Wren lay sleeping in her lap, undisturbed by the deadly creature prowling at the entrance of the alcove. Cass could see no details of the thing, save its gently radiating eyes: blue, cold, electric. These shifted; floated in a fluid, elliptical pattern, as though the Weir were peering at her through smoke, or heavy fog. Or like a cobra, before it struck. Instinctively, slowly, she squeezed Wren closer, hoping he wouldn’t stir. The Weir hadn’t seen them here before. Maybe it would overlook them again.
For a moment, it just stood there, silently. Cass couldn’t even hear it breathing. But she could smell its scent. Antiseptic, metallic, faintly pungent, like a stainless steel scalpel, with lingering vapors of embalming fluid. Death preserved.
It glanced casually away to its right, as if disturbed by some unfelt breeze, or perhaps considering continuing on to the stairs. The creature hesitated there, just long enough for Cass to hope it would leave. Instead, it whipped its gaze back directly upon her, and she knew it was over.
The Weir crouched back, coiling to pounce, and let fly its white-noise scream. Cass crushed Wren to her, shut her eyes, turned her back to absorb the brunt of the attack.
But it didn’t come.
A strange sound — the wet whip of metal through flesh and bone — silenced the Weir mid-cry. A dull bounce, followed by a heavy collapse. A sharp wave of chemical odor, sulfuric or strongly ammoniacal, crashed over them. Cass dared open her eyes to find only pitch-blackness, the Weir’s blue-glow eyes doused.
—a voice, in the darkness.
The man. He spoke in low tones, somewhere between whisper and growl. “You OK?”
“Where have you been?” Cass demanded, harsh, through gritted teeth, barely restraining her voice.
“Is your boy alright?” he said, more gruffly. “He’s quiet.”
Before Cass could respond, the man ignited his own chemlight. Meager light by most standards, but to Cass’s eyes it blazed like a sun.
Three held the chemlight outstretched; scanned the couple huddled against the wall. He could barely see the kid, tucked in there between the wall and his mother, but he could see enough. Wren’s eyes were open wide, staring, not even squinting against the sudden flare of Three’s light. Jaw clenched, oblivious to his surroundings: catatonic. No way to tell if the kid was even still in there anymore. Three shook his head.
“I’m fine,” Wren said in the barest of whispers, unblinking. “Is the other one still down here?”
Three glanced to Cass. She looked just as surprised as he felt. Three grunted, frustrated with himself. Surprised could get you killed.
“Other one?” he asked.
Cass shook her head.
“That one…” Her eyes flicked to the dark heap by Three’s feet for a hint of a second, “…passed us once, but came back.”
Three caught a motion out of the corner of his eye: the kid, shaking his head ever so slightly. Not openly defying his mother. Almost to himself. Like he wanted his mom to be right, but knew she wasn’t. He just kept staring straight ahead.
“Wren was sleeping,” she offered, gently combing his hair with her fingers. “Maybe he dreamed it.”
Wren’s watery gaze shifted to Three, and Three got the sense the kid knew something. He didn’t push it.
“OK,” he said, with a slight conspiratorial nod to Wren. “Well. Let me take care of this.”
He kicked at the unmoving remains of the Weir.
“Then we’ll see what we see.”
Three hooked the chemlight on his coat, letting the light fall across the Weir’s remains. Cass inhaled sharply, hand reflexively shooting to cover Wren’s eyes. She’d never seen one up close before.
It might have been a man once, long ago. A man dead of starvation, left exposed in some frozen desert where rot had never touched the corpse. The skin was green-gray in the chemlight, stretched tight like a drum over its skeleton, with hardly enough apparent muscle to animate the bones. Its hands lay curled like dead spiders, each of its knotted fingers sharply tipped with what looked more like talons than nails. The neck ended abruptly just above the shoulders, and seeped a pungent, viscous fluid; the source of the chemical odor. Its head… well, there was no sign of that.
There came the quiet swishing sound of steel drawn across fabric, and Cass realized for the first time that Three had been wielding his short blade, and was only now sheathing it. He hooked his forearms under the Weir’s armpits without any apparent revulsion, and dragged it further down the tunnel, away from the stairs. The scraping sound of the corpse across the concrete grew fainter and fainter, and at last faded to silence. Cass felt fear creeping up on her again, never having noticed its absence in the first place.
“Don’t worry,” she said, after a while. “He’ll be back.”
She told herself she was comforting Wren. The darkness stretched time, made it difficult to judge whether it’d been five minutes or twenty.
“He’ll be back,” she repeated.
“He’s a good guy, right?” Wren whispered.
“He’s a good guy? He’s not going to hurt us?”
Cass hesitated for a bare moment, brushed her fingers through Wren’s hair, soothing.
“Don’t worry, baby,” she answered. “I don’t think he’s dangerous.”
“He is dangerous, Mama,” Wren replied, with unusual certainty. “But he’s good, right?”
There was something in the tone, something deeper behind the question, but it was a something Cass couldn’t puzzle out. She put her hand on his cheek. It was cool, clammy; wet with tears. He was trembling.
“What is it? Wren, what’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer, except with a labored sob, one he’d been trying to hold back. Panic surged up in Cass’s chest: a crushing, nameless fear for her child.
“Wren, baby, what’s going on? Just talk to me.”
He struggled to speak, mouth working without words. Finally, he forced a whisper through his constricted throat, reluctant: part confession, part nightmare.
“I can’t feel him, Mama.”
Cass pulled out the chemlight and ignited it to get a good look at her son. Instead, she let out a yelp.
The man was there, crouched at the alcove, looking back at her.
“Sorry,” he said flatly, almost at full voice, which seemed to roll like thunder down the concrete tunnel. If he’d heard what Wren had said, he didn’t make any sign of it. And he didn’t seem that concerned about Wren’s state. Nothing unusual about a child being comforted by his mother in the dark.
“You want to move?” he asked.
It took a moment for Cass to find a reply, there was so much her brain was trying to process.
“What? Oh, uh,” she stammered, and inhaled, drawing in foul fumes that stung her nostrils. “Can we?”
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s another alcove just a little ways down. Come on.”
He reignited the chemlight hooked on his coat, and scooted back, while Wren crawled out, followed closely by Cass. A dark pool of viscous chemical fluid spread from the entry of the alcove, and trailed off in a wide swath further down the storm system.
“Don’t worry,” Three said, seeing Wren’s wet eyes on the streak. “We’ll go down the other side.”
Cass held Wren’s hand tightly as Three led them down the corridor at a confident pace, without any noticeable concern that more of the Weir might be around. Even walking in their little bubble of light, she felt the yawning blackness pressing down on them: weighty, draining. By the time they reached the next alcove, Cass couldn’t have said whether they’d walked for twenty meters or two hundred. And she realized she was weary enough for it to have been ten times as far. Three crouched at the entryway, looking under the stacks of pipes that covered the top half of the niche, and then motioned them in.
Cass nudged Wren in ahead of her, crouched, and followed closely behind. Wren moved to the back while she settled into one corner. Once seated, she motioned to him, and he flopped into her lap, closing her arms around himself, as if wrapping himself up in a blanket. Cass hugged her son close, and extinguished her chemlight.
Three watched them from the entryway, noted the almost ritualistic nature of their movements, their postures. The way Wren nestled into Cass, how she rested her cheek atop his head. Three guessed the woman and child had spent many nights just this way, sleeping in some abandoned building or alley.
“Will you sleep?” Cass asked, raising her head slightly.
Three shook his head.
“You go ahead and rest, ma’am. I’ll keep an eye out.”
Cass nodded slightly, and resumed her posture, closing her eyes. Three watched her for a moment. Ragged, weary, she looked suddenly vulnerable. Fragile. And the boy. Three looked to him, and glimpsed the boy’s eyes shutting suddenly. The eyelids fluttered. Pretending to be asleep. Three smirked at that.
He turned his back to them, and sat cross-legged at the mouth of the alcove. He drew a deep breath, then switched off his chemlight; allowed himself to be swallowed by darkness. Silently, so as not to disturb the woman and child, he drew his pistol and laid it in his lap. Three didn’t expect anyone, or anything, to find them down here, but the familiar weight of the gun was reassuring. He reached back, unsheathed his blade, rested it over the top of the pistol. His own ritual. He steeled himself, set his mind and will to staying awake in the long and silent darkness.
After a moment, a breathy whisper sounded behind him. The boy.
“What’s your—?” he started, then caught himself. “My name’s Wren. What’s yours?”
“Three,” whispered Three over his shoulder.
There was a long pause, almost long enough for Three to think Wren had gone on to sleep. He hadn’t.
“Should I call you Mister Three?”
Three smiled to himself.
“Just Three,” he answered. Then almost as an afterthought, added, “Should I call you Mister Wren?”
Three could hear a hint of smile in the boy’s reply.
After that, it was quiet for a long time.
Cass stirred awake, felt the dull ache of a night’s sleep on a marble-hard floor, let her eyes float open. Expecting the total darkness of the storm-water system, she jolted when she realized she was outside. The sun was a sliver of fiery orange on the horizon, dawn breaking under a mercury sky. She took groggy stock of her surroundings, blinking heavy eyelids. A courtyard. Brick. Squat buildings, three or five stories high, crumbled around her. Heavy mist the color of concrete swirled off the ground at knee-level. Sleep fell away, and a realization broke over her like an arctic squall.
Wren was gone.
Cass exploded to her feet, and whipped around to get her bearings, looking for any sign or trace of her boy, finding none. She stood frozen, panicked, afraid to call out. Afraid not to.
Then, a voice sounded behind her.
“It’s alright,” a man called. “He’s with me.”
Cass recognized that voice. She spun.
There, leaning against a wall across the courtyard, was her nightmare incarnate. Tall, lithe, wearing his wolfish grin, Asher’s stillness coiled with menace. He was shaggy-haired and sharply handsome, with young, smooth features, and a boyish charm that could put almost anyone at ease. But not Cass. She knew what he was, and what he could do. She’d seen it for herself. Her hands balled into knuckle-cracking fists.
“Where is my son?”
“Don’t worry about little Spinner,” Asher said. “Ran and Jez are watching him.”
Rage boiled up within Cass; rage, and an ice-cold fear. She had sworn to Wren she would never let them take him back. Her heart broke at what he must be going through now, alone, without her.
Asher scanned her up and down with a brief, casual amusement, then turned his interest to picking the lint from his long black coat. She judged the distance. The courtyard was maybe twenty meters wide. Too far. She’d never cross it fast enough.
“It’s not too late for you, you know,” he offered, not looking up. “All could be forgiven.”
His eyes flicked up to her then, over her body, predatory. Hungry.
“For the right price.”
A wave of revulsion crashed through her, and Cass fought to still herself. It wasn’t enough. Asher caught the flicker of disgust on her face. She might as well have said it aloud.
“Not even for a chance to be with your own kid?” said Asher, with a humorless laugh. “Same as always — too stubborn for your own good.”
“I swear to you, if you so much as think about hurting Wren—”
“Spare me the cliché,” he interrupted, flicking a speck of dust. “It bores me.”
He straightened to his full height, brushing one sleeve lightly with the back of his hand, and then tugging its cuff down past his wrist. Cass’s mind raced. She might as well try for it. Maybe she’d catch him off guard.
“Fedor said you’d be like this,” Asher sighed. He fidgeted with his other sleeve, glanced off at the horizon. “I wanted to argue, but… I guess I can’t force you to make good decisions.”
Asher seemed briefly lost in thought. This was her only moment. Cass rerouted synapses, flooded herself with adrenaline, readied to pounce.
“Besides,” he added with a scoff. “Someone else has been missing you far more than I have.”
Cass tipped forward to launch herself at him.
Her toes never even left the ground. Steel fingers seized her shoulder from behind, paralyzing her.
The scream died in her throat.