Crown of Thorns – 20.18

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“I think you’d better explain,” Mary said.

We become Nobles.  The plan at the start would have been to prop us up.  Offer us up as a more battle-tested, flexible, dangerous sort of Noble.  The kind that could trounce rebellions, that could use small amounts of power to do great things, best monsters, and test even the greatest minds.  Better yet, we coordinate like no nobles taken separately could.  We work together on an instinctive level.”

“The Twins worked together,” Mary said.

The Twins failed.  The Twins were relegated to bastarddom.  I think they craved that natural cooperation.  Something was missing.  We strike that note.”

I looked to Hayle for confirmation.

He didn’t respond.  He sat at his desk, arms folded before him.  He looked very old and very tired.

I nodded.  “Knowing Hayle and Fray, they left both options open.  The Lambs who survive are poised as great weapons, massive inconveniences to the Crown and Academy.  We and the Crown get an offer.  Lambs become Lords and Ladies, we become an asset instead of an inconvenience.  We get everything we want, we get power like we’ve never had it, and Hayle gets to leverage the one thing he has over us.”

“The expiration dates,” Lillian said.

I walked around the desk.  “The expiration dates.  He removes the gun that’s been held to our heads since we were small.  That, or he hands it over to the Academy, so they can control us.

“To what ends?” Lillian asked.  “What’s the end goal?”

I looked back over my shoulder at the old Professor.

He was silent.

“Things have been untenable for a long time,” Fray said, from the opposite end of the desk as me, supplying the answer.  “There was a balance once.  Wollstone was the start.  I personally suspect he was mythologized, the extent of his deeds and knowledge exaggerated to the Academy’s benefit, but all the same, his work was discovered and made known to the nobility.  What formed was a partnership.  Government and the Academy apparatus, enmeshed.  Over and over again, that pairing is hammered in, so that one is rarely mentioned without the other.”

“At some point the Block became an essential part of things,” Lillian said.

“Yes,” Fray said.  Cynthia was behind her.  “I imagine that is when the balance shifted.”

“This is where I get a little stuck,” I paused as I walked around behind Mary, Ashton, and Lillian.  “It’s where Hayle is sitting there, remaining quiet.  He’s confirmed the main thrust of what he’s doing, but the god lurks there, ominous.  It’s where you’re there, Fray, and I’m aware of the bits and pieces that you’ve threaded through everything.  Bigger and more devastating than the rebel groups you propped up.  You were up to something else.  You had a greater plan at work, and I don’t know if it was a greater part of what you’re putting toward the Lambs to Lords gambit, or if it was a fallback.  That’s the other god.”

“Gods?” Fray asked.

On each of our prior visits, you were careful to ask me about my beliefs.  What did I want, what did I believe in?  What would prompt me to take the great leap of faith, if and when it counted?  What was I here to do?

“I did.  I wanted to know what kind of Lord you might be, given the chance, Sylvester,” she said.

Did I ever give you an answer?”

“You gave me several.  I worry you’re giving me another, with this talk of gods.”

“It’s Sylvester’s metaphor,” Lillian said.  “For the great, abstract, hard-to-comprehend forces you two represent, that could still ruin us.  The Infante was the first.  Sylvester named that god Power.”

“And Power is conquered.  Securely in your hands,” Fray said.  “I see, now.”

I smiled.

“Let me think, then.  Control… you already have control.  You had it once you co-opted the lesser Academies and aristocrats.  Based on the thrust of Sylvester’s statement, I’m… the plot?  Intrigue?  Machinations?”

“Conspiracy,” Mary said.

“That would suffice.  Yes.  It was absolutely my job to keep pieces in play, remove others, strike a balance, distract, and now I’m here.”

With cards up your sleeve.

“Do you think I have cards up my sleeve, Sylvester?”

The dissemination of Academy knowledge, the creation of primordials, the fact you were working with just about every rebel group… you were building things that weren’t solely for us.

“I was.”

Primordials played a part.  Then and now.”

“In a way.”

I nodded.

“Will you do me a favor, Sylvester?” Mary asked.

I tilted my head to one side.

“Stand where I can see you and them at the same time?”

I’m not a threat to you.

“Please,” she said.

I crossed the room.  I stood at the side, near the bookshelves.  Torches and lanterns were lit throughout the Academy grounds.  It looked like the Hag Nerve was being dealt with, and people were freer to move.  Our people.  I settled in where I stood, close to the skin suit.

“Hayle… well, if he’s another god, he’d have to be another great force.  You’re not going to have power and then power again,” Fray said.

I shook my head.

“It wouldn’t suit Hayle either way.  Neither would Control, as a repeated thing.  It would need to be something that could rattle you, once you settled on this course of action.  And you have settled.  You were telling the truth about that.”

I did.  I was.  I am.

“I have my guess,” Fray said.

“You said you wanted what I wanted, out of Hayle,” Lillian said.  “And I really just wanted answers.  I wanted to ask why.  I’m afraid of the answer.  Maybe- maybe Sylvester is afraid of the answer too.  Is that what you meant, Sy?”

I wanted to respond to her use of my name.  That would have to wait.

It is.

“The unknown,” Fray said.  “You can’t wrap things up in Radham without asking the questions.  Professor Hayle’s relative silence up until now may stem from a concern about how you respond to the answers.”

“In part,” Hayle said.

The unknown.”  I nodded.  “That works.

“I’m quiet in part because this is a day I’ve seen coming for a very long time,” Professor Hayle said.  “I’ve known you since the very beginning, Sylvester.”

“Who was I?”

“Who were you?”

On the Block?

“I couldn’t even tell you, Sylvester.  It didn’t matter.  I visited the Block, I walked down the row, talking to the Academy Doctors who had brought their quotas or looked after each of you.  I browsed the paperwork, I made small talk with my peers.  Tea was served, and we discussed the projects that their picks would be slated for.  There was mention of a transplant of a child’s brain to the body of a specialized warbeast, they had their eye on one little girl with a vicious streak and a propensity for escape attempts for that.”

“It’s horrible,” Lillian said.

“If it makes you feel better, that one killed its creator,” Fray said.

“That does make me feel better,” Lillian said.  “But it’s minor, when I know so many others suffer.”

“They did.  They do.  There were other Professors who wanted hale and hearty children for breeding programs, some who intended to test drugs that would alter how children grew, with an eye to gigantism and custom proportions.  Most, however, wouldn’t tell me.  It would show their hands before the bidding, you understand.”

And me?

It was the first of the dangerous questions that threatened to ruin us.

“The son of a Doctor.  He pricked his finger with a needle containing a patient’s blood.  The blood was tainted from one of the weapons used in the war to the south.  It was primed to take the life of a soldier, it took your father, and in a roundabout way, Sylvester, it took your family.”

I had a family?

“You had an older brother and three sisters.  You might have been the youngest, but memory fails me here, it was a little over a decade ago that I read the paper, and I read it with an eye to anything that might qualify or disqualify you for what we had in mind.  You had a mother and a father.  Your father passed, your mother couldn’t look after you all.  I suspect she was told you’d get a life of some sort, even if it wasn’t the one you’d been born to.”

A doctor’s son.  Had things played out differently, if a man hadn’t pricked his finger, if a soldier hadn’t grown ill, I might have been a student.

“One who might have attended Radham, even, given the location of that Block.”

I nodded.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  Given the lack of a response, I wasn’t sure the voice had any ideas either.

“It was my second visit that I met you, months after the one prior, where I escorted my students to the Block and met… you have a new name for them, now that they wear skirts and dresses.”

Jessie.  But they weren’t Jessie then.  They wouldn’t have been Jamie either.

“I remember them, too,” Hayle said.

I’d ask, but I think Jessie has had enough shadows of the past nipping at her heels.

“I’d always hoped it would be constructive, not destructive.  Building them up.”

If I hadn’t been in the picture, it might have.

“We tried to revive Genevieve’s Prophetissima project, we erased her connection to it.  The Yggdrasil-G project was a failure to thrive.  Your predecessor, Ashton.  The Wyvern project was an easy one to sell, when budget was a concern and criticism of my project.  I made my visit to the Block, looking for my Wyvern.  I remember looking at you, you were wearing a paper smock.  You glared at me, Sylvester.”

I glared at you?

“It was important that you glared at me,” Hayle said.  “Do you know Wollstone’s last law?”

“I wasn’t aware they had a particular order,” Lillian said.

“It’s not one of the ones you’ll find in the textbooks,” Hayle said.  “Not a law that they teach students.  It’s been passed on by word of mouth or rumor to anyone taking on a particularly ambitious project.  Wollstone created the stitched and created the means for us to work out the scripts and patterns of living beings.”

He was killed by an advanced stitched of his, one with more memory and retention than the ones that preceded them.  I’ve heard this.”  I folded my arms.

“We lead secure lives.  Professors retire late, if at all, and we don’t tend to visit the battlefields directly.  What’s our most likely cause of death?”

“Your work,” Mary said.

She would be thinking of Percy.

“You glared at me, Sylvester, and I could see the expression you might wear when, after a dark and bloody affair, you walked into my office to confront me and ask me questions.”

Why did it matter?

“Because I didn’t want to forget that this was how it would end,” he said.

I nodded.

“When you made your bid for those badges of yours, I realized you were slipping away, that you might already be trying to find some measure of authority that might tip my hand for me.”

“You should have known what you were buying into, with that glaring child,” Genevieve Fray said.

“I should well have,” Hayle said.  He met my eyes, staring at me.

He hadn’t touched his tea or biscuit.  Slowly, surely, that tea would be getting cold.

You can’t even know the depths of despair you subjected me to.

“Every step of the way, every failure, every time it looked like the Lambs were lost or broken, I despaired,” he said.

My mouth for the voice to speak.  Ashton beat me to it.

“Can I interrupt?” Ashton asked.  He craned his head around, to look at the others, to look at me.

Go ahead.

“What’s going through your mind, Ashton?” Fray asked.

“Thank you.  If I understand you all correctly, Sylvester is going to kill Professor Hayle after this.”

“I hope he doesn’t, but I’m hardly in a position to stop him,” Hayle said.  “I can try to negotiate, but he’s headstrong.”

“Okay, then I’ll ask my questions before anything happens or anyone decides.  If your projects are what kills you, why aren’t you worried about me or Helen?  Why is it Sy?”

Helen’s hardly equipped to do much at this juncture.

“That’s distasteful, Sy,” Ashton said, making a face.  “My point stands.”

“It could be a rare fit of poetic fancy for an old man, but I’d like to think that projects such as Gordon’s, Helen’s, Jamie’s- Jessie’s-”

Jamie is accurate too.  Both.  Jessie existing doesn’t mean Jamie didn’t.

“They weren’t mine.  They were under my oversight, but other students brought them into the world.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  “What about Doctor Fray?  Who kills her?”

“Evette was mine but she never saw fruition.  I do have my share of ownership in all of you,” Genevieve said.  “But I’m not feeling as fatalistic as Professor Hayle.”

Cards up your sleeve.

“Not like you imagine, it’s not that kind of leverage, that might save my life.”

I nodded.

“We don’t get to kill anyone, then?” Ashton asked.

“You had opportunities earlier tonight,” Mary said.

“I was hoping that I could knock someone down and tie their hands, then make them suffocate with Helen held down over their faces.  It might take some doing, but I think Helen would really enjoy it.  She doesn’t have a lot to enjoy when she’s like this.”

“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” Lillian said, gently.  “It’s really nice that you’re thinking about Helen like that, even if that isn’t quite so nice.  We have other things to get out of the way, first.”

“Okay.  She’s important to me.”

She’s important to all of us.

“She is,” Lillian said.

“An ignoble way to die,” Fray observed, looking at Helen, who lay across Ashton’s lap.

“Do you deserve noble?” I asked.

“Perhaps not.  Based on my colleagues’ parting words, I might not.”

“Isn’t it very Noble if Helen gets to deliver the kill, if that’s what we were raised to be?” Ashton asked.

“We’re not at that point yet,” Mary said.  “We’re far from being Nobles, like this, and as much as Sylvester is talking like this is decided, I’m not so sure.”

“I might be on the same page as Mary here,” Lillian said.

I nodded to myself.

“Will that be a problem?” Lillian asked, looking at her former mentor and the Lambs’ nemesis.  “What happens if they decide not to be Nobles?”

“Things have been out of my hands for some time,” Hayle said.  “As far back as the night where your black coat was discussed, Doctor Garey.  I’ve created my monster, as Wollstone created his.  I unleashed it on the world and it has come home to roost.  I can give it some clarity, but I doubt I can change it anymore.”

It might have been further back than that.

“When, do you think?”

I looked at Mary.  “I might have seen the team as mine, when I extended one invitation to one enemy I respected.

“I could see that.  Not long before the badges.”

The badges.  I’d nearly forgotten.

“Well, like I said, it’s well out of my hands.  You’ll decide how to move forward, as you have been doing since you left, maybe even before them, what with your interactions with the Duke of Francis.”

I watched as Lillian drew in a deep breath.  Her hands were clasped in front of her as she stood by the chairs, standing across from Hayle.

I’d say this is where the dangerous questions begin, but I already asked about my origins, and we touched on Jessie and Jamie’s.  Let’s have them begin in earnest.

“So be it,” Hayle said.  “Your questions?”

“I think Lillian should ask hers.  Because once I start asking mine, we run the risk of a premature end.”

“I just have a few,” Lillian said.

“I was and am fond of you, Lillian,” Hayle said.

“What drove you to choose me?  Had things happened differently, I could have been any one of the doctors out there.  Students in service to the military that we killed or turned into Tangles, or the ones we used as stepping stones.”

“My dear Lillian,” Hayle said.  “No.”

“No?”

“Had you carried on like you were, I think you wouldn’t have had it in you.  When I found you, you were close to quitting.  When Sylvester turned his attention to you, you moved even closer to that decision.  It was the other Lambs that pulled you back.  Without the Lambs, you would have been a fine but minor Doctor from a lesser Academy like Beattle, I think.  You have a good heart and you would have been a credit to your profession, serving a town or a neighborhood of a city.  You wouldn’t have sought your black coat, and you wouldn’t have joined the military without the influence of the Lambs to drive you upward and forward.”

“I might have.”

“No, Lillian.  I’ve known many students, and your fear is unfounded.”

“Why deny me my black coat, then?”

“He spoke to me about it,” Fray said.  “About being a woman in the Academies, about the challenges, the expectations.  The politics were wrong for it.  The timing, the stance of your parents, your relationship to the Lambs project and the direction that project was going… it didn’t make sense.”

“It made sense to me,” Lillian said.  She turned to Hayle.  “I wanted it.  I deserved it.  I deserved the advanced commendations and Duncan did too.  I gave you everything and you couldn’t give me that.”

“I could have,” Hayle said.  “It would have destroyed you, because it wasn’t what you really wanted, and in that destruction, with the Lambs as fragile as they were, you would have taken them with you.”

Did you know I was watching?

“I thought it was possible, Sylvester.  I wondered if you would barge in or sneak in.  I thought you would take the Lambs with you in entirety if you left, or you’d transform if you stayed.  I didn’t expect a partial leaving, or the transformation that went with it,” Hayle said.  He turned back to Lillian.  “I know my fate today depends on you all.  I know I haven’t given you the answer you wanted.  I know you may decide not to spare me because of that.”

“That was the day I lost my family,” Lillian said.

“I expect it was.”

“My parents, Sylvester, and Jamie.”

“I understand that.”

Lillian’s hands were clasped in front of her.  Mary reached out to touch those hands.

“You can ask your questions, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

There were lights illuminating buildings across the campus.  The rain continued to fall, streaking the windows, and the little droplets that were left in the way of the streaks glittered with the light of buildings and fires.  Where water collected at the branches that ran through and around each window, the elongated blobs and narrow pools caught the light in lines, making those branches seem to glow.

Jamie.

One word that passed through my lips, the question only existing in the implicit.

“Not me,” Hayle said.  “Not the Duke, not Fray, not Cynthia or her predecessor, not you.  ”

I stared him down.

“I’m complicit only in that I agreed that the Caterpillar project should have several evolutions.  That the slate would be wiped clean several times, each phase retaining the best that we could impart onto it.  Jamie’s fate was very much expected as a thing that would happen.”

The books?  They were part of this evolution?

“The books were another part of things, in more than one way, but the other plans fell by the wayside,” he said.

Elaborate.

“The books were part of that sought-after evolution, yes, but I thought they could be a way to get the word out, that might slip the Academy’s notice for a time.  Fiction, at first, then the facts would add up, in an undeniable detail, with codes only the most astute could find out.”

“He mentioned, once, that he might be chronicling our adventures in some form,” Lillian said.

“I mentioned it to him, yes,” Hayle said.

“I had the printing presses,” Fray said.  “But that’s minor.  Tertiary.  We didn’t go that route.”

We could.

“You could, Sylvester,” she admitted.  “I could tell you where the means to produce the books are, I’m sure the black wood and plague haven’t consumed them all.”

“You stole the second Jamie away before we could carry on with his evolution or make use of the books.” Hayle said.  “The end result is your creation, not mine.  As you suggested, the team was already yours.”

I nodded.  “Gordon?

“Yes.  That was on my shoulders.  He expressed interest in joining Genevieve.  We started to sway him the other way, but he was already losing the vigor we wanted to see in him.  We tried to encourage him.  We thought he might shift stances after you’d lost Jessie, so we gave him the dog.  It didn’t matter, the fight had gone out of him.  He would have taken you in the opposite route you needed to travel.”

I watched Mary tighten her grip on her knife.

I was worried at the emotions that roiled in me, that the voice wasn’t elaborating on.  I was worried at the dark feelings, that I might reach out to kill Hayle, the other answers be damned.

It would be so easy to murder the man, to murder Fray, and to let everything else fall by the wayside.  There would be fallout, questions still left unanswered, and it would ruin us in the end.

“You killed Gordon,” Lillian said.

“We let him go,” Hayle said.  “You and Genevieve discussed your beliefs.  Had you given the wrong answers, we would have made a similar decision.”

The girlfriend.  She fed you the information on how he was doing.”  There was emotion in the voice

“Shipman,” Lillian said, eyes wide, as she looked at me, then back to Hayle.

“She didn’t know the entirety of what she was doing when she answered my questions.  I hope that informs any decisions you make about her,” Hayle said.  “But yes.”

The plague, then.  Who was responsible in the end?

“Mauer, in a way.  The Infante, in another way.  Me,” Fray said. “In that I expected something like it.  It seems inevitable, with the primordials.  They reach a point where they want to create tools.”

Which brings us back to your cards.

“It does,” Fray said.

And it brings us back to the final, most dangerous question.

“It does,” Fray said.

Why?

Outside the door, our lieutenants were talking.  Others had joined them.  Red was with them, as were Bea, and Junior, and Gordeux, and Rudy…

“Why?” Hayle asked.

What was the end goal?  Restoring balance?  Sabotage?  Reclaiming the world for humanity?

Poor Lillian was so tense.  Mary gripped that knife, had been gripping it since Gordon had come up.

“Does it matter?” Hayle asked.

It does.

“You are where you are.  The decision is yours to make.  You’ll decide what you do next.”

I looked between Hayle and Fray.

“You believe that.”

“I do.”

“It’s the safe answer,” Mary said.

I bit my tongue, thinking.

“It’s the answer the puppeteer gives to the puppet, because anything he says might give up more control than the doubt will,” she said.  “It’s the only answer he can give that gives him a chance at staying alive.”

Thinking of Percy.  She was always thinking of Percy when it counted.

Hayle wouldn’t say.  So long as he remained that god, the unanswered questions, he had cause to live.

I’d already ceded control.  I’d made a bargain with the voice in my head, after my thought processes and more had been consolidated by a dose given to me while I slept.  I’d realized how this ended and I’d taken on one last role, giving that role a voice and giving myself over to that voice.

I lost little to nothing, in pushing myself, in taking everything I could dredge up, and trying to give it form.

I pieced together a Hayle from my impressions of the man.

I put that Hayle in the room, in a matching chair, with a matching cup of tea beside him.

I was careful to obey Mary’s wishes as I walked around the desk, until I stood where that Hayle stood.  I leaned forward, planting my hands on the desk, so my head was level with Hayle’s.

There are several answers, Lambs,” they said.  “Several possibilities.  Believe me, in taking on a project of this scale, I considered them all as end goals.  I got to know each of you, and that desire to know you was part of my reason for keeping you as close as I did, when you first joined us, Mary Cobourn.”

The Lambs’ expressions were like stone as they watched me.  The people in the hallway beyond were much the same.

“Because I know you,” they said, Hayle’s phantom and the voice together, “I know that if I tell you, knowing full well that you rebelled by carrying on your romance with Sylvester, Lillian, that you’re set on carving your own path, Mary, even if it’s one that cleaves close to your friends, and that Ashton is set on reinterpreting the world around him, even if it’s down to the paint on the walls and grass on the fields…”

Hayle was staring at me.

“…Anything I tell you, you’ll rebel against it, yet if I lie, you’ll know.  Silence is the only answer.  If I don’t tell you what to do, then there’s a chance that when all is said and done, you’ll end up there.”

“As we ended up here,” Mary said.

Yes.

“That doesn’t seem terribly fair,” Ashton said.

“It isn’t,” Lillian said.  “Because it always leaves that doubt.  Was it us?  Was it our goal?  Or were we just working toward a finale that was set for us?  We’ll never know.”

“We could stop,” Ashton said.  “We could carve out a nice little area and protect it from plague and black wood, and we could lead nice, simple lives with the new Lambs.  We could have all of our Doctors and scientists work on doing good things without worrying about war.”

“Can you?” Fray asked.  “Knowing everything you do?  Knowing what is happening in the rest of the world?”

“No,” Lillian said.  Mary shook her head.

No,” the voice said.

Lillian looked me in the eyes.

The lack of an answer is dangerous.  The answer is dangerous in another way.

“Tell us,” she said.  “If you’re speaking for Hayle, then give us the answer.”

I looked at Hayle.

I’m yours, you’re right.  I started with you, you end with me,” the voice said.

“I wonder who you are, then,” Hayle said.  “Because I’m not positive you’re Sylvester.”

“I’m not.  I’m every monster I’ve ever fought.  Every enemy I’ve defeated.  I’m Sylvester and I’m not.  I’m the Noble that Sylvester will become.”

A frown creased the space between his eyes.  “The Noble you describe sounds like a monstrous one.”

“Isn’t it?” the voice asked.  “What a mistake you’ve made.”

We stuck a knife between his ribs, and swiftly backed away, bringing the knife with us, so the wound could bleed freely, air escaping his lungs.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.17

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The fallen structures still smoked.  People, the majority of them students, were doing their best to make their way across toward Claret Hall, where one fire had started.

Soldiers were setting up a perimeter, rolling or having stitched carry barrels of salt.  Other members of the teams were either helping to get the salt flowing freely, sticking trowels and shovels into the barrels, or they were using brooms to mix the salt with the slime, so the Hag Nerve on their side of the salt was thoroughly killed.

We picked our way over the rubble.  Many of the others from the ship had come running when the walls had come down.  They’d run into the Hag Nerve and they’d found their own way through, helped by the rubble that had cascaded down onto the fields.

There were enough of us that we couldn’t take one path without stretching ourselves out too thin.  Our forces fanned out, to the extent we could with the Hag Nerve around us, many of us armed.

The groups that flanked us approached the defending forces, the soldiers and Doctors that were moving away from the wreckage and devastation.  Many of the defending forces and Academy natives were shell-shocked, rattled by the devastation around them, and they didn’t put up a fight.

Off to our left, there was some gunfire, suggesting it wasn’t all that easy.

Claret Hall would be harder, even beheaded as it was, but Claret Hall could come later.

We made our way to the tower, stepping from slab to slab, chunk to chunk, and along areas where the slime had been parted by the force of falling masonry and that same masonry then dammed it off.  Everything was wet; the moss that had grown on parts of the wall and slime that had splashed up now made footing precarious.  I had to stop several times, because even with my legs tired from carrying Jessie and from the climb, I was still better at it than some.

The Wyvern had stunted me.  It had inhibited my growth – I was only as tall as Lillian, and Lillian wasn’t tall for a woman.  Jessie hadn’t grown in the usual way because Jessie lacked some of the hormones for puberty, and she was still taller than me.

I looked back at her, and saw her asleep.  Lillian was directly behind Mary, helping Mary to limp along – the two of them had hands gripping the stitched’s belt.  I really hoped it wouldn’t tip over and send all three girls spiraling onto the slimy, smoking fragments of wall.

I’d been stunted in other ways.  I was still the boy.  In personality and in other ways, I hadn’t grown up.  It was ironic that the Wyvern that made the acquisition and loss of skills so rapid left me with the ability to climb and walk tightrope-narrow walltops and bridges as young boys did.  It wasn’t because I was better at it, but because the fears and hesitation that held so many others back were muted in me.  One had to learn fear and caution as they learned any skill.

I’d seen Mabel somewhere, I was pretty sure.  I could watch Lillian and Jessie picking their way through the ruins, and I could follow that thought to its conclusion.  I hadn’t grown in the ways I needed to, in order to maintain a proper relationship with a girl.  One had to learn to navigate relationships.

In contrast, however, I had grown in a way that let me see this through.  It wasn’t my childhood home, not quite, but it was my childhood, and I’d left it in shambles.  The army behind us watched for my hand to move, saw me gesture, and they hurried to catch up.

“Yes?”

“Is Junior with us?”

“He was talking to Duncan, last I saw.”

“Can you bring him?”

“Yes sir.”

Sir.  A title for a man.

We were one of the most powerful people in the Crown States when we took Hackthorn hostage.

We supplanted others and raised our standing when we took the lesser aristocrats, the lowest of the visiting Nobles, and the various small Academies.  We became a power on par with any but the Infante when we gathered our army.

We beat the Infante.

“Everything okay, Sy?” Lillian asked.

“The path gets a little less clear here,” I said.  I pointed.

“In more ways than one?” she suggested.

“No,” I said.

We were just past the dormitories now.  The tower was on a raised area of land, but there was a dip before then, and that dip was flooded.  A slash of overly still water, twenty feet across, cutting through the road.

The tower itself was illuminated here and there.  I didn’t see anyone in the windows, but I did see the orange and yellow lights shift as people moved this way and that.

“No,” I said again, hammering it in.

“I know your memory is bad,” she said.  “I’m going to say it again.”

“There’s no need,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” I said.

Junior reached us, with Ashton, Duncan, and Helen in his company.

“You have the stuff?” I asked.

“I recruited help and made extra, just in case, because I did not want to run back a third time,” Junior said.  “You can thank the rest of the old gang.”

Three canisters.  Each was as large as a single dewar flask, like the ones many Doctors used for long-term chemical storage, or as many civilians used to stow a kettle’s worth of tea or a multiple-person serving of hot stew.  Too large to really serve well as a grenade.

“Alright,” I said.  I pointed.  “We’ll need to get through.  It should kill the Hag Nerve, shouldn’t it?”

“Should,” Duncan said.  “There’s a risk of it multiplying back into the body of water, but that water will be tainted.  I doubt it’ll be mobile, even if it’s soupy.”

“I’m glad Abby isn’t here,” Ashton said.  “She’d be so sad.”

“It doesn’t have a brain,” I said.

“Neither do I.  Neither does Wendy.  I’m not sure about Abby.”

“It doesn’t have anything brain-like,” I said.

“Neither do you,” Lillian said.

I reached out to pinch at her cheek, and she caught my hand.

Junior got to work, flipping a switch on the flask before uncapping it.  The gas began billowing from it, rolling out before us.

The fact that the wall had come down and was now at our backs allowed the wind through.  It rolled out and brought the gas with it, carrying it over the Hag that covered the ground and filled the moat.

“How are you doing, Mary?” I asked.

“I don’t know how soldiers can use those things with any regularity.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I used to always like this spot,” Mary said.  “In the very beginning, when I was in Hayle’s custody, after you recruited me, Lillian would come visit me.   Then it flipped around.  I would walk Lillian to her office, or go to see her, or I’d visit the dorms here.  I used to be hereabouts, past the thick of the buildings, only a few students around, rain falling, and I’d get a happy, anticipatory feeling.”

“And now?”

“Dread.”

Duncan drew in a deep breath.

“Duncan?”

“I felt like I could stand a little taller, while going to see Professor Hayle.  I was recognized by one of the best students in class and one of the top Professors locally.  Huzzah for you, Mr. Foster.  Stand here, look forward and…” Duncan swept his arm out, fully extended, palm forward, as if wiping his hand along a picture, “…you can see that black coat.  You can see your way forward, that has you on an even footing with major aristocrats, below only the Nobles.”

“It always terrified me,” Lillian said.  “For different reasons.  By the time I got used to it, we’d lost Jamie.”

I looked back at Jessie.  I reached back and adjusted her hood, and let the back of my hand rest on her temple.

Lillian let go of the hand she’d been holding since I’d reached back to pinch her cheek.

“Two gods to slay, hm?” Lillian asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

The sound of the rain changed.  I tilted my head, listening to it.

“I think I had an inkling that one of your big abstract gods was lurking here even from the beginning,” Lillian said.

“I think you might’ve,” I said.

“I think that was why I found it all so intimidating,” she said.

“I think-”

She put fingers to my mouth.

I drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

“My first memories are here,” I said, after she lowered her fingers. I drew my hand away from Jessie.  “Being terrified, needles up my nose and around the sides of my eyes, to reach the brain, poisoning my brain, pain that seemed like it was so incredible that it wiped everything away.  I was scared too, once upon a time.  Then I figured out how to put that fear in a box and promptly lost it.  It was only the fear for others that was left, and fear of what I might do to those others.”

“Us?” Lillian asked.

“You.  Lambsbridge.  The… group from the sticks.  Radham.  The world.  But I forgot a lot of the familiar faces.  I’m only really good at remembering the people I see regularly.”

The change in the rainfall suggested the Hag had relaxed.  The rainfall on the bodies of water sounded more like rainfall was supposed to.  The appearance of the water, too, had changed, rippling and splashing more with the heavier raindrops or collections of droplets.

I gestured.  I was the first to set foot on the path below the scattered rubble, layered by an inch of water.

It wasn’t overly slimy.  Slick, yes, but it served.

Our soldiers charged forward, sloshing through the water.  I carried on walking, as they ran past.  Faces appeared in the windows, staring at the scene.

“Be on your guard,” I said.

The Treasurer, running past me as I spoke, called out the same words, “Be on your guard!”

The scattered few stitched we had were first through the door, at the instructions of the Treasurer and Bea.  The students in quarantine outfits were next.  Once the calls came back from the people inside, a large portion of our soldiers stormed the tower.

They hadn’t ever been here, it struck me.

So odd, when the place was a staple in my memory.

“I always hated this place.  Hated the doctors,” I said.  An extension of my earlier comments.

“Don’t let your hate color your actions,” Lillian said.

Walking, limping, or otherwise waiting for the others, the Lambs reached the door.  We passed within.  I could see our soldiers heading up the stairwells.  Some were hanging back, getting lanterns out.  Others were going down the hallway, investigating the various rooms and labs on the ground floor.  Students and Doctors were hauled out of rooms, threatened with guns, made to kneel.

I knew where I was going.

Sub Rosa stood by the door.  She looked mournful.  I’d seen her wear an expression like that, once.

I stepped through that door to Jamie’s old lab.

“Sy?” Lillian asked.

His Professors were there.  Soldiers I didn’t know were making them kneel.  The throne was there, like a tombstone, and there were the glowing tanks with the cloths thrown over them.  The walls were lined with bookshelves, and the bookshelves were lined with diaries.

I let my fingers trace the books as I took my time circling the room.

I didn’t recognize the Professors, but the stark fear on their faces suggested they knew me.  That was good enough.

“Is Fray around?” I asked.  I had to ask.  It would be silly and dangerous not to.

There were shakes of heads.

“Starting this out by lying to me is not a good idea.”

“We haven’t seen her.  We weren’t looking out until the wall came down, but- we’d have noticed.”

I nodded.  I took in the room, where Jamie and his successor had spent so much time.

“I’m thinking of a specific time and place,” I said.  “I’m really hoping you’re all thinking of that same time and place.  I think it should go without saying.”

The Professors were silent.  Jamie had had so many.  An incredible team.  There were specialists too, and Doctors.

“I remember how little you all seemed to care,” I said.  “You looked right past me.  You stepped over me.  I found a scalpel and came after you, and one of my friends stopped me.  You barely seemed to care.  You just wanted to get back to work.”

I saw old men clench their jaws.

“Did you keep working, after he left?  Are the brains working?”

“You did so much damage, taking him away,” a woman said.

“That’s not an answer to my question.”

The man who responded was the oldest one present, enough that even the Academy measures he’d used to restore his vitality were only partial at best.  It gave him a ghoulish appearance, almost a caricature.  His hair was overly dry and unkempt.  “They work.  Loss should be minimal.  Our work has been interrupted as different members of our team were pulled away for other projects, but we kept in communication.  At Headmaster Hayle’s urging, we committed to stay when the Crown States were abandoned.  Discussion to date has been where to take the project next, and we’ve been laying groundwork and outlining what we’ll need over this past week.  We were thinking about a vat-grown body.  Transplanting what we have to an empty vessel.”

I looked at the throne, then at the vats and the various tubes and cords that connected them.  Spines and brains in jars, tubes of fluid, a living thing interrupted, like a carcass.

Transplating what they had.  An empty vessel.

I didn’t dare let myself hope.

“Would that bring him back?  The Jamie who put those memories there in the first place?”

“What?” the old man asked.  He sounded indignant.  He almost spat the word, “No.

One of his colleagues, a middle-aged man with spectacles, reached out to touch the older Professor’s arm, urging him to be calmer.

I hadn’t wanted to let myself hope, but it was still painful to hear.

I could have killed that old man for that.

“It’s muddied,” the middle aged man said.  “It wouldn’t have been possible if we’d had a vat-grown body ready the moment we lost the original Caterpillar, because so much depends on original brain structure.  Beyond that, the brains are a stew of the original Caterpillar’s catalogued memory and the memories from eighteen appointments the second Caterpillar had.  There’s reduplication, meshing, the sorting mechanisms…”

He trailed off, as I gestured, beckoning.

Jessie came to stand beside me.

One of the younger ones, a grey coat, spoke up with his eyes wide, “That’s the Caterpillar?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “She’s in stasis, until we can get her to a point where she isn’t losing the memories anymore.”

“I- we can’t.  You know that, right?  That wouldn’t be possible, especially at this stage.”

Redefine possible,” I said, and I said it with venom in my voice.  “Do it like your welfare depends on it.”

“You’ll want to call her Jessie, not Caterpillar,” Duncan said.  “I’m reasonably sure that Sylvester wouldn’t kill you for referring to her as ‘it’ or calling her by the project title, but he’d make you regret it.  We have people we’ve been talking to and utilizing.  We’ll introduce you to them shortly, all going well.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice soft.  I reached out to touch Jessie’s hair.  “Why don’t you go get settled in the throne, Jessie?”

“Um,” Duncan said.  “Here, I’ll instruct you.  Someone had better come and talk us through this.  It’s been a while since I kept up with this project.”

The young man I’d been threatening and the old man both got up, hurrying over to the dais that the great throne stood on.  The young man pulled off his coat and used it to dust the apparatus off.

“Hayle,” someone at the door said.  “At the top floor.”

“Is he in a position to come down to meet us?” Mary asked.

“Are they?” I asked.  “Plural.  Fray has to be there too.”

“Are they in a position to come down to meet us?” Mary asked.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the soldier said, sounding bewildered.

“I had a mental picture of one or both of them with a device or creature at hand, or an apparatus, a weapon, or-” Mary started.  “Nevermind.”

“We’ll be up shortly,” Lillian said.  “Unless there’s an immediate concern?”

“No, Doctor.”

“Then we’ll be up shortly,” she said, again.  There was emotion in her voice.

I watched as Jessie was situated.  The cords and tubes were pulled into their rough positions, but not attached.  They dangled, holding position by dint of habits formed long ago, poised like snakes ready to bite.  Jessie slept on, and the stitched that had served as her arms and legs stood behind the throne, following Duncan’s orders when he needed something brought to his waiting hand.

Lillian drew close to my side, rubbing my back.

“Jamie was lovely,” she said.  “Jessie had her good points too.”

“Has,” I said.  “Has her good points.”

“Okay, Sy.”

“They’ll fix her.  They should have followed my project enough to know I’ve got a great imagination, and people as smart as them should know I’ve got reason to despise them to the core of my being.  I’ve got motive, opportunity, means and more means.  As mean as you get.”

I said it loud enough to be sure they heard.

“I’ll stay,” Duncan said.

“Hm?” I made an inquisitive noise.

“Unless you need me.  I’ll stay.  I’ll watch Jessie.”

I stared at him, trying to figure it out.

“You can trust me,” he said.

“That’s not what I was thinking.”

“The pill-”

“Again, not what I was thinking.  I was just… thinking about logistics.  My head is in a different place right now.”

“You can’t trust they won’t try something, like taking her hostage, not unless you have someone who knows their stuff.  You could have one of your rebel doctors watch over things.  We have some who followed along with the preliminary work we were doing with Jessie, but… short of Lillian, I’m the one most familiar with her.  And Lillian wants to confront Hayle.”

“You’re sure?” Lillian asked.

“I’m sure,” Duncan said.  “Just leave me some soldiers.”

Mary called out some names.  Lillian and I stood back while people got arranged.

Ashton and Helen approached.  I messed up Ashton’s hair.

“Rude,” he said.  His hair stayed sticking up.  “I’ve got my hands full of Helen.”

“And no cause to be concerned for your safety,” I said.  “Many a lad has wished to be in the position you’re in.”

He looked at Helen, then made a face.

“No,” he said.  “No, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that.”

“A joke, young sir,” I said.  “Because the alternative is too hard to bear.”

“Okay, Sy,” he said.

I settled my hand on his head, partially patting the hair back into place.

“If Fray isn’t here-” Mary said, looking away from the soldiers she was directing.  The Professors were working out who would be permitted to do the preliminary work and who would hang back, corralled and held at gunpoint.

I shook my head.  “She’s here.”

Go.  End this.

“Bye, Jessie,” I said.

Someone threw a switch.  Turning on a machine.  I flinched and turned away.

We left Jessie and Duncan behind.  We ascended the stairs, and we passed Gordon and Hubris’ old lab.

We passed the room where Mary’s staff had worked from.  I watched as Mary touched the door in passing.

The hallway was one that wound up the tower exterior like a spiral staircase.  The windows looked out on the city.  Wreckage, harvester-modified surfaces and homes, innumerable bodies, and shapes that might have been clusters of bodies or warbeasts.  Rain obscured everything.  If it hadn’t, I might have seen some sign of black wood or the countermeasures against it in the distance.  Whether black woods or a burn circle, the effect on the landscape was much the same.

We passed Ashton’s lab, closer to the top.

Hayle’s office had no need for hallways along any side but the one with the entrance.  The windows provided an expansive view of the city.  He sat at his desk.

Warren stood to one side- except it wasn’t Warren.  A Bruno, but its head hung forward and was revealed as a mask, no skull or anything behind the flesh.  It was a husk, and it was a lifeless one.  Soldiers stood by, weapons at the ready.  Three guarded the Bruno.

Fray stood by the desk.  She was preparing tea.

“Invisible gas and antidotes in the tea?” I asked.

Fray shook her head.

“Anything fun?” I asked.  I examined the Bruno.  “Anything in the Bruno suit?”

“Useful for getting around when Genevieve Fray couldn’t.  The face is interchangeable.  I would periodically use Warren’s face, and sometimes something more generic.”

“Copying me?” Lillian asked.

“No.  Coincidence, Doctor Garey, and barely a coincidence, at that,” Fray said.  “It isn’t strong.  It just moves the way I want it to move when I wear it.  Avis designed the mechanisms for connecting my physiology to it.”

“It sounds wrong when you call me Doctor.”

“Be that as it may,” she said.

I was aware that the soldiers were watching the exchange.  The Treasurer was in the hallway, with Gordeux.

I looked at Hayle.  The old man, lines etched deep in his skin.  He made me think of a gargoyle.  In his natural process of aging, he looked more like an experiment than most of the experiments present.

“I’d appreciate it if the room were less crowded,” I said.  “The Treasurer and Gordeux can stay.”

“I have a name,” Gordo said.

“Guys, give us some breathing room.  Stay in earshot, in case anything happens,” the Treasurer said.

The soldiers left the room, passing by the Treasurer and Gord, who remained just outside the door.  Mary sat in the chair across from Hayle, because she didn’t look up to standing much longer.  Ashton sat as well, getting comfortable with Helen in his lap.  I stood beside Lillian at the back of the room.

The two gods remained on the other side of the desk.

“I wasn’t sure if you heard,” Fray said.  “I was glad to see it was you.  It would have been such a terrible fate for this to unfold and for it to be the likes of Mauer.”

“There would have been something just in Mauer finally getting his win.”

“It would have been a waste, Sylvester.  I think you know that,” Fray said.

I know.

I nodded.

Hayle had yet to speak.  That was fitting, given the god he represented.

“I always feel so glad to see you all,” Fray said.  “Less so when you arrange to have me chased down, but I get by.  I’m fond of you all.”

“Sy says it’s because you made them,” Mary said.

“That’s not what I said, exactly,” I said.

Fray smiled, red lips parting to reveal just a bit of her teeth.  She looked at me.  “What did you say, exactly?”

“I’m the wrong person to ask if you want exact recollection,” I said.  “But… I said we were your project.”

Fray smiled again.  She looked down at Hayle, who sat to her left, then back at us.  “You were.”

The rain drummed against one side of the tower.

“I can’t say I expected it to go this way,” she said.  “But that’s you, isn’t it, Sylvester?  Unexpected.”

Hayle finally spoke, his voice far older than I remembered it, which I didn’t, really.  “I wish you hadn’t destroyed my Academy.”

The other Lambs were watching the exchange, tense.  They were as tense about what I was going to say as they were about anything.

“Did Helen, Jessie, or Duncan make it?” Fray asked.

“Helen’s there,” Lillian said, indicating the parcel in Ashton’s lap.  “Duncan and Jessie are in the lab downstairs.”

“An uphill battle, I imagine,” Fray said.

“You imagine right,” Lillian said.

“What a shame about Helen.  She was a work of art.”

“She will be again,” I said. “We have Ibbot.  And, you know, we have pretty much everything else, this side of the King’s Ocean.”

Gunshots sounded elsewhere in the city.  Mary craned her head to look, perhaps in hopes of seeing who was shooting, and in what directions.  She eased back down.  She had a knife in her hands, where she hadn’t before.

“Well, I suppose Helen’s current situation simplifies the desserts I might serve with tea, then.  It was why I asked as to her whereabouts.  Who am I serving?” Fray asked.  “I recall you turned down my invitation, the last time we talked, Sylvester.”

“No tea,” I said.

Mary and Lillian refused.

“I’ll have tea,” Ashton said.  Mary gave him a stern look.  He changed his mind, saying, “I won’t have tea.”

Genevieve Fray served herself and Hayle.  She opened a tin and put a biscuit on each saucer with the cups.

“That’s not poison, is it?” I asked.  “I think we deserve more than you two offing yourselves.”

“No,” Fray said.  “I wouldn’t do that to you Lambs.”

“Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say ‘my Lambs’?” I asked.

“It could be.  I’d be worried that Mary might kill me, with that look in her eyes.”

“Don’t kill her, Mary,” I said.  I watched the knife disappear, then drew in a deep breath and sighed.

“I wouldn’t call you mine,” Fray said.  “Whatever part I might have played.  You are your own individuals.  As a case in point, your war was rather more messy than I’d have done, Hayle’s Academy in ruins and all.”

“And the deaths,” Lillian said.

“Of course.”

“I think you’re going to have to explain sooner than later,” Mary said.  “One of you.  And I do hate that I’m talking about a plural ‘you’ with Sylvester and Fray included.”

Lillian didn’t look very happy about it either.

“I don’t know how it started,” I said.

“Hayle set the class a project,” Fray said.

“I’d like to hear it from him,” I said.  “At least to start.”

“I had a good crop of students,” Hayle said.  “I wanted to challenge them, and I wanted to be challenged.  I set them the task of creating a better brain, or repurposing old projects to include one.  It was something I’d done before, but I pushed it, even though it was something the Academy didn’t encourage or reward.  In terms of advancement and funding, it was often a dead end.  Genevieve Fray was my student, then.”

“I went looking for a way to approach my project.  My journey took me to the Block, but not to the… full extent of the Block,” Fray said.

“They know,” I said.  I glanced over my shoulder at the Treasurer and Gordeux.

She gave them a searching look, then said, “I figured a large part of things out.  The copious amount of study drugs I was taking might have helped.  That I started from a child slave bought at auction and sought to make an experiment that would complement the Nobles… well.  Not a far cry.”

I bit my tongue.

“My project was Evette,” she said.

I’d wondered.  I nodded to myself.

“Evette failed,” Lillian said.

“She did.  I was overly ambitious, but some of it had to do with luck.  Had she succeeded, I don’t know what would have happened.  I took care to erase my background as team lead once we decided on a future course of action.”

Hayle joined in once more, “I called her to my office to speak about the failure.  We found our way to the subject of the block, as she explained why she’d been so ambitious.  Had she been anything but a favorite student, a circumspect one, and me a favorite, teacher of hers, both circumspect and harboring a desire for a greater challenge that he couldn’t articulate, one of us would have likely met our end after that talk.”

“But you didn’t,” Mary said.

“Unless you’re Stitched,” Ashton said.

“We raised the subject of the Lambs, a larger project with an ultimate end goal.  The Academy was complacent.  The Crown is stagnant, and it’s a stagnation that’s doing a great deal of harm.  They’re content to bury continents and uncover them again after a century or more.  They trust that any problem that arises is one they can solve,” Hayle said.

“When you say you wanted a challenge, you mean you wanted to raise one.  Literally raise us,” I said.

“In effect,” Hayle said.  “We adjusted the experiment, we created the idea of the Lambs as a gestalt of the best projects.  We turned down Percy, because Percy’s idea, while good in its own right, was very much what we didn’t want.”

“Ironic,” I said.  “That Mary’s here now.”

“What-” Lillian started.  “What exactly did you want?  What aren’t you saying?”

Fray smiled, and looked at me.

“I suppose I have to ask.  How did we do?” I asked.

“You did just fine,” she said.  “We’ll have to see how Jessie does, and if Helen can be restored, but I would venture to say you did perfect, getting as far as you did.”

“All according to plan.”

“Not even close to the original plan.  I’d initially hoped you would accept one of my invitations.  That I could guide you, nudge you.  We tried to separate you when you started to run into problems, and our attempt to keep things manageable backfired.  The, ah, crises I manufactured to pave the way and provide you something of an education got out of hand.”

“Mauer,” I said.

Fray smiled.

“Providence,” Hayle said.  “That you would walk your own path and-”

“We ended up right where you wanted us,” I finished his sentence.  I looked at the other Lambs.  “Poised to become Nobles in our own right.”

“Nobles?” Lillian asked.

I could see the alarm on her face.  The concern on Mary’s.

“Poised,” Hayle said, and he leaned forward, elbows on the desk.  I imagined he was seeing over a decade of work come to fruition in this.  “But are you willing?”

Yes,” the voice said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.16

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The clash of the two crude forces of nature made crossing the Academy grounds impossible.  The Tangle might’ve had a brain, if I counted the modified warbeast that served as its head, but destroying that brain wouldn’t stop the Tangle.  It would only render it impossible to control.

The jellyfish seemed so heavy it had difficulty moving without making its gelatinous self ripple and roll in a direction, but it had the advantage of being big.  It rocked itself back and forth, building up momentum, and rolled into the Tangle, gripping it and pulling it down onto its side.  The sound and the ‘splash’ were muffled.

I could see it start to build up strength, and to use similar mechanisms to get itself moving, now that it was agitated.  All of the water within the Academy and much of the water beneath our feet, extending into the ditches and onto the roads leading down from the Academy was an extension of the creature.

“How?” I asked, turning around.

Mary turned.  “Rifle!”

Bea tossed her a rifle.

With the bayonet, Mary sliced it across a puddle.  The gap widened as the larger mass pulled one part through the gate and toward its fumbling struggle with the Tangle.  The remainder was pulling together into a mass outside of the gates.

“Hag Nerve,” Duncan said.

“I don’t know that one,” Lillian said.

“Superweapon,” Duncan said.  “Mucin glands, they spin out collagen-axon chains-”

“The nerve in the hag nerve,” Lillian said.

“-And filament chains.  To form skeins that catch the water.”

“It’s actually made of water?” I asked.

“Ninety nine percent,” Duncan said.  “Water, filaments like spider web, and the translucent organs that make the webs.  It’s a blob of the slime you’d get if you dumped enough spider web into the water to keep it all collected into one mass.”

The Tangle went on the offensive.  It struck out, trying to sandwich the hag nerve blob between itself and the wall, and it slammed its body into the damaged gate, just a short distance from us.  Harvesters were knocked loose, many thrown into our general direction.

Mary moved to the rear of our group, tossing a rifle our way so it remained more or less upright, bayonet pointed skyward.  There was no intended recipient, she simply trusted that one of us would catch it.

I caught it, and used the weapon to stab a harvester that was getting too curious about us.

The things were swarmers, though.  They were gathering together into a mass.  That would be uglier, if they veered our way instead of heading back to the Tangle Prime.

Lillian opened a paper packet, pulled it over the top of a vial, and shook it, before tossing it at the swarm.

It exploded in a small, five-foot diameter puff of dust, encompassing the building swarm.  The cloud of dust was quickly beaten down by the rain.

It seemed to keep the swarm from building.  They didn’t dissipate, but it was something.

“More problematic-” Duncan said.

“The Hag Nerve thing is big,” I said.

Duncan gripped his rifle, then said, “It’s spreading.”

The Tangle waded through the Hag Nerve, and it was as though it was wading through gloopy slime.  Over the course of several steps it went from being immersed to what amounted to its ankles to being immersed to its knees.

The Hag Nerve began sloshing.  It rocked, building momentum with each movement, and the Tangle’s feet were dragged across the slimy cobblestones, left, then right, until it fell over.

In the course of its rocking, it rolled up against the side of one house, striking the gutter.  The water that spilled out over the surface of the blob slowed and congealed as it rolled, not even spilling out and over to the sides.

“Will explosives work?” Mary asked.

“Some,” Duncan said.  “But I don’t know if it would be worth it.”

It’s just water, I thought.

“We need to get around it,” I said.  “Unless there’s a way to stop it?”

“Horrendous amounts of digestive enzymes?” Duncan suggested. “Probably how they clean it up.”

“Can we get access to their cleanup method?  Wherever they went to get the acid rain going?”

“It’s probably one of the most guarded locations.”

“Given the protein focus, salt would work,” Lillian said.  “Ion chains.”

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  Then he perked up.  “Proteins!  That gas Sy had Junior make would work nicely.”

“I really didn’t want to use it so soon,” I said.  “Really didn’t.”

“He’s not back yet,” Mary said.  “And I don’t think we want to wait.”

“Salt then,” Lillian said.

“We’re a long way from the ocean,” I added.

Our rebels were apparently in position now.

“Explosives out!” Mary called out.  “Ready!  Stand clear!”

We were between two blobs.  The one in the plaza was large – and I was seeing what Duncan meant about how it was spreading.

Every body of water in the Academy grounds, some of the bodies of water beyond.  All were interconnected now.  All were part of this particular, deceptively simple weapon.

“I hate enemies without brains,” I said.  “I can never outsmart them.”

“There’s something to be said about that, Sy,” Mary said.

“Probably,” I said, my attention on the path before us.  I could see the water recede, in its way, leaving the stones of the road through the gate almost dry.  “Probably.”

The Tangle was being smothered.

“First throw!” Mary called out, pointing with a fresh rifle she’d borrowed.

Someone threw a grenade.  It detonated and didn’t fully divide the blob.  As if time had frozen, the mass of water with dust, sticks, small stones and countless splinters stuck in it split, splashing out, and then stopped, the edges blurring and slumping into one another.

“Second throw!”

Each detonation made me jump, my teeth rattling enough I worried I’d bite my tongue.  The tower-top artillery hadn’t been shooting.  Too many of us were too close to the base of the wall to be aimed at, and nobody, Junior included, seemed to be comfortable approaching.

“Hurry!”

With the blob divided, our rebels made a break for it.  There were eight of them, and two slipped on the slime.

I jumped forward, reversing the rifle in my hands.  Holding the barrel just behind where the bayonet blade was attached to it, I extended the rifle-butt their way.  They grabbed it, and I hauled the first one out.  The second was grabbed by the people who were mostly clear.

The Hag Nerve’s slime didn’t pull away so much as it simply stretched out, hampering their movement even once they were free.  The girl I’d helped fell as she came more or less free.  She hissed as she turned around, so she was sitting instead of lying down.

“You alright?” I asked.

She moved her leg around, raising one of her pants legs to expose her calf.  Red.

“Plague?” I asked.  I was aware of the change in expressions.

She shook her head.  “Acid.  It’s mild.  Diluted, but the Hag Nerve grips you.  Like an indian burn with something caustic on your hands.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I tried to wrap my head around that, what it meant for us.  “How is it to walk on?”

The Hag Nerve around us was shifting.  The divided portion was trying to reconnect, outside the gates and we still had soldiers on the far side of it.

The Tangle, fighting to find a way to escape, moved at the other side of the gate, dragging itself against the damaged door.  The door swung in, and slammed against the frame, hard.  More harvesters and a few scattered harvester-riddled bodies were shed, landing around the partially closed set of doors.

Of the large set of double doors, only half of one of the two doors was now held closed, but it was enough to narrow our exit into the Academy itself.  The path beyond- I could see the Primordial Child standing in the puddles and the runoff from gutters.  The drains that were supposed to vent out the rain were clogged with Hag-stuff.

Duncan, Lillian, and Ashton stepped forward to deal with the harvesters and their hosts.  Ashton had only a knife, but he did his part, presumably, with his innate abilities.

Neither of the threats could easily be stopped.  Most attempts to wound or stop them would only divide them.

“Next round, third throw!” Mary called out.  Nobody was close enough to get caught in any blast.

I braced myself.  The detonation wasn’t as bad as the two prior ones.  A bad throw- the road was raised with ditches on either side, and the explosive had landed on the far slope of the road.  If anything, it blew a portion of the blob in our direction.

But it slipped away, the two halves sliding into the ditches on either side of the road.  The rest of our small army was free to follow.

The Tangle bludgeoned the same partially intact gate door it had struck before, threatening to batter it free of the hinges.

“The Hag Nerve is neat to look at,” Ashton said, looking back.  “That’s nice, at least.”

“It’s massively inconvenient,” I said.  “Can you get the Tangle to move away from the door?”

“It’s trying and it can’t.  It’s all Hagged up,” Ashton said.  “Try harder, Tangle!  I’m cheering for you!”

I looked at Mary, “Do you see Junior?”

“No sign,” Mary said.

“I’d hate for him to get cut off,” I said.  “Some people should stay behind, keep an eye out for him.  I think we can get partway to where we need to be, but this would be a lot easier if we had a good answer.”

“I’ll handle it, I’ll stay, make sure he has a route.  You get as far as you can,” Mary said.

“I don’t like leaving you behind,” Lillian said.

“It’s the best way,” Mary responded.  “Bea, you and yours with me.  That’s- fifteen?”

“Fifteen,” Bea said.  She made a face.  “Marcus didn’t make it, Fang couldn’t come.  Plague.”

“Everyone else, with the Lambs,” Mary said.

“You’ll catch up?” I asked.

“I’ll catch up,” she said.

I gave her a lingering look.

“Look after each other,” Mary said.

Radham was a city of perpetual rain.  Everything was wet, and the Hag Nerve operated by extending itself through that interconnected wet.  There was no safe route to take except the high ground, and I knew Radham well enough to know that there wouldn’t be a good way to get from the walls to the places we wanted to be.

My mental picture of Radham Academy was shifting.  A mire, a bog, every step being one we had to fight for.

“Sy?” Lillian asked.

“It’s not a very Lamb sort of problem, is it?” I asked, taking in the scene.  The Tangle was still close to the door.  “It’s… a pretty perfect way to tie our hands.  Slow us down, keep us rooted.  It would mess with Mauer, too, but it really messes with us.”

“It’s not great,” Lillian said.

“Kind of drives home that we’re dealing with Fray and Hayle, who know us,” I said.

“Kind of,” Duncan said.

I turned around.

Mary had her contingent keeping the Hag at bay.  They worked to keep it from lapping its way up the slopes that led up to the main road.  But there was a large group, otherwise.  Our rebels, our soldiers.

“You guys have weapons, you have tools,” I said.  “Our goal is to get up through the Hedge-”

“The hospital,” Lillian clarified.  “We’re actually smack dab in the middle of it.  It’s the building to either side and above us, integrated into the wall.”

“And to the tower,” I said.

“High ground?” Ashton asked.

“Yeah, but not for reasons you’re thinking,” I said.

“The Hedge is going to be defended,” Mary said.  She was a distance away, but listening in.

“Yeah,” I said.  “But first, we’ve got to get to the door.”

“That’s our job?” the Treasurer asked.

“Please,” I said.

“Which way is the door?” he asked.

Lillian pointed.  “About a hundred paces.”

“I think the Tangle won’t come after us,” Ashton said.  “But it can’t move further away either.”

“Grenades first, then,” the Treasurer said.  “We’ll need to clear a way, we move in a tight group.”

“There’ll be enemies on the other side of the door,” I said.  “You need to be able to hold out while we work.”

“Fire?” the Treasurer asked.

“It’s made of water,” Duncan said.

“A ring of ignited oil?”

“I don’t know if we have enough, but yes,” Duncan said.

“Then it’ll have to do,” I said.

“Once we move,” Duncan said, “There’ll be no safe ground, no place we can stop where we won’t be fighting.”

“We get to the Hedge.  Then-”

Then what?

Claret Hall or the Tower?

Which would Hayle go to?  Claret Hall was technically the headmaster’s office.  It was where he could go to coordinate with the rest of his people.

As Mary had done, the Treasurer was arranging the soldiers into a relay of grenade tosses.  We’d stagger them out.

“Then the Tower,” I said.

“What are you thinking?” Lillian asked.

“A message,” I said.

I punctuated the statement with my signal to the Treasurer.

“We’ll only have a couple of minutes of oil at best,” Duncan said, as the Treasurer called out.  He and Lillian had their bags out.  They were examining their stock.

The first grenade was thrown.

“Maybe less,” Duncan said.  “Whatever you’re going to do, you’ll need to be fast.”

“I’ll do my be-”

The explosive detonated.  To pass through the gate, we had to pass beneath the nose of the Tangle, which had reared back from the noise and light.  We had to move within range of a claw swipe.

Ashton lingered, while we moved forward as a group.  Lillian, Duncan, myself.  Jessie and her stitched, the Treasurer, and one rebel with the next grenade.  We went around the corner, stepping into the Academy grounds, and I could see the distant door.

The plan was to move along the wall.  A hundred paces.  I gauged the amount of space we’d carved out with the first throw.

Twenty paces.  But as hard as we pushed, it was already pushing back.  Faster, initially, then slower.

Those twenty paces shrank to fifteen by the time we were in position.  After a minute or five, it might shrink to five or ten.

We moved fast.  Another throw.  The rebel who’d thrown didn’t move ahead with us, instead standing with their back tight against the wall.

It wasn’t the best way to move forward.  The explosions drew attention, we carved out little space, we couldn’t stand close to the detonations, and the Hag Nerve was retaking ground.

There was a window nearby.  I had dim recollections, of being on the other side of those windows.  When I had my appointments at a young age, before Lillian felt equipped to see to them, I’d had them in the Hedge.  In offices and doctor’s rooms.  I would be without any Lambs, in pain I didn’t yet know how to deal with, staring out through the bars of my cage.

The others would make their way forward.  They’d buy themselves time with oil and fire.

I’d get a headstart on my own role in things.

“Jessie,” I said.  “Come with.”

Lillian and Duncan looked at me with surprise.

Ashton was Ashton, like Helen had always been Helen.

“I love you all,” I said.  “Make sure Mary doesn’t use Junior’s gas unless she absolutely has to.”

“What-” Lillian started.

I grabbed the bars, and I started climbing.

“Oh.  Be safe, Sy.”

The rain poured down around us, onto the Hag Nerve, onto the Tangle of dead bodies.  It drenched an Academy that had gone quiet, making my every move a precarious one, where a finger or the toe of a boot could slip from wet metal.

Jessie’s stitched followed, after brief direction from Duncan.  It was large enough to reach where I had to jump.  It managed its slow, inexorable climb, Jessie on its back, piggy-backing it.  My climb was more precarious, and I was in a hurry.

A nice climb was one where I had three points of contact with the wall, two feet and one hand, or both hands and one foot.  I could reach with the free limb.  This wasn’t a nice climb.  There weren’t two points of contact here.  There oftentimes wasn’t even one.

There were gaps between windows large enough that I had to make little jumps, where I touched nothing but air and rain, before reaching out to grab at another set of bars.

One set would be rusty.  Another would rattle as I grabbed it.  Another leap had a loose stone in the sill.

The group below used the weapons we’d brought with us from the ship to carve a way forward.  They were just at the door now.

I spotted what I was looking for.  The branches reinforced the wall higher up, grown into the architecture, supporting parts that had started to crumble.  Those same branches provided a wealth of handholds and security that stone alone didn’t.

As multiple sets had overlapped, they made it harder to set up the bars.

I’d hoped to find a place where Jessie’s stitched could help rip the bars away.  I found better.  The bars had been done away with entirely on one of the upper floors, where the branches almost completely enclosed one window.

I worked the window open, slipping a knife through the gap to flip the latch, and I climbed within.

Patients were arranged on beds.  Two were asleep or in too dire a shape to move.  Five more were awake.  An old woman, one with a long face and her hair curled, glasses making her eyes hard to make out.  Two injured men who might have been soldiers.  A woman who might have been a mother, sitting in the bed with her child.

This would be long-term care.

Water dripped from me as I walked down the row between the beds.  “How many doctors on the floor?”

“Two nurses, they rotate.  One is always a shout away,” the old woman said.  “Doctors are two shouts away, if something happens.”

“Hey,” a soldier said.  “Quiet now.”

“He has a knife,” the old woman said.  “I’ve come this far.  I’d like to live.”

“The fighting’s over,” I said.  I glanced out the window, then leaned out a bit further, waving my arm so the stitched could see.

“Is it?  I hear explosions,” a soldier said.

“Cutting through the mess,” I said.  “The fighting is over, but the outcome hasn’t been decided.”

“You’re here to influence that outcome?”

“I’m here to decide,” I said.

Jessie’s stitched ripped away the branches.  I put one hand on Jessie’s arm, holding it, so she wasn’t scraped free & left to fall to the ground far below as the stitched climbed through the window.

“I’m a soldier,” one of the patients said.  He moved like he was going to get out of bed, and I could see the pain on his face.

I drew my gun.  Not for him.

A nurse came to respond to the sound Jessie’s stitched had made.  I pointed the gun at her.

“The Infante is dead.  The armies on all sides have been devastated,” I said.  I motioned for the stitched to follow.  “The people who got us to this point, myself included, need to get some things out of the way.  Either it’s me against them, or all three of us have different opinions on how this should go.  Now… where is the man in charge?”

“Headmaster Hayle?  I imagine he’d be at Claret Hall,” the old woman said.

“The man in charge of the Hedge.”

“He’s downstairs,” the nurse said.

I glanced out the window.  They were just setting up the ring of fire now.  The fire would keep the Hag Nerve from creeping in around them, at least for a bit.  The water would seep in, but the Hag part of things wouldn’t come with it.  They presumably had a way to manage the water lapping in around them.

Duncan had said there would only be a few minutes of reprieve.

“She’ll be safe as long as you don’t kick up a fuss,” I told the patients.  I approached the nurse, gun still pointed at her, and motioned for the stitched to follow.

“Whatever you’re doing this for,” the old woman said.  “Surely it isn’t a world where you’d hurt someone like her, who treats us kindly?”

“I think everyone who has a say would say the world they’re fighting for is the best one,” I said.  “That they’d want to preserve the good people.  The innocents.  But want as we might, we don’t always get a chance.  Don’t make me shoot her.”

“It’s your choice,” she said, to my back.  I was already out in the hallway.

It was dark.  The lights dimmed, at an hour when patients were supposed to be asleep.  But the city was under siege, and anxiety ran high.

We all say we’d want to preserve the good innocents, the voice said.  Reflecting on my statement a moment ago.  There isn’t single one of us who wouldn’t put a bullet in an innocent to bring their ideal world one step to fruition.

This is the world you live in, Sylvester. 

You are the embodiment of that sentiment, that world.

I kept the gun out of sight.  The Nurse walked with me.  Jessie followed, a short distance behind.  The stitched carried her properly in its arms, now that it was done climbing.

The Nurse led me down the stairs.

The others were outside.  How much time had passed?

But I couldn’t rush.  Not at this stage.  I had to appear calm.

She indicated the door.

I looked down the length of the long, empty hallway.

“Grab her,” I said.

The stitched caught the nurse, clapping a hand over her mouth, holding her against the wall.

“Thanks Jessie.  Stay put for now.”

I opened the door, letting myself into the room.  A patient’s room, luxury, but the person who lay on the cot with an arm draped over their eyes was a Professor.

I put the knife to their throat.  They stiffened in alarm.

I used my hand to move the arm.  He was relatively young.  Thirty-something.  He hadn’t shaved recently, but he was well-groomed, even to the eyebrows.

“I expected a knock at the door.  Someone saying we’d lost.  Ever since I saw that vessel out there,” he said.

I heard detonations.  Was that my signal?

“You guys are dragging out the loss.  It’s going to hurt all sides,” I said.  “Let’s expedite things.”

He considered that.

“Every second counts.  The patients and refugees in this hospital, the soldiers near to the ground floor, defending the entrance, the staff.  If you want them to live, make this easy.”

“What if I make it hard?” he asked.  “I’m not saying I will, but knowing might make the decision that much easier for me.”

“The artillery up above.  The shells and explosives they’re raining down on the attackers are stored somewhere.  I’d head to a tower, not too close to here, and I’d blow it up, and myself with it.  I want to give them a way through, that doesn’t mean they’re wading through the Hag Nerve.  I’ll sacrifice myself if it means giving them that.”

“It’s that bad already?”

“Yes.  And I want through.  Either you give us and them a way through, or I’ll take myself and everyone in the Hedge out to pave a way for my colleagues.  Decide fast.  You do not want to see what happens if they don’t make it.”

It wasn’t my voice that had made that warning.

He met my eyes.  It was gloomy, the only light from an oil lamp turned to its lowest settings.

He seemed to read something in my expression.

I’d always been bad at being sincere when it counted.  I came across as dishonest.

“Alright,” he said.  “What do you need?”

He seemed to believe this, when I was as honest about what I was willing to do as I’d ever been.

“Announce the surrender.  Say Hayle sent the message and he’s spreading it around.  The people outside the door get to come in.  They pass without incident.  All weapons get put away.”

He stood from the bed, swinging his legs down.

“What happens after?” he asked.

“Go,” I said.  “After all of this is over, we talk.  And that’s only if all of them out there are fine and healthy.  Hurry.”

He left.  He seemed bewildered, as he stopped in the hallway and saw Jessie, and more bewildered still when I didn’t follow to ensure he was doing what I wanted him to do.

I stood in the small, luxury patient’s office, and I had a sensation that I’d been cooped up in here, once upon a time.

I touched the window, looking at the bars of metal and the wood that wound its way across.  I could see the water that ran down the glass and the flame reflected in the individual droplets.

“Let her go,” I told Jessie.

The nurse was released.  She stumbled a few steps away, and it looked like she was about to run.  She didn’t.

“Did you hear?” I asked.

“We lost,” she said.  “I don’t know who won.”

“Nobody,” I said.  “That’s not how this plays out.”

I moved at a more leisurely pace.  The stress from carrying Jessie around had worn out my legs, and I was only now feeling it.  The climb had only exacerbated the stress and exhaustion.

“Can I- are you letting me go?”

“Don’t cause trouble,” I said.  “We still have to see how the dust settles, and who is left when it does.  If you stay quiet, you’ll be fine whatever happens.  If you stir things up and the wrong set of things occur, it only hurts you and others.”

“I came here tonight with only the plans to look after my patients.”

“Do that,” I said.

She fled.  Going back upstairs.

“How was that, Jessie?” I asked.

Jessie was silent.

“Yeah,” I said.

We moved briskly toward the stairs.  I had to trust the Lambs were doing their best.

I made my way up, Jessie following, I opened the door just enough to peek, then stepped back, staying in the stairwell with Jessie.

The Lambs appeared.  Lillian and Duncan supported Mary.

“You took too long,” Mary said.  She sounded different.

“The fire went out,” Ashton said.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

She looked up at me.  One of her ribbons had come loose, and her hair had fallen down on the one side.

“She pushed herself too hard,” Lillian said.  “Fighting back a rising tide with knives and wire.”

“And drugs,” Duncan said.

“Not much.  A burst of movement when I needed it,” Mary said.

But she’d needed it.  I wanted to say something and I couldn’t.

The others were coming.  Rebels.  They ascended the stairs.

“We should hurry,” Mary said.  “People recognized us.  Not everyone is keen with us just walking through, our guns raised while theirs were lowered.”

“I imagine it’s hard for them to process.  Most haven’t considered being in a situation like this, even in wartime,” Duncan said.

Mary continued, “The dissenters will find those of like mind, and they’ll follow.  Or they’ll do something to work against us.”

“I puffed at them to get them to hold back, but that won’t account for much,” Ashton said.

“Everything helps,” Duncan said.

“We’ll have to act before they pull themselves together,” I said.  More of our rebels were collecting.  Junior was with them, I saw.  He held up a canister.

Let’s give them a message, drive reality home.

I gestured.

Our rebels mounted the attack.  They moved through the doorway at the top of the stairs.  They stepped onto the rooftop, rifles bristling.

The artillery team was on the roof.  The great cannon was set in place, the crates of artillery were stacked neatly nearby, and the soldiers were divided.  Half were keeping watch while holding onto their tea and hip flasks.  The other half manned the cannon, many with binoculars in hand.

Our side fired first.  They fired back, but it was scattered.

I could see lanterns flaring to life on neighboring rooftops.  Concerned.  Their focus seemed to be on the ground, a concern of an attack from across the fields, or from within Radham.

Mary pulled away from Lillian and Duncan, and she stumbled a little before dropping to her knees, moving her rifle around from where it hand dangled at her back.  Her focus was on the nearby towers.

Our cannon was loaded.  Our team was able to reorient it.

“Attack the other tower,” she said.  “I need rifles here, fast!”

The cannon turned, slow and heavy, aiming at the tower to our north.

Mary’s group aimed a battery of rifle fire at the tower to our south.

They opened fire before we did, this time.  Rifle shots.  We ducked behind cover, crouching, as our cannon fired at the other tower.

The towertop exploded, violent, a flare of orange flame and heavy smoke.  All of the ammunition they had been carrying went up with them, and the towertop began to crumble.

It was an attack from within that they hadn’t been fully equipped to deal with.  They’d clued in, but it had been late.

If Mary’s rifle battery hadn’t killed most or everyone at the other tower, it had cowed the survivors enough that they weren’t poking their heads up.

That was fine.  If they were being crafty or if they were running in anticipation of the cannon being turned their way, that would be alright.

“Remind me which corner of Claret Hall had the especially fancy staff room?” I asked.

The Lambs turned to stare at me.

“We might as well,” I said.  “Like I said, delivering a message.”

I didn’t need to give the order.  Our rebels began working as a team to slowly rotate the artillery turret.  It stopped partway, the structure of it not allowing it to fully turn inward.

It was our mechanically inclined girl from Junior’s group, coupled with the muscle of Jessie’s stitched, that helped us get it turned the way we wanted it, infrastructure pulled away, safeguards pulled out, mounts loosened.

It was a slow process.  We got the cannon aimed at the heart of Radham Academy.

The team worked to fix its housing so it wouldn’t go flying off the tower, taking several of us with it, with the recoil of its shot.

“What if Hayle is there?” Lillian asked.

“He isn’t,” I said.

“You can’t know for sure.”

“I know the direction Fray ran, and she’d run to him.  I know that our prior headmaster-”

“Briggs,” Duncan said.

“-him.  He would’ve gone to the nice staff room with the nice curtains and rugs and gold-inlaid furniture, and he would’ve had his tea or his brandy there, talking with his fellow black coats.  Hayle wouldn’t.”

“You can’t know,” Lillian said.  “Not for certain.”

“As badly as you want your confrontation,” I said.  “I want my answers.  I wouldn’t do this if I thought there was any chance we’d miss out.”

“Alright,” Lillian said.

“He’s the third god, he wouldn’t make it that easy.”

“All good to go,” our mechanic said.

“Thanks, Posie,” Duncan said.

“Would you like to do the honors?” I asked Lillian.  “Considering what happened with your black coat?”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  “I’ll do what I have to do in wartime, but… not like this.”

Not like this.

“Alright,” I said.

I gestured.

Posie and the Treasurer managed the firing.

The staff room of Radham was obliterated.  A hole through the wall, a shockwave followed, tearing through that enclosed space.  The windows blew out in rolling fire.

It was a shame that it had to happen, but we needed to break their backs.  To make it clear to those who remained that this was over.

Removing some of their leadership.  Some of their superiors and mentors.

There.

“We hold a position here, use the artillery cannon to open a way?” Mary asked.

“No,” I said.  “We leave nobody behind.”

“You’re sure?  You said you wanted to reach the tower.”

“We will,” I said.  “Shoot down the walls.”

I pointed.

Break their backs, then scar them.  Make it clear, above all else, that they’re no longer safe, whoever they are.

The cannon was loaded, and it fired once more.

One shot, to the base of one of the walls that surrounded Radham.

It mostly held up.

With the second shot, however, that section of wall collapsed.  It broke free, it twisted, unpinned, and it dumped half of the resulting rubble on the outside of the Academy, half on the inside.

Our rebels secured the door from those below as we made shot after shot, targeting the walls.

Tear it down.  Give them nothing.  If they would drown the battlefield, tear down their walls and walk over the rubble.

Lillian approached me.  She took my hand.  Speaking was impossible with the deafening boom after deafening boom.

We watched, hand in hand, as the cannon fired, tearing down the Academy that had given birth to me, to her, to Jessie, Duncan, Ashton, Jamie, Gordon, and even Mary, in a roundabout way.

When the ammunition ran out, we waited.  We let the dust settle and the rain wash that dust away.

Our retreat covered, we started on our walk to the distant Tower, where Hayle and Fray no doubt awaited us.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.15

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Did she use the word primordial?”

“Yes.”

“Recently?”

“What does that mean?”

“Did she say it the last time you talked to her?”

“Say what?”

“Did she say the word primordial in the last few conversations you had with her?”

“I don’t know.”

I bit my lip.

“Did she use the word plague, when she didn’t mean the red plague?”

“I don’t know.  I wasn’t paying attention to that kind of thing.”

“Did she say the word superweapon a lot?”

“Some.  But she says a lot of things some.”

I gripped the railing ahead of me.  “Right.”

Wendy turned to look starboard.

“Listen,” I said.  “Um.  Did she use the words ‘Radham superweapon’?”

“Some,” Wendy said, looking back at me.

“Some,” I said.  “Was she talking about wild, uncontrolled?  Or controlled chaos, or…”

Wendy looked at me, lost.

“Okay.  Was she being exceedingly careful?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Wendy said.  “No more than usual.”

That rules out some grim possibilities, I thought.  At the same time, it left me at a loss.

Our initial attempt at getting moving had failed.  The craft had started to move, then faltered when some of the legs proved too damaged to drag us forward.

I stood at the railing and watched as teams lashed Fray’s pet Tangle to the front.  Wendy stood beside me, holding an umbrella to keep the worst of the rain from soaking her.

Our means of locomotion was macabre, but it gave us a way forward.  Some of the warbeasts were being gathered nearby, a share of our rebels were wrapping up a discussion about them.  I couldn’t see nearly well enough to read much more than broader body language, the simplest gestures, like a pointing finger, and who was speaking, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out.

They divided the warbeasts up, one group more injured, another not, and led the injured within range of the Tangle.  Chains and ropes were distributed, so the beasts were lashed to the same rigging that was attaching the Tangle to the front of the Infante’s ship.

When the crews had tied everything down and retreated far enough away from the warbeasts, orders were called out.  The warbeasts were lunging, pulling at the rigging while the greater Tangle remained still.  They didn’t like their proximity to this strange thing, especially when they were hurt and tired.

They liked it even less when chemicals were cast out over them.

It was an indication for the Tangle to go on the offense.  It reached out for the warbeasts, gripped the rigging and the beasts themselves, and then set to work attaching them to itself, while harvesters swarmed down its limbs to do the stitching work.  The beasts fought a futile tooth and nail battle against the attacker.

I was a considerable distance above the ground, standing at the very highest point of the ship, and I could still hear the sounds they made.

“The Lady Gloria is dead,” Duncan said.

“Oh no,” Wendy said.  “What a shame.  Who is she?”

“She’s a noble.”

“Was she a good noble?” Wendy asked.

“She wasn’t one of the worst,” I said.

“Oh no,” Wendy said, again.

“Alright,” I said.

He approached from behind and came to stand beside me at the railing.

Pawing at the ground where some of the chemical had landed, the Tangle tugged on the restraints that bound it.  The crew of rebels hurried to get out of the way in case it made any headway.

“You really see a way forward?” Duncan asked.

“Yes,” I said.

The people who were still in view below were looking up, trying to see me through the rain.  I waved my arm, the motion exaggerated, then extended my arm forward.

A horn blew.  I recognized the pattern as the de-facto call for retreat.  Ironic, when we weren’t running.

“I’m in a weird place in the Lambs,” Duncan said.  “I’m the newest member, in a way, discounting the pseudo-Lambs.  I actually have outside attachments.”

“Having doubts?” I asked.

“No.  No, there isn’t much room for doubt, is there?”

I shook my head.  I looked at the devastated terrain and the shattered city before us.

“I know Lillian and you do your thing, you negotiate.  You and she figure out where you’re at.”

“We do.”

“And I don’t mean to disparage her at all when I say that she’s emotionally entangled.”

I looked over at him.  His hood was down, his hair wet.  Water streamed down his face and into his collar.  It was that kind of day, though.  We’d been out and active in the rain for so long that being drenched was something we’d resigned ourselves to.

The Tangle hauled forward, hard, making us stumble into the railing.  One of our rebels had taken off on a warbeast, the others presumably onboard or soon to be onboard.  The rider had something held aloft, and gas was streaming from it, tinted so it was clearly visible.

The Tangle was trying to chase, clearly interested in the gas.

“Just the way it is,” Duncan continued.  “You’ve all known each other for a long time.  You were introduced early on.  Lillian aside, you’ll probably die in each other’s arms.”

“Oh no,” Wendy said.

“Dark thoughts,” I said.

“But not wrong, am I?”

“No,” I said.

The intact legs of the ship began clawing at the ground.  They were strong, and they provided the initial forward momentum.  The Tangle compensated, providing power the weaker legs couldn’t.

We started moving.

“The Lambs have their roles.  You were conceived of as a gestalt.  It’s part of the whole plan, y’know?  And I’m not part of that.”

“You’ve found a place.”

“As a secondary Doctor.  As oversight for the little ones.  Lillian fields you, Jessie, and Mary in large part.  I’ve immersed myself in the workings behind the vat-grown ones.  There’s a division of labor.”

“Sure,” I said.

“As attached as I am to Ashton and Helen, I wouldn’t say I’m as tied into things.  I hope I don’t sound arrogant or too forward if I say maybe I have another role.  I’m… about as objective as you guys are going to get, without actually being an outsider.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And outsiders don’t get it.”

“They don’t,” Duncan said.

“What’s the objective take?” I asked.

“Not a take.  A question.”

“Sure.”

We were picking up speed now.  Once something was in motion, it was easy to keep in motion.  We had momentum.  We charged toward Radham.

“How worried do I need to be?”

“That depends on Fray,” I said.

More people were ascending to the upper deck.  The windows below didn’t afford the same view of things.  The Lambs were among the people ascending.  A stitched carried Jessie, and Lillian and Mary walked on either side of it.  The stream of people was disrupted with a pause – people had given a wide berth to the younger Lambs, in large part because of Nora.

“But you’re not asking about Fray,” I said.

“No.”

“I could tell you the same thing I told Mary,” I said.  “That when push comes to shove… just about any of you could beat me in a fight.”

“You could tell me that,” Duncan said.  “It doesn’t really answer the question.  You picking a fight is a non-concern.  You have a wealth of ways to do damage.”

I remained silent, watching the city.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.

He reached out, both hands.  One hand shielded the other, so rain wouldn’t fall on what it held.

A single pill.

He closed his hand around the pill.

“Ah,” I said.  “You’re that suspicious.”

“I would appreciate it if you took this.  Right here.  In the time before the others get here.”

The pull of the Tangle and the fact that the legs were stronger on one side made the craft tilt slightly.  The Tangle corrected to stay on course, and we tilted the other way.  Everyone on the deck that wasn’t holding the railing slid or stumbled on the wet deck.  It was wood textured to make slipping a little harder, but the acid rain had done a number on that texture, and the degraded wood had a way of filling in the gaps and making everything a little more slick.

It slowed them down a fraction, but not enough time to really let me dwell on the topic.

Duncan might have intended that, to give him some credit.

“What is it?”

“Reassurance,” he said, without hesitation.  He’d anticipated the question.

“Vague,” I said.  I held out a hand.

He closed his mouth into a grim line, clearly not intent on saying any more.

Saying more would have given me a chance to divine what he was up to.  He was intending to keep this a secret.  It could be a leash, something to ensure I wouldn’t last very long after going rogue, or it could be a placebo, something that would have a minor or obvious effect like turning my mouth blue, which would reassure him that I was cooperating enough to take the pill instead of palming it.

Or both.  I couldn’t rule out both.

Or, the voice echoed.  The most distant, least connected Lamb could be a traitor.  A poison pill at the pivotal confrontation.

I held out my hand.  Duncan gave me the pill.

The others were close enough to see, now.  I popped the pill into my mouth, then held it in my teeth so Duncan could see.

“It’s a suppository,” Duncan said, dry.

“Ha ha,” I said, pill still held in my teeth.  I winced as I sucked it back, snorting.  I stuck out my tongue, waggling it to show my mouth was empty.  “You’re a funny guy, Duncan.  You don’t get enough credit for that.”

“And you’re a charmer.  Believe it or not, I was considered one of the best jokers of the year.”

“What’s this?” Lillian asked, as she joined us.

“Duncan says people thought he was the funniest guy around.”

“That says as much about the the classmates we had as it does about Duncan,” Lillian said.

“Ow, my pride,” Duncan said.

“You were and are quick-witted and fast with a retort.  Especially when you’re in your element.  It’s part of the reason I nominated you.  And there’s something to be said for the fact that just about everyone else was struggling to get to the top of the class rankings, and didn’t have it in them to crack a joke.  You were doing well enough in your classes that you could joke around.”

“Feels like a horrifyingly long time ago,” Duncan said.  “I can’t remember the last time I made a joke.”

“I’m supposed to be the one with the memory problem.  You made one about a minute ago, you know.”

“Ha ha,” he said, without humor.

The Lambs had gathered all around.  It was nice, having them close.  Even if Helen was in dire shape and Jessie was sleeping through this.  They were near, they weren’t all touching me, but I could feel the warmth of them.  I was familiar with them, the smells, the ways they thought, many of the ways they moved.

It was more like being home than returning to Radham was.

I took in the scene.  Fray was one of my gods to slay for a reason.  She was so hard to predict.

I couldn’t ask what I’d do, because she operated on a different level, for reasons I didn’t know.  I had inklings, but I didn’t know how to use those inklings, and I wasn’t wholly sure I could trust them.

“Hi Wendy,” Ashton said.

“Hi.”

“Are you well?”

“Yes.  I’m enjoying a very strange view.”

“Yes,” Ashton said, sounding very pleased.  “I’m going to commit it to memory and describe it to Helen later.  She doesn’t have eyes right now.”

“How nice of you.”

Some of the rest of us exchanged glances.

“We should get away from the foredeck before we make impact,” Mary said.

“We’ve got a little ways to go before we do,” I said, staring at the scene.

“Did Wendy have any ideas about what Fray is doing?”

“Nothing concrete.  Superweapon, maybe.  As much as I keep thinking it has to be something really wild and uncontrolled, that the Crown can’t control or get a handle on, much like the plague, nothing Wendy says suggests that’s the case.”

“Primordials?” Lillian asked.

“They might have factored in.  She used the word.  It’s a casualty of Wendy being Wendy, as exceptional as she is for a stitched.”

“Thank you,” Wendy said.  “But I don’t really have stitches.  I’m sealed together properly.”

“All the same,” I said.  “We can pick up on sentiment, but if she was capable of divulging anything too concrete, I suspect Fray wouldn’t have…”

I gestured to finish the statement.  Left her behind.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  “Maybe.”

“It’s not as wild a thing as I thought it might be, but she might still be using the calamities as a kind of reverse effort to turn Radham and other strategic areas into an oasis in the midst of a desert storm,” I said.

“You might be thinking she should be using chaos and storms because that’s how you work,” Mary said.

“Might,” I admitted.

“We’re close,” she said.  “We should start preparing.”

“On that note, Lillian, Duncan, if you had to, could you quickly, cleanly kill that Tangle down there?”

“Kill?” Lillian asked.

“It’s ours,” Ashton said.

“No,” I said.  “It’s Fray’s.  We just happen to be using it.  So I have to ask, could you kill it?”

“No,” Duncan said.

“I could pull something together if you gave me an hour.”

“Okay, that wouldn’t be fast enough,” I said.  I turned around, and I made my way through the Lambs, leaving them at the very front of the ship.  I faced the group that had come up to the top deck.  “Beattle Rebels and other Academy-educated types!”

My voice carried.  I immediately had everyone’s attention.

“I need a quick answer!  Who can devise a solution to kill the Tangle down there before we actually get to Radham?”

A few people looked bewildered.

“Blow it up?” somone asked.  One of our soldiers, but not Academy-educated.  He’d been a thug, once.  We’d rounded out his training with guns, explosives, and other things.  He would be one of the last of Archie’s people, maybe?

“Wouldn’t work unless we had a big enough explosive,” I said.  “Anyone else?”

I saw a hand go up.

Junior.  Head of the Rank, our master poisoner.

“Good man.  Get to it, get what you need,” I said.

He rounded up his people, and they hurried below deck.

I was getting strange looks.  Including from the Lambs.

“It’ll be good to have if we need it,” I told them.

Nobody answered.

The crowd was filled with our past enemies.  There were enough I couldn’t recognize that it confused my senses.  Bea’s followers were into self-modifications, and it didn’t help matters when the physical alterations were often my first cue that someone was a spectre.  Horns?  Could have been the Brechwell beast, and it could have been someone who’d wanted to look intimidating.

We were drawing nearer.  The rider who was painting the trail was at the base of the wall, and was working on scaling it.  They’d chosen a warbeast rather than a horse because warbeasts could climb.

The problem was that climbing was slow, even with a warbeast that was good at it.

Mary gestured, and we backed away from the front of the ship.  Others retreated as well.  I felt some trepidation as I eased my way past Avis and Warren, past the Snake Charmer and Percy.  Past Sub Rosa, the Humors, Cynthia, ghosts and soldiers, the Fishmonger, Devil, Primordial Child, and scattered nobles.

At the edge of the Academy closest to us, there was a flash of light.  The sound reached us a moment later.

“Brace!” Mary hollered.

The artillery shell hit the side of the ship.  Our course shifted, then self corrected as the creatures hauled us forward.

When we’d talked about how we needed to use the craft to assault the city, we’d outlined a path that would place us closer to the Academy.  It was closer than the point where the Infante had landed, and now it was becoming clear why he hadn’t chosen to assault the Academy and the walls around it.  The Academy had defenses beyond the creatures that guarded it.

At a tower further away, another artillery emplacement fired.

The shot hit somewhere near the prow, detonating on impact.  That one would’ve hit one of the metaphorical horses of our metaphorical chariot.

We were damn close now, but every fraction of a mile that we plunged forward put us further into harm’s way.  Those who’d ascended to see Radham as we drew nearer were ducking below deck.  We were the last in line to descend, because we’d been the furthest forward.

Two more shots came our way.  One drifted, hitting field off to the starboard side.  Another struck low.  Aimed more at the Tangle.

The Lambs started to head below.  I clung to the railing, glanced back, and then put one finger to my nostril, blowing out the pill I’d snorted up into my sinus cavity.

The next round included a more distant tower, which apparently saw fit to open fire now that we were closer.  Three shots in all.

We were belowdeck before they hit home.

Narrow windows near the front of the ship provided a view of the scene.  One of the explosives ripped a hole in the hull, opening a space around where the window had been.  Smoke and the seemingly endless rain of water and debris obscured our vision.

We were slowing.  The explosions had damaged the rigging the Tangle used to haul us forward, and it had pulled away, only partially attached to us, the leash extended.  It clambered up the wall to the best of its ability, after the rider with the smoke.  It ascended far faster than the rider did.

The Infante’s craft, however, still had some forward momentum.  We slammed into the wall and rode up against the topmost edge.  Rubble and sections of wall crumbled down around the deck and around us.

The fluids and blood that flowed down the wall, over the intact window and across the damaged hole suggested we’d collided with the Tangle.

Well.  That complicated things.

More artillery fire struck us.

Problematic, that we were close enough for them to shoot at us.

“They’re hitting the rear.  I don’t think they have an angle,” Mary said.

More artillery shells struck us.  Tail end, again.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Unless they’ve got incredibly clever and coordinated people manning the artillery turrets on top of those towers, tricking us into poking our heads out before they obliterate us.”

“I wouldn’t put it past Hayle,” Lillian said.  “But I don’t think Hayle would be on those towers.”

We headed for the stairs leading back up to the deck.  Junior met us at the base of the stairs, and tossed me a canister.

“Look after Wendy,” I told him.  “Or find someone who can and follow.”

“Got it,” he replied.

There was no need for a ramp, with the way the wall had come down.  The rubble formed its own access point.  The Tangle had divided in two, and the ‘head’ was climbing up onto the top of the wall.

The lower half was groping its way up the wall, toward the hole we wanted to use to pass into the city.  The gap between the prow of the ship and the wall was forming a wedge it couldn’t quite force itself past, and it didn’t have the complete senses to figure out a way.  It groped blindly, pawing with a limb made of a warbeast and a dozen soldiers.

We passed beneath the groping claw, into the city.

I knew what the others were looking at as we stopped and got our bearings.

We were standing at the edge of a field.  A bridge stood a distance ahead of us.  Not the bridge, but familiar nonetheless.  We were on the same tier of land that Lambsbridge occupied.  The road between the Academy and the Orphanage was a little ways ahead of us, stretching from our right to our left, and we were about a third of the way down it.

Artillery fire struck near the Tangle at the walltop.  Stone and wood crumbled in equal measure, and the Tangle fell.  Behind us, the other Tangle was climbing up.

I pulled the pin and threw the canister at it.

Gas erupted around it.  There was a dull moaning sound, as if each of the bodies was making a small sound, and it began to lose strength.

The rebels took the opportunity to come over the deck, where they hadn’t had the confidence to come past the thing.  I spotted Junior.

“We need another!” I shouted.

He stopped, made a face, and then reversed direction.

“Was smart,” Lillian said.

“Hm?” I asked, trying to take in the surroundings.

“I was thinking we had to kill it.  He was thinking he needed to take it down ten percent, across the entire body, weakening the protein bonds that tie one body to another.  That’s all it takes.”

“Wonderful!” I said, not even really paying attention.   “Good job, Junior.”

“He’s not here,” Ashton said.

This was deceptively familiar ground.  It was a scene I’d seen countless times in my life, enough that it had solidified among my more durable memories, but it was set askew, painted over.  The terrain was tilted, and the movements of Tangles and the damage to Tangles had littered the area with a number of bodies that seemed almost ludicrous.  Some of those bodies writhed and moved as Harvesters ate or tried puppeteering them.  The lower ground and ditches were congealing with bodily fluids, rain, and the plant matter that had disintegrated in the acid rain, forming a black slurry of mud.

We started forward, picking a path that would take us closer to the gates.  They were open, too damaged to be closed.

There was more artillery fire, aimed at the Tangle we’d brought with us.  It hit the wall or sailed over it.

We were wet, dressed in dark uniforms, crossing a field of blighted crops, blood, and bodies; it meant we were almost camouflaged.  We moved with more purpose than the twitching bodies did, however, and we were a more concentrated mass.

The camouflage got us partway to our destination before they took notice.

A tower near the gate fired a shell, the sound echoing.

Aimed at us.

“Right!” Mary shouted.  There was a momentary resistance.  The way the plume of smoke that pointed skyward looked to be angled, they might have thought she was pushing us into the way of the shot.  She spoke with more venom.  “Go right!”

The rebels with us moved.  I was already weaving through the ones who weren’t moving fast enough.

It hit ground to our left.  Wind had carried it a considerable distance.  It wasn’t close enough to clip any of us, but loud enough that I lost the ability to hear with my left ear, and the shock of it took the legs out from several people.

“Go, go!” I shouted, leading the way through the ankle-deep soup of acid water, dead organic matter and mud.  Each step sucked at my boots.

Broken and dying Tangles roused as they took notice of us.  Leeches that protruded from orifices reached yearningly in our direction, and the bodies clumsily followed after.  Our rebels shot the ones who were close enough to be dangerous, stabbed at a few who were too feeble to be more than an inconvenience, and ignored the remainder.

There was another shot.  Mary called out the direction.  We moved to avoid it.

It was a different kind of shot, this time.  Three explosions landed near us, and more shrapnel or debris followed, kicking up sprays of mud and dirt everywhere between us and the tower it had originated from.

One of those explosions hit two of our stragglers.  Another six near them fell over, the shock of the nearby impact enough to knock them out or kill them.

The shrapnel knocked down one long-legged fellow to my left.

Jessie’s stitched, holding Jessie with one hand, gathered up three of the fallen, slinging all them almost carelessly over one shoulder.

We pushed forward, moving forward because anything else would have meant remaining a target indefinitely.

The tower that had been firing on us changed targets.  An order had been communicated.  I looked to see why, and I saw that the Tangle we’d brought was moving along the walltop, approaching the walls and towers of Radham.  It had its sights on the tower above the Hedge, the training hospital that served the civilians of Radham.

We were clear to make it the last third of the way to Radham itself.  We approached the gates, Mary motioning for our squads to hang back.  The wall provided cover from the cannons it supported.  I gestured for people to keep an eye up.

There were no soldiers guarding the gates.  A Tangle crept through the landing area where the checkpoints had been in wartime, ignoring some bodies and absorbing others.  Acid water formed pools around and beneath it, diluted enough to only sear and blister the flesh that was being repeatedly smashed into puddle after puddle.

The coast was clear?

Mary moved to push forward.  I grabbed her arm, stopping her.

The tangle flopped.  It clawed its way past apparent civilians and wounded, and absorbed a Crown soldier.  It splashed again in the water.

My prey instinct screamed.

High above us, artillery fired on Fray’s tangle.  Even bisected, it was large enough to be a threat.

I gestured for the others to wait.

“Why?” Mary hissed.  “If they have any acid they could dump on us from the wall-”

“Wait,” I said.  “Because I think what’s waiting for us in there is worse.”

“Worse?” Lillian asked.

“The water’s wrong,” I said.  “Ask Helen.”

“Helen isn’t communicative,” Ashton said.

“Well, if she could speak, she’d say it sounds off,” I murmured, hoping I wasn’t losing my mind.

I gestured for them to wait again, then ventured forward.

I passed through the gates we’d been lurking by, and crept closer, mindful of the smaller Tangle that could so very easily turn on me.  They wouldn’t be easy to kill, and Junior hadn’t caught up to us.

There was an open area that served as a place for visitors to stop and for checkpoints to set up, spacious enough for pallets of supplies or boxes of ammunition to be left to one side while multiple wagons could move freely through the area.  Roads branched off from the gate plaza to the rest of Radham.  Each fixture was reminiscent of a body part.  The tower for the brain, Claret hall for the heart, the dormitories for the ribs, Bowels for the… bowels.

This was the left hand.  The roads were the fingers, reaching out and around.

On the other side of the left hand, I could see Fray, standing on a covered bridge that extended between two guard-houses.

Not broken-reflection Fray, not a fractured image.  The real Fray, raven haired lipstick red, wearing a coat that wasn’t a Professor’s coat, but might as well have been.

Seeing her like this, odd as it was, solidified the story the phantom images had been telling me for a long, long time.  I was almost entirely certain of it.

“Lambs,” I said.

The Lambs advanced.  They came to stand behind and to either side of me.

“When the images in my head were trying to communicate something, I didn’t connect the thoughts.”

“Sy?” Lillian asked.

“It took some digesting.  Thinking of things from different angles.”

“From the time Avis was freed by an insider, we thought she might be working with Hayle,” Mary said.  “We talked about that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I stared at Genevieve Fray.  “That’s… definitely possible.  More and more likely, the more we see and find out.  I’d give it ninety-ten odds at this point.  The only other option is that she went rogue late in the game.”

“But it’s not what you’re talking about,” Lillian said.

“Whenever I saw Fray, pictured her in my head, I couldn’t see her face without seeing it broken.  But one thing was consistent, almost always.”

“The images don’t mean anything, Sy,” Duncan said.

“She always had Lambs with her,” I said.  “She had you with her.  Or Evette.  She embraced them, she seemed… fond of them.  Possessive.”

“They don’t mean anything,” Duncan repeated himself.

“They’re just me holding ideas in my head I’m not sure how to parse or connect, yet.  The Lambs are Fray’s project.  Not Hayle’s.  We were always the primary or a primary focus of what she was doing.”

“Why?” Ashton asked.

I bit my tongue.

I answered a different question, that hadn’t been asked.  “She probably did multiple things at a time, every step of the way.  She extended our leash when she leashed everyone.  It’s why she was so happy to see us, so eager to talk to me.  It’s why she was so willing to let us have the Beattle recruits.”

And it’s why we’re not going to stop her, not in every respect.  Many of our goals align.

“Fray!” I called out.  “Let’s parley!”

She said something.  Her voice didn’t reach us over the distance.

What I wouldn’t give for Helen’s ears, now.

She pointed.  I couldn’t tell if she was giving direction to one of her pets or if she was warning us.

Whatever it was, it didn’t change our circumstance.  Artillery struck, and the Tangle we’d brought with us fell, crashing to the ground below.

It stirred the water, which began to move of its own accord.  A low-to-the-ground, camouflaged jellyfish, masquerading as puddles.  I’d felt like the ripples were wrong, the sound of the rain against water oddly muted.  This would be why.

Fray turned to retreat as two superweapons clashed between her and us.  Heading toward Hayle.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.14

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I took a step forward.  I saw Warren react, lowering his head a fraction.  Avis, however, stiffened, taking a step forward.

I stopped where I was.  If I went any further, Avis was going to act.

“When I first heard of Fray, I thought of her as a sister,” I said.

“Don’t,” Avis said.

“Don’t?” I asked.

“Don’t try to relate to us, don’t try to form a connection.  We know who you are, we’ve kept an eye on you all for a long time.  We were there for Brechwell, where the various rebel factions met, we saw what unfolded during and after.  Whatever you’re going to say… don’t.”

“Considering you tried to kill us earlier today, I think the fact that I’m talking to you and not actively ambushing you is darn magnanimous,” I said.

Warren turned his head, looking at Avis.  I didn’t have the best recollection of him, but I did have the impression that was to some degree his usual expression.  I tried to formulate an impression of what he was expressing, with the baseline being a barely suppressed fury.

Even with all of that in mind, he looked bothered by what I’d said.

Warren and Avis weren’t on the same page, it seemed.

“There was also the events that led to you being imprisoned, before you found your way to Fray,” Mary said.

“The tried and true tactic of driving in a wedge,” Avis said.

She spoke like someone with a broken spirit, as if she was farther away than she was.

“I don’t think it’s driving in a wedge to remark on the fact that you assisted in the kidnapping of hundreds of children, so they could be used to create Percy’s army.”

Avis nodded slowly.  Warren’s eyes still bored into her.

She took a few steps to the side, then slumped down, sitting on the edge of the fountain.

“No answer?” I asked.

“You acted against us, alerting the Crown before we could get properly underway,” Avis said.  “If Percy had succeeded, if I hadn’t been caught, you wouldn’t be standing there, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and the sun wouldn’t be setting on the Crown States.  Maybe in that situation, I could have argued it was necessary.”

“Maybe,” Mary said.  “Maybe not.”

“Maybe not,” Avis said.

“Would you do it again?” Lillian asked.

Avis didn’t move.

Lillian went on, “I’m asking because I’m standing here, I left the Crown behind, I’ve taken one side in a war, and we sent soldiers into… this.  We attacked them.  Guns, knives, acid, parasites.  Worse things.  You have your Tangle there.  We had ours.  They were soldiers fighting for what I feel is the wrong side, but they’re people.  I’m wondering what the distance is between you and me.”

“You’re nothing like her,” I said.

Lillian pursed her lips.

“It’s not about right and wrong,” Avis said.

“It is,” Duncan said. “It has to be.”

“That war was fought and lost long before you were born, Lambs,” Avis said.  “You’re-”

She stopped.

“What?” I asked.  “What are we?”

“You’re children,” Avis said.  “If you’re even thinking in those terms, it’s because it’s something the Crown hasn’t fully stamped out of the storybooks and the children’s games.  We leave it behind as we become adults.  Most of us.  They stamped out good and evil as concepts.  They’ve left it so far beyond them that it’s almost forgotten.  There’s only their truth and those who reject it, now.  If we try to drag right and wrong into it, good and evil, then we’re already lost.  That’s why Mauer lost.”

To her right, our left, Warren shook his head.

As for me…

She’s not wrong.  This ceased being about that a long time ago.

The voice had a different tenor to it, now.  A different sound.

We were free.  We were so close.  We’d slain one god.  I felt like I was almost in a position to give that voice what it had bargained for.  I could give it what it wanted, and… and maybe, just maybe, I could get what I’d asked for.

“Fray surprised you, didn’t she?”  I asked.

“Please, none of this prattle,” Avis said.  “The head games, the machinations.  You’re right, I’m wrong.  I fought for what I believed, and I’ve been defeated.  The only fight I had in me was purchased with drugs and a heavy toll on my mind and body.  I haven’t realized what it was costing me until today.  That she asked me to pay that price, without ever asking.”

“She does that,” I said.  “I think, anyway.”

“Do you think?” Avis asked.  There was an almost sarcastic, condescending tone to her voice.  “Really?”

“I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.”

“Ever since we met, I’ve been trying to convey to you that you’re blind, that you’re children.  That you don’t realize your place in things.  Nothing you’ve done has changed my mind.”

“Let me show you.  Today.  Give me a chance.”

She shook her head.  “I’m not the one to give you that.  Whatever you’re going to say, there’s no need for it.”

“You could walk away, if you don’t want to hear me out,” I said.  “You could fly away, if you had anywhere to go.  You don’t.”

She was silent and still.

I turned my focus to Warren.  “Fray led you this far and… whatever happened, she’s dropped you.  Surprise!  You’ve clearly got family here, big guy, but… where do you take them?  The Crown States are nearly gone.  Wherever you were hiding before, it’s probably been swallowed up by the devastation and decay that’s eating this nation, now that you’re not there.  Where are you going to go?”

He glared at me with very blue eyes.

I was aware of the eyes that were watching.  They’d mounted an attack.  Then what had happened?  Fray had moved on to the next step of her plan.

Where was she?

When he spoke, his voice was deep, though not as deep as I might have expected it to be.  He almost resembled the man he must’ve been, once upon a time.

“With you?” he asked.

I spread my arms.

“No,” he said.

I let my arms fall to my sides.

“No,” Avis said.

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s regrettable.”

“Is that a threat?” Avis asked.

“No,” I said.  “It’s just… regrettable.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

Duncan put a hand on my shoulder.  He cleared his throat.  “What can you tell us about Fray?  Where is she?”

“She’s off saving humanity,” Avis said.

“Saving humanity?” Lillian asked.

“It’s what she said, when I met her on the hill outside this city.  That hill, off in the distance,” Avis said.  She raised one arm, so it extended outside of the covering she wore, pointing.  “Now she acts.”

“What’s she doing?” Lillian asked.

“Destroying everything else,” Avis said, the words nearly drowned out by the sound of the rain.

There was no surprise on Warren’s face, which only drove the statement home.  The other Lambs were silent, the bystanders weren’t close enough to have heard.  Avis had said the words with a volume that hadn’t been meant to reach any ears that weren’t ours.

“How?” I asked.  “Where is she?”

Avis shook her head.

Lillian stepped forward, raising her voice, “If there’s any part of you that feels guilty for what you were complicit in-!”

Avis shook her head again.

Lillian clenched her hands.  She still held Jessie.  Mary stepped forward, taking one of those clenched hands in her own.

Avis seemed oblivious to it all.  Oblivious to everything.

“When you acted against us,” I said.  “When you drew the attention of the soldiers, and tried to get us killed.  Had Fray already abandoned you then?”

There was no response.  She seemed to be getting more and more stubborn, not less.  There were no chinks in the armor because the armor was gone, destroyed.

I suspected I was right.

“What was it Avis said back at the roof?” I asked.

“We’d only get in Genevieve Fray’s way,” Ashton volunteered.

I nodded to myself.

“She was talking about what Fray is doing now.  She wants this, on some level, or she’s not opposed to it.  She’s a lost cause,” I said.  “And she’s lost.”

Avis didn’t move or respond.

“Warren,” I said, with a tone and urgency that betrayed renewed enthusiasm and desperation both.  Changing targets.  “You can’t want this.  You’ve got family there.  Whatever this is, you’ve seen the plague, you know these things are never neat and tidy.”

“You don’t know who I am,” Warren said.

“You’re a person who didn’t deserve what happened to him,” I said.  “In a world where an awful lot of things happen to people who don’t deserve those things.  Tell me I’m wrong about that.”

He hesitated.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” I said, cutting into his thoughts.

“You’re not,” he said.

“If you’re both telling the truth about this, it’s going to be horrendous.  Are you going to help those things happen?  Wrongs, meted out to people who don’t deserve it?”

He took his time responding again.  It was as if he was so unused to talking that it took him time to find the words.  “I was born into the wrong world.  I studied cars, not horses.  But the horses won before I even started studying.  Living horses, dead horses, horses in name only.  This world chewed me up and spat me out.”

This world, he’d said.  He had the power to tell us what we needed to know about Fray.  Faced with the question of whether he was willing to stop her from destroying ‘everything else’, he was caught in an existential mire.  The world hadn’t been kind to him.  He hadn’t seen enough of it that he wanted to preserve.

“Avis and I are very different people.  But I think we’re similar in one thing,” Warren said.

I didn’t want to ask.  I didn’t want to help him down this course.  I asked anyway, because I suspected the answer, and I knew he’d need to get it out of his system if he was going to ever listen to us.  “What’s that?”

“We were hurt.  We suffered beyond imagining, and we had almost nothing left to lose.”

I wished I could remember more about Avis’ fate.  The memory had been so close to the memories of Jamie that they were complicated to handle.  I’d let them atrophy.

They were too far away, in too many senses.

What had I said, before?  When I first heard of Fray, I thought of her as a sister?

I’d seen a commonality there.  Now… now, I felt as though I was facing down these people.  Fray had picked up two of the most unlikely, ill-suited people to join her.  She wanted to save humanity and she’d collected a man who lost his connection to humanity, and a woman who’d been tested and found that humanity wanting.

Now they were looking at me, and I wondered if they saw Fray.  If my words could never reach them because Fray had burned that bridge.

I turned away from Warren.  There might have been something in my expression that the others saw, because their expressions shifted in kind.

Well, not Ashton’s.  Not Jessie’s.  Looking at Jessie was my reminder about what I wanted to preserve in the now, what I selfishly wanted to have with me in the present moment.  Lillian was what I wanted to fight for, divorced from what the voice was pushing for.

Some of my warmest moments with Mary were in the past.  That I ‘danced’ so well with her was because of that background, the steps and patterns that I’d engraved into a brain that held far less permanence than most.

We were the people we surrounded ourselves with.  Maybe that was why I had such a hard time understanding Fray, when these people seemed to reflect so little on who she was and what she seemed to be striving for.  When I saw her like I saw the Snake Charmer, Cynthia, or the Primordial Child, I hallucinated a fractured face, looking in multiple directions, where nothing pulled together.

“Sy,” Lillian said.  There was urgency in her voice.

My eyes stopped roving over the group.

“It’s okay,” I said.

I stepped past Ashton, mussing up his hair on the way.

I took two hands, met another set of eyes, and jerked my head in a direction.

It was Bo Peep and Red, who I presented to Warren and Avis.  Red stopped when Avis tensed, while Bo Peep made it several steps deeper into that open territory.

Abby, Ashton, and Emmett joined the pair.  Abby stood closer to Bo Peep.  Emmett, Nora and Lara hung further back, closer to Red.

“I was hurt too,” Bo Peep said.

“It’s different, I’m sure,” Avis said, with emotion.  “They ripped out my sense of time.  I experienced eternity.  The Lambs would like to say I’ve done wrong, but I’ve repaid that wrong by experiencing hell.”

“I don’t really know what that is,” Bo Peep said.  “I don’t understand.  I’m sorry.”

“Then shut up,” Avis said.  “Go away.”

“I can’t.  Not when… you’re talking about someone destroying everything?”

“Almost everything.  Yes.”

“Then I can’t.”

Avis looked away from Bo Peep, meeting my eyes.  “If this is an attempt to elicit sympathy-”

I started to shake my head.  Bo Peep beat me to it with a, “No.”

“You don’t understand,” Avis said.  “There’s no point discussing.”

“There is a point,” Bo Peep said.  “They’re going to hurt everything that isn’t humanity?  It would hurt me.  I haven’t done anything.  I want to live.”

Avis shook her head.

“I want to live,” Peep said.  “Please.”

“Ask Warren.  He actually cares.”

“Please,” Bo Peep said.

Warren was staring Emmett down.

They were something of a pair.  A difference mainly in ages.  Two taciturn Brunos.

“Please,” Bo Peep said again.  “Warren?”

I wondered what was going through Warren’s head, as he looked at his counterpart.

Ashton took a step forward.

“Don’t,” Avis said.  “Don’t try.  I have weapons.  Hurting you will take the last ounce of strength I have, but I’ll do it.  I’ll signal our forces and they’ll shoot from the flanks.”

“Okay,” Ashton said.

He shifted his grip, then held Helen up and out.  Arms straight, Helen held so that the bottom end of her was just above Ashton’s head.

The rain poured down, soaking Ashton, running down his arms, soaking Helen, running down blood-stained bandage.  We’d changed the bandages not long ago.

Warren stared at Ashton and Helen.  There was still so much anger in his eyes.

It was Avis who asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s my favorite person in the world,” Ashton said.  “This is her, now.”

A frown creased the space between Avis’ eyebrows.

Warren looked away.  Avis didn’t.

“What am I supposed to take away from that?” Avis asked.

“She’s my favorite person,” Ashton said.  “I don’t think she would want to be left out.”

Avis stared at Helen.

Helen was just heavy enough that Ashton’s arms were already starting to tremble with the strain of holding her aloft.

“Please,” Bo Peep said.

Abby took her hand.  Quinton stood between the two, moving his head so the top if it was beneath the edge of her skirt, as if it was a hat.  Keeping the rain off.

“You keep saying that,” Avis said.  “You can’t even articulate an argument?”

“I’m not good at arguing.  All I know is that I want to live.”

“State demands at least, so I can make you go away.”

“Three things,” I said.  I made sure my voice carried.  Many of the younger Lambs turned their heads to look at me.  “Whatever the means of controlling that Tangle is… we need it.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Avis said.

“Everything matters at this stage.”

“It won’t be any good for you.  It uses scent markers.  We designed a warbeast to draw the attention of the… you called them Tangles.  It takes over.  You’d need to fly to leave the right trails.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.

“Three things,” she said.

She’d made no move to give us the first.  I wondered if this depended on us naming the right things.

“We’ll need some way to communicate with your other forces in this city.  The attack on Radham has served its purpose.  There’s no need for more people to die.”

“That’s one of the least important things you need to concern yourself with right now.”

“All the same,” I said.

“And the third thing?”

“If you won’t outline what Fray’s plan is, then give us Wendy,” I told her.  “Wendy’s been there from the beginning.  I presume she remembers some of it.”

“Wendy?” Avis asked.  She turned her head.

“Oh, yes, hello,” Wendy said, in response.  “I would offer you tea, but things are messy right now.”

Her head surveyed the devastation around us.  A town that had been overturned to serve as a military outpost, shaken by infighting, scattered with dead and doused in acid and parasites.  There wasn’t a single surface or expanse that was unaffected.  No rooftop, no wall, no window.

“That’s alright,” Ashton said.  He’d lowered Helen, and now cradled her against his chest.  “It’s understandable.  Thank you all the same.”

“You’re welcome,” Wendy said.

I glanced at the city, hearing the rain and the steady beat of the Tangle against the ship’s exterior.

“She hid it from us.  That was the betrayal,” Avis said.

I nodded.  The offer to abandon the Crown.  The offer Gordon had almost taken.

“It was a plan with layers.  Failsafes.  You’re about to find out what was which.  Everything served two purposes.  The leashing and sterilization?”

Everything else.

I heard the voice, and I made the connection.

“Inoculation?” I asked.

Avis glanced at Warren, then shrugged.  “Groundwork.”

There was a defeat in the statement.  I’d thought of her as a crone before, but she withered a touch more, even admitting that much.

“Go with them, Wendy,” Warren said.  “Tell them what they need.  Help them if they ask for it.”

“Are you sure?” Wendy asked.

“I’m sure.”

Wendy looked momentarily concerned.

“Go,” Warren said.  “Be brave.”

“Yes, sir.  I’ll try.”

Wendy approached the younger Lambs, because they were closer.  Abby took her hand.

“Protect her from the dark,” Warren said.  “No dark rooms.  No closed spaces.”

“Alright,” I said.  I immediately recognized what he was saying for what it was.

“She likes music.  In all the years I’ve spent with Genevieve, I’ve been trying to help her find a song.”

I looked at Jessie, who rode piggyback on Lillian’s back, fast asleep.  I reached out and beneath her hood to touch her hair.

“I was already thinking about a scrollphone for the music,” I said.

“The machine?” Warren asked.

“The machine,” I said.

Something in Warren seemed to ease.  A burden off his shoulders, a thing long lost come to roost, perhaps, or a circle finally closing.  The anger seemed to fade.

“That will do, thank you,” he said.  He twisted around, beckoning.

Soldiers from the fringes approached.

“Go.  Round up the other groups.  Ceasefire all around.”

“You’re sure?” the soldier asked.

Warren nodded.

“You could come yourself,” Mary said.  “It would make more sense.”

“No,” Warren said.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Because,” Warren said, drawing in a breath.  He looked in the direction of his family.  “A long time ago, I pledged revenge.  I need to put that to rest.”

“You pledged revenge against your family?” Lillian asked.

“No,” he said.  “But I think I wanted it more than anything.  If I walk away now, I won’t return.  I won’t heal what made that wanting possible.”

Avis moved her coat, and revealed a long bandoleer of vials.  She unclasped it, and pulled it free, so it was a strap, rather than a band.  She swung it to one side, and I worried the tail end of it would smash against the fountain’s edge.

“Then… last question,” I said.  “Where is she?”

“You know where,” Avis said.  She swung the belt of vials the other way and released it, so it would fly through the air.

Duncan was the one who jumped forward to catch it in both arms.  I would have, but I was fairly sure my legs were too tired, and I trusted the others to handle it.

I was standing close enough to him that when everyone had looked Duncan’s way, they could see me raise my arm.

I gestured.

We left the two people sitting by the fountain.  Wendy walked with us.

The soldiers that had been sent with us weren’t ours, but they served our purposes.  They knew roughly where their people had retreated to – the residents of this city.  Lost, confused, they had been rallied by Warren’s relations, and they had fought for their well being.

Once they were taken care of, made to stand down, a scattered few joining us, we could find the others.

Pierre, Shirley.  Junior, Davis and the Treasurer, Bea, Fang, Rudy, Possum, Gordeux, Mabel.

Some were in smaller groups.  Some were being held prisoner.  Some held others prisoner.

Too many of them were hurt.  Acid burns, excision marks from scalpels.  Davis was out of the fight, which was a damn shame.  Possum hadn’t been in it from the beginning, a non-fighter.  Rudy hadn’t been in it since the plague had gotten him.

There would be more Rudys before the day was over.  I worried, looking at the work done to carve away the plague, throughout our soldiers’ ranks, that there were already another twenty or thirty, in varying degrees of intensity.

We only had a few hundred people here.

I wanted to make all of this worth what they had put into it.

“You did a good job,” Ashton said, his voice quiet.  He was talking to Helen.  “Good negotiating.  Your finest performance yet.”

“In another light, that could be construed as insulting,” Duncan said.

“I think it’s very positive,” Wendy said.  “Compliments are nice.”

“I like her,” Ashton said.

“Of course you do,” Duncan said.  Wendy beamed at him, oblivious.

I stepped away, joining the others.

Mabel was taking point on the dispersal of Avis’ chemical markers.  We didn’t have a means of flight, but we did have access to a scattered few warbeasts.

The Treasurer had been acting as Davis’ second in command for a while now, and Davis had been acting as our de-facto general, when Jessie and I were otherwise occupied, which we so often were.

Not in the rude way.  Not always.  We had other nefarious things that occupied us, being Lambs and all.

The Treasurer organized our troops, so to speak.

When I raised my hand, gesturing, and swept it down as though I was bringing the executioner’s axe down on a stretched out neck, it was the Treasurer who started shouting the orders.

The chemicals drew Fray’s Tangle away.  Our army stormed the doors and other access points.  We had already opened the one hatch in the front of the ship.  Our chains were still dangling there.  The defending forces were light.

What remained was to take every length of chain and rope we could acquire from the city, and enact a means of getting our army up and inside.

Lillian came to stand beside me.  She hugged my arm.  She didn’t have Jessie with her anymore.  A task delegated to a stitched, again.

We stood there, watching.  Mary passed us, limping, and shot us a brief smile.  Not a happy one, but… she had always wanted her army to command.

Ashton was saying goodbye to his peers.

I was left with the impression that Lillian was enjoying a moment with me that didn’t have Jessie in it.  She might even have engineered it.  I wasn’t about to comment either way.  Her head rested on my shoulder, even though we were roughly of a height with one another.

“You know what Fray is doing,” she said.

“I think I’ve known for a while,” I said.  “A few of the threads, at least.”

“Can we stop her?” Lillian asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

But we aren’t going to, the voice rejoined.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.13

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Too much forethought to be Mauer, especially with the resources that were apparent.  Too counterintuitive to be the Crown.  Hayle was pinned down and didn’t have the means, the resources, position or forewarning to pull this off.

A Tangle was emerging from the town.  Its overall shape was different; it almost had a color scheme, because the bodies that formed it were all wearing Crown uniforms, and it had something resembling a head, though the angle of our view from the window meant that all I could make out was a singular dark shape.  In terms of size, it was as large as the largest Tangle we’d seen in the city itself- large enough to touch the ground and the top of the tallest wall around the Academy itself.

The Tangle wasn’t the entirety of it.  There were people from the town marching alongside with the thing.  They had flanked the rank and file of the elite soldiers and the Infante’s professors.  Now the Tangle was charging in.

Our people were in that mess.  People we were counting on to get us out of this cell.

Something like this had taken planning.  It had taken premeditation, and it had taken a keen mind.

Fray.

I slammed one fist against the window, my jaw set.

“What happened?” Mary asked.

I turned to face her.  “Some specialized Tangle is being directed, working with a small rebel group.  It just attacked the soldiers.  It might be going after the Professors.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  “Oh, that’s not the plan.”

I turned back around.

The ‘dead’ were starting to rise, now that many of the guns were being trained on the Tangle.  The ‘dead’ that had feigned death after being shot at with empty cartridges turned on the army, with improvised weapons and guns of their own.

It wasn’t enough.  Too few of them compared to the soldiers that had been selected to get a ride home.  They were taking the action of the Tangle here to be some kind of cue from us, the sign that they should move in, catch the main army by surprise, and we would crush them.

The problem being that our rebels and double agents were still in there.

“Can you concoct anything to get us out of here?  An acid, an explosive?”

“They confiscated everything we could theoretically use,” Lillian said.  “I have some packets of poison in my bra and some pills and small blades hidden in my clothing, but that’s not going to do anything.”

“Fingertip syringes?” I asked.

“One.  They’re too much of a pain to maintain, and it affects circulation,” Lillian said, sounding a little defeated.  “It’s nothing we can use.”

“I used everything I had on that rooftop,” Duncan said.

I nodded.

Ashton, holding the light, began flashing the signal for ‘help’.  It was a good thought.  I wasn’t sure the people positioned to offer that help were close enough to give it.

There wasn’t much to be done except to watch.  The army tried to defend its position, making a fighting retreat into the ship, and the Tangle attacked the ramp.  The Professors at the rear lines were among a scant few who made it into the ship before the ramp went to pieces.  I could feel the heavy doors below slamming shut.  The impact reverberated through the ship.

“And that would be the doors to the boarding ramp,” I said.

The others shared looks.  Duncan dropped his bag to the floor.

I punched the metal-reinforced wall.  The impact didn’t even reverberate across the wall in question.

The sound of the rain against the side of the ship had changed.  The gunfire had petered out, replaced by a periodic dull thud.  Twice, we had been hit in a way that had made the entire ship shift, something integral giving way.

A hand on my head made me stir.  I lay on the table, my chest to Jessie’s back.  Lillian stood beside me, one eye on the window, one hand on my head.

“I’m not going to do that, Ashton,” Duncan was saying.  I’d missed the lead-up to that conversation.

“If you don’t remember everything, I could help you brainstorm.  You have paper in your bag.”

“First of all, no,” Duncan said.

“Yes!  If it’s a chance!”

“It’s not.  Believe me.  I have spent months of my life poring over the texts, records, and paperwork pertaining to your project.”

I moved my head, looking up at Lillian.  “What’s this?”

“Ashton being Ashton,” she said.

I nodded, lowering my head, so it rested on my folded arm again.

“Get creative, then,” Ashton said.

“You’re not made of sturdy enough stuff.  Also, there’s no guarantee you’re going to go back to the same configuration.”

“I don’t care.”

“You care.  You get fussy when your hair gets messed up.  You want me to dismantle you?  Take you apart into your constituent pieces, and put something together that can break down a door?”

“Yes.”

“No.  It’s made to handle Warbeasts headbutting it.  It’s not going to work, Ashton.”

“Then get creative,” Ashton said, exasperated.  “Maybe instead of beating it down you can do the opposite.”

“Pull it down?”

“Or suck it down!  I remember my doctors saying there’s great power in vacuum.  It’s part of how my pheromone dispensary works.  Or you could make me into something small enough to fit through that window.  I could use the handle and get us out.”

“It really doesn’t work that way, Ashton, and we’d need to break that thick glass first, which might be doable if we rigged you to generate suction, which would probably take a fancy lab to manage, mind you.”

“Improvise,” Ashton said.

“No,” Duncan said.  “And if we generated you to do that, we could hardly then change your function unilaterally to get you through the window to the handle.”

Ashton huffed in annoyance.

“It’s locked anyway,” Mary said.  “I paid attention to it as they brought us in here.”

Duncan extended his hands in Mary’s direction.

“Sy has lockpicks, at the very least,” Ashton said.  “So we’re talking about two minor surgeries and a teeny tiny bit of improvisation to go with it, and I’ll take Sy’s lockpicks with me when I go through the window.”

“Ashton,” Duncan said.

“Yes, Duncan?”

“You know you’re one of my favorite people?”

“I didn’t, but it’s nice to hear.  Thank you, Duncan.  You’re my number two favorite person after Helen.”

“Okay.  Well, keep in mind, if you keep this line of argument up the entire time we’re on our way to the Crown Capitol, I’m probably going to strangle you dead by the time we arrive, favorite person or no.”

“Fine,” Ashton said.  “I think that makes you mentally disturbed to a worrisome level, but fine.  It’s not like I don’t have experience dealing with that type.”

I cleared my throat.

“Oh, Sy woke up,” Ashton said.  “I thought you were asleep.”

“I’m awake-ish,” I said.  “Conserving strength, in case we get an opportunity to do anything.”

“I was just talking about you, you know,” Ashton said.

“I know,” I said.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“I think I trust Duncan.  I think they have to open the door at some point, and there’s a good chance it’ll be soon, if nobody has claimed ownership of that Tangle.  They might assume it’s ours.”

“That’s true,” Mary said.

“We’re also overdue for food and water.  If they don’t plan to let us expire, then they’ll have to open the door to give us something.  That’s our opportunity.  Barring exceptional circumstances, though, we’ll hear the locks on that door turn, it’ll open, and we’ll get a chance.  We’ll have to capitalize on that chance.”

“They’ve been careful so far,” Mary said.

“We’ll-”

The door handle squeaked, the locks grinding as the tumblers turned.

“-figure it out,” I said.

I climbed down from the table.  Mary positioned herself to be behind the door as it swung open.  The rest of us moved toward the doorway.

The door swung wide enough that it banged against the wall.  Mary evaded it, then leaped up, climbing the side of the one heavy metal door until she was perched on top of it, weapon in hand.

It was Emmett, with Nora standing behind him.

I gestured, and Mary hopped down.

“Fray?” I asked.

Emmett nodded.

“Thanks for coming,” I said.

“We thought you might need it,” Nora said.  She shifted position, and her claws scraped against the floor of the tunnel.  “You were gone for a while.  We tried to take captives to interrogate, but we’re not very good at that.”

“We played to other strengths,” Abby said, peering around the door, into the room.  “Hi Ashton.”

“Hi.”

“Where’s Helen?” Abby asked.

“She’s here,” Ashton said.  He pointed in my direction.

Abby looked our way, her expression concerned.  “I don’t see her.”

“Ashton,” Duncan said.  “Why don’t you go to Abby right now?  Keep her calm, as all of this must be very stressful, and Abby doesn’t deal well with stress.”

“I’m not dumb,” Abby said.  “What’s going on?  Why does Ashton need to keep me so calm?”

She stepped further into the room.  Ashton approached her.

Then she saw Helen.  Her hands went to her mouth, her eyes moved in different directions, and she tipped over.  Emmett caught her.

“Yeah,” Duncan said, quiet.

Nora looked very alarmed, peering into the room.  She tensed at a sound from further down the hall.

We collected ourselves and our invalids, acting before our rescuers became too distressed.  I helped Lillian get a grip on Jessie, and took her bag to ease the burden.  It was too light, too much of it confiscated or spent.

The hallway was largely empty.

“What happened to Helen?” Nora asked.

“She got sick.  We cut her down to the healthy bits.  Duncan is confident that he, Lillian, and Professor Ibbot can put her back the way she was.”

Nora, her face barely visible beneath the shroud she wore, was nonetheless clearly displeased at that.

“Fill us in,” I said.

“The Crown forces are at the top deck and the doors.  Everything else is a mess,” Nora said.  “Both sides retreated to their corners.  It’s scary, the way things are right now.”

Everything’s scary to you, I thought.  “Define these ‘corners’.”

“I can’t even tell.  Lara can’t either, she says.  Both sides are shooting and fighting each other, but it’s all a jumble.  This ship isn’t going anywhere, the city is filled with fighting but there are no clear battle lines we can make out.  We’re trying to communicate with our people, but some of the ones who were relaying messages got hurt in the fighting.  Some might be dead.”

Her voice changed with that last statement.

Abby was starting to recover.  Ashton eased her down until she was walking.  They fell behind the rest of the group as Ashton got Abby to start moving again.  He spoke to her in a low, calm voice.

“There’s a chance Fray just wanted to make this conflict as even as possible – let both sides hurt each other until they could be destroyed.  Toss out big plays to help one side, even things out, knowing that neither side can afford to back down.”

“Is that what Avis was doing at the roof?” Lillian asked.  “Taking us down to the point we were on an even keel with the others, so we’d be as hurt as they were at the end?  Or was it to keep us from tilting the scales in way she couldn’t predict?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Both make sense.”

“What’s her end goal?” Mary asked.

“I’d love to know that,” I said.

Footsteps tromped down the hall.  The acoustics made it very audible.

Mary and Emmett picked up their pace, pulling ahead of the group.

We reached a T-junction in the ship’s labyrinthine interior, and Mary and Emmett caught up with the soldiers as they hurried down the hallway.  They hadn’t expected trouble, their guns weren’t even in their hands, let alone raised.

Emmett, for all his strength, wasn’t graceless.  He didn’t waste many movements, and he almost seemed gentle, in a weird way.  He seemed willing to smash someone’s head against the wall with less force than necessary, leaving them stunned but otherwise conscious and alive, and he’d move on to the next, returning to the stunned individual before they had fully recovered.

Mary, for her part, was very efficient in ending lives.  She finished with the second half of the squad of eight, then started on Emmett’s leftovers.

Ashton reached up to pat Nora’s long neck.  She’d turned her face away from the violence.

The fallen soldiers were a chance for us to restock.  Ammo, rifles, knives.  I found a keyring on the captain’s belt and brought it with me.

“I’m going to need something,” Mary said.

“From them?” Ashton asked.

“No,” Mary said.  “Lillian or Duncan.  If you have it, I might need a combat drug.”

“You usually shy away from those,” Lillian said.

“Usually,” Mary said.

She left it at that.  I kept an eye out and listened, but I kept my mouth shut as the conversation played out.  I found a revolver and checked it had bullets in the cylinder, closing it back up again before Lillian uttered a response.

“This will do, then.  Take it a minute before a fight.  Or during the fight, if you’re willing to wait a minute for it to kick in.”

“I will,” Mary said.

It would have been silent, if not for Abby and Ashton’s conversation in the background, inaudible.

“Do we need jackets for the rain?” I asked, to break the quiet.

“It doesn’t burn the skin anymore,” Nora said.

“Good,” I said.  “No other signs or symptoms?”

“Not that I saw.  Lara says it’s safe enough some Crown soldiers have their hoods down out there.”

“Good,” I said.  “Assuming we wanted out, which way do we go?”

Emmett pointed.

“Thanks.”

‘Out’, in our case, involved taking an odd route.  We headed down and to the front of the ship.  The tunnels all narrowed, feeding into a main hallway.  There were several security doors, not unlike the ones we’d had at the entrance to our cells.  These ones, at least, had locks on either side.  We could open locks.

The crew of the ship were concentrated into key areas, and the result was that many of the hallways and side rooms were dark and empty.  They’d been planning on keeping a small army in here, with others included, and the army hadn’t had a chance to board before the ramp had been destroyed, the doors sealed.

“Lara says there’s trouble,” Nora said.  “She’s with Bo Peep, Quinton, Red, and Fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy?” Duncan asked.

“Abby’s.  He helped us get in.  They’re at the front of the ship.  They’re hiding, but there’s a patrol of soldiers there,” Nora said.  “They’re going to find them in a minute.”

Her body language and voice reflected her fear.

“Are we going to get there in time?” Lillian asked.  “Are we close?”

Emmett glanced over his shoulder, shaking his head.

“Okay,” I said.  “Listen, tell Lara they need to act relaxed.  Calm down.  They shouldn’t be bothered if any Crown soldiers see them.  Have them say they’re companions and pets for aristocrats that are supposed to get on board.”

“Lara doesn’t act calm,” Ashton said.  Abby nodded.

“That’s fine.  Just… if they ask, Lara’s master likes them weird.  And scared.”

Nora nodded.  She didn’t speak, and she didn’t reply.  She was relaying the message.

“Have Red and Bo Peep take point, if possible.”

They were actually supposed to be companions and pets for aristocrat brats.  For one event, at least.

We reached yet another security door.  I heard Nora make a small sound of protest as we reached it.  Anxious.  Wanting to get through this.

I already had the key out, but the heavy lock needed several rotations.

My hand hurt from punching the metal wall of the ship.

“I didn’t get the full set of instructions to them, about Red and Bo Peep,” Nora said.  “The soldiers are talking to them now.”

The door opened.  Emmett raised a finger to his lips, and gestured the signal for caution.

We had to walk down the rest of the hallway.  It took a minute, and by the time we reached the end, we could hear the voices.

“…here, of all places?” a soldier asked.

“It’s where they feed those things, and Lara needs a specialized diet,” Red said.  “We were told to come here and wait if anything came up.  They weren’t sure where their quarters would be.”

“Why are you armed?”

The hallway continued, but it became a kind of bridge, stabbing out into the center of a massive cargo hold, twenty feet above the floor of the hold, the walls another twenty feet away in each direction.  Glass cases with metal bands and great metal pillars reinforcing them held fleshy masses, which extended a solid thirty feet from the floor to the ceiling.  The things that made this entire thing ambulatory.  More glass and metal reinforcement sheltered the parts of each ‘leg’ that sprawled across the floor below.  It let the mouths be near one another for feeding.  A port in the floor presumably allowed supplies to be easily moved in, as the ship lowered down over top of them, or it provided a way for the lifeforms to drink.

The bridge forked into two sets of stairs, leading left and right, and the soldiers were gathered on the stairs.  Lara, Red, Bo Peep, Quinton and ‘Fuzzy’ were all together, on the ground floor.  One of the glass cases was cracked.  They’d come in through one of the openings the legs stuck out of.

The soldiers were facing forward.  There was no reason they should have been worried about what was behind them, especially with the security doors they’d locked behind them every step of the way.

Perhaps it was a fear of someone or something coming up from the side or underside of the bridge that made one of the soldiers turn to look.

Mary threw a pair of knives.  One sank into his heart, the other into his throat.

He gurgled, but that sound alone wasn’t quite enough to draw attention.  She hauled on the strings, trying to keep him upright as he started to tip, ready to collapse down the stairs.

It bought us the seconds we needed.

I threw myself at the man Mary had thrown the knives at, knocking him down the stairs, so he bowled into the soldiers below him, knocking them over.  I was already running and stumbling on top of them when Emmett went after the men on the other staircase.

I ran over the fallen and went after the captain at the head of the group, leaping.

A fair share of the pent up frustration from our incarceration was unleashed on the soldiers.  Nora, Emmett, and Red offered their contributions, with Nora appearing from the staircase, and Red bringing her wood axe around in a swing.

‘Fuzzy’, as it turned out, was a Crown warbeast of the canine variety.  A reptile-wolf with horns, not much bigger than a proper wolf.  Once Abby was in sight, she was able to give it an order.  It barked, rather than attacking.

If that was intentional, it worked just fine.  It distracted, drawing attention, without jumping into the skirmish and biting at what might have been one of us.

“Helen’s gone,” Abby said, her voice rather flat.

The fact that she’d spoken was what clued me into the fact that we’d wrapped things up.  None of the enemies stood.

“Not gone,” Ashton said.  “Put away in a very tidy way.”

Abby made a face, glancing at Duncan, who held Helen.

Lara hugged her body with her claws.  Bo Peep, too, looked distressed.

Helen was popular with the little ones.

Even Emmett, if I was reading our taciturn bruno right, was looking tense.

“She’s fine,” Ashton said.  “Really.  We’ll put her back to normal.”

He wasn’t terribly convincing.

It was Red who spoke up, before anyone else.  “I believe you.”

“Why do you say that like not believing me is an option?” Ashton asked.  “I’ve always been honest, unless I had to lie for a mission.”

“It’s not you,” Lillian said.  “It’s not, Ashton.  It’s… Helen looks bad.  That’s a scary way to see someone you care about.  It’s like seeing Sy when he’s not at his best.  Or Nora or Lara mid-molt.  They’re reacting to the sight of it.”

“I saw a lot, in Ferres’ labs,” Red said.  “I saw people… pruned down.  So things could be added, or so work could be done on parts of them before they were put back.  Ferres disgusted me.  She was reprehensible.  But she made them beautiful, in a twisted way.  I can believe you’ll get your Helen back, beautiful in her twisted way, too.”

“I saw some of those too,” Bo Peep said.  “I was one of them, I think.”

“You were,” Red said.

Bo Peep still wasn’t looking up or at any of us.

Abby went to her side, picking up Quinton with one hand before taking one of Peep’s hands in her own.

“Thank you for coming,” I addressed the group.

“We’ll need another way out,” Nora said.  “We used Fuzzy to relay us up.  The legs are dangerous to touch, but Fuzzy can do it.  But he can’t take all of us.”

I pointed at the door in the floor, “Help me with that, then.”

Fray’s little maneuver had upended everything.  The Tangle was still there, working its way down streets, searching for bodies to add to its mass.  Its head was, to look at it, a great insectile warbeast.

We’d observed it from the window, once we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that the rebels and converts we’d signaled weren’t in a position to help us.  We’d tracked where it had come from and where it was going.

It took time for everyone to get to the ground.  We had to descend by chain, and there were only two chains long enough.  Fuzzy, Abby, and Bo Peep descended by way of one of the legs that was curled out.

To all appearances, the leg-things had been poisoned or killed.

The war had settled.  The front lines were being held by the Crown, but there wasn’t any meaningful leadership.  The Infante was supposed to be that leadership, but he was dead.  The Professors were leadership of another sort, and they were here, a distance from the city.

There wasn’t enough infrastructure surrounding all of this for people to get the orders they were waiting for.

The ground was sodden.  A vast carpet of grass and clover was dying where it had survived so many years, bred to thrive in the rain-soaked region around Radham.  The acid was responsible for that, no doubt.

The landscape was a patchwork of crops, but those crops sagging and dying.  Many of the dead had been left where they were.  Buildings were damaged, and as dark as things were, no lights were on within any of the buildings I could see.  No, the lights were in streets, where various soldiers and groups of soldiers had gathered, ready to defend their positions.

Crown and rebel.  Locals and outsiders.

We had to navigate dangerous territory.  There were streets now flooding because the bodies piled along one side formed a kind of barrier, keeping the water from draining into the soil.  That floodwater would be capable of melting flesh.  The soldiers and defensive lines were prepared to shoot at the first signs of trouble.

It wasn’t a big town, either.  I could have walked across it in three-quarters of an hour, even accounting for the winding streets that were apparently designed for meandering.

Mary raised her rifle.  I followed the line of the rifle.

Avis.

“I could hit her,” she said.  “Not saying I will or would, but I could.  Theoretically.”

“No need,” I said.

She saw us, we saw her.

No surprises.  It left things open.

No surprises, too, that they sent their envoy.

“I remember you,” the stitched girl said.  “Some of you.  You’re a lot older than last time.”

“Hello, Wendy,” Lillian said.

“You won’t hurt my colleagues?” Wendy asked.

Colleagues.  A weird word.  Not friends, not master or masters.

“Depends on a lot of things,” I said.

“I’m not very good at figuring those things out,” Wendy said.  “A simple answer might be better.”

It was Lillian who stepped forward, still carrying Jessie.  “We won’t hurt them if they don’t hurt us.”

“Then please come with me,” Wendy said.

We followed her.  Stacks of wood with covers over them and rings of rubble hemming them in burned, casting orange light here and there.  I wondered if there was another purpose for it.

In the distance, the Tangle smashed itself against the hull of the ship.  A drum with a beat so slow that the last beat was nearly forgotten by the time the next arrived.  A stark contrast to the endless patter of rain.

As we entered the corner of the city that Fray had taken for herself, we passed innumerable alleyways and buildings with people within.  It wasn’t a high density of people.  One or two to an alleyway.  One in a window.  But they were armed, and they had grim expressions.  The expressions of people who had lost everything.

They hadn’t come with either army.

I had my suspicion about what was at play.  I wished my memory was better, that Jessie was around for me to ask, to clarify it, and frame the upcoming discussion.

Warren and Avis greeted us, standing to one side of a fountain in the center of a broad intersection of two streets.  The area might have served as a farmer’s market, or a place for festivals to be held.

Warren was tall, a monster of a man, muscle taken to extremes.  His expression… there was a darkness in it that changed him.  He had been human once, his head and brain were ordinary, a stark contrast to the pounds of muscle he wore and his overall frame, but he’d seen or experienced something and the humanity was gone, or it was close to being gone.  He wore a white button-up shirt, suspenders, and black trousers.  His boots were large enough for me to stick my head in.

He reached out to put a hand on Wendy’s back as she came to stand beside him.

Avis’ expression was dark.  She hunched over, a heavy coat covering her body and wings.  She looked like she was aging in fast motion, compared to the actual years that had passed.  She’d been a young lady when I’d first seen her, as my shoddy memory went.  She’d aged, suffering the Duke’s punishment.  She’d aged more, in Fray’s company, when I’d seen her in Beattle.  She looked like a crone now, hunched over the way she was, her wings gathered up behind her.

I looked at some of the people who stood off to one side.  A man and a woman.  Another woman.  I noted the resemblance to Warren.

This particular event had struck a little close to home, hm?

“Fray isn’t here?” I asked.

Warren shook his head, slowly.  I saw the darkness in his expression.

“She finally revealed what she’s all about, huh?” I asked.

The scowl deepened.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Avis sat in the indent around the window, watching in silence.  Ashton stood next to her, cradling Helen in his arms, his focus on the events beyond the window.

Mary had removed her coat, blouse, and skirt.  She was wearing only her underthings, her weapons in plain view where they had hung beneath her clothes.  Where rainwater had splashed or otherwise found its way to bare skin, it had left red tracks, raw, the skin swollen and pink on either side of it.  Beads of water had formed round marks.  Lillian was rubbing a salve in place.  Mary flinched every time Lillian daubed some salve near one of the tracks.

Only a quarter of the blades were still there, the rest of her stock depleted.

The room was metal, floor to ceiling, which was rare, because wood was more versatile and often almost as strong.  Sheets and panes of steel were bolted to one another.  Beams had been sunken into the walls, reinforcing the plates while making it impossible to even find a good edge to pry at.  The door was metal, too, big enough to drive a wagon through, with a single round window.  Were the glass to be removed, one of us could have put an arm through it, but that was it.  Even Helen at her best or a current Helen that was somehow ambulatory wouldn’t have fit through it.

The room hadn’t been scrubbed well enough after housing its prior occupant.  It didn’t smell, not exactly, but the air was stale, and the ground was browner and more corroded than any of the other surfaces.

Not that there was anything we could use.

“We’re slowing down,” Ashton said.  He had his shirt off.  Duncan was going over his hair with a fine metal comb.  The window he peered through wasn’t any bigger than the one in the door.  From the exterior, the vaguely rounded bulge with the circle set in the middle might have looked like the orb of an eye, with an unmoving pupil.

It was structurally unsound, as the bends and curves in metal were easier to tear and damage than the flat expanses.  It was no doubt meant to be that way.  If the ship were prepared for war, then munitions sufficient to damage it would open up this space, and the denizen, no doubt a large warbeast or other experiment, would be unleashed, set to go after whoever had opened fire.

I would have liked to think that was a feature we could exploit, but our side didn’t have those kinds of munitions, we didn’t have the means to breach our way out using that same weakpoint.

Our captors were smart.  They knew their experiments, and all but two of us were experiments.  They’d contained us effectively, and we were making our peace with the fact.  Duncan and Lillian had doled out medicine, they’d looked after Helen briefly, the rest of us had done our best to signal the people on the outside, and now we were dealing with the secondary things.  Checking for plague, resting, gathering our strength, and thinking.

I worried it would be our last gasp for air before we took the plunge.

“I miss having Jessie to keep track of timing,” I said.  My fingers were intertwined with Jessie’s, and she lay beside me, her head in my lap.  I raised her hand and kissed the back of it.  Was it my imagination, if her expression softened in the direction of a smile, at that?  “How far away is the town where the attacking army holed up?”

“Still a little far.  It’ll be five or ten minutes,” Ashton said.  “The streets are empty.  There were soldiers there and now there aren’t.  Others have moved far enough back that they aren’t in the acid rain.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I visualized it.  I didn’t want to move far from Jessie, and I didn’t want to spend unnecessary energy.  My right leg was twitching in protest of what I’d subjected it to.  I’d pushed myself so hard already.  “The army probably didn’t vacate in entirety.  They would’ve gone inside the houses and other buildings.”

“There are Tangles,” Ashton said.  “They aren’t too big though.  That might keep them inside.”

“Not so many Harvesters,” Duncan said.  He raised his head to look out the window.  “Don’t squeeze her too tight, Ashton.”

“I’m not,” Ashton said, adjusting his grip on Helen.

“Alright,” Duncan said.  “Almost done.”

“I’m checking Mary’s back.  Keep your backs turned, boys,” Lillian said.  She slipped the straps of Mary’s camisole from her shoulders.  I turned my head away.  Ashton turned his head, probably to see why he was supposed to have his back turned, and I reached out to touch his chin, averting his gaze.  Duncan shifted position, blocking Ashton’s view.

“I don’t mind,” Mary said.  “Everyone here has seen me undressed or given me surgery.”

“I like how you mention surgery,” I said.

“I don’t think there’s anything more intimate or invasive than touching muscle directly or knitting a wound together.  Well, creating the wounds in the first place is pretty intimate and personal.”

“You’re so weird,” I said.

“You’re one to talk,” Mary said, at the same time Lillian said, “Says you.”

I sighed.

“No plague, acid burns aren’t too bad here, nothing close to the spine.  If we can actually get out of here and get through what comes next, I’ll check you over tonight,” Lillian said.  She gave Mary a pat on the shoulder.

Mary stood and began pulling her clothes back on.

“Be gentle, Ashton,” Duncan said.

Duncan,” Ashton said, exasperated.  “I’m being very gentle.”

“The work we did is delicate.  There are a few square pegs attached to triangular holes there, and they’re one ripped stitch from being unattached.  I’d like to get to an actual lab to put more permanent things in place.  Ports, artificial tubing, inject some fluids to top her up.  Maybe some regulatory measures.  We’ll have to do it sooner or later, to inject some proteins to the pyloric sac.  Get the cloning of organs and tissues started, of course.”

“Of course,” Ashton said.

“After that, you’ll be able to hug her as tight as you want.  But for now, be gentle.”

“Oh,” Ashton said, “I remember back at the Academy, one of the doctors made a pet for her little sister back home.  It was like a puppy, but it didn’t have fur, and it didn’t have bones, and you could squeeze it and its eyes would pop out.  We could do that, when we make her more huggable.  Not that she has eyes, but we could give her some.”

“We’re not going to do that to Helen, Ashton,” Duncan said.

“But she’d like it.  You could squeeze one of the eyeballs while it was bugged out and the other one would double in size, when it was already big.  You could squeeze one of the little legs and move all the fluids and stuff to the foot, to make the foot so huge.”

“We’re not going to do that to Helen.”

“It could move too.  She’d like to be able to move again, I think.  The puppy thing flopped around.  I’m no expert, but I think the mechanism was very simple.  I’d say it had one point of articulation, like a pillow with a hinge in the middle, but more squishy.”

“What’s going on outside?” I interrupted.  “I’d check, but Jessie’s leaning on my shoulder, and I’m trying to conserve my energy.”

Ashton turned, peering past Avis’ feet to look out the window.

Duncan gestured at me.  Thanks.

“We should check each other over, Duncan,” Lillian said.  She was helping Mary keep wires in place as she pulled her clothes on.

“Alright,” Duncan said.  He started unbuttoning his shirt.  “Who does who first?”

My mind was still keyed toward visualization, from the fight with the Infante and his pet.  I could visualize Lillian and Duncan checking each other over.

“Checking for plague and scars?” I asked.  “Nothing more?”

“And any signs of stray parasites, damage from exposure to gas, um, the borrowed quarantine suits rubbed skin raw in places, and those places would be vulnerable to anything invasive, chemicals, or even some gases.”

“Come,” I said.  “I’ve got experience with this, from… that city where Jamie and I lived for a while, after leaving Radham.  Before Jessie.  I check you, you check Duncan.  Primate style grooming.”

Lillian glanced at Duncan, who shrugged.  She approached me, unbuttoning her top, and I averted my eyes.  I wasn’t sure why.  She stood in front of the table I was sitting on, and I turned her around, leaning her against the table’s edge, my knees on either side of her hips, holding her in place there.

“Any more flashes?” I asked.  I helped Lillian pull off her top.

“No,” Ashton said.

“Probably not many, then.  They’ll be trying to organize,” I said.  I examined Lillian’s back by the windowlight.  The light illuminated the fine little hairs and the the texture of the skin, goosebumps and all.

The plague tended to start with the smallest markings.  A red circle, no bigger than a goosebump, with a darker spot of red in the middle.

Duncan settled in in front of Lillian.

“Are we getting out of this?” Lillian asked.

“It’s far from impossible,” I said.  “We have a lot of assets out there, in a variety of types.  It could be as simple as an explosive, to take the head of whatever creature it is that drags this ship.  Put it well in front of the ship while we’re parked here, detonate it when it gets far enough along, and it stops.  Dead in the metaphorical water.”

I slipped my finger under Lillian’s brassiere strap, moving it to a different point on her shoulder.  She shivered.

Mary was in the background, sitting against a table by the door out.  I could look over Lillian’s shoulder and see her, staring me down.

I used my fingers, touching points on either side of the faint red mark the strap had made, pressing against the skin of her shoulder and shoulder blade.  I moved the fingers apart, making the skin between them whiten with the tension.

“I’m not sure that’s what I meant,” Lillian said.  She began looking after Duncan.  Duncan had his back to her, while she had her back to me.

“What did you mean?” I asked.

“Are we all walking away from this?”

“Helen isn’t,” I said.  “Walking, I mean.  She’s missing something like fifty parts necessary for that.”

Sy,” Duncan said.  “Come on.”

“Jessie isn’t walking either.  I give the rest of us fifty-fifty odds.”

I saw Lillian draw in a deep breath.  Her sigh was heavy.

I checked beneath the other strap.  The water had soaked into her clothing, and the places where seams met and rubbed against skin were more susceptible than some.  Here, the prolonged contact of damp cloth had made the skin red, and where it was red, it was starting to look… threadbare, for lack of a better word.  The skin looked like it could tear and start bleeding if I stretched or stressed it too much.

“Salve?”

Lillian passed me the salve without turning around.  I applied the salve, then took the offered bandage, setting it in place and letting the strap rest against the padding, pressing it down against the minor wound.

I undid her brassiere at the back, and I checked beneath it, in much the same fashion.  The goosebumps were more pronounced, now.  The fine hairs stood on end.  My hand moved along the expanse of her back, me measuring my way, remembering what I’d covered and examined already.

“I don’t see anything resembling normal ahead of us,” she said.

“Normal was never the point,” I said.  “Two more gods to slay.  We bring about a change.  Because the way things worked and the destiny that was set forth before?  They weren’t workable.  Not tolerable.”

“I don’t disagree,” she said.

I brushed her hair to one side, exposing the nape of her neck.  I examined it.

“I need a scalpel,” she said.

“Damn it,” Duncan said.  He reached over her shoulder, passing one to her.

“Looks like a carnacari.  Not so bad,” Lillian said.  “But I wouldn’t want to rule out it passing the plague from person to person.  We’ll remove it.”

“Please,” Duncan said.

She cut away a small ‘o’ of flesh near his armpit.

“I need a comb,” I said.

Ashton handed me the comb that Duncan had used on him.  I pored my way over Lillian’s scalp.

“I don’t disagree, that we had to change things from the intolerable, unworkable state they were in,” Lillian said.  As I swept the comb through her hair, her head lolled a touch with it.  As if I was the snake charmer, moving my flute, captivating her with the steady, fluid movement.  “But.  I don’t know if I see a tolerable, workable future ahead of us, here.  Losing Helen hurts.”

“It sucks,” I said, combing, searching.  “But you two will piece her together again.”

“Describe it to me, Sy,” Lillian said.  “What happens next?”

“I don’t know what happens next.”

“Come on, Sy,” she said.

“We’re in the shadow of the first god, we’re enduring his death rattles, and the fact that someone who stands that tall takes a long time to fall and he falls hard.  There are ramifications and we’ll ride this wave as best we can.  Hopefully we ride it back in that direction.  Two gods more stand between us and where we want to go.  So I can’t tell you, because I don’t know what Fray’s done.  She always stays her hand, she holds back, and then she overturns everything.  The landscape could be very different once she makes her play.”

“Hayle is the third god, then?”

“Kind of,” I said, daubing salve on some acid burns behind her ear.  I couldn’t search the top of her scalp without standing over her or having her bend over with the top of her head facing me.  Which was a fun position to imagine, but not practical when she was still looking after Duncan.

I undid Lillian’s skirt at the side.  She paused in her work.

I could see the way she’d stopped breathing, I could see the vague definition of muscle against skin, at her back, and it wasn’t shifting as she breathed.  She resumed working, then resumed breathing a moment later.

Ashton turned his head to look, and I stuck my finger out, poking his chin, and turned his face back toward the window again.  I said, “I’m not worried about what Hayle might do to the landscape.”

“To you?” Lillian asked.

“Maybe,” I said.  I folded the band of her skirt down, then turned my attention to the band of the underclothing beneath.  I started checking it much as I had the straps of her brassiere.

“To all of us?”

“To a degree,” I said.  I continued my examination.  My thumb brushed against the hard bone of pelvis, above her right leg, and her hand dropped down, laying over mine, stopping me from progressing further.

Lillian was focused on another excision.  That one looked like plague, but she wasn’t saying as much.  It looked early and isolated, from what I could see over her shoulder.

“He set our expiration dates.  Very deliberately,” I said, my voice soft.  “He was going to set yours, in a way, when he denied you your black coat and laid the groundwork to keep you from ever getting it.  He asserted a degree of control.”

“You said control wasn’t it.”

“It wasn’t,” I said.  “The shadow Hayle is casting, that makes it hard to see what lies on the other side… it’s like he was there when we all got our start.  Duncan excepted, to a degree.  He set our ending.”

“Beginnings and endings?  The journey?” Duncan asked.

I was slightly annoyed that he was chiming in, while I sat behind Lillian, my knees pressing against her hips, my hand laying against that bone, my fingertips tracing the skin of her stomach, feeling her breathe in and out.  It spoiled the moment a bit.

Perhaps unfair.  He hadn’t really chosen this venue or circumstance.

“Maybe one way of putting it,” I said.  “It was actually what I first thought of, when I was trying to wrap my head around the obstacles ahead of us.  But not quite.”

“You don’t need to check me below the waist,” Lillian said.  “I was careful to minimize exposure.  I took off the top half and tied it down, but I secured the waist tight before I did so, and I followed quarantine protocol.”

“That’s good,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.

She could have told me that minutes ago, before I’d undone the side of her skirt.

I shifted my hand, and she let me pull it away.  I fixed her skirt at the side, then gathered up her uniform shirt.

I waited, watching the muscles move beneath skin, hair sliding from where I’d moved it over one shoulder to view her neck, tracing tickling lines against her.

Suppressing a sigh, I drew back, relaxing.  My hand lowered, resting on Jessie’s cheek.

I wished Jessie was awake.  I wanted to wake her up- I had to keep myself from forming and prioritizing a list of questions.  It was too easy to start thinking about what I might ask, in what order, if I could wake her up for two minutes, get two minutes of answers.

Too easy for that ‘what I might ask’ to become ‘what I would ask’, while I left the if in place.  Then it would, somewhere along the line, cease being in place.

She had wanted to be here, if I was remembering right.  No guarantees on that.  She’d wanted to keep me from sacrificing myself, to keep me sane, and to ensure that I had a Lamb with me at all times, even in part.

“I’m done, Duncan,” Lillian said.

“I’ll assume you haven’t had a chance to put your shirt back on,” Duncan said.  “I’ll keep my back turned.”

“It hardly matters, when you’re a Doctor,” Lillian said.

“I’m your friend, too.  It’s not as if I only ever see you during clinic hours at the Hedge.”

He walked away, buttoning up his shirt.

“You sound like Mary, being all cavalier like that” I said, in Lillian’s ear.  “And Mary sounds a bit like Helen.  Duncan sounds like he’s picking up some of the best traits of all of us.”

“And me?” Ashton asked, brightly, from a few feet to my left.

“I’m momentarily pretending you don’t exist,” I said.

“You’re so rude, Sy,” Ashton said.  “Rude people don’t make friends.”

“I’ve got better people than mere friends,” I said.  “I’ve got Lambs.  Now keep watching out that window, but cover your ears, please, and give us a moment of privacy.”

Ashton set Helen down on the table next to me, then raised his hands, covering his ears.  He shifted position, so his back was to us, but his body pressed against the table.  Presumably he was providing a barrier so that Helen wouldn’t fall or get knocked off somehow.

“As for you, Doctor, give me your hands,” I told Lillian.

She put her arms back, and I slid the her uniform shirt over her hands, helping her into it.  My hands on the front of the shirt, I brought it forward and around her upper body, until I was hugging her from behind.

“Whatever happens,” I murmured.  “I have believed that you were one of the good ones since I believed that good ones existed at all.  I have thoroughly believed, since a short while after that, that you had it in you to bring about a better future.  I might not know what Hayle is doing, I might be seriously concerned about the cards Fray is holding up her sleeve, but I trust in the Lambs.  I have faith in you.  All of you, but you and Jessie in particular.  It’s why I can trust you when I don’t trust myself.”

Lillian nodded.  She pulled at my arms, making the hug tighter.  “You should have faith in yourself, Sy.”

“Too dangerous,” I said.

“You should,” she said, quiet, her voice firm.

Across the room, Mary’s head turned.  A face had appeared in the window.

I didn’t let go of Lillian.  I watched them.

I really wished they’d open the door to check on us or say something.  It would have given us an out.  But they weren’t that stupid.  They wouldn’t.

There were few things I hated more than being contained.  Being kept.  I could remember some incidents after my appointments, where the pain had been too great, the confinement too awful.  I’d rebelled against my surroundings.

“Sy,” Lillian said.  “I feel like you’re preparing to sacrifice yourself.  That this is the last hug, the last time we really speak, and you’re going to hurl yourself out into whatever reality Hayle and Fray have painted for us.”

“Avis is sitting in the bowl of the window, next to Ashton,” I said.

“Is she?”

“She is.  She’s always been the messenger.  So that’s what I’m doing, saying what I need to say.  Conveying the message.”

Ashton lowered his hands from his ears.  “Sorry, but something’s happening out there.”

I released Lillian from the hug.  I glanced at Duncan and Mary, who were talking at the other end of the room.

Lillian moved away.  I had to extricate myself, with Helen against one leg and Jessie leaning against my one shoulder.  I placed Helen in Jessie’s arms, and hopped down from the table.

The town was being segregated.  The people were hard to make out, but they were being forced out of the houses, out into the rain.  Others were being gathered.  Where the one group was being pushed out, unformed ranks and casual citizens in no organization whatsoever, moved further from the ship, the ones who were being allowed to gather closer to the ship were organizing themselves into rank and file.

Quarantine, or the premise of quarantine.

I wasn’t sure it was her, but Lady Gloria appeared to be one of the figures being sent out with the teeming masses.  The sick, the ones without quarantine suits and requisite rank.

Depending on the degree to which that was a thing, it could utterly disarm us.  The vulnerable would be our rebels, the key figures the Infante had no doubt run into, Gloria included, who we’d been using to steer things.  They were the biggest fish of the small lakes and ponds, but the Infante’s Professors trumped even then.

I’d expected this to a degree.  I hadn’t expected it to be nearly this severe.

I’d expected them to use guns and fire.  We’d seen something like it in… I grasped for the city’s name.

Lugh.  In Lugh.  Where Gordon had died.  There, the cordon had closed, and everything within it destroyed.

Here, it was almost more awful.  The houses and homes were emptied, explosives shook the town where the inhabitants might not have opened the doors quickly enough or willingly left.  People were sent out and left to stumble their way through the streets, trying to cover their heads.

The battalion of soldiers lowered their weapons in unison, and then they began firing.  Those who didn’t move fast enough were gunned down.  Those who did move fast enough were forced into the open fields, beyond the town, where the rain could pour on them, where the scattered few harvesters might lurk in the taller grass or the irrigated rows of crops.

I worried some of those might be ours.

While everyone fled, it was the tall woman who moved in the opposite direction.  Against the flow.

The tall woman, who marched against the tide, charging at the Infante’s Professors and the elite soldiers they were retaining for the voyage home.  She endured the hail of bullets until she was three-quarters of the way to them.  She stumbled for the first time, found her feet, and only made it another two steps before stumbling again.  Then she fell.

This was grim.  More of the horrors of war, more of a reminder why I wanted to fight where we were fighting.

I took a step away.  I moved Helen aside, and I gathered Jessie up, preparing to lift her.

My knees wobbled.  I stopped.  I’d tired myself out.

“I’ll take her,” Lillian said.

I hesitated.

“I’ll take care of her.  Don’t worry.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Lillian gathered Jessie up.  “She’s light.”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t say no, you know,” Lillian said.  She pulled Jessie closer to her, and secured Jessie’s grip.   “When I guessed you were planning on sacrificing yourself.”

“No,” I said.

“Don’t,” she said.  “I know you’re thinking about it, I suspect you’re faking being tired, so I take her, and you no longer have that burden that keeps you from throwing yourself into danger.”

“I’m not thinking about it,” I said.  The scenes outside were very clear in my mind.  The Infante.  The soldiers on the deck.  “I won’t.”

“You said that so easily,” she said.  She sounded sad as she said it.

She moved away, joining the others by the door.  They were getting prepared, pulling boots back on, gathering their equipment.

“Ashton,” I said.  “Do you have the light?”

He raised the light to the window.

“Are they there?”

Ashton flashed.  The pattern was right for ‘question’.  I remembered that much.

Standing just behind him, I could see the response.

Yes.

The response was visible from within the rank and file of elite soldiers.

“Remind me,” I said.

“No.  Aggress,” Ashton said, moving his free hand in the pattern.  “Aggress.  They said it twice.”

“We used to do that,” Mary said.  “Blanks.  They got our initial message.  They knew the quarantine measures were coming.  They’re firing blanks.”

Good.  That was good.

We had soldiers among the crew that would board this ship.  They would come to us.  We had troops among the ‘fallen’, if they weren’t entirely ours.  I hoped they had protected themselves against the acid rain, or that the rain had thinned out enough, this far from the city, that it wouldn’t hurt them too much.

All we needed was for the Infante’s Professors to let their guards down.  They could torch the town and walk away, seeing it as a job well done, and they could leave all of this behind… let their guards down, at least to some degree, and we could turn the tables.

I almost felt like this was workable.  Almost.

Then Fray made her move.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We wore coats that had been provided by the Professors.  Mine was too big for me.  The others wore coats that fit them- even Jessie had a coat draped over her, in addition to the one I’d put on her.

As a group, hunkered down against the rain, we worked on extracting Helen.

The soldiers who had been stationed around the base of the ramp were advancing, many of them gathering at the railing, watching, staring at the noble.  They watched us, and I was very aware that they were holding onto their guns, not putting the weapons away.

The flesh-melting rain pattered down around us.  Already, the clothes that the coats and coverings I’d been using were bleached or eroding away.  My skin hurt at the ankles and wrists when I stretched or pulled against it.  I worried that sooner or later, I would bend a wrist and the skin would split, welling blood and other fluids.

But I worried about Helen more.

She slid fully out of the Infante’s mouth, and we wrapped her in a cocoon of the multiple coats we’d arranged, using the momentum of her sliding down to the deck to keep her sliding along the wet wood.  We moved her to where the cabin encircled the ship’s navigation, and the overhanging bit of cover that we’d all been standing beneath.  ‘We’ being the Professors, the Lambs, and myself, when we hadn’t been actively helping.

As a unit, we unwrapped her as much as we’d already wrapped her.  Ashton lifted up her arm and side so Duncan could put the dry part of the coat beneath her, providing some protection from the water on the deck.  Not much had reached the area under the shelter.

“Help,” Duncan said.

He unbuttoned her top.  I moved to block the view of the soldiers behind us, while holding her head.

“Duncan,” Helen said.  “Manhandling me?  You cad.”

“I hope you’re satisfied,” I said.  “You got what you’ve been wanting for a while.”

“Reasonably satisfied,” Helen said, her voice soft.  “But now the bar’s been raised, whatever will I do next?”

“You could be content with this,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’m insatiable,” she said.  “I always want them bigger, stronger, harder… to beat.”

She was delirious.  Or worse, she was drunk on whatever hormones or whatever there was churning in her system, stoking her appetites for bloodshed, crushed bones, and asphyxiation.

The Devil of West Corinth lurked nearby.  They were out in force, prowling in the shadows, adding their forces to the soldiers who had us surrounded.

Lillian provided some light, a bright little bioluminescent flask, and Ashton held it.  Helen was visible in a stark blue-green and black.

“Plague,” Duncan observed.  “We’ve got the pinprick signs.”

“Surgery?” Lillian asked.

“How fun,” Helen said, barely audible.  She sounded like it was fun.

“Do you want to take point?” he asked.

“No.  You know Helen’s physiology better than I do.”

“I’m also rather fond of her.  It’s hard to be objective.”

“I operated on Mary, once upon a time.  It’s best if you do it.  We’ll split up the work, or I’ll keep you on track.”

“Got it,” Duncan said.

One of the Professors broke away from our group, approaching the soldiers.  They were a restless lot, moving this way and that, not wanting to stay in the rain, but not wanting to leave the scene either.  They paced around the deck, looking for safer ground, one or two choosing to stand where posts and gun mounts blocked some of the rain, others looking for overhangs.

They knew who we were.  They’d seen the Infante on edge, bristling with ugliness, the emperor sans his clothes, and they’d… not intervened.  No.  They’d hesitated.

Not quite letting it happen, and more than a momentary hesitation- nine minutes.  But it was the best way I could think of to parse it.

Duncan was using a gloved hand to explore where the plague was setting in.  He tapped at one spot near Helen’s armpit, and gave Lillian a severe look.  “He got you good.”

“I got him better,” Helen said.  Her smile was hitching again.

“You did,” Mary said.  “That was good.”

Helen worked out how to give a better smile.

Cynthia paced nearby, angry.

I was angry, I realized.  This was very explicitly everything I’d been striving to avoid.

“I’m going to have to cut away an awful lot of skin,” Duncan said.  “We’ll have to explore when we’re that far, and see how deep we end up going.”

“You know just what to say to a girl,” Helen said.  “You’ve come so far, Doctor Duncan Foster.”

Lillian handed Duncan the scalpel.

“No snapping,” I said.  “I know you’ll be tempted to jump one of us-”

Helen giggled.

“-But hold it back if you can.”

Mary was already tying Helen’s legs, using wire to bind her boots together.

“Oh,” Helen said.  “I’m not sure it’s worth bothering about.  I don’t think I’m very dangerous to anyone like this.”

“Ha ha,” I said the words, rather than actually laughing.  “Be serious now, so our doctors can do their work.”

“I’m being serious, Sy.”

I glanced at the others.  Was there a chance, any chance, that she was engaged in another ruse?  That she needed to convince us so we could convince the Professors and the small army that was surrounding us?

Duncan was removing her skin, peeling it away with tongs, while Lillian raised Helen’s arm to view it better in the light.

I set my jaw.

That was serious, then.

“Oh, you should know I have a stab wound from the fight on the rooftop, in my side.  Something bitey squirmed its way inside of me, through that entry point.  I pinned it down, squeezing it with surrounding muscles.  If you get close to it, it might come unpinned, depending.”

“Something bitey?” Ashton asked.

“It got a few nips at my insides before I squeezed its head shut,” Helen said.  “Nothing too bad, I don’t think, but I wouldn’t want you sliding your hand inside of me and coming out with a stump.”

“Thank you, Helen,” Duncan said, unfazed.  “That’s appreciated.”

His voice was tense.

For the time being, his focus was so overwhelmingly on his work that it looked like he was completely unaware of what the others around us were doing.

Saving Helen first.  Other concerns came secondary.

I wasn’t doing much, but I couldn’t see myself leaving her side.  I tried to think about the imminent situation with these soldiers who had no reason to let us go, and it was hard.

A different kind of hard than it had been back when I’d run away the first time, and my Wyvern had run out.

“I might need to take your left arm entirely,” Duncan told Helen.

“Okay.  That’s my fault.  I needed to grab his shoulder for leverage.  The contact was direct, that’s why it progressed as much as it did.”

“I’ll handle the arm,” Lillian said.

“If we get out of this okay, I’ve got my creator on a leash to put me back together, right?” Helen asked.

Duncan and Lillian seemed too preoccupied to answer.

“That’d be the plan,” I said.

“It’s good that we captured him, then,” Helen said.  She closed her eyes, and for a moment I worried she wouldn’t open them again.  “Good job, Lambs.”

Duncan continued to strip away flesh.  He applied powder as he went, to keep infection and the flow of blood down.

“Crown and Lords, there’s so much interconnection,” he muttered under his breath.  “You’re a complicated person to work on, Helen.”

“I’m special that way.”

He continued working.  Here and there, he cut away sections of muscle.  The commentary seemed to stop for a daunting length of time.

He’d turned to using gestures instead, communicating with Lillian.  Helen couldn’t move her head enough to see.  I couldn’t see very well, either.

“You can say it,” she said.  “I’m not going to be upset.  It’s interesting, being taken apart, the feelings of cold wet air between skin and the rest of me.  I dare say it’s fun.”

“You’re not the one I’m concerned about,” he said.

Helen sighed dramatically.

“Do you need me to go?” I asked.

“No,” Lillian said.

“Just offering,” I said.

“No,” she said.  “Worrying about what you’d be getting up to would be more distracting than the inconvenience of having you here.”

“I can feel the affection, how many years in the making?” I asked.

“I adore you, you lunatic,” Lillian said.  She severed the last major connecting piece attaching Helen’s arm to the shoulder.  “If you have any doubt about that, then I urge you to be mindful of the fact that it’s dark, we’re in a warzone of your devising, the amount of rain is ludicrous, and I’m saying that as someone who spent most of her life living in a city where it doesn’t ever stop raining-”

“Fair,” I said.

“Except today’s forecast isn’t just heavy, it’s capable of melting flesh,” she said, pointing at me with Helen’s arm, before sweeping it around to indicate our surroundings, “we’re surrounded by soldiers-”

Duncan paused in his work, glancing around.  He returned his attention to the excisions.

“-and I could go on,” Lillian said.  “You’re not the whole reason I’m here, but you’re some of it, and I certainly wouldn’t be in this particular situation if I wasn’t attached to you on some level.  You complete and utter loon.”

“There’s no need for name calling,” I said, under my breath.

“Was there really a need to carve a puerile insult into the back of the Infante’s head?”

“No,” I said.

“Did it make a difference?”

I glanced at the others.  The Professors weren’t in earshot, the soldiers were keeping a wider berth, as focused on the infante as they were on us.  They were keeping their distance from the Noble’s body, even though he was clearly deceased.  Concern for the plague, or was the man’s presence so daunting that he cowed others even in death?

Mary leaned forward, kneeling on Helen’s arm, “Duncan.  I’ll take over here.  I’ve watched long enough and I have a fairly good hand.”

Duncan handed her a scalpel.

“Did it make a difference?” Lillian hissed at me.

“Some, small, but not in a major way.  But there was more reasoning behind it.”

“Really,” Lillian said.

“Okay, not reasoning, but…”

Lillian arched an eyebrow, looking at me.

“Comprehensive instinct,” I said.  “If we lost… where would he go?  Here.  He’d be mindful of what his soldiers saw, so he’d want to stop them.  It diverts his focus.  Maybe we get a chance to signal our people,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Maybe we don’t.  Either way, while he’s preoccupied limiting any danger to his pride, they have more of a chance to get away.”

“It’s juvenile.”

“I pricked him earlier, when I said he never got to live a real life, I think.  He never had a childhood.  Juvenile… it made sense in the moment.”

“Everything makes sense to you in the moment,” Mary said.

I laughed, a contrast to what I was feeling as I saw Duncan and Mary work together to remove a handful of flesh from Helen’s side.

“Getting close to my little buddy,” Helen murmured.

“Noted,” Duncan said.  “Mary?  Stab it if it shows up.”

“An awful lot of things make no sense to me, and it’s getting worse over time,” I said.  “Nobody can see the back of their head.  If he had people see, it would always be a niggling doubt in the back of his mind, a desire to check.  For someone that untouchable, if he were to stomp us out, but have to live with that small doubt?  It’s minor, but I’m willing to aim for that as a final fuck-you from the Lambs.  It served multiple purposes.  More were for if we were defeated.”

“Alright,” Lillian said.  “I can just imagine the letter being written to my parents.”

The grisly work continued.  Duncan gestured, then swapped places with Lillian.

“Darn it,” Duncan murmured.  “It progressed.  I wanted to come back to see if it would.  Helen?  I’m going to have to take your left breast.”

“Mm,” Helen made a sound.  “That’s a shame.  I liked her.  She’s prehensile, you know.”

“You do not have a prehensile bosom,” Duncan said.

“I gave them names, a long, long time ago.  Do you remember the names, Jamie-Jessie?”

I glanced over at where Jessie lay slumped against the wall.  I didn’t like that she was so far away, so vulnerable, the rest of us with our hands full.  I ran my fingers through Helen’s hair, her head in my lap.

“She can’t hear you,” I said.

“Found your little buddy,” Lillian said.

“Speaking of names, we should give it a name,” Helen said.  “Tell me about it.”

“We’re going to kill it,” Mary said.

“All the more reason to give it a name,” Helen said.  “It came from somewhere, it has feelings, even if those feelings are ‘destroy this pretty girl’s insides’ and ‘squirm’.

“Those aren’t feelings,” I said.  “Those are instincts.”

“I would have you know, Sylvester Lamsbridge, you loon,” Helen said, “That not only are those feelings, but they’re feelings I’ve held close to my heart at times.”

“Alright,” I said.

“Red,” Lillian said.  “It’s red.”

“Rosie?” Helen jumped in.  “No, too close to Sub Rosa.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“It’s plague-affected,” Lillian elaborated.  “Duncan, best if you drop what you’re doing.  The Infante laced the creature with plague before sending it after Helen.”

“That would explain why the plague is spreading from smaller bite wounds,” Duncan said.

“It was such a novel experience, being inside someone while something was inside me.  I very nearly almost let more of them into me, to feel them squirm.  I’m glad I didn’t, now.”

“I’m glad too,” I said.

“I wasn’t in my right mind,” Helen said.  “I’m not in my right mind either now, but I can pretend to be, and I almost sound normal, don’t I?”

“You do,” I said.

“Letting the one in was enough,” Lillian said, almost to herself.  “Duncan-”

“I see it,” Duncan said, curt.  “I need a bigger blade.”

Mary drew and passed him a bigger blade.

With the three hunched over the site, I could only hear the work being done.

“I’m being rummaged in,” Helen said.

“You are,” I said.

“It’s a novel sensation.”

“It might be a while before you get that sensation again,” Duncan said.

“Controls,” Lillian muttered.  “If we excise-”

“I know,” he said.  “Listen, Helen…”

“You keep telling me what you’re having to do, as if you expect me to be upset.  I’ll keep being fine with it.  Chop at me, cut into me, rip me up and truncate me, and I’ll manage.”

“We’re going to have to take pretty much everything in your stomach, ribs to pelvis.”

Helen craned her head around, trying to see.  Mary and Lillian weren’t saying anything.

In the background, the Professors, soldiers, doctors, and other major staff were still discussing what to do about this situation.  The death of the Infante posed a problem, and they were working out how to deal with it.  We posed a problem, and they were working out how to deal with us.

“…I’ll amend my statement,” Helen admitted.  “I’m not entirely fine with that.  I need my middle to hold the sweets I’ve eaten.”

“You’re going to have to do without,” Duncan said.  “It might have reached into your upper chest cavity, by the looks of it.”

“Shoot,” Helen said.  “But that’s preferable to my middle.  I’m afraid I’m not strong enough at the moment to open my ribcage for you.”

“We’ll handle that,” he said.

I did my part, holding her down while the others worked to pry the ribs up and away.  They opened like the legs of an insect.

The silence as the others looked at it was telling enough.

“We can get away with taking half of it.  Better to take too much at this stage.”

“Limiters,” Lillian said, insistent.

“I know.  We don’t really have a choice,” Duncan said.

“All of my middle and half of my upper torso?” Helen asked.  “I didn’t know you were the type to be rough and selfish when you had a pretty girl on her back.”

“Trust me,” Duncan said, “I really don’t want to be doing this.  Nothing selfish about this.”

“Greedy, then, not selfish.”

“I always saved you an extra portion of dessert,” Duncan said.

“Yes.  You’re a dear like that.  You’re right.  I don’t know what to call you then.”

“Call me Doctor,” he said.  He surveyed the damage thus far.  “Lords.”

“Doctor Lords?  I do believe that’s not allowed.  Crown Law.”

Duncan plunged in, a large knife in his hand.

“We’re going to have to take everything below the ribcage,” Lillian said.  “No preserving spine, no more legs.”

“I knew you were a fan of nice legs,” Helen said.  “Sylvester has them, running around like a loon all the time.”

“Stop calling me a loon, please.  I’m good at running, too.  The way you make me sound, I’m flailing my arms around as I make my two-legged gallops from point A to point B.”

Helen laughed.  Heads all around the deck turned at the sound.

Lillian took a large knife from Mary and, two hands on the flat back of the blade rather than the handle, pressed her weight down.  I could hear the sound as the blade crunched its way between bone.  Severing the spine.

“Something serrated?” Lillian asked.  “I can’t get through everything in here.”

“I’ll do it,” Mary said.  “Help Duncan.  He needs it.”

Duncan’s expression had changed.  He wasn’t speaking anymore, only working grimly.

“For your information, my dear doctors,” Helen said, closing her eyes.  “I’m feeling a touch lightheaded.”

“We can deal with that,” Lillian said.  “But that might be a good excuse to have a discussion sooner than later.”

I swallowed.  The discussion further along the prow was continuing.  No argument, no shouting.  Purely organizational.  Everyone there knew their place in the scheme of things, and it would take a great deal to shake them from it.

“So,” Lillian said.

“You’re so lovely, Lillian,” Helen said.  “I hope you know that.”

“Shush now, we need to explain and speak, and you’re only going to make it harder,” Lillian said.

I ran my fingers through Helen’s hair.

Lillian drew in a deep breath, then said, “There may be a way forward.  I think Duncan and I are on the same page.  Sylvester might call it Duncan and I dancing, but I don’t think that’s it.  More that we’re getting to the point where it becomes relatively easy to make choices, because there really aren’t many good ones.”

“I’m glad there’s a way forward,” Helen said.

“Maybe,” Lillian said.  “Part of it is dependent on that committee over there deciding not to shoot us.”

“I’m thinking on that one,” I said.  “I’m a little distracted by all this, but I’m thinking.”

Thinking might not have been the right word.  I was trying to read the crowd, trying to feel my way toward any direction I might go in if I had to improvise something.

Still, I didn’t want to give them less reason to be confident.

“Good to know,” Lillian said, without missing a beat.  “You’ve got your head, Helen.  You have your essential vitals.  We’ll see what we can do.  You won’t be mobile, mind you.  You won’t be much of anything.”

“Not so different from Jessie, then.  You’re putting me away.”

I winced at that.

“You won’t be dreaming, Helen,” Lillian said.  “Maybe after, if we can figure out a drug cocktail, but if we can strike this delicate balance, we might not want to upset it.  At least for a while, until we can get to a place where we can start putting a Helen back together.”

“Cloning?” Mary asked.

“Something in that department,” Lillian said.

“I’m patient,” Helen said.  “It’s one of my better qualities.”

“One you’ve been lacking in lately,” I said.

“I had an epiphany, while seeing to the Infante,” Helen said.  “I’ll manage just fine, I think.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” I said.

“I’ll have you know I’m one of the best liars among the Lambs.  Maybe even better than you.”

“You won’t have the limiters in place,” Lillian said.  “Nothing to restrict, nothing to restrain.”

“Ah,” Helen said.  “Well, that’s unkind.  I’m starting to be much less fine with this.”

“There’s nothing salvageable in that department,” Lillian said.  “While you’re all bound up-”

“I won’t be very restful or calm,” Helen said.  “That’s alright.  I know what you’re going to say.  None of that.”

“You’re sure?” Lillian asked.  “You want to do this?”

“I am very sure.  I’ll have you know, my appetite is an appetite for life.  I will not die to avoid an unpleasant-”

“Hellish,” Lillian corrected.  “Wanting but unable to have, restless but unable to move.  Probably wanting and feeling restless to degrees that none of the rest of us could imagine.”

“Fine.  I will not die to avoid even a hellish… how long?”

“Months.  A year and a half.  Two years or more wouldn’t be completely out of the question, depending on how motivated Ibbot was in helping us,” Lillian said.  The emotion had drained from her voice.

I wanted to hug her and hold her.

“Even for that long,” Helen said, earnestly.  “Because it means I get to see you and Duncan again.  I’ll get to see Ashton, too.”

She hadn’t made mention of Mary, Jessie, or me.

“I do hope to see you too, Sylvester,” Helen said, as if she’d read my mind.  “And Mary, and Jessie.  We went to all that trouble to recruit Doctors and Professors who could look after our projects.  Let’s see if we can stick it out that long.  It’s not like I can lose my mind, can I?  It’ll take some doing, but you can change the balances and re-establish limiters.”

“We don’t know that you can’t lose your mind,” Lillian said.  “Your brain is different, but that doesn’t make you immune.  You could be irrevocably changed.”

“We’ve had other Lambs do that.  That’s fine,” Helen said.

“If this even works,” Lillian said.  “You could die when we cut you down to the minimum necessary.”

“I’ll try my hardest,” Helen said, her voice firm.  “You two try hard too.”

Duncan nodded, face turned down.  He was still cutting away from the contents of her upper chest.

As fond as I’d grown of Jessie in the time I’d spent with her, I supposed Duncan had spent nearly as much time with Helen.

I glanced at Ashton.  He seemed fine.

The little blockhead.

“Would you like to speak to some of us alone?” Lillian asked.

“I would not,” Helen said.  “I’ll just say my just-in-case goodbye.”

Her eyes moved around, looking at each of us in turn.

Her eyes met mine.  I nodded.

“If I don’t see you again, then goodbye, you lovely creatures,” Helen said.  “If I do see you again, I expect to be welcomed with a working midsection and a whole table covered in tasty things.”

“That can be arranged,” I said.

Ashton, still holding the light for the doctors, had to maneuver in an awkward way to not deny Duncan his light, while getting up closer to Helen’s head.

“Avoid the right cheek,” I said.  Helen had a vein of plague standing out on the right cheek.

Ashton gave her a kiss on the left cheek instead.

“You’re my favorite,” Helen said, to Ashton.

“I know,” he said.  “You’re mine.”

The Professor we’d talked to earlier, Lawrence, had approached us while we were preoccupied.  He wanted to address us, talking to us.

“Let us finish?” I asked.

“That’s fine,” he said.  “Once you’re done, we’ll be taking you into custody belowdecks.  We’ll deliver you to the Crown Capitol.”

“No,” I said.  “There’s too much to be done here.  We have no plans to go to the Crown Capitol.”

“That’s not an option,” he said.

“It’s very much an option,” I said, my voice hard.  “But it’s in your hands.  Weigh your choices, Professor Lawrence.  We killed the Infante.  Do you really consider yourselves beyond reach?  You’re choosing to take us and trying to return to the way things were?”

“What option would you pose?”

“The other choice is that you walk away, you all tell a story where the Infante was seized by plague, and the Crown States were overtaken by plague and black wood, with no survivors.”

“You’d stay?”

Just beside me, Lillian cut into Helen’s face.

I ran my hand along the back of Lillian’s head, letting it run down her hair to her shoulder.  I gently rubbed her back while she worked, not so hard as to disturb what she was doing.

“Look at us,” I said.  “We’re not long for this world, are we?  We helped you clean up what could have been a rather embarrassing situation with a Noble gone berserk.  Don’t take our freedom in our last days and weeks together.”

“You’ll have days and weeks together in your cell, as we travel back,” he said.  “The decision was made, and you’re in no position to change it.”

“Are you in a position to leave?” I asked.  This was the direction I’d been pondering.  “The Infante intentionally spread plague.  He walked through that crowd of soldiers over there, and some of them are already going to be showing signs of it.  He affected others, I’m sure.  Quarantine procedures must be adhered to.”

“I’m well aware,” Lawrence said.  “We won’t need to adhere too much.  It’s going to be a… rather small number of crew and passengers.”

They were simply going to slaughter and burn all who could potentially be infected.

“As soon as they’re done,” Lawrence addressed soldiers that had approached.  “Take them to the cells belowdecks.  The quarantine ones, meant for the warbeast.”

The ship moved, hull grinding as it pulled away from the walls of Radham that it had breached, from Fray, and from Hayle.

Here in the cell, at least, we were out of the rain.

“We’re moving away,” Duncan said.  “Back toward the town where we assembled our forces.  Probably to pick up some secondary forces, or to ensure they’ve tied up all loose ends.  Black wood isn’t out of the question.”

I sat on a table and watched out the window, seeing Radham slide further away.

“Does she like being stroked, do you think?” Ashton asked.

“I can’t imagine it hurts,” Lillian said.

“Alright then,” Ashton said.

This war is not yet done.  The Crown Capitol is not part of the plan.  Not like this.  You will escape.

“Patience,” I said, under my breath.

“Talking to Jessie?” Lillian asked.

Jessie was propped up beside me, her head on my shoulder.  Still sleeping.

“No,” I said.  “More to the voice in my head.”

“Singular?”

I nodded.

Lillian approached me, standing by the table, and she hugged the arm that Jessie wasn’t leaning against.

“I always wanted to see the Crown Capitol one day,” she said.

“We’re not going to the Crown Capitol,” I said.

“Oh?  You have a plan?”

“Do you still have the bioluminescent lantern?”

“Duncan has a fresh one in his bag.”

“Shine it out the window.  Flash code.  We’ll see if anyone’s looking.  Our options will depend on that.”

Lillian gave me a peck on the shoulder, then crossed the room.

Duncan was sitting against the wall opposite me.  Ashton was beside him, and the two of them held Helen.  She was, in rough dimensions and in size, about the same as a two-stone bag of flour.  She was encased in the organ tissues they’d been able to salvage, which had been wrapped thoroughly in bandages.  Blood was seeping through the bandage, so they had a raincoat between her and their laps.  Ashton stroked her.

“Can she hear us?” Ashton asked.

“I tried to preserve the pilifer rings.  It’s a question of how well the connection between the rings and the brain structures lasted.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.

“But I’ve been talking to her on the assumption she can hear,” Duncan said.

“Okay,” Ashton said.

When Lillian returned, she came with Mary.

Mary handled the flash code.

I turned my head, watching out the window.

“We got a response,” Mary said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.10

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The Infante glowered, his veneer of humanity pulling away.  He was burned, but the burns hadn’t penetrated far past the surface, his skin almost seeming to grow tougher where the fire had seared it.  He remained unfazed by the life and death fight between the Duke and the Golden Calf that was moving back and forth around him, the two combatants within his arm’s reach at times.

Had the Duke been able to find an advantage, he could have used the closing of the distance to attack.

I could see the Infante’s craft, impaling the wall that framed this section of the city.  Like a great pirate’s ship ramming a smaller craft, biting into railing and deck, it had cut into the city.  It was guarded by a section of his army, and by a scattered assortment of his experiments.  The weasel warbeasts with the augmented jaws, humanoids with helmets, and others I couldn’t make out through the rain.

Lillian handed a jar to Mary.  Duncan and Ashton paced backward and to the side.  They wanted to find an avenue to act.  I could draw the connection, imagine what they wanted to do.  I could picture how this might play out, if they succeeded.  I could picture the moves as if they were moves on one of Hayle’s chessboards, during those early days where he’d made us compete with one another.  Counting moves ahead of time, figuring out where we wanted to be, how to cheat effectively…

I pushed myself.  I tried to take in the situation, to see where the others might position themselves, how the enemy might respond.  The Golden Calf was a whirling dervish of destruction that had a way of appearing at every point, devastating every contingency.  I held every image in my head, tried to account for the Infante, and found him easier to predict, harder to deal with.

The Calf might have been stronger in a sense, but it was feral.  The Infante was only feral when it was inconvenient.

The more I focused, the more I felt everything slip.

The Lambs must slay this god, the voice said.

I put it out of mind.  It wasn’t helpful, it didn’t help me process this situation.  It was… simply an unpleasant, dark noise in my head.  I couldn’t even be sure if it was articulating noises anymore, or if it was meeting my brain halfway, like writing and speech in a dream, that made no sense in retrospect.

“No room for failure, Sy.”

That was a more reassuring voice, helping me center myself and figure this out.  I looked over a battlefield and saw a dozen instances of each Lamb, fifty instances of the Calf, and five- six instances of the Infante.  All frozen in position, at places where they would make their key moves.  I could look at any of them, and visualize where everyone else might be in relation to them.

“Yeah,” I said, under my breath.  The Infante was staring me down.

“No room for sucking, because that monster will tear all of us apart.  And you’ve got Jessie with you.  So no sacrificing yourself.  It’s not an option.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The rain pattered down on my coat.  I was standing under the eaves of a building, but it still was getting at my shoes.  I worried about what would happen if it was left to do its work, eroding at the treated leather.

“I wish I’d gotten to know Jessie.”

“I do too, Gordon,” I said.  “I do too.”

“I’ll do what I can,” he said.

Duncan and Ashton ascended to a sloped rooftop.  Duncan carried Helen.

The Infante reached in the direction of a pile of rubble.

“Duncan!” I shouted.  “Down!”

Boneless limbs reaching from the Infante’s hand to the rubble, seizing it.  Duncan dropped, pulling Ashton down with him, and the Infante adjusted the throw as all three tumbled off the roof to the street.

Stone pulverized stone and wood.  Scattered fragments of the rubble that had broken away as it was hurled forth chipped at the ground and wall near Duncan.  Duncan and Ashton covered their faces and heads.

The worst of the rubble had struck the wall above them.  Some shattered pieces landed around them, or bounced off of the three Lambs.

The Infante turned his attention to me.

I could imagine his thoughts.  You’re going to make me destroy you first, are you?

My imagining of the voice sounded dangerously close to the voice in my head.

He strode forward, one step, then two, and then was running by the third step.

I turned, moving perpendicular to him, closer to Lillian and Mary.

Mary threw the jar, sending it arcing high into the air.  She drew her pistol with the same hand, aiming it-

The Infante reached up to catch the jar out of the air with the same boneless limbs that had gripped the rubble.  Mary, for her part, turned on the spot, bringing one foot up, kicking out at the air- at thread.

Wound around the jar-top, the thread was pulled taut.  Held firmly in the grip of the Infante’s coiling symbiote, the bottle broke.  The contents showered down on one side of his face, his shoulders, and into the mess of tentacles and the hand that was almost hidden among them.  It was powdery, and it clung to him where the rainwater soaked his skin.

I wondered what Lillian had in her kit that she thought might serve against the Infante.

Momentarily blinded in one eye, hand and the associated tentacles coated in the powder, he continued charging at us.  I skipped up on top of a rain barrel that was rigged to divert some water into a garden that was protected by an overhang.  From there, I stepped up onto the arm of a diagonal gutter that fed into the barrel, and made the hop to get to the roof of the one-story building.

My legs were tired.  The combined weight of Jessie and I and the running we’d done to this point was adding up, and I didn’t get my feet onto the roof.  I hit the edge of the roof with my stomach.

“Damn it, Sy.”

A moment later, something jabbed me hard in between the ass cheeks.  It was Mary- driving her shoulder into my butt, as she’d hopped up right behind and beneath me, she was using the force of her entire body to force me up.

“Perilously close to the droopier vitals, Mary!” I called out, as I clambered onto the roof.

The Infante swung his arm at us, the various tentacles that extended from his hand and arm forming a singular, club-like entity.  Mary leaped up and away, Lillian dove for the ground.  The rain barrel and gutter were demolished.

“You’re broken,” the Infante said.  “Half of you dead or dying, the other half incapable of accomplishing anything.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said.

“I am not diminished,” the Infante said.  “You… you remind me of what humanity was, before.”

“Before.”

“How many years did man walk this Earth, so sick and crippled that his cities and nations only barely subsisted, let alone progressed?  You… all of you barely subsist, like this.”

“It’s better than the alternative,” I said.

“When you’ve spent your remaining time in the pits of the Crown Capitol, you’ll change your mind about that.  When you’re spent, well past the point of keeping alive, crumbling as you are, I’ll ensure you see each and every loyal soldier and ally of yours that the plague doesn’t claim, being marched in to suffer the same fates.”

In the background, I could see Ashton edging closer to the fight between the Duke and the Calf.

If he could gain any influence over it-

“Your Ashton won’t affect it,” the Infante said.  “It doesn’t have senses as you and I do.  It doesn’t have muscles in the same sense, nor the bones you might expect.  Its shape is… accident, but not unintentional.”

Had he seen me looking at it, or did he anticipate me?

I glanced at the ship.

“I thought you weren’t planning to run, Lambs?” the Infante asked.

Lillian started to move right, and the Infante moved, ready to lunge to cut her off.  His limb struck the cobblestone street, again as a singular limb, hitting with a strength sufficient to crack the stone.

She started to move the other direction, and he struck the ground over there, cutting her off.

I stood on the rooftop above her, but I didn’t have the means of reaching down to her.  Or if I did- it was a task.

The rain was pouring down on top of me, every second I was up here.  The long jacket I had draped over Jessie and I was insufficient to cover everything.  The rain was touching my ankles.

In the background, Berger was hunkered down, not moving.  The other doctors were with him.

I dearly wished they would do something.

The Infante struck at the building near Lillian.  He shattered stone and he upset my footing.  I dropped to all fours.  Jessie’s grip threatened to slip, and I reached up to grab her, securing her, made her hold on tighter.

The white powder had created a milky texture on the Infante’s face and arm. He barely seemed to care that Duncan and Helen were gingerly picking themselves up, or that Mary was flanking him, moving into position.

He repeated the action, striking the building.  Lillian ducked low.  No shriek, no wail, no tears that I could see.  Grim silence.

Those impacts- the tentacles that sprouted from his hand weren’t indestructible.  Stone was… well, it was hard.  He was doing more damage to himself than to Lillian.

I realized why, seeing the white stuff, seeing the pattern, that he kept on using the arm like a club.

Glue.  It was glue, or something that became like glue, when exposed to the water.  It bound the tentacles together, it hampered his movement, and it blinded him in one eye.  Mary’s movements to flank were taking advantage of the fact that he had a limited field of view.

“You could go, Sylvester,” he said.  “Run.  Go after my doctors, after the people on that ship you think you could leverage.”

“And miss seeing you go to pieces?” I asked.

“It would mean you didn’t have to watch her die,” he said, indicating Lillian.

I glanced down at Lillian.

I saw her, and I saw the Lillian of years ago.  Wide-eyed, terrified of everything and still somehow finding the courage to plunge into it.  Guileless in so many ways, with countless openings for me to exploit.

He approached, footsteps plodding.  I tensed.

He swung, once again, and Lillian once again leaped clear of it.  The limb had bent in the air, it hit her or something she was wearing and made her stagger, left her defenseless to the follow-up.  In that same strike, however, the Infante had managed to kill the symbiote that was clinging to him.  It slithered out of his hand and the wounds in his arm, a morass of worms that were glued together at one end, a hydra’s mane of worms at the other, groping and grasping.

Lillian made a break for it.  The Infante, arm still extended from the swing, simply kept walking in her direction.  Things fluttered out of the opening in his hand.

Mary lashed out, closing in, cutting, using thread, trying to hamper his hand by hurling a knife and having the attached razor wire encircle the hand and opening several times.

It wasn’t enough.  Slices and cuts didn’t mean anything when the Infante had been meant to weather bullets and wrestle warbeasts to the ground with his hands.  She had stemmed the flow of the Infante’s creatures from his hand, but they were gnashing at the wire, and there wasn’t any leverage keeping it in place- it was falling away from his hand, if I went by the dangling knife that drooped closer and closer to the ground.

I rose up, shifting my footing.

Lillian had run to the left, away from the direction we wanted to go.  The Infante had his right eye glued shut.

The eye closest to me was glued shut.

I gestured in the same instant I jumped.

My jump up to the rooftop had been weak, faltering.  Now I jumped from the peak of a bungalow house, with the Infante as my landing point.  One of my feet touched his shoulder, where the powder had settled, and it stuck enough I worried I’d lose my shoe.

My hand reached for the noble’s head, knife stabbing in, seeking a grip.  The other hand reached up, striking at Jessie’s hands.

I divested myself of Jessie and the coat that protected me, and let her fall.

Mary caught her, both her and Jessie falling to the ground in the process.

The Infante ignored me, turning toward Mary and Jessie, the pair crouched down on the ground.

“Trust the Lambs,” I murmured.  I ignored them.  I ignored everything, trying to secure my footing, perching on the Infante’s shoulders, my knife at his head.

His eye was apparently made of something that wouldn’t be touched by blade or bullet.  It was possible the eyes in the sockets weren’t even real.  Eyes elsewhere on the face, where the glue still covered some?  At the shoulder?  The hands?

No, blinding him wouldn’t work, in any event.

I cut his scalp, dragging the knife along it, adding to wounds we’d already made.  His flesh was hard to cut, requiring that I drag the knife through it with both hands, even for the thin skin that sat next to skull.

The Infante raised the hand that hadn’t gotten glue on it, the one that hadn’t had the tentacles, or the swarm.  I saw him form a fist.

Veins bulged along his arm.  The veins turned dark, then broke, blistering.  The vine-veins that were so characteristic of the plague were visible there.

He was going to infect the pair.  Jessie and Mary both.

Scales of burns mingled with the eruption of the plague that his body had been keeping contained, all red and angry.  I liked to imagine it was all of the pent up anger from within him finding its way out.

I wanted to think we were the cause of that anger.

The rain was soaking my clothing, touching my flesh.  If I looked skyward, I risked getting it in my eyes.  Lillian had said that if any of us got the water in our eyes, our vision would go foggy and wouldn’t get better until the eyes were replaced outright.

She’d backed away as the Infante turned his focus to Mary and Jessie.

I dragged the knife toward the base of the Infante’s skull, where it met his spine.  The skin became thicker as I reached that point.

“Nuisances, nothing more,” he said.

He swiped a hand at me.  I had to grab his head to keep from falling.  I put the point of my knife near his ear and kicked it, hard with my heel, kicking myself away from the Infante and toward the road below as I did it.

I screwed my eyes shut, twisting my face away from the rain.

It was a bad moment.  A moment where I realized I’d been focused on what I had to do moment to moment, but I’d allowed myself to be cornered, thinking too shallowly, only about the current move, then the current move again.  I’d spared too much thought for the instant and for the ten-minutes-from-now.

Trust the Lambs, I thought.

A whistle.  From Lillian’s direction.

Only a distraction- and not an effective one.  It was one of the tools that Academy Doctors carried with them for directing Stitched on the battlefield.  I could see why she had it.

I could see why the Infante could ignore it, his focus on Mary and Jessie.

Duncan fired his rifle, aiming for the Infante.  He was kneeling by Helen and Ashton was near them.  He fired again, then again.

It might as well have been the shrill whistle.

It wasn’t a Lamb that stepped to the fore.  The Duke pulled away from his fight with the Golden Calf.  With long strides, he charged at the Infante, sword leveled for the higher noble’s throat.

The Infante grabbed for the sword, and the blade dipped, danced around, then returned to course, aimed for the jugular.

With a quarter-turn away, the Infante had shoulder and arm catch the blade instead.  His flesh suffered what looked to be a shallow cut as he turned his back to our Duke of Francis.

He swung his fist in a backhand, not even looking at his attacker.  The Duke stepped back and away, turning and bringing his sword up to catch the Calf’s claw.  He was disarmed.

“Syylvester,” the Duke said, his vowel hitching, as if he was a stitched with a faulty wire, movements replicating.

In the next moment, the Calf had gouged him three times, digging deep furrows into his chest and stomach.  I could have laid my arm into those furrows and covered them with skin, with no bulge to be seen.  From the look of the slices of black, there were dark gaps hinting at cavities beneath.

It was a modest distraction, but the attack had bought us a chance to retreat.  Mary had found her feet, dragging Jessie with her.  I climbed to my own feet and backed away, stepping into the shelter of a shop.  Duncan and Ashton dragged Helen into shadow.

“You’re mad,” the Duke said, drawing a pair of blades to defend himself with- scaled down to my size, they might have been daggers, but the Duke was tall and his idea of a ‘dagger’ would have been a short sword in my hands.

“You say that like you’re surprised,” I said.  “You know this, you know what I am.”

“Nno,” the Duke said.

The Calf attacked again.  It was fast, it was strong, and it sat askew in my mind’s eye, too hard to calculate and predict.  It didn’t stop to breathe, it didn’t slow, it only seemed to stop to think, to work out how best to dismantle its enemy.  The Duke stopped both claws from striking him by parrying with his blades.  The Calf headbutted him.

The Duke of Francis’ head was a weak point.  He tried to adopt a fighting stance, and the blade fell from his right hand.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Wanted-” the Duke said.  He looked at the Infante.

I filled in the gap.  I wanted to stop him.

“We will,” I said.  Somehow.

Lillian approached me, throwing an arm over me, her hand gripping the armpit of the sleeve as she shared her coat with me.   Berger and the other doctors following her.  We were all at either side of the street now, with the Duke, Infante and the Calf in the center of the road.

The Calf moved to finish off the Duke.  The Infante stopped it.

“Was it-  worth it?” the Duke asked.

“None of you survive the day,” the Infante said.  “‘Worth’ is irrelevant.”

“Absolutely worth it,” I said.

The Infante reached out for the Duke, using his plague-ridden hand to seize the man by the face.  There was almost surrender on the Duke’s face as he was seized.  No fight, no effort to defend himself.  He’d spent all he had.

No.  Not quite.  He reached out and grabbed the Infante’s arm, brought a leg around and hooked the Infante’s.  He was holding on, burdening the High Noble, hampering him so we could run.

That didn’t stop the Infante for telling the Calf to come after us.  It barely hampered the Infante from turning, walking as if there was barely any obstruction.

But he wasn’t running.  That counted for something.

Duncan couldn’t throw anything while he held Helen, so he handed off what he could to Ashton.  Lillian threw what she could as I held her bag and kept the coat in place over us.  it was three to five seconds of rummaging for every second she spent deploying a pouch of something she could empty into the air behind her.

It was Berger and the other Professors that served the most effective role.  Berger had his puppeteer-insects, hidden within his coat.  Others had canisters and pistols.  They’d been ordered to this battlefield and they’d come with some ability to fight.

The puppeteer bugs latched on, trying to find some physiology they understood.  One or two paralyzed an arm or a leg for a second or two as the Calf raced forward on all fours, making it stumble or veer to one side.  It shook its head violently for a moment as it charged into a cloud of powder Lillian had tossed into the rain.

It barely slowed.

We were charging straight into a morass of experiments and soldiers.

We needed-

The Calf caught us.  It tore into Berger and one of his colleagues with enough violence that the collateral violence sent Duncan and Ashton sprawling, Helen with them.

“Clear the way!” the remaining Professor shouted.  “The Calf has gone mad and attacked the Infante!”

There was commotion.  How much had they seen of the fight?  Enough to know we’d been fighting the Infante?

The Infante was approaching, marching through the rain.

Could they see?

Obey!” the Professor shouted.

The soldiers obeyed.  The Doctors gave orders to warbeasts.

“Stop it!” the Professor said, leading the way into the enemy ranks.  “Leave the children be!”

There was hesitation at that.

In less than a minute, the Infante would be close enough to give his own orders.  He would reverse these instructions, and we would be among the enemy.

I tried to hurry, getting ahead and away from the bulk of these defending forces.  I glanced over the ship, looking for and failing to see any guns.  It looked like the ones that would have worked had been removed and carried to the front lines, where they could act as turrets.

Lillian and I stopped at the railing, taking in the scene.  Mary caught up with us a second later.  The warbeasts and experiments were attacking the Calf, now.  Rain streamed down on parts of the deck.  Other parts were covered by tiled canopy.  The ramp itself had some canopy too, no doubt to protect individuals getting off the ship from gunfire.

And Duncan- Ashton?  They were still on the street, at the edge of the group of soldiers that stood amid the rubble where the prow of this land-ship had crashed through the exterior wall.

Duncan moved his hand away from Helen’s throat.  His head hung.  He turned to look at the Infante, then at me.

Ashton didn’t budge until Duncan tugged him a second time, practically dragging Ashton after him.

Lillian clutched my hand, hard.

As a group, while Duncan and Ashton ascended the rubble and the ramp to the deck of the ship, we retreated into the cover of the roof that protected the rooms and structures above the deck.

Guns cocked, to greet us.

“The Duke is dead,” the Professor with us said.  “Berger, Adams.”

The others were professors.  I recognized the decoration.

The Infante’s men.

“He’s mad,” the Duke’s Professor said.

“And you’re a traitor.”

“He’s mad,” the Duke’s Professor said.  “He’ll never come back from this.  He’s tasted… this.”

“Abandon,” Mary said.  “He’s tasted total abandon.”

“We’ll manage,” the Infante’s Professor said.

“Lawrence-”

“We’ll manage.  We have to.”

“You can’t steer him any longer,” the Duke’s Professor said.  “Not even in the small ways.  We’ll say the plague took him.”

The Infante approached the crowd.  He’d torn the glue away from his eye, taking flesh and eyelids with it.  He didn’t seem to care that he bled anymore.

I heard Lawrence sigh.  “Nothing we could do, if we wanted to.”

“Harpoon gun?” I asked.

“Harpoon gun?”

“Or anything sufficient for catching a rogue warbeast.”

“That’s what it’s come down to, is it?” Lawrence asked.

I looked at the Lambs.  Mary had Jessie, and the burden seemed unduly heavy.  Lillian looked harrowed, her breath fogging around the mask at her lower face, her eyes wide.  Duncan held Ashton like Helen had, before.

The Infante looked up at us.  His expression was one of grim satisfaction.

With a few words, he had the crowd turn.

But he would lead this army.

“Harpoon gun, or anything,” I said.  “Now.

“It’d be suicide.  You’ll fail, and he’d punish us.  He’d take everything we care about,” Lawrence said.  He still held a gun, raised and aimed at us.

“He’s power,” I said.  “Devoid of control.  Him and his pet both.  We orchestrated this siege, and we did it because the Academy is control, devoid of power.”

“I think you’re underestimating our resources,” Lawrence said.

“I think the fact that we’re all standing here and facing down this reality suggests we have a very good idea of what your resources are and what’s going on.”

“What’s going on?”

I felt my heart pound as the Infante worked his way through the crowd, getting past the rubble to the ramp.  His pet was devouring bodies, mask parted.  He called it, and it leaped to the side of the ship, crawling up to the railing, stopping there.

Decorum had to be observed apparently.  It wouldn’t go ahead of its master any more than a properly trained dog by a shepherd’s side, or one of the organic pieces of art that ladies of quality liked to have trotting at their sides.

“He’s slipped the leash, you know,” I said.  “The break in the balance of power and control, it started with the Duke being shot, the Baron’s weakness.  You failed to account for the missing component, the glue that holds it all together.”

“The people.”

“Their faith.  Their belief in the order of things.  It elevates the Infante and his ilk.  Change that elevation, reverse it even, the nobles get insecure and the balance-not truly a balance, “It goes askew, and everything falls apart.”

Lawrence spoke, watching the Infante, “What would upset or reverse this supposed faith?  Hm?  Not mere deaths in wartime.  Not when the Duke lived, to continue to make appearances.  Not when we covered things up as we did for the Baron’s death.”

I let the silence hang, sinking in.

Let his question become rhetorical.

“Harpoon,” I said.  “Please.

He hesitated, then glanced at his peers.

He seemed to come to a decision, and ran for the stairs.

The Infante slowed.  The rain pattered against the deck, the sounds of battle were distant, less persistent than they had been.  The battles had largely been decided, now.  There were a few final doors to batter down, but…

But I needed to focus.

I watched as the Infante’s expression shifted.  He turned , looking over one shoulder at the crowd.

Murmurs?  Shouts.

He raised one hand, touching the back of his head.

I’d made him bleed.  He was always self conscious about that.

I’d made him bleed a lot.  He would be more self conscious about that.

His expression was unmoved as he returned his focus to me.

I smiled, spreading my arms.

There were more noises from the crowd.

“Proud of your small victories?” the Infante asked.

Devastatingly proud, tits.”

His expression shifted.  “What?”

“I said I’m devastatingly proud, tits,” I told him.  “Did that knife I jammed in your ear actually do something to your hearing?”

“Tits,” the Infante said.

I touched the back of my head.

It was then that he seemed to realize.

“Juvenile,” the Infante said.

I glanced at Gordon, who seemed inordinately pleased.  Gordon wasn’t any older than he had been in Lugh.

“It’s what we are,” I said.  “It’s what I am.”

“You said that to the Duke,” Lillian said.  Mask or no, I could hear the incredulity.  “Sy- you sacrificed the Duke’s life to-”

“It worked,” I said, with intensity.  I pointed at the crowd behind the Infante.

The Infante turned to look.  As he did, the back of his head was plain to view.  I’d carved the four letters into the back of his head.

The crowd behind him looked stricken, not sure what to do.  Laugh, cry…

That harpoon was a little late in coming.  This would have been when I would’ve liked to fire the shot, and try to unite Lamb and Professor in dragging that bastard off the ramp.

The saving grace wasn’t any harpoon.  It was a creature from the crowd, bloody and hard to make out, as it tore past the people nearest the Infante, stepped onto the railing, and pounced onto the Infante’s face.

Helen.

Her arm was broken, but she still used her hand, flinging her body around to the side to get her hand to where it could hold on.  Her other hand clutched.  Her one good leg scrabbled for purchase.

“Harpoon!” I shouted, looking for the professor that had run off.

He emerged from the stairs, looked at the scene, and threw the oversized crossbow.

To me.  The idiot.  I caught it in a bear hug, reversed it in my grip, and gave it to Mary.  I knew her arm was hurt from our first skirmish with the Infante, so I held the front end, ducking low, while I let Mary do the aiming.

The plague-ridden hand struck Helen, pulling her back and away.  The harpoon caught the hand before another blow could be delivered.  I, Duncan, Ashton, Lillian, and Mary all seized the rope, pulling it to one side.

The Infante’s attempt at smashing Helen away from his face was thrown off as we pulled him slightly off balance.  He caught himself.

The High Noble made a hand gesture at the Golden Calf.

It hung on the railing, perching on the side of the ship, and with the gesture, it hopped the railing, landing on the deck.

Lawrence whistled.  He made another gesture.  The Golden Calf sat down where it was.

The rope from the harpoon was secured, tied down.  As one, we made the Infante’s sole remaining arm our target.  Fluids were oozing from it, and he slapped Helen’s back, smearing the fluids onto her clothing.  He grabbed her, trying to pull her away.

Mary’s razor wire and a rifle that several of us could grab provided some leverage on that hand.  Duncan poured something on the deck, and the Infante lost his footing, dropping to his knees.  I threw a coat over the Infante’s face and over Helen, to keep the rain off of her.  It wouldn’t do for her to dissolve while trying to do this.

There was an echo to earlier.  This time, instead of Gorger taking the Infante’s head, we had Helen.

It wasn’t fast.  But Helen had the ability to finish this.  Broken as she was, ribs fractured, limbs more fluid, relying on musculature, she crammed herself into the Infante’s mouth.

Soldiers on the ground started to approach.

“Stand down!” Lawrence called out.

“Sir-”

Stand down!”

No, Professor!”

Several guns raised- not all of them.  They aimed at the Professors.

I nearly lost my own footing on the slick of fluids Duncan had placed beneath the Infante.

Lawrence stood at the top of the ramp, facing down the crowd.  The Duke’s professor stood at his side.

“Look at him,” Lawrence said.  “The plague took him.  That much is clear to see.  He’s mad, he’s broken.  He lost.”

The guns didn’t waver.

“He lost, and the Crown doesn’t lose.  Therefore, he’s not Crown.”

I could have laughed at the circular reasoning- I might have, if the guns hadn’t actually drooped a little.

I dropped away from the struggle to hamper the Infante’s one arm that wasn’t harpooned.  It took some doing, but I needed to sway the crowd.

Lillian’s coat over me, I climbed up the Infante’s arm to where Helen was.

Helen, our beautiful Helen.  She was a monster in disguise, but above all else, her role in the team had always been the actress.

Our glorious actress, from the point that she’d been kicked and injured, had played dead.  She’d played out her part, to the point it convinced us, because the Infante had needed to believe it to let his guard down.  No longer able to play effectively at being human, she had played her role perfectly when it came to being broken.

“Turn his head thirty degrees to the right,” I said.

I heard an exasperated sigh from her.  She was using her body to stifle him, to deny him air and keep him from effectively closing his jaw.  It yawned open now, to the point even one of the weasel-thing’s jaws might have dislocated.

But she had some leverage on the outside of his head, which she was using to make him face skyward, the coat covering the both of them.  She managed to get him to turn his head slightly.  Not thirty degrees, but enough to give them a glimpse.

Of ‘TITS’ – carved on the back of the noble’s head.

It wasn’t much, but in hurting the soldier’s faith…

The guns they’d lowered a fraction didn’t raise.

They needed to believe the Infante could win, or that he could win on his own, but we’d taken chunks out of the noble, and now we had him at our mercy.

Helen’s arm reached into the Infante’s mouth and up, likely finding a grip on the uvula or on the ledge that would lead up to the sinuses.  If the Infante was one to reflexively gag, he would have thrown up then.

As it was, it was purchase for her to go contortionist, to draw herself inches in deeper, a young lady making the giant of a man swallow her.

Minutes passed.  The harpoon gun was used twice more, lashing the Infante down further, so both arms were pinned down.  It meant the others could back off and get out of the rain.

I draped another coat over Helen, then backed off.

It took what I estimated to be nine minutes, all in all.  Struggles, two attempts at hauling hands and arms free of the barbed harpoons.  We fired more that had been brought from belowdecks.  The Infante slowly went limp, sagging to the ground.

Our actress remained where she was, making absolutely sure.

The audience was very still and very quiet, their eyes averted.

No applause to be had.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.9

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My arms were drenched in blood, fingertip to elbow.

The rain pounded down on the rooftop, it formed a waterfall at the edge of the building that was damaged.  Wood creaked and groaned as the building shifted.  All around us, the city itself stretched itself skyward, stone grating on stone, distant muscles as large as any street no doubt working to lift sections of the city up and away from the plains that had surrounded it.

We made no sound.  The Infante, too, was silent, but not because he was dead.

You don’t like it when others see you bleedIt disturbs the illusion.

His clothes had burned and melted away from the upper body, and it was clear where lifeforms squirmed and writhed within him, visible in and near the gouges and holes we had made in him.

He could have used them, to slow us down, to distract, even to attack.  He was holding back his strength.

He was a pillar of strength, in many ways, tall, stout, indomitable.  We could wound him, but killing him seemed almost impossible.  Even serious attempts to disable were questionable at best.

The noble’s blood streamed from my elbows to my fingertips, and the thick fluid formed tendrils that stretched from my fingertips to the ground.

It felt like more time had passed than in reality.

I reached into one of my pockets, aware I was getting it filthy with blood.  I gestured- nothing fancy.  It was a gesture anyone would have understood.

Mary tugged on Gorger’s arm, hauling him back and away.  His mouth yawned open, a second kind of mouth that was a wormlike, muscle-laden esophagus relaxed, loosening its hold on the Infante’s head.

For an instant, it looked like the Infante wasn’t going to let Gorger go, even though Gorger had released him.  His arms were extended to either side- an eruption of tentacles reaching from one palm to Gorger’s hand, arm, and shoulder.  The other held Gorger’s wrist, with red veins spiderwebbing out and around from the point of contact.

The Infante looked like he was crucified, one knee on the ground, arms out to either side, his head bowed.  Wounds marked him.

But he wasn’t a man.  Like this, close up, clothes done away with, his inhumanity had been laid bare.  The flesh, the fat, the muscle, the monstrous things that peeked out of his wounds before he flexed the muscle, flexing the wound closed a fraction, it marked him as something else.

“Ask for help,” I said.  “Beg.  Call your underlings.”

He raised his head.  It was here that he would have seen the match.

“I’m just making a suggestion.  But I know you’re too cowardly to do it.”

“Cowardly,” the Infante said.  His voice was quieter than usual.  His allies were close enough that anything else could have been construed as him doing as I’d suggested, seeking their assistance.  “Begging?  Pleading?  Calling for assistance?”

I smiled.

“You’d be well advised to listen,” Lillian said, her voice distorted by her breathing mask. “Concede this battle, bow your head, admit defeat.  Walk away, lick your wounds.”

“Physician, you would do well to partake of your own prescription,” the Infante said, his voice low.  “Can you conceive of any possible reality where I do as you suggest?”

“No,” Lillian said.

“Even if you did want to listen, we wouldn’t let you,” I said.

“I thought I’d suggest it, and assuage my conscience, harming the helpless, using all of my Academic knowledge to try and disable your knees and hips,” Lillian said.

“I can smell the chemicals,” the Infante said.  “I can smell the pinewood and sulphur in your hand, Sylvester.  I won’t bow, you won’t show mercy.  Let’s be done with this discourse.”

My hand was still so covered in blood that I could barely see any skin, beyond some of the knuckles and where it had scraped away from beside my thumb, when I’d reached into my pocket.  I opened it, then thumbed open the matchbox.

The others backed away, Gorger retreating toward the hatch, growls and other sounds suggesting that the Infante’s minions had seen him.

I struck the match and threw it as a single motion.

The chemical ignited with a whoosh, rolling into the air up and around the Infante in a way that suggested some of it was airborne, before it had caught the flame.

The Infante, midway to working his way to a full standing position, burned.  Things from further down the warehouse took notice of the light and sound.  The primordial-spawn superweapon would be among them.

I allowed myself a second to take in the scene, the Infante as a silhouette, surrounded and framed by flames.  He didn’t scream or flinch.

Then, collecting Jessie, Duncan and Ashton helping to get her into position, I turned to go.

Only minutes had passed.  We’d moved in waves, as coordinated a dance as any battlefield we’d navigated, but we’d been moving in and out of a space not much larger than a lady aristocrat’s walk-in-closet, some of us stepping back as others had stepped in.

The ones who hadn’t been actively getting their hands dirty had been preparing for their own activities or checking the surroundings.  I’d been checking.

There was a path out.  It wasn’t perfect, but it served.  We went up, climbing one set of pipes and the framework that held one chimney to the wall, to reach a shattered window.

Hoods up and jackets overhead, we went out the window, into the acid rain.

Duncan was the last out.  Not even a full second after he’d slipped past the spears and blades of glass, the first warbeast lunged after him, snapping.  A weasel, writ large, with jaws like a bear trap of bone and muscle, the flesh peeled back and away, so grafts and augments could be added or modified to keep the jaws at their most effective.

Duncan dropped down, and we caught him.  The weasel-warbeast was scraping its neck and belly against glass as it fought its way out of the window, eviscerating itself.  One of its kin was climbing on it to get through the window, but rear limbs had lost their grip, and it held on with foreclaws alone.

Another lunged out, leaping onto the rooftop we occupied.  Mary, one hand in her pocket, stabbed it with a short blade that she held in the other hand, before it could fully recover from the landing.

There was noise at the side of the building, suggesting creatures were making their way outside.  I could see only hints of it – some weren’t acid-proof, and they shied away from the rainwater, getting in the way of any that were.

A weaker Tangle was draped across the street far below us, long, thin, not quite integrated, its pale silhouette being that of a snake.  It was trying to fold itself together into something functional and strong, but it had been damaged, and its attempts to knit itself together were trying and failing to turn gaping wounds into something functional.  Lying as it was in the puddles, the effect of the rain was far outweighing the harvesters’ ability to piece it together or make it functional.  It looked like the flesh would slough from the bone soon enough.

There were soldiers and experiments here and there, but the battle lines had shifted, moving to points further away, Radham’s forces retreating closer to the Academy, while the Infante’s forces had followed.  The ones who remained were the ones who were hunkering down in places that were still dry and intact, licking their wounds and shooting the occasional Tangle that limped or crawled too close.

None looked up enough to see us.

We leaped over to the next rooftop, Mary first to land there, with Lillian close behind.  They were there to reach out for me, keeping me steady.  I appreciated it- not because my balance was bad, but because I had Jessie on my back and I didn’t want the coat I’d draped over Jessie and I to fall away, exposing us to rain.

We circled around the building, pursuing the Infante’s soldiers and forces, which had pressed their advantage as Radham had retreated.

I was all too aware of the rain, of the long seconds which seemed to pass in slow motion as we stepped out from under eaves and away from the sides of buildings that blocked the downpour when the wind blew it in the right directions.

The building we’d met the Infante in was still in plain view.  The chemical fire we’d started was blazing, catching on wood.  The orange light of the flame was visible through the windows, even if the flames themselves weren’t.

“How’s Helen?” I asked.

“I haven’t had time to check,” Duncan said.  “It looked like she got hit hard.  She’s durable, but-”

But.

“Mary?”

“Lillian put my arm back, but I don’t feel like I can use it for fighting.”

A Jessie who can’t voice her memories.  A Mary who can’t fight.  Ashton is limited in what he can do since half our enemies are wearing quarantine suits with masks.   Helen can’t get a grip on herself, let alone anyone else.

Then there’s you, the voice said.

How fitting, then, that we would find ourselves here, I thought.

The Duke was standing in the rain, wearing a hooded cloak, the point of a sword sticking out from one side, the hand that gripped it shrouded.  The rainwater ran down onto the cloak and around him, pooling on the ground.  The front line of the battle was ahead of him.

His doctors stood to the side, where they were out of the rain.

I dropped to the street, dancing out of the way of harvesters that were writhing through the water.  I ducked under the same eaves the doctors were hiding under, where they were safe from stray gunfire and the rain.

One of them drew a weapon.  He relaxed slightly when he recognized me, my face peeking out from beneath the jacket that covered my head, shoulders, and Jessie.

A whisper I hadn’t caught, a subtle signal or enhanced senses let the Duke know we were here.  The Lambs collected behind me, and we collectively shrank back into the shadows and the gloom.  Still facing more or less forward, the Duke half-turned to glance our way, looking at us out of the corner of one eye.

Were a distant observer to take in the scene, it was a coin toss if they would notice us.

Berger pulled off his mask.  He blinked a few times, then winced.  He turned his attention to us.

“Professor,” I said.  “We meet again.”

Our last meeting had been when we had turned him over to the other Lambs.  He had been our hostage, and Lillian had wanted him as a bridge to contact the Duke with.

We’d hoped to stop the Infante from seizing the Crown States.

“He lives?” Berger asked.

“The Infante lives,” I said.  “But he bleeds.  He burns.”

Berger’s expression shifted.  He seemed grimly satisfied with that.

“The Golden Calf?”

“The primordial spawn is out there,” Duncan said.  “Either it’s giving chase, or it’s waiting for its masters orders.”

Berger nodded.  He glanced at the Duke.

“Will you come with us?” Lillian asked.  “We… the Lambs helped as much as we were able.  Sylvester and Jessie made sacrifices, trying to help us help you.  If you’re ever going to help us, we need the help now.”

“If I may, my lord,” Berger said, bowing his head.  “We’ve discussed this thoroughly.  I’ll speak for you if you allow it, and you can correct me if I’ve misinterpreted your stance.”

The Duke dipped his head into a slow nod.  It was an eerily placid, calm gesture in the midst of a battlefield, where smoke was still thick in the air, the gas thankfully having dissipated, the rain pouring down, the soldiers firing their guns and shouting just fifty paces away.

“Speaking for myself, the Infante has my loved ones,” Berger said.  “Speaking for my Lord, I know that everything and everyone he’s invested his life into is held ransom.  We’ve been asked to bow our heads, to sacrifice ourselves on this altar, and we’ve been assured they’ll be treated fairly.”

“You really think they’ll be allowed to live?” I asked.

Berger glanced at me.  There was a dark expression on his face.

“Stupid question.”

“If he gets a prompt, quiet death, I’ll consider that fair,” Berger said.  “I’ll consider it possible that he could live, shuffled off to live with a Doctor, a Professor, or an Aristocrat, to carry on something resembling an ordinary, modestly wealthy life.  Possible but not likely.”

“This is a fulcrum point,” Mary said.  “Things teeter on a blade’s edge.”

“To what ends?” Berger asked.  “Do you want to stop the Infante?  Salvage things?  Our communications were discovered.  The Crown States are doomed, written off.  In a century or five, they’ll dust off the maps and the books, they’ll return to the Crown States, and they’ll reclaim it.  Purged of all enemies and threats, free to be populated by the loyal.”

“The loyal,” Lillian said.

“Yes.”

“The loyal won’t be created by manipulation or craft,” Lillian said.  “They won’t be made by propaganda, misinformation, rewritten history or a steady removal of the Academy’s enemies.  They’ll be engineered.  They’ll be grown in vats and pieced together from the dead.”

“Most likely,” Berger said.

“I don’t want that future,” Duncan said.

“Are you offering an alternative?” Berger asked.

I met the Duke’s eye.  I saw him staring, rigid, his jaw set, water streaming off of his hood.  His hair was disintegrating into sodden clumps where it tumbled out of the hood and over one shoulder, the rain dissolving it.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do we have a place in this alternative?”

“No,” I said.

“You’re asking me, asking us to sacrifice ourselves, to give up everything we’ve worked toward, and allow it to be done away with in entirety, in the worst ways possible, even.  You’re asking us to do it and to get nothing in return?”

“Your son, the boy,” I said.  “I don’t remember his name.  But he might have a place.”

“The Lord Duke took pride in the Crown States.”

“There is no more Crown States,” I said.  “Only plague and black wood.”

“You’re asking for what little we have left.  You’re offering nothing in return.”

Mary spoke, “Sy’s offering you a chance to fight.  A chance to take one last defiant action.  A shot at removing the most dangerous man in the Crown States from the world.”

“For chances and shots, I’m to condemn the boy?” Berger asked.  “We’d try, we’d fail, and we’d be consigned to the Crown Capitol’s pits, with every person who we’ve worked with since coming to the Crown States, every family member, every loyal servant, and every other person we’ve stayed in touch with over the years.”

“What makes them special?” I asked.

“What makes your Lambs special?” Berger asked, his voice rising.

The Duke shifted his cloak.  Moving with slow carefulness, he reached out, hand slipping out from beneath the folds.  It settled on Berger’s shoulder.

The rain continued to pour down on top of us.  Someone from the battle lines was turning back, calling out.  Berger looked in the man’s direction.

The battle was ongoing.  The distant battlefield was eerie looking, almost a painting in the broad, vague strokes that painted it, the streets having blurred as harvesters had drawn out the materials, the hard shapes and openings of buildings smoothed out into funnels by the harvester’s work.  Radham seemed to have the means to direct Tangles in small part, and they were using them to delay and hamper the attacking forces.  I wondered if it was similar to Ashton’s mechanisms.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Well, a great deal makes them special, but that’s not what you’re asking.”

“Why should I lose everything and everyone I hold dear, when you won’t?”

I was very aware of the Lambs who were arranged behind me.  I was aware of the state of them.

You’re losing them, the voice said.  They’re slipping away as you speak.  And if you let them go, then I’ll have no reason to hold backOur deal will have ended.

I blinked, slow.

“Because, if you’re honest with yourself, if you step away and look at what this world is and what it’s becoming… we’re really not far from a reality where everyone is condemned to the pits.  Everyone is lost.  Maybe not this generation.  Maybe not the next.  But surely, somehow, if you cherish anyone, anything, any legacy at all, you can’t let them win, destroy it all, and erect some… mockery in its place.  Rewritten history, modified, subjugated, and broken people.”

“You might well be giving me too much credit,” Berger said.

“If that’s so, then I’m really sorry I spared you, way back then,” I said.

The fires were rising from the building where we’d left the Infante.

A hollow, eerie bellow sounded, extending over the city.

“That would be the golden calf, I presume?” Duncan asked.

“Yes,” the Professor next to Berger said.

“The Infante is coming.  He’ll have his pet with him,” Berger said.

“And you’ve given your answer?” I asked.  “You won’t help?  You’re speaking for the Duke in that?”

“Almost,” Berger said.

“Almost?”

“I can’t speak for the Lord I serve, but in speaking for myself, I don’t believe you’ll bring about a better world.”

I tilted my head to one side, watching Berger.

“We treated you pretty fairly, all considered,” I said.

Berger didn’t reply.  Beside me, Mary placed bullets in her gun.  She exchanged guns with Lillian and loaded the other, too.  Duncan and Ashton were kneeling by Helen.

“Fine,” I said.  “Point taken.  But you’ve worked with Lillian.  You’ve seen Duncan.  You’ve communicated with them, tried to fight for a better future alongside them, steering the Infante away from trouble.”

“Insofar as that’s possible,” one of the Professors said.

“You’re… you’ve lost, you’re faltering.  You seem resigned to your fates.  But pass the baton.  If Lillian and Duncan aren’t the kind of Doctor you want to succeed you, then I don’t know who else would serve.”

The Golden Calf howled yet again.

“I’ve met some doctors I could recommend,” Ashton said.  “But that’s not the point.”

“Hush,” Duncan said.

Berger glanced at the Duke.

The Duke lowered his head, reaching down to Berger’s belt.  He retrieved a handful of vials.

“That’s a yes?” I asked.

“Shh, Sy,” Lillian said.  “Don’t go and say something that changes anyone’s mind, if they’re leaning toward helping.”

“I’m not going to change anyone’s mind,” I said.

“You could,” Ashton said.

I shut my mouth.

Berger held the vials that the Duke had retrieved and put in his hands.

“Combat drugs?” Lillian asked.

The Duke turned, facing the burning building.

He’d left one arm extended.

“In your condition-” Lillian started.

Duncan touched her arm.

The rain continued to pour down.  Berger extracted the drug with a syringe, and he placed the syringe point into the Duke’s arm.

“We’ll have to get past the Infante to reach the ship,” Mary said.  “Are your people on board?”

“Guarded,” Berger said.  “They’ll be shot before we get close enough.”

“Get us to the Infante’s ship.  We’ll get close enough.”

Berger nodded.

“We’ll have to find a way to stop the Infante,” I said.  “Are there drugs?  Any mechanisms?  Chemicals we could use?”

“No.”

“If we take out his Professors, what happens?”

“He’ll recruit others.  They’ll be worse at maintaining the delicate balances and keeping the plagues and weapons within him from harming him, but he’ll survive.  He’d be able to get himself restored to peak condition, if only because they’d keep him alive and well until he made it back to the Crown Capitol.”

The fighting was picking up.  We weren’t terribly far from the Academy itself, with its high walls, at the highest elevated point on the city that had raised itself in stages.  I had a feeling harvesters had warped the exterior walls, elaborating them, smoothing them out and reinforcing the bases, but it was hard to see in particular.

The Tangles had united into a few greater forms, comprehensive enough to be able to climb from the ground at the base of the walls to the tops of the wall.  Much of the artillery fire and gunfire was aimed at them.

Duncan picked Helen.

“How is she?” I asked.

“There’s damage to her brain or spine, going by how nonresponsive she is.  I’d need to perform exploratory surgery to tell, and this isn’t a good surgical theater.”

I set my jaw.

I shifted my grip on Jessie.  The others pulled coverings into place, protecting them from the rain we were about to venture into.  I was very aware that the fabric would start to give way if we subjected ourselves to too much of it.

I heard the sounds of the Golden Calf, and I could visualize the Infante, not far from it.  Three Infantes, as possible positions, possible stances.  I could imagine him in a range of conditions.

The Lambs have to destroy him.

The Duke, beside us, stretched.

“Donn’t,” the Duke said.  His voice was rich, the words crude, as painful to listen to as they must have been to utter.

I turned to look at him.

“Donn’t… disappoint me,” the Duke spoke.

Thunder rumbled, and we we ran, ducking our heads down, jackets and hoods pulled up.  The Duke almost resembled his old self, but his expression was a stricken one.  One I recognized, in a morbid way, the expression mirroring sentiments I’d harbored in my heart in my darkest moments.

The Duke of Francis was going to die, for the burst of vigor and focus he was demonstrating now.

He kept his head down, his movements efficient, not graceful but not graceless either.  I knew that kind of movement too: it was the mechanical movement of someone who had to keep putting one foot in front of the other because there was no guarantee they would be able to resume moving if their rhythm broke or if they stopped.

A Tangle rose up, striking out from an alley.  It wasn’t large, composed of four people, but it was relatively intact.

The Duke ignored it, even as it found its footing, moving to strike at him.

I lunged, moving clumsily with Jessie at my back.  I cut more to slow it a fraction than to stop it.  It clubbed at me and hit Jessie.

Mary threw knives.  With the wires attached and the knives embedded in flesh, she hauled to one side, pulling it off balance and toppling it.

The Duke had barely budged or reacted.  He couldn’t spare the strength or effort for anything that wasn’t our primary enemy in this.

But, as we ran, he held his sword arm out, his hooded cloak stretching down the length of his very long arms.  It had been black once, but it was mottled, the color bleeding out of it, the parts where the fabric was tight against shoulder and head were outright bleached.

The length of cloak he’d extended and the sweep of his arm provided a canopy, sufficient to shelter Lillian, Jessie and I.

The shattered city was staring to slow in its growth, the rumble quieting.  The sound of war on the ground, across the city, and at the foot of Radham Academy itself seemed to increase in volume, as the dull sounds of the city’s shifting ceased to mask it all.

I saw the Infante, standing in the street.  He let the rain wash over him.  His flesh was bleaching and mottling less than the high quality fabric of the Duke of Francis’ cloak.

I saw the Golden Calf.  The two-faced helmet had been unclasped, but its face wasn’t visible.  It hunched over a tangle, it ate, the helm blocking our view of its face and process of eating.  Its back and body were bulging, larger for the mass it had taken into its body.  Its arms were longer, stouter at the shoulders.

We slowed our pace.  The Duke, not wanting to stop, continued moving, circling around to one side.

The Infante was scorched, flesh peeling from body in black, twisted clusters rimmed by red, damaged flesh, fluids streaking him as they flowed from open wounds.  He didn’t look weaker, for the damage that had been done.  He didn’t hang his head any lower, he didn’t bow down.  He didn’t look less, wearing his battle wounds rather than his highest-quality robes.

The Lambs were glancing around us.  I looked around us, and I recognized many of the storefronts, though display windows were thoroughly barred and shuttered.  I recognized the shape of the street.  I didn’t remember, but it was a place close enough to my heart that I couldn’t forget it entirely.

We were very close to the orphanage.

The Golden Calf reached up, closing its helmet, doing up the clasp.

I saw the Primordial Child, standing in the background, watching.

“How dangerous is it?” Duncan asked.

“They create primordials in the Crown Capitol, in the most controlled of environments.  They cut and pruned until they came to a conclusion.  Few of the resulting creations were truly capable of anything,” Berger said, his voice muffled by the mask he’d returned to wearing.  “Even of those few, most are only fodder for research and advancing Academy knowledge, primordial-derived advancements that greater minds than mine may spend a decade or more reverse-engineering.”

The Duke moved, lunging for the Infante, blade in one hand.

The Calf, as far from its master as the Duke had been before the attack was initiated, was fast enough interpose itself between Infante and Duke before the Duke could strike.  It parried the blade with a backhand swipe of a claw.

The Infante hadn’t so much as flinched or glanced the Duke’s way.

His focus was on us.

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