I threw myself back out of the doorway, Mary moving in the opposite direction, her shoulder bumping mine. She threw a knife, then twisted around, her still-wet boots skidding on the floor. She grabbed the door and my offered hand to catch herself, than ran with the rest of us, her hand in mine.
We hurried down the hall, and I heard the briefest scraping sound.
I half-turned to see him stepping out into the hallway, a stool dangling from his hand. When he threw it, he didn’t bring his arm back for more distance or wind-up. It was a motion of the elbow and the wrist, a hard snap.
It took me a fraction of a second to see the trajectory. I hauled on Mary’s arm, to pull her away, and I wasn’t strong enough. The stool hit her and splintered against the wall in the same moment. Her grip tightened on my hand, and she twisted my wrist as she stumbled into Helen, who was a step ahead of her. Mary, Helen and I went down in a heap.
I flipped over, avoiding relying on my hand as I shifted positions to more of a crouch, my attention on Warren. Mary’s throwing knife glinted in the light, sticking out of his chest, a few inches deep into his chest. She had nailed her throw. Right over the heart.
Could I call that irony? The whole reason the Lambs even exist is that the Crown got this far, and the Crown only got this far because the Academies started making monsters that were harder to kill than conventional weapons were able to. By the time weapons caught up, the Academies were producing other weapons, plagues and parasites, causing the sort of problems for their enemies that only the Academies could fix.
It was that cycle and the drive to stay ahead that drove so much of the Academy’s psychology. Now we were, in our little skirmish here, a reversal of the dynamic the Academies had imposed.
Warren’s eyes stared as he approached. He didn’t run, but he took long strides. He was slower than us, but he didn’t seem concerned with that.
Gordon gave me and Helen a hand. Lillian went straight to Mary.
It had been a hard hit. A solid wood piece of furniture had been dashed to pieces, and something that could do that could have broken something important in Mary.
“Warren!” Jamie called out. With Helen, Mary and I still recovering, and both Gordon and Lillian helping us, it seemed like he was on point. “Your father wants you to know he’s sorry!”
The musclebound man slowed, then stopped. He was halfway down the hallway, hunched over. His facial features were very normal, but he held his head at an angle that cast his eyes in shadow, the flickering light outlining his massive frame. As he looked at Jamie, he raised his head, and for an instant, there was less shadow.
“He knows what happened to you,” Jamie said. “It nearly killed your mother, hearing.”
The man that was facing us down reacted to that, hunching over more, recoiling from the words. One fist clenched.
“Your father let things slide, with the farms. He almost gave up, almost sold the farm. Almost. Your neighbors stepped in. The Crowleys, the Behrs. They’re rotating out, their adult kids have been volunteering, spending time with your dad, looking after things.”
Jamie was lying through his teeth, of course. We’d stopped by, but the parents hadn’t talked to us, and they hadn’t been getting help, but they hadn’t been in dire shape either. Not happy, for sure, but not dire. They were a tough lot, and that unfortunately extended to Warren too. Probably.
Lillian said something I didn’t hear, and Gordon helped haul Mary to her feet. Every single inch of Mary conveyed agony on some level, with some blood here and there, the tension of her muscles, the look on her face, the tears in her eyes. She also looked angry, and I had to chalk that up to anger at herself more than anything else.
“Frances Behrs was there when we stopped in to ask about you, gathering information so we could track you all down. You were friends back when you were our age, right?”
The question got a slow nod in response.
Was Warren there mute?
There was a pause, and I saw Jamie look my way. A glance, a check, and it wasn’t intended to see how hurt I might have been as it was something else.
My turn, then?
I drew in a deep breath, and I let go of my wrist, which was throbbing. Holding hands in front, folding arms, and crossed legs were all signs of defensiveness. The signals were subtle, but even the most untrained eye would read something into it. Holding my wrist would do so twice over because I’d be subtly reminding him of pain.
“I know that it feels like going back is impossible. Everything is different, and you’ve changed, in mind, body, and personality. There’s a lot there you clearly wouldn’t want to take back home. But your family survived this much, and they want you back, more than you know.”
“The door is open, Warren,” Jamie said. “You can go back.”
I felt a hand touch my back.
A signal. Were Gordon and Mary good to go?
“You should go back.”
Warren turned, then stepped to one side, revealing Fray, who was a short distance behind him. She’d approached with his body blocking our view of her.
We backed away a little, and Warren and the woman advanced to match the distance.
“Cover your mouths,” Lillian whispered. In case of more gas.
Fray spoke, “If I had to weigh in and say what was best for you, Warren, I’d say you should go. Keep them out of my hair for two hours, we can consider your part of our bargain done. Get a new body, see your family, piece your life back together.”
She was doing it again. Denying me the footholds I needed to get a leg up on her. How was I supposed to fight her manipulations when she was agreeing with me?
Warren’s head bowed. The shadows covered his eyes, leaving only the blue reflections of the irises themselves. I could read it all, the body language, the hunched shoulders, the tension that seemed to settle in him.
“You’re not going to, are you?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Can’t help someone until they want to be helped,” Fray said. “For now, I’ll give you the support you need, Warren…”
Warren reached out without looking, and he slammed his hand into the door nearest him. He didn’t blink as splinters flew out to decorate his custom-made outfit.
He tore out a section of the door. An improvised weapon.
“…Even if what he needs is a good target to spend his anger on,” Fray said, quietly.
“You’re a better person than that, Warren,” Jamie said. “Kids?”
Fray said. “As far as I understand it, and he’s a hard man to read, when he doesn’t speak, but this is my read on it… he sees you as symbols of the Academy, and Academy science, which is where the fault lies for what happened to him.”
“And you pretend you’re not good at being manipulative,” I said. “Pushing him to go with us, knowing that the push would make him resist, push back, back into your fold. Then you speak for him, you interpret things, and shape his thoughts in the process.”
“I’m not trying to manipulate him at all, Sylvester,” Fray said, still quiet.
I didn’t say or do anything in response to that. There wasn’t much that I could do, in terms of options. I’d been planting the seed for Warren’s benefit, but nothing suggested it had even gotten through to him. The truth of the matter was, I believed her. If she was manipulating him, it was by accident.
I studied her, watching. She was oddly juxtaposed with the massive brute of a man, a young woman in a sweater and skirt, with high boots, relatively soft spoken, but sharp in dress, with the crimson lipstick and hair most likely styled by Lady Claire’s best. He, by contrast, was loud in his silence, his body language and the threat of another flung weapon capturing my attention, dragging it away from anything else I might look at.
By the simple act of breathing, he made me watch him.
The antithesis of what the Lambs were. We were a group, a network, and he was utterly alone. We were brains, and he was brawn.
But, when I looked into those eyes and saw them watching, when I considered that he’d effectively taken Mary out of the fight with his first maneuver, I couldn’t think of him as brainless. Not like Sub Rosa.
They advanced, we retreated.
“You portray yourself as nice, gentle. You truly care about everyone you meet,” I said.
“I do. I grow attached too easily. The barriers got worn away by my Wyvern doses, along with my long-term recall.”
“But you’re going to make him hurt us? So he can have the release he needs?”
“I’m going to let him hurt you because I don’t believe there’s anything else I can say or do that’s going to slow you down or make you stop chasing us, and you’ve clearly reached the point where you can catch up with us.”
Warren advanced a step. Not because he was matching the speed of our slow retreat, but because he was closing the distance.
Gordon’s hand on my back moved, he grabbed my arm, and he jerked me to the side. A knife flew through the space my head had been, sailing through the air, and passed within a foot of Warren’s head. Ms. Fray stepped away from the projectile, though it was already pretty clearly going to miss.
“Ah,” Fray said.
Warren started forward, moving faster, and we ran.
Turning around, I had a view of the group. Mary was hurt, and was relying on Gordon for support. Something had stabbed through her sweater, and she was bleeding. Again, we were faster than him. Even Jamie. Would have been why Fray used the stitched girl to bait us instead of Warren, now that I thought on it.
But, much as he’d done before, he made up for the lack of speed with his raw natural ability. He hurled the piece of door he’d collected. Gordon and I were watching, and the rest of the group was ready. The section of door hit the ground in the middle of our group, bounced, and clipped Gordon, who nearly dropped Mary. I put myself under her for support, my arms around her stomach, and my wrist seized up in pain as I put too much pressure on it.
Gordon recovered, I pulled away, watching over my shoulder.
No, correction, it wasn’t that he was slower than us. It just took him time to build up steam. He was matching our speed, finding a comfortable running pace. The lights flickered, as they were wont to do, and there was a brief moment where only his eyes were visible.
He could see in the dark, I suspected.
“Have to slow him down,” I said. “Mary-”
“Give me your knives,” I said.
She shot me a look, one that should have been reserved only for the worst class of people, like baby murderers or puppy-kickers.
There was a crashing sound behind us as Warren collected something else to throw.
“Give!” I said, more intently.
She reached under her shirt to her stomach and drew her hand away with three knives.
Extra knives in left hand, knife to be thrown in my right. Sucked, when I was a leftie, but I’d twisted it or sprained it, but I had to make do.
I spun around and hurled the first knife, hard as I could. The whole of my attention was on the movement, remembering what I was doing. Focus, track, visualize… throw.
The knife chipped off the ceiling above Warren’s head.
I took a second to run and catch back up with the others, while doing my best to figure out what I’d done wrong. Later point of release, then.
I turned around, saw Warren holding a section of door in both hands, ready to hurl it horizontally, and shouted a warning, “Down!”
The rest of the group ducked, some stumbling, while Gordon shielded Mary with his body. I threw myself to the side as the spinning section of door flew past us, then went through the motions, throwing with a later point of release.
He raised his hand to ward off his face, but the knife sailed harmlessly past him, a few feet to the left.
With me stopping outright to throw and the rest of the group stumbling, he covered a lot of the distance between us. I could see everything that was liable to unfold, whether we ran or whether we stayed and fought, and nothing looked good.
“Should have given the knives to Jamie,” Mary said, a few feet behind me, speaking under her breath. “At least he might have hit something.”
“Resent that!” I said, my voice tense.
“Ditto!” Jamie said.
I passed the third knife to my good hand and took a fraction of a second to remind myself of what I’d done wrong. The movements were fresh in my muscle memory and mind both.
If you miss, he’s going to hurt my friends. Make it count, Sy.
I hurled the knife.
It sailed past him at eye level, a few feet to the right.
A knife slashed past Warren’s face, close to the eye, and he stumbled.
I looked, and saw Gordon. He’d let Mary drop to the floor of the corridor, and was taking the knives she offered as fast as she could retrieve them.
Gordon’s second knife flew past Warren’s head. Warren raised a hand to protect his face, palm outward, and Gordon seized advantage. Two throws, one knife sinking into each palm. Not that they were small targets. Someone could have taken the torsos of any two lambs and stuck them together and the weight and general dimensions would have matched one of those mittens.
Two more knives. One miss. Another into the webbing between two fingers. They were all sinking as deep as the hilts, when they hit.
Warren was advancing, Gordon took more weapons, and hurled them. One knife bounced off, flying through a gap between Warren’s reaching hands and striking handle-first, the next slashed a thumb and went flying off to clatter to the floor, and the third sank into one of Warren’s palms, again.
Warren didn’t stop. He drew closer, and we weren’t in a position to run, with Mary on the ground and Lillian leaning over her bag, with contents strewn all over the floor.
He’s protective of his head. It’s the last part of him that’s still intact.
Mary had another two knives, but as Gordon reached for one, Lillian lunged forward, knocking Mary’s hand away, pushing a bottle into place.
“Head!” I shouted, as Gordon moved to throw.
The man’s hands were a wall in front of his face, and he wasn’t letting anything slip through.
Instead, Gordon tossed the bottle into the air, slightly forward, so it would hit the ground in front of him, snatched a knife from Mary’s hand, and then lunged forward, a full-body hurl of the knife, aimed for Warren’s groin. It hit with the blunt side, but it was still a hard throw.
Warren, it seemed, didn’t have a particular vulnerability to strikes between the legs. That said, no man alive wouldn’t instinctually flinch in response to that.
Gordon reached behind his back and past his shoulder, catching the bottle so it was behind him, then completed a throwing motion without ever having to stop and draw his arm back.
The bottle smashed against Warren’s face. The man stumbled, hands pawing at his face, and then dropped to his knees.
“Won’t last long,” Lillian said.
Which was all the indicator we needed.
We turned, working together to pick up and support Mary, and then we ran, leaving Warren to paw at a door, his knife-embedded palms and fingers limiting his ability to grip.
“I would’ve hit him,” I said, a little bitter that my moment of glory had been stolen.
“We don’t have a week for you to learn, Sy,” Gordon said.
“Three more throws, I could have done it,” I said.
“If you’d taken three more throws, we would’ve been creamed,” Gordon said.
I didn’t have a response to that.
Glancing back, I saw past Warren, to the end of the hallway, where Fray stood. She didn’t chase. She didn’t give any sign of being alarmed, concerned, or bothered. She simply stood there.
She had told us that she’d already completed her plan. She was embellishing it, or extending its reach. Seeing this, how she’d treated this as a whole, I believed her.
I believed that, barring exceptional circumstance, we wouldn’t catch her like this again. She had a hostage, with Lady Claire, and she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
We’d lost. We’d reached too far, too fast, we’d been caught off guard by the sudden appearance of the stitched girl, and everything else had flowed from there. We were fighting blind, because we didn’t know what our enemy was doing.
We needed a win, on so many levels, in so many ways.
I switched mental gears, away from Fray, away from Warren.
We carried on to the end of the hall, and we reached the stairs. A number of students were gathered around the distressed stitched girl, who was still tied to the railing.
“You!” she said, with much the same inflection she’d used when she had recognized us earlier.
“Hi,” I said, panting for breath.
“Escaped experiments on the loose,” Gordon addressed the gathered students, panting less. “Students hurt. Get clear!”
I saw a flash of expectation or excitement in the eyes of the young women who had gathered around Wendy. Competition removed, more seats free, and maybe a little something beyond that. Had Dame Cicely’s bred some sadistic streaks into the student body? Were they that gleeful over someone getting punished, or the spectacle that might surround such?
But they did scatter.
In the midst of our running, I’d pulled ahead to the front of the group, my attention forward, on what came next, the plan. Now, as we reached the top of the stairwell, I slowed, and the others made noises of distress and annoyance.
“Wendy,” I said.
“You,” she said, in that same inflection as before.
“Yes,” I said. “Us. We’re going to cut you loose in just a second, okay?”
“Okay,” she said. Then she added, “The tea is cold.”
“What are you doing, Sy?” Gordon asked.
“Talking to Wendy.”
“Warren is comi-”
“Warren is the reason I’m talking to Wendy,” I said.
Wendy frowned at me.
“You told us you were supposed to help Warren,” I said.
“Madam Howell told me to,” she said.
I glanced back at Jamie. He looked as surprised as I was. We hadn’t actually had all the information there.
“That’s your job?” I asked.
“That’s my job.”
“Okay,” I said.
I reached out to Mary, and she gave me another look, but she handed me a knife.
I cut the string that bound Wendy to the railing.
“Thank you,” she said, very prim, “And you’re mean. All of you. You’re terrible. Excuse me for saying so.”
“We’re very terrible,” I admitted.
“Sy,” Lillian said, “I hear footsteps. He’s coming.”
“I know, it’s fine,” I said.
“Me, hurt. I’m not fine,” Mary said. “I think something snapped.”
“Lillian will fix you,” I said. “Right now, our concern is Warren.”
That was all it took to get Wendy’s attention.
“Wendy,” I said, patiently, speaking very clearly. “I’m sorry we left you tied up here.”
She stared at me, concern still clear on her face.
“But we did it for your safety. Kind of. People ended up getting hurt. There was fighting. Mary got hurt, and Warren did too.”
“He’s going to be okay. Because Miss Genevieve did such good work, didn’t she?”
“She fixed me up so nicely! Some of the big scratches, they’re gone now!”
“We were talking about how good her work on you was. And she gave Warren a body, didn’t she?”
“Sylvester,” Mary said. Her use of my full name was telling. The pain in her voice said a lot, too.
I could hear the running footsteps. Our pursuer wasn’t far, and he was most definitely coming after us.
I addressed Wendy, “I have something to ask you, and I want you to think very long and hard about this, okay?”
“Maybe not so long?” Gordon suggested, putting one hand on my arm. I shrugged free.
I glanced at Gordon. Jamie was standing behind him, and Jamie was keeping his mouth shut. He looked spooked, but he wasn’t reminding me of stuff I already knew.
I had his trust, at least.
“Alright,” Wendy said, looking like she was prepared to give the next bout of thinking her full, concerted effort.
“Is Warren happy?”
“Does he smile, does he laugh? Is this… is this life good for him?”
Wendy’s expression faltered.
Warren was so close, now.
“We go, now,” Gordon ordered, grabbing me.
“You go, I stay,” I said. “This is important.”
“You being with us is important!”
I looked to Mary for support, but her head hung, she was having trouble breathing, and blood was soaking through her clothes, running down her skirt. She wasn’t with us.
Lillian was too scared. Helen was Helen.
I looked to Jamie.
“I’m staying too,” he said.
That’s not necessary, I thought, but I couldn’t argue, because he was backing me up.
“Damn both of you,” Gordon said. “Mary, give me some knives.”
“No!” I said. “No. Just… take Mary, get a bit of a head start, head for the room. Jamie, you should go too, you’re not a fast runner. Leave me here. With Wendy. We’ll manage.”
Gordon stared at me.
“Please,” I said.
He turned to go.
I looked at Wendy, and I reached up, taking the tray, before putting it on the ground. She looked flustered at that, but visibly calmed down as I took her hand.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice small.
“We wait for Warren. Just a few more seconds,” I said.
I would have been lying if I said my mouth wasn’t as dry as a bone, adrenalin thrumming through my veins.
Warren caught up, reaching the bottom of the stairs. He’d pulled the weapons free of his palms, and blood had been smeared from the wounds onto his clothes. He saw Wendy and I and he stopped.
“Is he happy?” I asked.
“He’s unhappy because of you.”
“Is he really?” I asked. “If I was gone, if you held me here and let him take me, would he be the same happy boy Mrs. Howell asked you to protect?”
“He wasn’t very happy then either,” she said. “At the start, maybe.”
I knew Warren could hear us. He didn’t move, just staring. His reaction was more like I had a knife to the stitched woman’s throat, holding her hostage.
“I wasn’t dressed, then,” she remarked.
I shot her a look, then shook my head, “Do you think he would become as happy as he was at the start, if you gave me to him?”
“I don’t think,” she said, softly. “I’m not very good at it. I do what I’m told.”
“You were told to protect him. Maybe that means protecting him from himself.”
“Complicated,” she said. It was a negation, a stubborn refusal to understand.
“If he walks up here and hurts me, hurts my friends, I don’t think he’ll ever be happy again. It’s crossing a line, and he may never come back.”
“Complicated,” she said, again, her voice tight.
“He’s not the sort of man that hurts children, is he?” I asked.
She shook her head. “He’s nice.”
“You can’t let him become someone mean, right? Mrs. Howell wouldn’t want that.”
“No,” she said, “She wouldn’t.”
He cares about you. I can see it, looking at him. So long as you’re around, he’s just a little more human. He can’t cross the line and maim or kill if you’re here, watching.
“All you have to do to protect him from that, is come with us,” I said.
Something tells me he won’t leave you behind. He’ll make Fray stay close, or she’ll have to abandon him.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Warren started, taking a step up the stairs.
“This is the best thing for him and for you,” I said, and I actually meant it. “Come. Let’s run.”
I tugged on her arm, and she didn’t move. I did it again, with no luck.
On the third tug, something seemed to fall into place. She connected, or she pulled it together.
We ran, and Warren chased.
But at the top of the stairs, he stopped.
The shout at our backs was ragged and loud.