Following Mr Carter’s lead, Three raced back through the outskirts cradling Wren tightly to his chest. Three was still lightheaded from the attack, and his lungs strained for air as they threaded their way through the eerily sterile urban remains. Through the alleys and side streets, they fled like thieves, like men with hounds at their heels. The night fell down around them, a heavy shroud upon weary shoulders. They ran long past the squatters, out through the crisp borders of Morningside’s reach, into the fuzzy border between the open and the looming township.
At last, Mr Carter slowed his pace, and then soon after ducked into a brick shell of a building. Mr Carter moved through the first room quickly, scanning the surroundings. Towards the back, a darkened corridor ran to a second, windowless room. Mr Carter stopped at the entrance of the corridor, and waved Three and Wren on through. Three pushed his way into the dusky room, immediately reminded of his small room back at the village. He set Wren on his feet, and dropped to a knee, sucking air into his burning lungs. His hands were clammy with sweat, shaking. Behind him, Mr Carter leaned against the doorframe, doubled over, hands on knees, panting as well. Wren stood as stone, staring blankly, his hair matted to his head by Three’s sweat. It was minutes before anyone spoke. When Three had recovered enough to know he wouldn’t pass out, he took Wren’s face in his hand, and sought out the boy’s eyes in the darkness.
“Are you hurt, boy?”
Wren made no sound, but Three felt the boy’s head shake slightly from side to side. Three dropped his hand onto Wren’s shoulder, squeezed it.
“What happened?” Mr Carter asked from the corridor.
“They tried to take Wren,” Three said. After a moment, he added, “and I almost let ’em. I let ’em get the jump on me. If you hadn’t come back…”
Three trailed off, suddenly reliving those near-final moments. Trapped. Blacking out. Wren struggling in the guard’s grasp. Three, powerless to prevent it.
“The child,” Mr Carter said. He paused, searching for words. “He… called.”
“Are they dead?”
“I don’t think so. The one that had you, the big one… maybe. It was not my intent…”
“My fault. Should’ve been more careful.” Three shook his head, then snorted a humorless chuckle. “Been on a bad run with guard-types lately.” He thought back to the attack, but much of it was a jumble in his head. Too many things happening at once. One guard grabbing Wren, the other hitting him with… what? “One of them shot something at me. Knocked me down. But not much more. Any idea what that was?”
Mr Carter thought for a moment, and shook his head slightly. “Many of them carry dislocators. But a shot from one of those would’ve done more than just knock you down.”
Dislocator. Made sense. Intended as a non-lethal weapon, a dislocator fired a semi-rigid projectile that caused massive overload of one’s datastream on impact, incapacitating the target without causing any significant physical trauma. But Three wasn’t wired. That would explain the surprised look on the guard’s face.
“Maybe it was a dud,” Three offered. He didn’t know if Mr Carter was aware of his disconnected status.
“Could be. Fortunate, if so.”
Three got to his feet and moved his hand from Wren’s shoulder to the top of the boy’s head, where he gently tousled Wren’s blond hair. Behind him, he heard Mr Carter stir, and moments later the soft glow of a chemlight spilled through the room. Mr Carter entered carrying his light held out slightly before him. He moved gingerly into the corner where he let his pack slide to the floor and then sat more heavily than Three expected. Weary. Wounded. Three wondered just how much pain the man was silently bearing.
“We gonna be safe here?” Three asked.
Mr Carter closed his eyes, and leaned back against the wall. After a moment, he nodded, drew a deep but strained breath. “Far enough out, the guards won’t come searching. Not tonight, anyway.”
“And the Weir?”
Mr Carter shrugged weakly. “Close enough to Morningside. We hope.”
He was still and quiet just long enough for Three to think that was all he had to say, but he eventually stirred and added, “I’ll stand watch. I just need a few minutes’ rest.”
Three gently turned Wren and walked him over towards Mr Carter. It was only then that Three at last realized the lightness of his own harness. His hand shot reflexively to his holster, even as his mind made the connection.
His pistol. Gone.
He remembered now. The grip around his neck releasing; the impact of falling to his knees. The pistol skittering across the concrete. And Wren in trouble. He’d grabbed the boy, and left the weapon behind. A sort of quiet despair sank into Three’s heart then, like the death of a long-time friend, or loss of a beloved pet, or both. Its heft had been a comfort. And it had saved his life more than once. He cursed aloud, startling both Wren and Mr Carter.
“What’s wrong?” Mr Carter asked.
“My pistol. It’s gone.”
“I’m sorry. It was a rare and fine weapon.”
“Still is. Just someone else’s now.”
“Not hard enough.”
Three smoldered at the thought of one of Morningside’s guards sporting his pistol, ignorant of its legacy and worse, its power. It was all too easy to imagine one of them squeezing off a round and blowing a hole through some unfortunate citizen’s home. He was roused by Wren’s quiet crying.
“It’s alright, kiddo,” he said, thinking the boy was blaming himself. “It wasn’t your fault.” But Wren just stood there, facing the wall, sobbing.
“Hey. Wren.” Three turned Wren around to face him, and took a knee, looking into the boy’s eyes. “Wren, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Wren didn’t speak, just wept. But he held his hand out for Three to see. It was dark and sticky with blood. Three took the hand and searched it for injury, until it clicked, and he then understood. Not Wren’s blood. The guard’s.
“Oh, Wren,” he said, and instinctively he pulled Wren close to him, and held the boy tight to his chest. “It’s alright. It’s OK, Wren. You did the right thing.”
For a time, he just held Wren, and Wren stood there crying, letting himself be held. Eventually Wren’s crying ebbed into a quiet sniffling. Three let go, eased back to look at him again.
“Here, come over here.”
Three led Wren to across the room to another corner, and got out his canister of water. He took Wren’s hand, splashed water over it, scrubbed it with his own. Wordlessly, Three repeated the process, carefully washing Wren’s hand until there were no traces of blood remaining. Then he took both of Wren’s hands in his, dried them on his own shirt, and rubbed them vigorously to warm the tiny, chilled fingers in the cold night air.
“You OK now?”
Wren shook his head.
“Are you hurt somewhere?”
Wren shook his head again. “I’m sorry I hurt that man.”
“He was going to take you away, Wren. He would’ve taken you if you hadn’t hurt him.”
“I’m still sorry.”
“OK, buddy. It’s OK to be sorry. It was a bad situation. For everybody.” Wren nodded at that, and Three picked him up. “Tough day. Let’s get you something to eat, and then get some rest, alright?”
Three led him back to Mr Carter’s corner. Mr Carter had dozed off, and Three didn’t disturb him. He dug through his pack and pulled out some of the food Chapel had provided for them. They ate, though neither seemed to have much appetite. After they’d finished, Three pulled blankets from their packs and made a pallet for Wren to lie down on.
Rolled in one of the blankets, Three discovered a device; brushed steel, rectangle-shaped with rounded edges. It took him a moment to realize it was an old military heatcoil. When activated, it radiated a gentle warmth similar to natural body heat. Whether Chapel had slipped it in the packs, or Lil, it was truly a gift out here in the open. Three activated the heatcoil, and tucked it in with Wren. He laid his coat over the boy, and rested his hand on Wren’s head.
“Try to get some sleep, alright?”
Wren nodded and closed his eyes. Three sat with him for a while, rubbing his back because he didn’t know what else to do. After a time, Wren’s breathing was deep and even, and Three quietly got to his feet and walked to the door. He stopped at the entry, and stared down the corridor, into the darkness, wondering what the night might bring.
He heard shuffling from within the room, and soon Mr Carter appeared.
“I don’t understand it,” Mr Carter said, voice lowered. “What reason would they have to seize the child?”
Three shook his head. “I told them we needed to see the Governor. The guard reacted.”
“As if they had been expecting you?”
Three remembered the guard’s expression. Reflexive, but controlled. “Like they’d been warned.”
“Asher,” Wren said quietly, apparently not asleep after all. He had said it so flatly, with such lack of emotion, that Three thought he’d misheard.
Wren didn’t stir, didn’t open his eyes. “Asher’s there. In Morningside.”
“What makes you think that?”
Three wanted to argue, to tell Wren he was dreaming it, or imagining it, or just scared, but he knew better. If Wren knew it, then it was true. Asher was in Morningside, waiting for them.
“Who’s Asher?” Mr Carter asked.
“The kid’s brother,” Three answered. “The one we’ve been trying to escape.”
It didn’t seem possible, but at the same time, it made too much sense to be wrong. Pieces started falling together. Dagon showing up at Chapel’s commune. They could’ve tracked Cass and Wren to Greenstone. Probably convinced Bonefolder to let them on the train. Rode into Morningside, and just waited for their quarry to show up. But after Three’s delay, maybe they got nervous, and sent Dagon out into the Strand after them. And in the meantime did what? Tell Underdown Three was on his way?
Bonefolder had offered him a contract on Underdown’s life, after all. Sure. Man shows up with a kid, says he’s got private business with the Governor. Not likely to be a lot of people rolling into town with that story. And what story had Asher told? That Three was a kidnapper? A slaver? An assassin, using a child as cover?
Kill the man, rescue the boy? My baby brother?
Three laughed then, in spite of himself; a sad chuckle at first that started as a rumble in his chest, and grew slowly into a full throated laugh devoid of humor, and hope. “All of this,” he said. “All of it, and we’re right back where we started.” He squeezed his eyes shut, pinched the bridge of his nose, tried to keep the weight of inevitability from crushing down. Cass flashed before his eyes, weak, pale, life flowing from her. Not much different than when he’d first laid eyes on her, and her son, harried, frightened, desperate for help. “Except somewhere along the way, I lost something I never even wanted in the first place.”
Cass. She’d given her life to get her son to Underdown. What would she have done now?
“This man Asher,” Mr Carter said. “He is dangerous?”
“Then you should return with me. We will hide you.”
Three shook his head. “They already know about you. One of his men showed up night before last.”
“Then we will protect you.”
“They’d kill every man, woman, and child in your village, Mr Carter. I was afraid they might do it anyway, but once they hear what happened to the guards, they’ll know we’re nearby.”
Three’s mind ran through the scenarios. Dagon had tracked them down outside the wayhouse, to the Vault, and somehow through the Strand to Chapel’s village. How long would it be before he found them hiding here? Would he come alone this time? A sudden thought struck Three then, and he cursed himself for not thinking of it sooner. He’d assumed that after their last meeting, Dagon had rushed back to report their location to Asher. But what if he had merely trailed them from the village? The hair stood up on the back of Three’s neck, and a rage kindled in his heart.
This wasn’t his way. It hadn’t been from the start. Everything he’d been trained for, all the years he’d spent honing his senses, every scar he bore, it was all building him to be the predator, never the prey. And now, here, at the end, he found himself in little more than an urban cave, cornered.
He’d sensed it, back on that afternoon when she’d walked out of the bar, and he’d followed; he knew deep down that somehow this was the decision that was going to get him killed. And now he knew why. Because everything he’d done to this point had gone against his carefully cultivated discipline. His code. His way.
No more. If death was coming, Three was wise enough to know he was no match for that ageless enemy. But he was done sitting around, waiting for it to show up. It was his turn to stalk.
“Enough,” Three said. “Enough of this.”
“What will we do now?”
“Now?” Three answered. “Now, I’m going to do what I was made for.”