There was discord, Duncan knew. Too many new faces. Too many people with stakes in things that weren’t even here, on the table. Mary and Lillian were too focused on Sylvester. The Twins on self preservation. Ashton didn’t have a stake, and was very similar to Emmett in that. Abby wasn’t here so much as she was following along and waiting until this was over and she could return to a more peaceful life.
Then there was Helen. Because Helen could so rarely be counted in the same string of thought as the others. Helen grabbed his attention, so often, but she was very rarely included in the same breath as others.
Helen scared him more than she had, before, and that was saying something. The scientist in Duncan wanted to figure out why, to problem solve. He might have wanted to hypothesize and test, but one did not test around Helen, no more than they tested around a snarling warbeast. For now, he was content to observe, avoid giving her reasons to tease him, and keep his fingers well away from the bars of that particular cage. Not physical bars, but ones that Ibbot had instilled, and that the Lambs had created.
He would be glad the bars were there and he wouldn’t do anything to test them.
The group descended to the second floor, where Mary was standing back from the stairway. One of her hands held a length of metal with three threads of wire extending from the middle and each end, each thread taut as it extended down into the area below. The other hand held a knife.
She pressed the knife to her mouth in a shushing motion.
Duncan looked at the stairs, and the thick cloud of smoke below. Why were the Devil’s men staying down there when the stairway was clear?
As if to answer his question, a man came tearing up the stairs, through the hole in the floor. He crested the top of the stairs, aiming his gun, and then lost his balance, a line of crimson appearing across his face.
Mary whipped her knife at him, impaling his throat just as he managed to catch his balance. As he stopped in his tracks, dropping his gun to reach for his throat, she cast out the wire that was attached to the knife. A bearing partway along the wire helped it move where she needed it, encircling his wrist before she gave it a tug, securing it in place. She wrapped her end of wire around the metal bar.
The man, still standing, looked at her, then the rest of the Lambs, then gurgled. Blood foamed around the knife that was still embedded there.
“Emmett,” Mary said. “Would you?”
There was a sound of more footsteps. Two more men were coming up the stairs. Emmett charged the man at the top of the stairs, and gave him the boot. He tumbled down the stairs, and Mary braced herself. For all the weight that was a full grown man falling in the opposite direction, she didn’t seem to have much trouble. And those other strings-
The wire moved as the victim or one of the people he’d collided with on his way down struggled. Emmett hurried to Mary’s side to take over with the bar.
“Thank you, sir,” Mary said.
Lillian gestured. Duncan caught the gesture for noise.
“Yes,” Mary said. “We can talk. I’ve got a few bodies piled on the stairs. When they try to move them, I throw something at them. After I got the first few-”
The Devil was shouting. “Grab the bodies. Bring them down! Clear the way!”
“-They got less courageous about coming upstairs. They got excited and more eager to leave the basement after someone asked what they should do if we use poison again.”
Emmett was fighting to keep his grip on the metal that had the strings attached.
“There are other strings there too. They have to be cutting themselves to shreds,” Mary observed. “You okay?”
Emmett gave her a nod.
Mary stepped past the top of the stairwell, throwing a knife mid-step, before stepping away. Gunshots rang out, shooting up at an angle, hitting the ceiling. Lara and Nora both shrieked, similar cries that were out of sync. Even Abby was hunkering down.
“Be nice if they wasted all their bullets,” Mary said. “But they’re pretty patient. Not all that anxious to get out of there, even.”
“They’re biding their time?” Lillian asked.
“Devil wants to, but he doesn’t complain when his men decide to try to get up the stairs. He seems content to wait us out,” Mary said.
Duncan frowned. “Why doesn’t he just leave?”
“Sylvester handled that. I saw him jump down to the fallen scaffolding. He secured the door before heading back upstairs. Dodged my bola the first time and the knife the second time, and had the audacity to toss me the smoke grenades. If I wasn’t busy with this, I would have hit him.”
“You think he secured the door,” Duncan said. “With Sylvester, we can’t know.”
“I know Sylvester, Duncan,” Mary said. “I know how he operates.”
“Isn’t the very concept of what Sylvester is as an experiment to be someone who can alter themselves and their approach on a fluid level?” Duncan challenged.
“Yes,” Mary said, “And a small handful of things remain constant. He’s here, he’s playing with us, play-acting as if he were still a Lamb, and working with us.”
“The dance,” one of the twin experiments said.
“Dance, Nora?” Lillian asked.
“I told you, when Sylvester talked to Lacey and me, he said something about liking the dance, when everyone cooperates and moves like they’re part of a singular organism. He didn’t use those words, exactly.”
“Yeah. That’s it, exactly,” Mary said.
Duncan gave up. Dealing with Sylvester was like being told to study one thing for a test, only to get a test sheet that covered of everything else.
There was a crash somewhere below them. Furniture being destroyed, or something being taken to pieces.
The work at dragging Mary’s victims away from the stairs had stopped, and Emmett wasn’t fighting as hard to hold on any more. Duncan had no idea if it had succeeded or failed, but Mary didn’t seem bothered.
Mary threw a knife at the floor, so it embedded itself in between two floorboards. She stomped on the end, then used another knife handle to seize one of the wires that extended from Emmett’s bit of metal to the tangle of bodies that she’d piled on the stairs. She transferred the wire to the knife on the floor.
A process of setting the wires down more permanently, so Emmett’s bit of metal didn’t have to be continually held.
Duncan had really not had many opportunities to see her in action. Even when he had gone on his first mission, he had mostly seen the aftermath, not the action.
He’d seen some of Helen in action.
He glanced at Helen, and saw her staring at him. She smiled, demeanor shifting, and he felt a chill.
“I think…” Mary said. She crouched, binding a second wire to a knife she had embedded into the floor, “He’s expecting reinforcements.”
“He said something earlier, to his men,” Lillian said. “It wasn’t about the carts and wagons full of kids?”
“Maybe the reinforcements were being handled by one of the names he mentioned. Either way, I think we need to find a way to handle this. There are twenty people down there with him,” Mary said.
“I can help,” Ashton said.
“No, honey,” Lillian said. “I don’t want you standing that close to the stairs.”
“I can go down,” Ashton said.
“It’s too dangerous,” Mary said. “I had to cut a few people who were groping around in the dark. I don’t think you’re capable of holding your own, and they’ll likely have their noses and mouths covered.”
“The smoke,” Duncan added, thinking about the plan to mislead Sylvester into thinking that smoke and smoking were a counteragent to Ashton.
Anything that worked.
“I could still try. There aren’t many gaps in the floor, like upstairs, but I could try.”
“Sure,” Duncan said. “Calm them down. Make them less likely to act.”
“Okay,” Ashton said.
Ashton sat cross-legged on the floor.
Hopefully this wouldn’t spoil the ruse, if Sylvester caught wind of it.
Where was Sylvester, anyhow?
As the question crossed his mind, he moved, almost as if he’d been pushed to. As the others talked, Duncan walked around the perimeter of the room. He split his attention between checking on his charges and keeping an eye out for Sylvester.
East of the building-in-construction, there was a sprawl of streets. He could see Corinth Crown, and the various burned buildings.
“Emmett,” Abby said. “Where is Quinton?”
“The ground level,” Emmett said.
“They knocked down the scaffolding,” Abby said. “More things could fall down. If Quinton is down there, he could get hurt!”
“I put a shelter up with the fallen scaffolding.”
“That’s not good enough!” Abby said.
“Abby,” Duncan said. “Calm down. We need to focus on the mission.”
“No,” Abby said, turning on him. “You said. It was a rule. We all make it out of this okay.”
Duncan repressed his frustration. Why did this all have to be so hard?
“We as in each of you, me, the Lambs,” Duncan said. He was going to say more, but changed tacks as he saw Abby’s expression change, “Emmett says Quinton will be fine. He’ll be fine.”
“He’ll be safe,” Emmett said. “We couldn’t have him up here where there might be fighting.”
Abby tensed, head to toe. Her features were funny, as if drawn by an artist who didn’t quite have a strong grasp of human proportions, or who had drawn every part of her face in isolation from the rest. Normally he found himself looking past it, but when she was emotional and took on an expression he wasn’t used to, it snapped him back to reality.
The fact that she didn’t have much going on that was particularly unique or special made it all the easier to forget that she was an experiment.
“He’ll be safe,” Emmett said.
Duncan walked around to the south-facing window. He could see the lake. No sign of Sylvester lurking just to either side of the window, as he checked.
Sylvester would be listening in.
“Putting Quinton aside for the moment, I have poison,” Lillian said. “It wouldn’t be hard to distribute it as a gas.”
“No,” Lacey said.
“I know it’s a no,” Lillian said, testy. “Let me finish talking before you cut me off. I’m brainstorming.”
Lacey remained silent.
Duncan took note of Emmett and the twins as he walked over to the east side of the building. Emmett seemed to fit into things well, but while he was sharp and his memory had apparently given the Lambs something to use to manipulate Sylvester, Duncan worried about his long-term prospects with the group. More than he worried about Abby’s, odd as it was.
The twins… Duncan took note of how they were standing. Abby stood close to one. Ashton stood close to the other. A fair distance separated them.
Never once had he seen them together and not hand-in-hand or otherwise being close. Each time they’d hit a city, the twins would be split between the Lambs and his group. Every time they decided Sylvester wasn’t around and rendezvoused, the two girls would pull together as if they had magnets embedded in their chemistry.
He had been warned to avoid naming them, to avoid encouraging individualism. Part of their language understanding was instinctive, but part of it wasn’t. The pair of experiments were two test runs in one, which made project tracking difficult. They were supposed to see if warbeasts couldn’t be raised with a human core and metamorphose into their combat-ready state at a later stage, to pick up more understanding of norms and niceties, more loyalty to their handlers, and more base intelligence. That was the first test at hand.
The second was to ensure that they remained stable as a unit. If they became independent and weren’t able to regularly communicate for long enough, then the less instinctive part of how they buzzed between one another risked becoming incoherent, one not being able to communicate to the other.
There were a lot of ways that project could fail. Losing the ability to speak, deformations, a failed metamorphosis, breaking apart, becoming dangerous to their handlers, swinging too far one way or the other on the fear scale. The original plan had been to raise them in complete isolation from the world. Subsequent generations would have been eased into a wider exposure, refined in structure and development.
Closer to the stairs, Mary moved to throw a knife. Emmett, relieved of his piece of metal, held up a hand for her to stop. He picked up a stone from a pile of stones for construction, and hurled it down into the smokey oblivion. From the other side of the room, Duncan could hear the impact.
“Save your knives,” Emmett said.
Mary gave him a nod.
If Duncan’s suspicions were right, the twins’ project would refined up until another war or crisis stirred, and then would be deemed ‘done’. The experiments would be shown off to the higher-ups with a great deal of flourish and a whole unit ready to deploy to various points.
It was a good, ambitious, and very fragile project, and Hayle had made a good enough offer to convince the professors that were working on it to break from their plan.
Was this, the twins standing ten feet apart from one another, a sign of the first crack that would eventually see the crystal-fine structure shatter?
If this didn’t resolve by the mission’s end or have a simpler explanation, he would have to report it, the experiments would be sent in, and would either be secluded ad infinitum or recycled.
He didn’t like doing that, but not reporting it would be letting the project fail in another way, and that would be failing in his duties.
“If he isn’t-” Lacey said.
“I know,” Lillian retorted. “I know. He’s got all of Neller’s signs. He’s a junkie. One good hit of poison might be the push that makes his systems crumble and fail. But it’s a tool we can use in other ways.”
“Okay. Just don’t get those children killed because you want a swift resolution.”
“I wouldn’t,” Lillian said, firm. “Ever.”
The discord, again. The gaps between individual members of the group. The original Lambs had worked so well together that it was now a detriment, something that pulled at them instead of pushed them together. Memories.
Would he have to report this too? Lillian wouldn’t want him to. She would call it a betrayal. But letting this continue… it wasn’t good as a project or enterprise.
He was in the middle of trying to think about what to do or say about it when he realized he had been staring out the west-facing window for nearly a minute without registering what he was seeing. The window was open, to allow for air to flow into the building, or to allow the smoke to flow out.
He turned his head to the left, looking to the side of the window, and saw Sylvester leaning against the wall there, Quinton in his arms.
Sylvester turned his head to look at Duncan.
Something in Sylvester’s expression, it really bothered Duncan. Condescension. As if Sylvester was the most critical of teachers and Duncan was failing his class. No lessons had been taught, no message conveyed, no syllabus outlined on a blackboard. Yet this teacher, shorter than him, wild-haired, sneering, and surprisingly vicious when he wanted to be, was looking down on him.
I never liked you and you never liked me.
“Why don’t you come inside?”
“Mary will throw things at me. Lillian will try to stab me.”
“You kind of deserve it,” Duncan said.
The conversation in the room had died at the sound of Duncan’s voice. Heads had turned. Only Mary and Emmett were fixated on the stairwell where the Devil was.
“And you have a hostage,” Duncan said.
“Mary can hit me with a knife without hitting the hostage,” Sylvester said. “Nice try. Also… take a look.”
Duncan followed Sylvester’s line of sight.
There was traffic. Horses, carriages, all painted with white, blue, and gold. Duncan didn’t need to read the words stenciled on the sides to grasp who and what they were. The warbeasts that ran alongside the carriages, uniform in aesthetic and proportion, were pretty clear indicators on their own.
Duncan turned away from the window. As he passed Abby, he put a hand on her shoulder, “Sylvester has Quinton.”
“Is that good?” Abby asked. “Is that bad?”
“Good,” Mary said, her voice overlapping with Duncan’s for a moment as he launched into his speech.
“The Devil’s reinforcements are here. It looks like a share of the Crown police.”
“He really does have everything under his thumb,” Lillian said. She paused. “This is what Sylvester was talking about. The present, to better convince the Academy the Lambs are constructive even if we aren’t catching him. The Devil, this city. Uncovered corruption.”
“You realize,” Duncan said, “That if we let him do this, he can hold it over our heads? That he could later tell the Academy that it was him who uncovered the situation and set this up?”
“We were the ones that cornered the Devil,” Mary said. “Cut away his lieutenants and key assets. Sylvester only ignited the situation and did the initial damage.”
“I’m offended!” Sylvester called out.
“Good!” Lillian retorted.
Sylvester laughed, a genuine, real sound. Duncan could see the reactions on the faces of each of the others. Fear, for Nora and Lara. Suspicion, for Lacey. Both Helen and Ashton smiled, Helen as if the moment had made her day, Ashton as if privately, to himself. Mary and Lillian managed to look properly annoyed. Abby- she was receptive to the moods of others. She didn’t smile, but she looked less anxious in the moment.
In that stupid, simple exchange, two and a half words on Sylvester’s part, one word on Lillian’s, a laugh, and the changes in expressions, an idea crystallized for Duncan. He made sense of something that he hadn’t fully wrapped his head around before.
Duncan had always prided himself on being a politician. Around the time he’d started with the Academy, he realized the little lessons his parents had been instilling in him all along, about who to befriend, the families those people belonged to, or the connections they might open up, and he had started to talk to his parents about how to move, what to do. Many times he saw his father, nowadays, a third to a half of what they talked about was strategy. Sometimes his, sometimes his father recounted moves of recent days and weeks, and sometimes they talked about the family, how they could work in concert or do each other favors.
Befriending Lillian had been a move. Being invited to this project had been a consequence of that move. That he wasn’t sure it would work out wasn’t a good thing, but that wasn’t a fault of the move or the consequence of the move. He’d had small and large successes buying his way into the good graces of innumerable departments and players on campus. He’d made enemies too, but he was very, very happy with the balance of friends to enemies that he’d wrought.
Hearing Sylvester trade jibes with Lillian, seeing the way she had tried to stab him, knowing that she’d gone on dates with other boys in the time between Sylvester running and the start of their hunting him, Duncan still had little doubt she cared for him.
He didn’t want to call Sylvester his inverse. Yes, Sylvester focused more on the short-term over Duncan’s long-term. Yes, Sylvester was a bastard to everyone around him and somehow they liked him, while Duncan tried to help people wherever he could and seemed to fight an uphill battle. That wasn’t it.
It wasn’t even that Duncan was investing in things that would see returns in five, ten, or twenty years, from his education to earning the goodwill of people who could well be his colleagues in the future, while Sylvester was reckless and vindictively poisoned or burned everything he touched because he didn’t have five, ten, or twenty years.
No. He didn’t want to focus on that flipped-around perception because they were really very similar in what they did. Duncan and Sylvester both manipulated. They played a game.
But where Duncan played his game by reaching out, taking hold of the key piece, and moving it, tracking where everything was and what he had in stock, Sylvester was immersed in the game, standing in the midst of the board.
He was in the midst of this.
The process of grasping that idea was encapsulated in just a moment, but something clicked, and Duncan wasn’t sure how to use it, or if he even should.
“Come out of hiding, Sylvester,” Mary said. “I don’t want to talk to you through a wall.”
“I notice that instruction didn’t come with promises you wouldn’t throw things at me.”
“I promise,” Mary said.
Sylvester stepped around the corner. He carried Quinton, swaddled in a dark green sackcloth, the lamb’s chin resting on Sylvester’s shoulder. He took in the room full of people.
Mary whipped her hand at him. Sylvester didn’t flinch. She held the knife, but she hadn’t actually thrown it.
“Ha,” he said. “So cruel. You almost woke Quinton, here.”
“I’m tempted,” she said. “You shot me.”
“I do feel bad about that.”
“But for now, we need to figure out what to do about the reinforcements,” Mary said.
“Let them come,” Sylvester said.
“Play into our enemy’s hand?” Lillian asked.
Duncan didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t a strategist on this level. He didn’t have experience. He’d never felt more out of his depth than in moments like this. With his own team, it wasn’t so bad, but with the Lambs gathered, talking as if they could finish each other’s sentences, he felt paralyzed.
“We still need to get the Devil,” Mary said. “He’s apparently happy to wait down there. The police will arrive, they’ll come up the scaffolding that’s still intact, they’ll corner us, and that’s not a force we can overcome.”
“We could burn them out,” Helen said.
“We risk killing the Devil, at which point the hostages are doomed. The headmaster’s children, at the very least,” Lillian said.
“He’s really very patient, for a rage-driven, drug-fueled lunatic,” Sylvester said. “He’ll pick his moment soon.”
Emmet hurled some stones down the stairs at others who had rustled the bodies. He ducked as men with guns opened fire. Some wilder shots hit the underside of the floor but didn’t penetrate it.
The Devil could be heard speaking, his voice muffled.
Duncan felt detached, unable to do much. Doing his best to wrangle that feeling, he made himself move, and approached Sylvester.
“What I’m saying is simple. Let them come. Destroy the reinforcements,” Sylvester said. He stopped as Duncan drew nearer. “Hello, Duncan. Yes, I know you’re very happy to have me back, but the hugs will have to wait for later.”
“I’ll look forward to that,” Helen said. Sylvester shot her a smile.
Duncan reached out, not for Sylvester but for Quinton.
“Oh. That. Nothing up your sleeve, Dunc? No needles in your arms or other tricks?”
Really not in the mood for games, Duncan shook his head, unsmiling.
Sylvester helped transfer Quinton over to Duncan’s arms. The damned animal bleated as it stirred away. Duncan turned away, and carried the lamb over to Abby. He had to kneel to deposit it by her.
He was used to her smile, at least. She’d been smiling ever since the blighted creature had been left for them to collect.
“What was I saying? Leave him with nothing. You’ve already been working toward that, taking out his lieutenants.”
“My poison?” Lillian asked.
“That’s one way. I was thinking… something a little more traditional.”
“You have something in mind?” Lillian asked, curt. “Then stop bragging about how smart you are and make it happen.”
“Emmett,” Sylvester said. “Mary, you too. We could use Nora. And Duncan…”
Sylvester looked at Duncan, kneeling by a smiling Abby and the Lamb.
“…Good where you are. We’re good with just us three. Rest of you, hold down the fort. Almost literally, now that I think about it.”
Condescension? Still there. Duncan shrugged it off, and turned his focus to the stairway, which no longer had Emmett and Mary to guard it.
Lillian and Helen drew nearer.
Duncan drew the gun he had confiscated from Maurice and Noreen, and moved closer to the window, watching the approach. They were only a block away. Men were already getting out of the carriages, jogging alongside as the carriages slowed.
There were bystanders, and the police stopped to talk to them. Bystanders pointed, talking, no doubt sharing how some of the scaffolding had fallen, while commenting on gunshots and the various dead bodies that now were arrayed around the scaffold and on the ground below.
Ashton approached. He peered over the windowsill.
“What do you think?” Duncan asked.
“I’m spent,” Ashton said.
“What’s going on with Nora and Lara?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay,” Duncan said. “You did a good job.”
“I wouldn’t be so spent if I wasn’t helping them all the time.”
“I know. But they need it, for now.”
“They’re getting close.”
“I know,” Duncan said. He raised his hand to get Lillian’s attention, then signaled.
“Ready?” Lillian asked.
“They’re not,” Lara said.
Lillian made a face, glanced up, and then looked at Duncan. “Don’t look.”
Duncan raised an eyebrow, then turned his back to her.
“Lacey, would you give me a hand? There. That is not clearance to look, Duncan.”
He didn’t react. There had to be sixty men out there, with four warbeasts. They were just now approaching the door.
“They’re at the door. Whatever Sylvester did to bar it, they’re about to undo that.”
“Damn it. Okay. You can look,” Lillian said, before turning to Lacey again. “Near the elbow, solid, you can feel it. It’s a pocket. A little higher.”
Lacey had a paper packet in hand, sticking out between two fingers as she used two hands to free something from Lillian’s sleeve. Duncan recognized the packet, in a general sense. A measured dosage of one drug or another. The name of it would be printed on it.
Lacey didn’t even ask. She tore off the top of the packet, unscrewed the canister, and deposited the packet’s contents within. She replaced the top, shook it, and then handed it back to Lillian.
Lillian went to the window, pulled a pin, and tossed the grenade in the direction of the front door.
“That buys us a minute, and not much longer. At least it’ll make it burn to touch the door, and that will stop them.”
“No,” Ashton said, staring out the window.
The scaffolding was shaking.
Duncan signaled. Enemy. Up.
He wished he knew the more nuanced signs. He’d studied them, but the only one he’d had available to practice with was Ashton, and Ashton wasn’t that much more experienced.
A pair of individuals tried to bolt for the top of the stairs, while the distraction was occurring outside. They didn’t make it. When Mary had set the knives into the floor, she had done it in a way that let some of the threads cross over top of the stairway. The men made it partway, then hit the heads, shoulders, and caught body parts on the wire. They swore, backed off a bit, and then pointed guns, opening fire. Helen and Lillian moved away from the opening in the floor.
Not caring so much about conserving ammunition. The Devil knew this was the final move.
“Thirty seconds,” Lillian observed. “That was a small canister of gas.”
“Stand back,” Ashton said. “I’ll try to do what I can here. Even if I’m spent.”
Duncan nodded. He retreated from Ashton, putting himself with Lara and Abby.
“Twenty seconds,” Lillian said. After a few moments, she said, “Fifteen.”
Another person made their way up to the top of the stairs. He moved in a strange way, thrusting himself into the wires, arms limp at his sides. Drugged?
They were coming up the scaffolding. Duncan put himself closer to Lacey and Helen, ready to shoot if he had to.
“Still not a fan of going up high,” he said. Leaves us with nowhere to go.
A man appeared on the scaffolding, visible from the window, and Duncan aimed, then fired.
He didn’t know if he hit the man or if the man had fast reflexes. It only occurred to Duncan a moment later that the man had been wearing a uniform of the Crown Police. This could all go so bad so quickly, if they didn’t massage the aftermath.
Duncan’s target peeked around the corner, pulled back before Duncan could pull the trigger. He could see people on the ground, organizing, pointing.
“Get away from the walls!” Lara said.
The building shuddered, a rumble that fed into more rumbles. Instinctively, he stepped back and away from the window.
He saw the dust and the first of the falling stones, then the cascading tumble of wood and stone.
Sylvester, Mary and Emmett had aimed the worst of it at the west side of the building, where the forces were greatest. There had been a sixty men out there, and now there were forty or so. The vast majority of those were close to the building, positioned just right to get caught in the urban avalanche.
With that tumble of wall and building material atop one side of the scaffolding, the vast majority of the scaffold came down, peeling away, collapsing, or tipping over.
Did Sylvester think about the fact that those police likely had families? That some might have been forced into this, or ignorant? When Duncan stepped closer to the window to look, he looked with an eye for how many were moving, struggling in the midst of the scattered rubble and how many were utterly still.
“Stairs,” Lara said, very quickly.
He turned back, looking.
The man who he’d seen pressing against the wire had taken things a step further. The wire bit straight to bone, and some of the knives had come free of the floor. There was a reason the man had been limp, a reason he had so mindlessly thrust himself into the wire.
He was already unconscious, for one, if not dead, and his body was being pushed.
The Devil shoved the body up and into the wire, and another came free. The human shield had cleared most the way, and with a sweep of his arm and a slash of a long, heavy knife, Devil was able to clear the rest. He stepped up into the room, near the east wall. He tossed the human shield aside.
“The headmaster,” Lillian said.
Don’t talk to him. Don’t draw his attention.
Helen was the one who did it instead. She threw herself at the Devil, and he was quick to respond, slashing. She seized the Devil’s knife arm with the hand that hadn’t been slashed.
He bodily slammed her into the wall. Helen didn’t let go, but smiled. She extended a leg, trying to hook it around his, and he slammed her into the wall again.
Some of the loose material from up above clattered as it dropped down.
“Let go,” he said.
That look in Helen’s eyes. It called back to what he’d thought about how much scarier she was these days. Would he be able to put his finger on it if he was in the midst of things, like Sylvester?
Duncan winced as the Devil bodily slammed Helen into the wall again, to keep her from getting too good a grip on him.
Lillian charged the Devil, threw a punch, right for the kidney. But the man had seen her coming, and was already twisting. He struck her with Helen’s swinging body, before anything could connect. Lillian managed to scramble back before he swung a punch of his own.
Instinctively, Duncan raised his gun, pointing it at the man.
“Shoot, boy. Risk killing me. Kill all of those children,” the Devil said. “Would your Sylvester forgive you?”
“I don’t give a damn about Sylvester,” Duncan said.
The Devil moved his wrist, with Helen dangling off of it. Helen seized the opportunity to get a grip on the Devil’s forearm. She was being held so she blocked Duncan’s shot.
“But you give a damn about her. And about the children,” the Devil growled. “No. You don’t look like that confident a shot.”
Reaching behind his back, he drew a knife.
As he slashed for Helen’s wrists, she dropped away before it could cut through them. He kicked and she stumbled back.
He kicked her, hard enough to send her flying out past the missing piece of wall at the side of the building, and over the edge.
Duncan aimed for the Devil’s leg and he fired.
The man barely flinched. He didn’t even seem to slow down. No, if anything, he seemed to pick up steam, moving toward the little ones, with scarcely a limp.
Toward Ashton, Abby, and Lara, who had clustered together with Quinton.
Knives appeared in the midst of his shoulders, his buttocks, and the backs of his legs, one a second. Duncan turned to see Emmett and Mary at the top of the stairs with Sylvester. Mary was throwing, and Sylvester looked like he’d thrown one too.
The Devil clearly didn’t feel pain, but his functioning did suffer. He stumbled, and he lost his knives along the way, as knives struck hands and as he jerked in response to a well-placed hit at his shoulder. He practically fell atop the trio.
One of his hands seized Lara by the face. Lara, because she was the most afraid, and he preyed on fear. As a large man, musclebound, monstrous, he crawled forward with an eerie tenacity, clearly aiming to go over the edge of the building, to jump down to the ground below, where the remaining Crown police would be picking themselves up off the ground.
As he crawled, he dragged Lara a few feet, then put immense weight on her face and head, almost ignoring the fact she existed. Her sleeves turned crimson as she reached up to claw at his forearms, frantically scrabbling to do enough damage that he might let go.
Duncan didn’t trust his aim. Mary was doing what she could, putting knives in key areas, each throw having a measurable effect, slowing him, but not quite keeping him from moving.
She put two knives in the base of his spine as he shifted position, and he sagged, the use of his legs clearly gone. But then he hauled himself forward.
She didn’t want to kill the man. Killing him meant others died.
But leaving him alive meant he could, fueled by drugs and fury, make it those two feet to the edge, tumble over, and take Lara with him. They would land amid rubble and the officers still waiting outside. If those officers were in his pocket, which they so clearly were, then they would give him care and he could do whatever he wanted to Lara. He would win.
Ashton looked to Duncan, of all people, for answers, and Duncan didn’t have any.
He’d always gotten along with Ashton best.
Mary and Sylvester were crossing the room at a run. Emmett was a few steps behind.
But it was Nora who moved the fastest, crossing the floor to throw herself at the Devil. He held Lara with his left hand, and Nora attacked his right, furious, mad, with no strategy or direction except the intent to use every natural weapon available to her to lash out and do as much damage to him as possible.
The twins were supposed to have a ‘cornered rat’ reflex. It wasn’t, however, supposed to extend to situations where the other was cornered.
The onslaught bought some time, if only partially because of the damage done, partially because of the fact that he saw more prey and instinctively reached for it, slowing his advance.
Mary appeared on his back, grabbing one of the knives that had embedded into his shoulder, and adjusting it. He fell onto one side, narrowly missing falling atop Lara and crushing her under his mass.
What ensued wasn’t pretty, or graceful. Two experiments clawing at the man desperately, Mary moving her knives to sever nerves while trying not to spill too much blood.
Somewhere, and there wasn’t a pretty or easily defined point in the midst of it, the Devil lost the fight. Lara and Nora saw the opportunity and backed away, both trembling and streaked with blood, eyes wide. Mary straddled the Devil’s chest, taking another few moments to sever key nerves and make sure he was no longer a threat.
Duncan went to his charges, to Nora and Lara first, slowing down as he approached them, in case their reflexive self-defense was still in effect. He dropped to one knee in front of them.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
Nora shook her head. Lara nodded, touching her face.
“Okay,” Duncan said. He looked over his shoulder, at Emmett, who was guarding the stairs, at Ashton, and Lacey, and at Lillian, who looked almost defeated.
Lillian wasn’t meant for this. She’d used the sleeves to fight, but she hadn’t fought monsters with them. They were a meager substitute for being made for the task of hunting and killing monsters.
Sylvester, apparently, had found the opportunity to duck away.
Duncan gave Lara’s face a quick examination, checking that the skull was intact, checking her jaw, the rigidity of her neck. She submitted to the exam.
“Eyes functioning? Problems?”
“Buzzy head,” she said. “I got the sun in my eyes.”
“Okay,” he said. He put his hand on her head. “Whatever your disagreement was, put it aside. Nora, look after Lara. Lara, look after Nora. Checkup later, for your head.”
They both gave him blank stares, but then Nora nodded.
Helen. Helen was so often the afterthought, the exception, the one that was hard to include in summaries. Duncan rose to his feet, approaching the wall that Helen had been kicked off of. He was cautious as he drew nearer.
There were officers down there, many of them dusty, some bloody. One had a gun out, pointing in Duncan’s general direction. Another had a hand on that man’s wrist, as if to hold him back.
The fight at the edge of the wall, it saw Mary over the Devil, the Devil’s head and shoulders at the edge, now. The Crown Police could see him, and they could see Mary.
Gathering what little confidence he had, Duncan drew closer to the edge. There, he could see how the rubble from the fallen wall and scaffolding had barred the front door even further.
There were bodies there. The door had been opened and some of the Devil’s men had been making their way out.
He could also see Helen. She dangled from the edge. She’d grabbed the edge as she went over, and she was still there.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello, Helen,” Duncan said, still eyeing the police and the warbeasts on the ground.
“Help, pretty please? I took a bad cut to my left hand, and it doesn’t grab things anymore.”
“Easily fixed,” Duncan said. He crouched down, one hand on the wall, and reached down to grab the wrist of the hand that was holding the ledge. She let go and her fingers snapped around his wrist.
She was surprisingly light as he hauled her up and back onto the second floor.
“Thank you kindly,” Helen said, before bending over to give him a kiss on the cheek.
Somehow not as threatening as usual.
Helen went straight to Lillian and Lacey for her medical care.
There was still so much dust in the air, and so much left undone. The police out there, the Devil, Sylvester… Duncan looked over at the Devil and Mary.
“He’s not going to talk,” Mary said, “And he’s too big to move.”
“Ashton can handle it,” Duncan said. “Emmett, come help.”
With Emmett’s help, soon joined by Lacey, who had to feel useless and dazed in this situation, Duncan dragged the Devil away from the edge and closer to the center of the room.
“Direct dose,” Duncan said, to Ashton. “I know you’re spent, but we need something.”
Ashton nodded. “You can always dig just a little bit deeper.”
Then he put one hand on the Devil’s chin and leaned over, face drawing closer.
“Ashton,” Lacey said. “Do not kiss that man. You don’t know where he’s been.”
“Nose,” Duncan said. “And use your hand to funnel it.”
Ashton cupped his hand to form a circle, pressed it over the Devil’s nose, and then blew hard into it.
It would take a minute.
“I’m sorry we were late,” Mary said. “We didn’t think it would get quite this bad this fast. I thought my wires were good enough.”
“They were good. He used a human shield,” Duncan said. “Brute forced his way through.”
Mary frowned. Even faced with a perfectly reasonable countermeasure, she still acted like it was a failure on her end.
“We were taking a minute to set up our escape route. We have a way out of the building,” Mary said. “One Sylvester has no doubt already used.”
He stood, backing away from the scene, coming to stand by Lillian and Helen. Abby had Quinton, which was mostly what she needed. Nora had Lara and Lara had Nora. Ashton had a task to do.
“Did you get hurt?” he asked Lillian.
“No. Only my pride.”
“You did better than I did,” he said.
She didn’t argue. She didn’t agree, either.
Instead, she approached the Devil, who was starting to slur out words in the rambling fashion that went hand in hand with having his inhibitions lowered and being beset with the compulsion to talk.
There was only Helen.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
She showed him her bandaged hand. “Only need a little bit of surgery. Lillian can do that when we have ten minutes free.”
Having been through this brief, ugly, messy skirmish, he was concerned about where things stood. He wasn’t very strong or skilled or useful in any capacity except for medicine, and Lillian and Lacey had that handled.
He didn’t want to be as disconnected. Just moving the pieces and allocating resources.
He definitely didn’t want to be Sylvester, either.
But drawing a little closer, exposing himself to more risk, if it helped others, he could do that.
“But are you okay?” he asked, venturing, ready to be laughed at, teased, and mocked. “You seem scarier lately. I know Ibbot has everything handled, but…”
“He doesn’t have everything handled,” Helen said.
“Oh,” Duncan said. He wasn’t sure what to say. It was maybe the worst thing she could have said, and he wasn’t sure what to say that wouldn’t be trying to gainsay one of the more talented Professors in the Crown States.
“I heard you talking to the twins. I saw what you did for Abby. You’re doing something different.”
“I don’t know,” Duncan said.
He felt so dumb sometimes.
“Just…” he ventured. “Bedside manner, I guess.”
“Well, thank you,” Helen said, leaning against the wall beside him, watching the ongoing struggle with the devil, hands clasped in front of her. “Thank you for asking that.”
“Sure,” he said.