At first all went well; nothing stirred on the darkening waters as Tunbridge Wheels went chugging eastward, and up ahead the Black Island grew steadily larger. Tom opened a small side window on the bridge and stood there feeling the salt night air spill over him, feeling strangely excited. He could see pirates gathering in the old market square at the suburb's forward end, readying grappling hooks and boarding ladders, because Airhaven would be far too large to fit into the jaws – they would have to take it by force and tear it apart at their leisure. He didn't like the idea, especially when he remembered that his aviator friends might still be on Airhaven, but it was a town eat town world, after all – and there was something exciting about the cut-throat recklessness of Peavey's plan.
And then suddenly something fell out of the sky and exploded in the market square, and there was a black gash in the deck and the men he had been watching weren't there anymore. Others came running with buckets and fire extinguishers. "Airship! Airship! Airship!" someone was shouting, and then there were more rushing things and buildings were exploding all over the suburb, with people flung tumbling high up into the air like mad acrobats.
"For Sooty Pete's sake!" shouted Peavey, running to the shattered observation window and staring down into the smoke-filled streets. His monkey jumped up and down on his shoulders, jabbering. "These Mossies are better organised than we gave 'em credit for," he said. "Searchlights, quick!"
Two wavering fingers of light rose above the town, feeling their way across the smoke-dappled sky. Where they met, Tom saw a fat rising shape shine briefly red. The suburb's guns swung upward and fired a rippling broadside, and pulses of flame stalked the drifting clouds.
"Missed!" hissed Peavey, squinting through his telescope. "Curse it; I should have known Airhaven would send up spotter ships. And if I'm not mistaken it was that witch Fang's old rustbucket!"
"The Jenny Haniver!" gasped Tom.
"No need to sound so pleased about it," snarled Peavey. "She's a menace. Ain't you heard of the Wind-Flower?"
Tom hadn't told the pirate mayor of his adventures aboard Airhaven. He tried to hide his happiness at the thought that Miss Fang was still alive and said, "I've heard of her. She's an air-trader..."
"Oh, yeah?" Peavey spat on the deck. "You think a trader carries that sort of firepower? She's one of the Anti-Traction League's top agents. She'll stop at nothing to hurt us poor traction towns. It was her who planted the bomb that sank Marseilles, and her what strangled the poor Sultana of Palau Pinang. She's got the blood of a thousand murdered townsfolk on her hands! Still, we'll show her, won't we, Tommy boy? I'll have her guts for goulash! I'll hang her carcass out for the buzzards! Mungo! Pogo! Maggs! An extra cut of the spoils to whoever shoots down that red airship!"
Someone did shoot down that red airship. By all counts it should have been out of range, but a lucky lick of tracer managed to strobe across the red blip in the night sky and it showered debris. Tom watched the Jenny Haniver, her engines battered, begin to spin wildly and tumble earthwards.
"That's it lads! Kill 'er!"
Tom could imagine Anna Fang, beneath the burning gondola, trying everything to keep control, but even in the distance and the darkness it was clear the airship was doomed. There was a final volley of loud rushing whoops, as the Wind Flower vengefully fired her final rocket salvoes at the traction town. Most went wide, though one exploded on the suburb's left flank. The explosion rocked the vehicle but Tunbridge Wheels stood firm against Anna Fang's final assault.
And it was the pirates who had the last laugh, as the plummeting airship finally came into range. The probing tracer rounds turned into concentrated firelances and they trapped the Jenny Haniver in a web of flame. Tom wondered, briefly, if her had seen an escape balloon blossom white below the airship, but either way nothing would have survived the thundering boom as the airship's lifting gas, fuel and ammunition all combusted at once to produce a tiny sun in the black night.
As one, the pirates cheered, impressed by their own deadly fireworks. Tom watched the fragments fall and make foamy splashes in the Sea of Khazak and felt... Felt a tiny spark of happiness. Because if Anna Fang was the city-killer Peavey said she was, then it could only be good riddance. Oh yes, she had been nice – but that was only an act, wasn't it...?
"We got 'er, Tommy boy, we got 'er!" Peavey smiled broadly and sniffed the oily air that rushed through the broken observation window, and slapped Tom on the shoulder. Now Tom was beginning to see the thrill of the pirate's life, and wondered. Maybe Peavey's noble intentions and brutal could be combined, if Tom could only convince him that he should be fair to tractionists and, well, his natural way towards the Mossies... For a moment, he could even just about see himself taking up Peavey's offer of staying aboard Tunbridge Wheels, if this victory truly turned out to be one of the magnitude the pirate promised.
The damage inflicted by Anna Fang looked intimidating but the pirates, in their high spirits after the little victory, cleared away the worst of the immediately rubble and bodge-jobbed repairs. Peavey was confident in his crew and the suburb and despite the flames lighting the water as they advanced, his faith seemed vindicated. At one stage Mungo called out "Fishing fleet to the southeast!" but Peavey decided they were too distant to be worth the trouble. They carried on, engines growling, towards the scattered lanterns that flickered on the black bulk of Black Island.
Tom remained watching as Peavey turned back to analyse the maps of the Black Island and its approaches with Mr Ames. The Island's bizarre, wind-formed spires rose high into the sky, a silhouette upon blackness. The clusters of yellow twinkles from its hamlets and villages made it look like a strange portal into a different corner of the universe torn through the night. It wasn't, but if Peavey was to be believed, it certainly was the route to Airhaven, and riches.
Feeling bold, Tom exited the bridge and scuttled down the metal staircase that clung to the side of the conning tower spire, which rose near the front of town like the horn of the rhinocorns that had wandered Ancient Africa. Tom had been afraid of wandering alone in the suburb's streets, especially given the way he and Hester had first been greeted, not to mention the obvious distrust of the other pirates. But the air was filled was crackles of fire and excitement and Tom was sure no pirate would bother taking out a grudge now, of all times.
He moved down the main street, past Mr Ames' old schoolhouse, past the usually-rowdy Black Pig pub. The air rushed through his hair and whistled in the streamlined architecture. He wondered how long it would until
A bullet rushed past his head.
It plinked off of the paving; only then did the distant crack of the rifle catch up to the streets of Tunbridge Wheels. Tom ducked, spun, and leapt for shelter behind a pile of crates held by netting to the suburb's deck. Heart racing, Tom peered up, over, and down a side street to the starboard edge of town.
Flashes of light flickered on the shore of the island, which was now extremely close by. The Mossies of Black Island had clearly learnt of the impending threat from Anna Fang's attack and were preparing their own defences.
The pirates, though, were already prepared, and before Tom could make sense of the situation the town rocked and the night thundered as Tunbridge Wheels' broadsides ripped into life. A sketchy line of explosions splattered over on the shore. The suburb's searchlights, one mounted on the forward bridge and the other at the top of the town hall at the rear, threw white pillars of pearly light like Old-Tech particle beams onto the shoreline. Cottages cast long shadows, distant Mossie troops stumbled, dazzled – and the suburb's turrets took aim and fired. Three explosions lit up the mountainside, a fourth one turning a squat barn into spectacular flame.
Tom decided he'd rather be inside and leapt across the street towards an armoured orifice into safe underdeck of the suburb. But before he was halfway across, Mr Ames' schoolhouse ahead of him suddenly split at the seams and fire erupted. A hard shockwave of baking air threw Tom off his feet and he crashed into the pavement, rolling into the gutter, as overhead charred bricks and fragments of metal paving flew like heavy birds. The air sucked back to the schoolhouse's ruins as Tom sucked air back into his winded lungs; he groaned, but he wasn't badly hurt, and he rolled over the moment his senses returned.
As he did so, he noticed a swarm of shapes diverge over the city. The air-caravanserai, he gulped, and suddenly the excitement of Peavey's plan turned to empty, gut-twisting terror.
Beneath him the deck rumbled again, as bombs cascaded onto the suburb. The sudden violent tremors defeated two of Tom's attempts to stand up; only on the third go did he manage to climb all the way to his feet. The passage to the underdeck of Tunbridge Wheels was crushed under the rubble. Tom decided quickly to flee to the port side of the suburb, away from the artillery duel between the starboard flank and the shore defenders, and out of the wide and exposed central thoroughfare of the suburb. He leapt over burning schoolbooks and down into an alleyway. An airship's engines roared as it passed low overheard its bomb bay gaping open. At least this time the airships were well in range of the suburb's guns. Tracer beads leapt like new milky ways and flak puffed like yellow nebulae in hot pursuit of the strafing airships.
Brick walls brushed past him, the ceramic scraping his knuckles. The floor shook more violently than ever; windows rattled. Overhead something boomed the roar of an injured god. Tom flicked an eye to see the shredded fragments of a burst canopy flutter to the rooftops. Then, returning his attention to his path, Tom sidestepped a broken lamppost and emerged onto Port Side Plaza.
The street had a huge gash in it, where one of Anna Fang's rockets had ripped it apart. Pirates scuttled nervously around the edge of the crater. One impact vindicated their caution, as it shook a careless, one-eyed pirate off of his footing, into the crater, and tumbling into the black waters of Khazak below.
Tom's head snapped to the source of the call – a hook-handed woman standing on a turret, her metal claw outstretched towards a bulky, double-hulled airship bearing down on them. Its belly turrets were spraying the deck with bullets, mincing unlucky pirates to red shreds; the rocket pods were spewing golden pillars of fire towards the flotation pods. Those, too, turned to shreds with sharp, violent bangs. The town listed, violently; Tom's feet fell out from beneath him and he rolled towards the battlements and crude wooden palisade on the suburb's side. The airship's trail of bullets skittered past. Scrabbling to his feet Tom did his best to run back to the side of the street, away from the terrifying list towards the sea.
He clung to the broken lamppost, hauling himself up and past it. Behind him, one pirate whom he vaguely recognised limped towards him. "Take my hand!" he yelled. The pirate, with a crimson mess oozing from his ankle, reached forward, and they braced each other's forearms. Tom hauled him up and past the lamppost, back into the alley; the pirate flashed a momentary look of thanks into Tom's eyes before he stumbled off.
Well, there's at least some kind of manners that Peavey can work with. The sardonic thought flickered into Tom's head and caused him to smile dryly in spite of the carnage in front of him. The street was filled, covered in burning debris and lacerated corpses. He spied two pirates, both of whom were leaping overboard in utter hopelessness. And it did seem hopeless to Tom, as he started to make his way back into the middle of town: scores were dead; the town was in tatters, probably sinking; and the aerial bombardment seemed ceaseless. There was a sudden, gigantic lurch which threw Tom into the rough brick beside him, bruising his shoulder. This is it, he thought, and turned back to look Port Side Plaza, and what would have to be his escape route – he prayed to Quirke that he would find Hester there, safe. Quirke, he hoped she was still alive!
But it wasn't the end.
A quote from history bubbled to the forefront, from the great British president Willie Churchill: it was the only the 'end of the beginning'. Because, as looked back, he didn't see the rippled reflections of fire on the water – he saw dry land. Tunbridge Wheels had made it and, as the tilt began to correct itself, Tom's hope came slowly trickling back.
The battle seemed to be turning too. Despite being wreathed in fire, the suburb's defences continued to fire diligently, blasting away at the attackers. As Tom looked up he could see just three airships left. The one closest to the suburb, a long, spindly green vessel with jutting rocket projectors, was feverishly attacking the starboard cannons but getting as good as it gave. One lucky flak shot pierced the gondola and blew out the windows in an amber blast; it showered wood splinters then began to drift, down and away, until it dashed itself on an overhanging rock spire on Black Island. The two other airships decided it was hopeless and fled north, pursued by wild tracer until they became nothing more than wandering stars.
The suburb continued its prowl upwards, towards the heart of Black Island, broadside cannons making a mincemeat of the remaining defenders as they navigated the craggy road upwards. Tom snaked through the debris-strewn streets, coughing on the ash blustered into his face by the suburb's reckless speed. Tom made his way towards the conning tower bridge, which was now pockmarked with blast marks and had smouldering airship wreckage tangled into its communication towers that rose from its roof.
Where was Hester? Tom wondered for his friend, hoping she was safe, praying she had stayed in the cabins beneath the city's deck. But his worry was overpowered by more joyous emotions – the thrill of the hunt, the wind whipping through his coat, the heat and sweat, the ear-splitting explosions and the sheer audacity of the scheme.
Still, he pondered, as he searched for an alternative entrance to the bridge seeing how its metal staircase was now broken, how would Peavey win now? Tunbridge Wheels was in tatters, as was his company of pirates – they couldn't hope to seize an entire town with the manpower they had left! They must have lost at least fifty men tonight and there was no way that between the fires and keeping guard Peavey could spare enough people for an attack.
Tom found his way in, through a blasted blast door at the base of the tower. Once inside he paced up the metal steps in the red-lit shaft of the conning tower until he emerged, breathless and with beads of sweat tracing lines through his sooty face, staring at Peavey.
"Natsworthy! I was worried for ya, my boy." Tom looked at the pirate mayor and noticed his shoulder was covered in fur and monkey blood. "Lucky shoot took out poor Millie," Peavey shrugged, shredding blood-glued clumps of monkey fur. "But I'm still standin', eh? C'mon, we're almost there!"
Ames was regarding his well-thumbed map studiously, flicking his gaze out of the shattered observation windows to get his bearings, and tracing their route with a stubby pencil. "Your worship, we'll be in the main crater any minute now."
"Good work, Amesy," Peavey said, then marched to a speaking tube. "Mungo, have yer lads ready to board Airhaven. Do what ye have to, to get complete control of the town, y'hear?"
Peavey put his ear to the tube. Tom watched his eyebrows raise and his voice drop. "Well then find the men to take the town with, y' engine-rat!" He stood up, ignoring whatever complaints Mungo was making, and breathed the rushing air. His mayoral chains glinted in the firelight. "There she is."
Tunbridge Wheels crested the lip of the crater at the centre of Black Island and rocked as it started down the slope, its jaws wide open, smashing the marshy tree-stumps in the path of the lumbering suburb. The lights of Airhaven glimmered next to the starlight reflected off of a placid lake. The great torus of the air-town was illuminated by its halogen bulbs. The ground around it swarmed with attendant airships and Mossie statics. A few airships were attempting to flee, but Peavey's gunners were methodically blasting the gasbags of any vessel that rose up. Tom's excitement was tinged by uneasiness as he remembered how the pirates treated their prisoners last time and realised what might be about to happen.
"Slow her down," Peavey ordered to his helmsmen, "Bring 'er about!" Prepare boarding rigs and make ready to attack Airhaven!" He turned to Tom. "Tommy Boy, I'm thinking we need a better view. C'mon – let's join 'em!"
The pirate mayor, eyes blazing with excitement, unslung a fat black hand-cannon with a forearm-sized blade jutting from it and set off downstairs with a trusting nod to Mr Ames. Tom was too meek to disobey Peavey and too fascinated to disobey his own urges to see the battle.
Downstairs, on the mostly-intact forward portion of Port Side Plaza, they were closing fast on Airhaven. The town looked deserted, rubbish-strewn, chaotic; at least that meant fewer prisoners for the pirates to brutalise, Tom thought. The wheezing engines of Tunbridge Wheels have their final bellows as they skirted alongside the air town. Peavey shoved his way through his gang of lean and rabid bandits. The brakes screeched like banshees below. Tom felt his stomach lurch and the howling wind drop to a light breeze, then to midnight stillness. As Tunbridge Wheels finally juddered to a halt, the boarding planks were flung across, their iron prongs gripping the decking and netting of Airhaven. "CHARGE!" yelled Peavey, shaking on a fount of adrenaline.
But the people or Airhaven had already charged.
Mungo and two pirates started across the bridge but were shot down by point-blank shotgun fire. Mungo screamed, reaching for his face, then toppled aside and downwards to the marshy earth far below. The next pirate was downed by a perfect headshot; the third was impaled on a bayonet.
Before anyone realised they were on the defensive, the aviators and Airhavenites had spilled out onto the rubble-strewn deck of Tunbridge Wheels. Two more pirates were shot dead; only then did the fighting break out, the pirates retreating to cover, the 'defenders' attacking.
Tom panicked, turned, and pushed his way backwards. A battle frisbee hummed like a hornet and lodged itself in the face of a pirate, showering them both in blood. Bullets hissed and guns cracked; pirates swore and yelled and grunted.
This was not the plan.
Around him the pirates were disintegrating, fleeing back into houses, to safety. Bullets ricocheted off of the metal plating, snapping at Tom's heels. To the right towered one of the huge engines that were bolted haphazardly across Tunbridge Wheels' deck, enmeshed in an array of piping. It had stood firm through the bombardment and didn't seem to be leaking anything noxious so Tom flung himself into the nooks and crannies of the machine's casing, listening to the thundering explosions of gunfire all around. He peeped out. The pirates were drawing back but it was a chaotic retreat – just as many fell to friendly fire as to enemy fire. The brutal slaughter twisted Tom's stomach and filled him with queasiness; he watched, reviled, as pirates fell, missing limbs and fingers. One pirate, who stood firmly in the middle of the side road, was firing and screaming, spent ammo cases from his massive gatling gun tinkling like bells over the raw roar of the weapon. Then the pirate took a bullet to the knee. He crumpled.#
As he hit the hard, hot metal plating, Tom suddenly recognised the pirate: not only was it the same pirate who he had rescued earlier by the lamppost, it was Zip Risky, one of the more popular of Peavey's councillors. Seeing him lie there, screaming in pain, made Tom wince. He needed to help. But how?
He threw a frightened glance over a jutting pipe and down the street. The Airhavenites were advancing, and being ruthlessly efficient about it. Tom spied a tall figure in a dark greatcoat standing rigidly in the middle of the street, calmly picking off pirates with his handgun.
Tom recognised him, too – Nils Lindstrom, that gloomy anti-tractionist aviator who had been friends with Anna Fang. But he wasn't gloomy here – just a cool, calm and deadly killing machine, efficient and heartless. Tom felt the anger grow inside him; these anti-tractionists were liars, and psychopathic killers, on top of being mere barbarians! He watched as Lindstrom replaced his spent revolver for a fresh one in his left as, still firing away as, somehow, he managed to reload the first handgun with a single trick of the wrist. Then, with it reloaded, he pointed it at Zip Risky.
All in one go, Tom's fear and rage and adrenaline suddenly combined, sparked, and exploded with rage. He didn't know what he was doing – a red mist dropped over him, obscuring all but a bizarre plan that popped into his head. He shifted his weight onto his arms, lifted up, and rammed his feet into the jutting pipe in front of him. Pain shot up his legs as he did so but in his rage he didn't notice. He kicked again, and again, until the pipe gave way under his kick. Tom's momentum carried him forward, he lost his grip, and he fell hard onto the metal deck; as he rolled over and crouched upwards, he noticed his handiwork.
The pipe, broken off and curled sideways, jetted hot fuel in a lateral geyser of viscous black. Lindstrom flicked an eye, registered the shock, and twitched his arm defensively; but the twitch of his finger didn't stop and the gun fired.
The muzzle flash ignited the fuel. As it lifted Lindstrom and flung him bodily to the other side of the street it combusted and engulfed him in flame. He rolled, shook, and tried to pull off his burning clothes but it was too late for him. The aviator squirmed, flailed, shared Zip's pain – then fell still.
The burst of fuel lost its intensity and fell to a trickle but it had changed the shape of the metal-decked battlefield. Now the Airhavenites were shocked and unsure, and that was all that was needed. The pirates surged out of their positions, their strength and assuredness returned, and charged. Tom, suddenly exhausted by his massive effort, wandered out dimly behind the head of the charge and collapsed next to Zip. A bullet hole had been ripped inches from the pirate's head – Lindstrom's nervous twitch had proved just enough to save Zip's life. Tom felt a grim satisfaction at saving a life as he slumped to his knees.
"Good one, toff!" yelled a passing pirate, almost-encouragingly. He was congratulating Tom for killing someone.
Tom had killed someone.
With a sudden rush, the magnitude of his burst of rage hit him. He stared at the limp corpse of Lindstrom, clothes smouldering, skin charred and peeling. The stench of burnt meat and petrol fumes wafted over the cordite stench of the battlefield. Beneath the gunshots he whispered "Oh Quirke, oh Quirke, oh Quirke..." over and over, as what he had done dawned on him.
I killed Lindstrom, he thought. All right, so he was a Mossie. And he was going to kill Zip Risky. But he was still a person. He had hopes and plans and dreams, and I put a stop to them all. He felt like a murderer, and feeling of guilt sank into him, overpowered his shattered muscles, and he slumped fully to the floor, next to the man he'd saved.
"Thanks, kid," the pirate said. Despite Zip's wheezing and pained voice he could be heard clearly enough – the sounds of gunfire and death were now far away in Airhaven. Tom recognised Zip's accent as being from the Antarctic oil traction-rigs.
"It's alright," Tom replied. It wasn't alright. The sight of Lindstrom's squirming, spasming death throes played in his mind over and over again.
"It's more than alright, mate," Zip said. "If it weren't for you nailing that Mossie bugger I'd be dead by now!" For his apparent pain, the pirate was in a good mood. Tom supposed it was his coping mechanism and tried to copy it, but no words could be pushed through his forced smile.
"Hey, kid – Tom, ain't it? – I know how you feel, mate. When I shot my first man it wasn't any easier. Hell, it was harder, cos I shot him to save my own skin. You killed one man to save another. That's a noble thing to do. 'Specially if you chose to save a pirate!" Zip laughed but it gave way to a wince of pain. Tom looked conflictedly at him in the red glow of Tunbridge Wheels' flickering fires.
Out of the yellow haze of early-hour fog stained by flame came a handful of figures. Tom squinted and recognised the silhouettes of two: Maggs' horned hairstyle was clear enough, and Peavey's fashion collision of mayoral robes and piratical bandolier was unmistakeable. The less obvious figures behind turned out to be a rabble of underdeck slaves with stretchers, and a handful of armed guards.
"Zip! Tommy!" The pirate mayor, with a flash of concern on his face, ran over. "My boys! I feared the worst for ya!" The two looked up at Peavey with grim smiles of appreciation and pain – Zip for his injury, Tom for his guilt. Somewhere behind them, one of Airhaven's gasbags ruptured with a roll of thunder.
They were about to lift Zip Risky onto the stretcher when a sound called out from down the street. "Boss – ah, your worship!" They all looked round to see a short, thick-framed figure with a shaggy black bowlcut and a round face. Tom recognised him as the councillor known as the Traktiongrad Kid. "Your worship, latest damage report from the port side. We lost twelve flotation tanks, three flak batteries, eight broadsides. And eighteen more people – fifteen deck slaves, Bugsy, Scutter, and the Stalker's girl." He turned to Tom. "Sorry, pal."
Peavey said something. Zip cried in pain as they lifted him onto the stretcher. There was another explosion from Airhaven. Tom didn't notice.
Hester was dead.
Shrike was prowling along the bed of the Sea of Khazak when he started to notice debris blotting out the feeble starlight from above. He didn't need his ultra-red sensors to notice that bodies drifted on the surface too. Was she here? He scanned, sniffed, cross-checked the bodies against his memory. Strange; some of the bodies he recognised from visitors to Strole long ago, accompanying some pirate trader he had otherwise forgotten. Most of the corpses, though, were completely foreign to him.
Shrike expelled his water ballast and sucked in air via his gills. His buoyancy increased and his armoured body, like a humanoid torpedo, rocketed from the seabed and exploded at the surface.
The water swirled with rainbow leaks of oil, some flickering with flame. Debris and flotsam drifted around and away. The stalker made a single stroke and arrived alongside the girl.
His daughter, his child, was battered, blood streaming from cuts and lacerations across her body. Her rust hair was patchy and smelt of water-doused burning. Her skin was ruby and brown, charred by the heat of a rocket explosion. Her old scar had reopened and oozed black blood; her remaining eye was almost swollen shut.
"Shrike?" Her words were the whisper of morning waves, delicate and fragile ripples.
"I AM HERE, HESTER," he replied ,as softly as his grating voice could muster.
"Help... me, Shrike... please..."
"DO NOT FEAR, HESTER. YOU ARE SAFE NOW."
"I'm... I think... I'm dying, Shrike... it hurts..."
"IT IS NOT EASY," he said, as the water slapped around them. "BUT DO NOT FEAR. I AM HERE FOR YOU. I WILL BE THERE WHEN YOU WAKE UP." He put his arms around her. The water softened his metal embrace though she still squirmed as he touched he burnt skin. His grip secure, be began to gently paddle backwards with his feet, taking her in his arms to the distant shore.
"Where is T...?"
"I DO NOT KNOW. BUT I HAVE TO FIND HIM AND KILL HIM."
"No...!" her voice was nothing more than a gossamer whisper.
"IT IS MY DEAL WITH CROME. NATSWORTHY WILL DIE AND YOU SHALL BE REBUILT IN STEEL, STRONG AND BEAUTIFUL. TOGETHER WE SHALL HUNT DOWN VALENTINE."
"Please, Shrike... he doesn't... deserve... just lie... say Tom... drowned... plea –"
A wave of water sloshed up and splashed over her face. Hester coughed, the last of her energy convulsing as she tried to spit out the water.
Shrike considered but looking at the only thing he had ever loved in such pain, he knew there could only be one answer. "FOR YOU, HESTER, THOMAS NATSWORTHY WILL LIVE." Anything for the stalker's daughter.
Hester didn't say anything. She was fading, falling limp. The flicker in her eye was dying and Shrike needed none of his sensory augments to know Hester was about to die. It was the first time the death of anyone had ever caused the wizened stalker any flash of emotion. In the few wisps of flesh that ran through his body, the ache of loss and misery churned.
But for all his grief, he had another un-stalkerish feeling, too: hope. Because Hester was about to become a twice-born, and finally, finally end his millennial loneliness.
He increased his pace, holding Hester's body tight and close, and set out for London.