The nobles’ inhuman screams rang through the night.
The twin had come down like a nail driven by a hammer. One member of our group killed, another injured to the point that I couldn’t expect her to be useful. The rest had taken varying degrees of damage, ranging from blindness and near-disembowelment to deep cuts.
The nail had been dealt with, but the group was still nailed down, in a manner of speaking. This number of people was a critical liability. They weren’t running, they were still too shocked and traumatized to properly bolt for safety, and even if I somehow drove them to move, it would be horrendously disorganized, muddled by the state of the group.
Old scrub-brush, dead. The brawny Bruno, blind and missing most of his face. Both were as good as dead.
Adam, who I hadn’t wanted to bring, had one arm, not hand, cupped against the wound at his stomach. Bat-nose, who I’d analyzed so thoroughly, had a hole through the top of one shoulder and out the armpit, the shoulder itself likely dislocated. I had no idea how hurt Glasses was, but two good cuts meant I had to put her in the same category: those three would slow us down.
Tattoo Belly was scratched. Lookout, Glassblower, Salt, and Goiter were uninjured. They were also, with the possible exception of Goiter, people who couldn’t fight.
Too many people were moving for the cover of the alley, but the injured and blind members of the group were obstacles more than teammates.
I backpedaled, seeing the elder Twins approach from the end of the road, still screeching, their eyes wide, expressions inhuman. Both sisters were incomplete, a good two-fifths of their bodies missing, the rest remaining upright and in roughly the right position by sheer structural integrity alone. I could see black bone that had been folded up into place. The other twin was off to the side, still, crouching by her dead sister.
Stumbling back, I grabbed the blind Bruno’s shirt. He flinched, raising a hand.
“It’s me!” I called out, to be heard over the frantic shouts and noises of the group that was still heading for the alley. I moved around the Bruno, so he could serve as cover against any attack from the Twins, my evasive maneuvers quick enough that I nearly bounced off the brick corner on the other side of him. I hauled him toward the alley the rest were trying to flee into. “This way, and whatever you do, don’t push each other!”
We were retreating, there was no stopping that from happening, and we were very likely retreating right into the soldiers that had been left in our way, a defensive perimeter of Mauer’s men.
Accept it. Make peace with it.
I could feel the fear and panic. Both elder twins had raised their rifles. They fired, one shot after another. Good rifles. Probably accurate. With the body of the blind Bruno between me and them, I couldn’t see if they were hitting us or not.
I brought my hand out of my pocket, a bullet between index finger and middle finger, willing my fingers to be steady, and slotted the bullet into the rifle. Pull the lever, flip the switch, crank down the side. Then I was supposed to aim. I didn’t.
The blind Bruno leaned my way, nearly pushing me out of the makeshift, living cover his sheer mass provided. In thrusting the side of my rifle out to shove him back toward the alley – a two-handed task, I felt a lump at the side of his leg.
“Borrowing this,” I said. I slid a hand into his pocket, and I grabbed his coinpurse. Smaller than my fist, it was still packed with coins.
He didn’t protest.
I took in the scene beyond our little group. I couldn’t see the elder twins, but I had a sense of where they were. Each time they fired their rifles, I could place their locations. Striding or stalking forward, with all of the tense muscles and barely restrained power of a pair of jungle cats, they fired relentlessly, reloaded with practiced motions, and then fired again.
Four shots each, a pause so short I couldn’t believe they were prepping another four bullets, and then four more shots.
A spray of blood coincided with a sound like a great weight dropping onto wet gravel. It was Goiter, too far out, not benefiting from the blind man’s mass and cover. Goiter had been aiming at the elder twins.
The younger twin didn’t even react to the death, her eyes fixed on Jamie, her body jerking left and right, forward and back. Every adjustment was to throw him off as he changed where his rifle pointed. With every spare moment, her teeth snapped and gnashed at the clothesline that bound her trapped limb. Her elder sisters were shooting, and crossing that general trajectory meant risking getting shot, so she waited, watched, and distracted. The hesitation might have been helped with a frustration with her own limited movements and insecurity, however that strange lifeform might process such a thing. She’d lost her sister, and she was lost.
You are the jack of trades, the liar, the fluid element that can adapt to any situation. No excuses left. You wanted wyvern, you got wyvern. Gordon and Jamie wouldn’t take ‘Mauer left us underprepared’ for an answer.
They took your damn eye.
The anger helped clarify things. I let the wyvern focus my attention, putting the whole of my focus on what was happening, where things were, and all the details.
I had only as long as it took the younger sister to finish tearing at that cord bola at her arm. With her limbs being what they were, she didn’t have the means to simply unwind it with the ‘fingers’ that gripped the thickest end of the spike limbs; too clumsy. Her limbs were weapons first, tools second.
I gripped the coin purse until the coins within dug into my hand.
She pulled her head away, sharp teeth bringing some of the last of the cord with it. Her limb managed to open and reach out, the spike coming forward and down as the scraps of cord fell away. The point struck the road at the far end of the street.
A heartbeat later, she was lunging, a zig-zag path.
Jamie didn’t shoot. Patient.
“Fuck,” I said, pouring every last iota of fuckedness I was already feeling into the one word. “It’s still breathing!”
There were a dozen gunshots going off in different places throughout the city with any passing second. The cadence of the Twins’ shooting threatened to blur into it. Yet I listened for it, and I heard it, as real as if it was a physical thing, something so manifest it could be seen, tasted, touched. The break in the rhythm of the elder sisters’ shooting. They’d heard.
Jamie was among the ones who reacted, his gun moving slightly toward the fallen Twin.
That, in turn, was the cue for the charging Twin to check. She zigged short, zagged long, veering out toward our left, what had been the back of our group, creating a moment where she could look over one shoulder and see if her sister was indeed still breathing.
“Stall the other one, I’ll get her!” I called out, gesturing as I brought the coinpurse back, hurling it.
Give them hope, then threaten to dash it. Use the darkness, not just in the environment, but the countless things that these monsters don’t know and aren’t certain of.
For me, it was a coinpurse. For them, it was an unknown variable, combined with words of utter confidence from someone who had just fucked up a really nice shot.
The lunging twin changed course, moving to intercept the projectile.
I completed the throwing motion, letting myself fall forward. Jamie, having stepped slightly out of the cover the blind Bruno provided, put a bullet right over my head.
Not at the younger twin, but at the elder.
I didn’t even dare to peek my head out of cover to check what had happened. Good thing, too- both elder-twins answered with a renewed flurry of bullets.
The younger, meanwhile, slashed at the coinpurse, sending coins flying, each of the coins flipping through the air, flashing orange and yellow as they caught one distant fire or another.
The blind Bruno hadn’t moved. That suggested the group entering the alley was jammed. It wasn’t a wide space, and if the group had shoved and pushed into there until they got themselves wedged, or if the injured were in front and moving too slowly-
If we couldn’t even make ten feet of headway, I wasn’t sure how we were going to survive this.
As the concern crossed my mind, I looked at the blind Bruno a little closer.
I’d been too focused, wyvern focusing my thoughts in particular directions. It was the mental equivalent of a headlong rush, aggressive, arms swinging, fixating on the fight, except I hadn’t gone anywhere physically, and it was a battle fought with attention, emotion, motivation, needs and wants.
The blind Bruno had died, and it had been longer than just a moment ago. His body slumped against the corner at the exit of the alley, still standing. He’d taken bullets, acting as a human shield, very likely dead from the first bullet. Beyond him, the rest of the group of ten had already made their way. Everyone that could move had. Only Goiter, the old man, and the blind Bruno remained, leaving Jamie and I with three twins nearby.
“I shot her,” Jamie said. “She didn’t go down!”
Turning my rifle around, I swung the butt up and above me. Glass shattered. I swung it to one side, breaking the glass more.
One foot on the Bruno’s knee, a boost to get myself up, head ducked low. The toe of my shoe scratched against stone, looking for a handhold. I found one of a very unlikely sort. Jamie stepped closer, putting his shoulder beneath my foot.
As I grabbed the windowsill and hauled myself past broken glass , I could hear the clicks of his rifle being reloaded.
“Come on!” I shouted.
Goiter’s shots at the elder twins had kept them to one side of the street. It had meant that the body of the four or five hundred pound Bruno had been able to continue serving as cover. Now that Goiter was dead, the elder twins were moving toward the middle of the street, where they would have a clear shot on Jamie and I.
Jamie fired once, more a warning shot than anything else, then turned. Like I had, he swung his rifle, though he held on to the end.
I caught the barrel, putting all of my meager strength into bracing against the window and wall and hauling up, as he did much the same, feet kicking the wall below the window in an attempt to find traction.
I had a glimpse of the younger twin moving, a very clear mental picture of her leaping up, spearing Jamie through the torso even as he tried to climb through the window.
It was going to happen. She was too fast, he was too slow.
I felt a vivid, intense resignation in the moment. Resignation wasn’t a feeling I associated with intensity, but I felt it all the same, terrible and vicious. Sweat made my hands slip on the barrel.
It wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind, there wasn’t enough time for it to be complete. More a sentiment, a realization. This is how it ends. Separate us, and we go to pieces.
Four Lambs became three became two. Counting down.
If only we had Mary. To step in, seize the moment, seize Jamie-
There. I found a hair more traction on the sweat-and-rain slick weapon barrel, hauling it closer, uncaring of the bayonet blade on the end, so close to my chest, I found a little bit more strength, and I hauled Jamie just far enough up that I could let go of the gun altogether, grabbing him by the shirt collar. I hauled him up and into the room, practically throwing him to the ground.
Graceful. Fluid. One action to lead to another, I thought.
In another voice, calm, I reminded myself what my enemy was doing.
Bend down, grab the weapon, and bring it around, stabbing-
I was only halfway through the motions when Jamie kicked me down to the ground a few feet from him.
Spikes of bone lanced through the space where my head and body had been about to be.
She was there, in the window. I’d dropped my weapon and held Jamie’s, which he’d just fired. All the same, I tried for my third feint of the night, aiming it at her, trusting that she wouldn’t know it wasn’t loaded, that she would reflexively jump away as she had so many times.
But she’d been paying attention to the gun, where it was, the fact it had fired its shot.
I thrust it at her, jabbing with the blade in an ineffectual way, still sprawled on the ground, facing the window, and she swung a spike to smash the barrel, bending it visibly.
With her particular dimensions, working her way into the window took another second, her limbs were long, and she was using the fingers at the second elbow joint, at the fat end of the spike, to grip the windowsill.
Bringing herself up and through involved some contortion. The spikes went out to either side, flush against the wall, bracing, her head ducking low, past broken glass-
Jamie had the gun, touching it, but didn’t have a position to get a grip on it. Instead, he shoved it my way.
By the time I grabbed it and aimed it, the younger twin had pulled the spikes back, letting herself fall back outside the building.
A heavy scuffling sound marked her ascent, ten feet off to the left, moving up to other windows, possibly an upstairs floor.
She was stalking us, possibly communicating with her sisters, getting ready to cut us off.
She wasn’t nearly as pissed as her older sisters. She was holding to pattern now, and that was a problem. The younger twin was a killing machine, ingrained with the full knowledge on how best to end lives and tear through living people, all through careful, surgical strikes that minimized risk to her and maximized damage to the enemy.
Enraged, confused, lost with the death of her sister, she wasn’t spiraling out into new behaviors she wasn’t used to, rife with weaknesses I could exploit. She was doing what she’d always done, a path where she’d ironed out most of the weaknesses. She’d fallen for two feints and had learned enough to avoid falling for a third.
Jamie and I climbed to our feet. I handed him the good rifle. We were in someone’s house, now. A shithole of a place. I made a point of steering clear of any furniture where bugs or lice might be lurking.
“The older ones are in the alley,” Jamie said.
Following our group of ten-turned-seven, potentially cutting us off from one another. One younger twin up above.
If my estimate was right, the soldiers were laying in wait. The seven would run straight into a situation where they were outnumbered, outarmed, and outgunned. If I was wrong, the seven would reach Mauer.
I wasn’t going to bet on that scenario and the chance that Mauer might extend additional resources in this direction.
“Two of us against three of them,” I said. “I think you should sit this one out, Jamie. Can’t make it too easy.”
“They can hear you, Sy,” Jamie said. I could hear the tension in his voice. “Don’t taunt them.”
I laughed, sudden enough it caught me off guard. “Taunt them? We just killed one of them. I think we’ve topped things off, as provocation goes. There’s no way to make them angrier.”
The laugh and the short speech had left me breathless. The feelings I was burying and pushing off to the side were seeping out, affecting it.
“You hear me!?” I screamed out the words. “You killed our dog and you injured our Lillian! That means we’ve got to kill at least two more of you to balance the scales! You mutant skeleton sisters are only worth half the dog each, and I’m going to have to take the older noble’s life to make up for almost killing Lil!”
Jamie stared at me, wide eyed.
“And when I’m done, you bitches, I’m going to go find your brother, and I’m going to make him squeal with pain before he dies! Because his whole unproductive, sack-of-shit life isn’t worth one piece of me!”
The shouts rang off the walls.
Jamie exhaled, his breath shuddering as he did it. “Maybe we shouldn’t be so loud.”
“They can hear us anyway,” I said. “They know where we are.”
“And the little one?”
“She’s patient,” I told Jamie, my eye on the staircase, on the hallways and doorways. “Even in the darkest, blackest rage she’s experienced in her life, she knows-”
The younger twin made her entry, tearing through the floor above us and the ceiling in a shower of plaster and wood splinters, dropping.
She’d fixed the issue with the binding at one limb, but she remained off balance. Used to working in concert with a sister who could instinctively cover any gaps, more coordinated with her own movements than the Lambs ever were, she landed to one side, leaving us a direction to run. We took it.
Through a dining room. I slammed the door behind us, buying us a few more steps. The violence with which she destroyed the door and tore through made my eye widen, putting an idea in my head.
I knocked over a chair, putting it in her way, grabbed a wheeled tea trolley and pulled it back into the path behind me.
I’d been missing the Lambs. I’d been seeing the Lambs. Phantoms of Gordon, of old Jamie, of Helen, Ashton, and most recently, of Mary.
I had a sense of what it was, now. It wasn’t that I was emulating them. It was that I was working with them. Years of cooperation with other Lambs had left its imprint in me as surely as anything else. I’d come to know Gordon, how Gordon acted, where he liked to be in a confrontation. In the split second before he took action, not quite soon enough to change my own courses of action, I knew what he would be doing.
In visualizing Mary, hauling Jamie into the building, I’d recognized the lack, seen how the full team might have acted, and stepped to fill the void, as I’d been preparing to do for a long time.
The tea trolley in place, I slammed the kitchen door.
“Helen!” I called out, grabbing the kitchen cabinet to arrest my forward movement. Rather than run, I swung my feet up onto the counter.
Don’t try to fight, I thought. Can’t fight. The longer we draw this out, the worse it goes.
A spear of carbon-dense bone punctured the door near the knob. It shifted angle dramatically, tearing at the wood even worse.
Then it pulled back, disappearing.
She knows we have one working gun. She’s wary of being shot.
Jamie was behind me. He didn’t make a noise. I imagined he had a vague sense of what I was doing, namely something very risky and reckless, and he knew there was nothing he could do that wouldn’t jeopardize it.
If the greater battle had swords poised, ready to strike, what was this? Everything was strained to a limit yet somehow restrained. The twin wanting to attack and kill, Jamie wanting to help me. The state of the group of seven, of us, of the elder twins outside.
I was the only poised sword here, and I had no edge.
The twin slammed bodily into the door. The door opened, the top swinging in.
I leaped. One foot went out, touching the door, while one hand caught the top of the door. I hung there for a moment, my grip and sideways momentum keeping me in place, eye watching below me.
A half-second after the door had crashed open, sooner than might be expected, she dashed in, low to the ground. I had to kick at the door, which was braced against the wall, to hurl myself far enough out.
She heard the sound or realized what the impact above her had been. I saw her head turn slightly.
I landed on top of her, all hard bone and edges, and I embraced her.
She had so little muscle. The muscle she did have had to move heavy bone, so it was very specialized toward that task. Lillian had given me clues, talking about the low range of movement. Lookout’s bola had been another, showing just how much difficulty she’d had tearing the remaining cord when an ordinary human might have been able to extend their arm and have the cord snap.
An alligator’s jaws. Powerful as an alligator’s jaws were, if the mouth was held closed with a human’s hands, the muscles weren’t powerful enough to haul it open against the resistance.
Arms pinned against her side, me on her back, she could only use her legs, and those legs were limited in movement, solely for climbing, running, and kicking at opponents who weren’t hugging her.
Not that she didn’t try. She had talons, and she scratched for my shoes and calves.
Her head turned, teeth snapping, and I had to pull my head back and away to avoid having my nose or chin taken off.
I heard a heavy knock.
She’d released a spike, with the thing no longer extending from what should have been her right wrist.
Fingers free, ‘hand’ able to move, she brought long fingers around and started to dig them into my forearm.
For long seconds, we thrashed, her kicking at cabinets and furniture to try and move us across the floor, to violently push me against cabinets, against the wall, trying to loosen my hold. She tried to stand, and I tangled her leg with mine, keeping mine straight, to keep her from getting both feet under her. I wasn’t even sure she could stand without her forelimbs to help.
With the finger-bones digging into flesh, I had to admit I was losing my grip.
I wasn’t Helen. I couldn’t take this someplace, utterly destroying my target.
I could only hold her mostly still, long enough for Jamie to draw near, and slam the rifle’s bayonet blade into her eye socket.
The blade kept her head mostly in place. She couldn’t do much except dig her fingers in deeper as Jamie changed the angle of his rifle, turning the barrel more toward the top of her head.
He pulled the trigger, firing a bullet into her brainpan.
Slowly, wincing in pain from a hundred new, small sorts of hurt, I made my way to my feet.
Helen. Question. Jamie gestured. Helen?
Needed. Helen. Help. I gestured back, staring down at the second sister’s corpse. I winced as I bent down to pick up the spike, hefting it in my hands.
Jamie nodded. He pulled the rifle free of the now-shattered eye socket, and jammed the bayonet past ribs and into the chest cavity, once, twice.
Thank you. Helen. He gestured, but the expression on his face was a grim one, suggesting he was reading something more into this than was warranted.
The older twins hadn’t come barging in. That suggested they didn’t know how this had ended.
When their sister didn’t come back, triumphant, they would come looking.
Kill. One. Other. No. Balance. I gestured.
Jamie nodded. He understood what I meant. Kill one, and the other toppled. It wasn’t a guarantee, but the weaknesses that were so hard to find against the concerted pair were very evident once they were left to operate alone. Was it why the older sisters had held back a little? A fear that three would be just as uneven and fragile as one?
Or were they going after the seven remaining people that Jamie and I had recruited?
I wasn’t sure I liked any of the options.
I watched as Jamie gestured. Are any of the others helping?
I wished I had a proper answer for him. Given how hurt or close to death I was getting every time I tried it, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to.