Periodic gunshots cut through the sound of the bells and the roars and crashes of the Beast’s rampage. Striving to find safe ground, some of the members of Fray’s group had started to climb towers. The rifle shots that didn’t hit were a form of discouragement and warning. The ones that did hit were even more effective at achieving those same two goals.
On the rooftop, we had the benefit of being able to see over the other rooftops and locate the Brechwell Beast. The people on the ground didn’t- for them, there wasn’t a good way of distinguishing how far away the Beast was. It was as large as a wealthy man’s house and I very much suspected it was designed to create noise and make things rattle to batter at the enemy’s psyche.
Tough enough to hold its own in a knock-down, drag-out fight with cannons and artillery, it wasn’t even playing that fair. When it moved and when it made contact, it was with speed and devastating force.
In the distance, the Beast was working on plowing its way through a gap that explosions had created. I heard rifle shots, and saw the Beast react. It backed out of the gap, and began charging back into the designated area, searching for the attackers.
A clever trick, one that kept the Beast out of the city as a whole. But it wouldn’t work forever.
“That has to be it!” Gordon called out.
It was a cluster of buildings that stood taller than the rest. The style was slightly different, the design ostentatious, with access controlled by arches, opened further by explosions. Looking at the road, as we got closer, there were more wagons and carriages set to either side of the road, or parked in little archways beside residences.
A number of bystanders, too, people bolting along the roads leading to the building.
It was possible there were people caught out after dark, but I doubted it. Any ‘bystander’ here had to be assumed to be in Fray’s employ. The guns many carried and the company they kept were damning.
The Beast was drawing closer.
A door opened. A man shouted, waving them inside. Another group that would dodge the monster.
“Oh no,” Lillian said. “No, no, no.”
She was looking at the door.
I looked closer, and I could make out a shape at the man’s side. In my haste to assess the situation, I’d taken a mental shortcut, figuring the lump at the man’s side to be an overlarge leg. A detail held at the back of my mind until I could put all my thoughts in the right order.
We needed to get down to the street level, cross, and then deal with the group, and an otherwise unassuming man with that misshapen a leg was probably going to be less of a threat. Less mobile, a single leg wasn’t about to be something dangerous.
But as I tapped into that impression of the man, recognized the lump, and processed what it was. I knew before I even double-checked what I was seeing.
“Man with a little girl just let a group of rebellion thugs and some Ghosts into his house, to save them from the Brechwell Beast!” I called out.
“Sympathizer?” Gordon asked.
Oh, that would be so easy if it were true.
Lillian squeezed my wrist.
“Let’s assume no!” I called out.
The Beast was drawing nearer.
“The Beast passes, we go down behind it!” I called out. “Cross street, get inside, stop them!”
“I thought we were going after Fray!” Gordon shouted.
“Never the plan! Hit edge groups! I explain after!”
The noise of the Beast’s one-creature stampede was starting to drown out my words.
The Beast appeared, fumes trailing from the corner of its mouth, eyes hidden by the armored mask it had been fitted with. It raked against the side of the buildings we were atop, and the rooftops vibrated. The Engineer punched an armored fist through the shingles to get a grip on the infrastructure beneath, extending an arm to keep me and Lillian from falling, the hand clasping Petey’s hand. Gordon and Mary seemed to have a handle on their own business, and on Hubris.
Helen, well, Helen had a way of being the exception to the rule. I had trouble thinking of a scenario where she would be physically thrown from a rooftop.
The Beast’s momentum carried it into the buildings on the other side of the street, as it rounded a ‘u’ bend directly in front of us. It passed us on the other side, moving in the other direction.
By the look of things, it would reach Fray’s area before terribly long. It remained to be seen if the explosions and damaged buildings would change its route.
But our enemies were in disarray, and the seemingly impenetrable perimeter had been breached, with everyone running for the hills. The key was to capitalize on this.
As soon as we could walk, we made our way to the tower at the end of the row. Helen, Gordon and Mary gripped the sides of the ladder, sliding rather than climbing down, Gordon doing it with one hand, the other holding Hubris to his back. I did the same, even as my hands and one ankle ached.
Pain didn’t often get in my way, I knew how to manage it from long experience and a deeper perspective than most, but it did exist. I knew I was hurt, I’d probably lightly twisted something, and too much more activity would see me doing more harm to myself.
I couldn’t have that.
Lillian was apparently too scared to slide, but she made some effort and managed a halting progression. Petey and the Engineer were taking the rungs one at a time.
“Come on, almost there,” I said, anxious.
“I’m-” she slid a distance, the sides of the ladder already wet from the passage of everyone before her, “-working on it.”
“Classic white, today, huh?” I said, staring up.
“You’re the worst, Sy,” she said. “I knew, moment you got on the ladder before me, that you were going to say something.”
“But you didn’t stop me,” I said. “I’ve heard rumors you like the attention.”
“Scurrilous lies,” she said. She hopped off the ladder, and her face was bright pink. She started to kick my shin, and then stopped, seeing how bloody and ragged it was. She settled for hitting me in the shoulder instead.
I glanced up, decided the solo operators were too slow to be useful, and grabbed Lillian’s hand, tugging her behind me.
By the time Lillian and I caught up with the other Lambs, Mary was limp, and Helen was banging on the door. I rushed to Mary’s side.
Gordon signaled. Trick.
I tapped Mary’s shoulder, then signaled, me.
She rose from her sitting position, and I let myself fall into Gordon’s arms like a swooning maiden, just in time for the door to open.
Helen was already mid-act. Her voice was a sob as much as it was words. “Please, help, please!”
The man stood in the doorway, looking between us in confusion.
“Please!” Helen sobbed. “He’s hurt!”
“Don’t move him,” he said.
“Have to,” Gordon said. He wasn’t that bad of an actor either. “It might come back.”
I could see the indecision on the man’s face. “Okay.”
Gordon and Mary dragged me. I was already scraped and bleeding from my earlier fall, and I made a better victim. Mary did have the benefit of being the same gender as the man’s daughter, but it was too hard a sell.
I glanced back to see that the Engineer was at the bottom of the ladder, Petey only halfway down. The man hadn’t noticed, even with the lights illuminating the street.
The moment Lillian was inside and the door closed, Mary drew a knife, pressing the tip to the man’s gut, without actually penetrating cloth and skin.
I could see the shock and fear on his face, and I knew he wasn’t one of them. A bystander who’d thought he was doing the right thing.
Eyes wide, he asked, “What are you-”
Mary pressed a finger to her lips.
I rose to my feet, taking the knife from Mary, taking up her position of holding the man at knifepoint. I signaled to the others. Ghost. Alive.
I got nods in response. Mary, Gordon, Hubris, and Helen fanned out through the house, hand signals flying.
Mary passed through a door to the left, then exited a moment later, without a sound, following a few paces behind Helen. Helen paused long enough to get a response from Mary, then the two girls headed down the hallway.
Gordon and Hubris went through a door to the right. I heard gunshots, and a short bark followed by growling.
A man with a dog latched onto his elbow staggered into the hallway. He looked in the opposite direction, further down the hall, then looked at us, alarm and confusion on his face.
An ordinary soldier, if I had to guess, or someone who was taking the drugs, remarkably young.
Then again, war often involved the young. It would be too tidy and polite if the only price for war was the lives of old men.
Gordon re-entered the hallway, holding a rifle with a bayonet blade on it. Not one of the exorcists, sadly.
Hubris let go of the arm, then went for a knee, wrenching and twisting. Stronger than even the average fighting dog, he was able to topple the larger man.
Almost casually, Gordon thrust the blade of the bayonet at the area where shoulder joined neck. A twist and a sharp motion carved out the front of the man’s throat. Blood sprayed.
A bloodstained Gordon took in the surroundings, then tossed his rifle at Lillian, an underhand lob that left the stained blade pointed skyward through the entire trip.
His hands free, he signaled, two, then disappeared back into the room he’d just left. He emerged with another rifle. He didn’t look back our way as he headed after Mary and Helen.
“What’s going on?” the man I was holding at knifepoint asked.
“Please tell me there’s a rule about opening your door when the bells are ringing?” I asked.
“There is, but-”
“You broke the rule,” I said. “Now you’ve got blood on your nice rug here, and a dead body in your living room.”
I heard gunshots upstairs.
“Might die,” I said.
“Sy!” Lillian admonished me.
“She might,” I said. “We’re here, at least, we might be able to stop them.”
“You could phrase it nicer.”
“Nice? You think anything about this here is nice?”
“I think it’s nice that you wanted to come here to help, at least,” she conceded.
My finger reached over and touched Melancholy’s ring. I rotated it around my thumb.
“Sure,” I said. Where were Petey and the Engineer?
Too much could go wrong tonight, but the worst eventuality was that we’d hit our stride and then discover at the worst possible moment that we would end up having a problem with our guest members. The possibility kept recurring in my mind.
I gestured at Lillian, watch, and indicated the door.
She cracked it open, then opened it wider, waving.
The Engineer and Petey approached. The man of meat and metal ducked his head to fit into the space. I could hear too many wet sucking noises as he passed within a foot of me.
“Couldn’t find you,” the Engineer said.
“Right, sorry,” I said. I’m so used to having everyone paying effective attention to everyone else.
I took my knife, and handed it to Petey, “Watch him.”
Petey nodded once.
“Upstairs,” I told the Engineer, pointing.
He took off running.
When I took off, Lillian followed.
“I was going to have us come here anyway,” I said, quiet, “Before I learned about the man having the kid, being a probable innocent. Can’t take moral credit.”
“I thought so,” Lillian muttered. “But her father at least got to see us as good guys after hearing me say it, right?”
My eyebrows went up.
I mentally awarded Lillian a gold star for that.
We reached the top of the stairs. There was something of a standoff. A man stood at the far end of the hallway, back to a door, a gun to the head of a little girl in lace-covered shorts and nightshirt. She was holding back sobs, eyes red.
“Stay put!” the man was shouting at the Engineer.
“What’s our timeline, Sy?” Gordon asked, quiet.
“We need to move fast.”
“Thought so,” he spoke under his breath. He turned his head more, acknowledging Lillian’s presence.
I knew what he was thinking. If we pushed ahead, aiming for the element of surprise, then there was something of a chance that Lillian could patch up the damage or at least keep the girl alive.
I touched the ring at my thumb again.
“But don’t,” I said.
“What the hell are you brats muttering about!?” the man shouted at us. His shout made the young hostage wince.
“I’m telling my buddies not to kill you just yet, limpdick!” I called out.
I saw a measure of incredulity and anger cross his face. Emotions were too high for him to bury all of his emotions.
Gordon put one hand behind his back. He gestured. Forward.
Then he indicated off to one side. Not me and Lillian, but the Engineer.
I was in a position to push the Engineer’s rear end. It squelched more like a sodden sponge than anything else. My skin crawled.
He glanced down at me with one good eye, and I made a little gesture with my finger, point-point.
He took one half-step forward. Gordon stumbled.
“Don’t move!” the man with the gun asked. “Don’t you damn well move!”
“I have to ask,” I said, “When did you stop fighting for the people of this country and start seeing them as leverage?”
“No head games! No questions! If you try to get clever, I’m shooting!”
“What do you want?” Helen asked. Her voice was calm, a counterpoint to the man’s. “What steps do we need to take to take to get you to let her go?”
“Moving toward me isn’t one of them. Neither is touching those weapons. Drop ’em.”
One by one, everyone put their weapons down, borrowed rifles clattering on hardwood and against stairs.
Something was off, I noticed, as I saw the group bending down and dropping their weapons.
Oh. Hubris was gone. The stumble was a distraction. Hubris had used the opportunity to bolt.
Gordon had this situation in hand. He had a better view of the situation. He had figured something out.
“Now,” the man said.
“Wait, stop talking,” Gordon said. There was a pause, quiet but for the sound of bells, the distant rumbles of the Beast, and the sniffles of a girl three or four years younger than I was. “Okay. Go.”
“Go?” the man asked.
Without a noise, Hubris leaped. Teeth seized the man’s weapon hand, carrying it to one side, well clear of the young girl’s head. A moment later, he was fighting, wrestling, wrenching, clamping deep into the man’s hand, making him double over in pain and from Hubris’ sheer weight.
“Engineer?” Gordon asked, stepping back out of the way, extending a hand in invitation.
The Engineer marched down the hall. The man who’d taken the little girl hostage saw him coming, but his movements were hampered by the tugs and biting.
The Engineer’s fist struck his head, compressed it against the doorframe and cracked it like a melon. Hubris bounded back to Gordon. The girl screamed.
Helen extended her arms for a hug, and the girl threw herself at Helen like a drowning person might reach for a rope.
“Two more,” Gordon said.
“They were up here,” Helen said. “I heard them.”
In close confines. Ghosts.
The Engineer stepped away from the man’s corpse, stepping into another room. I saw only a glimpse as he bodily threw a piece of furniture across the room.
Rooting them out of hiding places.
My mind was in top gear as I took in the layout, trying to figure out the paths available to them. Four rooms, two on either side of the hallway, with a small closet or bathroom at the end.
Engineer in the further-left room. Helen halfway down the hall. They weren’t about to try to squeeze past Lillian, me, and Mary.
Hubris had ducked into the left room, crossed to the room the Engineer was in now, the further room, and re-entered the hallway. There was no doorway allowing passage between the two rooms to the right in that same way.
Where were they hiding, and how would they try to escape?
I reached out and took the rifle from Lillian. “Gordon.”
He turned to look at me.
I gestured. Gordon obeyed, stepping into the same room the Engineer was in, Hubris following.
I tightened my grip. Mary had a throwing knife.
Furniture crashed against the wall.
“Got one!” Gordon called out.
In that same moment, a Ghost appeared from the room just to our left. Fast, silent, I was expecting her and I was still caught off guard.
Rather than try to aim and shoot, I stepped forward, swiping. It wasn’t a serious cut, no force behind it, not fast enough a swing. But the Ghost stepped aside to avoid it.
She had to get by Helen to reach the available window to the right. That limited her path.
I aimed and pulled the trigger. The little girl in Helen’s arms yelped at the sound. The shot was a miss, the Ghost didn’t even bother to dodge.
Mary raised a hand, firing a pistol, and the Ghost did dodge that shot.
She didn’t get any further.
She’d delayed too much, and Helen had fingers latched into the side of the Ghost’s tunic.
“Keep her alive,” I said.
“M’kay,” Helen replied.
Fabric tore, the Ghost fought to get back and pull free, striking at Helen’s face, but it was too little too late. Helen didn’t react to being struck, reached out and wrapped one hand and wrist around the Ghost’s thigh.
Helen collapsed against the Ghost as if she’d been pulled into position. The Ghost’s silent struggles got it nowhere. Helen crawled up to a better perch, hugging the Ghost’s back, pinning its arms against its sides.
“You. Little girl,” I said, to the young girl.
She was wide eyed, barely registering.
“Go downstairs to your daddy now,” I said.
She didn’t listen.
Why were ordinary people so frustrating?
“Don’t you want to see your dad?”
“Come here,” Lillian said, voice gentle. “Come on, take my hand.”
The girl reached out, hesitant. Lillian took her hand firmly, and Mary and I stepped to opposite ends of the hallway as Lillian led her down the stairs.
“They wait in the living room,” I said. “Send Petey up, maybe. But come back, we might need you.”
“Alright,” Lillian said.
The remainder of our group approached Helen. I had a view through the one doorway to the room the Engineer had overturned. A dresser was lying on its side with two bare legs sticking out from under it. It might have been comical in a different context.
The Engineer was stronger than the Ghost was fast, apparently. I wondered if Gordon had helped.
“Well, we got your captive,” Gordon said. “You said you’d explain later.”
“I did,” I said. “You okay there, Helen?”
“It’s pleasant, being like this,” Helen said, smiling. “Like I’m home.”
“Good. Alright. Well, this is a bit of a shot in the dark, but we know what Fray’s going to be doing, if she isn’t doing it already. She’s making a run for it. Everything she’s been doing up until now has been about consolidating the factions. Presumably. I’m guessing it’s going to take a short time to get everything communicated and make sure that the perimeter groups have been pulled in. Too many valuable people at the edges, I imagine.”
“I imagine,” Gordon said.
“Big problem is the Ghosts. They’re too effective as scouts. Make her group too slippery. What I’m hoping is that we can get this one to make a distress cry. Maybe, possibly, we can create an illusion of dangerous numbers or a standing army. Fray tries to make a run for it, and a Ghost passes on a message that there’s something bad in her way. Make her second guess. We turn her tools against her, take away that security. With the weight of a new coalition on her shoulders, maybe that’s reason to make her balk.”
“Have to move her, get ahead of Fray,” he said.
“Engineer is strong, can carry her.”
The Engineer nodded.
“There’s another problem,” Helen said.
“Don’t tell me that. Coming from you-”
“Their language doesn’t work like that.”
My heart fell.
“It’s more nuanced, and I’m not sure if I know enough about how to nuance,” Helen said.
“Okay,” I said. “Damn.”
“This is why you should share your plans before, not after,” Gordon said.
“I was sort of out of breath, and I wasn’t sure what the enemy group would look like. If there weren’t ghosts, the plan was going to change.”
“Being out of breath isn’t an excuse. I’ve been telling you to exercise more,” Mary said.
“And you can let us help come up with plans, sharing what you have. This is definitely not the first or the fifth or the tenth time we’ve told you this,” Gordon said.
I looked around for an ally to help back me up as the pair ganged up on me, and felt only the conspicuous empty space to my right.
From the sound of it, Lillian and Petey were making their way upstairs. Small consolation. Lillian was as sure as anyone to get up my butt about what I was doing wrong.
“Sy’s plan might actually work, though,” Helen said.
“I know,” Gordon said. “But I wanted to let him stew.”
“I did too,” Mary said. “You missed the hand signal.”
“Pimpleboob. What’s the new plan?”
Gordon didn’t answer, looking smug as he scratched the top of Hubris’ head.
“Time’s a wasting. Didn’t you hear me earlier?” I asked.
“I heard,” Gordon said. He didn’t elaborate.
I could have throttled him, if I wasn’t sure he would win that struggle and make me look bad in the process.
“It’s Petey,” Helen said. “We can use Petey. They’re not saying because it doesn’t matter.”
“You’re just about my favorite, Helen,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Buy me a treat later.”
Petey made her way up the stairs. She looked like she’d been lightly boiled, she was so red and sweaty. Lillian was right behind her, hair still mussed up.
“Can you take the Ghost?” Gordon asked.
Petey scowled. “I’d really rather not.”
“It’s mission critical,” Mary said.
“It’s like sleeping on a bed of swords,” Petey said.
“Mission critical, time critical,” Mary said.
“We did say we’d help you out,” Helen said. “We got you what you need to do the most damage. Right here.”
Petey stared down at the Ghost. I heard a sigh.
“When I’m moving, don’t interfere. Don’t ‘help’ me,” Petey said.
“Why?” Helen asked.
“Because it’s irritating,” Petey said.
She dropped clumsily to the ground, sitting in an almost-cross-legged position, attention on the Ghost.
I leaned against the doorframe, saw Lillian, and then noticed her hair. I reached over to the side of her head and swept my hand through the bit of hair that was sticking up. Lillian started using her fingers to comb it.
There were wet, sucking sounds as Petey worked, her body rocking back and forth a little. Gordon stepped behind her to keep her from falling backward.
“You all knew what Petey was, huh?”
“Just about,” Gordon said.
“You’re all the worst,” I said. “Filling each other in is important.”
“I’m going to remember you said that,” he told me. “And I’m going to use it against you so many times.”
I rolled my eyes.
Petey wasn’t quick. I saw that Lillian was struggling to work out the messy bit of her hair, stepped closer, and began fixing it myself, picking out bits of grit that hair had rolled itself around.
I was preoccupied enough I didn’t see Petey right away.
A fetus, crawling across the hardwood, skin almost translucent, with far too many veins spiderwebbing across the surface. It had been grafted with additional parts, I noted, insect legs that gave it more ability to move in the outside world. All the same, it was no larger than my two fists put side by side.
I remembered what the others had said. That Petey was about our age.
A twelve-year old fetus?
As Petey made it halfway, I could see his ‘tail’. The spinal column extended back, and was attached to a bag, half-filled with fluid.
“Brain, in a more malleable, bare-bones package,” Lillian said. “Includes some life support. Tiny body isn’t big enough to sustain a working, functional brain. Life support keeps him alive until the host body adapts.”
“I’d almost think that was neat as anything I’ve heard this week,” I said, “But he’s so goddamn slow.”
“Shh,” Helen admonished me. “He might be able to hear you.”
“I hope he can!” I said, raising my voice. “It’s irritating to be picked up and carried over? It’s irritating to wait!”
Petey stopped mid-crawl, turning very slowly until he was facing my general direction. Delaying more, on purpose.
I took a step forward, and raised a foot, threatening to step on him. Lillian grabbed me and pulled me back, before smacking me in the back of the head.
Petey resumed crawling, moving hand, foot, and spidery-limb one after the other as he approached the Ghost. He disappeared beneath the shroud of her skirt.
“I feel a bit queasy,” Lillian said. “I might wait downstairs.”
“This is what breaks you?” I asked. “How much blood and gore and monstrous stuff have you even seen?”
“The Ghosts are dumb,” Mary said. “They’re like animals, with only enough cognition to play at being people, if they have a script.”
“I’m not sure that makes it any better,” Lillian said, backing down the stairs. “Or if it does, it’s not better enough. You can call me a crybaby all you want, Sy.”
My mouth opened, then shut. I’d given lots of thought to the dynamics between Lambs, and to the fact that one Lamb was now gone. Jamie had been my counterpoint, someone I could rely on when my own abilities lacked. In that odd way, he’d been a support, someone who had my back. He challenged me at the right times and backed me at the right times.
I was missing that, just a little bit, a fact that was highlighted by the recent conversation and teasing. There wasn’t a need to push quite so hard here.
I fiddled with the ring at my thumb. “Nah. You’re good, Lil.”
“Thank you, Sy.”
She went back downstairs. The rest of us were left to watch and wait.
Petey’s host jerked. Helen restrained the movements.
Then the Ghost reached out one hand, giving Helen’s hip two light taps.
Helen released Petey.
Petey’s movements were awkward, clumsy, and I thought she might fall as he rose to her feet.
“Good to go?” I asked.
“Ah-” he started, but his voice was strangled. He paused. “Hm.”
Ghosts couldn’t speak.
“Good enough,” Gordon said.