The night air was cold, cutting and clear, like a knife’s edge bitten by frost. A half-moon hung high in the sky, bathing the ruins on the outskirts of Morningside in a soft white-blue light. For a time, Three just crouched atop the roof of an abandoned and gutted building, staring at Morningside and its wall. Getting a feel for the flow of its people, the unique rhythm of the life inside. He let his eyes float unfocused, drinking in the cityscape without fixing on any one detail. From here, with the slope of the terrain and his elevated vantage, he could see glimpses over the wall, though he was too far away to make out specifics. Still, it was the big picture he was after, the subtle signals his subconscious would record and later recall unbidden, when the time was right.
The city was lively, the citizens inside oblivious to the dangers that plagued the rest of the world. Distant troubles, far removed. Even the outcasts and exiles that lived outside near the wall seemed unconcerned by thoughts of the Weir, or slavers, or any of the thousand other deadly things that lurked in the night. Three couldn’t help but wonder at this man Underdown, whose leadership and power extended so far beyond physical boundaries. Would such a man be approachable? Even if Asher had reached him first, would he have entertained discussion, or might he have cast Asher out with all the others that now huddled against the cold?
There was only one way to be certain. Three would go see for himself. He stood slowly, careful to make no sound; let the blood pump again after his hour or two of stillness.
Wren had been asleep when he’d left, and he had decided not to wake the boy. Three’d left Mr Carter watching over him, with clear and specific instructions. He’d said he’d be back before dawn broke. But if he didn’t show, Mr Carter had agreed to take Wren with him back to the village as soon as the sun was up. Three knew that if something happened to him, there was no better place for Wren to be than under Chapel’s watchful eye. And the thought lingered that even if nothing happened to him, Chapel’s home might still be the better place.
Now, perched on the roof’s edge, Three wasn’t sure whether he believed he’d be able to return or not. At the time he’d made the deal, he’d certainly intended to. But out here, looking at the city, a sense had begun to settle on him that it had been foolish to expect it. Morningside loomed luminescent, and he felt as if he were staring at a vast ocean, preparing to walk into its depthless waves.
Admittedly, he wasn’t even sure what he intended to do exactly. Find Asher, certainly. And most likely kill him. But he didn’t know where to begin. After the fight with the guards at the gate, surely news would spread. Asher would know they were near. And then what? Send Dagon after them? That was most likely, assuming Dagon had returned from the village. Asher himself wouldn’t be out doing the grunt work. He had people for that. Three would have to go to him.
Jez, and Ran: Three didn’t know enough about them to make a guess. They seemed to stay near Asher for the most part, so maybe they weren’t worth worrying about yet. Though if he spotted them, they’d be worth following. Jez he remembered well, with her ice-blonde hair and precise movements. More of a stalker than a tracker. And her beauty probably afforded RushRuin a level of charm it otherwise lacked without Cass around; all manner of authority could be circumvented with the right wink and smile. Ran he wasn’t sure he’d recognize just from Cass’s description. They’d called him the Mountain: a man as dispassionate and immovable as a wall of stone. There was danger there, an unknown variable.
And then there was Fedor. Fedor he knew plenty well. A hound. Not a tracker of Dagon’s caliber, Fedor was probably the one Asher sent out when the prey was near. An attack dog. And they still had unfinished business.
Fedor, then. Dagon was best avoided anyway, if possible. Three would start with the genie, and work his way back from there. Track down Fedor, see what doors opened up afterwards. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a start.
He checked the blade at his back, and moved his hand to his holster out of habit, before catching himself. There was little hope of recovering his pistol, but it was one hope he allowed himself to indulge. Maybe, before this was all over, he’d get a chance to use that last shell.
Three inhaled deeply, and slowly released a long, controlled settling exhalation. It was time. He climbed down from his makeshift watchtower and followed the narrowest alleys towards Morningside. He had little concern of being stopped or engaged by any of the people outside the wall, but Three saw no need to draw attention to himself if it could be helped. He kept to the shadows and the dark places as he approached the city.
Getting into Morningside was actually easier than he’d anticipated. Though the wall looked smooth from a distance, it was in fact pieced together from all manner of steel plating, and presented plenty of sturdy hand- and footholds for a climber as skilled as Three. His biggest risk had been his own silhouette as he picked his way up the softly radiant wall. Few people would be interested in what was above them, however, and he’d chosen to climb a seam where two sections of the wall met, giving himself the best chance of escaping discovery.
The section of wall he’d selected afforded another advantage as well. Along the top, a garden of sorts had been planted; delicate-limbed trees and carefully arranged shrubs, lit softly for nighttime strolls. As he crested the wall, he realized now that the plants were all of course artificial, but the effect was not wholly lost. And most importantly, he was able to slip into them without notice.
There was a distinct pathway through the atrium, and a few citizens strode along it leisurely, some in pairs, some alone, some in small knots of hushed conversation. Three crouched in the shadows, waiting for the right moment. After a minute or two of observing, he simply slipped out onto the path and joined the flow, walking as a man deep in thought amongst the gentle beauty of the replicated garden.
Undoubtedly, the wall was lined with sensors that would’ve screamed at the intrusion had Three been connected. As it was, he was inside and unnoticed. It was up to him to keep it that way. He knew he’d have to err on the side of caution, not knowing how far or wide a description of him may have spread. But it was to his advantage that he had been seen fleeing back out into the open. Certainly the guards posted at the gates would be on the lookout, but no one had reason to search for him within the city wall. At least, not yet.
Three set an easy pace for himself as he moved along the top of the wall, hands clasped behind his back, head up and soaking in the surroundings. The wall itself was perhaps twenty feet wide, leaving plenty of room for the path and its garden-like surroundings without feeling crowded. And at this height, he had a good view of the town sprawled below. It was well-lit, and people moved freely throughout the streets, though his eye was quick to note the presence of pairs of guardsmen patrolling through the crowds, casual in pace but ever alert.
As he walked, Three absorbed the layout as best as he could, forming a rough mental map. He followed the wall in a slow, steady gait, soaking in the environment, letting his mind work out the plan of action. After a time he came to a gently winding set of stairs that doubled back on themselves, and he took them down to ground-level, where he blended in amongst the people. Here, moving with and through the citizens of Morningside, Three was struck by how clean, and healthy, and happy they were. Certainly there were those among them who had come from the open, but many were seemingly untouched by the hard living beyond the wall. They seemed so soft; a people from a different world. It both amazed and sickened him.
For an hour or so, Three moved through the streets with casual confidence, stilling himself whenever he passed a patrol. His attire and rough look drew a few glances, but he was not so strange as to draw attention. And as long as he seemed to know where he was going, no one else seemed to pay him much mind. He wandered towards the center of the city, correctly guessing that the Governor’s dwelling would be located there. When he arrived, he couldn’t help but be impressed. It wasn’t just a compound as he’d expected; it was more like a miniature city of its own.
Guards patrolled an octagonal outer wall, which had main gates facing northwest and northeast, and a third narrow gate on the southern side. Towers loomed at each of the corners of the wall, though it was difficult to tell whether there were men in each. Three made a single lap, taking in what he could without appearing like he was casing the place, and then circled back towards the section of Morningside he’d already walked.
It was impossible for Three to gather all the information he’d need in the few hours before daybreak. But he turned his focus towards finding the most likely scenario of what he was up against. Wren had said with certainty that Asher was here. Once Asher had discovered Morningside was their destination, he would’ve had to have known that Cass had meant to take Wren to Underdown. Whether he’d made contact with the Governor or not, then, it was a safe bet that he was nearby.
Dagon had found them just the night before, and had likely backtracked from Morningside into the Strand. There was no telling how long it had taken Dagon to track them, but from the look of it, he’d been out for days at least. It was possible that Dagon had returned the previous night, and that RushRuin had traveled out towards Chapel’s village that morning, whether in part or in whole. But it seemed unlikely that Asher would spread his crew too thin. And if, as Wren said, Asher was here, it would make sense to expect that the others were here as well.
If Jez and Ran were still with him, what would Fedor be doing then? Three thought back to the first time he saw Fedor; the intensity of his pursuit, the aggression in his every move. Fedor would be straining the leash, anxious to bring the quarry in, and perhaps even more so to pay Three back for his injury. Without the threat of the Weir, would he be out beyond the wall, searching?
No. It was unlikely that the guards would open the gates after dark without good reason, and it most likely would be unwise for Asher to draw too much attention from the people of Morningside. And they had tracked Wren this far. If anything, Asher was probably savoring the night, fully expecting to have his brother back under his control by tomorrow. And Cass. Three couldn’t help but wonder if Asher had sensed Cass’s death, or if he was still expecting to find her, too. Dagon had asked to see her just last night, after all.
Dagon. Dagon was still unknown. Unpredictable. He could be anywhere. And this was the hardest part. Embracing the unknowable. Accepting it. Acting in spite of what might be. Three had gathered all the information he needed for now. It was time to let instinct drive.
No matter how much his training had drilled it into him, nor how many times he had seen it work, it was still challenging every time he needed to let go, to trust. But the subconscious had a way of noticing details that shouldn’t matter and making sense of them anyway. Of completing pictures even before the mind’s eye could see.
He had once survived a surprise attack from a then-trusted colleague because of it. At the time, it had only been a sudden dread that warned him. A feeling of danger. And while his mind tried to explain the fear away, his friend had turned with blade in hand. It wasn’t until much later that Three recalled the detail his subconscious had noted and processed in a flash: the closing of a window. There’d been no need for it, except to prevent the noise of his death from spilling out into the street below.
It was to this inner mind that he now turned, allowing his gut to set his course. The night was growing late, and the temperature fell so low that he could see his breath. For a moment, he thought of Wren, and Mr Carter, and hoped they were warm, and safe. And then pushed them from his mind.
The crowds had thinned, and trickled from the streets into pubs and tea-houses along the main walkways. But though there were fewer people out, Morningside kept its lively thrum, as music and laughter seeped from nearby establishments. Three chose one at random, or at least could find no logical reason for his choice; a tea-house called the Green.
It was not far from the Governor’s compound, but the separation was noticeable, as if the aura of law and order emanating from the city’s seat of power faded out, and this was its edge. Patrons talked loudly and loosely, and none paid him much attention when he entered. He chose a high table just off-center in the room, neither too near the back, nor too close to the entrance. A harried attendant stopped barely long enough to take his order, and only hesitated a moment when he offered Hard for payment. Unusual here, but not unheard of. Just another recent addition to the citizenry. The woman left him with a small cup and a pot of the house special; some combination of green tea and rice wine. Or synthetic approximations of those age-old delights.
Three poured himself a cup and downed it quickly, enjoying the rush of heat down his throat, to his belly, radiating outwards to his wind-chilled arms and legs. He poured another. This, he left on the table before him, watching the steam curl and rise, cultivating the image of a weary traveler lost in his thoughts. He was weary. And a traveler. But his senses remained sharp, and alert. He sipped from his cup, eyes low, and stretched out with his hearing, taking in scraps of information without judging or analyzing.
How long he sat, he didn’t know. Between the alcohol and the warm buzz of a dozen conversations, Three felt almost adrift. But he kept finding himself focusing on a group of men two tables away, just over his left shoulder. Old-timers, the same here as anywhere, exchanging news of the day, swapping familiar stories, arguing about trivial details, and griping about newcomers. Through them, Three learned of the most recent Weir attack, some two weeks before.
According to the tale, the wave had broken and turned back when Governor Underdown appeared on the wall. There was much speculation about the power he seemed to wield against them. Some argued it was the memory of battles Underdown had fought long ago that caused the Weir to flee. Others said it was the efficiency of his command. And one suggested there were darker things at work, though he was quickly booed to silence. It all had the feel of a common refrain, as though the men had rehearsed it a thousand times before. Whatever the truth, Three made a mental note. He’d seen Wren do things he couldn’t explain; perhaps Underdown could explain them.
It was another hour before Three heard what he’d come for, and it was from that group of men that it came. A snippet of conversation floated to him.
“…big fella, with an arm all broke…”
He missed the next part because his attendant returned and loudly asked if he’d wanted anything else. It took a long moment to send her away, but once she was gone, he focused in.
“…well, it just ain’t right. Him hanging around, leering at folk like they don’t belong,” one of the men was saying. There was a pause, and then Three heard the emphatic bang of a bottle set too heavily on a table. “He don’t belong.”
“Maybe you don’t belong, Vel.”
“Ah, shut yer face, Arlen. You know what I mean.”
There was some good natured ribbing from the crew, and over the course of a few minutes, Three had what he needed. He poured himself a last cup of the mixed brew. It was barely warmer than room temperature now and had started to turn bitter, but it wasn’t important. It was the finality of that last drink he wanted. Three drained the cup, placed it firmly on the table, and made his way to the door.
Fedor paced the narrow side street that ran along the three-story building Asher’d put him in. An apartment, on the top floor, all to himself. It was nice to have his own space for a change; nicer still that the accommodations had been well-furnished by the Governor’s own staff. But they’d been in Morningside too long, sitting idle. Asher assured them all that they’d be back to business soon, that Haven and her pup would be back under control, or dead, matters resolved either way. But even after the man had shown up at the gate and escaped into the night, Asher remained with the Governor inside the compound instead of finishing the pursuit. Fedor’s apartment had become a prison.
He seethed, anxious to be done with this waste of time and energy. Haven was an asset to be sure; one of the best. But she was a chemic, and nearly burned at that. She could be replaced. Would have to be replaced, eventually. And the boy. Just a boy. Though, Asher’s half-brother. Fedor understood something about brothers.
It was vengeance that stirred him so. Asher’s dalliance annoyed him. But here, now, the man that had killed Kostya, his dear brother, was almost within reach, and yet Asher refused to let him finish the job. That was infuriating.
A sudden noise caught Fedor’s attention, the crunch of glass underfoot, somewhere in the dark behind him. He turned and scanned the street, irritated at the interruption. But there was nothing. One of the useless locals, most likely.
Fedor squeezed his dead arm with his left hand. The man. The man had taken his arm when they’d fought. But when Kostya was killed, that man had taken Fedor’s heart. His baby brother, by three minutes. Scores would be settled. Fedor would rip the man’s own heart from his chest, and eat it still beating before his dying eyes.
Images of vicious and glorious revenge were why Fedor was out on the street at this hour. He had worked himself up enough to contemplate disobeying Asher, and hunting them down on his own. But not yet enough to abandon his post. They would come on their own, Asher said. But why wait? They had waited long enough. Chased long enough.
The wind washed over the buildings on either side of him, making a hollow sort of sound in the narrow alley, like shadows scraping across the rooftops. And Fedor suddenly felt that he was being watched.
He quickly checked up and down the alleyway, straining his eyes in the heavy shadows. A single light glowed around the front of the buildings, spilling softly into the mouth of the side street, but creating strange pools of darkness along the sides. Fedor listened for any hint of sound, but detected none.
Until the whisper.
It was barely more than a rasping wind through the alley, but there was no mistaking what it said.
“I am sorry about your brother.”
Fedor ran protocols, just as Asher had taught him, casting a wide net into the datastream that would tell him if not who was there, at least where they were. In an instant, the results came back. Empty.
“I thought he was you,” the whisper said, this time from the opposite side of the alley. Closer.
Fedor searched frantically. It was the man, undoubtedly, but where. He reached inside his coat and drew out a wicked whipcoil baton, with a vicious pyramid-tip designed to puncture flesh and strip bone. It didn’t matter. Anger surged, adrenaline flowed. Vengeance was at hand. The man would appear, and then Fedor would rip him in pieces.
“Come, little dog.”
The whisper came from behind, so close Fedor could feel the breath. But even as he spun, he felt the blade bite just above the elbow of his good arm, felt the explosion of pain, the severing of bone, tendon, artery. Something metallic clattered away against the wall of the building, and something thumped wetly nearby. The arm. The other arm. Gone. Fedor stood face to face with the man, and the pain could not diminish the rage kindled.
With a roar, Fedor lunged with a lightning head-butt, but the man melted backwards, downwards, and Fedor felt a hard impact on his throat and in the same instant on the back of his neck. A wave of warmth rolled down his back. His breath came out in a whistle. And looking down, Fedor saw the hilt of the man’s blade just below his chin. Fedor tried to speak, but something hot and metallic bubbled out of his mouth instead. The man stared back at him passively. Quietly. Peacefully.
Fedor hated him.
Getting back out of the city had proven even easier than getting in had been, and Three made his way nimbly back through the outskirts. There were no others out now, no one watching the roads at this time of night. By his guess, he still had four, maybe five hours until the sun came up, bringing with it whatever storm he had called upon himself. Killing Fedor had brought him no joy, nor relief, but it was finished. It was done. The message had been sent.
There was still no clear plan in his mind, but he knew the next step: get back to Wren. He’d figure it out from there. At the very least, he had shifted the game. Made himself known as dangerous prey. Unpredictable. Maybe it would buy them some time.
Three slowed his pace as he approached the tumbledown building that Mr Carter had chosen for their hideout, and made a wide, careful arc, looking for any sign of trouble. Though he couldn’t imagine anyone would have followed him, he doubled back just to be sure before making his way inside. As he crept through the front of the building towards the corridor, he hunched down, making himself small in the near-absolute darkness.
About halfway down the hallway, he stumbled over something heavy that hadn’t been there before. Three managed to catch himself without too much noise, but even as he recovered, he knew there was trouble. The floor was gummy, and the thing he’d tripped over was warm, though not as warm as it should’ve been.
Mr Carter. Dead.
Three whipped down the hall, knowing what had happened, knowing that the room he was about to walk into would be empty, that Wren would be gone. But he couldn’t stop himself. He burst through the doorframe and stopped short.
The chemlight glowed warmly at the head of Wren’s pallet. Wren was there. Sleeping. Three blinked, mind trying to process, fighting to understand. If he hadn’t been so frantic, he might’ve heard it coming.
An iron vice-grip seized him, pinned his arm behind him with searing agony, and twisted and jerked his head around to the absolute farthest point just before his neck broke. There was a grim whisper, hot in his ear.
“Easy, brother. Let’s not wake the boy.”