Root and Branch – 19.14

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We’d extinguished the fire, but the coals still burned.  Pride had a way of keeping them from admitting defeat for as long as there was an ember or a spark.

There was something about nights like this that exerted a kind of pressure.  It was dark, and that strained the senses, but that was the smallest part of it.  Every sound was a potential attack.  The air was thick with the taste of smoke and the residual chemicals and pollutants of the various weapons we’d deployed, from gunpowder to withering gases and airborne poisons.  I could smell the faint traces of old blood, shit, and death in the wind, even at the walltop.

The decorative crenellations at the edges of the path helped keep us out of sight.  Where smoke had taken to the air, it had come down and settled into the fine cracks and grooves in the wood and stone, making the grooves darker, while the ridges, rises, and bumps stood out in contrast.  My hands and the undersides of my shoes were vaguely greasy with the stuff.

We had three positions that we held, now, of the four major buildings around the perimeter.  The fourth was the admin building that was now out of order, swallowed up by builder’s wood and seed growth.  The issue and the challenge, however, was that any communication between the boys’ and girls’ dormitory buildings had to be done with the flash code or by messengers who made the long walk around the perimeter wall.  Too much use of the flash code meant that they could potentially decipher it.

We couldn’t give those embers of resistance a breath of air.  If we gave them anything, any kind of ground that they could use to convince themselves and each other that they could do something about their circumstance, then it could mean another day or two of dealing with them while they held out.

But the alternative was using messengers, and there was a risk that they could intercept any birds or beasts.  Small, but there.

We would change up the tap code enough to throw them for a loop.  The others in the girl’s dorm would have written records to go by.  We had Jessie.

“Hold on,” Lillian said.

Jessie and I dropped to a sitting position, our backs to the short wall that bounded the walltop path.  My shackles clinked as I settled.  Lillian took a seat to Jessie’s left.

“Back’s sore, stooping over, while carrying this bag.”

“I could take it the rest of the way,” I said.

“It would be awkward, with the chains,” Lillian said.

“Here,” Jessie said.  She dragged the bag to her side, then pulled the strap over her head, the bag resting against the side of her backpack.  “I’ve got it.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said.  “Give me a second.  I’ll need to take something later or I won’t be able to get up out of bed tomorrow.  For now, I just need a moment to rest.”

“You do know there are labs over there you can use,” I said.  “You don’t need to pack a small lab into a satchel.”

“I have my own equipment that I like,” Lillian said.  “Mary got me onto knife sharpening, and now I can’t use anyone else’s scalpels.  There are a lot of things like that.  It’s easier to bring my things with me.”

“I’ve got some books and a change of clothes,” Jessie said.  “Either this ends soon, or I’ll be able to unwind with you two.”

“Will you share your books?” Lillian asked.  “We can talk about them.”

“It would make my day,” Jessie said.

“I’ll look forward to it then,” Lillian said.

I wanted to join in, poking fun or making comments, but ambient sounds make me pause.  I nearly missed it, but there was a sound in the background, that I would never have given a second thought to if we were in a living city.  A flap of cloth, as the wind turned, and one sound I couldn’t decipher: gritty, grating and very brief.

I reached out, touching Jessie’s arm.  Jessie nodded, shrugging out of the strap of the bag, drawing two guns.  Lillian eased down to almost a lying position, drawing her own revolver.

We remained like that, tense, while several seconds passed.  There weren’t any more noises.  Jessie had heard just as well as I had, and I wasn’t sure if she’d been processing it or if she’d needed my nudge to go back and actually pay attention to the memory she’d filed away, but she knew what was up.  Lillian was taking our cues, and I very much appreciated that she was as willing to go with the flow, barely a second’s hesitation in picking up what we were putting forth.

“Did you manage to find new books?” I asked, casual.

“There’s plenty around the dormitory,” Jessie said.  “And there was a shelf where they collected books that students had left behind when they vacated the dorm.  I picked up a few.”

“Back when I read Jamie’s books,” Lillian said, “I had the hardest time keeping up with the dime store novels.  He would go through them so fast, I had to ask him to keep an eye out for the ones that continued long-running series or filled in gaps.  He was so good about that.  I still don’t know what happened between ‘The Golden Child and the Queen’ and the ‘The Destroyer’ one.  There was that fantasy book that aborted early because it didn’t get readers, too.”

She was barely letting her nervousness show.  I was strongly suspicious that if our enemy was someone on Fray or Mauer’s level, they would have realized that Lillian was reacting to their presence, but we had no reason to think our enemy here was that good at reading people.

“I have some of those,” Jessie offered.

“I’ve… probably forgotten everything pertinent,” Lillian said.

“Easily handled,” Jessie said.  “We’ll recap.”

“Before we get that far, we actually need to get where we’re going,” I said.  “How’s your back, Lil?”

“I’m a little shaky, I wish I knew what I was in for ,” she said, “But I’ll manage.”

I’d caught the double-meaning implicit in her reply there.  I’m so very fond of that girl.

“Alright.  We’ll get moving,” I said, shaking my head slowly.  I shifted position, my chains rattling, and leaned forward so my hands were visible.  I gestured lie.

Jessie gestured stay with her hand on the grip of one of her revolvers, and I gave her a short nod.  She passed it on to Lillian with a gesture.

Extending my foot out as far as it would go, I scuffed the ground with my heel.

They appeared almost out of nowhere, dressed in dark clothes, graceful, with limbs twice as long as they ought to have been.  Scarves and hoods masked most of their faces, and the rest was a morass of tubing and metal.  If there were any eyeholes or metal, there wasn’t enough light to make them apparent.

There were four of them.  As the one nearest me appeared on the wall, I threw myself onto my back, sticking my foot out.  I hooked their ankle with my foot, and very nearly tipped them backward over the tall wall they’d just scaled, for a very long drop.  One of their companions caught them.

The scene froze.  The warm wind that tasted of smoke and had far too little moisture to it was making their cloaks and clothing billow and flap, but they were very still.  Lillian had the one nearest her at gunpoint.  Jessie had one gun trained on the two who held each other and another on the one nearest her.

“Watch where you step,” I said.  “We’ve known you were there for a bit, now, and we set out caltrops and a snare.”

I saw several of their heads turn, examining their environment.

“They’re new,” Jessie said.  “I didn’t see anything like them, unless they were contorted into luggage somewhere.”

“Yeah, no, they weren’t,” I said.  “You guys are new, aren’t you?”

They had blades, but the blades were made of opaque glass or ceramic.  The clothes, the more I was able to catch the details as the faint moonlight shifted, were closer to rags, multiple garments put together.  The sleeves and pants were multiple pieces of dark clothing torn to rags and then sewn together in a way that hugged the long limbs.

“Skewed proportions,” Lillian said.  “I’m guessing they didn’t have any alterations made to their heart or lungs, going by the way they’re breathing.  They’re not meant to last much lon-”

Stop,” the one closest to Jessie said.  Its voice was a hiss, and the ‘p’ sound at the end had a vibration to it as a tube sucked at fluid in the experiment’s mouth and gave it a dry staccato ‘pop’. Like a death rattle.

We stood there, and the wind blew harder, kicking up trace smoke dust from the crenellations.  The same wind made the wasteland out to my left swell with black clouds of dust that could have smothered a house.

“Three ways this goes,” I said.

None of them moved.  The one who’d saved the other from tipping over the wall wasn’t hugging its companion anymore, and the two stood together, hips touching, one hunched over slightly, as if to keep from falling over if the wind blew too strong in the wrong direction.

“The first way is that you work up the courage, and you attack.  You get shot, and you do some damage, but it’s far less than you’re thinking it’s going to be, and we both limp away in retreat, if you four don’t die outright.”

The one who’d spoken before raised its head slightly.

“It’s just the way it is,” I lied.  I mixed the lie with truth, “You’re not even used to those bodies.  So maybe you lose your nerve.  You go away just like you came, climbing down this wall, go back to the others with your heads down like whipped dogs.  It’s… well, I imagine nothing gets better and you’ve just got to wrestle with a lot of worse.”

“Modified bodies, bodies not meant to endure the loads and stresses those frames would put on them, they’ll need more food and nutrients to self-repair,” Lillian said.

“But it’s not going to go that way, because they’ll send you right back out, if some scary Professor doesn’t have some way to punish you,” I said.

I could see them react to that.  Could I read resignation in that body language of theirs?  It was hard, given the flowing coverings and their unusual postures.  I kept reading tension in them, but it might have been what Lillian was saying, that they had legs that were twice as long and trying to maintain balance like normal length legs did.  The arms weren’t in a position to grab anything and find support there, unless they wanted to drop to all fours, and they weren’t about to do that.

“You’ve got a third option,” I said.  I worked my way to a standing position.  “You’re going to take those weapons, and you’re going to throw them over the edge.  No games, no tricks, nothing underhanded.  Jessie’s going to undo these shackles on me, and we’ll shackle you four instead.  We walk you over to the boys’ dormitory over there, and we’ll take you prisoner.  Our doctors will look after you, start figuring out how to undo what was done to you, and you’ll be supplied hot, good food.  Water, wine, ale.  Baths.”

The looming figure ahead of me slouched forward a bit.  After a moment, it dropped, sitting on its heels, one hand on the crenellated wall.

“Beds to sleep in,” I said.  “I can’t imagine you slept well over there, with the higher-ups taking the few good sleeping spots.  But I’m going to go back to properly cooked food and tea here.”

Reaching out, it touched the blade at its waist, holding it by the pommel with thumb and one fingertip.

“Slowly,” I said.

It took its time drawing the long sliver of glass from the loop of its belt, and the moment the tip of the weapon was no longer in contact with the belt, it dropped, falling free of the fingers that held the pommel, into the city below.

The experiment divested itself of two more weapons this way.  One clipped the wall as it fell, shattering with the contact.

The others disarmed themselves.

“Walk along the wall until you’ve walked five paces, then step down onto the path,” I said.  “Hands in front of you, we’ll get the shackles ready.”

While they took the positions I’d ordered, Jessie undid the shackles at my arms and ankles.  She navigated caltrops and traps that weren’t there, and she shackled the enemy.

A part of me wondered if they hadn’t been modified to see in the dark, if they knew the caltrops weren’t there, and they were playing along because they wanted to eat that badly, because their current existence offered no hope, even if they did as they’d been ordered.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” I said.

There was no resistance.  They walked with bowed heads.

There hadn’t been much in the way of servants.  I wasn’t sure there’d been any that weren’t stitched that could be left behind.  Other experiments had been pressed into service, where possible, and these guys didn’t feel like experiments who’d been modified to fresh purpose.

That led me to the conclusion that with a scarcity of resources, these experiments had been made with materials drawn from the most available pool.  The aristocrats.  Possibly the most easily discarded, possibly the sons and daughters being called on to repay the Crown for the good lives they’d led up to this point, with dim promises that if they saw this through and served the Crown well, that they would be restored to normal.

It didn’t matter.  Their appearance marked just another scattered few burning embers from an extinguished fire.

I glanced over at the main building, fully aware that some keen eyes were watching us, trying to make out what was happening.  They would figure it out.  This wouldn’t be the last time they pushed back, but this effort had involved a lot of work on their part, and it had crumbled easily.  The next would crumble more easily still.

I stared at them without seeing them, knowing they were staring back and there was a chance they’d see me, and they’d get my point.

There was a crowd of rebels to welcome us at the door to the boys’ dormitory.  Davis, Bea, Red, Junior, Prissy, and several more besides.  They gave the aristocrats-turned-experiment some wary looks.

“Can you bring some hot food?” I asked.  “I’m imagining that they’ve had enough meat, since the only thing in rich supply would be warbeast meat, so maybe hold off on the bacon, sausage, or meatfruit, and have the kitchen staff put together something that’ll stick to their insides?  Oatmeal, fruit, veggies, tea?”

“Does that sound good?” Jessie asked.

Yes,” the smallest of the four experiments said.  “Please.

“Secure them somewhere, if possible,” I said.

“The small labs,” Davis said, still looking very wary.

“Somewhere with a bed?” I asked.

“…The overnight labs, that the students were using to nap in while keeping an eye on projects,” Mabel said.

“Sounds good,” Davis said.  To us, he said, “We converted some bedrooms, the beds are nice enough, if that’s what you’re going for.”

“It is,” I said.

The group of students at the door began to dissolve, and an armed escort saw the experiments off to their destination.

Davis hung back with some of the other lieutenants, waiting for the experiments to leave.

“You sure about this?” Davis asked.

“They’re surrendering.  They’re doing exactly what we want them to do, they get rewarded,” I said.

“Yeah,” Davis said.  “Maybe.”

“It’s good,” I reassured him.

“Yeah,” Davis said.  He sounded tired.

“Is there a lab I can drop my things off in?” Lillian asked.

“Go with the others, use one close to those four you just brought in,” Davis said.  “There’re a few spaces you could use.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said.  She looked at Jessie and I, “You two will be okay?”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.

“I’ll putter around on my own for a bit, then I’ll catch up with you two.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“It’s fine.  If this really is things winding down, then I’m content to take a few minutes, get sorted out and have my thoughts in order, and be ready for leaving Hackthorn.”

“That’s just a little ways off,” I said.

“It is, but can you promise me I’m going to get another few hours of peace and quiet after tonight?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “No, I guess not.”

She smiled.  “I’ll catch up after.”

She took the bag from Jessie and departed in the direction that the four experiments and the armed escort had gone.

Jessie and I joined Davis in heading up to the building’s sitting room, a mirror to the one in the girls’ dormitory.  We settled into seats.  I chose one with a view through the window between bookshelves, where I could see a sliver of the main building.  The enemy.

“What’s the current take on things?” Jessie asked.  “There’s no wrong answer, I’m just curious.”

“Broad question,” Davis said.

“In conflict and casualty?” I asked.

“Doing okay.  The injured have been patched up.  Two dead, but…” he sighed.  “…their fault, mostly?”

“Their fault?” I asked.

“Say what you will, but a bulk of the student body is young.  Two sixteen year old boys, no prior experience with war, violence, sieges, plague, or any of that, they were put on guard duty, they slacked off, went for a walk.  Around the time the fog was lifting and the nobles left, they were out for a smoke or to, uh, enjoy a degree of privacy you don’t get with a couple hundred students in one building.  They didn’t make it back.”

“That’s a damn shame,” I said.

“Ammo’s good, we’ve still got a small few experiments in reserve to throw at any attackers, if we need to buy time to get organized.  Things were stressful for a bit, back there, but I think we sense that we’re through the worst of it.”

“Everyone’s working together?  No dissent at the bottom?”

“Might be a nice thing about being actively at war with a common enemy,” Davis said.  “Keeps us focused and working together.  No dissent at the bottom.”

“Red and I do what we can about the troublemakers, ensure they’re busy and content,” Bea said.  “There’s some minor drugs going around, made in the labs, but so long as it doesn’t impair anyone or get in the way of things being done…”

“Sure,” I said.

“Going by the rounds of questions you’ve asked before, you’re going to ask about resources.  Our overall supplies are good,” Mabel said.  “We’re fairly well stocked.  Not enough to create an army or brew another batch of the fog you used to limit access to the city below, but food, feed, water, medical supplies, a variety of supplies that would let us do one-off experiments, we’re good.”

“Good,” I said, a little unnerved that Mabel had paid that much attention to me.  “Ongoing projects?”

“Some gas, some warbeasts, some stitched, more than a few parasites.  More to keep us busy than to turn the tides,” Junior said.  “A lot of it translates to the next phase of things.”

“Good,” I said.  “Non-Academy projects?”

“We dug up schematics for boats.  Two weeks to make our first departure, once we’re good to go.  That’s assuming nothing more burns down, the stitched are available, and the schematics hold up.”

“Then we’re good?” I asked.  “Questions?  Needs, desires?”

“I’d be a little more at ease if we didn’t have enemies under our roof, but I’ll manage,” Davis said.  “I have to ask.  Are you good, Sy?”

“I’m… managing,” I said.  My hand went to my wrist, where the shackle had been removed.  I rubbed my one wrist with one hand, then switched to do the same with the other.  “Can you guys dig up some cuffs or shackles?  I think we’ll all feel a bit better if we limit the damage I can do.”

“I’ll get right on that,” he said.  “Where do you two want to set up shop?”

I looked at Jessie, then at Davis.  “Here?”

“Sure, Sylvester,” he said.

I remained with Jessie, dropping my bag of clothes beside hers.  Together, we approached the window.  There was a chair set next to it, with someone else’s old cup of tea resting on the sill, a half-inch of tea sitting in the bottom, gone bad.

Together, we sank into the chair, Jessie sitting on me as if to pin me down in place, to make up for the lack of chains.

“I’m glad you’re connecting with Lil,” I said.

“So am I,” Jessie said.

Her attention turned to the world beyond the window.  The main building had a great many lights on within.  The light and shadow suggested that they were all gathered at the long tables.

Late-night debates, hashing out the terms by which they would surrender.

“It’s been almost a day and a night since we faced off against their nobles.  I can’t tell if I’m surprised or very much not surprised that they’re being this stubborn,” I remarked.

“I’m not surprised,” Jessie said.  “But if I went by gut feeling-”

“You don’t really do gut feeling much.  You do precedent, miss Jessie.”

“If I did, just this one time,” she said, snuggling in closer to me, nestling into the gap between my shoulder and arm and where the back of the armchair curved in around us, “I would say that they’ll decide before dawn.”

“So their humiliation isn’t as visible as it’d be in stark daylight,” I said.

“Somehow I don’t think that’s where my gut feeling was founded,” Jessie said.

“It’s where mine is, you dingus,” I said.

“You’re the dingus, doofus.”

“You’re the doofus…” I said.  I trailed off.  We had company.

One of Davis’ subordinates, with chains and manacles.  I rested my head on Jessie’s shoulder while she directed the fellow in how to arrange it.  My left ankle and my left wrist were shackled.  The shackles were attached to the iron grille that framed the window, bolted securely into the stone of the wall.

“D’you need anything else?” the fellow asked.

“Blanket?” Jessie asked.

It was less than a minute before he returned with the blanket.

When he left, Jessie and I were left alone in the room, sharing a seat with a view, a blanket draped over our laps.

It seemed almost as if the black wood and plague had consumed Hackthorn after all.  The wind blew and it stirred clouds of dust and settled smoke like it would have stirred up the aftermath of black wood.  The city below was empty, without any lights on.

“It’s beautiful, in a desolate kind of way,” I said.

“I have to admit, I don’t get much out of the sights,” Jessie said.  “I’ve spent far too much time looking out windows for the past couple of days.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I should have grabbed a book before getting comfortable,” she said.  Rather than pull away, she curled up against me, her head settling against the back of the chair, her nose brushing my shoulder.

“I’d like to think I’m more interesting than a book,” I said.

“You’re very much more interesting than a book,” she said.  “Enough so that it can be tiring, I admit.  I might have to conserve my strength.”

“Well gee whiz, sorry,” I said.

I felt rather than heard her soft laughter.

“What if I don’t say anything?  Does that make me less exhausting to be around?” I asked.

“Then I’ll be bored,” she said.  “I’ll be left to dig through old memories, sort out more recent ones to make sure I didn’t miss connections, and anticipate tomorrow.  A night of mental filing.”

“Well, just proposing an alternative…” I said.

The arm that encircled her middle shifted position, my hand tugging on the side of her blouse.  It pulled her collar away from her neck, revealing one of the scars from the caterpillar implant.  This one formed a line from the nape of her neck and extended just a little ways over her shoulder.

I kissed it.

She kissed the side of my face.

My free hand moved, and my free hand didn’t need to roam, explore, or find their place to find what they were looking for.  My memory was shot, and there were countless things I didn’t remember like I was supposed to, but I knew where Jessie’s scars were beneath her clothes, and my fingers traced the scars.  At the stomach, in two places, at the chest.  Fingers brushed against fine fabric, tracing the lines.

Her hand moved up and down the left side of my body, before reaching up to my shoulder and finding a place there.

Distant footsteps approached, drawing closer.  We didn’t move to hide what we were doing, but the positions we held weren’t such that anyone would raise an eyebrow, unless they saw us in motion.  We were still, while a group of students with guns passed through the sitting room of the boys’ dorm.

“You alright?” one asked.

“Very good, thank you,” I said, smiling.

They moved on, heading into another hallway, carrying out the rest of their patrol.

Jessie’s fingers touched my lips.  “Nice smile.”

“You’ve seen it often enough.”

“Not like this,” she said.  “Not so devastating.”

“You keep using that word.  Are you being flattering for once?”

“I flatter you plenty, but with that damaged, devastating brain of yours, it’s in one ear and out the other,” she said, her voice soft.

“Hmm.  I think you’re trying to get a lie past me with distracting words in the middle of the statement, there.”

“Maybe.”

She kissed the side of my face.  I turned my head to face her and kissed her properly.

My fingers traced the lines, until her hand found mine and held it.

I broke the kiss.

“So that’s the famous, devastating Sylvester kissing, is it?” she asked.

“I’ve kissed you before.  Also, don’t think I don’t notice you pushing that button over and over again, because you know I like it.”

“It’s our word,” she whispered in my ear.  “Our wanted poster, our inside joke.”

I squeezed her hand.

“Kiss me again,” she said.

I did.

“I’d forgotten just what that was like,” she said.

The wind whistled outside.  The voltaic lights overhead buzzed as the structure flexed and the wiring was jostled.

My blood ran cold.

“Jessie,” I said.

She squeezed my hand, not making eye contact.  “It’s nice, forgetting and being reminded.”

“Jessie, what’s going on?  Did you drop a fourth memory?”

“Shh,” she said.  Fingers touched my lips.

I knew Jessie as well as I knew anyone.  I could see it, hear it, feel it in the way she pressed against me.

“More than four.”

“Shh, Sy.  Please.”

“More than ten?”

She moved her fingers and kissed me again.

I only went with it because I needed to get my thoughts in order.  I could feel my heartbeat thudding like it was trying to break free, and I could feel hers doing much the same.

As she broke the kiss, she moved her head, so it was beside mine.  Not facing me, not facing the question.

Words caught in my throat as I tried to organize them.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“Hmm,” she made a noise, as if she was mulling it over.

I waited for the response, and she didn’t provide it.

“Jessie, I know I probably deserve it, I know I’ve teased you and everyone else that matters more than I’ll ever be teased in return, but don’t leave me hanging on this one.  Can you just explain?”

She was silent.

My heart pounding, my throat a lump more than it was an airway, I shifted position.

Jessie had fallen asleep.

“That’s not fair,” I said.  My voice broke with the sentence.  “And I know I more than deserve that too.”

I shook her.  It didn’t rouse her.  I slapped her lightly, then a little harder.

I raised a hand to hold it near her nose and mouth, so I could feel if she was breathing.

I waited.

The lump in my throat swelled, and I had to cough to keep from choking on it.

“Jessie,” I said.

I felt the breath on the back of my hand, and I barely felt better at that.

My voice was barely audible to myself, “Jessie, I refuse to let you pull this fast one on me, okay?  You’re not going to leave me hanging for hours now, waiting to see if you wake up as you.  You don’t get to do that.  Not when we’re so close to everything we’re trying to do.”

“It was always a war of attrition.”

I closed my eyes, wincing.

“You’re operating with little time, holding the position of power.  They’re operating with very little power, but they have time on their side.  It might not feel like it to them, as they starve, as they want for water and proper rest, but as pride compels them to negotiate their surrender among themselves before they extend it to you, they’ve been whittling down a clock with your collective deadlines on it.”

“Infante,” I said.

The figure loomed before me.  A pillar of a man.  A monolithic entity.  He stared down at Jessie and I.  He wasn’t wholly the Infante, and he wasn’t wholly me either.

“Not now,” I said.

“These things are never convenient,” he said.  “The most important moments of clarity and decision come when you’re most pressed by circumstance.”

“Not now,” I said, quieter.  Then, abruptly, realizing that I was losing ground, I writhed my way free of the chair and of Jessie, pushing her back into the seat to keep her from tumbling to the ground.  I stood, and my wrist and ankles jerked with the chain that connected me to the wall.  I roared the words, “Someone!  Anyone!”

He stared at me.

“Lillian!” I called out.

He turned his attention to Jessie.

If I lost ground here, if I snapped like I had before, and if I ended up working against everything I’d been trying to do…  If, somehow, in a warped perspective, I found myself justifying horrible things and the greatest of betrayals, what would I do, when only Jessie was in arm’s reach?

If Jessie was still there.

“No,” I said.

“The only way you don’t have to see her eyes open and not recognize you, is if they don’t open,” the Infante said.

“That’s- no, that’s bad logic.  That’s not sensible at all.”

“You’ve seen a lot of death without even blinking, but one blank look with nothing behind it nearly destroyed you the first time.  It would be a question of self preservation.”

“Anyone!” I screamed the words.  “Help!”

How were there no patrols close enough?

“Can you really endure it?” he asked.

“I have to,” I said.  “Clearly.  I- whatever you’re representing right now, whatever thought processes and fears… I’ll concede the battle here.  You can have this win.  I’ll compromise, I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“Oh, Sylvester,” the apparition spoke, reverberating to the core of my being in a way that nothing in reality ever had.  I now knew that the countless nightmares and fragments of madness, the dozens of figures, the visions of the world breaking down had never stopped- they had only found a singular, indomitable form that would stampede through my being in a way I couldn’t ever stop.

“There was never going to be an ending where you didn’t,” he said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.13

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The Nobles stood on the rooftop, amid the bodies of scattered warbeasts and experiments.  Ribcages had been torn apart so they spiked skyward from otherwise unrecognizable piles of meat and gristle.  Skulls had been bifurcated, some so neatly that it seemed inconceivable that it had been done in combat, while others had been divided in a messy way, skull fragments sticking through torn flesh and scale.

It was getting late, and we’d decided that they were too relaxed up there.  We’d taken care to ensure the warbeasts didn’t suit as food.  The ones who scattered the rooftop and hung from the branches that had grown across it were only a small share.  Some had been bloated, filled with gas or parasites.  Junior and Poppy- Persephone?  Prissy?  I wasn’t sure of her name.  Whoever she’d been, she and Junior had made sure that many of the warbeasts, when slain, had smelled as pungent as possible.

My sampling of the smell had revealed it to be something like faeces mixed with perfume.  I’d prepared myself in advance of the sample by liberally coating every inch of my body, hair, and clothing in powder, inside and out, changing out of the clothes in question right after.

Even with that, only Ashton had been willing to keep me company for the twelve hours that followed.

The Nobles were holding up remarkably well.  One or two had been lightly injured by the second wave of warbeasts we’d sent their way.  When they’d realized the traps hidden within the beasts, they’d changed their tactics, parrying tooth or claw while physically throwing the beasts off the rooftop.  It was harder and more hazardous, when most of the beasts were several hundred pounds.  Most beasts had accelerated reflexes and enhanced strength.  Some had barbs in their fur to make letting go that much harder.

Junior had been one of the more dangerous, devious, and ruthless of Beattle’s students, leading the Rank.  We’d told him, Prissy and Gordeux to go all out, and this had been the result.  Spite, traps and overall nastiness blended together with snarling warbeasts we’d mostly inured to the gas.

The Lady Gloria was one of the injured.  She had torn off her sleeves and used them to wrap the wound at her middle, and she was the only noble who wasn’t standing, seating herself on one corner of the roof, her head turned our way, the wind periodically blowing her hair this way or that.

The rest stood, pretending to be impervious to the elements.  They had been up there since dawn, and now the sun was going down.  The light was fading, and the Nobles on the rooftop were getting harder and harder to make out.

“Soon,” Mary said.

I lowered the binoculars and rubbed my eyes, my shackles rattling.  I turned my back to the window, resting against the wall to the side of it.  The room had a series of beds in it, but only one of the beds was occupied.  Nora had arranged her overlarge body so she curled up in the corner, her shoulders and head against the headboard, her back and legs against the wall that the bed had been set against.  Three pillows had been propped up around her, in use by four different people, with Abby and Bo Peep sharing the one by her knees.  Ashton used another, and Lara rested directly against her sister’s upper body, hugging a pillow instead of using it to rest her head.  Quinton did without, just enjoying the proximity of the others as he lay on his side.  Two blankets were haphazardly shared by the group in a way that seemed entirely sub-optimal, but I doubted I could have fixed it, and I knew I would’ve woken at least one of them by trying.

Emmett, pretending to be too mature for the sleep pile, had seated himself by the foot of the bed.  But he was still young and there was only a certain extent to which he could act the adult.  He’d dozed off, and because of Quinton’s hoof jutting over the bed, had unconsciously tilted his head to one side, into a very uncomfortable position, so he wouldn’t get repeatedly kicked in the head as Quinton had his running and jumping dreams.

Lara was awake and all but unable to move, nestled in as she was.  Her eyes were open, and she was humming, accenting the hums with a vibrating distortion.

Her eyes watched me.  The two main eyes were red-rimmed in a way that might’ve made my eyes water sympathetically, were I not used to them.  Her eyelids themselves looked like she’d screwed them shut and endured having someone rub glass dust and salt into the lids until she had two black eyes and the eyelids themselves were raw and shredded.  The orbs weren’t much better.  The structure of the space around the eyes was mid-transition.  Lesser eyes, even more damaged looking, were peering out, socketed in spaces where skull had dissolved into socket and the surrounding flesh was pushing out latent infection and skull fragments in painful looking clusters.

Bone fragments and eyes.

The arms that hugged the pillow appeared overlong, but it was just her claws.

“We should be positioned.  They’re going to try something, and this time they’re going to be desperate,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I said.

I raised the binoculars.  The Nobles were still there.  One of the Nobles I hadn’t put a name to was talking to Lady Gloria.  The distance and the lighting meant I couldn’t make out the lip movements.

“Are you going to come?” Mary asked.

“Might as well,” I said.  “We going to bring Ashton?”

“He might be useful,” she said.  “Even if the enemy is counteracting him.”

“If we can tax their resources by forcing them to prepare Ashton countermeasures, that’s a good thing,” I said.

The humming died down.  I lowered the binoculars and glanced at Lara.

She looked very concerned.  Her eyes blinked, the ordinary ones out of sync with the others.  Some of the others didn’t have enough eyelid to blink fully.

“We’ll make sure he’s safe,” I said, my volume quieter than normal, as if I was saying it to Mary, though I met Lara’s eyes.

“Don’t stop,” Ashton mumbled.  His hand reached up and patted clumsily at Lara’s face.

“They want you,” she said.

“Mmm,” Ashton said.  His eyes snapped open.

He’d somehow wound up at the center of the mob, with a pillow against his belly while Peep and Abby rested on it.  He managed to extricate himself without disturbing them too much, stepped off the bed, and where another person might have stretched, he remained poised, like a stitched that had burned through a wire, hunched over with arms slightly raised, knees slightly bent.

His hands went to his belt, and he drew a comb.  He immediately set to fixing his hair, his eyes fixed on the ground a few feet head of him.  Done entirely from memory.

I glanced out the windows.  Lady Gloria was no longer talking to the others.  They’d taken their former perches, spaced out on the roof and surrounding branches.  The residual gas drifted across the Academy.

We headed for the door, and Ashton moved to follow, glancing back at the others.  His attention was on his clothes now, fixing wrinkles.

“They’re not going to care, Ashton,” I said.

I care,” he said.

We stepped out into the hallway, and I gently eased the door shut behind us, as quietly as I was able when chained.  I was very aware of Lara’s penetrating stare as the gap narrowed and the door finally closed.

“I’m trying to decide if we should unchain you,” Mary said.  “On the one hand, you’d be faster, and you could help more.  On the other, when all is said and done, I think I’d be more effective if I wasn’t having to keep as much of an eye on you.”

“Best to play it safe,” I said.

“Chains on, then.”

We passed a window.  I peered through, raising my binoculars.  The light was worse, but I could make out the Nobles.

We passed the next window, and the combination of light and angle made it next to impossible to tell if the Nobles were there.  I met Mary’s eyes.  “They’re gone.”

“I saw,” she said.

Our pace picked up.  We headed down one set of stairs, then another, and by the time we entered the hallway, we were running.

Lillian, Duncan, and Jessie were by the doors.

“They’re moving,” I said.

Duncan twisted around, raising a hand.

The gate cracked open.  Cages creaked as doors were opened.  Experiments flooded out, moving in a stream.  All pack animals, all a cross between simian and canine, with faces defined by long, slanted eyes and the long canine teeth that jutted more forward than up or down.

Duncan hauled open another cage.  His Grabber pawed its way forward, tentacles lashing this way and that as it felt its way, exploring the world beyond its cage.  It was the size of a horse, but its body was lighter and its legs longer and stronger.  The thing’s children were closer to large dogs in size.  All headless, all with tentacles framing the stumps where the necks should have begun.

Lillian wasn’t wearing the suit she’d designed.  The Treasurer was, buried within what looked like muscle layered over muscle, with no skin to cover it.  Only the mask wasn’t organic, his breath hissing through the filters.  Even with the added mass and extra foot and a half of height, he looked burdened with the casks and the cages he carried.  The lifeforms within the cages were similar to the canine-simian chimeras, but they were smaller.  Less baboon-wolf and more chimpanzee-puppy.

Lillian only had a rifle and her white coat.  She had a quarantine mask, but she didn’t wear it over her face, instead leaving it hanging around her throat, like a second face.

Helen was smiling, swaying on the spot as if to music only she could hear.

“Go,” I said to Helen, as I stopped walking, coming to a halt beside Jessie.

Helen was right on the heels of the slowest of the attack beasts we’d unleashed.

“Drop ropes down,” I reminded the students who stood off to the side.  “Two tugs, a pause, and two more tugs, means it’s us.  Or you can just cut the ropes and leave us out there.  Would be a tidy way to get rid of us.”

“He’s joking,” Jessie said.  Like Lillian, she had a mask.  “Don’t do that.  Really.”

With that, we stepped through the morass of builder’s wood that had been cleaved and pulled down out of the way, freeing the doors to open, and we passed through the gap and into the city proper.  There was a haze, but the word from our Doctors was that it was supposed to be inert, now.  The moisture was still heavy in the air, but the chemicals wouldn’t be active.  Ominous, to see ambient clouds of what had been corrosive gas, but not hazardous.

“Nervous, Sy?” Lillian asked.  Her voice was hushed, and it sounded eerie, given the landscape.

“Hm?  Never.”

“Never, right, yeah,” she said.  “You always poke fun when you’re uneasy.”

“Uneasy?  Here?  Naw,” I said.  My eyes scanned the area.  There wouldn’t be any Nobles, not here, not this far in this fast.  I still felt the need.  “We’re sticking our necks out, there’s no danger.”

“We spread out as soon as we’re into the street,” Jessie said.  “Duncan, Lillian, Ashton, you’re the fulcrum points.  Mary-”

“I’ll fulcrum,” I said.

“You’re chained up.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Let me be the bait.”

“Let him,” Mary said.

“Alright,” Jessie said, her voice soft.  “Mary, Duncan’s beasts, Treasurer, Helen, and I are floating.  Ashton, stay close to the middle, support whoever needs supporting, which will probably be Sy or me.  I’ll take the west, since that puts me further from the side with the Nobles.”

“The objective isn’t to kill,” Mary said.  “We don’t need to win.”

I might have made a joke about Mary needing to convince herself of that.  I didn’t.  I’d just been called out on poking fun, for one thing, and I knew the words weren’t meant for Mary, but for Helen, who was already roaming, staying just in earshot.

The sound of a distant thud drew our collective attention.

The thud was soon followed by a sound like a sturdy iron rake across cobblestone, and then a wet, gurgling scream.

The pack of warbeasts had found the nobles, or vice versa.

We moved as a unit, fanning out.  The Treasurer was a weak point, he didn’t know the dynamics, and in an odd way that completely went against the language Jessie had been using, he became the fulcrum point.  He was the fixed point which the rest of us revolved around, as we found positions, chose vantage points, and kept an eye on those closer to us.

“Blasted things!” a voice called out.  It was augmented.  Noble.

“Calm, Clifford,” a voice replied, further away.  It was only the sheer silence that hung over the city that allowed me to catch it.  “Calm.  They want us agitated.  It wouldn’t do to give them what they want without something in return.”

Something told me it was Carling.

“We’re not alone anymore,” a woman said.  “And it isn’t the beasts.  Not entirely.”

I paused, remaining where I was, chains gathered up in my hands and twisted around so they wouldn’t rattle more than was necessary.  Jessie was just a little further up ahead.  Lillian was a distance to my right.

Jessie signaled.  Three-three.

I passed on the signal to Lillian.  Lillian gestured to someone I couldn’t make out.  I knew it was the Treasurer, or it was someone who could access the Treasurer.

“Ho!” Carling called out.  “Fine evening, isn’t it?  Fine weather, not too warm for a summer evening.”

We all remained silent.

“Something just scurried across the rooftops, my Lord,” a Lady said.

“I know,” Carling said.

“It was smaller than the others, but larger than a housecat.  My Lord, cats and cockroaches aside, nothing should have survived the gas.”

“It was theirs.  They uncaged it just now.  I heard the hinges.  Just be on guard.  I imagine the blasted things have poison or they go for the eyes.  Whatever they do, they-”

The explosion cut him off.  A flare of orange struggled to penetrate the fog, and only served to bring a spot of warmth to it before fading, replaced with rolling black smoke.  Masonry crumbled to the ground in a steady patter.

“Ho ho!  That was an improbably big detonation for a small package!  Everyone alright!?” Carling called out.

I didn’t hear the responses.  The fog was thinning out, though.  The fire had burned away a lot of it, and much of the fog we had was rolling in to occupy the area around the explosion site.

Carling was talking an awful lot, taking an optimistic, lighthearted stance.  I suspected it wasn’t really for his fellow Nobles.

“You could have sustained the siege, couldn’t you?” Carling asked.  “You could have held back, remained secure at the perimeter, while letting us reunite with the others.  You’re done with your white gas, so you would have had to.  But you saw the need to venture out here yourselves.  I can hear two of you whispering.  A girl and a boy.  You’re worried.”

He wasn’t entirely wrong.  The skew of the worry might have been slightly different than he’d expected, though.

I glanced over at Jessie, who stood with her back to the corner of one house.  The house had taken some damage in the earlier fires.  I gestured as best as I was able to, without releasing my chains.

They flank.

Carling was communicating by some unnatural means, like subvocalizations, directing another noble to circle around.  That was very likely what Helen and Duncan or Helen and Ashton were discussing.

“You’re worried we’re going to stand firm.  We’re proud, and rightfully so.  Crown and Academy will hold out to the last.  The people in that building can do it in part because we represent something.  The Nobility matters to them.  You’re thusly compelled to act against us.  You Lambs need to take a piece out of us, for symbolic reasons.  And you’ll stake a great deal on it.  You put yourselves on the line.”

I met Jessie’s eyes, and I signaled, pointing.

Jessie raised her hand skyward, gesturing.  One-four.

I changed where I was pointing, hand moving to gauge distance.

Jessie changed the signal.  Three-four.

“You’re confident,” Carling said.  “And rightly so.  I’ve never actually experienced anything of the like.  This is… fascinating.”

The chimp-puppy popped out of the fog, somewhere between Jessie and I.  With the way the fog clung to the ground, it had been largely obscured.  Its eyes glowed bioluminescent through the mist as it assessed me, then it headed off at a diagonal.  Taking the long way round me.

“Am I going to be the only one talking?” Carling asked.

“I can respond,” I called out, gripping the chains tighter.  I was revealing my location.

“Excellent.  I’ll assume, based on discussions I’ve had with others, that you’d be Sylvester?”

“You assume right.”

“That leaves me to figure out what I need to ask you.  I won’t ask what your grand plan is.  You’ve likely told the others, and if we reach them, then we’ll hear the same.  If I asked-”

The second of the explosions was more intense than before, but I was closer to it this time.  It was only a few houses down from where I was.  I backed away from the source of the detonation, eyes on the shadows around the rooftops.  The fog and smoke made it appear as if things were there when they weren’t.

But I did have some experience with seeing things that weren’t there.  I wasn’t too unnerved.

Gut feeling had suggested they’d be close.  They’d be approaching from the most inconvenient, most unexpected angle, and that meant they’d circled the long way around.  Jessie had echoed my sentiment if she’d agreed to give the signal and open that cage.

The chimp-pups were akin to homing pigeons in some regards, except home was out the charges and canisters we’d laid out well in advance.  They pulled pins and levers and then scampered off to a second ‘home’ site.  By releasing them, we could activate explosives, gas canisters and traps at a dozen locations.

The original plan had been to use it to uproot the enemy if they decided to lay a counter-siege and try to access the boys’ or girls’ dormitories, but this worked too.

“These noisy interruptions are rather uncalled for,” Carling said.

“Already set in motion,” I said.  “Nothing I can do about them for the time being.”

“So I see.  I was hoping to have a civil discussion.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Well, you might be disappointed.  Civility isn’t ranked high on our list of priorities, these days.”

I heard Carling’s voice.  Not directed at me, this time.  “Where’s Lord Willoughby?”

There was a pause.

In the distance, there was a softer explosion, less sharp.

That last one was likely our safeguard to hold enemy reinforcements at bay.  They’d want to send people and experiments out to answer the explosions and help their nobles.  A fresh cloud of gas would buy us a little bit of time.

“Gas, that time?  You’ve injured a Lady and, unrelated to the gas, you’ve made Lord Willoughby disappear.”

With the heat burning away the fog, the figures in the distance were becoming clearer.  There was a distant glow of fire.

“I can hear the rattle of your chains, Sylvester.  Why are you chained up?  Are you that far gone?”

He was pacing.  I could track his voice as the silhouette moved through the fog.

“We thought we’d give you a handicap,” I said.

I heard the sound, low, building.  A chuckle.  It became a laugh.

I matched him in pacing, venturing further from the building I’d been hunkering down beside.

“What a shame that we had to be enemies,” Carling said.  “I would have liked to have you work for me.”

“I think the problem is that you still see yourselves as superior to us,” I said.  “And not as peers.”

“Is that the problem?” Carling asked.  His tone was light.  “I thought it was your blatant and grotesque lack of respect for the Crown and what it represents.”

His voice had turned harder with that second statement.

It was also a mask, something meant to grab my attention, and distract from the reality that one of the figures in the smoke had gone very still.  An illusion, or a hollow Noble like the sisters had been, or- I had no idea what.  But I saw the silhouette of one of the Nobles standing in the fog and smoke, and in the next moment, he was also charging forward, a mere five paces from me.

A rifle shot caught him.  He barely stumbled, but he did stumble a little.

One of Duncan’s larger tentacle-hounds caught the noble.

Even with tentacles catching at his leg and both hands, he managed to lift the thing up, then dash it to a bloody ruin on the ground.  The time it cost him and the limited mobility meant he caught two more rifle shots.  Lillian and Jessie.

“Hold, Wharton,” Carling said.

Wharton, the attacking noble, moved forward a few steps, then stopped.  Whatever rifles had been aimed his way fired again, but they didn’t seem to catch him.  He was practically unbothered by the fact he was being repeatedly shot.

I backed away a few steps.

“Come to me.  Leave them.”

“My lord, you just ordered-”

“I know what I just ordered.  But I’m swiftly changing my mind.  If you’d killed him as planned, I’d be happy to let you continue, but you didn’t, and I now suspect you won’t.”

“The gas is spreading, my lord,” a female voice said.  “Multiple colors, more than one taste in the air.”

“Which only furthers my point,” Carling said.

Wharton stayed where he was for an instant longer, then turned, stalking back toward the others.

“If we stay, we only play into their hands,” Carling said, as if to reassure Wharton that he was doing the right thing.  Yet he’d already indicated he could communicate to them in ways we couldn’t hear.  The words were partially meant for me and the other Lambs.  “They want us to come after them.”

“You realize that if you leave us alive, you also play into our hands?” I asked.  “How many people are looking down at this, watching the explosions and the gas clouds?  How do they respond when you retreat, fewer in number than when you ventured toward the main building, without a single dead Lamb to your names?”

Carling chuckled.

I heard the female voice again.  Gloria, I suspected.  I didn’t hear the exact words.

“No,” Carling said.  I caught that much.  He said something else I didn’t hear.

“I insist.  I know I should defer to you, on several levels, but-”

Jessie was donning her filtration mask.

“They wouldn’t have done this if they weren’t nearly certain they could hold their own or come out ahead.  They got two of ours,” Carling said.  “Let’s leave it at that.”

There was a long, tense pause.

“Ah,” Carling said.

The heels clicked on the road.

Lady Gloria emerged from smoke and fog, her chin held high.  She’d been the noble with Professor Gossamer.  Lillian had had some things to say about her too.  She was pale of hair, skin, and eye, with only black lining at the eyelashes and as a small part of her clothing.  She radiated with intensity.

She also used the wrapping of her sleeves to try and hide a stomach wound.  Blood around the wound had already dried, the damage done hours ago.

She stared me down.

“Is it that you want to act, you can’t let yourself back down?” I asked.  “You should act then.  Is it that you want to talk?  I recommend you talk.  Or if you just want to look your enemy in the eye… take your fill.”

“I’ll ask,” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“The gas is spreading, Gloria.  And I do know you heard the scampering things finding their way to more traps and explosives.”

“I heard,” she said, absently.  “Is Lord Willoughby dead?”

“Probably,” I said.

“You know, we’ve given so much.  Our entire lives are in service to the Crown Empire.”

“I know,” I said.  “But where we differ is in that you see the Crown Empire as a force for good, and we don’t.”

“Not good,” she said.  “But I think the alternative is far worse.”

“We disagree on that too,” I said.

“You’d kill me, but only because I’m Noble-born.  I’ve never harmed my subjects, I’ve been gentle, and I’ve devoted time to ensure they’re looked after.  I’ve always been gentle, and it’s a task, sometimes.  I host lessons and tutor the gifted, and I host events, even for middling families.  Balls to give them a taste of what they could have if they worked hard, welcoming young ladies into their bachelorette years, giving them a chance to be beautiful.  I’ve shared my wealth out, not hoarding it.  Whatever you represent, whatever you fight for, I can’t imagine you’re my enemy.”

“Perhaps your doctors could contrive to give you a better imagination, then.  If they survive all of this.  I’m afraid you’re our enemy, whatever illusions you hold.”

“If we’re to talk-”

“We really shouldn’t,” Lord Carling said.  “They’re delaying us, so the gas can creep nearer.  Best to go to the main building, rendezvous with the others.”

“Forgive me, my Lord.  I’ll try to be brief.  If we’re to talk, Sylvester, can I ask that you use honorifics, and refer to me as a Lady?”

“You can ask,” I said.  “But I’m liable to tell you to go fuck the spikiest warbeast you can find.”

“I see.”

There was a pause.  I could imagine Carling being very impatient.  I could see more of him, as the smoke nearer to us cleared.  The gas off to either side and ahead of us was piling up taller, into high plumes.

“Why do you hate us so, Lambs?  Have we hurt you?”

“If you mean directly, then I could point out the Baron pointed out my eye.”

“The Baron doesn’t count.  He was mad and pathetic.  I feel like I can say that much without betraying the Crown.”

“It doesn’t matter, Lady Gloria.  It’s not- you’re not the focus, here.  The nobility isn’t as important as you think it is.  The Crown, the King, the stations, it’s really… nothing.”

“I see.  Base insults?  Attempting to get a rise out of me?”

“No, Lady Gloria.  No.  You’re really truly nothing.  You’re a farce.  The nobility is, in entirety, or next to.  Just children stolen from streets, from mothers, from breeding stock, whatever.  The cream of the crop, gathered up, sorted among families, and made into Nobles.”

Wind whistled through burned husks of buildings and the gaps growths of builder’s wood.

“You really believe that?” Lady Gloria asked.  “It’s tragic, that you’ve convinced yourself of such-”

“We know,” I said.  “We found out in New Amsterdam.  Others have found out too.  We told students and it was enough to change minds, convince them to turn rebel.  Haven’t you wondered why the Infante wants to scrub the Crown States from existence?  He wants to use plague and black wood to kill and choke the truth from our lips, and to strangle the spread of that base truth.”

“Nonsense,” Carling said.

It was curious that the Lady Gloria was silent.

“The Baron found out.  It’s what drove him mad, made him wretched.  The Duke knew too, but… I think he persevered through it.  Above all else, though, the Professors at the top know.  I imagine that if you went back to that building and hinted at it, you’d see alarm on a select few faces.  Ferres among them.”

There was a long pause.  Lady Gloria was unreadable.

“Isn’t a beautiful farce better than an ugly truth?” she asked.

Ah.

So we were already at that point.  Had she been ready on some level to accept this already?  Suspicions?  Questions without answers, that had all settled at once?

“I think you underestimate the ugliness behind your farce,” I said.

Lady Gloria didn’t seem to have an answer for that.  She looked sad, standing there, thinking about it.

“No,” Carling said.

He stepped forward, becoming less of a silhouette and more of a man.  As he approached, Lady Gloria turned her back to me, and raised a hand, clapping it to the front of Carling’s shoulder, halting him.

“No,” he said.  “That’s madness, and it’s an insult I can’t-”

“Lord Carling,” Lady Gloria said.  Her voice was soft.  “You were concerned about the gas.  You said we couldn’t attack without playing into their hands.”

“He’s saying-” Carling started.  He didn’t finish.  He glared, expression shifting three different ways across two moments.  “No.”

“I know, Lord.”

“We’re better than that.  We have a long history, family lines.  Even the least of us in the present hold status on par with-”

Another explosion over in the direction of the main building’s gate suggested that we’d made our second attempt at stalling the reinforcements.  We’d have to back off soon – an explosion would delay them less than gas would.

“It’s a lie,” Lord Carling said.  In the doing, he sounded more like his old self.  He chuckled, raising a hand, and waggling a finger at me.  “They said you were devious, that you’d find weak points to capitalize on.”

I remained where I was, my hands bound behind my back.  I didn’t flinch, didn’t change my expression.

“It’s a lie,” Lord Carling said.  He turned to Lady Gloria.  “Yes?  I’m not some-”

“Sick child,” I said.  “Orphan.  Street beggar-”

“Stop,” he said.  He was stern, finger held out.

“-or a jail birth.”

He reached for his axe, and Lady Gloria stopped him.  His face was suddenly etched with anger.  “Why are you stopping me?  Why aren’t you with me in this?  Why aren’t you speaking out?”

Lady Gloria didn’t answer.

“Lady Gloria,” he said.  “Daughter of Alex Kinloss.  I order you to answer him, firmly and clearly, and dismiss his lies for what they are.”

Somehow, the words lacked authority.

Lady Gloria seemed to think the same, because she didn’t answer immediately.  She didn’t turn my way.  Instead, when she did speak, it was to him, and her voice was gentle.  “I’ve seen things that made me wonder.  I believe-”

“Enough.  Or I’ll cut you down where you stand,” he said.  Tension strained his voice.

The smoke and gas had cleared enough that I could see the other two nobles in the back.  I could see Lillian, a ways off to the side, a rifle in her hands, aimed but not fired.  I saw Duncan’s dogs gathered, alongside three of the baboon-wolf warbeasts, all poised and ready for the excuse.

I suspected he could deal with them, and the rifles besides.  It would buy me time to run, however.  I’d have to move fast.

He jerked, as if he’d come after me.  Lady Gloria stopped him.

“Let’s leave it at this,” she said, barely audible.

“Now that I’ve told you-” I started.

“Sylvester,” Lady Gloria said.  “Let’s leave it at this.”

“It’s important.  If you speak a word of this to the wrong person-”

“I know.  I can work it out.  I’ll tell him and make sure the others know.  We’ll move carefully.”

I nodded.

She started to lead Lord Carling off, and then stopped.

“Should I send some people to you?  You can outline your terms for our surrender.”

“That would be appreciated,” I said.  “Ensure Professor Ibbot is with them, please.”

I saw Jessie move, hand shifting to a different position on her rifle, fingers taking a different configuration.

“Amend that.  We’ll let you know who we want.”

“I’ll go to the others and see if I can’t prepare them,” Lady Gloria said.

“Mrs. Darby is already there.  Talk to her for a start.”

“I’ll do that,” Lady Gloria said.

“You’re talking about surrender,” Lord Carling said to her, barely audible.  He spoke as if gently reminding her of a simple truth.  “We don’t lose.”

“The Academy doesn’t lose, Lord Carling,” Jessie said, adding her voice to the conversation.  “But this Academy has been ours since well before you arrived.”

For a moment, he looked as if he was going to lash out, drawing that weapon after all.  The moment passed, and he turned away.

With more Academies, States, and Crown to follow, I thought.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Check them for weapons at the door, confiscate any you find,” I instructed the group of rebels.  “Offer them nothing.  When you’re done and they’re settled, stand at the edges of the room.”

“Spaced out, or…?”

“Spaced out, sure.  Then keep quiet.  If you make eye contact with them, don’t be the person to break it.  If they say anything, ignore them.  They’re going to react, they’ll push, they’ll say things, and they’ll threaten you.  But you’re the ones with power, alright?”

That got me a series of nods from the rebel soldiers.

“If you absolutely have to say something, keep it short, firm, along the lines of ‘I’m going to need you to be quiet’, and make sure they can see your weapon in its holster.  If you’re losing your nerve, if you can’t stay firm, or if anything comes up, I want you to use gestures, alright?  Two fingers extended while your hands are in front of you, as if to cover your watch, like so.  We’ll be watching from around the corner and we’ll call you out of the room.”

I didn’t miss the fact that they glanced in Jessie’s direction to confirm that it was okay to listen to me.

“If they’re not cooperating, then show them the door.  If they don’t cooperate there, then, hm, one of them should hang back so they can run to us, shouldn’t they?”

The question was aimed at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “The chances there are a problem are slim.  You’ll be fine.”

Jessie gave the confirmation, and the students headed to the door.

Lillian and Helen caught up with us around the time that we were hearing the commotion at the door.  One loud voice with crisp enunciation stood out from the rest.

“Duncan, Ashton, Mary and the younger Lambs are on their way, and your lieutenants are heading over there to replace them.  Nora is hanging back there so we know if anything happens.”

“Our lieutenants.”

“Sure, Sy,” Lillian said.

“You can give them orders and they’ll listen.”

“That’s good,” she said.

“Well, I mean, you’ve always wanted to run an Academy, and Jessie and I worked hard to get to this point.  Mary’s taking to this and she’s enjoying having soldiers to order around, I think.”

“She is.”

“And this is something we should share and do together,” I said.  “I get if this is bittersweet, but it’s not an entirely bad thing and-”

Lillian reached up and covered my mouth.

“Is this usual?” Lillian asked Jessie, as Helen stalked around me, giving off all of the ‘danger’ vibes, her eyes on me.  She reached out and fixed my hair.

“I think he’s agitated because he’s happy,” Jessie said.

“Nuh, inf urhrifahd,” I mumbled into Lillian’s hand.

“Or he’s agitated because he’s terrified.”

“Ihm affy oo, hoh”

“Sy sounds like this man I knew once,” Helen said.  “It was a long time ago, I don’t know if Jamie took notes on it, so I’m not sure if you know about it, Jessie.  It was a man with a beard.  I sucked his tongue out of his mouth, it took some doing, but it came off at the root.”

“I had the notes.  MacPaul.”

“Macpaul!  Yes!  The deserter.  Yes, he was lovely.”

“Ohfleh?”

“And he sounded like Sy?” Jessie asked.

“Well, I had my hand over his mouth after I pulled my head away, and there was a lot of snorting and gurgling because of the blood, but yes.  I’m feeling nostalgic now.  It’s making me even more restless now.”

“If this discussion goes badly, we’ll give you a chance to work out that restlessness,” Jessie said.

The group was entering the sitting room.  Lillian dropped her hand from my mouth and we stepped out of the way while they got settled.

The sitting room was a middle-point in between three separate areas for the girl’s dormitories, separated roughly into the younger years, the middle years, and the senior students, at the south, west, and north walls of the building, respectively.  The room was divided into stages, with roughly the same intended hierarchy, scattered chairs, seats, tables, and bookshelves serving to make the space comfortable.

I peeked and confirmed there were ten aristocrats present, but many of them paired off in husband wife pairs, and I had the impression the men would mostly do the talking.  Tradition took more of a hold when moving into the upper ranks of society.

The position of the chairs gave some indication of the hierarchy of those present.  They didn’t all sit as a cluster – we’d arranged chairs on the upper level so they could, but if they’d taken that bait then they would have been huddled.  It implied weakness.

Still, they didn’t space themselves across the whole room.  Had they been nobles, I could imagine they might, confident enough to protect themselves without the benefit of their herd.

They did, I noted, avoid sitting down, with the exception of several of the wives.  They stood by chairs, claiming them, but they weren’t letting their guard down.

“They’re not even here to greet us, hm?” one man spoke.  He had dark hair and a prominent chin that might have owed to Academy science.  He looked athletic.  He wore a suit and bore a tidy pencil mustache, and he was one of only two men present who didn’t have a wife with him.  “You’re not going to respond to me?”

There was only silence.

“Burner, you know how these games are played,” said one of the husbands.  A near-peer of the man who’d taken the lead and the best seat in the room?  He talked to the other with a familiar tone.

“I know, believe me, but there’s a certain decorum to be expected.  There’s absolutely no need or benefit in disrespecting people after they’ve waved the white flag.”

“I feel the same way, but we gain nothing by allowing them to agitate us.”

“I’m far from agitated.  If I was agitated, blood would have been shed already.”

“You’ll put us all at risk if you keep that up, Burner,” a lady spoke.  Interesting, that she spoke and her husband was silent, almost deferential.  I noted a harsher note to her voice.  A rebuke.

The conversation continued, shifting to milder observations of the space, and a few attempts at getting responses from the guards we’d assigned.

“When are they coming?”

Silence.

“What did they offer to get you to betray your King and country?  I’m curious what a young man’s patriotism is worth.”

Silence.

That she’d come or been sent… I wondered if she represented a different faction.

As far as expendable messengers went, those connected to the rest by paper or by blood would cost too much to lose.  The celebritas wouldn’t be sent nor would they be willing to go.  Government, military, or commerce, then.

There were four players worth paying attention to, now that I was reading the room.  Sir Burner Lisburn was the loud, brusque one.  His friend, apparently, was a John Salford.  Government and military in some proportion there, between the two of them.

The young lady was Mrs. Derby.  Burner and John were friends, but Derby wasn’t a friend of theirs.  She belonged to a different faction and occupied a different space in the greater structure of it all.  Money, if I had to guess.

The fourth was a fat man.  He didn’t speak, he wasn’t named, and the sole reason he caught my eye was that the others kept a distance from him, and he seemed content to sit in the lowest tier of the room’s stepped floor.

He was harder to peg.  I had my suspicions, all the same.

A rebel approached us, leaning close to Jessie’s ear, then to Lillian’s.

Not that it was wholly necessary.  By the time the sentence was fully uttered, Jessie’s hand was moving, gesturing, explaining.

Duncan and Mary were back.  There was a number, and Jessie had already drawn and retrieved a lady’s pocketwatch.

She gestured the start of the countdown, then abandoned the task, leaving us to count in our heads as she saw to my cuffs.  I was free.  I was fairly sure that even with my mind intentionally turned to the task, I couldn’t do an abundance of damage.

Fairly sure.

Jessie resumed the countdown without glancing at the watch.

As a unit, we stepped into the sitting room, interrupting our guests mid-conversation.  Duncan and Mary’s group entered from the opposite side, coordinated.  The little ones weren’t present.

“And here they are.  The Lambs.  I must say, the Gages had a great deal to say about some of you,” Burner said.

“They’re not among our guests, as I recall,” Jessie said.

“We’ve heard the stories.  There was other talk when we were cooped up in that building over there.  You’re a known element.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, being sure to smile.

We’d finished crossing the room.  I stood between Jessie and Lillian, Mary stood next to Lillian.  On the other side, Ashton, Helen, and Duncan formed a trio.

“Well,” John Salford said.  “I hope this can be a civil discussion.”

“Barring incident, I do believe the plan is to have a discussion and send you back, to report to your betters,” Duncan said.  He glanced at Jessie and I.  I saw Jessie’s hand move in confirmation.

Burner was the first to take his seat.  It was positioned so he could look down on the rest of the room.  “Then here we are.  I recommend everyone who’s going to take a seat should do so.  This is liable to take a while.”

“Not too long,” Jessie said.  “This will take a little while to digest, so we’ll send you back and discuss the minutiae in a bit.”

“I’m just going to interrupt before we get too far underway,” I said.  I turned my head, looking at the nearest guard.  “Would you go to the kitchen?  Get tea?  Food?  Something hearty.  Sausage, perhaps, and that fried onion mince.”

I moved my hand as I spoke, on the pretense of fixing the button at the front of my vest.

“Yes sir,” the guard said.  “Understood.”

John Salford smiled.  “And to think you were said to be the least civil of the Lambs.  Sylvester, was it?”

I smiled.  “Yes.”

“You’re the ringleader of this…”

“I’d call it a maneuver,” Mary said.  “He and Jessie spearheaded it.”

“So that one’s Jessie?” the man asked.  He seemed to digest that.  “Curious, but I can already see my friend here getting riled up.  Shall we tack up?”

“We can move to the business at hand,” I said.

“Then I won’t waste time.  You’re a few steps away from wrapping this up neatly, Lambs.  There was discussion and it was decided that the most adventurous of us would step up and approach all of you, so we could start negotiations.”

“The most adventurous?” I asked.  “You mean the most expendable?”

I saw them bristle.  Burner was the most bristly in the moment.

“Semantics, Sylvester,” Mary said.  “As they say in the warzones, first into the breach.  The brave are often the easiest to discard.”

“Perhaps,” I said.  “But we’re getting sidetracked.  I wouldn’t say the conclusion is even questionable at this stage.  It’s close to being wrapped up.  The Nobles aren’t going anywhere, you all know your circumstances now.  Things aren’t liable to change.”

“If that’s the case, then after this afternoon’s discussion, we’ll return to the other building, and we’ll see how the current situation plays out.  If it’s already wrapped up as you say, then there’s nothing lost.  If we still have a way to put up a fight, as the massed collection of Professors and some of the most well-to-dos of the Crown States believe we do, then we’ll prove that the case, and you’ll have missed your chance.”

“So this isn’t even a serious discussion, you’re still clinging to illusions,” I said.

“We’re opening dialogue.  I think we can agree it’ll be helpful, whatever direction things take.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Well then, as the ones to call the truce, I think we’ll hear you out?  No complaints, Lambs?”

There were no complaints.

“As of right now, the situation could go either way, Lambs.  The Nobles are out there, and you can’t hold them at bay forever.  You will run out of materials for gas and you’ll lose that advantage.”

“We might not have infinite materials for gas, sir,” Duncan spoke, “But you’re even shorter on supplies when it comes to food, water, and medicine.  We’re equipped to keep going for some time.  You’re going to perish before we do.”

“We have other weapons and tools in reserve.  We’ve got things in the works for ensuring we can get by.  Don’t underestimate what the great minds of the Academy can put into motion.”

“Oh, believe me, we know full well what the Academy can do.  It’s why we’re here,” I said.

“In more than one sense,” Jessie said.

“We’ll fend for ourselves for a while yet, Lambs,” Burner said, his voice low.

“Bravado,” Mrs. Derby said, addressing him.

“Watch yourself,” Burner said.

“You can tell the others I didn’t put up a strong front when we’re back, Burner.  But we’re licked.  They know we have resources and our ability to turn our warbeast stock into waste recycling and a food supply is only going to go so far.”

The aristocrats didn’t have a response for that, and the Lambs didn’t volunteer anything.

She was a willowy woman with straight black hair and long lashes, and she moved with a kind of precision as she folded her hands in her lap.  Her husband reached over to put his hand over hers.

When she looked up, I could tell that she wasn’t bluffing.  A measure of fear shone through.

“How does this maneuver of yours conclude?” she asked.

There was a subtle effect that played over the assembled group of ten.  I might have said they were steeling themselves, but not all of them were steel.  An internal furnace was stoked in Burner’s case, finding a vented release in the movements of his fingers.  John Salford almost did the opposite, going still.  He was the introvert of the pair.

I spoke, “When all of this began, for the Lambs, we were plucked from bad circumstance.  We were put to work in service to the Crown.  We were exposed to a lot of ugliness, we dealt with many forces that operate in places where ordinary citizens don’t get or want to look.”

“We lost several of our own,” Lillian said.

“You want revenge?” Burner asked, interrupting.  He sounded galled.

“No,” Jessie said.  “Nothing so crude as that.”

When we’d discussed this, we hadn’t arranged who would say what or when, we hadn’t rehearsed.  But we’d talked it out, we’d decided what we needed to do, and in the course of that discussion, each of us had found certain points that resonated with them.  More by instinct than by plan, we would take our turns speaking, voicing those points from the heart, or speaking when our individual voices reflected the tone and sentiment that we wanted to strike.  Jessie was the gentlest of us, in a lot of ways.

When the others weren’t jumping in, I’d say what needed to be said, because I liked to talk.

“We lost our own,” Lillian said.  “We saw tragic circumstances for a lot of other experiments, for children, and for child experiments.”

“Every one of those realities, I’d be willing to bet, served a purpose.  Call it evil, but it wasn’t wholly wrong,” Burner said.

“Maybe not,” Lillian said.  She paused.  “That’s meant to be a distant maybe.  But we stand where we stand because of how we were made to serve a purpose.  The skills we learned, the things we took away from the monsters and Doctors we hunted.  And now you sit where you sit because of all of those same things too.”

Our rebel students entered the room, carrying trays of tea, as well as plates of breakfast.  I hadn’t specifically requested greens, but steamed greens sat on one side of the plate.  Likely Possum doing her utmost to keep us in good health.

For all their breeding and all of the games they’d played, the aristocrats weren’t used to doing without.  Their eyes followed the food as the food came to us, was placed on small tables, the lids pulled off of trays to reveal the feasts within.

It was the gravest of wrongs, in the highest society and at the very bottom rungs of it, to refuse hospitality.

But that refusal, in part, was a point we aimed to drive home.

The Lambs ate, standing by the tables, working their way through their meals, serving the tea, cutting sausage, aromas filling the room.

“No civility after all,” Burner said, when it became clear that we weren’t providing them a bite to eat.

“No, I suppose not,” I said.

“I’ll guess we’re not here for your justice either,” Salford said.

“It’s likely,” Lillian said.  She dabbed at her mouth with a kerchief, her fork in her other hand.  “But it would be as a bittersweet accident, not the goal.”

“The path we walked,” I said.  “Jessie and I walked it as a pair for a time, while the others did what they needed to do.  We besieged a prison and we claimed your prisoners, bringing them under our banner.”

“We discussed that event with others before we came to speak with you.”

“They were only a few of the exceptional friends that joined us.  Last year, we acted against Beattle, and we absconded with the student population, turning them rebel.”

“And you put them to effective work here, it seems,” John Salford said.

“We got our ducks in a row, developed resources, and we came here, yes,” I said.  “We claimed Hackthorn and its headmistress.”

“Claim,” Mrs. Derby said.  She hung her head a little.  “You’ve made it a refrain.  I see where this thread of conversation goes, now.”

“You’ve claimed us,” John Salford said.

“That’s a part of it,” Mary said.  “We’ll have to execute some of you.  But some of you will work for us, yes.”

“You can’t imagine we’ll turn coat,” Burner growled.

“You’ll serve us for however long you serve us at gunpoint,” Mary said.  “Or knifepoint.  It might involve poisons in your veins that we hold the antidotes for, or parasites living in you that sleep for only as long as we supply you the right treatments.”

“But you’re wanting to bring us under your control?” Mrs. Derby asked.  “You’re collecting us?”

“The Crown States are being swallowed by plague and black wood,” I said.  “The Infante is preparing to leave, and when he does, he won’t be looking back.  We’ll send a ship ahead with a message saying that all parties who’ve gathered and who were preparing to leave as a group are holding back while a possible incidence of plague in their number is being investigated.  You- and I do mean all of you who are present here, you become question marks.  All considered, especially given they don’t plan to return until much later, and given no communication is really extending outside of this little patch of oblivion… I don’t think they’ll investigate the question mark.  You’ll be dead without being dead.”

That statement filled the air.  They were tense now.  The facades were breaking down, for all but the fat man in the corner.

The room was very quiet.  In the distance, we could hear gunshots.  They might have been trying something at the other dormitory.  We had enough good people and resources there to stall – if something had happened, it was better to look unconcerned and in control than to strive to respond to it.

Posturing mattered here.  It was why we’d concerned ourselves with the layout of the chairs.

Jessie spoke, “We’ve been steadily advancing what we’re doing, but the pattern is the same.  We took your prisoners.  We took your students.  We took your Academy and Professor.  What comes next follows from there.”

Ms. Derby spoke, “The next step is that you’re taking-”

“-The Crown States,” Jessie said.

“You’re mad,” John Salford said, without a moment’s pause.  It was a statement I might have expected from Burner, for its vitriol and emotion, when Salford had been so collected before now.  The man’s eyes were wide.  As loud as Burner had been at the beginning, he’d fallen silent.

The patter of gunshots in the distance had stopped.  Either it had been nothing serious and there was no reason to shoot, or it had been very serious, and the shooters were dead.

“Mad?  More than a little,” I said, my voice soft.

Ashton spoke up for the first time.  “I read in books once that we were supposed to treat others how we wanted to be treated.  Isn’t it only fair?”

“You’re enslaving us,” John Salford said.  “You’re trying to build something here?  In plague-ridden wastelands?  With who?  How?”

“You mean the who of you that we’re not forcing to stay behind?  The who would be anyone who wants to stay,” Helen said.  “Anyone who would rather take the risk of dying to plague, if it means being free until then, instead of being safe but shackled.”

“As for how,” Lillian said.  “We have some brilliant minds and people available to devote to the task.  I think we’ll manage some headway against the problems of plague and black wood.”

“I’d say you were arrogant, holding yourselves in that kind of esteem,” Mr. Salford said.  “But you’re not talking about you and your rebels.  You’re talking about us.  We’re supposed to be your great minds.”

“All those people in the admin building?  Brilliant.  Capable hands, educated, driven.  With the right incentives, the guns to heads, poisons and parasites, they’ll do what we need of them,” Duncan said.  “The nine of you will contribute as well, unless you’d prefer grisly ends.”

“There are ten of us,” Salford said, quiet.

“There are nine of you,” I said.  “And whatever else you want, whatever else you’re pushing for, you’re not quite at the point where you’ll want to use him.”

Burner rose from his seat.  He placed his hands on the quarter-circle of railing that bounded the upper stage of the tiered room.

He looked at the heavyset man, who sat with his hands folded, fingers of one hand drumming on the back of the other.

“He’s insurance, isn’t he?  A way to guarantee that if we had plans to shoot you messengers, you could at least take some of us down with you.  They might even have asked you to consider eliminating all of us in one shot if you could.  If you’re loyal enough to the Crown and what it means.”

Burner set his very defined jaw.

“You’re not that loyal,” I said.  “You have ways forward.  You have doors open to you, even when faced with life under our thumbs, rather than the Crown’s.  You have hope, still, that there’s a way to break our siege and return to your old lives.  Unless you’re going to admit that Mrs. Derby was right, and you have no chance at all?”

He was considering it.  Giving the order that would bring their Trojan horse into play.

I turned my head, taking in the Lambs.  All stood straight, and all wore their individual variations on expressions of grim satisfaction.  I kept my eye out for hand signals, and saw one.

“You can give him the order if you want,” I said.  “Just know what it costs you.  If we bring this to a close, we’re going to be the most powerful people on the Western hemisphere.  Do you really want to be on our bad side?”

Burner tensed, and then he turned.  He strode from the room so suddenly that the rest of the group that had accompanied him had no time to react, no sycophants keeping stride with him or supporting him as he made his exit.  They hurried to catch up.

Our soldiers hurried to accompany and escort them.

It was Salford who indicated the fat man.  “Cross.  Come.”

The man in the corner didn’t respond.

Cross.

The fat man reacted, sluggish.

Come.

Ashton’s hand signal had indicated the experiment that was dressed up in an aristocrat’s skin was reacting to him.  They’d dosed the aristocrats who were going to be in our company, but they hadn’t been able to effectively dose him, or whatever they’d used had been of limited effect, and Ashton had overwhelmed that effect.

The man trudged off, joining the rest of the aristocrats who were leaving, preparing to convey this reality we’d proposed to the rest of the people in the main building.

It was Mrs. Derby and her husband who lingered behind.  She waved her husband on, bidding him to leave her alone with us.

She might have had enough character that she could meet our eyes and both think and talk clearly in the midst of all of this, but she wasn’t fearless.  Far from it.  She looked even more scared now.

“They won’t agree so easily,” she said.

“But you agree?” Lillian asked.

“Saying I did would… I can’t just voice my surrender so simply,” she said.  “But I haven’t been left many choices, have I?”

“They’re riled up and the others will be too,” Jessie said.  “They’ll try something, the nobles will coordinate with them, one final attempt.  You could hitch your cart to that wagon.”

“Would you?” Mrs. Derby asked.

Jessie shook her head slowly.

“I may be willing to offer my cooperation.  I assume it would position me and my family better, when the dust has settled?”

“You can assume,” I said.

She nodded.

“You seem to be taking this in stride,” Duncan said.

Mrs. Derby opened her mouth, as if to respond, then closed it, giving us a single nod.  She paused before speaking, “Out with the old, and in with the new?  Isn’t that what they say?”

“It is,” Duncan said.

“No difference between the two,” she said.  She glanced down, fixing her dress, before clasping her hands before her.  “I’ll adapt.”

She curtsied slightly, and she left the room.

No difference between the two.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

In the distance, on the far side of Hackthorn, barely visible with the main building and the other constructions barring the view some, a gargantuan warbeast climbed up the face of the boy’s dormitory.  It was vaguely apelike, but with a long crimson mane and no mouth on its face.  It was quick, acting with jerky moments and deceptive speed for something its size.  Its feet kicked in through windows on the third floor while oversized hands gripped windowsills on the fifth.

The gossamer thing floated a distance behind it.  The two had been taking turns, not because they were that incredibly coordinated, but because the ape was scared shitless of the gossamer thing, but was compelled to attack, so it moved in whenever the gossamer thing backed off.

Between them, they were doing a fair amount of damage.  The gossamer thing had slowed down considerably in recent hours, but the boy’s dormitory wasn’t quite as formidable as the admin building.  I worried.

It found a grip on another window, and it started to make its ascent, tearing down architecture by accident more than by purpose.

No sooner was its grip settled than a flash of light and fire flared around the hand.  The sound of the explosion reached us a second later.  They’d anticipated where it might grab and timed explosives to go off when the hand appeared.

One of its paws now a bloody ruin, the silent ape tumbled to the ground below, landing in what had to have been an awkward position, given my last glimpse of it before it dropped out of sight behind the intervening buildings.  It didn’t rise to its feet or crawl anywhere, instead thrashing on the spot, an occasional leg, foot, or arm sticking up to where we could see from our vantage point.

The blind and deaf apes were still in reserve, but I wasn’t overly concerned.  By all reports, they were designed to be big, but they didn’t have a great deal going for them otherwise.  They were a mediocre project from one of the smallest Academies.

For now, it looked like the gossamer thing didn’t have much left in it.

“I’m trying to figure out how I feel about all this,” Helen said.

“You’re not one for agonizing and self doubt,” I observed.  “Or even for doubting the rest of us.”

Helen stirred restlessly in her seat.  She’d taken a nice window seat, padded with cushions on either side, and curled up in it.  The way she’d positioned herself was just so, when it came to Helen.  In more ways than one, she was too curled up, too able to move her head to view what was happening in the world beyond, given the way she was oriented.

Lillian was standing just a short distance away, hands in her coat pockets, tense and analytical as she watched proceedings in… very possibly the absolute opposite perspective that Helen was.

I sat sideways in a heavy chimera-leather and wrought iron chair, watching them more than I watched anything else.  My left arm dangled, the manacle heavy.  The other end was connected to the frame of the chair.  My right ankle was connected by the same kind of measure.

“I like part of this,” Helen said.  “I like that we’re strangling them.”

“In more ways than one,” Lillian said.

Helen craned her head around to look at Lillian, then twisted around, reorienting so her feet were where her head was and vice versa, without really standing or adjusting her profile.  She took on a more easy, languid position as she draped herself along the window seat, and reached up, taking Lillian’s hand in two of hers.

“You’re in a mood,” I remarked.

Helen nodded.  “I’m restless.”

Restless was an adjective that paired badly when it was part of a trifecta that was put together with Helen and with the fact that she was holding on to someone I care about.

“Is that the flip side of what you were talking about?”

“I want to be the one strangling.  This is… odd.”

“Vicarious?” I asked.

Helen smiled.  She moved Lillian’s hand and held it against one side of her face.  “Good word choice.”

“It’s something I do,” I said.  “And you do strangles, getting a hold on the enemy and then breaking them.  This… all of this, it’s really an abstract expression of you.”

“It feels unfulfilling,” Helen said.  “I like anticipation, and I like waiting for my prey, but that’s usually when I know I’m going to, hm.  I’m not sure how to put it into words.”

Helen was set enough in her ways and specialized enough in what she did that her mental framework wasn’t often tested or forced to adjust.  She’d evolved some as she dealt with the breakdown of parts of her design, but she hadn’t often been challenged.

I didn’t press or supply the ideas.

“It’s like it’s all drawing circles, and circles are good and beautiful and strong in so many ways, except it’s embraces, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” I said.

“And here we’re drawing circles, but we have so many that are three-quarters of the way drawn and they’re big and they’re beautiful and I want so very badly to draw that last quarter-circle and wrap all of this neatly in a way that lets me put a bow on top.  But that’s not how this finishes, is it?”

“Not quite.”

“Not physically,” she said.  “Not with hands on long, slender parts of long slender people and cushy, soft parts of cushy soft people.”

“No,” I said. “Not physically.  Not with hands on crooked, twirly bits of crooked, twirly people.”

Helen turned her head, giving me a look, like a mother chiding a child.

“Silly,” she said.

“You’re the silly one,” I said.  “I don’t believe you’ve ever truly been teased, have you?”

Lillian glanced my way, taking notice of the word.

“Not left wanting.  You’re dangerous enough you get most prey that’s gettable, and you don’t often not get prey.”

“Sometimes I don’t,” Helen said.  “But the ones I’ve waited the longest for are ones I think I might get eventually.”

“Like Fray and Mauer?” Lillian asked.

“And others, yes.  It’s been years and all of that’s okay.  I got close to Mauer and I almost closed that circle in a very inconvenient way.  But that’s fine.  That’s something else.  There are others I wanted and then they went and died for reasons that weren’t me, and I’m very good at being very disappointed for a very short time and then putting that disappointment behind me.  But this is something else.”

“Take your time with it,” I said.  “Digest the feeling, decide what you want to do with it.”

“And let me know if you need anything in the way of fine tuning, to help you wrestle with it,” Lillian said.

“I will,” Helen said.  She moved Lillian’s hand closer to her head and gave it a kiss, still holding it in her own.

Lillian barely reacted to Helen’s strangeness, instead glancing my way.  “Speaking of comfort and needs, do you want me to move your chair, Sy?  I could cuff you over here.”

“I’m comfortable,” I said.  “I’ll have to move again when it’s time to eat, I think, and I can sort of see what’s going on.”

Lillian folded her arms.  Her reaction didn’t quite strike me as her wanting me closer and being disappointed when I stayed put.  I took note of it but decided that I couldn’t do much about it without more information.

For now, staying put and easing forward felt like the way to go about it.  Rash and reckless movements would do more harm than good.

The admin building had always been the trap meant for the Nobles, and we’d prepped it well in advance.  The last minute changes had been mandated because of the damage the gossamer thing had done, but we’d developed our workaround.

The trap had taken hold.  The building was being enclosed in builder’s wood and greenery, windows and doors blocked.  We’d planted builder’s wood around the holes they’d created with the gossamer thing, and we’d destroyed the bridges that provided easy access to the rest of Hackthorn.

We’d baited them in with the premise that we had people within, easy victims and leverage that we were desperately trying to protect, and we’d buried them.  Just as we’d planned from the beginning, before Ferres interfered.

But wood took time to grow, even if it was Academy made, vines and branches took time to grow, and so the danger had been that the nobles could break out of the building before the trap was fully in place.

With that in mind, we’d considered a great many improvised measures, and we’d thrown out each and every last one of them.  Nobles couldn’t be underestimated.

No.  Instead of trying to stop them, we’d let them.

Now a pale gas sat within the enclosed walls of Hackthorn, stubbornly refusing to dissipate fully.  The houses on the ground were unable to be seen given the thick vapors, and the Nobles who had broken free of the admin building were… well, they’d escaped the building, only for their way back in to close up behind them.

From my perspective, slouching in my seat with my chained arm and chained leg dangling over different arms of the chair, I could see out the window to where the white gas lapped against the outside of the admin building and the perimeter wall of Hackthorn Academy.  I could see the admin building itself, more a gnarled twist of wood and vines than a proper building now.  I could see the distant silhouettes of the nobles who stood or sat on the roof and the branches that were reaching over it.

They barely moved.  Almost anyone else would have gotten impatient, paced, or given some indication that they were talking among themselves.

I wondered how much of their decision to stay as still as they were staying was because they were trying to conserve their energy and strength, how much was because they knew they were being watched and they were trying to unnerve us, and how much had to do with the fact that they had left their humanity long behind.

“What are you thinking, Lil?”

Lillian turned to look at me over one shoulder.  It was a stern look.

“Hush, ignore him,” Helen said.  “He’s cranky because we’re waiting for food.”

“What makes you think he’s bothering me any?” Lillian asked.

“I can hear your blood,” Helen said.  “It creaks as it runs through you.  Also, it takes a moment, but if you’re close, I can smell irritation.”

She still didn’t like the ‘Lil’ thing.  Still, it gave me a way to gauge where she and I stood.

I cleared my throat, being careful to keep my tone light as I said, “Why am I the cranky one here?  I asked a simple question.”

Lillian gave me a look that was almost rolling her eyes, then asked, “Are you sure you don’t want me to move you?”

“Am I missing something?  You’ve asked me three times.”

“Twice,” Lillian said.

“Three times, if I count you asking me if I’m comfortable and okay with where I’m at, when you first chained me here.”

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “I guess you’re right.  And I guess I don’t like that I can’t watch what’s going on out there and watch you at the same time, Sy.  I feel like I’m going to turn around to check on you and that chair will be empty, and you’ll be up to something that leaves everyone in tears.”

“Ahhh,” I said.

“Sorry.”

“No, no.  It makes sense.  This is our present reality.”

“Yeah, Sy.  I suppose it is,” Lillian said.  The lines of tension were still standing out in her body language, but now… I saw a hint of sadness as well.

“Well,” I said.  “I think there’s an easy answer to that one.  How about you unchain me, to start off?”

“Uh huh,” Lillian said, without humor.  “Perfect solution.”

“Well, that’s only the beginning, dummy.”

Lillian arched an eyebrow at ‘dummy’.

“See, you unchain me, bring me over to the window, like you’ve been wanting to do, and just huck me through it.”

Lillian snorted.

I was glad to see a smile on her face, cutting past the prior tension.

“Or you could dangle me by the chain.”

Lillian’s smile widened, and she allowed herself a chuckle, pausing to glance back at the gas that saturated the lower grounds of Hackthorn.

As Lillian watched, I saw her pause, gathering her composure, getting ready to say something more serious, then giggle to herself, so brief and quiet I might have missed it if I hadn’t been studying her.

“I imagine Helen idly swinging me back and forth.”

“I could,” Helen said.  “Or I could climb down to say hi.”

“Ah, that’d be nice.  Are you keeping me company?”

“Absolutely, Sy,” Helen said.  “And I could torment you for bribes while I do it.”

“I’m probably overdue for that torment,” I said.  “When I think of torments, I’m imagining something like you adjusting my shirt so it covers my head and arms, and tying it into a knot at the end, while I’m dangling from my ankle there.  Me, upper body bare to the world, everything from the armpits up bagged and tied.”

Lillian’s focus was on the window, and I could only see a bit of her face, but I could tell from that bit that a grin had spread across her face.

“Maybe do me a favor and undo my fly just in case I have to go?”

“I promise that if you ever find yourself in those dire straits, I’ll arrange you appropriately,” Helen said.

“Sy,” Lillian said.  “You’re aware that just wouldn’t work, logistically?  If you relieved yourself while dangling from your ankle, you’d be sure to get some on you.  To the most tragic degree.”

“I’m the one with the appropriate equipment, thank you,” I said, in my best indignant voice.  “I’ll have you know it’s a question of maximizing how much I push and minimizing how much I dribble.  I have a Wyvern-equipped brain, so I’m sure I can optimize.  Or wiggle my tied-up head and arms to move them out of the way.”

Lillian’s giggles were nonstop now, as much as she was trying to suppress them.

She managed in the midst of the giggle fit to pause, do her best to gather her composure.  In the midst of it, as if purely by accident, she shot me a look of such pure, unadulterated warmth that it nearly knocked me out of my seat.

Which served to make me mentally stumble, my next few lines dashed from my mind.

“Ah,” I said.

Now Helen smiled like there was a joke that only she got.

“Shush, you,” I told her.

“I didn’t say a word,” Helen said, letting go of Lillian’s hand, arching her back in a stretch, before turning, so she was facing the window, her back and side to us and to the room.

I found my words.  “So there I hang, dangling in more than one sense of the word-”

“Sy,” Lillian said, between giggles.  “Puns?  You’re better than that.”

“-and while I’m doing my best to water the grass far below and not to waterboard myself, all of the humorless black coats and aristocrats are no doubt peering through the window watching, not quite able to convince themselves it’s not a part of our devious plan that they should be very concerned about.”

Helen twisted in the moment and caught Lillian as Lillian sagged into the window seat, the stress of a very long few days, if not weeks, months, and years finding giggly release in irredeemable childishness.

I left it at that.

I was pretty content to watch Lillian smiling, with the occasional glance spared for the Nobles, who had shifted their position a little as the overall footing had changed.  Three of them had gathered together to talk.  I was content to bask, too, enjoying that memory of Lillian looking at me in a meaningful way that everyone wanted to be looked at.

That it had happened while I went on at length about my being tormented said something, but I wasn’t about to second guess the weirdness of my fellow Lambs.

Things eased down from there.  We watched the enemy through the window, as the gas and circumstance strangled them.

Two students entered the room, carrying a tray of tea and a tray of fruit slices, breads, cheeses and nuts.

“Are there treats to go with the tea?” Helen asked, sitting up, her hands in her lap.

“After,” the student said.  “Kitchens are packed with preparations for lunch.  We’re aiming to have something for tea in the early afternoon.”

“Alright, thank you,” Helen said.

The students departed, leaving the four of us alone in the room.

“I think I’m being tormented,” Helen said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “But it’s the kind of anticipation and torment you can bear.”

“It is,” Helen said.

Lillian glanced at me.  “Do you want tea now, Sy?  I know Helen waits until there’s something to have with it.”

“Not now, thank you,” I said.

“Alright.  You’re sure you’re okay?”

“I’m good, all things considered,” I said.  I waggled my foot, the chain rattling slightly.

Lillian made a small snorting sound, hiding her face.

“Don’t tell me you’re still on that?” I asked.

“Shush,” Lillian said.

“Come on, Lil, there’s gotta be rules about how long you’re allowed to laugh at something, when it’s behind us.”

Lillian let her head loll back, and she groaned.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

Lillian rose from the seat, giving Helen a pat on the leg, so Helen would move her leg and free her to walk away.  “Sy.”

“Lil,” I said, pressing it.

She stalked her way to the chair I sat in.  I remained in place, staring her down.

“Watch your head,” she said.

Then she heaved, tipping the chair backward.  It struck the ground with the impact that only a chair with a heavy framework of wrought iron could do.  The dense padding in the leather didn’t help with the weight.

For my part, if it wasn’t for the cuffs that bound me to my seat, I would have bounced clean out of the seat and sprawled on the floor.  Instead, the chains jerked.

“I’ve told you countless times, don’t call me Lil.”

I closed my eyes.  “Did you?  My memory is terrible.”

“Ha ha,” she said.

I remained where I was, assessing my situation.  The chair was such that I doubted my ability to lift it into an upright position again, which would be harder than tipping it back would be, especially with the irregular shape.  I’d humiliate myself trying.  That left me to figure out where I was going.  I could sit on the front edge of my chair, but it was hardly comfortable for the long term.  I could ask to relocate, as Lillian had recommended I do two or three times now, but that meant asking.

Instead, as I lay there, I tried to be very still.  My face changed, starting at a neutral position, but a grimace tugged at the edges, made my features contort.  The grimace became a look of anguish.

“Sy?” Lillian asked.  “You’re a charlatan.  Don’t think I believe you for a second.”

I measured my breathing, letting it grow tighter by the second.

Even Helen had perked her head up, curious or concerned.

Lillian drew near, bending down to kneel at my side.  I wrapped the excess chain around her neck, toppled her, and pulled her to the ground.

She reached out, and I matched her.  My palm met hers, and I gripped her hand hard, fingers between each of hers, my grip firm.

Wait.  Wrong hand.

I switched, moving to snatch her other hand, doing much the same thing.  I was just in time to catch it as the syringes sprung forth from beneath her fingernails.  With my fingers where they were, I could keep her from bringing the syringes down to catch me.  I matched her attempts to move her arms with resistance.  One of my legs helped to keep her from moving her lower body too much.

“You’re such a butt, Sy,” Lillian said.

“Very mature,” I said.

“Such a butt.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What are you gunning for, Sy?”

“Gunning?”

“The goal here?  With this.”

“Making you wish you hadn’t tipped over my chair, for one thing.”

“Achieved,” she said.

I was studying her expression, trying to find the hints of discomfort, the imminent break I’d seen back in… wherever that city had been.

“You’re aware Helen’s watching?” Lillian murmured.

I moved my head, looking across the room.  Helen was still there, lying across the window seat, one hand dangling, fingers touching the floor.  She was staring at us.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m being taunted,” Helen said, mournfully.

“Are you, now?” I asked.

“My only joys are the vicarious and postponed,” she said.

“Helen,” Lillian said.  “Please.”

“If you two had any grace at all, you’d close the circle.  Honestly.”

“Helen,” I said.

“I know,” shes aid.  “I understand.  I know these things.”

Then she stood, and she strode from the room.

“I have to ask,” I said.

“Do you have to?”

“At the risk of opening up old wounds…”

Her voice was barely above a whisper, “I don’t know, Sy.  That’s a… horribly complicated thing, and a part of me worries I’ll feel fine and good up until I don’t, and that scares me.”

“Scares me too,” I said.

“But,” she said, and her voice was quieter still.  “I think I don’t feel two steps behind, when it comes to where we stand, respective to each other.  I got… a coat, even if it wasn’t the color I wanted.”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re not putting me in a bad place, where I’m having to straddle two sides.”

“I kind of hauled you violently over to this side, into a place where we’re holding the hoity toity of the Crown States captive.”

“You did.  But it’s steadier footing.  I’m not divided anymore.  And I’m not sure that fixes everything or even half of everything, but…”

She moved her head, and she let it rest on my chest.

The first night she’d shared a bed with me, she’d done much the same.  She’d clung to me more, and maybe she would have here, if I wasn’t holding her hands to keep the syringes at bay, in case turnabout was fair play.

The weight of her head on my chest made a weight lift from me, in its odd, paradoxical way.

I felt her sigh, and I felt even more of that weight lift.  I closed my eyes.

When I opened them, I saw the Infante standing where Helen had been, and I became very aware of how he might use this situation.

Ah no.

I postponed closing my eyes again for as long as I could.  Eventually, I blinked, and the Infante was gone.

I heard his voice, as if from another room.  “You were made to destroy, Sylvester.  You were baptized in poison.

I didn’t dare move or speak, in case that tipped this ever so delicate situation to his care.

I shouldn’t have done this.  But if I shouldn’t have, then I couldn’t necessarily trust myself to do it again.

I couldn’t ever have this?  I’d been given a taste of it with Lillian, then with Jessie, and now with nobody at all?  Was that how it went?

Moisture in my eyes didn’t help with my attempt to keep from blinking.  I failed, and I saw the Infante had moved closer, crossing half the distance from where he’d been.

My hand still holding Lillian’s, my fingers interknit with hers, so she couldn’t curl them in and use the syringes on me, I moved our hands so I could run the back of my hand along Lillian’s hair at the side of her head.

I found myself having to blink again.  The Infante was gone.

If he closed the distance again-

You have known hard, undeniable truths since you were capable of looking for them.  Death takes us all.  Some sooner than later,” the Infante said.

He sounded as if he was in the room.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice soft.

“For?”

“Everything,” I said.

“Don’t be,” Lillian said.  “Life’s too short for regrets, isn’t it?”

I screwed my eyes shut.

I gave her a peck on the lips.

Every time I let my guard down?  I lose something?

She moved her hand a fraction, and moved my hand in the process.  I was very conscious of the chain pulling across her throat.

It felt like seconds and it felt like hours, that I was suspended in that state of tension, striving not to move, to give him anything.

I’d pulled that chain tight, and in my stillness, I’d already done what I’d feared I would do in the future.  My hands felt hot now, compared to how cold hers were.

I knew she was already dead.

I opened my eyes to see one of the things I’d hoped never to see – the lifeless face of the Lamb who was supposed to live, at my hands.  Instead I saw the Infante’s face, so broad and so close that it consumed my field of vision.

An illusion.  Past and present and future hopes and fears getting confused.  I vaguely recalled something about the syringe fingers hampering circulation and temperature.  Too late to matter.  I’d let him in.

My mind refused to see, hear, to communicate, to feel.

I felt hot fluids run down my fingers.

“Careful, Sy.”

It took a concerted effort to surface, to figure which way was up and to bring myself there, out of the recesses.  It was harder than the last time.

A saucer was in my hand.  Tea sat on the saucer.

I felt disoriented as I looked first at Jessie, who knelt beside me.

I looked at Lillian, very much alive.  She had her head on my chest, and she looked half asleep.

“What-”

“I arrived and asked Lillian if she needed a hand.  She said she needed an edge for if you woke up and it came down to another brawl, something to surprise even the likes of you,” Jessie said.  “I thought I’d give you a cup of tea to hold and see how you handled yourself, but she drifted off by the time I was finished stirring the milk.”

The tea?  The hot liquid?

“Jessie- can-”

Jessie reached down and brushed hair from near my eyes with her fingers.

“No games?  No shenanigans?” I asked.  “Can you- can we talk?”

She took the tea, and she disappeared from my field of vision.

She returned, and she brought a cushion from the window seat.  We extricated me and put the pillow beneath Lillian’s head.  She hugged it tight as soon as I was no longer in her reach.  She had the key to undo my shackles from the chair, and with the length of the chain, we wound it around my midsection before attaching it to my other wrist.

We stepped into the hallway, walking past the tea trolley with the tea, Lillian, Helen’s and my meals, and the little platter of biscuits, berries, and cream.

“I lost a bit of me again,” I said.  “I don’t know- did I do anything?  Say anything?”

“No.”

“How long ago did Helen leave the room?” I asked.  “How long ago did the tea arrive?  That’s the same tea?  Lunch tea?”

“Less than a minute ago, and it’s the same tea.”

I shivered.

“Are you going to be okay?” Jessie asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  Had Jessie disturbed me from my spell of madness within moments of it starting?

Jessie took my arm, hooking hers through it.

“The thing with Lillian,” I said.

“It’s fine, Sylvester.  Mostly fine.”

“Mostly fine isn’t perfectly fine and it doesn’t feel fine, Jessie.  I’m losing my mind, I’m a danger to her and to you, I’m a danger to me and to everything we’re trying to do.”

“And I’ve dropped three memories, Sy, and it’s hard to shake the notion that I have a few days or weeks left.  Helen’s on edge and Duncan pulled emergency measures to mellow her out in the short term, but her hormones are going to zig-zag.  Mary appears fine, but she tends to keep the dangerous things under wraps.”

I pressed my lips together.  I wanted to say things and I didn’t, because it was pointless.  It would only distract.

“Sy.  We move forward as best we can.  We move forward without sabotaging ourselves and each other with doubts.  The others have already agreed we do this with you in chains if we have to.  But we’re going to do this.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It’s not.  But honestly, Sy, if you think we need to watch you better, we will, and if you have other concerns, voice them, but don’t- don’t let the concerns become the concern.”

“I don’t want to push anyone away,” I said.

“I told you a while back, you’ll have a hard time getting rid of me.  I’m not going anywhere as long as I can help it.”

“I don’t want you to tolerate that Lillian and I…”

“Sy-”

“I feel like a cad, Jessie.  You deserve better than a cad.”

“You were a cad when Jamie took to you, and you were a cad when I did.  I’m probably genetically predisposed to like you, and if and when we exact revenge on the Academies, we can exact revenge on them for that.”

“Ha ha,” I said, dry.  “I’m being serious.”

“So am I.  You’re not paying attention, Sy.”

“I’m paying enough attention to know you’re tolerating stuff when you say you’re okay with it.”

“Sy-”

“Jess.”

She drew in a breath, hugged my arm against her side, and kept her eyes straight ahead as she spoke.  “You know what I am.”

“I know.”

“Connect the dots, then.  Realize what I am.  I never forget.  The memories are… right there.  Neatly categorized, all in order.  You talk about you and Lillian like… I don’t even know.  Like you want me to be bothered by it.”

“That’s not it.”

“It’s almost like it.  But you’re missing the key detail.  To me… you were with her five minutes ago.  The memory is fresh in my mind.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it.

Ah.

“To me, you came down the stairs from the bedroom, and Lillian had a skip in her step and you looked more relaxed than I’ve seen you in a long time.  It might as well have been five minutes ago, and the memory is fresh in my mind.”

I nodded, with emphasis.

“It might as well have been that I just saw you sneaking a kiss, sitting with her on the back steps of the orphanage.  I just saw you tuck a bit of her hair behind her ear and lean in close and whisper words of encouragement.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“If it was going to bother me or break my heart it would have done it a long time ago, because there are an awful lot of small moments anyone would be envious of.”

“I don’t have many of those moments,” I said.  “I don’t- those memories aren’t there.”

“I know, Sy.  But listen, okay?  I don’t feel diminished, because I remember my moments.  I remember you buying me the same nice pen from that store in Tynewear twice, because you forgot you’d done it the first time.  I remember you making me tea and sitting with me, and we had the conversation with Mr. Bubbles.  I have the moments I overheard you talking to Shirley and saying the nicest things about me.  Our little game of one-upmanship, to ease into things, fumble our way forward in a facsimile of a real first relationship, awkwardness and all, and I remember the various fumblings of yours and of mine, and it’s especially nice.”

“You’ll have to tell me those stories,” I said.  “I’d love a refresher sometime.”

“Anytime.  Any time there’s not anything more pressing, I’ll tell you stories.  I’ll be your memory.  I’ll refresh you on the seventh time we slept in the same bed after becoming a pair and you kissed my scars – all of them, as numerous as they are, and-”

As steadfast as she was, Jessie rarely got choked up, but she’d gotten choked up here.

“It mattered an awful lot,” she said.  “And I wouldn’t trade my moments for Lillian’s any day.”

I turned to her, and my forehead pressed against hers.  I would have held her, if it wasn’t for the chains.

“Well,” I said.  “Anytime there’s not anything more pressing, if you need a refresher…”

She brushed the side of my face with her hand.

“If I reach for that memory, I can almost relive it, it’s so clear.  I relive an awful lot of moments with you an awful lot,” she said.

“Apparently pretty awful,” I said.

“If we get to the point where we need to figure things out, we’ll figure them out.  And if you or Lillian decide one way or the other, I’ll step back, still at your side, and I’ll be pretty happy with the memories.”

“Yeah, no,” I said.  “That’s just not going to work, you damn martyr.  You’re too willing to retreat, on the surface of it, but the emotions always shine through.”

Jessie smiled.

Then she lifted her head.

I followed her line of sight.  Looking through the window toward the rest of the Academy, I could see it was the gossamer thing, making its slow approach to our building.  It moved with few anchors, and the wind pulled at it, hard.

It advanced, and it reached out, attaching its anchors.  It didn’t mount an attack.

Instead, as if the great thing had sighed and something had left it in the process, it billowed in response to the wind, and then it began to collapse, draping itself over the girl’s dormitory, and the bridges to either side of it.

Its descent and the movement of the creature against the exterior of the building made a rasping noise.  Here and there, windows were slashed and broke.  Things outside fell, pulled down by strands that anchored reflexively.

As final moves went, the thing had managed its final attack well.

Its well poisoned, the thing had needed food and water from an outside source.  Our opposition hadn’t had a lot to spare, nor had they had the ability to send it to other sources of water, given how we were bordered by polluted ocean to the east and a wasteland to the west.

We’d weathered the attacks.  The nobles redirected and captured, they didn’t have much.  Now they didn’t have the gossamer thing.

By unspoken agreement, Jessie and I went to collect Lillian and find the others.  Duncan, Mary, and Ashton were in the other dormitory, coordinating defenses.  After the enemy’s initial focus on the admin building had proven useless or even detrimental, they’d turned their full focus to the other dormitory.  No alarms had been sounded and no tap-code messages communicated.  We had to assume they were alright.

Lillian stirred awake with a gentle shake of the shoulder.

“Did you get him, Jess?”

“She got me,” I said.

“Sorry I missed it,” Lillian said.

She took my hand and stood.  Jessie looked her way, and Lillian avoided the eye contact.

I remembered the cold horror the Infante had brought me.  It made me uneasy, being around her.

Before we were halfway to the penthouse garden that served as the girl’s dormitory headquarters, students from the garden found us.

“Hi Leah,” Jessie said.  “Where do we stand?”

“Access to the garden is limited.  We’re using the small library.”

“Good enough.  Show us the way.”

The library was actually a narrow space, only two paces across, separated into three levels.  It had the odd effect of being shaped like a space for a book to fit into, and as we used it for a meeting place, many students gathered on the ledges above that overlooked the central area of the library.

Many, many of our rebels were gathered at the window.  Most had binoculars or spyglasses.

When we went to investigate, instead of providing answers, one of them simply handed a pair of binoculars to Jessie.  Lillian got the next set, while I, chopped liver that I was, was the last to get a view.

There was a group standing where the bridge joined the building.  The tallest among them was waving a kerchief.  The flag of surrender.  It looked like they were mostly  aristocrats.  No Nobles, no Doctors.  Not the ones we were really interested in going after.

Were all of the aristocrats surrendering?  No.  But it was the first crack in the facade.  They’d lost most of their big weapons, and others were being stripped away.  They were hungry and feeling that hunger, and many would be thirsty.

It wasn’t wholly out of the question that they would surrender in this moment.  They were of the higher class.  They had pride.  Starvation and destitution threatened that.

Supposedly.

“We’re not going over to talk to them,” I said.  “If they want to talk, they can come to us.  They know the bridges are rigged with bombs, they haven’t dared to cross one since the first was blown.  If they’re serious, they’ll take the risk that crossing that bridge entails, and they’ll negotiate on our turf.”

“Makes sense,” Jessie said.

We had our people make their exit and wave our would-be recruits over.  It turned out they were proud.  It turned out they were serious.

They crossed the bridge, and negotiations got underway.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.10

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I’d expected them to strike before dawn, when the city was still dark.  They didn’t.

I was left to wonder if they had delayed because of internal strife or if it was because they wanted to run counter to expectations.

The sun was rising but the sky was overcast.  Warbeasts and experiments had been led out of the main building and tunnels, and our opposition had gathered every last man they could spare.  Some of our own were in their number, pressed into service, trying to be helpful, or actually turning tail and joining the enemy.

“Who’s the one in red again?” Helen asked.

“Lord Carling,” Jessie said.

“He caught my eye too,” I said.

Helen made an amused sound.

The enemy maintained formations as they made their way through the morass of burned buildings and the detritus from the night’s skirmishes.  The gossamer thing still stuck close to the main building, holding back while the small army advanced.  Lesser creatures were charging forward – squads of very mobile stitched, beasts, and things that looked halfway between man and beast.

Here and there, they ran into trouble.  Miss Muffet’s spider, injured already from combat earlier in the evening, was uncovered as it lurked in darkness.    Soldiers and stitched raised weapons, on alert, but the six nobles that were taking point didn’t flinch or even glance in that direction.

As if they’d already grasped the situation and decided how it would conclude.  Or as if they just didn’t care.  As if a spider that could swallow a man whole and then start chowing down on another man without swallowing was a thing that could be ignored.

Beasts and brutish experiments threw themselves at the spider.  Webbing and spider spawn laid in the midst of the rubble caught the first of them, snaring and biting at legs and feet.  The surge of the Academy’s forces was such that men with the heads of flayed beasts and beasts were able to trample over and on the backs of their kin, to bypass the snares and spawn.  They mobbed the great spider, and they dragged it down to the ground.

There were others.  People afflicted with parasites, people bloated with gas to the point they threatened to rupture, stitched who’d lost their minds and were fighting anything that drew close, regardless of allegiance…

The Lambs had gathered, and we watched the enemy make their approach.  Jessie, Lillian, Helen, Duncan, Mary, Ashton, and Nora were all present.  We stood as a group.

“They’re carrying barrels,” Jessie observed, holding binoculars to her eyes.  “They might be trying to smoke us out, if they aren’t releasing something custom-made.”

“Do you think they ate?” I asked.

“Ate?” Duncan asked.

“I’m just trying to gauge their mental states, see if I can’t figure out the angle they’ll take.  It hasn’t been so long that they’d really feel like the hunger was making them weaker, but it’d make them irritable.  Irritable would be good.”

“I don’t imagine hunger is a factor,” Jessie said.  “We guessed they might butcher warbeasts for rations.  One large warbeast feeds a lot of people.”

“Probably,” I said.  “So my next question is, when they decided they’d slaughter one warbeast and serve it as food, did they save the food for the attacking party?  Are the people up in the main building going without, feeling the initial pangs of hunger and fatigue as they watch?”

“At this stage, I feel like I have to point out it doesn’t seem like the number one priority,” Duncan said.  “But I know I’m leaving myself open to someone telling me how very wrong I am.”

“Nah,” I said.  I was very intently peering over the unfolding scene.  In a few minutes, the enemy would be at the doors below.  “At this stage, it’s not the top priority.  But I don’t think we can do much more planning or strategy.  I’m thinking ahead a little bit.”

“You’re making me nervous, going on the tangent,” Lillian said.  Her hand gripped the chains that shackled me, and I felt a shift in the chains that suggested she was gripping them tighter or pulling them closer to her.  “Let’s stay focused.”

“Alright,” I said.

By the looks of it, Carling was leading this particular expedition.  Gloria wasn’t far behind him.  The other nobles looked to be lesser.

We were near the middle floors of the admin building, peering through a hole in the wall.  We were closer to the ground floor floor of the building than to the roof, which meant  I had to crane my neck to look up and see the higher floors of the lady of Hackthorn.  Countless people were gathered at the windows, peering through to watch proceedings.

I could see the subtle shift in shade where the professors were gathering en masse.

The advancing group’s pace slowed as they drew nearer.

“I see Lambs,” Jessie said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Carling,” she said.  “He says he doesn’t see many of our people at the windows.”

Lipreading.

“He’s been given remarkably keen eyes,” I said.  “And keener intuition.  He had a pretty good sense of where we’d be last night.  He didn’t use that knowledge, but he was watching us.”

Mary gave me a sidelong glance, clearly unimpressed.

“He was looking in the first place.  If we hadn’t been there, he would’ve been able to follow you or cut off your return to Hackthorn.”

“I didn’t say anything,” she said.

“Sure,” I said.  “Carling’s intel is probably why they haven’t sent the gossamer thing to go get another drink.  They figured out what we were doing.”

It’s not the first time he’s positioned himself well to collect information and be right on top of what we were doing.  He realized the houses had been stripped within the first quarter-hour of our attack beginning.

“End result’s the same, isn’t it?” Mary asked.  “It only gets a few more attacks in before wearing down.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I said.

Carling’s group stopped in their tracks, a short distance from the admin building.  Stray warbeasts and experiments caught up with their group, many bloodied from the encounter with the spider and other stray experiments.

“What would you say, then?” Mary asked.  She sounded nettled.

“That the journey is the same, or the progression is.  But it’s their move, their decision on the end result.”

She nodded.

“Cryptic,” Duncan said.

Mary was the one who spoke, “What Sy is saying is if it died like we wanted it to die, it’d spend the last of its strength without them fully realizing what had happened.  Panic, paranoia, wondering about gasses that affect sensitive systems, parasites, they’d wonder about the resources at our disposal.  That’s no longer the case.  If they had any ideas about preserving the thing for the future, they’re gone now.  They’re free to use every last bit of strength it can bring to bear, destroying it in the process.”

“Carling is remarking to the others that this feels a great deal like a trap.  That we’re baiting him.”

“We are,” Ashton said.  “Obviously we are.”

“Shh,” I said.  “Let’s not discount the possibility that the noble huntsman there can also read lips.”

What do you have up your sleeves, there?

The Lady Gloria was observing the stitched who were hauling the barrels.  They were made of sturdy material that wasn’t metal.  Possibly bone, possibly painted or coated wood.  The barrels were being gathered, stacked in piles.

“They’re standing a set distance away,” Jessie said.  “Look at that.  Just beyond the point our fire arrows reached.  It’s calculated.”

“A man after your own heart, Jess?” I asked.

Jessie tilted her head my way and rolled her eyes.

“We have guns, they have to know we have guns.”

“Guns are inaccurate at a tenth this distance, even if the range on modern rifles might be superior” Jessie said.  “Unless we’re talking Mauer’s special guns, and we don’t have any of those.”

“I could have got some if you’d reminded me,” Helen said.

“Lessons learned,” I said.  I studied them for a moment, then added, “They’re plotting their first move.”

“Is this one of those situations where the person who makes the first move loses the initiative?” Duncan asked.  “Because I gotta say, we’ve got cards to play.  Holding them back because we’re concerned about the counter-play might mean we don’t ever get to play ’em.”

“I agree,” Mary said.

“You guys are bores,” I remarked.

“Nora?  Would you?” Mary asked.

“Which?” Nora asked.

“Emmett’s station.”

The words were barely out of Mary’s mouth when the crash occurred at the leftmost end of the admin building.  Every head on the ground turned to look.

What we’d set up overnight to look like boards shoring up a hole in the wall was… akin to a dam.  Emmett had just breached it.

No water fell, no billowing smoke.  There was no rain of spiders or parasites.

“Hoy!” I raised my voice, bellowing.

I wanted their attention.  Some of the nobles could hear me, but they were halfway occupied with surveying the scene, trying to get a better idea of what was happening.

To all appearances, we’d shattered a wall of wooden planks.  Keen eyes would see that the space beyond was simply more wood, an empty box.

“Carling!” I called out, pushing my voice to its limits.  My throat was raw from shouting I didn’t remember doing.  “Gloria!  It’s a joke!”

“It’s not a joke,” Jessie said, translating what seemed to be Lady Gloria’s words.  She was backing up swiftly, barking out orders.  She flung her hands to either side of her as she gestured with the same efficacy that another person might swing a sword.  She was likely as dangerous, not that the elaborate white dress and elbow-length gloves conveyed that impression.  “Get back.  Get back.  Get to higher ground.”

Jessie didn’t normally speak in a monotone, but she did here, and it made for a curious juxtaposition with the scene.

They were retreating, backing off.  They moved to rooftops and the skeletal remains of burned buildings, but some soldiers, some beasts, and some stitched were slow to move.

A small few of that ‘some’ reacted with pain.  They stopped, dropped, and thrashed.

“Don’t fall,” Jessie translated Gloria’s words.

We’d released a volume of gas coupled with a few treats we’d suspended in the mixture.  Naked to the eye, the gas hung close to the ground, pulled by gravity and displacing air.

Junior had led the team that had come up with this, but the idea belonged to a grey coat that had lost their standing and ability to keep progressing when they’d been deemed too tame, too averse to combat.  They’d been a specialist in sterilization methods.

This was the specialist’s answer.  A rebuke of the people that had stopped them from getting their black coat.  It was sterilization, microscopic fibrils floating through the gas, binding to cell walls, be it bacteria, skin, or eye.

They quickly induced cell death.

The idea had been to eradicate bacteria, then remove lingering fibrils.  They’d never gotten that far.

Now, well, we could remove fibrils, but for now it hurt like nothing else, and it made flesh break out in rashes, ruptured veins, and then the flesh would turn black and wither away.

Some of the warbeasts were succumbing.  Some were already bleeding from more sensitive tissues, like the nose, ears, eyes, and softer flesh on the arms and legs.

It didn’t look like we’d caught any of ours.  They hadn’t thought to bring hostages or anything like it, if the students who’d stayed behind in the main hall were even suitable as such.

All six nobles had found places to roost.  They stood on chimneys and sat on rooftops.  Gloria had chosen to stand on a pillar of wood from a burned building.

Even the army and beasts that accompanied the nobles had mostly found places to go.

Carling turned, then raised a hand high overhead.  He dropped it until it was pointed our way.

There was scarcely a delay before the gossamer creature pulled away from the main building.  It was only a fraction slower than we’d seen it before, but that fraction applied to all of the strands.  With the way it moved, attaching, anchoring, and reeling in to the point closest to its destination, it began to take on an image of a small animal on ice, trying and failing to get traction.  Not all of the tendrils that should’ve been forming anchors were doing so.

“Aww,” Helen said.  “It’s hurting.”

“I can’t begin to imagine it has anything resembling nerves,” Duncan said.

“But it’s hurting,” Helen said.

“Let’s not anthropomorphize it,” Duncan said.  “Are we just taking this hit?”

“Probably,” Jessie said.

“If it was a person it would be limping,” Ashton said.

“Please stop sympathizing with the superweapon,” Duncan said.

“Abby’s saying that it’s suffering,” Nora said.

Duncan sighed.

It needs to eat, drink, and rest.  We disturbed its rest, we denied it the opportunity to rehydrate, and now it’s slower.

It was still terrifying.  Powerful, hard to wrap my head around.

The thing drew closer, beginning to form its spike.

Carling was standing there on a chimney, watching us.

What’s your move?

We had a series of traps arranged.  A dozen countermeasures, lined up and ready.  They wanted to reach a window or a door, they wanted to get inside, and then they could start doing untold damage.

He was playing a game with us, trying to stay a step ahead, to anticipate.  He knew that the countermeasures wouldn’t stop with the gas.

Come on, I thought.  Come on.

Carling spoke, dropping to one knee, and his position atop the chimney would have been precarious if it wasn’t for his physical prowess.  His hands worked on his slacks.  Tucking them into his boots.

“He said to stay.  He’s acting alone,” Jessie translated.

The noble cinched the straps on his boots tight.  The gossamer thing drew nearer.  It was already setting anchors in place.

I wondered if it had the mental faculties to remember its prior attacks.  It felt faster on the uptake than it had been before, even as it struggled to anchor itself here and there.

“Gloria’s saying-” Jessie started.  “The hazard is…”

“Is?” Nora asked.

But there was no telling.  Lady Gloria had raised a hand to her mouth.  No more lipreading was possible until she moved it.

“The hazard is already clearing up,” I guessed.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.

The statement meant that Lord Carling was more or less free to move.  He dropped from the chimney, and moved with surprising speed as he headed toward the barrels they’d brought.

“Release the stray warbeasts,” Mary said.  “Yes?  Even with the gas-”

“Yes,” Jessie said.

“Told them,” Nora said.

Carling reached the barrels, seizing the upper rim in his hands.

Stepping forward, he twisted his upper body around, then swung the barrel.  He released it three-quarters of the way through the swing, and the barrel sailed our way.

I didn’t see where it hit, but I heard glass break, just a couple of floors down.  It had penetrated a window.

“We’re going to find out what that is, I suppose,” I said.

“Bastard of ten bitches.  That had to be a sixth story window,” Duncan said.

He managed to hurl another before our second play came into effect.  Warbeasts.  They were minor, all things considered, scarcely more than attack dogs with extra mass and ruffs of quills and spines extending down their backs, cresting at the shoulders.

There were no special tricks, no poisons on the quills, no hidden benefits to using the dogs.  They’d been something we’d been able to prepare in the short time we’d had, and they now unwittingly attacked a target that they had virtually no chance against.

They were, in this moment, little more than obstacles that made Carling take just a little bit longer before he could throw another barrel.

Mary broke away from the group, running.  Knives fell from Mary’s sleeves, dangling on wire.  She began spinning them around, wire and knife forming a circular blur.  She turned on her heel, “Nora!”

Helen went with her, not looking even half as dangerous.

We collectively worked without needing to communicate in too much detail.  We were at the pivoting point.  We’d scarcely communicated who would do what, but we knew each other well enough to know who should handle what.

Duncan ran, one hand on Ashton’s shoulder, steering him.  Jessie followed behind, lagging, her eye on what was going on outside.

Lillian pulled slightly on the chain.  She wanted to go in the direction Mary had.

Carling was using the barrel to bludgeon the spike-dogs.  They bit for him and he was quicker.  They bit for the barrel, and with its weight, it was slower.

He unslung his axe from behind him, then in short order cut down the full pack of spike-dogs, one hand still on a barrel that was being jerked and tugged by the two hundred pound lesser warbeast.

Slamming the weapon down into the body of a spike dog that lay in arm’s reach, he returned to a two handed grip on the barrel.  He heaved it around and threw it.

A different corner of the building this time, again punching through a window.

This time, it coincided almost perfectly with the terrible noise of the spike grinding and scraping its way through the building, crushing wood and cleaving through stone, impaling the building.

Like Jessie was for Duncan and Ashton, Lillian and I were support for Mary and Helen.  We weren’t in fighting shape, there wasn’t much for us to do, with me having my hands behind my back and Lillian being not fantastically equipped for a fight.

The spike dissolved into strands, and Mary cut, throwing knives and having them cut through the air, using the razor wire here and there to control the movements of the strands more than to cut or harm them.

Helen was simply reaching up and batting at strands with her hands, moving in jerky, offbeat ways that let her move through the worst of the clouds.

Here and there, the strands of the great gossamer creature would cut at Helen’s hair or at some extraneous bit of lace or ribbon on Mary’s dress.

Helen wasn’t immune to being cut, but she had some protections.  She gathered the strands into clusters.

Carling attacked yet again.  Another broken window.

He was spacing them out.  The last one had been close to the middle of the building, which was also very close to where we were.  Had he seen us with that keen eyesight, Carling would have known that a good offensive measure would be best placed hereabouts.

“Let’s go see what that is,” I said.

Lillian nodded.

“We’ll be close!” I called out.

It wasn’t far.  Lillian gripped the chain, as if she thought I was going to snap and run away.  I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t about to – that I was sixty percent sure that my inner Infante wouldn’t act if he didn’t think he could do something.

But there was something equitable in that I was bound and at Lillian’s mercy, at least in part.

Lillian pushed a set of doors open, and I saw the scant light moving over the shards of glass from the broken window.  The barrel had come to rest here too; both the top and bottom ends had been designed to come off on impact.

One gaunt figure had already come forth and stood, where he or she had been contorted within.  Another was crawling out.  They were crimson, their flesh more like something coagulated and hardened, blood clots in crude humanoid form, and they barely looked ambulatory.

But they were crusted with growths.  More of the growths crusted the inner walls of the barrel.

It looked like a hive, and a swarm of insects as red as the blood clot ambulatory hosts were spreading through the air.  They crawled in and out of the hives and crevices in the hosts.

Lillian and I stared at the scene, then reversed course.  We slammed the door shut behind us.

“Okay, no,” Lillian said.  “Nothing we can do about that for now.”

“No gas?  No drugs or countermeasures?”

“Not like this,” she said.

We headed back to the others.  Lillian’s hand slid down from the chain to my hand, clutching it.

I squeezed back, for reassurance, for whatever else.

The spike plunged into the building again.  Somewhere close.  Lillian and I had to stop while the building rumbled, settling in the aftermath of the architectural violence.

Okay, I thought.

We hurried in the direction of the attack.  We found Mary and Helen there, still cutting, still collecting.  Collected strands were gathered together with curtains torn from hangers, bundled together like sheafs of grain.  Helen heaved one over her shoulder, backing away as Mary redoubled her efforts, damaging the creature as much as possible while it withdrew.

“Bugs,” I said.  “Probably parasites.”

“They know Sy’s here, so if they’re using parasites, it’s probably something nasty he’s not going to be so resistant to,” Lillian said.

“Telling them,” Nora said.

Mary and I glanced out the window at the same time.  Her eye was on the gossamer creature.  Mine was with a mind for Carling, who was retreating some while the other nobles and experiments advanced.

He was gone.

We were caught up enough in watching out for the enemy that the other Lambs caught up with us more than we caught up with them.  They’d collected the young ones.  Abby, Bo Peep, Lara, and Emmett.

“Ready?” Jessie asked.

Duncan already had the first cloth tunnel, and he knew how to mount it at the window.  Ashton, inexplicably, also knew.  I wondered if he’d read all of the safety manuals.  It seemed like his thing, since he had a way of reveling in what others found interminably boring.

The tunnel was placed at the window, then allowed to unfurl.  It extended down to the ground.

“Feet out to the sides,” Ashton said.  “Use them to slow yourself down.”

One by one, Lamb and neo-Lamb made their way down.

As strategies went, it wasn’t intuitive, but it wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been a touch unintuitive.  We abandoned the admin building and those who still remained within.

We placed ourselves on the ground level of the city, against the best this crop of lesser nobles could provide.

Helen was one of the last to descend, and she didn’t use the inside of the tube, instead sliding along the outside.  She gestured firmly for us to go.

This came down to strategy and head games, anticipating what Gloria or Carling might try, and getting ahead of that.  It had been a part of the plan since we’d needed to come up with a new way of doing things, after Ferres had spoiled the timing.

Carling had seen all of the Lambs together, he’d seen how and where we’d staged attacks and he’d inferred where we were setting up and taking action.  Faced with that information, he’d elected to do the cowardly thing; he was organizing his troops into attacking a different section of the academy.  The Girls’ dorm, the Boys’ dorm, restoring peace at the harbor-

This was the real danger, the point where our most vulnerable were at the most risk, faced with the enemy’s most dangerous.

It mandated special attention, personal involvement.

The shackles clanked and bounced behind me as I ran, the Lambs all around me.

Behind us, Helen triggered the traps, securing the admin building in a way that would bar the enemy, slow them down.  Strands of the creature filled the air all around her, glistening dangerously in the rays of light that cut through the overcast atmosphere.  A distant rumbling sound got quieter and quieter still, and only because we were moving away from it.  Had we been close, we might have been able to shape some of it.

Instead, the builder’s wood began to raise an almost inverse portcullis, ground to sky.

Would that man with the keen eyesight see it?  Would paranoia win out on his side?  Would he attack one of the dormitories and do grievous harm to the rebels within?

There were other nobles, any of which could have struck out on their own or broken from pattern.

“Enemies are close,” Helen murmured.

Everyone present drew their weapons, with the exception of the little ones, Lillian and myself.

By retreating, they’d wanted to bait us out.  They’d succeeded.  We were out of the building.

Jessie had led us up a gentle slope, and now that we were there, we had a better view of everything around us.  Hands went up, gesturing, marking the forces that were surrounding us.

Other gestures were to draw attention to the admin building.  Our departure point, we’d barred the path by littering the area with Helen’s rain of cutting strands, we’d sealed gates, trapped the scattered few within inside.

Carling was circling back now.  He’d drawn us out, and now sought to claim a critical territory, the admin building we’d taken special measures for.  He wanted the supplies, medical resources, accommodations, everything they might want or need in order to weather this siege.  He moved faster than us, and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

When the smallest of us were entirely out of breath and those of us who could carry could carry them no longer, we stopped.

There wasn’t a full minute’s respite before there was another message.

Explosions, one after another.

The remaining bridges fell much as the one between the main building and the admin building had.

The explosions continued to rattle the city, which wasn’t large.  An explosion on one side of the city made windows rattle in their frames until they cracked, on the other side.

It seemed to go on for an hour, when it might have only been five minutes.

The face of the admin building was damaged, but already, the damage was repairing.  Further up, the edge of the roof was cracked, and material was flowing out, down the face of the building.

It was the cosmetic side of Hackthorn, weaponized.  The builder’s wood and the seeds with accelerated growth for the hanging gardens now cascaded down the front of the building, caught by flowerbeds and windowsills, settling between shingles and in gutters.

Even the creatures that surrounded us were pausing to take it all in, to watch the wood grow moment by moment, curling, twisting, and forming elaborate shapes.

The trap had been sprung.  Assuming they’d been caught, in whole or in part, and that they hadn’t sprung it prematurely out of sheer guile, they would still get free eventually.  But if we’d captured some, most, or all, then we had them.  The siege was a few steps from being won.

But the biggest part, the part that satisfied so thoroughly, was that, barring a terminal wrinkle in this plan, our targets having wholly slipped the net, we were right back to what we’d originally planned – our enemy divided.

As for the conquered part of that…

I glanced at the Infante.

We were pretty sure the Lambs were ready.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The moon was out, but it didn’t do much to help illuminate Hackthorn.  Bridges, overhangs, greenery, tall buildings and walls cast most of the Academy city into a shadow that triumphed over even the moonlight.  The light that did touch the buildings, bridges, and the houses down below was deceptive.  The large glass panes of the main building made the light filter and refract, creating suggestions of things that weren’t there.  The trees and hanging gardens, a factor yet again, moved in reaction to the wind, creating a shifting interplay of light and shadow below.

Some had gone to sleep.  Others were burning the midnight oil.

Not that it was actual midnight oil, really.  I could see who was awake because lights were on, and our people had kept track of where we’d seen them go, when & where they’d left the main building to venture into houses and other buildings in the city below.  Some of those buildings had fireplaces burning or lights on.  We’d taken the oil, firewood and candles where possible, so they would have had to throw books or pieces of broken furniture into the fireplaces.

I was standing in a room with a view, a balcony framed in glass.  Ashton was with me, and Professor Foss had a seat which positioned him to see everything that was unfolding.  His hands had been placed into buckets filled with a creamy bone white material.

The Infante stood near the Professor.

It was all about the pressure, leaning on them, making them work for even creature comforts.  It was summer and the nights were short, but darkness had a primal power.  Making them go the extra mile to stave off the dark had its merits.  They were in enemy territory – a city under siege.

Making them work to find places to sleep was another point of pressure.  The main building didn’t have so many.  We’d planned to divide and isolate them by group, our forces consolidated in a few points.  We would have targeted the aristocrats and the Nobles by separate measures.  As a consequence, there had always been an expectation that we would send some to the boy’s dorm and others to the guest building, where beds awaited them.

It would also have meant that things like the gossamer creature would have been tricky to use without risking harm to one of the other groups.

There were a lot of things that would have been convenient about things going according to plan, there.

Our primary targets, though, were the top-ranked professors, nobles, and aristocrats present.  Our hope had been to delay them, on the premise of Ferres wanting to discuss the impact of her immortality procedure, then to blow up the bridges.

It would have been twenty people at most gathered in the largest building, with empty houses and buildings at the foot of Hackthorn below.  Isolating, disorienting, with a lot of dark corners and hallways for a relatively small group to keep an eye on.

Instead, there were more than a thousand guests in that building, alongside some of ours.  We couldn’t attack effectively without risking hurting our own, and we had to temper our approach on the attrition front for much the same reason.  If we lost their loyalty now, then they might share information.

A thousand individuals needed to sleep.  Counters and surgical tables in the labs were only so comfortable.  Benches and tables in the main hall and the broader sets of stairs overlooking that area had much the same issue, and the added issue of being less private.  Clothing from luggage cases could be draped over the hard surfaces, but it was meager at best, and not everyone had access to their personal things.

Add the parasites and other creatures we’d released as we went, the light dusting of irritants and gas I’d released when we’d made our escape, and it made for uneasy rest.

They were venturing out to where there were beds.  No doubt the more levelheaded among them had noted the danger inherent in that.  But we’d known we were fighting an enemy that was proud, above all else.

All along the perimeter wall, I watched the little orange lights appear, then multiply.

“I rather like this part,” Ashton said, beside me.  The little orange lights glittered in his eyes.

“Me too, little man, me too.”

The larger of the orange lights were braziers.  The smaller were the heads of the arrows.  Little time was wasted in ensuring that the arrows were fired promptly.  Targets had already been decided in advance.

The first volley was in the air by the time the people in the main building managed to sound any kind of alarm.  They used horns, and the bass drone of the collected instruments filled the air.

Buildings had been treated to resist fire, and our removal of the stacks of firewood and the like meant there was a little less in the way of combustible targets.  But there were bales of hay for the feed of horses, stacks of crates and barrels, arrows sailed into buildings and found curtains, floorboards, and pieces of furniture.  Even with the wood being treated, there were places arrows could sink in and burn away with enough intensity that they would eventually start burning.

The flaming arrows weren’t solely targeted at the buildings they’d chosen to sleep in, but at the buildings that had the infrastructure for stitched servants to recharge, and at the outdoor buildings where warbeasts and other animals were being stabled.

The flames were starting to spread.  People were fleeing now, and some were releasing the animals from the stables.  There was an effort to get the stitched out of the burning building, hampered by the agitated stitched themselves.

“We should have set fire to the tall building down there,” Ashton said.

“The steeple?”

“Yeah,” Ashton said.

“We considered it, if I’m remembering right.  Given how your head works, I’m thinking your reasons are different from the rest of us.”

“It would be more symmetrical,” Ashton said.  “And it would flow better.  As it is now, it’s like a sentence that starts, pauses in the middle, and starts again.”

He used his hand, gesturing, to sort of illustrate what he meant.

“I can’t tell if you’re a genius or if it’s pure coincidence, but flow was my line of thinking too,” I said.  “More to do with the flow of people, creating the right balance of chaos.”

“Call it genius then,” Ashton said.

One of the buildings blew up.  The initial flare of the explosion illuminated the scattered figures on the street.  It was the middle of the night, they’d been stirred from their beds, there were freed horses and warbeasts here and there, and stitched had been released from one building, agitated from the fire.  In a strange city at the dead of night, even the ones with their wits about them didn’t necessarily know which way to run.

“More explosions would be nice too,” Ashton said.

“Agreed,” I said.  “Looks like the voltaic system that houses stitched just blew up.”

“Maybe,” Ashton said.

A new flash of light appeared at the girl’s dormitory.  A very bright point of white that sailed skyward.  It detonated in the sky, so bright it left a spark on my field of vision.  The brilliant, flickering flash quickly died out as the projectile sailed toward the ground.

The smoke and the deep shadows made it hard to track what was going on, but I saw Miss Muffet’s spider make its appearance.  Other experiments were venturing into the fray, more recognizable for the fact that they were very focused on what they were doing, and the enemy was more jumbled, trying to organize, forming into ranks or hurrying toward safer territory.  Fires lower to the ground helped cast long shadows for creatures that already had long limbs.  The poison apple, Miss Muffet’s spider, the giant, the nightmare that didn’t burn, the crimson bull…

“Jessie and Lil have done their part,” I said.  “Let’s walk.”

Ashton grabbed Professor Foss’ arm, striving to haul him to his feet.  I would have helped, but my hands remained bound.

“Stand up,” Ashton ordered.

The Professor remained in his seat, not cooperating.

“Ashton.”

Ashton turned his head.  He turned it away as another distant explosion occurred.  He sighed, as if he was very bothered he hadn’t seen.  He looked back in my direction.

“Do you have a knife?” I asked him.

That got me a nod.

I stuck out a foot, sticking Professor Foss in the upper thigh with the toe of my shoe.  “You can stick it there, and it won’t do too much harm.”

The Professor stood in the same moment Ashton drew the knife.

He stood there like that, glaring at me, then at Ashton, as if he could somehow maintain the veneer that he had some ability to resist.  I saw the eye contact break and his posture slip a fraction, as Ashton worked his magic or the Professor’s ability to lie to himself faltered.

“Come on,” Ashton said.  He tugged on the Professor’s arm.  I followed alongside, as we headed into the room, through it, and into the hallway.  Students were standing guard.

Probably more for me than for the Professor.

“Please come with us,” Ashton ordered them.  “Hold on to the professor for me while you’re at it, please.”

We made our way out of the building, and onto the perimeter wall.  We didn’t bring lights with us.  The fires were the focus, as were the gunshots, now, the warbeasts on both sides, and the soldiers fighting on the ground.  We had them running, we weren’t really pressing them, and we weren’t committing a terribly large amount of our forces.  We wanted to test them and to strain their resources.

But I kept an eye on the shadows, as best as I could.  While we acted in the dark, it was very possible that a clever Noble or Professor might try to do the same.

“Talk to me about Fray,” I said.

“Haven’t seen her in years,” the Professor said.

“You’re aware that if that’s true, you’re really not that useful to us?” I asked.

“Then I’m not useful to you,” he said.  “Are you going to throw me off the wall?”

There was something about the way he’d said that, that made me think he was too confident.

“Do you really want to tempt me?” I asked.  “Ashton here doesn’t give a damn, and I’m in restraints for a reason.  I’m sure a smart man like you has noticed.”

“I give a bit of a damn,” Ashton said.  His pale face changed as he squinted at me in the dark, arching his neck back to get a better look at my hands as I gestured.  He added, “I’d like to drop him from the wall into a place where there’s some light.”

“Some light, huh?”

“I want to see the stains and splatters he makes.  Oh!  Or we could cut his knees and elbows and drop him onto a roof.  We’ll make him crawl like that, and see the smears and stains he makes as he goes.  It’ll be so nice to look at.”

“Head games,” the Professor said.

“I said I was a genius earlier, but I’m not,” Ashton said.  “I’m a vehicle for pheromone discharges.  I have a scaffolded brain with a low H.S.-like-value, high mimickry and high liquidity.  I think someone like you might know what that means.”

“I have some ideas,” the Professor said, sounding very tired.

“I like the pretty patterns and colors, Professor,” Ashton said.  “And I’m not very adaptable in late stage growth, and I’m well past early stage, so you can do the math.  Eventually I won’t adapt at all, and I’ll turn inwards.  I’ll be stuck in an endless loop.  But for now I’m not, and I’m staying comfortable and doing what makes me happy.  And making you into interesting patterns would make me happy.”

“I’m not a vat grown shelf-head, and I honestly wouldn’t mind,” I said.

“These students you two have escorting me might disagree.”

“We were told to follow their orders.  If the two of them disagree, we follow Ashton over Sylvester.”

“Uh huh,” the Professor said.  The sound came out guttural, as much a groan as words.

“Fray,” I reminded him.

“You’re pretending there’s another answer.”

“I’m pretending that you’re acting like you’re untouchable when you really shouldn’t be that confident.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” he asked.

Professor Foss was older, his hair grown in white, curled at the edges in a mimicry of the wigs of old, which had been powdered to keep the bugs out.  He looked haggard, worn out by just the afternoon and evening in our company.

But there was something beyond that.  Even being on edge, with one escape and recapture, even with all the stressors and the need to focus and keep control of his faculties while Ashton worked on him, he was still fighting.

I couldn’t remember much of him, but I could draw on context and I could read him.  Being a Headmaster necessitated being a politician, as well as a Professor.  He struck me as the kind of politician who obstructed, and I knew that he hadn’t volunteered much on Fray, despite our suspicion of his involvement with her.

He was delaying and obstructing now.  The rhetorical questions, the way he steeled himself.

He would break, and I suspected he knew he would break, but he was determined to stall as much as possible.

“Lady whatshername,” I said.  “The one you gave into Fray’s care.”

“Claire,” Ashton supplied.

“Lady Claire.  She helped Fray and you backed her, you let Fray slip under the radar, even at the expense of the Academy.  You played your part, Professor.  Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Lady Claire is here.  She’s over there in that building.”

“She was,” Ashton said.  “She was over there in that building.”

Our walk along the perimeter wall had brought us to a point that was very close to where the wall met the slope of the main building.  The doors and path down the cliffside to the harbor were all very near.  Students had clustered in the shadows here.  Mary was among them.

They were using ropes to lower barrels down the face of the wall.

“She-” Professor Foss started.  He stopped.

“She?” I asked.

He set his jaw.  He hadn’t meant to speak.  Ashton’s influence.

My focus shifted.  I wanted to pay attention to the nearby shadows.  It wasn’t good that I had to remain bound, but I was concerned that each hit from the Infante would be worse than the last, and I wasn’t positive that the Lambs being nearby would be a guarantee.

How long before I forgot them, or before I needed two Lambs with me at all times?

“She was pretty,” Ashton said.

“Was she?” I asked.  I wanted to fill the void, to keep up the patter.  Ashton had softened the wall, and now we needed to hammer at it.

“She looked nice.  Very asymmetrical,” Ashton said.  “But in a good way.  Clothes and hair asymmetrical.  I think I’d like to… what’s it called?  When you’re cooking meat and you cut it down the middle and open it up?”

“Butterflying,” Mary said, her voice soft.

“I’d like to butterfly the pretty Lady Claire,” Ashton said.  “Or it would be better if someone else could, and I could watch.”

“I could,” Mary and I said at the same time.

“Stop,” the Professor said.

I stopped.  We all waited.

“I know full well what you’re doing,” the man said.  “I know.  Let’s not play games.”

“Let’s cut to the chase, Professor,” I said.  “Let’s talk properly.  We know you will eventually.”

“And if I don’t, you’ll weaken my resistances, break down my willpower, and make me unable to keep the vivid imagery of one of the people I love most in the world being brutalized from my mind?”

“Not brutalized,” Ashton said.  “We could be gentle about it.  She could even be asleep, so she didn’t move too much while we carved bits out.”

Even in the dark, I could see the tension in the Professor’s neck.

“I’ve been in touch with Genevieve Fray,” he said.  “I don’t have much to say.  She’s not very active, she hasn’t been moving much, in part because there aren’t many places to go.”

“No idea what she’s planning, then?” I asked.

The Professor stared at me for a long moment.  “Whatever she’s doing, it’s near Radham, and if she’s wrapping it up, she’s intent on doing it where she got her start.  I thought at first that she was planning on doing what you seem to be doing here, getting her pieces arranged, being more patient about it, but I’m less sure about that as time goes on.”

I glanced at Mary.  “Radham was one of our planned stops, if we get out of here okay.”

“Who’s in the admin building?” she asked.

“Students, soldiers.  They’ll toot a horn if there’s trouble.  But nobody’s going to attack the main building,” I said.

Mary didn’t respond immediately.

“Ninety percent sure,” I said.  “We left a clear path to there when we decided not to burn the spire-”

“Steeple,” Ashton corrected.

“-And they’ll think it’s a trap.  I’m… eighty-five percent sure.”

Mary didn’t look impressed.

“What are you doing here, Sy?” she asked.

“I thought we’d stand guard while you work,” I said.

“You, the least combat capable member of the Lambs, with your hands tied behind your back, no less?” she asked, her tone wry.  “And Ashton, the second least combat capable Lamb?”

Ashton and I voiced very different protests at the same time.

“I’ve gotten better,” I said, when there was a moment.  “It’s predicated on opportunism, ambush, and debilitating the enemy, but still.”

“And I’m not the worst or second worst, even if I’m slow,” Ashton said.  “I’m good with guns.  Abby isn’t good at anything.”

“Weapons-wise,” I said.

“Yeah,” Ashton said.

Mary looked between us.  Something about her looked far gentler and less… difficult, than I’d seen in a long time.

It worried me, more than anything.  That Mary would let the hardness go any.  I wasn’t wholly sure what had predicated it.

The ending being in sight, perhaps.  Or an ending.  Mine being one such possibility.

“Keep us safe, then,” she said, still with that wry tone.  Sarcasm without the bite.

“I’ll try,” Ashton said, matching the wry tone with earnestness.

Mary grabbed the rope, then slid down it, over the other side of the wall.

I could only barely make out the pale blob that was Helen.  The two of them disappeared down the cliff, Helen so close to Mary that it looked like they’d get in each other’s way, get caught up in each other and drop off the cliff face to the rocks below.

Here and there, students in dark clothes were working with ropes, to lower down barrels and cases.

“Where does this go?” the Professor asked.

“We break you,” I said.

“Me specifically, or…”

“You, collectively.”

He nodded, as if there was no surprise in that.

“You break us,” he said.  “You could have poisoned the vast majority of us at the outset, if you had a mind to.  You could have made the gas you filled the dining hall with into something that killed.  You didn’t.”

“Some of ours in the enemy ranks,” I said.

“There were roads available to you that you didn’t take.  Now here we are.  I can see much of what’s ahead, but not all of it.”

“Your peers will get hungry,” I said.  “You’ll eat some of the warbeasts.  You’ll make what you can and use chemicals and experiments to come after us.  But we’ve left you all with very little, the numbers favor us, really, even if your strength is disproportionately higher on the face of things.  You’ll get desperate.”

On the one side of the wall, the enemy was retreating into the main building.  The lowest ranked students, doctors, aristocrats and experiments had taken up roost there, in hopes of some comfort or refuge, and they’d been denied it.  If we couldn’t divide them up, we’d force them to cram in together in the main building.  Maybe it would drive friction.

On the other side of the wall, I couldn’t see it, but Mary, Helen, and the team that had crawled down were carting off barrels and containers.  They would float them out to set points and they would release the chemicals, hopefully without exposing themselves to the stuff.

“The Academy and the Crown are proud, above all else.  You put a lot of stock in your ability to hold your heads high.  So the first stage of this?  We make you lower your heads.”

“All the better to chop at them with the headsman’s axe?” the Professor said, with the tone of someone who didn’t think that was a real possibility.  “To humiliate them?”

I was silent, watching the shadows.  Was that someone I saw, or a thick cloud of smoke?

“Or to collar them?” the Professor asked.

It was a person.  A figure.

The noble I’d seen before, who’d worn the red jacket.  He wasn’t wearing the jacket now – only a black silk shirt and pants tucked into boots.  He was watching the walltop.

“There are two types of control, you know,” the Professor said, behind me.  “The first is to rise up, so that when you act, you need only to reach down.  The effort is minimal, the cost of acting small compared to the impact earned.”

It was eerie that he said that as I looked at a Noble.  What had the man’s name been?  Carling?

“The other, the path I took at Kensford, in dealing with Genevieve Fray, was to bring the others down.  To allow ruin to befall other Academies while I kept the footing of Dame Cicely’s intact.  We were quick to develop countermeasures, to free key individuals from the leash.  Genevieve Fray promised, and it came to pass.”

Carling paused, and in that pause, I wondered if he’d made eye contact with me.  I couldn’t see well enough in the dark to tell.

Ashton, beside me, was looking in the same direction.  He didn’t seem too concerned, but the things that concerned him were a little different than the norm.

“Are you lowering others to your level, Lambs, or are you raising yourselves up?” the Professor asked.

Carling turned, and he strode into the smoke and darkness.  If he was making a play, it wouldn’t be immediate.

Carling, the pale Lady Gloria, Professor Gossamer.  There were others.  The smarter enemies that were watching and acting decisively rather than milling about.  They were coordinating, and I felt as though they were keeping pace with us so far.  The rest- not so much.  If anything, I felt like the minor struggles, the disorganization and the silly little things like aristocrats finding common beds to sleep in in the city itself were gambits.

“Remains to be seen,” I said.  “A lot depends on what your side ends up doing here.  But I think it’s key to note something.”

I was glad I’d come, so I could see the enemy, almost look them in the eyes.

The gossamer thing would drink the water we’d polluted, unless it was somehow able to take commands extensive enough to guide it away from water that might be poisoned, somewhere further down the coast, where it still had anchors.  It would attack once or twice more, and then it would drink, and it would die.

They’re going to make a play within a few hours, before their side is too weak from hunger.  It wasn’t an idea I had that was wholly based in logic or anything specific I’d noted.  But instinct suggested it was right.  It made the most sense, and it was the most inconvenient thing they could do.  It would coincide with the next, last attack from the Gossamer thing, before the thing had a chance to be poisoned or counteracted.  It would be decisive, one way or the other.

“It’s key to note something?” the Professor asked.

“Half of the Lambs are broken, dead, or dying,” I said.  “So if we bring you all down to our level, it’s not going to be pretty.”

“It’s not a pretty thing either, to raise yourself up to a better position, if you’re starting from a point marked by the dead, dying, and broken,” he said.

“I’m going to guess you’re not one for prayer,” I said.  “Being loyal to the Crown and all.”

“More than some,” he said.  “The school I run used to be a religious one, before the title changed.”

My voice was hard, and I was very cognizant of the Infante in the corner of my vision, intently staring through the gloom.  “Well, maybe say some words, then.  Because that ugliness, whichever way the plan goes, is going to include you, your Claire, and everything else you hold dear.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

It was like trying to fight a tidal wave with a sword and trying not to get wet in the process.  Students with improvised armor joined Jessie and I in trying to fend off the attack.  The gossamer had already made four more strikes, punching and tearing through walls, snagging on rubble it could pull down and cutting at the contents of the hallway, living or otherwise.

The gossamer strands didn’t follow consistent logic in how they moved once they went from rigid to soft.  Parts remained rigid, and the resulting kinks in the strands made the flow of it just a touch less predictable.  That lack of predictability combined with the stress and hurry of the moment made it easy to slip up.  We only had ten seconds to a minute to get from wherever we were to where it had impaled the building, then, if we arrived in time, only about that long to do any substantial damage.  After that, most of the strands would pull out, with only the anchoring points remaining.

We’d had only one good go of it, and three more where we’d arrived just late enough that there were only the anchoring strands remaining.  Cutting at the anchoring points slowed it down, and forced it to set down anchors elsewhere.

A dozen of us were assembled, armed with swords and axes.  Six of us were on one floor, and six more were on the floor below.  Damage to the wall and floor meant that the hallway on my floor was missing half of its width, the rest having tumbled through the gaping hole in the exterior wall.  The hole was wide enough to ride two carriages through abreast, and through it, I could see the sky and the fading, overcast daylight, the sheer drop to the ground far below, and a great deal of the gossamer creature, as it settled into position.

It was preparing for a fifth strike in this set of attacks.

I could see clear to the floor below, where Jessie was speaking to the others.  She was encouraging, giving advice, and describing things to watch out for.  I suspected a lot of it had to do with keeping mood up, keeping people focused, and not letting people dwell on the futility of what we were doing.

I remained silent.  I didn’t have the currency to really sell my group on anything.  They knew what to do, and any words from my lips would rankle, and we didn’t need any more negativity.

The students were nervous.  There had been almost twenty of us when we’d started defending against this attack.  Seven students had tried to fight off the gossamer creature and had suffered grave injuries for their trouble.  I secretly believed that one was probably a goner, based on the severity of the wounds.  Another one had returned to help, but most of them had taped and bandaged books around their extremities, hardcovers torn off, and the fellow who’d just returned had blood soaking through pages of one book at his arm, dripping from the gouge the strand had made in it.  The improvised armor was more the sort of thing to shield against momentary contact at best.

I gave my axe a test swing through the air.  It was one of the ones that was stowed for dealing with fires and defending against rogue experiments.

The gossamer thing was setting down more anchors, now.  Jessie’s encouraging words trailed off.

I wasn’t with her, we were hardly ‘dancing’, but I imagined we were very much on the same page.

For ten seconds, the only sound was the building creaking, the places where structural integrity had suffered groaning their agony.  The damaged floor I stood on was part of it, and I could feel the vibrations and protests of the building through my feet and legs.

The spike speared forth, and I was moving before it had made contact, running down the hallway.

This was a tricky thing to balance, wanting to be close enough to strike out, but not so close I was caught by the hazard.

I’d grown up with the Academy, trained as a Lamb to out-think the enemy and to keep up with the boys and girls I worked with.  I’d adapted to each of them, matched my footing to theirs, and then helped the enemies stumble and the allies step true.

This was an enemy I couldn’t out-think.  It had no brain.

It punched through the building, with a downward slant, very possibly striking through the tenth floor and exiting through the seventh, the hole in the wall facing the burned and black wood wastelands.

If it had penetrated the exterior wall of Hackthorn Academy, then we could well be exposed to the black wood, in the small but not infinitesimal chance that the wind blew the right particles across the wasteland and through the gap.

Something to address later.

By the time I’d reached the spike of gossamer, it was already unfurling.  Anchors were pulling at damaged sections of floor, dragging them away and down.  Jessie wouldn’t be able to do much, below.   The entire structure rumbled, rubble falling and furniture cascading.  It was the kind of damage that multiplied itself, one cascade of falling rubble leading to another.

I swung the axe, striking for the point where the hard section of the spike had started to unfurl.  If I struck at something as soft and light, it simply gave, going with the swing.  Strike at the hard part of the shaft, and it barely took any damage at all.

At the midway point between the two, the strands were soft enough to feel the axe, but were held in place by the firmer part elsewhere.

The blade of the axe crunched deep.  Strands peeled off on either side of the cut and immediately started fanning out through the air.

They were, going by the ones I’d seen and examined, much like Mary’s razor wire, but far finer.  Each strand was as thin as a hair, lighter, and took a serrated shape on three sides, sawing through everything it touched.  Seen from a distance, it seemed to cut through all it ran against with the same ease as fine, sharp knives might.  Here and there, it moved with enough force to scuff and score even stone and metal.

I moved back and away from the strands that were fanning out around me, and almost stumbled over the rug.  Long and narrow, it had ran down the middle of the hallway.  Now strands pulled at it, lifting it up and toward me.  A knee-high barrier to hamper my movements.  Purely accidental on the gossamer creature’s part, I knew, but it cost me a precious second.

My retreat was performed with even more care than usual, as I navigated the strands that continued to fill the space around me, each one so thin I could miss them in the wrong light or angle.  In the moment, my focus was wholly consumed by the need to watch each grouping of strands, to make sure I didn’t just have a way out that was clear, but that I had a way out when I got there.

I swung again, this time at a different grouping of strands.  A strand swiped against the handle, just a finger’s width away from my hand, and it dragged through the wood, carving a shallow groove into it, while threatening to pull the weapon from my hands.

But the blade of the axe caught the strands and slammed into the wooden interior wall, which helped to sever them.  I had to use my whole body to haul it free.

Others were joining in.  The floor was collapsing in the middle of the hallway, and I could see motion below.  More students, not from Jessie’s group, because they were on the other side of the spike.  They were using a visible gas.

It withdrew, and the motion caused the strands all around us to flail about and take to the air.

I backed well away.  Light streamed into the otherwise dark hallway through the hole in the outside wall.  Dust billowed through the hole in the inside wall, and I knew that if I waited for the cloud of dust to dissipate, braved the strands that littered the area, and stood at the edge of that hole, there was a chance I could see clean through the building.  Small chunks of stone and wood were still dropping here and there.

I brought the head of my axe to my hand, idly brushing my thumb along the length of the blade.  It was ragged, notched, and a little triangle of metal came free as my thumb touched it.

Outside, the gossamer thing was disconnecting all anchors, pulling back to go back to the main building.  I was a little out of breath, and my thinking was strange.  I was in an overly observant state, from my attention to the creature and its state, and I wanted to move slowly and gently as I adjusted my head.

Professor Gossamer was waiting.  He didn’t flinch as the thing settled, embracing the reclining lady of Hackthorn.  It was only there for a few seconds before he finished communicating his directives.  It departed in the direction he’d extended a finger, moving out toward the water.

It was only now that it had moved completely away from the building that I could see what we’d managed to do at the cost of one life, however many injuries, and some seriously concerning structural damage.  Some strands were clumping together in an unusual way – the gas had chilled or glued them together, and others had been cut short.  We’d maybe cut or hampered five percent of the strands, and even then we’d only cut them in half, or we’d glued them up temporarily at best.

If this continued, we’d be out of soldiers to throw at the thing before we reached the fifteen percent mark, and the building would crumble before we had pruned away a third of it.  None of which covered the actual danger of disposing of the strands we had cut.

It was gone, though.  We did have a reprieve.

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

“Two cuts,” one student reported.  “Nothing serious.”

“Good,” I said.

I left it at that.  Short and sweet.  Striding away from the scene, tossing my axe to the side, I took the hallway that had been reduced to a half of the width and jumped down to the next floor.  I reunited with Jessie.

“Two cuts,” I said.

“I heard,” Jessie said.  “Three injuries here.  Some stone came down from above and it made the strands billow out.  We didn’t all move fast enough.”

Students were using weapons and stray bits of wood to poke and prod strands, moving them over the edge where possible.  I could see the group of students further down the hallway, collecting the containers they’d used to produce the glue gas.

“Good work, guys,” I said.

I got a few curt nods and one salute before they went on their way, resupplying for another attempt, maybe planning something else.

Jessie and I maneuvered to a safe spot, where we could see the main building, watch the gossamer thing head out to the water, and still be free of any falling stones, pieces of wood, or free strands.

It also gave us the benefit of privacy.  I hesitated for a second, and then hugged Jessie.

Decompressing.  Easing down.  It felt good to hug and be hugged, to feel a head resting against my neck.

I didn’t want to taint the hug, so I broke away and took a second to take stock before speaking.

“It’s a living thing,” I said.

“It is,” Jessie said.  She was smiling a little.  “What’s your line of thinking?”

“I’m thinking it’s been sent to the water because it needs to eat and drink.  It doesn’t seem very active, but it has to consume some energy when it attacks.  If it has an inefficient body, it might have a hard time getting nutrients from the root of one strand to the end.”

“Going by what I’ve read, it probably uses salts to communicate.  Ocean water would give it most of what it needs.  It might fish while it’s there.”

“It’s not going to need to grab a huge hunk of meat or something and haul it to its mouth, then?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “I can’t imagine it would.”

“Does it need to rest?  Like actually stop, sleep, take it easy?”

“If I had to compare to other, similar things, most of which are aquatic, I’d say yes.  It’ll hunker down when it gets dark.  I’m just going by what I’ve read,” she said.

I watched as the thing made its slow retreat.  The wind blew from the water to the Academy, and the creature mostly moved by letting the wind blow it, waiting until strands blew in the direction it wanted to go, and anchored to the most solid objects in that direction.

“It grabs things.  Can we… give it something to grab and make it hold on?  I’m envisioning having it grab a pipe and then we roll up the pipe, get a bit of strand with it.”

“It would probably cut through pipe as it tugged on it,” Jessie said.

“Something else?  Thicker than pipe?”

“If it was anchored enough to hold the thing down, we might end up giving it leverage to tear down a good section of building.”

I nodded, trying to wrap my head around the problem from different angles and not seeing much.  I’d barely thought through the idea as I pitched it to Jessie, and I didn’t really disagree with her assessment.

I was tired, mentally and physically.  I wasn’t the only one who was, either.  It had been an intense twenty minutes.

This was bad, and it was bad in a way that went well beyond the fact that I didn’t have any good answers.  It was bad because it was taking up our time, energy, and resources, and it wasn’t occupying much of the enemy’s.  I’d hoped the inverse would be true, and that we could harass and pressure them.

We hadn’t left them much in the way of resources, but there were a lot of brains there, and they did have what they had brought with them.  In the stables, staircases, and in the main hall, there had been scattered cases of luggage and collections of medical supplies for the upkeep of nobles and experiments.

“Across that broken bridge, they’re getting organized,” I said.  “Establishing a chain of command, organizing, taking stock, and figuring out what we have planned.  They’ll be sorting through the medical supplies and searching through the building to find what we left behind.”

“We left traps,” Jessie said.

“We did,” I said.  “But once they finish searching the labs, they’ll get a sense of what they have available, and they’ll start acting.  A set number of supplies for the care of nobles.  The rest set aside to gamble with.”

“I suppose it is a gamble,” she said.  “Deciding what they can afford to lose, taking their shot with it, the best they can put together, after observing us…”

“Depending on who takes charge over there, it’s going to be a very effective, targeted attack, or they’re going to play it conservative.”

“Conservative would be bad,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.

I wished I had the binoculars.  Instead, I looked over the chasm between our building and the main building of Hackthorn.

“You’re focused a lot on the people in that building and not on the thing that’s putting holes in our headquarters.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Where’s your head at, Sy?”

Where was it?  If I’d been dwelling in situational awareness, my thinking in this moment was likely a bit of a swing too far into another kind of thinking.

“Trying to analyze what we’re up against.  Thinking, maybe, that if we can deal with them, somehow, we can behead the snake, leave the gossamer whatsit without anyone to give it commands.”

“Might be a tall order, Sy.”

“Yeah,” I said.  It was.  My dwelling on them was a little bit to do with me just wanting something I could figure out, a little bit to do with me veering too far into the problem solving part of my brain, as I moved away from situational awareness.  “How are you managing?”

“I’m tired, Sy.  I need and want to sleep, but it’s not the time for it.”

“This is going to take a while to play out.  It might be better to rest sooner than later.”

“That goes for you too, you know.  You’re worn out.”

I couldn’t deny that.

We stayed there, thinking, me idly tracing my fingers up and down Jessie’s forearm, then down to her fingers, my mind half with her and half with the problems before us.

“The good thing,” I said.  “We’ve turned the tables.”

“We’ve turned the tables in a lot of ways, Sy.  Turning their students against them is a big one.  Turning their Academy against them is another.  Which way are you thinking?”

“Well, the way I see it, we either win this one, or we drag them into a tie.”

Jessie considered that one for a moment.  She was about to respond when we heard a shout.

“Sy!  Jessie!”

“Here!” Jessie called out.

We made our way down the hall until we reached a part with a hole in the ceiling.  A student stood on the edge.

“A message from the girl’s dormitory,” the student said.  “You said to keep track of the lights?”

“That’d be Mary,” Jessie said to me.

“I remember that much.  Lillian’s there too, y’know.”

“Lillian’s going to be managing the countermeasures,” Jessie said.

“I remember that too.”

We met the student at the stairwell, and the guy handed Jessie a folded piece of paper.  The flashes were marked out in a pattern of dashes.  It mapped to our tap code, and to our system of gestures.  I couldn’t remember enough of it to translate it, but Jessie was able to go over the entire thing with a glance, then provide the translation.

“Mary wants to come over.  She thinks she can help.”

I glanced at Jessie.  It wouldn’t do to talk over her and get caught arguing when things were this tense, so I gestured.  Jessie just so happened to gesture at the same time.

Both of us wanted the other to go.  I supposed we were going to disagree regardless.

“Lillian’s over there, you can wind down, catch up with her, and you can make good use of the countermeasures, in case they try something.  You’ll get a chance to think,” Jessie said, quiet.  “If something springs to mind, you can have Lillian or someone pass a message using the code.”

“You need to rest,” I said.  “I work well with Mary.  We’re not going to get many chances to rest, and we’ll need your brain later, as we keep track of them all.”

Jessie set her lips in a firm line.

“I have some ideas,” I said.  I wasn’t wholly sure if I was lying.  “Not an actual plan, but the general shape of what we might end up doing, in my head.  It depends on a lot, like where the thing goes to sleep, if it goes to sleep, but it’d help if you were over there.”

“And you think you’d be more effective over here?”

“In the center.  Not the center-center, not the main building, but closer to where I can communicate with the other buildings and more of our people.”

Jessie nodded slowly.  “Okay.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ll swap places with Mary.”

“Be safe,” I said.

Jessie blew air out of her nose, hard.  “Says you.”

“You’re supposed to say something endearing,” I said, “But no, you say that in a tone like you were going to call me numbnuts or a whackadoodle or something.”

“And a hundred other things,” she said.  “You’re going to be okay?”

“I’ll manage,” I said.

She put a hand behind my neck and gave me a quick kiss on the lips.  Then she sprinted off, leaving me standing in the hallway.

I swallowed hard, my attention turning to the nearest window.  I could see the main building, and the dark shapes that were the people and experiments at the windows.

We can do this, I thought.  The Academy is ours, we have the resources.  We just need to deal with an overly ambitious spiderweb and whatever else they come up with to throw at us.

“You’re a child of the Academy, Sylvester.”

The voice was deep.  I’d completely forgotten he was there.  I’d forgotten to keep an eye out for him and to keep my eyes and attention one step removed from him.  In my fatigue, my thoughts completely elsewhere, I might well have provided the crack he needed to worm his way into my skull.

I set my jaw.

“You,” I said, to the doctor who had brought the message.  “Ashton and Professor F.  Where?”

“I’ll show you the way,” he said.

I would have liked to have a moment to myself, to think, digest, and see what I could do standalone.  I didn’t have it.  We walked briskly.

“Tell me what’s going on upstairs.  Distract me.”

“It’s not much.  My squad is background work.  Carting things around, taking turns keeping an eye on the girl’s dorm, in case they flash a message, writing it down.  We don’t want to stay too stable or let something slip past us, so we take turns going for walks, checking on all the people we’ve got stowed in the rooms here.”

The people in the rooms.  We’d gathered up all the students, faculty, and anyone else in Hackthorn who might not be cooperative, and we’d put them to sleep, collecting them in rooms.

“Sylvester,” the Infante spoke, standing in the doorway of a room with an open door.  The buckling of the structure around us had made the door pop open like a cork popped from a wine bottle.  The gossamer whatsit had struck the building somewhere upstairs, by the way the ceiling curved.

“What’s the mood like?” I asked the student.

“Not great.” he said.

He didn’t elaborate, and I wanted him to.  I wanted his words in my ears and my brain, so the Infante’s would have less room to work.

“Just keep talking.  It’s actually more helpful if you make less sense, or say more troublesome things, so go for it.”

“Huh?” he asked.

I waited, hoping he would take the prompt.

“I don’t know what to say.  It’s not far,” he said.

He had to be the laconic sort.

You’re a child of the Academy, Sylvester.  You’re ours.  You served us, once upon a time, and your heart was in it.  That is still a part of you.  The better times.  When you believed.

The damage to the building was so extensive.

“Did you see any attacks on the girl’s dormitory?  Any sign that they were using the distraction of the gossamer whichwhat to slip something past the radar?”

“Mostly quiet.  Only movement on the ground, and even then, not a lot.  Carting bodies to the main building.”

“Good,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

I couldn’t even articulate it.  That I really wanted him to keep going, to keep talking, because I felt like I was on a precipice.  Silly of me, to simply forget my circumstances because the Infante had been holding back and lurking in the depths of my brain.  Jessie had asked me if I was going to be okay, and I’d said yes, and there was a good chance I was going to be wrong on that count.

Ashton could engage my brain, keep that wheel turning.  Waiting for Mary and finding her would take too long.

You believed in what we could bring about in the future, Sylvester.  Because you recognized that the future is what concerns us most of all.  It is, after all, why we so often use children.  Our relationship to the future is complicated, and so is how we deal with the most vulnerable of humanity, who have so much potential.

You know you see that.  You’ve abused that yourself.

The voice was starting to sound less like the Infante and more like the voice in my own head.

“Oh, fuck,” the student said.

The damage done to the hallway was extensive.  This was where the spike had come through, and it was where the strands were worst.  Ones I’d cut, that were still anchored at points.  The wind blew in through the hole in the wall, making them dance this way and that.  Sword slashes minus the sword – just cuts in the air.

“Do you have a gun?” I asked the student.

“Huh?  No.  I don’t know how to use one.  Look, I don’t know what you’re on about, but we’ll have to take the long way around.”

Fatigue and pressure had worn me down.  I’d had the Infante with me for a week and change.  I’d grown accustomed to that tension and threat that he posed, and both of those things had ramped up just often enough to keep me on that edge.  I’d let my guard slip when other things claimed my attention.

I turned to speak to the student, intent on using every iota of body language and tone to convey just how serious I was, so I might tell him that he needed to take certain measures.

I came face to face with the Infante, instead.

His massive hand reached for my face.  He seized my head, and all went dark.

Dark.

I came to, and I hurt all over.  I felt warm and cold at the same time.  The ambient temperature was different, but I had company close enough that body heat transferred to me.

I was kneeling on the hard ground, and a knee rested against my windpipe.  A hand stroked my hair, and a blade touched my cheek.

Mary was sitting on a chair, the seat of which pressed against my shoulderblade.  Her leg was resting against my body and throat  to keep me upright, her foot in my lap.  The blade ensured I wasn’t a threat.  The hair thing-

Well, I’d add that to the one hundred things I didn’t know.

“How bad was it?” I asked.

“Your timing could have been better,” Mary said.  “You stabbed Ashton.”

I winced.  “Is he okay?”

“Gravely offended, but he’ll mend.  You let Professor Foss go.”

I winced.

“I caught him.  He’s in the next room.”

“Thank you.”

“You set fires, Sy.  Scared a lot of our people in the process.  Because they were at risk, and so were the people we stowed away.”

I nodded.

“You scared me, Sy.  Because you said an awful lot of things.  Except it wasn’t really you, was it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  My voice was a hush.  “What did I say?”

“That our fates were foregone conclusions.  That we were as good as dead, with the expiration dates nigh.  There were other things.  A lot of pain, a lot of rage and sadness.  Except we were the enemy, and the actual enemy, you were saying they were the answer.”

I nodded.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I was so ashamed I wanted to curl up until I was so bound up in myself I could cease functioning.

I’d believed it once, a long time ago.  A part of me wanted to believe it again, to abandon the pain and hurt and embrace that time when things had been clearer, simpler, and when the Lambs had been near.

Mary’s fingers combed through my hair.

“I did get the drop on you after all,” she said, her voice light, an attempt at levity.

“Hah,” I said, with no humor at all.

“Is this a thing we’re going to have to be concerned about?  That one of our own, with no warning, could flip and do the most destructive, damaging things possible?”

“Looks like.”

“Is this where we lose you, Sy?”

“Could be.”

“How long did it take you to get this bad?”

“A week or so?  It’s not like I’ve been good for a few years now.”

“Alright then,” Mary said.  The knife moved so it was no longer pressing against one side of my face.  “We’ll work around it.”

I turned my head, trying to get a better look at her.

“I should have told you.”

“You do a lot of things you shouldn’t,” Mary said.  “I’ve stopped being so surprised.”

“Why aren’t you angrier?” I asked.  “You’ve been so angry for so long.”

“We look after each other,” Mary said.  “Right?  It’s always been how the Lambs were, right from the day I joined.  There was always the assumption that we had our weaknesses, and we accepted those.  I came to terms with this a long time ago.  Shooting me and making me crawl back to the Academy, after you left?  That surprised me.  It pushed me away.  But as long as you’re here, and it’s you being entirely you?  I accept that.”

“Me not being me is me being me?” I asked.

“We support and love each other, warts and all,” Mary said, stroking my hair.

“This is a pretty big wart,” I said.

She didn’t respond to that.  Her fingers continued moving through my hair, sometimes taking different courses, and it did a lot to calm my thoughts, even as the guilty feeling swelled in my upper chest.

“Come on,” she said.  “Stand.”

She stood from the chair, then grabbed me by one armpit, helping me to stand.  My hands were bound behind my back.

She didn’t free them, but she didn’t walk me with one hand firmly on my shackles like a Crown officer might walk a convict, either.

It was dark out.  Hours had passed.  Lights were on throughout our part of the Academy.  The exterior buildings, the perimeter wall.

There weren’t many lights on in the main building.

“The gossamer horror?”

“My knives and threads helped, but it only made three strikes before retreating.  It settled in for the night.”

“Where?”

Mary pointed into the darkness.  Down, in the midst of the city.

“It settled on the main building first, but then lost its hold and drifted down to the ground.  It’s guarded now,” she said.  “They devoted considerable resources to the task.”

There was an opportunity, I thought.  When they were moving to a position where they could guard it, we had a shot.  I missed itI occupied our resources.  The Infante did.

“Look at the enemy, Sy,” Mary said, moving her finger to point.

I looked at the main building.

There weren’t many lights on.  It was something of a surprise that there were any at all.

We hadn’t left them many candles.  We hadn’t left them much of anything.  Even the candles on the dining tables had been cut short, the truncated nature of them hidden in waxed paper stems.  They were either burning the little candlelight they had, or they’d devised another means, which consumed limited resources.

“Is it working?”  I asked.

“The siege is underway,” she said.  “Gossamer weapon aside, they’re holding back.  Not attacking. They’re waiting for a window of opportunity, if I had to guess.”

“Not ideal,” I observed, despite the lump in my throat.  “Any idea what they’re doing for food?”

“I think they’re using the supplies they brought with them.  Special feed for experiments going to nobles and Professors instead.  Lillian thinks they might be setting up protein farms and ways to get nutrients.”

I nodded.

Our enemy was being conservative, then.  It was the safer and more dangerous route of the two Jessie and I had discussed.  They’d recognized what we were doing, the noble Starling or whatever his name had been letting them know about the houses.  They were counteracting our plan to win by attrition by consolidating and producing resources.  It would come down to who broke first, or to who could outlast the other, rather than us trying to fend off their attacks while they withered away.

“We had signals from within.  Students lingered behind, and the enemy doesn’t have enough of the story to realize they’re ours.  Ferres is wounded.  There’s a schism in their ranks, as they try to decide what to do.  They tried to use chemicals from the lower labs, but Jessie and Junior swapped labels and containers.”

“Yeah.  My suggestion,” I said.

“It injured quite a few and ate through their good resources.”

“Yeah,” I said.  This was what we’d wanted.  I knew why Mary was showing and telling me this.

This was working.  What I’d helped to set in motion was working.  I just hoped I was here to see the resolution.

We took their students.  We took their Professor, and then their Academy.  We’re within arm’s reach of taking every Goddamned thing else there is left to take.

“First, we deal with the Gossamer thing,” I said.  “Then we shake them up a bit.”

Mary’s hand stroked my hair.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.7

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Your timing is off,” Ashton said.  “Jessie, your timing is supposed to be good.”

“Not our fault,” I said.  “A guest recognized one of our actors.  Ferres thought she saw an opportunity.”

Jessie and I had reached the gate that was supposed to lead to the bridge and to the main hall.  Now it was only a short section of bridge that ended in splinters and rubble, the midsection gone.  The attachment points for the ropes were gone too.  I could vaguely map out the course we’d taken, the staggered descent to a point where we could safely swing beneath the bridge to the admin building, at which point we’d been towed in to the window.

Ashton was with this group, more because he knew the hand signals than anything.  He didn’t have a proper role at this point in time.  The Infante was near because, well, it was what he did, apparently.

Across the bridge, there was a crowd gathered near the window.  Professors, aristocrats, and those without combat experience.  I couldn’t make out much with the distance being what it was, but I could tell that they were agitated, and they were talking.  Unless they pulled out guns and started shooting, they weren’t a concern.  Even if they did, I wouldn’t mind too much.  It would take a rifle to get a bullet this far and the shots wouldn’t be accurate.  If they got lucky and hit one of us, it wouldn’t be good, but the chances were slim.

I kept one eye out all the same.  The Academy could produce all sorts.

But if they wanted to waste bullets, that wasn’t too bad either.

They weren’t the focus.  For now they were organizing, putting great minds to the problem.

I turned my attention to more crucial areas.  There were people on the ground, which meant they’d managed to get past the obstacles we’d set in their way and exit the gate of the main building.  They were moving in loose regiments as they stormed through the streets.  Much of the attention was on the ground level entrances to the main buildings.  That was a mistake – common logic would dictate that if we planned this, we’d know they would try.

I started paying more attention to the nature of the movements, tracking the patterns in this kicked anthill.  I began taking in a general sense of where the leaders were, and who the followers were.  I tried to pay attention to where the followers hesitated, as if that could highlight where the leadership was weaker.

There were some that were starting to break into homes and businesses on the ground level.

“They’re raiding the buildings,” I observed.

“Looks like,” Jessie said.  She lifted up her glasses to look down with clearer vision.

“One group,” I said.

“No,” Jessie said.  “Lots are doing it.  They’re clearing their flanks, making sure we don’t have experiments or soldiers waiting in the houses and alleys.”

“Mostly from the one group, I mean,” I said.  I moved closer to her, my arm resting against hers, and pointed.

“Okay, I see who you mean.”

We watched the little black dot that was the leader of that particular group.  It was taller than average, moving with leisure, and it was watching what the rest of the groups were doing at the main gate.  People slowed as they drew closer to him.

Tall dot was a noble, I was fairly sure.

“It’s… interesting that he’s taking that course of action.  It’s not flank clearing.”

“No,” Jessie said.

“What is it?” Ashton asked.  He dropped down onto his belly, crawling forward to look down over the edge of the crumbled, broken bridge.

“Well, the whole storming the gates or going on the offense is the most obvious path they could take, and one of the more pointless,” I said.  “What he’s doing isn’t obvious, and it’s… rather more pointful.  It’s maybe on the top five paths they could take that hurt us.  Third most pointful thing.”

“Please stop saying pointful,” Jessie said, her eyes still on the scene below.  “With my memory, I have to remember each and every butchery of Stateside English you commit.”

I snickered, and she elbowed me.

“He’s checking the surroundings, gathering information,” Jessie said.  “He’s going to find out very quickly that we’ve been through each and every one of those houses.”

“Ahhh,” Ashton said.

“Some of the nobles on the bridge we just blew up are climbing out of the rubble,” she observed.

“Really?” I asked.  “That’s pretty impressive.  Pick one out, make him or her our measuring stick?”

“I need binoculars,” she said.

Binoculars were offered by members of the larger group that had gathered at the open doors here.  Someone handed some to me.

Things had been tense for a while, the rebels not really trusting me, and this was perhaps the most unambiguous that they’d been in helping me out and giving me that benefit of a doubt.  The bridge explosion and the coordination thus far had apparently counted for something.

I focused on the rubble, and saw two nobles.  A young Lord had already emerged, and a young Lady was in the process of moving rubble to free her legs.  Both were dirty and both were bleeding in places.

The Lord began stripping down.  He stood there almost completely naked for a short time while he picked through the various dead in the wreckage, shaking their less tattered clothes free of dust before donning them.

The Lady was more hurt.  She crawled forth, made her way to the nearest piece of rubble she could sit on, and began tending to her injuries, including a smashed leg.  I couldn’t see much of what she was doing, given the angle and the distance.

They would look after themselves to the point they could show their faces without too much shame, and then they would rejoin the proceedings.

I glanced at the Infante.  He wasn’t standing as still anymore, and he’d been standing still for a week now.  He paced, and for all the world, it felt like he was going to turn to me any moment, make eye contact, and start talking at length, as if he’d bottled it all up inside, waiting for this moment.

I looked away.  Other focuses.

Tall dot was a tall young noble with a red jacket that he’d taken off and slung over one shoulder.  He had a blond beard that came to a sharp point, his hair was short but for a flourish of wavy hair that extended in front of his face, and he stood there with a battle axe resting on the ground.

He picked up the weapon as if it weighed nothing and used it to point at a side street.  Soldiers and the stitched that accompanied them moved down the street.

Then his head turned, and he looked up in our general direction.  I wondered if his eyesight was keen enough to see us without binoculars, or if he was simply taking in the bridge.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Lord Carling,” Jessie said.

“We know they know, now,” I said.  “The general thrust of what we’re doing, they found how we prepped the buildings.  Lord Carling’s going to pass on word soon.”

“It should take him about ten minutes to get from the bottom floor to the main hall, and then they’ll start moving with more purpose and direction,” Jessie said.  “I’ll feel a lot better about what we’re doing if we hear from Helen sooner than later.”

“She’s reliable,” I said.  Lord Carling was moving again, entering the front hallway of the building closest to him, one that had already been cleared out.  He emerged and walked straight for the gate leading to the main building.

Ten minutes, according to Jessie.

More students from downstairs were joining us now.  They peeked out and around the edges of the door, more wary of stray bullets than Jessie, Ashton and I were, and they took in the scene before retreating or making space for others to indulge their curiosity.

“Jessie?” one of them ventured.

“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me something about Professor Foss?” Jessie asked.

“He’s secured.  We have him in room six-oh-six.  Some of ours are examining him.”

“It seems to be in fashion to keep things under fingernails,” I said.  “We’ll want to be absolutely careful.”

“We put his feet in a bucket of cold casting gel, and we did the same for his hands, put them behind him and stuck them in a bucket that’s sitting on another chair.”

“Perfect,” I said.

Jessie stuck her toe into Ashton’s foot.  “You want to go babysit Professor Foss?  See if you can’t loosen his tongue if he wakes up?  We’ll be along in a short while, as soon as we can be mostly sure things have settled.”

“Alright.  If you need me I’ll be there,” Ashton said.  He rose to his feet, and stood there, rather precariously on the edge of the broken bridge.  My hand moved, ready to reach out and grab him if he tipped over the edge.  I kept it there while he stretched, and hoped that with people being suspicious of me, that it didn’t look as though I was preparing to push him off rather than save him.

“I like watching the dust settle,” Ashton said.

“Me too, Ashton, me too,” I said.

He smiled up at me, then left.  He hadn’t tipped over the edge, but I wasn’t ruling anything out.  His situational awareness could do with some work.

An unusual brain, that one.

Almost every set of eyes in the group watched him as he walked downstairs.  Something about the fumes he was putting off had their attention.

I’d trust him to know what he was doing.

On the ground, the armies at the gates were starting to make some headway.  Warbeasts that had been brought out of the stable were tearing through the wood for one of the dormitories, and stitched-managed battering rams slammed at others.

“Girl’s dormitory would be… Mary?”

“Mary, yes.”

Mary had set up the obstacles and carried out the sprinting retreat from the lower levels of the Academy.  She was most able to defend herself if something quick happened to leap from a window or dodge the experiments and the growing barricades that had been set in its path.

Mary now managed the defense at that point.  Stitched hammered at the gate, and the beam they collectively held was gradually punching holes in the wood rather than actually opening the gate.  They’d make a hole big enough to crawl through soon.

Jessie watched, very intent on what was going on.  The girl’s dormitory hadn’t been built to weather an attack.  Jessie’s speculation was that it had been a later addition, more Ferres’ slant on things than part of the original construction.

“You’re paying a lot of attention there,” I remarked to Jessie, my voice a murmur.

“If the defense fails there, it puts us in a bad spot,” Jessie said.

“And it has nothing to do with the imagery of the big, strong beam sinking in deep, the steady rhythm-”

“I will push you over the edge, Sy.”

She was threatening to kill me, sure, but she was smiling.

The team at the girl’s dormitory upended vats and buckets through windows, down onto the soldiers and stitched below them.

Some stitched stopped outright, dropping to hands and knees or kneeling at the street outside the dormitory.  Others backed away, with a scattered few failing or going still after they’d made it a few paces.  The non-stitched backed away.

The texture of the road and the sides of the building beneath the windows began to change.

Duncan’s group opened fire with rifles, targeting the shaggy warbeast that was clawing at the doors.  An explosive was tossed down from high above and exploded on contact with the ground, only a short distance from the warbeast.  It didn’t tear the creature to shreds, but the warbeast fell to its side and didn’t get back up.

We had half a dozen to a dozen individual tricks and tools prepared for each of the points we needed to defend.  Most of the major bridges were intact, still, but that could change if we needed it to, and the enemy no doubt knew it.

It was very likely they would try to cross the bridges after dark, which was only a few hours away.  They would wait until we got complacent.

They had their own tricks.  Things that could crawl up walls and the faces of buildings, the gossamer thing, warbeasts with other tools, people with machinery in them and machines with biology in them.

I glanced at the Infante.

“How many nobles?” I asked.

“Twelve arrived.  Five tried to cross the bridge here and only two climbed out, for what it’s worth.”

“Nine nobles, then,” I said, quiet.  “Lesser ones.”

Nine nobles, then.  If they came up with any plans, then the nobles would be the ones to carry them out, and they’d carry them out well.  This initial chaos was where we held the advantage, our ‘guests’ now realizing the shape of the situation around them.  That would change over the course of this engagement.

“Really wish we could get a signal from Helen on this one,” Jessie said.

“Do you want to go help her?  It’s not like Professor Moss is going anywhere.”

“Foss, Sy.”

“Sure.”

“And I don’t want to abandon our post here.  With Ashton downstairs, we’re the Lambs’ eyes and ears on this situation.”

I nodded.  “We’ll stay.  They’ll want to act.”

“Based on?” Jessie asked.

“It simply feels like it.  The way they’re moving in there, the way there were more people talking before and now there’s less, like some voices are starting to get more traction.  They’re winding toward a conclusion.”

“I don’t know how you do that, Sy.  I prefer the measurable things.”

“It’s why we work so well together,” I said.  I touched the underside of her chin and turned her head so I could kiss her.

She stopped kissing me back, but didn’t pull her lips away.  They brushed against mine as she said, “You’re provoking them.”

I chuckled, gave her a peck on the lips, and then turned.

On the other side of the broken bridge, the door was opening again.  The glass panes on the doors had broken when the bridge had, and now two people walked over the broken glass shards and wood splinters.

One was a professor.  He looked underweight and rather grim in demeanor, the kind of guy who became dour, intense, and who buried his feelings deeper as they got worse, when a crisis arose.  With the light filtering through clouds and the angle of the sun, the blond hair, and the glossy sheen of whatever had been used to put his hair back, he looked hairless.  Pale pate, pale skin, contrasted with dark clothing and coat.  Skeletal.

With the wind blowing, the black lab coat he wore fluttered, hard.  The rest of him was still as he glowered at us.  He stooped over a little.

He was joined by a woman a foot taller than him, and he wasn’t short.  Her hair was white, her lashes black and almost overly long, in a way that would have looked ridiculous had she not been so very well put together in every other respect.  Her nails were like daggers, and she held a fan.

“Guns out,” Jessie gave the order.  “Pass on word.  Don’t waste bullets, but open fire on him, now.”

“Guns?” I asked.  Students bumped into me in their hurry to get into position.  “We’re trying to go soft.”

I watched as the noble spoke to the Professor beside her.  Jessie and I stood back and out of the way as the students in the hallway organized, the group in front dropping to their knees.

Almost immediately, the rifles sounded.  I saw a glimpse of the Professor raising one hand before the Lady stepped in front of him, a body shield.

“Aim high!  Account for gravity!” I called out, raising my voice to be heard over the battery of gunshots.  “Like you practiced!”

The shots hit windows, the bridge, and they hit the Lady.  She felt the impact of them, but she didn’t step back or stagger.  They didn’t draw blood, either.

“That would be Lady Gloria,” Jessie said.

“And the Professor?”

“For lack of a better name?  Professor Gossamer,” Jessie said.

Ah.  That explains the shooting.

With the man’s hand gesture, the gossamer thing was drifting in our direction.  It set tendrils down at sections of the main building and on the perimeter wall.

“Stop shooting!” Jessie called out.  Gunfire stopped.  Jessie spoke in a lower voice, “Hold fire, be ready for orders to resume shooting at a designated target or to run, as need be.”

The gossamer thing was planting its strands at key points along the wall and the Hackthorn central building.  Directly below it, strands were weaving into a long, conical spike.

“Damn it,” I said.

It took effort to raise that spike, and the thing attached tendrils to places until it had the leverage.  The spike rose until it was parallel to the ground, aimed directly at us.

“Move!” Jessie called out.  “Scatter!”

A few more strands found places to grab, some of them on our building, and then it speared at us, pushing by going rigid and pulling by hauling in.

It targeted the hallway and doorway we’d been occupying, spearing into a point a dozen feet to the left of us, through much of the length of the hallway, and then a length of the wall to the side of us as we ran away.

Its forward momentum burned out, it unfurled the spike.  Behind us, strands as light as air made nail-on-slate sounds as they brushed stone and wall decoration.  They periodically went rigid, flexing, as they touched things, and that made the strands move more.

I saw places where the long rug that ran down the length of the hallway and the paper of paintings on the wall were sliced where the gossamer ran past them at the right angle, with sufficient duration of contact.

It was getting a grip, seizing wall and floor, slicing deep where it could and then going rigid to spear in at odd angles, fixing itself in places.

It was going to spear at us again.

The first stab had demolished twenty solid feet of exterior wall on the left side of the hallway and thirty-some feet of interior wall, along the right side of the hallway.  I wasn’t sure if anyone had been hurt, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Can we burn it?” I asked.

“No,” Jessie said.

“Climb it?  No.  Slice ourselves up.”

“Right.”

“Shoot the head?  All the way up there?”

“The rifles fire eight hundred yards, but they’re not accurate at that distance.  As you saw.”

I looked back.  The strands were tensing.

“Heads up!” I roared the words.

The spike came in at a point that ran through the ceiling.  It was more direct, impaling with an eye of penetrating deeper into the building.  It had to have been halfway through the piercing motion before the fatter base of the cone-shaped spike was at a point where it might have made contact with any of us.

That was the good.  The bad was that wood and stone were breaking away.  Furniture from upstairs was falling through the damaged floors and ceiling.  The damage was at a point where it was causing more damage.  That was made all the worse by the unfurling of the cone, the strands making contact with loose rubble and stray items.  They cut some, attached to others, and did some combination of the two for others still.

The spike had separated the head of our group, mostly our riflemen, from the rear, more riflemen, Jessie, myself, and some scattered doctors.

“If we kill Professor Gossamer?” I asked.

“He has subordinates,” Jessie said.  “They’ll have some control, I think.”

“Then we need the control,” I said.

“We do,” she said.  She took a step back, grabbing my sleeve to haul me out of the way.  Strands were drawing close, and as they reached through the hallway, scraping against the edges of the hole in the wall, they were forcing our group to move away from the group further down the hall.  We were being separated.  Even if the gossamer withdrew entirely from the hallway, the floor had been sliced and littered with rubble, with more stones and pieces of wood clattering down to the ground every couple of seconds.  It was precarious footing, slow going, and there was a good chance of a large chair or a chunk of wood braining either of us as we made our way across.

I’d almost have been willing to take the risk, but the gossamer thing was nearby.

I moved closer to a window to look.

It was retreating?

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “Helen acted.”

From where we stood, it was hard to see much – especially with the hole being placed as high as it had been.  We ended up ducking into a side hallway, and taking a long way around, accessing the east-facing side of the admin building.

The gossamer thing was being directed to the cliffs.  In the water below, ships had crashed into one another.  Helen’s delay had no doubt been caused by the sea serpent that the one Academy had brought, and that creature looked wounded or dead as it remained still, lying in the surface waters.

Fires burned, boat crews scattered or dropped to the water.  Even with binoculars, the figures on the boats were as gnats and fleas.  Stitched would be boarding where they could board and fighting who they could fight.

Hackthorn, like all Academy institutions, had stitched to handle menial duties.  They cleaned, they did construction, they manufactured things, and they acted as soldiers.

With Hackthorn under our control, we’d given the stitched new directives.  We’d arranged the boats we did have out on the water, loaded the ones we could with volatile chemicals and crewed them with stitched.

There was no exit by water, now.  The gossamer thing was drifting to the water, very likely on orders to combat the enemy, but there was no specific enemy to fight.  For now, we had a reprieve.

Lord Carling would be telling the others by now.  He would be outlining what he’d found on the ground, in the houses and businesses.

Every house had been stripped of food.  Everything we’d deemed theoretically useful to the enemy had been relocated.  Citizens had been gathered in the dorms and admin buildings, drugged, and now rested in long slumber.

In the main building, labs were locked, the most essential items and ingredients put away.  Everything had been made to look proper and nice, but it was a hollow thing, the substance… not removed, but transplanted.

Helen had given the signal to close the harbor.  She could climb up the exterior wall to reach us again, when she was done, but she wouldn’t be done for at least the rest of the day and for the next night.  She would first hunt for key persons who swam for shore – captains and any guests who hadn’t wanted to join the party just yet.  Then she would sail the water, looking out for any late arrivals or chance visitors.

It served to keep her away from Ibbot and it gave her something she enjoyed doing.

The plan at this stage was simple.  The Lambs as a group excelled when it came to besieging an enemy, so we had orchestrated a siege, in a roundabout way, and we had rigged it against our opponents, preparing the battlefield in advance.

It was such a damn shame we couldn’t have gotten each major group to different sleeping areas and targeted them one by one.  Nobles, aristocrats, Professors and experiments all complemented each other in a dangerous way.

The trap had closed, and we were engaged in a mutual siege.  We had control over the key bridges, gates, and waypoints, and we had the food.  The poison gas in the buckets I’d knocked down would taint the feast we’d prepared for the guests.  They’d find nothing of substance in the houses.  We’d squirreled away things for enhanced noses to find, but we’d poisoned most in advance.

Much as we’d maintained a few windows in the alphabet-based series of ‘deaths’ for our actors, there would be a few pivotal moments in the minutes, hours, and even days that followed.  Their ability to handle the negativity that old rivalries and being under siege brought about would be one such pivoting moment.  Our ability to hold them off once we’d spent all of our accumulated tricks and special measures would be another.

The gossamer thing was drifting back toward us, and my instincts told me that there would be others -Noble or experiment- who would coordinate to take advantage of the distraction.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.6

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Your boy?”

It was a noble lady who had spoken, addressing the Professor with the long beard, who was so emotional, his face contorted in anger, that his head shook.

He’s my blood, m’lady,” the Professor spoke, and the act of speaking despite the clenched muscles and the tension in his face made each word something he produced with flecks of spittle.  His son flinched at each utterance.  “He is not my boy.”

Blood.  The word echoed the Infante’s to the extent I worried that this might be the moment where the monstrous figure next to me would cross the gap to the extent that he overlapped with me, and I would cease to be.

I worried he would say something more, and it would also reverberate and resound, finding echoes in the world around me, and so would the next thing, and the next, and the next.

Jessie took my hand, squeezing it.

Doctors and Professors I took to be the bearded Professor’s companions stood from their seats.

“My lady, Worrel’s son turned rebel last year,” one of the companions said.

There were murmurs throughout the hall.  I could see the tension on just about every student present.  Many of the ‘dead’ were standing now, Bea among them.  The crowd was eyeing them.  It wasn’t hard to draw conclusions.

“That boy?” the noble lady asked.

“I do believe so, my lady.”

“I was- was!  But only for a short time!” the boy called out.  His father had shifted his grip, the cradling of his son’s face becoming something closer to strangulation, and in response to his son’s words, he shook him with enough force to rattle his brain.  “I- please, my lady!  Father-”

“I am not your father!”

“I was a rebel, but only briefly!  They forced us to go with them, I left as soon as I was able!”

Good, I thought.  This is a good approach.

I leaned close to one of the doctors who had accompanied us, and murmured in his ear, “Go to Ferres.  Tell her there’s an incident.  She should send in the great wolf.  See if we can’t use it to fake-kill the kid, if warranted.”

The doctor nodded, hurrying off.

“I tried to reach out and let you know, but-”

He stopped as his father shook him again.  He was thrown to the ground, sprawling as he landed.  His father kicked him, hard, before he had even stopped reeling.

Not a single Professor, Noble, or aristocrat present spoke against this.

The kid was left coughing, and his first attempt at getting onto his hands and knees failed.  He remained on his side.

“I-”

More coughs.

Jessie was just as tense as I was.

“I talked to Ferres.  I told her about the rebels.  She didn’t think-”

He looked up at his father as he tried to get to his hands and feet again, and something about the way he’d moved made him start coughing again.

“-She didn’t think it would lead to anything.”

It was good, the direction he was taking, using the information he had, making the pitch, leaving things open ended.

The only problem was that he’d named Ferres, specifically.  Better to leave it more open, to refer to other Doctors and Professors.  If he could’ve named ones who we knew weren’t in attendance, better still.

That might have been asking too much, especially when I couldn’t have done it.  He was doing well, all considered, with everything on the line.  I would’ve liked to know his name, to do better by him if we came out of this alright.

I allowed myself to peek into Lab One, and saw a glimpse of Ferres making her way up the stairs.

“That doesn’t absolve you, you imbecile.  You’ve betrayed the Crown.  A hanging is the kindest justice you can hope for, and I’ll tell you this… I won’t be advocating for a hanging.”

“I served the Crown loyally, father, I-”

Professor Worrel kicked him again.  His voice was barely audible, more intended for his son than the audience.  “I shouldn’t have to correct you more than once.”

The kick hadn’t been the sort to incite coughing by hitting the ribs or diaphragm or whatever the first kick had done, but the movement in reaction to the kick did.  The boy took a second, then tried again.  “I served the Crown loyally, Professor.

“You left with them.  Others managed to run, others were left wounded and nearly dead because they fought and resisted.  They served the Crown loyally.  Your schooling, your upbringing, your tutors, all paid for by me, your learning and shelter for the past thirteen years was provided by the Academy and Crown.  You have not come close to paying back what you received, you have not come close to reaching the point where you can claim proper loyalty and service!”

Worrel was back to spitting with each word, now.  The student couldn’t maintain eye contact, and stared at the ground, looking galled.

“If I may?” Ferres asked.  She’d arrived at the top of the stairs, and she had the Wolf with her.

I could see her posture, the way she held herself.

It was the summation of what I’d seen a week ago, when she’d been in the lab, given her new arms and leg.

I squeezed Jessie’s hand harder.  “We might’ve lost her.”

“Ferres?”

I nodded, quickly, my thoughts turning to what we needed to do to cut our losses.

“I need a mirror,” Jessie said.  “Anything really reflective.”

I patted down my pockets, one eye on peering through the gaps in the screen of our entourage, who stood further up the stairs.

“Allow me to settle this for you,” Ferres said.  “That young man and I had no such conversation.”

If the room had been tense before, it was something worse now.  There were murmurs of conversation, a handful more people standing from benches and chairs.  The boy was tense now.  His father moved toward him, as if to kick him again, and he scrambled back and out of the way.  I couldn’t see him, but I knew he practically collided with the railing, from the way it reverberated.  His father didn’t pursue to lash out again, instead remaining where he was, glowering.  He had bushy eyebrows to go with the beard, and it made for a damned menacing glare.

I could hear rather than see Ferres walking, with the people in the way and my angle of view on the scene.

I could only hope that Ferres would at least hold to the ruse.  She had reasons to obey us – if she hadn’t, we wouldn’t have put her up there, but she had reasons to turn the tables on us too.  She wouldn’t ever be in a better position than this.

One of the doctors pulled a head-mounted reflector from a pocket, holding it out for Jessie.  She let go of my hand to take it, but she didn’t use it for anything.

“Tell me if it’s unsalvageable,” she whispered.

“I think we’ll know when it’s unsalvageable,” I whispered back.

One of the doctors who’d carried us up in the stretcher gave me a look over his shoulder, very clearly alarmed.

Which was entirely appropriate.

The murmur of conversation was dying down.

“A sword, anyone?” Ferres asked.  “Is anyone able to oblige me?”

“One second, Professor,” a young voice said.

Jessie met my eyes, then changed the angle of the mirror, catching a ray of light from the outside.  She set to angling it, aiming into one part of the crowd.

“We should question him first,” another voice from the crowd said.  “Find out who his friends are.”

“I know exactly who his friends are,” Ferres said.  “He has quite a few.”

I bit my lower lip.  Whatever Jessie was doing, she’d need it to work fast.

The boy ran, sprinting away, closer to us.  Ferres whistled, and, following two more strikes of shoe on floor from the running boy, the Wolf rammed into him.

This would have been a good time for Ferres to use the trick.  One of the stunts the Wolf had been taught was to seize someone and shake them violently, like a dog did a toy.  The trick was that the Wolf’s mouth was large, and with the right grip on a target, the shake would only break and dislocate limbs.  For the ‘actors’ Ferres had created to go up against the Wolf, the limbs were strong enough to withstand breakage, and so it was only a relatively painless dislocation.

I was sure our target would be happy to have his limbs broken and to be summarily unconscious than the alternatives Ferres was presenting.

“Did you have any idea, Ferres?”

“I entertained the idea.  We received a swathe of students from other Academies earlier in the season, and with the black wood claiming much of the region around us, verifying details was difficult.  My failure.”

“You said he had friends?” someone asked.  “Should we be concerned?”

“Yes,” Ferres said.  “You came with others, didn’t you?  Why don’t you tell our audience?”

Our audience.  That was the death knell, as much as her not using the Wolf to fake his murder.  This, as much as anything, was Ferres on her stage, indulging in her show.

“I came alone,” the student said.

I could hear the sword coming free of the sheath.  I saw a glimpse of Ferres, stalking toward the boy and Wolf.  The Wolf moved its paws, and I saw the boy, partially pinned down by a paw that rested on the length of his lab coat.

“No,” Ferres said.  “You didn’t.”

She put the sword through him.

My heart sank.

Jessie was holding a hand up, palm out.  She had dropped the hand with the mirror.

The room was relatively quiet, with rustling.  I could see the tension of students throughout, the avid disinterest of many of the Nobles at the main table, and the irritation and restlessness of the more prominent Professors.

There would be no ruse, no saving him.  Not with dozens upon dozens of eyes on the scene, fully aware of the particulars of anatomy.  Not with the Wolf being a better and more convincing alternative to sell the kill.

“You keep a messy house, Professor Ferres,” one of the other Professors spoke.

“With plague and black wood sweeping over the Crown States, refugees and other Academies clamoring for a place in my institution, mess is inevitable,” Ferres said.

“How many?”

“A dozen,” Ferres said.

A dozen.

“We all know who the Beattle traitors worked for,” Ferres said.

Jessie moved her hand, signalling.

This was Ferres’ play, her gambit.  She would claim she only wanted a dozen conspirators.  It was, to all Lamb-aligned rebels in earshot, an offer.  Play along, and she would only go after us.  Maybe our lieutenants.  She was offering the out, the escape from a situation that was clearly out of control.

“The Lambs are here!?  That’s not a messy house, you stupid bitch, that’s-”

A student at the edge of the room dropped her tray of tea.  It crashed into a counter filled with things that one of the guests had brought to keep their experiment companions in working order.  Or so the setup had been.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorr-”

The chemicals, tools, and machinery reacted to the hot liquid, and the entire setup billowed with noxious smoke.  It got worse before it got better, multiplying as it reached the table.

Someone had a gun drawn and started opening fire into the smoke, targeting the student.

That was going to be how it was, was it?  Too many smart, intelligent people in the room, who were too suspicious with the Lambs so recently mentioned.  They were willing to shoot at a student who might’ve simply made a mistake or an error in judgment, where others might have hesitated.

Still, the gunfire stopped as the roomful of people started to move to get clear of the smoke.  Not all did.  Some drew weapons, following scattered students who backed into the smoke rather than gravitate closer to nobles.

Jessie and I launched ourselves into the smoke at the same time, the moment it was close enough to us that we could slip in without necessarily being seen.

Jessie tugged on my arm.  I was to her left, closer to the larger expanse of the room but she tugged me to the right.  I went with the movement, and felt her give me more of a push to the right.

She was taking point here.  I was, going by my trajectory, heading for the source of the smoke.

The table with the assorted chemicals and pieces of now-noisily chugging machinery was in front of me.  I was slapped with the length of something as I drew near to it.  A belt, torn or loosened by a stray bullet.

What had Jessie wanted me to do here?

I heard the whimper and realized what Jessie had in mind.

The girl who’d dropped the tray was one of ours.  Jessie had signaled her with a flash of light from the reflected mirror, then used a hand sign to give the order.  She was supposed to have been one of the windows we’d had, who would’ve also bought time for others to arrive and set up the necessary props.

Blind, I bent low, fumbling for her.  I touched her face, then, dropping my hand deliberately to her shoulder next, so I wouldn’t grope her chest in a fumbling attempt to find her arm or hand, I put my hand over hers, where she was gripping her upper arm.  I felt the warmth of blood.

“I got you,” I said.  “How bad?”

“Grazed,” she said, “It all went wrong.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  It really wasn’t.

She put her head against my shoulder, shaking it hard.

“You did good,” I said.  She really had.

I pulled her to her feet and led her through the smoke, very aware we only had a minute before the smoke started to clear.  We’d opted to push the very boundaries of what we could get away with, in terms of how long we could keep a roomful of people under a cover of smoke and not have them get frustrated.

I headed for the railing that bounded the room, where ornate rails kept students from stumbling headlong into the glass walls and windows that framed the ‘shoulder’ of the reclining lady and allowed sunlight into the main hall.  I kept one arm around the girl as I counted the posts.

The fourth post had the hook.  I grabbed it, pulling it free, and braced myself against the natural pull of it.  It was all I could do to keep my feet on the ground.

Figures appeared out of the smoke.  I drew my knife, ready.

Students.  Ours.  Three, unless I was missing something with the smoke obscuring the details.

Another figure loomed, and it was something entirely different.  It was large enough that even with the diffuse light that illuminated the clouds of smoke, it still managed to form a pillar of shadow.  Ten feet tall.

If I’d been Jessie, I could have recalled everything that had been in the hall earlier, and I could have accounted for that.  I wasn’t.  I drew my knife, ready.

It moved in a lopsided kind of way.  It seemed to sense me before it saw me, and reacted, raising its arms.  If it didn’t have weapons, it had something like weapons as part of its design.

I backed up as it swiped through smoke, and I could smell the thing over the cloying burned grease smell of the cloud that now filled three quarters of the great hall.  It smelled of perfume.  As large and menacing as it was, it smelled nice, inviting.

On my second retreat, I bumped into the students that had clustered behind me.  It meant I didn’t move far enough back.  The swipe caught me across the face.

As the girl had said, a graze, but enough to alarm.

I hauled back on the rope and hook, and I felt the catch, the moment the mechanism had reached its limit, the switch flipped.  It began reeling me in, hard.

I went straight after the thing in the shadows, knees at my chest, ready to kick down and out at the arms if they swiped again, hoping at least to keep the damage localized to my feet and away from my vitals.

The hook was about as large as my head, and as I drew close to the thing, I got a glimpse of what I’d just thrown myself into combat with.

An attractive, feminine creature, its hair long and pale, its eyes without detail, with makeup heavy around the eyes.  The clawed, armored part of it was almost another creature it was plugged into, like Lillian’s meatsuit.

She was limping, already injured from a brief encounter with Jessie in the smoke, I realized.  I pushed the realization aside, my focus needed elsewhere – I almost smashed my face into hers in my rope-aided ascent.  From the glimpse of the many fangs I saw between her slightly parted lips, I was glad I hadn’t.

I used my body to crush the hook in closer to the thing’s body, guiding the hook at what I’d hoped would be her heart.  I caught the collarbone instead, impaling her, and bodily lifting the creature up with me.

It was a floating, loose movement, buoyed by the pull of the rope.  Vague and dreamlike as that moment was, a slow-motion movement through air, my passenger something beautiful and dangerous looking, it was a stark contrast to the grate of the metal hook on bone, the crack, crunch, and the summary break in that collarbone, marked a spray of blood.   She made a terrible sound, as if to further the stark contrast, and her mouth yawned open, a bear-trap mouth of fangs exposed, ready to tear my face open.

The hook slipped free, up, and, with the help of a frantic slap of my hand to better position it, my hands letting go of the hook to seize her shoulders instead, it buried deep in the underside of the creature’s chin.  She toppled back, crashing to the ground, and pulled me and the hook down with it.

It had lodged in around the jaw, and for now it was staying put, weighed down by a creature who was several feet taller and far more dense than I.  The slam of the hook into her jaw and the clack of her mouth closing as forcefully as it had had knocked her out, if the point of the hook through the roof of her mouth hadn’t outright killed her.

“Come,” I whispered.  “Come on.”

There were more people rushing toward us.  Some yelped as they realized the monster was there.

“Come on,” I said.  I reached for hands, guiding them in place.  “Hold tight.  Make sure you have grips.”

I was still arranging them, keeping an eye out for more trouble, very aware the smoke was clearing, and we were losing ground.  Another minute or two-

I heard gunshots.  The sound was different from before.  It still sounded far too loud in the enclosed space, as large as it was, but guns had a different sound when they weren’t fired at me.  There were other targets.  We had support.

Jessie arrived, dragging a body.  She had more students with her, and they were helping with the drag.  She had the hook but was being careful not to tug it too hard.

Professor Edmund Foss.

“One student here,” Jessie said.

“You guys are going to have to help,” I said.  “Kick, grab for handholds, but keep us moving.”

I could see, as the smoke thinned, the sheer number of forces that were massing at the edge of the smoke.  Nobles, experiments.

I directed one student to Jessie.  She made sure the boy had a grip on the rope there, set the hook in place around Foss’ belt, then gave it a firm haul back.

The rope reeled in, tugging Jessie up.  Her feet and the feet of students with her touched the branches that framed windows, seeking more traction.

I had already set the knife in place.  I kicked down, driving the knife into one side of the beautiful creature’s jaw.  It drove deep, cut something, but didn’t sever everything.  I kicked down again, aware of the shadows closing in, driving the heel of my foot between top and bottom row of teeth, exacerbating the damage done by the knife, kicked again-

The hook continued its pull against the jaw, and the end of the jaw came loose.  The hook tore through flesh, the jaw pulling free and away, before the hook slipped past the damaged end.  We rose into the air, no longer weighed down by the giant creature.

We rose faster than Jessie, who had one less student but one more full grown man pulling down on the rope.  Her hostage wasn’t helping either, not kicking at the wall or reaching out for branches to pull at.

My crew of four students and I reached the top before Jessie’s three students and one passenger did.  I clambered off, fumbling for the beam, and proceeded to help students let go of the rope and seize other parts of the beam structure above and over the dining hall.

It was havoc down there.  The smoke was clearing but wasn’t entirely gone, and it was immediately clear that Jessie had bid other students to activate their lettered experiments.  We’d had an entire play of surprise deaths, from A to Z, and many of them had been intended to cause comedic havoc.  Now they were weapons.  Pests among the enemy, a stitched that was arcing with voltaic power that was supposed to be limited to the nearby railing, but was instead flashing across the silverware and candlesticks on the tables nearest it.  There were others.

Our students were backing off.  Many, including Bea, had fled for one of the bridges.  They were shutting the gate, and the people below us were just now realizing it.  In places below, students and rebels were slipping away, setting up roadblocks and other obstacles.  It would buy them time to reach secure points, to run to the lowest-floor doors of dormitories and the admin building.

For all that this had gone bell-end, the casualties didn’t look too terribly bad.  Some had been shot, others were stuck, having made the mistake in judgment of sticking closer to the Nobles, Professors, and aristocrat guests.

This wasn’t what we’d been shooting for.  Our time to attack had been when the festivities here were over and people started retiring for the evening.

With people going to separate places to retire for the night, quarters of differing quality for different guests, we’d hoped to split them up and deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

I hauled on the rope, helping Jessie.  I hoped those below wouldn’t look up- people below were looking up.

But, at the very least, they were preoccupied.  They were aristocrats, and they had Nobles to serve, or they were Professors, and they’d brought weapons to show off, and now they were loosing the weapons on the attacking rebels.

People hiding in the rafters would have been the sort of suspicious activity that would’ve been more easily explained as something the magicians with their show had up their sleeve, had we been able to do this like we wanted.

Ibbot was still down there, somewhere.

“I’m good,” Jessie said, as I grabbed her armpit and helped her get to a position to climb up onto the broader ledge.  “Go rain hell on ’em.”

I nodded.  I turned away, ducking low so I wouldn’t bump my head on a part of the ceiling or stick it through a pane of glass, and hurried to where we’d stowed other countermeasures.

I was glad we had very little that was outright lethal.  I tipped over buckets, letting them fall.  I had four on their way to the ground before the first struck the floor.

They were very much like the smoke from the machine, but they were a little more noxious.

As the gas spread, people jumping onto tables to buy themselves seconds more before the gas smothered them, a handful drew pistols and fired blind.  One or two fired with targets in mind.

The bullets that didn’t hit wood hit the glass that encased the dining hall.  Glass broke, and it rained down in large shards and fragments.  It broke explosively on contact with the floor, furniture, and guests below us.

“Stop!” someone called out.  They spoke with a noble’s voice.  “No shooting until we can see!”

“To the stairs!”

I wasn’t positive if it was one of our own or not.  I remembered something planned in that vein, but I was lost on the particulars.

We made our way through the same hole that ‘F’ had fallen through.  A ‘student’ in our act had been designated to showcase the perils of breeding flying creatures, and had come in through one treated pane of glass, smacking hard into the floor, a dramatic faceplant.  Now we climbed through, working in threes and fours to move the unconscious body of Edmund Foss.

From the outside, I could see the various weapons and the massed armies of the Academy and Crown.  There were groups on the ground, and in the chaos, the students of ours that were fleeing were able to direct them indoors.  They would carry on like that until they met the first of the aristocrats or whoever was able to slip past the barricades, the stitched we’d turned to our side, and the experiments we’d put in place to scare and impede.  Then they would be informed that the fleeing students weren’t friendlies.

I could see the gossamer thing, and it was drawing close.  Whatever controlled it, it hadn’t received the order to attack.  Which was good, because it was not the sort of thing I wanted to be on the bad side of.

We moved carefully across branches and struts of the head of the Lady of Hackthorn.  There were more ropes and hooks waiting on the outside edge of the building.

“We’d planned to do this with just Sylvester and I,” Jessie said.  “The extra weight won’t be a problem, but that’s not really the concern.”

“What’s the concern?” the girl with the injured shoulder asked.

Jessie put the hook through Edmund Foss’ belt, once more.  “Grab on.  Twice as tight as you did in the dining hall.”

“Don’t look down,” I said.

I saw eyes widen.  Jessie elbowed me.

“Really don’t,” I said.  “But grab on, because if you stay, it’s going to be even scarier, I guarantee you.”

“And don’t grab where it’s knotted up there,” Jessie said.

They grabbed on.  Jessie and I freed the hooks from where we’d attached them to the exterior wall.

I drew in a deep breath and then stepped off the edge, pulling the others with me.

The rope was attached to the wall at set intervals.  The attachment wasn’t secure in the slightest.  With our weight pulling it down, it came free in jerks and starts, each one making my heart leap out of my chest, and I was a friend of high places, my natural and sensible dislike of birds aside.

I felt sorry for our passengers.

The rope kept coming undone, and, for two long, heart-pounding seconds, there was slack in it.  We were in freefall.

There were no more attachments to the exterior of the main building- only to the bridge that connected it to the admin building.

We swung from there, with a solid seventy-five paces of open space between us and any wall, our feet dangling above people who were so far away they were specks.  A ring with a rope attached to it slipped down from high above, looped around our rope, and it stopped at a knot just above my hands.  Had I been holding onto that knot, it would have struck my hands with enough force to break fingers.

The enemy was attacking the gate now, setting something strong and powerful at the door.  I could hear the crunches, the bangs, and the chops that were like axes on wood.  I could hear glass break, and knew that there were things that weren’t human that would be crawling out through the broken windows and onto the exterior, out toward the bridge, giving chase.

The swinging ceased.  The students at the window were hauling on the other rope the ring was fixed to – pulling us in.  Others provided gradual slack to our other rope.  In the process, we were eased in closer to the admin building.

“Just in time,” Davis said, meeting us at a waiting window.  “They’re coming over the bridge now.  There’s a lot more of them than we anticipated.”

“More is good,” I said.

Davis nodded.

We climbed in through the window.  One of the fellows with us had not enjoyed his ride.  Any gardens way down below had received fertilizer and watering.  He shuffled off.

“You’ve put up with a lot, being with us,” I told Davis.

“I really, really have,” he said.

“Would you do the honors?” I asked.

“Honors,” he said.  “People are going to die.”

But he reached for a leather cord at his neck, and he raised a whistle to his lips.

It wasn’t silent.  It didn’t matter who heard.

The bridge detonated, a rolling explosion that caught first at one end, then the middle, and finally at the end closest to the main building.  Wood, stone, the garden baskets that had lined either side, bits of metal and a portion of the enemy’s front-line capable troops tumbled through the open air.  I hoped there were some young nobles among them.

We’d wanted them divided into clear categories and groups before we dealt with them.  We’d wanted to be absolutely sure that most of our own were in the clear.

This would be… messier than we’d hoped.

“What was his name?” I asked.

“Bobby,” Jessie said, without needing to ask.

“Bobby Worrel, then?”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  “I’m surprised you remembered the last name.”

“I’m going to forget it promptly, and he deserves a better last name, too, but I held it in my head to be sure I didn’t forget that.  We’ll deal with his dad.”

“Yeah,” one of the students with us said.

Bits of burning stone and wood were still falling.  I could see up and through the window to the dining hall, where trails of smoke were still filtering out to the open air.  A creature had reached the edge and managed to cling to it, but was too badly burned to do anything further.  I watched as it surrendered to its fate and fell.

I looked down at the unconscious Professor Foss.  I briefly met the Infante’s eyes.

This is our Academy, and it’s time you all learned that, I thought.  And that’s only the beginning.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

No sign of Fray.  Mauer played his part.  The Infante and the major players are absent.

Well, the Infante was present.  He waited for me in the stairwell, not moving from his spot, his stare penetrating.  He kept the company of the Primordial Child.

The Lambs had split up, as moving from building to building was a laborious process.  There were three ways to get from building to building.  The first was to take one of the two arms or the leg that held up bridges, which necessitated passing through the main building, the body of the reclining woman, and walking past ninety percent of the guests.  For obvious reasons, we had to rule that option out.

The second option was to use the walltop road that formed the three-quarter circle connecting the Academy buildings around the perimeter.  Most of them were dormitories, and getting from, say, the boy’s first dormitory to the girl’s dormitory meant taking a curved road through two other buildings, one of which was the administration building, until reaching the destination.  What should be ten minutes of walking to get from boy to girl proved to be twenty or thirty in practice, notwithstanding obstacles, having to move out of the way if any carts were using the path, or trouble accessing the buildings, like when the administration building closed for the night.

The last option was making our way down to the ground, walking to the foot of whichever building one wanted to access, and then walking up.

Not a single option worked in the long-term, when the Academy was as occupied as it was.  We had access to the ground for the time being, but as the aristocrats and lesser professors started getting settled and got luggage put away, the city below us would teem with low level threats.

The layout was meant to hold up to siege and invasion, and the limited, easily controlled paths played a part in that, with the heart of the University being able to produce an endless tide of warbeasts, stitched, parasites, or the like, should an enemy try to hold a given point.

We rounded a corner, and the Infante was there again.  This time he kept the company of Dog and Catcher.  They weren’t children anymore, but were full size, with Dog being large enough to make the hallway cramped.

The pair fell into stride with us.

“Do you get that jump of emotion in your chest, when you’re on the verge of closing the deal?” Catcher asked.

I was silent.  Dog made a garbled sound of agreement.

“Dog and I were made to feel it.  Helen as well.  It was something they gave the Academy students, you know.”

I know.

“The kick.  For experiment and student both, they joined drug with reinforcement in reality.  The students were all given access to Wyvern in small amounts, enough to make them susceptible, just in time for the first of the most critical examinations.  We were given dosages of drugs for our first hunt.  Success?  The desire for it was etched into us.  Failure?  Etched in with Wyvern for the students, the weaker students not only weeded out but made into failures in every fucking sense of the word.  For us, it was withdrawal from the drugs and a lack of maintenance if we failed.  They ingrained us with the sense that if we could not be useful, we’d be left to rot, with no team to care for us.”

“I know,” I said.

“You know that they did the same to you, don’t you?  Except what they did with you was deny you access to your fellow Lambs.  In your explanations and stories, do you even realize that you tell the same story twice, but you’ll change it around?” Catcher asked.

I was silent.  It was my paradox, wasn’t it?  I was the liar, but liars needed a good memory to keep track of their deceptions.

Dog grunted.

“I don’t mean to get on your case, Sy,” Catcher said, in his grizzled burr.  “But you’ll tell a story about yourself and you’ll say you did what you did because of Wyvern, while you privately tell yourself you did it for the Lambs.  You’ll tell that same story a few months later, and you’ll say you did it for the Lambs, while you privately tell yourself you did it for the drug.  I’m telling you what you always knew.  I’m not trying to trick you or get at you, that’s not how I do things.”

Dog growled.

“Not how we do things.  Dog and I, we set our eye on something, and we see it through.  We’re straightforward.  I’m telling you straight, Sy, it’s one and the same.  Your Lambs, your addiction.  It’s never going to be good for you or them, and it was never going to go anywhere but a few broken hearts.  The only difference between us is that Dog and I are ugly, we came to terms with things early.  I never believed I could have a woman, or even a friend that wasn’t a proper experiment-”

I startled a bit as we turned a corner and the Infante was there.  He stared into my eyes.

Jessie touched my arm.  “It’s okay.”

I nodded.

“-And your Lillian doesn’t count as a proper experiment, Sy.  As much as you want her to, and as much as she wants to.  You have the unfortunate reality of looking human,” Catcher said.  “They got you young, and they got their hooks in deep.  There’s no getting those hooks out without a lot of blood.”

He was fiddling with a weird piece of metal, and I couldn’t figure out what the metal was supposed to be for.  It was barbed, at least.

If there’s going to be blood, I’ll be the one shedding it, at least, I thought.

“Goodbye, Sylvester,” Catcher said.

I felt a minor shock run through me at those words.

Goodbye?

“I don’t think we’ll talk again,” the gravelly voice said.

Dog, for his part, said his own farewell, almost incomprehensible.  And with that, they stopped walking.  Jessie and I left them behind.

I wanted to stop, to go back, and to ask, as stupid as it was.  I felt a loss even though they’d beleaguered me and targeted my weaknesses.  They were familiar and among all of the old enemies that were living in my head and making their appearances around or alongside the Infante, Dog and Catcher were some of the less bad ones.  Straightforward, not seductive, not too scary, not too dangerous to others.

Were they gone because there wasn’t time, or were they gone because I was going to soon find myself in a state where I couldn’t function in the same way?

I glanced at the Infante.  He remained still, biding his time.  He hadn’t made his move, yet his every appearance managed to make my heart jump, it felt like he was a great hammer, and he was chipping at me with his every appearance, that he had been for a long while.

At what stage did the chips become a crack and a crack become a breach in the wall?

“Sy?” Jessie asked.  “Who is it?”

Who was it?  I couldn’t bring myself to say.  Naming him might give him power.

“Dog and Catcher,” I said.  “Was I that obvious?”

“Not that obvious, but something was going on,” she said.

I nodded.

“Dog and Catcher aren’t too bad, are they?  Even at their worst, when they were hunting us, it wasn’t horrible.  We ate and drank with them.”

I blew air out of my nose hard.  “I forgot about that.”

“It’s one of the ones I hold on to, when you look like you need a refresher on a good memory,” Jessie said.

I reached out for her hand.

“Dog and Catcher aren’t bad.  They might even be one of the better ones.  But Catcher calls me Sy and it sounds so friendly it worms its way into my head, and between his gravelly voice and Dog’s size, it’s really hard to ignore them, so it wears at me.”

“Think about other things, then.”

We passed by a window.  I could see outside.  There was something there, and for all I could tell, it was a jellyfish sans jelly, a specter to rival nearly anything I’d ever seen before, all wisp and tendril, blowing in the wind.  Millions of gossamer spiderwebs organized by a great pattern might have achieved the effect.

It was like the ghost of a great warbeast I couldn’t remember, something of a scale that dwarfed Helen’s little brother, but so light it was a fraction of the mass.

“Okay.  Other things.  Is that real?” I asked, pointing.

“It’s real, Sy,” Jessie said.  She didn’t need to look; she’d seen it earlier.

“That’s good,” I said.  “Isn’t it?”

“It’s a theoretical exercise by Moraga Academy in the Californias.  While we were watching the gate, Lillian, Duncan, Mary and I were talking about what we could possibly do about it and we don’t really have any good ideas,” Jessie said.

“What Academy’s in the Californias?”

Jessie made a so-so gesture.  “Not so much a proper Academy.  Test ground, somewhere that something like that can be trialed without too much risk to Crown population.”

I waited until we passed another window to glance at the thing.

“It’s not bright.  Brain the size of your fist.  We don’t know what that brain perceives, or how it follows orders.  But those loose fibers?”

“The gossamer?”

“Gossamer is a good word for it.  It turns them hard.  There are fibers that’re nearly as long as Hackthorn is tall, and it makes them into a spear, leveraging the rest of the body to plunge that spear through a building.  Through exterior wall, interior walls, floor, and out the other exterior wall.”

I nodded.  We passed by labs with open doors.  I saw a dismembered Academy student that stared at us as we walked by.  A girl lay on a table, strapped down, while a team placed needles in her eyes.

“As far as we can figure, it’s just one more thing we have to take account of, and it’s going to stay in play,” Jessie said.

“We can’t burn it?  Chop it?”

“At best, we can penetrate its brain, and its brain is…”

“…way up there.  I see.  Fill me in on what you know at the next good opportunity,” I said.  “We’ll figure it out.”

“There are a lot of things that need figuring out, Sy.”

“Just throw them at me later, we’ll see what we can do,” I said.  “After.”

After.  There wasn’t a lot more time.  We’d arrived at our destination.

Lab One was too hazardous, so we’d made use of other labs, further down.  Now we walked among experiments, modified youths and children.  A young man was being strapped together, a symbiote or parasite embracing him as a kind of external suit that made him look morbidly obese. His fine clothes were folded beside him.  He was made up to look like an aristocrat’s brat.

A girl was topless and seemed not to care in the slightest about it.  Her makeup was being touched up, and the open wound at her chest was being smeared with something medical.  She looked my way and smiled.  The gaping hole where her heart was supposed to be, large enough for me to reach my hand through, was in plain view.

Was I supposed to know her?  I gave her a smile in response.  The ‘I know a secret’ kind of smile.

Jessie elbowed me.

“What?”

She elbowed me again.

What?  Not many of the students smile at me these days.  Wouldn’t do to lose friends.”

“Yes, yes, friends,” Jessie said.  “That’s what you were looking for.”

“You’re really going to dwell on this sort of thing now?” I asked.  “Are we going to bicker in front of everyone, on the literal eve of… everything going down?”

“It’s afternoon, not any kind of eve,” Jessie said.

“Alright, it seems we’re bickering today.”

“Please don’t,” Bea said, from the room at the end.

We looked at her, and she stood up, waving off the student who had been doing her makeup.  Bioluminescence etched her eyes, making them glow like coals, and lines of the same traced their way from her fingers to her elbow, crimson and bright, with her fingers the brightest, the skin around the edges of the crack painted dark to bring them out by way of contrast.  Her hair wasn’t her own.

She placed one hand at the doorframe, and it was a gesture.  Come.

We went.  Bea partially closed the door.

“We’re not really bickering,” I said.  “Just so it’s clear.  It’s just how we communicate.”

“Believe it or not, I’m very aware.  I don’t know how you two can do that,” she said.  “Or how most of the Lambs can.”

“Have to,” Jessie said.  “It’s either laugh or cry, and sometimes there’s no opportunity to laugh, sometimes there’s no opportunity to cry.  So you take what you can get, or you push for more of one than the other to prepare for later drought.”

“Do you really think there’s only going to be tears later?”

“I think,” Jessie said.  “If this doesn’t work out, we won’t be laughing.”

Bea nodded at that.

Her eye fell on me.  It was hard, critical.  She’d been there through the worst patch.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’ve got them with me.

“You had them when you were whispering to yourself about needing to make Little Bo Peep bleed,” Bea said.

I winced.  I hadn’t, but I wasn’t about to argue the point.

“It wasn’t really us,” Jessie said.

Bea didn’t respond.  I didn’t either.  I suspected we were both thinking but not articulating the idea that there really wasn’t a difference between the people who were real and the people who weren’t, when I really lost it.

“Right,” Jessie said.  Perhaps she was thinking the same.  Her expression changed slightly, “Are you ready?”

“I always liked fire,” Bea said.  “Watching it, playing with it.  I’m either going to have the best, most terrifying time, or it’s going to be only the terrifying part.”

“Good luck,” I said.

Her response was a tight smile, and an opening of the door.

From the way some people looked away, we’d had eavesdroppers.  That was fine.

“They’re done with the first act.,” Jessie said.  “Final preparations, cover-ups, and get moving, just as you rehearsed.  Apple should start soon.  From there it’s all about the order you die in.”

Bea used a dropper to put drops in her eyes, temporarily clearing away the bioluminescence, checked the makeup was set, and then pulled long gloves on over her arms.  The fabric was supposed to go up in flame in an instant.

The boy with the parasite was getting help in putting on a heavy coat.  The moment it was done up, he spun in a circle, got thumbs ups, and then swiped an apple from a nearby basket before legging it up the stairs.  Bea urged another girl up the stairs, then followed.

Most of these people were student volunteers.  We hadn’t been able to conscience sending all of the other experiments to the ‘stage’.  Some had had their alterations reversed, making it impossible, and more were simply unwilling to put themselves through that.  It wasn’t acting, but reality played out to a razor’s edge, with the sharpest control that Professor Ferres’ science could enact.

The work we had applied to Bea had been meant for the nightmare, but with everything that had gone on, the original team of doctors had never been able to spare the time and effort to riddle out just how to make a horse burn the way they needed the nightmare to burn, and yet not die in the process.

Jessie had been able to dig up enough obscure, dark fairy tales for us to put something together.  Several of this batch were part of a series of cautionary tales, and we’d strung it out into a reinterpretation, wherein the old cautionary tales related to lab safety and the hazards of Academy life.  Bea was one of twenty-six actors who were going to die in improbable, grisly, and convincing manners.  She was ‘C’ for ‘Combustible’.

Ashton had wanted ‘C’ to be ‘choke’ and for Bea to take over ‘Fire’ or ‘Burn’, but in the shuffling of letters and an effort to use more Academy terms, and in small part because of Duncan’s insistence, we had moved that one over to ‘K’, for ‘Knock’.

And this, as they said, was the curtains rising.  The actors left as a group.

All of this was in the name of running out the clock, selling the idea that Ferres was involved, and in guiding the emotions of our audience.  It would be alarming at first, but one oddity or unusual thing would be followed by another, and with luck we could desensitize them.  Maybe, in a moment that counted, they would think for just a second that it was a joke.

Maybe.

The place was a flurry of actors getting dressed and artists doing final touches, of causes of death being hidden and primed.

 

This was only part of things.  There were a lot of reasons to do it and a lot of things that could go wrong.  As the Infante and I watched them make their way up the stairs, I was very aware that any one of them could choke.  Not just them, but any student in this school who we hadn’t sequestered away and put to sleep.  One short sentence could turn the tables.

We had measures in place, but the more I saw of the guests and the weapons and tools they’d brought to show off with and to protect themselves with, the more tenuous they felt.

“What are you thinking?” Jessie asked.

“That I can’t believe we thought we were going to pull this off with major players present.  The Infante, Hayle, the brain doc Ferres mentioned…”

“I think if they were planning to be here, they’d be scary, yes, but the others wouldn’t be so prickly.”

“Prickly?” I asked.  I thought about it.  “Yeah.  Their hackles are up.  They’re among peers, there’s no reason to bow or keep their swords sheathed.  They hold their swords up and they wave them around and if anyone flinches, it’s a win for the sword-waver.”

“You losing your mind again, Sy?  Because you’re incoherent.”

I elbowed her and she smiled.  We were watching everyone, Jessie looking out for details, while I was keeping an idle eye out for trouble, dissent, for people who were paying too little or too much attention to Jessie and me.

A student lagged behind.  She was younger.  Fourteen or so.  Lillian hadn’t been much younger when I’d been teasing her mercilessly and when she’d first faced down the monsters.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” Jessie said.

“We’re near the bottom floors and they’re at the top, and I can hear them,” she said.

I listened.  The clamor was indeed audible, albeit faint.  People on the stairs, things moving about, and the whisper-faint noise of the most recent round of applause.

Young ears.

“Stage fright is normal,” Jessie said.

“The trick,” I said, jumping in, “Is to realize that there’s two kinds of fear.”

“There’s a lot of kinds of fear,” she said.  “We studied the areas of the brain-”

“Not like that,” I said.  “Listen, there’s fear that makes you stand still, and there’s fear that makes you move.  The standing still fear is what you use when a warbeast is there, tense, and you’re not sure if it’s seen you.  You take the moment.  But the moving fear?  That’s what you use when the warbeast is running at you.”

Jessie gave me a look.

“It’s really, really easy to make your brain switch to the other track, understand?  Just… lift yourself up on your toes, like this, then drop down to the ground.  Bam.  The warbeast is chasing you, and you’re going.  And eventually, you get yourself to the point where you’re doing that without needing the jolt.  Where it’s always the moving kind of fear.  Because we don’t ever need that standing still fear in modern society.  Just give yourself that jolt, that push.  You’ll be fine.”

“I’ll try,” she said.

“Good.  We’re going to pull off something amazing, and this is only the beginning.”

“You should go,” Jessie said.

The girl went.  Another girl was waiting for her and took her hand, going up with her.

“We should go up too, to play our part and check on the others to make sure they’re playing their part,” Jessie said.

I nodded.

We rounded up a group of students who felt up to leaving the lab alone, and we moved as part of the group.

We didn’t even make it to the end of the long winding hallway that cut through the now-empty or mostly empty labs before we ran into trouble.

We’d tried to sequester off one of the stairwells, but the problem with trying that was that we were dealing with an awful lot of guests who were used to getting their way.

It was young aristocrats, with their entourages of stitched.

“I was asked to play tonight by Ferres herself!” one of them called out.

They were in our way.

“I understand, sir,” the Doctor in front of them said.  “But please, use the other stairwell.  We have some dangerous and fragile experiments going up and down this particular staircase.”

“Hold them back, clear the way,” the musician aristocrat said, in a tone that implied he couldn’t even fathom that she hadn’t already done it.

“If there was any possible way we could minimize the hassle to you, the Professors, and the Nobles, glory to the Crown, I would, sir.”

There were cries of dismay and alarm, with a few shrieks.

“A,” Jessie said.

There were two points where we needed to act.  Two points where, in an ideal world, we would need to walk among our targets and take action.  We’d left ourselves five windows among the twenty six letters of the alphabet, where they would be blinded or distracted enough that we felt at ease walking among them with minimal disguise.

‘F’ was the first one.

I tugged on Jessie’s hand as the young aristocrat went on a tirade.  Not listening, only asserting his power and how very impossible it was that he would have to go down to a lower floor, find his way to the other staircase, and then head back up.

We ducked into the first lab that still had students inside.  One of them had cracked open a bottle of something alcoholic that I could smell from across the room.  The students had been about to celebrate getting their child with springloaded eyeball needles or pre-prepared disembowelment out on schedule.

“Uh,” they said, as they saw us.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I know you did your part, you should be done, but we need help.”

“Fuck,” the one with the drink said.  “Is it bad?”

“It’s minor, but it’s the kind of problem that adds up.  We can’t get up the stairs without going through some people.  We can’t go to the other stairwell because that’s the one designated for all the people we want to avoid.”

“It’s throwing some crucial timing,” Jessie said.

“Do you have body bags?” I asked.  “Or a stretcher?”

“We can get them,” the young doctor said, already out of his chair, signaling the others.

“C,” Jessie said.  “Bea just had her turn, assuming timing’s right.”

I nodded.

We could have killed the aristocrats, but that was another sort of problem that swelled up and became a larger issue.  Especially if the man was scheduled to play music.

“D,” Jessie said, while the Doctors were still gone.

I frowned.

They arrived with the stretchers and body bags.  Jessie and I climbed in.

“If there’s a question or any small problem, just wink,” I said.  “If there’s a larger problem or if the wink doesn’t work, then take us to the nearest safe place.  Otherwise, our best destination is Lab One.”

“Lab One, got it.”

I lay down on the stretcher, arms at my side, and let them do up the front of the bag, sealing me in.

I closed my eyes and counted the steps.  I hadn’t counted the steps from the staircase to the small lab, but I had a sense of it.  Generally speaking, my instincts were good.

Pride goeth before the fall,” the voice was deep, but it wasn’t the sheer bass of it that made me shake so much as it was the clenching of my teeth, my desire to stay still, when we had to be within a few paces of the young aristocrat.

I’d been dreading the voice.

“Where are you going with those?” I heard the aristocrat asking.

There was silence.

“I… see,” he said.  “Carry on.”

Carry on, I thought.  Carry on.  Move forward, don’t dwell, the dwelling is the dangerous part.

Carry on, the most pretentious, desperate way to sound as though one was in control of the situation, when said like the musician aristocrat had said it.

I couldn’t gauge how much ground we were covering as we were carried up the stairs.  The footsteps on stairs were too much of a jumble, the pace weird.

I was very aware, however, when we stopped moving, and we didn’t start again.

The crash of glass and the thud of a body striking the ground near us marked ‘F’.

I could hear the initial nervous titter of laughter, maybe a panic response, followed by a more natural laughter.  They’d clued in.  Sooner than expected, but that wasn’t a bad thing.  The sooner they fell into the stride of this, the sooner they would get used to the violence.

That was the good.  The bad was that we’d missed our first window.

I could hear the whispers.  The doctors that held us were communicating.

This would be the worst time for a betrayal, I thought.  I could imagine them simply carrying us up to the main hall, where the vast majority of our guests had already assembled, and revealing us.

“This is macabre,” the musician said, very close by.  He’d followed us up.  “How am I supposed to play anything in the wake of this?

“You would have to ask Professor Ferres, sir,” a Doctor who was carrying us said.

“I might just.  Excuse me,” the musician said, saying those last two words in the least polite way possible.

“We can talk,” one of the Doctors whispered.  “Very quietly.”

“What’s happening?” Jessie asked.

“Professor Ferres is in Lab One, entertaining some people.  The aristocrat is talking to her now.  She doesn’t look pleased to be interrupted.”

“Listen,” I said.  “On I, the big cloud, you let us out, alright?”

“On I?  Got it.”

“Sy, we can go out, we can plant the hook, but if we can’t get back-”

Planting the hook.  We had invited certain people.  Whatever I’d done in… wherever the second orphanage had been, where Pierre and Charles or whoever were keeping our rescued mice safe, we were doing it here.  A hidden hook and rope.  I’d snagged Lillian like a fisherman.  The people we’d invited were supposed to be located at key seats, but there were no guarantees.

The trick, the key, was using one window of opportunity to place hooks as close to key targets as possible, sinking them into spaces in the floor.  The next window of opportunity, combined with clamor, noise, and distraction, would let us steal them away.  With luck, people would be out of their seats, the crowd would be a jumble, and these individuals wouldn’t be missed.

If we couldn’t do it flawlessly, we wouldn’t.  If we could, we’d remove some key players and, ideally, we’d turn some of the defenses and measures they’d brought to use against us against them, by co-opting the people in charge.

These were the preliminary moves.

I waited, tense.

G, H, and then I.  It was the countdown.  Jessie was better with timing, but I couldn’t look her way for cues.

“Your headmistress certainly brooks no nonsense,” the musician said.

I didn’t like that he was back.

I liked it even less that Jessie spoke, despite the fact that she was supposed to be a body in a bag.  Her voice was soft.  “Take us back.”

“Did you say something?” the musician asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “If she’s in a bad mood, we won’t get in her way.  Excuse me, sir.”

“Excused.”

We weren’t even all that far down the stairs before Jessie whispered again, “Out.”

They laid us down on the stairs and freed us.  Jessie stood, and gave me a hand, as I was on less even footing.

“The timing is screwed up,” she said.  “We need eyes on this.”

I looked at the Doctors.  “Is the musician alone?”

“They sent his entourage down the other way,” the Doctor said.

“Then go up the stairs, make a small crowd, blocking Ferres’ view of the musician.

“You’re sure?” the Doctor asked.

“Please,” Jessie said, with a rare note of urgency in her voice.

We followed our group up again, coordinating with signs, the stretchers and body bags behind and below us.  The moment the group had blocked the view of the musician, Jessie and I knifed him.

We pulled him to the ground, my hand finding his mouth at the first opportunity, and we stuck him with knives repeatedly.

I could hear the conversation, though I couldn’t quite make out words, and my heart sank.

This wasn’t when people were supposed to be having hushed, intense conversations in the midst of hundreds of Nobles, aristocrats, Professors and Doctors.

We edged closer until we could peer over the stairs at the scene.

It was a man in a black lab coat, his beard was long, full, and more appropriate to a wizard of myth than a man of science.  He was stooped over, his hands out to cup the face of one of our actors.  One of the early letters.

I could see the family resemblance, the expression on the older man’s face, the alarm and fear on the face of the student.

We’d asked each and every last one of them twice, thrice, and then a fourth time, if there was the slightest chance that anyone might be in attendance who might recognize them.

Blood always runs through,” the Infante murmured in my ear, his voice deep.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next