Three and Wren were among the first of the crowd to reach the Governor’s compound, and as they approached, Three slowed his pace. Already a thin line of citizens was pressed against the gate, pleading with the guards on the other side to let them in. The guards stood dispassionately, clad in black, grim-faced and motionless. Their only job to protect the Governor, not his subjects.
“Governor Underdown! Governor, we need you!” came the cries. “Governor, please!”
From the clamor of the crowd, Three picked out news that the eastern gate was already overrun, that the guards had been cut down before they could seal it. The Weir were inside.
Three’s mind reeled at the prospect. He had walked the open for decades and never once seen the Weir roaming in daylight. Images flashed from his walk through the streets the night before, images of the people he’d passed. So clean, so carefree. Soft. He could only imagine how quickly the Weir must be cutting through them now.
Wren was sobbing on his shoulder, sucking in choking breaths, gripping Three’s coat in his trembling fists. “Asher. He’ll know. He’ll know I’m here!”
“I know, Wren,” Three answered. “We’re counting on it.”
The crowd swelled as more citizens joined the ranks, crushing together around the compound, piling against the gates, clamoring for Underdown to appear. Their Governor. Their savior. Three kept clear of the crowd, held steady around the edges, alert for any sign of the Weir. Watching for Asher.
“Tell me if Ran shows up,” Three said. Wren didn’t respond, so Three dug the boy’s face out of his shoulder and looked in his eyes. “I need you to do that for me, OK?”
Something shifted in Wren then. He caught his breath, wiped his eyes and nodded, and though he lay his head back on Three’s shoulder, he didn’t hold on so tightly.
Moments later, a cheer went up from the crowd. Both Three and Wren looked to the mob of people, then followed their collective gaze up to the wall. There, next to one of the towers to one side of the gate, he stood.
He was tall, nearly six and half feet by Three’s guess, with pale blond hair and a powerful frame. Even from this distance, the resemblance was striking. If there’d been any lingering doubt about whether Cass had told the truth about who Wren’s father was, it was dispelled. The Governor could have been Wren, thirty-five years older. Whatever catastrophe was about to befall Morningside, Governor Underdown had arrived to thwart it. Silence fell over the throng of citizens, though in the distance Three could hear the cries of the Weir approaching.
Three started to press his way into the crowd, a new idea forming. If he could just get close enough, maybe he’d be able to force a confrontation between Asher and Underdown. But as he neared the Governor, he stopped. The look on Underdown’s face was not the cool confidence Three had expected. Nor the grim determination of a seasoned warrior before battle. The eyes too wide, the lips colorless. The look of a man caught in a lie. Powerless.
He opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again wordlessly. At a loss. Somewhere nearby a Weir shrieked its electric call. Three figured they had two minutes, maybe three.
“People of Morningside!”
Another voice now. Younger. Cocky.
“People of Morningside, you have been deceived!”
He strolled along the wall, making his way towards the Governor casually, hands clasped behind his back. Three had never seen him before but he knew him instantly. Shaggy brown hair, sharply handsome, he had just enough of Cass in his cheekbones to make Three hate him. Seventeen, maybe eighteen years old, he walked like he owned the world. Now that Three saw him, he couldn’t believe this was the little punk they’d been running from for so long.
“Your beloved Governor is a fraud,” he said, with a smirk. Like it was some cruel joke he’d pulled. “Tell them, Governor. Tell them how you lied.”
The silence of the crowd was intensified by the growing sounds of chaos gathering from the distance. The stream of citizens had ceased, which meant they’d either taken to hiding in their homes, or they’d been cut off by the advancing Weir. On top of the wall of the compound, Underdown remained speechless. Asher slid next to him.
“Tell them!” he barked, suddenly furious. Three saw it now. The trait which made Asher so frightening, though Three was not frightened by him. There was a strange mix at work; a malevolent childishness, like a spoiled prince with the power of life and death in his hands. No doubt he was powerful, to see how Underdown cowered before him, to know how men like Fedor, and Kostya, and Dagon had served his will. And in that moment, Three understood… Asher cared nothing for Cass, his mother, or for his baby half-brother, Wren. They had defied him, and for that alone he could neither forgive nor forget them.
Three’s vague plan had been to let Asher sense Wren in the Governor’s presence. He saw now his plan was falling apart spectacularly.
“He doesn’t protect you from the Weir,” Asher called. “He brings them upon you!”
Murmurs rose from the crowd even as the Weirs’ crying grew nearer. The tension strained with panic just beneath the surface, but some mix of curiosity, and dread, and belief that Underdown would still save them seemed to hold the people at bay, even if against their will.
“He calls them forth, and sends them away again! Behold! Your savior!”
And with that, the first of the Weir appeared in the streets, coming from the east, loping towards them like wolves on the hunt. New screams rose within the crush of citizens, and they surged against the gates of the compound. Three started to force his way back out, clutching Wren close as he fought to push through, away from the people. He’d rather die fighting in the open than get trampled in a mindless panic. Apart from the crowd, they’d have room to run, or at least maneuver.
The sight of the Weir was terrifying to the people of Morningside, who’d likely never seen them at all, and certainly not without a wall separating them. But Three could tell something was off with the creatures. They moved more slowly, heads weaving back and forth, like men stumbling through a heavy fog. The sunlight, he guessed. Three was nearly out of the knot of people, threading his way to the edges where those near the back had given up hope of gaining entry to the compound and were so less pressed together.
“Save them, Governor! Save your people, as you have so many times before! Save them now, if you can!” Asher mocked him openly now, robbed Underdown of any last sense of dignity or power. “Why won’t you save them, Governor?”
And then without warning, Asher put his foot on Underdown’s back and shoved him from the wall. It was a fifteen foot drop onto concrete, and Asher’s kick had sent Underdown sprawling. The Governor had no way to cushion his fall. With a sharp cry he impacted with bone-shattering force and lay still, mere feet from the throng of men and women who moments before had been his adorers.
A sickly sort of paralysis overcame the mob then. The shock of their beloved Underdown broken on the ground, the shambling horde that approached, this brash new man on the wall who had cast their Governor down… it was as if their collective mind had ceased to process or respond.
“Three…” Wren whispered.
“Now, citizens of Morningside, watch,” Asher said, “and know true power!”
Asher leapt from the wall and landed just beyond Underdown’s motionless form with a lightness that surprised Three. He strode towards the Weir, his long coat billowing behind him like some great cape, and then halted, awaiting their final approach. There were thirty or so by Three’s quick count.
“Three,” Wren whispered again, urgently. “Ran. Ran’s coming.”
Three nodded, and started backpedaling slowly. But his gaze was still drawn to Asher and the Weir. The Weir had seemed to fix on Asher alone then, and they gathered towards him. Twenty feet. Fifteen. Ten.
And then Asher raised his hand, palm out, and cried in a loud voice:
And as if a towering wave had crashed over them, they did. The Weir were thrown back to the ground, where they lay dazed. Asher lowered his hand. Adjusted the sleeves of his coat. And as the first shouts of relief and amazement and joy from the crowd were just beginning, he turned and pointed directly at Three and Wren.
Three turned to run, but it was no use. They hadn’t cleared the mob yet, and those nearest pressed in. In the next instant the crowd swirled around them. Too many hands clutched and grasped at them for Three to get away. Wren fought to hold on. For a split second, Three considered trying for his blade, but didn’t, fearing what would happen if he didn’t hold Wren with both arms.
In the end, it didn’t matter anyway. They were forced apart, and Three felt Wren sliding away from him.
“Three,” the boy shrieked, terrified.
“Wren! Fight, Wren! Fight!”
Three’s rage surged, and he channeled his fury into those around him. Like a thunderstorm against a mountain range, he threw himself at those who in their ignorance had dared to lay hands upon him. For a moment, he was free and a small space opened in the crush, the bravery of the mob briefly broken. But as he reached to draw his blade the crowd parted and a short but grim man strode towards him as if he were wading through shallow water.
The blade was halfway from its sheath when the blow landed, and Three knew no more.
After the crowd had pulled him away from Three, Wren hadn’t fought. He hadn’t done anything, except cry. There, at the end, when Three had needed him most, he had cried. And they had taken Three away, and with him they had taken everything. The journey into the Governor’s compound was mostly a blur in Wren’s mind, a tangle of rough hands and strong voices. He was ashamed.
It was quiet now, here, in this little room they’d locked him in. A strange room to be inside such a fancy building. It had a small bed, and a table with a chair, and a high window sealed over with colored glass that made Wren think of winter stars. A room that would’ve seemed more at home in Chapel’s village than here in this big city.
He wasn’t sure how long it’d been since they’d brought him. He felt he must’ve cried for a long time, and thought he may have fallen asleep at some point. Asher hadn’t even spoken to him, just ordered that he be put away to be dealt with later. Wren shuddered. Asher was scary. You never knew what he might do, or how he might treat you from one minute to the next.
Wren remembered once, before he and Mama had left, how Asher had carried him on his shoulders, running around and laughing and tipping from side to side like they might fall over together any second. And afterwards, when they were both panting, Asher had set him down and stared at him with a smile.
“Oh Spinner,” he’d said. “Oh, little, beautiful Spinner.”
And then his smile had gone away, and he got The Lookon his face, the one he had when you just didn’t know what he was going to do and it could be anything or nothing at all. And then he’d said, “How I hate you, you stupid little boy.”
That’s how it was with Asher. And that’s how it was going to be from now on. Wren couldn’t help it then. He started crying again, crying for his dead mama, for Three. Even for Dagon. He had no one left.
The first sensation Three had was that of floating in a cold fluid; too thick to be water, too dark to be real. He pushed his way to the surface with heavy legs. Realized he was coming into consciousness. Harsh light. Brutal pounding in his skull.
He was seated. Arms bound behind his back. He was damp with sweat. Left eye crusted and sticky with oozing blood. Alive. He chuckled at that, out of disbelief. Out of a lack of other options. His head swam as he lifted it. Concussion, maybe. Coat, harness, gear, all gone of course. Still dressed, at least. That was something.
He was in a room lit with gray light that nevertheless seemed too bright. The room was large, much larger than seemed necessary. Smooth gray walls, a high ceiling, pillars. Sparsely furnished, it had only one other chair on a dais, about fifteen feet away. Almost a throne room. Too cold, though. Sterile. Three was vaguely aware of a deep, distant humming, like a vibration in the walls. But he couldn’t tell if it was real or imagined.
Movement in his periphery.
“Oh good, he’s awake,” the voice rang in the room. Asher. He crossed the room with long strides and flung himself casually sideways into the chair on the dais, with a leg dangling over the arm. Six guardsmen accompanied him, dressed in sleek black outfits that bore the subtle silhouettes of embedded body armor. Two flanked him on either side of the “throne”, two posted up by the entrance, and two took position on either side of Three. Ran flowed in after them like a heavy fog, silent but substantial. His silent grace made the others seem clumsy, his motionless strength made them seem childish.
Asher scratched his forehead absently and sniffed impatiently, as if Three’s unconsciousness had kept him waiting unfairly.
“What’s your name, exactly?” Asher asked. Three didn’t feel like answering, so he didn’t. After a moment, Asher cocked his head, as if Three were being unreasonable. “I don’t get it, you know. Why someone like you,” the emphasis here was somewhere between condescending and dismissive, “would want to have anything to do with someone like me. Stupid? Sure. Obviously. But at first I thought ‘He just doesn’t know who I am’.”
Slowly, Three worked his hands and arms, testing to see how he was tied, and with what. They’d bound him with some kind of synthetic cordage that cut into his wrists as he twisted them; he couldn’t get a read on the knot they’d used. Heatwrapped, maybe. Melted instead of tied.
“Kostya, I get. Self-defense. But why did you get involved at all? Did you think you could save her? I don’t understand why you would think there was anything worth saving.” He spoke quickly, obviously not expecting any response to his questions. “Is that what it was? The woman? Haven?”
It was stupid, sure, to invite pain, but Three had to test.
“Her name is Cass.”
For the first time, Asher looked at him. A smoldering stare. Three held the gaze, returned it without fear. There was little left that Asher could do to him now.
“Her name is Haven. Idiot.”
The childishness of the insult, its ineffectiveness, caught Three’s attention. Asher didn’t just live among dangerous people, he was their captain. To hold sway over such individuals… Three wondered what danger lay in Asher’s power, or skill, or cunning.
“And to run. To run for so long. After you killed Kostya, you had to know I wouldn’t just let you get away. And now. Now look at where we are. Fedor. Jez. Poor Ran probably thought he was next on the list.”
Three glanced at Ran, who stood motionless and emotionless to one side. Ran returned the look with a flat stare. Fearless. But something behind the eyes…
The guard standing to Asher’s left, or rather what would’ve been Asher’s left had he been sitting upright, shifted his stance, drawing Three’s eye. And there Three saw it, hanging on his hip. His pistol. Three’s pistol. He wasn’t the one from the gate. Captain of the guard, then? Asher’s trusted man. The captain followed Three’s gaze, and laid his hand over the gun with a smirk. A “this is mine now” look.
We’ll see, Three thought.
“And the boy,” Asher continued. “Spinner?”
“Spinner!” The response was sharper this time. Agitated. “My kid brother. What claim do you have to him? None! He’s my brother! He’s nothing to you!”
Three’s heart burned at that false accusation. Wren had been nothing to him at one point. Now, he was everything. Slowly, Three fought to turn his hands together behind his back so his palms were touching. He felt the binds bite his flesh. Hoped the bleeding wouldn’t attract any attention.
“And Cass?” Three said. “Your own mother.”
“She’s whatever I want her to be. Whatever I decide.” Asher sat up straight in his chair and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You’re going to understand that. If not now, very soon. I decide.”
Asher flicked his finger, and the guard to Three’s right struck Three across the belly with some sort of rod, knocking the wind from him. Blackness closed in from around the edges.
Wren lay on the bed, curled in a ball with his coat over him, trying to cry some more, but he just couldn’t. Even reliving those last, terrible moments of being pulled away couldn’t bring out any more tears. It was still so clear, so fresh in his head. Maybe even clearer now because he’d stopped crying. Three fighting in the crowd. Fighting on all sides. And Three’s final words echoed in Wren’s head.
Fight, Wren! Fight!
And here he was, lying down instead. Lying down. Wren felt suddenly guilty, and foolish. After all Three had done for him, all he’d taught him, and he was just lying here being sad. He sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed, feet not quite reaching the ground. Felt inside his coat. Found his knife. No one had thought to search him for anything.
Wren held the knife, turned it over and over in his hands. He remembered when Three first gave it to him outside the Vault. The first time Three had needed his help. How Three had called him a soldier. A soldier. Soldiers didn’t sit crying in their beds. Soldiers did whatever they had to do.
Three was in trouble. And Mama wasn’t here. She wasn’t going to come back and fix everything. It was up to him, now.
He slid off the bed, and put his coat on. Slipped the knife into his belt, where it wouldn’t poke. Took a deep breath. And then stretched out beyond himself, from the place of his brain that did things he didn’t understand, things he just did without knowing how. Someone was sitting in the hall outside his door. One of the guards that wore black. Wren could feel him. Could see him. And the door. The door was locked.
And then it wasn’t.
Three’s vision cleared again, and he made a mental note. Guard to the right had a weapon. Asher had leaned back into his chair again, was watching with some mix of amusement and judgment.
“It’s a shame we got off to such a bad start,” Asher said. “A man of your talents… I could’ve had use of you.”
Three rolled his head to the side, popped his neck in the spot that always seemed to need it. Tried to relax his shoulders. The burn was intense, muscles screaming for relief from the way his arms had been contorted behind him. He’d managed to get his hands around so his palms were touching, which helped ease the pain and improve the blood flow. He could tell now that the binding was some kind of brittle synthetic. He rolled his hands into fists, knuckles together, increasing the tension on the bands around his wrists.
“Didn’t expect you to try to cross the Strand. I’m amazed that any of you survived. I would’ve guessed you’d all end up like Haven.”
So he did know. Asher seemed to read Three’s thoughts.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell Dagon. Figured he’d discover it on his own at some point. And until then, his obsession was useful. I was kind of hoping he’d blame you for it. I assume he’s dead too?”
Three didn’t answer, but flicked his eyes to Ran. Dagon’s trusted friend. Ran made no hint of response.
“Just as well, I suppose,” Asher said casually. “I think he might’ve gone mad if he’d known what happened to her.” Asher ran a hand through his hair. “He was the one that reminded me of Underdown, you know. I’d almost forgotten him completely. He was only with us a few months. Didn’t get on too well with my father.”
Three felt the back of his chair with his thumbs, found a ridge where two joints met to connect the back to the seat. He positioned the cuffs over that raised point.
“If we’d known what kind of man he really was, I think we may have kept him around. Spinner’s father, you know. Speaking of which. Ran.”
For the first time Ran took his eyes off Three, and looked to Asher.
“Go get him,” Asher said.
Ran stood motionless for a moment, staring back at Asher without any discernible emotion.
“Go on!” Asher said, louder. Ran dipped his head and turned to go. But as he did, his eyes slid across to Three, and the two exchanged the briefest of looks. Three had no way to interpret that look, didn’t have the information to know what was going on, but he had the distinct impression that something significant had just happened. Some kind of momentary breakdown of Asher’s hold over Ran, or the first signs of its erosion. Asher watched him as he exited, and then turned his attention back to Three, shaking his head slightly.
“Dagon was the one who guessed it, when I found out you were headed to Greenstone,” he said. And then added with a wolfish grin, “Your friend at the Vault wasn’t much for keeping secrets.”
Three remembered Jackson, imagined what Asher must’ve done to him. Burned with anger.
“I suppose Haven thought Underdown might remember her?” He shook his head again. “Women and their fantasies. I can imagine it now, the way she must have. Underdown learning of his precious son, Spinner. Falling in love with her again. Bringing them both in as his own. And I wonder what she expected of you, then. Maybe the three of you, living here together under his protection. Ha!” He spat a laugh.
Three tightened his fists. Reminded himself.
Guard on the right has a weapon.
And with a sudden motion, he swung his arms behind him, away from the chair, and then slammed them forward again. Already flexed tight, the binding on his arm impacted the ridge of the chair and split. The captain of the guard’s eyes were just going wide when Three crushed his fist into the groin of the guard on his right. The man reacted, and Three rocketed up, wrapping one arm around the man’s head and snatching the weapon from him with the other hand. Three whipped down and whirled, snapping the guard’s neck and dumping him to the floor as the others converged. Continuing the motion, he struck the closest guard across the temple with the rod. Two down, four to go. The captain of the guard leapt from the dais as the two guards from the door rushed towards Three. But the captain hesitated, as if he’d just remembered he had Three’s gun. He fumbled to get it out of its holster. Three closed the gap before he could draw it.
Three snatched the man behind the neck, forcing the guard’s head down into his shoulder, and whipped him around, putting the captain between Three and the other guards. With his free hand, Three trapped the pistol, and pressed its barrel against the captain’s stomach. Lined it up, and squeezed the trigger. The shot thundered in the room, tore through the captain, and dropped one of the guards from the door. Three slung the captain’s body to the floor and leapt at the next guard, intercepting the man’s jaw with a flying knee. Three rode him to the ground. As they landed, Three bounced the man’s skull off the floor, knocking him out cold.
Three whirled back to his feet, facing the throne with the rod in one hand and his pistol in the other. Its bulk was comforting. He’d missed it. Asher was sitting bolt upright in the chair, but his face was more one of disappointment than fear or surprise. The last guard stood trembling by Asher’s side. Asher looked at him.
“Well. Go on,” he said. The guard looked at Asher, and then at Three. And then back to Asher again. Asher sighed. “Useless.” He looked hard at the man, and the guard suddenly cried out sharply and collapsed to the ground as if his muscles had simply switched off.
Asher stood then, casually, confidently. “I told you I could’ve used a man like you. Too bad, really.”
“Bring Wren to me, and I might not kill you.”
“Oh… no, I don’t think I’ll do that,” Asher said. “The people of Morningside thought Underdown was something special, you know. Allow me to show you why.”
The guard had been asleep when Wren had quietly opened the door. A lucky break. Wren didn’t know what would’ve happened otherwise, and he hadn’t wanted to kill the man, after all. He’d shut the door behind him quietly and locked it back. For at least ten minutes, Wren had wandered the halls, listening for people approaching, sometimes hiding. The place was vast, with confusing hallways and passages, and voices seemed to come from funny places.
There was no way for Wren to track Three, and he didn’t dare risk trying to pinpoint Asher. So he did what Three had taught him to do.
When in doubt, trust your gut.
Wren followed a corridor down a long set of stairs, and kept descending, and descending. And the lower he got, the more terrible he felt. A growing, creeping fear crawled over him. He stopped several times on the steps, fighting the urge to turn around and at the same time trying to convince himself he was going the wrong way anyway. But each time, he knew in his heart that he had to go down those stairs. Three had once told him that it wasn’t bravery if you weren’t scared. So he gripped his knife in slippery palms and tried to ignore the trembling in his legs.
He passed a couple of landings as he went down, but no one seemed to be on the stairs. It didn’t seem like anyone had used them in a long time. Wren forced himself to keep moving, told himself there was nothing really to be afraid of. And all the while the dread grew. A terrible, terrible feeling like sweating and being cold and wanting to throw up all at the same time. It was like something he’d felt before, but the feeling was one he couldn’t quite place.
And suddenly, the stairs stopped. And there was a hallway. And at the end of the hallway, there was a door. Wren did not like that door.
There was a humming sound deep in the walls, a low drone that he noticed now seemed to vibrate in his chest. Wren sat down on the bottom step and hugged his knees. The door stood, staring back at him. Like so many doors Mama had gone through before. And nothing good had ever been behind them.
Wren cried a little then, silently, the tears rolling down his cheeks and dripping off his chin. He had to go through it. No matter what, he had to. He wished Three could be there with him. But he missed his mama most of all.
Finally he stood, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. And took a bunch of deep breaths. Then he started walking. It was the hardest few steps Wren had ever taken in his life.
The door was cool to the touch. Heavy, and a dull green, with big rivets around the edge. Locked. And then somehow it was open, and Wren knew he had opened it without really even meaning to. It was getting easier to do that. He pushed on the door, and it swung silently, smoothly inward. Inside there was only a dim reddish light, and it was hard for Wren to make out more than shadows and silhouettes within. He stepped inside, squinting. A wave of fear rolled over him, and he stood there shaking uncontrollably. In here, the hum was louder. No, not louder. Stronger. Or at least, he could feel it more. His eyes finally adjusted enough for him to make out what he was looking at.
There were boxes. Huge boxes, made of metal, with metal bars. As tall as Fedor. Rows and rows and rows. It made him think of the Vault, the first night he’d fallen inside.
And for all Wren’s fear, curiosity finally built up enough for him to take a few more steps inside to get a better look at the boxes. Though, boxes didn’t seem like quite the right word for them. And just as he approached the nearest one, his hand reaching out to touch it, he realized… not a box.
From deep inside, near the back, two pale blue lights shone back at him. And just as a scream began rising in his throat, something clapped over his mouth and dragged him suddenly backwards.
In the wall behind the throne, a panel shifted quietly and slid to one side, revealing a dark passage behind. Though his mind couldn’t comprehend, it didn’t take but a moment for Three to recognize the aura emanating from it. The moonlight glow of a Weir’s eyes, growing as it approached, ascending stairs from below. Asher stood to one side, watching impassively, with except perhaps a look of muted pleasure on his face.
“They thought he was some great warrior. Or wizard. Or both, I suppose. Feared by the creatures. But he was neither.” He turned and looked at Three then. “He’d built a machine, you see.”
The Weir’s eyes became visible in the darkness, two soft stars in the gloom. The creature paused before entering the room, its other features hidden in the shadows.
“He hacked them. More or less. He could call them, he could drive them away. He even has a place to keep a few of them. But he never really understood them. He was about control, you see. Always control. Never got much beyond using them to secure a place of power for himself.” Asher returned to his seat, relaxed into it. “And that is why I am sitting here, and he is not.”
Three’s vision swam, his balance shifted awkwardly, though whether it was from the shock of this news, or from the injuries he’d sustained, he couldn’t tell.
“You look like you need to sit down.” Asher smiled. “Underdown was an innovative man in some ways, but he wasn’t terribly clever. Summoning the Weir and then driving them away again, for show. A one-trick pony. It took me to realize the full potential of his creation.” He looked vaguely over his shoulder to the creature behind him. “You can come in, my dear.”
The Weir stepped forward, something familiar in its movement. The creature snaked fluidly around the throne, and then poured itself seductively into Asher’s lap. If not for the eyes, Three would’ve sworn the woman was human. Her flesh a healthy olive tone, her hair dark and untangled. Her features perfectly preserved. Just as he’d remembered her.
Three felt his legs go out, and he fell backwards, collapsing heavily on the floor, his weapons clattering heedlessly next to him. It was her. Cass. A violent chill shook him, and he nearly vomited. It was her. And yet it wasn’t. The she-thing looked back at him without recognition, without emotion. It wasn’t Cass, not anymore. Just a slave, using Cass’s body.
Asher ran his fingers through her hair.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” he said. “I’ve always thought so. And the Weir, the Weir are fascinating, you know. Not at all the wild animals you think they are. They found her. Repaired her for me. Optimized her. And when directed, they are capable of… things beyond your imagining. No mind of their own, of course. But with my mind…” he stopped and smiled. Robotically, the Weir-Cass turned its head and kissed Asher’s head.
Three felt feverish, felt like he might lose consciousness at any moment. He fought to hold on. Seeing her again, seeing her like this, was more than his heart could bear.
No, not her, he told himself. Cass is dead. That is a thing. An abomination.
“So, I guess in way, it’s all worked out just like she wanted,” Asher continued, running his finger along her jaw. Along its jaw. “All back together again. And so what do we do about you, then?” He made a show of considering it. And then shrugged. “I suppose you get to die.”
Cass stood then, and stalked towards him.
They stood in the passage outside the door, Wren shaking violently, Ran holding him in his arms.
“You shouldn’t be here, little one,” Ran said with gentle firmness. “This is a terrible place.”
The door was closed now, but Wren couldn’t stop trembling. He was freezing cold. Ran had managed to stifle his scream, and had quickly moved him back out into the passageway, Wren was sure that at any moment the door would open and they would flood out.
“Come, little one. I’ll take you to him.”
“Ran, please,” Wren said, his voice breaking as he fought back the tears. “Please, I don’t want to go back to Asher.”
“I know,” Ran said. “I will take you to the man. The one who brought you. And then we will see.”
The fear, the shock, the relief, it was too much for Wren to absorb. He burst into tears and went limp, letting Ran bear him back up the stairs. Back to Three.
Three scrabbled backwards on his hands as Cass approached. Her hands had looked normal at first, but as she closed the distance, claws had extended from the tips of her fingers. Not true claws; some kind of blades embedded beneath the nails. Deadly, either way.
He was just gaining his feet when she moved to strike. And it was all he could to slap the attack away, to get himself clear. The assault came furiously, and no matter what he did to break contact, he couldn’t keep distance. Three’s mind flashed back to the last fight, the night she’d fallen, the way she’d fought when she was healthy, and juiced on her chems. It was like that now; raw fury and surprising power, like a lioness defending her cubs.
But no matter how much he fought to tell himself this creature was no longer Cass, that she was gone, Three could not bring himself to harm her. He struggled to defend himself from her relentless advance. But he couldn’t bring her down.
“Asher!” a loud voice called. And in an instant, Cass stopped her attack. Ran stood at the door, Wren in his arms, and a look of horror on his face. “Asher! What have you done?”
Asher waved dismissively. “It’s none of your concern, Ran. She’s mine to do with as I please.”
“You… you did this?”
“Are we having a problem, Ran?” Asher said, his tone rising.
“Mama?” came Wren’s weak voice. Ran instantly covered the boy’s eyes, pressed his head back down on his shoulder.
“Don’t look, little one.”
“Let him look,” Asher said. “He’ll be seeing a lot of her from now on.”
“Mama?” Wren cried. “Three?”
“You demon!” Ran shouted. Asher rolled his eyes. In the passage behind him, a blue light grew. And more of Asher’s Weir emerged. Six of them. Well-muscled. Deadly. They moved to either side of Asher, like wolves protecting their own.
Ran put Wren down, and slid the boy behind him.
“Three, what’s going on? What’s happening?” Wren called.
“Don’t worry, Wren,” Three said. “We’re gonna work it out.”
He started towards Wren and Ran, but in that instant Cass renewed her attack. Three managed to stop the first swipe, but the second caught his side, raking across his ribs. As he redirected her strikes, he caught a glimpse of her passionless face. Hollow. There was nothing of her in there.
She stopped again, but remained poised to strike.
“You’re boring me,” Asher said. “Are you just going to let her kill you?”
Three understood. Asher didn’t care how the fight turned out. It was the sport he wanted, the sheer torment of watching Three fight this woman he’d come to care so deeply for, and the pleasure that Asher derived from it.
“You have no power over me, Asher,” Three said, knowing it would enrage him. “I won’t fight her.”
“You will,” Asher said. “Or the boy dies.”
The six other Weir advanced, towards Wren. Three made a move to intercept them, but Cass was there, cutting him off, knocking him away, keeping him cornered.
“Your choice,” Asher said.
The Weir collapsed as one, lunging for the boy.
But Ran was there. He flung Wren away, into the corner, and with all his fury unleashed his fury upon the six.
Wren tumbled to the ground, and scrambled over to the corner, where he balled himself against the wall. Hands over his ears, he screamed and screamed and screamed at the chaos around him. Ran fighting so many. He was bleeding so much. And Three fighting Mama. But it wasn’t Mama, not anymore. What had happened? What was happening?
Cass attacked and attacked, and Three had shifted gears. He struck her in the legs, in the arms, in the torso. Anything to slow her down without doing any real injury. But he was getting tired. His wrists were bleeding, his shoulders were still stiff, and his head was still pounding. Everything was taking its toll, and Cass started landing strike after strike. His pant leg was soaked with blood from numerous wounds, and he was starting to get lightheaded.
Across the room, Ran still fought, though two of the Weir were on the ground now. But every attempt Three made to help him was stifled by Cass.
Wren tried to shrink back further into the wall, to get away. To get away from all the screaming, and the sounds of fighting, and the utter chaos. All the blood. And Asher. Asher sitting on his tall chair, watching it all. Watching.
It was Asher. All of this was Asher’s fault. And without Asher, maybe it would all stop. And that’s all Wren wanted now. He just wanted it to stop. He wanted it all to stop.
“Stop,” he heard himself say. “Stop!” He was standing now. Louder. “STOP!”
Three’s legs were heavy. His steps were off, his kicks missing targets. And Cass was tireless. How fitting, he thought, that after all was said and done, she should be the one.
Amidst her attacks, Three was vaguely aware of Wren yelling something, and Asher got off his throne and strode across the room. But there was nothing Three could do to reach the boy. In between clashes with Cass, Three saw Asher backhand Wren across the face.
“Shut up, Spinner!” Asher yelled.
“My name is Wren!” Wren shouted back.
Asher struck him again, harder this time. Wren tasted blood in his mouth. And then Asher’s hand was around his throat. He had The Look on his face.
“Shut. Your. Mouth,” Asher said, his face an inch from Wren’s. Wren felt his feet go out from under him. Asher was picking him up. He couldn’t breathe. His hands fumbled at his belt.
Wren found it, the grip cool against his palm. Just like Three’d taught him. Wren plunged his knife into Asher’s forearm, and then into his upper arm, and then his shoulder, and then his neck. Asher dropped him, stumbled backwards in shock.
Behind him, four Weir stood over Ran, his body torn. Three, pale, cut, and bleeding, was losing ground. And Mama. Mama.
Asher gathered himself, a dark look on his face. “You stupid little boy.” The four Weir turned and stalked towards Wren. And in his chest, a quiet fury sparked.
“Asher,” Wren said, though he didn’t know why. And then again. “Asher!” he called. The fury was swelling, and Wren felt like he might explode. The Weir were almost on him, and his anger was so great Wren could do nothing but scream.
And in that moment, something burst inside him. The four Weir collapsed instantly to the ground. Asher’s hands flew up to his head, and Wren could see it now. Could see all of Asher, who he was and what he thought, and what he did, and what he would do. Asher looked up at him now, eyes wide in horror, in true, uncontrolled fear. And from a quiet place within the storm, Wren spoke a whisper.
Asher screamed then, a shrill, otherworldly sound, and fell backwards, and was still.
Across the room, Three had fallen to his knees.
“Mama,” Wren said, gently. The Weir that looked like Mama advanced towards Three.
“Mama, stop,” Wren called again, just as gently. He walked towards her. She stopped the second time, turned to face him. He reached out, touched her. “Mama. Come back.”
Three lay on the ground, bleeding from too many wounds to count. Too weak to even sit up. He couldn’t tell if he was hallucinating or not, if what he was seeing was real. Wren stood by him, and the Weir that had been Cass was kneeling next to him. His vision was blurred, dark at the edges.
The Weir peered down at him with its blue-glow eyes. But different now. Clearer. Recognition.
“Three,” she said. “I’m here.”
There was too much to process, too much pain, no words even if he could have spoken.
“Mama, is he going to be OK?” Wren asked.
She looked to Wren. Concerned. Bit her lower lip, just slightly. She was back. Cass was truly back. Three’s heart leapt within him.
“Not this time, buddy,” Three managed. Wren dropped to his knees next to Three. Tears in his eyes. Cass reached down and lifted Three gently into her lap, cradled his head in her arms.
Tears brimmed in her altered eyes, caught and swirled the light emanating from them, like moonlight on snow. Beautiful. Three’s eyes flicked to Wren.
“You used your knife.”
Wren nodded. “I had to.”
Three managed a smile. “You did good. Real good.”
“Three, I don’t want you to go,” Wren said. Three felt Cass’s arms squeeze him tighter. He nodded, or at least tried, and felt like he did.
“Why didn’t you fight?” Cass let the tears fall then, let herself cry. “I was in there, Three. I was in there, trapped. Watching. Why didn’t you just kill me?”
“I promised to protect you,” he said. She bent over him then, pressed her wet cheek to his forehead. Wren started crying, and tiny hands squeezed Three’s. He let himself be held, savored the feel of her arms around him, the rhythm of her breathing, Wren’s warm hands around his fingers. Cass was back. Back with Wren. And for Wren. They were going to be alright now. It was going to be alright. Three felt the life slipping out of him. It was time.
“I’m gonna have to go now,” he said.
“Three,” Wren said through his tears. “You gotta kiss the lady goodbye. So she remembers you.”
Three smiled to hear his words returned to him. They were going to be alright. Cass bent further, brought her lips gently to his. Whispered to him.
“I will always remember you.”
“Be good, girl.”
Three squeezed Wren’s hand. “Take care of your Mama.”
And with that, Three closed his eyes, and did not open them again.