The city had a surreal edge, viewed through the lens of the wyvern formula. The haze of smoke, the glow of fires both near and distant, the echoing pop of distant gunshots and shells, and the screeches of warbeasts served to disconnect me from the immediate surroundings. I took it in, and I put pieces together.
They’re setting the city on fire, but not everywhere. There’s a gap there, where the Crown forces are. The Crown’s camp was thereabouts, but we’ve been hearing shots from that direction, and the squads the Twins tore apart were running from there to there… they have to have moved further up.
Where are the Twins? If we run into the Twins now-
I couldn’t think of any good options. I could have shifted my focus, turned my thoughts to analyzing them, figuring out a set of tactics that might have worked, but I felt like it was a big investment of focus, and there was nothing to guarantee it would be the Twins we ran into.
“Lillian,” I said.
She turned to look at me, her eyes wide. I saw more of the elemental Lillian I’d seen at the Fishmonger’s, now.
“Twins. We need a countermeasure. Think about it. Jamie, explain the twins.”
“They smelled you,” she said.
The words came across as abrupt. I was anticipating a certain pacing and pattern to her speech, I’d had years to get used to the measure of time she took to take things in, to wait to see if any of us spoke before adding her opinion. It didn’t surprise me that she spoke, but it did catch me off guard.
“Enhanced hearing and smell was Sy’s take, yeah,” Jamie said. “Small, black, recessed eyes that they didn’t seem to rely on. They interlock with their older sisters to form one complete, adult body-”
“What color are they?” Abrupt.
“Black,” Jamie said.
“Charcoal black,” I clarified. “Dull, not glossy.”
“Except for the parts where you see the skin, from the interlock,” Jamie added.
Lillian nodded, taking in the words, even while her thoughts were somewhere else.
“Is that important?” Jamie asked.
“Maybe. How much did their chests move when they stood still? Did they stand still?”
“They breathed harder than seemed necessary,” Jamie said.
Had they? I hadn’t noticed.
Hubris’ ears perked up, his head turning, nose catching Lillian at the knee. She barely seemed to notice, but I did.
I put my hands out, stopping them, then gestured.
The group of us moved closer to a wall, huddling down. I drew one of the knives I’d collected from the kitchen in the now-burning house, and tucked it into the top of my boot as I heard the footsteps.
Five people, at least, running. Disorganized.
Definitely not the Twins. Probably residents of Lugh, not Crown soldiers.
I gestured come behind my back.
I’d expected Lillian, but Hubris was the one who came. Almost as good. He approached steadily as I kept the gesture up, until his shoulder was flush against my side. I hugged him.
The next part was to act. It really didn’t take much digging to get to the emotion I wanted. Breathe harder, as if I was panicking, let emotions well up, my face contorting-
All the while, my hand flew through gestures, letting the other two know what to expect.
The group stepped out from around the corner. Five civilians, armed with improvised weapons. It was the one at the tail end of the group who turned his head, looking for trouble, and spotted us. He yelled out, “Oi!” The others stopped in their tracks, turning, weapons at the ready.
They looked scared, but they let their guards down as they spotted us: three youths, with the one closest to their group fiercely hugging his dog, clearly upset.
I didn’t turn to look, but I knew that if Lillian’s expression was even remotely the same as it had been the last time I’d looked, she might have looked shell shocked. Jamie- I didn’t actually know, but two data points would work well enough.
“Shit,” the one at the tail said. “What are you doing here?”
No response was as good as a non-response in a situation like this. Let them fill in the gaps.
More footsteps were still approaching. It didn’t seem to be a threat or a chase, by the reaction of the group in front of us.
No, they were looking to the individuals.
I reached out to put my hand on the wall by Hubris’ head, as if to keep my balance, fingers in a specific position. The hand was only a foot from my boot with the knife.
Alert, the sign was. Be ready, the intent was.
I felt Hubris tense under my other arm.
The pairing who followed up the rear of the initial group was composed of one more Lugh civilian, armed with a long-handled axe, and one of Mauer’s soldiers, with a rifle and bayonet.
I watched as he tracked the group’s gaze, and I saw the flicker of recognition. The recognition was followed by alarm, but I was already pushing out with the arm I had around Hubris’ shoulders, rising to my feet and drawing the knife in the same motion.
Before the soldier could bring his weapon around to point it at us or slash at Hubris, the mutt was on him, tearing at one wrist, making it impossible to handle the gun, pulling him toward the ground-
I slammed the knife into the side of his neck, nearly lost my grip on it as I hauled it back and out, and then drove it into his neck again, closer to the front.
He collapsed, Hubris dancing out to keep from being caught under him, teeth going for the gun.
Four grown, armed men stood within two and a half metres of me. We’d just beheaded the leadership of their group, but the rest remained a threat.
I opened my eyes wider, and I hissed at them. Showing absolute confidence here was essential.
Behind and to the side of me, I heard Lillian echo the sound, followed by an amused noise.
She’d said she wasn’t drunk on the wyvern formula’s effects, but she was doing a horrible job of selling the argument.
Still, the group retreated rather than advance.
“Don’t-” the soldier on the ground spoke, blood in mouth and throat muddling the word. He spat, coughed, and then tried to finish the sentence, “hold-”
I plunged the knife into his throat for the third time.
People were so hard to kill, even with stabs to an important area like the throat.
The blood that had splashed up and the moisture from the rain made it hard to get the knife out. Rather than try and fail, I let my hand slip off as if I’d intended to do it, and straightened.
The group turned, starting to run.
We were back in that direction, we came this way, the Twins would have come this way before losing our trail, with Hubris running that way…
Odds were better than not that the group was running in the direction the Twins had gone, off to our left. Sixty percent chance, if I had to put a number to it. Thirty percent they were down the street I and the other Lambs had been walking down, ten percent chance the Twins were back the way we’d come.
I bent down, reaching for the rifle Hubris had secured. I aimed and fired.
The group of men ducked their heads, stopped, and looked for cover. Not that there was much point- I’d fired well over their heads.
“That way,” I called out, moving the rifle and bayonet to indicate the road we’d already been traveling down.
“Those particular exorcist rifles have to be reloaded between shots,” Jamie said, quiet enough the people wouldn’t hear.
“Got it,” I murmured. I bent down, not taking my eyes off of the people peeking around cover, and reached down to pat at the still-dying soldier. He grasped weakly at my wrist, and I shook him off.
In the corner of my vision, I saw Gordon’s face being framed by a dark pool of blood, rather than the soldier’s mug. I ignored it, keeping my vision on the possible threats, while continuing to feel around for where the soldier had the ammo stored.
Patiently, Hubris stopped sniffing loudly at the man’s side and used his nose to nudge my hand to the right location. I dug into the pocket and found ammo. I reloaded the Exorcist.
“That way!” I said, with more force. “If you go that way, you’re going to die, and it won’t be because I shot you!”
They were lost, rudderless, and by the small numbers and lack of guns among the group, I was guessing they were a smaller splinter of a larger faction. They turned, and then ran the way I’d indicated, toward the harbor and the bulk of Mauer’s forces. It wasn’t a hard sell, even coming from someone who had stabbed their group’s leader.
My vision of how things stood in Lugh was an abstract painting, broad strokes with little detail and a lot of blurred lines and fuzziness where I wasn’t absolutely sure of details. Every gunshot, particularly the duller booms of exorcists and the bursts of fire from multiple stitched soldiers firing in unison, served as another stroke or dab on the greater picture.
I mentally revised my mental picture of where things stood, moving the Academy forward. Mauer’s front line was getting torn to shreds, and it was probably somewhat worse than he’d anticipated. Four nobles came with more than the usual amount of firepower. Two of those nobles were on the periphery of the front lines, picking off stragglers, scouting groups, and flanking attacks.
The group I’d redirected ran down the street, keeping to cover where cover was available. I watched them go, giving them a head start, so we wouldn’t be right on their heels if they ran into trouble and wound up cornered.
I relieved the now-dead soldier of the bullets. My finger touched the ring at my thumb, rotating it around- a little bit of resistance, with the fit being tighter.
“Sorry,” I told him. I wasn’t sure if I was, but I felt like I had to say something.
Our trio moved at a brisk walk down the same road the group of militia had fled down.
“…and bony pincers instead of arms. They were attached after the fact,” Jamie was saying. Right back onto the subject of the Twins.
“That’s interesting. Were the legs okay? Flexible?”
“The legs moved,” Jamie said. “They were fast.”
“But the feet. How was the mobility in the feet?”
“Feet were straight out, almost one solid piece from knee to the end of the foot, maybe fifteen degrees of movement at the knee and at the ankle, with toes giving them traction.”
“Did the toes wiggle? Or did they look like metal, or bone, or-”
“I didn’t see. Puddles, and I wasn’t focused on the feet when there weren’t puddles.”
“I’m getting this mental picture, but I’m not sure if my imagination is running away with me,” Lillian said. Her voice was breathy, like she hadn’t taken in a full proper lungful of air before leaping into the thought. She took in a partial breath, then cut it off to say, “It’s really hard to tell if I’m imagining it or understanding it.”
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I’m imagining a problem with oxygen. The integration would take time to get right, they’ve got very contained physiologies with very dense bone, blood flow is low, redirected, or they went with another means of oxygen absorption altogether. It would take time to get right, and it could go wrong easily, with catastrophic consequences. The extremities nearly withered away, and in the case of the arms, weren’t salvageable or weren’t salvageable enough. Chop them off, give them weapons. Legs with the thicker bones were salvaged, and or they rely on strength and flexibility in the hip over the legs.”
“Okay,” I said. “How can we use that?”
“That they made it work at all is incredible. They can probably take any bullet that isn’t from an exorcist, with minimal damage. No vital areas, fast, strong, with big bursts of energy. When they plug into their sisters, they borrow blood flow.”
“Lillian,” I said, voice sharper. “How can we use that?”
“Um,” she said. Then she was lost in her little world again.
I glanced at Jamie.
“You were just as bad at the start,” Jamie said. “The books said so.”
“Hm? What?” Lillian asked, focusing on us again.
“Nevermind,” Jamie said. “Focus on your thing. You’re doing a good job.”
She lowered her head, pulling her bag around so it was in front of her, and began digging through it. She spent a minute doing it. It felt disorganized, the way she moved stuff aside, then had to move it the other way to search a different corner.
“Do you have a silver bullet for us?” I asked, gently, so as not to disturb her too much.
“No,” she said. “Just a bullet, and I have to put it together. And I have one idea, but I don’t have the things for it.”
“Okay,” I said. “A bullet is good. And you think this thing will work?”
“No,” she said. She looked up, and met my eyes with her own. Elemental Lillian had a look on her face like I’d just said something crazy. “Your aim sucks.”
Seeing this Lillian at work, I was struck by a thought. Evette. She’d never had a first incarnation, nor a second. The idea had been floated, but it had been Ashton we got in the end.
The idea had been to have Evette as the group’s problem solver. A floating element, not for combat, but for the background. To equip us against threats, and to devise very specific solutions. Of all of the Lambs, she would have had access to Academy knowledge. The rest of us would have been forbidden.
I didn’t know what Evette would have looked like in the end, or what her personality would have been, but I imagined she would have existed with the Academy maintaining a tighter, firmer hold on her. Having her with us would likely have meant an adult chaperone at all times, to rein her in and watch over her.
In darker moments, and today was a darker moment, I allowed myself to muse on the fact that her project had been allowed to fail. That they had decided it was too much trouble, that the Lambs couldn’t have access to that knowledge. Easier to give us a conventional medic and not worry about losing control. Two now, if I counted Duncan.
We’d lost Gordon, and yet I felt like he was still with us, in Hubris, and in spirit. As for Jamie, I’d always seen in the corner of my eye, in the movement of curtains and tricks of the light, and he was with us in a very concrete way.
Evette, well, we’d lost her before we’d even started. I had the sense that she was with us, lending a hand, all of the key traits and points now manifesting through a possessed Lillian. I could very well picturing her acting like Lillian was now. Eccentric, no holds barred, plainspoken, and needing careful watching-over.
It made for a shifting of mental gears, but I suddenly felt a lot more comfortable with Lillian acting as different as she was. I could almost see it as a game, to test how I might work with her.
Lillian was so focused on digging through her bag that she was losing track of where she was walking. Jamie had to slow down to avoid being cut off by her.
I reached out and grabbed her upper arm, aiming to steer her. Like lightning, sudden and startling, she whipped her head around to look at me.
Confusion, then recognition, and then a smile and a flush of the cheeks.
Now I was the one that was confused.
“Thank you,” she said, with a hair more emphasis than was needed.
I nodded once.
No response was as good as a non-response in a situation like this.
I could feel the muscles of her arm move as she emptied a bottle into a jar that already had fluid inside, then screwed on the cap. She shook the bottle, a thumb over the lid.
She handed it to me. I had to let go of her arm to take it.
“What is it?”
“Stink. It’s going to wipe out our ability to smell anything when the time comes, and Hubris will hate it, but if they use their noses like you think, it’ll hurt them more.”
I tested the weight of the jar of urine-colored fluid, then extended the rifle past Lillian’s front, to Jamie.
“I’m shooting?” he asked.
“They might be quick and durable,” I said, “But if we can throw them for a loop with this, you might get a chance to land a shot.”
“You saw how fast they are. By the time we see them, it might be too late.”
“Yeah,” I said. “This is good, Lil. Good line of thinking.”
“Hm?” She looked up from her bag.
“Do you know what I should do?” she asked, eyes going back to the bag. “Take the stuff I use most, and just stick it on the outside of a coat. Jars, needles, tools.”
“That wouldn’t be very discreet,” I pointed out.
She looked up, processed that, then nodded, eyes going back to the bag.
“Students take wyvern on the regular, don’t they?” I asked.
“Some,” Lillian said. “The Academy lies. They say the stuff will kill you if you overdo it, so most only take a small amount.”
“Anything kills you if you take too much,” Jamie said. “Even water.”
Lillian smiled at that. “Yeah. You know what I mean.”
“How much more than the usual dose did you take?” I asked.
“I took a safe amount,” she said.
“How much more?”
“Ten times more than them. The same amount you took when you first started,” she said. “Before tolerances.”
“Right,” I said.
The little things were adding up. Looking for clues, piecing together a mental image of how the city was doing, anticipating the Twins, the Crown army, and Mauer, keeping an eye on Hubris in case a twitch of the ear indicated something noteworthy, and now that I had the jar tucked under one arm, my other arm was once again steering a preoccupied Lillian. I could focus on more things at once, and my thoughts were clearer and more effective, but I still had a limit and I was approaching it. Actually trying to figure out what I was really wanting to ask her about with the formula and carrying on a conversation would detract from more important matters.
I told myself I’d think on it at a future date, and I knew I’d forget before I did.
Her posture was weird – I had a grip on her upper arm, but she was pinning my hand in place between her arm and her side, her elbow pressed against the side of her stomach. That was distracting too, both in the sense that I wanted to piece together what she was doing and the thought process at work, and the fact that the knuckles of my hand were grazing certain aspects of her anatomy.
She liked me. I’d known that was the case, in an analytical way, but Lillian had always been reactive, passive, shy, and indirect about her feelings. I could put all of the pieces together, and still, I could invent reasons it was just an act. She was the type who needed someone close to them. She was at that age, and propinquity made her think she liked me. Hormones and the fact that she saw my face as often as she did.
To actually have her show interest in this bizarre, minor way was both rewarding and very very distracting.
“Sy,” Jamie said.
Case in point. There was a situation.
A body, a recent death. The corpse had been demolished, pieces of skull scattered across road, with massive puncture wounds I could have thrust a hand into.
“The twins,” Jamie said.
“Oh no,” Lillian said. Strange to hear her speak when I expected Lillian to be horrified into silence.
“Came from the east,” I said. “Sudden attack, only one dead?”
“Could be tired,” Jamie said. He looked to Lillian.
“They probably are. If they plug into their sisters for the sake of borrowing blood flow and re-oxygenating, then they-”
“Or it’s bait,” I said, cutting her off only because I suspected she would ramble. I wheeled around, eyes scanning nearby buildings and surfaces. I held the jar higher. “They smelled us on the people we sent running, now they’re hunting us, and a body lying in our path slows us down, buys a chance to get in position and pounce.”
I spun around again, now facing what had been our rear.
“I have another idea,” Lillian said.
“Is it one we can put into effect right now?” I asked her.
“No. I’d need a lab, I think.”
“Then keep it in mind, but let’s focus on what we need to focus on. I think we’re surrounded.”
“Can you even be surrounded by two people?” Jamie asked.
“When they’re the Twins? Yeah.” I asked. My eyes scanned the surroundings. Wood piles, a shed, the eaves of a rooftop. The shadows played tricks with my eyes. Lillian’s comment about imagination playing tricks with the mind was an accurate one. I was seeing the shadows pull themselves into configurations resembling skulls, bones, and praying-mantis like spikes at the end of their forelimbs.
I’d done the tests for Hayle that involved drawing the perfect, clean white rectangle in my mind’s eye. The trick for focusing my senses was similar. I had to sort the visual information, look for the flow of things. The way buildings were constructed had a sense to them. The things that littered the ground were the same. There was a reasoning at play.
Once I had that mental image, I could see more distinctly. My brain was rapidly catching up with what I was trying to see, the bits of visual noise and dancing shadow fewer and farther between. I could recognize the spots in my vision for what they were.
Within an attic window that overlooked the streets, I saw the younger Twins. They were interlocked in their own way, both at a small window, one practically hanging off of the other so it could occupy the narrow space, dark skull faces surrounded by darkness, peering through.
Could they see after all, or were they simply there because it positioned them well to attack? They were thirty metres out, across the street and two houses down, and if they wanted to attack, they could charge through the glass, run, and hit us within a few seconds. If they wanted to be subtle about it, I was sure even their limited limbs could open the window, allowing them to slip out and close the distance while we meandered on, unaware, or focused on the body.
My heart was pounding.
I gestured for silence, and indicated the direction of the Twins.
The Twins in the window didn’t move.
Slowly, surely, Jamie raised the rifle to his shoulder, aiming.
In the blink of an eye, the Twins in the window were gone. They hadn’t exited through the window- they were moving through the home. That put them on the street level, and it gave us zero idea of which direction they would come from.
“Run!” I shouted, grabbing Lillian’s arm, hauling her with me. Have to get to a better position.
We ran, boots clunking on a road dusted with a mix of snow and ash. We made our way further down the road, to find the remainder of the group I’d sent down the road. Citizens of Lugh, not ill-intentioned, who didn’t deserve to die, torn to shreds by the nobles.
Thirty percent chance, I thought. But from the direction Jamie had said they’d attacked from, the sixty-percent route wouldn’t have been much safer – they would’ve been to the left of the four Twins, rather than the right.
Twins the younger behind us and to our right, Twins the elder ahead of us and to the left, with a contingent of armed men.
The stink bomb only served to incapacitate for a short while, at best, and maybe bought us a chance to shoot one.
It wasn’t enough.
I was already going to be violating my promise to Gordon. A fight was inevitable, it was going to be ugly, and it wasn’t going to favor the Lambs in that ugliness.