Dog Eat Dog – 18.10

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“Sylvester,” the voice was firm, and the speaker was both male and young.  “Wake up.  We have a lot to do.”

I draped my arm over my face, so I could shut out the light and block the world.  My eyes were damp, as if I’d been crying, yet I’d been firmly asleep.

“Sylvester.”

I almost spoke, responding, before I shut my mouth.  Speaking was dangerous now.  At any point, it could spell disaster, talking to someone who wasn’t there.  I had allies I needed to preserve and other allies who could very easily become adversaries if they lost any more faith in me.

I let my arm fall from my face, and blinked my eyes dry as I could get them.  An arm draped across my neck, making breathing and sitting up more difficult than they had to be.  I slept in a pile with a number of others, and I couldn’t name very many of them.

If the hallucinations and twists of the mind were always bad, always hostile, it might have been easier.  I could have steeled myself, turned my brain to the task, and found a way forward.  I wanted to believe that.  But they weren’t always bad or hostile.  They supported me, they kept me company, and they kept me warm when I felt cold.

The sensations were largely imagined, I knew.  The touch, the feel of clothing on skin and skin on clothing, of breathing into someone else’s hair.

I’d slept, at least.  Going by the light, it was dawn.  That meant… three hours.  A step forward from no sleep in the two days prior.  We were sleeping in a barn, apparently, in a pile of old blankets draped over a haystack.

Red Riding Hood lay on one side of me, her breath sour with last night’s alcohol.  The girl with the layers of clothes spooned me, her arm the one that had been making it hard to breathe and to rise.  There was a redheaded girl and a girl from the Eastern Crown States that I couldn’t place or name, a boy who slept with his back to me, and two delinquents, one of whom had done the body modification thing, with two sets of horns and some scarification of the forehead.

There were bottles and some food on the ground.  I could only remember parts.  A whirl of hallucination and dancing, of the Hackthorn experiments and delinquents.  I’d wanted to ingratiate myself, to ensure I didn’t burn bridges with the ones most likely to hear me out and not fall back into Academy ways of thinking.  I’d had something to drink, but the effects were somewhat muted.  It had been a dizzy spiral down into sleep and rest.

“All we want is a voice,” the boy at the doorway said.  He’d been the one to urge me awake.

A voice?

The hallucinations wanted a chance to speak?

He shrugged with one shoulder.  He looked angry but didn’t have a seeming target for that anger.  The night’s festivities had left him with dark circles under his eyes.  He was the one I’d seen on the bed in Ferres’ room, with the yellow raincoat that vaguely resembled a lab coat, like aspiring Doctors sought.  He wore an apron beneath it, and I didn’t miss that he’d stashed a knife in that apron.  He looked at me, “That’s the plan?  You don’t get shut out of things, we get a voice.”

“And us woebegone fairy tales get our chance to be on top for once,” Red Riding Hood said.  She sat up and stretched.  “Get some catharsis.  Get some revenge.”

“Yeah, if that’s what it comes to,” the boy in yellow said.  “Not that I care, but I’m willing to do what’s necessary to get where we need to be.”

“Try to sound less like a jerk,” Red said.  She looked at me.  “The sleeping hero awakes.  Good morning.”

I looked between the two, blinking, trying to sort out the conversation.  Was she not-?

“Hm?” I grunted, quizzical.

“I said I slept surprisingly well considering this blanket smells like wet dog and old cow.  Good morning, sleepy hero.”

I didn’t want to respond, to get caught up in things.  It would be too easy to ask a question and be offered another statement that begged yet another question.  These hallucinations were a product of my mind and I was one hundred percent aware that my mind was very good when it came to that sort of thing.

I almost didn’t want to move.  I was surrounded by mostly girls, I was cozy, and I worried that once I started moving I wouldn’t be able to stop.

The decision was almost made for me.  Our conversation had stirred others.

“It’s too early,” one of the delinquents said.

“If Sy wants to get up, we get up,” Red responded.

“Fuck Sy up the bumpipe with a lumpy branch,” the delinquent said.

I cleared my throat.

“…With a not-lumpy branch, then.”

“You’re quiet,” Red said.  “Are you mad?  Did I bother you, last night?”

I barely remembered her role in last night.  I shook my head.

“Not up to talking?” she asked.  “You’re in pretty good company then.”

Beside me, the girl with the layers of clothing reached up, using her fingers to tidy my hair.

I shook my head a little, running my fingers through my hair to fix it, and then stood up, extricating myself from her.

“We’re up!” Red said, full of good cheer, and that same cheer played into the groans her voice was eliciting.

I walked straight for the open door to the barn, where a rain barrel was set beside the boy in the raincoat.  I saw Bo Peep on a bench by the door.  She watched me, eyes large, and drew her feet up from the ground to the edge of the bench, so her knees were tight up against her chest.

I gave her a wave, even though I didn’t want to gesture, even mundane gestures, for much the same reason I didn’t want to speak.  After a moment, she waved back.

Red reached out for her, as if to muss up that woolly head of hair, and Bo Peep swatted at the hand, far more forcefully than necessary.

Had I done something?  Had Red?  Was Peep jealous?

There were so many questions and I wasn’t sure I had the resources at my disposal to answer them.  I felt rested, I was only a little hungry, and yet I’d been awake for a few minutes at most, and I had already faced a number of challenges.  The energy and focus I had were things I’d need to ration for the day ahead of me.

I’d need to save up a number in case I faced a larger crisis.  Mutiny, combat, an uprising from the Academy we were holding hostage, another downturn in my mental health, or if the accumulated positive elements of my mental landscape turned on me… if the Lambs appeared, real or not, and if they weren’t friendly or kind, it was something that could leave me in shambles if I wasn’t prepared.  I needed to be ready, whatever the day brought.

The irony was that devoting time and attention to conserving mental and emotional resources was in itself draining those resources.

The boy in the yellow coat stood at the rain barrel with his hand out, letting the water run off the gutter and into his open hand.  I watched as he clenched that fist, squeezing out the water.  Beyond him, the sky was mottled with clouds just thin enough to take the blue out of the sky and thicker clouds that looked almost black.  The sun had risen just enough that the light came from one direction but didn’t color the sky pink.

“We can’t let them ignore us, Sylvester,” he said.  “It’s what they do.  They marginalize, they set up a system, and then they twist it to their favor.  Power and control.”

I plunged my head and shoulders into the water of the rain barrel.

Cold.  I kept my head there, where the rest of the world couldn’t bother me, gripping the edge of the barrel with more and more intensity as the cold crushed in on my head and stabbed through skin to make my skull hurt.

I withdrew my head and straightened.

The moment my eyes opened, the boy in the yellow coat was rushing me.  I stepped back, and in the doing, I cracked the back of my head against the edge of the door.  He grabbed me by the collar.

“You little shit!  You think you can ignore me?  Right when I was saying we get a voice!?”

I raised my hand to grab him, to pull him off me, and in the doing I brought it up to where the rain barrel pressed against the exterior wall of the barn.   How to get my hand around that simple obstacle was a thought process that eluded me in the moment.  Realizing I had another hand I could use took me a full second.

As I raised it, Red brushed against my arm, approaching the rain barrel.  She put her hands in and flinched.  “Lords and ladies, that’s cold!  You put your head in?”

I shrugged.  I realized I had one hand raised halfway up, and I’d left it hanging there.  The phantom in question was no longer there, no longer grabbing my collar.  The snarl in thought process that had made getting my right hand up and out of the space between me and the rain barrel was gone.

She bent her head down and splashed it, yelping as she came in contact with the water.  She had been modified to have facial features reminiscent of a deer, rabbit, or another prey animal, the fur was soft and so fine that the places where fur started and ended weren’t clear, brown-gray fur blending into brown skin with the fine and sparse hairs that all people had.  Her eyes were larger than normal, more expressive, and they had almost natural makeup with black skin at the edges of the eyes, the dramatic highlighting of the furrow by the tear duct, and long black eyelashes.

She’d wanted to go under the knife and she likely would, but she wanted to have an actual, normal face, and working out that particular puzzle out was a task that would take more than a week, if scars were to be avoided and all features were to look normal.

She smiled as she stepped away from the rain barrel, face beaded with moisture, and she ran her wet hands through mostly dry hair.  “Are people going to wonder where you’ve been, hero?”

I almost kept silent, but I worried my silence would be just as worrisome as my speaking here.

“Hero?”

My question coincided with the bulk of the group exiting the barn.  Bo Peep and the girl with the layers of clothing among them.  I saw the triplets, who I’d first seen under the sink, whispering to one another.  Paul was present too, and from the straw stuck to him and to Goldilocks, I was guessing they’d found a secluded corner of the barn to bunk down in.

I watched a boy of fifteen or so twirl a stick with his fingers.  He looked a little more worse for wear, as if he’d had more to drink and a few other things beside and he’d woken up with the worst hangover, for the past one hundred days.  He contrasted that with very posh clothes and blond hair that he’d slicked back, close to his head.  He spooked me a little.  He was closer to the whispering triplets than to any of the others, and he set my instincts in overdrive.

That might have been his role.  Putting me on edge, representing something alarming without actually clarifying that something.

“You saved us,” Red said, smiling.

“You did,” Paul said.  “We owe you a lot.”

“Mm,” I grunted.  I stood back while others took their turn with the water barrel.

“He’s not talking much,” Red said.

“Alright,” Paul said, firmly.  “Well, we’ve got a few like that.  We’ll manage.”

He seemed to make it a statement, meant for the group, as if to ensure that I wouldn’t be looked down on, or so I wouldn’t run into trouble.  Maybe it was self serving on his part, ensuring his group was fine.  Maybe it was that he was actually an alright person.

“We’ll manage, yes, as we get done with all that we need to get done,” spoke the boy in the yellow raincoat.

“Speaking of, where are we going?” Goldilocks asked.  “What’s next on the agenda?”

“I want to stay,” Bo Peep said.

“Stay?” Paul asked.  “Laze around in a musty barn all day?”

“We can’t stay,” the boy in the raincoat said.  “There’s an agenda.”

“There’s stuff to do,” I said.  I didn’t want to be accused of ignoring the boy in yellow again.

“There are things that need doing that only we can do,” one of the triplets said, almost echoing the boy in yellow.  His voice sounded as though he had a cold, in contrast to the indistinct whispers.  “We’re talented.  We have to put those talents to use.”

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hungry,” Red said.

“I’m alright with being hungry,” Bo Peep said, more insistent.  “Let’s stay where we are.  It’s safe.”

“The Academy is ours, Peep!” Red said, smiling.

“It’s theirs,” the boy in yellow said.  “Don’t lose sight of that fact.”

“Don’t be silly, it’s as safe as it’ll get.  We’re as safe as we’ll ever be,” Red said.

I’d been awake for only a few minutes and I was wondering if I had the grit needed to get to noon.  This was too much, and it wasn’t enough.  It was worse because I couldn’t be sure if people were saying things to others or if I was making mental revisions to make it seem like they were.

“I’ll keep you safe,” Paul said.  “Whatever it takes, Little Bo.  I’ll be your personal bodyguard.”

Yeah, that was a large part of why Red and Goldilocks and so many others were fawning over Paul.  It wasn’t so much that he was devastatingly beautiful, and ‘devastating’ wasn’t a word I was about to use lightly, but he had a good heart beneath that righteous anger of his.

“I don’t care,” Bo Peep said.  “Not about me.  I care about Sylvester.  I know it’ll bother him if I say it, but I think it’ll be worse if I don’t say it.  He’s not well.  He wasn’t well last night.  I want to stay here with him and not do anything.  We just have to wait until his friends come back.  So long as we stay put and we don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong.”

Twenty sets of eyes turned my way.

“You’re not well, Sylvester?” Paul asked.

I felt like admitting it out loud would’ve said something, and I couldn’t bring myself to deny it.  I shrugged yet again.  It felt like I was trying to buck the weight on my shoulders that was accruing there over time.

“We’ve all got our quirks,” Paul said.  “Neuroses.  Sylvester exemplifies that.  But we’re capable, we’re strong.  Some of us even got changes that made us better than we would’ve been.  I say we move forward.  We’ve got little ones to feed.”

“You guys can go.  I’ll stay with Sylvester.  We can talk, and you can bring food back to us,” Bo Peep said.  Her hands clutched at her skirt.  With so many eyes on her, her small voice pushing against a very large group, she couldn’t quite keep her head raised.  “Please?”

“That sounds like a bother,” Red said.

“Please?” Bo Peep asked.  “Please, I’ll never ask for anything again.  I’ll be good, I’ll do one favor for everyone here, I’ll do chores, or I’ll knit something for everyone, if you’ll give me time, or…”

She seemed to sense that she wasn’t making much headway with the group.  She took a half-step toward me, then hesitated.

I dropped to my knee, so I was more on her level.  At that, she threw herself at me, her arms around my neck.  I returned the hug, and I felt her heart beating like she’d just run a mile.

“Please,” she said.  “I’ll do anything and everything you want.  I’ll go away forever, or I’ll stay right next to you forever.  But can’t we please just stay here?  We can talk, and you can tell me or tell all of us stories of you and your friends?”

That sounds nice, I thought.  Soothing, almost.  I could almost frame it in a way that taught lessons, gave tips on how to be an effective investigator or infiltrator, how to act in the acting sense, and how to manipulate.

So long as I was addressing a group, even, I could even talk freely.  The fact that I couldn’t talk to anyone without knowing for sure if I was just speaking to open air was paralyzing, a weight on my throat that coincided with a lump there that wasn’t going away.

“You said things last night that scared me, when you were talking to others that weren’t there,” she said, and the words were so quiet that she couldn’t form all of the sounds.  I’d had to fill in the gaps and reason out many of the words.  She went on in much the same fashion  “And Red Riding Hood caught wind of it and she egged you on, and Paul liked the way you sounded when you scared me most, and now I don’t like them anymore.”

“Stories?” I asked.  I was warming to the idea.  I wasn’t sure I liked having my guard down, doing nothing while things happened elsewhere, but I wasn’t sure I liked having my guard up, either.

“When you all were young.  The good days.  And I know your memory isn’t good but you could make up stories and I bet they’d still be good.  Helen was telling us that before, you would imagine things so very well that it felt real to you and now it’s hard for you to tell the difference between what’s real and made up… but if- maybe just telling stories and not worrying about any of it would be nice?”

“That could be really nice,” I said.

“I couldn’t sleep all night because I was worried about the things I heard you all saying, so I watched over you and I thought hard about it and I came up with the stories as a thing we could do,” she said.  She sounded even more desperate now that I’d indicated I was interested.  “It made sense.”

The boy with the stick approached me.  I knew he wasn’t real, but something about him made me worry.  It was less the latent danger he posed, less the anxiety that surrounded him, and more that… I wasn’t even sure how to word it.  I would have described it as a mousetrap, waiting to be sprung, everything straining, packed with potential energy.  A collapse waiting to happen.

To keep Peep away from him, I stood, still holding her tight in my arms, effectively picking her up.  I kept my back to the boy, and I saw the girl with the layered clothes and the boy with the raincoat standing with his hand in his deep coat pocket.  Something alive was in there.

There were many others, I realized, now that I took in the crowd as a whole.  The number had been twenty earlier but now it had doubled in size.  Too many were made up of boys and the rare girl in uniform.  Girls who wore only the stripped-down Academy uniform pieces, no jacket, just the white blouse and dress.  They were easy to overlook because many students were doing that now, to cut down on the laundry they had to do.

I turned as much as I was able, while the boy with the stick paced around me.

“I-”  I started.

As he spoke from a position behind me, the boy’s voice didn’t match his haggard appearance and it didn’t match his dapper clothing.  It was too deep, too ragged.  It reached into the deepest parts of me and shook me.

If you don’t get moving, we’ll make you kill that girl in the worst way possible.

Bo Peep’s heart continued to beat its relentless pace, my own now caught up to it, matching it in tempo.

“-wish I could,” I said.  I set her down, with a bit of effort to pull her free of me.  “I really do.”

She flinched at the words, then she nodded.

I didn’t miss the way she hung her head, or that her hands went to her eyes.

“Let’s go eat.  I know a good place,” I said.  Then, as a concession to the boy in yellow and the stick boy, I added, “Then we’ll see about getting down to business.”

I had to double check to make sure Bo Peep was with.

The spot was only a little distance away.  I wondered if I’d chosen it subconsciously.  The mob followed behind, the rough-edged, the altered, the recently repaired.  The building was quaint, and that quaintness was contrasted by a heavy regiment of stitched guards.

While I figured out what the best way past that regiment might be, a face appeared in the window.  Shirley unlocked and opened the door.

“Sy,” she said.  She smiled.

“Any chance of breakfast?” I asked.  It still felt strange, talking, but at least in this, I felt like I was pretty safe.  It was a known location, and the door had been unlocked and opened.  Absent Shirley, it wouldn’t have made sense.  “I don’t have my wallet, but I figure maybe you’d extend me a tab?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Shirley said.

“I know I’m a bit of a liar and a troublemaker, but I wouldn’t say it’s ridiculous, given our history,” I said.

“Of course you can eat here, Sy.  For free.  Come on in.  Your friends too.  I’ve got some oatmeal on the stove and a batch of cinnamon twists in the oven that we were going to send up to the dorms.  We’ll give you guys the twists and send the next batch up to the dorms.  How’s that?”

“That sounds pretty amazingly close to perfect.”

There were some whoops and cheers as the crowd filed in.  It was positive, good.

Bo Peep was a contrast to that.  I felt a pang.

Feeling like I could trust Shirley and that the world made sense was a big deal.  I liked feeling like I was trending closer to sanity, some scares aside.  I felt like I owed that to Bo Peep, to the three hours of sleep I’d got, and the feeling of having some company as I slept.

That was the good.  The bad was… harder to pin down.  It felt like it was still there, still growing, and I was having trouble grasping it.  It was less like the negativity wasn’t there or looming and more like I simply couldn’t see it.

It was soon chaos within the cafe that Shirley was managing.  This was our meeting hall in the city itself, and Shirley was apparently continuing her cover in keeping it running, even though the cafe part of the cafe was no longer necessary.  She could have stacked up the tables and chairs and ignored them, only ensuring that employees kept the kitchen going so the students in dormitories could be supplied with food, treats, and other necessities.

Shirley looked happy.

There were others present.  The large child from the previous night’s meeting was sitting at one table, gorging himself.  I found myself staring for a long time at another set of individuals.  Two girls and a boy that was slightly older, all with long blond hair.

Was it a code?  I’d trained myself to look for patterns.  How had they appeared?  Boy in yellow, girl with the clothes, triplets, girl in the window.  One, one, three, one… did I read anything into the fact that the boy in yellow and the girl in the window had had pets?

Who had come after?  The large child.  Yes,then the boy with the stick.  Now this set of three.  There was the plethora of boys in uniform and girls in white, but I hadn’t kept count and if I was entirely honest, the cues my hallucinations tended to give me tended to be cues of a sort that I knew and appreciated.  I wouldn’t have set myself a task better suited to Jessie or Mary.

No, I wasn’t sure if my brain would have posed a riddle to me in terms of math or science, not that kind of pattern.

Pierre, meanwhile, was wearing checked pyjamas, sitting on the end of the bench closest to the kitchen.

“Wasn’t expecting guests,” he said.  “I’m barely decent.”

I smiled, took Bo Peep’s hand, and led her to Pierre’s side.  “Come on.  Have a seat.”

She sat, head still bowed.

“I’ll look after her,” Pierre said.

“Thank you,” I murmured, “She’s quickly catching up to you, Shirley, and the Lambs when it comes to my list of people I really owe.  Getting support, backup, and smart support-backup is… pretty invaluable when I find I’m low.”

“I’ll definitely look after her, then,” Pierre said.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

I got food for myself and for Bo Peep, and I brought it over to her.  I separated myself from the larger storm of discussion and sat with her.

“We’re sitting here on our lonesome over here, talking about fav0rite animals,” Pierre said.

“Well, clearly, Lambs are the best,” I said.

“Lambs grow up, and then they aren’t Lambs anymore,” Bo Peep said.

I felt a stab of something horrifying at that thought.  It wasn’t that the sentence was so poignant, but… I wondered if it cast a shadow of doubt on Bo Peep, a thought that didn’t match her.

Not that I knew her that well.

“I think we can all hold on to the best parts as we grow up.  It’s part of what growing up is,” I said.

“I really want to think that,” she said.

“You’re a good one, Peep,” I said.  “Please don’t let anyone, me especially, convince you that you aren’t.”

More people kept filing in.  I was well aware that many were my hallucinations.  I was aware that there was a lingering sentiment of hostility, and that the boy with the stick had threatened to do something to Bo Peep if I didn’t keep moving.

But this was nice, and it was essential.  I needed to make it up to Peep, get my ducks in order, and figure out what I was doing.

Peep finished her breakfast and moved on to the threat that accompanied it, the cinnamon twist.  Dough, sugar, cinnamon, more sugar, at a guess.

“No word from the Lambs,” Pierre said.  “We checked all avenues of communication.  It’s going to be a few days more at a minimum.”

They were painful words to hear, when I felt like getting to noon was going to be hard.  That feeling faded into the background when I saw how much Peep was enjoying her cinnamon twist.  She was smiling again, after I’d disappointed her.

“I could see if there’s another,” I suggested.

“I was supposed to get one,” Pierre said.

“I would’ve brought it to you if I’d-” I started.

He was waving me off.  “Give her mine.”

“I’ll grab it,” I said.

Too many hostile eyes watched me as I stood and headed to the kitchen.  Too many eyes that were filled with expectation watched me, waiting for me to disappoint them.  It was the eyes of the most insightful people here that I tried to stay most cognizant of.  Shirley, Pierre, Bo Peep.  It felt like they saw the real me, or had at least spent long enough with me to see through any veneer of bullshit I put up.

I was still in the kitchen when I saw the latest batch of arrivals turn up.  I recognized one of them as Bea.  She made a beeline straight to Shirley, giving some hard looks to some of the delinquents who’d been out with us the night prior.

I remained in the kitchen, hanging back.  Shirley looked in the direction of Bo Peep, pointing, but she didn’t spot me.  She’d thought I was still sitting there.

I watched Bea’s face and I translated what she was saying by watching her lips.

“Headmistress… s bad.  We don’t know what we’re doing.  Sylvester-”

Someone moved between me and her.  I missed the latter part of that sentence.

“…in the bathtub.  It’s going to take work to get her standing again by the time the Infante turns up.”

Shirleys hands went to her mouth, also happening to block my view of her lips.  After a few moments, she lowered her hands, still speaking.  “-His reasons?”

Bea’s expression hardened.  Whatever it was she said, it had a question mark as part of it.  ‘Who knows’, possibly.

I collected the twist, and I tried to figure out the best way forward.  That ominous feeling was starting to take shape, now, and feel less vague or indistinct.

Bea was just now gathering others, giving them instructions and complicating the already complicated situation.  Paul said something, challenging Bea.

In another time and place, they might have gotten along famously, but this wasn’t that time or place.  Bea was transforming, day by day, week by week.  She had more to lose, and she wanted to be a leader, not a ringleader.

Paul, meanwhile, was balking hard at the continued presence of the Academy as an interfering factor in his life.

I navigated a crowd saturated with opposition, with more added every few seconds as Bea gave orders.  I watched as Paul and his backers formed a line, pressing back against the agents Bea had sent at us.

So long as I remained, I was a catalyst for trouble.

I delivered the treat to Bo Peep, gave her another silent wave, and then I ducked into the areas of the crowd where it didn’t look like trouble waited.  I made my way back to the kitchen.

There was a door there that had no exterior handle, necessitating that travel be either from the inside out, and that anyone who made the mistake of letting the door closed would have to walk around the building perimeter to get back to the front door.

I was glad I was traveling from the inside out.

I stepped out into the light drizzle, and I moved quickly, aiming to put as much distance between myself and them as possible.

It was all accumulating, and Bo Peep was entirely right in that I needed to move as little as possible.

Except doing nothing at all would exacerbate problems.  I would need to find a niche I could fit into.  I could hammer out some key points, identify weak points in security at the periphery of Hackthorn, and stay out of the way.

I hoped I could.

I’d keep my hands and head busy and try to see my way through to noon, then I’d adjust, and I’d figure out what it took to get me through the afternoon.  I wanted more time in the company of the others, but they were too difficult to wrangle when outnumbered and packed into a cafe like sardines.

I felt better than I had the last few nights.

That feeling was caught in my chest as though I’d been grabbed, as I rounded a corner and saw a pair of figures.  Two, for this part of any pattern, if they’re hallucinations, I thought.

One was a boy, fat.  The other-

“Mary,” I called out, despite myself.

She turned.

Not Mary.  Young, yes, but far from being Mary.  The clothing was wrong, the eyes showed no familiarity with me, and there was something separate about the way she moved.

In that sighting, it dawned on me just who and what the countless new hallucinations represented.  Past and present caught up to me in an instant and dashed all hopes that I had of feeling better off.

No, this was so much worse.

I could work backward from this moment of recognition.  I could assign names to the boy and his sisters, because I knew just about all of them.  I could assign names to most of the non-soldier ones.  I’d deciphered the pattern and it had nothing to do with numbers, it only had to do with the fact that they were so often something constructed or engineered.  Manufactured in sets.

Just as the Lambs were.

I fled that scene of the pair, putting distance between myself and them and myself and the cafe.  The ominous, hollow feeling I’d had was coming full circle, my eyes widening.  This was so much worse, even if it just stopped at this.

It wouldn’t.

I knew full well the course this took.  That was why this was as bad as it was.  I was slipping away, violence was happening without my being aware of it, and as I slipped, dangerous players were trying to control me.  It wasn’t just horror in retrospect or horror in the moment.

It was horror because I knew who waited for me, just steps down this particular road.  I’d told the others to kill me if I fell that far, and they weren’t here to execute that particular standard.

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