“Your timing is off,” Ashton said. “Jessie, your timing is supposed to be good.”
“Not our fault,” I said. “A guest recognized one of our actors. Ferres thought she saw an opportunity.”
Jessie and I had reached the gate that was supposed to lead to the bridge and to the main hall. Now it was only a short section of bridge that ended in splinters and rubble, the midsection gone. The attachment points for the ropes were gone too. I could vaguely map out the course we’d taken, the staggered descent to a point where we could safely swing beneath the bridge to the admin building, at which point we’d been towed in to the window.
Ashton was with this group, more because he knew the hand signals than anything. He didn’t have a proper role at this point in time. The Infante was near because, well, it was what he did, apparently.
Across the bridge, there was a crowd gathered near the window. Professors, aristocrats, and those without combat experience. I couldn’t make out much with the distance being what it was, but I could tell that they were agitated, and they were talking. Unless they pulled out guns and started shooting, they weren’t a concern. Even if they did, I wouldn’t mind too much. It would take a rifle to get a bullet this far and the shots wouldn’t be accurate. If they got lucky and hit one of us, it wouldn’t be good, but the chances were slim.
I kept one eye out all the same. The Academy could produce all sorts.
But if they wanted to waste bullets, that wasn’t too bad either.
They weren’t the focus. For now they were organizing, putting great minds to the problem.
I turned my attention to more crucial areas. There were people on the ground, which meant they’d managed to get past the obstacles we’d set in their way and exit the gate of the main building. They were moving in loose regiments as they stormed through the streets. Much of the attention was on the ground level entrances to the main buildings. That was a mistake – common logic would dictate that if we planned this, we’d know they would try.
I started paying more attention to the nature of the movements, tracking the patterns in this kicked anthill. I began taking in a general sense of where the leaders were, and who the followers were. I tried to pay attention to where the followers hesitated, as if that could highlight where the leadership was weaker.
There were some that were starting to break into homes and businesses on the ground level.
“They’re raiding the buildings,” I observed.
“Looks like,” Jessie said. She lifted up her glasses to look down with clearer vision.
“One group,” I said.
“No,” Jessie said. “Lots are doing it. They’re clearing their flanks, making sure we don’t have experiments or soldiers waiting in the houses and alleys.”
“Mostly from the one group, I mean,” I said. I moved closer to her, my arm resting against hers, and pointed.
“Okay, I see who you mean.”
We watched the little black dot that was the leader of that particular group. It was taller than average, moving with leisure, and it was watching what the rest of the groups were doing at the main gate. People slowed as they drew closer to him.
Tall dot was a noble, I was fairly sure.
“It’s… interesting that he’s taking that course of action. It’s not flank clearing.”
“No,” Jessie said.
“What is it?” Ashton asked. He dropped down onto his belly, crawling forward to look down over the edge of the crumbled, broken bridge.
“Well, the whole storming the gates or going on the offense is the most obvious path they could take, and one of the more pointless,” I said. “What he’s doing isn’t obvious, and it’s… rather more pointful. It’s maybe on the top five paths they could take that hurt us. Third most pointful thing.”
“Please stop saying pointful,” Jessie said, her eyes still on the scene below. “With my memory, I have to remember each and every butchery of Stateside English you commit.”
I snickered, and she elbowed me.
“He’s checking the surroundings, gathering information,” Jessie said. “He’s going to find out very quickly that we’ve been through each and every one of those houses.”
“Ahhh,” Ashton said.
“Some of the nobles on the bridge we just blew up are climbing out of the rubble,” she observed.
“Really?” I asked. “That’s pretty impressive. Pick one out, make him or her our measuring stick?”
“I need binoculars,” she said.
Binoculars were offered by members of the larger group that had gathered at the open doors here. Someone handed some to me.
Things had been tense for a while, the rebels not really trusting me, and this was perhaps the most unambiguous that they’d been in helping me out and giving me that benefit of a doubt. The bridge explosion and the coordination thus far had apparently counted for something.
I focused on the rubble, and saw two nobles. A young Lord had already emerged, and a young Lady was in the process of moving rubble to free her legs. Both were dirty and both were bleeding in places.
The Lord began stripping down. He stood there almost completely naked for a short time while he picked through the various dead in the wreckage, shaking their less tattered clothes free of dust before donning them.
The Lady was more hurt. She crawled forth, made her way to the nearest piece of rubble she could sit on, and began tending to her injuries, including a smashed leg. I couldn’t see much of what she was doing, given the angle and the distance.
They would look after themselves to the point they could show their faces without too much shame, and then they would rejoin the proceedings.
I glanced at the Infante. He wasn’t standing as still anymore, and he’d been standing still for a week now. He paced, and for all the world, it felt like he was going to turn to me any moment, make eye contact, and start talking at length, as if he’d bottled it all up inside, waiting for this moment.
I looked away. Other focuses.
Tall dot was a tall young noble with a red jacket that he’d taken off and slung over one shoulder. He had a blond beard that came to a sharp point, his hair was short but for a flourish of wavy hair that extended in front of his face, and he stood there with a battle axe resting on the ground.
He picked up the weapon as if it weighed nothing and used it to point at a side street. Soldiers and the stitched that accompanied them moved down the street.
Then his head turned, and he looked up in our general direction. I wondered if his eyesight was keen enough to see us without binoculars, or if he was simply taking in the bridge.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Lord Carling,” Jessie said.
“We know they know, now,” I said. “The general thrust of what we’re doing, they found how we prepped the buildings. Lord Carling’s going to pass on word soon.”
“It should take him about ten minutes to get from the bottom floor to the main hall, and then they’ll start moving with more purpose and direction,” Jessie said. “I’ll feel a lot better about what we’re doing if we hear from Helen sooner than later.”
“She’s reliable,” I said. Lord Carling was moving again, entering the front hallway of the building closest to him, one that had already been cleared out. He emerged and walked straight for the gate leading to the main building.
Ten minutes, according to Jessie.
More students from downstairs were joining us now. They peeked out and around the edges of the door, more wary of stray bullets than Jessie, Ashton and I were, and they took in the scene before retreating or making space for others to indulge their curiosity.
“Jessie?” one of them ventured.
“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me something about Professor Foss?” Jessie asked.
“He’s secured. We have him in room six-oh-six. Some of ours are examining him.”
“It seems to be in fashion to keep things under fingernails,” I said. “We’ll want to be absolutely careful.”
“We put his feet in a bucket of cold casting gel, and we did the same for his hands, put them behind him and stuck them in a bucket that’s sitting on another chair.”
“Perfect,” I said.
Jessie stuck her toe into Ashton’s foot. “You want to go babysit Professor Foss? See if you can’t loosen his tongue if he wakes up? We’ll be along in a short while, as soon as we can be mostly sure things have settled.”
“Alright. If you need me I’ll be there,” Ashton said. He rose to his feet, and stood there, rather precariously on the edge of the broken bridge. My hand moved, ready to reach out and grab him if he tipped over the edge. I kept it there while he stretched, and hoped that with people being suspicious of me, that it didn’t look as though I was preparing to push him off rather than save him.
“I like watching the dust settle,” Ashton said.
“Me too, Ashton, me too,” I said.
He smiled up at me, then left. He hadn’t tipped over the edge, but I wasn’t ruling anything out. His situational awareness could do with some work.
An unusual brain, that one.
Almost every set of eyes in the group watched him as he walked downstairs. Something about the fumes he was putting off had their attention.
I’d trust him to know what he was doing.
On the ground, the armies at the gates were starting to make some headway. Warbeasts that had been brought out of the stable were tearing through the wood for one of the dormitories, and stitched-managed battering rams slammed at others.
“Girl’s dormitory would be… Mary?”
Mary had set up the obstacles and carried out the sprinting retreat from the lower levels of the Academy. She was most able to defend herself if something quick happened to leap from a window or dodge the experiments and the growing barricades that had been set in its path.
Mary now managed the defense at that point. Stitched hammered at the gate, and the beam they collectively held was gradually punching holes in the wood rather than actually opening the gate. They’d make a hole big enough to crawl through soon.
Jessie watched, very intent on what was going on. The girl’s dormitory hadn’t been built to weather an attack. Jessie’s speculation was that it had been a later addition, more Ferres’ slant on things than part of the original construction.
“You’re paying a lot of attention there,” I remarked to Jessie, my voice a murmur.
“If the defense fails there, it puts us in a bad spot,” Jessie said.
“And it has nothing to do with the imagery of the big, strong beam sinking in deep, the steady rhythm-”
“I will push you over the edge, Sy.”
She was threatening to kill me, sure, but she was smiling.
The team at the girl’s dormitory upended vats and buckets through windows, down onto the soldiers and stitched below them.
Some stitched stopped outright, dropping to hands and knees or kneeling at the street outside the dormitory. Others backed away, with a scattered few failing or going still after they’d made it a few paces. The non-stitched backed away.
The texture of the road and the sides of the building beneath the windows began to change.
Duncan’s group opened fire with rifles, targeting the shaggy warbeast that was clawing at the doors. An explosive was tossed down from high above and exploded on contact with the ground, only a short distance from the warbeast. It didn’t tear the creature to shreds, but the warbeast fell to its side and didn’t get back up.
We had half a dozen to a dozen individual tricks and tools prepared for each of the points we needed to defend. Most of the major bridges were intact, still, but that could change if we needed it to, and the enemy no doubt knew it.
It was very likely they would try to cross the bridges after dark, which was only a few hours away. They would wait until we got complacent.
They had their own tricks. Things that could crawl up walls and the faces of buildings, the gossamer thing, warbeasts with other tools, people with machinery in them and machines with biology in them.
I glanced at the Infante.
“How many nobles?” I asked.
“Twelve arrived. Five tried to cross the bridge here and only two climbed out, for what it’s worth.”
“Nine nobles, then,” I said, quiet. “Lesser ones.”
Nine nobles, then. If they came up with any plans, then the nobles would be the ones to carry them out, and they’d carry them out well. This initial chaos was where we held the advantage, our ‘guests’ now realizing the shape of the situation around them. That would change over the course of this engagement.
“Really wish we could get a signal from Helen on this one,” Jessie said.
“Do you want to go help her? It’s not like Professor Moss is going anywhere.”
“And I don’t want to abandon our post here. With Ashton downstairs, we’re the Lambs’ eyes and ears on this situation.”
I nodded. “We’ll stay. They’ll want to act.”
“Based on?” Jessie asked.
“It simply feels like it. The way they’re moving in there, the way there were more people talking before and now there’s less, like some voices are starting to get more traction. They’re winding toward a conclusion.”
“I don’t know how you do that, Sy. I prefer the measurable things.”
“It’s why we work so well together,” I said. I touched the underside of her chin and turned her head so I could kiss her.
She stopped kissing me back, but didn’t pull her lips away. They brushed against mine as she said, “You’re provoking them.”
I chuckled, gave her a peck on the lips, and then turned.
On the other side of the broken bridge, the door was opening again. The glass panes on the doors had broken when the bridge had, and now two people walked over the broken glass shards and wood splinters.
One was a professor. He looked underweight and rather grim in demeanor, the kind of guy who became dour, intense, and who buried his feelings deeper as they got worse, when a crisis arose. With the light filtering through clouds and the angle of the sun, the blond hair, and the glossy sheen of whatever had been used to put his hair back, he looked hairless. Pale pate, pale skin, contrasted with dark clothing and coat. Skeletal.
With the wind blowing, the black lab coat he wore fluttered, hard. The rest of him was still as he glowered at us. He stooped over a little.
He was joined by a woman a foot taller than him, and he wasn’t short. Her hair was white, her lashes black and almost overly long, in a way that would have looked ridiculous had she not been so very well put together in every other respect. Her nails were like daggers, and she held a fan.
“Guns out,” Jessie gave the order. “Pass on word. Don’t waste bullets, but open fire on him, now.”
“Guns?” I asked. Students bumped into me in their hurry to get into position. “We’re trying to go soft.”
I watched as the noble spoke to the Professor beside her. Jessie and I stood back and out of the way as the students in the hallway organized, the group in front dropping to their knees.
Almost immediately, the rifles sounded. I saw a glimpse of the Professor raising one hand before the Lady stepped in front of him, a body shield.
“Aim high! Account for gravity!” I called out, raising my voice to be heard over the battery of gunshots. “Like you practiced!”
The shots hit windows, the bridge, and they hit the Lady. She felt the impact of them, but she didn’t step back or stagger. They didn’t draw blood, either.
“That would be Lady Gloria,” Jessie said.
“And the Professor?”
“For lack of a better name? Professor Gossamer,” Jessie said.
Ah. That explains the shooting.
With the man’s hand gesture, the gossamer thing was drifting in our direction. It set tendrils down at sections of the main building and on the perimeter wall.
“Stop shooting!” Jessie called out. Gunfire stopped. Jessie spoke in a lower voice, “Hold fire, be ready for orders to resume shooting at a designated target or to run, as need be.”
The gossamer thing was planting its strands at key points along the wall and the Hackthorn central building. Directly below it, strands were weaving into a long, conical spike.
“Damn it,” I said.
It took effort to raise that spike, and the thing attached tendrils to places until it had the leverage. The spike rose until it was parallel to the ground, aimed directly at us.
“Move!” Jessie called out. “Scatter!”
A few more strands found places to grab, some of them on our building, and then it speared at us, pushing by going rigid and pulling by hauling in.
It targeted the hallway and doorway we’d been occupying, spearing into a point a dozen feet to the left of us, through much of the length of the hallway, and then a length of the wall to the side of us as we ran away.
Its forward momentum burned out, it unfurled the spike. Behind us, strands as light as air made nail-on-slate sounds as they brushed stone and wall decoration. They periodically went rigid, flexing, as they touched things, and that made the strands move more.
I saw places where the long rug that ran down the length of the hallway and the paper of paintings on the wall were sliced where the gossamer ran past them at the right angle, with sufficient duration of contact.
It was getting a grip, seizing wall and floor, slicing deep where it could and then going rigid to spear in at odd angles, fixing itself in places.
It was going to spear at us again.
The first stab had demolished twenty solid feet of exterior wall on the left side of the hallway and thirty-some feet of interior wall, along the right side of the hallway. I wasn’t sure if anyone had been hurt, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Can we burn it?” I asked.
“No,” Jessie said.
“Climb it? No. Slice ourselves up.”
“Shoot the head? All the way up there?”
“The rifles fire eight hundred yards, but they’re not accurate at that distance. As you saw.”
I looked back. The strands were tensing.
“Heads up!” I roared the words.
The spike came in at a point that ran through the ceiling. It was more direct, impaling with an eye of penetrating deeper into the building. It had to have been halfway through the piercing motion before the fatter base of the cone-shaped spike was at a point where it might have made contact with any of us.
That was the good. The bad was that wood and stone were breaking away. Furniture from upstairs was falling through the damaged floors and ceiling. The damage was at a point where it was causing more damage. That was made all the worse by the unfurling of the cone, the strands making contact with loose rubble and stray items. They cut some, attached to others, and did some combination of the two for others still.
The spike had separated the head of our group, mostly our riflemen, from the rear, more riflemen, Jessie, myself, and some scattered doctors.
“If we kill Professor Gossamer?” I asked.
“He has subordinates,” Jessie said. “They’ll have some control, I think.”
“Then we need the control,” I said.
“We do,” she said. She took a step back, grabbing my sleeve to haul me out of the way. Strands were drawing close, and as they reached through the hallway, scraping against the edges of the hole in the wall, they were forcing our group to move away from the group further down the hall. We were being separated. Even if the gossamer withdrew entirely from the hallway, the floor had been sliced and littered with rubble, with more stones and pieces of wood clattering down to the ground every couple of seconds. It was precarious footing, slow going, and there was a good chance of a large chair or a chunk of wood braining either of us as we made our way across.
I’d almost have been willing to take the risk, but the gossamer thing was nearby.
I moved closer to a window to look.
It was retreating?
“Sy,” Jessie said. “Helen acted.”
From where we stood, it was hard to see much – especially with the hole being placed as high as it had been. We ended up ducking into a side hallway, and taking a long way around, accessing the east-facing side of the admin building.
The gossamer thing was being directed to the cliffs. In the water below, ships had crashed into one another. Helen’s delay had no doubt been caused by the sea serpent that the one Academy had brought, and that creature looked wounded or dead as it remained still, lying in the surface waters.
Fires burned, boat crews scattered or dropped to the water. Even with binoculars, the figures on the boats were as gnats and fleas. Stitched would be boarding where they could board and fighting who they could fight.
Hackthorn, like all Academy institutions, had stitched to handle menial duties. They cleaned, they did construction, they manufactured things, and they acted as soldiers.
With Hackthorn under our control, we’d given the stitched new directives. We’d arranged the boats we did have out on the water, loaded the ones we could with volatile chemicals and crewed them with stitched.
There was no exit by water, now. The gossamer thing was drifting to the water, very likely on orders to combat the enemy, but there was no specific enemy to fight. For now, we had a reprieve.
Lord Carling would be telling the others by now. He would be outlining what he’d found on the ground, in the houses and businesses.
Every house had been stripped of food. Everything we’d deemed theoretically useful to the enemy had been relocated. Citizens had been gathered in the dorms and admin buildings, drugged, and now rested in long slumber.
In the main building, labs were locked, the most essential items and ingredients put away. Everything had been made to look proper and nice, but it was a hollow thing, the substance… not removed, but transplanted.
Helen had given the signal to close the harbor. She could climb up the exterior wall to reach us again, when she was done, but she wouldn’t be done for at least the rest of the day and for the next night. She would first hunt for key persons who swam for shore – captains and any guests who hadn’t wanted to join the party just yet. Then she would sail the water, looking out for any late arrivals or chance visitors.
It served to keep her away from Ibbot and it gave her something she enjoyed doing.
The plan at this stage was simple. The Lambs as a group excelled when it came to besieging an enemy, so we had orchestrated a siege, in a roundabout way, and we had rigged it against our opponents, preparing the battlefield in advance.
It was such a damn shame we couldn’t have gotten each major group to different sleeping areas and targeted them one by one. Nobles, aristocrats, Professors and experiments all complemented each other in a dangerous way.
The trap had closed, and we were engaged in a mutual siege. We had control over the key bridges, gates, and waypoints, and we had the food. The poison gas in the buckets I’d knocked down would taint the feast we’d prepared for the guests. They’d find nothing of substance in the houses. We’d squirreled away things for enhanced noses to find, but we’d poisoned most in advance.
Much as we’d maintained a few windows in the alphabet-based series of ‘deaths’ for our actors, there would be a few pivotal moments in the minutes, hours, and even days that followed. Their ability to handle the negativity that old rivalries and being under siege brought about would be one such pivoting moment. Our ability to hold them off once we’d spent all of our accumulated tricks and special measures would be another.
The gossamer thing was drifting back toward us, and my instincts told me that there would be others -Noble or experiment- who would coordinate to take advantage of the distraction.