Frigid water ran down the wall, over my hands, and into my sleeves. The rainwater that the fabric of my sleeves and coat lining didn’t absorb ran down my arms to my chest, trickling down back, stomach, and sides, seeking out new and inventive paths.
Climbing down was harder than climbing up. If it were me alone, I could have managed it, but I had Jamie with me. We clung to the exterior wall, twenty feet over the ground.
Reverend Mauer made his way down the street, accompanied by his retinue. I clung closer to the building, and the rainwater touched my face, using the contact to work its way down my collar.
“This would be it, then,” I heard his voice. They were just outside the door, a matter of twenty or so feet away from me.
“Yes. They’ve done good work.”
“Tim Dancer’s men,” Mauer said. “I respected him, I respected his men, but sometimes people reverse course, when they no longer have authority. Do we need to be careful?”
The question was echoed by the movements of the lieutenants around him, asserting their grips on their guns. I couldn’t see them, but I heard the light rattle and shift of the weapons.
“Whatever he instilled in them, it kept.”
Silence. I imagined Mauer nodding.
Someone rapped on the door. It took a moment before the door opened, a heavy deadbolt sliding through its housing.
My fingers were going numb. The problem was a gap between the gutter and the edge of the roof. Water meant for the gutter was running into the gap and down along the face of the building. I could have found some relief by climbing down a ways, but doing so would make noise and bring me into their field of view. I would have moved over a ways, but again, noise was a concern, and Jamie was occupying the wall to my right.
I closed my eyes and kept my ears peeled. I heard the door open – it was heavy enough that there was a lot of weight on the hinges. Even oiled, the movement of the door was accompanied by a faint grinding sound.
“Mauer.” A surprised tone of voice.
A shuffling of movement, people standing, chairs scraping against floor.
Another man’s voice from inside said, “Is there a problem?”
Restrained fear. They respected Mauer, even if they presently outnumber him.
“Just the opposite,” Mauer said. “I heard the project is coming along well. You’re well ahead of the others. I wanted to see, and to have a word.”
There was no open-armed welcome here. Doubt existed on both sides. Mauer wasn’t immediately familiar with the soldiers, either. A business relationship, perhaps, executed through third parties.
“Stanley told me you’ve made enough headway. The primordial experiment is grown, it’s coordinated enough to stand on its own four feet, and it’s aware of its surroundings. The growths are streamlining.”
“Yes. More or less.”
“Then your task is done,” the Reverend said. His voice became warmer, “Congratulations.”
Considering the word choice and the tone, it was almost eerie that there was no noise or immediate response.
“I would be obliged if you gave me a chance to step out of this rain. Doubly so if you offered any tea,” Mauer said. “We can discuss the money, stipulations, and further steps for even more funding.”
“The kettle is on the stove already,” the man at the door said. “Come in. I want to hear more about these stipulations you haven’t mentioned before.”
“Of course,” Mauer said. I had trouble telling if he sounded pleased or pleased with himself. “Watch the door.”
He’d known about the tea. Based on what I’d seen of the room, he shouldn’t have been able to see the wood stove, which was inside and off to the left of the door, tucked in the corner. I doubted any of the people inside were holding mugs. A cold guess, perhaps, on a particularly cold day? Or had Mauer’s lieutenant with the black skin, Stanley, been observant on past visits?
I really wanted to sit down with the man and pick his brain.
The numbness in my hands was starting to get to the point where I had to will my hand to keep gripping the edge, and in the midst of a complete lack of sensation, I was gripping it hard enough that I felt pulses of dull pain. The water that had soaked me while I hugged the wall was carrying the chill straight through me – not even through the bone, but past it and out the other side.
I couldn’t stay here.
I signaled Jamie to stay where he was, got a nod, and then eased my way to the corner, peeking.
Two men at the door. They wore brimmed hats, not hoods, and both had cigarettes, one already smoking his, providing cupped, gloved hands to help the other get enough flame to light his.
Careful, slow, and with my hands being very stubborn throughout, I climbed around the corner, above the heads of the two at the door.
“-Window?” I heard the tail end of Mauer’s question.
“Children,” a man said. “Kicking cans around the street.”
“Children. Were they-”
“Not like you described. All different ages. Only one or two old enough to be like you said. Some were niggers. Some looked like East Crown. Was a little while ago. We were going to have our tea and then have Osmond’s patrol get a ladder from the big house.”
“Alright,” Mauer said. “Alright.”
I didn’t dare poke my head up just yet, so I stayed where I was, thumbs wedged into cracks, fingers balled up in hopes of limiting, even slightly, the amount of body heat I lost.
“Let’s talk money,” Mauer said. “You finished the task. Lugh isn’t equipped to handle this kind of transaction. I promised you ninety thousand. You borrowed against this future amount to buy equipment, and Stanley told me you provided the results to justify the borrowed amounts.”
“This is the point where you tell us there was interest on the borrow, and-”
“No,” Mauer said. “Let’s forget the loan. I’ll give over the promised ninety thousand.”
“Generous,” the soldier replied. “Enough to make me suspicious.”
Mauer chuckled. A surprisingly human sound. “Don’t be. Not of me. I’m very pleased with the work you’ve done so far, and this forms a very good timeline for me.”
“I still haven’t forgotten the stipulations you mentioned.”
“We haven’t,” another echoed the man.
“Okay,” Mauer said. “Then I’ll get straight to the point. The Academy knows. They’re already marshaling their forces, and in less than a day, they’ll be collapsing on Lugh.”
“They know,” a soldier said. No disbelief in his voice, no surprise. Resignation.
“Based on what I’ve heard about your time with Tim Dancer, you have more than enough experience in the more devious side of the Academy’s approach to war. Overly clever birds that perch on windowsills and then fly home to recite everything that was said, a parasite that crawls inside women to control everything they do. Dangerous children.”
“Not those things specifically, but similar things, yes.”
“They know,” Mauer said it with finality. “I know they know, I have messages coming from the headquarters, keeping me up to date. They’re making their move as we speak.”
I could hear the reaction, the murmurs, the concern, the stress.
I couldn’t say for certain, listening to Mauer, but I’d heard him talk on several occasions, I’d heard him lie and I’d heard him tell the truth, and in each circumstance I’d known the truth. It gave me an edge most lacked when it came to figuring out if he was telling the truth here.
Even with that, all I knew was that it wasn’t absolutely true. Partially, perhaps, or perhaps an outright lie.
He told the academy. He knew what the Academy was doing because he’d informed them.
Now an army was closing in on Lugh, and he was getting his ducks in a row, plotting a counterattack.
“There’s a very narrow window of time. My stipulation is this: you use that window of time to leave. You can go to Tynewear, my people will find you, and they’ll get you set up. If you can prove your ability to reproduce results, then you become more valuable than any of these experiments could be, and you’ll be rewarded in kind.”
Create a problem, provide a solution to the problem.
“And you? What are you doing?”
“I’m making life as hard as it possibly could be for them. They know what to expect, they have some limited information on where you are,” Mauer said. “I want to set a trap for them.”
Another man spoke. He was too in sync with the ex-Reverend to be anything but Mauer’s lieutenant. “The explosives I had you stockpile in case the experiment went rogue had a second purpose.”
“You’re releasing it.”
“At a very specific time, in very specific circumstances. Rest assured, the people of Lugh will not be unduly hurt. Fire, plague, and foot soldiers will have chased them to the coast by the time the Academy investigates this site. They’ll find explosives and a released primordial.”
“And? If they fail to kill it-”
“They won’t. They can’t. It’s why we’re on this path,” Mauer said. “They have to respond so disproportionately that there is no question as to the thing’s death. That leaves their forces imbalanced. I will take advantage of that imbalance.”
But the soldier pressed on. “If they fail to kill it, based on what you told us, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to.”
“That’s my concern,” Mauer said. “My battle to win.”
“That’s not good enough. What we’ve been working for-”
“You know exactly what you’ve been working on,” Mauer said. “You’ve leaned on me for funding, for support, people, half of this equipment, for the information you’re using. You’ve given me your trust-”
“A very guarded trust,” the man said.
“You’ve given me a very guarded trust. Give me that guarded trust in this, too. There is nobody that knows better than I when it comes to the exact elements in play, on our side and on the Academy’s. The information I’m using is information I’ve double- and triple-checked. I have fought in as many wars as anyone here, and I have fought the Academy for years.”
“You’re risking the lives of the people of Lugh. Say what you will about them, they’re at least people who stand up against tyranny. If you put their lives on the line and you fail, then you’re insulting that courage.”
“The people of Lugh are the goal, not a means to one. You know my reputation. I have my flaws, but being unkind to my soldiers isn’t one.”
“Are the men, women, and children of Lugh your soldiers?”
I didn’t hear the response, if it was even spoken.
“Alright,” the man who’d been debating with Mauer said.
“Let’s talk about how you’ll secure your payment once you get to Tynewear,” Mauer said.
I couldn’t keep it up. My fingers were too cold, and I was soaked enough by the freezing rain that I was dripping. All it would take was a chance look to the left from one of the people on watch, an eye catching a larger-than-normal raindrop catching the light, and I was caught. I wouldn’t touch ground before they put a bullet in me.
I climbed back around the side of the building. Jamie was already on the ground, standing closer to the back of the building.
I made my way down without any noise, then ran to Jamie, jamming my hands into my armpits, so they were closer to the core of my body, where it might be warmer. It wasn’t.
Miserable fucking weather in this miserable fucking city.
We circled around the back of the building, careful to stay out of sight of the men watching the back door. I surveyed the building. Our battlefield.
We had to end this now. Somehow.
Two large windows, glass painted over, a back door, and the front door that we couldn’t access.
“What did they say?” Jamie whispered.
I shook my head. My eyes were wide, as I tried to survey the situation. There were too many things to think about. I shuddered from the chill.
“Idiot,” Jamie said, under his breath. “Give me your hands.”
I did. He took both of my hands in both of his, and I logically knew that his hands were cold, but they felt hot, comparatively.
Impatience, anxiety, and a rising discomfort with Jamie being as close as he was made me pull my hands away. I covered up the hasty action by reaching down the inside of my pants leg, at the side, and gathering a loop of razor wire.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“New plan, same as the old plan,” I said. I fumbled with the wire.
“Give,” Jamie said. “Tell me what you want to do.”
I gave him the razor wire. He freed a length of it.
“Windows,” I said. “Ground floor. If they don’t have a ladder, then we can focus on the windows here.”
“There isn’t a lot of wire,” Jamie said. He turned around, looking at the building. “The way they positioned furniture, the way through is barricaded. That window is blocked by a cabinet, filled with sealed containers, vials, chemicals. That window is blocked by a shelving unit, hard wood at the back. They were attached to the wall at the top corners. Rope and hooks.”
“They’ll unattach it and pull the furniture away. It’s meant to keep people on the outside from getting in, not the other way around,” I said. I worked my fingers, trying to give them life. I managed to point at the window closest to us, furthest from the front door. “Use the hinges on the shutter there to loop the wire around. Cat’s cradle it. Use the last of the wire to bind the other shutter closed. We’ll need something for the back door, I’ll talk to the others.”
Jamie nodded. He double checked the coast was clear, and then set to work, holding one end of the wire and throwing the loop over the shutter. He had to work to get it through the gap between hinge and wall.
I wanted to watch, to give counsel.
But trust, at the end of the day, was the oil that made our machinations flow most smoothly. Even if it was this Jamie, a relative stranger, someone I had limited experience working with, I couldn’t waste the time or harbor the doubts.
“Pay attention to my route,” I said. “I’m going to meet the others.”
Mauer thought he had this situation well under control. We had to take that control away.
The windows on the ground floor were doable, as targets went. I lost so little by giving up the razor wire, and it was an aspect of the battlefield Mauer thought he controlled, with the furniture placed like it was. Easy.
The front door, though, was far from easy. There was no way to easily assault it. Close quarters combat, long-ranged attacks, subterfuge, deceit, I couldn’t imagine anything that didn’t end up in bullets flying and cries of alarm going out.
Think, Sy, think.
I ran down a side street, watching how my feet fell on the ground so I could minimize the noise I made. Rounding a corner, I found Gordon, Lillian, and the mutt.
“Where’s Jamie?” Gordon asked.
“Preparing. It’s Mauer.”
“I saw. What’s going on?”
“The Academy is attacking,” I said. “He tipped them off about his own project, but they don’t know it’s him. They’re going to make their move, conduct business as usual, and find traps, a freed primordial experiment and strategic strikes from Mauer’s people waiting for them. He said he wants to make this hurt. If we don’t act…”
“It’s going to get ugly,” Gordon said.
“What sort of shape are you in?” I asked him.
“Bad,” he said, blunt.
“Damn it. Good enough to lend a hand? Even a steady shooting arm?”
“I can shoot. I can’t promise accuracy.”
“Okay,” I said. I reached under my hood and ran my fingers through long, wet hair. My fingers twitched from stiffness and cold as I lowered my hand. I stared at it. “I’m not sure if I know what to do.”
Lillian reached out and took my hand. She held it. Her breath fogged in the air.
“Gordon,” I said. “Ground floor, two windows on the north side, there. Jamie’s making it harder to get through those. Front door on the west side. Two men there. Place is packed with Mauer, his lieutenants, and the Ridgewell soldiers.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Can’t take them out and set up the fire like we planned without them sounding the alarm. Mauer and his men will come out with guns barking.”
“You’re doing it again, Sy,” Gordon said.
“I’d be happy to think so, but the longer we wait, the better the chances they reposition those explosives, or either Mauer or the Ridgewell soldiers leave, and we suddenly have to watch our backs or-”
“No, Sy. I’m not saying you’re rushing. I’m saying you’re overthinking it. Missing the forest for the trees.”
I looked up at him.
“Hit them hard enough it doesn’t matter,” he said, calmly.
My mind flew through the possibilities. An army? No. All we had were the people I’d recruited, and they weren’t capable, we didn’t have the guns. A weapon? A cannon, a rocket-
My mind made the jump.
“The wagon,” I said.
“Stay here,” I told him. “Jamie’s going to come around this way. Send him to us and get in position. If you can hit your targets when it counts, that would really help.”
“Noted,” he said.
I started to move, and Gordon’s hand went out, catching me around the throat. I stopped.
“Good luck,” he said, his grip shifting to a more friendly grasp of my shoulder.
“You too,” I replied.
“Don’t let your fantasies-”
“Get fucked, Gordon,” I told him. He grinned.
Lillian and I made eye contact, and a moment later, without signal or anything else, we were moving. I liked that. Being on the same page. I liked that the hair that hung in front of her ears was wet and clung to the sides of her face. I liked that she knew what she was doing in this moment, in a world where so many seemed to go their whole lives without direction.
But Gordon’s grasp on my neck lingered in my thoughts. It bothered me, being out of character. Reassuring yet insecure. I couldn’t parse it and I was used to being able to parse the Lambs. Having Jamie with us was already one stumbling block. Gordon was now a second.
Lillian took the lead, slightly, not because she was faster, but because she knew where we were going. She’d parked the wagon.
Adults and children had found a porch to sit beneath, covered by a roof with holes in it, drier than most other places. They’d left the wagon parked under overhanging eaves.
“You know, we’ve been sitting here for almost an hour,” one of the adults said, harsh, lecturing.
“Shut up,” I said.
“Sy!” Lillian admonished me.
“Just- damn it,” I said.
The woman spoke, “the children are cold, they’re confused. The men back there had guns, they said. You threw that rock-”
“My friend did.”
“You all threw that rock and you knew it would stir up trouble. These children could have been shot!”
“I know,” I said. Things were too time-critical here for me to be having this conversation. “My friend here was with them. I knew the risk, I knew they’d be safe. More important things are happening.”
“You’re acting high and mighty and telling us what to do because you say you’re going to free us from the debtors’ chains, but-”
“People are going to die!” I raised my voice. “An army is marching on the city. Another army is gathering inside it. Plague, monsters like you’ve never imagined, and worse things are coming. We have barely a minute to try and stop those things from happening. We’re spending that minute talking to you.”
The woman closed her mouth.
“Right,” I said. I turned to the wagon. “Need dry cloth, or paper, or-”
“I’ve got my sweater,” Lillian said.
“Is it dry, because the rain-”
“The coat covered me,” she said.
She pulled off her coat and I held it. She pulled off the sweater, briefly flashing her belly at me, and I reached up to pull it free where it bunched up at her wrists. She pulled her shirt down.
“Do you need more?” one of the children asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
I grabbed the sweater and twisted it, until it was coiled, and then dipped it into one of the buckets of acrid-smelling fluid. By the time I was done, Lillian was halfway through twisting up a linen or cotton shirt with buttons. We placed them all across the front of the wagon.
“Did you spill anything while loading?” I asked.
“Only barely,” Lillian said, the individual words not making a lot of sense.
“Only barely is enough for you, me, and everything nearby to be toast,” I told her. “Matches?”
She handed me a matchbook.
She nodded, and fished for another.
As a pair, we worked to move the wagon. I was aware of the weight of it. The slowness.
“Friend,” Lillian said.
“When you mentioned me to her, you said-”
“Dumbass,” I said.
“I’m not dumb! I’m the furthest thing from dumb. I’m-”
“You’re my girlfriend, dum-dum,” I said. We were close enough to the corner for me to let go of the wagon handle, so I did, letting the end hit the ground. I reached for her collar and pulled her closer, kissing her.
I released her at the sound of Jamie’s footsteps.
“Going to make me weak in the knees, just before we have to do a lot of running and pushing,” she murmured.
Jamie had Hubris in tow.
“Gordon’s in position,” he said. “He said we were using the wagon.”
“We’re going to need help pushing,” I said. “Keep your heads down, keep the wagon straight. Hubris, stay out of the way.”
The dog stared at me.
“It would be so much easier if they gave you the ability to talk,” I told him. I looked at the others as I grabbed one of the poles that extended out from the front of the wagon. Jamie took hold of one of the others, and Lillian took the middle, gripping the seat at the wagon’s front, where the driver might have sat if the wagon was hitched to a horse or mule.
I surveyed the situation, then reached out, grabbing Jamie’s shoulder, and repositioned him, so he was more inside the embrace of the two long arms of the wagon.
It took two tries to light a match. I was very careful to throw the match so it landed at the back of the wagon – now the front, with the thing being reversed in direction, and not in the midst of the containers of paint thinner and alcohol.
The rags ignited with the match. Not an all-consuming blaze, with the soak being only partial, but more than enough. I worried what might happen if the flames happened to leap the gap to the fluids, or if the fluids slopped.
We pushed, and with me being late to grab the handle, the wagon leered right, instead of the left turn we needed to make.
Numb, stiff hands worked to maintain my grip as I heaved forward and out, pushing at the wagon. Wheels creaked, and it started into motion.
Together, we rounded the corner, the wagon in front of us, the end already blazing.
I very quickly realized that it wouldn’t be possible to control my end of the thing. Trying meant slowing down too much, which hurt with navigation more than it helped. I put my all into pushing, I felt like it was ineffectual as it was, and it was Jamie, who wasn’t all that strong on his own, who pushed harder or eased up to compensate and keep the thing more or less aimed at our target.
I could hear the shouts, the calls of alarm.
A rifleshot cracked through the rain and overcast darkness. It hit the side of the wagon.
Another shot, this one sparking off of the street between the wagon’s wheels.
They’re aiming low.
I heaved, pushing. We were still a distance away. The momentum we built was momentum we had to keep. I was already jogging, fighting to maintain my grip and my traction on the road. The jog became a run. Only a short distance now.
Two more shots. Both low.
Then a third shot. Off to the side.
In my peripheral vision, I saw one of the soldiers stumbling to his feet, where he’d been crouching, moving away from where the third shot had come from, flanking us, getting to where he had a clear shot at me.
From behind me, Hubris lunged into action. The soldier’s attention switched from me to the mutt, who zig-zagged across the distance to him. He backed away, swift, loading his rifle, aimed-
The dog changed direction. The shot was so far off it looked like an intentional miss.
Another reload, calm, eerily collected, aiming-
Gordon’s next shot from the sidelines distracted. Or the death of the soldier’s partner did. I saw the dark spray of blood, but the wagon being where it was blocked my view. The soldier at our flank glanced briefly in the other direction, returned his attention to the dog, aimed, and fired.
That he kept his cool at all was stunning. Hubris, though, was quicker than the man was accurate. He tossed his rifle aside, drawing a knife, meeting the dog as it feinted, then leaped. The two tumbled to the ground together.
Both dealt with. Brace for impact and-
Another gunshot. Not Gordon’s, but the fallen man.
The shot was aimed low, but it wasn’t aimed as us. The wagon’s wheel splintered.
The wagon veered sharply, the long handle to my right whipping in our direction. Jamie abandoned his handle as it dipped more toward the ground, lunging past Lillian to help me with mine.
Only a few feet-
The wagon’s wheel finished coming to pieces. I only barely managed to avoid having my head clubbed by the handle. The little wagon skidded on its side, the contents shifting to the one side-
“Push!” I shouted.
As it fell, we shifted our grips and threw ourselves against the thing. It toppled, the contents, the burning rags, and the wood itself all tumbling over to the foot of the front door.
Only the fact that the wagon was in front of us and almost beneath us kept the ensuing splash and explosion from scorching us to the bone. Fire rolled up the front face of the building, over stone and the wood that ran between the stones.
We backed away as fast as we were humanly able. I signaled Jamie. Left.
He was already moving before I made the second gesture. I turned my attention to the soldier Hubris was fighting.
The man was holding his own, even against a dog that was pure muscle and efficiency. Hubris bled from multiple slashes. Hubris was on top of him, snarling, and he was sacrificing one arm so he’d have the other available to cut at the dog. Hubris bounded over the man’s stomach, twisted and pulled to stay mostly out of range of the blade.
I drew my own knife. I didn’t approach the man’s head or torso, too aware of the blade he held, that he might turn it on me.
I went for the legs, avoided the blind kick he threw in my direction, and then stabbed, once, twice.
The amount of blood I saw suggested I’d hit the femoral arteries.
I backed away, watching his face, lit by the flame at the front of the building, and I saw his expression change, as he realized what had happened, taking in the totality of the situation.
The stages of grief, one after the other. Ending in acceptance.
He let his guard down, and Hubris took his throat.
I turned my back from the scene, my finger touching the ring at my thumb, and saw that Jamie and Lillian had handled the other soldier. Gordon had emerged from cover, moving very slowly.
Mauer’s men were banging on the window with the closed shutters. They’d already broken the glass at the other one, only to find a kind of net in their way. One was hacking at it with a long knife. He stopped as Gordon emptied his gun in his direction. Either he’d seen the danger or he’d been hit.
A moment later, there was returning fire from within. Gordon didn’t even flinch as he made his way to us. Too tired?
“The back door,” I said.
“Handled,” Jamie said.
I took in the situation.
“They’re going to get out,” Lillian said. “Unless we can stop them?”
“No,” I said. “But we can screw up his plans. We already got one primordial, I think, and it wasn’t that dangerous anyway. If we’re lucky, fire and the explosives in this building will get the other, if not Mauer’s whole group. I’m not willing to gamble, and I’m not willing to pick this particular fight.”
“If we can’t stop the enemy, we stop their plan,” Gordon said.
“Go with Lillian and Hubris,” I told him. “Old Crusty Asshole’s place. Get the lay of the land, see what you can do. Jamie and I go to Drake and Emily and make sure they buried their project, make sure they get out alive. Then we rendezvous with you.”
And we were off.