I put the scalpel down. It clattered on the table.
Jamie was pressing his upper body back against the cushioned back of the armchair, fingers digging into the arms. He seemed to be taking the reprieve as an opportunity to breathe again.
I used tweezers to hold the needle with one hand while holding a match to the end with the other. I threaded it, tied off the thread, and poised myself.
“That’s the last cut, I’m hoping. Last set of stitches. I’ll have to check after this for more spots.”
“No. If there are more spots, then no more cutting,” Jamie said.
I remained where I was, needle held in the tweezers. I wasn’t sure what to say or do in response to that. I already felt emotionally harrowed by having to take the scalpel to Jamie fifty-three times.
If it was hard for me to cut him another time, I could only imagine what it was like to be on the receiving side.
“Okay,” I said, injecting false levity into my voice. “Needle, then I’m going to check anyway, regardless of what we end up doing.”
“I thought this would get easier to deal with as you went along,” Jamie said.
“I’m getting faster,” I said.
“And I’m getting tired, trying to force myself to stand still when my body wants to do everything but.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, right.”
He didn’t sum up the energy for a response.
“…Sooner we’re done then.”
Lillian put her hands around the hand with the tweezers and needle. She didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was telling me to do.
I investigated the wound, then began stitching up the incision I’d made. I had to use tools to keep skin pinched together so I wouldn’t contaminate the wound. I let go of the tools, leaving them where they were while I worked on the other end of the wound. The act of pinching pulled at countless other, nearby stitches. Even with the anti-scarring cream I’d smeared around the cuts, Jamie’s suggestion for increasing the skin’s elasticity, it was hard with the sheer number of cuts and stitches I’d had to apply.
I pushed needle through skin, and began drawing the wound closed.
“Stop fidgeting,” Gordon said. “Focus on what you’re doing.”
I mumbled something that might have approximated ‘don’t tell me what to do’ if I’d actually bothered to form it into actual words.
“Hm?” Jamie asked.
I shook my head, remaining silent, and he let it go, letting his head rest against the armchair’s back again.
My left hand, no longer occupied with holding the skin together continued to toy with the spare needles, despite Gordon’s commentary. I rolled them over and around my fingers, three needles at three separate points, so they moved around the tops of my fingers, over the edge, and around the underside, only periodically using my thumb to adjust one of the ones on the underside.
Push the bent needle through, let go of it with the tweezers, grab the pointy end, pull it through, remove the slack in the thread. Minimize the blood and be aware of the adjustments and clamping that cause more blood to flow, as we’re assuming this is nourished by blood. Clean, repeat.
“If the cutting doesn’t work, we could use fire,” Evette said, as she watched over my shoulders. In my peripheral vision, her expression was distorted, much as if I was looking through a fishbowl. Eyes large, hair in a braid over her shoulder, mouth more a slit across her face than a human mouth with lips. I could imagine her leaning on me too hard, invading personal space because she was socially awkward, or because the medical work, no matter how trivial, drew her in.
That thought made me think about how the other Lambs might have changed to accommodate her. Gordon was the doer, while Evette was the one who held back, waiting in the background, looking for her opportunity to strike, or analyzing the enemy and the situation for a weakness she could amend with her particular distillation of Academy science. He would have taken a more forward, adventurous position, I suspected, if he’d had Evette instead of me. I wondered if, like Gordon had been warm on the surface, with that bastard buried within, only revealed on rare occasions, Evette would be the bastard on the surface, with a kernel of warmth deep within?
“Burn the red spots with cigarettes?” she suggested. “A cigar?”
Fire is the go-to answer. A decade ago, it would have worked. Fire scares warbeasts, it scared stitched and burned them like they’re tinder. But things move forward.
“Cold then,” Evette said. “If it’s a living thing, it won’t like the cold. Acid? Or… what about a voltaic charge? Shock to the system. Hit all of it at once.”
I finished stitching, and tied it off. I flourished, dropping the tweezers, needle, thread, and the washcloth I’d had across my lap on the table.
“You got a lot faster,” Gerald said. “You did almost all of that with one hand, didn’t you?”
“Were you bored, Sy?” Jamie asked. His eyes were still shut. “I saw you playing with the needles.”
“More like if my mind was fully occupied on the task, it would have been too much,” I said.
I got the cloth. I was careful to pour out the water from the pitcher I’d started using, instead of simply swishing it within and contaminating that water. I began wiping away trace amounts of blood.
There were countless little moments where I wiped, and the crimson stain remained, and I was certain it was another blotch. Then another cloth, another wipe, and it was erased.
I rolled up his pants legs further, checked, and found nothing. I examined his feet next, searching for spots. I used the tools to nudge his feet and toes this way and that and see the different angles.
“Shit,” I said, with feeling.
I saw Jamie tense up.
I ran one hand through my hair, and then reached over for the tweezers.
“No,” Jamie said. “I’m done. If there’s more to do, we’ll use another method, but we’ve got to leave before Dog or Catcher get their feet under them and smell the blood.”
“Just one,” I said, staring at Jamie’s foot.
“No. Damn it.”
“Is that damn it aimed at me?” I asked. “Or the situation, or…”
Jamie’s head hung. It looked like he’d been wrung out and left to dry. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and some of it had fallen down onto his glasses. His hair was clinging together in strands from the sweat, by his temples, around his face, and where it brushed against his shoulders.
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”
I used the tweezers. He jumped like I’d stabbed him as they brushed his toes.
“You’ve got lint between your toes, Jamie,” I said, holding up my trophy. “You should really take better care of your hygiene. Wear fresher socks, wash those feet.”
“Sylvester…” Jamie said, trailing off, at an apparent loss for words.
I grinned, so that the feeling of gall would only leave him more speechless.
“You’re such a dick,” Lillian said.
But I’m a dick who squeezed a sentence out of you, I retorted to the imaginary Lillian, before banishing the imaginary Lambs.
“…I really recommend leaving me tied up,” Jamie said.
I continued to grin.
He sounded haggard. “Just run. Put as much distance between yourself and me as possible, because I’m going to find you and I’m going to hold you face down in a puddle. Then I’m going to use what little Academy knowledge I have to invent new torments to inflict on you, until you might actually feel sorry for the first time in your life.”
My mind immediately went looking for a retort or a witty comment, and then stumbled headlong into one of my biggest regrets. My last real conversation with the old Jamie.
The smile dropped off my face. I turned to Jamie’s bindings and undid them.
“You’ll feel sorry you exist,” Jamie said.
“There’s an edge of delirium to your voice. Did the painkillers work?” I asked, hoping to change the subject, forcing my attitude to change by upping the ante a touch, teasing Jamie some more.
“The painkillers didn’t do a damned thing.”
“You’re surly, too,” I said.
“I’m sore,” Jamie said, as I released the bindings around his upper body. “And now we get to see if I can actually walk like this.”
“I’d give you a hand, but I think I’m contaminated,” I said.
“You’ve been contaminated all your damn life, you little wart,” Jamie said, as he used the chair arm to stand up.
“You’re really surly,” I said.
He nodded, testing his balance. He winced as he set his foot down. He huffed out a breath, then at the tail end, it became something like a chuckle. I saw a glimmer of a smile. “Seriously, Sy. That was too much.”
I thought about apologizing, but I could see how much closer this had managed to drag him back from wherever he’d been. I made the impulse decision to double down.
“Boo hoo,” I said. “Poor Jamie, getting impromptu surgery from a helpful friend who doesn’t know jack dick about this stuff. So very difficult!”
“What about me, Jamie? What about my feelings, how stressed I feel? Huh? My hand is cramping up.”
“I would hit you, Sylvester, but on the off chance that you’ve got any spores, seeds, virus, or whatever it is on you, I’m going to wait until another time. I’ll get you back for all of this. I guarantee it. I don’t forget.”
“Alright,” I said.
“You won’t know when to expect it.”
“I get a lot of those threats. When people start acting on them, it’s probably going to be all at once, and I’ll be utterly doomed.”
“Doomed is a good word,” he said.
I swept up the satchel of explosives as I passed it and slung it over a shoulder. I headed over to Gerald. “Lemme see yours?”
Gerald helped me peel away the bandages Jamie had applied, allowing me to minimize how much I touched him.
“There’s food here, there’s water. Keep the doors and windows closed,” I told him. “You’re probably better off not following us.”
“Alright,” he said. He drew in a breath, hesitating, then ventured, “Thank you.”
“I’m better off than I was,” he said. “I owe that to you. I don’t know what I’m going to do, without-”
He shook his head.
“Give me your name and address,” I said, before he could fall too far into that same despair I’d glimpsed earlier.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
“I don’t need anything more. I want to put this behind me.”
“If you’re sure.”
“Alright,” I said. I saw Jamie picking up the other satchel, stepped over to him and snatched it away. I pulled it over my head as well.
“Greedy,” he said. “Harold. I did what I could, using the knowledge I have. There’s a drainage tube in there-”
Harold? Right. Whatever. I blocked out the medical speak as I headed to the window, doing what I could to see that the coast was clear.
Jamie limped with both legs, a very staggered sort of motion that made me feel like he was going to topple over at the slightest provocation. He moved up beside me, joining me in looking out the window, then turned his attention to the closet by the door. He fiddled around inside until he’d found a sturdy umbrella with a J-shaped handle. He leaned on it experimentally.
“Dapper,” I said.
“Mm. I just had very vivid mental images of smacking you with this,” he said. He raised it up and slapped it against one palm.
“Don’t ask, and I won’t feel compelled to demonstrate.”
“So cranky. You are the crankiest patient. Have you always been this way?”
“I don’t throw myself headlong into danger in the same way you do, Sy, and I haven’t had you as a doctor in any capacity, which is a definite factor.”
I pushed the door open enough to look, then made my way out into the rain.
The canal had, choked with wood and rain both, overflowed. Where it spilled out into the street, the builder’s wood was growing rampant. Tendrils of it spread out, weaving its way through cobblestones. Here and there, it found room to set down roots and raise itself up as a twist of wood.
I was very conscious of how I couldn’t or shouldn’t touch Jamie. Now the wall growths were extending out, with a gentle sloping curve as the road at the canal’s edge blurring into the high wall. Bounty hunters were presumably patrolling the area, looking for some trace of us.
Now we were slowed down. Paths I would confidently take before, knowing we could duck around a corner or take some cover at one point or another were now longer stretches of no man’s land, where if we hobbled our way to the halfway point and an enemy showed up, there was no guarantee we could hide or escape fast enough.
I stared up at the wall. Thirty feet high, with a light tumble of thin branches up at the top, brittle enough to break away as others pushed their way up. The long, thin branches formed a loose carpet at the base of the wall, and wood had grown around clusters of them, crushing them as it had expanded.
Claustrophobic. The city had sprawled so easily and comfortably, before, and now it confined.
“We’ll use explosives to blow through,” I said. I looked around. “But not here.”
I pointed further down the same wall. “I led them that way, and that’s also the same general area where I put the traps, so they might still be around there. There’s a good chance they would have tried to make it past the wall to the other side to follow us. If we go to the far side, we might find them thereabouts.”
“They might be hereabouts.”
I nodded. “We’ll go the other way. Hopefully we put some distance between ourselves and them, either way.”
We headed back the way we’d come. Jamie limped, using the umbrella not to shield against the rain, but as a walking stick.
We slowed as we approached a body.
It was a woman, sprawled out on the road. She’d been lying there long enough for the wood from the growing wall to creep out to the cobblestones and make its initial forays into crawling over her.
She was infected. Veins all across her head and the exposed flesh of her hands, back, and ankle stood out as if they were each a pencil’s width in diameter, at the very least. Here and there, they had erupted, and growths that looked very much like veins crawled out and beyond, too red in the gloom. They’d crawled under clothing while the wood had crawled over it, growths extended out and then re-rooted themselves to anchor, and they reached and grasped for aspects of the environment, gripping both cobblestone and the growing branches. A full quarter of her body was covered in the ivy-like growths.
I could see the parts of the growth that were going to become flowers. Bulbous, red, with striations.
Her head didn’t move as I walked ahead of Jamie, approaching until my feet were a short distance from her face. She made no sound except for the light rasp of her breathing.
I lowered myself down until I could see her face, lying in a puddle. I moved my hand, and her eyes tracked the movement.
The growth, too, moved in response. Not much, but I could see how it jerked and twitched in a way that had nothing to do with the woman’s movements or the weather.
I pulled my hand back, then pulled my sleeve over it. I tried again.
Far less of a response.
Reaching into my pocket, I found a Crown bank-note. Hand still in my sleeve, I waved it in the vicinity of the growth, and saw the twitching movement again.
“Responds to contrasts of light and dark,” I said, my voice soft.
“Something to keep in mind,” Jamie said.
I nodded. I looked down at the woman, and my thumb reached for the ring at my finger, fiddling with it for a second.
“Ma’am, can you speak?” I ventured.
I heard only the raspy breath.
“If not, then I need you to blink for me if you can.”
Slowly and deliberately, she closed one eyelid. The other couldn’t close completely because of a the vinelike growth at the other lower eyelid.
“Okay,” I said. “I wish I could help you, but there’s nothing I can do for you right now. I can’t give you much, but if you want to make a choice…”
Again, the slow, deliberate three-quarter blink. Not quite a wink, not a blink either. Halfway between the two.
“There’s a chance the Academy will come. It’s not a great chance, I won’t lie to you. But there’s a chance. If you want to try waiting, if you want to take any shot you have at living, I can leave you. Maybe help you get to a position where you won’t drown in a puddle.”
I waited, watching for another response.
“Or I can end this,” I said. “If that’s what you want, I’m uniquely suited to give that to you. I can make it pretty painless, quick, and I won’t have any regrets. I can kill strangers without being bothered by it, if I want.”
The look on her face was a searching one, long and drawn out. She blinked.
“That’s a yes?”
I rose to my feet. I checked there was no trouble incoming, and drew my knife, walking around behind her head, out of sight. I bent down, and carefully reached between the crimson growths to brush her hair away from the nape of her neck.
I brushed her hair with my fingertips, best as I could, until everything was as tidy as I could manage. I hoped it qualified as a last moment of human contact, because even with my Wyvern-altered mind, I couldn’t think of good words to offer her in her final moments. A part of me suspected that if I’d asked, she would have said to make it quick.
With that in mind, I did. Using both arms and a fair portion of body weight to help drive things home, I pushed the knife between the base of the skull and the spine, shifted position, and levered the knife to be sure I’d severed it.
The raspy breathing had stopped in the instant I’d pushed the knife in. The brain, with luck, would remain aware for only a few moments. Given the nature of her breathing prior and the surprisingly slow movement of blood from the wound I’d created, I didn’t expect she would persist for much longer than that.
I wiped the knife off as best as I could on her wet sleeve, then sheathed it. I had to back away as the growth simultaneously drew in closer to the host and reached out further with the extraneous, reaching parts. It was slow enough to move that I had to watch it over seconds to see that movement for sure, but I wasn’t about to play games.
“Sorry to delay,” I told Jamie.
He walked around the woman, giving the body and the growth a wide berth, falling in step beside me as we continued on course. “I won’t say I haven’t seen this side of you, but I haven’t seen your peculiar sort of empathy this… distilled? ….Intense?”
They’re you, I thought. What you almost were. I just think about how you might have ended up, if we’d split up.
“I think…” I said. “I think I hate whoever did this. I’d think I’d be willing to go after them like we were thinking about going after our targets.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
“I think this thing, what it’s looking like, it’s cruel, and it’s bad enough that there needs to be rules about it.”
“Rules? Like quarantine?”
“Like, if I found Tentacles and Arachne busy administering this kind of mercy to people, I would stand back and let them finish, instead of capitalizing on the opportunity.”
Jamie nodded. “And you’d hope they would do the same?”
“If they didn’t, I would change how I handled them. No holding back.”
“You threw a grenade at them the last time. You just threw really terribly.”
“I threw fine, he smacked it out of the air,” I said. “And that was me holding back. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Jamie said.
It was painful to have to slow down my pace to allow Jamie to keep up. This was hard. The pressure was too high. Unless we put some distance between us and them, our enemies would find us. We needed to get out of the city. That, in itself, was hard to do.
I had a sick feeling that the only way out would be the way that the Academy allowed us. That we would have to set up camp somewhere safe enough, and wait out the quarantine measures. We would be pinned down for a month or longer.
“Sy,” Jamie said, cutting into my train of thought. “Do you intend to help everyone we run into?”
“No,” I said. Then I hesitated. I touched the ring. “I don’t know. I feel like there’s an obligation to do something.”
“You’re getting soft,” Jamie told me.
We made our way down the street, tracing our steps back to the north end of the neighborhood. As we rounded the corner, finding our way to the open area that topped off the neighborhood, where the people had been getting dropped off, we slowed and stopped in our tracks.
Three, maybe four dozen people had lingered here. Thirty to fifty people had fallen as if they’d been shot, collapsed against walls and sprawled on the ground. In places they sat in groups of three or four. Wooden walls creaked as they grew, and the bridge that had spanned the canal had been destroyed in the wall’s growth. Now branches and wood crawled out onto the plaza, over the immobile people. The bioweapon had crawled forth, extending along the fallen, reaching out for surfaces and others to cling to. The reason I was so imprecise in counting the people was that the growths had extended far enough in places to make the count difficult to impossible.
In places, the plants had flowered. Bright red, opened wide, almost iridescent in the gloom. Four or five petals to each, though some of the oldest ones seemed to be expanding further, black speckles toward the centers, each petal rounded at the left and right edges, with a pointed part at the area near the center. It made me think of crowns, the elaborate sort that covered the whole head.
Where the rain poured over the flowering growths, it turned red, collecting pollen or something else, thickening. The rainwater that pooled beneath that scene was eerily similar to blood in texture.
Together, we backed away from the scene. I wasn’t sure it mattered so much – the rain seemed to be catching the worst of the pollen from the air and the flowers, rinsing it away and letting it pool at the ground instead of billowing out around us.
My thumb touched the ring, then dropped away. My hands fell limp at my side.
After a moment, I pulled off the ring and slid it into a pocket. I deliberately looked away from the scene, gesturing. I saw Jamie’s expression change as he saw the gesture.
Driven by something unconscious, I’d used the gesture not for ‘go’, the standard direction for moving from place to place, but for ‘retreat’.
Retreating not just because this was scary, but because it was a loss.
We changed course, moving around to the other side of the plaza, then off to the west.
Once we were far enough from the wall that I could be sure we wouldn’t be stirring any copious amounts of pollen-infused water into the air, I began setting out the grenades and mines, placing them at the base of the wall. I saved only two, discarding the satchels and sliding a mine into one pocket and the grenade into the other.
I rigged it carefully, arranging a kind of timed switch using the cord of the mine and two thin icicles, with the satchels used to pack things in and down.
The exertion of walking briskly had opened a wound on Jamie’s leg, I noted. I saw the bloodstain.
A full minute passed, with Jamie and I tense. We knew the explosion would draw attention. We knew we’d have difficulty running. Jamie sat where he was with hands pressed to his ears, his face dead serious. I did the same.
The explosion was more intense than I’d expected. It damaged key structures of the wall, and a whole series of growths cracked and began to topple, tearing adjacent sections down with them. The wall buckled, and began to bow down in our general direction. It stopped where it was, angled like it would fall if it could, but remained too braced by the sections on either side.
Once we were fairly sure it wouldn’t fall on us, we ventured forth.
The hole hadn’t blown all the way through. Three-quarters of the way, perhaps, but not all of the way. The weight of the wood above had also come down, filling the void we’d created.
It couldn’t be easy. No, now I had no idea at all how to get the rest of the way through. If I tried, then the wall might collapse down, and we wouldn’t be able to get to where the explosives had cleared a way.
Worse, the wood at the base provided a good source for new branches to grow. The damaged area was already slowly filling in, twigs springing up, ready to become branches that would become trunk-like growths.
“Give me the explosives,” Jamie said. “Wait, don’t. They might be contaminated.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Place the mine where I tell you. Then we’re going to stand where I say, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, my voice soft.
“Don’t put that much trust in me,” Jamie said. “I’m not an expert in demolitions, architecture, or the math in this. But I have some ideas.”
“I’ll trust you,” I said. “We don’t have any other choice.”
He nodded. He leaned on the umbrella as he limped his way to the foot of the leaning wall.
At his order, I placed the mine, and held the grenade.
“And when it blows, you’re going to throw there. Okay? I don’t trust my legs or the shakiness of my hands to throw anything right now.”
He and I stood with our backs to the wall that was almost guaranteed to collapse as the explosive went off, roughly sixty feet separating us from the blast site. We waited, teeth clenched, bracing ourselves.
This one went off so much sooner than the last that it caught me entirely off guard. I pulled the pin of our last explosive and threw. Right on the mark.
I felt both terrified and vindicated at the same time.
The wall leaned further, until it stood at a forty-five degree angle, and then the rest followed much more quickly. There was a deafening series of cracks as the wall behind us began to come to pieces, and those cracks radiated across a point five feet above our heads.
One of the key supports gave, and an entire section of the wall toppled, crashing down so the very top of the wall touched road or the faces of buildings. In places, the bottom ends of the wall had broken away. Where we stood, the trunk-like growths were thicker, a building across the street braced the fallen wall, and it hadn’t collapsed on top of us. More claustrophobic than ever, it formed a kind of lean-to roof over our heads.
“Quick,” Jamie said. “Before any new growths push it down on top of us.”
It didn’t grow that fast, but it was a scary idea, and the whole setup was precarious enough that I didn’t want to roll any dice.
At a pace that felt agonizing, given the speed at which things were developing around us, we made our way to the broken part, I led the way, moving ahead of Jamie and stomping on any growths that might trip him up along the way, while Jamie hobbled, lagging behind.
A little more dramatic than I’d been expecting or hoping for.
I hesitated at the exit to the short tunnel we’d blown through the wall. Smoke was billowing from the bits that were smouldering. It was resistant to fire, and the rain helped with matters even further, but it was impossible to have explosions like this without smoke.
I looked at the gap between us and the nearest building. It was the span of a single street.
My memory was bad, but I did fairly well when it came to remembering enemies.
Even as the wall began to grow closed around us, I patiently gathered sticks and bits of wood together into a bundle made of my jacket. I tied it closed as best as I could. It required two hands to hold.
I very nearly lost my footing, my boot, and stumbled out into the opening as I moved to hurl it – wood had grown up and against my boot, trying to capture it and make it part of the construction. I tore it free, then hurled the bundle.
One second, tw-
A bullet caught the bundle.
Fast reaction. He was close, and being close meant he was accurate.
And Jamie couldn’t run.
“He’s in the tower above the library,” Jamie said.
“The tower above the library,” I said. “That means absolutely nothing to me.”
The wood continued to close in the space around us. There were thin branches that now reached from the floor to what little remained of the ceiling over the tunnel, and they were growing thicker, drawing on mostly water for bulk, but would soon expand with more substance and harder material.
“Will he fire right away or will he second guess himself?” Jamie asked.
“Neither,” I said. “He’s patient. The sanguine part of his personality makes him a patient hunter. Hard to ruffle. He won’t make that mistake again.”
Jamie closed his eyes, clearly thinking. He had to bow his head as wood grew in around him, and I had to shift position as the wall to my left expanded, creaking violently, almost nudging me into Jamie.
“Three quick steps for me, three and a half for you. Stop. Then forward,” Jamie said. “Given distance, given the timing, the speed of the bullets and what we saw before… he has to lead us, so if we stop then, the bullet should pass. If he doesn’t anticipate us stopping-”
“He won’t,” I said. “No. I feel like he’ll take the higher odds, be able to shoot as we rush forward. I don’t think he knows you’re hurt. Keep that in mind.”
He raised a hand, and then he gestured.
Three and a half steps at a brisk walk. Stop.
I didn’t see or hear the bullet, but I heard the dull echo of the distant gunshot, that might have been masked by the atrocious creaking of the wall behind us.
We passed the street, then carried on, moving briskly.
“Thinking about where he was. Standard walking pace, there’s only so much ground he can cover. He won’t ride a bike or anything, there shouldn’t be any horses or automobiles, there are only so many places he can be, if he decides to move…”
“Don’t overheat,” I told Jamie. “Be gentle on that brain.”
He shook his head. “Tell me how he thinks. We need to outmaneuver him, figure out the path that gives him the fewest clear shots at us.”
I nodded. I didn’t like seeing Jamie dig this deep into his memories and thoughts. It was like me in my deepest Wyvern states, but I knew that Jamie could had a hard time surfacing. He could get bogged down in it all. I wasn’t sure if having less treatments at the Academy would make that easier to do.
“I can’t keep track of all of the places he could be,” Jamie said.
“I don’t think he has a lot of imagination,” I said. “Point, shoot.”
We made our strategy to cross a bridge, getting to a point where we could get down on hands and knees, protected by the little bridge’s sturdy railing.
There was no gunshot. Was he repositioning? Did he have other reasons for holding back?
There were no further incidents as we made our way back to the area where the Boatyards merged into the middle-city.
Backtracking. Because I’d inadvertently barred our way from going further East, because North would have meant getting past that sea of the people that could no longer be saved, and because it was familiar territory with familiar people I suddenly felt were far more in need of help than I’d originally thought.
And, perhaps, because there was no real difference in going east or south or north or west. At the foot of buildings, where there had been nothing growing before, I could see scattered growths. Growing like weeds in crevices, the plague flowers fought with the builder’s wood for the broken-up ground and collected dirt that might serve as workable soil. The builder’s wood grew faster and grew thick, while the plague flowers had reached the maximum limit of their growth and then opened. The flowers were startling in their color when set amid a drenched city that looked like it had been drained of its color like a slaughtered hog was drained of its blood.
There were no soldiers to stop us. The rain was the loudest protest we heard as we walked, wary of every shadow and possible point of attack. There were bystanders, but they watched us from behind windows that had been tightly sealed, with frightened, alarmed eyes.
Back past Jer’s place. Past the Eastern end of the boatyard.
We were two blocks away from the brothel when Dog made his appearance, cutting us off. Like Jamie, he limped, but he limped with one leg, and it was because of machinery that had been damaged by a trap.
Catcher and the Bruno with the flame canister appeared soon after.
Jamie and I stopped where we were. Jamie was too hobbled to run away. I wasn’t about to leave him.
My mind raced as I thought about options.
“Take us in, then,” I said, a little defeated. “Just… let us take measures to ward off the plague? Can you let us help people, in the meantime? I don’t want to let Jamie get sick, or-”
“Sylvester,” Catcher spoke.
I fell silent.
“You followed us, headed us off,” Jamie said.
“No,” Catcher said. “We followed them.”
He used his Mancatcher to point.
I turned around.
Behind us. Arachne, with one of her arms curled up in the strangest position, knuckles tucked into her armpit, body slightly hunched over, but alive. Tentacles looked to be the one in worse shape. One of his tentacles dragged limply behind him as he walked with Arachne’s support. One of Catcher’s Brunos was with the pair. A turncoat. Maybe an informer from the start, helping Sanguine’s group find us by following Dog and Catcher to Tynewear.
So that was why Sanguine hadn’t gone out of his way to open fire. He’d known that the others were tracking us. He might be on his way now. He might be in a position or getting in position to support them with gunfire. Staying well out of reach of my weapons and manipulations.
I could sense the hostility between Catcher and Sanguine’s group. Were they going to fight over us, their bounty?
Between a rock and a hard place, the surroundings decorated with scattered red flowers.