“If you really want to do this,” Jamie said, “We’re going to need tools.”
“We’ve got what we have,” I said. I used my knife to cut open my patient’s jacket sleeve so I could peel the jacket back and away.
“I don’t understand,” the patient said, his voice small. “My whole arm?”
“It’s not your arm anymore,” I said to the patient. To Jamie, I said, “Work with me here.”
His expression was dead serious, his voice calm, almost pacifying, “I’m working with you, Sy. I just don’t understand what’s motivating you here. If it was a child, I could almost understand, but-”
“If you don’t tell me where to cut, I’m going to guess,” I said.
“Expose the collarbone,” Jamie said. “Start at the midway point, cut to the shoulder.
“That far back?” I asked.
“After you’ve sterilized the blade and the site.”
“I don’t have anything for that,” I said. “We’ll get him treatment after.”
If the infection doesn’t extend well past the localized site, I thought.
As I drew the knife across the line of the collarbone itself, to the shoulder. My patient jerked, and his eyes widened as blood welled out. “Don’t look.”
“I can hear what you’re saying, even if I don’t look,” the man said.
“Shush,” I said.
“We’re looking for the major veins and arteries here. We’re going to need to tie them off.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I know where the important ones are. I don’t have anything to tie them with, though. Do I dig now?”
“Don’t you know what you’re doing?” my patient asked me. “What’s going on?”
“Quiet,” I told him. “Stop asking questions, you won’t like the answers. I have no earthly idea what I’m doing, but between my friend and I, we’re the only chance you have at getting better here.”
“What?” my patient asked.
“Don’t cut now,” Jamie said. “We’re going to leave the collarbone alone for now. Cut from the top of the shoulder, across the mid-point of the shoulderblade, far enough under the armpit without cutting the muscles and structure there, then around at the front, so it forms a full circle. Skin deep.”
I nodded, visualizing the steps.
Halfway through the process, my patient lashed out involuntarily with his free hand. I stumbled back.
“You cut something important,” he said, panting. He had a wild look in his eyes. “The pain, I’m sorry.”
“Sure,” I said. “Raise your arm as much as you can.”
He did. I returned to the cutting site, beneath the armpit. This time, however, I used my fingers and not the knife.
Reaching from the underside of his arm to the trunk of his body and up to his armpit was a tendril, almost impossible to make out in the mess of blood I was dealing with. The only reason I was able to see it at all was the way it had grown. Like a tree’s branches, radiating out and over muscle and fatty tissue, against the grain.
I thought for a second, and then prodded the branch of tissue with the side of the knife.
The patient’s reaction was whole-body, a flinch and momentary clench of every muscle.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Harold. Whatever this is, it’s clearly attaching to you on some level, working with your nerves. The person who made this is an outright bastard, looks like. Made it to be painful, and more painful to remove.”
It wasn’t that warm, but Harold was sweating. I pulled off my shirt and used it to dab and apply pressure to the cut at his shoulder. There was more blood elsewhere that I couldn’t easily reach and mop up.
I hoped this guy wasn’t going to pass out on us.
“The bundle of veins and arteries at the collarbone,” Jamie said.
“Right,” I said. “Thanks for the reminder.”
It took some digging and rearrangement of the arm to do before I had an angle to see in the dim. I used touch as much as sight to find what I was looking for.
I didn’t have anything to tie him off with.
Wiping off my hands, I reached for my pocket, and carefully withdrew my picks. I chose the narrowest one. A flexible band of metal.
“You’re going to want to avoid moving very fast,” I told Harold. “Because the way I’m doing this, you could pull things free, and then you’d just dump blood into your chest cavity. Everything would go rigid, you’d lose consciousness, and you’d die. Move slowly. Don’t jerk your head around. The goal here is to allow you to walk away, ideally without the infection. We’re going to want a doctor to look at this hack job of mine and get you something better.”
Harold’s expression set. From the look in his eyes, I might have thought he was in shock. From the look of his mouth, jaw, and neck, he was intensely focused.
I used the thin metal band, and I bent it, pinching veins and arteries against the bone of the clavicle. I secured it as well as I could before twisting the metal around, securing it.
“Next step. I’m not going to cut this thing, but I’m going to cut the tissue surrounding it,” I said.
Harold made a face, pursing his lips. “Mm.”
Preparing himself for what was coming.
“Good man,” I said.
The rain was a small blessing in that it washed away the worst of the blood. On the other side of that same blessing, however, was the lack of light.
It didn’t take much to keep my hands steady. I’d spent too many nights picking locks and quietly collecting possessions from the same room those possessions’ owners were sleeping in. Emotion was my enemy here, and it had little to do with the person I was cutting into. I was concerned about Jamie. I wanted information that could help me help Jamie if he was sick, now or in the future.
I hated the idea of cutting into him like I was cutting into Harold, here.
On nights when I couldn’t sleep, which were thankfully rare, I made a habit of looking after my tools. My picks, my clothes, and my weapons.
I was glad my knife was sharp, that light pressure and the sharpness of the blade was enough to sever muscle.
There’s an awful lot of blood inside people, I observed. I’d cut people, I’d impaled them. I’d arranged for them to be pulverized, and I’d given them poison that had them vomiting blood. But working on someone on this level, intimately, striving to keep them alive while still taking them apart, it wasn’t my field of expertise.
I didn’t know how Lillian handled it on the long-term. I much preferred the reality of causing sufficient damage to get people and problems out of my way. I had to target vulnerable areas for that, I didn’t have to preserve them.
“You know you’re infected now,” Jamie said.
“Possibly,” I said. “I might be infectious but not infected.”
“Why? Why for him?”
“Had to start somewhere. And I need to understand what we’re working with.”
I was getting cold, with Jamie wearing my jacket and my overshirt pulled off to mop up the blood. The rain was cold as it ran through my hair and down my body, having soaked my clothes long ago. My fingers remained warm, but it was stolen body heat. The warmth being there helped me maintain my focus.
With a movement of the knife, I separated the infected muscle from the arm. I carefully used the knife and one of my lockpicks to fold it back.
A groan on Harold’s part became a strangled scream. He moved, including moving in ways I’d encouraged him not to, hunching over.
“Harold,” I said. “I need to keep working.”
“It’s moving,” he said. “I can feel it reaching through my veins.”
I glanced at Jamie, then set to work. I shifted the arm to the best possible position, and started cutting, first down to the bone, then moving around. Jamie pointed out other, lesser veins and arteries. I did what I could with each, using the picks and little wires in the kit.
I was at the top of the shoulder when I started cutting, and Harold reacted more violently than he had yet. He screamed, making that same unearthly noise the infected had made when he’d been stoned, a brick glancing off of his infected flesh.
It was reaching through his veins. I backed off while he swung at me, kicking, then staggering, falling onto the stairs. I waited for the agony-induced aggression to abate.
“Something went wrong there,” Jamie said. “Pulsing output of blood at the back of the armpit.”
“Got it,” I said.
Once I was sure Harold wasn’t going to deck me the moment I was in reach, I started fixing the damage.
“The next step is going to be creating some of what Lillian called Moulder’s Shunts. I don’t know how well it’s going to work without glue, but you’re going to need to expose more of the veins and arteries to start. The better we do here, the slower he’ll lose blood.”
The infection formed a central point, and then it spread. Roots extended over and through the victim, almost invisible, sneaking in through veins and the depressions in flesh.
The agonized screams were a bad thing. We didn’t have long, and if I wanted to do this right, then I needed to get ahead of the problem.
Jamie’s shunts finished, I started cutting back the growth at the shoulder, digging beneath the flexible, vein-like branches that had extended. Everything was slick to the point that it felt the same. Slimy, warm but not warm enough to warm my fingertips that were starting to feel the cold, making my hold on lockpick and knife harder and harder. It felt like either or both would slip from my hands like a wet bar of soap.
It was so messy too. I could see why there were stories of doctors losing tools in their patients. Blood was everywhere. I couldn’t always make out the logic of the underlying systems and parts.
I liked to think I had a good idea of how human bodies worked on a gross, abstracted, mechanical level. This was something different.
Wyvern let me fine-tune my ability to deal with things. My muscle memory wasn’t long-lasting, but I was quick to pick things up. Even with tools greasy in my hands, I was faster when it came to pruning away the roots that had reached through and out of blood vessels and into muscle.
Once I was done, I quickly resumed cutting.
I didn’t get a full second into cutting before the next agonized scream.
This wasn’t working. I was quickly reaching the point where I was butchering the man.
“Sy,” Jamie said. “Let it go. We need to run.”
I looked at Harold, and I contorted my brain, pushing for that same crystal clear imagination that let me imagine the Lambs in such detail. I put Jamie’s face in place of Harold’s.
“Harold!” I said, trying to shake sense into Harold. I wasn’t willing to wait for him to calm down, now. “Stop. Tell me, where is it?”
He looked at me, and huffed out a shuddering breath. The look in his eyes wasn’t much better than a thousand-yard stare.
I reached out, knowing I could very easily get bludgeoned. He didn’t lash out, this time. I wondered if he lacked the strength.
I put my hand out, and I felt at the perimeter of the wound. I watched him move and tense in reaction to my prodding, and gauged where the branches were growing.
I agitated it. It’s growing with purpose, making sure it keeps its host. But hurting it, or taking away its food, or moving around too much, it’s making the thing react, it’s getting Harold’s blood pumping, and this damned thing uses the blood as a guide or a fuel source.
I couldn’t cut fast enough to remove the branches before more grew in.
I took a step back from Harold, staggering a bit on the stairs. Jamie put a hand out, palm between my shoulderblades, to keep me from falling over.
“Don’t touch me,” I said.
He withdrew the hand.
I looked around, and saw where stones bounded a garden. I hurried over to it, dropping my knife and hurrying to pick it up with both hands. I returned to Harold.
I watched as his eyes shut, and he lowered his head. There was a peace that swept over his body language and expression as he saw me lift the stone over my head and reacted in kind, moving in position to make things easier.
But I wasn’t intent on the mercy kill.
The stone came down on his shoulder, hard and heavy enough, aimed at the joint. I had no idea if something broke or if something dislocated, but the end result was the same. He staggered, his one hand nearly tearing free of where it had attached to the door, and his eyes went wide, as if he couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. His shoulder bent at an unholy angle.
“They’re here, Sy,” Jamie said.
I looked over my shoulder.
Even in the rain and the stormcloud-induced gloom, I could see the pair. Tentacles and the Iron Maiden.
“I’ll do what I can,” Jamie said. “Don’t-”
“No, nevermind. I was going to say don’t make me regret this, or I hope this is worth it, but… I’m choosing to trust you. I have to trust you right now.”
“Stay alive, Jamie.”
“Yeah. You’ve only got about a minute, Sy. Use it well.”
I turned my attention back to my patient. Harold.
I didn’t try to cut or detach the branches. I knew they were reaching further, getting a firmer grip, but my focus was on the flesh that was still attached to the shoulder. I cut everything but the branches.
When that was done, I swept the knife out. I had a sense of how they grew, now. I took a liberal amount of flesh for the sake of expediency.
Jamie had pointed out the key areas to work on to stem the blood flow. There was a lot of blood, but tissue was that way. Harold looked far weaker than he had. I had no idea if he would last one hour, fifteen minutes, five minutes, or ten seconds before passing out and passing on into oblivion in an ungentle way.
I moved the excess skin over the site of the wound, covering it as well as I could, and then covered it with a rearrangement of his shirt and with his jacket.
With his shirt and the jacket, I bound the wound there as tightly as I was able. With sleeve and jacket, I tied it in place, above and below his other shoulder.
“Lean on me,” I said.
He did, using his good hand. When his arm proved too weak to hold him up, he staggered. He managed to stop himself by bracing his entire forearm across my shoulders and the back of my neck.
I glanced back at the severed arm, and saw how the bloody, severed end was bleeding out to the sides. Blood didn’t just trickle down, but seemed to be extending to the left and right, and back up the sleeves.
I watched for a full second as some of that ‘blood’ branched out.
What a malevolent little piece of work that was.
I moved Harold further from the door, then turned my attention to Jamie.
I saw Mary instead. The arc of movement, the flinging motion, nearly identical to how Mary moved when she threw her knife.
Tentacles flinched a little, but didn’t act like he was hurt.
“Stay,” I told Harold.
He didn’t respond, but he did shift his weight against the fence we were near.
I hurried toward Jamie.
Neither of the two combatants were fast. Iron Maiden, it seemed, knew how to fight. She moved fast, taking three quick steps forward, tipping forward, lifting her axe up overhead while her entire body toppled forward. She landed with one hand and two feet planted on the road, the axe held aloft, then hurled herself forward, simultaneously lunging and swinging the axe a full two hundred and seventy degrees around her, using only one hand to do it.
Jamie quickly moved back out of reach. At a point where he should have had clear footing, he stumbled instead. The axe bit into the street just a short distance from his foot.
I thought it might have to do with his being sick, but the stumble had coincided with a movement on Tentacles’ part. Did the lazy, slow-moving man have something up his sleeve? A measure of coordination when fighting alongside Iron Maiden?
Iron Maiden pressed the attack. Swinging, moving, and Tentacles was quick to keep up, moving forward so he had an opportunity to lash out if it arose.
I couldn’t allow that.
The dark, black emotions had a hold of me now. They dictated my movements as I reached into my satchel with a bloody hand and pulled out a grenade.
I gauged the distance, and aimed that grenade so it might land somewhere between the Iron Maiden and her tentacled friend, while being far enough away from Jamie. I let it fly from slick, sticky fingertips.
In the gloom, with the downpour making little movements hard to discern, I didn’t even see Tentacles or the Iron Maiden make a move. The grenade detonated, but it detonated a solid twenty feet to the left of where I’d thrown it.
Jamie could make fun of my aim sometimes, but it wasn’t that bad. I could see the whites of his eyes as he glanced over in the direction of the explosion. He scrambled back out of the way of Iron Maiden.
Tentacles had seen the grenade, which said a lot about how keen his eyes were, and he’d swatted it away. That said something about how quick and coordinated he was.
Did he have senses that went beyond eyesight? Or had they augmented the eyes of the body that hosted that tentacled thing within its chest cavity?
I wasn’t in a position to make good calls. I had to guess about which it was, knowing that if I was wrong, we’d be in a terrible position. If I was right, well, even then there were no guarantees.
But the alternative was abandoning Jamie.
No way, no how. Not when he’d been by my side when it counted.
I was halfway to them when Tentacles moved. A full second alter, something struck at my feet, knocking them out from under me. I sprawled, and with the road being as waterlogged as it was with the downpour, skidded along a puddle as I landed.
I reached for the satchel. Before my hand could make contact, it flew free, landing at the side of the road.
Now that I was close enough to see some of his features, I saw that Tentacles’ eyes were milky white.
But there were other eyes, peering through gaps in the chest cavity. The eyes caught the meager light, reflecting it too much, almost seeming to glow from within the darkness of the experiment’s torso. I could count four, and that was limited to the portion of his body that faced me. There might have been more, looking out to the sides or behind him
Mud, water, and blood dripped off of my hands as I tried to move back and out of the way.
Looking at Tentacles, I could see the longer tendrils that had unfurled from beneath his clothing. He reveled in being in the gloom, keeping the tentacles where it was dark, where the falling rain and ambiguous shadow made it hard to tell where they were.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Not really,” Jamie said. The knife he held was pitiful compared to Iron Maiden’s axe. His other hand held the satchel with the remaining mines and grenades. He’d given me most of his.
I watched both of our opponents as they moved, pacing to maintain a favored distance from us. Neither moved in a fluid, natural way. When she held her axe up in the air, Iron Maiden’s hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder moved in funny ways. Almost as if it should be predictable, but it wasn’t wholly. The same might have been true for her legs, but her dress covered them. Neck and head remained largely rigid.
Meanwhile, Tentacles looked like ten or eleven stone worth of mass, light for an adult man, but he had another fifteen stone of mass in the tentacles that he’d revealed and extended out around him. That much length and mass had to be intense to lift. I gathered that his very fluid, lazy movements were careful ones. He moved slowly because he was always prepared to move and be able to use the strength of his whole body to lift or swing a tentacle.
Which said nothing of the fact that, in the gloom, with the puddles and natural patterns of the cobblestone street obscuring things, other tentacles were sneaking toward me, snaking between and around cobblestones, and through muddy puddles.
I wasn’t one for a fight. I didn’t win. I very frequently got hurt when I tried things.
Jamie continued the retreat as Iron Maiden continued her strange, mechanical advance. Like a clockwork person, almost, with the way her arms moved so consistently in the same ways as she swung and moved, but without the same timing or the exclusive patterns. She mixed up how her legs and arms moved.
As Jamie retreated, Iron Maiden advanced. It wasn’t so much that Jamie was to my right, Tentacles in front of me, but increasingly that it was Jamie behind me and off to the side, Iron Maiden to my right, and Tentacles in front of me.
I backed away, so as to keep both enemies in my field of view. One tentacle reached out for my knee, and I quickly jumped back to avoid it. A second that I hadn’t seen caught my other foot. I stumbled, landed on my ass in water, and hurried to get to my feet.
Any second now, Iron Maiden would change targets to me.
“Jamie,” I said.
“I know, Sy,” he said. And from the tension in his voice, I knew that he knew I was being flanked.
I held up my hand, gesturing.
I took my time rolling up my sleeves, then used my skin between index finger and thumb to scrape the worst of the muck and blood off my forearms and hand, before doing the same with the other hand.
I made eye contact with tentacles, not the milky white eyes of his actual face, but the eyes of his body.
His body language was something alien. I couldn’t even see all of him, so I had to work with limited information. I wasn’t even sure he had expressions like a normal person.
Iron Maiden moved up a step, holding her axe with both hands as she forced Jamie to retreat further.
That step was just a little bit shorter than the last. She wasn’t chasing Jamie anymore. She was preparing to flank me.
The poster had asked for me to be delivered dead or alive. Dead was a possibility. Dead was probably something she did very well.
I made my move, scrambling backward, and I saw Tentacles move, setting his weight.
In the moment he moved, I shifted my weight forward. The toes of my shoes scraped against the puddle-covered road and found traction, and I lunged forward.
He would hit me, probably hard, but it wouldn’t be the same calculated strike he’d plotted. Even as I shifted my weight and changed my plan of attack, he did the same.
I closed the distance between us with a reckless run, one foot going too deep into a puddle, slowing me down.
I hurled the clump of mud and blood that I’d collected from my arms. It hit him across the chest and stomach, some of it finding its way into the eyes of that tentacled body.
He attacked blind. I anticipated an attack down toward my feet and legs and leaped, but my timing was off, I couldn’t even see the attack, and he hadn’t attacked low. The whip-like tentacle caught me along the length of my body, heavy but not the sort of thing that would tear me to pieces.
I hit the ground hard enough that the air in my lungs was shaken free. For two terrifying seconds, I tried to breathe and couldn’t.
In the third, I put the fear away, gripped the second clump of blood and mud, and hurled it. He drew his tentacles in to form a kind of shield. Some of it still struck home.
“Sy!” Jamie cried out.
Iron Maiden. She was stalking toward me in that weird gait of hers, lifting the axe in that same strange way.
Before she was halfway to me, a second grenade went off. Jamie’s throw, capitalizing on her distraction and Tentacles’ blindness.
She flew, almost literally, in my general direction, before landing in a heap. I flew, in a metaphorical sense, in the opposite direction, toward the site of the explosion and toward Jamie.
“Arachne!” Tentacles cried out.
She had a name, it seemed.
He attacked, partially blind, and as disappointing as it was, many of those attacks managed to hit me, knocking me off balance, or catch at parts of me, forcing me to pull away, losing momentum.
But Tentacles seemed more interested in his companion than in us.
Jamie and I left the pair behind us. We hurried toward Horace, who was slumping over more and more, and between Jamie and my bruised self we managed to bring the fellow along with.
Not that we got very far.
A short distance down a block and around a corner, and we’d reached the next bridge. The impact of the Academy’s rain was clear, now. As the rain came down, something in it was activating with something in the river. Either the rain held seeds, or the river did. A material Jamie and I had seen used a thousand thousand times before. Virtually every building in the Crown Empire was touched by the stuff, and here it had been put to use in quarantine.
Where canals had once separated and subdivided the city, there were now walls of wood, knitting together, weaving into a barrier, with the sole purpose of generating raw height, the horizontal growths rare and quick to break away and fall on either side of the waters.
Here and there, the aquatic warbeasts reached up and through, swatting at the barriers, bringing down loose horizontally-growing branches. They would stay for as long as was necessary to remove any climbers or stall other threats, then likely retreat to somewhere or get choked out by the growths of wood.
They were sectioning off the city for quarantine purposes. Our escape routes were getting further and further overhead by the minute.