He felt it first, more than heard it. A sort of creeping, electric dread that caused his heart to pound, a sudden heightening of his senses that told him adrenaline was pouring into his system, readying him to fight, or to flee. It had been Wren, of course. The boy had suddenly tensed beside him; a reaction Three had quickly learned to interpret as a dire warning. Wren fumbled for Three’s hand. Found it, squeezed. Three knew well by now that Wren would say nothing, would make no sound. And he knew far too well that the boy was terrified. Something was out there, ominous, brooding, like a black thundercloud waiting to burst.
A sliver of light seeped in from lanterns in the hall that had been turned low, dull like the final heat of a dying ember, perceptible only because Three’s eyes had adjusted to the otherwise complete blackness. He stretched out his hand in the darkness, gently felt for the boy’s face, his cheek newly wet with tears.
“Wren,” Three said, parting his lips just enough for the breath to escape in a whisper. “Is it Asher?”
He felt Wren shake his head.
A nod. Three expected to feel some sort of relief, but instead felt only a sickening knot tighten in his gut. His last encounter with the Weir had left him more shaken than he cared to admit, and not only because of Cass’s death. These Weir from the Strand, their coordinated movement and attacks, were entirely new to him, something he didn’t understand. Without understanding, there was no way to prepare, and in his usual way of life, being unprepared was essentially the same as being dead. Then again, nothing about his way of life had been usual of late.
“We need to get out,” Three said. “Don’t want to get caught where we can’t move.”
Three rolled to his feet, and had to pause momentarily to pull his hand free from Wren’s. He patted the boy’s arm firmly, then crossed to the corner where he kept his harness and weapons, trying to ignore the stiffness in his shoulders, the dullness he felt around the edges of his perception. Sliding into his harness, there was a tremble in his chest, reminding him of his injury, of his too-recent weakness. He’d slipped in his time here, allowed softness to creep in. Soon enough he’d learn when he’d have to pay for it.
Three crept back to Wren, found him lying in the same position, still as death. He lay a hand on the boy’s arm, and squeezed it.
“Come on, kiddo,” he whispered.
Wren answered only by picking himself up off the mat and grabbing hold of Three’s arm. Three stayed on one knee, cupped Wren’s head in one hand, drew him close so that their noses nearly touched.
“Stay close,” he said. “Like always.”
He felt Wren nod. “Like always.”
Three swiveled into a crouch and slowly drew open the door, thankful for the workmanship that kept the movement silent. The hall was empty, quiet, dark save for the dots of dim red light from the lanterns. He moved out into the corridor, probing with all his senses, with Wren pressed hard against him. There was no sound of trouble, no smell of blood or fire, nothing to see but stillness and the trick of darkness on the eyes. But there was tension in the air, a tangible, crackling pressure like a bone flexed to the point of breaking.
The two continued cautiously down the hallway, around the corner, to the set of double doors that led outside. Three slid them open carefully, felt the crisp air splash across his face. The courtyard was bathed in the pale blue-gray of the half-moonlight, spotted by pools of dim orange where lanterns hung. In the middle of the courtyard, Three could see the inkblot shape of a lone figure, standing upright, facing away.
Tall, stretched thin, utterly still yet somehow fluid, like he could melt into shadow at any second. Even from this distance, without seeing the man’s face, Three knew him.
Dagon, the man they’d called The Grave. It wasn’t hard to imagine why; Three pictured Dagon emerging from some dark pool of shadow and dragging his victims back down with him, for the earth to swallow. A dead man, doing death’s work.
There was no other choice. Three stepped out into the courtyard, with Wren clinging to the back of his shirt, practically tripping to keep close. Dagon turned at their approach, but in the instant of his movement, Three could tell something had changed. There was an edge in Dagon’s motion where none had been before. And when their eyes met, Three recognized well the look of the hunted.
They stood maybe twenty feet apart. Three rested his hand on his pistol, hoped his draw hadn’t suffered too much over the past few weeks. One chance before Dagon could close the distance. One shell left in the cylinder. One shot to kill or be killed.
“Took too long,” Dagon said in a rasping voice. He was rattled, almost out of breath. Not nearly the casual killer he’d seemed before. His eyes were hollow, like he hadn’t slept in days. He laughed sadly.
“Where’s Haven?” Dagon asked.
Three didn’t answer. Just held steady. Not even wanting to blink.
“Spinner. Where’s your mom, kid?”
Three felt Wren tighten around his leg, tried to ignore it. Focus. Wait for the moment.
“I can’t get you out of this one anyway. Not now. I just wanted to see her.”
“You’ll see her soon enough,” Three answered.
There was a cry in the distance, a man’s voice shouting an alarm. Dagon flicked a glance in the direction of the warning reflexively. Three anticipated, drew, squeezed the trigger—
And stopped the instant before the hammer fell. Dagon had reacted to his sudden motion, twisted, rolled, just enough for Three to doubt himself, to hesitate. And the chance was gone. Dagon melted from the ground to his feet, suddenly fluid shadow again, putting a lantern between himself and Three. In the next instant, he evaporated into the darkness that had deepened suddenly, from the lantern light shining in Three’s eyes.
Three cursed himself for faltering, but didn’t have time to linger. Dagon was gone, and chaos took his place. A chorus of electric screams split the night air, and Three found himself running with Wren in his arms, towards the centermost building in the compound.
As he ran, other men from the compound emerged from their quarters, rushing headlong towards the growing sounds of battle. When they reached the building, Lil was already outside. Three practically tossed Wren to her.
“Keep him safe!” he yelled, and before she could respond, he whirled back and joined the flow of men rushing to the eastern side of the compound. He was vaguely aware of the fading sound of Wren screaming his name as he ran. He secured his pistol back in its holster, and slid his blade from its sheath. But whatever Three had done to ready himself, nothing had prepared him for what he now saw.
They were coming over the wall in a cascade, like a surging tide overrunning its bounds. The greatest number of Weir he had ever seen at one time. Maybe more than he’d seen his whole life. In a flash his mind counted hundreds, though he told himself it was fear that made the multitude. And then the wave swept into him, and past him, and he screamed in rage and with his blade he made himself known among them.
The first he simply grabbed by the face as it ran by, slamming it backwards headfirst to the ground, crushing its skull with its own weight and momentum. He buried his blade to the hilt through the creature’s midsection before whirling and lopping off the legs of another just below the knees. A few of the Weir faltered, surprised by this sudden motion that materialized and slew their fellows, but they quickly recovered and moved to attack him. He met them with fists, knees, and elbows, and his short sword ran slick. Three let loose the raw fury of his pain, invited the anger and pure emotion he so often held in check. Awakened wrath and ruin poured out rage on the inhuman throng that had stolen Cass from him.
How long he fought and how many he killed, he didn’t know. But at some point in the frenzy, he found himself nearly shoulder to shoulder with Mr Carter, who was armed with a sword in one hand and a long hammer in the other. The two weapons were in constant motion, never interfering with the other’s arc, never failing to find a target to devastating effect. Mr Carter’s shirt was torn and splayed open, showing at least one jagged gash across his midsection. There was too much blood and other dark fluids splashed across him to know how severe or numerous his injuries actually were, and he fought with such intensity that Three was sure Mr Carter didn’t know he’d been wounded at all.
Though they never directly acknowledged the other’s presence, the two fell into a coordinated rhythm and together they cut a wide swath through the surge. Soon they were joined by a third man, and then a fourth, and gradually a small knot of warriors formed in the midst of the battle, briefly staunching the flow of Weir. Even so, Three began to feel the tide turning against them. In the span of a few minutes, they were giving ground again, despite the hard posture they fought to maintain.
The man immediately to his left dropped to a knee with a cry and before Three could react, one of the Weir tore the man’s jugular. Three slashed the Weir, but he knew the man was beyond saving. Their eyes met for the briefest moment, and Three expected to see fear and desperation. Instead, there was only grim determination, as the man surged upward one final time, and impaled a Weir before collapsing together with it and becoming still.
In that instant, Three became suddenly aware of a voice, cutting clear and high above the combat. A woman singing. Her words were lost in the chaos, but the melody carried unmistakably on the air, and ignited his heart with strange passion. The same voice he’d heard the night they’d saved him. Lil’s voice.
He risked a glance over his shoulder, and was startled by how close they were to the central building. She was there, standing at the top of its steps. And he saw then enough to know there was battle raging across the courtyard as well. A coordinated attack. The brunt had come from the eastern wall, but another contingent had joined from another direction. The Weir were pushing towards that building. Towards the building with Lil. And Wren.
Without thinking, Three leapt forward into the Weir, drove them back with sheer will and fury unleashed. A hoarse cry sounded behind him, and suddenly Mr Carter was by his side. They fought together again then, each renewed by the other’s strength. Those men that had fallen back surged forward yet again, and though they suffered many wounds, they once again rejoined Mr Carter and Three.
And suddenly, something within the Weir broke. There was no fear, no panic, no obvious signal of retreat or defeat. The attack simply dissolved and fell away. The Weir nearest Three backed away, and then turned and fled back over the eastern wall and into the night. As they went, Three realized there were far fewer of them remaining than he’d thought only moments before.
He and Mr Carter and the few men with them stood in stunned silence before they came to their senses and realized that others were still fighting near the western side of the central building. Three led the way, and they raced to lend aid. But by the time they reached it, there was only a handful of Weir left. They stood in a semi-circle, facing a single figure, around whom many slain were arrayed.
Chapel. He held a long-bladed sword with both hands, but its tip drifted off so far to one side it was nearly behind him, and hovered just above the ground. Clearly exhausted from the battle, Chapel waited in utter stillness, as if already resigned to his fate. Three stepped forward to help him, but felt Mr Carter’s heavy hand on his shoulder. Three stopped. Watched.
Four Weir remained, though Three knew from painful experience that they could essentially act as one. They hesitated, however, and he wondered if it was due to Chapel’s broadcasting, wondered how they saw him now. Whether the face of a great avenging angel, or perhaps some ravaging demon.
It came in an instant, the swift collapse of the four Weir upon Chapel, and Three knew it was over. The Weir were just too fast, striking from too many angles. But in the span of two forward steps and a half-turn, only Chapel remained standing, watching as the Weir fell to the ground. The whole scene had unfolded like a choreographed dance, the way Chapel escaped the crowd with unhurried strokes of his blade sweeping up, out, and down again. It was several seconds before Three realized Mr Carter was no longer restraining him.
Three and the others moved forward to regroup with Chapel. As they approached, Chapel whipped his blade quickly to one side to clear the ichor, and then smoothly sheathed the sword. Lil had stopped singing, though Three couldn’t remember when. He saw now that most, if not all, of the citizens of the compound were huddled in that centermost building. Or rather the women, children, and elderly. He couldn’t help but wonder how many men they’d lost that night.
Wren came charging down the stairs, and Three didn’t hesitate to pick the boy up. For a long while, no one spoke. There were just no words. And for a long while, Three just shut his eyes and held tightly to Wren, unsure whether he was offering comfort or receiving it.
When morning came, the damage was somewhat less severe than had been feared. Three learned there had in fact been three attacks: two simultaneously from the north and the east, and a third coming from the southwest after most of the men had already engaged. Chapel alone had defended the central building from that attack, though he was quick to downplay the numbers that he had faced and to give credit to the valor of the other men.
All told, they counted over sixty dead Weir, though Three knew the number slain could easily have been more than twice that. The Weir rarely left their dead behind, though no one knew why. Most stories suggested they ate their own. Three had never met anyone who had any evidence for that explanation. For their part, the compound had seven dead, and twelve wounded.
Had it been a legend, the story would have read as a heroic victory, for so few to stand against so many. In reality, it was a heavy blow for such a small community to bear. Seven husbands, seven fathers, seven guardians, all lowered into the ground. Even Three had shed tears during the simple ceremony they’d held. He himself had dug the grave for the man who had fallen by his side just hours before. Kirin had been his name, though Three hadn’t learned it until he’d heard the man’s wife crying out.
And all the while, while he’d carried the wounded, and dug the grave, and done what he could to help, Three couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow it had all been his fault.
“Strange that they would choose now,” Chapel said, late that afternoon, as they ate together. “We’ve been attacked before, of course, but never by so many. Never like this.”
Three hadn’t told anyone of Dagon’s appearance, wasn’t sure if there was a reason to do so. There couldn’t be any connection between Dagon and the Weir, of course, but there was no doubt that whatever had happened, they couldn’t stay. He and Wren had to leave.
“Chapel, I don’t really know how to say this,” he started.
“I understand,” Chapel said.
“No. You don’t,” Three answered. He stared down at the food in front of him, knowing he needed the nourishment, but having no appetite for it. “But I made a promise. And I’ve brought far too much trouble on you here.”
“Nonsense. You’ve been a great help to us.”
“It was selfish to stay. You and your people paid for it.”
“By all accounts, we would’ve paid much more without you. Everyone agrees it was your actions that prevented complete tragedy. Even Mr Carter.”
Three shook his head, but couldn’t bring himself to elaborate. He wanted to believe the Weir would’ve attacked whether he’d been here or not, but his gut told him otherwise. And Dagon. Would he bring Asher here, to these people? The only hope Three had now was to get Wren to his father in Morningside, the hope that this man Underdown would have the will and the means to protect his own son. And then… well, Three didn’t know what then, except that he’d be back in control of his own life, and maybe then he’d be able to figure out how to become the man he’d once been, able to forget all the calamity he’d endured and created because of one simple decision to help a woman and a boy in distress.
“How soon will you go?” Chapel asked.
“First light. How far to Morningside from here?”
“Twenty-five miles or so, if you know the way.”
“And if you don’t?”
“We’ll make sure you do.”
They ate in silence for a time, and then Chapel excused himself to attend to the wounded. Three finished his meal alone, dreading having to break the news to Wren. He spent an hour or so preparing his gear for the journey, though it didn’t really take more than fifteen minutes to do so. As evening was coming on, he trekked over to the central building, where he knew Wren was keeping close to Lil.
Sure enough, he found them together, sitting on the floor, playing a game of some kind. Three watched them from the door for a moment, watched their easy interaction, the obvious comfort they provided one another. He’d wondered before, but now he was certain that she’d lost a child of her own. She’d been a mother once, to some fortunate son or daughter. Maybe to many children. Three couldn’t help but feel that he’d missed an opportunity with Lil, if nothing more than to get to know her. But the wounds Cass had left him with were too fresh, and Lil stirred the memories too strongly. He’d encouraged Wren to spend time with her, while he’d kept his own distance. Now he wondered if that’d been a mistake.
He entered, and knelt down beside the two.
“Hey, kiddo. Ma’am.”
“You really shouldn’t still be calling me ma’am,” Lil said, her eyes wrinkled at the corners with a hint of a smile. She looked exhausted, but genuinely glad to see him.
“Hey, Lil,” Three answered. “Can I interrupt for minute? I need to talk to Wren.”
“Sure, of course,” Lil said. She started to get up, but Wren stopped her.
“Can you stay?” he asked quietly. “Please?”
Lil hovered between staying and leaving, looked to Three for a cue. He shrugged and nodded. He’d have to tell her at some point anyway. Might as well get it over with. Lil sank back to the floor. Three drew a breath to explain, but it was Wren who broke the news.
“We’re going away, Lil.”
Her brow furrowed in confusion, and she looked to Three for confirmation. He nodded again.
“But… what? Why?” The tears were already welling in her pale blue eyes.
“It’s not safe,” Wren said.
“I know last night was scary, but there’s no reason to think it’s going to happen again—”
“It’s not safe for you.” Hearing the words come from Wren’s mouth, in his tiny voice, made them sound all the more terrible. Three had expected Wren to scream and cry and fight. Watching the boy now, calmly delivering the message himself, Three wasn’t sure if he should feel proud or frightened.
“I don’t understand,” said Lil.
“And we can’t explain,” Three answered. “Just know that we’d stay if we could.”
Lil blinked back at him, searching for words she wouldn’t find. A tear dropped and splashed on her cheek.
“Is it OK if I stay with Lil tonight?” Wren asked.
“Sure, kiddo. If it’s OK with her.”
Lil wiped the tears from her eyes, and nodded. “Of course. Of course it’s OK. I’d like that.”
“Can Three come too?”
Her eyes flicked to his then, and he saw the flash of unspoken hope, the slight reddening of her cheeks. Then she looked quickly at the floor, afraid she’d given herself away.
“That’d be nice,” Three said. “But I’ve got a lot to do to prep for tomorrow. And you need a good night’s sleep.”
Lil nodded and smiled at him, but he could see the lines of disappointment, despite her efforts to conceal them. She was a good woman. Maybe a great one. But not for him.
Three tousled Wren’s hair and stood up.
“Early morning tomorrow. Don’t stay up late.”
“Good night, Three,” Lil said, looking up at him from the floor. She had a sad smile on her face.
Three was up before the first hint of daybreak, and he spent the final hour of darkness sitting on the steps of the central building. He found himself shivering in the cold, sharp air. He was filled with a nervous energy that nagged at his mind. Three needed focus now, needed clarity. He needed to move.
As the sky was brightening to pale purple, Lil appeared with Wren in tow, flanked by Chapel. A small but sincere send-off. Wren slid in next to Three, stoic but not quite awake.
Three extended his hand.
“Three,” he said, taking Three’s hand in a firm, warm handshake. “You’re a good man. We hate to lose you.”
“Wish I could do more to thank you.”
“Come back some time. That will be enough.”
Three nodded, and turned his attention to Lil. “Lil. Take care of yourself.”
She smiled weakly and nodded. Wren took his cue and approached her. She knelt to his level, and he wrapped his arms around her tightly, then kissed her on the cheek.
“You always kiss the lady goodbye,” he said. “So she remembers you.”
“I could never forget you, Wren,” she replied, with a broad genuine smile. “Not even if I tried.”
She kissed the top of his head, and sent him back to Three. As the two turned to go, though, Three saw a third person crossing the courtyard.
“Mr Carter,” Chapel said, “has insisted on taking you to Morningside.”
Sure enough, as Mr Carter drew closer Three could see he was outfitted to travel, despite the fact that he was heavily bandaged.
“That’s not necessary,” Three said.
“He insists. You can try to refuse him if you like, but he’ll follow you anyway.”
There was a brief exchange between the men, but in the end Three relented, and as the first rays of sunlight began to crest the horizon, Three and Wren set out once more, each knowing full well that danger lay about them on all sides.