After the first hour of the distant, circuit-laced wails, the exhaustion finally won out, and Cass dozed off. But just minutes after she’d fallen asleep, she was startled awake by a scrabbling noise just outside the shelter. Heart pounding, she fought to control her breathing, to shield Wren, and most importantly to be still. Something was right outside, right next to the wall, picking along it, picking at it. Dust crumbled onto her cheek.
Still, she thought. Be still.
There was a noise of something shifting away, and a flow of cold air rolled over her. It was dismantling their shelter.
“Cass,” Three whispered. “We’re gonna need to get movin’ in a few.”
Her mind rejected the concept immediately. Moving through the Strand at night was guaranteed to get them all killed. What time was it anyway? She went to check the time…
“Cass!” Three whispered more urgently. “You awake?”
His second call was enough, and snapped her to full awareness. She wouldn’t mention just how close she’d come to giving them all away.
“I’m awake,” she answered in a whisper, fearing the Weir were near. “What’s wrong, did they find us?”
She rolled over, and found Three peeking in through their narrow entrance, face backlit by a dull gray light.
“No, it’s almost daybreak. If we’re gonna make it out of here today, I want to get a jump on it. Just over ten hours of daylight.”
“It’s morning already?”
“Yeah, close enough. You sleep?”
“Well, take a minute to get sorted out, and then we need to move, OK?”
“OK.” He looked tired. And sweaty. There were flecks of something dark spattered under his chin. “Are you alright?”
“Sure, fine. Just be ready to move.”
Cass pointed at his chin. Three touched it with his fingertips, and drew them back. Scanned them.
“Yeah…” he said. “Busy night.” He flashed a weak smile that seemed filled with an endless fatigue. “Let me know when you’re ready. Sooner is better.” And then he withdrew.
Cass sat up as best she could inside their hiding place, rolled her neck and shoulders. Frustrated that she’d slept for hours and felt it had been no more than a few minutes. She hoped Wren had slept better. She looked at him there, curled tight in a ball, a long coat draped over him like a blanket. She blinked at the coat. Mind still groggy, but processing. She didn’t remember the coat from before. Three’s. He must’ve checked on them in the night.
Cass reached over and ran her fingers through Wren’s golden-white hair gently, and cooed his name the way only mothers can.
“Wren, baby, it’s time.”
Her boy fidgeted under her touch, and then his green eyes appeared beneath slowly receding eyelids. Gradually focused. He lay still.
“Wren, sweetheart, we need to get going, OK?”
Wren inhaled deeply, his mouth inverted. A quick exhalation, another deep inhalation; corners of his mouth quivering. She realized he was trying not to cry.
“It’s alright baby, we’re alright.”
She leaned over onto him then, wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. But he squirmed away. Cass sat back up, and Wren sat up with her.
The ‘Mom’ hit her like a mild slap. It sounded too old to be coming out of Wren’s mouth. He was already up and tucking his little blade back inside his belt, hidden by his coat, suddenly looking very much like a man in miniature.
“OK, baby,” she said. And then she too was up on knees, checking gear and refastening her boots. Three reappeared and started tearing down a section of their hide to open up the entrance. An electric howl sounded from far too close for Cass’s comfort, but Three ignored it.
“Farther than it sounds,” he said, apparently seeing her concern. “Sound carries in strange ways out here.”
He helped her out of the shelter, and then Wren, and then reached in and pulled the packs out.
“It’s early yet. There may still be a couple of ’em out and about, so stay sharp. But if we don’t get started now, I’m afraid we’ll run out of time on the other end. And that wouldn’t go well for us.”
Cass nodded, as did Wren.
“It’s going to be a hard push today, alright? Set your minds to it. It’s going to be hard. But once we’re on the other side, there’s gonna be a place to rest. We can rest for a couple of days. Fed, warm, safe. So you push with everything you’ve got today, and we’ll make up for it after, alright?”
“OK. Here,” he said, handing them each a silver-foil package. Cass took hers, and couldn’t help but notice how it seemed to ooze in the middle. Three ripped the top corner of his and squeezed some kind of congealed substance out of it into his mouth. It looked like a mix of coagulated grease and wet sand. He grimaced as it went in, and swallowed hard. Seeing her look, he explained. “Supposed to be the perfect chemical balance of proteins and carbohydrates to keep you running all day. If you can keep it down.”
She nodded, and squeezed a portion of her packet into her mouth. The taste wasn’t quite foul, but if not for Three’s explanation, it never would have occurred to her that this substance was intended to be consumed by humans. Machines, maybe.
Wren gagged on his, and coughed it back out. It fell in a wet pasty lump into the cold, gray ash-sand of the Strand. Three knelt next to Wren, and they both stared at it.
“Tell you what,” Three said after a moment. “You get half of one of these down, and I’ll carry you when you get tired.”
“I don’t think I can…” Wren said.
But Three coaxed him with a hand on his back. “You can do it. It’s not food, it’s fuel. It’s power. Just get it in there and swallow as soon as it hits your tongue. Don’t even have to chew it.”
Wren nodded, and gingerly squeezed another half serving out. It dangled for a moment above his open mouth, then plopped suddenly full force onto his waiting tongue. He swallowed in an instant, and dry heaved, but nothing came out. Nothing but a few tears of disgust.
Three stood, and patted him heartily on the shoulder, rustled his hair.
“There you go, buddy. Just like a soldier.”
Wren looked up and gave a strained smile, no doubt still dealing with the semi-acrid aftertaste of whatever it was that was sliding down into his belly.
It came so fast, Cass barely had time to scream.
A streak of gray-blue leapt, and Three knocked Wren clear the instant before impact. Wren fell hard, and rolled up shrieking at the writhing mass that fought and strove just inches from him. Cass reacted, reached down, snatched him by handfuls of his coat. Jerked him away with such force she lost her balance. They tumbled together, backwards to the ground. Helpless spectators.
It was so fast, so savage, Cass couldn’t make sense of what was happening until she saw the Weir’s clawed hand flash up bloody, and down again. Three whipped back and forth on the ground like he was lying on hot coals, his arms folded up like a mantis. The Weir flailing as if caught in a web. Terror gripped Cass’s throat, her spine, paralyzed her, even as Wren was screaming, screaming, like a child in the throes of a nightmare, screaming for her to help.
There was a sudden snap. And then, somehow, it all stopped. And all was still. And all was quiet, save for the sobbing child. Her child. What had happened? Where had it come from?
Then, movement. The Weir. Rising up. Rolling over. Flopping onto its back. Three lay still. Breathing. Heavy, labored, but breathing.
Wren was the first to his side. Three held up a hand. Bloody, impossible to tell if it was his or the Weir’s.
“Bad start,” he said through gritted teeth. “Bad start.”
He rolled up to an elbow, awkwardly pushed himself to sitting. Cass got to her feet, edged her way to him. Realized she was trembling. From somewhere out on the Strand, a cry pierced the pre-dawn gray and was answered in kind.
“So much for keepin’ quiet.”
Three forced himself to his feet, shouldered his pack. There was blood on his lips.
“You sure you’re alright to go?” Cass asked.
“Doesn’t much matter. Let’s move.”
He turned and started the march with long strides. Forced, determined steps. Not the smooth glide she was accustomed to seeing. He was hurt, and she had no idea how badly. Cass took Wren’s hand and together they followed as quickly and quietly as they were able.
The sky above was growing lighter by the minute, but Cass couldn’t escape the grasping fear of the shadows on their heels. The suddenness of the attack on Three had her shaken. It’d come without warning. Taken Three by surprise. And if Three could be taken by surprise… she didn’t want to think what that might mean for them out here. She replayed it in her mind, realized she couldn’t find the starting point, couldn’t picture where the Weir had been when it leapt. Only that it had leapt. Three knocking Wren to the ground.
Not to the ground. Out of the way. The Weir hadn’t been after Three. It had been after Wren. And Three had saved him. Saved them. Again. She wondered at what cost. But the man that forged ahead of them made no signs of slowing, no hint of injury, or fear. Cass set her mind to keeping pace. And she swore that no matter what may come, she would never again let surprise render her helpless. Next time she would stand at his shoulder. Next time, they would fight together.
Three had told them it would be a hard push, and he kept his promise. For the first four hours, he refused to let them stop for more than three or four minutes at a time. There was a dull ache deep in his side from the impact with the Weir, and the pain got sharp if he inhaled too quickly, or too much. But he fought back, forcing his mind back to the now, to that moment, that footfall. And he fought to keep his bearing, knowing the human tendency to circle obliviously. They’d survived one night in the Strand, but not by accident. They wouldn’t survive a second.
At times, he’d switched packs with Cass so he could carry Wren. Another promise he’d made. How many had he made to them now? How many kept? How many more could he keep?
The wind had picked up that day, gusts swirling gritty dust into their eyes and mouths. They passed most of the journey in silence, each focused on the peculiarly personal misery the Strand seemed to impose upon anyone who crossed it. There was a presence in the place, an ominous weight that bore down on the spirit, and made footsteps heavy. At one point, Three realized Wren was quietly weeping. No one asked why.
By noon, Three reckoned they’d traveled maybe eighteen miles, which was good, but not great. If they kept pace, they’d clear the Strand in time. But keeping pace was a hard task, harder than the one they’d accomplished that morning. They stopped then, and took another round of the goo that jCharles had provided. It wasn’t the physical fatigue that concerned Three the most, however. It was the draining of the soul, the sapping of the will that he feared. The early morning attack had rattled Cass. She kept Wren close while they rested, but her eyes were vacant, staring. Hunted. He’d seen that look before, back when he’d first met the two.
“Hey,” he said. “We’ll make it…”
He cut himself off before he finished, and realized he’d been about to make it a promise. Cass smiled emptily and nodded. Three didn’t know which worried him more. Her look, or the fact that he couldn’t make the promise.
They got on the move again after that, but within the first hour he knew they were in trouble. The pace was slacking, and no matter what he tried, he couldn’t pick it up. It was as if some cruel headwind had set itself against them, as if the Strand itself had bent its will to preventing their escape. By mid-afternoon, he’d discarded Wren’s pack, and soon after he offloaded most of Cass’s and his own as well. He carried Wren on his back the rest of the way, fighting hard to ignore how the boy’s knee drove into his side and sent waves of electric fire radiating through his chest.
Three strove onwards, willing himself, willing Cass and her son, willing them to race the slowly gathering dusk. But with less than an hour of daylight left, he estimated they still had another five miles to the fringe. It didn’t matter. There were no other options.
He looked back at Cass, hunched over, forward, leaning into the journey as if she really were facing a physical wall of wind.
“Almost there, girl,” he lied. “Just a little further.”
Cass didn’t reply, and as he turned back and resumed his plodding steps, he wondered whether she hadn’t heard him, or hadn’t believed him. She was no fool, and the sun was impossible to miss. It was already sinking into the horizon. He thought briefly about telling Cass to run for it. To boost, and to take Wren and just run, run as fast and as far as she could. But he knew it was a fool’s wish. She wouldn’t know the way. All the speed in the world wouldn’t save them if she ran back to the heart of the Strand.
As the sky faded purple and the first stars began to appear, he began preparing. The adrenaline kicked in then, for both of them, and they covered those last couple of miles at a better pace than they started the day with. But it wouldn’t be enough. The first calls were already sounding in the night.
“Three,” Cass said, and he heard it in her voice. She knew what was coming. And to his surprise, she sounded strong.
“We’re in some trouble, Cass.”
He set Wren down. Cass slid next to them, picked Wren up, hugged him close. He was strangely calm.
“Are we going to die now, mama?” he asked sleepily. Three didn’t wait for Cass to answer.
“No, Wren. Now we’re going to fight.”
Heart full of fire, Three scanned their surroundings. There wasn’t much to choose from, but as the cries of the Weir grew louder, he spotted one structure that might actually give them the slightest chance. It had been taller before, perhaps much taller. Now it was little more than two stories. And the top story was mostly exposed, its walls largely crumbled away. There was a corner of protection, and it afforded them height. Maybe it’d be enough.
“This way,” he said. Grabbing Cass by the arm, he pulled her along and together they raced across the broken terrain, fear and adrenaline granting them new speed. They reached the skeletal building, and Three wasted no time. He grabbed Wren away from Cass, and then leaned into one of the crumbling walls.
“Climb,” he said, as he laced his fingers together at his waist. She understood immediately, and stepped into his hands. Three boosted her and she used his shoulders as another foothold. He felt her press down, and then spring off him. Quickly after, she called down.
Three grabbed the boy around the waist and lifted him until Wren was on his shoulders. He stepped close to the wall, held steady while Cass got a hold on him.
“Help me, Wren, come on. Climb up!”
The calls weren’t just getting closer now. They were growing in number.
“Go, Wren, go!” Three called, and as if his word alone was enough, Wren’s feet lifted off his shoulders and were scrabbling up the side of the wall as Cass pulled from above.
As soon as Wren was clear, Three moved back about six feet, and then dashed towards the wall. He leapt and planted a foot in the middle of the wall and then pushed off and stretched upward, catching the lip of the upper story by just the fingertips. Stifled a grunt of pain as something cracked in his side. He strained upwards, and as he pulled himself high enough to get an elbow atop the wall, four hands grabbed him and hauled him further along. He scrambled onto the top level with the others.
“Back,” he said, “back to that corner, small and tight as you can.”
There was a gaping hole in the floor, but it was to the opposite side of the remaining walls. Wren slid into the corner first, hunched into a little ball, knife in a downward grip and at the ready, just as Three had taught him. Cass curled herself around Wren, shielding him completely from view. Three put his back hard against them both, blade unsheathed.
They were all panting.
“Still now. Still as you can.”
He fought his own heartbeat, his lungs, the molten pain searing his ribs on one side. Deeply bruised or maybe cracked, if not broken. He raised his arm and slapped the injury. It made him suck in his breath, but he didn’t convulse or scream. Not broken then.
In the distance a dark shape moved across the rolling destruction of the Strand. The first Weir of what would be many, he knew. But it was headed away. He hoped that would be the case for them all.
The first two hours were filled with the silent tension of a black storm cloud. And then, just as the moon was coming high, it broke.
Three saw it first, noted how it crouched below the structure and scanned it, as if assessing it. The moon was light enough for him to see it clearly, and he noticed immediately how different it was from the Weir he’d encountered on the other side of the Strand. This one was almost indistinguishable from a human, except for its blue-glow electric eyes humming in the darkness. It was fully clothed, fully featured. Not the gaunt corpse-like creatures from before. But no less deadly, he guessed. Perhaps moreso.
It didn’t make any noise. No static-burst squawk. It just crouched there, in the darkness, watching. Soon enough, Three understood. A second Weir appeared, off the opposite corner, slipping silently like a shadow across the ground. Then another scuttled to join the second. The realization spread like a slow dawn, and Three was amazed. And terrified.
They were coordinating.
In the next moment, two Weir sprang over the edges of walls simultaneously, and Three reacted. The first one’s head was already falling down to the ground below as the second turned to face its companion. As Three plunged his blade through its chest, he thought he saw something that almost resembled surprise. The Weir burbled as Three withdrew his blade, and then he struck again, sending the creature toppling through the hole in the floor.
Three heard a clattering sound, and as he turned he saw Cass flash from the corner to intercept the third Weir. She shot out a stomping kick that connected at the Weir’s hip, crushing the socket, and folding the Weir towards her. As it fell, Cass caught its head between her hands, dropped to a knee and twisted. The Weir’s neck snapped as its body cartwheeled off the second floor and landed with a meaty thud in the dust below.
“Just the beginning,” Three said.
“I know,” she answered.
He handed her a long knife from his boot. “You still got that jitter?”
“Don’t be afraid to use it. Hate to die with ammo left.”
“You think about that yourself,” she said, pointing to his pistol. Wren stayed crouched in his corner, knife at the ready, shivering with fear. His eyes were wide.
A second wave came almost immediately after. Four this time. And as if to confirm Three’s worst suspicions, these four fought together. Not as four wild animals, striving to be the first to the kill, but as four limbs of a single mind. One would feint, and the other would follow through, and in the first exchange Three felt the sting as claws rent the flesh of his shoulder. But Cass was there suddenly, suddenly everywhere it seemed, and as she forced them back, Three seized each opportunity to strike, and soon the four lay motionless.
Three checked the wound along his shoulder where the blood ran freely, and knew it wouldn’t be the last of the night. He looked to Cass, radiant and fierce in the moonlight, glistening under a thin sheen of sweat and speckled dark from the war at hand. Her once fragile beauty replaced by strength, and raw will, and a dark-eyed gaze full of unquenchable fire. And for the first time, he knew they were going to make it.
The next group attacked about three minutes later. The night became a blur for Three then, a smear of gray and blade, the cries of Weir mixed with Cass calling out, his own voice sounding distant. They fought like demons atop a mountain, like lions among wolves. With loud cries and savage strikes, they threw back their enemy. The attacks came in a broken rhythm, sometimes one right after another, sometimes as much as a half hour apart. Each clash brought a new rush of adrenaline, a clarity of focus that seemed impossible to maintain. And after each battle, the fatigue came crushing down, an iron fog that promised the next fight would be the last. They were wounded, slashed, clawed, even bitten. But somehow, some way, Three and Cass fought back to back, shoulder to shoulder, and still they fought, and still they fought.
As the bodies of the Weir fell and piled around them Three got sudden flashes, almost still images of his blade slashing through a Weir, or Cass’s knee crushing into the skull of another. Even little Wren stabbing, fighting like a cornered wolf cub, teeth bared and tears streaming. The sky almost seemed lighter.
But then another wave crashed, and there were too many. Too many. Three fought and slashed and felt more than one impact that he knew meant he’d been punctured, if only the adrenaline had let him feel the pain. He killed the two closest Weir. Moved to a third, stepped into its attack and severed its arm at the shoulder. Threw his body into it, flinging it out into the air and crashing to the ground below. And then Three spun, instinct firing a warning and reflexes answering, and he saw it, coming up through the hole in the floor, leaping up from below. Cass facing the other way. Three screamed her name, but heard nothing. A roar of blood in his ears. She reacted, turned, twisted to dodge the strike but too late. Three saw the claw enter her side, and tear out through her abdomen in a spray.
Wren saw it too.
The scream tore through the melee and Three felt something pass through him like a shockwave, and suddenly all the remaining Weir spasmed in near unison and collapsed like they’d just been switched off. Wren just stood there, near the corner, eyes wide, face pale. Staring. Panting. And all else was still.
How Three got from where he was to Cass, he didn’t recall. The next thing he knew, he was dragging her into the corner, slipping in the trail she was leaving behind. His heart cold with fear, with a fear so familiar, so cruel; a fear he’d sworn he would never feel again.
He pulled her into the wall, propped her up. Wren moved in close.
“It’s alright, baby. They got me a little, but it’s alright. Go over there and keep watch for us, OK? Let us know as soon as trouble comes.”
He nodded, tears in his eyes, but didn’t move.
“Wren, sweetheart. It’s important. We need you to keep watch, OK?”
“Go on, son,” Three said. And at that, Wren nodded again and moved away, crouching low near the edge and peering into the waning night.
Three reached down to examine the wound then, tried to move her hands away. Cass resisted.
“Three,” she said calmly. Much too calmly. He wouldn’t look at her.
“Move your hands, let me see it.”
“Three,” she said again. And the fear rose, and the strength left.
“Move your hands, Cass! Move them!”
“Three, it’s OK.”
And then she lifted her soaked hands and took his. He felt the hot gush, and she squeezed his hands with such strength, with such warmth, and his heart shattered in his chest.
“Cass, don’t. Come on, girl, come on, we’re gonna get out of here. We’re all going to get out of here.”
She smiled, and shook her head.
“Not all. Take Wren, Three. Take Wren and go. Right now.”
“No, Cass. I’m not going to leave you here.”
“More will come, Three. More will come, and we’ll all die. But not if you take my son and go.”
He ripped his hands away from her then, and pulled her shirt up, expecting to staunch the wound. And stopped cold. He understood now. The gashes were severe; deep, and black with blood, which meant her liver was torn. But worse, her receptor was destroyed. Only a few fragments and thin cables remained, the rest lay scattered across the floor. Her supply of quint was gone, permanently. And there was no telling how much she’d just burned through in the fight.
“Just take him and go. Tell him I’m right behind you.”
“No, Cass. I’m gonna save your life.”
“Wren is my life, Three.”
Three looked at her hard then. So much to say. So much he should’ve said before now. Her golden-brown eyes already fading. And he realized, looking into those eyes, how badly he’d wanted to let himself love her. And how much he loved her now. Now, at the end. He grit his teeth then, turned his heart to stone. It was dead now anyway. But there was one more thing to be done.
“Wren, come here.”
Her eyes went wide.
“Three, no, don’t…”
“You let him say his goodbyes. Only chance he’s gonna get.”
Wren crept to his side, laid his hand on Cass’s hands. A cry sounded from not far enough away. They were coming.
“Wren, we have to go, and your mama’s not coming with us. So you go on and say goodbye.”
Cass couldn’t hold it together then, and the tears sprang forth.
“We don’t have much time, Wren,” Three said firmly. Lock the feelings away. Lock them away, deal with them when it’s safe. “Kiss your mama goodbye, we’ve got to go.”
“Mama?” Wren exploded in a sob now, and wrapped his arms tight around her neck. “Mama!”
Another cry answered the first. They were circling. But holding back. Waiting for reinforcements, maybe. Three still didn’t know what had happened to the last few. He couldn’t count on it happening again.
Cass and Wren sobbed and held each other, Cass stroking his hair, kissing his face and ear where she could reach him. Then soothing him.
“Wren, it’s OK. It’s OK, baby. Go with Three, sweetheart, he’s going to take care of you. It’s going to be OK.”
The Weir called out again, closer now. Closing in. They were out of time. Three grabbed Wren around the torso and pulled him away. Wren screamed and writhed, inconsolable wails of his heart crying out for his mama, but Three pulled him in close, held him tight. As he stood, he exchanged a look with Cass that said nothing he wanted it to. She reached behind her and produced the jittergun. Her face hardened in raw determination.
And Three went.
He turned and didn’t look back then, clutching Wren to him. Together they dropped through the hole in the floor, and then Three ran. The last vestiges of adrenaline fired up as the sounds of the Weir closing in magnified, and were soon joined by the buzz of the jittergun firing off bursts.
But as he ran, Three knew something was wrong. His legs were heavy, and he was going cold. Too cold for it to just be the pre-dawn air. The sky was getting lighter, there was no doubt. But he couldn’t outrun the Weir. His breathing was labored now, every inhale sizzling pain through his side, every exhale ragged. He willed himself on, and found even that was not enough. He stumbled once, then again. The third time, he couldn’t catch his balance, and went down hard on his knees.
Behind him, there were no more sounds of the jittergun. Which meant pursuit was not far behind. Three laid Wren down on the ground in front of him, and the boy laid still, shock having silenced him for the moment. And sure enough, behind them now, Three could just begin to make out the first footfalls of the approaching Weir.
He drew his pistol then, checked the cylinder. One shot. Three’s head swam, and he was suddenly lying on the ground, next to Wren. So cold. Three lifted the pistol, slid its heavy barrel along the ground. Lined it up with Wren’s golden hair.
The Weir were closer now. Less than a minute, they’d be upon them. Three placed his finger on the trigger.
“Are angels real?”
“I dunno. I hope so.”
Wren sat up on his elbow. Three struggled to adjust his aim. Thirty seconds.
“I think they’re real.”
“That’s good, Wren. Maybe we’ll see some.”
“I see them now.”
Three didn’t see any angels. But now he heard something strange. A single note sung out, high and clear. And beautiful. A simple melody floated on the wind, and it stirred his heart. Maybe there were angels after all.
He shifted his gaze in the direction of the sound, and saw shapes in the distance. Three of them, approaching steadily. Gliding, it seemed.
“They’re beautiful,” Wren said in awe. In reverence.
And then all was dark.