“He’s here,” Lara whispered, translating, her eyes wide. Her claws were biting into the wood she was lying on with enough force to cut through her sleeves and dig notches into the surface.
She was scared, she was overwhelmed, she was looking for Ashton and Abby and Duncan and Emmett for support, especially Ashton and Abby, because those two were like her and they were almost a trio and Ashton calmed her down with his spores while Abby calmed her down by being Abby. But they weren’t here and she was with Helen and Mary now.
She’d suggested going with Helen and Mary, because she didn’t want to diverge. If she always went with Duncan’s group and Nora always spent time with Mary’s group, then they would become different individuals, and different could be bad. Ashton had said it wasn’t bad, but even though she didn’t remember her first sisters dying she remembered saying goodbye to the last two.
She and Nora called the first one as Whisper, because her communication wasn’t very strong, and the second one was Tremble, because her fear response was the strongest. She remembered how they sounded, and the brief moments of contact they had had when moving between the tanks and the metal tables where they were measured and examined. She remembered how they tasted when they were fed to her.
Her thoughts were running away from her.
She’d decided to do this, to go with the other group. She’d chosen this. She wished she hadn’t, but the decision had been made and she had a job to do.
Transcribing was good. Focusing on that helped calm her down. Talking and listening helped calm her.
“Elwes is on the way,” a man spoke to the Devil.
“Everyone, Mr. Colby.”
“What about the Poke?”
“Still on his way, I presume.”
“If his excuse isn’t good, he’ll pay. Meggot?”
“No word since he turned up in town. They might have got him when they were going after the others.”
“He was a waste of breath. Small loss,” the Devil spoke, his voice gravelly. There was a pause. “Lambs!”
Lara closed her eyes as her heart leaped in her chest.
“I assume the screams I heard outside were because of you! I know you’re here!”
“He,” Mary murmured, in Lara’s ear, making her jump. “You said he was here. Sylvester?”
Sylvester? she thrummed the word out with the structures in her bones.
-Yes.- came the reply, picked up by the fine filaments that ran in parallel with her hair, picked up in part by her claws and some of the finer structures in her bones. The word danced along her skull and the skin of her head like spoken words boomed in her ears.
“Yes,” she replied.
-He’s here to help. Lillian says he wants to play at being a proper Lamb again.–
“He wants to act like a Lamb again. He’s helping.”
“Lambs!” the Devil bellowed.
She didn’t transcribe. The voice was loud enough that Nora would be able to hear. She watched the Devil stalk across the third floor of the building. There were twenty-five men down there with him. All of the men had weapons.
“I asked about you,” the Devil spoke. “I know what you do. Information gatherers and assassins. Experiments. What a complicated relationship you seem to have with Sylvester. Is he with you now?”
Once Lara listened beyond the hoarse voice, she could tell that the man was talking funny. Rambling.
It made her think of her creators. They would uncork bottles in the lab on Friday nights and drink, and they would quickly get drunk. This was like that.
“Do you share his concern for the well-being of children?” the Devil asked. “I have to say, it was a clever thing. A surprising number of this city’s children disappeared. A clever disappearing act, not so long after he laid the bait.”
“Talker,” Mary murmured.
Lara relayed Mary’s message alongside everything the Devil was saying.
“But I buy and I supply to a number of cities. It has been roughly a day since Sylvester and I had the talk in the auditorium. Did you really think my reach was limited to this one city?”
Lara didn’t understand right away, but she saw Mary raise her head up and away from the floor, then lower it, lightly striking the floor with her forehead.
“They’re on their way to places all around the city. Wagons and carts of children that were for sale. And no, they aren’t coming to me. If you want to help them, you’ll have to find them.”
Mary raised her head to bang the floor again. Helen put out her hand, to intercept, softening the already faint impact.
“Sylvester, damn it,” Mary murmured.
“Harm me, and scores of children will die,” the Devil pronounced. “Unless one of you feels brave. A duel, one of you children against me.”
Mary moved to stand up. Helen grabbed her arm.
“No,” Helen whispered.
Lara finished relaying everything, then added, Mary wants to go.
-Lillian says no.–
“Lillian says no,” Lara said.
Mary relented, letting Helen pull her back down to a position on the floor.
-What are we doing? What’s happening? Where’s Sylvester now? I think he was moving down your way.–
I don’t know! Lara exclaimed.
-You’re useless. If we had real parents I bet they would kill themselves out of disappointment and shame.–
Better than the trio of being useless, stupid and weak. The world is worse off for having you in it. Skip the parent part and kill yourself out of disappointment and shame, you wretch.
Having Nora talking to her was helping her to relax and stay centered. She still gripped the floor, claws digging into wood, but she didn’t feel like she was going to lose her mind for an hour and come back to reality to find that an hour had passed. Not that that ever happened, but sometimes the fear got so very bad she thought she might not be able to handle it.
“No takers?” the Devil called out. “I know you’re listening. Let’s see. I have this notebook. All the locations of where the wagonfuls of children are being taken, where the nanny is, written on eight pages.”
Lara transcribed. She heard paper ripping.
“One page. The writing is only on the one side. One wagonful. Unless I get a sign, I burn it. The people there never get the message from me, the deadline comes and goes, and the children meet their end.”
Mary dropped her head down to the floor again.
“I didn’t specify how. But I have people I go to for tasks like these. I trust they’ll be creative.”
Mary looked at Helen. This time, when Mary rose to her feet, Helen didn’t stop her. Mary didn’t go straight down, but headed toward the open wall and the scaffold. Approaching from the outside.
Lara peered through the boards, communicating, Mary is going.
-Lillian: Damn it. This is not a good idea. She wanted to go anyway, this just gives her a reason.-
The Devil was a big man, veins standing out, muscles etched out, with barely any fat. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair messy.
He scared Lara. She was scared of most things, yes, but this man stood out to her. She had seen warbeasts that had been made to be scary, and somehow, even those Warbeasts didn’t seem to trigger most or all of her instinctive fears the same way that this man did. The placement of his eyes, the veins, his size, the way he moved, the way he sounded-
He scares me so much.
I’m scared for Mary.
-All of us here too. But they trust her. You bile stain.–
Helen reached over and put a hand over one of Lara’s claws. She didn’t blink once as she stared down at the proceedings.
The Devil was turning around. He chuckled as he saw Mary standing in a window.
“Good,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be a bitch of a girl.”
“It isn’t,” Mary said, in that way she sometimes did, that reminded Lara of her creators, very hoity-toity, capable of delivering verbal ripostes while still sounding eminently calm and well-mannered. “I’m a girl, no epithet warranted.”
The Devil undid the buttons on his shirt, one by one. The garment barely fit him, and peeled off him more than anything. He cast the shirt aside.
“I win, I get the little book,” Mary said. “You win… you get me. And you can use me to bait out the others, I assume.”
“They’re all out there, are they?” the Devil asked. He indicated the scaffolding that Mary had stepped off of. “I’m looking forward to taking a knife to that pretty face of yours. Peel it off, then carve and smash the muscle and bone until there’s no chance that your fancy doctors can give you a good replacement.”
“I look forward to you trying,” Mary said.
The Devil gestured. All of the men on the floor below backed off, clearing a space.
“No weapons,” he said. “Hands, fists, feet. Bite if you want to.”
Lara could see him bare his teeth in a smile. They seemed oversized, misshapen. Or was it an illusion?
“No weapons, then. If you insist,” Mary said.
“It ends when you cry mercy,” he said.
“That’s not going to happen. Given that we’re left with no alternatives, the real ending will have to be a surprise,” Mary said.
The Devil had to weigh something between twenty and twenty two stone, and it was all muscle, warped and drug-fueled. Mary was a third of that. Athletic, but not tuned to the same degree, and not as drugged.
“Come, now,” the Devil said. “I’ll even let you make the first move.”
Mary crouched a little, legs tense, eyeing the room. The floor was shaky in spots, Lara noticed. There were places that could see Mary tripping or stumbling, giving the Devil his chance. Ten meters separated them.
Mary dashed in the Devil’s direction.
“Shoot her,” the Devil ordered, the moment she had momentum.
Lara thought her heart would stop at the words, and the movement on the part of the men at the edges of the room, as they reached for guns.
Behind the Devil, a window shattered. Lara couldn’t see what it was, through the gaps in the floorboards. But it was a distraction. Perhaps it bought Mary a fraction of a second.
Mary changed direction. Too far into the room to reverse course and go for the window, she turned, running, and she leaped like a cat might, one hand going out, then down, as her legs rose. The other hand flicked in the direction of the Devil, throwing out a knife.
Lara watched as Mary put a hand on the floor, gripped it, and hauled herself through one of the shakier patches of flooring to the floor below. The notebook, pierced with a knife, was hauled in after her.
She spoke in a hushed whisper at the same time she communicated to Nora, “She’s okay! I think! She dove through the floor! Sylvester threw something in there.”
“Gas,” Helen said.
Nora’s noise of amusement and happiness was less bubbly than their laughing sound.
“Come on,” Helen said, standing carefully, giving Lara a hand in standing.
In that same moment, the Devil called out, “Spread out! Move upstairs, downstairs. Tear down the scaffold while you’re at it!”
-Lacey: I didn’t want to go up. Now we’re cut off.
-Lillian: Don’t worry. The Lambs like high places. Rooftops, tall buildings. We’ve got experience with this sort of thing.-
The gas that Sylvester had tossed in was spreading. The men were vacating the floor below, and the Devil strode toward the ladder, heading downstairs. He didn’t look upset. If the book was important and he’d lost the book, why wasn’t he upset?
“The book was a fake, maybe.”
There was a brief pause before Nora reported, -Lillian: Probably.-
“Come on,” Helen said, giving Lara’s hand a squeeze. “People are coming. Let’s get you mostly hidden. If I get excited, I don’t want you anywhere near me. I might hurt you.”
“What?” Lara asked.
Helen reached over and pinched Lara’s cheek. “Kidding.”
Helen led her over to one end of the room, where a cloth had been pinned up to keep the wind from blowing through too much. Helen pulled the cloth down so it covered Lara.
“White drape, white Lara,” Helen said, plucking at Lara’s clothing. “You’re almost camouflaged.”
There were people coming up the scaffolding, and some people climbing the ladders up to the fourth floor.
What if they came behind her? What if they came up in front? She couldn’t watch both sides without moving, but moving meant being more visible and obvious.
Swaddling herself further, she craned her head, looking up at the darker top floor, which was mostly beams and branches. She couldn’t really make out the others, until Nora moved her head.
-What are you doing? You’re a crime against all living things, natural and Academy made, you’re so pathetic. Report. What do you see? What do you hear? Be useful.–
Was Nora really getting more mature, spending time around the other Lambs, gettng to talk to Sylvester like she did? Lara was so spooked at what was going on she could barely think straight. Nora was thinking about the right things.
Noises on the scaffolding to my left, you cretin. People at the ladder to my left, you imbecile. They’re muttering to each other, so there’s more than one. Maybe three. Helen went to my right. She might be climbing down and trying to catch them off guard.
-You forgot to keep insulting me. You must have acknowledged that I’m the better sister.-
The dangerous people were so close.
Still, Lara had to spare an effort. When they decided who made the cut, they should have terminated you and kept the sister with missing organs. At least she might have been worth something for a few minutes before expiring.
There was a long pause. A head crested the top of the ladder simultaneously as the matching arm and the hand that gripped a pistol. The thug looked around, pointing the gun this way and that.
-Too much.- Nora communicated, and Nora’s words were as terrifying as the gun.
-Too much. You wrong our sister’s memories!– Nora stressed.
Am sorry. Am scared. Not thinking well.
–If anyone should have been terminated, it is you, you sad little spasm of vat-meat. Our sister with missing organs, at least, didn’t fancy a romance with cow plops.-
Nora’s titter of amusement was both reassuring and one-sided. Lara’s attention was now consumed by the gunman, enough that she couldn’t reply.
The man with the gun was cautious as he got both feet on the floor. The gun pointed this way and that as he edged his way around the empty floor. He even pointed it up at one point, and Lara was certain he would see the others.
But the gun moved down, aiming at eye level.
As he edged around to one end of the room, to peek at the scaffolding, Helen seized him. He disappeared around the edge of the broken wall.
The other man was just now coming up the ladder. He saw the first get snatched by Helen, stiffened, then pointed his gun. Not that it would have accomplished much.
The projectile dropped from above. A knife, blade pointed downward. It remained straight as it fell straight down on top of his head, penetrating the crown. His grip on the ladder faltered, and he fell. From the complaints, he fell on the people below.
Lara closed her eyes, and she could hear the grinding, meaty noises as Helen went to work. She startled at the sound of footsteps, and then realized they were the footsteps of the others. Lillian, Lacey, Abby, Ashton, Duncan, and Nora.
“Helen?” Lillian asked.
Lara poked her head out from her hiding place and pointed in the right direction.
Just about everyone fixated their attention on Helen, but Nora and Abby made a beeline straight for Lara. Nora hugged her, tight. Painful hug, when their ribs stuck out all knobby-like and touched each other, but it was a good hug too. She felt her scalp tingle as her hair-like filaments touched some of Nora’s.
“Are you okay?” Abby asked.
Lara nodded. After a moment, she broke the hug, then hugged Abby. Because Abby cared and understood that even if there was no super-immediate danger, it was possible to be not-okay.
“I wanted to do something interesting with it,” Helen said. She had some rope and was using it to help drag the first gunman’s body behind her, leaving a trail of blood and other bodily fluids. Lillian was helping her, holding one part of the rope. The man’s skin had been pulled at hard enough that it had torn free in places, his head, limbs, and body all twisted around until front and back were almost synonymous. He was strangely rigid, for how broken he was. Arms and legs had been broken and turned around until shattered bone found a hold in torn muscle and flesh, holding it in place.
Abby looked away from the sight.
Lacey said, “That begs the question… why?”
“Because. I want them to see,” Helen said. “We need to go help Mary. She went down there, and they’re collapsing in on her.”
“Okay,” Lillian said. “I’m still not connecting the thoughts.”
Helen worked with the rope, binding the body. It was bloody enough that the rope was soon soaked through. She handed the extra length of rope to Lacey and Duncan. “Distraction. Dangle it when Nora says.”
Which meant Lara was coming with, Lara realized. She grit her teeth, and pulled away from Abby and Nora.
As she passed by Ashton, she felt a swelling of emotion, not bad, not fear or anything, and not quite calming. Determination?
Maybe this was a bit of what courage felt like.
“Scaffolding,” Lara said, quiet, pointing across the floor to the other end from where Helen had been with her captive. “People, I think. Be careful.”
“Will do,” Duncan said, simply.
Hopefully bad people wouldn’t climb the outside of the tower and appear behind Duncan, Lacey, Abby, Ashton, and Nora. Hopefully.
She hated ‘hope’. Hope was so easily twisted by fear. Hope was what fear ate, and she had so much fear to feed.
She hoped she and Nora could be happy and peaceful one day, with only occasional work on battlefields and in scary places. She hoped they could pupate and enter their later forms and that everything would be okay. She hoped they wouldn’t lose the ability to talk and be deemed useless. She hoped they wouldn’t diverge and be labeled too different to use.
There were too many routes for the enemy to use, too many enemies. Too much danger. The Devil scared her, even though she knew he wasn’t the worst or most dangerous experiment the Lambs had faced. He was the worst and most horrible thing she had ever seen in her life.
She was scared of heights, as she stepped onto the shaky scaffolding. It was a different sort of fear. Not a built-in fear, or a fear that was supported by those built-in fears. It was an ordinary fear that was still big.
Would she have wings when she pupated? She had asked once, and instead of answering, her creators had talked about it and gotten into arguments and they never gave her a straight answer.
What would it be like to have wings but also to be afraid of height?
Lillian and Helen were very careful as they made their way down the scaffolding, guiding Lara as they did it. At some points Lara had to roll up her sleeves so she would have a better grip.
They stood on the shaky footing of wood and planks and bars and rope and approached the corner. Lara hung back.
Seeing the gesture, Helen translated, leaning close, and only barely vocalizing, such a faint whisper that a normal human throat might not have been able to make it.
Further below, there was a crashing sound. Scaffolding fell away from the building, disconnected.
Lara felt her heartbeat pick up. She moved closer to the exterior wall of the building, and did her best to dig her claws into the cracks and gaps between stones. If the rest of the scaffolding fell away, she didn’t want to fall with it.
Lillian gestured. Helen translated, “Seven is too many for you and me. Even with a distraction.”
“I can’t,” Lara said.
“And I wouldn’t ask you to,” Helen whispered. She looked at Lillian while talking to Lara. “They’re staying put. Some are taking apart scaffolding where it’s connected to the building. After what happened to the first two to go up… We’re stuck. It would be easier if we had Emmett.”
-Ashton is helping, just so you know. And you need to know lots more things if you’re ever going to catch up, you streak of rectal mucus.–
If I’m a streak of rectal mucus then you’re a pile of rancid cat puke.
-Well, I never!–
“Ashton’s helping,” Lara said, as quietly as she could manage.
A shake of the scaffolding drew Lara’s eyes downward. She saw a hand gripping one of the poles of wood, and kicked at it. The hand moved out of the way just in time. It was soon joined by a second. Lara squeaked.
The scaffolding creaked as Sylvester helped himself over the edge, placing himself within a few feet of Helen and Lara. The two of them stood between Sylvester and Lillian.
“Hi, Sylvester,” Lillian said, her whisper very breathy, easily lost in the wind that blew through and around the building.
“Hi,” Sylvester said. He smiled.
“Do us a favor?” Lillian asked, in that same breathy voice.
“Would you throw yourself off the scaffolding? Nose-dive for the cobblestones down there? It could be a good distraction.”
Lara clutched closer to Helen.
Sylvester only smiled. “I’ll do you a favor, but it won’t be that one.”
“Sorry,” he whispered. He looked down at Lara. “You’re not the one I talked to, I don’t think. Meaning you’re… Lara?”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Stop flirting,” Lillian said. “Where are Mary and Emmett?”
“First floor, and just above the first floor. I dropped some smoke bombs and gave her a few more. I hoped the smoke would climb more, scare the people further up to give you all some elbow room, ended up having to come myself when I couldn’t. She’s fine for a long while down there, provided she doesn’t get sloppy and the Devil doesn’t stumble on her while blind from all the smoke.”
“Fine. Are you going to help us here, or are you just here to make fun of us?”
“Can it be both?”
There were murmurs from within the building. Lillian bit back her retort, then gestured it instead.
“I’m insulted,” Sylvester said.
Lillian pressed a finger to her lips.
“Seven people in there,” Helen translated. “Helen takes three, Lillian take three, Sylvester takes one, if he can.”
Lillian looked at Lara, and gestured.
Lara didn’t need to know what the gesture meant, or to have Helen translate it. She communicated to Nora, Now.
A moment later, there was a violent rustling, curses, and a gunshot.
Lillian, Helen, and Sylvester rounded the corner, throwing themselves into the tower interior.
Lara remained where she was, clinging to the wall, eyes closed. She could hear the violence, and she had no idea which side was winning.
But then Abby and Ashton appeared at the edge of the wall, and Abby reached out for Lara’s sleeve. Abby gave it a tug.
Lara allowed herself to be drawn into the third floor tower room. The others were all gathered, and the seven men were dead, unconscious, or bound. Only Mary was absent. Even Emmett was here. The path down to the floor below was protected by a hatch.
“Having the time of your life?” Lillian asked, sourly.
“Fantastically good time,” Sylvester said, from the far end of the room. “Devil’s down on the first floor with twelve soldiers. Smoke bombs weren’t toxic, sadly. Mary is keeping tabs on him. Book was a fake, by the way. Obviously.”
“We need to disable him,” Helen said. “Say, by breaking his limbs.”
“Because you messed up, Sylvester. You underestimated him,” Lillian accused.
Sylvester backed away a step, hands raised. “Harsh words, harsh words.”
“There are wagonloads of children en route to this city. Because you baited a lunatic and he took the bait.”
“Would you believe me if I said a gangly white rabbit is handling that right now?” Sylvester asked.
“I don’t know,” Lillian said. “Are you lying?”
“Pierre has already set things in motion. A few letters will slow things down just long enough, before they get vetted and found out to be false. There are only so many points that people can use to access the city. Only a few of those are convenient when coming from other cities, and in an era of plagues and war, it doesn’t take much to lock down travel to and from the city.”
“You’re shutting off your own exit from the city,” Lacey said.
“Yes. And Mary is counting down the minutes before she drops another smoke bomb. She’ll be running out soon, then she’s in a pinch. So… I’m going to go handle that.”
“Sylvester,” Lillian said. She approached him. “Listen, about Jamie-”
“Let’s not talk about Jamie,” Sylvester said. The smile dropped off his face.
“He was close to you. He made a big sacrifice, and then he died because of it.”
“That’s… not kind of you to say,” Sylvester said. “And I see that you’re edging closer to me. I’m aware of what those arms of yours are capable of. I did just see you punch three out of the four humors clean out of a fellow.”
Lara watched the dialogue, somehow feeling very concerned about it all.
“Does this help?” Lillian asked. She undid the parts of the meat-sleeves that connected to her shoulders, letting them dangle from the elbow instead. “I just want to talk to you like a human being for five seconds before we get caught up in everything again.”
“Not particularly, but if you’re going to stall me and say something, then it might as well be now.”
“Jamie mattered, Sylvester. The old one and the new one. We shouldn’t have lost him once, let alone twice. Gordon mattered. And Gordon was very firm about wanting us to keep fighting for good things. You’re acting unhinged, operating alone like this. Putting kids at risk? You’re getting sloppy.”
“You know for a fact that isn’t true,” Sylvester said.
Lillian, close enough now, reached out to Sylvester.
The syringe sprang from her meat-hand, and Sylvester caught it, gripping it. She produced the second a moment later, moving her arm, but Sylvester caught that too.
Emmett started forward, but stopped when Sylvester met his eyes. Sylvester shook his head, before returning his focus to Lillian.
“I can read you like a book, Lil.”
“Don’t call me Lil.”
“Nice try, though. I did see your syringe earlier today, so I knew to look out for it.”
Lillian jerked her arm to try to free it. Sylvester hung on.
“Let’s go help Mary,” he said. “See if we can’t handle the Devil. Then you can hurry to the gates of the city and intercept the carts full of kids before they get delivered to unsavory types, and I’ll make my merry getaway.”
“Of course you have a gameplan, and of course you’re rubbing it in our faces.”
“Of course,” he said. He let go of the syringes, stepping back and out onto the scaffold.
Lara watched as he ran away.
-I like Sylvester.- Nora communicated.
Thinking of the Devil and the ways that he’d seemed so spooky in a way that Lara found so many things spooky, Lara felt the same thing to a lesser degree with Sylvester.
It was worse because she had been put in the ugly position where she had to either stay silent and betray herself or speak up and deviate. Lara decided on the latter.