Two enemies. Faster than us, better coordinated, stealthier, stronger, and more aware of our environment. For every meter of terrain we crossed, I had to imagine they crossed five or six.
They weren’t the type to play with their food.
Only a couple of seconds to decide where we were going to hold our ground.
“Fire,” I said, “Will it work?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. Then, “No.”
Too late. I was already leading her and Jamie over to the corner of one street, where the rubble at the foot of one building burned like a bonfire, not yet spread to the building proper.
I had the jar. The contents could distract enough that Jamie could theoretically get a clean shot.
The four of us stopped, standing near the burning rubble. The light the fire cast was uneven and sporadic, with the rubble in and around it casting very misleading shadows. My senses were already primed to pick the twins out of the background, but it was far from easy.
The road formed an intersection here. The far sides of the street had short walls and parked wagons, crates and fences. There was far too much cover, but at least the roads were clear and open. We stood on one corner, just beyond the sidewalk, with the bonfire roaring to one side, the damaged building looming high above us. One of the less sturdy, sloping buildings, a tenement.
“They won’t want to get burned, the pale flesh on the outside will be vulnerable,” Lillian said, finishing the thought she’d nearly dropped altogether.
“Alcohol,” I said, interrupting her, my hand out. My eye scanned the shadows around us. The younger Twins should have caught up with us already.
A bottle was pressed into my hand. I had to work to keep the jar in place under my arm while I unstoppered it.
“But if they really want to kill us,” Lillian continued, “The fire won’t really slow them down. They’ll get burned and they’ll get patched up later.”
The fire still worked, then. At least until we upped the stakes. The Twins were vain, and that had to extend to the younger Twins. The older ones wouldn’t use them like this if they were going to turn around and go back to their brother with scars and scratches still needing serious attention. They would avoid it where possible.
Hubris noticed the movement before I did. I didn’t wait to verify with my own eye, hurling the bottle into the edge of the flame. A roll of fire erupted, illuminating the Twin, who leaped back and away. The spot in my vision that followed after the brighter light made it easier to lose track of the skeletal form as she disappeared into shadow.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Lillian’s head turn.
“No!” I said. “Keep eyes in all directions!”
Jamie had turned to look too. He turned his head to look the other way, leveling the rifle, aiming, and I could see the change in his posture as he spotted the other Twin making her approach.
Another second, and she would have impaled him. As it was, she threw herself back from where the Executioner’s barrel pointed, landed with arm-spikes and feet on the ground, a ‘belly’ that was a knot of organs and dessicated flesh wrapped around a spine now facing the sky, and a moment later had bounded off to one side, without even flipping herself the right way around.
And the fact that I was looking meant-
No, the first one wouldn’t come from the same direction she had. The side? Too obvious. The fire?
I put my hand out, gesturing to Hubris to watch my back, as I turned my attention away from the most likely directions the first Twin might have used to approach.
Peering past the thick smoke that rose from the fire, I could see the Twin scaling the wall, twenty feet above our heads.
“Above our heads,” I said.
I didn’t want to take my eye off her, but if there was a remote possibility of her throwing herself off the side of the building, over the flames and onto us, I needed to be able to do something.
I turned my attention to the rubble, reaching, close enough to the flame that I thought my clothes might catch. I found a length of wood and hauled on it, lifting-
“She’s moving!” Lillian cried out, voice going higher.
My gaze went up, even while I still hauled on the wood. Too long to be a proper weapon, thin and supple, it was a baseboard from the house, or a long, grown piece of floorboard. The end of it traced a half circle on the road to my right as I pointed the thing in a different direction. Still, I was able to haul the end of it up, pointed toward the Twin.
Not even a pointed length of wood. There was a one in five chance, if she leaped, that I’d be able to put the end of the length of wood between her and her target. The wood wouldn’t survive, but she would be knocked to the ground or knocked back into the fire.
The twin on the surface of the building did move, and my heart leaped as I tried to track the potential angle of the jump, with zero depth perception to go by.
Instead, she put her claws up onto a windowsill and climbed through.
“They’re not moving as fast as they were,” Jamie said. “They’re tired.”
“They’re still moving pretty fricking fast,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “They’re being careful. This one over here has a second sense about my gun. I start to move the gun to aim at her and she slips away, disappears.”
Looking for a hole.
I raised a foot, and kicked at the length of wood I was holding up and out, aiming to break it. I failed. I tried again, and didn’t achieve anything except giving myself a nasty splinter.
A large form appeared beside me, crashing down into and through the wood, scaring the living daylights out of me. My hand, still impaled with a splinter an inch long, went to the knife at my hip, drawing it. The jar dropped to the ground and didn’t break.
It was only Lillian. Trying to help.
I didn’t have time to yell at her. Both of us were focused on each other for the moment, and that left us open. I elbowed her aside so I was free to move the now-broken length of wood, keeping it pointed up at an angle, looking. Once I was sure the Twin wasn’t about to pounce on me, I allowed myself to divert my attention and use one foot to draw the jar closer, so it wouldn’t roll away.
“Sorry,” she said.
Impulsive, acting where she would usually second guess herself. She wanted to help. But that stunt could have killed all of us, if the Twins had been in a different position.
“Yeah, Lil,” I said. My heart rate was out of control, while the rest of me felt cold, coiled like a spring.
“Got eyes on one,” Jamie murmured.
“I don’t know where the other is,” I said.
Hubris didn’t seem to know either.
“She’s upstairs,” Jamie said. “She opened a window. She could come jumping through, or she’s trying to draw the eye while she approaches from another direction.”
“Right,” I said. “Good.”
They were going to circle us independently and attack the moment they saw an opportunity, and we would lose one of the Lambs. I couldn’t think of a scenario where that wasn’t the case. If anyone happened across us, Crown or rebellion, then the distraction would probably kill us. If the elder Twins happened across us, then we would be as good as dead.
I could break the jar of stink, but again, I had to ask myself what followed that. The enemy would be distracted, Jamie would get one shot off, and we’d have another Twin or another in our midst. All four of us would die.
It was like a rhyme or litany in my head. Every time I followed a train of thought, it led to the same line. An echoing refrain of doom, gloom, and the end of this particular group of Lambs.
I had a half-formed thought, one that started to reach for a conclusion, then stopped short. Hubris would lose his sense of smell, too, and-
And we would close other doors?
What other doors were there?
“Lillian,” I said, careful not to raise or lower my voice, “You had another idea. You mentioned it a moment ago. A way to counteract how the Twins work.”
“Yes!” she said, too intense. “I think! But I need-”
I was ready for the ‘but’, and cut her off. “What is it?”
“They need to have a way to open themselves up to their sisters. They-”
She stopped as Jamie startled, jerking his rifle a distance to his right.
“Keep going!” I ordered.
“They probably have sphincters or other controls that allow blood to come in from the connection to their sisters. A chemical reaction. If I had a chance to try a catch-all means of getting them to open themselves up, maybe their bodies would open the doors, with blood pouring out, or it would hamper their ability to reconnect with their sisters. But-”
“Make it!” I said, still ready to cut her short at the ‘but’. “Now, here, we’ll watch your back.”
My hand went to my face. A gesture. Fake.
“Okay,” she said.
It wasn’t an answer. As thought processes went, it wasn’t even a good one, because we were committing to staying here, two monsters prowling around us, looking for an opening. Any distraction could end us.
If they had good hearing, then they heard Lillian and I. If they had good noses, the smell of the concoction might be one of the very few things that could scare them.
It was a bluff, one more thing to keep them at bay.
That same bluff came at a cost, because it drove them to attack sooner than later.
The attack was an unexpected one. I didn’t even see the Twin at the window. There was only the object, briefly lit by the flames as it whipped top over bottom.
“Jamie, move!” I called out, grabbing Lillian, hauling her to one side. Jamie took a step forward.
A vase bigger than my head crashed onto the street in the midst of the group. There was still water in it.
Off-balance from having to get out of the way, Jamie was slow to move the rifle to track the one on the ground. It threw itself to one side, then closed the distance. My lack of depth perception wasn’t wholly responsible for the sensation that it simply appeared. It was fast, and it was a hell of a lot faster when it was lunging right for us.
Jamie tried to put the rifle’s bayonet blade between himself and the Twin. The long spike of bone that jutted from its one arm struck the rifle to one side, nearly disarming Jamie.
I was already swinging my broken length of wood towards the twin. The attack was inevitable, I just needed to stop the follow-up. Each twin had two spikes of bone, and the other spike would be stabbing right for Jamie’s heart.
My stick swung through to hit empty air, the very end splintering against the road.
The Twin was retreating, dancing out of the way before Jamie could reassert his grip on the rifle.
There was no real expression on its face. Shadow-colored flesh formed a thin, gnarled veneer over the bone, with barely any visible musculature. The eye sockets were empty and dark, hiding eyes half the normal size, eyes that were probably mostly blind.
Yet I had the sense that it was laughing at me, mocking, and that sense coincided with a sinking feeling I knew all too well.
I’d taken wyvern to make my brain easier to mold. I had taught myself new patterns, but it came with a drawback. One of the patterns I learned was that I could rely on others to handle the fighting. At best, I could do the ambushes and sneak attacks. Catch the enemy off guard, make sure they didn’t have the chance to fight, and I was fine.
Give them a chance, and I felt this sinking feeling, that things were now out of my control, and I was at the mercy of our enemies.
I turned my attention up toward the building where the vase had come from.
In that same moment, Hubris growled, lunging.
The other Twin, in the time it had taken me to turn to my left, swing my stick and turn back to my right, had dropped down two stories, moved around behind me, and lunged.
Hubris caught the spike of bone that was meant for Lillian’s throat, clamping it in his teeth, his weight pulling the spike down and away, the spike’s forward momentum continuing, so that Hubris slammed into Lillian.
But, as I’d observed in the moment Jamie had nearly been disarmed, each Twin had two spikes.
Neat, precise, and so fast I didn’t even see it, the same Twin threaded its other spike of bone through Hubris’ middle and into Lillian.
Time seemed to stand still.
One moment, and I’d broken so many promises and let so many people down. Gordon, who’d asked me not to try fighting. Lillian, on so many different levels. Just a few seconds ago, I’d pledged to protect her while she worked. But that wasn’t even the last of it.
I’d told myself that she would be the one to live, to carry on our legacy.
I’d told myself that I couldn’t see another Lamb die without losing my mind.
A tearing, agonized noise ripped itself from my throat as I brought the edge of the stick around, point aimed at the Twin’s throat and collarbone. She tried to move, but Hubris still held one limb, and the other was stick inside the pair of dog and girl.
The point hit dead on, all of the force I could humanly bring to bear driven into a vital area. The broken end of the point splintered, and the splinters raked across the twisted black-gray flesh that covered her spine.
No damage. It was like she was skin and skeleton, and all of my effort couldn’t even break the skin in any meaningful way.
She pulled a point free of both Hubris and Lillian, and I could hear Lillian make a pained sound.
A backhand slap with the bone spike broke the middle of my stick, and I only barely kept it from catching me in the chin, point bisecting the skin of my face.
I floundered, off balance, stepping back to catch my footing, arms moving out to the sides, not even sure what I could do if I was armed and the Twin was standing still to let me hit her.
Not that she was. The limb she’d brought up to break my stick and nearly cleave my face in half was still in the air, poised, point aimed at me. She moved forward, bringing it down.
My balance was such that I could have regained my footing, but I would stop backpedaling in the process, and the spike would strike home. I chose the other option, losing my balance while still moving back. The point struck the road between my knees as I fell.
She moved the point to one side, and I was too slow to move my leg back and out of the way. The point of the spike-limb cut the meat of my calf.
She took a step toward me, raising the limb to bring it down again, then stopped.
Her head turned, attention turning to Hubris, who still held her other limb, holding her back, even though his hind legs no longer worked.
She stabbed him again with her other limb, and he used his forelimbs to heave himself to one side. The movement was small, but it meant that the lance of bone caught him at one side of his head and the ruff of his neck and shoulder instead of between the eyes.
“No!” I heard the shout. “No!”
Lillian made a throwing motion, but she didn’t actually throw anything. The motion was meant to shake out the contents of a bottle, except it was a weak motion, the contents not flying far enough.
The Twin danced back and away, about three long paces, before swinging its arm out. Hubris was thrown loose, body sailing through the air to hit a wall, hard.
A moment later, the Twin was gone, retreating.
Lillian was alive. She’d even pulled off the bluff. Something that smelled like something the Twins should fear. A small mercy Lillian had lacked the strength to successfully get the stuff on the Twin. If she’d hit, the Twin would have realized the ruse.
I flipped over onto my stomach and moved to Lillian’s side.
She was clutching her bag with one arm, and the little bottle with another.
The bag had traces of blood on it from where the spike had penetrated Hubris and hit the bag. It had absorbed the blow.
Gently, gingerly, Lillian pulled the bag to one side, looking down, before wincing. There was more blood, and that creative, flexible part of my brain went to great lengths to envision how the blood had run down the spike, through the bag, and pooled there.
But no, the spike had gone right through the satchel and into her midsection.
Lillian stared down at it, then let her head fall down, short brown hair getting mussed up with snow, wet, and ash.
“Vital,” she said.
I reached down to touch the wound. For the moment, I didn’t even care that the Twin was somewhere behind me, getting in position, assessing the chance to move.
“She’s hurt?” Jamie asked, his voice tight with stress. He wasn’t willing to turn around, even, his eyes on our rear and the Twin that was staying out of the way of the gun. I could see the shadow of it weaving in and out of cover, pacing around us.
“Hurt,” Lillian said, sounding oddly disconnected, in the same moment I said, “Yes,” sounding far from disconnected.
“We lost Hubris,” I said, and the words felt heavy. I allowed myself to turn away from Lillian to look. The dog wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t see a trace of the Twin.
I had to abandon Lillian yet again to scramble over to where the jar was.
“I was supposed to look after him,” Lillian said, sounding lost and hurt. “He was supposed to look after me, and he did, but now he’s dead. Hubris.”
I wasn’t the only one who felt like they had broken a very fresh promise.
Was this going to be how we remembered Gordon? Going against what he’d asked us so soon after we’d lost him?
I clenched my teeth.
The cut on my leg was just deep enough I worried my leg wouldn’t function right. I still managed to find my feet.
Keep looking. You have one eye left. Use it.
Wagons, short fences, all gave the Twin freedom to move without being seen.
If she hurdled over one piece of cover, or slid out from under one wagon, if she hurled something at us this time, something Lillian couldn’t dodge while she lay on the ground with a hole in her middle, I needed to be able to react right away.
I wasn’t even sure if I was looking in the right general direction. She could have been scaling the outside of the building that loomed behind me, ready to pounce. Land with points down, impaling Lillian, then lunge forward to finish me before turning to Jamie, if the other Twin didn’t use Jamie’s surprise to close the distance and finish him.
I could hear the gunshots and cannons in the distance. I found myself adjusting my mental picture of where the battle lines were.
The Crown continued to advance, relentless.
Nobody would be stumbling onto this scene and helping us.
I continued to hold the jar aloft. My neck and arms were so tense with the readiness to throw and react I thought something might give.
The Twin moved in my peripheral vision, so far off to the side that I thought it was Jamie’s. Ducking low, moving through the longest and deepest shadows, soundless.
I threw the jar.
The lunge was a feint, because the Twin changed course the moment I let go. But she seemed to expect that it was something else, the liquid Lillian had had. When the jar crashed against the road, the contents spilling out, the Twin was far and away from the splash of liquid and broken glass.
From the smell, though, no. It changed course, recoiling.
Jamie turned, aiming-
“Don’t!” I called out.
He was already pulling the trigger by the time I’d finished speaking, and the Twin was already moving in the same moment I’d reacted. Jamie’s shot didn’t connect.
The threat of the bullet had been the only thing keeping the second Twin at bay.
In the time it took him to reload, we were completely and utterly vulnerable.
The Twins didn’t attack.
Wet snow continued to fall around us, stirred by violent wind. Gunshots sounded in the distance.
“Gone,” Jamie said, not taking his eyes off the landscape.
“You’ve lost track?”
“No,” he said. “Yes. But I think they’re well and truly gone. We did it. I think?”
It didn’t feel that way. I turned my attention back to Lillian.
“That’s what we were striving for, wasn’t it? To hold out until they went back to their elder sisters to recoup? Reoxygenate?”
I was just trying to make sure the Lambs survive from moment to moment, I thought. My attention was on Lillian, on Hubris.
Three out of four? Or was it going to become two out of four shortly? I could have put most of my hand inside the hole in her stomach. It might have gone clean through her.
She was already doing what she could to plug the wound. She had the Lillian-but-not-Lillian look to her eyes as she focused on the task, face contorted in pain.
“Vital,” Jamie echoed Lillian’s statement from earlier, with nearly the same cadence.
“I won’t last half an hour without good medical attention,” she said. She forced a smile. “Possibly not even half that long. Or with attention. I could try giving myself surgery, but ha ha, hard to get the right angles, I think. Maybe you could help, Jamie? You helped before.”
“Maybe,” Jamie said. The look on his face and the sound of his voice perfectly matched how I felt.
Medical attention? They won’t give us the chance.
I couldn’t watch another Lamb die. This wasn’t where my talents lay. Strategy, ambush, fine, but being faced with superior strategy and ambushes? A scenario where we were outmatched in virtually every capacity? Our only advantage, if it could be called that, was that our enemies had a healthy sense of self preservation and an accurate sense of what they were capable of.
“Can you stand?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “But where are we going to go?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But staying here doesn’t work either.”
“Okay,” she said. She sounded so unaffected by the horrific wound to her middle. “But, just saying, every minute I spend moving is two minutes less.”
“Noted,” I said, my voice tight. Fifteen minutes to half an hour, she thought, before she bled out or suffered total system failure. Five to ten minutes, if we spent the time moving.
“It’s nice, to be able to put the pain in a box and put the box away,” she said, her voice small. I helped her to her feet. “Except it’s not exactly like that. It’s a very noisy, bright, awful box that I can’t stop paying attention to.”
“Keep paying attention to it, Lil. It’s telling you important things you might need to use.”
We had so little time. The younger twins would go to their older sisters and communicate where we were. The older twins would move on our position, with a squad of armed soldiers. After a short period of rest, the younger twins would mobilize again. We’d be slower, two people down, and they would have a coordinated plan to get around our trump card.
“Still have the bottle?” I asked Lillian.
“Vitamin water,” Lillian said.
Our trump card.
So little time. Agitated, I started to move, to talk, and stopped both motions. I looked over my shoulder.
“Sy-” Jamie started.
“One moment,” I said.
I used some of that limited time to hurry over to where Hubris had fallen.
I bent down by the dog, and put a hand to his throat.
He heaved out a sigh.
“I knew you were made of tough stuff,” I said.
He weighed about a third to half what I did. It was hard to say- he was dense, all muscle. The opposite of the Twins. Pulling him into my arms was a task unto itself.
“Okay?” I asked. “You did good, boy. We’re going to help Lillian and we’re going to help you.”
I felt him sigh again, huffing a breath against my ear.
“Yeah,” I said. “Good dog, good dog.”
The cut in my leg roared with pain as I hauled Hubris over to the others.
Lillian put a hand out, touching Hubris’ damaged face. She leaned close, whispering, “Thank you.”
Once she was done, I started to move. Jamie put himself between me and the direction I wanted to go.
“Sy,” he said.
“We need to go,” I said.
“The burden is going to hold us back.”
“He saved me. He saved Lillian, which is more important.”
“He’s gone, Sy.”
I held the dog, briefly stunned. I waited, wanting to feel the chest expand with another sigh, another breath.
“Just- let him down. Okay? He was Gordon’s, in the end. Not ours. Gordon went, he did his job one last time, and then he followed his master, alright?”
I had to look to Lillian for confirmation. I saw the look in her eyes.
It took some doing, but I managed to crouch down, and set the dog down on the road.
“Right,” I said.
“Good man,” he said.
I shook my head. I moved to Lillian’s side, helping to support her as we moved. “I was such an asshole to that dog, always calling him mutt, instead of his name.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “You really were.”
“But Hubris was such a pretentious name.”
“Yeah, Sy. We need you to focus. Where are we going? We need a plan, because they’re going to catch their breath and come right for us.”
“Mauer,” I said.
“I don’t even know,” I said. “But if we time it right, maybe he’ll take the opportunity to go after nobles instead of finishing us off.”