Crown of Thorns – 20.19

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We watched our creator bleed out.  We watched him lean heavily on the table, breathing as if each inhaled breath was an attempt to lift a large weight, blood bubbling around the wound, each exhalation comparatively feeble and sudden.

We watched him grope at the wound, pressing his hand to it.  Still holding our knife, we moved it to the crook of his elbow, drawing the blade against that crease.  He reached out, fumbling through the air in an attempt to grab the knife so he could be free to try to stop the bleeding, and he caught nothing but air.  He attempted to staunch the wound again, and again, we used the blade of the knife to pull his elbow and hand back.  His arm bled from the cut.  He didn’t try to stop the bleeding with his hand a third time.

“Sylvester,” Lillian said.

The blade of our knife touched our lips, in a ‘silence’ motion.

“I wanted an answer,” she said.  “I wanted to hear what the end goal was.”

Genevieve Fray had moved away from her position at one side of the desk, moving closer to the others.

Fray, Lillian, and Mary, standing opposite us.  Ashton was standing from his seat, backing away.  He’d been a little slow to notice the response of the others.

“If we say, he’ll know he was right or wrong.”

“Sy.”

We shook our head.  “He doesn’t get to know.”

“If you let him die like this, the rest of us don’t get to know either,” Mary said.

“I’ll tell you.”  It sounded strange to use ‘I’.

“When have you ever, ever said anything and had it be the unvarnished, undeniable truth?” Mary asked.

“That’s not terribly fair.  You know how my memory is.”

It was Lillian who chimed in, now, “Your memory might be bad, but you understand people.  You understand yourself.  You know people on an intrinsic level.  You know you lie, you bend the truth, you manipulate.  Even with us.”

Hayle reached over, trying to staunch the wound.  We caught his wrist.

His breathing sounded bad.

He fought to wrench his arm free, pulled against us, to try to match my strength with his own.

We were stronger than him.  We weren’t strong, Sylvester had never been, not compared to the average man, but we were stronger than him.  Our creator was an old man, and all of the political power and scientific knowledge at his disposal didn’t change that he had very human limitations.

Hayle fell from his chair in the process of fighting us, slumping against the front of the desk.  We held his wrist, so it was visible above the top of the desk.

“I love you, Doctor Lillian Garey.  I regret every single day, hour, and minute I didn’t get to spend in your company.  I love the girl you were, the young woman you are, and the person you’ll become.”

“That’s dirty.”

“It’s the unvarnished truth Mary wanted.  Like you said, I understand people.  I know who you are.  I know who I am.  I’m painfully aware of the ways we don’t mesh, the conflicts, the ways the gears and cogs that make up my being often grate and do damage when they run up against your finer workings.  I’m… dangerously aware of the ways we could mesh, given an opportunity.”

We met her eyes.  We still held Hayle’s wrist.

“As am I,” she said.  “Dangerously aware.”

“It’s the fate of a Doctor to reap what they’ve sown.  You’ve been gentle, Lillian.  Any ugliness in you was sown by others.”

“And you, Sy?”

I’m not your Sy.

“I was worried that Hayle’s revelations would ruin us, by revealing something that could divide us.  If we’d been- anyone else.  If the blame fell down differently.  He wants to ruin us with silence, so he gets this fate.  I was a child who scowled at him.  Maybe that’s ruinous in itself.  It raises questions, doesn’t it?  Maybe I was always ill-tempered and contrary.  Maybe I can’t lay the blame at my creator’s feet.  That might make things harder.”

“It’s only ruinous if you let it be,” Mary said.

We stopped, pausing.  Part of it was for effect.  Part of it was to digest, to find our bearings.

“Mary.”

“You shot me in the leg,” she said.

We fell silent, staring at her.

“You shot me in the leg, and now you’ll invent reasons and explanations as to why, but it’s my best response to what you’re about to say.”

“Assuming you know.”

“I’m going to assume you’ll say you love me, you’ll say it with just as much meaning, and it’ll strike me right in the heart, with just as much impact as any dagger or bullet I could deliver to you.”

Hayle pulled at my grip on his arm.  We let him.  It wasn’t because he was fighting us.  He was slumping over to the ground.

Mary went on, “You have your mission, and I don’t, not anymore.  I’m not looped into it anymore, even now.  I joined you, I fought the Infante, I brought Lillian and the others, but this was your plan.  You told us to trust you.  There’s a limit to how far that goes.”

“There is.”

“I already killed my creator, nascent Noble whatever you plan to call yourself.  I’ve stood where you stand.”

“You did, you have.”

“But you don’t get to pull that card, to call back to the first time you kissed me, or to the time you helped me get my knives on under the stairs, or how you leaned on me after we lost Jamie.  You don’t get to reminisce about how you brought me on the team, or how we play off of one another on a battlefield.”

Lillian touched Mary’s arm.

“You don’t get to,” Mary said.  “I understand why you did it, why you needed to, but that ‘why’?  It was evidence that I’m not your first priority.  You don’t love me like that.  You got to leave me behind, but you bought and paid for that opportunity at a cost.  You can’t say the same kind of thing to me that you said to Lillian, or it’ll be a lie, and if you can’t give me truth, against your better nature, then I can’t know you’re speaking the truth when you tell us what Hayle’s end goal for us was.”

We nodded.

“I’ve said my piece.  Now say what you’re going to say, be your manipulative self, pull on my strings and convince me you’re telling the truth,” Mary said.

We were silent.

“Please,” she added, as a belated afterthought.

“Thank you for looking after Lillian.”

Lillian’s hand dropped away from Mary’s arm.

“I know by saying that, I’m only reinforcing that you’re not in first place, I don’t like that.  But it’s heartfelt.  I do mean it.  The only thing that kept me sane at times was that you were there with her.  Ashton, Helen, and even Duncan too, but… mostly you, in that sense.”

Mary nodded.

“I’ll tell you where you do fall in first place.  I realized the truth about the Block because of you.  The nature of Nobles.  The Falconer.  She was you.  That undefinable, underlying element.  I saw that part of you in her.”

“I’m glad I helped,” she said.

I believed her.  There was no malice in her voice.  For all that she’d mentioned me shooting her in the knee, there was no hatred.  Only quiet concern.

She wasn’t gripping that throwing knife with any less intensity than before.

“You’ve always been goal oriented.  The mission, the challenge.”

“Percy hammered it into me.  Slight alterations in my growth and upbringing to tune me to those ends.”

We looked down at Hayle.  He was still, not even trying to breathe.  A bubble of congealing blood popped at his side.

We stepped on the side of his neck for good measure.  More blood bubbled out of his side in response, mostly due to how he’d shifted position at the added weight.

“And now I’ve killed my creator too.”

Lillian moved forward, hesistant to approach us.  We didn’t move, watching as she circled the desk, giving me a wide berth.

“I won’t bite.”

The eye contact on her part was intense, unflinching.  A thousand things communicated.  She maintained it well past the point where she could have broken the connection and looked down at Hayle.

We saw her purse her lips slightly at the sight.

Fray, off to one side, frowned.  She’d fallen silent.  No doubt she was considering her various alternatives.

“The mission, Sy?” Mary asked.

“Our goal in this?  Jessie and I had our plan we were working on.  Key pieces we needed to knock down, things and people we could use, ways we could whittle at the greater hierarchy until something toppled.  We didn’t have all of the information, we didn’t know how far the Infante would go, but it was workable.  A long shot, but workable.  That’s what Jessie and I were doing.”

“We’ve never shied away from long shots,” Lillian said.  She returned to Mary’s side, glancing up at Fray as she passed the woman.

“No we haven’t.  But I want you to know, Mary, my connection to you and your connection to the Falconer started us on this greater mission.  It was when we started moving in this particular direction.  One that sees all of us in this office.  I’d hoped Jessie would be here, mind you.”

“Not entirely unpredictable,” Mary said.

“Not entirely.  It’s still a shame.”

“It really is.”

“I couldn’t share the plan because if I’d been wrong, it would’ve left us with nothing.  ‘Nothing’ is salvageable if it’s all you have at the end, all you need is the strength for one final effort.  ‘Nothing’ at the outset or midway point of a long campaign makes the rest doubly difficult.  We couldn’t have managed that.”

“We’re not so weak as that, Sy.”

“You aren’t.  I might’ve been.”

We watched her, we saw the small changes in her expression, the way she looked at Lillian, as if she was betraying her friend by thinking it.

“Maybe.”

“It all comes together with us becoming Nobles, that’s the conclusion.  I never would have figured it out or imagined us here if I hadn’t seen your other self as such a fine Noble, if I hadn’t known to my core that our Mary would have been so much better than her.  It took a while to digest things and realize, I had my doubts, but it was a real process, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without you.  Whether I communicated it or not, the mission was and is yours.”

We watched Mary, in much the same way we’d watched Hayle.  The little details, summed up into the greater battle.

The rain was so heavy outside.  We’d really missed it so.  We’d missed how dark things became in the late evening, how the rooms were illuminated in strange hues by the combinations of candles and lamps, by artificial, voltaic lights burning their chemical yellows and oranges, and by the blue-green light so common to bioluminescent sources.  No one light source was consistent or powerful enough to reach the corners and crevices, the combinations therein casting everything in a strange light.

Mary was so beautiful, so elegant.  We felt an appreciation for her, and we tried to feel it in a way that could reach past the desk and the chasm that separated us.

Lillian not elegant, but beautiful in so many other ways.  Lillian had been Mary’s professed reason for killing Percy.  A just, overdue killing.

“Where does this mission lead?” Mary asked.  “Hayle is dead, you can say.”

“Fray and Hayle gave up on us when we fractured and when we abdicated.”

“Not entirely,” Genevieve Fray spoke.  “We held out a measure of hope.”

“But you made plans in case we didn’t succeed.  Things were tenuous.”

“Eggs and baskets,” Fray said.

“The question arises, then.  What does a rebel terrorist like yourself get up to when she needs something that would scare even the Crown, who thinks nothing of leveling whole continents, with plans to return to recolonize the ruins several generations later?  She wants to spare humanity.  Her resources are a headmaster of a special projects Academy, scattered few lost souls, innumerable rebel groups, a printing press…”

“Do you know, or are you asking?” Fray asked.

“I don’t know the exact answer.  I expect the primordials are involved.  Nothing else would scare the Crown, and you need to scare them if you’re going to try and convince them that defeating you means they lose as well.  Nothing else would break Avis and Warren.”

“You’ve seen the answer, Sylvester.  Lambs.”

“Clarify,” Mary said.

“The Hag Nerve.  The Black Wood.  The Harvester units.  The Whelps.  The Belchers.  The Little Ones.  I could name others, but I’d be less confident you’ve encountered them.”

“And somehow the printing press and the spread of Academy knowledge helps you deploy this assortment?” Lillian asked.

“It helps her deploy the safeguard.  Only the safeguard.  A backup measure, and a means of preparing distribution.”

“Sylvester,” Fray said.  “Or… whoever you are.  If you’re doing what I think you’re doing.  I understand you wanted Hayle to die with doubts and torment, worrying about what he brought forth.  If you think perverting my mission or even entertaining the idea of doing so is a similar kind of punishment for my role in your existence, then I- I really have to argue otherwise.  I’m wary enough as it is.”

“I don’t understand,” Lillian said.  “Those projects?  All put together, they’ll create a mess.  But… only a mess.  Is there a greater whole I’m missing?”

“No.”

“No.  Nothing like that,” Fray echoed us.  “But none of it is like it was.  I’ve been refining them with the help of my lab partners.  No one answer will really stop the Academy.  Hayle and I planned to threaten a strike on all fronts.  A crushing offense in a way that tops whatever they could bring to bear.”

“With a collection of special projects?  You’re talented, I’m sure, Avis has her strengths, I read over her graduate work, but-”

“The lab partners aren’t Avis and Warren,” we interrupted.

Lillian closed her mouth.  She looked between us and Fray.

“Primordials?” Ashton asked.  He’d been the first to clue in, picking up on the lingering detail.  “Your lab partners are primordials?  That’s crazy.  They’d be terrible at taking notes.”

“They weren’t there to take notes,” Fray said.  “They were there to take what I gave them, turn the projects over and around, explore them, and give us something better.”

“That’s what you meant when you said they reached a point where they wanted to create tools.  You’re insane,” Lillian said.

“I was desperate,” Fray said.

“You’re actually more insane than Sylvester.”

“I was desperate!” Fray said, with new emotion in her voice.  “We were desperate.  We’re all desperate, don’t you see?”

“We absolutely see,” the words left our lips.

“And you’re absolutely the wrong type of person to handle this, Sylvester-the-Noble,” Fray said.  “I’m not even sure I’m the person to handle it.  Only two of the projects are in a state where I could imagine using them.  The others need more time.”

“So your safeguard might hold.  Your tainted water, the leash.”

“Lillian,” Fray said.  She wasn’t even talking to us, changing focus to our Doctor.  Our heart.  “You’re most equipped to understand what I was doing.  It took two years to teach them that the chemicals I used in the leash was anathema, death and frustration as assured as anything.  I kept them small, each of my primordials no larger than a human head.  I’ve been working on it for years, and I still think it’s too dangerous.  It was a last resort, and I don’t think you’re right, in calling me more insane than he is.  I’m worried Sylvester is going to try to convince you all it’s a resort of the less than final kind.”

“I’m still trying to grasp this.  What you were doing, with the barrier to the primordials, the scale of this,” Lillian said.  Her eyes went wider than they already were.  “You’d destroy everything?

“Everything that wasn’t leashed.  We’d distribute the leash.  We’d clear out everything, but for an island of humanity.  But only if it looked like there was no other way.  I can’t emphasize that enough.”

“Oh my lords,” Lillian said.  She looked between Fray and us as if she was trying to tell which was worse.

“That kind of cussing loses its meaning when we got here by killing lords.”

“Please don’t try to be funny,” Lillian said.  “How close did we come?  How close are we?  Is this something you’re even entertaining, Sy?”

“I entertain everything.  It’s part of what I do.”

“I-” she started.  She turned and nearly lost her balance.  Mary caught her.  Lillian backed away several steps, to get a better view out the door.  Our lieutenants were there.  Red was there.  My fairy tales.

Their expressions were dark.

“Please tell me I’m not the only sane person here,” Lillian said.

“You’re not the only sane person here,” Gordeux said.

The Treasurer spoke, “I’m not sure I get it.  I’ve read about Primordials, I understand them in that sense, but I read about the war for the Crown Empire.  Past a certain point, it’s words on a page.  Important, ominous words, but still black ink on white or yellowed paper.”

“Don’t say that,” Lillian said.  “Please.  Don’t let me think that Sylvester could convince you to go along with this.”

“Would he?”

“He’s considering it, like he considers everything,” Mary said, from beside Lillian.  While Lillian made her plea to the Beattle rebels, Mary fixed her gaze on me.

“It’s a potential bargaining chip.”

“To?” Mary asked.

“To approach the King’s table as a person with a voice, if it comes to it.  To threaten a war they couldn’t necessarily win.”

“We can’t do this, we can’t touch it,” Lillian said.  “As a last resort, or as a bargaining chip.  I don’t trust you that much, Sy, however much I do believe that you love me and the rest of the Lambs.”

“Ah.”

It was barely a word that passed through our lips.

“When Sylvester was addressing Mary,” Fray said.  “He spoke of needing something.  That having ‘nothing’ at the early or middle stages of the journey made it impossible to forge forward.”

“He did,” Mary said.

“Then I want you to know this was our something.  There wasn’t necessarily truth to this as a plan.  We needed to know we had the option of going that far, while we were simultaneously terrified of being forced to.  Because it grants confidence and the desperate need to put other options forward or bring other things to fruition.”

“That’s not good enough,” Lillian said.

Hayle was thoroughly dead.  Our foot hurt where it pressed against his neck.  We started to bend down to check him, and Mary moved, tensing.

Once she saw what we were doing, she gestured, allowing us to carry on.

We pressed one finger to the old man’s throat, and found it without a pulse.

We ran one hand over his thin white hair, brushing it back.

We looked at him, examining the features that had shifted as consciousness had fled him, and searched for a sign that he’d gone out doubting, afraid, and lost.

In the background, the others were talking.  Lillian spoke about her brief experience with primordials.  Fray countered with talk of the safeguards.  Lillian made mention of how unsecure things had been at Lugh, how close we’d been to disaster.

We tuned it out.  We paid attention to the patter of rain on the window.  We knew the only enemies that remained to be defeated were across an ocean, years away from a confrontation, and were arranged here, in this room.  Mary, Ashton, Lillian.

“I trust you,” the Treasurer said.  “I don’t know, but you have the greatest grasp of things here.  You know the Lambs in ways we don’t, you know the enemy, you have experience with Primordials.”

“I don’t know if I deserve that trust,” Lillian said.  “But thank you.”

“I can’t guarantee we’ll all go along with you, but maybe most.”

“Maybe most,” one of the other Lieutenants echoed the Treasurer.

We straightened.  We felt a kind of peace.  Fray’s conspiracy, the tools she’d devised, they’d been the last god to defeat.

As we’d taken Power and turned it against the enemy, then taken Hayle’s unknown and visited it on him, we stood poised to take Fray’s conspiracy from her.  The grand plan, the cards in her sleeve.

She would desperately fight to keep us from doing so.  Lillian would too.

We walked around the desk, approaching the group, our thoughts turning.

It was Ashton who got in our way.  He held Helen up and out, so Helen butted into our chest.

“Helen says no.”

The conversation in the background stopped.

“Helen can’t talk.”

“She deserves a chance, just like me,” Ashton said.  “You convinced Mary and Lillian you’re being honest.”

“Not quite,” Lillian said.

“Well it sounded like you did,” Ashton said.  “And then you were less convinced when Sylvester started talking about using primordials as an option.”

“Primordial-refined threats.”

“Don’t be pedantic, Sylvester,” Ashton said, almost sighing as he said it.

“Alright.”

“Well, I think Helen and I deserve a chance to hear what you have to say and argue about it.  I think we’re harder to convince, because Helen mostly doesn’t have ears or a mouth, and I’m stubborn.  And as much as I like them, I think Mary and Lillian are very biased, because you’ve slept with them lots-”

Someone in the back cleared their throat.

“-and lots, and sometimes both at the same time-”

“Move it along, Ashton,” Lillian said.  Then, addressing the larger group, she added, “He’s referring to us sleeping in the same bed, for the record, when we were much younger.”

Ashton frowned, turning his head and opening his mouth, his expression changing as if he was trying to formulate an Ashton argument.

“Move it along,” Lillian said.

“Okay, well, you’ve only slept with me a couple of times, like that one time at Hackthorn,” Ashton said.

“Enough about that, please,” Lillian said.  She was flushed now.

“I’m not as biased,” Ashton said, firm.  “I think we should talk to Duncan and I think we should leave this be.”

“I think we should hold onto everything we can, as options and weapons go.  We’re so close to having security for the first time ever, it’d be the worst kind of tragedy to get here and to lose that security immediately after.”

“At what price?” Lillian asked.

“Did I interrupt your one-on-one with Sylvester?” Ashton asked.  “You’re all so terribly rude these days.  It’s the rebel thing, I’m sure.  It’s done away with your etiquette.”

“I’m sorry.  Carry on.”

“You like the mice.  There are mice all over the place.  I think if you were the Sylvester I knew in the beginning, then you’d never want to risk hurting them, and I’m concerned you’ve forgotten that part.  Or you’ve given it up, Sylvester.”

“I made a compromise.  I’ve wrestled with this, with everything, over a very long period of time.  Everything I’ve taken in and digested has led me to this conclusion.  I think you’ve been taking things in and digesting them too.  I think you’re trying to be funny, to fill a role, you’ve been looser, more free, more creative.”

“I’m trying,” Ashton said.  “But it takes work for me.   I think it takes you work to not slip away.”

“I think you might be right.”

“I like Abby, Lara, Nora, Bo Peep, Emmett, and Quinton.  When I was reading my books and trying to figure out empathy back in the beginning, I was told to imagine my favorite people and I was told to imagine other people in their place.  I imagined Helen, then, and that led to me getting yelled at a lot.  It was very frustrating.”

We reached out.  We rested one hand on top of Helen.

“The world has other Abbys and Laras, Noras, Bo Peeps, Emmetts and Quintons out there.  Ones I haven’t met yet.  If Ms. Genevieve Fray asked you what you wanted and what you believed, if that mattered, then someone should ask me what I want.  I want to meet more of those people I’m very fond of.  I don’t want to risk killing them, and I think that Fray is right and you’re the wrong person to trust with these primordial-refined projects.”

“Alright,” we said.  “That’s a good argument.”

“Thank you.”

“Should we hear Helen’s, before we respond?”

“She can’t talk, Sylvester.  Obviously.”

“Obviously.”

“So you’re going to have to imagine her arguing at you.  I want you to imagine really hard, and come up with an argument that beats you, okay?  Do her justice, give her a moment to shine.  She likes those moments.”

“I can’t do that, Ashton.”

We stroked Helen, running a hand along the wadding of bandage-covered flesh.

“I want to bring about a world that makes Helen happiest.  Her ideal world, in a way.”

“That’s not reassuring,” Lillian said.

“I want to bring about a world that makes you happiest, Lillian,” we said.  “One where you have every last thing you want, and yes, the stakes are high, it feels like the world is resting on your shoulders.  But isn’t that something you wanted, in its way?  You wanted to run an Academy and run it well, and deal with all of those pressures.  You’ve been preparing for it for a long time.”

We walked past Ashton, approaching Lillian.

“I want to give you us,” we said, placing an emphasis on ‘us’.  We let the word sit for a moment.  “I want to give you a black coat you’ve earned, and family, and peace.  I want the cogs and gears to fit together.  Believe it or not, with everything else set aside or reframed, I think it could be achievable.”

Lillian pursed her lips.

“You know he’s good at this,” Fray said.  “The deceit, the manipulations.”

We shot her a look.  Warning.

“He is,” Lillian said.

“But?”

“But I’d like to believe it.”

We nodded.  We glanced at the group just outside the door.

“I want the Beattle rebels and our other assorted allies to have what they wanted, when they offered us their help.  A chance to finish their educations, a chance to bring about change that will see the history books.  Security, safety, success, and something we haven’t had for a long, long time now.  A shot at a life that resembles ‘normal’, at a time when it feels impossible to get back to that point.”

“All the promises in the world,” Fray said.

“I’ve been thinking on this very hard, for a very long time.”

“I imagine you have,” Fray said.

“Mary would make a fine Noble, and she would have her armies, her soldiers to train, and a mission unlike any other, one that might mark a turning point in history.”

“And Helen?”  Ashton asked.

Beautiful again.  She’d have to be, to be a Noble.  She would revel in the role, especially with some tuning.  She could have the greatest of prey to hunt.

Ashton nodded.

Your friends would be taken care of, as a generation to follow us.  They’d be free and they’d be together.  You’d have them, and others like them, Ashton.”

Ashton was silent at that, but he looked introspective.

We spread our arms.  Emphasis, theater, trying to make ourselves larger, as if it was a demand for more attention.

“I want Jessie to live.  I want Jessie to be Jessie.  I want to be greedy and have everyone, and I want to be greedy and claim my fairy tale happy ending.  I want everything I’ve promised to all of you, because those same things would nourish me.”

They were listening.

“I want to win, and I want to turn this shitty, blighted, corpse-strewn landscape into something we can be proud of.”

“At what cost?” Fray asked.

“The cost has been paid,” we said.  “In large part.  It’ll be hard work to secure things.  Taking all of these things I’ve described, they could be easy enough.  Keeping them will be hard.  Costly.  It will require work and focus.”

“And it’ll require you to have that bargaining chip, the world held at gunpoint,” Lillian said.  She looked so terribly sad.

“No.”

“No?”

“Mary, if you would?”

“Would what?”

“Search Genevieve.  She’ll have the means on her.  She wouldn’t trust it to other hands.  Be wary of the needles in her fingers.”

“The means?” Mary asked.  But she approached Genevieve Fray.

“I’m praying this is all an elaborate head game,” Fray said.  She submitted to the search.  Mary’s hands glided over her, searching, patting her down.  Vials and tools came free, were held up for us to see, then tossed to the ground.  “That Sylvester intends to break me in a different way than he broke Hayle.  You’re better than this, Lambs.”

“Of course we are.  We’re of the same stock as Nobles.”

“That is not what I meant.”

Fray reacted as Mary shifted to another location to search.

“There.”

We watched as Fray closed her eyes.

Mary sliced at Fray’s blouse, to reveal what was beneath.  She reached- and tentacles reached out, seizing her arm.

Fray had a creature living beneath her clothing.

“Down, Nina,” Fray said.

The tentacles released Mary’s hand.

Fray’s ‘means’ took the form of a key.  She’d made a spot below her ribcage for the item to slide in.  A sheath buried in flesh, so that the item could slide in, with only the uppermost end visible as a bar of dark metal against pale flesh.

Mary hooked the item with one finger and pulled it free.

A heavy iron key.

“Wendy will tell us where it is,” we said.

We paused for emphasis.

“You’ll find out, but don’t tell anyone, least of all me,” we said.  We watched as expressions shifted.  Relief, almost.  “Lillian safeguards the key.  Mary safeguards Lillian.”

We’d disarmed ourselves.  The weapon was known, but we were no longer a threat.  The hope we’d fostered would be free to blossom.

We touched the small of Lillian’s back as we approached her.  “We’ve won.  We have what we need.”

She stood taller.  There was an element of the dream, here.  The heady notion of possibility.  She wasn’t alone, either.  We’d claimed our third god, devoured it.

“He wanted us to worm our way into the graces of the Crown,” we said.  “To subvert it from within.  A gamble, one that could be made once at best.  We had to prove we were worthy, surviving to this point.”

“We’re here,” Mary said.

“We’re here,” Ashton said to Helen.

Indeed.  We were here.

“Take Fray into custody,” we ordered.

She stared us down as she walked past.  There was no hint of a smile on her face.  Much like Hayle in his final moments, she was left to wonder, to agonize.

The key could be obtained later, as the situation called for it.  To potentially have the ability to bring about the end of life on earth as we knew it, but for our small parcel of reality.

When we’d come to our compromise, hearing out the voice, weighing everything and losing that fight to hold onto everything worth having and hold onto our sense of right, we’d realized it was untenable.

There would need to be sacrifices, to preserve those things we so wanted.

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57 thoughts on “Crown of Thorns – 20.19

  1. Honestly, at that point I’m kind of hoping one of the rebel lieutenant goes “fuck it”, and shoots Sylvester in the head. There, potential apocalypse averted. It’s been a long time coming, really.

    • Still hoping that many of the following aren’t typos and that Sy is still sort of active!

      Fray, Lillian, and Mary, standing opposite me.
      ~Fray, Lillian, and Mary, standing opposite us.

      pulled against me, to try to match my strength
      ~pulled against us, to try to match our strength

      process of fighting me,
      ~process of fighting us,

      Hayle pulled at my grip on his arm. We let him. It wasn’t because he was fighting me.
      ~Hayle pulled at our grip on his arm. We let him. It wasn’t because he was fighting us.

      hesistant to approach me. We didn’t move, watching as she circled the desk, giving me a wide berth.
      ~hesitant to approach us. We didn’t move, watching as she circled the desk, giving us a wide berth.

      aren’t Avis and Warren,” we interrupted.
      ~”we interrupted.” is italicized when it shouldn’t be

      words left my lips.
      ~words left our lips.

      desperately fight me to keep me from doing so
      ~desperately fight us to keep us from doing so

      “Mary, if you would?”
      ~Double space

        • I believed her. There was no malice in her voice.
          -We believed her.

          For all that she’d mentioned me shooting her in the knee, there was no hatred.
          -For all that she’d mentioned us shooting her in the knee, there was no hatred. (though I guess me would also work ’cause it was just Sy then)

          “Lillian safeguards the key. Mary safeguards Lillian.”
          -Like Alan Atkinson said, this should be italicized.

        • Also:

          to try to match my strength with his own
          -to try to match our strength with his own

          I’m not your Sy.
          -We’re not your Sy. (then again it’s in italics so maybe “I’m” is correct here)

          giving me a wide berth.
          -giving us a wide berth

          Our lieutenants were there. Red was there. My fairy tales.
          -Our fairy tales.

          While Lillian made her plea to the Beattle rebels, Mary fixed her gaze on me.
          -Mary fixed her gaze on us.

          Emphasis, theater, trying to make ourselves larger,
          -ourself(?) larger

  2. Wow. This is getting toward an ending I did not expect.

    Typo: “Lillian safeguards the key. Mary safeguards Lillian.” needs to be in italics, given that it’s Noble!Sy speaking.

  3. “I want to bring about a world that makes Helen happiest. Her ideal world, in a way.”

    Yeah, I remember Helen’s ideal world. From 5.4:

    “Everything that isn’t necessary to getting what we want is gone […] There’s an abundance of it all, thanks to science. Food is everywhere and it overflows and there’s nothing to worry about because we have and we want and we take. We’re, and by we I mean people, we’re everywhere and we spill over into one another and we’re all knit together, physically and mentally. It’s an exquisite landscape of things that don’t ever run out to see and touches and tastes and smells and mating and eating and mindless fighting and eating-mating and fighting-eating and fighting-”

    Really, really not reassuring.

  4. Wow. I was not expecting the ending to go this way. I want a happy ending for the Lambs, but now I’m seeing just what the cost of that ending would be.

    I always figured Sy would die before Twig’s end, but now I think he has to die.

  5. That’s interesting. I did a search for instances of “I” in Not!Sylvester’s narration, and of the three in this chapter, all relate specifically to killing Hayle. (“I used the blade of the knife to pull his elbow and hand back”, “I held his wrist, so it was visible above the top of the desk”, “Hayle pulled at my grip on his arm. I let him.”)

    So it seems like Sylvester isn’t quite as gone as we might think. The question then is: what makes killing Hayle, in particular, bring him out where all the conversation with the Lambs failed to do so? And I don’t have a good answer to that for the moment, but it’s an interesting and potentially important thing to wonder about when theorizing about the endgame.

  6. His usage of the royal we, I think, really helped sell the ominous atmosphere. Both for his ongoing mental instability and his uh, nobility. Jesus christ, I’ve never quite felt that creeping sense of our protagonist needing to get shot before but hey, there it is.

    • The “Royal” We, god I love it! I also love how, in the couple of instances where he says “we” aloud, it’s unclear whether he means We the lambs or We the Noble. We’re finally getting to see just how far gone Sy is and I think it’s FAR too late to stop him.

      I know any end where Sy gets to live and enact his plans is probably horrible, but I can’t help but root for him. Knowing that he is the true product of all the evils this world has to offer, I feel like he is the punishment that this system wholeheartedly deserves.

      I’m rooting for the bad guy, folks.

      • Hey I’m 100 percent behind you. Bad guys all the way. Sylvester has taken the spot of top protagonist in my heart. He’s such an ass.

        I just hope he’ll be happy in the end, cause I get this sinking suspicion that he’s not. Like that one quote from the last chapter, when if Hayle asked if they could just let it all go? Sy said yes and Mary or Lilian, forgot who, looked at him funny.

        I think that’s meant to show that if Sy was in his right mind that would be exactly what he wants. To just, relax, spend the rest of his life with he lambs after securing their safety. Not this mad gamble for power.

        God I love that bastard.

      • I think it can be seen as both, which is why it’s brilliant! Also, consider that The Infante Phantom is an amalgamation of all of the monstrous phantoms in his head. Sy has simply let himself join a collective gestalt of all the voices in his head, rightfully calling themselves “We”

        I’m reminded of a biblical verse and a demon called Legion…..

  7. As utterly terrifying as noble-Sy is, I’m still fairly certain he’s better than the Crown. Even if he has to use Fray’s Gambit.

    I mean think about it. The crown has probably destroyed continents half a dozen times or more. It’s an evil of massive proportions. It reminds me of a quote from 1984 “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever”.

    As I see it, that boot is the only real alternative to Sy.

  8. So… what’s the bet that Jessie/Jamie will wake (In their final form!) just in time to Kick Sy’s ass ?

    When Fray was talking about the last card up her sleeve, I seriously thought it was Jamssie – Some sort of recursively improving mega-brain the likes of which Sy talked about in his first/second meeting with Fray. Cause… right now Singularity!Jamssie seems like the only thing likely to push the threat level higher (though for good or ill… who knows).

    Honestly Singularity!Jamie was my first guess at the final big bad back when the story was starting. Now it seems likely that they might be the last line of defense… (good grief).

    Also, seriously- Mary: Just stab the bastard!
    I know he’s a manipulative son of a bitch, but if even Hayle can tell that THIS ISN’T SY, then surely his best friends know that he is messed up way beyond the point where he should be making decisions like this. Why didn’t they throw Fray, Hayle and Sy in separate dungeons, and then sit down to figure out the details over a week or so?
    The fight is over. Punch Sy, lock him up, and put the god damn key somewhere he will never ever find it. (IE, nowhere near Lillian.)

    BTW, Sy’s hypothesis about Hayle’s plan – getting into the good graces of the Lord King: Do people believe it? Was that the end game? Somehow that seems too… small.
    Honestly Fray’s plan seems too small also, I was kind of imagining her to be working at one level higher. Beating the crown at their own game seems awfully… brute force… compared to her previous wiggly “watery” plans.

    Also:
    Thanks Wildbow, for another wonderful Chapter.

    • The lambs know whatever has happened to Sy, he is loyal to them. Mary’s knee not withstanding, every time he has been deepest in his own turmoil, he chose to hurt himself over hurting them. Every plot and plan had their well being included as a goal.
      So they dont trust *his* motives, but they have good reason to trust *his* loyalty.

      As for Hayle’s motives, this relationship between noble and academy is a HUGE part of their world. Coming up with a way to improve it with more powerful/intelligent nobles would be a massive improvement over every noble we have seen so far. It would shake the entire world (well, whats left of it at least). That is an incredible project.

      Fray is also under the effects of wyvern. It also sounds like her going 100% rogue was not real. Further, her performance has degraded over time; something Sy himself stated would happen, but that her fate would be different than his own. Sy lost the ability to be the primary personality in his own body by creating too many simulcra as he degraded. What did Fray lose? She used wyvern to plot and plan. What if her loss has been the ability to do so with discernment. A kind of wild creativity that leaves her unable to figure out which of the many plots and plans in her head are actually useful? Hiding a protective key in a “weapon” is a creative way to hide it from the crown, but how useful is it to save the small pockets of humanity left? Creating an ultimate superweapon utilizing primoridal brains is highly creative, but how useful is it to have a weapon capable of finishing off the world when your goal is to save it?

      This chapter has my imagination on fire, and im loving it! As a side note, I love that fray named her personal tentacle monster something slightly cute.

    • One of the problems is that it IS still Sy. He’s gone completely off the deep end in every way imaginable, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t the same person. He’s been changed, not destroyed. The Infante-voice driving his actions is ultimately just a part of him. The other Lambs have known for a while now that he might suddenly flip out and try to kill them, and they’re not happy about it, but they’re not going to start treating him like some kind of monster because of it.

  9. Hi Wildbow, I’m not sure if you still read the comments, but I just wanted to say that after ten years, I’m starting to write again. I used to love writing, but life and “practical pursuits” got in the way. Now I’m finally starting to do something I truly enjoy doing, and I wanted to say that you are one of my biggest inspirations. The worlds you have so masterfully crafted, the characters you have brought to life, have given me hope that I can also take what’s in my head and give it life just as you have. So thanks, for Worm, for Pact, and most definitely for Twig.

  10. Wildbow really managed to set up a hell of a world. We’re at the very tail end of the story and only now does a world-ending mcguffin get revealed and yet it doesn’t feel at all forced or gimmicky. Just “yup, this is totally within my expectations for this universe, dammit Fray”.

  11. Provided he doesn’t, you know, destroy absolutely everything, I wonder how the hell Sy is going to going to go down in the history books? “So up til the 19th century every thing was normal, then Wollstone managed to create the first stitched and things sorta escalated from there, creating a truly screwed up ruling class. And then THIS random little fucker comes along and starts breaking shit….”

  12. This chapter made me realize how far Ashton developed as a character. That is quite interesting and made me like him even more.

    Why do I have the feeling that the end of Twig will be Jessie awakening and seeing the ruins of the world, asking after what happened to Sy and/or the lambs but never getting an answer (or at least one the audience hears).

  13. Three gods down. To me this feels like a warm, fun moment, full of _potential_.

    A lot of that potential is ‘how things could go dark again’, granted!

    Will he try to be sneaky and pull something, will he try to pull something and be caught, or more interestingly will he watch as (Mary-guarded) Lillian is crushed by pressure into doing what he expects, without him ever laying a finger on the key himself?

    What intrigues me the most is what’s going to happen with Sy’s mental state, now that they’ve _won_ (locally, not against the Crown yet) and the Lambs can get to the point of treating Sy’s falling-apart wetware in earnest. It would be absurd for them to not do anything to try to address his situation now that they can seriously start work on Jessie and Helen and the others, too. So, what I have the most curiosity about is what Sy’s brain is going to turn into! Whether the resulting mental changes/recoveries affect his committed plan at this point! Wheee!

    In the comments I find everyone shivering at the ominousness here, but I found it surprisingly positive, for all my previous nervousness about the final plans of the Voice, a voice that had almost driven Sy to kill the Lambs before. This is probably affected by that, at least in the context of a work given to be fiction, I don’t hold great emotional stake in the lives of most of a single planet, compared to the daily lives of the main characters and those close to them. Granted, nice if they get through this without hurting themselves by going to those lengths, but I would be less sad if the Lambs somehow stick together and turn almost everything into a hellhole than if Sy tried to save the Lambs through doing so and was stopped, everyone sacrificing themselves for the world’s mice. Of course, Sy trying to do so, stopped, and them all getting through everything anyway would also be nice in its own way.

    Given that it looks like the current Sy’s brain is lying to Lillian in regards to what Sy wants for the two of them, quite interested indeed in what Sy’s brain will want when the Lambs get Sy’s brain worked on by skilled people…

    • Forgot–I wanted to mention that I like the moment at the end of the character in terms of all the nice ways things can go, rather than apparent paths of ‘Maybe don’t die yet’, ‘Horrible death’ ‘Further into darkness’, ‘Winning a fight’. Even if the official story goes a different way, I can always think make to this moment and imagine Mary and Helen and Sy and Jessie the Nobles (with Lilllian and with others) ruling over and protecting a reclaimed Crown States a bit like a grander version of a certain superpowered team in their heyday in a certain city in a certain different fiction.

  14. We shook our head.  “He doesn’t get to know.”
    Ah, yeah. Sy didn’t just neutralize the Unknown, he seized it and weaponized it.

    Hayle fell from his chair in the process of fighting us, slumping against the front of the desk.  We held his wrist, so it was visible above the top of the desk.
    It’s terrible, but… this Hayle situation playing in the background was kind of funny to me.

    “As am I,” she said.  “Dangerously aware.”
    Oho~ did it just get warmer in here? Actually, this could be read more coldly, too, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to.

    “Thank you for looking after Lillian.” Lillian’s hand dropped away from Mary’s arm.
    I’m not sure how to read that gesture. Maybe she sensed that he was manipulating them, by tying them together?

    “It was evidence that I’m not your first priority.  You don’t love me like that.”
    “I know by saying that, I’m only reinforcing that you’re not in first place, I don’t like that.  But it’s heartfelt.”
    I don’t really buy the reasoning, given that Jessie is already quasi-sharing first place with Lillian. Besides that, it’s interesting that this is what Mary focused on, the emotional attack that she felt she had to preemptively deter. I understand the stuff about it not being the same kind of love as Lillian, but… I wouldn’t have expected Sylvester to try to claim that it was.

    We watched her, we saw the small changes in her expression, the way she looked at Lillian, as if she was betraying her friend by thinking it.
    For thinking that Sy would be too weak? Or Lillian?

    “Whether I communicated it or not, the mission was and is yours.”
    Isn’t this like when she first joined the lambs? Sy giving Mary a mission, a purpose when she had none?

    “Your lab partners are primordials?  That’s crazy.  They’d be terrible at taking notes.”
    “They were there to take what I gave them, turn the projects over and around, explore them, and give us something better.”
    Primordial-derived, indeed! I’d theorized that Fray might have to discover a new Wollstone ratio to pull off something of this scale, but the primordials are like a shortcut to that kind of breakthrough. But this seems less like the “reverse engineering” that they do in the Crown Capitol, and more like taking things on faith.

    “It took two years to teach them that the chemicals I used in the leash was anathema, death and frustration as assured as anything.”
    I’m not sure I understand what she accomplished by this. The leash is supposed to ward against the modified projects, right? So wouldn’t she want the primordials to create projects that are hard-countered by the leash? Something feels counterproductive.

    The Treasurer spoke, “I’m not sure I get it.  […] Past a certain point, it’s words on a page.  Important, ominous words, but still black ink on white or yellowed paper.”
    I appreciate the Treasurer’s perspective here. He has trouble comprehending things of this scale. It makes sense that he’d want to defer the hard decisions to someone with a better grasp on the situation.

    “To approach the King’s table as a person with a voice, if it comes to it.  To threaten a war they couldn’t necessarily win.”
    Possession of nuclear weapons fundamentally alters geopolitical relationships. I’m reminded of a certain Laird Behaim’s speech.

    “I trust you,” the Treasurer said.  “I don’t know, but you have the greatest grasp of things here.”
    We straightened.  We felt a kind of peace.  Fray’s conspiracy, the tools she’d devised, they’d been the last god to defeat.
    I suppose this was around where Sylvester realized what he could do to seize the projects.

    “Don’t be pedantic, Sylvester,” Ashton said, almost sighing as he said it.
    Ashton, coming from you…

    “I think Mary and Lillian are very biased, because you’ve slept with them lots-” “-and lots, and sometimes both at the same time-”
    “Enough about that, please,” Lillian said.  She was flushed now.
    Ashton, be nice to Lillian. Even if she is adorable when flustered.

    “I think we should talk to Duncan and I think we should leave this be.”
    I do really want to see how Duncan reacts to all of this. I suspect that Sylvester’s job is easier without him here, since if he can convince the Lambs in this room, he’ll basically have a majority on his side without Duncan even having an opportunity to argue against him.

    “We’re so close to having security for the first time ever, it’d be the worst kind of tragedy to get here and to lose that security immediately after.”
    I don’t like where this argument leads… I don’t think there’s a threshold to cross to achieve “security”. The incentives tend toward stockpiling power for power’s sake, to secure more and more security.

    “I think you’re trying to be funny, to fill a role, you’ve been looser, more free, more creative.”
    I really like this about Ashton. Kind of reminds me of my youngest brother, when he first came into his sense of humor. I think that happens a lot to the youngest sibling, that they sort of become entertainers and comedians.

    “I think that Fray is right and you’re the wrong person to trust with these primordial-refined projects.”
    Man, Sylvester practically had them wrapped around his pinky finger. He lead them on so that giving the key to Lillian seemed like a no-brainer.

    “and yes, the stakes are high, it feels like the world is resting on your shoulders.  But isn’t that something you wanted, in its way?  You wanted to run an Academy and run it well, and deal with all of those pressures.  You’ve been preparing for it for a long time.”
    Sylvester might be playing off of the earlier conversation, with Lillian feeling insulted and vulnerable after hearing Hayle’s assessment of her.

    “I want to give you us,” “I want the cogs and gears to fit together.  Believe it or not, with everything else set aside or reframed, I think it could be achievable.”
    Oh Sy, you sweet-talker. Even after everything, with you as you are, you still think you can make it work with Lillian? The Voice said I’m not your Sy earlier, and here says “us”, to signal that her “Sy” is still in there somewhere? I think that’s what he’s saying, but it’s a lot of nuance for Lillian to pick up.

    “All the promises in the world,” Fray said.
    Ironic, isn’t it? And with the Beattle rebels right there, too!

    We spread our arms.  Emphasis, theater, trying to make ourselves larger, as if it was a demand for more attention.
    He didn’t mention a Mauer phantom, but I like to imagine that one was present for this.

    “I want Jessie to live.  I want Jessie to be Jessie.  I want to be greedy and have everyone, and I want to be greedy and claim my fairy tale happy ending.  I want everything I’ve promised to all of you, because those same things would nourish me.”
    I… can’t say I don’t want the same thing. I know the risks and consequences are severe, but dammit I just want these kids to be happy.

    She stood taller.  There was an element of the dream, here.  The heady notion of possibility.
    Ahh, there’s that “standing tall” again. I can’t help but feel a little happy for Lillian, but it feels like she’s giving in to temptation and is going to pay for it in the end.

    “He wanted us to worm our way into the graces of the Crown,” we said.  “To subvert it from within.  A gamble, one that could be made once at best.  We had to prove we were worthy, surviving to this point.”
    So they’re going to go ahead with it? They’re going to do what Hayle wanted them to do?

    The key could be obtained later, as the situation called for it.
    Does he really even need it? Like any nuclear weapon, all he needs is to be able to make credible threats, which he can do as long as he has Lillian on his side. I hope he’s not already planning to actually use it.

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