Although our guides remained apprehensive over the next few days, we didn’t encounter any further signs of ‘dire’ creatures, and the trip was largely uneventful. Jack and Norn did get into a brief argument over a rabbit Harold had shot, but neither one held any grudges. Jack just slept far away from the rest of the camp, as always, and was slightly frostier towards Norn than normal.
On the seventh day, we emerged from the forest at about noon to find ourselves overlooking a vast, rolling plain of tall grass, waving majestically in the wind. The grass was a rich emerald green and taller than a man; clearly, it had a good source of water. Perhaps an underground spring.
“We should be there by nightfall,” Harold assured me. “We’ll have to pass through the Briarwood, though.”
I frowned at him. “I didn’t know there were any other forests around here.”
The boy shrugged. “Not really a forest. More like a really big grove. The only reason it even gets a name is because of all the briar bushes. Makes it pretty annoying to get through. Be sure to keep close to us once we’re inside. Most of them are not poisonous, but the thorns will still hurt.”
“Looks like tunnelers have been around here,” Jack called from the edge of the tall grass. “Lots of pitfalls and weak soil. Follow close.”
I looked at Harold, perhaps to get some explanation of what a tunneler was, but he just walked stoically on, not even looking at the rest of us.
Roark, Vale, and Norn gave me questioning looks as our guides pushed their way through the grass. I just shook my head, sighed, and followed after the two boys, matching their path closely.
By the time we reached the Briarwood, while it was still unclear what a tunneler was, what it did was patently obvious. Every once in a while, Jack would lead us around a particular patch of ground, apparently identical to the others. At one point, Norn stepped a little too close, and nearly broke his leg as a tunnel just below the surface caved in under his weight.
After that, we were careful to match Jack’s steps exactly.
However, due to the tall grass obscuring our vision, we—or rather, we four soldiers from the capital—didn’t notice the Briarwood until we stumbled out of the grass and right into the old and gnarled trees.
It immediately became apparent where the forest had received its name. In addition to all manner of short bushes with small and sharp thorns, many of the trees were choked with thick vines, brown with age and strength, and bearing thorns as wide as my hand.
“I’ve never seen vines quite like this,” Roark breathed in something almost like awe. “Do you know what they’re called?”
“We call them bloodvines,” Harold explained as he kept a close eye on the soldier, making sure he didn’t reach out to touch the plant. “Father Mallern thinks they’re a form of rose. The reason why will be obvious if you ever see one of the flowers.”
“Poisonous?” I asked.
“The flowers? Yes, the powder on the petals is a lethal hallucinogen, which will have you smiling as you die. But the thorns are fine.” He stepped forward and grabbed Roark’s hand before he could touch one. “Still sharp and dangerous, however.”
I indicated the vine-choked tree with a wave of my hand. “These bloodvines. Are they…dire, like the pine tree?”
Harold shrugged. “Honestly, we’re not sure. These things showed up a couple years before I was born, while everything else is much more recent. No one knows if they were the herald of what was coming, or just a coincidence.”
I pulled Roark away from the strange plant, and our party set off again.
I had to admit, I found the bloodvines more than a little disturbing, but I had seen far stranger things in my travels to treat them as anything but what they were—exceptionally large thorns, with a rather unsettling habit of climbing up and choking other plants.
We were through the small forest in little over an hour, as promised, but the sky had still fallen dark by the time we exited. It was hard to tell in the dark, but we seemed to be overlooking a uniform and even plain. Fields of crops, perhaps? Were we close enough for that?
“Where is the town?” I asked, peering around as best I could in the thin light of the half-moon.
“Over there,” Harold said, pointing to a slightly darker patch of darkness on the horizon. “It’s about half an hour away.” He shrugged. “It would be less during the day, but we’ve to be careful in the dark.”
“Speaking of which, why is the town so dark?” I asked. Peering close, I couldn’t see a single lantern hanging in a window. Churches, if nothing else, tended to keep a few lit at all times to mark out a safe haven for travelers.
“The town is surrounded by a wall,” the archer explained. “To ward against attacks. Likewise, torches on the walls attract unwanted attention. Only the forge and the church have lights at night.”
Norn walked up, frowning. “Why those two?”
“The church is where Father Mallern and Professor Haber work. And the forge is always needed for new weapons and armor.”
It was the casual way he said it, that they needed so much metal that the town blacksmith was expected to be working at all hours, that finally drove it home.
The town of Grandsbriar was at war. With who, I didn’t know, but the war was real. This was what my king had realized, the moment he read their note. I was embarrassed it had taken me so long to see his wisdom.
“The main path cuts straight through the fields,” Jack called from about ten feet ahead. “It’s a straight shot to the town.”
“But still, be careful,” Harold warned. “We don’t have much time to maintain the roads these days. There might be unexpected potholes.”
Once again, we followed closely behind the villagers and didn’t have any accidents worth mentioning. They still refused to light torches, but they knew the road well enough that it didn’t really matter. Even moving cautiously, we still made good time, and were able to reach Grandsbriar’s walls in about twenty minutes.
Even in the dark, the fortification was impressive. They were at least twenty feet tall, maybe more, and made out of a combination of rough-shod wood still bearing its bark, and a smoother wood that I assumed was more processed than the former. As I was running my hand over the bulwark, I did find a number of snapped-off arrow heads, axe marks, and other signs of battle.
“How do we open the gate?” Vale asked after a moment.
“Is this even it?” Norn grunted.
In answer, Jack raised his thin fingers to his lips and whistled, a shrill and inhuman sound loud enough to wake the dead. “Oi, Gregory! It’s Jack and Harry with the knight from London!”
Silence was the only answer.
Jack turned to his companion. “See anything?”
The archer was staring up at the top of the wall with a frown. “No. I don’t like this.”
“They knew you were coming back soon, right?” Vale asked.
“Yes, but more than that, there is always a sentry. Someone should have heard Jack’s call.” He pulled out his bow, selected a specific arrow, and fired it at the very top of the wall, where it struck with a deep and satisfying sound. On closer inspection, I saw that there was a very thin rope attached to the end of the arrow, which led all the way back down.
“Are you planning on climbing that?” I asked incredulously, as I watched him pulling on the line to test the hold. “It will never support your weight.”
He ignored me, and simply turned to Jack. “You know the deal. Wait for ten minutes, and if you don’t hear from me, run.”
Jack nodded, apparently unworried.
Harold nodded as well, and started walking straight up the side of the wall, going hand over hand on the line. To my complete surprise, it supported his weight without any difficulty. If he was worried about it snapping, he showed no sign.
After a few moments of waiting, the gate began to grind open slowly, pulled vertically upwards by a rope and pulley system I hadn’t noticed. Harold didn’t open it too far, just enough to let the rest of us duck under quickly. Once we were all through, Jack whistled, and the gate slammed down behind us.
Harold clambered down a nearby ladder quickly. “The good news is that there are no bodies or other signs of battle up there. The bad news is that there is not much of anything else. Even Greg’s stupid cigar is gone.”
“That might be a good sign,” Jack mused. “If it was sudden, he wouldn’t have a chance to take that with him.”
“Maybe there is a party,” Vale put in hopefully. “Something that would call him away from the walls for a few minutes. He could even just be answering nature’s call.”
“The village is under siege,” Norn reminded him. “Or they think they’re, at least. They’re not going to leave the gate unguarded, no matter the reason.”
“Period,” the bigger man grunted. “The guard might fall asleep at his post, but he will be at his post.” He turned to the villagers we had brought with us. “What’s your punishment for dereliction of duty?”
“A hundred lashes,” Harold replied. “Assuming the town survives your mistake.”
“See? something is wrong.” He spread his hand, indicating they should lead us deeper into the village. “That forge you mentioned might have answers. Or the church, whichever is closer.”
“The forge,” the archer muttered under his breath a little distantly, lost in thought. “Mister Yaberstein won’t be up, but he has a couple apprentices who tend it at night. They make simple things like arrowheads.” He headed off to the right. “It’s this way.”
Walking through the village was, for me, a slightly unnerving experience. There wasn’t a single lantern lit anywhere I could see, so the entire town was completely dark except for the silver light of the moon. The others—even Harold and Jack—didn’t seem to mind, but I was a city boy. Where I was from, the city never went completely to sleep.
“How much farther to the forge?” I asked after a few minutes. “We should be able to spot it from a ways off, right?”
“We should,” Jack grunted.
“But we can’t,” Harold finished. He stopped and waved his hand at the dark building in front of us, no different from any of the others we had passed other than that it appeared to be made completely out of stone. “This is the forge.”
Norn frowned. “It’s cold. You said it never goes cold.”
“It doesn’t,” Harold insisted. “Something is very wrong.” He flipped out one of the knives from his belt with a practiced dexterity, holding it in a reverse grip. “You four stay here,” he ordered as Jack followed his example. “Your swords won’t do much good in there anyway.”
The young men crept forward into the cold and silent forge quickly but quietly, disappearing into the darkness of the open-air portion of the building before any of us could protest. Luckily, it didn’t take long for them to determine that it was safe.
The soft glow of a lantern spilled out of the building, and Harold’s voice soon followed. “Come on in, guys.”
We did, and quickly discovered why they hadn’t thought our swords would be of much use—the small stone building was simply too cramped for the long blades to be of much use.
The majority of the space was taken up by a large stone pit in the center of the room, filled with ashes and coals, and administered by a large leather device I presumed to be the bellows. There were a few other such mechanisms I didn’t recognize, but I paid them no mind.
What little of the room wasn’t claimed by the forge itself was filled with all other tools of the blacksmith trade. The anvil and barrel of water were the most recognizable, but the strong wooden tables, scuffed with use and covered in metal tools, were also a staple of any forge, as even a city brat like me knew.
The weapons, however, were anything but typical.
Lining the walls were the same style of crude instruments of death as the swords Jack carried. I saw more of those strange thorned swords, massive battleaxes I wouldn’t have even been able to lift, and cruelly spiked pikes that I knew would brutally rip through flesh. I even saw a huge, curved scythe with a long blade clearly designed for reaping more than wheat.
I swallowed. “What sort of Devil’s workshop is this?”
“No, this is the forge,” Jack corrected. “The workshop is next door.”
I couldn’t do much more than parrot him. “Workshop?”
“This is for the metal stuff,” he explained. “Forging, sharpening, and maintaining. The workshop is where the wood and bone is crafted.” He pointed to the scythe blade I had noticed earlier. “It’s also where handles are attached to the blades.”
Now that he mentioned it, I did notice that none of the disturbingly dangerous weapons lining the walls had handles. It wasn’t as obvious with the swords, since they just needed a cross-brace added and the handle wrapped in leather.
“Where is the forge master you mentioned, or his apprentices?” Vale asked quietly, his tone gentle. “Have you seen any sign of them?”
Harold shrugged. “They’re not in their beds. They’re not made, either, but that doesn’t mean much. They never make their beds.” He touched the ashes in the pit gingerly, then dug his hand around more deeply when he wasn’t burned. “Still a little warm, but not hot. It’s been cold for…a day? Not sure, I’m not a smith.”
Norn strode up, pulling off his glove, and mimicked the archer’s action. “A day and a half, I think. Two at the most. How hot does the forge run?” When Harold shook his head, he reiterated the question. “What’s the strongest alloy he can smelt?”
Harold opened his mouth to answer…then turned to Jack, as if asking permission. The swordsman shook his head. “…steel,” the archer answered. “Hotter than steel, actually. Steel melts in under a minute.”
The big soldier raised an eyebrow. “Really? You sure? that’s pretty hot, especially for a forge of this size.”
“We use special wood.”
“All right,” Norn muttered. He pulled his hand out of the ash and wiped it on his pants before replacing his glove. “In that case, the fire burned out within the last day. Probably right before morning last night.”
I did some quick math in my head. “We missed them by sixteen hours?”
“No, that’s when the forge burned out,” he corrected. “Depends on how much fuel they leave in there at a time.”
Harold shook his head. “Hells if I know.”
“Most smiths I know don’t leave more than half a day’s fuel in their forge at a time,” Norn put in. “So it seems like they disappeared about a full day ago, maybe a little more.”
Jack came back through another door. I hadn’t even noticed him leave. “The armory is still mostly full. A couple weapons are missing, but nothing major. Whatever happened, they didn’t march off to war.”
Roark looked between the pair of villagers. “March off to war? Why would they do that when they’ve a great big wall?”
“Monsters are most vulnerable when they’re first spawning,” Harold muttered, not really paying attention to the rest of us. “If they spotted a really big nest, they might have decided to crush it before the monsters inevitably attacked…” He looked up, and noticed the four of us staring at him. “Oh, stop looking at me like that. We don’t have time to coddle you. This is how our world works.”
I exchanged a look with Vale. What if the bandits attacking this village had faked this…spawning, lured the fighters out of the village, and kidnapped the rest while they were defenseless?
“Either way, the church will have more answers,” Harold insisted, heading for the exit. “Father Mallern is very good about records. Whatever happened, he would have left a note. Even one as simple as ‘something weird is happening,’ with a timestamp.”
“All right,” I said with a nod. The king trusted this priest, it seemed only logical that we go to him for answers. “Please lead the way.”
As it turned out, the church wasn’t much farther than the forge had been. We found it after about ten minutes, near where I estimated the center of the village to be. It was a relatively small building, considering its nature, only two stories tall with a large wooden cross jutting from the roof like a tower.
Once again, there were no lanterns or other lights lit, which was clearly beginning to disturb our guides more than a little. Harold took one down from the front porch and sniffed it.
“Cold for at least a day,” he declared. “It’s hard to tell. Father Mallern puts them out every morning. But that fits with Norn’s timeline for the forge.”
“Is there anything we should know before we head in?” I asked, noticing their apparent reluctance to enter.
“…well,” Harold said slowly. “You need to understand that Father Mallern is not the only one who lives here. Professor Haber, the town alchemist, does as well.”
“Alchemist,” I repeated, deadpan.
The archer shrugged uncomfortably. “He is actually a very accomplished scientist.”
“Every alchemist I’ve ever met has blown himself up.”
“Yes, that did happen,” Harold admitted. “That’s why he is living in the church. His old house burned down.” He cleared his throat. “But that’s not the point. The point is, he tends to leave his experiments just lying around everywhere. Don’t touch anything, and don’t freak out.” He opened the door.
The second we followed him inside and lit a lantern, we saw what he was talking about.
The chapel was about normal for a small town church, with a simple and open central room, a shrine at the front, and few of the signs of wealth you saw in the big cities. Ten rows of pews were lined up carefully facing the shrine, with a large wooden cross displayed prominently in front of the window.
That was where the resemblance to a normal church ended.
The pews were covered in experiments, from strange glass devices filled with colored liquids to half-burned skulls and other bones from small animals I couldn’t identify. The walls and floors were covered in white chalk, obscure and arcane notes and calculations apparently scrawled anywhere in reach.
When we reached the front row, we found something slightly different. These pews weren’t host to foul-smelling vats of slime and liquids; rather, they had wooden devices that looked somewhat like spice racks sat upon them. These racks, which covered both pews completely, were filled with small vials. Every single wooden slot held a small glass vial, apparently constructed to fit the rack (or vice versa).
I was no philosopher of the natural sciences myself, so I had no chance of identifying any of the substances I saw before me. But the labels, written in a small and neat hand on every slot, disturbed me greatly. Names like bloodpoison, bloodfire, dire-eye, and worse didn’t bring to mind medicines and balms. Things like this had no place in a church.
The villagers, however, clearly had a different reaction to the sight. Harold glanced over the racks, frowning, while Jack selected a few vials and tucked them into pouches.
“It’s just like the armory,” Harold muttered. “There are a couple missing, but if the entire village had to leave for whatever reason, they would have taken all of it.”
“What’s missing?” I asked, even though I had a feeling I wouldn’t like the answer.
If the archer noticed my consternation, he showed no sign. “Just a few basic poisons. Oh, and woodchewer acid. That’s odd. That’s only useful against, well, wood.”
“…maybe they went after that tree we saw signs of?” Vale hazarded diplomatically.
But Harold shook his head. “Too far. It was headed in the opposite direction of Grandsbriar. I doubt they ever even noticed it, let alone decided to go hunting after it. No, something else must have gone dire nearby. An oak, maybe.”
“Let’s keep looking,” Roark suggested. “You said the priest takes notes.”
“Sir Wreth,” Norn called. I turned and saw him standing behind the shrine, looking at something on the ground. “I may have found something.”
Harold stepped forward. “I can probably help with—”
I stopped him swiftly with a friendly hand on the shoulder. “You’re more useful looking for those notes. Try the chapel library, or the priest’s sleeping chamber. Or the alchemist’s, I suppose. Can you do that?”
The black-haired man nodded, confused but unable to disagree with my logic.
When I joined my subordinate behind the shrine a moment later, my suspicions were confirmed, and I was glad I had sent Harold off elsewhere.
Crumpled up against the shrine was a man in the humble robes of a priest, no more than thirty or forty years old. He had the slight build and glasses of a scholar, and the wrinkled face of a man who smiled almost constantly. Even looking at him like this, I could tell he was a friendly sort, and that I would enjoy spending an afternoon talking with him.
The fact that his throat had been violently ripped out spoiled the image, however.
I bent down close, careful not to disturb anything as I peered at the grisly wound. However, I was a soldier, not an investigator. I could tell it wasn’t a clean cut, probably the bite of a wolf or the claws of a bear, but I simply didn’t have the training to determine more.
“Get Roark over here,” I said quietly. “And keep the kids away.”
A moment later, Norn had been replaced by Roark, and the young soldier was kneeling down next to me.
“What do you see?” I asked. He didn’t have any more training than I did, but he had sharper eyes. Besides, he was a woodsman, used to living alone in the wilderness by the skin of his wits. He had a keen attention to detail that had served us well in situations such as this before.
“Throat is torn, not cut,” he muttered. I didn’t say anything; he knew I knew, he was just thinking out loud. “And his eyes are still open, so he probably died quick.” He touched the priest’s vestments lightly, trying to see the skin underneath without actually disturbing the body. “Don’t seem to be any other wounds.”
“So…whatever did this was big, fast, and intelligent enough to know it won?”
“Maybe. But something is off…” He glanced around the area in front of the window. “nothing has really been disturbed. There was no fight here. Either the attacker struck with needle-like precision, or he didn’t die here.”
I made my own observation quickly. “There is quite a bit of blood under the corpse, though maybe not quite as much as I would expect. Carpet has soaked up a lot, too. Pretty sure he did die here, unless something weirder is happening.”
“Weird describes this entire town,” Roark muttered. “But still, I think you’re right. That means a lightning-fast enemy strong enough to rip out his throat, smart enough to know it won, and not hungry enough to actually eat him.” He looked me in the eye. “There is only one animal like that.”
“Human,” I finished.
“Human,” he confirmed. “Still a little confused about the shape of the wound, but there are ways for a man to cause a wound like that.” He flexed his hand, covered in a steel gauntlet. “A gauntlet might do the trick, but the attacker would have to be freakishly strong.”
“It wasn’t a villager,” a soft voice said behind us. We both turned to see Jack, standing there with a full view of the corpse as calm as can be. “Even ignoring that Father Mallern was key to the town’s defense, any villager would have known about the secret chamber, and would have looted it.”
God damn it. I had suspected this was Mallern, but was really hoping I was mistaken. Now, instead of just finding the priest and speaking to him, our investigation had no clear means of achieving our goal. I knew that the king would still want us to search further, dead priest or no dead priest, but it was going to be harder now.
Roark, however, was more curious about what the swordsman had said about the secret chamber. “How do you know they didn’t?”
“Because Father Mallern is lying on it,” Jack explained. “And it looks like that’s where he died. They would have had to move him to get in there.”
I managed a small, humorless smile. “Like we’re about to do?”
“Like we’re about to do. Just pick him up and put him down next to the window please.” Roark and I moved quickly to do so. “Thank you. And now…” The young swordsman grabbed the cross and put all his weight on it, pulling it down on a disguised hinge. The floor Mallern had been lying on slid away, revealing a small set of stone steps, mostly covered in blood, leading down. “…voila.”
“Dare I ask why there is a secret chamber under your church?”
“This used to be the town hall.” He shrugged. “Actually, it kind of is again, since the mayor was one of the first to get sick with the north wind plague and so on. The point is, the first mayor of the town wanted somewhere to hide his wine.”
The swordsman led me down the steep steps—Roark stayed behind, since it was too small and cramped for three people—and I found myself in a small and beautiful library. It was just the one room, five feet on each side, but the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with books.
In the middle of the floor, there were a half a dozen leather-bound journals, apparently just dropped haphazardly. Judging by Jack’s quick efforts to collect them, they were the only important books in the room.
“What are those, exactly?” I asked.
“Father Mallern’s journals,” the villager explained stoically as he handed me a stack to carry. “He probably tossed them down here when he knew he was going to be attacked.”
“I suppose that confirms a human opponent. He wouldn’t need to hide them from an animal.”
“Maybe. But it still wasn’t a villager.”
I tried not to sound condescending. I knew what it was like, living in a small group, where everyone had to depend on each other. It was hard to imagine one of them betraying another. “It could just be the bandits, but don’t dismiss the possibility of a villager. We don’t have enough information.”
“There is only one reason to kill Father Mallern,” Jack explained calmly as he sorted his own stack. “To destabilize the town and its defense. This is not about refusing to believe someone from Grandsbriar could do it—it’s just that if they did, they would know his notes are nearly as important as he is, and they would know where to find them. This was an outsider.” He nodded at the stairs, and I headed up ahead of him.
We found Harold weeping over the priest’s corpse.
He stepped back when he noticed us, wiping his eyes and sniffling, but his eyes were still obviously red and puffy. Jack didn’t say anything, so I saw no need to draw attention to it either. Instead, I just changed the subject. “We found his journals.”
The archer nodded. “Good. There is a table in the kitchen. Go through that doorway there, hidden behind the curtain.” I pulled aside the curtain in question, revealing a small, dark corridor. No actual door, though. “Yes, that’s it.”
The kitchen was as small as you would expect in a church such as this, just an oven with a stove, and an icebox next to the door outside. There were some plates and other dishes in the cupboards, and a nice strong oak table with five chairs.
Jack and I placed the books on the table, and I looked around. “Is there a pantry or anything nearby? We should probably stock up.”
“There is an attached pantry outside,” Jack informed me. “Right outside the door, where it stays cold.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Then why is there an icebox?”
“That’s just for fish.”
That made no sense to me, but I had to assume it was some rural thing that had something to do with nature and country air or what have you.
“Harold says there are blankets in here somewhere,” Vale said as he came up behind us. The blond soldier turned to Jack. “Do you’ve any idea what he is planning to do with Father Mallern’s body? I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to go out to bury it alone.”
“We’ve been cremating corpse recently, ever since bone dancers started running around.” I had a feeling I really didn’t want to know what a bone dancer was. “But with the forge cold, there is not really anywhere we can do that.”
“Maybe he will try and light the forge,” Roark suggested, coming in with another load of books to plop on the table. A quick glance at the spines made it clear that these were professional books, not Mallern’s journals. To my surprise, most of them were science and medical textbooks, not the theology texts I had expected.
“Harold doesn’t have the skills to get it hot enough on his own,” Jack answered the ranger.
I stopped peering over the books Roark had brought as something occurred to me. “Norn is the son of a smith. He might be able to do it.”
Vale frowned. “I had been wondering where he got off to. Should we send someone after them?”
I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. “No. We need Jack here with us, and no one else knows the town. I don’t trust this place enough to go out at night without a guide.” I nodded to the swordsman. “No offense.”
“The local priest has been found dead in his own chapel,” he pointed out. “Your caution is more than justified.”
“We should probably take a look around the town once they get back,” Roark suggested. “Just knock on some doors. Maybe the rest of the villagers are still here, just hiding inside and scared.”
“They would have guards on the wall,” Jack said firmly. “Anything else would be suicide. I can’t imagine what would make them abandon Grandsbriar, but Father Mallern’s journals might provide a hint.” He looked through the books for a moment, before finding the one he wanted and flipping to the back. “This should be the most recent. Give me a minute.”
“You can read?” I asked in surprise.
“Not with you bothering me,” he grunted. “Follow the hallway around, you will find the priest’s quarters. See if there are any clues, and even if there are not, you can bring back some blankets from the linens closet.”
Roark raised an eyebrow. “If there are bedrooms, why can’t we sleep there?”
The swordsman didn’t look up from his book. “Because I don’t feel like sleeping in a dead man’s bed.”
We reluctantly walked off—I signaled Vale to stay behind and keep an eye on the villager—and found the bedrooms as quickly as Jack had implied.
There were only two rooms, presumably the main priest’s quarters and a guest’s quarters. A single glance was enough to determine which was which; the priest’s was neat and tidy, with the bed made and not a single item out of place. The alchemist’s room was filled with junk of all description, the bed linens flung everywhere, and both the walls and hardwood floors covered in even more illegible chalk scrawls than the main hall.
“I suppose we found out why he was vandalizing the church,” Roark said with a chuckle. “He ran out of room here.”
“Let’s start with the priest’s room,” I suggested, pulling my subordinate away from the disaster area where the alchemist apparently slept. “I think it might take months to sort through that mess.”
As it turned out, there wasn’t much of interest in Father Mallern’s room. The dresser held some more of his priestly vestments, as well as some rough-hewn civilian clothes, while the bedside table simply had a well-worn Bible and some spare candles.
“There is nothing here,” Roark grunted. He leafed through the Bible. “Not even a couple notes written in the margins. I think this guy did most of his work in the main hall.”
I checked some of the common hiding places—behind the drawers, under floorboards, secret pocket sewn into the mattress—but didn’t find anything. “I think you’re right. This was just a place to sleep. I don’t think he even wrote in his journal here. I don’t see any ink stains on the sheets.”
Roark rubbed his forehead in consternation. “Does this mean we’ve to go through the alchemist’s room? I doubt it’s safe.”
“We’ve to at least look it over,” I said with a sigh. “Just be careful not to touch anything.”
The alchemist’s room was as impossible to sort through as expected. Piles of loose papers covered in sketches and calculations were mixed haphazardly with strange and unidentified bits of metal and stone. Then there were the items which appeared to be samples from plants and animals; strangely shaped teeth, roots that coiled like a spring, even a few pickled eyes and other organs, stored in glass jars and tossed aside like the rest of the trash. The only saving grace was that there were no active experiments, like the bubbling devices in the main hall.
“All right,” Roark said after ten or twenty minutes. “I give up. If there is something here, we’ve no way of identifying it. I mean,” he picked up a small jar with a tongue inside. “for all we know, this is a human tongue.”
“I agree.” I quickly corrected myself. “Not that that’s a human tongue, but that we simply don’t have the training to sort through this. Jack or Harold might be of help, but I doubt it.”
The ranger nodded. “They’re hunters and trackers, not scientists.”
“Let’s just grab the linens and go. Norn and Harold should be back by now.”
The closet Jack had mentioned was just a few feet from the rooms, so it didn’t take us long to gather up everything we could carry and head back towards the kitchen. The blankets were warm and soft; they would be a vast improvement over the itchy camp blankets we had been using out in the field.
When we returned to the kitchen, our missing companions had indeed finished their task. Neither of them said anything, but I could smell ash on them both, so I didn’t see a need to ask questions.
“Any luck with the journals?” I asked Jack as we set the linens on the table.
He shook his head. “I think we’ve a timeline—the last entry is the morning before yesterday—but it’s nothing that implies he thought he was in danger from anyone. Just a standard after action report.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“After action report,” the swordsman repeated, eying me warily. “You’re a soldier. Don’t you know what that’s? You write down what happened during the battle, who died, how many of the enemy were killed, what damage they used, interesting tactics, all that. Anything you might need for next time.”
“Oh.” I think I had seen some officers doing things like that, but I had never really been in charge of a battle large enough to merit something like that, myself. “What’s it say?”
He shrugged. “Nothing major. A dozen dire men attacked at dawn, the town fought them off. No causalities.” He frowned at the book. “That’s odd. It took thirty-eight arrows for a dozen sinhearts? That can’t be right.” He turned a page. “Oh. Two of them had shields. That’s a little worrying.”
“And dire men are…?”
“Human-shaped monsters,” Harold explained. “Big, loud, dangerous. They usually use swords, like the ones Jack has, but sometimes they’ve bows too. Or shields, I suppose. That’s a new one.”
Those would be the bandits themselves, if I were any judge. I looked at my men, trying to figure out how to suggest such a thing to the boys. Vale just shrugged; Roark and Norn didn’t even appear to be paying attention.
“All right, whatever,” I muttered. “We can deal with that later. For now, let’s batten down the hatches. Vale, Roark, make sure every door and window is locked tight. Norn, take Harold and try and find anything else useful in here. Jack and I’ll set up the beds, such as they are.”
Getting ready turned out to be easier than expected. Vale and Roark returned within ten minutes to explain that every single window, door, and air vent in the building had a strong metal barricade just waiting to be slotted into place—which they had done. Norn and Harold didn’t find much besides food and candles, but it would be enough. And of course, spreading out blankets and pillows on the kitchen floor was simple.
After dinner—bread and cold chicken; we didn’t want to light the oven—I volunteered for first watch. I settled into one of the chairs, back to the wall and facing the nearest door, while everyone else slipped into their makeshift beds. As usual, Jack pulled his sleeping pad away from the others, this time about halfway down the corridor to the main hall, almost out of sight.
“Don’t go too far,” I warned him. “I know this place is safer than camping out in the open, but don’t let your guard down. I want you to stay where I can see you.”
The young swordsman frowned. The problem I had pointed out was that the corridor to the main hall was behind me. I could see him if I turned around, but that sort of defeated the purpose of putting my back to the wall.
However, he understood the warning behind my glare, so he just sighed and pulled his bedding into a corner of the kitchen, putting me and my chair between him and the rest of the party. I never had asked why he always insisted on sleeping separately, and didn’t think now was a good time to bring it up.
Before he turned in for the night, he handed me one of Father Mallern’s books. “Here. This is the first of his monsterpedias.”
I raised an eyebrow as I took the leather-bound tome. “His what?”
“It’s just his observations about the monsters we’ve fought.” The swordsman shook his head at my expression. “I know you don’t believe me. But you’re right, knowledge is power. You should know what you’re up against.” He slipped under his blankets before I could retort, swiftly ending the conversation.
I sighed. Well, monsters or delusions or costumed bandits, it would be a good idea to learn what the villagers of Grandsbriar thought they were up against. I cracked open the journal and began to read by the flickering light of the solitary candle.