Dog Eat Dog – 18.10

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“Sylvester,” the voice was firm, and the speaker was both male and young.  “Wake up.  We have a lot to do.”

I draped my arm over my face, so I could shut out the light and block the world.  My eyes were damp, as if I’d been crying, yet I’d been firmly asleep.


I almost spoke, responding, before I shut my mouth.  Speaking was dangerous now.  At any point, it could spell disaster, talking to someone who wasn’t there.  I had allies I needed to preserve and other allies who could very easily become adversaries if they lost any more faith in me.

I let my arm fall from my face, and blinked my eyes dry as I could get them.  An arm draped across my neck, making breathing and sitting up more difficult than they had to be.  I slept in a pile with a number of others, and I couldn’t name very many of them.

If the hallucinations and twists of the mind were always bad, always hostile, it might have been easier.  I could have steeled myself, turned my brain to the task, and found a way forward.  I wanted to believe that.  But they weren’t always bad or hostile.  They supported me, they kept me company, and they kept me warm when I felt cold.

The sensations were largely imagined, I knew.  The touch, the feel of clothing on skin and skin on clothing, of breathing into someone else’s hair.

I’d slept, at least.  Going by the light, it was dawn.  That meant… three hours.  A step forward from no sleep in the two days prior.  We were sleeping in a barn, apparently, in a pile of old blankets draped over a haystack.

Red Riding Hood lay on one side of me, her breath sour with last night’s alcohol.  The girl with the layers of clothes spooned me, her arm the one that had been making it hard to breathe and to rise.  There was a redheaded girl and a girl from the Eastern Crown States that I couldn’t place or name, a boy who slept with his back to me, and two delinquents, one of whom had done the body modification thing, with two sets of horns and some scarification of the forehead.

There were bottles and some food on the ground.  I could only remember parts.  A whirl of hallucination and dancing, of the Hackthorn experiments and delinquents.  I’d wanted to ingratiate myself, to ensure I didn’t burn bridges with the ones most likely to hear me out and not fall back into Academy ways of thinking.  I’d had something to drink, but the effects were somewhat muted.  It had been a dizzy spiral down into sleep and rest.

“All we want is a voice,” the boy at the doorway said.  He’d been the one to urge me awake.

A voice?

The hallucinations wanted a chance to speak?

He shrugged with one shoulder.  He looked angry but didn’t have a seeming target for that anger.  The night’s festivities had left him with dark circles under his eyes.  He was the one I’d seen on the bed in Ferres’ room, with the yellow raincoat that vaguely resembled a lab coat, like aspiring Doctors sought.  He wore an apron beneath it, and I didn’t miss that he’d stashed a knife in that apron.  He looked at me, “That’s the plan?  You don’t get shut out of things, we get a voice.”

“And us woebegone fairy tales get our chance to be on top for once,” Red Riding Hood said.  She sat up and stretched.  “Get some catharsis.  Get some revenge.”

“Yeah, if that’s what it comes to,” the boy in yellow said.  “Not that I care, but I’m willing to do what’s necessary to get where we need to be.”

“Try to sound less like a jerk,” Red said.  She looked at me.  “The sleeping hero awakes.  Good morning.”

I looked between the two, blinking, trying to sort out the conversation.  Was she not-?

“Hm?” I grunted, quizzical.

“I said I slept surprisingly well considering this blanket smells like wet dog and old cow.  Good morning, sleepy hero.”

I didn’t want to respond, to get caught up in things.  It would be too easy to ask a question and be offered another statement that begged yet another question.  These hallucinations were a product of my mind and I was one hundred percent aware that my mind was very good when it came to that sort of thing.

I almost didn’t want to move.  I was surrounded by mostly girls, I was cozy, and I worried that once I started moving I wouldn’t be able to stop.

The decision was almost made for me.  Our conversation had stirred others.

“It’s too early,” one of the delinquents said.

“If Sy wants to get up, we get up,” Red responded.

“Fuck Sy up the bumpipe with a lumpy branch,” the delinquent said.

I cleared my throat.

“…With a not-lumpy branch, then.”

“You’re quiet,” Red said.  “Are you mad?  Did I bother you, last night?”

I barely remembered her role in last night.  I shook my head.

“Not up to talking?” she asked.  “You’re in pretty good company then.”

Beside me, the girl with the layers of clothing reached up, using her fingers to tidy my hair.

I shook my head a little, running my fingers through my hair to fix it, and then stood up, extricating myself from her.

“We’re up!” Red said, full of good cheer, and that same cheer played into the groans her voice was eliciting.

I walked straight for the open door to the barn, where a rain barrel was set beside the boy in the raincoat.  I saw Bo Peep on a bench by the door.  She watched me, eyes large, and drew her feet up from the ground to the edge of the bench, so her knees were tight up against her chest.

I gave her a wave, even though I didn’t want to gesture, even mundane gestures, for much the same reason I didn’t want to speak.  After a moment, she waved back.

Red reached out for her, as if to muss up that woolly head of hair, and Bo Peep swatted at the hand, far more forcefully than necessary.

Had I done something?  Had Red?  Was Peep jealous?

There were so many questions and I wasn’t sure I had the resources at my disposal to answer them.  I felt rested, I was only a little hungry, and yet I’d been awake for a few minutes at most, and I had already faced a number of challenges.  The energy and focus I had were things I’d need to ration for the day ahead of me.

I’d need to save up a number in case I faced a larger crisis.  Mutiny, combat, an uprising from the Academy we were holding hostage, another downturn in my mental health, or if the accumulated positive elements of my mental landscape turned on me… if the Lambs appeared, real or not, and if they weren’t friendly or kind, it was something that could leave me in shambles if I wasn’t prepared.  I needed to be ready, whatever the day brought.

The irony was that devoting time and attention to conserving mental and emotional resources was in itself draining those resources.

The boy in the yellow coat stood at the rain barrel with his hand out, letting the water run off the gutter and into his open hand.  I watched as he clenched that fist, squeezing out the water.  Beyond him, the sky was mottled with clouds just thin enough to take the blue out of the sky and thicker clouds that looked almost black.  The sun had risen just enough that the light came from one direction but didn’t color the sky pink.

“We can’t let them ignore us, Sylvester,” he said.  “It’s what they do.  They marginalize, they set up a system, and then they twist it to their favor.  Power and control.”

I plunged my head and shoulders into the water of the rain barrel.

Cold.  I kept my head there, where the rest of the world couldn’t bother me, gripping the edge of the barrel with more and more intensity as the cold crushed in on my head and stabbed through skin to make my skull hurt.

I withdrew my head and straightened.

The moment my eyes opened, the boy in the yellow coat was rushing me.  I stepped back, and in the doing, I cracked the back of my head against the edge of the door.  He grabbed me by the collar.

“You little shit!  You think you can ignore me?  Right when I was saying we get a voice!?”

I raised my hand to grab him, to pull him off me, and in the doing I brought it up to where the rain barrel pressed against the exterior wall of the barn.   How to get my hand around that simple obstacle was a thought process that eluded me in the moment.  Realizing I had another hand I could use took me a full second.

As I raised it, Red brushed against my arm, approaching the rain barrel.  She put her hands in and flinched.  “Lords and ladies, that’s cold!  You put your head in?”

I shrugged.  I realized I had one hand raised halfway up, and I’d left it hanging there.  The phantom in question was no longer there, no longer grabbing my collar.  The snarl in thought process that had made getting my right hand up and out of the space between me and the rain barrel was gone.

She bent her head down and splashed it, yelping as she came in contact with the water.  She had been modified to have facial features reminiscent of a deer, rabbit, or another prey animal, the fur was soft and so fine that the places where fur started and ended weren’t clear, brown-gray fur blending into brown skin with the fine and sparse hairs that all people had.  Her eyes were larger than normal, more expressive, and they had almost natural makeup with black skin at the edges of the eyes, the dramatic highlighting of the furrow by the tear duct, and long black eyelashes.

She’d wanted to go under the knife and she likely would, but she wanted to have an actual, normal face, and working out that particular puzzle out was a task that would take more than a week, if scars were to be avoided and all features were to look normal.

She smiled as she stepped away from the rain barrel, face beaded with moisture, and she ran her wet hands through mostly dry hair.  “Are people going to wonder where you’ve been, hero?”

I almost kept silent, but I worried my silence would be just as worrisome as my speaking here.


My question coincided with the bulk of the group exiting the barn.  Bo Peep and the girl with the layers of clothing among them.  I saw the triplets, who I’d first seen under the sink, whispering to one another.  Paul was present too, and from the straw stuck to him and to Goldilocks, I was guessing they’d found a secluded corner of the barn to bunk down in.

I watched a boy of fifteen or so twirl a stick with his fingers.  He looked a little more worse for wear, as if he’d had more to drink and a few other things beside and he’d woken up with the worst hangover, for the past one hundred days.  He contrasted that with very posh clothes and blond hair that he’d slicked back, close to his head.  He spooked me a little.  He was closer to the whispering triplets than to any of the others, and he set my instincts in overdrive.

That might have been his role.  Putting me on edge, representing something alarming without actually clarifying that something.

“You saved us,” Red said, smiling.

“You did,” Paul said.  “We owe you a lot.”

“Mm,” I grunted.  I stood back while others took their turn with the water barrel.

“He’s not talking much,” Red said.

“Alright,” Paul said, firmly.  “Well, we’ve got a few like that.  We’ll manage.”

He seemed to make it a statement, meant for the group, as if to ensure that I wouldn’t be looked down on, or so I wouldn’t run into trouble.  Maybe it was self serving on his part, ensuring his group was fine.  Maybe it was that he was actually an alright person.

“We’ll manage, yes, as we get done with all that we need to get done,” spoke the boy in the yellow raincoat.

“Speaking of, where are we going?” Goldilocks asked.  “What’s next on the agenda?”

“I want to stay,” Bo Peep said.

“Stay?” Paul asked.  “Laze around in a musty barn all day?”

“We can’t stay,” the boy in the raincoat said.  “There’s an agenda.”

“There’s stuff to do,” I said.  I didn’t want to be accused of ignoring the boy in yellow again.

“There are things that need doing that only we can do,” one of the triplets said, almost echoing the boy in yellow.  His voice sounded as though he had a cold, in contrast to the indistinct whispers.  “We’re talented.  We have to put those talents to use.”

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hungry,” Red said.

“I’m alright with being hungry,” Bo Peep said, more insistent.  “Let’s stay where we are.  It’s safe.”

“The Academy is ours, Peep!” Red said, smiling.

“It’s theirs,” the boy in yellow said.  “Don’t lose sight of that fact.”

“Don’t be silly, it’s as safe as it’ll get.  We’re as safe as we’ll ever be,” Red said.

I’d been awake for only a few minutes and I was wondering if I had the grit needed to get to noon.  This was too much, and it wasn’t enough.  It was worse because I couldn’t be sure if people were saying things to others or if I was making mental revisions to make it seem like they were.

“I’ll keep you safe,” Paul said.  “Whatever it takes, Little Bo.  I’ll be your personal bodyguard.”

Yeah, that was a large part of why Red and Goldilocks and so many others were fawning over Paul.  It wasn’t so much that he was devastatingly beautiful, and ‘devastating’ wasn’t a word I was about to use lightly, but he had a good heart beneath that righteous anger of his.

“I don’t care,” Bo Peep said.  “Not about me.  I care about Sylvester.  I know it’ll bother him if I say it, but I think it’ll be worse if I don’t say it.  He’s not well.  He wasn’t well last night.  I want to stay here with him and not do anything.  We just have to wait until his friends come back.  So long as we stay put and we don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong.”

Twenty sets of eyes turned my way.

“You’re not well, Sylvester?” Paul asked.

I felt like admitting it out loud would’ve said something, and I couldn’t bring myself to deny it.  I shrugged yet again.  It felt like I was trying to buck the weight on my shoulders that was accruing there over time.

“We’ve all got our quirks,” Paul said.  “Neuroses.  Sylvester exemplifies that.  But we’re capable, we’re strong.  Some of us even got changes that made us better than we would’ve been.  I say we move forward.  We’ve got little ones to feed.”

“You guys can go.  I’ll stay with Sylvester.  We can talk, and you can bring food back to us,” Bo Peep said.  Her hands clutched at her skirt.  With so many eyes on her, her small voice pushing against a very large group, she couldn’t quite keep her head raised.  “Please?”

“That sounds like a bother,” Red said.

“Please?” Bo Peep asked.  “Please, I’ll never ask for anything again.  I’ll be good, I’ll do one favor for everyone here, I’ll do chores, or I’ll knit something for everyone, if you’ll give me time, or…”

She seemed to sense that she wasn’t making much headway with the group.  She took a half-step toward me, then hesitated.

I dropped to my knee, so I was more on her level.  At that, she threw herself at me, her arms around my neck.  I returned the hug, and I felt her heart beating like she’d just run a mile.

“Please,” she said.  “I’ll do anything and everything you want.  I’ll go away forever, or I’ll stay right next to you forever.  But can’t we please just stay here?  We can talk, and you can tell me or tell all of us stories of you and your friends?”

That sounds nice, I thought.  Soothing, almost.  I could almost frame it in a way that taught lessons, gave tips on how to be an effective investigator or infiltrator, how to act in the acting sense, and how to manipulate.

So long as I was addressing a group, even, I could even talk freely.  The fact that I couldn’t talk to anyone without knowing for sure if I was just speaking to open air was paralyzing, a weight on my throat that coincided with a lump there that wasn’t going away.

“You said things last night that scared me, when you were talking to others that weren’t there,” she said, and the words were so quiet that she couldn’t form all of the sounds.  I’d had to fill in the gaps and reason out many of the words.  She went on in much the same fashion  “And Red Riding Hood caught wind of it and she egged you on, and Paul liked the way you sounded when you scared me most, and now I don’t like them anymore.”

“Stories?” I asked.  I was warming to the idea.  I wasn’t sure I liked having my guard down, doing nothing while things happened elsewhere, but I wasn’t sure I liked having my guard up, either.

“When you all were young.  The good days.  And I know your memory isn’t good but you could make up stories and I bet they’d still be good.  Helen was telling us that before, you would imagine things so very well that it felt real to you and now it’s hard for you to tell the difference between what’s real and made up… but if- maybe just telling stories and not worrying about any of it would be nice?”

“That could be really nice,” I said.

“I couldn’t sleep all night because I was worried about the things I heard you all saying, so I watched over you and I thought hard about it and I came up with the stories as a thing we could do,” she said.  She sounded even more desperate now that I’d indicated I was interested.  “It made sense.”

The boy with the stick approached me.  I knew he wasn’t real, but something about him made me worry.  It was less the latent danger he posed, less the anxiety that surrounded him, and more that… I wasn’t even sure how to word it.  I would have described it as a mousetrap, waiting to be sprung, everything straining, packed with potential energy.  A collapse waiting to happen.

To keep Peep away from him, I stood, still holding her tight in my arms, effectively picking her up.  I kept my back to the boy, and I saw the girl with the layered clothes and the boy with the raincoat standing with his hand in his deep coat pocket.  Something alive was in there.

There were many others, I realized, now that I took in the crowd as a whole.  The number had been twenty earlier but now it had doubled in size.  Too many were made up of boys and the rare girl in uniform.  Girls who wore only the stripped-down Academy uniform pieces, no jacket, just the white blouse and dress.  They were easy to overlook because many students were doing that now, to cut down on the laundry they had to do.

I turned as much as I was able, while the boy with the stick paced around me.

“I-”  I started.

As he spoke from a position behind me, the boy’s voice didn’t match his haggard appearance and it didn’t match his dapper clothing.  It was too deep, too ragged.  It reached into the deepest parts of me and shook me.

If you don’t get moving, we’ll make you kill that girl in the worst way possible.

Bo Peep’s heart continued to beat its relentless pace, my own now caught up to it, matching it in tempo.

“-wish I could,” I said.  I set her down, with a bit of effort to pull her free of me.  “I really do.”

She flinched at the words, then she nodded.

I didn’t miss the way she hung her head, or that her hands went to her eyes.

“Let’s go eat.  I know a good place,” I said.  Then, as a concession to the boy in yellow and the stick boy, I added, “Then we’ll see about getting down to business.”

I had to double check to make sure Bo Peep was with.

The spot was only a little distance away.  I wondered if I’d chosen it subconsciously.  The mob followed behind, the rough-edged, the altered, the recently repaired.  The building was quaint, and that quaintness was contrasted by a heavy regiment of stitched guards.

While I figured out what the best way past that regiment might be, a face appeared in the window.  Shirley unlocked and opened the door.

“Sy,” she said.  She smiled.

“Any chance of breakfast?” I asked.  It still felt strange, talking, but at least in this, I felt like I was pretty safe.  It was a known location, and the door had been unlocked and opened.  Absent Shirley, it wouldn’t have made sense.  “I don’t have my wallet, but I figure maybe you’d extend me a tab?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Shirley said.

“I know I’m a bit of a liar and a troublemaker, but I wouldn’t say it’s ridiculous, given our history,” I said.

“Of course you can eat here, Sy.  For free.  Come on in.  Your friends too.  I’ve got some oatmeal on the stove and a batch of cinnamon twists in the oven that we were going to send up to the dorms.  We’ll give you guys the twists and send the next batch up to the dorms.  How’s that?”

“That sounds pretty amazingly close to perfect.”

There were some whoops and cheers as the crowd filed in.  It was positive, good.

Bo Peep was a contrast to that.  I felt a pang.

Feeling like I could trust Shirley and that the world made sense was a big deal.  I liked feeling like I was trending closer to sanity, some scares aside.  I felt like I owed that to Bo Peep, to the three hours of sleep I’d got, and the feeling of having some company as I slept.

That was the good.  The bad was… harder to pin down.  It felt like it was still there, still growing, and I was having trouble grasping it.  It was less like the negativity wasn’t there or looming and more like I simply couldn’t see it.

It was soon chaos within the cafe that Shirley was managing.  This was our meeting hall in the city itself, and Shirley was apparently continuing her cover in keeping it running, even though the cafe part of the cafe was no longer necessary.  She could have stacked up the tables and chairs and ignored them, only ensuring that employees kept the kitchen going so the students in dormitories could be supplied with food, treats, and other necessities.

Shirley looked happy.

There were others present.  The large child from the previous night’s meeting was sitting at one table, gorging himself.  I found myself staring for a long time at another set of individuals.  Two girls and a boy that was slightly older, all with long blond hair.

Was it a code?  I’d trained myself to look for patterns.  How had they appeared?  Boy in yellow, girl with the clothes, triplets, girl in the window.  One, one, three, one… did I read anything into the fact that the boy in yellow and the girl in the window had had pets?

Who had come after?  The large child.  Yes,then the boy with the stick.  Now this set of three.  There was the plethora of boys in uniform and girls in white, but I hadn’t kept count and if I was entirely honest, the cues my hallucinations tended to give me tended to be cues of a sort that I knew and appreciated.  I wouldn’t have set myself a task better suited to Jessie or Mary.

No, I wasn’t sure if my brain would have posed a riddle to me in terms of math or science, not that kind of pattern.

Pierre, meanwhile, was wearing checked pyjamas, sitting on the end of the bench closest to the kitchen.

“Wasn’t expecting guests,” he said.  “I’m barely decent.”

I smiled, took Bo Peep’s hand, and led her to Pierre’s side.  “Come on.  Have a seat.”

She sat, head still bowed.

“I’ll look after her,” Pierre said.

“Thank you,” I murmured, “She’s quickly catching up to you, Shirley, and the Lambs when it comes to my list of people I really owe.  Getting support, backup, and smart support-backup is… pretty invaluable when I find I’m low.”

“I’ll definitely look after her, then,” Pierre said.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

I got food for myself and for Bo Peep, and I brought it over to her.  I separated myself from the larger storm of discussion and sat with her.

“We’re sitting here on our lonesome over here, talking about fav0rite animals,” Pierre said.

“Well, clearly, Lambs are the best,” I said.

“Lambs grow up, and then they aren’t Lambs anymore,” Bo Peep said.

I felt a stab of something horrifying at that thought.  It wasn’t that the sentence was so poignant, but… I wondered if it cast a shadow of doubt on Bo Peep, a thought that didn’t match her.

Not that I knew her that well.

“I think we can all hold on to the best parts as we grow up.  It’s part of what growing up is,” I said.

“I really want to think that,” she said.

“You’re a good one, Peep,” I said.  “Please don’t let anyone, me especially, convince you that you aren’t.”

More people kept filing in.  I was well aware that many were my hallucinations.  I was aware that there was a lingering sentiment of hostility, and that the boy with the stick had threatened to do something to Bo Peep if I didn’t keep moving.

But this was nice, and it was essential.  I needed to make it up to Peep, get my ducks in order, and figure out what I was doing.

Peep finished her breakfast and moved on to the threat that accompanied it, the cinnamon twist.  Dough, sugar, cinnamon, more sugar, at a guess.

“No word from the Lambs,” Pierre said.  “We checked all avenues of communication.  It’s going to be a few days more at a minimum.”

They were painful words to hear, when I felt like getting to noon was going to be hard.  That feeling faded into the background when I saw how much Peep was enjoying her cinnamon twist.  She was smiling again, after I’d disappointed her.

“I could see if there’s another,” I suggested.

“I was supposed to get one,” Pierre said.

“I would’ve brought it to you if I’d-” I started.

He was waving me off.  “Give her mine.”

“I’ll grab it,” I said.

Too many hostile eyes watched me as I stood and headed to the kitchen.  Too many eyes that were filled with expectation watched me, waiting for me to disappoint them.  It was the eyes of the most insightful people here that I tried to stay most cognizant of.  Shirley, Pierre, Bo Peep.  It felt like they saw the real me, or had at least spent long enough with me to see through any veneer of bullshit I put up.

I was still in the kitchen when I saw the latest batch of arrivals turn up.  I recognized one of them as Bea.  She made a beeline straight to Shirley, giving some hard looks to some of the delinquents who’d been out with us the night prior.

I remained in the kitchen, hanging back.  Shirley looked in the direction of Bo Peep, pointing, but she didn’t spot me.  She’d thought I was still sitting there.

I watched Bea’s face and I translated what she was saying by watching her lips.

“Headmistress… s bad.  We don’t know what we’re doing.  Sylvester-”

Someone moved between me and her.  I missed the latter part of that sentence.

“…in the bathtub.  It’s going to take work to get her standing again by the time the Infante turns up.”

Shirleys hands went to her mouth, also happening to block my view of her lips.  After a few moments, she lowered her hands, still speaking.  “-His reasons?”

Bea’s expression hardened.  Whatever it was she said, it had a question mark as part of it.  ‘Who knows’, possibly.

I collected the twist, and I tried to figure out the best way forward.  That ominous feeling was starting to take shape, now, and feel less vague or indistinct.

Bea was just now gathering others, giving them instructions and complicating the already complicated situation.  Paul said something, challenging Bea.

In another time and place, they might have gotten along famously, but this wasn’t that time or place.  Bea was transforming, day by day, week by week.  She had more to lose, and she wanted to be a leader, not a ringleader.

Paul, meanwhile, was balking hard at the continued presence of the Academy as an interfering factor in his life.

I navigated a crowd saturated with opposition, with more added every few seconds as Bea gave orders.  I watched as Paul and his backers formed a line, pressing back against the agents Bea had sent at us.

So long as I remained, I was a catalyst for trouble.

I delivered the treat to Bo Peep, gave her another silent wave, and then I ducked into the areas of the crowd where it didn’t look like trouble waited.  I made my way back to the kitchen.

There was a door there that had no exterior handle, necessitating that travel be either from the inside out, and that anyone who made the mistake of letting the door closed would have to walk around the building perimeter to get back to the front door.

I was glad I was traveling from the inside out.

I stepped out into the light drizzle, and I moved quickly, aiming to put as much distance between myself and them as possible.

It was all accumulating, and Bo Peep was entirely right in that I needed to move as little as possible.

Except doing nothing at all would exacerbate problems.  I would need to find a niche I could fit into.  I could hammer out some key points, identify weak points in security at the periphery of Hackthorn, and stay out of the way.

I hoped I could.

I’d keep my hands and head busy and try to see my way through to noon, then I’d adjust, and I’d figure out what it took to get me through the afternoon.  I wanted more time in the company of the others, but they were too difficult to wrangle when outnumbered and packed into a cafe like sardines.

I felt better than I had the last few nights.

That feeling was caught in my chest as though I’d been grabbed, as I rounded a corner and saw a pair of figures.  Two, for this part of any pattern, if they’re hallucinations, I thought.

One was a boy, fat.  The other-

“Mary,” I called out, despite myself.

She turned.

Not Mary.  Young, yes, but far from being Mary.  The clothing was wrong, the eyes showed no familiarity with me, and there was something separate about the way she moved.

In that sighting, it dawned on me just who and what the countless new hallucinations represented.  Past and present caught up to me in an instant and dashed all hopes that I had of feeling better off.

No, this was so much worse.

I could work backward from this moment of recognition.  I could assign names to the boy and his sisters, because I knew just about all of them.  I could assign names to most of the non-soldier ones.  I’d deciphered the pattern and it had nothing to do with numbers, it only had to do with the fact that they were so often something constructed or engineered.  Manufactured in sets.

Just as the Lambs were.

I fled that scene of the pair, putting distance between myself and them and myself and the cafe.  The ominous, hollow feeling I’d had was coming full circle, my eyes widening.  This was so much worse, even if it just stopped at this.

It wouldn’t.

I knew full well the course this took.  That was why this was as bad as it was.  I was slipping away, violence was happening without my being aware of it, and as I slipped, dangerous players were trying to control me.  It wasn’t just horror in retrospect or horror in the moment.

It was horror because I knew who waited for me, just steps down this particular road.  I’d told the others to kill me if I fell that far, and they weren’t here to execute that particular standard.

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73 thoughts on “Dog Eat Dog – 18.10

    • Was it a code? I’d trained myself to look for patterns. How had they appeared? Boy in yellow, girl with the clothes, triplets, girl in the window. One, one, three, one… did I read anything into the fact that the boy in yellow and the girl in the window had had pets?
      -What window? Which girl?

      Who had come after? The large child. Yes,then the boy with the stick.
      -missing a space

      Dammit Sy, I really wished that Ferris hadn’t been in the bathtub.

    • and that anyone who made the mistake of letting the door closed would have to walk around the building perimeter to get back to the front door.
      – should be leaving the door closed

    • Given Sylvester’s state, it’s actually getting hard to determine if typos are just that, or actually purposefully indicating his degraded mental processes.

      The ‘o’→zero typo especially, seems completely out of place.

      Treat→threat also makes sense since he’s drowning in the middle of hostility, both real and imaginary.

      “who made the mistake of letting the door closed”
      Feels natural enough. -d

    • regarding “fav0rite”

      Could this be just a clue that the rabbit isn’t there? A glitch to foreshadow the realization later?

  1. So, I’m guessing the kids are nobles? The chapter ended with him finding Auguste and Original-Mary, and I’m going to guess the two girls and the slightly older boy are Baron Richmond and the twins. I’m unsure about the rest. Stick-boy might be Monte, Raincoat could be the Duke? There are more hallucinations than nobles I remember from the story, so I can’t really do a one-to-one match.

  2. What a heartbreaking chapter, but well written. So good, the unreliable narration has gotten to the point of having to second guess moments I would have not otherwise suspected, Pierre, Shirley, even Bo Peep. Twists existed, but only Bo Peep and Pierre actually interacted with them.. I have wondered for a while I’d Shirley isn’t some surpressed memory of a nurturer or even an echo of the girl he met in the parlor once.

  3. “Lambs grow up, and then they aren’t Lambs anymore,” Bo Peep said.
    In addition to the significance that line has to any themes in this story, it feels like it could be foreshadowing for Worm’s sequel. As though the characters we’re familiar with will have changed after growing up so as to be practically strangers.

  4. Poor Sy, and poor everyone else. He is such a dangerous threat now, despite his personal hopes.

    As usual, I love how hard it is to predict your works. You make people who happen to be in a story and it is amazing!

  5. I’m sorry, but I’m a little confused at the ending. Is he hallucinating the kids from the block that would grow to be Nobles? Is he worried that, when losing time, these noble constructs are taking control of him and making him do horrific things?

    • I think I need a reread too. Might be my hangover but it wasn’t super clear to me. Maybe he’s afraid he will eventually hallucinate one of his siblings?

      • Siblings? Where did that idea come from? I vaguely remember Sy wondering idly if he had any, one time, many, many chaptera ago. But it’s not like that’s ever been a theme or anything, nor does it have anything to do with anything in this arc. ..

    • He’s hallucinating kid versions of nobles: “Mary” and the fat boy: The two nobles that were with the Infante. Older boy and his sisters: The Baron and the Twins. Boy with the stick: The Duke, maybe? Not sure who the boy with the raincoat, the girl in layered clothes, and the triplet are though. Maybe some of the teen nobles from the train?

      Anyway, Sy realized that the next step after Mary and the Infante’s “son” is the Infante himself.

    • Remember that Sy himself was a late addition to the Lambs. What if he was originally designed to be a Noble, and his “expiration date” is when his Lamb-ness sloughs off and leaves the original template?

        • Speaking of which, I wonder if they ever continued that particular project at another academy. Maybe Sy has a figurative sibling somewhere (that or they already died from Wyvern OD…)

          • Yeah, when Sy’s backstory as a poison tester was exposed, they also mentioned that the role was dumped on some other kid (who presumably died) when he joined the Lambs.

      • Originally each member of the lambs was mentioned as “becoming something else” so maybe? I read past the forst few chapters expecting sy to grow scales and turn into a monster, but the big boss had other ideas.

        I still love how the story has gone, but every once in a while I wonder if they installed any weird organs in sy that he is unaware of… maybe one that is driving his insanity sooner than otherwise likely.

      • Doesn’t make sense for Sy. On the other hand, it’s a very serious possibility for Jamie / Jessie, given what we know about them and the unusual intensity of attention the Nobles paid to them.

  6. I said it often before, but Sy really hit rock bottom mentally. He lasted long, hats off, but we all know he could not last forever.

    And ouch, it was the one in the bathtub that was real. That’s horrifying and bad news indeed.

    But more positive, it seems that Pierre actually is still alive. And somehow the thought of Pierre in something such ordinary like a checkered pyjama made me chuckle.

    • *Why* is the one in the bathtub real? I’m confused about the train of thought that would have Sy mutilate a professor’s hands. Further confused about why he’s thinking a bit about having a kill order placed on himself by other lambs.

      *Very* confused why he’s still in some semblance of a leadership position at all. He’s groomed a lot of these academy rebels into leadership roles, but it seems as if he’s unable to just “sit tight” as Bo Peep suggested.

      There’s a lot of horror here and a huge part of my reaction is wanting to escape that horror. I’m not necessarily being a rational reader seeking rational understanding or offering rational critique. A large part of this is an emotional response, me saying “surely it’s got to be better than this” and “how did things get this bad this quickly”. But these are also genuine questions, even asked as they are in a place that perhaps isn’t totally sane.

      • EDIT: Saw a response from a previous chapter. A lot of my confusion was already addressed there. Still.

        This situation sucks, man.

    • It’s still likely that Sy is misunderstanding the “bathtub” part, given the gaps in the context. After all, Ferres was drugged and confined in a bathtub long before that scene where she may or may not have been disarmed and somewhat dislegged.

      Who knows what state she’s in, first sleeping in the bathtub every night while being dosed with tranquilizers, then systematic sleep deprivation, all while being exposed to the kind of devastating psychological torture Sy is known for? Depending on the timing, the tranquilizers alone would be enough.

      All we really get from that dialogue (other than hints of doubts festering in their minds) is that Ferres was in a bathtub at some point and that she has a hard time standing properly.

      Mainly, the reason I think this is the case is that there’s no other reason (from a narrative standpoint) for someone to get in the way of Sy’s lipreading right as Bea is mentioning the key detail that would reveal which one it is, and there’s no reason (from an in-story standpoint) for us to suspect that this someone isn’t a hallucination. They have been known to be quite tricky, and somewhat cruel at times.

      • Sy could have imagined that whole conversation from scratch. He is a VERY unreliable narrator right now.

        I would really like to get the whole Ferres situation confirmed by another viewpoint character. And other things, like whether Pierre is present at any given time. He should really start just asking Bo Peep or someone whether the people he’s seeing are actually there. Take her everywhere with him like a seeing-eye dog.

        • Because having constantly someone with you to point out who is real or who not helps his image as still being a trusted leader so much more than talking to thin air?

          Especially if he has to sleep and can’t be sure that she’s still there when he wakes up.

      • My thoughts were that Ferres was very capable of walking or even looking like a normal person not long before their takeover, so something had to happen to her that it would take some work to get her standing in a limited timeframe. And as Sy had no (logical) reason to hurt her somehow in a way that debilitates, as he needs her to look proper for the visit of the Infante, the bathtub mutilation just fits right in.

        From a narrative standpoint, I don’t know how it works. I have a pretty hard time predicting wildbow.

    • We can’t tell if the conversation about the professor actually happened. Remember how Sylvester woke up and responded to a real person? Red said something completely different than what he heard, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he knew the raincoat kid was fake, he wouldn’t have noticed at all

      In short, we just saw that he’s bad enough to replace what he hears with something he imagines. Add in the fact he’s not even sure if he had ANY conversation with ANY headmaster that night, and we cant be sure there was anyone in the tub

      Hell, we cant be sure that Bea came in the café at all, let alone said something that someone would’ve noticed already. Yesterday morning is when Sylvester told the guards to help clean up the disaster inside the room, so people would’ve noticed a lot sooner if there was an almost corpse inside

      • “Ferres … in the bathtub” evokes so much horror in my head wondering which Ferres was real, wondering whether she enacted her master plan and Sy responded in a devastating way (subsequently forgetting all of it), wondering whether or not Bea is just a torturing hallucination….

        Kudos to Wildbow. This is a moment where the imagination and paranoia runs wild.

        I totally don’t understand the ending of the chapter though, and I needed to read the comments to hear theories that he’s hallucinating kid Nobles. That will make for a wonderful Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Fairy Tale to come when all of the nobles, real and imagined are running around in a play together for the final act!


  7. The boy with the stick was the Dapper Noble Sy met on the train. Infante said he was similar to the Duke. I’m surprised that left a large impression on him.

    So, Sy did mutilate her. That’s terrible for both of them 😦 he’s basically sabotaging his own plans.

  8. so we’ve seen an angry redhead in layered clothing and a blonde aspiring doctor with a pet and a white labcoatlike jacket, and child versions of nobles are appearing. Who, I wonder are those two?

    ok though why are fray and mauer genderswapped? is this connected to jamie/jessie and evette making her presence known? desire to differentiate? was teen!fem!mauer both hilarious and early foreshadowing?

    • oh wait. mauer and fray have already shown up. is layers girl sub rosa, then? and were Percy or Sanguine blonde?

      “…There are rules at play, even if they’re twisted Sylvester rules. If the Infante ever starts talking to me and he’s not actually there, I think that’s it. That’s as far as it goes. Put me down.”

      Does the Lord Infante stand for giving up?That’s where Sy went last time, to the Infante, when his pain was just too much and all he cared about was causing as much suffering as possible.

  9. Man, it’s getting harder and harder to comment on these. All I feel is dread
    and sorrow about poor Sy :< Though not in a bad way; the story is still as engrossing as ever ❤

  10. Sy has got to partially recover somehow before the story is done. He just can’t play an active role while disabled this much. The story demands that he become combat-ready again.

    • That’s the dilemma, he IS combat ready. He’s still capable of devastatingly effective things, his judgment is just shot. No telling whether a phantom will use that intellect to do something horrible to a dear friend simply because he’s bored…..

      • Maybe… but this we haven’t seen. He’s having trouble just handling himself around his allies and maintaining their trust in normal conditions. He has to have much better mental command over the situation than an enemy does, to defeat the enemy. If there was an enemy among his allies today, the enemy could have easily killed him while being dismissed as a hallucination. You can’t outsmart an enemy if you can’t tell what’s real.

  11. I’m finding that ‘Twig’ is no longer a pleasure to read; the narrative is shattered and the plot seemingly non-existant. How can a story progress when there are no longer any landmarks for the reader? I think there’s been too much confusion/ambiguity in ‘Twig’ and for too long — I’m finding myself confused about what and whether I’m *supposed* to be confused, and it’s getting tedious.

    Instead of building to a conclusion, the story seems to be disintegrating into a fuzz of unanswered questions and unresolved issues. It’s fast becoming the same disappointing muddle of bang-AND-whimper with which Wildbow concluded his two previous novels.

    • Dude, it’s like two or three chapters in total that you’re complaining about. I think you were just in a bad mood (or the wrong mood) when you read this chapter and you’re overreacting based on a couple of cherry-picked details. Come back some other time and I bet you won’t understand what you were ever complaining about.

      There quite clearly *is* still a plot that’s progressing. The entire overarching plot, in fact. Just because Sy can’t remember what happened a chapter ago doesn’t mean you have to forget too.

      Do you remember Lil, Mary, and Jamie in dire straits with the Infant? That’s not a compelling plot?

      Anyway I think that’s why WB is alternating in the Enemy and Lamb chapters, to make Sy’s deterioration somewhat readable. You know how so-called spoilers actually make people enjoy stories more? Even this chapter will crystalize in retrospect, when we have a clear idea of what we’re looking at.

    • What do you mean by the plot is almost nonexistent? There’s a pretty clear plot for all of POV chapters and for the story at large.

      Sy chapters: His deterioration and whether he can sort it out/last long enough for the Lambs to arrive. (Specifically that _nobles_ are appearing in his head, leading up to the Infante himself, which Sy stated was the sign that there’s no turning back and Jessie should just kill him)

      Jessie/Mary/Lillian chapters: The decision of potentially leaving behind all academic prospects to contribute to Sy’s plan. Also, the huge cliffhanger Lillian’s chapter left off with, you know the whole thing with the Infante showing up to try and kill them

      Helen/Mauer chapters: I guess the first chapter pretty much sorted out the step of getting Mauer on board, but it still hasn’t been explained why it’s taken Helen so long to get back, so there’s probably something going on there

      Twig As A Whole: Striking a massive blow to the crown/academy

      Not sure what you mean by the endings for Pact and Worm being disappointing either. They were pretty well received and I know I enjoyed them

    • I have to disagree. Its much tough to predict now, but Wildbow tends to have built up a lot of misconceptions at this stage of his stories, so I am used to realizing I didnt understand a few points as much as I thought I had.

      Still, each chapter appears to have fascinating revelations about the otherwise unfathomable characters we have spent most of the story striving to understand. I am not sure what the will be, but that is a far cry from there being no structured end.

      I know it can he frustrating to realize we dont know as much as we thought we did, but please trust us, Wildbow definitely delivers.

      I am 100% certain all this will make sense in retrospect, er, well like 90% of it will make sense. But guessing and seeking understanding are part of the draw of wildbow stories in all their awe and myster 💕

    • I agree, there’s a line between unreliable narrator and annoyingly confusing scenes and Sy’s perspective has been the latter for a few chapters now.

  12. I’m not where Barrendur is, but I am feeling more than a little lost, and it is getting very frustrating. This chapter, for instance, made almost no sense to me at all. Wildbow has built up a *LOT* of capital with me, but I’m not too proud to say that he spent some this chapter and in a few of the recent ones.

    The device of having Sy’s hallucinations told as if real and then the big reveal at the end… That was an amazing couple of chapters, but it worked because at the end I (the reader) could actually parse what had happened and what was internal to Sy. At this point, with these chapters, I’m walking away as confused as Sy, but not as clever as him. It’s not a good feeling.

    • So, I understand that Sy is struggling to interact with, well, anyone because he distrusts who’s real and who isn’t, and the chapter mostly serves to drive that point home and revel in his deteriorated state, more than advance any given plot-line.

      But, I end up sort of agreeing with you, because at the end, there’s some sort of reveal or conclusion or crystallization that’s supposed to make retroactive sense, and, uh, it doesn’t. Not to me. I’m, as you put it, not that clever. I read the comments, and even then, my best guess is ‘I guess this is him panicking that he might be getting to enough of a breaking point that he should be put down.’ But that’s a very general sort of conclusion, and I feel like I’m supposed to understand something further, something specific about recent events or why he’s so panicking at that particular signal in this particular way. If that was indeed the narrative intent, there was surely a way to reassure me, as the reader, that this is the conclusion I am supposed to come to.

      Instead, I’m looking over the chapter, and am pretty lost. I’m left to hoping that a few chapters from now, when he gets better or when we get an outside perspective on his condition, it’ll all make sense. I have to put this chapter on credit.

      • 1) We know sy is so confused that he hears things that werent said, is worried he might murder his friends, and is afraid to seek calm away from the fight.

        2) We know the beattle rebels do not trust him anymore (though that has had 3 or 4 chapters of buildup to make it clear)

        3) We know he is still potentially devastating when his mind pulls together to blow things up or cause destruction in general. This might lead to Sy being more of a hinderance to all sides than help to anyone.

        4) We know the plan is to get all the lambs back and get the crown to go to beattle and we do not yet know why… and in the middle of their plan, Sy is falling apart, dangerous, not sure of his reality and he has just ran from the academy as if he isnt coming back… but Jessie was counting on him to be there and to be in control.

        If this chapter didnt ratchet up the tension and make you wonder if their plan is going to come crashing down, then I dont know what will. Stories where the main characters always win are boring. This is a story where a win or even survival isnt guaranteed. Its amazing.

        So dont worry, the plot is advancing and what you are feeling is uncertainty about the outcome of Sy & Jessie’s grand plan. Enjoy the uncertainty, precious few authors are capable of creating that feeling.

        • Oh, I agree that having a protagonist being non-functional and wrong, and potentially failing, is a classic Wildbow strength and a compelling plot. It’s just, usually, when reading a chapter about such, I know that that is what I am doing. Here, I have to take your word for it, because the chapter itself isn’t conveying it super well. I get ‘Sy is pretty crazy,’ which is all well and good, and yes I understand the implications of that for the overall plan aren’t good, but there’s a lot of text and I’m sure I’m supposed to get more than that out of it, especially towards the end, when he has a specific freak-out about something.

          See, for a concrete example, I’m not at all sure where everyone keeps getting ‘Sy is super dangerous’ from. Enough people have said it that I believe it, but I was not clever enough to extract that from the chapter myself. There’s the illusion guy threatening to make Sy murder Bo Beep if he doesn’t ‘do things,’ which is of course a problem as Sy is more likely to cause a problem than be in any way helpful when ‘doing things,’ but that’s about it. I don’t understand the sentence ‘violence is happening and I’m not aware of it,’ I don’t get how it follows from anything described, and whether it’s just a thing he said out of the blue of if it’s something I’m supposed to read the chapter and realize is actually happening and he’s just become aware of it, or what. I don’t understand why running into not-mary means he is close to the point that the other lambs should put him down, and I feel like the chapter expects me to get it. I don’t understand the significance of the ‘pattern’ of illusion groups organized similarly to lambs, and I think the chapter expects me to read something into it.

          My issue is not with the development of the plot really, it’s that I feel there’s a disconnect between what the chapter expects me to understand, and what I actually understand after having read it. It’s not usually a problem, Wildbow is usually very good about intelligent twists and reveals, but is in this chapter. If, however, it turns out later to all make sense – as it sometimes does – it’s maybe fine.

          • In a previous chapter he had the professor locked to his bed and also had her chopped up in the tub… and he didnt know which one was the “real” one. So he sent a team in to “take care of whats in the bedroom” so that stable people could sort it out.

            At the end of this chapter he overheard the girl that is mostly in charge say they “…found in the tub…” and he went “well fuck, I guess I did chop her up… time to bail.”

            We dont know if he hallucinated the words about the tub, but we do know Sy thinks he heard them and it sent him running.

          • Also, last I checked a chapter or two ago Sy single handedly took out an entire rebel group with a couple small bombs and no backup.

            I meant “Sy is dangerous” in that if he is active and unstable no one, even himself, knows which side he is going to damage the most.

            He says violence is happening without him being aware because if he DID chop up the professor and has no memory of it, then he is doing extreme violence without his knowledge.

            Personally, I have no idea who the various hallucinations are. As far as I can tell they are a little bit of foreshadowing that Wildbow put in, but knowing who each one is isnt necessary to understanding the plot.

            Also, in case it came over text wrong, I mean no disrespect towards you that you didnt fully follow everything. This chapter is super complicated. I was just trying to share my understanding in hopes of helping you guys figure it out. Hugs!

          • (Not sure how the blog works, I guess I respond to myself at this point?) Well, that bathtub thing actually clears up some things for me, so I really appreciate it, and I didn’t see as cogent an explanation anywhere else in the comments, so, special thanks!

            I guess Sy was dangerous when he was mostly functional, but it seems difficult to imagine him being especially dangerous when he can’t use his usual tricks of ‘reading the enemy and reacting with an almost prescient level of improvised plan that targets the weak point’ since he can’t actually tell anything apart from anything else really. I suppose the chapter leaves some room for him acting without having known that he was acting, but still acting effectively by being ‘piloted’ by some figment of his mind, but historically he preforms somewhat worse when doing that, and even now if his narration can be trusted at all he seems to freeze up a lot.

            In any case, the bathtub thing made everything make a lot more sense honestly. I still don’t see what it means for everyone (imaginary) to be ‘organised as lambs,’ but perhaps it’ll make sense later. Thanks! Hugs.

          • Im not fully sure what the “organized as lambs” part means either… but one of my favorite things to do with Wildbow stories is to read them again later and find all the foreshadowing and references I missed the first time. Ive read worm like 5 times now and I STILL notice new things 💕

            Yay! Im glad I helped. I hope you have a wonderful day 🙂

  13. I wonder what kind of mental state Fray is in. I mean, she’s been using Wyvern habitually almost as long as Sy has if not longer, yet if I remember correctly, we haven’t heard from her since Beatle, and even when she was in focus, I don’t think we actually got her own viewpoint rather than the viewpoint of a character close to her.

    Also, at this point, I’m not sure any of Sy’s viewpoint can be trusted, and Jessie and Helen’s conversations with Lillian and Mauer are the only things convincing me any of the Hawthorn arc is actually happening and isn’t entirely Wyvern-induced hallucinations and fever dreams.

  14. Doesn’t seem like anyone has caught this quite yet. The guy in the raincoat is the same as the guy in the first chapter. He also wore a raincoat and an apron.

    • “He hummed. But for some stubble on his chin, he looked like a gentleman, with a four-button vest under a butcher’s apron and an ankle-length raincoat.”

      Woah… so, it’s not just the nobles but ALL the enemies that Sy’s encountered then?

      I guess the guy who pointed out that the layered-clothing girl could be Sub-Rosa was right!

      Really good catch

    • man, i realized this like 12 hours after reading the chapter and got out of bed to see if anyone else had posted it first

  15. This is getting really bad. I can’t see how Sylvester us getting out of this pit of hell.

    And he did amputate Ferres then. I can only assume she carried out her trump card and it uh, failed miserably.

  16. This is the moment the story went from the greatest I’ve ever read to I don’t know and I’m not sure I care. There’s a definite danger in dealing with an Unreliable narrator which is expanded upon heavily when you include delusions. The fact that this story is near impossible to get a clear interpretation of is a giant problem. It’s one thing to have symbolism, allegory, and double meanings in the story but this has turned into a cluster fuck. I have a rough sketch of what is going on and to be honest that’s not enough. This work is too clever for it’s own good, kind of like Sy.

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