The challenge was to stay one step ahead of the enemy. I knew where they’d been the last time we saw them, I knew the likely course the elder twins had traveled, and I knew the younger sisters would go straight to the elder ones now that they had met with some resistance.
With a certainty, I could say that the elder sisters were now making their way toward us. If I’d dealt any actual damage, they would be delayed. If I hadn’t, we only had a minute.
“Why aren’t we heading back to the others?” Lookout asked.
“We are, but we’re not going directly back because there’s a good chance they’re waiting for us,” I said. I pointed at a collection of buildings to the left of the road Lookout would’ve wanted to take. “Somewhere in there. We go that way, and they’ll come at us in force, soldiers shooting. The monsters we just saw will hit us while we’re dodging bullets. We meet a quick and grisly end. There’s no way to cover all the angles and protect ourselves.”
Running at the lead of the group, I couldn’t see his face, unfortunately, but I didn’t hear any more complaints from him.
I wasn’t telling the truth. Us heading straight for Mauer was the most obvious route for our group. The Twins laying in wait was the most obvious route for their group. I couldn’t gauge the intelligence of the younger twins, but I knew the elder twins were smart enough to second guess my actions and I had to second guess theirs.
They were at another point nearby, sending the soldiers out through alleys and into buildings that had good vantage points. I was guessing the twins’ escort of elite Crown soldiers were spread out, not concentrated, lined up in a way that would force us to take cover or take unnecessary losses, as we tried to cross the wide roads or run down a road with gunshots coming at us from behind or the side. It only took a couple of soldiers to slow us down when they had the benefit of carefully selected positions to shoot from, better weapons, and the training to put the bullets where they wanted them.
If we took cover or tried to move through the alleys and the buildings themselves, then we wouldn’t have the momentum anymore. The twins and the other soldiers could come at us at their leisure. They would fold around either side of us, forcing us to either move directly away from Mauer or hole in and trade bullets. Both of those options were bad for us, when the soldiers were better armed. Even in an ineffectual firefight with both sides shooting and neither hitting the other, the Twins were a trump card for their side.
I could visualize the various configurations of soldiers, crouching by windows or fences between us and Mauer’s front lines.
Too risky. Couldn’t head straight for Mauer, couldn’t imagine any scenario where the twins would let us, by intent or by accident. A scenario where they’d let us get this far out and then closed the net behind us? Definitely.
If the soldiers were being ordered into a perimeter to catch us or trip us up should we make a break for it, then we needed to keep moving, down and away from the front line of the battle. Mauer expected to retreat before sending the primordials in. Moving in the direction of that retreat opened up opportunities. Staying put or moving in another direction let the opportunities fall away.
What actions opened up doors? What actions closed them? What actions opened doors for the enemy, versus closing those doors?
Mauer was west of us. If we headed south, moving toward the tail of his group, the twins had to communicate to their soldiers, pull them away from wherever they were holed up, and give chase, moving parallel to us to stay between us and Mauer. It meant less options available to them in the short term, making them easier to predict. The only other option left to them was to bluff, lead us to believe they were between us and Mauer, and that was shaky ground, rife with weaknesses Jamie and I could exploit.
All that in mind, to the people I was leading, it seemed very much like we were getting further away from friends and help. To the people I was leading, salvation was a five or ten minute run to the west, with no apparent threats between us and Mauer. They were scared, intimidated, and confused.
I glanced back over one shoulder, then turned my head to glance over the other, before remembering I lacked an eye and couldn’t actually see behind me that way.
I let myself slow, and the group slowed too, responding.
“Keep moving,” I encouraged them, as the ones in the lead caught up with me. I tapped knuckles against the shoulder and arm of the two to my left. The Brawling Bruno and Tattoo Belly. “You two, watch our left. They might have left people there to flank us. Everyone else, watch our right. The enemy is moving alongside us now. We’re about to reach a crossroads-”
Running and saying so much was tough. I was getting out of breath. “-If they’re cocky, they’ll run across the road to get ahead of us. They might shoot or pounce.”
The area at my calf where I’d been sliced felt like rock, now, a twisted, angry, painful knot where muscle should be.
Jamie spoke, “Men, watch the ground. Women, watch rooftops and windows.”
I saw his hand go up. I. Rear.
I gestured in response to confirm.
As a group, we crossed the open ground of the wider street. The deep ruts suggested the wagons or other vehicles that traveled the street bore heavy loads, likely to and from the quarries at the city’s edge.
I waited to see if the soldiers would happen to cross the road in plain view. They didn’t. That placed them ahead of us, in a position to cut us off or set up to open fire on our flank, or it meant they were lagging behind.
The tension in the group was palpable as our boots and shoes tromped on the snow-dusted road and broke through thin layers of ice over puddles.
“What were you doing with your hands?” Bat asked.
“Talking with my teammate,” I said.
“It’s efficient. Where are we with the bolas?” I asked.
“We have three. I’m not sure how useful they’re going to be. Seeing those things- they were so fast, I, how do we even hit them?”
If you’re in a position to throw the bola and hit the twin with it, the monster probably reaches you in the next second or two and kills you, I thought. But at least this way we create a situation where maybe the next person in line doesn’t get killed and has a chance to fight back.
“Trust me,” was all I said.
“That’s a lot to ask, coming from someone with a war wound who had to beg Mauer for help,” Lookout said.
I opened my mouth to reply. Adam jumped to my defense before I could speak, “He’s doing what he can to help that girl he had with him. Wouldn’t any of us do that for the people who are important to us?”
Sentiment appreciated, but not the argument I would have made, and it made it harder for me to steer the conversation and assert myself. The others would process it as Adam saying ‘he’s doing this for himself and his friends, fuck all of the rest of us’ and ‘weak weak weak. The young boy is weak’.
Adam had performed the equivalent of throwing an anchor to a drowning man. Yes, the anchor had a chain connecting it to the boat and that might help, but what it really did was risk sinking the poor bastard. I hadn’t even been drowning, I’d been swimming!
“He’s fucking us over to get the job done, you mean,” the Lookout said, voice strained as he panted from the running.
There it is.
“No,” Adam said. “He’s-”
“Wait,” I said, voice hard, “Stop.”
I stopped in my tracks. The group stopped as well.
Everyone’s attention was fixated wholly on the surroundings, searching, looking for the cue that had prompted me to order a halt.
Three Hannibal Hamlins, two Hannibal Hamlins, one Hannibal Hamlins…
“Move,” I said, the count done, “Faster! Eyes out!”
The group listened.
There hadn’t actually been a cue or a reason to stop. There wasn’t a reason to move faster now, either. But by taking command, I had stopped the conversation in its tracks, refreshing it, and reminded everyone what was at stake.
Give a man an apple or a drink, then ask him a favor, and he was vastly more likely to obey. Psychology at work.
Give a squad of ten scared citizens of Lugh direction, focus, and hope of survival when they craved those things, and then ask for goodwill? The same idea at work.
Now I could answer.
“You were told how dangerous this was,” I said.
“Bullshit,” the glassblower said.
“Five years pay!” I said, raising my voice. “Nobody ever gets something for nothing! Ever! You knew there was a cost. You didn’t admit it to yourself, but don’t pretend you thought this would be easy, that Mauer would hand over money for something with no risk to it. Now trust me. If you start focusing on me instead of them, they will get you. If you break ranks, you will be a straggler, and they are very good at picking off stragglers. Listen. Watch. Cooperate.”
I was letting emotions slip into the words. A little harsher than I’d intended.
“Sy,” Jamie said.
“One a hundred meters behind us, while you were talking. The one you didn’t shoot, alone, moving.”
“Behind and to our right?”
“Was right, crossed the street before I could point my rifle at it. Behind and to our left now, and catching up.”
“Two more people watch our left,” I said.
“On it,” Jamie said. He said something I couldn’t make out to people I couldn’t see through the back of my head.
Six watching our right, four watching our left, me in front, Jamie at the back.
“And Sy,” Jamie said.
“You sounded a hell of a lot like Gordon just now. Listen. Watch. Cooperate.”
“Bad thing? Good thing?”
“Not bad,” he said, and he left it at that.
If I’d sounded like Gordon, it wasn’t intentional. I could see it, thinking about it. Direct, hard, ruthless, straight to the heart of the matter.
I had always been better than Gordon at the small-scale tactics, moving the group. Gordon had been better at taking in the battlefield, thinking about the small stuff in abstracts without overthinking and over-dwelling on it. Fatigue and emotion were forcing me to be more brusque, and the nature of this battle with enemies on all sides forced me to take in the entire battle, watching how the lines were moving. It wasn’t a surprise that I was treading on Gordon’s niche.
Speaking of- the tone of the fighting at the front line had shifted while I hadn’t been paying as much attention. More artillery, more explosions and cannon shots.
More of the duller, more individual cracks of Mauer’s rifleshots, less of the staccato bursts of the stitched shooting. I could hear the whump, whump of war machines loosing their shots, the distinct pause, and then the rolling explosions as the shots hit home.
“The primordials are loose,” I said.
“I wondered,” Jamie said.
“The what?” one of the men asked. It wasn’t someone that had talked a lot. “Prime-?”
“Mauer’s special weapons. He just released them.”
“The warbeasts? They didn’t look that impressive.”
They’re impressive enough that it brought the Academy here. It’s why the fighting is happening.
“Listen,” I said. “Do you hear the more organized shooting from the stitched? The tatatatat?”
More artillery shells exploded.
The group was listening. I half expected the stitched to open fire and make me a liar, and started to think of a way to lead into a casual, confident statement, as if I expected it all along.
But there was no tatatatat. There was only the dull thunder of the explosions.
I explained, “The stitched are being called back. The Crown is moving their forces around, trying to get resources in place to deal with the new threat. Those explosions are the Crown pulling out all the stops, trying to keep the bulk of Mauer’s forces back, out of the way. Isolating the primordial problem so it can be dealt with.”
The explosions continued, one after the other, no gap between them.
The twin behind us is getting closer. Judging by their earlier speed… an attack is imminent. Twenty, thirty seconds.
All of Lugh seemed to be in that state. A blade raised and ready, yet to fall. Mauer had sent his forces out, widening the front line. The ones at the edges wouldn’t be cut off by the steady set of explosions. Small squads, but squads led by Mauer’s soldiers and comrades, now free to move up on a distracted Crown that was busy dealing with the warbeasts, pulling back stitched and trying to position the weapons and squads for killing the primordials.
Another attack poised but not yet delivered. If they were quick, it would coincide with the twin’s attack here. Not that there was anything to it beyond a sort of violent poetry.
I couldn’t begin to guess what the Duke had planned, but that was another set of swords.
The twin was in place to attack. There was nothing saying she would attack now, but I imagined she was angry. I’d made her sister bleed. We had no idea where that sister was.
“Cross the street! Fast!” I called out. My hand went up, signaling Jamie. Behind. Three…
Boots tramped on the road. We were moving directly away from the younger twin, now, slightly toward Mauer’s lines, and toward the soldiers and the elder twins, if they had been ahead of us.
Two, I gestured, as I called out, “Be ready!”
The explosions continued in the distance, the dull noise baffling and muting the finer sounds around us.
One, I gestured, the gesture segueing into the sign for behind.
“About face!” Jamie and I called out, at the same time.
As one, the entire squad turned. Too slow, some, others confused. One or two might not even have known what ‘about face’ meant.
But most did. Half of those individuals saw the twin, at the other side of the street. They fired, their rifle shots and pistols firing in time with mine and Jamie’s. One of the others threw a bola.
She was too fast. A leap to our right, reacting as she caught a singular bullet to the limb, hard enough that her spike-limb scratched against the road. Footing secured, she leaped back, crashing through a window.
In the midst of it, the thrown bola did a lazy spin before landing halfway between us and her.
“Holy mother of god!” Tattoo Belly gasped the words. “Holy mother, I was looking back and I didn’t even see her at first.”
The glassblower started to head across the street, toward the bola she’d thrown.
“No!” I said. “Leave it. This way!”
“How did you know?” Tattoo Belly asked.
Because a pair of killing machines with bloodthirst on multiple levels, who only get five to ten minutes of action before having to head back to their sisters, lesser nobles who have likely never had to delay gratification once in their lives? They can’t be that patient. Not when they’re angry about their sister getting shot.
“I’m getting to understand them,” I said, feigning a calm I didn’t feel. My heart pounded. My fingers shook as I reloaded my rifle.
“We shot her and didn’t even break the skin!” Lookout said.
“The old man here hit exposed bone. Thicker end of the spike,” Jamie said. “It probably hurt. Might have fractured bone. I don’t know. Lillian said the bone was hardened. Carbon-dense, heavier than lead.”
And it’s pissing them off, I thought. This isn’t what they’re used to. Pain and being predicted. Those dense, hard bones take energy to haul around. Efficient as they are, they’re getting tired and they’re getting more emotional.
Will she cross the street to come to us, or head back to her sisters to recoup, get patched up, and get organized?
Or are the other twins making a move?
The soldiers and the elder twins couldn’t be that far away.
Weapon raised and readied, primed to strike.
If I could anticipate it, we’d be fine.
“Up ahead,” Adam said. He was panting. When I looked back, I could see the sweat glistening on black, tattooed skin. It had to be cold, given the weather. He managed to find the breath to utter another word, “Store.”
“Rope?” I asked. “Weapons?”
“Fishing supplies,” Brawler said. “Nets, yeh? But the door will be locked.”
“Two streets over.”
We won’t make it that far before we run into trouble, I thought. They can’t let us, especially if they heard.
Soldiers would be getting the order, to close in, to catch up, put us on the defensive. We didn’t have much in the way of available cover, with only open street in front, behind, and to our left.
For the people to aim and fire even as I was turning my head, they had to have been paying attention to our left flank, watching out for the twin we’d just shot at. The rifle shot exploded right next to my ear, and was doubly worse because I hadn’t even seen the gun or anticipated the shot.
But the twin was already moving. Showing herself and retreating in the same smooth motion.
There was no reason to do that unless-
“Incoming!” I shouted, “Turn-”
The other twin dropped like a stone, right into the midst of the group.
Her two forelimbs plunged down with her. Spikes of bone, as hard as steel and heavier than lead, one through Bat’s shoulder. The other went through Scrub-Brush’s collarbone and out the front of his ribcage.
He’d been the only one that was a decent shot in our group, I was ninety-percent sure. He’d had calluses on his fingers that suggested he spent whole days with his gun in his hands. A hunter, if I had to guess, one who had picked up their gun during past military service and had kept it well maintained since. Smart enough to shut up and follow orders without comment or complaint.
Forelimbs firmly planted in two members of our group, she swung her feet up in unison. Sharp talons at the ends swept up Brawler’s face, from chin to hairline, tearing up everything between. Cheeks shredded enough I could see teeth past the blood and meat, eyes just gone.
I told them to watch our right side, I thought. The person who’d shot at the twin had been one of the ones who had been supposed to watch the other direction.
The twin remained there, spike forelimbs still thrust down, anchored in meat that had yet to collapse to the ground, feet pointing straight up, a grisly handstand, one that showed her gouged back to me, held for one second, two seconds-
I knew, seeing it, that there was no action anyone would take that would stop her from killing at least two more people. If the fight were chess, she had us in check, and none of us had the instincts or skill to see how or why. We would make our next move, blind, and it would be the wrong move.
Goiter stabbed at her with a bayonet blade.
Easily, fluidly, she moved out of the way, letting her body fall back and away from the thrust. She yanked one limb out of the old man, bringing it over her head and down, slashing it with a deceptive speed, far faster than the slower movement of the rest of her body.
At Adam. He brought his rifle up, blocking the slash. The twin’s limb came down through the construction of metal and wood. The former bent and broke, the latter splintered. The weapon came apart in two uneven halves.
She was left with one arm still inside Bat-nose’s shoulder, the girl doubled over, torso twisted as she tried to avoid having it wrenched apart by the movement of the twin’s limb, and her other limb down at Adam’s midsection.
Swipe. Slice Adam at the lower stomach, cutting an inch deep.
Haul one limb out of Bat-nose, and bring it up and around, cutting the woman with the glasses from lower ribs to shoulder, carrying on to aim for Adam’s throat. He caught the limb in one hand, and, as if she expected it, she tugged the blood-slick bone back out of his grip, leaving it still pointed at him. At a tall, broad-target who had zero way of getting out of the way in time.
It was Lookout who moved, swinging overhead, using the makeshift bola like a flail, down at the arm.
The weight at the end swing over, around, cord encircling the folded limb twice before cracking ineffectually against bone.
One limb possibly bound, but she was still a killing machine, smack dab in the center of the killable. The people who were reeling or outright dying from her attacks were in the way of the people who had any chance of doing anything.
Again, Adam grabbed at her, seizing her by the upper arm.
Don’t- I thought, but he was already doing it, and he couldn’t read my mind.
It was the wrong thing to do, throwing her to one side, away and out of the group, but there were no right things to do. While she moved, she raised her legs, talons cutting again at Glasses, and once at Tattoo Belly. She hit the ground, less graceful with one limb wrapped in the bola-flail, but I could see how she was swift to get her feet under her, ready to move.
I hadn’t been able to shoot while she was in the midst of the group, with so many bodies blocking my shot. Others were in the same boat. I recognized the impatience I felt, and I knew what it meant. The tables had been turned. One side wounded, left wanting to retaliate, and finding themselves frustrated instead. An opening was now given, just like when we’d crossed the street, our backs to the twin, soon to be followed by the reversal.
“Hold fire!” I shouted.
Too late. The speed of the air moving from my lips to their ears was slower than the impulse from their brains to their fingers.
The members of the group who weren’t blinded, mortally wounded, disarmed, or in agonizing pain fired.
To someone who didn’t see exactly what she’d done, it was like she could read minds, dodge bullets. She hopped and slid to one side, head low, three available limbs skidding on the road until they found traction. No less than five guns were fired at her – three rifles and two pistols, and not one bullet touched her.
But she’d known we would be impatient, wanting to shoot. She had performed in situations almost identical to this countless times in her life, often enough to know the time it took most to aim and pull the trigger.
While our people worked to reload, she lunged to intercept her sister, who was crossing the street, heading right for us. The one twin would cut the binding without breaking stride, and would run into our midst a split-second before the first person managed to reload, carrying out the second half of the twins’ bloody dance.
But the scenario wasn’t going to go as they had planned. I hadn’t fired. I aimed, looking down my rifle’s sights.
The one who had just cut through our ranks wasn’t aware, but the twin who was charging our way saw. She changed direction, moving explosively, tackling her own sister, to knock her off course.
I suppressed a smile, exhaling slowly. Her timing was off there, too.
The two sisters, tangled together, placed perfectly for one bullet to penetrate the both of them. I squeezed the trigger.
The bullet pinged off the street, a miss.
I could sense Gordon’s disapproving eyes on me as I fumbled to reload. Don’t fight, Sy. You’re bad at it.
While I joined the others in trying to reload in time, knowing it wouldn’t be fast enough, another shot rang out. The bullet passed through one twin’s back, out the front. Thick black blood and bone fragments sprayed out, and she collapsed into her sister.
Jamie had held his fire, too.
The twin with one bound limb struggled to rise with the weight of her sister on her. There was a glimmer of emotion to the haste, and that emotion mirrored the fumbling movements of the people around me who were trying to reload faster than their numb hands were allowing.
Awkwardly, moving on three limbs instead of four, she backed away from her sister’s body, pausing.
Her skeletal jaw opened, and she screamed, far louder than her narrow frame should have allowed.
The scream was joined by two others, just as inhuman.
It was the elder twins, each with a rifle, stalking toward the rear of our bleeding, crippled group.