It was like trying to fight a tidal wave with a sword and trying not to get wet in the process. Students with improvised armor joined Jessie and I in trying to fend off the attack. The gossamer had already made four more strikes, punching and tearing through walls, snagging on rubble it could pull down and cutting at the contents of the hallway, living or otherwise.
The gossamer strands didn’t follow consistent logic in how they moved once they went from rigid to soft. Parts remained rigid, and the resulting kinks in the strands made the flow of it just a touch less predictable. That lack of predictability combined with the stress and hurry of the moment made it easy to slip up. We only had ten seconds to a minute to get from wherever we were to where it had impaled the building, then, if we arrived in time, only about that long to do any substantial damage. After that, most of the strands would pull out, with only the anchoring points remaining.
We’d had only one good go of it, and three more where we’d arrived just late enough that there were only the anchoring strands remaining. Cutting at the anchoring points slowed it down, and forced it to set down anchors elsewhere.
A dozen of us were assembled, armed with swords and axes. Six of us were on one floor, and six more were on the floor below. Damage to the wall and floor meant that the hallway on my floor was missing half of its width, the rest having tumbled through the gaping hole in the exterior wall. The hole was wide enough to ride two carriages through abreast, and through it, I could see the sky and the fading, overcast daylight, the sheer drop to the ground far below, and a great deal of the gossamer creature, as it settled into position.
It was preparing for a fifth strike in this set of attacks.
I could see clear to the floor below, where Jessie was speaking to the others. She was encouraging, giving advice, and describing things to watch out for. I suspected a lot of it had to do with keeping mood up, keeping people focused, and not letting people dwell on the futility of what we were doing.
I remained silent. I didn’t have the currency to really sell my group on anything. They knew what to do, and any words from my lips would rankle, and we didn’t need any more negativity.
The students were nervous. There had been almost twenty of us when we’d started defending against this attack. Seven students had tried to fight off the gossamer creature and had suffered grave injuries for their trouble. I secretly believed that one was probably a goner, based on the severity of the wounds. Another one had returned to help, but most of them had taped and bandaged books around their extremities, hardcovers torn off, and the fellow who’d just returned had blood soaking through pages of one book at his arm, dripping from the gouge the strand had made in it. The improvised armor was more the sort of thing to shield against momentary contact at best.
I gave my axe a test swing through the air. It was one of the ones that was stowed for dealing with fires and defending against rogue experiments.
The gossamer thing was setting down more anchors, now. Jessie’s encouraging words trailed off.
I wasn’t with her, we were hardly ‘dancing’, but I imagined we were very much on the same page.
For ten seconds, the only sound was the building creaking, the places where structural integrity had suffered groaning their agony. The damaged floor I stood on was part of it, and I could feel the vibrations and protests of the building through my feet and legs.
The spike speared forth, and I was moving before it had made contact, running down the hallway.
This was a tricky thing to balance, wanting to be close enough to strike out, but not so close I was caught by the hazard.
I’d grown up with the Academy, trained as a Lamb to out-think the enemy and to keep up with the boys and girls I worked with. I’d adapted to each of them, matched my footing to theirs, and then helped the enemies stumble and the allies step true.
This was an enemy I couldn’t out-think. It had no brain.
It punched through the building, with a downward slant, very possibly striking through the tenth floor and exiting through the seventh, the hole in the wall facing the burned and black wood wastelands.
If it had penetrated the exterior wall of Hackthorn Academy, then we could well be exposed to the black wood, in the small but not infinitesimal chance that the wind blew the right particles across the wasteland and through the gap.
Something to address later.
By the time I’d reached the spike of gossamer, it was already unfurling. Anchors were pulling at damaged sections of floor, dragging them away and down. Jessie wouldn’t be able to do much, below. The entire structure rumbled, rubble falling and furniture cascading. It was the kind of damage that multiplied itself, one cascade of falling rubble leading to another.
I swung the axe, striking for the point where the hard section of the spike had started to unfurl. If I struck at something as soft and light, it simply gave, going with the swing. Strike at the hard part of the shaft, and it barely took any damage at all.
At the midway point between the two, the strands were soft enough to feel the axe, but were held in place by the firmer part elsewhere.
The blade of the axe crunched deep. Strands peeled off on either side of the cut and immediately started fanning out through the air.
They were, going by the ones I’d seen and examined, much like Mary’s razor wire, but far finer. Each strand was as thin as a hair, lighter, and took a serrated shape on three sides, sawing through everything it touched. Seen from a distance, it seemed to cut through all it ran against with the same ease as fine, sharp knives might. Here and there, it moved with enough force to scuff and score even stone and metal.
I moved back and away from the strands that were fanning out around me, and almost stumbled over the rug. Long and narrow, it had ran down the middle of the hallway. Now strands pulled at it, lifting it up and toward me. A knee-high barrier to hamper my movements. Purely accidental on the gossamer creature’s part, I knew, but it cost me a precious second.
My retreat was performed with even more care than usual, as I navigated the strands that continued to fill the space around me, each one so thin I could miss them in the wrong light or angle. In the moment, my focus was wholly consumed by the need to watch each grouping of strands, to make sure I didn’t just have a way out that was clear, but that I had a way out when I got there.
I swung again, this time at a different grouping of strands. A strand swiped against the handle, just a finger’s width away from my hand, and it dragged through the wood, carving a shallow groove into it, while threatening to pull the weapon from my hands.
But the blade of the axe caught the strands and slammed into the wooden interior wall, which helped to sever them. I had to use my whole body to haul it free.
Others were joining in. The floor was collapsing in the middle of the hallway, and I could see motion below. More students, not from Jessie’s group, because they were on the other side of the spike. They were using a visible gas.
It withdrew, and the motion caused the strands all around us to flail about and take to the air.
I backed well away. Light streamed into the otherwise dark hallway through the hole in the outside wall. Dust billowed through the hole in the inside wall, and I knew that if I waited for the cloud of dust to dissipate, braved the strands that littered the area, and stood at the edge of that hole, there was a chance I could see clean through the building. Small chunks of stone and wood were still dropping here and there.
I brought the head of my axe to my hand, idly brushing my thumb along the length of the blade. It was ragged, notched, and a little triangle of metal came free as my thumb touched it.
Outside, the gossamer thing was disconnecting all anchors, pulling back to go back to the main building. I was a little out of breath, and my thinking was strange. I was in an overly observant state, from my attention to the creature and its state, and I wanted to move slowly and gently as I adjusted my head.
Professor Gossamer was waiting. He didn’t flinch as the thing settled, embracing the reclining lady of Hackthorn. It was only there for a few seconds before he finished communicating his directives. It departed in the direction he’d extended a finger, moving out toward the water.
It was only now that it had moved completely away from the building that I could see what we’d managed to do at the cost of one life, however many injuries, and some seriously concerning structural damage. Some strands were clumping together in an unusual way – the gas had chilled or glued them together, and others had been cut short. We’d maybe cut or hampered five percent of the strands, and even then we’d only cut them in half, or we’d glued them up temporarily at best.
If this continued, we’d be out of soldiers to throw at the thing before we reached the fifteen percent mark, and the building would crumble before we had pruned away a third of it. None of which covered the actual danger of disposing of the strands we had cut.
It was gone, though. We did have a reprieve.
“Everyone okay?” I asked.
“Two cuts,” one student reported. “Nothing serious.”
“Good,” I said.
I left it at that. Short and sweet. Striding away from the scene, tossing my axe to the side, I took the hallway that had been reduced to a half of the width and jumped down to the next floor. I reunited with Jessie.
“Two cuts,” I said.
“I heard,” Jessie said. “Three injuries here. Some stone came down from above and it made the strands billow out. We didn’t all move fast enough.”
Students were using weapons and stray bits of wood to poke and prod strands, moving them over the edge where possible. I could see the group of students further down the hallway, collecting the containers they’d used to produce the glue gas.
“Good work, guys,” I said.
I got a few curt nods and one salute before they went on their way, resupplying for another attempt, maybe planning something else.
Jessie and I maneuvered to a safe spot, where we could see the main building, watch the gossamer thing head out to the water, and still be free of any falling stones, pieces of wood, or free strands.
It also gave us the benefit of privacy. I hesitated for a second, and then hugged Jessie.
Decompressing. Easing down. It felt good to hug and be hugged, to feel a head resting against my neck.
I didn’t want to taint the hug, so I broke away and took a second to take stock before speaking.
“It’s a living thing,” I said.
“It is,” Jessie said. She was smiling a little. “What’s your line of thinking?”
“I’m thinking it’s been sent to the water because it needs to eat and drink. It doesn’t seem very active, but it has to consume some energy when it attacks. If it has an inefficient body, it might have a hard time getting nutrients from the root of one strand to the end.”
“Going by what I’ve read, it probably uses salts to communicate. Ocean water would give it most of what it needs. It might fish while it’s there.”
“It’s not going to need to grab a huge hunk of meat or something and haul it to its mouth, then?”
“No,” Jessie said. “I can’t imagine it would.”
“Does it need to rest? Like actually stop, sleep, take it easy?”
“If I had to compare to other, similar things, most of which are aquatic, I’d say yes. It’ll hunker down when it gets dark. I’m just going by what I’ve read,” she said.
I watched as the thing made its slow retreat. The wind blew from the water to the Academy, and the creature mostly moved by letting the wind blow it, waiting until strands blew in the direction it wanted to go, and anchored to the most solid objects in that direction.
“It grabs things. Can we… give it something to grab and make it hold on? I’m envisioning having it grab a pipe and then we roll up the pipe, get a bit of strand with it.”
“It would probably cut through pipe as it tugged on it,” Jessie said.
“Something else? Thicker than pipe?”
“If it was anchored enough to hold the thing down, we might end up giving it leverage to tear down a good section of building.”
I nodded, trying to wrap my head around the problem from different angles and not seeing much. I’d barely thought through the idea as I pitched it to Jessie, and I didn’t really disagree with her assessment.
I was tired, mentally and physically. I wasn’t the only one who was, either. It had been an intense twenty minutes.
This was bad, and it was bad in a way that went well beyond the fact that I didn’t have any good answers. It was bad because it was taking up our time, energy, and resources, and it wasn’t occupying much of the enemy’s. I’d hoped the inverse would be true, and that we could harass and pressure them.
We hadn’t left them much in the way of resources, but there were a lot of brains there, and they did have what they had brought with them. In the stables, staircases, and in the main hall, there had been scattered cases of luggage and collections of medical supplies for the upkeep of nobles and experiments.
“Across that broken bridge, they’re getting organized,” I said. “Establishing a chain of command, organizing, taking stock, and figuring out what we have planned. They’ll be sorting through the medical supplies and searching through the building to find what we left behind.”
“We left traps,” Jessie said.
“We did,” I said. “But once they finish searching the labs, they’ll get a sense of what they have available, and they’ll start acting. A set number of supplies for the care of nobles. The rest set aside to gamble with.”
“I suppose it is a gamble,” she said. “Deciding what they can afford to lose, taking their shot with it, the best they can put together, after observing us…”
“Depending on who takes charge over there, it’s going to be a very effective, targeted attack, or they’re going to play it conservative.”
“Conservative would be bad,” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” I said.
I wished I had the binoculars. Instead, I looked over the chasm between our building and the main building of Hackthorn.
“You’re focused a lot on the people in that building and not on the thing that’s putting holes in our headquarters.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Where’s your head at, Sy?”
Where was it? If I’d been dwelling in situational awareness, my thinking in this moment was likely a bit of a swing too far into another kind of thinking.
“Trying to analyze what we’re up against. Thinking, maybe, that if we can deal with them, somehow, we can behead the snake, leave the gossamer whatsit without anyone to give it commands.”
“Might be a tall order, Sy.”
“Yeah,” I said. It was. My dwelling on them was a little bit to do with me just wanting something I could figure out, a little bit to do with me veering too far into the problem solving part of my brain, as I moved away from situational awareness. “How are you managing?”
“I’m tired, Sy. I need and want to sleep, but it’s not the time for it.”
“This is going to take a while to play out. It might be better to rest sooner than later.”
“That goes for you too, you know. You’re worn out.”
I couldn’t deny that.
We stayed there, thinking, me idly tracing my fingers up and down Jessie’s forearm, then down to her fingers, my mind half with her and half with the problems before us.
“The good thing,” I said. “We’ve turned the tables.”
“We’ve turned the tables in a lot of ways, Sy. Turning their students against them is a big one. Turning their Academy against them is another. Which way are you thinking?”
“Well, the way I see it, we either win this one, or we drag them into a tie.”
Jessie considered that one for a moment. She was about to respond when we heard a shout.
“Here!” Jessie called out.
We made our way down the hall until we reached a part with a hole in the ceiling. A student stood on the edge.
“A message from the girl’s dormitory,” the student said. “You said to keep track of the lights?”
“That’d be Mary,” Jessie said to me.
“I remember that much. Lillian’s there too, y’know.”
“Lillian’s going to be managing the countermeasures,” Jessie said.
“I remember that too.”
We met the student at the stairwell, and the guy handed Jessie a folded piece of paper. The flashes were marked out in a pattern of dashes. It mapped to our tap code, and to our system of gestures. I couldn’t remember enough of it to translate it, but Jessie was able to go over the entire thing with a glance, then provide the translation.
“Mary wants to come over. She thinks she can help.”
I glanced at Jessie. It wouldn’t do to talk over her and get caught arguing when things were this tense, so I gestured. Jessie just so happened to gesture at the same time.
Both of us wanted the other to go. I supposed we were going to disagree regardless.
“Lillian’s over there, you can wind down, catch up with her, and you can make good use of the countermeasures, in case they try something. You’ll get a chance to think,” Jessie said, quiet. “If something springs to mind, you can have Lillian or someone pass a message using the code.”
“You need to rest,” I said. “I work well with Mary. We’re not going to get many chances to rest, and we’ll need your brain later, as we keep track of them all.”
Jessie set her lips in a firm line.
“I have some ideas,” I said. I wasn’t wholly sure if I was lying. “Not an actual plan, but the general shape of what we might end up doing, in my head. It depends on a lot, like where the thing goes to sleep, if it goes to sleep, but it’d help if you were over there.”
“And you think you’d be more effective over here?”
“In the center. Not the center-center, not the main building, but closer to where I can communicate with the other buildings and more of our people.”
Jessie nodded slowly. “Okay.”
“I’ll swap places with Mary.”
“Be safe,” I said.
Jessie blew air out of her nose, hard. “Says you.”
“You’re supposed to say something endearing,” I said, “But no, you say that in a tone like you were going to call me numbnuts or a whackadoodle or something.”
“And a hundred other things,” she said. “You’re going to be okay?”
“I’ll manage,” I said.
She put a hand behind my neck and gave me a quick kiss on the lips. Then she sprinted off, leaving me standing in the hallway.
I swallowed hard, my attention turning to the nearest window. I could see the main building, and the dark shapes that were the people and experiments at the windows.
We can do this, I thought. The Academy is ours, we have the resources. We just need to deal with an overly ambitious spiderweb and whatever else they come up with to throw at us.
“You’re a child of the Academy, Sylvester.”
The voice was deep. I’d completely forgotten he was there. I’d forgotten to keep an eye out for him and to keep my eyes and attention one step removed from him. In my fatigue, my thoughts completely elsewhere, I might well have provided the crack he needed to worm his way into my skull.
I set my jaw.
“You,” I said, to the doctor who had brought the message. “Ashton and Professor F. Where?”
“I’ll show you the way,” he said.
I would have liked to have a moment to myself, to think, digest, and see what I could do standalone. I didn’t have it. We walked briskly.
“Tell me what’s going on upstairs. Distract me.”
“It’s not much. My squad is background work. Carting things around, taking turns keeping an eye on the girl’s dorm, in case they flash a message, writing it down. We don’t want to stay too stable or let something slip past us, so we take turns going for walks, checking on all the people we’ve got stowed in the rooms here.”
The people in the rooms. We’d gathered up all the students, faculty, and anyone else in Hackthorn who might not be cooperative, and we’d put them to sleep, collecting them in rooms.
“Sylvester,” the Infante spoke, standing in the doorway of a room with an open door. The buckling of the structure around us had made the door pop open like a cork popped from a wine bottle. The gossamer whatsit had struck the building somewhere upstairs, by the way the ceiling curved.
“What’s the mood like?” I asked the student.
“Not great.” he said.
He didn’t elaborate, and I wanted him to. I wanted his words in my ears and my brain, so the Infante’s would have less room to work.
“Just keep talking. It’s actually more helpful if you make less sense, or say more troublesome things, so go for it.”
“Huh?” he asked.
I waited, hoping he would take the prompt.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s not far,” he said.
He had to be the laconic sort.
“You’re a child of the Academy, Sylvester. You’re ours. You served us, once upon a time, and your heart was in it. That is still a part of you. The better times. When you believed.
The damage to the building was so extensive.
“Did you see any attacks on the girl’s dormitory? Any sign that they were using the distraction of the gossamer whichwhat to slip something past the radar?”
“Mostly quiet. Only movement on the ground, and even then, not a lot. Carting bodies to the main building.”
“Good,” I said. “Anything else?”
I couldn’t even articulate it. That I really wanted him to keep going, to keep talking, because I felt like I was on a precipice. Silly of me, to simply forget my circumstances because the Infante had been holding back and lurking in the depths of my brain. Jessie had asked me if I was going to be okay, and I’d said yes, and there was a good chance I was going to be wrong on that count.
Ashton could engage my brain, keep that wheel turning. Waiting for Mary and finding her would take too long.
“You believed in what we could bring about in the future, Sylvester. Because you recognized that the future is what concerns us most of all. It is, after all, why we so often use children. Our relationship to the future is complicated, and so is how we deal with the most vulnerable of humanity, who have so much potential.
You know you see that. You’ve abused that yourself.
The voice was starting to sound less like the Infante and more like the voice in my own head.
“Oh, fuck,” the student said.
The damage done to the hallway was extensive. This was where the spike had come through, and it was where the strands were worst. Ones I’d cut, that were still anchored at points. The wind blew in through the hole in the wall, making them dance this way and that. Sword slashes minus the sword – just cuts in the air.
“Do you have a gun?” I asked the student.
“Huh? No. I don’t know how to use one. Look, I don’t know what you’re on about, but we’ll have to take the long way around.”
Fatigue and pressure had worn me down. I’d had the Infante with me for a week and change. I’d grown accustomed to that tension and threat that he posed, and both of those things had ramped up just often enough to keep me on that edge. I’d let my guard slip when other things claimed my attention.
I turned to speak to the student, intent on using every iota of body language and tone to convey just how serious I was, so I might tell him that he needed to take certain measures.
I came face to face with the Infante, instead.
His massive hand reached for my face. He seized my head, and all went dark.
I came to, and I hurt all over. I felt warm and cold at the same time. The ambient temperature was different, but I had company close enough that body heat transferred to me.
I was kneeling on the hard ground, and a knee rested against my windpipe. A hand stroked my hair, and a blade touched my cheek.
Mary was sitting on a chair, the seat of which pressed against my shoulderblade. Her leg was resting against my body and throat to keep me upright, her foot in my lap. The blade ensured I wasn’t a threat. The hair thing-
Well, I’d add that to the one hundred things I didn’t know.
“How bad was it?” I asked.
“Your timing could have been better,” Mary said. “You stabbed Ashton.”
I winced. “Is he okay?”
“Gravely offended, but he’ll mend. You let Professor Foss go.”
“I caught him. He’s in the next room.”
“You set fires, Sy. Scared a lot of our people in the process. Because they were at risk, and so were the people we stowed away.”
“You scared me, Sy. Because you said an awful lot of things. Except it wasn’t really you, was it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. My voice was a hush. “What did I say?”
“That our fates were foregone conclusions. That we were as good as dead, with the expiration dates nigh. There were other things. A lot of pain, a lot of rage and sadness. Except we were the enemy, and the actual enemy, you were saying they were the answer.”
I nodded. I felt sick to my stomach. I was so ashamed I wanted to curl up until I was so bound up in myself I could cease functioning.
I’d believed it once, a long time ago. A part of me wanted to believe it again, to abandon the pain and hurt and embrace that time when things had been clearer, simpler, and when the Lambs had been near.
Mary’s fingers combed through my hair.
“I did get the drop on you after all,” she said, her voice light, an attempt at levity.
“Hah,” I said, with no humor at all.
“Is this a thing we’re going to have to be concerned about? That one of our own, with no warning, could flip and do the most destructive, damaging things possible?”
“Is this where we lose you, Sy?”
“How long did it take you to get this bad?”
“A week or so? It’s not like I’ve been good for a few years now.”
“Alright then,” Mary said. The knife moved so it was no longer pressing against one side of my face. “We’ll work around it.”
I turned my head, trying to get a better look at her.
“I should have told you.”
“You do a lot of things you shouldn’t,” Mary said. “I’ve stopped being so surprised.”
“Why aren’t you angrier?” I asked. “You’ve been so angry for so long.”
“We look after each other,” Mary said. “Right? It’s always been how the Lambs were, right from the day I joined. There was always the assumption that we had our weaknesses, and we accepted those. I came to terms with this a long time ago. Shooting me and making me crawl back to the Academy, after you left? That surprised me. It pushed me away. But as long as you’re here, and it’s you being entirely you? I accept that.”
“Me not being me is me being me?” I asked.
“We support and love each other, warts and all,” Mary said, stroking my hair.
“This is a pretty big wart,” I said.
She didn’t respond to that. Her fingers continued moving through my hair, sometimes taking different courses, and it did a lot to calm my thoughts, even as the guilty feeling swelled in my upper chest.
“Come on,” she said. “Stand.”
She stood from the chair, then grabbed me by one armpit, helping me to stand. My hands were bound behind my back.
She didn’t free them, but she didn’t walk me with one hand firmly on my shackles like a Crown officer might walk a convict, either.
It was dark out. Hours had passed. Lights were on throughout our part of the Academy. The exterior buildings, the perimeter wall.
There weren’t many lights on in the main building.
“The gossamer horror?”
“My knives and threads helped, but it only made three strikes before retreating. It settled in for the night.”
Mary pointed into the darkness. Down, in the midst of the city.
“It settled on the main building first, but then lost its hold and drifted down to the ground. It’s guarded now,” she said. “They devoted considerable resources to the task.”
There was an opportunity, I thought. When they were moving to a position where they could guard it, we had a shot. I missed it. I occupied our resources. The Infante did.
“Look at the enemy, Sy,” Mary said, moving her finger to point.
I looked at the main building.
There weren’t many lights on. It was something of a surprise that there were any at all.
We hadn’t left them many candles. We hadn’t left them much of anything. Even the candles on the dining tables had been cut short, the truncated nature of them hidden in waxed paper stems. They were either burning the little candlelight they had, or they’d devised another means, which consumed limited resources.
“Is it working?” I asked.
“The siege is underway,” she said. “Gossamer weapon aside, they’re holding back. Not attacking. They’re waiting for a window of opportunity, if I had to guess.”
“Not ideal,” I observed, despite the lump in my throat. “Any idea what they’re doing for food?”
“I think they’re using the supplies they brought with them. Special feed for experiments going to nobles and Professors instead. Lillian thinks they might be setting up protein farms and ways to get nutrients.”
Our enemy was being conservative, then. It was the safer and more dangerous route of the two Jessie and I had discussed. They’d recognized what we were doing, the noble Starling or whatever his name had been letting them know about the houses. They were counteracting our plan to win by attrition by consolidating and producing resources. It would come down to who broke first, or to who could outlast the other, rather than us trying to fend off their attacks while they withered away.
“We had signals from within. Students lingered behind, and the enemy doesn’t have enough of the story to realize they’re ours. Ferres is wounded. There’s a schism in their ranks, as they try to decide what to do. They tried to use chemicals from the lower labs, but Jessie and Junior swapped labels and containers.”
“Yeah. My suggestion,” I said.
“It injured quite a few and ate through their good resources.”
“Yeah,” I said. This was what we’d wanted. I knew why Mary was showing and telling me this.
This was working. What I’d helped to set in motion was working. I just hoped I was here to see the resolution.
We took their students. We took their Professor, and then their Academy. We’re within arm’s reach of taking every Goddamned thing else there is left to take.
“First, we deal with the Gossamer thing,” I said. “Then we shake them up a bit.”
Mary’s hand stroked my hair.