Illumination 10.2: The Kindness of Strangers

Seth started his search at the open market nearest to the outer barricade, where people were still going through the motions of daily life despite the alien portal occasionally visible through gaps in the buildings. People still needed to eat, after all. Life went on.

The market was very crowded, even though some stalls looked abandoned. Off-duty soldiers congregated at corners, and refugees clung to the stalls of friends and family to tell stories of what they’d escaped on the other side of the wall.

The latter were what Seth had come to the market to find. He had no expectation of finding Natalie herself in such a well-protected and populated region. But Natalie always stood out in a crowd, and she’d stand out even more in a world of monsters. If she was on the other side of the barricade, somebody would have noticed.

A whole mythology around the portal had sprung up, though. Seth heard about a devil drinking down all the bars beyond the barricade, and the Duke of Hell and the Consort of Hell and the King of Hell himself recruiting for their infernal domain. And he heard about why some people were remaining behind the barricade, or returning after picking up supplies from the market. It was a test from God, one they must endure. And they knew they were meant to endure it, because alongside the devils was the Lady, sent by Heaven to protect them.

Seth insinuated himself into some of these discussions, asking questions here and there. The Lady didn’t speak, which made sense; Natalie hadn’t studied Spanish. The Lady appeared and disappeared; she didn’t eat or drink, but only killed monsters. She was a ghost, she was a wraith, she was a lost soul trying to make up for something she couldn’t forgive herself for.

The last came from an older man, tall and with accented Spanish. He noticed Seth listening on the edge of the group, his gaze lingering on him.

Being noticed wasn’t part of Seth’s plan, so he ducked away and continued down the market. But the man followed him. “Boy,” he called, in English as accented as his Spanish. “I recognize you, boy.”

Seth stopped and let the man catch up. He walked with a limp, and he had a fresh cut on his face. “I’ve never seen you before.”

“Ah, but I have seen the other one myself. The Lady. You look like her. I thought she was only human, and now I know. Just a girl, confused and angry. You are looking for her, yes?”

“Well, yeah,” said Seth, giving the man a wary look. He wasn’t used to this.

“I have encountered her,” said the man calmly, brushing his fingers across the wound on his face. “So has a family of my acquaintance. When I left them, she was sleeping on a blanket in their home.”

Seth’s hand flew out to grip the man’s arm. “Where?”

“I will take you there,” the man said. He hesitated, then said, “Boy, do you know what she has gone through?”

Seth blinked again. “Do you?”

“I have seen her eyes,” the man said gravely, as if this meant everything. Seth relaxed.

“If you get me to her, I’ll take care of her.”

“We will see,” he said, but he guided Seth down a narrow alley and through a crevice between two buildings, and down another alley, and so they made it into what might as well have been the first circle of hell. The man passed apartment buildings and abandoned storefronts, until he came to a collection of buildings that looked so poorly constructed that they should have fallen down in a stiff wind. Fortunately, they were all leaning on each other already. At a door of rust-red, Seth’s guide knocked.

The door was immediately opened by a young woman holding a baby. She frowned at the man before looking at Seth. Then she sighed and said, “She has already left.”

Seth was too cynical to be surprised. “When? Which direction did she go?”

“An hour ago?” the woman said, waving her free hand vaguely. “She woke from a nightmare, and the nightmare chased her away from us. I was not surprised. She was not meant to rest.”

Seth frowned and peered over the woman’s shoulder. The house seemed completely clean of Awakened, and he wondered if the woman meant that nightmares had literally chased her away.

“She had her holy sword out,” the woman volunteered. “Who are you?”

“I’m her brother,” said Seth, flashing a grin.

The woman recoiled and the older man put out a hand to steady her. “It’s as I told you. She may be chosen but she is only mortal.”

“What direction did she go?” Seth repeated, his smile fading.

The woman pointed over Seth’s shoulder. He nodded at the man, then turned and took off jogging in the indicated direction.

They’d played Hide and Seek when they were younger. He’d always preferred to hide and let her do the seeking. But he knew his sister. She wouldn’t stay someplace safe when there were people in danger. She would always fight, as long as she could. She wasn’t just his sister, she was everybody’s elder sister. He’d always teased her about that. So it wasn’t the direction that mattered as much as looking for the trail she left behind, and listening for the sounds of a fight.

But there was nothing: no monsters, no people. And given all the abandoned buildings around, finding her without any trail was like looking for a needle in a haystack. He couldn’t even call her name, not if what the bird cambion had said was true: She hides from the name she had before.

He needed Jehane. But he didn’t have Jehane, so he went for the next best thing: height. He cut the lock off the nearest tall building and ran up the internal stairs, scrambling up through a trapdoor to the roof. Then he laid down near the edge and looked down.

There. Movement in a half-collapsed shack. The source was unclear, but the area just outside the shack positively swarmed with Awakened. And in the center of them sat a familiar big-pawed cat, looking around with Natalie’s eyes.

He barely remembered his descent from the building. When he arrived at the ruined shack, many of the Awakened had vanished. But the cat still sat there. He looked at it warily, and it yawned at him then paced away. “She won’t see you,” it remarked. “She isn’t seeing anybody. She’s busy. But you’re welcome to make the effort. Maybe she’ll make up her mind.”

“About what?” Seth called after the cat.

It vanished behind a wrecked car, but its voice drifted back. “About who she is.”

There was a clatter from within the shack. The front half of the building had collapsed into a pile of rotten timbers and rusted metal, leaving the back half of the building fully open. Seth edged around the side, until he could see within.

Natalie was crouched on her heels. She stared intently at the anima weapon in her hand, while her other hand moved. She seemed to be coated in shadowy cobwebs, and as Seth watched, she twisted the cobwebs around her free hand and began to shape an Awakened, never once removing her gaze from her weapon. She had a long, raw cut on her face, from her eye to her chin.

Seth leaned on the broken edge of the wall. “That looks sticky,” he offered.

Her head jerked up. She stared at him, wild-eyed. Then she said, “No!” and flung the half-formed Awakened at him, before fleeing across the urban wasteland.

 

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