Illumination 9.2: Sweet Blind Thing

Natalie had a room with a bed and many shelves. On the shelves were toys: clay and blocks and paper and paint. Outside of her room was another room, much larger and nearly empty. Sometimes she went out there when the walls of her room closed around her, squeezing her small and breathless, but she didn’t go beyond. Where else would she go? She was waiting for something here, and she was very patient now.

Hatherly visited her often, several times a day. He brought her meals, and inspected how she’d been occupying herself and spoke with her. Twice now he’d evoked new Cambions from her. They were small things, and Hatherly had tried to disguise his disappointment in them, but she didn’t know why. They were small things, but they were what she needed now. One of them had escaped him, as had the cat who padded through a cold landscape. The other he caught and held. “All things have a purpose,” he told her. “We just have to find out what it is.”

“If,” she told him, as she lay on the floor, weak from the evocation. But he didn’t understand. That pleased her. She didn’t want him to understand. She followed where he led, because she was very patient, and she wanted to understand more than he did. And he didn’t try to make her remember why she hurt.

“Let it go,” she suggested. “I don’t like it here.”

Instead he tucked the tiny cambion away, into a box, and she shuddered and crawled back to her bed. “Why are you doing this?”

“I think if I told you, it would hurt you, as other things do.” He sounded regretful. “So I won’t. But you may trust me that together, we will work to reduce the pain all things experience.”

“How?” she demanded.

“We target the source,” he said calmly.

Later, he told her about the nature of the darkness and the light, and how the darkness was responsible for suffering. She curled up in bed that evening and thought about it. The cambions, she thought, were both darkness and light. They seemed to be very much like people, except that they took their light from the people who formed them. The idea made her sad. While Hatherly was vague, she knew that he intended to give her great power. He trusted that her light would make her strong, make the power mean what he wanted it to mean.

But although he inspected her artwork and her models carefully, he didn’t know what was happening inside her head. She was very careful not to let him know, no matter how he tried to dig inside her. She couldn’t let him know that she wasn’t going to use the power the way he wanted. She was going to use it to destroy him, instead.

He was dangerous. She’d known that from the beginning, and after he’d forced the little cambions from her—

She drifted off to sleep, wondering how exactly he’d die.

She woke up in the dimness of night. A dark figure, bigger than Hatherly, stood beside her bed. It was the one called Malachi. She knew them all from encounters in the outer room, as she took her exercise, but only Hatherly came to her room, and Malachi had never even spoken to her before. It was mysterious.

She sat up, and he crouched down. “Has he explained why you are a prisoner?” His voice was soft.

“Am I a captive?” she wondered. “I haven’t seen any locks.”

His mouth turned down. “There are people who care for you still.”

She twitched. He didn’t say any of the forbidden words, but they lay under the surface, the things she could not hear without screaming. “It doesn’t matter.”

Malachi’s brow drew together. “His plan will most likely kill as many people as it touches, you know. Possibly the entire human population.”

She drew back. “That’s ridiculous.”

“No. He found the plan in another Tower. I think it explains what happened to the Antecessors: they tried to win an ultimate victory over the enemy of sentience, and wiped themselves out in the process. Maybe all that’s left of them is the Awakened Darkness.”

Malachi’s words sent unpleasant tingles through Natalie, brushing as they did against a whole host of things she could not let herself think about. But she understood enough.

“He said it would do something else.”

“Reduce pain? Yes. Destruction isn’t his goal. He’d like to create a god to fill the void.”

Another voice said, “Not his goal, but it’s yours, isn’t it, kid?” It was Tainter, a black shadow in the open doorframe. He moved forward. “Tsk, tsk. Ruining his plan just because you can’t bear a world without your girl. Nihilism is quite the bandaid, isn’t it? But it’ll never take away your own role in what happened to her. To Emily.”

Fascinated, Natalie watched as Malachi’s face changed. Hatred crossed it, then ice, then stillness, and she understood that like herself, like Aya, he had things that he couldn’t think about either.

“Sorry, miss,” continued Tainter. “Can’t let this one without a leash these days, oh no. He really would like to destroy the whole world. It’s kind of an open secret. He did a naughty thing once, and he just can’t bear it.”

“Shut up, Tainter,” said Malachi, his voice absolutely flat.

“Try and make me. But not here. This sweet, blind thing might be damaged by our coarseness. And then Daddy would angry, and it wouldn’t be at me. I’m his golden boy these days. But I’d love a chance to help you cope with your little troubles, boy. We could extract them and look at them together. I’ve got just the place to do it.”

Malachi flowed to his feet, then stalked past Tainter and out the door. Tainter smiled at her and she narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like Tainter. He was on the list. But the difference between Tainter and Hatherly was that Tainter seemed to know it, and enjoy it.

As he stood in front of the exit, he said, “It’s true, you know. I think your little friends know, from the way they’ve been acting. Oh wait. They’re all gone, aren’t they? They’ve all gone away and left you, your—”

A red mist descended over her eyes, and she lunged, and he laughed and slammed the door behind him as he escaped.

That was when she discovered the locks.

Illumination 9.1: Wishes

Ajax sat in the classroom with his arms crossed, glowering. His fellow students were even more disorganized than usual, because Kwan and the other room teachers weren’t paying enough attention to keep everybody focused. Instead, they were busy discussing the plans for retreat while standing in a corner. Kwan in particular looked exhausted.

As far as Ajax knew, no formal decision had been reached about just how far the withdrawal from Earth would progress, but everybody— at least everybody with any authority— agreed that at least a temporary, short-term withdrawal would be useful. And if the parents and families of Earthborn kids were invited to stay at the Tower for an extended visit— well, that was interesting and convenient timing. It gave the classroom a ‘last day of school’ buzz, which, in the circumstance, felt ominous rather than fun.

And despite everything, Ajax still wasn’t allowed out. None of the student Nightlights were, it was true, but it still felt personal. Like everything else, it wasn’t part of an organized plan, but a sort of side-effect of being too busy to really deal with the situation.

Kwan’s conference with the other teachers ended, and he strode past Ajax without a glance.

“Kwan!” called Ajax. “Why don’t we just luminate everybody?”

Kwan’s head pivoted to look at him. The teacher had been sharp with Ajax since their adventure with Natalie’s cambion, as if his otherwise endless reserves of patience had finally drained. But when other heads turned at Ajax’s question, he stopped and came back to Ajax’s table.

“What good would that do?” he inquired, as one administering a test.

“Make it harder for Hatherly to succeed? And allow people to defend themselves?”

Kwan stared hard at him for a moment, then said, “But most people cannot cope with lumination. They do not wish to see monsters everywhere. Civilization relies on the fact that the monsters are managed by a special class of people. And lumination attracts them. Lumination is not enough to help people. They have to be trained as well.”

“Oh, come on. You’re underestimating people.”

“Am I? But look at Jehane. She has survived, but most people born luminated on Earth do not.”

Ajax started to argue again, but recalled his own initial reaction to the flash of light. He’d wished it hadn’t happened, wished he didn’t know the truth of the shadows of the world.

Kwan nodded at him, and moved on through the classroom. But Jehane left her table and made her way over to Ajax. In a low voice, she said, “They’re trying to decide on which city to put the last active emergence point in,” and Ajax realized that from where she’d been sitting, she’d been able to eavesdrop on the teachers’ conversation.

“Because that will help. Giving up always helps.” He leaned forward. “I don’t want to be sealed in here when they finally give up entirely, how about you?”

Jehane shook her head. “I’m not giving up. I never have.” She glanced at the wall. “Elian won’t let us out, though.”

“Kentigern didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he’ll come around.”

Elian said flatly, “I’m not Kentigern.” Jehane and Ajax both jumped and looked at the wall closest, where Elian’s voice had emanated from. “And I’m not going to come around.”

Jehane said, “I bet we can convince you. Why are you being so strict, anyhow? You can’t let them convince you you’re in trouble.”

Elian said, “I don’t want to hear it! And listen to yourself, Jehane! You’ve been spending too much time around Seth and Ajax. You used to be…”

Jehane scowled. “Sweet?” She slouched in her chair. “It is wonderful, oh yes? I finally know what I want and seek it, and everybody wishes I was helpless again, because it is not what they want. It is Natalie who is everybody’s dream girl. So good, so helpful.”

Ajax said mildly, “She wasn’t a good girl when she saved me. I got the impression people were pretty unhappy with her over that.”

Jehane flushed. “I’m sorry. It is true, I think, that even Natalie can’t live up to what they want Natalie to be. They make of her an ideal, so nobody wants to know what has happened. Maybe I should have said…” and she stopped, glancing up at the wall again. Then she shook her head. “I wish, Elian, that you and the others would not wish me back in my bedroom.”

Elian said, his voice acidic enough to etch steel, “I’ve got wishes, too. And I’m not Kentigern”

“I’ve never wished you were,” said Jehane, with some dignity.

“Oops,” said Ajax. “Sorry about that.” But he was thinking about Jehane’s look to the wall, not really paying attention. It was clear there were some things they couldn’t discuss here, not with Elian becoming increasingly more hostile.

“Well, I’m not going to let you go out and get yourselves killed,” said Elian, sullenly. “Kentigern didn’t care the same way I do. And I don’t want to be him. And… nevermind. I have work to do.”

Ajax stared at the wall, and wondered where he could find a Prowler.

Illumination 8.11: Essentials

When the box opened and light crept into the inner space like the sunrise, the girl inside didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know who she was or how she’d gotten there, and she wasn’t even sure there was someplace else to be. Her head seemed quite full enough, cluttered with snapping lights and twitching pains and an ache that made her feel something had been cut away. All of this was enough to make the idea of outside the box no more interesting than a shadow.

But a shadow was what moved in front of the grey glow, and words wiggled their way through the sparks and pain in her head. Man and then there is a world out there.

“Hello, Natalie,” said the man, his voice smooth and golden brown.

She might have thought more words, how interesting, but the words burst over her, popped by that voice, and raining down meaning that dripped off her without sinking in. All that was left was a residue of hatred and pain.

“No,” she said angrily.

The silhouette took her hand and tugged her out of the box. She emerged willingly, because she wanted to see more of this creature and his words that popped like bubbles.

“No?” he said. It was a question. His voice was thistle-prickly but not all words were as fragile as the one.

The girl hesitated. Then she said, “No ‘Natalie’.”

The man considered the girl. “The trip was hard, but progress always is. Surge tells me you had an epiphany on the trip.”

“Did I? I don’t remember. Are you sure that was progress?” Clearly, there were many things she’d have to relearn.

“Hmm,” said the man. “Do you know who I am?”

She did. “Hatherly. You’re dangerous.” She knew it, and trusted the knowledge, but the reasons why were gone.

“I wish you only the best,” he said, and she thought, He believes that.

“Why was I in the…” she looked back at crate. “The box?”

“It is rather like an egg, isn’t it? I’ve found you can better appreciate the light after some darkness. But you should rest now.”

He left her in the room with the box. A dim light radiated from the walls, and there was a sleeping bag in the corner. She looked at the box again, trying to decide if she felt safer there. But she couldn’t go back.

She laid down on the sleeping bag. Her hands and feet tingled and she stretched them as she fell back into dreaming. Faces without names passed before her mind’s eye. Some of them brought her pleasure, and some of them made her ache in strange ways. Some of them made her feel pity. Some of them she hated.

She prowled a sleeping city on furred feet, laughing at everything that passed before her. She pulled Awakened into herself, devouring them, and replaced them with chains nobody could see. It was a game, and it made her feel satisfied. It was important that nobody was alone. And in her dreams, she cried.

A name passed through her awareness as she drowsed. Aya.

She woke up, and Aya was there. The girl from the box felt better than she did before. Her hands and feet felt alive, and the sparks of pain in her mind had faded. She felt like everything she’d known before was still there, right where she wasn’t looking— and it would stay there as long as she didn’t look for it. It was comforting.

The other girl, Aya, stood over her and looked down at her. She looked feral and wild, with her hair tangled and her face dirty. It was wrong. Aya was colder, and cleaner than this. Perhaps she’d lost part of herself, too.

Aya spoke, her voice low. “I hate you. I promised you something and I haven’t kept that promise yet. You’ll be pleased to hear that, I’m sure. Laugh at me.”

The girl didn’t remember the promise, but she remembered that Aya was one of the faces she’d felt pity for. She sat up, and Aya backed away.

“Hatherly doesn’t trust me. He keeps me with him like a dog. He says I’m his guard. But now he’s shoved me in here with you. Do you think he’s tired of you? Shall I kill you? This tower spirit isn’t mad the same way as the other one.” Aya held out her hand and a sword materialized there. “Well? Say something! Stop looking at me like that.”

But the girl who didn’t like to be called Natalie didn’t know what to say.

Aya’s weapon vanished again. “I won’t kill you. If Hatherly wants that, I won’t give him the pleasure. I still want to find your precious Seth—”

The name made the girl hurt, her mind and body twanging in unison. She cried out. The name Natalie was only a burden in comparison.

Aya looked taken aback, and then a terrible smile curved her mouth. “I see! You understand now. Seth! He always smiles. Can’t you see his face?”

It hurt. There was only hurting, and emptiness, and then Natalie leapt on Aya, knocking her to the ground and covering the other girl’s mouth with her hand. Shut up, shut up, shut up.

Natalie held her down, palm over her mouth, then pressed her head against Aya’s. “It hurts,” she breathed. “You hurt. We don’t have to hurt each other.”

Aya stared at her in puzzlement, as if Natalie was speaking an alien language. But she wasn’t fighting, so Natalie released her, sat back, and offered her a hand.

Instead of accepting, Aya scrambled away, like she was drowning in Natalie’s presence. “You can’t give me back what I’ve lost.” She banged on the door of the room until it opened, and then she darted out and down the hall beyond.

Hatherly appeared to take her place. He was smiling broadly. “What serendipity, my child.”

Natalie looked keenly at Hatherly. She could see the darkness flooding through him, gilded with silver.

“I am so pleased. You’ve retained your most essential traits, the reason I chose you. But let’s see if you’re truly balanced, or simply as focused as Malachi. Let’s do an experiment. I would like to see if you can have another living epiphany, like the one you had in the box.

He closed the door behind him.

Illumination 8.10: Choose Your Fate

Everybody looked at Jehane, and she was reminded of an age ago, when she’d sat at the Council table and lied about knowing who Malachi was. It was long past the time for games like that. Now it was a new game, figuring out how to convey what she wanted to convey in a way they would care about. “We met Malachi. He doesn’t like the situation he’s found himself in.”

“And what situation is that?” asked the Tanist dryly.

“The situation where Savannah has the right idea about Hatherly’s end goal. He said he thought the only way we’d survive is if we were in the Tower. If we hid, and waited. Oh, and he said that Natalie was still herself.”

She watched Ajax’s shoulders relax as he passed a hand over his face, and was glad everybody was looking at her. He’d expected her to say something different.

I believe in Natalie. I believe in Malachi, mostly. It was a mantra in her head. But she wasn’t sure she believed in Ajax, if he fell. If he decided there was no point in having people around, showing him he wasn’t alone wouldn’t matter. Jehane wanted very much not to reach that point.

The Tanist said, “And did he provide you with a timeframe for when they’d like us to stay out of the way?” She sounded amused rather than worried.

Seth muttered, “Oh, this is going to go well,” and Jehane realized that the Tanist thought Malachi was manipulating her.

“Are you being stupid?” she demanded, her voice rising. “Who do you think killed Emily? Why would you think he would have any true loyalty to her murderers? Do you understand anything about people? He worked alongside them when he thought that was all he had.”

The Tanist jerked like she’d been slapped.

“The idea that Malachi has turned against them is the simplest answer,” said Seth lightly. “We haven’t exactly been providing them with a setbacks so much as unparalleled recruiting opportunities.”

The anger seemed to drain out of the Tanist. Quietly, she asked again, “Any sense of a timeframe?”

Jehane shook her head. “Not in so many words. But soon.”

“I suppose we should implement your plan, Elian.”

Seth looked between the Tanist and Kwan. “What’s this?”

“Shutting down exterior operations.”

“I thought we did that once, and then went back to Operation Ignore The Rats In The Walls?”

Elian said, “This time, we shut down most of the emergence points. As far as I can tell, they’re still using those to transport between their base Tower and Earth. And why wouldn’t they?”

The Tanist said, “All of them. That’s the only way we’ll really be able to protect this world. Otherwise, if they have even one portal open, a disaster could leak through to here.”

Elian sounded exasperated, as if this was an argument they’d been having for some time. “There’s been no evidence that’s even possible. The field has been active many times when the emergence point has activated and nothing has ‘leaked’.”

“But it’s a much weaker field than all of my advisors say is coming. Elian, really, it’s your plan.”

“I wanted to restrict them down to using only a few points so we could predict where they’re going to appear.”

Seth looked around, then shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m the one saying this, but— are you actually talking about abandoning Earth to whatever Hatherly wants to do to it? I’m not cut out for being a Nightlight, I know, but that’s… abhorrent.”

“Our friendly neighborhood Echthros, so full of useful tips, thinks our best bet is to burrow. He doesn’t think there’s any way to stop what’s coming, or surely he would have mentioned it?” The diamond glitter in the Tanist’s eyes was more than a little disturbing. Jehane looked anxiously at Kwan, but he was staring at the ground, scowling. “We have the opportunity to make the Tower into an ark. We can guarantee humanity survives, or we can risk everything on an ill-defined hope of stopping them.”

“Or we could do any number of other things,” said Seth. “We could go to the mundane authorities and tell them everything. I’m pretty sure if we did that and used Elian’s plan, they could evacuate a city, wait until they showed up, and nuke the place. Oooh, or make the only remaining exit go to a prison filled with nerve gas. Problem solved!”

The Tanist frowned. “It would be the end of us. The same result, only much slower.”

“You don’t know that. Maybe we’d get government funding. God, just think of what the space organizations would make of this place, and the computer people of Elian.”

“I don’t like this plan,” said Elian flatly.

“You like it less than hiding while six billion people are murdered?” said Seth.

“A false dichotomy,” snapped Elian.

“This isn’t a meteor hitting the planet. It’s a God damned metaphysical bomb going off. Bombs are set off by people, not unstoppable natural forces.”

“Yes, I know! The Tanist’s plan isn’t mine. I—” Elian stopped.

The Tanist rubbed her brow. “We’re the guardians of civilization. We have to figure out what’s best for civilization. For humanity as a whole. Given how much success we’ve had against one rogue Guardian with a long-term plan, it might as well be a meteor.”

Sullenly, Elian said, “I don’t know if this is even relevant anymore, but they’ve moved again. Another Tower has lit up. This one is marked on my records as a materials depot.”

Illumination 8.9: Pro Tip

When the hands reached through the emergence point and yanked them through, Ajax discovered the hard way that weapons made from your own anima don’t like to go through the void between portals. His scythe appeared in his hand without conscious effort when the hand landed on his shoulder and then, as he was pulled into the blackness, there was only pain. It was like the rawness of a toothache or an ice cream headache all over his body, and the scythe moved in his hand like a living thing, cornered and furious.

In the endless transit, he found at himself at war, struggling to overcome screaming nerve endings to stop the weapon in his hand from burying itself in the warmth of his companions. It could cut them open and drink up their warmth, transfer it to him and sooth his pain, if only for a moment. And once the pain returned, why, there were always more people willing to be his friends. It was a gift he had, just like his father.

Ajax tried to release the scythe, to send it away again. But his fingers wouldn’t open. He wasn’t holding the scythe; the scythe was holding him. All he could do was pit his strength against it, to keep it from moving him as a weapon. And all the while, agony burned through his frame, encouraged and channeled by the weapon.

He fell to the floor in the Portalry, fingers still clenched over the scythe’s haft. The pain faded, but the hunger of the weapon remained, running through his mind like chains. A boot came down on his wrist, pinning his hand down. Then Kwan’s hand rested on his forehead. “Let it go, Ajax.”

“Sedative?” asked the Tanist tightly.

“Wait,” said Kwan.

Ajax drew in a deep, shaking breath. He’d already made his decision, weeks ago. He was his mother’s son, not his father’s. And he didn’t want the weapon out right now. He pushed it away.

But the scythe laughed at him as it faded away, promising a new accounting the next time he let it take control. Oh yes. You could never be the child of just one parent, and neither of them were saints.

The boot lifted off Ajax’s wrist. “You all right?” Kwan waved his hand in front of Ajax’s eyes.

Ajax sat up, every bruise and abrasion aching. “I’m all here, at least.”

Kwan sat back on his heels, shaking his head. Seth and Jehane stood just behind him, both looking worried, and the Tanist stood right behind them, her hand on Seth’s shoulder. She tapped her foot impatiently.

Ajax looked between Kwan and the Tanist. “Just a guess but I’d say you’re not going to exile me back to Earth for misbehavior.”

“I haven’t decided what to do with you yet,” said the Tanist.

“Oh, we’re back there again. Right. Of course.”

“Cut it out,” said Kwan, his voice much sharper than Ajax had ever heard it before. He realized that under the concern brought on by the weapon trouble, the teacher was well and truly angry at him. “You couldn’t wait ten minutes for me to get here? I’ve been your advocate since you got here, Ajax and right now I’m really wondering why. I hope whatever you found out there was worth it.”

Ajax didn’t say anything. He wasn’t going to tell them about Natalie’s cambion, and he could barely think of anything else. Natalie’s eyes, Natalie’s smile, merged with a monster. A monster that played games rather than murdered, but still an uncomfortably alien creature. But Jehane had hope, had found real reasons for hope, and that was something. He needed something. But he didn’t want to talk about it.

Kwan narrowed his eyes, and looked between all three of them. “What happened, then? Elian said the field generator activated. Did you find anything else?” Something flickered in his eyes and Ajax realized that Kwan didn’t want to know, either.

The silence stretched out a little too long. Seth said, “The field generator was different. Subtler, smoother. There were no troops or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

The Tanist said, “Did you see Natalie?”

“No,” said Seth. “We didn’t.”

A wistful expression crossed the Tanist’s face. “Ah, well.”

Jehane looked up, her expression fierce. “We saw others, though. And we learned interesting things. And you should stop being such a cranky old man, Kwan, because I’m not grounded and neither is Seth. And we were both with Ajax. It’s not like he committed a capital crime.” Ajax looked at her in astonishment. She’d come back from her little trip with Malachi different, and it wasn’t just the blushing.

Kwan looked puzzled. “Seth—”

“She is correct,” said Elian, his voice absolutely neutral. “Valeria ungrounded him earlier.”

“And you’re not teaching him properly,” Jehane went on. “Nobody ever told him not to bring out his weapon in transit. You aren’t treating him like someone who can summon a stage 3 weapon, so if he does screw up badly, it’s going to be your fault.

“I know that,” bit out Kwan. “Maybe I just had more faith that he’d obey some basic restrictions.”

Ajax felt like he should probably get involved in his own defense but he just couldn’t summon the motivation. There were more important things going on than whether a teacher was disappointed in him. He met the Tanist’s gaze and realized the look she was giving him was meditative rather than angry.

“We’ve all done stupid things because we’ve lost people, Kwan. We can discuss it later. Right now I’d really like to hear what Jehane, who has become a rather valiant defender of underdogs, has to tell us. This important information.”

Jehane looked up at her suspiciously. “Why are you holding onto Seth like that still?”

The Tanist actually smiled. “Because he’s the only one of you who’s made a habit of actually running away lately.” But she took her hand off his shoulder. “Please, tell us what you found.”

Ajax wondered what Jehane was talking about. He hoped it wasn’t Natalie’s cambion.

Illumination 8.8: Take Her

At first, Jehane thought, Oh no, what have they been fighting? But then the scene reassembled itself, and she realized Ajax and Seth had been fighting each other. They stood apart, a red chain binding them together, and then Ajax nodded at Seth, and the chain melted away.

She lowered herself from the roof into the snowdrift below, and Malachi landed beside her. Instinctively, she reached out for his hand as Seth and Ajax turned to look at them. It could still go so wrong, and it would, unless she stopped it. But she couldn’t let go of Malachi yet, not as long as he wasn’t pulling away.

“Jehane!” said Seth. “You’re— Are you still chained?” He stopped, and his face hardened as he focused on Malachi. “Let go of her.”

She had to stop it, and tears weren’t going to work this time. She had to find the words. Seth, stop. You know what he’s like, Seth. “Seth, he didn’t hurt me.”

Seth didn’t answer, but moved to one side, circling as if preparing to dart in. Ajax rubbed his wrist. “Then he should step away from you. We can be calm then. And we can talk about Natalie.”

Tainter howled again, unpleasantly close. Malachi’s fingers released her own. “He’s coming back. I’ll deal with him.”

Jehane wondered if Malachi meant ‘fight him’, given what he’d said before. With a pang, she realized the life in his eyes had already faded to embers. What had been done to him and what he had become were still too tangled up inside. If he went back to the other Echthros, he would forget, and she’d lose everything she’d just learned could be gained.

She closed her hand around the tips of his fingers as he extracted them. He put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a little shove. “Take her,” he said. “Take her out of here.” He hesitated. “And don’t come back. If you stay there, you may survive what’s coming.”

Jehane stared at him as Seth caught the hand Malachi had released. Then she pulled away, and a shout ripped itself out of her throat. “I’m not a dog. I do not have a leash you can pass back.”

Malachi blinked like he’d been slapped, then took a long step toward her. When Seth tried to interpose himself, Malachi planted one palm on his chest and threw him into the snow. Then Malachi put his hands on Jehane’s face and pressed his forehead against hers. “You. I know you. I am trying, trying to keep now and then apart. The weapon and the hand. The symbol and the soul. I am trying to keep them apart, so that I can see you again like this. But go away with them, go away now, so I don’t make a mistake again.” His breath in her face was warm. He kissed her beside her eye, absently. “Please.”

She wanted to wrap her arms around him again. But instead she steeled herself for the shock of cold and stepped backward. He dropped his hands, watched her go, with shadowed eyes.

Ajax was holding Seth by one arm, his scythe in his other hand. Seth stared between Malachi and Jehane, his mouth open and his eyes wide. “Ajax, man, I think punching each other was the wrong way to escape the chain.”

Jehane flushed, but went to stand on Seth’s other side. Malachi turned away, but Ajax stretched out his scythe. “Natalie.” And Seth flinched, and took Jehane’s hand.

“What of her? She is alive. Hatherly has made her the focus of his project. If his plan completes, she will be well when the rest of us are as the Antecessors.” Malachi looked up at the rooftops.

“But she’s well now?”

Malachi threw Ajax a tired look. “There is no time for this now. I am here. Tainter is here. You should not be here.”

Ajax’s eager expression hardened, and Jehane found words once again. “Leave him alone, Ajax.”

This time Ajax looked startled. “Uh…”

Malachi nodded at Jehane, took three steps into the shadows of a snowy wall, and vanished. Seth and Ajax both looked at Jehane, as if she’d suddenly sprouted wings. Ajax said, “So… you and him…?”

Seth, his voice subdued, said, “Look at that pink glow. That’s not just that we’re all freezing to death. That’s blushing.”

We should go, she did not say. Because it was always possible he’d come back if they waited just a little while longer.

Another howl, from the rooftops right above, but this howl stopped mid-cry, falling into a greeting barely heard. “Oh, there you are, kid. Have you…” it dropped to a murmur. It did not sound like Malachi was going to fight him.

Burning warmth slid down her face, even though she hadn’t expected any different.

“Hey, don’t cry,” said Seth.

“It doesn’t matter.” She wiped at her face.

“Of course it doesn’t,” said Seth, consolingly. “I’m just glad he had a moment of sanity and brought you back.”

“No!” said Jehane angrily. “It doesn’t matter than Natalie made a Cambion. It isn’t the end.” And she thumped Seth in the chest, then turned to stomp over to a window.

Then she paused. “Uh, did anybody bring a latchkey?”

Seth started laughing. Jehane shook her head and scuffed her way through the snow past Ajax to the emergence point. She tapped on the deep stone archway with the sealed door beyond. A moment later, the two boys joined her. At least huddling in the arch was warmer than standing in the middle of the street.

And now she had to wait whether she wanted to or not. But Malachi didn’t return, and neither did Tainter. After a while, the Absolute Focus Field faded away. It was so much smoother and gentler now that she’d hardly noticed it in all the tension before. But when it faded, the cold rushed in, and Seth and Ajax both staggered.

That’s when the emergence point reactivated, and hands reached out to yank them through.

Illumination 8.7: Eye to Eye

Seth tasted blood as he rolled with Ajax through the snow. Ajax had caught him in the face, smashing his lips against his teeth, but Seth had his hands around Ajax’s throat. All he had to do was summon his knives, and the battle against this berserk moron would be over. Instead, he pushed Ajax’s head into the snow, trying to push him under the crunching crust. Ajax arched his back, flipped Seth over, punched him in the gut, then wrapped his hands around Seth’s throat.

Blood from a cut on Ajax’s face splashed onto Seth’s cheek. It stung. A horrible howling echoed down the narrow corridor of the streets that they’d rolled into. Seth jerked, and then looked around. “Stop,” he rasped, then reached up to pinch Ajax’s nose closed and cover his mouth. Ajax’s fingers tightened on Seth’s throat for a moment, then shoved him away violently and pried Seth’s hands away from his face.

Seth scrambled backward, putting as much distance between them as the chain would allow, and rasped, “Stop,” again. His throat hurt. Ajax looked like somebody had been using his face as a punching bag. Between the burning on his knuckles and some vague, adrenaline blurred memories, Seth realized it had probably been him. He hadn’t done a very good job of bringing Ajax back to himself. But at least they hadn’t killed each other. That was a start.

The howling came again. It sounded closer this time. Ajax didn’t seem to notice it, watching Seth with wary intensity. The cat Cambion, who had been padding alongside their brawl, did. She looked around, then vanished into a shadowy alleyway.

Ajax lunged after her. “No! Natalie!” Seth dug his heels in and hauled on the chain with every aching muscle. Punching Ajax wasn’t working any better than stumbling along in his wake. He was going to have to try something weird.

“Ajax, man. Calm down. We’ll get her back. But not like this. We’re both trashed. And think of how Natalie would feel, if her Cambion ended up killing us because we couldn’t pick our time.”

Ajax stopped pulling on the chain. Seth stood up and put his hand on Ajax’s shoulder. “That howl means something’s hunting. Something even the cat doesn’t want to meet.”

Ajax shook off Seth’s hand. “Shut up. You were a burden to your sister, and you’re a burden now. If you weren’t here, the cat couldn’t have done this.”

Seth’s teeth snapped shut over his response. Ajax was patient with him for too long. And Ajax was better at it, just like Natalie was. Seth was too used to having it easy, much as it galled him to admit that.

But Ajax had grown up with monsters chewing on him, shuttled from one household to another. Seth had a family back in the ultimate stronghold against the monsters, a family he could ignore if he wanted because he knew they’d always be there. He’d grown up with everything Ajax had wanted. It wasn’t fair, and being patient was the least he could do.

So Seth kept his teeth closed over the words he wanted to say, until the urge faded. “Could be. Seems like we ought to save Natalie’s nightmare for her, though. Otherwise it will always be out there.” It was bullshit, the sort of nonsense he’d tell his younger siblings when they were afraid to go to bed at night. The words didn’t matter as much as the calm voice.

Ajax sat in the snow suddenly, as if his legs just given out. Seth scanned him. Had he cut Ajax somewhere during their maddened fight? But no new splashes of crimson crept out into the dirty snow.

“I wanted to do the right thing, you know? That’s what I told myself I was doing. She was being so nice to me and I wanted—” Ajax clenched a fist. “I wanted to let her. She really seemed to care about me. And I thought it was so clever to repay her for saving my life by being a bastard. Better now than later, you know?”

Seth kept his mouth shut again, but this time it was even harder.

Ajax went on, not really looking for a response. “But I was actually just afraid. It would have been so easy to get attached, and then she’d just dump me for something else.” He made an odd sound that Seth realized was a humorless laugh. “Got attached anyhow. Special girl, your sister. But I still wanted to play it safe. I wanted her to come after me. So at least I wouldn’t feel guilty when it all went to hell. But she deserved better than that. I want a second chance, dammit.”

Seth chose his words carefully. “Second chances. Yeah. I need your help, big guy. Ajax. I need to find Jehane. I don’t want to let her get taken. She’s kind of a second chance, you know?”

“Natalie isn’t gone,” snapped Ajax.

“No? But she’s not here. And Jehane is. I hope.”

Ajax met his gaze. For a moment, it seemed like they were truly seeing each other for the first time. Then he said, “Yeah, all right.”

Seth’s wrist tingled. When he glanced down, the red chain was fading away.

There was a heavy thump behind him. Seth looked over his shoulder to see Malachi and Jehane standing together in a drift, snow still falling from the roof they’d jumped down from.

Illumination 8.6: The Castle of Thorns

He would catch them.

Jehane closed her eyes, clinging to Malachi’s shoulder. She tried to shut out the jostling, the wind and the cold, and the deep and hollow fear. These were all things that would kill her. Instead, she listened to the shadow music. She let Malachi’s windsong flow through her. It was music. She could dance to it, if only she learned how to translate the music through her body. But it was hard to concentrate when she couldn’t stand on her own two feet, feel the music as it traveled from her fingers and the top of her head down through her gut and into her feet. It was hard to learn to move herself when she was being moved.

Malachi hadn’t fought Tainter, hadn’t let Tainter push him. He was trying to save her from Tainter, and not by cutting her throat. The knowledge sent a warmth through Jehane’s body. She heard the undercurrents in the music: the loneliness, the bitterness, the hunger. The fear and the distortion. The silent spaces and the night sky, the cloak of blindness that he sometimes wore. She felt his breath through her body, knew the rhythm of his heart and the way his long legs stretched and pushed as he channeled the Absolute Focus Field.

She breathed, “I can keep up.”

Instantly, without breaking his stride, he changed his grip and let her slide down to the ground. She moved with him, his perfect reflection, her eyes open but unseeing. She relied entirely on the music; it told her when to jump, when to turn. She trusted him to see for her, and he trusted her to do exactly what she said she would.

Behind them, Tainter howled. She couldn’t listen to his twangy music. She shut it out.

Malachi seemed to know where he was going. Hand in hand, they ran across a narrow bridge over another road, just wide enough for the two of them. They passed into a building-dense area, where the ground sloped up to meet the rooftops. Another bridge led between buildings, this one wider. It had been swept clear of snow at some point since the snowfall, and halfway across, Malachi pulled Jehane off. They landed heavily in the piles of dirty swept snow, which was colder and deeper than the snow in the plaza and on the rooftops.

They stumbled into the shadows beneath the bridge and Malachi wrapped both his arms around Jehane, pulling her close. The chord of the cloak of blindness thrummed through her. It overlaid the pounding steps of Tainter as he passed overhead. Malachi buried his nose in Jehane’s hair, his breath warming the side of her face.

The footsteps slowed. Tainter’s muttering voice drifted down from the bridge. It grew louder as he stuck his head over the edge of the bridge. Then he flipped himself over the bridge and dangled for a moment, before cursing and pulling himself up again.

Malachi’s mouth moved lower, his nose brushing her ear, his lips brushing across her cheek. For a moment, they were perfectly still. Then, still half-lost in Malachi’s windsong, Jehane oriented herself toward him, made herself his reflection.

Her mouth brushed his. The electrifying sensation yanked her awareness back into her own body. As she realized what she’d done, his grip on her tightened and his mouth opened against hers, returning and deepening her semi-intentional kiss with a hungry desperation. She clung to him, unable to keep afloat against the undertow of his need. It was like something had woken up inside him. His hands moved against her face, her hair, her back. His mouth was gentle but insistent, and he kissed her until she felt like her entire body was a candleflame arching toward him.

Then he broke the kiss, resting his cheek against her forehead. A great, sobbing gasp escaped him. Jehane untangled one hand from his shirt and slid it around his back, lowering the other from where it had curled against his neck so that she could hold him against her. Neither wrist had the red chain. She realized this, then wished she hadn’t.

Malachi drew in another ragged breath, and she held the heat of him to her. He pressed his face into her hair again, then drew back just enough to say, “He killed her. Tainter killed Emily.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jehane whispered.

He tightened his arms around her again, and she realized that he probably hadn’t touched anybody without violence since Emily had died. No comfort, no companionship save for monsters and the worst of memories. How could they blame him for breaking?

After a long moment like that, he pulled away and looked at her. There was a spark in his dark eyes that hadn’t been there before. It was the gaze of the silent boy she’d known so briefly, but older, and much, much sadder. He brushed his fingers across her face, then pulled further away. His gaze transferred to his unbound wrist.

“No,” said Jehane, taking the wrist in both hands. “Stay with me. Come with me. Don’t go back.”

“He killed her,” Malachi repeated. “He and Hatherly. They made me into… this.” He opened his hand against hers.

“You’re you. You were you long before they found you. I know.”

The corners of his mouth turned up briefly. “I have to go back. To show them what they did. To take from them…”

“Revenge?”

“Reclamation.” He wrapped long fingers around hers. “Jehane. I will take you back to your friends.” Then he turned away, and pulled her after him.

 

Illumination 8.5: Considering The Stakes

Jehane jerked backward at the sight of Tainter, unable to resist the desire to turn and flee like a rabbit— at least until the red chain caught her. Malachi stood stock still, all his attention transferred from Jehane to Tainter, even though he only looked at the other man from the corner of his eye.

Then Jehane thought, I’d almost found him, and anger bubbled through the crippling fear. She might have gotten somewhere with Malachi if she’d had more time. There was a spark of the boy somewhere inside. But Tainter was going to push him, and she couldn’t fight off both of them, so she was probably going to end up dead. And, probably, it’d be Malachi who killed her. And if that happened, not only would she be dead, but she thought Malachi’s last spark would die too, and Seth and Ajax would die, and maybe even the whole world.

So she had to survive, at all costs.

She took a deep breath. She could cut off her hand, or Malachi’s, which would ruin both their days, but there was more at stake than a hand or a bad day. Her weapon, still clutched in her free hand, twitched without her conscious direction.

Tainter said, “What is it? Am I interrupting something? No?” He smirked. “A pity.” He was wearing a jacket almost identical to Malachi’s; it was baggy on his smaller frame, and he looked like he’d been rolling in the snow.

Malachi’s free hand closed over Jehane’s wrist, pulling on it and changing her angle so she couldn’t strike at herself. Her weapon flickered.

Tainter moved a few steps closer. “Pesky things. Shall I help, ah, secure her? Hatherly will be ever so pleased to see her.” He dropped his voice conspiratorially. “I am too.”

Malachi called his own weapon in his chained hand and pointed it at Tainter. “She’s mine. I’ll deal with her.”

Tainter paid no attention to the sword. “Of course. You do have some work to do after disappointing the boss before. You’re always so sweet on the ladies. How did you drag her away from her friends?”

“With the help of a Cambion. It’s still playing with the others down there.” Malachi’s sword-tip flicked in the direction of the emergence point.

“Little Natalie’s Cambion? Oh, that is interesting.” Tainter turned as if he was going to move away, then stopped and turned back again. “But we should get this prize home before they chase us down. Frightening lads, with the knives and the scythe. Shall I make a gate?”

Jehane wrenched at the hand Malachi held, with no result. He didn’t even look at her. She maneuvered herself to where she’d be able to kick him despite being incredibly close and mostly behind him. Then she hissed, “I’m not going to die,” and drove her heel into his knee. All she wanted was for him to let go of her hand.

Malachi’s knee bent, but his grip on her hand didn’t weaken. Tainter, however, seemed to have been waiting for the opportunity. He leapt across the intervening space, mouth wide, eyes mad, hands reaching out for her. Malachi did something complicated that involved releasing her hand and swinging her under his arm, while turning his body to keep himself between Tainter and herself. “You are not going to touch her,” he snarled.

Tainter looked delighted. “Oho, I was interrupting something. How sweet!” Malachi swung his sword at Tainter, who dodged easily, then circled. “Oh, my young man, you’re letting your baggage slow you down. That’s not good. I have a duty to set you free. Hatherly will be so pleased.”

Then Malachi’s sword vanished, and he pulled Jehane close. She kicked him again and shoved her hand into his face. “Hush,” he said. “We’re going. Trust me.” Then he sprang, and landed in a full fun.

Tainter called, “Oh, fun! I’m going to catch you, and I’m going kill her, Malachi. And you’ll be so pleased in the end, too.” Jehane, half-flung over Malachi’s shoulder, saw him move.

He was unburdened. He was faster. He would catch them.