I helped a one-armed Harvey hobble along, while Jamie walked ahead of us. We had a row of houses to our right and a still-rising wall to our left. The street we ran down was more for walking than for houses, rendered dark by the lack of trees growing around the houses, the fact that the lamps were off, and the combination of both stormclouds and pouring rain.
Jamie tried every doorknob we passed, while I did what I could to bear Harvey’s weight.
He found an unlocked door, opening it, and held it for Harvey and I.
“No use trying to break through or get around before the walls are fully done growing,” Jamie said.
“It’ll be a narrow window, Sy. When they’ve reached maximum height, they’ll get thicker and denser. Most architects that use builder’s wood will set up partitions to constrain the growth, but those aren’t available here. It’ll just be raw mass. The thing to look out for is if the growth visibly slows, but you can hear the creaking of wood moving against wood.”
“Good to know,” I said.
“What’s my next step?” Jamie asked.
“Find the house medical kit, bucket,” I said, as I helped my charge limp through the door. “Mop too.”
Jamie hurried off to find things and supplies, still moving slower than he should have. Looking at the interior of the house, the occupants had left in a hurry, creating mess wherever they went. I wasn’t sure if that would help Jamie find the things he needed or hamper him.
I led Harv over to an armchair that had been set near the now-dark fireplace. He fell down into the seat, in something that approximated a sitting position, with only enough sense to favor his butchered left side and keep it from colliding with the chair.
He was as white as a sheet, with a very red nose and eyelids. Nothing in his face, eye contact or body language suggested he was present. The shock to his system, blood loss, trauma, or a combination therein had left him disconnected from reality.
That might have been a mercy, all told.
“Don’t pass out on me now, Harv,” I said.
He moved his head very slowly. His eyes actively searched for me, even when I was in his field of view, as if his vision was blurry or his thoughts weren’t all there. He managed to look at me, then gave me a puzzled look.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just stay with me. You managing?”
“Pain,” he said, sounding about as strong as he looked, which was easily summed up as ‘pathetic’.
“I took your arm, that tends to hurt. Unless you mean you can feel the stuff crawling through you?”
He shook his head, then looked like he might pass out from the way that little motion made his head swim. I put a hand out to his shoulder to steady him.
“Pain,” he said, again. “Like it’s still there, running from shoulder to fingertip.”
“Phantom pains,” I said. “That’s going to happen, with something like this.”
“I want to die,” Harv said. “I can’t live like this.”
I peeled away at a portion of his shirt and jacket. It was plastered to his skin by some combination of cloying blood and sweat. He winced visibly as I pulled the material away near the top of his shoulder.
“There are drugs they can give you that will let the mind figure out how to handle the phantom pains,” I said. “There are surgeries where they will give you a new, working arm.”
I saw him shake his head.
Harv was a shadow of Jamie, like this. Like Jamie, he was sick, if farther along. If Harv could make it, so could Jamie. If he died on me, I might lose hope for my friend.
“Trust me,” I said, firmly. “The rest of your long life is waiting for you.”
“My parents didn’t even answer the door,” Harvey said, his voice a hush. “They were home.”
He’d lost his family, in a way. Even if everything returned to normal and the plague was cured, he’d lost that.
I couldn’t sum up an encouraging response to that. It hit too close to home.
“That’s the wrong thing to be focusing on. You need to keep your eyes forward and work on staying alive. I might even be able to get you funding to help you get that surgery and get back to life as normal.”
Jamie approached, coming down the stairs, his hands holding a bucket with a bowl perched on top. He held it like it was full. “Just like you to find another pet project, Sy. We wrap up our financial obligations to the other four with a decent cash donation to set them up and help get them settled, and you go and you find a new woebegone bystander to help.”
“It’s only fair,” I said. “I borrow them and use them for a while, then I usually subject them to something horrifying, if not multiple horrible somethings. I gotta make it up to them on some level, leave them at least as well off as when I find them.”
Very carefully, I took the bowl from him. It held water, warm if I judged by the feel of the bowl, and a washcloth. The bucket, in turn, held the same medical supply kit that just about every family of means kept in their house. I plucked that from the bucket.
“But why did you find him in the first place, Sy? You just felt like carving him up? Felt suddenly altruistic? Disinfectant in the water.”
“I like how you’ve managed to suggest two very different reasons, befitting two very different moralities, and made them each sound as natural as sun in the morning.” I tore open a package of disinfectant and dumped it into the bowl. I washed off my hands in it, and felt my hands and arms tingle on contact with the stuff. Strong.
“Seriously,” Jamie said. “Don’t deflect. Why did you pick him to rescue?”
Hands clean, I started mopping at the area of crusted blood, wiping the skin around Harvey’s wound clean. I focused the entirety of my gaze, hands, and attention on the task at hand as I let the words pass through my lips, “Roll up your pants legs.”
I didn’t look as Jamie set to work. I used the washcloth and warm water to wash away and break up some of the congealing blood that bound shirt and jacket to Harv’s upper body, then got the kit.
“Still with me?” I asked Harv.
“Mm,” Harv said.
Jamie had gone silent. I glanced at him, and saw that he’d stumbled back a few steps before collapsing into a sitting position on the arm of the nearest armchair.
Red spots, across his calves and shins.
I blinked hard and looked away, suppressing the welling emotions. Jamie, meanwhile, looked quietly devastated.
There were steps to be followed. I’d expected this, braced myself for it.
In front of me, Harry turned his head, looking at me, then at Jamie, then back to me. The shaking of my hands as I tended to him had gotten his attention.
Calm, I told myself. Be calm.
“Damn,” Jamie said. “No.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said. I forced my voice to be neutral and calm. “So far, the infection doesn’t seem to be spreading any further for Harry here. I’m not seeing any more tendrils. A prompt and thorough amputation seems to slow or stop the progression. Whoever created this thing either didn’t plan for this, or they liked the idea of us hacking each other to pieces in efforts to stem the tide of this disease.”
His hands went to his head, fingers running through his long hair. “That’s what you were doing. A trial run, before you treated me.”
“Yeah,” I said. I found the opaque bag of aqua nucifera and pinned it to the side of the armchair with my knife. I unreeled the attached tube.
“Thank you for not telling me. I’m bothered that you noticed before I did.”
I nodded. “You were focused on other things.”
“Still bothered,” he said. He stared down at his knees and his exposed calves. “Really bothered.”
“We’ll fix you up,” I said. “Well, we’ll fix up Harry first, and make sure that he’s going to make it through this. Once he’s stable, I’ll feel a lot better about your outcome.”
“Sy,” Jamie said. “Even if this goes perfectly, it’s my legs.”
“We’re running from Dog, Catcher, two Brunos, the Ghost, Sanguine, the tentacled man, and very possibly Iron Maiden.”
“I’m suspicious she did, Sy. I had one last glimpse of her, and she looked awfully whole for someone who was standing at the periphery of a grenade’s detonation.”
“Damn it,” I said.
“Not to mention,” Jamie said, “We’re outrunning the plague, and working to get out of the city before the quarantine is fully established and the walls require something closer to a siege engine to break through.”
“I know,” I said. “Yeah.”
“You want to, what, amputate my legs? While we’re on the run? You don’t see the problem with that?”
“Not amputate. I hope. But running might be hard afterward.”
Jamie nodded, eyes still on his legs.
“For now, we need to focus on the people who are chasing us,” I said. “Assuming they didn’t give up, I’ll feel a lot happier if I go back and cover our tracks. I want to get the lay of the land, and figure out where we’re going next.”
“Do you know how miserable it’s going to be, waiting here and waiting for you to come back? Assuming you do? Half the bounty hunters in the western Crown States are lined up against us, Sy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’ll make it back.”
“Soon?” he asked.
“Soon enough,” I said. “I promise.”
I saw him draw in a deep breath, then exhale.
It wasn’t usual, to see him this insecure. Jamie was so stable, most of the time, even when he was arguing with me, he tended to do it in a way that seemed unshakable, and frustratingly, like he wouldn’t ever change his position.
“Stay busy in the meantime. There are gloves in the kit,” I said. “Wear them. Stitch him together with your Academy know-how, best you can. When I get back, we’ll get you looked after.”
Jamie looked antsy. I ventured, “Need a minute before you start?”
Before standing, I was careful to re-wrap the wound. I dug for and found another bag of aqua nucifera. If Harry needed it, we could give it to him, but I was thinking Jamie would need some too. The bags could be refilled once each with some sterilized water, and they would still approximate a blood transfusion, while having a longer shelf life and not needing refrigeration.
“You wanted the mop?” Jamie asked. He lurched to his feet. I could see from his expression and the way he tested moving his legs that he was now acutely aware of how much slower and heavier they seemed to be.
“Yeah,” I said. And I assume you want to talk.
Jamie walked with me to the kitchen. I broke away to check the hall closet, and found a jacket that was only slightly too big for me. No hood, but I would manage. It had to be warmer than the alternative.
Jamie had found the broom closet, and collected the mop. He held it out for me, but as I took hold of it, he didn’t let go.
“Sy,” Jamie said, voice lowered. He didn’t want Harry to hear.
“The way this thing has been progressing. What the guard at the prison said. It’s unpredictable.”
“I think… and I’m not sure, but it seems to make sense based on what we’ve seen, but this thing chooses how long to incubate. Sometimes it appears within the hour. Sometimes it takes longer.”
“Looks like,” I said. “It’s a shame you got the fast growing strain. I’m hoping there’s a downside for the plague as it accelerates like it is. Maybe it burns out on raw materials?”
“I think it gets raw materials from blood,” Jamie said. “It won’t run out soon.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, maybe.”
“But Sy. Just because Harold doesn’t have any signs around his stump now doesn’t mean he’s healthy. If there’s even a thirty minute incubation time, the disease wouldn’t necessarily have shown up again.”
“I get lying to him, to help lift his spirits. But you’re not going to fool me.”
“Can’t seem to fool you or lie to you ever,” I said. “Not reliably. It’s really unfortunate.”
“There are no guarantees, Sy. Even if you try to carve out the infection, it might not be the way to deal with this.”
“There are never any guarantees,” I said. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Please,” Jamie said.
The word seemed out of place and eerie, passing through his lips.
I passed through the one end of the main room of the house to head to the windows. I peered through each before deeming the coast clear enough.
Jamie was pulling on the gloves. With his assistance, I peeled the bloody shirt and jacket free of Harry’s shoulder. Both went into the bucket. I repositioned the bag of aqua nucifera and reclaimed my knife.
Jamie’s demeanor shifted as he watched me slide the knife into my boot. As if he recognized the danger I was throwing myself into.
Stepping out onto the porch, I quickly spotted the droplets and spatters of blood that marked the deck and stairs. I swabbed them with the mop, dipping it into a puddle first.
Once the deck was cleaned of the blood, I moved down to the street, collecting some twigs and light detritus. I dusted the steps and deck so they wouldn’t look so tidy.
A glance down both ends of the street suggested we hadn’t been followed.
Still, I felt like Jamie could at least rest and we could handle the surgery without having to watch our backs as much, if the trail was mostly dead.
I had to put the bucket down before dipping the sodden, dirty mop into it. I moved quickly, mop in one hand, bucket under one arm, and trailed the mop along steps, along drier areas, and into the water.
I had to create the most logical path for a discerning nose and eye to follow. I didn’t know how Tentacles and Arachne tracked people, but I had to cover all bases.
I found a porch with an overhanging roof that was leaking slightly. Droplets fell at a rate of one or two every second. I tipped the bucket, holding the shirt and jacket within, and let the mix of water and blood join that little puddle, expanding it. It was noticeably darker and thicker than the other puddles and bits of water. Not something an ordinary person might catch, but something a tracker would.
Perhaps too obvious. I used the side of my shoe to scrape against the puddle, scattering it slightly.
Blood wasn’t the whole of it. I leaned heavily on one side of my shoe to create a partial shoeprint in a mud puddle, as if I were running.
Then a change of direction. Not into another street or a house. No. I needed to disappear.
I turned the other way, toward the canal, and the massive, twisting network of wood that was lurching up and out of it, as wide as a city street and tall enough to be daunting. Especially, I knew, when there were no handholds up near the top that wouldn’t disintegrate if weight was put on them.
The rain hit the wall and ran down it and into the canal instead of falling in any great quantity here. Pulling shirt and jacket from the bucket, I wrung them out, creating a larger deposit of blood at the foot of the wall, as if we’d spent longer here. The mop let me distort it, as if a person or something had rested there.
I had the mop for a reason. Holding the length of it, I painted further up the wall, shoving the mop into indents to try and squeeze out more bloody water.
The idea was to paint a picture. That we’d somehow made it through or over the wall with our injured friend.
The old picture had been erased. The new one had been illustrated.
Good enough to assist with tracking. I put the bucket over the end of the mop, and moved along the wall until I found a place where the wall was still growing strong. I stuck the bucket with the rags within and the end of the mop inside the wall, and watched as it grew visibly by the second. As lengths of wood wound up and around the already established lengths, growing thicker as it worked its way up, the bucket and mop were caught within, then slowly crushed.
I had to break off the handle of the mop and toss it into another gap to let the wall finish consuming my evidence.
I stopped there, looking to see if there was anyone nearby. I only saw stark houses with quarantine sheets and other barriers over the windows, rain, and the cobblestone street that was more for pedestrians than for the rare cart.
I was alone, here. No enemies, no friends.
I closed my eyes, and I took a moment to force my hands to stop shaking again.
Jamie being sick was getting to me just as much as it was getting to him. I needed to center myself, or I wouldn’t be useful at all. I wanted to support him, and I knew that leaving him in a moment like this wasn’t the best way to do that. But staying and selfishly breaking down into tears or falling to pieces would be even further from the best approach.
Eyes still closed, I drew out some mental pictures. Faces, bodies, voices, personalities.
When I’d opened my eyes, I’d visualized Helen and Evette.
Helen enveloped me in a hug, no questions asked, no tomfoolery. I couldn’t quite piece together the physical sensations and fool my body into experiencing that. I could summon up the familiarity and the warmth, with the warmer emotional response that seeing her evoked, the little smells and the less-warm play of my natural healthy fear of Helen against the fears I was wrestling with.
I closed my eyes, focusing on the sensations and feelings, and centered myself. I told myself that I did it for Jamie, to assuage my guilt over having left him behind, sick, scared, and off-balance.
I’m terrible at being alone, I thought. Like Jamie said, I need a Lamb at arm’s length.
Even false Lambs would have to do, if and when I was pushed.
“What’s the first step?” Evette asked. “Assess the problem.”
To survey the area, I would have to find a better vantage point. The wall was a dangerous climb, I knew. The exterior and the upper branches would be brittle, the interior denser, closer to real wood.
What had Jamie said?
“If the growth slows, but you can hear it creaking,” Evette said. “That’s when we need to get over, under, or through.”
With two hurt people who aren’t moving as fast as they should, I thought.
Sanguine was still watching, too.
Climbing the wall wouldn’t work. I had to find a way onto a roof.
My jacket did little to ward off the cold as I made my way between houses, looking for a fence or a shack that might serve as a stepping stone.
My first minute of moving between houses didn’t turn up either, but I did find a coil of rope hanging up on the side of what might have been a stable for a horse or a monstrous, Academy-worked pet. I gathered up the rope and pulled the coil over my head.
Another two minutes of searching turned up a small, square table that had been set out on a back patio. Wood and glass, with gnarled legs. I tilted it on its side, and found that the underside had struts and braces to keep everything rock steady.
It served as a poor ladder to get up to a high window. The window shutter, in turn, was a handhold for me to climb up to the gutter.
Helen and Evette were waiting for me up top. I almost told them to get down so they wouldn’t be seen. In the next instant, I chided myself for my silliness.
I climbed a bit further up, until I was on the rooftop of a four-story house. I moved close to the chimney, hunkering down there as my eyes roved over the city, trying to make out details in the downpour.
Motion was easier to see than stillness. I could see five different clusters of people who were out and about in the rain. Three of the five were awfully close to the group of the sick and the wagons we’d seen at the north end of this particular neighborhood. The two that remained were moving in our general direction and were small enough to be a pair of people; Tentacles and Arachne. One moved far slower than the other. I would suspect that it was them, but I wouldn’t make it a concrete assumption.
There were others. One form that I thought was a wagon moved very suddenly, up and onto a rooftop. It moved down the other side, out of view.
“Hey!” Helen said, far too chipper. “It’s Dog and Catcher!”
“And their friends,” I said, gauging the blurry blob that would be Catcher and the recruited bounty hunters he was working with.
Dog reappeared, moving over a rooftop, then down to immediate proximity with Catcher.
He zig-zagged, but if I had to gauge by the general direction they were traveling, they had our scent.
I knew they’d catch up to us eventually, but I’d hoped it would be thirty minutes from now, not five or ten, and that they would be led further astray by the false scent trail. If they happened to make the effort to cross over or pass through the wall and head into the wrong area, it was very possible that they would have trouble crossing back. It was a ruse that could buy us enough time to maybe even find a way out of Tynewear.
But if they were this close, then it left very little time to work with.
I couldn’t help but assign something close to intelligence to the red plague. The way it had chosen to hobble Jamie, it crippled us in the worst way possible, at the worst time. Jamie was sick, he was hurt-
I closed my eyes.
“Traps,” Evette said.
“Dog and Catcher like being up high too,” Helen said. “They go up to rooftops, when the streets are narrow. Dog likes to lie down on rooftops and let the sun shine on him, or, more usually, let the rain run down off him. It’s where they’re comfortable. They’ll look for vantage points just like you’re doing. That’s where we want to be.”
“Where we want the traps to be,” Evette corrected.
“I am the trap,” Helen said.
“No,” Evette said, sounding both patient and condescending, “You’re a figment of Sylvester’s overactive and powerful imagination.”
“Stop bickering,” I told them.
They faded into the background as I focused on the task at hand. I imagined Dog and Catcher moving through the street, following the scent trail, which would be obscured by the rain, and finding the dead end, with Jamie and I seeming to have moved through the wall, with the wall growing closed behind us.
They would want to double check that we weren’t climbing over, and they would look for clues as to how we did it.
Dog would survey the area while the rest discussed. He would, like I had, seek a high vantage point, close to the site and the ongoing discussion.
I clarified my focus, and spotted the most likely rooftop they would use for searching the area, then the most likely area of that rooftop.
I’d collected the rope so I could either use it to help climb or to quickly scale a surface. Now I gave thought to snares and deadfalls. Nothing that would kill, only inconvenience.
I headed over to the rooftop where the first snare would be set. I wondered how steady that chimney over there was. Which would break first? It, the rope, or Dog’s balance?
Helen’s smiling face and Evette’s cackle kept me company in the darkness and the cold.
I returned from the outdoors, water streaming off of my body and coat. I was careful to close the door quietly.
“Dog, Catcher, their group, and the pair, all closing in,” I said.
“Should we postpone my surgery?” Jamie asked.
I seriously considered it for a moment. Then I shook my head.
It grew so damn fast. If I ran into a problem like I’d run into with Horace, then I’d never be able to cut back the concurrent growths of two different limbs without amputating them both.
On that note, Horace was looking far more lively than he had, which was a telling sign of how many minutes I’d spent out there, getting things set up. Both Catcher’s group and Sanguine’s pair had been close by the time I’d snuck back to Jamie.
“Fluids helping?” I asked Horace.
“Some,” Jamie supplied the answer. “I think having the wound closed is a big step forward.”
“Yes,” Horace said. He swallowed. “Mentally, if nothing else.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Any spots?”
“Three,” Jamie said. “They appeared on him while I was stitching him up. I got them early, and stitched the gaps.”
I nodded, but the news evoked a stir of unpleasant emotions, ranging from despair to alarm.
Was it not possible to cut back the growths? Would more spots erupt? Was this an endless process? Forever cutting away something that wouldn’t ever die?
“I felt brave after that,” Jamie said. “I sterilized the scalpel and tried to work on my leg. I got three, and I didn’t have the nerve to keep going.”
“Three out of…” I looked at his legs.
“Forty-three spots, ranging from one inch long to three inches long,” Jamie said. “Some on my feet that I only found when I took my shoes and socks off. I don’t think you need to cut that deep, but… not easy to cut into yourself like this.”
“But yeah. I hear you.”
“I think I’ve bought us time,” I said. “Hoping my knotwork is still up to snuff.”
“Speaking of,” Jamie said. “You may have to restrain me while you cut.”
I thought about it, then agreed, “Alright.”
“The feeling when you prod the centers of these spots is the most unbelievably painful thing I’ve ever felt, Sy. If you do it by accident, I might hit you.”
“Right, no, I’m okay with that,” I said. “I’m just sort of disappointed. I always thought Lil would be the first Lamb I tied up, and I figured it would be for completely different reasons.”
Jamie’s expression as he stared at me was somewhere between amazement and the stark horror he’d displayed as he realized he was infected, earlier.
“Too much detail?” I asked.
“I’m just aghast that you even know that people do that, given your naivety in so many other areas, Sy.”
“Don’t talk,” he said. “Nope. Let me pretend that you’re going to say something utterly clueless and innocent to contrast and destroy the idea of an adult Sy that you just set up.”
I almost spoke to counter him, then surrendered. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he said. He moved a footstool, and extended his legs so they were out straight in front of him. He patted a pile of sheets that he’d found and stacked on the little tea table beside him. The restraints.
People do that, then? I wondered to myself, as I got to work. I would have to think on it at a future date. I’d just imagined once upon a time that it would be fun to torment Lil to my heart’s content while she couldn’t fight back. Now one of the many tracks in my head was stuck puzzling out how and why that particular thing would be adult in a way that would make Jamie be weird.
Any ideas? I thought.
The specter of Lillian that stood on the other end of the room shook her head.
I missed her voice. I missed her.
She leaned forward, and I thought she was going to say something. Instead, I heard a deeper, reedy, hollow sort of voice, like I might expect to hear from the monster under the bed.
“Anything I can do?” Horace asked.
“No,” I said, terse. The illusion had been destroyed and scattered. It took work to reimagine Lillian. By the time I’d pulled a mental image back together, without the ghoulish voice being somehow associated with it, I was done restraining Jamie.
There were so many spots. Each one would require a tablespoon of flesh, at the very least.
I knelt at Jamie’s knee, so it was at my chest level. Lillian knelt on the other side.
“Work fast,” Jamie said. “The longer we’re here with me getting cut up, the sooner they’ll catch a whiff.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Except-”
I heard a distant rumble and crash.
I imagined it was the chimney snare.
“Except that,” I said. “With luck, Dog is dangling halfway down the front face of the second tallest building on the street, with a snare around his foot. With more luck, it was a back foot, Dog won’t be able to bite the rope, and Catcher will have to get inside the building and walk upstairs to cut Dog loose. If this is a particularly good day, Catcher or his friends will run into more trouble as he makes his way inside.”
“I don’t think this is a particularly good day,” Jamie said. His eyes were on the scalpel.
I began cutting. Jamie jerked in his seat, tension standing out in his neck. I excised the first of the large spots, then stopped, holding a cloth down to staunch the bleeding.
“No follow-up crash to mark Dog freeing himself. First bit of luck we’ve had,” I said.
“Sometimes I think you’re crueler to old friends than your enemies,” Jamie said. “You seem to end up tormenting them.”
It was a dark thing to say. I could see why he was saying it, sitting where he was. Or was there more to him saying that?
I decided not to pry. Not fair, when he was in such dire straits.
“Maybe,” I said. I glanced back at Harold, who had his eyes closed. I had to watch for a second to make sure he hadn’t dropped dead on us. I returned my focus to the spots, and I was thinking about them as I added, “Mercy can be crueler.”