Cut to the Quick – 11.14

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What day of the week was it?  I had no freaking idea if it was a Monday or a Saturday.

My memory was worse than it had been.  I knew it, I admitted it fully.  Jamie’s version of the Wyvern formula was harsher, the consequences heavier on my mind.  Literally so.

The Wyvern formula rendered my mind liquid, more akin to a newborn child’s in its ability to take in new ideas, new actions and skills, and in how it could adapt to the people and environment around it.  The old, Academy-provided formula was refined, allowing me to augment what I needed to while sacrificing what I could afford to lose, with some measure of control over the process.  The new formula was cruder, more a shovel than a scalpel.  I didn’t mostly sacrifice the memories I could afford to lose, I sacrificed memory.  I didn’t solely gain the skills I wanted to adopt, I gained skill.  I felt less like I had control and more like the grooves and paths for that particular adjustment were worn into my brain already.

When I imagined the Lambs now with that crystal clear, nearly-real clarity, I imagined them with faces.  I hadn’t before, still fresh on the last dose of Academy-provided Wyvern.  I gained skills, but I was losing memory of important details I used to be able to hold in my head.  Familiar people, places, things, and events.  Details about my enemies, and, to a lesser degree, details about my closest allies.

No, if my subconscious was directing this more than my conscious, it might have been responsible for me clinging harder to the people closer to me than I had been, even now that we were separated by a chasm.  I’d managed to hold on to the Lambs with enough clarity to imagine them, and reinforced those imaginings with regular mental exercises.  I remembered Jamie, Mary, Lillian, Helen, Ashton, Evette, and Gunther.  No problems there.

That was a joke.  A little joke to myself, as I ran full-bore through streets that should have felt more dimly familiar than these ones were.  My lack of memory made this familiar ground feel unfamiliar.  My recollection of the people who were chasing me wasn’t as on point as I would have liked.  I felt like there were small details about Arachne that I should have held on to.  Something beyond the spider observation.  Something about how she’d dealt with Arthur or how she behaved.

It didn’t help that it was dark, the rain obscured the little details, and the spreading case of builder’s wood was snaking its way up the sides of buildings, finding leverage where it could, and turning the right angles where the road met walls into very organic, rounded slopes.

Dog was the first one to catch up, tearing out of a side street behind me with enough force that he brought a short tide of garbage and other debris with him, having clipped a storage bin or something as he passed it.  flesh and metal claws skidded on the road as he found traction, facing me head on.  Considering the limp and the slightly damaged back claw, Dog was moving at a good clip.

A street back, I could just make out Arachne.  The Iron Maiden.  The woman-spider.  She wasn’t as fast, but from what I could tell, she moved like something mechanical.  Or more mechanical than Dog, even.  Tireless, relentless, with a kind of eerie repetition to her stride, as if it was precisely measured, even optimized.  The only thing that threw her off balance or changed the nature of her running pace was the fact that she dragged her axe behind her.  As it bucked or kicked off against a cobblestone or something, it would lift into the air, and her upper body would shift a little to compensate for the change in balance.

Both looked like they might catch up to me before I reached the brothel.  I needed time to get inside, too.  My initial head start was meaningful, but their ability to cover ground and chase their targets were Academy-augmented.

I checked my pocket.  Knife.  Lockpick kit sans most of my picks.  A fold of Crown bills with a clip around it.

I drew the picks from my pocket.  It was a leather sleeve with a cover that folded over, and individual inserts for each pick.  At the leftmost side, near where the cover folded forward or back, there was a piece of chalk.  Useful for safecracking, or making a note while I worked on a more complicated lock, like the ones I’d found at the galleries near the Theaters.

I drew out the chalk, holding it in one hand while holding the kit in the other.  Holding the chalk in the one hand, I applied pressure until it broke at the middle, then squeezed to break the individual pieces.  I began viciously grinding the pieces against one another.

Dog would catch up with me first.  After that, I would only have a few moments to plan for Arachne.  I could feel the heavy footfalls and the metal-on-stone noises as Dog stampeded toward me.

I pulled a bill from the collection in my pockets, and turned a hard left, into the nearest street.  I might have hoped for a narrow alleyway, but the houses here in the Boatyards were crowded close together, as if to earn landowners more dollars per square foot.  There were streets wide enough for a small carriage or three people to walk side by side, and there were wide streets where multiple carriages could pass by one another.  This particular street was narrow, with an arch overhead, connecting the buildings on either side.

Rounding the corner, I could imagine how Dog would move.  The delay as he stopped, skidded, and then plunge down the street, where he would have me.

I made myself stop running, turned, and faced the arch.

I had to trust my read of Dog.  To believe that, if pressed, Dog would prefer to work with me rather than seize me in his jaws or kill me.  Having Arachne at his back would be a factor, given the animosity between the groups.

So, inspired by a kind of madness, I stood my ground and watched as Dog appeared, skidding on the road to come to a stop, so he wouldn’t slam into the building as he rounded the corner.

I gestured, and tested my luck by choosing some unfortunate phrasing.

“Play dead,” I said.

I could see him drop his head, like a bull lowering his horns in anticipation of a charge, drawing in a breath, a glare clear in his eyes.

“Please,” I said.

He let his injured back right hind leg and his right forelimb crumple, and collapsed onto his side.  He maintained the glare as he lay there for a moment, then sagged, letting his head rest on the road, and closed his eyes.  A great beast felled.

I picked out the large pieces of chalk from my hand, and cupped it, holding the powder I’d made by grinding it up.  Not quite as much as I might have liked.  With my other hand at my side with the bill, I folded it up.

Without much ceremony, Arachne leaped up.  She perched there, crouching,  the butt end of the axe and both feet planted on Dog’s ribs.  I would have thought she was staring at me, but the empty eye sockets couldn’t do anything of the sort.

While she watched, I brought the folded paper over to my cupped palm, and tapped it out, as if depositing more of the white powder into my hand.

She leaped, covering more ground than I would have thought possible, and I stumbled back, bringing the hand to my mouth and fiercely blowing out.

She retreated as fast as I had, moving back out of the way of the cloud I’d made.  In the damp air and the rain, it was fairly paltry.

I shifted my stance, preparing another handful.  But something told me that she’d seen the ruse, that she could tell there wasn’t that much powder.  She waited as the remnants of the puff of dust I’d made disappeared, shifting her grip on her axe so she held it ready to strike with.

And Dog rose, mouth yawning open.  As it reached its limits for opening wide, the mechanism which joined the metal lower jaw to the bone upper one straining and creaking, Arachne half-turned.

The mouth slammed shut.  Had she not moved when she had, it might have severed the upper half of her body from the lower.  As it was, only her already damaged left arm and shoulder were caught in the bite, along with her shoulder and one or two of her ribs.

She didn’t seem to feel pain.  She swung her axe, and Dog raised his head so the axe struck the metal of his jaw instead of his face.  It sank in deep, all things considered.  The edge of that axe was sufficient to leave an inch-deep notch in worked steel.  A second swing in the same general place might have cut clean through Dog’s lower face.

For her second swing, Arachne cleaved off the thin strings of tissue that dangled between her ruined shoulder and Dog’s mouth.

I knew what her next move was.  She would turn and come for me, one eye over her shoulder for another attack from Dog.

But that hesitation on her part was a chance for me to cover more ground.  All the more so if a fight broke out between them.

“Thank you, brother,” I said, voice low, knowing that Dog’s ears would pick it up.  “Don’t get hurt on my behalf.”

What day of the week was it?

Some of the lads and ladies from the brothel went out on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the groups differing depending on the night.  They were supposed to keep their keys with them, but so very often, one of them would end up staying out late, or they would split up, and it would get complicated to figure out who should have the keys.  If it was the first group, then they had to stay up and keep an eye out for the late arrivals.  If it was the late arrivals, then the first group didn’t have a way of letting themselves in.

All of that in mind, they had taken to leaving the keys behind, in a hiding place.  The Madam of the house would have been apoplectic if she figured it out.

I’d found out when I’d run into a group of the ladies returning from a night at the theaters.  The same night I’d noticed Shirley’s withdrawn nature and resolved to fix it, now that I thought about it.

Yes, I could remember my allies.

Please let it be hereI don’t want to take the time to break in.

I dipped my finger into the space where a branch in the original construction hadn’t quite grown cover the gap between bricks.  I found the key.  I let myself in the back door, and locked the door behind me.

“Madam!  Marv!” I bellowed.

She’d been in the parlor, and in the next instant, appeared at the far end of the the hallway that stretched down the middle of the house, from the front door to the back door.

“Sylvester?” she asked.  She looked hostile, to a degree I hadn’t expected.  I’d intruded, entered by way of a door that should have been locked.

“Gun!” I shouted.

I saw her hesitate.

“Get guns!  Get Marv!  I know you have the guns.  The-”

The axe punched through the door.  A foot followed, shattering the area of the door around the handle.

I turned to face the door, backing down the hallway, while the madam disappeared.  There were girls from upstairs and ones who’d been having tea with the madam who peeked at the scene.

“Stand back,” I said.

Arachne was missing the arm, shoulder, and surrounding area at one side of her body, but she didn’t bleed, not really.  I could see the raw, glistening architecture through her arm hole as she turned to pull the axe free of the wreckage of the door.  Nothing resembling a human body in there.

“Sylvester,” Shirley said, looking in from the living room.

“Stay out of this,” I said.  “There’s not a lot you can do.”


“You’d just get hurt.  Just hoping a gun does something,” I said.  “If your madam would just hurry up-”

Arachne turned to me, and she began moving down the hallway, axe resting on her good shoulder.

I stood my ground, backing up.  As she moved, bringing the axe down, I threw myself back.  I landed hard, the top of my head hitting the front door, back striking the floor.  The axe came down between my feet, biting into floorboards.

She moved forward as she hauled it out.  I pulled back and away, but without much room to maneuver, the bottom of the stairs to my left, the parlor with the girls to my right, I was helpless to get out of the way as the upper tip of the axe’s blade sliced the skin from bellybutton to shoulder.

She held it aloft, ready to take my head.  That same head worked through possibilities, trying to figure out the best path forward.  Gordon would push for the attack, but what was her weak point?  I wasn’t sure her knees would be a good point of attack, given how she was put together.  I couldn’t reach the gaping wound in time.

I heard the gunshot.  I saw Arachne react, having to move a leg to catch her balance.  I could see the scratch at the side of her face where the bullet had hit her but hadn’t even cracked the porcelain part of her mask-like face.

She turned to face the Madam, who stood at the top of the stairs, next to one of her ‘girls’, who had her hands clamped to her ears.

“I’ll attend to you after,” Arachne said, in her eerie voice.

Calmly, methodically, the Madam reloaded her gun, aimed, and fired again.  The second bullet didn’t have any more effect than the first.

She was made, almost head to toe, of the same material that warbeast armor plating was made of.  The sort of thing that only cracked in the face of cannon hits and explosives.

And Dog bites, apparently.

“Bullets don’t work.  Can I pay you off?” the Madam asked.  “Depending on your price, I’d like to buy the safety of myself first, my girls second, and him third.”

“I can feel the love,” I said.

“No money,” Arachne said.  “Only blood.”

“Favors?” the Madam asked.

“Won’t work,” I said.  “She-”

Shirley appeared at the other end of the hallway.  She held a grown wooden chair with metal reinforcement at the legs.

Don’t, I thought.  But there was no signal I could give that wouldn’t endanger her.  I prepared myself to leap up and throw my arms around Arachne, buying Shirley time to run.

I wasn’t sure what would happen after that, but-

No, absolutely no idea what would happen after that.  I hadn’t expected her to be so resistant to guns.

“She doesn’t care,” I said, feigning that the hitch in my voice was emotion, despair.

In the next instant, Shirley attacked.  She drove the legs of the chair at Arachne like they were some thrusting weapon.  I could tell what her aim was, pushing Arachne away from me, toward the corner that separated the entrance from the parlor.  But Arachne was pushed a mere step in that direction, before her leg went out and caught her.  Shirley changed tactics, pushing in another direction, hoping to catch Arachne off balance again, but the woman’s legs were strong.  All of Shirley’s body weight and muscle didn’t match up to the stability that Arachne’s calves, ankles, and foot placement offered.

“Stupid girl!” the Madam cursed.  The epithet was punctuated by the sound of the chair being destroyed by a strike from Arachne’s good arm and the shaft of the axe.

I was on my feet.  I kicked hard at the back of Arachne’s knee, and wasn’t surprised in the slightest when it didn’t cave forward like knees were supposed to do when kicked.

I threw my arms around her, grabbing my wrist with one hand, hoping to buy time.  “Run, Shir!”

I both heard and felt the gunshot.  It rattled me enough that I dropped to the floor.  I stared up as Arachne turned, slowly, and the Madam made her way down the stairs, reloading for a fourth shot.  Her descent matched Arachne’s slow turn, keeping her in position to aim the gun at the gaping hole in Arachne’s side.  Shirley’s assault had turned Arachne in the right direction, and a fourth bullet made the Iron Maiden topple over, falling to the floor.

I huffed out a sigh, my eyes meeting Shirley’s.  Her expression was almost more afraid, now that the monster was down.

I recognized why as the Madam lowered the gun and pressed the barrel to my temple.

“Oh,” I said.

“The first time we met, what did I tell you?”

“You told me lots of things, and I barely remember any of them.  I don’t have the best memory.  The Academy’s fault,” I said.

“Don’t go out and bring trouble back to my doorstep.”

“Ah.  That.  I didn’t take it as being punishable by death.”

“I’m genuinely debating whether it should be,” she said.

“I hear you,” I said.  “I absolutely get that.  I… don’t have an excuse.  I had nowhere else to turn.”

“Mm hmm,” she said.

I heard her pull the hammer back.

“They have Jamie,” I said.

There was a pause, and then she raised the gun, pointing it at the ceiling.

“I can verify.  I wasn’t sure it was anything bad for the boys when I saw it from my window, but I saw it unfold.”

The Madam looked toward the top of the stairs, at Marv, who’d just spoken.  Now, of all times, as half the house was gathered in the immediate vicinity of the front entrance and the foyer, around me and a dead monster, he was smoking a clove cigarette.  He also carried a large medical kit.  I imagined it being very similar to Lillian’s satchel, but far less meant to be lugged around on the regular.

The Madam simultaneously relaxed and let a look of concern creased her features.  “That dear boy,” she said.

I get a gun to my head and serious consideration about pulling the trigger, and Jamie gets a ‘that dear boy’?

“I drew her away because otherwise there wouldn’t have been a way to get him back.  Like this, there’s a chance.  I didn’t know what else to do.”

“But you can get him back?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  But I have to.”

“Yes you do,” she said.

“I’ll make this up to you,” I said.

“Yes you will,” she said.

“My house.  Jamie’s and my house.  I can tell you how to loot it, since there’s a good chance we won’t be going back there.  You’ll want to avoid the traps, but if you go where I say-”

“Stop focusing on me,” she said.  “Focus on Jamie.”

Mute, I nodded.

“While you do that, I’ll fix that scratch,” Marv said.  “If you have a spare moment, you can tell me about this plague.  I’m dying of curiosity.”

I nodded.  “Minimize contact with me, just to be safe.  I think it spreads through the air after it flowers, and by contact before then, and the rain is helping a lot with keeping that down, but…”

“I’ve got gloves.”

“I think it forms spines that stick out.  I’ve seen the grown form, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the early stage has microscopic spines that transfer?  It feels like it would make sense.”

“Double layer of gloves, then,” Marv said, talking around the cigarette.  My eyes watered from the smoke.

As he approached, setting down the kit and opening it, I looked over at Shirley.  “Thank you.”

She smiled at me.

“Stupid girl,” the Madam said, as if to balance out my gratitude.

Shirley had wanted to come with me, apparently because the prospect of the plague I’d described and the mortal risk of dealing with murderous bounty hunters seemed like a safer prospect than dealing with the hard-nosed Madam of the brothel.

I carried the madam’s rifle, and I had a backpack filled with some basic medical supplies that Marv had supplied.

I chose my route carefully.  I didn’t have Jamie by my side, pointing out the optimal routes to avoid catching a bullet.  Catching a bullet, like I was catching a cold.

The city was so dark.  It had been badly overcast before with black clouds overhead and heavy rain, but I suspected it was approaching nighttime now, and so there wasn’t even the dull light of the sun striving to fight its way past the cloud cover.  Few neighborhoods in the city had the lights on, and the bioluminescent trees hadn’t taken in enough light in the late afternoon, leaving their glow faint enough that it didn’t really penetrate the rain.

What I could see as I looked out over the city, was the areas where the plague had set root.  As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the patches of red here and there.  Those particular sorts of growths, near where people might have congregated or been herded.  I could see the places, those same sorts of plazas and busy streets where there would have been more traffic, where the cleansing fires had been set.

Moving from cover to cover, ducking low, moving fast, the hood of a borrowed jacket pulled down to shield my face from the rain, I made my way in the direction Jamie had gone.

I’d made it some distance before I ran into Dog and Catcher.  They’d left their Bruno behind.

I hesitated before fully revealing myself.  No point.

“I’m surprised you can smell anything in this rain,” I said.

“We didn’t smell you,” Catcher said.  “We heard you.   There aren’t many people out and about, and your bag rattles.”

I nodded.  “The fib earlier about the sniper was Jamie’s, by the way.  I only realized-“

I stopped as I saw Catcher shaking his head.  Not that a head-shake really worked when so little of his head was visible.  I had to go by the movement of his hat more than the movement of anything else.

“It wasn’t a fib.  It’s where he was.  Is.  Jamie’s there now too.  Same tower you pointed out,” Catcher said, in that gravelly voice of his.  He tapped the shaft of his mancatcher against the nearest corner, so the head pointed around the corner, indicating the direction of the tower.

Not a fib?  An educated guess on Jamie’s part that had wound up being right?

“Alright,” I said.

“We’re going to take you two into custody,” Catcher said.  “But I’ll do everything possible to help you help Jamie.  Not just because he’s the real target for the bounty, but because I understand how important that is.”

He did.  After everything, a half-dozen lies and ruses and a dozen tricks at his expense, to make the chase as difficult as possible, he was still a decent guy.

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

Dog made a noise, his usual mangled gibberish.

“Dog says-“

“I got it,” I said, interrupting.  “I think I actually understood that.”

Brother, I thought.  Echoing me from earlier.  We weren’t family in the same way that the Lambs were family, but we were related.  ‘Brother’ had felt appropriate in the moment, so soon after working together to give Dog a bite of Arachne, and it was a sentiment that Dog had apparently agreed with.

It was reassuring on a deep, primal, punch-me-between-the-lungs kind of way to fall back on hand signals when I felt so anxious.  We made our way through the city, careful in how we approached the building.

The last part of the journey was the most sensitive.  The closer we got, the less time the bullets would take to reach us, and the harder it became to find cover with the right angle.  We had to rely on one building, instead of being able to take a position where we could rely on the houses down one entire street  to bar the sniper’s view.

We took the longest route imaginable to keep out of view as we worked to be able to approach the base of the tower with the eaves of nearby houses shielding us from view.  We reached a point half a block away before Dog had to stop where he was.

“When we signal, you move in,” Catcher said, barely audible.

Dog made a noise of agreement.

Catcher and I moved ahead on our own, hugging the wall, ever aware of the sniper’s field of view.  There were points where, if he was leaning out of a window, he might have seen us, but there was nothing.

“You’re sure he’s here?”

“I can smell them,” Catcher said.

Them.  Plural.

I stayed where I was, calculating the chance that Catcher was playing me for a fool, leading me into a trap.

Would he?  I couldn’t say he wouldn’t.  He was ruthless, and if he decided that outwitting me by forcing me to play along with this was the way to do it, I could see it happening.

But, contrary to conventional wisdom, I found that the best questions to ask people were ones where I knew the answer.  The best moves to make against an opponent were the ones that would constrain their movements, where I already knew how they would move in response.

I didn’t have many choices or chances to find Jamie that didn’t involve Dog and Catcher.

I had no choice.  My hands were tied.  And when it came to Jamie, of all people, there was no way I was abandoning him.  I had a debt outstanding.

I was relying on our old brother experiments of Radham to handle the worst of the confrontation to come.  I wasn’t that good a shot, especially when I was out of practice, and there was still Tentacles, Sanguine, and the gun-toting Brute to deal with.

We reached the entrance, and I reached for my now-meager selection of picks.  On touching the door, however, I saw it move, and heard it creak.

My heart leaped at the sound, fearing I’d hear a gunshot to follow it.  I didn’t fear the bullets aimed at me as I feared the bullets from within the tower, aimed at someone within the tower.  Aimed at Jamie.

This was a hostage situation.  Kind of.  I could calculate their willingness to put a bullet in Jamie, and with Sanguine potentially part of the equation, I didn’t like how high that chance got.

I went first, touching the door and lifting the weight off of the hinges to reduce the sound of it creaking.  We went to the stairs, and Catcher and I went up side by side, me with my gun at hand, Catcher with his mancatcher ready in one hand, a throwing weapon in the other.

We reached the top floor, peeking over, ready to shoot or be shot, then stopped.  We ventured up the last few steps, into a room lit by a lone, flickering bulb.

Sanguine was there, but he didn’t have a weapon in hand.  Calm, his bug-eyes half-lidded, he sat in a window, one leg propped up beside him, gun by his foot.

Toward the center of the room was Jamie, slouched over, hands tied behind him, and Tentacles, who lay on the ground near Jamie’s feet, unmoving, tentacles limp.

The traitor Bruno sat in a chair at the opposite end of the round room.  He had a hand on his gun, and was tense, but he wasn’t moving like he was going to shoot.

My eye went back to Jamie.  I made sure he was still breathing.

I made note of the faint and small red dots across the exposed skin of his neck and shoulders.

Sanguine spoke, his voice a purr.  “A part of me hoped you wouldn’t come.  That I could leave you a note about where to find your friend.  Maybe you wouldn’t be able to reach him, because the disease had overtaken this part of the city by the time you got the message.  Maybe you would, and you would find him overgrown.”

I shifted my grip on my gun.

“I’m done,” he said, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.  He even managed a smile.  “I’m not a threat.  You can put your weapon down.”

I glanced at Catcher, then changed my hold on the gun.  Holding it by the middle, rather than holding it like I might shoot it.

“Why?” I asked.

“He’s dead,” Sanguine said, indicating Jamie.  “The disease got him.  I asked Academy people on my way here, and they say they don’t have a cure for it and they won’t soon.  You can cut it out, but that gets harder once it sets root, or once it spreads enough.  That, there, your friend?  It’s spread enough…”

My heart sank.

He hopped down from the window.  He crossed the room in long, easy strides, one eye on Jamie, one on me.  With one ungloved hand, he pulled back Jamie’s shirt.  I could see a fresh wound, left open, by Jamie’s collarbone.  The growth branched out from there, extending across part of his shoulder.

“…and it’s already set root.”

Jamie stirred a little at that.  He looked up at me.

I couldn’t meet his eyes, seeing the look in them.

Sanguine spoke, “I thought about taking you in, but I weighed the risks, thought about dealing with Dog and Catcher.  I thought, too, about how you and your friends killed my teammates.”

His voice took on a faint, harder, darker edge, but it still maintained the light, jovial nature at its core.  As if he was reminiscing to a friend about a very bad day he’d had a decade ago.  “The best justice, it seems to me, would be to let you see this yourself.  The swift decline, the loss to the plague.  Let you struggle to save him if you want to cut into him.  Let you watch if you want to watch.  End his life yourself, if you want to show mercy.”

I let the rifle fall from my hand, clattering to the floor.

“Unless you’d rather I shoot you?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Then I’m satisfied with this.  Seeing the look on your face, right now.  I’m not one to hold grudges, but I feel like they would want me to.  They would want something more like this.”

He walked back across the room, picked up his gun and a bag that he slung over his shoulder, and then walked toward me.  To the stairs.

I put out a hand to stop him, and he stopped where he was.

Reaching into a pocket, I found Melancholy’s ring.  I held it out for him.

“Keep it,” he said, giving me a pat on the shoulder.  He sounded smug, too satisfied.  “With this done, I’m putting all of that behind me.”

Catcher and I both stepped out of his way as he made his way down the stairs.

“I could sic Dog on him,” Catcher said under his breath.

I shook my head.  My eyes were on Jamie.

“I’m sorry,” Catcher said.

I nodded.

“If it would make this easier, I could-“

I shook my head, forcefully, before he could finish the sentence.

“Yeah,” Catcher said.  “I understand that.  I’d want to do the deed myself, too.”

I walked over to Jamie’s side and knelt by him.  I took his hand in both of mine.

I saw Jamie smile a little as he looked at me.

“There’s no deal without him,” Catcher said.  “I’d take you in, but I’m honestly not sure it’s worth the amount of hassle.  Wouldn’t seem right, either way.  Out of respect for Jamie.”

I nodded, hunching forward.

“Next time we meet, we’ll have another lunch.  Have a bit of a drink.  With no shenanigans.”

“Yeah,” I managed.  My voice was hoarse.  I closed my eyes.

“Do you want me to pass on word to the Lambs?  I can-“

I shook my head.  Too forcefully.


He didn’t say anything more.  I heard his footsteps retreating down the building.

“Was a good few months, Sy,” Jamie said, his voice a whisper.

“People kept asking, kept telling me-” I started.


“Were you happy?  Are you happy?”

“Was okay,” he said, voice soft.  “Wanted to kill you half the time.  The other half, I wanted to-“

I raised my eyebrows.

Jamie shook his head.

I became very aware that we weren’t alone in the room.  I glanced across the room at the Bruno who remained behind.

The man had red spots.  He looked defeated, though it hadn’t set in nearly as much as it had with Jamie.

“If it’s okay,” I told Jamie, “can we talk and say our goodbyes while I help him?”

“You gotta do something about that streak of mercy, Sy,” Jamie said.  “Too kind.  You’re supposed to be a bastard, don’t you know?”

I nodded.

The man tensed as I approached.

“Shirt off,” I said.

“Hurts to move,” the man said.

“Shirt off.  What comes next hurts more.  But you’re still in the early stages.  I can cut out the infection.  I’ll need to dig in my bag for a scalpel, but for now, let’s get the lay of the land, see how bad it is.  Near the spine, I think, would be the worst and most important spots to get, given how it sets up and latches on to your internal structure.”

He kept his guard up, tense.  A turncoat, once Dog and Catcher’s ally, then betraying them, he feared betrayal from all corners, even when that fear could cost him precious time.

“Do you remember our first time meeting?” I asked Jamie, looking away from my patient.

“Which meeting?” Jamie asked.  “Which Jamie?”

The Bruno finally relented.  He unbuttoned his shirt and jacket, and began pulling them off.  I could see the massive slabs of muscle moving as he gingerly worked to pull the clothing free while moving as little as humanly possible.

Once they were mostly around his forearms and hands, I stepped up onto the back of his chair to get more height, drew my knife and dragged the blade across the man’s throat.  I backed away swiftly before he could take a swing at me.

He lurched to his feet, made it a few steps, and then, between the agony of his condition and the fact that half of the blood that was supposed to be in his brain was pouring out of the front of his throat, he collapsed.

I put the knife against where the spine met the skull, then stomped on it to drive it home.

“You Jamie.  You and me meeting,” I said.

“Why?” Jamie asked.  “Why him?  Like that?”

“I wanted to be alone,” I said.  “You and me.  And because I’m supposed to be a bastard, you said.”

I shucked off my jacket began rolling up my sleeves all tidy-like, a grim look on my face.

“Why…” he started, now focused on my rolling-up of sleeves.

I gestured for silence.  Then gestured for the listening ear.

Dog and Catcher could still be in earshot.  I moved to the window, looking for them.

“I don’t understand,” Jamie said.

I was silent, looking, watching.

I finally spotted them.  Making their way toward the south end of the city.  Far enough away.

“I’m going to save you,” I said, still watching them, as if I could see some hint that they’d miraculously heard my voice.

“Sanguine said-“

“Fuck Sanguine,” I said.  I went for the medical kit.  “I got my practice in with Hammond or whatever his name was.  Give me a chance to learn, I can get good at what I’m doing.”

I brought out Evette and Lillian for guidance.

Jamie was shaking his head, as if he was ready to protest.

“I’ve got ideas on crude fixes.  Electricity, cold, acid, and fire, in that order,” I said.  I found the syringe I’d had Marv give me.  He was primarily a surgeon, and he’d had the necessary supplies.  I crossed the room to Jamie’s side, used fingers to measure the distance from the side of his neck, and plunged the needle in.  “And I’ve got painkiller.  It won’t stop the phantom pains, I don’t think, but it’ll keep you from feeling the work in progress.”


“You should be losing sensation from the neck down.  Hopefully you’ll retain the feeling in your tongue, because I want you conscious and talking me through the trickier bits,” I said, as I washed my hands with the stuff Marv had handed me.  “Got it?”

Jamie shook his head.

With my hands, putting fingers through Jamie’s hair, I gripped Jamie by his head, tilting his face up to face mine.  “Got it?”

“Sy, whatever you cut away, you’re going to have to cut around the insertion points.  The parts where the Caterpillar project plugs in.  I won’t be able to-  It’ll be a matter of months.  A year.  There won’t be getting a doctor to kludge something together to offload and organize for me, like I’ve been kludging your Wyvern together.”

“Better than a matter of days,” I said, firmly, still gripping his head.  I gripped it harder, squeezing a little.  “Let me save you.

“You’re crazy,” he said.

Evette cackled in the background.

“I wanted to get into Academy medicine,” I said.  “Expand our skills and options.  I got too good a taste of it in Warrick.  But I need you at my side to make it work.  Okay?  I need you at my side for lots of reasons.  Okay?  Okay?

I gave that final question emphasis enough to make it about more than the Academy medicine.

“Okay,” Jamie said.  “My body is going numb now.  It actually does help a little with the pain.  Feels like my head is disembodied, and my body is very far away.”

“Good,” I said.  I stood up and began getting the tools together.  “Perfect.  Listen, they’re underestimating just how quick I’ve gotten with that scalpel.  And I’m going to get quicker by the time I’m done here.”

“I know, Sy.”

“They’ve counted you as one of the dead.  Now I fully intend to make you one of the living again.  I promise.”

Scalpel in hand, I set about following through on that promise.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

61 thoughts on “Cut to the Quick – 11.14

    • Found two more:
      (1) “[…]storage bin or something as he passed it. flesh and metal claws skidded […]”
      Flesh is the beginning of the sentence, needs to be capitalized.
      (2) “[…]the original construction hadn’t quite grown cover the gap between bricks.”
      Hadn’t quite grown OVER or TO cover? Not sure there…

    • crouching, the butt
      ~Double space before the butt

      one entire street to
      ~Double space

      heard you. There
      ~Triple space

      my jacket began
      ~my jacket and began

      Step three: Profit?

    • Not exactly typos, but worth looking into:
      Jamie’s version of the Wyvern formula was harsher, the consequences heavier on my mind. Literally so.
      -> I’m not sure “literally” fits here. Heavy in the literal sense makes me think of weight, and I very much doubt Wyvern is making his head weigh more.

      I might have hoped for a narrow alleyway, but the houses here in the Boatyards were crowded close together, as if to earn landowners more dollars per square foot. There were streets wide enough for a small carriage or three people to walk side by side, and there were wide streets where multiple carriages could pass by one another. This particular street was narrow, with an arch overhead, connecting the buildings on either side.
      ->Sy says he wanted a narrow alleyway, then suggests you can’t find them in the Boatyards, then says that the very street he is in is narrow. Isn’t that contradictory?

      I drew out the chalk, holding it in one hand while holding the kit in the other. Holding the chalk in the one hand
      ->Repeating that Sy is holding the chalk in one hand doesn’t work for me.

    • The permalink category for the chapter is set on on 11.13 instead of 11.14.
      Also the links for 11.1->11.9 should be 11.01->11.09 otherwise the order on the TOC module on the right is off (it goes 11.1,11.10,…11.13,11.2,11.3,…11.9)

  1. “I remembered Jamie, Mary, Lillian, Helen, Ashton, Evette, and Gunther. No problems there.”

    Oh Sy. 😥

  2. Taking bets on next chapter being an enemy chapter, followed by a living Jami and Sy continuing on. Except something will be off slightly, and we’ll find out 4 chapters into the next arc that Jami is just in his head.

    • For added mindfuckery it’ll be after he re-encounters the other lambs, who he won’t recognize because of his crap memory, and if he does recognize them he’ll refuse to belive they are real, thinking they are the hallucinations, while Jamie is the real one.

    • I’ll take that bet. I’m expecting the next chapter to be of Sy cutting and electrocuting Jamie, to appease Wildbow’s sadism. Hopefully that will be sacrifice enough for Wildbow to spare his life. Sylvester Lambsbridge is dementedly intelligent enough to save him! I mean derivatively. Devastatedly? Jamie, Sy needs you!

      Wait, what’s the stakes for this bet? A gift of emergency cake for Helen?

    • Yes! Chris and Vexste, you owe Helen some emergency cake! It wasn’t the end of the arc! Well, I was only sorta right, so I’ll send her a cupcake too.

  3. Did Sy get Gordon’s name wrong? Damn he does need Jamie. Though I still prefer Sy/Lillian for a romantic pairing.

    Hmn, if you think about it, Jamie and Sy together might make a singularity. Sy has the ability to rapidly adapt and gain new skills, and Jamie has the ability to retain knowledge that Sy lacks.

  4. I don’t know what Sy’s plan is here. If the infection can be transfered through touch, Jamie will get infected over and over and over as he touches things that Sy has touched, or that someone infected has touched and, without the Academy’s advanced medical equipment, Sy can’t keep fixing Jamie up.

    Also, I don’t remember any traitor Bruno. Anyone care to remind me of him? Seems like I share Sy’s memory.

    Also, Sy, yes, you are a bastard. While I have no qualms about you saving Jamie, I wish that at least you wouldn’t have cut the conversation short. It seemed interesting >w>

    • Towards the end of 11.12: “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.”

  5. When a guy said about Sy carrying a limbless Jamie in a backpack, everybody berated him, but Wilbow might just have found inspiration -_-

    • I didn’t berate him, but I did think that it’s implausible for Sy to carry out an operation like that. Even with the Academy’s magic—I mean, medicine—, Sy isn’t a doctor by any stretch of the imagination, and there is only so much he can do with a carry bag of implements.

    • “When a guy said about Sy carrying a limbless Jamie in a backpack, everybody berated him, but Wilbow might just have found inspiration -_-”
      Yes that is exactly what we were worried about.

      Doesn’t help that no matter what Sy does I don’t think Jamie can have all that long without interfacing with the Catapiller brains, and that’s not something picking up some Academy know how is going to let him replicate.

      • We didn’t think you were crazy. We wouldn’t have been afraid if we thought you were crazy. We were afraid you’d give Wildbow ideas.

        So yeah, limbless Jamie would be your fault

  6. Hrrmm… One of the ways to kill a parasite is to introduce something to the body that kills the parasite faster than it kills the host, but doesn’t stick around in the host long enough to kill them too. Sy could probably flush Jamie’s system with a near-critical dose of Wyvern, but that risks damaging Jamie’s precious, precious mind. ‘Scuse me, probably less ‘risk’ and more ‘guaranteed’, gotta remember who the author is, here. And, of course, if Jamie loses the ability to retain memory then he loses his value as a Project Caterpillar node, and may as well be dead as far as the Academy is concerned. That means no more long-term support from them, which would result in Jamie being literally dead in due time. Interesting note, from their attempts to get him back it almost seems like making a new node would be too difficult.

    Question is, how chemically resilient did Godmordial make his red plague? He made it tenacious and spiteful, but it has to be limited to the basic biological rules, however oddly he applied them. It may even be skimping on some of those rules, due to its parasitic nature and ability to augment missing stuff with the host. A a bare minimum, we can be sure a high enough dose of Wyvern would be able to kill it, but Sy would need to figure out how exactly Wyvern kills it so he could use something a little less strong with fewer long-term consequences.

    Assuming he’s going the chemical route, of course. Sy already mentioned a bunch of physical options following the same general principle, like electrocuting or freezing it. Of course, if Godmordial meant for it to cover the entire world then freezing is probably right out… assuming he knew about cold places, but if he though all places were like the port then it might be possible. Electricity might be an option if Goddy hadn’t ever encountered it before, or wasn’t able to deduce its existence as he got more intelligent, but too much electricity risks damaging the Academy implants and making it that much harder to keep Jamie alive long-term. Fire would, of course, burn Jamie as much as it burns the plague, and considering how deep in the infection is already that may not be something Jamie will recover from. Assuming the plague is plant-like at its most basic (weed or vines maybe), it may not even have a centralized core and might just be dispersal,dispersal, and more dispersal the whole way through, so it’s not like Sy could dig up the roots and fry only those. The whole plant acts like roots, by all appearances. Acid follows the same principle as fire, though with the side benefit of possibly being able to break down what fire couldn’t touch depending on the type of acid.

    I almost want to say that the more I think about it the harder it is to come up with something that would leave Jamie alive afterwards, but the fact of the matter is that the plague simply has less mass than Jamie, and so long as enough vital organs can be spared (or replaced) he’ll probably live through a full purge. In the absolute worst-case scenario, we know the Academy has the technology to make brain-jars, and we know the infection doesn’t reach the brain, though that would also remove the Academy implants and give up Jamie’s long-term survival. Of course, Sy’s limited to what tools Marv was able to spare, and he probably doesn’t have the ability to make a brain-jar.

    Whew, at this point I’m expecting the next chapter to be a long, heart-wrenching string of tears ending in tragedy. Sy’s only hope is to come up with something obvious the Academy missed, because there’s no way he has, or can develop in time, the knowledge to come up with a super deep solution beyond the Academy’s own tech/knowledge level. Unless… nah, that’s too crazy. Not gonna think about that possibility.

    • Yeah well from the sounds of things we’ve got the weed from hell here, and weeds are total bitches to get rid of permanently. You think you’ve got them all out, and a few days later you notice they are right back. Anything strong enough to kill these weeds will probably wipe out the lawn, er Jamie.

      And I’m thinking Sy is never getting his climatic showdown with Mauer.

    • I’ll just chime in and say that electricity might be out. In the enemy chapter from the primordial’s point of view, we saw him chomping down some stitched soldiers, which run on electricity. If the primordial considered the stitched worth inflicting pain on, the plague would probably be built to infect electrically charged bodies. Therefore, electric attacks aren’t very effective against this grass type plague.

    • Actually. I think the academy might have used channels throughout Jamies body as a way of extracting data from his mind similar to the nervous system. That would be why jamie has all those scars running across his body. As such if sy damaged even ONE of those pathways jamies memories could no longer be extracted. Therefore a significant portion of jamies mass would have to remain intact for jamie to continue living properly, not just his vital organs.

  7. Might want to replace ‘freaking’ with just ‘fucking’, it feels a bit too modern a word. Don’t know why that stuck out to me.

    Sorry Sy, I’m not holding out much hope for you here. By the time you carve out those bits, Jamie will have more plague than skin, not to mention you’d be crippling him for possibly life.

    • That felt less modern to me than Sy talking about things being on point. I think that either F-word is still relatively modern, although they did have freak shows back then, so maybe “freaking” is legit.

      Sy using authentic slang and swearing from the 1920s would just sound weird to us, though.

  8. Looks like Sy really IS going to be a derivative of Fray. Depending on how much of that Bruno is still workable, Jamie might get some brawn to go with that big brain.

    • The Bruno is infected too, though. They’d first need a way to cure the infection before giving Jamie any of that meat.

  9. Regarding the plague’s reaction to cold, wasn’t it early winter when the primordials were unleashed on Lug, and doesn’t this arc take place in early spring? In other words, the plague has already weathered one winter. Add to that that some of its earliest victims were aquatic war beasts and cold water does a much better job of sucking the heat out of warm blooded organisms than cold air. Based on this, I’d hypothesize that, at most, cold just makes the spores go into a dormant state rather than outright killing them. This also might explain why it took the plague this long to reach the next town over from its point of origin.

    As for Wyvern as a potential antibiotic, considering that Wyvern’s method of administration is injection directly into the brain via the nasal cavity and piercing the base of the skull, I have to wonder if a more mundane method of administration, such as a shot in the arm or via IV would minimize affects on the brain. Perhaps the direct brain injection is because Wyvern can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. If this is the case, a relatively low dose injected into the plague growths might kill them without much entering the hosts blood stream.

    Granted, the direct brain injections might also be to minimize damage to other tissues, and even if Wyvern can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, there’s no guarantee Jamie’s caterpillar connections are likewise insulated from the rest of his body.

    • If Jamie’s caterpillar pieces are metal and electronic, there probably isn’t anything to worry about short of corrosion. Unless the Wyvern screws with any nerves that might be connected to them, which is a possibility if it’s a neurotoxin. Injecting Wyvern into a vein may be less risky for the brain, but as that’s not the intended use Sy would have to make several blind guesses about how much would be safe or fatal, any potential reactions or side effects it may have, all sorts of things. Mad scientist territory here, and plenty of room for error.

      IF Sy improvises the dosage right and gives Jamie an amount that wouldn’t kill him (at least, nothing irreparable), then I wouldn’t doubt it’d at least give the red plague a very bad day.

  10. Merely cutting following the dotted lines ! Don’t be such a baby, Jamie. Limbs grow back !
    <turns towards blood-drenched dove> Yes they do…

    • “Unless… nah, that’s too crazy. Not gonna think about that possibility.”

      Yeah, that’s the idea I didn’t want to think too hard about. Lillian had said Sy isn’t all that poisonous, and people wouldn’t die from drinking his blood so much as have what looks like an allergic reaction. Assuming their blood types are compatible (or if there’s some medicine to circumvent that), and assuming Sy has the right tools and enough know-how to hook up the blood vessels correctly, nothing says Sy couldn’t fix Jamie by cutting off his head and grafting it to himself. Although, that’d be a step in an awfully horrifying direction. Sy turning himself into a stitched-like hodgepodge of all the Lambs would just be… yeech.

      Alternatively, Sy could just give Jamie a blood transfusion with his own blood. Again, assuming their blood types are compatible or that there’s a way to circumvent incompatible blood type problems.

      • Well, he might have to give several blood transfusions. One shot of mildly poisonous blood might not be enough.

      • Sy probably isn’t completely poisonous, otherwise, him swapping spit with Lillian would have killed her already.

      • Oh for heavens sake, poison blood doesn’t work like that. It’s like AIDs. You can’t get AIDs by making out with someone… not unless you start biting.

  11. You know, it just occurred to me this plague isn’t the worst thing the primordial could have released. It COULD have released something akin to the Yerks from Animorphs. Now THAT would be bad. Or, equally bad if not worse, mindlayer offspring from D&D.

  12. After a whole arc of Sy being kind to random strangers, it seems very fitting that it’s capped off by him executing a guy under the guise of showing mercy.

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