“Stay? Go?” Mary asked.
My eyes swept over the room, Ruth Bloxham, our hostages, and the doctor. I could see the items strewn across the bed.
“Stay,” I said. “How long?”
“Seconds,” Mary said. She was already reaching beneath her skirt to retrieve the ribbons she’d bound around her thigh. She wound them around one hand.
“You four, back away from the door,” I said. “Doctor, keep treating Ruth.”
“You’re insane!” the man said.
I pointed the gun at his head. I circled halfway around the bed, until I was at the foot of it.
Small room, not much elbow room for a fight. Mary reached over to the bed, grabbing two tools from a leather set of surgical implements. She already had wire in her hand. She went straight to the door, winding one loop of wire around the hinge. Then, with the tools in hand, she pushed the wire through the space between the top of the door and the frame.
“Strong, tall, fast, heightened senses. Her body opens up, used to be two people nested in one body. The baron’s doctors would have given her something,” I said. I looked at the doctor who was working on Ruth.
“Nothing to say,” he said. His eyes were fixed on his patient, neck stiff, head rigid, as if he would fight me if I tried to turn his head or budge him from his current position, even on a physical level.
Mary slid the wire down from the top of the door, until she had the wire stretched at a diagonal across the other side of the door, all done without having opened it. She stood beside the door, wire wrapped around the handle of a knife, A whole loop worth of slack hanging from her other hand, every muscle tense.
“You’d rather take a bullet?” I asked the doctor.
He looked up, fixing his eyes to mine. “I’d rather take a bullet than cross her.”
It was as if he’d summoned her. The door swung into the room, banging against the wall. The Twin had to stoop as she came through the door. Pale, eyes wide, face contorted, golden hair already disheveled from her march across the town hall.
The wire was too low, cutting across her chest, not her throat. Mary remedied that, hurling herself at the Twin, knife out, her other hand manipulating wire.
The second length of wire settled, loose, around the Twin’s neck and shoulders, around the time she saw Mary. Mary hauled back, tugging the wire tight. The twin’s hand moved as fast as the wire did. Fingers went up and between the wire and throat. One hand was pinned, flesh sliced, palm outward. Mary hung there, feet against the Twin’s chest and stomach, suspended by that same wire, facing the Twin.
They almost had the same look in their eyes.
“Little girl,” the Twin spoke, her voice barely impacted by the weight of a seven-plus stone girl hanging off of her neck. “Do you really think you can win?”
She started to take a step forward, and then stopped – the wire was still bound at one end, wrapped around the hinge.
“My lady,” one of the guards outside spoke. It was almost a question.
My hand inched toward the bomb with the gas.
“Stay,” the Twin said. “It’s handled.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She didn’t even sound concerned.
One of the noble’s hands was trapped under the wire, but the other one was free, hanging at the Twin’s side. I saw it, and I knew Mary saw it.
Mary’s foot, poised against the Twin’s stomach, slipped from its position. The hand flashed out, grabbing, to capitalize on the slip, and Mary’s foot snapped back up as fast as it had dropped, this time with a blade. A feint.
As fast as the Twin’s hand was moving, Mary only needed to put her foot in the right position, toe pointed, to let the blade plunge through the hand. Knives in the soles of her boots. Flick the foot out with the right motion, the knife swung out, until it pointed forward. Flick back the other way or knock it against some part of the environment, and it went back in.
The clothes she wore now were the same clothes she’d brought to Lillian’s for a sleepover. This was daily wear.
She let her other foot leave the Twin’s upper chest, her body suspended between the boot-knife that impaled the Twin’s hand and the hand that held the knife, wire extending from that knife to the Twin’s neck. Her foot free, she flicked it, drawing the blade, and swept it toward the Twin’s wrist, a half-foot from her other boot.
She got two quick slashes in before the Twin pulled the hand back and away. Mary’s boot-knife came free of the hand. Both boot-knives immediately found a home in the side of the Twin’s stomach, kick, kick. Then they were out again, in again, as Mary moved from one side of the Twin’s body to the other, like an ice climber hurrying out of the way of a catastrophic amount of falling ice, still hanging by one hand from the knife and wire.
I spend my time thinking about how to get out of bad situations, or how to get around them. I think about my enemies and their thought patterns, about their weaknesses, and how everything can be arranged to maximize our odds.
Mary thinks about how to make people bleed.
The Twin started to reach for Mary again. Mary’s foot moved, ready to intervene, and the Twin stopped there.
Then the free hand reached back, taking hold of the door.
In one wrenching movement, she tore the door from its hinges. Mary avoided the first swing of the improvised weapon, wincing as half of the door splintered around her, punching into the wall, but she didn’t avoid the second or third hits. She scrambled back and away, until she was near me, still holding the knife, moving it in quick circular motions to unwind the thread around the handle. It stopped short.
Out of thread.
In the wake of the ruckus, I could hear a not-so-distant howl. It was a distorted sound, hitching as the source seemed to be overcome with emotion. I heard more crashes nearby, more screams. I waited for those screams to reach even further, wakening more firstborn. They didn’t. Four or five in total.
Out of thread and firstborn incoming.
I heard the tap as Mary knocked the toes of one boot against the floor to set the knives back inside her boots. She was bleeding badly. Her skin had been shredded near her temple and ear, and some of the tag of skin that hung loose had hair on it. She pulled her lips back from her teeth, showing how bloody those teeth were, then spat blood onto the floor. I put my hands out to balance her as she returned the other knife to the sole of her boot with a tap on the floor, wavered, and nearly lost her balance.
The twin, possessed of more lack than she’d had before, pulled her hand out from beneath the razor wire. The act of doing so meant dragging meat against the wire, slicing it clean off the fingers. The wire caught as it found a groove between those charcoal-black finger bones.
Her eyes still fixed on us, she pushed, her hand straining against the wire, skeletal fingers clawing at the air as she worked them. While she did so, however, she wasn’t just loosening the wire around her neck. The wire was biting into the flesh at the back of her neck. Anyone else would have worried about paralysis. Not her.
She took half the flesh on her fingers off as she did it, but she managed to slide the hand out from under the wire.
Mary spat blood again.
“Help.” She didn’t look at me as she said it, but I knew it was meant for me.
“Okay,” I said. I moved to put some distance between us, moving around the far end of the bed. “I didn’t want to get in the way.”
“Exactly right,” Mary said. “Now… help. And don’t get in the way while you do it.”
Behind the Twin, there was a commotion. The guards who were standing outside were now dealing with the firstborn.
“Swords only!” someone called out.
Guns would start a chain reaction. Too much noise, and the agitation of one group of firstborn would stir others, until the entire event was a slaughterhouse.
“Doctor,” the Twin spoke.
“I wanted no part of any of this, milady,” the Doctor said.
“How is our party guest?” she asked. Her voice was cold. “I know my brother likes her.”
“I’ve given her all of the care I can for the moment, milady. Minutes and hours will tell the rest of the story.”
“Are you strong enough to carry her out of here?”
“Uh, no, milady. Not easily, though I could drag her. And-”
The Twin half-turned her head. The firstborn and the soldiers were fighting, the soldiers doing their best to avoid stirring up even more havoc.
“It’s not safe for her out there, milady.”
“They,” the Twin spoke to the Baron’s doctor, “Killed my sisters. I’ll repay them for that injury here. It isn’t any safer for you two in here.”
Her hand went up, found Mary’s wire, and traced it back to the damaged door hinge, which had been half-torn from the wall in the process of the door’s removal. She gripped the hinge, then ripped it the rest of the way from the wall.
Mary was hurt. She wasn’t the sort to deny help when it was given, but she also wasn’t the sort to ask for it. That she’d asked suggested she was spooked. It was possible that she wanted me in the fray to make up for whatever issues her injuries had introduced. Balance the scales once again.
“I understand, milady,” the doctor said. “Do you want us out of the way?”
She reached out, seized Ruth Bloxham with one hand, and moved Ruth to the corner of the room opposite Mary and I, propping her unconscious body up against the wall. Her hand lingered there, finger extended and pointing. “Stay.”
The doctor obediently retreated to the corner.
The Twin was bleeding considerably. Her hand, wrist, throat, and stomach had been sliced and punctured in multiple places. Blood welled out and pooled beneath her. She hardly seemed to care.
As Mary and I watched, the woman’s flesh parted. A golden seam appeared, across chest, circling around one breast, then moving to the side of the ribcage. Mucousy fluids extended from the sucking meat on one side of the divide to the meat on the other.
She reached up, in-
And Mary threw a knife. The Twin was just fast enough to avoid having the knife strike her in one eye. Her hand came out of the divide with a rapier in it. All charcoal-black bone, roughly five feet in length. I knew how dense and heavy that material was, but she had no trouble holding it like she might a fencer’s foil.
Our hostages were cowering, ducked down low. I saw Lainie practically curl up at the sight of the weapon, head hung, not even willing to look.
The room wasn’t that large. Between the length of the Twin’s arms and the length of the weapon, there wasn’t much room to maneuver.
Her foot was the first thing to move, coming out, catching the edge of the bed, and kicking it toward us. It flipped as it came, wooden base, headboard, footboard and all. I didn’t have to worry about the harder edges, as it was mostly the mattress that came flying my way.
“Down!” Mary cried out.
I went limp, letting myself sprawl, mattress threatening to pin me between bed and wall.
The rapier’s point punched through the bed, mattress, and into the exterior wall.
I more or less crawled to the end of the bed, making a point of pushing along the various medicines and tools that had fallen off the bed and against the wall. I crawled free, and saw Mary and the Twin fighting again. Mary was slower. She couldn’t move and throw a knife at the same time. She found opportunities to stop, get her bearings for a half-second, and then throw, before she threw herself out of the way of the next swing or thrust of the sword, or pre-emptively repositioned herself.
My eye went to the stuff that had fallen from the bed. Medicines, drugs, sharp implements. I saw the powder that the doctor had planned to use against Mary and I. I saw his eyes widen as I grabbed it, pulling off the lid.
“Milady!” he warned her, as I hurled it.
Her free, damaged hand went out, blocking the incoming object, swatting it out of the air. A cloud of white powder billowed from the impact point. She moved away from it, putting herself in the corner, her hand up near her face to block one of Mary’s knives from striking her head while her movements were more limited. The knife sank into her already mangled hand.
There were more items strewn on the floor. I kept my eye on the doctor as I moved for one, then shifted position to go for another.
He might as well have shouted to me that the item was dangerous.
I picked it up. Some fluid with a name I couldn’t even pronounce.
I hurled it at the Twin. It hit the wall, shattering. The chemical rained down on the Twin. The Doctor relaxed, and I realized I’d applied it the wrong way.
The noise of the bottle breaking provoked the firstborn that were just outside. They snarled and howled, more agitated than before.
“It hurts,” Lainie said. “It hurts.”
Clipped by the bed.
So much chaos and noise surrounding us, and Mary and the Twin were so still. It wasn’t an even fight. Mary was more hurt than before, and the Twin wasn’t moving any more slowly or suffering on any perceptible level.
The twin was taller than average, a foot taller than a very tall man might be, but in her sheer ability to be indomitable, seemingly untouchable and unreachable, she seemed a giantess, too big for the room.
I tried to get the doctor to tell me what items might be useful, and again, I saw a tell. I scrambled for an item, and this time, he scrambled for it too, to stop me, and to get in my way.
Disobeying his mistress’ orders?
He wasn’t a fighter any more than I was. Had he tried, he could likely have beat me, stopped me, punished me even, and still kept me from getting my hands on the tall bottle I’d been reaching for. As it was, his eyes were on the prize, and my eyes were on his carotid artery. I drew my knife from my boot, raised it up, and brought it down on his neck. I saw his eyes go wide, his hands flounder. I hauled the knife up and out of the throat, a surprising amount of blood gushing out of the wound, and then drove it through one of his scrabbling hands to nail it to the floor.
I left my knife behind, picking myself up, as I hefted the bottle. This label I could read. Sterile alcohol.
I knew I could have improvised something with the bottle, given a moment, a rag, and a source of flame, but I doubted Mary had it in her to hold out that long. Holding the neck of the bottle in two hands, I hurled it. I realized, too late, that the Twin was watching me, ready.
She caught the bottle out of the air before it could strike any hard surfaces.
She drew her hand back, ready to fling it back at me, and a flying object struck the bottle, shattering the upper half of the bottle in the Twin’s hand. Fluid and broken glass showered one hand and one side of her body.
The Twin used her free hand to wipe the worst of it off. Her eye fell to the doctor, who lay on the floor, bleeding out.
She thrust, without a glance toward Mary, and Mary only barely avoided the rapier’s point. Without drawing back, the Twin swept her blade to one side, practically flicking Mary across the room. A spray of blood flew out where the rapier’s edge had caught Mary in the side.
“Is it only you two?” the Twin asked. She sauntered my way. I backed up until my feet bumped against Mary’s body.
I felt hollow, completely and utterly alone in the world, though I was surrounded by a small crowd, and a larger one surrounded much of the rest of the building.
I couldn’t even reach for the imaginings of the other Lambs, because I wasn’t sure if Mary was dead or seriously hurt, and I couldn’t be distracted.
I was left to stand alone.
“Only us,” I said. “I didn’t expect to run into you this soon. Wanted to talk to the doctor here, figure out a strategy, for dealing with you and for dealing with your brother. It’s… kind of a damn shame that you showed up as soon as you did.”
“A part of me wants to taunt you,” she said. “Talk about what will happen to the other Lambs, after this. But you should know by now, and I don’t think you’re worth the time and the breath.”
I thought about the other Lambs, and I thought about how I was already saying goodbye to them.
But to give up even the glimmer of hope? To know that they were gone? Say goodbye to another Lamb forever?
“I know that look,” the Twin said. “Backed into a corner, fight or flight. But you’ve got nowhere to go, and you know you can’t beat me in a fight.”
At my feet, moving against the back of my calves and my ankles, Mary stirred. She wasn’t in fighting shape, and she wasn’t, I knew, playing possum.
“I was hoping to see that look of despair,” she said. “I haven’t gone ten minutes without wanting it, without wanting to see it and then tear your face off, to preserve it forever.”
My eyes followed the point of her rapier. The damn thing was long enough to be a lance. She moved it left to right, right to left. A snake charmer charming the snake with the movement of the flute, only I was the snake.
“It hurts,” Lainie muttered. She was hunched over.
Kill the hostages, I willed the twin. Kill Lainie and Chance, for distracting you during this moment.
She didn’t. She drew the rapier back, then thrust it, straight for me. I threw myself to the side, tumbling to the floor and skidding as I landed atop vials, pill-bottles and tools. Nothing I could really use, at a glance.
She drew back, ready to stab again, and I knew her target was Mary’s body.
“No!” I shouted. Too loud.
Howls and screeches echoed through the building at the cry. They responded more to speech than to anything, and they responded here. One of the firstborn beyond the door broke past the soldiers, and came tearing into the room.
It didn’t even have the sense to dodge or minimize the damage as the Twin swung the rapier. Had it been one step back, the rapier might have missed. One step further forward, and the rapier would have had to cleave through the meat of the throat, the bone of the spine. It was a strong material, but I doubted it would make it through. As it was, it cut cleanly past the flesh at the front of the firstborn’s throat. A backhand swipe disemboweled.
There was no more time. My hands were empty. I’d had a gun. It was-
I turned my head, and I saw the hostages. The gun was in arm’s reach of Simon and of Chance.
As if in slow motion, Chance reached for the gun, then slid it across the floor.
I swept it up off the ground, then ran toward the twin. Firing at range wouldn’t work any more than a half-dozen serious stabbings had. Fast as she was with the rapier, it was ungainly. I closed the distance, hurling myself at her, saw the weapon come around, and dove.
I mentally recited an apology for everyone who was about to get hurt or die, but I knew that this was something I’d do ten times over, if it meant Mary had a chance of making it through.
I moved the gun near the Twin’s leg, and I fired it, the bullet aimed at nothing in particular. In the wake of the shot, I heard screams, and howls, many of them from the street.
The hammer of the gun struck the metal, and it created sparks. The spark touched the alcohol, and half of the Twin swiftly went up in flame. I flipped over onto my back to look up, to see, and I knew immediately that it wouldn’t be enough. Smoke and fire reached up toward the ceiling, flesh burned and I could smell it burning, but she didn’t scream, and she didn’t flail. Instead, she let the rapier fall to the floor.
I hurried to move out of the way while she was half-blind and preoccupied. One of her limbs, a hand or a foot, clipped me, and sent me sprawling, reawakening the recent injury to my shoulder that adrenaline had quieted.
To a backdrop of screaming, I scrambled back, until my back was against the wall. I panted from the burst of exertion, and watched as the Twin opened up her body, unzipping it, reaching for something within herself that would serve to end my existence or to stop the burning and free her to resume her cold rampage.
She drew her hand out with an organ within it, bulbous and unrecognizable. She squeezed, and fingertips and bone punctured the flesh to let liquid cascade out. It drenched her arm, and where it did, the alcohol wicked off, the fires going out or dropping to the floor. She held it high, and she let the liquid rain down over her.
So much effort, and she didn’t even burn properly.
Fire was the most common answer to the Academy’s creations, and she’d been given a clear answer to it.
I picked myself up off the ground. To my left, Mary was doing the same.
Ruth wasn’t far from me, and neither was the bedside table with the folded towels. I reached into the folded towels, and took hold of the poisonous gas.
I hucked it at her. Half-disassembled, limiting the spread of the flame by keeping herself in distinct pieces, she wasn’t as mobile. The gas erupted around her, forming an opaque yellow-green cloud, the little globe continuing to billow as it fell to the ground.
“Cover your mouths!” Simon called out.
I saw a glimpse of the Twin as she backed away, moving to one corner of the room. She was pulling herself together.
“Soldiers!” the Twin called out. “In here!”
A voice from the door. I couldn’t even see the source as the gas filled half of the room.
“The firstborn are-”
“Get them! Kill them, and then deal with the firstborn!”
I gestured, without looking at Mary. If she was in any shape to cooperate, she would. If she wasn’t, I didn’t want to see. I indicated the door. The gesture for attack. The third one we’d ever taught ourselves, part of the first six, integral to how the rest had evolved.
A knife flew through the smoke to draw a telling sound. A wet ‘thock’ of the blade striking home, the sound of a body.
I was already walking forward into the gas, breath held, bending down to fumble for the source of the billowing gas. Once I had it, I held it close to my body to minimize how much it spread.
My eyes teared up, my vision swimming in a way very unlike vertigo. I could only see the smoke, billowing and noxious, and feel it burn my nose, mouth, ear canals, dickhole and asshole.
But, as I got closer to the end of the room, I could see the windows, pale squares of yellow-green in the midst of the smoke. I saw as one of her hands smashed the window, and how the gas suddenly flowed toward the opening in the glass.
I could see the dark shadow and silhouette of the Twin, and the light of the fires that still burned at one of her hands.
I plunged the smoking globe into the fissure of the Twin’s body, saw her tense and react, and braced myself for the retaliatory strike. It hit my arms, my upper body, my head, all at once, the shock spreading through more than half of my body as it knocked me off my feet and onto the ground.
Not as strong a blow as it might have been. She couldn’t see me.
The hit did make me take in an involuntary breath. The entire inside of my mouth burned in a way that reminded me of disinfectant poured on a wound, but it treated my entire mouth as that wound, and made me feel like every affected surface would erupt in ulcers, if it wasn’t already.
Coughing, sputtering, I staggered out of the worst of the smoke, stumbled into a wall, and collapsed against the ground.
The hostages, Mary, and Ruth were mostly out of the worst of the smoke. Especially now that it was contained. The Twin hadn’t accessed the globe, she wasn’t pulling it free and tossing it at us. She didn’t scream or taunt us. Only silence.
My breath wheezed as I stared into the smoke. I realized I wouldn’t see anything, and looked away. I looked to Mary, who sat against the wall, bloody and battered. She had a nasty cut running from belly button to shoulder blade. I wasn’t sure how deep it was.
All around us, I could hear the firstborn raging, the sounds of fighting. People were using guns more, which made the situation worse.
The Baron was fleeing, and the soldiers that weren’t fighting firstborn were now converging on our location. We didn’t have long.
Still, I needed to see.
Chance and Simon opened windows, staying as far from the smoke as they could, mouths covered. The smoke began to clear. The Twin was there, sitting against the wall much as Mary was.
Bled, burned, gassed, and to look at her, she was still breathing.
I patted myself down, and found no weapon. I looked to Mary, and saw her holding a knife out.
I took it.
I approached the twin, while Mary threw more knives toward the door. I saw the twin meet my eyes.
“He didn’t even care,” she spoke, her voice ragged, ravaged by the smoke. I thought she should cough, given what I was experiencing, but she didn’t.
“The Baron?” I asked.
“He took that woman as if it was payment enough. Didn’t care. Immortality was more important than our sisters. He smiled. He laughed for his guests. Didn’t want me to wear black, to mourn.”
“To be fair,” I said, “You’re awfully hard people to feel sorry for. You want to be mourned?”
“We were supposed to-” she wheezed a breath. She tensed, like she was going to swing for me, try and execute me on the spot. Something didn’t let her. “Supposed to have him, if nobody else. Him. But we’re just bastard children. Even to him. Now-”
I could hear movement outside. I gestured to Mary.
“-Now I die alone.”
“Yeah,” I said. I choked back ten different sorts of emotion. I didn’t sympathize with her, but I could sympathize with what she was saying. “I don’t suppose you’ll give me some advice on how to deal with your brother?”
She shook her head.
I wasn’t surprised in the least.
A part of me, hearing what she’d said, wasn’t surprised that she wasn’t fighting more. The damage wasn’t that severe. She could have mustered the strength to hit me, fought to the door, gotten access to a doctor, and gotten patched together.
But she had no reason to. Not anymore.
“Then… Want to help me help you move along?”
I wasn’t sure if she’d even heard me, but then she slouched. As she did so, her body came further apart. I could see how the gas had affected the meaty inner layers. It looked like the inside of my mouth felt.
She strained, and I saw her bones shift and move. Her entire body was reconfigurable, to help the doctors do their work and to make room for her little sister. Her ribs pulled back and away, exposing organs in her chest.
I sank the knife into place. I had to grip it with both hands to rake it across the surface. I watched as it strained, gushing blood, and then stopped beating.
I stepped back and away. The other Lambs surrounded me. Gordon, Jamie, Mary, Lillian, Ashton, Helen, Hubris… all watching as the Twin slowly died.
I saw the peace on her face, and every sense was aware of the violence and chaos all around us. Warrick had finally snapped, and it wasn’t pretty.
I’d shaken the box twice, in the end. Now I had to deal with the consequences.