I was sitting down and surrounded with ruin and smoke, and I couldn’t remember exactly how I’d arrived in that position. My memory wasn’t that bad; the mental image of Helen being shot was clear enough that I knew it hadn’t disappeared outright.
I couldn’t focus my eyes on any individual point, which was another sign that something was wrong. It was a kind of double vision that closing one eye didn’t help, the world coloring outside lines. Parts of me that were safely nestled inside me hurt.
But the thing that helped me put two and two together was the fact that my ears were ringing and sounds were distorted, I could hear a voice clearly. Mauer, speaking like Mauer tended to speak, and he sounded clear as a bell.
The Mauer that kept me company didn’t tend to speak.
“…bring into justice both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed…”
I had heard the man rally people, but I had only ever really heard one of his sermons, and that had been years ago. I wasn’t picking this up strictly from that. Other memories, other details. This wasn’t Mauer any more than Evette was the real Evette.
“…take revenge, my dear friends…” Mauer proclaimed.
My eyes widened. I couldn’t yet wrangle my vision and thoughts enough to make sense of the battlefield, but I could see a solid kind of movement that wasn’t smoke, people, and I could move toward them.
Something had detonated, and it had detonated closer to the far end of the room. The fire, the smoke, the pain, it was all fallout from that single event. Jessie.
“…leave room for wrath, for it is written: it is yours to avenge, and you will repay!”
Eyes still wide, staying wide even with the stinging touch of smoke, I put the pain out of mind. I made my body move, and this was a thing I had done before, a thing I would do one last time. I crawled and I felt the creak of floorboards beneath my hands, where they were supported only at one end. My weight made them threaten to break in half dumping me into whatever lay below.
It was cold, for all the smoke. Cold, despite the red glow of fire. The winter air was blowing in, a wind stirred by the difference of hot air within and cold air without, trying to find reconciliation.
“All of us growl like bears, and moan sadly like doves,” Mauer said, his voice dropping lower, for gravity. He was a very clear image in a distorted, senseless world, and the mention of doves made me aware of Fray.
Fray was harder to see in the smoke, especially as she wore black, but I could see Helen from the shoulders down, and I had to look a distance over to see where Fray stood, because Fray never appeared alone. Copious amounts of blood dripped down to stain Helen’s simple white dress. I could have looked up to see Helen’s face. I didn’t.
“…we hope for justice, but there is none. For salvation, but it is far from us,” Mauer intoned.
There were others nearby, and most of them were reeling as much or more than I was. I didn’t have my knife, but the first person I happened across was suffering more than I was. He had a gun, and he didn’t have the strength to keep me from taking it from him, an act that took two fumbling tries.
“Whuh,” the man spoke, and he sounded very far away. “We need to get out.”
“Give me your hands,” I said.
“What?” he asked, voice drowned out by other sounds that I realized were figments of auditory trauma, ringing and a sound like a perpetual avalanche.
“Hands,” I said.
He didn’t fight me as I reached for one of his arms, hauled it across his chest, and then took the other hand, raising it up. He cooperated, even, to bring them up, as I took hold of them, entangling his fingers in my own. I tugged on them, and he took that as encouragement. Struggling to even gather his senses, it was an anchoring point, something to help him get centered and work toward. He managed to sit up, and moved his legs around to where he could maybe prepare to stand.
“…For man is born for trouble, and sparks fly upward,” Mauer said.
I used my foot to block his legs from moving the full way around. Then, forcing my brain to focus, using all of the practice I’d had over the years to seize control of my brain and put it to the one task of dealing with the current confusion, I lined up the gun, and I fired it so it penetrated both of the man’s wrists with one shot.
If I hadn’t already been nearly deaf, my own gunshot would have
I had to drop to one knee, falling on top of his legs, to keep him from kicking me or getting away from me as he screamed, arms flying back and away, flinging blood and gore into the air in an arc.
I had to work far harder to line up a shot to destroy his ankles. I wasn’t sure, but I might have only damaged one ankle.
“I’ll do to them as they have done to me,” Mauer said, right in my ear.
“I get it,” I said.
“I’ll pay them back for what they did,” he said, his monstrous arm settling on my shoulder, fingers digging into flesh.
“I get it,” I said, again. “Enough.”
One of his wrists shattered by a bullet, the man on the floor in front of me clubbed me across the face with one arm. With the state of the arm, I imagined it hurt him more than it hurt me. He certainly screamed like it.
Breathing hurt. I wasn’t sure if it was the sudden, bitter influx of cold air, the smoke, emotion, or something else, but it made for a bitter sort of intake of breath.
The screaming was drawing attention of the others. Someone fired a gun, more a warning shot, or something meant to provoke a response.
I brought the pistol to the man’s face, pointing it at his jaw. I could take that too.
“Count your bullets,” Mauer said. “Plan.”
I counted. Four bullets remained.
Rather than shoot, I brought the handle of the gun down on the man’s mouth. I heard and felt teeth break. The screaming quieted, but the moans of pain and alarm were almost as loud. I brought the gun down again, smashing one lip and several already broken teeth. He tried to turn his head, to spit out the first taste of blood and the pieces of broken teeth that had fallen back into his mouth, and I grabbed his jaw with one hand, wresting it back so it faced up, facing me. The wrapped-up fingers at the end of that hand protesting from the fierceness of my grip, and they protested again from the secondary vibration as I hit the man’s face again, splitting his upper lip to the nostril.
He raised his arms, shielding his face with the parts that weren’t damaged, and I swung. The pistol’s grip struck the parts of his arm that the earlier bullet had already ruined, and he pretty quickly abandoned that line of defense.
My perception of the world veered in a direction, and I toppled onto the floorboards, eliciting a protest. He had flipped over, and my balance wasn’t entirely there. I was gaining more focus, I’d been able to aim, but I wasn’t at my best. It took me a second of staring at the four limbs and one head in front of me to figure out how it was put together as a person.
Another second to figure out how I wanted to take it apart as a person.
I reached for hair, gripped it, and pulled it back, before smashing it into the floorboards. It didn’t knock the man out, but a combination of the blow and the earlier smacks with the butt end of the gun served to reduce nose and mouth to a bloody ruin. He lay there, eyes open and staring, bleeding, unable to use two arms and one leg, and I was able to convince myself that even if I wasn’t satisfied, I was ready to move on.
I swayed as I rose to my feet. My lack of balance threatened to topple me, and so I made myself fall strategically.
With every second that passed, I was gaining control of my faculties. The problem was that the opposition was also recovering.
Two men had fallen in a pile. I reached for weapons first, grabbing one gun, clumsily pushing a knife out of reach of either of them. The clumsy part was that I’d put it out of my own reach too.
The more alert of the two men said something, but between Mauer’s ramblings in the background, the noises in my ears and the creaky-crackle of wood declaring a dangerous lack of structural integrity, I would have only really been able to understand the man if I’d been listening and focusing.
I wasn’t listening. The time for that had come and gone. I could remember the looks on their faces as I’d talked to Franz. The stubbornness. I’d underestimated it. Was I supposed to believe it was gone now? That only now, confronted with a tangible danger, they were willing to compromise?
I aimed my gun and fired, putting a bullet through the soft flesh of stomach of one man, so it would exit and penetrate the soft stomach of the one he was lying on top of.
He fought, using the time where pain brought clarity but shock prevented the pain from immediately debilitating him. He fumbled for and reached for the knife, failed to get it at first grasp, and then, laying on his side, he kicked out at me.
With one bent arm, I protected myself. Then I struck out, a pistol gripped in each hand. One hand went for the bullet wound, the other went for whatever was vulnerable. A punch aiming and failing to get beneath the leg to go for the genitals, a punch for the wound, a punch at the soft side of his stomach.
In the midst of the scuffle that followed, him bigger and stronger, me capitalizing on his existing injury and every further weak point I was able to create, I climbed on top of him, using my body to keep him from reaching down, and endured a brief battering of his hands clubbing my back before getting in position to drive my knee into the wound, hard.
He curled up around my legs, possibly in an attempt to stop me, possibly in an attempt to protect the wound.
He went still, very possibly taking an opportunity to breathe, to find respite, to think.
I took that opportunity for myself, using the stillness and the fact that he wasn’t rocking me this way or that to point the gun at where his spine was. I was fairly sure that the placement wouldn’t stop his heart and breathing, but would end the use of his lower body.
The one he’d been lying on top of had been knocked senseless in more ways than just the one. While the man behind me hollered in stark horror, I climbed on top of the third man and made sure the senselessness was permanent in at least one regard. I smashed his face with the butt-end of the empty pistol, aiming for the eye socket.
By the fifth blow, my hand was going numb from the secondary impact of the shock. I switched hands.
He didn’t even fully rouse as I made sure that his eyes were unrecoverable, that he’d need top of the line surgery before he even got that far.
There weren’t any others on this part of the floor that were moving. I moved between the prone and supine bodies, shooting to paralyze.
The smoke was thicker, the sounds of people around me were clearer, and it was getting easier to move and balance.
I knew that fire was burning somewhere, but it wasn’t spreading with enthusiasm. The smoke would be a better danger. The explosion had destroyed part of one exterior wall, and as the wall had come down, the floor had split. Now the vast majority of the others, Helen included, were down on the first floor, along with the part of the floor that had collapsed.
Periodically, however, one of them would fire a gun. They weren’t leaving, and that told me something.
The floor had folded, half of it now forming a steep incline. Where floorboards had broken, some broken boards stuck up like fangs, forming a kind of uneven barrier toward the middle of the room – one that was hard to use as cover to wage a war on those below, because it would’ve been cover that consisted of parts of the surrounding floor. Trying to get too close threatened to see me tumbling through broken floorboards.
But I took hold of one of my victims, the smallest paralyzed one, and despite his very limited struggles, I was able to drag him a part of the way across the floor.
The smoke was bad now. Every breath felt like I was drawing in salt, letting that salt settle on wounds.
I didn’t want to get in the way of any gunfire from below, so I got the man as far as I could, then lay down on the floor, kicking him and pushing with my feet.
He teetered over the edge, then rolled down the slope.
I could hear the people below. There were a few more gunshots, flying up to strike ceiling and roof above. Many of the bullets created tiny circles of daylight that illuminated broad shafts of smoke, disappearing and reappearing as heavier plumes of smoke appeared across them.
“Lamb!” one of them called out.
I remained silent.
“You should answer,” Mauer said. “I would.”
That’s where you and I are different.
“I know you’re up there!” the soldier cried out. “Lamb!”
I took hold of a piece of floorboard that looked as though it had splintered in the middle, and tore it free. There were nails still in it, of a more old-fashioned type, not the kind that stitched would put together; they were more like long, narrow wedges.
“Lamb, the smoke might attract the giant, if it doesn’t get other attention. Crown soldiers, whatever else they’ve got up their sleeves. It’s done. You win. We’ll cooperate. Whatever you want. But that gun you’ve got up there. Put it away.”
Again, I remained silent.
Silence had its uses, and I didn’t trust myself to speak.
I knelt, wavering a little, my ears still a cacophony of nonexistent sound, and checked my gun was out of ammunition. I then disassembled it in part, tossed the chamber across the room, and then tossed the remains of the gun down.
“Are we going to pretend there’s no other guns up there?” he called out.
I didn’t respond.
Smoke continued to pour forth. People down there were coughing, and I was suppressing my own coughs. The orange light of flames was dying out, not growing, but the side effect of that was that the chill was eating into me.
My back was to a little table that served as a kind of storage chest and a table for the armchair that had been there. That same armchair now rested uneasily on broken floorboards that speared out horizontally.
The people I’d broken and dismantled were still gasping, making pained noises, and struggling to escape, when the closest thing to a real way out was a window none of us could easily reach, followed by a drop resembling one from a third story building, probably onto jagged rubble. The lot of them were paralyzed from the waist down or with all four limbs disabled. Some weren’t moving at all.
“I’m going to guess,” the man below called out, “That you throwing Brian down here was meant to be a message. You don’t want to talk for whatever reason. Right ho. But don’t go thinking that Franz spoke for all of us, or that we thought he was just. He was in charge, we obeyed. You know Cynthia, you saw Franz. Crossing them would end us. We have to obey, yeah?”
“If you don’t respond,” Mauer said, “they’re going to be pushed to desperation.”
“Your funeral,” Mauer said. He settled into a more comfortable position, sitting across from me. Fray still stood off to the side, hugging Helen.
The men down below were chatting. A tense discussion about possibilities, threat, and about the screams they’d heard.
“Are you feeling biblical, Sylvester?” Mauer asked. He wasn’t a complete image like the Lambs were. He wasn’t someone I could coordinate with. When it came to the Lambs, I could finish their sentences. I could write their sentences, figure out how they would act and operate, even when they weren’t there.
“Biblical,” I murmured the word.
“You heard those fragments of verse from somewhere, for me to dredge up and parrot back to you,” Mauer said. “Interesting, what sticks with you. You know you’ve made other reference before, scant as it was.”
I could hear rocks being moved down below. Part of the stairwell had collapsed, their path to the exit was clearly blocked, and so they wanted up and out.
They simply had to get past the gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper wasn’t feeling particularly merciful.
I could hear boards creak and protest. I could hear the scuff as boots sought traction on flooring that now acted more like a wall, a steep uphill slope.
Emerging from my safer spot, I looked for and saw the first of the hands reaching up, over, and out for a handhold.
There were four of them, all climbing in concert, at separate points.
I brought the plank down, swinging, stabbing the first hand with the nails at the end and affixing to the floor.
The remainder, I simply opened fire on, targeting hands and arms, or in the rare case I was able to move close to the collapsed portion without risking being shot at, I aimed at feet. I disabled rather than kill, with one possible exception for the young soldier in an oversized military coat that brought his head down and forward as I was squeezing the trigger. It might have been a graze and it might have been something that shattered his forehead and leaked some of the contents of his skull out over his face. I only saw the spatter of blood and I saw him fall.
“You lunatic!” the soldier from before called out.
Not wholly wrong. I’m seeing things.
“Hearing things,” Mauer amended.
The one I’d nailed to the floor was struggling for a handhold. He wanted to reach a point where he could reach over and pull the plank free.
My back and shoulder were aching and my shirt was sticking there in a way that suggested frank blood. The bandage had slipped, the sealing broken, no doubt. The cloth tatters that protected my two ruined fingers were already slipping loose.
With that in mind, I was slow and careful as I got my hands on the chest-cum-teatable. I opened the door on the side and let the bottles tumble out, and then I hefted it.
The guy at the edge where the floor was broken was scrabbling for a better grip or a foothold. He found it in the same moment I hefted the little three-foot-by-two-foot-by-three foot table. It landed atop the nails. One or two would have been knocked aside, twisting in his hand. The others would likely have been driven deeper.
Whatever footing he’d had, he lost it. His body weight tore at the nails, to the point that I thought his hand would rip free, tears forming between the nails and the spaces between his fingers. From the looks of it, the flesh caught and bundled up, forming something more tenacious and hard to tear as it gathered.
“What do you want!?” the one below called out.
“What do you want?” Fray asked me, from behind me, where she stood in smoke and shadows, near one of the places the smoke was pouring out from damaged roof. “What are you fighting for, Sylvester?”
You asked me that in the beginning. I don’t remember everything, and I forget a lot, but I remember that.
“What do you want?” the de-facto leader hollered, voice ragged. He broke down into fits of coughing.
Smoke settled, to an extent. Yes, it rose, it was getting steadily worse, there weren’t enough holes in the roof and walls to let it escape. Breathing was a chore. But they weren’t having a jolly time of it down there.
“If you do this, we all die! You included, Lamb!”
“I don’t think that’s what you want,” Fray said.
“You need us as much as we need you!”
No, I thought.
There was a long pause.
“Do you want the girl?”
I remained silent. I kept my eyes fixed on Mauer, my gun in hand. I watched the soldiers I’d dispatched crawl and struggle on the floor. One was still nailed to the floor, the rest of him dangling from that ruined hand.
A little snippet of hell, this. Not quite hellish enough, but I’d have to decide on some ways to patch that up.
“If you want the girl, we can bring the girl. Just give us a ceasefire. Give us something.”
I considered for long moments. I stared Mauer down.
Reaching out with the pistol, I used the butt end to rap the floor. Knock. Knock.
“That a yes?” the man called out.
I knocked again. I didn’t want to talk, my voice strangled with smoke and emotion. I didn’t want to talk anymore for the time being.
There was more discussion. I had the impression that smoke and circumstance was the driving force in their decision to accept.
I could hear the order. The command to dig, to ‘find her’.
Then the change in tone of conversation.
“We got the body,” the leader said.
I knocked once.
“Coming on up,” he said.
Helen’s hands had been tied, and it seemed very fitting that even now, unbreathing, she embraced one of the enemy.
I ignored her, and stooped over the new leader of Cynthia’s soldiers here, and I checked him thoroughly before allowing him to climb the rest of the way up.
He was followed by several others. Three men, each of whom I patted down, each of whom coughed and looked around at the work I’d done, at blood and fragments on the floor. One made a move toward the man I’d nailed to the floor, and I moved to get in his path, standing ten feet apart from him.
“Leave them for now,” the de-facto leader said. He wore a helmet that covered much of his face.
I suspected it would be back to business as normal as soon as I was dealt with. They could do that at any time. The only things I had going for me was a familiar with dark, smoky places, and an ability to endure pain and get moving faster. I’d already spent the second coin.
“There’s more down there,” the leader said. He looked up. “We’ll have to use the window up there. We get your friend’s body up and out and you’re satisfied, yeah?”
I nodded once.
It took his friends to help him. I watched, cold, as the leader was lifted up to the beam that now hung, connected at only one end. It made for an uneasy tightrope walk of sorts to the window Jessie had escaped through.
They’d get in my way. I couldn’t just ask to be helped up like their new squadron leader had. I couldn’t even try gun, because the climb up required both hands.
No. Something simpler. I would get their help without asking.
One used the boost provided by the other two to reach for the beam. The other two glanced momentarily at me.
I ran, and it wasn’t a pretty run, or a fast one. The smoke meant I wasn’t taking in enough oxygen. I was distracted, and my balance was still a little off. The effect of the bomb blast or whatever it had been made every part of me hurt. My shoulder was bleeding through whatever cracks had formed in the seal and gaps in bandage.
But I ran, choosing to run through plumes of smoke, to better surprise. I ran, setting foot where I was pretty sure the support struts ran under floorboards, marking the breaking point where long floorboards had broken in two. The action meant I made less sound.
By the time they realized I was making my move, I was in close. I ran along the back of one and up to the back and shoulders of the other, who was busy climbing up.
His instincts were good. The moment something was wrong, a sudden weight on his back, he let go of the beam,dropping.
But in moving my feet to try and find footing to climb up the rest of the way, I’d set foot on the side of his face and his shoulder. I was able to launch myself skyward and catch the beam.
The men on the ground immediately set to looking for weapons. One ran to the edge and shouted for a gun to be thrown up.
I could have aimed and shot at them to buy myself time, but I didn’t trust my balance at this time. No.
I ran along the beam the soldier with Helen was still walking unsteadily on.
He turned, and he held Helen draped over one shoulder so she served as a partial shield. I could see the blood. Too much blood.
“Not going to let you pass,” he said.
A figure moved behind him. Sensing her or feeling the movement along the beam, he lashed out, smacking her across the face, and then grabbed her. It was a clumsy maneuver, but there wasn’t much space between Jessie and the window. She had to reach out to catch the side of the window.
“Do you want to lose another?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to lose any more.”
My eyes were downcast. I could see Fray and Mauer in the midst of black smoke. Helen stood a distance away.
“Jump down,” he said. “Jump down, I’ll toss this one down onto the floor down there instead of out the window. They’ll decide what to do with all of you.”
“I think I burned that bridge,” I said. “Besides, you’re missing the most important part of this.”
“Fuck you, Lamb,” the soldier said.
Not quite the ask and answer I’d hoped for. Still…
“You hurt my friend,” I said. “In terms of me, that means your friends down there suffer. I have no more patience for any of this. It means you suffer. You don’t get to go easy. Understand?”
“Fuck yourself,” he said. He looked down at his buddies, who had guns now.
Guns and half-decent shots at me, but with a risk of collateral damage to their buddy here. Smoke didn’t help, nor would it help if they were feeling as unsteady as I had been.
“That’s in terms of me. Suffering. Justice. But in terms of her…”
He turned his head, looking more at Jessie.
“Other her,” I said.
Helen, head still lolling, slipped her arms free of the restraints and wrapped her arms around his head and neck.
Panicking, the man reached up, and he tore her arm away from his neck.
He’d broken her grip.
What followed was frantic. Helen slipped and nearly fell, grabbing the beam instead. Jessie helped catch Helen before she could lose her grip on the beam too, and I charged forward.
Between the two of them, each with some form of hold on the soldier, we bulled him off of the beam. My sole contribution was to stumble into the two of them, getting them and myself out of the window.
The window swung outward. Jessie held it and Helen, Helen held Jessie, and I held onto both. We collided, all three of us, with the wall as the window swung out. My shoulder flared with pain, Helen looked like she was slipping, and Jessie had the burden of the two of us.
But Jessie had her own kind of tenacity. She didn’t lose her grip, and her grip was what was essential. That and the structural integrity of the round window. Slowly, surely, she transferred the two of us to handholds.
It was glacially slow for us to climb down. Jessie, meanwhile, took care of the latter part of the revenge. A bit of alcohol, a match, and the beam that served as the lifeline was set on fire. She quickly made her way down.
Once that was done, we all collapsed in a heap at the foot of the building, which in itself had collapsed from a cube into a kind of triangular cylinder.
“Helen,” I said.
Helen, hair draped across her ruined face, sticking where there was blood, managed to produce a bubbling of blood and spittle at her mouth, the bubbling expanding, then collapsing. She didn’t have the strength to even lift her head.
“Sorry I forgot Rick and dropped the ball there.”
She spat, a ‘pff’ of blood and drool. Dismissive.
“It was what it was,” Jessie said. “There was no negotiating our way out of that. You could’ve done everything right and still failed. Cynthia occupies that kind of space.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“I did what I could with the fertilizer bomb. Things weren’t labeled, I had to guess, assume the two of you hadn’t moved from where you were.”
“We hadn’t,” I said.
Helen formed another expanding froth of bloody bubbles at her lips, participating in the conversation.
“Having fun there?” I asked.
I thought I saw something that might have once been a smile, in that bloody mess that was her face.
“She never occupied quite so much of our collective attention as Fray or Mauer,” Jessie said, quiet. She reached out and stroked Helen’s head. “But she’s not to be underestimated. She has her own kind of strength and leverage.”
“Fuck her,” I said. “She needed to be put down a long time ago. I hope Helen’s brother wins.”
Helen bubbled some more.
“Yeah. For now, we get Helen some help. Let’s go look after our people.”