Illumination 8.2: This Is Bad

Jehane stared at the cat-shaped Cambion with Natalie’s eyes. It placed one gigantic paw very carefully in front of the next as it walked across the surface of the snow, barely leaving footprints behind.

“What is that?” Ajax demanded. “Where is Natalie?” He held out his hand and his scythe appeared with a bell-like tone that wasn’t just shadow music.

That was bad. It was even worse than the Cambion itself, because Jehane could feel Malachi getting closer. She wondered if he could sense her the way she sensed him. She wondered if he could sense the others.

Seth’s hands twitched, and he smiled and tucked them behind his back as he bounced on his toes. That was bad, too. He was going to do something but she couldn’t tell what.

“Jehane! Where is Natalie?”

The Cambion said, “Not in this world. I can only feel her distantly. But she thought of her friends as I was born. How far they were from her. How they couldn’t help her.” The cat smiled a human smile that was a reflection of Seth’s. “How they wouldn’t. But she very much wanted to be together again with her friends. So I’m here, on her mission.”

Ajax seemed to stop breathing. “No.”

Jehane said quickly, “She’s alive, cat?”

“Oh yes. She could not bleed to tell you, so she bore me instead. She is alive.”

Seth said, “But broken.”

The cat stretched in a long, lazy shrug, then padded toward them again. Its tail twitched and its head lowered in a predatory way. When Ajax shifted his grip on his scythe, his stance moving, the cat paused and smiled again.

Jehane grabbed Ajax’s arm. “No—”

Ajax moved violently, throwing her off him so hard that she fell back into the snow, without even looking at her.

Seth darted forward. “Not okay, man.”

“Seth, maybe if we kill it, she’ll come back to herself.” Ajax’s voice was hoarse.

Jehane remembered Valeria describing her own experience teetering on the edge. “If that’s true, I think she has to kill it herself, Ajax.”

Ajax didn’t respond, his gaze fixed on the cat now pacing a perimeter around them.

“Seth, we need to take Ajax and go back. We need to go back now. This is going to be bad.”

Seth watched Ajax. “Mom’s experience was when she was right on the edge. If Natalie’s gone over, do you think she can really come back again?” He actually sounded uncertain.

Jehane fumbled in her pocket for the latchkey. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not just us here!”

“That’s true,” said Malachi. He seemed to materialize from the darkness near the side of one of the grand facades lining the plaza. “I suppose Hatherly will be pleased to see you, creature. Finish your prey and come back with me.”

Even Ajax looked away from the pacing cat at the Echthros. Jehane said, “Malachi…” and took a few steps toward him before she caught herself. He looked at her, his gaze sharpening. His weapon appeared in one hand but his other hand lifted as if he wanted to pull her across the yards between them.

The cat gazed at Malachi. “The Ashlander would not be pleased to see me, o Void. I am in earnest on this.” It looked between Malachi and Jehane. “O, the distance. The vastness. The yearning. I see myself, I do, I do.” It coughed like laughter.

Then everybody moved at once: Seth toward Ajax, Ajax toward the cat, and Malachi away from Jehane. And the cat moved, too, quicker than all of them. It slammed into Jehane at an angle, carrying her into Malachi.

Something crackled, and redness flared all around them.

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