People had lived here once, Cass knew, here in the shadow of the wall, and not all that long ago. Those that the citizens of Morningside called outsiders. Exiles from Underdown’s city, still living under his “protection”. As they moved through the now-empty ruins, Cass could still see traces of it; even though most of the personal belongings had been stripped out, the shells of buildings that had housed life showed signs of intentional design and structure — of maintenance. The further they got from the city, though, the fewer of those shelters she saw.
For the first mile or so, Wick kept them moving at a cautious but steady pace. The four bodyguards had their weapons out, held low but ready to bring to action in an instant. Cass had rarely seen the team running this heavy. Sky, of course, had his long rifle, and Gamble had her jittergun in a holster strapped to her thigh, but she was also carrying a larger weapon on a sling across her chest. Something about halfway between a pistol and rifle. Cass had never seen it before, but there wasn’t much doubt about its purpose. Both Wick and Finn had short-barreled rifles hanging on slings in front of them.
Whether out of fear or just good instincts, no one spoke while they walked. Every so often a Weir would call in the distance with an unearthly cry, but their cries were scattered and sporadic. Thankfully, none ever actually came within view. It’d been so long since Cass had been outside when the Weir were abroad. Even surrounded by a team she trusted completely, the farther they got from the city, the more vulnerable she felt.
She was just starting to wonder when and where they were going to regroup with Able and the others when Gamble quietly called for them to halt and to gather up around her. They crowded in close, but Wick, Finn, and Sky kept their backs to the rest of them, maintaining constant security intently.
“We’re getting into the outer limits now,” Gamble whispered. “The Weir don’t typically show up in numbers this close to the city, but that’s going to change in the next couple of miles.”
“Just tell us what you need us to do,” Cass said.
“I need you to tell me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Until tonight, none of us had ever been outside the wall with an Awakened before. And definitely not this far out. We need to know what to expect. Do they notice you? Can they track you? Are you going to draw their attention, or will they ignore you?”
Cass honestly had no idea. She hadn’t often been outside the walls since she’d been Awakened, and until the night they attacked the gate she’d never confronted them as one.
“It d-d-d, it depends,” Painter whispered.
“On what?” Gamble asked.
Painter shrugged. “Sometimes I’d go out. I tried to be careful, but s-s-somet-t-times… one f-f-followed me once, for a little while.” He paused and looked away from the group. “And once I guh-got attacked. I didn’t go b… back out after.”
“Doesn’t sound like you draw them any special way, though?”
Painter shrugged again.
Gamble’s eyes narrowed and her mouth made an almost perfectly flat line. “Alright. We’ll just have to take it slow. We don’t want to kill any if we don’t have to, that usually brings trouble. But if it comes to that, you just stay next to me, do what I tell you, and let us do the work.”
“You don’t have to protect me,” Cass said. “I can fight.”
“I know you can, but with all due respect, we’ve got a way we operate. Best if we don’t throw something unpredictable in that mix.”
Cass hated the idea of being treated like some kind of helpless citizen. But Gamble was right. Cass wasn’t one of them. What she thought was helping might actually throw them off. This was no time or place to let pride get in the way.
“We need to run as low profile as possible,” Gamble continued. “No pimming, no active broadcast, keep everything locked down while we’re out here.”
“What about your secure channel?” Wren asked. Gamble looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Is that OK?”
“It’s real low frequency so we can use it, but we try to keep it limited.”
“That’s why it sounds funny,” Wren said.
“Finn can tell you all about it later,” Gamble said with a quick nod and a wink. Her way of gently but clearly ending any further discussion. “We’ve still got a couple of hours until sunrise, but we need to put some distance between us and the city. I’m not trying to scare you, but I want you to understand there’s some danger out there. We’re going to do everything we can to keep us all out of trouble. But there’s a whole lot of trouble between us and our destination. It’ll be helpful if you guys keep your eyes and ears open too. Stay focused, stay with us. Questions?”
Cass looked at Wren and Painter, who both shook their heads.
“We’re good to go,” Cass said. Gamble nodded.
“Wick,” she said. “You got an ETA on the others?”
“Should’ve been here before us.”
“That’s what I thought. Finn, any word?”
“Negative. Want me to ping him?”
“I’ll do it… Swoop, Gamble. What’s your location?” She waited several seconds. “Swoop, this is Gamble.” Another long pause. In the distance, a Weir gave a call. A few seconds later, another answered. Gamble and Finn traded looks.
“Swoop?” she asked. After a moment, Gamble’s expression changed slightly, but Cass couldn’t read it. “You guys need support? One for yes, two for no.”
“What’s going on?” Cass asked Sky.
He glanced back over his shoulder. “He’s clicking at us. Something’s close enough to him he doesn’t want to risk talking.”
“Hope so. Otherwise they’re not out of the city yet.”
“Alright, check,” Gamble said. “We’re going to move to alternate. Can you make the alternate…? Check. See you there.”
Gamble adjusted the shoulder straps on the oversized pack she was carrying. “We’re going to have to link up with them at the alternate. I’m guessing we’ve got some Weir wandering around between us and them… Wick?” She nodded his direction.
They set out again, the pace slightly faster than the one they’d maintained earlier. As they proceeded, Cass noticed a steady degradation of their surroundings. More collapsed buildings, more exposed beams and rods, more brokenness. Soon it was clear they were completely beyond the borders of any power Morningside had ever projected.
They’d walked another twenty minutes or so before they saw the first Weir. Finn spotted it, off to their left. He made a soft hissing sound, shouldered his weapon, and then extended it slightly to point at the Weir. The group stopped. Cass followed his line and caught a glimpse of the Weir just as it was passing behind the shell of a two-story building between them. She felt Wren press against her leg, and she instinctively dropped her arm around his shoulders.
About thirty seconds later, the Weir emerged from behind the building. It was a fair distance from them, maybe fifty or sixty yards away. Finn and Sky both tracked it as it prowled around the abandoned structure, crouched low enough that it sometimes placed its hands on the ground in an almost crawl. It stopped every so often, swiveling its head slowly from side to side, almost as a man would if listening for a particular sound, or trying to identify a peculiar scent. It sat back on its haunches and slowly started turning its glowing eyes in their direction.
Cass immediately averted her own eyes, realizing almost too late that if she could see it, it could most certainly see her. She heard it squawk once, a burst of static. A few moments later, it made the same noise again. The second time didn’t sound as full.
“Ace?” Sky whispered.
Cass held herself as still as possible, eyes closed, feeling that even the natural sway of her body might be too much movement to be safe. The Weir squawked a third time, but it was distant. Cass realized she was holding her breath.
“Alright, let’s move,” Gamble whispered.
Cass opened her eyes to see Wick already pushing forward, instantly responsive to Gamble’s commands. As they moved, she glanced back in the Weir’s direction, but there was no sign of it. They marched on in silence, following closely the edges and contours of the broken buildings that surrounded them. Wick never let them stray far from cover, never committed them too fully to any one path or direction. The cries, croaks, and calls from the Weir grew more frequent. On more than one occasion Wick quickly redirected them down a side street or narrow alley, though his reasons weren’t always clear. Even so, no one questioned his decisions.
The wind picked up as they continued on, stirring up swirls and eddies of concrete dust. Had they not been keeping pace and loaded down with packs, the chill might have been cutting. Cass looked down at Wren, hoping to gauge his feelings, but his face was hidden in the deep hood of his coat. Painter lagged slightly behind them, his eyes downcast and his face grim. Cass hoped Wren was warm enough, but didn’t want to risk asking. He kept near her, steadily matching her pace without falter or complaint. These still, quiet hours of the night were her time, the time she felt most alive and aware. But she knew her son must have been fighting with every step just to keep his eyes open.
Watching him, it was hard to remember he was only eight. Though in another sense, it was equally hard to believe he was already eight. Still so small for his age, and yet in bearing years ahead. At times he was just her little boy; quick to call when frightened, eager to be held. But other times deeply brooding and withdrawn. Her son was fast becoming more and more of an enigma to her. And Cass couldn’t help but think of her other son, how he had changed, who he had become. Her mind revolted at the concept that Wren could ever be anything like Asher. Yet fear remained. If Wren started down that path, would she notice in time to try and stop him? Would she even be capable of stopping him?
A sudden motion from Wick snapped Cass back into the moment. He gestured for them to stop, and then waved them into a narrow alley they’d just passed. The team moved as if the whole thing had been planned.
Sky rolled in first, keeping to the right and covering the left with his weapon. He hesitated a second or two while Finn caught up, and Finn moved to the left wall, mirroring Sky’s movements, to cover the opposite side of the alley. Together they flowed down the narrow route and stopped just shy of where it intersected with another. Both went to a knee, weapons trained on the corners.
Gamble quickly shepherded Painter, Wren, and Cass in and had them move to one side, about halfway down. They stopped maybe seven yards back from Sky and Finn’s position, and then she motioned for them to crouch down. Once they were set, Gamble turned around to face the alley entrance and placed herself behind them, using her own body to shield them from anything that might try to follow them in. Wick came last, sliding in at the mouth of the alley, partially concealed, but positioned to maintain watch.
They all held as still as possible. After two, maybe three minutes, Wick looked back over his shoulder and held up three fingers, and then waved an open hand at about forty-five degrees, towards the right of the alley entrance. Gamble nodded, and then ducked her head and whispered into her hand. The group held position for another minute or so, and then Wick gave another hand signal — a fist with thumb and pinky extended. Cass had no idea what it meant, but Gamble whispered into her hand again, and a moment later there was the hint of a shuffle from the other end of the alley.
Cass looked back and saw Sky moving towards them in a low crouch. Finn slid smoothly over into the spot where Sky had just been, keeping his weapon up to cover the intersecting alley. Sky continued past Cass, scooted up behind Wick, and patted him on the shoulder. As soon as he did, Wick swiveled fluidly and swept back down the alley towards Finn. Wick looked intense, though he managed a quick wink at Cass, and lightly touched the top of Wren’s head, as he passed them. When he took up Finn’s original position, the two of them carried on a brief conversation that was some mix of whispered words and indecipherable hand signals.
Gamble sidled up next to Cass and leaned in close, so close Cass could feel her breath when she spoke.
“They’re pretty stirred up tonight,” she whispered. “Wick’s going to try to take us around. We’ll move soon.”
Cass nodded and Gamble returned back towards Sky. When Cass turned to check on Wren, she found him peering at her from within his hood. His eyes were wide.
“You OK?” she asked.
“Mama,” he said. “They’re everywhere.”
Cass nodded. “They’ll get us through,” she said, hoping to reassure him. From his expression, though, it didn’t look like she had.
Wick motioned again. Gamble relayed the message to the whole team, and then came alongside Cass and the boys.
“Stay about six feet behind me. And be quiet as you can.”
Wick disappeared around the corner. Finn stood but held his position, providing cover as Gamble led Cass, Wren, and Painter past him, quickly following Wick’s lead. They slipped into the intersection. Gamble let the gap between them and Wick stretch to maybe four or five yards. It’d give them a little more time to react if something happened to him. As they progressed, Cass realized they were in a twisting network of narrow corridors and alleyways, amongst some cluster of buildings several stories high. There were branches every few yards, and Wick led them at a quicker pace than Cass had been expecting. He took turns seemingly at random, but with such certainty and precision she had to believe he knew exactly where he was going.
The calls of the Weir were coming almost on top of each other now, from all directions. At least that’s what it seemed like to Cass. With the way the walls carried the sounds and the echoes, it was impossible to accurately judge numbers, distance, or location. But Cass felt the hair stand up on her neck and knew they were walking a knife’s edge. She could feel the Weir, in a way. A kind of wild pressure, like the tension in the air just before a violent storm.
Wick took them down a short side street and then ushered them quickly across a narrow gap between buildings and into a deep recess under an overhang. At first glance, it looked something like a concrete U, and Cass didn’t much care for the idea of getting boxed in. But on closer inspection, she saw a narrow opening near the center. She didn’t have time to see much more, though. With a single aggressive hand gesture, Gamble directed her, Wren, and Painter to crowd back into the left-most corner.
Cass obeyed immediately and instinctively crouched down, though she didn’t really know why. It just seemed like the right thing to do whenever they stopped moving. Wren slid in next to her, and Painter flopped down beside them. He leaned back against the concrete wall and closed his eyes.
Wick and Sky remained near the entrance of the alcove, each on a knee and weapons shouldered. Scanning for targets. Behind them, Gamble and Finn stood next to each other in conference.
“Swoop, Gamble,” Gamble said in a low voice. “Status…? Check. We’ve reached the alternate rally. It’s pretty sporty out here. How is it your way…? Got an estimate…? Alright, check. See you in a few.”
She looked up at Finn. “Think they’ve got a line on us?” Gamble said.
“Good chance,” Finn answered.
“Anything you can do?”
“Not from here. Wick and I can go out, try to draw them away.”
“Negative, I don’t want to get split up more than we already are.” Finn waited in patient silence while she thought through the options. “We’ll hold here and hope the others get here first. Check that hall, make sure it’s secure.”
Finn gave an easy nod and moved towards the opening Cass had seen on their way in. Out in the open, the moonlight had been enough to navigate by, but beneath the overhang it was much darker. It didn’t bother Cass, of course, but she wasn’t sure how Finn was going to clear the corridor. He had his rifle up, pointed down the hall, but he hesitated at the entrance. A red light flicked on from somewhere alongside his weapon, bathing the corridor in a sinister hue. Low intensity, enough to see by without disturbing night-adjusted vision.
A necessary risk, and minimized, but still it made Cass nervous, knowing how little they could afford to draw any more attention to themselves. She didn’t bother to ask for permission. She patted Wren on the back, and then slipped down the wall towards the darkened hallway. Her motion caused both Gamble and Finn to look at her sharply, and Cass held up a hand to let them know nothing was wrong.
“I’ll check it,” Cass said to Finn.
“I’ll take care of it, ma’am,” he said, as Gamble joined them.
“Finn, I can do it without the light. It’s safer.”
“What’s going on?” Gamble asked.
“I’m going to clear the corridor,” Cass answered before Finn could speak. “I don’t need the light.”
Gamble just looked at her for a moment.
“Finn, kill the light.” Finn grunted in disapproval, but he switched the light off and lowered his weapon. “Back Sky for me.”
Finn grimaced, but he nodded and went over to take a position between Wick and Sky.
“Down to the end and back,” Gamble said. “I want to be sure we can get through there if we have to.”
Cass nodded. Gamble pushed something into her hand. Cass looked down. Her jittergun. “You know how to use it, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Cass answered, glancing back up to read Gamble’s face. She was focused and serious, but Cass thought she could see a hint of fear behind Gamble’s eyes. Cass couldn’t remember a time when Gamble had feared anything.
“Shouldn’t need it, but just in case,” Gamble said with a fleeting and unconvincing smile.
“Be right back,” Cass said. Gamble nodded, and Cass turned to face the entrance of the corridor. She eased her way slowly around the corner, carefully scanning it for any sign of trouble.
It was a concrete tunnel, smooth-walled and only about ten yards long, wide enough for maybe three people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. It looked like it opened out into a similar configuration on the other side, into an open space beneath an overhang. There were a number of unevenly spaced gaps on either side of the hallway, though, and Cass couldn’t tell if they were shallow alcoves or additional corridors.
The weight of the jittergun and the texture of the grip was oddly comforting, and she looked down again at the stubby weapon in her hand. It wasn’t the same model as the one jCharles had given her long ago, but all the controls were basically in the same place. Memories returned: the air-rending buzz as it fired, the rapid vibration in her hand. The last time she’d used one of these, she’d been trapped in the Strand with Wren and Three. She’d killed a lot of Weir with it that night. But not enough.
Cass took a breath and gripped the jittergun a little tighter. And started down the corridor. There was debris strewn all along the floor. But no tracks through the rubble and dust. At least, no obvious tracks.
The first opening was to her right, and she moved as far to the left as she could. She brought the jittergun up with both hands and worked around the corner with cautious steps, not wanting to expose any more of herself than she had to. If there was anyone or anything in there, the first thing it was going to see was the muzzle of the jitter, followed shortly thereafter by its devastating payload.
It didn’t take long for her to see the back of the alcove. Not a corridor after all, for which Cass was thankful. Still, she moved carefully, carefully, around in an arc, making sure both corners were clear. There was nothing there but a couple of piles of debris that the wind had swept into the corners.
Cass continued down the hall, checking each alcove in the same fashion, taking nothing for granted. But they were all essentially the same. She reached the end without uncovering any surprises and became aware that her fingers were aching. She lowered the jittergun and relaxed her grip.
As expected, the corridor emptied out into a sort of three-walled room, a mirror image of the one where the others currently stood guard. Out across from her was an open area leading into another cluster of buildings. She stood there for maybe thirty seconds, carefully scanning for any sign of the Weir, but saw none. Satisfied they were secure, Cass turned and started walking back towards the others.
About halfway down the hall, a faint scraping noise sounded behind her, and made her stop dead. A gust of cold air funneled down the corridor and swirled around her. Had that been all it was? She couldn’t take any chances; she ducked into the nearest alcove and crouched down. Gamble was just at the end of the hall. Fifteen feet away. But Cass had to be sure.
She peeked out around the corner. There was nothing there. Not yet. Something in her gut told her to wait. And then sure enough, there — far out beyond the end of the corridor — a Weir crept into view. It croaked once as it moved down the open expanse between Cass and the buildings across from her. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be headed their way, and eventually it turned into another alleyway and disappeared.
Cass waited in her hiding place a bit longer, just to be safe, and then rejoined the others.
“Hall’s clear,” she said to Gamble. “A few alcoves, but they’re not deep. I saw a Weir across the street, but it was moving away from us.”
“Check,” Gamble answered, as she did so often. It seemed almost reflexive. “Can you pull security on that hall?”
“You mean watch it?” Cass asked.
“Yeah, I can do that.”
Cass looked over at Wren, still tucked into the corner. He was hugging his knees, with his head resting on top of them, but he was still watching everything intently. “How much longer?” she asked Gamble.
“Seven to ten minutes.”
Cass nodded and returned to the corridor, keeping watch. Under normal circumstances, ten minutes wouldn’t have seemed like much of a wait. But in that moment, Cass wasn’t confident they’d last more than five.
They didn’t even make it to three.