My eye didn’t hurt as much as I might have anticipated, but the area around it was swollen, and the swelling felt as though it was pressing inward. The mental image of the eyeball in ruins and the eyelids caving in on the resulting depression stuck with me, reinforced with every throb. The throbbing of my head and my eye were out of sync with one another, a quarter-second removed.
I’d been introduced to the pain scale as one of my very first memories. Agony and I were very long-time acquaintances, and I knew it well enough to be able to think of a dozen memories for any point along that scale, in a variety of flavors. I knew what a ten felt like.
The eye pain was a three. The alien ‘caving in’ sensation, the profound discomfort, and the ill-timed throbbing were a good solid eight on the whole ‘messing with Sy’s head’ scale.
We were flanked by the twins and a squad of soldiers. The soldiers I could deal with, if the cards fell down right. The noble twins, however, I wasn’t sure how to handle that.
I’d drawn them this far using sadism. Now, to look at them, or to look at one of them, since it was too obvious when I looked to the one to my left, I could see an energy in her stride. Her eyes were alert, and she swished more than she had earlier, in her brother’s company. The way she moved played with the flow of her coat, and with what must have been a massive weight in fabric, that simple playfulness utilized more strength than Jamie and I had between us, too. The placement of her feet wasn’t automatic, but chosen.
I’d seen that swish in Mary, and I’d seen the predatory alertness in Helen.
Another person in my situation could have taken the same clues and suggestions and ended up with one of a dozen different conclusions, even someone else with more years of studying people under their belt than I’d spent on the Crown’s green earth. The less talented ones would have read the added movement as annoyance, dissatisfaction, irritation, ill temper, or drugs. The Twins were hard to read, and their expression didn’t suggest anything positive or negative, but bias and a few misleading elements like the periodic use of nails as the one caressed my scalp and the tension in her hand could have thrown someone off.
The more talented ones would have read it as excitement, childlike enthusiasm, playfulness or simple restlessness. There were only three people I’d ever met who I suspected understood people well enough to guess at something like arousal or hunger. If I hadn’t had the benefit of knowing Helen or Mary, I might have been one of them.
But I did have the benefit. Putting the two together, that mix of confidence and an aching desire to stretch their muscles and act, with that bizarre mix of hunger and arousal?
It wasn’t an emotion most humans had any experience with. Bloodlust. It only existed when killing and hurting were an intrinsic part of one’s makeup, and the need to exercise it became a need as fundamental as eating and breathing. The rush, the intensity, it left one wanting to feel the sensation again.
I’d experienced it, but it was always tempered with a sentiment like, ‘but it’s such a pain in the ass to do, killing people’. I wasn’t good at it, I had to contrive to make it happen, and then there was the issue of finding people who needed to be killed. Once that bar was met, I had to make sure I was allowed to kill them, which was how Rick back at Lambsbridge met the bar and subsequently didn’t. By the time things got that far and I found a good position, someone else in the Lambs usually beat me to it.
I’d learned the sensation, I could understand how people liked to kill, and that was a very useful thing when tracking down killers and monsters, and when plotting how to kill two nobles and their entourage while wearing shackles.
Knowing what my enemy wanted was one of two assets I had at my disposal here. Jamie was the other, and I couldn’t communicate with him like this. The twins were too sharp, and it wouldn’t take much at all for them to turn that bloodlust toward me.
My eye throbbed, and I thought for a moment I could see with it, until I remembered that it was so bandaged and covered up that no light would penetrate to reach my eye, and it wasn’t all that bright out despite that.
The phantom images of spots of light and literal sparks of pain flashing across the darkness made me think of the Baron, and I could see him standing before me, the sword penetrating my skull – only through the eye socket, but even so.
I forced myself to unclench my hands, and with communication with Jamie being so limited, not wanting to move my hands so much that the Richmond Twins might notice, I could only keep it in one sign.
It was a sign in the abstract, and while we’d used it for regular activity and for combat and other encounters at the outset, as we’d developed more accurate gestures we’d relegated it mostly for conversation, to encourage someone to take a more in-their-face approach to arguing with someone, to lean on them more, to attack if an opportunity was seen.
To sign charge would have been misleading, as would attack or hurt.
By avoiding eye contact, leaving the gesture, I was leaving it up to Jamie to read. He had only one task at present, one avenue to act and one reason to speak.
“Turn right. Main road, my ladies,” he said.
He pointed us in the direction of the plague men.
In the corner of my eye, I saw the twin to my right smile. I could only assume the other one was wearing a matching expression.
The reaction was alarming. I wanted them to open their mouths to talk to me, to taunt, and to shed some light on what was happening. It was as if they were well and truly aware of what we were doing.
Marching straight for the nearest fight.
My heart pounded. I was used to feeling in control. I could count the people who made me feel a lack of that control on one hand, if I cheated a little The Duke was one, at the periphery of this situation. The Twins were another one, a matter of feet away. The Baron, if I was counting by the fingers of one hand, got the middle finger, of course.
Jamie, one of the last two, was my fellow prisoner in this situation.
The hand on my head moved around down the back of my head to the back of my neck. The fingers seized me.
Feeling imbalanced was making it a lot easier to feel afraid, and that wasn’t a thing I liked to do. I tried to be analytical, to distract myself. She could have guided me with a single finger, pressing on the back of my head, and demonstrated her power and control over me that way. Someone hungry for relevance would do something like that. Instead, she showed me the immense strength in her hands.
Another detail to hold onto, in case it became useful later.
We went to one side of the street, half of the soldiers accompanying us. Jamie and the other twin went to the other.
My heart rate picked up as we separated. My captor gestured something I couldn’t see, and the soldiers took cover, hiding.
We were a few streets up from where the wagons had been. The Twin that held me had her back to a wall between two houses, and held me close to that same wall. The soldiers were packed into the dark, narrow space.
“Shh,” the Twin told me. There was no need for the instruction – Her hand on the back of my throat, she adjusted her grip, and the tips of her long fingers pressed down on my windpipe, blocking off my flow of air.
All I could do was endure, let the anger burn in my head, and seek opportunity.
Enemies are close, I thought. You’re brimming with bloodlust, you want to fight, and you can’t do that with us in tow. Not easily. You separated us to make it harder for us to collaborate and break free while you’re stepping away to pick a fight.
I just had to decide how I could break free while she was gone and if I could get Jamie free. If not this time, then another. If there were clues I could use-
Her grip on my neck shifted. Two fingers pulled away from my throat, touched my ear, and traced through my hair on their way to the other side of my throat. Her index and middle fingers, logic told me, moving over to the side of my throat with her thumb. Her ring finger and little finger remained at my adam’s apple, still exerting a surprising amount of force.
Something was wrong. Two fingers on either side of my throat?
The index finger traced my jugular, slow.
“My coat,” she said.
“Yes, my lady,” the man dutifully responded.
She let go of my neck.
This was my opportunity to run. I knew that.
She knew that.
It felt like bait, and I didn’t bite.
The captain of the unit that accompanied us reached back, and caught the bulk of her coat as she slowly shrugged it free, letting it fall.
I turned my head to look, and saw her looking down at me from her relatively towering height. All ivory skin. To call it pale would have been a misnomer. She was statuesque, and she was utterly naked beneath her coat.
And, like the weaving cut of a jigsaw puzzle or a snake entwining her body, I could see a thread of gold. It moved as she did, more a liquid vein than something more serious, tracing a corkscrew path down each arm, around her back, down one shoulder, and reaching down to short-trimmed pubic hair, before breaking apart to spiral down each leg.
As she moved, the line, narrow as it was, broke in two. The two halves of her body separated. Her breast seemed to leap out and down, before wrenching itself to one side, the skull within stretched against skin as it pulled to one side, opening its jaw wide. Half of a head of wet golden hair draped out and down to cover the nipple.
The front of the breast was the back of the creature’s head, and that breast, however soft it might have looked, was probably hard to the touch. Weighing no more than eighty pounds, the creature pulled away from the Twin, leaving her incomplete, nearly half of her body carved away with her none the worse for wear. Half of the flesh of her legs and feet, half of the flesh of her arms, and much of her chest cavity didn’t exist. It had simply been a spot for this thing to nestle into, a fit with but one seam.
The thread of gold to beautify a singular scar for a monstrous alteration to her body.
She arched her back, as if in ecstasy, and the thing reached into the void at one side of her body, grabbing hold of her spine, and withdrew two spikes of metal that ran parallel to it. Like the claws of a praying mantis, the spikes were pointed at one end, sharp-edged, and had knobs of bone at the fatter end. The creature that had pulled away pressed the ends of its upper limbs into the knobs until something clicked in a very solid way. Three fingers were now at the ‘elbow’ of a long limb, the spike extending the rest of the way. It moved on all fours, spikes against the ground. It was twisted, gnarled, hunched over at the shoulders, a skeletal gargoyle charcoal in color with strips of ivory flesh winding around it, giving it form and the ability to move, crowned by long golden hair that seemed out of place on the figure, draping one side of its face and running down its back.
“Were you listening, sister?” the Twin asked, her voice a mere breath. “Did you hear them?”
The thing rasped out a breath, gurgling.
The twin bent down and kissed it on the forehead. “That’s right. Seven. Don’t go and leave the seventh alive because you want to be fair. Kill him together.”
The gargoyle climbed the wall so fast it might as well have flown.
Up the space between buildings, touching both walls with overlong arms, onto the roof, and gone.
Not one second later, I heard the heavy blast of an Exorcist rifle, then another.
“My coat, please,” she said, absolutely unconcerned.
“Y-yes, my lady.”
She’d been slender for a person of her stature, statuesque, and it had made me wonder to see the weight of her coat, the way it moved, and her strength in how she moved even as she wore it. Armor panels within the fabric, I suspected. Plates of steel or iron to catch bullets, perhaps, if not simply for effect.
Seeing her now, with perhaps a third or two-fifths of her mass now scampering over rooftops, I was left to watch as she took the weight of the coat, barely sagging under the burden.
She reached out to touch my face with an ivory ring and pinky finger, and the two added fingers and a thumb of charcoal-colored bone that had unfolded to extend from the gap.
The name took on a new meaning.
“Quadruplets, milady?” I asked.
“No, Lamb,” she said. “Our precious younger sisters,” she said. She used that still-iron grip to usher me out into the street where the approaching plague men were.
The seven men were dead. Two of the skeletal gargoyle twins were perched amid the carnage, each a mirror to the other, licking blood off of the spikes with long tongues.
The younger sisters would have been bastards too. I could imagine how the story went. Their Baron father, exasperated, might have decided they should be hidden, that the bitter and biting tongues of nobles talking to nobles couldn’t have more fodder. With the other set of twins just three years older, ready for their first set of operations. By the time people found out that there were two more, the Twins would have had a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness.
I kicked myself for not considering heavier experimentation a possibility. The Baron Richmond wasn’t as impressive as the Duke, because he hadn’t had the same clout, power, and money that was needed to get the very best doctors for the very best surgeries and experiments. Richmond had gone the mundane route, and mundane remained very, very impressive, paling only in comparison to the likes of the Duke. The Twins had been taken down the experimental route, more monstrous than a self-respecting noble would allow, riskier and more questionable.
But still the very best sort of work that was out there. The sort of work I suspected Ibott wanted to do.
Fear, respect, and anger mixed in equal quantity as we reunited with the other group, all the while approaching the carnage the golden-haired gargoyle-twins had wrought. I could see the holes the spikes had punched in neck, chest, and stomach, and the places where slashing cuts hadn’t just torn throats out but had destroyed them.
Explosive strength in a small package.
One opened its mouth wide, and with only a dark membrane of flesh, there wasn’t much to keep that skull-face from opening all the way, sharp teeth bared. The tongue stuck out and waggled at me, two feet long.
The other only huffed for breath, the thin covering of gray-black skin at the two nostrils on the noseless face flaring open and closed repeatedly. Neither had been hit by the shots from the advanced rifles.
Don’t think about the fact that you have two more nobles you effectively have to kill, I told myself. Look for the clues.
The eyes, if there were any, were small and dark, in eye sockets filled with shadow. No expressions beyond mouth opening and mouth closing, a unique language of gurgles and hisses. Not social creatures.
They were killing machines. Fast, strong, with explosive strength.
The nobles wanted to show their strength off. She’d held my neck. They had mounted this attack when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
Jamie was tense, hunched over a bit, his neck held firmly by the Twin that had him, like mine was by the one that had me. I was shorter, so I wasn’t forced down, but Jamie had an inch or two on me, and because the Richmond Twins kept their arms in the same place and at the same angle, Jamie was forced lower.
Symmetry, always symmetry.
Except for the younger twins. One opening its mouth, waggling its tongue, the other breathing.
Keep the anger cold and efficient, I told myself. Being unfocused now could be disastrous. I was already slipping, things falling to pieces around the edges. I could retain memories I focused on and build up a repertoire of facts and observations, and those facts and observations could be the only way to escape, if we were even that lucky. But if I slipped, then I’d lose track, and I’d miss a detail, and I’d find myself kicking myself for it over and over while Jamie and I were fed to the younger Twins.
In an instant, both sets of Twins turned their heads to look in the same direction. Two sets of eyes and two sets of skeletal eye sockets remained pointed in the same direction.
A moment later, the younger twins were dashing through the darkness, never in a straight line.
We continued our brisk walk, the Twin letting go of my neck to keep one hand on my head instead.
Three civilians, dead before we even reached them, still-dripping blood painting the road and the faces of buildings on either side of them. The same savage, efficient killing we’d seen with the plague men.
On par with Dog and Catcher, or the Hangman, in terms of quality, if not stronger. But there had to be drawbacks. A reason the Richmond twins didn’t have the younger twins out at every opportunity. If the Academy could make experiments that dangerous, there had to be a reason there weren’t a handful on every battlefield.
That kind of explosive strength… perhaps a lack of stamina.
Not enough to warrant them being this uncommon. They probably needed a stern hand, too. Or a particularly loving one. Being raised with a sister, it was effectively full time care with a trainer. One they were dependent on? Were the elder twins a food source? An absolute necessity?
We found another pile of bodies that the younger twins had assaulted. More civilians of Lugh, though these ones had guns. Militants, enemy soldiers that might have fired on us. They hadn’t even had a chance to pull a trigger before the six of them were cut down.
The twin to my right raised a hand, finger extended, then pointed to her sister.
“Are we close, Lambs?” the elder sister asked. She pointed to her sister.
“I’m feeling impatient,” the one to my right said. “We could amuse ourselves with this one. Break the fingers on one hand, perhaps?”
“We’re close, miladies,” Jamie said. He turned his head my way.
“I saw that,” the one to my left said. “Please do a better job of lying to us in the future. I’d so hate to have to kill you for your bald-faced dishonesty before anything interesting has unfolded.”
“We are close, my lady,” Jamie said. “They were around here.”
He was telling the truth.
“I’ll keep an eye out, miladies,” I said.
And he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were fixed on a point in the distance.
I didn’t dare look in the same direction, for fear of tipping them off. I waited, continuing to walk.
The Duke was my barometer, the yardstick by which I measured and made guesses about the nobles’ behavior. Holding the Richmond Twins against him as a comparison, something rang as off about their impatience, wanting to find the twins sooner than later.
Impatience suggested I was right. That the younger twins couldn’t be out and about for too long before they needed sustenance, rest, and the security of nestling into their elder sisters.
There was a window of opportunity here. Within a few minutes, maybe five, but no more than fifteen, the killing spree would end, and so would the elder twins’ patience. But with the younger twins called back and put away to rest.
All we had to do was figure out a way to deal with the elder twins, their soldiers, and the two monsters, while shackled, within that span of time.
Enough time had passed.
I looked to my left, under the guise of searching the environment. I nearly missed him on the first view.
There, under the eaves, lying on his side as though dead, was the body of a dog, partially dusted in snow.
Dead? He wasn’t moving an inch, lying there. His eyes were open, staring, and unblinking.
I looked, and I didn’t see signs of violence, but not all gunfights would have them. I couldn’t see any other hiding places for Lillian and Gordon.
Not long ago, I’d been ruminating on how I had to trust the other Lambs.
I extended that trust, moving my hand in gestures. It was easier because I wasn’t signaling Jamie.
Wait. Signal. You. Hide. Help.
And then I couldn’t see him anymore, and he certainly couldn’t see me anymore. I hoped his eyes hadn’t clouded over an hour ago.
We were close, if Hubris was there, I told myself.
We were close, and there was only so much time to plan. The problem was, it wasn’t a plan where I decided the first move. It was reactive, and so much about it was sensitive. I tried to remain aware of where the guns were, which soldiers had guns out and ready, and what things in the environment might provide cover or help us get away.
Puddles, ice, trash, crates, lanterns sitting around here and there, abandoned by their owners.
Not having peripheral vision was another thing that was ticking the ‘fucking with Sy’s head’ scale up in fractions and increments. The appearance of the younger twins startled me, both landing a matter of feet ahead of us with clack sounds of spike against roadtop.
It was one thing to tell myself to have a plan ready at any moment, but after maintaining a juggling act of keeping my mind focused on immediate cues and useful terrain while simultaneously keeping track of what was coming up and looking for more things to use, I pulled a little too hard on the reins and brought the thought track to a stumbling halt.
I needed more Wyvern.
I needed to get us out of here. This was the window.
“Dear sister, did you have fun?” one twin asked.
“So pretty, look at you. You’ve made yourself up,” the other spoke. The only makeup I could see was the congealing blood that covered the younger counterpart.
“Come,” the elder twin said, letting go of my head, leaving me for a soldier to grab. “Inside me.”
She spread her arms wide, coat parting, and the younger sister stepped through the gate of fur and heavy cloth, still slick with blood, merging into a single body, other people’s blood squeezing out of the golden seam to run down bare skin.
Think, Sy. A lantern, two escape routes. The men with guns looked to be holding the sort that fired six shots each. Too many of them were young. Less experienced.
Think, and don’t make the mistake you always make. Don’t overthink, don’t put the brakes on as you think of a different plan or track. Any hesitation, and we die.
The moment mattered. I watched the transition, waiting, seeing how far along they were, waiting-
The man behind me shifted his weight, turning his head.
The moment wasn’t right, but the fact that this was an opportunity made up for that.
“Sir,” I said, turning around. In that same moment, he grabbed me by the shoulder.
The Twins both looked at me, heads snapping around. Alert, aware that I was trying something.
With that simple fact, the plan had failed. The lantern I wanted was behind me but out of reach of the hands that were shackled there. I couldn’t pull away, grab it and make a move all at once, not without him reacting.
I didn’t have an answer. I gestured. Help.
“They’re communicating,” the twins spoke, their voices out of sync. They could barely move while they took in their sisters. “They’re using their hands. Break their fingers.”
“Yes, miladies,” the voices sounded in unison.
The ruse was up. I whistled, as loud as I was able. With nothing to lose, Jamie stuck a leg out, kicking the lantern toward me. I gripped the handle at the top, and then dropped, ducking out of the grip the man had on my shoulder.
Twisting, I swung the lantern out and as far up as I could manage. The weight of the shackles threatened to damn me, keeping the lantern too low.
Glass caught the rifle at the man’s side. Glass shattered, and fire made contact with oil. He and his weapon caught fire. I let go of the handle so the remains of the lantern could dance in Jamie’s direction.
The young soldiers had been grabbing for his wrists to follow the Twins’ orders. As the burning oil scattered toward their boots, they took a step back, he took a step in the opposite direction, and tore free.
The oil was spent by the time the top end of the lantern came to a rolling halt at the edge of the Twins’ coat. Two soldiers in the retinue turned their attention to the coat, making sure there wasn’t damage and there were no flames. Priorities, when a noble was involved.
One twin spoke, “The coat doesn’t matter.”
The other spoke, “Grab the Lambs.”
They were already separating again from their uglier halves, reversing the process.
In a minute, we would have the lightning-fast younger twins on our heels.
Soldiers moved to cut us off, weapons in hand. They didn’t shoot with the nobles behind us, but they did jab the points of bayonets at us, attempting to slow us down so the group could collapse in on us.
I’d hoped for more chaos, for the coat to catch the spray of flame and burn. There hadn’t been enough oil in the lamp.
I’d hoped for a gap in the lines, or a weakness I could exploit. The soldiers had backed up, guns in hand, and were blocking the way.
Now I faced having to choose to sacrifice myself to let Jamie go.
Except that wasn’t allowed. Only if we saved two Lambs, the rule was.
My memory was bad, but I’d stuck to that one.
Run, five paces to find an opening, before you’re running headlong into a bayonet blade.
A shadow moved behind the men. A small object rolled between the soldier’s legs. He and his comrades backed away once they saw what it was.
Not an explosive grenade, but still a grenade. One with the pin still in it.
At a headlong run, I let myself fall to the ground, rolling over the thing. I didn’t manage to grab it with my shackled hands, but I did catch it in between my crossed forearms.
Rolling to my feet, I didn’t entirely have my balance, and staggered a little to one side as I heaved myself to a standing position.
While I’d been on the ground, they’d been aiming at me. The accidental stumble saved my life. Gunshots sounded.
I started to think of options, and then remembered. Hesitation could kill.
I pulled the pin, and I dropped the grenade so it would fall behind me.
That done, I charged forward, using the gap that had opened when the grenade had come rolling down the road.
I had to trust Jamie to do the same. I couldn’t hold his hand, I couldn’t pull him along. I had to extend that Lamb’s trust that he would be as competent as he needed to. It was the only way this could work, if it could work at all.
The grenade detonated. Smoke billowed out. The vision-obscuring effect wasn’t limited to the smoke itself – as it billowed forth, it covered light. The side street was thrust into darkness.
I expected to get slashed or stabbed as I charged straight for the soldier who’d stood straight in my way. Instead, I nearly tripped over him. Hubris had him, silent, gripping the man by the throat.
I whistled, once, short, and Hubris fell into stride beside me, a blur. Jamie was only a few steps behind.
It wasn’t over. The danger had only started. I’d estimated one minute for the younger sisters to make their appearance. Fifteen or twenty seconds had already passed.
We didn’t have long.
Hubris pulled ahead. Leading the way.
The asymmetry mattered. The tongue sticking out, the nostrils flaring. The symmetry as the group had turned their head, all four Twins at once. Their senses were altered. They’d been aware of every threat well ahead of time. Taste, smell, with enhanced hearing across the board.
We needed a river to wash away the telltale smells. Lugh didn’t have one. It had gutters.
I snapped my fingers to get attention, then gestured. Stop.
Jamie and I stopped. Hubris didn’t. He turned, and for a second I thought he would bark.
I took a moment to bring my arms down, working foot over and scraping shin against the chain of the shackle, until I straddled it. I brought my other leg over.
Hubris approached me, tugging on my pants leg.
I indicated the gutter.
He tugged again.
Trust the Lambs?
He’d given us the smoke grenade. I hoped he could give us something else.
I grimaced, and ran, following him again.
The younger sisters were already free, they had to be. They would be chasing us. Tired, but with enhanced noses.
We made it only a few more houses down that street before Hubris stopped.
Immediately, I brought my hands to my face, reaching under bandage and belt. The amount of fluid was daunting and almost unbelievable.
I smeared Hubris’ side.
He watched, his expression placid, huffing a little from the run.
Run. I gestured.
He ran, carrying the strongest scent we had with him.
Jamie and I, meanwhile, headed to the gutter. Fires were burning down the street, and the fire melted the thin ice into water. That water flowed through the gutter at the street’s edge, the channel narrow enough that even I had to draw my shoulders together to fit inside the gap.
We crawled within, with me convinced the Twins would happen upon us at any moment. Water ran over us, beneath us, and soaked us through. I could barely breathe.
This was what the Twins wanted, I knew. The hunt. The challenge.
I would have to answer it.
I just had to stay underwater, freezing.
It was timeless, the chill, the pull as all warmth and strength inside of me sapped out and disappeared.
I felt like I might black out. Maybe I had to black out, to stay under long enough, and if Jamie had more strength, he could haul me out, find the nearest fire-
A hand seized me.
I rose up out of the water. The cold had sapped the strength from me.
It was Jamie, with Lillian beside him. Her hand went out, touching bandage.
Her face so sad, so miserable. From the look on her face, I knew.
Go, quick, I gestured with numb hands for the house that Hubris had had us stop at.
I could read the hesitation of Lillian’s movement.
I stumbled into her, pressing my head against her shoulder. With my shackles, I couldn’t hug her. She hugged me.
As a trio, we made our way inside.
The fire was on low, more for comfort than for warmth. Lying on the floor was Gordon.
He turned his head to look at me, and I heaved out a heavy, sad sigh. He’d been made comfortable. The bag was open. All the signs were there that she’d dug through it several times over to find things she knew weren’t inside it. Or to keep busy during long minutes and hours.
We took our seats by the fire, around Gordon. It was clear by context. When we left, he wouldn’t be leaving with us.