It was a noble lady who had spoken, addressing the Professor with the long beard, who was so emotional, his face contorted in anger, that his head shook.
“He’s my blood, m’lady,” the Professor spoke, and the act of speaking despite the clenched muscles and the tension in his face made each word something he produced with flecks of spittle. His son flinched at each utterance. “He is not my boy.”
Blood. The word echoed the Infante’s to the extent I worried that this might be the moment where the monstrous figure next to me would cross the gap to the extent that he overlapped with me, and I would cease to be.
I worried he would say something more, and it would also reverberate and resound, finding echoes in the world around me, and so would the next thing, and the next, and the next.
Jessie took my hand, squeezing it.
Doctors and Professors I took to be the bearded Professor’s companions stood from their seats.
“My lady, Worrel’s son turned rebel last year,” one of the companions said.
There were murmurs throughout the hall. I could see the tension on just about every student present. Many of the ‘dead’ were standing now, Bea among them. The crowd was eyeing them. It wasn’t hard to draw conclusions.
“That boy?” the noble lady asked.
“I do believe so, my lady.”
“I was- was! But only for a short time!” the boy called out. His father had shifted his grip, the cradling of his son’s face becoming something closer to strangulation, and in response to his son’s words, he shook him with enough force to rattle his brain. “I- please, my lady! Father-”
“I am not your father!”
“I was a rebel, but only briefly! They forced us to go with them, I left as soon as I was able!”
Good, I thought. This is a good approach.
I leaned close to one of the doctors who had accompanied us, and murmured in his ear, “Go to Ferres. Tell her there’s an incident. She should send in the great wolf. See if we can’t use it to fake-kill the kid, if warranted.”
The doctor nodded, hurrying off.
“I tried to reach out and let you know, but-”
He stopped as his father shook him again. He was thrown to the ground, sprawling as he landed. His father kicked him, hard, before he had even stopped reeling.
Not a single Professor, Noble, or aristocrat present spoke against this.
The kid was left coughing, and his first attempt at getting onto his hands and knees failed. He remained on his side.
Jessie was just as tense as I was.
“I talked to Ferres. I told her about the rebels. She didn’t think-”
He looked up at his father as he tried to get to his hands and feet again, and something about the way he’d moved made him start coughing again.
“-She didn’t think it would lead to anything.”
It was good, the direction he was taking, using the information he had, making the pitch, leaving things open ended.
The only problem was that he’d named Ferres, specifically. Better to leave it more open, to refer to other Doctors and Professors. If he could’ve named ones who we knew weren’t in attendance, better still.
That might have been asking too much, especially when I couldn’t have done it. He was doing well, all considered, with everything on the line. I would’ve liked to know his name, to do better by him if we came out of this alright.
I allowed myself to peek into Lab One, and saw a glimpse of Ferres making her way up the stairs.
“That doesn’t absolve you, you imbecile. You’ve betrayed the Crown. A hanging is the kindest justice you can hope for, and I’ll tell you this… I won’t be advocating for a hanging.”
“I served the Crown loyally, father, I-”
Professor Worrel kicked him again. His voice was barely audible, more intended for his son than the audience. “I shouldn’t have to correct you more than once.”
The kick hadn’t been the sort to incite coughing by hitting the ribs or diaphragm or whatever the first kick had done, but the movement in reaction to the kick did. The boy took a second, then tried again. “I served the Crown loyally, Professor.”
“You left with them. Others managed to run, others were left wounded and nearly dead because they fought and resisted. They served the Crown loyally. Your schooling, your upbringing, your tutors, all paid for by me, your learning and shelter for the past thirteen years was provided by the Academy and Crown. You have not come close to paying back what you received, you have not come close to reaching the point where you can claim proper loyalty and service!”
Worrel was back to spitting with each word, now. The student couldn’t maintain eye contact, and stared at the ground, looking galled.
“If I may?” Ferres asked. She’d arrived at the top of the stairs, and she had the Wolf with her.
I could see her posture, the way she held herself.
It was the summation of what I’d seen a week ago, when she’d been in the lab, given her new arms and leg.
I squeezed Jessie’s hand harder. “We might’ve lost her.”
I nodded, quickly, my thoughts turning to what we needed to do to cut our losses.
“I need a mirror,” Jessie said. “Anything really reflective.”
I patted down my pockets, one eye on peering through the gaps in the screen of our entourage, who stood further up the stairs.
“Allow me to settle this for you,” Ferres said. “That young man and I had no such conversation.”
If the room had been tense before, it was something worse now. There were murmurs of conversation, a handful more people standing from benches and chairs. The boy was tense now. His father moved toward him, as if to kick him again, and he scrambled back and out of the way. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he practically collided with the railing, from the way it reverberated. His father didn’t pursue to lash out again, instead remaining where he was, glowering. He had bushy eyebrows to go with the beard, and it made for a damned menacing glare.
I could hear rather than see Ferres walking, with the people in the way and my angle of view on the scene.
I could only hope that Ferres would at least hold to the ruse. She had reasons to obey us – if she hadn’t, we wouldn’t have put her up there, but she had reasons to turn the tables on us too. She wouldn’t ever be in a better position than this.
One of the doctors pulled a head-mounted reflector from a pocket, holding it out for Jessie. She let go of my hand to take it, but she didn’t use it for anything.
“Tell me if it’s unsalvageable,” she whispered.
“I think we’ll know when it’s unsalvageable,” I whispered back.
One of the doctors who’d carried us up in the stretcher gave me a look over his shoulder, very clearly alarmed.
Which was entirely appropriate.
The murmur of conversation was dying down.
“A sword, anyone?” Ferres asked. “Is anyone able to oblige me?”
“One second, Professor,” a young voice said.
Jessie met my eyes, then changed the angle of the mirror, catching a ray of light from the outside. She set to angling it, aiming into one part of the crowd.
“We should question him first,” another voice from the crowd said. “Find out who his friends are.”
“I know exactly who his friends are,” Ferres said. “He has quite a few.”
I bit my lower lip. Whatever Jessie was doing, she’d need it to work fast.
The boy ran, sprinting away, closer to us. Ferres whistled, and, following two more strikes of shoe on floor from the running boy, the Wolf rammed into him.
This would have been a good time for Ferres to use the trick. One of the stunts the Wolf had been taught was to seize someone and shake them violently, like a dog did a toy. The trick was that the Wolf’s mouth was large, and with the right grip on a target, the shake would only break and dislocate limbs. For the ‘actors’ Ferres had created to go up against the Wolf, the limbs were strong enough to withstand breakage, and so it was only a relatively painless dislocation.
I was sure our target would be happy to have his limbs broken and to be summarily unconscious than the alternatives Ferres was presenting.
“Did you have any idea, Ferres?”
“I entertained the idea. We received a swathe of students from other Academies earlier in the season, and with the black wood claiming much of the region around us, verifying details was difficult. My failure.”
“You said he had friends?” someone asked. “Should we be concerned?”
“Yes,” Ferres said. “You came with others, didn’t you? Why don’t you tell our audience?”
Our audience. That was the death knell, as much as her not using the Wolf to fake his murder. This, as much as anything, was Ferres on her stage, indulging in her show.
“I came alone,” the student said.
I could hear the sword coming free of the sheath. I saw a glimpse of Ferres, stalking toward the boy and Wolf. The Wolf moved its paws, and I saw the boy, partially pinned down by a paw that rested on the length of his lab coat.
“No,” Ferres said. “You didn’t.”
She put the sword through him.
My heart sank.
Jessie was holding a hand up, palm out. She had dropped the hand with the mirror.
The room was relatively quiet, with rustling. I could see the tension of students throughout, the avid disinterest of many of the Nobles at the main table, and the irritation and restlessness of the more prominent Professors.
There would be no ruse, no saving him. Not with dozens upon dozens of eyes on the scene, fully aware of the particulars of anatomy. Not with the Wolf being a better and more convincing alternative to sell the kill.
“You keep a messy house, Professor Ferres,” one of the other Professors spoke.
“With plague and black wood sweeping over the Crown States, refugees and other Academies clamoring for a place in my institution, mess is inevitable,” Ferres said.
“A dozen,” Ferres said.
“We all know who the Beattle traitors worked for,” Ferres said.
Jessie moved her hand, signalling.
This was Ferres’ play, her gambit. She would claim she only wanted a dozen conspirators. It was, to all Lamb-aligned rebels in earshot, an offer. Play along, and she would only go after us. Maybe our lieutenants. She was offering the out, the escape from a situation that was clearly out of control.
“The Lambs are here!? That’s not a messy house, you stupid bitch, that’s-”
A student at the edge of the room dropped her tray of tea. It crashed into a counter filled with things that one of the guests had brought to keep their experiment companions in working order. Or so the setup had been.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorr-”
The chemicals, tools, and machinery reacted to the hot liquid, and the entire setup billowed with noxious smoke. It got worse before it got better, multiplying as it reached the table.
Someone had a gun drawn and started opening fire into the smoke, targeting the student.
That was going to be how it was, was it? Too many smart, intelligent people in the room, who were too suspicious with the Lambs so recently mentioned. They were willing to shoot at a student who might’ve simply made a mistake or an error in judgment, where others might have hesitated.
Still, the gunfire stopped as the roomful of people started to move to get clear of the smoke. Not all did. Some drew weapons, following scattered students who backed into the smoke rather than gravitate closer to nobles.
Jessie and I launched ourselves into the smoke at the same time, the moment it was close enough to us that we could slip in without necessarily being seen.
Jessie tugged on my arm. I was to her left, closer to the larger expanse of the room but she tugged me to the right. I went with the movement, and felt her give me more of a push to the right.
She was taking point here. I was, going by my trajectory, heading for the source of the smoke.
The table with the assorted chemicals and pieces of now-noisily chugging machinery was in front of me. I was slapped with the length of something as I drew near to it. A belt, torn or loosened by a stray bullet.
What had Jessie wanted me to do here?
I heard the whimper and realized what Jessie had in mind.
The girl who’d dropped the tray was one of ours. Jessie had signaled her with a flash of light from the reflected mirror, then used a hand sign to give the order. She was supposed to have been one of the windows we’d had, who would’ve also bought time for others to arrive and set up the necessary props.
Blind, I bent low, fumbling for her. I touched her face, then, dropping my hand deliberately to her shoulder next, so I wouldn’t grope her chest in a fumbling attempt to find her arm or hand, I put my hand over hers, where she was gripping her upper arm. I felt the warmth of blood.
“I got you,” I said. “How bad?”
“Grazed,” she said, “It all went wrong.”
“It’s okay,” I said. It really wasn’t.
She put her head against my shoulder, shaking it hard.
“You did good,” I said. She really had.
I pulled her to her feet and led her through the smoke, very aware we only had a minute before the smoke started to clear. We’d opted to push the very boundaries of what we could get away with, in terms of how long we could keep a roomful of people under a cover of smoke and not have them get frustrated.
I headed for the railing that bounded the room, where ornate rails kept students from stumbling headlong into the glass walls and windows that framed the ‘shoulder’ of the reclining lady and allowed sunlight into the main hall. I kept one arm around the girl as I counted the posts.
The fourth post had the hook. I grabbed it, pulling it free, and braced myself against the natural pull of it. It was all I could do to keep my feet on the ground.
Figures appeared out of the smoke. I drew my knife, ready.
Students. Ours. Three, unless I was missing something with the smoke obscuring the details.
Another figure loomed, and it was something entirely different. It was large enough that even with the diffuse light that illuminated the clouds of smoke, it still managed to form a pillar of shadow. Ten feet tall.
If I’d been Jessie, I could have recalled everything that had been in the hall earlier, and I could have accounted for that. I wasn’t. I drew my knife, ready.
It moved in a lopsided kind of way. It seemed to sense me before it saw me, and reacted, raising its arms. If it didn’t have weapons, it had something like weapons as part of its design.
I backed up as it swiped through smoke, and I could smell the thing over the cloying burned grease smell of the cloud that now filled three quarters of the great hall. It smelled of perfume. As large and menacing as it was, it smelled nice, inviting.
On my second retreat, I bumped into the students that had clustered behind me. It meant I didn’t move far enough back. The swipe caught me across the face.
As the girl had said, a graze, but enough to alarm.
I hauled back on the rope and hook, and I felt the catch, the moment the mechanism had reached its limit, the switch flipped. It began reeling me in, hard.
I went straight after the thing in the shadows, knees at my chest, ready to kick down and out at the arms if they swiped again, hoping at least to keep the damage localized to my feet and away from my vitals.
The hook was about as large as my head, and as I drew close to the thing, I got a glimpse of what I’d just thrown myself into combat with.
An attractive, feminine creature, its hair long and pale, its eyes without detail, with makeup heavy around the eyes. The clawed, armored part of it was almost another creature it was plugged into, like Lillian’s meatsuit.
She was limping, already injured from a brief encounter with Jessie in the smoke, I realized. I pushed the realization aside, my focus needed elsewhere – I almost smashed my face into hers in my rope-aided ascent. From the glimpse of the many fangs I saw between her slightly parted lips, I was glad I hadn’t.
I used my body to crush the hook in closer to the thing’s body, guiding the hook at what I’d hoped would be her heart. I caught the collarbone instead, impaling her, and bodily lifting the creature up with me.
It was a floating, loose movement, buoyed by the pull of the rope. Vague and dreamlike as that moment was, a slow-motion movement through air, my passenger something beautiful and dangerous looking, it was a stark contrast to the grate of the metal hook on bone, the crack, crunch, and the summary break in that collarbone, marked a spray of blood. She made a terrible sound, as if to further the stark contrast, and her mouth yawned open, a bear-trap mouth of fangs exposed, ready to tear my face open.
The hook slipped free, up, and, with the help of a frantic slap of my hand to better position it, my hands letting go of the hook to seize her shoulders instead, it buried deep in the underside of the creature’s chin. She toppled back, crashing to the ground, and pulled me and the hook down with it.
It had lodged in around the jaw, and for now it was staying put, weighed down by a creature who was several feet taller and far more dense than I. The slam of the hook into her jaw and the clack of her mouth closing as forcefully as it had had knocked her out, if the point of the hook through the roof of her mouth hadn’t outright killed her.
“Come,” I whispered. “Come on.”
There were more people rushing toward us. Some yelped as they realized the monster was there.
“Come on,” I said. I reached for hands, guiding them in place. “Hold tight. Make sure you have grips.”
I was still arranging them, keeping an eye out for more trouble, very aware the smoke was clearing, and we were losing ground. Another minute or two-
I heard gunshots. The sound was different from before. It still sounded far too loud in the enclosed space, as large as it was, but guns had a different sound when they weren’t fired at me. There were other targets. We had support.
Jessie arrived, dragging a body. She had more students with her, and they were helping with the drag. She had the hook but was being careful not to tug it too hard.
Professor Edmund Foss.
“One student here,” Jessie said.
“You guys are going to have to help,” I said. “Kick, grab for handholds, but keep us moving.”
I could see, as the smoke thinned, the sheer number of forces that were massing at the edge of the smoke. Nobles, experiments.
I directed one student to Jessie. She made sure the boy had a grip on the rope there, set the hook in place around Foss’ belt, then gave it a firm haul back.
The rope reeled in, tugging Jessie up. Her feet and the feet of students with her touched the branches that framed windows, seeking more traction.
I had already set the knife in place. I kicked down, driving the knife into one side of the beautiful creature’s jaw. It drove deep, cut something, but didn’t sever everything. I kicked down again, aware of the shadows closing in, driving the heel of my foot between top and bottom row of teeth, exacerbating the damage done by the knife, kicked again-
The hook continued its pull against the jaw, and the end of the jaw came loose. The hook tore through flesh, the jaw pulling free and away, before the hook slipped past the damaged end. We rose into the air, no longer weighed down by the giant creature.
We rose faster than Jessie, who had one less student but one more full grown man pulling down on the rope. Her hostage wasn’t helping either, not kicking at the wall or reaching out for branches to pull at.
My crew of four students and I reached the top before Jessie’s three students and one passenger did. I clambered off, fumbling for the beam, and proceeded to help students let go of the rope and seize other parts of the beam structure above and over the dining hall.
It was havoc down there. The smoke was clearing but wasn’t entirely gone, and it was immediately clear that Jessie had bid other students to activate their lettered experiments. We’d had an entire play of surprise deaths, from A to Z, and many of them had been intended to cause comedic havoc. Now they were weapons. Pests among the enemy, a stitched that was arcing with voltaic power that was supposed to be limited to the nearby railing, but was instead flashing across the silverware and candlesticks on the tables nearest it. There were others.
Our students were backing off. Many, including Bea, had fled for one of the bridges. They were shutting the gate, and the people below us were just now realizing it. In places below, students and rebels were slipping away, setting up roadblocks and other obstacles. It would buy them time to reach secure points, to run to the lowest-floor doors of dormitories and the admin building.
For all that this had gone bell-end, the casualties didn’t look too terribly bad. Some had been shot, others were stuck, having made the mistake in judgment of sticking closer to the Nobles, Professors, and aristocrat guests.
This wasn’t what we’d been shooting for. Our time to attack had been when the festivities here were over and people started retiring for the evening.
With people going to separate places to retire for the night, quarters of differing quality for different guests, we’d hoped to split them up and deal with them on a case-by-case basis.
I hauled on the rope, helping Jessie. I hoped those below wouldn’t look up- people below were looking up.
But, at the very least, they were preoccupied. They were aristocrats, and they had Nobles to serve, or they were Professors, and they’d brought weapons to show off, and now they were loosing the weapons on the attacking rebels.
People hiding in the rafters would have been the sort of suspicious activity that would’ve been more easily explained as something the magicians with their show had up their sleeve, had we been able to do this like we wanted.
Ibbot was still down there, somewhere.
“I’m good,” Jessie said, as I grabbed her armpit and helped her get to a position to climb up onto the broader ledge. “Go rain hell on ’em.”
I nodded. I turned away, ducking low so I wouldn’t bump my head on a part of the ceiling or stick it through a pane of glass, and hurried to where we’d stowed other countermeasures.
I was glad we had very little that was outright lethal. I tipped over buckets, letting them fall. I had four on their way to the ground before the first struck the floor.
They were very much like the smoke from the machine, but they were a little more noxious.
As the gas spread, people jumping onto tables to buy themselves seconds more before the gas smothered them, a handful drew pistols and fired blind. One or two fired with targets in mind.
The bullets that didn’t hit wood hit the glass that encased the dining hall. Glass broke, and it rained down in large shards and fragments. It broke explosively on contact with the floor, furniture, and guests below us.
“Stop!” someone called out. They spoke with a noble’s voice. “No shooting until we can see!”
“To the stairs!”
I wasn’t positive if it was one of our own or not. I remembered something planned in that vein, but I was lost on the particulars.
We made our way through the same hole that ‘F’ had fallen through. A ‘student’ in our act had been designated to showcase the perils of breeding flying creatures, and had come in through one treated pane of glass, smacking hard into the floor, a dramatic faceplant. Now we climbed through, working in threes and fours to move the unconscious body of Edmund Foss.
From the outside, I could see the various weapons and the massed armies of the Academy and Crown. There were groups on the ground, and in the chaos, the students of ours that were fleeing were able to direct them indoors. They would carry on like that until they met the first of the aristocrats or whoever was able to slip past the barricades, the stitched we’d turned to our side, and the experiments we’d put in place to scare and impede. Then they would be informed that the fleeing students weren’t friendlies.
I could see the gossamer thing, and it was drawing close. Whatever controlled it, it hadn’t received the order to attack. Which was good, because it was not the sort of thing I wanted to be on the bad side of.
We moved carefully across branches and struts of the head of the Lady of Hackthorn. There were more ropes and hooks waiting on the outside edge of the building.
“We’d planned to do this with just Sylvester and I,” Jessie said. “The extra weight won’t be a problem, but that’s not really the concern.”
“What’s the concern?” the girl with the injured shoulder asked.
Jessie put the hook through Edmund Foss’ belt, once more. “Grab on. Twice as tight as you did in the dining hall.”
“Don’t look down,” I said.
I saw eyes widen. Jessie elbowed me.
“Really don’t,” I said. “But grab on, because if you stay, it’s going to be even scarier, I guarantee you.”
“And don’t grab where it’s knotted up there,” Jessie said.
They grabbed on. Jessie and I freed the hooks from where we’d attached them to the exterior wall.
I drew in a deep breath and then stepped off the edge, pulling the others with me.
The rope was attached to the wall at set intervals. The attachment wasn’t secure in the slightest. With our weight pulling it down, it came free in jerks and starts, each one making my heart leap out of my chest, and I was a friend of high places, my natural and sensible dislike of birds aside.
I felt sorry for our passengers.
The rope kept coming undone, and, for two long, heart-pounding seconds, there was slack in it. We were in freefall.
There were no more attachments to the exterior of the main building- only to the bridge that connected it to the admin building.
We swung from there, with a solid seventy-five paces of open space between us and any wall, our feet dangling above people who were so far away they were specks. A ring with a rope attached to it slipped down from high above, looped around our rope, and it stopped at a knot just above my hands. Had I been holding onto that knot, it would have struck my hands with enough force to break fingers.
The enemy was attacking the gate now, setting something strong and powerful at the door. I could hear the crunches, the bangs, and the chops that were like axes on wood. I could hear glass break, and knew that there were things that weren’t human that would be crawling out through the broken windows and onto the exterior, out toward the bridge, giving chase.
The swinging ceased. The students at the window were hauling on the other rope the ring was fixed to – pulling us in. Others provided gradual slack to our other rope. In the process, we were eased in closer to the admin building.
“Just in time,” Davis said, meeting us at a waiting window. “They’re coming over the bridge now. There’s a lot more of them than we anticipated.”
“More is good,” I said.
We climbed in through the window. One of the fellows with us had not enjoyed his ride. Any gardens way down below had received fertilizer and watering. He shuffled off.
“You’ve put up with a lot, being with us,” I told Davis.
“I really, really have,” he said.
“Would you do the honors?” I asked.
“Honors,” he said. “People are going to die.”
But he reached for a leather cord at his neck, and he raised a whistle to his lips.
It wasn’t silent. It didn’t matter who heard.
The bridge detonated, a rolling explosion that caught first at one end, then the middle, and finally at the end closest to the main building. Wood, stone, the garden baskets that had lined either side, bits of metal and a portion of the enemy’s front-line capable troops tumbled through the open air. I hoped there were some young nobles among them.
We’d wanted them divided into clear categories and groups before we dealt with them. We’d wanted to be absolutely sure that most of our own were in the clear.
This would be… messier than we’d hoped.
“What was his name?” I asked.
“Bobby,” Jessie said, without needing to ask.
“Bobby Worrel, then?”
“Yeah,” Jessie said. “I’m surprised you remembered the last name.”
“I’m going to forget it promptly, and he deserves a better last name, too, but I held it in my head to be sure I didn’t forget that. We’ll deal with his dad.”
“Yeah,” one of the students with us said.
Bits of burning stone and wood were still falling. I could see up and through the window to the dining hall, where trails of smoke were still filtering out to the open air. A creature had reached the edge and managed to cling to it, but was too badly burned to do anything further. I watched as it surrendered to its fate and fell.
I looked down at the unconscious Professor Foss. I briefly met the Infante’s eyes.
This is our Academy, and it’s time you all learned that, I thought. And that’s only the beginning.