When Cass heard the scream echo through the cityscape, she didn’t hesitate. She knew her son’s voice. Cass was off at a full sprint before anyone else had even reacted.
The others were only a couple hundred yards away. As Cass approached, she saw Wick kneeling and Gamble standing nearby with her hands on top of her head. Able was holding Wren. Gamble reacted to the sound of her approach, but Cass’s only concern was for her son.
“Wren!” she called. “Wren, what happened?”
His face was buried against Able’s shoulder, and he didn’t answer at first. But as she drew nearer, she could tell he was sobbing.
Gamble intercepted her with a stony expression.
“Is he alright, is he hurt?” Cass asked.
“He’s not hurt,” Gamble said. But her face was grave.
“Mama,” Wren said, racked with sobs. “Mama, they’re gone! They’re all gone!” Able carried him over to her, and Wren clung to her fiercely, with her coat balled in his fists.
“What? What do you mean, Wren?”
Gamble just pointed down the slope. At first, Cass couldn’t tell what she was pointing at. Nothing caught her eye as unusual. Just more of the same broken and scarred urban landscape.
But then Cass noticed a low wall with gentle curves, and from there started picking up little details. Here a shredded bit of cloth. There some kind of tool, broken in two. The damage was more recent than the rest of the surrounding area. Much more recent.
The rest of the team came barreling up behind them and immediately moved into positions with their weapons up, scanning for targets. They were breathing hard from the sprint with all that gear, but every man was sharp and alert. Painter was the last to reach them.
“What’s going on?” Finn asked. He was inhaling deeply through his nose and exhaling out of his mouth, trying to bring his breathing back under control.
“Place is wrecked,” Wick said.
“That it down there? With the fence?” said Finn.
“Yeah,” Wick answered.
“Not sure yet.”
“Better check it,” Swoop said. “G?”
Gamble nodded. That was all Swoop needed. “Wick, Finn, you’re with me,” he said. “Sky, think you can find a room with a view?”
“Yep,” Sky said. The four men started removing their packs and double-checking their combat gear.
“Rest of you hang here while we make sure it’s clear,” said Swoop.
“Keep your eyes wide open, boy,” Gamble said. “And watch your step. If it was scrapers, they might’ve left traps.”
“Heard, understood, and acknowledged,” Swoop said. “We’ll keep you posted.”
Swoop led Wick and Finn down the hill towards the compound, while Sky went off on his own to find an elevated position.
“Scrapers?” Painter asked.
“The worst kind of scavengers,” Gamble said. “They don’t necessarily wait around for you to die on your own. We had more trouble with them than we did with the Weir, back when Underdown was around.”
“They would r-r-raid outsiders,” Painter said. “I remember. Never heard them cuh… called that though.”
Gamble didn’t respond, and the group fell silent. Even Wren. He’d cried himself out, and was now just lying with his head on Cass’s shoulder.
Down below, Swoop and the brothers cautiously approached the low wall that marked the boundary of the compound, and then slowly worked their way through one of the gates.
“Might as well get comfortable,” Gamble said. “It’ll be a while.”
The team didn’t budge. Cass figured Gamble’s comment was meant for her, so she carried Wren over to a nearby building and sat him in her lap while she leaned back against a wall. No one spoke much. Cass could tell the team was checking in at regular intervals from Gamble’s occasional one-sided responses, but otherwise they all just waited.
It was over an hour before they got word that it was clear for them to join the others. Sky reappeared a few minutes after they got the signal, and then they gathered up the packs that had been left behind and moved to the compound.
From a distance, Cass hadn’t really gotten a sense of how extensive the damage was. Walking through the compound made everything all too real. There was no doubt that people had been living here not all that long ago. Belongings were broken and scattered all across the grounds. It was almost as if some great wind had scoured the little village for every last person and blown them from their homes.
The walk was both heartbreaking and mind-boggling. Everywhere Cass looked, she saw lingering signs of a carefully cultivated existence. An outpost of human life, here on the border of the Strand. And at the same time, she couldn’t fathom how in the world people had ever managed to survive in such a place.
There were no strong defenses, no high walls, no bristling gun towers. If Wren hadn’t told her so many stories of the people he’d met, she would never have imagined anyone could’ve lasted here for more than a few days.
They met Swoop and Wick in front of one of the larger structures in the compound, at the bottom of a set of stairs. Wren sat down on the steps and just stared vacantly at what was left of the place. Fire had consumed portions of the surrounding buildings, and there were clear signs of battle. Dark splotches spotted the ground, especially around the area where they now stood.
“What do you think?” Gamble asked.
“Weir, definitely,” Swoop said. “Too much stuff left behind for it to have been scrapers.”
Cass sat down next to Wren and rubbed his back.
“A lot of ’em, too,” Wick added. “Judging from all the tracks. I’d say sixty at least. Maybe more.”
“Sounds like an awful lot just to be prowling around,” Sky said.
“Yeah, that’s another thing. Looks to me like they all came in the same way, from the north-east.”
“Not from the Strand?” Cass asked.
Wick shook his head. “My guess is the people put up a fight near the wall, and got pushed back. Tried to make a stand here.”
“I don’t understand what people would be doing out here in the first place,” Sky said. “They couldn’t have thought those walls would do anything.”
“We aren’t animals that we should live in a pen,” Wren said quietly. Everyone turned to look at him.
“What, sweetheart?” Cass asked.
“It’s what Chapel used to say. The people were their own protection.”
Sky started to make a comment, but a sharp look from Gamble shut him up. “Damage looks pretty recent,” she said.
“Yeah, three days, maybe,” Wick said. “I’d guess five at the most.”
“There was an attack when I was here before,” Wren said. “A big one. Some people died. But they won. I just… I can’t believe they’re all gone.”
“Well, I don’t know about all,” Wick said. “I think there were survivors.”
“Got a guess on numbers?” Gamble asked.
Wick shook his head. “Not many. But I don’t know how many there were to begin with. Do you remember, Wren?”
Wren shook his head slowly. “Not exactly. Two hundred? Maybe? I don’t know really, I never thought to count. There were a bunch of kids…” He trailed off and put his face in his hands. Cass pulled him closer and laid her cheek on top of his head. She wasn’t sure how much more he could take.
“Think you could track ’em?” Swoop asked Wick.
He shrugged. “Probably. Not sure how much help it’d be.”
“We’re gonna need a plan here pretty soon,” Mouse said. The overcast sky made it tough to judge exactly how late in the day it was, but it was pretty clear they didn’t have much time to travel.
“Wick, what you got?” said Gamble.
“Nothing close, G. We could try to roll back east, but I’m not sure what kind of shelter we’d be able to find in short time.”
“Then I guess we might as well make ourselves at home. Swoop?” she asked.
“Back across the courtyard, there’s an L-shaped building,” he said. “Still mostly intact. Probably the most defensible for us.”
“Alright. Let’s get to it.”
“There’s something I want to show you first.”
“It’ll save time if you just tell us.”
Swoop shook his head. “You gotta see it for yourself. Finn’s down there now.”
Cass picked Wren up, and Swoop led them all through the village, towards the western side. They found Finn standing to one side of a rectangular plot, where a series of rods jutted up from the ground, some covered by tangled masses of something Cass couldn’t identify. As she got closer, though, she realized what she was looking at.
Plants. More than that. Crops.
“Would you look at that…” Sky said, quietly. Almost in reverence.
It’d been years since Cass had seen real, out-of-the-ground grown fruits or vegetables. And she’d never seen so many all in one place. There were beans, and some sort of green leafy things, though most of what was planted Cass couldn’t identify. Many of the crops had been trampled, and some she’d just never seen before.
“I had no idea anyone still farmed,” Mouse said, reaching out to feel the green leaves of one of the taller plants. “Doesn’t look like enough to feed two hundred, though.”
“They had other stuff too,” Wren said. “But the growing things always tasted better.”
“Heads up,” Swoop said all of a sudden, and he moved to put himself between Cass, Wren, and the bordering wall. Finn and Wick reacted quickly, and fell in beside him.
A group of figures stood in the distance. For a long moment, the two groups stared at one another, unmoving. Cass counted nine of them. As she watched, though, a few of them broke off from the group and disappeared behind a cluster of buildings.
“What do you think they want?” Wick said.
“All the stuff that’s scattered all over the place, probably,” Finn answered.
Gamble gave Sky a look, and tilted her head to one side. Sky nodded and slipped off.
The group started advancing slowly. Five of them. No sign of the other four.
“Keep your weapons lowered,” Gamble said. “We’re going to be polite and friendly.” She stepped around in front of the others and walked forward a few paces. And then over her shoulder she added, “But be ready to kill every last one of them.”
Cass let Wren slide down to his feet, and then put him behind her. Mouse and Able took up positions on either side of her and a few steps behind.
Painter stepped up on her left. “Do they have guh- guns?”
“I can’t tell,” Cass said.
“I hope not,” he said. “There’s nnnn-nowhere for us to hide.”
Cass glanced around. Painter was right. They were exposed, and the closest point of cover was a small structure a good twenty yards back into the village. If it came to shooting, it was almost guaranteed someone was going to get hit. And where had those other four gone?
The group of others halted their advance about ten yards back from the boundary wall. Three men and two women, judging from their builds, though Cass knew that wasn’t always accurate. They were all wearing long cloaks, and two of them had their hoods up. Cass didn’t see any guns on them, but they were all carrying weapons of some kind or another. Blades mostly, though one of the men had a short spear. It was telling that those weapons were on display; the cloaks could’ve easily concealed them. The message was clear enough. Though if those were the weapons they were willing to display, Cass wondered what else they might have hidden.
“Afternoon,” Gamble called.
“Ma’am,” answered one of the hooded figures. A woman, judging by her voice.
“What brings you out this way?”
“We were wondering the same about you.”
“Just traveling through. Thought we might find a friend here.”
“Yeah…” Gamble said. She glanced back over her left shoulder and gave a little nod. Mouse and Finn both turned to face that direction. A few seconds later the four missing members of the other group came into view. Gamble looked back at the five. “Well, one thing we’re not doing is looking for trouble.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed that, judging from all the hardware you’re running.”
“Trouble sometimes comes to us.”
Wren stepped around in front of Cass. She grabbed his shoulder, but he tried to shrug it off.
“Let go, Mama.”
“Wren, not now–”
“Let go,” he said, jerking away from her. There was almost a growl in his voice. Cass was shocked by his tone, and she held up her hands. She watched as he squeezed between Swoop and Wick, and went to stand next to Gamble.
“Wren, what’re you doing?” Gamble asked, but he stepped past her.
“We’re looking for a man named Chapel,” he called. “Do you know what happened to him? To the people that lived here?”
The group of five reacted, exchanging glances with one another. Then the hooded woman spoke.
“Wren?” She laid back her hood. She had long brown hair and pale blue eyes. “Wren, is that you?”
“Lil!” Wren yelled, and before anyone could stop him, he took off towards her. She hopped over the low fence and went down on her knees to catch him in her arms. He nearly knocked Lil over with his tackling hug. It was strange for Cass, to see her son so happy to see someone she’d never met.
“So,” Wick said. “I’m guessing we don’t have to kill all of ’em, then?”
“Looks like,” Finn answered.
“Stay sharp,” Swoop said. “Ain’t over yet.”
The two groups started moving towards one another warily, with Lil and Wren at the center. Cass trailed a little behind the main group. Mouse and Finn were a few paces behind her, keeping their eyes on the four-man group that had come around their flank.
“Mama!” Wren called. He’d let go of the woman’s neck with one arm and turned back partially towards them. “Mama, it’s OK! It’s Lil!”
Lil was smiling now as they approached, and Wren was rapidly introducing everyone, pointing to each in turn as he spoke their names.
“That’s Gamble, and Swoop, and that’s Wick, and that’s my mom–”
Lil gasped and shot to her feet. One of the men from her group gave a little shout. Weapons flashed; swords from sheaths, rifles to shoulders. Cass noticed Lil had a grip on Wren’s arm, and had pulled him slightly behind her.
“Wait, no! No,” Wren called, pulling away. He stepped between the two groups, waving his arms. “It’s OK, it’s alright!”
Cass held up her hands, palms out, trying to look as nonthreatening as she could.
“Lil,” she said, keeping her voice calm and controlled. “Wren’s told me so much about you. About you, and Chapel, and Mister Carter.”
She could see the utter confusion on the other woman’s face, the horror mingled with incomprehension of the words Cass was speaking. Cass berated herself for not wearing her veil. A stupid and careless mistake.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s a shock,” Cass said.
The tip of Lil’s blade lowered slightly.
“What… are you?” she half-whispered, fear evident in her voice.
Cass tried to think of how to answer. How could she possibly explain it?
“She’s my mama,” Wren said.
After a long tense moment, Lil lowered her sword, though she still looked confused and a little frightened. The people behind her lowered their weapons as well, but not completely. It was clear they didn’t trust the situation.
“I don’t understand,” Lil said.
“They took her, Lil,” said Wren. “But I got her back. And my friend Painter, too.”
“Are they… human?”
“Not exactly,” Cass answered. “But we are ourselves.”
Lil shook her head, and then did it again more forcefully. The second time almost as if she were chastising herself. She sheathed her weapon and approached with her hand out.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just…”
“Please don’t apologize. It was thoughtless of me. I should’ve let Wren warn you. All of you,” Cass said as she shook Lil’s hand. “My name’s Cass.”
“Lil. It’s amazing to meet you. Really.”
Some of the others kept their distance, but one of Lil’s companions stepped boldly forward and introduced himself as well, a grim-faced man named Elan. After that, with the immediate crisis seemingly averted, the two groups carefully came together and made hesitant introductions. Gamble called Sky back in from his hidden position. Cass gave a brief account of their journey from Morningside, though she was careful to avoid mentioning any details about why they’d left. Lil dispatched several of her companions to carry out whatever business they’d come to attend to, and then with the remainder, escorted Cass and the others back to the large rectangular building.
They went up the steps together and into the large main room, but stopped just inside the entrance. Like the rest of the village, the room had been largely wrecked, but there were a few tables and long benches that were still intact. The group gathered some of the furniture and set it up near the entrance. Swoop, Gamble, Cass, Wren, and Painter sat around the table with Lil and her escort. The rest of Gamble’s team spread out around the room, standing nearby or leaning against walls in various locations.
The first few minutes were awkward, but as they continued conversation, it started to become clear that these people were all cut from the same cloth. Cass had seen it before. Even when they weren’t on the same side, there just seemed to be a natural bond between warriors.
“They came three nights ago,” Lil said. “In overwhelming numbers. We mounted a strong defense, as we had many times before. But this time…” She trailed off, shaking her head.
“Something changed,” Elan said. “The way they moved. And fought.”
“It was like… I don’t even know how to describe it.”
“Like they were one?” Cass said.
Lil looked at her and nodded. “One being, made from many creatures.”
Gamble and Cass looked at each other. “We’ve seen it too,” Gamble said. “Once in Morningside, and then again the night we left.”
“What about Chapel?” Wren asked. “Is he OK?”
Lil looked at him sadly, and reached over to stroke his hair. She shook her head. “We lost Chapel many months ago. He was taken not long after you left. I’m sorry, Wren.”
Wren’s shoulders went slack and he closed his eyes. His face contorted as he tried to hold back the tears, but little coughing sobs escaped. Cass reached over and pulled his head to her shoulder to hold him while he cried. She noticed Lil watching them with a sweet smile tinged with sadness.
“Where are your people now?” Gamble asked.
“About forty minutes north and a little west,” Lil answered. “There’s a refuge. We’d hoped never to need it.”
“Closer to the Strand?” Wick asked.
“And how many are you?” asked Gamble.
Lil shook her head. “Too few.” For a moment, her eyes lost focus, and her jaw clenched. She lowered her gaze to the table and inhaled deeply, trying to regain her composure.
“Eighteen able bodies,” Elan said. “About thirty old, sick, wounded, or children.”
Lil put a hand to her brow. “The children…” Elan put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Lil gathered herself and continued. “We’ve made a few trips back, to recover what we could. We’ll need to get under way again soon. Our numbers are stretched thin as it is. I assume you’ll return with us?”
Gamble exchanged a quick look with Swoop. “We haven’t made any decisions yet,” she said.
“I see. I’m not sure what your options are, but I imagine they’re few. And we could use the help.”
Gamble gave a non-committal nod. “Understood.”
The two women held each other’s gazes for a moment, and then Lil bowed her head slightly. “We’ll let you discuss your plans. But we leave in twenty minutes.” She stood, and her companions rose with her. They moved to the stairs, but Lil paused at the entrance and said over her shoulder, “I hope you’ll do the right thing.” And with that, they headed out to join the others in the village.
Once Lil and the others had cleared the room, the rest of the team gathered around the table to discuss their options.
“Thoughts?” Gamble said.
“Gotta go our separate ways,” said Swoop. “No question.”
“How you figure that?” Finn said.
“You got fifty frightened, dying, and desperate people holed up in some reinforced area we’ve never seen before. All that gear we’re carrying?” He shook his head. “I don’t care how nice they seem now. That’s not a good set-up for us.”
“We could be a lot of help to them, Swoop,” Mouse said.
“No arguing that,” Finn responded. “Just not sure how good it is for us.”
“Our principals are the priority,” Gamble said. “The only question to answer is if we’re more secure somewhere on our own, or if we need to bunk up with these people for a night.”
In the midst of everyone talking, Cass gradually became aware of a growing sense that she had somehow completely lost all control of her own life. Even knowing that Gamble and her team had the best intentions, it grated on her that they were talking all around her, and no one was talking to her.
How had Cass come to a place where she’d allowed others to sit around and decide her fate without even acknowledging her presence? And the more she reflected, the harder it was for her to remember when she’d ever truly been in control. For so long, it seemed like Cass had just been trying to manage the impact of everyone else’s decisions on her and her son.
“If they’ve got a safe place,” Wick was saying, “I don’t care how many people they’ve got inside. That saves us the hard work of trying to reinforce a position in the ninety minutes we’ve got until sunset.”
Able was standing off to one side, observing, as was his way. Sometimes she wondered how he differently he read these situations in his silent world. He somehow seemed more aware than most, despite his deafness. Maybe because of it. Cass caught his eye, and he dipped his head towards her. Acknowledgment.
“We walk in there, I guarantee we walk out poorer for it,” Swoop said.
“I’m sorry,” Cass said, interrupting. All eyes turned to her. “Can someone please remind me at what point I turned over my authority?”
Wick and Finn exchanged glances. Sky dropped his gaze to the table in front of him. Swoop’s jaw clenched at the admonishment. He didn’t care for it, but he wouldn’t challenge her. Wren sat up, moving his head off of her shoulder, and put his hands in his lap.
Gamble held up a hand. “All due respect, Miss Cass–” she started, but Cass cut her off.
“That sentence never ends with the amount of respect actually due, Gamble.” She let it hang in the air for a moment. “I understand that you’re in your element out here. You’re not used to having us tag along. But I would appreciate it if you would at least show us a little respect… in considering that we’re talking about the safety of my son, and that I might have something to say about it.”
“Of course,” Gamble said, but her words were clipped. “Lady Cass.”
“These people rescued Wren before. They cared for him when I could not. Without them, neither of us would be here now. I owe it to them to do whatever I can.”
“Is it worth your life?” Swoop asked flatly.
Cass chewed the inside of her lip involuntarily for a quick moment. Then she answered, “It’s worth the risk.”
“Then let’s quit wasting time,” Swoop said, and he stood up and headed for the door.
“But you’re under no obligation,” Cass added. “I know there’s danger. None of you should feel forced to go with us.”
“We had this conversation already, Cass. It’s not even a question,” Gamble said. “Where you go, we go.” Then she addressed her team. “Saddle up, boys. We’ll move out when our friends do.”
The team didn’t argue, now that the decision had been made. They all got up and went to make ready to leave. Gamble stood up and turned her back to Cass as she watched her team exit, but she lingered until the others were gone.
“Thank you, Gamble,” Cass said. “Sorry if I came across too harshly.”
“You were right, you’re the authority,” Gamble said, at first without looking at Cass. But she took a quick breath and turned around, and Cass saw the glint in her eyes. “But in the future, I’d prefer you address your concerns to me directly, and not put that on my boys. It wasn’t my intention to overstep my bounds, but we speak freely as a team. That’s how we operate. If that’s not your way, that’s fine, but as you said, this is our element. It’d be best if you don’t get our wires crossed out here. When it comes down to it, I can’t have any one of my boys questioning whose order they’re supposed to follow.”
Looking into Gamble’s eyes, Cass wasn’t intimidated. A dark thought flitted through her mind about how easily she could take Gamble apart — if Cass wanted to. Gamble didn’t know who she was talking to. Not really.
“I’ll go let Lil know your decision,” Gamble said.
“Sounds good,” Cass answered. They continued to stare at each other for a second longer, and then Gamble turned and walked away. As soon as her back was to Cass, Cass felt as if a spell had broken and she was ashamed of the thought she’d had. Where had that hostility come from? Gamble had never been anything but a trusted friend and ally. Cass closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She had to be careful not to let paranoia get to her.
“It might not be safe, Mama,” Wren said, his voice interrupting her thoughts. She opened her eyes and looked at him sitting next to her, small and pale, with his shining green eyes. Too beautiful and fragile a thing for such a world. She reached out and stroked his hair and the side of his face.
“I know, but it’s the right thing to do,” Cass answered.
Wren shook his head. “No, I mean it might not be safe for them.”
“I thought you’d want to go with them. With Lil, especially.”
“I do,” he said, looking back down at his hands in his lap. “I just worry. I don’t want to bring any more trouble on them.”
Cass leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “The world’s full of trouble, son, whether we bring it or not. But we should do what good’s in our power, however little it may seem.”
Wren said, “I wish Chapel was here.”
“Me too. I would’ve liked to have met him.”
“I’m going to guh, to guh, go for a walk,” Painter said, standing.
Cass looked at him, unsure if he was joking or not. “We’re going on a pretty long walk here in just a few minutes, Painter. You can’t wait?”
He shook his head. “Just need to be alone for a ffff-few minutes. Clear my head.” He started off towards the courtyard.
“Don’t go far,” Cass said.
She watched as Painter descended the stairs and stopped at the base for a moment, looking left and right. Then he turned left and disappeared from view. He’d been awfully quiet since they left Morningside. Not that he’d ever been much of a talker. But he seemed acutely anxious. Maybe once they got somewhere safe, he’d settle down and be able to relax. It wasn’t easy for any of them, but Painter probably least of all. He’d been a Morningsider his whole life, even if most of it had been outside the wall.
Wren leaned forward on the table, and rested his head on his crossed arms. Cass rubbed his back in a slow, even motion, as she used to do when he had trouble sleeping. They sat together in silence for a time, each lost in their own thoughts. Outside the simple building, the sky was growing darker, with the afternoon sun hidden behind a blanket of heavy grey clouds, and a steady breeze that carried with it the scent of coming rain. After several minutes, Mouse climbed the few steps and stood at the entrance.
“We’re about ready,” he said.
“OK, we’ll be right there,” Cass answered.
“Should be around nearby. Said he needed a little alone time to clear his head.”
Mouse frowned a little at that. “Alright. I’ll find him.” He started back down the stairs.
“He went off to the left.”
Wren had apparently dozed off. His mouth was open and the sleeve of his coat had a dark spot where it was wet with drool. Cass gently woke him. He sat up slowly and smacked his lips, and then wiped his mouth with his hand. It seemed to take him a moment to remember where he was.
“Time to go?” Wren said.
He nodded and got to his feet. “I hope they have a place for us to sleep.”
“Me too, baby.”
They gathered their things and went to join the others, hand in hand. A cluster of people had formed in the courtyard, off in the direction of the small crop field, a mix of the two teams. Several of Lil’s people had bulky bags on their backs, filled no doubt with whatever still-useful things they could collect from their former home. Most of Gamble’s team were there already, though Wick, Mouse, and Painter weren’t there yet.
“Have you seen Mouse?” Gamble asked as Cass and Wren approached.
“Yeah, he went to get Painter.”
Gamble furrowed her brow. “Where’d Painter go?”
“Just around the courtyard, I think,” Cass said. “I told him not to go far.”
Gamble sucked her teeth and made a little clicking noise. The wind gusted and a few small drops of rain spattered down. The last of Lil’s people walked up to join the group.
“Are we almost ready?” Lil asked.
“Almost,” Gamble said. “Missing a couple of mine.”
“We’ll need to leave very soon,” Lil said. She glanced up at the ever-darkening sky. “The Weir may be out earlier tonight.”
They all waited in impatient silence for another minute or two. Some of Lil’s group shifted their packs and exchanged glances. The message was obvious.
“Did he say where he was going?” Gamble asked Cass.
“No,” Cass said. “I just assumed he’d stay in the courtyard. I told him not to wander off.”
“I should’ve left someone with you,” Gamble said to herself. And then she started to message, “Mouse, Gamble…” but Mouse appeared from around behind a building, and she called out, “Any luck?”
Mouse shook his head, obviously frustrated. Raindrops started falling; it was light but steady. Gamble mumbled a curse.
“Why don’t you go ahead and get started?” Gamble said to Lil. “No reason for you to get caught out in the open on our account.”
“We’ll help you look,” Lil answered, but Gamble waved her off.
“No, ma’am,” she said. “If we all get scattered, we’ll lose even more time trying to get everybody back together. Get underway. We’ll catch up.”
“But you don’t know the way,” said Lil.
“I’ll stay with them,” Elan said. Lil gave him a concerned look, but he just nodded. “Go ahead. We’ll be fine.”
“I hate to leave you,” Lil said. She was looking at Elan when she said it, but then she scanned Cass and Wren and the rest of them, too.
“We’ll just be a few minutes behind,” Cass said. The rain started to pick up enough that those with hoods started pulling them up. Lil wavered a moment more, and then nodded.
“Elan can pim me if you need us to come back.”
“Thanks,” Gamble said. “See you in a few.”
Lil nodded and then motioned to her people, who started off towards the west from where they’d first appeared. Gamble immediately rattled off orders: “Swoop, Able, Sky, start searching. I’ll help in a second.” The three men dropped their packs at their feet and fanned out in different directions. “Finn, see if you can sniff out a signal, let me know if you get any hits.”
“Mouse, mind the cargo, and you,” Gamble said as she waved a hand over Cass and Wren, “wait right here.” Then she looked up slightly and said, “Wick, we’ve got a delay. Lil and her people are moving out, we’ll have to catch up… Painter’s missing… No, sit tight. I’ll update you in a few.”
Cass almost offered to help look, but she remembered her earlier conversation with Gamble and decided to keep her mouth shut. Gamble had it under control. Cass just nodded. Gamble gave Mouse a quick nod and then went to join the others in the search. Finn sat down on the ground cross-legged, and his eyes went unfocused.
“I’m sorry,” Cass said. “I shouldn’t have let him wander off alone.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mouse said. “He’s old enough to know better.”
The voices of the other team members echoed through the ruined village as they called Painter’s name. But there was never an answer.
“I hope he’s OK,” said Wren.
Mouse got down on one knee in front of Wren, and was still about six inches taller. “I’m sure he’s fine, buddy,” he answered. “Just rattled, probably.”
“He doesn’t seem like himself,” Wren said.
Mouse nodded. “It’s been hard going. Not everyone’s as tough as you and your mom.”
Wren dropped his gaze to the ground, always embarrassed by praise. Mouse smiled and clapped him gently on the shoulder, and then got back to his feet.
“I don’t think you’d remember me,” Elan said. “But I remember you.” Wren looked up at him. “You played with my son, Ephraim.”
Wren nodded, and he opened his mouth to ask a question, but then closed it again, uncertain. Elan anticipated the question anyway.
“He’s safe, at the refuge. I was fortunate.” He smiled, but tears welled up in his eyes. After a moment he inhaled quickly and cleared his throat. “You’ve been in Morningside?” Elan asked.
“That’s a long way to travel just for a visit.”
Wren looked up at Cass then.
“We haven’t always been cityfolk,” she answered. “It can get overwhelming.”
Elan held her gaze for a moment and then nodded. Whether he suspected there was more to the story or not, he didn’t push, and for that she was thankful. “And the man you were with… um. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten his name.”
“Three,” Wren said. “He died.” He said it so bluntly that it was almost shocking. Somehow it seemed even more dreadful to hear coming out of the mouth of a child.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. He was a good man.”
Wren nodded again, and after that they all stood without speaking for a while. In the background, they could still hear the occasional call for Painter, though by this time none of them expected a response. Even with Mouse’s reassurances, Cass felt increasingly foolish for having let Painter out of her sight. When they found him, it wasn’t a mistake she would repeat. If they found him. It seemed all too apparent that Painter wasn’t helping himself be found.
And then it occurred to her that they might have to make a tough decision if they didn’t locate him soon. How long could they risk everyone’s lives for the sake of one? And who would that be on, then? Would Cass make the call? Or would Gamble? Cass knew it’d be unfair to leave that decision to Gamble, after the fuss she’d made earlier.
“How much longer do we give them?” Elan asked quietly.
“As long as they need,” Mouse answered. “We’re not going to leave him behind.”
“We might have to,” Cass responded. Mouse and Wren both looked at her, each with different but equally questioning expressions. “But not yet.”
Just then Finn stirred and sat up straighter. “They got him. They’re on their way back now.” He got to his feet and started gathering his gear.
“Who found him?” Cass asked.
“Able,” Finn said. “Of course.”
“I would’ve put money on Swoop,” Mouse said.
“Yeah, well, Swoop might’ve killed him, so it’s probably for the best.”
Swoop emerged from behind one of the buildings and came towards them at an aggressive pace. He had a dark, smoldering look on his face.
“He still might,” Mouse said.
When Swoop reached them, he snatched his heavy pack up off the ground and slung it with some effort onto his back. Sky and Gamble came quickly striding over. A few moments later Painter appeared from another direction, followed closely by Able.
Painter had his head down, and they weren’t moving as fast as everyone else. Everyone had their gear up and locked in by the time Painter and Able reached them. Swoop started towards Painter.
“Hey! Hey,” he barked, “you ever put us at risk again, I promise–”
But Able stepped around in front of Painter, putting himself between the two, and he held up a hand and shook his head. Swoop stopped and shut his mouth, but Cass could see the muscles working in his jaw. He glowered at Painter for a few more tense moments, and then turned away in disgust.
“Let’s get moving,” Gamble said. “Elan?”
Elan dipped his head and led them off in the direction the others had gone. Painter slipped in next to Cass and a little behind her, but he wouldn’t look at anyone.
Wren dropped back to join him.
“Are you OK?” he asked. Cass glanced over her shoulder and saw Painter nod, though he still just kept his eyes on the ground. Mouse and Able trailed behind them, and though they had their heads up scanning the surroundings, it was clear they were mostly watching Painter.
As they left the compound, the rain settled into a steady shower of small drops and Cass found she didn’t mind walking through it. Under other circumstances, she might’ve even thought it pleasant. But between the ruined village behind them, the tension around them, and the unknown that lay ahead, it was hard to feel any sense of enjoyment.
Wren rejoined her and she held out her hand, but he didn’t take it. His hood was up and Cass couldn’t see his face. From his posture she could tell it wasn’t by accident. He didn’t want her to see him right now. She leaned forward just enough to catch the glimmer of wetness on his cheeks. She straightened without saying anything.
They pressed on in silence, Elan leading the way with Swoop close behind. Gamble and her team maintained a loose ring around Cass and the boys as they moved. About ten minutes into the journey, they crested a little rise in the terrain and saw a figure standing to one side of their path. It was Wick, waiting for them. He fell in with them when they drew near and held a quiet conference with Swoop and Gamble at the front of the group as they continued on their way.
Thunder rolled ahead of them, a distant rumble dull and weighty, and a cold wind swirled the rain into their faces. As they walked, the buildings around them became shorter, the remains more jagged, like broken teeth thrusting up from a fossilized jaw. The sky grew a darker grey above them, ominous and brooding, though it was hard to tell whether it came from the gathering storm or from the onset of dusk. Possibly both. Their pace was quickening, and Cass began to feel the urgency of their journey more acutely.
The raindrops became heavier, more oppressive, and the wind more insistent. Lightning flashed in the heavens, momentarily illuminating the clouds from within with an unearthly glow. Thunder growled. Still they trudged on. Whether consciously or not, Cass noticed the group had closed in more tightly together. Everyone was stoic and determined.
Wick glimpsed her looking at him out of the corner of his eye, and glanced over at her. He was bareheaded, hair plastered and dripping, but he flashed a quick smile and winked at her. She got the impression he might actually be enjoying himself.
“Nothing like a good rain to remind you how nice it is to be dry, huh?” Wick said.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you like it out here,” Cass said.
He shrugged. “Out here just is. You gotta make it what you want.”
“Why don’t you make it dry and sunny, then?” Finn said from Cass’s other side.
“Ehn, sun’s bad for my complexion,” Wick answered. He lifted his face towards the sky with his eyes closed, letting the rain splash over it for effect.
“Obviously haven’t found anything good for your complexion yet.”
“It’s just ahead,” Elan said from the front of the group. He pointed at a squat building. There was a pair of tall iron-barred fences around it, one inside the other, both with circular razor wire along the top. It looked exactly like a prison. As they got closer, someone darted out of the main entrance and opened the gates. “Wait here a second,” Elan said. “I want to make sure there are no surprises.”
The group stopped a few feet away while Elan jogged to meet the gatekeeper. An electric cry cut through the rain, distant but unmistakable — the first of the Weir.
“Cutting it close,” the gatekeeper said as Elan moved in.
“Lil make it back?” Elan asked.
The gatekeeper nodded. “About ten minutes ago. She told us you were bringing guests.”
“Did she explain? About the two?”
“She explained. Not sure I believe it.”
“You will.” Elan turned back and motioned to the others. As the group started towards the building, Swoop caught Cass’s arm — just inside her elbow — and leaned in close.
“Don’t let your guard down,” he whispered forcefully. “We don’t know these people. They’re just as likely to tear you apart as they are to accept your help. Keep close to Mouse.”
He didn’t wait for a response. Swoop went through the gate with a sharp nod to the gatekeeper. As soon as he was through, Swoop started scanning the place.
Cass had wanted to believe he’d been unnecessarily concerned before. Now, standing just outside the gate, she understood what he’d been trying to tell her back at the village. Once they passed through, they’d be trapped inside, and they didn’t really know how they’d be received. She’d said it was worth the risk. Looking at what she’d led them into, though, made Cass wonder. If things went bad… well, if things went bad, she’d just have to make sure they only went bad for the people inside, no matter who they might’ve been once.
“Mama?” Wren asked. He was standing a little ahead of her, about to go through the gate.
Cass took a deep breath. “Coming.”