Jessie peered through the binoculars. Her vision was hampered by the fact that her view was through windows and that those windows had branches dividing panes of glass.
The Infante had cornered Lillian and Mary. His soldiers were gathering in the area surrounding the building. The Helmed, Jessie termed them. Beast and biped, they were moving out through the city, alongside soldiers and doctors leading teams of warbeast and stitched. They moved with a mission, securing major points, the gates to the city, the intersections of major roads, and the larger institutional buildings, like the hospital, the schoolhouse, and the merchant’s hall.
They were securing the city. The fact that the city was surrounded by refugees complicated matters. If the populace realized what was going on and fought back, they would have to contend with a fight within their city and enemies outside the gates. Jessie had seen this play out in too many permutations to have any illusions about what was really happening.
The Infante intended to squash this city, and from his body language, he intended to do much the same to Lillian and Mary.
Jessie would need to help.
Her mind was architecture, every memory a brick set in place. She thought of her memories as ‘cards’, coded in placement and color and in terms of what they were, but the mental construction wasn’t a house of cards – it was far more stable.
Taking stock of everything she had collected since visiting the city, touching on all points of reference, she reoriented her memories as if they were a pop-up book coming to life, the individual rows and columns taking a geographical position in her head.
She could, at the speed of thought, move through the city, analyzing the details she had catalogued. She had noted details about houses and what she had seen when looking through windows, and she could cross reference that to make educated guesses about which houses might have guns on display or in places she could access. She could think of four places where munitions or things she could turn into munitions were stored. There were places she could set fires, if she wanted to alert the populace and change the tone of things. There were places where civilians would be gathered, and she could go there to make an appeal. In rural areas, the Crown had a different image.
She thought of Jamie’s writings about Mauer and his rhetoric, about Sylvester’s rhetoric, and she had some tenuous ideas on what she might try to say.
Her recent failure to get Lillian and Mary on board sat heavy with her, casting doubt on her ability to actually execute those ideas.
None of those things were likely to stop the Infante.
Enemy forces were drawing too near. The Infante had stopped, only periodically taking a step forward. He was talking.
Jessie focused on his mouth.
The Infante spoke the word as the last utterance of a longer line, and then he smiled. He held up his hand as if he had something in it, but it was empty.
Eighty feet away, at the other end of the expansive office, Mary kept one hand on Lillian’s shoulder and held a knife in the other. The Infante didn’t even seem to recognize the knife as a weapon.
Jessie stood straight, drew her gun, and aimed high. Her brain worked through countless similar cases, times when she had aimed high, aimed low, the various wind conditions, and the places the bullets had struck home.
She aimed, and she fired, wincing at the sound, binoculars still held in place.
She didn’t see the bullet strike home so much as she saw the white dot appear on the building’s surface, a short distance to the left of the window.
She aimed again, adjusting, then fired twice in quick succession, before dropping the binoculars. Soldiers in other areas were turning their heads at the sound of gunfire. They hadn’t seen her, but she was concealed, tucked into the shadows between a window that jutted out of a rooftop and the rooftop itself.
In the distance, the window shattered. She might have hit the Infante but she doubted she’d accomplished anything.
It would have to do – a distraction, and a signal to the other Lambs that she was here. There were two ways to read the tap code, depending on if they’d heard the initial shot or just the two follow-up shots. If it was just the two follow-up shots, the code was ‘no’. No, she wasn’t here, no she wasn’t able to help just yet, no they couldn’t rely on her.
If it was the first shot, then two in close succession, it was the same meaning as the sixth gesture, the flat hand with fingers curled in, a sign that meant to hold position, patience, to wait, to guard something.
Protect yourselves. Hold on. I’ll try to help, just give me time.
Jessie moved from her hiding place at the side of a window on a rooftop to the ground, and then wove her way through the streets. She hadn’t decided on a destination or answer yet, but she had a sense of where the greatest number were. It was a path that took her directly away from the other Lambs.
“Hello,” Lillian’s voice was hesitant.
He wasn’t confident enough in his speech to give a proper answer. The memories and instructions in his head were sparse, lessons learned over the past several days, and he was inexperienced in bringing them to bear. It was slow going, ensuring everything was organized in ways that wouldn’t get in his way later, slower going to reflexively tap that information. He knew the words, but bringing tone into things was complicated. Even thinking about gestures, the simple act of raising his hand in greeting, it was hard.
“Yeah,” she said, and her voice broke just a little bit. She was sad. “Hi there, Jamie. I thought I’d stop in.”
She wasn’t the only one that was sad. Jamie was miserable and lonely, and the way the doctors talked past him without actually talking to him had made it far worse.
“I’m guessing you’re overloaded,” Lillian said. “You’ve had too many lessons today, and you don’t need me putting anything more on your plate?”
He wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
Lillian kept talking, “I have homework. I thought I’d sit, keep you company. I- I brought candy, from this shop downtown. You liked it, before, and it makes good medical sense, sugar for the brain, and…”
She held a small paper bag, raising it like she was going to hand it out, but then she stopped short, hesitating.
She broke through whatever was holding her back, pushing herself, and handed him the bag.
“Don’t- don’t chew it,” she said. “You’ll break your teeth.”
He nodded, reaching into the bag, retrieving a hard candy, and putting it in his mouth.
Lillian took a seat at the desk, moving papers aside, getting her bag, and taking books out. She rubbed at one eye and swore under her breath.
“I told myself I wouldn’t cry. Except, as Sy keeps saying, I’m a bit of crybaby. I hope you don’t mind,” she said.
Jamie would have gestured, but Lillian was sitting so Jamie was to her left and behind her. Instead, Jamie ventured a, “No.”
“Jamie was a good friend. He was gentle, well read, patient, and all around lovely. We all miss him terribly. I didn’t want my visit to be all tears, you know. It’s why I waited just a little while. Turns out I’m crying some anyway.”
“It’s okay,” Jamie said.
“I’m sure you’ll be lovely too,” Lillian said. She managed a smile.
“I hope so,” Jamie said. His overtaxed mind was working hard to catalogue all of the things about Lillian’s words and movements, the little details about her, the taste of the hard candy, even the ambient changes in the room. It was too much stimuli, but Lillian’s presence in the room helped on other fronts.
Jamie stood from the bed that had been placed next to his ‘throne’, the edifice that connected him to the greater Caterpillar. He approached Lillian, watching over her shoulder as she penned out her homework.
She looked up at him, and she smiled again. She raised one hand, and rubbed his upper arm. Warm, kind, unsure.
If this was what the Lambs were, then things might be okay after all.
She hated leaving Lillian and Mary.
Jessie might as well have put her foot through a tripwire as she rounded the corner. She’d tracked the movement of the soldiers throughout the city, watched as they mobilized, and she had a sense of how fast they moved, ideas on where they could go. It was, for example, very unlikely that they would backtrack. It was unlikely they would take winding courses through narrower alleys and roads. They would move along main roads unless the narrower paths took them to a place of interest.
From there, it was simply a question of keeping track of timing, adjusting the cards and knowing the most likely positions of the enemy. People were predictable.
The tripwire, so to speak, wasn’t a person. Jessie had chosen speed over silence as she ran, shoes tapping the road, and something had heard. She recognized the snort, not from this creature, but one very like it, and she recognized the snuffling, the drum of paw on road.
Sniffers. The warbeasts were canine, large, and covered in rolling locks of white fur, their eyes large and unblinking, their noses like something sculpted, highlighting wide nostrils with ridges of tissue and flesh.
They had gone to great lengths, working with Mabel and the rest of the Green team to produce a countermeasure to these warbeasts and things like them. They had released their own warbeasts, ones that carried scents almost indistinguishable from their own, and on sending children to West Corinth and other locations, they had had the children release the countermeasures.
Jessie’s leg hurt where she had been shot. It had been a graze, barely an injury at all, but now that she was running it was worse. Worse still when she was running with renewed intensity. The warbeast was faster than her.
Her mind’s eye still held the likely positions of everyone present, blurrier in parts where their objectives or paths were less sensible.
She made a beeline for a covered wagon she had seen two minutes ago, trusting it would be present. She would be able to reach it before the warbeast reached her, but what happened when she got that far was a bigger question.
She could remember the construction of the wagon, and drew correlations to wagons like it. She’d seen the exteriors and interiors. She’d seen the wagon-driver’s bench, and the steps leading up to it.
Even before it came into view, she was mentally reciting the steps she would need to take. She rounded the corner, coming face to face with the wagon and the stitched horses that drove it. She saw the driver, who was craning his neck to try and peer past obstacles and see what was going on elsewhere in the city, with soldiers and the Helmed fanning out.
She’d very nearly been run over in crossing paths with the wagon that in dodging the trotting horses her shoulder brushed with one of theirs.
“Get down!” she shouted, as she leaped, setting foot on steps at the side of the wagon that she’d barely had time to verify were indeed there. As the sniffer shied away from the horses, she stepped up to the bench, climbing over the driver. She stepped onto the bench, the back of the seat, then the covered part of the wagon.
It would have been easy to set foot on cloth and have her foot go through it, but wooden bracing kept the cover in place, giving it a nice arch shape. She carefully set foot on the places where the bracing was likely to be strongest, hidden beneath the canvas cloth, and hopped over to the low-hanging roof.
The sniffer, in hot pursuit, crashed into the side of the wagon, demolishing a share of it where the steps were. The driver had thrown himself down into the groove where his feet and bags normally rested, sheltered by the overhanging bench. He yelled as the sniffer clawed and clambered up, an awkward vertical climb onto a moving vehicle on the sniffer’s part. Four hundred pounds of warbeast managed to climb up so it was partially astride the seat and bench, lunged to follow Jessie’s route, and collapsed into a heap of canvas cloth, shattered wooden bracing, and whatever supplies the wagon had been carrying within.
“Go!” the driver shouted, “Git!”
The instructions coincided with him hurling himself off the side of the wagon. The horses galloped, carrying their cargo away – the cargo being a warbeast that was fighting to free itself of cloth, netting, and uneven footing.
It would get free and it would be back. It was what the sniffers did.
She wished she was brave enough to follow it as it collapsed onto the wagon, to fight it there, while it struggled, and to put a blade through a vital spot, but that wasn’t her strength. Sy might. Mary would. Gordon could’ve.
She would have to do something bold to answer the Infante. She was of little use in a direct confrontation and getting involved would potentially risk Mary and Lillian. It wouldn’t do to step in in their defense only to find out that they were negotiating, downplaying their involvement with her and Sylvester, or taking another course.
A gun wouldn’t work, and neither would a knife.
There were other options.
The city had been aware and prepared for war against the refugees beyond the gates for some time now. That meant they’d needed soldiers, guns, weapons and stockpiles for a potential siege. There would be banks of stitched waiting and charging in case they were needed, and there would be chemical weapons of war.
Wiring systems had connected the banks of stitched and the biovoltaic generators in nearby buildings, and Jessie had seen those wires, noting them. Buildings that housed the soldiers who were on call for confrontation at any time were located in specific areas, with certain required dimensions. There were regulations, and Jessie could think back, go over the books and papers she had read, and recite them by heart.
From there, it wasn’t terribly difficult to work out which buildings held other stockpiles. Close to the gate, certain building sizes, reinforcement, set with a certain distance from other critical buildings and infrastructure, in case of accidental or intentional detonation…
Her enemy here was watching for trouble from the refugees beyond the gate and focused on a potential war with people within the city. They milled throughout the area surrounding the gate, but it wasn’t with an eye for danger.
She found the lock, and she recognized the make and model. She didn’t pick it – settling for jamming her knife into the lock itself.
Once within, she immediately went to the mortars, collecting one, and a strapped-together stack of rounds in tidy wooden boxes. Both the mortar and the strapped-together crates were arranged so they had wheels on one end and handles on the other, so they could be pulled along. Checking the coast was clear, she hauled them behind her.
Minutes passed as she got from the gate to a point close enough to the government office that Mary, Lillian, and the Infante were in. Forty precious seconds were wasted, waiting for a patrol of ten men to jog down the street. She could have chanced thirty, but there was a risk they would have heard the wheels of the mortars clicking and clattering over the wooden road.
She kept an eye out for the sniffer as she got to where she needed to be. She climbed a fence to stand on it, looking clear of shrubbery and short trees.
Her heart pounded, and it wasn’t because of the exertion of hauling a ninety-one-point-seven pound contraption and the rounds behind her.
I’m too used to working with Sy, trusting he’ll scrape on by, find answers, and manage while I’m getting things organized.
She almost didn’t want to look. There was no architecture, tag, or system of threads that really touched on why she had such a bad feeling.
Only her knowledge of the threat the nobles posed.
The Infante had barely moved from where he stood, but his forces had closed around the building. Mary was holding one side of her face, moving unsteadily. She had tried something and been struck, at a glance.
Two men stood on either side of the Infante. They looked like soldiers, but they weren’t officers. Both stood in ways that made them lopsided, as if they couldn’t hold themselves entirely upright. Both were coughing, or doing something like coughing, with whole-body jerks. As unsteady as they were, their upper bodies almost flopped around with each of the jerky little motions.
Lillian looked so very scared. She had a pistol in hand, not pointing it at anything.
The Infante spoke, his lips moving. “Obedience in action alone is worth nothing to us.”
Mary responded. “Obedience has to be earned.”
The Infante smiled, arms wide. “Obedience is taken, clearly.”
Lillian shook her head. Then, as she mouthed the word ‘no’, she put the barrel of the gun to her temple.
It said a great deal that Mary didn’t stop her.
Shock gripping her, her senses shaken to the point she could barely track her own breathing and heartbeat, Jessie hopped down from the fence. The mortars were in an older style, but she was happier with that, knowing they were similar to the ones that their rebels had been devising. She had a larger catalogue of memories when it came to those, to trajectories and patterns of fire, and they weren’t so old that the barrels weren’t rifled.
It was fast to set up the mortars, to deploy them. She hadn’t actually performed the task herself, but she had seen it done, knew the motions. Only once or twice did she run into snarls, moments where her shaking hands didn’t cooperate.
She cut a strap, tore open the wooden box with its lone shell within, and loaded the mortar.
She couldn’t see the Infante from this angle, couldn’t peer through the window. But she could extrapolate, imagine where he would be if he’d advanced at his typical slow pace, she could place him if he’d remained where he was.
He wasn’t one to step back. He wasn’t one to meander. It was a narrow range of possibilities, and she chose an angle that aimed to put the mortar in the middle of that range.
She held her arm to one side of her head, the hand at the end of that arm clapped over her ear, and she fired. The blast of the mortar took the breath she’d been holding and shook it loose.
Teeth grit, she slapped the wooden box away from the top of the stack, tore away the lid, and retrieved the next shot. The metal of the mortar was hot to the touch as she loaded the next round-
She heard the distant gunshot, followed soon after by another. Again, she hopped onto the fence.
The sniffer could be on her trail any second. Nearby soldiers might have heard the origin or seen the mortar start on its course. She had no time. No time.
The idea echoed Mary’s words.
If only they’d come.
She looked through the binoculars, to see where the shot had landed, to see how the scene had played out in the wake of it.
The two soldiers that had been flanking the Infante were on the ground. The side of the building had been torn open, the blast taking out much of the structure. The devastation and fragments of ruined building were scattered around the Infante, even some splinters and dust on him. It hadn’t penetrated the side of the building, hadn’t actually hurt him, where it should have at least bowled him over with the shockwave. His head was turned in her direction.
Mary and Lillian ran for it, taking the opportunity to go for the doors. Both fired their guns at the Infante as they ran.
Again. Another shot, with no time to waste. Jessie hopped down, dragging the mortar to one side, changing the angle.
She fired again, hoping to time it to catch the Infante as he followed them out of the building.
A third shot. The last of the ones she’d been able to bring with her. Again, she loaded it so she could fire as quickly as possible after glancing at the scene. She worried she wouldn’t have a view of the scene, that intervening buildings would block her. It would mean shooting with a higher risk of hitting Mary as she engaged the noble lord.
She had prepared the shot and was ready to open fire when she heard the sound behind her.
Her memory had perfectly transcribed a dozen individual snorts and snuffles like it.
Barely looking, she hauled the mortar around, hitting the catch that kept it anchored at a set angle. It collapsed, the barrel dropping.
She didn’t have time to protect her ears as she saw the sniffer dash toward her. It was mid-air when she hauled back on the trigger.
As such things went, the explosion was such that she was only barely out of the worst of it. The second-worst of it was bad enough to knock her over, to send her glasses flying from her face.
Overkill, to shoot a warbeast with a mortar and turn it into bloody ruins. It only stood a chance of being sufficient harm for the Infante.
She didn’t even look for her glasses. Her first three steps saw her traveling in a steep arc, one step north, one step northwest, one step west. She bounced off of a wall. Her vision didn’t focus and her ears rang and the Lambs were in danger.
Danger enough that Lillian believed it right to shoot herself rather than let the Infante do what he’d planned to do to her.
Jessie didn’t find her bearings, but fought for them, clawed them forth. She searched her memories for tricks and found little. Similar instances were still too different from this to be any kind of resource.
This was new ground, such as it was. A desperate road.
The second shot hadn’t hit the Infante. She wasn’t too surprised. He would have delayed, anticipated it, or listened for the distant sound of the mortar firing before its projectile reached him.
He was faster than he looked. All power, all force. Jessie was far enough away she couldn’t reasonably feel it, but she imagined the ground shaking with every footfall. He was heavy, and he had no difficulty at all in moving that mass.
Mary ran and she dragged Lillian behind. It meant that when the Infante reached them, it was Lillian he grabbed.
Jessie could hear the scream. It was a sound she’d never wanted to hear from her friend, her romantic rival, her fellow bookworm, though she’d never been the bookworm Jamie had been.
“Taken,” the Infante pronounced. “It is time you all realize you exist at our mercy.”
Mary aimed her gun, and she opened fire, putting bullets in the Infante’s head, emptying the gun. He had to close his eyes and twist his head to one side, but he barely reacted outside of that.
“Please,” Mary said. “Please. I’ll lead you to Sylvester.”
“If you do, it will be because I will it,” the Infante said. “Not in any exchange. I brook no disloyalty to the Crown.”
Lillian thrashed, fought to escape the one-handed grip on her neck and shoulder. The struggles increased as the Infante lifted her, bringing her to a position where her back was to his chest. His hand moved to cover her nose and mouth.
“Lord Infante!” Jessie screamed.
“Jamie Lambsbridge,” the Infante said. He turned slightly, to better face the two girls. “So to speak.”
“I know-” she started. The words trailed off.
The angle the Infante stood at gave her a view of Lillian. She could see Lillian’s continued struggle, and she could see Lillian’s eyes roll back in her head. Lillian’s throat distended, then distended more, until it threatened to split down the middle, as if an ordinary-sized man was shoving his full arm down her windpipe. Her body arched, hands clawing at the Infante’s, then at open air.
“Stop,” Jessie said.
“I’m most sure that you know how to properly address nobles,” the Infante said.
Mary took that opportunity to attack, approaching at a run. The Infante’s hand warded her off, at first, but two swift kicks with blades revealed from her boots allowed her to dig the knives in, and use those footholds as points to leap forward. She lunged for his face.
Treating Lillian as if she weighed nothing at all, he used the hand that held the Lamb’s medic to swat Mary out of the air. She landed on her feet, ready to renew her assault, and stopped short as the Infante let Lillian go.
Lillian dropped to the ground, still writhing, coughing and gagging in an attempt to dislodge that which had found its way into her throat. Two tendrils like that of an octopus, one large, one small, both encrusted with hornlike growths, were thrashing out of her mouth. The longer one groped at her nostril, looking for a way in and finding it.
“Lil-” Jessie started.
The tendrils contorted, becoming squat, rather than long, and in the doing, produced spikes. Sharp points penetrated Lillian’s nostril, cheek, and three points at her throat that Jessie could see. Lillian spasmed in one moment, then went limp and still in the next.
The recent disorientation of the nearby explosion coupled with the disorientation of this to all catch up with Jessie, dropping her to her knees.
“Stand up,” Mary said.
Jessie’s hands shook.
“Stand up, Jessie,” Mary said. “I know we’ve had recent differences, but this is where we need to be together.”
The Infante almost ignored them. He held up one hand, and one tendril like that of the horror he’d just unleashed on Lillian was slurping its way back into a slit in his heavy palm. As it disappeared within, the slit closed, indistinguishable from a line in the noble’s hand.
“Stand up,” Mary said, as if it was a refrain.
“A weapon of war, this,” the Infante spoke. “I keep an assortment, change it out, to remind myself. These ones, like many of the ones I carry, are the sort we rain down on battlefields and unleash on places under siege-”
“Shut up,” Mary said.
“-to terrorize, destabilize, and to create openings. Marvelously elegant and nuanced, believe it or not-”
“-and only one of five weapons I bear with me today.”
“Shut up, you malignant child!” Mary roared the words. A single tear touched her cheek.
“Why would I do as you say?” the Infante asked. “What purpose does it serve? What do I gain? I will not stop speaking. I will let you know exactly what happens next. You will try to destroy me, and you will fail. I will make you an example much as I did her.”
Jessie breathed hard. What were the options? What chance was there?
“Shall I make you bear the plague, Mary Cobourn? It’s a burden, to carry this one. For every hour I leave it unattended, I must spend an hour under the knife, ensuring it doesn’t get a grip on me. Would you like it if I put you up for display? I could do it so that as it crawls over you, it makes you a diorama. A centerpiece to the greater scene, as Mauer’s God is in Lugh.”
Mary straightened. She held a knife in one hand, the other hand empty and behind her. A fencer with a foil, but her ‘foil’ was only nine point seven inches long.
Mary took a step back, adjusting her footing as she did so. As angry as she was, she moved in a measured, practiced way. Jessie had seen the practice.
“This isn’t a strength of mine.”
“I know. But I also know you have the capability,” Mary said.
“I’m not him,” Jamie said. “I’m not my predecessor.”
“Again, I know that. But there’s no reason to think you couldn’t do it if you wanted to. Let’s try it again.”
Jamie almost said no. Every part of him hurt, and it was a hurt deep enough that he couldn’t tell if it was the bones or the muscle protesting. His legs had been strained until they were columns of throbbing, and his breath hurt in a ragged way, as if he was breathing in the coldest air – and it wasn’t that cold out.
But he could see Mary’s expression.
They’d just lost Gordon, there was a void yawning in the midst of them, and for Mary, this was how she dealt with loss. It was the relentless, mad way she dealt with everything. Working harder, pressing on.
He was so worried about how Sylvester was doing, about Sylvester’s conversation earlier in the day, a hint to Duncan that he wasn’t satisfied with the status quo.
There was a rift, a schism, and it looked like the group would split at any moment.
Better to give Mary what she needed and try to bind them all just a bit closer together, than to help that schism open any further.
“You can’t expect it to be like it is with Sylvester,” Jamie said.
“I don’t. It won’t be. But I know that if and when you learn it, you’ll remember it. So let’s learn it.”
“I’ll need a weapon. Another weapon, anyway,” Jamie said, holding out his hand, as he took a step back, then to the right, matching Mary’s movements.
Jessie took a step back and to the right. She held out one hand, and saw the flash of the knife moving through the air. She didn’t look up or away from the Infante. She trusted.
The knife almost bounced out of her hand, the blade nicking the webbing between finger and thumb, but it landed, and she was able to close her fingers around it.
Mary lunged, and it was the kind of lunge that was meant to do terminal damage. No nonsense, no question. They had rehearsed the steps, but it wasn’t rote. There were paces to go through, but it wasn’t the same attack every time. There were trends but no rules. What was a stab one time would be throwing a knife the next, reeling it back in with a pull on razor wire.
It was about attack and movement. Never defense, never pausing. Jamie knew to move only because Mary was first to attack. She was more comfortable attacking, deciding that first move and dictating what would follow.
Jessie moved, trying to maintain a position that would keep the Infante perfectly between them, unable to look at the two of them at the same time. It was a distraction, something that begged a moment’s thought from the opponent while Mary moved in.
Again, Mary used the boot-knives to penetrate flesh, to scale the Infante as if he were a mountain to be hurdled, positioning herself to attack the face and head-
He reacted quickly, slapping Mary down before she even got that far.
Mary would only redouble the assault if Jessie didn’t seize the scant opportunity afforded her. It wasn’t much of an opportunity. A half-second, while Mary was adjusting her footing. Failure to capitalize on this meant only misery, a break in the exercise, a return to the beginning steps, where Mary was on the offensive.
Jessie attacked. Slashes, cuts. A man this large needed support, and every cut was at the knee, with one chance swipe at the ankle as the Infante raised one foot.
It was brief, the initial foray meant to only let the Infante know she was present. All to grab attention, to seize it. Almost without having stopped after being struck at, Mary returned to the fray, going low this time, tumbling down into a roll, before striking up, at the Infante’s inner thighs and genitals.
The memories merged with reality. This was where Jamie grabbed Mary, to put her off balance.
Jessie grabbed Mary, hauled her to her feet, pulling her up and away as the Infante shifted his footing, kicking and only grazing Mary. As adroit as she was, Mary wouldn’t have successfully gotten out of the way.
Jamie matched strikes with Mary, again, never pausing, never defending, always either moving or attacking. Jessie did the same. In this, they attacked in concert, two sets of attacks from two directions. The Infante moved to deal with Mary, who was no doubt cutting more effectively, and Jessie redoubled her attack, gripping the knife handle with both hands to add more strength to the cuts.
It was meditative, it might even have been calming, if the circumstances were different. Pain and fear and desperation flattened out, the frenzied immobility of shock meeting the peaks and valleys of highest and lowest emotion and finding something in between. It was easier to stick to the recitation, the dance they had worked through, Mary’s therapy.
The problem, then and now, was that Jessie wasn’t a fighter. In this, she was much like Sylvester, dependent on another. The Infante changed tacks, choosing to go after the weaker of the two interlinked individuals, his sights falling on her.
The moment he turned on her, Mary was on his back, dealing as much damage as she could with her blades. She produced loops of razor wire, and they moved almost impossibly slowly through the air as they approached the Infante’s head, threatening to wrap around his face.
He struck at Mary, then swiped at the wire, brushing it out of the air and lacerating the back of his hand with the force of the movement and the sharpness of the wire.
He was strong, and Mary wasn’t invincible. But her technique and skill was such that she could move with the blows. Razor wire connected elsewhere allowed her to haul with one arm, and pull herself slightly out of position. Knives jutting out of the toes of her shoes stabbed into belly and back and allowed her to kick out, move up or step down. In this way, as much as he hurt her, he didn’t remove her from the fight with any one strike.
Mary hit the ground, rebounded, and was on the offense again, while Jessie focused on movement, on not being in a position where she could be grabbed or struck down. She wasn’t so adroit.
She maintained her end of the dance, as best as she could.
His reaching hand was surrounded by loops of razor wire. They tightened around his fingers and palm, and the wire didn’t penetrate the thick skin. He hauled his arm forward, and Mary skidded, skipped, and fought to get her balance.
That alone wouldn’t have been so bad. But as Jessie maneuvered, pushing herself to move just a little bit further, a little bit faster, a hand gripped her.
Lillian stood, her body lopsided, as if one side of it was heavier than the other. Her mouth was open, and she coughed, gagged, groping with hands, to seize, scratch with nails.
Not Lillian’s actions, but the parasite’s.
It was all the Infante needed. He stepped in, reaching, and Jessie didn’t have the opportunity to slip away before the noble seized her.
Jessie was lifted clean off the ground. The Infante swatted at Mary again, then held out one hand, palm out, as if one hand was all he needed to keep her at bay, now. He glanced down at Lillian, then touched her cheek with two fingers, turning her head by force, so she looked at Mary.
Lillian took three staggering steps in Mary’s direction, making guttural sounds.
“Shall I use spiders that stitch you into a cocoon of your own flesh?” the Infante asked. Slits and folds in his arm yawned open as if reflexively answering that question. “No. You wouldn’t remember that one. It wouldn’t hold the same meaning.”
He shifted his grip, and pressed his hand over Jessie’s nose and mouth.
The first of the tendrils slithered into her mouth, like a long, wet tongue. It was covered in hard growths, like warts, ulcers, or small horns, and each periodically stabbed and pricked, producing the spikes it would use to no doubt impale her spinal column and get near-permanent leverage in her throat. They struck out at nerves, numbing and paralyzing when and where they made contact, un-numbing and freeing the part as they withdrew. A wet member slithered into her nose, then scraped against her upper lip as the rest of the thing hauled itself deeper into her throat.
Her throat distended. She couldn’t breathe. It sucked at the air in her lungs and took it against her will, in one end, out the other.
It angled the spikes to better its grip, to ensure that any ground it gained going in and down was ground it didn’t give up. It numbed and paralyzed to close the throat to coughs, to keep the gag reflex there but unsuccessful.
She hurtled this way and that as the Infante moved, addressing Mary. She closed her eyes, remembered the dance, the steps taken-
Jamie set his foot down and exhaustion won out. He staggered.
Mary, anticipating something else, had to fall on top of him to avoid hurting him.
In that, Jamie thought of Sylvester, smiled, and moved his own knife toward Mary’s throat.
She caught his wrist and rolled her eyes.
The sacrifice play. No- the reaction, allowing the injury to happen. The Sylvester play.
Jessie remembered what she’d seen Lillian do. The spasm, the stillness.
She emulated it, body arching, a whole-body flinch. Then-
She didn’t even have to go any further. The Infante looked her way, curious. In that instant, standing five feet behind him, Mary lashed out.
Two knives attached to razor wire flashed out, each traveling in a half-circle in each direction. The blades struck home, each one slicing the Infante across one eye.
Superficial damage. Not complete blindness, but partial blindness at the least.
But she repeated the strike. Flicking knives on wire, one after another. Each one furthered the damage. When he raised one hand to cover his eyes, she opened other wounds.
He dropped Jessie, and she collapsed. The horror still lurked in her throat, tendrils reaching down past epiglottis, toward lungs and stomach both. Her fingers found little purchase on the thing’s skin, and even the hornlike growths weren’t enough.
Tendrils wrapped around her face and neck, trying to secure the thing’s position.
“You know my reinforcements are approaching even now,” the Infante said.
“I know,” Mary said.
“You won’t win.”
“I know,” Mary said.
Jessie stabbed at the thing, the blade sticking through a cluster of tendrils and biting into the wood of the road. The struggle that followed was a hellish thing, because it mandated she take the hardest road and threatened to end her if she hesitated for a second while walking it. She dragged the thing free of her sinuses, throat and mouth, inch by inch, and it made sure that every inch felt like she was hauling knives and fishhooks out, the points facing in the worst directions.
It felt like it was grabbing the inside of her chest. It closed its airways and tried to starve its host of oxygen so she might relent. A tentacle touched her eye, and threatened to find a gap to disappear inside and unfurl hooks in there.
“Let us go,” Mary said. “You know we’ll cross paths again, if you understand me at all. You won’t be seen fighting and doing anything less than your best against the likes of us, you won’t be seen bleeding, not like that, and we…”
“Get to live another day,” the Infante said.
Jessie hauled the thing free, then stabbed it, and stabbed it again, and again, and again-
“Is that a yes?” Mary asked.
“It’s a yes, with a promise that I’ll have far worse in store for you on our next meeting.”
Jessie finished stabbing the horror to death. She looked up, panting.
The experience of the thing lingered in her head. It was a card of the wrong shape and size, one that threatened to scatter the others if she placed it wrong. She could remember every detail of it, and she did remember every detail, as it lingered in her mind’s eye, not yet positioned or sorted out.
She looked at Lillian, then hopped to her feet. She rushed Lillian, throwing herself at her friend, and was clawed at in return. The parasite ruled here, the parasite decided the order of action, lashing out at movement or at faces.
Jessie endured the scratches and injuries, reached into Lillian’s belt pocket, and retrieved a syringe. She plunged it into Lillian’s throat. Tranquilizer.
She didn’t deploy all of it. Some of it she reserved.
Pulling the needle free, she stabbed the horror, depressing the plunger.
She kept it there, ducking her head down, burying it against Lillian’s shoulder, so the scratches wouldn’t do too much damage to her face. She endured, waiting, until something jostled them.
Lillian’s strength was dwindling as the tranquilizer took hold. The horror increased the intensity at which it fought, but the tranquilizer had its effect there too. The spikes began to retract, and the horror’s movements grew more sluggish.
“We need to go,” Mary said. “I know a way out.”