Crown of Thorns – 20.10

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The Infante glowered, his veneer of humanity pulling away.  He was burned, but the burns hadn’t penetrated far past the surface, his skin almost seeming to grow tougher where the fire had seared it.  He remained unfazed by the life and death fight between the Duke and the Golden Calf that was moving back and forth around him, the two combatants within his arm’s reach at times.

Had the Duke been able to find an advantage, he could have used the closing of the distance to attack.

I could see the Infante’s craft, impaling the wall that framed this section of the city.  Like a great pirate’s ship ramming a smaller craft, biting into railing and deck, it had cut into the city.  It was guarded by a section of his army, and by a scattered assortment of his experiments.  The weasel warbeasts with the augmented jaws, humanoids with helmets, and others I couldn’t make out through the rain.

Lillian handed a jar to Mary.  Duncan and Ashton paced backward and to the side.  They wanted to find an avenue to act.  I could draw the connection, imagine what they wanted to do.  I could picture how this might play out, if they succeeded.  I could picture the moves as if they were moves on one of Hayle’s chessboards, during those early days where he’d made us compete with one another.  Counting moves ahead of time, figuring out where we wanted to be, how to cheat effectively…

I pushed myself.  I tried to take in the situation, to see where the others might position themselves, how the enemy might respond.  The Golden Calf was a whirling dervish of destruction that had a way of appearing at every point, devastating every contingency.  I held every image in my head, tried to account for the Infante, and found him easier to predict, harder to deal with.

The Calf might have been stronger in a sense, but it was feral.  The Infante was only feral when it was inconvenient.

The more I focused, the more I felt everything slip.

The Lambs must slay this god, the voice said.

I put it out of mind.  It wasn’t helpful, it didn’t help me process this situation.  It was… simply an unpleasant, dark noise in my head.  I couldn’t even be sure if it was articulating noises anymore, or if it was meeting my brain halfway, like writing and speech in a dream, that made no sense in retrospect.

“No room for failure, Sy.”

That was a more reassuring voice, helping me center myself and figure this out.  I looked over a battlefield and saw a dozen instances of each Lamb, fifty instances of the Calf, and five- six instances of the Infante.  All frozen in position, at places where they would make their key moves.  I could look at any of them, and visualize where everyone else might be in relation to them.

“Yeah,” I said, under my breath.  The Infante was staring me down.

“No room for sucking, because that monster will tear all of us apart.  And you’ve got Jessie with you.  So no sacrificing yourself.  It’s not an option.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The rain pattered down on my coat.  I was standing under the eaves of a building, but it still was getting at my shoes.  I worried about what would happen if it was left to do its work, eroding at the treated leather.

“I wish I’d gotten to know Jessie.”

“I do too, Gordon,” I said.  “I do too.”

“I’ll do what I can,” he said.

Duncan and Ashton ascended to a sloped rooftop.  Duncan carried Helen.

The Infante reached in the direction of a pile of rubble.

“Duncan!” I shouted.  “Down!”

Boneless limbs reaching from the Infante’s hand to the rubble, seizing it.  Duncan dropped, pulling Ashton down with him, and the Infante adjusted the throw as all three tumbled off the roof to the street.

Stone pulverized stone and wood.  Scattered fragments of the rubble that had broken away as it was hurled forth chipped at the ground and wall near Duncan.  Duncan and Ashton covered their faces and heads.

The worst of the rubble had struck the wall above them.  Some shattered pieces landed around them, or bounced off of the three Lambs.

The Infante turned his attention to me.

I could imagine his thoughts.  You’re going to make me destroy you first, are you?

My imagining of the voice sounded dangerously close to the voice in my head.

He strode forward, one step, then two, and then was running by the third step.

I turned, moving perpendicular to him, closer to Lillian and Mary.

Mary threw the jar, sending it arcing high into the air.  She drew her pistol with the same hand, aiming it-

The Infante reached up to catch the jar out of the air with the same boneless limbs that had gripped the rubble.  Mary, for her part, turned on the spot, bringing one foot up, kicking out at the air- at thread.

Wound around the jar-top, the thread was pulled taut.  Held firmly in the grip of the Infante’s coiling symbiote, the bottle broke.  The contents showered down on one side of his face, his shoulders, and into the mess of tentacles and the hand that was almost hidden among them.  It was powdery, and it clung to him where the rainwater soaked his skin.

I wondered what Lillian had in her kit that she thought might serve against the Infante.

Momentarily blinded in one eye, hand and the associated tentacles coated in the powder, he continued charging at us.  I skipped up on top of a rain barrel that was rigged to divert some water into a garden that was protected by an overhang.  From there, I stepped up onto the arm of a diagonal gutter that fed into the barrel, and made the hop to get to the roof of the one-story building.

My legs were tired.  The combined weight of Jessie and I and the running we’d done to this point was adding up, and I didn’t get my feet onto the roof.  I hit the edge of the roof with my stomach.

“Damn it, Sy.”

A moment later, something jabbed me hard in between the ass cheeks.  It was Mary- driving her shoulder into my butt, as she’d hopped up right behind and beneath me, she was using the force of her entire body to force me up.

“Perilously close to the droopier vitals, Mary!” I called out, as I clambered onto the roof.

The Infante swung his arm at us, the various tentacles that extended from his hand and arm forming a singular, club-like entity.  Mary leaped up and away, Lillian dove for the ground.  The rain barrel and gutter were demolished.

“You’re broken,” the Infante said.  “Half of you dead or dying, the other half incapable of accomplishing anything.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said.

“I am not diminished,” the Infante said.  “You… you remind me of what humanity was, before.”

“Before.”

“How many years did man walk this Earth, so sick and crippled that his cities and nations only barely subsisted, let alone progressed?  You… all of you barely subsist, like this.”

“It’s better than the alternative,” I said.

“When you’ve spent your remaining time in the pits of the Crown Capitol, you’ll change your mind about that.  When you’re spent, well past the point of keeping alive, crumbling as you are, I’ll ensure you see each and every loyal soldier and ally of yours that the plague doesn’t claim, being marched in to suffer the same fates.”

In the background, I could see Ashton edging closer to the fight between the Duke and the Calf.

If he could gain any influence over it-

“Your Ashton won’t affect it,” the Infante said.  “It doesn’t have senses as you and I do.  It doesn’t have muscles in the same sense, nor the bones you might expect.  Its shape is… accident, but not unintentional.”

Had he seen me looking at it, or did he anticipate me?

I glanced at the ship.

“I thought you weren’t planning to run, Lambs?” the Infante asked.

Lillian started to move right, and the Infante moved, ready to lunge to cut her off.  His limb struck the cobblestone street, again as a singular limb, hitting with a strength sufficient to crack the stone.

She started to move the other direction, and he struck the ground over there, cutting her off.

I stood on the rooftop above her, but I didn’t have the means of reaching down to her.  Or if I did- it was a task.

The rain was pouring down on top of me, every second I was up here.  The long jacket I had draped over Jessie and I was insufficient to cover everything.  The rain was touching my ankles.

In the background, Berger was hunkered down, not moving.  The other doctors were with him.

I dearly wished they would do something.

The Infante struck at the building near Lillian.  He shattered stone and he upset my footing.  I dropped to all fours.  Jessie’s grip threatened to slip, and I reached up to grab her, securing her, made her hold on tighter.

The white powder had created a milky texture on the Infante’s face and arm. He barely seemed to care that Duncan and Helen were gingerly picking themselves up, or that Mary was flanking him, moving into position.

He repeated the action, striking the building.  Lillian ducked low.  No shriek, no wail, no tears that I could see.  Grim silence.

Those impacts- the tentacles that sprouted from his hand weren’t indestructible.  Stone was… well, it was hard.  He was doing more damage to himself than to Lillian.

I realized why, seeing the white stuff, seeing the pattern, that he kept on using the arm like a club.

Glue.  It was glue, or something that became like glue, when exposed to the water.  It bound the tentacles together, it hampered his movement, and it blinded him in one eye.  Mary’s movements to flank were taking advantage of the fact that he had a limited field of view.

“You could go, Sylvester,” he said.  “Run.  Go after my doctors, after the people on that ship you think you could leverage.”

“And miss seeing you go to pieces?” I asked.

“It would mean you didn’t have to watch her die,” he said, indicating Lillian.

I glanced down at Lillian.

I saw her, and I saw the Lillian of years ago.  Wide-eyed, terrified of everything and still somehow finding the courage to plunge into it.  Guileless in so many ways, with countless openings for me to exploit.

He approached, footsteps plodding.  I tensed.

He swung, once again, and Lillian once again leaped clear of it.  The limb had bent in the air, it hit her or something she was wearing and made her stagger, left her defenseless to the follow-up.  In that same strike, however, the Infante had managed to kill the symbiote that was clinging to him.  It slithered out of his hand and the wounds in his arm, a morass of worms that were glued together at one end, a hydra’s mane of worms at the other, groping and grasping.

Lillian made a break for it.  The Infante, arm still extended from the swing, simply kept walking in her direction.  Things fluttered out of the opening in his hand.

Mary lashed out, closing in, cutting, using thread, trying to hamper his hand by hurling a knife and having the attached razor wire encircle the hand and opening several times.

It wasn’t enough.  Slices and cuts didn’t mean anything when the Infante had been meant to weather bullets and wrestle warbeasts to the ground with his hands.  She had stemmed the flow of the Infante’s creatures from his hand, but they were gnashing at the wire, and there wasn’t any leverage keeping it in place- it was falling away from his hand, if I went by the dangling knife that drooped closer and closer to the ground.

I rose up, shifting my footing.

Lillian had run to the left, away from the direction we wanted to go.  The Infante had his right eye glued shut.

The eye closest to me was glued shut.

I gestured in the same instant I jumped.

My jump up to the rooftop had been weak, faltering.  Now I jumped from the peak of a bungalow house, with the Infante as my landing point.  One of my feet touched his shoulder, where the powder had settled, and it stuck enough I worried I’d lose my shoe.

My hand reached for the noble’s head, knife stabbing in, seeking a grip.  The other hand reached up, striking at Jessie’s hands.

I divested myself of Jessie and the coat that protected me, and let her fall.

Mary caught her, both her and Jessie falling to the ground in the process.

The Infante ignored me, turning toward Mary and Jessie, the pair crouched down on the ground.

“Trust the Lambs,” I murmured.  I ignored them.  I ignored everything, trying to secure my footing, perching on the Infante’s shoulders, my knife at his head.

His eye was apparently made of something that wouldn’t be touched by blade or bullet.  It was possible the eyes in the sockets weren’t even real.  Eyes elsewhere on the face, where the glue still covered some?  At the shoulder?  The hands?

No, blinding him wouldn’t work, in any event.

I cut his scalp, dragging the knife along it, adding to wounds we’d already made.  His flesh was hard to cut, requiring that I drag the knife through it with both hands, even for the thin skin that sat next to skull.

The Infante raised the hand that hadn’t gotten glue on it, the one that hadn’t had the tentacles, or the swarm.  I saw him form a fist.

Veins bulged along his arm.  The veins turned dark, then broke, blistering.  The vine-veins that were so characteristic of the plague were visible there.

He was going to infect the pair.  Jessie and Mary both.

Scales of burns mingled with the eruption of the plague that his body had been keeping contained, all red and angry.  I liked to imagine it was all of the pent up anger from within him finding its way out.

I wanted to think we were the cause of that anger.

The rain was soaking my clothing, touching my flesh.  If I looked skyward, I risked getting it in my eyes.  Lillian had said that if any of us got the water in our eyes, our vision would go foggy and wouldn’t get better until the eyes were replaced outright.

She’d backed away as the Infante turned his focus to Mary and Jessie.

I dragged the knife toward the base of the Infante’s skull, where it met his spine.  The skin became thicker as I reached that point.

“Nuisances, nothing more,” he said.

He swiped a hand at me.  I had to grab his head to keep from falling.  I put the point of my knife near his ear and kicked it, hard with my heel, kicking myself away from the Infante and toward the road below as I did it.

I screwed my eyes shut, twisting my face away from the rain.

It was a bad moment.  A moment where I realized I’d been focused on what I had to do moment to moment, but I’d allowed myself to be cornered, thinking too shallowly, only about the current move, then the current move again.  I’d spared too much thought for the instant and for the ten-minutes-from-now.

Trust the Lambs, I thought.

A whistle.  From Lillian’s direction.

Only a distraction- and not an effective one.  It was one of the tools that Academy Doctors carried with them for directing Stitched on the battlefield.  I could see why she had it.

I could see why the Infante could ignore it, his focus on Mary and Jessie.

Duncan fired his rifle, aiming for the Infante.  He was kneeling by Helen and Ashton was near them.  He fired again, then again.

It might as well have been the shrill whistle.

It wasn’t a Lamb that stepped to the fore.  The Duke pulled away from his fight with the Golden Calf.  With long strides, he charged at the Infante, sword leveled for the higher noble’s throat.

The Infante grabbed for the sword, and the blade dipped, danced around, then returned to course, aimed for the jugular.

With a quarter-turn away, the Infante had shoulder and arm catch the blade instead.  His flesh suffered what looked to be a shallow cut as he turned his back to our Duke of Francis.

He swung his fist in a backhand, not even looking at his attacker.  The Duke stepped back and away, turning and bringing his sword up to catch the Calf’s claw.  He was disarmed.

“Syylvester,” the Duke said, his vowel hitching, as if he was a stitched with a faulty wire, movements replicating.

In the next moment, the Calf had gouged him three times, digging deep furrows into his chest and stomach.  I could have laid my arm into those furrows and covered them with skin, with no bulge to be seen.  From the look of the slices of black, there were dark gaps hinting at cavities beneath.

It was a modest distraction, but the attack had bought us a chance to retreat.  Mary had found her feet, dragging Jessie with her.  I climbed to my own feet and backed away, stepping into the shelter of a shop.  Duncan and Ashton dragged Helen into shadow.

“You’re mad,” the Duke said, drawing a pair of blades to defend himself with- scaled down to my size, they might have been daggers, but the Duke was tall and his idea of a ‘dagger’ would have been a short sword in my hands.

“You say that like you’re surprised,” I said.  “You know this, you know what I am.”

“Nno,” the Duke said.

The Calf attacked again.  It was fast, it was strong, and it sat askew in my mind’s eye, too hard to calculate and predict.  It didn’t stop to breathe, it didn’t slow, it only seemed to stop to think, to work out how best to dismantle its enemy.  The Duke stopped both claws from striking him by parrying with his blades.  The Calf headbutted him.

The Duke of Francis’ head was a weak point.  He tried to adopt a fighting stance, and the blade fell from his right hand.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Wanted-” the Duke said.  He looked at the Infante.

I filled in the gap.  I wanted to stop him.

“We will,” I said.  Somehow.

Lillian approached me, throwing an arm over me, her hand gripping the armpit of the sleeve as she shared her coat with me.   Berger and the other doctors following her.  We were all at either side of the street now, with the Duke, Infante and the Calf in the center of the road.

The Calf moved to finish off the Duke.  The Infante stopped it.

“Was it-  worth it?” the Duke asked.

“None of you survive the day,” the Infante said.  “‘Worth’ is irrelevant.”

“Absolutely worth it,” I said.

The Infante reached out for the Duke, using his plague-ridden hand to seize the man by the face.  There was almost surrender on the Duke’s face as he was seized.  No fight, no effort to defend himself.  He’d spent all he had.

No.  Not quite.  He reached out and grabbed the Infante’s arm, brought a leg around and hooked the Infante’s.  He was holding on, burdening the High Noble, hampering him so we could run.

That didn’t stop the Infante for telling the Calf to come after us.  It barely hampered the Infante from turning, walking as if there was barely any obstruction.

But he wasn’t running.  That counted for something.

Duncan couldn’t throw anything while he held Helen, so he handed off what he could to Ashton.  Lillian threw what she could as I held her bag and kept the coat in place over us.  it was three to five seconds of rummaging for every second she spent deploying a pouch of something she could empty into the air behind her.

It was Berger and the other Professors that served the most effective role.  Berger had his puppeteer-insects, hidden within his coat.  Others had canisters and pistols.  They’d been ordered to this battlefield and they’d come with some ability to fight.

The puppeteer bugs latched on, trying to find some physiology they understood.  One or two paralyzed an arm or a leg for a second or two as the Calf raced forward on all fours, making it stumble or veer to one side.  It shook its head violently for a moment as it charged into a cloud of powder Lillian had tossed into the rain.

It barely slowed.

We were charging straight into a morass of experiments and soldiers.

We needed-

The Calf caught us.  It tore into Berger and one of his colleagues with enough violence that the collateral violence sent Duncan and Ashton sprawling, Helen with them.

“Clear the way!” the remaining Professor shouted.  “The Calf has gone mad and attacked the Infante!”

There was commotion.  How much had they seen of the fight?  Enough to know we’d been fighting the Infante?

The Infante was approaching, marching through the rain.

Could they see?

Obey!” the Professor shouted.

The soldiers obeyed.  The Doctors gave orders to warbeasts.

“Stop it!” the Professor said, leading the way into the enemy ranks.  “Leave the children be!”

There was hesitation at that.

In less than a minute, the Infante would be close enough to give his own orders.  He would reverse these instructions, and we would be among the enemy.

I tried to hurry, getting ahead and away from the bulk of these defending forces.  I glanced over the ship, looking for and failing to see any guns.  It looked like the ones that would have worked had been removed and carried to the front lines, where they could act as turrets.

Lillian and I stopped at the railing, taking in the scene.  Mary caught up with us a second later.  The warbeasts and experiments were attacking the Calf, now.  Rain streamed down on parts of the deck.  Other parts were covered by tiled canopy.  The ramp itself had some canopy too, no doubt to protect individuals getting off the ship from gunfire.

And Duncan- Ashton?  They were still on the street, at the edge of the group of soldiers that stood amid the rubble where the prow of this land-ship had crashed through the exterior wall.

Duncan moved his hand away from Helen’s throat.  His head hung.  He turned to look at the Infante, then at me.

Ashton didn’t budge until Duncan tugged him a second time, practically dragging Ashton after him.

Lillian clutched my hand, hard.

As a group, while Duncan and Ashton ascended the rubble and the ramp to the deck of the ship, we retreated into the cover of the roof that protected the rooms and structures above the deck.

Guns cocked, to greet us.

“The Duke is dead,” the Professor with us said.  “Berger, Adams.”

The others were professors.  I recognized the decoration.

The Infante’s men.

“He’s mad,” the Duke’s Professor said.

“And you’re a traitor.”

“He’s mad,” the Duke’s Professor said.  “He’ll never come back from this.  He’s tasted… this.”

“Abandon,” Mary said.  “He’s tasted total abandon.”

“We’ll manage,” the Infante’s Professor said.

“Lawrence-”

“We’ll manage.  We have to.”

“You can’t steer him any longer,” the Duke’s Professor said.  “Not even in the small ways.  We’ll say the plague took him.”

The Infante approached the crowd.  He’d torn the glue away from his eye, taking flesh and eyelids with it.  He didn’t seem to care that he bled anymore.

I heard Lawrence sigh.  “Nothing we could do, if we wanted to.”

“Harpoon gun?” I asked.

“Harpoon gun?”

“Or anything sufficient for catching a rogue warbeast.”

“That’s what it’s come down to, is it?” Lawrence asked.

I looked at the Lambs.  Mary had Jessie, and the burden seemed unduly heavy.  Lillian looked harrowed, her breath fogging around the mask at her lower face, her eyes wide.  Duncan held Ashton like Helen had, before.

The Infante looked up at us.  His expression was one of grim satisfaction.

With a few words, he had the crowd turn.

But he would lead this army.

“Harpoon gun, or anything,” I said.  “Now.

“It’d be suicide.  You’ll fail, and he’d punish us.  He’d take everything we care about,” Lawrence said.  He still held a gun, raised and aimed at us.

“He’s power,” I said.  “Devoid of control.  Him and his pet both.  We orchestrated this siege, and we did it because the Academy is control, devoid of power.”

“I think you’re underestimating our resources,” Lawrence said.

“I think the fact that we’re all standing here and facing down this reality suggests we have a very good idea of what your resources are and what’s going on.”

“What’s going on?”

I felt my heart pound as the Infante worked his way through the crowd, getting past the rubble to the ramp.  His pet was devouring bodies, mask parted.  He called it, and it leaped to the side of the ship, crawling up to the railing, stopping there.

Decorum had to be observed apparently.  It wouldn’t go ahead of its master any more than a properly trained dog by a shepherd’s side, or one of the organic pieces of art that ladies of quality liked to have trotting at their sides.

“He’s slipped the leash, you know,” I said.  “The break in the balance of power and control, it started with the Duke being shot, the Baron’s weakness.  You failed to account for the missing component, the glue that holds it all together.”

“The people.”

“Their faith.  Their belief in the order of things.  It elevates the Infante and his ilk.  Change that elevation, reverse it even, the nobles get insecure and the balance-not truly a balance, “It goes askew, and everything falls apart.”

Lawrence spoke, watching the Infante, “What would upset or reverse this supposed faith?  Hm?  Not mere deaths in wartime.  Not when the Duke lived, to continue to make appearances.  Not when we covered things up as we did for the Baron’s death.”

I let the silence hang, sinking in.

Let his question become rhetorical.

“Harpoon,” I said.  “Please.

He hesitated, then glanced at his peers.

He seemed to come to a decision, and ran for the stairs.

The Infante slowed.  The rain pattered against the deck, the sounds of battle were distant, less persistent than they had been.  The battles had largely been decided, now.  There were a few final doors to batter down, but…

But I needed to focus.

I watched as the Infante’s expression shifted.  He turned , looking over one shoulder at the crowd.

Murmurs?  Shouts.

He raised one hand, touching the back of his head.

I’d made him bleed.  He was always self conscious about that.

I’d made him bleed a lot.  He would be more self conscious about that.

His expression was unmoved as he returned his focus to me.

I smiled, spreading my arms.

There were more noises from the crowd.

“Proud of your small victories?” the Infante asked.

Devastatingly proud, tits.”

His expression shifted.  “What?”

“I said I’m devastatingly proud, tits,” I told him.  “Did that knife I jammed in your ear actually do something to your hearing?”

“Tits,” the Infante said.

I touched the back of my head.

It was then that he seemed to realize.

“Juvenile,” the Infante said.

I glanced at Gordon, who seemed inordinately pleased.  Gordon wasn’t any older than he had been in Lugh.

“It’s what we are,” I said.  “It’s what I am.”

“You said that to the Duke,” Lillian said.  Mask or no, I could hear the incredulity.  “Sy- you sacrificed the Duke’s life to-”

“It worked,” I said, with intensity.  I pointed at the crowd behind the Infante.

The Infante turned to look.  As he did, the back of his head was plain to view.  I’d carved the four letters into the back of his head.

The crowd behind him looked stricken, not sure what to do.  Laugh, cry…

That harpoon was a little late in coming.  This would have been when I would’ve liked to fire the shot, and try to unite Lamb and Professor in dragging that bastard off the ramp.

The saving grace wasn’t any harpoon.  It was a creature from the crowd, bloody and hard to make out, as it tore past the people nearest the Infante, stepped onto the railing, and pounced onto the Infante’s face.

Helen.

Her arm was broken, but she still used her hand, flinging her body around to the side to get her hand to where it could hold on.  Her other hand clutched.  Her one good leg scrabbled for purchase.

“Harpoon!” I shouted, looking for the professor that had run off.

He emerged from the stairs, looked at the scene, and threw the oversized crossbow.

To me.  The idiot.  I caught it in a bear hug, reversed it in my grip, and gave it to Mary.  I knew her arm was hurt from our first skirmish with the Infante, so I held the front end, ducking low, while I let Mary do the aiming.

The plague-ridden hand struck Helen, pulling her back and away.  The harpoon caught the hand before another blow could be delivered.  I, Duncan, Ashton, Lillian, and Mary all seized the rope, pulling it to one side.

The Infante’s attempt at smashing Helen away from his face was thrown off as we pulled him slightly off balance.  He caught himself.

The High Noble made a hand gesture at the Golden Calf.

It hung on the railing, perching on the side of the ship, and with the gesture, it hopped the railing, landing on the deck.

Lawrence whistled.  He made another gesture.  The Golden Calf sat down where it was.

The rope from the harpoon was secured, tied down.  As one, we made the Infante’s sole remaining arm our target.  Fluids were oozing from it, and he slapped Helen’s back, smearing the fluids onto her clothing.  He grabbed her, trying to pull her away.

Mary’s razor wire and a rifle that several of us could grab provided some leverage on that hand.  Duncan poured something on the deck, and the Infante lost his footing, dropping to his knees.  I threw a coat over the Infante’s face and over Helen, to keep the rain off of her.  It wouldn’t do for her to dissolve while trying to do this.

There was an echo to earlier.  This time, instead of Gorger taking the Infante’s head, we had Helen.

It wasn’t fast.  But Helen had the ability to finish this.  Broken as she was, ribs fractured, limbs more fluid, relying on musculature, she crammed herself into the Infante’s mouth.

Soldiers on the ground started to approach.

“Stand down!” Lawrence called out.

“Sir-”

Stand down!”

No, Professor!”

Several guns raised- not all of them.  They aimed at the Professors.

I nearly lost my own footing on the slick of fluids Duncan had placed beneath the Infante.

Lawrence stood at the top of the ramp, facing down the crowd.  The Duke’s professor stood at his side.

“Look at him,” Lawrence said.  “The plague took him.  That much is clear to see.  He’s mad, he’s broken.  He lost.”

The guns didn’t waver.

“He lost, and the Crown doesn’t lose.  Therefore, he’s not Crown.”

I could have laughed at the circular reasoning- I might have, if the guns hadn’t actually drooped a little.

I dropped away from the struggle to hamper the Infante’s one arm that wasn’t harpooned.  It took some doing, but I needed to sway the crowd.

Lillian’s coat over me, I climbed up the Infante’s arm to where Helen was.

Helen, our beautiful Helen.  She was a monster in disguise, but above all else, her role in the team had always been the actress.

Our glorious actress, from the point that she’d been kicked and injured, had played dead.  She’d played out her part, to the point it convinced us, because the Infante had needed to believe it to let his guard down.  No longer able to play effectively at being human, she had played her role perfectly when it came to being broken.

“Turn his head thirty degrees to the right,” I said.

I heard an exasperated sigh from her.  She was using her body to stifle him, to deny him air and keep him from effectively closing his jaw.  It yawned open now, to the point even one of the weasel-thing’s jaws might have dislocated.

But she had some leverage on the outside of his head, which she was using to make him face skyward, the coat covering the both of them.  She managed to get him to turn his head slightly.  Not thirty degrees, but enough to give them a glimpse.

Of ‘TITS’ – carved on the back of the noble’s head.

It wasn’t much, but in hurting the soldier’s faith…

The guns they’d lowered a fraction didn’t raise.

They needed to believe the Infante could win, or that he could win on his own, but we’d taken chunks out of the noble, and now we had him at our mercy.

Helen’s arm reached into the Infante’s mouth and up, likely finding a grip on the uvula or on the ledge that would lead up to the sinuses.  If the Infante was one to reflexively gag, he would have thrown up then.

As it was, it was purchase for her to go contortionist, to draw herself inches in deeper, a young lady making the giant of a man swallow her.

Minutes passed.  The harpoon gun was used twice more, lashing the Infante down further, so both arms were pinned down.  It meant the others could back off and get out of the rain.

I draped another coat over Helen, then backed off.

It took what I estimated to be nine minutes, all in all.  Struggles, two attempts at hauling hands and arms free of the barbed harpoons.  We fired more that had been brought from belowdecks.  The Infante slowly went limp, sagging to the ground.

Our actress remained where she was, making absolutely sure.

The audience was very still and very quiet, their eyes averted.

No applause to be had.

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54 thoughts on “Crown of Thorns – 20.10

      • She’s suffocating him by blocking his airway with her body. No need to break any membranes… he will die without air, and his anatomy is still close enough to human that he only has the one passage to his lungs.

      • Looks like Nobles still need oxygen to live.

        Though apparently, the Infante can last about 9 minutes without oxygen, which is still quite impressive.

        • I think he’s fine, actually. Probably has a thing inside him that lets him hibernate for a week without oxygen. Otherwise, he could have been done in at any time by an engineered insect swarm that fills his lungs with webbing, and you know the Crown couldn’t stand having a weakness like that.

  1. I’m torn.

    On the one hand, just like the other noble fights, this makes very little sense and the protagonists should have been killed 20 times over.

    On the other hand, woooooo this is so epic! This was probably the most scary, most hyped, most difficult-looking boss fight of Twig. Awesome!

    (also Sy just kind of strong-armed everyone present into betraying the Crown; so that’s something)

    • You say that as if the Lambs haven’t suffered more losses in this fight than in any fight they had before. The Lambs didn’t win this fight. This fight was won because they managed to turn the Academy against the Infante, and it COST them.

      Helen almost certainly did not survive this fight. Sy is only telling himself she’s still acting to make himself feel better.

      The one ally they might have had among the Crown is now also dead.

      Sylvester is seeing HUNDREDS of figments now. He’s probably not much longer for the land of the living himself.

      Their social currency is in an awkward place. This may well have burned bridges with the Academy, forcing them to do what they did.

      It may have been a victory, but in true Wildbow fashion, it’s certain to be Pyrrhic in the end.

      • Also, this is just the first. Three gods to slay, remember? Infante, Fray, and… I don’t know the third. Mauer, perhaps?

      • They managed to withstand a High Noble, someone who was designed by the very best Professors together with a pet Primordial and a ton of warbeasts, with one member unconscious without losing anyone.

        Then they somehow subverted the absolute best Professors, people who should be 100% invested in how the Academy is going to the point where they’re willing to commit treason in under 3 minutes.

        That’s rather… unsatisfactory for lack of better word, especially after being told time and again that the Lambs are growing slower, more tired and just plain off for entire Arcs but with no seemingly little consequence to their actual abilities.

        • You forget that the professors are there to keep the nobles in check. Already Lawrence and the others were discussing whether or not to shut down The Infante. They didn’t betray the Crown. They are the Crown. And the Crown doesn’t lose.

        • There’s no Primordial in this chapter. They also didn’t turn the professors to treason in 3 minutes. The professors had started to see the Infante as a potential threat to the Academy months before hand, and they had only convinced themselves more of that threat over time. Sy just said, you know he’s no longer under the Academy’s control like he’s supposed to be, now let me do something about it.

          • The Warren Peace NFL Report, it was a primordial spawn: a being created by a primordial, not a primordial itself.

          • Warren Peace, because the plague itself is a primordial spawn.

            The primordial that called itself God literally referred to the seeds of the plague it was creating at its spawn, but noted that it would be its spawn but not one of it. As in, the plague isn’t a primordial but IS born from one

            The golden calf is the same. The crown tried to make pet primordials, but the ones they could control were useless. So they decided to use the primordials to make something they could control and that could be useful.

          • The spawn don’t have primordialness. Their forms are fixed; they don’t adapt. It’s a high-quality warbeast with an unusual design source.

    • Yeah, I felt the same way about the plot armor. I never really felt that way about Worm except for one time near the end, but in Twig it’s very much there.

      Like, maybe Nobles aren’t actually all that and we fell for the Crown’s propaganda too hard, but the Lambs just seem to keep getting lucky and lucky — here and with the Baron it felt like victories were too easy. And same thing when the Lambs fought the Infante with the mortar and he let them get away on a bit of a strained reason.

      Also, it feels weird for the Lambs, a group who are all about espionage, to confront the Big Bad in a straight up battle of good vs evil where both sides just _brawl_ until one loses — especially considering that Sy, Lillian, Jessie, Ashton, and Duncan can’t fight for shit — you’d think they’d do something less straightforward than a duel.

      Like, they founded an army and lead it and then they personally risk themselves sneaking into a warzone to fight the enemy leader??? w h a t

      And maybe I missed the part with the reason why the Infante wasn’t using soldiers, I don’t really want to go back and look for it, but I feel like the only reason he didn’t signal a crapton of soldiers to help him is because the genre is biopunk, not military fiction :/

      (But fuck yeah, I’m looking forwards to the conclusion. And Crown Capitol sounds badass as hell.)

      • I refer you to the theory of narrative causality – we’re reading this story because it’s the one that happened, even though though the protagonists should’ve been dead by now. They’re the protagonists because they didn’t die here, not the other way around.

  2. “Our glorious actress, from the point that she’d been kicked and injured, had played dead. She’d played out her part, to the point it convinced us, because the Infante had needed to believe it to let his guard down. No longer able to play effectively at being human, she had played her role perfectly when it came to being broken.”

    Absolutely fantastic

  3. Woah, that’s exactly the way Helen wanted to go! Cramming her way down a powerful man’s throat and taking him down from the inside. You foreshadowed that WAY back, cool. Also, I like humiliation being significant in taking the Infante down, it felt realistic and also kinda joyous in a way.

      • When the academy was worried that the lambs would betray them, and was interrogating them separately. During Helen’s interview she said that she wasn’t interested in killing her doctor because he was weak, but there was a general or something in the room. She either said or thought that he was the strongest person there and that she’d very much like to crawl into his mouth and break him from inside.

        At least, that’s how I remember it.

  4. I feel like the Lambs… shouldn’t have won?
    It feels like this was way too easy; like the Infante could have killed them easily at any time, and just kept choosing not to.

    • That’s the point though. He kept trying to break them instead of trying to win. He wanted to prove that resisting is useless by continuing to weather the attacks while systematically continuing to progress forward and destroy them.

      He wants his foes to suffer. And he wanted to do it HIMSELF

      This is what Sylvester meant by his weakness. It’s really stupid and only works if he can ALWAYS follow though. Sylvester proved that this isn’t the case and that his plan can’t work, that he can’t succeed by himself off his own power and merit. He had to bring the army in to win, or do something else, but this would mean his entire ideology and plan was wrong, which he cant do
      If he’s the crown, then he has to keep doing things as the crown does, even if it doesn’t work. If he doesn’t, then he isn’t the crown

      This is why Sylvester wanted to laugh at the end. The professor used that logic to say that the infante wasn’t the crown because he kept trying to do things the same way but still lost anyways. It’s funny because it puts the infante in a lose-lose situation in which he would be “not the crown” either way, which was totally unintentional.

      Either way, it showed how weak and stagnant he was, despite his strength

  5. So… Helen’s dead, isn’t she? I mean, besides getting the plague on the face, she’s INSIDE the man who had that plague and at least four others inside him….

    I’m not seeing a way that she can survive

  6. I am torn between this.

    On the one hand, it was an epic way for Helen to go. It was foreshadowed so early on, but it finally happened.

    On the other hand, I do agree that it was far too easy. Not only that Helen actually managed to do it, as I would expect that the Infante is literally filled with counter-measures, with all the bioweapons he has shown (if he simply couldn’t have chewed as she crawled down there), but also that none of the soldiers helped the Infante. If before from the elite only 10% would consider betraying the Infante even if not doing so meant a fate worse than death, I can’t believe that nobody here would have helped him here.

    Also, once again it just feels like the Lambs got so much plot armor, with the Infante and others being so often capable of killing them.

    • He likely has no way to deploy them in this position that would get Helen out of the way without utterly destroying his own lungs. In the end it was precisely because they were superweapons he was stuck – more mundane weapons could have gotten her out of the way without killing him.

      But he doesn’t do mundane.

    • The mechanisms to unleash them are tied to his muscles in some way, and Helen can literally hear muscles. So she probably knows how to constrict the methods for deploying them or can make it so it would kill him as well

      He also was infected by the plague. Sure, he could keep it contained, but the damage to himself and a person inside of him made it spread outside the contained area, so that could have impeded his control over the other weapons as well

      For the soldiers, bystander effect. Few would jump in when the rest of AN ARMY are just watching. Besides, the noble brought ONLY professors, stitched, and man-made creations.

      They said this a few times, the only humans supporting his side were originally Sylvester’s that were acquired by the noble. From their perspective, they were working with insane orders for the past few months, doing things that made no sense and killing people once on their side. They are attacking an academy and only found out why after it began, and things just didn’t add up.
      Then they find out that the leader, the one who threatens them and is rumored to kill them after this, is crazy and infected, and getting humiliated by teens (one of which is unconscious).
      They had no idea that they WEREN’T following the infante’s orders this entire time, so they reasoned that his insanity was the cause for everything that hasn’t been making sense

      Seeing what was done to him and seeing the most loyal and high ranking people call him out sealed his fate

      All in all, the lambs would have died had the noble just ordered the army to attack. That’s all he had to do. But, as Sylvester mentioned, he’s weak and didn’t consider the strength of asking for help. He’s also an idiot

  7. The feeling of this victory, of how Sy finally beat the Infante by carving tits in his scalp, is just so … distorted? I’m having trouble finding the words for it. It’s juvenile and funny in that way of course, but it’s also fundamentally pragmatic in its reasoning, and it functions by striking at people’s faith in a way which must be deeply affecting to those people, and … yeah. There’s just so much tied up in it. I feel like I’ll be running this scene through my head over and over again over the next few days, and I can’t figure whether those moments will be somber or hilarious.

  8. Infante has been broken for a long time; ever since this entire mess started. The reason Sy’s immature little prank was so successful was because of his instability – it had created a seed of doubt in the army, in his professors, in everyone. A seed that Sy made grow by showing he wasn’t even close to invincible or all knowing.

    After that and watching his animal-like behavior and everything else the army was paralyzed. No one was sure which side they should be helping and so did nothing at all.

    His professors were already on edge, and in the end the lambs pushed him far enough they were forced to admit to themselves they had completely lost control of the Infante. And that could not be allowed. With the opening the lambs made the professors were able to justify taking him down to the crowd; it was thin, yes, but they weren’t exactly prepared for the absolute worst-case scenario, Lawrence thought he still had a little control over the Infante.

  9. The way Wildbow’s plots have been degrading since Worm (in terms of consistency and clarity of description, if not in terms of inventiveness) has got me seriously worried about Worm 2…

    • Uh, the ending parts of worm were intentionally sparse in terms of both of those things. So, I’m not entirely sure how this is any different.
      The state of the main characters almost always degrade as his stories continue, and when this happens, descriptions and clarity are either not there or more confusing than omitting them

      But this is kind of how this goes. Besides, he tends to focus little on descriptions near the climaxes since I’d imagine he has bigger things on his mind that would take too much time and too many chapters to include along with the same level of details he includes at the beginning

      • I think the other thing to remember is that this is the ‘initial draft’ of Twig. I hope he revisits and rewrites and edits for publication, as I think Twig is his finest work yet.

    • While I don’t agree about plots degrading I will say this: I think in some sense he wrote himself into a corner where the lambs are simply too broken when we get to this point in the end game for them even tying to seem reasonable. So when events like this chapter happen it can feel absurd, even though if you read it closely nothing particularly stands out as wrong.

      This sort of thing is a job for the lambs in full form.

      How much would things change if someone went back and smacked the brainwashing out of Sy when he first met Fray? Because he put together almost immediately why he had been brainwashed and what was wrong, and the information would have been far fresher then. I’m pretty sure if he realized the Academy was intentionally killing them all at the same time he was being given a solution he wouldn’t have hesitated for a second.

      I wonder, then, did Fray not know what was done to him? She seemed to seriously think she could have turned him.

  10. I looked over a battlefield and saw a dozen instances of each Lamb, fifty instances of the Calf, and five- six instances of the Infante.  All frozen in position, at places where they would make their key moves.
    I always forget Sy can do this, but he’s been doing it since Arc 1 with the Bad Seeds. I like how it ties so well into his insanity, like his brain just doesn’t know how to stop doing it. Anyway, this is a really cool scene and I like the distinction between the Calf and Infante.

    “I do too, Gordon,” I said.  “I do too.”
    Gordon deserves to be here, too. At first, I guessed that Sylvester was imagining a phantom of himself, but I like this better. It’s interesting that Gordon is saying basically the same things that the Voice was, but in a more reassuring way.

    I could imagine his thoughts.  You’re going to make me destroy you first, are you? My imagining of the voice sounded dangerously close to the voice in my head.
    I had wondered if the Voice had morphed into something different than the phantom Infante, but it seems like there’s still a connection. So the Voice’s objectives might still be similar to what the phantom Infante was talking about in the previous arc.

    “Damn it, Sy.”
    This could be Mary but I read it as Gordon. Works either way, really.

    “How many years did man walk this Earth, so sick and crippled that his cities and nations only barely subsisted, let alone progressed?  You… all of you barely subsist, like this.”
    Last chapter I suggested “progress” as a god for Hayle, but it was actually Sylvester’s god at one point. The phantom Infante represented some of Sylvester’s childhood faith and naivete, and the real Infante is echoing some of the doubt that humanity can survive without Crown and Academy. Maybe “progress” is the Voice’s own god?

    Had he seen me looking at it, or did he anticipate me?
    I want to point out some moments of action that I liked even if I don’t have much to say about them. I liked this one because the Infante isn’t just a brute, he’s smart too.

    She started to move the other direction, and he struck the ground over there, cutting her off.
    Same with this one. It’s kind of funny and tense at the same time.

    “It would mean you didn’t have to watch her die,” he said, indicating Lillian.
    I feel a bit foolish, but whenever Lillian is involved these kinds of threats always hit me twice as hard.

    No, blinding him wouldn’t work, in any event. I cut his scalp, dragging the knife along it, adding to wounds we’d already made.
    I suppose this is when Sy conceived his plan. He had no opportunities to do meaningful harm, so he decided to just go with spite and hope it opened up some opportunity later.

    Veins bulged along his arm.  The veins turned dark, then broke, blistering.  The vine-veins that were so characteristic of the plague were visible there.
    I never realized that the Infante was harboring late-stage plague in his body. That makes it so much worse.

    The Infante grabbed for the sword, and the blade dipped, danced around, then returned to course, aimed for the jugular.
    This was really fun to visualize and a perfect moment for the Duke. I thought the Infante was going to deflect the sword for sure.

    “You say that like you’re surprised,” I said.  “You know this, you know what I am.”
    This line could be the title of Sylvester’s biography. “Hey, You Knew What I Was”

    “Was it-  worth it?” the Duke asked.
    “None of you survive the day,” the Infante said.  “‘Worth’ is irrelevant.”
    “Absolutely worth it,” I said.
    The Duke and Sylvester are having a completely different conversation than the Infante thinks, and he tries to butt in despite not knowing anything. It’s great.

    “Leave the children be!” There was hesitation at that.
    It’s so twisted that “don’t attack the children” is what makes them hesitate. If I may cogitate on this for a bit: it kind of makes sense that this would set off their “prey instinct”, not just because the Lambs are a known threat, but because the Academy values control and children are an unknown element. They’re people who haven’t had enough time to be ground down and indoctrinated yet. I guess that’s what makes the Lambs what they are in the first place.

    Duncan moved his hand away from Helen’s throat.  His head hung.  He turned to look at the Infante, then at me.
    I wasn’t totally convinced that she couldn’t be saved but I was sure starting to doubt it.

    “Or anything sufficient for catching a rogue warbeast.” “That’s what it’s come down to, is it?” Lawrence asked.
    Read: the Infante is a rogue warbeast.

    Mary had Jessie, and the burden seemed unduly heavy.
    Yeah, I bet! Mary’s obviously a better fighter than Sy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he simply had more raw strength, just by virtue of his sex and despite being a bit of a runt.

    “Change that elevation, reverse it even, the nobles get insecure and the balance-” not truly a balance, “It goes askew, and everything falls apart.”
    I’m not sure what he means by “not truly a balance”. I guess maybe he’s saying that Academy and Nobility aren’t really keeping each other in check, but Academy could destroy the Nobility any time it wanted to and just keeps the Nobility around because it’s beneficial.

    I let the silence hang, sinking in. Let his question become rhetorical.
    I think he’s referring to the Block, suggesting that the Infante got antsy because the truth was getting out.

    He seemed to come to a decision, and ran for the stairs.
    So this is Lawrence’s redemption, I guess? In his interlude he talked about taking responsibility, and I gave him a lot of flack for it, but it seems like he can follow through after all. I’m still inclined to question his motivations, but I gotta give him credit for that.

    I’d made him bleed.  He was always self conscious about that. I’d made him bleed a lot.  He would be more self conscious about that.
    I just like this aspect of the Infante’s character, and this was pretty fun.

    The Infante turned to look.  As he did, the back of his head was plain to view.  I’d carved the four letters into the back of his head.
    I immediately thought “oh yeah ‘TITS’ would be a great word for that because it’s so few strokes”.

    Broken as she was, ribs fractured, limbs more fluid, relying on musculature, she crammed herself into the Infante’s mouth.
    Not to beat a stitched horse, but holy shit.

    Helen, our beautiful Helen.  She was a monster in disguise, but above all else, her role in the team had always been the actress.
    How serendipitous that I just reviewed the Lambs’ roles, as Sy told them to Mary, because of the Voice’s comments in the last chapter. This is kind of a reversal of that situation, where Sy had fooled Mary into thinking that Helen was not a threat because she was “just” an actress.

    “Turn his head thirty degrees to the right,” I said. I heard an exasperated sigh from her.
    I was so glad just to see Helen emote in this scene. Seriously, it was a huge relief.

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