Black Sheep – 13.8 (Lamb)

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-He’s here.-

“He’s here,” Lara whispered, translating, her eyes wide.  Her claws were biting into the wood she was lying on with enough force to cut through her sleeves and dig notches into the surface.

She was scared, she was overwhelmed, she was looking for Ashton and Abby and Duncan and Emmett for support, especially Ashton and Abby, because those two were like her and they were almost a trio and Ashton calmed her down with his spores while Abby calmed her down by being Abby.  But they weren’t here and she was with Helen and Mary now.

She’d suggested going with Helen and Mary, because she didn’t want to diverge.  If she always went with Duncan’s group and Nora always spent time with Mary’s group, then they would become different individuals, and different could be bad.  Ashton had said it wasn’t bad, but even though she didn’t remember her first sisters dying she remembered saying goodbye to the last two.

She and Nora called the first one as Whisper, because her communication wasn’t very strong, and the second one was Tremble, because her fear response was the strongest.  She remembered how they sounded, and the brief moments of contact they had had when moving between the tanks and the metal tables where they were measured and examined.  She remembered how they tasted when they were fed to her.

Her thoughts were running away from her.

She’d decided to do this, to go with the other group.  She’d chosen this.  She wished she hadn’t, but the decision had been made and she had a job to do.

Transcribing was good.  Focusing on that helped calm her down.  Talking and listening helped calm her.

“Elwes is on the way,” a man spoke to the Devil.

“With  everyone?”

“Everyone, Mr. Colby.”

“What about the Poke?”

“Still on his way, I presume.”

“If his excuse isn’t good, he’ll pay.  Meggot?”

“No word since he turned up in town.  They might have got him when they were going after the others.”

“He was a waste of breath.  Small loss,” the Devil spoke, his voice gravelly.  There was a pause.  “Lambs!”

Lara closed her eyes as her heart leaped in her chest.

“I assume the screams I heard outside were because of you!  I know you’re here!”

“He,” Mary murmured, in Lara’s ear, making her jump.  “You said he was here.  Sylvester?”

Sylvester? she thrummed the word out with the structures in her bones.

-Yes.- came the reply, picked up by the fine filaments that ran in parallel with her hair, picked up in part by her claws and some of the finer structures in her bones.  The word danced along her skull and the skin of her head like spoken words boomed in her ears.

“Yes,” she replied.

-He’s here to help.  Lillian says he wants to play at being a proper Lamb again.

“He wants to act like a Lamb again.  He’s helping.”

“Lambs!” the Devil bellowed.

She didn’t transcribe.  The voice was loud enough that Nora would be able to hear.  She watched the Devil stalk across the third floor of the building.  There were twenty-five men down there with him.  All of the men had weapons.

“I asked about you,” the Devil spoke.  “I know what you do.  Information gatherers and assassins.  Experiments.  What a complicated relationship you seem to have with Sylvester.  Is he with you now?”

Once Lara listened beyond the hoarse voice, she could tell that the man was talking funny.  Rambling.

It made her think of her creators.  They would uncork bottles in the lab on Friday nights and drink, and they would quickly get drunk.  This was like that.

“Do you share his concern for the well-being of children?” the Devil asked.  “I have to say, it was a clever thing.  A surprising number of this city’s children disappeared.  A clever disappearing act, not so long after he laid the bait.”

“Talker,” Mary murmured.

Lara relayed Mary’s message alongside everything the Devil was saying.

“But I buy and I supply to a number of cities.  It has been roughly a day since Sylvester and I had the talk in the auditorium.  Did you really think my reach was limited to this one city?”

Lara didn’t understand right away, but she saw Mary raise her head up and away from the floor, then lower it, lightly striking the floor with her forehead.

“They’re on their way to places all around the city.  Wagons and carts of children that were for sale.  And no, they aren’t coming to me.  If you want to help them, you’ll have to find them.”

Mary raised her head to bang the floor again.  Helen put out her hand, to intercept, softening the already faint impact.

“Sylvester, damn it,” Mary murmured.

“Harm me, and scores of children will die,” the Devil pronounced.  “Unless one of you feels brave.  A duel, one of you children against me.”

Mary moved to stand up.  Helen grabbed her arm.

No,” Helen whispered.

Lara finished relaying everything, then added, Mary wants to go.

-Lillian says no.

“Lillian says no,” Lara said.

Mary relented, letting Helen pull her back down to a position on the floor.

-What are we doing?  What’s happening?  Where’s Sylvester now?  I think he was moving down your way.

I don’t know! Lara exclaimed.

-You’re useless.  If we had real parents I bet they would kill themselves out of disappointment and shame.

Better than the trio of being useless, stupid and weak.  The world is worse off for having you in it.  Skip the parent part and kill yourself out of disappointment and shame, you wretch.

Having Nora talking to her was helping her to relax and stay centered.  She still gripped the floor, claws digging into wood, but she didn’t feel like she was going to lose her mind for an hour and come back to reality to find that an hour had passed.  Not that that ever happened, but sometimes the fear got so very bad she thought she might not be able to handle it.

“No takers?” the Devil called out.  “I know you’re listening.  Let’s see.  I have this notebook.  All the locations of where the wagonfuls of children are being taken, where the nanny is, written on eight pages.”

Lara transcribed.  She heard paper ripping.

“One page.  The writing is only on the one side.  One wagonful.  Unless I get a sign, I burn it.  The people there never get the message from me, the deadline comes and goes, and the children meet their end.”

Mary dropped her head down to the floor again.

“I didn’t specify how.  But I have people I go to for tasks like these.  I trust they’ll be creative.”

Mary looked at Helen.  This time, when Mary rose to her feet, Helen didn’t stop her.  Mary didn’t go straight down, but headed toward the open wall and the scaffold.  Approaching from the outside.

Lara peered through the boards, communicating, Mary is going.

-Lillian: Damn it.  This is not a good idea.  She wanted to go anyway, this just gives her a reason.-

The Devil was a big man, veins standing out, muscles etched out, with barely any fat.  His eyes were bloodshot, his hair messy.

He scared Lara.  She was scared of most things, yes, but this man stood out to her.  She had seen warbeasts that had been made to be scary, and somehow, even those Warbeasts didn’t seem to trigger most or all of her instinctive fears the same way that this man did.  The placement of his eyes, the veins, his size, the way he moved, the way he sounded-

He scares me so much. 

Strength.-

I’m scared for Mary.

-All of us here too.  But they trust her.  You bile stain.

Helen reached over and put a hand over one of Lara’s claws.  She didn’t blink once as she stared down at the proceedings.

The Devil was turning around.  He chuckled as he saw Mary standing in a window.

“Good,” he said.  “I didn’t think it would be a bitch of a girl.”

“It isn’t,” Mary said, in that way she sometimes did, that reminded Lara of her creators, very hoity-toity, capable of delivering verbal ripostes while still sounding   eminently calm and well-mannered.  “I’m a girl, no epithet warranted.”

The Devil undid the buttons on his shirt, one by one.  The garment barely fit him, and peeled off him more than anything.  He cast the shirt aside.

“I win, I get the little book,” Mary said.  “You win… you get me.  And you can use me to bait out the others, I assume.”

“They’re all out there, are they?” the Devil asked.  He indicated the scaffolding that Mary had stepped off of.  “I’m looking forward to taking a knife to that pretty face of yours.  Peel it off, then carve and smash the muscle and bone until there’s no chance that your fancy doctors can give you a good replacement.”

“I look forward to you trying,” Mary said.

The Devil gestured.  All of the men on the floor below backed off, clearing a space.

“No weapons,” he said.  “Hands, fists, feet.  Bite if you want to.”

Lara could see him bare his teeth in a smile.  They seemed oversized, misshapen.  Or was it an illusion?

“No weapons, then.  If you insist,” Mary said.

“It ends when you cry mercy,” he said.

“That’s not going to happen.  Given that we’re left with no alternatives, the real ending will have to be a surprise,” Mary said.

The Devil had to weigh something between twenty and twenty two stone, and it was all muscle, warped and drug-fueled.  Mary was a third of that.  Athletic, but not tuned to the same degree, and not as drugged.

“Come, now,” the Devil said.  “I’ll even let you make the first move.”

Mary crouched a little, legs tense, eyeing the room.  The floor was shaky in spots, Lara noticed.  There were places that could see Mary tripping or stumbling, giving the Devil his chance.  Ten meters separated them.

Mary dashed in the Devil’s direction.

“Shoot her,” the Devil ordered, the moment she had momentum.

Lara thought her heart would stop at the words, and the movement on the part of the men at the edges of the room, as they reached for guns.

Behind the Devil, a window shattered.  Lara couldn’t see what it was, through the gaps in the floorboards.  But it was a distraction.  Perhaps it bought Mary a fraction of a second.

Mary changed direction.  Too far into the room to reverse course and go for the window, she turned, running, and she leaped like a cat might, one hand going out, then down, as her legs rose.  The other hand flicked in the direction of the Devil, throwing out a knife.

Lara watched as Mary put a hand on the floor, gripped it, and hauled herself through one of the shakier patches of flooring to the floor below.  The notebook, pierced with a knife, was hauled in after her.

She spoke in a hushed whisper at the same time she communicated to Nora, “She’s okay!  I think!  She dove through the floor!  Sylvester threw something in there.”

“Gas,” Helen said.

Gas.

Nora’s noise of amusement and happiness was less bubbly than their laughing sound.

“Come on,” Helen said, standing carefully, giving Lara a hand in standing.

In that same moment, the Devil called out, “Spread out!  Move upstairs, downstairs.  Tear down the scaffold while you’re at it!”

-Lacey: I didn’t want to go up.  Now we’re cut off.

-Lillian: Don’t worry.  The Lambs like high places.  Rooftops, tall buildings.  We’ve got experience with this sort of thing.-

The gas that Sylvester had tossed in was spreading.  The men were vacating the floor below, and the Devil strode toward the ladder, heading downstairs.  He didn’t look upset.  If the book was important and he’d lost the book, why wasn’t he upset?

“The book was a fake, maybe.”

There was a brief pause before Nora reported, -Lillian: Probably.-

“Come on,” Helen said, giving Lara’s hand a squeeze.  “People are coming.  Let’s get you mostly hidden.  If I get excited, I don’t want you anywhere near me.  I might hurt you.”

“What?” Lara asked.

Helen reached over and pinched Lara’s cheek.  “Kidding.”

Helen led her over to one end of the room, where a cloth had been pinned up to keep the wind from blowing through too much.  Helen pulled the cloth down so it covered Lara.

“White drape, white Lara,” Helen said, plucking at Lara’s clothing.  “You’re almost camouflaged.”

Lara nodded.

There were people coming up the scaffolding, and some people climbing the ladders up to the fourth floor.

What if they came behind her?  What if they came up in front?  She couldn’t watch both sides without moving, but moving meant being more visible and obvious.

Swaddling herself further, she craned her head, looking up at the darker top floor, which was mostly beams and branches.  She couldn’t really make out the others, until Nora moved her head.

-What are you doing?  You’re a crime against all living things, natural and Academy made, you’re so pathetic.  Report.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  Be useful.

Was Nora really getting more mature, spending time around the other Lambs, gettng to talk to Sylvester like she did?  Lara was so spooked at what was going on she could barely think straight.  Nora was thinking about the right things.

Noises on the scaffolding to my left, you cretin.  People at the ladder to my left,   you imbecile.  They’re muttering to each other, so there’s more than one.  Maybe three.  Helen went to my right.  She might be climbing down and trying to catch them off guard.

-You forgot to keep insulting me.  You must have acknowledged that I’m the better sister.-

The dangerous people were so close.

Still, Lara had to spare an effort.  When they decided who made the cut, they should have terminated you and kept the sister with missing organs.  At least she might have been worth something for a few minutes before expiring.

There was a long pause.  A head crested the top of the ladder simultaneously as the matching arm and the hand that gripped a pistol.  The thug looked around, pointing the gun this way and that.

-Too much.- Nora communicated, and Nora’s words were as terrifying as the gun.

Am sorry.

-Too much.  You wrong our sister’s memories!– Nora stressed.

Am sorry.  Am scared.  Not thinking well.

If anyone should have been terminated, it is you, you sad little spasm of vat-meat.  Our sister with missing organs, at least, didn’t fancy a romance with cow plops.-

Nora’s titter of amusement was both reassuring and one-sided.  Lara’s attention was now consumed by the gunman, enough that she couldn’t reply.

The man with the gun was cautious as he got both feet on the floor.  The gun pointed this way and that as he edged his way around the empty floor.  He even pointed it up at one point, and Lara was certain he would see the others.

But the gun moved down, aiming at eye level.

As he edged around to one end of the room, to peek at the scaffolding, Helen seized him.  He disappeared around the edge of the broken wall.

The other man was just now coming up the ladder.  He saw the first get snatched by Helen, stiffened, then pointed his gun.  Not that it would have accomplished much.

The projectile dropped from above.  A knife, blade pointed downward.  It remained straight as it fell straight down on top of his head, penetrating the crown.  His grip on the ladder faltered, and he fell.  From the complaints, he fell on the people below.

Lara closed her eyes, and she could hear the grinding, meaty noises as Helen went to work.  She startled at the sound of footsteps, and then realized they were the footsteps of the others.  Lillian, Lacey, Abby, Ashton, Duncan, and Nora.

“Helen?” Lillian asked.

Lara poked her head out from her hiding place and pointed in the right direction.

Just about everyone fixated their attention on Helen, but Nora and Abby made a beeline straight for Lara.  Nora hugged her, tight.  Painful hug, when their ribs stuck out all knobby-like and touched each other, but it was a good hug too.  She felt her scalp tingle as her hair-like filaments touched some of Nora’s.

“Are you okay?” Abby asked.

Lara nodded.  After a moment, she broke the hug, then hugged Abby.  Because Abby cared and understood that even if there was no super-immediate danger, it was possible to be not-okay.

“I wanted to do something interesting with it,” Helen said.  She had some rope and was using it to help drag the first gunman’s body behind her, leaving a trail of blood and other bodily fluids.  Lillian was helping her, holding one part of the rope.  The man’s skin had been pulled at hard enough that it had torn free in places, his head, limbs, and body all twisted around until front and back were almost synonymous.  He was strangely rigid, for how broken he was.  Arms and legs had been broken and turned around until shattered bone found a hold in torn muscle and flesh, holding it in place.

Abby looked away from the sight.

Lacey said, “That begs the question… why?”

“Because.  I want them to see,” Helen said.  “We need to go help Mary.  She went down there, and they’re collapsing in on her.”

“Okay,” Lillian said.  “I’m still not connecting the thoughts.”

Helen worked with the rope, binding the body.  It was bloody enough that the rope was soon soaked through.  She handed the extra length of rope to Lacey and Duncan.  “Distraction.  Dangle it when Nora says.”

Which meant Lara was coming with, Lara realized.  She grit her teeth, and pulled away from Abby and Nora.

As she passed by Ashton, she felt a swelling of emotion, not bad, not fear or anything, and not quite calming.  Determination?

Maybe this was a bit of what courage felt like.

“Scaffolding,” Lara said, quiet, pointing across the floor to the other end from where Helen had been with her captive.  “People, I think.  Be careful.”

“Will do,” Duncan said, simply.

Hopefully bad people wouldn’t climb the outside of the tower and appear behind Duncan, Lacey, Abby, Ashton, and Nora.  Hopefully.

She hated ‘hope’.  Hope was so easily twisted by fear.  Hope was what fear ate, and she had so much fear to feed.

She hoped she and Nora could be happy and peaceful one day, with only occasional work on battlefields and in scary places.  She hoped they could pupate and enter their later forms and that everything would be okay.  She hoped they wouldn’t lose the ability to talk and be deemed useless.  She hoped they wouldn’t diverge and be labeled too different to use.

There were too many routes for the enemy to use, too many enemies.  Too much danger.  The Devil scared her, even though she knew he wasn’t the worst or most dangerous experiment the Lambs had faced.  He was the worst and most horrible thing she had ever seen in her life.

She was scared of heights, as she stepped onto the shaky scaffolding.  It was a different sort of fear.  Not a built-in fear, or a fear that was supported by those built-in fears.  It was an ordinary fear that was still big.

Would she have wings when she pupated?  She had asked once, and instead of answering, her creators had talked about it and gotten into arguments and they never gave her a straight answer.

What would it be like to have wings but also to be afraid of height?

Lillian and Helen were very careful as they made their way down the scaffolding, guiding Lara as they did it.  At some points Lara had to roll up her sleeves so she would have a better grip.

They stood on the shaky footing of wood and planks and bars and rope and approached the corner.  Lara hung back.

Lillian gestured.

Seeing the gesture, Helen translated, leaning close, and only barely vocalizing, such a faint whisper that a normal human throat might not have been able to make it.

“Seven.”

Further below, there was a crashing sound.  Scaffolding fell away from the building, disconnected.

Lara felt her heartbeat pick up.  She moved closer to the exterior wall of the building, and did her best to dig her claws into the cracks and gaps between stones.  If the rest of the scaffolding fell away, she didn’t want to fall with it.

Lillian gestured.  Helen translated, “Seven is too many for you and me.  Even with a distraction.”

“I can’t,” Lara said.

“And I wouldn’t ask you to,” Helen whispered.  She looked at Lillian while talking to Lara.  “They’re staying put.  Some are taking apart scaffolding where it’s connected to the building.  After what happened to the first two to go up…  We’re stuck.  It would be easier if we had Emmett.”

-Ashton is helping, just so you know.  And you need to know lots more things if you’re ever going to catch up, you streak of rectal mucus.

If I’m a streak of rectal mucus then you’re a pile of rancid cat puke.

-Well, I never!

Titter.

“Ashton’s helping,” Lara said, as quietly as she could manage.

A shake of the scaffolding drew Lara’s eyes downward.  She saw a hand gripping one of the poles of wood, and kicked at it.  The hand moved out of the way just in time.  It was soon joined by a second.  Lara squeaked.

The scaffolding creaked as Sylvester helped himself over the edge, placing himself within a few feet of Helen and Lara.  The two of them stood between Sylvester and Lillian.

“Hi, Sylvester,” Lillian said, her whisper very breathy, easily lost in the wind that blew through and around the building.

“Hi,” Sylvester said.  He smiled.

“Do us a favor?” Lillian asked, in that same breathy voice.

“Gladly.”

“Would you throw yourself off the scaffolding?  Nose-dive for the cobblestones down there?  It could be a good distraction.”

Lara clutched closer to Helen.

Sylvester only smiled.  “I’ll do you a favor, but it won’t be that one.”

“Drat.”

“Sorry,” he whispered.  He looked down at Lara.  “You’re not the one I talked to, I don’t think.  Meaning you’re… Lara?”

Lara nodded.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Stop flirting,” Lillian said.  “Where are Mary and Emmett?”

“First floor, and just above the first floor.  I dropped some smoke bombs and gave her a few more.  I hoped the smoke would climb more, scare the people further up to give you all some elbow room, ended up having to come myself when I couldn’t.  She’s fine for a long while down there, provided she doesn’t get sloppy and the Devil doesn’t stumble on her while blind from all the smoke.”

“Fine.  Are you going to help us here, or are you just here to make fun of us?”

“Can it be both?”

There were murmurs from within the building.  Lillian bit back her retort, then gestured it instead.

“I’m insulted,” Sylvester said.

Lillian pressed a finger to her lips.

“Seven people in there,” Helen translated.  “Helen takes three, Lillian take three, Sylvester takes one, if he can.”

Lillian looked at Lara, and gestured.

Lara didn’t need to know what the gesture meant, or to have Helen translate it.  She communicated to Nora, Now.

A moment later, there was a violent rustling, curses, and a gunshot.

Lillian, Helen, and Sylvester rounded the corner, throwing themselves into the tower interior.

Lara remained where she was, clinging to the wall, eyes closed.  She could hear the violence, and she had no idea which side was winning.

-Come.-

Lara hesitated.

But then Abby and Ashton appeared at the edge of the wall, and Abby reached out for Lara’s sleeve.  Abby gave it a tug.

Lara allowed herself to be drawn into the third floor tower room.  The others were all gathered, and the seven men were dead, unconscious, or bound.  Only Mary was absent.  Even Emmett was here.  The path down to the floor below was protected by a hatch.

“Having the time of your life?” Lillian asked, sourly.

“Fantastically good time,” Sylvester said, from the far end of the room.  “Devil’s down on the first floor with twelve soldiers.  Smoke bombs weren’t toxic, sadly.  Mary is keeping tabs on him.  Book was a fake, by the way.  Obviously.”

“We need to disable him,” Helen said.  “Say, by breaking his limbs.”

“Because you messed up, Sylvester.  You underestimated him,” Lillian accused.

Sylvester backed away a step, hands raised.  “Harsh words, harsh words.”

“There are wagonloads of children en route to this city.  Because you baited a lunatic and he took the bait.”

“Would you believe me if I said a gangly white rabbit is handling that right now?” Sylvester asked.

“I don’t know,” Lillian said.  “Are you lying?”

“Pierre has already set things in motion.  A few letters will slow things down just long enough, before they get vetted and found out to be false.  There are only so many points that people can use to access the city.  Only a few of those are convenient when coming from other cities, and in an era of plagues and war, it doesn’t take much to lock down travel to and from the city.”

“You’re shutting off your own exit from the city,” Lacey said.

“Yes.  And Mary is counting down the minutes before she drops another smoke bomb.  She’ll be running out soon, then she’s in a pinch.  So… I’m going to go handle that.”

“Sylvester,” Lillian said.  She approached him.  “Listen, about Jamie-”

“Let’s not talk about Jamie,” Sylvester said.  The smile dropped off his face.

“He was close to you.  He made a big sacrifice, and then he died because of it.”

“That’s… not kind of you to say,” Sylvester said.  “And I see that you’re edging closer to me.  I’m aware of what those arms of yours are capable of.  I did just see you punch three out of the four humors clean out of a fellow.”

Lara watched the dialogue, somehow feeling very concerned about it all.

“Does this help?” Lillian asked.  She undid the parts of the meat-sleeves that connected to her shoulders, letting them dangle from the elbow instead.  “I just want to talk to you like a human being for five seconds before we get caught up in everything again.”

“Not particularly, but if you’re going to stall me and say something, then it might as well be now.”

“Jamie mattered, Sylvester.  The old one and the new one.  We shouldn’t have lost him once, let alone twice.  Gordon mattered.  And Gordon was very firm about wanting us to keep fighting for good things.  You’re acting unhinged, operating alone like this.  Putting kids at risk?  You’re getting sloppy.”

“You know for a fact that isn’t true,” Sylvester said.

Lillian, close enough now, reached out to Sylvester.

The syringe sprang from her meat-hand, and Sylvester caught it, gripping it.  She produced the second a moment later, moving her arm, but Sylvester caught that too.

Emmett started forward, but stopped when Sylvester met his eyes.  Sylvester shook his head, before returning his focus to Lillian.

“I can read you like a book, Lil.”

“Don’t call me Lil.”

“Nice try, though.  I did see your syringe earlier today, so I knew to look out for it.”

Lillian jerked her arm to try to free it.  Sylvester hung on.

“Let’s go help Mary,” he said.  “See if we can’t handle the Devil.  Then you can hurry to the gates of the city and intercept the carts full of kids before they get delivered to unsavory types, and I’ll make my merry getaway.”

“Of course you have a gameplan, and of course you’re rubbing it in our faces.”

“Of course,” he said.  He let go of the syringes, stepping back and out onto the scaffold.

Lara watched as he ran away.

-I like Sylvester.- Nora communicated.

Thinking of the Devil and the ways that he’d seemed so spooky in a way that Lara found so many things spooky, Lara felt the same thing to a lesser degree with Sylvester.

It was worse because she had been put in the ugly position where she had to either stay silent and betray herself or speak up and deviate.  Lara decided on the latter.

I don’t.

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Black Sheep – 13.7

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Five years of preparatory schooling with tutoring twice-weekly that started when she was four, ensuring that she knew most of Wollstone’s ratios by heart before she even entered school.  Four years of preliminary Academy studies at Dame Cicely’s sister school, coinciding with work as a lab assistant so she could get lab space and work on her admissions project.  She’d left all of her acquaintances behind as they’d either failed out or gone on to Dame Cicely’s and she’d tested for and earned her place in Radham, which was more reputable.

Four rigorous years at Radham, followed by examinations and testing, the same ones that Lillian and Duncan were working their way through now.  She had created her Paddock as part of her testing, and fought viciously for sought-after lab space to make, grow, and raise the toadlike, self-destructing warbeast.  She had failed on her first attempt, and she had very nearly quit, before summoning up the scraps of her dignity and courage to push forward for one more year.

She had cried tears of very mixed emotions at the end of the second year, when Academy grunts had knocked on the door to her lab and enlisted her help in crating up Paddock and Paddock’s first litter.  The tears of sadness were because Paddock had been a constant companion for two lonely, frustrating years, and he was being shipped off on a wagon to kill and to die on a strange battlefield.  The tears of joy were because the Academy’s acceptance of her project was virtually guaranteed to be her sought after white coat.

It was.

A white coat with Radham’s coat of arms on the breast guaranteed her future.  Radham was among the top ten schools in the Crown States, its students consequently among the top ten percent of those available in the Crown States, and only a small fraction of those actually saw it through and graduated.  With that coat, she could have picked any city in the Crown States to live in and found a place there, earning the most comfortable wage that that city could afford to pay her.  She might have run her own clinic or served as a science officer in a military base, and people would have tipped their hats to her and called her ma’am out of respect for what that coat represented.

But it didn’t really work that way, did it?

There might have been people who got their white coats and didn’t care about advancing, but those students didn’t attend Radham.  They weren’t teased by rumors and by their witnessing of Radham’s greater projects and advancements.  Even as they stood among the top five percent of the doctors in the Crown States, they were made to feel small, and they were made to feel hungry.  Like all of her graduating peers, she had seen the coveted specialist’s gray coat as a stepping stone, not a goal.

She had played the political game, used what she’d learned in Kensford among the backstabbing aspirant Dames to sabotage rivals, she had worked to pay for her apartment, found a boyfriend that would complement her image, and attended special classes.  She had worked as a research assistant, studying Wyvern, and then one of the professors that had taught a specialist class had called her in to a special meeting.  She’d earned a mentor, the space, and the leeway to work on a notable project.  In doing so, she’d drawn attention and become the target of countless small and large sabotage attempts.

Nevermind that her own damn project had been sabotaging her.  That had been the breaking point.  There was more to it, but she’d seen disaster looming and had decided to cut her losses.  Professor Hayle had agreed.

From the time that she was four until the time she was twenty-seven, she’d worked so damn hard.  When she looked in the mirror, she could see faint hints of exhaustion etched around her eyes, which never went away, no matter how much she slept, how well she ate, or how many days she took to enjoy peace and quiet while working in her lab.  She was approaching thirty and her youth was behind her.

For what?  Was she a glorified babysitter?  The only reason she made it a question in her own head was that ‘glorified’ might have been too generous and lofty a descriptor.

Nora, with Lara chiming in, was giving a recap of the conversation with Sy to Lillian, Mary, and Helen.

They had moved more toward the city center and found refuge in a covered bridge.  To listen in, Sylvester would either have to crawl along the underside of the bridge and press his ear to the underside, or move along the tin roof and cook alive there.  He couldn’t approach or stand at the ends of the bridge without being spotted, and wouldn’t be in earshot there.

The shade was nice, and the space was cool in the moments the wind blew in one end and out the other, but it was stifling otherwise.

“Um, then said he’s enjoying the company of the Lambs the only way he could?  He’s teasing, lurking, watching, then shows up.”

“When he thinks he won’t get attacked,” Lara said, before adding under her breath, “Gnatwit.”

“Yeah.  That,” Nora said.  “What the runt said.  Then he said he’d let us get close and then run.  And if we play along enough, he’ll give us something we can give to the people in charge, so the Lambs look good.”

“How kind of him,” Mary said, very dry.

“And then-” Nora started, before being interrupted.

Lara put a sleeve-clad arm out, smushing her forearm against Nora’s face.  “-Then he said he wants to let people know that children need protecting.  The future needs protecting.  This situation will scare the people here.  Make them act.  He said the Devil’s old alliances are breaking down and they might not tolerate him any more.  If we don’t get the Devil, then he will.”

“You forgot a whole part!  Lacey said stuff and Sylvester said he was complicated and-”

Lara smushed up Nora’s face again, interrupting.  “That part wasn’t important.  I was trying to be brief and efficient.”

“We can leave it at that,” Lacey said.  “They summed it up.  There was more, about his bigger plans, about the Lambs, but they don’t matter for this mission.  Later, I, Nora, or Lara will fill you in on what he had to say.”

She could see Lillian and Mary practically squirm with their desire to hear just what Sylvester had had to say.  In another situation, she might have felt bad for them.  In this situation, she only felt a pit of concern in her gut.

“He’s a whirlpool,” Lacey said, doing her best to diplomatically address that concern, “The closer you get to him the greater his leverage.  Get too close and you’re no longer in control.”

“Interesting metaphor,” Duncan observed.  “I think that’s the fifth ‘Sylvester is dangerous’ metaphor I’ve heard in the last two days.  Maybe the most accurate one.”

Lacey gave him a small smile.  “Thank you.  Listen, I know I’m not in charge.  I’m here to watch, offer some counsel based on what I know about Sylvester, provide a bit more legitimacy to the group than you might otherwise have, and to dole out pills.  I’m not the leader.  But if you’re willing to take my advice, I would strongly advise that you keep your eye on the prize.  Put feelings aside.  You have a plan.  Stick to it.  Don’t get caught up in Sylvester’s pull.”

“Devil first, then Sylvester,” Mary said.  She had a hard look in her eyes again.  It hadn’t taken much to remind her to put her feelings aside.  But Mary was like that.  It might even be a programmed trait, something that Percy had done to her, much like he’d made her so very focused on training her body and her expertise with weapons.

Mary was easy.  Lillian- Lacey could look at the girl and see that she wasn’t wholly convinced.  The pit of concern remained in Lacey’s stomach.

It would, much like the girls’ desire to ask more questions, and the myriad other distractions that Sylvester would throw in their way, be something that she had to put off until later.

“Exactly,” Lacey said, before reaffirming, “Stick to the plan.”

It wasn’t wholly by accident that she met Lillian’s eyes briefly as she said the latter part.

“We know where his new headquarters are,” Mary said.  “We took down three of his new lieutenants this morning, and we put down the Skippers last night.  They won’t be reinforcing him.  The Apostle and the Witch are dead.  The Spears, I forget what they called themselves exactly, they’re still out there, but there is enough animosity and enough loyalty to other corners that I’m not sure if they’ll be confident in getting involved.  It’s time.  We hit his headquarters.”

Lillian nodded.

“What are you thinking?” Helen asked, walking around the periphery of the group, placing herself between Lara and Nora and putting an arm around each of their shoulders.

“Hm?” Lillian asked.  “I’m trying to anticipate Sylvester.  I think… Duncan and I are primary targets.  He’s made that clear enough with Duncan.  Sorry, Duncan.”

“Not your fault,” Duncan said.

“You’re thinking he’ll use our focus on the Devil to come after you?” Mary asked.

“One of us,” Lillian said.  “Probably when the task is very nearly wrapped up.  If I had to guess, he’ll turn us into a liability somehow.  I can think of several times in the past he’s disabled people with poison and then held the antidote at arm’s length.  He could use something that affects our mental faculties, something that binds us to an area…”

“He used gas to deliver a drug payload last night,” Duncan said.

“And to cover his retreat just now,” Lacey added.  Nora nodded her agreement at that.

“Turning us into a liability ensures we can never use our full strength against him, we’re constantly off balance.  And…” Lillian spread her hands.  “…I don’t know.  He’s more able to draw us into his flow in the way Lacey described.”

Lacey nodded.

“Something to watch out for,” Lillian said.

There were nods all around.

“I guess it works that we’re all together now,” Lillian said.  “How are you all?”

“My group is managing,” Duncan said.  “We had a moment of nice teamwork, with Ashton on point.  Sylvester went and found someone that could shrug off Ashton and left her and her boyfriend lying in wait with a gun.”

Ashton smiled.

“I mentioned that,” Lara said.  Nora pointed at Lara, as if to confirm.

“Not in so many words,” Mary said.  “Good job, all of you.”

“I didn’t really do anything,” Lara said.

“You communicated after the fact,” Duncan said.  “It’s what you’re made to do.”

The little experiment nodded.  Just as the nod concluded, Lacey could see a glimmer of some emotion the girl wasn’t completely hiding, as she looked toward the ground.  Disappointment?  Frustration?

A part of her wanted to respond to that.  To make a mental note to put in the effort later, to encourage the girl, explore the feeling in question, resolve the problem.

The Lacey of four years ago might have.

“They’re doing well.  We ate well, rested as well as we were able.  I’m not sure how much we can contribute, but my experiments and I will help with the Devil if we can.”

“Emmett, are you confident, giving some direct help?  I can guide you,” Mary said.

Emmett nodded.

“Good.  We stick together as a group, keep watch as we move to the Devil’s headquarters, then we split up,” Mary said.  She looked to Lillian for confirmation, and Lillian gave her a short nod.

The group moved on.  Mary, Emmett, Ashton and Helen took the lead, Mary talking to Emmett, who was mostly content to listen, and Helen clinging to Ashton, while quizzing him.

Toward the middle of the collected group, Abby walked Quinton, and Nora and Lara talked to one another, bickering.

Lacey walked with Duncan and Lillian, the three of them trailing behind the rest.  The wheels of Lillian’s case clacked as they rolled over the wooden slats of the covered footbridge.

“No injuries?” Duncan asked.

“Very minor ones.  Mary wanted to be on the hunt all night, but after she got a bad scrape, I decided we were done.  Too tired, and she’s only human.  More focused than most, but you can’t keep up that focus for hours on end without something suffering.”

“It’s good you got rest,” Duncan said.

“Agreed,” Lacey said.  She’d worried when they had had to vacate the headmaster’s house, but the Lambs knew how to secure temporary accommodations.

She liked Duncan.  He tried, he was focused, and he had a lot of promise.  There were things he needed to work on, he’d effectively been dropped into this role without seeking it out.  They shared common background in that.

“How are they?” Lacey asked.

“The little ones?  Reliable, scared, impenetrable, and sensitive.”

He didn’t even need to name them.

“I’m worried this is a test run, a prelude for something that’s in the works.  A second Lambs team?”

“It’s not,” Lacey said.  “And I say that as someone who knew about the project when it was only a concept.”

“I agree,” Lillian said.  “Can’t be.  Doesn’t work, that’s not what the Lambs are.”

“Clever, capable experiments with a partial emphasis on their mental abilities,” Duncan said.

“Operating as a group,” Lillian said.  “Built to lean on one another.”

“Right,” Duncan said.  “We had that for a moment, dealing with the two teenagers that had the gun.  If someone like me can strike the right note once while fumbling with the instruments I’ve been provided with, I feel a sustained note could be doable with practice.  With a lot of practice.  Or with someone else at the helm.”

He leaned forward to look past Lacey and give Lillian a pointed look as he said it.

“You don’t want the job?” Lillian asked.

“No.  Not at all.  Not in the long run.”

A stepping stone, Lacey thought.

She wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would Lillian talk about the merits of the job?  What she appreciated about it?

“I think I understand,” Lillian said.  “I didn’t want the role either.  Not at first.”

“Hm,” Duncan made a noise.  His expression was knit into something more thoughtful and concerned.

“Spooky to think about?” Lillian asked.

“Heh.  Very spooky,” Duncan said, smiling.

“Duncan?” Helen called back.  She beckoned for Duncan to come forward, while clutching Ashton’s head to her side.

The smile dropped off of Duncan’s face.

“Very, very spooky,” he reaffirmed.

“Helen?” Lillian asked.  “You can’t give her a prey response, or she’ll pounce on it.  It’s all in fun, either way.”

“The prey instinct is involuntary, in my case,” Duncan said.  “It’s a question of gender, and Helen developing into a weapon against my gender.  If we switched positions, I think you might find it harder than it is in your shoes.”

“Maybe, but my shoes also benefit from years of experience,” Lillian said.

Duncan held up a finger, “I could make an argument-”

“Duncan, dear,” Helen cooed.  “Sweetheart.  Ashton and I would like you to join the discussion, pretty please.”

“-And I won’t, now that I think about it.  Thank you, Helen,” Duncan said.  He raised his voice, “One second!”

“Thank you,” Helen replied, before leaning down to kiss the top of Ashton’s head, rubbing her cheek against it to muss up his tidy hair.

Duncan spoke under his breath, “Why did that request sound menacing?”

“Helen is not being menacing,” Lillian said.

“Is there a tell?  Something I can listen or watch for?”

“No.  I’m drawing on years of experience of dealing with her.  You are in no real danger.  Except maybe from Ibbot.”

Duncan huffed out a sigh, “Would you?  I don’t want to drop it when she tackles me or scares the living daylight out of me again.”

He extended the leash of his tentacle dog to Lacey.  She took it.

Free to go, Duncan then picked up his pace, catching up to Ashton and Helen.

“And I know just what argument you were about to make before she interrupted,” Lillian said, under her breath, in an uncharacteristic dark tone, “Thank you, Duncan, for not finishing the thought and making me slap you.  You’re learning.”

When Lacey didn’t venture a response, Lillian looked over and up.  “You knew what he was going to say, I’m sure.”

“I didn’t think about it,” Lacey said.

“He can be so nice to be around when he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth,” Lillian said.  “But get him caught up in an argument or put him on his back foot, and he says things that he shouldn’t.”

It took Lacey a moment to catch up.  He was going to turn the tables.  Accused of being weak in the face of Helen, was he going to say something about Lillian and Sylvester?

Yes.  It was good he’d kept his mouth shut.  Thank you Helen, indeed.

Rather than comment, Lacey said, “I’m trying to stay objective, and not get too wrapped up in things.  I made that mistake once upon a time, when Sylvester was involved.  I promised myself I wouldn’t repeat it when I agreed to come on this trip.”

“Uh huh,” Lillian said.  “So, based on what you just said, you’d tell me that earlier, when you were talking about Sylvester’s pull and the threat of getting too close, you weren’t saying it to me?”

There was a significant gap between the time that Lacey had first been involved with the team, when Lillian was brand new, and the present day.  She’d kept tabs on how her project was doing, and how the Lambs were operating, but Lillian hadn’t been part of what she asked about and looked for.

A mistake, that, and one she regretted.  Maybe she could have offered more counsel.  Maybe she would be more aware of just how canny Lillian could be, after years of keeping up with the Lambs.  Periodic sharing of Sylvester’s doses of Wyvern, too, according to the higher-ups.

“When I talked about the whirlpool, I was talking to you, yes,” Lacey said.

Lillian shook her head a little.

“I don’t want you to suffer where I’ve suffered,” Lacey said.  “I look at you and Duncan and I see a glimmer of my old self.  The Academy is cutthroat.  Radham more than most.  If you fall behind or make a mistake, it can take a long time to get back to where you were.”

“‘What was it you said?  ‘Stick to the plan?’,” Lillian asked.

“Absolutely.  Here, and in the greater scheme of it all.”

“Greater scheme.  I just now realized… when Sylvester was talking about his, you cut off the girls.  You didn’t want him to say it.  Was it because you were worried we would get caught up in his pull?  Something big, drawing our attention and drawing us closer, until we’re swept up in it?”

Lacey frowned a little, then glanced at Lillian.  She saw the look in her eyes.  “Speaking of realizations-”

“You’re deflecting, Lacey,” Lillian challenged.  “I’ve spent long enough around Sylvester that I’m not about to get distracted by something that blatant.”

“That’s fine,” Lacey said.  “But you’re more defensive and hostile than you should be.  How much of the combat drug did you inject into yourself before you went into the building?”

“I played it by ear.  The mood response to the drug depends on my mood, so I have to adjust.”

“I’m well aware of the peculiarities of different combat drugs,” Lacey said.  “I have a gen. spec. in drugs and poisons.  I know how that can sometimes be necessary.  That in mind, when your mood is far outside the usual bounds, your judgment when ‘playing something by ear’ is not always going to be optimal.  You can overshoot.”

“I don’t think I overshot,” Lillian said.

“Alright,” Lacey said, doing her best not to let her doubts creep into her tone.

“Who was the liar in the group?” Lillian asked.

“Beg pardon?”

“Sylvester was given massive doses of Wyvern from a very early stage in his life.  I know he learned from others.  He started off by building his identity as a mosaic of the people around him.  He’s very good at lying, but your response just now, I don’t think he got the lying from you.  Deflection, maybe, but not deception.  You’re too transparent.”

She’d let Lillian see or hear her doubts, then.

“I don’t think the others in my group were good liars,” Lacey said.  She paused.  “But if they were, I don’t suppose I would have realized.  Could it be the other Lambs?”

“No,” Lillian said.  “Not the other Lambs.  He resisted copying anything important from them, because it was his job to mold himself around them, around us.”

“I know that, but there were a number of redundancies,” Lacey said.  “He learned lockpicking, like many of you.  Acting and presentation, like Helen.”

“And he got it in his head to learn some of Mauer’s manipulation, and Fray’s approach, and he picked up some bloodthirstiness along the way,” Lillian agreed.  “But I’m talking about the Sylvester in the very, very beginning.  Before he started picking up those things.  I was with the group for a year and a half before he even dabbled in lockpicking again.  Redundancies came later.”

“I don’t know,” Lacey said.  “I think deception and lying are pretty endemic, in the Academy.  Rich compost to grow a schemer.”

“Maybe,” Lillian said.  “I won’t argue it.  Like you say, I could be under the lingering influence of the drug.”

There was bitterness in the sentence.

Babysitting.  How ironic, that when she’d tried to look after the child in her care, she’d pushed him away.  But when she’d resolved not to do it, she found herself stuck with the responsibility.

“I would recommend…” Lacey said, as carefully as she could, pausing to find her words.  She didn’t get the chance.

“That I don’t use the combat drug again,” Lillian said.

“Yes.  Dealing with Sylvester will be hard enough, but if you’re in an altered state, even in the mildest sense, it might be something he can use.”

“I already resolved not to, from the moment you brought it up.  I’ve been trying it to see if I couldn’t get an edge, something I could use.  We had time before we focused on Sylvester.  I thought I’d try a test run in a more serious situation.  The costs aren’t worth the gain, I couldn’t even really feel the benefits of the drug.  I hoped I could find a chemical that might cover up weaknesses, but they only ever hurt me.”

Lacey diplomatically held her tongue.

“Before,” Lillian said.  “When you stopped Lara and Nora from talking about Sylvester’s big plans.  That was on purpose.  To keep the Lambs from getting excited about it?”

“Yes,” Lacey said.  “In part.”

She didn’t let that thread of the conversation drop after allWell trained by Sylvester.

Lillian nodded, seemingly satisfied, but then asked, “Academy mandate, or your own decision?”

“Mine.”

Another satisfied nod.  Lillian switched hands, pulling her case behind her with the other.  Lacey wound up the leash around her hand, bringing the tentacle dog in closer.

Abby was watching out for Sylvester, keeping her eye on the surroundings, on ledges and rooftops.  She kept getting distracted by Quinton or by the birds that were trying to find shade from the summer sun.

Helen, Duncan, and Ashton were all having what seemed to be a civil conversation, with none of the blood or terror that Duncan had prophesied.  Ashton seemed to be leading the discussion.

Mary and Emmett and the communication experiments seemed content to talk, still.

“You’re the expert when it comes to Wyvern,” Lillian said, ending the break in the conversation.

“In a way.”

“Sylvester of the past, he was a mosaic.  Blank, mirroring people around him.  Adjusting how he learned and copying things, picking up skills and figuring out the ones to retain with his rapidly dwindling retention.  Until things leveled off, and more of his personality and nature solidified.”

“Accurate,” Lacey said.

“He picked up some things from enemies, but he mostly remained in a kind of equilibrium.  He adjusted, adapted, and focused on molding himself around the Lambs.  Sometimes he forgot things, like lockpicking, to pick up other skills.  As we lost some Lambs, he changed his approach.  Consciously or unconsciously.  Tried to fill in for Jamie.  Became far more aggressive after we lost Gordon.”

“You’d be more familiar with that era than I am.”

“That’s the Sylvester of yesterday.  But-” Lillian said, pausing.  “But what’s he like today?  What’s there, when he’s this independent?  He has help.  He has the rabbit man.  The other man, Samuel, who he collected from prison.  Did he get them to emulate them?  Who else is he copying?  Or-”

Lillian stopped there.

“Or is he not copying anyone?”  Lacy finished.

“I don’t know what to expect, and that terrifies me.  Who is this Sylvester we’re about to face?”

“I imagine he’s adapting to work well with whoever he has near him,” Lacey said.  “I would say that, based on what I know, what I’ve read of your mission files, and what you’ve said, that he tends to mirror or conform around strong figures.  Big personalities, major players, people he’s impressed by.”

“The rabbit feels more like a pawn.”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” Lillian said.

Based on the signs she was seeing, Lacey was suspicious that Lillian’s combat drug was a variant on liquid courage.  Mood altering, with some minor benefits to coordination, to strength, stamina, and the ability to tolerate pain.  A mild drug, by most metrics, one that could be given to new soldiers and conscripted civilians to make them combat ready.  Emotional highs came with more focus and less confusion.  Flight fed fight.  All emotions did.

Still feeling the influence of the drug, Lillian was more confrontational than she might otherwise be.  That would fade fast.  But that confrontational attitude was fed by other emotions, and it wasn’t terror.

Whether she was aware of it or not, Lillian was wearing her heart well on her sleeve.  She hadn’t taken the classes on hormones and mood that Lacey had specialized in.  Lillian’s anxieties, her hopes, her broken heart that hadn’t quite mended, all were bleeding through in a single color.

It would be better to stay silent.  To discourage this relationship and game that Sylvester was trying to foster with the Lambs.  Lacey opted to speak, instead.

“In the early days, Wyvern shaped him on the most fundamental levels.  Or it helped him shape himself.  In the days you came to know him best, it helped him shape his ever-shifting role and skills, and it helped him conform and adapt to fit the team’s needs.  He focused a lot on all of you.  I would guess that he committed what he wanted to keep.  Right now, I would surmise that Wyvern is being turned to other focuses.  Whatever it takes to put his greater plan into play, he’s using Wyvern to help facilitate that.  Leadership, maybe, longer-term planning.  I don’t know.”

Lillian didn’t say anything to that.  She seemed to ruminate on it.

“Lillian,” Lacey said, even though she suspected she shouldn’t.  “He’ll have shucked off many of the traits or adaptations that he needed to be a member of a group of five or six Lambs.  Everything he needed to be a loyal agent of the Academy, for that matter.  He’ll have dropped some pretensions and he’ll have picked up others, and he might well have changed how he acts or presents himself.  Some things hold true, however.  His treatment of Duncan shows that.”

Lillian smiled a little.  “His treatment of the new boys and girls, too.”

She was looking in the direction of Abby and Quinton.

“I think, if you were to talk to him now, Lillian, you’d find he’s more Sylvester than the Sylvester you knew.  Everything he wanted to be, in part, that he’s now free to build up, and, on the other hand, all of the other parts of him that were buried by other things, and those other things are free to fade away.”

“Why do you somehow make that sound like a bad thing?” Lillian asked Lacey.

Lacey smiled, “Did I?”

“No.  Yes.  Almost.”

“I’m not sure myself.  He apologized to me, you know.”

“Did he?”

“He also said I was one of the half-decent doctors,” Lacey said.  “Damned with faint praise.”

“High praise!” Lillian countered, grasping at Lacey’s sleeve.  “Not the highest praise, but for Sylvester, that’s a kindness.  He resents just about every doctor out there, whether their coats are white, gray, or black.  Exceptions for some of the illegitimate sorts in lab coats, rogues and enemies we’ve encountered along the way, but even where he likes them as people, he dislikes them as doctors.  To call you half-decent is the sweetest thing!”

Lacey frowned.  She also noted that Lillian’s mood had visibly lifted after the mention of Sylvester being more Sylvester than before, which made her deeply regret saying anything.

“You don’t sound as if you believe me,” Lillian said.

“I believe you.  Still, I can’t wrap my head around the idea.  If I’m half-decent, and this is high praise, what in the King’s name is actually decent in his eyes?”

“Me,” Lillian said.  “Not the me of now, but the ideal me he wants me to become.  It sounds so conceited, saying that.  But it’s his conceit that I’m admitting to, not mine.”

“You don’t sound upset about it.”

“Because I’m not.  It’s flattery, much like what he said to you.  And I plan to do my ultimate best to live up to that expectation.  It’s a… shimmering outline that stands in the distance ahead of me.  Every day I study, every time I coordinate well with the Lambs, every time I’m kind, I feel like I get closer and closer to filling it.  It’s something I already wanted for myself, but it means a lot to have someone believe to that extent.”

Lacey’s smile found its way to her face, and it was a genuine smile.  But at the same time, she felt a twinge of jealousy, and a knot of despair.

The poor girl was in love, it was plain to see.

There was no way that would end well.

“Talk to me about your final project,” Lacey said.

“Another deflection?” Lillian asked.

“Blatantly.  Chances are good that he’s watching and listening in somehow.  If you keep talking about him like that, his head or his heart is going to swell up and explode, and we won’t be able to bring him in alive, like all of you are so keen to do.”

Lillian’s giggle was nice to hear, after some of the tension of the long discussion.

Their conversation mercifully turned to muscle types and arrangements, stand-ins for muscle, and structural elements.  The conversation, as such, whiled away the remainder of their walk, before Mary raised her hand to give the signal, and the group fell silent.

Lacey didn’t know the signals, but she could draw conclusions.

They were close.

“Stay close,” Lillian said, grabbing gain for Lacey’s arm.  “Abby, you too, come here.”

Duncan, too, broke away, retreating to join their group.  Mary, Emmett, Ashton, and Helen remained at the group in the lead.  At Mary’s instruction, the pair of Lara and Nora split up with one going to Mary’s group and one to Lillian’s.

Once they were organized, they moved more cautiously as a whole.  Conversation ceased, and everyone’s attention was focused on the greater danger.  Mary’s group would move up a distance, and then they would signal for Lillian’s group to catch up.

In this way, they approached to within a block of a building in construction.  The building was swaddled in cloth drapes and scaffolding, and construction had obviously been interrupted at one point or another,because branches of builder’s wood had grown and then been ignored.  Without being cut, they had continued to grow day by day and week by week, at a fraction of their original speed.  Now branches wove their way into the scaffolding.

It probably looked worse than it was.  The branches could be cut back.  Construction could be readily resumed once the budget dispute or other problems were resolved.

In the meantime, it was a fortress.  A building of stone, with men perched here and there on the scaffolding and the ledges and wall-tops that the incompleteness of the building provided them.  Taken on their own, they might be taken to be construction workers or men simply hanging out and shooting the shit.  With the knowledge that the Devil was within, however, it was more ominous.  Those men were likely armed.

They collectively shrank back into meager shadows as a group of people moved by.  There was no telling if they were threats patrolling the area or civilians going about their business.

Mary signaled.  Lillian translated.

Stay.

They stayed.  They watched, and they waited as Mary led her group toward the building at an angle they were less likely to be seen.  They found a way to cross the street in a cart’s shadow without being too exposed, then disappeared as they approached an climbed from an angle that Lacey couldn’t see.

But, in the wake of that, Helen and Mary could be seen on the scaffolding.  It was all wood, and it seemed to creak, because men turned their heads and shouted, but the girls soon found a rhythm.  Helen distracted, while Mary clung to the underside of one set of boards, and a strategic kick to break a board or a stab between the slats served to bring a man down.  For the next batch, they switched roles, and Helen could be seen climbing with uncanny ease on the underside of one shelf, while Mary drew the attention.

Helen got her hands on one man, and, with one hand clinging to her handhold, dangling, she used her other three limbs to mangle him.

“Does it bother you?” Lillian asked.

“Yes,” Lara said.  Or was it Nora?

“Yes,” Abby said.  “I don’t like violence.  But it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did.  I could get used to it.”

“Oh?” Lillian asked.  “I’m surprised at that.  It sounds like you want to get used to it.

On the scaffolding, Ashton walked along one set of planks with excruciating slowness.

“I do,” Abby said.  “I don’t want to be powerless forever.”

“There’s more ways to power than violence,” Duncan said.

“For you, and for Lacey, and for Lillian, maybe,” Abby said.

She didn’t say anything more.

Ashton remained very still, five feet below one of the men, who was keeping an eye out for Mary and Helen, both of whom had disappeared inside the building.

The man’s searches grew ever more erratic, before he recklessly stumbled in a direction, twisted around on hearing something inside, and missed his footing.

He hit a sash-like drape of of cloth that was supposed to cover a window that hadn’t yet been installed, but had been tied at the bottom to help secure scaffolding.  It might have broken his fall, but he hit it at a bad angle, and he didn’t move very much at all on landing.

In a matter of a few minutes, with Mary’s group reconvening here and there, the guards were systematically disposed of.

Mary appeared on the scaffolding, found where Lillian’s group was, and raised a hand signal.

“Let’s go,” Lillian said.  She’d finished putting on her gloves.

“Go?” Duncan asked.

“Into the building, up the scaffold.  It’s the safest place to be, I think.  Up high is usually better.”

“With no escape routes,” Duncan observed.

“There’s more to it.  Sandwiching them.  Having the vantage point.  Just trust us,” Lillian said.  “You have to trust.”

They trusted.  They made the approach, less careful than Mary had been, but there were no more people on watch.

Emmett waited by the ramp that led up to the first section of scaffold.  From there, they made their way to Ashton, who joined them as they made their way up to the upper floor.

The interior floor wasn’t entirely complete, and ladders stood in places where stairwells would later be installed.

The top floor was only struts and beams, lengths of wood knit together by builder’s wood, and incidentally reinforced by one branch from the overgrowth of wood from an outside section.  The wind blew through the missing sections of wall.

They crawled along the beams and struts.  As they did so, they could see Helen and Mary on the fourth floor, below, moving with caution, their communications experiment sticking close by them.  Through gaps here and there, other figures could be seen and heard on lower floors.

“Headmaster,” their Nora/Lara experiment whispered.  Transcribing.  “You have very little room to negotiate.  Lara says his voice is weird.”

“The Devil?” Lillian murmured.

“The Devil: The thing is, while I may not have your children, I do have the gentleman you entrusted with their care.  Under duress, he has told me he has squirreled them away.  He is the only one who knows where they are, according to him, because you foresaw this very circumstance.  You knew I’d find you and I’d want to use you.  But… now we have a conundrum, don’t we?

“The Headmaster: I don’t see why you’re focusing on this, when your people are being cut down by the score.

“The Devil: My people.  The ones that were worth keeping, I’ve kept close.  Half of the police force is mine.  A full two thirds of your office is loyal to me.  There is nobody in this city who can die, who I cannot replace.  Short of the city being leveled, I will not lose any power.  Do you understand?  I have my roots in everything that this city is.  I have been working to set those roots for longer than you’ve been in office.  All the power you think you hold is a joke I’ve let you entertain.  I can see in your eyes, your eye, rather, that you’re realizing this.

“Either your man will break and he’ll divulge where your children are, or he’ll eventually expire from this duress I’ve applied.  If he does, even you won’t know where your children are.  Your only option, the only thing you can do, is to capitulate.  You’re going to do everything I’ve told you and more, and then, when you’re done, I’m going to torture you to death.

“Headmaster: What?”

“The Devil: You crossed me.  You got in my way.  You die.  But if you capitulate, I might let your children live.  I might even be generous in making my decision if you entertain me, sir.  How much damage can a man do to himself with a knife, I wonder, before he decides his children aren’t worth it anymore?”

Lying beside Lacey so as better to see through the gaps in the floor, Abby raised her hands over her ears.  She didn’t have Quinton.  Emmett wasn’t here either.  Were they outside, where there was less chance of being heard?

Lacey put a hand on Abby’s back, her best effort at being reassuring.

“The Devil: Don’t think about using that knife on me.  I’ve taken measures.  If I do not appear to the right people at the right times, then others will act on my behalf.  Money will go to bounty hunters and bounty hunters will, given time, come for you and yours, and for all the rest of my enemies.  The man who has squirreled your children away and secured them in a cellar or vault somewhere will die, and your children may die of thirst as they wait for you to return.”

Lillian raised her head.  She reached out, and touched Lacey’s upper arm.

Lacey followed Lillian’s line of sight.

On the other side of one of the cloths was a silhouette.  A tall man with rabbit ears.

The silhouette passed with scarcely a sound.  The creak of wood could well have been the wind moving the scaffolding.

But as it passed, a figure remained.

“The Devil: Now, take a moment, because the screams from outside really should be-”

Lillian reached out, and put a hand over Nora’s mouth.

The figure reached out and pushed the cloth aside.  Sylvester.  He peeked through.

The group was lying across beams and across the meager sections of floor that had boards in.  Nobody could rise to their feet fast enough to give chase, and the situation was precarious enough that nobody would dare make noise.

His hand moved.  A series of gestures.

Then he ducked behind the curtain, so to speak, and followed the rabbit.

What did he get from me, if he didn’t get the lies?  What aspects of his personality came from me?

“I.  Help,” Lillian translated the gesture.  “Of course.  He wants to play at being a proper Lamb again.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.6 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Every moment she was out in the open was a moment of restrained terror.  Only her allies were to be trusted, and they were outnumbered by a hundred thousand to one.

People milled through the streets.  The old were potentially demented.  Other adults were healthy and strong enough to pose a danger to her, all potentially criminal.

Facts had been ingrained into her understanding and perception on a raw, structural level.  Anything bigger than her was scary.  Anything that moved quickly was cause for alarm.  Color oft suggested poison.  Prey had eyes spaced further apart, while predators had eyes placed closer together, on the fronts of their heads.

There were so very many people in this city, and almost all of them were bigger.  They moved briskly this way and that, unpredictable, and Helen and Mary and Lillian and Lacey all navigated that unpredictable current with ease, while she jumped and relied on them to create a path for her to walk.  Sometimes one of them would place a hand on her back or her shoulder, to help guide her.  Each time, she would have to keep from jumping and unsheathing the weapons stored in her back and shoulders to retaliate.

And this milling crowd of people were sometimes dressed in bright colors, dyed sleeves and bright decorations moving quickly past her, as if they were going to swoop into her mouth or brush past her.  They had eyes on the fronts of their heads, close together.  Predator eyes.  If she didn’t keep her gaze on the ground, then she was bombarded with the aggressive stares of the crowd.

It was easiest and best to keep her head down.  Be small.  Let Helen lead her, holding one of her sleeves.

Scared, she buzzed out the word, using structures in her head, chest, and the largest bones of her body.  The signal went out, and she could hear the distorted reverberation as it bounced off of large objects and made its way back to her, faint.

She felt the signals in her scalp like she felt sounds in her ears.  She couldn’t help but process the signals as words.  Not like an echo, it came faster, from all directions, her own voice bombarding and taunting her.

Scared scared scared scared scared…

One word was enough to help draw Lara’s attention.  Now she could expand on the thought.  Crowds are bad, just woke up, the sun is too bright, feels like we’re walking into danger.

Again, the signal came back to her, but the signals came back at different intervals, some faint, some strong.

Crowds just sun are woke walking so into bad…

-We’re close– Lara replied.  -Not too close, but close.  The people with you are the strongest Lambs.-

Scariest Lambs.

-Strongest Lambs.  We almost got shot.  Now everyone acts like everything is normal.  The sun is too bright.  I want more clouds more rain.-

Nora felt reassured.  This was something they did.  They would echo each other’s thoughts and build on them.  The sun was too bright, shining through an inconsistent mix of clouds.  It was hot, and the parts of her that were human were sticking to her shroud of clothing.

The sun is too bright.  I want more clouds.  More rain.  I feel sticky.

-Better than being sticky with blood.

Hate blood.  -Hate blood.-

Their messages nearly coincided.  They both communicated amusement to each other.

Sweat stinks.

Lara’s voice was quieter.  They were positioned badly.  It sounded like she was shouting, which only made the next message better.  -You stink.-

Well, I never!

More mutual amusement.

Helen tugged on her arm, pulling her to one side.  Nora felt fear seize her.  The fear redoubled when she saw why Helen had pulled on her arm.  A man had a dog on a leash, and it passed within a few feet of Nora, her fear only seeming to make it more interested.

Then it was gone, moving in the other direction, well behind her.  She scowled at the place it had just vacated.

“Hate dogs,” Hate dogs.

-Nasty.  Filthy.  Aggressive.-

“Cats too,” she said, under her breath.

“I know,” Helen said.  She adjusted her hold on the cloth to give a reassuring squeeze to Nora’s largest claw.  “But it’s rare a dog will hurt you.”

“Rare,” Nora said.  She hunched her shoulders forward.  “That means it’s just often enough to catch me off guard.”

Helen stroked her head.  She heard jumbled noise at all the contact there, false positives on signals and sound, but at the same time, she didn’t mind it.  The contact appealed to the part of her that was more human.

Would that part go away at some point in the future?  One day she would transition to become less human and become something of a warbeast, albeit one meant more for communication purposes than for outright combat.

She would lose her skin and her diet would change.  She would become far larger.  She faced the possibility of losing her voice, in whole or in part, and her doctors were busying themselves with figuring out how to handle it if that happened, because that would invalidate her purpose.

Lara was going on a tangent about cats that Nora couldn’t follow.  She had to focus to catch it.

-hiss and spit.  Little lambs are better.-

You hiss and spit, Nora sent the message.

-Do not.  Smelly Nora.  Telling lies.  You only have three claws on your two feet.  Inferior sister!-

Slimy Lara.  You secretly lick cat butts.  Detestable creature!

They communicated mutual amusement, a babbling fluctuation that could be interpreted like laughter, if she really tried.  But she didn’t really need to try.  This was how they laughed.

I just screamed to this city about your secret and nobody hears.  Tales of your furtive lickings reach past person and building and nobody understands, Nora communicated, along with a titter of amusement.

But the only reply was a mere, Gone.-

Then, just like that, there was no noise but the faint echo of her own laughter finding its way back to her.

Lara had something to focus on, so she had ended the conversation there.  Nora no longer had her distractions from the bustle of the crowd, the countless small and large terrors.

“I think this is the building,” Lillian said.

“It looks like it,” Mary said.

They moved off to one side of the street, where they had some limited cover but could still lean over to take a look at the building.  It was tall, four floors, and situated on a corner.  The intersection wasn’t right angles, however, so the building was more triangular than square in shape.  Like most of the buildings in this city, it was all pale stone, more yellow than gray, with plants crawling up it.  The windows were decorated.

“Plan of approach?  Do you want to get involved, Lillian?” Mary asked.

“I’ll participate some.  When we checked last night, it looked like nine, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” Mary said.

“And we can expect there to be more, if they’re bolstering their numbers after their losses last night.”

“Yes.  Twelve, fifteen, twenty.  Anything more would feel like too many, unless there’s more to this particular building than it being only a gathering place.”

Lillian nodded.  “Your comfort level is twelve, I remember.”

“More or less, depending on how many there are in a room.  Helen can take six.  She can also take on the most dangerous threats,” Mary said.  “But after last night-”

“Last night was lovely,” Helen said.  “I needed last night.”

“You’re running out of clean outfits to wear,” Mary said.  “You need to stop tearing them apart.  Leave the inside parts of them inside them.  For the sake of your wardrobe.”

Nora watched as Helen pouted.

“I like my wardrobe – I’ll miss the dress with the blue trim and the ruffly straps.  But I also like inside bits.”

Mary covered her mouth, “We know where Sylvester is-”

She dropped her hand, then continued, “Given time constraints, if you come, we can’t be waiting ten minutes for Lacey to go and buy something else for you to wear.  And we can’t be walking down the street in broad daylight with you dripping blood.  You need to stay clean and tidy.”

Another pout, “You’re making me fight with both hands tied behind my back.”

Lillian dryly commented, “I saw you kill someone last night with just your legs.  I know for a fact you can very literally kill people with both hands tied behind your back.”

“My fingers weren’t behind my back, they were in the other man’s eye sockets, silly.  That’s leverage for twisting around and moving!”

“It’s true,” Mary said.

“Don’t.  No, enough of that,” Lillian cut in.  “When you two gang up on me, bad things happen.”

Nora felt out of place.  The Lambs were made for this.  Ashton and Helen and Lillian and Sylvester and even Mary had been made to do these things.  But Nora and Lara and the others had been made to avoid trouble.  They had been made fearful by nature so they would stay alive and be available to send messages if they were needed.  They had been made dangerous and given weapons so they could protect themselves if cornered, not so they could pursue and chase and attack.

Lillian spoke with some authority.  “Consensus, then, is that you’re lead, Mary, I come as a just-in-case, maybe I take out one or two or make a distraction, Helen comes and doesn’t get her clothes dirty, and Lacey stays with Nora?”

“Yes,” Mary said.

“I’m coming under protest,” Helen said.  “I’m not even that fond of this dress.  Ibbot bought it.  Now I think about things he said every time I wear it.”

“You only have two other dresses,” Mary said.  “And for all we know, we might have to get on a train to keep up with Sylvester.  We might not have time to shop for clothes.”

“I’ll make do,” Helen said, firmly.

Lillian looked at Lacey and rolled her eyes.

“You’re okay here?” Lillian asked Nora and the older woman, as she bent down to access her case.

“I think we’ll manage,” Lacey said.

“Okay,” Lillian said.  “Give me a hand?”

Nora watched as Lacey helped Lillian put on the sleeves.  They were arms, much like the ones that might belong to a brutish stitched, but there was little fat to them, only skin and muscle, with supporting structures.  Lillian winced a bit as she pushed her hands inside.  She flexed the meaty hands on the ends.

She then moved her hands, flexing them as far back as they could, until the wrists stuck out further forward than the fingers, and syringe needles sprouted from the center of each palm.

Nora managed to keep from jumping.

Lillian moved one needle to her upper arm, and injected herself.  She closed her eyes and let her head hang, before taking a deep breath.

Lillian wasn’t even an experiment.  She was smart, she was courageous, and she knew some Academy science, but she was human.  She still chose to go into danger.

Nora wasn’t sure she’d ever understand that.  She envied it.

“We’ll be back soon,” Lillian said.  “About…”

“Ten to fifteen minutes,” Mary said.

“About that long.  Then we’ll have up-to-date information on what the Devil is doing.  His people have been doing a bit too good of a job finding us, so let’s hope we can cut that short.”

“Or cut him short,” Mary said.

Lillian winced.  “Or that.  I hate the feeling we’re playing into Sylvester’s hands by getting embroiled in this.”

“But you also hate the fact that this is a scumbag of the highest order,” Mary said.  “One that hurts kids and sells very sketchy drugs.”

“It’s not that they’re sketchy.  It’s that I know what some of those drugs are, and he shouldn’t have them, or anything close to them,” Lillian said.  “So for now, we’re on the same page.”

“Kill the Devil, then find Sy,” Helen said.  “I want dibs on the Devil.”

“We’ve already made the rules,” Mary said.  “No dibs.  It makes for ugly kinds of competition.”

“But it’s romantic,” Helen said.  “Imagine being able to say the Devil was brought down by the power of love.”

“Constriction and strangulation?  Disembowelment?  By having someone reach inside him and cause severe internal damage?” Mary asked.

“I prefer to say it’s defeat by hug,” Helen said, prim and proud, “It’s a politer, neater phrasing.”

“You’re not getting dibs,” Mary said.

The three girls walked off.

“Finally, a quiet moment,” Lacey said.

Nora wasn’t sure she was happy with the quiet moment.  She wanted to hear from Lara and know that Lara was okay.  Talking made her feel less anxious.

“Can I see your eyes?” Lacey asked.

Nora stepped into shadow and lowered her hood.  She looked up at Lacey.  She didn’t need to be prompted to move her eyes, looking up, then over, then the other direction, then down.  She pulled her lower eyelids down, then her upper eyelids up.

“Good.  The sun exposure wasn’t too much.”

“Gets easier,” Nora said.

“Filaments and hair are fine?”

Nora touched her head.  She nodded.

“Claws?”

She flexed her hands without pulling the sleeves down.  She nodded.

“Good,” Lacey said.  “I wish they were all more like you.”

“I wish I was more like them.”

“Dangerous road to go down, in more than one way,” Lacey said.  “Tough and often short life to lead.  That’s one.  Trying to be something you’re not?  I’ve seen too many people burn themselves out like that.  You have to have faith in yourself.”

“I do.  I just know what my self is.  I was made to do something, I do it.  I’m good at that.”

“I can tell you, Nora, that I’ve seen a lot of projects start out as one idea and then become something else, as the situation demands.”

“As the Academy demands.”

“Yes.  Sometimes.  Lillian’s sleeves there are one of those things, but it was her needs and demands that shaped what she was doing.”

A male voice cut in, “and I’m another example, aren’t I, Lacey?”

Nora froze, and immediately began signaling to Lara.

Sylvester!  Sylvester!  Sylvester!  Sylvester!  Sylvester!  Sylvester!

Lacey, meanwhile, reached to her hip, turning her head, looking for the source of the voice.

“Don’t draw the gun, Lacey.  Let’s not make this that kind of encounter.  I’ve got a gas grenade, and civilians would get hurt, and… I’m just here to talk.”

Sylvester!  Sylvester!  Sylvester!  Where?

Up.

Nora looked up.  She saw two feet extended somewhere above her head, owned by a figure that was sitting in the windowsill.

Sylvester!  Sylvester! 

-Coming!- Lara replied.

Lacey followed Nora’s line of sight, sighed, and put the gun back at her waistband, extending her hands to show that they were empty.

Sylvester looked down, peeking, and then hopped down from the second floor.  Nora winced at his imminent, fast approach, felt fear response mechanisms throughout her body kick into action.  He landed, pivoted, and came to a stop with his back resting against the wall in front of them.  He held up the canister.

She could attack.  She should attack.  She had the weapons.  They could run from the canister.

“You look so nice with the hood down,” Sylvester said.

Nora remained silent.  She looked at the boy, who was younger than Lillian.  He wore dark slacks tucked into summer boots, a white button up shirt with some buttons undone, and the sleeves rolled up.  A mix of sweat and oils made his black hair look wet.  It had been neat not long ago, but the loose curls were pricking up, like a dozen or two dozen black fishhooks.  His nose and chin were sharp, cheekbones noticeable, and eyebrows arched.

His eyes were penetrating and predatory in a way that exaggerated what she’d seen on some other people’s faces on the street, yet he wasn’t trying to threaten.  Just the opposite.  He avoided eye contact, turned his shoulders so he wasn’t even facing her.

He stepped away from the wall, looking as if he’d walk out of the alley and into the main street, then turned around, his back resting against the same wall that Nora was standing by.  He slouched as he came to rest there, toes off the ground, heels firmly set.  With the angle he was positioned at, his eyes were on a level with hers.

He still didn’t make eye contact.  He was the least threatening threat she’d had to handle in recent memory.

“Hello, Nora,” he said.

She remained silent.

He leaned forward, looking past Nora to the taller, red-haired woman.  “Hello Lacey.”

“I should have known,” Lacey said.  “Can’t have a quiet conversation.”

“Sorry to intrude,” he said.  “I don’t know how many opportunities I’ll have to actually check in and talk to people, so I take the opportunities that arise.”

“Are you going to treat me like you did Duncan?” Lacey asked.

“No,” Sylvester said.  He craned his head to look out of the alley and look in the direction the girls had gone.  “If anything, I wanted to apologize.”

“Apologize?”

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Changing subjects, to keep me off balance?” Lacey asked.

“Maybe that’s a bad habit of mine.  But this very moment, I’m watching Mary and Lillian as they approach the building.  I was watching Helen earlier.  Their skirts and dresses, the way they move, the dance… do you know what I mean if I talk about the dance?”

“No,” Lacey said.  “I’m sure you’ll tell us.”

“What’s the dance?” Nora asked.

“When you know people and have worked with people for so very long that you know how they move, where they’ll go, what they’ll do.  You move in concert.  It’s like three people on a dance floor.  There’s a beauty in it.  Then you have three beautiful girls carrying that out…”

He craned his head some more.

“I’m kind of captivated,” he said.  He laughed, very briefly.  “I might actually be in trouble, if I get this mesmerized when they’re actually coming after me.”

“Let’s hope,” Lacey said, dryly.

Sylvester turned, abruptly, and Nora jumped, stepping back.  Lacey put hands on her upper arms, stopping her from bumping into her.

“Sorry,” Sylvester said.  “Got distracted, forgot I didn’t want to spook you, Nora.”

Nora didn’t speak or move in response.

“Okay.  Lacey.  I’m very aware of the venom in your words.  Fitting, given your field of specialty.  But I did want to say sorry.  I handled things badly.  I’ve had time to think.  We left it on a bad note.”

“Just because you’re apologizing doesn’t mean I have to forgive,” Lacey said.

“Very true.  But remember, forgiving me would be for you, not for me.  It’s about not letting things burden you or get to you.  And you can forgive me without saying that what I did was okay.  I sabotaged your career and made things very difficult for you a number of times, for my own sake, because of my own perspective.  You could have ridden the Wyvern project to a place of some prominence and instead I selfishly kicked you off it.  Now that I’m seeing things from another perspective, and I’m having to value the support I do have, instead of having support from all corners, with the Academy… I regret pushing you away.  I know you could have been one of the half-decent doctors.”

“Please don’t try to manipulate forgiveness out of me,” Lacey said, unmoved.

“That-” Sylvester started.  He stopped, then leaned against the wall.  “-Wasn’t what I was doing.  But okay.”

“Okay,” Lacey echoed him.

“I’m glad the girls are enjoying themselves, going after the Devil,” Sylvester said.  “I’m glad I get to watch as they do it.”

“You were supposed to be watching over the others,” Lacey accused.

“They’re a bit… tied up at the moment.  And I have other eyes.”

“Of course you do.”

“I’m not worried,” Sylvester said, smiling.  “I’m fascinated, though, by the fact that the girls are doing things so roundabout.  I thought they’d go right for the head of the snake, or go right for me.  But they’re doing things surgically, going after the Devil’s peripheral groups, lieutenants, and holdings.  Is that because they don’t have the numbers to barrel through, or is it Lil’s influence?”

“No comment,” Lacey said.

“Of course,” Sylvester said.

Coming coming coming.- Lara signaled.

Nora closed her eyes, as if she could avoid being here altogether.  She trembled a bit between Lacey’s reassuring hands.

“Nora,” Sylvester said.

“How do you know my name?”

“I’ve been watching pretty much all the time.  One group or the other.  Binoculars and lip reading go a long way.  I got your name, but I’m… somewhat stumped about how you and Lara work.  I thought it was a subtler sort of messenger bird?  A hive inside your body, you send her a messenger bug with encoded messages?  But it’s faster than that.”

She set her jaw.

He smiled, still not looking directly at her, but at her shoulder, at her sleeve, then the ground between them.

He dropped down to a crouch, still holding the canister.  Sitting on his ankles, he waddled closer to her, closing the distance.

She shrank back against Lacey’s side, but when Lacey didn’t budge she had nowhere to go.

Slowly, Sylvester reached out, and took hold of the very end of the sleeve.

Did he know?  That that was something her creators and Helen and Mary and Lillian did, at times, that reassured her, let her know they were there?  Did he understand that?

“I wish I got to be there when they invited you to the group.  That we could have been friends,” he said.  “Not just you, but Lara, Emmett, and Abby.  I would have liked to bring out the strong, beautiful parts of you and gotten to the point where we could have danced.”

She remained silent.

Lillian and Mary had been very firm about the fact that if she ever heard him talk, she should not believe a word he said.

But she almost believed him, even as she strained to bury his words under doubt and fear.

“But that’s the joke, isn’t it?” he asked.  “If I’m on the team, you wouldn’t be.  If Evette was on the team, I wouldn’t have been brought over.  I’d be Lacey’s stress-testing experiment for a study drug that would be discarded when they were done with me.”

“You’re on Wyvern right now,” Lacey observed.

Nora turned her head, looking up at the woman, then back at Sylvester.

“I had an ‘appointment’ shortly after I saw Duncan’s group turn up,” he said.  “I needed to make some last minute adjustments, and I wanted to be at my best.”

“Thought so,” Lacey said.

Sylvester let go of Nora’s sleeve.  He rested his arms on his knees, as he crouched on the spot, low to the ground, relatively still.

“One of the three great tragedies we all have to deal with,” he said.  “That we couldn’t all be together.  Evette, Ashton, Gordon, Jamie, Helen, Mary, the new Lambs…”

He sighed.

“My condolences about Jamie,” Lacey said.

Sylvester startled at that.  He looked at her.

“Both times.”

Nora looked up at Lacey.  For someone offering condolences, her face was very still.

“Yeah,” Sylvester said.  “Thank you.”

“Can I ask?  What are you up to, Sylvester?” Lacey asked.  “I know you won’t give me a straight answer, but a part of me hopes you’d feel you owed me an answer.”

“I might.  You mean here, right now?  In general?  In the bigger picture?”

“I’ll settle for any answers you’ll give me.”

“Right here, I’m enjoying the company of the Lambs the only way I can.  Teasing, sticking to the shadows, watching, visiting when I’m sure I won’t get a knife in the back.  I’ll let them, let you get close and then I’ll scurry away.  If it all works out, I hopefully leave you with little rewards and tidbits that will make the Lambs look good even while I escape successfully every time.”

Nora transmitted the message.

“You’re actually answering,” Lacey said.

“There’s more to it, but saying more would be telling,” he said.  He winked.  “Uh, I forgot the questions you asked.  What I’m doing right now…”

“And in general?”

“Living.  Enjoying life.  Missing people dear to me.  Trying to protect children.”

“By giving a lunatic reason to hunt them down?”

“I’m a complicated lad of complicated means,” Sylvester said.  He grinned.

Nora looked up.  Lacey wasn’t smiling.

The grin slipped off his face.  “This is a wake up call.  It reminds people that the children need protecting.  That the future needs protecting.  It’ll serve as a scare, and force certain people’s hands.  Already, the Devil’s old alliances are breaking down, people are questioning if he’s really an evil they can tolerate just because he’s the evil they know.  When and if the Lambs execute him, people in power will be more careful about what they allow to happen.  If the Lambs don’t, I might, depending.”

Nora continued transcribing.  The only real disadvantage was that while she was doing it and Lara was telling the others, there was no way for Lara to communicate to her.

Lacey spoke, “And in the big picture?  You threatened that you were doing something big.”

“I did,” Sylvester said.

“Would it be telling if you shared any hints?”

“Yes, but I’ll tell you anyway.  In the Lamb’s first meeting with Fray, she challenged me.  She asked me what drove me, what my core goal was.  It was belief.  Belief that there’s a better future.  A way out of the trap we’re in.”

For the first time, he made direct eye contact with Nora.  His eyes were very green, his eyelashes long and dark.

He continued, “And I still want that.  I still believe the Lambs might play a role.  And I actually have a way to do it.  If I fail, I intend to be the only one that goes down in flames.  If I succeed, I want to pull the Lambs up with me.”

“We’re not Lambs,” Nora said.

“Shh,” Lacey said, abrupt, as if she could shush Nora fast enough to cut her off, when the words had already left her lips.

“I know,” Sylvester says.  “I can see that, just from the way you’re put together.  Gordon, Helen and I, followed soon by Jamie, we meshed on a level almost right away.  I don’t see that.  And I caught some snippets of conversation and I put the pieces together.  Maybe you’re stronger as individuals.  Or as a pair, in you and Lara’s case, I don’t know.  But, so long as I’m given a choice, I intend to raise you newcomers up, not push you down.  And, just to ensure that you and the Lambs aren’t kept confined, I’ll let slip a detail, and you can tell the Academy you discovered it when I didn’t want you to.”

“Sounds too good to be true,” Lacey said.

“I’m a jerk like that,” Sylvester said.  “Mauer’s killing nobles.  I’ve heard rumors, some were being actively suppressed when I heard.  Now the nobles are readying for a move against Mauer.  I fully intend to get involved.”

“Could be a red herring,” Lacey said.

“Could be.  Tell them.  They’ll decide,” Sylvester said.  He straightened.  “Which reminds me.  I’ve got a nasty habit of losing track of time, and they’re due back soon.  And I can’t be sure where Duncan is, now.”

Nora transmitted the last of the transcription.

He walked past Nora and Lacey, deeper into the alley, turning so he wouldn’t have his back to either of them at any point in time.  He walked backward for the latter half of the trip, before rounding a corner.  He tossed the gas canister behind him, and the gas billowed out, protecting his retreat.

-Close.- Lara communicated.

But it was too late.

Lacey led Nora out of the now-hazardous alleyway and into the street, pulling up Nora’s hood and putting it back in place as she did so.  Nora looked in the direction that the message had come from, and saw the others approaching at a run.

I’m not as scared as I was, she communicated the thought aloud.

-Why?– the question came.  -How?  I’d be so scared, in your shoes.-

She couldn’t articulate an answer in the minute or so it took the group to run down the length of the street and reach them.

Lara, the one individual in the whole world who didn’t scare Nora at least a little, ran into her full-force, wrapping sleeve-clad arms around Nora.  Nora gripped her sister just as hard.

“What happened?” Duncan asked.  “Did he slip away?”

As Lacey began to explain, turning her head to note that the three girls were joining the greater group, Nora turned her full focus to her sister.

“You’re shorter than me, you know, you depressing little abortion,” she whispered to Lara, gripping her tighter.

“By two centimeters, you cockroach.  And you snort fresh rat poops,” Lara whispered back.

The two laughed in their own way, inaudible to the others.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.5 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Ashton held his hand up near the window.  Morning dew had accumulated over the past two hours, and as he held his hand up, the dew changed to a dusky rose color.  The drops with the dew were heavier and left pink streaks on the painted window frame and sill.

The sun filtered through bushes just beyond the window, striking some drops while leaving others in shadow.  There were gray droplets, gray-pink droplets and there were pink-gray droplets and pink droplets and rosy droplets.  Some were cold and some were warm.

There was a world beyond the droplets of dew and the window and the bush.  Buildings, a street where people were emerging and starting their day.  There were regular patrols on the street, and when Ashton saw one he made sure to write the time on the windowsill.  The movement of the pencil inevitably drew lines through some of the moisture that had collected there.  He very much looked forward to when he next had an excuse to make the next marking, especially now that there was more moisture.

The sun was just rising, it was humid out, and it was already very warm.  It was going to be a very hot day, even with the clouds on the horizon.

“You scared me,” Lara said.

Ashton turned his head.  Duncan had sat up in bed.  Lara was in one corner, curled up in a chair with her arms around her legs, a blanket draped over her.  Her hood was down and her hair was tousled.  One of her eyes was very red and watery, the eyelid inflamed.

“I’m sorry I scared you,” Duncan said.  He rubbed at his eye.

“It’s okay,” Lara said.

“Is Ashton keeping you company?”

“My sister is.  Ashton is quiet.”

“I’ve said we can talk if you want to talk,” Ashton said.

“It’s okay,” Lara said, again.  “I didn’t want to make noise and bother anybody.”

“Alright,” Ashton said.  He smiled using smile three from the books.  “I’m always happy to practice talking.”

Social niceties were important, and Ashton knew his doctors would be happy if he got more practice, so he had been doing it as much as he could.  It would be good if he got back and they oohed and ahhed over how much he had progressed.  It would reflect well on Duncan and Lillian and the other Lambs that they had done a good job with him.

All his life, his creators and the people around him had talked about who and what he should be.  It was a big responsibility.

“How is your head?  Sylvester said you would have a hangover,” Ashton said.

“I have a hangover,” Duncan said.  “Not too bad, all considered.”

He swung his feet out over the side of the bed, then stood.  He swayed on the spot.  “Amend that.”

“Amended,” Ashton said, turning to look out the window.

“I can’t help but notice I’m not wearing pants,” Duncan observed.

“Abby thought you would be uncomfortable sleeping with all of your clothes on, so we took your shoes and pants.”

“Uh huh,” Duncan said.  He rubbed at his face.  “And my skin is dry.”

“Sylvester painted your face to make fun of you,” Ashton said.  “I thought that was rude, so I insisted we clean your face before we put you to bed.”

“Thank you, Ashton,” Duncan said.

“You’re welcome, Duncan.”

“Lara?  Cover your eyes.  Just until I find my pants.”

Lara obeyed, raising her hands to her eyes.  She spoke at the same time Ashton did.  “End of the bed.”  “We hung them- yeah, the bed.”

“You’ll want to know what Sylvester said,” Ashton added.

“No,” Duncan said.  “Let me wake up first, see if I can’t clear my head.  I’ve got one headache already, I don’t need a second on top of it. Any word from the others?”

“Some,” Ashton said.  “But they’ve stopped for now.  They know where the man who is hunting them is.  He’s called the Devil.  They spent the night hunting down the Devil’s people.  They know where he is now, but they want to rest, organize, and make sure we’re all awake and well just in case they need us, before they act.”

“Good.  Has everyone eaten?”

“No,” Ashton said.  He looked at his watch, then checked one of his notes on the windowsill.  “The sun rose half an hour ago.  We don’t usually eat until seven or eight.”

“I’m going to arrange breakfast now so we can get an early start,” Duncan said.  “Stay put, be good.  Let the others sleep in.  When I get back, you can fill me in and we’ll decide where we go next.”

“Okay,” Ashton said.  He looked back and saw Duncan looking at the beds where Emmett and Abby were sleeping.  Abby was curled up with the lamb, Quinton.

Duncan pointed at Abby.

Ashton stared, not sure what to do.  He’d figured out pointing, but he couldn’t connect the point to any thought.  It would have been easier if Duncan said something.

“How’d she sleep?”

“No fits tonight,” Ashton said.  “I don’t think she had nightmares.”

Duncan nodded.  Ashton thought that he was nodding more to himself than to him.  It made more sense: Duncan was a problem solver.  He did best with organizational problems, like where things should be and how people should act.  He was good at telling Ashton how to act, and Ashton thought he would do a good job telling the others how to act.

Abby was one of the problems that Duncan was trying to solve.

“Progress,” Duncan said, before leaving the room.  He shut the door with extra care as he left.

Ashton’s mind was very busy, keeping track of the multicolored raindrops, trying to figure out ways to organize them and keep track of them as the colors changed.  He liked color.  Another part of his brain was busy exploring the bush just beyond the window.

He worked the part of his mind that focused on spatial things.  He had an intuitive sense of where the bush was and where the street was and where the buildings were, but he could distort that sense like he could unfocus his eyes and imagine different geometries that would make that same environment possible.  A landscape of cobblestone wall and askew buildings with misshapen blobs of liquid.  He could piece together a mental image of the landscape as if it was actually a mix of grays and gray-pinks and pink-grays and pink.

His creators called it meditation, but it wasn’t like that.  His brain was organized into what his creators called shelves, described as being like fungal growths or a coral, and in his early development each shelf had been given over to a different task, like the lobes in a human brain.  Sometimes it could be hard to get one of the less-used shelves working.  As he started his day, he pushed every part of his ‘brain’.

Even as he sat very still, standing with his arms folded on the windowsill, staring out at the world beyond, his mind was very, very active.

“Ashton?” Lara spoke.

“Yes?” Ashton said.

“Nora fell asleep.  I don’t like the quiet.  Can we talk?”

“Okay.”

There was a long pause.  Ashton estimated about a minute’s time passing.  In the meantime, he began to pull the surroundings apart in his mind, imagining it all as if everything was made of meat and vegetation.  As he mentally dismantled buildings, blood leaked from the gaps, touched the stretched beads of gray and pink dew and expanded into clouds as it diffused into the liquid.

He liked how the blood looked when it diffused.  He began painting his view of the city with clouds, while concentrating the way he sent his spores out into the air so it would concentrate in some beads more than others.

“Can you think of something to talk about?” Lara asked.

“Okay,” Ashton said.  He pulled back from his imagined paintings so he could think about what to talk about.  “After we’re done here, whether we get Sylvester or not, we’ll be going back to Radham.”

“The idea is scary,” Lara said.

“I like Radham.  It’s home.”

“It’s not my home.  It’s a strange place to me.”

“It will become home eventually.  There will be more labs for you and your sister and all of the ones who come after.  You’ll have your own room, though you might have to share it with Nora.”

“I share this room with Nora,” Lara said.  “I described every part of it to her.  She described every part of where she is to me.  It feels safer to imagine myself over there than it feels to be here.  Nora said it was the other way around for her.”

“That makes sense,” Ashton said.

“I was talking to her about how I like that you’re the same height as me, and Abby is too.  And we’re three.  I’m part of a group.  But Nora isn’t.  She’s with the others and she looks up to them.  They’re more like teachers and they’re something she’s working hard to try to be like?”

“That’s good.”

“That’s bad,” Lara said.  “We’re becoming different.  We were the same and now we’re different.”

“Different is good.  Look at how the Lambs work.  They are stronger because they’re all different.  Everyone has things they’re good at and things they’re bad at and we make up for each other’s weaknesses.”

“My project is strongest when we’re the same.  We have to be able to understand each other.”

“You will,” Ashton said.  He gave her smile number three again.  It was small and it was meant to be reassuring.

“You don’t understand,” Lara said, and she said it in a way that made Ashton quickly remove the smile.  She was frustrated.

“Okay,” Ashton said.  He drew in a breath, then devoted more of his thoughts to the conversation.  “Then I’ll try to understand.”

“There were six of us.  All in a row.  Each in a vat.  We could talk, sometimes, but it was hard because we were all in fluid.  I was the second.  Nora was the sixth.”

“I was all alone,” Ashton said.  “I grew in a node, which grew in a plant-like structure.”

“I’m talking about me and Nora,” Lara said.  She wasn’t upset or frustrated, but she wasn’t pleased either.  It was a reminder, the kind of reminder that made Ashton think of when he was little and understood conversations less.  After a few more of those patient reminders she would get upset and bothered, or she might stop talking.

He knew that if she did any of those things, she would probably be unhappy or bothered for the rest of the day.  That wasn’t a good thing.

“Okay,” Ashton said.

“And don’t… don’t use your spores on me?  Not while I’m talking about this.”

Ashton wasn’t one to get frustrated, usually.  It wasn’t really something in his emotional makeup.  He could keep trying at a task until he was told to stop, he didn’t get tired, and he didn’t hit limits in the same way other people did, after repeated tries.

If he did get frustrated, he reasoned to himself, then he would be very frustrated that people kept asking him not to use his spores to calm them down when they seemed to need it most.

He took the thought and put it away for thinking about later.  His ability to reason, feel, experience, and learn tended to come in spurts, coinciding with his bouts of physical growth.  His appointments helped, giving him massive injections of nutrients that would allow such.  Maybe he could gain something if he figured out frustration and made it a focus the next time he was growing in a new shelf.

He could talk about it with his creators.  They had said each new shelf that he grew would be smaller and have less impact than the last.  He would have to carefully choose what he would make each shelf do.

Lara had stopped talking.  Ashton had stopped talking.

He looked out the window and began painting the landscape with his imagination again.  The heat was starting to take away the moisture in the air, even with the humidity and light drizzle of rain.  The droplets were shrinking and evaporating.

“You were number two and she was number six?” he asked.

“Yes.  There were four more, but they died before the rest of us could think and communicate.  The girl in the fifth vat didn’t grow good claws, so she got recycled.  Her body was taken out of the vat.  They took her to pieces, mashed her up and fed her to the rest of us as nutrients.”

Ashton nodded.  This made sense.

“The one in the first vat was next to go.  She- he- not a boy and not a girl.  Just a mishmash.  I don’t know why it mattered, but the one in the first vat died because of that and was fed to the four of us that were still there.  We were small and young enough we didn’t understand or mind, even if we remember.”

“Yes,” Ashton said.  “This is what the Academy will do, sometimes.  It’s how Mauer’s people made the primordials, Lillian said.  I’m not the first Ashton.  They fail a project and they recycle it and try again.”

“How old are you?” Lara asked.

“I’m not very old.  I’ve only really been out of the vat for two and a half years.”

“I’ve been out for seven,” Lara said.  “But I haven’t been out of the lab much.”

Ashton started to speak, then stopped, before admitting, “I’m having a hard time following this conversation.  I’m not sure what this has to do with what we were talking about.”

“Okay,” Lara said.  “I’m older.  Even if you’re senior, here.  Yes?”

“Yes,” Ashton said.  “That is a very good way of explaining it.”

“I started off from a human base, like Abby did, except she had a lot more human to start with, and she isn’t going to change as she grows.  But you’re very different.  You were made from new.  And you’re finding your way to acting like a person.”

“Yes,” Ashton agreed, with confidence.  He paused, connecting thoughts.  “Am I doing a bad job of acting like a person?”

“Yes,” Lara said.  “I don’t care if it makes sense or if it’s how the Academy does things.  I had sisters and now I don’t.  The people who made me took away four of my sisters because they were too different.  Now Nora and I are becoming different.”

“And you’re scared.”

“I’m scared of everything,” Lara said, shrinking down into her bundle of blanket, until only her eyes and the top of her head were visible over her knees.  “But I’m very scared of this in particular.”

“Because you’re worried it’s the same as when they were making you?”

“Yes,” Lara said.

“I’m not very good at being human, so I’m not going to be good at helping with that.  I’m not very good at giving advice about being scared, either, because I don’t get very scared very much,” Ashton said.

“I don’t want help or advice.  I just want you to listen, like Nora listens.”

“I’m not very good at listening either, I don’t think,” Ashton said.

“No you aren’t,” Lara said.  “I think I’m more upset than I was before we started talking about this.”

“But,” Ashton said.  He had to put his brain to work for a few seconds.  “I think being different might be good, now that you’re this grown up.  And I think the Lambs have gotten away with things they shouldn’t have, because they do very good work.  If you do good work then there are people who are going to want you to keep doing good work.  If you and Nora do good work then they won’t treat you like they treated your sisters.  I think.”

“You’re thinking a lot,” Lara said.  “You keep using that word.”

“I’m not very good at this, so I’m working extra hard to try and figure it out.  Even if I’m not very good at figuring out answers, I do want to help.  Because I want to do good work for you too, so you’ll want me to keep doing good work.  Like I just talked about.”

“I think I understand,” Lara said.  “What you said makes sense, and it does make me feel better.  If we do a good enough job?”

“Yes,” Ashton said.  He saw another patrol walk by, checked his watch, and marked down the time.  Duncan was there too, with bags in his arms.  He had to stop to let the patrol by.

“Thank you,” Lara said.

“You’re welcome,” Ashton said, automatically.

“You’re awake, Abby?” Lara asked.

“Sorry,” Abby said.

Abby sat up in bed.  As her movements rustled it, the lamb bleated.  Her braid was messy and residual dirt from Quinton had transferred over to the front of her very simple ankle-length nightgown, leaving cloudy markings on the bleached white fabric.

Not for the first time, Ashton thought that Abby was like Sable, from Good Simon Says.  She was supposed to be better than Sable, able to understand things about humans as well as animals, but she wasn’t all the way there, and she wasn’t as good with animals as she was supposed to be.  That part of her brain had never really developed, and the added systems for communication had never really developed.  She was the least talented of all of them.

“Quinton will need to make water and make a deposit,” Abby said, scooping the lamb up in her arms.

“Deposit?  Water?” Ashton asked.

“It’s what they said at Sous Reine, to be polite,” Abby said.  “Should I go outside?  Would one of you come with me?”

“Oh.  Put it out the window,” Ashton said.  “It’s at ground level.”

Abby smiled.  “Good idea.”

He helped Abby get the leash on and open the window.  They placed the lamb outside, holding the leash, and let it explore the bushes.

“Were you listening?” Lara asked.

“Sorry,” Abby said.

“It’s okay,” Lara said.  “It’s okay if you know.”

Abby smiled.  She held the leash and watched Quinton play in the bushes.  Ashton didn’t need to work very hard to work out just how happy she was.  It didn’t take much.  She just needed something to take care of.

There was a knock on the door.  With Lara bundled up and Abby holding the leash, Ashton took it on himself to respond, peering through the keyhole before opening the door.

“You were fast,” Ashton commented.

Duncan answered, “I called in advance, to make sure they’d have our specific breakfasts ready.  I’d have been faster, but I took a detour.”

“Would you want me to take a bag?” Ashton asked, as Duncan made his way through the door.

“Thank you, Good Simon,” Duncan said.  “Take this one.”

“My name is Ashton.”

“Thank you, Ashton,” Duncan corrected.

“That’s better,” Ashton said.  He could smell the food.

There was a table in the corner of the room.  The table was likely meant to serve as a desk, but countless rings from teacups and water glasses marked it as a frequent dining table in the dormitory here.

“Bread,” Duncan said, putting his own bag down and fishing through the one he had given Ashton.  “A pat of butter, jam, some sausage from the cafeteria, some chop, some fruit, and some mystery food that the local Academy grew.  No promises on the mystery food, but enough others were snatching it up that it can’t be that bad.  Should do for Emmett and me, and anyone else who wants to partake.  I know Ashton likes jam.  Ashton, would you wake Emmett?”

Ashton walked over to Emmett’s bed and laid an arm on Emmett’s arm.  It didn’t take much.  Emmett’s eyes opened, and he was out of bed shortly after.  He trudged over to the table to eat.

Without a word, Duncan handed Ashton a plate with a cloth tied in a knot over the top.

“Thank you,” Ashton said, automatically.  He found a seat at the table and undid the knot.  Various fruits, vegetables, and meats were organized into a kaleidoscopic pattern of colors and shapes.

Ashton dutifully set about taking apart the kaleidoscope from the inside out.

“Abby,” Duncan said.  “I sent a letter well before we even arrived, after talking to your doctors, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to track all the particulars of your diet.”

Duncan trailed off.  Ashton watched as Duncan uncovered what looked like a heaping bowl of uninteresting shades of brown.

“Mashed nut, shredded mushroom, raisins, onion.”

“I can eat normal food,” Abby said, protesting even though she looked very happy with the boring bowl of food.

“But your doctors said you don’t like it, because your palate is different,” Duncan said.  “So long as your needs are met, there’s no use in making you eat something you don’t want to.  Especially when you might dislike it enough that you have fits.  You had a good night’s sleep, you’ll have a meal of the foods you like, and we’ll start the day off with the right foot.”

“Thank you,” Abby said.

“It just makes sense,” Duncan said.

“You’re supposed to say you’re welcome when someone says thank you.  It’s impolite if you don’t.”

“Be quiet and eat,” Duncan said.

“That’s not very polite either.”

“It’s not polite to hound someone who is nursing a hangover from a tranquilizer gas,” Duncan said.  “Take a note of that, and leave me be, alright?  I’m allowed to be grumpy.”

Ashton turned his attention back to the colorful plate.  He made sure to do as Duncan had asked and make a note about not bothering grumpy people.

“And Lara… protein,” Duncan said.  He handed over a jar.  “Have some of the mystery meat and sausage.  Doctor’s orders.  Your stomach gets sensitive if you don’t vary things any.”

Lara nodded.  She opened the jar and worked at fishing out her prey.

“Lastly, well, just about lastly,” Duncan said, fishing in the second paper bag for the first time.  “Quinton.”

He retrieved a cloth sack and a bowl, and set the bowl on the ground, before pouring out a small share of beans from the sack.

Abby threw herself at Duncan, wrapping her arms around his middle, which nearly made him drop the sack.

Duncan remained frozen, as if not sure how to handle it, then relaxed a bit.  “Go on.  If you’re happy, show it to me by eating quickly and listening to me.  We’re all here to do a job.”

Abby obeyed, making sure that Quinton was eating before serving herself.

“This is good,” Ashton said, as Duncan retrieved a jug of what looked to be tea from the same bag that had held Quinton’s food.  “The breakfast.  You did well.  I don’t think anyone is unhappy.”

Nobody seemed to disagree.  Lara didn’t look particularly enthused as she choked down her still-wiggling meal, but she didn’t look too upset either.  Mealtime wasn’t a pleasure for her.  It wasn’t a big pleasure for Ashton either, but he did like the colors.

“I have to, don’t I?  I have to do well,” Duncan asked.  “I want to run an Academy or be a noble’s doctor one day.  If I can’t manage the breakfast of four experiments and one animal at seventeen, can I really expect to manage a whole Academy at thirty?  Can I expect to get away unscathed if I make a mistake with a noble’s meal plan?”

“No,” Ashton said.

“Exactly.  You’re a trial run.  You’re one step out of many,” Duncan said.  He set down a cup of tea in front of Emmett, then poured out one for Abby.  His response had left a bit of a silence, as everyone ate.  He served Ashton, then himself, then rummaged in his bag for a small jar and popped it out, before doling out the large, yellow pills.  Only when he’d ensured that everyone had had theirs did he sit down to eat.

Not that he really ate.  He rubbed at his eyes some, and grimaced with pain, before setting one elbow on the table and resting the bridge of his nose against the heel of his hand.  His head hurt, probably.

“Now tell me what I missed last night,” Duncan said.

Everyone had dressed, and they had dressed in the lightest clothes they had.  All of the boys and Abby were wearing their shoes without socks, just to have less fabric to trap the heat in.  Lara still wore her shroud to keep the sun off, but the fabric was thin and she wasn’t wearing anything to cover her feet, letting the cloth of the shroud hide the claws there, while the air circulated around them.  The edges of the cloth was getting dirty as it traced along the damp road.

Emmett had his shirt open, while Duncan and Ashton had the first few buttons undone.  Abby wore a gingham dress and walked with Quinton on a leash beside her.  The fabric of her dress flapped against her legs as the wind picked up.

It was warm.  Ashton liked the heat more than the cold.  He liked being in the light.  He liked the drizzle.

The yard was a field, with tracts of dirt with painted markings on them, worn by the weather and the rain to the point that the lines were faint and ragged, now.  There was grass here and there, normally kept short, which had grown long.

There were also, by the largest field, two long, squat buildings.  One was more open, a roof and three walls with benches sitting within.  The other was enclosed with a door, maybe it served as a place for changing clothes.

The open building was empty.  They walked by it slowly, looking over every detail.

“Nobody’s been here,” Duncan observed.  “No signs of food, clothing, no blankets…”

“Nobody,” Abby agreed.

They approached the other building.  Duncan hauled open the door, and froze where he was.  Ashton joined Abby in peering under Duncan’s right arm, while Lara peeked past his left.  Emmett looked over Duncan’s shoulder.

A boy and a girl, kissing, lying astride a bench.  They’d stopped as the door opened, lips still touching, their eyes going to the door.

“I’d like to have a word with you,” Duncan said.

The boy on the bench slid his hand up the girl’s side, while she lay very still, glaring.

“Please,” Duncan said.

The boy on the bench stood in a very fluid motion.  In the process, he raised his arm, very fluidly pointing the gun he’d just picked up at Duncan.

Ashton and Abby moved quickly away from the door, to get out of the line of fire.  On the other side, Emmett and Lara backed away.  Duncan was too squarely in the gun’s sights to join them in taking cover.

“Damn it,” Duncan said.

“Okay,” the boy in the building said.  “My name is Maurice.  The girl with me is Noreen.  I’m going to need you to listen very carefully.  All four of you are going to back away very slowly.  I want to see you standing as a group, about twenty feet behind… Duncan?”

Ashton could see Duncan sag a little at the mention of his name.

“I want you where I can see you, far enough away I don’t have to worry too much about you,” Maurice declared.  “Especially the red haired one.”

“He got to you,” Duncan said.

“Sylvester?  He did.  Get moving, all of you.  Come on now.  Unless you don’t care about his welfare.”

Abby and Ashton moved back, following the instructions.  Lara followed their cue.

Emmett remained where he was.

“Emmett,” Ashton said.

Emmett didn’t budge.

“Please,” Abby said.

“Bleehh,” Quinton added.

Reluctantly, Emmett backed off.  They formed a group, standing a distance behind Duncan.

Duncan backed away a few steps as Maurice and Noreen left the building and came to stand in the doorway.  Noreen stared them down as she buttoned up her blouse.  Maurice continued to point the gun.

“What happens next?” Duncan asked.

“I detain you,” Maurice said.  “I inconvenience you as much as possible.  I’m allowed to shoot to wound.  I’m quite a good shot.”

“Lying,” Abby said, loud enough to be heard.

“Let’s not antagonize them,” Duncan said.  “Please.”

Maurice smiled.  “Alright.  I admit, I’m a terrible shot.  That should worry you more than me being very precise.”

“It does, frankly,” Duncan said.

Behind his back, Duncan gestured.

Move.  Gas.  Move.

Ashton wasn’t very good with the gestures.  Sometimes his brain wasn’t very good at putting things together that the others were very good with.  Things like this, where move and gas and move had so many meanings and combinations, it confused him.

Slowly, he was able to piece together a likely interpretation.

The trick was how to do it.  If he simply walked over, it would be a problem.

“I want to do something, but I don’t want any of us to get shot” Ashton said, quiet.

“He’ll shoot,” Abby said.  “But only if he really, really has to.  Can’t you see?”

“I’m not very good at understanding expressions,” Ashton said.  “Especially from this far away.”

“I am,” Abby said.  “I don’t think he’s going to shoot.”

Ashton reached for Lara’s sleeve, and gripped it, holding the end of her claw up, closer to shoulder height.

He pushed out spores.

“Seems like a bad idea,” Duncan said, “Staying here, when there are roving bands of criminals out looking for children.”

“Children with nowhere else to go get pointed here.  We send them somewhere more secure.  Most roving bands of criminals aren’t out and about this early in the day.  We thought we had time to…” Maurice trailed off, looking at Noreen.  “Wake ourselves up from our morning nap.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Duncan said.

“No you aren’t,” Noreen cut in.

Lara’s hand shook.  She started to pull away, and Ashton held on, still pushing out.

“This isn’t the group we were told to expect.  Not all of it,” Maurice observed.

“No,” Duncan said.

“That’s irritating.”

“Sorry,” Duncan said.  He seemed to notice something, “Are you Academy students?

Noreen scoffed.

“Does it matter?”

“Kind of.”

“Best thing you can do for yourself is to forget you saw us and listen carefully.  I’m going to take a step to the side.  You’re going to walk past me, and into this building, understand?  You’ll be going inside one by one.”

“I understand, Duncan said.

Lara’s trembling intensified.

All at once, she hauled her hand away, slicing at Ashton’s hand and some of her sleeve.  She threw herself to one side.

“Woah!”  Maurice called out.

He fired a warning shot.  Lara threw herself to the ground.

While she huddled there, spikes and scythes of bone protruded from her shoulder and sleeve.

“No moving,” Maurice said.  He didn’t seem to have anything to say about the weapons that Lara was displaying.

Ashton hurried to Lara’s side.

“No moving!” Maurice called out.

“She’s scared,” Ashton said, as the one who had used his spores to create the anxiety.

“No moving!” Maurice called out again.

Ashton huddled down, close to Lara, and pushed out calming spores.

“I’m very sorry I did that,” he said.

She remained where she was, hunched over, facing the ground.  Her mangled feet with some clawed toes were sticking out behind her.  Ashton adjusted the cloth to cover them so they wouldn’t be damaged by the sun.  The wind nearly blew the cloth back out of place.  He pressed it down with one hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She nodded.  He was pretty sure she wouldn’t have been nodding if he hadn’t been trying to calm her.

As best as he could tell, based on the direction of the wind, the calming effect was being carried by the wind, to Duncan, Noreen, and Maurice.

“What’s wrong with her?” Maurice asked.

“She’s not very good with conflict.”

“That seems like a monumentally bad thing, given what you lot seem to get up to,” Maurice commented.

“It’s not the best,” Duncan said.

“Lords.  You almost make me feel guilty,” Maurice said.  He glanced at Noreen.  “I’m getting too soft.”

“Get over it,” Noreen said, voice hard.

“We came to ask about Sylvester.  We’re not here to hurt him.  We just want to talk, make sure he isn’t up to trouble.”

“I don’t like you,” Noreen said.

“I see,” Duncan said.  He sounded somewhat dejected as he said it.  “I shouldn’t be surprised, given you two are pointing a gun at us, but it hurts to hear it said outright.”

“How do you do it?” Maurice asked.  “You Lambs, if you’re even Lambs.”

“Not quite,” Duncan said.  “Do what?”

“The intensity?  The danger?  I like a little bit of a thrill now and then.  I mean, hell, I like her, you know?  She’s threatened to kill me more times than anyone I know.  But danger and chaos seem to draw in you kids like flowers do bees.”

“Some of us excel at it.  I don’t think anyone in this group does,” Duncan said.  “Most of them are new.  We’re a distraction, sent to spring some of Sylvester’s traps and try to complicate his plots.  Except we may have underestimated how many traps and plots there are.”

“I’ve spent a few days with him,” Maurice commented.  “I can virtually guarantee that you did.”

“Fuck,” Duncan said.

Maurice shook his head.  In the midst of the discussion, he had lowered the gun a fraction.  Now it lowered again.  “He was a bad enough headache for us, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be his target.”

“It’s bad,” Duncan said.

“Give me the gun,” Noreen said.

Maurice arched an eyebrow.  “What?”

“Something’s wrong.  Give me the gun.”

“Will you promise me you won’t shoot them unnecessarily.”

“I promise.  Now hand it over,” Noreen said.

“What’s going on?” Duncan asked.

“You’re doing something,” Noreen said.  “I’m going to shoot you before you can do something more.”

Maurice gave Noreen a sidelong glance.  “You just contradicted yourself.”

“I didn’t.  This is necessary.  I feel strange.  My emotions are stirred up.  I feel tired.”

“We just woke up.”

“And I don’t normally feel emotions like this,” Noreen said.  “It’s the red haired one.  Give me the gun.”

Ashton closed his eyes, and he pushed out a heavy release of aggression, of spores that wound agitate and drive others to action.

“No,” Maurice said.  “It’s fine.  Just stop and-“

Noreen lunged for the gun.  Maurice pulled it away and used one hand to push her to the ground.

His attention divided between Duncan and Noreen, he didn’t see that Emmett was barreling toward him until it was too late.

In a moment, both Noreen and Maurice were pinned against the ground.  The gun lay several feet away.

Duncan walked over to the gun to pick it up.  He stuck it into his belt.  “Thank you, Ashton, Emmett.  I do believe that’s the first time that we’ve worked as a group.”

“You’re welcome,” Ashton said.  “Abby and Lara helped too.”

“Thank you two too, then,” Duncan said.

Noreen seemed to be reserving glares for everyone present, Maurice included.  Duncan opted to talk to Maurice instead.

“Where’s Sylvester?”

Ashton pushed out spores to loosen Maurice’s inhibitions and tongue.

It didn’t take long to get an answer.

“His orphanage,” Maurice finally confessed.

His orphanage?” Ashton asked.  “Lambsbridge?”

“No.  It’s here, in this city,” Maurice said.  “He’s collected every child with no place to go.  Has a staff.”

“Soldiers,” Duncan concluded.

“And traps?” Lara asked.

“Naturally,” Maurice said.

“Naturally,” Duncan said, sounding very tired.

Ashton wished he could give Duncan a little bit of a boost in mood, but Duncan was taking drugs to counteract him.  But the others seemed to be thrilled with their very first success, so he made sure to give them a little puff of happiness.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.4 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Helen handed off Nora to Lacey and Lillian’s care.  She stretched, testing each and every one of her joints from fingertip to shoulder, shoulder to neck, then testing each muscle and segment all the way down her spine to her legs, legs to toes.

She felt a brief moment of bliss in the sensation of being.  The stretch was akin to giving herself a hug.  There were no sensations quite as fulfilling and thrilling as when she wrapped herself around someone and felt them fighting her, straining and stretching inside her grasp.  Stretching was like straining and stretching against herself, fighting and testing herself.  Every pop and cartilage-against-cartilage realignment of a joint went hand-in-hand with a rush of feel-good hormones.

It was like getting a hundred teeny tiny bites of tart.

The thought made her realize she was hungry in a way that had nothing to do with food.

Languid, smiling easily, feeling as relaxed as she ever had, she looked at Mary.  Hard Mary, rigid, eager in a very different way.  Mary was standing by the door, which was ajar, peering through the gap to the street outside.  The muscles in Mary’s arms and legs were tensed, and she was ready to move or attack at a moment’s notice, if someone’s head outside turned the wrong way, or if she saw an opportunity.

Helen approached Mary and, being careful to avoid the blade Mary held and to keep from impeding Mary’s view, slid one arm behind Mary’s neck and the other behind the small of Mary’s back, and embraced her.

She felt the prick of Mary’s blade against the side of her neck.

Just as carefully as she had embraced Mary, she backed off.  She leaned in close to give Mary a peck on the cheek.

“You’re riled up,” Mary said.  She hadn’t taken her eyes off of the gap between the door and the doorframe.

“It’s contagious,” Helen said.  “I’ve been antsy for months now, and being around you and Lillian could calm me down.  Being around Ashton could calm me down a lot.  But Ashton isn’t here, and neither of you are calm.  Mary is tense and I can smell how uncalm Lillian is-”

“Ahem,” Lillian said.

“-and I can hear her breathing as if she was breathing right in my ear, and it makes me restless and it makes me want to embrace someone.”

“I’m ready to act, but I’m calm,” Mary lied.  “As calm as anyone is while being tracked by a small army.”

Helen smiled.  “Uh huh.”

She felt the blade move fractionally.

“The adjusted drug regimen from Ibbot might be responsible for your mood,” Lillian said.  “If I could pare it down any without him catching on during your next appointment, I would.  Maybe you could tell him the truth?  That you’re lying to him about your emotional states.  If he keeps adjusting in response to falsehoods, something bad could happen.”

“I’m not lying to him,” Helen said.

“He’s lying to himself.  Yeah.  You know what I mean, Helen.”

Helen smiled softly.  “The day I tell him he’s wrong is the day he’ll decide I’m not worth the trouble.”

“Okay,” Lillian said.  She sighed, looking at Nora and Lacey.

They had already had the ‘none of this gets repeated to the Academy’ conversation a few times.  At least with the details regarding Helen, Lillian felt confident letting Lacey overhear.  Lacey had no love for Ibbot.

Lillian spoke, “Do your best, and please don’t kill Sylvester, Helen.”

Helen didn’t let the smile falter.  “I’ll try not to.”

“Thank you.”

Lillian’s breathing wasn’t as hard or intense as it had been, earlier.  The mention of Sylvester normally quickened it and drew her focus, but Helen was very aware of the fact that the subject of Sylvester dying had stopped all that.  Sobering and concerning to Lillian.  It mattered.

An imaginative part of Helen’s brain conjured up the notion that if something did happen to Sylvester, then Lillian might stop breathing altogether.  Lillian liked him a lot, even now.  It would break her heart.

Helen would have to try very hard, to not break Sylvester too much and break Lillian’s heart in the process.

“Lara wants to talk,” Nora said.

“Hold on,” Lillian said.  “We’re not sure if Sylvester is listening in.  Let’s wait until-”

“He’s not listening in.  He’s over there.  Or he was,” Nora said.

Mary turned her eyes away from the crack in the door.  Lacey moved away from Nora to better see Nora’s face, her expression serious.

“Okay, honey,” Lillian said.

Helen could see the change in Lillian’s body language, she could hear the shift in breathing, and she imagined she could hear the increased speed of Lillian’s heartbeat.  Her own heartbeats increased in response.

All of this was so enjoyable and so terrifying at the same time, like the thrill of standing on a ledge.

“Abby: Duncan’s asleep.  But Quinton is okay.  The rest of us are okay too.”

“Give Quinton a hug for me,” Helen said.

“Abby: Okay.”

“Let’s keep it serious,” Lillian said,  quiet.  Then, louder, she said, “Sy was there?”

“Ashton: Duncan got gassed.  Sylvester wanted to talk.  He talked with Duncan, then with me, then with Emmett.  Emmett told Sylvester he was willing to negotiate, using what you told him to say.  Then Sylvester disappeared.”

“Oh, okay, wow,” Lillian said.  “Too many things to ask and respond to.  Is Duncan okay?  Do I need to treat him?  Do I need to treat any of you?”

“Ashton: Sylvester said he would wake up with a bad headache.  I don’t think we need you.”

“Alright,” Lillian said.

“Ashton: We wondered if we should tell you right away.  We didn’t want to distract you when you’re in trouble, and Lara said you weren’t out of trouble.”

Mary spoke, her voice low, so she wouldn’t be heard by anyone outside, “We’re not, but it was right to fill us in.  When in doubt, more information is best.”

“Ashton: I remember you saying that to Duncan.  But the reason we decided to share was because we asked a woman and she said some things about the people chasing you.  It sounds like the people Sylvester provoked and was fighting with, the really dangerous people, they work for the Devil.  He’s the leader of the biggest gang and it sounds like he’s still out there, unless Sylvester got him and the ordinary people don’t know yet.”

“Then we have a target,” Mary said.

“A distraction, not a target,” Lillian said.  “But we can discuss that.  Anything else, Ashton?”

“Ashton: No.  Except it sounds like the children who didn’t leave the city or hide in the houses of people they know might be at a place called the yard.  We were going to go in the morning.”

“Good.  Sleep.  Take care of Duncan.  Get him to drink lots when he’s awake.  We’ll touch bases and ask questions when everything is wrapped up.  But it’ll be redundant and unfair if we discuss the Sylvester situation before Duncan is conscious.”

“Ashton: Okay.”

“Okay,” Lillian said.

There was a brief pause.  No further messages from the others.

“The false Lambs accomplished what we wanted,” Lillian said.  “He’s showed himself and revealed his hand, a little.”

“But we’re tied up here,” Mary said, moving the door to peer through the gap.

“You know him better than I do,” Lacey said.  “Why did Sylvester run?  Why not take the offer and talk to Emmett?”

Helen, Mary, and Lillian all started speaking at the same time, each with their own interpretation.

Lacey held up a hand, indicating for them to be quiet, then pointed at Helen.

“He’s introducing himself,” Helen said.  “He wants to greet the little ones, show off, let them know who he really is.  He already started, leaving Quinton and the other animals for them.  But if he ends up staying and asking about what Emmett knows, then their first impression of him is about that as much as it is about anything else.”

“Disagree?” Lacey asked Mary and Lillian.

“Not wholly,” Mary said, while Lillian shook her head.

“You both look like you want to say something.  Mary?” Lacey asked.

“It’s part of it.  He exposes himself to danger, the longer he’s there.  He wants to act, leave an impact, and move on.  And we can’t forget that he has schemes in play.  We’re inside an organism of his making.  He has to tend to it, keep it fed, keep everything in alignment.  He’s probably running everywhere, trying to keep an eye on the Devil, on us, on the new Lambs, and on everyone that’s working for him.”

“Good,” Lacey said.  “Lillian.  Your thoughts.”

“It ties into what Helen said.  He’s trying to prove something.  Not just to the false Lambs, but to us.  He wants to show that he’s okay, that he’s strong.  He can’t negotiate with Emmett until he knows what Emmett wants and he he’s in a position of power.  So he’s backing off.  We put him on the back foot.  It’s a good thing.  Hopefully it’s a thing we can leverage later.”

“Predicated on dealing with the Devil.  Even knowing he’s a distraction,” Mary said.

Lillian sighed.

“Do you disagree?” Mary asked.

“No.  Can you and Helen handle it?  Or at least get us started?”

Mary glanced at Helen.

“I want to kill,” Helen said.  “I’m antsy.”

“We can handle it,” Mary said.  “The group that was following us backtracked a few minutes ago, there are a few stragglers.  If we deal with the stragglers, we can follow the others.  Maybe back to the Devil.”

“I don’t think we should go after the Devil just yet, unless it’s to gather information,” Lillian said.  “That was a lot of people he had running after us there.  We don’t know what kind of resources he has.”

“We’ll move as a group,” Mary suggested.  “You’re Sy’s most likely target, besides Duncan.  You stay close.”

Lillian nodded.

Helen hugged her arms, felt the joints stretch as she used her own strength to the point that she was almost damaging herself.  She felt the faint, tart-tasty rush at the sensation.

Too many parts of her brain were hungry for that sensation, and squeezing herself and stretching herself weren’t enough to sate that hunger.

“I’ll get set up first,” Lillian said.  She undid the clasps on the container she’d brought with her.  “Just in case.”

Helen fought back the eagerness by squeezing herself harder.  She’d been on the boundary of damaging herself, and now she crossed those bounds, squeezing enough that skin would bruise and muscle would be damaged.  She would be sore all night.

But it was important to keep the mask in place.

It was just her and Mary.  Helen felt that this was when Mary was most Mary and Helen was most Helen.

She was good at watching faces.  She was good at seeing how people moved.  Mary was a puppet guided by the hand of an expert puppeteer, one that had made her graceful and forceful in her movements, dangerous and stern to behold, held aloft by strings of razor wire.

It was with this keen eye for movement and expression that she saw a flicker of fear on Mary’s face.  Not because Mary had seen a daunting enemy.  No, Mary had looked back to see if Helen was keeping up, which was sometimes a problem.  Helen had let the mask of smiles and cheer drop away.  With no obvious targets to go after, she felt like a dog that had had its bone snatched away a few times before she could seize it.  Teased, frustrated, overeager now.

As Mary had looked back, she had seen the naked hunger on Helen’s face, and Helen, in turn, had seen Mary pick up her pace and move a little further away.

“Soon,” Mary said.

Soon.

She didn’t like running.  She wasn’t good at it.  The ones who had gotten ahead of them had ended up too far ahead.  Too hard to trace, and there weren’t enough other leads to follow.  They hadn’t been able to follow them back to the Devil.  Perhaps if Ashton and the other false Lambs hadn’t reached out, they might have left sooner.  But Helen was glad that Ashton had called.

Mary’s hand went up, gesturing.

Helen took the direction, scaling the side of a building.  Hooks at her wrists and the base of her toes helped provide the leverage.  She hugged the wall, stretching to reach higher, and reduce the number of times she had to lift her own body weight up to the next point.

The roof had a heavy overhang, and she had to reach back and up to make contact with it.  She gripped the underside of a board that pointed down to the ground, hard enough that her fingers bit into the wood, then let herself swing away from the wall.  She folded herself up and over the edge, then hugged the roof as she moved up and across it.

This… this was okay.

She looked back, and she saw Lillian, Lacey, and Nora trailing behind.  The group settled into a position just around the corner.  Lillian signaled to Helen, and Helen signaled back.

In the other direction, there were people.  Three men, a stitched, and a woman in a lab coat that was holding the leash of a medium-sized warbeast.  It looked canine or feline, sleek and built for running, and it had a mane that suggested something lion was in it, but it had the raw size of a bear, not a dog.

One of the men, the woman, the stitched and probably the warbeast were all Academy.  They were talking with the two other men, who looked rougher around the edges.  Criminals.  All three men and the woman were smoking.

The stitched looked strong.  It had a gun, four-barreled, and each barrel looked big enough that Helen could have put her fist into it.  A hand cannon?

This was better than okay.

While Mary got into position, moving around a building so she might be able to get at the chatting, smoking group from the other side, Helen watched them.  She looked at the expressions on their faces, the fact that the Academy group and the criminal group didn’t seem to entirely get along, the way they moved and looked frustrated.

Her lips parted slightly.  She watched them and drank them in.  The beautiful parts of them, the ugly parts of them, and all the warm, wet parts of them that she couldn’t see.

She shivered, and she put a smile on her face, watching through half-lidded eyes.

Piece by piece, she worked out how they were put together.  The humans were easy, but there were little clues.  One of the criminals limped.  He’d been hurt earlier.  He kept shifting position as he leaned against the wall, putting all of his weight on one leg, while trying to find a good position for the sore one.

The handler in the lab coat didn’t like the criminal who stood nearest to her, she didn’t laugh at his jokes, but her eyes were the same eyes that Gordon and Mary had had sometimes, before they would use all of the ingenuity and cleverness that they had learned from the Lambs to slip away from everyone’s sight.

There was an intercourse in the way those two looked at each other.  It was a given that they would enjoy each other’s company.

The stitched was harder.  He was built Bruno big, sturdy, and strong, so that he could use that cannon without falling over.  Reinforced all over.  Taking him apart and breaking him down would be a puzzle.

And the Warbeast.  She had to study the way the light from nearby streetlamps struck its muscle, showing where the muscles were and how it moved.  Where did the muscles begin and where did they end?

She suspected it was hungry.  It had been running earlier.  A faint sheen of sweat had collected on its fur and made its mane clump in strands.

Helen watched, and she felt at peace.  She studied them, and she found herself becoming intensely fond of them.  She wanted them.  She wanted to feel the way their clothes rubbed against sweaty skin, the way that that fur felt, with the sweat on it, and how, when she crushed it, it rubbed across hard, Academy-designed muscle.

Next to actually sating the instincts and impulses she had been created to have, being this close and imagining it was fine.

Mary was in position, standing inside a house, not four feet from the warbeast, with a wall and window separating them.  None too soon.  Helen might have gone in herself, if she’d had to wait any longer.

Mary signaled.  Helen signaled back.

Within a few moments, they were both making long series of gestures, reading what the other was gesturing at the same time they gestured themselves.

A negotiation.

They stopped.  Helen checked the coast was clear.

Then she let herself fall from the roof.

She knew how her own body moved.  She knew how she was put together.  She’d been awake and alert enough times as she was taken apart and examined from the inside out.

Heavy impacts could make her bleed, but it was hard for one to deliver lasting damage.  She landed on the street, letting joints dislocate with the impact, and pushing her jaw to dislocate as well.  Cartilaginous bones flexed rather than break.

She landed as a crumpled mess, twitched violently, and then went still, one eye open and staring, her jaw dislocated on the one side.

“Good Lords!” came the response.  Then, after a moment, less surprised and more shocked, “Good fucking lords.”

“That’s one of the ones we were chasing.  Where the hell did she come from?”  Criminal, by the roughness of his voice.

“Doesn’t matter, I don’t think,” the man from the Academy said.

Helen remained where she was.  She constricted muscles around one of her hearts and forced it to stop.  She let the other one slow.

“It matters.  It’s fucking weird.  Dead little girls don’t just appear out of nowhere.  The hells?”

“Language, my man,” the Academy man said.

“What do we do with it?”

“Feed it to the warbeast.  Maybe leave some pieces around for proof?  Can you do that?”

The woman spoke, “I could.

“You don’t sound pleased at the idea.”

“No.  I’m not, really,” the woman said.

Helen waited, patient.  Mary was waiting too.

After a moment, the warbeast began pacing closer.  the woman walked a short distance behind it.

Its head drew nearer.  Beautiful, lovely creature.  It sniffed.  Helen longed to bury her face in its body.  It was engineered life, fine tuned, like the intricate pieces of a watch, but it was about killing and violence, not time.  Killing and violence had brought it into this world and killing and violence would take it out, and it would be beautiful and it would become art as the circle closed.

She ached for it.

But for this, for this moment, she could put the eagerness away and be dead.  She could delay the gratification.

An idle part of her wondered if Ibbot ached.  If he experienced this.

She was his Galatea.  The woman carved according to his design.  She was to be the woman that would serve him and be his, in a way that an ordinary woman could never be.  Child and wife and partner and yet neither.  Impermanent.  He delayed his gratification by nearly twenty years.  She would become the woman he had wanted, and she would die a few years later.

She hated him and loved him, for that, as she lay dead on the street.  The warbeast opened its jaws, used massive canines to lift her arm, and then to drop it.  It fell limp to the ground.

“What the hell is wrong?  Order it to eat her.”

“I did,” the handler said.  “But we created the hunter warbeasts to hunt.  They get a diet of living prey.  They don’t eat carrion.”

Helen’s eye didn’t move as she stared at the warbeast, but she gazed on that beautiful chimera with adoration, with her own satisfaction brimming over at the knowledge that she had acted out her death sufficiently to fool the creature, and with the full knowledge she was about to destroy this creature that she loved a little.

The handler whistled, and the warbeast turned to go.

Helen moved, relying on locked muscles to hold limbs rigid where joints were dislocated.  She stroked the creature’s mane.

It jumped as if she’d stabbed it, startled now that the carrion was alive.  Her fist closed on the mane, and she hauled herself to a standing position.  One side of her jaw still dislocated, she bent over the thing, kissing it between the eyes.

It tried to bite her, turning its head, and she moved with it, hand going to the other side of its mane, her body contorting to stay out of the way of its jaws.

Her legs went around its neck, and as it moved, trying again to bite her, she shifted her grip up its head, embracing its muzzle, clamping its jaws shut with one hand.

Near her, the Academy man died, his throat slashed.

Mary appeared in the midst of the collected group, her attention on the stitched.  She moved an arm and pulled on razor wire, pulling a gun from the hand of one of the criminals.  She’d picked the right one.  Helen was glad.  She was worried the gestures hadn’t been exact enough, what with their different perspectives.

The chimera shook its head, trying to dislodge Helen, and with each movement, she shifted her grip.  Fingertips pushed past fur and into muscle and bone, finding holds there.  It turned its head, trying to pull back and away, and she forced its head to remain turned.

“Shhh,” Helen whispered, as the creature tried shaking its head to get it back into a more normal position, and she used that to turn it even further the opposite way.  She peeled off a shoe and twisted her foot around to pinch the creature’s carotid artery between her toes and the ball of her foot.

Once the artery was pinched, it didn’t take long.  It weakened swiftly, and as it stopped fighting her, she was able to adjust her hold, leveraging most of the muscles in her body to twist its head further, until the connection between the skull and the spine could no longer be maintained.

She rose to her feet, making sure to do it in a way that might unnerve those who remained.

There were only two.  The handler was working to undo the coil of chain that she had wound around her own wrist, so she wouldn’t have to hold the leash with her hand.  The second was one of the criminals, now lying on the ground, a bola around his ankles.

“You said you wanted these two.  I’m not about to question how your mind works.”

“It feels like cheating, this way,” Helen said.

“Don’t complain.  I could have killed them while you were kissing that creature.  This is me being nice.  You asked for these two, they’re yours.”

“You’re lovely,” Helen said.  She reached for the warbeast’s leash, pulling herself herself along it hand after fist as she followed it to the other end.  She looked at the handler.  “You’re lovely too.”

The handler released herself from the chain and stumbled back, while Helen lunged forward.  As if unsure that Helen would catch her quarry, Mary drew an arm back, as if to throw something.

But Helen’s fingertips caught at cloth.  She pulled that cloth into her fist, and seized it.  She had her target.  There was nothing the woman could do, now.  She could pull back and tear the cloth, but even if she did, Helen would draw forward more than she drew herself away.

Helen hauled herself closer, wrapping an arm around, and dug fingertips into the small of the woman’s back.  She drew herself close, her temple pressing against the handler’s cheek.

“Hello,” Helen greeted the handler.  “You’re going to come with me and answer questions, and then I’ll make this fast, okay?  You won’t take any more than five minutes to die.  But only if you listen.”

“What the fuck?” the woman asked.

“I want to hear you say ‘yes’,” Helen said.

The woman reached to her waist.  Again, Mary moved like she was going to throw something.  Helen moved herself into the way and grabbed the woman’s wrist before she could fully draw the knife.

“You said they were mine,” Helen said, pouting.  “Stop acting like you’re going to interfere.”

“Alright,” Mary said.  She put her weapon away and raised her hands, surrendering.

“As for you-” Helen said.  “I thought we had a compromise.”

She squeezed the wrist of the hand that held the knife until she felt things start to break under her grip.  At the same time, pressing her body against the woman’s front, she ground her fingers into the small of the handler’s back, digging into flesh in the same way she might work them into hard clay.  Blood welled out.

“He’s going to get away,” Mary observed, hands still lifted in surrender.  “You have about a minute.”

The woman’s clutching hand did nothing to break Helen’s grip.  That failed, she dug fingernails into Helen’s face.  When they didn’t penetrate, she scratched, hard.

The damage was mild at best.

Helen had been been made to do this.  Ibbot wasn’t a stupid man.  He knew victims would scratch.  They would gouge at eyes and search out weak points, try to strangle her or beat her until she was forced to let go.

He had made her so that the damage she dealt would far outpace what little damage they could do to her in turn.

Her fingers dug in deep enough that she could wrap her hand around the column of the woman’s spine, with all of the related systems and bundles.  Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the handler had fallen to the ground.

“Crawl,” Helen said.  “To him.”

The handler became the handled, as Helen walked, bent over, gripping the woman by a handle that the woman dare not break or test.  She used mostly hands, not legs, to move toward the Devil’s man, who was only just getting free of the bola.

Too slow, too slow.

“Grab him.  Hold him,” Helen said.

There was hesitation.  She adjusted her grip, tightened.

Reluctantly, the handler obeyed.

“Forward, climb further up.  That’s good,” Helen said, once the handler was lying across the man’s legs.

They’d been looking at each other, making silent promises they would be together later.

Now they were together.  There was beauty and art in that.  Both had lost the use of their legs, by bondage or by breakage.  Whether it was sympathy, reflection, balance, or whatever it was, it made sense to her.

She made sure to break one of his wrists, before seizing the other.  She held it firmly as she twisted his arm, then used her legs and other arm to bind herself around the two of them at once.  She adjusted the screaming woman’s position.

“This can end quickly,” she said.  “But you’ll want to stop screaming and start talking.  Tell us about the Devil.  Where he is, where you were supposed to go after you were done here.”

His face a mere handspan from the handler’s, the criminal blustered out a blunt, “Fuck you!”

Spittle flew from his mouth as he said it.

“If you’re okay here, I’ll make sure the others know where we are.”

“Okay,” Helen said.

She turned her attention to the man, hand flat against his belly.

She spoke, her voice soft enough it was almost drowned out by his constant cussing.  “I’m very very excited, because I get to see a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, soon.  And when I get excited I want to break people.  Usually I start from the outside in.  I break the fingers, then the hands, and then the arms.  Today, as excited as I am, I want to try something different.  I’ll reach inside of you, work past muscle and fat, and I’ll grab your organs, one by one.  I’ll start with less important ones, and I’ll crush them in my hands.  Then I’ll grab vital ones, to see what they feel like while they’re alive in my hand, and I’ll do that for a little while, until all the damage that I did in getting to them adds up and you expire.”

He’d stopped cussing and started listening.

Her fingernails made the initial dig into the flesh of his belly.

“I’ll talk!  I’ll talk!  Lords of the fucking Crown Kingdom, I’ll talk, just- please don’t.”

Her hand trembled there, against his stomach.

“I’m not very well,” she confided to him, her voice a whisper.  “And the people who would usually settle me down are preoccupied.”

“What?” he asked, bewildered.

“Nothing.  Never mind me,” she said, smiling.  “I’m going to try to be nice tonight.  You can talk, and I do my best to hold off and not squeeze bits of you into pulp.  But do try to be thorough.”

She reached up with a bloody hand to brush at his cheek, leaving a streak there.

She shifted position, still holding the woman tight against her back, and laid her head across the criminal’s chest.  It was as if he was her bed and pillow, and the handler was her blanket.  Flesh and blood and pain and warmth all together in an artificial womb she had pulled in around herself.

He spoke, telling her about the Devil, and she listened.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.3 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“-making a run for it,” Lara recited.

Duncan’s arms were folded, and his leg jiggled with the anxiety he was clearly feeling.  “Do you want us to help?  We’re not really fighters, but if you need a distraction so you can deal with them, I could provide that.  Send my dogs in, maybe.  I’d rather have you guys than my-”

Lara interrupted, “Mary: no.”

Duncan tapped his finger against his arm, thinking.

Lara spoke into the silence. “Mary: Sylvester’s going to be watching you.  He wouldn’t pledge to protect you and then take his eyes off you to see where these hired hands were going.  Lillian adds: he might have help.”

Duncan nodded.  “The rabbit.  Sylvester’s partner.”

“Mary: Exactly.”

Emmett remained silent, listening to the ongoing dialogue.  The other Lambs had been attacked.  Now the others were running, while a small army of thugs was chasing them down.

Duncan looked concerned.  Abby was hugging Quinton, but she seemed to be okay so long as she was able to do that.  Ashton seemed entirely unconcerned, which was reassuring to Emmett.

Lara, though, was shaking.  The distraction of passing on the messages wasn’t enough.

He knew what that was like.  He’d once been in a place where he was one small push from breaking down completely.  He had once been fragile.

He wished he knew what to do for Lara.  He didn’t feel fragile anymore, and he didn’t want anyone else to feel that way either.

“I think we’re on the same page.  Do you want us to stay close, just in case?”

“Mary: not too close.  Stay in range so we can talk.  But I don’t want you getting caught in this.”

“Got it.  We’re going to do what we can.  Get our attention if you need anything.”

“Lillian: thank you, Duncan.”

“That’s enough.  Thank you, Lara,” Duncan said.

“Oh.  I transcribed the first part of that,” Lara said.

“That’s fine,” Duncan said.  They had stepped into a sectioned off area beside a store, where outdoor fixtures and gardening things had been stowed outdoors for customers to look at, much of it chained to fixtures so it couldn’t be readily stolen.  Three stone walls and a gate surrounded the display area, which kept them out of view of any spying eyes.

Duncan leaned against the wall, between a fountain and a wheelbarrow loaded with Academy-designed plants, his arms still folded.  He seemed lost in thought.

Duncan, Emmett was coming to understand, was very good at what he did.  But he wasn’t very good at this.  Emmett had spent more time around doctors than he had spent around his parents, and he found himself sorting them into groups.  Duncan wasn’t in any of the good groups.  Neither was Lillian, as far as he was concerned.

Then again, Emmett couldn’t think of many people he did like that weren’t weaker than him.  He liked Abby, Lara, and Nora.  He was on the fence about Ashton, who he liked but didn’t trust.

Lara was hunched over, sitting on a crate.  Her hands, ensconced and hidden by her long sleeves, were clumsily clutching at each other through the fabric.

Emmett wanted to say something, but he never knew what to say.  He remained silent.

“Lara,” Ashton said.

Lara froze.

“It’s okay,” Ashton said.  He reached for her hands, and put his hand over top of them.  “The Lambs are very good at what they do.  There’s no need to worry.  Your sister is safer with them with enemies around than we are here with no enemies.”

Lara remained frozen, staring down at Ashton’s hand.  She ventured, “…doesn’t make me feel better.  Now I’m worried for different reasons.”

“It’s fine,” Duncan said.  “Look, it’s nearly time to turn in.  I want to stay available, and I’d like to make some headway before we go to sleep for the night.”

“I don’t really sleep,” Lara pointed out.  “I have to be awake to give and send communications, so they engineered the need for sleep out of me.  I con-”

“I know,” Duncan said, stopping her.  “I’ve read your file.  I know.  I understand, okay?”

“Okay,” Lara said, dropping her eyes.  “Every night I sit in the dark while everyone else is asleep, hearing all the creaks of the buildings and the noises from outside.  I imagine the worst.  They engineered the fear into me, like they engineered the sleep out.  I’m not as afraid of the dark, because I can see in the dark, just a little, but-”

Lara,” Duncan said.

Lara went quiet.

Emmett shifted his stance, restless.

Duncan reminded him of Professor Gosse, the second professor to look after him.  Not a bad man, exactly, not a stupid man, but sometimes careless.  Every time Duncan spoke, a small part of Emmett worried it would be a careless sort of speaking, and one of the others would get hurt.

“You talk with your sister, don’t you?” Duncan asked.

“Sometimes,” Lara said, quiet.  “But we’re not supposed to do it unless we have to.  We’re supposed to keep our ears and our eyes open for danger.”

“I’m assuming you’re talking with her more than you’re supposed to,” Duncan said.

Lara went silent.

“I’m not going to report you or make you stop,” Duncan said, sounding impatient.  “I just want to understand the tools I’m working with.”

“I talk with her most of the night,” Lara confessed.

Emmett, given the choice, might have told her to lie.  Because Doctors lied, and Duncan and Doctor Gosse were of a type to lie more than most.

“That’s fine,” Duncan said, and Emmett had no idea if he was lying or telling the truth.  “You’ll have your sister to talk to, and, because we’re on a mission, we’ll be sleeping in shifts.  Each member of our group here will spend an hour or two awake, sitting with you, and keeping an eye and an ear out for trouble.  If you’re not talking to your sister, you can talk to them or to me.  Provided you’re also keeping watch.”

“Okay,” Lara said.

While Duncan was talking, Ashton was working.  Lara seemed to be calming down.

Emmett let himself relax a little.  He wondered momentarily if the fact that he was relaxing had anything to do with Ashton.

“Plan is same as the old plan, with a few changes.  We’ll walk around the neighborhood, get a feeling for what we’re dealing with and see if there are any opportunities to gather information.”

Emmett nodded alongside the others, Lara excepted.  She seemed distracted.

She was thinking about Nora, no doubt.

“Emmett,” Abby spoke, as Duncan led the way out of the enclosure.  Emmett looked down at the girl.  Quinton was asleep on her lap.

“Can you take him?” she asked.  “I don’t think I can carry him without waking him up.”

Emmett nodded, reaching.  The lamb roused some as it was transferred into his arms, then stretched, poking into the muscles of his stomach and his ribs.  It settled down in the cradle of his arms.

Abby, meanwhile, picked up speed to catch up with the others, casting a backward glance at Emmett.

He liked Quinton too, and found himself counting the creature alongside Abby and Lara.  The lamb reminded him of the distant past.  Of being a great deal younger, of being very weak and having a hard time moving around, with an indistinct, furry, strong companion that would sit with him and stare out the window.  His childhood dog that he couldn’t remember the name of, a big creature with messy black fur that had shed everywhere.

The similarities between Quinton and his old dog were few to none, but they were there, they were loyal, and they were warm.

He hadn’t had much warmth in his life, and he didn’t feel like he could ask for it from any of his new companions.

Abby appeared in front of him, reached up above her eye level, and gripped the end of the sleeve of his shirt, up near his bicep.  She tugged him off course.

No, on course.  He’d been focusing too much on Quinton, lagging behind.  Now Abby led him to the others.

What would others think, seeing this?  It was late, but there were people out on the street.  Some were organized into groups, which Duncan had surmised was a kind of organization of members of the neighborhood.  An effort to be proactive in looking out for fire and for trouble.  Others were escaping from the stifling heat indoors and enjoying the breeze, talking with neighbors and family members.

He looked back to see if the little girl leading the very large little boy was drawing any attention.

It wasn’t, except from one set of eyes.  Emmett stopped in his tracks, trying to confirm what he’d seen, but the figure was already turning, disappearing toward the back of a crowd.  As Abby kept walking and he stopped, her hand slipped from his sleeve.

“Emmett?”

Sylvester.

“You saw something,” Abby said.

Emmett nodded.

“Sylvester?”

He nodded again, even though he wasn’t entirely sure.  It was such an odd mental image, Sylvester brazenly walking through the crowd toward their group, when they were the ones who were hunting him.

It had been a glimpse, nothing more.

He was caught between wanting to chase and wanting to catch up with the others.

Abby reached up, taking his sleeve, and tugged.

She wanted to go to the others.

Okay.

He let her lead, glancing back to look for Sylvester.  Nothing.

They had to jog to catch up with the others.  Duncan had stopped.  Lara perked up on seeing them.  Ashton was holding one of her sleeves.

“What happened?” Duncan asked.

“Sylvester,” Abby said.  “Emmett saw him.”

Duncan looked at Emmett.  “You did?”

Reluctantly, Emmett opened his mouth and said, “I think.”

“Okay,” Duncan said.  “That’s… good, I think.  Keep an eye out.”

Emmett nodded.  He didn’t miss the fact that Duncan was letting out the slack on the leashes that led to his tentacle-dogs, giving them more room to move.

Duncan and his tentacle-dogs led the way, while Emmett watched the rear, Abby staying near him.  Ashton and Lara remained in the center of the group, where Lara seemed most secure.

They carried out the original plan, doing a quick circuit of the neighborhood, with the building they were staying in somewhere near the center of the loop.  The building was one of Bergewall’s dormitories, but maintained more vacancies than most due to its distance from the building.

They were nearly finished closing the circuit, with no more Sylvester sightings, when a voice called out.  “You!  Children!”

The group came to a stop.  It was an older woman standing in a doorway, smoking a cigarette, who had called to them.

“Hello,” Abby said.

“Hello, little one.  You shouldn’t be out like this.”

“We heard there was some trouble,” Duncan said.

“Most of the local children have gone into hiding, or been sent out of the city,” the woman said.  “Why on earth are you out?  At night, even?  Taking your work out for a walk?”

“Yes,” Duncan said.  He smiled.  “Something like that.”

“You’re asking for trouble,” she said.  She paused, “Odd-looking bunch, that.”

“We are, and they are,” Duncan said.

“The little red haired one is nice looking enough.  I don’t suppose he spits acid or anything of the sort?”

Duncan reached forward, giving Ashton a light push on the shoulder.  Ashton approached the stairs, smiling.  He spoke, “No, ma’am.”

“Polite,” she observed.  “Are you an experiment too?”

“Yes ma’am, and I try.  I learned a lot from the Good Simon books.”

“I read those to my children and grandchildren,” the woman said.  She lifted her cigarette to her lips and puffed.  “My eldest grandchild asked for them to be read one after the other.  I wanted to slap the self-righteous smirk off the Simon character’s face by the fifth read.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  His expression went carefully blank.

“Don’t envy you, having to learn from those books.”

“I like the books,” Ashton said.  “And I like Good Simon.”

“Oh?” the woman asked.  She paused, realizing what she’d just said.  “Sorry.”

“I don’t like cigarettes, either,” Ashton said.

Emmett saw Duncan react to that, turning his head to look this way and that, searching for spying eyes.

“Well I do,” the woman said.  “So if you don’t like them, then you can scurry along.”

“I wanted to ask you more things,” Ashton said, stepping closer.  “About the children, and the gangs, and the danger.  Please.”

Off to the side, Duncan looked at the back of his hand, like he was looking at his watch.

“I was enjoying a nice, quiet evening smoke,” the woman said.  “Now it’s not as nice, and it’s not as quiet.  You want to take my cigarette away from me too?  Scurry off.”

“I know, I understand,” Ashton said.  “But you have children and grandchildren.  You would want them to be safe, don’t you?  Can’t you tell us more?”

“If you’re trying to manipulate me, then you’re going to have to try harder than that,” she said, stiffening.

“I’m sorry,” Duncan said.  He smiled.  “We’re trying to socialize it.  Ashton there is a remarkable work of art, but he’s sensitive at times.  And he’s sensitive to smoke.”

“For something with ‘ash’ in its name, I find that ironic,” the woman said.  Duncan chuckled.

Then he reached into a back pocket and withdrew a carton of cigarettes.  He held it up between two fingers.  “Put it out so you don’t hurt him, tell us something about what areas to stay clear of, and I’ll resupply you.”

The woman moved her head to see better, and Duncan adjusted the angle he held the package, to better show.

“Not my brand,” she said, sour.

“Offer stands,” Duncan said, not budging.

She dropped her cigarette, and she stepped on it.

“Thank you,” Ashton said.

“Uh huh.  I’m doing this for the cigarettes, not you.”

“Thank you all the same,” Ashton said.

Emmett felt like it wasn’t quite the tone Ashton should be striking.  That if he thought back to the boys and girls he used to go to school with, it would have seemed too ‘teacher’s pet’ or goody-two-shoes.

Then again, Ashton reveled in being the goody-two-shoes.

“I see you’re still very polite, even after I was snooty,” the woman said.  “If only all the doctors in the world took such care with their work.  We might not have this runaway plague.”

“Yes ma’am.  I meant to ask, are your children safe?”

“My children are old, Ashton.  My grandchildren were sent to live with their aunt and uncle on the outskirts of the city.”

“I see,” Ashton said.  “I hope they’re okay.”

“I’m sure they will be,” the woman said.

“You said the other children are in hiding.  Do you know where they went?”

“I don’t,” the woman said.  She leaned against the railing that stood beside her front steps.  “I don’t pay much attention to the ones I’m not related to.”

“You called out to us to warn us,” Ashton said, earnest.  “I think you pay more attention to us than you pretend.”

“Perhaps,” the woman said.  She allowed Ashton a small smile.

“We’re trying to find people,” Ashton said.  “Do you know who is after the children?”

“They call him the Devil.  Dangerous one.  Rumor was the fires were his fault.  Something like that.  Now his people are roaming here and there.  Knocking on doors of houses where children are known to live.  Thankfully, virtually all of them were evacuated.”

“Virtually?” Emmett asked, abrupt.  As with almost any time he spoke, it seemed to surprise the people around him.

“Yes.  A few were picked up here and there.  They returned to their parents shortly after.  The taxes we pay to the Crown seem to be supplying us with a strong hand of law, if nothing else.”

“Some else,” Ashton said.  “Like me.  And my friends.”

“I suppose so,” the woman said, smiling despite herself.

Emmett felt secret relief that it seemed nobody had been hurt.

“I think, and this isn’t a very good piece of information, but in the interest of helping you as much as I can…” the woman said, trailing off.

Ashton smiled, and the woman smiled back.

“…There’s a place where the local children congregate.  Mostly vagrant children, I think.  They call it the ‘yard’.  It sits at the one o’clock position on the western lake, if you want to walk the perimeter.”

“That’s very useful,” Ashton said.  “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, Ashton,” she said.

“We should go,” Duncan said.

“Okay,” Ashton said.  “Thank you, miss.”

Duncan tossed Ashton the carton.  Ashton handed it to the woman.

“Thank you, little sir,” she said.

They left the woman behind, and continued on their way.

“You’re a dangerous creature,” Duncan observed, covering his mouth, “And I just gave up the cigarettes that are supposed to be a countermeasure to you, if I run out of the pills.”

“You can get more,” Ashton said.

“I have more in my luggage.  That’s not the point.”

“What’s the point?” Ashton asked.

“The point is that it’s inconvenient, I’m tired, and I want to grouse,” Duncan said.  He raised his hand to his mouth, yawning, and Emmett could only barely hear the words on Duncan’s part.  “And I want to mislead him.”

Mislead.

Emmett gathered the true intention of that little discussion.  Working to get the woman to extinguish her cigarettes, dropping hints.  Duncan wanted to pretend weakness where none existed.

Emmett wondered how effective it would be.  In the brief moments where he’d been in the room while Mary and Lillian talked about Sylvester, they kept describing him as being virtually impossible to outmaneuver.

As the Duncan and Ashton pair continued their conversation, Emmett felt a tug at his arm.  Abby was putting a hand on his arm and walking on her tiptoes to see Quinton sleeping.

“He likes you,” she whispered.

Emmett nodded.  Up until now, he’d only acted as a pillow to Quinton.

To Abby, the shared bond with Quinton had become something else.  The three little ones were all the same height and they had an interplay.  Ashton reassured both, while Emmett needed none of that.  They were all vat children, and Emmett had once been an ordinary, if ill boy.

He had been small for his age, and sickly, to the point that his mother alone couldn’t care for him.  In the end, faced with endless costs for his care on the one hand, and a promise of payment from the Academy on the other, they had decided to sell him.

That was, he was fairly sure, a common experience for most of them.  Not for Duncan, and not so much for Ashton, but for the two girls.  Being alone.  Now forged into a group.  It wasn’t the case with the primary group of Lambs.  They had been a group from the beginning.

Except now they weren’t.  Sylvester was the enemy now.

“I think the Lambs-” Lara started.

“Shh,” Duncan cut her off, raising a hand.

She flinched at the sound and the hand, and Emmett could feel his proverbial hackles raise at that.  Protective instinct.  Had he not been holding Quinton, he might have seized Duncan’s wrist.

He was aware of how strong he was.  He had spent a full year learning to use this body, and he had only had it for two, really.  They had taken his head, his spine, his ribs, and many organs from his torso, and they had transplanted it into a body.  He had two ribcages, one nestled in the other, and now his original form and the healthy body he’d been given grew in concert.  The body still felt alien, on a level, and he’d had to take so many tests and undergo so much therapy that he’d had to develop an innate sense of his physical power, condensed into one form.  Every movement was easy, and that included breaking things, be it a fork or a human wrist.

Duncan didn’t even seem to notice what Emmett was doing, or the reaction he’d gotten from Emmett or from Lara.

He didn’t seem to notice the significance that Emmett carefully handed off Quinton to Abby, so his hands would be free if he needed to act.

“Shh,” Duncan said, firmly.  “We don’t talk about what any of you are capable of.  For all we know, he’s listening.”

“Yes,” Lara said.

“Is it important?”

“No,” Lara said.

“Good,” Duncan said.  He sighed.  “If it’s important, we’ll take a detour and get somewhere safe to discuss it, where we can be reasonably sure we won’t be overheard.  Information is at a premium here.”

Lara nodded.

She flinched slightly as Duncan lowered the hand he’d held up.

Emmett watched for a moment later before making himself react.  His body was more adult than his head was, sometimes.  He knew the rushes of hormones and emotion were sometimes over the top.  But he’d found his peace, at some point between when he’d thought he was going to die and the two years where he’d worked at grasping this new life he’d been given.  He was secure, mostly, and for the most part, he could put those feelings away.

But he’d seen the bad doctors.  The malicious and evil ones, which weren’t anything like Lillian and Duncan, and he’d seen the ones who had been unable to see the forests for the trees.  He was on guard.

Duncan declared, “We can put off seeing the other children at the yard until tomorrow.  For now, we’ll finish this patrol, and we’ll get settled for the night.  All of this paranoia about Sylvester is likely for nothing.  He showed himself earlier, but with Sylvester, when you assume or expect something, the opposite is usually in the works.  He probably wanted us to be on the lookout, while he’s busy interfering with the others.  Draws your attention one way, then hits you from the other.”

No sooner was he done speaking than a small dark object bounced off of Duncan’s head.

“Lords!” Duncan cussed, one hand going to his head.

“Duncan,” Ashton said, backing away and pointing.

The small dark object was now billowing into a visible cloud of smoke or gas.  A grenade or canister.  Duncan backed away from it, but in the doing, wasn’t wholly able to keep his pets away from it.  One of them ran through the cloud, then dropped to the road.  The other panicked, hurling itself to one side, pulling Duncan off balance.

“He’s here!” Ashton called out.

The cloud was spreading, and Emmett noted another, just off to the side.  Between the two, they had cut off their ability to progress further down the street.

What had Duncan just said?  Draws your attention one way, then hits you-

Emmett wheeled around.

He saw the fabled rabbit that had been moving ahead of them, dropping gifts off.  A man, taller than a man should be, thin to the point that it looked like he should break under his own weight, with modified arms, legs, and feet, with the head of an oversized rabbit in place of his own.

The rabbit stared with bloodshot eyes that pointed in slightly different directions as it half-walked, half-ran across the street behind them, letting go of more canisters.  They hadn’t even started to smoke by the time the rabbit had picked up speed and carried on his way.

“Son of a bitch!” Duncan said.

Canisters of gas ahead of them, canisters behind, and buildings on either side.  Boxed in.

The gas was blowing into the box, too.

“Sylvester!” Duncan called out.

“Calm down,” came the voice, from the other side of the smoke.  A young man’s voice, not fully mature.  “I’m just here to talk.  Worst the gas will do is knock you out and give you a bad headache.”

“I’m not here to negotiate or give you any information, Sylvester,” Duncan said, raising his voice.

“Neither am I, Duncan,” Sylvester said.  “Matter of fact, I’m not even here to talk to you.  I’m here to introduce myself to them.  The little ones.”

The little ones.

Emmett bent down, seized Abby by the ribs, and lifted her up.  She was holding Quinton, who had woken to the raised voices and was now bleating.  Emmett set her down so she was sitting on his shoulders.

Poor Lara was quaking, not sure where to look or what to do.

He made sure she knew what he was doing before he picked her up too, lifting her up and out of the way of the smoke.  She clutched at him, face buried into his shoulder, shaking like a leaf, and in the midst of the hug, she stabbed and gouged him a half-dozen times.

He reached for Ashton, but Ashton shook his head.

“I’m okay,” Ashton said.  “I have good filters.”

Emmett nodded.

“-you’re going to come back with us!” Duncan called out.

“You’re so tiresome,” Sylvester said.  “Here’s the deal, Duncan.  I want you to shut up.  So either you sit in the corner and stay quiet, or I’ll start tossing the remainder of my grenades at you.  Then you’ll have to decide.  Do you stay where you are and get knocked out, wake up with a vicious hangover, or do you retreat to where they are, betray your shiny new team, and ensure that nobody wins, I have to do this again at a later date, and all of you get bad headaches?”

“What if I call your bluff?” Duncan asked.  “How many of these things can you have?”

Emmett could hear the clink of the small object against a solid surface.

“Ah,” Duncan said.

Duncan could have retreated, but he remained where he was as the cloud expanded, covering one corner of the ‘box’ that Sylvester had created.

There was a long pause, then a sound of footsteps, very deliberately working at being audible footsteps.  Theater.

“Sort of glad he didn’t move back toward you guys.  I can’t throw quite that far, and I had only the one grenade left.  The Witch had limited stocks of stuff,” Sylvester said.

Emmett tried to track the voice.  It was possible to throw something, aiming to hit Sylvester, but he wasn’t sure it was a good idea, and he would have had to put the girls down and in the way of the gas.

“I suppose the spokesman for the group will be Ashton, huh?” Sylvester asked.  “Hi Ashton.”

He was standing in the midst of the noxious cloud.  His silhouette was briefly visible, now and then.  Shorter than Duncan, taller than the three experiments that Emmett was standing by.

“Hi Sylvester,” Ashton said.

“Bringing you guys into play was a good move.  Because I can’t leave you alone.  And they know it.  Now I’m trying to figure out what to do with you all.”

“Come stand next to me and breathe deeply,” Ashton said.

There was a pause, then a light cough.  “Are you actually developing a sense of humor, Ashton?”

“No,” Ashton said.  “But I saw you ask Duncan politely and it worked, so I thought I would try it and see what happened.”

“I’m not going to do that, Ashton.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t suppose any of you would be up for negotiation?” Sylvester asked.  “I’ve been watching you.  I know half of you can’t stand Duncan and the other half of you don’t feel at home here.

“I can stand Duncan, and I like it here,” Ashton said.

“There’s overlap,” Sylvester said.

“Okay.”

“I’m just floating the idea.  Planting the seeds in your heads.  There’s got to be a better way.  A way that Abby gets all the animals she could want, and Lara gets to feel safe.  A way that Emmett gets to have the rest of you.”

Emmett felt Lara clutch him tighter at the mention of her name, claws digging past fabric and into his shoulder and side.

“You left me out,” Ashton said.

“You can stand Duncan, and you like it here, remember?” Sylvester asked.

“Oh.  Ok.”

Emmett spoke, without realizing he’d meant to.  “That isn’t what I want.  Them.  That’s not what I need.”

“Emmett?” Sylvester asked.  “You sound younger than you look.  It’s nice to meet you.”

Emmett didn’t respond to the pleasantry.

“What do you want, Emmett?” Sylvester asked.  “I can’t promise the world, but I can’t just see them raise up another generation of Lambs, fake or not, and let it be without at least offering.”

“I want to negotiate, like you said,” Emmett said.

Excellent,” Sylvester said.  His voice was coming from over where Duncan was.  “Where do we start?  What do you want, Emmett?”

Emmett was not a boy of many words.  He’d gotten out of the habit of talking, after years of being sick and years of isolation, being stuck in a lab with nobody to talk to but the doctors who asked him things about his condition and nothing else.

He took a long moment to think carefully about what he wanted to say next.  Whether the others would agree with this, even though they had discussed it before.

He had been a major transplant to an artificial body.  There hadn’t been much to do while he grew up, in a sleepy, specialist Academy, so they had given him every test under the sun.  When Professor Hayle started looking for the special cases, the unique brains, his scoring had been just high enough to get a cursory look.  There hadn’t been many to pick from, as evidenced by the collection of Abby, and he’d been brought along to round out this secondary group.

A benefit of being quiet was that one could listen, and he’d listened.  He had been there while they had discussed strategy, all the individual tools and tricks.  It had started, according to Mary, back in Radham.  A woman who knew Sylvester and the other Lambs had appeared to deliver a note.  The Lambs had talked to her.

And when they had talked about something that the woman had shared with them, that might be useful as leverage, he had taken a risk, and he had shared a detail.

Now he would share it with Sylvester.

“I was sick, once,” he said.  “They gave me a new body.”

“They gave me a new brain, kind of,” Sylvester quipped, as if this was the most casual conversation in the world.

“Yes,” Emmett said.  “Before they did that, they gave you a drug, to wipe away your memories.  But for me, my situation was bad.  I had to get surgery right away, or I would have died.”

There was silence, now.  No quip, no casual conversation.

Sylvester had already followed this thread to its logical conclusion.

“They gave me the drug after, but it wasn’t enough.  I remember things,” Emmett said.  “And these things relate to what the other Lambs have told me.  You, me, Mary Cobourn, the boy who was put together like a living stitched-”

“Gordon,” came the voice.

“-and Jamie, and countless others.  You asked the Baron where the children go.  It seemed to matter to you.” Emmett said.  “I was almost one of them.  I can tell you what I remember, that all the rest of you don’t.”

There was no response.

“We can negotiate,” Emmett said, to the darkness and the clouds of poison. “I’ll hear your offer.”

Sylvester didn’t make one.  Minutes passed, and the gas began to dissipate.  When it was all gone, so was the rogue Lamb.

Emmett nodded to himself.  I’ll hear your offer when you’re ready to make it.

He looked at Ashton, who stood to one side, looking intrigued at the goings-on.

He crossed to where Duncan had collapsed, still holding Lara against his chest and bearing Abby and Quinton on his shoulders and head, respectively.

Duncan’s face had been painted on with ink during the conversation.  ‘Wanker’ had been drawn across his forehead, the end of his nose was now blue, the space between nose and lips and his lips painted to make him look like a cat or a dog.

Bending down, careful not to drop those he already held, he set down Abby, and scooped up Duncan and the fallen dogs.

“Time for bed?” Abby asked.

Emmett nodded, letting Abby and Quinton lead the way to their dormitory.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.2 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

There was a knock on the door of the automobile.  Helen was the one to open the door.  Lillian waited for Nora, Lacey and Mary to climb out before she made her way out.

Immediately, her focus was on her surroundings.  The corners of the garage they had pulled into, the little windows that looked in from the top of the double-doored gate and from the rear of the room.  It was dark enough she couldn’t see clearly, but the gleams of reflected light from outside and from the open door in front of her made her momentarily think she’d seen Sylvester’s face or the lenses of Jamie’s glasses.

The Academy officer who had knocked on the automobile’s door now closed that same door.  He stared down at her as if she’d somehow wronged him.  It reminded her of her dad, and the expression he’d worn when, so soon after they’d left the Academy, her parents had been intercepted and sent back to sit in while she was interrogated about Sylvester’s disappearance.

He hadn’t believed her.  If anything, her father had believed her less than the Academy interrogators had.  Maybe that was her own bias, her fears and her disappointment in her father coloring her perceptions.

She quickly retreated from the dark garage and the officer’s expression, entering the building and closing the door behind her.  Lacey was talking to a very attractive forty-something man in fine clothing that was nonetheless drab in color.  He had black hair going gray at the temples and a shrewd expression.  Even though it was later in the evening and he had bags under his eyes speaking to a long day, his eyes were clever and focused as he talked to Lacey.  He looked like the sort of man who shaved twice a day just to banish the possibility of a five o’clock shadow, and who likely had his hair trimmed once a week.  Very possibly the owner of this spacious home.

The officer from the garage passed her, carrying their bags into the house.

With Lacey arranging their accommodations and everything calm for the moment, Lillian felt it safe to simply retreat back, lean against the wall by the door, and close her eyes, holding her hand firmly against her heart.  It was pounding, despite the fact that things were as quiet as they were.

Her recent thoughts of her dad were part of it.  It reminded her of dealing with her parents, so soon after Sylvester had told her that they had betrayed her.  That they had, after pushing her her entire life, cut her down before she reached her goal.  Tried to keep her black coat from her.

Those days and hours after Sylvester had left had been filled with so much doubt, they had been so hard.  She hadn’t been able to think about recent events without wanting to break down into sobs, hadn’t known what the future held in store.  Past and future effectively baited with pitfalls and doubt.

It might have been something she could have handled better if she had known who to trust, which shoulders she could lean on.  Sylvester’s words, as much as she believed them, had to be analyzed, second-guessed, so she hadn’t even been sure if her parents were the traitors he’d so casually painted them as.  Mary had been gone, Helen in Ibbot’s custody, Ashton not available, and Jamie hadn’t been around for long before he’d bolted too.

The interrogation had involved injections of drugs that made her emotional, drugs that made words tumble more freely from her lips, and drugs that made it hard to keep track of what she was saying, the memories disappearing to the abyss of hour-long blackouts, so she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t contradicting something else she had said in the midst of those lost memories.

Two days and two nights of questioning with different investigators taking turns, each one focusing on different things.  She had already been emotionally drained by the loss of Sylvester alone, but everything else on top of it- if it hadn’t been for the lingering effects of the Wyvern dose that gave her the ability to maintain some control her own feelings and her thought processes, she might have succumbed.

What that might have looked like, she wasn’t sure.  It might have been coming to the conclusion that Sylvester had lied to her about her parents, just so she could hug her mom and talk civilly to her father.  It might have been allowing herself to slip, allowing a mistake or a lie to become apparent, so that the unrelenting pressure could stop.

‘Succumbing’ might have been allowing herself to come to hate the Academy and what it was doing to her.

She felt hands envelop her own, which were still gripped together, pressed over her heart.  Her first thought, against all logic, was Sylvester.

It was Mary.

“I would have given you a hug, but you’re leaning against the wall,” Mary murmured.

Lillian moved away from the wall, hugging Mary, who hugged her back.

“Are you okay?” Mary asked.  “Your heart is racing.”

“I can’t seem to calm down,” Lillian said.

“Fear?  Excitement?  Both are okay,” Mary said.

“It’s both,” Lillian murmured.

Mary didn’t answer, but nodded.  She pulled away from the hug, taking Lillian’s hands and holding both as she leaned against the wall beside Lillian, their arms a kind of overlapping tangle in front of them.

Helen stood a short distance away, smiling at them, placid and calm in a way that Lillian wasn’t at all.  Nora stood with her back against Helen’s front.  The little girl had her hood pulled down, which was normal, while Helen played with the long sleeves that hid her hands.  In the process, Helen moved the little girl’s arms this way and that, in a kind of dance that didn’t use the head, body, or legs.

“Lillian?” Lacey asked.

“Mm?” Lillian raised her head, focusing on the present.  She broke away from Mary and approached.  “What’s going on?”

“This is Professor Johannes Mistry.  He’s-”

“-The headmaster of Corinth Crown Academy and Laboratories,” Lillian finished, realizing.  She stepped forward, taking the man’s hand just as he started to extend it.  Too quick, perhaps; her thoughts and timing were befuddled by the humiliating awareness that the man had no doubt seen her hugging Mary and holding Mary’s hands.  It was a childlike thing to be doing in front of someone respected and prominent.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, headmaster,” she said, clasping his hand in her own and offering him a short curtsy.

“And I you,” the man replied.  “Your old mentor is making waves, you know.  I can respect a man who anticipates a need and is prepared to meet it as it first arises.  People are paying attention to what he’s doing and the moves he’s been making behind the scenes… and I know you two had a hand in one of his projects.”

Lillian managed a smile, curtsying again, as she glanced at Lacey.  “We were, headmaster.”

“But for a girl as capable as you, sixteen or seventeen years old, to look at you, someone mentored by Headmaster Hayle, I find myself wondering why you would need a chaperone.”

“Ah,” Lacey said, “I can explain that, sir.  I’m not quite a chaperone.  I’m here in the capacity of an expert.  I worked on one of the projects we’re hunting now.”

“The same individual who is responsible for a third of my Academy being caught up in a fire?”

“The very same, I regret to say,” Lacey said.

“I see,” the man said, his eyes and chin dropping a fraction.  For a moment, the circles under his eyes seemed deeper, he seemed more tired, and a darker emotion like frustration or anger seemed about to erupt.  Then he changed the angle of his head, looking up at Lacey once more, and the light hit the circles under his eyes and the lines of his face in a different way, and the emotion was gone.  There was no eruption.

Lillian momentarily wished she could see the world through Sylvester’s eyes and know whether the man really was angry and good at bottling it in, or if it was a trick of the mind.

She wished, in a way, that she had the talent Duncan had when it came to gauging when and where to call for favors, because she had an idea of what was going to come up in the conversation.

“I worry he’s going to act again, and I’m not equipped to handle it if he does.”

Okay, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind, Lillian thought.  An admission of weakness.

These wheelings and dealings could be so difficult sometimes.  It took work to stay on top of things.

“I won’t lie to you,” Lacey said, firm, “It’s likely he will.  It’s our hope that we’ll be in place to stop him when he does.  Or that he’ll be distracted enough by our presence that he isn’t any further trouble to you.”

Well done, Lillian thought.  It sounded like the words that she would have wanted to say, but that was meaningless in retrospect.

“What resources do you need?  My hands are partially tied what with the fire damage, but I’d like to help.”

There it was.  Lillian had expected the offer.  She also knew that there was a kind of game to the political dealings.  What had Duncan called it?  Double trouble.  Take a favor from the wrong person and you could be expected to give up twice the number of favors in interest.

This was his wheelhouse she was in, while he was busy immersing himself in hers.

Still, she told herself that she had to learn sometime.

“You’ve already given us a great deal of help,” Lillian said.

She wasn’t wholly certain of that statement, but it was ambiguous enough, and she was reasonably certain that he was the one who was providing a place for them to stay for the night.

“Providing you with rooms, a bath, a base of operations, and a few meals is the bare minimum,” the man said.  “I would be indebted if I could do something more substantial to help.”

That wording meant she was safe from the trap.  The sharp look in his eyes reminded her of Sylvester, a little.  A tacit acknowledgement of the game they were playing.  Her response had been just right, stopping short of seizing on the favor.  His response had been something of a wink and a nod of that fact.

She liked him a little more, seeing that, and then the feeling got into a blurry space, and she felt a little gross about liking an old man in one of the same ways she liked Sylvester.

“There’s a list of chemicals.  Some are used in the modified study drug that Sylvester takes.  Some are hard to obtain on their own.  It’s a shot in the dark, but he might use the fire and the chaos at your Academy to obtain a batch.  If he can’t find the drug itself.”

“What chemicals?” the headmaster asked her.

“I can write them down,” Lillian said.  She reached for the pen she kept in her pocket.

“Say them.  I’ll remember.”

Lillian turned to Lacey, who immediately recited, “Ifosfamide, carmustine, felotane, venenum A through G, I, N through P, and T.”

“That’s familiar enough.  Depending on other ingredients and ratios, could include the combat drug Cicuta?” the headmaster asked.  “Or C-G Temero?”

“Wyvern,” Lacey said.  “Modified, and in high P-concentration, for Sylvester’s project.”

“Ah.  I’ve used that regularly enough, often with other drugs to dull the pain after injection,” the man said.  “Should I have my people look for any stolen pain medications?  I’d imagine he’d have some dependencies.”

“None,” Lillian said.  “The P-concentration is too high.  He took doses high enough that nothing would put a dent in it, from the beginning to the present.”

The headmaster nodded, seemed to consider for a moment, then shook his head a fraction.  “I could almost bring myself to feel some sympathy for him.  Almost.  He did burn down a lot of my Academy.”

Almost sympathetic, Lillian agreed.  It was a good summary of her own feelings at this point in time.

“Still, I half expected losses to war, but the worst of the war didn’t reach this far west.  Lugh, yes, but that’s further north.  Some rebel groups recruited, but nothing significant.  Then there was the plague, and I expected the worst.  Dodged that bullet.  I was bracing myself for something, so I’m not as shocked or bothered as I might be.”

“Yes sir,” Lillian said.  She wasn’t sure how else to respond.

“Aggregate?” the headmaster asked.

“None,” Lillian said, then she reversed course, “Sorry, no, not none.  He would have picked some up at any one of the last few stops he made.  But the ingredients we listed off are controlled substances-”

“-And several of them are only available by way of doctors with a specific focus or level of access.  And I and many of my personnel are a rare concentration of such.”

“Yes, headmaster,” Lillian said.  “If I could ask, we heard tell of a gang war in the city?”

“Yes,” the headmaster said.  He frowned.  “The spark of that particular war was started and ignited by your quarry, the young man.  I can tell you what I know.”

Mary, Helen, and Nora had drawn nearer.  Helen had her arms around Nora’s shoulders.

The Apostle’s men, the dominant gang, had been beheaded.  The underground drug runners, led by a matriarchal succession of leaders, each of whom were dubbed ‘the Witch’, had seen its leader drowned in a chemical vat.  The Witch’s drugs had been used to mount a chemical attack on a district, capping off a night of murder and arson.  All of which paved the way for the explosion at the train station.

There were others, all small players.  The Barren, who were a rebel splinter group of Cynthia’s, the Devil’s Men, the Bergewall Neddies, and the Skippers.  Some had been caught up in Sy’s murdering spree.

“That helps, thank you, headmaster,” Lillian said.  “Just getting the lay of the land from someone who lives here.”

The man smiled, gesturing as if tipping his hat.  Lillian smiled back.

“Can I ask about the missing children?”  Mary asked.

“Missing?  Some have been evacuated or taken somewhere safe.  The ones without anyone to look after them are running for the hills.  Your quarry is likely responsible for that particular instance.”

“Sylvester?” Lillian asked.  She looked at Lacey, then back to the headmaster Mistry.  “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It doesn’t fit his character.”

“Keeping in mind that I have a very low esteem for his character,” Lacey said, “I have to agree.  He doesn’t have anything against children.”

“From what I understand, it’s his eagerness to protect children that drew the ire of the collected gangs, with the Apostle heading the aggressive stance,” the headmaster said.

“That’s… not impossible,” Lillian allowed.  “But he’s more mindful of long-term strategy than that.”

“I don’t know enough to say,” the headmaster said, “But people change.  People on heavy loads of experimental drugs can shift in personality.”

Lillian nodded.  The idea of Sylvester changing like that scared her more than she wanted to admit, but she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to believe it.  Still, she wasn’t about to argue the point with the headmaster.

“I’ll keep that in mind, headmaster,” she said, “and I’ll hope there’s another explanation.”

Mary spoke up, “If he’s changed that much, he might be that much harder to catch, and that much more dangerous.”

“Very true,” Headmaster Mistry agreed.  “Though hard to imagine, considering the chaos he managed to inflict on this city.”

The collected Lambs nodded their heads.

“Have you eaten?” the man asked.

“We ate on the road, headmaster,” Lacey said.

“We’d like to drop off our things, if it’s no trouble, we’ll rest for the night, and get underway tomorrow.  We have friends who are busy elsewhere.”

“If you’re sure,” the man said.

“Yes, headmaster.”

“Your rooms are just around the hall.  One of you will have to sleep on the cot I had the maid lay out, I’m afraid.  There are only four guest beds.”

“We’ve slept in worse spots, headmaster,” Lillian said.  “This is luxury.  Thank you.”

The man smiled.  “The bath should be prepared by now.  I imagine it will be a luxury after days of trains, carriages, and cars.”

“I imagine so,” Lillian said.  “Thank you again.”

“Would you like tea, when your baths are done?”

“Yes, please.”

That was their indication that they should go off to their rooms.  The tea, Lillian imagined, couldn’t possibly be a double trouble political trap.  Tea was too essential a nicety.  The bath, the luxury… no, she didn’t imagine so.

Was it cynicism, then, that left her feeling wary?

She let the other Lambs and Nora catch up, while Lacey led the way down the hall to the guest bedrooms.  The two doors were ajar at the end of the hall, the lights on but dimmed within.  The bathroom light, however, was on bright, and steam billowed in the room.

Helen shifted position, fixing Nora’s hood.  In the midst of it, she gestured.  Index and middle finger pointed straight up.

Danger?  Warning?

At the end of the hall, with the doors open, the bath?

Helen leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Nora in an exaggerated hug.  Both hands gestured.  Two different locations at the hallway.

Hanging pictures.  The headmaster, his wife, and his children.

Where are the children?  Not a single mention of them.

It frustrated Lillian, that there was clearly some clue she was missing.  Given an opportunity, she might have been able to figure out something meaningful from what the headmaster had said.

“Anything, Nora?” she asked.

The hooded girl shook her head.  “Whispers.  I can’t hear Lara very well.”

“Even whispers can be useful,” Lillian said.

“They’re talking about names.  Duncan is upset about a chicken.  He wants to talk to you soon.”

“Good,” Lillian said.  “Thank you.”

“I don’t like all of this talk of murder and fire,” Nora said.  She shrank into herself.

“I know, honey,” Lillian said.  She stroked Nora’s head.  “I think your creators did you a disservice, ingraining the fear instincts into you like they did.”

“I can’t help communicate if I’m dead.  So I run first.  I defend myself second.  Always.  This is the rule.”

“I know.  I know,” Lillian said.  She stroked the girl’s hooded head again.

Mary interjected, “Absolutes aren’t a good idea, when situations can vary as much as they do.  It’s bad tactics.”

Nora didn’t respond to that.

They reached the end of the hall, where Lacey waited.  She’d pushed the bathroom door open, and was checking each of the rooms.

“Big tub.  You should all bathe, talk strategy, do whatever you need to do,” Lacey said.  “I’ll enjoy some quiet with a book.  You let me know if you need anything.”

“That sounds good.  Thank you,” Lillian said.  She checked nobody was in earshot.  “And thank you for lying.”

“Which time?”

“About the reason you’re here.”

Lacey offered Lillian a tight smile.  “Just… don’t put me in a situation where I’m indirectly responsible for your deaths.  Or for mine.  Please.”

“We wouldn’t kill you, Lacey,” Helen said, smiling sweetly.

“I’m not worried about you killing me to abscond with the drugs,” Lacey said.

“Sylvester wouldn’t do that either,” Lillian said.  “He wouldn’t hurt you.”

Lacey offered her another tight, unconvincing smile.  The woman looked so tired.

Lillian didn’t have the heart to prompt another one of those smiles.  She only smiled back, and after a few moments of silence, Lacey said, “Enjoy your bath,” and retreated to one of the rooms.

Lillian turned her focus to finding where her bag had been put, finding the towels that had been laid across the footboards of the bed, and then heading into the bathroom with the other girls.

They hadn’t disclosed Lacey’s reasons for being here to the headmaster, and Hayle hadn’t either, because it would have shown weakness.  Lacey was in custody of the leash.  Hayle, insecure in his control over the Lambs and the decoys, had arranged for a new leash.  Another chemical, embedded in their body, that they were all dependent on.  Fray had released them from the first, by making it so long a leash as to be functionally meaningless.  Hayle had devised a second, and made it his prerequisite for them being allowed to pursue Sylvester.  When they had arrived at Sous Reine to pick up Abby, Lacey had been there, waiting to ambush them.

Lillian had two pills with her.  Not intended for her, but for Sylvester, in the hopes that she could slip him one, that he could be leashed and that he would choose self preservation over freedom.

She suspected she knew what his answer would be, and it prompted an ugly feeling in her stomach.

The bathroom had framed pictures that might have belonged in children’s books on the wall, and more laid into the tiles at the top of the tub, which was a sprawling thing that sank into the wall and floor.  Within the tub were multiple seats.  Not wholly different from what had been available at the girl’s dorms at Radham.  School was all tension and climbing the ladder.  The idea was to encourage community and relaxation in the same space.

This would be the children’s bathroom, then.  For the headmaster’s family.

As she undressed, Lillian’s eye was on the window, opened to let the breeze into the bathroom.  It was dark outside, and there wasn’t a single vantage point where someone could perch on a building or stand at a window and see within.  Even with that in mind, she couldn’t shake the idea that he was there.  Watching.

Which he probably was, in an abstract sense.

But they had arranged things by phone, changed from carriage to car and then the first car to another car, all while in tunnels or within garages.  They hadn’t stepped outdoors once while within the city.  The only people they had been in contact with at this stage were the Mayor, the academy headmasters, and trusted officers of the Academies that were directly subordinate to the headmasters.

“You want him to be there, looking,” Mary said, as if she was reading Lillian’s mind.

Lillian flushed.

“Not like that,” Mary said.

A bit like that, Lillian admitted to herself.

“I’m eager for a resolution too,” Mary said.  “But I don’t think he’s going to be slippery in the same way Fray was.  He’s not going to run.  We need to be patient.  Keep an eye out.  There has to be an angle that works.”

Lillian nodded.  “I know.”

“I get it,” Mary said.  “Trust me.”

“I know,” Lillian said.  She drew in a deep breath, and then let out a shuddering sigh.

Mary laid a hand over Lillian’s heart.  It was still pounding.  Mary gave her a pointed look.

Stepping back and away from Mary’s hand, Lillian pulled off her camisole and remaining clothes, then stepped into one end of the extensive bath.

Off to the side, Helen was helping Nora disrobe.  Under the hood, Nora’s hair was white.  Her eyes were dark and red rimmed.  Prone to infections and irritation.  It was much in the same way that her hair and filaments came out in clumps and her fingernails and claws could come off in a bloody mess if exposed to direct sunlight.  She was a sensitive creature, in many ways.

A sensitive creature who festooned with natural weapons, Lillian noted.  She had only had a few opportunities to examine Nora and Lara in person, and that had been on a table, with doctors pointing things out.  Too up close a view.  Standing aside, observing, she could see the way that the shoulders, ribs, elbows, the spine, and the girl’s fingers were all segmented.

The ribs, like everything, had pronounced joints at set intervals, joints that strained against skin like a fist clenched to the point that the knuckles had gone white.  Where joints would normally already be, they were exaggerated.  At the end of most fingers were scythe-like claws, roughly six inches long, normally hidden by the loose fabric of sleeves.  Other fingers were actual fingers, and some were a melted-together blend of both blade and digit.  Pure chance, what she had ended up with.  Lillian knew from the short tutorial with Nora’s creators that there were more blades at the spine and joints of the shoulder and elbow, but they were buried within the joints.

They were meager natural weapons now, but Nora was expected to grow.

Helen showed no concern for the blades, both the retracted ones and the existing ones, as she helped Nora into the other end of the bath.  Seeing Lillian looking, Helen smiled.  “It’s like having a doll.”

“Just don’t bother her,” Lillian said.  “She’s not used to being around anyone but her doctors and her sister, and you can be a little intimidating.  If you provoke her fear reflex, I’m the one that has to stitch you back together.”

“She’s not bothered,” Helen said, confidently.

“I’m not bothered,” Nora said, quiet.

Lillian closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, letting the tension seep out of her muscles.  “That’s fine then.”

Mary took another minute to divest herself of her weapons and lay them out on the counter by the sink.  She carried some tidbits over to the window and checked for eavesdroppers and spies before arranging a small trap at the window.  That done, she made her way into the bath.  She sat perpendicular to Lillian, knees bent so they formed an arch over Lillian’s legs.

“Where are the headmaster’s children?” Mary asked.

“That’s bothering you, is it?” Lillian asked.  “Why didn’t he say where they went?”

“He’s hiding something.  Multiple somethings,” Mary said.

“I don’t disagree,” Lillian said.  “But that’s standard for Academy higher-ups.  We stay focused.  I don’t mind being wary, but let’s not get distracted.”

“You sound like me,” Mary said.

Lillian splashed her friend.  Mary lifted her chin, playing the young lady, unbothered by such things.

“Um,” Nora said.

“Message?” Lillian asked, closing her eyes again, leaning back.  Mary splashed her, and she wrinkled up her nose in annoyance, before snorting out a bit of the water that had gone up her nose.

“Message.  Duncan’s group is done eating.  Do you want to talk?”

“We can talk,” Lillian said.

Nora’s lips moved.  She used Duncan’s inflection and the same pacing of words that Duncan might use, but it was in a young girl’s voice.  “Duncan: he gave us more pets.”

“Aww!” Helen cooed.

“Duncan: Not aww.  Four lambs and a chicken.  I’m trying to figure out if he’s insulting me or if there’s a coded message in this.”

“Four lambs and a chicken?” Lillian asked.  “Could be a message.  But I’d say he’s probably just happy you’re bothered and wondering.  He likes to tease.”

“Duncan: I see.”

“I’d say it’s fifty-fifty odds that he’s either insulting you or he saw a weakness and capitalized on it.”

“Duncan: He saw a weakness?”

“You took one pet.  Maybe he wanted to see if you’d take more.  The chicken thrown in to see if he could burden you further by sticking you with a variety of animals?”

“Duncan: I’m somehow more insulted than if he’d included the chicken as some kind of indirect put-down.”

“You didn’t keep the chicken?” Mary asked.

“Duncan: No.  We didn’t keep any of them.  But it took some doing to get Abby to let it be.  Are you all settled?”

“Settled,” Lillian said.

“We’re wet and naked, Duncan,” Helen announced, grinning.

Mary reached over, as if to hit Helen, then instead put her hands over Nora’s ears.  “I’d hit you if I thought it would matter.”

“It would make me feel better,” Lillian said.

Mary lightly punched Helen’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” Lillian said.  As Mary lifted her hands off of Nora’s ears, Lillian said, “Are you still there, Duncan?”

“Duncan?” Mary tried.

“Speak, Duncan,” Helen said, smiling.

“Duncan: I’m here.  I’m not sure how to respond to that.”

“The diplomatic thing to do is to pretend it didn’t happen,” Lillian said.  “We’re staying with the headmaster of Corinth Crown Academy.  It’s near the north end of the fort.”

“Duncan: I know of him.  He’s a bigwig.”

“Bigwig.  Speaking of, I wanted to ask.  Double trouble?  You mentioned it.”

“Duncan: I did.”

“Do I owe anything for shelter?  Food?  Luxury?”

“Duncan: Almost never.  Gifts received while under someone’s roof, yes, you’d owe a favor for a favor, and you could find yourself under someone’s thumb.  But food and shelter are sacrosanct.  Dates back to the olden days, when denying a traveler food and shelter could be the same thing as murdering them.”

“I see.  Thank you, Duncan,” Lillian said.  Secretly, she mused on the fact that Sylvester had betrayed that sacrosanct thing by burning down the headquarters of local gangs.  Or so he’d said, in his note.

“Duncan: We’re going to be going out soon.  Changing clothes, gathering some things, and we’ll see if we can track down any preliminary details.  We’ll be in the general radius of Corinth Crown.  If we run into trouble or spy them, Lara will let you know.”

“Perfect.  I think we’ll be getting settled,” Lillian said.

“I’ll be sleeping with my knives on,” Mary said.

“Duncan: Right.”

Helen disengaged herself from Nora, who had been sitting at her feet, only the upper half of her head visible over the water, compound eyes wide, hair and hair-like filaments floating around her.

“The headmaster said something about the major gangs being the Apostle’s men and a drug group led by the Witch,” Mary said.  She continued her explanation, but Lillian wasn’t quite listening to the recap.  Her focus was on Helen.

Helen was getting dressed without toweling off.

Trouble.  Question.

Helen gestured to her ear.  ListenMan.

Then, barefoot, damp, wearing a dress, Helen scaled the side of the window, climbing out and up toward the roof.

That was reason enough for Lillian to get out of the bath.  Something had concerned Helen.

“Come on, honey,” she spoke to Nora.

“Duncan:” Nora said, as Lillian lifted her by the armpits.  “I beg your pardon?”

“Not you, Duncan,” Lillian said.  “Helen’s acting curious.  One minute.”

Mary was out of the bath at the same time Nora was.  She began putting her things together.  Razor wire, knives, gun, syringes, bola, and darts.  The summer clothes went on next, and all of the stowed weapons swiftly disappeared beneath the light and airy clothes.

Lillian did towel off, before donning her hairband and pulling on her clothes from earlier.  She’d hoped to go straight to sleepwear, but her things were with her clothes, including those two little pills.  Once she was dressed, she attended to Nora.  Nora was nervous, Lillian was aware.  Jarred from peace and comfort to tension, the little girl was trembling, hugging her arms to her body.

Lillian dearly wished she could do something more for the little girl.

She had managed to dress both herself and Nora before Mary was finished.  Helen reappeared at the window, swinging down and into the bathroom, very nearly slipping on the wet tile.

Helen gestured at the same time she spoke, her voice soft.

“Trouble.”

“Of what sort?” Mary asked.

“Sylvester?” Lillian asked.

“I don’t think so.  There’s a man at the front of the house.  He has some people with him, and they all have weapons,” Helen said.  “They’re here for us.”

“I see,” Lillian said.  “Do we have time to get Lacey?”

Helen nodded.

“Window,” Mary said.

While Helen helped Nora through the window, an exercise that amounted to using three limbs to climb, while one hand kept a tight hold on the girl.  Lillian exited the bathroom, careful not to make any noise as she did it.  She let herself into Lacey’s room.

Lacey was reading by candlelight.

Lillian approached, walking like she’d been taught to do, and clasped her hand over Lacey’s mouth.  The woman went utterly still, but for one hand, which went toward the side of the bed.

“Don’t,” Lillian said.  “Be quiet.  Come with me.  We have to run.”

“Run?”

“Hired killers.  Or kidnappers,” Lillian whispered.

Lacey’s eyes widened.  She nodded.

“Bring essentials.  The pills.”

Another nod.

As she left the bedroom, she could hear some louder voices.  She crossed to the other room, accessed her luggage, and found the container with her partial project within.  She met Lacey in the hallway, then led the way to the open bathroom window.

“Hey!” a voice called out, behind her.

She closed the door and locked it, just in time.  Somebody threw themselves violently into the door, making it jump in its frame.

They would break it down.  Probably within a few seconds.

Men were shouting.  Giving orders, telling others to get outside, get around to the side of the building.

Lacey wasn’t as fast climbing down as Lillian needed her to be.  The bathroom window was a solid fifteen feet up off the ground.  Lillian double checked, then tossed her project down to Mary, shouting as it was already airborne, “Catch!”

Then, before Mary had fully recovered from catching the hurled case, Lillian backed away from the window, ran forward, and planted a foot on the sill.  She didn’t jump up so much as she jumped over.

“Catch me!” she shouted.

A leap of faith.  She wasn’t even sure Mary or Helen had the leverage or strength to catch her.  Base physics.  They tended to be brutal when things moved very fast or got very big, and she was moving fast.

But, as she flew five or six feet out and fifteen feet down, her face rushing for the ground, she felt arms seize her.  She scraped one knee on the ground as momentum carried it forward, but they had caught her upper body.

She reached out, to put a reassuring hand on Nora’s shoulder and guide the girl as they started to run, but in the gloom, she only barely saw the spikes and bone blades, jutting out.  The girl was terrified.

“Come on, honey,” she said.  “Let’s get somewhere safe.”

Nora nodded.

Looking back to see Lacey trailing behind, carrying luggage, Lillian saw the men rounding the building.

They didn’t look like Academy students, so they weren’t the Neddies.  They didn’t look young enough to be delinquents, and they weren’t sailors, so they weren’t the skippers.  Half of them had the telltale signs of men hopped up on combat drugs.

The Apostle’s men?  The Devil’s?  The Witch’s group, looking to make an impact?

Whoever they were, they were in cahoots with the headmaster, or they had leverage on the man.

She thought of those missing children of his.

She couldn’t know.  For now, all that was important was getting away.

Sylvester.  The little bastard.  She missed him a little less, in this particular moment.

But this was him.  Everything in this city, touched by him.  Everything that moved, was moved by him.  Her heart still pounded like it did when he was close to her, because he was.  He might as well have been next to her.

Sylvester had gotten what he wanted, and she had a sinking feeling in her gut that this was exactly the outcome he had hoped for.  To uproot them, put them on the back foot, and distract them with questions and mysteries.  He’d outright told Duncan that he’d trusted them to hold their own if trouble came calling.  Now they had been flushed out and exposed.  Nowhere certain to go where they could rest and be safe.

So much for the sanctity of shelter, she thought.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.1 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The three recruits climbed out of the carriage to join Duncan and Ashton.  Duncan squared his shoulders, straightened his shirt, and looked around, taking it all in.  His pets remained at his side, harnessed, with chain leashes extending from the harnesses to Duncan’s hand.

Abby watched and waited, her companions on either side of her.  Ashton looked back at them and smiled reassuringly.

“I should have known,” Duncan said.  “I haven’t really worked with Sylvester or Jamie, mind you, but I should have known.  It looks like a good share of this city burned down in the last few days.”

The other girl, enshrouded in a hooded shirt with overlong sleeves, fidgeted nervously, then turned around as if she was going to walk away, before turning around again.  Ashton went straight to her, clasping the extra length of sleeve in his hands as someone else might clasp hands.

“It’s okay, Lara,” Ashton said.

He had to move his head to peer beneath the hood, even though they were the same height.  Abby emulated him, matching the tilt of his head.  Crammed within each of Lara’s eyes were several lesser eyes, two visible, the other two only really visible when she opened her eyes wider, for eight smaller eyes in total.  Individual pupils dilated to very different extents, each surrounded by gray concentric rings.

Ashton drew in a deep breath and then sighed.  “I know you don’t like new places, and all of this travel has been hard, but we’re close, and they won’t hurt you.  They absolutely can’t and won’t.”

Duncan surreptitiously glanced at the back of his hand.  He did that when Ashton was making spores, and sometimes when Ashton wasn’t.  Abby tried to pay more attention to Duncan, because Duncan was in charge.  There was a hierarchy and in the here and now Duncan was the one to listen to.

He looked concerned.  He gave Ashton a curious look.

Lara?” Duncan asked, raising his free hand to cover his mouth as he spoke.  They were supposed to do that when they thought that Sylvester might be watching.  Sylvester could read lips.  Abby did too, but it was because she understood the mouth movements better than the sounds.

“She needs a name,” Ashton said, moving his hand to his mouth to cover it.  All the mouth-covering made Abby restless.

“We were explicitly ordered not to name it.”

“I know.  I’m disobeying orders,” Ashton said.  “I have been for weeks now.”

Duncan held back frustration, then worked through it before responding, “Why would you do that?”

“She needed a name,” Ashton said, simply.

“So I gathered,” Duncan said.  Patience.  “Why are you revealing this secret name now?”

“Because,” Ashton said, “It’s stupid to not have anything to call her when we might need to say a lot very quickly.”

Again, the barely-withheld frustration on Duncan’s part.

“And because by letting you know now, you’re more likely to let it go because we need to focus on more important things,” Ashton said.  Beside him, ‘Lara’ had stopped fidgeting so noticeably.  Ashton’s spores were working.

“Are you actually being shrewd?” Duncan asked.

“No,” Ashton said.  “Helen and I talked about it and she suggested it.”

“I see,” Duncan said.  He made a face, looking at the group of four.  “I suppose she’s right.  I’ll have to let it go.”

Ashton nodded.  He squeezed Lara’s sleeve, swinging his arm a little.

“But why call it Lara?”

It.

“Because they called her a larval form and if you take the ‘v’ out of larva then Lara,” Ashton said.

“Ah,” Duncan said.  He looked at Lara.  “Lara?”

Lara’s head barely moved beneath her hood.  A faint nod.

Duncan moved his hand from his mouth to her hooded head, giving it a pat.  “Alright.  We should go.  Grab your bags.  Emmett, if you could take mine, it would be appreciated.”

Emmett gave him a nod in response.  The boy had the build of a stocky fourteen year old and the face of an eight year old.  He was only slightly shorter than Duncan, who was three years his senior.

“Follow,” Duncan ordered, leading the way off the main road.

All of the buildings were pale stone traced with curling branches.  There were lawns and gardens, but in many the grass had wilted a little.  In others, there were pebbles and stones laid out to take up a portion of the yard, set so that rainwater would collect on the grass.  Those yards were the healthier ones.

Not so many trees.  Abby liked birds and squirrels and some of the Academy-made things that sometimes lurked in the trees.  She missed home, a little.  Back at Sous Reine, she had slept in a lab and the lab had had a window, and she would spend hours at a time watching the things in the trees and how they moved.  She had been on this world for eleven years, growing at the same rate a human did, and she had learned to identify every last one of the squirrels and birds who visited the trees, who their parents were, where they nested, and how they acted.

Over the course of this journey, going from city to city with no explanation about why, she sometimes thought about the birds and squirrels and she would feel her brain go dark and would have fits.  Ashton would come into her room, calm her down and in their own, strange way, communicating despite their very different brains and perspectives, he would guide her through the experience.  Other times, when she judged that he was in a good mood, she would go to Duncan and seek the more rational, scientific explanation.  She’d done it after having the fits the second time around.

His explanation was that her brain was different, very like a human’s, but with more of some things and less of others, and there were a few parts that didn’t work like they should.  When she experienced strong emotion, she had seizures.  He’d called the sensation ‘feelings’, but she preferred ‘experience’, because it wasn’t so much something that she could touch as a room she seemed to pass through.

So, with all of that taken into account, she had stopped thinking about the birds and the squirrels, even though that made the experience even worse somehow, and had tried to watch for other things to pay attention to instead.

Duncan’s animals weren’t that interesting.  They didn’t have much personality.  No heads, no brains.

No, she couldn’t see much of anything, or hear much of anything.  She sniffed the air-

“Smoke,” Abby piped up.

“Mm hmm,” Duncan agreed.  “Probably set the fires to distract so they could blow up the train station.  I’m not sure why.  I would be happy-”

He paused to move his hand to his mouth, feigning a bit of a scratch of his cheek, while glancing quickly at nearby windows and alleyways.

“-to have a conversation with the other Lambs and touch base.”

Lara turned her head to him.  The hood hid her eyes.

He reached out and gave her head another pat.  “Soon, Lara.”

Abby scrunched up her nose at the lingering smoke smell.

“When we get to Radham,” Ashton said, to nobody in particular, “We can spend more time with the others.  We can teach you all things, like the gestures.  There’s something nice about being part of a group.”

“They aren’t part of the Lambs project, Ashton,” Duncan corrected.

“I know.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t spend time together and talk.  We can all make each other stronger and better.”

Duncan narrowed his eyes a little, thinking.  “Mary.”

“What?” Ashton asked.

“Mary said that, I’m guessing.”

“No, I said it,” Ashton said.

“Mary probably said that about the Lambs making each other better and stronger, and you heard it, and you just repeated it.”

“Oh.  Yes.”

“Yes,” Duncan said.  He sighed.

“Emmett can get stronger and Lara can become braver, and Abby can get fixed so she actually works.”

Duncan looked at Abby.  Checking to see if she minded.  She didn’t.

She had met the other Lambs, and Lillian had explained the situation, sitting with Abby and her makers.  The Headmaster of Radham Academy was looking for experiments of a certain sort, and while the Lambs project had spent the last little while going here and there to look for two of their own, they would sometimes collect one of the projects that fit.  Lara was one, Emmett was sort of one, and Abby had been the last to be collected, weeks ago, even though Abby wasn’t a successful project.  The only reason she was being raised to maturity was the Sous Reine’s ethics board and the possibility that she might develop the talents she was supposed to manifest at birth.

And now, with her inclusion in this odd group, she was the so-called ticket for her creators to have a better funded lab at Radham.

There wasn’t to be much danger, they were mostly meant to act as decoys.  This group would go ahead, checking ahead and drawing attention, while the other group with Lillian, Mary, and Helen stayed behind.  Abby knew she was here because of the way she looked more than because she was anything special.  Black hair in long braids, her features distorted, her teeth wrong.  Because she was the right age, and she was just obviously enough an experiment.

“I don’t think I’ll get braver,” Lara commented.  Her bag was the lightest, despite her wearing the most clothes, as a general rule.  The strap of the bag disappeared inside the sleeve that hid her hand.

“But you’ll get bigger, and more dangerous,” Ashton said.

“I’ll pupate, and then I’ll change, but I don’t think I’ll be any braver,” Lara said.

“No pupating until we’re secure within Radham,” Duncan said.

“I know,” Lara said.

They had to cross an intersection of side streets.  Duncan stopped at the corner, looking around.  Abby mimed him, because she was good at miming people.  Still, she wasn’t used to cities.  Academie Sous Reine had been surrounded by acres of farmland, all of it experimental crops and forms of cattle that had been experimented on.  It had been great plains of one crop or another, or grassland dotted with animals, and trees, and green, punctuated by great wooden buildings.

At the memory, she felt herself pass into the dark room, where a pressure pressed in on her and threatened to send her into fits.

Ashton seized her hand.  She was surprised enough that she forgot to feign surprise.

He was pushing out calm.  She closed her eyes, breathing deep.

With some concentration and Ashton’s help, she was able to turn her thoughts away.  The city was different.  There were more details to pay attention to.  More windows, any of which could have harbored their quarry.

Across the street, an animal bleated.  Abby stood on her tiptoes, looking to see.

She couldn’t see it, but she could see the people.  The way their heads turned, the expressions-

“Coast is clear, I think,” Duncan said.  “We should go.”

He flicked the leashes.  His pets started to move.

“Um,” Abby jumped in.

“What?” Duncan asked, stopping short.  The leashes jerked tight against the harnesses.

“The bleat.”

“I asked around.  There’s a lot of farmland around the perimeter of the town,” Duncan said.  “They hold regular farmer’s markets.  Bleating isn’t unusual.”

“But people are acting like it’s unusual,” Abby said.  She pointed at the crowd, then wasn’t sure what to point to, exactly, and let her hand drop.

“I think it’s best to stick to the game plan that Mary and Lillian outlined for us,” Duncan said.  “No distractions.”

There was another bleat.

Abby broke away from the group, heading straight for the sound.

A hand grasped at her shoulder, then seized one of her braids instead.  Her head was yanked, and she felt an awful pain at that.  She squeezed her eyes shut, her mind and body hurled into a room that was unpleasant and throbbing.

“Shoot, sorry!” Duncan said, letting go of her hair.

Ashton reached for her, and she swatted at his hand, turning her face away.  She swiped at the air between Duncan’s hand and her braid.  Off to the side, Emmett had stepped in, shoving Duncan against the wall, separating the two of them.

“Sorry.  I am very, very sorry,” Duncan said.  “I legitimately didn’t mean to do that.  I meant to grab your shoulder.”

Abby hunkered down, shoulders forward, eyes screwed shut.  She wanted the pain to go away, and to leave that pulsating red room that she wasn’t really in well behind her.  But, paradoxically, she held her breath, because she didn’t want Ashton to be the one who dragged her out of the room.

“Sorry,” Duncan said, his voice softer.  “I won’t grab at you again, okay?”

Abby nodded.  She opened her eyes, found them watery, and then squeezed her eyes shut again, the moisture squeezed out and onto her cheeks.

She felt a hand on her back and flinched.  But it was a big hand, and a gentle one.  Emmett.  She nodded again, and the hand rubbed her back.

“We’ll take a detour, okay?” Duncan asked.  “Go investigate?  But we’ll do it as a group.  We can’t run off and get split up.”

Abby nodded.  She opened her eyes.

“Good,” Duncan said.  “We’ll go directly there in just a minute.”

There were people in the street that were now staring.  In the background, there was another bleat.

“Not to sound callous, but I do wonder if Sylvester and Jamie saw that, and what they made of it,” Duncan said, looking out beyond the buildings and street for vantage points that their quarry might be watching from.

Abby rocked a little with the motion of Emmett’s rubbing of her back.  She eventually raised a hand, and gently moved his hand away.

Her voice was only barely a whisper to Emmett, inaudible to Duncan, “Don’t hurt him.”

Emmett nodded.

She turned to look at Ashton and Lara, who were standing together.  Lara reached out, using a hand that had cloth draped over it, and dabbed at Abby’s tears.  The now-faintly-moist cloth went into Lara’s mouth to be sucked at.

“Okay,” Duncan said.  He glanced back to verify everyone was with him.  “We’ll investigate.”

They moved as a group, heading across the street, weaving past people and wagons.

Their target was hard to reach, because a crowd had gathered around it.

“Excuse me,” Duncan said, pushing through the crowd, his two animals helping spook people into moving out of his way.  Emmett made use of the opening Duncan had created by wedging himself into it, then using his arms and body to help provide a path for the other three members of the group.  Ashton, Lara, and Abby were all about the same height, and moved in single file.

It bleated again.  White and wooly.  A lamb, but not the sort they sought.  It had been left here, leashed to a parked wagon.

“This yours?” someone asked.

“It’s not mine,” Duncan said.  “But it might belong to someone I know.”

“You sure?  Why?  Ran off, he did.”

Duncan raised his head, his interest piqued.  “A boy with wild dark hair?”

“A giant rabbit,” someone commented.  Another person, Abby saw, nodded in agreement at that.

“Of course it was,” Duncan said.  He heaved out a sigh.  “That makes enough sense to me.”

“You know what this is about, then?” a bystander asked.

“A prank, if anything,” Duncan said.

The explanation seemed to serve.  The crowd dispersed, the mystery solved.

Duncan looked back at the group.  “He’s already a step ahead of us, it seems.”

“Mary said he would be,” Ashton said.

“Emmett, would you?” Duncan asked, while holding the leashes for his pets out for Emmett to take.  There was no expectation that Emmett might say no.

Emmett didn’t say no.  He took the leashes, and Duncan stooped down over the bleating lamb, searching it.  He came away with a folded paper.

“Ah,” he said.  “A dire warning.”

Abby stood on her toes again, craning her head to try to read and to see the lamb better with Duncan in the way.

“Oh,” Duncan said, on seeing her straining.  He stood, holding the paper.  “The local gangs are apparently very upset, after some very targeted instances of arson.  Sylvester thought it diplomatic to warn us that we should watch our backs, in case there was trouble.  He wants us to know he was expecting the other Lambs, not us, he’s sorry, he doesn’t want to put us in danger, so he’ll be actively steering trouble away from us, best he can.”

“That sounds like Sylvester,” Ashton said.  He reached over to squeeze Lara’s sleeve and arm more.  “Don’t worry.  We’re still okay.”

Duncan stared down at the note, frowning deeply.  Abby watched his expression carefully.

“We’ll touch base,” Duncan said, covering his mouth, “Talk to the other Lambs.  We should find a good place to do it.”

“A high place,” Lara said.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  “I think I saw a place we could use a little bit further on.”

He turned to go, expecting the others to follow.  They did, but as Abby turned away, her attention and hands reaching for the little white lamb, the others hung back.  Ashton spoke, “Duncan.”

“What?  Oh.  Abby, come on.”

Stubborn, ignoring him, Abby worked to untie the leash from the wagon.

“Abby.  Listen.  We can’t take that with us.”

“Bleeaah,” the lamb bleated.

“Bleeaah,” Abby bleated back.  She was good at animal sounds.  She reached out, and the lamb nuzzled at her hands and forearms.

“Emmett, would you please get Abby standing and keep her with us?” Duncan asked.

Before Emmett could move, Ashton spoke, “You hurt her.”

“I did.  I still feel bad about it.”

“Make it up to her,” Ashton said.  “That’s how one of the longer Good Simon stories might end.”

Duncan lowered his head, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers.

“You want to be a good person, don’t you?” Ashton asked.

“Life isn’t a storybook, Ashton.”

“You’re right,” Ashton said, then continued with his relentless attack, “But wouldn’t it be nice if it was?”

Abby tried to shut her ears to the ongoing conversation.  She lowered her face to meet the little lamb’s and nuzzled it.  The room she felt herself passing into was bright and made the world lighter and warmer, and a lot of that warmth reached deep into the center of her chest, to the point she almost worried she might have fits.  She tried to put it out of her mind while enjoying the presence and the smell and the movement and the warmth of another living creature.  She rocked side to side a little as the lamb rubbed its face against her neck and shoulder, then tried to bite her braid.

“I think it would be a horrid and thrice-lanced pain in the ass if life was a storybook, honestly,” Duncan said.

“Lillian says that good things are never easy,” Ashton said.

Duncan let out a long and drawn out groan.

“Bleeeh,” Abby bleated.

“Bleaa!” the lamb responded.

She shut her eyes, trying to capture the moment in her memories.

Duncan spoke, “You’ll have your own team, Duncan.  Ashton likes you and cooperates with you, so you can keep him with you, Duncan.  You’ll be able to show off your leadership skills, Duncan.  There won’t be as much friction.”

“That’s a yes?” Ashton asked.

“Yes,” Duncan said, tersely.  “Yes.  Abby.  You can bring the damned thing.”

Abby gave the lamb a scratch behind the ears and along the neck before standing, her dress flouncing with the movement.  She bumped the lamb with her leg, to let it know where she was, and then tugged the rope leash.  It resisted at first, but after she offered it a scratch of the neck and retreated, it followed.  With only a little more guidance, it moved happily at her side.

Duncan looked particularly sour as he looked back at her and the lamb, walking between Emmett and Ashton.

“Bell tower,” Duncan said, pointing.  “Old watchtower, I think?  If we can get inside, we can head up.”

“Okay,” Ashton responded.

It was seemingly true that the city had more farmers and people with animals, because the only strange looks they got were the usual ones, reserved for a boy too big and strong for his age, for hooded Lara, and for Abby, who was put together in an odd way.  If anything, she got less strange looks than usual as she walked briskly along the trotting lamb.

All of the lingering bad experiences from earlier had dissipated with this.  She’d harbored some worries when thinking about their quarry, before.  The way that Lillian and Mary and some of the Doctors had talked about Sylvester and Jamie, the concern, the way that everything became so complicated, it had been like she was in a room where she was flailing, trying to get her balance but with nothing in arm’s reach to hold on to, or in a deep place with the surface too far away.

But they had somehow given her a gift, and now she still felt like she couldn’t quite figure these two people out, but maybe they weren’t all bad?  She was warm inside, and tomorrow might hold more moments like this, not more minutes and miles spent away from the place she knew.

“Smile,” Ashton said.

Abby looked over.

“When you’re feeling good, you should smile.”

Abby smiled as best as she could, with her strange teeth.

Ashton smiled back, reached out to squeeze her hand once, then let go.

They reached the tower.  The building ended up being occupied by Crown forces, but that ended up a positive, because Duncan was able to show some identification.  The soldiers stood by, staring curiously as the group went up the stairs.

It was extra positive because the soldiers would guard the ground floor.  There were reasons for being up high, and one was that it made it very hard for them to be listened to.

Once they’d reached the top and Duncan passed on some instructions and a note, the guards up top passed downstairs.  Duncan tied up his animals and headed to the railing.  He walked around the perimeter of the towertop, looking down at nearby rooftops and buildings.

“Lara,” he said.

Lara nodded, then settled down onto the floor.  She hunched over, then cocked her head this way and that.

“Bleeaah!” the lamb bleated.

Abby settled on the floor as well.  Emmett sat beside her, and reached out to give the animal a pat.

After a moment’s consideration, Abby handed the animal over, helping to get it settled so it was lying in Emmett’s lap.  He cupped his hands around it to help keep it in place.

And, because it made sense on a strange level, she gave Emmett’s back a rub while he enjoyed having the animal there.

“Okay,” Lara said.

“Yes?” Duncan asked.  He smiled.  “Great!  Lillian?  Mary?”

There was a pause.

“Lillian: We’re here, Duncan,” Lara said.

“Excellent!  We’re currently at the northwest watchtower.  Arrived more or less without incident, but he’s already on us.  He dropped off a warning and an… inadvertent present.”

Pause.

“Helen: Ooh, present!” Lara said, mimicking the inflection in a stilted way.

“A lamb.  Because he apparently thinks he’s funny,” Duncan said.  “Abby took an immediate liking to it.”

“Helen: Awww.  Mary: What was the warning?”

“A note.  He started a gang war.  There are thugs around who would be very happy to get their hands on anyone young and vulnerable, with special mention for any Lambs.  Set fire to their headquarters and baited them out.”

“Lillian: Of course he did,” Lara reported.

“He promised protection for our group, because he thought it would be you who turned up, and that you could handle it, albeit with some distraction.”

“Mary: Charmer.”

“Charmer,” Duncan echoed.  “I wanted to let you know we’re situated, and we’ll be moving out.  It’s getting late, and it’s getting considerably darker.  We’ll probably roam a bit, eat, figure out how to get our new pet fed, and then get settled.”

The lamb bleated.

“Lillian and the others are laughing because I transcribed the animal’s noise after giving them your message,” Lara said.  She stopped abruptly, turning her head a little, then said, “Lillian: I’m crying.”

Abby saw a smile pass over Duncan’s face.

“Mary: we’re in the city too, but we’re staying out of sight for now.  Your plan sounds good.  Stay on course.  We’ll try to find an angle to get at him.”

“Thank you, Mary.”

“Mary: We’ll be getting our dinner now, so good night for now.”

“Good night,” Duncan said.

“Helen: Baaaaa.  And they’re laughing again.  Now they’re gone.”

Duncan smiled at that.  He gave Lara a pat on the shoulder, stood, and crossed over to where Abby and Emmett sat.  He bent down and gave a light stroke to the side of the now-sleeping lamb.

“Thank you,” he said.  “For making them laugh.  It’s been a tense few months of trying to track those two.”

“It can’t understand you,” Ashton pointed out.

“I know, you pedant,” Duncan said.  He straightened, stretching.  “What do you guys say about some dinner?”

Nobody in the group was going to say no to that.  Duncan gave Lara a hand in standing, then did the same for Abby.  Abby remained virtually glued to Emmett’s side as the boy held the sleeping lamb cradled in his hands and arms.  The smile Ashton had encouraged earlier didn’t leave her face.

They headed down the stairs.

They were a short distance from the ground floor when they heard the faint murmur.

Duncan stopped in his tracks.

“No,” he said, after a moment.  “No.  That mother-cunting little bastard.  He didn’t, no.”

The murmuring grew more distinct as they got closer to the ground floor of the tower.

“Sir,” Duncan greeted the captain in charge of the tower.  “Is that what I think it is?”

“I have to imagine so?” the captain answered, sounding unsure.  “Bizarre.”

“Yes,” Duncan said.  “I imagine so.  At least we know we have his attention, so we’re doing our job as proper bait.”

“The most curious thing-”

“Was the giant rabbit?” Duncan asked.

“The rabbit man,” the captain confirmed.

Duncan set his jaw, glanced back at Abby with a hostile, deeply annoyed look, then pushed open the door to the tower.  The rest of the group was quick to follow.

Three young lambs and one chicken were tied up at different points outside the front of the tower.

Abby felt the warm and air-light room warm up even more, the lightness becoming a fluttering feeling that might even buoy her into the air.  Her smile widened.

“No!” Duncan said, pointing at her.  “No.  One pet.  One.”

The feeling dissipated a little.  Some of it lingered, however.  The smile remained on Abby’s face.

“He thinks he’s funny,” Ashton said, echoing Duncan from earlier.  Duncan glared daggers at the little red-haired boy.

“It’s a little funny,” Emmett said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dyed in the Wool – 12.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I balanced on one of the movable walls, which involved me leaning over at a forty-five degree angle.  A rope was wound several times around my wrist, extended over to a set of pulleys at the ceiling, then over to a counterweight, which dangled in mid-air.

I used a hook on the end of a rod to align the rope with the wheels of the pulley, checked the coast was clear, and then tossed the rod down to a waiting worker.

“Sylvester,” Jamie called out.  He was closer to the front door, a fair distance away.

“If the Lambs aren’t coming right this second, then it can wait.  Give me one minute.”

“I’ve been giving you one minute for the past ten minutes.”

“Then it shouldn’t be a problem to give me another,” I said.  I unwound the rope from my wrist, turned on the spot, so it was wound around my waist with the end loose and extending out in front of me.  It took some doing to maintain my balance throughout, when I was having to stand on a piece of wood only an inch and a half across.  I tied the rope-end to the top corner of the movable wall.

“Eleven minutes now,” Jamie said.  “I’m only nagging you because the thing I’ve been bugging you about is now two things.”

“Gimme another minute,” I said.  Extricating myself took a little bit of work.  I had to haul back on the rope to give myself slack and then work my way out of the loop I’d wound around my waist.  I held onto the rope for balance, double checked everything was in place, then checked the ground below me was clear.

“Don’t jump,” Jamie said.

I hopped down to the ground.  It was a solid twelve foot drop, and I had to roll to absorb the impact.

“One of these days you’re going to mess up,” Jamie said.  “You’ll land funny and feel like such a twerp.”

“I’m fine so long as I keep the practice up, which is exactly what I’m doing,” I said.  I looked past Jamie to the door.  There was a crowd of children.  “We have guests.”

“Which is the second thing I was going to tell you,” Jamie said.  “The first thing-”

“Hold on.  I want to do this while I’m thinking about all of this and how it’s set up.  If I stop, I’m going to forget something and it’s going to take forever to get back into it,” I said, looking over the setup.

“If you insist,” Jamie said.  It was clear he was close to the limit of his patience.

I got the assistance of the man who I’d tossed the rod to and lifted the movable wall up and out of its track.  A wheel at the bottom corner helped us move it until it was flush to the wall.  I got the rod, and moved the rope through a hook so it wouldn’t stand out.

I did a circuit around the hall, double checking it all, before stopping at the front door.  The hall was laid out so there was more or less a clear path from the front door to the back, with hallways branching off to the left and right.  Along the right wall, between the two hallways going off to the kitchen, was the staircase leading up.  The main room had several chairs and tables placed along the middle, with pieces of furniture here and there.

The ropes weren’t too visible.

Trial run.

I made my way to the back door in a zig-zagging fashion.  Up onto the coffee table, kick the bowl-

The first rope came loose.  The counterweight came down, landing just behind me as I hopped up onto the chair.  With the descending counterweight, the walls closed like a set of double doors, narrowly missing the furniture we’d placed.  The wheels sank into notches in the floor, and a latch connected the doors.

As I made my way to the back door, two more of the moving walls closed behind me in the same manner.

I stopped at the back door, and looked at it, taking it in.

“Good to put them back!” I called out.

The two men who had set up the doors and latches set about undoing the latches and lifting the walls back into place.

“Okay,” Jamie said, “So-”

“Hold on,” I said.

I closed my eyes for a moment, focusing.

As Jamie crossed the room, I also envisioned the Lambs making their approach.  I envisioned myself, crossing the room in the same way I just had, a path that saw me darting left and right, so that every piece of furniture served as cover.

Mary was the one to watch out for, here.  I gave special consideration to imagining how she’d move, the choices she’d make.  If she had a bola, or a throwing knife, she wouldn’t have a clear shot.  I’d be too far away for other tricks and toys.

I imagined the doors swinging closed, the counterweights falling from the ceiling and forcing Mary to change course, if she chose the fastest route to me.

I could get out the back door with time to spare.  I imagined the same scenario, with Mary a few paces behind me, with Mary further away.

I imagined the scenario with them having help.  The likes of an experiment like Gorger or the Hangman, or with Lillian having some trick up her sleeve, like the suit I’d urged her to make.

I envisioned Mary getting a boost that let her fly over the first set of closing doors.  I imagined something big and strong tearing its way through the walls in quick succession.  All of the scenes played out in quick succession as I plotted the course of events.

The trick arose when Mary got clever.  She was fast, she was athletic, and she was determined.

I could imagine Mary, graceful Mary, using the staircase at one side of the room.  Running up as well as toward me.  Getting the height to get over the second and third walls.  Getting the vantage point where I didn’t have actual cover, that would let her throw that bola or hurl that drug-loaded dart at my back.

Jamie had reached me.  He put his hands around my neck, lightly strangling me.

“Hold on,” I said.

He tightened his grip.

I could see a variety of ways that Mary might make that maneuver.

“Okay,” I said.  “Okay.  Fine.  That’s all I needed.”

He released me, then guided me by the shoulder, leading me toward the front door.

“Abbot,” I spoke to the builder, as we passed him.

“That’s not my name,” he said.

“Over there.  Above the wall-hinge.  Put in a hook.  Should be about three feet down from the ceiling.”

“A hook?”

“Like the ones we used for the ropes.  I’ll do the rest later.”

“Uh huh,” he said, giving me a look like I was crazy.

Maybe I was.

“Done?” Jamie asked.

“Sure.  Just, you know, trying to arrange things so we have a fighting chance.  But that’s not important, no, we’ve gotta do that thing you’re trying to get my attention about.”

Jamie rolled his eyes, dropping his hand from my shoulder.

We approached the group of kids.  Some were from Noreen’s group.  They had that hardness to them, and I could spot the bulges of weapons and other things.  Most of the youths had bags with them.

The moving walls were a bit of a show for them, but it might have been unnecessary.  Even in the wake of all that, they were looking around the building, taking it in.

“Hi,” I said.  “Sorry about that.  Checking on the defenses.”

“This place has defenses?” one of the boys asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “Ones that will see use soon.  Not that it should impact you lot.  Now, uh, again, sorry for the wait.  Welcome home.”

The very youngest of the crowd of twenty or so seemed to see something special in that word.  The oldest and the better-armed seemed to react as if I’d subtly pushed them away.

They had likely heard promises once upon a time, and those promises had been broken.  That was fine.  They might not stay, and that was fine too.

But the option would be here.  That was what was important.  There would be safety and security here, so long as I could help it.

“This is the sitting room.  Common area, hangout, should be able to see people coming and going, have tea.  Lounge around too much and you might get recruited for chores, because the kitchen and the dining room are at the east wing, just over there.  West wing, you’ve got offices.  Bathroom for the adults, area for first aid in case any of you hurt yourself, boring stuff.”

I had their attention.  That was good.

“Go upstairs.  Boys to the left, girls to the right.  For those of you who don’t know left from right, blue means boy, pink means girl.  Beds and bedrooms are first come first serve.”

There was a momentary pause before the stampede broke out.  The youths, who were aged eight to fifteen or so, stampeded up the stairs.

“Second thing,” Jamie said.  “Well, it was the first thing, but you addressed the new arrivals first.  Shirley is talking to the fourth potential hire.  They’re upstairs.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Excellent.”

“At least the kids you just sent up there will be a good test for her,” Jamie said.

“I’d guessed that was the first thing.  I do actually remember a little,” I said.  “We were expecting someone, and I’ve been thinking about how we need to get this nailed down if we can.”

We walked up the stairs.

“We need a lot of staff,” Jamie said.  “We’re behind, and I don’t see things pulling together at this rate.”

“Hmm,” I made a sound.

“I know you want to find the person in charge before you recruit the staff to work under her, but… it might be time to clench your teeth and accept that we’ll have to take someone good enough instead of someone truly good.”

“Hmmm,” I made the same sound as before, but with more consternation in it.

“Do you remember that I told you her name?”

“No.”

“Her profession or general background?”

“Nope.”

“My concerns, hopes, any other notes?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Okay,” Jamie said.  “Because I didn’t mention any of that.”

I slapped him lightly across the back of the head.

“I deserved that.  But you deserve so much worse.”

“I do.  What do I need to know about her?”

“She was second-in-command of a detention center for young delinquents?” Jamie suggested.  “Deputy warden.  Taught the math classes.”

“Really?” I asked, “That’s amazing!”

“She did okay.”

“How did you find her?”

“I asked around.  Sent letters around, really.  Widened the criteria I was asking for, someone mentioned her in passing, I tracked her down.”

“Now you’ve got my hopes up,” I said.

Jamie raised his hand, fingers crossed, and I matched it.

We reached the upstairs, which was in the midst of total and utter chaos.  Shirley and an older, short-haired woman in a very staid gray dress stood to one side as the children ran this way and that.  In the midst of that chaos, Jamie ducked away, keeping his head turned away from the guest.

“Sylvester!” one of the youths asked.  He was fourteen, and came with a girl that was his age in tow, holding her wrists.  “What if we want to share a room?”

He had to raise his voice to be heard over the noise an approaching smaller child was making.  The child, a boy, was crying, and crying in a way that screamed ‘I want attention!’

Before the fourteen year old could make the case for the co-ed room, the child began mewling out sobbing monosyllabic sounds that only barely formed a sentence.  “The-huh-old-her-kids-they-th-they-took-my-ruh-hoom!  You-you-said-fir-first-come-first-serrrrrve!”

Now that he wasn’t having to form words, he was free to descend into a wail.

The woman gave me a curious look.

Wondering why they’re asking me, and the authority I have.

Not perfect.  But I’d tied my own hands.  Might as well let her know I was the authority here.

“Don’t talk to me,” I addressed both the child and the boy-girl pair, then indicated the woman.  “Talk to her.”

She looked surprised at that.

“I beg your pardon,” she said.

“I’m not saying you’re hired,” I told her.  “But I want to see how you handle this.  Test run.”

“Ma’am,” the fourteen year old said.  “Darleen and I have been together from the beginning.  We stay together.  There’s no other way about it.”

“I-” she started.

“Sylvester!” a teenage girl cut in, approaching from the girl’s hallway.  “All the girls are taking individual rooms, and some were saying they weren’t going to have roommates, and-”

I flourished with my hands, stepped back, and extended my arms and hands, as if to present the woman.

She saw how the eight year old and the fourteen year old were addressing the woman, and she cottoned on.  She immediately turned to the woman, her voice overlapping with the two voices of the boys.

“That will be quite enough of that!” the woman spoke, with enough authority that several heads in the hallways turned and the din died down considerably.  There were still sounds of squabbling in some other rooms.

She had a good presence.  Not Mauer-level, but for all her graying hair and the ankle-length dress with the high collar, she gave the me impression of someone who should normally have a rod in hand, ready to deliver very liberal canings to buttocks and knuckles.

With all of that latent menace, she didn’t address any of the group.  She turned her focus toward me.

“Throwing me to the wolves without explanation or courtesy?” she asked me.

I started to speak, but she talked over me.  “Or, is it that you’re a wolf yourself?”

She moved with care, slowly, so as not to startle, and touched my shirt, beneath my armpit.  it only had buttons down to the collarbone, and hung loose.  I wore a coverall with the upper portion down and tied around my waist.  The holes in the knees and my bare feet meant I wasn’t baking in the summer heat, even if I was sweaty.

When I didn’t move or protest, she tugged the shirt up and away from my waist.

Amid the sleeves I’d folded around my waist, I’d stowed a knife, gun, and three grenades.  It was the grenades that seemed to give her pause.

“I’m a mouse, not a wolf,” I said, meeting her eyes.

“I know the slang,” she said.

Where most of the people this far away from Radham don’t know it, or use different terms and signs.  It was a point in her favor.

“I’m concerned this isn’t adding up,” she said.  “I was clearly misled about this job, and I’m not happy with that.”

Shirley jumped in.  “Sylvester is… he’s been in and out of orphanages all of his life.  As troubled youth go, he’s a unique case.  I did not know he would be so heavily armed, but-”

“It’s okay, Shirley,” I said.

Shirley sagged in obvious relief, that she didn’t have to come up with a way to salvage this situation.

“This… project,” I said.  “I’m managing it.  But I won’t be managing it forever.  We need someone to keep things running smoothly, keep the house standing.  Keep the children from killing each other.”

“Orphans running an orphanage?” the woman asked, imperious.

“Supplying the funds and organizing it at the outset.  Not running it,” I said.  “That would be up to you, with a few ground rules in place.  You can’t force anyone to stay, and if there are beds, you can’t turn anyone away.  There would be rules for privacy, but-”

“If I was put in charge, there would have to be curfew,” the woman said.  “I would want to know where the children were at all times.  I would require them to stay.  That would be if I somehow overcame my reservations about what seems to be a very shady, concerning picture that is being painted before me.”

She’s conservative, I thought.  Dangerously so.

I felt a welling disappointment.  The same experiences that had left her with a keen eye for hidden weapons and the skills needed to keep people in line left her wary of… how to put it?  Of situations slipping from her control.  She’d no doubt seen how it could happen early in her career and it had left a mark on her.

But that tight-fisted control represented too much about what I wanted to fight against, in the bigger picture.

I formulated the words in my head, but they lay flat on my tongue, ready to be spoken.  I could see the woman’s posture, the way she was critically assessing the building, and I knew, with near certainty, that she was going to tell people about us, in an effort to instill some order on this disorder.

Would I have to kill her?  I didn’t want to kill someone I respected.

But, facing the reality that I might have to, I began laying the groundwork.

“Shirley,” I said.

“Yes, sir?” she asked.

I might have winced at the word ‘sir’, but I could see what she was doing, and anything that would put the matron off balance and create an opening was just fine, even if it heightened her suspicion and pushed her away.

“Would you prepare us some tea?”

“Yes,” she said.

There was a pause as Shirley disappeared downstairs.

The matron turned to the children.  The sniveling eight year old was first.  “In a moment, we’ll talk to those boys, alright?  If you were told the bed was yours if you were there first, then that’s a rule and it should be followed.”

The boy rubbed at his nose and nodded.

The boy-girl couple were next.  “Are you siblings?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then I don’t see how it’s appropriate.”

“It’s the way we’ve always done things!  If she doesn’t sleep beside me, she-”

He stopped, realizing there was more of an audience.  The girl might have squeezed his hand.

“-has nightmares,” he said, which wasn’t the original thing he’d been planning to say.

“I notice that you’re doing all of the talking,” the matron said.  “I’d like to hear from her.  He called you Darleen?”

“Darleen,” the girl said, nodding.

“That’s short for what?”

“Geraldine,” the girl said.

“Then I’m going to call you Geraldine.  I don’t like short form names.  Geraldine, I want you to look me in the eye.”

Geraldine tried.

“Tell me, do you want to stay with him, or do you want to stay with the girls?”

Geraldine opened her mouth, glancing at her friend.

“Look at me,” the matron said.  “Not at him.  I don’t want the answer he wants you to give me.  I want the answer from you.”

“I… wouldn’t mind staying with the girls.  It’s been a while since I had… nightmares.”

Her voice dropped two notches as she said that last word.

“Good.  Then that’s resolved.  As for you,” the matron said to the girl who’d snitched about the others hogging rooms, “I’ll find you after I’ve resolved the bullying.”

The snitch nodded.

The matron took the eight year old’s hand and led him in the direction of the boy’s rooms.  No questions about whether she should or if she had our permission to depart the conversation.  Just a very matter-of-fact assumption that she should have to handle this.

I followed her.  Jamie trailed behind.

“I’m afraid I don’t recall your name,” I said.

“Beverly Fuller,” the matron said, while Jamie, in the background, mouthed the name.  She added, “Mrs. Fuller, mind you.  I am happily married.”

“You might have noticed there are few children for how much space there is,” I commented.

“I have.”

“There are more coming,” I said.  “I’m about to volunteer some details about what the objective is, and I’m admittedly putting my trust in your hands-”

To an extent, I thought.  Because I’m boned anyway if you decide to talk, and killing you is on the table.

“-and I’m assuming you have some fondness for children and said fondness fosters some sympathy.”

“Oh?” she asked, arch.

“Children are being collected, Mrs. Fuller.  They’re being handed over to the Academy.  They are being experimented on and disposed of.  On the black market, children are being sold, again, for the purposes of experimentation.  I’ve seen some of the monsters that were produced from that experimentation.  I count one of those monsters as a close friend and mortal enemy at the same time.  I am one of the experiments.”

She didn’t turn her head, but she looked at me from the corner of her eye.

I didn’t add anything more.  I let the silence hang, letting her make the next move when it came to the conversation, while plotting the responses I would need to crack that conservative, stern facade.

“At the facilities I’ve worked in, I saw many children go to the Academy,” Beverly said.

“And?” I asked.  “Were you complicit?  Did it bother you?”

“I wasn’t directly complicit, but I saw what my superior did and the people she talked to, and I wondered,” she said, her eyes forward, neck straight, chin set, posture perfect.  “I thought about how a dozen a year might go to the Academy, but I’ve never met anyone who claimed what you claim, to have been one of them.”

“They went in, and they never went out,” I said.

“Effectively,” she said.

We’d stopped outside of the room the eight year old had led us to.  Beverly stood in the doorway, stared down some of the boys who were sitting on the bed, and without a word, she pointed to them, then indicated out.

They obeyed, collecting their things on the way out.  The woman gave the eight year old a push on the shoulder.

So very easily handled.

“Did it bother you?” I asked her.  I already knew the answer, in part, because she had volunteered the information she had.  She wouldn’t if it hadn’t stuck in her mind to some degree.

“Should it?” she asked.

Ah, but the question was a wall.  A defense, thrown up to protect herself.

“Speaking as one of the very few children I know who went in and came back out,” I said, “I’ve known an awful lot of death over the past seven years or so.  I’ve experienced an awful lot of pain.  On the flip side of that coin, I have inflicted more pain than you could wrap your head around, and I’ve killed an awful lot of people.”

I watched her carefully as she took that in.  She’d seen the weapons.

“I will expire before I’m twenty-five.  Very possibly before I’m twenty, because of what they did to me.  I’m sterile, because of what they did to me.  I will never have children, experience a family, or hold a job.  I’m not saying this because I want pity.  But it’s my reality.  And I’m not alone in it.”

She declined to give me a response.

“I’m leaving before long.  I will be in touch, as much as I’m able, knowing they’ll try to intercept my letters.  I’ll support this institution and provide information and the funds.  I might never have children, but I intend to leave my marks on the world.  Among those marks will be this one.  I will find the children the Academy is looking to collect and I will send them here.  With some extra measures I put in place and, hopefully, some help from others, this will be a sanctuary.  But it’s a sanctuary where the people here have to be free to come and go.”

Still no response.

“Some of my fellow experiments are going to come looking for me.  They will come through here.  You don’t have to keep secrets.  You might even want to talk or cooperate with them.  They won’t hurt anyone here.  It’ll take a short time to wrap up everything in West Corinth, and when I’m done with that, I’ll leave, like I said.  It is my hope that you will remain and maintain the peace and security of this place.”

“Gritting your teeth, Sy?” Jamie asked, from the background.

The matron turned to look.

“Revealing yourself, Jamie?” I asked, annoyed.

“I know you,” he said.  “I know you’re not wholly sold.  I was going to make a suggestion.”

“An acquaintance?” Beverly asked.

“Jamie is a friend,” I said.  “My closest friend, really.  Now the second child you’ll have met, who came back from the Academy.  What’s the suggestion?”

“I know you want to pick someone who is somehow everything you want this institution to embody, and I know you’re not wholly sold with Mrs. Fuller.  You want someone who can be almost a mother, nurturing and supportive.  Not just a disciplinarian.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“There was another candidate.  Number three.  Hogarth?  The one who acted as tutor to the aristocratic youths?  She was warm.  If Mrs. Fuller was willing, we could bring Ms. Hogarth on, and have a joint leadership.  It would also help with getting more staff on board, while we’re so tight on time.”

I nodded at that, thinking about it.  I glanced up at Mrs. Fuller.

“If I met the woman and found her acceptable, it’s not out of the question,” the matron said.  In saying it, she was effectively saying she’d accepted what I’d said.  She recognized the value in the mission.  I no longer suspected she would let people know what we were doing here.

I felt a profound relief at that.

“It’s something of a relief to know I wouldn’t have to be the one to wipe snotty noses and tuck the little ones in.”

I grinned at that.

“Shirley will have the tea ready,” Jamie said.  “Would you like to come downstairs before more children come running to us with problems?”

I looked at the children, and I saw that many were hanging back.  Beverly Fuller cut an imposing, intimidating figure.  I imagined that with time, they would feel free to come to her with problems, and she would be quick to dismiss anyone who did so frivolously.

As we made our way down the stairs, however, I saw Pierre and Samuel standing at the door.

I glanced at Jamie, gesturing.

“It looks like we may not be able to join you for tea, but I’m sure Shirley can cover things until we return,” Jamie said.

Mrs. Fuller nodded, very stiffly.

She wasn’t quite broken into our way of doing things, but I could almost see how she would get there.

This would be fine.

We walked right past Samuel and Pierre, and the two turned around to fall in stride to either side of Jamie and me.

“Messages delivered,” Pierre said.  He reached past me to hand a note to Jamie.  “Couldn’t reach Fourth, and the youths at Wollstone Rock gave a very firm no.”

“Damn,” I said.

“It’s good enough,” Jamie said.  He drew a paper out of his pocket, found a pencil, and scratched out a few options.  “Same thing, but these groups.  When you talk to them, say the same things, but let them know about the other groups that accepted.”

“Can do,” Pierre said.

Getting the pieces in place.  Not just movable walls, but the people too.

“Samuel,” I said, taking my turn.  “Go inside.  Introduce yourself.  You can let the older woman know that you’re the person who is going to be directing the children her way.  Have some tea.  Take it easy.  Until further notice, you don’t need to worry about anything.  Except, wait, yeah, make sure the cranes are in the right positions, and make sure the carts are parked at the back like I’d wanted.”

Samuel nodded.

Getting everything positioned just right.

If a Lamb didn’t curse my name before all of this was over, then I’d be gravely disappointed.

It had been twelve or so hours now since the train station had been blown up.  Jamie had already worked out the train schedules.  He’d figured the routes the Lambs would need to take, and the distance from the nearest city to here.

The sun was hot and the city still smelled like smoke.  Even the cast of it, all pale stone, seemed to have been tinted darker by the conflict two nights ago.

Now the sun was setting.  Jamie and I sat at our perch, me with my binoculars, Jamie slumbering while he sat precariously in the windowsill, across from me.

The bulk of the work was done, the pieces in place, everyone had their script, so to speak, and the snares and tricks were all arranged.

Looking at Jamie, I thought about how he represented peace.  That, from the moment he’d wrapped his arms around me and let me know that he was there, that he’d left and he was supporting me, I’d felt relief and calm, with the idea that things would be okay.

Happiness had come and went.  There had been good moments.  But the dominant feeling had been one of security.  I’d felt okay for the first time in a long time, and that overrode even the lingering unease that came with my betraying the Lambs.

But now, sitting and watching the sunset, knowing that there was a very dangerous and desperate man looking to hurt me, and the Lambs were coming to hunt me, I felt happy.  I was catching myself smiling at nothing in particular.  I wanted tomorrow to have come yesterday.

I raised the binoculars to my eyes, watching as another train of wagons and cars came in through one end of the city.

Nothing.

I looked over at Jamie.  I wanted to shake him awake and ask him what time it was.  If it was time.  If this was the moment I should really truly be watching.

One of the carriages stopped at the very outside border of West Corinth.  I raised the binoculars to my eyes again.

There.  A group of youths was departing the carriage.  Stopping at the outskirts, so they could slip surreptitiously into the city.

Duncan was the first to exit the carriage.  He went to the back to lift some cages to the ground.  He fiddled with them, releasing the occupants.  Canines of a sort.

Ashton was second to depart.

I didn’t recognize the third boy, but his features were strange and he moved stiffly, and he was big for his apparent age.

I didn’t recognize the first girl to step out of the train car either.  She wore heavy clothing for the summer heat, with sleeves over her hands and a hood over her head.

“Jamie,” I said, realizing belatedly that Jamie would want to see, before the group disappeared.  When Jamie didn’t rouse, I kicked his shin.

“Wuh?” he asked.

I undid the bolt that connected the two pieces of the binoculars together, and handed him one half.  He didn’t need to ask where to look – he’d been the one to work out the most likely path of approach, and I’d agreed it made sense, based on the Lambs’ psychology.

I looked through the binocular-turned spyglass.  I frowned as I laid eyes on the second girl of the group.  Dark haired, her features funny.

“They’re messing with us, Sy.  It’s a decoy, a trick,” Jamie said.

I looked over at him, then at the specter that had appeared beside him.  She leaned forward, her hands on the windowsill.  Evette’s features and clothes now mirrored that of the girl down there, as if to round out my thoughts.

“They don’t talk,” Jamie said.  “That’s the key thing.  They’re very similar in the way they move.  They’re mock-ups, but they aren’t very good at acting.”

“And the timing is wrong,” Evette agreed with Jamie.  “I’d take far longer to grow.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with the two of them.

I felt such profound disappointment I didn’t know what to do with myself.

“It’s bait,” Jamie said, quiet.  “They’re messing with you.”

“It’s working,” I admitted.

“The real Lambs are out there already,” he said.  “Watching, looking to see how we might react.”

I turned my focus to the other wagons, to the surrounding area, looking.

“We should go,” Jamie said.  He reached out.  “Keep tabs on things.”

“But where are the real Lambs?” I asked.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dyed in the Wool – 12.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Jamie’s efforts to steer the wagon away from the drug-addled men in the middle of the road weren’t enough.  They were like stitched given programming.  Once they noticed us, they started moving toward us, slowly at first, then picking up speed.  They hurled themselves at the wagon with no regard to personal safety.

Combat drugs were something else.  I knew something about the things, having grown up around the Academies.  They weren’t that hard to develop, but in terms of developing them well, it was a different story.  Only a narrow set of them saw use in the Crown’s armed forces.  On the other hand, those forces were massive, and the drugs that were used were used a great deal, skyrocketing the doctor who devised them into untold heights of fame and power.

The rejected drugs ended up getting discarded, unless they were given to warbeasts, either in anticipation of a fight or as something injected into a special gland.  Discarded drugs sometimes saw use as something for gang leaders to use, to spice up underground fighting rings, or as something recreational, for those who wanted to cut loose.  I knew that men that lacked confidence with women and women that lacked confidence with men sometimes took low doses to give themselves courage and to rouse feelings that might otherwise be dead.

I was guessing that the Devil had a source for his drugs.  Probably collected all of the rejected stuff from Corinth Crown, then figured out how to distribute it.

This was the sort that cost too much for what it gave.  The sort that maybe was included in a soldier’s kit, in case of a losing battle with no escape, so they could toss it back and go out valiantly.

I turned in my seat, shifted my grip on my knife, and stabbed.  I’d been aiming for the neck, but with the motion of the wagon and my target combined, I hit the shoulder instead.

The knife had an impact on its own, with all the force I could bring to bear.  But the man’s grip on the side of the wagon was unreal, and his nervous system was doing something different altogether.  He moved back and away from the blade, letting it come free of his shoulder, but his grip remained firm.  He didn’t seem to feel the pain, and that had nothing to do with shock.

His teeth were clenched so hard together that parts of his lower face were alternately turning white and turning crimson, with muscles standing out at the corners of his jaw.  His breath was drawn hard and exhaled just as forcefully, with spittle and particulate forming a thin, drooly froth in the spaces between teeth.

I aimed and drove the knife into his neck once, then twice.  He rocked back, but his grip remained sure.

I watched, waiting and hoping for the man’s fingers to loosen and for him to fall by the roadside.

He let out a deep cry, like the lowing of a cow, a moan and a retching sound all at once, and then let go with his uninjured arm.  He reached up and over, taking hold of some of the bracing that kept the tank secured to the wagon, gripped it, then reached out with the arm with the gouged shoulder.  The arm’s movement wasn’t so sure.  There was no pain, but his arm didn’t function like it should, and he flailed and batted his arm against the side of the wagon for a moment until he was able to get his hand into a place where he could grab hold of something.  Nevermind the agony that it should’ve caused, given the state of the shoulder.

My knife had cut near the spine and had nicked an artery, with blood spurting out in time with his rapid heartbeat.  He was beyond the point of caring.  There was only the drug rage.

Three of them on the wagon.  If they got a grip on either of us, then they wouldn’t let go.  I was having enough trouble getting rid of one of them.

Gripping part of the tank, I sliced at his fingers.  When that failed, I stabbed at them.

He brought his good arm over, gripping the same bit of bracing, then pulled his arm with the sliced up hand and arm away, swinging himself closer to me, reaching.

That he didn’t get me was more a fault of his arm being injured and slower to move than anything clever on my part.  While he worked on getting into a position to reach for me again, I stabbed at the fingers and hand that held the bracing, as many times as I could in the span of roughly three seconds.

It was easy to forget, when growing up with the Lambs had been an eager series of lessons in suggesting the opposite, but people were hard to kill.  There were tricks and shortcuts, weak points to target.  A man could fall down and hit his head in just the right way, or could take what seemed like an ordinary sort of punch, and he could die of an aneurysm.  Mary was good at finding the efficient ways to kill.  Gordon was good at weak points.

Had been.  Had been good at weak points.

I could do okay on my own, but I wasn’t as precise.  When I failed to deliver an attack in a way that physiologically stopped my enemy from functioning, I could usually still psychologically impede them, taking the fight out of them.

Not here.

My repeated stabbings managed to destroy his hand to the point that he couldn’t hold on any longer.  He fell, and as he did he went under the wheel.  The entire back corner of the wagon jumped, and as it did, the wheel came down funny.  It wobbled violently on its axle.

There were two more to deal with, and I didn’t dare move a hair, out of concern that it might be the bump or the shift in weight that made the wheel come off.

“What happened!?” Jamie called out.

“We might lose a wheel,” I said.  I put my foot on the back of the seat and climbed onto the top of the tank.  There were men climbing up the side and back.

“We’re not even close to the station!”

Two were too many to deal with.  One of the men was struggling with his climb, and it looked like it was because his toes kept hitting the wheel.  The one at the back was making more progress.

Crouching, gripping the tank, I kicked out at the face of the man at the back.

I might as well have kicked a stump.  His face contorting, he tried to bite my foot, snapping.  One hand moved away from the top of the tank to grab for my ankle.  His fingertips grazed the top of my shoe, but didn’t find any purchase as I lifted my leg up and out of his reach.

I brought my leg down, driving my ankle into the bridge of his nose, then kicked at his face again.  He grabbed again for my leg.

What even led to this?  What deal did he offer them to make them agree to drug themselves like this?

The good was that he wasn’t making progress in climbing while he was making frantic grabs for the foot.  The bad was that he might actually succeed at some point, the guy to my right was making headway in climbing up, and I wasn’t doing anything to solve the problem.  We wanted to be rid of these guys before we arrived.  If that was even possible, with the wheel being a problem.  The wobbling wheel was getting worse.

“Incoming!” Jamie called out.

More?

They came from a side street, rounding a corner at a surprising speed.  Not drugged up thugs, but warbeasts.  The ones the Crown officers had had as part of their squads.

They were sleek, built like some combination of wolf and lion.  The frame was wolf-like, built to run forward more than it was built to be agile, and the fur was long, pointed back, but there was a degree of size that pointed more toward Lion, along with shaggy manes, and their claws were large and more hooked in a way a wolf’s weren’t.  They used the claws for traction as they ran.

They didn’t try to jump up.  They didn’t go for the men who were dangling off the side and the back of the wagon.  They kept pace, and they made broken yowling, growling sounds in a way that sounded like dogs on the losing end of a fight.

Sound carried.  If they were giving away our location, then there was no point to trying to keep the noise down.  I drew my gun, looking back at Jamie to get confirmation.

I saw him start to nod, and took that as reason to open fire.  I put two shots into the face of the man at the back of the wagon, paused to see if that would be sufficient, and when he didn’t loosen his grip, I fired a third.

Not good.  Not good.  People will have heard.  They’ll be heading our way.  We still have to get to our destination and unload the contents of this wagon.  If they catch on, there’s no point.

The maned warbeasts increased in volume in response to the shots.  I aimed and fired, then switched sides to put a bullet into the one on the other side.  The bullet ricocheted off the ground, instead.  I had to use the last of my six bullets to stop the damned thing.

Leaving the man at the side.  He reached up and over, grabbing for me instead of for a grip on the wagon.  I wasn’t in a position to get out of the way, given my precarious position on the top of a bouncing, swerving container with a bad wheel.

He took hold of my arm, and began trying to drag me off.  No sense for self preservation.  Only a desire to destroy me.  In this case by hauling me off the container and down onto the street.

“Heads up!  Hold on!” Jamie called out.  He was half-standing, hands on the reins, looking back and forth between me and his destination.  I saw the light-post.

Shit on a candlestick.  These guys weren’t operating like normal people did.  I wasn’t sure he would slacken his grip if a cannonball took his head and torso clean off.  Their nerves and their reflexes had been altered.

But I couldn’t think of any better options to handle this guy.

Which meant I was hoping that my grip was better than his.  I let go of the gun and grabbed onto the frame of the container.  I wedged my heels in as best as I could, belly facing the sky, fully preparing myself to be torn away.

I felt a hand grip my collar.  For an instant, I thought it was the man who had my arm.  It was Jamie.

The light-post came and went, scraping against the top edge of the container wagon, catching the man in the armpit, and hauling him away.  He didn’t loosen his grip, but my arm was narrow, my skin beaded with sweat.  His hand slid down to my wrist.  I moved a solid foot in the direction of the bottom end of the wagon, before a combination of my shirt around my chin, Jamie’s grip, and my ankles being wedged between the bracing and the tank itself stopped me.  The man’s iron grip dragged against the edges of my hand to the point that it scraped away skin.

With our adversary left behind and me at no further risk, Jamie let go of my collar.  I let my head relax, back of my head resting against the wagon.

The wheel was jittering, making violent noise with every rotation.  I was less worried now that it was going to come loose and more worried that it would shudder itself to pieces as it veered this way and that.

“How close are we?” I asked.

“I’d feel a lot better if we were closer,” he said.

“How close?”

“Five minutes.”

I nodded.  “Don’t make any right turns.  Might put too much strain on the wheel.”

“Suggestion accepted,” Jamie said.  He paused.  “Seven minutes.  But I have an idea, we’ll be closer to the terminal, and we won’t have to make any right turns to get there.”

“Right,” I said.  I took a moment to catch my breath, sitting on top of the container with my feet by Jamie’s right shoulder.  “Right.”

“You okay?”

“I’ll be better when the night’s over.  How about you?  Sleepy?”

“Ha!” Jamie laughed, one note.

“Good,” I said. “Good.”

I took a second to draw the second of the three guns I’d stashed on my person.  I’d had to let go of the first while struggling to stay atop the wagon.  I looked off to the side, seeing the shadows before I saw the danger itself.  “And we’ve got warbeasts.”

These ones appeared in front of us, from three separate side-streets.  The same sort.  Manes.

These ones, it seemed, were more fixated on the stitched horses pulling the wagon.  From the moment they leaped into motion, they moved in straight lines.

I aimed, muscles in my shooting arm twitching from the exertion of holding onto the wagon just moments ago, and I missed.  I missed again with my second shot, then my third.

“Hit the warbeasts!” Jamie said, as I pulled the trigger, catching one of the three maned creatures.

“I’m trying!”  I said.  I missed again.

“Not very hard!”

I aimed at the second.  From the moment I pulled the trigger, I knew my aim was off.  A heartbeat after I let the bullet fly, I adjusted, squeezing again, and clipped it in the cranium.  It was a grazing shot, but it was a well-placed graze, damaging eye and snout, bringing the creature down.

One more.  I didn’t bother to reload.  I let the empty gun fall onto the wagon seat between my right foot and Jamie’s rear end, drew a third gun-

But Jamie had already shifted his grip on the reins, drawn a gun, and fired at the remaining maned warbeast.  The bullet was well placed, but with the shift in the pull of the reins, the horses at the carriage front veered to one side.  The wheel screamed with the sound of rotating metal scraping against metal as the container’s weight leaned more heavily on that side of the axle.

“Don’t do that!” I admonished him.

He gave me an ‘are you crazy’ look.

“I had it!” I said.  I found the gun and reloaded it.

“You hit two with six shots.”

“And I had another six shots with my remaining gun, you dunce!”

“You’re the dunce,” Jamie retorted.  Just childish enough a retort to indicate he’d known I wasn’t serious with my own insult.

I settled down in the seat, breathing hard.  My ears were ringing from the tension and all of the gunshots.

“You’re supposed to get better, very quickly, with practice, not get dramatically worse,” Jamie said.

“Eat poop, Jamie.  Jarred my arm.  Muscle is doing a nonstop twitchy-twitchy painful thing, and my coordination is off.”

“Fix it, then.”

“At the next opportunity,” I said.  I switched the gun to my left hand, tucking the other one into my waistband for easy access.

We approached another group of people.  As we were getting closer, the concentrations of who was where were getting more intense.  This group numbered twelve in all.

All twelve had that eerie behavior to them, too still, as if they had shut down everything except what they needed to keep an eye out for targets.  All started moving in response to the clopping of hooves on road and the noise of the wagon.

“Can’t turn?” I asked.

“Can’t turn,” Jamie said.

“Dang it,” I said.  I raised my gun.

Squinting, my eyes stinging with the residual smoke that laced the moisture in my eyes, I opened fire.  I aimed for the clusters first, then the ones closest to the horse.  Jamie fired as well, but his focus was on keeping the horses on track, and despite his earlier criticisms, his aim wasn’t all that.

With six shots from my first gun and two from the second, I got six of them.  Jamie got two.  Of the eight in total, only five died properly.  The others barely seemed to care about the bullets.

One of the ones we didn’t get went straight for the horse.  He hurled himself at the horse’s legs, and the entire wagon tilted as the horse stumbled.  Two more hurled themselves against the side of the wagon and wagon wheels, the first bouncing off, the second going under the wheel and failing to damage it in the process like the one had earlier.

“Come on, come on,” Jamie said, as the horse the man had hit continued to stumble.  The wagon jerked violently as we rolled over bodies of people we’d shot.  I heard something give, a wooden crunch and a snap together in one sound.  “Don’t fall, horse!”

“Bugger bugger bugger,” I said.  The wheel came free, and the entire back of the wagon sagged.  The arms at the front that the stitched horses were attached to rose up, threatening to lift the things into the air.

As it was, the wagon bobbed, trying to decide if it wanted to hurl the horses skyward or if it wanted to dip forward, driving them into the ground.  As it veered into the former, it dragged, and as it did the latter, the horses floundered, the one horse struggling in particular.

“This will have to do!” Jamie called out.  “Off!”

“Off!?”

He was already letting go of the reins, preparing himself to hop off of the wagon.

I did the same, only for the left side of the wagon.  I watched Jamie, and as he jumped, I did the same.  I rolled with the landing.

The wagon was still moving forward, and Jamie, on the other side of it, followed it, away from the remaining men who were staggering or running in our direction.  I moved in parallel.

“Grenade, Sy!”

I reached to my belt, and I grabbed one of the grenades we’d liberated from the Apostle’s men.

“If this stuff is flammable, we’re going to die,” Jamie said.

“What?” I asked.  I’d thought we were aiming for the crowd.  Hearing what Jamie said, I had to connect the dots, realize it wasn’t just the crowd, but included the container.  Or part of the container.  I processed what he’d said again, then repeated myself, with ten degrees more emphasis, “What?

“You’re a bad influence, Sy,” Jamie said.  “On three!”

“Good knowing you, sir,” I said.

“Likewise, even if you’re a pain…  Two, three!

Skipped one, just to take a jab at me, I thought, as I tossed.  I turned, running before I even saw where the grenade ended up.  I knew where I’d aimed it.

The grenades caught the tail end of the container, and the front ranks of the charging group of drugged men.  They detonated, rocking the surroundings, and I lost my footing, falling.

The container, cracked and damaged by the grenade, dumped its contents onto the road.  Said contents flowed down the street, and along the gutter.

“Hurry,” Jamie said, helping me up.

We hurried.  Between the smoke, the explosion and the fire, only two of the drugged men came after us.  The two bullets we used in putting them down brought a third, and the noise of the third bullet didn’t bring any immediate visitors.

We had to run a block to get to the terminal.  It was another hut of tubes and controls, to guide the water flow.  The attached dials, signs, and labels were so old that half weren’t readable anymore, but Jamie seemed to have a sense of it.  He indicated the cranks to spin, shutting off water so that we would only contaminate the water supply in one area.  We moved to a hatch, and we climbed down to a lower level.  There was a large tank that gutter water flowed into, where the water was cleaned and strained of any noticeable debris.  The recycled water from the drains and rain was normally used to flush toilets and be strategically released from certain pipes to wash city streets or attach to the fire service’s pumps.

With Evette looking on, we closed off the tank channels, rerouting the flow, a process, according to Jamie, that would normally be used to drive a clog out of the pipes.

We stepped back to look at our work, listening to the sound of the gutter water chugging through.

It was done.  The drug we’d loaded into the wagon had made its way into the ditch and down here, and now it would make its way to the station and the buildings in the immediate surroundings.  With only the Devil and his men awake and potentially drinking the stuff, only they should be affected.

Jamie took a few more steps back, and then collapsed, his back to the wall.

I nodded, looked up at the hatch, and went to climb up, making sure that the door to the outside was firmly closed and latched, before retreating down to the dim space below, only partially closing the hatch behind me.

As good a hiding place as any, sitting in the dark here.  I settled down next to Jamie, looking up at the hatch.  If there was any light up on the surface, it would be visible around the edges of the hatch.

“We’ve only got a few hours before we need to move.  Don’t go and fall asleep, okay?” I asked.

No sooner was I done speaking than I felt Jamie’s head move.  It came to rest against my shoulder.

“Leaving it all to me, huh?  Jackass,” I said.  “Dunce.  Nincompoop…”

“…Pencilwit,” I said.  I had to think for a few more seconds to dig for more inspiration.  “Eraser licker.  Nipplesnout.  Bat-fart.  Turtle-weiner.  Barf… belcher.  Wormy-arsed snot-suckler…”

Digging for more inspiration, I looked up at the hatch.  The light of dawn that was shining through now was stronger.  If I had to go by gut…

“Needle-pecker.  Duck-buggerer.  Shitcrumb,” I said, for good measure.  I sighed a little, moving the shoulder of an arm that had long since gone numb.  “Up.”

“Mm,” Jamie made a noise.

“Drooler.  Snorer,” I said, under my breath.

“What was that?” Jamie asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Nothing at all.”

“Mm.  Isn’t that funny?” He murmured.  “I feel like I almost dreamed, except, I wouldn’t have been out for that long, and as dreams go, I just have a dim recollection of you doing nothing but coming up with insults for me for hours.  Hours upon hours.”

“And I’d never do that, of course,” I said.

“Never.  You’re too kind a soul.  Too grateful to me for leaving everything behind to support your sorry ass.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “Exactly.  But as amusing as that all is, it’s time to go.  If I gauged the timing right.”

Jamie nodded.

Together, we worked to reverse what we’d done, flushing the pipes, then restoring water to the area.  It was an easier process than setting things up in the first place.  Jamie’s intricate recollection of what he’d managed to find out about the city’s water system, services, and the maintenance therein was hardly even needed.  It was always easier to get things to do what they were intended to do, than to reroute and rework.

We made our way up the ladder, both of us groaning with our individual aches and pains, Jamie’s tricky shoulder always being some small problem.  We peeked out past the hatch, verified the coast as clear, and then made our way outside.

It wasn’t so far to the train station, and except for some perimeter patrols of officers and stitched that we steer clear of, the area was surprisingly empty and shockingly quiet, for an hour or so past dawn.

We approached the station at an oblique angle, but on seeing the first body, we moved forward with more confidence.  A man, crumpled to the ground, his skin orange-red in color, lay in the sun.

“They didn’t collect him,” I said.  “It’s hard to believe.  If they had people on watch, I feel like they would have grabbed him and tried to treat him.”

“It’s no guarantee,” Jamie said.

“Walk the perimeter first, then?” I asked.

Jamie nodded.

We took our time, even knowing that time was somewhat short.  Taking care, we verified that there were no people on watch, here, and apparently no civilians either.  I looked inside windows to homes, at beds, at porches and elsewhere.  There were doors that had been left open and unlocked, and there wasn’t a living soul to be seen.  The police who’d been patrolling elsewhere weren’t anywhere near the station itself.

It clicked.

“They weren’t sure what it was, when people started dying,” I said.  “They might have thought it was an invisible gas, or a disease.”

“They might have,” Jamie said.

I could hear the skepticism in his voice, and voiced the thought he hadn’t yet.  “Or it’s a trap.”

“Might be,” he said.  He smiled slightly, at the fact that I’d read his mind.

With that in mind, we were slower in our approach, more cautious.

We were only a few houses back from the door of the station when I saw it.  I changed course, and moved over to the curb by the side of the road.  The ditch was recessed, to allow rain water to flow in it and only in it, without spilling out into the road.  It was filled with detritus, with dirt, some weeds, and bits of trash.

But, in the midst of it, a dark line was visible.

I dug it out, and lifted it to look.

“Telegraph wire?” I asked.  “In a ditch.”

I looked at Jamie.  I could see the look on his face.  My expression dead serious, I lifted the wire, formed a loop, drew my knife, and cut the wire.  I waited a moment.

Nothing.

Still holding the wire, I gathered it up as I followed it to its source.  Stones in the pathway leading up to the front door had been placed over the wire, hiding it.  I got close to the front door, then stopped.

What would I do?

Pile trap upon trap.

I didn’t use the front door.  I checked a window, then climbed through, leaving Jamie on watch.

Inside the building were bodies.  People that had turned varying shades of orange and red, fallen here and there.  The Devil wasn’t among them.

But, more concerning, were the cases and boxes.  Piles upon piles of the things.  I knew the characteristic smell.

Bombs.  Explosives.  TNT.

All wired up to this telegraph-style fuse.  To other things.  To the front door, and to a hatch in the bathroom floor, leading to the water system.  I hadn’t even guessed that entry point existed.

Too much, all together.  He must have tapped the Apostles’ supplies.  Completely over the top.

I unhooked the trick fuses on the front door, opening it.  I let Jamie see it all.

“There’s no way we get rid of all of this before they arrive,” Jamie said.

“I know,” I said.

“He could attack last minute, find a way to set it off.”

“I know,” I said, again.  “Keep an eye out, and watch out, he might have a sniper rifle.  If he has access to all of this… not out of the question.”

Jamie nodded, stepping back outside.

I crossed the station, and I found what any train station office had to have available.  The wires were nailed to the wall, making for a painful process of tracing it all back, making sure that it wouldn’t feed back into some pile of bombs or another, triggering an explosion if I made a call.  I was a little disappointed that it didn’t, that I didn’t have another minor victory like I had with the front door.

I dialed and made the call.

“Hello?  Sir?” A woman’s voice.

“West Corinth train station, here,” I said.

“You’re supposed to identify yourself with a name and number, sir, otherwise the line may be compromised.  Please state-”

I was a little pleased that she jumped to sir instead of assuming I was a child.

“It’s compromised,” I said, cutting the woman off.  “The station is filled with explosives.  It will blow up shortly.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Do you have a means of contacting the train that’s due to arrive at seven?  And all of the other trains that are due to pass through today?”

“Sir?  Yes, we have a means, but can I ask you-”

“Contact them, now,” I said.  “Stop the train.  Because I’m about to blow up the tracks and the station both.”

“Sir-”

“West Corinth,” I said again.  “Warn them.”

There was silence on the line.  A muffled sound, voices in the background.  She was talking to others.

“Talk to me,” I said.

Another voice came on the line, male.

“Who are you?” the voice asked.  “Why this?”

“I’m Sylvester Lambsbridge,” I said.  “Ask around, the name means something.”

“It does,” he said, in a way that suggested he now believed me, and that it was sinking in.  He knew my name already.  Staff at train stations and post offices had likely been warned about me.

“You’ll stop the train?” I asked.

“I don’t see how we have any other choice,” the voice replied.

That done, I hung up.

I checked a smaller crate of TNT, judging the quality of it, and deemed it relatively new.  Older TNT could be volatile.  As I left the building, I deposited the TNT on the ground, in a line.

Jamie greeted me as I moved outside, still laying out the line.

“The Lambs are going to have to find another way into town,” I said.  “That’s disappointing.”

“A touch,” Jamie said.  He gave me a hand with the crate, speeding up the process.

“Didn’t get the Devil either.  He’s out there.  Plotting.”

“That’s what you wanted, though, isn’t it?  Someone to keep the Lambs on their toes?  You wanted to stir shit up and leave it stirred.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But… not quite this messy.  Be better if the Devil was dead, but the stirring was still a thing.  If we knew when and where they were turning up, we could set up some kids somewhere, just let them know, so they knew to watch out.  I don’t like how this guy moves.  Big actions, violent, over the top every time.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  “And he’s got some sway over the local police, maybe politics.”

I had some guesses.  Either they were on a drug only he was supplying, or he had some blackmail.  Something he’d kept in his pocket for an event like this, where his headquarters were burned and he’d lost half of everything, and he wanted his revenge.

We worked for another few minutes before I laid down the last of the dynamite.  I drew a match.

Jamie pointed further down the street.  “Wind’s blowing that stick away.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

“If you’re sure.”

I lit the wick.  Jamie and I legged it.

One explosion prompted another, which led all the way back to the station.  Once the big stockpile went, everything went.  A massive, rolling boom, tearing apart the station and the tracks and some nearby buildings.

Bits of wood and shingle rained down all around us.

I bounced on the spot, excited.

“You’re such a kid sometimes,” Jamie said.

“The Lambs are coming,” I said, still bouncing, excited.  I stopped bouncing.  “And there’s still so dang much to do!  Come on, come on!”

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