Illumination 9.9: Jehane and the Void (double length!)

“You lied about knowing Malachi, didn’t you?” Kwan had asked her, as they waited for a car.

“Everybody lies,” Jehane had said.

The teacher didn’t argue. “I just want to understand why.”

“Because we have something in common,” she said, and Kwan had raised his eyebrows. That was a teacher for you, never willing to accept an answer. “I don’t know what. Maybe we spoke the same language before we were born. I can feel it when I’m with him.”

The teacher opened his mouth to argue with her, be reasonable at her, and she didn’t let him. “I thought he’d come and find me before this. I thought he’d deal with things and get away. And he hasn’t. I don’t know everything. But I do know, after we open the emergence point, I’m going to find him and… I’m going to make sure nobody else has to fight him. Somehow. We have something in common, and I owe him that.”

Now, as she clambered across a landscape that looked more like a war zone than a living city, she remembered the conversation. She had to find out why he hadn’t left Hatherly, and she had to solve it.

She watched the bird drift ahead of her, and wondered what part of him it represented. It seemed to shed feathers constantly, with new ones growing to take their place, in a wide variety of colors. She picked up one of the crimson feathers and it melted in her hand, nothing but a dream of color. It didn’t look back at her as she followed it, instead looking around with a keen but quiet interest. But it never got too far ahead.

She passed other people, but not many, and monsters fled before the Cambion, so that all she had to do was navigate around the shanties and the crumbling apartments, the burned out cars and the furniture abandoned in the streets. Oh, and the bodies.

She tried not to look at the bodies. She tried not to think about closing the gate, removing the source of monsters. She tried not to think about the distant sound of gunfire. All she wanted to do was deal with Malachi.

Finally, the rainbow bird settled on top of a ragged building with a broken window still displaying half of a bottle of beer. When she pushed the door open, it crunched over the debris on the floor. Malachi sat at a table, many glasses in front of him. An old man stood behind the bar. Malachi had his sword held loosely in one hand, and there was a big and shiny gun on the counter. The old man stood as far from the gun as he could. His eyes widened as Jehane stood in the doorframe.

“Go away, girl,” he said urgently. “The devil drinks here.”

Malachi’s head was on his chest, like he was asleep, but he pointed the sword at the old man. “I wish I could be the devil.” Then the sword turned unerringly to point at Jehane. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” Jehane picked her way toward his table. It was one of the few tables remaining in the bar, and the wreckage of the others made the floor dangerous to navigate.

He raised his head. He was unshaven and dirty, with bloodshot eyes. “Find Natalie. There’s hope for Natalie.” His voice was flat and empty.

“Why are you sitting here drinking?”

Instead of answering, he narrowed his eyes. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen,” she said. The Tower records had said he was twenty, just barely twenty when Emily had died. She felt embarrassed and off-center by his question.

He transferred his baleful gaze to the bartender. “Give her a drink.”

The bartender ducked his head. “Yes, sir.” He poured amber liquid into a glass, then absently drank from the bottle himself before scurrying around the bar to put the glass in Jehane’s hands. As he did, he whispered, “He is bound here until I run out of alcohol. I challenged him. I challenged the devil, to keep the devil here.” There was a terrified pride in the old man’s face. “But I am sorry you have been pulled in, too. God keep you, child.”

He retreated behind the bar again. Malachi kicked the other chair at his table out. “Sit down.”

Still off-balance, wondering at the bartender’s words, she said, “I don’t want to drink. I want to talk to you.”

He gave her a scornful look, and she suddenly felt the lightness of all her fifteen years. So few of them had been lived as a normal girl. He could read everything about her, but she knew nothing about him, despite what she’d told Kwan. Anything they had in common had drowned long ago. She wanted to run away and cry.

He kicked the chair he’d offered her again, this time so hard that it broke, and she felt bad for not just sitting down. She felt like such a child, and this was not the encounter she’d imagined. It hadn’t smelled as bad in her imagination.

“I thought you were going to come back to me,” she finally got out. “I thought you wanted to see me again.” And she quivered inside, waiting for him to laugh at her.

Instead he took a drink and said, “How could I do that when Hatherly and his alpha dog own my soul? A little dog may bark at the moon but it doesn’t mean he’s free.”

“They don’t,” she burst out. “You’re here, instead of out doing whatever they want. They’ve seen Tainter with the monsters, encouraging them, and you’re not doing that, you’re not chasing down Natalie—”

“But I’ve taken you out of the picture, haven’t I?” he said softly. “The one person who could track him down wherever he hides. All he has to do is whistle when he needs me.”

That hurt. That hurt a lot, and despite her best efforts, tears sprang to her eyes. “Is this all just a trap?” He just stared at her, his thick eyebrows drawn together.

Jehane scrubbed at her eyes. She hadn’t come here to just talk to him, anyhow. Talking wasn’t what she was good at. She’d come to take him out of Hatherly’s arsenal, any way she could. She walked over to him, setting the drink she still carried down beside the empty glasses. He didn’t seem as drunk as the number of glasses suggested, and she wondered if the bartender was watering the drinks. “Get up. Come with me.”

He picked up her drink, looked at it, and drank it. “Jehane,” he said, as he’d said her name once before. “I wish I could.” Then, unexpectedly, he pulled her into his lap and wrapped his arms around her. As he buried his face in her neck and hair, he said, “Let’s just stay like this until there’s nothing left.”

He definitely smelled, but it wasn’t all bad. She sat stiffly on his lap, resisting the part of her that wanted to melt against him, to kiss him again and see what happened next.

“Why,” she managed, “why did you tell us to find Natalie if you think it’s all going to end?”

“Nobody should face the end alone,” he murmured. His words against her neck tickled interestingly.

“But you weren’t going to come find me,” she said, plaintively.

He pulled his face against from her neck. “I’m nobody.”

She shifted and put his face between her hands. “I was nobody once, too.” Then, regretfully, she slid off his lap. He let her go, but she realized his Cambion, the rainbow bird, occupied the door. One way or another, they weren’t going to let her leave.

She studied the Cambion again. It must have been born around the time Emily died. She wondered if its continuing existence was why he couldn’t leave Hatherly. It seemed strong and beautiful and free, but maybe what it had been made from was his own freedom.

Perhaps there was some way to give what the Cambion had taken back. Jehane remembered Valeria talking about her own brush with falling, and how she’d reclaimed herself by killing her creation. Jehane didn’t think that Malachi would kill his bird— perhaps he couldn’t, if he’d given it what she thought— but maybe if she destroyed it, he would be whole again.

She listened for the chord of her weapon, twisted her hand, and made it appear. Malachi leaned back in his chair and said, a touch of sadness in his voice, “Are you going to kill me?”

Jehane ignored him and advanced on the Cambion. It tilted its head and made a soft trilling noise, but made no move to fight her.

She hesitated. Except when she’d attacked Seth— and she hadn’t been entirely in her right mind then— she’d never started any successful fight by attacking. She knew how to defend herself, but if the enemy didn’t attack, she was lost. That was unfair.

She circled to one side, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Malachi put his arm over his face, as if he had no interest in what happened, and a mild headache to boot. Then she looked at the bird again, which still wasn’t interested in fighting her.

She scowled. Then she made her weapon vanish, stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around the bird’s neck. It trilled again. “Sweet girl,” it said gently.

“Why don’t you go back into him?” she asked it. In response, it only rubbed its beak on her cheek. But she felt better, somehow. Malachi was all screwed up, but the manifestation of his disturbance seemed to have its head on straight, and it thought she was a sweet girl. Even in the mental ward of her childhood, she’d gotten along better with some of the monsters than the people.

She moved back to Malachi’s table. “I still want to hear about Emily.”

He dropped his arm and hunched up. “She’s dead.”

Recklessly, she said, “If you won’t tell me, I’ll ask Tainter. I’ll ask Hatherly.”

He straightened up, as if she’d struck a nerve. “No, you won’t. You’re not going near them.”

“How are you going to stop me? Sitting there, full of self-pity?”

He stood up, knocking his chair over, and his sword appeared in his hand again. “I should have killed her in the beginning rather than let what happened to her happen. I won’t let it happen to you.”

Now what, clever girl? She was pretty sure that if he wasn’t too drunk to stand, there was no way she could win a fight against him. She wasn’t strong like Ajax, and she wasn’t skilled like Natalie and Seth, and Malachi was better than her in both ways.

He advanced toward her, and she backed away. If his reflexes had been slowed down, she thought she could at least stay away from him. The Cambion was watching both of them carefully, still blocking the exit. If only she knew the words to use. If only she could think of anything that would reach him. So many ifs….

Instead, she avoided him, doing her best to use her awareness of him to stay well beyond his reach on the cluttered floor. He stalked her rather than struck at her, in no hurry to reach her, his gaze focused intently on her.

Eventually, she realized that he’d maneuvered her so that her back was to the bar, near where the shiny big gun was. It didn’t belong in a bar; it looked like something left behind by a soldier. And there it was, right there, right to hand, and now he was pressing her. From somewhere behind her, the bartender said something, but all she caught was “The devil, the devil, he brought the gun—”

Jehane listened, understood, and laughed breathlessly. Malachi swung at her, but he was slow, lacking the speed of the absolute focus field, and slowed further by the watered drinks. Jehane ducked under the blade and let her own weapon vanish. Then she stepped close to him and caught the hand that held his weapon. She slid her fingers under the weapon against his palm until they were interlaced with his and there was no room for the sword. It faded away. “No,” she said firmly. “I won’t shoot you, and you won’t kill me.”

Suddenly his weight pressed her into the bar. “You’re right,” he breathed, his dark head bowing so it touched hers. “I won’t. I couldn’t then, until the end, and now all I can do is hope I die first.”

“You?” she whispered. “You killed Emily?” Horror mixed with compassion in a black cocktail.

“In the end,” he repeated. “They wouldn’t let her die.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “She’s dead. I didn’t kill her the first time they gave me the chance, so they hurt her. He hurt her so much. She was crying, and she wanted me to save her, but all I could do was kill her.” He added, in a low voice, “And I was happy I could do that for her, before… before she went the other way.”

Jehane squeezed his hand. “Don’t think about it. You’ve thought about it too much. Try to think of her before.” She hesitated, then added, “That’s what I’d like to hear about.”

He pulled his head back and looked at her blankly. “Before? She’s dead. There’s nothing left. She’s dead.”

Jehane sighed, and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, Malachi. She had a whole life, a lot of it spent with you. Before she died, she lived.”

He stared at her, his eyes wide with shock.

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