“The other one?” I asked. I watched the surroundings, making sure that the Twins’ soldiers weren’t about to converge on us. Had to focus, to keep from blacking out. The allure of the darkness was that all the pain would stop. I wasn’t one to take the easy road.
Not when there was retaliation to be served.
“If she’s not dead, she will be soon,” Lillian said. “Maybe. Probably.”
“Direct hit,” Jamie said. “From Lillian’s stuff.”
He looked back at the soldiers they’d brought with them. “Can you steady her? I need to help Sy.”
We were surrounded by the scattered remnants of what had been a group of ten. Now only five lived. Two of them, Lookout and Glasses, looked utterly defeated. Others were hurt. Glassblower had Adam working to keep pressure on her wound. Salt was lying on the ground, passed out. There was a chance he was dead, but I wasn’t about to put money on it. The way he’d screamed hadn’t been a dying man’s scream. I’d heard enough of those to know.
The shriek of a badly hurt child? I’d heard those too, if far less.
The soldiers arrived at Jamie and Lillian’s side, and took custody of Lillian. Jamie helped me to my feet.
“My fault,” I said. “This situation, the one you faced. I almost got us killed. Didn’t estimate where they were. Focusing too much on these sorry bastards.”
Four of the five who remained were watching me, staring.
“I think we both did the best we could,” Jamie said.
“All three of us did,” I said, looking at Lillian. I looked at the five members of the handpicked group. Glassblower, Lookout, Glasses, Adam, and Salt. Lookout and Glasses averted their eyes. I could see fear in their expressions. “These guys too. Even put bullets in her, for all the good it did.”
Lookout tensed, as if he was waiting for me to drop the guillotine. Glasses, however, looked up, meeting my eye, wary confusion on her face.
“Come on,” I said. “Mauer needs our help?”
“He needs something,” Jamie said.
Once we started moving, hobbling as much as we walked, more than half of our group injured, we were able to cover a fair bit of ground.
The noise of the front line of battle was almost too much. The explosions, the gunshots that would have individually been able to make my ears ring were occurring by the hundred. Through it all, people were shouting.
A building a hundred meters down the road took one last explosion, too much for it to bear, and it folded, tipping into the building next to it and into the street. I couldn’t even hear the rumble or the cracking of the timber over everything else.
Someone jostled me, and the pain of my ruined shoulder nearly blinded me.
Jamie was gesturing, and I couldn’t focus enough to make out the signs.
I caught some of Lillian’s response, and I was able to put the pieces together.
I looked, and I saw it.
Three Crown warbeasts were engaged in what looked like a savage dogfight with the primordial. The primordial was twice the size it had been when I had seen it last, its form even more disorganized, and it fought on despite gaping wounds from explosions and horrific burns from flame.
Its primary mouth extended from one side of its head, around the other side, and along one shoulder. It managed to open that mouth and seize hold of one of the warbeasts’ paws. With a disturbing strength, it clamped down, teeth locking it in place.
Then, like a bear-trap snapping closed, configurations above and below that mouth snapped shut on part of the warbeast’s head, its shoulder, and part of its chest, the first mouth now serving to draw the paw in, to tear and to enable the larger, new configuration of a mouth to take in even more of the warbeast it was fighting.
Bullets sank into it, fired whenever there was an opportunity, an exposed part of the primordial that the warbeasts weren’t savaging. Explosives sailed into the fray, sent by the Crown, aimed at the primordial beast rather than the creatures that were busy attacking it.
The beast lurched, putting one of the warbeasts that was gnawing on it in the way of one explosive. The other detonated behind it. I saw the chunks of meat fly.
It was strong enough to move with what had to be a Crown ton of meat hanging off of it, and it seemed to have a basic understanding of the battlefield and what the dangers were. More problematic was where it was. Behind the Crown’s front line. As it moved, trying to get away, the Crown delivered more explosives.
Mauer’s forces could only shoot it, and shooting it was proving ineffective. It didn’t seem to bleed, and if it had vital organs, the bullets didn’t seem to be impairing those organs. The manifestation of the new mouth seemed to suggest that it could move parts of itself around at will.
I gestured. Big. Question.
Beast. Experiment. Eat. Brother. Eat. Lillian gestured. She started to do more gestures, but someone bumped into her. She winced.
Not wholly immune to pain, it seemed.
Hands on each of our shoulders, Jamie urged us away from the front line.
It had eaten warbeasts. And it had eaten a brother?
I had a mental picture, very distinct, of one of the larger of the four primordials seizing one of the lesser ones in its jaws. Had the lesser one fought and lost, or had it gone willingly?
Both ideas were very spooky.
Taking in a brother, every part of the primordial’s body a hard-coded set of lessons and adaptations, communicating with every other part. Having eaten its brother, it would take in all of that information.
I was starting to get a glimmer of why Mauer might have been getting concerned.
When I thought about the warbeasts it had eaten, then I started to get a little concerned, myself.
The Crown’s forces were capable of committing a hell of a lot more explosives and firepower than they had. But in feeding the damn thing, and in holding back firepower, I was starting to see what was really at work.
Somewhere along the line, the battle lines had shifted, the Duke made his play in a way that probably wasn’t even perceptible to the people fighting on the front line. All they would’ve known was that they were losing, suddenly, being pushed back, despite the monsters that was tearing through the Duke’s forces.
It was like a macabre chess game, where the pieces were building-sized, and every movement of one swept across and landed atop crowds, leaving dozens or hundreds crippled and maimed. In this macabre game that only the Duke, Mauer and I could understand on any level, the Duke had gone to great ends to push his forces up, isolating the worst of the primordials behind his own lines.
Now he held onto it, at the cost of stitched life and human life both. If it grew too weak, he threw warbeasts at it, to make it harder to shoot at, to feed it and give it the fuel it needed. If it grew too strong, he ordered more shots of artillery.
Control. When it comes down to it, the Academy has control and seeks power, and the Crown has power and seeks control. By intertwining to the point they were frequently indistinguishable, they maintained both, and they continued to expect both in every situation. The Duke had orchestrated a situation where, if my gut feeling was right, Lugh would fall, and the Primordial would eventually die.
Except that death would only happen if and when the Duke allowed it, and the Duke would only allow it if Mauer recognized the stakes and surrendered.
With soldiers ahead of us and soldiers behind us, the Lambs and the five surviving members of the group made our way to the back line of battle.
It wasn’t nearly the same kind of journey it had been an hour ago. Mauer’s forces were dwindling. The Crown’s seemed nigh-untouchable.
I saw a glimpse of Mauer, talking to a group of his officers. He was fire, a light in his eyes and an energy to his movements. One of the soldiers in our group broke away to head to Mauer. To update. Mauer would hear about the twins and about our success, the state of the Lambs that had troubled him. He would adjust his view of this battlefield.
Months, even years of work, had led up to this moment. He had been working on this since I had known Mary. He had been nurturing rebellion in Radham when I had been learning what Mary’s favorite food had been, how she thought and how to manipulate her, back when she had been enough of a question mark that I’d felt the need to pull strings and keep her in a good place. When I had been mourning Jamie, Mauer had been setting up bigger things with Fray, organizing this, the war, the primordials, deciding where the battle would happen, what the outcome should be.
In this place, in this moment, he was a giant. With a gesture, a word, he could cause the death of hundreds or thousands. As the Reverend Mauer he had had power before, stature, the attention and obedience of thousands, but it was small compared to this. A new power, which he used to face down an enemy who had been born to that stature and greatness. The Duke had been a giant from the very beginning.
In context, looking at the battlefield, his forces, the state of the primordial, and the robustness of the Crown’s forces, Mauer was losing. Everything pointed to that fact, it seemed.
Everything but Mauer himself. I couldn’t see him any more, with all the people moving around and between us, but the glimpse I’d had of the man suggested distilled confidence. Energy, not anxiety. Back straight, eyes focused.
He had to know the state of things. Was it that he was well and truly unbowed and unbroken, or was it that he was incapable of giving in?
Our group made our way to where the medical tents and supplies were. The soldiers with us spoke to the medical staff, many of whom looked to be Mauer’s men. Injured soldiers were moved off beds to make room for us.
Mauer would come, he would talk to us, looking for a solution to this puzzle. Just about everything was going according to his plan, everything but this. The possibility of killing nobles and getting an answer to the puzzle had been reason enough to send Lillian and the soldiers after us.
Lillian, on the bed next to me, raised her arms over her head. A doctor pulled off her shirt.
The same piece of gauze that stuck out of the front of her wounded stomach stuck out of her back. Bandage had been wrapped around, binding everything in place, but her stomach was messy with drying blood and fresh blood alike. An opaque bag with clear tubing was on her back, bound to her bra straps, marked with the two red circles, the smaller one above the larger one, that was the symbol for blood. The tubing fed into the wound, blood flowing down and into Lillian at a steady rate.
Red blood, but her bra was a light green, an oddly bright color in the midst of so much fire and blood and smoke. The little slope of her left breast that I could see above the bra’s top edge had twin smudges of dried blood on it, where a pair of bloody fingertips had grazed it. I wondered if the fingers that had done the smudging was someone else’s, a doctor tending to her stomach, and I felt a kind of annoyance.
I wondered if it had been her fingers, and experienced a vivid mental image of Lillian awake through the efforts to patch her together just enough that she could stand and walk to where we were, speaking to doctors and telling them to collect materials for whatever it had been that she had used on the Twins. I felt mingled pride and pity.
I wanted to wipe those smudges away, so very badly. It was all I could do to sit still, and I wasn’t sure if I could tear my eye away from that image. If wyvern left me open for new ideas and skills to leave their impressions on my mind, then this was an image that would remain burned in my brain for a long time.
Strong hands seized my torso, jarring me from the thought process. I realized what I was doing and looked up. I looked past the shirt they were pulling and cutting off me, so they would have better access to my shoulder, across the extended bench that they were laying the wounded on, to my teammate.
Lillian was gazing into my eye, and had been for a long part of this, a small smile on her face. Except this was the elemental Lillian, the Lillian that the Lillian I knew wanted to be, fearless in the face of gaping stomach wounds, fearless in terms of taking the risks and getting the job done. Fearless in how she could look the boy she liked in the eye and communicate without words just how much she liked him.
More hands seized the arm that was hanging limp and numb at my side. I gasped in a breath, biting down to keep that gasp from becoming a gag or scream of abject pain as I felt everything in my ruined shoulder move, and braced myself for what I knew was coming. My dislocated shoulder needed to be set back into place. Pain, I could deal with. If I could anticipate it, then that was all the better.
A moment later, I remembered the damage, the tearing of the muscles. I could replay the sensation in my mind, knew this wasn’t an ordinary dislocation, and it required more than an ordinary fix.
“Wait!” I called out.
They never actually did. Every damn time I called for people to stop, to hold back, it was when things were already in motion.
They tried to shove my shoulder back into place. I felt a horrendous pinching sensation that joined the wrenching of torn flesh to overwhelm every other sensation that should have gone with shoving the ball of one’s shoulder back into the socket.
My bones weren’t big, my shoulder wasn’t anything special. It thus baffled and deeply angered me that, when they failed to get my shoulder in the first time, they tried again.
It didn’t work any better than it had the first time.
Blind and sick with pain, I thrashed like an animal, kicking, wrenching myself out of their grip, twisting around so they couldn’t try a third time. I’d caught one of Mauer’s soldiers in the balls, I was pretty sure.
People tried to grab me again. I kicked and thrashed, swinging my one good arm to get them to stop. It was enough pain and emotion that I was having trouble thinking straight, and I really wanted to think clearly in this moment.
A hand seized my numb, aching left hand, and I flinched.
Looking, however, I saw that Lillian had moved across the bench, close enough to touch me.
I was breathing so hard, and she was so calm. She said something, but it was too quiet to hear. Her voice didn’t carry like Mauer’s did, and even with wyvern influencing her, she wasn’t one to raise her voice, even when the situation necessitated it.
I had no idea what she’d said, but I allowed myself to relax, used the poison in me to make that allowance possible.
Her fingers touched my arm, as if she was working her way up. Then she touched my shoulder. Some of the touches hurt, but she seemed to know when it did, because she would immediately ease up every time it did.
I had goosebumps, and it had nothing to do with the fact that I was shirtless in a tent in winter. The fires and the sheer number of bodies were more than enough to cancel out the chill.
“Displaced infraspinatus muscle,” she said, to a doctor. The fingers of both hands still rested on my shoulder and arm. “It’s getting in the way, and since you tried and smashed it in between the ball and socket like you did, it’s going to swell and make your job harder. You can move it with a type-F lever and put his arm back in place, but you’ll have to do it fast, before the swelling gets worse. Leave the rest of the damage alone, give him a cortisol bar, reduce swelling, and put his arm in a sling. We’ll get it properly fixed later, but I don’t think we’ll be sitting still long enough to do the comprehensive surgery.”
The doctors hopped to, apparently willing to take her at her word. While they got the necessary things together, Lillian leaned forward, one arm reaching behind my neck to my other shoulder for balance, pressing down as she put most of her upper body weight on it. In that position, she kissed my throbbing shoulder. Her fingers traced down the length of my back as she let her hand move away from my good shoulder.
I wanted to wipe away those twin smudges so badly.
Doctors worked on her, unwinding the bandage and pulling gauze free of the cavity. I looked away, and everywhere I looked, I could see the pain and the blood and the damage. The survivors of the handpicked group looked harrowed, Glasses and Lookout wouldn’t meet my eye, and I had no way of communicating to them that I held nothing against them. Most of their group were injured in varying ways.
“Lambs,” Mauer spoke.
One word, and it cut through the chatter and the noise.
“Reverend Mauer,” I said. My one good eye twitched as a scalpel made an incision. Cold metal slid into the incision, thrust past damaged muscle and scraped against bone. “The younger Richmond Twins are dead. One elder twin is injured and expected to die, the other was shot several times by our group, lightly exposed to Lillian’s mixture, and fled before we could expose her more. She’ll be heading back to her brother.”
Which means word of what the Lambs are doing will get back to the Crown. We’ve put the other group at risk, and we have no way of communicating that to them.
“I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am,” he said. “Good. Things may actually go as I hoped.”
I couldn’t keep my eye from involuntarily twitching as they levered my shoulder into place, metal stretching against muscle, so I closed my eye instead.
“The primordial is a concern,” he said. “They deliberately blew up the wagon we had it anchored to, and they’re deliberately feeding it.”
“I figured as much,” I said. “You and the Duke are like two men playing chicken, your back to his while you stand on a railroad track. Each of you stare down incoming trains that are coming from either direction. Each wants the other to step off the track so they can be the winner, but you’re so focused on winning that you’re failing to realize that the trains are going to collide head-on, whether you get off the track or not.”
“A cute metaphor,” he said. “One that doesn’t help you and doesn’t help me.”
I’m not sure we can even be helped at this stage, I thought.
“I have everything well in hand,” he said. “Signal lights from soldiers I’ve placed around the city are telling me what the Duke’s next moves are. What I don’t have in hand-”
“Is the primordial,” I said.
“What’s going to happen is going to happen. He’s making his final move, as am I. This is the end. But if we stop the Duke without having that primordial in hand, it will inflict a horrific number of casualties on both sides of this battlefield before we put it down.”
If you do get it under your control again, then the entire tide of battle shifts, and the Duke has to commit too many forces to ensuring it dies. The exact same problem. Neither party was willing to kill the primordial because the desire to see it dead served to force the other side’s hand. It was a scenario that only played out because of the peculiar blend of pride, conviction, and respect for what the primordial represented, mirrored on each side of the battlefield.
“What are the final moves?” Jamie asked.
“The Baron flanks us. I flank the Duke,” Mauer said.
“I need details,” I said.
“The Baron doesn’t know about his sisters. You and the twins were to our east, the Baron is now circling around our west flank, hoping to hit this very medical camp and the rest of our back line with his personal force. As for my attack… I can’t see any scenario where you need to know the details. The Baron will run headlong into a trap. It won’t stop him, but it will slow him down enough for my attack to work. With that, I’m hoping this battle will be over.”
Levered rather than shoved, I felt my shoulder slip back into place. I felt far less pain than I had.
“Retreat,” I said.
“Hm?” Mauer asked.
“Retreat. Pull forces back, as much as you can. He’s holding the primordial over your head to force your hand and split the focus of your forces. Put that ball entirely into his court and give it up as lost. Give up your ground here, move people away, and you’ll change how the Baron’s attack plays out.”
Mauer set his jaw, thinking.
“The Baron is easy,” I said. “The Duke is hard. If the Duke is pushing, stop being stubborn, stop pushing back. It’s what he expects and what he wants. Retreat, if that’s even possible, with what you have in mind.”
“Somewhat.” he said. He seemed to think for a moment.
“Stay where we can find you,” he decided. Then, to his doctors, he said, “Be ready to move any wounded you can. If the signal comes and you have to leave the tents and equipment behind, then don’t hesitate to leave it. Don’t leave people to pack it up.”
Leaving me with just those words, the ‘stay where I can find you’ statement an order to his men as much as it was a request for the Lambs, he turned away, giving directions to other soldiers. No indication he would listen to me.
From our vantage point in the tent, I could see up the sloping length of the street, over the heads of the hundreds of soldiers who had gathered around makeshift barricades and defenses. I could see where physical battle lines had formed and the two sides were actively brawling and fighting in melee, brunos making up for the deficit of strength that the ordinary man had against the typical stitched soldier.
He seems to think this is the end. The battle comes to a close, here.
I was given a shirt several times too large for me, soft to the touch, and the excess of sleeve was part of the construction they used to fashion me a sling. My black raincoat was given back to me, and though I couldn’t wear it with my arm in a sling, it was placed with my arm through one sleeve, the rest of the raincoat hooked over one shoulder, the sleeve of it dangling at my side. I couldn’t find an angle to reach back to get the hood up, and I didn’t particularly want to.
I saw Jamie, off to one side, talking to Candy, the girl we’d been asked to retrieve. She was in medical scrubs, brought into Mauer’s medical tent to use the scant knowledge she had picked up from books she’d been given. She knew the names of certain substances and the basic treatments, and that qualified her to help out the real doctors, I supposed.
Lillian, now with bandage and gauze wrapped around where her belly had been stitched shut, a fresh bag at her back, was carefully pulling her shirt on and buttoning it up, moving more gingerly so she wouldn’t pull at her stomach wound.
Someone had wiped away the twin smudges of blood on her chest.
“Here, Sy,” Jamie said. He’d approached me while I wasn’t looking. He had a bit of cord, and used it to loop through the eyehole and connect to the top button of my raincoat. He cinched it tight so it wouldn’t fall off or slide down. I started to button the rest closed with one hand, but Jamie seemed to have it handled, working three times as fast with two hands as I could with the one.
While he worked, his hands formed gestures.
What are we doing?
I brought my hand up to my shoulder, adjusting the raincoat, making gestures of my own. I looked over at Lillian, and I could see her watching.
There would be more time for discussing strategy shortly. But for now, it was very simple.
Mauer had a plan and was certain he would come out ahead in the end. The Duke had a plan and was certain he would triumph.
The Lambs had to make a play too, with zero certainty at all.