We broke into a run, exhaustion momentarily forgotten, our feet sending up puffs of black dust. A minute later when we stopped for breath, the view had cleared. A shroud of greenish mist hung over the chasm. Looming faintly beyond was a long wall of white stone, and beyond that, a high pale tower, the top of which was lost among low clouds.
That was it: the wights’ fortress. There was an unsettling blankness about it, like a face with its features wiped clean. There was a wrongness about its placement, too—its great white edifice and clean lines contrasting bizarrely with the burned-over waste of Smoking Street, like a suburban shopping center plopped in the midst of the Battle of Agincourt. Just looking at it charged me with dread and purpose, as if I could feel all the disparate strands of my silly and scattered life converging toward a single point, unseen behind those walls. That’s where it was: the thing I was supposed to do—or die trying. The debt I had to pay. The thing for which all the joys and terrors of my life thus far had been a prelude. If everything happens for a reason, my reason was on the other side.
Beside me, Emma was laughing. I gave her a baffled look and she composed herself.
“That’s where they’ve been hiding?” she said by way of explanation.
“It would seem so,” Addison said. “Do you find that humorous?”
“Nearly all my life I’ve hated and feared the wights. Across all those years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve imagined the moment we’d finally find their lair, their den. I’d expected at the very least a foreboding castle. Walls dripping with blood. A lake of boiling oil. But no.”
“So you’re disappointed?” I said.
“I am, a bit.” She pointed accusingly at the fortress. “Is that the best they can do?”
“I’m disappointed, too,” said Addison. “I hoped at least we’d have an army alongside us. But from the looks of it, perhaps we won’t need one.”
“I doubt that,” I said. “Anything could be waiting for us on the other side of that wall.”
“Then we’ll be ready for anything,” Emma said. “What could they throw at us that we haven’t faced already? We’ve survived bullets, bombing, hollow attacks.… The point is, we’re finally here, and after all these years of them ambushing us, we’re finally bringing some fight to them.”
“I’m sure they’re quaking in their boots,” I said.
“I’m going to find Caul,” Emma went on. “I’m going to find him and make him weep for his mother. I’m going to make him beg for his worthless life, and then I’m going to put both hands around his neck and squeeze until his head melts off …”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said. “I’m sure there’s a lot standing between us and him. There’ll be wights everywhere. And armed guards probably.”
“Maybe even hollows,” Addison said.
“Definitely hollows,” said Emma. She sounded vaguely excited by the idea.
“Point being,” I said, “I don’t think we should storm the gates without knowing more about what’s waiting for us on the other side. We may only have one chance at this, and I don’t want to throw it away.”
“Okay,” said Emma. “What do you suggest?”
“That we find a way to sneak Addison inside. He’s the least likely to be noticed, small enough to hide almost anywhere, and he’s got the best nose. He could do recon, then sneak out again and tell us what he found. That is, if he’s up for it.”
“And if I don’t return?” said Addison.
“Then we’ll come after you,” I said.
The dog took a moment to consider—but only a moment. “I accept, on one condition.”
“Name it,” I said.
“In the tales that are told about us after our victory, I should like to be known as Addison the Intrepid.”
“And so you shall,” said Emma.
“Make that Extremely Intrepid,” Addison said. “And handsome.”
“Done,” I said.
“Excellent,” said Addison. “Time to have at it, then. Nearly everyone we care about in the world is on the other side of that bridge. Every minute I spend on this side is a minute wasted.”
We would accompany Addison as far as the bridge, then wait nearby for his return. We began to jog downhill, the going easy, the shantytown around us growing denser as we advanced. The gaps between shacks closed until none remained, the whole of it blurring past in an unbroken patchwork of rust-eaten metal. Then abruptly the shacks and lean-tos came to an end, and for a hundred yards Smoking Street returned to a wilderness of caved walls and blackened timbers—a buffer zone of sorts, perhaps enforced by the wights. At last we came to the bridge, the mouth of it bearded by a scrum of people, a few dozen in all. While we were still too far away to register the state of their clothes, Addison said, “Look, an encamped army laying siege to the fortress! I knew we wouldn’t be the only ones to take up the fight …”
Upon closer inspection, however, these were anything but soldiers. With a disappointed humph Addison’s bright little hope winked out.
“They’re not laying siege,” I said. “They’re just … laying.”
The wretchedest shantytowners we’d seen yet, they were slumped in the ashes, arranged in postures of such listless torpor that for a moment I mistook even the ones who were sitting upright for dead. Their hair and bodies were blacked with ash and grease, and their faces so afflicted with pits and scars that I wondered if they were lepers. As we picked our way between them a few looked up weakly, but if they were waiting for something, it wasn’t us, and their heads slumped down again. The only one standing was a boy in a flap-eared hunting cap who prowled between the sleepers, rifling their pockets. Those he woke swatted at him but didn’t bother giving chase. They had nothing worth stealing anyway.