The city had awoken. Lugh had been, from the time we arrived, a city in torpor. There hadn’t been a person we’d seen yet, with the exception of the Fishmonger’s group, perhaps, who had been bringing their full strength or energy to bear. It was a brutish city, rough-edged and worn thin, but it was one that had been holding back its full strength, fist drawn back but not thrown as a punch, ready for a fight.
The alert at the dock was reaching out across the city. Where lanterns had been points of light in the darkness of a stormy evening, more lanterns and candles were lit, now, a false fire spreading across the harbor, first, then along forked streets.
The corpse of the sea monster that was draped over a lesser section of the city came alive, too. Not in reality, but the empty eye sockets flared with an orange-red light that caught the mist. A moment later, that flare tripled in intensity, a searchlight mounted within the creature’s head passing over us, then turning out toward the water.
Half of a kilometer out in the water, the water frothed. The winding limbs of a collection of sea-beasts rose up as high as any of the ship’s masts, swinging, bending down back to dip into water, feeling out blindly for possible prey. One came down hard against the water’s surface, and the crack of the impact reached us disconcerting seconds later.
Ahead of us, others were bringing lanterns outside, illuminating what had been a dark street.
Look at the group. Who seems most together out of all the people here? Who takes charge when it counts?
Not the old. Lugh wouldn’t be a city where the elderly were revered. I found someone fit, middle-aged, and dressed well enough. He was emerging from his house, looking over one shoulder at his wife or girlfriend.
“It’s the Academy!” I called out. “All-out attack! Evacuate!”
In any other city, my words might have been doubted. Radham, Kensford, Whitney, or Westmore… even in Brechwell, the warning bells could have been ringing, I could have told a random citizen that the city was under attack, and there might have been a moment of doubt. Less dramatic a moment for Whitney or Westmore, perhaps, considering how things had stood. But a moment of doubt? All the same, it had been possible and even likely.
But in Lugh, there was no question.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be born and raised here would be born and raised to the knowledge that the people of Lugh despised the Academy and the Crown, and neither Academy nor Crown had any particular love for Lugh. Lugh existed in large part because it was too costly to take, and its denizens knew that one day the Academy could and would pay that price.
The man I’d called to turned back toward his home. He didn’t have to ask or give any indication. He reached into the dimly lit abode, and his wife handed him a rifle. A moment later, she emerged, holding another, shoddier rifle, her son, my age, a step behind her. The dad reached to his belt and handed the boy a pistol.
It seemed that many matched the grim knowledge that the Academy would one day attack with the intention to make the attack as costly as they damn well could.
The man ran to the side of a buddy of his, his family following. The buddy, as it happened, was the one who took charge.
“Edward, Adams! You’re with me! Picker! Get the water pump, have it ready in case of fire!”
I paused in my tracks, wheeling around. Jamie stopped a few paces later, watching.
“Word is they’re just forming ranks outside the city,” I lied, making my best guess about the situation. “If you’re going to get out of the city, you’ll have to hit them before they get set up. If you’re not planning on leaving, you should still hit them before they get prepared to attack.”
I saw the expression of the family man’s buddy change. Concern, confusion.
It was information I wasn’t supposed to have yet.
Whatever. I’d put the knowledge in their heads. They would realize the danger and the need to act and prioritize that, while finding an excuse or justification as to how I’d known.
Horace’s group was catching up to us. I’d told them to spread out, to give the word, but they’d stuck together, and if they’d hung back to warn others, then they’d done it for a minute and then legged it.
I might have been being unkind – the street here was long and narrow, brighter-lit with the number of lanterns people were carrying. Going the opposite direction down the street would have meant going down to the harbor, and the harbor didn’t have many escape routes. Going down side streets meant getting turned around and delayed in an area that wasn’t as brightly lit.
I frowned a bit, but I let them find us again.
The sloping, slumping nature of the city meant I could see further up the hilly ground to make out other roads and streets. I had a sense of where we were going, and the extent to which the city was mustering its forces. Very few of the lights that illuminated the streets like so many jagged veins of magma were stationary. There was flow.
On the eastern end of the city, directly opposite the harbor, someone blew a horn. A different sound from the dying-animal wails of the foghorns in the harbor, it was hollow, with a grating note.
“I wasn’t sure you were telling the truth,” Drake said.
“Yep,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything better. My own answer and response seemed surreal to me.
“Because of the primordial experiments?”
“They were looking for an excuse,” I said. I was slightly out of breath. “Mauer gave them one.”
“Mauer. You keep talking about him.”
“You’re going to want to start running in a different direction than we’re going soon, or you’re going to see him,” I said. “I don’t trust you guys to stay out of sight when it counts, either. I’m very politely telling you to get lost.”
“The hell are you?” Drake asked.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, if it was a question on its own or one he’d cut short. I didn’t spare the breath to answer.
People were gathering, arming themselves. The family we’d seen earlier had been something of an exception, the man at the head of it wealthier than the average citizen of Lugh. Three out of four people we saw had improvised weapons. Mining picks featured heavily among those makeshift weapons.
I could see the individual groups, too. Some people had gathered friends and neighbors together, and they’d all supplied themselves with the same kind of weaponry. A group of quarrymen all armed with the picks and mallets, another with knives and cleavers matching a set. I saw a group of Brunos, the big muscular guys, and people who might have been artists or ex-cons, with a dismal assortment of cheap tattoos.
I also saw that a great many people on the street were gathering around a central point. The nature of that gathering wasn’t clear until we were closer and the crowd had shifted a little.
Mauer’s soldiers, a pair of them, armed with guns and handing out more weapons. There might have been a crate of those weapons. Cheap rifles and ammo.
I got chills from the sheer readiness of it, the ease at which the soldiers were prepared to capitalize on what was going on and the willingness of the people to be capitalized on.
“Drake, Emily,” I said. “Horace, too. I want you to stay between me, Jamie and the soldiers.”
“What are you-”
“Please,” I said, insistent.
They picked up the pace a little, I slowed my own pace, and I let Drake, Emily, and one of Horace’s subordinates form a wall to block us out from the soldiers’ view. We passed that particular crowd, and they fell back, moving behind us, to keep the wall where it was needed.
If those men spotted us and gave an order, we would get lynched. There were too many scared people who wanted to be armed with something better than whatever they had in their homes or workplaces. The most scared of those individuals would be willing to do almost anything to get in the soldiers’ good graces. The others would follow.
Mauer wasn’t even here, and he was setting things up to manipulate the crowd with an expert hand.
My ability to direct our temporary allies in Horace’s group paled in comparison, and it wasn’t likely to be enough. I saw more of Mauer’s soldiers. These ones weren’t holding weapons, but they were talking to the crowd, gathering people around them.
Jamie touched my arm, gesturing. I glanced his way, then followed him into a side street.
It wasn’t as bright here, but more crowded, equally as alive, and it seemed doubly so with how narrow the street was. Barely wide enough for two people to walk abreast. People were talking, almost negotiating, in the heat of the moment, trying to figure out what they were doing, how, what they needed. A group of boys were pissing on piles of hand-towel-sized rags. A group of men were tying similar, wet rags around the bottom halves of their faces. All were already armed.
Like kicking an anthill.
The confrontation is going to be just as one-sided, too.
“We can get partway up the street like this,” Jamie said.
“We’re close,” he said. “Another minute or two, we should be at Old Harding’s lab.”
“Not counting obstacles,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Where do we go?” Drake asked. “We tried just a bit earlier, but nobody really listened to us. Should we just run for it?”
Might be too late, I thought to myself.
“That street up there, it forks,” Jamie said. “Goes up through the mountains. You can see the lanterns where some people on the outskirts are already making a run for it. I think they know where they’re going.”
“You think,” Horace said.
I would have been perfectly happy leaving the man behind.
“Hey!” a voice hollered, well behind us.
I turned to look, then started sprinting. Soldiers, having stepped out from between two buildings. They were already raising their guns, looking down the sights.
“You three, get back!” one shouted. Not at us, or Horace’s group, but another group of improvised local militia, further up the street.
I grabbed the upper sleeve of Jamie’s jacket, pulling him toward an alleyway. The fact that the soldier had waited for other bystanders to get to cover meant we had time to do the same before the soldiers pulled the triggers.
Ermine shrieked at the gunshot, and dropped hard to the ground mid-stride. Drake was turning to round the corner, and as the bullet hit him, he was driven forward, taking too shallow a turn around the corner. The corner of one building caught him between shoulder and neck as he collapsed, and he fell in a weird position.
They’d recognized us, seen a glimpse of us, and while they were willing to get bystanders out of the way, Drake’s group was too close to us, damned by association.
I’d told them to get lost before there was trouble. I felt a frustrated rage at the knowledge that two of them were now dead or injured. After all the hassle we’d gone to in order to rendezvous with them, too.
Horace had already reached cover, and was changing direction, going to Drake and Ermine, who was trying and failing to stand, crawling to reach us. Her namesake pet was making all sortsof demonic screeching noises at the injury its master had sustained.
“Horace,” I said, grabbing the man’s sleeve. He shrugged me off.
I grabbed his arm more firmly. “Hey!”
He turned to look at me. There was a hollow, horrified look in his eyes, even as the rest of his altered face was as set and frozen as stone.
“We’ve got to disappear,” I said. “Or they’re going to keep shooting at you in order to get at us. If they ask, you don’t know who the fuck we were. Now give us a hand up.”
“Up,” he said. In shock, trying to comprehend.
But he did comprehend. He grabbed me by the waist, and he lifted me as high as he could. When I was as far as I could go, I brought my feet up, found a foothold on the edge of his palm, and stood straight on his upstretched hands, reaching high in a very similar manner to get a grip on the gutter above me.
I climbed onto the roof, and braced myself over the narrow gap between rooftops, so I could reach down and give Jamie a hand.
Below us, Horace was going out of his way to avoid looking up at us. The soldiers had drawn close, guns at the ready. One bent down near Ermine, checking her wound. The other was giving an explanation.
They didn’t look up, and they didn’t see us.
I pointed. Jamie nodded.
Ducking low, we ran across the rooftop. I searched the surroundings, and noted how tall the buildings were, and which rooftops seemed best.
Another point, a gesture.
As a pair, we leaped across the narrow street to the next rooftop. I slipped on a patch of ice on landing, and Jamie caught me.
The slip wasn’t like me. I was fatigued, and I wasn’t as sharp.
The noise of our landing drew the attention of the soldiers, and it took that attention off of Drake’s group.
Jamie and I carried on, letting them wonder which direction we’d gone. The layout of the buildings and the narrow street didn’t give them the ability to stand back and see over top of the buildings, and it was dark enough they wouldn’t necessarily have seen us, regardless.
Jamie pointed, signalling. Target.
I could make out the building with no trouble at all. My heart sank.
The reason I could make out the building as easily as I did was that Mauer was already there. His soldiers had gathered around the place in force, and they had artificial lights as well as lanterns. I could see the balding old man with a shaggy beard and lab coat who had to be Old Crusty Asshole. I could see the ragtag band of nobodies standing around Crustybutt who had to be his employees. Mauer stood back, his soldiers all around him. The overall number of soldiers was significant – easily thirty or forty, and the number didn’t include the ones he’d sent out to recruit and gather up an army from among the people of Lugh. The number of apparent lieutenants, however, was lower than before. I didn’t believe that we’d killed any, but smoke or light burns had to have taken the fight out of them.
I motioned for Jamie to get down as we drew closer. The rain was lighter than it had been, but it seemed twice as cold, pattering down on corrugated shingles.
Mauer wore his coat more like a cape, over the shoulders and buckled at the collar, but no longer covering his monstrous arm. The arm was partially visible, and a fair portion of it was wrapped in bandages. I could see where bandages were soaked through with blood and clear bodily fluids, burns. I could also see the dark red lines soaking through the bandages where he’d been cut.
Glass, perhaps, or razor wire. He’d used the arm to club his way through.
He wore no hood or hat, and the light rain ran down his face and through his hair, which caught the ambient light from lanterns and torches. An artificial light gave him an equally artificial halo.
His chin raised a fraction.
More soldiers than the ones I’d already counted, emerging from Harding’s place. Six, bearing taut chains.
I was too afraid of being spotted to cuss, but I wanted to.
A primordial, resisting as it was dragged along by those chains. Smaller than the Ridgewell group’s had been, larger than the seven foot tall humanoid that Horace’s group had been putting together.
It spread membranous wings as far as it could with the chains that encircled it, then made a gurgling cry. It was akin to a headless bird or bat, seemingly all muscle, its mouth a jagged tear, starting at one end of where the neck was supposed to be, slashing over toward the other side, then back over the shoulder. Thin tongues snaked out and pushed against teeth that seemed more randomly placed than logical.
Abruptly, it changed direction, no longer pulling back against the chains, but lunging forward. It made it only part of the way. There was a group of six more soldiers behind it, each of them now straining to hold it back.
The group in front hurried to attach the chains to the side of what seemed to be an armored wagon. They then circled around, giving the creature a wide berth, taking hold of the chains their comrades held, doubling down on their mutual strength. A second wagon was making its way around to the group. The creature would be chained between two wagons. Presumably until it was closer to the Academy.
But something was wrong. Mauer wasn’t moving, and the soldiers’ attention wasn’t on the creature so much as it was on the door they had just come from.
The next formation made their exit. More soldiers, more chains.
A second primordial.
“Oh no,” I said.
“Harding made more than one,” Jamie whispered.
This one, at least, was smaller. Four soldiers to the front, three to the back. The bindings were more secure, and one loop of chain encircled the thing’s clawed foot. The soldier with that chain periodically jerked it, taking the creature’s balance away with each sharp tug when punishment was needed. The thing seemed more willing to cooperate than the first, less immediately bloodthirsty.
It, too, was winged, with a more coherent maw and partial head, and a clawed bird-talon of a forelimb it extended out in front of it, to keep itself from falling forward. I saw large eyes on either side of its head looking out, narrowing, observing the immediate surroundings. Mauer’s crowd.
The third and fourth primordials soon followed, both of equivalent size, both winged. Not as nourished, their strange and awkward skeletal structures apparent. The pair had more severe claws, however. One was vulture-like, four limbed and winged, with what looked like a potbelly. The potbelly was distended and packed with what appeared to be intestines turned at a right angle, visible through transparent skin. The other was thin at the waist, all the organs packed into a hunchback and oversize ribcage that pulsed rhythmically.
I could see the coherent musculature around limbs and wings, the way they moved with purpose. They knew how to use their bodies to a limited extent, and the way they moved their wings in sync led me to believe they might actually be able to fly. Not necessarily well, not yet, but I wasn’t ruling it out. The old asshole had cultivated wings for a reason, and he’d given them the capacity to fly, tying them to a stake or arranging a vertical cage of some sort. He wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble and then let them get this far along if they weren’t able to actually use those wings.
I shook my head slowly.
The pair was hooked up to the wagons as the first two had been. I’d seen the wagons from multiple angles, now, and from what I could gather, there were iron bars running along the sides of the wagons, just requiring a twist and a pull to be slid free. With the bars pulled free, likely from a safe distance, there would be nothing binding chain to wagon, and the things would be loosed.
Stop, I thought. You lunatic. Just stop with this. Tell me you didn’t make more than four.
Mauer’s head turned back in the direction of the building. The soldiers with guns at the ready didn’t take their attention wholly off of the building’s interior. I felt chilled. Mauer spoke, and Old Asshole responded.
I could read the tone, even if I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying. I could tell that they were referring to something.
They made more than the four.
At Mauer’s word, soldiers exited the building. They slammed the door on their way out.
“There’s more, but the others aren’t viable,” I said. “Holy fuck, how? Four?”
“Remember what we were told about Harding?” Jamie asked me.
I shot him a look. “I didn’t even remember his name was Harding, and you mentioned it a few minutes ago.”
“He was a gardener. Growing crops. Massive building, lots of space. It’s how he operates, how he thinks. The examples we were given of his past work, he works with quantity,” Jamie whispered. “I guess this is his latest crop.”
“Fuck you, Harding,” I said.
Another series of horns blew from the east side of town. Buildings at the very edge of the city were burning, plumes of smoke spearing skyward. I could hear faint noises from the south, and expected fires to be burning there soon enough. Turning my head, I could see that the city had pretty much reached full capacity. The sea creature’s corpse was gazing out over the water with its searchlight eye. The streets of the city were glowing veins, alight with the torches and lanterns the crowd held, not one person left indoors. By that measure, people were retreating from the places where the fires were starting.
I looked back Mauer, just in time to see his group mobilizing. I ducked my head down before too many of them turned pale artificial lights our way.
Their procession moved at a walking pace. Stitched horses hauled the wagons, sometimes stopping as the primordials resisted the forward movement. Soldiers flanked the group, armed, some riding on the wagons, eyes scanning the surroundings. Mauer rode on the one armored wagon that wasn’t home to any primordial, his good hand resting a rifle that lay across his lap. He talked to a lieutenant on the ground who might have been Stanley.
There was no tackling that group. Not with only Jamie. Too dangerous, and there were too many of them.
I silently watched them as they made their way to the main street. The crowd would see them, the crowd would have to move out of the way, they would be curious, and by both measures they would give Mauer their attention.
If I had a proper gun, one that fired straight, would I have tried to shoot Mauer? Knowing that I would have brought all kinds of hell down on our heads?
It took somewhere between five and ten minutes before the coast was mostly clear. Jamie and I made our way down from the rooftop.
It felt strange to be walking on the street where Mauer had been just moments ago, as if his very presence had left an impression. I worked to stay out of view of any soldiers that happened to round the corner, but yet to make myself visible to those who knew how to look.
Gordon, Lillian. You can come out, now.
I walked down the length of the street at a brisk pace, glancing at every nook, cranny, and hiding spot. Traveling around the circumference of the building was only slightly less arduous than walking around a city block, with how large it was, two stories high in places, otherwise broad and low to the ground, pieced together like four buildings with random walls and rooms jammed in between them.
I finished the circuit, and spotted Jamie. I’d been too preoccupied looking, and my heart skipped at seeing him, familiarity and a strange relief washing over me at seeing him. Then I remembered it wasn’t my friend I was looking at. A friend, possibly. But not the one I’d been thinking.
Agitated, I reached up, running my fingers through wet hair, catching it between fingers and letting the fingers tug and pull at it, just enough that it hurt.
I would dearly love it if you stopped doing that, brain, I thought.
Jamie was staring into a window, hand cupped to block out the light as he gazed through the glass. He backed away from the window, looking my way. I met his eyes, and shook my head, gesturing a negative for emphasis.
I walked another perimeter around the building, not because I thought I’d missed any hiding spots on my first go-round, but because I needed to get away, I needed to think, and I was really, really hoping that Gordon and Lillian were just dragging their heels, and that they would turn up eventually.
I finished the second circuit, and, feeling lost, unsure what else to do, almost began a third. Jamie stopped me.
“They’re not here,” he said.
I grit my teeth.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he lied.
“Yeah,” I lied back.
“We can’t count on being able to find them,” he said. “We should go, and make sure we know what he’s doing.”
I wasn’t sure what we could do, the two of us alone.
“Besides,” Jamie said, “It’s getting cold.”
He extended a hand. It took me a second to realize what he was doing.
A bit of precipitation had landed on his fingernail. It took a moment to melt, suggesting that Jamie’s hands were indeed very cold.
Snow, I thought.
Without asking or confirming, I started toward the harbor.
Jamie was talking, at first, but I only heard noise. The rock and hard place we were faced with with Mauer on one side and the Academy on the other was part of that noise. The question of what had happened to Gordon and Lillian was another. I’d failed in my promise to Lillian in letting Horace’s group get shot at, in being unable to stall this disaster, and I knew it had been a shitty promise with the slimmest of chances, but at the same time I felt as though I’d given her very little in the course of our relationship. A weird, stupid part of me felt like her being absent now was a punishment of my failure to deliver on one of my few commitments to her.
That I was alone with Jamie and deeply uncomfortable with that fact now that we lacked a proper mission, another part of the noise. One that made it hard to listen and interact. Jamie seemed to realize and stopped talking.
As a pair, we approached the edge of the crowd. I looked for the other Lambs first, and earned only disappointment for my trouble.
At least here, with so many fires nearby, it was warmer.
We eased our way in, careful to look for soldiers in the crowd and stay out of sight.
All of the people were gathering as a mob, rank and file, the vast majority of Lugh’s people now a single body. More joined it with every moment, making their way south from the mountains to the north, west from the fires, soldiers, and whatever else to the east. Collecting at the harbor, where they had a view of the seabeasts lashing out blind, searching for ships to sink.
At the center of it all was Mauer, standing atop a wagon, brightly lit, the fire a complement to his copper hair, making it seem alive.
In every other engagement I’d seen him in, he’d capitalized on his humanity. He’d worn his jacket to hide his arm. Not here, not now. Here, his good hand held an Exorcist rifle at one side, gripping it by the halfway point, there but not aimed at anything, not held at the ready.
His monstrous arm was raised, pointing. The blood was visible, as were the bandages.
As if to declare ‘I am like you, you people who have modified yourselves, made your outsides an expression of the anger within you, I have been wounded.’
His face contorted as he shouted, anger clear on his face. He could let his voice carry when he spoke softly, but he didn’t speak softly here.
Their faces contorted as they shouted back, cheering.
I moved through the crowd, looking, and I saw Adam, the Bruno who’d been so helpful and friendly, cheering as hard as anyone. I saw soldiers who might have been the Fishmonger’s.
“The fire is to our advantage!” Mauer bellowed the words. A large contingent of the crowd cheered in response, hefting torches and lanterns. Mauer seemed momentarily brighter.
It is. The fires drove everyone back and away. You knew they would concentrate in one place, I thought.
“The winds will blow the other way before long. We’ll be able to advance as one without the worry of plague clouds, and they’ll be blinded by their own smoke. This is when we strike, and my allies in the hills will sweep down and gut their back lines! All we need is your courage, and we will break their back across our knee!”
I continued to move through the crowd. I stopped as I saw Horace and Emily, less enthused as they added their cheers to that of the crowd, but they still did it.
What other options did they have at this point? They’d probably rationalized it as necessary, to get medical attention for their friends. It wasn’t like they could hide and hope that the Academy wouldn’t annihilate them like it planned to annihilate everything else in Lugh.
A hand settled on my shoulder. A part of me thought it was a soldier. But it was too gentle.
Jamie, dusted with a smattering of snow. I’d gotten ahead of him in my efforts to take it all in.
He didn’t have to speak, not that it would have done any good with the cheering around us. No need for gestures either.
I nodded agreement. I joined him in making our way out of the mob.
As heated as the crowd was, I was cold, and the emotion in the core of me was cold, too.
We had work to do.