Illumination 3.6: Motes, Shivering Alone

The sound of rushing water filled Jehane’s room, with both her sink and bath faucets running at full. It was a poor insulation against the roaring cacophony that battered the Tower, but it was significantly better than putting her head under the covers.

Nightfall was always hard for Jehane; she could sense the aggressive wildlife in the same way she could sense both people and Awakened. Emotions were always high during Nightfall, making the usual music of the Tower strident and threatening. And to top it off, the storms seemed to serve as an amplifier for the shadow music. It left her with a headache no painkiller could touch.

Her gaze moved across her room, pausing on each of the digital windows projected by Kentigern’s motes. Instead of showing a local view, each one displayed a video loop of landscapes from Earth: a forest grotto, a night meadow, and a rustic village street. They’d been selected by Kentigern when she moved into the room, and she’d never bothered to change them.

There wasn’t much in the room that really felt like it belonged to her. A few mirrors. A magnifying glass on a stand. A stuffed monster and a battered doll. A collection of hats she never wore. Her clothes. She read a lot, but almost exclusively on tablets.

A twilight proxy, one of the decoy dolls that Seth had wanted her to learn to track, sat all alone on a shelf beside her bed. Its creepy little song was a nasty undercurrent to the dissonance all around her. She stared at it for a while as she rode the waves of pain. There was something strange in its music, and she could almost identify it—

—something to do with Kentigern?

Kentigern said, “No!” One by one, the motes maintaining her digital windows abandoned that task and flew to the twilight proxy. The thin, reedy song of the decoy changed, becoming much closer to the song of an Awakened.

The thing expanded, sliding off the shelf to the floor as it grew. It developed gangly limbs and a blank face, with metal extrusions, like a giant rag doll with too-large spikes for a skeleton.

Jehane lay very still, watching as it unfolded and swung its arms around. It was far more humanoid than the Awakened she’d grown up beside, but otherwise it felt just like old times. She made her mind as smooth as polished metal, and when it probed the room, it didn’t see her as prey.

She wondered if she could befriend it, as she’d befriended an Awakened as a child. It whipped its arms around, knocking over her magnifying glass and a mirror. Then it moved to the door, fumbling at the latch. It was determined to find something to fight.

Slowly, she stood up. It was between her and the only way out. She stepped lightly behind it, then chirped, letting the smoothness of her mind evaporate.

The featureless head swung around, spiked palms flying through the air. But she was ready. She was faster. She swung at it, her stage 2 weapon flickering into existence a few inches from the monster, slicing into it on a bias right in the middle of the torso. It was always best, she thought clinically, to separate the upper half from the lower half. Even if being cut in half didn’t stop the nightmare, it made it a lot harder for it to chase you.

But this time, bisection seemed to be enough. Even before her weapon had flickered out, the twilight proxy had collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

She opened the door. A cool breeze wafted in from the hall outside, carrying the scent of burnt ozone and the land outside the tower. Shaking her head, she kicked the remains of the monster into the hall, then stepped out over them, closing her door behind her.

Her monster remains weren’t the only mess on the floor. As she wandered down the hall, she came across several other piles of gangly rag-doll limbs. One of them had been burned. Several of the walls had been taken apart and not repaired, too.

“Kentigern?” Jehane said tentatively. She heard the shift in the background hum that suggested Kentigern was about to speak, but he didn’t.

Down one hall, she thought she heard Seth arguing with somebody. She hesitated, but decided not to find him. Seth wasn’t the right person for this.

She encountered Elian at another intersection, standing in a position of attention, holding what looked like an axe with a long thin blade on one side, and a spike on the other side.

“Elian!” she said, surprised. “Is that…?”

“Stage 3,” he grinned. “Stable, too. Comes the time comes the man, I guess. I’ve been guarding this passage. That way leads to the outer curtain. Stuff sometimes shows up. Hey, you’re not going to fight, are you?” And he gave her that look she was so used to.

“I don’t know. Not at the curtain, though. Would you come with me, to help me if something attacks?”

Elian’s thin chest puffed out. “Of course. Where are you going?”

“Kentigern’s core.”

The lounge surrounding Kentigern’s core was still disordered. Somebody had made a token effort to restore the furniture tumbled over by the Cambion’s attack, but the walls were still damaged and swarming with motes. Upstairs, there was the distant murmur of voices from the Reader Carta Lab, but Jehane wasn’t interested in that.

“Kentigern,” she said. The motes paused their frantic activity, as if listening. “You’ve been activating machines.”

“So I’ve been told,” said Kentigern, a brooding note in his voice.

“You’re defending yourself against us. And talking about Lailoken,” said Elian worriedly.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, poor Kentigern,” said Jehane. “That Cambion damaged you so much.”

The motes all shivered in unison. “It isn’t just that, I’m afraid,” Kentigern said slowly. “I am very old. Very, very old. All of the towers have decayed over time. I was crazed when I found humanity. Crazed and alien. That old damage has never really been repaired, just patched. But even patches wear through.”

The mote shivered again. “The other towers are sleeping now. It was work to get them there. But it’s a good thing. They haven’t been through as much as me now. Maybe one of them can wake and accept you. It won’t be long now, before I shut down for good.”

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