Helen handed off Nora to Lacey and Lillian’s care. She stretched, testing each and every one of her joints from fingertip to shoulder, shoulder to neck, then testing each muscle and segment all the way down her spine to her legs, legs to toes.
She felt a brief moment of bliss in the sensation of being. The stretch was akin to giving herself a hug. There were no sensations quite as fulfilling and thrilling as when she wrapped herself around someone and felt them fighting her, straining and stretching inside her grasp. Stretching was like straining and stretching against herself, fighting and testing herself. Every pop and cartilage-against-cartilage realignment of a joint went hand-in-hand with a rush of feel-good hormones.
It was like getting a hundred teeny tiny bites of tart.
The thought made her realize she was hungry in a way that had nothing to do with food.
Languid, smiling easily, feeling as relaxed as she ever had, she looked at Mary. Hard Mary, rigid, eager in a very different way. Mary was standing by the door, which was ajar, peering through the gap to the street outside. The muscles in Mary’s arms and legs were tensed, and she was ready to move or attack at a moment’s notice, if someone’s head outside turned the wrong way, or if she saw an opportunity.
Helen approached Mary and, being careful to avoid the blade Mary held and to keep from impeding Mary’s view, slid one arm behind Mary’s neck and the other behind the small of Mary’s back, and embraced her.
She felt the prick of Mary’s blade against the side of her neck.
Just as carefully as she had embraced Mary, she backed off. She leaned in close to give Mary a peck on the cheek.
“You’re riled up,” Mary said. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of the gap between the door and the doorframe.
“It’s contagious,” Helen said. “I’ve been antsy for months now, and being around you and Lillian could calm me down. Being around Ashton could calm me down a lot. But Ashton isn’t here, and neither of you are calm. Mary is tense and I can smell how uncalm Lillian is-”
“Ahem,” Lillian said.
“-and I can hear her breathing as if she was breathing right in my ear, and it makes me restless and it makes me want to embrace someone.”
“I’m ready to act, but I’m calm,” Mary lied. “As calm as anyone is while being tracked by a small army.”
Helen smiled. “Uh huh.”
She felt the blade move fractionally.
“The adjusted drug regimen from Ibbot might be responsible for your mood,” Lillian said. “If I could pare it down any without him catching on during your next appointment, I would. Maybe you could tell him the truth? That you’re lying to him about your emotional states. If he keeps adjusting in response to falsehoods, something bad could happen.”
“I’m not lying to him,” Helen said.
“He’s lying to himself. Yeah. You know what I mean, Helen.”
Helen smiled softly. “The day I tell him he’s wrong is the day he’ll decide I’m not worth the trouble.”
“Okay,” Lillian said. She sighed, looking at Nora and Lacey.
They had already had the ‘none of this gets repeated to the Academy’ conversation a few times. At least with the details regarding Helen, Lillian felt confident letting Lacey overhear. Lacey had no love for Ibbot.
Lillian spoke, “Do your best, and please don’t kill Sylvester, Helen.”
Helen didn’t let the smile falter. “I’ll try not to.”
Lillian’s breathing wasn’t as hard or intense as it had been, earlier. The mention of Sylvester normally quickened it and drew her focus, but Helen was very aware of the fact that the subject of Sylvester dying had stopped all that. Sobering and concerning to Lillian. It mattered.
An imaginative part of Helen’s brain conjured up the notion that if something did happen to Sylvester, then Lillian might stop breathing altogether. Lillian liked him a lot, even now. It would break her heart.
Helen would have to try very hard, to not break Sylvester too much and break Lillian’s heart in the process.
“Lara wants to talk,” Nora said.
“Hold on,” Lillian said. “We’re not sure if Sylvester is listening in. Let’s wait until-”
“He’s not listening in. He’s over there. Or he was,” Nora said.
Mary turned her eyes away from the crack in the door. Lacey moved away from Nora to better see Nora’s face, her expression serious.
“Okay, honey,” Lillian said.
Helen could see the change in Lillian’s body language, she could hear the shift in breathing, and she imagined she could hear the increased speed of Lillian’s heartbeat. Her own heartbeats increased in response.
All of this was so enjoyable and so terrifying at the same time, like the thrill of standing on a ledge.
“Abby: Duncan’s asleep. But Quinton is okay. The rest of us are okay too.”
“Give Quinton a hug for me,” Helen said.
“Let’s keep it serious,” Lillian said, quiet. Then, louder, she said, “Sy was there?”
“Ashton: Duncan got gassed. Sylvester wanted to talk. He talked with Duncan, then with me, then with Emmett. Emmett told Sylvester he was willing to negotiate, using what you told him to say. Then Sylvester disappeared.”
“Oh, okay, wow,” Lillian said. “Too many things to ask and respond to. Is Duncan okay? Do I need to treat him? Do I need to treat any of you?”
“Ashton: Sylvester said he would wake up with a bad headache. I don’t think we need you.”
“Alright,” Lillian said.
“Ashton: We wondered if we should tell you right away. We didn’t want to distract you when you’re in trouble, and Lara said you weren’t out of trouble.”
Mary spoke, her voice low, so she wouldn’t be heard by anyone outside, “We’re not, but it was right to fill us in. When in doubt, more information is best.”
“Ashton: I remember you saying that to Duncan. But the reason we decided to share was because we asked a woman and she said some things about the people chasing you. It sounds like the people Sylvester provoked and was fighting with, the really dangerous people, they work for the Devil. He’s the leader of the biggest gang and it sounds like he’s still out there, unless Sylvester got him and the ordinary people don’t know yet.”
“Then we have a target,” Mary said.
“A distraction, not a target,” Lillian said. “But we can discuss that. Anything else, Ashton?”
“Ashton: No. Except it sounds like the children who didn’t leave the city or hide in the houses of people they know might be at a place called the yard. We were going to go in the morning.”
“Good. Sleep. Take care of Duncan. Get him to drink lots when he’s awake. We’ll touch bases and ask questions when everything is wrapped up. But it’ll be redundant and unfair if we discuss the Sylvester situation before Duncan is conscious.”
“Okay,” Lillian said.
There was a brief pause. No further messages from the others.
“The false Lambs accomplished what we wanted,” Lillian said. “He’s showed himself and revealed his hand, a little.”
“But we’re tied up here,” Mary said, moving the door to peer through the gap.
“You know him better than I do,” Lacey said. “Why did Sylvester run? Why not take the offer and talk to Emmett?”
Helen, Mary, and Lillian all started speaking at the same time, each with their own interpretation.
Lacey held up a hand, indicating for them to be quiet, then pointed at Helen.
“He’s introducing himself,” Helen said. “He wants to greet the little ones, show off, let them know who he really is. He already started, leaving Quinton and the other animals for them. But if he ends up staying and asking about what Emmett knows, then their first impression of him is about that as much as it is about anything else.”
“Disagree?” Lacey asked Mary and Lillian.
“Not wholly,” Mary said, while Lillian shook her head.
“You both look like you want to say something. Mary?” Lacey asked.
“It’s part of it. He exposes himself to danger, the longer he’s there. He wants to act, leave an impact, and move on. And we can’t forget that he has schemes in play. We’re inside an organism of his making. He has to tend to it, keep it fed, keep everything in alignment. He’s probably running everywhere, trying to keep an eye on the Devil, on us, on the new Lambs, and on everyone that’s working for him.”
“Good,” Lacey said. “Lillian. Your thoughts.”
“It ties into what Helen said. He’s trying to prove something. Not just to the false Lambs, but to us. He wants to show that he’s okay, that he’s strong. He can’t negotiate with Emmett until he knows what Emmett wants and he he’s in a position of power. So he’s backing off. We put him on the back foot. It’s a good thing. Hopefully it’s a thing we can leverage later.”
“Predicated on dealing with the Devil. Even knowing he’s a distraction,” Mary said.
“Do you disagree?” Mary asked.
“No. Can you and Helen handle it? Or at least get us started?”
Mary glanced at Helen.
“I want to kill,” Helen said. “I’m antsy.”
“We can handle it,” Mary said. “The group that was following us backtracked a few minutes ago, there are a few stragglers. If we deal with the stragglers, we can follow the others. Maybe back to the Devil.”
“I don’t think we should go after the Devil just yet, unless it’s to gather information,” Lillian said. “That was a lot of people he had running after us there. We don’t know what kind of resources he has.”
“We’ll move as a group,” Mary suggested. “You’re Sy’s most likely target, besides Duncan. You stay close.”
Helen hugged her arms, felt the joints stretch as she used her own strength to the point that she was almost damaging herself. She felt the faint, tart-tasty rush at the sensation.
Too many parts of her brain were hungry for that sensation, and squeezing herself and stretching herself weren’t enough to sate that hunger.
“I’ll get set up first,” Lillian said. She undid the clasps on the container she’d brought with her. “Just in case.”
Helen fought back the eagerness by squeezing herself harder. She’d been on the boundary of damaging herself, and now she crossed those bounds, squeezing enough that skin would bruise and muscle would be damaged. She would be sore all night.
But it was important to keep the mask in place.
It was just her and Mary. Helen felt that this was when Mary was most Mary and Helen was most Helen.
She was good at watching faces. She was good at seeing how people moved. Mary was a puppet guided by the hand of an expert puppeteer, one that had made her graceful and forceful in her movements, dangerous and stern to behold, held aloft by strings of razor wire.
It was with this keen eye for movement and expression that she saw a flicker of fear on Mary’s face. Not because Mary had seen a daunting enemy. No, Mary had looked back to see if Helen was keeping up, which was sometimes a problem. Helen had let the mask of smiles and cheer drop away. With no obvious targets to go after, she felt like a dog that had had its bone snatched away a few times before she could seize it. Teased, frustrated, overeager now.
As Mary had looked back, she had seen the naked hunger on Helen’s face, and Helen, in turn, had seen Mary pick up her pace and move a little further away.
“Soon,” Mary said.
She didn’t like running. She wasn’t good at it. The ones who had gotten ahead of them had ended up too far ahead. Too hard to trace, and there weren’t enough other leads to follow. They hadn’t been able to follow them back to the Devil. Perhaps if Ashton and the other false Lambs hadn’t reached out, they might have left sooner. But Helen was glad that Ashton had called.
Mary’s hand went up, gesturing.
Helen took the direction, scaling the side of a building. Hooks at her wrists and the base of her toes helped provide the leverage. She hugged the wall, stretching to reach higher, and reduce the number of times she had to lift her own body weight up to the next point.
The roof had a heavy overhang, and she had to reach back and up to make contact with it. She gripped the underside of a board that pointed down to the ground, hard enough that her fingers bit into the wood, then let herself swing away from the wall. She folded herself up and over the edge, then hugged the roof as she moved up and across it.
This… this was okay.
She looked back, and she saw Lillian, Lacey, and Nora trailing behind. The group settled into a position just around the corner. Lillian signaled to Helen, and Helen signaled back.
In the other direction, there were people. Three men, a stitched, and a woman in a lab coat that was holding the leash of a medium-sized warbeast. It looked canine or feline, sleek and built for running, and it had a mane that suggested something lion was in it, but it had the raw size of a bear, not a dog.
One of the men, the woman, the stitched and probably the warbeast were all Academy. They were talking with the two other men, who looked rougher around the edges. Criminals. All three men and the woman were smoking.
The stitched looked strong. It had a gun, four-barreled, and each barrel looked big enough that Helen could have put her fist into it. A hand cannon?
This was better than okay.
While Mary got into position, moving around a building so she might be able to get at the chatting, smoking group from the other side, Helen watched them. She looked at the expressions on their faces, the fact that the Academy group and the criminal group didn’t seem to entirely get along, the way they moved and looked frustrated.
Her lips parted slightly. She watched them and drank them in. The beautiful parts of them, the ugly parts of them, and all the warm, wet parts of them that she couldn’t see.
She shivered, and she put a smile on her face, watching through half-lidded eyes.
Piece by piece, she worked out how they were put together. The humans were easy, but there were little clues. One of the criminals limped. He’d been hurt earlier. He kept shifting position as he leaned against the wall, putting all of his weight on one leg, while trying to find a good position for the sore one.
The handler in the lab coat didn’t like the criminal who stood nearest to her, she didn’t laugh at his jokes, but her eyes were the same eyes that Gordon and Mary had had sometimes, before they would use all of the ingenuity and cleverness that they had learned from the Lambs to slip away from everyone’s sight.
There was an intercourse in the way those two looked at each other. It was a given that they would enjoy each other’s company.
The stitched was harder. He was built Bruno big, sturdy, and strong, so that he could use that cannon without falling over. Reinforced all over. Taking him apart and breaking him down would be a puzzle.
And the Warbeast. She had to study the way the light from nearby streetlamps struck its muscle, showing where the muscles were and how it moved. Where did the muscles begin and where did they end?
She suspected it was hungry. It had been running earlier. A faint sheen of sweat had collected on its fur and made its mane clump in strands.
Helen watched, and she felt at peace. She studied them, and she found herself becoming intensely fond of them. She wanted them. She wanted to feel the way their clothes rubbed against sweaty skin, the way that that fur felt, with the sweat on it, and how, when she crushed it, it rubbed across hard, Academy-designed muscle.
Next to actually sating the instincts and impulses she had been created to have, being this close and imagining it was fine.
Mary was in position, standing inside a house, not four feet from the warbeast, with a wall and window separating them. None too soon. Helen might have gone in herself, if she’d had to wait any longer.
Mary signaled. Helen signaled back.
Within a few moments, they were both making long series of gestures, reading what the other was gesturing at the same time they gestured themselves.
They stopped. Helen checked the coast was clear.
Then she let herself fall from the roof.
She knew how her own body moved. She knew how she was put together. She’d been awake and alert enough times as she was taken apart and examined from the inside out.
Heavy impacts could make her bleed, but it was hard for one to deliver lasting damage. She landed on the street, letting joints dislocate with the impact, and pushing her jaw to dislocate as well. Cartilaginous bones flexed rather than break.
She landed as a crumpled mess, twitched violently, and then went still, one eye open and staring, her jaw dislocated on the one side.
“Good Lords!” came the response. Then, after a moment, less surprised and more shocked, “Good fucking lords.”
“That’s one of the ones we were chasing. Where the hell did she come from?” Criminal, by the roughness of his voice.
“Doesn’t matter, I don’t think,” the man from the Academy said.
Helen remained where she was. She constricted muscles around one of her hearts and forced it to stop. She let the other one slow.
“It matters. It’s fucking weird. Dead little girls don’t just appear out of nowhere. The hells?”
“Language, my man,” the Academy man said.
“What do we do with it?”
“Feed it to the warbeast. Maybe leave some pieces around for proof? Can you do that?”
The woman spoke, “I could.“
“You don’t sound pleased at the idea.”
“No. I’m not, really,” the woman said.
Helen waited, patient. Mary was waiting too.
After a moment, the warbeast began pacing closer. the woman walked a short distance behind it.
Its head drew nearer. Beautiful, lovely creature. It sniffed. Helen longed to bury her face in its body. It was engineered life, fine tuned, like the intricate pieces of a watch, but it was about killing and violence, not time. Killing and violence had brought it into this world and killing and violence would take it out, and it would be beautiful and it would become art as the circle closed.
She ached for it.
But for this, for this moment, she could put the eagerness away and be dead. She could delay the gratification.
An idle part of her wondered if Ibbot ached. If he experienced this.
She was his Galatea. The woman carved according to his design. She was to be the woman that would serve him and be his, in a way that an ordinary woman could never be. Child and wife and partner and yet neither. Impermanent. He delayed his gratification by nearly twenty years. She would become the woman he had wanted, and she would die a few years later.
She hated him and loved him, for that, as she lay dead on the street. The warbeast opened its jaws, used massive canines to lift her arm, and then to drop it. It fell limp to the ground.
“What the hell is wrong? Order it to eat her.”
“I did,” the handler said. “But we created the hunter warbeasts to hunt. They get a diet of living prey. They don’t eat carrion.”
Helen’s eye didn’t move as she stared at the warbeast, but she gazed on that beautiful chimera with adoration, with her own satisfaction brimming over at the knowledge that she had acted out her death sufficiently to fool the creature, and with the full knowledge she was about to destroy this creature that she loved a little.
The handler whistled, and the warbeast turned to go.
Helen moved, relying on locked muscles to hold limbs rigid where joints were dislocated. She stroked the creature’s mane.
It jumped as if she’d stabbed it, startled now that the carrion was alive. Her fist closed on the mane, and she hauled herself to a standing position. One side of her jaw still dislocated, she bent over the thing, kissing it between the eyes.
It tried to bite her, turning its head, and she moved with it, hand going to the other side of its mane, her body contorting to stay out of the way of its jaws.
Her legs went around its neck, and as it moved, trying again to bite her, she shifted her grip up its head, embracing its muzzle, clamping its jaws shut with one hand.
Near her, the Academy man died, his throat slashed.
Mary appeared in the midst of the collected group, her attention on the stitched. She moved an arm and pulled on razor wire, pulling a gun from the hand of one of the criminals. She’d picked the right one. Helen was glad. She was worried the gestures hadn’t been exact enough, what with their different perspectives.
The chimera shook its head, trying to dislodge Helen, and with each movement, she shifted her grip. Fingertips pushed past fur and into muscle and bone, finding holds there. It turned its head, trying to pull back and away, and she forced its head to remain turned.
“Shhh,” Helen whispered, as the creature tried shaking its head to get it back into a more normal position, and she used that to turn it even further the opposite way. She peeled off a shoe and twisted her foot around to pinch the creature’s carotid artery between her toes and the ball of her foot.
Once the artery was pinched, it didn’t take long. It weakened swiftly, and as it stopped fighting her, she was able to adjust her hold, leveraging most of the muscles in her body to twist its head further, until the connection between the skull and the spine could no longer be maintained.
She rose to her feet, making sure to do it in a way that might unnerve those who remained.
There were only two. The handler was working to undo the coil of chain that she had wound around her own wrist, so she wouldn’t have to hold the leash with her hand. The second was one of the criminals, now lying on the ground, a bola around his ankles.
“You said you wanted these two. I’m not about to question how your mind works.”
“It feels like cheating, this way,” Helen said.
“Don’t complain. I could have killed them while you were kissing that creature. This is me being nice. You asked for these two, they’re yours.”
“You’re lovely,” Helen said. She reached for the warbeast’s leash, pulling herself herself along it hand after fist as she followed it to the other end. She looked at the handler. “You’re lovely too.”
The handler released herself from the chain and stumbled back, while Helen lunged forward. As if unsure that Helen would catch her quarry, Mary drew an arm back, as if to throw something.
But Helen’s fingertips caught at cloth. She pulled that cloth into her fist, and seized it. She had her target. There was nothing the woman could do, now. She could pull back and tear the cloth, but even if she did, Helen would draw forward more than she drew herself away.
Helen hauled herself closer, wrapping an arm around, and dug fingertips into the small of the woman’s back. She drew herself close, her temple pressing against the handler’s cheek.
“Hello,” Helen greeted the handler. “You’re going to come with me and answer questions, and then I’ll make this fast, okay? You won’t take any more than five minutes to die. But only if you listen.”
“What the fuck?” the woman asked.
“I want to hear you say ‘yes’,” Helen said.
The woman reached to her waist. Again, Mary moved like she was going to throw something. Helen moved herself into the way and grabbed the woman’s wrist before she could fully draw the knife.
“You said they were mine,” Helen said, pouting. “Stop acting like you’re going to interfere.”
“Alright,” Mary said. She put her weapon away and raised her hands, surrendering.
“As for you-” Helen said. “I thought we had a compromise.”
She squeezed the wrist of the hand that held the knife until she felt things start to break under her grip. At the same time, pressing her body against the woman’s front, she ground her fingers into the small of the handler’s back, digging into flesh in the same way she might work them into hard clay. Blood welled out.
“He’s going to get away,” Mary observed, hands still lifted in surrender. “You have about a minute.”
The woman’s clutching hand did nothing to break Helen’s grip. That failed, she dug fingernails into Helen’s face. When they didn’t penetrate, she scratched, hard.
The damage was mild at best.
Helen had been been made to do this. Ibbot wasn’t a stupid man. He knew victims would scratch. They would gouge at eyes and search out weak points, try to strangle her or beat her until she was forced to let go.
He had made her so that the damage she dealt would far outpace what little damage they could do to her in turn.
Her fingers dug in deep enough that she could wrap her hand around the column of the woman’s spine, with all of the related systems and bundles. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the handler had fallen to the ground.
“Crawl,” Helen said. “To him.”
The handler became the handled, as Helen walked, bent over, gripping the woman by a handle that the woman dare not break or test. She used mostly hands, not legs, to move toward the Devil’s man, who was only just getting free of the bola.
Too slow, too slow.
“Grab him. Hold him,” Helen said.
There was hesitation. She adjusted her grip, tightened.
Reluctantly, the handler obeyed.
“Forward, climb further up. That’s good,” Helen said, once the handler was lying across the man’s legs.
They’d been looking at each other, making silent promises they would be together later.
Now they were together. There was beauty and art in that. Both had lost the use of their legs, by bondage or by breakage. Whether it was sympathy, reflection, balance, or whatever it was, it made sense to her.
She made sure to break one of his wrists, before seizing the other. She held it firmly as she twisted his arm, then used her legs and other arm to bind herself around the two of them at once. She adjusted the screaming woman’s position.
“This can end quickly,” she said. “But you’ll want to stop screaming and start talking. Tell us about the Devil. Where he is, where you were supposed to go after you were done here.”
His face a mere handspan from the handler’s, the criminal blustered out a blunt, “Fuck you!”
Spittle flew from his mouth as he said it.
“If you’re okay here, I’ll make sure the others know where we are.”
“Okay,” Helen said.
She turned her attention to the man, hand flat against his belly.
She spoke, her voice soft enough it was almost drowned out by his constant cussing. “I’m very very excited, because I get to see a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, soon. And when I get excited I want to break people. Usually I start from the outside in. I break the fingers, then the hands, and then the arms. Today, as excited as I am, I want to try something different. I’ll reach inside of you, work past muscle and fat, and I’ll grab your organs, one by one. I’ll start with less important ones, and I’ll crush them in my hands. Then I’ll grab vital ones, to see what they feel like while they’re alive in my hand, and I’ll do that for a little while, until all the damage that I did in getting to them adds up and you expire.”
He’d stopped cussing and started listening.
Her fingernails made the initial dig into the flesh of his belly.
“I’ll talk! I’ll talk! Lords of the fucking Crown Kingdom, I’ll talk, just- please don’t.”
Her hand trembled there, against his stomach.
“I’m not very well,” she confided to him, her voice a whisper. “And the people who would usually settle me down are preoccupied.”
“What?” he asked, bewildered.
“Nothing. Never mind me,” she said, smiling. “I’m going to try to be nice tonight. You can talk, and I do my best to hold off and not squeeze bits of you into pulp. But do try to be thorough.”
She reached up with a bloody hand to brush at his cheek, leaving a streak there.
She shifted position, still holding the woman tight against her back, and laid her head across the criminal’s chest. It was as if he was her bed and pillow, and the handler was her blanket. Flesh and blood and pain and warmth all together in an artificial womb she had pulled in around herself.
He spoke, telling her about the Devil, and she listened.