The blades of bayonets prodded me, keeping me in a place where I couldn’t reach anyone or anything. If I moved too slowly, I got jabbed. If I moved too fast, I got jabbed. Let my elbows drop any lower than my shoulders, and I got a sharp prod in the armpit or the more sensitive flesh of the upper arm.
At least two of the prods had been sharp enough to pass through my raincoat and clothing. I could tell I was bleeding. One of the slices was near the elbow of a raised arm, running down to my side. A little to one side and they might have jabbed the artery.
I was led past the gauntlet of onlookers and soldiers, past fire and rubble and shadows shaped like people. Some of the onlooker’s faces were familiar or familiar-ish, but my thoughts were nowhere near the state where I was going to come up with names and identities.
Jamie was in front of me. Lillian was being carried or held somewhere behind me. Not that I was allowed to turn around to check.
Mauer had circled the wagons, literally. The wagons were heavy constructions, solid and reinforced enough to take a hit from a small bomb. The chains that stretched between them bound the primordial creatures that the crusty old asshole had put together. I wasn’t sure if it was imagination or not, but they seemed bigger than I remembered them being, and all of them were occupied devouring the bodies of cattle that had been supplied to them. Beaks and gaping mouths cracked bone, tearing and sucking at meat. The crowd that was still getting outfitted and ready to push into the crowd and join the front line was gawking and staring from a distance.
Mauer’s war camp was in the dead center of the circled wagons and primordials, which were in turn surrounded by the bulk of his actual soldiers – not the simple rabble of Lugh that he had conscripted, but people with proper guns and the dated uniforms, dyed black with all Crown and Academy affiliations stripped off.
The shepherd walked well ahead of Jamie, approaching a group of soldiers, leaning close to give orders that could be heard over the hubbub of the camp. All confidence, without a trace of fear apparent in his body language. Soldiers broke away from the perimeter around the primordials, hurrying to manage the tasks they’d been given.
The soldier in front of me who had his bayonet sticking back in my direction stopped. I stopped a fraction of a second later, and felt the blade tip prick my sternum. Jamie was just in front of me and to my left, handspan out of reach, or he would be if I was allowed to stick my arm out instead of holding my hands above my head.
Mauer turned back to face us, as if we’d been an afterthought until now.
There were hundreds of people in the streets around us, but a natural clearing had formed around Mauer’s encampment, thanks to the creatures that had been chained up between the wagons. Each of the hundreds of people were raising their voices, trying to communicate with one another by speaking louder than the rest. The fires were too bright compared to the darkness, and anywhere I looked, there were people being carried back and away from the fighting, bloody and injured to gruesome degrees, and there were others who were summoning the courage to go fight.
In the midst of the chaos, Mauer was very still and poised. In the midst of the noise, it didn’t even feel like he raised his voice to be heard.
“Take the girl back. Ensure she gets prompt attention from our best,” Mauer said.
I saw only a glimpse of Lillian being carried past me.
“You were willing to die for them. I’m going to assume that as long as we have her, I don’t need to worry too much about you?” Mauer asked.
I shook my head.
“I need a proper answer.”
I spoke, and the noise around us swallowed up my voice. I had to raise my voice to be heard. “I won’t do anything.”
“Go back to the front,” Mauer instructed the men who ringed Jamie and I. “Look for the places where courage is failing, give them purpose. Don’t retreat- that will look bad. Take them out to either side of the battlefront. Scout, see if there are any positions we can hold.”
“The Twins,” I said. Again, I had to raise my voice. It was somehow hard to put words together. I felt emotionally shaken, and while I could use Wyvern to center myself and bring myself to a point where I felt like the usual Sylvester, it bothered me that I had to. The more I looked at Mauer, the harder it was. Still, I managed, “We were running from them. The Twins have pet weapons that are fast, they stalk, pick off the weak or tear through an entire squad, and then they leave. They’re accompanied by Crown soldiers, and they’re absolutely, one hundred percent confident that they can take what you throw at them. If you send your men out to the-”
“The northeast,” Jamie said, pointing.
“-Then those men are going to run into the Twins, and they are going to die.”
Mauer took that in, I could see him processing the information. Then he spoke again to the soldiers, crisp, authoritative, “We’ll believe them. Triple-down on the soldiers you take with you. Nobody even urinates without five others watching their backs and flanks. Make it clear what they’re up against, that it’s a hunting-the-hunter scenario, and anyone who puts a bullet through a noble or a noble’s monster will earn five year’s worth of wages, paid from my pocket to their hand. That does include you.”
He was referring to his uniformed soldiers. The men nodded, not even cracking smiles at the prospect of the money before they hurried off. I no longer had blades pointed at me from every direction.
“Stanley, Gene, with me,” Mauer said. “Bring those two.”
A hand seized one of my shoulders. Better than being led by a blade.
The door of one wagon slid open on rollers, running along the side of the wagon. The far side was already open. It served as a kind of gate by which we passed between two of the chained primordials, each kept a fairly healthy distance away by the chains and the meals they’d been given.
The inside of the wagon, I noted, was packed with weapons. Nothing explosive, the ammo seemed to be stored elsewhere, but there were whole stacks of rifles that hadn’t been provided to the people on the front.
He was such a callous asshole. To have people fighting with what they could scrounge up, some with sticks and hatchets, against people with guns, when he could have armed them?
He was so capable when it came to raising morale, inflaming passions and speaking to the heart, but that belied a terrible coldness. Tactically, there were probably reasons, but in terms of decency, I had to wonder.
I very much suspected that the only true glimpse I’d had of the man had been when he’d been holding me over the fire, challenging me to give him an honest answer.
We passed through the wagon-gate to the interior of the ring. Makeshift walls and criss-crossing chains kept the primordials from moving in this direction or even seeing within. It served as a sanctuary, almost. The only light came from lanterns and flowed under wagons and through the wood and metal slats of the erected walls. The noise of the crowd was muted slightly, the hard edges of words blurring into a more general noise.
In the center was another wagon, with steel plates held in place by grown wood branches. We approached, and a shape moved.
Primordial, I thought, my heart nearly stopping, before I saw the shape more clearly.
White, large, and composed almost entirely of thin white spines, it had the grace of a cat, but it was headless, only a blunt, rounded end at the front. It peered around the edge of the wagon at the center of the clearing before settling down.
What did we call it, again? I asked myself. It took a moment for the name to come to me. Whiskers. He still has it?
Mauer ignored the creature and led us within the wagon, taking a seat at the far side of a table at the wagon’s center. I’d expected to see a map, but it was littered with papers marked with handwriting.
Stanley and Gene pushed us, so that Jamie and I were positioned in the wagon. Me at a seat just inside and to the left of the door, Jamie taking a seat just inside and to the right of the door. The two soldiers stood in the doorway.
“The people who obey orders well have already formed groups and are nervously waiting their turn at the front. The ones who didn’t or couldn’t sort themselves into groups as they were instructed to do have formed… only rabble. They’re the ones doing the fighting right now. Anywhere from ten minutes to an hour from now, that front line will break,” Mauer said. “Stanley, Gene, and the other soldiers I’m on a first-name basis with know this.”
Cold, I thought again.
“When our front line breaks, the mass of people between this position and the enemy front line will disappear, and we will simultaneously drive the primordials forward, into enemy lines. The stitched who have been fighting are running hot, the people giving them orders are tired, less focused, and less organized. The primordials will tear into their lines, as any good warbeast might. The difference here is that the primordials mandate a specific, overwhelming response. Ordinary bullets and weapons shouldn’t put them down.”
He was telling us his strategy?
He didn’t expect to let us go before it mattered. Even if we ran or had absolute free reign to act as we wanted from this moment onward, I doubted there was much we could do, except maybe keep the primordials from being set free, or set them free earlier. None of those scenarios boded well for Jamie, Lillian, and me.
“Lillian could tell you how dangerous this is. You’re playing with fire, using the primordial life like this.”
“I’m aware of the dangers,” Mauer said. “I’ve worked with it before. On both sides of the conflict.”
I frowned. It was so strange to see him in this context. Outside of Brechwell, maybe, and the time we’d had tea with him on first meeting, I’d never seen him simply conversing. In both of those places, he’d been acting.
Had he reached his limit, was he catching his breath from the command of a city-sized rebellion, here in this sanctuary, where the walls and heavy wagons blocked out some of the outside noise?
“The Battle of Foster,” Jamie said. “You were there when the small Academy was studying Primordials.”
“Yes,” Mauer said. He turned, and cranked a knob on a tank below a kettle, before reaching for matches. He lit the tiny gas stove, then started filling a kettle. “When we’re children, we believe our parents are invincible, capable of anything. Then reality hits, we see their flaws. Foster was when reality first came knocking, for me, the Academy and Crown were like parents to me. Foster was a schism between Crown and Academy. Well, a subset of Academies. Two months of lead-up, and it ended very quickly.”
“What happened?” Jamie asked.
A kettle, now filled, was perched on the stove.
“That doesn’t matter. But I was there for the duration. It wasn’t what broke my loyalty to the Academy and the Crown. That came later, after I saw the incidents repeat and become a pattern.”
Even now, in these close confines, with no need or pressure to manipulate or win us over, taking a break from rallying the crowds and commanding a small army, he still modulated his voice, chose his words with care, suggesting just how natural his skill with it all was. I was getting wrapped up in the words, craving to know more about Foster and his origins, pulled into his spell.
But with the word ‘pattern’, I thought of my best friend Jamie, of Gordon, of Hubris, of Lillian. I could see the pattern emerging, I could see where it went, and that thought kept me from getting cozy.
“A pattern punctuated by what they did to your arm?” I asked.
“Something always brings it home,” Mauer said, meeting my eye.
The look and the words made me want to get up out of my seat and leave. As a prisoner of war, I didn’t have that option.
“Fray tasked me with looking after the primordial creatures for a reason,” Mauer said, leaning back. “The nobles, assuming you’re telling the truth, pose a greater threat. I’ve seen others on the battlefield. I anticipated meeting one at most, not-”
“Four,” Jamie said.
“Six if you count the Twins as two pairs,” I said.
“If we ignore the ones who were chasing you, what do you expect will happen?” he asked.
“They infiltrate your lines, they kill us, your lieutenants, or you, if not everyone,” I said. “Given the chance, they might even make it look easy.”
He didn’t even blink at that. “What does it take to kill them?”
“Lillian knows,” Jamie said, “But she’s in the care of your doctors.”
“In terms of men with guns, then,” Mauer said. “How many?”
“Forty, at the very least,” I said. “Might give you good odds, if they know what they’re doing. But if things go south, I don’t think there’s a nice middle ground where half the men die and you hurt the nobles. If your men start dying, they all die, toppling like dominoes. Those creatures are like bolts of lightning, they’ll strike one target and carry on through while the rest are still getting their footing.”
“I’m not going to give you good soldiers,” Mauer said.
“I’m not going to give you forty men, either.”
He was turning us back around and sending us into open combat with the Twins, damn him.
I might have resisted, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I’d been willing to get shot to buy Lillian and Jamie a chance. This was something similar, but it was a killing deferred, out of view of the crowd.
“Win-win for you,” I said. “You keep Lillian, so you have us on a leash if we succeed, and if we fail, then the Twins are at least distracted and the Lambs are removed as a threat.”
“Is that a problem?”
I shook my head. When I looked up from the table, he was staring at me, scrutinizing me.
“It’s not a problem,” I said, in case he was waiting for a verbal answer.
“You’re so resigned to it,” he said. “At an age when you should be playing ball in the streets, fawning over girls, sneaking drink from your parent’s cabinets to share with your friends, and counting change to buy candy from the store.”
“My girl has a hole through her stomach, and she’s lying in your medical tent or wherever,” I said. “My best friend is gone forever, and someone wearing his face is sitting three feet to my left. My other friends are hours away, or are lying dead in a house a short distance away, being cremated as the house burns up around them.”
Why am I telling him this?
Why is he even showing an interest?
“I know soldiers who couldn’t put the gun away, even after it left their hands,” Mauer said. “I could be one of them. So many men who couldn’t stop fighting, or who were afraid to. Prisoners? Same thing. Finally freed, somehow escaping getting netted by the Academies and subjected to one torture or another in the name of advancement, they don’t know themselves without the stained, black-and-white striped prisoner’s tunic. I’ve seen it with parents, the ones with hard children, where the child takes so much attention that whole days pass where the mother or father don’t think for themselves. Only for the job. The child grows up, the job is no longer needed, and the parent, like the prisoner or the soldier is-”
“A shell,” Jamie said.
Mauer took the kettle, a small jar, and a mug from spaces to his right, putting loose leaf tea into the mug before pouring himself a cup.
I knew a lot of tea drinkers, and the fact that he hadn’t served or even offered us any tea was as good as a cardinal sin. I couldn’t think of a better, more vulgar way to give the two of us the middle finger and say ‘we are not friends, here’.
“Don’t think that you’re something special, or that any connection exists between us,” Mauer said. “I’ve seen so many others walk this path, I have no sympathy for you any more than I have sympathy for them.”
There it is.
He’d been telling the truth, that he’d asked the same questions, he’d been a soldier, he’d lost his identity, and he had rebuilt it.
He’d climbed the mountain, and now he was looking down on others who were still climbing and faulting them for not having the strength he did.
“You still spared me,” I said.
“The anger is there. Genevieve Fray talked about it. You’ve already made the decision to turn your back on the Academy and Crown, I think. You don’t really want to hurt me. If I turn you loose, what happens? A high chance you die. If you cross that hurdle, there’s a high chance you get that last, tiny push, and you turn on them.”
If I can climb the mountain…
He finished, “…and a small chance you turn on me. Can I roll those dice? Should I?”
“You did,” I said. “And something tells me there’s more to it.”
He smiled, sipping his scalding tea. The look in his eyes, though, was back to that darkness, without the light of fire reflecting in the orbs. I well and truly believed he didn’t give a damn whether we lived or died.
He wasn’t going to share.
“Ten men,” he told us. “You’ll get the equipment you need and want. Stanley will take you out to the fringe of the battlefront. The men I sent out to recruit with orders to hunt the nobles are going to have heard about the bounty I offered, or they’ll want away from the front line. Whatever their reason, you’ll ask for help, and they’ll offer it. You’ll find tired men, dregs, and drunks, some less capable of following orders than dogs. I’ll assume the Twins will be waiting for you?”
“Do what you can with the nobles. When you come back, don’t come straight back or retrace your steps. By the time you’re done, the primordial beasts will be loose. If you head straight back, you may run headlong into their mouths. Your Lillian should be waiting for you, and you can see how she is.”
I nodded once again, glancing at Jamie.
The prospect of going up against the Twins again spooked me. I was willing to admit that to myself.
Fear and pain were things I could master and mold with wyvern flowing through the capillaries of my brain. But, as with my inability to fight, as with the lies, there was always the possibility that an external force or ingrained habit could do the molding for me, leaving a deep, powerful impression.
“Death looks over everyone’s shoulder,” Mauer said. “One eye on what they’re doing, one eye on his watch. There’s nothing special about your Death. Yet you let it rule your life. You’ll find yourself so free once you realize how little power it has.”
“That’s a pretty goddamn shitty thing to say to someone who’s friend just died,” I said.
Mauer’s eyes were still dark and penetrating as he stared at me, unflinching. “How many of my friends and colleagues do you think died tonight, Sylvester? Some at mine, indirectly. Some at your hands, directly. Some at the Nobles’.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?”
“I’ve been bothered for so long and to such depth that even those deaths can’t be put into perspective,” he said, and his voice was cool, cold, and disaffected, “I could kill every last noble and every last demented doctor who perverts something that should be good, and I don’t think it would be any better than a drop of water to a man dying of thirst. I could keep fighting until every last soldier is dead and my weapons broken to pieces, and I would claw at my enemies with my fingers, until those fingers were worn down to nubs.”
“That sounds like madness, not greatness,” I told him.
“The difference between the two, Sylvester, is that if it were madness, I would have to, and I would be remembered for it. But I don’t have to. This war can be won, and if I see my way to the end of the fight, then I will be remembered as great.”
He paused, holding up his steaming mug, before continuing, “The Academy is big, and fighting it requires a character that is incapable of giving up the fight. I have the character. A small part of the reason I spared you is that I think you have it too. If you’re willing to recognize it.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. It felt like a compliment and an insult at the same time, and he’d delivered it with conviction. Not in the way he’d addressed a crowd, but to me as an individual.
His words rang in my ear as I turned away, leaving the wagon with our soldier escort.
Jamie fell into step beside me, glancing my way.
“Don’t let him get to you,” Jamie said.
“He already did,” I said. “After we arrived at the camp, before he took us to his wagon.”
“Don’t give any more ground, then,” Jamie said.
The soldier led us forward, one hand on each of our shoulders, steering us as we navigated a crowd that got thicker with every few steps. I could smell sweat and fear, mingling with smoke. The heat of the crowd and torches melted the precipitation that was still at the razor’s edge between snow and rain.
Jamie and I were steered into an alley, where soldiers were sitting against the wall, staring at the ground between their feet, weapons propped up around them or sitting across their laps. Men and women, people with body modifications, Brunos, and people with barely any physical changes at all.
“We need soldiers for a special mission,” Gene said. His voice had a ragged edge to it, as if his throat had been damaged at some point in the past. “There’s a bounty. Five year’s worth of pay, Mauer says.”
Heads raised. I could see interest in eyes.
“Hand up if you’re interested,” Gene said. “Chance to get away from this, you’re hunting through territory that was deemed safe with past patrols, looking for a single unit.”
Slowly, one by one, they raised their hands.
“Nobles,” I said, loud enough to be heard. “Two of them.”
I saw the reaction. Hands dropped. Others flinched in surprise.
“The children are coming with us?”
“Shush. That was the boy Mauer was talking to, ten minutes ago.”
“I thought he was an enemy? He was an enemy, right?”
“They were,” Gene said. “Mauer turned them around. We get help finding who we’re looking for and taking them out, in exchange for healing the kid’s friend.”
I could hear the commotion, and a part of me registered it, taking note of particulars. Another part of me was thinking on another level.
Adam, who I’d met yesterday, was here. The Bruno who’d actually been decent to me. He was looking at me as if I was something alien.
Pick ten, I thought, looking them over. I could read the clues and the cues, and identify the troublemakers, the drunks, the people who were on their last legs. There were people who were strong, and people who had been malnourished for much of their lives, living in this city I was growing to hate so much.
It was a deeper challenge from Mauer, echoing our parting exchange, turning the table so I was now in the position of being callous.
Pick ten, knowing there was a good chance they would die, picking this particular fight.