.


Which, I supposed, just left one question. What did I do now?


I sat on the rock and stared silently over the river for a while. What were they doing out there, I wondered? Were they sitting and staring back at us, waiting for anyone to poke so much as a finger out of the wards? Were they sharpening their claws and licking their lips in anticipation of the coming feast?


Or perhaps they were doing the same thing we were, in the other direction. Maybe they were so confident of their victory that they didn’t need to worry about preparation. Maybe they were just…going about their lives, doing whatever it was that ghouls did when they weren’t tearing people to pieces. I didn’t actually know.


There was something oddly comforting about that idea. I wasn’t sure why.


After a while I stood, and looked at Sumi. “I’m sorry,” I said.


He just smiled, and watched the river. He didn’t seem to be thinking any of what I’d been considering. He was just…watching the water pass him by. “Life goes on,” he said. “Come what may, life goes on.”


I left him there, sitting on a stone and watching the river as he waited to die.

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