Cass opened blind eyes to the nothingness that surrounded her, stifled a gasp, tried to get her bearings. For a moment, her last memory of Asher lingered, sharp, as real as the flight from the city wall, the Weir, the man. But in a flash, it was fleeting, fading, replaced by the reality pressing down around her. The damp blackness, the weight and warmth of Wren sleeping in her lap, the stone floor beneath her. Still, wakefulness didn’t rid her of the intense grip she felt on her shoulder. The whole train of thought took only a fraction of a second, and in the next instant she realized the man was by her side, hand on her shoulder, lips pressed to her ear, his growling whisper hot on her face.
“We’re in trouble.”
Her instincts snapped alive, sudden clarity and focus even in the darkness.
“Wake the boy,” he said. “But keep him quiet.”
Before she could ask, he evaporated into the darkness, leaving only a release of pressure on her shoulder, a trace of warmth and wetness like a passionless kiss on her ear. Cass bent gently, pressed her cheek to Wren’s, nuzzled him awake. He stirred in her lap, inhaled sleepily, but didn’t speak, wouldn’t until she said it was alright. She had taught him that long ago. She helped him to unsteady feet, and then rolled up to her knees, tried to work the hard knots out of her back and thighs. There was a dryness in her mouth, a stretching feeling at the back of her throat almost like the need to yawn, a certain restlessness deep in her lungs. The quint was getting low. Already. That much had used to last her days. Now, her body seemed to be burning through it faster than she could find it.
The man rematerialized.
“Do you remember the way to the stairs?” he whispered.
Cass nodded, forgetting he couldn’t see her.
“Good,” he said, before she had a chance to speak. “We’re leaving.”
Cass checked her internal clock. 06:17 GST. Sun wouldn’t be up for another half hour, at least.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
A distant, digital croak answered for him. Cass stiffened, felt the hairs rise on her neck.
“There was another one,” Three said. “It brought help.”
Another croak echoed down the tunnel, eerie in its origin, otherworldly with its reverberation.
“Let’s move,” said Three. Cass actually heard him shuffle backwards this time, presumably out of the alcove. She took Wren’s hand in one of her own, and used the other to feel her way out, leading him along behind. The barest movement of air, a trace of coolness, signaled when she’d reentered the cavernous tunnel. Back to her right, towards the stairs, the endless blackness continued. Off to the left, however, a faint twinkle of blue glowed at her, bobbed, a wisp in the willows. It was joined by a second. Then a third.
Cass felt Wren pull away from her, and instinctively her hand clenched tight.
“It’s alright,” Three whispered, barely letting the air escape through his lips. “I’ve got him.”
Cass reluctantly let Wren go. From the rustling, she gathered that the man had slung Wren up on his back.
“Hold on, and stay close.”
Cass slipped her fingers through Wren’s belt, and bumped up tight against him.
“Here we go.”
Like a gentle tide, Cass felt Wren receding from her, so smoothly and silently, at first she thought she was falling backwards. She caught herself, and stepped forward, feeling clumsy and jostling in her gait compared to the flowing pace of the man in front of her. After a few steps, however, she found a rhythm that, if not matched, at least complemented his, and together they slipped off in the darkness.
The trio floated down the tunnel towards the stairs, haunted by the occasional squelch of white-noise echoing from the Weir behind them. Though they weren’t sounding any closer, Cass was unnerved to notice they weren’t sounding any farther away either. The squawks and croaks usually came in clusters, almost as if it were a conversation composed entirely of static. And now that she was paying more attention, she could pick out peculiarities in the sounds, or voices, if she dared call them that. One was thinner, drier; somehow more brittle. The others were fuller-throated, less harsh in aural frequency, but more fierce and guttural in tone.
Cass felt lost in the swimming darkness, her only anchors to any sort of concrete reality the floor under her feet and her hand on Wren. He was being awfully brave, she thought. She wondered how far they had left to go. It certainly felt like they should’ve made it by now.
She pinged the nearest satellite, located their position in the schematic she’d downloaded from before, ran an internal app to measure the distance. Eighty-three meters to go.
Suddenly, an electric shriek shattered the tunnel, ricocheted like sonic shrapnel; pierced her ears. Reflexively she clapped her hands over them and glanced behind. The blue orbs were there, now closing fast.
“What’d you do?” Three barked, snatching her around to face him.
“What?” she stammered. “No, nothing. I—”
He ignited the chemlight on his vest, and the ferocity on his face frightened her. He growled a wordless curse, and slid his hand down to her wrist, gripping it. Hard.
He jerked her to a run. All grace and fluidity disappeared. The three of them crashed headlong into the darkness, seeing no more than five steps ahead of themselves. Wren clung desperately to Three’s back. Cass struggled to keep pace while being towed along.
She chanced a glance over her shoulder, caught a fleeting glimpse. Not three orbs now. Six pinpoints. Eyes.
The Weir were gaining.
Her heart pounded in her chest, she felt like she was falling behind, could feel Three straining to hold himself back so she could keep up. Cass wasn’t going to be the one to get them killed. She proc’d more of the quint, overdrove her adrenals, felt her nerves electrify with the surge. In two bounding steps, she was dead-even with Three, jerking her arm away from him with strength renewed.
He didn’t seem to notice or care. They sped down the tunnel. Three pointed ahead to their left.
She cut that way, found the base of the stairs, launched up them. But Three snatched her arm again, stopping her mid-stride, spinning her back towards him. In a fluid motion, he had Wren off his back and into her arms, so quickly she barely had time to grab her son. Three wrenched the chemlight off his vest, and shoved it between her fingers.
He pushed her on up a stair, and from the look in his eye, she knew better than to hesitate. She took them two at a time. Two flights, three flights, she put everything she had into every step, trying to remember just how many flights she’d come down. Somewhere between the fifth and sixth flights, she heard an impact on the stairs. The Weir were climbing.
Cass pressed on, thighs burning with the effort, breath coming in great gulps. She threw a glance over the rail, saw them a few flights below, the two in front like wild dogs bounding over each other to be the first to the kill. Their blue eyes streaked in the blackness around them, dancing as they vaulted up the steps.
Wren squeezed tight on her back. She felt him bury his face to her neck, almost sensed him willing her faster, or perhaps wishing he could wake from the nightmare. His weight dragged at her. Shifting on her shoulders, it made her next step tough to judge. Her toe caught, just barely. Just enough. She went sprawling with a cry.
Cass’s chin hit hard on the metal-grated stair above her, as she rolled reflexively to her left, throwing Wren towards the wall, away from the edge. Dazed, stunned for a moment, she caught a view of the Weir circling the flights behind her. Not quite three flights now, one outpacing the other by several steps. She launched herself to her feet, and yanked Wren up on to her back. As she fled higher, the image flashed again in her mind. The Weir racing up the stairs. Two of them. Only two? Or had she missed the third?
Her foot slipped again, though she caught herself this time with a hand on the rail. She’d lost count of flights by now, and her mind was set on nothing more than reaching the top. Spots floated through her vision, and she blinked them away, terrified that another misstep would be the end of them both.
There was a commotion on the stairs below: a sharp digital shriek that escalated in pitch, a solid impact that shuddered the staircase. No time to look back. Cass flew on, a hind leaping to high places. Another flight. Another. Then, out of nowhere, the door. She’d almost forgotten it was her goal.
She slung Wren to his feet on the landing, hurried him to the heavy metal door. It was cracked open, inward. Just enough.
“Go ahead, baby, go through,” she panted.
Wren hesitated at the crack.
“Wren, go!” she pushed him, and he dug his heels in, resistant.
“It’s dark!” he cried, the first words from his mouth since he woke. “It’s still dark out!”
She ground her teeth, tried to force him through, but she couldn’t get leverage between the wall and the door. In a moment, it didn’t matter anyway. A Weir was there. On the landing.
Cass spun to confront it, expecting it to leap upon her full force. Instead, it halted, hunched but not crouched, scanning her. Cass reached behind her, felt for Wren, ensured he was there, shielded. At least there was no sign of the others. Cass just had to buy a little time. Just long enough for Three to catch up. She just didn’t know how she was going to do it.
The Weir seemed uncertain, hesitant. It glanced quickly away down the stairs, as if noticing for the first time that it was alone. This one was different from the others: larger, more muscular. Still a corpse, but one better preserved. It looked back at Cass, opened its mouth and squawked at her. A vicious howl of circuitry and menace; an electric wolf. Cass tensed.
“Come on,” she said internally, a silent plea for help. “Come on.”
The Weir flexed its hands, nails green in the chemlight. Still no sound on the stair below. Cass hoped that was a good sign. But she wasn’t fool enough to count on hope alone. She dosed again. She’d have to deal with the consequences later. If there was a later.
The Weir scanned her again. No, not her. Behind her. It was trying to get a bead on Wren. No more waiting.
Three was aware. Aware that he was aware. That was a start. Not a great one, but a start nonetheless. The left side of his face felt like it was covered in dry paint, or plaster. His neck felt strange. Definitely crumpled into a corner. A corner made of something hard. His legs wouldn’t move.
Bad sign. Broken neck, probably. He tried his fingers. They wiggled. Still had those, at least. He wondered how he would drag himself up all those stairs with just his fingers. After a thought, he tried his toes. Surprise. They wiggled too.
Oh. Something heavy, on his legs. Heavy, wet, and unpleasant. He finally opened his eyes, only just realizing he hadn’t done that yet. In the darkness, he could make out the outlines of things. Not really details, but shapes, beginnings and endings; depth, movement. The thing on his legs definitely wasn’t moving. Hazy memories started coming back now. Weir. On the steps. He’d gotten the first one no problem. The second one, that’d been a problem. The thing on his legs was the second.
The second. There had been three. Three. Another one, still alive, somewhere up above him. After the woman and the boy. The boy. Wren.
With no small amount of effort, Three rolled the Weir off him, found his blade buried through its middle. All was quiet up the stairs. Three didn’t like that at all. He forced himself to his feet, hissed at a searing in his side, between his ribs. He felt around, found something hard that hadn’t been there before. With gritted teeth he pulled at it, worked it free. Nail from the Weir. Punctured his vest. Must’ve broken off in the fall.
He left it with the Weir, and got his blade back, wiping it clean on the Weir’s ragged garment. His hands were sticky.
Three forced his feet up the steps, a slow, painful plod at first. Feeling worked its way back through his legs, and not a good one. He pushed on, brought himself to a weary jog. As he climbed, he looked up, spotted the landing at the top. Three more flights. A yellow-green light glowed there.
He hurried as best he could, reached the landing, stopped to take stock of the scene. The chemlight lay in the middle of the floor, showing it all.
Too late. He was too late.
The Weir was gone. Cass lay slumped against the wall, her shirt stained crimson from neckline to navel. A limp arm dangled over Wren, who sprawled motionless in her lap. The first graying light of morning slipped through the cracked door, and fell like a ribbon of mist over Cass’s pale form.
Three clenched his jaw, swallowed what felt like emotion crawling up his throat. Foolish. Too risky, bringing a woman and her child out beyond the wall at night. He should’ve known better, should’ve thought it through. Seeing those first rays of morning made him angry, reminded him of just how close they’d been to making it. He thought back over what had happened, tried to figure out where he’d made the critical mistake. He should’ve trusted the kid more, gone hunting for that second Weir. Or maybe they should’ve just stayed in the city, holed up and waited it out. Most likely, he just should never have gotten involved in the first place.
He slipped his blade back into its sheath, ran a hand over his scalp, down over his face, closed his eyes. Gathered himself. He’d have to find a place to bury them. A quiet place. Where they could rest. Three opened his eyes and forced himself to look again at the silent and grim monument to what the world had become. All widows and orphans, with no one to defend them.
A twitch. Three blinked, and refocused.
Fool!, he cursed himself.
Not dead. Unconscious. Or asleep. He’d let himself see what he expected to find, instead of what was there. Yet another mistake that could’ve gotten him killed. He’d lost count of how many of those he’d made in the past two days. Too many to still be alive, that was certain.
He crept to the pair, knelt at their side, placed his hand on Wren’s back. It rose and fell steadily. Three took a closer look at Cass, brushed the hair back from her face. She was drawn, pale, damp with a cool glisten of sweat. High cheeks, olive skin, full lips rimmed in white. From here he could see the split in her chin, still oozing, the source of the blood on her shirt. A welcome relief. He’d feared her throat had been cut. The knuckles and back of her left hand were spattered and crusted with a dark, drying fluid, and a quick inhale told him at least part of the story. Wherever the Weir was now, it wasn’t happy.
Three placed a hand on her arm, and squeezed gently. Cass jerked awake with a sharp inhalation, pulled back, stared at him with wild eyes. Recognition finally came, and she glanced down to check on Wren. Still sleeping, undisturbed.
“Are you hurt?” Three asked. The woman’s hand went gingerly to her chin, but she shook her head no.
“I’m fine,” she said. She looked at him with concern. He wasn’t sure why. “Are you going to be alright?”
“Yeah,” he answered, with a half shrug.
Cass reached up and touched the side of his face, high on the cheekbone, near his eye socket. The light brush of her finger felt like a blowtorch across his skin. Three jerked away with a hiss. He grimaced. More damage than he’d thought.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cass said with a pained expression. “I thought maybe the blood wasn’t yours.”
“Well,” Three replied, testing the wound with his own fingertips. The whole left side of his face was crusted. “I guess it’s not anymore, huh?”
The flesh around his cheekbone was hot and puffy. He pressed into it, ignored the sting, probed the bones beneath. His cheek was lacerated, and would bruise deeply, but otherwise the facial structure seemed to be intact.
“Where’d the Weir go?” Three asked, gritting his teeth through the ache that now radiated through his face and jaw.
“Back downstairs,” Cass answered flatly.
“It ran away?”
“It fell,” said a sleepy voice from Cass’s lap. “Mama knocked it over the edge.”
Wren sat up and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Three gave Cass another look. She certainly didn’t look like one to take down a Weir. Slight of frame, maybe a hundred and fifteen pounds by Three’s estimate. Sure, she was juiced, but it took a lot more than a little chemical boost to deal with something that dangerous. Under his gaze, she just shrugged.
“Can we go now?” Wren asked.
Three didn’t take his eyes off Cass.
“Sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah,” Cass said, too quickly for Three’s liking. “Just tired. That was a lot of stairs.” She added a throwaway smile.
Lying. But she didn’t seem to have any serious injuries. Probably exhausted; hungry, thirsty. Three chalked it up to her being brave. He stood, and held out a hand to her.
She accepted the help, got to her feet with forced ease. Wren stood as well, and Three knelt beside him.
“You want a ride, kid?”
Wren looked to his mother for a cue. She nodded. Relieved. Wren clambered up onto Three’s back, and Three regained his feet, shifting Wren around to a comfortable spot.
“By the way, what’s your name?”
“Three? I’m Cass. My son is Wren.”
“Mister Wren,” Three said with a half-nod, “and I already met.”
“Where are we going?” Cass asked, picking the chemlight up off the floor, and extinguishing it.
“Somewhere you can rest,” Three said. Then caught Cass’s eye. “And we can talk.”
He gave the door a yank, and it swung open with a jarring screech. He didn’t bother to close it as they set out in the weak light of the early dawn.