Enemy (Arc 8)

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“I move for transplants of parts A, B, and D between steps twenty-seven and thirty.”

“On what basis?”

“Temperature of the transplanted parts is deviating by point four percent high while they’re sitting in the cold rigging.  I’m putting it down as risk level three.  Nobody marked anything below thirty with higher risk than that.”


“Thanks for the reminder.  Putting down step thirty-four as risk level two.”

“We can argue about that in a second, you sneaky bastard.  Cameron, justify risk level three?”

“The latest version of Wollstone’s recordings, cilia in the trachea are down on Ian’s global vulnerability scale as a thirty-three nine, damage to the cilia now would increase maintenance further down the road, and could lead to post-operative infection.”

“We could give him a new trachea if it comes to that.”

“Which is why I argued for three, Adams.  A new trachea has its costs too, which I would argue raises it above a two on our crude priority list.”

“Fine.  Well argued.  I’ll second.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll third if you don’t give me a hard time about thirty-four, I’m too tired to argue.  Good.  Let the record keeper take note that I got a nod from Cameron.”

I might give you a hard time in a second.  Put it on the board, nurse?  Don’t lose track of the numbers as you move everything.”

“Yes, doctor.”

“I know you jokers in black coats are going to insist on blabbing about priorities like a bunch of old hens while I’m elbow deep in vat-grown intestine, but can we please make a rule where the nurses keep quiet?  I’ve gone and forgotten the length of the cut.”


“At least you’re good for something, Berg.  Sectioning four-fifty.  Are you going to be done step twenty-two in the next minute?”

“Yes, yes.  I’m a useless sod, that’s why I’m in this room.  Nurse, you there.  You’ve been shuffling your weight from foot to foot.  Go scrub down, get the good professor here something to eat, scrub up, and hand feed him while he works.  He’s getting cranky.”

“I’ll have step twenty-two done in twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two… one…  Done.”

“Out of the way of the stomach cavity.  Organs going in.  I hope you dunces have been careful about this.  If he gets a hernia in ten years because I had to fumble around for two minutes getting your organs in the right places instead of taking the time to set the intestines into place-”

A voice cut through the conversation, deep and heavy.

“If my nephew gets a hernia in ten years because of incompetent work done today, you collectively pay the price.”

“My apologies, my lord.”

“Lord Archduke, sir.”

“My lord,” the third voice spoke.

“My lord,” echoed the fourth.

“Stop with the bowing and scraping.  Look after the boy.  He’s in pieces on four separate tables.  I would like to see him put back together before the night is over.  Aimless formality at this stage is in poor taste.”

Wet, sucking sounds, squelching, and spatters marked the silence that followed.  There was no negotiation, no discussion of scales, ratios, values or markers.

Heavy footfalls drew closer to the table.

On the table, the boy, blind, unable to breathe or move anything but the stump of one arm, reached up for his uncle.  Further down the table, the hand that was joined to the stump by tubes both real and unnatural opened, fingers splayed, reaching in the wrong direction.

The uncle’s hand ran along the child’s bare scalp.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” the Archduke murmured.

The boy opened his mouth, pleading, but the mouth wasn’t joined to anything.

“To this day, I still remember being on tables very similar to these.  Different procedures, different advancements.  But I remember the agony.  A lifetime’s worth of pain in one night, at the age of three.  Then another lifetime’s worth at the age of five, and at seven, and one last time at ten, to bring it all together.”

The hand stroked the boy’s head again, large enough that the bottom end of the palm grazed one ear and the fingertips grazed the other.

“You’ll endure tonight, then have two more nights like this, and you’ll be done.  You will be state of the art, and you’ll be art, my little Duke.”

The boy tried to move his body, but some pieces weren’t connected, and other pieces weren’t in the right place.

“I came to talk to you because I want you to pay attention.  Cherish this pain.  Come to know it and carve it into that beautiful brain we gave you.  You’ll choose to inflict pain on others thousands of times in your lifetime.  You’ll condemn entire cities to agony so dire that people’s bodies destroy themselves, their own muscles trying to tear bones from sockets and break their own backs.”

The boy felt a soft kiss on his forehead.

“Two years ago, we gave you a great mind.  Now we give you a body to suit.  Remember tonight, because it is the last night you are human in any way.  From tonight until the day you pass from this world, you look down on them.”

Another caress of the head, and the hand was taken away.

The boy stared in the Archduke’s general direction with eyeless sockets, and gawped with a tongueless mouth that lacked wind to make a single utterance.

The heavy footsteps retreated.  The only noise was the wet sound of guts being arranged in a stomach cavity, the rhythmic knocking and whooshing of machines, and the sound of fluids in narrow spaces.

A distant door banged shut.

“Nurses.  Leave the room.”

“Should I-”


The room emptied.

“Over here.  The boy can hear.”

Footsteps retreated.  The boy was alone, no longer being handled by three people at once.  He opened and closed his hand.

He could strain and hear the distant conversation with the ears he had been given two years ago.

“The boy is supposed to be in pain?”

“Nobody said anything about that.”

“The Lord Archduke just did.”

“We weren’t told in advance, is what I mean.”

“We cornered ourselves.  If we continue to apply the nerve controls to minimize the pain and he reports it to the Lord Archduke, we’ll be known liars.  If we cut it off and the boy remembers, he’ll know we could have spared him the pain, and he could seek vengeance at a later date.”

“We should have said something while the Archduke was here.”

“I didn’t see you stepping up.  I know I didn’t want to interrupt that intimate moment.  I was too busy shitting myself.”

“Enough bickering.  We need to decide what we’re doing.”

“We’re dead either way.”

“It’s a question of whether we want to stay in the boy’s good graces and risk the Archduke’s wrath, or the reverse.”

“The reverse could see the Archduke wrathful all the same.”

“Enough with the bickering.  You’re children, all of you.  We can’t follow the spirit of the Archduke’s expectations, but we can follow the letter of them.  Disconnect the nerve controls, let the remaining painkillers wear out.  It’ll be worse with the backswing.”

“Not quite worse.  By Wollstone’s third ratio, we can expect-”

Enough bickering, Adams.  If anyone asks, the backswing adds to the agony, and compensates for the fact that he’s feeling almost nothing right now.  He’ll get that lifetime’s worth of agony.”

“If anyone asks, the fact they’re asking means our goose is cooked and we’re as good as dead.”

“Yes, well, say what you will, but I think we’re in this together from here on out.  I don’t know about you lads, but I was told that if I bollocksed this up in any way shape or form, they would search out every person I cared about, snuff them, and then erase any and every record of us from history.  I do have people I care about.”

“We all do.  We keep mum on this.  Agreed?”

“Agreed,” three voices spoke in unison.

“Let’s get back to work, then.”

“I want my tracheal transplant bumped up.  We spent time talking.”

“I’ll help you.  Give me a hand with the eyes, leading up to that?”

The four professors returned to the table, now cooperating.

The discussion and the noise of the doctors starting work anew came to a sudden stop.  Hands that held body parts remained where they were, momentarily frozen.

“Lord Duke,” Berger said, quiet, “I know I do far too much in asking anything of you.  Let me say only this.  If you’ll forgive us of this, I will give you a lifetime of service so devoted that other nobles will look on you in envy.”

“Agreed,” one of the professors echoed, barely audible.  The remaining two joined in, echoing him.

A switch was flicked.  The boy Duke jerked.

“Painkiller at three percent and ticking down.  He’s feeling it, but the edges are dulled.  We’ve got about ten minutes before painkiller is clear.  Can the next person with a free moment go fetch the nurses?”

Lying on the table, the Duke clenched one hand.

The Duke gazed out over the city.  It sloped, built on hillsides and cliffs, and the buildings sloped in their own individual way.  It was as if the city had been caught in a rockslide for the initial moment, and then froze in place.

The people in that frozen city were gathering, coordinated, at the other end, the mass of them at the harbor, marked by the torches and lanterns they held.

He had seen battlefields since he was six years old, and had studied battlefields for just as long.  Teachers had posited scenarios and he had been asked to solve them, or to find the best answer if it wasn’t solvable.  There very rarely was any middle ground between the two, in his experience.  They both called for radically different kinds of thinking.

With all of his experience, he was still mildly surprised to see how organized the people of this ramshackle city were.

“I like this moment,” Richmond purred.

The Duke turned his attention to the Baron, taking his time in doing so.  The Baron was a snake of a man, and everything about him completed that particular picture.  Straight golden hair swept back from his hairline and straight down the man’s back, his checkered scarf conjured scales to mind, and his method of dress was tailored very close to his body, marking a very lithe, sinuous figure, complete with long, jeweled fingers.  The teeth, eyes, and jewelry the man wore were designed to draw the eye.  When he desired it, he could beguile the unwary, drawing the eye this way, that way, and then lashing out in the next moment.

Richmond was as dangerous as a snake too, but that was all the more reason for the Duke to enjoy his company.  He imagined it was how ordinary people saw the world.  Didn’t life seem so much more like life with that breath of danger, where any bystander in the street could be a threat to one’s person?  A killer, an enemy to the state and its people, looking for a target?

Yes, the risk was very low, but a natural wariness kept the mind sharper.  That narrow possibility, however very slim it might be, it had to help, didn’t it?

“Before the battle, the tension, imagining possibilities.”

“Do you participate?” the Duke asked.

“Given the chance,” Richmond said.  “I understand that sometimes a particular battle doesn’t allow for it.”

He was asking for permission.

“We’ll see how it unfolds then,” the Duke said.  “Look at how they are clustering there.”

Fine hairs on the backs of his hands and neck alerted him to movement behind him.  He didn’t startle, and kept his reaction slow as he looked back at the twins.

The Baronets were identical in a way twins and even clones rarely were, each in old fashioned white gowns with fur collars, with pale, straight  blond hair.  They sat shoulder to shoulder, one with a hand in the other’s lap, caressing, the other with a hand at her sister’s chin, tracing the bottom lip with a gloved finger.  Both were leaning forward in the chairs that had been set down for them for a view, but not yet standing or intruding.

In unison, their eyes flicked up at the Duke.  In unison, they smiled, hands going down to their own laps as if they were small children that had been caught doing something naughty.

He didn’t particularly care.  In fact, he would rather they kept to such things if it kept them amused.  Their other form of amusement involved payments to families and quiet threats to ensure those families didn’t ask any questions about the whereabouts of their loved ones.  He didn’t have to busy himself with such things, but the people who worked for him did, and it was so much trouble to go to for a pair of bastards.

But he liked Richmond and so he tolerated them for the time being.  When Richmond was near the time he would go back home, the Duke might bait the sisters into a trap, having them kill someone they shouldn’t, just to remove one of them from the equation and see how the other crumbled.  If they were as incautious and mad enough to fall into the trap, the family would be better for their removal.

“Stand.  Step closer, and have a look for yourself,” the Duke said.

They stood.  Rather than walk, they seemed to glide, even on the uneven terrain.  They found positions on either side of their brother, hands falling on different positions on his body as they gazed out over the landscape of Lugh.

One raised a finger to her sister’s mouth, pressing it against the lips to silence her, before turning to the Duke, “So ugly a city.  I imagine it’ll be uglier by the time we’re through with it.”

The other raised her hand to a matching position as her sister’s hand fell away.  “Of course, ‘we’ would be the Crown.  We wouldn’t dare assume we’ll be allowed to participate.”

“I’ll contrive to give you a chance to amuse yourselves,” the Duke said.

The twins smiled.

“I’ve seen too many battlefields in my life.  I’m interested in a…” the Duke paused.  He picked his words to prick at Richmond’s pride without wounding it, “…Not a layman’s point of view, but an intelligent, inexpert one.  Or three, as the case may be.”

The flicker of a glance from Richmond was reward enough for the choice of words.

The twins raised fingers.  After a moment, one let their finger tick over to the side, indicating the other.  The other twin then spoke, “Considering the fires were only just set a little while ago, they’re very organized for people in such a disorganized place.”

“Exactly what I was going to say,” the first said.

“They are,” the Duke agreed.  “Organized people for a place that shouldn’t breed such.”

“A trap?” Richmond asked.

“It’s possible.  That said, I’m at a loss in figuring out what they expect to accomplish,” the Duke said.

His eyes took in the broader picture.

For every citizen carrying a torch down below, he had one stitched soldier, and those soldiers were gathering at the periphery of the city now, in tidy rank and file, twenty five soldiers to one handler.  The soldiers were equipped with uniforms and guns.  The citizens wouldn’t be.

That wasn’t counting the Crown’s rank and file soldiers, either.  A two to one numbers advantage, his forces had the high ground if they were advancing down the slope toward the harbor, and he didn’t even need to fight to win much of this conflict.  Fire and noxious clouds would flow downhill in advance of his troops and kill or cripple nine in ten members of the opposition.

Fifty warbeasts were ready, shackled and caged, ready to assault the city, and to his experienced eye, every one of the warbeasts his forces had at their disposal had been born this year or the year before.  Newer, better, stronger.  The best Radham Academy had to offer.

“Our enemies can be stupid,” Richmond said.  “They might have underestimated us.”

“They sent us evidence that they know how to create primordial life, with evidence of that life.  Stupid people can’t do that,” the Duke said.  “Anyone who knows enough about the primordial experiments knows the kind of response they have to bring about.”

The twins raised their fingers.  One deferred to the other.

“Perhaps it isn’t about the battle?”

“Yes, sister.  We’re on the same page,” the other twin said.  “They sacrifice a city to breed advantages elsewhere.  Could this be a diversion?”

The Duke didn’t answer the question.  He stared, watching, thinking.  Between the sea creatures in the water, his forces here at the east end of the city, his forces at the south end, and the mountains to the north, he had them boxed in.  He let his mind take the ideas and let the rest of the world slow down so he could think over everything in detail.

He didn’t know enough about the mountains.

He raised a hand.  The hairs on the back of his hands and neck were telling him about the movements all around him, the sway of branches with few leaves, the movement of wind, the movement of the twins, as one reached around Richmond to run a finger up and down her sister’s back, and now the approach of a military commander.  He moved his fingers slightly, letting his brain interpret the signals, reading the wind.  The one with the mustache and thick head of hair beneath his helmet, it seemed.  One of the good ones, as the mere humans went.

“My lord.”

The Duke extended a long finger.

“There should be enemies or traps in the mountains to the north of the city.  They plan to attack or hit us before the fire reaches too far into the city.  It may be a pincer attack, using the people we can see down there and the group in the mountains.”

“Yes, my lord.  Shall I spread the word?”

“Do.  Have Aversbad figure out the resources we have available in terms of setting our own traps.  Then get one legion of stitched and one legion of soldiers and prepare to assail the mountains.  Tell the first legion commander that you see that they’re to lead.  They stagger out the approach, send in the stitched first, to trigger any traps ahead of you before you send in the living.  Report back to me.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The man didn’t hesitate in departing.

The twins raised their fingers again.  They had to have a system to ensure they didn’t talk simultaneously.  When and if that happened, well, hearing one’s own voice with the wrong timing or cadence could disrupt one’s own speech.

“Problem solved?” one asked.

“Crisis averted?”

Richmond turned his head toward the Duke.  He smiled.  “No.”

“No,” the Duke agreed.  “How did you know, my friend?”

“You have that look in your eyes that I’ve only seen when you’re in a fight.”

“This is a fight,” the Duke said.  “Parry, thrust, move, counter-move.”

“Fair point.  But I meant that you have that look about you that I’ve only seen on two occasions, when you stood in the midst of a sea of corpses.”

Did he?  The Duke wondered, studying his own expression with a calculated measure of where and how his facial muscles were arranged.

Even I can learn something new from someone lesser like Richmond, he mused.  He wouldn’t have expected it, for the battlefield as an abstract to serve the same sort of role that hand to hand combat did for him.  To inflict pain, to experience it, it was as close to humanity as he got, now.  As close to living.

He quickly calculated the number of homes in Lugh, and estimated the population at one hundred and ten thousand.  A full third of that number was scattered, still, too far on the fringes to really feed into the center mass that was organizing so readily.  Men and women who worked in quarries and on farms at the outskirts.  Some were already being put to gunpoint by the Crown’s forces, or their homes were being torched.

Was it that more than eighty thousand people might die in the next twenty four hours, the vast majority on the enemy’s side, that woke up his blood and breathing so readily?  Death, blood and pain, if not directly by his hand?

Or was it the primordials that had allegedly been created, and the prospect of dealing with them, even personally?

The mood was somber as he walked down the length of the hallway.  The floor was treated wood, harder than stone, and roughly the same color, though the details were rich and it glowed silver under the light.  The walls and ceiling of the hallway were formed of a complex tangle of wood, grown and woven into braids and complex figures, smaller stones worked in between them.  Here and there, there were irregularly shaped glass panes, looking out on rocky cliffs with grass growing atop them.

A temple without a god, on an island that few could reach.

His body was new, he’d been looked after for the last time, and at ten years old, he stood taller than the average man.  Even with a cane, it was hard to move his new arms and legs without stumbling now and again.

The first three nights of agony had added to him, or taken away weaknesses.  Mind, body, and power.  The fourth had made him noble, physically better and more beautiful.  His genetics had been better than some, and he’d been presentable even before the last series of operations.  Some weren’t so lucky, and were cooped up away from the public eye for a full decade.

He walked in the company of his mother, aunt, and two of his cousins, Richmond and Geraldine.  He wasn’t sure what was going on, and instincts bred by ten years in the court told him he shouldn’t ask.  More and more, these days, what he was expected to know wasn’t told to him, but shown.

Nothing about that was new.  Every day, he was thrust into situations and others expected him to keep up.  A small failure could weaken his standing in the eyes of his extended family, and open him up to a lifetime of sabotage or small abuses.  A larger failure could ruin his chance of achieving anything at all before he died.

But, for the very first time since he was three years old, he was without the quartet of professors that looked after him, the tools they had implanted within him, and the adjustments they had made to his body and mind.

He hadn’t seen a single non-noble since he had stepped off the boat and onto this island crag.

Looking at Richmond or Geraldine could have been construed as an attempt to seek reassurance in an unsure situation.  He kept his eyes forward.

His aunt stepped forward and pushed open two double doors.  They passed into another hallway, darker than the last.

In the distance, someone screamed, unhinged, and he immediately knew where he was.

He relaxed, in one moment, and tensed in the next.

Should a noble need to be placed somewhere out of the public eye, they would come here.

He, so recently operated on, was a candidate for that placement.  Was there something wrong that he didn’t know about?

When he was three years old, his mind had been altered, to allow him to better control how fast he thought, and how he perceived the passage of time.  He had only mastered it a few years ago, and controlling it took effort that often left him exhausted at the day’s end.  Still, he kept up the practice, and his control improved.

In this moment, he let his awareness speed up, to better survey things from all of the angles.  A part of his thoughts were dedicated to making sure he maintained the same speed and pace.  Slowing his pace by a fraction would signal to others that something was wrong.

He contemplated how he might go about this, if this prison was indeed intended for him, if he needed to run, or else face imprisonment for the rest of his days, bereft of the doctors who were supposed to tend him, slowly going to pieces over decades.

In the end, he decided that he couldn’t beat his mother and aunt in a fight.  At least, not like this, with his body so new and untested.

He was scared.

His aunt pushed open the next set of double doors.  The next hallway was darker still, windowless, with water behind glass with bioluminescent creatures swimming on the other side, each of them casting out a lazy red glow that only barely lit the hallway.

The final set of double doors revealed a crowd.  Nine more members of the family, frozen like a tableau.

Further, beyond a thick pane of glass, was a man that the young Duke recognized as his uncle.

As beautiful as the man had been once, he was now broken, twisted, and gnarled.  Growths like tumors riddled him, but the tumors had a particular sort of aesthetic to them, sharp-edged, more growth than growth gone wrong.

The Archduke howled in pain, rage, and madness, before striking at the thick pane of glass.  Not a single person in the room flinched.

The young Duke, the nephew, joined his aunt, mother, and cousins in joining the frozen tableau, watching the man flail, cavort, and rage, changing his pattern of action from moment to moment.

“It’s taking his brain,” one of the nobles said.

It was a strange statement, in timing, and because it was so obvious.  The young Duke allowed himself to peer over the room, looking at each of the people within.  They were sculpted, every one of them altered, set one half-step away from ordinary people.  But where the trained eye could see the difference in quality of work, like the vast chasm between the Duke and his cousin Richmond, it was clear that the room was filled with lower quality nobles.

He was starting to understand where things stood.

His mother spoke.  “Spores from the growths infected no less than thirty people.  We’re working to find a way to clear them of the spores and the growths that sprout from them, but it appears grim.  Life finds a way to breed.  Life of this sort… all the more so.  It has to be stamped out before it finds its way.  Take this as a lesson.”

The only lesson he was taking was that this was something done with intent.

“The people infected, they were from Warrick castle?”

“Yes,” his mother said, glancing at him.

He could read things in that glance.  A warning, a touch of danger.

If he considered every noble residing in Warrick castle a casualty, then every single person in this room had just advanced no less than twelve steps closer to the Crown.  He himself had ascended from thirty-five steps away from the Crown to a mere twenty.  A massive power grab for everyone present.

That they were all here, gathered, only fed the conspiracy.

“Such things are not to be tampered with,” said another member of the conspiracy.  “Not to be toyed with.”

The Duke heard the words, and he believed them.  He knew the image of his uncle would be burned into his mind forever.

Five years ago, the Archduke had visited him while he was being given his second set of operations.  That night five years ago, and several times since, the man had showed an almost human kindness.  Tempered with a very inhuman cruelty, yes, the Duke remembered the point the man had made about pain, but the kindness was what lingered in the Duke’s recollection and left the deepest impression.

This meeting and this display was meant to communicate something, he knew, but he took it for something else.  A chance to say goodbye to one of the only people who felt something like family.

The Duke sensed someone approach the tent, and turned.  The Baron and Baronet twins looked over, as well.

“Lord Duke,” a man spoke from outside.

“Come in.”

An officer stepped into the tent.  “My lord.”

He was so very tired of the formality at this point, even if he understood the necessity of it.  “Speak.”

“My lord, you asked us to stop any couriers from leaving the city.  Forces approaching from neighboring regions stopped a mail courier traveling from Lugh, and we searched all correspondence…”

He handed over a letter.

The Duke took the letter, and then read it.

A complication, an advantage?  More the former than the latter.

He voiced his thoughts aloud.  “The Lambs are in the city, on another errand.  Interesting that they think their mission important enough to ask for help from another team on another job, but they didn’t think to tell their superiors.  Or the Crown.”

“Did they know about the primordials?” Richmond asked.

“I imagine they did.  We’ll have to give the order for the fire and plague to stop for the time being.  Let it spread on its own, that will be devastating enough.  But we want to move carefully here.”

“My lord?” the officer made it a question.

“Just for the time being.  Baron Richmond, Baronets.  You have your wish.  I have an errand for you.”

The Duke took a pen, and drew out a rough sketch, with notes beside it.

The Baron Richmond and the twins drew closer, looking.

This is one of the Lambs.  We have a vested interest in them.  Find them, and remove them from the city.  If you can’t, we’ll have to consider this a tragic loss.”

The Baron picked up the paper.  He read it, then showed it to the twins, before folding it up and putting it in a pocket.

“Anyone else,” the Duke instructed, “Anyone that gets in your way, kill them.”

“And the other Lambs?”

“Like I said,” the Duke spoke, “Anyone else that gets in your way.”

The trio nodded, and stepped from the tent.

The Lambs, and an enemy named in the letter that one group of Lambs had sent another, Mauer, who had some talent at battlefield strategy.  He’d dealt with Mauer’s forces before, and it never failed to be interesting.

But the primordial was what lingered in his mind.  An enemy that gun and sword couldn’t necessarily kill.  One that had killed his uncle.  He’d taken away a lesson from that day, as intended.  He couldn’t hold back or underestimate it in the slightest.  He had soldiers supposedly prepared for the task, but that might not be enough.

He turned to his doctor.  “Professor Berger, Adams, Cameron.  A checkup, if you please.  I want to make sure my weapons and body are prepared, if it comes down to it.”

The loyal professors wasted no time in attending to the task.

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94 thoughts on “Enemy (Arc 8)

  1. Duke, this is the part where you send your problematic relatives to their deaths in a way that no one will ever blame you for. You could not have a more perfect opportunity if you planned the entire thing yourself.

    Also, apparently the noble brain upgrades aren’t all that good if they’re going to stand on the same island as other nobles with primordial spores infesting their brains rather than pouring molten tungsten on them. That’s the kind of thing that ends with someone’s aunt calling herself the Queen Of Blades.

    • “Duke, this is the part where you send your problematic relatives to their deaths in a way that no one will ever blame you for. You could not have a more perfect opportunity if you planned the entire thing yourself.”

      Very interesting. But I wonder if he even conceived of the idea that the Lambs could or would take down nobles. When he thought of how to kill a sister, he didn’t think of this method.

      • Actually I was referring to having the primordials eat them, though admittedly the Lambs could very well feed them to the primordials. If the Lambs kill them directly the Duke could wind up being blamed. It makes sense to send nobles with a distinct fondness for monster hunting to fight extremely dangerous monsters, and no one would find it suspicious if the primordials managed to win that fight or even ask too many questions if it’s unclear who won because the Duke had his artillery fire incendiaries into the area until their barrels melted.

        • I’d say letting the primordials eat nobles sounds bad – they have had some of the best the Academy can offer done to them, so I wouldn’t want any primordials getting their mouths on it…

  2. Typo thread ?

    “I’ll seconded.”

    “The loyal professor wasted no time in attending to the task.”
    Unless something terrible happened to them, I assume professors A., B. & C. are 3 different people. No noble would accept being worked on by a three-headed monkey, am I right ?

  3. The Duke has a weird crush on humanity. He’s so tsundere. Oh god. Now I’m imagining the Duke in a sailor outfit and no no no stop me. I’m very scared by how inhuman the royalty is :/ They really only see humans as their tools, don’t they? A few billion of them. They’d have them all exterminated if they didn’t need them for their science and for food and other such tasks. Such an irrational way of looking at life. “Look at all the things I can’t do, but I can force other people to do for me. I’m so great and they are so shit”.

    Worst of all, the Duke has nooo clue what us, unenhanced humans see in life.

    I’m surprised the Duke appreciates the Baron, and the Baron reminds me of the Malfoys.

    • I think the Duke, at least, sees them like we see “dumb” animals or plants – obviously not worth as much as one of our own, but not worth *nothing*. He even envies them their simple thought processes sometimes.
      That makes me think he may want that one Lamb (sy is my bet, although I can see Lil or Jamie too) as a pet.

  4. So is this where we all avoid guessing which Lamb is the target of the nobles because Wildbow is watching? I find the phrasing interesting,

    “This is one of the Lambs. We have a vested interest in them. Find them, and remove them from the city. If you can’t, we’ll have to consider this a tragic loss.”

    Either referring to the Lamb in question as them is a typo, the Duke doesn’t really care about gender, or the Lamb in question could be construed as a plural *cough cough* Jamie *cough*. I guess we’ll find out…

    • I wonder if it could be Gordon since some of those transplants could be from females. But he’s dying, so there’s no point to getting him.

      Unless Lillian has something she’d like to tell us. Or Sylvester. Maybe his reflection’s been hijacked by some strange tart with… hilariously, time-appropriate clothing, and this is a lead-in to a sequel to Pact.

      What if it’s Hubris? What if the dog has been the greatest antagonist the whole time?

      • Vg pbhyq gbgnyyl or n yrnq va gb Cnpg. Boivbhfyl ol Cnpg gvzrf zhpu unf orra ybfg gb gur qrzbaf, naq guvf jubyr Npnqrzl aba-frafr sbetbggra nobhg. Vs gung vf gur pnfr abj jbhyq or n svggvat gvzr sbe n Oneore gb fubj hc. Yvy pbhyq trg gur zrqvpny znfgrel fur nyjnlf jnagrq!

      • I think it’s Evette. You know, that Lamb who stayed in the background the whole time? The problem solver? The Duke would certainly be intrested in a creature with such outstanding stealth skills.

        • Evette? She doesn’t exist yet, if she ever will. And saving the Lambs here, or sacrificing them, has no standing in Evette becoming a project. If the Duke wants Evette, he’ll have one done.

          • Of course she does exist, she was around at least since first arc. Don’t you remember what Sy told Mary about her, back in 1.07?
            Or do you believe in all that bluff Sy narrated to confuse us? He was just trying to reinforce her concealment, to hide her even from readers! Wake up, sheeple!

    • I took the line to mean that the Baron and twins should look for a kid like in the drawing; the rest will be with said kid. They should take all the Lambs with them, if possible, for they have an interest in all of them. If not, they aren’t /thaaaaaat/ important anyway.

      • Except that the Duke implied that all the other Lambs were expendable implying that his instructions referred only to a single lamb.

        • The Duke basically issued a kill order for the rest of them. Sure, the way it’s structured that would normally be an order to absolutely ensure the retrieval of one and consider the others expendable if necessary, but he gave murderous sadists permission to kill people. They’re not likely to pass up a chance.

    • I’m pretty sure he’s referring Sylvester. The Duke always had a veiled interest in him, and since he is pretty much the prototype of Fray, the system’s current worst enemy, he’s quite valuable.

      • I think Lilian is far more valuable from a strategic standpoint, the one the Duke is most likely to consider. It has been underplayed and not in the focus of the story, but she is an outstanding, one in a billion, genius.

        • Lillian is the only irreplaceable one here. Everyone else could, in principle, be replicated by the Academy. It might be hard to get Sylvester’s idiosyncrasies just right, since he’s honed his abilities with the Lambs and their experiences in mind, so he might be another possibility. You could construct an argument for Jaime, since he’s brand new, the Duke may want access to his memories from the past arc, and his loyalties aren’t in doubt. That’s pretty weak though, so I’d still bet on Lillian with Sy as a distant second.

          • I really don’t think it’s Lilian, especially with an implicit “kill the others” attached. Lilian is just a human. A really, really smart human, but not unique and it’s far from clear that she is presently able to outperform Hayle. The only role she’s got that they couldn’t fill with a black coat is Lamb medic/science officer.

            She also isn’t any less replaceable than any of the others present. All of them are augmented/modified humans raised from birth and thus would take a minimum of a decade to replace from scratch. They could make a Mary-style clone of Lilian in a similar timeframe, even assuming that not one other student in the entire empire is genetically capable of matching her.

            Also, while I agree that she’s generally underestimated and her long-term prospects are excellent, I seriously doubt the Duke thinks that highly of her. I think in a decade or two she could become one of the top Academy bio-scientists, and if the Duke agreed this mission wouldn’t be happening. The Lambs have always had only limited physical combat power, and their two top fighters not presently suffering heart failure are elsewhere, so deploying them as they are always risks Lilian dying if they happen to run into something nasty and not subject to psychological warfare (like if the primordials had broken loose before the Lambs even knew about them). He thinks well of her, but if he actually thought that highly of her then back during Lamb To The Slaughter he’d have overruled everyone and stopped deploying her with the Lambs.

            In his position I would be strongly inclined to remove her from field deployments. Someone else could fill in as field medic, or the Lambs as a whole could become a headquarters intelligence section. If it’s important to her future to go into the field, Helen, Mary, and Gordon stick to her like glue. And in any case her schedule has absolutely no room for “score brownie points with wannabe nobles.”

    • “Them” is kinda confusing, but it must just be a speech quirk for nobles, i understood that he simple gave the order to extract Sy and kill the rest (second part is given explicit in next paragraph)

    • Jamie’d make the most sense. They could replace any of the other “roles” without much being lost (at least in the long term). Replacing Jamie might mean losing the information that makes Jamie valuable.

  5. Fire, plague, angry peasants with pitchforks, dark weather, biopunk monstrosities, and that’s before you add in Mauer, the Duke, and Sy all having their own plans.

    This is what the Duke seeks. He doesn’t care about the city, about the burning and the thrill of battle, cutting down common humans while wading through a sea of corpses, fire, bile, and miscellaneous fluids. Killing humans gets old, but outsmarting an intellectual equal and inviting the opportunity for them to win one is just dangerous enough that it satisfies him in ways Richmond never could.

    (Not like that.)


    So the Duke (Sy) is a cold, calculating, intellectual dervish. Except he (Sy) has something that he holds on to which gives him something akin to a feeling of humanity (almost feeling hope). That uncle (Lillian) meant something to him, and he’s determined to see his killer eradicated (her succeed in her career in the Academies) no matter the cost.

    Also, I should mention he finds battles with Mauer interesting. Do we know how old the Duke is? To bring that topic of a genderbent Mauer back, we may as well de-age the Duke and throw that into the mix, because I love watching everything spiral off into a hundred tangents of omni-directional chaos.

    Then there’s the fact that if the barons are on the hunt, the Lambs don’t know what they’re after. I can just see it now, Sy alone in the rain on a stormy ship, facing down the Duke, his probably-not-incest noble relatives, his mind running at a thousand miles trying to get one over him to save whoever the Duke marked for retrieval.

    (Now I feel we need a crossover with Sy, Blake, and Taylor. Preferably one where they’re all excellent at improvising, but terrible at working with each other. Because overcoming that is where true friendship is forged.)

    • I would LOVE to see Blake and Sy working together. They both have a tendency to abandon parts of their self to achieve their goals. With Blake it was more apparent on the outside, with Sy its more on the inside and we can see this in how he continuously tries to save the others more than himself.

    • I feel like out of the three Taylor and Sy would probably be able to work together best because they have a similar sense of ruthlessness. (And by best, l mean least terribly, because Sy’s still more ruthless than she is.)

        • imo all of them are moral. They are just more realistic and pessimistic than normal moral characters, making them more focused on the purpose than the means. They need it, in the world each of them has to face.

    • I think we need a romcom where a genderbent mauer and duke, and Fray, fight over Sy…
      Or maybe just de age them and have at it! Each would be funny in its own way. Maybe throw Percy in for good measure, or genderbend Sy as well so she doesn’t feel left out.

  6. Maybe a typo…. I can’t understand this sentence

    “The Lambs, and an enemy named in the letter that one group of Lambs had sent another, Mauer, who had some talent at battlefield strategy.”

    another what? an enemy? The Lambs are sending the enemy? They’re sending a letter?

  7. Excellent chapter. The Enemy interludes (and interludes in general) are always a good read. I nearly like the Baron now…and I think I do like the Duke.

    What Lamb could the Duke be interested in? Jamie would be my first guess, Lillian a distant second, Sy third, and Gordon fourth.

    I put Lillian so high because Sy and Gordon seem very replaceable, when all is said and done (and Gordon’s scheduled to kick it soon). Even if the Duke is personally interested in Sy, he says “we” have a vested interest, not “I”. The tone of the interlude makes it seem like the Duke would consider an up and coming young doctor a useful asset to the royals.

    • But Lillian’s just a normal human. Personally I think Jamie is most likely since he’s the most difficult to replace if he’s killed in action, followed by Sy. Gordon seems less likely since he’s near the end of his shelf-life anyway and he’s more functional than innovative in his design so he seems less likely to be the one that the nobles have a particular interest in.

    • I think Sy is pretty hard to replace. Not only would they have to find someone else who can take the doses of Wyvern he did, and wait years for them to get to his level of proficiency, there’s also no guarantee that whoever it is would be specced like Sy – just look at Frey, who got a completely different skillset despite taking the same formula.

  8. Second thought:

    So now we know that one primordial managed to kill several nobles at once. Granted, it was in a very different form than the four now (contagious everythingcancer? goodness…), and there’s no telling how long the guys making it had to prepare it, or whether they had a more controlled method of guiding its development than the “pray to RNGesus” method used in Lugh, but that still puts their threat level at something very high. Helps to explain why the Academy reacts with such extreme force to them beyond nebulous threats of genocidal singularities.

    • You understand why the Crown reacts which such force.
      You’d think the Academy would have the good sense, given the example of a noble-killing weapon, to ask “great, how can we make more”?

      • On second thoughts, maybe a lot of people in the Academy think that, as horrible as the Crown is to them, if the Academy ruled directly their situation would be worse because of the infighting between different academies.
        However from what we’ve seen I don’t really believe that is true. The crown is REALLY ruthless. They kill people they don’t need to kill to keep others in line, simply because it amuses them to do so. And they kill the loved ones of people who work against them. Literally any mode of governance would be better for the academies.

        • I’m pretty sure the lack of an Academy revolt reflects disunity among their members rather than lack of capacity. They made the nobles and they can unmake them. The nobles can’t stand against the physical superweapons or massed warbeasts, and their chemical and biological warfare defenses are what the Academy gives them. But power in the Academy comes from pleasing the nobles, and a small-scale rebellion will be put down brutally by the nobles.

          Also, the primordials killing the nobles is not particularly a good recommendation for using them. They can’t be controlled or predicted, which is why Mauer is using them for suicide troops rather than concealing them deep in rebel territory to develop into countless superweapons.

          Ultimately, the power and threat of the primordials is that they can be anything. Any instance, at least any somewhat young one, is going to be somewhere in the set of things that can be defeated, but no one knows exactly where and it can change within weeks. So the Academy comes down like a hammer, bringing the capacity to kill anything. Stitched are strong, tough, and immune to poison and plague. If the primordials can exploit a weakness in them and defeat them by the thousands, the living troops can move in. If they’re a physical threat beyond the capabilities of guns, fifty warbeasts can pull them down. If they’re infesting spores, they’ll be consumed in a wall of fire. If they’re fireproof and can defeat humans, stitched, and warbeasts that outnumber them tens of thousands to one, well, there’s a reason the Academy hurries.

          And this would make them perfect weapons if they did what they were told. They don’t.

          • Which is why it’s a good thing the Lambs took out Candy’s primordial project when they did. Something like that with pseudo-immortality, giving it the durability to live through more punishment and experiment with otherwise fatal mutations on top? That wouldn’t just be a worst-case scenario, it might be more than the Academy is able to handle.

          • This makes me think of The Andromeda Strain (good movie).
            [Spoilers for the movie follow in rot13]
            Nf sne nf V haqrefgnaq vg, n cevzbeqvny unf tbg gb ng yrnfg fgnl jvguva gur pbasvarf bs univat QAN, be orvat pneoba – onfrq, zhpu yvxr Naqebzrqn pbhyqa’g trg evq bs vgf onfvp fhycuhe znxrhc. Nf fhpu, V’z cerggl fher n pbhcyr gubhfnaq qrterrf jbhyq xvyy vg. Znlor vg pna rfpncr vagb gur ngzbfcurer nf grzcrengher erfvfgnag fcberf, ohg gung fbhaqf uneq gb ribyir fhqqrayl.

          • “I am inclined to suspect that one still burns nicely. But yeah, it would have been real trouble.”

            I am inclined to suspect that one still burns nicely. Yeah, it will still have been real trouble.

            Fixed that for you 😉

          • @Bart

            Probably, yeah. Last we saw it, it was in a position it couldn’t possibly escape from and left for dead. Nothing says it can’t suddenly adjust to eat its own waste products and live just long enough for someone to wonder what’s chained up at the bottom of the death pit. Failing that, it’s been established that primordials can model themselves off things they eat, and IIRC Candy is still in the area with four of them running around…

  9. During the Duke’s surgery, there appear to be four professors working on him. Three of them appear to be with him at the end. An unknown fourth player to be revealed at a later date?

    • Puzzling…
      – four voices greet the Archduke,
      – the Duke’s being handled by ‘three people at the same time’,
      – when they discuss the painkiller issue, they reach a consensus with three voices,
      – four professors resume working on the Duke,
      – lastly, we only hear three names.

  10. “Baronet” is only used for males, and is a hereditary title of its own (no relation to Baron). Using that word for a female bastard of a Baron is confusing three times over.

    Also, Wildbow seems to write too many villains of the “pain is fun” variety. I can recall a bunch from Worm, Pact, and now Twig as well.

    • I’m certainly not complaining. If this were in novel format rather than serial format I wouldn’t be surprised if Wildbow villains became a trope rather than became categorized under one, that’s how good they are.

      Certainly, there are elements of his characters and his writing that recur, and some of the darker themes really make me worry about, er, the author, but those elements are fleshed out with enough attention to detail and enough varied nuance that I’ve never thought they were “too” anything.

      Plus, other motivations exist! Even within this story, our villains are driven by “greater good”, “love of humanity”, “love of science”, “love of freedom”, and such things.

      If you were to talk about something that does happen often, it’s that everyone has a dark or ugly backstory. That was kind of explained in Worm due to the whole setting and setup, but I found that happier characters in Worm, Pact, and Twig don’t get as much time spent on their characterization.

      Wildbow is great at showing rays of hope amidst a pretty bad situation, but he doesn’t tend to write cheery characters who are just happily privileged. Maybe that’s a challenge from me, maybe that’s just not meant to be.

      Then again, everyone has their demons.

  11. Wow.

    I like the Duke. I liked him the first time around, and I like him more now.

    Don’t get me wrong, he’s a bad guy and a serious antagonist, with a very good explanation as to why he’s evil, but I like him.

  12. I feel like we have enough information to figure out which Lamb the Duke wants. Gordon, Sy, Jamie, Lillian. Exactly one of them, let’s call him/her X. We know that the Duke has seen X in person. We know that it’s a bit less likely that X is Sy, since the Baron remembers Sy, and there is no need for a sketch. However, maybe the sketch is for the benefit of the twins, so we cannot rule him out completely.

    It’s almost impossible that the Duke wants Gordon and Lillian. Gordon is dying, and Lillian is gifted, but not unique. They are not valuable, except in some very special circumstances.

    Most likely option is Jamie, less likely Sy. Why would the Duke want Jamie specifically? Or Sy, for that matter? The only

    We also can assume that the Duke considers sending the Baron and the twins into Luge a trap. Rightly so. They may be enhanced, but nobles will stand out in any crowd, and they are up against 80k armed people. Fuck the primordials, the real danger are the very angry, organized people who believe the Crown will try to exterminate them.

    Now, how can 3 nobles with no backup find one person in a city of a hundred thousand? Sure, they probably have eidetic memory and perfect night vision, but that is far from enough. One option is to make a lot of noise, then wait and see who shows up. That strategy has very obvious risks. They may try to deduce where X will probably be and go there. That means seeking out Mauer and the primordials. Again, probably not a good plan. And, final and best option, they can go the rendezvous point, if such is explicitly mentioned in the letter.

    Basically, there are pretty much no good outcomes for Richmond and the Baronets.

    There is a final alternative that fits a little bit better. Maybe the sketch is not of any Lamb. Maybe the point of the sketch is simply to put Richmond and the twins in danger.

        • I guess that depends on how much he’s supposed to be baby-sitting them. No one would be surprised that they wanted to, it would make sense to have skilled hunters fight super-monsters, and no one would be surprised if they died doing it. If he’s specifically supposed to keep them from getting themselves killed doing something stupid then people would object, but otherwise it’s a perfect chance.

      • If eating candy blood gave that one primordial such a boost, I don’t want to see what noble eating would give any others.
        He might also dislike giving people to primordials, given his uncle.

  13. Ahh, that Duke’s perspective makes me remember a song Land Of Confusion)
    >The men of steel, these men of power
    >Are losing control by the hour
    He is effective and I can respect that. Ever-fighting-for-status – but at least effective, having an area of expertise and trying to self-improve.

  14. I found the Duke interesting before, but now I actually like him.

    He seems almost sympathic to me. The life of the nobility is like an augmented nightmare of what the life of ordinary nobles would be. All the intrigues and backstabbing of politics, amplified tenfold by the horrors of mad scientists.

  15. The duke is after his “son” … Gordon. He is physically modified already which is one of the rights of being a noble. Probably just waiting on the final surgery. His father has made his pain a different kind. Since he is getting all new kinds of mods he needs new kinds of pain.

  16. Reading through a lot of recent chapters in order, after a time of busyness when I didn’t have time to read anything.
    Pity felt for the young Duke with pain switched to, more than if there had been pain the whole while.
    Warmth felt at learning that he did not take revenge!

  17. I love how, even in giving the Duke’s doctors a brief flash of characterisation, Wildbow makes it clear that they are still “those three irrelevant nonentities who follow the Duke around” by giving them names that correspond to A, B and C.

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