Our fires raged at one end of Westmore. A full quarter of the city aflame. Though the wood used to grow portions of buildings and plant matter grown to seal the gaps between stones had been treated to make it less combustible, it was still wood.
Stitched, buildings, chemicals, it took so little for the Academy’s work to go up in flames.
The smoke billowed, but the walls meant it didn’t have many places to go. We were boxed in with mountains, cliffs, and walls, and that concentrated the smoke that hung lower to the ground. The rain pounded down on the burning buildings, creating a dull roar.
It was attention-grabbing. Enough to concern the forces at the battlefront.
We couldn’t see, but with the smoke, our enemy couldn’t see either.
We found the best hiding place we were able, listening as best as we could for the tramp of boots, then moved as soon as we heard the noise receding.
I wanted to communicate, reach out to the others and make sure we were on the same page, when it came to strategy and more. I hadn’t counted on being struck dumb. I’d wanted to make sure that I was the one who was stuck in the bed, while Gordon and Mary were free to act. Being injured wasn’t necessary, but I’d needed to sell it, and that meant blood and making my performance as real as possible. Opening an old injury was better than making another.
If I’d known I would have lost the ability to communicate, I would have gone another route.
I was scared in a way I usually wasn’t. I wasn’t able to use my senses to their fullest. With my eyes as screwed up as they were, and the chaos of noise in the background, the only things I could be sure about were things within thirty feet of me. The smoke hampered our enemy, but that didn’t do much good if we took the wrong turn or path between buildings and ended up face to face with a plague man and his exorcist.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t sure how the other Lambs were doing. Had I been able to take in more of the situation, I might have been able to reassure myself that the enemy lines hadn’t advanced far enough, or that there were avenues for them to escape. As it was, we scurried here and there, keeping our heads down, straining every sense, hoping that the combined senses of the three of us were enough to alert us to possible danger.
We stopped for breath, and to get our bearings. Gordon was doing the listening for trouble. I stayed beside him, while Mary stood a short distance away.
She knocked on the wall once. Not entirely necessary, given the broken window, but I imagined she was looking for her own unique sorts of reassurance.
Gordon and I listened, hard. There were no footsteps, no boots. Nothing close enough to be differentiated from the roar of background noise, of guns firing and rain pouring down on a spreading sea of fire that was stubbornly refusing to go out.
Mary’s foot splashed in a puddle as she rejoined us. Her hand fumbled for and touched my shoulder. I squeezed Gordon’s upper arm.
We bolted. There was a soft ‘woof’ sound as the incendiary weapon went off.
A shout, directly ahead. Footsteps.
Gordon didn’t slow. I knew he had to have heard.
We made it another ten feet before he jerked us in one direction. We ducked in behind a solid metal object. I kept my head down, shoulders hunched, providing as small of a profile as was possible.
The men who ran past us weren’t plague men, but they wore the darker colors of rebellion members. They made their way into the opaque wall of rain and smoke, feet splashing.
We remained still until we couldn’t hear them. Mary coughed lightly.
The smoke was catching up to us. Soon it would drown us out. My world shrank from thirty feet to twenty, or perhaps fifteen. Anything beyond was indecipherable.
I wanted to tell them we needed to move faster. We had to get to a point that we could observe the situation, so we could find and reunite with the others, or get a grasp of any obstacles in our way. If we took too long and the city was drowned in smoke and fire, we might have to chance running across a warzone and risk taking a bullet, to get to the lodge where the others were.
At least the distraction was diverting enemy forces. The sound of gunfire had abated. They would have probably planned to get further into Westmore before their advance slowed and stopped. They didn’t have a place to retreat to, and they no longer had any certainty that they would have shelter if this dragged out. The tent with the doctor and the stitched had no doubt been intended to be such a waypoint.
No place for the wounded to go, no place to sleep, to eat, nowhere to retreat.
They weren’t fearless. Humans had basic needs, and the plague men were human. In attacking their assuredness that they would be able to sustain those needs, we knocked the legs out from under them. Uncertainty, doubt, morale, all would turn to our advantage.
I just wished mine wasn’t suffering so much.
We stopped. The gunfire was closer, now. Running blind for a minute or less might see us running straight into harm’s way, now. Out of the alleyway and into the street.
“I’m out,” Mary said, under her breath.
I was already out. I hadn’t grabbed many, and in my hurry to make sure my hands were free if I needed them, I’d used them quickly.
“I have two. Want to hold on to one, just in case,” Gordon said. “I’ll go.”
He headed to the nearest window we could make out. Mary and I moved a little further down.
I could hear him open the window. Mary and I listened.
It was harder, with the fighting being so close. There were people tramping this way and that in between nearby buildings. Plague men looking for vantage points.
We were in serious danger of being caught. I could only hope that we could pretend to be scared children.
Harder with Gordon than with any of us. He already looked like someone in his early-teens. He’d grown early and fast. Almost to the point where someone might have thought he should be in uniform with a gun in his hands.
We carried on listening. I was pretty sure we were thinking along the same lines. That, being as close to the fighting as we were, we wanted to be extra careful.
She had hold of my hand, and was squeezing it, hard.
Mary prided herself so much on perfectionism. To be hampered, damaged, a sense failing her, unable to be her best, it probably knocked her legs out from her, like the fire had been intended to do for the enemy forces.
A third knock sounded, just a short distance away. Not Gordon. The sound had an effect on me, as if all the cold outside of me was suddenly sucked into my bones, making everything come to a standstill. The fear that made a rabbit stand stock still as a fox came into sight.
I let go of Mary’s hand and drew my gun.
“Cynthia’s gas, is it?” Melancholy asked.
Gordon’s pistol fired. Mine was a second late, slowed by my concern that we’d draw attention.
“Blind?” Melancholy crooned, not seeming to care.
I was in the midst of reloading, but Gordon had already reloaded, and fired again.
I held my fire. She wouldn’t have been taunting us like this if we had a chance of hitting her. I kept my gun in both hands, holding it firmly, so it couldn’t be taken away, and waited for an opportunity.
Mary was right beside me. Mud sucked at her boot as she shifted her stance.
“I’ll-” Melancholy started. Gordon fired again.
He made a grunting sound, and I heard a wet slap as he landed full-on in the mud.
He didn’t make another sound. Mary did, beside me, but it was shock, a muted gasp.
The bone-deep chill I felt was a different sort from fear, this time. There was a very good chance this was a moment that would be engraved into my memory for the rest of my life.
It didn’t break my focus. I stared into a morass of smoke and rain, and saw absolutely nothing I could use. There were only the smudged shapes of buildings, a hundred shifting blurs of light and dark that could have been Melancholy and could have been nothing at all.
I heard a mechanical click. I aimed, but I didn’t fire. I heard the sound of boots on mud, quick.
Like Choleric had been, she had good reflexes. She was agile.
She could see us, while we couldn’t see her, and she had Gordon’s gun.
“Let’s try this again, minus interruptions,” she said. She was around the corner, if I was gauging right, “I’ll make you a deal.”
I couldn’t respond. Well, I might have been able to, but it would have been a mouse’s strangled squeak. Drowned out by the noise around us.
I reached out with a foot and kicked Mary’s ankle lightly, once.
“We’re listening,” Mary said.
“I want to know where Phlegmatic and Choleric are.”
“That’s doable,” Mary said.
“I’m not done. I’m taking one of you hostage. The little one, messy black hair.”
I offered another kick.
“He says yes.”
“Why doesn’t he speak for himself?”
“Okay. Sylvester. Throw out the gun, straight in front of you.”
She was around the corner and to my left. She wanted to see the gun fall.
I tossed it out for her.
“Girl. You too.”
Mary hesitated a little bit longer before doing the same.
“Now, be good,” Melancholy said.
I reached out and kicked Mary’s ankle again.
She kicked me back, hard.
Then she did it again.
I twisted, reaching out, trying to stop her, but I felt her arm move.
She was fighting back.
Stupid, aggressive, single-minded Mary, no! There was nothing I could do to stop her that wouldn’t potentially get us both killed. I pulled my arms away, backing up so I was flat against the wall.
Mary grunted, moving, hurling knives. Weapons that were utterly silent in use.
Melancholy was the one to make a small sound this time. A grunt of pain, a grunt of frustration?
Mary moved forward, following up the throws with an attack, slashing, feet slapping mud.
Then there was silence.
Mary remained in place shuffled, turning left, then right. Searching. I could make out her outstretched arms, the weapons held within.
Not throwing knives, but knives meant for close-quarters fighting.
She’d lost Melancholy.
There was a splash further down the alleyway.
Running, back toward the fires? I strained my senses.
Then a larger splash. At the corner of the buildings, between where Mary and I stood.
Enough of an impact that I knew it was Melancholy.
She’d gone up. Onto the roof. Hanging on, or standing on it. She’d thrown something to distract, and now she was between us.
The fight between the two was brief, impossible for me to follow. I could have fumbled in the mud for my gun, could have thrown myself into the fray in the hopes of grabbing Melancholy and hampering her enough for Mary to get a good hit in.
I remained where I was, against the wall, eyes closed, to better hear what was happening.
I heard a yelp, and the noises of fighting and feet skidding in mud stopped. My nose and mouth were choked with the smoke from the fires, not that I could smell anything with the acrid gas lingering in my nostrils, and my eyes were useless for making out anything that wasn’t in arm’s reach.
“And then there was one,” Melancholy said, her voice soft.
Again, that chill.
“Do you need help?” a man asked, behind me.
“You three get back to the stablehouse at the corner. We’ve diverted too many people to combat the fires, we need to make sure we don’t lose ground,” Melancholy said. “I’ve got this well in hand.”
I hadn’t even heard them. Well, I heard them leave, now.
“I’d say it felt unfair,” Melancholy said, “But you already killed one of my partners, and I have to guess about the fate of the other. If your girl there had been five years older and capable of seeing, it might have been a fair fight. Little bitch still caught me once.”
I didn’t offer her any tells, beyond my attempt to swallow that was a little more forceful than I’d expected.
A hand seized my throat. She hauled me up, choking me further, and held me up with my legs dangling, through a combination of strength and the force with which she pinned me to the wall.
“Do you know what their real plan was for us?” she asked.
She paused, as if she expected an answer. Had I not screamed myself mute, I still wouldn’t have been able to say anything, with the grip she had on my throat.
I grabbed her arm for support, as if I could alleviate the pressure.
“Four of us. Bastards kept giving us missions. Even when one of us weren’t in full working order, or when we were feeling the hurt from recent surgeries. Do this, find this person, kill them. Bring us the body. Again and again.”
I sputtered out a breath, but it was a breath out, not in.
“They told us if we failed too many times, or if we got recalcitrant, then they would move on to phase two. Take us, butcher us, and keep the best pieces of each. My nose, Phlegm’s ears, Cholera’s body, ‘Guin’s eyes. As for brain, well, that’s how they tried to set us against each other. Telling us that the most obedient, the one most willing to turn on the others-”
I made a high, strangled sound, trying to breathe. I kicked in her general direction, but her other hand swatted my foot aside, and held it at an awkward angle, so my lower body twisted to the left, my left leg blocked by the firmly held right.
“You get the picture,” she said. “Did they do the same with you?”
I could have, should have said yes. Built a rapport.
I shook my head, as much as I was able. My neck muscles were as tight as bands of steel.
“Ah well,” she said.
I opened my mouth, as if I were speaking.
She let go of my leg and gripped the front of my raincoat and shirt. She shifted her grip from my throat, allowing me to suck in smoke-filled air, and held my by the collar instead.
I tried to form words, pushing them out, but they came across as squeaks. The gunfighting had died down for now, it seemed, and even with less noise coming from that, I was barely audible.
She drew her ear closer, until it almost touched my mouth.
I could have bitten it. Seized a vulnerable piece of her in my teeth and held on as if it was all that mattered.
But what came after that? It would have been a waste. A final, bitter gesture before she killed me.
Not that she planned to keep me alive.
I spoke, and it was as if I were putting in all the effort of screaming at the top of my lungs and getting only raw pain in my throat and barely formed sounds.
“They pick one,” I managed. I coughed. The smoke was getting to me. “One of us.”
Only one of us, in the end. Possibly after another generation, though that’s looking less likely, the way things are going.
I coughed some more.
She stared at me. Even with her face just a short distance away, hair draped over much of it, an oddly shaped nose and wide, razor-toothed mouth in the part I could see, I couldn’t see her all that well.
Had she killed Gordon and Mary?
If she had, we were too far from help to revive them.
“There’s something wrong with you,” she told me, her voice low, breath hot on my face. “That you’d stay loyal.”
I shook my head, opened my mouth.
She dropped me before I could respond, seizing me by the throat again the moment my feet hit ground. She struck one of the hands that reached for her wrist.
“I know what you’d say if you had the chance,” she told me. “You’re loyal to your friends, not to the Academy?”
I stopped fighting, pausing.
“I was the same,” she told me.
In our first meeting, she’d rebuked us for trying to draw parallels.
“If you’re really loyal, show it by cooperating,” she told me. “You’re going to be a hostage. Maybe if this goes smoothly, someone can get those two some help.”
So vague I could have spit. What had happened?
“Maybe,” she said, in a different tone, as an afterthought. Emphasizing that it was only a possibility.
I bowed my head. I nodded.
I felt a knife touch my throat, and I wondered if it was Mary’s. She had me hold out my hands while she bound them. She held the knife to my groin while using one hand to loosely tie my ankles. Keeping me from running or kicking.
We walked, leaving Gordon and Mary behind. Into oblivion and smoke. Past figures I couldn’t make out, shadowy and nebulous. Souls in the limbo between life and death. Some living but scarred and left largely dead inside. Some dead, but with lightning crackling beneath their skin.
“I have the firebombs your friend was holding on to,” she told me. “If you or someone else try something clever, I burn the building with the Brigadier inside. Fuck orders. Your remaining friends can burn with him. It’s a bad way to go. One I reserve for people who’ve wronged me, understand?”
We passed through a cluster of people.
She stopped, and her wrist dug into my throat as I jerked to a stop, the blade tight against the side of my neck. I felt the sting of a shallow cut.
“Paper,” she said.
The man in front of her reached into a pocket and produced a pad.
“Pen. And hold onto that pad,” she said.
I heard the scratches of pen on paper.
“Have a stitched carry this to the Brigadier as a messenger. Have them count the people inside.”
“Ma’am,” the plague man said.
The Academy forces were an army of monsters and dead men, commanded by people.
It was starting to feel like the rebellion was an army of men, commanded by monsters.
Of course, I had no idea who or what Cynthia was. Perhaps it was an unfair assertion.
We waited in the rain, Melancholy with rain streaming down over wet hair, while I had my raincoat on. I was the one shivering, while her hand remained steady.
“He said he’s open to discussion,” someone in the crowd said.
“Which stitched’dja send?” Melancholy asked.
“Will he answer my questions about their numbers?”
“He should. His handler told him to stand down. But stitched are stitched, you know?”
“I know,” Melancholy said.
She poked me in the back, bidding me to move. We walked together, her knife to my throat.
I could tell from the way she moved against my back that she was favoring a leg.
Good girl, Mary, I thought.
Well, redact that. The attack had been reckless. I could understand the reasoning behind it, that Melancholy had only needed one hostage, she wouldn’t simply let the rest of us go, but it had been reckless.
But Mary had got our assassin once, at least.
“You. Were there people inside?”
It was a stitched’s voice. “Yes.”
“How many adults?”
“Think. Children. This age, give or take.”
“Three. Four. Three?”
“One… between. Older. Girl.”
“Thin. Girl. White hair. Or blonde hair. Glasses.”
“Alright. Good man,” Melancholy told the stitched. “Don’t know who that one is, but I don’t care about them.”
We walked up stairs. I recognized them as the stairs to the Brigadier’s Lodge. I saw people on either side, using the building for cover, and took them to be the Academy’s. Westmore forces, with their brighter jackets.
There’d been a bit of a stalemate. The Academy forces had regrouped. They’d decided this was as good a defensive position as any to draw the line and decide they had to stop retreating.
But for the situation to be as it stood… something had happened. Perhaps this had been too hard a position to attack. They couldn’t move on without resolving it, couldn’t attack it without undue losses.
Complicated by… what had she said? Orders. Killing the Brigadier had been off-limits.
Melancholy kicked the door three times. It was ajar. “Coming in!”
She strode into the room, me in front of her. I wasn’t that effective a shield, but it hardly mattered. She had security of another sort.
“Sy,” I heard a voice. Lillian’s, perhaps.
“You’d be one of the assassins,” the Brigadier said.
“Tea?” the Brigadier asked.
“I’m not that stupid.”
She wasn’t budging from the doorway. We were standing in the coat room. The part of the lodge past the midway point was raised a bit, and the other Lambs, Shipman, and the Brigadier’s people were gathered on that part, watching.
“You want to discuss options?” the Brigadier asked.
“You’ve lost,” Melancholy said.
“I noticed the fires. Didn’t seem like the wisest thing to do,” the Brigadier said. “My young colleagues here think it wasn’t wanted, on your part. You want to secure this building because it should be far enough from the fire. A defensive position you can fall back to. You’ve been put in an awkward position.”
“Not my concern,” Melancholy said. “I only have the ability to give orders so I can secure you and your top officers. The army is someone else’s to lead, and the state of Westmore is that someone else’s concern.”
“Cynthia, her name was?” the Brigadier asked.
Melancholy nodded the affirmative. “If you surrender and order your men here to put up no fight, you’ll all be given safe passage. You’ll be treated as prisoners of war and afforded every respect.”
“I see. I-”
“Before you accept. There’s another term. You give over the children to me. They die. Payment for me losing mine.”
Her grip on my throat tightened, the blade stinging my throat. It was less painful, which was a bad sign. Less painful meant a deeper cut. The pain came later than it did with a shallow one.
“Ah,” the Brigadier said. “There were two with him.”
“Crippled, bleeding, left to burn.”
I could see the shadow of the man’s head moving.
“Seize the children,” the Brigadier said.
My head bowed. There were shouts of protest, but Gordon and Mary were the fighters, and they weren’t . They were dealing with military men of some experience.
“I gave you your chance,” the Brigadier said. “I hope you understand.”
I leaned forward, not caring about the knife, I screwed up my face, and I spit.
“I have to do what makes the most sense,” the Brigadier said.
“Hmf,” Melancholy made a sound. “Thank you for being cooperative.”
“Sy!” Jamie called out. “You-”
He stopped as Melancholy shoved me. I sprawled, landing on the floor. The Lambs were in front of me.
I flipped over, because I didn’t want to see them as Melancholy killed me.
She stood there, arms stretched out to either side.
I blinked again, trying to clear my vision.
Melancholy had a passenger. Clinging to her back, was a blonde girl. Helen.
I turned, looking at the crowd of people.
Sure enough, there were three figures who were the right size to be Lambs, and there was one who was definitely Shipman, all with soldiers behind them.
But… yes. One was the Brigadier’s stitched servant. The firetender.
They’d noticed the stitched doing a headcount.
The perils of an expendable soldier.
Melancholy stood as if crucified, or as a bird in flight might appear, her arms gripped, twisted, and pulled back. Helen perched on her, feet finding purchase in the small of the assassin’s back.
The assassin shifted her footing. Slowly, but with surety, she contorted, body twisting, head turning as well, to a greater extent. She drew her mouth open, and even my ruined eyes could see the whites of her teeth. Opening wide, as she drew ever nearer to Helen’s face, a bear trap ready to take the front of Helen’s head off. Helen pulled away, contorting in her own fashion, but she couldn’t do more without releasing the assassin.
The others couldn’t shoot without the risk that a bullet might pass through Melancholy and catch Helen.
I stood. Going by memory more than sight, the mental image I’d cobbled together as Melancholy and I walked, I went for the woman’s left leg.
Mary’s wound. I found it.
I dug the fingers of both hands into the gap, then wrenched it open.
Arms still outstretched, she bent forward, snapping for me. A viper’s movement, compared to the glacially slow contortion as she’d gone for Helen.
Helen moved, shifting grip, adjusting her own weight, throwing herself to one side.
I heard the snap, the pop, the cartilage and bone grinding.
Melancholy’s face, blurred, stretched into something hideous in the moment before she crashed to the ground. She writhed for a moment, solely with her upper body, before she gave up the last gasp.
Vertebrae separated, if I had to guess.
Helen remained there, holding Melancholy’s arms.
“Hello, Sy!” she said, brightly.
I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it.
There was a commotion as the others came. Lillian was quick to hurry to my side.
Everyone, be they the Brigadier or my fellow Lambs, was quick to throw a dozen questions each at me.
I touched my throat, looking at who I hoped was Lillian.
“On it,” she said. “Need my bag.”
Too much to communicate, too little time.
Gordon and Mary hurt and bleeding out, with enemy forces between us and them. The location surrounded, the city overtaken by armies and fire, and Melancholy’s orders had been the only thing keeping the enemy from assaulting the Lodge. Now she was dead.
The moment they realized that, we were done for.