How does it go? The first lesson, something even the uninitiated know. For life to flourish on the most basic level, it requires four elements. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen.
We were doing fine on that count. The air around us was stale, but it was still oxygen. Water ran around and below us, flowing over our bare feet, redirected from gutters to the building’s inside.
What had once been a barn had been made into a warehouse, then abandoned partway through a third set of changes. A floor of old wooden slats reached only halfway down the length of the old building, what had once been a hayloft. If we stood on the edge, we could look down at the floor below to see uneven floorboards on top of compacted dirt. The original barn’s door was still there, mounted on rollers. I leaned over to get a better look. I could see a table, some scattered papers, books, and a blackboard. The only light was that which came in through windows. A scattered set placed on the upper floor, and more well above head height on the lower one.
Aside from the four of us, one other thing occupied the hayloft. It was hard to make out in the dim light that filtered in through the window, like an eel in dark water, and if it weren’t for the fact that we’d seen it approach, we might not have noticed it at all. Sleek, four-legged, and tall enough I couldn’t have reached its shoulder if I stood on my toes, it was wound around the pillar as a snake might be. Unlike a snake, though, it had four long limbs, each with four long digits, tipped with claws. Head flowed into neck, which flowed into shoulder and body without a without prominent ridge, bump, bone or muscle to interrupt the sequence.
It uncoiled, setting a claw on the floor, and the old floorboards didn’t elicit an audible creak. Large as it was, it managed to distribute weight too evenly, and used its tail to suspend some of its weight.
It didn’t walk, but slinked, each foot falling in front of the last as it passed within three feet of us. Its wide mouth parted, showing just a hint of narrow white teeth.
There was no cover, nothing to hide us from it.
I saw its nostrils flare. It opened its mouth to taste the air with a flick of a thin tongue.
The way things looked, we were very close to doing the opposite of ‘flourishing’.
It was hard to put into words, but my thoughts connected with that thought, and it was funny.
I grinned, and flakes of wax fell from my face at the movement. I watched the thing continue onward, toward the back of the hayloft, head turning as it sniffed the surroundings. It unwound its long tail from the wooden pillar that held up the one end of the overhanging hayloft, and it moved with a slow carefulness.
I stared at its eye, and saw how it didn’t move as the head swept from one side to the next, the slit of the iris barely changing in response as the faint light from the window swept over its head.
“It’s blind,” I whispered.
The movements of the creature came to a halt. It froze, nostrils wide.
Gordon, just to my left, put out a hand, covering my mouth. He was tense, lines on his neck standing out. Trying to put on a brave face, as our leader. Gordon, strong, handsome, likeable, talented. A veneer covered his face, as it did all of us, almost clear, cracked and white at the corners of his lips where he’d changed his expression, coming away in flakes at his hairline, where his hair was covered by the same substance.
The creature turned, and as it did its tail moved around until it touched the outside edge of the makeshift gutter that we were all standing in, fine emerald scales rasping against wood.
When Gordon whispered his response, I could barely hear him utter, “It’s not deaf.”
I nodded, and he pulled his hand away.
I had a glimpse of the girls. Helen and Lillian. As different as night and day. Lillian was bent over, hood up and over her head, hiding her face, hands clutching the straps of her bag, white knuckled. Terrified, and rightly so. The coating on her face was flaking badly.
In contrast, Helen’s face didn’t betray a flicker of emotion. Her golden hair, normally well cared for, cultivated into tight rolls, was damp and falling out of place. Water ran down her face, splashing in through the side of the window where the makeshift gutter came in, and the droplets didn’t provoke one flinch or batted eyelash. She could have been a statue, and she’d kept her face still enough that the wax that covered it hadn’t broken, which only helped the effect.
Still and silent, we watched as the creature moved to the far corner of the hayloft.
It snapped, and the four curved fangs were the only ones that were any wider than a pencil, visible for only an instant before the head disappeared into detritus piled in the corner. A furred form struggled before the creature could raise its head. No swallowing, per se. Gravity did the work, as teeth parted and the prey fell down its long throat.
A second bite let it collect another, small and young enough it couldn’t even struggle. Tiny morsels.
“Kitties,” Lillian whispered, horror overtaking fear in her expression.
Mama kitty shouldn’t have had her babies in the same building as the monster, I thought. Wallace’s law at work.
Gordon nudged me. He pointed.
The makeshift gutter was little more than a trough, with little care given for the leaks here and there, and it fed into wooden barrels at the edge of the upper floor, with more channels and troughs leading into sub-chambers and tanks below. It had been running long enough for debris and grime to accumulate, a combination of silt and scum collecting at the very bottom to make it treacherous. Our progress was slow, and I had to remind myself that anything faster threatened to make noise, or risked a fall.
As if to follow the thought, Lillian’s foot skidded on the bottom of the trough, and she tipped forward, straight into Helen’s arms. The creature stopped its slow consumption of the cat’s litter.
We were frozen, waiting, while the creature sniffed the air.
It returned to its meal.
We made our way out, everyone but me flipping up their hoods to ward off the rain. I let the droplets fall where they would, on hair that refused to be bound down beneath a thick layer of waterproofing wax.
There was no ledge outside the window, only the real gutter. Bigger and more solid, if still treacherous with seasons of accumulated grime. The roof loomed above us, more up than over, as barn roofs were wont to be. Red leaves collected here and there.
“I stay,” Helen murmured.
There was no questioning it, no argument. We couldn’t afford to make the noise, and it made a degree of sense.
“I’ll go first,” I volunteered, craning my head a bit to see the way down. Being the sort of building it was, the barn-turned-warehouse-turned-something-else was tall, with a long way to the bottom. The gutter pointed groundward at the corner, fixed to the brick exterior at regular points by lengths of metal. It worked as a ladder, but not one that was fun to use. The ‘rungs’ were too far apart, too close to the wall.
Someone grabbed my arm. I thought it would be Gordon or Helen, as they had the personalities to be arm-grabbers. It wasn’t.
“You go second,” Lillian whispered to me. “I know you well enough to know that If you go before me you’ll look up my skirt.”
“Me?” I tried to sound innocent.
Gordon jabbed me. His expression was no-nonsense, his green eyes a steely grey beneath his hood, absorbing the colors of the clouds above. His mouth was a grim line.
“Okay,” I conceded.
“I’ll take your bag,” Gordon whispered. Again, there was no argument. Lillian handed over the backpack, loaded down with tools and supplies.
She accepted Gordon’s support in getting down to the downspout, and began her slow descent.
I fidgeted. My eye traveled over our surroundings, buildings scattered like they’d been blown around by strong winds and planted where they lay. Older structures had a charm to them, simplicity and a character that came with age and gentle wear and tear. The oldest and the newest buildings had been shored up by strategic plant growth, branches weaving into and through damaged sections, growing to complement masonry, around bricks and supports. The very newest growths had a characteristic red tint to the leaves. The rest were dead, left to petrify.
The Academy loomed above it all, those same elements taken to an extreme. It had been an old collection of buildings once. A rush to grow and meet surging demand had led to a lot of the same haphazard growth.
It all had an odor. There were smells that became second nature, and there were smells that were ingrained in the psyche as bad smells. Ones that spoke of death, of long sickness, and of violence. Rendered fat, decay, and blood. Each were heavy on the air.
Ironic, that things so overgrown and reeking of decay were the parts of the city charged with progress.
You’d think the rain would wash away the smell.
I checked. Lillian had moved down one rung. I shifted my weight from one foot to the next, annoyed.
She wasn’t one of us. She was new. Allowances had to be made.
It wasn’t the first time I had told myself any of those things. I’d heard it from Gordon. It didn’t make it any less annoying.
I bent down, peering over the edge of the gutter to the road below. I could see the windows, the boxes further down.
“Sy,” Gordon hissed the words, “What are you doing?”
Gripping the ledge, I swung myself over.
I let go, and enjoyed both the moment of utter terror and Lillian’s gasp of horror, before my fingers caught hold of the window frame below.
My right foot slipped on the damp windowsill, scraping peeling paint off and away before I brought it back up to the sill. Water and paint flakes sprayed below.
When I looked up, Gordon’s head was poking over the edge, looking down at me.
He moved his head, and I could hear him speak, very patiently, to Lillian, “Keep going. Don’t mind him.”
Peering in the window, I could see the interior, the lower floor. The desk, the notes on the experiment. Another table was heavy with lines of bottles, vials, jugs, and yet more papers, scattered. Rain poured down on me, tracing its way down the back of my neck, beneath my shirt. The waxed and waterproof cowl and short cloak had kept my shirt dry, and I shivered at the sensation.
I tested the window, and was utterly surprised to find it latched. I drew a key from my pocket, trying to fit it into the gap, hoping to lift the latch, but it proved too thick.
The key went back in place. I removed my hands from the windowsill one at a time, to dry them in my armpits and then reposition my grip.
Gripping the windowsill, I strained my body, reaching down and to the right. The doorframe that bounded the large sliding door was just out of reach…
Holding the windowsill with my left hand, reaching with my right leg, I touched the frame with my big toe. I found a grip, and I used it to better position myself. Fingers dug into the space between bricks, where water had worn away mortar, and I heaved myself over, using my toes and only my toes to perch on the top of the doorway.
Were it any other door, I wouldn’t have fussed, but I was still just high enough off the ground to have cause to worry. This had been a barn, and this door was the type that let wagons or draft horses inside.
I paused on top of the door, cleaning my hands of wet and grit.
“Watching you do that is making me nervous,” Lillian said, looking down at me. She’d progressed two more ‘rungs’. She was the shortest of us, next to me, it didn’t make it easier for her.
I flashed her a grin, and more of the waterproofing wax that I’d caked onto my face cracked.
I worked my way down to a crouch, still on top of the door, then slid down, draping my front against the door itself. I let myself drop the rest of the way, landing bare-footed in mud.
I couldn’t get the smile off my face as I passed beneath the drain pipe, making a point of looking up at Lillian, who was making a point of her own in turn, glaring down at me, very clearly annoyed.
“You had an audience,” a soft voice stated.
Amid empty crates and a door that had been taken off its hinges, jumbled together as trash and detritus, I could make out the fifth member of our contingent. Jamie had a book in his lap, our collected boots and shoes neatly organized around him, and he had company. A black-skinned boy with a hood and cloak far too large for him, tattered enough that it had probably been a hand-me-down for the last person to own it. His eyes were wide.
“I thought you were keeping lookout,” I said.
“The whole point of being lookout is that you tell us if there’s trouble.”
“Is he trouble?” Jamie asked.
“I’m no trouble,” the boy’s words flowed right off the back of Jamie’s, without a heartbeat of hesitation. “The trouble is inside.”
“The snake thing,” I said.
“You saw it?” he asked. His eyes went wider. “Then you should know if you’re going to steal something, you shouldn’t steal from there.”
“We’re not stealing,” I said. “We’re just looking.”
The boy didn’t respond. He watched Lillian’s glacially slow descent.
I met Jamie’s eyes. If it weren’t for Helen, who was a special case, I might have called Jamie the quiet one. He wore eyeglasses, though there were all sorts of ways to fix or replace bad eyes, and his hair was long beneath his hood. Not out of any style or affectation. He simply never liked how it looked when it was short. His face was narrow, his eyes large as he shifted his gaze to look from me to Lillian. His hands held firm to a book that sat across his knees.
“Helen?” he asked.
I wanted him to figure out how to deal with our bystander, given how he’d failed to warn us about the boy in the first place, but Jamie was silent.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I know his,” I said, striving to not sound as annoyed at the question as I felt. I pointed at Jamie to make myself as clear as possible.
“Thomas. My friends call me Thom.”
“Did you hear about the crying man of Butcher’s Row?”
“Sly,” Jamie said, suddenly paying attention to the issue. The name was a warning.
But Thom gave an answer, “That stitched that went crazy. Remembered things.”
“That’s the one. Do you remember Mother Hen?”
Thom nodded. “That nurse who- the babies.”
He looked rather uneasy now.
“That’s right,” I said, doing my best to sound calm, reassuring. “The nurse. Yes. Both got caught, right? Everything got tied up neatly?”
“Yeah,” Thom said. He couldn’t meet my eyes, so he focused on Lillian instead. “The authorities from the Academy got them.”
“Exactly, Thom,” I said, “But who told the authorities?”
His eyes moved. To me, then Jamie, to Lillian, and then the barn-turned-warehouse.
I was nodding before the word came out of his mouth. “You.”
“You’re clever,” I praised him.
I made the universal gesture for money, rubbing thumb against two fingers.
The gears were shifting in his head. Processing, calculating.
“I’ve heard things,” he said.
“I don’t doubt it,” I said.
“I can get money for it? For telling people?”
“If you know who to tell, and how to sell it,” I said.
His expression changed, a frown. Disappointment.
Tick, tick, turn turn. The gears in his head were still moving.
He wasn’t dumb, even if he wasn’t much of an actor. Then again, he was only ten or so.
I could guess what he was going to ask, and I knew I might lose him if I turned him down too many times.
My mind ticked over possibilities. What I needed, what I had to do.
Before he could venture a question, I interrupted him. “You want in?”
“In?” he asked. Now he was wary.
I reached beneath my cloak, and I fished out a coinpurse. Two fingers reached in, and came out fully extended, two dollars in coins pressed between the tips.
The wariness subsided.
“I’ll give you this on good faith. Eight whole dollars if you follow through. I need you to do something for me.”
He reached for and claimed the money without any hesitation.
“You said you had friends?” I asked.
“On top of the grocer’s place. Corner of Oxbow and Halls. Wait there. Take turns keeping an eye out. You’re looking for a black coach, led by two stitched horses, heading toward the Academy. You’ll know they’re stitched because they’re wearing raincoats. Won’t be more than two hours’ wait.”
“There’s a rain barrel up there. They’re going to have to stop to wait for the way to clear before they can carry on their way. What you’re going to do is tip over the barrel. Send water off the edge of the roof, onto the horses if you can. Might want to prop some things up around the barrel, to make sure it happens.”
He frowned a bit.
“Ten dollars, all in all, for you and your friends, for one afternoon’s work. Pretty good deal. Don’t think you can do it?”
“I can do it,” Thom said.
“You sure?” I asked.
“I can do it,” he said, voice firm.
I studied him, head to toe, taking it all in.
Reaching beneath my cloak, I collected a note from a pocket. I pressed it into his hands.
He looked down at the money, stunned.
“If you don’t follow through, you won’t get a deal like this again,” I said. “Think hard before you try cheating me. A big part of what we do is find people.”
Mute, he nodded.
“Go,” I said.
He went, running, feet splashing in puddles of water.
Lillian was about halfway down.
“You lied to him,” Jamie said.
“Would you rather I told the truth?” I asked.
“If you’re going to get him involved.”
I shook my head.
“Which leads me to ask… what are you up to?” Jamie asked. “You weren’t just getting rid of him or making trouble.”
“I’m going inside,” I said, starting for the door. “Tell the others if they’re wondering.”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” Jamie said.
But he didn’t move from his spot, and I was already gone.
I passed under Lillian a second time, peeking up her skirt a second time, more to needle her than out of any lingering curiosity. The big door was, as it turned out, locked, and I wasn’t able to bypass the big padlock any more than I could bypass the latch of the window above. But the door rolled on wheels, and the wheels fit in ruts, a long, shallow channel.
I headed to the end of the door opposite the lock, and I pushed the full weight of my body against it. The lock rattled, heavy.
I tried a bit more pressure, pushing, and the door tilted, the bottom corner closest to me rising out of the channel. Gripping the door, I lifted it up and away, wood scraping concrete as I created a triangular gap.
I slipped inside, my eyes immediately going to the hayloft, the upper floor.
Helen was there, sitting with one foot propped up, both hands in her lap to keep her skirt pressed down. Her face was still expressionless. Half of her attention was on me. Half was on the creature. There was a rain barrel beside her, rigged so it hung over the edge of the hayloft, collecting the water that ran in through the makeshift gutter, feeding a steady stream down into containers below. Runoff from those containers fed into the corner of the building. A drain from when the building had been a warehouse, keeping the goods dry.
I studied the papers on the desk. Water from one of the windows above spat down. Barely large enough to qualify as drops, but they dotted one paper, making ink bleed. Sketches of the beast. Notations on structure and anatomy.
One of the texts on a table beside the desk was hand-made. Pages had holes in them, and a cord was laced through, tying them to the heavy leather cover. With care, I paged through the thing.
One being, knit together from several. The better traits of each, all drawn together. References to Wollstone’s texts, to the ratios of life, and to the volumes of genetic code for Felidae and Eunectes Murinus.
A whole chapter on digestive enzymes. Diagrams of the thing’s fangs, which I had glimpsed as it devoured the mother cat, with labels for the reservoirs of venom that wasn’t true venom. It was enzymes, much like the ones bugs used to dissolve their meals before supping them. Notes suggested that the feature helped with the digestion of any and all food.
Little doubt of what this thing had been engineered for.
My finger traced the labels of glass containers, bottles and vials. Blood, bile, cerebral fluid…
Venom. I’d expected it to be green, but it was clear, in a glass container with a murky exterior, about as tall and wide as a wine bottle, though more cylindrical.
There was a noise at the door, and I took a long step to the side, toward the shadows beside one of the big wooden containers for water.
Only Lillian, followed by Gordon, passing through the gap. Gordon was the largest of us, and it was a particularly tight fit for him.
I continued paging through the text.
My eye traveled down the list. Meal times, meal sources, meal sizes.
Scavenged meal, unknown type.
Scavenged meal, dog.
It wasn’t fully grown, but it was close, and it grew fast. Two meals a week.
I recalled that it had eaten the cat, and then looked back at the entries.
Forty pounds, sixty pounds, forty pounds, est. one hundred pounds… I noted the numbers, and tried to find the pattern between those numbers and the meals.
I moved ahead a few pages until I reached the first partial page. Room left for more entries.
Last meal, just over two days ago, goat carcass. It was hungry already. Quite possibly getting ready for one last growth spurt. The more recent meals were larger.
Gordon was crouched, peering at labels on bottles. He saw me looking, and tapped his nose, then pointed at the bottles
I tapped the book, getting his attention, and stepped away while he read the entries.
He didn’t have much of a chance to read.
There was a sound outside, violent, of things falling over. Chaos.
I could picture Jamie’s hiding spot, the way the door had been propped up. This was a warning.
“Hide,” Gordon whispered.
You don’t have to tell me, I thought, but I held my tongue.
Very carefully, I closed the book. I shifted the angle to return it to the position it had been in. My eye swept over the room.
Water on the floor. Did it matter?
No. There was no time, besides.
I slipped into the shadowy crevice between the water tank and the wall. Gordon and Lillian were already gone. Helen, who had been above, watching everything, was now gone. No doubt hiding behind the water barrel, a step away from where she had been.
Four seconds passed before I heard the lock rattle.
The door’s wheel slammed back down into the rut as it was pulled to one side, but there was no sign of concern or suspicion.
He closed the door behind him, and the sound of something being dragged joined the sound of hard shoe soles on the wooden floor, marking his progress across his makeshift laboratory.
“Damned beast,” he muttered. “Where are you?”
He made seemingly deliberate noise as he cleared a table, then dropped his burden on top of it.
I heard a grunt, his, and the smell of blood filled the air.
The amount of light in the room shifted. I judged it to be the beast’s bulk blocking the light from the windows above.
“There you are,” he said.
With swift strides, he crossed to the water tank I crouched beside. He wasted no time in dipping his hands inside, splashing water as he swished his hands inside. Some of the water that slopped around the top of the tank splashed down on top of me.
I was close enough to touch him.
There was a scuffle and a thud as the cat-snake creature touched ground, eager to get to its meal. Its creator was already at the desk, picking select vials, dabbing a bit on his wrist, then rubbing his wrists together.
I thought of Gordon’s gesture. Touching his nose.
It was how he controlled the beast he had made.
I could see him as he tidied papers, only periodically glancing over his shoulder. He hummed. But for some stubble on his chin, he looked like a gentleman, with a four-button vest under a butcher’s apron and an ankle-length raincoat. His hair was sandy, parted to one side.
I could see the creature raise its head. The meal was in its mouth, and it was angling its head to let it all slide down its gullet.
Its creator used a pair of tongs to collect a bloody sack. I took it to be the sack the creature’s meal had been in. Another pig, perhaps.
He disappeared from view.
Then the tongs clanged to the floor. The beast changed the angle of its head.
“A child?” the man’s voice was touched with incredulity.
There was a commotion, a scrape of steel on concrete as a foot dragged on the tongs.
I remained where I was.
The struggle continued, intermittent, as he backed up, the desk of papers to one side, the table of bottles to the other. He had a carving knife to Gordon’s throat. Presumably the same one he’d used to cut open the creature’s meal and get its attention.
“Two of you. Are there more?”
Gordon was silent.
“I’m asking you!” the man was angry, outraged. “Are there more? Girl! How many? Tell me or I cut him!”
“A few,” Lillian said. “Four.”
“The noise outside. That was one?”
“Five, if you count him,” she said, her voice small.
“Do not play games with me!” the man roared. “Show yourselves! Each of you!”
I exhaled slowly.
I stepped out of the gap by the water tank.
Helen was above, at the hayloft. Standing by the edge. Lillian was closer to the door. She and Gordon had been hiding in or near a garbage bin.
The beast was relaxed, having just eaten its fill.
“Children?” the man sounded incredulous.
He wasn’t wrong. At thirteen, Lillian was the oldest of us. Gordon was only twelve as of last month.
“Yeah,” Gordon said, his voice strained. The man had his throat caught in the crook of one arm, exposing his lower throat.
“An infestation,” the man said. “My experiment didn’t root you out?”
His eye traveled over each of us in turn. I saw the faintest crease appear between his eyebrows.
He seemed to come to a realization. “You’ve covered yourself in something. So it can’t smell you. This was premeditated.”
I met Lillian’s eyes. I jerked my chin. Pointed at her with my hand.
The easy, natural interactions and cooperation that followed from years of working together weren’t there with Lil. She was new. A recent addition to the group.
I almost thought she got the wrong idea, until she opened her mouth.
“Yes,” she said. “We… heard about you.”
“That there was something loose in the slums. It was eating pets. It ate a man that was sleeping outside.”
“No,” the man said.
“Yes,” Lillian said. “There are witnesses.”
“The witnesses are wrong,” the man said.
“You let it go out to find its own food,” Gordon said, his voice still strangled. “You couldn’t afford to keep it fed as it grew this large. You let it feed on strays. Which it did. Except one of those strays was human. It’s in the book. Meal, unknown type.”
I edged around behind the man.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve studied its leavings,” the man said, ignoring the label. “Nothing human.”
“Nothing conclusively human, you mean,” Gordon said. “But you aren’t able to identify all of what it ate.”
“You!” The man raised his voice. He sounded more emotional than before. “Up there! Girl! Stay put.”
Helen froze where she was.
“You’re a killer,” Gordon said, more insistent. “We were calling you the snake charmer.”
I edged closer to the table.
I didn’t make a sound, but the snake charmer sensed trouble before it arrived. He wheeled on me, the knife dangerously close to Gordon’s throat.
I lunged in the same movement, seizing the big bottle. The venom. I held it high.
“You don’t care what happens to him?” the snake charmer asked.
“I care,” I said. “That’s why, if you cut him, and if it looks like he isn’t going to be okay, I’m going to throw this at the both of you.”
The snake charmer’s eyes darted around. He couldn’t watch all of us at once.
“Move!” he said. “Go around. I want you as a group.”
I didn’t budge.
“No,” I said.
“It’s over, snake charmer,” Gordon said.
“That is not my name!”
“It’s a name they’ll give you,” Gordon said. “They’ll make you a monster. It’s what the Academy does. Dehumanizes the dangerous ones. You can’t get all of us, not with the way things are, here. Some are bound to escape. They’ll tell people, and those people will find you. You know the resources the Academy has.”
“No,” the snake charmer said.
“You don’t know?” Gordon asked.
“This is not my fault,” the snake charmer said. “The Academy… this rests on their shoulders, not mine. You can’t enroll without showing your skill, and you can’t show your skill without experimenting, but oh, no, they don’t allow that, do they?”
“There are ways,” Lillian said.
“No!” the man barked, “No! Not nearly enough. The world is changing, and they’re deciding the course. They’re putting us in this situation, where risks have to be taken. Gambles have to be made, or history will continue to be made, names attached to great discoveries, and the rest of us? If we’re lucky, we get left by the wayside. If we’re not, we’re just fuel for what they’re setting in motion.”
“I’m a student there,” Lillian said. “I just started, but… I’m enrolled. First year of study. Not them. Just me.”
I could see the man’s expression twist. Incomprehension. Comprehension, which was almost worse. Hatred for a thirteen year old girl.
Then rage, not a clean, pure kind, but one that only drove him further into a corner.
His hand tightened on the grip of the knife.
I figured out the destination he was arriving at before he did.
I arrived at my own, and I mustered up some courage.
Very deliberately, I grunted, heaving the bottle of acid at the snake charmer.
He heard the grunt, but so did Gordon. With the snake charmer’s attention caught between Lillian and me, Gordon found a chance to protect his throat, keeping the knife from cutting.
The bottle flew lazily through the air. Gordon ducked, head down, and the snake charmer released him.
The man caught the bottle in a bear hug.
He stared down at the container.
All the same emotions he’d felt for Lillian, now aimed at me, progressing much faster this time. Incomprehension, comprehension, hatred, rage.
Directed at me.
I backed away, stumbling, falling. I covered my face as he swung, using the waterproof cloth to try and shield my body.
He didn’t throw at me, but at the floor. The chance of me catching it was small, but by throwing it at the floor, he could guarantee that the bottle would shatter into a spray I couldn’t possibly shield all of myself from.
The pain was sharp, at first, droplets touching skin, immediately breaking it down. Then it burned.
The horrible coldness was worse, because it suggested dying nerves. All down my arms, and one side of my face.
The creature turned its head, but didn’t move.
The man turned, wheeling on the others. Gordon was ready, already closing in, taking advantage of the short moment it took the snake charmer to adjust his grip on the knife, so soon after heaving the bottle.
A tackle, shoulder into the man’s gut, taking advantage of smaller size and a good physique. Gordon drove the man back.
Gordon was the hero, golden haired, noble, likeable. Talented.
When he broke away, letting the snake charmer stumble back two steps, recovering balance, Gordon had the knife in hand.
The beast rose to its feet. Sniffing.
I managed to stop screaming, going as still as possible.
It still edged closer to me. Interested.
Still hungry, I noted.
Helen acted. Tipping over the barrel.
Drenching the snake charmer, washing away his charm, the pheromones.
“Brats!” the snake charmer spat the word. “You little shits! You think you have control of this situation?”
“Your experiment is trying to decide between you and Sylvester over there,” Gordon said. “You smell, he’s bleeding. Both are tempting.”
The snake charmer made an incoherent noise.
“Thing is, if you start bleeding…” Gordon said, trailing off. “You’ll suddenly be a lot more tempting.”
“Try it,” the snake charmer said.
Gordon did. He approached, and the snake charmer tried to grab him.
The man’s hands only grabbed clothes. A hood and cloak meant to keep the rain off. Gordon let him, and ducked low, the clothing bunching up around his neck and upper chest.
Gordon sliced the snake charmer’s stomach. A shallow cut.
Another grab, wrestling Gordon, trying to overpower with strength, seizing one arm.
Gordon let the knife drop out of one hand, falling into the palm of another.
He cut the back of the man’s left knee. When the man fell, screaming, Gordon cut the other knee. He skipped back as the snake charmer fell.
The snake stirred, its attention no longer predominantly on me.
I could see the snake charmer realizing the same thing I had minutes ago. He knew his experiment. He knew how it hunted. It scavenged, sniffing out prey. Blind, it reacted to noise and smell. Minimizing the noise one made was vital.
Given the situation, however, staying silent spelled the man’s doom. Already, his creation was sniffing him out. He smelled of blood.
“Pheromones,” he said, knowing how dangerous it was to speak, that every sound helped him lose the tug of war that let the creature decide between devouring him and devouring me. “Let me- I’ll come with you. You can take me in. You win.”
Nobody moved or responded.
He used his arms to pull himself forward, progressing toward the table. Each motion drew more attention from his beast.
Foot by foot, he closed on the table, and each sound was akin to a fisherman’s line, reeling in the beast.
He reached the table, struggling, and he raised himself up, using one hand to drag a leg forward, propping it under him. Reaching across the table-
Gordon kicked the leg of the table, hard. The table shifted a foot, and the snake charmer collapsed.
The snake charmer looked at us. At Gordon, then Helen, who loomed above, perched on the hayloft. At me, as I glared at him, my face burned. At Lillian, who was sitting in the corner, hands over her head.
Who was not one of us.
“Please,” he said. “Not like this.”
Helen’s expression didn’t change. Gordon shifted his position, placing himself between the snake charmer and the table, arms folded. I remained where I was, limp and breathing hard.
I could see it dawn on the man. Comprehension settling in as he realized what he was dealing with.
The snake seized the man’s feet, and began the very slow process of swallowing him.
The snake charmer’s screams became frantic.
“Lillian,” Gordon said, raising his voice to be heard over the screams.
“I don’t want to see.”
“Then shield your eyes. But your job is to keep us in one piece. Sly is hurt. Focus, and make sure he doesn’t die.”
I felt the burning stop as Lillian tended to me. By the time she was done, the screams had stopped. The powder that dusted me made it hard to see, but that was fine. I was lifted to my feet.
“I have to say, I’m very interested in what the fuck you were doing, faking that fall, setting yourself up to get hurt just now,” Gordon said. “You’ll have to tell me later, when you can talk again.”
I managed a nod.
“Off we go,” he said.
I could hear the door open.
Helen spoke for the first time in a while. Her voice was cute. “The Academy sends its regards, Mr. Snake Charmer.”