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.

 

Illumination 10.1: Tracking Targets

Elian’s device was contained within a small, plain box made of the same polymer as the Tower itself. “Don’t open it until you’re within 10 yards of the portal,” he’d told Ajax, with more than a little anxiety. “It might help if Jehane is present.”

“It’ll be cool,” Ajax told Elian. The kid clearly needed some encouragement. But now that he was wandering the edges of the barricaded zone, that wasn’t as clear.

He didn’t have much trouble understanding the language; his mother and grandmother had both spoken Spanish with him regularly. And, eavesdropping on conversations, he was starting to understand just how hostile the ‘Hellgate’ was. There were multiple levels of barricades. Scientists and soldiers filled the space between the outer barricade, which kept the afflicted region mostly isolated from the rest of the city, and the inner barricade, which was an attempt to slow down the monsters steadily disgorged by the Hellgate. They seemed incapable of completely stopping the monsters at that point, because Ajax watched a patrol between the middle and outer barricade shoot down a rhinoceros-like creature.

Technically, only approved personnel were allowed beyond the outer barricade, but there were too many alleys and back streets, and too many people who weren’t willing to give up what little they had just because monsters had moved in. So in practice the area around the outer barricade, both in front and behind, was a gradation of inhabitants rather than a clear line.

“At least the monsters look like monsters,” Ajax overheard one soldier tell another. “At least there’s that small mercy.”

But the number of Awakened in the area had skyrocketed, too, and the men with guns were tense and very frightened. Most of them didn’t have the Awakened guardians he’d seen on the squads in Detroit and Ajax had to resist the desire to help them out. His giant scythe was ridiculously conspicuous. He was avoiding attention so far, partially by keeping his head down and walking like he knew where he was going, but mostly by not being an alien.

Unfortunately, after a few hours of this, he was pretty sure it was nearly impossible for him to get anywhere near the big portal. The outer edges of the problem zone were fluid, but the middle barricade and beyond was full of lights and scientists and big machines and even bigger guns. If he could steal a uniform— but none of the soldiers wandered around alone and unarmed. That was inconvenient.

He hadn’t seen Hatherly or any of Hatherly’s allies. Ajax wondered if they were blending in just like he was. He could see Hatherly doing that, but probably not the others. And yet— Hatherly was the one who mattered; Hatherly and his weaponized cambion, that walking field generator. It was like Hatherly was walking around with a bomb, and nobody knew it.

Ajax stood in the upper floor window of an abandoned building within the outer barricade and watched the activity beyond the middle barricade. They were trying to communicate with the Hellgate, as far as Ajax could pick up. It seemed crazy. Troops and scientists from many different nations were arriving constantly, and he wondered how long they had before the military started to expand the Absolutely No Civilians zone just to have room for the official people.

They were getting better at managing the wildlife projected by the portal, at least. Bullets worked, if they used a lot of them, and there was quite a pile of corpses under a tarp. They’d tried communicating with the wildlife at first, too, Ajax had heard, but after four savaged scientists they’d given that up as a lost cause. The entities created by the remains of Tower Effa were frightening, and Ajax found the thought of them as troops directed by a non-broken mind both terrifying and exhilarating.

His stomach growled. It was probably time to head back to one of the meet-up points they’d established, away from the poorly camouflaged gate right outside the third barricade. He could find out if Seth had encountered Natalie or Jehane, and if anybody else had found Hatherly.

But as soon as he stepped outside the building, he realized he was in trouble. Two long-barreled guns pointed at him, and a uniformed figure leaning against the side of the building straightened up. “And there he is. I knew it was him.” It was the leader of the fireteam he’d briefly worked with in Detroit.

Ajax glanced at the two soldiers pointing guns at him. He thought he recognized one of them, but the other was new. A fourth member of the team was facing outward, weapon readied but not pointed at anything in particular.

Raising his hands slowly, Ajax turned toward the speaker. Definitely the same guy. “Hey, Corporal. I never caught your name before, which is hardly fair, because I bet you know mine.”

The corporal snorted. “Yeah. Martin. So. Can’t say that I’m surprised that you’re here. What do you know about that?” He hooked a thumb at the portal.

“Should you be asking me these questions? I mean, shouldn’t you be hauling me into your superiors or something?”

“Well, you know, I’ll probably do that. But as soon as I do, there’s going to be a dogpile over who gets to actually ask you those questions, what with this being an international operation. Plus,” a chilly smile passed over Martin’s face, “We were brought in ‘cause last time we got results. So it doesn’t hurt to get ahead of the game. You can put your hands down, by the way. We know what you can do.”

Ajax did so. “I know a little about the portal,” he admitted. “But it isn’t the biggest thing I’m worried about. It was opened by the same guy we faced before, and he opened it so he could do something much worse than what he did to Detroit.”

“Some of the troops have spotted him,” said Martin. “He’s been impossible to approach. He’s still got that… thing he had last time. The weapon that made us all feel like blowing our brains out, when we could even concentrate enough to think. As far as we know, he’s staying close to the portal.”

Ajax thought about that. “For protection, I guess, if the monsters aren’t attacking him. Damn. That’s going to make it even harder to get to the portal.”

Martin’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you want to get to the portal?”

“Uh.” Elian’s box was nestled in Ajax’s pocket, and he was suddenly pretty sure it’d be confiscated if he mentioned it. “I want to go through it.”

“You know what’s on the other side?”

“Basically. Maybe you and your guys could get me close?” he suggested, without much hope.

“Not a chance. Ask again after we’ve dealt with the real target.”

“What, when I’m in the middle of the dogpile you mentioned?”

Martin stalked closer. “The thing I don’t think you understand, kid, is that this is it for your secret organization. We survive the latest threat, your group has to come out of hiding. This,” he waved a hand at the soldiers pointing guns, “is friendly in comparison to what you’ll get if you don’t.”

Ajax threw up his hands. “Fine. I’ll wave my magic wand and make it so.” Then Martin caught his hand and snapped something around his wrist. Almost before Ajax was aware of what happened, Martin was stepping away again, and the guns were suddenly very focused. “What the hell is this?”

“GPS tracker. You duck out on us again, like you did in Detroit, we’ll find you. In fact, please try. It’ll be nice to see where you call home.”

Ajax would have snickered, if he wasn’t so annoyed. Somehow he didn’t think a GPS would track him back to the Tower. But it would track him back to the poorly hidden gate, which had so far escaped notice. It’d track him back to the meet-up points and the others.

“I can see you’re thinking it over.” Martin pulled out another silver ring, this one a bit larger. “Look, I want to be on the same side. I don’t want to use any of these other toys. So why don’t you stick with us for now and we’ll go see what the status of our common enemy is, eh?”

“Fine,” Ajax snapped. If they could get him close enough to the portal— or close enough to Hatherly’s biomechanical cambion— that could be enough.

 

 

Illumination 9.9: Jehane and the Void (double length!)

“You lied about knowing Malachi, didn’t you?” Kwan had asked her, as they waited for a car.

“Everybody lies,” Jehane had said.

The teacher didn’t argue. “I just want to understand why.”

“Because we have something in common,” she said, and Kwan had raised his eyebrows. That was a teacher for you, never willing to accept an answer. “I don’t know what. Maybe we spoke the same language before we were born. I can feel it when I’m with him.”

The teacher opened his mouth to argue with her, be reasonable at her, and she didn’t let him. “I thought he’d come and find me before this. I thought he’d deal with things and get away. And he hasn’t. I don’t know everything. But I do know, after we open the emergence point, I’m going to find him and… I’m going to make sure nobody else has to fight him. Somehow. We have something in common, and I owe him that.”

Now, as she clambered across a landscape that looked more like a war zone than a living city, she remembered the conversation. She had to find out why he hadn’t left Hatherly, and she had to solve it.

She watched the bird drift ahead of her, and wondered what part of him it represented. It seemed to shed feathers constantly, with new ones growing to take their place, in a wide variety of colors. She picked up one of the crimson feathers and it melted in her hand, nothing but a dream of color. It didn’t look back at her as she followed it, instead looking around with a keen but quiet interest. But it never got too far ahead.

She passed other people, but not many, and monsters fled before the Cambion, so that all she had to do was navigate around the shanties and the crumbling apartments, the burned out cars and the furniture abandoned in the streets. Oh, and the bodies.

She tried not to look at the bodies. She tried not to think about closing the gate, removing the source of monsters. She tried not to think about the distant sound of gunfire. All she wanted to do was deal with Malachi.

Finally, the rainbow bird settled on top of a ragged building with a broken window still displaying half of a bottle of beer. When she pushed the door open, it crunched over the debris on the floor. Malachi sat at a table, many glasses in front of him. An old man stood behind the bar. Malachi had his sword held loosely in one hand, and there was a big and shiny gun on the counter. The old man stood as far from the gun as he could. His eyes widened as Jehane stood in the doorframe.

“Go away, girl,” he said urgently. “The devil drinks here.”

Malachi’s head was on his chest, like he was asleep, but he pointed the sword at the old man. “I wish I could be the devil.” Then the sword turned unerringly to point at Jehane. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” Jehane picked her way toward his table. It was one of the few tables remaining in the bar, and the wreckage of the others made the floor dangerous to navigate.

He raised his head. He was unshaven and dirty, with bloodshot eyes. “Find Natalie. There’s hope for Natalie.” His voice was flat and empty.

“Why are you sitting here drinking?”

Instead of answering, he narrowed his eyes. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen,” she said. The Tower records had said he was twenty, just barely twenty when Emily had died. She felt embarrassed and off-center by his question.

He transferred his baleful gaze to the bartender. “Give her a drink.”

The bartender ducked his head. “Yes, sir.” He poured amber liquid into a glass, then absently drank from the bottle himself before scurrying around the bar to put the glass in Jehane’s hands. As he did, he whispered, “He is bound here until I run out of alcohol. I challenged him. I challenged the devil, to keep the devil here.” There was a terrified pride in the old man’s face. “But I am sorry you have been pulled in, too. God keep you, child.”

He retreated behind the bar again. Malachi kicked the other chair at his table out. “Sit down.”

Still off-balance, wondering at the bartender’s words, she said, “I don’t want to drink. I want to talk to you.”

He gave her a scornful look, and she suddenly felt the lightness of all her fifteen years. So few of them had been lived as a normal girl. He could read everything about her, but she knew nothing about him, despite what she’d told Kwan. Anything they had in common had drowned long ago. She wanted to run away and cry.

He kicked the chair he’d offered her again, this time so hard that it broke, and she felt bad for not just sitting down. She felt like such a child, and this was not the encounter she’d imagined. It hadn’t smelled as bad in her imagination.

“I thought you were going to come back to me,” she finally got out. “I thought you wanted to see me again.” And she quivered inside, waiting for him to laugh at her.

Instead he took a drink and said, “How could I do that when Hatherly and his alpha dog own my soul? A little dog may bark at the moon but it doesn’t mean he’s free.”

“They don’t,” she burst out. “You’re here, instead of out doing whatever they want. They’ve seen Tainter with the monsters, encouraging them, and you’re not doing that, you’re not chasing down Natalie—”

“But I’ve taken you out of the picture, haven’t I?” he said softly. “The one person who could track him down wherever he hides. All he has to do is whistle when he needs me.”

That hurt. That hurt a lot, and despite her best efforts, tears sprang to her eyes. “Is this all just a trap?” He just stared at her, his thick eyebrows drawn together.

Jehane scrubbed at her eyes. She hadn’t come here to just talk to him, anyhow. Talking wasn’t what she was good at. She’d come to take him out of Hatherly’s arsenal, any way she could. She walked over to him, setting the drink she still carried down beside the empty glasses. He didn’t seem as drunk as the number of glasses suggested, and she wondered if the bartender was watering the drinks. “Get up. Come with me.”

He picked up her drink, looked at it, and drank it. “Jehane,” he said, as he’d said her name once before. “I wish I could.” Then, unexpectedly, he pulled her into his lap and wrapped his arms around her. As he buried his face in her neck and hair, he said, “Let’s just stay like this until there’s nothing left.”

He definitely smelled, but it wasn’t all bad. She sat stiffly on his lap, resisting the part of her that wanted to melt against him, to kiss him again and see what happened next.

“Why,” she managed, “why did you tell us to find Natalie if you think it’s all going to end?”

“Nobody should face the end alone,” he murmured. His words against her neck tickled interestingly.

“But you weren’t going to come find me,” she said, plaintively.

He pulled his face against from her neck. “I’m nobody.”

She shifted and put his face between her hands. “I was nobody once, too.” Then, regretfully, she slid off his lap. He let her go, but she realized his Cambion, the rainbow bird, occupied the door. One way or another, they weren’t going to let her leave.

She studied the Cambion again. It must have been born around the time Emily died. She wondered if its continuing existence was why he couldn’t leave Hatherly. It seemed strong and beautiful and free, but maybe what it had been made from was his own freedom.

Perhaps there was some way to give what the Cambion had taken back. Jehane remembered Valeria talking about her own brush with falling, and how she’d reclaimed herself by killing her creation. Jehane didn’t think that Malachi would kill his bird— perhaps he couldn’t, if he’d given it what she thought— but maybe if she destroyed it, he would be whole again.

She listened for the chord of her weapon, twisted her hand, and made it appear. Malachi leaned back in his chair and said, a touch of sadness in his voice, “Are you going to kill me?”

Jehane ignored him and advanced on the Cambion. It tilted its head and made a soft trilling noise, but made no move to fight her.

She hesitated. Except when she’d attacked Seth— and she hadn’t been entirely in her right mind then— she’d never started any successful fight by attacking. She knew how to defend herself, but if the enemy didn’t attack, she was lost. That was unfair.

She circled to one side, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Malachi put his arm over his face, as if he had no interest in what happened, and a mild headache to boot. Then she looked at the bird again, which still wasn’t interested in fighting her.

She scowled. Then she made her weapon vanish, stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around the bird’s neck. It trilled again. “Sweet girl,” it said gently.

“Why don’t you go back into him?” she asked it. In response, it only rubbed its beak on her cheek. But she felt better, somehow. Malachi was all screwed up, but the manifestation of his disturbance seemed to have its head on straight, and it thought she was a sweet girl. Even in the mental ward of her childhood, she’d gotten along better with some of the monsters than the people.

She moved back to Malachi’s table. “I still want to hear about Emily.”

He dropped his arm and hunched up. “She’s dead.”

Recklessly, she said, “If you won’t tell me, I’ll ask Tainter. I’ll ask Hatherly.”

He straightened up, as if she’d struck a nerve. “No, you won’t. You’re not going near them.”

“How are you going to stop me? Sitting there, full of self-pity?”

He stood up, knocking his chair over, and his sword appeared in his hand again. “I should have killed her in the beginning rather than let what happened to her happen. I won’t let it happen to you.”

Now what, clever girl? She was pretty sure that if he wasn’t too drunk to stand, there was no way she could win a fight against him. She wasn’t strong like Ajax, and she wasn’t skilled like Natalie and Seth, and Malachi was better than her in both ways.

He advanced toward her, and she backed away. If his reflexes had been slowed down, she thought she could at least stay away from him. The Cambion was watching both of them carefully, still blocking the exit. If only she knew the words to use. If only she could think of anything that would reach him. So many ifs….

Instead, she avoided him, doing her best to use her awareness of him to stay well beyond his reach on the cluttered floor. He stalked her rather than struck at her, in no hurry to reach her, his gaze focused intently on her.

Eventually, she realized that he’d maneuvered her so that her back was to the bar, near where the shiny big gun was. It didn’t belong in a bar; it looked like something left behind by a soldier. And there it was, right there, right to hand, and now he was pressing her. From somewhere behind her, the bartender said something, but all she caught was “The devil, the devil, he brought the gun—”

Jehane listened, understood, and laughed breathlessly. Malachi swung at her, but he was slow, lacking the speed of the absolute focus field, and slowed further by the watered drinks. Jehane ducked under the blade and let her own weapon vanish. Then she stepped close to him and caught the hand that held his weapon. She slid her fingers under the weapon against his palm until they were interlaced with his and there was no room for the sword. It faded away. “No,” she said firmly. “I won’t shoot you, and you won’t kill me.”

Suddenly his weight pressed her into the bar. “You’re right,” he breathed, his dark head bowing so it touched hers. “I won’t. I couldn’t then, until the end, and now all I can do is hope I die first.”

“You?” she whispered. “You killed Emily?” Horror mixed with compassion in a black cocktail.

“In the end,” he repeated. “They wouldn’t let her die.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “She’s dead. I didn’t kill her the first time they gave me the chance, so they hurt her. He hurt her so much. She was crying, and she wanted me to save her, but all I could do was kill her.” He added, in a low voice, “And I was happy I could do that for her, before… before she went the other way.”

Jehane squeezed his hand. “Don’t think about it. You’ve thought about it too much. Try to think of her before.” She hesitated, then added, “That’s what I’d like to hear about.”

He pulled his head back and looked at her blankly. “Before? She’s dead. There’s nothing left. She’s dead.”

Jehane sighed, and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, Malachi. She had a whole life, a lot of it spent with you. Before she died, she lived.”

He stared at her, his eyes wide with shock.

Illumination 9.8: Monsters and Invisible Things

Natalie wandered through a world of faces she didn’t recognize, under a sky that seemed too far away and too full of light.

At first, it didn’t bother her. The faces spoke words she mostly didn’t understand, and fled from her sword, but there were monsters, too. And she was very happy to fight monsters.

They seemed more real than the people, and when she found them attacking the unfamiliar faces, she understood that very well. But sometimes the people fled from the monsters, and sometimes they didn’t seem to realize they were under attack. Sometimes the monsters bled red, and sometimes they bled clear. She didn’t understand that.

It was all like a dream, anyhow. She was pleased to be away from Hatherly, but it wasn’t enough. She looked into each face she encountered, and each face was not Hatherly, but nor was it… something else. Something had whispered inside her that now she could find them, but all she could think was that she was looking for the source of pain.

Or maybe the pain was that they weren’t there?

She neither rested nor ate. It didn’t seem important, not when there were so many monsters around.

Then she realized what hurt most was when she saw a face in a reflective window. It was a good face, a face people loved. It wasn’t the face of somebody who broke all the rules, who violated taboos, who gave up, although at some angles it seemed close. And seeing the face hurt like nothing before, because it was everything she’d lost.

The next time she fought a monster, she didn’t dodge when it clawed at her face. The pain was real, as hunger and weariness weren’t, but it was good, too. It made her believe in change.

But the next time she looked in a glass, it still wasn’t the right face.

Rain splashed in her eyes, stinging and running over her lips. She found a sheet in a basket of abandoned laundry and wrapped it around herself, covering her face so a chance reflection couldn’t touch her.

She started looking into the faces of the strangers now, as she stalked among them and they stumbled out of the way. They were as frightened of her as they were of the monsters, but she didn’t mind. She was starting to get angry. She couldn’t find what she was looking for, and sometimes she thought she ought to let all the other faces get as clawed as hers.

A moth fluttered near her, feathery wings immune to rain. She raised her hand to it, and it drifted away. It existed to torment her with the promise of what she could never have again, she thought resentfully, and turned and stalked away down a narrow alley. It was closer to the great portal, and deep within the region the monsters had infested. People still tried to live here, among the monsters, because where else could they go? She understood that, even if she only understood a few of their words.

Something growled, and something else sobbed and babbled. Near an intersection of alleys, the one narrow and the other barely more than a fissure, a young woman had fallen to her knees. She had a baby tied to her, and a basket spilled beside her, and she was urging a small child to his feet. But the child had hurt himself, and he was wailing, and the woman was speaking rapidly and the monster growled and inched ever closer.

Natalie’s sword came to her hand, but she hesitated, remembering the moth. She was alone and broken, and even if she killed the monster, the humans would see her as another monster. So why?

A shriek split the air, and feet pounded up: another child. This one was older, maybe eight, and she positioned herself between the monster and the young woman, holding a weathered plank with a rusty nail at the end. She yelled a string of angry words at the monster, and it switched its attention to her, crouching. She was very small compared to the monster., but her expression was fierce and defiant. Behind her, the woman screamed, “No, no!”

Tears sprang to Natalie’s eyes. In the little girl’s face, in the woman’s voice, she finally saw something she recognized.

She stepped forward, bringing her sword around with a hum. The monster sprang at the child, but Natalie pushed her feet against the ground and hit the monster with her own shoulder a heartbeat before its jaws snapped closed on the child. It was big, heavier than her, but she had momentum, and she’d found something to save. That made the battle different than a fight just to kill monsters. Her sword was sharper, her reflexes faster.

Angry, it swiped at her, trying to knock her down so it could tear her throat out at its leisure. But she didn’t go down, because the clawed paw never reached her. The furred foot went flying, which shocked the monster. But only for a moment. It only had a moment left to be shocked in.

When the monster had collapsed onto the ground— red blood, she noticed— Natalie turned slowly to look at the family she’d saved. They were still there, staring at her. The smaller child had gotten to his feet, clinging to the woman’s hand, and they all looked at her.

She looked back at them, her gaze roaming over their faces. They weren’t faces with names, she didn’t know them that way. But what stretched between them, as invisible as her sword when she didn’t hold it— that she knew.

With a roaring in her ears, dizziness and hunger rushed over her. She fell to her knees, and all at once, the family scrambled over to her. The woman spoke in a scolding tone, and the girl pushed her cowl away from her face. Natalie flinched away from this, but then the tiny boy held up a loaf of bread from the spilled basket, and she remembered the existence of food. She snatched at the bread, devouring it almost before she was aware she’d picked it up. Then she looked up at the family again.

They’d watched her silently. Then the woman said, “Thank you.” Natalie remembered that much, at least, of the language they spoke, and the words hurt. She remembered her rage at the unfamiliar faces, and wondered if the fierce love she’d recognized lurked beneath each one.

She touched the girl’s face. “Why?” she asked. Why are you here? Why did you come back? But she didn’t know the words. “Why?” she repeated.

The little girl smiled, and spoke. Natalie didn’t understand, but she seemed to realize that. She kissed the woman on the cheek, then the small boy, then the top of the baby’s head. Then she kissed Natalie on the cheek, too. “Home,” she said. “Family. Love.”

Natalie stared at her, then put her face against her knees and started to cry.

The moth whose wings were immune to rain fluttered near her, not to torment, but to hold her secrets.

Illumination 9.7: Winding Threads

Getting Jehane to Mexico City wasn’t as quick or easy as anybody hoped, and neither Seth nor Ajax were allowed to go with her. Kwan went instead.

“This isn’t the time for anybody with a dodgy record to be climbing on an international flight,” Kwan said as he checked through some papers at the Texas portal.

“They’ve got better things to worry about,” protested Ajax.

“You don’t think they’d be looking for anybody they can connect to the previous event in Detroit? You and Seth were both highly visible.”

“You were there, too! And Jehane should be as recognizable as Hatherly.”

Kwan quirked a smile. “And if we were going through Asia, I’d be concerned. As for Jehane…” he looked at where Jehane sat quietly, staring at her hands. Some of the other girls had done their best to transform her from the quiet, unaffected schoolgirl into something else, with all the magic makeup and nice clothing and a haircut could conjure, but none of that could change her body language. She was frightened of anchoring the new gate, Ajax knew, and Elian wasn’t making it any easier on her with his hesitant assurances that it would probably be safe.

Kwan sighed. “Well, she’s a girl. She wasn’t fighting. And we have no choice if we want to open a portal to Mexico City. Don’t be pests; you’ll get to be useful once the portal is reactivated.”

And then they left. And Ajax and Seth waited. And waited.

“Shouldn’t they be there already?” Ajax demanded the next morning, as Jake re-emerged from the portal with his tablet.

“If they hadn’t run into complications, like the city dealing with a catastrophe straight out of a sci-fi movie, that would be true. Have you downloaded the news update, Elian?”

“Yes. Processing it now.”

Jake tapped on his tablet then passed it to Seth. “They’ve photographed Hatherly and Tainter. Nobody’s officially talking about them yet but the bloggers are making their own connections. The monsters and the portal itself is still the major story— alien invasion— but the parallel narrative of another terrorist attack is slowly growing.”

“It’s both,” Ajax pointed out. “The wildlife and the gate are alien.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” said Seth, scanning the tablet screen.

Ajax ignored him. “Are they evacuating the city?”

Jake shook his head. “Mexico City is way too big and way too important to the global economy to just abandon. And the portal opened up in a poor hospital, in a less prosperous side of town. The military is working on barricading the colonia in question. They’re having some trouble getting near the gate itself, which I suppose we must be grateful for.”

Elian said quietly, “If somebody can get near the gate— I’ve been working on something. A gizmo. I might be able to shut the gate down remotely, but the device has to interact with the Tower Effa ghost, which is currently contained within the virtual space of the portal itself. I think.”

Jake nodded, took back his tablet from Seth, and made a note on it.

“No sign of anybody else from Hatherly’s crew?” asked Ajax.

Jake shook his head, and Seth grinned. “But I bet Natalie took advantage of the confusion to get away, or else why would we be even having this chat? The gate isn’t what everybody’s been telling us he’d do.”

“I wonder what her state of mind is, though,” said Jake soberly.

“We’ll have to find her and see,” said Ajax grimly. “Jehane seemed to break through to Malachi just by talking to him.”

“Not just talking,” said Seth, and sniggered. “It’d better be you that goes after her.” Something in his voice made Ajax look at Seth, past the sneer to the turmoil underneath.

“I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “I like Natalie a lot,” and that’s the understatement of the year but it’s her brother and dad, “but I barely know her. Not like you do, anyhow. I know her name; you’ve known her since before names mattered, eh? You’re going to be able to find her and remind her of… everything. I’m just going to remind her of an asshole who’s made mistakes.”

Seth shrugged. “If you say so. If you’re not just saying that because you’re afraid of confronting her.”

Ajax raised his eyebrows. “I’m not. Are you?”

Seth looked away. “A little.” He met Jake’s gaze, scowled, and looked at the floor.

“Good. You’re her little brother. You probably should be.” Ajax clapped him on the shoulder. “I can try taking Elian’s gizmo to the gate. All that potentials gotta be worth something.”

Jake said, “We need to find Hatherly and his device. Figure out some way to take him down.”

“Snipers,” said Ajax firmly. “Any of the Prowlers specialize in long-range sniping?”

“It’s not something patrolling the land beyond usually calls for…”

“Well, the military will have them.” Ajax sighed.

The Texas gate activated behind Jake, and Jolie stepped through, waving her cellphone. “They’re in place, Elian!”

After a pause, Elian said, “All right. I’m looking for her now. And… I’ve found her.” The tension in Elian’s voice sharpened. “I’ve got to move it off center, blind. And hope it doesn’t end up in the ground or the sky. I’ve been thinking about what must have happened to the person Tower Effa targeted.”

“So has Jehane, apparently,” said Ajax.

“Yeah, but she was just guessing. Lailoken wasn’t the first person the original ghost tried to contact.”

Soothingly, Seth said, “Doesn’t matter if it’s in the ground or the sky. That’s just an inconvenience.”

Elian paused again. “All right,” he repeated. “Starting the process. Augh! She’s moving! She’s not supposed to move!” Jolie, wide-eyed, ran through the Texas gate again, fumbling with her phone.

Elian muttered, “It’s too late. It’s already forming.” With a shuddering groan, a new portal opened up beside the Texas one. “She wasn’t supposed to move— I don’t know—”

Jake bent over the pile of gate equipment assembled previously. “Come on, boys, help me get this stuff through. We can see if —” and he vanished through the shimmering field. Seth darted after him, snatching up a bundle of metallic struts.

Ajax moved more slowly. “Elian, you’re letting the others know, right?”

“They’re on their way,” he said dully.

Ajax hesitated, then nodded and picked up a packaged tent and stepped through the portal.

He emerged into blinding sunlight, and almost tripped over the bundle of struts that Seth had abandoned in the middle of an old street. Ajax looked around carefully, and only when he didn’t see the signs of anything horrific in his immediate vicinity did he raise his gaze to figure out where Seth and Jake had gone.

“Out of the road,” called Jake, from behind him. But Seth was across the street, holding onto Jehane’s arm as she climbed a high fence. An enormous, brilliantly red bird sat atop a fence post.

Ajax looked behind him. Kwan and Jake were fumbling with the gear he’d brought through. It looked like they’d originally planned for the gate to be in the shelter of a battered veranda on an old apartment building, not in the middle of the street. Another Council member stepped through right behind Ajax, and Ajax made a decision. Jogging over to Seth and Jehane, he called, “What’s going on?”

“It’s his,” said Jehane, slapping at Seth’s hand. “Let me go.” Then she seemed to change her mind and put one foot on Seth’s shoulder to hoist herself higher. Startled, he let go of her arm and grabbed onto her leg instead. But she was still unsteady, until Ajax moved forward and braced her other leg. Thus boosted, Jehane reached up her fingers to the bird.

The crested head ducked, a fringe of feathers under the beak coiling out to wrap around Jehane’s outstretched fingers. “You,” it said, in a light, musical voice, and released her fingers. “He wanted me to find you.”

“Yes,” Jehane breathed.

“He wished you to know that the girl, the Wishing Star, she has escaped the Ashlander. She moves through the dead city, only thinking of battle and escape. She hides from the name she knew before. The Ashlander seeks her. He hasn’t given up on her, but he might. He might at any time. He has everything he needs but her.”

“Where is your maker?” demanded Jehane.

The bird turned its head to one side. “He is lost. He tries to change, and change again, but the way he tries to fill the void only takes him further away.”

“Lost…” Jehane echoed. “But you know where he is, right? Can you take me to him?”

“Jehane!” said Ajax, and tugged on her leg. She grabbed at the fence with both hands, clinging to it.

“What did you think I was going to do if I survived the gate-making?” she cried. “I came here for him. We’re all here to save who we can, and I came here for him.” She kicked at Ajax’s hand, and pulled her other leg away from Seth.

Ajax said, “You have no idea what you’re walking into.”

Seth held up his hands. “Don’t, man. She’s tough. And she’s a big girl. She’s got a giant weapon and everything.” He watched Jehane climb the fence, smiling faintly.

“It’s not the wildlife I’m worried about. It’s the monsters on two legs,” Ajax muttered. But Seth was right. The only way he could help Jehane achieve her goal right now was to let her go. She reached the top of the fence and dropped down on the other side. The giant bird fluttered down ahead of her, leading her away, and she followed without a single glance back.

Raising his eyes beyond the immediate to look at her path, Ajax finally saw the Tower Effa gate looming in the distance. It was enormous, but only partially visible behind a nearby building: a panel of blackness that seemed to move and swirl like a stormcloud. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Bird’s not heading straight towards it, though,” said Seth. “Of course, Kwan is going to kill us.”

Ajax glanced at the emergence point being constructed in the middle of the road. It didn’t seem like a road that got a lot of car traffic, at least. But there wasn’t going to be much chance of hiding it, even with the tent they’d brought along.

“Let’s go help get the gateway together, and then we can get started on our own tasks. Me to that monster gate, and you… you to find Natalie.”

“Wishing Star, eh?” said Seth, and his smile turned into a frown. “Yeah.”

Illumination 9.6: –Thunder

“Guys!” Elian repeated, his voice shrill with panic. “Tower Effa is gone.”

Fear shot through Ajax like a cold spike. “What do you mean, gone? Blown up?”

“It’s no longer on the network. And my long-range sensors are picking up a… a disturbance. A portal? I’m notifying the other residents, and asking the other Towers to confirm my sensors.”

Jehane, still leaning on Seth, said, “Can you tell where the portal leads?”

“I’m not even sure it is a portal. I shouldn’t be able to detect a portal at this distance. And no, I can’t. We’d need to access the news on the other side.”

Jehane looked startled. “The news would know?”

“If it’s a portal, it’s gotta be a big one. I think the city would be left on the other side, though.”

Ajax blinked. “Wow. Is this what they intended to do? Or was it an accident?” And he didn’t know what he wanted the answer to be. If it was only a city–

“How could we tell?” asked Seth acidly. “I’m guessing an accident, though. What you get when you try jury-rigging a portal with an insane AI. Why the hell didn’t they just use a latchkey tuned to Tower Effa?”

“If everybody was over here, they would have had to send somebody out through one of my two remaining portals. Walk into our not-very-subtle traps— Tower Effa has come back online!” Elian paused. “Sending… insanities. Start codes for genecode factories. It thinks it’s at war again.”

“Like Kentigern did?” asked Jehane, breathlessly, her eyes huge.

“Yeah. End state for all of us, I guess. We go down fighting. But this time its war is with whatever’s on the other side of its portal. It’s calling the local wildlife to it.”

“Will the wildlife respond?” Ajax asked. His hands clenched into fists.

“Too soon to tell. But it’s going to make more, if its factories respond. Stuff that hasn’t evolved into the critters the Prowlers are familiar with. Stuff straight from the initial experiments with biological-Awakened crossbreeds.”

“You mean… they’ve opened a gate in a city we can’t access and are flooding it with hyper-engineered versions of the enemies that only we know how to fight?”

Seth pointed out, “The Prowlers use mundane weapons against the wildlife outside the Tower.”

Ajax stared at him. “That would be a good point but— and maybe you don’t know this— most people don’t have mundane weapons more dangerous than kitchen knives or small handguns.”

Seth stared back, his gaze cool and clear. “I do know that. But I want to find out what happened to the people inside Tower Effa.”

“So do I!” snapped Ajax, his voice cracking.

Jehane looked puzzled. “Effa is still there, Elian said. Back on the network.”

“More data coming in. I’m not sure if it is. Not as a tower, anyhow. But the portal would have opened under them, not through them, if it’s at all similar to my portals. Whatever’s on the other side would have been devastated, though.”

Seth stuck his hands in his pockets. “Let’s head over to the Portalry and see what comes through.”

Although Elian had said he was notifying the other residents, he must have managed some discretion, because the hallways of the Tower weren’t much busier than normal. Or maybe most of the residents just didn’t care what happened to Earth anymore. It was a dark thought.

The Portalry had attracted a small crowd, though, clustered in front of one of the two remaining portals. As they joined the back of it, Jake appeared from one of them, closing a cellphone. “Mexico City. I love modern technology. The news doesn’t have it yet, but the online gossip networks do. I got a message from our contact there. He can see the portal from his apartment building, a couple of miles away. It isn’t closing like the gates built by Kentigern did. And he said his latchkey wasn’t working.”

Murmurs of shock rippled across the crowd. Seth said, “How long can Effa keep the portal open?”

Elian said glumly, “A long time. It’s more likely to cease operations entirely before it shuts it down.”

“Is that likely?”

“I don’t know. I hope so. It’s disrupting everything.”

“So now what?” said a voice in the crowd.

Jake said slowly, “We need to figure out if Hatherly survived this… plan of his.”

“Or any of the others,” added Ajax.

Seth said, “Elian, how long will it take to re-establish a permanent outbound portal to Mexico City?”

Elian laughed wildly. “Yesterday I would have said a few hours for installation and a few hours for calibration. But Effa didn’t worry about either of those things! Makes me wonder why Kentigern never did this. A permanent gate! If you don’t have to close it, you don’t have to worry about transmitters and calibration! Whee! But now! I need something to latch onto, guys, and it looks like the super-portal is disrupting the latchkeys’ signal.”

Ajax breathed in and out, resisting the urge to shout in frustration. “How about—”

Jehane interrupted. “How about me? Can you latch onto me, like Effa latched onto somebody else, like Kentigern latched onto Lailoken?” Her face was pale, her eyes huge.

“I— Yes, I think so. But—”

Jehane looked around at the silent crowd. “Okay. I go through the Texas gate and I travel to Mexico City. Right?”

“To do what?” said an unwelcome voice. It was the Tanist, lost in the center of the crowd until people began to pull away from her. “What’s the plan once we open a gate to the big trouble spot? Once we undo the point of all we’ve done in shutting down the gates? Are we going to let whatever they do out there flood us? Chasing after them doesn’t work.”

Seth raised his head. “We don’t even know if they’re alive. And Elian expects wartime wildlife to swarm the city.” The crowd murmured after his words. It was growing larger, as more and more people turned up to find out what was going on. Gossip networks, thought Ajax.

“I bet we’ll find out really soon,” remarked the Tanist. “All we have to do is wait.”

“Elian?” asked Ajax. “Will the Effa portal undo any attempt to cut off this world from Hatherly’s plan?”

Sounding very much like a nervous boy, Elian said, “I don’t know.”

“We have to survive,” said the Tanist, softly.

Seth stared at her, then said, “We have to fight.” He looked around at the crowd. “Weren’t you all Nightlights once? Are you going to look in the face of your friends and siblings who died fighting and say, ‘We’re done fighting? Time to hide?’” An expression of disgust curled his lip. “If that’s what getting older means, I’d rather not.”

The crowd grumbled a protest, but the Tanist’s voice cut across it. “Haven’t you hurt your family enough? You are such a dumb kid, despite everything I’ve done to teach you better.”

“I don’t know,” said Jake suddenly. “I think he’s doing all right.”

The Tanist shot Jake a scornful look. “You would think so. In any case, we’re going to wait. Maintain the status quo, Elian—”

Jake smiled at the Tanist. “That’s enough, Kiley.” His voice was very gentle. “I don’t think popular opinion is with you on this.”

“Yes, well, that’s why I’m the Tanist.” She turned, though, surveying the crowd as if she was willing to argue each and every one of them into the ground.

“Valeria,” said Jake, his word half an appeal, half something else. And Seth’s mother stepped out of the crowd beside the Tanist.

She curled her fingers around the Tanist’s hand and said, “Pushing isn’t wise here, Kiley.”

The Tanist tried to yank her hand from Valeria’s, but failed, somehow. “Don’t try to manage me, Valeria. I am the Tanist here, right, Elian?”

There was a pause. Seth cast his eyes to the wall intently and clenched his fist.

Then, slowly, Elian said, “You are. And that means you’re the leader of the people who will follow you. But… not of me. I’m not quite a person anymore, am I? I’ve been thinking. If this portal had opened in Boston, I’d already be trying to build an emergence point again.”

“It’s all Earth.” Jake gave a little smile at the wall. “So we’ll get to work. We’ll need people to spread out on the other side to keep information flowing, as well a squad ready to take advantage of the new portal.”

“Hell, yeah!” said Seth. He grinned at his dad as he turned toward him. In ones and twos, the rest of the crowd slowly drifted that direction. Valeria stayed beside the Tanist, holding her hand. The Tanist looked flabbergasted, and Ajax thought it wasn’t so much the rebellion as the dismissal of the crowd.

Valeria said quietly, “Let’s go have some coffee, Kiley. We can talk about different methods of survival.”

Kiley scowled, then turned and tugged Valeria after her out of the Portalry. Ajax watched curiously until they were gone, then turned and joined the crowd.

Illumination 9.5: Prayers to Broken Stone

Natalie was surprised when Malachi opened the door to her room. “I didn’t think you’d be allowed to visit me again.”

He looked at her, flat and expressionless, until his eyebrows drew together. “Why wouldn’t I?”

It was such an unexpected response that Natalie wondered if there were two Malachis. But if they were, they shared a body, because this Malachi had the same faint scar on his cheek. And she knew better than to bring up topics that somebody didn’t want to talk about. So she only shrugged.

He came to her side. “It’s time. Hatherly asked me to bring you to the Portal Hall.” He put a hand under her elbow. Then, his mouth barely moving, he said, “It had to be me. He can’t trust Aya with you, or you with Tainter.” She looked at him quizzically, and he shook her elbow. “Are you ready?” he asked, in a louder voice.

Natalie glanced around the room, then down at herself. She didn’t quite know if she was ready for whatever Malachi was asking about, but she was ready for the waiting to end. “Yes.”

They moved forward. In a low voice, he said, “Surge and Hatherly are working on a portal. Tainter is planning something. He isn’t ready to stop playing yet, and he certainly isn’t ready to hand power over to you.”

“He shouldn’t be,” said Natalie, in satisfaction.

“Hatherly’s very… smug. Pleased.”

“Are you going to try something as well? You’re not as… off as the others.”

“I’m trying something right now, aren’t I?” He gave her a sidelong glance. “But you believe in his goal.”

She shifted uncomfortably, suddenly wondering where Malachi was taking her. His grip on her elbow tightened. “The spirit of his plan, maybe.”

“Of course. Who can argue with an ideal world? Certainly not the dead. But you haven’t tried to escape, even with the door unlocked.”

She whispered, “Where would I go? Out into the wilderness? There’s no place behind me to return to.”

“No place you want to return to,” he countered. It hurt, and she yanked herself out of his grasp and turned toward him, hand raised to strike. He neither flinched nor tried to stop her. Instead, she controlled herself, stepping away from him.

“I was born in a box,” she told him. “All alone. Maybe you’re thinking of someone else.”

“Maybe you could find that person?” he suggested, watching her.

She looked away. “I don’t think she exists anymore. Maybe she never did. Maybe other people just thought she did.”

“That’s what Hatherly wants you to think.”

She turned and went through the door, her chin up like a queen. She was wrong; he was as mad as the rest of them.

He strode past her at an intersection, taking the lead. This displeased her, but she realized that without his lead she would have returned to her room, returned to her waiting.

The portal room of the Tower wasn’t what she expected, although why she should expect anything, she didn’t know. It was circular and full of motes of light, so many motes that they made constellations and galaxies against the dark walls. The constellations made monstrous shapes, and embedded in the dark walls were the bodies of real monsters, like trophies encased in plastic.

A nebula swirled in the center of the chamber, cloaking Surge. Hatherly stood near him, talking quietly. Aya leaned against a wall, looking better groomed than she had last time, and Tainter stood near her. When he saw Natalie, he smirked and moved so that Aya was between himself and Natalie.

Hatherly glanced up, saw Natalie, and smiled. It was a proud, parental smile, and it hurt Natalie just as much as Malachi’s earlier implications had. The smile told her that she was hope, she was the future, she was the responsible one.

But she wasn’t. She was patience, and she was vengeance, and the only promise she contained was the promise of a world without those she hated. If she could achieve that and nothing else, it would make the world a better place.

“Well done,” said Hatherly to Malachi, as if praising a small child for a mediocre effort. He came to Natalie and took her hand. “My former brothers at the old Tower have been trying to thwart our plans by shooting themselves in the foot. But all that teaches us is that we must not rely on them to carry us.

“What are we doing, then?” asked Natalie. His hand was cool and she kept her own limp. It wasn’t time, yet.

“Opening our own gate. We could, of course build a network, but I think we’ll only need one. One gate to decide for everything. And then some setup time, and then… and then we shall see what sort of flower you will become, my little seed.”

Surge growled, then said, “We’ve found a target to anchor the gate.”

Hatherly’s smile flickered, and a memory bubbled up in the walled garden of Natalie’s mind: Hatherly, ragged and shattered, after another gate had been opened. Without context, it was a pleasant memory, and she miled.

Hatherly’s own smile returned as if in response, and he said, “Open the gate.”

Something flickered in the nebula surrounding Surge. Then the walls of the chamber shuddered. A light, eager voice said, “A portal! Ah! Time to move? I don’t know how to—” The cloak of stars compressed on Surge until he was glowing.

Then the whole world shook, and the walls seemed to drift soundlessly apart. Black emptiness opened up around them, devouring the room, the stars, and the Cambion in the heart of the Tower. Hatherly’s mouth moved but no sound emerged, and this was because the whole world was sound, a horrible ripping roar that swallowed everything and drove it into the black.

Malachi shoved her before leaping toward Hatherly.

Then the blackness swallowed Natalie, too, and she could see nothing, even though her eyes were open. The sound faded into silence, or maybe she’d gone deaf. The blackness became a grey mist, and Natalie was certain she was no longer in an enclosed space. The air moved around her, whispering of skies too high to touch.

She wondered if she was dead. Perhaps this was where she was before she was born. Or perhaps Hatherly’s event had taken place, leaving another hole in her memory and this hole for the world.

She put out her hand and summoned a sword. It was the action of a habit, not consciousness. But the sword glowed as it came to her hand, and her feet came into contact with the ground.

With pavement.

She was on a street. People pushed past her, ignoring the sword in her hand. Somebody was screaming, high and thin, and many people were shouting. They were fleeing, all of them, running away past her.

Slowly she turned around. Behind her was the wreckage of a large concrete building. It looked like it had exploded, but the dust cloud was — strange. Then she realized that within the cloud was a bounded grey vortex, six stories high and almost as wide. The greyness of the vortex formed into the faces of the monsters she’d seen in the walls of the Tower.

Then the monsters themselves stepped into the world, onto the broken stones and girders and bodies.

Illumination 9.4: Lightning–

As soon as they were admitted back into the Tower, Elian spoke, his voice throbbing with sarcasm. “You came back. How nice.”

“Just out for a stroll,” said Seth. “Interesting world out there and it pays to get to know it if we’re going to be stuck here for the rest of time, don’t you think?”

“You must think I’m stupid. Part of me is a thousand years old. I know why you went out there.”

Jehane looked at the nearest light sculpture apprehensively. Elian sounded furious in a way Kentigern never had

Calmly, Seth said, “Be honest. You think you know why we went out there, and you’re angry you don’t know for sure.”

“I’m pretty damn sure you wanted to avoid me!”

“Well, you haven’t been very friendly lately, have you?”

“Friendly! How friendly would you be when you’re trying to figure out how to save up to six billion people from a madman with alien technology that you should be able to understand, and meanwhile, half of the people you actually care about are trying to escape back to Earth? And my mother—” Elian’s voice broke off.

Then, a desperate note in his voice, he said, “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been a little stressed. Please don’t do anything stupid just because I’m— Just don’t, okay?”

Ajax, Jehane and Seth exchanged looks. Seth shrugged and Ajax set his jaw.

“We all want the same thing,” said Jehane carefully. Seth rolled his eyes and Jehane scowled. “And actually, we were talking about helping you. Well, me helping you. Maybe if I shared my abilities with you again, that would be useful?”

After a long silent moment, Elian said, “Sure.” He sounded far too cheerful, all of the sudden. “I’ve been working on a better interface, too. It’s in the core.”

Jehane hesitated. If she managed to convince Elian to open a portal, how long would it last? Long enough for her to get to the Portalry and go through?

Ajax said, “You want me to come along?”

Chewing on her lip, Jehane said, “Yes. At least for the first time.”

Ajax narrowed his eyes, but shrugged. “Lead on.”

A chair had been constructed in the core, made of the same materials as the walls. The arms of the chair ended in deep, shimmering palm rests, and delicate bars curved out from the headrest like fingers.

“Pretty nice, huh?” said Elian, anxiously. “I hope it’s comfortable. I’ve had a set of machines working on it the last few days.”

“Just in case I stopped arguing with you?”

“Well, I like construction projects. And I thought— well, you’ll see. Take a seat.”

Nervously, Jehane settled into the chair. The headrest’s stone fingers bent toward her, resting lightly on her head. She placed her arms on the rests, and realized the palm rests were actually pools of goo. “I put my hands in this stuff?”

“Yep. And then you can send a bit of anima through it.”

At first touch, the goo was cold, but as she pushed her hands into it, it warmed up dramatically. Then she took a deep breath and flared her anima.

The shadow music that was a merging of Elian and Kentigern seemed to grow louder and then, floating in front of her was a translucent image of Elian. But it wasn’t Elian as he had been last time she saw him. His hair was white, and his dark skin was now ink black, with little flickers of light moving over it. One eye glowed a vivid blue, the same shade as the writing on the walls, while the other was covered with by a mirrored lens. On the other side of his image, she could see Seth and Ajax watching her curiously, but they seemed faded and distant. Lights moved around her, like the motes made large and colorful.

She jerked in the chair and he raised his hands. “It’s just a projection, so it’s easier to talk.” He hesitated. “Full disclosure: I can see pretty much everything in your mind from here.”

Jehane sat very still. No wonder he’d been so eager to get her in the chair. But at least he’d told her… after the fact.

He added, “I wasn’t sure if that would be true. I knew I’d see some of it— and it could be you still have secrets. But not among recent events.”

She said flatly, “That’s creepy.”

The image of Elian smiled ruefully. “I know, isn’t it?”

Jehane thought again about how it could have been her as the Tower ghost. How it should have been her. She was so glad it wasn’t, but she knew she’d never escape the thoughts of how it should have been her. Unless she could teach Elian what she could do.

Elian said, “That’s about the shape of it.”

“Stop it! If you won’t stop it, let me out of here. I need some thoughts to be my own, Elian.”

“Sorry,” he said, but she didn’t think he seemed very sorry. She really wanted some of her thoughts to be private, though. She remembered kissing Malachi, then squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could stop the thoughts.

“It could be,” said Elian idly, “that your thoughts are the only way I’ll ever experience some things now. Sad, isn’t it?”

“You are a bastard and I will stop being your friend.”

“You hadn’t?” He chuckled, a little, self-deprecating chuckle. “Well, now or later, it’s true. I’m figuring that out.” The glowing lights circling her dimmed, and Elian’s image flickered. “Ugh. Er. Hold on a moment, will you? Something’s wrong.”

Seth and Ajax became more real once again, each one standing on one side of her chair. Seth wasn’t smiling and Ajax had his hand under her wrist, as if preparing to pull her from the interface. With some effort, she shook her head.

“Augh,” said Elian.

Jehane tried to concentrate on his flickering image, and to extend her anima further. Maybe she could do something. “What’s wrong?”

“The other Towers… Surge is doing something. Some kind of search that is pulling on the substrate network. They want something inside of me.”

“Can I help?”

“Hell! No! Augh! Get out!” The chair collapsed beneath her abruptly, the smooth material springing apart into a collection of blocks. As her hands emerged from the goo, a sudden headache stabbed behind her eyes. The pain grew until she couldn’t see anything. She wailed, but Seth’s arms closed around her.

“I’ve got you,” he muttered, and with an effort of will, she forced the panic away. She couldn’t see, but it was just the pain from the disconnection. She concentrated on the pain. She knew a little about pain, knew how to make herself transparent so it would pass through her. Slowly, it started to ebb.

Distantly, she heard Ajax demand, “What the hell happened?”

“They were looking for her. For the imprint of her mind, I think. For… for something familiar?”

“Did they find it? Or did you get her out in time? What’s wrong with her?”

“The shock of the disconnection. I had to get her out fast! But I don’t know if it was fast enough. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s like they were waiting. I wasn’t expecting an attack over the substrate,” Elian repeated. He sounded dizzy.

“Why would they be looking for Jehane’s mind?” said Ajax, slowly.

Jehane knew, and tried to remember how to speak. At last she pawed at Seth’s hand and said, “Lailoken.”

Seth’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“Tell me,” commanded Ajax.

Elian said, “The original ghost… the AI… it searched for Lailoken the Founder for a very, very long time before it found him. Naturally luminated minds create a disturbance, but it had to learn what the signature was.”

Seth said, “And then it opened the first gate.”

“But it can’t open a gate here, right?”

Elian was quiet for a moment. “I don’t think so. But now it knows what a naturally luminated mind looks like. It knows the ripples. They don’t have to rely on our gates anymore. They’re going to open their own.”

Apprehensively, Ajax said, “How long will that take?”

“Um. They’ve already worked out a way to target Earth, we’ve made that easy for them. It can’t possibly take as long as it did to find Lailoken. Now you really can’t go through the portal, Jehane. They’d find you immediately.”

Jehane nodded. The pain had faded enough that she could see again, but she closed her eyes as anguish overtook the physical pain.

“But minds like Jehene’s are unbelievably rare, right?” Ajax sounded like somebody looking for any bright side.

“Sane Jehane is unbelievably rare. Insane, dead young Jehane is estimated at one in a million. So I’d guess they have about 5000 potential targets if they don’t care about finding one who’s utterly broken.”

“But how long will it take?”

Elian’s voice rose. “I have no idea! I never tried it that way. I barely remember the algorithms for searching remotely without my transmitters. They must have reverse engineered them…”

Seth spoke up. “We have a little time, at least. There are still portals open, so they must want a specific location. Or kind of location.”

Ajax’s fists clenched. “But not much time. They’re ready to move.”

Elian said, “Guys—”

 

 

Illumination 9.3: Any Plan At All

 

“We’re not going to be out that long,” Ajax had protested, looking at the pack that Savannah had tossed him.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Everybody heading out of the Tower carries their own survival basics. Especially tenderfeet like you.”

“Better not argue,” Seth muttered. “They even put packs on the dogs.” It was true. Both the big mastiffs and the smaller spaniel that accompanied the Prowler patrol had lightweight packs attached to their harnesses.

Now, Jehane, Ajax and Seth tromped along in the wake of Savannah and her Prowler team. The air outside the Tower was crisp and dry. A light breeze carried a scent reminiscent of lemon and nutmeg from a distant grove of bulbous trees, while the aroma of sage drifted up from the hard-packed road. The Tower rose behind them, all lines and angles against the curves of the land and the trees. Although the glowing sky made all shadows fuzzy pools, the shadow of the Tower seemed to somehow stretch much farther.

“How far out do we have to go before we’re beyond the Tower’s oversight?” Jehane called to Savannah.

Savannah stopped and smiled. “So that’s why you had a sudden interest in the life of a Prowler.”

Jehane scowled. “Elian’s being a pain.”

“So are you, I hear. Just to be fair. There’s a lot going on.” Her smile changed. “But you aren’t the only ones who enjoy a chance to get out and away from Kentigern’s— or Elian’s— eyes. And I suppose Elian is a lot less neutral. He was a fellow student, wasn’t he?”

Jehane shrugged. “I thought he was a friend.” She looked away from Savannah’s expression. “So how far do we have to be?”

“Well, nothing can be casually overheard here. And we’re pretty sure no eavesdropping at all can occur past that clump of trees.” She added thoughtfully, “Unless there’s screaming. The trees themselves interfere with radio signals. If you want to head into the grove, you should be totally safe. Well, safe from eavesdropping. And mostly safe from wildlife. We keep that grove pretty clean.”

Jehane stepped off the road. The ground crunched underfoot, like new fallen snow: tiny lichen breaking apart to reveal the fine, dusty soil below. Then she looked over her shoulder at Ajax and Seth. “Come on.”

Ajax strode ahead of her, but Seth lingered, looking around. Then he shook his head and followed Ajax.

The clump of trees in the middle of the lichenous steppe seemed like it should surround a pool of water, but instead there was only a central trunk, swollen and enormous. The foliage of the trees was complicated: each twig ended in several sharp spines and a fall of soft orange and dark green fronds. The ground between the trees was filled with a variety of blade-and-feather-edged ferns, along large boulders covered with more tiny plant life.

The trees had their own shadow music, a slow see-sawing tone that Jehane seemed to feel through her feet. There was a buzzing in the air that reminded Jehane uncomfortably of the common room at the institution she’d spent her childhood in. It was like the sound of forgotten televisions.

Ajax leaned on one of the boulders. “I’m ready to get out. For good.”

Seth stuck his hands in his pockets. “Did you watch that video, man?”

A pair of Nightlights had staggered in the night before after an encounter with Aya and Tainter, and that morning, a Reader from Earthside had shown up with a compilation of security videos that had shown the pair of Echthroi on what could loosely be described as a shopping spree.

Ajax scowled. “Yeah. And we’re just running away, leaving them with the whole world. I can’t let that happen. I’ll spill everything to the military if I have to.” His gaze moved to Jehane. “What about you? Malachi wasn’t with the others.”

Neither was Natalie, Jehane didn’t say. “I think I can do more good out there.”

“It’s ridiculous that we’re even talking about asking the Earth authorities for help,” grumbled Seth. “We shouldn’t be in this position.”

Ajax shrugged. “The Guardians think they know everything about what they do. They’re wrong.”

Seth narrowed his eyes, then tucked his hands behind his head. “Guess so. Better you than me. Your family’s on that side still. But I’ll do what I can to help. Want me to acquire a luminator for you? It’d make talking to the guys with guns a bit more interesting.”

Jehane burst in. “That doesn’t matter, if Elian won’t let us out. He won’t even open portals if we’re in the Portalry now, have you noticed? How are we going to get around that?”

“Convince him,” said Seth.

“Or… use another Tower? Like Hatherly’s been doing?” Ajax suggested.

“I don’t think Towers are usually as functional as Hatherly’s found them,” said Jehane doubtfully. “He’s been doing something, maybe with one of his Cambions.”

Ajax gave Jehane a long, thoughtful look, until finally she flinched. “What?”

“You used that goo we found to sort of… project your anima into Elian’s system, didn’t you? When Elian found Natalie… Natalie’s…” He shook his head. “The other day.”

“So?” she said defensively.

“You could do it again. If we set it up right, maybe he’d open a portal. Or maybe you could… do whatever that Cambion is doing to make the other Tower ghosts more cooperative.”

Jehane gave Ajax a nasty look. “Just like that. You know, we’re not all like you. Gifted. 0 to Stage 3 in three months.”

He blinked at her, bewildered. “But—”

“Years!” she snapped.

Seth’s hand came down on her head, gently pressing. “Down, girl.” She whirled on him, and he grinned at her. “You do bring a different perspective to things, just like Ajax. How could it hurt to just take a look around?”