Every moment she was out in the open was a moment of restrained terror. Only her allies were to be trusted, and they were outnumbered by a hundred thousand to one.
People milled through the streets. The old were potentially demented. Other adults were healthy and strong enough to pose a danger to her, all potentially criminal.
Facts had been ingrained into her understanding and perception on a raw, structural level. Anything bigger than her was scary. Anything that moved quickly was cause for alarm. Color oft suggested poison. Prey had eyes spaced further apart, while predators had eyes placed closer together, on the fronts of their heads.
There were so very many people in this city, and almost all of them were bigger. They moved briskly this way and that, unpredictable, and Helen and Mary and Lillian and Lacey all navigated that unpredictable current with ease, while she jumped and relied on them to create a path for her to walk. Sometimes one of them would place a hand on her back or her shoulder, to help guide her. Each time, she would have to keep from jumping and unsheathing the weapons stored in her back and shoulders to retaliate.
And this milling crowd of people were sometimes dressed in bright colors, dyed sleeves and bright decorations moving quickly past her, as if they were going to swoop into her mouth or brush past her. They had eyes on the fronts of their heads, close together. Predator eyes. If she didn’t keep her gaze on the ground, then she was bombarded with the aggressive stares of the crowd.
It was easiest and best to keep her head down. Be small. Let Helen lead her, holding one of her sleeves.
Scared, she buzzed out the word, using structures in her head, chest, and the largest bones of her body. The signal went out, and she could hear the distorted reverberation as it bounced off of large objects and made its way back to her, faint.
She felt the signals in her scalp like she felt sounds in her ears. She couldn’t help but process the signals as words. Not like an echo, it came faster, from all directions, her own voice bombarding and taunting her.
Scared scared scared scared scared…
One word was enough to help draw Lara’s attention. Now she could expand on the thought. Crowds are bad, just woke up, the sun is too bright, feels like we’re walking into danger.
Again, the signal came back to her, but the signals came back at different intervals, some faint, some strong.
Crowds just sun are woke walking so into bad…
-We’re close– Lara replied. -Not too close, but close. The people with you are the strongest Lambs.-
-Strongest Lambs. We almost got shot. Now everyone acts like everything is normal. The sun is too bright. I want more clouds more rain.-
Nora felt reassured. This was something they did. They would echo each other’s thoughts and build on them. The sun was too bright, shining through an inconsistent mix of clouds. It was hot, and the parts of her that were human were sticking to her shroud of clothing.
The sun is too bright. I want more clouds. More rain. I feel sticky.
-Better than being sticky with blood.–
Hate blood. -Hate blood.-
Their messages nearly coincided. They both communicated amusement to each other.
Lara’s voice was quieter. They were positioned badly. It sounded like she was shouting, which only made the next message better. -You stink.-
Well, I never!
More mutual amusement.
Helen tugged on her arm, pulling her to one side. Nora felt fear seize her. The fear redoubled when she saw why Helen had pulled on her arm. A man had a dog on a leash, and it passed within a few feet of Nora, her fear only seeming to make it more interested.
Then it was gone, moving in the other direction, well behind her. She scowled at the place it had just vacated.
“Hate dogs,” Hate dogs.
-Nasty. Filthy. Aggressive.-
“Cats too,” she said, under her breath.
“I know,” Helen said. She adjusted her hold on the cloth to give a reassuring squeeze to Nora’s largest claw. “But it’s rare a dog will hurt you.”
“Rare,” Nora said. She hunched her shoulders forward. “That means it’s just often enough to catch me off guard.”
Helen stroked her head. She heard jumbled noise at all the contact there, false positives on signals and sound, but at the same time, she didn’t mind it. The contact appealed to the part of her that was more human.
Would that part go away at some point in the future? One day she would transition to become less human and become something of a warbeast, albeit one meant more for communication purposes than for outright combat.
She would lose her skin and her diet would change. She would become far larger. She faced the possibility of losing her voice, in whole or in part, and her doctors were busying themselves with figuring out how to handle it if that happened, because that would invalidate her purpose.
Lara was going on a tangent about cats that Nora couldn’t follow. She had to focus to catch it.
-hiss and spit. Little lambs are better.-
You hiss and spit, Nora sent the message.
-Do not. Smelly Nora. Telling lies. You only have three claws on your two feet. Inferior sister!-
Slimy Lara. You secretly lick cat butts. Detestable creature!
They communicated mutual amusement, a babbling fluctuation that could be interpreted like laughter, if she really tried. But she didn’t really need to try. This was how they laughed.
I just screamed to this city about your secret and nobody hears. Tales of your furtive lickings reach past person and building and nobody understands, Nora communicated, along with a titter of amusement.
But the only reply was a mere, –Gone.-
Then, just like that, there was no noise but the faint echo of her own laughter finding its way back to her.
Lara had something to focus on, so she had ended the conversation there. Nora no longer had her distractions from the bustle of the crowd, the countless small and large terrors.
“I think this is the building,” Lillian said.
“It looks like it,” Mary said.
They moved off to one side of the street, where they had some limited cover but could still lean over to take a look at the building. It was tall, four floors, and situated on a corner. The intersection wasn’t right angles, however, so the building was more triangular than square in shape. Like most of the buildings in this city, it was all pale stone, more yellow than gray, with plants crawling up it. The windows were decorated.
“Plan of approach? Do you want to get involved, Lillian?” Mary asked.
“I’ll participate some. When we checked last night, it looked like nine, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mary said.
“And we can expect there to be more, if they’re bolstering their numbers after their losses last night.”
“Yes. Twelve, fifteen, twenty. Anything more would feel like too many, unless there’s more to this particular building than it being only a gathering place.”
Lillian nodded. “Your comfort level is twelve, I remember.”
“More or less, depending on how many there are in a room. Helen can take six. She can also take on the most dangerous threats,” Mary said. “But after last night-”
“Last night was lovely,” Helen said. “I needed last night.”
“You’re running out of clean outfits to wear,” Mary said. “You need to stop tearing them apart. Leave the inside parts of them inside them. For the sake of your wardrobe.”
Nora watched as Helen pouted.
“I like my wardrobe – I’ll miss the dress with the blue trim and the ruffly straps. But I also like inside bits.”
Mary covered her mouth, “We know where Sylvester is-”
She dropped her hand, then continued, “Given time constraints, if you come, we can’t be waiting ten minutes for Lacey to go and buy something else for you to wear. And we can’t be walking down the street in broad daylight with you dripping blood. You need to stay clean and tidy.”
Another pout, “You’re making me fight with both hands tied behind my back.”
Lillian dryly commented, “I saw you kill someone last night with just your legs. I know for a fact you can very literally kill people with both hands tied behind your back.”
“My fingers weren’t behind my back, they were in the other man’s eye sockets, silly. That’s leverage for twisting around and moving!”
“It’s true,” Mary said.
“Don’t. No, enough of that,” Lillian cut in. “When you two gang up on me, bad things happen.”
Nora felt out of place. The Lambs were made for this. Ashton and Helen and Lillian and Sylvester and even Mary had been made to do these things. But Nora and Lara and the others had been made to avoid trouble. They had been made fearful by nature so they would stay alive and be available to send messages if they were needed. They had been made dangerous and given weapons so they could protect themselves if cornered, not so they could pursue and chase and attack.
Lillian spoke with some authority. “Consensus, then, is that you’re lead, Mary, I come as a just-in-case, maybe I take out one or two or make a distraction, Helen comes and doesn’t get her clothes dirty, and Lacey stays with Nora?”
“Yes,” Mary said.
“I’m coming under protest,” Helen said. “I’m not even that fond of this dress. Ibbot bought it. Now I think about things he said every time I wear it.”
“You only have two other dresses,” Mary said. “And for all we know, we might have to get on a train to keep up with Sylvester. We might not have time to shop for clothes.”
“I’ll make do,” Helen said, firmly.
Lillian looked at Lacey and rolled her eyes.
“You’re okay here?” Lillian asked Nora and the older woman, as she bent down to access her case.
“I think we’ll manage,” Lacey said.
“Okay,” Lillian said. “Give me a hand?”
Nora watched as Lacey helped Lillian put on the sleeves. They were arms, much like the ones that might belong to a brutish stitched, but there was little fat to them, only skin and muscle, with supporting structures. Lillian winced a bit as she pushed her hands inside. She flexed the meaty hands on the ends.
She then moved her hands, flexing them as far back as they could, until the wrists stuck out further forward than the fingers, and syringe needles sprouted from the center of each palm.
Nora managed to keep from jumping.
Lillian moved one needle to her upper arm, and injected herself. She closed her eyes and let her head hang, before taking a deep breath.
Lillian wasn’t even an experiment. She was smart, she was courageous, and she knew some Academy science, but she was human. She still chose to go into danger.
Nora wasn’t sure she’d ever understand that. She envied it.
“We’ll be back soon,” Lillian said. “About…”
“Ten to fifteen minutes,” Mary said.
“About that long. Then we’ll have up-to-date information on what the Devil is doing. His people have been doing a bit too good of a job finding us, so let’s hope we can cut that short.”
“Or cut him short,” Mary said.
Lillian winced. “Or that. I hate the feeling we’re playing into Sylvester’s hands by getting embroiled in this.”
“But you also hate the fact that this is a scumbag of the highest order,” Mary said. “One that hurts kids and sells very sketchy drugs.”
“It’s not that they’re sketchy. It’s that I know what some of those drugs are, and he shouldn’t have them, or anything close to them,” Lillian said. “So for now, we’re on the same page.”
“Kill the Devil, then find Sy,” Helen said. “I want dibs on the Devil.”
“We’ve already made the rules,” Mary said. “No dibs. It makes for ugly kinds of competition.”
“But it’s romantic,” Helen said. “Imagine being able to say the Devil was brought down by the power of love.”
“Constriction and strangulation? Disembowelment? By having someone reach inside him and cause severe internal damage?” Mary asked.
“I prefer to say it’s defeat by hug,” Helen said, prim and proud, “It’s a politer, neater phrasing.”
“You’re not getting dibs,” Mary said.
The three girls walked off.
“Finally, a quiet moment,” Lacey said.
Nora wasn’t sure she was happy with the quiet moment. She wanted to hear from Lara and know that Lara was okay. Talking made her feel less anxious.
“Can I see your eyes?” Lacey asked.
Nora stepped into shadow and lowered her hood. She looked up at Lacey. She didn’t need to be prompted to move her eyes, looking up, then over, then the other direction, then down. She pulled her lower eyelids down, then her upper eyelids up.
“Good. The sun exposure wasn’t too much.”
“Gets easier,” Nora said.
“Filaments and hair are fine?”
Nora touched her head. She nodded.
She flexed her hands without pulling the sleeves down. She nodded.
“Good,” Lacey said. “I wish they were all more like you.”
“I wish I was more like them.”
“Dangerous road to go down, in more than one way,” Lacey said. “Tough and often short life to lead. That’s one. Trying to be something you’re not? I’ve seen too many people burn themselves out like that. You have to have faith in yourself.”
“I do. I just know what my self is. I was made to do something, I do it. I’m good at that.”
“I can tell you, Nora, that I’ve seen a lot of projects start out as one idea and then become something else, as the situation demands.”
“As the Academy demands.”
“Yes. Sometimes. Lillian’s sleeves there are one of those things, but it was her needs and demands that shaped what she was doing.”
A male voice cut in, “and I’m another example, aren’t I, Lacey?”
Nora froze, and immediately began signaling to Lara.
Sylvester! Sylvester! Sylvester! Sylvester! Sylvester! Sylvester!
Lacey, meanwhile, reached to her hip, turning her head, looking for the source of the voice.
“Don’t draw the gun, Lacey. Let’s not make this that kind of encounter. I’ve got a gas grenade, and civilians would get hurt, and… I’m just here to talk.”
Sylvester! Sylvester! Sylvester! Where?
Nora looked up. She saw two feet extended somewhere above her head, owned by a figure that was sitting in the windowsill.
-Coming!- Lara replied.
Lacey followed Nora’s line of sight, sighed, and put the gun back at her waistband, extending her hands to show that they were empty.
Sylvester looked down, peeking, and then hopped down from the second floor. Nora winced at his imminent, fast approach, felt fear response mechanisms throughout her body kick into action. He landed, pivoted, and came to a stop with his back resting against the wall in front of them. He held up the canister.
She could attack. She should attack. She had the weapons. They could run from the canister.
“You look so nice with the hood down,” Sylvester said.
Nora remained silent. She looked at the boy, who was younger than Lillian. He wore dark slacks tucked into summer boots, a white button up shirt with some buttons undone, and the sleeves rolled up. A mix of sweat and oils made his black hair look wet. It had been neat not long ago, but the loose curls were pricking up, like a dozen or two dozen black fishhooks. His nose and chin were sharp, cheekbones noticeable, and eyebrows arched.
His eyes were penetrating and predatory in a way that exaggerated what she’d seen on some other people’s faces on the street, yet he wasn’t trying to threaten. Just the opposite. He avoided eye contact, turned his shoulders so he wasn’t even facing her.
He stepped away from the wall, looking as if he’d walk out of the alley and into the main street, then turned around, his back resting against the same wall that Nora was standing by. He slouched as he came to rest there, toes off the ground, heels firmly set. With the angle he was positioned at, his eyes were on a level with hers.
He still didn’t make eye contact. He was the least threatening threat she’d had to handle in recent memory.
“Hello, Nora,” he said.
She remained silent.
He leaned forward, looking past Nora to the taller, red-haired woman. “Hello Lacey.”
“I should have known,” Lacey said. “Can’t have a quiet conversation.”
“Sorry to intrude,” he said. “I don’t know how many opportunities I’ll have to actually check in and talk to people, so I take the opportunities that arise.”
“Are you going to treat me like you did Duncan?” Lacey asked.
“No,” Sylvester said. He craned his head to look out of the alley and look in the direction the girls had gone. “If anything, I wanted to apologize.”
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Changing subjects, to keep me off balance?” Lacey asked.
“Maybe that’s a bad habit of mine. But this very moment, I’m watching Mary and Lillian as they approach the building. I was watching Helen earlier. Their skirts and dresses, the way they move, the dance… do you know what I mean if I talk about the dance?”
“No,” Lacey said. “I’m sure you’ll tell us.”
“What’s the dance?” Nora asked.
“When you know people and have worked with people for so very long that you know how they move, where they’ll go, what they’ll do. You move in concert. It’s like three people on a dance floor. There’s a beauty in it. Then you have three beautiful girls carrying that out…”
He craned his head some more.
“I’m kind of captivated,” he said. He laughed, very briefly. “I might actually be in trouble, if I get this mesmerized when they’re actually coming after me.”
“Let’s hope,” Lacey said, dryly.
Sylvester turned, abruptly, and Nora jumped, stepping back. Lacey put hands on her upper arms, stopping her from bumping into her.
“Sorry,” Sylvester said. “Got distracted, forgot I didn’t want to spook you, Nora.”
Nora didn’t speak or move in response.
“Okay. Lacey. I’m very aware of the venom in your words. Fitting, given your field of specialty. But I did want to say sorry. I handled things badly. I’ve had time to think. We left it on a bad note.”
“Just because you’re apologizing doesn’t mean I have to forgive,” Lacey said.
“Very true. But remember, forgiving me would be for you, not for me. It’s about not letting things burden you or get to you. And you can forgive me without saying that what I did was okay. I sabotaged your career and made things very difficult for you a number of times, for my own sake, because of my own perspective. You could have ridden the Wyvern project to a place of some prominence and instead I selfishly kicked you off it. Now that I’m seeing things from another perspective, and I’m having to value the support I do have, instead of having support from all corners, with the Academy… I regret pushing you away. I know you could have been one of the half-decent doctors.”
“Please don’t try to manipulate forgiveness out of me,” Lacey said, unmoved.
“That-” Sylvester started. He stopped, then leaned against the wall. “-Wasn’t what I was doing. But okay.”
“Okay,” Lacey echoed him.
“I’m glad the girls are enjoying themselves, going after the Devil,” Sylvester said. “I’m glad I get to watch as they do it.”
“You were supposed to be watching over the others,” Lacey accused.
“They’re a bit… tied up at the moment. And I have other eyes.”
“Of course you do.”
“I’m not worried,” Sylvester said, smiling. “I’m fascinated, though, by the fact that the girls are doing things so roundabout. I thought they’d go right for the head of the snake, or go right for me. But they’re doing things surgically, going after the Devil’s peripheral groups, lieutenants, and holdings. Is that because they don’t have the numbers to barrel through, or is it Lil’s influence?”
“No comment,” Lacey said.
“Of course,” Sylvester said.
–Coming coming coming.- Lara signaled.
Nora closed her eyes, as if she could avoid being here altogether. She trembled a bit between Lacey’s reassuring hands.
“Nora,” Sylvester said.
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve been watching pretty much all the time. One group or the other. Binoculars and lip reading go a long way. I got your name, but I’m… somewhat stumped about how you and Lara work. I thought it was a subtler sort of messenger bird? A hive inside your body, you send her a messenger bug with encoded messages? But it’s faster than that.”
She set her jaw.
He smiled, still not looking directly at her, but at her shoulder, at her sleeve, then the ground between them.
He dropped down to a crouch, still holding the canister. Sitting on his ankles, he waddled closer to her, closing the distance.
She shrank back against Lacey’s side, but when Lacey didn’t budge she had nowhere to go.
Slowly, Sylvester reached out, and took hold of the very end of the sleeve.
Did he know? That that was something her creators and Helen and Mary and Lillian did, at times, that reassured her, let her know they were there? Did he understand that?
“I wish I got to be there when they invited you to the group. That we could have been friends,” he said. “Not just you, but Lara, Emmett, and Abby. I would have liked to bring out the strong, beautiful parts of you and gotten to the point where we could have danced.”
She remained silent.
Lillian and Mary had been very firm about the fact that if she ever heard him talk, she should not believe a word he said.
But she almost believed him, even as she strained to bury his words under doubt and fear.
“But that’s the joke, isn’t it?” he asked. “If I’m on the team, you wouldn’t be. If Evette was on the team, I wouldn’t have been brought over. I’d be Lacey’s stress-testing experiment for a study drug that would be discarded when they were done with me.”
“You’re on Wyvern right now,” Lacey observed.
Nora turned her head, looking up at the woman, then back at Sylvester.
“I had an ‘appointment’ shortly after I saw Duncan’s group turn up,” he said. “I needed to make some last minute adjustments, and I wanted to be at my best.”
“Thought so,” Lacey said.
Sylvester let go of Nora’s sleeve. He rested his arms on his knees, as he crouched on the spot, low to the ground, relatively still.
“One of the three great tragedies we all have to deal with,” he said. “That we couldn’t all be together. Evette, Ashton, Gordon, Jamie, Helen, Mary, the new Lambs…”
“My condolences about Jamie,” Lacey said.
Sylvester startled at that. He looked at her.
Nora looked up at Lacey. For someone offering condolences, her face was very still.
“Yeah,” Sylvester said. “Thank you.”
“Can I ask? What are you up to, Sylvester?” Lacey asked. “I know you won’t give me a straight answer, but a part of me hopes you’d feel you owed me an answer.”
“I might. You mean here, right now? In general? In the bigger picture?”
“I’ll settle for any answers you’ll give me.”
“Right here, I’m enjoying the company of the Lambs the only way I can. Teasing, sticking to the shadows, watching, visiting when I’m sure I won’t get a knife in the back. I’ll let them, let you get close and then I’ll scurry away. If it all works out, I hopefully leave you with little rewards and tidbits that will make the Lambs look good even while I escape successfully every time.”
Nora transmitted the message.
“You’re actually answering,” Lacey said.
“There’s more to it, but saying more would be telling,” he said. He winked. “Uh, I forgot the questions you asked. What I’m doing right now…”
“And in general?”
“Living. Enjoying life. Missing people dear to me. Trying to protect children.”
“By giving a lunatic reason to hunt them down?”
“I’m a complicated lad of complicated means,” Sylvester said. He grinned.
Nora looked up. Lacey wasn’t smiling.
The grin slipped off his face. “This is a wake up call. It reminds people that the children need protecting. That the future needs protecting. It’ll serve as a scare, and force certain people’s hands. Already, the Devil’s old alliances are breaking down, people are questioning if he’s really an evil they can tolerate just because he’s the evil they know. When and if the Lambs execute him, people in power will be more careful about what they allow to happen. If the Lambs don’t, I might, depending.”
Nora continued transcribing. The only real disadvantage was that while she was doing it and Lara was telling the others, there was no way for Lara to communicate to her.
Lacey spoke, “And in the big picture? You threatened that you were doing something big.”
“I did,” Sylvester said.
“Would it be telling if you shared any hints?”
“Yes, but I’ll tell you anyway. In the Lamb’s first meeting with Fray, she challenged me. She asked me what drove me, what my core goal was. It was belief. Belief that there’s a better future. A way out of the trap we’re in.”
For the first time, he made direct eye contact with Nora. His eyes were very green, his eyelashes long and dark.
He continued, “And I still want that. I still believe the Lambs might play a role. And I actually have a way to do it. If I fail, I intend to be the only one that goes down in flames. If I succeed, I want to pull the Lambs up with me.”
“We’re not Lambs,” Nora said.
“Shh,” Lacey said, abrupt, as if she could shush Nora fast enough to cut her off, when the words had already left her lips.
“I know,” Sylvester says. “I can see that, just from the way you’re put together. Gordon, Helen and I, followed soon by Jamie, we meshed on a level almost right away. I don’t see that. And I caught some snippets of conversation and I put the pieces together. Maybe you’re stronger as individuals. Or as a pair, in you and Lara’s case, I don’t know. But, so long as I’m given a choice, I intend to raise you newcomers up, not push you down. And, just to ensure that you and the Lambs aren’t kept confined, I’ll let slip a detail, and you can tell the Academy you discovered it when I didn’t want you to.”
“Sounds too good to be true,” Lacey said.
“I’m a jerk like that,” Sylvester said. “Mauer’s killing nobles. I’ve heard rumors, some were being actively suppressed when I heard. Now the nobles are readying for a move against Mauer. I fully intend to get involved.”
“Could be a red herring,” Lacey said.
“Could be. Tell them. They’ll decide,” Sylvester said. He straightened. “Which reminds me. I’ve got a nasty habit of losing track of time, and they’re due back soon. And I can’t be sure where Duncan is, now.”
Nora transmitted the last of the transcription.
He walked past Nora and Lacey, deeper into the alley, turning so he wouldn’t have his back to either of them at any point in time. He walked backward for the latter half of the trip, before rounding a corner. He tossed the gas canister behind him, and the gas billowed out, protecting his retreat.
-Close.- Lara communicated.
But it was too late.
Lacey led Nora out of the now-hazardous alleyway and into the street, pulling up Nora’s hood and putting it back in place as she did so. Nora looked in the direction that the message had come from, and saw the others approaching at a run.
I’m not as scared as I was, she communicated the thought aloud.
-Why?– the question came. -How? I’d be so scared, in your shoes.-
She couldn’t articulate an answer in the minute or so it took the group to run down the length of the street and reach them.
Lara, the one individual in the whole world who didn’t scare Nora at least a little, ran into her full-force, wrapping sleeve-clad arms around Nora. Nora gripped her sister just as hard.
“What happened?” Duncan asked. “Did he slip away?”
As Lacey began to explain, turning her head to note that the three girls were joining the greater group, Nora turned her full focus to her sister.
“You’re shorter than me, you know, you depressing little abortion,” she whispered to Lara, gripping her tighter.
“By two centimeters, you cockroach. And you snort fresh rat poops,” Lara whispered back.
The two laughed in their own way, inaudible to the others.