And Then There Were Monsters Scene 8

I rubbed my forehead, took a deep breath, and started walking over to Jack’s side of the lake, while signaling to our distant ally with a wave that it was safe to join us. As I reached the corpses, Jack was extinguishing the last one by dipping his head into the pond. The other burning head, the one he had cut off the body it belonged to, he had already kicked into the water.

“do not forget to fish that out as soon as you get a chance,” I warned, finding something relatively normal about the whole situation and gripping it as tightly as I possibly could. “You do not want it to foul the water.”

“Good point,” he said with a nod. He pulled his swords sheaths off, dropped them on the ground, and dove into the pond after the severed head.

that is about when Harold ran up, still holding his bow. Roark, Vale, and Norn were not far behind. The archer frowned at his companion’s antics, but focused his attention on me. “What happened? We were wondering what was taking you two so long, and then we heard sinhearts.”

“Yes, sir, we would really like an explanation,” Vale added. Roark and Norn were observing the corpses, trying to figure out what to make of them, but the blond night was just trying not to step on them. “What exactly are these things?”

I chuckled. “Sorry, Vale, I am not sure I know. But I think we are going to need to pay more attention to what these boys have to say.”

Harold’s frown deepened. “Boys? What?”

“You and Jack,” I said, indicating the swordsman who was climbing out of the water on our side of the pond. I stepped aside to let him pass, and he dropped the head he had gone looking for on the pile. “I am sure you have a better idea of what these things are than we do.”

“Well, yes, but—”

I poked the corpse of the one that Jack had stabbed in the chest. Black blood was still spilling from his wounds, and looking close it was patently obvious that he was not wearing any makeup. I tugged on an ear, just to be sure. Yep, real.

I stood back up, wiping my hands on my pants, and turned back to the archer, hiding my anxiousness over my completely shattered worldview with courtly politeness. “I am sorry, you two. For not believing anything you said. Just one of those creatures fought me like I was a babe who had never held a sword before. If Jack had not come when he did, I would be dead.”

Harold held up his hand. “I am going to just stop you right there, Sir Wreth. I am glad that you believe us.” He shrugged. “Honestly, I would be deeply worried about your mental state if you did not after an attack by dire men. But there is something we should probably get out of the way first.” He clapped his sword-wielding friend on the shoulder. “What do you think Jack’s name is?”

That question came out of the blue. I frowned at the young man. He was far more handsome than I had expected, now that most of the grime was washed off his face from multiple dips in the pond. “Jack Grandsbriar, I assume?” Both boys seemed shocked by this; I just smiled. “I did some research before coming here, you know. I at least checked to see who the mayor was, and if he had any family.”

Harold looked at Jack, who shrugged. A moment later, the archer did the same. “All right, that is actually a good point. Jack’s grandfather was the town mayor. But that is not what I meant.” He looked me in the eye. “Jack is short for Jacqueline.”

I chuckled. “No wonder you go by Jack. I have never heard of anyone named Jacqueline who was not a giiirl oh crap.”

She rolled her eyes. “Please tell me this is not going to become a problem.”

I sputtered, not really sure where to start. “How could this not be a problem!? Women cannot fight!”

“Better than you.”

I pulled at my hair. “But, you are—you are the same age as my daughter!”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“She is not even interested in boys yet! How can you be…be…a killer!”

“Wait,” Vale said slowly. “I thought your daughter was five.”

“My—” I sighed. “My other daughter. Isabelle is five, Gerian is seventeen.”

The swordsman—swordswoman—chuckled, grinning evilly. “You think a seventeen year-old girl is not interested in the opposite sex? Either she is the best liar in the world, or bent like a rainbow.”

I could not deal with this. I turned to the others. “Help me out here.”

Vale nodded. “Sir Wreth is quite right. Violence is a masculine pursuit, my dear. I understand taking up weapons to defend your home, but you should not be expected to jump headfirst into danger now that we are here.”

The young woman opened her mouth to snap back, but was interrupted by Norn.

“Actually, I think the girlie has a point,” the big man rumbled. “She can fight, we need a fighter. Who cares what kind of plumbing she is got?”

Vale frowned at him. “do not you have six sisters?”

“Yes. I am the only boy, and my dad’s dead. What do you think I expect them to do if there is danger while I am gone, cower in the corner?” He shook his head. “I am not the best fighter in the family. We just knew my eldest sister would never be allowed to join His Majesty’s forces.” He bowed slightly to Jacqueline. “You are a little braver than my sister, if nothing else.”

I glared at the big man, but he met my gaze without fear. Knowing that would not get me anywhere, I turned back to Harold. “What about you? How can you possibly think this is a good idea?”

“Well, at first, I was against it,” he admitted. “But then she saved my life a couple times, and I realized complaining is stupid.” He smiled thinly.

I sighed. Yes, I could take a hint.

“Fine,” I muttered. “Whatever. Thank you for saving my life and so on.” I turned to eye the massive hole in the wall. “Jacqueline—”

Jack.”

“…right. You said you did not know what caused that hole in the wall.”

She nodded. “Yes. A giant, maybe, but…” she turned to Harold.

He shook his head. “I have got nothing. A giant is the only thing I can imagine that is strong enough, but sinhearts have never worked with them before. And I could not imagine one just deciding to attack on its own.”

“At least we figured out why the villagers left,” Vale pointed out. “They must have thought they could not defend Grandsbriar with a giant hole in the wall.”

Roark squinted towards the hole in question. “But repairing it should not have been too difficult. The only reason to leave is if there were more enemies than they could reasonably fight. More of those…sinhearts, maybe?”

“Take a look,” I suggested. “I did not see enough tracks to make me think an army had marched in here, but you have always been a better tracker than me.”

The ranger nodded and walked around the pond towards the field in question.

“Other than the wall and the dead priest, the town seems in fine condition,” Norn noted, looking around the village as if to confirm the point to himself. “The boy and I checked a few houses this morning, and we did not see anything else amiss.”

“Well, our building materials were running a little low,” Harold mused. “It could be that with Father Mallern de—with Father Mallern gone, and no way to fix the wall, they decided to migrate elsewhere.”

“Where would they go?” I asked.

The archer shrugged. “No idea. I would say the Briarwood, but like I said, it is small. We would have seen some sign of them when we were marching through it yesterday. Honestly, I do not think they even went in that direction.”

Vale stepped up, smiling in a reassuring manner. “Let us start with the people. Who would take charge, without Father Mallern? The mayor is dead, correct? Would it be that alchemist, Professor Haber?”

That elicited a laugh. “That crazy coot? No, no, definitely not.” He sobered up, and thought for a moment. “…Mister Yaberstein. The town smith. Or maybe Miss Orange. She is in charge of the livestock.”

“The livestock that escaped,” I pointed out.

“Maybe. Or they took some of them with them,” Vale suggested.

But Harold shook his head. “No. Everything we have these days is dire. They might not be as aggressive as the wolves and oaks and cattle, but even a dire fox will fight like a demon if you try to put it on a leash. No, she would have ordered them killed for their meat. Easier that way.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as the three of us tried to absorb what he had just said.

“Anyway,” Jack said when it became clear that no one else was going to break the silence. “I do not know where Mister Yaberstein would take the townspeople. He has a pretty thick accent, so we do not know him very well.”

Vale nodded. “All right, what about this Miss Orange? If she is not the leader, she is at least an adviser. Do you know where she would suggest taking everyone? Besides the Briarwood, obviously.”

The villagers looked at each other for a moment.

“Well…there is the Hellpit,” Harold said slowly. “It is a pit in the plains, a few miles south of Grandsbriar. There are lots of caves and so on to hide in, so it might work. There was actually talk about setting up an outpost there, but it never got off the ground.”

“With a name like the Hellpit, I cannot imagine why,” Roark muttered as he stepped back into the conversation. “I did not see any tracks that could have been an army, even a small one. I also think the villagers did not leave that way.”

Harold nodded. “They must have gone through the south gate. That supports the Hellpit being their final destination.”

“Right,” I said slowly. I did not want to discourage him finally coming up with an idea and a plan of action, but when dealing with a place called ‘the Hellpit,’ you needed all the information you could get. “About that name…”

“The night the monsters started appearing, a meteor crashed down south of town,” Jack explained. “Dug a nice big hole, exposed some cave systems and even ore veins. As far as Father Mallern and Professor Haber could figure, it was a coincidence, but at the time, it looked like the meteor caused the monsters.” She shrugged. “The name stuck.”

“All right, all right.” A perfectly normal place with a weird name. It sounded strong and defensible, so the villagers might be there. Making our way their was a clear goal that I could understand. “We should probably get going as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning at the latest.”

Everyone else nodded, muttering a slight chorus of assent.

“We have already secured food—and shelter, if we end up staying the night again,” I began. “But we need weapons, and knowledge. My sword barely scratched that…savage—”

“Sinheart,” Harold added helpfully.

“…yes. And then he cut my blade in half with his sword.” I pointed to Jack. “And when I tried to pick one up, the thing weighed some thirty pounds, but you swing around two like they weigh nothing. Not to mention Harold’s fire arrows.” I placed my hands on my hips and glared at them. “Start talking.”

Harold glanced at Jack. She just shook her head and backed away, leaving the task to him. He nodded, resigned to it. “All right. First, Let us get away from these bodies.” We moved away from the pond, around the corner of the water house, until we were about fifteen feet upwind of the corpses. “Let us start simple.” He pulled out one of the fallen blades from the dead sinhearts, and held it out in front of him, laying flat across both hands.

Now that I had a better chance to observe the weapon, I could tell that the greyish-black sword, while obviously the same form as Jack’s, did not have an owner attentive to its care. The blade was filthy instead of polished to a mirror sheen, and there were a few very small nicks along the edge. Not to mention it lacked a cross guard altogether.

“This is the sword of a sinheart,” Harold began. “Also called a dire sword or a sinblade. It is forged of a metal we call dire steel. It weighs about ten times as much as normal steel, but is also about ten times as strong. Pretty much the only thing that can damage something made of dire steel is something else made of dire steel, or the ridiculously high temperatures we keep at the forge.”

“How high?” Norn interrupted, curious.

“High enough to melt normal steel in an instant,” the archer assured him. “High enough that even with thick forge leathers, the smith and his apprentices need to drench themselves in cold water just to be in the same room as the lit forge.”

“What kind of wood gets that got?”

“Dire oak wood, with some other monster materials mixed in for extra strength.” Seeing that the big man had no further questions on the matter, he turned his attention back to the matter at hand. “As Sir Wreth noted, this specimen weighs approximately thirty pounds.” He bounced it in his hands for a moment. “Maybe as high as thirty-two. The sinhearts swing it around with pure strength, but we have to use something else.”

Jack stepped up, unlacing the bracers along her arms. Now that I knew what I was looking at, I was able to identify the greyish-black material they were made from was dire steel, except for the leather parts necessary to make it even slightly adjustable.

She tossed one to me. I nearly fumbled it, not expecting the weight. It had to be…five? Ten pounds? No, not ten, surely, still far too heavy for what was supposed to be just light wrist armor.

“These are called dire-weight bracers,” Harold continued. “Very interesting design, and one that was stumbled upon by Professor Haber almost completely by accident. Using the leather from a dire hawk—”

“You cannot get leather from a hawk,” Roark interrupted. He took the bracer from me, turning it over in his hands. He passed it back after a moment. “At least not good, pliable leather like this. It is too thick, too.”

Dire hawk,” the archer emphasized. “They do not even fly anymore.”

Roark, a little nonplussed, fell silent, and Harold resumed his lecture.

“Using the leather from a dire hawk, properly cured with bloodfire—I will explain that one in a moment—combined with dire steel, creates an item with some very surprising properties. Sir Wreth, please, put it on.”

I did so, and the bracer immediately felt lighter, before I even started lacing it up. Harold smiled when he noticed my reaction, and handed me the sinblade, the naked hilt first.

Taking the sword in the same hand as the arm with the bracer, I almost cut Harold from misjudging the weight—not because it was too heavy, but because it was jaw-droppingly light. It could not have been more than two pounds, at most, and I was pretty sure it was less than one.

Thankfully, the archer had anticipated that reaction, and stepped back pretty quickly when I grasped the hilt. “You feel that? How it is light as a feather? All our hunters who use sinblades have bracers like that. Mister Yaberstein is also working on full-plate made of dire steel, that will weigh less than the mail you are wearing right now.”

“This is amazing,” I whispered as I swung the sword around a bit more, my mind already churning to think of all the potential applications of something like this. “A miracle. An absolute miracle.”

“We have a few more items like this,” Harold chirped happily. “Things that almost seem like magic. Unfortunately, although Father Mallern and Professor Haber have documented everything as best as they can, they still cannot determine exactly how these things work. Mostly, they are just throwing things together and seeing what happens.”

“So, what, they made one of these bracers randomly and it turned out to do…this?” Norn asked, bewildered. “That is insane!”

Harold shrugged. “Actually, it was more that Professor Haber left a large piece of the leather lying on top of an ingot of dire steel, and found it to be far lighter than it was supposed to be. As long as you are touching both the leather and the steel, the effect works. The precise shape does not really matter.”

I swung the sword around a bit more. “Absolutely amazing.”

“We will have to check the stores to know for sure, but I think we have at least two pairs—so I suppose that would be for Sir Wreth and Norn.” The archer smiled apologetically at Roark and Vale. “Sorry, you two, but I cannot guarantee anything for you two. Other than some knives and such.”

Vale gave him a much happier smile in return. “I am sure that will be quite all right.”

“Roark, you are good with a bow, right?” I asked. “They can probably find something like that thing Harold’s using. Oh, which reminds me.” I turned on the young villager. “How, exactly, did you light those things on fire?”

He nodded. “Ah, right.” He reached back and pulled out an arrow, and showed us all the tip. It was not dire steel, to my surprise; it was actually a hollow wooden thorn, affixed to the shaft with sinew, and the holes packed with some type of clay.

“This is from a dire thorn bush,” he explained. “The thorn itself has a poison, but it is not really useful against anything dire or worse. So we fill it with bloodfire, an alchemical solution Professor Haber invented, which ignites monster blood on contact.”

Roark reached forward to touch it. He did not touch the sharp tip, but did rub his armored thumb against the wood to no effect. “Huh. Stronger than I thought.”

“It is not as strong as steel—normal or dire—but it is definitely stronger than normal wood,” Harold confirmed. “Pretty much anything monstrous is stronger than the mundane equivalents. Bloodfire does not ignite human blood, but it is still mildly poisonous, so be careful.”

“Anything else?” I pressed. “Things we need to know in case we get separated along the way?” I nodded to myself, having thought of a good question. “For example, this Hellpit. Where is it, exactly?”

“Three or four days south of Grandsbriar,” Jack interjected. “Two if we hurry, but we do not want to travel at night. You should be able to see it from any sufficiently high place, like Witch’s Rock.”

Harold gave her a look. “do not send them to Witch’s Rock. Seriously, that place was dangerous even before the bone-dancers moved in.”

I rubbed my temples, trying and failing to get rid of a headache. “I assume Witch’s Rock is some stone formation. But you have mentioned bone-dancers before. Dare I ask what those are? Some sort of monster, obviously, but more than that.”

“Well, first off, they are precipitates,” the archer explained.

I nodded. “All right, all right. Now…what the Hell does that mean?”

He frowned. “We did not…explain?” He shook his head vigorously. “Right, sorry! Must have just slipped my mind. Anyway, a precipitate is a monster that is just spawned full-bodied out of nothing, unlike the dire animals, which are, well, transformed animals.”

Vale blanched. “So, what, monsters can just appear anywhere without any warning?”

“No,” Jack stepped in quickly. “There is a safe zone, same as going dire. It never happens too close to town. Plus, there are specific times and places when it happens. Tunnelers, for example, only spawn underground, and giants only on the cloudiest of days. Sinhearts appear in hordes every new moon. Location does not seem to matter.”

Something about that did not add up. “Wait. I thought sinhearts were men who had gone dire. You keep calling them dire men, so…”

Harold winced. “Sorry about that. That is our mistake. Back in the first couple of months, when we were still sorting everything out, that is exactly what we thought. That they were men—specifically, the monks of a small abbey nearby that was destroyed—who had been transformed by dire spirits. Turns out that was wrong, but we still have not gotten out of the habit of using the name.”

“I will take a confusing name over the possibility of becoming one of those things,” Norn muttered under his breath.

“Agreed,” Vale added. “But Let us get back on those bone-dancers. Tell us everything we need to know about how to fight them, especially how to just survive the encounter. We do not need to kill them.”

The archer whistled softly. “Actually…that is all pretty complicated. To start with, they are—”

“Wait,” I held up my hand to stop him from continuing. “What are the chances of us having to fight any of these dancers on the way to the Hellpit?”

“Pretty much nonexistent,” Harold admitted. “They only spawn in rocky, hilly areas, and do not really leave or go hunting. We are taking you through Whisper’s Grasslands. It is a straight shot from there.”

“Then Let us focus on the dangers of the Grasslands,” I suggested. “We can deal with the rest later.”

He nodded. “All right, that sounds fair. I will have to get my—Father Mallern’s journals to get the full list, but the most obvious ones are the…” He paused, and started ticking them off on his fingers. “Dire wolves, dire moles, sinhearts, and of course tunnelers.”

“Give us the quick version on all of them.”

Jack took over the explaining. “Dire wolves are still obviously wolves, but they are bigger and more aggressive. They are herbivores, though, for some reason, and they do not hunt in packs. Dodge when they leap at you, then attack before they recover. They also howl when they see an opponent.”

“Keep an ear out for howling,” I said seriously. “And the rest?”

“Dire moles are actually fliers. Little things, about the size of your fist, with six wings and waaay too many teeth. They hunt in small packs, less than a dozen, and you will hear a whistling sound, like the wind through a cave.”

Roark glanced at me, eyebrow raised. It seemed he was beginning to find this hard to believe. I, on the other hand, decided to just keep my mouth shut and let the young swordswoman speak.

If she noticed us making faces, she showed no sign of it. “Tunnelers, you already know. They do not really attack people, they just dig everywhere. Watch your step. Sinhearts are the biggest problem, in more ways than one.”

“I can imagine,” Norn interjected. He was leaning against the stone wall of the water house, deep in thought. “They might be the only monsters the rest of us have seen, but some of the things you have said…” He looked up and met the young huntress’ eyes. “They are the town’s primary foe, are not they?”

Harold nodded. “They are smart, organized, and dangerous. We lost a lot of men to them before we figured out how to smelt dire steel, and more before we invented dire-weight bracers. They are still using that damn abbey as a fortress. Not even me and Jack were ever able to get close.”

I frowned. “I did not realize they were that smart.”

He shrugged. “They are not, really. They have an instinctive grasp of tactics, but they are spawned with their weapons. It is not like they forge them themselves. It is just so many of them appear every new moon, we have no way of getting rid of them for good.”

“Is that south?”

“No, farther east.”

That made me breathe a little easier. “All right, so we do not have to worry about running into a hundred of them at a time. You said what, a dozen maximum?”

“Two dozen, I think,” Jack mused. “But we will not be fighting raiding parties, unless they have already figured out where the rest of the villagers fled to.” She waved vaguely at the pile of corpses. “It will just be small scouting groups, like these.”

“So, what, it will just be a straight march to the Hellpit?” Vale asked, somewhat surprised. “Like when we came here in the first place?”

“Did you not hear the part about the monsters?” I muttered, glaring at my blond friend. “Just because there will not be a lot of them does not mean there will not be any.”

“But it will be easy enough, if we all keep on our toes,” Harold assured the rest of us. “If there are no more questions right now, we should start getting ready.” He glanced up at the sun, covering his eyes. “Hm. Still not even noon. We might be able to manage to get out before tonight.”

Vale clapped his hands. “Right! What needs to be done? We can help!”

Harold grimaced. “I do not think so. You have no idea what kind of equipment we need. I mean, I suppose you could sort out the weapons, but you do not know what to use against what types of monsters.”

“This is easy,” Jack insisted. “We tell them what to do, and they do the grunt work. For example.” She pointed at the sinheart corpses. “Take all those outside the wall, and then collect their weapons and bring them to the forge.”

But the archer shook his head. “No, they do not know how to cut out the hearts!”

The swordswoman rolled her eyes. “We are not cutting out a bunch of damned dire hearts and hauling them halfway across the country. I am sure Professor Haber already has more than enough of the stupid things.”

Roark finally spoke up again. He was being more quiet than usual. “What is this about hearts?”

Jack waved her hand. “It is where the sinhearts get their name. Their hearts are good for a bunch of alchemical uses. Poisons, potions, so on. But not worth spending three hours teaching you guys precisely how to cut them out without damaging them.”

“Well, we can do that, at least.” When she stared at me, I hastily corrected myself. “Drag the corpses outside the wall, I mean. We will meet you in the forge?”

“I will be in the church, sorting through Professor Haber’s alchemy supplies, seeing what we can use,” she corrected. “Harold will be in the forge, or maybe the workshop. It is right next door, he will probably hear you coming.”

“Actually, just bring the weapons to the workshop,” the archer suggested. “That is where they are going to end up anyway.”

“All right,” I said with a nod, gesturing to my subordinates to follow me over to the corpses. “Let us get to work.”

Even though we only had to move each body about a hundred feet and a little more, it was a lot harder than I expected. Each one was heavy, maybe three hundred pounds or more. That seemed excessive, even for their size, but I had a feeling it was just one of those monster quirks.

On the more positive end of things, the corpses were not stinking. It might just have been because they had been killed recently, but it still seemed odd. We all knew from unfortunate experience that many men vented their bowels on death, just as a last-minute death spasm. The complete lack of it with the sinhearts was a bit strange.

It took two of us to move each corpse, which meant that between us we could only carry two at a time, but it still did not take too long to get them out of town. At Roark’s suggestion, we washed our hands in the pond after we were done, though I was not really sure why. But he was the ranger of the party, and I had learned to trust his instincts.

“We are back,” I called as we stepped into the workshop next to the forge, carrying the swords of the dead. Considering how much each one weighed, it was also harder than it sounded. We plopped them all down with a clatter on a convenient nearby workbench; there were certainly enough free.

Harold looked up from one of his own workbenches, where he was filling a backpack with strange tools I did not recognize the purpose of. “Oh, good.” He pulled something out of the pack and placed it on the table; two pairs of those dire-weight bracers that Jack used. “Here. Choose who gets them yourselves.”

“Norn, you get a pair,” I declared quickly, as I stepped forward. “I will take the other.”

“Yes, Sir Wreth,” all three chorused. Norn was only a few steps behind me, and started lacing up his own bracers as soon as I started lacing up mine.

Roark turned to Harold. “I believe you promised me a bow?”

The young villager stared at him blankly for a moment, before nodding. “Right, yes I did. Right over here.” He went over to a nearby chest and pulled out what appeared to be a long white piece of wood. My practiced eye identified it as an unstrung bow, and I could even see the bowstring dangling from one end. “I assume you will want to string it yourself.”

The ranger took the weapon a little hesitantly. “…yes. But what material is this?”

“Willow-wisp bone,” Harold answered swiftly. “The string should be woven from the hair of the wisp who provided the bone, if the apprentices did it right, but there is no way to know until you use it. By the way, you can leave that thing strung all day, and it will be fine. Just unstring it before you go to sleep.”

Roark still looked a little unsure, but he nodded and took the weapon regardless. “What about arrows and quiver? I left mine with the horse, if you will recall.”

The young archer shrugged. “Yes, sorry about that. But at least you did not really need them, right? Anyway, here.” He pulled out a quiver out of the same chest. As far as I could tell, it was just an ordinary quiver, and neither of them mentioned anything odd about it. Then the arrows came out. “Dire cedar for the shaft, dire steel for the head, and feathers from a dire mole for the fletching.”

My subordinate observed said fletching carefully. Even from a distance, I could tell there was something not quite right with it, but he tabled that issue for the moment. “Why metal heads? Why not those thorns and the poison?”

“Would you give poison to a child on his first hunting trip?”

“…no.”

Harold smiled apologetically and handed him the bundle of arrows without another word.

It took us about an hour to gather up the rest of the supplies we needed from the warehouse—mostly just tools, backpacks for the rest of us, and some light leather armor—before moving over to the church.

Norn and I did get some new weapons, though, to go with our dire-weight bracers. I chose a single dire sword and a strong human-forged shield made of dire steel, while Norn decided to go with a sinheart’s axe and the combat scythe I had seen earlier.

We headed to the church. By the time we got there, Jack already had all the various alchemical potions and poisons from the racks on the floor of the main hall, sorted into some arcane order only she understood.

“Took you long enough,” she muttered. “Get over here, I need your packs.”

“do not fill them up too much,” I warned, even as I was handing my pack over to her. “We still need room for the food.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “We already have lots of food, and Harold can hunt for us if we really do need anything else. This is more important. I do not know how to make most of this stuff, and could not make it in the field even if I did.”

“That reminds me,” Harold interjected. “Did you ever find Professor Haber’s journals?”

“No. But that reminds me—” She pointed behind her, in front of the shrine. There was a large stack of books, just waiting. “do not forget Father Mallern’s journals. They might even be the only copies left. Even if not, I am sure you will find them useful.”

I had already read a bit last night, and with my new perspective, agreed completely that they would be absolutely invaluable. I signaled to Roark and Vale, and we started filling up their packs with the hefty leather-bound tomes.

“Did you find anything interesting while you were searching?” I asked as we packed.

Jack frowned at me. “What? I already told you no journals.”

“I know, but what about anything else?”

She shrugged. “Well, I suppose the fact that they did not take any of the chemicals is a bit weird. Perhaps they were in too much of a rush to deal with a bunch of fragile glass vials.”

“How long would it take them to replenish their stocks?”

“The minor stuff like bloodfire would take less than a day. The more complicated solutions, especially the healing potions, would take longer.” She looked distant for a moment, thinking. “…two weeks, at most? Not worth dealing with it, I suppose.”

“But we are taking them.”

“Of course. We have more time to pack, less men, and those men are less experienced. A couple hundred villagers should be able to reach the Hellpit pretty safely if they are a little careful. We do not have enough swords to just brute-force our way through.”

“Speaking of which,” Harold interjected, walking in from somewhere behind us. “Depending on exactly when they left Grandsbriar, they should be reaching the town today or tomorrow. They will have had a little time to settle in, but not much, so they will be jumpy. Be careful not to make any sudden moves around the guards.”

We all nodded. Norn and I had been in besieged villages before. They were always twitchy—especially after something major happened, like having to migrate your entire town because there is a giant hole in your wall.

After we finished packing up all the potions and books, we found some good strong trail rations and tossed them on top. Like Jack had said, we did not really need it, but it was still far better safe than sorry.

It was noon by the time we were about ready to set out, and we looked around the town one last time before officially leaving.

“Are you sure it is all right to leave the town like this?” I asked. “You said sinhearts were using the abbey as a fortress. What if they do the same here?”

Harold laughed. “Then good! They are not smart enough to actually build anything, so that giant hole in the wall will still be there. If they move in, we can clear them out easy enough.” Then he shrugged, adjusting his bow over his shoulder. “But I doubt they will. They might not be able to repair the wall, but they are cunning enough to know it makes the town useless for them. We will get a few scavengers through here, nothing more.”

I took one last look around the battle-scarred town. It seemed such a shame to abandon a village that had clearly been deeply loved by its residents for years.

But they had also been under siege for the last twelve months—or more, I had not gotten a firm date from our guides. Constant warfare burns sentimentality out like hardening wood over a fire. The people of Grandsbriar were purely pragmatic now, and this village nothing but an indefensible location.

“All right,” I said finally. “If you are sure, Let us go.”

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