Too much forethought to be Mauer, especially with the resources that were apparent. Too counterintuitive to be the Crown. Hayle was pinned down and didn’t have the means, the resources, position or forewarning to pull this off.
A Tangle was emerging from the town. Its overall shape was different; it almost had a color scheme, because the bodies that formed it were all wearing Crown uniforms, and it had something resembling a head, though the angle of our view from the window meant that all I could make out was a singular dark shape. In terms of size, it was as large as the largest Tangle we’d seen in the city itself- large enough to touch the ground and the top of the tallest wall around the Academy itself.
The Tangle wasn’t the entirety of it. There were people from the town marching alongside with the thing. They had flanked the rank and file of the elite soldiers and the Infante’s professors. Now the Tangle was charging in.
Our people were in that mess. People we were counting on to get us out of this cell.
Something like this had taken planning. It had taken premeditation, and it had taken a keen mind.
I slammed one fist against the window, my jaw set.
“What happened?” Mary asked.
I turned to face her. “Some specialized Tangle is being directed, working with a small rebel group. It just attacked the soldiers. It might be going after the Professors.”
“Oh,” Ashton said. “Oh, that’s not the plan.”
I turned back around.
The ‘dead’ were starting to rise, now that many of the guns were being trained on the Tangle. The ‘dead’ that had feigned death after being shot at with empty cartridges turned on the army, with improvised weapons and guns of their own.
It wasn’t enough. Too few of them compared to the soldiers that had been selected to get a ride home. They were taking the action of the Tangle here to be some kind of cue from us, the sign that they should move in, catch the main army by surprise, and we would crush them.
The problem being that our rebels and double agents were still in there.
“Can you concoct anything to get us out of here? An acid, an explosive?”
“They confiscated everything we could theoretically use,” Lillian said. “I have some packets of poison in my bra and some pills and small blades hidden in my clothing, but that’s not going to do anything.”
“Fingertip syringes?” I asked.
“One. They’re too much of a pain to maintain, and it affects circulation,” Lillian said, sounding a little defeated. “It’s nothing we can use.”
“I used everything I had on that rooftop,” Duncan said.
Ashton, holding the light, began flashing the signal for ‘help’. It was a good thought. I wasn’t sure the people positioned to offer that help were close enough to give it.
There wasn’t much to be done except to watch. The army tried to defend its position, making a fighting retreat into the ship, and the Tangle attacked the ramp. The Professors at the rear lines were among a scant few who made it into the ship before the ramp went to pieces. I could feel the heavy doors below slamming shut. The impact reverberated through the ship.
“And that would be the doors to the boarding ramp,” I said.
The others shared looks. Duncan dropped his bag to the floor.
I punched the metal-reinforced wall. The impact didn’t even reverberate across the wall in question.
The sound of the rain against the side of the ship had changed. The gunfire had petered out, replaced by a periodic dull thud. Twice, we had been hit in a way that had made the entire ship shift, something integral giving way.
A hand on my head made me stir. I lay on the table, my chest to Jessie’s back. Lillian stood beside me, one eye on the window, one hand on my head.
“I’m not going to do that, Ashton,” Duncan was saying. I’d missed the lead-up to that conversation.
“If you don’t remember everything, I could help you brainstorm. You have paper in your bag.”
“First of all, no,” Duncan said.
“Yes! If it’s a chance!”
“It’s not. Believe me. I have spent months of my life poring over the texts, records, and paperwork pertaining to your project.”
I moved my head, looking up at Lillian. “What’s this?”
“Ashton being Ashton,” she said.
I nodded, lowering my head, so it rested on my folded arm again.
“Get creative, then,” Ashton said.
“You’re not made of sturdy enough stuff. Also, there’s no guarantee you’re going to go back to the same configuration.”
“I don’t care.”
“You care. You get fussy when your hair gets messed up. You want me to dismantle you? Take you apart into your constituent pieces, and put something together that can break down a door?”
“No. It’s made to handle Warbeasts headbutting it. It’s not going to work, Ashton.”
“Then get creative,” Ashton said, exasperated. “Maybe instead of beating it down you can do the opposite.”
“Pull it down?”
“Or suck it down! I remember my doctors saying there’s great power in vacuum. It’s part of how my pheromone dispensary works. Or you could make me into something small enough to fit through that window. I could use the handle and get us out.”
“It really doesn’t work that way, Ashton, and we’d need to break that thick glass first, which might be doable if we rigged you to generate suction, which would probably take a fancy lab to manage, mind you.”
“Improvise,” Ashton said.
“No,” Duncan said. “And if we generated you to do that, we could hardly then change your function unilaterally to get you through the window to the handle.”
Ashton huffed in annoyance.
“It’s locked anyway,” Mary said. “I paid attention to it as they brought us in here.”
Duncan extended his hands in Mary’s direction.
“Sy has lockpicks, at the very least,” Ashton said. “So we’re talking about two minor surgeries and a teeny tiny bit of improvisation to go with it, and I’ll take Sy’s lockpicks with me when I go through the window.”
“Ashton,” Duncan said.
“You know you’re one of my favorite people?”
“I didn’t, but it’s nice to hear. Thank you, Duncan. You’re my number two favorite person after Helen.”
“Okay. Well, keep in mind, if you keep this line of argument up the entire time we’re on our way to the Crown Capitol, I’m probably going to strangle you dead by the time we arrive, favorite person or no.”
“Fine,” Ashton said. “I think that makes you mentally disturbed to a worrisome level, but fine. It’s not like I don’t have experience dealing with that type.”
I cleared my throat.
“Oh, Sy woke up,” Ashton said. “I thought you were asleep.”
“I’m awake-ish,” I said. “Conserving strength, in case we get an opportunity to do anything.”
“I was just talking about you, you know,” Ashton said.
“I know,” I said.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think I trust Duncan. I think they have to open the door at some point, and there’s a good chance it’ll be soon, if nobody has claimed ownership of that Tangle. They might assume it’s ours.”
“That’s true,” Mary said.
“We’re also overdue for food and water. If they don’t plan to let us expire, then they’ll have to open the door to give us something. That’s our opportunity. Barring exceptional circumstances, though, we’ll hear the locks on that door turn, it’ll open, and we’ll get a chance. We’ll have to capitalize on that chance.”
“They’ve been careful so far,” Mary said.
The door handle squeaked, the locks grinding as the tumblers turned.
“-figure it out,” I said.
I climbed down from the table. Mary positioned herself to be behind the door as it swung open. The rest of us moved toward the doorway.
The door swung wide enough that it banged against the wall. Mary evaded it, then leaped up, climbing the side of the one heavy metal door until she was perched on top of it, weapon in hand.
It was Emmett, with Nora standing behind him.
I gestured, and Mary hopped down.
“Fray?” I asked.
“Thanks for coming,” I said.
“We thought you might need it,” Nora said. She shifted position, and her claws scraped against the floor of the tunnel. “You were gone for a while. We tried to take captives to interrogate, but we’re not very good at that.”
“We played to other strengths,” Abby said, peering around the door, into the room. “Hi Ashton.”
“Where’s Helen?” Abby asked.
“She’s here,” Ashton said. He pointed in my direction.
Abby looked our way, her expression concerned. “I don’t see her.”
“Ashton,” Duncan said. “Why don’t you go to Abby right now? Keep her calm, as all of this must be very stressful, and Abby doesn’t deal well with stress.”
“I’m not dumb,” Abby said. “What’s going on? Why does Ashton need to keep me so calm?”
She stepped further into the room. Ashton approached her.
Then she saw Helen. Her hands went to her mouth, her eyes moved in different directions, and she tipped over. Emmett caught her.
“Yeah,” Duncan said, quiet.
Nora looked very alarmed, peering into the room. She tensed at a sound from further down the hall.
We collected ourselves and our invalids, acting before our rescuers became too distressed. I helped Lillian get a grip on Jessie, and took her bag to ease the burden. It was too light, too much of it confiscated or spent.
The hallway was largely empty.
“What happened to Helen?” Nora asked.
“She got sick. We cut her down to the healthy bits. Duncan is confident that he, Lillian, and Professor Ibbot can put her back the way she was.”
Nora, her face barely visible beneath the shroud she wore, was nonetheless clearly displeased at that.
“Fill us in,” I said.
“The Crown forces are at the top deck and the doors. Everything else is a mess,” Nora said. “Both sides retreated to their corners. It’s scary, the way things are right now.”
Everything’s scary to you, I thought. “Define these ‘corners’.”
“I can’t even tell. Lara can’t either, she says. Both sides are shooting and fighting each other, but it’s all a jumble. This ship isn’t going anywhere, the city is filled with fighting but there are no clear battle lines we can make out. We’re trying to communicate with our people, but some of the ones who were relaying messages got hurt in the fighting. Some might be dead.”
Her voice changed with that last statement.
Abby was starting to recover. Ashton eased her down until she was walking. They fell behind the rest of the group as Ashton got Abby to start moving again. He spoke to her in a low, calm voice.
“There’s a chance Fray just wanted to make this conflict as even as possible – let both sides hurt each other until they could be destroyed. Toss out big plays to help one side, even things out, knowing that neither side can afford to back down.”
“Is that what Avis was doing at the roof?” Lillian asked. “Taking us down to the point we were on an even keel with the others, so we’d be as hurt as they were at the end? Or was it to keep us from tilting the scales in way she couldn’t predict?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Both make sense.”
“What’s her end goal?” Mary asked.
“I’d love to know that,” I said.
Footsteps tromped down the hall. The acoustics made it very audible.
Mary and Emmett picked up their pace, pulling ahead of the group.
We reached a T-junction in the ship’s labyrinthine interior, and Mary and Emmett caught up with the soldiers as they hurried down the hallway. They hadn’t expected trouble, their guns weren’t even in their hands, let alone raised.
Emmett, for all his strength, wasn’t graceless. He didn’t waste many movements, and he almost seemed gentle, in a weird way. He seemed willing to smash someone’s head against the wall with less force than necessary, leaving them stunned but otherwise conscious and alive, and he’d move on to the next, returning to the stunned individual before they had fully recovered.
Mary, for her part, was very efficient in ending lives. She finished with the second half of the squad of eight, then started on Emmett’s leftovers.
Ashton reached up to pat Nora’s long neck. She’d turned her face away from the violence.
The fallen soldiers were a chance for us to restock. Ammo, rifles, knives. I found a keyring on the captain’s belt and brought it with me.
“I’m going to need something,” Mary said.
“From them?” Ashton asked.
“No,” Mary said. “Lillian or Duncan. If you have it, I might need a combat drug.”
“You usually shy away from those,” Lillian said.
“Usually,” Mary said.
She left it at that. I kept an eye out and listened, but I kept my mouth shut as the conversation played out. I found a revolver and checked it had bullets in the cylinder, closing it back up again before Lillian uttered a response.
“This will do, then. Take it a minute before a fight. Or during the fight, if you’re willing to wait a minute for it to kick in.”
“I will,” Mary said.
It would have been silent, if not for Abby and Ashton’s conversation in the background, inaudible.
“Do we need jackets for the rain?” I asked, to break the quiet.
“It doesn’t burn the skin anymore,” Nora said.
“Good,” I said. “No other signs or symptoms?”
“Not that I saw. Lara says it’s safe enough some Crown soldiers have their hoods down out there.”
“Good,” I said. “Assuming we wanted out, which way do we go?”
‘Out’, in our case, involved taking an odd route. We headed down and to the front of the ship. The tunnels all narrowed, feeding into a main hallway. There were several security doors, not unlike the ones we’d had at the entrance to our cells. These ones, at least, had locks on either side. We could open locks.
The crew of the ship were concentrated into key areas, and the result was that many of the hallways and side rooms were dark and empty. They’d been planning on keeping a small army in here, with others included, and the army hadn’t had a chance to board before the ramp had been destroyed, the doors sealed.
“Lara says there’s trouble,” Nora said. “She’s with Bo Peep, Quinton, Red, and Fuzzy.”
“Fuzzy?” Duncan asked.
“Abby’s. He helped us get in. They’re at the front of the ship. They’re hiding, but there’s a patrol of soldiers there,” Nora said. “They’re going to find them in a minute.”
Her body language and voice reflected her fear.
“Are we going to get there in time?” Lillian asked. “Are we close?”
Emmett glanced over his shoulder, shaking his head.
“Okay,” I said. “Listen, tell Lara they need to act relaxed. Calm down. They shouldn’t be bothered if any Crown soldiers see them. Have them say they’re companions and pets for aristocrats that are supposed to get on board.”
“Lara doesn’t act calm,” Ashton said. Abby nodded.
“That’s fine. Just… if they ask, Lara’s master likes them weird. And scared.”
Nora nodded. She didn’t speak, and she didn’t reply. She was relaying the message.
“Have Red and Bo Peep take point, if possible.”
They were actually supposed to be companions and pets for aristocrat brats. For one event, at least.
We reached yet another security door. I heard Nora make a small sound of protest as we reached it. Anxious. Wanting to get through this.
I already had the key out, but the heavy lock needed several rotations.
My hand hurt from punching the metal wall of the ship.
“I didn’t get the full set of instructions to them, about Red and Bo Peep,” Nora said. “The soldiers are talking to them now.”
The door opened. Emmett raised a finger to his lips, and gestured the signal for caution.
We had to walk down the rest of the hallway. It took a minute, and by the time we reached the end, we could hear the voices.
“…here, of all places?” a soldier asked.
“It’s where they feed those things, and Lara needs a specialized diet,” Red said. “We were told to come here and wait if anything came up. They weren’t sure where their quarters would be.”
“Why are you armed?”
The hallway continued, but it became a kind of bridge, stabbing out into the center of a massive cargo hold, twenty feet above the floor of the hold, the walls another twenty feet away in each direction. Glass cases with metal bands and great metal pillars reinforcing them held fleshy masses, which extended a solid thirty feet from the floor to the ceiling. The things that made this entire thing ambulatory. More glass and metal reinforcement sheltered the parts of each ‘leg’ that sprawled across the floor below. It let the mouths be near one another for feeding. A port in the floor presumably allowed supplies to be easily moved in, as the ship lowered down over top of them, or it provided a way for the lifeforms to drink.
The bridge forked into two sets of stairs, leading left and right, and the soldiers were gathered on the stairs. Lara, Red, Bo Peep, Quinton and ‘Fuzzy’ were all together, on the ground floor. One of the glass cases was cracked. They’d come in through one of the openings the legs stuck out of.
The soldiers were facing forward. There was no reason they should have been worried about what was behind them, especially with the security doors they’d locked behind them every step of the way.
Perhaps it was a fear of someone or something coming up from the side or underside of the bridge that made one of the soldiers turn to look.
Mary threw a pair of knives. One sank into his heart, the other into his throat.
He gurgled, but that sound alone wasn’t quite enough to draw attention. She hauled on the strings, trying to keep him upright as he started to tip, ready to collapse down the stairs.
It bought us the seconds we needed.
I threw myself at the man Mary had thrown the knives at, knocking him down the stairs, so he bowled into the soldiers below him, knocking them over. I was already running and stumbling on top of them when Emmett went after the men on the other staircase.
I ran over the fallen and went after the captain at the head of the group, leaping.
A fair share of the pent up frustration from our incarceration was unleashed on the soldiers. Nora, Emmett, and Red offered their contributions, with Nora appearing from the staircase, and Red bringing her wood axe around in a swing.
‘Fuzzy’, as it turned out, was a Crown warbeast of the canine variety. A reptile-wolf with horns, not much bigger than a proper wolf. Once Abby was in sight, she was able to give it an order. It barked, rather than attacking.
If that was intentional, it worked just fine. It distracted, drawing attention, without jumping into the skirmish and biting at what might have been one of us.
“Helen’s gone,” Abby said, her voice rather flat.
The fact that she’d spoken was what clued me into the fact that we’d wrapped things up. None of the enemies stood.
“Not gone,” Ashton said. “Put away in a very tidy way.”
Abby made a face, glancing at Duncan, who held Helen.
Lara hugged her body with her claws. Bo Peep, too, looked distressed.
Helen was popular with the little ones.
Even Emmett, if I was reading our taciturn bruno right, was looking tense.
“She’s fine,” Ashton said. “Really. We’ll put her back to normal.”
He wasn’t terribly convincing.
It was Red who spoke up, before anyone else. “I believe you.”
“Why do you say that like not believing me is an option?” Ashton asked. “I’ve always been honest, unless I had to lie for a mission.”
“It’s not you,” Lillian said. “It’s not, Ashton. It’s… Helen looks bad. That’s a scary way to see someone you care about. It’s like seeing Sy when he’s not at his best. Or Nora or Lara mid-molt. They’re reacting to the sight of it.”
“I saw a lot, in Ferres’ labs,” Red said. “I saw people… pruned down. So things could be added, or so work could be done on parts of them before they were put back. Ferres disgusted me. She was reprehensible. But she made them beautiful, in a twisted way. I can believe you’ll get your Helen back, beautiful in her twisted way, too.”
“I saw some of those too,” Bo Peep said. “I was one of them, I think.”
“You were,” Red said.
Bo Peep still wasn’t looking up or at any of us.
Abby went to her side, picking up Quinton with one hand before taking one of Peep’s hands in her own.
“Thank you for coming,” I addressed the group.
“We’ll need another way out,” Nora said. “We used Fuzzy to relay us up. The legs are dangerous to touch, but Fuzzy can do it. But he can’t take all of us.”
I pointed at the door in the floor, “Help me with that, then.”
Fray’s little maneuver had upended everything. The Tangle was still there, working its way down streets, searching for bodies to add to its mass. Its head was, to look at it, a great insectile warbeast.
We’d observed it from the window, once we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that the rebels and converts we’d signaled weren’t in a position to help us. We’d tracked where it had come from and where it was going.
It took time for everyone to get to the ground. We had to descend by chain, and there were only two chains long enough. Fuzzy, Abby, and Bo Peep descended by way of one of the legs that was curled out.
To all appearances, the leg-things had been poisoned or killed.
The war had settled. The front lines were being held by the Crown, but there wasn’t any meaningful leadership. The Infante was supposed to be that leadership, but he was dead. The Professors were leadership of another sort, and they were here, a distance from the city.
There wasn’t enough infrastructure surrounding all of this for people to get the orders they were waiting for.
The ground was sodden. A vast carpet of grass and clover was dying where it had survived so many years, bred to thrive in the rain-soaked region around Radham. The acid was responsible for that, no doubt.
The landscape was a patchwork of crops, but those crops sagging and dying. Many of the dead had been left where they were. Buildings were damaged, and as dark as things were, no lights were on within any of the buildings I could see. No, the lights were in streets, where various soldiers and groups of soldiers had gathered, ready to defend their positions.
Crown and rebel. Locals and outsiders.
We had to navigate dangerous territory. There were streets now flooding because the bodies piled along one side formed a kind of barrier, keeping the water from draining into the soil. That floodwater would be capable of melting flesh. The soldiers and defensive lines were prepared to shoot at the first signs of trouble.
It wasn’t a big town, either. I could have walked across it in three-quarters of an hour, even accounting for the winding streets that were apparently designed for meandering.
Mary raised her rifle. I followed the line of the rifle.
“I could hit her,” she said. “Not saying I will or would, but I could. Theoretically.”
“No need,” I said.
She saw us, we saw her.
No surprises. It left things open.
No surprises, too, that they sent their envoy.
“I remember you,” the stitched girl said. “Some of you. You’re a lot older than last time.”
“Hello, Wendy,” Lillian said.
“You won’t hurt my colleagues?” Wendy asked.
Colleagues. A weird word. Not friends, not master or masters.
“Depends on a lot of things,” I said.
“I’m not very good at figuring those things out,” Wendy said. “A simple answer might be better.”
It was Lillian who stepped forward, still carrying Jessie. “We won’t hurt them if they don’t hurt us.”
“Then please come with me,” Wendy said.
We followed her. Stacks of wood with covers over them and rings of rubble hemming them in burned, casting orange light here and there. I wondered if there was another purpose for it.
In the distance, the Tangle smashed itself against the hull of the ship. A drum with a beat so slow that the last beat was nearly forgotten by the time the next arrived. A stark contrast to the endless patter of rain.
As we entered the corner of the city that Fray had taken for herself, we passed innumerable alleyways and buildings with people within. It wasn’t a high density of people. One or two to an alleyway. One in a window. But they were armed, and they had grim expressions. The expressions of people who had lost everything.
They hadn’t come with either army.
I had my suspicion about what was at play. I wished my memory was better, that Jessie was around for me to ask, to clarify it, and frame the upcoming discussion.
Warren and Avis greeted us, standing to one side of a fountain in the center of a broad intersection of two streets. The area might have served as a farmer’s market, or a place for festivals to be held.
Warren was tall, a monster of a man, muscle taken to extremes. His expression… there was a darkness in it that changed him. He had been human once, his head and brain were ordinary, a stark contrast to the pounds of muscle he wore and his overall frame, but he’d seen or experienced something and the humanity was gone, or it was close to being gone. He wore a white button-up shirt, suspenders, and black trousers. His boots were large enough for me to stick my head in.
He reached out to put a hand on Wendy’s back as she came to stand beside him.
Avis’ expression was dark. She hunched over, a heavy coat covering her body and wings. She looked like she was aging in fast motion, compared to the actual years that had passed. She’d been a young lady when I’d first seen her, as my shoddy memory went. She’d aged, suffering the Duke’s punishment. She’d aged more, in Fray’s company, when I’d seen her in Beattle. She looked like a crone now, hunched over the way she was, her wings gathered up behind her.
I looked at some of the people who stood off to one side. A man and a woman. Another woman. I noted the resemblance to Warren.
This particular event had struck a little close to home, hm?
“Fray isn’t here?” I asked.
Warren shook his head, slowly. I saw the darkness in his expression.
“She finally revealed what she’s all about, huh?” I asked.
The scowl deepened.