We had set ourselves up between a rock and a hard place. The plan had been to navigate the space between the two, but Avis had cost us the time we needed, and the gap had closed. Radham’s forces were on the one side, fortified and using the ever-changing environment to their advantage. The army we’d recruited was on the other side, flooding into the southmost end of the city by way of the once-subterranean gates.
This area had once been the sticks. It was where the mice had lived, the orphans and the children who might as well have been orphans. It was the place so disorganized and poor that Percy’s ghosts had been able to get a foothold, stealing children and brewing them in vats to create the coordinated regiments of hyperaware clones.
It was part of where Mauer had found his voice. Where the people weren’t quite in the Academy’s shadow, they didn’t receive the benefits of the Academy, but they also didn’t feel the pressures of it. People here had whispered and spoken of the divine, had worn faith on their sleeves, and they’d found something in that that outweighed the social costs elsewhere. Not so small a following or faith that it would wither on its own, not so large that it warranted stamping out.
Again, that middle ground, the area between the rock that would crush and the hard place that would wear them down by attrition.
The contrast might have been flawed.
“Better to think we’re caught between a rock and a bigger rock,” I murmured.
“Agreed,” Helen said.
“I’m confused,” Duncan said. “More than usual.”
“I’m talking to myself,” I said. “It wasn’t supposed to make sense to any of you.”
“But it does,” Helen said. She sounded more ethereal than she had in a long time, even accounting for the mask and breathing apparatus she wore. The way she moved even while wearing a soaking wet cadet’s uniform was telling. “We’re stuck between the rocks, and Lillian is stuck more than any of us.”
“You’re a soldier, remember. We want to be able to pass if someone glances at us,” I said, my voice soft.
Helen took a second or two to take in that thought. The sound of her footsteps changed. The movement of her arms became tighter, and she moved more like someone with a wet uniform and pack, gun and breathing apparatus. Not like… I couldn’t even append a proper description to her. I thought again of Percy’s ghosts, which we’d called ghosts for reasons that went beyond their propensity to disappear.
I was fairly sure that if I could remember that far back, I’d be able to connect a memory of the early days to the current Helen. Before she had fully adopted her ‘human’ act, when she was wild and wide-eyed, agile, flimsy and uninhibited.
“Better?” she asked.
She’d never asked, as far as I could remember.
“Yes. What’s going on? Ibbot was supposed to get you closer to working order.”
“He did,” Duncan was the one who answered.
I glanced at Helen. She clutched her rifle, her mask on securely, looking very unlike Helen.
I almost wished I hadn’t reminded her to act.
The rain poured around us. We had to climb to higher ground as a swarm of harvesters approached us from behind. They had bones and the remains of clothing and weaponry tangled in their mass, like heavy waves turning over a beachside graveyard.
Now that the gas was clearing and we were moving through the city, I was able to see more of what was happening. The city was rising up, different sections at different heights, each on shelves of land with shell-like enclosures and likely with other infrastructure to keep them firm and contained. Roots, bones, whatever. It hardly mattered. The real trick, or part of it, was what was being exposed.
The Academy and the city had tunnels and sewers running through it. We’d seen some of it when we’d been dealing with Sub Rosa, we’d seen and debated some of it around the time… it would have had to be Avis, both when she seized Claret Hall and around the time she’d escaped. The tunnels and the escape routes, the Bowels, and the other infrastructure, it all ran beneath and through Radham. Ostensibly to allow more maneuverability in wartime.
But this was wartime on an unprecedented level. This was Hayle pulling out all the stops. He’d revealed the trick Radham had up its sleeve. As the different levels rose up, the tunnels were exposed, and things from underground labs and vaults were being loosed. The Harvesters were only part of it. The spider-things I could see on rooftops were only part of it.
Those things were defensive. Even though they were Radham’s dogs of war let loose, the monsters unleashed, they were reactive, building and shoring up, laying infrastructure for what came next. The tunnels loomed open and dark in the sides of the shelves of land that rose higher than the others, and harvester, spider, and the other things were taking actions that Academy scientists had no doubt outlined and hammered down decades ago.
They were building funnels to help get something or some things into the tunnel openings. They were building embankments and railings to keep that something or things from careening over the points of higher ground. Guides. When those things were done, they reinforced buildings to keep the residents within safe from the next phase.
Mary was leading the group, straying a good distance ahead and zig-zagging through the streets to check likely and typical hiding places.
Duncan, Helen, Ashton and I were huddled together, rifles at hand. All of us, Mary included, were hurt or hurting. I was especially worried for Jessie and Lillian.
Whatever treatment or programming had been done to keep the harvesters from dismantling homes hadn’t extended to one of the old churches. It wasn’t Mauer’s old church, I was fairly sure, but it was one like it, worn by the elements and halfway to being reclaimed by nature. Weeds, saplings and moss had found root in crevice and dust.
The Academy hadn’t wanted to expend that extra dusting of pheromone or that extra measure of programming to save the church, and now the harvesters were erasing the structure. They’d started with the easier to reach branches, weeds, and whatnot, and were already moving onto the remainder. The treated wood and the wood that had grown into and around stone would be the last to go.
The building was surrounded with soldiers, and I didn’t realize they weren’t truly there until I saw Mary ignore them.
I clacked the barrel of my gun against a wall as I passed it, to get Mary’s attention.
She caught up with us just as we entered the area. Smaller pieces of wood fell from the ceiling above as the harvesters did their work. Ratlike in how they gnawed, eel-like in how they moved among one another, and roach-like in their density and the sound of their massed number.
Already occupied with their current meal, most didn’t give us much mind. Bayonets and a few kicks served to keep the worst of them at bay.
Ashton was moving slowly. One crawled up his leg, up his back, and started to find its footing on his shoulder, aiming for his neck, and he didn’t seem to notice. I swiped at the thing.
“You put that blade a little too close to my throat, Sy,” Ashton said, voice muffled by his mask.
“Better than the alternative,” I said. “Unless I imagined that thing.”
“Keep an eye out, Ashton,” Duncan warned. “Maybe put something out there too, if you can.”
“Alright,” Ashton said. He reached for the bladder at his side and began manually venting it, compressing it as he depressed the vent-flap at the bottom.
Where the ceiling dissolved above us, splinters came down in a rain. Animals had built nests here and the nests of interwoven branches and tattered cloth came down in streams and tumbles all over the place.
I touched walls, tracing them with my fingers. The walls and floors were intact, at least. The building wouldn’t topple. But the apertures were more open and gnawed at around the edges, everything loose was giving the creatures a foothold to get their teeth and claws in, and the fallen, easy-to-break pieces were being turned into something like worked clay, the color eaten, the remainder sodden, featureless, and lacking in hard edges.
We passed countless soldiers without masks, their eyes missing, throats slashed, wounds bleeding at armpit, thigh, crotch and knee. They stood or leaned against surfaces, their heads moving to watch us.
The top floor was more an attic than anything, accessed by a ladder rather than a stairwell, leading to a space that was open to the sky, only a partial roof on either side. The ladder-access was part of why the harvesters hadn’t reached high enough.
The harvesters slid away from us as they fell within Ashton’s area of influence, choosing other targets.
Lillian, Jessie, and the stitched escort were there. A statue had toppled, the floor bowing beneath its weight, and only the breadth of it really kept it from plunging through. Lillian and the stitched had perched on the statue’s base and a fallen section of wall. She was keeping the stone beneath her.
Jessie was draped out in front of her. Lillian was bandaging wounds and holes in Jessie’s quarantine suit.
“Avis came after me,” Lillian said.
“You’re okay?” I asked.
“How bad?” I asked, indicating Jessie.
“Not that bad,” Lillian said, quiet. “It was my fault. I was running for safer ground, keeping an eye out for the soldiers and for Avis, and I didn’t realize a harvester had climbed up to gnaw on her.”
“And these soldiers?” Mary asked. She indicated with a rifle.
I looked around. I realized that some of the soldiers present were real. They lay on the ground, shot, cut, or pulverized.
“The stitched helped,” Lillian said. She laughed briefly, humorlessly. “My project was good for something after all. I wanted it to help people, you know. Search and rescue, carry supplies, a vessel for the wounded.”
“I remember,” I said.
“We fought the ones who got up this far. Then I realized Jessie was hurt, I put something together and lobbed it down the stairs to buy myself some time. Gas, to clog up the filters and obscure the lenses. I don’t know how effective it was, or if they got spooked by the harvesters, but they didn’t press the attack.”
“It worked,” Mary said. “It obscured the lenses, choked them.”
“Eleven bodies on the next floor down.”
Lillian nodded. There was a pause. “I knew there would be casualties.”
“It’s war,” Mary said.
Helen approached Lillian. A hand settled on Lillian’s head.
“I’m glad you got here just now,” Lillian said, sounding oddly muted. “I was going to have the stitched carry Jessie and I and climb over to the next building, but I couldn’t imagine it doing that and us being able to stop and wait anytime soon. We’d have to keep moving, without knowing who was nearby. It would be hard to find you again.”
“All the same, I know it might sound bad, but it’s good you didn’t come with,” Duncan said. “We ended up in a pinch. There was barely enough cover to hunker behind.”
“I’ll ask again,” I said. “You okay?”
Lillian snapped her fingers for the stitched, and transitioned Jessie into the broad, muscular arms. She worked her way to her feet, as if sore. Helen gave her a hand.
“I really want to have a conversation with Hayle,” Lillian said, with a firm voice. “I’m so done with all of this.”
“That can be arranged,” I said.
“Fray too,” Lillian said. “After that stunt Avis pulled- do we know why?”
“Beattle,” I said. “Probably. And Fray, if I had to say.”
“She didn’t say anything, but… when all’s said and done, Avis was a very different person, once upon a time. She talked more, she was in charge of communications, she coordinated, she was managing logistics, even for Beattle. But…”
“She’s become something else under Fray?” Mary asked.
I spread my arms. I couldn’t say Avis was something less, but I definitely wouldn’t have said she was anything more. At the same time, I struggled to remember enough particulars about the woman I’d seen to articulate what she might have started as and what she might be becoming.
The ground rumbled and shifted, and with that shift, every piece of the church that was on the precipice of crumbling decided to do so. The overarching structure was sound enough that we weren’t in immediate danger, but it was clear that there was a future where that wouldn’t be the case.
By unanimous, unspoken agreement, we left the church. The stitched reached out over the edge, providing a bridge. We climbed up with its help, using it as a bridge.
I was the last to climb over, or at least, the last besides Jessie, who kept the stitched company. I touched her mask briefly mid-climb, pausing, then climbed the rest of the way.
The others were perched on the peak of the rooftop next to the church. They stared out into the distance.
Rain poured over the city and in the gloom it might as well have been oil. The forces of the Crown army we’d gathered were at the southern edge of the city, and the defending forces weren’t even fighting back- they opened fire, scattered tens and dozens of dots of light as rifles fired. The army was bright on its own, holding covered torches and bioluminescent lights, the former orange, the latter a pale blue. Their guns fired as regiments were given the order, thirty to a hundred guns firing within the span of a second of each other, followed by a pause long enough to let the echo ring over the city.
On the far side, there was only darkness, the rolling cloud of fog with a tint that was only visible at the cloud’s edge, mustard yellow and green. The opposite of a silver lining.
Our focus, however, was on the other guy.
It was a ship to rival any naval vessel, with a structure much the same, grey and tall, with a jutting prow and lights illuminating its portholes and windows. It moved with a steady pace, though there was no sea to sail, and no sails for that matter.
“Ah,” Ashton said. “That’s a handsome sight. I like it.”
“I don’t. It’s more than a little ominous,” Lillian said.
“The army isn’t far away. It’s our army, but they’re going to realize we’re an odd sight, unless we can find a good hiding spot and integrate into their ranks,” Mary said.
“We can’t,” I said.
“It’s an option,” she said.
“We need to be mobile, to answer problems and stay ahead of things. To get ahead of and capture Fray, mainly,” I said.
“That… thing, the crawling monolith, ship, craft, whatever it is,” I said, gesturing in the direction of the massive thing, “It’s coming toward us. Collision course.”
“It has to be the Crown,” Duncan said. “We knew it was a possibility. We just thought they’d come by train.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So my line of thinking right now… I’ve been watching what Radham is doing. The tunnels that are being exposed, the changes being made, the sum total of this, and where it seems to be leading, it’s a preparation, right? Things held in reserve, even in the city.”
“Harvesters, spiders, whatever else they’ve got closer to the Academy,” Lillian said.
“They’ve probably emptied the bowels,” I said. “Everything they can.”
“Scary to think about,” Duncan said. “I spent a bit of time down there after getting my coat.”
“The type of leash Radham uses means they can clean up if they have to,” Helen said. “Everything in the Academy is leashed. The new leash for some. Ibbot had a lot to do with making sure it was managed for the bigger projects.”
“Alright,” I said. “You guys remember those projects any?”
Helen and Duncan nodded.
“Anything like a big capstone? A thing that would use those funnels or tunnels like they’ve been set up?”
“Not like that,” Duncan said.
“I don’t think so,” Helen said. “Yes, some could, but… this feels like it’s not it. Too much preparation going into things that wouldn’t feel like they’d be that important.”
Helen was clenching her hands, first one, then the other. I could hear her joints popping.
Ashton reached out for her hand. She made herself go still.
“Okay,” I said. “Hayle’s cornered. He’s going to see what we’re seeing, and he’s going to want to defend himself. That means whatever he’s holding in reserve… he’s going to let it loose.”
“Something more than what he has in the bowels,” Duncan concluded.
The gunfire was drawing nearer. So was the craft.
“We need to choose our target,” Mary said. “Or the targets are all going to find us. Maybe multiple targets finding us all at once, like Avis pulling her stunt.”
“Three rocks,” Helen said.
“Are you catching what Sylvester’s got?” Lillian asked.
Helen made an amused sound.
“Between a rock and a hard place, but not,” I said. “I was thinking, we’re navigating this gap between the two forces. And Fray has to be too. She’s around here. We can try to track her down. As the gap closes, she’ll have less freedom and elbow room to avoid us.”
“She knows the Academy,” Duncan said. “And I don’t have the impression her memory is nearly as bad as yours.”
“She made other sacrifices,” I said. I felt a tinge of bitterness. “Less sacrifices.”
“We’ll find her,” Mary said.
She shifted her footing, and slid down the length of the rooftop. I dropped down to use one hand to balance myself, and followed. The others made their way down, more or less the way I did. Jessie’s stitched climbed down the one face of the building.
Harvesters approached us as we landed on the street. Ashton’s arrival, however, produced a puff of something that disturbed them, scattering them.
“Don’t use yourself up,” Duncan admonished.
“I know what I’m doing,” Ashton said, sighing.
As the army was staying close together and the defending forces were retreating to the safety of the fog, the streets were empty. The only signs of life were the homes with shuttered windows with slices of muted light shining through cracks. They’d have barriers up, special cloth, paper, or something more protective, to keep the gas out, but it was thin enough to allow the lanternlight or voltaic lights within to shine through.
The city continued to groan, like a singular joint easing itself into motion after a century of inactivity, or a tree creaking as it tried and failed to topple over. It sounded like muscles felt when extended to their limit.
I gestured, walking alongside Mary as we set off, putting distance between ourselves and the army that was already halfway through the southern quarter of the city. I directed Mary to keep an eye to the sky. Duncan and Ashton watched one flank. Helen watched another. Lillian covered our rear, with Jessie to keep her company.
“Where are you, Fray?” I murmured.
It was hard to cover sufficient ground, but there were only so many ways through the city. With the city’s layout having changed, the open nature of the city was now a winding labyrinth. The main street was interrupted by a cliff five and a half meters tall, wet, slick seashell-like surface. Another path that might have existed was blocked because the building face was flush with a shelf of raised earth.
The attack would be slowed, I knew, by the fact that the army we’d gathered didn’t want to kill the locals. People would be in homes or cellars, sealed in with stockpiles of food, if they didn’t have access to tunnels- and I was fairly sure I would’ve known about tunnels if they’d existed. Explosives would be off limits, and even more reckless warbeasts would be a problem. Breaking window shutters, knocking in a door, or knocking down a wall would almost certainly kill the family or families that lived in the building in question.
I glanced again in the direction of the Crown’s crawling monolith. It showed no signs of slowing.
Mary moved her hand, and for an instant, I thought she’d spotted Avis. It was a path- a shortcut. A sloping rooftop formed a path we could use to get to a higher shelf of ground.
We climbed up, double checking that we weren’t exposing ourselves to gunfire.
On the way up, no.
As we peeked our heads over, however- we saw silhouettes and shapes, and we ducked our heads down just in time to avoid the battery of fire from the entrenched defenders. There had been quite a few of them, all hunkered down in the entrance to one tunnel.
They’d known their battlefield well enough to know to watch this spot. Their fingers had been on the triggers.
The ambient light of the approaching army illuminated the southern area of Radham. They weren’t too far away.
“The rain,” Helen said.
“What about it?” Duncan asked.
“It sounds different now. It’s faint, but it’s less of a pssssh, and it’s more of a fsssssh.”
My back to the cliff that protected us from being shot at by the defenders, I joined Mary in looking skyward.
The plumes of cloudstuff that the infrastructure of Radham was sending skyward had been dark for a while now.
I was aware of the specters of the dead and broken civilians, the thugs who wouldn’t have been out of place in the sticks of Radham, but who had lived and died in cities far away. West Corinth, Tynewear, Beattle.
I saw Evette. I saw Percy.
“Let’s get out of the rain,” I said.
Getting out of the rain wasn’t hard. Every structure in Radham was made to withstand the rain, to shoulder that burden and accommodate the people who didn’t want to be drenched to the bone whenever they were outside. The eaves, awnings, gutters, and other protections were all over the place.
Where it got tricky was situating ourselves so we actually had a place to go, after. We could hide in the shelter of any building, but whatever came next, we’d be exposed and we’d be hard pressed to get to the next place without getting wet.
“It’s more fsssh than before,” Helen said.
“Good to know,” I said. Was there no other choice than to confront a line of gunmen at the top of the cliff? They were hunkering down, defining a battle line, and the city being what it was didn’t make it any easier to slip by them. They were very much aware the gas was dissipating on the southern end of the city, and they weren’t about to let their guard down when the attacking army was so close.
I saw Sub Rosa, standing on a rooftop. Her arms were turned skyward, as she let the rain pour over her. She lowered her eyes, looking at me.
Once upon a time, I’d been on the same page as the phantom Lambs. They were gone.
“There,” Helen said.
‘There’ was a tunnel that had only partially emerged. There was only a foot and a half of clearance.
“If we’re halfway through it and the ground shifts, we’ll be scissored in half,” Duncan observed.
“If you and Lillian don’t go through at the same time, then whoever survives can patch the other up,” Ashton suggested.
“I love that you have faith in our ability like that, but I know I’m not that good a doctor,” Duncan said.
“It looks different,” Mary said, her eyes roving over the surroundings, looking over nearby buildings.
“The rain?” I asked.
I looked, and I could see. There was a natural haze that appeared where rainfall was heaviest, as droplets struck hard surfaces and fractured, bouncing in a variety of directions. Localized clouds of mist.
The mist had changed. Lower to the ground or nonexistent. The rivulets of rainwater were thicker. The light-
I rubbed at the lens of my mask. It remained clouded.
“Acid rain,” I said. “It’s getting into our uniforms. Go, go go!”
One by one, the others began squeezing through the gap, entering the tunnel.
It wasn’t sulphuric acid. It wasn’t like stomach acids I’d seen, nor digestive enzymes. It was bleaching cloth, eating at the natural waterproofing of our uniform coats and masks, and it was very faintly scarring the glass of the lenses of our masks.
It might not have eaten through the material of our uniforms in an hour, as things stood. But things would change. The rain could get more intense. Even like this, if it wore at the seam, while bags or movement pulled at those same seams, then the seams would split, providing an in.
Mary, Ashton, Jessie, and Duncan were on the other side when the ground shifted. Lillian hauled her arm out of the way before the top of the tunnel could come down on her arm.
We shrank back into cover. The army had approached faster than expected. A running march.
I set my jaw, and I reached out for Lillian’s hand. Jessie’s stitched, now without its cargo, sat unmoving at the base of the cliff. The rest of us were beneath the eaves of a business, lurking in shadow.
Helen was closer to the street than us, tense.
Someone had pulled off their mask. Their skin was visibly red, blistering, and as they brought their hands to their head, they left streaks of scalp where whole clumps of hair had pulled away from flesh.
“Briggs,” Lillian said.
I looked at her.
“The old headmaster. Pre-Hayle. Red-tinted lenses on his glasses? Brute force approach to problem solving and ferreting out weakness. He served as a Professor for the military before he took over at Radham. This was his black coat project. I researched it- researched all of them so I knew what drove the important people.”
Lillian shook her head. “No. That’s only half of it.”
She had that quiet, horrified tone in her voice again. The Lillian who might have faltered in the face of that horror might have been gone, but this Lillian could steel herself and be horrified at the same time.
There were others who were struggling now too. Most had the sense to keep the masks on.
A man with a covered torch swiped it in the direction of one cluster of harvesters. One of the black oily critters leaped into the air, then jolted off to one side, as if it had been struck out of the air.
It had spat, with considerable recoil, sending its empty exterior husk flying to one side.
It wasn’t the only one. There were some in the nearby tree, aiming down, and there were some creeping toward Helen, Lillian and I. Some trace of Ashton kept them momentarily at bay, but the heavy rain would wash that away at any moment.
They crawled over the afflicted like leeches, but they didn’t stop to suck blood. The harvesters collected resources, and the harvesters built. Their oil-black shells with teeth and claws cast off, they looked to be gorging on broken blisters, melting and softened flesh, and weeping fluids, spinning those proteins into something solid.
The eaves weren’t keeping all of the rain off of us. I was aware of how it pattered against my glove and sleeve, despite my best efforts to hug the wall.
“Helen,” Lillian whispered.
“Don’t. You’ll hurt yourself,” Lillian said.
The Fishmonger and the Devil were standing in the rain, watching keenly as these post-harvesters continued their work. The efforts to fight them off were hampered by the incredible pain the most drenched were in. Too many had been given gas masks but no hoods, raincoats, or full-body quarantine suits.
Our people were supposed to be hanging back, keeping an eye on things from afar, keeping the leadership in line. Hopefully there wouldn’t be too many of them in the line of fire here. Some would be.
Lillian hunkered down, hood up, hunched over, and stepped out into the rain to go to the stitched.
I reached out, gingerly, and seized Helen’s wrist. She tensed further.
“Don’t,” I said.
“You know how Ashton likes his patterns?” Helen asked.
There were people reaching out blind, grasping each other. A tangle of limbs, bodies, of blood, and gasping moans of soldiers who could no longer make noise.
“I know, Helen,” I said.
A full two minutes passed. Half of the group that had gotten this far had succumbed, the other half was still under shelter, fighting off the harvesters, both the whole ones and the ones who had shed.
A tangle stood. It was only two soldiers, but they were knit together by the protein chains of the harvesters that crawled over them. One’s mouth yawned open, while the other spoke inarticulate protests.
It stumbled, lurched, and groped in our general direction. One mouth made angry sounds, the other started pleading as it realized we were there.
I hauled back, pulling Helen off balance. In the moment, I saw her eyes lock onto mine, and I thought she would pounce on me.
Lillian’s stitched with its overlarge meat suit surged forward, pushing Helen and I aside very deliberately. It slammed one fist into the tangle, then bowled the tangle over. It began tearing into them- tearing them apart.
Others saw, and they surged forward. They weren’t acting like soldiers anymore. They fought like something mindless.
Helen hauled her wrist free of my grip.
“Helen,” I said.
“Helen. As swan songs go… they aren’t aware enough to feel it. It wouldn’t hurt, they wouldn’t react. It’s a sad way to go about it, if you insist on going that way.”
Helen remained very still.
The Crown’s monolith crashed into the side of the city. Everything from the harvester slugs to the soldiers to us, even Lillian’s stitched, was knocked to one side. I flinched, turning my face away from the rain. Helen remained on the ground on all fours.
If Helen had been considering going, then the howling and roars of the creatures who were stepping off and away from the monolith and into the city were a counterpoint to that consideration.
“The way’s open,” Lillian said.
The collision had helped the way to open again, the cliff surging a few feet skyward, or the level we were on dropping by that same measure.
Helen stared at me, her eyes visible through the lenses. Dead, emotionless.
“Come on,” I said.
Was she gone? So utterly?
No, not when we were so close.
“Please. I promise you. It’ll be worth it.”
We left Lillian and Jessie’s stitched behind to continue its futile struggle against the tangle of soldiers, and ducked into the dark bowels of Radham.