Root and Branch – 19.4

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Red had her arms crossed.

“If you decided you were up for it, it would make all the difference.”

She shrugged.

“If this was a week ago, I think I’d be handling this differently,” I said.

She didn’t speak, but she made fleeting eye contact.

I’d lost my mind and threatened to raze Hackthorn to the ground, and she hadn’t been that wary of me then.

“As little as a week ago, I’d be manipulating you, I think.  This would be easier.  I could empower you, make you feel like it was almost your idea.  You’d be happier, really.  Most of the time, when I manipulated people for their benefit, they were happier.  But, uh, I think right now it would be too hypocritical.  I’m not sure enough of anything to really feel like I could plot out your course of action and guarantee you’d be better off for it.  So I’m just asking.  If you decide no, that’s fine.”

“I’ll think about it,” Red said.

I nodded.

She was the only one I was willing to work with at this stage, who I even dared to broach the subject to.

“Thank you,” I told her.

She shrugged, noncommital, and I left things like that.

The sheer number of students heading up  and down the stairs throughout both stairwells was impressive and shocking – from the looks of it, and from what I could see looking past the glass walls of Lab One and through the windows, students and rebels were heading down to the ground, crossing the city below, and making their way into the buildings on the very ground level, to climb up.

All to minimize the foot traffic moving through the space that served as the dining hall.

Mary watched all of this unfold, standing with her back to the door, so she could keep an eye on Lillian and another eye on me.  When I passed her and stepped into the surgical theater, directly beneath the dining hall and the tables where our ‘guest’ was currently being entertained, Mary followed me in.  The door swung closed.

I’d almost expected Ferres to complain.  She didn’t.  I’d had more expectations that she would comment, needle and nettle.  She remained quiet, aside from the occasional sound, as she was supplied with parts.  It was a quick and dirty job, and I watched as Lillian worked with Junior’s team, laying the groundwork for voltaic limbs and extremities, hooking up a voltaic organ to power them.  Tubes were pulled free, blood and sweat wiped away, a spare hand attached in stages before being drawn together.

The fact that she remained silent against my expectations bothered me.  I would very much have preferred it if I had a keen sense of what she would do.

I might have tilted my brain in one direction or another, to better anticipate Ferres, but I was cognizant of the Infante’s presence, as he stood in the shadows, his face illuminated by the spotlight of voltaic lighting that allowed the doctors and students to clearly see what they were working on.

If I pushed myself to focus hard on body language, or on analyzing Ferres’ word choice, or even choosing words that would prickle her and slip through her defenses, then that might well be the action that prompted the Infante’s reaction, the flame to the fat, the spark to the tinder, meat for the carnivore.

Instead, I moved gently, thought carefully, and focused on observing.

It was, I imagined, very much as if Ferres was being remodeled on the fly in the same fashion that Hackthorn was.  Triage, but for the individual and her institution.

Well, it was our institution now.

Mary arrived with the clothes we’d sent her to get.  She had an eye for style, I knew, and I trusted her to slip past the dining area to access the administration’s quarters.

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked.

“They’re gathered.  They’re having their tea.  It won’t be long before Headmaster Foss starts getting antsy.  For now he’s occupying himself with idle observations of the school.”

“Any crises?”

“Mabel’s group handled the burned building.  He was already at the landing of the stairs when they got the last of it in place.  They tore up the gardens and draped the greenery over the burned areas of the building.  The burned bridge was the opposite.  They dropped the plant-based portion of it completely, let it fall to the city below.  Shirley’s people were at the ground and had it cleaned up before anyone glanced outside.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“He’s getting antsy.  I wouldn’t say he suspects anything, but he’s making comments and I’m worried his prey instinct is up.  There not being enough members of faculty is playing a role.  Your, ah, father?  He’s there, and he’s making some conversation.”

I smiled.

“Move your arm,” Lillian instructed, still speaking softly.

Ferres did.

“With your fingers, touch-”

“I know the procedures,” Ferres said.  She touched thumb to fingertips, one after another, back and forth.  “Eight out of ten, if I had to gauge the response.”

One of the other young Doctors fiddled with the voltaic organ, a rectangular block of meat contained within a metal frame that outlined only the edges and corners.  I saw Ferres’ arm jump, and saw her wince with the pain.

It must have hurt a lot.  The ongoing surgery had barely elicited a reaction from her.  She had broken a sweat, occasionally reacting reflexively, but some things couldn’t be suppressed.

“Again,” Lillian said.

I thought for a moment that the doctor with the organ would jolt her again, but it was an instruction meant for Ferres.  She repeated the hand motion.

“Nine,” Ferres said.  “No need to adjust further.  I’ll manage, and the brain will adapt to my benefit.”

“Any pain?” Lillian asked.

“Pain is fine,” I said.  “We just need her functional.”

“Minimal pain,” Ferres said.  “I imagine it’s all exactly what I should expect for surgery of this nature and for a voltaic transplant.  A thrum of pain, sitting at a two, something between a three and a four for the surgical sites.”

“Does anything feel especially out of place?” Lillian asked.  “Does it feel square?”

“Square,” Ferres said.  She laughed, and it was the kind of laugh someone with broken ribs managed.  Her ribs weren’t broken, but she limited herself to the gentlest, lightest of sounds of amusement, as if anything else would level her.

Lillian didn’t flinch and didn’t comment on the laughter.

“At least hereabouts, when we’re teaching the very young children about Academy work, and we check the numbers or check their stitching we ask if it’s square,” Ferres said.  “That does take me back to when I first learned, and when I taught the youngest students.”

“How do you make that leap from being a child, working with children, to carving them up for the amusement of others.”

“Stand,” Junior instructed, before Ferres replied.  He held the sheet that was draped over Ferres to protect the woman’s modesty, his fingers holding the corners at a point between her shoulderblades, the top of the sheet passing under her armpits and just over the tops of breasts that should not belong to a woman of Ferres’ age.

Ferres dropped her feet to the tiled floor and stood, first with support, and then without.  “Was that what you were doing, Doctor Garey?  You set up that target for me to take my shot at?”

“Something like that,” Lillian said.

“Right knee, it doesn’t feel steady when I put my weight on it,” Ferres said.  As she said it, one of our Doctors who had been working with Junior and Lillian made a face, alarm and guilt.  His work, then.

“Brace it,” Lillian said.

“Brace?” Junior asked.

“There’s no time for more surgery,” Lillian said.

She had less of an idea where things were, so she remained by the table with Ferres and I while everyone else found what was needed.  Mary and I stood near the door, keeping an eye out.

Junior held the sheet, periodically switching the hand he held it with, as his arm grew tired.  Ferres could have taken the sheet from him had she wanted, but she was declining to.  She was more the experiment than the doctor, barely clothed, freshly worked on, still with smears of antiseptics and blood here and there.

“There weren’t many young ladies in the Academy when I joined,” Ferres said.  “We were few and far between.  Many of us corresponded, simply to reach out to others that, we hoped, would understand the trials and tribulations.”

“Are you trying to draw common ground, Professor Ferres?” Lillian asked.  “Because I’ve seen and talked to some of the children you experimented on.  Some of them are so disturbed at what they experienced beneath your scalpel that they don’t want to get surgery to fix it.”

“I could say something in response to that about how good art persists,” Ferres said.

“Careful,” I spoke, jumping in.

It served to break up the conversation.  Both Lillian and Ferres looked at me.

“Is that directed at me or her?” Lillian asked.

“Both of you.  I’m saying it to Ferres because she’s baiting you, and I’m saying it to you because she’s baiting you.”

“It’s fine,” Lillian said.  “Like I said, you want to find common ground, Professor?  It’s a long, long way to travel if you want me to reach that point.”

“No,” Ferres said.  “I wouldn’t presume common ground.  You and I don’t have much in common.  I would say-”

“Careful,” I cut in, almost reflexively.

Ferres stopped.

“She didn’t say anything,” Junior said.

Lillian, meanwhile, was quiet.

“Her body language,” I said.  “She might as well have been drawing her fist back, ready to sock Lillian, for all of her tells.  Except it wasn’t a fist.  It was words.”

“I was only going to say that Lillian shares a great deal in common with you and your Lambs, Sylvester,” Ferres said.

You were going to put it in much worse words than that, and you probably planned to draw parallels between Lillian’s lack of concern for your comfort and my treatment of you.

The other young doctors and students arrived with the straps, rods, and screws that formed the brace.   Ferres moved the sheet away from her one leg so they had room to work, and Lillian backed off, joining Mary and me.

“Hitting home?” I asked.

“What?” Lillian asked.

“You reacted to Ferres.  I could see it in how you approached the work.  You were gentler at the start, but you got more… ruthlessly efficient as the work continued.”

I left out the part where I really liked seeing Lillian working efficiently, lost in her work.  Probably more than was healthy, as a matter of fact.

“There’s a time limit,” Lillian said.  “I felt the pressure of the clock.”

“Okay,” I said.  You’re still not the best of liars.

She looked my way, and then sighed.

“She could’ve done so much good with her status and position,” Lillian said.

“Yup,” I said.

“And I can’t help but wonder, if I didn’t have the Lambs, would that have happened?  I walked a different path than most students.  I- I saw more of the end result, really.  I think Duncan was on that path.  The climb, reaching that point where you’ve climbed the mountain, you look down, and… everyone that gave you the reasons at the beginning is very distant and very small.”

“I think you have a good heart,” Mary said.  Her gaze was fixated on Ferres.  The brace was in place, supporting the knee, keeping everything aligned, and the screws were being tightened, with Ferres only grimacing slightly at the tightness of it.  A strap around the lower thigh, one around the upper calf, and rods and hinges held everything in place.  “I don’t think you would have become like her.”

“I appreciate that thought,” Lillian said.  She didn’t sound wholly convinced.

“Makes me think about Fray,” I said.  “Who might have sent our guest upstairs.  Did her fall mean that she was forced to come to terms with the people at the foot of the mountain?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?” Lillian asked.

“Not in the slightest,” I said.  “Fray’s always been a tricky person for me to wrap my head around.  In my head-”

I stopped.

“In your head?” Lillian prodded.  She touched my upper arm.  “I don’t want to pry, but I want to know what’s going on.”

“She never made sense to me.  It was as if I couldn’t see her from the right angle, she was always fractured and I couldn’t pull it together, exactly.  She was meant to communicate something.”

“I’m not sure I can picture it,” she said.

“For what it’s worth,” Mary said, “I didn’t get the impression Fray was humbled.”

I nodded.

The word ‘humbled’ struck a chord in me.  Maybe it was my recent experience, maybe it was that we were having this quiet conversation while Ferres stood with only a sheet protecting her modesty, her body stained, students wiping the stains away, with attention primarily given to the extremities and the parts clothing wouldn’t cover.  Her chin was high, and for all I could tell, she hadn’t been properly humbled, not by shitting herself in a bathtub or losing her hands, not by words she had heard or spoken.

Broken, yes.  I could remember her writhing on the floor, screaming the words that she might have thought would provoke me to finish her off.  I could see the look on her face even now, the look of someone only a few strides from… how had she put it?  The end of her story.

But not humbled.

“It’s a good word, humbled,” I said.  “And I think I agree.”

“She was a person with a mission,” Mary said.  “I understood that.  I didn’t understand what the mission was, but I understood that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That sums it up well.”

Ferres was being dressed now.  The male doctors and students looked very out of their element in the process, Ferres wasn’t contributing much, with her hands being newly mended and her body somewhat inflexible.  That left much of the task to the only young lady present who wasn’t a Lamb.  Junior was at least rigging the voltaic organ to a series of straps.  Ferres’ dress was voluminous enough to hide it, so long as it hung to one side or behind her buttocks, and would also serve to hide the brace at her knee.

Lillian seemed to decide something, and broke away, going to help dress the Headmistress of Hackthorn.

I watched Ferres, trying to study her.  I knew she was dangerous.  She’d been broken, and we were piecing her together, and every step seemed to give her twice the strength she’d had.  I knew we had leverage in the form of Betty, but that had been called sharply into question when Ferres had provoked me, screaming those words at me as she struggled, with Betty in plain view.

“She and Percy would have made a good pair,” Mary said.

“Fray or our headmistress here?”

“The headmistress.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I felt a little validated that Mary had been analyzing our enemy as well.  Eyes on her from another angle.

“Do me a favor?” I asked.  “Come with?”

“I was going to stay with Lillian, in case the Professor here tried something,” Mary said.

My eyes moved across the room.  I found the Infante amid the small crowd.  Lillian was giving orders now, instructing doctors in that quiet, damaged voice of hers, much as she’d done during the surgery.

Like the surgery, and much like the practice was in field medicine, Lillian was figuring out what took the highest priority.  She had things to learn in bending the small team of doctors to her will, but it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, by the looks of it.  She knew how to work with a team.  It was a question of adapting that knowledge to a new team.

The Infante stood in the midst of it.  As if it was all at his behest.  He claimed the scene and he took my attention.  He placed himself close to Lillian, and in that, he indirectly threatened her.

“I don’t trust myself alone,” I said.  “But I trust Lillian.  Ferres isn’t in a position to do anything that isn’t very subtle, and Lillian has some experience with subtle.”

Mary frowned.  Anyone else might have chewed a lip, tapped a finger or a foot.  Mary, instead, remained very still, her fingers moving idly around a blade without a handle.

“If that’s a problem, maybe you could step out and find Jessie?  I’ll wait here with Lillian in the meantime.”

“I’ll come with,” Mary said.

“Thank you,” I said.

We gestured at Lillian as we made our exit.

A quick check confirmed that Emmett was the one keeping an eye on upstairs.

For all the darkness and the quiet of the surgery theater, the expressions, gestures, instructions both unspoken and uttered in near-whispers by way of Lillian’s lips, the sunlight streamed through the windows and illuminated everything.  Footsteps and conversations made everything feel alive, buzzing with activity and controlled chaos.

I walked up the stairs and peeked, looking past where Emmett was staying more out of sight, watching proceedings.

It was a stark contrast to the rest of the Academy.  There were crowds of students, but they were seated, eating.  The foot traffic was minimal, everything was posed.  The guests stood apart, mostly women and young ladies in uniforms different from the Hackthorn standard, but with a few elderly gentlemen among them.

The young lady who was sitting near the man I took to be the Headmaster of Dame Cicely’s was familiar, but I couldn’t place her.  If others hadn’t alerted me then it wasn’t too important, probably.

Probably.

I tried to think back to that series of events.  The headmaster, Edmund Frost, had his name been?  I hadn’t been reminded recently enough.  Who had he been tied to?

“Going okay?” I asked Emmett.

He gave me a one-shoulder shrug.

“Yeah,” I said.

Professor Edmund had come with an escort.  The creations stood, lined up against the wall.  Men, all of them, their skin a shiny black, their faces lost in a morass of chitin.  Each stood lopsided, and they matched one another in the slants of their bodies, each of them pulled to one side by a matching growth of bone, great scythes that served as their weapons.  Silver had been inlaid into each scythe, decorating them.  They wore pants and no boots.

When one reacted to a stimulus, they all reacted.  Someone moved too close, and a head turned, jerking to face the trespassing student, and fourteen other heads turned a half-second later.

I could very easily imagine that squadron killing a hundred or two hundred of our rebels and students before being put down.  All it would take was an order.

But they were still, Edmund Frost was at his table with his tea, sitting in one of the comfortable seats that had been brought from elsewhere.  He leaned forward, both hands around his cup of tea, talking earnestly with Duncan.  His voice didn’t reach me at the top of the stairwell.

My ‘father’ was a distance away, talking to others, though they seemed disinterested.

Ashton sat a short distance away, on a bench at another table just a few feet from Duncan, his back to Duncan’s.  He was hard to recognize, as his hair had been painted black.  Shoe polish, if I had to guess, or something Duncan carried with him.

Frost looked to be engaged enough.  The wheels had been greased, and he had Duncan’s full attention.

My concern lay with Frost’s companions.  The young lady looked restless, the faculty, friends, and senior students who had joined Frost for this journey appeared much the same.  I worried my ‘father’ was doing more harm than good, at this stage.  By being there, he was doing something to draw attention to the fact that faculty were very much absent.

There was only so much Ashton could do.  Frost might be more complacent, his thoughts occupied and his defenses down, but the thoughts of his entourage weren’t being occupied.  Some, I noted, a very small few, had migrated to different points in the hall, possibly to get away from my ‘father’, the boorish drunk aristocrat.

Some, I realized, might already have wandered off to visit other parts of the Academy.  Our work in hiding damage and setting the stage elsewhere would be tested, if that were the case.

Even if there was nothing blatant, if we let Frost go and the people who’d accompanied him collected their thoughts enough to articulate just what had felt hollow or wrong about Hackthorn, then he might report to others elsewhere.

“Walk with me,” I said, taking Mary’s hand.

The moment she realized where I was taking her, she reached up.  Her ribbons came undone, and a moment later, her hair was in a different sort of order, not quite tied up.

We walked onto the floor of the dining hall, perpendicular to the table with Frost and the others.

“Gesturing,” I said, speaking as much to make it look like we were an organic part of things as much as to communicate to Mary.  My free hand moved, giving instructions to others.  First to Duncan, then to Ashton, and to my ‘father’.

In order: Raise the stage slow, soon; loosen the hold; go away.

Nobody shouted.  We made our way to the staircase on the opposite end of the dining hall, and I led us in a wider circle, just so we could glance back the way we’d come.

Nobody else at that table was staring or looking concerned.

For that to happen, they would have had to see our faces, made a connection.  Ashton, I hoped, was dulling the edges of their focus.

But Ashton would let up.  My ‘father’ would leave.  For the next few minutes, Duncan would scale up the talk and talk big.

If we played this wrong, then it would backfire.  I’d just asked the heat to be turned up, this pot would boil, and given a chance, it would boil over.

But the tension and restlessness concerned me.  We were out of time.

We headed back down the stairs.  Back to Lab One.

This was the moment.  Ferres had her stage.

Ferres and Lillian were making their way out of the surgical theater.  Ferres was dressed, her makeup done.  She wore a long dress that billowed a little at the waist, and a long, exaggerated, fashionable lab coat, the kind worn to special events where a lab coat wouldn’t do but where her status had to be established.  I could imagine she might’ve worn it to a wedding for an aristocrat in her area, perhaps.

Her hair was perhaps underdone, but there wasn’t much to be done about that.

Simpler would be better.

Jessie emerged from the stables.  She had the Wolf with her.  The Big Bad Wolf, the Black Wolf, the wolf that was a theme through a hundred tales, almost elephantine in size, its fur not wholly fur, but instead something sculpted, to twist and curl in aesthetically pleasing ways.

“Just the Wolf?” I asked.

“Everything else is injured.  The Wolf is too, but the fur hides it.”

I nodded.

The situation was so precariously balanced.  Frost, the students, the veneer of the Academy.

Ferres held all of the power.

I was acting on the premise that her pride in her art was greater than her pride, and seeing her be pieced together and find her composure as quickly as she had was concerning me.  She stood tall in a way that I wasn’t sure she’d managed since I’d first captured her.

Sure, she’d stood at her normal height and posture and she’d managed to appear normal to her students while acting out her ordinary days, but it wasn’t about that.

I turned my attention to Red.

Half deer, half rabbit, all prey, but she’d reversed that role.  I’d done everything I could to reverse the role.  For just the briefest span, she’d been one of the chief figures in power.  She’d had all she could ask for, not that she’d asked for more than companionship, drink, and revenge.

Past tense.

I watched her turn her head, looking at the Wolf.

Her attention shifted.  Her eyes were empty of light and passion as she looked at Ferres, as if she could kill the woman right then and there, with scarcely a blink.

“She can feel pain?” Red asked.

“Yes,” Lillian said.

Red nodded, digesting that.

The Lambs present were glancing at me.  Waiting for me to step in.  This was a dimension of the dance, the social interplay, the roles.  When I was able to imagine the Lambs, I could finish their sentences.  I knew who would jump in to speak on a subject, and the kinds of things they would say.

They expected me to fill this void.  Lab One was in suspension, at the same time we were surrounded by the movement of the students who were using the stairwells.

Red bent down, and she picked up her wood axe.  She hefted the weight of it in her hands, then gave it a small practice swing, with no strength behind it.

“When I’m done, I’m going to put this in the bitch professor,” Red said.

“I’m not sure-” Jessie started.

“That’s my condition.  I’m going to hatchet her.  Maybe I’ll take her hand.  Maybe I’ll give her a few whacks.  You can patch her up later.  But she doesn’t get to experience this without some fear.”

The problem with that, I thought, is that the threat gives Ferres even less reason to press forwardShe has more reason to take us down with her, match our violence and brutality with her own.

We needed Ferres’ cooperation, and we needed Red’s.  She was the only one old enough that still had her modifications, who I also trusted to cooperate and listen to me on some level.  We really only had the Wolf, and that left us few options in who else we could put on the stage.

“Okay,” I said.  “If nobody disagrees, then okay.”

Ferres didn’t speak up.  The Lambs that were present didn’t either.

“Then… let the actors take the stage.”

I saw tension at Red’s jaw as she turned at a right angle, striding for the stairs.

Jessie spoke, her voice barely audible, and the wolf turned as well.  It loped, its movements seemingly far slower than Red’s, though it covered a roughly equivalent distance with each movement.

It was as though they had practiced it a hundred times.

With Jessie’s memory, I might have remembered the exact count.  Wolf and prey had been calibrated on a biological level, much as the clockwork Punch and Judy emerged from the fancy clocks as the hour hit, to carry out their mechanical choreography.

The Lambs divided into two groups.  Half followed Red, me among them.  The other half followed the Wolf.  Students further up and below us on the staircases fell silent and still, and it was a change in volume and movement that communicated to students standing near the stairs.  Heads turned to see why, then fell silent in turn.

I took up a spot where I could peer through gaps in the crowd, sitting on one of the stairs near the top, opposite Emmett.  Jessie stood beside me, slouching against the railing, head bent low to peer through the gaps with me.  For our faces to be recognized, our targets would have to ignore Red, focus on the crowd instead, and see our faces in the background there.

It was a question of what drew the eye.  Virtually every student present wore the pristine white uniforms.  Red wore, well, red.

Students saw the wood axe she carried, and some of them remembered her as one of my agents of chaos and violence.  It played a part in them falling silent, the fear that added just a little bit more tension to the scene.

Professor Edmund had turned, his eye on Red as she let the wood axe dangle from one hand, her head bent.  Murmurs and cries of alarm marked the arrival of the Wolf, in a place I couldn’t see for several long moments.

Even more than Red, the Wolf had been a real and visible danger to many students present.

Red’s hand shook as she gripped the wood axe.

We need to do this.  We need to sell Edmund on this.  We need Ferres to not sell us up the river.

The Wolf moved.  Red moved perpendicular to it, into the sea of tables and benches, students and faculty.

Students cleared out of the way, scrambling, as Red went up, over, and under both table and bench, each step placed carefully.

The Wolf got close enough that it looked like it might stampede through the students.  At the last second, Red changed direction, and the Wolf responded by batting at a table with one paw, sending it tumbling in Red’s direction.

It collided with a wall, and for just an instant, for just about everyone present, it looked as though the deciding blow had been delivered, quick and undeniable.

Red emerged from the small gap where the table wasn’t flush with the portion of wall near the ground.  She dashed, and the Wolf was already moving to intercept her.  It collided with her, snapping its teeth, and only the fact that the length of the axe bounced off of a tooth kept Red’s arm from being caught.

For the next several moments, it was all snapping teeth, broken benches, and Red staying a hair’s breadth away from danger.

I hadn’t imagined it would be this narrow, this very precise.

It was a dance, and it wasn’t so different from the ones I’d enjoyed with any of the Lambs.  Improvisation played a role, the stages we danced on changed, and only the fact that we knew each other remained a constant.

This was a dark dance.  Ferres was the choreographer.

Ferres had yet to step in.

And Edmund… well, he’d been alarmed enough at one juncture to stand in his seat.  His lady companion gripped his arm, tense.

The scene continued, and I looked away as the Wolf struck Red, sending her stumbling hard into the corner of a table.  She dropped her wood axe, and scrambled to pick it up again before the Wolf could close the distance.

Unwilling to be an onlooker and trust that this would play out as I hoped, I walked away.  I took stairs two at a time, and Jessie followed.

I heard a hard collision from upstairs before I was even halfway across Lab One.  I heard the massed intake of breath.

“Betty,” I spoke, before I was even around the corner.

“Further down,” Jessie said.

They were gathered in the stable, all at the end, where snapping and snarling beasts could discourage visitors from poking their nose in too deep.  Caged.

Betty was among the elite students and faculty members who stood and sat on bare wood and sparse hay.

She flinched as she saw me.

She was the Lillian that Lillian had worried about becoming.  The mountain climber, who’d lost sight of ground.

“Ferres is up there.  When Red and the Wolf are done, Ferres is going to speak.  She’s going to let slip that the Academy is in danger, she’s going to rally allies, and in the process, she’s going to spark a fight that’s going to see hundreds dead.”

Betty barely reacted.

“Ferres will die, I guarantee this.  The visitors will die.  So will my people.  So I’m going to ask you… are you willing to step in?”

“You want me to stop Ferres?  When she might stop you?”

“There are a small few individuals in the Crown States who are equipped to stop the Lambs right now,” I said.  “Ferres isn’t one of them.”

Sylvester is one, I thought.

“We could slow you down, couldn’t we?” A faculty member asked.

“You’d all set us back, don’t get me wrong.  All the same, giving up your life, Ferres’ life, the other students’ lives just to set us back is a pretty grim proposition, isn’t it?”

Somewhere up on the floor above, a piece of glass broke.

I wouldn’t have asked Red if I’d known it would be this grim.

I should have known.

“You used me as a pawn to get Ferres to listen to you before,” Betty said.

“Yes.”

“You changed my face, you cut my nose, you… you took me.  You held me there, kept me prisoner while the warbeasts and experiments roamed loose, and you held me like that for days.”

“I did,” I said.

“You- when are you going to stop asking things of me?” Betty asked, her voice hollow.  “When are you going to stop taking?”

I wanted to answer, to cut through the question and to challenge her, but I could see how frail she was.

I knew that every moment we delayed, Red was either battling the Wolf, or if the fight had concluded, then Ferres would be getting her chance to speak.

But, even with that knowledge, I was prepared to wait.  I wasn’t pushing my brain to the limits to do it, but I thought I could see something in how Betty was acting.

“Don’t go,” a faculty member in the cage said.  “Don’t give them anything they want.”

“You’re trying to make a point,” Betty said.  To me, not the faculty member.  He didn’t have his position and he didn’t have authority to make her listen.  Betty went on, “But… it’s not like that.”

“What’s not like that?” Jessie asked, from behind me.

“It’s not equivalent, how you’re treating us, and how we treated you.

I swallowed hard.

“I’ll go,” she said.  “I’ll talk to Ferres.”

“Just go.  Stand by her,” I said.

Betty nodded.

“I’ll go too, if it counts for anything,” one of the boys said.

“Just two of you,” I said.

Jessie unlocked the cage.  I held a knife and a gun to keep the rest from surging out of the broad cage.

Betty and the boy joined Jessie and I in jogging in the direction of the stairs.

I didn’t see the final moments.  A few seconds faster, and we might have.

Red was on the ground, bleeding from various scrapes and contusions.  She had fallen, and in the process, she’d lost her weapon.  I hadn’t seen how that played out, how Wolf and prey had positioned themselves to have it go this way, specifically.

The weapon, falling to the ground, had skidded across the floor and come to a rest not far from Professor Edward Frost, or whatever his name was.

He bent down to pick it up.  He was frozen in time, caught between three decisions.  One was to fight off the monster and save the girl.  To become part of the story.  Another was to retreat.  The third option…

Well, to his credit, I didn’t take him to be the type to make Red experience the nightmare ending that had been scripted for her from the beginning of her stay at Hackthorn.

it seemed like that was the moment the spell was broken and he recalled where he was.

The second that happened, the Wolf lunged for him.  He flinched, and jaws closed around him.

The bottom end of the axe caught in lower teeth, the head of the axe between fangs at the upper row.  The Wolf strained its jaws, aiming to close them, and the handle of the axe threatened to splinter and break.

“Alright, Ferres, it was a good show!” Frost called out.  “Enough of this!”

The headmistress of Hackthorn didn’t make her appearance.  She was supposed to be at the other stairwell.

“Ferres!” he called out, with a little more alarm in his voice.

He turned his head, and I knew that he was about to give the order for the entourage of scythe experiments to move in.  The only thing that stopped him was perhaps the danger of escalating things when he was within arm’s reach of being bitten in half.

“Welcome to Hackthorn, Headmaster Foss,” Ferres spoke.  She finally made her appearance.  “I believe this is your first proper visit?”

“What’s your game!?” he called out.

I gave Betty the smallest of nudges.  She strode toward Ferres.  The boy was only a step behind.

I saw Ferres notice them.  I saw them come to stand beside her.  They were a little unkempt, not the best picture we could have put forward.

But Ferres unrestrained wasn’t a good picture either.

I saw Ferres turn briefly in our direction, as if looking for meaning or cue, but Jessie and I were safely hidden in the crowd.

“No game,” she said.  “Only a story for you to tell, so close to reality that it’s almost indistinguishable from it.”

She snapped her fingers.  The Wolf backed off, leaving Foss to sag a little.

It was Duncan that started the applause, a fierce clapping that was picked up by Ashton, and by others.

It swept over the hall.  Only the guests didn’t clap.

I could see from Foss’ expression that he would’ve liked to call her out, to insult her, or question her sanity.

But to do so would be to admit he was unnerved, to draw attention to his weakness in the moment.  To play along…

I watched as Professor Edmund Foss started clapping.  The rest of his people joined in.

It almost seemed to get louder, with the accord of it, the fact that everyone present, be they enemy or ally, was on the same page in their relief, if for different reasons, that the show had struck home for everyone here, again, if for different reasons.

Applause shook the main hall of Hackthorn.  Student, Doctor, Professor, soldier and experiment.

Applause shook the main hall of Hackthorn.  Lesser nobles, Doctors, Professors, students, soldiers, experiments, and more.  More still filed into the space, each bringing their entourage, each bringing their own protection.

Lillian’s hand found mine, clutching it tight.  Just beyond the window, an experiment perched on the wall, big enough to eat the Wolf in one swallow.

Nobles were taking a break from talking among one another.  Aristocrats were gathered in their periphery.  Lesser professors and professors without their own individual responsibilities were gathered for Ferres’ show and big reveal.  Food spread out across the tables, the best we could provide.

One of the Academies hadn’t even brought a boat, instead arriving on the back of a sea creature with a castle on its back.

It was everyone we didn’t want.  Too many, with too many combined resources among them.  We were already outnumbered, and there were still boats on the water, waiting for an opportunity to unload their passengers.

I gripped Lillian’s hand just as hard as she gripped mine.

Helen’s head turned.  She nudged Jessie, and with the pair standing in front and to the side of me, I could see the motion of it.  I could follow the angles of their heads and see why.  Ibbot was here.

Frost was, too.

The applause died down, and with it, the Lambs ducked our heads down, turned away, and set to work.

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43 thoughts on “Root and Branch – 19.4

      • Yeah, the script called for the watcher to be given the opportunity to be the ‘hero’ and step in to save Red and attack the wolf with the axe. I don’t think it would be allowed to deliver a finishing blow and cut off that plot thread without prompting.

  1. This is my first time commenting on a Wildbow story, so I’m a little apprehensive.

    I’m glad to be part of the experience, but the fact I’ve caught up means that for the first time ever I have to wait for more Wildbow instead of reading the whole thing at once. This makes me sad.

    Speaking of negative emotions, I’ve never wanted any fictional character(s) to die a painful death as much as the fucking nobles and professors in this story. The crown and academy are twisted and sadistic on a level I haven’t seen since 1984 and I can’t wait to see them be destroyed. I absolutely love it.

    With Worm and Pact, all I really wanted was to see the protagonists survive the hell that is Living in a Wildbow universe. Right now, all I want is to see the crown/academy suffer a miserable end at the hands of everyone they have wronged.

    • Welcome to the land of “caught up.” 🙂
      Don’t be too apprehensive. Most of us are really nice, just a bit on the perfectionist side 😀

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Yeah, not a fan of the time-skip again, really brought down a thrilling update. It’s not even needed for this chapter, it would have properly served as the introduction for the next chapter, with this one finishing on that macabre image of the applause from everyone in the know forcing Foss to applaud as well.

    • I actually thought this one was fairly well done. We didn’t need to see all the events play out to figure out what happened – Sy’s read of the sitution was right and sending Betty in saved the day, or Ferres was gonna cooperate anyway. Either way, we skip some boring “trial run” stuff and jump into the meat. No complaints here.

      • I agree! It was immediately evident that timeskip happened, with the applause repetition and the new audience members, setting the stage of how everything has gotten better/worse.

  3. Every time, every… damn…. time Sylvester looks at, thinks of or talks about Professor Ferres, I am reminded of what a despicable little wretch he is. Yes, what was done to him by Crown and Academy is unforgiveable… but what Sy has done/is doing to others is *also* unforgiveable.

    • I mean, we’ve known Sylvester was a bad person for a long time. One of his favored tactics near the start was to pretend to be injured and then kill people who tried to help him.

      On the other hand, Ferres has hurt a lot of people. She’s been putting on these shows for years, taking children and cutting into them, changing them, conditioning them, and preparing them to be murdered onstage for entertainment. It is very, very hard to be sympathetic for her. There’s a reason red wants to hit her with an axe.

    • In a world of horror, there are no heroes. Just damaged people trying to right a wrong the only way they really understand how to do so.

    • Depends on your philosophy. It seems pretty forgivable as a French Revolution move, and frankly, he never harmed someone who didn’t deserve it, unless he really had to.

  4. Holy monkeys! Sy’s memory is so much worse! It was what, 5 minutes between the last time he knew the name and when he forgot it? So sad. Its the one thing where you don’t know what you have lost.

  5. Ibbot means giant warbeasts. Maybe we will get to see a kaiju fight between Ferres’s giant lady and whatever Ibbot’s brought.

  6. That was a good time skip, good transition. We already know that if Foss accepted the play as is then the Lambs would be able to scale up when the actual event happened. No need to show us the little details.

    In terms of Sy’s morality, I feel bad only in that things happened outside his control. I’ve never felt a pressing need to question Sy about his tactics, morality, whatever. We knew what he was since the first Arc, i enjoy seeing what a ruthless, intelligent, morally questionable character does against vast opposition. It’s why I like all of Wildbow’s stories probably.

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