Crown of Thorns – 20.14

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I took a step forward.  I saw Warren react, lowering his head a fraction.  Avis, however, stiffened, taking a step forward.

I stopped where I was.  If I went any further, Avis was going to act.

“When I first heard of Fray, I thought of her as a sister,” I said.

“Don’t,” Avis said.

“Don’t?” I asked.

“Don’t try to relate to us, don’t try to form a connection.  We know who you are, we’ve kept an eye on you all for a long time.  We were there for Brechwell, where the various rebel factions met, we saw what unfolded during and after.  Whatever you’re going to say… don’t.”

“Considering you tried to kill us earlier today, I think the fact that I’m talking to you and not actively ambushing you is darn magnanimous,” I said.

Warren turned his head, looking at Avis.  I didn’t have the best recollection of him, but I did have the impression that was to some degree his usual expression.  I tried to formulate an impression of what he was expressing, with the baseline being a barely suppressed fury.

Even with all of that in mind, he looked bothered by what I’d said.

Warren and Avis weren’t on the same page, it seemed.

“There was also the events that led to you being imprisoned, before you found your way to Fray,” Mary said.

“The tried and true tactic of driving in a wedge,” Avis said.

She spoke like someone with a broken spirit, as if she was farther away than she was.

“I don’t think it’s driving in a wedge to remark on the fact that you assisted in the kidnapping of hundreds of children, so they could be used to create Percy’s army.”

Avis nodded slowly.  Warren’s eyes still bored into her.

She took a few steps to the side, then slumped down, sitting on the edge of the fountain.

“No answer?” I asked.

“You acted against us, alerting the Crown before we could get properly underway,” Avis said.  “If Percy had succeeded, if I hadn’t been caught, you wouldn’t be standing there, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and the sun wouldn’t be setting on the Crown States.  Maybe in that situation, I could have argued it was necessary.”

“Maybe,” Mary said.  “Maybe not.”

“Maybe not,” Avis said.

“Would you do it again?” Lillian asked.

Avis didn’t move.

Lillian went on, “I’m asking because I’m standing here, I left the Crown behind, I’ve taken one side in a war, and we sent soldiers into… this.  We attacked them.  Guns, knives, acid, parasites.  Worse things.  You have your Tangle there.  We had ours.  They were soldiers fighting for what I feel is the wrong side, but they’re people.  I’m wondering what the distance is between you and me.”

“You’re nothing like her,” I said.

Lillian pursed her lips.

“It’s not about right and wrong,” Avis said.

“It is,” Duncan said. “It has to be.”

“That war was fought and lost long before you were born, Lambs,” Avis said.  “You’re-”

She stopped.

“What?” I asked.  “What are we?”

“You’re children,” Avis said.  “If you’re even thinking in those terms, it’s because it’s something the Crown hasn’t fully stamped out of the storybooks and the children’s games.  We leave it behind as we become adults.  Most of us.  They stamped out good and evil as concepts.  They’ve left it so far beyond them that it’s almost forgotten.  There’s only their truth and those who reject it, now.  If we try to drag right and wrong into it, good and evil, then we’re already lost.  That’s why Mauer lost.”

To her right, our left, Warren shook his head.

As for me…

She’s not wrong.  This ceased being about that a long time ago.

The voice had a different tenor to it, now.  A different sound.

We were free.  We were so close.  We’d slain one god.  I felt like I was almost in a position to give that voice what it had bargained for.  I could give it what it wanted, and… and maybe, just maybe, I could get what I’d asked for.

“Fray surprised you, didn’t she?”  I asked.

“Please, none of this prattle,” Avis said.  “The head games, the machinations.  You’re right, I’m wrong.  I fought for what I believed, and I’ve been defeated.  The only fight I had in me was purchased with drugs and a heavy toll on my mind and body.  I haven’t realized what it was costing me until today.  That she asked me to pay that price, without ever asking.”

“She does that,” I said.  “I think, anyway.”

“Do you think?” Avis asked.  There was an almost sarcastic, condescending tone to her voice.  “Really?”

“I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.”

“Ever since we met, I’ve been trying to convey to you that you’re blind, that you’re children.  That you don’t realize your place in things.  Nothing you’ve done has changed my mind.”

“Let me show you.  Today.  Give me a chance.”

She shook her head.  “I’m not the one to give you that.  Whatever you’re going to say, there’s no need for it.”

“You could walk away, if you don’t want to hear me out,” I said.  “You could fly away, if you had anywhere to go.  You don’t.”

She was silent and still.

I turned my focus to Warren.  “Fray led you this far and… whatever happened, she’s dropped you.  Surprise!  You’ve clearly got family here, big guy, but… where do you take them?  The Crown States are nearly gone.  Wherever you were hiding before, it’s probably been swallowed up by the devastation and decay that’s eating this nation, now that you’re not there.  Where are you going to go?”

He glared at me with very blue eyes.

I was aware of the eyes that were watching.  They’d mounted an attack.  Then what had happened?  Fray had moved on to the next step of her plan.

Where was she?

When he spoke, his voice was deep, though not as deep as I might have expected it to be.  He almost resembled the man he must’ve been, once upon a time.

“With you?” he asked.

I spread my arms.

“No,” he said.

I let my arms fall to my sides.

“No,” Avis said.

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s regrettable.”

“Is that a threat?” Avis asked.

“No,” I said.  “It’s just… regrettable.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

Duncan put a hand on my shoulder.  He cleared his throat.  “What can you tell us about Fray?  Where is she?”

“She’s off saving humanity,” Avis said.

“Saving humanity?” Lillian asked.

“It’s what she said, when I met her on the hill outside this city.  That hill, off in the distance,” Avis said.  She raised one arm, so it extended outside of the covering she wore, pointing.  “Now she acts.”

“What’s she doing?” Lillian asked.

“Destroying everything else,” Avis said, the words nearly drowned out by the sound of the rain.

There was no surprise on Warren’s face, which only drove the statement home.  The other Lambs were silent, the bystanders weren’t close enough to have heard.  Avis had said the words with a volume that hadn’t been meant to reach any ears that weren’t ours.

“How?” I asked.  “Where is she?”

Avis shook her head.

Lillian stepped forward, raising her voice, “If there’s any part of you that feels guilty for what you were complicit in-!”

Avis shook her head again.

Lillian clenched her hands.  She still held Jessie.  Mary stepped forward, taking one of those clenched hands in her own.

Avis seemed oblivious to it all.  Oblivious to everything.

“When you acted against us,” I said.  “When you drew the attention of the soldiers, and tried to get us killed.  Had Fray already abandoned you then?”

There was no response.  She seemed to be getting more and more stubborn, not less.  There were no chinks in the armor because the armor was gone, destroyed.

I suspected I was right.

“What was it Avis said back at the roof?” I asked.

“We’d only get in Genevieve Fray’s way,” Ashton volunteered.

I nodded to myself.

“She was talking about what Fray is doing now.  She wants this, on some level, or she’s not opposed to it.  She’s a lost cause,” I said.  “And she’s lost.”

Avis didn’t move or respond.

“Warren,” I said, with a tone and urgency that betrayed renewed enthusiasm and desperation both.  Changing targets.  “You can’t want this.  You’ve got family there.  Whatever this is, you’ve seen the plague, you know these things are never neat and tidy.”

“You don’t know who I am,” Warren said.

“You’re a person who didn’t deserve what happened to him,” I said.  “In a world where an awful lot of things happen to people who don’t deserve those things.  Tell me I’m wrong about that.”

He hesitated.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” I said, cutting into his thoughts.

“You’re not,” he said.

“If you’re both telling the truth about this, it’s going to be horrendous.  Are you going to help those things happen?  Wrongs, meted out to people who don’t deserve it?”

He took his time responding again.  It was as if he was so unused to talking that it took him time to find the words.  “I was born into the wrong world.  I studied cars, not horses.  But the horses won before I even started studying.  Living horses, dead horses, horses in name only.  This world chewed me up and spat me out.”

This world, he’d said.  He had the power to tell us what we needed to know about Fray.  Faced with the question of whether he was willing to stop her from destroying ‘everything else’, he was caught in an existential mire.  The world hadn’t been kind to him.  He hadn’t seen enough of it that he wanted to preserve.

“Avis and I are very different people.  But I think we’re similar in one thing,” Warren said.

I didn’t want to ask.  I didn’t want to help him down this course.  I asked anyway, because I suspected the answer, and I knew he’d need to get it out of his system if he was going to ever listen to us.  “What’s that?”

“We were hurt.  We suffered beyond imagining, and we had almost nothing left to lose.”

I wished I could remember more about Avis’ fate.  The memory had been so close to the memories of Jamie that they were complicated to handle.  I’d let them atrophy.

They were too far away, in too many senses.

What had I said, before?  When I first heard of Fray, I thought of her as a sister?

I’d seen a commonality there.  Now… now, I felt as though I was facing down these people.  Fray had picked up two of the most unlikely, ill-suited people to join her.  She wanted to save humanity and she’d collected a man who lost his connection to humanity, and a woman who’d been tested and found that humanity wanting.

Now they were looking at me, and I wondered if they saw Fray.  If my words could never reach them because Fray had burned that bridge.

I turned away from Warren.  There might have been something in my expression that the others saw, because their expressions shifted in kind.

Well, not Ashton’s.  Not Jessie’s.  Looking at Jessie was my reminder about what I wanted to preserve in the now, what I selfishly wanted to have with me in the present moment.  Lillian was what I wanted to fight for, divorced from what the voice was pushing for.

Some of my warmest moments with Mary were in the past.  That I ‘danced’ so well with her was because of that background, the steps and patterns that I’d engraved into a brain that held far less permanence than most.

We were the people we surrounded ourselves with.  Maybe that was why I had such a hard time understanding Fray, when these people seemed to reflect so little on who she was and what she seemed to be striving for.  When I saw her like I saw the Snake Charmer, Cynthia, or the Primordial Child, I hallucinated a fractured face, looking in multiple directions, where nothing pulled together.

“Sy,” Lillian said.  There was urgency in her voice.

My eyes stopped roving over the group.

“It’s okay,” I said.

I stepped past Ashton, mussing up his hair on the way.

I took two hands, met another set of eyes, and jerked my head in a direction.

It was Bo Peep and Red, who I presented to Warren and Avis.  Red stopped when Avis tensed, while Bo Peep made it several steps deeper into that open territory.

Abby, Ashton, and Emmett joined the pair.  Abby stood closer to Bo Peep.  Emmett, Nora and Lara hung further back, closer to Red.

“I was hurt too,” Bo Peep said.

“It’s different, I’m sure,” Avis said, with emotion.  “They ripped out my sense of time.  I experienced eternity.  The Lambs would like to say I’ve done wrong, but I’ve repaid that wrong by experiencing hell.”

“I don’t really know what that is,” Bo Peep said.  “I don’t understand.  I’m sorry.”

“Then shut up,” Avis said.  “Go away.”

“I can’t.  Not when… you’re talking about someone destroying everything?”

“Almost everything.  Yes.”

“Then I can’t.”

Avis looked away from Bo Peep, meeting my eyes.  “If this is an attempt to elicit sympathy-”

I started to shake my head.  Bo Peep beat me to it with a, “No.”

“You don’t understand,” Avis said.  “There’s no point discussing.”

“There is a point,” Bo Peep said.  “They’re going to hurt everything that isn’t humanity?  It would hurt me.  I haven’t done anything.  I want to live.”

Avis shook her head.

“I want to live,” Peep said.  “Please.”

“Ask Warren.  He actually cares.”

“Please,” Bo Peep said.

Warren was staring Emmett down.

They were something of a pair.  A difference mainly in ages.  Two taciturn Brunos.

“Please,” Bo Peep said again.  “Warren?”

I wondered what was going through Warren’s head, as he looked at his counterpart.

Ashton took a step forward.

“Don’t,” Avis said.  “Don’t try.  I have weapons.  Hurting you will take the last ounce of strength I have, but I’ll do it.  I’ll signal our forces and they’ll shoot from the flanks.”

“Okay,” Ashton said.

He shifted his grip, then held Helen up and out.  Arms straight, Helen held so that the bottom end of her was just above Ashton’s head.

The rain poured down, soaking Ashton, running down his arms, soaking Helen, running down blood-stained bandage.  We’d changed the bandages not long ago.

Warren stared at Ashton and Helen.  There was still so much anger in his eyes.

It was Avis who asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s my favorite person in the world,” Ashton said.  “This is her, now.”

A frown creased the space between Avis’ eyebrows.

Warren looked away.  Avis didn’t.

“What am I supposed to take away from that?” Avis asked.

“She’s my favorite person,” Ashton said.  “I don’t think she would want to be left out.”

Avis stared at Helen.

Helen was just heavy enough that Ashton’s arms were already starting to tremble with the strain of holding her aloft.

“Please,” Bo Peep said.

Abby took her hand.  Quinton stood between the two, moving his head so the top if it was beneath the edge of her skirt, as if it was a hat.  Keeping the rain off.

“You keep saying that,” Avis said.  “You can’t even articulate an argument?”

“I’m not good at arguing.  All I know is that I want to live.”

“State demands at least, so I can make you go away.”

“Three things,” I said.  I made sure my voice carried.  Many of the younger Lambs turned their heads to look at me.  “Whatever the means of controlling that Tangle is… we need it.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Avis said.

“Everything matters at this stage.”

“It won’t be any good for you.  It uses scent markers.  We designed a warbeast to draw the attention of the… you called them Tangles.  It takes over.  You’d need to fly to leave the right trails.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.

“Three things,” she said.

She’d made no move to give us the first.  I wondered if this depended on us naming the right things.

“We’ll need some way to communicate with your other forces in this city.  The attack on Radham has served its purpose.  There’s no need for more people to die.”

“That’s one of the least important things you need to concern yourself with right now.”

“All the same,” I said.

“And the third thing?”

“If you won’t outline what Fray’s plan is, then give us Wendy,” I told her.  “Wendy’s been there from the beginning.  I presume she remembers some of it.”

“Wendy?” Avis asked.  She turned her head.

“Oh, yes, hello,” Wendy said, in response.  “I would offer you tea, but things are messy right now.”

Her head surveyed the devastation around us.  A town that had been overturned to serve as a military outpost, shaken by infighting, scattered with dead and doused in acid and parasites.  There wasn’t a single surface or expanse that was unaffected.  No rooftop, no wall, no window.

“That’s alright,” Ashton said.  He’d lowered Helen, and now cradled her against his chest.  “It’s understandable.  Thank you all the same.”

“You’re welcome,” Wendy said.

I glanced at the city, hearing the rain and the steady beat of the Tangle against the ship’s exterior.

“She hid it from us.  That was the betrayal,” Avis said.

I nodded.  The offer to abandon the Crown.  The offer Gordon had almost taken.

“It was a plan with layers.  Failsafes.  You’re about to find out what was which.  Everything served two purposes.  The leashing and sterilization?”

Everything else.

I heard the voice, and I made the connection.

“Inoculation?” I asked.

Avis glanced at Warren, then shrugged.  “Groundwork.”

There was a defeat in the statement.  I’d thought of her as a crone before, but she withered a touch more, even admitting that much.

“Go with them, Wendy,” Warren said.  “Tell them what they need.  Help them if they ask for it.”

“Are you sure?” Wendy asked.

“I’m sure.”

Wendy looked momentarily concerned.

“Go,” Warren said.  “Be brave.”

“Yes, sir.  I’ll try.”

Wendy approached the younger Lambs, because they were closer.  Abby took her hand.

“Protect her from the dark,” Warren said.  “No dark rooms.  No closed spaces.”

“Alright,” I said.  I immediately recognized what he was saying for what it was.

“She likes music.  In all the years I’ve spent with Genevieve, I’ve been trying to help her find a song.”

I looked at Jessie, who rode piggyback on Lillian’s back, fast asleep.  I reached out and beneath her hood to touch her hair.

“I was already thinking about a scrollphone for the music,” I said.

“The machine?” Warren asked.

“The machine,” I said.

Something in Warren seemed to ease.  A burden off his shoulders, a thing long lost come to roost, perhaps, or a circle finally closing.  The anger seemed to fade.

“That will do, thank you,” he said.  He twisted around, beckoning.

Soldiers from the fringes approached.

“Go.  Round up the other groups.  Ceasefire all around.”

“You’re sure?” the soldier asked.

Warren nodded.

“You could come yourself,” Mary said.  “It would make more sense.”

“No,” Warren said.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Because,” Warren said, drawing in a breath.  He looked in the direction of his family.  “A long time ago, I pledged revenge.  I need to put that to rest.”

“You pledged revenge against your family?” Lillian asked.

“No,” he said.  “But I think I wanted it more than anything.  If I walk away now, I won’t return.  I won’t heal what made that wanting possible.”

Avis moved her coat, and revealed a long bandoleer of vials.  She unclasped it, and pulled it free, so it was a strap, rather than a band.  She swung it to one side, and I worried the tail end of it would smash against the fountain’s edge.

“Then… last question,” I said.  “Where is she?”

“You know where,” Avis said.  She swung the belt of vials the other way and released it, so it would fly through the air.

Duncan was the one who jumped forward to catch it in both arms.  I would have, but I was fairly sure my legs were too tired, and I trusted the others to handle it.

I was standing close enough to him that when everyone had looked Duncan’s way, they could see me raise my arm.

I gestured.

We left the two people sitting by the fountain.  Wendy walked with us.

The soldiers that had been sent with us weren’t ours, but they served our purposes.  They knew roughly where their people had retreated to – the residents of this city.  Lost, confused, they had been rallied by Warren’s relations, and they had fought for their well being.

Once they were taken care of, made to stand down, a scattered few joining us, we could find the others.

Pierre, Shirley.  Junior, Davis and the Treasurer, Bea, Fang, Rudy, Possum, Gordeux, Mabel.

Some were in smaller groups.  Some were being held prisoner.  Some held others prisoner.

Too many of them were hurt.  Acid burns, excision marks from scalpels.  Davis was out of the fight, which was a damn shame.  Possum hadn’t been in it from the beginning, a non-fighter.  Rudy hadn’t been in it since the plague had gotten him.

There would be more Rudys before the day was over.  I worried, looking at the work done to carve away the plague, throughout our soldiers’ ranks, that there were already another twenty or thirty, in varying degrees of intensity.

We only had a few hundred people here.

I wanted to make all of this worth what they had put into it.

“You did a good job,” Ashton said, his voice quiet.  He was talking to Helen.  “Good negotiating.  Your finest performance yet.”

“In another light, that could be construed as insulting,” Duncan said.

“I think it’s very positive,” Wendy said.  “Compliments are nice.”

“I like her,” Ashton said.

“Of course you do,” Duncan said.  Wendy beamed at him, oblivious.

I stepped away, joining the others.

Mabel was taking point on the dispersal of Avis’ chemical markers.  We didn’t have a means of flight, but we did have access to a scattered few warbeasts.

The Treasurer had been acting as Davis’ second in command for a while now, and Davis had been acting as our de-facto general, when Jessie and I were otherwise occupied, which we so often were.

Not in the rude way.  Not always.  We had other nefarious things that occupied us, being Lambs and all.

The Treasurer organized our troops, so to speak.

When I raised my hand, gesturing, and swept it down as though I was bringing the executioner’s axe down on a stretched out neck, it was the Treasurer who started shouting the orders.

The chemicals drew Fray’s Tangle away.  Our army stormed the doors and other access points.  We had already opened the one hatch in the front of the ship.  Our chains were still dangling there.  The defending forces were light.

What remained was to take every length of chain and rope we could acquire from the city, and enact a means of getting our army up and inside.

Lillian came to stand beside me.  She hugged my arm.  She didn’t have Jessie with her anymore.  A task delegated to a stitched, again.

We stood there, watching.  Mary passed us, limping, and shot us a brief smile.  Not a happy one, but… she had always wanted her army to command.

Ashton was saying goodbye to his peers.

I was left with the impression that Lillian was enjoying a moment with me that didn’t have Jessie in it.  She might even have engineered it.  I wasn’t about to comment either way.  Her head rested on my shoulder, even though we were roughly of a height with one another.

“You know what Fray is doing,” she said.

“I think I’ve known for a while,” I said.  “A few of the threads, at least.”

“Can we stop her?” Lillian asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

But we aren’t going to, the voice rejoined.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.13

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Too much forethought to be Mauer, especially with the resources that were apparent.  Too counterintuitive to be the Crown.  Hayle was pinned down and didn’t have the means, the resources, position or forewarning to pull this off.

A Tangle was emerging from the town.  Its overall shape was different; it almost had a color scheme, because the bodies that formed it were all wearing Crown uniforms, and it had something resembling a head, though the angle of our view from the window meant that all I could make out was a singular dark shape.  In terms of size, it was as large as the largest Tangle we’d seen in the city itself- large enough to touch the ground and the top of the tallest wall around the Academy itself.

The Tangle wasn’t the entirety of it.  There were people from the town marching alongside with the thing.  They had flanked the rank and file of the elite soldiers and the Infante’s professors.  Now the Tangle was charging in.

Our people were in that mess.  People we were counting on to get us out of this cell.

Something like this had taken planning.  It had taken premeditation, and it had taken a keen mind.

Fray.

I slammed one fist against the window, my jaw set.

“What happened?” Mary asked.

I turned to face her.  “Some specialized Tangle is being directed, working with a small rebel group.  It just attacked the soldiers.  It might be going after the Professors.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  “Oh, that’s not the plan.”

I turned back around.

The ‘dead’ were starting to rise, now that many of the guns were being trained on the Tangle.  The ‘dead’ that had feigned death after being shot at with empty cartridges turned on the army, with improvised weapons and guns of their own.

It wasn’t enough.  Too few of them compared to the soldiers that had been selected to get a ride home.  They were taking the action of the Tangle here to be some kind of cue from us, the sign that they should move in, catch the main army by surprise, and we would crush them.

The problem being that our rebels and double agents were still in there.

“Can you concoct anything to get us out of here?  An acid, an explosive?”

“They confiscated everything we could theoretically use,” Lillian said.  “I have some packets of poison in my bra and some pills and small blades hidden in my clothing, but that’s not going to do anything.”

“Fingertip syringes?” I asked.

“One.  They’re too much of a pain to maintain, and it affects circulation,” Lillian said, sounding a little defeated.  “It’s nothing we can use.”

“I used everything I had on that rooftop,” Duncan said.

I nodded.

Ashton, holding the light, began flashing the signal for ‘help’.  It was a good thought.  I wasn’t sure the people positioned to offer that help were close enough to give it.

There wasn’t much to be done except to watch.  The army tried to defend its position, making a fighting retreat into the ship, and the Tangle attacked the ramp.  The Professors at the rear lines were among a scant few who made it into the ship before the ramp went to pieces.  I could feel the heavy doors below slamming shut.  The impact reverberated through the ship.

“And that would be the doors to the boarding ramp,” I said.

The others shared looks.  Duncan dropped his bag to the floor.

I punched the metal-reinforced wall.  The impact didn’t even reverberate across the wall in question.

The sound of the rain against the side of the ship had changed.  The gunfire had petered out, replaced by a periodic dull thud.  Twice, we had been hit in a way that had made the entire ship shift, something integral giving way.

A hand on my head made me stir.  I lay on the table, my chest to Jessie’s back.  Lillian stood beside me, one eye on the window, one hand on my head.

“I’m not going to do that, Ashton,” Duncan was saying.  I’d missed the lead-up to that conversation.

“If you don’t remember everything, I could help you brainstorm.  You have paper in your bag.”

“First of all, no,” Duncan said.

“Yes!  If it’s a chance!”

“It’s not.  Believe me.  I have spent months of my life poring over the texts, records, and paperwork pertaining to your project.”

I moved my head, looking up at Lillian.  “What’s this?”

“Ashton being Ashton,” she said.

I nodded, lowering my head, so it rested on my folded arm again.

“Get creative, then,” Ashton said.

“You’re not made of sturdy enough stuff.  Also, there’s no guarantee you’re going to go back to the same configuration.”

“I don’t care.”

“You care.  You get fussy when your hair gets messed up.  You want me to dismantle you?  Take you apart into your constituent pieces, and put something together that can break down a door?”

“Yes.”

“No.  It’s made to handle Warbeasts headbutting it.  It’s not going to work, Ashton.”

“Then get creative,” Ashton said, exasperated.  “Maybe instead of beating it down you can do the opposite.”

“Pull it down?”

“Or suck it down!  I remember my doctors saying there’s great power in vacuum.  It’s part of how my pheromone dispensary works.  Or you could make me into something small enough to fit through that window.  I could use the handle and get us out.”

“It really doesn’t work that way, Ashton, and we’d need to break that thick glass first, which might be doable if we rigged you to generate suction, which would probably take a fancy lab to manage, mind you.”

“Improvise,” Ashton said.

“No,” Duncan said.  “And if we generated you to do that, we could hardly then change your function unilaterally to get you through the window to the handle.”

Ashton huffed in annoyance.

“It’s locked anyway,” Mary said.  “I paid attention to it as they brought us in here.”

Duncan extended his hands in Mary’s direction.

“Sy has lockpicks, at the very least,” Ashton said.  “So we’re talking about two minor surgeries and a teeny tiny bit of improvisation to go with it, and I’ll take Sy’s lockpicks with me when I go through the window.”

“Ashton,” Duncan said.

“Yes, Duncan?”

“You know you’re one of my favorite people?”

“I didn’t, but it’s nice to hear.  Thank you, Duncan.  You’re my number two favorite person after Helen.”

“Okay.  Well, keep in mind, if you keep this line of argument up the entire time we’re on our way to the Crown Capitol, I’m probably going to strangle you dead by the time we arrive, favorite person or no.”

“Fine,” Ashton said.  “I think that makes you mentally disturbed to a worrisome level, but fine.  It’s not like I don’t have experience dealing with that type.”

I cleared my throat.

“Oh, Sy woke up,” Ashton said.  “I thought you were asleep.”

“I’m awake-ish,” I said.  “Conserving strength, in case we get an opportunity to do anything.”

“I was just talking about you, you know,” Ashton said.

“I know,” I said.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“I think I trust Duncan.  I think they have to open the door at some point, and there’s a good chance it’ll be soon, if nobody has claimed ownership of that Tangle.  They might assume it’s ours.”

“That’s true,” Mary said.

“We’re also overdue for food and water.  If they don’t plan to let us expire, then they’ll have to open the door to give us something.  That’s our opportunity.  Barring exceptional circumstances, though, we’ll hear the locks on that door turn, it’ll open, and we’ll get a chance.  We’ll have to capitalize on that chance.”

“They’ve been careful so far,” Mary said.

“We’ll-”

The door handle squeaked, the locks grinding as the tumblers turned.

“-figure it out,” I said.

I climbed down from the table.  Mary positioned herself to be behind the door as it swung open.  The rest of us moved toward the doorway.

The door swung wide enough that it banged against the wall.  Mary evaded it, then leaped up, climbing the side of the one heavy metal door until she was perched on top of it, weapon in hand.

It was Emmett, with Nora standing behind him.

I gestured, and Mary hopped down.

“Fray?” I asked.

Emmett nodded.

“Thanks for coming,” I said.

“We thought you might need it,” Nora said.  She shifted position, and her claws scraped against the floor of the tunnel.  “You were gone for a while.  We tried to take captives to interrogate, but we’re not very good at that.”

“We played to other strengths,” Abby said, peering around the door, into the room.  “Hi Ashton.”

“Hi.”

“Where’s Helen?” Abby asked.

“She’s here,” Ashton said.  He pointed in my direction.

Abby looked our way, her expression concerned.  “I don’t see her.”

“Ashton,” Duncan said.  “Why don’t you go to Abby right now?  Keep her calm, as all of this must be very stressful, and Abby doesn’t deal well with stress.”

“I’m not dumb,” Abby said.  “What’s going on?  Why does Ashton need to keep me so calm?”

She stepped further into the room.  Ashton approached her.

Then she saw Helen.  Her hands went to her mouth, her eyes moved in different directions, and she tipped over.  Emmett caught her.

“Yeah,” Duncan said, quiet.

Nora looked very alarmed, peering into the room.  She tensed at a sound from further down the hall.

We collected ourselves and our invalids, acting before our rescuers became too distressed.  I helped Lillian get a grip on Jessie, and took her bag to ease the burden.  It was too light, too much of it confiscated or spent.

The hallway was largely empty.

“What happened to Helen?” Nora asked.

“She got sick.  We cut her down to the healthy bits.  Duncan is confident that he, Lillian, and Professor Ibbot can put her back the way she was.”

Nora, her face barely visible beneath the shroud she wore, was nonetheless clearly displeased at that.

“Fill us in,” I said.

“The Crown forces are at the top deck and the doors.  Everything else is a mess,” Nora said.  “Both sides retreated to their corners.  It’s scary, the way things are right now.”

Everything’s scary to you, I thought.  “Define these ‘corners’.”

“I can’t even tell.  Lara can’t either, she says.  Both sides are shooting and fighting each other, but it’s all a jumble.  This ship isn’t going anywhere, the city is filled with fighting but there are no clear battle lines we can make out.  We’re trying to communicate with our people, but some of the ones who were relaying messages got hurt in the fighting.  Some might be dead.”

Her voice changed with that last statement.

Abby was starting to recover.  Ashton eased her down until she was walking.  They fell behind the rest of the group as Ashton got Abby to start moving again.  He spoke to her in a low, calm voice.

“There’s a chance Fray just wanted to make this conflict as even as possible – let both sides hurt each other until they could be destroyed.  Toss out big plays to help one side, even things out, knowing that neither side can afford to back down.”

“Is that what Avis was doing at the roof?” Lillian asked.  “Taking us down to the point we were on an even keel with the others, so we’d be as hurt as they were at the end?  Or was it to keep us from tilting the scales in way she couldn’t predict?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Both make sense.”

“What’s her end goal?” Mary asked.

“I’d love to know that,” I said.

Footsteps tromped down the hall.  The acoustics made it very audible.

Mary and Emmett picked up their pace, pulling ahead of the group.

We reached a T-junction in the ship’s labyrinthine interior, and Mary and Emmett caught up with the soldiers as they hurried down the hallway.  They hadn’t expected trouble, their guns weren’t even in their hands, let alone raised.

Emmett, for all his strength, wasn’t graceless.  He didn’t waste many movements, and he almost seemed gentle, in a weird way.  He seemed willing to smash someone’s head against the wall with less force than necessary, leaving them stunned but otherwise conscious and alive, and he’d move on to the next, returning to the stunned individual before they had fully recovered.

Mary, for her part, was very efficient in ending lives.  She finished with the second half of the squad of eight, then started on Emmett’s leftovers.

Ashton reached up to pat Nora’s long neck.  She’d turned her face away from the violence.

The fallen soldiers were a chance for us to restock.  Ammo, rifles, knives.  I found a keyring on the captain’s belt and brought it with me.

“I’m going to need something,” Mary said.

“From them?” Ashton asked.

“No,” Mary said.  “Lillian or Duncan.  If you have it, I might need a combat drug.”

“You usually shy away from those,” Lillian said.

“Usually,” Mary said.

She left it at that.  I kept an eye out and listened, but I kept my mouth shut as the conversation played out.  I found a revolver and checked it had bullets in the cylinder, closing it back up again before Lillian uttered a response.

“This will do, then.  Take it a minute before a fight.  Or during the fight, if you’re willing to wait a minute for it to kick in.”

“I will,” Mary said.

It would have been silent, if not for Abby and Ashton’s conversation in the background, inaudible.

“Do we need jackets for the rain?” I asked, to break the quiet.

“It doesn’t burn the skin anymore,” Nora said.

“Good,” I said.  “No other signs or symptoms?”

“Not that I saw.  Lara says it’s safe enough some Crown soldiers have their hoods down out there.”

“Good,” I said.  “Assuming we wanted out, which way do we go?”

Emmett pointed.

“Thanks.”

‘Out’, in our case, involved taking an odd route.  We headed down and to the front of the ship.  The tunnels all narrowed, feeding into a main hallway.  There were several security doors, not unlike the ones we’d had at the entrance to our cells.  These ones, at least, had locks on either side.  We could open locks.

The crew of the ship were concentrated into key areas, and the result was that many of the hallways and side rooms were dark and empty.  They’d been planning on keeping a small army in here, with others included, and the army hadn’t had a chance to board before the ramp had been destroyed, the doors sealed.

“Lara says there’s trouble,” Nora said.  “She’s with Bo Peep, Quinton, Red, and Fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy?” Duncan asked.

“Abby’s.  He helped us get in.  They’re at the front of the ship.  They’re hiding, but there’s a patrol of soldiers there,” Nora said.  “They’re going to find them in a minute.”

Her body language and voice reflected her fear.

“Are we going to get there in time?” Lillian asked.  “Are we close?”

Emmett glanced over his shoulder, shaking his head.

“Okay,” I said.  “Listen, tell Lara they need to act relaxed.  Calm down.  They shouldn’t be bothered if any Crown soldiers see them.  Have them say they’re companions and pets for aristocrats that are supposed to get on board.”

“Lara doesn’t act calm,” Ashton said.  Abby nodded.

“That’s fine.  Just… if they ask, Lara’s master likes them weird.  And scared.”

Nora nodded.  She didn’t speak, and she didn’t reply.  She was relaying the message.

“Have Red and Bo Peep take point, if possible.”

They were actually supposed to be companions and pets for aristocrat brats.  For one event, at least.

We reached yet another security door.  I heard Nora make a small sound of protest as we reached it.  Anxious.  Wanting to get through this.

I already had the key out, but the heavy lock needed several rotations.

My hand hurt from punching the metal wall of the ship.

“I didn’t get the full set of instructions to them, about Red and Bo Peep,” Nora said.  “The soldiers are talking to them now.”

The door opened.  Emmett raised a finger to his lips, and gestured the signal for caution.

We had to walk down the rest of the hallway.  It took a minute, and by the time we reached the end, we could hear the voices.

“…here, of all places?” a soldier asked.

“It’s where they feed those things, and Lara needs a specialized diet,” Red said.  “We were told to come here and wait if anything came up.  They weren’t sure where their quarters would be.”

“Why are you armed?”

The hallway continued, but it became a kind of bridge, stabbing out into the center of a massive cargo hold, twenty feet above the floor of the hold, the walls another twenty feet away in each direction.  Glass cases with metal bands and great metal pillars reinforcing them held fleshy masses, which extended a solid thirty feet from the floor to the ceiling.  The things that made this entire thing ambulatory.  More glass and metal reinforcement sheltered the parts of each ‘leg’ that sprawled across the floor below.  It let the mouths be near one another for feeding.  A port in the floor presumably allowed supplies to be easily moved in, as the ship lowered down over top of them, or it provided a way for the lifeforms to drink.

The bridge forked into two sets of stairs, leading left and right, and the soldiers were gathered on the stairs.  Lara, Red, Bo Peep, Quinton and ‘Fuzzy’ were all together, on the ground floor.  One of the glass cases was cracked.  They’d come in through one of the openings the legs stuck out of.

The soldiers were facing forward.  There was no reason they should have been worried about what was behind them, especially with the security doors they’d locked behind them every step of the way.

Perhaps it was a fear of someone or something coming up from the side or underside of the bridge that made one of the soldiers turn to look.

Mary threw a pair of knives.  One sank into his heart, the other into his throat.

He gurgled, but that sound alone wasn’t quite enough to draw attention.  She hauled on the strings, trying to keep him upright as he started to tip, ready to collapse down the stairs.

It bought us the seconds we needed.

I threw myself at the man Mary had thrown the knives at, knocking him down the stairs, so he bowled into the soldiers below him, knocking them over.  I was already running and stumbling on top of them when Emmett went after the men on the other staircase.

I ran over the fallen and went after the captain at the head of the group, leaping.

A fair share of the pent up frustration from our incarceration was unleashed on the soldiers.  Nora, Emmett, and Red offered their contributions, with Nora appearing from the staircase, and Red bringing her wood axe around in a swing.

‘Fuzzy’, as it turned out, was a Crown warbeast of the canine variety.  A reptile-wolf with horns, not much bigger than a proper wolf.  Once Abby was in sight, she was able to give it an order.  It barked, rather than attacking.

If that was intentional, it worked just fine.  It distracted, drawing attention, without jumping into the skirmish and biting at what might have been one of us.

“Helen’s gone,” Abby said, her voice rather flat.

The fact that she’d spoken was what clued me into the fact that we’d wrapped things up.  None of the enemies stood.

“Not gone,” Ashton said.  “Put away in a very tidy way.”

Abby made a face, glancing at Duncan, who held Helen.

Lara hugged her body with her claws.  Bo Peep, too, looked distressed.

Helen was popular with the little ones.

Even Emmett, if I was reading our taciturn bruno right, was looking tense.

“She’s fine,” Ashton said.  “Really.  We’ll put her back to normal.”

He wasn’t terribly convincing.

It was Red who spoke up, before anyone else.  “I believe you.”

“Why do you say that like not believing me is an option?” Ashton asked.  “I’ve always been honest, unless I had to lie for a mission.”

“It’s not you,” Lillian said.  “It’s not, Ashton.  It’s… Helen looks bad.  That’s a scary way to see someone you care about.  It’s like seeing Sy when he’s not at his best.  Or Nora or Lara mid-molt.  They’re reacting to the sight of it.”

“I saw a lot, in Ferres’ labs,” Red said.  “I saw people… pruned down.  So things could be added, or so work could be done on parts of them before they were put back.  Ferres disgusted me.  She was reprehensible.  But she made them beautiful, in a twisted way.  I can believe you’ll get your Helen back, beautiful in her twisted way, too.”

“I saw some of those too,” Bo Peep said.  “I was one of them, I think.”

“You were,” Red said.

Bo Peep still wasn’t looking up or at any of us.

Abby went to her side, picking up Quinton with one hand before taking one of Peep’s hands in her own.

“Thank you for coming,” I addressed the group.

“We’ll need another way out,” Nora said.  “We used Fuzzy to relay us up.  The legs are dangerous to touch, but Fuzzy can do it.  But he can’t take all of us.”

I pointed at the door in the floor, “Help me with that, then.”

Fray’s little maneuver had upended everything.  The Tangle was still there, working its way down streets, searching for bodies to add to its mass.  Its head was, to look at it, a great insectile warbeast.

We’d observed it from the window, once we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that the rebels and converts we’d signaled weren’t in a position to help us.  We’d tracked where it had come from and where it was going.

It took time for everyone to get to the ground.  We had to descend by chain, and there were only two chains long enough.  Fuzzy, Abby, and Bo Peep descended by way of one of the legs that was curled out.

To all appearances, the leg-things had been poisoned or killed.

The war had settled.  The front lines were being held by the Crown, but there wasn’t any meaningful leadership.  The Infante was supposed to be that leadership, but he was dead.  The Professors were leadership of another sort, and they were here, a distance from the city.

There wasn’t enough infrastructure surrounding all of this for people to get the orders they were waiting for.

The ground was sodden.  A vast carpet of grass and clover was dying where it had survived so many years, bred to thrive in the rain-soaked region around Radham.  The acid was responsible for that, no doubt.

The landscape was a patchwork of crops, but those crops sagging and dying.  Many of the dead had been left where they were.  Buildings were damaged, and as dark as things were, no lights were on within any of the buildings I could see.  No, the lights were in streets, where various soldiers and groups of soldiers had gathered, ready to defend their positions.

Crown and rebel.  Locals and outsiders.

We had to navigate dangerous territory.  There were streets now flooding because the bodies piled along one side formed a kind of barrier, keeping the water from draining into the soil.  That floodwater would be capable of melting flesh.  The soldiers and defensive lines were prepared to shoot at the first signs of trouble.

It wasn’t a big town, either.  I could have walked across it in three-quarters of an hour, even accounting for the winding streets that were apparently designed for meandering.

Mary raised her rifle.  I followed the line of the rifle.

Avis.

“I could hit her,” she said.  “Not saying I will or would, but I could.  Theoretically.”

“No need,” I said.

She saw us, we saw her.

No surprises.  It left things open.

No surprises, too, that they sent their envoy.

“I remember you,” the stitched girl said.  “Some of you.  You’re a lot older than last time.”

“Hello, Wendy,” Lillian said.

“You won’t hurt my colleagues?” Wendy asked.

Colleagues.  A weird word.  Not friends, not master or masters.

“Depends on a lot of things,” I said.

“I’m not very good at figuring those things out,” Wendy said.  “A simple answer might be better.”

It was Lillian who stepped forward, still carrying Jessie.  “We won’t hurt them if they don’t hurt us.”

“Then please come with me,” Wendy said.

We followed her.  Stacks of wood with covers over them and rings of rubble hemming them in burned, casting orange light here and there.  I wondered if there was another purpose for it.

In the distance, the Tangle smashed itself against the hull of the ship.  A drum with a beat so slow that the last beat was nearly forgotten by the time the next arrived.  A stark contrast to the endless patter of rain.

As we entered the corner of the city that Fray had taken for herself, we passed innumerable alleyways and buildings with people within.  It wasn’t a high density of people.  One or two to an alleyway.  One in a window.  But they were armed, and they had grim expressions.  The expressions of people who had lost everything.

They hadn’t come with either army.

I had my suspicion about what was at play.  I wished my memory was better, that Jessie was around for me to ask, to clarify it, and frame the upcoming discussion.

Warren and Avis greeted us, standing to one side of a fountain in the center of a broad intersection of two streets.  The area might have served as a farmer’s market, or a place for festivals to be held.

Warren was tall, a monster of a man, muscle taken to extremes.  His expression… there was a darkness in it that changed him.  He had been human once, his head and brain were ordinary, a stark contrast to the pounds of muscle he wore and his overall frame, but he’d seen or experienced something and the humanity was gone, or it was close to being gone.  He wore a white button-up shirt, suspenders, and black trousers.  His boots were large enough for me to stick my head in.

He reached out to put a hand on Wendy’s back as she came to stand beside him.

Avis’ expression was dark.  She hunched over, a heavy coat covering her body and wings.  She looked like she was aging in fast motion, compared to the actual years that had passed.  She’d been a young lady when I’d first seen her, as my shoddy memory went.  She’d aged, suffering the Duke’s punishment.  She’d aged more, in Fray’s company, when I’d seen her in Beattle.  She looked like a crone now, hunched over the way she was, her wings gathered up behind her.

I looked at some of the people who stood off to one side.  A man and a woman.  Another woman.  I noted the resemblance to Warren.

This particular event had struck a little close to home, hm?

“Fray isn’t here?” I asked.

Warren shook his head, slowly.  I saw the darkness in his expression.

“She finally revealed what she’s all about, huh?” I asked.

The scowl deepened.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Avis sat in the indent around the window, watching in silence.  Ashton stood next to her, cradling Helen in his arms, his focus on the events beyond the window.

Mary had removed her coat, blouse, and skirt.  She was wearing only her underthings, her weapons in plain view where they had hung beneath her clothes.  Where rainwater had splashed or otherwise found its way to bare skin, it had left red tracks, raw, the skin swollen and pink on either side of it.  Beads of water had formed round marks.  Lillian was rubbing a salve in place.  Mary flinched every time Lillian daubed some salve near one of the tracks.

Only a quarter of the blades were still there, the rest of her stock depleted.

The room was metal, floor to ceiling, which was rare, because wood was more versatile and often almost as strong.  Sheets and panes of steel were bolted to one another.  Beams had been sunken into the walls, reinforcing the plates while making it impossible to even find a good edge to pry at.  The door was metal, too, big enough to drive a wagon through, with a single round window.  Were the glass to be removed, one of us could have put an arm through it, but that was it.  Even Helen at her best or a current Helen that was somehow ambulatory wouldn’t have fit through it.

The room hadn’t been scrubbed well enough after housing its prior occupant.  It didn’t smell, not exactly, but the air was stale, and the ground was browner and more corroded than any of the other surfaces.

Not that there was anything we could use.

“We’re slowing down,” Ashton said.  He had his shirt off.  Duncan was going over his hair with a fine metal comb.  The window he peered through wasn’t any bigger than the one in the door.  From the exterior, the vaguely rounded bulge with the circle set in the middle might have looked like the orb of an eye, with an unmoving pupil.

It was structurally unsound, as the bends and curves in metal were easier to tear and damage than the flat expanses.  It was no doubt meant to be that way.  If the ship were prepared for war, then munitions sufficient to damage it would open up this space, and the denizen, no doubt a large warbeast or other experiment, would be unleashed, set to go after whoever had opened fire.

I would have liked to think that was a feature we could exploit, but our side didn’t have those kinds of munitions, we didn’t have the means to breach our way out using that same weakpoint.

Our captors were smart.  They knew their experiments, and all but two of us were experiments.  They’d contained us effectively, and we were making our peace with the fact.  Duncan and Lillian had doled out medicine, they’d looked after Helen briefly, the rest of us had done our best to signal the people on the outside, and now we were dealing with the secondary things.  Checking for plague, resting, gathering our strength, and thinking.

I worried it would be our last gasp for air before we took the plunge.

“I miss having Jessie to keep track of timing,” I said.  My fingers were intertwined with Jessie’s, and she lay beside me, her head in my lap.  I raised her hand and kissed the back of it.  Was it my imagination, if her expression softened in the direction of a smile, at that?  “How far away is the town where the attacking army holed up?”

“Still a little far.  It’ll be five or ten minutes,” Ashton said.  “The streets are empty.  There were soldiers there and now there aren’t.  Others have moved far enough back that they aren’t in the acid rain.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I visualized it.  I didn’t want to move far from Jessie, and I didn’t want to spend unnecessary energy.  My right leg was twitching in protest of what I’d subjected it to.  I’d pushed myself so hard already.  “The army probably didn’t vacate in entirety.  They would’ve gone inside the houses and other buildings.”

“There are Tangles,” Ashton said.  “They aren’t too big though.  That might keep them inside.”

“Not so many Harvesters,” Duncan said.  He raised his head to look out the window.  “Don’t squeeze her too tight, Ashton.”

“I’m not,” Ashton said, adjusting his grip on Helen.

“Alright,” Duncan said.  “Almost done.”

“I’m checking Mary’s back.  Keep your backs turned, boys,” Lillian said.  She slipped the straps of Mary’s camisole from her shoulders.  I turned my head away.  Ashton turned his head, probably to see why he was supposed to have his back turned, and I reached out to touch his chin, averting his gaze.  Duncan shifted position, blocking Ashton’s view.

“I don’t mind,” Mary said.  “Everyone here has seen me undressed or given me surgery.”

“I like how you mention surgery,” I said.

“I don’t think there’s anything more intimate or invasive than touching muscle directly or knitting a wound together.  Well, creating the wounds in the first place is pretty intimate and personal.”

“You’re so weird,” I said.

“You’re one to talk,” Mary said, at the same time Lillian said, “Says you.”

I sighed.

“No plague, acid burns aren’t too bad here, nothing close to the spine.  If we can actually get out of here and get through what comes next, I’ll check you over tonight,” Lillian said.  She gave Mary a pat on the shoulder.

Mary stood and began pulling her clothes back on.

“Be gentle, Ashton,” Duncan said.

Duncan,” Ashton said, exasperated.  “I’m being very gentle.”

“The work we did is delicate.  There are a few square pegs attached to triangular holes there, and they’re one ripped stitch from being unattached.  I’d like to get to an actual lab to put more permanent things in place.  Ports, artificial tubing, inject some fluids to top her up.  Maybe some regulatory measures.  We’ll have to do it sooner or later, to inject some proteins to the pyloric sac.  Get the cloning of organs and tissues started, of course.”

“Of course,” Ashton said.

“After that, you’ll be able to hug her as tight as you want.  But for now, be gentle.”

“Oh,” Ashton said, “I remember back at the Academy, one of the doctors made a pet for her little sister back home.  It was like a puppy, but it didn’t have fur, and it didn’t have bones, and you could squeeze it and its eyes would pop out.  We could do that, when we make her more huggable.  Not that she has eyes, but we could give her some.”

“We’re not going to do that to Helen, Ashton,” Duncan said.

“But she’d like it.  You could squeeze one of the eyeballs while it was bugged out and the other one would double in size, when it was already big.  You could squeeze one of the little legs and move all the fluids and stuff to the foot, to make the foot so huge.”

“We’re not going to do that to Helen.”

“It could move too.  She’d like to be able to move again, I think.  The puppy thing flopped around.  I’m no expert, but I think the mechanism was very simple.  I’d say it had one point of articulation, like a pillow with a hinge in the middle, but more squishy.”

“What’s going on outside?” I interrupted.  “I’d check, but Jessie’s leaning on my shoulder, and I’m trying to conserve my energy.”

Ashton turned, peering past Avis’ feet to look out the window.

Duncan gestured at me.  Thanks.

“We should check each other over, Duncan,” Lillian said.  She was helping Mary keep wires in place as she pulled her clothes on.

“Alright,” Duncan said.  He started unbuttoning his shirt.  “Who does who first?”

My mind was still keyed toward visualization, from the fight with the Infante and his pet.  I could visualize Lillian and Duncan checking each other over.

“Checking for plague and scars?” I asked.  “Nothing more?”

“And any signs of stray parasites, damage from exposure to gas, um, the borrowed quarantine suits rubbed skin raw in places, and those places would be vulnerable to anything invasive, chemicals, or even some gases.”

“Come,” I said.  “I’ve got experience with this, from… that city where Jamie and I lived for a while, after leaving Radham.  Before Jessie.  I check you, you check Duncan.  Primate style grooming.”

Lillian glanced at Duncan, who shrugged.  She approached me, unbuttoning her top, and I averted my eyes.  I wasn’t sure why.  She stood in front of the table I was sitting on, and I turned her around, leaning her against the table’s edge, my knees on either side of her hips, holding her in place there.

“Any more flashes?” I asked.  I helped Lillian pull off her top.

“No,” Ashton said.

“Probably not many, then.  They’ll be trying to organize,” I said.  I examined Lillian’s back by the windowlight.  The light illuminated the fine little hairs and the the texture of the skin, goosebumps and all.

The plague tended to start with the smallest markings.  A red circle, no bigger than a goosebump, with a darker spot of red in the middle.

Duncan settled in in front of Lillian.

“Are we getting out of this?” Lillian asked.

“It’s far from impossible,” I said.  “We have a lot of assets out there, in a variety of types.  It could be as simple as an explosive, to take the head of whatever creature it is that drags this ship.  Put it well in front of the ship while we’re parked here, detonate it when it gets far enough along, and it stops.  Dead in the metaphorical water.”

I slipped my finger under Lillian’s brassiere strap, moving it to a different point on her shoulder.  She shivered.

Mary was in the background, sitting against a table by the door out.  I could look over Lillian’s shoulder and see her, staring me down.

I used my fingers, touching points on either side of the faint red mark the strap had made, pressing against the skin of her shoulder and shoulder blade.  I moved the fingers apart, making the skin between them whiten with the tension.

“I’m not sure that’s what I meant,” Lillian said.  She began looking after Duncan.  Duncan had his back to her, while she had her back to me.

“What did you mean?” I asked.

“Are we all walking away from this?”

“Helen isn’t,” I said.  “Walking, I mean.  She’s missing something like fifty parts necessary for that.”

Sy,” Duncan said.  “Come on.”

“Jessie isn’t walking either.  I give the rest of us fifty-fifty odds.”

I saw Lillian draw in a deep breath.  Her sigh was heavy.

I checked beneath the other strap.  The water had soaked into her clothing, and the places where seams met and rubbed against skin were more susceptible than some.  Here, the prolonged contact of damp cloth had made the skin red, and where it was red, it was starting to look… threadbare, for lack of a better word.  The skin looked like it could tear and start bleeding if I stretched or stressed it too much.

“Salve?”

Lillian passed me the salve without turning around.  I applied the salve, then took the offered bandage, setting it in place and letting the strap rest against the padding, pressing it down against the minor wound.

I undid her brassiere at the back, and I checked beneath it, in much the same fashion.  The goosebumps were more pronounced, now.  The fine hairs stood on end.  My hand moved along the expanse of her back, me measuring my way, remembering what I’d covered and examined already.

“I don’t see anything resembling normal ahead of us,” she said.

“Normal was never the point,” I said.  “Two more gods to slay.  We bring about a change.  Because the way things worked and the destiny that was set forth before?  They weren’t workable.  Not tolerable.”

“I don’t disagree,” she said.

I brushed her hair to one side, exposing the nape of her neck.  I examined it.

“I need a scalpel,” she said.

“Damn it,” Duncan said.  He reached over her shoulder, passing one to her.

“Looks like a carnacari.  Not so bad,” Lillian said.  “But I wouldn’t want to rule out it passing the plague from person to person.  We’ll remove it.”

“Please,” Duncan said.

She cut away a small ‘o’ of flesh near his armpit.

“I need a comb,” I said.

Ashton handed me the comb that Duncan had used on him.  I pored my way over Lillian’s scalp.

“I don’t disagree, that we had to change things from the intolerable, unworkable state they were in,” Lillian said.  As I swept the comb through her hair, her head lolled a touch with it.  As if I was the snake charmer, moving my flute, captivating her with the steady, fluid movement.  “But.  I don’t know if I see a tolerable, workable future ahead of us, here.  Losing Helen hurts.”

“It sucks,” I said, combing, searching.  “But you two will piece her together again.”

“Describe it to me, Sy,” Lillian said.  “What happens next?”

“I don’t know what happens next.”

“Come on, Sy,” she said.

“We’re in the shadow of the first god, we’re enduring his death rattles, and the fact that someone who stands that tall takes a long time to fall and he falls hard.  There are ramifications and we’ll ride this wave as best we can.  Hopefully we ride it back in that direction.  Two gods more stand between us and where we want to go.  So I can’t tell you, because I don’t know what Fray’s done.  She always stays her hand, she holds back, and then she overturns everything.  The landscape could be very different once she makes her play.”

“Hayle is the third god, then?”

“Kind of,” I said, daubing salve on some acid burns behind her ear.  I couldn’t search the top of her scalp without standing over her or having her bend over with the top of her head facing me.  Which was a fun position to imagine, but not practical when she was still looking after Duncan.

I undid Lillian’s skirt at the side.  She paused in her work.

I could see the way she’d stopped breathing, I could see the vague definition of muscle against skin, at her back, and it wasn’t shifting as she breathed.  She resumed working, then resumed breathing a moment later.

Ashton turned his head to look, and I stuck my finger out, poking his chin, and turned his face back toward the window again.  I said, “I’m not worried about what Hayle might do to the landscape.”

“To you?” Lillian asked.

“Maybe,” I said.  I folded the band of her skirt down, then turned my attention to the band of the underclothing beneath.  I started checking it much as I had the straps of her brassiere.

“To all of us?”

“To a degree,” I said.  I continued my examination.  My thumb brushed against the hard bone of pelvis, above her right leg, and her hand dropped down, laying over mine, stopping me from progressing further.

Lillian was focused on another excision.  That one looked like plague, but she wasn’t saying as much.  It looked early and isolated, from what I could see over her shoulder.

“He set our expiration dates.  Very deliberately,” I said, my voice soft.  “He was going to set yours, in a way, when he denied you your black coat and laid the groundwork to keep you from ever getting it.  He asserted a degree of control.”

“You said control wasn’t it.”

“It wasn’t,” I said.  “The shadow Hayle is casting, that makes it hard to see what lies on the other side… it’s like he was there when we all got our start.  Duncan excepted, to a degree.  He set our ending.”

“Beginnings and endings?  The journey?” Duncan asked.

I was slightly annoyed that he was chiming in, while I sat behind Lillian, my knees pressing against her hips, my hand laying against that bone, my fingertips tracing the skin of her stomach, feeling her breathe in and out.  It spoiled the moment a bit.

Perhaps unfair.  He hadn’t really chosen this venue or circumstance.

“Maybe one way of putting it,” I said.  “It was actually what I first thought of, when I was trying to wrap my head around the obstacles ahead of us.  But not quite.”

“You don’t need to check me below the waist,” Lillian said.  “I was careful to minimize exposure.  I took off the top half and tied it down, but I secured the waist tight before I did so, and I followed quarantine protocol.”

“That’s good,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.

She could have told me that minutes ago, before I’d undone the side of her skirt.

I shifted my hand, and she let me pull it away.  I fixed her skirt at the side, then gathered up her uniform shirt.

I waited, watching the muscles move beneath skin, hair sliding from where I’d moved it over one shoulder to view her neck, tracing tickling lines against her.

Suppressing a sigh, I drew back, relaxing.  My hand lowered, resting on Jessie’s cheek.

I wished Jessie was awake.  I wanted to wake her up- I had to keep myself from forming and prioritizing a list of questions.  It was too easy to start thinking about what I might ask, in what order, if I could wake her up for two minutes, get two minutes of answers.

Too easy for that ‘what I might ask’ to become ‘what I would ask’, while I left the if in place.  Then it would, somewhere along the line, cease being in place.

She had wanted to be here, if I was remembering right.  No guarantees on that.  She’d wanted to keep me from sacrificing myself, to keep me sane, and to ensure that I had a Lamb with me at all times, even in part.

“I’m done, Duncan,” Lillian said.

“I’ll assume you haven’t had a chance to put your shirt back on,” Duncan said.  “I’ll keep my back turned.”

“It hardly matters, when you’re a Doctor,” Lillian said.

“I’m your friend, too.  It’s not as if I only ever see you during clinic hours at the Hedge.”

He walked away, buttoning up his shirt.

“You sound like Mary, being all cavalier like that” I said, in Lillian’s ear.  “And Mary sounds a bit like Helen.  Duncan sounds like he’s picking up some of the best traits of all of us.”

“And me?” Ashton asked, brightly, from a few feet to my left.

“I’m momentarily pretending you don’t exist,” I said.

“You’re so rude, Sy,” Ashton said.  “Rude people don’t make friends.”

“I’ve got better people than mere friends,” I said.  “I’ve got Lambs.  Now keep watching out that window, but cover your ears, please, and give us a moment of privacy.”

Ashton set Helen down on the table next to me, then raised his hands, covering his ears.  He shifted position, so his back was to us, but his body pressed against the table.  Presumably he was providing a barrier so that Helen wouldn’t fall or get knocked off somehow.

“As for you, Doctor, give me your hands,” I told Lillian.

She put her arms back, and I slid the her uniform shirt over her hands, helping her into it.  My hands on the front of the shirt, I brought it forward and around her upper body, until I was hugging her from behind.

“Whatever happens,” I murmured.  “I have believed that you were one of the good ones since I believed that good ones existed at all.  I have thoroughly believed, since a short while after that, that you had it in you to bring about a better future.  I might not know what Hayle is doing, I might be seriously concerned about the cards Fray is holding up her sleeve, but I trust in the Lambs.  I have faith in you.  All of you, but you and Jessie in particular.  It’s why I can trust you when I don’t trust myself.”

Lillian nodded.  She pulled at my arms, making the hug tighter.  “You should have faith in yourself, Sy.”

“Too dangerous,” I said.

“You should,” she said, quiet, her voice firm.

Across the room, Mary’s head turned.  A face had appeared in the window.

I didn’t let go of Lillian.  I watched them.

I really wished they’d open the door to check on us or say something.  It would have given us an out.  But they weren’t that stupid.  They wouldn’t.

There were few things I hated more than being contained.  Being kept.  I could remember some incidents after my appointments, where the pain had been too great, the confinement too awful.  I’d rebelled against my surroundings.

“Sy,” Lillian said.  “I feel like you’re preparing to sacrifice yourself.  That this is the last hug, the last time we really speak, and you’re going to hurl yourself out into whatever reality Hayle and Fray have painted for us.”

“Avis is sitting in the bowl of the window, next to Ashton,” I said.

“Is she?”

“She is.  She’s always been the messenger.  So that’s what I’m doing, saying what I need to say.  Conveying the message.”

Ashton lowered his hands from his ears.  “Sorry, but something’s happening out there.”

I released Lillian from the hug.  I glanced at Duncan and Mary, who were talking at the other end of the room.

Lillian moved away.  I had to extricate myself, with Helen against one leg and Jessie leaning against my one shoulder.  I placed Helen in Jessie’s arms, and hopped down from the table.

The town was being segregated.  The people were hard to make out, but they were being forced out of the houses, out into the rain.  Others were being gathered.  Where the one group was being pushed out, unformed ranks and casual citizens in no organization whatsoever, moved further from the ship, the ones who were being allowed to gather closer to the ship were organizing themselves into rank and file.

Quarantine, or the premise of quarantine.

I wasn’t sure it was her, but Lady Gloria appeared to be one of the figures being sent out with the teeming masses.  The sick, the ones without quarantine suits and requisite rank.

Depending on the degree to which that was a thing, it could utterly disarm us.  The vulnerable would be our rebels, the key figures the Infante had no doubt run into, Gloria included, who we’d been using to steer things.  They were the biggest fish of the small lakes and ponds, but the Infante’s Professors trumped even then.

I’d expected this to a degree.  I hadn’t expected it to be nearly this severe.

I’d expected them to use guns and fire.  We’d seen something like it in… I grasped for the city’s name.

Lugh.  In Lugh.  Where Gordon had died.  There, the cordon had closed, and everything within it destroyed.

Here, it was almost more awful.  The houses and homes were emptied, explosives shook the town where the inhabitants might not have opened the doors quickly enough or willingly left.  People were sent out and left to stumble their way through the streets, trying to cover their heads.

The battalion of soldiers lowered their weapons in unison, and then they began firing.  Those who didn’t move fast enough were gunned down.  Those who did move fast enough were forced into the open fields, beyond the town, where the rain could pour on them, where the scattered few harvesters might lurk in the taller grass or the irrigated rows of crops.

I worried some of those might be ours.

While everyone fled, it was the tall woman who moved in the opposite direction.  Against the flow.

The tall woman, who marched against the tide, charging at the Infante’s Professors and the elite soldiers they were retaining for the voyage home.  She endured the hail of bullets until she was three-quarters of the way to them.  She stumbled for the first time, found her feet, and only made it another two steps before stumbling again.  Then she fell.

This was grim.  More of the horrors of war, more of a reminder why I wanted to fight where we were fighting.

I took a step away.  I moved Helen aside, and I gathered Jessie up, preparing to lift her.

My knees wobbled.  I stopped.  I’d tired myself out.

“I’ll take her,” Lillian said.

I hesitated.

“I’ll take care of her.  Don’t worry.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Lillian gathered Jessie up.  “She’s light.”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t say no, you know,” Lillian said.  She pulled Jessie closer to her, and secured Jessie’s grip.   “When I guessed you were planning on sacrificing yourself.”

“No,” I said.

“Don’t,” she said.  “I know you’re thinking about it, I suspect you’re faking being tired, so I take her, and you no longer have that burden that keeps you from throwing yourself into danger.”

“I’m not thinking about it,” I said.  The scenes outside were very clear in my mind.  The Infante.  The soldiers on the deck.  “I won’t.”

“You said that so easily,” she said.  She sounded sad as she said it.

She moved away, joining the others by the door.  They were getting prepared, pulling boots back on, gathering their equipment.

“Ashton,” I said.  “Do you have the light?”

He raised the light to the window.

“Are they there?”

Ashton flashed.  The pattern was right for ‘question’.  I remembered that much.

Standing just behind him, I could see the response.

Yes.

The response was visible from within the rank and file of elite soldiers.

“Remind me,” I said.

“No.  Aggress,” Ashton said, moving his free hand in the pattern.  “Aggress.  They said it twice.”

“We used to do that,” Mary said.  “Blanks.  They got our initial message.  They knew the quarantine measures were coming.  They’re firing blanks.”

Good.  That was good.

We had soldiers among the crew that would board this ship.  They would come to us.  We had troops among the ‘fallen’, if they weren’t entirely ours.  I hoped they had protected themselves against the acid rain, or that the rain had thinned out enough, this far from the city, that it wouldn’t hurt them too much.

All we needed was for the Infante’s Professors to let their guards down.  They could torch the town and walk away, seeing it as a job well done, and they could leave all of this behind… let their guards down, at least to some degree, and we could turn the tables.

I almost felt like this was workable.  Almost.

Then Fray made her move.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We wore coats that had been provided by the Professors.  Mine was too big for me.  The others wore coats that fit them- even Jessie had a coat draped over her, in addition to the one I’d put on her.

As a group, hunkered down against the rain, we worked on extracting Helen.

The soldiers who had been stationed around the base of the ramp were advancing, many of them gathering at the railing, watching, staring at the noble.  They watched us, and I was very aware that they were holding onto their guns, not putting the weapons away.

The flesh-melting rain pattered down around us.  Already, the clothes that the coats and coverings I’d been using were bleached or eroding away.  My skin hurt at the ankles and wrists when I stretched or pulled against it.  I worried that sooner or later, I would bend a wrist and the skin would split, welling blood and other fluids.

But I worried about Helen more.

She slid fully out of the Infante’s mouth, and we wrapped her in a cocoon of the multiple coats we’d arranged, using the momentum of her sliding down to the deck to keep her sliding along the wet wood.  We moved her to where the cabin encircled the ship’s navigation, and the overhanging bit of cover that we’d all been standing beneath.  ‘We’ being the Professors, the Lambs, and myself, when we hadn’t been actively helping.

As a unit, we unwrapped her as much as we’d already wrapped her.  Ashton lifted up her arm and side so Duncan could put the dry part of the coat beneath her, providing some protection from the water on the deck.  Not much had reached the area under the shelter.

“Help,” Duncan said.

He unbuttoned her top.  I moved to block the view of the soldiers behind us, while holding her head.

“Duncan,” Helen said.  “Manhandling me?  You cad.”

“I hope you’re satisfied,” I said.  “You got what you’ve been wanting for a while.”

“Reasonably satisfied,” Helen said, her voice soft.  “But now the bar’s been raised, whatever will I do next?”

“You could be content with this,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’m insatiable,” she said.  “I always want them bigger, stronger, harder… to beat.”

She was delirious.  Or worse, she was drunk on whatever hormones or whatever there was churning in her system, stoking her appetites for bloodshed, crushed bones, and asphyxiation.

The Devil of West Corinth lurked nearby.  They were out in force, prowling in the shadows, adding their forces to the soldiers who had us surrounded.

Lillian provided some light, a bright little bioluminescent flask, and Ashton held it.  Helen was visible in a stark blue-green and black.

“Plague,” Duncan observed.  “We’ve got the pinprick signs.”

“Surgery?” Lillian asked.

“How fun,” Helen said, barely audible.  She sounded like it was fun.

“Do you want to take point?” he asked.

“No.  You know Helen’s physiology better than I do.”

“I’m also rather fond of her.  It’s hard to be objective.”

“I operated on Mary, once upon a time.  It’s best if you do it.  We’ll split up the work, or I’ll keep you on track.”

“Got it,” Duncan said.

One of the Professors broke away from our group, approaching the soldiers.  They were a restless lot, moving this way and that, not wanting to stay in the rain, but not wanting to leave the scene either.  They paced around the deck, looking for safer ground, one or two choosing to stand where posts and gun mounts blocked some of the rain, others looking for overhangs.

They knew who we were.  They’d seen the Infante on edge, bristling with ugliness, the emperor sans his clothes, and they’d… not intervened.  No.  They’d hesitated.

Not quite letting it happen, and more than a momentary hesitation- nine minutes.  But it was the best way I could think of to parse it.

Duncan was using a gloved hand to explore where the plague was setting in.  He tapped at one spot near Helen’s armpit, and gave Lillian a severe look.  “He got you good.”

“I got him better,” Helen said.  Her smile was hitching again.

“You did,” Mary said.  “That was good.”

Helen worked out how to give a better smile.

Cynthia paced nearby, angry.

I was angry, I realized.  This was very explicitly everything I’d been striving to avoid.

“I’m going to have to cut away an awful lot of skin,” Duncan said.  “We’ll have to explore when we’re that far, and see how deep we end up going.”

“You know just what to say to a girl,” Helen said.  “You’ve come so far, Doctor Duncan Foster.”

Lillian handed Duncan the scalpel.

“No snapping,” I said.  “I know you’ll be tempted to jump one of us-”

Helen giggled.

“-But hold it back if you can.”

Mary was already tying Helen’s legs, using wire to bind her boots together.

“Oh,” Helen said.  “I’m not sure it’s worth bothering about.  I don’t think I’m very dangerous to anyone like this.”

“Ha ha,” I said the words, rather than actually laughing.  “Be serious now, so our doctors can do their work.”

“I’m being serious, Sy.”

I glanced at the others.  Was there a chance, any chance, that she was engaged in another ruse?  That she needed to convince us so we could convince the Professors and the small army that was surrounding us?

Duncan was removing her skin, peeling it away with tongs, while Lillian raised Helen’s arm to view it better in the light.

I set my jaw.

That was serious, then.

“Oh, you should know I have a stab wound from the fight on the rooftop, in my side.  Something bitey squirmed its way inside of me, through that entry point.  I pinned it down, squeezing it with surrounding muscles.  If you get close to it, it might come unpinned, depending.”

“Something bitey?” Ashton asked.

“It got a few nips at my insides before I squeezed its head shut,” Helen said.  “Nothing too bad, I don’t think, but I wouldn’t want you sliding your hand inside of me and coming out with a stump.”

“Thank you, Helen,” Duncan said, unfazed.  “That’s appreciated.”

His voice was tense.

For the time being, his focus was so overwhelmingly on his work that it looked like he was completely unaware of what the others around us were doing.

Saving Helen first.  Other concerns came secondary.

I wasn’t doing much, but I couldn’t see myself leaving her side.  I tried to think about the imminent situation with these soldiers who had no reason to let us go, and it was hard.

A different kind of hard than it had been back when I’d run away the first time, and my Wyvern had run out.

“I might need to take your left arm entirely,” Duncan told Helen.

“Okay.  That’s my fault.  I needed to grab his shoulder for leverage.  The contact was direct, that’s why it progressed as much as it did.”

“I’ll handle the arm,” Lillian said.

“If we get out of this okay, I’ve got my creator on a leash to put me back together, right?” Helen asked.

Duncan and Lillian seemed too preoccupied to answer.

“That’d be the plan,” I said.

“It’s good that we captured him, then,” Helen said.  She closed her eyes, and for a moment I worried she wouldn’t open them again.  “Good job, Lambs.”

Duncan continued to strip away flesh.  He applied powder as he went, to keep infection and the flow of blood down.

“Crown and Lords, there’s so much interconnection,” he muttered under his breath.  “You’re a complicated person to work on, Helen.”

“I’m special that way.”

He continued working.  Here and there, he cut away sections of muscle.  The commentary seemed to stop for a daunting length of time.

He’d turned to using gestures instead, communicating with Lillian.  Helen couldn’t move her head enough to see.  I couldn’t see very well, either.

“You can say it,” she said.  “I’m not going to be upset.  It’s interesting, being taken apart, the feelings of cold wet air between skin and the rest of me.  I dare say it’s fun.”

“You’re not the one I’m concerned about,” he said.

Helen sighed dramatically.

“Do you need me to go?” I asked.

“No,” Lillian said.

“Just offering,” I said.

“No,” she said.  “Worrying about what you’d be getting up to would be more distracting than the inconvenience of having you here.”

“I can feel the affection, how many years in the making?” I asked.

“I adore you, you lunatic,” Lillian said.  She severed the last major connecting piece attaching Helen’s arm to the shoulder.  “If you have any doubt about that, then I urge you to be mindful of the fact that it’s dark, we’re in a warzone of your devising, the amount of rain is ludicrous, and I’m saying that as someone who spent most of her life living in a city where it doesn’t ever stop raining-”

“Fair,” I said.

“Except today’s forecast isn’t just heavy, it’s capable of melting flesh,” she said, pointing at me with Helen’s arm, before sweeping it around to indicate our surroundings, “we’re surrounded by soldiers-”

Duncan paused in his work, glancing around.  He returned his attention to the excisions.

“-and I could go on,” Lillian said.  “You’re not the whole reason I’m here, but you’re some of it, and I certainly wouldn’t be in this particular situation if I wasn’t attached to you on some level.  You complete and utter loon.”

“There’s no need for name calling,” I said, under my breath.

“Was there really a need to carve a puerile insult into the back of the Infante’s head?”

“No,” I said.

“Did it make a difference?”

I glanced at the others.  The Professors weren’t in earshot, the soldiers were keeping a wider berth, as focused on the infante as they were on us.  They were keeping their distance from the Noble’s body, even though he was clearly deceased.  Concern for the plague, or was the man’s presence so daunting that he cowed others even in death?

Mary leaned forward, kneeling on Helen’s arm, “Duncan.  I’ll take over here.  I’ve watched long enough and I have a fairly good hand.”

Duncan handed her a scalpel.

“Did it make a difference?” Lillian hissed at me.

“Some, small, but not in a major way.  But there was more reasoning behind it.”

“Really,” Lillian said.

“Okay, not reasoning, but…”

Lillian arched an eyebrow, looking at me.

“Comprehensive instinct,” I said.  “If we lost… where would he go?  Here.  He’d be mindful of what his soldiers saw, so he’d want to stop them.  It diverts his focus.  Maybe we get a chance to signal our people,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Maybe we don’t.  Either way, while he’s preoccupied limiting any danger to his pride, they have more of a chance to get away.”

“It’s juvenile.”

“I pricked him earlier, when I said he never got to live a real life, I think.  He never had a childhood.  Juvenile… it made sense in the moment.”

“Everything makes sense to you in the moment,” Mary said.

I laughed, a contrast to what I was feeling as I saw Duncan and Mary work together to remove a handful of flesh from Helen’s side.

“Getting close to my little buddy,” Helen murmured.

“Noted,” Duncan said.  “Mary?  Stab it if it shows up.”

“An awful lot of things make no sense to me, and it’s getting worse over time,” I said.  “Nobody can see the back of their head.  If he had people see, it would always be a niggling doubt in the back of his mind, a desire to check.  For someone that untouchable, if he were to stomp us out, but have to live with that small doubt?  It’s minor, but I’m willing to aim for that as a final fuck-you from the Lambs.  It served multiple purposes.  More were for if we were defeated.”

“Alright,” Lillian said.  “I can just imagine the letter being written to my parents.”

The grisly work continued.  Duncan gestured, then swapped places with Lillian.

“Darn it,” Duncan murmured.  “It progressed.  I wanted to come back to see if it would.  Helen?  I’m going to have to take your left breast.”

“Mm,” Helen made a sound.  “That’s a shame.  I liked her.  She’s prehensile, you know.”

“You do not have a prehensile bosom,” Duncan said.

“I gave them names, a long, long time ago.  Do you remember the names, Jamie-Jessie?”

I glanced over at where Jessie lay slumped against the wall.  I didn’t like that she was so far away, so vulnerable, the rest of us with our hands full.  I ran my fingers through Helen’s hair, her head in my lap.

“She can’t hear you,” I said.

“Found your little buddy,” Lillian said.

“Speaking of names, we should give it a name,” Helen said.  “Tell me about it.”

“We’re going to kill it,” Mary said.

“All the more reason to give it a name,” Helen said.  “It came from somewhere, it has feelings, even if those feelings are ‘destroy this pretty girl’s insides’ and ‘squirm’.

“Those aren’t feelings,” I said.  “Those are instincts.”

“I would have you know, Sylvester Lamsbridge, you loon,” Helen said, “That not only are those feelings, but they’re feelings I’ve held close to my heart at times.”

“Alright,” I said.

“Red,” Lillian said.  “It’s red.”

“Rosie?” Helen jumped in.  “No, too close to Sub Rosa.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“It’s plague-affected,” Lillian elaborated.  “Duncan, best if you drop what you’re doing.  The Infante laced the creature with plague before sending it after Helen.”

“That would explain why the plague is spreading from smaller bite wounds,” Duncan said.

“It was such a novel experience, being inside someone while something was inside me.  I very nearly almost let more of them into me, to feel them squirm.  I’m glad I didn’t, now.”

“I’m glad too,” I said.

“I wasn’t in my right mind,” Helen said.  “I’m not in my right mind either now, but I can pretend to be, and I almost sound normal, don’t I?”

“You do,” I said.

“Letting the one in was enough,” Lillian said, almost to herself.  “Duncan-”

“I see it,” Duncan said, curt.  “I need a bigger blade.”

Mary drew and passed him a bigger blade.

With the three hunched over the site, I could only hear the work being done.

“I’m being rummaged in,” Helen said.

“You are,” I said.

“It’s a novel sensation.”

“It might be a while before you get that sensation again,” Duncan said.

“Controls,” Lillian muttered.  “If we excise-”

“I know,” he said.  “Listen, Helen…”

“You keep telling me what you’re having to do, as if you expect me to be upset.  I’ll keep being fine with it.  Chop at me, cut into me, rip me up and truncate me, and I’ll manage.”

“We’re going to have to take pretty much everything in your stomach, ribs to pelvis.”

Helen craned her head around, trying to see.  Mary and Lillian weren’t saying anything.

In the background, the Professors, soldiers, doctors, and other major staff were still discussing what to do about this situation.  The death of the Infante posed a problem, and they were working out how to deal with it.  We posed a problem, and they were working out how to deal with us.

“…I’ll amend my statement,” Helen admitted.  “I’m not entirely fine with that.  I need my middle to hold the sweets I’ve eaten.”

“You’re going to have to do without,” Duncan said.  “It might have reached into your upper chest cavity, by the looks of it.”

“Shoot,” Helen said.  “But that’s preferable to my middle.  I’m afraid I’m not strong enough at the moment to open my ribcage for you.”

“We’ll handle that,” he said.

I did my part, holding her down while the others worked to pry the ribs up and away.  They opened like the legs of an insect.

The silence as the others looked at it was telling enough.

“We can get away with taking half of it.  Better to take too much at this stage.”

“Limiters,” Lillian said, insistent.

“I know.  We don’t really have a choice,” Duncan said.

“All of my middle and half of my upper torso?” Helen asked.  “I didn’t know you were the type to be rough and selfish when you had a pretty girl on her back.”

“Trust me,” Duncan said, “I really don’t want to be doing this.  Nothing selfish about this.”

“Greedy, then, not selfish.”

“I always saved you an extra portion of dessert,” Duncan said.

“Yes.  You’re a dear like that.  You’re right.  I don’t know what to call you then.”

“Call me Doctor,” he said.  He surveyed the damage thus far.  “Lords.”

“Doctor Lords?  I do believe that’s not allowed.  Crown Law.”

Duncan plunged in, a large knife in his hand.

“We’re going to have to take everything below the ribcage,” Lillian said.  “No preserving spine, no more legs.”

“I knew you were a fan of nice legs,” Helen said.  “Sylvester has them, running around like a loon all the time.”

“Stop calling me a loon, please.  I’m good at running, too.  The way you make me sound, I’m flailing my arms around as I make my two-legged gallops from point A to point B.”

Helen laughed.  Heads all around the deck turned at the sound.

Lillian took a large knife from Mary and, two hands on the flat back of the blade rather than the handle, pressed her weight down.  I could hear the sound as the blade crunched its way between bone.  Severing the spine.

“Something serrated?” Lillian asked.  “I can’t get through everything in here.”

“I’ll do it,” Mary said.  “Help Duncan.  He needs it.”

Duncan’s expression had changed.  He wasn’t speaking anymore, only working grimly.

“For your information, my dear doctors,” Helen said, closing her eyes.  “I’m feeling a touch lightheaded.”

“We can deal with that,” Lillian said.  “But that might be a good excuse to have a discussion sooner than later.”

I swallowed.  The discussion further along the prow was continuing.  No argument, no shouting.  Purely organizational.  Everyone there knew their place in the scheme of things, and it would take a great deal to shake them from it.

“So,” Lillian said.

“You’re so lovely, Lillian,” Helen said.  “I hope you know that.”

“Shush now, we need to explain and speak, and you’re only going to make it harder,” Lillian said.

I ran my fingers through Helen’s hair.

Lillian drew in a deep breath, then said, “There may be a way forward.  I think Duncan and I are on the same page.  Sylvester might call it Duncan and I dancing, but I don’t think that’s it.  More that we’re getting to the point where it becomes relatively easy to make choices, because there really aren’t many good ones.”

“I’m glad there’s a way forward,” Helen said.

“Maybe,” Lillian said.  “Part of it is dependent on that committee over there deciding not to shoot us.”

“I’m thinking on that one,” I said.  “I’m a little distracted by all this, but I’m thinking.”

Thinking might not have been the right word.  I was trying to read the crowd, trying to feel my way toward any direction I might go in if I had to improvise something.

Still, I didn’t want to give them less reason to be confident.

“Good to know,” Lillian said, without missing a beat.  “You’ve got your head, Helen.  You have your essential vitals.  We’ll see what we can do.  You won’t be mobile, mind you.  You won’t be much of anything.”

“Not so different from Jessie, then.  You’re putting me away.”

I winced at that.

“You won’t be dreaming, Helen,” Lillian said.  “Maybe after, if we can figure out a drug cocktail, but if we can strike this delicate balance, we might not want to upset it.  At least for a while, until we can get to a place where we can start putting a Helen back together.”

“Cloning?” Mary asked.

“Something in that department,” Lillian said.

“I’m patient,” Helen said.  “It’s one of my better qualities.”

“One you’ve been lacking in lately,” I said.

“I had an epiphany, while seeing to the Infante,” Helen said.  “I’ll manage just fine, I think.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” I said.

“I’ll have you know I’m one of the best liars among the Lambs.  Maybe even better than you.”

“You won’t have the limiters in place,” Lillian said.  “Nothing to restrict, nothing to restrain.”

“Ah,” Helen said.  “Well, that’s unkind.  I’m starting to be much less fine with this.”

“There’s nothing salvageable in that department,” Lillian said.  “While you’re all bound up-”

“I won’t be very restful or calm,” Helen said.  “That’s alright.  I know what you’re going to say.  None of that.”

“You’re sure?” Lillian asked.  “You want to do this?”

“I am very sure.  I’ll have you know, my appetite is an appetite for life.  I will not die to avoid an unpleasant-”

“Hellish,” Lillian corrected.  “Wanting but unable to have, restless but unable to move.  Probably wanting and feeling restless to degrees that none of the rest of us could imagine.”

“Fine.  I will not die to avoid even a hellish… how long?”

“Months.  A year and a half.  Two years or more wouldn’t be completely out of the question, depending on how motivated Ibbot was in helping us,” Lillian said.  The emotion had drained from her voice.

I wanted to hug her and hold her.

“Even for that long,” Helen said, earnestly.  “Because it means I get to see you and Duncan again.  I’ll get to see Ashton, too.”

She hadn’t made mention of Mary, Jessie, or me.

“I do hope to see you too, Sylvester,” Helen said, as if she’d read my mind.  “And Mary, and Jessie.  We went to all that trouble to recruit Doctors and Professors who could look after our projects.  Let’s see if we can stick it out that long.  It’s not like I can lose my mind, can I?  It’ll take some doing, but you can change the balances and re-establish limiters.”

“We don’t know that you can’t lose your mind,” Lillian said.  “Your brain is different, but that doesn’t make you immune.  You could be irrevocably changed.”

“We’ve had other Lambs do that.  That’s fine,” Helen said.

“If this even works,” Lillian said.  “You could die when we cut you down to the minimum necessary.”

“I’ll try my hardest,” Helen said, her voice firm.  “You two try hard too.”

Duncan nodded, face turned down.  He was still cutting away from the contents of her upper chest.

As fond as I’d grown of Jessie in the time I’d spent with her, I supposed Duncan had spent nearly as much time with Helen.

I glanced at Ashton.  He seemed fine.

The little blockhead.

“Would you like to speak to some of us alone?” Lillian asked.

“I would not,” Helen said.  “I’ll just say my just-in-case goodbye.”

Her eyes moved around, looking at each of us in turn.

Her eyes met mine.  I nodded.

“If I don’t see you again, then goodbye, you lovely creatures,” Helen said.  “If I do see you again, I expect to be welcomed with a working midsection and a whole table covered in tasty things.”

“That can be arranged,” I said.

Ashton, still holding the light for the doctors, had to maneuver in an awkward way to not deny Duncan his light, while getting up closer to Helen’s head.

“Avoid the right cheek,” I said.  Helen had a vein of plague standing out on the right cheek.

Ashton gave her a kiss on the left cheek instead.

“You’re my favorite,” Helen said, to Ashton.

“I know,” he said.  “You’re mine.”

The Professor we’d talked to earlier, Lawrence, had approached us while we were preoccupied.  He wanted to address us, talking to us.

“Let us finish?” I asked.

“That’s fine,” he said.  “Once you’re done, we’ll be taking you into custody belowdecks.  We’ll deliver you to the Crown Capitol.”

“No,” I said.  “There’s too much to be done here.  We have no plans to go to the Crown Capitol.”

“That’s not an option,” he said.

“It’s very much an option,” I said, my voice hard.  “But it’s in your hands.  Weigh your choices, Professor Lawrence.  We killed the Infante.  Do you really consider yourselves beyond reach?  You’re choosing to take us and trying to return to the way things were?”

“What option would you pose?”

“The other choice is that you walk away, you all tell a story where the Infante was seized by plague, and the Crown States were overtaken by plague and black wood, with no survivors.”

“You’d stay?”

Just beside me, Lillian cut into Helen’s face.

I ran my hand along the back of Lillian’s head, letting it run down her hair to her shoulder.  I gently rubbed her back while she worked, not so hard as to disturb what she was doing.

“Look at us,” I said.  “We’re not long for this world, are we?  We helped you clean up what could have been a rather embarrassing situation with a Noble gone berserk.  Don’t take our freedom in our last days and weeks together.”

“You’ll have days and weeks together in your cell, as we travel back,” he said.  “The decision was made, and you’re in no position to change it.”

“Are you in a position to leave?” I asked.  This was the direction I’d been pondering.  “The Infante intentionally spread plague.  He walked through that crowd of soldiers over there, and some of them are already going to be showing signs of it.  He affected others, I’m sure.  Quarantine procedures must be adhered to.”

“I’m well aware,” Lawrence said.  “We won’t need to adhere too much.  It’s going to be a… rather small number of crew and passengers.”

They were simply going to slaughter and burn all who could potentially be infected.

“As soon as they’re done,” Lawrence addressed soldiers that had approached.  “Take them to the cells belowdecks.  The quarantine ones, meant for the warbeast.”

The ship moved, hull grinding as it pulled away from the walls of Radham that it had breached, from Fray, and from Hayle.

Here in the cell, at least, we were out of the rain.

“We’re moving away,” Duncan said.  “Back toward the town where we assembled our forces.  Probably to pick up some secondary forces, or to ensure they’ve tied up all loose ends.  Black wood isn’t out of the question.”

I sat on a table and watched out the window, seeing Radham slide further away.

“Does she like being stroked, do you think?” Ashton asked.

“I can’t imagine it hurts,” Lillian said.

“Alright then,” Ashton said.

This war is not yet done.  The Crown Capitol is not part of the plan.  Not like this.  You will escape.

“Patience,” I said, under my breath.

“Talking to Jessie?” Lillian asked.

Jessie was propped up beside me, her head on my shoulder.  Still sleeping.

“No,” I said.  “More to the voice in my head.”

“Singular?”

I nodded.

Lillian approached me, standing by the table, and she hugged the arm that Jessie wasn’t leaning against.

“I always wanted to see the Crown Capitol one day,” she said.

“We’re not going to the Crown Capitol,” I said.

“Oh?  You have a plan?”

“Do you still have the bioluminescent lantern?”

“Duncan has a fresh one in his bag.”

“Shine it out the window.  Flash code.  We’ll see if anyone’s looking.  Our options will depend on that.”

Lillian gave me a peck on the shoulder, then crossed the room.

Duncan was sitting against the wall opposite me.  Ashton was beside him, and the two of them held Helen.  She was, in rough dimensions and in size, about the same as a two-stone bag of flour.  She was encased in the organ tissues they’d been able to salvage, which had been wrapped thoroughly in bandages.  Blood was seeping through the bandage, so they had a raincoat between her and their laps.  Ashton stroked her.

“Can she hear us?” Ashton asked.

“I tried to preserve the pilifer rings.  It’s a question of how well the connection between the rings and the brain structures lasted.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.

“But I’ve been talking to her on the assumption she can hear,” Duncan said.

“Okay,” Ashton said.

When Lillian returned, she came with Mary.

Mary handled the flash code.

I turned my head, watching out the window.

“We got a response,” Mary said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.10

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The Infante glowered, his veneer of humanity pulling away.  He was burned, but the burns hadn’t penetrated far past the surface, his skin almost seeming to grow tougher where the fire had seared it.  He remained unfazed by the life and death fight between the Duke and the Golden Calf that was moving back and forth around him, the two combatants within his arm’s reach at times.

Had the Duke been able to find an advantage, he could have used the closing of the distance to attack.

I could see the Infante’s craft, impaling the wall that framed this section of the city.  Like a great pirate’s ship ramming a smaller craft, biting into railing and deck, it had cut into the city.  It was guarded by a section of his army, and by a scattered assortment of his experiments.  The weasel warbeasts with the augmented jaws, humanoids with helmets, and others I couldn’t make out through the rain.

Lillian handed a jar to Mary.  Duncan and Ashton paced backward and to the side.  They wanted to find an avenue to act.  I could draw the connection, imagine what they wanted to do.  I could picture how this might play out, if they succeeded.  I could picture the moves as if they were moves on one of Hayle’s chessboards, during those early days where he’d made us compete with one another.  Counting moves ahead of time, figuring out where we wanted to be, how to cheat effectively…

I pushed myself.  I tried to take in the situation, to see where the others might position themselves, how the enemy might respond.  The Golden Calf was a whirling dervish of destruction that had a way of appearing at every point, devastating every contingency.  I held every image in my head, tried to account for the Infante, and found him easier to predict, harder to deal with.

The Calf might have been stronger in a sense, but it was feral.  The Infante was only feral when it was inconvenient.

The more I focused, the more I felt everything slip.

The Lambs must slay this god, the voice said.

I put it out of mind.  It wasn’t helpful, it didn’t help me process this situation.  It was… simply an unpleasant, dark noise in my head.  I couldn’t even be sure if it was articulating noises anymore, or if it was meeting my brain halfway, like writing and speech in a dream, that made no sense in retrospect.

“No room for failure, Sy.”

That was a more reassuring voice, helping me center myself and figure this out.  I looked over a battlefield and saw a dozen instances of each Lamb, fifty instances of the Calf, and five- six instances of the Infante.  All frozen in position, at places where they would make their key moves.  I could look at any of them, and visualize where everyone else might be in relation to them.

“Yeah,” I said, under my breath.  The Infante was staring me down.

“No room for sucking, because that monster will tear all of us apart.  And you’ve got Jessie with you.  So no sacrificing yourself.  It’s not an option.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The rain pattered down on my coat.  I was standing under the eaves of a building, but it still was getting at my shoes.  I worried about what would happen if it was left to do its work, eroding at the treated leather.

“I wish I’d gotten to know Jessie.”

“I do too, Gordon,” I said.  “I do too.”

“I’ll do what I can,” he said.

Duncan and Ashton ascended to a sloped rooftop.  Duncan carried Helen.

The Infante reached in the direction of a pile of rubble.

“Duncan!” I shouted.  “Down!”

Boneless limbs reaching from the Infante’s hand to the rubble, seizing it.  Duncan dropped, pulling Ashton down with him, and the Infante adjusted the throw as all three tumbled off the roof to the street.

Stone pulverized stone and wood.  Scattered fragments of the rubble that had broken away as it was hurled forth chipped at the ground and wall near Duncan.  Duncan and Ashton covered their faces and heads.

The worst of the rubble had struck the wall above them.  Some shattered pieces landed around them, or bounced off of the three Lambs.

The Infante turned his attention to me.

I could imagine his thoughts.  You’re going to make me destroy you first, are you?

My imagining of the voice sounded dangerously close to the voice in my head.

He strode forward, one step, then two, and then was running by the third step.

I turned, moving perpendicular to him, closer to Lillian and Mary.

Mary threw the jar, sending it arcing high into the air.  She drew her pistol with the same hand, aiming it-

The Infante reached up to catch the jar out of the air with the same boneless limbs that had gripped the rubble.  Mary, for her part, turned on the spot, bringing one foot up, kicking out at the air- at thread.

Wound around the jar-top, the thread was pulled taut.  Held firmly in the grip of the Infante’s coiling symbiote, the bottle broke.  The contents showered down on one side of his face, his shoulders, and into the mess of tentacles and the hand that was almost hidden among them.  It was powdery, and it clung to him where the rainwater soaked his skin.

I wondered what Lillian had in her kit that she thought might serve against the Infante.

Momentarily blinded in one eye, hand and the associated tentacles coated in the powder, he continued charging at us.  I skipped up on top of a rain barrel that was rigged to divert some water into a garden that was protected by an overhang.  From there, I stepped up onto the arm of a diagonal gutter that fed into the barrel, and made the hop to get to the roof of the one-story building.

My legs were tired.  The combined weight of Jessie and I and the running we’d done to this point was adding up, and I didn’t get my feet onto the roof.  I hit the edge of the roof with my stomach.

“Damn it, Sy.”

A moment later, something jabbed me hard in between the ass cheeks.  It was Mary- driving her shoulder into my butt, as she’d hopped up right behind and beneath me, she was using the force of her entire body to force me up.

“Perilously close to the droopier vitals, Mary!” I called out, as I clambered onto the roof.

The Infante swung his arm at us, the various tentacles that extended from his hand and arm forming a singular, club-like entity.  Mary leaped up and away, Lillian dove for the ground.  The rain barrel and gutter were demolished.

“You’re broken,” the Infante said.  “Half of you dead or dying, the other half incapable of accomplishing anything.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said.

“I am not diminished,” the Infante said.  “You… you remind me of what humanity was, before.”

“Before.”

“How many years did man walk this Earth, so sick and crippled that his cities and nations only barely subsisted, let alone progressed?  You… all of you barely subsist, like this.”

“It’s better than the alternative,” I said.

“When you’ve spent your remaining time in the pits of the Crown Capitol, you’ll change your mind about that.  When you’re spent, well past the point of keeping alive, crumbling as you are, I’ll ensure you see each and every loyal soldier and ally of yours that the plague doesn’t claim, being marched in to suffer the same fates.”

In the background, I could see Ashton edging closer to the fight between the Duke and the Calf.

If he could gain any influence over it-

“Your Ashton won’t affect it,” the Infante said.  “It doesn’t have senses as you and I do.  It doesn’t have muscles in the same sense, nor the bones you might expect.  Its shape is… accident, but not unintentional.”

Had he seen me looking at it, or did he anticipate me?

I glanced at the ship.

“I thought you weren’t planning to run, Lambs?” the Infante asked.

Lillian started to move right, and the Infante moved, ready to lunge to cut her off.  His limb struck the cobblestone street, again as a singular limb, hitting with a strength sufficient to crack the stone.

She started to move the other direction, and he struck the ground over there, cutting her off.

I stood on the rooftop above her, but I didn’t have the means of reaching down to her.  Or if I did- it was a task.

The rain was pouring down on top of me, every second I was up here.  The long jacket I had draped over Jessie and I was insufficient to cover everything.  The rain was touching my ankles.

In the background, Berger was hunkered down, not moving.  The other doctors were with him.

I dearly wished they would do something.

The Infante struck at the building near Lillian.  He shattered stone and he upset my footing.  I dropped to all fours.  Jessie’s grip threatened to slip, and I reached up to grab her, securing her, made her hold on tighter.

The white powder had created a milky texture on the Infante’s face and arm. He barely seemed to care that Duncan and Helen were gingerly picking themselves up, or that Mary was flanking him, moving into position.

He repeated the action, striking the building.  Lillian ducked low.  No shriek, no wail, no tears that I could see.  Grim silence.

Those impacts- the tentacles that sprouted from his hand weren’t indestructible.  Stone was… well, it was hard.  He was doing more damage to himself than to Lillian.

I realized why, seeing the white stuff, seeing the pattern, that he kept on using the arm like a club.

Glue.  It was glue, or something that became like glue, when exposed to the water.  It bound the tentacles together, it hampered his movement, and it blinded him in one eye.  Mary’s movements to flank were taking advantage of the fact that he had a limited field of view.

“You could go, Sylvester,” he said.  “Run.  Go after my doctors, after the people on that ship you think you could leverage.”

“And miss seeing you go to pieces?” I asked.

“It would mean you didn’t have to watch her die,” he said, indicating Lillian.

I glanced down at Lillian.

I saw her, and I saw the Lillian of years ago.  Wide-eyed, terrified of everything and still somehow finding the courage to plunge into it.  Guileless in so many ways, with countless openings for me to exploit.

He approached, footsteps plodding.  I tensed.

He swung, once again, and Lillian once again leaped clear of it.  The limb had bent in the air, it hit her or something she was wearing and made her stagger, left her defenseless to the follow-up.  In that same strike, however, the Infante had managed to kill the symbiote that was clinging to him.  It slithered out of his hand and the wounds in his arm, a morass of worms that were glued together at one end, a hydra’s mane of worms at the other, groping and grasping.

Lillian made a break for it.  The Infante, arm still extended from the swing, simply kept walking in her direction.  Things fluttered out of the opening in his hand.

Mary lashed out, closing in, cutting, using thread, trying to hamper his hand by hurling a knife and having the attached razor wire encircle the hand and opening several times.

It wasn’t enough.  Slices and cuts didn’t mean anything when the Infante had been meant to weather bullets and wrestle warbeasts to the ground with his hands.  She had stemmed the flow of the Infante’s creatures from his hand, but they were gnashing at the wire, and there wasn’t any leverage keeping it in place- it was falling away from his hand, if I went by the dangling knife that drooped closer and closer to the ground.

I rose up, shifting my footing.

Lillian had run to the left, away from the direction we wanted to go.  The Infante had his right eye glued shut.

The eye closest to me was glued shut.

I gestured in the same instant I jumped.

My jump up to the rooftop had been weak, faltering.  Now I jumped from the peak of a bungalow house, with the Infante as my landing point.  One of my feet touched his shoulder, where the powder had settled, and it stuck enough I worried I’d lose my shoe.

My hand reached for the noble’s head, knife stabbing in, seeking a grip.  The other hand reached up, striking at Jessie’s hands.

I divested myself of Jessie and the coat that protected me, and let her fall.

Mary caught her, both her and Jessie falling to the ground in the process.

The Infante ignored me, turning toward Mary and Jessie, the pair crouched down on the ground.

“Trust the Lambs,” I murmured.  I ignored them.  I ignored everything, trying to secure my footing, perching on the Infante’s shoulders, my knife at his head.

His eye was apparently made of something that wouldn’t be touched by blade or bullet.  It was possible the eyes in the sockets weren’t even real.  Eyes elsewhere on the face, where the glue still covered some?  At the shoulder?  The hands?

No, blinding him wouldn’t work, in any event.

I cut his scalp, dragging the knife along it, adding to wounds we’d already made.  His flesh was hard to cut, requiring that I drag the knife through it with both hands, even for the thin skin that sat next to skull.

The Infante raised the hand that hadn’t gotten glue on it, the one that hadn’t had the tentacles, or the swarm.  I saw him form a fist.

Veins bulged along his arm.  The veins turned dark, then broke, blistering.  The vine-veins that were so characteristic of the plague were visible there.

He was going to infect the pair.  Jessie and Mary both.

Scales of burns mingled with the eruption of the plague that his body had been keeping contained, all red and angry.  I liked to imagine it was all of the pent up anger from within him finding its way out.

I wanted to think we were the cause of that anger.

The rain was soaking my clothing, touching my flesh.  If I looked skyward, I risked getting it in my eyes.  Lillian had said that if any of us got the water in our eyes, our vision would go foggy and wouldn’t get better until the eyes were replaced outright.

She’d backed away as the Infante turned his focus to Mary and Jessie.

I dragged the knife toward the base of the Infante’s skull, where it met his spine.  The skin became thicker as I reached that point.

“Nuisances, nothing more,” he said.

He swiped a hand at me.  I had to grab his head to keep from falling.  I put the point of my knife near his ear and kicked it, hard with my heel, kicking myself away from the Infante and toward the road below as I did it.

I screwed my eyes shut, twisting my face away from the rain.

It was a bad moment.  A moment where I realized I’d been focused on what I had to do moment to moment, but I’d allowed myself to be cornered, thinking too shallowly, only about the current move, then the current move again.  I’d spared too much thought for the instant and for the ten-minutes-from-now.

Trust the Lambs, I thought.

A whistle.  From Lillian’s direction.

Only a distraction- and not an effective one.  It was one of the tools that Academy Doctors carried with them for directing Stitched on the battlefield.  I could see why she had it.

I could see why the Infante could ignore it, his focus on Mary and Jessie.

Duncan fired his rifle, aiming for the Infante.  He was kneeling by Helen and Ashton was near them.  He fired again, then again.

It might as well have been the shrill whistle.

It wasn’t a Lamb that stepped to the fore.  The Duke pulled away from his fight with the Golden Calf.  With long strides, he charged at the Infante, sword leveled for the higher noble’s throat.

The Infante grabbed for the sword, and the blade dipped, danced around, then returned to course, aimed for the jugular.

With a quarter-turn away, the Infante had shoulder and arm catch the blade instead.  His flesh suffered what looked to be a shallow cut as he turned his back to our Duke of Francis.

He swung his fist in a backhand, not even looking at his attacker.  The Duke stepped back and away, turning and bringing his sword up to catch the Calf’s claw.  He was disarmed.

“Syylvester,” the Duke said, his vowel hitching, as if he was a stitched with a faulty wire, movements replicating.

In the next moment, the Calf had gouged him three times, digging deep furrows into his chest and stomach.  I could have laid my arm into those furrows and covered them with skin, with no bulge to be seen.  From the look of the slices of black, there were dark gaps hinting at cavities beneath.

It was a modest distraction, but the attack had bought us a chance to retreat.  Mary had found her feet, dragging Jessie with her.  I climbed to my own feet and backed away, stepping into the shelter of a shop.  Duncan and Ashton dragged Helen into shadow.

“You’re mad,” the Duke said, drawing a pair of blades to defend himself with- scaled down to my size, they might have been daggers, but the Duke was tall and his idea of a ‘dagger’ would have been a short sword in my hands.

“You say that like you’re surprised,” I said.  “You know this, you know what I am.”

“Nno,” the Duke said.

The Calf attacked again.  It was fast, it was strong, and it sat askew in my mind’s eye, too hard to calculate and predict.  It didn’t stop to breathe, it didn’t slow, it only seemed to stop to think, to work out how best to dismantle its enemy.  The Duke stopped both claws from striking him by parrying with his blades.  The Calf headbutted him.

The Duke of Francis’ head was a weak point.  He tried to adopt a fighting stance, and the blade fell from his right hand.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Wanted-” the Duke said.  He looked at the Infante.

I filled in the gap.  I wanted to stop him.

“We will,” I said.  Somehow.

Lillian approached me, throwing an arm over me, her hand gripping the armpit of the sleeve as she shared her coat with me.   Berger and the other doctors following her.  We were all at either side of the street now, with the Duke, Infante and the Calf in the center of the road.

The Calf moved to finish off the Duke.  The Infante stopped it.

“Was it-  worth it?” the Duke asked.

“None of you survive the day,” the Infante said.  “‘Worth’ is irrelevant.”

“Absolutely worth it,” I said.

The Infante reached out for the Duke, using his plague-ridden hand to seize the man by the face.  There was almost surrender on the Duke’s face as he was seized.  No fight, no effort to defend himself.  He’d spent all he had.

No.  Not quite.  He reached out and grabbed the Infante’s arm, brought a leg around and hooked the Infante’s.  He was holding on, burdening the High Noble, hampering him so we could run.

That didn’t stop the Infante for telling the Calf to come after us.  It barely hampered the Infante from turning, walking as if there was barely any obstruction.

But he wasn’t running.  That counted for something.

Duncan couldn’t throw anything while he held Helen, so he handed off what he could to Ashton.  Lillian threw what she could as I held her bag and kept the coat in place over us.  it was three to five seconds of rummaging for every second she spent deploying a pouch of something she could empty into the air behind her.

It was Berger and the other Professors that served the most effective role.  Berger had his puppeteer-insects, hidden within his coat.  Others had canisters and pistols.  They’d been ordered to this battlefield and they’d come with some ability to fight.

The puppeteer bugs latched on, trying to find some physiology they understood.  One or two paralyzed an arm or a leg for a second or two as the Calf raced forward on all fours, making it stumble or veer to one side.  It shook its head violently for a moment as it charged into a cloud of powder Lillian had tossed into the rain.

It barely slowed.

We were charging straight into a morass of experiments and soldiers.

We needed-

The Calf caught us.  It tore into Berger and one of his colleagues with enough violence that the collateral violence sent Duncan and Ashton sprawling, Helen with them.

“Clear the way!” the remaining Professor shouted.  “The Calf has gone mad and attacked the Infante!”

There was commotion.  How much had they seen of the fight?  Enough to know we’d been fighting the Infante?

The Infante was approaching, marching through the rain.

Could they see?

Obey!” the Professor shouted.

The soldiers obeyed.  The Doctors gave orders to warbeasts.

“Stop it!” the Professor said, leading the way into the enemy ranks.  “Leave the children be!”

There was hesitation at that.

In less than a minute, the Infante would be close enough to give his own orders.  He would reverse these instructions, and we would be among the enemy.

I tried to hurry, getting ahead and away from the bulk of these defending forces.  I glanced over the ship, looking for and failing to see any guns.  It looked like the ones that would have worked had been removed and carried to the front lines, where they could act as turrets.

Lillian and I stopped at the railing, taking in the scene.  Mary caught up with us a second later.  The warbeasts and experiments were attacking the Calf, now.  Rain streamed down on parts of the deck.  Other parts were covered by tiled canopy.  The ramp itself had some canopy too, no doubt to protect individuals getting off the ship from gunfire.

And Duncan- Ashton?  They were still on the street, at the edge of the group of soldiers that stood amid the rubble where the prow of this land-ship had crashed through the exterior wall.

Duncan moved his hand away from Helen’s throat.  His head hung.  He turned to look at the Infante, then at me.

Ashton didn’t budge until Duncan tugged him a second time, practically dragging Ashton after him.

Lillian clutched my hand, hard.

As a group, while Duncan and Ashton ascended the rubble and the ramp to the deck of the ship, we retreated into the cover of the roof that protected the rooms and structures above the deck.

Guns cocked, to greet us.

“The Duke is dead,” the Professor with us said.  “Berger, Adams.”

The others were professors.  I recognized the decoration.

The Infante’s men.

“He’s mad,” the Duke’s Professor said.

“And you’re a traitor.”

“He’s mad,” the Duke’s Professor said.  “He’ll never come back from this.  He’s tasted… this.”

“Abandon,” Mary said.  “He’s tasted total abandon.”

“We’ll manage,” the Infante’s Professor said.

“Lawrence-”

“We’ll manage.  We have to.”

“You can’t steer him any longer,” the Duke’s Professor said.  “Not even in the small ways.  We’ll say the plague took him.”

The Infante approached the crowd.  He’d torn the glue away from his eye, taking flesh and eyelids with it.  He didn’t seem to care that he bled anymore.

I heard Lawrence sigh.  “Nothing we could do, if we wanted to.”

“Harpoon gun?” I asked.

“Harpoon gun?”

“Or anything sufficient for catching a rogue warbeast.”

“That’s what it’s come down to, is it?” Lawrence asked.

I looked at the Lambs.  Mary had Jessie, and the burden seemed unduly heavy.  Lillian looked harrowed, her breath fogging around the mask at her lower face, her eyes wide.  Duncan held Ashton like Helen had, before.

The Infante looked up at us.  His expression was one of grim satisfaction.

With a few words, he had the crowd turn.

But he would lead this army.

“Harpoon gun, or anything,” I said.  “Now.

“It’d be suicide.  You’ll fail, and he’d punish us.  He’d take everything we care about,” Lawrence said.  He still held a gun, raised and aimed at us.

“He’s power,” I said.  “Devoid of control.  Him and his pet both.  We orchestrated this siege, and we did it because the Academy is control, devoid of power.”

“I think you’re underestimating our resources,” Lawrence said.

“I think the fact that we’re all standing here and facing down this reality suggests we have a very good idea of what your resources are and what’s going on.”

“What’s going on?”

I felt my heart pound as the Infante worked his way through the crowd, getting past the rubble to the ramp.  His pet was devouring bodies, mask parted.  He called it, and it leaped to the side of the ship, crawling up to the railing, stopping there.

Decorum had to be observed apparently.  It wouldn’t go ahead of its master any more than a properly trained dog by a shepherd’s side, or one of the organic pieces of art that ladies of quality liked to have trotting at their sides.

“He’s slipped the leash, you know,” I said.  “The break in the balance of power and control, it started with the Duke being shot, the Baron’s weakness.  You failed to account for the missing component, the glue that holds it all together.”

“The people.”

“Their faith.  Their belief in the order of things.  It elevates the Infante and his ilk.  Change that elevation, reverse it even, the nobles get insecure and the balance-not truly a balance, “It goes askew, and everything falls apart.”

Lawrence spoke, watching the Infante, “What would upset or reverse this supposed faith?  Hm?  Not mere deaths in wartime.  Not when the Duke lived, to continue to make appearances.  Not when we covered things up as we did for the Baron’s death.”

I let the silence hang, sinking in.

Let his question become rhetorical.

“Harpoon,” I said.  “Please.

He hesitated, then glanced at his peers.

He seemed to come to a decision, and ran for the stairs.

The Infante slowed.  The rain pattered against the deck, the sounds of battle were distant, less persistent than they had been.  The battles had largely been decided, now.  There were a few final doors to batter down, but…

But I needed to focus.

I watched as the Infante’s expression shifted.  He turned , looking over one shoulder at the crowd.

Murmurs?  Shouts.

He raised one hand, touching the back of his head.

I’d made him bleed.  He was always self conscious about that.

I’d made him bleed a lot.  He would be more self conscious about that.

His expression was unmoved as he returned his focus to me.

I smiled, spreading my arms.

There were more noises from the crowd.

“Proud of your small victories?” the Infante asked.

Devastatingly proud, tits.”

His expression shifted.  “What?”

“I said I’m devastatingly proud, tits,” I told him.  “Did that knife I jammed in your ear actually do something to your hearing?”

“Tits,” the Infante said.

I touched the back of my head.

It was then that he seemed to realize.

“Juvenile,” the Infante said.

I glanced at Gordon, who seemed inordinately pleased.  Gordon wasn’t any older than he had been in Lugh.

“It’s what we are,” I said.  “It’s what I am.”

“You said that to the Duke,” Lillian said.  Mask or no, I could hear the incredulity.  “Sy- you sacrificed the Duke’s life to-”

“It worked,” I said, with intensity.  I pointed at the crowd behind the Infante.

The Infante turned to look.  As he did, the back of his head was plain to view.  I’d carved the four letters into the back of his head.

The crowd behind him looked stricken, not sure what to do.  Laugh, cry…

That harpoon was a little late in coming.  This would have been when I would’ve liked to fire the shot, and try to unite Lamb and Professor in dragging that bastard off the ramp.

The saving grace wasn’t any harpoon.  It was a creature from the crowd, bloody and hard to make out, as it tore past the people nearest the Infante, stepped onto the railing, and pounced onto the Infante’s face.

Helen.

Her arm was broken, but she still used her hand, flinging her body around to the side to get her hand to where it could hold on.  Her other hand clutched.  Her one good leg scrabbled for purchase.

“Harpoon!” I shouted, looking for the professor that had run off.

He emerged from the stairs, looked at the scene, and threw the oversized crossbow.

To me.  The idiot.  I caught it in a bear hug, reversed it in my grip, and gave it to Mary.  I knew her arm was hurt from our first skirmish with the Infante, so I held the front end, ducking low, while I let Mary do the aiming.

The plague-ridden hand struck Helen, pulling her back and away.  The harpoon caught the hand before another blow could be delivered.  I, Duncan, Ashton, Lillian, and Mary all seized the rope, pulling it to one side.

The Infante’s attempt at smashing Helen away from his face was thrown off as we pulled him slightly off balance.  He caught himself.

The High Noble made a hand gesture at the Golden Calf.

It hung on the railing, perching on the side of the ship, and with the gesture, it hopped the railing, landing on the deck.

Lawrence whistled.  He made another gesture.  The Golden Calf sat down where it was.

The rope from the harpoon was secured, tied down.  As one, we made the Infante’s sole remaining arm our target.  Fluids were oozing from it, and he slapped Helen’s back, smearing the fluids onto her clothing.  He grabbed her, trying to pull her away.

Mary’s razor wire and a rifle that several of us could grab provided some leverage on that hand.  Duncan poured something on the deck, and the Infante lost his footing, dropping to his knees.  I threw a coat over the Infante’s face and over Helen, to keep the rain off of her.  It wouldn’t do for her to dissolve while trying to do this.

There was an echo to earlier.  This time, instead of Gorger taking the Infante’s head, we had Helen.

It wasn’t fast.  But Helen had the ability to finish this.  Broken as she was, ribs fractured, limbs more fluid, relying on musculature, she crammed herself into the Infante’s mouth.

Soldiers on the ground started to approach.

“Stand down!” Lawrence called out.

“Sir-”

Stand down!”

No, Professor!”

Several guns raised- not all of them.  They aimed at the Professors.

I nearly lost my own footing on the slick of fluids Duncan had placed beneath the Infante.

Lawrence stood at the top of the ramp, facing down the crowd.  The Duke’s professor stood at his side.

“Look at him,” Lawrence said.  “The plague took him.  That much is clear to see.  He’s mad, he’s broken.  He lost.”

The guns didn’t waver.

“He lost, and the Crown doesn’t lose.  Therefore, he’s not Crown.”

I could have laughed at the circular reasoning- I might have, if the guns hadn’t actually drooped a little.

I dropped away from the struggle to hamper the Infante’s one arm that wasn’t harpooned.  It took some doing, but I needed to sway the crowd.

Lillian’s coat over me, I climbed up the Infante’s arm to where Helen was.

Helen, our beautiful Helen.  She was a monster in disguise, but above all else, her role in the team had always been the actress.

Our glorious actress, from the point that she’d been kicked and injured, had played dead.  She’d played out her part, to the point it convinced us, because the Infante had needed to believe it to let his guard down.  No longer able to play effectively at being human, she had played her role perfectly when it came to being broken.

“Turn his head thirty degrees to the right,” I said.

I heard an exasperated sigh from her.  She was using her body to stifle him, to deny him air and keep him from effectively closing his jaw.  It yawned open now, to the point even one of the weasel-thing’s jaws might have dislocated.

But she had some leverage on the outside of his head, which she was using to make him face skyward, the coat covering the both of them.  She managed to get him to turn his head slightly.  Not thirty degrees, but enough to give them a glimpse.

Of ‘TITS’ – carved on the back of the noble’s head.

It wasn’t much, but in hurting the soldier’s faith…

The guns they’d lowered a fraction didn’t raise.

They needed to believe the Infante could win, or that he could win on his own, but we’d taken chunks out of the noble, and now we had him at our mercy.

Helen’s arm reached into the Infante’s mouth and up, likely finding a grip on the uvula or on the ledge that would lead up to the sinuses.  If the Infante was one to reflexively gag, he would have thrown up then.

As it was, it was purchase for her to go contortionist, to draw herself inches in deeper, a young lady making the giant of a man swallow her.

Minutes passed.  The harpoon gun was used twice more, lashing the Infante down further, so both arms were pinned down.  It meant the others could back off and get out of the rain.

I draped another coat over Helen, then backed off.

It took what I estimated to be nine minutes, all in all.  Struggles, two attempts at hauling hands and arms free of the barbed harpoons.  We fired more that had been brought from belowdecks.  The Infante slowly went limp, sagging to the ground.

Our actress remained where she was, making absolutely sure.

The audience was very still and very quiet, their eyes averted.

No applause to be had.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

My arms were drenched in blood, fingertip to elbow.

The rain pounded down on the rooftop, it formed a waterfall at the edge of the building that was damaged.  Wood creaked and groaned as the building shifted.  All around us, the city itself stretched itself skyward, stone grating on stone, distant muscles as large as any street no doubt working to lift sections of the city up and away from the plains that had surrounded it.

We made no sound.  The Infante, too, was silent, but not because he was dead.

You don’t like it when others see you bleedIt disturbs the illusion.

His clothes had burned and melted away from the upper body, and it was clear where lifeforms squirmed and writhed within him, visible in and near the gouges and holes we had made in him.

He could have used them, to slow us down, to distract, even to attack.  He was holding back his strength.

He was a pillar of strength, in many ways, tall, stout, indomitable.  We could wound him, but killing him seemed almost impossible.  Even serious attempts to disable were questionable at best.

The noble’s blood streamed from my elbows to my fingertips, and the thick fluid formed tendrils that stretched from my fingertips to the ground.

It felt like more time had passed than in reality.

I reached into one of my pockets, aware I was getting it filthy with blood.  I gestured- nothing fancy.  It was a gesture anyone would have understood.

Mary tugged on Gorger’s arm, hauling him back and away.  His mouth yawned open, a second kind of mouth that was a wormlike, muscle-laden esophagus relaxed, loosening its hold on the Infante’s head.

For an instant, it looked like the Infante wasn’t going to let Gorger go, even though Gorger had released him.  His arms were extended to either side- an eruption of tentacles reaching from one palm to Gorger’s hand, arm, and shoulder.  The other held Gorger’s wrist, with red veins spiderwebbing out and around from the point of contact.

The Infante looked like he was crucified, one knee on the ground, arms out to either side, his head bowed.  Wounds marked him.

But he wasn’t a man.  Like this, close up, clothes done away with, his inhumanity had been laid bare.  The flesh, the fat, the muscle, the monstrous things that peeked out of his wounds before he flexed the muscle, flexing the wound closed a fraction, it marked him as something else.

“Ask for help,” I said.  “Beg.  Call your underlings.”

He raised his head.  It was here that he would have seen the match.

“I’m just making a suggestion.  But I know you’re too cowardly to do it.”

“Cowardly,” the Infante said.  His voice was quieter than usual.  His allies were close enough that anything else could have been construed as him doing as I’d suggested, seeking their assistance.  “Begging?  Pleading?  Calling for assistance?”

I smiled.

“You’d be well advised to listen,” Lillian said, her voice distorted by her breathing mask. “Concede this battle, bow your head, admit defeat.  Walk away, lick your wounds.”

“Physician, you would do well to partake of your own prescription,” the Infante said, his voice low.  “Can you conceive of any possible reality where I do as you suggest?”

“No,” Lillian said.

“Even if you did want to listen, we wouldn’t let you,” I said.

“I thought I’d suggest it, and assuage my conscience, harming the helpless, using all of my Academic knowledge to try and disable your knees and hips,” Lillian said.

“I can smell the chemicals,” the Infante said.  “I can smell the pinewood and sulphur in your hand, Sylvester.  I won’t bow, you won’t show mercy.  Let’s be done with this discourse.”

My hand was still so covered in blood that I could barely see any skin, beyond some of the knuckles and where it had scraped away from beside my thumb, when I’d reached into my pocket.  I opened it, then thumbed open the matchbox.

The others backed away, Gorger retreating toward the hatch, growls and other sounds suggesting that the Infante’s minions had seen him.

I struck the match and threw it as a single motion.

The chemical ignited with a whoosh, rolling into the air up and around the Infante in a way that suggested some of it was airborne, before it had caught the flame.

The Infante, midway to working his way to a full standing position, burned.  Things from further down the warehouse took notice of the light and sound.  The primordial-spawn superweapon would be among them.

I allowed myself a second to take in the scene, the Infante as a silhouette, surrounded and framed by flames.  He didn’t scream or flinch.

Then, collecting Jessie, Duncan and Ashton helping to get her into position, I turned to go.

Only minutes had passed.  We’d moved in waves, as coordinated a dance as any battlefield we’d navigated, but we’d been moving in and out of a space not much larger than a lady aristocrat’s walk-in-closet, some of us stepping back as others had stepped in.

The ones who hadn’t been actively getting their hands dirty had been preparing for their own activities or checking the surroundings.  I’d been checking.

There was a path out.  It wasn’t perfect, but it served.  We went up, climbing one set of pipes and the framework that held one chimney to the wall, to reach a shattered window.

Hoods up and jackets overhead, we went out the window, into the acid rain.

Duncan was the last out.  Not even a full second after he’d slipped past the spears and blades of glass, the first warbeast lunged after him, snapping.  A weasel, writ large, with jaws like a bear trap of bone and muscle, the flesh peeled back and away, so grafts and augments could be added or modified to keep the jaws at their most effective.

Duncan dropped down, and we caught him.  The weasel-warbeast was scraping its neck and belly against glass as it fought its way out of the window, eviscerating itself.  One of its kin was climbing on it to get through the window, but rear limbs had lost their grip, and it held on with foreclaws alone.

Another lunged out, leaping onto the rooftop we occupied.  Mary, one hand in her pocket, stabbed it with a short blade that she held in the other hand, before it could fully recover from the landing.

There was noise at the side of the building, suggesting creatures were making their way outside.  I could see only hints of it – some weren’t acid-proof, and they shied away from the rainwater, getting in the way of any that were.

A weaker Tangle was draped across the street far below us, long, thin, not quite integrated, its pale silhouette being that of a snake.  It was trying to fold itself together into something functional and strong, but it had been damaged, and its attempts to knit itself together were trying and failing to turn gaping wounds into something functional.  Lying as it was in the puddles, the effect of the rain was far outweighing the harvesters’ ability to piece it together or make it functional.  It looked like the flesh would slough from the bone soon enough.

There were soldiers and experiments here and there, but the battle lines had shifted, moving to points further away, Radham’s forces retreating closer to the Academy, while the Infante’s forces had followed.  The ones who remained were the ones who were hunkering down in places that were still dry and intact, licking their wounds and shooting the occasional Tangle that limped or crawled too close.

None looked up enough to see us.

We leaped over to the next rooftop, Mary first to land there, with Lillian close behind.  They were there to reach out for me, keeping me steady.  I appreciated it- not because my balance was bad, but because I had Jessie on my back and I didn’t want the coat I’d draped over Jessie and I to fall away, exposing us to rain.

We circled around the building, pursuing the Infante’s soldiers and forces, which had pressed their advantage as Radham had retreated.

I was all too aware of the rain, of the long seconds which seemed to pass in slow motion as we stepped out from under eaves and away from the sides of buildings that blocked the downpour when the wind blew it in the right directions.

The building we’d met the Infante in was still in plain view.  The chemical fire we’d started was blazing, catching on wood.  The orange light of the flame was visible through the windows, even if the flames themselves weren’t.

“How’s Helen?” I asked.

“I haven’t had time to check,” Duncan said.  “It looked like she got hit hard.  She’s durable, but-”

But.

“Mary?”

“Lillian put my arm back, but I don’t feel like I can use it for fighting.”

A Jessie who can’t voice her memories.  A Mary who can’t fight.  Ashton is limited in what he can do since half our enemies are wearing quarantine suits with masks.   Helen can’t get a grip on herself, let alone anyone else.

Then there’s you, the voice said.

How fitting, then, that we would find ourselves here, I thought.

The Duke was standing in the rain, wearing a hooded cloak, the point of a sword sticking out from one side, the hand that gripped it shrouded.  The rainwater ran down onto the cloak and around him, pooling on the ground.  The front line of the battle was ahead of him.

His doctors stood to the side, where they were out of the rain.

I dropped to the street, dancing out of the way of harvesters that were writhing through the water.  I ducked under the same eaves the doctors were hiding under, where they were safe from stray gunfire and the rain.

One of them drew a weapon.  He relaxed slightly when he recognized me, my face peeking out from beneath the jacket that covered my head, shoulders, and Jessie.

A whisper I hadn’t caught, a subtle signal or enhanced senses let the Duke know we were here.  The Lambs collected behind me, and we collectively shrank back into the shadows and the gloom.  Still facing more or less forward, the Duke half-turned to glance our way, looking at us out of the corner of one eye.

Were a distant observer to take in the scene, it was a coin toss if they would notice us.

Berger pulled off his mask.  He blinked a few times, then winced.  He turned his attention to us.

“Professor,” I said.  “We meet again.”

Our last meeting had been when we had turned him over to the other Lambs.  He had been our hostage, and Lillian had wanted him as a bridge to contact the Duke with.

We’d hoped to stop the Infante from seizing the Crown States.

“He lives?” Berger asked.

“The Infante lives,” I said.  “But he bleeds.  He burns.”

Berger’s expression shifted.  He seemed grimly satisfied with that.

“The Golden Calf?”

“The primordial spawn is out there,” Duncan said.  “Either it’s giving chase, or it’s waiting for its masters orders.”

Berger nodded.  He glanced at the Duke.

“Will you come with us?” Lillian asked.  “We… the Lambs helped as much as we were able.  Sylvester and Jessie made sacrifices, trying to help us help you.  If you’re ever going to help us, we need the help now.”

“If I may, my lord,” Berger said, bowing his head.  “We’ve discussed this thoroughly.  I’ll speak for you if you allow it, and you can correct me if I’ve misinterpreted your stance.”

The Duke dipped his head into a slow nod.  It was an eerily placid, calm gesture in the midst of a battlefield, where smoke was still thick in the air, the gas thankfully having dissipated, the rain pouring down, the soldiers firing their guns and shouting just fifty paces away.

“Speaking for myself, the Infante has my loved ones,” Berger said.  “Speaking for my Lord, I know that everything and everyone he’s invested his life into is held ransom.  We’ve been asked to bow our heads, to sacrifice ourselves on this altar, and we’ve been assured they’ll be treated fairly.”

“You really think they’ll be allowed to live?” I asked.

Berger glanced at me.  There was a dark expression on his face.

“Stupid question.”

“If he gets a prompt, quiet death, I’ll consider that fair,” Berger said.  “I’ll consider it possible that he could live, shuffled off to live with a Doctor, a Professor, or an Aristocrat, to carry on something resembling an ordinary, modestly wealthy life.  Possible but not likely.”

“This is a fulcrum point,” Mary said.  “Things teeter on a blade’s edge.”

“To what ends?” Berger asked.  “Do you want to stop the Infante?  Salvage things?  Our communications were discovered.  The Crown States are doomed, written off.  In a century or five, they’ll dust off the maps and the books, they’ll return to the Crown States, and they’ll reclaim it.  Purged of all enemies and threats, free to be populated by the loyal.”

“The loyal,” Lillian said.

“Yes.”

“The loyal won’t be created by manipulation or craft,” Lillian said.  “They won’t be made by propaganda, misinformation, rewritten history or a steady removal of the Academy’s enemies.  They’ll be engineered.  They’ll be grown in vats and pieced together from the dead.”

“Most likely,” Berger said.

“I don’t want that future,” Duncan said.

“Are you offering an alternative?” Berger asked.

I met the Duke’s eye.  I saw him staring, rigid, his jaw set, water streaming off of his hood.  His hair was disintegrating into sodden clumps where it tumbled out of the hood and over one shoulder, the rain dissolving it.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do we have a place in this alternative?”

“No,” I said.

“You’re asking me, asking us to sacrifice ourselves, to give up everything we’ve worked toward, and allow it to be done away with in entirety, in the worst ways possible, even.  You’re asking us to do it and to get nothing in return?”

“Your son, the boy,” I said.  “I don’t remember his name.  But he might have a place.”

“The Lord Duke took pride in the Crown States.”

“There is no more Crown States,” I said.  “Only plague and black wood.”

“You’re asking for what little we have left.  You’re offering nothing in return.”

Mary spoke, “Sy’s offering you a chance to fight.  A chance to take one last defiant action.  A shot at removing the most dangerous man in the Crown States from the world.”

“For chances and shots, I’m to condemn the boy?” Berger asked.  “We’d try, we’d fail, and we’d be consigned to the Crown Capitol’s pits, with every person who we’ve worked with since coming to the Crown States, every family member, every loyal servant, and every other person we’ve stayed in touch with over the years.”

“What makes them special?” I asked.

“What makes your Lambs special?” Berger asked, his voice rising.

The Duke shifted his cloak.  Moving with slow carefulness, he reached out, hand slipping out from beneath the folds.  It settled on Berger’s shoulder.

The rain continued to pour down on top of us.  Someone from the battle lines was turning back, calling out.  Berger looked in the man’s direction.

The battle was ongoing.  The distant battlefield was eerie looking, almost a painting in the broad, vague strokes that painted it, the streets having blurred as harvesters had drawn out the materials, the hard shapes and openings of buildings smoothed out into funnels by the harvester’s work.  Radham seemed to have the means to direct Tangles in small part, and they were using them to delay and hamper the attacking forces.  I wondered if it was similar to Ashton’s mechanisms.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Well, a great deal makes them special, but that’s not what you’re asking.”

“Why should I lose everything and everyone I hold dear, when you won’t?”

I was very aware of the Lambs who were arranged behind me.  I was aware of the state of them.

You’re losing them, the voice said.  They’re slipping away as you speak.  And if you let them go, then I’ll have no reason to hold backOur deal will have ended.

I blinked, slow.

“Because, if you’re honest with yourself, if you step away and look at what this world is and what it’s becoming… we’re really not far from a reality where everyone is condemned to the pits.  Everyone is lost.  Maybe not this generation.  Maybe not the next.  But surely, somehow, if you cherish anyone, anything, any legacy at all, you can’t let them win, destroy it all, and erect some… mockery in its place.  Rewritten history, modified, subjugated, and broken people.”

“You might well be giving me too much credit,” Berger said.

“If that’s so, then I’m really sorry I spared you, way back then,” I said.

The fires were rising from the building where we’d left the Infante.

A hollow, eerie bellow sounded, extending over the city.

“That would be the golden calf, I presume?” Duncan asked.

“Yes,” the Professor next to Berger said.

“The Infante is coming.  He’ll have his pet with him,” Berger said.

“And you’ve given your answer?” I asked.  “You won’t help?  You’re speaking for the Duke in that?”

“Almost,” Berger said.

“Almost?”

“I can’t speak for the Lord I serve, but in speaking for myself, I don’t believe you’ll bring about a better world.”

I tilted my head to one side, watching Berger.

“We treated you pretty fairly, all considered,” I said.

Berger didn’t reply.  Beside me, Mary placed bullets in her gun.  She exchanged guns with Lillian and loaded the other, too.  Duncan and Ashton were kneeling by Helen.

“Fine,” I said.  “Point taken.  But you’ve worked with Lillian.  You’ve seen Duncan.  You’ve communicated with them, tried to fight for a better future alongside them, steering the Infante away from trouble.”

“Insofar as that’s possible,” one of the Professors said.

“You’re… you’ve lost, you’re faltering.  You seem resigned to your fates.  But pass the baton.  If Lillian and Duncan aren’t the kind of Doctor you want to succeed you, then I don’t know who else would serve.”

The Golden Calf howled yet again.

“I’ve met some doctors I could recommend,” Ashton said.  “But that’s not the point.”

“Hush,” Duncan said.

Berger glanced at the Duke.

The Duke lowered his head, reaching down to Berger’s belt.  He retrieved a handful of vials.

“That’s a yes?” I asked.

“Shh, Sy,” Lillian said.  “Don’t go and say something that changes anyone’s mind, if they’re leaning toward helping.”

“I’m not going to change anyone’s mind,” I said.

“You could,” Ashton said.

I shut my mouth.

Berger held the vials that the Duke had retrieved and put in his hands.

“Combat drugs?” Lillian asked.

The Duke turned, facing the burning building.

He’d left one arm extended.

“In your condition-” Lillian started.

Duncan touched her arm.

The rain continued to pour down.  Berger extracted the drug with a syringe, and he placed the syringe point into the Duke’s arm.

“We’ll have to get past the Infante to reach the ship,” Mary said.  “Are your people on board?”

“Guarded,” Berger said.  “They’ll be shot before we get close enough.”

“Get us to the Infante’s ship.  We’ll get close enough.”

Berger nodded.

“We’ll have to find a way to stop the Infante,” I said.  “Are there drugs?  Any mechanisms?  Chemicals we could use?”

“No.”

“If we take out his Professors, what happens?”

“He’ll recruit others.  They’ll be worse at maintaining the delicate balances and keeping the plagues and weapons within him from harming him, but he’ll survive.  He’d be able to get himself restored to peak condition, if only because they’d keep him alive and well until he made it back to the Crown Capitol.”

The fighting was picking up.  We weren’t terribly far from the Academy itself, with its high walls, at the highest elevated point on the city that had raised itself in stages.  I had a feeling harvesters had warped the exterior walls, elaborating them, smoothing them out and reinforcing the bases, but it was hard to see in particular.

The Tangles had united into a few greater forms, comprehensive enough to be able to climb from the ground at the base of the walls to the tops of the wall.  Much of the artillery fire and gunfire was aimed at them.

Duncan picked Helen.

“How is she?” I asked.

“There’s damage to her brain or spine, going by how nonresponsive she is.  I’d need to perform exploratory surgery to tell, and this isn’t a good surgical theater.”

I set my jaw.

I shifted my grip on Jessie.  The others pulled coverings into place, protecting them from the rain we were about to venture into.  I was very aware that the fabric would start to give way if we subjected ourselves to too much of it.

I heard the sounds of the Golden Calf, and I could visualize the Infante, not far from it.  Three Infantes, as possible positions, possible stances.  I could imagine him in a range of conditions.

The Lambs have to destroy him.

The Duke, beside us, stretched.

“Donn’t,” the Duke said.  His voice was rich, the words crude, as painful to listen to as they must have been to utter.

I turned to look at him.

“Donn’t… disappoint me,” the Duke spoke.

Thunder rumbled, and we we ran, ducking our heads down, jackets and hoods pulled up.  The Duke almost resembled his old self, but his expression was a stricken one.  One I recognized, in a morbid way, the expression mirroring sentiments I’d harbored in my heart in my darkest moments.

The Duke of Francis was going to die, for the burst of vigor and focus he was demonstrating now.

He kept his head down, his movements efficient, not graceful but not graceless either.  I knew that kind of movement too: it was the mechanical movement of someone who had to keep putting one foot in front of the other because there was no guarantee they would be able to resume moving if their rhythm broke or if they stopped.

A Tangle rose up, striking out from an alley.  It wasn’t large, composed of four people, but it was relatively intact.

The Duke ignored it, even as it found its footing, moving to strike at him.

I lunged, moving clumsily with Jessie at my back.  I cut more to slow it a fraction than to stop it.  It clubbed at me and hit Jessie.

Mary threw knives.  With the wires attached and the knives embedded in flesh, she hauled to one side, pulling it off balance and toppling it.

The Duke had barely budged or reacted.  He couldn’t spare the strength or effort for anything that wasn’t our primary enemy in this.

But, as we ran, he held his sword arm out, his hooded cloak stretching down the length of his very long arms.  It had been black once, but it was mottled, the color bleeding out of it, the parts where the fabric was tight against shoulder and head were outright bleached.

The length of cloak he’d extended and the sweep of his arm provided a canopy, sufficient to shelter Lillian, Jessie and I.

The shattered city was staring to slow in its growth, the rumble quieting.  The sound of war on the ground, across the city, and at the foot of Radham Academy itself seemed to increase in volume, as the dull sounds of the city’s shifting ceased to mask it all.

I saw the Infante, standing in the street.  He let the rain wash over him.  His flesh was bleaching and mottling less than the high quality fabric of the Duke of Francis’ cloak.

I saw the Golden Calf.  The two-faced helmet had been unclasped, but its face wasn’t visible.  It hunched over a tangle, it ate, the helm blocking our view of its face and process of eating.  Its back and body were bulging, larger for the mass it had taken into its body.  Its arms were longer, stouter at the shoulders.

We slowed our pace.  The Duke, not wanting to stop, continued moving, circling around to one side.

The Infante was scorched, flesh peeling from body in black, twisted clusters rimmed by red, damaged flesh, fluids streaking him as they flowed from open wounds.  He didn’t look weaker, for the damage that had been done.  He didn’t hang his head any lower, he didn’t bow down.  He didn’t look less, wearing his battle wounds rather than his highest-quality robes.

The Lambs were glancing around us.  I looked around us, and I recognized many of the storefronts, though display windows were thoroughly barred and shuttered.  I recognized the shape of the street.  I didn’t remember, but it was a place close enough to my heart that I couldn’t forget it entirely.

We were very close to the orphanage.

The Golden Calf reached up, closing its helmet, doing up the clasp.

I saw the Primordial Child, standing in the background, watching.

“How dangerous is it?” Duncan asked.

“They create primordials in the Crown Capitol, in the most controlled of environments.  They cut and pruned until they came to a conclusion.  Few of the resulting creations were truly capable of anything,” Berger said, his voice muffled by the mask he’d returned to wearing.  “Even of those few, most are only fodder for research and advancing Academy knowledge, primordial-derived advancements that greater minds than mine may spend a decade or more reverse-engineering.”

The Duke moved, lunging for the Infante, blade in one hand.

The Calf, as far from its master as the Duke had been before the attack was initiated, was fast enough interpose itself between Infante and Duke before the Duke could strike.  It parried the blade with a backhand swipe of a claw.

The Infante hadn’t so much as flinched or glanced the Duke’s way.

His focus was on us.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Acid rain poured down where the roof dipped, streaming down in a broken curtain around the damaged section of the building.  The Tangle was surging to life, a short distance away from the Infante, the harvesters swarming it, joined by more of their kin.  The acid rain gave them more to work with.  Others were gathering at the broken edges of the building and surging into the building by using the Tangle as a bridge to pass whatever restrictions kept them from approaching the walls.

Ashton ran, darting for the left side of the building, where containers and vats of chemicals stood, where he’d be hidden by a labyrinth of pipes and tubes starting at the containers and stretching up the wall to the ceiling.  Duncan was a few steps behind him.

Mary flung a knife, running forward and to the right.  She was ducking into the management office, by the looks of it.  Half of the building served to vent gas in a time of crisis, the chemicals near where Ashton had gone feeding through tubes and making their way to the end of the building furthest from the Infante, where the largest vats, containers, and the chimney systems were.  The other half was warehouse, and the office would be to manage the goings-on there.

Helen disappeared into the stacks and piles of crates.  Lillian backed away, moving into the cover of the pallets closer to me.

I merely stepped back, bearing Jessie on my back, a revolver in my hand.

The Infante barely seemed to care about the Tangle that was starting to gather itself around him.  Its ‘head’ turned in his direction.

“Lambs,” he intoned.  He walked further into the room, casually, unhurried.  “The bulk of the group hiding at my flanks while the boy with the heaviest burden and smallest ability to defend himself stands in the distance?  I’ll assume you didn’t discuss your strategy ahead of time.  You’re running on instinct.”

“You’re waddling in our direction, noble,” I said.  “You barely seem to be realizing you’re doing it.  See a threat, face it head on and crush it.  Aren’t you running on instinct here too?”

“I consider everything, Sylvester,” the Infante said.  “Position, strength, costs, advantages.  There are thousands of individuals now fighting in this pointless war of yours.  I’m very mindful of them.  You seem content to use them to put together this thing of Professor Brigg’s conception.”

With the sharp and booming emphasis he put in the word ‘thing’, it was as if he’d seized the creature’s attention on purpose.  It reacted, and it lunged.

He struck at it with one hand as it closed the distance.  It dwarfed him, but it still reacted to the impact, the direction of its charge turned by five degrees, maybe as much as ten.  His hand remained in place, skidding along the wet, acid-slick surface of the creature’s head and neck, while the weight and force of the tangle’s lunge drove him back, his feet sliding on the floor of the building.

The tangle collapsed, belly-flopping onto the ground.  The Infante remained standing.  In the next moment, he turned, raising a leg.  His robes billowed as he kicked a stack of crates that had been lashed together.  Wood splintered and broke, contents spraying into the air, but the pallet moved with the impact, slamming into the adjacent stack of barrels.

He backhanded the damage he’d done, sending the fragments of wood and wood splinters into the air- just as Mary had stepped up onto a stack of barrels behind him.  She raised her arms, shielding her face from the spray.  Caught off guard- defenseless.

“No,” the Infante said, reaching to his left, while Mary was behind him and to his right.

In the doing, he blocked and caught a knife attached to a wire, that Mary had sent flying at him, while pretending to be on the defensive.

He gripped the knife in his hand, the knife disappeared in the midst of it.  He hauled his closed fist back, and Mary raised her leg- the wire was still attached to her shoe, and by pulling on the wire, the Infante divested her of the shoe.

She dropped out of sight, gesturing.

Hurt.

She’d gestured in a direction.  I already suspected.  The initial kick at the pallet.  Helen had entered the collection of barrels and crates at a point further from the Infante than Mary had, but in the interest of deceiving the enemy, she’d moved to a point well beyond Mary’s position, trying to circle around to the back and side of the Infante.  The Infante had heard or guessed.

“I’m not reeling from any artillery shells, and I don’t make the same mistakes twice.  Your pet here doesn’t equalize the odds,” the Infante said.  “And I have few soldiers here for you to try and use against me- none I’m interested in keeping alive.  They were idiotic enough to obey your orders.  At best, now, I’ll let them remain on this continent, in a city I’ll allow to be claimed by plague.  They’ll be erased and forgotten by history.  You have no leverage, Lambs.  You have no advantages on this battlefield.”

“You sure like to talk,” I said.

“When I talk, others listen.  Even my enemies listen, regardless of whether they want to hear.  I have seen you at your lowest points, Sylvester Lambsbridge.  I have seen you retreat from reality because for all that you have no compunctions about taking lives, you cannot bear to have lives taken from you.”

He was advancing.  As I backed up, retreating, I saw Lillian’s shadow off to one side.

“For all you like to tear others down, what do you really have, big guy?” I asked.  “Who really cares about you and not about the power you wield?”

“I am the power I wield, Sylvester,” he said.

He reached out with one hand, and he raised a barrel into the air.  It was full of liquid, by the sound of it as he lifted it into the air.  One-armed, he threw it in the general direction Duncan and Ashton had gone, not far from the Tangle, which was preparing for another strike.

His eyes didn’t leave mine.

“That’s their power, isn’t it?” I asked.  “Not yours.  If you are that power, then you’re admitting you’re theirs.”

“Ah,” he said.  “Is that the slant of your argument?  Is that where we’re going?”

“I’m clarifying your statements,” I said.

“One does not look at an isolated hand and call it a slave of the body.  I’m one piece in a greater organism.  If power is given to me to handle, much as one hand might pass a knife to the other, or as one might use the mouth to order another person to give that knife to the waiting hand, then I’m not lesser for seizing or using the blade.”

“I could tell you things about the ways I’ve abused my hand,” I said.  “You’re not flattering yourself with the comparison.”

“Being vulgar, Lamb?” he asked.  “Changing your approach, trying to evoke disgust or attention from me, so I don’t pay attention to what’s happening behind me.”

He’d hit the nail on the head there.

The Tangle rose up behind him.  He leaped aside as it charged through crates, planks that had been tied together, and into one pillar that was helping to hold the roof up.  The pillar didn’t fall, but it bent, and with it, the roof shifted.  Hundreds of gallons of water that had collected on areas of the roof that were more or less level poured down onto the broken wall and rubble on the far end of the building.

I raised my gun, firing as Helen and Mary attacked in concert, moving out of the space between vat and pallet, and from the damaged stack of crates behind the man.  My bullets struck the side of his head, his ear, his temple, distracting him while Mary threw knives.  Helen leaped onto his back, grabbing one knife that had lodged in his shoulder, using it as a handhold to climb up.

Mary’s next thrown knife was a soft toss, arcing through the air more than it followed a straight line.  The Infante seemed to recognize what was happening with it, and moved away from it.  Helen stuck out a bare foot, tried to catch the knife with her toes, and caught the thread that trailed behind it instead.

Her next movements were as fast as a mousetrap snapping shut, knife passed to hand, the provided thread pulled against the Infante’s throat.

He hurled himself at the pillar, to sandwich Helen between himself and it.  She jumped clear, still holdng the thread so it pulled taut, and -while Mary and I both emptied our guns into the side and back of his head- kicked Helen.

One Lamb down, I thought, with a cold, sick feeling.

Helen wasn’t getting back up.  If she remained there, then she would be vulnerable to any enemy charging through.

More water was pouring from the sloping roof, as the pillar had been struck again.  Less than before, but it was still a curtain.  There were shapes on the far side.  Creatures, warbeasts, groups of people.

The Tangle was backing away, its head still aimed at the Infante.  It reacted to something behind it, and shied away from the ruined corner of the building, which meant it shied toward the Infante.

It bristled, gathering itself up and reconfiguring to mount a better attack.

Ashton’s purpose in this was to keep the Tangle managed.  If and when enemies came charging in, the cloud of aversion and negative emotion might slow them down or hamper them enough for us to react properly.  Duncan’s purpose was to keep Ashton intact.  Ashton’s sense around a battlefield wasn’t wholly there.

The pillar wasn’t about to break.  The roof wouldn’t collapse, and it wouldn’t collapse in a way that helped us.  There were vats of chemical and the chimneys at the end of the room behind me, vats I was steadily retreating toward, but I had no reason to think they would be useful against the Infante.

Against ‘power’, the first god.

“You ordered your agents to watch the Nobles, aristocrats, generals and Doctors you coerced,” the Infante said.

“This is where you say you found them, and they’re suffering right now.”

“Not right now, Sylvester, not right now.  I could lie and say I rooted them out.  I could say that, yes, but you’re too clever to position them where they could be overturned with a single move.  They’re scattered through the camps and armies.  They watch, they communicate, and they operate in discrete cells.  I know this.”

“Sure,” I said.

“The Lady Gloria bowed before me, and I knew she was broken or gone.  I infected her.  The plague will take her.  It will take those near her.  It will take the ones you have watching her, the ones they communicate with, and countless others,” the Infante said.  “Not right now.  Not even soon.  But you cannot get from here to there in the next few hours.  Not easily, with things being what they are.  Even if I and the army standing outside this building were to stand down, letting you do as you pleased, you would be hard-pressed to communicate what you’d need to communicate to your assembled army.”

Mary was at Helen’s side now.  The Infante looked at her.  He didn’t move a muscle, only pulling the razor wire away from the bloody ruin at his neck.  There wasn’t enough blood to matter.

“The red plague seizes battlefields, and this is a battlefield of a scale to rival all but three in the history of this nation.  What have you accomplished, Lambs?  Even if you were to somehow kill me, which you’re far from doing, what change have you wrought in the world?”

“If we removed you, people will wonder.  The myth of the Crown being unassailable will be tested in small ways.”

The Infante shook his head.  “Unassailable?  Sylvester Lambsbridge, the Crown is all there is.  You know this.  There’s only the Crown, places the Crown will assuredly claim in the coming decade, and ruin.”

“I don’t think it’s as assured as you pretend,” I said.

I reloaded my gun, placing the bullets in the cylinder with care.

As I backed away, I could see others in the stacks.

The Baron.

The Twins.

Cynthia.

I tried not to give them too much attention.

“And I don’t think, Sylvester, that you arranged this particular war to kill me.  Not as the primary goal.  You aimed to set something in motion, to gather your components for a chimera of a mission, pieced and patched together for later construction.”

“Killing you was always something I figured we might have to do,” I said.  “You’re one of three gods to be slain.”

“The reality, Sylvester, is I’m not a noble that can be toppled unless it’s the sole, all-consuming focus of my enemies.”

“Maybe not,” I said.  “And I suppose it’s to your side’s advantage, that if it is the sole, all-consuming focus of your enemies, then your enemies are thinking too small to be a threat.”

“Perhaps so,” the Infante said.  He looked back in the direction of Mary and Helen, and at the Tangle.

He charged at me.

He was fast, and it felt as though each of his feet struck the ground with such an impact that it made it harder for me to keep my own feet under me.  With my burden, I felt glacial compared to the speed and ease with which the Noble moved.

I’d resisted calling him a Noble, choosing appellations to nettle, but he was a Noble.  One of the best of them.  He was the god I’d painted him as, him and the forces that were currently being held back by the worst of the rain and by the pressures of the forces of Radham.

I couldn’t run, so I didn’t try.  I couldn’t defend myself, maneuver, be clever and do anything else at the same time.  I sucked at fighting, if it wasn’t an ambush.  I didn’t try anything fancy.

I aimed and shot, standing my ground, with zero thought to self-preservation.

If this is the way we go, Jessie-

Jars shattered, contents splashing out onto the ground between the Infante and I.  Thrown from the flanks.

The Infante, large as he was, had a lot of momentum.  He couldn’t stop outright, even with his prodigious strength, but he could drop one knee and both hands to the ground.

He slid on the slick of wet ground.  Had he been running, he might have sprawled.  He came to a stop, fifteen long strides away from me.

Soap or scented oil, by the smell of it.

Thanks Lil.

“That’s better,” I said.  I raised my hands.  “Kneel before us, brute.”

The Infante raised his head.  He stared at me.  I smiled.

I turned to walk into the shelves and collections of medical equipment to my left.  With my steady, slow retreat and the Infante’s implacable advance, we were far enough back now we were in the midst of the gas-production facility.  I looked at the various boxes and containers and saw little I could use.  Worse, it seemed to repeat ad nauseum.  Vast quantities of the same products, with no variation, no creativity, no different tools.

I wasn’t going to find anything.

More glass shattered.  The Infante reached for something nearby and hurled it in Lillian’s direction, two-handed.  Whatever it had been had been dense.  From the splinters and fragments that were cast into the air, and going by the sound, I had reason to suspect it had torn a whole swathe through the cover Lillian had taken.

Creatures!” the Infante called out.

“I know you are, but-” I started.

Attack!,” the Infante ordered.

Those stationed outside had no choice but to obey.  They came in through the far end of the building.  Some charged through the artificial waterfall of acid rain.  Others seemed to have trouble with the footing on the rubble.

The tangle, directed by Ashton, charged into the mass of encroaching soldiers.

Another asset down, I thought.

The Infante went on the offense.  He moved with the same speed he’d used to charge after me, but this time he went after Lillian, wading through crates and vats, sending chemicals spilling around him.  Mary hurdled onto the highest ground available- the top of a set of shelves, and gestured in my direction.

I was to look after Helen.  Mary would help Lillian.

There were things that might have been birds and might have been large insects gathering in a cloud around the Infante.  Another experiment, contained within his body.  Mary’s initial attempt at stopping him was quickly aborted.  She emptied a gun as she backed off.

He didn’t slow, he didn’t stop.  Nothing we did seemed to do much damage.

Mary threw a knife, and it glanced off of his eye, as if she’d struck steel with steel.

He hurled a metal cover from a vat, and he clipped Mary.

“You were faster once, Mary Cobourn,” he boomed.  “At least one of the Twin Sisters of Richmond were slain by your hand.  I have reason to suspect this.  To slay her you would have needed to be better than this.  How does it feel, puppet, to take such pride in your abilities, but to know you’re slower and weaker than ever before?”

I found Helen.  She was lying on the ground, breathing shallowly.  I was afraid to touch her, for fear she would hurt me, or for fear I would prod something on the brink of complete and total collapse.

Her head turned slightly as I crouched near her.

“I’m here,” I whispered.

“Hi,” she whispered back.

I moved to where I could peer around the corner of the shelving unit.

The superweapon I’d glimpsed earlier was at the other end of the building.  The Infante’s personal superweapon, by the looks of it.  It was a tower of throbbing flesh that made me think of a beating heart, but scarred flesh.  It bore a horned head of gold with two faces, had three breasts, two arms, and three legs.

It warred with the Tangle, turning with surprising speed while lashing out, tearing with surgical precision.  It was winning.

The swarm the Infante had unleashed was spreading through the area.  One of the things swooped at me.  It took a chunk out of my shoulder, and a piece out of Jessie’s arm.

Insect-bird hybrid, to look at it.  Locust-crow.

“Tomorrow, if you were to live, you would be weaker still,” the Infante’s voice boomed.  “Not just your Mary Cobourn.  All of you.”

There were more crashes.  Each disturbance seemed to bring more of the swarming things into the air.  It seemed they could smell my blood, and they could smell Helen’s.

I wrestled with Jessie’s hands, and I made her let go, depositing her near Helen.  I drew a knife.

One locust-crow swooped, flitting one way, then the other.  I shot with the gun and swiped with my knife, to hopefully hit it if the bullet missed.  The bullet missed, and it darted back out of the way of the knife.

In the background, Mary leaped into the air, working wire.  Something that might have been tentacles snapped up in her direction, seizing her out of the air.  She was hurled, thrown down at the ground, with a strength that left me little doubt the Infante was the source of those things.

We weren’t winning.  Just the opposite.  It was very possible Mary was down and out, like this.

“We have our beginning, we have our middle, and we have an end,” I said, letting my voice carry.  I saw Mauer amid the pallets, crates, and barrels.  “We have our high points, our entanglements and attachments.  We rise, we have our moments of excellence, and we have our failures, our moments of weaknesses.”

“More the latter than the former, Lamb.”

“We’re works of art.  We were created, us Lambs.  We were forged for a purpose, I know that.  And hey, we’ve had our high notes and low ones, moments of high volume and low ones.  Times when we made an awful lot of noise, and times of silence, to give that noise more weight and meaning.  We wove in and among one another.  That’s how you make music.”

“From what you’ve left in your wake, I think you’re flawed pieces,” the Infante said.  He was closer.  He was approaching me, Helen, and Jessie, now.

“And what are you, you glorified Bruno?  You’re a single note, stretching on for far too long.  No variation, nothing to complement it, no highs, no lows.  If you were art, you’d be a canvas of red and only red.  A big canvas, a rich red, maybe, but as much as your Professors might take pride in how you were pieced together… you’re not art.  We’re flawed, but you’re boring.”

His voice was very near.  On the other side of the set of shelves.  Paces away from me.  “Your analogy is missing something.”

I was very still, waiting.  I didn’t want to give him any more cues on my location.

The locust-crows were circling.

“If you were art, you’d be art nobody would ever know existed,” the Infante said, and he was near enough that I could feel his voice, not just hear it.  “No legacy, no meaning, no future.  One more thing left forgotten in the smouldering ashes of a once proud nation.”

Two swooped at once.  I sliced one.  The other caught the back of my neck, and latched on, apparently intent on digging in the direction of my spine.  I dropped my gun and grabbed it, slicing its head off.  The gun clattered to the ground.

The Infante backhanded the shelving unit, toppling it.  He stood before me.  We’d taken chunks out of him with the bullets we’d fired his way, we’d sliced his throat, though the blood flow had outright ceased.  He had knives sticking out of one shoulder, where Mary had tried to arrest the movement of that arm.  He barely seemed to care.

Helen, lying on the ground behind me, screeched.

The Infante turned his head.  His hand went up to catch one of the experiments that launched at him.  It was like a primate, black, and matured, and as it clutched at his arm and hand, tendrils snapped out of its fingertips and toes, taking curious geometric patterns as they seized him.  They flayed flesh and dug in as they went.  More leaped on.

“This on its own won’t stop me,” the Infante said, simply bearing the burden of the pack of flesh-flaying primates that was tearing into him.

“Probably not,” I said.

“You’re so misguided,” he said.

“Probably,” I said.

“You are far from being art,” he said.

“For all your wealth compared to mine, for all your power and my lack thereof, for all the shit I’ve had to deal with because the Academy can’t run the world worth a damn, I’ve lived a better, richer, more meaningful life than you ever will,” I said.  “Keep that in mind.”

I could barely see, given the angle of his face respective to the light sources mounted on the ceiling, but I liked to think his expression changed, a frown crossing his features.

I liked to think it was the distraction that counted.

Gorger loomed behind him, massive, bug-eyed, naked and pale.

Gorger bit down on the Infante’s head.

A hole opened in the Infante’s right hand, and tentacles reached out, seizing Gorger.  His other hand twitched, another hole opening and he grabbed one of Gorger’s arms.

“You finally showed,” I addressed Gorger.

Helen’s friends seemed to know Gorger.  They cooperated with him.

I joined them, leaping onto the Infante, fully aware one swing of an arm could destroy me.  I stabbed, over and over.

The locust-crows swooped and tore at me, and I fell.  Gorger’s arm was blistering around where the Infante grabbed it, and I recognized the nature of that particular rash as the red plague getting a foothold, though his skin was durable and virtually a quarantine suit unto itself.

Mary had appeared, limping, one arm draped at her side.  With her other, she began shooting the locust-crows out of the air.  Lillian was right behind her, throwing something that produced a gas.

That helped.

Duncan and Ashton appeared, as well.  With their appearance, the crows moved away, and Duncan and Lillian could check on Helen and Jessie.

We all formed a loose circle around the Infante, who wasn’t losing the struggle, but who was taking his time winning.  None of us were strong or effective enough to truly capitalize on what Gorger was doing for us.

“We’ll be cornered if we take too long here,” Duncan said.  “The others are coming.  Infante’s forces, the primordial spawn.”

“Primordial what?” I asked.

“Spawn.  The gold-helmed thing.  Derived of primordial, by the looks of it.”

Gorger strained against the tentacles and hand that gripped his hand.  He turned his head back in the direction he’d come.  The main hatch that led back underground.

“Yeah, we need to go,” I said, hushed.

Our enemy was now on his knees, arms occupied.  His belly was exposed.

Yet he was too strong for us to really stop.  We didn’t have any blades that cut deep enough, nor any guns that would penetrate far enough.  He was too big, too solid.  Had Mary been in fighting shape, maybe.  If the Tangle had been intact, we could have consumed him.

If we’d been willing to give our complete and total attention to destroying the Infante, we could.  Probably.  But we weren’t and we couldn’t.  It would mean giving up the rest of what we needed to accomplish and do.

“Slow him down,” I said.  “Then we run.  We go for his weak point.”

“The Professors?” Duncan asked.

“Or the Duke,” Lillian said.

I nodded.

Lillian reached for her bag.  Mary drew her knife.  I already had my weapons in hand.

We descended as a pack, doing as much damage as we could, with the time we had remaining.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.7

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Our efforts to find a way up was hampered by the chaos above.  The hatch Gorger had pointed us to was too close to the center of the enemy.  Further down the tunnel, another hatch opened into the corner of the same building, but there was a fight unfolding right on top of it, bullets flying from guns, violence, shouting and death all included in the chaos.

Further down the same tunnel, in an area where the tunnel served to channel rainwater, a wooden grate was sunken into the street, positioned to lead up to the exterior of the building.   Unusable, because so many bodies or one very large body had been left to die atop it.  Bodily fluids poured down like molasses from a spoon, collecting on the wood of a grate on the floor of the tunnel we occupied, congealing just enough that it didn’t fully filter through.  Blood and clear fluids formed different proportions of the thick stream from moment to moment.

Dim light struggled to move past the holes in the wooden grate, different parts of it blocked at different moments by the soup of flesh.

We had to navigate carefully to avoid wading in the acidic runoff.

I narrowed my eyes, adjusting to the fact there was light to see by.  I turned my head to hear better.  The noise of the ongoing fight above us was incessant, pure chaos.

I tuned into that chaos, listening to it, parsing it.

Kill them, the voice said.

“So naggy,” I muttered.

“What?” Lillian asked.

“Murder, murder, kill kill, telling me to do things I’m not in a position to do.”

“Do we need to shackle you?” she asked.

“I’m mostly here,” I said.  I turned my head around, trying to listen to the sound of the battle and piece it together.

“That’s a non-sequitur,” she said.

“It’s an answer.  Mary can stab me if something happens.”

“Unless something happens to Mary,” Helen said.

“Shh,” Mary said.  “Bad omen to say it out loud.”

“If something happens to Mary then you can do something, Helen,” I said.  “Or Lillian can do something.  If not her, then Duncan and Ashton.”

“I’m noting that Ashton and I are last,” Duncan said.

“Well, yeah,” I said.  “And if you two kick the bucket or go out of commission, and none of the others are left, then, well, what does it matter?”

“I think it matters a lot,” Lillian said.  “There’s an awful lot of others you can hurt.”

“The rebels might be able to fend for themselves.  Who knows?” I said.

“Let’s not let it come to that,” Lillian said.

I was starting to get a sense for the sounds I was hearing through the grate and tunnel.  Bullets going one way had a slightly different sound than the ones which weren’t.  The tromp of boots had a dull sound to them when they were numerous enough to be heard together, people moving in formation.

Exact location wasn’t possible to discern in many cases, so I didn’t try.  I held them all in my head as separate entities, and I pieced it together.  The fact that one regiment of a certain size existed, that another regiment was either nearer or larger by their volume.  I could know that a group was firing one way by the sound of the shots, and I could gauge their general number by the volume.

I could gauge affiliation by the fact that some had their backs to the Infante.

Kill them or the Lambs die.

I set my jaw.

“The Duke is on our side,” Lillian said.  “That’s something we could use, if we can separate him from the Infante.”

“We presume he’s on our side,” I said.

Mary spoke, “He was in communication with us for a long time.  Coded messages that put him at grave risk.  The Infante coming after us suggests that he found out.  He had no reason otherwise.”

“He could have a lot of reasons,” I said.

“He could, but let’s be honest, Sy,” Mary said.  “Sometimes the answer is the simple one.”

Nothing about this seemed simple.  We traveled down the tunnel, avoiding the areas where the rainwater ran thickest.

Something cracked nearby.  Dust and debris plunged down from the roof of the tunnel further down, pouring into the space, with a few scattered body parts.

Shadows flickered.  I checked my mental map, trying to think of who it might be.

“The Infante’s people,” I whispered.  I thought about the layout we’d observed, where the enemy was, and gestured.

We moved into the side tunnels and the shadows, close to the grate where there was light.  The light would be deceptive, giving the illusion that if there was anything close by, they’d be able to see it.

I peered around the corner.  They were a squadron of soldiers.  Crown soldiers, dressed in black, with quarantine masks, the hoses worked into the masks, armored and protected from gunfire as the hose parted and disappeared over their shoulders, behind their backs.  Glass glinted in the light at their shoulders, tinted fluids within the tubes in question.  Shoulder-mounted drug injections.

I gestured for the others, filling them in.  I found a dry spot and eased Jessie down, placing her at one side of the tunnel, then returned to my vantage point.

Their boots tromped, sloshing through the acid water.

They ran past us, within a foot of me.  They were dark enough and the tunnel was dark enough that I was only aware of them by the movement of air on my face.  I saw the glint of what might have been a bayonet.

One man passed me, and in the next instant, Helen was there, on top of him.  She crashed into him, banging into the wall, then went down with him into the water.  Into the acid.  Harvesters rose up from the liquid, crawling over the both of them.

My eyes went wide.  I jumped forward, stepping on the back of the soldier’s head, driving it into the acid while using it as a stepping stone to keep my foot from plunging into the liquid.

I windmilled my arm, no wall in reach to lean against, and the walls were moist with rainwater that flowed down from the cracks in the street above, anyhow.

Mary caught my hand, giving me something to brace against.

The dance.

The weight of two people on him, his hands scraping against the slick floor of the drainage tunnel, served to keep him put.  Water that already churned as it ran down the tunnel was bubbling as- yes, partially exhalations from his mask, but also that Helen’s toe was keeping the air bladder beneath the water.

She was poised, perched on the man’s back, only barely keeping her limbs and face out of the drainage.  It wasn’t a hold, not a grab, but something else, her toe keeping him from breathing, her other toe on his buttocks, her hands either propping him up or darting out to slap at his elbows, if it looked like he was getting them at the angle necessary to haul himself out of the water.

Mary, still holding my hand, kicked the soldier a few times in the side.

Her foot came away, held in the air, and I could see the blade that protruded from the toe, now caked in blood.

We pulled away, retreating to the sides of the tunnel.  Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton were all holding rifles, aiming them at the group that seemed oblivious to us.  The group was moving slowly, navigating a zig-zagging path of detritus that was making the water level higher.  We’d decided not to go that way.

The harvesters were starting to crawl out of the water, trying to find ways in through the suit.  Some were at the side, where Mary had kicked the man.

I stared down at the scene.

I touched Mary’s shoulder, then indicated Ashton.  I gestured.

Change.

She took over for Ashton, taking his rifle.

Ashton, for his part, took up Mary’s position.

I gestured.  Gas.

I indicated the harvesters.

Then I gestured at the group that had left.  I used the… well, Jessie would’ve known the history of it.

But it was the second or third sign we’d settled on, when we’d started using the gestures.

Meager light and ample shadow were dancing further down the tunnel.  It wasn’t impossible that we’d have company.  It would put us in a bad position.

Ashton reached down and cupped one of the harvesters in his hands.  He flinched and dropped it.

Be careful,” I whispered.

I dropped to my hands and knees.  I tried to keep my hands away, bringing my knife to the soldier’s side.  The harvesters moved toward me.  Ashton waved his hands at them, and they moved away.

I cut the holes wider.  The harvesters slithered in.

“Why?” Ashton asked.

“As a distraction,” I said.  “Assuming you can keep it from coming after us?”

“I think so.”

I nodded.

I stared at it for a long time.

I thought of where the enemy was, all the noises I was learning to make sense of, as if chaos was a language, and I was teaching it to myself, step by step, word by word.

The focus and the shift in my thoughts came at a price.  The voice was speaking.  It said dangerous things and it made demands, for impossible things and ugly things.

This time I was equipped to listen.

Five soldiers sloshed through the water of the tunnel.  Some still had guns in hand.  Others were empty-handed.  Most were wounded.

We shrank back into the shadows, listening to the noise of boots in water.  Where the lesser and standard-issue quarantine gear seemed to dissolve and break down in the face of the acid rain, this gear seemed to be top quality.  They waded in dangerous waters that churned with acid and parasites as if it was of no concern.

The Crown’s elite soldiers.  I wondered how they got there.  Was it an alternate promotion path?  Be leader of a squad, or remain a foot soldier in a squad of higher esteem?  Were they picked from the cream of the crop of the aristocracy?

They were men and women.  They had families.  They had hopes and dreams and they probably hated this war as much as any of us.  They served the Crown and they were loyal and patriotic.  It was a virtue, even if the side they served wasn’t mine.

I felt nothing.  I could have called it coldness, a contrast to the warmth of Jessie, who clung to my back and breathed into the back of my neck, to Lillian, whose arm pressed against mine.  Lillian held her breath, because she didn’t want to make a sound.

Coldness was the wrong idea.  Cold made me think of hate, a contrast to the feeling that welled in me when the Lambs were close.  Cold made me think of staring the enemy down and feeling a change sweep over me as I internally came to new, more unpleasant terms with them.

They were room temperature.  They were more noises in chaos.

They reached a point further down the tunnel, and they spotted the enemy.  They picked up the pace, insofar as their injuries allowed them to.

The enemy was Crown.  Elite soldiers.  They wore uniforms of the topmost quality, in the same black material.  The enemy had the gas masks that protected the hoses and tubes with armor.

The defending side was slow to act.  It made me think of a group of men staring into a mirror, realizing too late that they weren’t staring at their own reflection.

The reality wasn’t so neat and tidy.  There was no mirror.  There was only the assumption that men and women who were alive and well who wore the same uniforms were friendly.

That, if they weren’t friendly, that they wouldn’t be suicidal enough to throw themselves at a larger, better-armed group.

A squad of five collided with a squad of ten.  The front ranks were dragged to the ground, and here, the tunnel was dry enough that they wouldn’t be soaked in the drainage water.

The ones who still stood started to pull the attackers off, sticking them with bayonets, when there was no armor or defending soldier getting in the way.  One gun fired from the attacking five, an accidental trigger pull, not something intentional.  It made them balk.

Mary gestured.  The Lambs stepped out of shadow, moving quickly and soundlessly.

Where the defending ten had held the upper hand, they were now outnumbered.  Helen pounced on one.  Mary attacked another two.  I seized a third, burdened as I was with Jessie, and Lillian helped me.  Duncan and Ashton went after the last one who wasn’t preoccupied.

For an instant, it seemed we had the upper hand.  We’d caught them unawares, they were preoccupied, and we’d seized them, knocked them down, or we’d disarmed them.

Then they began using the combat drugs.  They surged in strength.  They threw us off.

Mary cut them more.  I dropped Jessie rather unceremoniously, then joined Mary in disabling them, kicking at one kneecap.  My foot slid across the ground to kick at the side of one foot, which just so happened to be resting on ground that looked particularly slimy.  It slid, the owner’s balance went with it, and Duncan was able to kick at the spot on the man’s arm where the vials were mounted.

The ones who had been dosed were too strong, getting stronger, and so we killed them.

We regained the upper hand.  We broke more of the vials before they could use whatever mechanism it was that dumped combat drugs into their systems.

Each enemy was summarily disabled but not killed, the attacking five with their masks set ajar, pacified by Ashton, pinning the remaining defenders.

“Help!” one defender screamed.

His voice echoed in the tunnel, reaching far.  It was drowned out by the sound of walls falling, by the sound of countless guns firing, the sounds alternately far enough away to ring across the surroundings, or so close that the listeners would be left hearing only silence for seconds after.  Explosions occurred, things screamed.  People somewhere out there were crying for their mothers.

These soldiers were quiet.

We’d pit them against each other.  Crown elite against Crown elite.  All it had taken was letting the harvesters in, weakening them.

The simple harvesters were easy for Ashton to direct.

“If I told you to go to the Infante and lie for our benefit, to draw him into the position we wanted him in, would you listen?” I asked.

“You’re mad,” one shouted.  It was a woman.  I’d pulled off her mask.

“It’s a choice of life as a traitor or death of the worst kind,” I told her.  “Life is always better, isn’t it?”

“I’d rather die,” she said.

I reached down, and I undid the clasps on her outfit, revealing the zipper.

I pulled it off of her.  A jacket.  She fought.

The quarantine pants came off next.  She was left in a soldier’s uniform, summer-weight, but sweaty and damp.  Her hair was in disarray.

“Please,” Lillian said.  “Cooperate.”

“I have given every year of my life to the Crown since I was old enough to write.”

“I did the same,” Lillian said.  “My life for the Academy.”

“You don’t understand, traitor.  Every hour, every day, every week.  Every day I studied or worked, it was for them.”

“I understand that very well,” Lillian said.

“On my days off, I socialized with others who served the Crown.”

“The difference between us is my friends served the Crown, but one by one, they died-”

“You think I haven’t seen death?” the woman asked.

“And they turned away from the Crown.  We learned things.  What the world really looks like.  Who’s really at the top.”

The woman lay there, on her back, Mary stepping on one of her hands.  Her discarded costume rested to one side.

The harvesters scurried here and there, but they gave Ashton a wide berth.

She’s seen many of the same things,” I murmured under my breath.  “She might even know the most pertinent details.”

“Mm,” Helen made a sound, though I hadn’t been talking to her.

“She believes, even with all she’s privy to,” I said.  “I don’t know how, but it makes it easier to do this.

I grabbed the woman.  Mary helped.  Each of us had an arm, and we dragged her closer to the area where the drainage water was collecting, running in a stream.  The harvesters were thicker here, the ones who might have been near where Ashton was were gathering in greater number at the periphery.

We held her so her body tilted forward, head only a foot above the water, her arms to either side, where even if we let go, she wouldn’t get them in front of her before her face was submerged.  Mary’s foot was on the ground, propped up with a heel on the tunnel’s floor, the blade extended and poking at the top of the soldier’s thigh.  The soldier couldn’t bring it forward without impaling it.  Her other leg was injured.

“This is a bad way to go,” I said.  “Acid.  Parasites.  Becoming a monster, maybe even one that’s aware of what’s happening to it.”

In the background, Lillian was looking away.

Harder, when she’d remarked on parallels between herself and this woman.

The only difference being what?  Crown instead of Academy?  Soldier instead of scholar?  Negligible.  That I’d turned traitor and walked away?  But for one friend walking away, the others following in time, Lillian might have been in this position.

“You can live.  You can find love, you can find family, money, legacy.  All we need is for you to go to the Infante and speak one sentence.  An innocuous sentence.  Harmless.  He won’t even know your role.”

“No,” she said.

“Why wouldn’t you even just lie?” I asked.  “Say you’ll tell him what we want you to tell him.  Then get away?”

“I wouldn’t let any pledge of betrayal pass through my lips,” she said.  “Even as a lie.”

“I felt like that once, too,” Mary said.  “Everything was abso-”

The woman hauled her arm free of Mary’s grip.  One side of her plunged into the drainage water.  She tore her hand free of my grip.

Had that been intentional?

The acid rain was thick here, but the effects not instantaneous.  She hauled herself free of the water, twisting around to face her direction, but I could see hints of her face in the gloom.  I could see the way she moved her head.

She gasped, making small pained sounds, and her head turned to scan the surroundings.  Her eyes saw nothing.  She flinched as harvesters crawled on her, flung arms around, and Mary and I were forced to step back lest we be splashed.

Guards for the nobles, for the top professors.  Gloria, Foss.  Hayle might’ve had some.

It seemed so wasteful.

The irony being that they were ours.  These were the ones we’d arranged to send into the city, to go to war with Hayle.  The Infante hadn’t brought any humans of his own.  He’d only brought monsters.  He’d gathered them around him by being a Noble of one of the highest ranks, stealing their obedience and service from us with just words, gestures, and presence.

They’d already betrayed the Crown on behalf of the enemy.  I’d only asked for a slightly more informed betrayal.  It mattered so little, and yet the consequences were so vast.

We backed away, as she twitched, making more agonized sounds as her skin blistered and the harvesters crawled into the orifices of her face and head.

She charged us, and we let her.  Mary kicked her to one side at the last moment, and the soldier sprawled onto the ground.

Two charges followed, and Mary kicked her each time.

After the third fall, the woman remained where she was.  The tension in her relaxed, harvesters continued their work.

Lillian stared down at the woman.  Her expression was hard to read, the filter covering her nose and mouth.

Mary gestured.  I responded.  We had a back and forth.  Duncan joined in.  I had to squint at him to see in the gloom.

A brief conversation.

“You,” I said, nudging the next soldier with my toe.  “Will you cooperate?”

He looked at the woman.  Flesh was sloughing from her now, her hair half gone.  Her eyes were being devoured, as harvesters settled into the sockets, wriggling like pitch black tongues.

“I’d sooner do what she did, in hopes that you make a mistake, misstep, and I get to kill you,” he said.

“We won’t,” Mary said.  She glanced at me.  “I won’t.  And I won’t let him misstep to the point it matters.”

“Thanks, Mary,” I said, very unimpressed.

But the soldier refused to cooperate.

Mary had gestured, asking me a question.  I’d responded.  In our back and forth, she and even Duncan had doubted me.

But I’d said it straight.  The fact that the leader of this squad reminded me of Lillian had softened me to a degree, as room-temperature as this particular group was for me, emotionally speaking.  I didn’t feel any fondness, hate or frustration.  I could still come to terms with what she was and where she stood.  With how it related to what I and what the voice wanted.

What if she cooperated?  Mary had gestured, though the sentence had been butchered by the lack of words like ‘if’, the ‘what’ being only a question.  Closer to: question she obey question.

I’d tie her up.  Leave her to get free later, I’d responded.

Duncan had wanted to know if I would have sent her to the Infante.  But no.  We didn’t want to tip her hands.

If they listened, I was willing to spare them.  We were striving for something, and if all was said and done and the three gods slain, then I wanted there to be people left who could adapt, adjust.

There was no point otherwise.

The second soldier wasn’t going to cooperate.  I could see that the third soldier was already even more stubborn than any of the first two.

I looked at the remainder, and hoped that they’d come around by the time I got to them.

Three.  Three had cooperated.

Not three in ten, but three in thirty.

Three squads.

I felt exceedingly room temperature.  The voice spoke in my ear.  It was content with this direction.  For the moment, it and I were on the same page.

The Lambs were grim.

“We should thank Abby for this,” Ashton said.

“Why’s that?” Lillian asked.

“I spent a lot of time around non-human things because of Abby, and I got a lot of practice,” he said.  “And that practice mattered today.”

“It’s night,” Helen said.

“It’s important to thank people,” Ashton said.

“We’ll thank Abby,” I said.  “And in the interest of thanking people… thank you, Lambs.  Thank you Jessie, Lillian, Mary, Helen, Ashton, and Duncan.”

“I’m noticing the order again,” Duncan said.

“You’re second place for me, Duncan,” Helen said.

“That’s almost more terrifying than reassuring, but thank you,” Duncan said.

“Thank you, Sy,” Lillian said.

“Just me?”

“It’s a bittersweet thank-you, I think,” she said.

“Well, I’m pretty bittersweet as a person.”

“That’s not wrong,” she said.  “Thank you for… opening my eyes.”

“I was thinking about that earlier, y’know,” I said.

“A lot of us were, I think,” Lillian said.

“I’m not going to thank anyone,” Mary said.  “I’m not going to close that circle or provide any next iteration in some cosmic ratio set.  We’ll leave it at this.”

“Perfect,” I said.

Ashton reached out to touch the tangle’s face.

Our tangle, caught and built by our hands, formed of twenty-seven individuals we’d hunted as they tried to use the underground to reposition in the battle.

Ashton backed away swiftly, as the tangle grew more active.  Nearly a minute passed as it started to move more, flexing itself, figuring out how it was configured.  It twitched and flexed.

It surged upward, hands reaching for and fumbling at rungs in a ladder.  It rose more by dint of accidentally hooking on or resting on the rungs as more of itself gathered beneath it, flexing it to strive skyward.

It nearly buckled, bending at the middle and turning to go another way.  Ashton hurried to one side, blocking it, emanating something.

It continued skyward.  It surged out through the hatch we’d identified.

The Infante wasn’t still here, going by Mary’s recent peek through the hatch, but he was close by.  This thing was still rising in the enemy’s midst.  It was big and dangerous enough to warrant attention.

The battle lines at the other hatch shifted.  We had an opening, a way in.

We climbed up.  We entered the building.  The air wasn’t stale, but it stung the nostrils, and it smelled like war, only bad smells, only oppressive ones.

It was a warehouse, but fortified.  At another time, in proper wartime, it might have housed munitions, in addition to a share of the city’s defensive munitions.  The munitions weren’t present.  There were no manned turrets, no warbeasts chained up and held at bay.  There were only squads, the detritus of war, both in corpses and in discarded articles, and those squads were preoccupied, fighting either the tangle or the enemy beyond the door.

The Tangle bludgeoned its way through a squad of soldiers.

I spotted the Infante just quickly enough to see him turning our way, his eyes wide, before the Tangle moved between him and us.  He was just past the front doors of the building.

Where was the Duke?  My doubts aside, he was one of our best options.

The Infante had disabled the gas for us, at least.  I was glad to see it.  I discarded the mask I’d scavenged from the soldiers’ we’d collected, letting it hang over one of my shoulders.

I heard the Infante’s voice boom.  Orders.  Ones aimed at the relatively few people and the monsters outside, who were holding off the defending forces.  He stepped through the doorway, into the building.

Even at a glimpse, going by what I could see beyond the door, the Infante had a lot of monsters with him.

He spoke again, louder now that he was inside, and the Tangle responded to it.

It charged him, and he moved clear out of the way.

It charged past him, and it collided with the wall.  The building began to collapse, rubble falling around the Infante, around the battle lines closest to the noble, around the monsters the Infante had gathered around him.

Acid water streamed into the building.  Dust rose and was beaten down by rain.  Harvesters churned.

The Infante pulled his hand away from the Tangle, which was trying to figure out how to move again, with much of the rubble still resting atop it.  It stirred, and the Infante walked away from it, putting distance between himself and it.

“My best creatures are diving into the tunnel,” he said, speaking to the room.  “The building is fortified.  There’s one exit, and the chemicals in the water would blind you in seconds and melt you in minutes.  I find it irritating, but hardly that limiting.”

“Nowhere to run,” I said.

“Succinctly put,” the Infante said.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t come here to run,” I said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.6

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t challenge me.

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

“Hold-” I murmured.

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

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

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

I willed for something, anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shouting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go, the voice said.

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

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

We moved faster.

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

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

“No need,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Tangles,” I said.

“Tangles, sure.  Which raises a question.”

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

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

“Oh,” Ashton said.

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

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

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

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

Mary touched a break in the glass.

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

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

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

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

“What does it accomplish?” Duncan asked.

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

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

I tensed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie’s voice devolved into mumbles.

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

“Catch what?” Ashton asked.

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

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

“Please?” I asked.  “Did you hear?”

“I wasn’t listening,” she said.

I opened my mouth, then shut it.

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

My heart hurt, being like this.

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

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

I hung my head.

Stand, the voice said.

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

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

I didn’t want to give her bad dreams.

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

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

Stand.

“This is doable, Sy,” Mary said.

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

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

I felt a hand on my head.

Ashton.

“You don’t work on me,” I murmured.

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A new path?”

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

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

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

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

A new path.  That was the objective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you think so?” Helen asked.

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

“She is,” Helen said.  She smiled.

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

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

“Yeah, that’d be mine,” I said.

“What am I remembering, Sy?”

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

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

“Let’s ask,” I said.

Helen nodded.

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

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

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

She called again, then again.

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

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

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

He was silent, staring.

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

“Please,” Helen said.

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

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

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

“Shh,” Duncan said.

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

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

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

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

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

He pointed.

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

“Thank you,” I said.

Gorger shook his head, still crawling.

No?

‘Don’t thank me’?

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

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

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

We took the path he’d indicated.

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

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

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

The grunt was distant, but affirmative.

Mary approached the ladder.  Lillian stopped her, gesturing.

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

After a moment, she eased it closed.

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

No gas, she gestured.  Gas factory.

Another of the gas-production facilities.

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

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

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

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

Crown tall was our shorthand for the Infante.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

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

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

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

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

The contrast might have been flawed.

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

“Agreed,” Helen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Avis came after me,” Lillian said.

“You’re okay?” I asked.

Lillian nodded.

“How bad?” I asked, indicating Jessie.

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

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

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

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

“I remember,” I said.

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

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

“How many?”

“Eleven bodies on the next floor down.”

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

“It’s war,” Mary said.

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

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

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

Lillian nodded.

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

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

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

“That can be arranged,” I said.

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

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

“Fray?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our focus, however, was on the other guy.

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

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

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

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

“We can’t,” I said.

“It’s an option,” she said.

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

Mary nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen and Duncan nodded.

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

“Not like that,” Duncan said.

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

The gunfire was drawing nearer.  So was the craft.

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

“Three rocks,” Helen said.

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

Helen made an amused sound.

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

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

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

“We’ll find her,” Mary said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you, Fray?” I murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

On the way up, no.

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

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

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

“The rain,” Helen said.

“What about it?” Duncan asked.

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

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

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

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

I saw Evette.  I saw Percy.

“Let’s get out of the rain,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There,” Helen said.

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

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

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

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

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

“The rain?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen was closer to the street than us, tense.

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

“Briggs,” Lillian said.

I looked at her.

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

“Acid rain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Helen,” Lillian whispered.

Helen tensed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t,” I said.

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

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

“I know, Helen,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen hauled her wrist free of my grip.

“Helen,” I said.

She straightened.

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

Helen remained very still.

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

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

“The way’s open,” Lillian said.

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

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

“Come on,” I said.

She stared.

Was she gone?  So utterly?

No, not when we were so close.

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

She nodded.

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

Previous                                                                                                                    Next