The rain fell all around us, a steady drenching of the city, that had been sustained for far longer than nature should have permitted. The entire city was shaped to accept and use the rain. Stylized gutters, roof styles, and architecture that was exaggerated enough in places to still have some character after the rain had battered it for several years. Plant and flesh growth as architecture could drink the water and grow more than the water beat it down.
The entire city seemed awash in the humid haze of summer rain, wherein a kind of fog that rose up over every surface that was being drummed at by the downpour. The light of the sun fought to penetrate the rolling storm cloud cover, and the lights of the city strove to penetrate the dark haze of rain and mist.
I was wet from head to ankle. Only precaution kept the water out of my shoes. Evette had done that much. The wind, twelve or so stories above the ground, proved to be brisk and vertigo-inducing, as if I was light enough to be picked up and tossed off of the top of the building.
It should have been enough to cool me down, to make up for the ambient temperature. It wasn’t. I knew I was sweating, adding a taste of salt to the rain. I felt feverish, and I shivered.
“I was so busy with the Lambs and preparing for them that I barely ate,” I said. I looked over at Jamie.
“Hm? Yeah. I had to push food on you.”
“And then everything happened and I hopped on the train with Shirley, and it was Wallace’s law in full effect, y’know? Pell-mell melee, grandmothers biting small children to get that next sandwich. Throwing money at the people bringing the food in?”
“It wasn’t nearly that severe,” Shirley said. She looked a touch bewildered, as if she wasn’t sure what was going on. “But he did give me the lunch instead of taking it himself. He had a look in his eyes, like he was far away, I didn’t want to argue. If I’d known that he was in that state, or that he hadn’t eaten-”
I shook my head.
“What are you getting at, Sy?” Jamie asked.
“I haven’t eaten anything in the past forever, except for a blood apple that was a few days overripe.”
“You know you’re not supposed to eat those raw, right? They’re a garnish, or you use them in cooking?”
“I know. But I was really hungry. I-”
I had to stop myself. I’d reflexively reached out, almost mentally withdrew, turning to a flicker of an image in the corner of my eye. Helen.
Almost, very almost, defaulting to letting Helen say it.
“-I’m hungry,” I said.
Belatedly, after finishing the sentence, I realized that Helen had had a face, and that something had fit back into where it was supposed to be. I smiled, too wide, at Shirley and Jamie.
“We can get you food,” Jamie said, matching my smile with unremitting calm. His eyes were studying me, near-constantly. Still checking, watching carefully. He finally relaxed his investigation to walk over to the edge, before looking down. “There were people on the ground before that aren’t, now. I think they’re in the midst of coming up the stairs. We should focus on surviving in the meantime.”
“Yes,” I said. “Surviving is good.”
It took effort to set trains of thought into motion without reflexively redirecting them through the mouths of phantom Lambs.
As trains went, they felt floatier than they had, before all of this. Freer, less heavy, less substantial.
Caught by sudden suspicion, I looked at Jamie. “Just… to make sure everything is all right?”
“That’s not a complete question,” Jamie said.
“Because I haven’t finished it,” I said.
“You paused, waiting for a response.”
“Okay,” I said. I frowned. “You’re real, right? You’re here.”
“Yes,” Jamie said, very firmly. “I could slap you hard, if that would help.”
I frowned. “I think it’s ok. But why the slap? I thought we were okay.”
“And you apologized,” I pointed out.
“I apologized and I’m bothered at the same time, and a slap would go a long way toward helping with the second part. I’m allowed to have complicated feelings, Sy. Just take it in stride? That would go a long way too.”
“You are allowed those complicated feelings. I can do ‘in stride’,” I said. “Shirley’s real?”
“I grabbed you,” Shirley said. “I held your arm. What did you think happened if I’m not real? That you did it yourself?”
“Not wholly ruling that out,” I said.
The bewilderment became concern again. She’d seen a lot about the way I’d acted, she’d heard what I’d said to Jamie, but this was the moment the depth of what was going on was becoming clear to her.
“Shirley is real,” Jamie said.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you, Shirley. I mean that on a lot of levels.”
Shirley nodded, retreating further into the doorway, where there was some shelter from the rain, arms hugged against her stomach.
“The Lambs aren’t here, right?” I asked Jamie. “Just you.”
“They went back to Radham.”
I exhaled. “Probably for the best.”
“On a lot of levels,” Jamie echoed me.
“At the risk of sounding like Hayle as he conducts his metrics tests and scratches notes on his clipboards, on a scale of one to ten, how close to back are you?”
“Ten is I’m one-hundred percent me again?” I asked. At Jamie’s nod of confirmation, I stopped to think, conducting a careful self assessment. I was still working on getting my brain up to speed, opening up my senses, and wrapping my head around the greater situation.
“Eight,” I said, without a lot of confidence. My eyes roved until I spotted her, standing off to one side, in the shadows to one side of the little covered shed that served as an entry point to the stairway. Evette, a short distance from Shirley.
I willed her to go away, and she remained where she was.
Go away, I thought the words at her with force, with all the will I could muster. It felt like a feeble effort. Not because I didn’t consider myself as someone with willpower, but it was a hard to exercise a muscle with no concrete feedback to it.
Evette remained where she was, her strange face angled so she could watch me with overlarge eyes, hair framing her face.
Other Lambs scattered the area. I suspected they wouldn’t be any more inclined to go away than Evette was.
“Eight,” I said, more firmly. “I don’t think a ten is possible anymore.”
I shivered. The words sounded alien to my ears, as if I didn’t believe them, even as I knew they were true.
“Let’s work to keep you at an eight,” Jamie said.
“Sounds good,” I said. Then, only minutes away from abandoning a crazed campaign at avoiding reality, I turned my mind away from that topic. “Let’s not go down the stairs. There’s a noble down there, and I think he’d be the type to tear my arms off in the same way a proper little monster of a child would tear wings off of a fly or whiskers off of a cat. Or sit on me.”
“There aren’t many other options than down, Sy,” Jamie said. “The nearest building is still too far to jump over to. Do you want to go up?”
I gave him a look. I wagged my finger at him, taking on a mock stern tone. “Now don’t you go playing tricks on me, Jamie. Just because I’m in dire need of a meal and I’m not as sane as I’ve ever been, don’t go thinking you can convince me we can sprout wings like some villain in one of those books you read.”
“I’m not saying we should sprout wings, Sy, I’m talking about the rope. The one I used to get to this roof?”
I turned my head, taking in the rope. It had been lassoed to a gargoyle in the modern style, and it was tied at the upper end, to something on the roof of the adjacent building. Done up in the style of a court jester, face leering, nose too long and vaguely suggestive of something that wasn’t a nose.
It would take too long to climb.
“We’ll swing across,” I said. “Get in through a window over there.”
“I’m out of rope, and we need something to pull the rope back after using it.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Not a problem. Watch the stairwell, Shirley. Jamie, untie the rope.”
I pulled off my shirt, drew a scalpel from my pocket, and began cutting the fabric. It was like peeling an orange, keeping it all in one piece. One shirt, reduced to one long ribbon.
I saw Jamie eyeing me, and raised an eyebrow.
“Your scar,” he said, as he undid the rope.
“We almost match,” I said.
“Was thinking that, and was thinking about your propensity for ending up shirtless.”
“Don’t act like you don’t like that habit of mine,” I said.
I could see the reaction that got. The blinks, the mental skip as his brain failed to get traction.
“If that’s too far, let me know,” I said, cutting at the shirt. “I don’t know about any of this. I’m playing this by ear, because I have absolutely no context for how to do this. I don’t want to touch sensitive territory, or get hopes up, or…”
I trailed off.
Shirley looked at Jamie. “I wondered if that had anything to do with the break between you two.”
“Yeahh,” Jamie sighed out the word.
I finished shredding the shirt, watching the two carefully, trying to get a sense of the situation.
“Was I not supposed to say anything?” I asked. “Because I figured, it’s Shirley, so…”
“It’s Shirley, and obviously Shirley would know if anyone knew.”
“Obviously,” I said. Shirley had gotten to know us at the brothel, and between the fags there, Shirley’s comfort with them, and the curious fondness of the matron for Jamie… Shirley would know if anyone knew, and people had to have known.
“That part of it is fine,” Jamie said. “I’m more stumped about the other thing you said. How about I’ll let you know when I figure it out?”
“Sure. On to other topics, like getting ourselves to safer ground,” I said. I approached Jamie and tied the cloth ribbon to the rope.
“That’s going to break,” he said.
“You go first, then Shirley,” I said. “I can climb down the outside of the building, find another way across, if I have to. And if you’re gone and it’s just Shirley and me, then I can explain it.”
“Don’t frown at me. I’m not trying to get rid of you. I’m-”
“I get it, I get it,” Jamie said. “I just don’t like this process here.”
“Someone a long way down just stuck their head over to look up,” Shirley called over.
Jamie investigated the ribbon I provided. He reached out for the scalpel, I took the rope, and Jamie started cutting at the bottom of his shirt, creating a ribbon of his own.
“How many floors down are they?” I asked.
“Five, I’m guessing,” Jamie said.
“Five sounds right,” Shirley confirmed. “I don’t know if anyone’s higher up than the guy who peeked.”
“Based on the time I saw you and the time you showed up,” Jamie said, “Assuming no breaks along the way?”
“We walked some. It got tiring.”
“Based on that, discounting the stitched, which would slow them down, giving them the benefit of a doubt… five seemed accurate enough. I don’t think there will be a group that far ahead of that guy,” Jamie said.
He tied the makeshift ribbon to the existing ribbon, judged the length, then gave me a nod, handing the ribbon to me.
He gripped the rope, then stepped over the side.
I was careful to move to the edge, almost following him over, one arm extended with the ribbon firmly gripped. I didn’t want it to end up too short and to be yanked from my grip. That would be a disaster.
Jamie’s feet stopped him from faceplanting against the wall. He held the rope as he walked over to the nearest open window, then climbed inside.
A moment later, after the place had been cleared, he gave me the signal.
It felt good to see the gesture. Familiar and comfortable.
I carefully drew the ribbon back, pulling the rope back across the gap. It was heavy, the ribbon thin by necessity, and there was a fear that the ribbon would prove too frail.
That fear grew in the instant before my hand gripped the end of the rope and pulled it over. Holding it like this, rain-slick, while standing so close to the edge, it stirred that vertigo again.
“Shirley,” I said. “Your turn.”
She hurried across the roof. She balked as she approached the edge.
“Come on,” I said.
“It’s something, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drop like that in my life,” she said, securing her grip on the wet rope.
“Nope,” I said. “How close are they?”
“Then don’t jump yet. Hold on.”
I grabbed the second of the three canisters from my belt, pulled the pin, and tossed it at the stairs. Buying time. With that done, I took the ribbon.
“Go,” I said.
She, to her credit, wasted no time.
She turned slightly away from the wall as she swung. On impact with the wall, catching it with one foot and spinning wildly, she dropped, her grip slipping on the rope before she managed to catch herself.
She gave me a look, very wide-eyed in a ‘did you see that’ way, before she got one foot on a windowsill, found the opportunity to secure her grip, and walked over to where Jamie was leaning out of the window.
The moment she let go of the rope, I began reeling it in.
I was halfway there when a warbeast, leash still attached to its collar, lunged through the cloud of gas at the top of the stairwell.
Corinth Crown’s warbeasts had been like maned wolves. Radham favored creatures that looked like something had taken the more aggressive aspects of a mammoth, bull, and bear and scaled the end result to elephantine proportions.
This, at least, was something else. It was headless, and its limbs and body seemed to be a collection of the musculature of the abdomen and the arm, in how the parts intertwined and fit together in a very purposeful engineering.
An elegant structure of muscle only partially covered by chitin, with spike-like limbs.
It huffed, then shook itself, reacting to the gas. Where its neck was supposed to be, there was only a hole, with irregular, thorn-like spikes there and on the inside walls.
It galloped toward me, and I was left with no choice but to haul back hard on the ribbon. No care given, no worry about snapping it – I pulled the rope closer to me and threw myself closer to it, over the edge.
On an instinctive level, I knew the rope wouldn’t swing close enough to me. I was working against gravity and it was heavy with the rainwater.
It was a feat that I wouldn’t have been able to manage thirty minutes to an hour ago. I still held the ribbon in my left hand, and my left foot went out as I twisted in the air, the side of my shoe catching the ribbon. I used a kick of my leg to pull the rope closer, and caught it with my right hand.
I didn’t have time to fully secure my grip or adopt the right pose. I hugged the rope close to my body, gripping it with one hand and both thighs before I hit the face of the building.
The muscle-and-chitin warbeast wasted no time in flinging itself over the edge.
It landed a short distance below and to one side of me, with all of its claws perfectly positioned to find holds and gaps on the face of the building – where window frame met window and where there were gaps between stones. It should have bounced off and fallen to the street below, but instead, it simply embedded itself into the wall. A four-legged, three-hundred pound, abdomen-less spider.
In the time it took me to shift my grip and get both hands securely on the rope, it asserted its position, and with a clicking sound, began making its way up to me with alarming speed.
I pulled a pin from the sole remaining canister, leaving it where it was at my belt, and began half-climbing, half-running along the outside of the wall.
The gas that billowed from the canister drifted down to the warbeast. It had to take a detour to get out and away from the gas, which bought me seconds to climb up further.
It had circled down and around to my left to approach me from the side the gas wasn’t falling from. I wasn’t in a position to turn the gas on it again. It wouldn’t buy me any meaningful amount of time, compared to what it cost me, now.
I wondered at my odds with a knife in hand, one hand on a rope, against one of the finer specimens of a warbeast I’d seen to date.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to see my odds. A piece of furniture fell from above; a dense bedside table or a clock too large to be a mantlepiece and too small to be a grandfather clock. It struck the warbeast, and knocked it from the wall.
I hurried to climb up to the source. Once I reached the window, Jamie and Shirley pulled me inside more than I’d managed to climb up. The moment I was inside, I placed the canister on the windowsill and closed the window, so the canister was sitting outside.
“Signaling where we are?” Jamie asked.
“More like I’m trying to keep more from following,” I said. “Lose the scent trail, or muck with whatever senses they rely on.”
We backed away from the window, looking up and over.
By the time we’d reached the bedroom wall furthest from the window, there were two more of the spike warbeasts at the edge of the roof we’d just left, perched and tense, rain streaming off of them.
They leaped, and the three of us turned, exiting the bedroom, cutting through the apartment, and entering the hallway proper of the apartment building.
“Ground level?” Jamie asked.
“Think so. Or close to. I rigged a whole squadron of the stitched to explode, instead of producing gas. Mauer’s out there too, of course. He’s got the guns, but I can’t imagine he wants to fire willy-nilly. What I’m hoping is that we can blow it up. Do enough damage to the Crown forces that Mauer feels compelled to seize the opportunity.”
“What do we do about Mauer then? He’s far away, and crossing that ground isn’t going to be easy.”
“Leave him,” I said. “Original plan was to let them get each other bloody, set them against each other and then capitalize on weaknesses and opportunity. But now we’re here, Crown isn’t too enamoured with us, if Mauer wants to go to town, I’m happy to let him.”
“We let him live?” Jamie asked.
I could hear the doubt in his voice, the question. It matched my own.
“I’m not sure either,” I said.
The smoke canister on the windowsill had forced the warbeasts to take a detour. They’d slipped into other rooms and apartments, and from the sounds of it, were tearing through doors and walls, were navigating rooms and hallways. Somewhere along the line, they hadn’t found another entrance to pursue us or appear out of nowhere and chase. No heads meant little capacity to reason or be inventive, it seemed.
They were hunters, mechanical, simple and incredible in performing the one task they were meant for, but they didn’t test boundaries or break ground on their own.
We made our way down to the third floor before stopping to rest. We approached a window at the end of one hallway and peeked out.
Peace. Conflict hadn’t broken out. Stitched were parked and waiting, out of sight from the building Mauer was supposedly in. Squadrons and soldiers were ready, and any number of vans had warbeasts waiting within. Custom made for this task.
Shirley took a seat further down the hallway, staying clear of the window, giving us some space.
“I gave them direction on what to do to corner Mauer,” I said. “A lot of those same tools, they won’t really slow me down. Warbeasts that make disruptive noise, stitched that explode into clouds of poison gas, parasites, stitched that run fast…”
“What can you do about stitched that run fast?”
“Stitched that are new and heavily modified? They won’t have the same programming or alterations that advanced stitched do. The old weaknesses-”
“Weaknesses hold. I get it. Fire.”
“I don’t anticipate a problem. That said, I didn’t expect you two to be along for the whole thing. You’re not immune in the same ways.”
“We’re not,” Jamie said. “I was watching everyone come and go. I have a pretty good idea of where our enemies are. I wish that meant I could see a good way out and away. But they really want Mauer dead.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a thing. I investigated about what Emmett said. Gomorrah. Dead end. Then I sort of told the Infante that Mauer was also chasing the Gomorrah thing, which he was, and I sort of hinted that Mauer didn’t reach a dead end.”
“And that relates to them really wanting Mauer dead. There’s something to this?”
“There’s a lot to this,” I said. I exhaled. “It’s nice to be able to talk about it, finally, work it out with a set of listening ears to help me figure it out.”
Another vehicle parked outside. The guy driving it looked like military, and the stitched horse looked sturdier than the usual. The vehicle probably held another squad of soldiers within.
Jamie glanced back over his shoulder at Shirley, who had her shoes off and was rubbing her feet. “The Gomorrah thing. I talked to Emmett about it. The missing children. The Academy takes them. Auctions them off as prime material for experiments?”
I gestured to him and myself, then back again. “Prime material. But, there’s more to it. Because when someone like Mauer or Fray dig too deep, then the Crown steps in, and all possible evidence gets removed. A hundred or more people killed, Academy asset and child alike, to silence something on a scale and level that the Academy wouldn’t normally care that much about.”
“More than a hundred?” Jamie asked.
“Hard to count. I’d like you to visit the location with me, if they don’t erase it completely. Your brain would be admirably suited to the task of deciphering that particular mess.”
“I’d be happy to lend my brain.”
“It’s a good brain,” I said.
I wanted to get the banter going again. I wanted to find our stride, much as we’d had it before.
When it came to the task at hand, at least, we were more or less on the same page. It was in the easy companionship that trust had been more or less broken.
This wasn’t easy.
“I keep wanting to joke or poke fun at you,” I said, staring out of the window.
“Joking and poking fun is good.”
“Or make witty remarks, or tease, or pick on you.”
“Sure,” Jamie said.
“And when I could bind up my brain and keep things neatly boxed up and organized… that was doable. And it felt normal and friendly.”
“What does it feel like now?”
“Less normal and friendly,” I said. “When I want normal and friendly. I don’t want to give the wrong ideas or trigger some bad reflex.”
“It’s fine, Sy,” Jamie said.
“No, it really isn’t.”
“We can talk about it later. I do want to have a discussion. Put this to rest, maybe.”
“It’s not something that lends itself to rest, because it’s not a dilemma that can be reconciled or fixed, don’t you get it?” I asked. “And it’s not fine either. You do realize that the first time we had a serious talk on the subject, the first Jamie went and disappeared forever? Then the second time we had a serious talk on it, I went and almost disappeared forever?”
“You’re my friend. And I want that, it’s good and you’re a good person and… I need to find out where the lines are drawn, and so long as there’s this part of me that’s afraid of stepping too far and saying something and triggering that reflex or opening the box that should not be opened… I know I screwed up, Jamie. You know that, right? I’m sorry too?”
“It was mucky. But really, it’s something to be talked about later.”
“I’m afraid of overstepping and I’m afraid of understepping. I don’t want to be reserved and holding back, because what we need, especially here, surrounded, with so much at stake, is we need to dance. To move in sync.”
“And there’s no sync,” Jamie said. He sighed.
“I’m worried there isn’t, or it won’t be there when it counts,” I said. “Gut feeling, is all.”
“Gut feelings are important, but-”
“Jamie,” I said. I had to pause, find the phrasing. “I put a lot of myself into figuring out how to work with the other Lambs. You included. Those gut feelings, there’s an awful lot of foundation they’re rooted in. A lot more on the gut, a little less on the feeling.”
Jamie drew in a deep breath, then sighed.
“Stakes are high, situation is dangerous, there’s no easy exit with this many people packed into the area, and the fact is, we have to figure this out. The inability to banter properly is a symptom of a larger problem. One that will see us killed or captured within the hour if we don’t resolve it.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “That’s fair.”
“I’m just saying, if there’s talking to do, maybe we talk it out before we tackle this,” I said, gesturing at the window.
As if prompted by the gesture, a bird flew past the window.
A very large bird.
“Shit on a mad bat,” I said, stepping back from the window. Jamie mirrored me, backing away. “Shoes on, Shirley.”
“What was that?” Jamie asked.
“That would be the Falconer’s bird,” I said. “A pet of one of the Infante’s charges.”
“Ah,” Jamie said. “Shitty bat indeed.”
The bird flew past the window again.
“Confirms it, that. She knows where we are,” I said. “And she will be harder to slip away from than the spike beasts.”
“Noted,” Jamie said. He was frowning.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I was thinking it would be better to run than to fight this one, but I’m not seeing a good avenue to run.”
“I came to that conclusion forever ago, way before we jumped from the rooftop,” I said. “It’s why I said I wanted to do this. See it through.”
Jamie had the decency to look annoyed.
“You did that because you wanted to,” he told me. “Not because you saw a lack of options.”
“That’s a pack of lies,” I told him, trying to be lighthearted, feeling the gap between us in the process.
“Conversations and figuring out your motives back there are going to have to wait,” Jamie commented.
“Sure,” I said. “Nobles incoming. Probably.”
“Probably. With that in mind, how do you feel about being bait?”
“Do I ever say no to being bait?” I asked.