Crown of Thorns – 20.7

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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 dance.

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.

Change.

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 nodded.

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.

Three squads.

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.

“Just me?”

“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.

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Crown of Thorns – 20.6

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The tunnel was dark, the only illumination being the light from the gap we’d just crawled through and a tracery of bioluminescent something-or-other running along the tunnel walls at eye level.

“Can I remove my mask?” I asked.  “Is it safe?”

“Nothing’s safe at this point,” Duncan said.

“Okay, well…” I undid the clasps and buckles, and I worked the mask off, then pulled the hood back.  I took an experimental breath, and I didn’t die.  “The acid rain screwed up the lenses a bit, and I’m worried about what it’s doing to the outfit.”

I worked my way free of the quarantine suit, then rescued all of the tools, weapons, and various essential bits and pieces from it.

“Easier to see in this lighting without the lenses,” I said, blinking.  “Lungs aren’t burning.  I think we’re clear here.”

“I imagine we’d have to be, if the tunnels are used by defending forces,” Duncan said.

The others began removing their masks.  It was dark enough here that when I looked at Helen, she was a pale blob that took a second or two to figure out the orientation for.  Lillian was easier, a narrow band of pale face visible between the lengths of straight brown hair on either side of it.  She fiddled for a moment and then broke the mask portion free, raising it to her lower face and strapping it there, covering only her nose and mouth.

They were easier to make out like this.  Ashton had shucked off the entire suit, which had hampered his abilities.  Duncan remained almost entirely suited up.

I knelt by Jessie, then removed the quarantine setup, peeling it off, to reduce her weight.  It was a process to get her behind me.  Helen offered some assistance.

I could almost hear the unspoken condemnations, the questions as to why we’d brought her.  The stitched had helped, and we might not have brought the stitched if not for her.  The pace and the group splitting that had risen from the fact she was with us had been to our benefit, I felt.  But that was a minor thing, almost an excuse.  It was true, but it would ring hollow if I tried to voice it aloud, were someone to challenge me.

They didn’t challenge me.

I got Jessie behind me, and I was in the process of trying to figure out how to bind her hands together without cutting off circulation, so I could carry her piggyback, when she simply hugged me tight.

“Hold-” I murmured.

“Sy,” she spoke in my ear, barely audible.

I went still.  I waited, tense, while the others rustled, apparently unaware.  I listened, wanted the utterance to be the start of a thought.  I wanted there to somehow be a world where Jessie would both communicate with me and remain safe from the great and terrible caterpillar.  It was a cruel and monstrous thing that had eaten her predecessor’s mind and now it skulked near her, waiting for a waking thought to gnaw at.

I wanted Jessie, and I wanted Jessie to be safe.

I willed for something, anything.

As if responding to that will, she hugged me tighter.  I could feel her body pressing against me, expanding as she drew in a deep breath, her face nestled against my neck.

“Yeah,” I murmured.  “It’s nice to have you close too.  Hold on tight.”

I pretended she’d heard and gripped me tighter at that instruction, and straightened.  She wasn’t too heavy, compared to the weight of the wet uniform and pack I’d been carrying.

“Ready,” Mary said.  By the shape of her, she’d discarded the entire uniform, as I had, and wore only the clothes she’d had on beneath.  Her hair was wavy, and if I might have mistaken her for Lillian in the gloom, the streak of the pale ribbon at the sides and back of her head made it easier.

“Ready,” Lillian said.  She’d undone the top portion of her uniform, and tied it around her waist.  She had a medical bag and the rifle, and the tube from the mask still extended to the air bladder.

There was something to be said for the degrees to which we’d discarded the burdens and protections of the uniform, and where each of us stood in regards to our individual… hm.  Mortalities was the wrong word.

Our fated endings?  The barbed and poisonous wyvern, the great and inexorable caterpillar, the puppet bound in her strings?  Ashton had his metaphorical tree seizing his mind and limbs, and it would inevitably trap him.  Lillian and Duncan had set out on a path that threatened to either claim them or destroy them.

Helen in particular seemed to have done away with all propriety.  Her arms and shoulders were bare, she wore a camisole and a coquette’s skirt, her legs and feet free of any socks or shoes.  Her hair was messy and damp from being covered with the uniform, hood, and mask.

She had been named Galatea, and she had been named Helen, after the face that had launched a thousand ships.  There were two paths painted there, and she’d just been about to make a final decision, favoring the latter, to pursue the thing she was most passionate about, which would ultimately destroy her.

The ‘Galatea’ path wasn’t any better.  To be wed to her creator.  If even this limited degree of freedom wasn’t enough for him to keep her calibrated and well, would she be limited to only the briefest excursions from him and his lab?  Forever at his side?

There were the little ones too.  Nora, Lara, Abby, Emmett, and Bo Peep.  Their endings were a ways away now, but there was a time they’d come due.  There would be tears and frustration, the broken relationships and painful loss-

“I’m ready,” Helen said.  Her voice bounced around the tunnel, eerie.  She rolled her shoulders.

“Okay,” I said.  I shifted Jessie’s position on my back.  “Let’s go.”

“These tunnels are bad for my style of fighting,” Mary said.  “I’d recommend using the guns, but gunshots will be heard.”

She led the way, the acoustics of the tunnel making even the smaller scuffs of feet on the ground that much louder.  The sounds of the fighting, of distant explosions and crumbling fixtures, it was equally distorted, made into something hollow that had echoed too many times, like a thing that wasn’t really happening.

The footing was even, if sometimes lacking in traction, but the real hazards were the hatches and doorways.  Basket weaves of iron and thick strands of something wet that might have been muscle framed doorways or hatches that had been closed and now were open.  It was too easy to lose track of where I was in the tunnel, to move too fast or too far on one side and kick one or run headlong into it.  Some of the hatches and doors had been drawn deeper into the ground, and they formed tripping hazards.

I didn’t want to hurt Jessie by falling or allowing her hand or arm to get caught between my body and a doorframe.

Here and there, there were puddles.  We avoided those with even more care than we avoided the partial barriers.

It was disorienting, with no clear illumination.  I tried to keep an eye out for each of the Lambs, calming my mind by trying to read them, reassure myself that they were there, and I saw others instead.

Pale forms flashing by me and teasing, all in various shapes and forms.  It was as if I wasn’t joined by just the Lambs and the enemies we’d pursued and destroyed, but by the hunts.  The enemies as they’d been conceptualized when I hadn’t had a face, form or name to put to the deeds we were hunting them for.  These glimpses resembled the foes we’d had nipping at our heels when a target grew savvy enough to hire help or send others after us, when they had attacked, chased, and hurt us but were only blurs.

There was no measuring the distance with counted seconds, because it was hard to think.  No measuring it by the number of footsteps, when footsteps echoed and kept no time as we alternately slowed, stopped, and started again, navigating the hazards.  We couldn’t even keep track with the noises of the city beyond and the shape of the oncoming war, because all of it was muffled and diffuse.

Mary held up a hand, and the hand was pale in the gloom.  It moved, gesturing, and we slowed.  As a group, we ceased making noise, but for the faintest rustle of clothing on clothing, or the wheeze of the air bladders that Duncan and Lillian still used.

The phantom noises grew both louder and more distorted, massive sounds that reached us through multiple walls and floors, then bounced off of the curved sides of the tunnel.  A rumbling, a roar, then a battery of gunshots.

Shouting.

I saw why Mary had signaled for quiet and caution.  The bioluminescence only reached a certain distance along the wall.  It stopped where a great pane of glass started, bottle green and crude, mottled in a way that suggested it was poor quality, and that it had relaxed from its original form in the many years since it had been installed.  It was caked in dust.

I ran my fingers through the dust, clearing a section so it was easier to peer through.

A seemingly endless stream of soldiers were charging through the space on the other side, illuminated by old voltaic lights that were dark more than they were on, more of an orange ember glow than the usual jaundiced yellow.  The soldiers ran past tables, sealed containers of supplies or emergency provisions, and past medical equipment with cobwebs on it.

Their shouts were muffled by the barrier between us.  The sounds reached a pitch, urgent, imminent, and then soldiers I couldn’t see opened fire.  The gunfire was answered by more of the same.

They charged further down the hallway on the other side, and soldiers at the rear of the group began to slow.  Tables were cleared with sweeps of arms, and wounded were hauled into place.  Men and women with melting flesh.  Uniforms were cut away to reveal the harvesters that were crawling beneath clothing, both shelled and leechlike.

The scene was like a play without words or musical accompaniment.  Mouths moved in shouts and cries of alarm, but any sounds were so muffled that I couldn’t tell them apart from phantom sounds my mind was conjuring up.  One soldier with a lieutenant’s uniform had harvesters jutting from now-empty eye sockets like tongues from an open mouth, and his face was reduced to burns and blood, features melting in together.  He was fighting those who would help him every step of the way, and yet it looked like the people on the other side really wanted to save him.

Closer to Mary, there was a thump.  A bang against thick glass.  She backed away from the spot, and I ventured closer to see.

A man wiped at the glass, clearing away the film of dust on his side.  He peered through, face and presumably eyes pointed in Mary’s direction.

No cry of alarm, no reaction.  The interior of our half of things was too dark.

Dual tunnels, for dual purposes.  Their side was the side for the Academy, for the humans who maintained and ran things.  Through that underground hallway, food or the means to acquire food would be delivered to homes and houses throughout Radham, so the citizens could endure while the enemy was rained on and made into monsters.

On the far side of Mary, I saw the phantom sights, the pale blotches that were the hunts and the hunted, the unknown enemies of no particular time or place.  These ones looked like children.  On the other side of the glass, as clear as anything, Sub Rosa was pacing among the soldiers, like a valkyrie ready to claim the dead.

The man who was peering into the glass startled, and as a collective, our hands reached for pistols and knives.

The man on the other side was reacting to something else.  It surged forward from further down the hallway, and in the doing, it drove a tide of bodies ahead of it, like a plow-wagon with a snow removal scoop mounted ahead of the oxen or stitched-beasts.  Lights on the ceiling of the hallway shattered as it charged into them, casting us into a deeper darkness.

It stopped and shied away from contact with the glass.  Lights from ahead of it in the hallway illuminated its pale form.

Pale because of the pallid flesh, drained in the same way my face might drain if the worst had come to pass.  Pale because the people who made up the bulk of the mass were soldiers, in white Academy uniforms and soldier’s uniforms that had been bleached to varying degrees by the rain.  Where they weren’t pale, they were crimson, because they were bleeding and flesh was breaking down with the rain that had fallen no them.  People, gathered together by the protein chains and strands and pulled into a crude machine of harvester and human-made-puppet.  Bodies, arms, and legs strove to work together by jerky, mechanical movements, to allow the greater mass to function as a completed whole.

It moved as if its ‘head’ was a blunt fist that sensed things by bludgeoning them, and it smashed tables, and it found the wounded from earlier- the lieutenant that medics had been trying to help.  It raised a leg, revealing a foot made up of two or three mangled individuals that had been crushed and broken by the weight of those above and the repeated impacts with the ground, and it pawed at the wounded, bringing them nearer.

The lieutenant, seeing by way of the harvesters that stuck from his eye sockets, moved with more purpose, crawling in jerky motions that resembled a baby’s initial attempts to across a floor.  He climbed and embraced the smaller of the greater tangle’s forelegs, before he was swarmed, being integrated into the whole.

The others weren’t so lucky, if there was such a thing.  They were paralyzed with pain, blinded by acid or harvesters, and they were helpless as the foot came down on them, harvesters working to make them part of a new ‘foot’, one that would no doubt flex and push against the ground before the muscles tore and bodies were smashed to constituent pieces by the impacts.  It looked as if it would take several minutes for the process to finish, if not considerably longer.  Whatever connections would allow the greater tangle to function as a whole would need to be forged between it and the new additions.

I turned away from the scene, and hesitated as I saw the blotches that were the hunted children.

Go, the voice said.

I steeled myself and marched past the vague shapes.  The others followed.

A pair of bullets hit the glass just behind us.  Each took out large chunks of the thick pane.  Cracks spiderwebbed across it, bright with the light from the distant old voltaic lights that the tangle hadn’t yet destroyed.

We moved faster.

The fighting was spreading over the top of Radham, and it was spreading through the guts of the city.  Deaths by the hundreds and thousands, which would only grow more numerous as everything escalated, and the kinds of horrors that could be perpetrated by an Academy with decades of prior preparation and nothing left to lose.

“I feel the need to say this,” Duncan said.

“No need,” I said.

Behind us, more bullets struck the glass.  A beam of light shone through a hole that resulted.  The sounds that came through and echoed toward us were the clearest non-Lamb noises we’d heard for ten or more minutes.  The tangle of bodies on the other side of the glass was groaning and making keening noises.

“It’s a need, not a want.  I don’t want to say this.”

“We’re all smart people, Duncan,” I said.  “We know it.  It doesn’t need to be said and made real.”

“I’m not smart,” Ashton said.  “I’m good at what I do, and I’m useful, and I’m good at thinking about things from unusual angles, because I don’t have a brain, but I’m not smart enough to know what you’re talking about.”

“We’re in a tunnel reserved for experiments, things that are freed to access the city as the city raises itself up,” Duncan said.  “All the while, the city is being transformed into a hive for those… abominations.”

“Tangles,” I said.

“Tangles, sure.  Which raises a question.”

“That question is, what’s supposed to come out of this tunnel?” Lillian asked.

“We’ll find out,” Helen said, her voice light.  “We’re running toward it.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.

The keening increased in intensity.  I wondered if the sound was louder because the opening was larger.

We reached another section with a glass pane at one side.  The pane was newer, less green, less mottled, and cleaner.  Blood smeared across a fair portion of it, having sprayed from wounds and then run down the surface.  Further down, someone bleeding had slumped against it before falling to the ground, depositing a large volume of blood on the surface.  Bodies littered the ground, furniture had been propped up to serve as limited cover, and it didn’t appear to have done the slightest bit of good.

We stopped there for a moment.  I crouched, easing against the side of the tunnel, so I wasn’t bearing Jessie’s whole weight.

The Devil was on the other side of the glass, standing among the bodies and smoking a cigarette.  I was really disliking how often he was turning up, now.  Sub Rosa too, but she was at least… not unrepentant in her evil.

Mary touched a break in the glass.

“We could go through,” she said.  “Not that it’s much better.”

I looked back in the direction of the tangle, then at the bodies.  I looked at the devil, and then the void that lay ahead of us.

Detour into the thick of things with any number of guns and limited cover, or go ahead to a near-certain threat?

“Okay,” I said.  I met the Devil’s eyes.

“What does it accomplish?” Duncan asked.

“Whatever we face out there, we at least have a chance of killing it,” I said.  “And we have a chance of surviving it.  And at least the hallways branch over there.  For what it’s worth, there’s occasionally directions that go beyond ‘forward’ and ‘backward’.

“Sy,” Lillian said.  “I hate to say it…”

I tensed.

“…and here I thought you’d urge me not to say it,” she said.  “You’d say you know what I’m going to say and you’d say it, to spare me from being the villain here.”

“You’re far from being a villain, Lil,” I said.  “And I know what you’re going to say, and I’ll say it.  Jessie would be useful.  It would make a lot of sense, especially if she could help us figure out where we are in the city, and where there might be places we can go up.”

Lillian nodded, and at the same time, Jessie squeezed my shoulders.

“Under,” she whispered.  “Under the orphanage.”

Under the orphanage.  Was there a way to come up through Lambsbridge?

“You’re farther away, Sy.  I’m trying to play along, but…”

Jessie’s voice devolved into mumbles.

“Did you guys catch that?” I asked.  “Because I didn’t.”

“Catch what?” Ashton asked.

“Jessie spoke.  Unless my head is playing tricks on me,” I said.  “Under the orphanage?  Helen?”

Helen stirred, looking at me.  She’d been staring down at the bodies.

“Please?” I asked.  “Did you hear?”

“I wasn’t listening,” she said.

I opened my mouth, then shut it.

I felt so alone, like this.  It was the situation, and the war, and Jessie being so close but so hard to communicate with.  It was Helen being lost and nearly gone, and Lillian wasn’t communicating like she should.  It was that I couldn’t see them, so much of the time, in the gloom.

My heart hurt, being like this.

It would be so easy to just say yes, that Lillian was right, and we needed direction and sense.

It would kill or ruin Jessie, but it would be a gasp of air, when we were in this claustrophobic space.  Light in so much darkness.

I hung my head.

Stand, the voice said.

I remained sitting.  I felt Jessie’s breathing against my neck.

Under the orphanage.  It wasn’t advice, and it wasn’t a deep, relevant memory for the situation at hand.  Talk of tunnels had stirred her recollection of West Corinth, of me kidnapping Lillian and taking her to the tower.

I didn’t want to give her bad dreams.

Forward and backward, retreats into darkness, death and horror was in arm’s reach but not in a way I could do anything about.  We’d created this situation, Jessie and I, the others, and it was my responsibility to see it through.

Even if that course was even darker and grislier than the obvious and maybe unavoidable ones ahead of us.  The path the voice was urging me to pursue.  I’d made a compromise to give it what it wanted.  In return, it wasn’t making me destroy the others.

Stand.

“This is doable, Sy,” Mary said.

“I’m just gathering my strength and taking a second to think.  Please.  Both of you.  Please,” I said.  My voice was a hush.

She didn’t say ‘okay’, or anything like it.  Lillian walked over to Mary, and I could hear the murmurs as they conversed.  Helen was stock still, looking into the glass and using fingers to comb at her hair, her head tilting to odd angles.

I felt a hand on my head.

Ashton.

“You don’t work on me,” I murmured.

“I know,” he said.  He gave me a pat.  “Not in the usual way.  But I can give you a pat on the head.  I can tell you that we’re strong, and it’s only because everything in Radham is hurting right now that things seem bad.”

I nodded.

“If that’s how it is, all of Radham hurting, then we should treat it like a surgery,” Lillian said.  “We cut and we use harsh drugs, but we do it with the aim of making things better in the end.”

Our plan of action isn’t so selfless, the voice reminded me.

“Sy,” Lillian said, responding to something in my posture or expression.  “When’s the last time you had Wyvern?”

“While back,” I said.  “Back when you gave it to me while I was asleep, to help me put all the evils of mankind in the box again.”

“You remain exceptional, Sy, I don’t think you realize just how keen your brain is, even off of Wyvern.  But you feel limited and you make it a self fulfilling prophecy.  Right now, you’re simply more locked in a direction than you’re used to.”

“That’s the problem,” I said.  “Forward and back, back isn’t even an option, and forward seems like inevitable disaster.”

“You can’t get too down on yourself,” she said.

“No,” I said.  “Not down on myself.  Just thinking, like I said.  A lot of what we’ve been trying to do is to forge a new path.”

“A new path?”

“Yeah.  I’m just trying to figure it out with a brain that’s wrestling through an awful lot of burdens right now.  I want to break from the inevitable.”

“Humanity’s been trying to do that at least since the ancient alchemists sought out immortality, if you believe the myths,” Duncan said.

“Death will have to wait,” I said.  “That’s a god for another time, if we make it through this and kill the gods ahead of us.”

Ashton’s hand was still patting my head.  I gave the hand a pat of my own, then worked my way to a standing position, bringing Jessie with me.

A new path.  That was the objective.

“Let’s get over to the hallway, at least for the short term,” I said, feeling more sure of myself.

“Alright,” Mary said.  She began working on the glass, seizing the largest shards around the opening and prying them free and away.

“What’s the line of thinking?” Duncan asked.

“Right now?  I don’t want to be on this side of the glass.  It’s messing with my head.”

“Okay,” Lillian said.  “Reason enough.”

Mary opened the aperture enough for us to carefully work our way through.

“And,” I said, as Mary climbed through, then gave Lillian a hand, so Lillian wouldn’t slip and impale herself on the glass that remained.  “And… this next part might require a little luck.”

We made our way through, except for Helen, who lingered, and for Jessie and me.  I passed Jessie through, then turned to Helen.  I touched her arm, and she flinched away.

She was lost, as I so recently had been.  As I had been in my own way for a long time.

“Hold onto the good things,” I said.  “From the past, and the things that await in the future.  There’s so many good things ahead of you.  The you that you are now isn’t the you that you’re doomed to be.”

“Do you think so?” Helen asked.

“I’m staking my everything on it,” I whispered to her.  “I know what I’m doing, and if you don’t believe me when I say that, I’ll point out that Lillian just said I’m smart, even without a recent Wyvern dose.  You should believe her, because nobody here’s going to deny she’s brilliant.”

“She is,” Helen said.  She smiled.

“Now, speaking of good memories… I need you to dredge one up.”

“No dredging needed,” Helen said.  “My memories aren’t as bad as yours.  It’s not my brain that’s being uncooperative and refusing to do things when it used to perform so precisely.”

“Yeah, that’d be mine,” I said.

“What am I remembering, Sy?”

“Remember your first friend.  You grew up in a place not so different and not so far from here.  I need you to call out to him.”

Helen smiled more.  “He might not be friendly.”

“Let’s ask,” I said.

Helen nodded.

“Come on, let’s get clear, just in case.”

She followed me out through the gap in the glass.  I felt like I could breathe better, in the hallway, surrounded by human dead.  I could see, now that I was on this side, how the light on the glass and the dust made the glass reflective, not quite reaching through to fully penetrate the shadows on the other side.

Then she called, making a sound of a pitch that went far and beyond that which humans could make.  In the hallway and the tunnel, it echoed without end, returning to us, a haunting sound.

She called again, then again.

He came, crawling down the tunnel.  He was bloodied, injured, and veins marked one side of his face.  Great and beautiful in a way that had nothing to do with human standards, a magnificent creature.

He slowed, approaching the aperture.  He watched us with bugged-out eyes, the pupils barely visible, the edges bloodshot.  His lips were thick, his mouth wide.  He was naked and he was bloody from whatever he’d been doing before we’d called.

“Gorger,” I said.  “Sorry to call you away from your duties.”

He was silent, staring.

“We need help, getting where we’re going.”

“Please,” Helen said.

Those bugged-out eyes roved over our group.  Then they moved to Mary again, and then the floor.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said.  “I don’t want to leverage it, because I don’t want to manipulate you.”

“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” Ashton said.

“Shh,” Duncan said.

Mary offered the answer for Ashton.  “Gordon and Gorger got along awfully well.”

There was a pause.  Gorger stared down at the ground.

“We need to get to any major building where the gas isn’t too thick,” I said.

He raised those eyes and met mine.  Then he nodded.

Gorger pressed against glass, twisting around.  He showed us far too much of himself in the process, as he reoriented himself within a tunnel where he scraped both sides, floor, and ceiling with his mass simply by being there.

He pointed.

We took his instruction.  I had to adjust Jessie, I felt her grip me tighter, and the others followed as Gorger crawled through the neighboring tunnel.  An escort and guide.

“Thank you,” I said.

Gorger shook his head, still crawling.

No?

‘Don’t thank me’?

I swallowed, drawing my weapon.  I heard the noises of other Lambs taking my cue.

The paths branched.  Gorger pointed us in one direction, away from him.  We took it.

Moments later, we reached another crossroad.  The floor of the tunnel was a series of metal grilles, and Gorger slithered beneath them, making them buck and rattle.  He pointed again.

We took the path he’d indicated.

Thank you, Gordon, I thought.  For helping to convince Gorger.

We reached another crossroad, Y-shaped, and we stopped.  There was a ladder stretching up, and there weren’t any good venues for Gorger to appear.

I adjusted my grip on Jessie, then drew my knife.  I tapped it against the ladder.

The grunt was distant, but affirmative.

Mary approached the ladder.  Lillian stopped her, gesturing.

There was a brief interaction between the two.  Mary eventually conceded to take Lillian’s mask and bladder, before ascending the ladder.  She eased the hatch open, peering through the gap.

After a moment, she eased it closed.

She remained there, still and silent, for a moment.  Then she pulled off the mask and bladder, tossing it down to Lillian.

No gas, she gestured.  Gas factory.

Another of the gas-production facilities.

Destroy, she gestured.  Soldiers.  Tall monsters.  Superweapon.  Crown gold.  Crown tall.  

The gas production facility had already been destroyed.  The army had reached this point without our help.  Soldiers were here, and so were monsters of the highest quality.

They had a superweapon at hand, and that wasn’t even the worst of it.

Crown gold was our shorthand for the Duke.  He was present.

Crown tall was our shorthand for the Infante.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We had set ourselves up between a rock and a hard place.  The plan had been to navigate the space between the two, but Avis had cost us the time we needed, and the gap had closed.  Radham’s forces were on the one side, fortified and using the ever-changing environment to their advantage.  The army we’d recruited was on the other side, flooding into the southmost end of the city by way of the once-subterranean gates.

This area had once been the sticks.  It was where the mice had lived, the orphans and the children who might as well have been orphans.  It was the place so disorganized and poor that Percy’s ghosts had been able to get a foothold, stealing children and brewing them in vats to create the coordinated regiments of hyperaware clones.

It was part of where Mauer had found his voice.  Where the people weren’t quite in the Academy’s shadow, they didn’t receive the benefits of the Academy, but they also didn’t feel the pressures of it.  People here had whispered and spoken of the divine, had worn faith on their sleeves, and they’d found something in that that outweighed the social costs elsewhere.  Not so small a following or faith that it would wither on its own, not so large that it warranted stamping out.

Again, that middle ground, the area between the rock that would crush and the hard place that would wear them down by attrition.

The contrast might have been flawed.

“Better to think we’re caught between a rock and a bigger rock,” I murmured.

“Agreed,” Helen said.

“I’m confused,” Duncan said.  “More than usual.”

“I’m talking to myself,” I said.  “It wasn’t supposed to make sense to any of you.”

“But it does,” Helen said.  She sounded more ethereal than she had in a long time, even accounting for the mask and breathing apparatus she wore.  The way she moved even while wearing a soaking wet cadet’s uniform was telling.  “We’re stuck between the rocks, and Lillian is stuck more than any of us.”

“You’re a soldier, remember.  We want to be able to pass if someone glances at us,” I said, my voice soft.

Helen took a second or two to take in that thought.  The sound of her footsteps changed.  The movement of her arms became tighter, and she moved more like someone with a wet uniform and pack, gun and breathing apparatus.  Not like… I couldn’t even append a proper description to her.  I thought again of Percy’s ghosts, which we’d called ghosts for reasons that went beyond their propensity to disappear.

I was fairly sure that if I could remember that far back, I’d be able to connect a memory of the early days to the current Helen.  Before she had fully adopted her ‘human’ act, when she was wild and wide-eyed, agile, flimsy and uninhibited.

“Better?” she asked.

She’d never asked, as far as I could remember.

“Yes.  What’s going on?  Ibbot was supposed to get you closer to working order.”

“He did,” Duncan was the one who answered.

I glanced at Helen.  She clutched her rifle, her mask on securely, looking very unlike Helen.

I almost wished I hadn’t reminded her to act.

The rain poured around us.  We had to climb to higher ground as a swarm of harvesters approached us from behind.  They had bones and the remains of clothing and weaponry tangled in their mass, like heavy waves turning over a beachside graveyard.

Now that the gas was clearing and we were moving through the city, I was able to see more of what was happening.  The city was rising up, different sections at different heights, each on shelves of land with shell-like enclosures and likely with other infrastructure to keep them firm and contained.  Roots, bones, whatever.  It hardly mattered.  The real trick, or part of it, was what was being exposed.

The Academy and the city had tunnels and sewers running through it.  We’d seen some of it when we’d been dealing with Sub Rosa, we’d seen and debated some of it around the time… it would have had to be Avis, both when she seized Claret Hall and around the time she’d escaped.  The tunnels and the escape routes, the Bowels, and the other infrastructure, it all ran beneath and through Radham.  Ostensibly to allow more maneuverability in wartime.

But this was wartime on an unprecedented level.  This was Hayle pulling out all the stops.  He’d revealed the trick Radham had up its sleeve.  As the different levels rose up, the tunnels were exposed, and things from underground labs and vaults were being loosed.  The Harvesters were only part of it.  The spider-things I could see on rooftops were only part of it.

Those things were defensive.  Even though they were Radham’s dogs of war let loose, the monsters unleashed, they were reactive, building and shoring up, laying infrastructure for what came next.  The tunnels loomed open and dark in the sides of the shelves of land that rose higher than the others, and harvester, spider, and the other things were taking actions that Academy scientists had no doubt outlined and hammered down decades ago.

They were building funnels to help get something or some things into the tunnel openings.  They were building embankments and railings to keep that something or things from careening over the points of higher ground.  Guides.  When those things were done, they reinforced buildings to keep the residents within safe from the next phase.

Mary was leading the group, straying a good distance ahead and zig-zagging through the streets to check likely and typical hiding places.

Duncan, Helen, Ashton and I were huddled together, rifles at hand.  All of us, Mary included, were hurt or hurting.  I was especially worried for Jessie and Lillian.

Whatever treatment or programming had been done to keep the harvesters from dismantling homes hadn’t extended to one of the old churches.  It wasn’t Mauer’s old church, I was fairly sure, but it was one like it, worn by the elements and halfway to being reclaimed by nature.  Weeds, saplings and moss had found root in crevice and dust.

The Academy hadn’t wanted to expend that extra dusting of pheromone or that extra measure of programming to save the church, and now the harvesters were erasing the structure.  They’d started with the easier to reach branches, weeds, and whatnot, and were already moving onto the remainder.  The treated wood and the wood that had grown into and around stone would be the last to go.

The building was surrounded with soldiers, and I didn’t realize they weren’t truly there until I saw Mary ignore them.

I clacked the barrel of my gun against a wall as I passed it, to get Mary’s attention.

She caught up with us just as we entered the area.  Smaller pieces of wood fell from the ceiling above as the harvesters did their work.  Ratlike in how they gnawed, eel-like in how they moved among one another, and roach-like in their density and the sound of their massed number.

Already occupied with their current meal, most didn’t give us much mind.  Bayonets and a few kicks served to keep the worst of them at bay.

Ashton was moving slowly.  One crawled up his leg, up his back, and started to find its footing on his shoulder, aiming for his neck, and he didn’t seem to notice.  I swiped at the thing.

“You put that blade a little too close to my throat, Sy,” Ashton said, voice muffled by his mask.

“Better than the alternative,” I said.  “Unless I imagined that thing.”

“Keep an eye out, Ashton,” Duncan warned.  “Maybe put something out there too, if you can.”

“Alright,” Ashton said.  He reached for the bladder at his side and began manually venting it, compressing it as he depressed the vent-flap at the bottom.

Where the ceiling dissolved above us, splinters came down in a rain.  Animals had built nests here and the nests of interwoven branches and tattered cloth came down in streams and tumbles all over the place.

I touched walls, tracing them with my fingers.  The walls and floors were intact, at least.  The building wouldn’t topple.  But the apertures were more open and gnawed at around the edges, everything loose was giving the creatures a foothold to get their teeth and claws in, and the fallen, easy-to-break pieces were being turned into something like worked clay, the color eaten, the remainder sodden, featureless, and lacking in hard edges.

We passed countless soldiers without masks, their eyes missing, throats slashed, wounds bleeding at armpit, thigh, crotch and knee.  They stood or leaned against surfaces, their heads moving to watch us.

The top floor was more an attic than anything, accessed by a ladder rather than a stairwell, leading to a space that was open to the sky, only a partial roof on either side.  The ladder-access was part of why the harvesters hadn’t reached high enough.

The harvesters slid away from us as they fell within Ashton’s area of influence, choosing other targets.

Lillian, Jessie, and the stitched escort were there.  A statue had toppled, the floor bowing beneath its weight, and only the breadth of it really kept it from plunging through.  Lillian and the stitched had perched on the statue’s base and a fallen section of wall.  She was keeping the stone beneath her.

Jessie was draped out in front of her.  Lillian was bandaging wounds and holes in Jessie’s quarantine suit.

“Avis came after me,” Lillian said.

“You’re okay?” I asked.

Lillian nodded.

“How bad?” I asked, indicating Jessie.

“Not that bad,” Lillian said, quiet.  “It was my fault.  I was running for safer ground, keeping an eye out for the soldiers and for Avis, and I didn’t realize a harvester had climbed up to gnaw on her.”

“And these soldiers?” Mary asked.  She indicated with a rifle.

I looked around.  I realized that some of the soldiers present were real.  They lay on the ground, shot, cut, or pulverized.

“The stitched helped,” Lillian said.  She laughed briefly, humorlessly.  “My project was good for something after all.  I wanted it to help people, you know.  Search and rescue, carry supplies, a vessel for the wounded.”

“I remember,” I said.

“We fought the ones who got up this far.  Then I realized Jessie was hurt, I put something together and lobbed it down the stairs to buy myself some time.  Gas, to clog up the filters and obscure the lenses.  I don’t know how effective it was, or if they got spooked by the harvesters, but they didn’t press the attack.”

“It worked,” Mary said.  “It obscured the lenses, choked them.”

“How many?”

“Eleven bodies on the next floor down.”

Lillian nodded.  There was a pause.  “I knew there would be casualties.”

“It’s war,” Mary said.

Helen approached Lillian.  A hand settled on Lillian’s head.

“I’m glad you got here just now,” Lillian said, sounding oddly muted.  “I was going to have the stitched carry Jessie and I and climb over to the next building, but I couldn’t imagine it doing that and us being able to stop and wait anytime soon.  We’d have to keep moving, without knowing who was nearby.  It would be hard to find you again.”

“All the same, I know it might sound bad, but it’s good you didn’t come with,” Duncan said.  “We ended up in a pinch.  There was barely enough cover to hunker behind.”

Lillian nodded.

“I’ll ask again,” I said.  “You okay?”

Lillian snapped her fingers for the stitched, and transitioned Jessie into the broad, muscular arms.  She worked her way to her feet, as if sore.  Helen gave her a hand.

“I really want to have a conversation with Hayle,” Lillian said, with a firm voice.  “I’m so done with all of this.”

“That can be arranged,” I said.

“Fray too,” Lillian said.  “After that stunt Avis pulled- do we know why?”

“Beattle,” I said.  “Probably.  And Fray, if I had to say.”

“Fray?”

“She didn’t say anything, but… when all’s said and done, Avis was a very different person, once upon a time.  She talked more, she was in charge of communications, she coordinated, she was managing logistics, even for Beattle.  But…”

“She’s become something else under Fray?” Mary asked.

I spread my arms.  I couldn’t say Avis was something less, but I definitely wouldn’t have said she was anything more.  At the same time, I struggled to remember enough particulars about the woman I’d seen to articulate what she might have started as and what she might be becoming.

The ground rumbled and shifted, and with that shift, every piece of the church that was on the precipice of crumbling decided to do so.  The overarching structure was sound enough that we weren’t in immediate danger, but it was clear that there was a future where that wouldn’t be the case.

By unanimous, unspoken agreement, we left the church.  The stitched reached out over the edge, providing a bridge.  We climbed up with its help, using it as a bridge.

I was the last to climb over, or at least, the last besides Jessie, who kept the stitched company.  I touched her mask briefly mid-climb, pausing, then climbed the rest of the way.

The others were perched on the peak of the rooftop next to the church.  They stared out into the distance.

Rain poured over the city and in the gloom it might as well have been oil.  The forces of the Crown army we’d gathered were at the southern edge of the city, and the defending forces weren’t even fighting back- they opened fire, scattered tens and dozens of dots of light as rifles fired.  The army was bright on its own, holding covered torches and bioluminescent lights, the former orange, the latter a pale blue.  Their guns fired as regiments were given the order, thirty to a hundred guns firing within the span of a second of each other, followed by a pause long enough to let the echo ring over the city.

On the far side, there was only darkness, the rolling cloud of fog with a tint that was only visible at the cloud’s edge, mustard yellow and green.  The opposite of a silver lining.

Our focus, however, was on the other guy.

It was a ship to rival any naval vessel, with a structure much the same, grey and tall, with a jutting prow and lights illuminating its portholes and windows.  It moved with a steady pace, though there was no sea to sail, and no sails for that matter.

“Ah,” Ashton said.  “That’s a handsome sight.  I like it.”

“I don’t.  It’s more than a little ominous,” Lillian said.

“The army isn’t far away.  It’s our army, but they’re going to realize we’re an odd sight, unless we can find a good hiding spot and integrate into their ranks,” Mary said.

“We can’t,” I said.

“It’s an option,” she said.

“We need to be mobile, to answer problems and stay ahead of things.  To get ahead of and capture Fray, mainly,” I said.

Mary nodded.

“That… thing, the crawling monolith, ship, craft, whatever it is,” I said, gesturing in the direction of the massive thing, “It’s coming toward us.  Collision course.”

“It has to be the Crown,” Duncan said.  “We knew it was a possibility.  We just thought they’d come by train.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “So my line of thinking right now… I’ve been watching what Radham is doing.  The tunnels that are being exposed, the changes being made, the sum total of this, and where it seems to be leading, it’s a preparation, right?  Things held in reserve, even in the city.”

“Harvesters, spiders, whatever else they’ve got closer to the Academy,” Lillian said.

“They’ve probably emptied the bowels,” I said.  “Everything they can.”

“Scary to think about,” Duncan said.  “I spent a bit of time down there after getting my coat.”

“The type of leash Radham uses means they can clean up if they have to,” Helen said.  “Everything in the Academy is leashed.  The new leash for some.  Ibbot had a lot to do with making sure it was managed for the bigger projects.”

“Alright,” I said.  “You guys remember those projects any?”

Helen and Duncan nodded.

“Anything like a big capstone?  A thing that would use those funnels or tunnels like they’ve been set up?”

“Not like that,” Duncan said.

“I don’t think so,” Helen said.  “Yes, some could, but… this feels like it’s not it.  Too much preparation going into things that wouldn’t feel like they’d be that important.”

I nodded.

Helen was clenching her hands, first one, then the other.  I could hear her joints popping.

Ashton reached out for her hand.  She made herself go still.

“Okay,” I said.  “Hayle’s cornered.  He’s going to see what we’re seeing, and he’s going to want to defend himself.  That means whatever he’s holding in reserve… he’s going to let it loose.”

“Something more than what he has in the bowels,” Duncan concluded.

The gunfire was drawing nearer.  So was the craft.

“We need to choose our target,” Mary said.  “Or the targets are all going to find us.  Maybe multiple targets finding us all at once, like Avis pulling her stunt.”

“Three rocks,” Helen said.

“Are you catching what Sylvester’s got?” Lillian asked.

Helen made an amused sound.

“Between a rock and a hard place, but not,” I said.  “I was thinking, we’re navigating this gap between the two forces.  And Fray has to be too.  She’s around here.  We can try to track her down.  As the gap closes, she’ll have less freedom and elbow room to avoid us.”

“She knows the Academy,” Duncan said.  “And I don’t have the impression her memory is nearly as bad as yours.”

“She made other sacrifices,” I said.  I felt a tinge of bitterness.  “Less sacrifices.”

“We’ll find her,” Mary said.

She shifted her footing, and slid down the length of the rooftop.  I dropped down to use one hand to balance myself, and followed.  The others made their way down, more or less the way I did.  Jessie’s stitched climbed down the one face of the building.

Harvesters approached us as we landed on the street.  Ashton’s arrival, however, produced a puff of something that disturbed them, scattering them.

“Don’t use yourself up,” Duncan admonished.

“I know what I’m doing,” Ashton said, sighing.

As the army was staying close together and the defending forces were retreating to the safety of the fog, the streets were empty.  The only signs of life were the homes with shuttered windows with slices of muted light shining through cracks.  They’d have barriers up, special cloth, paper, or something more protective, to keep the gas out, but it was thin enough to allow the lanternlight or voltaic lights within to shine through.

The city continued to groan, like a singular joint easing itself into motion after a century of inactivity, or a tree creaking as it tried and failed to topple over.  It sounded like muscles felt when extended to their limit.

I gestured, walking alongside Mary as we set off, putting distance between ourselves and the army that was already halfway through the southern quarter of the city.  I directed Mary to keep an eye to the sky.  Duncan and Ashton watched one flank.  Helen watched another.  Lillian covered our rear, with Jessie to keep her company.

“Where are you, Fray?” I murmured.

It was hard to cover sufficient ground, but there were only so many ways through the city.  With the city’s layout having changed, the open nature of the city was now a winding labyrinth.  The main street was interrupted by a cliff five and a half meters tall, wet, slick seashell-like surface.  Another path that might have existed was blocked because the building face was flush with a shelf of raised earth.

The attack would be slowed, I knew, by the fact that the army we’d gathered didn’t want to kill the locals.  People would be in homes or cellars, sealed in with stockpiles of food, if they didn’t have access to tunnels- and I was fairly sure I would’ve known about tunnels if they’d existed.  Explosives would be off limits, and even more reckless warbeasts would be a problem.  Breaking window shutters, knocking in a door, or knocking down a wall would almost certainly kill the family or families that lived in the building in question.

I glanced again in the direction of the Crown’s crawling monolith.  It showed no signs of slowing.

Mary moved her hand, and for an instant, I thought she’d spotted Avis.  It was a path- a shortcut.  A sloping rooftop formed a path we could use to get to a higher shelf of ground.

We climbed up, double checking that we weren’t exposing ourselves to gunfire.

On the way up, no.

As we peeked our heads over, however- we saw silhouettes and shapes, and we ducked our heads down just in time to avoid the battery of fire from the entrenched defenders.  There had been quite a few of them, all hunkered down in the entrance to one tunnel.

They’d known their battlefield well enough to know to watch this spot.  Their fingers had been on the triggers.

The ambient light of the approaching army illuminated the southern area of Radham.  They weren’t too far away.

“The rain,” Helen said.

“What about it?” Duncan asked.

“It sounds different now.  It’s faint, but it’s less of a pssssh, and it’s more of a fsssssh.”

My back to the cliff that protected us from being shot at by the defenders, I joined Mary in looking skyward.

The plumes of cloudstuff that the infrastructure of Radham was sending skyward had been dark for a while now.

I was aware of the specters of the dead and broken civilians, the thugs who wouldn’t have been out of place in the sticks of Radham, but who had lived and died in cities far away.  West Corinth, Tynewear, Beattle.

I saw Evette.  I saw Percy.

“Let’s get out of the rain,” I said.

Getting out of the rain wasn’t hard.  Every structure in Radham was made to withstand the rain, to shoulder that burden and accommodate the people who didn’t want to be drenched to the bone whenever they were outside.  The eaves, awnings, gutters, and other protections were all over the place.

Where it got tricky was situating ourselves so we actually had a place to go, after.  We could hide in the shelter of any building, but whatever came next, we’d be exposed and we’d be hard pressed to get to the next place without getting wet.

“It’s more fsssh than before,” Helen said.

“Good to know,” I said.  Was there no other choice than to confront a line of gunmen at the top of the cliff?  They were hunkering down, defining a battle line, and the city being what it was didn’t make it any easier to slip by them.  They were very much aware the gas was dissipating on the southern end of the city, and they weren’t about to let their guard down when the attacking army was so close.

I saw Sub Rosa, standing on a rooftop.  Her arms were turned skyward, as she let the rain pour over her.  She lowered her eyes, looking at me.

Once upon a time, I’d been on the same page as the phantom Lambs.  They were gone.

“There,” Helen said.

‘There’ was a tunnel that had only partially emerged.  There was only a foot and a half of clearance.

“If we’re halfway through it and the ground shifts, we’ll be scissored in half,” Duncan observed.

“If you and Lillian don’t go through at the same time, then whoever survives can patch the other up,” Ashton suggested.

“I love that you have faith in our ability like that, but I know I’m not that good a doctor,” Duncan said.

“It looks different,” Mary said, her eyes roving over the surroundings, looking over nearby buildings.

“The rain?” I asked.

I looked, and I could see.  There was a natural haze that appeared where rainfall was heaviest, as droplets struck hard surfaces and fractured, bouncing in a variety of directions.  Localized clouds of mist.

The mist had changed.  Lower to the ground or nonexistent.  The rivulets of rainwater were thicker.  The light-

I rubbed at the lens of my mask.  It remained clouded.

“Acid rain,” I said.  “It’s getting into our uniforms.  Go, go go!”

One by one, the others began squeezing through the gap, entering the tunnel.

It wasn’t sulphuric acid.  It wasn’t like stomach acids I’d seen, nor digestive enzymes.  It was bleaching cloth, eating at the natural waterproofing of our uniform coats and masks, and it was very faintly scarring the glass of the lenses of our masks.

It might not have eaten through the material of our uniforms in an hour, as things stood.  But things would change.  The rain could get more intense.  Even like this, if it wore at the seam, while bags or movement pulled at those same seams, then the seams would split, providing an in.

Mary, Ashton, Jessie, and Duncan were on the other side when the ground shifted.  Lillian hauled her arm out of the way before the top of the tunnel could come down on her arm.

We shrank back into cover.  The army had approached faster than expected.  A running march.

I set my jaw, and I reached out for Lillian’s hand.   Jessie’s stitched, now without its cargo, sat unmoving at the base of the cliff.  The rest of us were beneath the eaves of a business, lurking in shadow.

Helen was closer to the street than us, tense.

Someone had pulled off their mask.  Their skin was visibly red, blistering, and as they brought their hands to their head, they left streaks of scalp where whole clumps of hair had pulled away from flesh.

“Briggs,” Lillian said.

I looked at her.

“The old headmaster.  Pre-Hayle.  Red-tinted lenses on his glasses?  Brute force approach to problem solving and ferreting out weakness.  He served as a Professor for the military before he took over at Radham.  This was his black coat project.  I researched it- researched all of them so I knew what drove the important people.”

“Acid rain?”

Lillian shook her head.  “No.  That’s only half of it.”

She had that quiet, horrified tone in her voice again.  The Lillian who might have faltered in the face of that horror might have been gone, but this Lillian could steel herself and be horrified at the same time.

There were others who were struggling now too.  Most had the sense to keep the masks on.

A man with a covered torch swiped it in the direction of one cluster of harvesters.  One of the black oily critters leaped into the air, then jolted off to one side, as if it had been struck out of the air.

It had spat, with considerable recoil, sending its empty exterior husk flying to one side.

It wasn’t the only one.  There were some in the nearby tree, aiming down, and there were some creeping toward Helen, Lillian and I.  Some trace of Ashton kept them momentarily at bay, but the heavy rain would wash that away at any moment.

They crawled over the afflicted like leeches, but they didn’t stop to suck blood.  The harvesters collected resources, and the harvesters built.  Their oil-black shells with teeth and claws cast off, they looked to be gorging on broken blisters, melting and softened flesh, and weeping fluids, spinning those proteins into something solid.

The eaves weren’t keeping all of the rain off of us.  I was aware of how it pattered against my glove and sleeve, despite my best efforts to hug the wall.

“Helen,” Lillian whispered.

Helen tensed.

“Don’t.  You’ll hurt yourself,” Lillian said.

The Fishmonger and the Devil were standing in the rain, watching keenly as these post-harvesters continued their work.  The efforts to fight them off were hampered by the incredible pain the most drenched were in.  Too many had been given gas masks but no hoods, raincoats, or full-body quarantine suits.

Our people were supposed to be hanging back, keeping an eye on things from afar, keeping the leadership in line.  Hopefully there wouldn’t be too many of them in the line of fire here.  Some would be.

Lillian hunkered down, hood up, hunched over, and stepped out into the rain to go to the stitched.

I reached out, gingerly, and seized Helen’s wrist.  She tensed further.

“Don’t,” I said.

“You know how Ashton likes his patterns?” Helen asked.

There were people reaching out blind, grasping each other.  A tangle of limbs, bodies, of blood, and gasping moans of soldiers who could no longer make noise.

“I know, Helen,” I said.

A full two minutes passed.  Half of the group that had gotten this far had succumbed, the other half was still under shelter, fighting off the harvesters, both the whole ones and the ones who had shed.

A tangle stood.  It was only two soldiers, but they were knit together by the protein chains of the harvesters that crawled over them.  One’s mouth yawned open, while the other spoke inarticulate protests.

It stumbled, lurched, and groped in our general direction.  One mouth made angry sounds, the other started pleading as it realized we were there.

I hauled back, pulling Helen off balance.  In the moment, I saw her eyes lock onto mine, and I thought she would pounce on me.

Lillian’s stitched with its overlarge meat suit surged forward, pushing Helen and I aside very deliberately.  It slammed one fist into the tangle, then bowled the tangle over.  It began tearing into them- tearing them apart.

Others saw, and they surged forward.  They weren’t acting like soldiers anymore.  They fought like something mindless.

Helen hauled her wrist free of my grip.

“Helen,” I said.

She straightened.

“Helen.  As swan songs go… they aren’t aware enough to feel it.  It wouldn’t hurt, they wouldn’t react.  It’s a sad way to go about it, if you insist on going that way.”

Helen remained very still.

The Crown’s monolith crashed into the side of the city.  Everything from the harvester slugs to the soldiers to us, even Lillian’s stitched, was knocked to one side.  I flinched, turning my face away from the rain.  Helen remained on the ground on all fours.

If Helen had been considering going, then the howling and roars of the creatures who were stepping off and away from the monolith and into the city were a counterpoint to that consideration.

“The way’s open,” Lillian said.

The collision had helped the way to open again, the cliff surging a few feet skyward, or the level we were on dropping by that same measure.

Helen stared at me, her eyes visible through the lenses.  Dead, emotionless.

“Come on,” I said.

She stared.

Was she gone?  So utterly?

No, not when we were so close.

“Please.  I promise you.  It’ll be worth it.”

She nodded.

We left Lillian and Jessie’s stitched behind to continue its futile struggle against the tangle of soldiers, and ducked into the dark bowels of Radham.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Enemy (Arc 20)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lawrence was jolted just as he finished penning one of the final lines of his letter.  The chandelier in the room swung, the curtains swayed, and books on shelves slid across the shelves or slammed forward against the doors of branches and glass that kept them from scattering across the room.

Whoever designed this thing should be poisoned and left to die a gasping death, he mused.

He leaned back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair without putting the pen down, holding the instrument with the point away from his head.  His eye traveled to the bed that was just a short distance away.

The sheets were black, only fragments and pieces of a pale form visible amid the waves of spun silk fabric.  Jeanette.  She had slept through the most recent crash- the alcohol that he could still smell was likely a part of that.  He didn’t begrudge her the alcohol, nor the sleep.  That wasn’t how he wanted to operate.

He turned his eye to the letter.  A line stretched across it.  Frustrating.

He mused for a moment, then used the head of the fountain pen to stab a beetle at one corner of his desk.  He shook it loose over the trash bin, tracking it with one eye to make sure it fell within, then opened a tin case, collecting a nearly identical beetle.

He was careful not just the words he chose for the letter, but in how he penned it out.  There was a care that needed to be taken in the formation of strokes, in the intensity, rhythm and speed with which he put words on the page.   It was closer to the enunciation and rhetoric of a speech than to the crafting of the written word.

Silent, scratching, black ink on white, but a speech all the same.

He finished,then picked up the letter.  Striking a match, he burned it.  He held it until it was almost entirely gone, then carefully deposited the remaining corner  in the bin.  He placed a lid over the top of it.

Gathering his things, he set the pen and paper away, careful to secure each.  The paper went in a box that was fixed to the shelf, and the pen went in a case.  The beetle he gathered in his hand.

He stood from his chair with care not to let the feet scrape on the floorboards of the cabin, and he walked over to the window, stretching as he did so.  He opened it, and he released the beetle.

He remained at the window, watching the speck that was the beetle fly off.  It would travel to its destination and, with the right coded chemical to unlock its instincts, pen a replica of his letter.  By similar secure means, the letter’s contents would find their way to the Crown Capitol.

He shut the window and turned.  Jeanette was awake.  She held the sheet around her breasts, for modesty’s sake.

“Did I sleep too late?” she asked.

“Not possible,” he said.

“I have to make you breakfast, or tea,” she said.

“You don’t,” he said, firm.  “All you have to do is… enjoy existing.  Within the week, all other business going well, we’ll be on our way to the crown jewel of the Crown States.  Circumstances allowing, I’ll defer my primary duties and we’ll travel over the winter and spring while I show you some of our most beautiful cities.”

“All of this feels dreamlike,” she said.

“It does,” Lawrence admitted.

They both harbored thoughts that they didn’t say.

He broke the momentary silence, “I’ll be busy.  Have you given any thought to what you want to do with your day?”

“Read,” she said, without hesitation.

“Alright,” he said.  He smiled.  “Let me know if you run out of books.”

“Ha,” she said, in mild disbelief.  Her eyes roved over the room.  Countless bookshelves stored texts with leather covers.

He walked over to the washroom, which was partitioned off by a partial wall, with a section that could slide to afford more privacy.  An esophageal hose lay coiled white and alive in the commode, like a severed umbilical cord or a section of intestine with a toothless mouth.

Jeanette was not a fan of the ‘tube’.

He washed his hands of stray bits of ink, then started washing his hands thoroughly, in the way he’d been taught to do in the Academy, from fingertip to elbow.  It wasn’t necessary, with the various measures they had against infection, but he liked the ritual of it, and he liked the symbolism.  Preparing for every day as if he was preparing for surgery.  In a way, he was.

He faced the mirror.  The face on the other side was pale, with sculpted cheekbones, a high forehead, and a defined jaw.  The nose was narrow, the lips thin, and the eyes intense and blue.  He lathered a brush and applied the foam to face and head before shaving cheek, chin, and neck.  That done, he turned his attention to the hair at each side and the back.

Jeanette appeared behind him, pressing her front against him.  Her hands rubbed at his shoulders as she looked past him to the face in the mirror.  Her own face was visible, made faintly foggy by the steam from the sink.  The effect was dreamlike, as she’d said.  Freckles dotted her cheekbones and nose, her hair was straight and brown, her lips full, and her eyes were large and green.

They were solemn, too.  The eyes.

He stared into her eyes as he finished wiping at the foam and fixing hair, and he didn’t break the eye contact while rinsing the brush and razor.  He didn’t flinch as she reached over to touch one cheek.

Not his cheek, really.  One cheek.

He firmly took her hand, moving it away.  She lowered her eyes, and gave him one kiss on the shoulder before walking to the bookshelf, no doubt to consider what she might read while lounging about in his cabin.

Even words that were implied were dangerous, much like the speech to the beetle wasn’t actually spoken.  Through silences and gestures like what she’d just done, she could say so much, and that ran contrary to the deal they’d struck.  He’d said it was because it would disrupt things if people knew, if they found out, but that wasn’t true.

He preferred things if he didn’t have to think too deeply on the subject of faces.

He’d fallen for her beauty, initially.  He was willing to admit as much.  She had worked in a coffee house, in a city he was only in temporarily.  He had struck conversations with her, and he’d remembered her bewilderment when a man like him had spoken to her, expressed interest in her day, and made a daily habit of going there.

He remembered the fear when he’d given her a gift.  She loved reading but rarely had an opportunity, so he’d given her some favorites.  She’d been afraid, because of the black coat he wore and the power he wielded, and because of the disparity she saw between them.

If it had just been her beauty that drew him to her, he might not have used his free days to travel to see her.  But he liked her mind, as literary and creative as he was analytical.  More than a few times, as he’d outlined problems that stumped him in terms someone without Academy education could understand, she had made suggestions, and while they hadn’t been answers, they had set him on the right track.

That was what love was supposed to do, wasn’t it?  Aside from the reproductive side of things, which would be complicated, it brought people together who might be stronger as a pair than they were summed up alone.  ‘Behind every great man…’, as the saying went.

He’d courted her, and he was fairly sure she had only accepted at first because of the fear.  After nearly two years, when he was sure the fear was well behind them, he’d made his proposal, and he’d revealed the secret that he’d removed several rivals to keep.

She’d accepted the deal, and its few solitary provisions.  As he’d done to himself, he would change the color of her skin, he would change the structure and details of her face, change her hair and eyes, and in the doing, he would open all of the doors to her that such a procedure might entail.  He would give her all the freedom he could, even let her go if she so asked, and he would made only two stipulations.

The first was that she never mention the procedure.  Certainly not to others, but not to him, and never committed to the written word in any diary, letter, or journal.  The second was that once she accepted the deal and the surgeries, he could never change her back.

They were selfish requests with complicated reasons he wasn’t fully prepared to admit to himself, but after much deliberation, she had accepted.

He thought a lot about that night.  His tears, as he took a scalpel to the most beautiful young lady he’d ever laid eyes on.  The consignment of a whole human being’s worth of skin and hair to the incinerator.

He’d expected her to cry, to weep, to be inconsolable.  Lords knew he had been.  What he hadn’t expected was for her to show him a face without tears, and then to save that anguish for when she thought he couldn’t hear.

He was partway through getting dressed when Jeanette approached.  She took over the buttoning of his shirt, and he took hold of her hips.  She kissed him once with each button she placed through the eyeholes of the shirt.  Kisses on the collarbone, on the neck, on the shoulder.

“Don’t look so sad,” she said.

She kissed him on the mouth this time.

“You have a war to win, Lawrence,” she said.  “You and your fellow Professors.  There’s no place for sadness.”

A long time ago, Lawrence had been told and had told himself that it was necessary, to walk this path he had chosen.  He might get a white coat, if his skin were black.  He would, he was promised, get his black coat if his skin wasn’t.  Propriety, he was told.  He could do things to help others, he was told.

He’d become a black coat fairly quickly after he’d transformed himself.  He played the political games and broke ground with his science, and he’d been called a great mind.

After her, after the scalpel and the incinerator, something in him had awakened and countless other things in him had died, and dwell as he might on the subject, he couldn’t quite articulate which things belonged where.  But others had remarked on how driven and how dangerous he seemed.

A year and a half ago, he had earned his place on this team.  That had led to him being here.

“I know,” he murmured.  “I’m the best here.”

“In the Crown States.”

“Yes.  The best in the Crown States,” he repeated.

“I’ve been reading books about war and strategy, in case you ever want to talk about it,” Jeanette said.  She helped him put on his vest, then went to his black coat.  “I know you’ve read them all, but it’s a thing I like thinking about.  If you saw the need.”

“I might just,” he said.  “I like your way of seeing the ways through the knots and tangles in things.”

She smiled.  He turned his back and let her help him into his lab coat.  He felt the familiar weight of it on his shoulders, and he stood taller because of it.

“Will you come back for lunch?  No, wait, of course.  Not with the battle.”

“There’s no telling.  We don’t know how severe this is.  Countless armies are marching when we didn’t ask or allow for it.”

“An interesting puzzle,” she said.

He kissed her.  “I may send someone to you if there’s any concern that you could be in danger.”

“I’ll be dressed,” she said.

He kissed her again, then turned to his desk, collecting folders and papers he’d weighed down with inkwells and fossils.

The outer deck of the vessel was windy.  Already, even though they were a distance from Radham, the rain pelted the craft’s metal and wood exterior.

He spotted one of his colleagues at the prow of the vessel.  He joined the man, and in the doing, saw that the others were sitting nearby.

“A slow start today, Lawrence?” one asked.

“I had the letter to write.  The vessel shuddered just as I was penning the last of it.  I imagined I was stabbing this damned craft when I executed the first scrivener beetle.”

The others chuckled.

“I’ll send tomorrow’s,” Copeland offered.  “And I’ll be mindful of the jostling of the craft.”

“No objection,” Lawrence said.  He approached the railing.

The vessel was of a scale to do any warship proud, but it wasn’t a warship, quite.  Metal and wood, with enough fortitude to withstand artillery and cannons, it traveled over plains and through sparse forest, cleaved across hills and crossed rivers with scarcely any hesitation.

Great insect legs dragged it forward with steady, mechanical movement.  Altogether, the craft might have looked like a great beetle with the exterior of a grand ship, but it was really a number of creatures working in concert.

“Radham,” Savage said, beside Lawrence.

“I won’t say I haven’t thought we should send an army to Radham to stamp out all the troubles and nuisances that seem to pour from it,” Lawrence said.

More wry chuckles.

“But we didn’t make this request,” Copeland finished the thought.

“The timing couldn’t be worse,” Lawrence said.  He wanted to lead, here, so he had ventured the risky thought.  “I’m sure the three of you discussed this before I arrived.”

“We didn’t actually,” Savage said.  “But I’m interested to hear you elaborate on that.”

Lawrence turned around, back resting against the railing, looking to see that the coast was clear.

“Ah,” Savage said, as if that answered the question.

“Exactly,” Lawrence said, raising one eyebrow.  “I’ll be diplomatic and say I was very glad we were making preparations to travel back to the Crown Capitol.”

Professor Poole reached into a pocket.  A creature, mouse-like but without fur, its features somewhat eel-like, pawed its way over the back of his fingers.  He met Lawrence’s eyes.

Lawrence gave Poole a curt nod.

The creature was deposited on the table that sat before the seated professors.  It looked around, then settled.

There were measures to listen for eavesdroppers, but they were very often confounded by the fact that they were surrounded by people.  This was a measure to listen for one very dangerous person who was almost always present.  A man they couldn’t have overhearing any of what they would say.

“He’s in a dangerous state,” Lawrence observed.  “I’d be much happier if a team three times our size was working on him.”

“He’s plague-infected,” Poole said.  “He has to be in incredible pain, but he’s hiding it.”

“He’s reveling in it,” Savage said.  “The pain, and the fact that he’s holding onto the plague.”

“In all of this,” Copeland said.  “He’s reveling in all of it.”

Lawrence nodded his agreement.  “Do we need to steer?”

The creature perked its head up.

The conversation aborted, the professors settled.  Poole reached down, and the creature scampered up his arm, disappearing into his sleeve.

Propriety dictated that they use covert means to communicate.  The beetle, the small creature, countless other measures, they shared essential information that would probably go without incident if they were mentioned out loud.  Things were what they were, and nobody had any illusions about that.

The Infante least of all.

But, by that same measure, both Lawrence and Jeanette knew their shared story.  They knew who they were, and Lawrence suspected that much as he imagined her as she’d once been, when the lights were off, she might well imagine the him he would’ve been.  But if they ever spoke it out loud… it would destroy everything between them.

Propriety.

“Which experiments do we have on board?” Savage asked.

“The belchers, the locust knights, the tunnel gnawers, and the helmed,” Lawrence said.

“A veritable army.  Any issues?”

“Hydration for the gnawers.  We debated stopping to take on water- you were there.”

“I was distracted.  We were talking about other concerns at the side of the room.”

The Duke, Lawrence thought.  He nodded.  “We didn’t stop.  Our Lord Infante wants to get to Radham without delay.  Whatever this is, it’s a priority.”

Indeed,” the Infante spoke as he ascended from below decks.  A tower of a man, stout, all muscle and presence.  He was followed by the remaining two members of his entourage.  Lawrence’s peers, ostensibly, but they were newer to the role than even he was, and they weren’t quite to the point where they were privy to discussions that the eel-rat needed to preside over.

Lawrence joined the others in bowing.

“It’s poetic,” the Infante said.  He indicated the city in the distance.  “The very nature of Radham is that it is always in shadow.  There’s always a dark cloud above it.”

“Yes, lord Infante,” Lawrence said.

“None of that,” the Infante said.  “We’re going into battle.  You know my preferences.”

“Yes,” Lawrence said, straightening.

The Duke was brought forth by a team of vat-grown servants, and followed by two of his professors.  Adams and Berger, if Lawrence was remembering right.

They looked weary.

The Duke looked almost normal.  He held himself with poise, he looked at everyone with eyes that seemed no less alert than any other person’s might be, he looked healthy and even magnificent, and only his silence might mark him as unusual to the untrained.

But Lawrence was well versed in these things.  He’d seen many a noble, and his initial work on those fronts had been sufficient to see him placed with the Infante’s team.  He was responsible for the Infante’s ability to house multiple hostile experiments within his body.

“This is your doing,” the Infante said.

Heads turned in surprise.

The Duke stared out at the city in the distance, his chin set.

“Nothing will come of it.  Nothing can,” the Infante said.

The Duke approached the railing.  He raised a hand, and with a measure of deliberation, reached out to seize it, gripping it.

“You’ll go out with grace,” the Infante said.  “As far as any bystander is concerned, you’ll wade into the fray and you won’t emerge.  Your professors will try to save you and they’ll perish in the process.”

The Duke turned.  He looked at his professors.

“As you wish, Lord Infante,” Berger said.

“Yes,” Adams said.

Lawrence watched the exchange without revealing what he was feeling.  How easily might he find himself in the position they described.  What might be leveraged to make him comply?  Jeanette, really.  There wasn’t much else he held nearer or dearer, that he would walk without argument to his execution.

The Duke nodded once.

“The slate will be wiped clean, legacy left untainted,” the Infante said.  “For you, and for the Crown States.”

Lawrence imagined the Infante stood a touch taller, a touch greater, as he said that.  Much as Lawrence might have, as he’d had his black coat placed at his back.

They were close enough to Radham to see the army arrayed against it.  The battle had already begun, Radham was in the midst of unveiling its superweapons, and the walls were already damaged.  Clouds of gas billowed from it, and plumes of more vapor speared from the Academy and the city to the sky, feeding the cloud cover above.  The vapor was darker than it should have been.

Lawrence felt his heart beat faster at the sight.

He had so much he wanted to say and do, but he couldn’t, with the Infante present.

The vessel marched onward.  Even at a distance, the army on the field seemed to react to the approaching vessel.  Most of them wouldn’t even know what this was.  The others would know and they would be awestruck.  The Infante’s personal conveyance, normally meant for travel across the oceans.

He was forced to hold his tongue, to keep the company of the three doomed.  He tried to anticipate what the others would say.

The vessel slowed as they approached a settlement.  It looked to be the staging point of the battle.  They remained silent until it had ground to its stop, the keel of the craft dragging into the earth.  Far below the railing at the prow, legs folded back into the front, protected by layers of armor

The Infante turned to leave, and all present followed him, Lawrence among them.

He stopped as he spotted a squadron of personal guards.  They bowed as they acknowledged him.

“O’Neil?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” the captain said.

“My cabin.  The woman in there, Jeanette.  You’ll look after her.”

“As you wish, Professor.”

The stairwell led down through the literal guts of the vessel, and gates in the side cracked open, stairs unfolding by the same insect-leg mechanisms that dragged the ship forward over land.  At the very last hallway, leading to those stairs, they were joined by gargantuan stitched that carried the mobile laboratories.

Soldiers knelt by the hundreds as they emerged and made their way down the final set of stairs.

The Infante’s attention was on the leadership.  The seeming bulk of them approached from the hill where the largest manors and nicest grounds were.  Aristocrats, Nobles, Doctors, Professors, military leaders…

Lawrence felt his heart beat faster at seeing how very comprehensive this was.

He could see the looks on their faces:  anguish, a full and complete knowledge that the Infante’s appearance had doomed them, whatever leverage had been used to bring them here and make them do this.  One woman of sixteen or so looked away to hide her tears from the larger crowd.

The Lady Gloria approached, bowing as she acknowledged the Infante.

The Infante reached out with his left hand, and touched her face, raising her up to a standing position.

Killing her, Lawrence realized.

Very possibly killing her with plague that would strike her down within the hour.

The Duke walked to a vantage point on the path that led up to the manors, high ground where he could look over the houses and see the Radham that now stood, uneven, raised up into stages and levels, smoke pouring off of it, plumes of vapor reaching skyward from it.  From the right perspective, with a slight squint of the eyes, the walls couldn’t be clearly seen.  A shattered city floating in the midst of poison and vapor.

Lawrence had only a moment where Savage and Poole were in earshot.  Copeland wasn’t close, but he would be gathering information.

Poole allowed the eel-rat free of his sleeve, where the creature danced across the back of his hand before disappearing within.

“Steering,” Lawrence said.  “We’ll only be able to make one push before he balks.  We’ll need to decide what it is.”

They bowed to the Infante, but they were the ones in charge in the end.  They were supposed to be, in any event.  The nature of the plague and the sheer devastation here had given the Infante more freedom than he might normally have.  The war served him.  He hadn’t orchestrated all of this, but he thrived in it.

“The Duke dies, we’re not changing that,” Savage said.

“Agreed,” Lawrence said.

“The battle has to be fought.  We’ve tried to wrest the plague from him,” Poole said.  “He’s intent on holding onto it.”

“We’ll cleanse him of it before we cross back to the Capitol,” Lawrence said.  His eye roved over the crowd.

“I can see us making the argument.  It’s one of the few things that the Lord King might kill him for, bringing plague with him,” Savage said.

“I worry he might be beyond caring,” Lawrence murmured, under his breath.

Poole and Savage nodded.

The Infante’s voice was audible, deep and loud as it was, even though he was a distance away.

He seemed intent on continuing this battle, but on his terms.

Lawrence looked over the assembled forces.  He could see how gruesome a thing this might be.

The army had been gathered to wage a war against Radham.  They had yet to know the full reason why.  The simple appearance of the Infante had turned the tides, and now the army belonged to the Infante again.

For now.  Supposedly.

He could see the Infante deciding that betrayal was betrayal.  That they’d acted against the Crown, they might very well be seeded with betrayers, with agents and provocateurs.  A few touches of plague in the midst of this army, it was only a few steps down the road the Infante was traveling.

He worried where that road went, when the damage was already as bad as it was, and the Infante was empowered by the devastation to the Academy’s empire, not weakened by it.

He worried because in part, he’d made the choices and sacrifices he’d made to clear a way, and some of those people he’d worked to help would be here.

“We’ll ensure he spares the army and the unwitting Academy Doctors, Specialists and Professors that support it,” Lawrence said.  “We check him there, have him draw on the forces we brought with us in the vessel, if he needs anyone.  We can’t let him get carried away.”

“You think you can make the argument?” Savage asked.

Lawrence nodded slowly.  He was prepared to, if it came down to it.  “We’ll tell him we can’t trust the army in the field.  We need to find the culprits.  They’ll be close, if they aren’t outright involved.”

“Not many options for something on this scale,” Savage said.

“No,” Lawrence said.  It was hard to believe there was any option for something on this scale.

It was the nature of Academy science that man created things that could destroy him.  The work they did, the strength, intelligences, the capability and the beauty they created required sacrifice.  They had to put something of themselves into their best work.

Lawrence thought momentarily of Jeanette.

Sacrifice and responsibility.

If the responsibility to look after the consequences of one’s own work wasn’t seen to?  He suspected that Radham’s current crisis was one answer to that question.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.4

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Rain streamed down around us, as violent as any storm, but the thunder was the tromp of boots, shouts, the sound of things being thrown or tossed to the ground, a door being thrown open, and a squadron of stitched groaning as they were urged to action.

Not quite thunder, really, but enough activity to be something more than its constituent parts.

We threw ourselves to the roof.  The building was round, squat, and only roughly ten long strides from one end to the other, it had a faint lip, and it had the row of chimneys along the side closest to the wall.

The shouted orders were marking our location.

“Something landed on the roof.  Something big.  Check inside.  Berry, you’re with me.”

Nothing landed on the roof.

Mary gestured.  Signaling orders.

Duncan, Ashton and I took one corner of the roof, our bellies on textured wooden slats.  Helen took another side, near the chimneys, and Mary perched at the far side.  The gas and the rain made for enough haze that we could barely make out Mary.  Only the loosest, most general hand shapes were visible.

The first face appeared out of the gloom, within my arm’s reach.  I seized the hose of their mask and tore it away from their face and hood, exposing their face.  Before they could get their gun up and aimed at me, I slashed them across the eyes.  I caught one eye, but the knife clipped over the bridge of their nose, not quite hitting the other.

Eye wide, face contorting as they realized they were exposed to the gas, he lashed out, swinging his rifle one-handed at me.

Duncan, acting mostly in the soldier’s blind spot, caught the rifle by the barrel.

I followed up by thrusting my knife at the soldier’s other eye.  He turned his head, and all I saw was that I caught his lower eyelid.  No telling if I’d actually hit the eye or blinded him.

Duncan wrested the rifle free, hauling it onto our side, while the soldier fell.  There were shouts and exclamations from the guys on the ground.

I didn’t miss the fact that the building we were on was wooden.  We’re stuck up a tree.  Mary had been paying attention to the points they could use to climb up, and positioning us to defend ourselves.

Someone screamed at Mary’s end of the roof.

“My eyes!”

“We can fix the eyes.  What is it?  What’s up there?”

“Group of them,” the blinded one groaned aloud.  “Soldiers with masks like ours.  I breathed the gas when I got stabbed.  He got me in the eyes.”

“People?  How did they get up there?”

“The flying things must have dropped them off.”

I shifted position, easing down, one side of my body hugging one edge of the roof.

They’d gone quiet.  I rolled my eyes, and wished for the moment I wasn’t wearing the gas mask, so the others could see.

You have a war to win, the voice told me.

“You’ve been reasonable thus far,” I whispered, keeping my voice to a bare whisper.  “I’m doing what you need me to do.”

“Sy?” Duncan asked.

I shook my head.  I gestured at the enemy, then gestured a warning.

Three soldiers came over the edge at once, with a force that suggested they had been boosted up by others or that they’d vaulted up by virtue of combat drugs or enhanced physiology.  One stepped right over me, turning his head toward Duncan and Ashton.

I thrust up, sticking my knife through the thick quarantine uniform, the blade sinking in where his thigh met his pelvis.  Blood fountained down around and on top of me as he toppled.

With my free hand, I grabbed at the butt-end of the next guy’s rifle, keeping him from drawing aim.

It was enough to simply deny him the ability to thrust, swing, or shoot.  That, in itself, gave Ashton room to stick him several times with his bayonet.

Ashton and Duncan together finished with the last guy.  Duncan had used his bayonet to strike at the soldiers’, and they’d been mid-struggle before Ashton broke the tie in strength.  The man was stabbed twice and then shoved over the roof’s edge.  I busied myself with putting my bayonet blade to the neck of the first one, with the fountain of blood pouring down from the thigh-wound.

I could hear soldiers below.  “Fuck me and fuck this.  This should not be this hard.  Get the- get Renaut’s squad.”

“Renaut?  He doesn’t-  Right.”

That would be the stitched, I was guessing.

Your army is going to march on Radham.

“I know,” I murmured.  I knew Ashton and Duncan could hear me talking to myself.  With the mask and hose and the circumstances, however, I doubted they could make out the words.

The Lambs’ role in the present is to clear the way.  Knock down the facilities, remove the largest obstacles.  Put an army on Professor Hayle’s doorstep and take him into custody.

“I know,” I whispered.

It was hard to go anywhere when we were thoroughly surrounded by a committed and alerted enemy.

“Sy,” Duncan said.

I looked at him.

“Do I need to worry?”

I looked at him, then at Ashton.  Percy sat on the edge of the roof with the Snake Charmer, keeping Mary company.  A girl with the tattoos, ritual scarification and horns sat with Sub Rosa, the Devil, and Helen.

“Nothing we can do about it,” I said.

“I haven’t had all that much occasion to fight alongside you,” he said.

“Please don’t criticize how I fight.  Everyone does it.  It doesn’t change anything.”

“Why go for the eyes?” he asked.  “You could have gone for the throat.”

I could have said something about how I wanted to scare them, but that wasn’t true.  I could have said the throat was a hard target to reach, with the quarantine uniforms involving a fair amount of fabric at that part of the neck, where hood met uniform body with double reinforcement.  That wasn’t wholly true either.

“Instinct,” I said.

“Maybe think more and instinct less,” Duncan said.  “At least until we’re through this.”

“Your instincts in combat aren’t great,” Ashton said.

I nodded.  In combat, not great.  They were better in an ambush, as someone in a metaphorical tree, trying to keep anyone else from climbing up high enough to get at us.

I divested the dying man of his equipment.  No explosives.  He had the rifle he’d been carrying, a pistol, and some boxes of ammunition, both the bullets for the pistol and the cartridges for the rifle.  A few pieces of a ration kit were stowed in his coat.  There was a hip flask of something strong at one breast pocket and a metal case for cigarettes at the other, balancing it out.

Old cigarettes, going by the aroma.  Not a smoker, then, or he hadn’t worn this jacket often enough to remove the cigarettes since his last stint with the local forces.

I pocketed the hip flask and cigarettes, and I gathered up the ammunition, moving the guns into arm’s reach.

There was a scuffing sound.  Our heads turned.  Mary was on her hands and knees.  She’d fallen to the ground.

Ashton scampered over to her, moving on all fours to keep from being shot by anyone enterprising on the ground.

“Stitched,” I murmured to Duncan.

“Sounded like it.”

“Lillian’s out there with Jessie.  Our army is on the approach.  These are good.  Fray’s here.  This is… neutral.”

“Neutral?”

“Neutral.  Bad is we’re losing our smoke cover, we’re surrounded, and they’re likely to be reinforced before we are.  But our most immediate problem is them.”

I pointed with my knife.

The wall loomed to one side of us.  We were creeping upward as the ground shifted, and that drove us closer to the men who were perched on the walltop.  If and when we moved close enough or the gas cleared, they’d have the upper ground against us.  Men with rifles.

Duncan nodded.

Ashton rejoined us, crossing the rooftop on all fours.  “I offered help and Mary didn’t want it.  She killed three just now, one of them grazed her.  She says she’s pretty sure they’re arranging the stitched.  They’re giving the orders and organizing the stitched out of sight.  They’re going to attack us on several sides if the attack us.”

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  “We heard a bit of that plan over here.”

Avis had well and truly fucked us.

I handled the box of cigarettes, weighing it in my hands.  I really wished I could have taken the mask off and smoked one.  Instead, it was a taunt, and it was a tool in my toolbox, as I tried to wrap my head around the situation.

I was aware of how many phantoms were around.  I was aware the voice was telling me to act and I wasn’t obeying, and that was a very fragile dynamic I didn’t want to tamper with.

In any other situation, I would have treated my mind gently.  I wasn’t sure I could afford to here.

Mary moved her arm, getting our attention.  She clacked her rifle against the roof’s edge in tap code.  She was sticking to the basic codes.  Not a number, which meant…

Aggression.  Warning.

They were coming.

I had to go by sound, and I was wearing a mask that muffled sound to a small degree.  The footsteps had weight, and they were joined by the sounds of creaking wheels, by the creak of wood, and a number of other sounds.

I took the gamble, pushing my brain to interpret, to hear the sounds, to draw up a mental picture, and to be ready to adjust that picture as new information came in.

I could see Helen stand.  Flanked on one side by the chimneys, she was protected from incoming fire, but it was an eerie thing to see.  Her eyes were wide.

I was very aware that with Brechwell’s beast, the Devil, and Sub Rosa nearby, my every instinct was telling me she was in a precarious, dangerous position.  Killers that had been repressed, unleashed in ways that had hurt even their allies, keepers, and subordinates.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

A wagon crashed into the side of the building, and several things clattered as they were piled on top of it.  One thing among several being piled up against the building so they might have a better platform to get up and get at us in greater numbers.

They began the climb.  I could hear the orders, not too far away, directing the stitched who had yet to begin climbing.

“Ladder, ladder, wagon, ladder,” I said, tapping parts of the wall with the end of the rifle I’d grabbed.

With the appearance of the first stitched, I stabbed it in the throat with the bayonet, then pushed.  I wanted to topple it, and it hadn’t sounded like much of a commotion below.  I was hoping it wasn’t supported by a team of the stitched.

He ignored the blade in his throat and grabbed my weapon.

I pushed harder, forcing him off balance so he’d tip to one side.  When he grabbed the wall for leverage, to stop himself from sliding to the one side, I pulled the trigger, firing the bullet into his throat.

He fell, and I let the rifle go with him, because I doubted my ability to hold into it.

I saw the group coming over the wall.  Four stitched.

I used the two pistols, and I opened fire, shooting into the densest part of the group.

The guns were of the conventional variety, the bullets being low speed, the kind meant to bounce around in the internals of the enemy.  They did some measure of structural damage to the stitched, made one or two falter, but it was very little, all considered.

What followed was like a bad dream.  It wasn’t that things went particularly south, but more that we struggled to affect change.  I’d had dreams like this where I tried to shelve Jamie’s old diaries after reading them, but each attempt to do so knocked more from the shelf, ad infinitum.  I’d had dreams where one of the mice from Radham was a Lamb.  Chuck or Ched or Carl or whoever it had been, the one in charge.  He’d been insistent on a plan of action, I’d say something, and he’d hold fast.  I’d try to step in or take the role, and he’d somehow end up still on track to pursue a suicidal mission.

Then he would die and I would wake up.

We shot them, and they barely slowed down.  We stabbed and we struck at them and we tried to topple them, and we had only varied degrees of success.   The one I’d sent sprawling to the ground twelve or fifteen feet below the roof’s edge returned to the fight, barely the worse for wear.

One stitched had a rifle in both hands, and Ashton had thrown himself against the middle part of it, sticking a knife repeatedly into the stitched while trying to keep the rifle from being twisted around to an angle where it could be fired at any of us.  By dint of sheer strength and an utter lack of concern for the knife that was being stuck into its upper thighs and stomach, the stitched won the struggle and shoved Ashton away.  He aimed his rifle and pulled the trigger, and Ashton crumpled to the rooftop.

They just needed a crack and they had an opening.  The stitched stepped onto the roof and swung at Duncan with the rifle.  Preoccupied with another fight, Duncan was cut down, bleeding from a deeper cut at one side of his face.

I kicked at one knee of the one I was trying to deal with, and knocked his footing out from him where it rested on the top rung of the re-erected ladder.  He tried to claw at me and pull me down with him, but I was slippery.

The one Ashton had wounded before being shot was fairly injured.  I tried to capitalize on that, aware I was dancing around it, playing safe when I had no support at my flanks.  One was coming up the ladder, injured with multiple gunshots from earlier, and the one that Duncan had been dealing with was climbing up onto the roof.

“Helen!” I heard Mary’s voice.

Helen was dealing with the ones who were climbing up the chimney exteriors.  It was an awkward climb, and that afforded her a lot of opportunity.  But she’d gone after one, tackling it to the ground, embracing it, and she seemed oblivious to the fact that another one had climbed up the chimney furthest from her, and it was going after Mary.

Losing this skirmish is unacceptable, the voice told me.

Mary redoubled her efforts.  She was dealing with the same kind of effort we were at our end of the roof, multiple ladders, stacked boxes and wagons providing a kind of siege tower access.  Knives flew, razor wire entangled the enemy, and she was ducking and weaving to try and avoid swung sabres, bayonets, and any rifle shots that might get too close to pointing at her.

In a lot of places, especially when the enemies were clad in quarantine suits, when they were stitched who could take a small caliber bullet without undue complaint or inconvenience, the knives weren’t quite enough.  Not for effectively dealing with each one stitched in one blow.  She found the opportunity to disarm the stitched of its pistol with razor wire, then to slice it twice.  Then more immediate threats and dangers loomed at the roof’s edge.

Like how in the worst dreams, there was a threat that nothing could slow or stop.

The stitched were Death, and being Death, they could only be forestalled, not quite stopped.

I saw an opportunity, and I lunged at the one in front of me.

I’d hoped to shove him off the building’s edge.  I didn’t.

Looming above me, while my shoulder rested against his steaming, injured midsection, he drove his elbow down into my back, knocking me down onto the roof.

It raised a foot, ready to stomp on me, and I raised myself up, meeting the foot with my back.  In the doing, I put it off balance.  It stomped the foot down to one side, and I repeated my attempt from earlier, shoving myself into the thing’s stomach, pushing it back.

It fell back at an angle, and it landed on the ladder the stitched to the right of it had used.  I could hear the wood splinter at the collision.

“Kill it and move on, Hel!” I called out.  “We need you!”

We really need you.

Duncan was rousing, but it was slow, and he was forced to scramble back as the stitched approached him.  The stitched had lost its gun at one point, and now it was using a backup weapon.  Duncan couldn’t rise to his feet without putting himself in harm’s way, but the more he backed up, the more ground we ceded.

A knife appeared in the stitched’s eye.  Mary’s throw.

Duncan and I together engaged it, me signaling with one hand while holding a spare rifle in the other.  I used the blade to fend off the sword, and Duncan went on the offense.

Helen moved on to another target.  Mary waged her war on the far end of the roof.

A gunshot drew my attention.  Not one close to us, but-

Lillian and Jessie.

I looked just in time to see Avis taking to the sky.

She’d found them.  She was drawing attention to them, and the enemy was obliging.  A share of the soldiers we weren’t fighting were splintering off, giving chase.

There was nothing I could do but surrender to circumstance and have faith that they would fend for themselves.

The rain poured down around us.  As a group, we hunkered down near the chimneys, our backs to the brick, stone, and wooden branches.  We sat so we could each keep an eye on one side of the roof.

Duncan’s wound that ran from above his temple to his cheek had been glued shut, but it was a haphazard gluing, and it had dried clear.  The effect was as though he’d frozen the wound in time, raw, red as though it was about to start bleeding, but never quite crossing that threshold.

Mary was hurt, but she was pretending she wasn’t.  Helen was quiet.

Rather than talk to me, Duncan lifted up and moved my hand to where he needed pressure or a hold.  He pressed my fingers down, as if to tell me to press down harder.  I obliged.

The surgery on Ashton continued.  Duncan’s hands made wet, sucking sounds as he dug for the next bullet.

The gas had dissipated enough that we didn’t have the gas to mask our location anymore.  We’d piled bodies six high on one side, and Mary was propping up the pile with her back.  Soldiers had climbed onto a rooftop further down the street, where they had a good angle to shoot at us from.  The bodies were our pile of sandbags.  The chimneys protected us from the people on the walltop.

We repaired our Ashton.  They repaired the stitched who weren’t composing our sandbag wall.

Sub Rosa stood on the roof’s edge, in plain view of anyone who might shoot her.

It was the nature of the stitched that, given opportunity, they would win the war of attrition.

“Okay,” Duncan murmured.  “Thank you, Sy.”

I pulled my hands back.  Duncan began wrapping it up.

“What are you thinking?” Mary asked.

“I’m thinking of cigarettes,” I said.  “And how Avis and Fray might steal this plan from us like we stole Beattle.”

“We won’t let that happen,” Mary said.

I grabbed the little case of cigarettes.  I weighed it in my hand.

“And you can’t smoke,” she added.

“Creature comforts,” Helen said.  Her voice was soft.

“Gas,” Mary said.  “Sy is resistant to a lot of things, but we agreed a while back that when it comes to Hayle, we should assume our usual strengths may not apply.”

“We could,” I said.

I found the flask.  I opened the tin cigarette case, and I emptied the flask’s contents into it, careful of the angle.  I didn’t want to soak the entire cigarette.  Just eighty percent or so.  I began soaking some of Duncan’s spare bandage, and wrapping it around.

“Yes, go ahead, you can use that,” Duncan muttered.

He wasn’t one to let things get to him to the degree he was so morose.  I was less likely to blame the situation, more likely to blame the fact that Ashton had been hurt.

“Good to hear.  I need thread.  Not surgical thread either,” I said.

“Thread or wire?” Mary responded, as if it was the natural assumption that she’d be the one to supply it.

“Thread.  Thread-thread.”

“Give me a minute.”

As Mary began to supply the thread pulled from her own clothing, I began to wind it around the bases of the rifle cartridges.  Gunpowder primers, then propellant, then the bullet itself, in that order.  The primers were arranged to sit against the cigarette.

I pulled off my gloves to work more accurately, trusting that the gas wouldn’t affect my exposed skin too badly.  Once I got going, I was fairly quick with it.  Mary joined me, but she kept her gloves on.

The resulting ornaments looked like pinecones.

Mary handed me matches, taken from one of the bodies.

“You’re going to set yourself on fire or blow yourself up,” Duncan said.

“Let’s hope not,” I said.

I set them aside, taking up my rifle.

“Not using them?” Duncan asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Alright then,” he said.  He gave Ashton a light slap on the face.  “Ashton, wake up.  I need room to work.”

Ashton remained still.

Duncan stared down at Ashton for a long moment, then gave the boy a hard strike on the sternum.

“Nnf,” Ashton made a sound.

“How are you doing?” Duncan asked.

“Less good, after getting thumped.”

“Percussive maintenance.  I need you to move aside.  And stay out of the way of bullets.  Stick close,” Duncan said.

Ashton crawled over to the space between Duncan and Helen.  I expected Helen to wrap her arms around him, and she didn’t.  He sat with his arm pressing against hers, and he rested his head on her shoulder.  She smiled.

Duncan spoke, “Mary, can you pull that one stitched down?  I’ll help.”

“Up here?” she asked.

“Yes.”

The two of them hauled one stitched down from the makeshift wall of bodies.

As the gas cleared, we could see where certain areas of the city were still shrouded, other gas-production buildings spilling forth, protecting them.  We could see where the denizens of Radham were doing their work.  Webbing cocooned areas and formed bridges between higher tiers of the city and lower ones.

The swarms of things were doing their own work.  The Harvesters.  What they collected in organic matter, they spun out into constructions, reinforcing and connecting, following a biological program that had been set for them.

This was only one small part of it.  The longer we took to pick this fight, the more time Radham had to adapt.  To transform itself.

Distant gunfire was as much of the background noise as the downpour, the groaning of the city.  That distant gunfire changed in tenor.

We’d waited.  It sucked to wait, but we’d waited.  We couldn’t operate wholly alone in this.

Now our army was invading the southern end of the city, confident that the gas was dissipating and the rest of our forces could follow behind.  They moved through the streets, and the soldiers who had us surrounded were the ones caught by circumstance.

Avis had cost us precious time.  She’d put us in a corner, and we had no idea what had become of Lillian and Jessie, but she’d primarily cost us time.

Two choices, I thought.  Two things the enemy could do.  They weren’t ready to storm the rooftop again.  They would need to keep soldiers back to guard us.  It would need to be enough to keep an eye on all sides of the building.  The greater war and advance of an army demanded their full attention.

I’d tuned my ears to pay attention to surroundings, and aside from a brief distraction with the cartridge-and-cigarette pinecones, I hadn’t stopped tuning.

I could hear the orders, and I could hear orders with a vague note of condescension and strained patience.

I picked up my pinecone, and I lit the end of the cigarette that didn’t have alcohol soaking it.  It began to burn down.

Mary grabbed one, igniting it, while I whirled mine.  Sparks and droplets of ignited accelerant wicked off of it, landing in puddles across the roof, while I built up speed.

I launched it in the direction of the voice.  I immediately picked up the second of the three pinecones.  Mary threw hers while I lit it.  I could hear the shouts as it ignited mid-air.

I stood to throw my last one, my ears trained on the shouts and voices.  A hail of bullets fired from the wall behind us, and many chipped at the chimneys or flew between them to take chunks out of the roof.  I let the third and last pinecone loose, aiming more for distance and the general area of the target.  A collection of rifle bullets arranged with the ends against the fuel source.

The third one went off right when it would’ve been hitting the ground.  A series of bullets popping all in quick succession.

I waited, listening for the reaction.  Alarm, more shouts.

“What?” Duncan asked, interrupting my listen.  He was still wrist deep in the dead stitched.

“Hm?” I asked, not quite sure if I didn’t want to prompt more of a reaction from him, lest I miss the critical detail.

“That shouldn’t have worked at all,” he said.  “I was digging into this guy to see if we couldn’t use a voltaic node for the same effect.”

“Sorry you didn’t get your moment of cool,” I said.  Then, before he could respond, I held up a finger.

The shouts were taking on a different tenor now.

Frustration.  A moment of argument.

There hadn’t been many voices ordering the stitched about.  I’d aimed for where they were congregating.  The bullets wouldn’t fly as fast and sure as if they’d been fired from a rifle, but there had been a fair number of bullets in the one pinecone that did go off.

Enough to debilitate?  To disable the leadership of the squad of stitched soldiers?

The orders were called out, too far away to be distinct.  I could hear the tromp of boots.

The call had been made.  They were retreating.  I peeked and I saw the ones on the wall running along the walltop.  Soldiers made a break away from the end of the city where our side was finally invading.

The stitched soldiers were staying.  They were all gathered near the front of the building.  Too much effort to wrangle, without the wranglers?

Bloodied, several of us injured, we checked the coast was clear and scaled down the chimneys, our feet touching road.

Fray was in the mix.  She was here, and she was throwing her wrenches into the works of a plan so vast it threatened to collapse under its own weight.

Fray- well, we had no idea what she wanted.  But she was dangerous, she was devastating in her own right, and the moves she made were such that there was almost always collateral damage.  To things, to people, and especially to plans.

The plans she had set into motion, that we hadn’t seen the end of.  They would continue to grow and reach out and by petty measures and by vast scales, they would throw us into disarray, much like Avis had so casually done.  It was what qualified her as architect of the second of my three gods to slay.  Conspiracy.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Soldiers in gas masks aimed guns at us as we approached at a run.  They were wary, doubly so with the tide of experiments and stitched that were marching out of Radham.

Duncan raised his arm, signaling.

“Let them pass!” the leader of the squad called out, his voice muffled.

I was only able to steal a glance at the man.  His face was hidden by a mask, a tube running to a bladder at his side, his coat long and heavy enough that it hid most of the little tells of his posture and form.  I could see his eyes, however.  I could see the glare.

Complete and utter hatred.

I heard the questions.  I heard the concern, too, amid the grinding of stone on stone, wood on wood.  But what I was particularly cognizant of was a deeper, more distant sound.  It was a sound that carried beneath everything else, the dull volcanic roar of organic processes, something fitting for the flow of fluids through an impossibly large tree, the creak of massive muscles hauling themselves into motion, or air moving through great tunnels.

The soldiers were of little consequence.  The leader who we’d poisoned, blackmailed or otherwise forced to serve us could hate us all he wanted.  I’d repressed enough anger and spite for them and their like over the years that they’d have to work for a few months or years more before they’d drawn equal.

We left them to try and break into a sub tunnel that had been revealed by the collapse of the wall and the fact that the city was showing hints of its guts as it rose.  They were ordering stitched to batter at the locked grate that secured it.

Our path was up the wall.  It had crumbled in a spot, helped by the shifting city dragging and pressing against the one side of it, and the ragged sides of the damaged portion formed a vaguely staircase-shaped ascent, albeit one of crumbling stone and splinters of wood as long as I was tall.

Water ran down the sides of the wall and the foot of the city that was ever-rising upward.  Gas flowed down through the crack in the wall, and it combined with the moisture and the lenses we wore to make visibility miserable.

We started climbing.

Each meter we climbed was another meter of steep fall that plunged to our left.  Meanwhile, there was a steep wall to our right, the earth that had been subterranean before it had started rising.  As we climbed, the wall to our right did too, slower to rise than we were, even as we were slowed by tricky bits in the ascent.  Water poured over us and ran down the side of the wall to our right and over the broken bits underfoot, threatening to wash us over the side.

I heard a crunch.  I turned to look, and saw that Lillian had drawn a knife, stabbing the wall to our right.

It cracked like an eggshell, but the fragments that broke away from it were reminiscent of seashell, dark and earthlike on the one side, pearlescent on the inside.  The earth on the other side spilled forth from the crack, dry and bound together with fibrous root structures.  Then the water hit it, and it wasn’t dry anymore.  The wound bled mud, thick and sludgy.

“Theory confirmed?”

I had to look to check who the speaker was, with our masks muffling the sound.  Mary.

Lillian replied, “I think so.  It looked like calcium carbonate, but I was wondering at its thickness.”

“Why?” Ashton asked.

“Well, this isn’t sturdy.  That tells me things.  It’s not meant to do much more than separate the part of soil that’s going up from the soil and material that isn’t,” Lillian said.  “This isn’t meant to go back to the way it was.”

A more permanent state of affairs?

Far below us, I could hear screaming.  The entire group paused, listening, as two sides went to war.

We had a full-fledged army, but only a segment of it was equipped to operate where the air was toxic.  We had the advantage of being on the offensive, Hayle on his heels, but all put together, the forces were fairly evenly matched.

I was in the lead.  I pushed at a bit of rubble that wobbled at my touch and sent it careening over the edge.  We were ten or so meters above the ground.  Thirty feet.  Five turns of head over heel before we crunched hard and wet against the grass and hard earth below.  There was still a ways to go, going by the building tops I could see above us.

“It’s also not about to hold much weight, standalone  There might be some infrastructure that helps hold everything together, but this isn’t Radham as a… I don’t know.  Think of Besserham.”

“I don’t know Besserham,” I said.

“We’ve been to Besserham, Sy,” Lillian said.  “During the hunt for Fray?”

“Drawing a blank.”

“The Academy itself, which I’ll stress was really very small, was situated on the back of a giant turtle-crab-squid chimera,” Mary said.  “It’s kind of memorable.”

“Still blank.”

“Point is,” Lillian said, “Radham isn’t going anywhere.  It’s not a giant crab.”

“Good to know,” I said, relieved we weren’t dwelling on my memories anymore.  “That’s too bad.”

“Yeah,” Lillian said.

“It’s too bad on a lot of levels,” I mused aloud.  I had to stop as I pondered a part of the crumbled wall that was tricky to climb.  I looked up at the rising wall to my right, and judged it was too problematic to try and hold onto it and let it carry me up.  I saw Mary squeeze past Ashton and Lillian.

At the rear of the group, Helen was electing to scale the wall on her own.  At the very rear, Jessie’s stitched was ambling very slowly along what was a very narrow path for a large creature.  Duncan’s attention was on giving it direction.

I knew why Mary was approaching.  She’d seen this part coming up, and she knew how we operated.

“It might collapse,” I said.  “So be careful.”

“I know,” Mary said.

I moved without needing to check that Mary was in position, or that she was doing what I wanted her to do.  I knew.  Mary was Mary, and when the phantoms were gone and the Lambs just a touch more of a mystery to me, I could still trust things like this.  Steps in the dance.

I started the climb up a jagged rise that sloped more up and toward me than up and away.  Mary supplied a boost, and then she stuck her hand up for my foot to rest on as I shifted my handhold for the most troublesome spot.  I climbed over the lip.  Mary followed me up, then turned to help the others.

The shelf of city continued its slow, groaning rise.

We were only partway up the wall, but here, at least, I could walk up the rest of the crumbled slope of wall and step onto the street of the city proper.  Helen joined me, standing beside me.

Three gods to slay, the voice reminded me.

Houses had windows shuttered and doors locked.  Water streamed down around us, into and overflowing from gutters.  Where the ground sloped, the water ran in that direction.  Areas were flooding.

Now that we weren’t climbing, I could feel the slow shift of the ground beneath us.  I could hear the dull organic creak, the distant screams and gunfire as a battle unfolded on the ground, and now and again, I could hear the distant movements of things in the gas and the downpour.

Sub Rosa sat on a wagon at the end of the street, the rain soaking her.  She was the young lady with too many clothes when I looked away, but when my eyes were on her, she was the monster.

This was very much her realm, it seemed.

I could see the Primordial.  I could see Dog and Catcher, and Percy, and I could see the Snake Charmer.

“It’s nostalgic, isn’t it?” Helen asked.

I turned my head, giving her my best curious look.  She wouldn’t be referring to the old denizens of Radham, I was reasonably sure.

“Home,” she said.  “Except it’s not warm home, it’s not orphanage, sitting-by-the-fire home, while Fran and the other orphans huddle close and lean in close to tell me they managed to sneak another biscuit for the evening tea.”

“It’s cold, wet, angry appointment-time home?” I asked.

“Exactly,” Helen said.  “It’s middle-of-an-investigation, people-are-screaming home.  Like the old days, when we worked more closely with the Academy and did less roaming.”

“I stopped thinking of Radham as home a long time ago,” I said.

“That’s because you’re adaptable,” Duncan said, with his air of authority, as he and the others joined us.  “Wyvern makes it easy for you to transition between lines of thought and perspective.  You can leave this behind with ease.”

“It wasn’t easy,” I said.  I glanced in Lillian’s direction, then turned my head to make sure Jessie was still with us.

“There were a lot of good things here, Sy,” Lillian said.  “Good, warm moments.”

“I know,” I said.  “It’s still hard to twist even my perceptions around into something that can call this place home, and I’m trying to be gentle with my brain.  I’m standing here, watching this city twist itself into something else, I see Jessie like that, and I feel like the Lambs as a whole are never going to have those moments again.  I’ve wanted them so badly, but they might well be gone.”

“Let’s not rule anything out,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I might’ve argued, but I didn’t want to lose an argument when I felt this heartsick, and I definitely didn’t want to win this argument either.  “Yeah, alright.”

“The Academy felt like home to me,” Lillian said.  “The Orphanage too, in a way.  But that’s more because you all were there.”

“Now that’s a sentiment I can get behind,” I said.

“I agree,” Mary said.

“But my point is,” Helen said, with emphasis, “This is still nostalgic.  It makes me think of the old days, when we were smaller, the monsters all seemed bigger and harder to figure out…”

“I can get behind that sentiment too,” I said.

“Very much so,” Lillian said.

“Not me,” Ashton said.  “I wasn’t born or grown yet.”

“Not me either, bud,” Duncan said.  “But it makes me think of that fall, back in the day.  The moment with all the blood-”

“Hee,” Helen made a sound.

“-when I very quickly went from thinking I’d lucked out, getting invited to the Lambs, to realizing just how out of my depth I was.  Mary and Helen doing their individual things very, very well.”

“Lonely days, being without the others,” Mary said.  “But I always wanted to be a teacher, and it was fun to… educate him?”

“Bring him up to speed,” Helen offered.

“Yeah.”

“Bringing me up to speed?  Only insofar as hanging someone at the gallows is letting them down easy,” Duncan said.

Helen made another amused sound, giving Duncan a pat on the side of his mask, where his cheek would be.

Mary started to say something, then interrupted herself, reacting to something I hadn’t seen, raising a gun and firing into the mist.  The gunshot echoed through the empty city streets.

The echo took a while to die.  I could hear the other gunshots far below us over the war-drum beat of rain and the groaning of the city.  I wondered if they’d heard our gunshot and if they were thinking what was happening up here in the same way I was about how they were faring.

“Did you miss?” Ashton asked.

“Shush,” Mary said.  “I’m… fifty percent sure I saw something there.”

“I’m almost one hundred percent sure you missed it if it was there, and you definitely missed it if it wasn’t there,” Ashton said.

“Good Simon wouldn’t dwell on the failures of others,” Mary said, sounding more like herself as she hardened her voice.

“I wouldn’t be embarrassed, Mary,” I said.

“Drop dead, Sy.”

“No really, it’s fine.  If there had been something there and you’d killed it, it would have been inspired.  Just beautiful.  It was worth the gamble.”

“I’m not you, Sy.  I’m not satisfied if I pull off five reckless plans and one works out magnificently.”

I chuckled.  I heard her cock her revolver again, and I made myself stop.

“Um,” Ashton said.

“Oh, I brought up Good Simon, so now I get lectured,” Mary said.

“He does dwell on failures in book fifteen, he learns how mistakes teach us lessons, and there’s also a bit where he learns how the weak get culled, but that’s Academy propaganda again,” Ashton said.  “But please, Mary.  I’m old enough that I’ve grown out of those books now.”

“Oh, are you now?” Mary asked.  She held her gun out, her focus on the interplay of light and shadow in the gas.

“No, not really, I suppose,” Ashton said.  “I go back to them when I don’t know what else to do with my evenings.  But a little bit.”

“Telling lies isn’t what Good Simon would do, Ashton,” I said.

“Pot and kettle, Sy,” Ashton said.

There were noises from further down the street.

“Has everyone caught their breath?” I asked.  “You have your sea legs?”

“Sea legs?” Duncan asked.

As if to answer him, the landscape shifted, the dull organic sound yawning loud in its intensity, before easing again.  The rainwater on the streets shifted, now flowing from northwest to southeast, instead of east to west.

Mary wanted to tease me about timing and taking those gambles.  But it was moments like this, where I made someone walk into a moment like that, which made it entirely worth it.

“Ah, sea legs,” Duncan said.  “Yes, I’ve caught my breath.”

There were more murmurs of agreement.

“How about you, Jessie?” I asked.  “You’re awfully quiet.”

Silence.

“Good,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

I drew my pistol and my knife.  Lillian and Duncan had their rifles that they wore from being dressed as soldiers, slung over their shoulders.  Those rifles were locked and loaded, bayonets had covers removed, were flipped forward, and locked into place.

For a minute, we hurried down the roads without event.

With the shadows, gas, and rain being what they were, there was no way to tell just what rounded the corner.  Low to the ground, almost fluid, it surged toward us.  Black and wet.

The only sound was Duncan’s bark to the stitched that carried Jessie.  We ran.  The streets were almost familiar, but it was a familiarity in sentiment for me, a familiarity in the feel of the city, even though it was now a city shattered like a mirror was broken, each individual piece at a different height from its neighbors.

The attacker was attackers, plural.  A swarm, united and gathered together.  I saw hints in their form that suggested something like black beetles, something like rats, and something like eels.  They crashed into a wagon that had been parked by the side of the street once, and perhaps a quarter of their number remained behind, clinging to it.

The rest came after us.

My thoughts were on finding a good, fast way to get to higher ground when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a warbeast.  It was reptilian and slick, covered in mucous.

We barely slowed down, emptying our guns into the thing as we ran in its direction.  It was still crumpling to the ground as we reached it and ran past it.

Mary used the fallen lizard as a stepping stone, leaping from the peak of its shoulders to a rooftop a few feet away.  One by one, with me lingering behind, providing the occasional boost or supporting hand as crates or wagons were used as points to climb, with Mary seizing hands and hauling people up, we ascended to higher ground while keeping our distance.

The stitched was second to last.  It was strong enough to do it on its own, but it needed guidance.

It was only after I was up that I deemed myself free to look.  The swarm approached and flowed past us.  It moved with an eerie care; at no point did it venture within a handspan of any of the houses.  It was as if there was an invisible wall keeping it from venturing too close to any of the residences.

Shutters to close out the gas, doors sealed, and there would be cloths to be taped up within the building interiors and around the doors, to better secure the seals.

A wagon far behind us was hauled down by the tide of swarming things.

“Harvesters,” Duncan said.  Lillian nodded.

“Lillian mentioned those once,” Mary said.

“Old project, revived in an attempt to see if they would counteract the Ravage,” Lillian said.  “Eat the red flowers and vines.  Didn’t work.”

The swarm we’d crossed paths with wasn’t the only one.  As we used the rooftops to navigate the city, we saw several sweeps of the things.  Horses had toppled to the ground and lay with ribs spearing skyward, the flesh eaten and bones in the process of being devoured.

Trees were forbidden in the same way buildings were, as were crops, but gardens and lawns were devoured, the swarms sloshing and stirring up froth in mud that was more water than dirt.

The color in Radham was slowly leeched away.  Painted signs set in front of stores were open game, crumpling to the ground as they were devoured feet first, the stores left alone.  A cat yowled in the distance as the swarm surrounded and caught it.

“This isn’t the superweapon, is it?” I asked.  “The swarm?”

“The harvesters are one minor project among many,” Lillian said.  “One that apparently got loose.”

The section of city shifted, sloping to one side as one end of it rose higher than the other.

Zig-zagging across the city, minimizing contact with the ground, gunning down any threats, we reached one of the key buildings we’d been hunting for, easier to find because of how obscured it was, hidden in the thick soup of gas.

Round, stone, and reinforced, it had a row of squat chimneys along one side.  It wasn’t plumes of seeding chemicals for the clouds overhead that flowed from it, but the thick clouds of gas that made visibility so limited.

Gunshots sounded from the midst of the gas production building.  Some of the soldiers of Radham were congregating around it.  Perhaps a hundred, but exact estimates were harder than usual with the gas cloud being what it was.  Their attitude and loose organization suggested they were preparing more than they were fighting, as if they harbored the expectation that their time to fight would be in a little while.

More of the wall had crumbled, I saw.  Some soldiers were perched at the edge, near where the wall wasn’t barring their view, and they were taking potshots with rifles.

They weren’t anticipating trouble, so it wasn’t too hard to find the holes in their perimeter.  Getting in was easy.

Getting in, stopping that facility from producing the gas that was keeping eighty or ninety percent of our army from approaching this end of the battlefield, and getting out… well, that was the problem.

I could see the figures in the mist.  Sub Rosa- she reveled in this environment.  I saw the snake charmer, and I saw Fray’s bird-lady helper, Avis.  All wore gas masks.  The gas rose and fell as the chimneys dumped noxious chemicals into the air, so each figure was alternately silhouette, there in desaturated grey and black, and gone, disappearing from view as gas obscured them, then appearing elsewhere.

Briefly wondering what they were intent on communicating to me, I shifted my focus.  I wasn’t alone with Jessie and the phantoms.  I wasn’t aimless, I wasn’t hollow.

I was as close to ‘home’ as I would be for a while.  I had the Lambs with me.

I could think something, I could gesture with one hand, and they would support me.

Even if it was moral support, like Jessie’s.

I stay, Lillian gestured.  She indicated Jessie.

I nodded.

The rest of us navigated the gap in the defenses.  I eased the door open, then slipped inside.

“Hm?” was the questioning sound from within.

A team of six humanoids was managing the mixture of chemicals for the steady production of gas.  Lenses like those of quarantine masks were set directly into their eye sockets, rimmed with scar tissue, and their lower faces were was sunken and chinless.  Fleshy ruins with four evenly spaced tubes running into them.  The tubes looked more for oxygen than anything else.  They were shirtless, but had jackets tied around their waists, and four of them were managing one large bucket, tipping the contents into a small opening in a large glass vat.

The room was hot, and it was humid in the worst way.  It was hard to breathe through the filtration masks like this.  My bladder, largely quiet up to now, was starting to wheeze just being in here.

They made sucking sounds as they drank in air, staring at us with the tinted lens eyes.

“You’re done,” Duncan said, his voice firm.  “No more catalyst.”

I worried people outside would hear.  Nervous, I looked around.  I saw the Devil and I startled at the sight of him.  I reminded myself he wasn’t real, and tried to focus.

I gestured, indicating the chimneys.  They worked as an escape route.

Mary gestured.  Three teams.  Far.

Three squads of soldiers on the other side.  Mary began outlining where, suggested the one closest to the building might circle around to the front door or south window of the building.

From chimney to roof?  I gestured.  Then down?

The four with the bucket, having considered Duncan’s order, ceased tipping the contents out.

“Get the counteragent,” Duncan said, authoritative.  “Pour it in.  That should stop the reaction, which means no more gas.  Then take the catalyst, and pour it out onto the floor.  All of it.  Understand?”

There was a long pause.

Then nods.  They set the bucket down on the catwalk above the vats.

It was done.  With the gas gone, brute force would serve for retaking the south end.  The sticks, the scattered warehouses and storerooms.  It was the furthest point from the Academy, but it was a staging ground, an in.

Hayle was going to realize this facility wasn’t producing gas.  He’d act.  Whatever Radham was doing or transitioning into, Hayle would pull out the stops on realizing the danger.

Duncan and I set to closing the chutes that fed the gas from the boiling vat to the chimneys.  I climbed inside and climbed through and out, Mary right behind me.  It was a squeeze to get past the rain-cover on the chimney.

Everything was so dark.  The clouds overhead, the pouring rain, the gas absorbing the little light that remained.

I drew my lockpick tools from my pocket and set to working on the rain-cover.

Helen was next to slither out, doing so as I removed the last bit of the rain cover.  Ashton followed.  Duncan was last.  Removing the cover had been largely for him.

Sabotage done, Duncan signaled.  And thank you.

I gave him a singular nod.

The gas would start thinning sooner or later.  When it did, visibility would increase, and if we weren’t gone and away by the time it did, we’d be surrounded by enemies.

As it was, we perched on the rooftop, in the shadows and obfuscation the chimneys and gas still provided.  When Mary, Helen and I moved, we went in opposite directions, covering different corners, checking the lay of the land.

I heard a scuffing sound, and I drew my knife, turning.

Avis.  She wore a gas mask like a Doctor’s, beaked, and a robe that concealed her wings when they were furled.  She was trying to scare me like the Devil had.

Whatever message you have for me, you might as well spit it out.  That’s your role in my head, isn’t it?

But you won’t, because my head doesn’t always cooperate with me.

I heard the faint cocking of a gun at the same time I felt the metal at my throat.

Raising my hands, I turned slowly, still on my knees.

Avis stood on one foot, a talon at my throat.

The remainder of the Lambs were scattered around the rooftop.  Mary had her gun drawn.  Helen looked ready to pounce, but was too far away to do it in any effective way.

Avis was real.

Fray had to be here.  In Radham.

The moment stretched on.  The gas was gradually getting thinner.

“Can we talk?” I asked.  “Can we do this properly?”

She was silent, grim.

“I know you don’t want to get blood on your… talons, without the benefit of a drug to cloud your head and divest you of responsibility,” I murmured, very aware of how many soldiers were nearby.  “Can we do without the play acting?”

She nodded slowly.

“Appreciated,” I whispered.

Slowly, she lowered her foot.  She backed away a few steps.  Mary lowered her gun.

The Lambs and I occupied three-quarters of the rooftop.  She dropped to a crouch in the quarter-rooftop she’d taken as her territory here.  Rain streamed off of her as if she’d waterproofed herself.  Perhaps she had, to keep water from weighing her down when she needed to fly.

“I’d like to talk,” I whispered.

Avis shook her head.

“Please.  That army down there is ours.  One way or another, they’ll seize Radham.  It’s just a question of how many casualties there are in the end.  If Fray is here, I’d like to strike a compromise.  Talk.”

Avis’ voice was barely audible.  Without the mask, she would have been clearer, without the whisper I would’ve likely been able to puzzle it out, but with the combination of beaked mask and whisper, it took me a second.

“You’d get in her way,” Avis said.

I barely had a half-second to turn the statement around in my head before she acted.  She took off, shucking off the shawl and robe-like clothing she’d worn, wings beating air.  As the outer covering of clothing was thrown off, her flock of birds flew out and at us.

But the telling moment, the raised-middle-pinion-feather to us, was that her talons scuffed the roof’s edge, clipping the gutter.  Metal on metal.

The screech of metal, the flapping of fifty small wings and two large ones, the fact she’d said it and not whispered it, it drew the attention of the soldiers all around us, while Avis made her way skyward, both jumping and flapping hard to get herself fifteen or twenty feet into the air, then gliding silently and with scarcely a sign into the thickest patch of gas.

Fray.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.2

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Nearly thirty Professors and military leaders, two nobles, and another twenty assorted major players were in the room.  Taken as a group, they looked worse for wear.  They hadn’t slept as well as they might have if they were happy and secure of their futures.  Diets had been affected by parasites, and the lingering effects of toxins in blood and muscles taxed others.

An innocent bystander who stepped into the room and saw this sorry lot might have thought something was amiss, even without the cue of expressions and glares.  Heck, I could smell it, when they were all in one space.  The sweat, the fear, the pollution of their bodies.

I wondered if Mauer might have described the crowd as having lost their souls.  Broken, their dreams and stations taken from them.  Maybe he would have wanted to hold onto his idea of the soul, that it was something more sacrosanct.  Or perhaps he would have wanted to say that they’d lost their souls long, long ago.

The important thing, however, was that they were at least holding up appearances when seen alone or in small groups.  They looked tired and perhaps a bit unwell, but not to a degree that would shake anyone or stir too much in the way of suspicion.

Their lieutenants were now organizing the arrangement of the forces.  I stared through the window, and I watched as squads tore up train tracks that led into and out of Radham.  Rank and file of soldiers covered the landscape, the masses of men spiky with the long rifles they held, and more continued to file in, existing groups firming up into tighter ranks.

Running like rivers through the blocks and columns were the other things.  Many were warbeasts, organized and held at bay.  Others were vats and other machinery, that produced gas or held lifeforms that couldn’t quite be called ‘warbeast’.  Many blocks had a different consistency, because they were made up of larger individuals, or because the individuals had the natural stillness of a war-ready stitched.

I was letting the silence stretch on, as our audience settled.  The Lambs were gathered around me, as were our lieutenants.  All of my allies were waiting patiently, as I’d suggested they do.

I wanted it to be a relief when I spoke, when I gave clarity and the full picture to the people who we’d only given fragments to.  I wanted them to listen, and I didn’t want to give them a lot of time to start being clever, so they got the full picture now.

I spoke.  “There is incontrovertible evidence that Professor Hayle has been acting as part of a conspiracy to work against the Crown States.”

I turned to face the room again, and I could see that I had their ears.

“He produced the Lambs project and eventually took on a role as headmaster of one of the Academies most renowned for its research, development, and its special projects.  We have reason to believe he’s responsible for the poisoning of the water, so to speak, where countless citizens were sterilized and leashed.  At a later date, he had several experiments, Lambs included, pretend to go Rogue while they continued to work for him and arranged the killing of several nobles.”

I paused for emphasis, then continued, “Many of your soldiers, followers, families and friends have been dragged here, and of them, many don’t know we’re here, or that we’re having this conversation.  They still believe that all is well, and they’ll have no clue that we’re framing Professor Hayle for our own purposes.”

“Why?” one man asked.  “Petty revenge?”

“I would strongly recommend not interrupting,” Mary said.

The man shut his mouth, scowling.

“He knows too much,” I said.  “And he’s always been invested in keeping tabs on things.  Creating projects like us, supporting other projects that could gather information.  If he uncovers any of you, or if he gets ahead of any of this, then we’re done.  And we’re taking you down with us.  We’ve given a full third of those soldiers out there, most of you, and a lot of your people that we left behind a taste of our leash.  Extricating yourselves of that leash is going to require removing us and time, and if Hayle acts, if we get revealed, or if we die, you only get half of what you need, and there’s an unhappy ending here.”

“Hayle lives,” Duncan said.  “Your underlings may want to know what this is, especially as the stakes escalate.  If you feel the need to tell them, you make it clear.  Hayle betrayed the Crown in an unprecedented way, and he has set other things in motion.  He will live because you need his knowledge to stop his plots.  Understand?”

They seemed to understand, reluctant as they were to admit it.

“Go,” I said.  “Be good.  Don’t try to be clever.  Through the gates.  Seize the city step by step, until we can get to the Academy itself.”

They rose from chairs, and the ones who’d already been standing started to exit the room or held the doors for their betters.

It was curious, that they acted like that, still holding to old hierarchies.  Curious that some degree of civility and culture still drove them, even when they’d all been brought low.

Some lingered.

“Speak,” I addressed the one in the front, specifically choosing one who looked to be of lower station than the others.  A woman who might’ve been an aristocrat’s wife.

“The parasites you put in me, my husband, and these others,” she said.  She indicated the group.  She started to speak, then stopped, changing her mind about what she was going to say.  “They’re taking too much.  I’ve lost four fingernails.  I feel unwell.”

She showed us the fingers in question.  The fingernails weren’t entirely gone- they’d broken lengthwise, individual fragments and slivers sticking out of the hangnail bed, the flesh beneath red and raw.

I might have felt bad about putting those people into that circumstance, but we’d wanted to mix up what we used on people, to make it hard for them to find a single fix and turn the tables on us, and we’d wanted overlap, so some key figures were both poisoned and under other coercion.

We’d known some of the methods we used would be uglier and more uncomfortable, and we’d turned those things toward some of the less pleasant members of Radham’s Academies and governance.

I couldn’t remember who this woman was, but I knew that some of the aristocrats we’d targeted had earned harsher constraints because of their demonstrated amorality.  The culling of adults over a certain age, forced breeding programs, the leadership that had supported some places like the Baron’s Warrick, with the forced inclusions of monsters in families, and the members of one Academy that had incorporated around a reserve of natives and turned the whole tribe into experiment stock.

Whichever one this woman was, well, tearing off her fingernails in an indirect way wasn’t about to prickle consciences.  Mine, least of all, lenient as it was.

“Well, that shouldn’t be happening.  I’ll look after it,” Lillian said.  She looked over at me.  “Can I have Mary?  In case this is a ploy?”

“You can,” I said.  “I want her back for our opening play, though.”

I want to be there for your opening play,” Lillian said.  “You aren’t leaving me behind.  We won’t be long.”

“Got it,” I said.

While Lillian and Mary went with the parasite-infested, I did what I could to get Jessie ready.  I bundled her up, making sure she was comfortable, and then covered her up further, with the same sack-cloths used for sandbags.

“Okay?” I whispered.  I had to reach beneath the covering to run fingers through her hair.  “It would make all the sense in the world if you stayed behind, but I don’t always make a lot of sense these days, y’know?”

Jessie slept on.

“But maybe if you’re dreaming there, if your sleeping mind is putting things gently in place, where things can be put in place without doing damage, and if it’s holding firm where we need it to hold firm, and if you’re actually touching on those memories, maybe it’ll be good if you hear my voice and you have some nice memories of me, or if you hear me when I’m being devastating and it calls some other good moments to mind.”

I realized that Lillian and Mary had stopped in the doorway that led to the adjunct building, our makeshift labs.  Listening.  Duncan, Helen, and Ashton were at the front door, ready to venture outside.  They watched.

“And maybe,” I murmured, my voice lowered, just for her.  “Maybe you’ll wake up one day, and- and I know there’s a chance I won’t be there, because that’s the way I’m going.  There’s a chance others won’t, because it’s not out of the question.  And I know there’s a pretty good chance that no matter what we try to set in place, plugging you into a new, hacked-together project caterpillar every night, letting you sleep all the time so you don’t lose more, you might still wake up and not be Jessie.  So it’s not like I’m really staking a lot of hopes on this, for the record.  Just saying…”

Was it imagination when she exhaled a little harder than she had been, in the rhythmic breathing of deep sleep?

“…But maybe, maybe there’s a chance that you wake up, and I’ll be there, and I’ll be able to tell you that you were with us.  I’ll tell you what happened and because you heard the voices when you were sleeping, you’ll be able to say it almost sounds familiar.  And then I’ll be able to tell you that you heard it while you were sleeping and something soft and fuzzy stuck in that rigid, not-fuzzy brain-structure of yours.  And you can yell at me for bringing me with, maybe.  Or you’ll be secretly happy you were part of this.”

I wanted to stay.

Go, the voice said.

I obeyed.  There weren’t any more of the hard exhalations, so I simply adjusted the bags and coverings to make sure she was comfortable, not too hot or too cold, that she’d be dry and that nobody would see her, and then signaled the stitched to bring her.

Mary and Lillian didn’t start moving until I was at the front door with Duncan, Ashton, and Helen.

We stepped outdoors.  As much as I’d enjoyed the rain earlier, it was heavy enough now that I flipped up the hood of the military jacket I wore.  My sleeve had the badge of a messenger.  The others had a degree of camouflage as well.  Helen and Duncan as soldiers, and Ashton as a student.  We would stay out of sight and hopefully we wouldn’t draw too much notice if we were seen.

We separated.  When we moved around the periphery of the warcamp, it was a kind of weaving motion, different members of our group taking a turn at the fore or moving through the actual crowd while the rest of us moved along other tracks, by way of alley or by ducking around the back of crowds.  It meant we were harder to pick apart as a group of Lambs, a blonde young lady, a red-haired boy, a young man with dark curls stubbornly sticking to his forehead.  Duncan was harder to pin down, but we ran too much risk of appearing to be a unit.

Especially, I noted, if we kept Jessie with us.

We took our turns walking alongside her, as well.  One at the left, one at center-front, one at the right, and one walking with Jessie and the stitched that carried her.

It was our habit to move this way if we were trying to search for something, and in the doing, I ended up looking over the crowd, for Mauer’s men, for rebels, and for the people we’d captured and coerced, who might be getting adventurous.

I saw a lot of our Beattle rebels.  I saw the Hackthorn defectors.

I saw Montgomery and the Moth.  The nobles from the train.  I was pretty sure those were their names.

I saw the Primordial Child, fatter and larger than I’d ever seen him, and I wondered what I’d fed him to make him so monstrous.  I wondered if he’d continue growing until he consumed everything, or if he’d burst, and if that spelled something horrible.

The fight was mounting.  A rainstorm drummed against the landscape, but the clouds that spiraled out from around Radham weren’t consistent.  The low hills and flat plains of the landscape was marked in scythe-shaped swathes of darkness, where the clouds were thick enough to block out the sun, with something very near to sunlight, where the clouds were thin, if there even were any.  Where the light touched the ground, it shone with the droplets of the rainfall that had touched it before.

Radham itself was drowned in shadow.  The explosions of artillery shells drumming the walls didn’t seem as bright or fierce as they should have been.  Rain between us and the detonations and the darkness of the clouds overhead tempered it.

The walls had no doubt been started when the full reality of plague had made itself known.

“I wonder what Hayle is thinking,” I mused.  I gestured as I spoke, so the others who weren’t nearby could follow.

Duncan was the only one in earshot.  “You know what I’m thinking?”

“The Duncan-ghost has been missing for a while,” I said.  “I’m not as on the ball with figuring you guys out as I was when I had images of you all keeping me company and giving me hints.”

“Duncan-ghost, huh?  That’s ominous.”

“It really was, but not for the reasons you’re thinking.  What are you thinking, sir?”

“I’m thinking yeah, the Academy’s gone up against enemies who had back-alley doctors supporting them.  They’ve gone up against enemies who had a handful of defectors, who tried their hand at targeted strikes.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The army was approaching the gates, now.  We were on the fringes of the town and making our way along the expanse between it and Radham.  Barricades had been hastily erected, carriages parked, and crates and supplies were already being dropped off by teams who put them down and hurried back to the wagons they could unload from.

There was every expectation this would be an all-out war.

“This is a war,” I echoed my thought.

“Yeah.  But more to the point, it’s maybe unprecedented.  As far as I know, we’ve never had a war or even a proper battle where it was the full force of what the Academy and Crown could bring to bear… against the full force of what the Academy and Crown could bring to bear.”  He gestured as he spoke.

“Yeah, Duncan,” I said, signaling ‘agree’.

We took different paths through the barricades and collected things ahead.

“I’m not good at understanding people,” Ashton said, falling in step beside me, gesturing as he spoke.  “I try, and sometimes I’m right, but sometimes I’m wrong.  Even when it comes to silly things.  I was very confused for a while that one of my doctors shaved his beard, and every day for a few months after that I was wondering if people would have their heads shaved the next time I saw them.”

Duncan, off in the distance, gestured something along the lines of ‘Very confused’.

Smokey-heart-stump think, I gestured, the signs segueing into one another.  I asked, “Where are you going with this, Ash?”

“Ashton,” he said, emphasizing the latter half.  “I’m going and gone thinking that I don’t know what to expect next.  I’d be anxious but you’re mostly calm so I’m making myself be calm.”

“I don’t know where it’s going either, Ashton.  But I don’t see Hayle surrendering.  Not when faced with this.  Maybe if we’d made contact in a different way, if Mauer hadn’t forced our hands.  But not like this.  So we see his opening salvo.  From a distance.  We shouldn’t get much closer.”

Ashton nodded, clearly thinking.  I gave him a nudge, and he broke away from me.

I ducked between a carriage and a fence, and popped a cigarette into my mouth, lighting it, during the moment’s reprieve where I couldn’t see much of the proceedings and couldn’t see the others.

“From a distance,” Helen said, walking beside me as soon as I was clear of the parked row of carriages.

“Yup,” I said, still walking.

“I don’t like distance,” she said.

“I’m something like sixty percent sure distance is a good thing here,” I said.

I stopped in my tracks, standing by a barricade.  I shifted the bag at my shoulder and let my thumb brush against my weapon.  Soldiers rushed past us, hurrying toward the front line.  I scanned the various camps and emplacements.  Need to find leader.  Ours.

Duncan gestured.  I see.  Action?

I gave my response.  Tell him.  WarningPull people back.

“I feel like your percentages are always lower, these days,” Helen said.  She touched my arm.  “You used to be more confident.”

“I did.”

“Are you scared?” she asked.

Bravado was the name of this game.  I was Sylvester.  I was fearless, even reckless in the face of danger.

“I’m terrified,” I said.

“You know I don’t feel fear like you, Duncan, Lillian and Mary do,” she said.

“Don’t let Mary hear you say she gets scared.  She’ll deny it.”

“I won’t.”

“What were you saying?”

“I don’t feel proper fear, but my thoughts have been going in circles lately.  My team has been trying to rein in my hunger, I’m having my appointments again, and Duncan is making sure Ibbot is doing it more right than he was, but I think the damage was done.”

“Yeah.”

“I think a lot about that.  My thoughts circle around it but don’t ever land.  Like tired birds.”

“Of course.  Tired bird thoughts,” I said.

What?  Duncan signed, in response to my gestured transcription.  He was talking to an officer -one of the people who’d been in the meeting- and keeping an eye on us.

Helen spoke, “My thoughts do a lot of those circles.  I think this is what fear is like.  Except…”

“You don’t feel fear like we do.  It’s… an abstract non-approximation.”

What? Duncan gestured again.

I explain after, I gestured.  Warn man.

“I’d feel a lot better if I wasn’t so distant from the worst of it,” Helen said.  “I want my fingers digging into meat, touching bone, feeling the blood pumping out.  I want to hear the sounds they make.”

“Soon,” I said.

“How soon?” Helen asked.

I didn’t give my response right away.

My eyes moved over the crowd, over the distant scene at the gates of Radham.

A horn blew.  The man Duncan had been talking to.

The forces nearest the gate began to back away.  Only the group of stitched working on the gate itself remained, potentially their handlers as well.

I watched it, glanced at the general who Duncan had informed, and then looked over the young men and scattered few women in uniform.  Helen had talked about fear, and these people were afraid.

I looked past them and saw Sub Rosa, in the crowd near us.

“Very soon.  A matter of a minute or two before we’re properly underway.  Sub Rosa says the gates are opening.”

“Does she now?” Helen asked.

“She pays attention to these things.  We should split up for a moment.”

“Distance,” Helen said.

I started to say something, but she only smiled, winked, and parted ways.  Heads turned to look at her as she sashayed into the crowd, hood low, even though she was just one more person in uniform.

The heavy doors of Radham’s gates were hauled open, smoke billowing around the point that a targeted explosion had occurred.

No sooner had the doors opened than a thick gas poured out.  Silhouette became merely blurry shadows in the midst of gas.  Men toppled.

The ones who didn’t fall immediately were savaged by things that operated from within the cloud.  Experiments, spindly and clawed, which moved quickly enough that virtually all of the gunfire that was directed at them was scattered, aimless gunfire.

It took me a second to spot Helen, at one barricade, one soldier among many.  She had a gun out, and her hand moved in gestures.

I really wanted it to be door-open tentacles?

She really wanted the doors to open and giant tentacles to reach out.

Another time, perhaps.

The gas served to push our forces back.  It bought them time, and it bought them elbow room.  From the volume of it, it was different from what we’d deployed in Hackthorn.  It was continuous, the product of buildings and emplacements, much as the rain was something created by a perpetual production of seeded smoke and steam.

Radham lurched.  The walls remained where they were, but the rest of the city shifted, as if something had given way and something else had surged upward.  Not a great deal- ten feet, twenty.  But enough that everyone present reacted.

As if that initial burst of growth had broken ground or started something, the Academy began to shift.  It rose up, and staggered sections of the city rose as well.  Areas slowly rotated, whatever was happening beneath them, as if there was a great corkscrew beneath.

The tunnels beneath the Academy.  The interconnected infrastructure, the layout.

Jessie would want to be woken up for this.  To explain it, to paint the way forward.  She knew Radham better than I knew the back of my hand.

The smoke that streamed skyward from countless chimneys and vents in Radham was darkening by the moment.  The gas now flowed over the top of the wall, not through the gate.  The wall at one side of the Academy was cracking, even being as thick as it was.

Not all of this had been in place when we were young.  Not all of it had been in place when I’d left, even.  We’d known Radham harbored its superweapon and countless other weapons and resources besides, but the actual nature of it had been a closely guarded secret.

Had I ever had even an inkling that I might’ve been going to war with Radham, I might have pried at that secret.  As it was, it was just one thing among countless others that I hadn’t known and assumed I would never have cause to know.

The upward progress was glacial, but it was progress.  The Academy and to a lesser degree the city were rising up and out of reach.  The gas and the creatures within the gas were meant to keep trouble at bay until the process was done.  It was exceedingly possible that there would be more to it.

Helen had returned, finding a place by my side.  Duncan and Ashton appeared.

The stitched and its great flesh suit held Jessie, standing just a little ways back.

We couldn’t move just yet.  There wasn’t much to be done, no orders to give to the people in charge, no answers or questions.

Hayle would be in his tower, maybe, or he’d be at a high vantage point.  He’d be looking down on us, while his Academy flexed muscles it hadn’t ever had cause to use, unsheathing claws, or releasing things that had been sleeping much, much longer than they’d ever been awake.

A gas mask slapped against the sandbag and wood-spike barricade I stood by.

Lillian, with Mary in tow.

“I can’t help but feel the gas is Hayle saying something like ‘hi, Sylvester.  Isn’t this inviting?  It’s entirely your thing, with poisons and gasses not affecting you.  It’s totally not a trap.'”

“Or,” Duncan said.  “It’s a poison gas that serves as a very effective countermeasure against invaders.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I was aware that whole regiments were rushing toward the battlefront, even as others retreated.  Masks like the one Lillian had in hand were in place, uniforms were taped up, and weapons were at the ready.

“If we don’t make a move now, it’ll only get harder,” Mary said.

The Academy still rose.  It had yet to reveal all of its tricks.

I pulled on the mask.  I turned, ready to help Jessie with hers, but Lillian was already on task.

Rather than speak, my voice muffled by the mask, I gestured.

We go.  Clear the way for the army.  This wasn’t something we’d manage on our own.  It was never going to be, even before Mauer had alerted Radham that something was wrong.  There were too many checkpoints, too much security.  Radham was too mindful.

I gestured again.

We face down the second of the three gods.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.1

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I spread my arms to embrace the rain.

Radham wasn’t home.  I barely recognized the view of it as I looked at it from afar, frankly.  That wasn’t that my memory was slipping, but the fact that it had changed to adapt to plague and the press of war.  Where the Academy had once had tall fortifications surrounding it, now the city was ringed with them.  One tall wall lanced out into the distance, blocking off the view.  Fields, orchards, and grazing areas, secluded from the rest of the world.

So very strange to see walls of stone and mortar on that scale without the wood interlaced through it.

The rain ran through my hair, down the back of my neck, and soaked into my shirt.

Helen, walking a few paces behind me, was humming to herself.  I changed my pace, took one grand step back, and swept up her hand with mine, turning myself around to wrap her arm around my shoulder.  In the doing, I pulled her a little away from Shirley.

“Careful now,” she said.  “I don’t know if I trust myself to let things go nowadays.”

“Wouldn’t that be a way to go.”

“Don’t tempt me,” she said.  “Play nice, and I’ll hold back.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

She squeezed my shoulder with her arm, walking with me.

I glanced over at Shirley, who was putting her hood up, covering her short hair.  “How are you getting on?”

“I’m mostly marveling at Helen,” she said.

“That would be justifiable, given how I’m a marvel worth marveling at.  I’m sublime, even.  The professor I keep chained to the desk and cot in my room ensures it.”

Shirley looked like she needed a second to get her bearings, her conversational stride broken on a few levels by Helen.

“Anything in particular?” I asked.

“The lessons you taught me are very evident in a very natural way for Helen.  Poise, framing.”

“Entirely learned,” Helen said.  “But I learned it early on.  One of the first things I learned, I’ll have you know.”

I let the conversation continue, as Helen and Shirley had their talk.

Radham loomed in the distance.  It was enshrined in walls and soaked in a perpetual rain.  We were getting a trace of that rain, or perhaps we were getting the rain that Radham would’ve been due if it wasn’t generating its own.  It really wasn’t home.  We’d grown up and away from it.  But it was where we had set our roots.  Some of our brightest, most genuine, and saddest moments were founded there.

It was fitting, then, that we made it the first of the surviving major cities that we would seize.  It would, all going well, be our base of operations.

This was our staging ground.  The city was choked with soldiers and the creations that needed to be housed indoors.  They were trying to keep on the down-low, with primarily officers, major divisions and key experiments stored in the city, but it was still a lot of people.  People were gathered in the streets where there wasn’t enough room indoors, and while fires had been prohibited, the distribution of food and leash-free water was an ongoing process.

The manors atop the hill were the nicest in the town, and they were where we had settled.  They were where the officers, top Professors, and our other key ‘converts’ were staying.  The only people to come and go were our other converts.

Well, them and the scattered few enemies who made my heart jump in my chest, before I realized there was no conceivable reality where they could be here.  The Primordial Child.  Ferres outfitted in the suit that had enabled her to walk and use her hands again.  Sub Rosa, as both the child and the adult.

The Snake Charmer was staring at us, sitting with a girl I didn’t recognize.

I ran my fingers through my hair, palm hard against my head, squeezing the water out and back.  The streets were full enough that carts and carriages had a hard time passing through.  There was a variant Crown States flag on a pole by one of them, waving slightly.  It was one of many, signaling for gates and checkpoints to let the carriage through, but the key difference, with the crimson background to the flag, was that it was meant for us.

One of ours, coming back.  We’d meet them at the road that led from the city to the hill manors.

Helen and Shirley’s conversation was winding down, it seemed.

“…would be a waste if you didn’t,” Helen said.

“I’d like all of us to get to a place where I didn’t have to do anything like that with people we didn’t like, let alone carry a garotte with them,” Shirley said.  “If I had any dream or goal beyond situating myself well and rising from my current station, it would be seeing everyone get there.”

“Speaking of goals…” Mary said.  “I wouldn’t mind discussing that.”

“If you’re asking me I know what my goals are,” Helen said.

“I was thinking Sy should chime in,” Mary said.

I looked skyward, letting the rain patter against my face.

“We know what we’re doing in the big picture.  Claiming the Crown States.  I know Jessie was clear on that.  Jessie and Sy had that as a defined plan.  And… you’re doing what you do, Sylvester.  Now that something’s firmed up, you’re revolving and spiraling around it.”

Helen lifted my hand up.  I dutifully spun her around, as if we were dancing.  She smiled brilliantly, before raising a hand to her face, pushing wet hair out of the way and tucking it behind her ear.

“I understand if you want to keep quiet, if keeping quiet is one of the things that’s helping you to stay balanced, somehow,” Mary said.  “Even if I don’t understand how that works in the slightest.”

I shook my head.

“Three major hurdles to overcome,” I said.

“More than three, I’d imagine,” Helen said.

“Big hurdles.  Three gods to slay,” I said.  “Three gods to overcome.”

“Gods?  Do I need to be worried about where you’re at after all, Sy?” Mary asked.

I twisted around in Helen’s firm grip to glance back at Mary.  I gave her a smile.  “I’m fine.”

Mary had a parasol, and wore a very nice red dress with crimson lace, a ribbon at one side of her head.  Beside her, the flesh-suit giant walked with Jessie in its arms, one of its hands holding a similar parasol to shield Jessie’s upper body from the rain.  A raincoat was draped over her legs to waterproof them.  Jessie looked so small.

“You were saying something about gods?” Helen asked me.

“Yes.  Gods, my dear Helen G. Ibbot and Miss Mary Cobourn.  Great, unknowable, and potentially very intelligent forces who could yet tear us to pieces, even now.  Especially now.”

“Can I tear them to pieces?” Helen asked.  “Or twist them up?”

“One or two of them, I think, given opportunity.”

“I’ll look forward to that, then,” she said.  “You look to giving me those opportunities.”

“Why ‘gods’, Sylvester?” Mary asked.

“Because they’re not people, they’re not something we can stick a knife in or remove from the picture with carefully worded letters.  They’re timeless in a way, they were there before we came into this world, they’ve been there all along, they’ll be there when we leave.”

“Are these real things or, again, do I need to consider putting a knife through the back of your knee?” Mary asked.

“Stop saying that!  When I end up getting knifed or shot, it’s going to be because of a conversation that starts with ‘I’m very worried about Sylvester.'”

“Most of our conversations start that way,” Helen observed.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’d really like to focus on killing and subjugating god, not on the sad, slow decline of Sylvester.  Let’s hammer this out.”

“Alright,” Mary said.  “I can do focus.”

“Thank you.”

“Your ‘gods’.  You’re not being abstract?”

“Real, concrete things.  Problems, enemies in broad but very definable senses.”

“Okay, so if I had to guess, going by the things you tend to natter about-”

“Natter?  Natter?”  I asked.  I twisted around.  “Jessie, they’re being mean to me.  Make them stop.”

Jessie slept on.

Mary’s eyes tracked mine very carefully.  I saw a fractional shift in how her lips pressed together.

I know she’s asleep,” I whispered.

Mary snapped her fingers.  “Power.”

“Power is absolutely one,” I said.

“And control?”

“Not at all,” I said.  I smiled.  “We just spent the last year working on bringing that particular god to heel, didn’t we?”

“I suppose we did,” Mary said.

“Think on it,” I said.  “There’s no rush, no time limit except the one we’ve had since the early days, and of course if the god ends up dead before you name ’em, you miss your window.”

“You’re appealing to my competitive side,” Mary said.

“I suppose I am.”

“And you’re appealing to Helen by giving her gods to embrace.”

“Please,” Helen said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Maybe.  But maybe I also did bring it up as a way to tempt.”

“I’m rusty,” Mary said.  “Figuring you out, trying to keep up, thinking outside of the box so I might keep up with you.  I’m starting to feel like this is more familiar.  It’s nice.”

“I’m rusty too,” I said.  “I’ve been trying to figure it out, but I want to work with the Lambs on this.  What comes next could be very hard.  If I’m doing a good job of pulling your strings and Helen’s tongue, appealing to your best parts in the process, I’m glad.”

Mary nodded.

“Helen’s tongue?” Shirley asked.

“Her… Helen-ness.  Her appetite, in all the things that tongues can be used for.”

“I do like that,” Helen said.  “Do keep using your own tongue in clever ways with me, Sylvester.  It’s fun.”

Getting Shirley’s attention with a movement of my head, I gestured at Helen for effect.  “See?  Helen’s tongue.  It works.”

“Dangerously well,” Mary observed.

“I see,” Shirley said.

“And Sylvester, sir,” Helen said, and she smiled, “let me know if you need any advice on pulling on Duncan and Ashton’s somethings.  I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the past few years.”

Shirley cleared her throat.

“I’ll let you know, Hel,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure I know how they operate from a mechanical standpoint.  I can figure out the rest.”

She laid her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her.

We hadn’t made mention of Lillian.  Somehow all of us knew that it wouldn’t have gone good places.  Not with things where they stood, and not with Jessie’s role in the conversation.

The flag-bearer moved the flag, pointing it.

They were indicating which carriages it was, and the little caravan wasn’t on the main road.

I changed position.  My hand was still tender, and it nearly seized up as I scaled the side of a house and climbed onto the roof, settling onto a perch at one corner.

“Ah,” I said.

“Not the Lambs,” Mary said, beside me.  I’d barely heard her ascend.

The carriages took the road normally reserved for the denizens of the hill.  Men opened the door and climbed up onto the sides, hanging off of them.  They kept watchful eyes out.

They stopped on the road.  Making us come to them, perhaps.

Or they didn’t want to venture too close.  Like this, they could at least attempt a haphazard getaway.

Mary and I descended to the road.  We signaled and broke into a jog.

They had all climbed out of the carriages by the time we arrived.  We slowed down before stepping into view, walking as a group with an easy, natural formation.  Shirley hung back.

Mauer stood in a congregation of his rebel soldiers.  He was in the heart of the Crown States, near one of its remaining major cities, with half or two-thirds of the nation’s armed forces gathered in the surrounding region.  He was one word from having the entirety of that turned on him.

It would have been one thing if he’d been in that situation and he’d remained calm.  That was a thing.

But he was here, and he was pissed.

“Mauer,” Helen greeted him.  “I would call you reverend, but you don’t like that, I remember.”

“Calling me Mauer is fine,” he said.

“When we told our soldiers to let you through, we didn’t anticipate you showing up at the foot of our warcamp,” Mary said.

Mauer’s voice carried across the distance, “Something tells me that if I were to find a convenient clearing and send a message, you’d be too occupied with other matters to respond.  What would I do then?  Find my way to you through your assembled forces?  Would I try to steer your course?  I told them to take me to you.  You gave them permission to bring me here.”

“We actually anticipated Fray doing the bold arrival in the enemy’s midst when we left that instruction,” I said.  “This works too, mind.”

“I sent a soldier to be captured and leak information about Ferres acquiring an immortal,” Mauer said.  “As was requested.”

“Thank you,” Helen said.

“I did not expect this,” Mauer said.

I spread my arms.  “You don’t like the notion of turning the Crown against their own, as they tried to turn us against each other?”

He turned his body, as if he needed the right posture to move his arm, and hauled his monstrous arm free of the coat that covered it.  The mangled, distorted, oversized arm raised one index finger.

When he spoke, it was with a very dangerous tone.  His people were reacting to the tone, shifting their stances.  “I would very much like that notion, if I thought it was leading to justice and right.  Something tells me it isn’t.”

“What would be just and right, Mauer?” Mary asked.

“Mary Cobourn,” Mauer said.  “I knew someone with your face and name when she was a child.  But you’re Percy’s creation, aren’t you?”

Mary nodded.

“He also wronged you.  He did you an injustice.”

“I see what you’re saying, but it was the injustices he did to others that I acted on.  On behalf of people close to me who mind those things.”

I wanted to comment or indicate something, to let Mary know that that lie was old, that I and everyone else should already know that she had more heart than she pretended.  I didn’t, however, want to give any sign of weakness to Mauer.  I didn’t take my eyes off of the man.

“Remind all of us, please, just how you addressed that wrong of his.”

“I executed him.”

“Tell me, then.  Between you, you seem hold the assembled forces of the Crown States and its lesser Academies in your hands.  You give orders and speeches here and there, and the enemy’s armies move for you.  You forge letters, and you make them act for you.  You have them utterly at your mercy.”

“We do,” I said.

“Will you cast them down, Lambs?” Mauer asked.  “Will you tell me my instinct is wrong, and that you will set one of them against the other with the intent of destroying both, or in hopes of leaving one of the two weak and vulnerable to a knife in the back?”

“There are better things we can do,” I said.

“They are a festering thing, Lambs,” Mauer said.  He clenched his monstrous fist, still holding it before him.  “They are overgrown and twisted to the point that they barely serve the purpose they were intended for.  They are a system corrupted, that inflicts needless damage and stress on itself for reasons that have been forgotten.  They are a cancer, Lambs.  Cut them free.  Be ruthless, and excise the surrounding tissue.”

“You’d have us set them up to wipe them out?” Mary asked.

“You hold their vitals in your hands, Lambs.  Not the heart, not the brain, but enoughCrush those vitals.”

The look in his eyes was murderous.

“You would advocate mass murder, Mauer?” I asked.

“The Crown doesn’t lose,” Mauer said.  “That’s the saying.”

“That’s not the whole saying,” I said.  “Because they do lose here and there.  You know that.  You’ve had your small victories.”

That anger was still etched on his features as he acknowledged me.

“It’s that if and when it looks like they’re losing, they’re so big they drag you down with them.  They make it a draw, if they can’t make you regret trying.”

Lambs,” Mauer said.  He sounded so menacing that I thought one of his younger soldiers might take initiative and act on that anger, shooting us as a kind of punctuation.  His face was etched with deep lines.  “You should be aware of how many rebel groups have come and gone.  You’ve seen people who struggled alone or as part of armies against the Crown.  You’ve seen people use sword, knife, gun, bare hand, pen, word, and every other tool they can bring to bear against this enemy.”

“We’ve been thoroughly introduced to those people.  We count many of them among our number,” I said.

Behind me, there was noise.  I worried it would be the very people Mauer was wanting to crucify.  It was the other Lambs.  They were roughly on schedule.  Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton.  Behind them, I saw the aristocrats Chance, Lainie, and more glorious and monstrous than any of Ferres’ fairy tale creations, a thoroughly modified Emily Gage, with sweeping horns and flesh that included decorative scaling in amazingly intricate patterns.  Her eyes were missing from the sockets, and each of her hands ended in two sets of claws.

I smiled.  I turned back to Mauer as Lillian, Duncan and Ashton joined us.  All three had their hoods up, protecting them from the steady, easy rainfall.

Something about being interrupted when he’d been making his speech seemed to push him into another dimension of anger.

“Hundreds of millions have fought against this force that Wollstone armed and brought into being,” Mauer said, and his tone was lower.  “It’s not beyond the realm of imagination to suggest it could be a full billion or more human beings who were raised from the womb into the world, who fought the Crown desperately and went to meet their creator.”

“Not beyond the realm of imagination, no sir,” I said, my own voice pitched to match his.

“How many of them had their chance at this?  At a true, honest, undeniable victory?  A chance to gut them, and wrest a continent from their grip.”

He was gesturing with his monstrous hand again, clenching his fist and turning it in the air as if to tear something forth from reality.

“And what is it you intend?” he growled.  “Because something that gravely concerns me, gravely concerns me…”

His voice was at the point where it almost wasn’t a word as he uttered ‘gravely’ the second time.

“…As I take this in and as I find you here, of all places, is that it very much seems that you aren’t looking for that victory, Lambs.  You asked for my cooperation and promised me satisfaction, and yet I’m left to believe you aren’t going to take this justice that we have at hand.”

I remained silent, watching him.

“Tell me I’m wrong, Sylvester.  Any of you.  Raise your voices, and give me my satisfaction!”

I’d heard him speak, and I’d heard him raise his voice to be heard by a crowd, exclaiming, but I couldn’t remember hearing him speak at this volume, with this degree of rage.

“Tell me you aren’t going to take this and deliver a mere slap in their face.  Tell me you aren’t going to give them a draw!”

“You want satisfaction,” I said.  I tried to let my own voice carry.

He set his jaw.

“The reason we sent Helen to you was that we thought she would understand you best.  You’re both impossible to satisfy.  You will always want more blood, more satiation.  If you were a glutton you’d eat until your stomach split.  But you want to somehow… what is it?  See them pay for their cumulative sins of the last century in the span of a few short years?  That’s not possible.”

“I’ll settle for what’s possible,” Mauer said.

“And that might have been the first lie you’ve ever told us,” I said.  “What would you do once you’ve settled?  Would you retire?”

I paused.  I watched him.

“…Or would you resume your crusade?”

I watched him bow his head, as if in prayer, but his face was contorted.

“We need doctors and soldiers to keep plague at bay, and to act in the event that the Crown realizes something is amiss and brings a fresh war from over the ocean.  We need a lot of things, and if we did what you wanted, we might get that justice you describe, but it would come at the expense of our lives, on several fronts.”

He clenched his fist.

“You know this, Mauer.  You’ve always known this.  Even in the most peaceful period of the Crown States’ history under Empire rule, there was never going to be a reality where you could see your rhetoric come to bloody fruition.”

He turned his head, speaking to his lieutenant.  I could read his lips.  ‘We’ll leave soon.  Before they surround us or call reinforcements.  One more question.’

I continued, “You just don’t care.  You’ve always been willing to destroy yourself in pursuit of this end.  You’d ask everyone to follow you in that martyred pursuit of revenge.”

He closed his eyes.  His hand fell to his side.  I watched as he composed himself, relaxing, surrendering.

“Reverend,” Lillian spoke.

Oh, she’d missed that part.

He raised his human hand, holding it up.  Whatever approach Lillian had been planning to make, she held back.

He spoke, and he spoke calmly, as if none of the anger was there anymore.  “You made me another promise.”

“We did,” I said.

“You told me that you would reveal the truth of the Block.”

“I did,” Helen said.

“Then tell me,” he said.  “And I’ll take this knowledge, and… if I don’t stay, to wage my part in what’s about to unfold here, I’ll leave for other shores.  I’ll wage my war there, in places that aren’t quite so vast.  I’ll gather my flock.”

He sounded so eerily calm.

The voice, too was calm.  Only I heard it.

Do not tell him about the BlockLie to him where necessary.

My hand hurt as I clenched it into a fist.  The skin was new, as were some of the connective tissues that held the skin in place.

“There are no other shores,” I said.

That look in his eyes grew darker.

“Refugees, Mauer.  There were too many children and not nearly enough supply.  That was the secret, and finding the right refugees, before the Academy got to them, that was the source of the knowledge we wanted.”

Helen, beside me, was nodding slightly.  She was so sincere it helped to sell my lie.

“You are not the first, or the tenth, or the hundredth, in that billion or billions of people, to have a glimpse of victory.  The Lambs and the Beattle Rebels, our fairy tales and our soldiers, our ‘cooperating’ Nobles, aristocrats, doctors and civilians, none of us are the first to stand where we stand on this road, on the brink of victory.  In the last century, this conversation has played out before.  Not exactly the same, the players are different, but it’s happened.  Humanity has been here.”

One of his soldiers looked uneasy.  Mauer spared the young woman enough attention to deliver a sharp hand gesture, one that hinted at emotions he was trying to keep from us.

“You want this to be a victory, but it’s not.  Trying to make it so will only see them destroy all of this, in ways we can’t stop or deflect.  Anywhere else you could go, they have control, they’re as close as God-damn to seizing it, or they’ve already razed it all to the ground.  This, here, it’s the staging ground they’ve chosen for the present day.  They’ve been waging war for a long, long time, almost incessantly.”

“The plague, the black wood,” Mauer said.  He sounded further away, now.  “They’ve cultivated it?  To help the razing along?”

“They’ll let this place be buried, have Tender Mercies stalk the alien wilderness and hunt down any stragglers, and revisit it in some distant future when the plague has subsided and the black wood extinguished itself, old vegetation regrown.”

Mauer nodded.

It seemed to take him a long time to digest it.  His lieutenants and soldiers seemed far more affected by it.

I’d painted a grim picture for them, one where Mauer and the rest of us weren’t special.  Where victory was not achievable in the end.

He spoke, calmer still, “And you?”

There were so many answers to that.  So many answers that could have drawn him in.  To talk about beliefs, about the nature of the war we were fighting, about anger.  They were things I could seize on and play with and twist around with my tongue.

I waited for the voice to tell me what to do.

The voice was silent.  The non-answer stretched out, until I thought he might get angry again.

Feelings, anger, belief.  It was what drove him.  He was not rational, and he had long ago condemned himself to hurl himself into a wall until he’d dashed himself to pieces, in hopes of making some difference to it.

I could bring him on board, even subjugate him in a sense, when he had so little else.  It would be the first step, but it was not a hard course of action to draw him in.  All I had to do was extend a hand, speak his language.  Something heartfelt, basic, clear.

“We’re re-evaluating the assumptions at hand,” I said.

I let that sentence linger, I let him take it in, and turn it over in his head.

I saw it.  The anger that crept across his face, in the incremental, moment by moment changes of one line, of one angle of the corner of his lip, the movement of his eyelids.  By hair’s breadths, as if the mask was cracking.  Rainwater ran down his face.

“And we’re killing gods,” I said, because so long as I was extending him a mercy, I might as well slap his hand away to be more merciful still.   He wouldn’t thrive or even survive under our thumb, and what we were doing wouldn’t survive if he outlived us and took over.  He hadn’t quite reached out to offer his assistance, but by rejecting it, rejecting him, I could give him that push he needed to resume moving in the ways and directions he had been moving for some time.

At least for a short while longer.

“I see,” Mauer said.

I nodded.

“Nothing to lose then, is there?” he asked.

“I suppose not,” I told him.

He stood there for a few seconds, and then adjusted his coat, covering his arm.  He turned, and he walked back to the carriage.

He stopped there.  Without looking at me, he said, “You said you thought Genevieve Fray might accept your invitation and come here.”

“She somehow always manages to turn up when it matters,” I said.

“She won’t turn up.  She was going elsewhere.”

I didn’t ask.  If I’d asked, he wouldn’t give me the answer.  Because of spite, or because I’d just rebuked him and it would be his chance too rebuke me.

Mauer turned his head to look in the direction of Radham.

I’d guessed as much.

The door slammed behind him, the stitched horses grunted rather than whinny, and they turned back to the main road.  We remained where we were, largely silent, as we watched them go, picking up speed as they got to flatter ground.

I turned my back to Mauer’s wagons, and my focus on Jessie, where she’d slept through it all.

“I know,” I told her.  “I know what you’d say.”

“We couldn’t use him?” Mary asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

The Lambs were folding in together, the group focused on the group.  Lillian and Mary reunited, talking.  Helen hugging Ashton, talking to Duncan.  There was the tentative approach of Lanie and Chance, too, with Emily trailing behind.

“You look unwell, Sy,” Emily said.

“You’re the one without eyes,” I said.

She smiled softly.

“It’s cosmetic?” I asked.  “After what the Baron did to you?”

She held her smaller set of claws to her face, and pried her eyelids apart.  Within the recessed sockets, raw and bloody in appearance, there were orbs set into the back, small and beady.  She smiled a little more.  “I thought that instead of facing my fears, I’d become them.  My peripheral vision is garbage, but it came with other perks.”

“That’s amazing,” I said.

The conversations carried on.  Plans, strategy, small words of affection, teasing.  Ashton mentioning Abby.  The conversation turned to Jessie, and all three of our young aristocrats seemed genuinely upset at the sight, even as Jessie was unfamiliar to them, in large part.

“You had her here, while talking to him?” Lillian asked.

“She got us this far.  She gets to be part of the rest,” I said.

“She’s asleep, Sy,” Lillian said.  “Don’t start thinking otherwise.”

“Maybe words or sounds filter through into the dreams.”

“That’s you starting to think otherwise, Sy.  I know how you work.”

I smiled, and I was happy to stand next to Lillian, not tugging or pulling on any part of her, be it a string, tongue, or a bit of her clothing.  Having her here was good enough.  We each played only the smallest roles in the ongoing conversations and planning.

Somewhere in the midst of it, I glimpsed Mauer, standing off to one side.  His arms were spread.  He was speaking, orating, and there was no sound.

The rain pattered down around us, lightning flashed, and there was no thunder.

The voice spoke, hushed.

Listen.

With that, I ceased to hear the other Lambs, our friends and allies.

I heard the rain on the ground, running out of gutters.  I heard the city.  Minutes passed, and Lillian drew closer, asking if I was alright.  I didn’t even hear myself respond, my ears attuned to the sounds of the world around us.

When I heard it, my head turning, the others noticed, and they looked too.

A lingering orange light, a plume of smoke.  Futile, given the wall was what it was, but he hadn’t been trying to do damage so much as he’d been trying to make a statement.  A bomb, a mortar, something else.  It didn’t matter.  A detonation near the exterior walls of Radham, not far from the gate.

Our entire city shifted, packed to the gills as it was with soldiers and commanders, with suppliers and with weapons.

It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t even good in any respect.  Both Radham and our side were fully in the know, now.  It would make both sides suspicious.

But it was somehow right.

The war was on.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Enemy (Arc 19)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

He’d wanted to run the Academy for so long, now.  He’d ascended to the rank of second in command, and now he was to burn it all down.

Men, women, and children gathered around the water’s edge.  The canal served as a moat to separate Chedglow Academy from the supporting city.  Boats lined the canal, each with ramps extending down.  Teams of vat-grown labored to load luggage, crates, and cases onto the individual ships.

The people on the far shore were clearly restless.  There was an excitement that would be fitting for people at the street’s edge during a parade or mass hanging, but there were less smiles than a parade would have, and less fervor than an execution might stir up.  The sentiment was there, but they didn’t dare to reveal it to those around them.  The little he could make out of expressions -of brow and the play of light and shadow on each face- indicated solemn and blank expressions.

“Are the three widows still around?” Hector asked the room, without looking.

His assistant replied, “They are.  I believe they’re hosting guests and reassuring the, ah…”

“The populace?”

“No, Professor.  The gentler sorts among the upper class.”

The interim headmaster nodded.  The soft.  The idealists.

The doctors and students alike were packing up.  Some students had gone ahead or traveled to meet family that would give them more comfortable accommodations aboard nicer ships.  Others had already been sequestered away with special projects, to keep them out of the way until they could be informed of what was underway.

The people standing on that far shore were very much like the students who had been gathered together under the guise of learning manners and decorum.  Of the five hundred students at Chedglow, eighty-five had been from poorer families, ones without backers, patrons, or standing sufficient to earn them a way over the King’s Ocean.  Rather than catching up to their peers, as they hoped to do, they would be left behind.  There was a dim possibility that they would be killed outright, to minimize complications once all people of good standing had fled for safer territories.

The people realized something was wrong.  The key would be to reassure them, to tell them that war was underway.  There would need to be an illusion, somehow, that there was still a governing body above them, and that keen minds remained in Chedglow.  The widows would have an idea of what to say.

But things were moving neatly.

He swept his black lab coat around him as he turned his back to the window and the people he could see from it.  His assistants hurried to gather papers and notes, slotting each into folders, collecting folders into stacks, and follow behind him.  Others stayed behind, closing the office.

The libraries and records would be set to burn.  Everything worth preserving had to be preserved now.

There were guards in the hallway.  Each wore red in varying shades, and each was immaculately groomed.  For most, the skin growth had been artificially stalled.  Fuller pins with loads of succinylcholine were slotted into the edges of faces and running down their necks – small, subtle needles set in place much like pins might be used by a tailor.  Some had three radiating from the corner of their jaw, others had them as ear ornaments, and one had such a pin through the base of their noses.  They might have looked like native savages if their clothes and hair hadn’t been done up to crisp perfection.

With a single hand motion, he bid the full arrangement of Tender Mercies to follow him.

“You’ll have the run of the place in a matter of hours,” he said, to the nearest one.

“Yes, Professor Hector.”

“What are your thoughts on that, hm?  You were made for a world of desolation and plague.  That world dawns soon.”

“Not so soon, Professor.  It may be days or weeks before either black wood or plague find their way to Chedglow,” the Mercy said.

“All the same.  There’s no telling if the years and the desolation will wear on you, when the hunting is done,” Hector said.  “We’ve tried to prime you for that kind of environment and mentality, but we could hardly test it, and minds are funny things, aren’t they?”

“I feel like the world is too bright, busy, and loud now.  If the world is quiet and sick, it might be the kind of peace I’m meant to enjoy.”

There were murmurs of assent from other Mercies.

“The busyness might be that we’re trying to wrap up.  Still, I hope you’re right.  It’s certainly our intention that you’re comfortable as you lapse into your roles as custodians and hunters of our cats and cockroaches.”

“Yes, Professor.  I’m eager.  We’re still trying to figure out how we might organize ourselves.  I’m caught, myself.”

“Caught?”

“Two of my brothers are staking out the rural territories until those territories are no more.  Hunting for strays in the woods, the fields, and the mountains.  My other two siblings, my dear sister and eldest brother, they’re looking to remain here.  They want to repurpose your quarters and those of the other well-to-do.  I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all.  A strange feeling, really, but I’m strangely glad my apartments will be put to use.  How are you caught, then?”

“We all have our, ah, proclivities.”

“We tried to nurture a variety of talents, so you might cover a number of bases.”

“Exactly.  My brothers like the crossbow and impalements, respectively.  My dear sister likes pretending to be human, luring prey close, and then using great whaling hooks she hides on her person, and my brother likes large swords an ordinary human couldn’t use.  I like mechanisms, triggers.”

“Guns, then?”

“Traps, Professor.  Bear and fox traps, tripwires, small explosives, deadfalls…”

“How enterprising,” Hector said, amused.

“Yes, professor.  I’d like to think so.  But I’m still not very good, and I’m very much aware that as much as the cities suit me more and that I’m closer to my sister and elder brother, my weapon of choice would work far better in the wilderness.  I’d be a contact between city and the rural reaches, but that’s a position in high demand.”

“I trust you won’t fight among one another.”

“No, Professor.  Even when we have cause to disagree, we’re loyal in drawing the line and keeping to our purpose.”

“Good to hear,” Hector said.  “Now, I do believe I hear voices.”

 

The Mercies took that as their cue to fall back a few steps, more a following than a group that was keeping him company.  His assistants hurried forward, almost synchronized in how they each put stacks of folders under one arm and opened the way for him with their freed hands.

Aristocrat, Doctor, Specialist and Professor alike were gathered in front of the building.  He looked for and found the three widows toward the center.  They were dowagers of sixty to eighty years of age, but they had the kind of money that bought apparent youth; they looked half or less than half their age.

“We sent some students to find you in the labs, Hector,” one Doctor said.  Arthur, one of Hector’s favorites.  “We were concerned when you didn’t come.”

“I was in my office, not the labs.  Has something happened?”

“Hackthorn was sieged.  The Headmaster was there.”

“Ferres’ Academy?  When, and how?”

“The information we have is spotty.  Two birds reached Franklinton, and they dispatched copies of the messages to us.  Not all of the message reached us intact.”

“Show me.”

He was aware of the attention of everyone present as he approached the center of the throng.  At a possible time of crisis, he was the one making the final decisions.  He stood straighter, and felt his heart swell, even as all of the usual and proper emotions reached him.  The loss of their own, even a radical like Ferres, it was a tragedy.

But there was more to it.  Ferres had been throwing an event.  Her supposed immortality.

He took the messages, shook them, and held them with both hands to straighten them out as they sought to return to the form they’d been folded in.

“A late arrival saw wrecks at the water… Academy superweapons deployed and attacking Hackthorn.  A day and night passed before the message was sent, with only gunfire and explosions as signs of life from within.  More message birds to follow, but the sending requires us to abandon our observation post.”

“Flight times for the message birds suggest-”

Hector interrupted.  “Events should be a day delayed.  The third message was sent later than the first?”

“Yes, Professor.”

He read the second of the two notes.  It was a third letter, the second lost in transit, the bird scooped up by a passing hawk or its message fallen from its leg.  “All present are believed dead or captured, given the stillness and silence during the most recent hours of our observations.  The Infante has been informed, and we should leave post-haste, with an emphasis on combat readiness to deal with the culprits.  A massed attack against rebel parties.  Convene in Franklinton.”

It had been nearly three weeks.  Depending on weather and how travel had proceeded, Hector’s superior could have been under siege at Hackthorn for as much as two weeks, for as little as one.

It was firm, the wording was right, and-

He reached for his belt.  Vials were lined up in a row there.  He drew one out, uncorked it, and tipped it, to place a drop of bioluminescent trace on his fingertips.  He rubbed fingertip against thumb, then swept his fingers over the lower third of the page.

On the second swipe, he saw the dark stain start to spread.  The glow emerged shortly after.  The sender had used the coded droplet of fluids.  He wasn’t in his office with the necessary equipment to check the code against senders, which meant it wasn’t verification that the sender was who they said they were.  Still, the sender was Franklinton, so that mattered very little.  They would have done the verification that it was Ferres.

“War?” one of the widows asked.  Mrs. Rue.  Her husband had been military, once.

“Not a war.  Ferres was having an event, and it worked neatly with the schedule for leaving the Crown States.  Many were guests there.  If they attacked Hackthorn when so many of ours were gathered there, and if we haven’t heard word since, it might well have been successful.  It’s something other than war.  The rebels have been quiet, and they might have been biding their time for this particular strike.”

“What do you need?” the widow asked.

What a question.  The three widows weren’t in official positions of power.  They didn’t have their thumbs on the local government, the economy, the military forces, or anything of the sort.   But by dint of who their husbands had been, their social finesse and the passage of years, they had enmeshed themselves in everything, acting as intermediaries, the ones who knew everyone worth knowing, even outside of the city, and who somehow had half of the city’s bourgeois owing them favors, while they owed few in return.

In other circumstances, having one of them make such an open ended offer of help was the sort of thing that could have helped him a considerable ways on his dream of becoming a permanently interred headmaster, earned him a coveted bachelorette for a wife, or removed an enemy from his path.  They were limited in what they could do with the Academy, specifically, but they could help, in a way that few outside of the Academy could.  That was a powerful tool when his enemies were so often playing with the same tools he was.  A card up his sleeve that they couldn’t account for or wholly counteract.

But there was no room for selfishness here.  He spoke, “The people.  We need them not to panic.”

“We’ve already been smoothing things over.  Are you stirring the pot, Professor?  Enough of a stir that we’ll need to smooth more?”

“We’ll need to gather our forces.  It won’t be a subtle departure.  Yes, absolutely, it will be a stir.”

“There’s a man in your service named Captain Carr.  He’s well liked and trusted, and he hasn’t ever lied to the people of the town.  He and his father were from here, his father an officer before him, and the family is known to attend town halls.  They trust him.  If we could borrow him…”

“You’d have him lie?”

“He won’t be here after today, Professor,” the widow Rue said.  “What does it matter?”

“He should be keeping the peace as the ships are loaded up, at the canal’s edge.”

“He is.  With your leave, Professor?”

“Please, and thank you, Mrs. Rue.”

The woman smiled and left.

He stood a little straighter.  “Gather our forces.  We’ll bring a share of the Mercies with us.  If the trains keep running, we can send them back after.  Halve drug rations for any warbeasts we’re tranquilizing, make sure we have ammunition as well as weapons.”

He was surprising himself, with the ease that he found the words and identified the priorities, and also the ease with which others listened to them.  The entire Academy was soon moving on a new set of priorities.

Was it Mauer?  Fray?  There had been some activity from the Radham brats, and there were others popping up here and there, as refugees were driven toward population centers by plague and black wood.  Worse, civilians were starting to realize that things were reaching an untenable point.  They were starting to worry, which was bad, and they were starting to wonder, and that was the most problematic of all.

A full hour passed, his forces moving.  He oversaw what he could, addressed the issues, and stopped to watch as Captain Carr talked to the people.  Lying to them, for the first and last time.

His thoughts were constantly on the enemy.  Whoever the opposition was, it required different kinds of thinking.  Mauer was one to inflame the hearts of the people, and there were a great many people who might listen.  Fray was the type to make grand plays.  Burlap soldiers terrorized, the Lambs subverted, the Witches drew on a core of back-alley doctors and a willingness to die if it meant hurting the aristocracy.

He was midway through overseeing the removal of one set of supplies from a boat to make room for Mercies when the meal bell rang.  It was normally meant to bring in all of the students and Doctors who might be managing the shipping of experiments and Academy goods to the rest of the Crown States, but the hour was wrong.  Too early for dinner, too late for a midday meal.

He picked up the pace.

Whatever had happened to Hackthorn.  Was it happening here?

He didn’t expect the sight that greeted him at the gates of Chedglow.  Headmaster Ensbury.  His predecessor and superior.  The others stood nearby, looking uneasy.  It was a circle of the most elite of Chedglow, from the widows to the aristocracy and Hector’s- Ensbury’s top faculty members.

“Did the siege break?  You would have had to be right on the backs of those messenger birds,” Hector said.

“The siege didn’t break,” Headmaster Ensbury said.

“We sent everyone away, given Ensbury’s disposition,” the eldest of the three widows said.  “If you’d like, we can leave as well.”

“Please stay,” Hector said.  “I imagine it’s quite alright.  Headmaster Ensbury, can you explain?”

“I’ve been drugged,” Ensbury said, his voice quiet.  “Poisoned, if you want to use the crass terminology.  I’m very much compromised.  By speaking to you, I’m condemning myself, but you know I’m a patriot.”

Hector clenched his jaw.  He nodded.  He would have made Ensbury one of the enemies he had the widows help him remove, if they’d afforded him a chance, but that didn’t mean he demonized the man.  Ensbury had his merits, and patriotism was very much one of those.  He was a man of the Academy and the Crown, through and through.

“Who?” Hector asked.

“The Lambs.  Noble, Doctor, Professor, aristocrat, student.  They’ve seized us, one and all.  Now they’re using us.  Half of the cities and Academies that haven’t been claimed by the wasting of the Crown States are being targeted today, Hector.”

For all his assurance earlier, Hector found himself at a loss for words.

He found himself echoing the widow, and in the moment, he wondered if she’d experienced what he was experiencing now, only to hide it under a facade.  He asked, “What do you need?”

“Take me prisoner.  When I start to expire, I’ll start exhaling poisonous gas, and it will kill the people around me on its way to killing me, account for that when you lock me away.”

“We can take the precautions,” Hector said.

“You’ll need to act against them.  Once today is over with, the Lambs will move on targets of a secondary priority.  That will occur before the week is over.  I talked to others, while we were discussing the surrender, and they’ve agreed that they will give their lives to spread the word.  A third of the key locations being targeted today will still be the Crown’s.  We’ll fight back.”

“How?” one of the military men asked.  “This is… well beyond the pale.”

“Take me to my cell.  There’s so much to cover, and I don’t have much time.  You’ll need to arrange a bird too.  I’m to write them to let them know if I’ve succeeded.  The counter-agent will come with one of their subordinates if I do, and more of their forces will come if I’ve failed.”

“That gives us options,” Hector said.

“It does,” Ensbury said.  “I might have to defer to you on that, Headmaster.”

Hector paused.

“Too soon for that,” he said.

“Write me off, Hector.  It’ll be easier for all of us if you do.”

The eldest of the widows even looked a touch teary-eyed at that.

“No tears,” Ensbury said.  “We coordinate, understand?  We get one shot at this.  The Crown States may be in more danger than it’s ever been.”

Hector glanced away, his heart pounding.  He saw students and Doctors gathered a distance away, far enough away to be well beyond earshot, but they were lingering, trying to read the situation.  He motioned for them to go, and they started walking.

“The quarantine cells?” he asked.

“It makes the most sense,” Ensbury said.  “Did you pack up the remainder of my belongings?”

“We did.  But it should be accessible.  I had the boxes arranged so they would be the first off the boat, so you wouldn’t have to wait to furnish your new home.”

“You’re a good man, Hector.  Ambitious, but not in a way I dislike.  You’ll do me proud.”

“I’ll try,” Hector said.

“Would you have some students bring me the boxes with my drinks and my photos?  We’ll need to discuss, but I’m in possession of some fine scotches I’ve been saving for the future, and I’ll damned well indulge in them before I die.”

Hector nodded.  He looked at one of his doctors, motioning one hand.

Ensbury hadn’t made mention of the photos, but asking would be crass.

It was so easy, in the midst of the games, the struggles, the political plays, and the efforts to outdo his superior, to simply forget that Ensbury was a man.  He had a history, a family, lost loves and loves he’d found.

They started the walk toward the labs.

Ensbury asked, “Any word on the other rebels?”

Hector spoke, “Mauer was mobilizing, but not in our direction.”

“The others?  There were some calling themselves the Four Nails?”

“Gone.  Broken in two, one of the two groups became the Burlap soldiers, just in the past week.  Inconsequential in large part, but any rebel group is most dangerous when it’s newly forged, its spirit not yet broken.”

Ensbury nodded.  His expression was grave.

“This is manageable.  The Infante-”

“Isn’t coming.  The letters were faked.”

“Faked?” Hector asked.  “That’s madness.”

“It’s how they operate,” Ensbury said.  The closer they drew to the quarantine area, the darker his expression became.  “It makes no sense and appears reckless from a distance, but there’s a logic behind it we cannot grasp.  Yet.  When we know, it will be too late.  It’s how it was at Hackthorn.”

They entered the building.  The widows looked a little alarmed at how stark and heavy-handed the measures were in the building.  Vat-grown guards were posted throughout- Ensbury had never liked the stitched, and Hector himself had to admit he was glad for their absence.  The vat-grown weren’t perfect, but they at least didn’t smell like old death, preservation chemicals and ozone.

“You make it sound hopeless,” Hector said.

“It isn’t.  But we’ll have to be careful,” Ensbury said.  “Lords, I could do with that drink.  This is how my legacy ends, is it?”

“We can preserve your legacy, spread the story of what you helped us do,” one widow said.

“Hmm,” Ensbury grunted.  “Forgive me.  It rings hollow.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Was it that they wanted us to think the Infante was going to reach out and guide us as the chaos unfolded, to leave us reeling when he didn’t?” Hector asked.

“I don’t know,” Ensbury said.

The closer they’d drawn to the sealed cell, the more Ensbury had drawn into himself.  Hector had taken it to be a resignation to his fate, but-

He reached out, seizing Ensbury’s shoulder.  He spun the man around, thrusting him against the wall.

He saw the terrible sadness in his old superior’s eyes.

“No,” Hector said.  “What is this?”

“I’m so sorry,” Ensbury said.

The questions and the reactions of the others in their group were drowned out as cell doors opened down the length of the hall.

We’ve already been infiltrated.

For infiltration at this level, Ensbury would have had to cooperate.  To share the layout of the building, the security measures.  He would have had to urge the vat-grown to allow enemies through without issue.

All of this would have had to be done before the letter even arrived.

“Don’t touch those guns,” a voice said.

The owner of the voice stepped into view.  His hair and eyes were wild, in a way that reminded Hector of when he’d seen the homeless urchins who’d been up for sale on his visits to the auction blocks in New Amsterdam, Crown London, and Elbitz.  The ones who hadn’t been socialized enough by humans, or who’d been socialized once and then seen that learning stripped away by dark experience.  The lad wore fine clothes, a vest over a buttoned shirt, slacks, and boots.  He was no older than eighteen, to look at him, but his green eyes looked far older.

“I think it might be better to do as Ensbury should have done,” Hector said.  “And given my life out of patriotism.”

“Maybe if it were life that was on the table.  But it’s not, Hector,” the lad said.  “You should know as well as anyone that the Academy can inflict far worse punishments.”

“Oh lords,” one of the widows whispered.  Hector reached out to put a hand on her shoulder.

“You are not the Academy,” Hector said.

“You might be confused.  It was certainly the plan.  The letter, the crisis, all intended to get the wheels in your head spinning in one direction.  I’ll explain.  Chedglow is ours, Professor.  Like Hackthorn is.  Like Peachtree and Atlantica.  Like the city of Wetwood and the town of Tyessex.”

Hector felt his entire perception of the world shift as the names were rattled off, as if he’d missed a stair on his way down, and now teetered on a brink.  Too many.  He found his bearings at the same time he gathered his courage.  His hand went to his gun.  If he removed one of them-

Pain lanced through his hand and fingers as they tried to close on the grip of his weapon, then redoubled as whatever adder or scorpion had stung him repeated its assault.  Blood wept from his fingers as he pulled them away, trying to see what it was that had struck him.  A solid, deep impact to the back of his knee knocked his leg out from under him, and his initial effort to bend his knee and go with the impact only brought him pain.  He teetered and ended up falling sideways into one of the widows, his leg going straight to avoid repeating that pain.

A knife.  One had slashed at his fingers even though nobody stood near him.  Another had appeared in the back of one of his knees, going deep.

He cried out in pain.

“You’ve bought yourself an ugly fate, Professor Hector,” a girl said, from behind him.  “I wouldn’t try anything else, or you might buy something equally grim for these people you have with you.”

He stole glances at the widows, at the Doctors who had served him so well, the Professors who no doubt hoped they would run an Academy one day.  Ones very much like he had been not very long ago at all.

He looked at Ensbury, who stood with downcast eyes, looking like a man who’d died inside.

“Now,” the boy with the dark hair spoke.  “My name is Sylvester.  And I’m going to explain how things are going to work now…”

“…The letter?  You’re going to play along.  As far as we’re concerned, the warning is real.”

“Play along?” Sir Warthon asked.  He stood a little straighter.  “Listen here-”

“You’re going to play along, professor,” Helen said, very gently.  “Your family will be in our custody, and we’re going to take measures with you, specifically.”

Warthon scowled.

“You’ll muster an army.  You’ll gather your forces, and you’ll lead them.  You have doctors in your employ.  You’ll put them to work.  Your little fort town may end up a point other armies have to fall back to.  We’ll need to be ready for them.”

“You’re mad,” he said.

“I don’t get mad,” Helen said, smiling.

“You have to know you’re calling the King’s attention down on you.”

“If we happen to upset him, you’ll be caught in the devastation that follows,” Helen said.  “Something worse than black wood and red plague.  I really do think you should cooperate.”

Warthon clenched his fists.

“Let’s outline the particulars first, sir, and then you can decide how much you want to object, and I’ll answer your objections.”

“Not with words, I imagine,” Warthon said.

Helen tittered, her eyes alight with fey mischief.  “I do hope you object.  If you do, will it be an objection to-”

“-calling a state of emergency,” Duncan said.

“I don’t have the authority,” the debutante said.  “It’s not my city, it’s my father’s, and he’s away.”

“You can call the state of emergency.  You saw what unfolded when the local government reacted to the letters.  Without your father here, with communication between cities being so spotty, they’re adrift in a storm.  You’ll take authority.”

“We’ll help you,” Ashton said.  He sat beside the young lady.  She wore an ankle-length dress, who had a wisp-light scarf around her neck, while her hair was so short and so oiled down it looked sculpted to her head.  As casual as the scene and her posture might have been, something in her eyes betrayed a trace of the alarm she should have been feeling in the moment.  Ashton added, “We’ll tell you what to do.”

She nodded, even as the vague impression of alarm grew more poignant.  Slowly, it eased away, but then the alarm became apparent in how her hands moved.  Ashton reached up and took one of her hands, holding it.

“You’ll coordinate with the others.  Your father’s company supplies raw chemicals to Academies.  You’ll propose joining the effort at Franklinton.

“You’ll want to do that,” Ashton said.

“We’re not soldiers.”

“But you can supply a war effort.  There’ll be debate and discussion on what to do.  When and if you have a voice, you’re going to spread information for us.”

“Information?”

“Just one clue,” Ashton said.  He stroked her hand.  “You’ll give them one clue, won’t that be easy?”

She nodded, numb.  Her feelings were all over the place, she’d never experienced a crisis like this before, and she couldn’t gather her thoughts enough to know how she should act.  It was always her father who’d made the hard decisions.

It was so much easier to sit, to listen, and hear Ashton’s soft, pleasant voice telling her what to do.  It made the anxieties slip away, gave her assurance.

“One clue,” she said.

“It will have to do with the movements of rebels, and the odd patterns of birds,” Duncan said.  “That will-”

“-be your cue,” Lillian said.

Emily and the two aristocrats Lainie and Chance were Lillian’s support as she faced the rest of the room.  She had lieutenants, but it was so hard to shake the notion that the rebel soldiers were Sy’s.  Something being Sy’s was always a cause for a sort of anxiety.  Emmett was with her too, but Emmett had his hands full with Gustav, a local aristocrat who’d augmented himself.

Her soldiers encircled her, standing on the ground while she stood on a table.  Their guns were raised, while the ten guests at the evening dinner were sitting stock still, frightened for their lives.  Plates still steamed in front of them.  The dishes had been lightly poisoned, enough to take the fight out of them.

Lillian found some comfort in that touchstone, that it reminded her of meeting Mary, of the bad seeds poisoning the cafeteria.  There was too much to do, so she hadn’t had any Lambs come with her.  Ashton had needed a babysitter and was most familiar with Duncan.  Sylvester had needed someone to watch him and Mary was most able.  Helen was content to operate alone.

It was nice that Mary was with her on some level, even if it was a reminder of a poisoning half a decade ago.

“You’ll provide the second clue, and others will connect the dots.  The movements of rebels tie to a series of events in nearby towns.  You’ll name the Lambs, and you’ll name the towns, and I’ll provide the particular details shortly, but the key element is that Radham comes up,” she said.

“Radham?”

“Radham,” Davis said.  “And all you have to do, Professor, is speak out on just how much trouble has come out of Radham.  The Lambs, Mauer, and Fray.  You’ll be sure to mention that last name.”

“Fray?” the Professor asked.  He eyed the young rebels who stood in his bedroom.

“You just mention that name,” the Treasurer said.

“I don’t suppose I have much of a choice, do I?” the Professor asked.

“If you think you have any choice at all,” Bea said.  “You’re gravely mistaken.”

Red paced at the back of the room, watching, her trusty hatchet in hand.  She gave it a lazy swing through the air, as if to demonstrate what the Professor might be in for.

Sylvester closed his eyes.  The wind was strong, and it seemed like no matter where he went, the air smelled like charcoal ash or death.  Plague and blight.

Pierre approached him, coming to stand beside him.

“All good?”

“Define ‘good’,” Pierre said.

“The others are alright, I hope?”

“Messages from the others indicate they’re on track.  Duncan’s group was slowed by an incidence of plague in their ranks.”

“You don’t seem alarmed in a way that suggests they’re dead and gone.”

“They say they’ll heal, but it will mean recovery time, and it will slow them down.”

“We’ll make do, I suppose,” Sylvester said.

“And the ones who didn’t want to participate in the battle are on their way to Sternwick.”

“Sternwick?”

“We’ve talked about this.  West Corinth had to evacuate.  The orphanage has expanded beyond its considerable frame, we control a share of that city, with accommodations for everyone that’s presently headed there.  They should be reasonably safe and out of the way there.”

Sylvester nodded, taking that in.  He vaguely recalled something along those lines.

“Our contacts are saying there’s a hint of movement from others,” Pierre said.

“A hint, you say?” Sylvester asked.  “It wouldn’t be Mauer.  Fray?”

“Genevieve Fray’s colleague Warren Howell and her stitched Wendy were spotted in the company of a creature that matches Dog’s description.”

Sylvester smiled.  “Too big to stick to the shadows very well, it seems.  She had to have caught wind of what we’re doing.  She’ll know her name came up.”

“The reports came late.  Communication is hard, when even the phones and wires are affected by the black wood, and the waypoints beset by plague.  But, difficulties aside, the forces you’ve recruited are making their way here.  All seems to be reasonably on track.”

Here.

Sylvester stood on the balcony.  The sun was setting, and the sky was on fire.  Franklinton carried on its business, unawares of the role it would soon play as a staging ground.  On the horizon, a city sprawled.  Plumes of smoke rose from buildings and cast out a gentle spiral of clouds that each rained endlessly on the city below.

“Good news, then, Duncan’s group excepted.”

“Not all so good.  The upper nobility might have a sense of what’s going on.”

Sylvester nodded slowly.  “Did the Infante leave?”

“We don’t know.”

“Communications, again?” Sylvester asked.

“It seems so.”

“Well, that might be more problematic.  Thank you for all of this, Pierre.”

“You’re welcome, Sylvester.  I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So do I.  So do I,” Sylvester said.  He didn’t admit to such doubts with many people.

He leaned against the railing.  He watched the city, as people started to retire for the night, packing up shops, loading up carts and carriages, and taking to the streets.  A group of children ran along the street with an Academy-created doll, flesh bound in a case like porcelain and fancy clothing.  It had an ungainly, floppy run that made it look as if it might collapse and smash itself to pieces at any step.  The girls took hold of its arms to support it and bring it along.

He looked away from that and looked at the sky.  It was turning from orange to red.

“Jessie,” Sylvester said.

He heard footsteps behind him.

“What do you think?” he asked.

Pierre gave him a sidelong glance.  He ignored it.

He ignored the three young women who were in the room that backed the balcony.  Shirley sat with Mary and Helen.

His focus was on Lillian’s muscle-suit, which empowered a stitched with the frame to comfortably and perpetually carry a reclining young lady.  Jessie was propped up, half-sitting, while the ten foot tall figure held her in its arms.

“Look, see?  Radham,” Sylvester said, his voice soft.

Pierre retreated.

He brushed his fingers through her hair, watching her more than he watched anything else.

She slept on.  An endless dream, sorting through memories.

He hoped he’d given her enough good ones.

“We’re back,” he said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.15

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Multiple guns cocked, the sound stirring me out of the deep well of darkness and poisonous thoughts.

You’re going to need to open your eyes now, the voice said.  It wasn’t the Infante’s voice anymore.

I kept my eyes closed.

“Please put the guns down,” I heard Lillian.  Then, more insistently, “Please.”

“You shouldn’t go near him, Doctor.  Not when he’s like this.”

“It’s okay,” Lillian said.  I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or the others.  “It’s okay.”

I waited, tense.  I felt like I needed to vomit, and the smell of blood was rich in the air.

“Can you look up at me?  Is this Sy I’m looking at right now?”

I nodded, then realized I’d meant to answer the second question.  Maybe the fact that I hadn’t looked up at her made it the right answer by process of elimination.

It didn’t make much sense, but very little made sense anyway.

“Open your eyes, Sy.  Look at me,” she said.

I didn’t want to.

Open your eyes, the voice said.

I opened my eyes.  Twelve students with guns were gathered in the sitting room.  Fray stood in the background, her arms around Ashton.  Gordon was close by, half-turned away, with Hubris next to him.  Jamie was there too, in a chair by a bookshelf, his arms around a book so large it hid him from belly to the tip of his nose.

He was so small.  He was so thoughtful, so funny when he stepped out of his usual space, and that was something mostly reserved for me.

I knew part of the reason he hid was that I couldn’t remember him, and there wouldn’t be anything to see if the book was moved.  It was the same for Gordon.  They were too far behind us.  Too many months and years separated him and where he was from where we were now.

Lillian was just a few feet away from me.  I was avoiding looking at her, postponing reality.

Look at her, the voice instructed.

I looked at her, then looked away just as fast.

“What happened?” Lillian asked.  Her voice caught midway between ‘happened’.

Answer her.

“Jessie-” I started.  My voice caught.  I raised my hand to my throat, saw it drenched in blood, and dropped it away and out of sight, as surely as if I’d just raised a blazing torch to my face.

“Sy,” she said, and it sounded like she might burst into tears, just by the way she’d said it.  “You said that if you were with one of us that you’d be okay.”

“Jessie fell asleep,” I said.  My voice was hollow.  “Then I wasn’t with any of the Lambs.”

Lillian looked so damn sad, as she took that in.  I couldn’t meet her eyes.  I didn’t want to look at any of the rebel soldiers with guns, either.  My eyes kept moving from face to face in the crowd of figures that occupied the sitting room.  The Snake Charmer and Percy were watching intently.

I was cold.  It was summer and I was cold.  I wasn’t wearing a shirt, I realized.  I glanced around to see if I couldn’t spot it.  I saw Jessie lying very still in the armchair.  I saw streaks of blood on her and the chair and averted my gaze.

“Sy,” Lillian said, her voice very quiet.

I could tell from her tone.  Whatever she was going to say, it was going to be a hard one.  The silence had a heaviness to it.

“Should I give the order for them to shoot you?”

Alright then.  Not the hardest question she could have asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe.”

“Did-” she started.  She stopped, clenching her jaw very intensely for a second, almost as if she was trying not to vomit.  She turned her head and used the heel of her hand to wipe at one eye.

“I don’t know,” I answered her, pre-emptively.

“You don’t know if you killed Jessie?”

I opened my mouth and closed it.

That would be one of the hard ones.

“Was it- maybe it wasn’t you?” she asked, as if begging an answer.  “Can we at least say that you weren’t yourself, that it was a quirk in your head, another personality?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, and I hated myself for not telling her what she wanted to hear.  At least I’d given her an answer that wasn’t ‘I don’t know’.  “I don’t think that distinction really exists.”

Soldiers with guns shifted their feet uncomfortably.  They weren’t pointing the guns directly at me, but they were close.  When I met the eyes of one fellow, he looked away.

When I let my eye roam, trying to go anywhere that wasn’t where I was standing, just a few feet from Jessie, I saw just how many Nobles were present in the room.  They moved, pacing, and as they did so, the others moved out of their way.  In this place, in this visual representation of where my thoughts dwelt, the Nobles held sway.

Lillian blinked hard, then blinked a few times in quick succession.  She looked skyward, and the tears started.

I wanted to tell her not to do that, but how could I?

“For all that you guys tried to teach me a good poker face, huh?” she asked, her voice too high, as if it was on a precipice.

“Yeah,” I managed.

“What I keep going back to is-” she stopped abruptly, blinking more.  “I know it’s stupid, but it’s just about the only thing I can cling to right now.  The Lambs accept each other’s foibles, big and small.  There’s a part of me that wants to do that.  Sylvester is what he is.  From the earliest days, when you convinced me that certain rude words were normal conversation among adults and I used them in class, or when you put that egg in my mouth while I was sleeping, or when you looked up my skirt or relentlessly made fun of me, well beyond the point it was funny and when it made me want to quit… not just the Lambs but the Academy altogether, give up on my dream because you were that vicious?”

“Lillian,” I  said.  I didn’t really have a follow up.

“You were a horrible little shit sometimes, Sy.  And this- this is… whatever this is, seeing you like this, deranged at one moment and lost the next, covered in blood?  It’s-”

She stopped.

“Bad,” I said, swallowing.

“But I knew that Wyvern hurt you.  I knew you came from a bad place if you’d go from that to the Academy labs.  I knew- not at the very beginning, but I figured it out quick, that Wyvern was going to do your head in.”

I nodded.

“So what I’m clinging to is this silly, little-girl idea that this is normal.  Of motherfucking course you’re standing there like that and I’m standing here with a bunch of soldiers with guns.  Of course when the others leave you alone to talk to Mauer and to get me, we all come to reunite with you and find you’re lost to the world, so nonfunctional your organs are suffering for it, and you’ve turned an entire Academy upside-down.  Of course, Doctor Lillian.  Business as usual.

Her voice was getting even higher at the end there.

“And that part of me really doesn’t want to blame you.  It was what was done to you.  It really, really, really-”  She stopped there, raising her hands up, as if to put a wall between us, or to ward me off from speaking, and pushing her in any way.

I was silent.

“-really,” she continued, once she had her composure.  “I want to be able to tell myself that I’m a proper Lamb, and I can forgive the experiment parts of you, because that’s how we operate.”

“It doesn’t make you any less of a Lamb if you aren’t okay with this,” I said.

“Don’t tell me that,” she said.  “Because it’s all I have, Sy.  Jessie is- was- Jessie’s one of my favorite people I never got to know enough.  It sounds so dumb, but I was really looking forward to reading books with her.”

“She said she was losing her memories,” I said.  “A lot of them.”

“She told me.  We didn’t want to tell you because you were fragile,” Lillian said.

I clenched my fists.  My hand hurt, a lot.

I wasn’t clenching them because I was angry or anything like it.  I needed to remind myself I was present.

“That makes some sense, then,” she said.  “It makes this scene make more sense.  Thank you.”

I couldn’t bring myself to respond.

“Can I check on her?” Lillian asked.  “Or should I wait?  The others were signaled.  They’ll be on their way.”

“You can check on her,” I said.

“No abrupt movements, Sy.  And don’t go anywhere, okay?  Let’s be mindful of the soldiers you recruited who have guns.  Let’s respect their feelings on this too.”

“Don’t go anywhere?  I-”

I turned to check.

The shackle on my arm was gone.  The hand at the end of that arm-

Skin had torn wholesale.  From the midpoint on the back of my hand and palm to the second knuckle, I’d managed to strip off the flesh, so it bundled around the ends of my finger.  It was still bleeding profusely, enough that I’d not been able to see where the torn skin had gathered in the initial glance.

“Get me my medical kit,” Lillian said.  “Hurry!”

I could look more freely without having to look at Jessie, because Lillian’s body blocked my view.  I looked to the ground.

The chain that led to my ankle was bundled up.  My shirt was bound around it, with the leg of a tea table thrust through the cloth.  It was soaked with blood and something else, and it had been twisted up and around several times.

It was a trick that served to bend steel bars and, in the right circumstances, to apply force to something like a human head or chain, when cloth would otherwise tear and wood wouldn’t have the leverage.  Twist up the cloth, soak it, bind it around, and then use the stick to twist it up further, until the cloth crushed that which was between it.  Bars would bend to be closer to one another, a skull would crack, and chain links could theoretically bend or break.

The chain that was attached to my ankle was in bad enough shape that I could have broken it.  I could break it even now, with enough of a kick of my leg.

I’d almost been free, before they’d come in with the guns, before Lillian had arrived.

I’d almost… what?

A soldier had brought Lillian’s bag.  She was digging through it.

That she was doing something, doing anything at all, it should have filled me with hope.  It didn’t.

I couldn’t communicate it to Lillian.  I couldn’t articulate that, and if I could’ve, I wouldn’t have wanted to say it and make Lillian’s heart hurt the way mine did.

“Lillian.”

It was Mary.

Lillian stopped what she was doing.  Simply the arrival of Mary was enough to draw out more tears on her part.  Mary flew to her side.

“I can’t stay for long,” Mary said.

“I can’t make the call myself, Mary,” Lillian whispered.

Mary looked my way.

“Jessie’s alive?” Mary asked.

I saw Lillian nod.

“Then why?” Mary asked.  One of her arms encircled Lillian, hugging her.

“Because Sylvester was talking before… before he came to.  Because-”

“I could have,” I said.  “I would have, if…”

I trailed off.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “That.”

For all of her hardness before, Mary’s look now was pure sympathy.

I’d seen that eerie sympathy when she’d stroked my hair, before.  The tenderness that Mary didn’t offer up very often at all.  It was what Lillian had been talking about.  She was able to accept and look past the parts of me that were experiment, and be kind to the other side, and it was so clear a divide in her that it had seemed entirely out of place.

“I need to go.  I can’t leave the others, but someone had to come, and I thought that if it really was an emergency, I’d have to be the one to fight off whoever or whatever it was.  But it’s a thing there too.  We got intercepted on our way here.”

“Take me with you,” I said.

I saw the looks on both of their faces.

“Take me with you,” I said, again.  “Whatever say I have, whatever weight my word still carries, whatever favors I can still rightfully call in, you need to take me there.  It’s important.”

“Why?” Mary asked.

“Because.  Because I can’t do anything else.  I can’t stay here and look at this and I can’t be there if and when Jessie wakes up.  I need to keep moving.  If I stop moving forward I won’t be able to start again.  This, this whole plan, it’s me, and I need to see it through.”

“It might be better,” Lillian said.

“Do we have shackles?” Mary asked.  “Cuffs, anyone?”

“Not here, but I can go,” one soldier said.

“No time,” I said.  “If something untoward happens, Mary can kill me.  She wins in a fight.”

“I’m not worried about a fight,” Mary said.  “I’m worried about circumstances where I don’t even get a chance to fight back.  You tend to create those.”

“I think-” I said.

Tell her you’ll be good, the voice said.  Convince her.

“I think I’ll be okay.  I think I know where all of this is going.  The rules this operates by.  I’m okay if I have Lambs close.  It didn’t work here because Jessie wasn’t there with me.  I can do this.  And it doesn’t make it easier or right, but I can’t spend the rest of the time I’ve got hobbled.  I need to act decisively, while I’ve got a chance.”

Mary glanced at Lillian.

“Do it,” Lillian said.

“You think?” Mary asked.

“If we don’t have Sylvester and we don’t have Jessie, then we might not be able to see this through,” Lillian said.  Her voice was pitched to a volume meant for Mary and I alone, or just for Mary, with me overhearing by accident.  “And if we can’t trust Sylvester, if he’s this far gone in the here and now, then we definitely can’t see it through.”

Mary stood.  Wavy brown hair, ribbons, and a dress with tasteful amounts of lace all remained aloft for a fraction longer than it took her to move.  Many of those same things settled with a weight that only a trained eye might have caught.

“Are your pockets empty?” Mary asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

She stood, approaching me.  With deft movements of her hands, she frisked me.

“You’ll need a shirt,” she said.  She turned to one of the rebel soldiers nearby.  “You.  Give us your shirt.”

The hesitation was clear.

Now.  Everything we’ve been doing for the last few weeks and months hinges on this.”

He pulled off his shirt.  It was a button-up shirt, and he had an undershirt on underneath, even though it was summer.

She handed it to me, and then bent down to address the chain at my ankle.  I started pulling on the shirt, working gingerly with my damaged hand.

The moment my shackle was off, she gripped the upper arm I’d already set into the sleeve, and steered me in a hurried march, out of the room and toward the exit that would lead onto the walltop.

I did what I could to get buttoned up.  I might’ve been taking too long, because with scarcely a glance, Mary reached over with one hand and began doing up others.

“Jessie’s gone, or she’s going,” I said, quiet.

“I know.”

“Helen’s…”

“Yes.  I have my difficulties, but it’s a few months to a year off.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I just wanted to know where we stood.”

She tore at some of the lace that encircled her waist.  Seizing my wrist, she began moving the loose skin back into place.  Her grip was stern as I reflexively jerked and pulled.

The Baron stood in the stairwell, watching us as we made our way down to the door.

“I’d normally use Wyvern to convince my body to stay still,” I said.  “I think it has its hands full.”

“I know,” Mary said.  “It’s fine.”

There were guards at the door.  They gave us some wary looks, but at Mary’s gesture, they unblocked the door and hauled it open.

“Keep your hands in your pockets unless you absolutely have to move them, and if you do, try to signal me and keep them in view,” Mary said.  “The pressure from the edge of the pocket will help, but you need more attention to that hand than I can give you here.”

“It’s fine,” I said.

It took some doing to get my damaged hand wedged into a pocket.  I worried the blood would seep out and run down my pant leg, but it was dark, still.

The others had gathered at one end of the bridge.  Some of our lieutenants were with them.  Davis, Mabel, Junior.

Of the assembled group on the other side, just a few paces from the Lambs, I could recognize Professor Ibbot, Professor Gossamer, the noble Lady Gloria, and the aristocrat, Mrs. Deb?  Darby.  Mrs. Darby.  I couldn’t remember the name of the well-spoken man who’d been at the same meeting Mrs. Darby had.  There were another six who hung back a bit, less familiar to and with us.

“Everything okay?” Duncan asked.

“We’ll manage,” Mary said.  “I don’t think we need to do further introductions, do we?  You’re all aware of who Sylvester Lambsbridge is.  I’m Mary Cobourn the Second.”

“Is that an attempt at humor?” Ibbot asked.

“I hope it is,” Helen said.  “With the state of things, we need more reasons to laugh.  You’ve done a poor enough job that a great many people have reason to cry.”

“Watch your tone, Helen,” Ibbot said.  “A proper lady should be deferential.”

Helen laughed at that.  Outright disrespect.  I could see how it prickled Ibbot.

It prickled me too, in a different way.  I heard the laugh and I knew that Helen was far from being in a good place, too.  Having Ibbot near just brought it into focus.  A stressor of its own right.

“We saw the flashes of light,” Mrs. Darby said.  “Your pattern to date suggests that you often flicker the lights on and off to communicate just before you attack.  We thought we would get ahead of that and open dialogue.”

They will submit, the voice said.

“Kneel,” I said.

I saw the shock hit them.

“That’s not-”

Kneel,” I said, louder, firmer.  I let some of the emotion and raw energy from earlier into my voice, the anger at everything and at myself.  I turned it against the people who were supposed to be responsible for everything.  Who were symbolically responsible for me being what I was.

“We should go,” Professor Gossamer said.

“If you leave,” I said, “We will blow up that bridge with you on it.”

I could see the alarm on Duncan’s face.  Ashton frowned slightly.

Mary, at least, seemed to be neutral to this, or she was sufficiently good at appearing neutral.

Helen looked intrigued, for her part, but Helen was a difficult read in the here and now.

“You’d lose any and all chance you had of getting the others to listen or cooperate,” Professor Gossamer said.

“Probably.  I’d give them their chance to kneel, and if they didn’t listen, I’d wipe them out too,” I said.  I was very aware of how many nobles were arranged around us.  Mine, not theirs.  “Your time is up, the sands have all found their way to the bottom of this hourglass.  The point’s been made.  You know and we know how this ends.  No more pretending, no more niceties.”

“Niceties are important,” Lady Gloria said.  “You can achieve our cooperation without humiliating us.  Trying to humiliate us will only make us balk.  We may well die before we kneel to someone who isn’t our Lord King.”

“Then you might as well die,” I said.  “Because if you want to see this as humiliation, you’d face a lot more of it.  We had our turn as the bottom rung, doing the Academy’s bidding.  Now it’s the same, but the positions reversed.  You’ll be our slaves in all but name.  You will bow, you’ll scrape, and you’ll choose the right words.  How fast you bow and scrape will determine if we treat you with something resembling kindness, as we’ve treated the experiments we took into the dormitory over there, or if we treat you as things to be used and discarded.”

“That’s it, then?” Mrs. Darby asked.  “I’ve already given you my personal concession, I’ve told the others I’m already willing to surrender.  I don’t know how much my circumstances will change, and I’m scared at the ideas of what might happen, but you’ll hold us hostage here?  You’re making me reconsider my decision.”

“You can kneel, knowing just how many of them are watching this through the window, you can come with us, you can try to walk away, and we’ll take the bridge out from under your feet, or you can be taken prisoner.  You don’t want to be taken prisoner.”

“We’d be agreeing to be prisoners in the long term,” Lady Gloria said.  “I know where I stand in relation to you.  I know it’s not as wide a gap as some would like to pretend.”

I shook my head, slow.

“Yet I must insist that you could make this easier,” she said.

“That decision is entirely in your hands,” I said.  “It rests on how quickly you admit your decision in totality.”

Her face was hard as she stared me down.  I didn’t flinch.

Time was not a currency I was willing to spend any more of.  No.  We held power, and I had every intention of using that power to hoard that very currency.  I would give everything for more of it.  I would tread over any number of corpses until I could get more of it.  I would take it by any means.

Mrs. Darby shifted her footing.  Multiple eyes turned to her as she reached out for the railing to the bridge she stood on, and started to work her way to her knees.

Ibbot seized her arm, stopping her.

Her eyes on the ground, Mrs. Darby said, “I would have it be known I’m bending the knee, or I would if I wasn’t being manhandled by a notorious boor.”

“He’s pressing the issue because he’s in crisis,” Ibbot said.  “The Lambs have expiration dates.  Someone’s run short.  Jamie, was it?  Or have Lillian’s dalliances in study drugs caught up with her?”

“You don’t know anything,” Mary said.

“No,” I said.  “He’s right.  It’s a big part of why time’s up.  There’s so very little left to lose, now.  You can be sure I’m putting a high price on that little.  You do not want to pay for it in blood.  You do not want to see me get creative.”

“As you did with Ferres?” Professor Gossamer asked.

“Compared to where I am now, I was in a good mood when I addressed Ferres,” I said.  “And I didnt have the benefit of the other Lambs to focus me.  I can promise you, they’ll all have something to contribute, if it comes down to it.”

Mrs. Darby yanked her arm from Ibbot’s grip.  She dropped to her knee, head low.

“Thank you, Mrs. Darby,” Duncan said.

“I’m a pragmatist.  I’m going to believe my being first to bend the knee counts for something.  Please don’t dissuade me from that belief.”

“It does count for something,” Duncan said.  He glanced at me, and I nodded.

Others started to kneel.  Low-level aristocrats that had attended that trailed the group.

They were most used to bending the knee, perhaps.  They had the least to lose.

“I’d like assurances of food, proper accommodations,” Gloria said.

“This isn’t a negotiation, Gloria,” I said.  “That boat sailed so long ago it’s already reached the other side of the King’s Ocean.  When you bend the knee, it’s an acknowledgement that you are wholly and totally at our mercy.  You are wholly and collectively fucked.  You’ve wholly and collectively fucked the population, the landscape, the governing, the economy, the past, present, and future, and the time has come for it all to catch up with you.  If servitude is all you face, then that is a ludicrous kindness.”

“I’m not even ‘Lady Gloria’ anymore, then.  Two of my three Professors are sick with dehydration and hunger.  Their care of me has floundered,” she said.  “Being atop that building over there for a day and night hasn’t helped matters.”

“That was the intent,” Mary said.  “We might not be able to defeat Nobles, but we can drive home just how dependent you are on them.

“One among many of a series of realities I’ve suspected but never had to face,” Gloria said.  She paused, and then swept into a curtsy that became a kneeling position.  I wondered if it was a motion practiced and reserved solely for the likes of the King or perhaps the Infante.

With her submission, others followed suit.  Professor Gossamer, Doctors, and some holdouts among aristocrats.

Ibbot was a holdout.

“I will not bow to a life I brought into this world.”

Helen picked her way through the assembled group.  She found her way to him.

He held himself high, chin raised, refusing to even back away.

She reached over to brush a hand down one side of his face.  She was taller than him, helped mostly by the fact that he wasn’t tall for a man.  It had been some time since I’d seen them together, and somehow I was left with the impression she hadn’t stood nearly so tall in past cases.  Diminished by association with him.

“Miserable, miserable man,” she said.  “I’d pity you, but it’s not something I’m very good at doing.  I’d hate you, but I can’t, as much as you deserve it.”

“This is where you break me, then?” he asked.

“If I took hold of you to break you, I’d kill you,” she said.  “A bit of a snag in the way you put me together.”

“You’re that far gone, then,” he said.

“I’m that far gone,” she said.  She stepped closer to him.  Her hand ran along the top of his head, to the back of his neck.  “I have to wonder.  You made me, clearly with intentions that everyone suspected and nobody of note spoke aloud.  You didn’t care that they laughed at you behind your back.”

“They respect me,” Ibbot said.  “And I won’t betray that respect by kneeling here.  I’d sooner have my own experiment crush me.  There’s something to be said for closing that circle.”

“They respect your work,” she said.  She moved closer to him.  Her hand traced up his body.  When she spoke, it was into his ear.  “They have zero respect for you.  Everybody weighs the odds, is he so maladept and socially incompetent that he doesn’t realize what it looks like?  Or is he one of the disgusting sorts that seizes the reins of life itself, forging thinking, breathing existence from next to nothing, only so he can stick his cock in it?”

She breathed those last words.

“Have the Lambs warped you so much, that you’re this ruined?” he asked.

“Have they indeed?” Helen asked.  She giggled.  “No, Professor.  Without them, there wouldn’t be anything of worth in me.”

She seized his ear, twisting it.  His knees buckled, and he gripped the railing of the bridge to keep from falling to the ground, from kneeling even accidentally.

But that wasn’t her intent.  She twisted his head by twisting his ear, and she made him turn a quarter-circle.

“Show them, Professor.  Show them the sum total of what you are.”

He scowled, struggling more.  But he knew as well as anyone, very literally, just how futile that really was.

“How did Jessie put it, Sylvester?  We talked about it when discussing my brother.”

I winced at the mention of Jessie.  I felt a pang.

Still, my eye dropped to the lower half of Ibbot.

“The sleeping dragon,” I said.  “Except we’re not talking sleeping dragons in this case.”

Ibbot’s face was visibly red, even in the gloom.  With the angle of his body in regard to the main building, all of the faces in the window could no doubt see, as they watched Noble, Doctor, Professor and aristocrat kneel, while Ibbot… stood up.

“So easy,” Helen said.  “So easy to show them how small a man you really are.”

“Not that small,” Ashton said.

“Shhh,” Duncan said.  “Metaphor.”

“Oh.”

Ibbot picked up his struggle.  In the midst of it, I couldn’t tell if it was because he was struggling so hard or if it was Helen’s strength, but he pulled away from his creation, and he left his ear behind, firmly in her grip.  He snarled and gasped as he dropped to the ground.

He was on all fours, but he was on his knees too.

“Don’t kid yourself, Professor,” I said.  “Nobody thought you were the last holdout, nobody believed you were the strongest here.”

“They’d be embarrassed to think you were,” Mary said.

“Go back.  Talk to the others.  Make the stakes clear.  We’ll be approaching you with your assignments shortly.  Trust me when I say that you really, really want to have everyone on the same page by the time we get to you, and I’m talking an hour or two at most, understand?”

“There’ll be holdouts,” Gloria said.

“Address them,” I said, my voice hard.  “Consider that your first collective assignment.  Go.”

They rose to their feet.  I could see the unhappy looks on many faces, at taking these orders, at this circumstance.  They walked back over the bridge.

They’d tell themselves that it was only a matter of time, that the Infante would find out or they’d have a chance to get a message out.  That we were expiring.  There would be heated debate, but they’d concede.  They were too hungry and tired to do otherwise.

As the group departed, they left Ibbot behind.  Only a few disgusted looks were cast back his way.  He still huddled on the ground, head buried in arms, back arched, knees tucked under him, like a turtle drawn into his shell.  One of his hands struggled to stem the tide of blood from his ear.

My hand hurt in much the same measure.  The limited bandage wouldn’t be enough.

I wished my hand wasn’t as hurt as it was.  It would have been nice to have an excuse to postpone things.

“Come along, Professor,” Duncan said.  “You might as well come with us, as you’re not going back to them.”

“Pheromones,” Ibbot said.  “She was near the boy.  She drew them into her lungs, she breathed them on me.”

“You took drugs to ward off Ashton,” Duncan said.  “But if that’s the story you want to tell us, you can do that.  If you really believe it’s true, you can go back to them and tell them.  They’ll take any excuse to believe it, I think.”

Mary gestured at me.  Her eye dropped to my hand.

“Or you can stay here and bleed,” I said.  “Lambs, lieutenants, we’re going back.”

We started walking.  Behind us, without looking at anyone, and without even an armed escort, Ibbot picked himself up.  He trudged behind, head hanging.

“How bad was it?” I heard Duncan ask Mary.  “When you went to check on Sy, Jessie, and Lillian?”

“Far from good.  As to how bad, we’re going to have to see.”

A weight seemed to settle over the Lambs as we made our way back.

Lillian sat on one arm of the chair.  Jessie sat in the chair, bundled up in a blanket.  Much of the blood had been cleaned up.  Jessie was awake.

She smiled when she saw me.

I approached her, and I kissed her on the forehead.

“I appreciate you not killing me,” she said.

That doesn’t make this easier, I thought.

“You’ll want to look at Sy’s hand, Lillian,” Mary said.

“How are things?” Jessie asked.  “Is it resolved?”

“Something essential just broke in them.  The underpinnings that let them hold onto their pride.  The rest will crumble,” I said.

“Then there’s a chance I’ll get to see the conclusion,” Jessie said.  “Or the start of it.”

“No,” I said.

Lillian, already taking my hand to examine it and peel away bandage, stopped, tense.

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “This is not the time for you to get nutty on us.”

“We should put you to sleep, Jessie.”

She swallowed.  I saw a look of fear sweep over her expression before she pushed it away.  She reached up for my hand and took it.  “No, Sy.”

“We have a wealth of resources at our disposal,” I said.  “We’ll soon make our play to have the Crown States under our thumb.  But with the people we’ve brought here, we can start on the first leg of it.  Ibbot will work on Helen again, but as an exclusive project, with a dozen keen eyes and minds looking over his every last piece of work, to look for traps.   He will keep Helen from expiring, on pain of death.”

Eyes moved to Ibbot, who hung back at the rear of the group.  He scowled, but he didn’t have it in him to reply.

A good thing too, or I might’ve hurt him.

“We have Professors and Doctors to take over Mary’s project.  Minds that would have otherwise been turned to prolonging life are going to turn to prolonging yours, improving your quality of life.”

“Sy, we talked about this, but it wasn’t a primary focus-”

“It’s absolutely my primary focus now,” I said, tense.  “I will not, under any circumstance, see another Lamb die.  I will not lose another one of you.  The rule of longevity isn’t that you have to unlock a hundred extra years of life.  You unlock five, or ten, or twenty, and that buys you time to find another five, ten, or twenty.  They will find answers.”

“They’ll find some, but they’ll have failures.  There will be five or twenty year droughts,” Duncan said.  “Droughts that are long enough.”

“Then we put more on it,” I said.  “But I’m not taking no for an answer here.  Every single one of us, even the New Lambs, are getting focused, expert attention.  Entire Academies worth of people, if need be.  We’ll take control, we’ll have the power, and we’ll do all the things we said we would, we’ll-”

No, the voice said.

I changed the conclusion of my statement, “We’ll do this first.  Everything else follows from it.”

“This is the forward movement you were talking about?” Lillian asked.

“Absolutely.”

“So long as we do this, you think you’ll be able to cooperate and stay on track?”

You will not tell her about the compromise.

“As long as this is the route?  I’ll see things, I’ll have odd moments, but… I’ll manage.”

“And what if I don’t agree?” Jessie asked.

I met her eyes.

I was pretty sure I’d never seen her angrier.

“Tough.”

“It’s my choice,” she said.  “And I decided a long time ago that if we’re going to lose our minds, if we’re going to slip away, then it’d be on our terms.  I’d do it with you, I’d enjoy the moments, I’d make the most of the time we had, and we’d accomplish what we could before passing the reins for others or the others to see it through to the conclusion.  We agreed.  That was the deal we had.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You asshole,” she said, “You don’t get to change the terms of the deal.”

“Jessie does get a say,” Duncan said.

“I get the say!  It’s my brain!” Jessie said.  “And it’s crumbling and I can tell I’m losing memories by the hour, and it’s picking up speed, but I have a few days, maybe a couple of weeks.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I got the sense of that from our last conversation.”

“I’ve put up with so much shit from so many people.  I’ve worked hard to get us here.  Not just the plan, but you and me, with the people around us, with the Lambs here.  I’ve made compromises and sacrifices.  So I get this.  Even if it’s hard!”

“You should,” I said.

“If you put me to sleep to slow the damage until you find some answer, you do know what happens, don’t you?” she asked.

“I know.  Believe me.”

“I go to sleep, and it takes time to fix.  Time the rest of you don’t have.  Look at how far you’ve slipped in the last month, Sy.  If it takes another year?  If Mary and Helen continue down the roads they’re on?”

“We’ll stall, we’ll put things in motion,” I said.  “Just like I talked about.”

“That’s no guarantee.  You’re asking me to go to sleep, possibly for years, with no guarantee anybody but Duncan or Lillian is there when and if I wake up.  If I wake up.  If you don’t find an answer-”

“We’ll find something,” I said.

Jessie pushed the tea table I’d already damaged by tearing the leg off.  She rose out of her seat.  “I’m deciding I stay.  I’d sooner live out my last days with you than go to sleep, miss out, and live a longer life.  This was the damn deal!”

I’d already told Mary and Lillian the reality.

Jessie was so indignant.  It was rare.  She was usually so calm.  The rock to my storm.

She wanted this as badly as I did.

“You can’t,” I said.  “Because we don’t get that.  You and I can’t spend our last few days alone together.  I need a Lamb close by, or I’ll lose my mind.”

“I’ll be beside you,” she said.

“You’ll fall asleep.  You’ll drift off, because you sleep sixteen to twenty hours a day to stay at your best, and you won’t be beside me anymore,” I said.  “Because if you’re asleep, you’re not next to me.  You’re as good as gone.”

“That’s not-” she started.  “No.”

“Just a short step away from convincing myself you’re never waking up, the darkest parts of me saying it’s better to kill you than to see the look in your eyes when you’re completely gone.  Anything else, any compromise we might try to make, it’s going to feel hollow, reminding us of the issue, and I don’t want our last days to be a compromise.  Not like that.”

She shook her head.

“You’ll go to sleep, we’ll give you the drugs to keep you under.  We’ll be there when you wake up.”

She started to shake her head.

Then I saw her expression change.  Before anyone saw, I wrapped her in a hug.  She buried her face in my shoulder, hugging me tight.  I felt the borrowed shirt become damp, and I looked at each of the other Lambs, who would soon say their goodbyes.

It was some time before she nodded her head against my shoulder.

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