Nightlights Ebook, now available!

At least on Amazon. Other sites coming soon!

If you enjoyed Nightlights as a serial, please consider picking up the ebook version for a friend who prefers their e-reader. If you enjoyed it but couldn’t keep up with the format, now’s your chance to try it the old-fashioned ‘novel’ way.

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Illumination 10.9: Together Again

They were escorted to a military-looking building on the other side of the city from the devastated colonia: the headquarters of the defense operation. They were escorted by Martin, and by a number of other soldiers from other countries who were all very polite, and very insistent, and they were put into a room with a table and a water cooler and a television and four guards outside.

Ajax didn’t care. He kept looking at Natalie. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to get enough of looking at her, but when he glanced away, there was Jehane. And somewhere in this vast building was Seth. For the first time since he was a child, he felt like he was somewhere he belonged again. It felt like — family. The world had tried to tear his new family apart and he’d gone and gotten it back again, and it wasn’t what it was but people grew and changed all the time.

She had scars and open injuries both. They’d both been tended by medics, but they couldn’t do much for the ones inside. He’d noticed how she’d tensed subtly once they’d been gently herded into the conference room. She was familiar with small spaces, with captivity. He gave her space, until she came over and leaned on him. “Don’t let me go,” she whispered. “Don’t leave me alone here.” So he wrapped his arms around her instead, and she relaxed against him.

He dropped his nose to her hair and breathed in her scent and looked at the others. Jehane sat at the table with her chin on her arms, her eyes closed. Sometimes they flickered open, and she looked at the others. Malachi, leaning against the wall under the television, never looked at any of them. His gaze stayed on the door, but there was a tension between him and Jehane, as if every time she moved, his weight shifted toward her and back again.

Ajax understood that.

Time passed. The news was full of the curious speculating about what had caused the Hellgate to vanish, and what was next for the wounded city. A scientist speculated about what the data gathered from studying the gate would mean for the world. Ajax didn’t pay much attention. Everything they said would be meaningless once the military started to question them. Ajax’s mind started to wander down uncomfortable pathways, wondering what would happen to them after that. They’d saved the world, but now what? Would they be imprisoned? Studied? They certainly weren’t going to let them go.

Natalie slipped out of his arms and moved to the television, pausing before it to exchange another look with Malachi. “I’m going to change the channel.” Malachi frowned, but said nothing, so she reached up past him to push some buttons on the TV. She settled, finally, on a cartoon channel.

Jehane opened her eyes to watch the cartoons as Natalie returned to Ajax.

After a while, Jehane said, “The thing about cambions is that everybody always makes them when they’re… hurting so badly that cutting off their own arm would hardly hurt in comparison. So they do cut off their arm, kind of. Metaphorically. It doesn’t take a whole lot to bring a cambion to life. Just a tiny part of a soul, and a certain state of mind. And the seed grows into its own soul, eventually, and your own soul grows back, if you don’t keep picking at the wound.” She transferred her gaze to Natalie. “Hatherly learned how to parcel his soul out in tiny seeds, but he still did it too much, too quickly.” She sighed. “I think what grows back isn’t what was there originally, but it does grow back. I’m pretty sure.”

Natalie said, “Surge had his own soul, so you’re probably right.”

Ajax said, “Do you think he’s there, in the ruins of the tower, like Elian? Or did he get destroyed?”

Jehane said, “I don’t think it matters. He’ll be something new, no matter what.” She sighed, and put her head back on the table.

But after only a few moments, she turned her head toward the door, her eyes widening. Two minutes later, the door opened, and Seth, sitting in a wheelchair, was pushed in by one of the guards.

The guard released the wheelchair and backed out of the room, closing the door quickly. Ajax had only an instant to take in his friend’s appearance before Seth was engulfed by Jehane. He was in scrubs of some sort, with a bandage over one eye and half his face, and bandages emerging from his sleeves on both sides.

He grinned weakly over Jehane’s shoulder. “Hey, careful. I’m already pretty beat up.”

Jehane carefully disengaged herself and wiped her eyes. “Yeah. You suck.”

“Yeah,” he said softly. His gaze went to Natalie, who hadn’t moved from Ajax’s arms. In the same soft voice, he said, “Are we good?”

Natalie moved away from Ajax to crouch in front of Seth’s wheelchair. She reached out for his hand, curled in his lap, then hesitated. He finished the movement, grasping her hand. “Still my sister?”

“Yes,” she said. “We’re good that way. Thank you for— thank you.”

“Hey,” he said. “No need. That’s what I’m here for.” His grin twisted and straightened out again as he looked first at Malachi, and then at Ajax. “You two look a lot better than I do.”

“I couldn’t ever fight him directly,” said Malachi, unexpectedly. “Well done.”

Ajax said, “Seth, man, you’ll never know how glad I am to see you alive, but what the hell are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in a hospital bed somewhere?”

Jehane said, “Seth’s always talking his way out of hospital beds.”

Seth raised his free hand. “Wasn’t me this time. Not that I didn’t try, but they were pumping a lot of painkillers into me… Then suddenly they came in, got me dressed, turned down the dosage and hustled me over here. I’ve got no idea what’s going on.”

“They’re going to keep us together,” ventured Natalie. “A lot, rather than splitting us up among the countries who helped out here.”

“Oh. Right,” said Ajax glumly. “They’re fighting over us. Monster’s banished, gotta split the loot. Why wouldn’t they split us up? Something for everybody.”

Nobody said anything, until Jehane turned toward the door again, eyebrows furrowing.

“Who is it this time?” Ajax asked.

“Your military friend,” she said absently. “But I thought I heard—”

The door opened and Martin slipped in, fresh from the shower and in a clean uniform. Another soldier came in behind him, pushing a tray with snacks and drinks over to the table and departing again.

Martin surveyed them. “How are you kids doing? Too cold? Too hot? Anybody need to use the bathroom? Eat something, already.” To Seth he said solicitously, “Any spontaneous bleeding I can press on? I was almost a combat medic, you know.”

Ajax said flatly, “Very cute. What’s going on?”

Martin looked at him. “Tell me something, Ajax. Do you have any interest in going back to your dad?”

“Hell, no. I wish I could stop him from profiting off me, too.” Ajax shook his head, as if shaking off a fly.

The soldier transferred his gaze to Jehane. “Seeds of souls, eh? Weird stuff.” When she didn’t say anything, he went on. “Apparently you’re a ward of the state in France. They’re fighting pretty hard to get you returned to their custody.”

Jehane’s spine went so straight she quivered, and that invisible thread Ajax had noticed earlier twanged. Malachi flowed across the room to stand behind her, hand resting lightly on her shoulder.

Martin seemed unfazed. “As for you… well, you were never caught on camera like your friends, and eyewitness testimony has been a bit hard to come by, but you’ve been claimed, too.” A smile quirked across his face, odd and amused.

Natalie said, “Have you guys found Aya? The other girl?”

Martin shook his head. “No sign of her. It’s a big city, though.” He quirked an eyebrow. “How dangerous is she, would you say?”

“Um… I don’t know. With Hatherly and Tainter dead… I don’t know. Not as bad as she was.”

Jehane volunteered, “She wants to heal, I think. I talked to her earlier.”

Malachi said, “Treat her gently if you find her, and she might.” He watched Martin closely.

Martin shrugged, and turned his attention to Natalie and Seth. “Now, the two of you seem to be natives. That turns out to be problematic for us, but good for you.”

Sharply, Natalie said, “What do you mean?”

Martin grinned again. “Well, your leader has turned up. Marched up to the building and demanded we treat her as the leader of a sovereign nation. Insisted we release the children of her nation into her custody, and graciously offered to demonstrate some technology for us in exchange.”

Ajax’s mouth dropped open. “Her? You mean Tanist Kiley?”

“That’s the lady. And I don’t mind saying, I hope they come to some kind of a deal, because she’s even scarier than this guy here.” He nodded at Malachi.

“Tanist Kiley?” repeated Ajax. “What the hell?”

“Now, the real problem is that she insists that all of you, even El Diablo there, qualify as ‘children of her nation’. Apparently you’re a naturalized citizen, Ajax? And a ward of the state there?” Martin raised his eyebrows again.

Ajax tried to find his footing. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Even took an oath of loyalty.” He was pretty sure kissing Natalie counted.

Seth laughed. “Ajax, you’re so surprised.”

“I didn’t think she had it in her.” He shook his head. “She hates me.”

“She gets very angry when her people are threatened. Hadn’t you noticed?”

Martin said, “She did say something about us ‘regretting it’ if we didn’t take her up on her offer.”

“Here she comes,” squeaked Jehane, standing up so fast her chair banged into Malachi.

The door opened again, and the Tanist stood there. Ajax had half-expected to see Kwan or Jake or even Valeria beside her, but she was all alone, except for the escort of soldiers in office uniforms with rather a lot of bars and stars. “Hi, kids,” she said, and smiled tiredly. “I’ll be staying here for a while, but you guys are going home. All of you. Together.”

 

The End

 

 

Illumination 10.8: By The Light Of Dead Stars (double length!)

When the Hellgate spoke, Jehane and Malachi were moving in the direction Jehane had last felt Hatherly’s presence. They’d felt the distant brush of despair, and the activation and deactivation of the absolute focus field, and Jehane had felt Hatherly’s presence melt away. So she wasn’t in much of a hurry. Something had happened. She’d find out when she got there, and meanwhile she was with Malachi–

But a distant voice boomed from the Hellgate. “Assault detected. Retaliating.” The shape of the giant portal shivered. Jehane groaned. “That thing. We still have to deal with that.” She reached out, finding Ajax. He had the box Elian had provided, the box that might work better if she was nearby. “I need to go find Ajax. Do you want— do you want to come with me?”

Malachi watched her . “I don’t want to leave you again.” He caught her hand. “Let’s go.”

Part of the way to Ajax, she felt him start moving. He was moving fast, too, up and away, closer to the Hellgate. She raised her eyes and tracked a helicopter flying low over the restricted part of the city, in to the zone between the inner and middle barricades. That part of the restricted zone was swarming with soldiers and scientific personnel.

Dismayed, Jehane said, “How do we get in there?”

Malachi shrugged. “Let’s find a patrol.”

That wasn’t hard. When Jehane had zeroed in on the ragged, untidy music of a troop of soldiers, Malachi tugged her after him as he stalked directly up to them. As he approached, he raised his hands, still holding onto her. “I would like to surrender.”

“Who are you?” barked one of the soldiers. The others seemed distracted by staring at the Hellgate.

Malachi cocked his head. “An ally of the one who brought this upon the city. The King of Hell?”

One of the soldiers looked away from the Hellgate. His eyes widened and he said, “The drinking devil, sir!”

Malachi sighed. “Yes.”

“I’m sure it’s growing, sir,” said another soldier.

Jehane blinked, then turned to stare at the Hellgate herself. “What did it mean by ‘retaliation’?”

“That is what we are all wondering, young lady. Are you also surrendering?”

“We’re not really surrendering,” Jehane felt obliged to explain. “I need to get closer to the Hellgate. And find my friend, who I think just went by in a helicopter a few minutes ago.”

“Oh,” said the chief soldier, glumly. “You’re one of them.” He spoke into a radio for a moment. Then he said, “Yes, it is growing. And faster than it looks from here. The front lines are retreating. And they’re sending a vehicle for you, young lady. Apparently your friend is looking for you as well.” He looked Malachi up and down. “I think I would like to keep you, though. My country needs something from this mess.”

Calmly, Malachi said, “You’re welcome to come with us, then.” He was still holding her hand.

The chief soldier eyed their clasped hands. “Yes, I imagined you’d say that.”

A helicopter landed in a blast of wind. Malachi and the soldiers hustled Jehane onboard. Then Malachi sprang up beside her. Jehane didn’t look to see if any of the soldiers followed. She didn’t care.

The Hellgate was huge, and becoming enormous. Ajax and Natalie were standing with a cluster of soldiers beside the helipad. Jehane leapt down and went to hug Natalie. The other girl’s arms closed around her, hesitantly at first, then so tight she could barely breathe.

“I knew it,” Jehane said simply, when Natalie finally released her. Then she looked around. “I thought I heard Seth?”

Natalie’s face tightened. “He’s in there.” She pointed at the hospital tent near the helipad. “Hatherly hurt him… a lot.”

Ajax said, “He survived. He’ll heal.” He nodded at Malachi. “Nice to see you again, man. Wish it could be under better circumstances.”

“Maybe. If that thing doesn’t swallow the world.” Natalie’s voice was harsh as she nodded toward the growing Hellgate.

“Is that what it’s doing?” Jehane looked at it, fascinated. Natalie only shrugged.

Ajax turned to his soldier friends. “Hey, Martin. Now that she’s here, can we get closer?”

The one who was apparently Martin said, “How much closer do you need to be?”

“Pretty damn close. And I’d rather stop it before it gets here where Seth is, you know?” All around them, soldiers and scientists were shuffling gear around as trucks drove up and deposited both personnel and supplies from closer to the gate. Some of the trucks weren’t stopping, heading back to the city proper.

Martin took a deep breath. “Well, conveniently, it’s stopped puking up monsters, so if we can escape being swallowed by it, this is the best chance we’ve had in a long time to get near it.” He jogged over to a Jeep. “Hop in.”

The drive was slow, going against the flow as they were. There were obstacles everywhere: abandoned equipment, piles of supplies, piles of monster bodies. And in the end, the Hellgate came to them, because as it was growing bigger, so it seemed to be moving closer. Distance became confusing.

It sounded awful as it grew, like the tearing sound of slow thunder, and weaving over and under the roar was the delicate voice of the broken spirit that drove the portal. The voice could be loud; they’d heard it announce its ‘retaliation’, but now it was barely audible, just on the edge of hearing, just on the edge of madness. Jehane couldn’t tell how much of the noise was real and how much of it was her own specialized sense.

Ajax pulled out the box Elian had given him and flipped it open. It buzzed, and a light flashed inside. Then Elian’s voice emerged, tinny and distant. “I’d like to say something like, ‘Finally!’ and catch up with what you’ve been up to but I can see that we’re running out of time. But I’m glad this much worked… Accessing the portal from both sides simultaneously now.”

“It’s growing, Elian,” said Ajax.

“Yes, I know. It’s working on birthing something quite large.”

Jehane stopped breathing for a moment, gazing at the gate. “Uh, how big?”

“You don’t want to think about it,” Elian assured her. “Please stand by.”

They stood by, Jehane shifting her weight nervously. The others all seemed confident that Elian was going to handle the situation, although their driver was looking at the talking box curiously.

“Damn it,” said Elian. “Let me try something else.”

Dread came crashing over her. It was like an orchestra tuning up, overwhelming even the roaring of the gate. It was getting closer, and closer.

“There’s just not enough of a mind left,” said Elian. “I can’t force what’s left to respond. Jehane—”

Everybody was looking at her now. “What?”

“I can’t do this without you.” Elian’s voice was very gentle.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, but oh, she knew. It should have been her in the first place, but it wasn’t. And oh, that turned out to be a good thing because now, she was here.

“Are you sure?” said Ajax, because he knew too. She could tell from the look in her eyes.

“I don’t think anybody else has what it takes to make sense of the chaos. She could go in, do what I did, and then I could help her shut this thing down for good.”

“No.” Malachi pulled her closer to him.

“It’s getting closer,” said their driver.

Just to add some completely unnecessary pressure, thought Jehane bitterly. She looked at the gate. It was hard to not do so. As it moved, a dust cloud churned around its base. She watched as it approached a wrecked car, and the car toppled into it. Somehow she didn’t think everything was just arriving intact on the other side. The edge of the portal seemed to have teeth.

“Jehane?” said Elian.

“I don’t want to,” she said. “I’m sorry, Elian. I’m sorry it was you when it should have been me, but I’m glad it wasn’t me. I don’t want to be… nearly immortal and know almost everything. I want to try to be a real girl. I want that.”

“I don’t know if it will stop, even if the creature it’s making comes through,” said Elian. “It could grow and grow. Once it got big enough, both worlds would collapse.”

Malachi grabbed at the box that Ajax held, but Ajax snaked it away just in time, and stepped back. “Elian, man, there’s got to be another way.”

Elian sounded a touch sulky as he said, “You tell it to me then.”

“I don’t want to do it,” Jehane wailed. Then Malachi’s sword was out, and pointed at their driver, who had moved a single step closer. She heard a click in the distance, heard the shadow music of other soldiers. It was all going to go very bad, even before the Hellgate reached them. She gabbled, the words falling out of her mouth without passing through her mind first. “Please, don’t. I’ll do something. There’s another way. I’ll make a cambion. I’ll give it what I have, please.”

Natalie, silently watching the portal, snapped her gaze to Jehane. “Make a cambion… Do you know how? Do you know what’s involved?”

Jehane looked at her, surprised at the question, then thought about her own words. “Yes, I think so. I think I… remember? It starts…” Words failed her as she cast her mind back to a time before she really had language.

A new voice said, “It starts with a seed.” There was a puff of dust as a huge form landed beside them, leaping down from a high place.

“Fuck,” said their driver, who scrambled behind the Jeep. The voice belonged to Surge.

“You see the way, little listener,” said Surge. “But I will do it, if you please. My maker wanted to save the world, in the beginning.”

“He did this,” said Ajax sharply.

The leonine face smiled. “Did he? I thought it was a broken mind left by the children of a dead star. But there is no time to argue about that. Perhaps… later. Will I be acceptable, hybrid soul? Can you mesh with me as you could the little listener?”

Elian said, “I don’t know. And I don’t know if we can trust you, either. From what I can tell, it was you who set this off.”

“My maker wanted to save the world,” Surge repeated.

“Go,” said Natalie abruptly. She exchanged a look with Malachi, who nodded. “Go,” she said again. “Do it.”

Surge bowed his head to Natalie, then leapt the scant handful of yards to the oncoming gate. He paused, then ducked his head as the gate enveloped him.

Jehane sagged against Malachi, waiting.

Nothing happened. The gate kept moving.

Their driver said, “Let’s get back in the Jeep and get out of here. At least it’s moving slowly.”

Ajax said, “Elian?”

“Put me down and do what the nice man says, Ajax,” said Elian, sounding distracted.

Ajax scowled, and did so.

“Aha!” said Elian, as Ajax straightened up. “Cover your ears.”

The shimmering dark portal stopped moving. Jehane covered her ears.

Then, with a boom so loud that it was painful, the portal vanished, leaving the wreckage of a city behind.

 

Illumination 10.7: Seeds of Crystal

Everything was as clear as crystal: sharp-edged and slightly fractured. Natalie knew she wasn’t whole, but she was close. She couldn’t go back, but if she gathered up all the pieces, she could go forward.

She squeezed Ajax’s hand as Hatherly came around the corner, his two cambions trailing him. “Can you distract Surge? And maybe the other one? I need to talk to Hatherly.”

“Just talk?” He flexed his scarred fist.

“Well, I’m not going to kiss him,” she said, and she thought her voice was very carefully controlled.

He squeezed her hand back. “I’ll keep them away from you.” Then, slipping away from her, he called, “What did you do with Seth?” as he accelerated away.

Hatherly flicked a hand dismissively and Surge paused, fixing his leonine gaze on Ajax.

Seth, thought Natalie with a pang. She’d felt the despair engine flick on, then off, followed by the low thrum of Gate’s absolute focus field. And Hatherly looked annoyed, as only Seth could make somebody. Seth was tough. He’d hang on. She didn’t dare think he wouldn’t.

“I see you’re feeling better,” called Hatherly. The ugly expression of annoyance was replaced by the pleasant, benevolent expression she’d come to hate. “You’d gone too far for a while, but young Ajax helped you recover your balance. I knew he had potential.”

“I’ve regained more than my balance.” She moved toward him, stopping at the curb.

His smile flickered. “Ah, I always felt that way when returning to myself after a deeper journey into the chaos.” His head twitched. “I wish I could see the shore again. But come here, girl, and we can fix this wretched world.”

“No,” Natalie said calmly. “We can’t. Not that way.”

Hatherly frowned. “You’re being irresponsible. It’s the only chance we have. Otherwise we’ll just trudge on through our own muck until we finally slip into oblivion.”

Natalie caught her breath. Then she shook her head. “It’s not a chance. It’s how we come to oblivion. Giving up on each other.”

Beyond Hatherly, Surge moved to protect him from Ajax. But it was a feint, and Ajax danced away from Surge’s paw, luring the cambion after him. But Gate remained, watching Natalie with heavy-lidded eyes.

“If that’s true, then what does it matter? It’s hastening an end of a timespan that is only measurable to those who remember it, and there will be nobody left to do so. And the end is inevitable, if we don’t do this. Where are the Antecessors now? Look at us, playing in the shadows cast by the light of a dead star and thinking there’s more there. There’s nothing to hang on to unless we can finally reach beyond.”

It was all so sharp and clear and sad. Natalie said, “Not we, though. I. And I don’t want to do it without a ‘we’. Humanity is more than one person, Hatherly. You can’t burn everybody to thrust one person beyond. You must know that on some level. You said it yourself: you haven’t seen the shore for a long time. You know something’s wrong.”

“That doesn’t matter! I have goals, I have methods and tools. I have a system.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Even if I’m not what I was, the legacy I left myself still guides me.”

“Your legacy has become corrupted,” she said, as gently as she could. A small part of her wished he could be restored. He’d turned parts of himself into amazing things, into beautiful, sensitive things. And he’d turned other parts of himself into true monsters.

He’d turned Malachi into a monster, and Aya. He’d found Tainter and used him like a scalpel. He couldn’t see the difference anymore between monsters and everything else.

A small part of her wanted to save him, but mostly, sharp-edged and fractured, she wanted to kill him. That would be giving into the darkness, but what else did he expect, unable as he was to tell a savior from a monster?

Ajax shouted at Surge, and she trembled and relaxed.

Hatherly glared at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. I know myself better than you, young lady. And everything is still perfectly clear to me. I just have to get my perspective right. Now, are you going to take up your responsibility or not?”

“No,” she repeated. “I’m already doing that, right now, talking to you.” She buried her disgust and hatred, and held out a hand to him. “You can come back again. It’s hard but it’s possible. You know it is.”

But even as she said it, she realized the problem with her words. He’d spent years, maybe decades thinking about this, and he’d fooled everybody. Whatever he saw from the shore was what had driven him into the depths.

He scowled at her, and put his hand on Gate. “I’ll do it, then. Something enduring will be better than nothing but the darkness, forever and ever.”

It happened quicker than Natalie could have imagined. The cambion stepped into Hatherly’s body, but instead of melting into him, the man and the monster merged together into an impossible grotesque. A limb smacked angrily at Natalie as sparkles of light gathered around the creature. She ducked and rolled automatically, thinking, Is this it?

And then, as she came to her feet, as she still had feet, she thought, Apparently apotheosis takes time. And special effects.

A hiss, a wail, and something went boom. Red light flared around Hatherly and he staggered to one side, a shocked expression on his face. Behind him, standing at the corner of the building, was one of Ajax’s soldier friends, with a long tube on his shoulder and a fierce expression on his face.

Hatherly screamed in rage and turned to leap at the soldiers. He didn’t seem to have been seriously hurt, but he’d been hurt. There was still hope.

But only for a few moments. Natalie could already feel her energy sapping away, as the absolute focus field focused exclusively on one anima. She pulled her katana into her hand and moved.

Surge howled, clawing at the ground as Ajax held him by the base of that snapping tail. The cambion desperately wanted to get away, but whether to defend Hatherly or to flee she couldn’t tell. She didn’t know how, but Ajax was containing him.

Hatherly landed in the midst of the soldiers, half-crumbling the corner of the building. A man screamed, and then there was another explosion. The light didn’t fade this time; Hatherly was becoming incandescent.

Natalie dashed up behind him, started to swing her weapon, then paused. Hatherly was some kind of hybrid now, with four legs and two arms and a face in his torso, but he was still wearing the clothes he’d been wearing all along.

Hatherly turned and caught her in one arm. “Changed your mind?”

Natalie didn’t answer. Instead she pushed her hand inside his jacket. What was beyond was unpleasantly gooey, not cloth, not flesh, and extremely hot as well. But her fingers closed around a little box. “Got it,” she said. She pulled it out and flicked the lid open. Something small and glowing brightly rose from the box, into her other hand.

The little star burned into her skin. It hurt; it felt sweet; it felt like everything. The crystal edges of the world softened, just a touch. “Got it. I win, you poor bastard. I’ve got myself back again, all the way, and you could never do that.”

Hatherly stared at her, then his expression, almost hidden in light, twisted up and he shrieked, throwing her aside like a broken doll. Then he flailed around, stomping and hitting everything he could reach.

Natalie lay where she landed, smiling a little. She didn’t have much energy left.

But the soldiers, those who remained, were still fighting. How? Ajax said they’d mentioned drugs before. She thought of the soldiers, and the Awakened Darkness that had fought for them once. They’d trained themselves that well. Humanity could be more, even without lumination. And Ajax was fighting with them, and beyond them, Seth–

So she stood up again, and she threw herself on what remained of Hatherly, cutting at what remained of the cambion. As she thrust her katana into the head in the middle of Hatherly’s torso, the light flickered, and her strength surged.

“Here! Here!” she screamed, and drove the sword in deeper. Ajax stepped beside her and slashed his scythe across the spot.

Hatherly screamed. It was a very human sound. It was like the soldier who had screamed earlier. The light vanished, leaving spots of blindness behind. And life flowed back into the world.

When the purple and blue glows faded, Natalie realized that Hatherly was melting into water along with his cambion. She wondered if that was what happened when you made too many cambions, if you became one yourself.

Then she went and found Seth, stepping over a little case full of syringes that lay between the burnt and bloodied soldiers and the medic crouched beside her brother.

Hatherly hadn’t tried to make certain he was dead. He hadn’t cut off his head, or slit his throat. But she’d never seen anybody so damaged before, not and still be alive. “Is he…”

The medic gave her a bright-eyed, feverish look. “We have emergency transport incoming. And there’s a lot of very talented people over in the camp. Keep your fingers crossed.”

Ajax came up beside her and took her hand. “I think we’re under arrest,” he said mildly.

Natalie made a sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob. “As long as they let me stay with Seth, that’s fine with me. What happened to Surge?”

Ajax looked up at the sky. “He kind of got away from me. When I, uh, came to help you. Sorry.”

“I wonder if he melted like Hatherly?”

“Would he? I mean… you probably know more about cambions now than anybody else.”

Natalie hesitated. Some cambions definitely seemed more independent of their creators than others. She remembered her cat, as if through the veil of a dream, and a conversation with Surge in darkness. “I don’t know. But… I hope so.”

 

Illumination 10.6: Diet Despair

The soldiers didn’t want to chat, Seth found, even when he offered to tell them all sorts of interesting things about the Guardians. They wanted him to sit quietly with his back against the wall and his hands on his head, while they watched Ajax and Natalie. He couldn’t see Natalie and Ajax himself. That was for the best, but he watched the soldiers carefully, smiling the whole time. If one of them even seemed close to squeezing a trigger, Seth was going to gut him.

The leader’s attention was pulled away from the drama by the crackle of a phone. He had a brief conversation, then looked at Seth. “You’ve got the same magic weapon as Ajax?”

“Sure. Want to see?”

The soldier ignored the offer. “Good. Some of the monsters are migrating this way. There’s a human with them.”

“I guess everybody wants to see the show.” Seth leaned his head back against the wall. “She’s escaped from him, and he doesn’t like that.” He closed his eyes as Martin started barking into his microphone.

“The idiot’s ignoring me.” Martin glared around the corner of the building.

“Good. She’s more important.”

A moment later, one of the soldiers sighed and relaxed. Seth sat up. “It’s over, then?”

“Tango,” muttered another one, fumbling with his gun. That seemed wrong, somehow.

“Shit,” said Martin. “He’s here.” He reached in a pocket and pulled out a tiny case.

Seth looked around, glancing around the wall. Natalie and Ajax were very close. Despair crept over him, cold and empty.

And it was odd, because it wasn’t real. It was like he’d had a drink flavored with artificial despair, and he could feel the bitterness at the edges. It bore only a passing resemblance to what he’d felt before, in the world without Natalie.

He turned around. All of the soldiers had collapsed to the ground, and Hatherly stood beyond them, with Surge on one side of him and the biomechanical cambion Seth had fought before on the other. The artificial despair radiated off of him, and even though Seth knew it wasn’t real, it still made him want to fall to his knees.

Instead, he smiled.

Hatherly smiled back, the old familiar smile of the man Seth had grown up knowing. “I rather thought you’d be able to lure her out when my own assistants failed. Why don’t you go to sleep as well, Seth? It will be easiest for you.”

“Boring, you mean.” Seth moved away from the wall, looking at Hatherly closely. He had no illusions about his ability to fight Hatherly alone and win, especially with his two cambions. Last time, he’d worked on taking out the biomechanical creature, and it had been the wrong decision. This time, he wanted to know how Hatherly was making him feel so awful.

“Oh, come now. If not for yourself, do it for your sister. It will bother her to see you suffering.”

“You didn’t hear? She’s not my sister anymore.”

Hatherly moved to one side. “You seem remarkably cheerful about that.” His hand brushed his belt, and Seth noticed the slowly moving shape on his belt loop. It was very small, but it moved in fits and starts, like a vivisected living thing struggling to escape. Just focusing on it made Seth want to give up and shut down.

He dragged his gaze up to Hatherly’s face instead. “Oh, it’s the best news I’ve had in days. I don’t have to be responsible for her anymore.”

Hatherly snorted. “You’re lying, boy.”

Seth’s grin widened. “Well, yes.” Then he launched himself at Hatherly, moving faster than the artificial despair could.

The cambions didn’t even try to intercept. Hatherly caught him like he was an enthusiastic child, bending one of Seth’s arms backwards. Seth didn’t even try to fight, pushing his free hand toward Hatherlys’ belt. He knew when he’d touched the artificial despair device because he didn’t feel the pain and emptiness anymore. Instead, he felt giddy. His arm didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt.

He tried to yank the device off, even as Hatherly was doing something awful to his arm. But it didn’t want to detach. He realized it was the belt, holding onto Hatherly with strap-like tentacles.

Well, here he was. He brought out one of his knives and drove it into Hatherly’s midsection, right through the device.

And the pain came rushing back, real and bloody this time. Distantly, he felt the biomechanical cambion switch on its field, and that made the pain less. That made everything less.

He was on the ground, holding onto Hatherly’s sword blade with one hand. Surge’s paw was on his shoulder. His own knife was bloody, too, but Hatherly was moving as if he didn’t feel it. But the despair device dangled, broken and still, from his hip.

That was good.

Good.

 

 

 

Illumination 10.5: Sleeping Beauty

“Wear this,” said Martin, passing Ajax an earpiece. “And follow any instructions I give you immediately; they may save your life.” They stood behind a decaying tenement, just out of sight of where Seth had convinced Natalie to wait, and the soldiers weren’t happy. They hadn’t actually argued with Martin when he decided to allow Ajax’s ‘little date’, but they were holding their weapons in worrying ways. Ajax could have explained the situation in a way that made the whole event a little more relevant, but he didn’t want to take the chance of Natalie getting shot. There was no way he could have explained it which would have let him escape to meet her unmonitored.

Ajax peeked around the corner. He could make out the distant silhouette of Natalie, but between them was Seth, walking slowly down the street. The other guy looked ragged, and Ajax wondered what the odds were of the worried soldiers shooting him instead. “I’m going to go talk to my friend,” he announced. “Keep an eye out for monsters.”

“Like the one with the girl?” asked one of the soldiers, looking through a scope.

“What?” said Ajax. Even squinting he couldn’t make out more than a crouched and shadowed figure. “No,” he added, “I’ll handle that one if it’s necessary.” He went around the corner and met Seth across the street.

“You brought friends.” Seth gave him the same awful smile he’d worn for days on end after losing Natalie.

“They were going to follow me if I didn’t. I figured it was best to keep them where we could see them. What’s going on?”

“She started out by attacking me, but we got over that. She’s still shedding Awakened Darkness, though. Now she wants—” He shook his head. “I remind her too much of what she doesn’t think she can get back again. Maybe doesn’t want back again. There’s a lot she doesn’t remember right now.” He shrugged and stretched. “Over to you. She can have a future with you instead of just a past with me. What do you want me to do with your bodyguard?”

Ajax frowned at Seth, trying and failing to see what was under the grin. “Talk to them, I guess. Keep them from shooting Natalie. Look harmless.”

“Oooh, harmless. I’ll do my best.” And he strolled past Ajax without a second glance, waving at the soldiers as he approached them with his hands in the air.

Ajax went to Natalie. She was crouched down, her hands in the fur of the cat cambion Ajax had once wanted to kill so badly. The cat was cleaning its paw, but Natalie watched him approach. Her eyes widened as he got closer, and his heart thumped. Even filthy and injured, she was beautiful: a wild, ghostly dream.

“You’re a black hole,” she said, wonderingly. “I remember you. I remember failing you. Why are you here?”

Ajax had been thinking about this: not the immediate answer, but the deeper one. “I’ve been helping your people. You see, I didn’t need you in order to stay after all.”

She smiled, her face lighting up. She stood up and the cat sat down as she stepped around it. Then her smile faded. “You’re not alone.”

“Oh, you’ve seen those guys before,” he said, as airily as he could while trying to keep his body between the soldiers and Natalie. “They’re just here to deal with Hatherly.”

It was like he’d flipped a switch. Her entire demeanor changed. She wasn’t a ghostly wild thing, but something hard and angry. She looked around. “Is he here?”

“Nope. They’ll make sure he stays away.”

She studied him. “You’re tense.” She was shedding tiny monsters, her anima flickering bright and dark like a photonegative of itself. She could do anything: lash out, run away, break down, and anything unpredictable was even more dangerous. The soldiers didn’t like unpredictable.

“Just ignore them,” he suggested. “Soldiers are everywhere now.”

“Are they?” Her brow wrinkled, then she shook her head. “What do you want from me?”

He wondered, then, if she didn’t remember him, despite what she’d claimed. “Do you remember our talk in the darkness, during Nightfall?”

She bit her lip. “I could if I wanted to.”

He moved closer to her, slowly and carefully. She stood still, but her gaze darted from side to side, and her breathing quickened. “Why don’t you want to?”

“There’s a fence. The stuff on the other side of the fence is there for a reason, even if I can’t remember what the reason is.” But she frowned, and backed up a step.

Ajax stopped moving. “Would you like me to go away?”

“Just… stay there for now.”

He crouched down. “I’m right here, baby.” A voice in his ear buzzed at him, but he tuned it out, concentrating on Natalie. She pushed her fingers into the fur of the cat.

“Who’s your friend? I met it once before.”

“They all found me out here. I made this one when— when— when—” She stuttered to a halt, her eyes going distant. He waited, his fist clenching behind his back. Finally, softly, she said, “After I came out of the box, he wanted me to demonstrate what I did. He… insisted. He kept one.”

Ajax stood up. Alarmed, she said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to go kill him.” But he didn’t move, watching the way her hands fluttered, then wrapped around herself. “Unless you’d rather do it yourself. Ladies first and all.”

“Don’t go!” The words seemed to slip out and she stopped hugging herself and hugged the cat instead.

He crouched down again. “It makes me furious that he hurt you. But I’d rather stay with you.”

“What do you want from me?” she demanded.

He gazed up at her. “I want to see you smile.” She took a step closer. “I want to listen to you talk. I want to keep you safe. I want to set you free. ”

She stood right in front of him, close enough to touch. She looked down at him, one foot on a hunk of stone between them. Slowly, he stood up and looked down at her.

Then, without a word, she reached out, twisted her fingers in his shirt and pulled him in to kiss her. As she did, the cat cambion dissolved into glittering light. His hands came up to steady her on her perch, one at her waist, the other sliding up her spine. Her mouth was soft but insistent, salty with old tears and sweet with the urgency of her kiss.

And when she pulled away, her eyes were different. Tired, and older, but present. The ghostly wild thing was gone. She pressed a finger to his lips. “I think,” she said quietly, “that I would like to find Hatherly. He has something of mine.”

“All right,” Ajax said, but he didn’t move.

“Um,” she said after a moment, and a smile touched her old eyes. “You have to let go of me for that to happen.

“Oh. Do I?”

And then a voice squawked in Ajax’s ear: “Repeat, tango incoming. Wake up, kid. Get the girl over to us before—”

Seth shouted wordlessly behind them.