Counting Sheep – 9.16

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Mauer ended up giving the order to retreat.  Even from our vantage point, looking at things from the rear of the fight, I could see people at the very front line of the battle who weren’t able to disengage.  The bravest and most aggressive would die.

I looked at Jamie, “Feel brave?  We need to make a move.”

“I don’t-” Jamie paused to wince as an explosion struck Mauer’s retreating forces.  “I don’t think we’re in fighting shape.”

“I’m not in fighting shape when I’m in perfect shape,” I said.  “Don’t worry.  The last thing I want to do is to pick a fight, here.”

Mauer’s fighting forces could likely be counted with four digits, very possibly a three digit number, down from tens of thousands to start.  As the Crown had pushed the people of Lugh back, the fallen had been recovered.  The rate of conversion wouldn’t be fast, but the first fallen on either side might be returning to the battlefield as stitched, sometime around now.  They would be quick work, simple riggings, with clumsy movements, too much of their brains cut away, their heads barely put back together.  Most would be too uncoordinated to reliably aim at people and then pull a trigger.

But more bodies were more bodies.  The illusion was that the Crown’s forces didn’t seem to have dwindled.  Mauer had had his opportunity to try and win this battle, and things had passed a point where I could see him winning a military victory.

I formed something of a huddle with the other Lambs.  Lillian put one hand on me to steady herself.

Some of the handpicked group were standing near.  Candy was tending to Adam.

“The Baron is a problem,” I said.  “The Duke is the Duke, he understands the greater picture.  The Crown craves control above all else, and he exemplifies that.  Control, control, control.  It can’t be said enough, when it comes to the nobles.  It’s what he’s doing with the primordial, and it’s what he’s going to try to do with Mauer if he can.  Exert pressure and make Mauer bend the knee and admit defeat.  So long as he can control us and he can use us?  I think he could see us actively murdering the Baron or the Twins and he wouldn’t kill us.”

“Not right away,” Jamie said.  “Killing a noble?  He wouldn’t forgive it in the long run.  Rules have to be maintained, for one thing, and knowing we were capable of killing his kin would make him wonder if he could really control us.”

“Not right away,” I admitted.

“Okay.  So you want to focus on the Baron.  To take away control?  To give it?”

“The Baron craves control, but he also craves power.  He’s so far back in line for the Crown that he won’t ever have a chance to reach even the Duke’s tier of power.  In that desperate, fucked up craving for power and control, he’s mingled the two and that’s manifested as… barbarism.  Sadism.  Inflicting pain.  Having someone captured and making them bleed as you choose is control and power at the basest level, something even small animals understand.  So I want you to tell me, the power he does have, what form does it take?”

“The twins,” Lillian said.

“Yes, the twins.  At least two of the twins are dead.  One more is injured and hurting.  They’ve been declawed or outright killed.  He’s going to be pissed, and he’ll retaliate.  Whatever Mauer accomplishes, whatever we accomplish, however the rest of this battle goes, we don’t stand a chance unless we deal with that noble.”

“How?” Lillian asked.

“This ugly little rock of a city does its fair share of fishing.  Seems appropriate that we bait him,” I said.  “He craves power and control, and losing his sisters meant he loses both.  We don’t have them with us, but if we paint the right sort of picture, I think we can lure him out.”

One of the soldiers who was stationed nearby spoke, “Mauer said to stay where he could find you.”

He wasn’t one of Mauer’s top men, and was doing his best to avoid getting swept up in the tide of retreating bodies, one of his eyes on the battle further ahead, but he meant business, and he conveyed it without a shred of doubt.  Had Mauer’s charisma bled over to his men?  The guy was young enough I could imagine he’d been a rookie working alongside or under Mauer at one point, and had been raised and cultivated as a soldier by years in Mauer’s company.

“We won’t have to go far.  You can stay with us the whole time,” I said.  “Mauer will absolutely approve of what I’m aiming to do here.”

The man frowned, looking at one of his colleagues.  A silent exchange seemed to pass between them, or else they were staring each other down in an attempt on either’s part to get the other to agree or to tell me to fuck off, with all the consequences that went with a given decision.

“Picture?” Jamie asked, cutting into that silence, “How would we paint the right sort of picture?”

“We’re going to need a body, and I think there are enough around here.  We’ll need a skull, one we can paint black or paint black enough, and we’ll need that…”

I pointed at the claw of the twin I’d salvaged.

“I can make something to paint bone with what I have in my bag,” Lillian said.  “And I’ll need soot, but I think there’s enough soot around.”

“Good,” I said.

Not good.  He’s going to have a small army with him,” Jamie said. “You think, what, we get a body, as petite and thin as possible, we get a skull, we prop it up to look like it’s his sister, he’ll leave the army behind, waltz out of cover, in the direction of whatever hurt or killed that sister, and we close a trap around him?”

“Along those lines,” I said.  “But I thought it through just a step further than that.”

“Do tell.”

“Do you remember when-” I started, then paused, thinking.

“Old Jamie?”

“No,” I said.  “It was before the siege in Brechwell.  You weren’t with us yet.  Helen was talking to Petey.  Explaining how the Ghosts talk.”

“Ghosts?” Adam asked.  He was listening in.

“Doesn’t matter.  Listen, the Twins did a lot of chattering.  We heard other clues.  The elder twins did that whistling thing.”

“I remember that,” Jamie said.

“Only about five people probably understood it on any level.  The four Twins, and the Baron.”

“Probably,” Jamie said.

I reached into my pocket and retrieved the whistle.  “If he hears that, even if he knows his sisters don’t whistle like that, what’s he going to think?  Is he going to think an enemy somehow figured out their language, or is he going to think his sister somehow can’t communicate properly?”

“He might remember that our group has me in it,” Jamie said.  “He seemed to know what I was capable of.”

I thought back to the conversation with the twin, around the time she had wrenched my arm out.  She’d mentioned that she’d had orders not to touch Jamie.  I could remember the Baron’s reluctance to send Jamie with our group.  Not a strong reluctance.

My thought that they wanted to preserve Jamie seemed to have only been validated by recent events.

“If he remembers, that’s still something we can use,” I said.  Except in this case, Jamie becomes the bait.  “You might be what he comes for, instead of the twin, but I don’t think that’s the worst eventuality.”

“If you’re sure,” Jamie said.

Lillian was milling about.  When she struggled to pick up her bag from the floor, stopping to hold her stomach, it was Lookout who bent down and collected the satchel and lifted it up to the counter where Lillian had been lying down as she’d been stitched together.

The stretchers were rapidly being vacated.  People were leaving, and there were more soldiers making a fighting retreat in the midst of the hospital than there were patients or medics.  A few stragglers had stayed behind with us.  The faces I recognized were Lookout, Glasses, Adam, Emily, a patched-up Drake, and the asshole with the face-armor who had been leading their group, something starting with H. A scattered few soldiers had been left with us, to make sure we didn’t go rogue.

Glassblower was gone, as was Salt.  Fled with the rest.

I turned toward one of the soldiers who was with us, “We need something to lay the trap with.  Guns.  Explosives.”

“You’re to stay put!” the younger of Mauer’s soldier said, raising his voice.  To avoid letting the retreating group move between himself and us, he stepped closer to our group.

“I want to blow up a noble, and you’re saying no?

“No, I’m saying Mauer has reasons for wanting you to stay put, and if he says-”

“Either we’re out of his hair, or we blow up a noble,” I said.  “Why is this so hard a decision to make!?”

“He might not want you to-” the young soldier started.

But one of the other soldiers put a hand on his arm.

My heart pounded.  I wanted to lash out, to get the last hit in while I still could.  In an ideal world, I wanted to resolve the crisis that the Baron posed.  Not for this battle – battlefields could be survived, and they rarely had neat resolutions.  But if he lived, he was a mortal risk to Lillian’s family, to me, to the others.  He would go berserk over his sisters’ deaths and he would lash out.

In terms of people who I did not want to see lashing out, the Baron was a scary sort.  He specialized in hurting people in the worst ways.  It was how he passed his afternoons, and the little territory he controlled was notorious for it.

I just had to keep that anger cold.  Stay focused.

“You really think you can do this?” the man asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.  “Worst case scenario, it’s a distraction.”

“Worst case scenario is that we die,” Lillian said, just behind me.

Probably not something she would normally have said.  Still drunk, in a way.  She might have fine-tuned her altered inhibitions, but there were side effects, or things that slipped the net.  Fatalistic commentary included.

“Worst case scenario is that we die, right.  More likely worst-case is we put the Baron off his game, buy Mauer some time for whatever it is he has planned.  Best case scenario, a noble dies, and the attack on your rear ranks and your flank falters.”

“How much explosive?” the soldier asked me.

“Not a lot,” I said.  “And we need a body, and a skull, with some soot and a minute’s time.  Then we need to find the Baron Richmond’s general location.”

“Then go that way.  Stop at the base of the tower with the lights.  We’ll catch up,” the soldier said.

“You’re serious about this,” Adam said.  “You got hurt, you threw yourself into that last fight, and it was bad-”

“About what I expected,” I said.  “Sorry, it was less of a coordinated attack on our parts than I’d hoped.  Mauer gave us so few of you guys and shitty weapons.  It went bad, and then it went really bad.”

“That boy I talked to in the quarry, who so desperately wanted to help his friend, to find contacts and get her a job, not even a glimmer of that was true, was it?” Adam asked.

“It was absolutely true,” I told him, with conviction.  I reached out to take Lillian’s hand, and she leaned heavy against my side.  “Absolutely.  It’s just the… particulars are a lot different than I led you to believe.”

“We should go,” Jamie murmured.

“Do you-” Adam started.  He didn’t finish the sentence, cutting himself off.  His eyes were so tired, dirt smeared on black skin.  I saw fear in his eyes, more raw than any fear I’d felt since my first days as a Lamb.

“No,” I said.  “No, don’t help.  Go, look after these two.”  Look after Candy and Drake.

“I want to come,” Lookout said.  “What I did before, where I come from, people who get knifed for that shit.  I gotta make it up, or it’s not going to sit right.”

“Good,” I said.  “It shouldn’t.  But don’t go and think it’s worse than it is.  It was a shitty, terrifying situation.  You did what you had to.  Let it sit wrong, carry that, but don’t let it eat you up.  Any friend or family member of yours probably would have done the same.”

Lookout looked away.

“Take care of Glasses here.  Get her out of the city.”

He nodded.

Once we got moving, Lillian wasn’t that slow, the pain only apparent when she bent over too far or didn’t watch her footing.  We kept to where we had cover, zig-zagging in the direction we’d been pointed.  A block away from the medical tents, around a corner, we found the building with lights at every window, a brazier with open flame set over the door, and we stopped there, waiting.

Mauer’s lines were giving way.  The large numbers he’d collected were a detriment as those numbers tried to flee and the Crown’s stitched soldiers fired volley after volley into the air, punching into people who weren’t behind cover.

I hoped my advice would save more lives than it cost.

The soldiers caught up with us, a corpse slung over one shoulder, another two soldiers carrying a skull and canvas bags that looked heavy.

“Those are the explosives?” I asked.  A lot.

“Mauer said yes, and if we’re walking away from this, we’re not bringing all of this with us, so we might as well be thorough.  Brought someone who knows this stuff.”

Mauer, sometimes I feel a peculiar sort of fondness and respect for you.

“That way?” Jamie asked, pointing.

A soldier uttered a one word response, drowned out by a surge in the noise around us, as he indicated the same direction with a tilt of his head.

There’s still the danger that he brings his army with him.  We have to be careful how we do this.

“That building’s front door is open,” I said, pointing at what looked to be a store in the middle of a residential area.  The building was more ramshackle than some, with three floors and an open roof.  Tattered lengths of cloth with the ends tied bound together were draped over the roof, poked up into a point above by a long pole, a tent-like arrangement to keep water off the roof itself.  “We’ll set up up top.”

We headed inside, found the stairs, and made our way up.

“Put the body where he can see her,” I said, indicating an edge of the roof.  “Positioned so it’s not a clear view from the street.”

The body belonged to a citizen that had been fighting for Lugh.  It wasn’t skeletal, but it was burned, and it hadn’t had much meat on the bone before.  It had a bit of a weird belly, in the way that people who were chronically starved grew distended with gas or organ problems.  There was a head, but it wasn’t skeletal enough.

One soldier held the head, two more cut ruthlessly with large knives.

My finger touched the ring at my thumb.

“She fought?” I asked, while they worked.

“She fought,” one soldier said.

“Then I hope she would have forgiven us.  Whatever drove her to fight, I hope this would be a good answer or final step to that.  That it’s enough wrath and violence to answer any rage in her breast, that it stops someone who hurts others, if she fought to protect.”

“That’s sweet,” Lillian said, behind me.  Her hand touched my back.

One of the soldiers, still cutting, said, “You’re allowed to say you pray.”

I was silent.

“No Crown to watch your words around, here,” the man said.  “All of us believe, some a little, some a lot.  At a certain point, when the enemy you’re fighting is big enough, you’re not just hoping for a win, for a little bit of luck.  You’re praying for it.  And that’s allowed.  Nobody will tell you not to.”

“Unless you’re Timothy Wadd,” another soldier said.

“Unless you’re a protruding asshole about the prayer thing, yeah,” the first soldier said.  “You’re supposed to be a smart kid.  I think you get what I mean.”

I nodded, still silent.  Lillian rubbed my back for a bit as we watched them butcher the body, tearing the head from the body itself.  Odd.  Usually I would be the one reassuring her through the gruesome bits.

Then, as they got closer to done, she picked up the skull, and rubbed it down, painting it a matte black.

The fighting elsewhere was getting so much more intense.  I could feel the ground rumbling as warbeasts and people moved, several streets away.

Once they were more or less ready, I gave the instruction to arrange the body.  Lillian provided wire from her satchel to bind the head to the body, and one hand to the bone spike.  Everything else was about positioning her so there were no obvious giveaways.

When the position was right, I surveyed the work.  “Let’s set up a fire on the roof, behind her.  It’ll create a silhouette effect.  He’ll see the skull, the limb, propped up and very visible, but details will be harder to make out.”

While others handled that job, I looked out over the distance, trying to look at a city lit by fires and third-hand light those fires created, reflected off of the dark clouds and smoke overhead and back down to the city itself.  The topography, the parts of the city that would be hard to move through, easier to move through, I tried to get a sense of where the Baron could be.  The Baron could have flanked and attacked by now.  In a way, it might have been ideal.  Our bait would pull him away from forces that were already engaged, possibly alone, possibly with a reduced squad, or with the Baron leaving people he trusted in charge, bringing his second choice of Crown soldiers.

He hadn’t attacked, which meant he was waiting for a signal.  A final, decisive attack, likely designed to break Mauer.

Mauer’s soldiers set the bags at the roof.  One unwound a coil of wire, an electric fuse, and led it down the stairs, tucking it in along a wooden strut that ran down the stairwell.

With a prybar, he freed one step from the surrounding boards and wall, lifting it straight out.  Placing it back down, he put something metal between the step and the nearest board.  When a foot came down on the step, it would compress the metal, create a connection, and in that same moment, the explosives in the bags would blow.

“Head outside,” he said.  “I have to attach the wire.  If a mistake happens at any point, it’s here.”

Nobody in our group wasted any time in getting out of the building and across the street.

The following two minutes were tense, as we sat with snow and ash falling around us.  I was waiting for the building to go.

But it didn’t go.

“The call, if I use the whistle and try to copy the twins, I’m thinking it should be the sound the creature made when you were wrestling with it?”

Wrestling?  With the younger twins!?” Lillian asked.  She punched my arm.  “Sy!  Idiot!”

“Yes!” I said.  “In answer to both of your questions.”

Blades poised, ready to strike, I thought.  All night, I had been struggling to find an avenue from which to attack.  One by one, I’d been able to create opportunities to attack the younger twins.  The others had found ways to get the elder ones out of our hair.

But that wasn’t me.  Well, it was, but the stark, panicked improvisation wasn’t the me I wanted to be.  I wanted to calculate my moves.  To use my knowledge of the enemy, to make plays that left them stunned and bewildered, in awe, even.

I would settle for a half-second of realization as that foot came down on the loose stair, clicked the mechanism, set off the explosive, and brought fire and violence down on his own head.

The bomb expert opened the door.  One of the soldiers in our squad flashed a light at him, giving him our location.  He crossed the street.

All the rest of us crammed into an alley.  Jamie, just beside me, was careful not to get pushed into my arm, which was still in the sling.  Lillian, surrounded by soldiers who were invading her personal space, hurried to the side with my good arm, taking my hand.

“I’m not going to get this right at first,” Jamie said.  “I might not get it right at all.”

“Close as you can to what you remember,” I said, giving him the whistle.

He nodded.

Whistle to mouth.  He blew, shrill, long, with lungfuls of air through a Crown-manufactured whistle that was designed to be heard over long distances.

After roughly a minute of ear-splitting whistles, he figured out the modulation of it, how to make it higher or lower.

Imagine, I thought.  The Baron’s face.  He hears the whistles.  What are they?  Then the cadence becomes familiar.  His men are set up and ready to attack.  He’s reluctant to pull them away, but it’s his sister.  Someone he relies on, as much as any swordsman relies on their sword.

As if I was dreaming, I could see him moving, imagine his expressions, based on what I knew of him.  I didn’t know his mind, but it wasn’t a complex one.  Power and control, with an undercurrent of fear and deep, black-in-the-heart resentment.

I could imagine the ground he covered, from the likely positions he’d chosen to set up his small army, how far away he was, the instructions he would have given his men.  What if the signal came while he was away, looking for that sound, which sounded so much like his sister crying for help or screeching in rage?

One of Mauer’s men spoke, “He’s here.”

I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

You took my eye, you bastard.  Let’s see how much of you this takes out.

A whistle cut through the air.  Not Jamie’s.

It was the Baron, calling out to his sister.  Crown soldiers spoke, calling out to each other.  The door banged against the wall as they shoved their way through.

I heard the whispered words, “He’s not going inside.”

I closed my eyes.  I listened, and I heard the Baron call out.  “Sisters!”

His voice rang through the night.

I prayed, not because I truly believed, but because in this moment, I really would have liked it if there was a bloody, vengeful sort of god looking down on us.

The explosion was a rollicking walloping series of hits, one after another, building on each other to rip away all my hearing and most of my breath.  As my hearing returned, my vision went, dust rolling out to blanket everything and choke the air.

“Move!” one soldier called out.  A hand shoved me.  The soldiers ran, and the Lambs were dragged with them.  “That hit him!”

“He’s dead!?” Lillian cried out.

“No, but that’s going to hurt ‘im!”

“We should go back, finish him, pick through-”

“No!” was the one word response.

“If we can damn well finish him off-”

“He’s a noble!  If he needs finishing off, he’s too dangerous to get near!  Only noble that’s safe to be near is a dead one!”

Frustration welled up in me.

“If he’s hurt, he’s not going to be attacking!  It’s good, it’s good!”  A hand clapped on my back.

He’d tried to call out to his sister twice, and when he hadn’t gotten a response, he’d been suspicious.

We were letting him live, and I knew for an absolute fact that the man would recover and he would plague us.

We made our way toward Mauer’s lines, and as we sighted Crown soldiers, we were forced to make a detour.  The retreat had been more significant and more severe than I’d anticipated.  The retreat was becoming a rout.

Yet in the midst of that, the sound of gunfire and the regular noise of explosives was quickly dwindling.

It became almost silent, but for the periodic sound of a building crumbling as fires rose too high.

I heard a voice.

“…dangers the primordial poses.”

Mauer’s voice.

“A primordial you created,” was the reply.

My heartbeat was intense enough to rock my body and make swallowing hard.  We drew nearer, and took cover, looking in from a side street.

Mauer stood atop a ruined wagon, staring down the length of the street.

One bullet, well placed, might have finished him.  It would have needed to be a high-quality weapon, but the Crown did have those.

“What will it take to save the lives of the people in this city?” Mauer called out.  “My own life?  My surrender?”

His voice carried so well.  He’d always been at his best on the stage, addressing a group.  Now he addressed the Crown forces.  The Duke was near enough to respond with his own powerful voice.

One voice natural, the other artificial.

“I don’t think you have any plan to surrender,” the Duke responded.  “To give your own life?  Perhaps.  With the explosives you planted on either side of the street?  Did you hope to take me with you?  Or just to take me?  Because you won’t have either of those things.”

Mauer reacted.  He backed away a step.

“When you rule over rabble, Reverend,” the Duke said, “You lose sight of who the individuals are.  There is no organization, the people in command do not know the people who are subservient to them.  Clever, talented individuals can blend in with the rabble.  They can fan out through the area, they can watch your men, and they can surreptitiously disarm those explosives.”

Mauer took another step back.  When he raised his good hand to his head, it moved in a jittery way.  He clenched his bad hand, the same one he had used to hold me over the fire.

“You’ve lost,” the Duke said.  His voice had changed slightly.  “And now I’m going to kill you, and I’m going to kill everyone in that army of yours.”

I heard the sound of a sword leaving its sheath.

Mauer sank to his knees.  Head bowed.

“The Crown wins,” the Duke said.  “It is a constant in this universe, understand?”

Mauer reached out with his monstrous limb, as if supplicating, then let it drop, heavy.

I heard the gunshots, loud, crystal clear, and high.  So many of Mauer’s guns had been lower quality, older.  The Crown’s good quality but in such a way that it could be mass produced.

These shots were different, and the sound was oddly disconnected from the Duke’s reaction, as he took a step back, staggering.

My right hand found Lillian’s, squeezing it.  I would have held Jamie’s too, but my arm was in the sling.  When I looked at him, his eyes were as wide as mine were.

Fray and Mauer hadn’t just been working on the primordial.  I thought of the Engineer, and the others they’d had with them.  Powerful people, ones with resources and connections.  Mauer, all this while, knowing that spies might be looking, had been holding this card up his sleeve.

One shot sounded after another.  And as the Crown forces heard and saw what was happening, they began to open fire as well.  Mauer was already retreating, taking cover behind the wagon he’d been using as his stage.

Through the chaos that quickly billowed out of the silence, the sweet song of those guns could be heard.

I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d sensed us somehow, or if it was sheer luck, as bullets punched through him and tore out the other side, casting out sprays of blood and bone as they exited, but the Duke looked our way.

A bullet passed through his skull.  Fragments of metal joined bone and brain on making a messy exit.

I heard Mauer’s forces cheering.  To them, Mauer had won, proven the lie.  That the Crown didn’t always win.

I wasn’t so sure it was about to play out that way, and from Mauer’s body language, as he strode through the lines of his people, he wasn’t so sure either.

The Duke might still be in play.  The primordial almost certainly was.  Together, they were disaster, but either one alone was a problem, a chance this fight might still continue.

The Duke’s last words might prove true yet.

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87 thoughts on “Counting Sheep – 9.16

  1. Well, the baron isn’t dead and the duke almost certainly isn’t dead – bullets are such a trivial vulnerability for them to have not fixed. So the Lambs are screwed and Mauer is probably screwed.

    “Imagine, I thought. The Duke’s face. He hears the whistles. ”

    I think you mean the Baron here.

    • I’m not so sure here. A bit ‘o Brain’s a little rough to have missin’ on ya.
      The idea of protecting oneself from bullets is usually about keeping them from taking vital parts of you.

      That said, I’m not saying Mauer shouldn’t toss some explosives on the body, just to be sure.

      • The Duke could have multiple synchronized brains, a brain decoy in the head with the real brain somewhere in torso, or decentralized nervous system. Or any number of things. Until his body is annihilated, it should be assumed that he is still alive.

          • Requires advanced remote communication, which is something the Twig’s world lacks, if the Academy using messenger birds is any indication. Informational channel between brain and body would need to transmit at least terabytes of data each second in order to let brain perceieve the world in detail. It would require knowledge about physics and possibly informatics decades ahead of this world, since it is not something that could be solved by biotech and biotech-related knowledge alone. Or even mostly.

        • From Sy’s reaction, the implied involvement of the ENGINEER, and just how quickly the Duke takes damage, I think he’s being targeted with some kind of revolutionary firearm along the lines of a machine or minigun. And one with pretty reliable aim.

          I don’t care where in his body they stuffed his brain, if something like that keeps tearing at him until there’s only bits and pieces left, which is what I imagine the people operating it have been specifically instructed to, there’s no way to safeguard against that. Short of full-body bullet protection, which would be even more bothersome impractical in Twig’s setting than it is in real life.

          And it’s awesome too. Advanced technology is clearly vastly underestimated by the Crown.

          • There are ways. What if his mind isn’t centered in a specific organ (or organs), but distributed between each neuron (or each cell) in his body instead? Then as long as his body isn’t literally minced into tiny fragments (or burned to the bone), he is alive and mostly unharmed.
            Albeit that’s probably a little too advanced, even for the best scientists of this world.

      • And I’m sure the most loyal doctor, who has worked with the Duke since childhood, and is intimately familiar with the Duke’s mannerisms, sufficiently so to act as a body double while wearing his face, will miss every bit of his brain meats that got splattered.

      • It’s not just a bit of brain. It’s described as being a sustained barrage that’s doing quite a bit of damage:

        >…as bullets punched through him and tore out the other side, casting out sprays of blood and bone as they exited…

        The shot that Sy notices is the one that blows off the back of the Duke’s skull. That’s not saying that the Duke only took that much damage.

        From the description Wildbow gives us, it seems like they’re either a very low-velocity or high-velocity bullet, fired at extreme range and that is capable of penetrating the Duke’s armoured skin. Twig’s level of tech is right around the point where, in real life, nations were developing high-velocity bullets and guns that could fire them at such ranges. Twig’s armies seem to be at a pre-Boer War level, with guns especially being poor; nobody’s invented a useful repeating rifle yet, nor has artillery become a predominant force on the battlefield.

        The Duke was considered armoured against these guns firing small, subsonic bullets at relatively close ranges. Mauer’s forces have began using higher calibre guns (Exorcists are an example of this), and chances are they’re now using an even more powerful, high-velocity weapon designed to specifically hunt nobles at long range.

        There are intrinsic limits to what a human(ish) body can endure. There’s a point where you can put in more energy than the body can absorb, regardless of how much armour plate you put on it. Even assuming that the shot to the head damaged nothing, the Duke’s still not going to be walking away after having chunks blown out of him.

  2. Huh. Does the crown keep Jamie-esque backups? I was sort of looking forward to seeing Sy have to talk to his ex employer, but he seems to be quite dead.

    We are at the 16th chapter of this arc right now, and I’m very curious if the next will be an enemy chapter. I’m afraid that means thr Baron and remaining twin(s?) retreat, and time skips like 4 months.

    I hope if there’s a timeskip it is small because this is starting to feel like it’s all coming together. I want Sy to get all of his revenge.

  3. Baron’s still alive, he’s going to be causing a lot of problems unless he gets killed. I’m confused about Mauer’s secret weapon: a few dudes with better quality guns? I mean, it’s not like they need something that special to shoot the Duke; the Duke can be hurt pretty easily as we saw when he fought the Ghosts, he’s just really hard to kill. Not sure how Fray or connections from people like the Engineer are needed to set up the soldiers with guns. Hopefully we’ll an explanation next chapter. Maybe the damage to the Duke is more permanent than with just regular weapons?

    Duke saw the Lambs with Mauer’s men. This makes any explanation or justification much harder for them to spin after the battle…

    • I’m pretty sure it’s not just the men and the guns, but also the tactics. Pain guns and plague men came with tactics, so advanced snipers would come with snipers.

      Also! That’s totally Sanguine there! Or who was that sniper guy. Except synergized with an even better rifle and a pack of sidekicks!

        • I don’t think there was ever an explicit mention of Sanguine working for Cynthia’s side.

          We know Sanguine worked for the united rebel side during Whitney as a subordinate to Cynthia, but that was before the split, which could have him join either side – Plague men worked for Cynthia then too, for example.

          I don’t remember him mentioned siding with any particular side after the Rebellion split off-screen into Spears and Firebrands. but even if he stayed with Cynthia at that point, Fray playing her game at Brechwell could have given him a chance to jump ship, which, seeing how she basically succeeded in converting every other Experiment in that siege, is not that unlikely.

          Which brings us to a point. While Mauer is here on the ground, burning, shooting, fighting, and recruiting the gestalt superweapon, what’s Fray herself up to?

          (now i’m not sure whether i’d prefer defeated nobles POV in an Enemy chapter, or another of Fray’s moves)

      • Is it a pack of sidekicks, or did Fray give him a rifle with an ammo drum? Either possibility has potential for equal hilarity-he only didn’t kill the Lambs the last time because he had to reload after every shot.

        • Rapid-firing auto-reload sniper rifles have to trade off against accuracy at any tech level at which they can be made. The ammo is also pretty large somewhat, so if you’re doing that, just get a proper machinegun, and you won’t even need precision.

          Oh, also, this is not even the first special rifle developed by the Rebellion. They had Exorcists, now they have Sniper Exorcists, or whatever those things are.

    • As far as the Duke seeing the Lambs, they already were prepared for that eventuality. They talked about it in this chapter, when they said he probably wouldn’t kill them right away, but definitely would eventually, for their crime of killing nobles.

      • Yeah, my thought was that they would explain to the Duke after it had happened. Now that the Duke already saw them acting with the enemy, he might form some notions of his own before they can explain.

        • I wonder if, even with all his modifications that let him shrug off a headshot, he’s able to process or think about anything. Maybe the Lambs will be able to get to him before he wakes up, and frame it properly. If they’re not already committed to the rebellion by the time this is over.

    • Thing is, those guns are state of the art, comparable to the best of the best the Crown can offer – and in greater numbers.
      The card Mauer was holding was the mass production of these. Maybe one or two or five would be no threat to the Duke. But what about twenty?

      • Exactly. The Duke saw the trap as the explosives. The trap was the guys with guns. Mauer sees the Duke as dead, but the battle not necessarily won. The next thing is a message out from the lambs that the Count killed the Duke and they are on the run as witnesses.

        That is a lot more believable to outsiders (one noble killing another) than the other scenarios.

        And Sy gets an eye back. Maybe from what is left of the Duke.

  4. As sheer_fancy said, “I think you mean the Baron here.”

    Because of that confusion I’m not sure if the final scene is an injured Baron getting shot, or the Duke getting shot…I have no idea who’s actually been taken off out of the battle!

    I’m inclined to think that the Baron is the one to have gotten shot, as it seems ridiculous that the Duke would put himself at risk even in the slightest. Especially, with all the unknowns on the battlefield.

    • The Baron is the one who responded to the whistles. The Duke is the one who got shot. And I’m still quite sure that the Duke wasn’t at risk. The head as a single point of failure would not be acceptable.

      • He has also taken shots elsewhere, and the bullets were quite likely modified for this exact task.

        It seems like Fray/Mauer have devised sniper warfare. There are two things they could do with snipers: shoot handlers for the stitched, or shoot high-value units of the opposing force. In the latter case, they would have used some deliberate anti-Noble bullets.

        The Rebellion has already demonstrated ability to develop new weapons and use them with in lock-step with a new doctrine – what with Plague Men, and the pain guns to incapacitate warbeasts. And that was before Fray joined!

        • Either way, taking brain damage is likely to cause lasting harm even if you do come back. Duke might come back, but he’ll come back changed.

          • Yes. But it could be that Duke’s brain is hidden inside of his body. This configuration is f*ked up and unnatural, it requiered a lot of rewiring and training for Duke to learn how to walk again – but I wouldn’t say it is something impossible. Because Wildbow hates his characters with his wierd love. That would give a lot of loving hatred to Lambs and a shover of love to Duke too.

        • I don’t think it’s just better guns…the rate of fire was also unusual, and we’ve only seen single-shot weapons for most people. I think that Fray and the Engineer might have pioneered the mass-produced magazine-fed rifle.

          • Come to think of it, one of Rebellion’s previous custom-designed weapons was a high-caliber long-range rifle, and another was a submachine gun.

            Combine those, and you have an assault rifle. Uh-oh.

      • There’s only so much they can do about having vital organs. He’s probably down for the count after catching numerous bullets that went all the way through, but might be at least partially recoverable with medical attention.

  5. …I don’t understand the part after Mauer sank to his knees.

    Did the bullets came from someone in the Crown’s side? Is it from Mauer himself? Or did he have a Sniper experiment lying in wait?

    • I kind of remember a Sniper experiment on the rebels’ side. Sanguine? He’s not confirmed to be killed yet, right?

    • He was acting when he dropped to his knees, to catch the Duke off guard. When he raised his arm “in supplication”, then dropped it, it was the signal for his men to fire.

  6. I… think this is the end? Every adversary’s been defeated, all loose ends that involve conflict tied up, all that’s left is an epilogue?

    Unless a new enemy gets introduced this late in the game or Sy’s lambs switch sides again to fight fray…

    • Baron is incapacitated, but not finished off. Duke is very likely heavily incapacitated (you don’t get to take brain damage without serious consequences), but also unlikely to be fully dead.

      So at the very least Sy and Lillian have to clean up Baron.

    • Not at all – I think this is the place where Twig transitions into something new; there are too many bits of foreshadowing that lead me to think this is where the Lambs begin truly having their own agency. The rebellion is in full swing, the uncertainty of their future with Crown and Academy, not to mention Fry’s thread to explorer.. I have a feeling we’ll see the Lambs begin taking on some of the larger societal issues at play in the series; from ethical experimentation to the nobility caste. It’s been great up to this point, but I think, just like as Arc8 in Worm changed the game, we’re about to see a similar shakeup.

      • Yes, it would be a natural pace of story if Lambs become a fifth faction in this clash between ( Crown + Academy ) vs. ( Positive Extremists + Negative Extremists ). The moment when Crown looses control over Lambs it will turn to Shadowrun and perhaps Lambs could shape a proper political force to make this madness even more fun.

  7. The terrifying part for me is that “individuals who infiltrate and covertly disarm charges” sound *way* too much like Lambs’ modus operandi.The two packs of Lambs might already be in indirect conflict…

      • So worse case scenario. The Duke actually did go through with that team of Lamb-like Nobles he pitched during his intro arc. The Duke did call them clever and talented.

  8. With the Duke possibly incapacitated and aware that the Lambs were working with Mauer, he would need to be finished off. The Baron was only injured and can presumably be patched up.
    Will the Baron take charge for the Crown?
    If the Baron takes over, do the Crown forces need to be utterly defeated? Will the Baron solve the Duke problem for them?

  9. You know, I am a bit interested in the Duke’s comment “this is a constant in this universe.” I remember he said something to Arvis about living in a world where she doesn’t have to see the true ugliness of mankind, or something.

    Perhaps I see too much in it, but I get the feeling there’s more, bigger to the Crown than what it shows.

    Anyway… will we get baron vs primordial?

    • Well, if Mauer killed him now, then the Duke just died trying to preserve the lives of the citizens of Lugh via Mauer’s Surrender.

      • Duke refused the surrender that Mauer offered, and declared that he’ll kill everyone anyway because he’s invincible.

        So Mauer wins the holy ground in this case, regardless of Duke living or dying.

        • Ya know, for all of Mauer’s callousness and obssesion, I still cheer for him, cuz he is better than “Lets break everything and see how it fixes itself” Frey, “we have no science ethics and we are subservient to the Crown anyway” Academy and “we are control, you have no rights” Crown, and certainly more efficient than the overly emotional and aggressive Cynthia. He is , imo, the best side to pick… which doesn’t say much,given the choice pool, but still… there are worse choice pools, I guess? (like W40K’s one)

        • True, but the Duke was in a situation that he couldn’t lose, his forces outnumbered Mauer’s to a large degree and we saw him with control over the primordial. He risked that position to come out personally and have Mauer surrender. It’s possible that he was being arrogant but… we haven’t really seen him do anything dumb.

          • No, he’s definitely being arrogant and it got him shot. He came out to negotiate because he thought Mauer couldn’t hurt him and now he is missing a chunk of his skull. And I really don’t trust his control over the primordial and think it’s a really stupid move on his part. The primordials mutate adaptively and if he keeps feeding the damn thing eventually it’s going to develop something he can’t counter. Hell, the Duke has actually seen a primordial adaption that could ruin everything; at any moment this one could grow the ability to hijack the nervous systems of the warbeasts restraining it and then they’ll be in real trouble.

  10. So, it seems Maurer had a special gun in his monster-arm? Or his whole arm was the gun? He literally had ‘something up his sleeve’

    Makes sense; either he was suicidal to think he could finish off Duke, or he had something up his sleeve. Turns out it was the latter… I shouldn’t have doubted my reasoning last post, I think.

    But looking at comments, now I’m not absolutely sure about this arm-being-a-special-gun thing. Definitely more evidence for this than a sniper team, looking at the text. It happened when he dropped his arm. It’s something Fray and Mauer developed and could keep secret for so long and under so many eyes (way harder with the sniper team hypothesis). And so on.

    Duke could have a backup… he’s probably not out for realsies, but is handicapped at the very least.

    Also, PRIMORDIAL! Kill switch? Probably no kill switch… man…

  11. So the Baron sent men to check if it was the sister, and one of Sy’s men states that he didn’t go inside himself. Then, as they are running away, Sy’s men state that they hurt him.

    If he didn’t go in, how did the explosion hurt him? Methinks that was wishful thinking, or perhaps the explosion just winged him?

    Let’s hope that he’s injured enough and the politics of the Duke’s defeat will be enough to distract him from pursuing his revenge, or at least stall him until he’s sent back to Richmond. After all, he’s not supposed to be a permanent figure here, right?

  12. The Lambs seem to be getting along well with Mauer’s guys. Happily plotting to kill nobles together and talking about faith and prayer.

    • Mauer’s regular troops will get along with the Lambs as long as the Lambs deliver plans and results that help them. But the Lambs have also started to develop a little bit of loyalty from Sy’s handpicked crew of irregulars. Adam, at the very least, will problem come back to help them out at some point, as well as Candy and Drake.

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens once the Lambs and Mauer are direct adversaries again.

  13. Typo thread? Typo thread.

    younger of Mauer’s soldier
    -younger of Mauer’s soldiers

    the ends tied bound together
    -Take out either tied or bound

    “No Crown to watch your words around, here,”
    -“No Crown to watch your words, around here,”

  14. I now wonder if Sy will obtain one of these Sniper Rifles. It fits his M.O. in combat, that is, patience and carefully planning before striking.

  15. “The Crown wins,” the Duke said. “It is a constant in this universe, understand?”

    “in this universe”… just a fancy turn of phrase or foreshadowing…

    Worm showed us many universes (I don’t know about Pact, still haven’t gotten around to reading more than the start.”, and if I remember correctly, all of Wildbow’s stories share a multiverse…

    • I’m pretty sure that Wildbow said “Sure, why not” when someone asked him if they shared a multiverse. I interpret this as meaning that he did not intend them to share one and you can believe they do if you want, but even if they did wouldn’t have any impact on the stories.

      • There are so many possibilities in a crossover, though. Sy/Tattletale smackdown! Bonesaw as the second flock’s Lillian! Skitter/Shipman team-up! (Or whoever made that giant spider that possibly ate horses.) Rachel/Hubris team-up! Mary/Jack Slash cage match! Crawler/primordial cage match! (Echidna gets winner.) Helen/Nilbog creepy tea party! Finding out if Jamie’s perfect memory trumps… uh… what was I talking about?

      • > There weren’t multiple Earths until then
        This hypothesis requires Eden and the other guy to have *created* a ton of Earths out of a single one, rather than to be *devouring* a multi-Earth for their sustenance and to power funny stuff on a subset of those Earths.

      • I was talking multiverse, like how all of Transformers’, DC’s, or Marvel’s stuff is all separate universes but connected, not alternate timelines diverging.

      • And, yeah, there were multiple universes in Worm continuity from the beginning. There just wasn’t any means to access others until gur jbezf, juvpu jrer anghenyyl zhygv-qvzrafvbany, neevirq naq cvpxrq bar jbeyq gb grfg funeqf ba naq cebivqrq cbjref gung pbhyq npprff bgure jbeyqf.

  16. “Wrestling? With the younger twins!?” Lillian asked. She punched my arm. “Sy! Idiot!”

    “Sy! Idiot!” Why do I feel this is going to become a bit of a catchphrase for Lillian so long as the relationship lasts?

  17. Something really, really important has just happened, though it might take the Academy a while to realize it: mechanical technology has defeated biological technology. A high-ranking noble went down in a storm of bullets because the rebels had better guns. The Academy can’t win this war by just counting on biological technology, not anymore.

    This is part of a general trend with the rebellion, really. The Academy makes better experiments, but the rebellion makes the right things. The basic Exorcists are simple and of low technical quality, but they’re easy to make and they put down stitched with a single shot. The plague men aren’t nearly as modified as nobles, but their ability to move freely in poison or plague clouds has turned a major Academy tactic into a liability. Combined with pain guns they beat warbeasts. The ghosts, well, they’re potentially good but their liabilities spring from there being too much of the Academy in Percy; if they were enhanced veterans like the plague men they’d be damn near unstoppable.

    Hm, come to think of it, the Academy’s weakness is the inherent concept of the nobles in a sense. Aside from the stitched, the Academy pretty much relies on extremely powerful individual experiments or small groups, mostly custom-made. They don’t believe in democracy, and their greatest weakness is that they reject the underlying concept: that power should not be concentrated in a handful of elites. Mauer has shown that the Crown doesn’t always win and he’s shown that its underlying philosophy is wrong. Two nobles are dead and at least three crippled, because they thought themselves superior. But they bleed like anyone else; ordinary men and two experiments they far outclass have beaten them. They might win this battle, but they’ll win it Mauer’s way, not theirs. They’ll win because of ordinary people, with numbers on their side.

    • The Academy is in for a very rude awakening if the rebels start upgrading their mechanical tech. There are a lot of examples scattered throughout were the biopunk falls far behind the modern tech around WWI-WWII. Obviously in some areas their biopunk does excellent, but not everywhere.

      To start with, I don’t think this world has really mastered mass-production assembly line type stuff yet. The Academy will be in for a shock if that happens. The Duke had 50 warbeasts here? The invasion of Poland had over two thousand tanks. Even if a warbeast is a match for a tank or three, I doubt it would survive forty shells.

      They also haven’t the airplane tech yet. In fact they more or less categorically denied it was possible. The Duke was so confident it was impossible he offered to let Avis fly away. It was a joke even. One real danger here is they won’t believe the reports if someone does develop planes. If they treat as sedition or deliberate lying and do their patented super harsh justice, people might stop reporting it. That’s unmitigated disaster.

      It also seems like they don’t have radio type tech. In fact, seemingly silent communication leads to the conclusion of hypersonics or the like IIRC. I also wonder about the state of sonar and submarines. It would be pretty funny if their sea beasts mistook a U-boat for a harmless rock. Or if their sensitive ears couldn’t handle machine powered sonar.

      Obviously the disaster threat is the nuke. Although in the Academies defense its not like that’s a foreseeable threat until Eisenstein and Marie Currie equivalents do their research. However there apparent hatred of basic research and hard sciences will mean the Academy will probably be on the receiving end. Hell, if they neglect basic hard science research too much they might not even figure it out until multiple nukes go off in their face. Especially if the weapons don’t drop from the sky for all to see, but are hidden when they go off.

      • I think they’re pretty far from quantum physics or relativity here – do we know for a fact that they have an atomic theory of matter, even?
        But yeah, physics advances could kick some veritable ass in Twigverse – if they have the resources for it.

      • Nukes are a bit hard and the rebels probably won’t be able to make one; if they can work out the theory then they can probably make a gun-type, but getting enough U-235 would be rather difficult. Likewise making enough and powerful enough tanks to win a tank vs. warbeast fight; that’s a long-term project and they would like to win in the near future. But this is still a big deal and the world just changed; these rifles probably won’t put down a warbeast, but they beat a noble. In the category of human-sized combatants, mechanical technology beat the Academy’s best.

        In more immediately practical terms, the guns are still a big deal, though exactly how much of one depends on exactly what kind of gun they are. They appear to be long-ranged, powerful, accurate, and fast-firing. If they’re assault rifles then rebel infantry and stitched armed with them have a huge edge in firepower. If they’re sniper rifles they can be used to pick off the handlers of warbeasts and stitched, and they’ll play to the rebel’s strengths even if they become standard on both sides. The rebel enhanced soldiers and elite humans have intelligence and initiative and if they lose most of their officers they’ll still be much better-coordinated than stitched with most of their handlers dead.

    • I… wow😀 Wow wow wow. I hadn’t noticed this at all. So at last us physicists and engineers and will get our time to shine! At war… D:

      I guess it’s really cool to consider what is going on in the world outside the Crown. Sure, they control one third of the world, and the other two thirds probably aren’t utopias what with the constant wars. But maybe they have developed their tech further?

      I think radiation is going to be such a big deal. The Academy, no doubt, can develop some sort of organism that excels at repairing itself, there’s so much potential there.

      I don’t think mechanical advancements will doom the Crown and the Academy, however. Yes, the rebels have been able to come up with counter-measures to the plagues and poisons of the Academy. But they are quite horrifying. If the Academy ever so desires it, it can wipe a city off the map with a pest. This is not the best solution because it would undoubtedly have lots of side-effects, but…

  18. Hey there. Please let us know, are there any plans for further updates to PRT Quest on Space Battles forums? It was glorious.

    • No plans. It was a fairly frustrating exercise, the player input wasn’t so thought out or even thoroughly discussed past a certain point, and the game went on with players making lots of D-grade choices, not quite failing enough for me to end things, but only just succeeding enough to pull out of the slow, steady decline.

      I’ve been thinking about revisiting it in another format, though.

      • Thanks for the reply. It was quite nice reading it though, something with a very different perspective on the Wormverse.

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