Illumination 10.4: How We Win

As Malachi stared at Jehane, the cambion bird blocking the door squawked, then warned, “They come,” as it hopped away from the door. A moment later, three figures moved through the door: Tainter, the wolverine cambion he called Rend, and Aya. The wolverine snarled at the bird, who looked away.

Jehane’s stomach dropped out through her feet. She felt like once again she’d been so close to getting things right.

Aya put a hand on her hip. “She’s not who we’re looking for, Malachi.” The bartender muttered something and grabbed at the gun on the bar. It clattered onto the ground behind the bar, and he ducked after it.

“Oh, my sweet,” said Tainter. “Mal has a special relationship with this bit of meat. She makes him all tingly. Doesn’t she, Mal? Have you been amusing yourself with her again? She doesn’t look as durable as your last bit. But I know she makes you rambunctious. We could play a game. Which one of us will kill her first? Aya can be the judge.”

Aya drifted over to the bar. “I’ve found another toy.” She peered over the bar, then reached over and pulled up first the gun, which she tossed into a corner, and then the bartender. “A wise old man. Maybe he can give me advice.”

Malachi reached out and pulled Jehane behind him. “You’re not going to touch her.” It was just like last time, except that it was suddenly a lot harder to run away. They were cornered.

“Oh, but I will. Sit down, my boy, if you’re not going to play my game. Remember how your Emily didn’t die? I think I still have a bit of her back home.” Malachi gasped and shuddered, and Tainter continued, “You aren’t strong enough. You’ve never been strong enough.” He fidgeted with a tiny device attached to his belt, like a second buckle. “Miss Emily was your strength before, and we took that apart. Very educational, I have to say. Do you remember her cambion calling your name?”

Jehane stepped around Malachi and placed herself between them. “I’m strong enough.” She wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t, she cried all the time— but she was used to dealing with monsters. She’d always been dealing with monsters. Her earliest memory was of a monster attached to the woman who cared for her, and how it grew bigger when she looked at it. Tainter was much more of a monster than that one had been: everything like a human, but blackened, feeding on withered bonds, the real devil.

But she wasn’t going to let him hurt Malachi any more. Maybe her entire childhood had been in preparation for this.

Tainter looked at her. “Nah, you’re not strong enough either.”

Jehane stared at him, listening intently to his shadow music. She realized, listening to the twang of it, that he was alone. Aya had arrived with him, but their music didn’t intermingle. He had no connections to anybody else that were not black, dark notes; nobody would mourn him.

She wasn’t alone. Even at her darkest moments as she struggled to rise past her handicaps and escape her solitary Tower room into a world of light and life beyond, she hadn’t been alone. Not since Malachi had come to the children’s ward, and maybe not before, either.

The realization made her fear of Tainter melt almost entirely away. She still wanted to live, oh yes— but in Seth and his family, and in Ajax, and above all in endless Elian, she would. And in Malachi—

But Malachi wouldn’t remember the Emily who had lived and laughed, only the Emily who was dead, a bleeding corpse. Tainter was doing his best to obscure the good memories with the bad, to destroy every connection Malachi had with what he once was.

“I am,” she said. “I’ve got something you don’t.” She half-turned to Malachi, who was staring blankly at nothing at all. “Remember her properly, Malachi. You’ve got to remember Emily as she was. It will help.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” drawled Tainter.

Jehane took Malachi’s hand. “Ignore him. Remember her when you first met her. The first time you took her hand.”

“I couldn’t save her,” he said flatly.

Jehane hesitated. “You can save something of her. You can save your memories of her. That matters.”

“This is some boring metaphysical bullshit right here,” said Tainter, and with no more warning than that, he leapt across the intervening space and smacked Jehane on the side of her head so hard it knocked her down. But she was trained, and she rolled with it and came back to her feet, her ears still ringing.

“Would you like a little girlfriend, Miss Aya?” called Tainter, watching her.

“Oh, please,” said Jehane, with real disdain. “You can’t push me over the edge. I went over the edge when I was six. And I can see what you’re hiding. I know your secret.”

His eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll have to deal with you as we dealt with Miss Emily instead.” He stepped forward.

“No!” Malachi’s shout preceded his sword, and Tainter scrambled out of the way, grinning.

“Finally!”

And they fought. Malachi had very little of his usual grace, and Tainter was cautious, teasing. He was faster than Malachi, despite Malachi’s superior training, as if he had some personal version of the absolute focus field powering him. Jehane watched closely, her heart in her throat. She wanted to help, but should she? Could she?

Aya abandoned the bartender and sidled over to Jehane. “Hey, what’s his secret?”

Jehane spared the Echthros girl a split-second glance. She didn’t have her weapon out and she looked honestly curious. “He’s built on secrets. He hides everything. There’s nothing underneath, not even a him.”

Malachi and Tainter’s weapons crashed together. Aya said broodingly, “He showed me how useless hope was.”

“Aya, he lies.”

“If you can’t find the truth in darkness, it’s not going to be in the light either,” said Aya, her voice distant.

The swords clashed again, and Jehane realized that Tainter was suddenly pushing every advantage over Malachi that he had, as if he wanted the fight to end. Malachi stumbled, and Tainter grinned.

It was enough. Her long glaive in her hand, Jehane darted forward and stabbed Tainter’s exposed back. She felt the long curved edge slice into his flesh and catch against a bone. Tainter reared back, shouting in pain, and Malachi surged forward to take the opportunity. His own blade thrust into Tainter’s stomach, and up.

Tainter sagged to the ground, sliding off the blades. He looked scandalized. “You— you ganged up on me,” he gasped.

“Yes,” said Jehane. “That’s how we’re stronger than you. That’s how we win.”

Puzzlement crept across his face, and froze there.

Behind them, the wolverine cambion, which had been menacing the bird cambion perched on a table, roared. Malachi was still panting, but he looked at the bird. Its feathers were an intense blue now. It raised its head and met his gaze. Gracefully, it fluttered over to the wolverine and landed on its back. The wolverine roared again, spinning and throwing its head to the sky.

Then, the pair of them burst into incandescent flame. Malachi stalked over to the flame and pushed his sword into it up to the hilt, then drove his fist in after it. His face whitened, but after a moment, he pulled his fist out again. When he did, the fire went out, and both cambions were gone.

Jehane, holding her breath, gasped in relief. She was distantly aware that Aya had vanished out the door, that the bartender was crawling away, but all she could process was Malachi, looking at her with clear, familiar eyes.

He went past her, out the open door, and she followed him. He opened his fist. In his palm lay a slick curl of reddish hair. He regarded it for a moment, then blew on it. It flew off his hand and into the light breeze. The wind picked up and carried the coil into the sky.

He watched it for a moment, then turned to look at Jehane again. His eyes were no longer empty. Instead they were expressive and alive and sad. “She wasn’t always good to me. She wasn’t always kind. She liked to enjoy herself, and she liked to play, and she laughed every day. And she was everything I centered myself around since she danced into my life and demanded I follow her. She wanted that, and I tried to give it to her.” He showed Jehane his empty hand. “I’m not really sure what to do now.”

Jehane took his hand. “You’ll figure it out. I’ll help, if you want me to.”

His fingers closed over her own. “Hatherly’s still out there. He’s got Surge and Gate and the others. Nothing’s really changed.”

Jehane smiled at him through her tears. She was always crying, after all. “Everything’s changed. You’ll see. Everything.”

 

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