Cass stirred, shifted awake, let her eyes float open slowly, watched as they focused the haze into clarity. The first thing she noticed was Wren’s absence. The blanket was still compressed and rumpled from where he’d been curled next to her, but he was nowhere to be seen. She lay still for a moment longer, listening for the usual sounds of her son. Though there was no obvious reason to think so, she knew with a cold certainty that something was very wrong.
She rolled herself up silently, slipped her feet to the floor, tested her strength. About fifty percent. Quietly she stood, and crept stiffly around the wayhouse.
When Cass found him, he was standing in the supply room towards the back, in the dark, hand nearly to his face. Fist tightly balled. Staring. She’d seen him that way before; terror seized her.
Blood ran freely from his palm, down to the elbow, where it dripped in a spatter on the concrete. He didn’t seem to notice her. She rushed to him, swept him into her arms, felt his hair damp with clammy sweat.
“Wren, baby, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Tears welled in her eyes. Still cradling him against her, Cass seized his hand, pried its stiff fingers open to reveal a blade, gently curved, one solid piece: a length of scrap metal crafted into a deadly thing. Cass took it and placed it on the ground, then reached for a nearby garment from a shelf and tore it, fashioning a makeshift bandage. Wren just stood, injured hand limp in hers, never looking to her.
Finally, as Cass tied off the bandage, Wren rasped, barely audible.
Cass stopped, tried to absorb that.
“And they’re here.”
Terror and despair collided, with Cass caught in between. She felt her breath escape, her heart icy cold as it leapt and pounded in her chest. She squeezed him tighter still.
Somehow, by some unholy miracle, they had found her. Asher, or at least some of his crew, prowled somewhere just above them, undoubtedly searching for a way in, and most certainly capable of finding it. It was just a matter of time, and not much at that.
Her mind raced, tried to find an explanation. Maybe Three had sold them out. Kept them here until Asher could reach them. It made some sense, but not much. Her nightmare flashed back. Asher, grinning over her. It clicked. In her fevered torment, her digital mask had cracked. He had found her signal.
A grinding sound pulled her out of her paralyzed thought. Down the corridor, towards the entrance from the street. They were coming.
“Come on, baby. Quiet as you can.”
Cass noted the piles of supplies on the floor, hastily scraped them into a backpack. Wren remained motionless, unblinking. Staring into nothingness. Or seeing something beyond sight.
Cass slung the backpack over her shoulders, took Wren’s hand, and gently pulled him towards the back corner of the supply room. She searched the wall, found the signpost cracks, felt for the pressure plates. The instant before she pressed into them, Wren’s hand tightened on hers, unnaturally strong, painful. She flinched, but his eyes stopped her dead.
“Not that way, Mama.”
He was with her now. Frightened, but lucid. She nodded, understanding. They were coming from both sides. Cass bent down, nose to nose with her son. Whispering.
“The other way, the secret you found. Can you open it again?”
“I’m not sure… I… I don’t think so.”
“Let’s just try.”
Cass swung Wren up in her arms. He felt so much heavier than she remembered. Her legs trembled at the extra weight. A few steps outside the supply room, she placed him on his own feet. The grinding continued, faint but relentless.
“Go ahead, baby. Just see what you can do.”
Wren nodded, uncertain, shoulders sagging with a lack of confidence. He closed his eyes, stretched out a hand, touched the wall.
The grinding continued. Cass thought she caught the trace of a deep rumbling voice floating from the supply room, muffled through the concrete.
Wren raised his head, opened his eyes. Crying.
“I’m sorry, Mama, I can’t.”
“Yes you can, sweetheart, you’ve done this same thing a hundred times. You can do it.”
“No, it’s different. They’re always different, Mama.”
“Try again, Wren. Just try.”
Wren lowered his head, stared at his feet. Defeated. He shook his head. He was just a child, Cass thought. A child with a gift he didn’t understand, frustrated by his own incapability to control it. What more could she ask of him?
“Just try, baby, OK? For me?”
“I can’t,” he murmured. “I can’t feel this one, I can’t.”
It was the recent near-death experience, perhaps, or maybe the sheer anger at the circumstance, the futility, or the helplessness she felt; whatever the reason, Cass did something she had never done in her entire life.
She slapped her son.
Wren’s little face snapped to one side, and in an instant he looked back to her, wild-eyed, shocked, bewildered, tears at the verge. His cheek flushed hot purple. Cass’s heart shattered at the raw pain in her precious child’s eyes. But she couldn’t stop. Their lives were at stake.
“They are here, Wren. Asher is here. And he is going to take us away, and separate us. And we will never be together again, not ever. Not unless you open this door and get us out of here. So you find a way, and you make it happen. Right. Now.”
She snatched his arm and whipped him to face the wall. It was a dangerous game, and for long seconds Cass thought she had played it wrong. Wren just stood there, chin trembling, hand on his cheek, not daring to look at his mother, but not daring to let her out of his peripheral vision either.
Then, the grinding sound stopped. And Wren set his jaw. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly, and slammed his palm against the wall. Brow furrowed in intense focus, lip curled in the slightest hint of a snarl. He looked very much like his mother.
Finally, his face softened, the timid boy returned, and he let his hand fall from the wall. Down the corridor, there was a hiss; the magnetic seal unlocking.
Cass ran her fingers through his hair, kissed the top of his head.
“It’s OK, baby.”
A thunk from the supply room signaled the activation of the stairs. Back there, in the darkness, the floor panel was sliding open. And without any sound at all, a small hole appeared in the wall where Cass and Wren stood.
A half-moment of shock was all Cass could spare before she grabbed Wren by the arm and shoved him inside. She bent double and followed him in, shuffling sideways as quickly as she could with one eye on the opening.
“It’s OK, Mama,” Wren said. “I see it now.”
He sounded much older. And with that, the opening disappeared, and the two of them were plunged into complete darkness.
After a neck-breaking crawl down a pitch-black tunnel, and several painful collisions with abrupt turns in the walls, Cass and Wren finally found themselves at a gentle upward slope, where the ceiling suddenly gave way in a matching curve. Cass stood at full height, and managed to scramble higher onto the smooth metal surface. The top was covered by a smooth steel mesh, more like a drain than a grate, and with one solid push outward, Cass was disheartened to discover that’s exactly what it was. An exit convincingly concealed in some sort of waste recycling reservoir.
It appeared that the levels never actually rose high enough to enter the pipe, but that was small comfort. There was no obvious route from this exit to the next, except through the filth and refuse. Cass swung her backpack around to the front, and had Wren climb up on her back. Then the two set out, scrambling out of their secret tunnel and into a pool of stinking sludge, thigh-deep for Cass. She struggled her way to the nearest edge, where it was shallowest. Following the curving concrete around the outside, they eventually came to a small iron hatch: a maintenance access.
“Once we get outside,” Cass whispered to Wren. “We’ll have to be very, very careful.”
Wren just nodded.
Cass grabbed hold of the access release, and slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, applied strength to it. She could feel the flexing metal, feel the parts that had been unused for untold years reawakening. Her great fear was that the hatch would spring open with some horrible shriek, instantly alerting anyone who might be outside. As she felt the hatch release and begin its automatic opening, she realized she had no idea whether it was day or night.
Her first look at the outside world in six days turned out to be dark. Wren constricted around her neck, and she heard him hiss involuntarily. But a closer look revealed that their limited view was just in heavy shadow. Cass poked her head through the hatch timidly, and saw the bright gray horizon to the east that signaled a new dawn fast approaching. For once, things were going her way. Light enough for the Weir not to be about. Dark enough to conceal their escape.
Cass swung Wren off her shoulders, and lifted him through the hatch to the ground outside. She quickly followed, and readjusted the backpack once she had joined him. As quietly as she was able, she closed the hatch. It thunked dully when it sealed.
“OK, baby,” she said, taking Wren’s hand firmly. “Stay right with me, no matter what.”
Wren just nodded. He knew what they were up against.
Together, the pair slipped cautiously from the concrete recycler to a nearby building. Its bottom floor had been gutted by vandals, or fire, or both, but there was ample concealment there. Though everything in Cass’s body told her to run, she forced a creeping pace, using every ounce of her will to search out danger. She was especially glad to have Wren now, knowing he would warn her before her own eyes could.
Ten minutes stretched to twenty, then thirty. Still they picked their way from building to building, alley to alley. Spending no more than a fleeting moment in the open, no less than a few minutes observing from each new position.
Finally, they reached the outer ring of a small courtyard. It was in a chaotic state of urban disrepair; once-beautiful archways collapsed to formless piles of rubble. That was where Cass saw the first of them.
She recognized her instantly. It was Jez. Mesmerizingly beautiful Jez, with her skin-tight fibrasteel suit, and white-blonde hair dangling down her back in tight braids; braids that often concealed razortips cunningly woven in. Jez moved like a heron. Graceful, fluid steps, punctuated by a piercingly sharp gaze that snapped from point to point with almost inhuman precision. Cass’s breath caught in her throat. Instinctively she dropped to a low crouch and pulled Wren tight to her side.
Jez, on the other side of the courtyard, stopped. Stood stone still. Listening.
Finally, Jez moved on, out of sight. Cass felt a rush of hot breath on her neck, as Wren released the one he’d been holding.
“Back out. Slooowly,” Cass whispered. “We’ll find a way around.”
Without taking her eyes from the corner around which Jez had disappeared, Cass took cautious steps backwards, back the way they’d entered. As she stood, she bumped into something that hadn’t been there before.
And before she could even draw a breath to cry out, a hand clamped tight over her mouth, jerking her head back into a shoulder. Lips on her ear hissed a warning.
She nodded as much as she could, caught as she was. Immediately, the hand relaxed, slipped from her mouth down gently to her neck. Cass felt the tension release from her body. Three hadn’t left them after all. He must’ve been watching for them.
His lips lingered on her earlobe, wet, slightly parted. She heard him inhale deeply, as if drawing in her scent. As if he’d missed her. Cass hazarded a sidelong glance.
Dagon. The Grave.
Cass spun out of his loose grasp; instinctively jerked Wren behind her, shielding him. She hunched down, readied, tried to trigger a boost before she realized she had nothing to tap. For a moment, Dagon just stood there, watching her.
Then, he spoke.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
Low tones, conspiratorial. He glanced off to where Jez had gone, as if he hoped no one would notice him here, with Cass and her son.
“I was worried. About you,” he said, “and Spinner too, of course.”
Dagon leaned to one side, trying get a look at Wren.
Wren clung to his mother’s leg, but offered a half-wave in response.
“I’m not coming back, Dagon,” Cass said. “Neither of us are. You know that.”
Dagon shifted his gaze around, met her eyes briefly, quickly looked away. He had an awkward posture, always uncomfortable, like his bones didn’t quite fit together. Pale skin almost translucent at times, dark circles under dark eyes. Impossibly thin, like a knife-blade. Unequivocally deadly.
“I’d watch out for you, Haven. I always have.”
“My name is Cass.”
He looked at her again, fleeting. Nervous.
“Cass,” his voice quavered. “Just come back with me. We can work it out. Me and Ran. We’ll take care of you, I promise.”
“I don’t think you’ll get the chance.”
“Why? Asher won’t do anything.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He looked back to her, held her gaze for once. He looked lost. For a split second, she almost felt sorry for him.
“What are you—?”
Dagon almost asked the question, but at the last possible moment, he twisted his body, bent backwards, held a gravity-defying pose as Three’s blade severed the air where Dagon’s neck had been a half-instant before. How Dagon had sensed Three, Cass would never know. Even watching Three’s approach, she hadn’t heard him. It didn’t matter now anyway. She could hardly believe what was unfolding before her.
Three must’ve been surprised by Dagon’s sudden evasion, but he almost seemed to expect it the way he redirected his blade in a fluid motion, a single strike. Dagon bent again, twisted, dropped on his shoulder and whipped his shin across Three’s collarbone. Three stumbled back, rebalanced, just as Dagon whirled and regained his feet. For a heartbeat, they sized each other up.
Dagon was the first to impact, his knee crushing into Three’s solar plexus a half-second before Three buried his elbow into Dagon’s jaw. Dagon spun with the force of the attack, but carried through with a kick that knocked the sword from Three’s hand. Three responded with a stinging backhand, followed it up with a flurry of strikes too fast for Cass’s eyes to see. Dagon bounded backwards, but in the next instant lunged forward, catching Three with a hard palm to the face, and then darting his fingertips into a nerve cluster at Three’s shoulder joint. Three fell back again, dazed, clutching his arm as it dangled uselessly. Dagon melted to the ground, rolled, somehow came up to his feet with Three’s blade in hand.
Cass couldn’t help it. She called out, reflexively.
Too late. Dagon slashed the blade across Three’s throat. Three’s hand jerked once, spasmodically. For a moment afterwards, no one moved. Then, Cass gasped at the thin line of crimson that welled on Three’s Adam’s apple.
“Please,” Dagon said, glancing at Cass, almost pleading. “They’ll hear us.”
Dagon looked back to Three, watched him with unreserved fascination, the hint of a smile on his thin lips.
“I could’ve killed you, you know.”
Three hesitated, nodded. He reached up, felt his throat with his fingertips. A seam of blood stretched from one side of his throat to the other, a shallow cut, almost surgical. A warning.
“I didn’t do so bad myself,” Three replied in dry monotone.
Dagon chuckled humorlessly, dropped his gaze to his own torso. There, for the first time, Cass saw a slender length of polished steel protruding from between Dagon’s ribs.
“Missed the heart,” Dagon answered.
“Not by much.”
Dagon shrugged, smiled. Shot a look to Cass. Struggled, wavered. Finally.
“You know I can’t just let you go.”
He turned back to Three, eyed him. Cass saw something pass between them, some kind of understanding she couldn’t identify or explain. Three smirked.
“But I can give you a head start.”
Dagon plucked the blade from between his ribs, bowed slightly, extended Three’s short sword back to him. Three took it without ceremony; slid it into its sheath.
“I’ll keep this one,” Dagon said, holding the simple knife. “A reminder.”
Three touched his throat again.
“Guess I’ll keep this one then.”
“Next time,” Dagon started.
Three just nodded. Cass picked Wren up and quickly joined Three. Dagon wouldn’t look at her anymore.
“You should go,” he said quietly. “They won’t be far behind.”
“Dagon…” Cass began.
He turned his back to them, but made no motion to leave.
“Bye,” Wren murmured.
Cass swung Wren to her back, and hoped in her heart she’d never see Dagon again.
Three didn’t know what exactly had just transpired, who Dagon was, or why he’d let them go, but he wasn’t about to wait around for someone else to find them. He grabbed Cass under the arm and led her as fast as she could go back the way he had come. They’d made it deep into a tight alley, maybe fifty meters away, before Cass ripped her arm from him and stopped running.
Three halted, whirled to face her.
“We’ve got to keep moving.”
Cass set Wren down on his feet. And then, with everything she had, she punched Three square in the face. He took it, but reflexively grabbed her wrists.
“You left us!” she spat. “You left us to die, you son—”
Three spun her, shoved her hard against the nearest wall, crushed his body into hers, pinning her.
“You listen to me,” he growled, in a cold monotone. “I promised you nothing. I owe you nothing. You’re alive. For now. You want to stay that way, we move. Now.”
Three looked down deep into Cass’s dark eyes, saw the defiance there, the hard resolve, the intense fire he knew would burn him later. But also acceptance. She knew he was right. There would be time for arguments later. He hoped.
He stepped back, released her wrists.
“He said a head start. How much of one?”
Cass massaged her wrists, shook her head.
“Not enough to get away.”
And as if on cue, there came a cry from the far end of the alley. In the strengthening light of the early morning, the source was unmistakable. Tall, muscular, right arm dangling, gray and useless. Fedor.
Three snatched Wren off the ground and broke into a dead run with the boy tucked awkwardly under his arm, Cass right on his heels.
Cass fought to keep up the breakneck speed that Three required of her, but without the quint, she couldn’t get any more out of her body. Fedor’s massive form was closing the distance with every step, and Cass knew Jez couldn’t be far behind.
The trio twisted and turned, seemingly at random. Cass wanted to tell Three that they’d never lose Fedor when they were already this close, but she didn’t have the breath or the words for it. Then, she started to notice their surroundings. Landmarks she hadn’t even realized she’d noted the first time she’d seen them. A crumbling brick wall. Piles of rusted corrugated steel. A lewd advertisement from some former shop.
Three was leading them back the way they’d come. Something nagged at her, in the back of her mind. A warning. Too faint, too vague to heed.
“Come on, this way!” he called from ahead.
Cass couldn’t figure out the point in retracing their steps. They were way too far from the Enclave to make it back. Even if they could, the guards at the gate would never let them in after the way they’d left. It all seemed pointless. Fedor had dropped out of view, but she knew he was still tracking them. And he never tired.
The trio rounded another corner.
“Keep running,” Three barked. “Don’t stop, don’t look back!”
Cass didn’t have the will to argue. Three practically tossed Wren to her as she passed him, and she slung him on her back, on top of the backpack. Three slowed. She hazarded a glance back, and saw him drop to a crouch.
She pressed on, alarms screaming in her head, danger. What was she forgetting? She ran ten more yards, nameless panic rising.
Then it dawned on her.
She skidded to a stop, almost fell to her knees under the weight of Wren and the backpack.
A moment later, a thunderous explosion shattered the air. Behind her, plumes of concrete dust filled the sky and alleyways. Heart pounding, she sank to the ground and hugged Wren, doubting anyone would be catching up to her now.