Crown of Thorns – 20.20

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The deal had been struck.  The alternative had been erasure of all Sylvester had been.  All but the shell, the flesh, and even that would have taken its beatings.

The Lambs had to live, because they were integral, but we had to be prepared to eliminate them if they truly stood in the way.  One Lamb’s death was worth the life of two others, if it came down to it.  We’d striven to keep things from coming down to it.

The enemies had to die.  Fray, Hayle, the Infante.  When all we’d had was uncertainty, the people who fostered that uncertainty and carried their own visions for the future were too dangerous.  They pressured us from all sides and created too small a space for us to exist within.

We’d had to compromise, to be willing to kill mice and damage relationships.  We’d known we would have to play party to some of the same evils we had once condemned.

We’d had to be prepared, even, to do worse than the Crown and Academy were prepared to.  The arms race wasn’t a war of better technology and science so much as it was a war of freer and looser ethics.

We’d had to embrace monsters we resisted, to accept their direction.

We’d had to do as we were told, unflinching, when it truly came down to it, and we’d had to avoid looking too hard at what that voice sounded like, where it came from.  We had abandoned the allusions between certain characters in our past and the roles they had in our minds.

We’d had to surrender to the notion of being crafted to be Noble at the very beginning, and becoming Noble as a means to ends.

While Sylvester had slept and dreamed his feverish dreams, his thoughts scattered so far that they seemed unrecoverable, the Lambs had administered the Wyvern’s poison.  Sylvester had rebuilt his brain without thinking, and his unconscious had come across the closest thing he could have to a solution.  He had fabricated a way of concentrating this sentiment, all of the individual terms of the deal, and pit it against himself.

He had known, we had known, that to go against this fabrication was to risk erasure and oblivion.

We stood at a hole in the wall.  Floor to ceiling, nothing remained of this one part of the tower.  The remainder of the room was a medical office, a doctor’s quarters for quiet study, when the broader lab space elsewhere on the floor wasn’t suitable.  The rain hit the side of the tower and ran down it, and it poured across the opening as a sheet.

Outside the office, further down the hall, some of the others were discussing what to do.  One of Radham’s specialist doctors was providing information on the bowels, how accessible they were.  The others, including Mary and several Beattle lieutenants were discussing the possibility of holding prisoners there en masse.  Fray would be one of them.

Beyond the front of the tower, stitched were arriving from various points in the Academy grounds.  Clad in raincoats with heavy hoods or helmets with sufficient breadth to keep their heads dry, they moved in single file, arms loaded down with weapons.  Those weapons were then deposited at the foot of Hayle’s tower.

Squadrons were being disarmed, armories emptied.

Elsewhere, we could see lanterns of the people overseeing the stitched soldiers that were carrying away the dead or cleaning up the Hag Nerve.

Sylvester had recruited armies, gathered soldiers, and extorted others into playing along.

We, however, had relatively few allies in this.  Even the Lambs… that would be a transition.  We would have to be patient, and we would have to wait for a time when everyone was transitioning into their new roles.  Then, hopefully, they could acclimatize, they would wear their new skin, bear their new statures, and they would see the changed Sylvester.

Until then, indeed, few allies.

A small handful of those allies approached us, entering the office.  Red.  Goldie.  Paul.  Sonny.

“You really did it,” Red said.

“We did.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“You sound different,” Paul said.  He’d been Poll Parrot, once.  Now he was Paul.  He’d wanted to be a soldier, and he’d been given what he wanted.  The deep scars of plague removal scarred one side of him, and his hand was a mismatch, a graft marred further by the way the plague had crawled across it.  It didn’t seem as though it had much strength to it.

“Not so surprising, that.  I am different.”

“You’ve been changing since we met you,” Red said.

We nodded at that.

“Wild, uncontrolled, scary, even to us.”

“That won’t entirely go away.  I won’t be controlled.  I’ll probably scare most rational people.”

“I can live with scary,” Red said.  “You’ve all done what nobody else could do.”

“You won,” Goldie said.

“No.  Not a win.  A controlled mutual loss.  Sylvester is gone, sacrificed.  So are several of the Lambs.  We traded one of ours for one of theirs, several times.  We’ll do it again if we have to.  Then, with the groundwork we laid, we get to our feet faster than the enemies we fight.”

“Is it over?” Paul asked.

“No.  There are major cities to take.  There’s an incredible amount of work to be done.  In a way, this is just the beginning.”

“The war is done, at least?”

“This one.  There will be more.  But yes, this is over in the sense that the rebellions are toothless, there aren’t any major figures remaining in the Crown States who are prepared to contest our control.”

Paul nodded.  He looked harrowed, angry.

“Do we have a problem?”

“We did, before,” Paul said.  “Now, I’m just trying to process this.  I didn’t think we’d get here.”

“Things will get easier because we have armies that can wear Crown uniforms and we have the ability to lie.  We know most of their secrets, we have access to their projects, and we have access to their students and doctors.  Once things settle, we’ll have the people.”

“You think so?” Paul asked.  “You really think you have the people?”

“We can.  We had some of the best teachers.”

“Some of the worst, by my impression,” Paul said.

“Things will settle.  We’ve had food and water tainted with Fray’s chemicals for sterilization and leashing, we’ve had disease ravage us like no other, we’ve faced death, and we’ve faced down war.  Rain fell from the sky, melting flesh and creating pools of blood.  Mucus-laden superweapons have formed out of the same water.  Swarms of parasites have ravaged this city and others.  So many warbeasts have been deployed that we won’t bring all of them back.  We’ve seen countless poisons and diseases, fire, storms, refugees sweeping through areas and leaving nothing edible behind.  We’ve seen smoke and clouds of insects blacking out the sun.  Families of all classes have lost their sons and daughters.  You three were among those lost.  To somebody.”

“We don’t know for sure,” Goldie said.

“We’ll find out.”

“I don’t know if that’s possible,” Red said.

We acknowledged that with a nod.

“Too many families have lost people.  We lost Gordon and Jessie, we might yet lose Helen.  People are tired, Paul, Red, Goldie.  For all that the arrogant people at the top have butted heads, people are tired.  They’re ready to hear whatever we have to say, if it means that all of this stops.”

“You really believe that,” Red.

“I believe in a lot of things now.”

She nodded slowly.  Her dark eyes turned to look out over the same city I’d been looking at.

“Among them, I believe all things are possible.”

“‘All’ includes an awful lot of bad things,” Red said.

Goldie frowned at that.  Paul, for his part, seemed to consider it before nodding his agreement.

“It includes things like a Crown States where no child is subjected to experiments without their permission, and they would be treated gently and with respect thereafter, retaining their memories.”

“I expected you to say you wouldn’t allow experimentation on children,” Red said.

We were silent.

“It costs us too much, doesn’t it?  It’s too important, when you’re thinking about a war in-”

“Five years, twenty, a hundred.  Inevitably.”

Red pursed her lips.  An expression of disgust scrunched a sculpted nose.  She hung her head, and her mouth was close to the scarf she’d wrapped around her face at one point, then allowed to fall around her neck.  She hadn’t picked red because of its connotations, but blood had splattered much of it at one point.  Hers or someone else’s.  It was more of a dark brown-red now.

“We can’t lose that war, or things will go back to the way they were,” she finally said.

“If you think that, then you might be on the same page as me.”

“That’s a scary thought,” Red said.

“An appropriate one.  I think I want a retinue.”

“A retinue?”

“Consider it.  The road the Lambs take now is one that gives us some incredible freedoms, but at the cost of others.  We’re in need of capable protectors, ones that inspire something beyond simple fear, and that extend our reach.”

“You’d have us?” Paul asked.

“I would.  It would mean status, power, things I think you wanted when you wanted to fight, Paul.  What Red wanted when she took up her axe and danced with her Wolf.  I think it gives you freedom like you wanted when you and your peers had your carnival, Goldie.”

“I remember Bo Peep was frightened by that,” Goldie said.

“I remember that too.  I think she’s found her own happiness.  There’s little need to worry.”

“The problem wasn’t with her,” Goldie said.  “It was where we stood, how we acted.  We were so angry and bitter.”

We thought back, imagining the scene.  We remembered being drunk on girls and on madness, delirious, disconnected.

“Perhaps you’re right.  Perhaps I’m mistaken to ask.  Joining the retinue could mean going to the table, to be fixed, improved.  I know many of you don’t want to do that.”

“I don’t,” Red said.  “And I’m worried about your reasoning.”

“The Nobles as they were existed as something too disparate.  We need to tie ourselves together.  We need to maintain a connection to our roots, those who helped us get here.  I want to find excuses to make all of those connections into something long-term, transform them.”

“You could have the other Lambs.” Goldie suggested.

“We will.  But that connection can’t be the entirety of it.  It’s too insular.  That road leads to madness, in my expert opinion.”

“Can we think about it?” Red asked.

“Please do,” we said.

Red put a hand on Goldie’s shoulder.  Paul broke away from staring at the shattered city to walk alongside them, departing with a great deal on their minds.

They stopped at the door.

“Do I call you Lord?” Red asked.

“Soon.”

It was all we could do to not approach the Lambs.  We stalked around the edges, had our flirtatious visits with each.  It was flirtatious not in the romantic sense, but in the intimate kinship sense, as only people who knew each other was well as we did could approach, touch, and speak to each other, communicating in a manner far more efficient than would be possible with any stranger.

But as much as we moved around the periphery, we knew we were something alien.

We were a threat they were coming to terms with, a new reality.

Sylvester was gone.  He would not come back.  He had been subsumed, he had subsumed.  They might have sensed it.

They, we acknowledged, would experience it.

Until then, we were cautious.  They would be on their guard for manipulation.  They would push back if pushed.  We wanted them to join us, to stand at our side, to face down the threat and take up the new mission, but we couldn’t do it by any means except extortion or by patience.

We would let them decide, but they had to make the decisions themselves.  We had to trust in the Lambs.

We had to trust that, when the time came, they would come around to the idea of using the key to access Fray’s primordials and her work.  We would be free to unleash primordial-cultivated superweapons and we would destroy all of the world except for the Crown States.

Yes, it was a bargaining chip.  Yes, it was the motivating force that Fray described, a weapon of last resort.  As it drove her, now it would drive us to work fervently to ensure that there was always another measure to put forward, so we wouldn’t have to face the last one.

It was all of those things.

It was another kind of contingency.  If the Lambs faced the same dilemma that Nobles the world over had, if breeding proved difficult, and if we couldn’t create our successors as so many Nobles did, then we would need a way to strike out, ensuring the Crown couldn’t flourish in our absence.

After all, Jessie was lacking, much like Jamie had.  Helen and Ashton couldn’t bear children, as they weren’t human.  We had reason to suspect that Project Wyvern meant we were sterile, owing to the poison that tainted our system.  Gordon wouldn’t have produced ‘Gordon’ stock, but whatever source had supplied that individual seed.  Mary’s offspring would be only an exceptional person, if she could even carry to term with the state of her internal organs.

Much as Fray had sought alternatives, we would strive to have something to put forward.  Our doctors would work hard, looking for a way.

If they couldn’t, perhaps it would be best to visit an end to the rest of the world that Fray’s chemicals hadn’t touched.  A clean slate was better than a world where the Crown resumed power again.

Wasn’t it?

The question bothered us.

We had steered clear of Duncan, and Duncan had avoided us.

We visited Jessie’s lab.  We stared at Jessie’s doctors, a mingling of the old guard and new ones.  Duncan still gave direction, much as he’d been doing when we stepped away days ago, to confront Fray and Hayle.

Duncan looked at us as we entered.

“I was wondering when you would show up,” he said.

We walked around the room.  Jessie sat in the throne on the dais, a sheet wrapped around her.

“Everyone, you can leave for the day.  Back to your cells and quarters,” Duncan ordered the other Doctors and Professors in the room.

They began filing out.  Soldiers outside the door guided them.  We watched them go, studying expressions and body language, searching for any tricks or problems.

When they were gone, we looked to the rain-streaked windows above the bookshelves, that gave us a glimpse of the sky above and around the tower.  It was late in the day, the shadows long.

“How is she?”

“She’s resting,” Duncan answered.  He stood by a table with folders and notes strewn across it, half his attention on me, half on the notes.

“Progress?”

“No,” Duncan said.  “We’ve only been laying the groundwork in hopes of future progress.  Powering things on and turning them off again is a net loss, and we can’t do that.”

We approached the throne, walking up the dais.  With fingers and fingernails, we combed Jessie’s hair, and then began doing it into the braid she liked, that draped over her shoulder.  Her glasses sat on the throne beside her.

“The others are weighing your ideas.  They’re hopeful.”

“And you?”

“I was always one to follow the administrative shuffling and manipulation in the Academies.  I’m aware of the games that are played, the tricks, what kinds of promises go furthest.”

“Interesting.  Most were looking at it as manipulation, but it wasn’t.”

“No,” Duncan said.  “I don’t believe it was.  You believed what you said.  It’s the broader picture that was more of a problem.  It was politics, in part.”

“Politics aren’t necessarily bad.”

“They aren’t.  Still, I worry.”

“Justifiably,” we said.

“Lillian told me on several occasions about what it was like, being young, being against you.  You targeted her, you tore her down, teased her mercilessly.”

“It’s come up a few times.  I was someone different then.  I was trying to express something, and I regret that she suffered for that expression.”

Duncan nodded.  “I was your nemesis du jour for a bit.”

“You were.”

“I took the advice of others, and I tried to be like your fellow orphan Rick.  I let it be water off my back, I tried not to react, to play dumb, I didn’t want to give you anything.”

“If it helps, it wasn’t you.  You could have been anyone.  Anyone else would have been a bad fit, a symbol for the divide in the Lambs.”

“It does help,” Duncan said.

He looked at Jessie and sighed.

“Are you’re thinking you’re my enemy now?”

“I’m wondering,” he said.

“You’re one of the harder ones for me to reach out to.  I don’t know you so well.  I know you’re attached to Helen and Ashton.”

“I am.  And the other little ones.  But you used a promise to Helen to sway Ashton.  You want to bring about her perfect world.”

“Something like it.  The world I’m envisioning will be a hard one to work with.”

“You have ideas then?”

“It’s going to mean leaving a lot of things behind, Doctor Foster.”

“Doctor Foster,” Duncan said.

“What are you thinking?”

“That I wish I’d paid more attention, when you and the others had been discussing the tools you use and how you approach problems.  I’m trying to figure out your angle for approaching this conversation.”

“Everyone has an angle for approaching every conversation.”

“You more than most.  I’ve been dreading and anticipating this conversation for two days now.  I started to wonder if you planned to ignore me entirely.”

“You also thought perhaps I was avoiding this lab because Jessie was here.  You’ve had meals brought here, you’ve been sleeping in a chair.  You’ve been here more than Lillian, even when Lillian is the one who has always been more familiar with Jessie’s project.”

“That was me acting on the dread, hiding here, thinking you might not come and I’d have time to think,” Duncan said.  He smiled with that too-small mouth of his, then let the smile drop away.  “I was wringing my hands.  I concluded you would most likely make mention of my family.”

“Does it drive you?  Family?”

“I’m not sure they’re alive, actually.  When we sent armies and orders to the coasts to control the ports, I had people ask to find them.  There hasn’t been a response, and I imagined there should be one.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We’ll see,” Duncan said.  “I worry about what it says about me if I say that my family isn’t a major driving force in what I do, not anymore.  I can’t imagine you bringing them up would sway me much, whether you wanted to help or hurt them.”

“I think you’re a fine person, Duncan.  I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“My other thought,” he said.  “Was that I can’t guess.  You know what I like and want.  I care about the others, but unless you plan to exile me, I have them, and I’ll continue to look after them.  I want a black coat, but the whole system is broken, me attending the Academy now would be a farce.”

“You keep going back to the notion of ordinary life.  Family, friends, school.”

“I didn’t realize that,” Duncan said.  “Lords.”

“Lords,” we said, with a note of amusement at the irony.

“And yet we- I didn’t approach this conversation from that angle.  I wonder if I misread you, now.”

“Who did you imagine Doctor Duncan Foster to be, if not a man who wrings his hands with anxiety while hoping for a good life?”

“I imagined you would wake Jessie and send her to me, to change my mind.”

Duncan looked up at me, as we finished with Jessie’s hair.  We tied the braid.

“I thought about it,” he said.  “I can’t put a word to it.  I felt like you wanted me to, and even if I’m not a good enough chess player to know the best move to make, I might be able to feel things out, intuit when I’m walking into a trap.”

“You’ve learned a lot.”

“I was right then?  It was a trap?”

“I don’t know.  I might have answered her, then been upset at you, putting you on the back foot, swaying you that way.  Waking her up would cost her countless memories.  It would do irreparable damage.  I could have gone on the attack, I could have been gentle, I could have played off of your goals as a Doctor.  I could have called it cowardice.  Above all else, I would have tried to show you my human side.  I think your ability to see us as humans is where you’ve changed most.  Yet all of that feels like manipulation more than politics.”

“It does.  What made you finally decide you were coming to me here?”

“Timeframes, schedules, and a few skirmishes in places like New Amsterdam… it would all be easier if we got the worst of it out of the way.  I’m willing to take that step.  I’ll be the first if need be.  Constraints forced my hand.  So I’m here.  Like I said, I wasn’t sure how to approach you.”

“A big step.  I’m sure you had some kind of strategy, didn’t you?”

“Nothing so grand.  You have the ability to say no, Doctor Foster.  You have the ability to talk to the others and cast doubt on my honesty, and I’m sure if you argued well enough, while I wasn’t there to say my piece, you could change their minds.  We’d find another way, or they would.  We respect the role your voice plays in all of this.”

Duncan reached out to the table, moving some papers.

He stopped, midway through one rearrangement.

“Respect,” he said.

“In talking to the others, we were only ever thinking about what I could give them.  We want to give them the world, Duncan, and they deserve it.”

“Do you think I’m so petty that all I want is respect?”

“We didn’t come here to give you that.  We came here to give you a share of what you’d experience if things went forward.  A reasonably fair conversation with a Noble, as an equal.”

“Did ‘we’?”

We nodded.

“You’re still a boy that’s shorter than me, Sylvester.  By all rights, I should say it’s far from being a fair, reasonable, or conversation with a Noble, equal to equal.”

“By all rights.”

“You terrify me,” he said.

“As it should be.  I just hope the other emotions outweigh the unpleasantness of the terror.”

“You’re dangerous.”

“We wouldn’t have gotten this far if we weren’t.”

“What you want is to go under the knife, to be changed, to have a body that matches your mind.  You want me to facilitate that.”

“We would hope our body isn’t so crowded, damaged, or lonely.”

Duncan moved more folders and papers.  He collected a few into a stack, looked down at it, and drew in a deep breath.

“I’ll think about it,” he said.  “About the body you’d get, who we’d have on that project, and whether I really want to do this.”

“That’s all we can ask.”

“Where are you going next?” he asked.

“To the gates, maybe to Lambsbridge.”

“It was damaged.”

“We know.”

“You’re still avoiding the others?”

“I made my arguments, I framed things.  It’s up to them to come to terms with it.”

“Or are you scared?”

We were terrified.  We were on the brink of something and the state of the Lambs had never been questioned.  Even with our departure.  Even with the schism that had formed with Lillian and Jamie in that windy room at the top floor of the building in West Corinth.

We were unsure what to say or do with Duncan.  Well… one question.

“You gave us a pill.”

“I did,” Duncan said.

“What was it?”

“Something I’ve used a hundred times.  One of our most powerful tools.”

“Ah.”

“Just a placebo, Sylvester.  I had enough things on my mind, without trying to rush anything too fancy with chemicals, medicine, and your unique biology.  If you’d taken it and not discarded it after, I wouldn’t have been sitting in this lab for as long as I had, wringing my hands, considering my options”

“What if I said I didn’t discard it?”

“The instant you took it, I realized I knew.  I knew you couldn’t submit yourself to that.  It runs against everything you’re warring against.  I’d call you a liar, and I’d tell the others you were a liar.”

We fell silent, turning our attention to Jessie again.

“Helen grasps, Ashton gets distracted by watching grass growing.  Abby has her fits.  You flinch away from any smiling Doctor giving you your medicine in the same way even a snail that’s struck ten times with a stick will wince in anticipation of the next blow.  It’s reality,” Duncan said.  “It was an unfair test.”

“But it still affects your final judgment.”

“You asked the others if they thought you were honest.  Yes.  You’re honest.  You’re honest on turf you’ve chosen to allow honesty on.  What did I say?  It was the context or the big picture that concerned me.”

We took that in.

“I’m going to address you as if you were Sy.  Because I’m worried it might be the last time it happens,” Duncan said.  “Lillian fell in love with you for a reason.  It wasn’t that you’re a scoundrel.  It wasn’t that you were cruel to her and then you were kind.  Mary was swayed to join the Lambs because you gave her something she couldn’t get elsewhere.  Gordon considered you a true friend, by all accounts.  Jamie and Jessie independently fell in love with you, and it wasn’t because of a genetic predisposition on their part for short, scrawny kids with naturally messy hair.”

“We note you’re leaving Ashton and Helen out.”

“Ashton and Helen are Ashton and Helen.  Ashton can be fascinated by an unusually shaped bit of glass from outside a factory in Luxham and he’ll carry it with him for two years.  Helen falls in love with dead birds she finds by the side of the road, so long as she can step on them.  They don’t challenge you so much as they accept you and ask for a peculiar kind of acceptance in turn.  They do challenge you, but they don’t ask for you to dig particularly deep into your being to offer something up.  The others challenged, they demanded something, and you answered and gave.”

“We wouldn’t discount the value of acceptance, given or taken.  When you’re a lost little experiment, that acceptance and that smile count for a lot.  The reliable, insistent little voice counts for a lot.”

“I’ll cede that one to you, then,” Duncan said.  “But I worry.  You’re changing, nobody’s denying that, and bigger changes are coming.  But what happens if you lose touch with all those things that drew the others to you in the first place?  Worse, what if you lose all of those things, but you find other ways to set your hooks in?”

Other ways.

We’d already started.  It was part of the negotiation, the exploration, and the transformation that came with the next big steps.

“You’re right, Doctor Foster,” we replied.

“What does it say about me,” he asked, “That I actually wondered if you’d kill me, for testing you in the here and now?”

“That you’re smart,” we answered.

He didn’t tense.  Neither did we.

“We’ll muse on what you said,” we responded.  “Thank you.”

So much to think about.  So many others who had to consider where they’d stand.  We were on the brink of a revolution, a change to how a continent and its government functioned.

We gave Jessie a fond touch on the cheek, and then we left our good Doctor Foster to his work.

We made our way out of the lab and out the door, to the Academy grounds.  We were brisk as we walked, eyeing the damage here and there, the ongoing work to clear rubble, where it would be cast off the side of Radham, to land far below.

We checked the time on our way, and we were content that we’d arrived fifteen minutes early.  We’d planned for the chat with Duncan to be shorter, but we’d left ourselves an abundance of time.

It would be such a shame to miss this.

The rain poured, and the clouds rolled.  It was windy, and the light of the sky was peeking between the thinnest parts of the clouds.

We passed through the gate, and the military forces there were ours, allowing us through without complaint.

We were greeted by a view.  Such a beautiful world.

The war had stopped, the guns were put away, and the people of Radham were out of their homes and shelters, starting to find their routine.  Radham was permanently raised up, the walls cracked, the Harvesters’ work on the architecture and landscape still visible in places, and yet children ran in groups down the street far below.  They ran through fields that had had bodies on them just days before, now rinsed and drained, bodies collected and waste consumed by organisms.

Horses trotted down the streets, but it was far less than there had been once upon a time.  Warbeasts were repurposed to work, and they hauled creations that would serve as winch-operated platforms, lowering people and things to the ground.  Something would be worked out later.  At least two hundred men were working on and around the hulk of the Infante’s ship, which remained where it had been, crashed into the walls of Radham.

There were still areas that were grisly.  We didn’t miss the carts and wagons that were shipping bodies up to the Academy proper.

This city would be our fortress for some time, damaged as it was.

The rain shifted in direction and strength.  A patter now.

Lambsbridge had been hit by a shell.  Most of the damage had been relegated to the stable where Mrs. Earles kept her horses, but I wasn’t sure of particulars.  It had come after we’d left.  It had rolled through into the building, collapsing the dining room and sitting room, and it might have damaged the staircase.

The only thing that assured us there hadn’t been any major casualties was that children played around the building.  We only recognized a small few, and they didn’t, at a glance, seem to recognize me in turn.  Too many years, too many changes here and there.

Bo Peep, Quinton, and Abby were playing in one corner with the smallest children, Bo Peep holding the oversize umbrella with the butt-end on the ground.  Nora and Lara sat with their backs to the stone wall that framed the orphanage’s yard.

Emmett was in the tree, and being there, he seemed more like the boy he was.

It was only when we drew close that we saw the Lambs, sitting on the back porch.  Ashton, Helen, Lillian, Mary.

It seemed like a dream, a flight of fancy.

They didn’t question where we’d been.  They waved.  There were some smiles, and there were far more complicated looks.  Lillian wore one.

We stopped short of stepping onto the grounds of the orphanage.

We’d given an order hours ago.  The timing around it had been a big motivating factor in us finally talking to Duncan, hashing things out.  Now we waited, hands in our pockets, hood down, letting the drizzle patter against our head and shirt.

The Lambs stood, one by one, and they made their way around the back of the orphanage.  There wasn’t a gate at the side, but a stone wall a couple of feet high was hardly an obstacle.

There was an expression on several faces, as they crossed the wall.

It had never been home for Lillian, but she surely had some good memories there.

For Mary it had been home for a while.  The crossing of that wall was one more string or ribbon cut, that otherwise tied her to something.

For Ashton, it had been a place, and he’d always put some importance on places, on landscapes and on familiar things.  He’d moved past that in a lot of ways, based on my observations, but he was still who he was.

For Helen, it had been one of two homes.  Her home for now was being embraced wherever she went, firmly in the warm arms of Ashton or whoever had custody of her.

The drizzle stopped.  The rain ceased falling on Radham for the first time in our lifetime.

“This is going to wreak havoc on the ecosystem,” Ashton observed.

“Shh,” Lillian said.

All around the city, people and vehicles stopped.  There was almost a sense of alarm among the locals, that we hadn’t seen much evidence of when the war had been ongoing, what with them huddled and hidden away.  The mischievous child in us liked that alarm.

“Did you have your talk with Duncan?” Lillian asked.

“Was everyone waiting for me to do that?” we asked.

“In a way.”

“Food for thought,” we said.

“In a way that’s going to delay us?” Mary asked.  “Or are you reconsidering?”

“No, Mary dear,” we replied, “No on both counts.”

We hadn’t stepped onto the orphanage grounds because of what they represented, and what we represented.

Lamb to Lord.

There was reason to suspect the others, Ashton possibly excepted, had made it their last visit too.  Even though we would remain in this city for some time to come.

The wind pushed the cloud cover across the sky with startling speed.  The nature of the new landscape might have played its part, Radham jutting skyward.  The lack of smoke from Radham’s smokestacks and buildings would be another part of it.  The sky looked alive, while the city was still.

Over five, ten minutes, people started resuming movement again.  The Lambs chattered.  We watched the sky.

The carts of bodies and slain soldiers were an obstruction for our visitor.  Duncan made his belated appearance at the head of one wagon.  Swaddled in a blanket, sitting on the bench next to him, was Jessie.

We’d asked without asking.  We’d made mention of it, made no secret that we’d hoped for it, as Duncan had suspected.  We’d get mad at him, in our selfish way.

We hurried to catch up with them.  We were halfway up the side of the wagon when we saw.

She slept, still.

Bittersweet.  It hadn’t been possible to wake her up for this.

It hadn’t made sense.  It hadn’t been right.

It would have made such a difference, all the same.

“Gentle, gentle,” Duncan said.  “Some of the test work we’ve been doing isn’t housed firmly.”

We were gentle, working with Duncan, getting into position to lower Jessie down.

“There’s so much to ask, to fill you in on,” we murmured.

As the rain had given way, so did the opaque cloud cover that cast Radham in its perpetual gloom.  Sun began to shine through, and then swelled as it found more open sky to peer through.  With all of the moisture in the air, light colored the sky.  We held Jessie.

Duncan’s advice hadn’t been enough.  We worried.  It made too much sense to destroy our enemy, to secure this.

Lillian’s key was only part of it.  There were other evils.  Other questions.  We would turn from Lambs to Lords and Ladies.  Duncan’s concern weighed on us.  What would we become in the end?  Would the divides widen?  Would Duncan name us for the liar we were, citing his pill?

As the others chattered around us, we felt warmth swell in our breast and we felt fear in equal measure.  Jessie rested her head on our shoulder.  Lillian held one of our hands.  Ashton was constantly moving, going back and forth between Helen and the younger Lambs.

The only Lambs, really.

“Who’ll be first?” Lillian asked.

“Me,” we said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

58 thoughts on “Crown of Thorns – 20.20

  1. I remember, when Duncan first showed up, he was… I expected him to get maimed through his own actions.

    How far he’s come.

    And how much further still he, and everyone else, has to go.

    • Honestly I think Duncan is great. He really is the only properly sane lamb who could actually function like a human being. Which is exactly why he’s the most important one. He’s about as far from our “Lord Sylvester” as any lamb could be, and I think he’s exactly what the lambs need to not end up completely under his crazy genocidal sway.

  2. I wondered how this arc would come to an end. I’d honestly expected something far more grim, pitting Lord Sylvester against the rest of the Lambs, or at least Duncan, Lillian, and Mary. But this… Well, I wouldn’t call it ‘happy’ by a large stretch, but Lord Sylvester’s own reaction seems appropriate. Very bittersweet.

    I’m definitely looking forward to the epilogue chapters, to see how the ending ends up, well, ending. If I remember right, Wildbow said there would be multiple chapters, which I’m glad to hear. It was fascinating to see how Worm’s characters ended up adjusting to their radically new situations across multiple chapters, while Pact’s sole epilogue simply gave the closure I was looking for, without touching on other unanswered questions. I think Twig’s unique setting does deserve more closure rather than less, and hopefully all of our favorites’ futures get touched on.

    Twig has been a fascinating read. Can’t wait for the rest!

  3. This is the ending? If so it’s very appropriate.

    I expected to be more torn up by the ending, by The new Lord Sylvester but instead I’m just….content? Cause in the end I think he was right. To gain control, to fight the Crown to assure dominance they couldn’t have been Sy. The little boy that only wanted him and the lambs to be fine. They, in a sense, had to grow up to secure and ending like this. And it’s sad and bittersweet and I wish it could have been different that it could be done without subsuming Sy and becoming Lord Sylvester but I don’t see how it could have happened. Like Pact’s ending in a way, that the protagonist goes where he goes by his own nature and that of the world.

    Of course this leads to a potential TWIG 2.0 so I’m pretty hype for that. Hope we see things from the Lambs on that end. Or rather, the Lords and Ladies of the Lamb States. Or something like that.

    Loved this work Wildbow. Your best work yet.

    • Agreed. This is a very Wildbow ending (if it is the ending, which I think it is). Technically a victory, but very bittersweet. And, like with Pact, it is I think the best possible endpoint for the main character when all is said and done (although that is very debatable).

      Twig is the strongest of the three. It’s amazing to see how much Wildbow’s style has developed since Worm (Worm 2 Hype!). Hopefully we will get an epilogue to provide some resolution to tie a few of the threads left hanging (not all of them, of course, that’s what the Fandom is here for).

      What a wonderful ride.

  4. Who’ll be the first typo?

    “No. There are major cities to take. There’s an incredible amount of work to be done. In a way, this is just the beginning.”
    ~Should be italicized

    knew each other was well
    ~knew each other as well

    half his attention on me,
    ~half his attention on us,

    Duncan looked up at me,
    ~Duncan looked up at us,

    • I wouldn’t have been sitting in this lab for as long as I had, wringing my hands, considering my options”
      -period

    • Her dark eyes turned to look out over the same city I’d been looking at.
      -we’d been looking at

      “Are you’re thinking you’re my enemy now?”
      -Are you thinking

      Most of the damage had been relegated to the stable where Mrs. Earles kept her horses, but I wasn’t sure of particulars.
      -we weren’t sure
      Bo Peep holding the oversize umbrella with the butt-end on the ground.
      -oversized

  5. Holy Fucking Bejeezus that was scary. Having read it an hour ago, I am still sick with dread.

    Spent the entire Duncan conversation expecting him to get stabbed.

    Loved the balance here, in that we finally get explicitly shown how not right things are in Sy’s head… but at the same time there’s just a smattering of doubt, just enough “Will he won’t he” to give some hope…

    As others have said, this really is a perfect ending. I’m not sure I’ll every forgive you for the cliff hanger, but then again I’m not sure I’d be happy with seeing too much more either- the uncertainty of it is delicious.
    Love that Fray is still on the board.
    Love that “Lord King” still casts their shadow.
    Love the uncertain of Jessie/Jamie still sleeping (who will they be when they wake? Will they beat him?).
    Love the final peeling back of the rain over Radham.
    Everything is glorious.

    God damn it, you magnificent bastard.

  6. This chapter was incredible. It started on a chilling note. Sylvester is clearly dead. The Lord we see now is someone different, containing a remnant of Sy.

    And yet, I see this is the perfect way to end Twig. Seeing the rain clear up with all the Lambs together at the end was beautiful. Somehow, I’m more than content. Great job with this story. I can’t wait for the Epilogue.

  7. I’m just glad to see that Helen’s back. She choked the Infante to death with her own body. That goes beyond badass.

  8. Honestly, I feel that this is the best possible ending that Sy and The Lambs could have hoped for. It’s really amazing to see how far Sy has come. Despite all the claims to the contrary, I don’t believe Sy is “dead”, but rather changed. He’s been shaped by all of the things he’s experienced, good and bad; just in a highly magnified and pronounced state. The face he showed Hayle before killing him lead others to believe that Sy is not the amalgamation of all the horrors this world had to offer, which is true, but this chapter reinforces what has been and continues to be Sy’s saving grace: The Lambs. The mental experiment of emulating phantoms began with Sy emulating the Lambs. It was only when he stood to lose them that we saw the horrors of this world getting to him.

    Sy, by himself, is doomed to fail. With the Lambs’s however, the worst of this world and himself is kept at bay. Noble Sy is now the sum of all the horrible things that he’s gone through, tempered by the love and support of those he holds most dear. To have this, he had to sacrifice the childish notions he’s been clinging to all this while. In short, he’s grown up.

    Brilliant, Wildbow. Utterly Brilliant.

  9. I’m not crying, it’s just the rain. Oh wait…

    Its crazy to think that I’ve been so emotionally and mentally involved with Twig for years now. I came into Worm just as the epilogue were publishing but I’ve read Pact and Twig as it “aired”.

    Twig has been my one of my favourite works of fiction ever. I’ve been dreading its incoming ending for a while now, while also not being able to wait for each chapter so I can read more. I agree with the other comments here saying that this ending is so fitting and great. Everything about this story has been wonderful and perfect and exactly what I’ve wanted to read. You really are amazing Wildbow, and now I’m excited for the epilogues, your next story, and the next time you revisit the Twig setting.

  10. But… I don’t think this is the ending? Everyone is saying it is… for some reason. Did like one person say it and everyone else take it as fact? I’m genuinely confused

    • There were parts that seemed ending-ish to me too but yeah, I don’t feel like it’s the end either. Maybe people are afraid of what comes next if it doesn’t end now.

      • If I remember right, Wildbow said outright during the last arc that this one (Crown of Thorns) would be the last main arc, followed by epilogue chapters.

        But even without that, the rain breaking over Radham is too perfect a bookend to use on an arc/chapter that wasn’t the end. Or at least that’s my thought process.

          • I might be remembering wrong, but I could’ve sworn he made a comment about putting donation chapters on pause until the epilogue and that the ending would be coming within a couple arcs. …Then again, it would’ve been several months ago if it happened at all; I could very well be thinking of something else.

    • Well, the main character is dead. His body is still there, his heart is still beating, but he’s not the same person anymore. Usually a story ends if the main character dies, so I guess that’s where people got that idea from.

      • That’s a good point. This could be the end of “Sylvester” and we’ll get an epilogue with an accompanying perspective shift, but maybe a meatier epilogue than most.

      • Is he though? He claims to be, but a man claiming to be dead is not necessarily.if you think changed means dead, then very few good stories end with the death of the main character indeed.

        See also the ship of Theseus : when is a character so different than they die? Is one the sum of their parts, or the progression, the history needed to reach the place he now sits at?

  11. I don’t know if this is the end. It feels like it… This chapter has wrapped up a lot of things rather neatly and Sy’s story seems to be over at this point. All that’s left to see is his legacy, the world he shaped. Once the story is completly finished (epilogue chapters and all this), I’ll start binge reading the whole thing from the start. I think that knowing the conclusion will put a LOT of things in a different perspective and I’m looking forward to this!

    About this chapter in particular:
    I’m torn. I’ll try to keep it short (I already deleted one incoherent rambling…). I didn’t expect Lord Sy to be this benign. Sounds crazy, yes – he’s about to basically start a cold war with primordial-engineered bio weapons, murdered Hayle in cold blood and subsumed Sy and I’m calling him benign. But the main point why I love this story so much and why I like SYLVESTER so much is his relationship to his fellow Lambs. And that’s the one point Noble Sy has not touched – despite threatening to make Sy do something like this in the past. My greatest fear about how the story might end did not come to pass. (Yet?)
    I want to call this chapter bittersweet, it certainly FEELS like it, but… If I ask myself where the sweetness comes from, I realize it’s just a lack of anticipated bitterness.
    As for the bitterness… Well… It’s just that I really, really wanted a happy ending for Sy and the Lambs. What we got here in this chapter is a logical conclusion to the previous events, it feels like the best possible outcome and I am genuinely happy to see that the Lambs made it out of all this alive and they’ll have a future – even Helen and probably Jessie.
    But it’s less than I wished for. Hence the bitterness.

    Rest in peace, Sylvester Lambsbridge.

  12. To be honest I didn’t understand a lot of what went on here. I’ll probably understand more when I go back and reread carefully instead of skimming each chapter during my break at work. But thats what you sign up for when you read a story with an unreliable narrator.

    hype for worm 2: electric boogaloo

    please let that be the actual title

  13. Also, did anyone else notice that Sy the Noble seems to have a much better memory than his Wyvern addled brain should allow? Referencing the building in West Corinth with Lillian and Jessie, remembering Mrs. Earles and some of the faces at Lambsbridge? It’s as if, once he accepted the full extent of his mind, both good and bad, he reclaimed the full capacity of his mind.

    Like accepting Yin and Yang in order to find enlightenment……

  14. Holy shit. Holy shit. Wildbow, this story has taken my breath away. Seriously, you punched me in the gut, left me winded on the ground and got in a few kicks for good measure. Is this seriously the end? It’s frustrating not knowing for sure. This story has been many things. Its been tragic and heartwarming and fucking twisted and hysterical and rambling and disturbing and just plain odd. And I loved it. Christ, it’s gonna haunt me for a long time.

    If this is truly the end, its a suitably twisted one. Sy has been warped into a monster, holding the entire planet hostage with the remaining lambs wrapped around his finger. (Except Duncan. You go Duncan!) I think it needs a couple of epilogues to tie up loose ends, (what will happen to Frey? Will we see the lambs as Nobles? Is Mauer dead? JESSIE? HELAN???) but for the most part, this felt like a full stop to me. Goodbye Lambs.

  15. Before the last chapters/epilogues, a few stats
    Total all parts 1 585 000 words equivalent to 4168 paperback pages. Or if you prefer near thrice the length of War and Peace.
    By parts
    I Taking Root 69k 181pp
    II Cat out of the Bag 52k 139pp
    III Lips Sealed 52k 138pp
    IV Stitch in Time 57k 153pp
    V esprit de Corpse 76k 200pp
    VI Lamb to the Slaughter 69k 182pp
    VII Tooth and Nail 84k 222pp
    VIII Bleeding Edge 80k 211pp
    IX Counting Sheep 89k 233pp
    X In Sheep’s Clothing 109k 285pp
    XI Cut to the Quick 87k 228p
    XII Dyed in the Wool 58k 154pp
    XIII Black Sheep 70k 187pp
    XIV Thicker than Water 99k 264pp
    XV Bitter Pill 85k 226pp
    XVI Head over Heels 76k 194pp
    XVII Gut Feeling 82k 217pp
    XVIII Dog Eat Dog 98k 261pp
    XIX Root and Branch 86k 229pp
    XX Crown of Thorns 102k 271pp

  16. I really don’t think this is the ending, and I’m not sure why everyone is jumping on that.

    For a start, both Worm and Pact had Wildbow outright saying when we hit the last chapter before the epilogue, whereas here it’s radio silence. Plus there a still a bunch of loose threads that have been left dangling, some from this chapter.

    This chapter was a moment of transition, of the Lambs dusting off after the big fight and getting ready to maybe take the next big step from Lamb to Lord, and we have to see the ramifications of that before the story can stop.

    At the moment, a lot of things are still up in the air and we don’t really know how things are going to resolve themselves or how the world going to resolve itself today or tomorrow, let alone in another year. Do the Lambs all become Nobles? What sort? Do they catch onto not!Sylvester’s manipulations? What happens then? How does everyone end up feeling about Fray’s last resort? Do they all fall into a moral black hole, or do they manage to pull themselves back?

    We can guess, but until we actually see them take that first step, it’s difficult to know. Which means it’s tpribably tme for the ultimate fight – Lord vs Lambs, Sylvester vs himself!

    • I disagree with the way the other commenters have been characterising Lord Sylvester. I don’t think his statements are manipulative. I think he truly believes each and every word that he says, and that the Lambs are truly going to forge a better. He is not tricking them into going along with his plan – they have decided that this is the best path for them, turning into Nobles in order to gain the strength to defeat the Crown. Like Duncan says, he’s not worrying that Sy is manipulating the Lambs into becoming Nobles against their will, he’s worried that the Nobleisation will ruin the relationships they have.

      Until Sy actually turns the key, I have no problem with what he is doing.

  17. I don’t know whether this is the last chapter before epilogues. It does have some finality to it, though.
    Twig has been a journey. In a way, it is a continuation. I started reading Worm back when it was ending. I read whole arcs nonstop, devouring pages upon pages. I think Taylor’s story, her motives and character, spoke to me, back then.
    Then came Pact, and I was fascinated by this take on relationships, the world, and goals. It was a shorter read, but very much appreciated.
    I feel Twig has brought a lot of that together. It feels like a pattern of three. Sylvester is his own character, yet I hear echoes of Taylor and Blake in him. He’s also the first character whose chapters I’ve often dreaded reading.
    I think Worm is still my favorite. There’s something in it, as I mentioned before, that is close to my heart. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, for the time in my life when I found it, but it’s there nonetheless. But Twig is a hell of an experience.

  18. “A small handful of those allies approached us, entering the office. Red. Goldie. Paul. Sonny.”

    Who is Sonny? The rest of the conversation seems like not-Sy is just talking to 3 people.

    As for the chapter – this very much feels like an ending. Not everything is resolved, but it’s clear that not everything will be resolved. They’ve won. Radham has seen the sun. It’s a very appropriate ending.

  19. At first, I thought the order concerned something dramatic being done to the orphanage (maybe still the case?), and that the chapter was winding around to reveal it at the end.

    Now, from the tone, I’m alarmed that this might actually be the end, in accordance with the impressions of others I see in the comments.

    For the last chapter I commented that I liked how I could look back at that moment and see other paths that could have been taken no matter what actually happens, but I do still want to see what actually happens! ESPECIALLY if Sy’s brain gets worked on and repaired, plus if Helen gets to be an actual Noble, and the final probably-brutal conflict/interactions with the Crown proper that’s been foreshadowed all through the fiction, I want to see everyone on the (mental) path upwards, now that they’ve clawed out so much (power-wise path upwards) by breaking themselves down so much (mental path downwards).

    I find very frustrating fictions which cut out suddenly as an end, saying ‘imagine the rest yourselves’. Very much hoping that isn’t the case here! Two particular fictions come to mind by contrast in that the ending comes when the characters ‘retire’, while here the Lamb-Lords and the Crown-main haven’t even had their first volley (I think there’s a better term beginning with S). Granted, I would likely be mollified with a time-skip, showing the transformed Lamb-Lords clashing/interacting with the Crown-main in their full glory and beauty. That said, I want to read much much more of Twig with the rebuilt Sy/Lambs…

    Chapter-specific comments:
    ‘The enemies had to die. Fray, Hayle, the Infante.’
    Fray was only taken into custody; is she going to be executed?

    ‘A controlled mutual loss. Sylvester is gone, sacrificed. So are several of the Lambs. We traded one of ours for one of theirs, several times.’: are they lying to Goldie? This seems directly in conflict with ‘We had abandoned the allusions between certain characters in our past and the roles they had in our minds.’ and ‘He had fabricated a way of concentrating this sentiment, all of the individual terms of the deal, and pit it against himself.’, regarding the origin of the Voice (and the identities of the head-characters).
    |
    That said, consistent with the first person plural, it now seems to be suggesting a Leto II (Dune books) scenario, with a vast number of mindforms functioning as a collective rather than as an anarchy.

  20. I was bewildered that everyone is saying this was the end as I think it still leaves so much open and isn’t that satisfactory in some regards, at least to me.

    But the more I think about it, it makes the most sense to end it here, in so many many ways, symbolic and dramatically.

  21. I always saw people who reread arcs all the time and thought they were crazy. And then I caught up. AAHHHHHHHH I NEED MORE WILDBOW CANT WAIT TWO WHOLE DAYS

  22. I don’t think I captured all of my impressions from this chapter. Lots of frowny faces. It was interesting… no one is really happy about what’s happening to Sy, but they can’t really object to it, either. “Bittersweet” doesn’t quite feel like the right word, but maybe if you just take the “bitter” part you get a sense of resignation that fits.

    One Lamb’s death was worth the life of two others, if it came down to it.
    I was wondering when that would have come up again. That he’s willing to “eliminate” Lambs that “stand in the way” makes me uneasy; he’s liable to fall into the same pitfalls of consequentialism involving imperfect judgement, trading off potential outcomes against certainties.

    The enemies had to die.  Fray, Hayle, the Infante.
    In Fray’s case, it seems imprisonment will do? As much as I don’t want her out of the story, with her old allies still running amok, that seems risky.

    The arms race wasn’t a war of better technology and science so much as it was a war of freer and looser ethics.
    That sounds like an impossible war to me. Even given what Noble!Sy is willing to do, when has the Crown ever shown an interest in being bound by ethical considerations?

    “Do we have a problem?”
    Noble!Sy won’t waste time being subtle, it seems. Too much like manipulation, I guess, unbefitting a Lord.

    “I expected you to say you wouldn’t allow experimentation on children,” Red said.
    Noble!Sy’s suggestion that children would be compensated fairly for the experimentation sounds nice, but… isn’t that indistinguishable from Academy propaganda? I’m pretty sure Ferres’s pet student had said something almost exactly along those lines.

    We thought back, imagining the scene. We remembered being drunk on girls and on madness, delirious, disconnected.
    Of the pseudo-Nobles to join Noble!Sy’s retinue, Goldie seems to be the most the most potentially terrifying.

    “We need to maintain a connection to our roots, those who helped us get here.”
    Noble!Sy doesn’t seem to be all bad, contrary to how he seemed as the Voice. That this is something he values counts for a lot.

    “That road leads to madness, in my expert opinion.”
    …did Noble!Sy just tell a joke? Might’ve landed all the better if he had said “our” instead of “my”.

    “Can we think about it?” Red asked.
    I think all three of them are going to decide to do it. The only one that seems a little bit uncertain to me is Red, but… I can’t imagine that she’d be happy with a normal life.

    The alternative had been erasure of all Sylvester had been.
    Sylvester is gone, sacrificed.
    Sylvester was gone. He would not come back. He had been subsumed, he had subsumed.
    I can’t help but think that this is kind of bullshit? A bit melodramatic, maybe. If he subsumed his own self, that’s really just like saying that Noble!Sy is the person that Sylvester always was. And Sylvester had a mental image of himself, a sort of “platonic ideal” of Sylvester, that became increasingly difficult to adhere to. And Noble!Sy did cross threshold, a point of no return, and made a break with that ideal… but he still shares many if not most of the values of Sylvester-That-Was, shares memories, and other traits as well.

    Maybe I’m grieving a little bit, a little bit in denial. But it sounds to me like the “death of Sylvester” is mostly just a device that Noble!Sy is using to cope with changes in his own personality. Like Sylvester can’t change in the normal way because he’s so messed up, he can only grow as a person in these violent, lurching spurts. There’s probably an connection to be made somewhere about Sylvester’s self-conception being similar to one of his phantoms.

    Well, at least now it’s clear why Sylvester was being so fatalistic a few chapters ago… and why Lillian sensed that fatalism in him a few chapters before that.

    we would destroy all of the world except for the Crown States.
    It’s nice to have an idea of the scope of Fray’s safeguards. IIRC, the Crown States encompasses all of North America. Could be wrong, though.

    We had reason to suspect that Project Wyvern meant we were sterile
    Oh, you have “reason to suspect”, do you? I suppose you’ve done a lot of “research”, eh?

    if we couldn’t create our successors as so many Nobles did, then we would need a way to strike out, ensuring the Crown couldn’t flourish in our absence.
    A clean slate was better than a world where the Crown resumed power again. Wasn’t it? The question bothered us.
    It’s… a good question. Maybe it depends on how well you do with your “oasis”. But even then, it’s impossible to measure and weigh these things… you can’t even just say “two lives for one” like with your Lambs. Maybe it’s not necessary for you to decide everything, in the world where you won’t even live.

    “How is she?” “She’s resting,” Duncan answered.
    Yeah, no shit!

    we couldn’t do it by any means except extortion or by patience.
    “No,” Duncan said. “I don’t believe it was. You believed what you said.”
    There’s a lot of talk about Noble!Sy not using “manipulation”, sometimes going out of his way for that purpose. But I don’t think “manipulation” has to involve lies or deception. That was one of the tragic elements of Sy’s personality, in that he could not stop manipulating people even if he wanted to, simply because he was hyper-aware of their interactions at all times. I’m worried that what this all means is that Noble!Sy is going to start resorting to more heavy-handed methods of coercion.

    “I am. And the other little ones. But you used a promise to Helen to sway Ashton. You want to bring about her perfect world.”
    I almost made note of that on the previous chapter. But then it seemed that Ashton was more moved by the promise to restore Helen, and take care of his friends.

    “You keep going back to the notion of ordinary life. Family, friends, school.”
    “And yet we- I didn’t approach this conversation from that angle.  I wonder if I misread you, now.”
    It was interesting. Duncan was the one to bring it up, then basically argued against himself.

    “I’m willing to take that step. I’ll be the first if need be. Constraints forced my hand. So I’m here.”
    “You have the ability to talk to the others and cast doubt on my honesty, and I’m sure if you argued well enough, while I wasn’t there to say my piece, you could change their minds.”

    “Do you think I’m so petty that all I want is respect?”
    He took such offense to this! I’m sorry, Duncan. I like you, but I’m inclined to misread you just like Sy. I never really thought Duncan had a malicious bone in his body… but I wasn’t sure what he would come to believe was the best way to help people.

    “What you want is to go under the knife, to be changed, to have a body that matches your mind. You want me to facilitate that.”
    “We would hope our body isn’t so crowded, damaged, or lonely.”
    Maybe Sy has always felt a little bit ridiculous, somewhere in the back of his mind, intimidating people and commanding armies with that small body of his. To have an outward appearance that is a sincere expression of his inner self… I really want to see it. It’s scary, but exciting.

    “We wouldn’t discount the value of acceptance, given or taken.”
    “Warts and all”. I think I’m developing an appreciation of that sentiment, that I didn’t have back when Mary first said it. The Lambs only have each other.

    “What does it say about me,” he asked, “That I actually wondered if you’d kill me, for testing you in the here and now?”
    I’m not sure exactly what the test was… I’m guessing Sy passed when he said “You’re right”? Testing Sy’s ability to be honest, I suppose.

    The drizzle stopped. The rain ceased falling on Radham for the first time in our lifetime.
    I really wasn’t expecting this! But it was nice. It’s a huge-ass circle closure, for sure… I think that’s why a lot of people thought this could be the end.

    The mischievous child in us liked that alarm.
    See, you say “Sylvester is dead,” and then you say things like this… well, I know it’s wishful thinking.

    We hadn’t stepped onto the orphanage grounds because of what they represented, and what we represented. Lamb to Lord.
    Sy didn’t even give it a final visit. 😦 It’s really sad, but I’m excited to see the futures of those Lambs that are leaving their past behind.

    There was reason to suspect the others, Ashton possibly excepted, had made it their last visit too.
    I suppose Ashton will have friends at the orphanage? I don’t know if the younger Lambs will stay there. I don’t think that Ashton would object to becoming a Lord, eventually.

    It would have made such a difference, all the same.
    I know I’m not supposed to read it like this, but if Duncan had decided differently, and had awakened Jessie and allowed her to interact with Noble!Sy… perhaps that could have influenced the development of his new identity, in these formative days? Along with administering the Wyvern while Sy slept, it feels like Duncan has been building up Noble!Sy in ways he doesn’t even realize.

    Duncan’s advice hadn’t been enough. We worried. It made too much sense to destroy our enemy, to secure this.
    😦 I’m visualizing the “teetering on the edge of a knife” again.

    Would Duncan name us for the liar we were, citing his pill?
    I don’t have the impression that he would. As he said, it was an unfair test… and we’ve already reached the point where the fears Duncan had are being realized, and the other Lambs are coming to accept it.

    “Who’ll be first?” Lillian asked.
    Sounds like she’s offering. Poor Lillian, she has to let go of her Sy so soon. I hope she gets a say in designing Sy’s new self. I’m sure Duncan’s a fine artist, but I feel like only she could do Sy justice.

    • You’re thinking Lillian might get a say in designing the new Sy? I’mjust Going to try not or think about what she could do with that.

    • Propaganda: Arguably (thinking about quality of life depicted in 1984’s propaganda), turning too-good-to-be-true propaganda into actual reality is a pretty positive thing, as long as it can be stably enforced so that groups don’t/can’t slide back in secret.

      (Could the government itself be prevented from letting it slide back in secret… does the current Sy’s brain want that too to be an option for the sake of the war… Hmm.)

  23. I’m no longer certain that Sy – that whatever he is now – still understands why he loves Jessie. Or why Jessie loved him. And to me that’s the scariest change.

  24. Fascinating. Twig has been a wild ride that I have very much enjoyed. I absolutely love how this ending, more than your other works, leaves me wondering. Thinking, considering possibilities. Im a bit sad I didnt get to see Jessie awake one last time, that scene of her going to sleep hit me hard… but that is ok. Its ok to leave it open where I can imagine and wonder about how she ended (though I suspect one of the epilogue chapters will cover her).

    Thank you once again for an incredible story. Im still in Thailand recovering, so I cant donate just yet, but I am excited to do so once I get home. Twig is one of the things that saved me from loneliness and boredom on this trip so far from all that I knew, being changed much as the lambs are about to be changed. (not sure you care, but my surgery has been a wild success and I am extremely happy to finally be fixed)

    I happily await your next creation sir 💕
    -nicole-

  25. This ending is so problematic. And I love that. There is the feeling of new beginnings, of peace for the Lambs at last, of hope. But over-riding all this, there’s the note that Sylvester is a liar. The pathetic fallacy of the rain finally stopping and sun breaking through is a lovely moment- and hugely symbolic-but it isn’t definitely a happy ending. 

    Starting with the conversation with Paul and Red, who’ve been playing the role of the Not Quite As Good Guys, we see some of Noble!Sy’s true intentions. In the last chapter he crafts several big speeches and rallies round the protesting Lambs despite their best intentions. And then he goes off and puts eggs in other baskets. He’s setting them up as backup allies in case the Lambs don’t follow through. So for the first time he’s not “Trusting In The Lambs”. 

    … So why should they trust in him. 

    There’s the excellent dialogue with Duncan, who’s been really well crafted as a foil for Sy, exposing some of the truth and instilling some chills at the mention of violence.

    When Noble!Sy volunteers himself to be going first, I am definitely worried. This is one of the few times where he may well not have the interests of the Lambs at heart. We haven’t been privy to his intentions for some time now, and so I’m left doubting nearly all of what he’s promised. 

    Wildbow, absolutely excellent work as ever. Really sad to see the end of a fantastic story. Incredibly involving, intricately created and at times full-blown nightmare fuel. Thanks so much!

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