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"Back to the edge of the square so that I can find you again when I'm done."

He reached down to button the heavy jacket he was wearing and turned up the collar. The day was growing chilly. He crooked the black staff in his arm as he straightened his clothing. Panther glanced at the staff, then at him. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Where's your weapons? You ain't going in there with no weapons, are you?"

Logan almost smiled. Once, he would have carried a Tyson Flechette, a brace of Arrow Stunners, and a K-Bar Classic. He would have worn body armor and a helmet with night vision built into the visor. But that was a long time ago, before he became a Knight of the Word.

He took the staff out of the crook of his arm. "This is all I need. Let's go."

The sun was already sinking into the far reaches of the western sky as they walked out the door and into the street. They would have perhaps another two hours of light, two hours in which to get to Hawk and Tessa before the death sentence was carried out. Logan knew it was barely enough time, even if things went the way they should. They would have to hurry.

He said a quick good-bye to Owl, mostly to reinforce his earlier instructions. She was to make certain that the Ghosts left Pioneer Square as quickly as possible, taking whatever they could either carry or haul in the carts. If he were successful in rescuing Hawk and Tessa, the compound would dispatch armed guards to bring them back. They would begin their search in Pioneer Square, and the Ghosts had better not be there when they did. They were to go up to the freeway to where the Lightning was parked and wait for him there. He had given her directions on how to find the vehicle and had warned her against approaching it. If they could find an abandoned trailer of some sort in which to load and pull both kids and possessions, it would be helpful. But they were not to do anything else or leave the area for any reason other than to find safety. They were to stay put and wait for him.

If he didn't appear by midnight or if they heard or saw any signs of a pursuit, they should assume the worst. They were to take what they could carry and go into hiding.

Owl, somber-faced and steady-eyed as she listened, promised that his instructions would be carried out. She didn't question or argue with him.

She spoke only three words: "Please save them."

With Panther at his side, Logan Tom went down First Street and out of Pioneer Square toward the compound, the air off the water sharp and pungent with the smell of the fouled water, the afternoon sun glinting off its surface like light off metal. Neither the man nor the boy spoke as they reached the edge of the square and faced out from the shadow of the buildings toward their destination.

Logan caught his breath. There were thousands of feeders gathered before the west-facing wall, all of them squirming to get closer, a writhing, surging black mass of bodies. The humans inside the compound couldn't see them, didn't know they were there. Panther couldn't see them, either. Only he knew they were there and what it was that had drawn them.

He felt a shiver ripple the skin at the base of his neck. He had seen feeders massed before in his time as a Knight of the Word, but never like this.

If he'd had any doubts about Hawk's identity, the presence of the feeders removed them instantly.

He turned to Panther. "This is where we split up. You go on ahead toward the main gates. Make certain they see you coming. Don't look back for me under any circumstances. We want them to think you are alone in this. Can you do it?"

"Sure. Can you?" Panther grinned at him and was on his way without a backward glance.

Logan waited until the boy was close enough to the compound that the guards would notice, then slipped from the shadows and began to move at a steady pace toward the old bus shelter, keeping the piles of rubble between himself and the walls, taking advantage of the long shadows of the nearest buildings where they spread their black, concealing stains. He did not look in the direction of the compound, even after he heard Panther begin yelling at the guards, until he was only yards from the bus shelter. Then he risked a quick glance at the northfacing wall, a huge steel-and-concrete barrier blocking away the southern horizon. He searched its perimeter and its craggy openings for movement and found none. No one had seen him.

He gave the matter no further thought as he went into the shelter and down the steps to the door leading into the underground tunnels. From somewhere around the front gates, Panther continued to yell wildly, his voice strident and insistent. Logan smiled. The boy was good. He tried the door and found it sealed, but a touch of his staff against the lock and it was burned through in seconds. He pushed the door open and, after stepping inside, pushed it closed again. He went down the tunnel without slowing, his eyes adjusting to the darkness as he went. He chose his path when the tunnel branched, using his wrist compass to guide him, moving ahead until he had passed beneath the walls of the compound and was inside its underground hallways. He had mapped his route to Hawk's cell in his mind, a skill he had perfected over the years while serving with Michael. Their raids on the slave camps often required that they descend into tunnels. If you couldn't remember how you went in, you might not be able to get out again. It was more complicated here, but he recalled enough from his earlier visit to know approximately where he needed to go. The problem was in finding the right level, but he knew it would be somewhere near the basement of the complex.

Twice he was forced to stop and wait in the shadows while someone passed by only yards away. Once he had to backtrack and go around a place where men were working. There was little traffic this deep underground, this far down in the lower levels, so the risks were not as great as they would have been if he had been forced to climb to the surface.

He began to recognize corridors, their walls and doors and entries. He was close.

Then he rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the guard who had admitted him into Hawk's cell only hours before. They stopped instantly, facing each other, and Logan said, "Hello again," snapped one end of his staff against the side of the other's head, and dropped him in his tracks.

He found an open door, dragged the guard inside, took his keys from his belt, and left him. He moved ahead quickly, searching for the cell that contained Hawk, a search that took him no more than another five minutes. A quick glance ahead and behind confirmed that he was alone. He inserted the key into the lock and opened the heavy metal door.

The cell was empty.

"ARE YOU ALL right?" Hawk whispered when they brought Tessa over and sat her down beside him.

She nodded without speaking. Her face was ashen and tear-streaked, her hair disheveled, and her hands shaking. She had the look of someone who had been struck a sharp blow and was still in shock.

He looked out over the top of the compound wall to where the sun was sinking toward the mountains in the western horizon. Another fifteen minutes, no more. They had brought him up early, trying to unnerve him, he thought, trying to see if he would break down. They hadn't said or done anything to him, but he couldn't think of any other reason to make him sit and wait like this. In any case, it didn't matter. He had come to terms with the future. Escape seemed out of the question. Either someone would come to save them or they would die.

"I'm sorry about your mother," he said to her.

She exhaled sharply. "Did you see her face? Did you see how she looked at me?" She shook her head. "What's happened to her?"

He scuffed the toes of his tennis shoes against the concrete. "Maybe you just saw a side to her you didn't know was there."

She closed her eyes. "I wish I had never seen her like that. I'll never forget how she made me feel. In front of all those people. In front of you. I will never forget."

Hawk said nothing, bent forward with his elbows on his knees, looking at his feet. He breathed in the taste and smell of the bay, of the coldness blown in off the water, and the hard edge of the coming night. The year was winding down, and while the seasons no longer behaved in recognizable ways, lacking identity of the sort people had once known, he could feel winter's bite in the air. He watched the sun begin to press down against the mountains to the west.

Time was almost up. He glanced around, thinking again of escape, searching for a way. But there was nowhere to go. A dozen armed guards stood close by. All the exits down off the wall were blocked. They were unfettered and could try to break free, but their chances were almost nonexistent. They would be seized and hauled back to their seats before they got ten steps. The only way open to them was forward, over the edge.

He looked at Tessa, and the soft line of her face brought tears to his eyes. It seemed impossible to think that they were going to die.

"Is there a child?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I only said that to try to buy us some time, to make them rethink what they were going to do."

He nodded. "It was a good try."

"It was a waste of time. They had already decided."

"Even if we were married, I guess."

"Even if."

"I would have married you if it would have changed things. If they would have let us."

"That decision isn't theirs to make. It's ours."

The sharpness in her voice surprised him. "We waited too long, in any case," he said.

Her hand closed over his wrist. "No, we didn't." Her words were whispered and urgent. "We still have time. Say the words to me." She looked at him, her eyes pleading. "Say you take me for your wife."

He hesitated, and then repeated, "I take you for my wife."

"And I take you for my husband," she replied.

He held her gaze. "I don't want them to throw us from the walls. I don't want them to put their hands on us."

She nodded. "I know."

His hand tightened over hers. "I want us to jump."

She stared at him, transfixed. "Jump?"

"Before they can throw us off. Before they can touch us. I want us to do it on our own. I want us to be free when we go over."

She started to say something, but the words seemed locked in her throat.

There were fresh tears in her eyes. "I don't think I can do that," she whispered.

He looked out to where birds were winging their way across the colorstreaked sky. One of them, he thought, might be his namesake. He wanted to fly, to soar above everything, to lift away to somewhere he could never be reached.

He took a deep breath. No rescue was at hand. No one was coming. To one side, four of the guards were clustered around the compound Chairman, a man named Cole who had told Hawk earlier that he was sorry about what was going to happen, but hadn't meant it. The men were whispering and glances were being cast in their direction. They were getting ready to carry out the sentence.

He looked back at Tessa. "Now," he said.

Her hand locked tight on his wrist. "I can't."

"I love you, Tessa," he said.

"I love you, too." Her head lowered into shadow. "But I can't."

"Just don't look. Just hold on to me."

They were too late. The guards were coming toward them, grim-faced in the failing light. Hawk started to his feet, tried to pull Tessa up with him, but she refused to follow, sitting where she was, crying softly. The guards seized them by their shoulders, yanked them to their feet, and began walking them forward.

"Don't do this," Hawk pleaded, glancing from face to face, and then in desperation back at Cole, who stood watching impassively. "Cowards!" he screamed at them.

No one responded to him. He looked around wildly. Was there really no one coming? His mother's words recalled themselves anew. Trust in me. His free hand went to his pocket and closed about the bones.

Then they were at the edge of the wall, the world spread away below them in a vast, shadow-streaked carpet, the distant horizon crimson with the sunset.

Behind them, Cole spoke sharply, words that sounded more guttural than human.

Hawk tried to break free, then tried to reach Tessa, but his captors held him tightly. He caught a quick glimpse of her stricken face as she sagged against the hands holding her. He tried to speak her name, but the word lodged in his throat.

Then the hands gave them a hard shove and together they went tumbling into the void.

ON THE ROOFTOP of the building the Ghosts once had called home, Sparrow took a last look around. Acting as the legs and eyes of Owl, she performed a quick check of the catchments to make certain the necessary pieces had been dismantled and carried away. The others were down in the street and heading for the freeway, Bear pulling the heavy cart, Chalk and Fixit carrying the Weatherman on a litter, River pushing Owl in her wheelchair, Candle and Squirrel carrying packs and armfuls of supplies, and Cheney watching over them all.

She had volunteered to stay behind for a last look around and would catch up to them when she was satisfied.

She brushed at her ragged thatch of hair and looked south toward the compound, wondering if the Knight of the Word had reached Hawk yet. Somehow, she believed, he would find a way. She searched for movement through the shadows that draped the dark structure and listened for revealing sounds. But she saw and heard nothing. The sunset splashed across the metal and stone surfaces of the compound, a vivid and garish crimson. She didn't like the look of that light. She didn't like how it made her feel.

Then, suddenly, there was a bright flash near the top of the walls, a soundless explosion that she would have missed entirely had she blinked. She stared fixedly, searching for its source, waiting for it to reappear, but nothing else happened. Had she imagined it?

Her brow furrowed. She didn't think so. She didn't make those kinds of mistakes.

She turned away, finished her survey of the dismantled catchments and pilfered purification supplies, decided she was done, and moved toward the stairs. She was almost there when something out on the water caught her eye. She stopped where she was and stared. Hundreds of small lights had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, all across the mouth of the bay, drifting in off the sound. For a second she didn't know what she was looking at, and then suddenly it registered.

Lights. Torches and lamps were burning on the decks and masts of hundreds of boats.

She blinked. Why were all these boats here?

Then, as she puzzled it through, she heard the first faint booming of the drums, a steady cadence that signaled clearly the purpose of the inhabitants of the boats.

It was an invasion.

She took only a moment more to let the realization of what was happening sink in, and then she began to run.

Armageddon's Children ends here. The story continues in The Elves of Cintra.

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