Illumination 8.1: Going Forth

“Jehane, I’ve found something,” said Elian, excitement threading through his voice. Seth and Ajax both froze, staring intently at her. All three of them sat around a table in the dining hall. Jehane was starting to feel like she had two tigers on a leash.

“Go on.” She hoped she sounded calm. Elian knew, of course, every hope they’d discussed, but he’d been reticent on whether he intended to help them so far.

“I figured out a way to tell if the Absolute Focus Field Generator reactivated without requiring a Nightlight to pass through the portal.”

Intrigued, Jehane asked, “How?”

Ajax said, “Does ‘how’ matter? Did you detect a field?”

“Yes. But I can’t tell who’s out there the same way Jehane can.”

Ajax leapt to his feet, grabbing Jehane by the arm and pulling her after him as he headed for the Portalry. Seth followed, slowly.

“But I was thinking that maybe if Jehane used her anima on the stuff you found, the agilica, I could channel her sense out through my own sensors, and we could scan to see what’s out there without putting anybody at risk.” Elian’s voice followed them through the hall.

“Hah. Of course,” said Ajax.

Jehane kicked him in the shin. “I can walk myself, thank you so much.”

He released her with a perfunctory, “Sorry. We don’t want to miss an opportunity, though.”

In the Portalry, one of the frames was rimmed with light but not fully open. A cloud of motes surrounded what looked very much like a lump of clay attached to the frame itself. Jehane hesitated. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Start by projecting your anima into it, just like you’re working a stage 1 weapon. I think I can act as a sort of lens.”

Jehane reached out for the lump of clay. “Is it my anima I listen with? I never thought so.”

“It’s not your ears, that’s for sure.”

Her fingers penetrated the cloud of motes and sank into the clay. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, seamlessly, the shadow music of a city rose around her. And right outside—

“It’s Natalie!” She frowned. It was very much like Natalie, but not quite the shadow music she remembered. “It’s strange.”

Ajax stalked to the gate. “Elian, open the gate all the way.”

Elian said, “Um. This is a bad idea.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Why were we doing this then? For some technical jollies? Open the goddamned portal, Elian, or, I swear to God, this whole Tower is going to regret it.”

Ajax’s eyes were bright, almost fevered, and his body was as taut as a bowstring. Jehane stared at him for a moment, then looked around for Seth. He was standing almost exactly behind her, and he was looking at the portal too, his face utterly blank.

“Go ahead and open it, Elian,” she said.

“You’re going to get into trouble! I could contact Kwan right now, we could explain, it could be homework.”

Ajax’s intensity was catching, Jehane thought. “She could be gone by the time we get to the other side. We’ll cope. Please, open it.”

Elian grumbled something and the portal sprang to full functionality. Ajax vanished through it as soon as it yielded to him. Jehane looked at Seth again. Now, he was grinning again. “What am I going to do, Jehane?”

She shook her head, and darted through the portal after Ajax. Scant seconds after her feet crunched on snow, Seth’s hand caught her around her waist as he appeared behind her and crouched down.

It was cold in the city beyond the portal. Jehane hadn’t even looked to see what portal it was, but it was clear almost immediately that they weren’t prepared for the weather, let alone whatever situation they’d leapt into. The square they’d emerged in was large and snow-covered; it was late at night and only a few people moved on the edges of the grand plaza. Bits of snow filled the air, and Jehane wasn’t sure if it was actually snowing, or just fallen snow kicked up by the icy wind.

Ajax looked around wildly, then grabbed Jehane again. “Where is she?”

She wrenched her arm away. “I’m here to help, but I am not a dog, Ajax. Please stop it.” She didn’t wait for another unfelt apology, but paced a few steps away and focused on the shadow music. More and more, she became sure that it wasn’t actually Natalie she heard, or at least not a Natalie she wanted to find. And Natalie wasn’t the only familiar shadow music: she could hear the twang of Tainter and the heart-tugging windsong of Malachi.

She shivered. It was dangerous here, in so many different ways.

“I think maybe we should go back.”

Ajax drew in a ragged breath and tucked his hands behind his back. “Is Natalie here or not? What did you sense?”

Frustrated, Jehane waved a hand. “If I try to explain, you’ll only misunderstand.”

Ajax narrowed his eyes. “I’m doing my best. Give me some credit back, yeah?”

“I am,” Jehane said bitterly. “I have watched you. The song I hear is not—”

She stopped. A shape slunk out from behind a closed-up information kiosk, the shape associated with the not-Natalie song. It was long and low, with a twitching tail and long whiskers and four padded feet that carried it over the surface of the snow. Its fur was the color of the snowy night. It almost looked like a natural creature, at first. Then it sat down and wrapped its tail around its front feet, opening its eyes wide.

They were Natalie’s hazel eyes, shaped and set as any human eyes. And when it spoke, humanoid teeth flashed. “You came, just as she thought you would.”

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