Crown of Thorns – 20.4

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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.

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