Soldiers in gas masks aimed guns at us as we approached at a run. They were wary, doubly so with the tide of experiments and stitched that were marching out of Radham.
Duncan raised his arm, signaling.
“Let them pass!” the leader of the squad called out, his voice muffled.
I was only able to steal a glance at the man. His face was hidden by a mask, a tube running to a bladder at his side, his coat long and heavy enough that it hid most of the little tells of his posture and form. I could see his eyes, however. I could see the glare.
Complete and utter hatred.
I heard the questions. I heard the concern, too, amid the grinding of stone on stone, wood on wood. But what I was particularly cognizant of was a deeper, more distant sound. It was a sound that carried beneath everything else, the dull volcanic roar of organic processes, something fitting for the flow of fluids through an impossibly large tree, the creak of massive muscles hauling themselves into motion, or air moving through great tunnels.
The soldiers were of little consequence. The leader who we’d poisoned, blackmailed or otherwise forced to serve us could hate us all he wanted. I’d repressed enough anger and spite for them and their like over the years that they’d have to work for a few months or years more before they’d drawn equal.
We left them to try and break into a sub tunnel that had been revealed by the collapse of the wall and the fact that the city was showing hints of its guts as it rose. They were ordering stitched to batter at the locked grate that secured it.
Our path was up the wall. It had crumbled in a spot, helped by the shifting city dragging and pressing against the one side of it, and the ragged sides of the damaged portion formed a vaguely staircase-shaped ascent, albeit one of crumbling stone and splinters of wood as long as I was tall.
Water ran down the sides of the wall and the foot of the city that was ever-rising upward. Gas flowed down through the crack in the wall, and it combined with the moisture and the lenses we wore to make visibility miserable.
We started climbing.
Each meter we climbed was another meter of steep fall that plunged to our left. Meanwhile, there was a steep wall to our right, the earth that had been subterranean before it had started rising. As we climbed, the wall to our right did too, slower to rise than we were, even as we were slowed by tricky bits in the ascent. Water poured over us and ran down the side of the wall to our right and over the broken bits underfoot, threatening to wash us over the side.
I heard a crunch. I turned to look, and saw that Lillian had drawn a knife, stabbing the wall to our right.
It cracked like an eggshell, but the fragments that broke away from it were reminiscent of seashell, dark and earthlike on the one side, pearlescent on the inside. The earth on the other side spilled forth from the crack, dry and bound together with fibrous root structures. Then the water hit it, and it wasn’t dry anymore. The wound bled mud, thick and sludgy.
I had to look to check who the speaker was, with our masks muffling the sound. Mary.
Lillian replied, “I think so. It looked like calcium carbonate, but I was wondering at its thickness.”
“Why?” Ashton asked.
“Well, this isn’t sturdy. That tells me things. It’s not meant to do much more than separate the part of soil that’s going up from the soil and material that isn’t,” Lillian said. “This isn’t meant to go back to the way it was.”
A more permanent state of affairs?
Far below us, I could hear screaming. The entire group paused, listening, as two sides went to war.
We had a full-fledged army, but only a segment of it was equipped to operate where the air was toxic. We had the advantage of being on the offensive, Hayle on his heels, but all put together, the forces were fairly evenly matched.
I was in the lead. I pushed at a bit of rubble that wobbled at my touch and sent it careening over the edge. We were ten or so meters above the ground. Thirty feet. Five turns of head over heel before we crunched hard and wet against the grass and hard earth below. There was still a ways to go, going by the building tops I could see above us.
“It’s also not about to hold much weight, standalone There might be some infrastructure that helps hold everything together, but this isn’t Radham as a… I don’t know. Think of Besserham.”
“I don’t know Besserham,” I said.
“We’ve been to Besserham, Sy,” Lillian said. “During the hunt for Fray?”
“Drawing a blank.”
“The Academy itself, which I’ll stress was really very small, was situated on the back of a giant turtle-crab-squid chimera,” Mary said. “It’s kind of memorable.”
“Point is,” Lillian said, “Radham isn’t going anywhere. It’s not a giant crab.”
“Good to know,” I said, relieved we weren’t dwelling on my memories anymore. “That’s too bad.”
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
“It’s too bad on a lot of levels,” I mused aloud. I had to stop as I pondered a part of the crumbled wall that was tricky to climb. I looked up at the rising wall to my right, and judged it was too problematic to try and hold onto it and let it carry me up. I saw Mary squeeze past Ashton and Lillian.
At the rear of the group, Helen was electing to scale the wall on her own. At the very rear, Jessie’s stitched was ambling very slowly along what was a very narrow path for a large creature. Duncan’s attention was on giving it direction.
I knew why Mary was approaching. She’d seen this part coming up, and she knew how we operated.
“It might collapse,” I said. “So be careful.”
“I know,” Mary said.
I moved without needing to check that Mary was in position, or that she was doing what I wanted her to do. I knew. Mary was Mary, and when the phantoms were gone and the Lambs just a touch more of a mystery to me, I could still trust things like this. Steps in the dance.
I started the climb up a jagged rise that sloped more up and toward me than up and away. Mary supplied a boost, and then she stuck her hand up for my foot to rest on as I shifted my handhold for the most troublesome spot. I climbed over the lip. Mary followed me up, then turned to help the others.
The shelf of city continued its slow, groaning rise.
We were only partway up the wall, but here, at least, I could walk up the rest of the crumbled slope of wall and step onto the street of the city proper. Helen joined me, standing beside me.
Three gods to slay, the voice reminded me.
Houses had windows shuttered and doors locked. Water streamed down around us, into and overflowing from gutters. Where the ground sloped, the water ran in that direction. Areas were flooding.
Now that we weren’t climbing, I could feel the slow shift of the ground beneath us. I could hear the dull organic creak, the distant screams and gunfire as a battle unfolded on the ground, and now and again, I could hear the distant movements of things in the gas and the downpour.
Sub Rosa sat on a wagon at the end of the street, the rain soaking her. She was the young lady with too many clothes when I looked away, but when my eyes were on her, she was the monster.
This was very much her realm, it seemed.
I could see the Primordial. I could see Dog and Catcher, and Percy, and I could see the Snake Charmer.
“It’s nostalgic, isn’t it?” Helen asked.
I turned my head, giving her my best curious look. She wouldn’t be referring to the old denizens of Radham, I was reasonably sure.
“Home,” she said. “Except it’s not warm home, it’s not orphanage, sitting-by-the-fire home, while Fran and the other orphans huddle close and lean in close to tell me they managed to sneak another biscuit for the evening tea.”
“It’s cold, wet, angry appointment-time home?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Helen said. “It’s middle-of-an-investigation, people-are-screaming home. Like the old days, when we worked more closely with the Academy and did less roaming.”
“I stopped thinking of Radham as home a long time ago,” I said.
“That’s because you’re adaptable,” Duncan said, with his air of authority, as he and the others joined us. “Wyvern makes it easy for you to transition between lines of thought and perspective. You can leave this behind with ease.”
“It wasn’t easy,” I said. I glanced in Lillian’s direction, then turned my head to make sure Jessie was still with us.
“There were a lot of good things here, Sy,” Lillian said. “Good, warm moments.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s still hard to twist even my perceptions around into something that can call this place home, and I’m trying to be gentle with my brain. I’m standing here, watching this city twist itself into something else, I see Jessie like that, and I feel like the Lambs as a whole are never going to have those moments again. I’ve wanted them so badly, but they might well be gone.”
“Let’s not rule anything out,” Mary said.
“Yeah,” I said. I might’ve argued, but I didn’t want to lose an argument when I felt this heartsick, and I definitely didn’t want to win this argument either. “Yeah, alright.”
“The Academy felt like home to me,” Lillian said. “The Orphanage too, in a way. But that’s more because you all were there.”
“Now that’s a sentiment I can get behind,” I said.
“I agree,” Mary said.
“But my point is,” Helen said, with emphasis, “This is still nostalgic. It makes me think of the old days, when we were smaller, the monsters all seemed bigger and harder to figure out…”
“I can get behind that sentiment too,” I said.
“Very much so,” Lillian said.
“Not me,” Ashton said. “I wasn’t born or grown yet.”
“Not me either, bud,” Duncan said. “But it makes me think of that fall, back in the day. The moment with all the blood-”
“Hee,” Helen made a sound.
“-when I very quickly went from thinking I’d lucked out, getting invited to the Lambs, to realizing just how out of my depth I was. Mary and Helen doing their individual things very, very well.”
“Lonely days, being without the others,” Mary said. “But I always wanted to be a teacher, and it was fun to… educate him?”
“Bring him up to speed,” Helen offered.
“Bringing me up to speed? Only insofar as hanging someone at the gallows is letting them down easy,” Duncan said.
Helen made another amused sound, giving Duncan a pat on the side of his mask, where his cheek would be.
Mary started to say something, then interrupted herself, reacting to something I hadn’t seen, raising a gun and firing into the mist. The gunshot echoed through the empty city streets.
The echo took a while to die. I could hear the other gunshots far below us over the war-drum beat of rain and the groaning of the city. I wondered if they’d heard our gunshot and if they were thinking what was happening up here in the same way I was about how they were faring.
“Did you miss?” Ashton asked.
“Shush,” Mary said. “I’m… fifty percent sure I saw something there.”
“I’m almost one hundred percent sure you missed it if it was there, and you definitely missed it if it wasn’t there,” Ashton said.
“Good Simon wouldn’t dwell on the failures of others,” Mary said, sounding more like herself as she hardened her voice.
“I wouldn’t be embarrassed, Mary,” I said.
“Drop dead, Sy.”
“No really, it’s fine. If there had been something there and you’d killed it, it would have been inspired. Just beautiful. It was worth the gamble.”
“I’m not you, Sy. I’m not satisfied if I pull off five reckless plans and one works out magnificently.”
I chuckled. I heard her cock her revolver again, and I made myself stop.
“Um,” Ashton said.
“Oh, I brought up Good Simon, so now I get lectured,” Mary said.
“He does dwell on failures in book fifteen, he learns how mistakes teach us lessons, and there’s also a bit where he learns how the weak get culled, but that’s Academy propaganda again,” Ashton said. “But please, Mary. I’m old enough that I’ve grown out of those books now.”
“Oh, are you now?” Mary asked. She held her gun out, her focus on the interplay of light and shadow in the gas.
“No, not really, I suppose,” Ashton said. “I go back to them when I don’t know what else to do with my evenings. But a little bit.”
“Telling lies isn’t what Good Simon would do, Ashton,” I said.
“Pot and kettle, Sy,” Ashton said.
There were noises from further down the street.
“Has everyone caught their breath?” I asked. “You have your sea legs?”
“Sea legs?” Duncan asked.
As if to answer him, the landscape shifted, the dull organic sound yawning loud in its intensity, before easing again. The rainwater on the streets shifted, now flowing from northwest to southeast, instead of east to west.
Mary wanted to tease me about timing and taking those gambles. But it was moments like this, where I made someone walk into a moment like that, which made it entirely worth it.
“Ah, sea legs,” Duncan said. “Yes, I’ve caught my breath.”
There were more murmurs of agreement.
“How about you, Jessie?” I asked. “You’re awfully quiet.”
“Good,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I drew my pistol and my knife. Lillian and Duncan had their rifles that they wore from being dressed as soldiers, slung over their shoulders. Those rifles were locked and loaded, bayonets had covers removed, were flipped forward, and locked into place.
For a minute, we hurried down the roads without event.
With the shadows, gas, and rain being what they were, there was no way to tell just what rounded the corner. Low to the ground, almost fluid, it surged toward us. Black and wet.
The only sound was Duncan’s bark to the stitched that carried Jessie. We ran. The streets were almost familiar, but it was a familiarity in sentiment for me, a familiarity in the feel of the city, even though it was now a city shattered like a mirror was broken, each individual piece at a different height from its neighbors.
The attacker was attackers, plural. A swarm, united and gathered together. I saw hints in their form that suggested something like black beetles, something like rats, and something like eels. They crashed into a wagon that had been parked by the side of the street once, and perhaps a quarter of their number remained behind, clinging to it.
The rest came after us.
My thoughts were on finding a good, fast way to get to higher ground when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a warbeast. It was reptilian and slick, covered in mucous.
We barely slowed down, emptying our guns into the thing as we ran in its direction. It was still crumpling to the ground as we reached it and ran past it.
Mary used the fallen lizard as a stepping stone, leaping from the peak of its shoulders to a rooftop a few feet away. One by one, with me lingering behind, providing the occasional boost or supporting hand as crates or wagons were used as points to climb, with Mary seizing hands and hauling people up, we ascended to higher ground while keeping our distance.
The stitched was second to last. It was strong enough to do it on its own, but it needed guidance.
It was only after I was up that I deemed myself free to look. The swarm approached and flowed past us. It moved with an eerie care; at no point did it venture within a handspan of any of the houses. It was as if there was an invisible wall keeping it from venturing too close to any of the residences.
Shutters to close out the gas, doors sealed, and there would be cloths to be taped up within the building interiors and around the doors, to better secure the seals.
A wagon far behind us was hauled down by the tide of swarming things.
“Harvesters,” Duncan said. Lillian nodded.
“Lillian mentioned those once,” Mary said.
“Old project, revived in an attempt to see if they would counteract the Ravage,” Lillian said. “Eat the red flowers and vines. Didn’t work.”
The swarm we’d crossed paths with wasn’t the only one. As we used the rooftops to navigate the city, we saw several sweeps of the things. Horses had toppled to the ground and lay with ribs spearing skyward, the flesh eaten and bones in the process of being devoured.
Trees were forbidden in the same way buildings were, as were crops, but gardens and lawns were devoured, the swarms sloshing and stirring up froth in mud that was more water than dirt.
The color in Radham was slowly leeched away. Painted signs set in front of stores were open game, crumpling to the ground as they were devoured feet first, the stores left alone. A cat yowled in the distance as the swarm surrounded and caught it.
“This isn’t the superweapon, is it?” I asked. “The swarm?”
“The harvesters are one minor project among many,” Lillian said. “One that apparently got loose.”
The section of city shifted, sloping to one side as one end of it rose higher than the other.
Zig-zagging across the city, minimizing contact with the ground, gunning down any threats, we reached one of the key buildings we’d been hunting for, easier to find because of how obscured it was, hidden in the thick soup of gas.
Round, stone, and reinforced, it had a row of squat chimneys along one side. It wasn’t plumes of seeding chemicals for the clouds overhead that flowed from it, but the thick clouds of gas that made visibility so limited.
Gunshots sounded from the midst of the gas production building. Some of the soldiers of Radham were congregating around it. Perhaps a hundred, but exact estimates were harder than usual with the gas cloud being what it was. Their attitude and loose organization suggested they were preparing more than they were fighting, as if they harbored the expectation that their time to fight would be in a little while.
More of the wall had crumbled, I saw. Some soldiers were perched at the edge, near where the wall wasn’t barring their view, and they were taking potshots with rifles.
They weren’t anticipating trouble, so it wasn’t too hard to find the holes in their perimeter. Getting in was easy.
Getting in, stopping that facility from producing the gas that was keeping eighty or ninety percent of our army from approaching this end of the battlefield, and getting out… well, that was the problem.
I could see the figures in the mist. Sub Rosa- she reveled in this environment. I saw the snake charmer, and I saw Fray’s bird-lady helper, Avis. All wore gas masks. The gas rose and fell as the chimneys dumped noxious chemicals into the air, so each figure was alternately silhouette, there in desaturated grey and black, and gone, disappearing from view as gas obscured them, then appearing elsewhere.
Briefly wondering what they were intent on communicating to me, I shifted my focus. I wasn’t alone with Jessie and the phantoms. I wasn’t aimless, I wasn’t hollow.
I was as close to ‘home’ as I would be for a while. I had the Lambs with me.
I could think something, I could gesture with one hand, and they would support me.
Even if it was moral support, like Jessie’s.
I stay, Lillian gestured. She indicated Jessie.
The rest of us navigated the gap in the defenses. I eased the door open, then slipped inside.
“Hm?” was the questioning sound from within.
A team of six humanoids was managing the mixture of chemicals for the steady production of gas. Lenses like those of quarantine masks were set directly into their eye sockets, rimmed with scar tissue, and their lower faces were was sunken and chinless. Fleshy ruins with four evenly spaced tubes running into them. The tubes looked more for oxygen than anything else. They were shirtless, but had jackets tied around their waists, and four of them were managing one large bucket, tipping the contents into a small opening in a large glass vat.
The room was hot, and it was humid in the worst way. It was hard to breathe through the filtration masks like this. My bladder, largely quiet up to now, was starting to wheeze just being in here.
They made sucking sounds as they drank in air, staring at us with the tinted lens eyes.
“You’re done,” Duncan said, his voice firm. “No more catalyst.”
I worried people outside would hear. Nervous, I looked around. I saw the Devil and I startled at the sight of him. I reminded myself he wasn’t real, and tried to focus.
I gestured, indicating the chimneys. They worked as an escape route.
Mary gestured. Three teams. Far.
Three squads of soldiers on the other side. Mary began outlining where, suggested the one closest to the building might circle around to the front door or south window of the building.
From chimney to roof? I gestured. Then down?
The four with the bucket, having considered Duncan’s order, ceased tipping the contents out.
“Get the counteragent,” Duncan said, authoritative. “Pour it in. That should stop the reaction, which means no more gas. Then take the catalyst, and pour it out onto the floor. All of it. Understand?”
There was a long pause.
Then nods. They set the bucket down on the catwalk above the vats.
It was done. With the gas gone, brute force would serve for retaking the south end. The sticks, the scattered warehouses and storerooms. It was the furthest point from the Academy, but it was a staging ground, an in.
Hayle was going to realize this facility wasn’t producing gas. He’d act. Whatever Radham was doing or transitioning into, Hayle would pull out the stops on realizing the danger.
Duncan and I set to closing the chutes that fed the gas from the boiling vat to the chimneys. I climbed inside and climbed through and out, Mary right behind me. It was a squeeze to get past the rain-cover on the chimney.
Everything was so dark. The clouds overhead, the pouring rain, the gas absorbing the little light that remained.
I drew my lockpick tools from my pocket and set to working on the rain-cover.
Helen was next to slither out, doing so as I removed the last bit of the rain cover. Ashton followed. Duncan was last. Removing the cover had been largely for him.
Sabotage done, Duncan signaled. And thank you.
I gave him a singular nod.
The gas would start thinning sooner or later. When it did, visibility would increase, and if we weren’t gone and away by the time it did, we’d be surrounded by enemies.
As it was, we perched on the rooftop, in the shadows and obfuscation the chimneys and gas still provided. When Mary, Helen and I moved, we went in opposite directions, covering different corners, checking the lay of the land.
I heard a scuffing sound, and I drew my knife, turning.
Avis. She wore a gas mask like a Doctor’s, beaked, and a robe that concealed her wings when they were furled. She was trying to scare me like the Devil had.
Whatever message you have for me, you might as well spit it out. That’s your role in my head, isn’t it?
But you won’t, because my head doesn’t always cooperate with me.
I heard the faint cocking of a gun at the same time I felt the metal at my throat.
Raising my hands, I turned slowly, still on my knees.
Avis stood on one foot, a talon at my throat.
The remainder of the Lambs were scattered around the rooftop. Mary had her gun drawn. Helen looked ready to pounce, but was too far away to do it in any effective way.
Avis was real.
Fray had to be here. In Radham.
The moment stretched on. The gas was gradually getting thinner.
“Can we talk?” I asked. “Can we do this properly?”
She was silent, grim.
“I know you don’t want to get blood on your… talons, without the benefit of a drug to cloud your head and divest you of responsibility,” I murmured, very aware of how many soldiers were nearby. “Can we do without the play acting?”
She nodded slowly.
“Appreciated,” I whispered.
Slowly, she lowered her foot. She backed away a few steps. Mary lowered her gun.
The Lambs and I occupied three-quarters of the rooftop. She dropped to a crouch in the quarter-rooftop she’d taken as her territory here. Rain streamed off of her as if she’d waterproofed herself. Perhaps she had, to keep water from weighing her down when she needed to fly.
“I’d like to talk,” I whispered.
Avis shook her head.
“Please. That army down there is ours. One way or another, they’ll seize Radham. It’s just a question of how many casualties there are in the end. If Fray is here, I’d like to strike a compromise. Talk.”
Avis’ voice was barely audible. Without the mask, she would have been clearer, without the whisper I would’ve likely been able to puzzle it out, but with the combination of beaked mask and whisper, it took me a second.
“You’d get in her way,” Avis said.
I barely had a half-second to turn the statement around in my head before she acted. She took off, shucking off the shawl and robe-like clothing she’d worn, wings beating air. As the outer covering of clothing was thrown off, her flock of birds flew out and at us.
But the telling moment, the raised-middle-pinion-feather to us, was that her talons scuffed the roof’s edge, clipping the gutter. Metal on metal.
The screech of metal, the flapping of fifty small wings and two large ones, the fact she’d said it and not whispered it, it drew the attention of the soldiers all around us, while Avis made her way skyward, both jumping and flapping hard to get herself fifteen or twenty feet into the air, then gliding silently and with scarcely a sign into the thickest patch of gas.