Dyed in the Wool – 12.9

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“Horse and cart, or horse and wagon, or horse and carriage, to start with,” I told Jamie.  I paused.  “Preferably a stitched horse.  Where?”

“I saw one stationed outside a house a few blocks away.”


“Thinking about getting out and away?”

“Not in the slightest,” I said.  “Just the opposite.”

As Jamie turned to me to check my expression, I flashed him a grin.

“That worries me,” he said.  “Invasion?”

“Attack,” I said.  “Some invasion involved.  In a sense.  A keg of something flammable would be great, but I won’t hold out hope.”

“Haven’t seen anything nearby,” Jamie said.

“Too bad.  Explosives?”

Jamie shook his head.

“Alright,” I said.

We approached the spot where I’d positioned Noreen.  I beckoned for her to come down from her roost.

“Assuming you’re handling that, where do you need me?”

“Thinking about that.  Feeling up to shooting, with your shoulder being wonky?”

“It’s not too bad.”

“Assist me, then.  We’ll maximize the damage we do, working together.  It doesn’t look like it’s going to be possible to keep them from getting to the train station.  Once they’re there, they’ll want to fortify that position.  I want to make that as painful as possible.  So… horse and carriage to start.  Then we see what we can do in cleanup, and then see what we need to do from there.”

Jamie nodded.

Noreen had made her way down to the ground.  She looked between Jamie and I.

“You know each other,” she said.

“We’re attacking,” I said.  “Want to help?”

“You know each other,” she said, again.

I sighed.

“We do,” Jamie said.

“Is there something going on that I need to know?” she asked.

“No,” I said, annoyed.  “And we’re short on time.  Want to help?”

“You’re keeping secrets from the people who are working for you,” she said.  “I don’t know what I’m getting into.”

“You can leave if you aren’t confident,” I said.  “I’m asking you if you want to help as a matter of courtesy.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” she said.  “You burned my home down.  I’m not leaving, but I’m not going to help unless you answer my question.”

I kept utterly still, my face like stone, while I very seriously considered the fact that I had several guns and Maurice was likely the only person who would really miss her.

Not that I could, or would.  Not really.

“Is he the person who burned down my home?” she asked.

“I’m not,” Jamie said.  “I’m a fellow fugitive, a member of Sylvester’s old team.  As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I’m dead.  I joined tonight because I could blend into the crowd.”

She looked suspiciously between Jamie and I, before giving Jamie a small nod.

“You being alive is the worst kept secret,” I commented.

“You told her who you were,” Jamie said.

“I’m alive, though.  You’re supposed to be dead.”

“The secret is bound to get out.  When it does, we can tell them I’m useless for caterpillar.  The only place where it matters is when our… guests arrive.”

“They know about these guests?  That’s why they’re taking the train station?” Noreen asked.

“Tell her more, why don’t you?” I told Jamie.

“Old friends of ours,” Jamie said.  “Ex-teammates.  The Devil knew about them.  their existence might be why he targeted you and your home, if he thought you were harboring them, or that you were them.  But they’re not in the city.  They’re coming, soon, he knows this now, and they’re serving as unwitting bait in the confrontation against the Devil.  It’s why everything is happening here.”

He’d done a nice job of reinforcing my lies.  I added another layer of deception by beating her to the punch in responding to Jamie.  “When I said you should tell her more, I was being sarcastic.”

“We should keep her in the loop,” he said.

“It’s your fault,” Noreen interjected, very simply.  “We’re fighting to protect people we don’t know.”

“It was a war that was bound to happen,” Jamie said.  “Do the math.  If we didn’t challenge him, how many children would suffer each year?  How much damage would be done?  Would your headquarters really have been left alone, or would someone have tried to take it?”

Noreen frowned, but she didn’t disagree.

“Can we go?” Jamie asked.  “This next part is pretty key, when it comes to timing.”

“Which direction?” Noreen asked.

Jamie indicated a direction.  We walked briskly as a trio.

High overhead, clouds and smoke churned in the sky, blown by wind that seemed to be coursing forth at high altitudes but not really touching us much on the ground.  The city itself felt stale, hot, and had the worst elements of being smoky and being humid.  It was a good balance of light and dark, however, making it clear enough to see things that were out in the open while providing shadows to lurk within.

The smoke was the worst part.  Just enough to make my eyes sting, and to clog my sense of smell.  My sweat felt dirtier than normal sweat, as if rubbing at my brow might leave faint gray streaks.

“Noreen,” Jamie said.  “They experimented on you.”

Noreen turned her head.

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.  I’m not prying.  I’m wondering.”

“They experimented on me,” Noreen said.  “The Witch arranged it.”

I gave Jamie an annoyed look.  Was he actually getting answers out of her?  Why?  How?  I understood people, I could pick relationships and psychology apart, and I wasn’t even seeing any special tool that Jamie had drawn on.

“What was the experiment?” Jamie asked.

“Drugs.  Something to affect my mind.”

I raised my eyebrow at that, but Jamie, behind Noreen’s back, gestured for silence.  I kept my mouth shut, looking away, remaining detached from the conversation.

Build familiarity, I thought.  Shared experience.  Tell her about Wyvern, how close it is to what she had.

“Did it work?” Jamie asked.

“Yes.  Everything became sharper, brighter, and clearer.  Sights, sounds, feelings.  The world seemed alive.  They read me words, and the words had colors and a taste to them.  I did tests before and after, they liked the results, I think.  They kept promising to let me go ‘soon’, and soon never came.  But when they gave me the pills, I lost something.”

“You gained something, and you lost something?”

“Yes.  But when the pills wore off, the things I gained went away, and the things I lost didn’t come back,” Noreen said.  “They gave me more.  The drugs got less effective, and I kept losing things.  When I wouldn’t swallow any more, they used a machine and a tube to give me more.  I tried to stop eating, and the tube stayed in my throat, so they could make me take food and water with the pills.”

They hollowed her out, I thought.

“Did you retain anything?” Jamie asked.

“They changed the way I think.”

“How so?” Jamie pushed.

I expected every push to be too far, to hit a sensitive spot and make her hostile.  Didn’t happen.

“I feel like I see everything side-on while everyone else sees it straight-on,” she said.  “Like the props and backdrop in a play.  I was taken into that lab and the world looked normal, and when I was let go, I saw that there weren’t any buildings at all.  Only cardboard cut-outs of building faces with nothing real behind them.”

“You don’t get along with Sylvester.  Because of… the unique angle you see him?”

“He’s a liar.  Even when he speaks truth it sounds like a lie, and I don’t know if he has told the whole truth once a single time he’s spoken.”

“That’s downright-” I started.  Jamie gestured.

“He’s a deceptive person by nature,” Jamie said.  “That’s what they made him into.”

I wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him.  That’s optimal ground to build rapport!  Draw connections between her and me!  Draw connections between her and yourself.  You’ve both been mistreated!  You were permanently changed!  Common ground!

He went on, “What if the reason he looks strange to you is that he’s askew to start with?”

“That’s not how it works,” she said.  “In my head or how I see people.”

“Why not?  Educate me.”

“Because I’m not wrong about things,” she said.

Ah, the stonewall.  That perfect conviction.

“You’re right about him.  You’re just following it to its logical conclusion, and that’s not right,” Jamie said.

I sighed.

Noreen was quiet.

“He’s destructive and devious.  He’s vicious.  I feel the need to point out that he’s killed an awful lot of your enemies tonight.  He’s devastatingly intelligent-”

“Thank you, for that,” I commented.

“-and he’d have no compunctions about using that intelligence to attack you, if he thought it was for the greater good.  And he has a warped and often convoluted sense of what that greater good is.”

Noreen nodded.

“But there’s nobody I trust more,” Jamie said.

“You just said he was a liar.”

“He is.  And I trust him.  He’s dangerous, and I feel safest when he’s at my side.  He’s warped, and his existence gives our lives a real kind of structure, in a way that was eerily lacking while we were under the Academy’s thumb.  He’s terrible in any fight that lasts more than two seconds, which is a sad and remarkable step up from how bad he used to be-”


“-and he’s the last person I’d want to go up against, if I set all emotions aside and had to pick someone to fight in a serious way.  He’s the darkest-minded bastard I know and he makes me laugh.  I’ve never been more isolated than I’ve been since I left everything behind and joined him, with whole months going by where he was the only person I talked to, and I’ve never felt less lonely.”

I shifted uncomfortably, turning my eyes to other things in the surroundings.

Jamie might have seen the change in my body language, because he changed course very abruptly.  “I could go on.  I won’t, because we’re about to get to the horse and wagon he wants to use.  Sylvester is a twist of a person, Noreen, like the twist in a book.  You can’t expect the typical conclusions based on those facts you get at first.”

“I don’t like him,” she said.

“I’m right here.”

“I don’t like him a lot of the time either,” Jamie said, in a way that sounded like he wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying anymore.  He seemed to come to at the last moment.  “And we’re here.  Garage.”

The garage was by a house, with a stitched horse within, hooked up to voltaic wiring.  The door had an upper and lower half, with the top half left open, so the horse could stare out and beyond.  The lower door was closed and padlocked.

I immediately went to the padlock.  Jamie was right behind me, with Noreen trailing behind.

“You don’t like me, but?” I asked.

“What?” Jamie asked.

“Don’t pretend you forgot.  You don’t forget anything, remember?  You just went on a whole thing about how you can’t stand me, but you wouldn’t stand for anything else, you think I smell like butt but you wish your morning tea smelled like I do.”

“Ha ha,” Jamie said, without a trace of humor in his voice.  Almost the opposite.  “Leave it, Sylvester.”

The padlock was easy.  I popped it open.  “I’m just saying-”

“Don’t say.  Leave it.”

I opened the door, and did a walk around the carriage, seeing how well it fit my purposes.  The owners had left the horse with a cart still hitched up to it.  There was a bench and a back section with room for stuff to be stored, with four short walls to keep the cargo in bounds, and a door at the rear end, hinges down at the base, so the door swung down.  Nice and easy for groceries and errands.

“It’s going to bug me if I don’t get the answer.  You still complain about books you never got to finish.  Leaving me with only one piece of the puzzle?  That’s brutal.”

“Remember the ten thousand times I’ve told you I’d get back at you for tormenting me?” Jamie asked.

“No,” I said.

“Not sure if you don’t remember or if you’re already begging for mercy, but this is part of the retribution, Sy.  I’m not telling.  The more you push, the less likely I am to answer.  Don’t push.”

“Or you might actually realize you don’t like me after all?” I asked.  I disconnected the wires that were hooked up to the stitched animal.

“Let’s go with that,” he said.

“I’ll torment you five times over for this.  These scales don’t balance,” I said.  “I’ll win.  I’ll cheat and be as unfair as all get out if i have to, but I’ll win.”

“I know,” Jamie said.  “I resigned myself to that fact long ago.”

I found the reins, and experimentally led the stitched horse out of the garage.  It was obedient.  The brain of a horse barely compared to that of a human, and this was a brain that had been carved up to make room for voltaic wiring and to carve away the bad behavior and tics that tended to crop up when turning lower-intelligence animals into stitched.  There were often things like horses stomping their hooves in one spot for so long that they destroyed their legs, or dogs getting caught up in a rhythm of barking at their own barking, until they did irreversible damage to themselves.  The go-to solution was to identify the part of the brain responsible and carve into it until the tic stopped.

I turned around and hopped off the back of the cart.  I hurried back into the garage.  I identified some suitable containers.  “Help me with these.”

Noreen and Jamie helped me load up the cart with the packages and containers.  The choice one was a large cube of manure wrapped in paper.  There were metal cans as well.

In my quick perusal, I found some oil, meant for greasing the cart’s wheels.  It was a small container.  Far too little to do what I wanted.  But it was a thing of beauty that brought everything together.  This would do.

I found some dry rope and loaded it into the cart.

“Let’s go,” I said.  “You drive.  I prepare.  Straight to them.  Try to keep to grass instead of the road, where you can.”

Jamie nodded.  He took the reins.  Noreen hopped up into the rear section, sitting on the corner right behind Jamie.

The cart moved.  The horse was in better shape than most stitched horses I’d come across, but I imagined that was the norm in a city like this.  That, or I wasn’t keeping up with the trends.  We’d spent six months in Tynewear, where there hadn’t been many horses or carriages, and I’d been distracted for almost a year leading up to that.

Noreen was quiet, looking out at the city.  I couldn’t figure her out, but Jamie apparently had.  That annoyed me.  Still, if it meant she was going to be cooperative, I could accept it.

“You know how to use guns?” I asked Noreen.

“No,” she said.

“Pull that back, aim it at the other guy, pull the trigger.  Six shots, then reload,” I said.  “Here’s the gun.  Here are the bullets.  Put those in your pocket.”

She took the spare gun and bullets.

Still didn’t understand or trust her.  I wasn’t wholly certain she wouldn’t put a bullet in me right now, for reasons I’d never understand.

But Jamie seemed to understand it, and he didn’t protest, so I was willing to accept that.

I took the rope, and I began forming a large knot.  I wedged the knot into one of the metal containers, then shoved it inside.  I cut the rope off about a handspan from the top of the can.

“A fuse?” Noreen asked.


“But it’s not a bomb,” she said.  “That’s a container for applying chemicals to plants.”

“It’s not important if it’s a bomb or not,” I said.  “What’s important is that they think it’s a bomb.  Hold that.”

She held the container.  I applied the oil to the fuse.

“Keep it in the cart,” I said, as I set up the next container.  “I’ll do the rest.”

I did the next container in about two-thirds of the time I’d taken with the first, and did the third container in less time than that.  I flew through the process, distracting myself with the task at hand.

“We’re close,” Jamie said.  “We lost a lot of time.  They’re not far from the train station.  If they ran for it, they could be there in five minutes.”

I nodded.  I could see the vague shapes of the people in the gloom, roughly three blocks out.  They’d formed a line, fanning out to cover more of the city, with weapons at the ready.  We were at one end of that line.  Jamie had an idea of what I wanted to do now.

Jamie pulled the cart to a stop.  He looked back at what I was doing.

“That fertilizer is going to burn,” Noreen said.

“We know,” Jamie said.

“It’s going to do more than that,” I said.  The fertilizer was the last thing I had to handle.  I used the long spout of the oil can to push the knot into the center of the bundle.  In the process, I put a fair amount of the oil in the center of the cube.  I turned the thing on its side and stomped on it, compressing the loose, smelly material down into a more compact package.

“We should go,” Jamie said, still keeping one eye on what I was doing.

“Go,” I said.

“About their guns,” Jamie said.

“They have guns.  We have cart,” I said.  I cut off another length of rope, then handed it to Jamie.  “Extend the reins.”

Jamie looped the rope through the reins, moved off of the bench and back onto the lower part of the cart, using the three borders as cover.  He held the rope, then flicked it.  The horse started walking.

Walking was not good.

“Hi-yah!” he gave the command, with a hard flick.  Nothing.  “Gallop!  Hard gallop!  Go on, boy!  Let’s move!”

The problems with stitched horses.  They weren’t so able to figure things out.

“Hurry on!”

That did it.  The horse picked up speed in a way that seemed off-kilter with what a normal horse might do, as if it had to ease into it and remind itself what it was doing, instead of being an animal that instinctively wanted to run.

But it was galloping now.  Hooves trampled and wheels rolled over grass, then made a moment of noise as they passed over a footpath leading up to someone’s door, returning to silence as we steered toward the grass again.

A tree meant we had to move onto the road for a moment.

“Heads down,” I said.  “Jamie, make like you’re not going to come close to hitting them.  Runaway carriage.”

Jamie steered us away from the group.  This was the rightmost flank of the line that was moving through streets.  The buildings here and there meant that they would be split up into a series of groups in a rough line rather than be a straight row of thugs and soldiers.

“Gun ready,” I said, for Noreen’s benefit.  “Jamie, run us right at ’em.”

“One sec,” Jamie said.

I lit a match, and held it to the oil soaked wick of a container.  It ignited.  “Jamie!”

Jamie spoke, “Getting the timing right, and- hold on!”

He steered us in a sharper turn.  One wheel momentarily lifted off the ground as the stitched beast changed course, and our collected containers and items slid off to one side.  I used one leg to keep them in place, while Noreen’s crouched form kept them from sliding down the slight incline and all tumbling out behind us.

Which was all well and good, because the horse hit something, and everything jerked violently, the front end of the cart hit solid objects, and then the wheels passed over the large bodies of at least one man.

It was a group of five, and we’d run over two and clipped a third.  I tossed the can with the lit wick out behind us.

“Fire!” I called out to Noreen.

Some of the men we hadn’t hit had guns.  Given the choice between aiming and shooting at us, running for dear life, and trying to deal with the apparent makeshift bomb, most chose the latter two options.  I could see one man running and drawing his gun, one eye on us, and aimed for him.

I clipped him, but didn’t put him down or change his mind about shooting at us.  Before I could aim and shoot again, another bullet caught him.  Jamie, not Noreen.

In the moment of panic that came with being trampled without warning, shot at, and left with a seeming bomb, the men didn’t seem to know what to do, all in all.  Jamie took the reins again while Noreen and I emptied our guns at the group.  I managed to hit the one who was doing the most work with the bomb, trying to put out the burning fuse, and the man closest to him simply took over the task, gripping the bomb and hurling it off to the side.

I aimed carefully and put a bullet in him too.

“Coming up on the next group!” Jamie called out.  “Six!”

Noreen wasn’t a good shot, and she wasn’t fast at reloading.  But when I reached out and touched the latch at the side of her gun, opening it up so she could slot the individual bullets in, I could see that her hands were steady.

The group we were charging for opened fire, hitting the cart several times and even catching the horse once, spraying the three of us in the back of the cart with thick, congealed blood.  All the while, Noreen’s hands were steady.

Jamie, operating blind with his head beneath cover, changed direction at the last minute.  I felt the collisions as we hit people who had moved pre-emptively out of the way and thought they were safe.

I tossed out the next can.  Jamie’s arm reached out past me.  His forearm rested on my shoulder, his hand extending past the front of my face, finger pointed.  He gestured.  Four.

I aimed my gun.

As the heads and faces came into view, just barely visible as I looked over the rim of the wagon, I aimed and shot.  A sudden jump of the wagon spoiled the last of the four shots.

Noreen, emptying the cylinder, managed to graze the one I’d missed.  I popped my gun open, reloaded a lone bullet, and aimed, exhaling slowly as I lined up the sights and squeezed the trigger.

I missed again, but the thug seemed to decide it was better to favor discretion rather than valor, and made a run for cover.

What a disappointment.  It would have been a nice moment.  I could imagine Gordon clucking his tongue at me.

Jamie peeked, then stood up, one hand on the wooden rim of the wagon.  I followed his cue, standing up and looking back at the group we’d laid low to see that none were standing or even paying attention to the fake bomb, let alone shooting at us.

I reloaded.

“Horse is okay?” I asked.

“Horse is okay.  We should have a contingency plan for if it takes a bad shot.”

“Plan had.  We toss all the explosives and run for it.”

“I’ll rephrase.  We should have a good contingency plan, Sy.”

“It’s not going to be easy to take down.  It should have a metal plate in its head, like most stitched animals do.  Bullet has to travel awful deep and awful accurate to hit the right spot in the torso to put down a stitched, and the mooks have guns for shooting down people, not stitched.”

“That’s not all wrong,” Jamie said.  “Rounding a corner, then next group.”

I ducked down an instant before he did.  He’d waited just long enough to see, and to get a mental picture.

“Largest group yet,” Jamie said, one hand holding the rope against the top of the wagon.  “Devil, I think, and Apostle.”

I heard the gunshots.  A large caliber sound, sounding like something that came from a rifle.  I could feel it hit the side of the wagon in a way that made the other bullets pale in comparison.

I ignited the fuse for the block of fertilizer.

It would be so easy to get the timing wrong, or to let the burning fuse touch the wrong part of the block, where I’d soaked the thing with oil, and start off the chain reaction.

I dropped onto my back, facing the sky, held the block, and brought my legs up.  While I wasn’t gripping anything, I slid toward the tail end of the wagon.  The bumps as we collided with those who’d been too slow to dodge out of the way jarred me further, moving me in unpredictable fits and starts.

But those impacts were a good cue.

I heaved it out and kicked it out in the same motion.  Jamie veered into a wild turn as I threw.  I slid hard into the side, to the point that I couldn’t even tell if my toss had been a good one.  For a moment, I thought we would tip.

I’d lost track of my gun.  Rather than find it, I dug out another one of the guns I’d confiscated from the thugs.

I sat up enough to see the group.  Fifteen or so in all, scattering.

I saw the Devil, already making his tactical retreat, ducking behind cover.  Not even recognizable in comparison to Colby.  He was shirtless, and his muscles stood out, with veins standing out from beneath his skin as if he had an infestation of parasites crawling through them.  His teeth were exposed in a snarl that seemed more permanent than a response to the current situation.

I saw the Apostle, moving for cover at the other side of the street from the Devil, looking to escape the bomb.  The gun he held looked like an Exorcist rifle.  I aimed and fired, and he seemed to see what I was doing, because he threw himself to the ground.

He wasn’t lying down for a full second before the fertilizer caught the flame.  As explosions went, it wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped for.  The Academy-provided fertilizers were loaded with chemicals that tended to burn easily, and this wasn’t an exception, but it might well have gotten wet at some point or suffered for time spent in the garage with the stitched horse and cart.  The rolling flame did extend from one end of the street to the other, spreading over the people we’d bowled into with the cart and the eight other individuals who hadn’t been fast enough in clearing out.

The apostle, who’d just thrown himself to the ground, was lifted into the air in what seemed like a comical way, heels over head.

We left all of them behind.  There were two more containers for the three remaining groups.  Distractions to shift their priorities away from shooting us and toward self preservation.  If there were more groups than the three, they’d already moved further ahead than we were, and would be near the train station.

We wheeled around, and we stopped, catching our breath.

Jamie got off the cart and looked at the horse.  He looked at me and shook his head.

“No?” I asked.

“Won’t hold up much longer,” Jamie said.

“We’ll send it on its way, then,” I said.

We got off the cart.  I blinded the horse, pulling my shirt off and wrapping it around the horse’s face, and then we goaded it into another gallop, moving back the way we’d come.  Slim chances we’d hit anything.  But it might draw fire, and it might run over someone.  If it made noise or distracted, which was far more likely, then that was good enough.

“Clean up,” I said.  Then, for Noreen’s benefit, I said, “If they’re dragging their friends to safety, we pick them off.”

She nodded.

“Assuming you don’t have a lot of killing under your belt, just do what I say, alright?”

Another nod.

Whatever magic Jamie had worked, she was playing ball now.  I still kept a leery eye on her.  I’d have to ask Jamie for the details.

It was the smaller, edge groups that proved the most difficult to tackle.  They were most wary, most aware that there weren’t many friends nearby.  They kept gun in hand and watched the shadows, expecting the attack from the flanks.  As eager as Noreen was, Jamie and I handled most of them, using coordination, knives, and careful timing.

It made for glacial progress, and I knew that the Devil had already made it to the train station.

As we drew closer to the big group, however, there was a gap in the defenses.  People too trusting of others to watch their backs.  They were people who’d just recently been led, and their leader was now on a makeshift stretcher, being carried by four members of the group, a fifth leading the way and providing direction, the sixth at the rear flank.

The sixth took a knife without making a sound.

Then, at my instruction, counting down with hand signals, Noreen, Jamie and I opened fire on the remaining group.  Only the one in the lead managed to escape without getting shot.  He ran in the direction of the train station.

“I really hoped to get the Devil,” I said.

“Seeing the man, I feel like we would have stopped dead if we’d collided with him.  I know that’s hyperbole, but-”

“He would have caught the reins, or climbed on,” Noreen said.

I glanced back at her.  “That’s your sideways instinct?”

That got me a nod.

Yet I still remained confused.

Why did I not understand her any more than I had before Jamie had dug into her background and psychology?  Annoying.

I stooped down over the Apostle.  He was burned and acting like he was still reeling from the explosion.  I used one hand to turn his head, making the man wince, and saw that his ears were a mess.  He wouldn’t hear me if I tried to interrogate him.  I could connect the dots, figure his middle ear was damaged, and conclude that he likely had vertigo like he’d never experienced before.  An endless, dizzying fall that consumed all his senses.

I began collecting the weapons.  I was happy to see grenades.  I kept them mostly for myself, we exchanged the cheaper revolvers and pistols for better quality guns, and then moved on our way.

The buildings that looked out on the approaches to the train station were occupied, according to Pierre.  We’d cleared away some of the pawns and we’d left them shaken.  With luck, they would be off balance, there might even be bickering, if there were multiple factions there.  If we could plant that seed of dissent, then the Demon’s reputation and methods could easily do the work for us.

We made our way toward the next isolated group, likely the last we would catch.  The next would make it to the train station before we made it to them.  We stayed to the shadow, watching them.

They were keeping an eye out for us.  They’d heard the gunfire.

Hopefully, they would make a mistake, or leave us a gap.

I felt a faint hope when I saw the local forces making their approach.  Men in uniform supported by Academy.  The squad consisted of three men in uniform, two stitched, and a scientist to oversee the stitched and the small warbeast, which was the size of a mastiff.

There would be other groups just like this one, I knew.  From the looks over their shoulders, checking, I suspected the thugs knew the same thing.  They seemed nervous at the approach.

But there was no animosity.

The law was here to help, and they were here to help the enemy.

He has too firm a hold on this city, I thought.  He’s absolutely secure in his power, like this.  The reinforcements are going to be endless.

“I’ve completely lost track of time,” I said.  I hadn’t intended to say it aloud.

“It’s close to one in the morning,” Jamie said.  “We have seven hours.”

The police and the soldiers moved on, watching over their shoulders for us as they headed in the direction of the train station.

I watched them in silence until they were out of our line of sight, in a position where we would have had to expose ourselves and risk being seen to keep observing.

“You’re concerned about the time?” Jamie asked.

“More than a little,” I said.  I chewed my lip.  The siege wouldn’t work.  We couldn’t lock them down and cut off both supplies and reinforcements.  The uniformed squads were a lot harder to take on.

The Devil’s face lingered in my mind’s eye.

What had Maurice said?  The Devil was a creature of chaos.  Like me.  He reveled in it, in being unpredictable.  Like me.

But he was also a sadist.  He was a savage.  He was strong.

I couldn’t believe he would simply sit still.  He would act, and after seeing him put us in bad positions with two of his last three moves, I was betting the act would smart.

He would do it from a position of power.  Something we sorely lacked.

“Might need an hour or five to puzzle out an answer to this one,” I said.

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60 thoughts on “Dyed in the Wool – 12.9

      • Crown/Academy backed experiments usually happen under the auspices of Law & Authority, being able to run experiments openly, there isn’t a need to pretend to be criminals to run experiments on such a scale unlike this case.

  1. I’m calling it now: Noreen joins the group when Sy’s done with West Corinth. Not sure about what happens with Maurice, maybe his hesitance on letting her staying at his place made a big impact. Noreen is just too interesting a character and too good a foil for Sy to just be left in West Corinth. Her strange way of looking at things could definitely come in use and could even be considered an augmentation.

    Her iron-clad certainty is very interesting. While a lot of the time she is eerily on target (distrusting Sy immediately and guessing Pierre as the one who started the fires) she isn’t infallible (assumes Sy had help to find them and was convinced Pierre wasn’t the one that started the fires). Her existence once again reminds us how fucked up the Academy is.

    So Sy’s group after West Corinth: Two Lambs, a prostitute, a rabbit-man, a smuggler and (I’m hoping) a hollow mouse.

    • Wildbow’s stories tend to play a lot with these tropish points. A character that yells “excellent ally” never joins, or only temporarily. Or dies from an anticlimactic shenanigan.
      It’s hard to guess what he will go with, even after all this time to get used to it.

      So… never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line ? Yeah, I’ll go with that.

      • Syrpurggr joined. Cnevna too, but then Gnlybe yrsg, juvpu lbh pbhyq fnl znqr vg xvaqn zbbg, ohg fur wbvarq hc jvgu Gurb.

        On the Pact side of thing, Rina joined (whoa, it actually sounds like a name rot13ed) , and so did Terra rlrf .

        All these were fan favourites and trope important to join.

    • I think her “ability” basically (correctly) informed her that Sy was a liar, but not specifically what he was lying about. So she went into the discussion distrustful of whatever he said (which, to be fair, is a pretty good approach if you’re dealing with Sy).

  2. Sy is very conversant with revolvers. Thus, it was a little jarring when he referred to the weapon as having a ‘clip’.

    Revolvers have cylinders. Automatic pistols and self-loading rifles have magazines. A clip is quite literally a metal clip holding several cartridges that is (usually) inserted into the top of a rifle, and either pulled out once the cartridges are in (held in an internal magazine) or ejected once the ammunition it held has been expended.

    For fast-reloading revolvers, you can have a speed-loader (a modern invention which holds six bullets, and requires a cylinder that can be flipped out to the side) or, in the early (caplock) days, you could actually remove the entire cylinder and replace it with one that was already loaded with powder and ball.

    But in no place and time do clips have anything to do with revolvers.

    Just saying.

  3. I love seeing Sy and Jamie in these action packed sequences, finding creative ways to use their skills to compensate for a lack of physical prowess and fighting skills.

    Noreen is really interesting. I would love a more thorough explanation of how her brain works. Her “sideways” view of the world brings Tattletale to mind, with a kind of enhanced instincts? Maybe her subconscious is more prominent what with collecting data points and instinctively drawing conclusions?

    Does anyone know if Wildbow reads Patreon messages? Because after I pledged 10$ a month I sent him a message and haven’t gotten a response.

  4. I kinda really like Noreen. Refreshing to see someone befuddle Sy, as much as I like him too, but doing so in what could be called a competent manner.

    She reminds me of Helen, a little. That same stoicness Helen had in the beginning arcs. And the animal-like instinct. But while Helen is like Sy and is able to pick out the reasons for people’s behaviour to better act and deceive, Noreen sees past assumptions and said deceptions? I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around how her mind works… but she’s very intriguing. I hope to see more of her.

    • The odd analogy with set pieces was a bit hard to wrap my head around, but I kind of see her mind working like this:

      Before she got hollowed, she was an audience member. She watched the play as a performance, with the characters being real, the setting being real, etc. As she got drugged, it’s almost like she was given a VIP pass, to see the magic behind the production, go backstage and whatnot. Still an audience member, but little by little she lost that perspective of belief until all she was left with was that side view from the wings, where all she sees is “actors” and sets.

      It’s almost like being extremely jaded. She sees Sylvester as an actor and only an actor, but Jamie was trying to tell her that while Sy is an actor, that itself is also an act, and the true Sy lies deeper than what she can see. Almost like how you can’t see what an actor is like when he’s not a work, or something like that.

  5. Anyone else think Maurice was either playing Noreen, or maybe he felt guilty about getting her kidnapped by the Witch?

  6. Blow up the rail tracks, Sy. Blow up the rail tracks! Then tell the city authorities about that! They will check, then make calls and stop all trains, no casualties! Even if they won’t, the first train to jump the track will not be the one the Lambs are on! It will buy you a lot of time, and the Devil will be so furious! It’s a perfect idea!

      • (1) Not all of them are working with the Devil; (2) them working with the Devil doesn’t mean their goals always align perfectly with the Devil’s; (3) the plan is robust against their uncooperativity, in any case!
        Frankly, it cannot not-work. I can see how it can backfire or go horribly wrong, though.

  7. Hm. Typo thread.

    “then the Demon’s reputation and methods could easily do the work for us”
    The Devil, not the Demon, I assume.

    And the table of contents still doesn’t work correctly.
    There’s no link to chapter 11.14, while the link to 11.13 leads to 11.14. How does that happens?

  8. I’ve always loved how the Lambs are comfortable bouncing back and forth from a bit of banter, or deep and meaningful conversations, to acts of extreme violence and/or general terror inducing mayhem. And I’ve always really enjoyed that the protagonists in Twig are /clever/ more than they’re anything else – Sy being willing to go away for a few hours and figure out a strategy, rather than just charging in (as I think many characters would be inclined to do), is a lovely change of pace from the norm.

  9. Well, now I get why Sy is having so many problems. Noreen didn’t get wyvrened hollow, but something similar was used, without her having any control over the neurological remapping process. It’ll have thrown all her autonomic, nonverbal cues and ticks right off, alongside whatever lingering foundations for the since-disolved augmentation she’s been left with. :/

    I think she’s probably too burnt out to try using even the decent Academy Wyvren formula to try undoing some of the damage by rebuilding in the plastic state. Even with a guide who could talk her through how to do that. 😦

    • I’m not sure that’s how Wyvern works. I think it’s more about changing and allocating resources than building.
      It seems Noreen didn’t get some parts enhanced in favor of others, rather parts of her brain were permanently damaged. At least that’s how I read it.

      • Well, Sy also loses-and-gains by ramping up neurological plasticity. But, there’s a hidden brick wall, there: the brain is simultaneously very rigid. Get too plastic, and you risk things like epilepsy, tumours or dementia, even. So, there are actually systems in place to prevent rampant change. Children get special treatment simply because they’re growing neurons and axon-connections faster than losing them. Hence why Noreen and Sy were picked to test this stuff. :/

        You hit the ceiling when that stops being the case. Noreen basically burnt through her ability to grow axons… But, was left without having the network able to sustain all the random connections that were made while “high”, thanks to no sustained, foundational framework being trained into her. Sy has always had his “be the sneaky one for the Lambs” agenda to build around.

        But, it doesn’t mean what randomness she did build isn’t still there in ghost-tracks and chemical markers: she just can’t join it up into anything workable. 😦 And, if she has used up her growth, she won’t be able to shortcut the process safely using chemicals anymore. :/

          • In addendum: Sy has a lot of peripheral extras he’s learned to barnacle onto during the “high” phase of the versions of Wyvren he’s bumped into… as part of the process. Things like hanging onto his social ties to the Lambs, associated skills he always needs to use on missions… And, so on.

            However, I don’t think Noreen had that. If anything has been her core to hang things around, it’s probably been “ways to survive this hell; hate the bitch who did this to me; ways to survive this hell” on a loop.

            Not much cause to keep a grip on social nuance and anything to do with standard measures of empathy-sympathy processing over getting through the day undeaded. <_<

  10. Huh. As Noreen’s assumptions on Sy were based on superpowers, I redact my previous opinion of her. She didn’t just jump the gun.

  11. Is anyone going to comment on Jamie’s beautiful speech full of back-handed praise for Sy? Somehow it makes me feel very sad. They were devastating compliments.

    My favorite phrase was when he called Sy “a twist of a character, like the twist in a book”.

    • I wont lie, It maybe tear up a little bit. Wildbow is so good at writing the sweet parts.
      My favorite part was Sy’s interpretation “you think I smell like butt but you wish your morning tea smelled like I do.” XD

    • Sy is pretty twisted in general. About the only straight thing for him is his sexuality. Sorry Jamie, couldn’t resist.

      It might be because she looks at things from the side that Noreen is able to see through Sy like that. Look at a corkscrew dead on you can’t tell how twisty it is, unlike from the side.

  12. The description of the Devil makes me think of a Senator Armstrong with that nano-core all over his body instead of just by his heart. Yikes.

    And now I find myself trying to understand Noreen’s sideways worldview. It’s difficult, for sure.

  13. So Noreen is a lot like Bitch, then. altered brain stuff makes her really good at certain things, but terrible at communication that isn’t as blunt as possible. A spade is a spade, and all that.

  14. I’m okay if Noreen never joins sy. I’d be interested in him interacting with someone he has troubles reading, much like I enjoyed his initial interactions with new Jamie, but I’m okay if it never happens and she dies for some reason.

    What I won’t be okay with, is, after Sylvester deals with the witch in some possibly fatal manner, he never tries to use Noreen’s drug in conjunction with his dirty version of wyvern. I SERIOUSLY want to see that combo. Sy would probably be able to hold on to those skills too

    • Frankly sir, that’s terrifying, and could be an extremely bad idea. Something tells me the two drugs wouldn’t mesh.

      • I can see Sy using Noreens drug going one of two ways. Now, I’m no pharmacist so correct me If I’m wrong, but the way I understand it, The wyvern formula used on Sylvester is a very delicate balance of high doses of poisens working in conjuction to enhance his mental capabilities. Despite how smart Sy and jamie are they can’t possibly predict how the Wyvern formula would function with Noreens drug. Honwstly, it’s a miracle he hasn’t died any of the times he’s been operated on. Considering he IS the test to see how hi levels of the Wyvern formula affect the body and mind, they can’t possibly have tested it with every drug especially when different academies invent new ones daily. It could kill him to self prescribe. And since so many doctors who have worked on him HAVEN’T known he takes Wyvern…. frankly he should be dead.

        The second outcome involves the “Play” analogy. If Noreen is a woman standing stage right looking sidelong at the set, then Sylvester would be the man on the catwalk operating the ropes and sandbags. He watches from above, observing the actors and audience. He follows cues from the actors to know when to manipulate the levers and switches to change the scenario. Also if he were to stop paying as much attention to everything he could find himself getting caught up in the scene. Only small obscure things reminding him it wasn’t real.
        if you combined the two and they didn’t kill you, you could end up on a catwalk directly above and to the right of the stage, no longer able to see the audience and your view of the stage obscured.

    • Not enough problem solving skills. Or cackling (probably goes with the former). Also Evette would have ugly difformities from her own project, through Sylvester’s vision.
      Noreen seems more of a sightly ice queen, unable to deal with problems in a smooth fashion. Charm up an army, wave your hand at the problems so your soldiers deal with it.

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