Our efforts to find a way up was hampered by the chaos above. The hatch Gorger had pointed us to was too close to the center of the enemy. Further down the tunnel, another hatch opened into the corner of the same building, but there was a fight unfolding right on top of it, bullets flying from guns, violence, shouting and death all included in the chaos.
Further down the same tunnel, in an area where the tunnel served to channel rainwater, a wooden grate was sunken into the street, positioned to lead up to the exterior of the building. Unusable, because so many bodies or one very large body had been left to die atop it. Bodily fluids poured down like molasses from a spoon, collecting on the wood of a grate on the floor of the tunnel we occupied, congealing just enough that it didn’t fully filter through. Blood and clear fluids formed different proportions of the thick stream from moment to moment.
Dim light struggled to move past the holes in the wooden grate, different parts of it blocked at different moments by the soup of flesh.
We had to navigate carefully to avoid wading in the acidic runoff.
I narrowed my eyes, adjusting to the fact there was light to see by. I turned my head to hear better. The noise of the ongoing fight above us was incessant, pure chaos.
I tuned into that chaos, listening to it, parsing it.
Kill them, the voice said.
“So naggy,” I muttered.
“What?” Lillian asked.
“Murder, murder, kill kill, telling me to do things I’m not in a position to do.”
“Do we need to shackle you?” she asked.
“I’m mostly here,” I said. I turned my head around, trying to listen to the sound of the battle and piece it together.
“That’s a non-sequitur,” she said.
“It’s an answer. Mary can stab me if something happens.”
“Unless something happens to Mary,” Helen said.
“Shh,” Mary said. “Bad omen to say it out loud.”
“If something happens to Mary then you can do something, Helen,” I said. “Or Lillian can do something. If not her, then Duncan and Ashton.”
“I’m noting that Ashton and I are last,” Duncan said.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “And if you two kick the bucket or go out of commission, and none of the others are left, then, well, what does it matter?”
“I think it matters a lot,” Lillian said. “There’s an awful lot of others you can hurt.”
“The rebels might be able to fend for themselves. Who knows?” I said.
“Let’s not let it come to that,” Lillian said.
I was starting to get a sense for the sounds I was hearing through the grate and tunnel. Bullets going one way had a slightly different sound than the ones which weren’t. The tromp of boots had a dull sound to them when they were numerous enough to be heard together, people moving in formation.
Exact location wasn’t possible to discern in many cases, so I didn’t try. I held them all in my head as separate entities, and I pieced it together. The fact that one regiment of a certain size existed, that another regiment was either nearer or larger by their volume. I could know that a group was firing one way by the sound of the shots, and I could gauge their general number by the volume.
I could gauge affiliation by the fact that some had their backs to the Infante.
Kill them or the Lambs die.
I set my jaw.
“The Duke is on our side,” Lillian said. “That’s something we could use, if we can separate him from the Infante.”
“We presume he’s on our side,” I said.
Mary spoke, “He was in communication with us for a long time. Coded messages that put him at grave risk. The Infante coming after us suggests that he found out. He had no reason otherwise.”
“He could have a lot of reasons,” I said.
“He could, but let’s be honest, Sy,” Mary said. “Sometimes the answer is the simple one.”
Nothing about this seemed simple. We traveled down the tunnel, avoiding the areas where the rainwater ran thickest.
Something cracked nearby. Dust and debris plunged down from the roof of the tunnel further down, pouring into the space, with a few scattered body parts.
Shadows flickered. I checked my mental map, trying to think of who it might be.
“The Infante’s people,” I whispered. I thought about the layout we’d observed, where the enemy was, and gestured.
We moved into the side tunnels and the shadows, close to the grate where there was light. The light would be deceptive, giving the illusion that if there was anything close by, they’d be able to see it.
I peered around the corner. They were a squadron of soldiers. Crown soldiers, dressed in black, with quarantine masks, the hoses worked into the masks, armored and protected from gunfire as the hose parted and disappeared over their shoulders, behind their backs. Glass glinted in the light at their shoulders, tinted fluids within the tubes in question. Shoulder-mounted drug injections.
I gestured for the others, filling them in. I found a dry spot and eased Jessie down, placing her at one side of the tunnel, then returned to my vantage point.
Their boots tromped, sloshing through the acid water.
They ran past us, within a foot of me. They were dark enough and the tunnel was dark enough that I was only aware of them by the movement of air on my face. I saw the glint of what might have been a bayonet.
One man passed me, and in the next instant, Helen was there, on top of him. She crashed into him, banging into the wall, then went down with him into the water. Into the acid. Harvesters rose up from the liquid, crawling over the both of them.
My eyes went wide. I jumped forward, stepping on the back of the soldier’s head, driving it into the acid while using it as a stepping stone to keep my foot from plunging into the liquid.
I windmilled my arm, no wall in reach to lean against, and the walls were moist with rainwater that flowed down from the cracks in the street above, anyhow.
Mary caught my hand, giving me something to brace against.
The weight of two people on him, his hands scraping against the slick floor of the drainage tunnel, served to keep him put. Water that already churned as it ran down the tunnel was bubbling as- yes, partially exhalations from his mask, but also that Helen’s toe was keeping the air bladder beneath the water.
She was poised, perched on the man’s back, only barely keeping her limbs and face out of the drainage. It wasn’t a hold, not a grab, but something else, her toe keeping him from breathing, her other toe on his buttocks, her hands either propping him up or darting out to slap at his elbows, if it looked like he was getting them at the angle necessary to haul himself out of the water.
Mary, still holding my hand, kicked the soldier a few times in the side.
Her foot came away, held in the air, and I could see the blade that protruded from the toe, now caked in blood.
We pulled away, retreating to the sides of the tunnel. Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton were all holding rifles, aiming them at the group that seemed oblivious to us. The group was moving slowly, navigating a zig-zagging path of detritus that was making the water level higher. We’d decided not to go that way.
The harvesters were starting to crawl out of the water, trying to find ways in through the suit. Some were at the side, where Mary had kicked the man.
I stared down at the scene.
I touched Mary’s shoulder, then indicated Ashton. I gestured.
She took over for Ashton, taking his rifle.
Ashton, for his part, took up Mary’s position.
I gestured. Gas.
I indicated the harvesters.
Then I gestured at the group that had left. I used the… well, Jessie would’ve known the history of it.
But it was the second or third sign we’d settled on, when we’d started using the gestures.
Meager light and ample shadow were dancing further down the tunnel. It wasn’t impossible that we’d have company. It would put us in a bad position.
Ashton reached down and cupped one of the harvesters in his hands. He flinched and dropped it.
“Be careful,” I whispered.
I dropped to my hands and knees. I tried to keep my hands away, bringing my knife to the soldier’s side. The harvesters moved toward me. Ashton waved his hands at them, and they moved away.
I cut the holes wider. The harvesters slithered in.
“Why?” Ashton asked.
“As a distraction,” I said. “Assuming you can keep it from coming after us?”
“I think so.”
I stared at it for a long time.
I thought of where the enemy was, all the noises I was learning to make sense of, as if chaos was a language, and I was teaching it to myself, step by step, word by word.
The focus and the shift in my thoughts came at a price. The voice was speaking. It said dangerous things and it made demands, for impossible things and ugly things.
This time I was equipped to listen.
Five soldiers sloshed through the water of the tunnel. Some still had guns in hand. Others were empty-handed. Most were wounded.
We shrank back into the shadows, listening to the noise of boots in water. Where the lesser and standard-issue quarantine gear seemed to dissolve and break down in the face of the acid rain, this gear seemed to be top quality. They waded in dangerous waters that churned with acid and parasites as if it was of no concern.
The Crown’s elite soldiers. I wondered how they got there. Was it an alternate promotion path? Be leader of a squad, or remain a foot soldier in a squad of higher esteem? Were they picked from the cream of the crop of the aristocracy?
They were men and women. They had families. They had hopes and dreams and they probably hated this war as much as any of us. They served the Crown and they were loyal and patriotic. It was a virtue, even if the side they served wasn’t mine.
I felt nothing. I could have called it coldness, a contrast to the warmth of Jessie, who clung to my back and breathed into the back of my neck, to Lillian, whose arm pressed against mine. Lillian held her breath, because she didn’t want to make a sound.
Coldness was the wrong idea. Cold made me think of hate, a contrast to the feeling that welled in me when the Lambs were close. Cold made me think of staring the enemy down and feeling a change sweep over me as I internally came to new, more unpleasant terms with them.
They were room temperature. They were more noises in chaos.
They reached a point further down the tunnel, and they spotted the enemy. They picked up the pace, insofar as their injuries allowed them to.
The enemy was Crown. Elite soldiers. They wore uniforms of the topmost quality, in the same black material. The enemy had the gas masks that protected the hoses and tubes with armor.
The defending side was slow to act. It made me think of a group of men staring into a mirror, realizing too late that they weren’t staring at their own reflection.
The reality wasn’t so neat and tidy. There was no mirror. There was only the assumption that men and women who were alive and well who wore the same uniforms were friendly.
That, if they weren’t friendly, that they wouldn’t be suicidal enough to throw themselves at a larger, better-armed group.
A squad of five collided with a squad of ten. The front ranks were dragged to the ground, and here, the tunnel was dry enough that they wouldn’t be soaked in the drainage water.
The ones who still stood started to pull the attackers off, sticking them with bayonets, when there was no armor or defending soldier getting in the way. One gun fired from the attacking five, an accidental trigger pull, not something intentional. It made them balk.
Mary gestured. The Lambs stepped out of shadow, moving quickly and soundlessly.
Where the defending ten had held the upper hand, they were now outnumbered. Helen pounced on one. Mary attacked another two. I seized a third, burdened as I was with Jessie, and Lillian helped me. Duncan and Ashton went after the last one who wasn’t preoccupied.
For an instant, it seemed we had the upper hand. We’d caught them unawares, they were preoccupied, and we’d seized them, knocked them down, or we’d disarmed them.
Then they began using the combat drugs. They surged in strength. They threw us off.
Mary cut them more. I dropped Jessie rather unceremoniously, then joined Mary in disabling them, kicking at one kneecap. My foot slid across the ground to kick at the side of one foot, which just so happened to be resting on ground that looked particularly slimy. It slid, the owner’s balance went with it, and Duncan was able to kick at the spot on the man’s arm where the vials were mounted.
The ones who had been dosed were too strong, getting stronger, and so we killed them.
We regained the upper hand. We broke more of the vials before they could use whatever mechanism it was that dumped combat drugs into their systems.
Each enemy was summarily disabled but not killed, the attacking five with their masks set ajar, pacified by Ashton, pinning the remaining defenders.
“Help!” one defender screamed.
His voice echoed in the tunnel, reaching far. It was drowned out by the sound of walls falling, by the sound of countless guns firing, the sounds alternately far enough away to ring across the surroundings, or so close that the listeners would be left hearing only silence for seconds after. Explosions occurred, things screamed. People somewhere out there were crying for their mothers.
These soldiers were quiet.
We’d pit them against each other. Crown elite against Crown elite. All it had taken was letting the harvesters in, weakening them.
The simple harvesters were easy for Ashton to direct.
“If I told you to go to the Infante and lie for our benefit, to draw him into the position we wanted him in, would you listen?” I asked.
“You’re mad,” one shouted. It was a woman. I’d pulled off her mask.
“It’s a choice of life as a traitor or death of the worst kind,” I told her. “Life is always better, isn’t it?”
“I’d rather die,” she said.
I reached down, and I undid the clasps on her outfit, revealing the zipper.
I pulled it off of her. A jacket. She fought.
The quarantine pants came off next. She was left in a soldier’s uniform, summer-weight, but sweaty and damp. Her hair was in disarray.
“Please,” Lillian said. “Cooperate.”
“I have given every year of my life to the Crown since I was old enough to write.”
“I did the same,” Lillian said. “My life for the Academy.”
“You don’t understand, traitor. Every hour, every day, every week. Every day I studied or worked, it was for them.”
“I understand that very well,” Lillian said.
“On my days off, I socialized with others who served the Crown.”
“The difference between us is my friends served the Crown, but one by one, they died-”
“You think I haven’t seen death?” the woman asked.
“And they turned away from the Crown. We learned things. What the world really looks like. Who’s really at the top.”
The woman lay there, on her back, Mary stepping on one of her hands. Her discarded costume rested to one side.
The harvesters scurried here and there, but they gave Ashton a wide berth.
“She’s seen many of the same things,” I murmured under my breath. “She might even know the most pertinent details.”
“Mm,” Helen made a sound, though I hadn’t been talking to her.
“She believes, even with all she’s privy to,” I said. “I don’t know how, but it makes it easier to do this.”
I grabbed the woman. Mary helped. Each of us had an arm, and we dragged her closer to the area where the drainage water was collecting, running in a stream. The harvesters were thicker here, the ones who might have been near where Ashton was were gathering in greater number at the periphery.
We held her so her body tilted forward, head only a foot above the water, her arms to either side, where even if we let go, she wouldn’t get them in front of her before her face was submerged. Mary’s foot was on the ground, propped up with a heel on the tunnel’s floor, the blade extended and poking at the top of the soldier’s thigh. The soldier couldn’t bring it forward without impaling it. Her other leg was injured.
“This is a bad way to go,” I said. “Acid. Parasites. Becoming a monster, maybe even one that’s aware of what’s happening to it.”
In the background, Lillian was looking away.
Harder, when she’d remarked on parallels between herself and this woman.
The only difference being what? Crown instead of Academy? Soldier instead of scholar? Negligible. That I’d turned traitor and walked away? But for one friend walking away, the others following in time, Lillian might have been in this position.
“You can live. You can find love, you can find family, money, legacy. All we need is for you to go to the Infante and speak one sentence. An innocuous sentence. Harmless. He won’t even know your role.”
“No,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t you even just lie?” I asked. “Say you’ll tell him what we want you to tell him. Then get away?”
“I wouldn’t let any pledge of betrayal pass through my lips,” she said. “Even as a lie.”
“I felt like that once, too,” Mary said. “Everything was abso-”
The woman hauled her arm free of Mary’s grip. One side of her plunged into the drainage water. She tore her hand free of my grip.
Had that been intentional?
The acid rain was thick here, but the effects not instantaneous. She hauled herself free of the water, twisting around to face her direction, but I could see hints of her face in the gloom. I could see the way she moved her head.
She gasped, making small pained sounds, and her head turned to scan the surroundings. Her eyes saw nothing. She flinched as harvesters crawled on her, flung arms around, and Mary and I were forced to step back lest we be splashed.
Guards for the nobles, for the top professors. Gloria, Foss. Hayle might’ve had some.
It seemed so wasteful.
The irony being that they were ours. These were the ones we’d arranged to send into the city, to go to war with Hayle. The Infante hadn’t brought any humans of his own. He’d only brought monsters. He’d gathered them around him by being a Noble of one of the highest ranks, stealing their obedience and service from us with just words, gestures, and presence.
They’d already betrayed the Crown on behalf of the enemy. I’d only asked for a slightly more informed betrayal. It mattered so little, and yet the consequences were so vast.
We backed away, as she twitched, making more agonized sounds as her skin blistered and the harvesters crawled into the orifices of her face and head.
She charged us, and we let her. Mary kicked her to one side at the last moment, and the soldier sprawled onto the ground.
Two charges followed, and Mary kicked her each time.
After the third fall, the woman remained where she was. The tension in her relaxed, harvesters continued their work.
Lillian stared down at the woman. Her expression was hard to read, the filter covering her nose and mouth.
Mary gestured. I responded. We had a back and forth. Duncan joined in. I had to squint at him to see in the gloom.
A brief conversation.
“You,” I said, nudging the next soldier with my toe. “Will you cooperate?”
He looked at the woman. Flesh was sloughing from her now, her hair half gone. Her eyes were being devoured, as harvesters settled into the sockets, wriggling like pitch black tongues.
“I’d sooner do what she did, in hopes that you make a mistake, misstep, and I get to kill you,” he said.
“We won’t,” Mary said. She glanced at me. “I won’t. And I won’t let him misstep to the point it matters.”
“Thanks, Mary,” I said, very unimpressed.
But the soldier refused to cooperate.
Mary had gestured, asking me a question. I’d responded. In our back and forth, she and even Duncan had doubted me.
But I’d said it straight. The fact that the leader of this squad reminded me of Lillian had softened me to a degree, as room-temperature as this particular group was for me, emotionally speaking. I didn’t feel any fondness, hate or frustration. I could still come to terms with what she was and where she stood. With how it related to what I and what the voice wanted.
What if she cooperated? Mary had gestured, though the sentence had been butchered by the lack of words like ‘if’, the ‘what’ being only a question. Closer to: question she obey question.
I’d tie her up. Leave her to get free later, I’d responded.
Duncan had wanted to know if I would have sent her to the Infante. But no. We didn’t want to tip her hands.
If they listened, I was willing to spare them. We were striving for something, and if all was said and done and the three gods slain, then I wanted there to be people left who could adapt, adjust.
There was no point otherwise.
The second soldier wasn’t going to cooperate. I could see that the third soldier was already even more stubborn than any of the first two.
I looked at the remainder, and hoped that they’d come around by the time I got to them.
Three. Three had cooperated.
Not three in ten, but three in thirty.
I felt exceedingly room temperature. The voice spoke in my ear. It was content with this direction. For the moment, it and I were on the same page.
The Lambs were grim.
“We should thank Abby for this,” Ashton said.
“Why’s that?” Lillian asked.
“I spent a lot of time around non-human things because of Abby, and I got a lot of practice,” he said. “And that practice mattered today.”
“It’s night,” Helen said.
“It’s important to thank people,” Ashton said.
“We’ll thank Abby,” I said. “And in the interest of thanking people… thank you, Lambs. Thank you Jessie, Lillian, Mary, Helen, Ashton, and Duncan.”
“I’m noticing the order again,” Duncan said.
“You’re second place for me, Duncan,” Helen said.
“That’s almost more terrifying than reassuring, but thank you,” Duncan said.
“Thank you, Sy,” Lillian said.
“It’s a bittersweet thank-you, I think,” she said.
“Well, I’m pretty bittersweet as a person.”
“That’s not wrong,” she said. “Thank you for… opening my eyes.”
“I was thinking about that earlier, y’know,” I said.
“A lot of us were, I think,” Lillian said.
“I’m not going to thank anyone,” Mary said. “I’m not going to close that circle or provide any next iteration in some cosmic ratio set. We’ll leave it at this.”
“Perfect,” I said.
Ashton reached out to touch the tangle’s face.
Our tangle, caught and built by our hands, formed of twenty-seven individuals we’d hunted as they tried to use the underground to reposition in the battle.
Ashton backed away swiftly, as the tangle grew more active. Nearly a minute passed as it started to move more, flexing itself, figuring out how it was configured. It twitched and flexed.
It surged upward, hands reaching for and fumbling at rungs in a ladder. It rose more by dint of accidentally hooking on or resting on the rungs as more of itself gathered beneath it, flexing it to strive skyward.
It nearly buckled, bending at the middle and turning to go another way. Ashton hurried to one side, blocking it, emanating something.
It continued skyward. It surged out through the hatch we’d identified.
The Infante wasn’t still here, going by Mary’s recent peek through the hatch, but he was close by. This thing was still rising in the enemy’s midst. It was big and dangerous enough to warrant attention.
The battle lines at the other hatch shifted. We had an opening, a way in.
We climbed up. We entered the building. The air wasn’t stale, but it stung the nostrils, and it smelled like war, only bad smells, only oppressive ones.
It was a warehouse, but fortified. At another time, in proper wartime, it might have housed munitions, in addition to a share of the city’s defensive munitions. The munitions weren’t present. There were no manned turrets, no warbeasts chained up and held at bay. There were only squads, the detritus of war, both in corpses and in discarded articles, and those squads were preoccupied, fighting either the tangle or the enemy beyond the door.
The Tangle bludgeoned its way through a squad of soldiers.
I spotted the Infante just quickly enough to see him turning our way, his eyes wide, before the Tangle moved between him and us. He was just past the front doors of the building.
Where was the Duke? My doubts aside, he was one of our best options.
The Infante had disabled the gas for us, at least. I was glad to see it. I discarded the mask I’d scavenged from the soldiers’ we’d collected, letting it hang over one of my shoulders.
I heard the Infante’s voice boom. Orders. Ones aimed at the relatively few people and the monsters outside, who were holding off the defending forces. He stepped through the doorway, into the building.
Even at a glimpse, going by what I could see beyond the door, the Infante had a lot of monsters with him.
He spoke again, louder now that he was inside, and the Tangle responded to it.
It charged him, and he moved clear out of the way.
It charged past him, and it collided with the wall. The building began to collapse, rubble falling around the Infante, around the battle lines closest to the noble, around the monsters the Infante had gathered around him.
Acid water streamed into the building. Dust rose and was beaten down by rain. Harvesters churned.
The Infante pulled his hand away from the Tangle, which was trying to figure out how to move again, with much of the rubble still resting atop it. It stirred, and the Infante walked away from it, putting distance between himself and it.
“My best creatures are diving into the tunnel,” he said, speaking to the room. “The building is fortified. There’s one exit, and the chemicals in the water would blind you in seconds and melt you in minutes. I find it irritating, but hardly that limiting.”
“Nowhere to run,” I said.
“Succinctly put,” the Infante said.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t come here to run,” I said.