Three jerked awake, not realizing he’d nodded off. The bowl sat in his lap, empty now of its water. Wren hadn’t moved, just sat motionless, hugging his knees and staring at the wall, sea-green eyes dull and unfocused, somewhere far away. Three stretched his legs out in front of him. The motion drew Wren’s attention back to reality.
“Think I dozed off,” Three said. Wren nodded. “You hungry?”
Wren nodded again. Three looked again at the tube inserted in his chest, and wondered what would happen if he stood. He’d never had a collapsed lung before, let alone two. His list of injury firsts was growing ever shorter. “Well. Why don’t we see what we can find, huh?”
Three reached out tentatively and took hold of the jar of water that held the other end of his chest-tube, moved it gingerly as if just touching it might somehow reignite the pain. He lifted it and brought it closer. Another bubble had just begun to form. Like a bead of glass. It made sense. Pressure from his chest cavity forced air through the tube, relieving the strain on his lungs and enabling them to re-inflate. The water jar acted as a cheap one-way valve, letting pressure out, but not allowing any back in. Clever. Three couldn’t help but wonder if he ever would’ve thought of that on his own.
The jar was interesting, but it was mostly an excuse to avoid the hard work of standing. Three thought about calling for the woman again, or sending Wren to fetch someone, but quickly dismissed it. As long as he was still conscious, he would ignore the creeping fear of vulnerability. Fake it. People can’t tell the difference anyway.
“Right,” he said aloud, and stirred forward, tucking his legs beneath him. Wren clambered to his feet and stood by as Three began the process of working his way up. It was nearly a full minute before he could be considered standing, and even then he had to lean against the wall to steady himself. He couldn’t remember a time when he had been this weak.
“Are you OK?” Wren asked quietly. He formed it as a question, but the tone made it a statement: you’re not OK.
“Sure, kiddo. Just a little woozy.” Fake it. Whether proving it to the boy or to himself, Three forced himself off the wall then, and refused to let his body collapse. It was more of a fight than he would admit. One step. Then another. Hold. Focus. Don’t dare fall. More like walking a tightrope than it had any right to be. Three was so focused on getting one foot in front of the other, he didn’t see it coming through the door.
Something hard jabbed into his elbow, the impact just enough to force his arm into the tube leading into his chest. There was a lightning stab of pain between his ribs, and a sudden roll of fire down the front of his leg. Something shattered in the distance, though Three knew not as distant as it sounded. It went dark, and he inhaled sharply, reflexively, caught the doorjamb to keep from collapsing. It was several moments before he realized his eyes were squeezed shut. He slid them open slowly, scanned for the source of this new pain.
The woman. The woman was back, holding a small tray, with a bowl partially filled with some sort of thin broth. It was steaming. Three guessed the bowl had been much fuller moments before. That would explain the burning leg. The woman stood in the hall, eyes wide, mouth open, trapped somewhere between stunned and mortified.
“You’re back,” he said, because it was the first thing that came to mind.
“What’re you doing?” she asked almost breathlessly.
“I mean, you shouldn’t be up… you shouldn’t be able to be up.”
For some reason, watching the dawning of thoughts and emotions play across the woman’s face struck Three as amusing. He felt his mouth curling in a subdued smile. She was only just now realizing what had happened. And suddenly she was a flurry of activity, but obviously uncertain of what needed to be done.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”
“It’s alright, ma’am,” he answered. It was too warm. “Not much for soup anyway.” Getting warmer.
Three followed her gaze, scanned the floor. The end of his chest-tube lay in a puddle amongst shards of glass. At some point, his jar of water had slipped from his hand. The shattering noise. Why was it so hot?
The woman no longer had the tray, she was standing, hands up towards him. Her mouth was open, moving. Probably saying something. Three felt his lips forming a curse as he realized all the work of standing and walking to the door was about to be for nothing.
When he woke the next time, there was a man sitting on the floor near the lantern, across the small room. Vaguely familiar. From before. He’d been the first to tell Three that Wren was safe. He didn’t seem to notice that Three was awake, so Three remained still. Let his eyes rove, pick up the details. His focus was sharper now. Same room. They hadn’t moved him. At least, not far. And the tube was gone from his chest, replaced now by some gauzy bandaging with a faint pink spot in the center. Something about the way it wound around him spoke of something else familiar; clean, efficient. A craftsman’s work. The same hands that had constructed this room.
Three’s eyes went back to the man in the middle of the room. He had something laid across his lap and was intently working on it, though the backlighting made it impossible to see what he was doing. His movements were small, exact. An etcher’s hand. Or a surgeon’s.
“You a doctor or a carpenter?”
The man didn’t stir, but smiled slightly, as if he’d been expecting Three’s comment. “A little of both, I suppose.” He looked up at Three then. “But not as much of either as I’d wish.” Bright-eyed, kind. Deeply intelligent. There was a weight to the man’s stillness, like a great stone in a deep pool. “I am called Chapel.”
His voice wasn’t particularly deep, but it had warm, rounded edges that reassured, like a grandfather’s.
“That your name, or just what you’re called?”
Chapel’s smile widened. “Do you only ask questions, or do you answer them as well?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you’re recovering. How’s your breathing?”
Three tested it, drew a long, slow inhale. There was internal pressure, an automatic hesitance to deep breathing, but the only pain he felt was in the stretching of the flesh where his tube had been. “Fair. Your work?”
Chapel nodded and then shrugged. “Not all of course. You’ve required many caretakers since you arrived. But the blame for the hole in your chest is mine alone.”
“I appreciate it.”
Chapel inclined his head in a slight bow, a precise movement that graciously acknowledged Three’s gratitude without accepting any credit. Three hadn’t even begun to process how much he owed these people, this man in particular, but somehow in that one moment, it was as if all expectation of repayment dissolved.
“I imagine you’re quite hungry. Shall we find you a proper meal? Something other than soup?”
Three nodded, and steeled himself for another attempt at moving. As he rolled up to his elbow, Chapel rose to his feet with surprising ease and fluidity, almost as if falling in reverse, though completely controlled. The next moment he was at Three’s side, offering a hand. Not as a nurse to an invalid; as a man to his friend. Three took it and, after a brief struggle, was standing.
“You lost quite a bit of blood,” Chapel said. “I expect you’ll find yourself unusually weary for the next few days.” He extended his hand, holding out the object that he’d been working on, offering it to Three. “This may help, until you’ve gotten your balance back.”
Three accepted it with curiosity, and realized it was a walking stick, carved of a smooth, stout wood. Three, maybe three and a half feet in length, it was well-balanced, with a subtle but elegant arch. Delicate markings near the end seemed to be an incomplete etching at first, but when he rotated it in the meager light, they revealed themselves to be an understated image reminiscent of bamboo. Minimalist detail that captured the essence perfectly. Whole lot of effort for a stick. Chapel seemed to anticipate Three’s thoughts.
“A foolish habit of mine,” he offered. “But the rude etching shouldn’t interfere with its effectiveness as a stick, at any rate.”
Three gripped it, tested his weight against it. For a walking stick, it felt good in his hand. Solid. Natural.
“It’s good. Thank you.”
Chapel led Three out into a narrow corridor, slowly but firmly, setting a casual pace, Three’s every other step sounding with the dull thunk of his walking stick on the floor. The corridor wasn’t wide enough for them to walk side-by-side, so Chapel kept a pace ahead. As they walked, Three noticed other sliding doors on his left. Most pulled closed. Other rooms, like his, he guessed. There were no doors on the right. Just the occasional orange-glow lantern mounted on the wall. Mindlessly, Three ran his free hand along the wall, noticed it was warm to the touch. Some kind of geothermal heating system, he guessed. More sophisticated than he’d first thought.
After about twenty feet, the corridor took a sharp right, and continued on. Further down on the right however, was a large double-door. When they reached it, Chapel slid one door partially open, just wide enough to pass through. Three followed, surprised to find the air suddenly cold and crisp, and more surprised to discover it was the middle of the night. Chapel closed the doors behind them, and started out across a small courtyard.
“Sleeping, I imagine,” Chapel answered. “He’s been staying with Lil and some of the other children in one of the shared rooms.”
“How many children do you have here?”
“Twenty-two, including your son.”
Three marveled at that, wondering just how big a place it was. He couldn’t remember a time he’d seen that many kids all in the same place. “He’s not my son, you know.”
“I’m taking him to his father, in Morningside,” Three said. “We were traveling with his mother.”
He covered the sudden tightening in his throat with a forced cough.
“I see,” Chapel answered, with such weight that Three felt he really did see, that he’d absorbed the entire message, both said and unsaid. They walked in silence a few moments, as if Chapel sensed Three’s need for the chance to compose himself. And then, the moment before it would become awkward, he spoke up again. “You are of course welcome to stay as long as you need. Though as you regain your strength, we may ask you to assist with some small tasks here and there. We’re a small community, each with responsibilities.”
“Sure. Of course.”
Three scanned the surroundings, surveyed the compound, though somehow compound seemed to be the wrong word for it. It felt too open. There were a number of structures of varying sizes, each lit with lanterns of various sizes, spaced at differing intervals. As they walked, Three realized there were others moving in the darkness, near what he guessed to be the outer perimeter. And as they turned and made their way towards a rectangle-shaped, low-roofed building, he noticed at last the wall that surrounded the area. It was barely three feet tall, with gentle, drooping curves. More for aesthetics than protection.
“How close are we to the Strand?” Three asked.
“Quite close. We are on its border, by most accounts.”
A figure approached from the darkness.
“No secure structures, no walls. How do you live out here, exposed like this?”
The figure, a man draped in a heavy cloak of some kind, passed quietly, exchanging a brief nod. As he moved by, Three noticed the hilt of a blade under the man’s cloak.
“Vigilance and discipline are our walls,” Chapel answered. “We are not animals that we should live in a pen.”
“Sounds nice. You tell that to the Weir?”
They reached the rectangle building, and climbed the few steps to its porch. Chapel paused outside.
“They do come, from time to time. So far, they are disappointed.”
Chapel’s lips moved in the subtlest hint of a smile, and then he slid open the door to the building. Inside there was a large, open central room, with a number of long tables with benches, as well as a few smaller tables with chairs.
“Take a seat. I’ll see what food we have on hand.”
Three eased into a chair at one of the smaller tables. When he sat, he rested his forearm on the table, felt it shift slightly. A sudden flood of memory caught him by surprise. The bar. The shifting table. The first time he saw Cass. He closed his eyes against the images. Would she be alive now, if he hadn’t gotten involved? Would it even have mattered? Either way, she would’ve been gone. But now she was his burden to bear, terrible and beautiful.
Approaching footsteps forced him back to the moment, and he opened his eyes with relief, with regret. The memory of Cass seared and soothed, brought a comfortable pain that Three found himself reluctant to let go. Chapel slid a spoon and a bowl of thick brown stew in front of Three, and sat in a chair opposite.
“I hope you’ll find it suitable. It was the first thing I came across that didn’t require significant preparation.”
“I’m sure it’ll be great, thank you,” Three said. He picked up the spoon, found it strangely unsteady in his hand. Trembling. He took a bite. Utterly amazing. Best he could tell, there were potatoes and green beans in there, among other things. Real potatoes, not the synthetic mass-produced starch compound that people sometimes likened to potatoes. Not a mass of goopy proteins and gelatin carbohydrates whose flavors were customizable by the 99.9% of the world with the hardware to dial it in, that may as well have been ashes to Three. It was likely the first meal that he had ever truly tasted.
Three’s belly strained well before the stew was gone, having gone days without solid food, but he force-fed himself anyway. When he finished, he looked up to find Chapel watching him with a hint of amusement.
“Would you care for more?”
“I would,” Three said, “but I think my gut would split.”
Chapel smiled. “It’ll take a day or two for your body to remember food, but we have plenty for you. We should be certain to focus on iron-rich meals; spinach, lentils, beans, that sort of thing. It will accelerate your recovery from the blood loss.”
Three nodded. “You have all that here?”
“We grow quite a bit. Perhaps tomorrow I can give you a proper tour. If you feel up to it.”
“That’d be great.”
Chapel nodded with his subtle smile, but then his mood suddenly darkened, brow furrowed. Deliberating. The first time he seemed uncertain. After a moment, he drew a breath.
“I should tell you,” he said. “After we found you with the boy, we tried to recover her. The boy’s mother.” Chapel paused for a moment, seemed unsure of his words. “Mr Carter went to find her. He found many slain Weir. I’m afraid he was unable to locate the woman.”
He was, in his own way, sharing hard news in a soft manner. Three had of course already known, but hearing it confirmed still had impact. The Weir had taken her. Had taken Cass. He had left her. He clenched his jaw against the raw emotion. Stilled himself.
“Her name is Cass. Was. I appreciate you looking.”
Chapel nodded. Gaze dropped to the bowl. Again, giving Three space.
“How did you find us, anyway?” Three asked.
Chapel looked up, eyebrows raised, momentarily surprised. Three wondered what new information he had just given away.
“You called us.”
Three’s turn for confusion. He definitely didn’t remember crying out for help at any point. “Not sure I follow, considering we didn’t know you were out here.”
“Perhaps ‘called’ isn’t it exactly, though I’m not sure how else to describe it.” He thought for a moment, then shook his head with a slight shrug. “For me, it was like the passing of a wave. For Lil, a cold wind. There are no windows in her room. Mr Carter described it as an urgent pressure in his chest. Somehow we knew you were out there. And we knew we needed to come look for you. Though we didn’t know what we would find.”
“Wren,” Three answered. It must’ve been Wren. “The boy’s something special, Chapel. Not sure anyone knows just how special. Including him.”
“I suspect he’s not the only special one.”
Three ignored the prompt. Kept the conversation focused on Wren. “Just before I blacked out. Before you came, I guess. He said he saw angels. Said you, and Mr Carter, and Lil were angels. When you wanted to be.”
Chapel’s brow furrowed again, puzzled.
“When we go out into the Strand, when we must face the Weir or expect to, we broadcast. A technique I learned long ago. It changes the way the Weir perceive us. Frightens them, in a way. I have taught the others here, but it’s nothing you can see…”
He trailed off as a thought occurred, eyes widening slightly, the first hint of a breaking dawn.
“Told you he was special.”
“I suppose he is.”
Three hated to admit it, but he already felt wiped out. All those days unconscious, and the only thing he wanted to do right then was sleep. Chapel seemed lost in thought. Three interrupted.
“I hate to seem lazy, but I think I’m gonna need to lie down for a bit.”
Chapel snapped back to reality, returning to the role of gracious host. “Yes, yes, of course. More than anything, you need rest.”
Chapel escorted Three back to his room in the large L-shaped building, and promised to bring Wren to visit sometime mid-morning. Back on the mat, Three extinguished the lantern, and as he slipped into darkness, his last thoughts took him to Cass, pale, beautiful, broken. Gone.
The train-line didn’t actually go all the way to Morningside, ending instead about a half-hour’s walk away. As far as the guards at the gate were concerned, there was no reason to refuse entrance to the well-dressed and amiable people that showed up one late afternoon, hoping to stay a few days in the legendary city. And there were always rooms available to respectable-looking folks with well-funded and verified pointcards on hand. The four men and their woman-friend had found a nice second-story, three-bedroom apartment above an upscale clothier, not far from the Governor’s compound. No one had seen much of them since their arrival.
“They should’ve been here by now,” Dagon said. He stood at the window, looking out into the brightly-lit city under the deep night sky. It’d been three days since they’d arrived.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Asher answered. He was sprawled casually on a short couch, his feet resting on the arm. “It’s a long walk. No telling how many more secret hiding places the man knows.”
“Why don’t we see Underdown?” Fedor asked. “Or send word that we are here?”
“Not yet,” Asher said. “I don’t want him to know we’re around. Not until I know what he’s up to.”
“He’s running a city, Ash,” Jez said from the adjoining bedroom. “What more do you need to know?”
“They’re coming,” Ran said. He was sitting on the floor, legs folded in some sort of meditative position.
“Finally.” Asher sat up, swinging his legs off the couch and moving smoothly to standing in a single fluid motion. He grabbed his coat and threw it on as he moved to the door.
“No, not her. The Weir.”
Asher stopped for a moment.
Ran nodded. Asher finished pushing his arms into his coat sleeves.
“Well. This should be interesting. Where are they coming from?”
Asher moved to the door.
“Come on. Let’s go see what happens.”
The five remaining members of RushRuin left the apartment and moved out into the street below. As usual, Asher took the lead at an aggressive pace, with Fedor at his elbow and Jez close behind. Dagon and Ran shadowed the others from a space removed on opposite sides of the thoroughfare. The calls of the Weir were dulled by the great wall of Morningside, but the sound was unmistakable. A force was gathering out there, and the screams of those outside the wall grew in intensity.
Asher led them towards the easternmost gate at a determined pace. A crowd had already formed by the time they arrived, tense little clusters of Morningside’s citizenry waiting in strained silence for someone to rescue them.
They didn’t have to wait long. Dagon spotted him first, moving along the top of the wall.
“There he is,” Dagon said with a quick nod. Moments later a cheer went up from the crowd as Underdown strode the length of the wall. Beyond it, the surge of static voices grew.
“About thirty,” Ran said. Asher raised his eyebrows appreciatively, nodded slightly. Atop the wall, Underdown strode with purpose, flanked by six of his black-clad personal guard. Asher pushed his way through the crowd towards a set of stairs along the wall, followed closely by the rest of his crew. He took the steps two at a time, racing to get a view of the event before it resolved.
By the time Asher reached the top of the wall, Underdown had stopped above the gate and was now facing outwards, arms stretched out to either side. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed in painful concentration. Down below a crush of outcasts pressed against the gate and wall, clinging to one another in fear as the electric horde descended upon them.
“That’s going to get messy,” Jez said.
But just before the savage wave crashed upon the helpless, Underdown cried out in a loud voice. In that instant, the Weir halted their advance, as if repelled by some unseen wall. Underdown trembled with the effort, straining like a man lifting a great weight. But as he did so, a remarkable thing happened. The Weir began to fall back. Slowly at first. And then in numbers, they turned and fled back into the night. And at their retreat, a great cry went up from outside the wall, from the outcasts who had moments before been facing certain death, now rescued.
Underdown lowered his arms and stumbled backwards. Two of his guardsmen caught him immediately and steadied him. As they escorted him back towards his compound, the Governor waved weakly at the crowds below on both sides of the wall who were now chanting his name. Extolling him. Worshiping him.
“They should’ve been here by now,” Dagon said.
“Then go look for them,” Asher replied, a sinister smile spreading slowly across his face. “I have business with Underdown.”
Over the following two weeks, Three’s strength slowly began to return, and he and Wren found themselves steadily becoming more a part of this frontier community. True to his word, Chapel showed Three the extent of the grounds, including the fields hewn from concrete where crops were now grown. He also returned all of Three’s gear, his harness, pistol, and blade, explaining how he’d kept it safely locked up until he was certain of Three’s intentions. Three met Mr Carter, a man of few words who seemed to carry the weight of the world and who possessed the strength to do so. And Three became better acquainted with Lil, the woman who had cared for him, and scalded him with hot broth.
After a time, Three was able to assist with a number of the daily tasks that kept the group thriving in the midst of the once-urban wasteland, though they would not let him keep watch despite his willingness to do so. Cass’s death continued to weigh heavily, but the sting of her loss gradually lessened, and Three found himself occasionally able to think of her without being crushed by sorrow and guilt.
Wren’s spirits lifted as well, as he was at last able to live in safety, to play with other children, to have something like a childhood again. He was plagued by sudden waves of grief and longing for his mother, but he nevertheless improved as the days wore on. Lil especially seemed to have formed a special bond with him, and the two were regularly together throughout the day. Most nights, Wren would sleep on a mat next to Three, in their small but adequate room. But occasionally Wren would ask for permission to stay with Lil, and Three never refused.
By the start of the third week, Three felt nearly himself again. And one night, after a hard day’s work and an evening of hearty food and good company, he found himself lying on his mat with Wren by his side, beginning to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there was a life for them here. Here, in this unimaginable community, this boldly defiant explosion of life and freedom on the edge of the Strand.
It was just as he drifted off into the space between wakefulness and sleep that the attack came.