The nature of our enemy forced us to change up our approach, given how ‘stealthy’ meant a very different thing when dealing with enemies who could suss out our locations by hearing them.
They had eyes, too, but I had no idea if they relied on those eyes to the same extent we did. It meant we had to pick and choose our positions carefully. We made our way up the stairs to the floor above, the relay serving its purpose well. With the four hallways below, people steadily evacuating under the Duke’s watchful eye, I could at least hope that my back was covered. Lillian moved with her escort, and Jamie and I moved as a pair, five to ten paces behind Helen.
We stopped halfway up a set of stairs covered in red carpet, the railings some special wood with a marble-like texture and gold-colored caps. I reached up to a picture; I was too short to reach it with my hand, but I could reach it with the point of my knife. I got the blade between the picture and the wall, twisted, and pried it off, with a slight crack. I poked the underside to lift it up, and it came free of the wall. I caught it. Some Professor’s painted portrait. He looked like a smug twat.
Jamie did much the same, even utilizing my technique of the knife-twist. By the time he had his picture, I had an arm curled around mine. I put the long side of the knife’s edge against the glass, and began playing it as one might a violin.
Jamie smiled as he realized what I was doing, but as our eyes met, he flinched and turned forward, progressing up the stairs a few steps.
I felt like having the formula running through my veins would have helped me find the thing to say and do. Not just for Jamie, to bring things back to normal, to get him to look at me and talk to me in the right way, but for myself.
I was hurt, and I was angry.
He’d blown it off in that cavalier, casual way, but he’d had to have known he was throwing a wrench into things. He was complicating how he and I interacted and he’d done it when I’d been confiding how uncertain I was about the Lambs.
He’d never been good at timing, but that was pretty frigging ugly timing.
Helen signaled. We moved up the bend in the stairs. In my agitation, I was moving the knife more dramatically. As the texture of the glass changed, with regular, fierce scratches, I moved the knife further along the portrait. In a few minutes, I’d have to replace it.
We reached our new location at the bend in the stairs. We could see both up and downstairs, a large window to our back. It was tree branches, reaching from the floor to the ceiling far above us, glass fitted between.
I signaled for Lillian to approach. Half the soldiers tramped forward to a point halfway up the stairs. Lillian came with the second half.
I used the knife on the window while I waited, to prolong the life of the portrait I held.
Above us, Helen relayed Gordon’s signals. Clear. Fist clenched. Clear. Fist clenched.
Punctuating each check.
If Gordon saw the ghosts, it was either because they wanted to be found, or the scratching of glass was working.
Helen’s other hand went up, head turning as she threw herself against the wall. Thumb and pinky extended, touching nose and ear. The hand pulled away, already forming the next gesture. All five fingers pointed skyward, as if she were clutching a ball.
Smell. Hear. Fire.
She had only just formed the gesture when the ghost stepped out at the very top of the stairwell. She was wearing an Academy uniform, but her hair was brown, her form petite, and I recognized the face as one of the ghosts we’d fought.
Helen hit the ground, chest flat against the stair she’d been standing on, hands over her head.
She had her eyes narrowed, flinching visibly with eyelids twitching as I brought the knife down the pane of the window, ready to throw it if I had to.
But she was already making the necessary motions, throwing a bottle with a rag stuffed in the end.
The weapon sailed through the air, an underarm toss, not necessarily hard enough to break the bottle. The long drop down to us would do it. Jamie wouldn’t be quick enough to get out of the way.
The portrait fell from my hand. I leaped forward, bringing both feet up, knees to my chest. I set my feet on the railing, then extended my legs, pushing myself up as high and fast as I could go, reaching up and over my head.
I touched the glass of the bottle, but I was too short to actually grab it, my hand too small. I saw a glimpse of Jamie beneath me.
The touch made the bottle spin in the air. My arms windmilling, I brought my other arm forward. Knife still in hand, I reached over my head to stab the flaming cloth.
I followed through with the motion, bringing my arm down, sharp and away. The bottle shattered against the wood and glass of the window-covered wall, and the knife with the flaming rag flew off onto higher stairs.
I landed, hard, amid the spatter of caustic chemical and broken shards of glass. I barked out something of a cough, and my next attempt at drawing in air didn’t seem to draw in enough. Each subsequent breath was better.
Jamie had barely moved. His eyes were wide.
I panted for breath, getting a nice reserve of air back into my lungs.
“Are you okay?” Jamie asked. He extended a hand. I was already grabbing onto the window for a grip, and opted to follow through, using it to stand.
I regretted it the instant I saw his expression. Nothing obvious, but a flicker of pain.
“I’m okay,” I said. I felt the need to do something more, and reached out, bumping his shoulder with my fist, a light punch. I sort of repeated myself, but I was saying something very different as I looked around at the spatter of chemical on us and the stairs, the glass, and the burning rag, well out of the spatter’s range. “It’s okay.”
“Yeah,” he said, and it didn’t sound like he agreed.
I turned away, signaling Helen. Good alert.
She nodded, stepping down two stairs to stamp on the rag.
“Seems like you’ve still got a little Wyvern formula in you,” Jamie murmured.
“There’s enough, I hope,” I said. I was still far from baseline. I was glad I wasn’t on the same level as a boy my age without any of the drug’s effects. I’d only been there once, and it had been much, much worse. I still had the skills I’d picked up. My personality was still mine. My analytical way of thinking hadn’t changed, even if the edge was gone and the focus wasn’t all there.
But I wasn’t wholly there either. There was fog, blurriness around the edges of thoughts if I didn’t commit to them, and there was sloppiness. I was legitimately worried that I would try something and I would find I didn’t have the ability.
I signaled the a-ok to Lillian, who was staring up at me from the midst of her sea of stitched soldiers. I saw her hand go up, passing on the message, while her expression didn’t change, her eyes not leaving me.
Meanwhile, Helen was relaying Gordon’s signals from upstairs. He was on the floor above, and according to him, there was more fire.
Fire had long been the go-to tool against the Academy. Now Claret Hall burned.
If we let the place burn with the exits sealed, will she burn with this place? It was so easy an option, but the Duke had given his order. If she wasn’t captured alive, then we lost our one chance to get information on Percy’s plans.
Forcing the other guy to rush, as I’d often observed, was a critical part of a con man’s ploys. It gave the target less time to think, and it gave them more opportunity to make mistakes. Avis was forcing us to rush to reach her if we didn’t want her to burn alive.
That, or she was hoping to utilize the chaos and confusion native to fire and escape another way.
Hurry, I signaled Helen and Lillian both, making sure to look at each so they knew.
The rotations, movements, and relayed orders came faster than before. One group wasn’t wholly in position when we started moving up the next. Jamie and I moved up to where Helen had dropped to the stair, then further down the hallway.
The stairs above where we’d been were on fire.
There were any number of offices in this hallway, each one with windows looking in at the hallway, and windows looking out. Just around the corner from where Gordon was was the vantage point we’d used to spy on his conversation with Shipman. Because the building was a square, the hallway ringing it, there was plenty of space for a set of rooms in the center of it all, these ones had windows for us to see within, the bottom of each sitting at shoulder level for me. A reference library, a room with a long table and many chairs, a tea room, all of which were littered with bleeding corpses. Each had windows that failed to give us a view of the ghosts, and each had multiple doors, so one could pass from any point in the hallway or pass from room to room.
The fire Gordon had signaled us about was at the opposite end of the building. Around two corners, or through the room with the table and chairs. It seemed strategically set to limit access to the upstairs, the flames set on and around the only other set of stairs. Wood burned but didn’t ignite. The designers of the Academy weren’t so stupid as to make the building well and truly flammable.
That said, while I imagined the wood had been treated to make it less likely, I wasn’t sure it was impossible for a proper blaze to take hold. If it was only the surface of the wood that was treated, or only the floorboards, then there was a risk.
They’d left us no apparent way up, short of quenching the fire.
If it weren’t for the windows that seemed to be everywhere, I might have said it was the best possible environment for our enemy to be fighting in. Too many avenues for access and escape. Two strides in any direction meant passing a door that a ghost could be lurking behind.
I could see Gordon, further down the hallway, using a knife to cut what must have been a wire. Through the windows that looked into and out of the rooms at the center of the building.
I continued to play my glass violin, watching, trying to get a sense of what the enemy was doing.
Gordon shifted his grip on his knife. He raised his free hand, giving Helen the signal.
Yet he hadn’t budged.
I passed information to the soldiers further downstairs. They moved up to our position, we moved to Helen’s-
A woman in an Academy uniform stepped out of the doorway just behind where Helen had been standing. She was so fast in turning up that she must have been only a stride away from Helen, separated by the door and doorframe.
She was silent, graceful, and only momentarily acknowledged our existence with a glance before approaching Helen’s back.
“Helen!” I shouted. A white-knuckle grip on my knife, I raked the blade against the glass of the portrait, cracking the glass. I saw the woman falter.
Jamie threw a knife. It hit the woman in the lower back, right where the kidneys ought to be.
Helen was turning, and as the ghost stumbled forward, Helen wrapped her arms around her in a hug. The two of them tumbled to the ground. Helen let the ghost’s hand swipe at her face, and a stripe of crimson marked Helen’s chin.
Helen lay on top of the ghost. As the ghost tried to sit up, Helen slid up, forehead coming down, ass going up, standing on the woman’s pelvis on tiptoes so the entirety of her body weight was pressing down on the woman’s head. Her hands slapped out, grabbing for the woman’s wrists. She brought her head up, and slowly but surely, she brought the woman’s arms across her chest, until the arms formed an ‘x’, breasts squished together between them.
Another shift of grip, reversing her hold on the ghost’s wrists, and the arms were now being strained, the hard end of one elbow pressing against the hard end of the other, both straining the wrong way. The woman bucked and tried to throw herself to one side to hurl Helen off, but Helen’s feet went out, bracing on the floor to either side.
As bone and cartilage audibly cracked, Helen let the destroyed arm fall, grabbing the other in two hands. One twist and maneuver, and she twisted the shoulder from the socket. The woman reacted, twisting and struggling to pull away, and Helen brought the dislocated arm up and around, strangling the woman with her own arm, while the arm with the broken elbow flopped ineffectually.
More ghosts were coming from the other end of the hall, no doubt reacting to the screams. Gordon to the right of us, a herd of ghosts to the left.
I signaled for the soldiers below us. Move up. Hurry.
Jamie was only a half-step behind me as I made a beeline for Helen. I saw the blade jutting out of the woman’s back and kicked it, driving it in as deep as it would go, before stabbing with my own knife. Helen glanced at me over her shoulder as I stabbed over and over, taking advantage of how Helen was holding the woman still. One after another, the slices went between the ribs.
“I know,” I said. “I know we promised! We’ll let you have fun another time!”
I gave the woman one last stab before turning to face the assailants.
They were gone.
Too many doors here. Too easy for them to fade away.
Helen had moved up to Gordon, and was crouched at his side, while he was crouched over himself. The soldiers were at the top of the stairs, weapons out, on the alert.
My portrait was cracked. I decided to make use of the windows that were so omnipresent here.
I reached for one with my knife, and it shattered a moment before I got there. I reached for the next nearest one, and saw a shadow of movement on the other side. I pulled away instead, before she could lash out or grab me.
Windows at the end of the hallway opposite Gordon broke. Then, like a cascade effect, they began to break one by one, the progression leading in Gordon’s direction. Thrown objects and coordinated movement. We’d let our guard down, and we hadn’t been keeping up the sharp noises to throw them off.
No, Jamie had.
They were getting used to it.
Now they were removing the options, they were heading Gordon’s way, and whatever he was saying or doing with Helen, neither of the two were moving.
No, I thought. I was falling into the sway of things. Under pressure, time cut short by the threat of the fire, I was taking mental shortcuts and jumping to conclusions.
Leading the eye one way, while acting to take advantage of an enemy with their backs turned.
I signaled, touching my chest, then raising my hand, changing the angle-
Jamie and I turned simultaneously. Lillian gave the order. “Turn left and fire!”
The ghosts were only just stepping out of doorways as we turned around and the words left Lillian’s mouth. They moved as if it had been the plan all along, leaping for cover.
The stitched with the guns fired. In the enclosed space, my ears already ringing from the sound of glass breaking, the gunfire was as violent a sound as I’d ever heard. Bullets punctured the walls below each window, they penetrated doors, and they broke the smaller branches off of the window frames that no longer had glass in them.
“Stop!” Lillian shouted.
The stitched ceased firing, though they hurried to fix up and reload their guns.
“Did we get ’em?” Jamie asked. He backed away a step.
“I smell blood,” Helen said. “Got some.”
I hoped there weren’t any people hiding in those offices and in that end of the library. Or that we hadn’t just executed people who the ghosts had left behind. Too big a chance that some were slowly bleeding out but not yet dead.
No, I had to stay focused.
Fixate on the enemy, Sy. They know what we’re doing as we do it. What’s their counterplay?
I spun around.
I saw nothing beyond the two Lambs. The pair were still hunched over. Helen was crouched over like she was prepared to pounce at any second.
These ghosts follow rules. Move away from danger. Capitalize on the weak.
There was no easy passage between the offices that were set against the external walls of the building. There was passage between the library, conference room and the tea room.
“Lil! Jamie!” I shouted. “Play me a song!”
“What?” Lillian asked me. “And don’t call me Lil!”
But Jamie was already showing her how he was using the knife on the glass.
I was halfway to Gordon and Helen when the stitched began rubbing glass against bayonet blades, the edges of the broken shards of glass cutting into fingers. A cacophony of discordant sound.
Where are they? How are they moving?
As I got closer to the tea room, I could see through the window and make out where furniture was.
I raised a hand, warning, not looking at Gordon and Helen.
Then gestured. Stop.
“Stop!” Lillian called out.
The stitched obeyed.
My footsteps slapped against wood. One step, two steps, three steps.
Another signal. Go!
“No! Start! Use the glass!” Lillian gave the order.
Another step, as the sound resumed, audible even to me, scratching and screeching.
I took one more step, then dropped, sliding on the floor as I reversed direction, my shoulder, side and hip touching the wall beneath the window.
I headed for a door I’d already passed, grabbing the frame as I slipped into the tea room.
A full six of them were there, crouched, poised, waiting, using furniture and the low wall beneath the window to hide, each of them in the position a sprinter maintained pre-run. All amid chairs and round tables, each table furnished with kettles and little bowls of tea bags. There were pastries and baked goods here and there on plates.
With the cacophony of noise affecting their clarity of echolocation, it took them a full second to register my approach, as I threw myself at the full group of them.
Knife in hand, blade pointing down, I swung down and at an angle. I nearly lost the knife as it caught on the front of one of the ghost’s throats.
I’m shit in a fight, but that’s all the more reason to keep it from being one.
As fast as I’d been to get close to them, I reversed direction, heading for the door. I threw the knife, and this time, I was pleased to note, the person I was throwing at had to move to avoid getting hit.
I was in such a hurry to get out of the tea room that I fell over on passing through the threshold of the door. I watched the ghost I’d cut gurgle. She clutched at the wound on her throat and she wasn’t able to stop the blood from flowing out.
They rose up as if they were buoyed by some force I couldn’t see, puppets on strings, or stitched in the first moment they were given power, all as one, a collective. Each and every one bristled with hostility, the stress of the glass noises clear in their faces.
I rolled to one side, so they could no longer see me through the doorway, expecting them to come lunging out, swarming atop me.
I met Gordon and Helen’s eyes. I grinned. “Got one. Using their own damn tactics against them.”
No congratulations seemed to be in order. Gordon’s expression was tight, and Helen’s expression was dead.
“What?” I asked.
She gestured, and it was a signal I hadn’t seen before, though the meaning was clear. Fingers crossed, she touched her heart.
Dog had mentioned it. Gordon had gone ahead.
I nearly snarled with the emotions that hit me then. Instead, I made a face, turning away, reaching for another knife.
“Sorry,” Gordon said. “I’m sucking right now.”
“You always suck, Gordon,” I said. “At least you have an excuse this time.”
“You’re an ass, Sy,” he said.
“And you’re broken. But tomorrow you’ll be fixed and I’ll still be an ass, so there.”
“That’s not how that goes, Sy,” Gordon said.
The ghosts still hadn’t attacked. I had to judge what they were doing.
“…And I don’t know how fixable this is,” he said. “They implied this was my last heart. Adding another is going to tax my body too much. I-”
“Enough of that,” I cut him off. My voice was tense. “No. Job to do.”
Figuring out where the ghosts were went hand in hand with figuring out why they hadn’t retaliated. I figured both out as I looked back to check on Lillian and Jamie.
The Duke. He’d emerged at the top of the stairs.
Everyone else, stitched included, was crouched over, keeping low to the ground. It made us all harder to see, and it meant the enemy couldn’t reach through a broken window to attack or grab. The Duke didn’t care about either. He stood tall, surveying the situation.
“You’ve stopped,” he said, his voice carrying down the hall.
“Fire in the way, and we’re kind of busy killing these guys and trying not to die,” I said, the words escaping my lips.
“Sy,” Gordon said, voice soft.
But I saw the change in the Duke’s expression. He approached, footsteps heavy and swift, coat moving behind him. I had the impression of an onrushing train, and I was stuck on the tracks.
It was a ghost that saved me. She approached from the room with the table, leaping through the shattered window, straight for the Duke.
He saw her and he turned, one hand reaching out. She contorted in the air, twisting just out of his reach, before landing on the wooden floorboards with both hands and both feet.
The Duke drew his sword and cut in the same motion. She slipped out of the way of that strike as well.
His pistol fired without even leaving the holster. His hand had come down, he’d pressed the hammer down and adjusted the angle, while touching the trigger in the same motion. She’d already danced to one side. He fired twice more from the hip, before drawing the pistol and firing three more times. At the end of the hall, Jamie and Lillian threw themselves flat to the ground to avoid getting hit by one of the stray bullets. Lillian shrieked.
“Hm,” the Duke made an amused sound. He sheathed his sword, then reached to his belt before sliding bullets into his pistol. The ghost took the opportunity to duck through a doorway, running through the conference room with its long table and many chairs.
“You see what we’re up against, my lord,” I said.
“I do see,” he said. He drew closer, and put one finger under my chin. He offered only the lightest touch, but I still rose to my feet. He spoke, “I also heard the insolence in your tone. I’ll remember it.”
My heart skipped a beat in time with the click of his pistol, as he closed it up and cocked the hammer, just a foot from my head. He tossed it into the air and caught it with his other hand.
Then, so suddenly I wasn’t sure I’d processed it right, he grabbed one of the sections of window frame with only scant glass shards remaining, and carried through on the movement to hurl it violently across the tea room. It crashed through the window there.
I only barely saw the ghost move, abandoning her cover where she’d been standing. The Duke’s arm was already extended, pistol pointing. In the eyeblink the ghost’s head was visible, he put a bullet through it.
“Hm,” he made that amused sound again.
He walked past me, and he did it in a roundabout way that had the pistol in his hand touch my face. It traced along cheekbone, catching on the ridge of my nose, and then stopping there, between my eyes, before he moved on. He was tall enough he didn’t even need to move his arm or change the angle of his wrist to do it. His arm hanging down at his side put his hand at eye level for me.
“I heard you say that you killed the one,” he said, as he walked away, “Lying on the floor, throat cut?”
“Sy isn’t normally-” Gordon started.
“You’re not the one I asked.”
“I am, lord,” I said. I figured formalities couldn’t hurt, given circumstances.
There was no response, nor any explanation over the question. Or perhaps the question was the response.
“The fire is barring your way?” he asked. He wasn’t asking me, Gordon, or Helen. He was talking to Jamie and Lillian.
“Yes, my lord,” Jamie said.
“I see,” the man said. He stepped into the conference room.
Helen and I gave Gordon a hand in standing, and I was a little surprised at how much help he needed. He was sweating a little.
As a trio, we approached. I could see Mary at the center of the group, with Jamie and Lillian. She looked better than Gordon did.
Wood scraped against wood, a haunting, awful sound. The long table looked like it could sit eighteen, the wood of the tabletop two inches thick and very probably dense. Rather than legs, it had boards of the same thickness at two ends, poised diagonally. The Duke pushed it across the floor, out the double doors on the far end of the conference room, until it sat beside the fire that stood between us and the stairs.
Broad shoulders strained as he tilted it. The table fell on its side. Another turn, and it landed upside-down. The heavy table’s top squashed the fire and sent licks of the flaming chemical dancing over hardwood.
He raised his pistol and fired down the length of the hall, toward the tea room.
“Gordon,” I said. “Stay with Mary.”
“Yeah,” he said.
The Duke turned to set his eyes on us.
We wasted no time. The herd of stitched followed, with Lillian at the fore of the group with two handlers and Gordon and Mary at the rear.
As I passed the Duke, stepping on the underside of the table, he moved. He didn’t remain with Mary, this time, but fell into step, just behind me, with Helen to our left and Jamie to our right.
I looked back at the others, for feedback, or clarity. As if someone could provide some sanity to this mad situation. Instead, I saw the shadow of a ghost moving across the hall, in the direction of the opposite stairwell.
There was no firebomb waiting for us this time. A good thing, considering Jamie and I were doused in flammable chemicals. We reached the third floor of the building, and came face to face with stitched. None of the four were armed. None even appeared hostile.
But each one had a conspicuous hole in its midsection. Intestines scooped out, they had empty cavities within, large enough to hide a human head inside. Some cavities had different shapes to them, as if they’d settled around whatever they’d been holding.
That was a bad thing, as things went.
We’d been assuming she had something small, for her countermeasure.
“The Duke,” Avis’ voice carried. “Should I be honored?”
“This will go easier if you’ll turn yourself in,” the Duke said.
“I sincerely doubt that. I’m doomed.”
“You are,” the man said. “But your extended family doesn’t need to be. I know you have a sister.”
“I already sent the bird out. Whoever you send, whatever message you try to get to your subordinates, it’ll be too late. She’ll be gone.”
“I’ll have to get creative, it seems.”
“So it seems,” Avis said.
Her voice sounded sad.
“You know you can’t kill me,” the Duke said, as he stepped into the hallway. He very casually put a sword through the throat of one stitched, then swiped it to one side, beheading the other three.
“I can try.”
“Hm,” the Duke made an amused sound.
I replayed her voice in my head, those last three words, and I couldn’t say why, but I suspected she didn’t believe she had a chance.
“I’ve been preparing for this eventuality for years,” Avis said.
“I’ve been prepared for any eventuality since birth,” the Duke said, very quietly. “You’re building something.”
“Built. It’s done.”
“No it’s not. You’re biding your time,” he said. He advanced further into the third floor.
The Lambs, too, climbed a little higher. I could see across the floor, now. A lot of open space. There were few walls, and the floor sat in a depression, the staggered steps down doubling as seats or benches, with pillows here and there.
A social area.
“I’m done building,” she said. “I’m just having a drink. It’s taking a few goes to get all of it down.”
“A combat drug,” Lillian whispered.
“Whatever you need to do,” the Duke said. He smiled, as he picked his way around the staggered steps. He leaned his head one way, to try and look beyond the wall that only extended partway down the room. “I’m hoping for a good contest.”
“Contest?” Avis asked, and her voice sounded different. “Never.”
It was an echo of a thought that had passed through my head as I’d cut the ghost’s throat.
I didn’t even see the catalyst. The depression in the floor ignited, the deepest part filling up with fire, clearly filled with an odorless accelerant of some kind. Stripes of flame swept up the stairs to each corner of the room, separating it into four quadrants, the Duke cut off from us.
The sound of glass shattering and the roar of flame below us suggested our retreat was being cut off.
I fought to keep my breathing under control, my thoughts in focus, and the sound didn’t help in the slightest. The Duke was chuckling, and the chuckle became a laugh. He stood with flames within feet of him, arms spread, weapons in hand.
We didn’t even matter. This fight, this scenario, it was all for him.