We rode on the back of a wagon, bumping and jostling as much as the twelve or so crates that were stacked back there with our luggage. The crates had straps keeping them in place, which I envied. My hands were already cramping up, and we weren’t even halfway to our destination.
On either side of the wagon, soldiers were standing with the toes of their boots wedged between two rails, holding onto straps. Smaller warbeasts walked alongside, more like jungle cats in proportion and fluidity of movement, and squadrons of stitched marched doubletime in front of and behind us.
It was dusk, but the city was well lit – the neighborhood-scale bonfire notwithstanding. Brechwell was an interesting city in terms of layout. Radham had developed an Academy first, the city following naturally, with the Crown and Academy both taking a periodic hand to the development of that city in stages, as needs developed. It was loose, a design I’d often likened to a living body, every part having a purpose, or to a tree, pruned now and again, parts cut away or used for resources as needed, be it the tree-like growths that supported structures, entire neighborhoods, or even sweeping districts of the city.
Those parts of Radham were sloppy, though, the result of a long series of successful accidents, the mistakes done away with. Brechwell was the opposite, in a way. It had been a military base first, and the Academy had been plopped down on top of it at a later point, the Academy adapting to the needs of the city and the area.
The streets were winding, just wide enough for two carts to pass side by side, very occasionally twisting to pass other under streets, through short tunnels that had portcullis gates at either end. Buildings were made up predominantly of stone, with only aesthetic touches of vines, ivy, or branches, a stark contrast to Radham. The roads were cobblestone, neatly fit together, and segued neatly into the base of each row of buildings, leaving me feeling as if we were traveling along the lowest point of a series of deep, wide trenches.
Every surface was soaked wet by the cold rain that poured down from above. They looked alive, they looked cold, and if I unfocused my eyes, I had the vague impression that this city was reptilian. The stones akin to scales, slick with moisture. Only half of the windows were lit, and they were so small I doubted I could have crawled through them, high off the ground, and often round or narrow. I imagined the eyes of serpents, narrowed, catching the light.
Soldiers at either end of the wagon were eyeing us. We’d approached superior officers with badges in hand, and they’d agreed to escort us up. The foot soldiers hadn’t been filled in, and were wondering at the odd addition to their ranks.
We ceased going uphill, settling onto more level ground. I stopped feeling like I was going to bounce off the back of the wagon with every bump, and shifted my weight around, reaching back to hold on to a strap with one hand. My other hand reached out for Hubris’ furry head.
He didn’t react in the slightest.
Gordon, for his part, reached out to give Hubris a brief rub. The dog turned his head to better position it for Gordon’s scratches.
“If you’re going to be an honorary member of the group, you’d better learn to play nice with others, mutt,” I said.
“Maybe you just suck at giving scratches,” Gordon said. “Or he might like you better if you called him by his name.”
“Maybe you smell like a butt, but you don’t hear me bringing it up.”
He rolled his eyes.
We came to a stop in the midst of a checkpoint, and waited as a squad of soldiers checked over the wagon.
Lillian and Mary were talking, with Helen sitting nearby, listening more than participating. Rather than listen in on the secret lives of girls, I turned my attention to the front of the wagon.
The officers in charge of the group were riding up front, leaning forward as they exchanged words with the group at the checkpoint. I could only pick out segments of the conversation.
“Same as last night… four of them, led by someone different…”
“How many nights?”
“Last night…” something something “…the night before. Different types of attack.”
“Same time. The freaks from out-of-town…”
The man at the front of the wagon cut the checkpoint officer off right there. I saw him turn his head to look our way.
I raised my hand, giving a short wave.
“From Radham. They’re-”
“Yeah. The Lambs.”
The checkpoint guard lowered his voice, but I could still make it out. “Shit, I thought they’d be uglier. Shriveled? Or like small stitched?”
“Nope. Apparently they look like ordinary children.”
I watched as the search of the wagon progressed to the back. I raised my arms, feet still dangling over the end, and patiently underwent the pat-down. Mary faced a little more trouble.
“I have weapons,” Mary said, “I don’t want you to be surprised-”
“Hands on your head,” the soldier told her.
“You’re not listening to me,” Mary said, not listening. “If you pat me down and you aren’t careful, you’re going to get cut. You-”
Helen grabbed Mary’s wrists, lifting her hands up, before firmly pressing them down on top of Mary’s head.
The guard pat her down, his expression changing as he stopped mid-pat.
“I’m telling you-”
I looked from the scene to the commanding officers, who were still embroiled in a discussion. Interesting that he hadn’t called for his superior officer’s attention. What was the relationship like, there?
Let’s see if this works.
I leaned closer to the other side of the wagon, where the girls were. “Sir?”
“Quiet,” he told me, automatic, sounding tense. Grumpy fellow.
I pulled out my badge. “We’re the Lambs.”
I saw his expression change. Momentary confusion, then he pulled the particulars from memory. The uniforms who were at either side of the wagon reacted, murmuring quietly among themselves.
“Huh,” the man said. He squinted at the badge. He indicated the superior officers, “They know about this?”
“They’re discussing us right now,” I said.
“Huh,” he said. He let go of Mary, gesturing that she could put her arms down. He looked at us, giving us a concerned look.
The man in uniform who’d been patting me down commented, “I thought you’d look more like dolls or something.”
“Your boss just said something like that,” I commented. “What stories are they telling about us, anyway?”
“The slaughter in Whitney?” he asked. “Group passed through to get information on prisoners of war, brought back stories.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, that was a night.”
“And some man in Iverness? Every other bone in his body broken?”
“Don’t remember that one.”
“The Lonely Man,” Gordon said.
“That was me,” Helen said.
“Might’ve been better if we didn’t actually broadcast who we were and that we’re here,” Gordon commented, under his breath.
“They know we’re here,” I said. “If they don’t know already, then they’re so incompetent we don’t need to worry in the first place.”
“Don’t do that thing where you get in a mood and start taking chances,” Gordon said.
“I’m not. I’m being realistic.”
“Mm, yeah,” he said. Hubris nudged his arm, and he gave the dog a scratch.
“What’s with the fire?” I asked one of the soldiers. “Third attack in as many nights? Same time of day?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Except this one is bad. Everything they could set fire to, they did. Mostly stone there, but they got indoors, and floorboards are floorboards. The library is the part that’s going to hurt most.”
“Oh no!” Lillian said. “I really wanted to see the library.”
“It was overrated,” one of the soldiers said. By his badge, he was one of the ones who looked after the stitched who were lined up against the walls of the tunnel. He was young, fresh faced enough I doubted he could grow facial hair if he wanted, and kept straight, neatly-parted black hair under his military cap. “Professor Tobermory talked it up quite a bit, but it’s small, more about decoration, hunting trophies on the wall. I think anyone who had anything nice to say about it had a lot of drink pushed at them by Tobermory.”
“It was that bad?”
“Don’t know,” the man replied. “I wasn’t impressed.”
“Phooey,” Lillian said.
“You’re a student?” the young man asked. “I thought you were a Lamb.”
He nodded, taking that in. “What year?”
“Third, but my schedule is bumpy. I spend a lot of time out of school.”
“Third is impressive. Why the interest in the library? Are you working on a project?”
“I’m starting to think about it. I have to do a project next year, I don’t have a lot of free time, and I keep hearing that the subject of my project opens and closes doors, and that goes double for me, because I don’t have a lot of time to study. If I pick something, I’ll have to do research on it on my own, and then the year after-”
“You’ll want to focus on things you have some grounding in, things you researched. I ran into the same thing.”
“End goal?” he asked. “Where are you hoping you end up?”
The young man barked out a short laugh. I could see Lillian deflate a little.
“I remember when I was aiming for a black coat,” he said. “Gave up on that pretty damn fast.”
“Yeah,” Lillian said, rather less enthused than she had been a moment before.
I paid more attention to the scene. Lillian’s reaction to the man, her body language, the way she was almost wringing her hands, while sitting up straight.
She’d thought highly of him, for a very short encounter, an older boy at or nearing the end of his adolescent years, clean-faced, clever, gregarious, and he’d very casually slapped down her dream.
“It’s hard, even without the politics, the fact you need some luck, you have to innovate, break new ground in a way that turns heads. Take it from someone who took some first steps on that path, it tears you up and grinds you down.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I don’t-” Lillian started.
“Sir,” I cut in. In doing, I interrupted Mary’s conversation with another soldier, and made Hubris’ head rise. “You’re forgetting something.”
“What’s that?” the young man asked.
“She’s a Lamb. She’s very good at what she does. She already has discussions with doctors and professors on a regular basis. She’s at or near the top of her classes, and she’s doing it while we drag her away from classes and into one bad situation after another and ask her to patch us up after the fact. Becoming a professor is hard, I don’t blame you for crying uncle, sir-”
I saw him bristle at that.
I shrugged. “But she won’t give up. Not like that. I don’t see it. Nobody who’s worked with her sees that happening.”
“Agreed,” Gordon said.
The young man in uniform threw up his hands, “Wasn’t saying anything of the sort.”
“Ah, is that so?” I asked. I didn’t break eye contact, boring into his eyes with mine. “I must’ve misunderstood you. I beg your pardon, sir.”
I’d put him on the spot, more than a few eyes were on him, they saw the little dominance game, and they were anticipating his response. He was a nice guy, probably, but one who carried weight on his shoulders, his own past failures coloring his perception of things. He likely believed that becoming professor was a fool’s journey, his intent had likely been pure in saying something to steer Lillian off that path. It might even have been done with a friendly mindset, in the same way one might counsel a young friend against getting a permanent set of horns grafted onto their forehead at a back-alley doctor’s.
But who the fuck needed ‘friends’ who tore them down rather than building them up, good intentions or no?
He was frowning at me, not breaking eye contact.
I’d challenged him. Now he couldn’t ‘win’ here without a crisp retort or getting indignant. I could play off either. Backing down would be a loss, in a sense.
His eye flickered to a point behind me. He smiled, and it was a sly, smug smile, “Nothing of concern.”
Ah, his superior officer was watching. The slyness and smugness hadn’t been directed my way. He was a man who didn’t respect the man in charge.
The best thing he’d get to a draw.
“Moving!” the superior officer in charge of the Wagon called out.
Soldiers who had stepped off the rails at the side stepped back on. I reached for and grabbed a strap with a fatigued hand.
When I glanced Lillian’s way, she gave me a small smile, before turning back to Mary to resume their conversation.
That conversation was cut short. The officer in charge of the wagon spoke, his voice traveling back to us. “They’re attacking us on a schedule. Tonight’s attack was worse than the prior two. Men and women with combat stimulants, some with scarred faces and hands, some as quick and stealthy as anyone they’ve ever seen, might have been more stimulants.”
I glanced at the others, gesturing.
Don’t know. Plague men. Ghosts.
The Plague Men and Ghosts were supposed to be on opposing sides.
“After the second night, the people in charge recognized it as a distraction. They divided forces tonight, trying to root out whatever it was they’re trying to distract us from. We didn’t have enough people in place, that stealthy group slipped past us, did a lot of damage, as you can see.”
I turned my eyes upward, looking past the roofs of nearby buildings to the blazing Academy structure.
“Expectation is that they found out when the first superweapons showed up, and that’s when they started with the distractions.”
“Who’s here, sir?” Gordon asked.
“Dog, Catcher, Wry Man, Petey, and the Engineer.”
“Some of the weird ones,” Mary observed under her breath.
“I don’t recognize all of those,” I commented. “Petey?”
“He’s our age,” Gordon said. “Kind of? If you-”
The officer at the front cut Gordon off. Possibly intentional, a dominance display. Well, it had been rude to start a conversation when he’d been midway through talking.
“You’ll want to talk to the people in charge about where you’ll be setting up, and about calling for help if you need it.”
“Yes sir,” Gordon said.
The man nodded without looking back our way, and then fell silent.
“If they’re reacting this violently to the presence of Academy weapons in Brechwell, there might not be a need to hold back. We could call for help now,” Gordon said. “By the time it arrives, things could be underway.”
“We don’t want to scare them off or tip our hand,” I said. “I’d rather resolve this or make significant headway before anyone arrives.”
“You’re still wanting to rush,” Gordon said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Why don’t we at least talk to the other weapons before we make any decisions?” Mary asked. “I don’t know how touchy they are-”
“Some are touchy,” Gordon said. “The three we haven’t met are loners, they work alone, for smaller Academies.”
“Then let’s not offend them. We include them in discussions,” Mary said.
“Agreed,” Gordon said.
We passed beneath a quadruple-set of portcullis gates, entering into the most open area of the city yet. The sprawl of the local Academy and plenty of open fields for military drills.
Promising weapons from other Academies are trained alongside their handlers to work alongside squads and armies, here. Academy students with great minds for strategy and military cadets with a good mind for learning the particulars of Academy science are brought here to learn to become officers.
Or were, with emphasis on the past tense.
The fire was bad. Buildings that should have weathered the blaze were sagging. Stitched brought canisters of water, and Academy soldiers connected hoses and manually pumped levers to force it out. They might as well have been throwing thimblefuls of water on a campfire.
Yet they kept at it.
“Sir?” I asked.
The man at the front twisted around.
“You’ve been here before? You’re familiar with the area?”
“I have and I am, why?”
“Most Academies have a last-ditch superweapon. Are you familiar with Brechwell’s?”
“The Brechwell Beast. Last report I heard said it was awake but sedated, ready to go with a few minutes of notice.”
Gordon whistled a little under his breath.
But I didn’t care about the Beast, here. I’d been more interested in his prior answer, his familiarity with the area.
I was getting a sense of how things worked here. People new to the area would adopt that particular way of doing things, picking up on both the good and bad habits.
Thing was, I was seeing a lot of bad behaviors. The way the soldiers had reacted to the superior officers, hesitating before bringing something to their attention, the fact that the officer hadn’t filled his men in on who we were, it spoke to a general lack of communication between tiers.
There was a flaw here, one I suspected our enemy was smart enough to exploit. There were the guys on the bottom, and there were the people on top, and the ties between the two didn’t feel particularly strong.
Some damn idiotic things could happen when that was the case. Like good soldiers and good water being wasted on a task, because the people at the top were insisting the fires be put out, and didn’t care that it was an impossible task.
“Sir? One more question.”
I could tell he was irritated at this point, but he turned and gave me his attention.
“I’m just guessing here, but is the person in charge of Brechwell an utter prat?”
Gordon dropped his face to one hand, shaking his head.
“Is he a ponce? A dimwit? Does he not know what he’s doing?”
“I won’t dignify that question with an answer, and I’ll thank you to watch what you ask me in the future,” he said.
He turned around.
I turned my attention to the soldiers that stood on either side of the wagon.
One or two were smirking a little.
I mouthed words. Is he?
I could make out the movement of their lips in their silent responses, and even if I couldn’t lipread, I could use guesswork to figure it out. Massive prat.
The moment the wagon slowed, I was hopping down, dragging my luggage down after me. It clacked hard against the road top. The others followed suit. Gordon gave a hand to Hubris, the dog using the outstretched arm as a step partway to the ground, then offered a hand to Mary.
She beamed at him as she hopped down beside him, her hair and skirt flouncing with the landing.
“Someone our age, I’m so excited!” Helen squealed, as she caught up to me.
“Ease up on the pitch a little,” I said, wincing.
Gordon, Hubris and Mary led the way, diverging from the path of the wagon, which was moving toward the fire. I found myself walking between Lillian and Helen. Lillian was quiet. Helen wasn’t.
“He could have been a Lamb!”
“I don’t think so,” Lillian said.
“I almost want to ask you guys to give me the answer,” I said, “But at this point, I’m happy to see for myself.”
“I’m glad to have one over on you for once,” Lillian said.
“So you wouldn’t tell even if I asked?”
She smiled a little, hemmed and hawed, and then said, “After what you said back there, maybe I would.”
“I’m worried you were trying to get my guard down so you can pull something on me.”
I snorted. “Ulterior motives? Me?”
“You were bothering the captain at the front of the wagon,” Lillian said.
Someone’s paying attention.
“Trying to wrap my head around Brechwell,” I said.
“Do tell,” Helen said.
“Please,” Gordon said. He’d been listening in, his conversation with Mary trailing off.
“It’s a military academy. It’s not a place that makes big advancements. If you’re in charge of the Academy and you’re ambitious, and I’m working under the assumption people are, then Brechwell isn’t going to really open doors. It’s a stopping point. A place people come midway through their careers. Have promise? Study here a few years, pick up essentials, move on.”
“Sure,” Gordon said.
“People in charge are either here for punishment, they’re ambitious but frustrated, they don’t realize how bad their situation is because they’re that dumb, or they’re willing to try and play a subtler game, where they find pet projects and nurture those projects, and then try to claim credit for the successes that follow. None of those things breed good leadership. I’m not sensing good leadership here.”
“Which is why you asked the question,” Mary said.
I gave her a nod of confirmation. “Feeling them out.”
“Identifying the problem is good, but there’s more to it,” Gordon said.
“We need solutions,” I agreed. “With a gap between the leadership and the people on the ground, maybe we insert ourselves in as middlemen.”
“Maybe,” Gordon said. “Worth watching out for.”
I realized why Gordon and Mary were walking in this particular direction. There was a smaller fire burning, and three corpses were draped around the body. Two odd figures were standing by the fire, and I realized that they were our fellow weapons. The people we’d be working with for this particular mission, at least until help came.
Dog and Catcher not present, one missing…
The woman was middle-aged, and she looked frumpy. Her hair was well looked after and her clothes were nice enough, but neither looked like a good match to her body type or particular appearance. She wore a jacket with a pattern on it, left open to show a heavy apron, more like something a blacksmith might wear, only accentuating a protruding belly on an otherwise narrow frame. Her boots were clunkers. Her hair was short, and she didn’t wear enough makeup to tie it together. A bit of blue eye shadow might have worked.
The old man was, I knew at a glance, the Wry Man. His hair was gray, his skin wrinkled in a way that carved deep into his face, and his bushy eyebrows went with a perpetual grin. He was stooped, much of his weight leaning on a cane.
“The Lambs, I take it?” the Wry Man asked.
“Nice to meet you,” Gordon said.
The Wry Man didn’t reply to that. Instead, he lifted his cane, prodding one of the corpses.
“Lambs, meet our opposition.”
I turned my attention to the bodies.
One was a Ghost, I could tell from the damage to her body, the way the fine bones riddled her flesh, criss-crossing within her injuries, as if she’d been filled with bone-white needles.
The other was a man, but not one of the plague men. He lay there, and he looked alive, skin flushed a bruised purple, veins standing out against his skin. His fists were clenched, body contorted, and his mouth yawned open. I couldn’t look at his face without imagining him mid-scream.
The third corpse wasn’t human, not at first glance. Augmentations. Hunched, skin textured, eyes wide and bloodshot, its hands were twice the usual size and claw-tipped. The skin wasn’t uniformly colored, but instead bruised in patches that seemed to accent the deeper parts of the body- the hollow of collarbone and throat, the lines of the jaw, and the eye sockets.
“They’re mixing it up,” Gordon observed.
“Not one of them feels safe,” the woman said, her voice pitched in a funny way, as if she was putting on a voice for a puppet show. “They brought bodyguards, and they’ve been convinced to send those bodyguards out.”
Lillian knelt by the body of the man who was covered in veins. She had to dig in fingernails to pry his eyelids apart.
“Are these two people under the same drug, at different stages?” she asked.
“That’s what the docs are saying,” the Wry Man said.
“They’re modifying them on a core level,” Lillian said. “Rewriting them. It’s incredibly painful, not to mention dangerous.”
“So I hear,” the Wry Man said.
“Would have to be a bacteria, dumping a load of new information into the bodies, rewrite the pattern of their makeup in patches. Looking at that one… they’re under the effect of powerful stimulants while it happens. Do it a few times in a row-”
“Get monsters,” I finished.
“That’s what they want, but there’s a reason we don’t use this,” Lillian said. “It tends to kill people as often as it gives you monsters, when you’re making changes this drastic. That’s in Academy labs, under strict supervision.”
“They aren’t holding back,” Gordon said. He looked up, “Where are the other weapons?”
“Your buddies Dog and Catcher are on the prowl, seeing if they can’t trace them back to where they came from. The Engineer is with them.”
I glanced at the woman. She wasn’t the Engineer then. By process of elimination-
She smiled down at me. I averted my eyes, somehow uncomfortable.
“They’ve attacked at sundown every night. Either hitting us here, or going after civilians,” the Wry Man said. “If we’re going to get them, we need to do it tonight, or we’re going to have to wait until tomorrow night.”
“Crumbs,” I muttered.
“Willing to leave those bags behind?” he asked.
Gordon glanced at me and the others. We nodded.
“Then let’s go join the others for the night’s hunt,” he said. I saw how crooked his teeth were as he bared them. “We can get acquainted on the way.”