The room had been built and grown in such a way that the furniture was an extension of the room, rather than an addition to it. The only walls that weren’t exterior walls were standalone, decorative more than anything, with benches built into them, facing tables. Nothing we could lift up to copy the Duke’s trick and form a bridge over fire.
Not that I necessarily felt confident, with the sparks flying around.
None of the walls were connected to any others. They might have been once, with walls removed as this part of the building was repurposed; an octagon with the diagonals removed.
Two of the walls separated the staircases on either side of the floor from the main area; I was looking past one to see the sea of fire in the center of the room. The other two walls did much the same thing for rooms on the north and south faces of the building, with balconies extending those rooms. The two rooms served for private conversation, and one of them was a hiding spot for our quarry.
All that said, we were the cornered ones.
I pulled off my shirt, backing away from the scene until my back was to a wall. I balled my shirt up in my hands, my eyes fixed on the Duke.
“Lillian,” I said, my voice only loud enough to be heard over crackling flames, “Do you have anything that will make me not flammable?”
“Focus! I’ve got stuff on me. Chemical, right? How do I make it so I don’t burst into flame the second a spark touches me?”
“I don’t know! That’s not exactly part of what we study!”
“Stitched overseer guys. You don’t have any junk you can pour on any of your soldiers that go up in flames?”
“It exists,” one of the men in charge of the stitched said. “We don’t carry it all the time. Cans are heavy.”
I scowled, irritated.
“But if it’s chemical,” Lillian said, “We can try a dry soap. I can’t promise, but-”
“Do it!” I barked. “Me and Jamie. Before this gets worse.”
“Those floorboards,” Gordon commented. His face looked drawn, especially in the light of the fire. “They’re burning.”
My eyes moved to the area he was looking at. Sure enough, the floorboards were catching fire.
Every second floorboard.
“She modified the room,” I spoke the realization aloud. “Maybe the building.”
The Duke turned his head, noting our presence, and I saw a smile on his face. He was cast in hues of orange and crimson, tall enough that the top of his head touched the smoke that was concentrating at the center of the ceiling and slowly creeping out toward the edges.
He leaped from a standing position, and the wall in front of us broke my line of sight.
He’d crossed the pool of fire. Approaching the other end of the building.
I saw figures in the shadows.
“Ghosts!” Jamie called out.
“I know,” the Duke said. But he ignored them, approaching the northernmost wall.
Ghosts crept nearer. The room didn’t offer much cover, and they didn’t seem to know how to use the fire or smoke for cover. It wasn’t physical enough for their senses to process.
Still, there were five ghosts there, and possibly two more we couldn’t see, if I was keeping count right. I probably wasn’t keeping count right.
The Duke stepped around the wall, pistol going out, and fired four times. A large, dark shape darted out, passing around the far end of that wall, leaping well over the wall of flame that cut across her path.
Fast, agile. That would be the combat drug.
“Okay,” Lillian said. She approached me, bottle in hand. She was shaking it. “Who’s first?”
“Sy,” Jamie said, at the same time I said, “Jamie.”
He gave me an annoyed look.
“Me, then,” I said. Jamie was impossible to get through to when he got stubborn, and with him being in a strange way of thinking, I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be worse than usual.
With my shirt already off, Lillian was able to rub the ‘dry soap’ on me. It had a consistency like clay, it burned a little, and it had gritty bits that made it scratch as much as anything.
I clenched my teeth and endured, watching, trying to figure out what Avis was doing.
As she rounded the end of the wall that was furthest from us, I could get a better view of her.
She’d altered herself to the point that she looked more experiment than human. Four white-feathered wings framed her.
Her hair, skin and clothing were dusted white, too – she’d covered herself in a powder, and much of it had been concentrated on her head. The effects of the combat drug were obvious. Her muscles were strained tight, and it included her face and neck. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, her lips parted to show teeth and gums that were too red. The bloodshot edges of her eyes and the crimson of her flushed lips were slices of red in an otherwise pale, powder-mottled complexion.
She’d taken off her lab coat, and wore a top that consisted only of a bit of cloth and straps to hold it in place. The same straps that held her harness on provided a little bit more security in binding the set of wings to her back. The feathers were slick with fresh blood, and that blood had been covered with more powder in turn. Bony, insectile limbs reached around her, hooking into flesh of rib and breast. At her shoulder, one had been shattered, a bullet grazing flesh, leaving the point of the limb embedded in flesh, the other end twitching.
Moving quickly, low to the ground, wings folded close to her back, she leaped through flame. The feathers didn’t ignite, and she didn’t react to any burn she might have sustained.
The Duke was a matter of steps behind her. She was faster, she was more agile, and she was apparently fireproof, or fire resistant. She could presumably fly, or she’d been able to, before the one hook had been damaged by a bullet.
She wants to run, to fly, I thought. I tucked my shirt into the crook of my elbow, took some of the soap-sludge from Lillian, and rubbed it into my skin. I smeared a blob of it into the leg of my shorts, where some of the chemical had showered down on me. I couldn’t tell if I’d gotten all of it, so I merely took more soap and smeared it on over. I hoped it would be a layer of protection, and that I wouldn’t have to kick off my pants.
“What are we doing?” Helen asked.
“Thinking,” I said.
“Think aloud, Sy,” Gordon said, “Communicate.”
“I’m not- I will as soon as I have something to say.”
The Duke’s gun fired twice. He hurdled one six-foot wall of fire with seemingly no problem, landing on the bench by the western wall, opposite us. He called out as he picked his way across it, closing the distance, “You gave yourself wings, Avis. Why don’t you fly?”
“You know why,” she said.
She was so close to us. Five or six paces. Three, and I could have possibly had an angle to throw a knife at her.
The ghosts crept closer to the duke, staying just out of arm’s reach. He didn’t seem to pay much attention to them, except to hold one sword out in the direction of the nearest one, so the woman would run herself through if she lunged.
“I could promise to hold my fire,” the Duke said. “I’m good for my word.”
There was no answer from Avis.
I followed the Duke’s line of thought to its natural conclusion. She doesn’t want to fly because she’ll be a sitting duck in the air, without cover. She knows how good a shot the Duke is.
Was she capable of diving for speed and to put more distance between her and any shooter, using the balcony itself for cover, or rounding the corner of the building?
Maybe she was, but the building was surrounded with soldiers.
How bad did things have to get here, before she was willing to risk death by bullet over a death by fire?
Gordon was saying something to one of the men in charge of the stitched. The men then turned, moved through the ranks of the stitched, communicating to a few at a time. Rifles were raised and pointed in Avis’ direction.
To stay out of the line of fire, I bent down. Lillian started rubbing the soap across my bare back, then along the belt-line of my shorts, where some of the chemical had no doubt trickled down and soaked in.
I gave serious consideration to going into this confrontation naked, just to be safe. The look I imagined on Lillian’s face was the first thing to bring me near a smile since the conversation with Jamie.
“Sy,” Mary cut into the thought.
“I want to come. You’re going to say I can’t, but-”
“You can’t,” I said.
“Mary,” Gordon jumped in. “Do you really think you can hurdle six feet of fire?”
“I don’t think they can, so that’s a moot point!”
“We can,” I said. “You can’t. Not with that injury.”
“Painkiller,” she said.
“No,” I told her. “No. Stay there, have knives ready. If ghosts come for us, aim for the ones who are busy dodging something else.”
Fire continued to spread along floorboards. A great ‘x’ had been cut into the room, and the space between the lines of that ‘x’ were filling in. The flames remained small, but they were gaining traction.
What did it take to change the flooring in the room? She controls all communication out of Claret Hall. Did she ask for a work order to be modified? Did a crew of stitched put in flammable floorboards under the noses of professors, doctors, and wealthy clients of the Academy?
How many small ways had she found to sabotage the lot of us? Was she the reason our enemies had been so well informed on the Lambs? The four humors had been pretty up to date.
The Duke had to pick his way across the room more carefully as the fire took over more of the area. He took a step to one side as flame touched one of the cushions a matter of feet from the Duke, only for the cushion to explode in a violent roll of fire.
A ghost appeared, airborne, taking advantage of the Duke’s turned back. She landed astride his shoulders, and, so quickly it looked like I’d missed something, she began slamming a knife into the side of his neck, once, twice, three times.
He tossed his sword down, reached back, and grabbed her.
She slammed the knife deep into his face once, as he hauled her around in front of him.
One-handed, he tossed her into the pool of fire at the center of the room.
The Duke made that amused sound. He turned, a little overdramatically, his coat sweeping out around behind him. His eyes were wide, the heavy lines in his face catching the light and shadow of the fire and smoke, the veneer of humanity no longer visible. The gaping wound in his cheek wasn’t helping matters.
He spat out what looked like a full mouthful of blood, directly at the flame. It hissed in response.
That much blood, the knife had to have gouged the roof of his mouth.
“Reminds me of home,” he called out, to Avis. His voice was different, with the wound. He spat again.
“You’re done,” Lillian told me, slapping my back. “I can’t promise-”
“I know,” I said. I didn’t waste a second. “Helen!”
Helen and I left Jamie behind.
Walls with heavy decoration carved into them meant handholds and footholds. I signaled Helen, then interlaced my fingers.
With a running start, she stepped into my hand. I hauled her up as best as I could.
Virtually any combination of us would have been better than Helen and I, for this particular trick. Gordon in particular could have gotten Helen up as high as she needed. Mary was more adroit. I would have had Helen boost me up, but her strength worked differently, it didn’t add up to me being able to add her lifting strength to my leaping strength.
I got her up to the point that only her foot and ankle were touched by flame before she managed to climb up another step. I double checked she wasn’t slipping before stepping away.
What served as a running start for me were moments where Helen was closer to the ceiling, where smoke was thicker, perched on the wall directly above the open fire. Seared by heat, she nonetheless found footholds, one handhold, and extended a hand my way.
Time to see if the soap worked, I thought.
I adjusted my grip on the bundle of chemical-soaked cloth, then ran.
I was quick, I was lightweight, and I was spry.
I approached the wall in front of Helen, running full-tilt. I leaped, touching foot to the wall for extra leverage, and reached her hand.
I felt the intensity of the heat as she helped swing me over the fire. I only barely missed landing at the edge of the fire, and the moment I realized I’d touched safer ground was spoiled as burning floorboards cracked under my weight.
I reached out for Helen. She lunged off the wall in my direction, and I grabbed her, half-throwing, half-pushing her away. We sprawled across the floor, rolling over floorboards that licked with only small amounts of flame.
Avis was perched on the balcony, adjusting straps from her dress to tie them to her wing. In front of us, a ghost materialized from around the corner of the balcony. She approached us, a weapon in either hand.
I reached for my last knife, and then hesitated.
“She’s running!” I shouted. “Can I stop her!?”
I saw Avis’ muscles tense.
“Do,” the Duke said.
I hurled the knife.
It caught Avis dead-center in the back. It didn’t sink in point-first, but the side of the blade did hit.
Wings and limbs spasmed. She did too, her back arching, already tense muscles visibly twitching and pulling so tight they kinked up. I worried she’d tumble forward off the balcony and onto the soldiers waiting below.
Whatever it was she was wearing, it was akin to a large bug, running parallel to her spine. I’d injured it, but I shouldn’t have hurt Avis herself.
Hooked into her nervous system.
The ghost that had stepped out was drawing nearer to Helen and I. I’d just thrown away my last weapon. There was only the bundled-up shirt, which had touched fire and ignited.
Helen and I fought to get to a standing position, an awkward process with growing stripes of flame here and there on the floor.
“Sy!” Lillian cried out. “You’re on fire!”
I looked. Sure enough, a section of my shorts was burning. I’d completely failed to notice, with the oppressive heat from the fire behind me.
I slapped at it with my hand, to little effect.
The ghost drew near, swift, picking and choosing where she stepped.
Touching the toe of my shoe to the bundled up shirt, I kicked up, directing it in the general direction of the ghost’s head. A fireball.
She sidestepped it in an awkward way, burning cloth brushing past her face, briefly disorienting her. I wasn’t sure if it was that the cloth was burning or the unsteady footing that led to the mistake.
It left Helen and I with no weapon to throw or use for self defense. The fire was so close I could have sworn my back was breaking open in blisters.
I reached into a pocket. Spare change.
I flung it at her.
This, she didn’t even try to dodge. It touched her and danced off, clattering to the floor.
She stumbled to a stop. She straightened, partially turning, and I could see the knife in her chest.
Good job, Mary, I thought.
But, lethal as the knife should have been, the ghost didn’t stop. She stumbled forward, and the stumble became a run.
I pushed Helen against the wall, while I stepped out, parallel to the line of flame. The ghost decided to go for Helen, grabbing her, and using forward momentum to carry her directly into fire. The two stumbled into the blaze together.
I was only a step behind, not quite entering the flame, but getting close enough it hurt. I couldn’t see, the heat itself stealing away my ability to see as much as the smoke did, I could only intuit, lashing out as best as I could.
I kicked the knee. That knee buckled, and the ghost toppled. I grabbed her, tearing her down toward the ground as much as I did anything. Burned floorboards creaked precariously under her weight as she crashed down.
Helen reached over the ghost, seizing my shoulders, fingernails digging in for a grip. Unable to reach into fire, I instead hauled myself -and her- away and back, throwing the two of us to the ground for the second time.
She wasn’t as burned as I’d thought she’d be, but it was bad. Hair singed, skin burned across virtually every part of her that I could see, her dress was scorched, barely intact.
She wheezed for breath, starting to rise, then dropping, writhing until she found a position where she wasn’t touching burning floor.
I stood, grabbing her. I hauled on her arm, and I wasn’t strong enough to budge her.
The wheezing seemed to be getting worse by the second, and I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or if it was the reality. It filled my ears, drowning out everything else, even the sound of the Duke’s pistol shots.
I turned my attention to Avis.
She had recovered from the spasming. One wing already lay curled up on the floor, folded into itself by way of far too many joints, a feathery, bloodstained ball. As I watched, she hauled on the matching, smaller wing, tearing it out of the socket. It curled up like the other had, the pair of them like legs of a dead spider furling beneath it.
She flexed her remaining pair of wings, glancing my way. She backed away a little, I let go of Helen’s hand to approach.
“How many of you are left?” she asked.
“Enough,” I said.
“Is it worth it?” she asked. “Working for them?”
“I’m not working for them,” I said. “Not this time.”
Her eyebrows went up.
“The kids you killed to make those ghosts of yours.”
“They’re not ghosts,” she said. “They’re alive.”
“It’s a name,” I said, annoyed, angry she was going on about stupid garbage when my friends were hurt and in danger.
“No,” she told me. “They’re alive. The children you say we killed.”
“There’s no way to bring clones up to speed as fast as we did without a shortcut, Sylvester,” Avis said. “The bodies were material. The brains? It wasn’t much different from making a stitched. Keep the essentials.”
I thought of what Mary had said about the other Percy.
That he wasn’t him, the little things were different.
Tics. Muscle memory, way of standing, way of walking.
I believed her.
“The children? You’ve been killing them, not us,” Avis said.
“No,” I said. “You took the part that mattered.”
Something cracked as the fire ate away at structural integrity. There was a violent snap, and something tumbled.
“If you jump,” I said, “Then I’m jumping after you. I’m going to grab your wings. I don’t think they’re strong enough to carry both of us.”
“There are reasons,” the Duke said, “We haven’t yet made man fly.”
He’d emerged, stepping around the other end of the wall. He, Avis and I formed a proper triangle, with Avis at the balcony.
“At best, four wings and some vigorous flapping, she could glide. Two wings? She can hope to try and control her spiral to the ground. With luck, she’d even avoid the worst of the bullets and find a place to run from. With a Lamb latched onto you, Avis, you’ll plummet.”
“He might not catch hold of me on his way down.”
My gaze was cold. “I’m willing to try.”
Something told me she believed me.
“Will we have our duel after all?” the Duke asked. “I’ve been handicapped. I was stabbed no less than thirteen times. One pole of some sort was thrust through my leg.”
He barely showed it, though blood ran down his clothing and dripped from a few spots here and there. There was a steady and unbroken stream of blood trailing down from the wound in his cheek to the edge of his chin, where it carried on.
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.”
“I can’t imagine any sort of true satisfaction,” the Duke said. He was smiling. He spread his arms, and he looked like the giant of a man he was, especially in contrast to Avis’ frail form. “A snack of a conflict, rather than a meal.”
“With all due respect, my lord,” I said, not taking my eyes off Avis- I fully expected her to make the leap at any second. I said, “Where the heck are you taking in your meals?”
“I don’t,” he said. “Not here. But home? I’ve always sparred with my brothers and sister. That’s a meal.”
“You’re making this out to be something trivial?” Avis asked, eyes narrowed.
“You are trivial,” the Duke said, with the confidence that nothing else was even possible.
She shook her head. “You’re everything that’s wrong with the world.”
I glanced back at Helen. The fire wasn’t too near her. I wondered if it was even possible to talk to the Duke and ask him to move her.
“You were lucky enough to grow up in a world my family created, Avis,” the Duke said. “One where you haven’t seen the true ugliness of mankind, and you can actually believe what you just said.”
“Even before the Crown became what it is, before Wollstone, the world got better, decade after decade, century after century. The people of the world were happier, healthier and longer-lived than those who came before. From stone age to bronze age to iron age-”
“And then the dark age,” the Duke said.
She shook her head. “No. We were still progressing. We had a way forward. The age of machinery, then the age of blood. The last age, where we look inward. But you’ve perverted it. You’ve made it about power, for you. Powerlessness for everyone else. Ask your people, the ones who serve the Crown, and three out of five will tell you you’re wrong, you’re loathed. The other one or two out of five, I’m not sure they’re just too scared to say it out loud. Your wars, your breaches of everything that’s right-”
“Is temporary,” I cut in, without thinking.
The Duke gave me a look, his chin rising a fraction.
“In this, we might agree, Sylvester,” she said. She fixed her eyes on the Duke. “The Crown is a temporary power. It has to be.”
“No,” I said. “No, not like that. You’re wrong about something. The age of blood isn’t the last one. There’s a final expanse. The mind, the brain. Once we unravel that, we’ll be able to see a way through.”
“Of course you’d say that.”
“Of course of course!” I said. I allowed myself a half second to wish I had the Wyvern formula to help me better formulate my rebuttals. “I know how stupid people are! I can see it in half the people I talk to, I veer from stupidity to brilliance! I know! We have to be patient. We have to keep from destroying ourselves in the meantime. We have to keep the likes of you from destroying them.”
From destroying us.
I thought of Helen, of the others, beaten, battered, and in danger.
“That’s how you justify yourself? That’s really how you see it?”
“You’re such a child,” she said.
“With the abilities of an adult,” I said.
“A far cry from being adult,” she said. She heaved out a sigh, wings flexing. “I don’t think I have many ways out.”
“You never did,” the Duke said.
“I’ll chance being shot. If you want to catch me on the way down, feel free to try.”
Then she started to topple backward over the railing. The Duke lifted his pistol, aiming skyward, rather than shooting.
I bolted, running.
I felt rather than saw the movement of the knife, just to my left.
It raked her shoulder, and it caught her wing. Feathers and fire-resistant powder flew into the air. I saw her eyes, already wide and bloodshot, go wider.
I dropped, throwing myself forward. I reached past the rails of the railing, grabbing-
I seized a strap of her top with both hands. Her weight dragged me forward, my head and ribs slamming into the rails. I managed to keep my grip.
“Let me go,” she said. Her fingernails bit into my arm. “Let. Go!”
My fingers started to give. She was lighter than she should’ve been, more modifications, no doubt, but I wasn’t strong. I felt a pain in my hands that suggested they’d be hurting for days.
And then the burden was lifted.
“Power, and powerlessness, hm?” I heard the Duke speak, close.
The Duke loomed over me. He grabbed her as she kicked and fought, and held her so she was face to face with him. An angel with the face of a demon and a demon with the face of an angel.
She’d enhanced her strength with the combat drug, but for purposes far from fighting the Duke. Only to fly, or to make the attempt. She wasn’t up to fighting the Duke, even as he drew a syringe from one pocket and plunged it into her neck.
I disengaged myself from the railing, clutching hands to my chest. I turned to face the burning building interior.
It hadn’t been Mary to throw the knife that injured the wing, but Jamie. He was at the edge of the balcony now, standing by Helen’s body, and by Lillian, who was tending to Helen. They had to have crossed the fire the same way Helen and I did.
Surprising, on a number of levels.
Helen was breathing. She was alive. With Lillian there, she’d stay alive.
“Good enough,” the Duke said. He was smiling like he’d just had the time of his life. The fact that Claret Hall was burning down hardly mattered. He raised his voice, loud enough for the crowd below and the pair’s sensitive ears to hear, halfway around the building, “Dog, Catcher! The Lambs need a way down!”
He reached out with a free hand and touched the top of my head as he passed by, entering the building to collect the other Lambs and workers.
Jamie and I stared at the surreal image. When we could no longer see him, his body cloaked by smoke and fire, there was a moment where we were supposed to speak, to look at each other, to joke.
I felt the absence of that moment keenly.