Lamb to the Slaughter – 6.10

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Our approach as a group was somewhat staggered, as Lambs came in ones and twos to kneel before the Duke.  Jamie first, then me a few seconds later, then Helen and Lillian as a pair, Gordon and Mary, with Gordon helping Mary ease down to her knees as he knelt himself.  Dog didn’t kneel, but there were anatomical issues there. He bowed his head instead.

“Stand,” the Duke said.

We stood.

“I heard you left as a group.  I asked to be notified the moment you were seen returning,” the Duke said.  “Dog, Catcher, it is nice to put faces to the names.  Faces that aren’t from medical sketches, at least.  From the injuries, I assume you found something out?  Gordon, speak.”

“Lord, there are at least twelve of the enhanced clones in the city.  We found their base of operations with Catcher’s help.  We couldn’t run down the clones, but we killed three and captured a different type of clone.  Percy’s.  They’re in the rear hatch of the carriage.  Three rescued children are within the carriage itself.”

The Duke indicated the carriage with a hand.  Soldiers and one doctor approached it.  “Continue.”

“He’s distributed the clones to several cities or several points in this city, my lord, with his own clones producing further generations.  They’re taking a viral approach.  Occupying our cities, proliferating within, then spreading.”

The Duke remained very quiet for a moment.  Not a single person present dared speak.  Many of the people on the road around the Academy campus were keeping their heads down, sharply aware of the Duke’s presence.  People a third of the way across the Academy grounds probably sensed the shift in tempo and focus, all rippling from this one location.

“How severe a problem do you believe it is?” the Duke asked.

“At this stage, it might be manageable, my lord.  They won’t have spread very far in the last year.  They might only be working on the second generation now, but that could mean ten to twenty sites.  Individually, they’re dangerous, they have incredible amounts of spatial awareness and tracking ability.  They are training themselves in combat, but their ability isn’t high.  Not yet.  They rely more on their natural ability, their environment, and picking the place and time of their attacks to win.”

“This ability?”  The Duke cut in.

“Lord, we think it’s echolocation, derived from the escaped experiment we named ‘Whiskers’.”

“I know the one you’re talking about,” the Duke said.

I was a little bit surprised at that.  I was a little more concerned that Gordon hadn’t had the chance to finish speaking.

He watched as people emerged from the carriage.  Stitched soldiers carried one corpse each, and two more held the captive.   High quality stitched.  Elite guard?

My eye passed over Jamie as it turned forward again.  He was looking at me.

I felt uncomfortable.  It was a very hard uncomfortable to put my finger on and identify.  I felt angry more than anything.

Anger was a bad emotion here, so close to the Duke.

The silence lingered as the Duke seemed to take it in.  Nobody was permitted to speak without permission, and there was more to say.  It felt uncomfortable, having the things left unsaid hanging over our heads.

I could tell how the conversation was going to go.  I could play it through in my head, muddy as it was, and I could see several ways it could go poorly.  We weren’t used to being around the nobility, and Gordon had made a tactical error.  He hadn’t divulged the most critical, dangerous information, and now he wouldn’t get a chance to do it without being rude.  Being rude could have repercussions.

“This is effective work,” the Duke said.  “I’ll allot you some time to rest and heal before assigning you another job.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Gordon said.

“My lord,” I said, quickly.  I spoke at the same time I raised my eyes and saw the ruling body of Radham opening his mouth to speak.

“Sylvester,” he said.  His tone had the faintest hint of danger as he said, “You seem eager to speak.  Don’t waste our time.”

“Lord Duke, there’s another facet to this that needs mention.  They were using Academy resources.  Vats, chemicals, uniforms, this carriage, chemicals, and very possibly communication.”


“My lord, it’s only speculation, but they were using birds.  They tried to burn the cage and their papers as Dog and Gordon made their approach.  I only recovered remains of the cage.  There are no guarantees, but-”


I couldn’t meet his eyes, but I was aware of how he was moving and how he stood.  He seemed to assert himself, straightening.  He began pacing.

Having the Duke pacing before us was nerve-wracking.  He was moving his hand, as if to punctuate thoughts he wasn’t sharing with us.

“Your captive,” he said.  “The clone of Percy.  Will he respond to interrogation?”

“He didn’t for us, my lord,” Gordon said.

It was going out on a limb, to speak when I had the Duke’s attention.  Had Gordon simply let me continue to hold the conversation, he faced a heck of a lot less risk.  Now we risked sharing it, either as a pair or all of the Lambs together.

“But he can speak?  He’s capable of reacting to cues?”

“Yes, my lord,” Gordon said.

“Then there is almost certainly a way,” the Duke said.  He turned to one of his doctors, gesturing with one hand.  The man departed.  The Duke spoke again when the man was only a few steps away.  “Dobson?”

“My lord?”  The doctor stopped.

“The thought crossed my mind in relation to this interrogation.  Professor Briggs managed Radham Academy before my arrival.  While you’re making arrangements for the clone, have Professor Briggs detained and rendered to the labs as fodder for testing.  It should be made absolutely clear to him that I’m displeased at the number of mistakes that were made under his watch.  Give his wife and child a payment to give them time to get their feet under them.  Allow him to say his goodbyes.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You may go.”

The Duke turned his back as his doctor disappeared into Claret Hall.  The team at the gates didn’t dare slow the man on his errand.

“I don’t like doing that,” the Duke said.  “It makes me uncomfortable.  I worry I’ll have to do it several more times today, as I look into this infestation.”

He was still pacing, periodically gesticulating.

My mouth was dry.

“Sylvester,” he said, coming to a complete stop as he whirled on me.  His coat flared behind him.  His eyes fixed mine, wild with too much white around them.  My entire body jolted with the accidental eye contact.

“Sir,” I said.  No!  No!  “I- I mean, my lord.”

Wrong word, sir was.  Wrong, very offensive word to use when referring to a noble.

The word seemed to hang in the air.

“Do you know the name of the woman who manages the birds and all incoming and outgoing communication in Radham?”


Memory was Jamie’s strength.  It was most definitely not mine.

I could have named Jamie, could have said something, but then the agitated, upset Duke would be focusing on him.  Whatever weirdness Jamie had brought up, even if he’d changed the paradigm between us, I wasn’t about to do that to him.  No, especially now, I wasn’t willing to.

“I don’t know, my lord.”

“Avis Pardoe,” the Duke said.  “She manages the phone bank, and she looks after the birds who transmit more secure messages.  She was subtle, to work against us like this.”

“Yes, my lord.  I know the person, the name escaped me, I’m sorry,” I said.  A little too fast, all together.  I might as well have been rambling.

“I last saw her in Claret Hall, right behind me,” the Duke said.  He straightened a little.  He still gestured, his eyes moving in a way that reminded me of Mary’s, earlier.  “Dog, Catcher.  You were just in active duty, and you assisted the Lambs.  I would not begrudge you if you said you weren’t in fighting form.”

“My lord,” Catcher said.  “I am able and willing.”

“For the time being, we’ll dispense of formalities,” the Duke said.  “I won’t brook disrespect or disobeyed orders, but there’s no need for titles.  Foley, I want available forces to converge here.  Cut off escape routes.”

What was he doing?

“I’m not sure I understand,” Gordon said.

“Then I’ll explain what I know.  After our last discussion, I had the men at the entrance to Radham Academy questioned about these women you described.  Off-duty soldiers have been partaking of the services of some ladies of the evening.  They were recognized, and while thoroughly frisked, they thought that a professor or, ahem, a dignitary had arranged for the women to come visit.  As of right now, by their recollection, two such women entered Radham and have not yet left.  Did you intercept the bird leaving the enemy’s headquarters?”

“No, my lord,” Gordon said.  “I’m not sure if there was a bird.”

“Avis Pardoe may have received a warning.  If she’s not already running, she’s braced for us to come after her.  We’ll enter and move through the building.  The other usable weapons of Radham Academy are out of the city or preoccupied.  The uninjured Lambs will address this, in addition to Dog and Catcher and every able bodied man I can summon.  I’ll lead the capture.”

He’ll lead?

That spooked me more than anything Avis could bring to bear.

“Do what you do,” the Duke said.  “Keep me informed, relay information back to me in as timely a fashion as you can.”

“Yes, my lord,” Gordon said.

“I told you to forget the title,” the Duke said.  “It wastes time.”

Gordon nodded.  “Catcher, take the North door?”

“There are five non-window exits they could use to escape the building,” Jamie said.  “North, West, South, the service door at the side by the garbage haul, the secret door facing the underground labs, and a hatch leading under Claret Hall.  You can cover the secret door as well as the North door.”

Hatch? I thought.  I wasn’t sure why I thought it to myself instead of asking Jamie.

“What hatch?” Gordon asked.

“Accessible through the wine cellar, which is below the kitchens.  They store drinks for visitors.  The hatch leads to a drainage tunnel.  The tunnel collects rainwater from gutters and the plaza, where it collects in cisterns,” Jamie said.  “It’s ankle deep, the top of each cistern has a grate that can be walked on.  Maybe ankle deep in water, depending on rainfall, but it was meant as an emergency exit.  I don’t know how many people know about it, but it’s in old blueprints.”

“Where does it lead?” Gordon asked.

“The underground labs.  But if any part of the dungeon is sealed off, so is the escape tunnel.  There are rooms offset to the tunnel, where people can hide, same construction as the labs.”

Claret Hall was the center and headquarters of the Academy.  The heart.  It was where the Duke situated himself, much of the time, and it was where the administration worked from.  Important people who came to Radham came to Claret Hall.  It made sense that the place was riddled with options to give those people an extra measure of security.

Catcher looked to the Duke.  “With your permission, we’ll do a circuit around the building, see if she’s made a run for it, loop back, and then take up position.”

The Duke nodded.

Catcher and Dog left, each moving in separate directions.

I couldn’t be dumb, not in the sense of being mute.  Even if I wasn’t sure how to handle the Jamie situation, I needed to communicate and figure out what was going on.

“Is she watching us?” I asked, looking at the building face.

Jamie responded without looking at me.  “Her office isn’t facing us, but anyone can walk down the hall and peer out the window.  If she got a bird with a message and she’s looking out for trouble, she might already be planning her escape.  The secret door and the hatch are most likely.”

The Duke snapped his fingers, then pointed.  The doctors who’d accompanied the Duke had little bags with wheels and handles.  He was pointing at one bag.

It reminded me of our signals, but it was different.  Our signals were something cooperative, that we’d devised between us as a matter of course, because it seemed only natural.  For the Duke, he expected people to do as he bid, and people who spent any length of time around him adopted a way of thinking that involved anticipating and predicting the man every step of the way.

One doctor had opened the bag, withdrawing weapons.  A sword, one-handed, and a pistol.  Both were overly ornate.

The Duke stood, eyes surveying the building while the doctor strapped the weapons onto his belt.

If this goes wrong, and the man gets assassinated, do we all suffer the same fate Briggs did?  Are we deemed utter failures and summarily disposed of?

There were more soldiers approaching.  I could see others further along, approaching from a distance to surround the building.  They were keeping their distance, picking positions where buildings would obscure the view.  Somehow, knowing what the ghosts were capable of, I didn’t believe that Avis was oblivious to any of this.

The Duke only watched, listened, and reached out to stroke Helen’s hair in an absent way.

It was gratuitous force.  A hundred armed men, Dog, Catcher, the Lambs and the Duke himself, to catch three people?

This was a man who, given the opportunity, left nothing up to chance.

With every moment that passed, I had more of a bad feeling.  I wasn’t feeling sharp enough to know or say if it was because of prey instinct or if it was something else entirely.  It could have been lingering feelings from my discussion with Jamie, about how unstable the Lambs felt at this very moment.  We threatened to fall to pieces, and going into the fray so soon after Mary got hurt, it might have been a factor in why I felt uncertain.

If it was prey instinct, though, what was I noticing but not processing?  What little details were adding up to make me feel concerned?  There was no telling what the enemy was doing.  There was the fact that the Duke was involved here and he was something of a wild card, but he wasn’t doing much more than petting Helen.

I glanced at Ibott, who had remained nearby, silent, watching, clutching hands together like the toady he was.

Helen seemed oblivious to what was going on, but I knew she wasn’t.  It was more that there was a discrete, distinct break between what she thought and felt and what she did.  There was a reason she was such an effective actress.  For the time being, she was keeping everything locked down and away, and there would be no telling what she needed or wanted.

“Lord, my Helen can stay here,” Ibott said.

My bones felt like cold water had run through them in the wake of that statement.

I saw Gordon turn his head.  I knew Gordon well enough to read his expression, to know what he was thinking, that he felt the same way I did.

Well, I’d established myself as someone who spoke out of turn.  The Duke had given us permission to say what needed to be said, given that we were going into battle, I might as well use it.

“No,” I said.

Ibott turned to look at me, incredulous.  “You’d deny her company to the Lord Duke?”

“One of the bodies we brought in was Helen’s kill.  We need her at the front.  Mary’s injured, Mary can stay behind,” I said.

“It’s not your decision to make,” Ibott snapped at me.

“It is,” the Duke said.

Ibott paled a little, surprise and fear crossing his expression before he mostly composed himself.  He bowed a little, saying, “My lord.”

In straightening, he shot me a glare.

He already hated me.  I was surprised that he hated me more, by the looks of things.

My mind was struggling to draw up explanations even as fast as I provided them.  “We Lambs push in, spreading out while remaining in contact.  Catcher knows the hand signals.  We keep eyes on one another, watch each other’s backs.  Signal with right hand, relay with left.  If you see a signal, relay it.  As we extend in, the Duke and Mary can advance, Mary selectively informs the Duke what we’re saying and doing, keeping in mind that the Ghosts can hear us.  The Duke, in turn, can give orders to the soldiers and stitched.  Soldiers complement what we’re doing.  At our signal, Dog and Catcher can move.”

I glanced at Mary, who looked back my way, and there was emotion on her face.  She was upset.  Galled, to use a clever word for it.

Being left out or being told she was incapable, both struck to the heart of who she was, stinging her at her core.

I hated to leave her with the Duke, but it made the most sense.  Of all of us, short of Gordon, she was the one who could deal with the man, impress him, and yet not impress him to the degree that he wanted to take a Lamb for himself.

“Avis knows we’re here.  She’s got ghosts with her.  If we leave ourselves exposed in any way, they’ll get us like they got Mary.  But she’s a smart woman.  Has to be, to have that position.  I assume the Duke is using this show of force out of concern for any bioweapons or other failsafes she stashed in the event she was caught.”

“It was a consideration,” the Duke said.  “I trust your ability to manage it more than I trust the common soldier.”

But we’re still handling it.  We’re walking into a building while the Birdwatcher knows there’s trouble incoming.  She’s been working against the Academy for a long while, and she’s been fearing this day.

“She’s been at this for a while.  Maybe since she joined the Academy.  She’s been fearing being caught and having the entirety of the Academy collapse in on her since day one.  Every time she’s sent a bird out with a message intended to work against the Academy, she’s been fearing what might happen if it got intercepted, if the wrong person read it.  She’s worried if someone would say the wrong word and turn her in.  That’s a fear that eats at you and even consumes you.”

“How interesting, to hear how people think,” the Duke said.  “I can’t imagine living with fear.  I’ve only experienced it a few times in my life.”

“Wariness,” I said.  “Having to be on guard, think everything through.  You surely experience that when you look at the maps and plot strategy for the war, my lord.”

“I do.  But I do not fear anything when I do it,” the Duke said.  He observed, “Dog and Catcher have returned.”

“I see them,” I said.  “The thing about that fear, is I don’t think she’d be content to sit back and let it wash over her.  You can’t be that passive and rise to the position she did.  She’d take measures.  It would have to be subtle, something that wouldn’t get found, and it would have to be effective.  Something that would give her the security that there was a way out at any time.”

I was saying this not just to elaborate on the enemy, but to convince the Duke that this was a bad idea.  If he’d be willing to send someone else, or reconsider using the Lambs.

“A bomb would not be likely,” the Duke said.  “Poison gas or no, we have the like of Dog and Catcher to identify something like that.”

I nodded.  He wasn’t considering going with another option, it seemed.

Dog and Catcher reached us.

“She’s inside,” Catcher said.

The bad feeling was getting worse.

“A final group is getting in position,” the Duke said.  “One moment.  Catcher, stay near.”

I was painfully aware of Jamie.  He wasn’t communicating with me, wasn’t looking my way, wasn’t doing anything.

I’d let him down, I felt let down.  It gnawed at me, and I was in a particularly distracted state, without Wyvern flowing through my brain.  Normally, I might have turned to my best friend to confide in him and find some sense or peace in the midst of it, but I couldn’t.

Anxious, nervous, I broke away from the group under the pretext of looking at Claret Hall from another angle, or studying the regiment of soldiers off to one side.

I realized, belatedly, that I was making a beeline straight for Catcher.   Instincts at work.  I didn’t stop.

I ran my fingers through wet hair, pushing it out of my face.  It was just damp enough to stay where I put it.

“If you want advice about your Jamie,” Catcher said, “I’m the least qualified person to dispense it.  Dog is better qualified, but I don’t think we have enough time to translate.”

He’d heard it all.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, or how to explain myself, or what I even wanted to communicate.

A full minute passed as I stood there, silent.

I saw the Duke stirring, and realized I was out of time.

“Thanks,” I said, and it wasn’t sarcastic, and I had no idea what I was thanking Catcher for.

“Good luck,” he said.

I turned to go back to the others.

He gave Helen’s head another stroke, then let his hand fall to his side.  He gripped the pommel of his one-handed sword.  “We capture her alive.”

“Yes, lord,” I said.  My response mingled with that of the others.

“Soldiers in first.  Lambs, follow alongside, then move as you suggested,” the Duke said.

We were among the rank and file.  It wasn’t something that I normally dwelt on, but each of the men we were working with were two to two and a half feet taller than I was.  They loomed, all in matching uniforms, all with guns.

This wasn’t familiar ground, and I wasn’t sure I would have liked what we were doing if it was.

Feet tramped on the ground.  The Lambs found positions between the rows and columns of stitched soldiers as they divided to enter through the two separate doors.

“I lead,” Gordon said.  “Helen, watch my back.  Jamie and Sy, you stick together.  Lillian, we keep you surrounded by soldiers, advance them forward, then have you escorted up to the new group.  Focus on the signals and relaying back to Mary and the Duke.  Be ready with your kit in case there’s trouble.”

“Lots of windows,” I observed.  “We need knives.”

“I’ve got knives,” Mary said, behind us.  Then, in response to a question I didn’t hear, she said, “The ghosts are sensitive to high pitched sound.  Blades against glass.”

She started passing the knives up to the rest of us.  I took three.

It was disconcerting, having the Duke following, watching our every move, judging.  This was a man so powerful that our project continued or faced cancellation at his whim, but we were almost beneath him.  We almost didn’t matter.  It didn’t help that he was here under the guise of leading us, but we were the ones devising the strategy.

The doors banged as the stitched pushed them open.  We marched into the hallway, the rows of rifle-wielding stitched taking up so much space that bystanders were being squeezed out or pushed up against the wall.

The ground floor was shaped like a cross, with a long hallway leading to a crossroad with a desk in the middle.  Offices and services were set off to either side of the hallway.  Beyond the desk was the north hallway, leading to the door that Dog and Catcher watched.  All of it was worked up in dark wood that gleamed with lacquer and resin, with gold trim and deep red woods here and there for accent.

And the people – there were hundreds of students in the space, and as large as Claret Hall was, it made for a jumble.  More so when they reacted to the approach of a full regiment with chaos and confusion.

The soldiers went out, checking offices to either side.  The hand signals came out from Gordon.  I relayed it back.  No sign.

“Hear me!” the Duke proclaimed, and his voice boomed down the length of the hall.  Before he was even done speaking, people were dropping to their knees.  “By order of the Crown, lay on the ground with your arms straight out above your head, and we will know you are no enemy of ours!”

It was as if an invisible wave was crashing into the crowd.  There was no question, there was no hesitation.  Every person in the crowded hall dropped, and many had already been in the process of kneeling or kneeling already.

Well, that was his contribution, I supposed.  We hadn’t had the element of surprise to begin with, and now we didn’t need to worry nearly so much about the people who were lingering.

Helen raised a hand, signaling.  Escape.  She swept it out to point to people behind us.

I passed it on.

“If you’re within five paces of me or behind me, you evacuate,” the Duke said.

I heard the people shuffling, scrambling to get off the ground and head for the South door.

Where are you, Birdwatcher? I thought.

Upstairs, probably.  With whatever weapon or tool she’d devised to quiet her fears and convince herself that she could escape when and if she got caught.

I hated the notion that she might be right.  That she really did have an out.  Or worse, that she didn’t, and that she was prepared to go out with a bang if her trick didn’t work and we ended up cornering her.

Couldn’t say no to the Duke, couldn’t retreat or take a different tack.  His presence behind us was pushing us forward, giving us no choice but to face this, however uncertain I or we might feel.  His advance behind us was like a pressure, pushing us forward, into deeper, uncertain waters.

I could feel the tension in my teeth, and I recognized it from before.

I snapped my fingers for the benefit of the others, then signaled.  Number.

Helen nodded, then touched an ear.  She relayed to Gordon, while I made sure the others behind me knew.

Of course there were more than two.  The sensation was already more intense than the seven had been, back when Mary got stabbed.

I listened for the order that wouldn’t come, in response to the chatter I couldn’t hear.  My heart sank.

He didn’t order a retreat.

This had suddenly gotten a great deal more difficult.

We know the first card Avis is playing, now.  All of their ghosts somehow found a way inside.

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84 thoughts on “Lamb to the Slaughter – 6.10

  1. Well, this is a bit of a nightmare scenario. Worn down, out of shape, beaten down, outgunned, out flanked, against unknown number of opponents who outclass them in combat, an unknown amount of contingency plans by the Birdwatcher, and needing to be impressive and powerful enough to impress royalty who can destroy them on a whim if he isn’t pleased as well as being an obvious target to their enemies.
    No wonder Ibbott hates Sy for pulling Helen into this.

    • Um, actually Ibbott hates Sy because by getting Helen away from the Duke, Ibbott can’t use her to get in good with him. I don’t think Ibbott would mind much if Helen got newtered, and broken from being the Duke’s plaything.

      • True, plus if Helen was to demonstrate in detail just how deadly she is it might turn him off the prospect of her as a pet.

        On second thought, the fact that she is so deadly might turn him on, especially as she is so respectful and submissive to him.

        But yes, I think you are accurate in saying Ibbott is displeased for having his ambitions thwarted by an insignificant twerp.

  2. The Duke did say that he was extremely hard to kill correct? I wonder if that granted him combat abilities?

    Also, yay, more Duke (that feels weird to say). He gives a Count Dracula vibe. Like he knows more than he let’s on.

    • Why wouldn’t he grant himself combat abilities? He has a team of doctors at his disposal to do whatever he feels is necessary.

      • It appears the Duke is a case of crouching moron, hidden badass. He’s compleatly serous this chapter, and it shows. He’d going for the sledgehammer approach, because it is safer than the scalpel, while counting on the Lambs being able to discern Avis plans.

        He’s fearless because so far he feels their is nothing to fear. Remember this guy is near the top on the strongest power in the world. He’s probably been enhanced so much he can take the Academy weapons like Gorger and Hangman in a fight.

  3. Typo thread:

    The ground floor was shaped like a ‘t’ — ‘T’ might get the point across better.

    The duke, in turn, can give orders to the soldiers and stitched. — Duke is capitalized elsewhere.

    Soldiers compliment what we’re doing — Probably should be complement.

    Instincts at work. I didn’t stop — Premature end / missing period.

      • The ground floor was shaped like a cross, with a long hallway leading to a crossroad with a desk in the middle. Offices and services were set off to either side of the hallway. Beyond the desk was the north hallway, leading to the door that Dog and Catcher watched.

        I’m having a visualization problem. See, it doesn’t say which arm of the cross the soldiers are coming in from. Also, wasn’t Catcher just with the Lambs? How is he watching the far door already? Now, I could figure this out with some thought, but I sometimes have a lot of trouble envisioning your fight scenes, layouts, because it’s simply not as clear to me as it is to you. So, I’m just going to point out my confusion when it happens.

        • I want to try to clear up a bit, maybe I won’t xP Dog and Catcher were to take position on the North door, watching it and the secret hatch both. They did a circuit around the building, regrouped with the Duke and I assume they went to the North door; it isn’t mentioned. Dog and Catcher had time to move into position as the soldiers breached in and took control.

          I would imagine the Duke and soldiers are entering through the South to cover more ground.

    • “It’s ankle deep, the top of each cistern has a grate that can be walked on. Maybe ankle deep in water[…]” The ankle deep comment is doubled. Might not be intended.

    • “There are five non-window exits they could use to escape the building,” Jamie said. “North, West, South, the service door at the side by the garbage haul, the secret door facing the underground labs, and a hatch leading under Claret Hall.”

      I count six exits.

    • More typos:
      – “Vats, chemicals, uniforms, this carriage, chemicals, and very possibly communication.” -> (“chemicals” is repeated)

      – “Had Gordon simply let me continue to hold the conversation, he faced a heck of a lot less risk.” -> “he would have faced”

      – “and every able bodied man I can summon” -> “able-bodied” (presumably, all of the Duke’s men are at least “bodied”)

      – “and many had already been in the process of kneeling or kneeling already” -> ?

      – “was the north hallway” -> “North” (all other cardinal directions in the chapter are capitalised)

      Other stuff:

      – “The Duke had given us permission to say what needed to be said, given that we were going into battle, I might as well use it.” -> (would be clearer as “battle. I might as well use it.”)

      – “without Wyvern flowing through my brain” -> (clearer as (sufficient) “Wyvern formula”)

      – “His advance behind us was like a pressure, pushing us forward, into deeper, uncertain waters.” -> “pressure wave”?

      – “The sensation was already more intense than the seven had been, back when Mary got stabbed.” -> (This was really confusing on first read. Could be made clearer.)

    • “Hall” isn’t capitalized like it is with other instances:
      The Duke turned his back as his doctor disappeared into Claret hall.

  4. I like the Duke. And by ‘like’ I mean ‘remain terrified of him taking an interest in the Lambs.’ Did it seem to anyone else that he was kind of enjoying it when Sy did his enemy mental modeling schtick, that can’t be a good sign.

    The Sy/Jamie rift continues to be quietly heartbreaking. 😦

    • Some people handle rejection better than others. I’m still holding out hope that after Jamie has had a while to process his disappointment and Sy has gained some tact, they can maybe even joke about it one day.

      • Sy/Jamie are pretty close and Sy was rather blindsided. Jamie was fully expecting to be rejected but was being open with Sy. Sy just needs time to process while things are a bit weird for him and jamie is respecting that… Sy always has had very small bandwidth connection with awareness of his own feelings while Jamie has been aware of Sy’s heterosexuality forever. Jamie is just disappointed but Sy’s bedrock friendship was shaken.
        They’ll get over it, or, you know, one of them dies and they angst forever. At least they’ll have a tree being as a replacement sibling.

  5. The Duke has an interesting solution to the Peter Principal. Somehow I suspect its things like this that make everything worse.

    Well, the Ghosts appear to have defaulted to going after the Academy when discovered. I do have a question of if the Birdwatcher is really in on anything. They have a lot of things that appear to be the Academy’s and have infested multiple Academies. They might not have been using Radham birds.

    • Punishments for failure like that create some rather perverse incentives. Don’t ever expect anyone at the academy to ever take anything resembling a risk, calculated or otherwise, again. Such conservatism will likely breed mediocrity, which won’t serve them well in the war. Expect people with options to start pulling out, rather than stick around and risk summary execution.

      • Executor syndrome tho. Fastest route of advancement is near the Duke, wait till he kills your boss, then try and transfer away.

      • Risk for failure already close to that high with how easily doctor trainees get flushed out and gotten rid of. Seems like perceived rewards are judged by doctor society here to be worth the risk. Don’t underestimate wide scale chemical brain washing of some sort among academy members or some variant. The level of murderous drive and ruthless focus is a bit of a clue that this is not 100% psychologically standard.

      • No. Too high of risk to not have immediate decisive action. If wrong, eh one more piece of fodder for testing. If right, thank goodness he acted quickly. Also he almost certainly has much more intel on the situation than we do. All the Crowns other sources of info…

  6. Nice chapter. The Duke feels very spooky, but in the “knows exactly what he’s doing” kind of way. The Duke-Lambs interactions were neat, though I expected Lillian to say something.

    This looks like an awesome fight is incoming, and The Duke’s weapons are a gun and a sword, which is a neat combo.

    I wonder what The Duke’s voice sounds like (but it was probably mentioned in the chapter he showed up in).

    • The Duke reminds me of Conquest from Pact. Except this time he’s on the narrator’s side. Makes for a nice change. Very sinister style of character. Inhuman and imperious.

    • Oh, wow. Amazing observational skills, or memory, or just a very nice idea to look them up. I really had my doubts about these two, but this is condemning for Avis. Also, Avis, birds, hah.

      • I guessed she had to have been foreshadowed. Then went looking!

        The Briggs connection was found because I went back to look for what he had done. Wild that Avis was basically with the head of the academy full time.

        Also a bit (just a bit) odd that neither Sy or Jamie have referenced any active memories of this or other encounters.

        Sy probably because lack of Wyvern, and Jamie probably staying quiet with Duke there.

    • Aaaand xdrngy instantly nailed Avis’ correct allegiance back then through sheer epilectic treeguessing. Hat tip to you.

    • …Should’ve seen Briggs coming. He had a bird woman with him, and there was a bird woman with the conspiracy in Enemy 1.

  7. I wonder, is the Duke working on the other side? Has he gotten tired of his immortal life where he cannot even really imagine fear? Is that her out?

    Now he’s helping evacuate all potential witnesses and has let in an army of ghosts to remove the few witnesses to his betrayal, including the few smart enough to have almost figured it out. Yes, the Duke is a combat monster, and he’s about to bar the only way out.

    • I kind of got the impression that The Duke would much rather be The King.

      My prediction:
      Lambs put at the van to eliminate them, as they figured out too much.
      If they survive and corner Aves, Duke Insurgant offers them a place on his side, having proven to be exceptionally competant.
      Those who accept are welcomed with honors. Those who refuse are slaughtered.

      Who will go, and what does the Duke have to offer them?

      Gordon already had leanings, and can be tempted with an extended warrNty on living.
      Mary can be reunited with Percy, to get some answers (and cause nonviolent group conflict for story feul).
      Jaimie may be influenced by being unchained. Allow him to learn and research anything he wants without reprisal or fear.
      Helen goes with Ibott. I wonder if Ibott is more loyal to the Crown Standing, or to personal advancement.
      Lillian goes where the group does, I think.
      And Sy. Promise some correspondance with whats her name Wyvern. Promise to keep the lambs together. Promise to continue with Ashton.

      Who’s least likely to accept?
      I’d guess Jaimie. Or Helen, depending on Ibott.

      • Well, Sy’s instincts are screaming at him, probably for more reason then the Ghost ambush.

        They were working with the information that there were at least two Ghost infiltrating the Academy, with an unknown number of unconfirmed extras. The possibility of an ambush was blatantly obvious.

        The Duke responded to this by deliberately springing the ambush.

        Even assuming a best case scenario, trying that is a very risky move. And the Duke didn’t call for any reinforcements.

        So, there’s definitely something off about the Duke’s decision here. He might be working for the enemy. He might be practically unstoppable in a fight and using the situation as an excuse to stretch his legs, so to speak. He might be running the Lambs through the meat grinder just to see how they cope with high stress combat situations. Or any other dozen things that I haven’t thought of. It’s hard to say.

    • I like the idea, especially when they catch up to Avis and he can’t eliminate her fast enough and she spills the beans to the (disrespectful, but efficient) Lambs so he is forced to eliminate the currently combat deficient Lambs as well.
      Unfortunately, I think i like it so much cause the Duke seems too good of a monster to not fight and struggle with as opposed to kneel and fear and hide from. More unfortunately, looking at the universe and the fact that Wildbow is writing it, is much much wiser to kneel, fear, and hide from the Duke so if I get my hope that they’ll fight and struggle with the Duke i’ll regret it rather harshly.

  8. I’d just like to remind everyone for no reason in particular that we are in the last or one of the last chapters of this arc and it’s called Lamb to the Slaughter.

    Avis should be sent to the Birdcage :3

    I have confusing feelings about the Duke. He’s horrible, despicable even, but I really like his attitude. He’s smart (though perhaps also rash) and he has an interesting sense of justice. I am not sure if Briggs deserves to die, but I think it’s neat he’s getting the opportunity to do some things. It’s also spooky what he said about Percy. I feel bad for him. Something that irks me is that, despite the fact that Avis is part of the rebels, as pointed out by bakerjake, it seems like an unsubstantiated conclusion that Avis is working with the rebels.

    Jamie knowing the Academy’s blueprints seems like the kind of thing he shouldn’t know about. I’m sure it’s okay given no one reacted though.

    Sy is really fucking bold, I love him. I kinda was expecting the duke to snap out “Okay, off with his head. Chop chop”, but the duke knows to listen to Sy.

    I also fucking love Catcher ❤ I don't know why, but what he said felt nice.

      • Still waters run deep. Just because he can’t talk and looks like a monster (because he is), doesn’t mean he can’t also have great empathy.

        • I’d say more like Dog is built to deeply understand emotions for purposes of tracking and empathy is a side effect of that. This helps him find the targets. Catcher has much less so he can be ruthless in grabbing or killing the target. Something like that…

  9. Holy crap Briggs just got a lifetime sentence of horrible torture in 4 bloody lines. The Duke does not forgive lax security measures.
    He would have had a blast with our ex-resident immortal paranoid shell-of-herself Sub Rosa.

    Suddenly his swordgun combo reminds me of Dishonored or Bloodborne. Interestingly apt, given the setup.

  10. Wasn’t Gordon due a heart attack right about now?

    Will their doctors become fodder if they fail this mission, for not ‘tuning’ the weapon and giving them their damn appointments?

    If and when Jamie gets his appointments, is there any way for them to see what he’s learned since the last one? Does it involve a partial wipe? Can he choose what to retain?

    Are they ever going to get a new Lamb? Is Ashton a unisex name?

    I’m staying tuned and voting hard.

    • The reason for the unisex question by the way is that I’m kinda hoping something in the gestative process of the tree leads to Ashton coming out a girl this time. Imagine Sy having to deal with his feelings about that! Plus this would be a neat way to bring his feelings about Jamie back into the picture.

  11. The Duke is fascinating. While it was cruel to dispatch Briggs on that way, it seems that his aura of authority seeps in our world.

    It’s nice to see that he isn’t just for show and willing to go in himself (but what should he fear, anyway?) and willing to forget formalities and courtesy if the need arises.

    • This…I was going to post the same thing…when the shit hits the fan and time is of the essence, the Duke dispenses with honorifics, delegates to the experts and wants things to get DONE…I was in the military, most officers were not able to make this transition.

  12. The trick isn’t just keeping the Duke alive, not failing, and not getting killed. They need to walk the fine line of being good enough to impress, but not so good the Duke thinks he’d like them for toys of his own.

  13. Big, serious question: what is the sort of core, simple theme underlying twig? Wildbow has deeply and inextricably connected plot and narrative to very basic (or simple or something – not a negative) theme with worm and pact.

    Here I think it has to be some interplay between “relying on others to be greater than yourself” and “taking risk to establish yourself as an individual.”

    Without a doubt (70% confidence to use Yudkowskian terms), I’d wager that Sy will have to be the one to actively rupture the cohesion of the Lambs and pull himself out. He is so much fonder and more deeply embedded in the lambs in some ways than the others, so him having to voluntarily rip himself out of that family unit seems like a very high probability thematic aspect.

    Other Themes seem could be growing up and questioning your assumptions as well as questioning mortality (note that life here can approach immortality) so seems a big thematic element.

    Final one from me is around topics of faith – Sy more than others is a true believer in academy creating a friendly AI brain at some point.

    • Hideous end state:

      Sy has to defect to save the other lambs for some reason rupturing his sense of identity

      His faith is broken by living with other side – realizes he was wrong

      While he is away, he accidentally or intentionally has to fight and kill other lambs – likely Gordon, setting up powerful guy vs weakling?

      While away, Jamie ascends into being part of the great brain Sy wants academy to create to solve problems

      Sy has to shut down Jamie who has been perverted by academy to save the world

      I’m not high confidence on this particular version. Just trying to brainstorm ideas/examples.

      • My prediction on the end state is that Sy will need to quit being dosed with Wyvern or die, possibly in a state where he needs to rely on or trust others in order to continue living functionally. The person he winds up relying on, though, is someone he can feel comfortable relying on. Possibly Lilian, monitoring the long term recovery rate? Anyway, she tells him about the various ways the mental enhancement projects are progressing, in a way that leaves the reader to guess whether or not she’s just making things up for his benefit, so he can be content in the belief that living his ultimate horror is worthwhile due to the illusion of having achieved his ultimate goal.

        • (Zim goes to the kitchen looking for tin fol and makes a few hats)

          Ring ding ding, what tiiiime is it? It’s Triple Tin Foil Hat Time! What is our crazy theory today? Well, it’s none other that Lillian will defect the Academy, joining the rebel cause. Only her though. And she will be the voice of reason to convert Sy in a time of need. That ends another episode of TTFHT!

          • Yay… I made a Tin Foil Top Hat with a tin foil monocle. I’m gonna guess that these are actually made of tin as aluminum doesn’t seem common in twig-verse due to the Hall-Heroult process needing oodles of electricty which isn’t common in this universe… Until Lillian comes along and makes a huge beast that eats lead sulfuric acid and bauxite and poops out aluminum rendering her as a powerful doctor and therefore untouchable until she rebels and gives her metallergy beasts to the rebels upping their raw firepower. The added bonus of her beasts is they vomit slag at enemies.

  14. Whenever I read about the duke, I get a Fuhrer Bradley (FMA brotherhood) vibe.

    Next chapter should be good to find out how much of a swordsman he is.

  15. This chapter is highly concerning to me because I’m getting the feeling that this is either leading to something very bad happening or a vague disappointment. I’m trying to think of the best case scenario for the Lambs and the best i can come with is they succeed, the duke is wildly impressed and funds them with lots of money and helps them live longer. That isn’t gonna happen. The more realistic optimistic possibility is that they survive the duke is not overly impressed but will maintain the status quo, maybe give them a boon of the the last project being given a green light. This ending would be vaguely disappointing because it just brings us back to where we started but with more relationship issues. The big problem is that anything that would be satisfying to me the reader would bad for the lambs. Someone stolen away by the duke, the duke getting killed by the lambs, death of one of the lambs. I mean the fact that the lambs are squaring away their relationship statuses is even more cause for concern as it kinda feels like they are settling their affairs in some ways which leads to even more expectations of a large carps falling from the sky and landing on the Lambs.

    So yeah, I’m excited about the next chapter and apprehensive and hopeful i won’t be let down but praying that i will be at the same time.

    (of course Wildbow will just do something completely differant monday and have Big Bird come in and swallow the Duke whole and render this whole post moot (Birds are dinosaurs so does that mean a T-rex would fall under Avis’s Domain?))

  16. I love how completely terrifying The Duke is. He’s one of the scariest characters I think I’ve ever met in fiction… The combination of the exaggerated abasement all these other terrifying characters give him, with his absolute authority, total unpredictability, ambiguity about whether or not he’ll be an antagonist, and the implication that his physical threat level is higher than perceived… Is magnificent. Every time he comes on screen the already-very-alive story jumps off the page a little bit more!

    • He kind of reminds me of a scene in one of Patrick Rothfuss’s books, where a character is consulting for an autocrat and they something that is completely reasonable, but isn’t what the patient wants to hear. Dude is just like “Throw him in a cell, I’ll decide what to do later.” and the protag realizes that they had no idea what kind of situation they were dealing with.

      I get that vibe when the Duke has Doc Briggs rendered to the labs here. Casually for and for little reason a character who was previously the most powerful person we’ve encountered is transformed into parts. Same with the “Everyone Down” bit. The duke has a degree of authority that is difficult to understand, if you don’t live in a feudal hell.

  17. Sy is definitely aware that, in addition to being hurt by Jamie, he hurt Jamie by suggesting that Jamie’s love for him could be “fixed.” This worries me in part because so much of Sy’s persona is built around appealing to the people he cares about rather than what’s good for Sy himself. Sy’s entire thing is that he changes himself to fit in with others…hopefully he doesn’t try to make himself gay in order to make Jamie happy, because that would probably hurt them both even more.

  18. Hnng characterization so good.
    Terrifying thought about the Duke – if nobles have access to top-of-the-line Academy biotech, does that include cognitive upgrades? Are any of the changes heritable? Are nobles actually, objectively better than mundane humans and therefore genuinely best suited to their position? Sure, they’re frightening and alien, but transhumanism doesn’t strike me as a comfortable process for anyone.

  19. “I don’t like doing that,” the Duke said. “It makes me uncomfortable. I worry I’ll have to do it several more times today, as I look into this infestation.”
    That humanizes the Duke a bit. Thank Scion—any sufficiently aloof and powerful nobleman is indistinguishable from a sociopath. Or a god.

    It was gratuitous force. A hundred armed men, Dog, Catcher, the Lambs and the Duke himself, to catch three people?
    This was a man who, given the opportunity, left nothing up to chance.

    My kind of sociopathic god—a cautious one.

    “It’s not your decision to make,” Ibott snapped at me.
    “It is,” the Duke said.

    And reasonably rational! (If nothing else, he sure isn’t letting his pride get in the way.) HE’S MEETING ALL OF MY STANDARDS!

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