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Книга: Morningside Fall lotd-2
Назад: TWENTY FIVE
Дальше: EPILOGUE

TWENTY SIX

It was midmorning when Cass gained entrance to the compound. She had walked up to the gates and caused quite a stir amongst the guards posted there. Some wanted to arrest her and take her before the Council immediately, while others were convinced that to do so would be to fall into her trap. None of those could actually explain what exactly her trap might be, but they were convinced it was both devious and deadly.

At length, a captain had been called out, and after he assured the others that he would assume all responsibility, he bound her hands behind her and, with a contingent of six others to back him up, led her to the new seat of power.

Cass kept calm and let them guide her where they would. She had expected to go to the Council Room, and so was surprised when they led her down to the old throne room. They kept her waiting in the hall. The guards were careful to keep their distance.

When they finally let her in, Vye, Hondo, and North were seated on their thrones — and Wren was with them.

“Mama!” he said, and he ran to her and hugged her waist. She bent forward and pressed her cheek to the top of his head before one of the guards separated them.

“Are you OK, baby?”

“I’m fine, Mama, are you?” Wren asked.

She nodded, relieved to see her son looking so well. It was almost too much for her at that moment. She hadn’t expected to see him, at least not yet, and she was thrown off momentarily. Wren was dressed in fresh clothes, and he looked cleaner than she’d seen him in days. His hands were free, though two guards were clearly assigned to stay near him.

“We thought you’d want to see your son,” Vye said. “He’s being treated very well.”

“And so here we are, gathered again,” Hondo said. There was an edge in his voice, and an arrogance. “And I suppose you’ve come here to challenge our claim to authority.”

“Not at all,” Cass said.

“Oh?” Hondo said. “Then to what do we owe the honor of your presence?”

“I’ve come to ask for your mercy.”

Hondo’s eyes narrowed, and Vye glanced over at him, and then back at Cass.

“What did you have in mind, Lady Cass?” Vye asked.

“That you show mercy to the people you’ve sworn to protect,” Cass answered. “I understand that you have a plan underway to move a number of people outside the wall. I’ve come to beg you not to do so. You would be sending them all to certain death.”

“Despite what you may think,” Hondo said, “we aren’t monsters. We also have a plan for the guard to provide protection. They’ll take care of any Weir that may stray too close.”

“It won’t be enough.”

“The Weir haven’t come in any number for a long time.”

“They attacked the gate less than a week ago,” Cass said.

“And it was repelled. They haven’t returned since.”

“Please, North,” she said, looking at him. “There is an attack coming. On a scale that you cannot imagine. If you prepare now, the city may weather it. But if you waste your time forcing people out in the open, I believe we will all be destroyed.”

“Your son already tried this tactic,” Hondo said. “It sounds very noble, returning not for power, but for the greater good. But you should be careful setting yourself up as a savior for a people who may not receive you as such.”

“Hondo, don’t be a fool. I know what you’ve done. I know how this Council conspired against my son. But this isn’t a game for power.”

“It’s always a game for power,” he said. “And I know you’re upset with how things have turned out. But trying to cause a panic now doesn’t help anyone.”

“That’s funny, coming from a man who went out of his way to stir up trouble for the rightful governor.”

“There was already trouble. We may have accelerated the process on occasion, but it was underway before we ever got involved.”

“It’s not like you think, Cass,” Vye said. “We just wanted to get ahead of it. To make sure we could control it. Otherwise the city would’ve eventually torn itself apart.”

“The sentiment was always there,” Hondo said. “It just needed a little push.”

Cass thought she’d prepared herself for this confrontation, but she was aghast at the absolute lack of remorse they showed.

“People died so you could have your way,” Cass said. “And more will die now.”

“And are they not acceptable losses, Cass, if the end result is peace and security for everyone?” He lowered his voice and leaned forward. “People are sheep. They need a shepherd to tell them where to go, what to do, what to think. They want a shepherd. Everything we have done has been for them.”

It was no use. There was nothing more Cass could do here.

“You fools. You’ve made enemies of friends and allowed the wolves to claim your doorstep. What good will it be to rule a kingdom of dust and ash?”

“It’ll work out,” Vye said. “You’ll see, Cass. You’ll understand when it all settles.”

Cass was still trying to work out a response when a guardsman came in. He bowed when he entered, and Hondo waved him forward. It turned Cass’s stomach to see that. Wren had never asked anyone to bow to him.

“An Awakened has come with a message,” the guard said. “He said he must deliver it himself, in person.”

“Another plea?” Hondo asked.

“I don’t believe so, sir. It seems urgent. He’s very serious.”

“Alright, send him in.”

Hondo motioned dismissively towards Cass, and two of the guards took her by the arms and moved her off to one side.

She heard the door open behind her, but before she could glance over her shoulder to see who it was, Wren called out, “Painter!”

Cass turned and saw Painter stride into the room and immediately knew something had changed about him. He was standing taller, with his shoulders back and his chest out. His face was grave. He didn’t acknowledge Wren or Cass, or anyone else, other than those seated on the three thrones.

He stopped before them, but did not bow.

“You look familiar,” Hondo said. “A friend of Wren’s, aren’t you?”

“I am a herald, and I have come with a message for the rulers of the city.”

Cass was shocked to hear the voice coming from Painter. It was full and powerful, confident. And he hadn’t stuttered once.

“Oh, well, by all means, please deliver it.”

“One is coming with a host at his command. He does not wish to take you by surprise, for he longs to test his strength against yours. When the sun sets, his army will appear and make your city desolate.”

Vye sat upright, but Hondo only laughed. He leaned forward in mock seriousness. “And what tribute does this mighty warlord desire to spare us this fate?”

“It is no threat. There is nothing you can give to see it pass over. There is nothing you can do to prevent it. It is a prophecy. Your city has seen its last sunrise.”

Hondo sat back with a bemused look, and then he looked over to Wren and Cass.

“I can appreciate the theatrics,” he said. “But really, next time you should find someone with a more…” he waved his hand up and down in Painter’s direction, “imposing figure.”

Cass was too stunned to pay any attention to what Hondo had said. Painter seemed wholly in control of himself, but the change was too sudden — too severe — and she knew the ominous words were not truly his. The thought was too terrible to admit, yet too certain to dismiss. Asher had found a way into Painter’s mind. And Painter had given himself over.

“Get him out of here.”

Two of the guards approached Painter, but he held up his hands with such authority that they halted. He turned on his own and walked to the door, without so much a glance at Wren or Cass. Before he left, Painter paused and stretched out his hand towards Hondo, as if pronouncing a blessing.

“Come tomorrow you shall no longer be called Morningside, for by then I shall have given you a new name.”

And with that, he exited. The throne room was silent for a few moments after. Cass and Wren made eye contact, and Cass wondered if the fear and horror was as apparent in her eyes as it was in his. Vye had gone pale, and even North looked unsettled. Only Hondo remained unmoved.

“Will you now do as I’ve asked?” said Cass. “Shut the gates, and prepare.”

“And please, Hondo, let me use the machine,” Wren added, pleading.

“So you can help bring this army? It was an impressive performance, but I’m not so easily taken as that. Because you have such compassion for the people, how about this? You both may go and live among them.” He motioned for the guards to take Cass and Wren from the throne room.

“Hondo, wait,” North said. “Let’s talk about this…”

“There’s no need to discuss it, unless Vye is in disagreement?” Hondo answered, looking at Vye, who was watching Wren. Vye glanced at Cass and for a moment they locked eyes. But then she lowered her gaze and shook her head.

He said, “As I thought. The ruling stands. Escort them from the grounds, and see that they leave with the first relocation.”

The guards forced Cass and Wren from the room, though neither she nor her son offered any resistance.

 

They were corralled and placed near one of the western gates, with what Cass estimated to be roughly two hundred of the most unfortunate citizens that Morningside had to offer. There were a few rough-looking characters who looked like they might start trouble once the move began, but for the most part, everyone seemed resigned to their fate.

After spending some time among them, Cass realized this too was part of the plan. The first group to leave wasn’t made up of the worst offenders, or the most vocal critics. It was comprised almost entirely of those who would go along quietly, those who trusted the promise of the Council, or who were too afraid of reprisal to make any fuss. These were people who just wanted to live their lives in whatever peace they could find. They would make an example for the others. They would prove it wasn’t so bad if you just went along.

There was a large contingent of guardsmen stationed around the area, an impressive show of force, though it was largely unnecessary. No one seemed to have any plans to do anything other than move out when they were told to do so. Cass overheard some conversations of people discussing which buildings beyond the wall they were planning to occupy. Some even went so far as to claim that their options would be better outside the wall than they had been inside.

The people they were with didn’t seem to know quite what to make of them, and though there were occasional nods of recognition, or puzzled looks, for the most part there was a concerted effort not to notice them: Don’t make trouble. Just go along.

Cass wanted to be angered by the attitude, but she couldn’t find it in herself. Walking amongst them, she realized that she’d spent much of her own life doing that very thing. Going along, doing whatever it took to get through one more day. It was how she’d hooked up with RushRuin. It was why she’d let a city crown her son. She wondered if she was doing it even now.

She kept Wren close and together they tried to figure out what to do. Try as he might, Wren just couldn’t keep a connection established to Underdown’s machine, and it didn’t seem likely that they’d be getting a chance to ever return to the compound. There was no doubt in either of their minds that Painter’s pronouncement had been no idle threat. Though neither of them understood exactly what had happened to Painter, it was just like Asher to call attention to himself ahead of time. To give them a warning, and dare them to defy him. And to leave them in terrible anticipation of what was to come.

Even escape was out of the question. There was simply nowhere for them to go. It was too late in the day to try to make the run to Lil’s refuge, and neither of them knew the location of any wayhouses within range. The doom seemed inevitable, but neither of them had yet accepted it.

They’d been stuck with the others for about an hour when Cass heard someone call her name. Glancing around, she didn’t immediately recognize where it had come from, but after a moment she spied a hooded person waving her way. She and Wren approached, and when they got close she recognized who it was.

“Kit,” Cass said, “what are you doing here?”

“Aron asked me to keep an eye on you. Glad he did. What’s going on?”

Cass glanced over at the squad of guards that had been specifically assigned to watch her and Wren closely. There were six at least. She moved past Kit and drew Wren along with her.

“We’re being watched,” she said over her shoulder. “Probably best if they don’t see us talking.”

“Just pretend you’re talking to me, Mama,” Wren said. Cass looked down at Wren and smiled. Clever boy. She knelt in front of him, and put a hand on his shoulder. Kit remained close by, facing slightly away from them.

He “listened” intently, nodding now and then, as Cass quickly explained to Kit what she could; her confrontation with the Council, Painter’s message, and the attack they believed would be coming that night. Kit didn’t quite grasp all of it, and Cass couldn’t blame her. It was too much to absorb. But Kit understood enough.

“We have to get you out of here,” she said.

“We can’t let them put all these people outside,” Cass said.

“I don’t know how we can stop that right now,” Kit answered.

“And I’m not sure how we can get out of here,” Cass replied. She surreptitiously nodded towards the guards that were watching them. Kit waited several seconds and then casually scanned them.

“We can take ’em,” Kit said.

Cass shook her head. “I don’t want to start a riot, Kit. And we’re going to need as many guards alive and well as we can get. Did they just let you walk in here?”

Kit nodded. The guards were still watching them, and Cass was concerned that if they spent any longer talking, Kit might get marked.

“Are they going to just let you walk back out?” Cass asked.

“I hope so,” Kit said. “They better.”

“Do me a favor and get back to Aron and try to talk to Mister Sun, let them know the situation. Maybe they’ll be able to put something together.”

“You got it,” Kit said. She risked turning towards them, and spoke in a low voice as she passed by. “Stay safe, Lady. You too, Governor. We’re not going to leave you out there.”

 

It was around noon when the order came down to start moving the people out. One of the captains of the guard started giving commands in a loud voice and reminding everyone that it would be an orderly process, and he had the means to ensure it. There were a few scuffles around the edges, but with the overwhelming response from the guard, they neither lasted long nor spread. By and large, the mass of people seemed content to gather their belongings and set off to start a new life in the open.

The lack of protest or struggle was easier to understand when Cass realized that most if not all of these citizens had spent most of their lives outside the wall anyway, under Underdown’s reign and protection. For them, perhaps living inside the city had been the anomaly, not being forced back out. Many of the dwellings that had been established outside still remained, and there seemed to be some kind of unspoken agreement that these people would simply return to where they once had lived. Maybe for some, it felt like going home.

Cass and Wren were near the middle of the crowd, and before they started moving, a guardsman weaved his way over to them. Cass recognized him from the compound. It was Joris. He was carrying Wren’s pack and coat.

He nodded in greeting as he approached, and smiled apologetically.

“Lady, Governor,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be doing this, but I couldn’t stand to see you go out there empty-handed.” He handed Wren his belongings.

“Thanks, Joris,” Wren said.

Joris glanced around quickly, and then produced something else from within his uniform. He handed it to Wren. “And there’s this.”

Wren accepted it and looked at the item laid across his palm. His knife. “Oh, Joris, thank you so much.”

“Might want to hide it for now. I know it’s special.”

Wren nodded and tucked the knife away in his belt.

“Thank you, Joris,” Cass said.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” he said.

“It means a lot that you did anything at all,” she answered.

He gave her a sad smile. “Good luck to you,” Joris said to Cass, then he gave Wren a nod. “Governor.”

“Bye, Joris,” Wren said.

Joris turned to go, but as he did so a murmur arose from behind Cass, and there was a commotion. When she looked at the source, she saw a number of guardsmen were forming up in a line, shoulder-to-shoulder, but facing away from the crowd. It was hard to see through the crowd and the guards, but Cass was able to make out what looked like a large group of people approaching.

“Here, Wren,” she said, “come here.” She grabbed him around the waist and boosted him. “Can you see what’s happening?”

“It’s Aron,” he said. “And a whole lot of people. He’s got a gun.”

Cass’s heart fell. She thought she’d made it clear to Kit that a fight wasn’t what she wanted. There was no point in starting a battle inside the city when a war was coming from without. She let Wren down, grabbed his hand, and started pushing her way through the crowd towards the guards. She had to stop it.

But when before she reached the edge, she was surprised to see the line of guards parting. Aron was there, with Mister Sun, followed by many others. They started filtering into the crowd, and she saw now that many of them were wearing packs, or carrying large bags.

When they got close enough, Cass called out to them, and they made their way towards each other.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Comin’ with you,” Aron said. His rifle gleamed in the noonday sun. A bandolier full of rounds hung across his chest.

“What? What do you mean?”

“I told you I was gonna do what I could to protect these people,” he answered. “So we’re movin’ out to stand guard. All of us.”

Cass looked past him and saw Mister Sun and Kit, leading a crowd. If all the Awakened weren’t gathered there, Cass couldn’t immediately identify who was missing, and there were many others besides. People she’d seen guarding Mister Sun’s and staying at Aron’s. She was completely overwhelmed with emotion.

“Aron,” she said, shaking her head. “This isn’t what I meant. I can’t ask you to go out there to die.”

“Don’t plan on it,” he said. “We’re goin’ out there to fight. And we’re countin’ on you to lead us.” Aron handed her the pack he was carrying in his hand. Her go-bag.

As they stood there, the others started filing by, many with nods in Cass’s direction as they passed. They were a grim people and armed with whatever they’d had on hand. A ragged army to be sure, but one with purpose and determination.

They streamed by, and she knew these, too, were men and women who’d spent most of their years out beyond the wall. But they weren’t the docile ones, going to their fate at the direction of another. These were a hard people, who knew what they would face and chose willingly to do so on the behalf of others. She recognized another haggard face that seemed to be trying to slip by unnoticed. Swoop.

“Swoop, no,” she said. He stopped and looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “You’re in no shape for this.”

“Don’t reckon that’s for you to decide, ma’am.”

“Please, Swoop. I can’t have you on my conscience.”

He stepped in close, leaned forward. “They got me, Cass. I can feel it in my blood. So I figure I’d rather die out here on my feet than in some bed on my back.”

The news hit Cass hard. She’d known Swoop was in trouble, but after Mister Sun had stitched him up, she’d thought he was going to make it. Now knowing his death was inevitable was almost too much to bear.

But then she remembered what Mouse had told her back at the refuge. About how he’d rather follow his brothers and sisters to war than sit back in safety while they went off to die. And it wasn’t just Swoop. All of these people passing by Cass were on the same errand, by choice. Maybe here were his kindred. Courage stirred within her. And slender hope.

She wiped tears from her eyes and squeezed Wren’s hand.

“Alright,” she said. “If this is to be our end, let’s at least make it worthy of legend.”

 

Cass and the others spent the afternoon organizing, planning, and fortifying what little they could. The citizens that had been displaced were left to mostly go about their business. Cass had decided it would do no good to frighten them at this stage, not knowing what kind of panic might break out. If anyone actually believed her.

In the end, she and the others with her spread the word of an emergency plan, just in case. Everyone was to gather at the eastern gate, through which they had come. Cass and her warriors would form a barrier of protection against the Weir, and the hope was that by sheltering as close to the gate as possible, the guards on the wall of Morningside would be able to lend support. Cass knew they would be able, and hoped they would be willing.

Cass would lead her Awakened kin. They would form the point of the spear, with the hope that they might be able to sow some confusion among the Weir. Swoop led a group of the most seasoned fighters in place directly behind the Awakened. Mister Sun and Aron, each, were captain of their own contingent, protecting the flanks. There were few guns among them, so it would largely be hand-to-hand combat. But Mister Sun had his vicious three-barreled weapon, and Aron his rifle, and Cass hoped that they’d be able to at least thin the numbers.

Mister Sun’s demeanor had changed drastically. No longer the eager-to-please, friendly curator of teas, he now had a no-nonsense air, a hard edge, with no patience for inefficiency or poor tactical thinking. And as he moved throughout the assembled warriors, exhorting them, he seemed to know far more about killing than Cass would ever have guessed.

And she could tell that Swoop wasn’t at full strength, as he checked his lines and ran them through some communication drills, and gave them final pointers on hand-to-hand combat. He was wielding his tomahawk, a weapon she’d seen him carry but never use. But as he went through the motions, his stride wasn’t as certain, and his voice wasn’t as full. Even so, she was willing to bet that none of the men and women under his command could tell anything was off. He still had a powerful presence.

At some point while she and Kit were discussing how best to organize their force, Kit stopped midsentence as someone appeared from out of a nearby alley and approached.

“Uh oh,” Kit said. “You know this guy?”

Cass looked over her shoulder to see who she was talking about and saw the old man headed for them. Chapel.

“Yeah,” Cass said.

“Good guy or bad guy?”

“I’m not sure he’s either.”

Chapel stopped a few feet from them and bowed. “I have considered,” he said.

“And?”

“I will stand with you.”

“We welcome the help.”

He dipped his head, and something about his expression dispelled the notion that he was doing it out of concern for the people. Perhaps it was a fortunate aligning of purpose. Or maybe he was just going where he felt led. Whatever the case, he moved off again with no further exchange.

“How much help can a blind old man be?” Kit asked, after he’d walked away.

“You’d be surprised.”

 

The final hour of sunset was the worst, when all the plans that could be made had been made, and all that could be prepared had been prepared. The citizens who had seemed so unconcerned were beginning to grow restless as the reality of their new circumstances closed in with the night. The lower the sun got, the more friendly they became towards the Awakened and the warriors gathered.

Wren had taken some stairs up to the roof of a one-story building, and he sat there now with Chapel, watching as the westering sun slipped slowly towards the horizon. Chapel had found him in the midafternoon and had remained with him since. They hadn’t spoken much, but Wren found it comforting to have the old man around.

“Do you remember your village, Chapel?” he asked.

Chapel nodded. “In part. It is as a faded dream to me now.”

“And Lil? And Mister Carter?”

“The same. But the memories have become clearer with time. Perhaps one day I will remember again. Perhaps not.”

They sat quietly again, both looking out over the city, towards the setting sun. Wren glanced up at Chapel with his blindfold. He’d wanted to ask since he first recognized the man, but he hadn’t had the courage. Now, he wasn’t sure he’d ever get another chance, so he thought it was worth it.

“What happened to your eyes?”

Chapel didn’t turn towards him.

“They were no longer mine,” he said. “I removed them.” He spread his fingers on his lap, showing the dark and cracked nails. “These too I reclaimed.”

“But you can still see?”

“In a way. I have other senses, some which I did not have before. But as I could not expel them, I learned to harness them, and so again became master of myself.”

“I wish you could’ve gone back to the village,” Wren said. “I think it might still be there today if you had.”

“My sins are many,” Chapel said. “I doubt hell has room enough to hold them all. But I could not return there.”

“Why not?”

“It was a mistake. Selfish. I withdrew there. Hid myself away. And darkness grew.” He turned his face towards Wren then. “There is much evil in our world. No longer will I let it rest.”

He turned back towards the sunset, and for a time Wren pondered his words. As the sky deepened from blue to purple above, and the orange disc disappeared at last behind the horizon, Cass called to Wren from below and waved him down.

“I guess it’s time.”

Chapel dipped his head.

“Do you have a new name for today?” Wren asked.

“Today?” Chapel said as he stood. He thought for a moment. “Today, I am War.”

He motioned for Wren to lead the way, and together they descended the steps.

 

Cass and her small army took their positions. Some of the citizens had chosen to gather at the gate already, knowing from all the plans and preparations that something was about to happen. Others were still setting up in their reclaimed shelters around the area. But all of them seemed to be keeping their heads up, ever watchful for any hint of danger. Cass expected them to panic when the time came. She just hoped they would remember to run towards the city and not away from it.

In the very picture of irony, Wren was now under the care of Aron. Aron was stationed in the rear-most portion of the fighters, on a slight rise in the terrain, which afforded him a view from which to command as well as a perch from which to shoot. Chapel, too, was with Wren, and Cass felt certain that those two would do everything in their power to protect her son.

Her natural instinct had been to keep him near her, of course, but she realized that she could protect him best by leading these people. And she understood something of his heart, now, in his earlier desire to separate himself from her for her own safety.

Cass drew the massive pistol from the holster on her thigh and checked its cylinder. Three rounds, ready to go. She’d only fired the weapon once, long ago, in a moment of utter despair. Well, she’d fired it three times, wasting ammunition far more precious than she had realized at the time. She wondered what Three would have thought of their predicament now, and she smiled in spite of herself. Probably wouldn’t have surprised him much. She snapped the cylinder shut with a flick of her wrist and replaced the pistol. Shooting had never been her greatest strength. But it was nice to have the option, just in case.

The attack didn’t begin the way she had expected. Rather than the sudden eruption of electric howls, it started with a pronouncement.

“People of Morningside,” a loud voice called, impossibly loud, as if it was coming from all around her, or from the heavens themselves. “Your time has ended!”

There was a figure standing atop a building not far from the gate, silhouetted black against the night-blue sky. His glowing eyes radiated their starlight-blue as he looked down upon them. Painter.

“The one you once knew as Master has returned that you should now know his wrath and ruin.”

His booming voice echoed through the streets and alleys, off the surrounding buildings and the wall.

“He is Asher, Mind of the Weir, and I am his Voice. Thus he says to you: I will slake the thirst of Death with your blood, the mouth of hell I will glut with your flesh, until all that remains is the echoing horror of what once you were!

“No more shall you be called Morningside. Instead, I name you the Grief of Dawn!”

As soon as those words were spoken, shadows sprang forth from the ruined city beyond, shadows with electric eyes, sweeping like a black tide towards them. A cascade of Weir poured forth, and their shrieks rent the air. Cass felt those nearby shrink back in the face of the onslaught, but she leapt forward with a shout.

Thunder exploded behind her, and the Weir at the front of the charge disintegrated in a shower of gore, and several behind it fell to the ground. Aron was already at work with his mighty weapon.

But those deaths did nothing to slow the surge, and seconds later, the lines crashed together. Cass met them head-on and was forced backwards by the impact. But Swoop was there. And then Kit, and then another of her Awakened brethren, and another. And together they fought, side by side, shoulder-to-shoulder.

And then others joined in with a cry, and all became chaos. Citizens who hadn’t made it to the gate fell before the storm, but Cass had no time to mourn them, or even process their deaths. All around her, the Weir writhed and strove against her, and she beat them back with fist and claw.

Aron’s rifle continued to thunder, though Cass couldn’t see its effects. And while always fear threatened to overwhelm her, she fought to focus on destroying the enemy closest at hand, and again and again succeeded in doing so. Swoop was never far from her side, his tomahawk smoking black in the melee.

But no matter how many they slew, it never seemed to stem or even to slow the assault. She grabbed one Weir by the side of the head and spun, slamming it to the ground, and as she rose, she realized how much closer they’d already been pushed towards the wall. They were practically at the gate, maybe twenty yards away.

She risked a glance up, and saw a number of guards were firing down from the wall, and that gave her hope, until she turned back and saw how many still remained. Claws stung her. But Cass refused to let them take her. She smashed her palm into the face of a Weir and drove it backwards into its advancing kin, fighting to gain space for the people trapped between the Weir and the gate.

Someone fell to her left, claimed by the Weir, but she didn’t have time to see who it was. Already her arms and legs grew heavy, her strikes inaccurate, and still so many remained.

But then on her right, the Weir peeled back and wheeled, and there a radiance fell among them. And above the roar of combat and the shrieks of the Weir, a voice arose. Singing. And Cass knew that somehow, beyond all hope or imagining, Lil had come, and her warriors with her.

Where those avenging angels went, the Weir fell before them, or scattered, and Cass heard now as well the sounds of gunfire. Gamble was there too, with her team. And together Lil and Gamble and all those with them drove back the Weir from the flank.

Still the bulk of the Weir fought on, pressing their way towards the gate, and Cass was helpless to prevent them. She strained against the Weir, but their numbers were still too great. She could only hope to survive long enough for Gamble to cut a path to her, but with each second that passed, it seemed a more and more distant hope.

And then.

The crush stopped. And the Weir before her turned their eyes from her to something behind her, and they halted their advance. Cass dared not turn, and she crushed her fist into the throat of the Weir before her. But as it fell, she became aware of a pressure growing, and a light, and there were screams of dismay from some of her own.

And when she turned she saw now, there, walking among them, a being of lightning and flame. And terror entered her heart.

But also hope. For she had seen this being before. It was Wren, revealing himself in power, and he was coming to save her.

The Weir fell back before him, and some collapsed to the ground. The warriors that had stood with Cass surged forward, many unable to perceive what had caused the change, but determined to press their temporary advantage. Cass fought with strength renewed, and the Weir melted away and fled back into the night.

The survivors all stood in shocked silence after the assault ended. No one could really believe it was over. The ground was strewn with corpses, many Weir, and many of Cass’s own people. The loss was too great to seem like a victory. But the number of slain Weir scattered around them was astonishing.

She glanced up at the wall and saw the guards arrayed along it. They had lent their aid after all.

A voice was crying out from the top, “Open the gates! Open the gates!” She recognized the deep baritone. It was North.

The gates clanked and groaned open, and as soon as they did the citizens pressed against it began flooding back inside the city wall. Cass looked down to find Wren standing before her, once again himself, knife in hand.

“We did it, Mama,” he said.

She picked him up and hugged him. “We did, baby. We did.”

“Maybe now they’ll listen.”

“I hope so.”

“Hey,” came a voice behind her. “Sorry we’re late.” Gamble. She looked grim and exhausted, but Cass thought she’d never been more beautiful. She set Wren down and embraced Gamble. The whole team was there, even Wick, pale and eyes heavily shadowed. Cass greeted them all, as did Wren.

Lil joined them, with nine of her warriors.

“I can’t believe you came,” Cass said.

Lil smiled. “Gamble can be very persuasive.”

“We should get inside,” Gamble said. “They might’ve run off, but there are still a lot of ’em left.”

Cass nodded and picked Wren up again. Together they all started towards the gate, but Finn, Mouse, Able, and Sky broke off from the group and started checking bodies. Whenever they found one that wasn’t a Weir, two would work together to lift the body and carry it back inside the city. Once others realized what they were doing, they too came to help reclaim the fallen, before the Weir could do so. Aron, and Kit, and even Mister Sun joined in.

There was one man just sitting on the ground, staring off in the direction that the Weir had gone. A ridiculous number of Weir lay sprawled around him, and he sat amongst them, paying no heed. Cass approached to see if he was all right, and realized it was Swoop. He was so covered in ichor, she hadn’t recognized him at first, and she went to his side.

“Swoop, you OK?”

He didn’t answer, but just stared ahead. Cass put her hand on his shoulder, and when she did, he slumped slightly towards her. “Oh, Swoop…” she said, and she cradled him and wept softly.

After a time, she called the rest of the team over, and they paid their respects, and took care of the body. Able let his tears fall freely, though he did it almost without other expression. Mouse, too, was clearly upset. But the others seemed to swallow their emotion for now. Finn said there’d be time to hurt later, but now wasn’t it.

There was still work to do, and it was heavy. Most of the people Cass helped carry, she didn’t know. She didn’t know which was worse. To carry the body of a fallen friend, or to have fought alongside someone and lost them without ever having known their name. But these were heroes, all. People who had willingly laid down their lives for their own. She would see to it that they were honored as such, no matter what their station in life had been.

North was there at the gate, assisting, giving directions, keeping order. He had a natural command that provided some comfort in times of crisis. Cass had just laid a body inside the wall. An Awakened whose name she just couldn’t place at that moment, and she felt terrible for the fact. She was just turning to go talk to North when a terrible sound came from the outskirts beyond the wall.

It was a cold, mocking laughter, echoing from the darkness. It was Painter’s voice, but Cass knew in her heart it was Asher who laughed. He was toying with them.

“Get them back inside,” she called. “Get everyone back inside!”

Most of the people were already gathered back within the city, but three or four remained outside, still searching the bodies. Aron among them. When the laughter started, they stood, stunned at the sound. But then from out of the night, a horrible sound rose and swallowed the laughing. At first it sounded like rushing water, or some swarm of insects, but as the noise grew, it sharpened and became electric. And out there beyond the gate, the streets filled with Weir. Hundreds. Thousands. A number beyond comprehension.

“Close the gates!” North roared. “Seal the gates!”

The massive gates began to roll closed, and two of the people broke and ran towards them.

“Aron!” Cass called. “Aron, run!”

But he was the farthest out. He turned back when he heard his name called, but when they made eye contact, they both knew it was too far. Aron gave a nod and hoisted his rifle. It thundered as the gates closed. And then it was silent.

Moments later the gates rang with the impact, and people scattered. North dashed up the stairs to the top of the wall, and the guards at the top fired wildly down into the throngs below.

Wren caught Cass’s hand. “Mama, I’ve got to get to the machine!”

It was hard to process with everything happening around her, but she nodded and called for Gamble.

“We’ve got to get to the compound!” she said. “We’ve got to get Wren inside!”

Gamble nodded and called to her team. Cass picked Wren up, and together they all raced to the governor’s compound. People in the streets were panicking, even those who hadn’t been in any danger of relocation. The sounds of the battle spilled over the walls and carried through the streets, and the echoing cry of the Weir drove people to madness.

But Gamble’s team spread out in a protective ring around Cass and Wren, and cleared a way through. When they reached the compound, Cass was aghast. Not surprised, but aghast. The gates were sealed, and the number of guards tripled. All of them were needed on the wall, and yet here they remained, guarding the compound against nothing.

“You’ve got to let us in,” Cass called as they approached. “We’ve got to get inside!”

The captain at the gate waved her off. “Gate’s sealed by the Council’s orders,” he said. “No one’s getting in or out tonight.”

“The city’s under attack!” Gamble yelled. “Your men should be on the wall!”

“We have our orders, ma’am.”

Gamble actually reached through the bars and caught the man’s uniform. She jerked him forward and smashed his face against the bars.

“Open this gate, or we’ll blow it open.”

Powerful floodlights switched on and bore down upon Cass and her crew. No one could see beyond them, but the sound of coilguns and other weapons spinning up was unmistakable.

Gamble released the captain.

“I recommend you folks move off,” the captain said. “If I see you approach the compound again, I’ll have no choice but to open fire.”

“The whole city’s in trouble,” Cass said. “There’s a very real chance we’re going to lose the gate. Let the people come here.”

“I’ll give you ten seconds.”

“Please,” Wren said. But the captain wouldn’t be moved.

“Seven.”

Gamble seemed like she was considering taking the shot anyway, but Cass called her off, and they all withdrew across the street.

“So, what’s with the machine?” Gamble asked.

“Wren thinks he might be able to stop Asher through it,” Cass said.

“But you have to be near it, or what?”

Wren nodded. “I’ve tried to connect to it, but I just can’t. It’s too… slippery. I can’t keep it.”

“But you can connect?” Finn asked.

“Yeah, kind of.”

Finn waved him over. “Can you help me find it?”

“I think so.”

“If you can help me find the connection, I’ll feed you the signal,” Finn said. “I don’t know what you’ll be able to do with it, but I’ll keep the connection stable, if that helps.”

Wren nodded. “We can try.”

Wren did something internal, found the connection, shared it with Finn just before he lost it. It took a few attempts, but after a couple of minutes, Finn seemed to understand what they were looking for.

“OK, got it,” he said. “I’m going to try and boost it. You just ride along, do what you have to.”

Wren nodded and sat down on the ground, next to the wall of a building. Finn knelt next to him, and together they went into a realm none of the others could see.

 

The first thing Wren noticed was how dense it all was. Like a mass of wires crushed together. Connections to connections to connections, and none with any meaning to him. Processes flashed like lightning, gone in a blink, with only an after-image remaining. It wasn’t long before Wren was completely overwhelmed.

But as hopeless as it felt, at least he knew the machine’s purpose. And he knew Asher was in it. And he knew Asher. So that was where he started, looking for the things that reminded him of his brother.

Wren realized he didn’t even have words for what he was doing. He couldn’t reduce the thoughts or the impressions to anything he could describe. But it was something like how a scent could trigger a vivid memory, or a particular color could summon a flavor on the tongue. A fleeting impression was enough to trigger a stream of interactions, and Wren found himself falling deeper into the void of the machine.

He floated, lost for a time, flailing, grasping. And then Wren realized how hard he was searching, and he took a breath, and he stopped trying. Moments later, or maybe minutes, it was impossible to tell, as he let his mind rove where it would, something caught his attention. Something that seemed out of place. And he stretched out and touched it through the ether.

And he was answered.

Asher. There was something of him still within the machine. And he sensed Wren. And he laughed. A cold, mocking laugh.

And a voice came into Wren’s mind.

“You’re too late, Spinner. So, so very late,” Asher said.

“You don’t have to do this, Asher,” Wren said. “You can stop. Call off the Weir.”

“Why would I? I’m enjoying it.”

“Stop it, or I will.”

“Oh, Spinner. I wanted to love you, you know. I really did. But you’re impossible to love. You think you’re special, but you’re not.”

“I’ve fought you before, Asher. I’ve defeated you before.”

“Not this time.”

Wren knew better than to waste much time talking to Asher. And now that he knew Asher was here, Wren bent his whole will towards forcing his brother out of the machine. Out of the Weir’s minds. Back to wherever he’d come from. Anger grew, and Wren invited it. Fed it. All that Asher had done, and all that he’d caused, Wren remembered it, focused on it, and used it to drive him.

And then he unleashed himself within the machine.

And Asher laughed again.

“Even now you don’t understand, do you? Underdown’s toy was a beginning. The first baby step, ten thousand miles ago. I know it seems impressive to you, but it’s nothing to me now. And you shouldn’t be here.”

A sudden pressure came into Wren’s head then, and a searing pain that felt like it was right in the middle of his brain. But he grappled with his brother and pushed him back. Asher was too big — too strong now. He’d changed since Wren had last dealt with him. Wren didn’t know how he was controlling the Weir now, but Wren knew the machine still connected to them somehow. He changed tactics.

He tried to Awaken the Weir through the machine. It was a terrible strain, but he visualized how he had helped Mama, and Painter, and Kit. Wren focused on Kit. She’d been the easiest, because she’d been fighting it on her own. Like Chapel. Wren searched the machine for that same sensation, that feeling of struggle. And when he found one, he touched it, and it sprang free. Quickly he searched for another, and then another.

“Oh, clever. But see how slowly you think, little brother. Already I perceive your mind.”

Wren had no way of knowing what effect it was having, but it had disrupted Asher, and so he kept trying it. And he noticed that once those connections were severed, Asher didn’t seem to have any way to repair them.

“Fine,” Asher said. “I was done with it anyway.”

A blinding white light entered Wren’s mind. Not one seen with his eyes, but no less powerful and painful to his senses. Something was happening. The machine was collapsing. And Wren felt himself thrown violently backwards. He cried out, and all was dark.

 

“What happened?” Cass screamed. “What happened to him?”

She was cradling Wren in her arms. Finn was holding his head like he was in severe pain.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “It was like… I don’t know, like feedback or something. The connection broke itself. And it hurt.”

Cass put her ear to Wren’s chest. He was still breathing; his heartbeat was still strong. Whatever had happened to him, it wasn’t something she could fix right now. It might be something she could never fix, and that thought terrified her. She held him close.

The sounds of the battle were intensifying, and it was clear that many others had thought to retreat to the governor’s compound. A crowd was gathering, and it wasn’t just frightened citizens. Some guards were there as well. One of the guards on the wall fired a warning shot, but that only made the crowd more frightened and angry, and some started pulling on the gates.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Sky said.

“Where else is there to go?” Finn asked.

“They can’t have surrounded the whole city,” Wick said.

“The train,” Cass said.

“What?” Gamble said.

“There’s a train. To Greenstone. It runs under the Strand.”

“Do you know where it is?”

Cass shook her head. “They wouldn’t let us use it.”

“It’s underground?” Wick said. “Where? Where does it come out?”

“I don’t know.”

“In the city? Close to it? Far away?” he asked.

“Close, I think. I’m not really sure.”

Wick’s eyes went unfocused, but his face was intense. Searching. “How big a train?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Big, small?”

“Small. Just a few passengers. Like an old shuttle.”

He was silent for a few more moments.

“People of Morningside,” the Voice boomed. Cass couldn’t comprehend how it was possible that she could hear him from so far away. And then she realized that his voice was coming from every system in the city. The compound’s public address system, the exterior alarm of the building next to them, everything with an output was broadcasting his voice. “The very heart of your city is corrupt. And so shall you fall from within.”

The echoing voice had stunned the heaving crowd across the street into silence. And then they started screaming, and fleeing away from the gate. The guards reacted, and some turned to face inwards, and Cass felt a shock of realization.

Painter. Painter had used the tunnel that ran from the compound out under the wall. And he had revealed it to the Weir.

She didn’t have to see what was going on inside the compound to know the truth. The Weir were inside its walls. The city had fallen.

“Got it,” Wick said. “It’s a run, but we can make it.”

“Lil? Gamble,” Gamble said. “City’s compromised, we’ve got Weir inside the governor’s compound. We gotta evac… Yeah, we’ll ping you a route now.”

The team got to their feet and started moving out, with Wick in the lead. They kept a steady, aggressive pace, and Cass had to struggle to keep up, with her unconscious son in her arms. Mouse offered to carry him for her, but she refused. Wick led them to a smaller gate, more of a reinforced door, really, on the north-western side.

As they approached it, Lil and her warriors were coming from the opposite direction, along with several Awakened, and a few of the people who had fought with them at the gate. Kit was with them, and when they met, she and Wick embraced without hesitation.

Chapel too appeared, sword in hand, shoulders and face spattered with the red-black dew of war.

“What’s the plan?” Lil said.

“There’s a tunnel,” Cass said. “We’re going to try to make it.”

“Abandon the city?” Kit asked.

Cass nodded. “It’s already lost. There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“Lead on,” Lil said.

Mouse popped the door, and Wick, Able, and Finn swung out to make sure it was clear. Once they were certain, they motioned everyone else to follow. Able hung back as a rear guard until everyone was through, and then closed the door behind him. Wick set a hard pace, and the terrible sounds of the Weir and their attack pursued them as they went. They’d made it about a third of a mile before the first of the Weir spotted them.

It was quickly dispatched, but after that, it became clear that their plan was blown. Two Weir showed up soon after, followed by a group of three. And though they never faced a major attack, it was only a matter of time.

Gamble told Wick to find them a place to button up, and he did so in a low one-story building, about a half mile from the tunnel. It was solid, mostly concrete, with only two entrances and a window. Gamble’s team shared ammo out as much as they could, but they were all low. Everyone packed in. This would be their last stand.

“Gamble,” Cass said. “Whatever happens, I don’t want Asher to get my son. I can’t let him take my son.”

“I understand,” Gamble said. “Wick can take you to the tunnel. We’ll do our best to hold them here as long as we can.”

“No,” Cass said, “I’m not leaving these people behind. I want you to take Wren to Greenstone.”

“Nope. Out of the question, Cass,” she said. “These people won’t last long without us. Take your son. None of us will blame you.”

“I can lead them,” Cass said, looking at the other Awakened gathered with them. “And we may be able to cross the Strand without you.”

“If you survive the night.” She looked over Cass’s shoulder. “Wick, take Able, get Miss Cass and Wren to the tunnel. Make sure they get to Greenstone.”

“Wait, what now?” Wick said.

“No, Gamble,” Cass said.

“It’s an order, Wick.”

“Alright, check.”

“Gamble–” Cass said.

“Cass, Wren needs his mother. Only you can be that. Go.”

“If we’re gonna do it, we gotta go now,” Wick said.

“I will aid you,” Chapel said from behind Cass. “Come.” He took her arm and pulled her towards the back entrance.

And somehow again, Cass found herself following Wick. There was sporadic gunfire behind them, but they didn’t come into contact with any Weir themselves. In about six minutes, they reached the station. The train, of course, wasn’t there. It belonged to the Bonefolder, back in Greenstone, and she controlled it jealously. But she couldn’t do much to control the tunnel.

“You can take it from here,” Wick said. “Straight on down the tunnel,” Wick said.

“What about you?” Cass said.

“I can’t leave my brother back there. Able can take you.”

You’re my brother, too, Able signed.

Wick reached behind Able’s neck and pulled the man’s forehead to his own in a show of affection. Able patted his face before they separated.

“Go on. Godspeed.”

Wick turned and started back towards where the others were holed up. Cass felt like her heart was about to break. She was Wren’s mother, and she loved him more than she loved herself. But deep in her heart, she knew that she would rather die fighting alongside those people back there than live with herself knowing she’d left them behind.

“I will take the child,” Chapel said.

Somehow he had perceived her thoughts.

“Wick, wait,” she called.

It was the most terrible decision Cass had ever made, and her heart seemed to tear within her chest as she handed Wren’s unconscious form over to the blindfolded old man. But he had cared for her son before, when she had been unable. And though Cass did not know Chapel well, she knew she could trust his word. Chapel laid him on his shoulder. Cass kissed Wren on the forehead as he lay there, as if he’d been asleep, and she was kissing him goodnight. He had once been forced to say goodbye to her. Now it was her turn to bear that pain.

“Bye, baby,” she said.

She took Three’s pistol from its holster on her thigh, and handed it to Chapel.

He shook his head. “I have no need.”

“It’s for Wren. I want him to have it.”

He nodded, then, and took it and tucked it away inside his coat.

“Careful, it’s loaded,” she said.

“Go,” Chapel said.

Cass brushed Wren’s hair with her fingers, and kissed him one last time. And then she turned back, and she and Able together caught up with Wick.

 

When he first woke, Wren couldn’t tell he had opened his eyes. But he could tell he was lying on a hard surface, with something squishy under his head, and he blinked his eyes several times. His next thought was that he had gone blind. He called out. “Mama!”

A hand pressed into his shoulder, firm, with strong fingers. Not his mother.

“Shhh, child,” Chapel said. “She is not here, but you are safe.”

“Where is she?” he asked.

“Away.”

“What happened, Chapel? Where are we?”

Chapel explained in his patient way, gentle in truth, but hiding nothing. Wren wept then, deeply and bitterly, and Chapel comforted him, not with words, but with his presence.

After a time they resumed their journey. He rode on Chapel’s back through the long darkness, sometimes sleeping, sometimes wakeful, and often unable to distinguish the two. His sorrow was heavier than any he had known. And now he understood something of Painter’s agony. The uncertainty of the loss. Unable to grieve fully because weak hope continued to cling whether bidden or no.

But it was indeed a weak hope, too frail to support the belief that Wren would see his mother again. And so he felt trapped between the two thoughts: that his mother was dead, or that she was alive but never to be seen again. He had grieved for her once in his lifetime. It was even harder the second time.

And all those others. Gamble, and Sky, and Able; Wick, Finn, Mouse, and Swoop. Swoop alone among them could be mourned.

And Painter. Wren had no words to describe the pain that thoughts of Painter caused. He too was dead, in a way. Wren didn’t understand it exactly, but he knew that somehow Asher had reached Painter, had changed him. Or that Painter had allowed himself to be changed, which was even more tragic.

And then there was Asher. He’d had his vengeance on Morningside. It was probably too much to hope that Asher believed Wren to be dead. How long would it be before he came to claim his little brother? Or would he be content to have destroyed everything that Wren had loved?

Wren lost all sense of time during that journey. He still had his pack with him, which had a little food and some water. Enough to get them through, though Chapel never ate. When they finally reached the end, dawn was breaking over the city.

And together they walked towards Greenstone, the last known survivors of the once great city in the east.

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