I’d expected them to strike before dawn, when the city was still dark. They didn’t.
I was left to wonder if they had delayed because of internal strife or if it was because they wanted to run counter to expectations.
The sun was rising but the sky was overcast. Warbeasts and experiments had been led out of the main building and tunnels, and our opposition had gathered every last man they could spare. Some of our own were in their number, pressed into service, trying to be helpful, or actually turning tail and joining the enemy.
“Who’s the one in red again?” Helen asked.
“Lord Carling,” Jessie said.
“He caught my eye too,” I said.
Helen made an amused sound.
The enemy maintained formations as they made their way through the morass of burned buildings and the detritus from the night’s skirmishes. The gossamer thing still stuck close to the main building, holding back while the small army advanced. Lesser creatures were charging forward – squads of very mobile stitched, beasts, and things that looked halfway between man and beast.
Here and there, they ran into trouble. Miss Muffet’s spider, injured already from combat earlier in the evening, was uncovered as it lurked in darkness. Soldiers and stitched raised weapons, on alert, but the six nobles that were taking point didn’t flinch or even glance in that direction.
As if they’d already grasped the situation and decided how it would conclude. Or as if they just didn’t care. As if a spider that could swallow a man whole and then start chowing down on another man without swallowing was a thing that could be ignored.
Beasts and brutish experiments threw themselves at the spider. Webbing and spider spawn laid in the midst of the rubble caught the first of them, snaring and biting at legs and feet. The surge of the Academy’s forces was such that men with the heads of flayed beasts and beasts were able to trample over and on the backs of their kin, to bypass the snares and spawn. They mobbed the great spider, and they dragged it down to the ground.
There were others. People afflicted with parasites, people bloated with gas to the point they threatened to rupture, stitched who’d lost their minds and were fighting anything that drew close, regardless of allegiance…
The Lambs had gathered, and we watched the enemy make their approach. Jessie, Lillian, Helen, Duncan, Mary, Ashton, and Nora were all present. We stood as a group.
“They’re carrying barrels,” Jessie observed, holding binoculars to her eyes. “They might be trying to smoke us out, if they aren’t releasing something custom-made.”
“Do you think they ate?” I asked.
“Ate?” Duncan asked.
“I’m just trying to gauge their mental states, see if I can’t figure out the angle they’ll take. It hasn’t been so long that they’d really feel like the hunger was making them weaker, but it’d make them irritable. Irritable would be good.”
“I don’t imagine hunger is a factor,” Jessie said. “We guessed they might butcher warbeasts for rations. One large warbeast feeds a lot of people.”
“Probably,” I said. “So my next question is, when they decided they’d slaughter one warbeast and serve it as food, did they save the food for the attacking party? Are the people up in the main building going without, feeling the initial pangs of hunger and fatigue as they watch?”
“At this stage, I feel like I have to point out it doesn’t seem like the number one priority,” Duncan said. “But I know I’m leaving myself open to someone telling me how very wrong I am.”
“Nah,” I said. I was very intently peering over the unfolding scene. In a few minutes, the enemy would be at the doors below. “At this stage, it’s not the top priority. But I don’t think we can do much more planning or strategy. I’m thinking ahead a little bit.”
“You’re making me nervous, going on the tangent,” Lillian said. Her hand gripped the chains that shackled me, and I felt a shift in the chains that suggested she was gripping them tighter or pulling them closer to her. “Let’s stay focused.”
“Alright,” I said.
By the looks of it, Carling was leading this particular expedition. Gloria wasn’t far behind him. The other nobles looked to be lesser.
We were near the middle floors of the admin building, peering through a hole in the wall. We were closer to the ground floor floor of the building than to the roof, which meant I had to crane my neck to look up and see the higher floors of the lady of Hackthorn. Countless people were gathered at the windows, peering through to watch proceedings.
I could see the subtle shift in shade where the professors were gathering en masse.
The advancing group’s pace slowed as they drew nearer.
“I see Lambs,” Jessie said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Carling,” she said. “He says he doesn’t see many of our people at the windows.”
“He’s been given remarkably keen eyes,” I said. “And keener intuition. He had a pretty good sense of where we’d be last night. He didn’t use that knowledge, but he was watching us.”
Mary gave me a sidelong glance, clearly unimpressed.
“He was looking in the first place. If we hadn’t been there, he would’ve been able to follow you or cut off your return to Hackthorn.”
“I didn’t say anything,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “Carling’s intel is probably why they haven’t sent the gossamer thing to go get another drink. They figured out what we were doing.”
It’s not the first time he’s positioned himself well to collect information and be right on top of what we were doing. He realized the houses had been stripped within the first quarter-hour of our attack beginning.
“End result’s the same, isn’t it?” Mary asked. “It only gets a few more attacks in before wearing down.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” I said.
Carling’s group stopped in their tracks, a short distance from the admin building. Stray warbeasts and experiments caught up with their group, many bloodied from the encounter with the spider and other stray experiments.
“What would you say, then?” Mary asked. She sounded nettled.
“That the journey is the same, or the progression is. But it’s their move, their decision on the end result.”
“Cryptic,” Duncan said.
Mary was the one who spoke, “What Sy is saying is if it died like we wanted it to die, it’d spend the last of its strength without them fully realizing what had happened. Panic, paranoia, wondering about gasses that affect sensitive systems, parasites, they’d wonder about the resources at our disposal. That’s no longer the case. If they had any ideas about preserving the thing for the future, they’re gone now. They’re free to use every last bit of strength it can bring to bear, destroying it in the process.”
“Carling is remarking to the others that this feels a great deal like a trap. That we’re baiting him.”
“We are,” Ashton said. “Obviously we are.”
“Shh,” I said. “Let’s not discount the possibility that the noble huntsman there can also read lips.”
What do you have up your sleeves, there?
The Lady Gloria was observing the stitched who were hauling the barrels. They were made of sturdy material that wasn’t metal. Possibly bone, possibly painted or coated wood. The barrels were being gathered, stacked in piles.
“They’re standing a set distance away,” Jessie said. “Look at that. Just beyond the point our fire arrows reached. It’s calculated.”
“A man after your own heart, Jess?” I asked.
Jessie tilted her head my way and rolled her eyes.
“We have guns, they have to know we have guns.”
“Guns are inaccurate at a tenth this distance, even if the range on modern rifles might be superior” Jessie said. “Unless we’re talking Mauer’s special guns, and we don’t have any of those.”
“I could have got some if you’d reminded me,” Helen said.
“Lessons learned,” I said. I studied them for a moment, then added, “They’re plotting their first move.”
“Is this one of those situations where the person who makes the first move loses the initiative?” Duncan asked. “Because I gotta say, we’ve got cards to play. Holding them back because we’re concerned about the counter-play might mean we don’t ever get to play ’em.”
“I agree,” Mary said.
“You guys are bores,” I remarked.
“Nora? Would you?” Mary asked.
“Which?” Nora asked.
The words were barely out of Mary’s mouth when the crash occurred at the leftmost end of the admin building. Every head on the ground turned to look.
What we’d set up overnight to look like boards shoring up a hole in the wall was… akin to a dam. Emmett had just breached it.
No water fell, no billowing smoke. There was no rain of spiders or parasites.
“Hoy!” I raised my voice, bellowing.
I wanted their attention. Some of the nobles could hear me, but they were halfway occupied with surveying the scene, trying to get a better idea of what was happening.
To all appearances, we’d shattered a wall of wooden planks. Keen eyes would see that the space beyond was simply more wood, an empty box.
“Carling!” I called out, pushing my voice to its limits. My throat was raw from shouting I didn’t remember doing. “Gloria! It’s a joke!”
“It’s not a joke,” Jessie said, translating what seemed to be Lady Gloria’s words. She was backing up swiftly, barking out orders. She flung her hands to either side of her as she gestured with the same efficacy that another person might swing a sword. She was likely as dangerous, not that the elaborate white dress and elbow-length gloves conveyed that impression. “Get back. Get back. Get to higher ground.”
Jessie didn’t normally speak in a monotone, but she did here, and it made for a curious juxtaposition with the scene.
They were retreating, backing off. They moved to rooftops and the skeletal remains of burned buildings, but some soldiers, some beasts, and some stitched were slow to move.
A small few of that ‘some’ reacted with pain. They stopped, dropped, and thrashed.
“Don’t fall,” Jessie translated Gloria’s words.
We’d released a volume of gas coupled with a few treats we’d suspended in the mixture. Naked to the eye, the gas hung close to the ground, pulled by gravity and displacing air.
Junior had led the team that had come up with this, but the idea belonged to a grey coat that had lost their standing and ability to keep progressing when they’d been deemed too tame, too averse to combat. They’d been a specialist in sterilization methods.
This was the specialist’s answer. A rebuke of the people that had stopped them from getting their black coat. It was sterilization, microscopic fibrils floating through the gas, binding to cell walls, be it bacteria, skin, or eye.
They quickly induced cell death.
The idea had been to eradicate bacteria, then remove lingering fibrils. They’d never gotten that far.
Now, well, we could remove fibrils, but for now it hurt like nothing else, and it made flesh break out in rashes, ruptured veins, and then the flesh would turn black and wither away.
Some of the warbeasts were succumbing. Some were already bleeding from more sensitive tissues, like the nose, ears, eyes, and softer flesh on the arms and legs.
It didn’t look like we’d caught any of ours. They hadn’t thought to bring hostages or anything like it, if the students who’d stayed behind in the main hall were even suitable as such.
All six nobles had found places to roost. They stood on chimneys and sat on rooftops. Gloria had chosen to stand on a pillar of wood from a burned building.
Even the army and beasts that accompanied the nobles had mostly found places to go.
Carling turned, then raised a hand high overhead. He dropped it until it was pointed our way.
There was scarcely a delay before the gossamer creature pulled away from the main building. It was only a fraction slower than we’d seen it before, but that fraction applied to all of the strands. With the way it moved, attaching, anchoring, and reeling in to the point closest to its destination, it began to take on an image of a small animal on ice, trying and failing to get traction. Not all of the tendrils that should’ve been forming anchors were doing so.
“Aww,” Helen said. “It’s hurting.”
“I can’t begin to imagine it has anything resembling nerves,” Duncan said.
“But it’s hurting,” Helen said.
“Let’s not anthropomorphize it,” Duncan said. “Are we just taking this hit?”
“Probably,” Jessie said.
“If it was a person it would be limping,” Ashton said.
“Please stop sympathizing with the superweapon,” Duncan said.
“Abby’s saying that it’s suffering,” Nora said.
It needs to eat, drink, and rest. We disturbed its rest, we denied it the opportunity to rehydrate, and now it’s slower.
It was still terrifying. Powerful, hard to wrap my head around.
The thing drew closer, beginning to form its spike.
Carling was standing there on a chimney, watching us.
What’s your move?
We had a series of traps arranged. A dozen countermeasures, lined up and ready. They wanted to reach a window or a door, they wanted to get inside, and then they could start doing untold damage.
He was playing a game with us, trying to stay a step ahead, to anticipate. He knew that the countermeasures wouldn’t stop with the gas.
Come on, I thought. Come on.
Carling spoke, dropping to one knee, and his position atop the chimney would have been precarious if it wasn’t for his physical prowess. His hands worked on his slacks. Tucking them into his boots.
“He said to stay. He’s acting alone,” Jessie translated.
The noble cinched the straps on his boots tight. The gossamer thing drew nearer. It was already setting anchors in place.
I wondered if it had the mental faculties to remember its prior attacks. It felt faster on the uptake than it had been before, even as it struggled to anchor itself here and there.
“Gloria’s saying-” Jessie started. “The hazard is…”
“Is?” Nora asked.
But there was no telling. Lady Gloria had raised a hand to her mouth. No more lipreading was possible until she moved it.
“The hazard is already clearing up,” I guessed.
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
The statement meant that Lord Carling was more or less free to move. He dropped from the chimney, and moved with surprising speed as he headed toward the barrels they’d brought.
“Release the stray warbeasts,” Mary said. “Yes? Even with the gas-”
“Yes,” Jessie said.
“Told them,” Nora said.
Carling reached the barrels, seizing the upper rim in his hands.
Stepping forward, he twisted his upper body around, then swung the barrel. He released it three-quarters of the way through the swing, and the barrel sailed our way.
I didn’t see where it hit, but I heard glass break, just a couple of floors down. It had penetrated a window.
“We’re going to find out what that is, I suppose,” I said.
“Bastard of ten bitches. That had to be a sixth story window,” Duncan said.
He managed to hurl another before our second play came into effect. Warbeasts. They were minor, all things considered, scarcely more than attack dogs with extra mass and ruffs of quills and spines extending down their backs, cresting at the shoulders.
There were no special tricks, no poisons on the quills, no hidden benefits to using the dogs. They’d been something we’d been able to prepare in the short time we’d had, and they now unwittingly attacked a target that they had virtually no chance against.
They were, in this moment, little more than obstacles that made Carling take just a little bit longer before he could throw another barrel.
Mary broke away from the group, running. Knives fell from Mary’s sleeves, dangling on wire. She began spinning them around, wire and knife forming a circular blur. She turned on her heel, “Nora!”
Helen went with her, not looking even half as dangerous.
We collectively worked without needing to communicate in too much detail. We were at the pivoting point. We’d scarcely communicated who would do what, but we knew each other well enough to know who should handle what.
Duncan ran, one hand on Ashton’s shoulder, steering him. Jessie followed behind, lagging, her eye on what was going on outside.
Lillian pulled slightly on the chain. She wanted to go in the direction Mary had.
Carling was using the barrel to bludgeon the spike-dogs. They bit for him and he was quicker. They bit for the barrel, and with its weight, it was slower.
He unslung his axe from behind him, then in short order cut down the full pack of spike-dogs, one hand still on a barrel that was being jerked and tugged by the two hundred pound lesser warbeast.
Slamming the weapon down into the body of a spike dog that lay in arm’s reach, he returned to a two handed grip on the barrel. He heaved it around and threw it.
A different corner of the building this time, again punching through a window.
This time, it coincided almost perfectly with the terrible noise of the spike grinding and scraping its way through the building, crushing wood and cleaving through stone, impaling the building.
Like Jessie was for Duncan and Ashton, Lillian and I were support for Mary and Helen. We weren’t in fighting shape, there wasn’t much for us to do, with me having my hands behind my back and Lillian being not fantastically equipped for a fight.
The spike dissolved into strands, and Mary cut, throwing knives and having them cut through the air, using the razor wire here and there to control the movements of the strands more than to cut or harm them.
Helen was simply reaching up and batting at strands with her hands, moving in jerky, offbeat ways that let her move through the worst of the clouds.
Here and there, the strands of the great gossamer creature would cut at Helen’s hair or at some extraneous bit of lace or ribbon on Mary’s dress.
Helen wasn’t immune to being cut, but she had some protections. She gathered the strands into clusters.
Carling attacked yet again. Another broken window.
He was spacing them out. The last one had been close to the middle of the building, which was also very close to where we were. Had he seen us with that keen eyesight, Carling would have known that a good offensive measure would be best placed hereabouts.
“Let’s go see what that is,” I said.
“We’ll be close!” I called out.
It wasn’t far. Lillian gripped the chain, as if she thought I was going to snap and run away. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t about to – that I was sixty percent sure that my inner Infante wouldn’t act if he didn’t think he could do something.
But there was something equitable in that I was bound and at Lillian’s mercy, at least in part.
Lillian pushed a set of doors open, and I saw the scant light moving over the shards of glass from the broken window. The barrel had come to rest here too; both the top and bottom ends had been designed to come off on impact.
One gaunt figure had already come forth and stood, where he or she had been contorted within. Another was crawling out. They were crimson, their flesh more like something coagulated and hardened, blood clots in crude humanoid form, and they barely looked ambulatory.
But they were crusted with growths. More of the growths crusted the inner walls of the barrel.
It looked like a hive, and a swarm of insects as red as the blood clot ambulatory hosts were spreading through the air. They crawled in and out of the hives and crevices in the hosts.
Lillian and I stared at the scene, then reversed course. We slammed the door shut behind us.
“Okay, no,” Lillian said. “Nothing we can do about that for now.”
“No gas? No drugs or countermeasures?”
“Not like this,” she said.
We headed back to the others. Lillian’s hand slid down from the chain to my hand, clutching it.
I squeezed back, for reassurance, for whatever else.
The spike plunged into the building again. Somewhere close. Lillian and I had to stop while the building rumbled, settling in the aftermath of the architectural violence.
Okay, I thought.
We hurried in the direction of the attack. We found Mary and Helen there, still cutting, still collecting. Collected strands were gathered together with curtains torn from hangers, bundled together like sheafs of grain. Helen heaved one over her shoulder, backing away as Mary redoubled her efforts, damaging the creature as much as possible while it withdrew.
“Bugs,” I said. “Probably parasites.”
“They know Sy’s here, so if they’re using parasites, it’s probably something nasty he’s not going to be so resistant to,” Lillian said.
“Telling them,” Nora said.
Mary and I glanced out the window at the same time. Her eye was on the gossamer creature. Mine was with a mind for Carling, who was retreating some while the other nobles and experiments advanced.
He was gone.
We were caught up enough in watching out for the enemy that the other Lambs caught up with us more than we caught up with them. They’d collected the young ones. Abby, Bo Peep, Lara, and Emmett.
“Ready?” Jessie asked.
Duncan already had the first cloth tunnel, and he knew how to mount it at the window. Ashton, inexplicably, also knew. I wondered if he’d read all of the safety manuals. It seemed like his thing, since he had a way of reveling in what others found interminably boring.
The tunnel was placed at the window, then allowed to unfurl. It extended down to the ground.
“Feet out to the sides,” Ashton said. “Use them to slow yourself down.”
One by one, Lamb and neo-Lamb made their way down.
As strategies went, it wasn’t intuitive, but it wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been a touch unintuitive. We abandoned the admin building and those who still remained within.
We placed ourselves on the ground level of the city, against the best this crop of lesser nobles could provide.
Helen was one of the last to descend, and she didn’t use the inside of the tube, instead sliding along the outside. She gestured firmly for us to go.
This came down to strategy and head games, anticipating what Gloria or Carling might try, and getting ahead of that. It had been a part of the plan since we’d needed to come up with a new way of doing things, after Ferres had spoiled the timing.
Carling had seen all of the Lambs together, he’d seen how and where we’d staged attacks and he’d inferred where we were setting up and taking action. Faced with that information, he’d elected to do the cowardly thing; he was organizing his troops into attacking a different section of the academy. The Girls’ dorm, the Boys’ dorm, restoring peace at the harbor-
This was the real danger, the point where our most vulnerable were at the most risk, faced with the enemy’s most dangerous.
It mandated special attention, personal involvement.
The shackles clanked and bounced behind me as I ran, the Lambs all around me.
Behind us, Helen triggered the traps, securing the admin building in a way that would bar the enemy, slow them down. Strands of the creature filled the air all around her, glistening dangerously in the rays of light that cut through the overcast atmosphere. A distant rumbling sound got quieter and quieter still, and only because we were moving away from it. Had we been close, we might have been able to shape some of it.
Instead, the builder’s wood began to raise an almost inverse portcullis, ground to sky.
Would that man with the keen eyesight see it? Would paranoia win out on his side? Would he attack one of the dormitories and do grievous harm to the rebels within?
There were other nobles, any of which could have struck out on their own or broken from pattern.
“Enemies are close,” Helen murmured.
Everyone present drew their weapons, with the exception of the little ones, Lillian and myself.
By retreating, they’d wanted to bait us out. They’d succeeded. We were out of the building.
Jessie had led us up a gentle slope, and now that we were there, we had a better view of everything around us. Hands went up, gesturing, marking the forces that were surrounding us.
Other gestures were to draw attention to the admin building. Our departure point, we’d barred the path by littering the area with Helen’s rain of cutting strands, we’d sealed gates, trapped the scattered few within inside.
Carling was circling back now. He’d drawn us out, and now sought to claim a critical territory, the admin building we’d taken special measures for. He wanted the supplies, medical resources, accommodations, everything they might want or need in order to weather this siege. He moved faster than us, and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
When the smallest of us were entirely out of breath and those of us who could carry could carry them no longer, we stopped.
There wasn’t a full minute’s respite before there was another message.
Explosions, one after another.
The remaining bridges fell much as the one between the main building and the admin building had.
The explosions continued to rattle the city, which wasn’t large. An explosion on one side of the city made windows rattle in their frames until they cracked, on the other side.
It seemed to go on for an hour, when it might have only been five minutes.
The face of the admin building was damaged, but already, the damage was repairing. Further up, the edge of the roof was cracked, and material was flowing out, down the face of the building.
It was the cosmetic side of Hackthorn, weaponized. The builder’s wood and the seeds with accelerated growth for the hanging gardens now cascaded down the front of the building, caught by flowerbeds and windowsills, settling between shingles and in gutters.
Even the creatures that surrounded us were pausing to take it all in, to watch the wood grow moment by moment, curling, twisting, and forming elaborate shapes.
The trap had been sprung. Assuming they’d been caught, in whole or in part, and that they hadn’t sprung it prematurely out of sheer guile, they would still get free eventually. But if we’d captured some, most, or all, then we had them. The siege was a few steps from being won.
But the biggest part, the part that satisfied so thoroughly, was that, barring a terminal wrinkle in this plan, our targets having wholly slipped the net, we were right back to what we’d originally planned – our enemy divided.
As for the conquered part of that…
I glanced at the Infante.
We were pretty sure the Lambs were ready.