Illumination 8.4: Every Breathless Moment

To Jehane, everything was movement and stillness: flurries of snow, the cold air passing over her, the warmth that didn’t move, breath passing through her hair. It was all a dance, tinted red, and set to the crashing thunder of the cat Cambion’s attack. The burst of shadow music overwhelmed her mind, echoing and re-echoing in her head. It took close to forever for the sound to fade.

As it did fade, as she reclaimed more of her mind and more of her awareness, she realized that the movement and the warmth was part of the same thing: somebody was carrying her as he moved quickly through cold air.

The snow-covered city. And Malachi. But she didn’t know why he was carrying her.

He deposited her on a bench after brushing snow away. She sat, letting her surroundings filter through her awareness. They were on a rooftop somewhere, still within the snow-covered city. He was better prepared for the weather than she was, in a heavy jacket with gloves tucked through a belt loop. His hands were in his pockets and he looked down at her with impassive patience.

“What… what happened? What’s going on? Why are we here?”

He just looked at her for another moment, then pulled one of his hands from a pocket and raised it. Her own wrist jerked up, and she realized the red chain connecting them wasn’t just a remnant left in her head. A vague, inexplicable disappointment passed through her, and she really wished she’d had a chance to talk to Natalie about Malachi.

That thought led to another. “Are you taking me to Hatherly?”

“Didn’t I say I’d kill you before I let him have you?”

She remembered his hand resting against her throat when she’d been their hostage. “Not.. not in so many words.”

His brows drew together, as if he was puzzled by her response. “No? It’s true, though.”

“Then let me go?”

He opened his hand. She pulled on the chain, which only pulled his hand close to her face. She stopped.

“A joke of Natalie’s cambion. It cannot be cut away. It binds us together, but otherwise it doesn’t exist.”

Jehane’s breath puffed out, white fog. “Then what are you going to do?”

He sighed. “Hatherly is waiting for my report. I suppose I must kill you.”

She stared at him, then held out her unbound hand and played the chord of her stage 3 weapon in her mind. The long-hafted blade nestled itself into her hand.

Malachi’s face moved in something that was almost a smile. It wasn’t like one of Seth’s many grins, but as quiet as Malachi himself. He touched the blade of her weapon with his fingers, and she could feel the touch, deep inside.

Her voice shook as she asked, “Why do you work for him?”

The hint of a smile vanished. “I see the merit in his plan, although it isn’t the merit he believes in.”

“You like the power it gives you?”

“I like the peace it gives them.” He swept his hand out to encompass the city.

She stared at him. “That’s awful.”

He shrugged, still looking at her. The hint of a smile returned. His fingers were still on her weapon’s blade. She could kill him right now and he probably wouldn’t even resist. And she knew she should. The practical consideration of whether she’d then be chained to a corpse, or a severed hand, should not be relevant, not after what he’d just said.

Instead, she said, “Why don’t you want me to join Hatherly?”

“You of all people deserve mercy, which is not what he offers.”

“The mercy you want all of them to have?” she asked. “I don’t want that mercy.” He only looked at her. She wrapped the fingers of her bound hand around the chain. For all that he said it was insubstantial, she could feel it quite well: it was warm, warm as human skin, and as hard as justice. “Do you want that kind of mercy?”

He looked away, dropped his hand. “I have work to do.”

“Killing everybody,” she said, bitter and not trying to hide it. She’d thought he was more interesting than this. She’d thought he was more than the skin of the boy she’d used to know, scraped clean of all humanity. She’d been certain.

He shifted his weight uncomfortably, then stepped away, as far as the chain would let him. She let go of the links she’d been holding, but it wasn’t enough; they were still bound together. She looked down, vision blurring.

His voice, when he spoke again, was different. Strained, cracking. “I’m doing the best I can.” When she looked up again, wiping the wetness from her eyes, his shoulders were hunched, his hair a veil across his face. “Emily—” he began, then fell silent.

She whispered, “What happened to Emily?”

“She died in pain,” he said, his voice flattening.

Jehane bit her lip. “Who killed her?”

From behind Malachi, a new voice spoke. “What have you got there? Oh, very nice. But you’re keeping her all for yourself, I see.”

It was Tainter.

Illumination 8.3: The Red Chain

Seth was very fast, but not as fast as the cat, not when he wasn’t expecting its angle of attack. By the time he understood that the cat was going after Jehane instead of Ajax, Malachi, Jehane and the cat were a tangle of fur and cloth. Seth circled, looking for something to grab or cut, and the cat sprang away, its jaws open wide in laughter. Jehane fell to her knees, eyes closed as if she was barely conscious, and Malachi jumped backwards as if he’d been shocked. Jehane threw up her arm and half-fell, half-stumbled after him. He pushed her away, and only then did Seth realize that a chain linked their wrists.

Seth looked between the laughing cat and the Echthros chained to Jehane. “What the hell, thing. That’s sick.” Then he darted toward Jehane and Malachi. Malachi dodged away, one arm coming around Jehane and lifting her against his side so he could move freely. Seth narrowed his eyes. He’d been moving to attack the chain, but of course how would Malachi know that? Or maybe he did, and he liked the chain where it was. Who could tell with these crazy Echthroi?

Well, he couldn’t attack the chain when Malachi was holding Jehane like that, but he could still get Malachi himself. That would make Jehane sad, but what else was new? Seth shifted his grip on his knives—

And the cat Cambion barreled into him at knee height, knocking him to one side like a pin in a bowling alley. He landed on his feet, barely, and then Ajax slammed into him as the cat danced out of his way. Its laughter was warm and bubbly. It probably thought it was watching slapstick comedy.

Seth kicked Ajax until he put some distance between them, turning back to Malachi and Jehane.

Who were gone. Seth could just make out Malachi on the far side of the plaza, leaping to catch a heavy balcony, Jehane a dead weight over his shoulder.

Ajax grabbed Seth by the arm. “Help me kill it, Seth.”

Seth goggled at Ajax. “Are you insane? We have to go after Jehane.” He gave Ajax a heartbeat to show a flicker of sanity, then started to move away. He made it two steps before the cat coughed again, and that red, crackling light engulfed both Ajax and Seth. The noise was deafening, pounding on both his eardrums and his sensitized anima. When the light faded, Seth was on his knees, his hands pressed to his ears. He blinked and shook his head. No wonder Jehane had been broken by the cat’s attack. He climbed to his feet, and a pressure on his wrist stopped him from getting too far. A red chain ran from his wrist to Ajax’s.

Ajax moved from a fetal position on the ground directly into a lunge at the cat, so suddenly that it pulled Seth off his feet. The unexpected resistance dragged Ajax into overbalancing and his head slammed into Seth’s shoulder. They both fell backward, rolling in the snow. Seth caught a glimpse of the cat Cambion yawning before he grabbed Ajax’s hair and shouted, “Jehane!” right into his face.

Ajax started shoving wildly at Seth. “Get off of me, get away! We have to kill the cat so we can get Natalie back! Why the fuck are you stopping me, what is wrong with you? We kill the cat and we’ll be able to save her.”

Seth grabbed Ajax’s flailing hand and held it up between them. “Chain? Do you see it?” Ajax hit him in the face. Which was totally unfair: days of trying to get Ajax to fight with him and finding out Seth was right was what provoked him? He’d lost his mind and Seth was already tired of it. He slammed the palm of his hand into Ajax’s face and swept his legs out from under him. “If we can’t catch up with them because you’ve gone psycho, if we lose Jehane too, I am going to rip out your guts, big guy.” While Ajax was gasping for breath, Seth struck at the red chain with his weapon. But it was as if it didn’t exist; his weapon passed right through it

Ajax watched him, then rasped, “Kill the cat and maybe it will go away.”

The cat, moving close to watch Seth’s efforts, leapt back again.

“How the hell are we going to do that?” Seth demanded.

The cat said, “What, I wonder, will you make?”

Ajax panted, staring at the cat with bright eyes. “Come here and I’ll show you.” The cat laughed again, paced two steps closer, then leapt backward as Ajax lunged. Once again, Seth was yanked off his feet. Ajax had, he realized, been flying on the hope that Seth had all but abandoned. And Seth had wanted to beat the hope out of Ajax so that he could also give up entirely. But now that they had clear evidence that Natalie had broken and become Echthros, Ajax had nothing left, while Seth still had what Jehane had tried to give him.

He couldn’t just let her go. He’d die before going back without her. But first, he had to deal with Ajax. He’d been where Ajax was, and in order to save Jehane, he had minutes to do what Ajax did for him across weeks.

Seth clenched a fist. There was probably only one way to do that.

 

Illumination 8.2: This Is Bad

Jehane stared at the cat-shaped Cambion with Natalie’s eyes. It placed one gigantic paw very carefully in front of the next as it walked across the surface of the snow, barely leaving footprints behind.

“What is that?” Ajax demanded. “Where is Natalie?” He held out his hand and his scythe appeared with a bell-like tone that wasn’t just shadow music.

That was bad. It was even worse than the Cambion itself, because Jehane could feel Malachi getting closer. She wondered if he could sense her the way she sensed him. She wondered if he could sense the others.

Seth’s hands twitched, and he smiled and tucked them behind his back as he bounced on his toes. That was bad, too. He was going to do something but she couldn’t tell what.

“Jehane! Where is Natalie?”

The Cambion said, “Not in this world. I can only feel her distantly. But she thought of her friends as I was born. How far they were from her. How they couldn’t help her.” The cat smiled a human smile that was a reflection of Seth’s. “How they wouldn’t. But she very much wanted to be together again with her friends. So I’m here, on her mission.”

Ajax seemed to stop breathing. “No.”

Jehane said quickly, “She’s alive, cat?”

“Oh yes. She could not bleed to tell you, so she bore me instead. She is alive.”

Seth said, “But broken.”

The cat stretched in a long, lazy shrug, then padded toward them again. Its tail twitched and its head lowered in a predatory way. When Ajax shifted his grip on his scythe, his stance moving, the cat paused and smiled again.

Jehane grabbed Ajax’s arm. “No—”

Ajax moved violently, throwing her off him so hard that she fell back into the snow, without even looking at her.

Seth darted forward. “Not okay, man.”

“Seth, maybe if we kill it, she’ll come back to herself.” Ajax’s voice was hoarse.

Jehane remembered Valeria describing her own experience teetering on the edge. “If that’s true, I think she has to kill it herself, Ajax.”

Ajax didn’t respond, his gaze fixed on the cat now pacing a perimeter around them.

“Seth, we need to take Ajax and go back. We need to go back now. This is going to be bad.”

Seth watched Ajax. “Mom’s experience was when she was right on the edge. If Natalie’s gone over, do you think she can really come back again?” He actually sounded uncertain.

Jehane fumbled in her pocket for the latchkey. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not just us here!”

“That’s true,” said Malachi. He seemed to materialize from the darkness near the side of one of the grand facades lining the plaza. “I suppose Hatherly will be pleased to see you, creature. Finish your prey and come back with me.”

Even Ajax looked away from the pacing cat at the Echthros. Jehane said, “Malachi…” and took a few steps toward him before she caught herself. He looked at her, his gaze sharpening. His weapon appeared in one hand but his other hand lifted as if he wanted to pull her across the yards between them.

The cat gazed at Malachi. “The Ashlander would not be pleased to see me, o Void. I am in earnest on this.” It looked between Malachi and Jehane. “O, the distance. The vastness. The yearning. I see myself, I do, I do.” It coughed like laughter.

Then everybody moved at once: Seth toward Ajax, Ajax toward the cat, and Malachi away from Jehane. And the cat moved, too, quicker than all of them. It slammed into Jehane at an angle, carrying her into Malachi.

Something crackled, and redness flared all around them.

Illumination 8.1: Going Forth

“Jehane, I’ve found something,” said Elian, excitement threading through his voice. Seth and Ajax both froze, staring intently at her. All three of them sat around a table in the dining hall. Jehane was starting to feel like she had two tigers on a leash.

“Go on.” She hoped she sounded calm. Elian knew, of course, every hope they’d discussed, but he’d been reticent on whether he intended to help them so far.

“I figured out a way to tell if the Absolute Focus Field Generator reactivated without requiring a Nightlight to pass through the portal.”

Intrigued, Jehane asked, “How?”

Ajax said, “Does ‘how’ matter? Did you detect a field?”

“Yes. But I can’t tell who’s out there the same way Jehane can.”

Ajax leapt to his feet, grabbing Jehane by the arm and pulling her after him as he headed for the Portalry. Seth followed, slowly.

“But I was thinking that maybe if Jehane used her anima on the stuff you found, the agilica, I could channel her sense out through my own sensors, and we could scan to see what’s out there without putting anybody at risk.” Elian’s voice followed them through the hall.

“Hah. Of course,” said Ajax.

Jehane kicked him in the shin. “I can walk myself, thank you so much.”

He released her with a perfunctory, “Sorry. We don’t want to miss an opportunity, though.”

In the Portalry, one of the frames was rimmed with light but not fully open. A cloud of motes surrounded what looked very much like a lump of clay attached to the frame itself. Jehane hesitated. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Start by projecting your anima into it, just like you’re working a stage 1 weapon. I think I can act as a sort of lens.”

Jehane reached out for the lump of clay. “Is it my anima I listen with? I never thought so.”

“It’s not your ears, that’s for sure.”

Her fingers penetrated the cloud of motes and sank into the clay. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, seamlessly, the shadow music of a city rose around her. And right outside—

“It’s Natalie!” She frowned. It was very much like Natalie, but not quite the shadow music she remembered. “It’s strange.”

Ajax stalked to the gate. “Elian, open the gate all the way.”

Elian said, “Um. This is a bad idea.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Why were we doing this then? For some technical jollies? Open the goddamned portal, Elian, or, I swear to God, this whole Tower is going to regret it.”

Ajax’s eyes were bright, almost fevered, and his body was as taut as a bowstring. Jehane stared at him for a moment, then looked around for Seth. He was standing almost exactly behind her, and he was looking at the portal too, his face utterly blank.

“Go ahead and open it, Elian,” she said.

“You’re going to get into trouble! I could contact Kwan right now, we could explain, it could be homework.”

Ajax’s intensity was catching, Jehane thought. “She could be gone by the time we get to the other side. We’ll cope. Please, open it.”

Elian grumbled something and the portal sprang to full functionality. Ajax vanished through it as soon as it yielded to him. Jehane looked at Seth again. Now, he was grinning again. “What am I going to do, Jehane?”

She shook her head, and darted through the portal after Ajax. Scant seconds after her feet crunched on snow, Seth’s hand caught her around her waist as he appeared behind her and crouched down.

It was cold in the city beyond the portal. Jehane hadn’t even looked to see what portal it was, but it was clear almost immediately that they weren’t prepared for the weather, let alone whatever situation they’d leapt into. The square they’d emerged in was large and snow-covered; it was late at night and only a few people moved on the edges of the grand plaza. Bits of snow filled the air, and Jehane wasn’t sure if it was actually snowing, or just fallen snow kicked up by the icy wind.

Ajax looked around wildly, then grabbed Jehane again. “Where is she?”

She wrenched her arm away. “I’m here to help, but I am not a dog, Ajax. Please stop it.” She didn’t wait for another unfelt apology, but paced a few steps away and focused on the shadow music. More and more, she became sure that it wasn’t actually Natalie she heard, or at least not a Natalie she wanted to find. And Natalie wasn’t the only familiar shadow music: she could hear the twang of Tainter and the heart-tugging windsong of Malachi.

She shivered. It was dangerous here, in so many different ways.

“I think maybe we should go back.”

Ajax drew in a ragged breath and tucked his hands behind his back. “Is Natalie here or not? What did you sense?”

Frustrated, Jehane waved a hand. “If I try to explain, you’ll only misunderstand.”

Ajax narrowed his eyes. “I’m doing my best. Give me some credit back, yeah?”

“I am,” Jehane said bitterly. “I have watched you. The song I hear is not—”

She stopped. A shape slunk out from behind a closed-up information kiosk, the shape associated with the not-Natalie song. It was long and low, with a twitching tail and long whiskers and four padded feet that carried it over the surface of the snow. Its fur was the color of the snowy night. It almost looked like a natural creature, at first. Then it sat down and wrapped its tail around its front feet, opening its eyes wide.

They were Natalie’s hazel eyes, shaped and set as any human eyes. And when it spoke, humanoid teeth flashed. “You came, just as she thought you would.”

Illumination 7.12: Truth

Seth walked down the hall leading to his family home, shoulders hunched and head down. He moved just a little faster than Jehane could keep up, and he didn’t feel bad about it, because he was petty. But having her at his back made him feel uncomfortably like she was herding him. He just couldn’t win.

She tugged on the back of his shirt and he stopped so abruptly she walked into him. Then he saw what she saw: his father, strolling toward them. The habitual smile Seth presented to Jake slid into place, and the frown Jake usually wore when looking at Seth moved onto his face.

“How are you doing, son?”

“Oh, you know. Probably about as good as you.”

Jake scanned his face. “Yeah. Well.”

“Well!” said Seth, sticking his hands in his pockets.

“Thinking of coming home soon? Your Mom misses you.”

“Nah. I need my own space, you know?” So far his own space had been bean bags in the Portalry, and the chairs in the media theaters, and twice out in the conservatory. He knew his father knew that, because Elian always kept a close eye on Seth. And he knew his father wasn’t going to argue with him.

“Well… stop in and talk to your Mom sometime, will you?”

“You know how it is, you get so busy. But I’ll absolutely totally do my best and you can tell her that.”

Jake eyed him. For a moment, Seth thought he was going to say something meaningful. But apparently he realized how futile that was, because he just shook his head, said, “Good to see you again,” and walked on.

Jehane’s hands made fists in the back of his shirt. “Seth! We’re on our way to talk to your mom right now! How could you talk to your father like that?”

“What do you mean? I was totally polite.” Then he reached behind himself and grabbed her wrist, dragging her in front of him. “I’m going to talk to my mother, all right? We have a reason to do that. But you’d have to take your big stick to him as well as me before you’d get a Very Special Episode there. Understand?”

“I don’t understand why you don’t get along with him, no.” Her eyes, big and liquid, searched his.

“You wouldn’t. But you don’t need to worry about it, either. Now, come along. I’m not doing this without you.” He stalked along the corridor, his fingers still around her wrist, towing her after him. When they got to the door of his home, the maudlin concern had vanished from her face, replaced by an echo of the grim certainty she’d had when she threatened him with a stage 3 weapon. That was good, really good, because he was suddenly a bit nervous about opening the door.

She put her hand on his back. “Do it.” He opened the door.

Valeria sat on the couch in the living room, reading a book. It was, Seth realized, Natalie’s favorite book. The thought almost made him bolt, but there was Jehane, right behind him.

“Hi,” he said instead.

Valeria looked at him, then closed the book on one finger. “Feeling better?”

He shuffled a few steps in. “Not really.”

Jehane said quickly, “He’s still got things to protect, though.”

“I know. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be running away.”

“Then can he go out?” The request tumbled out of Jehane. She clearly wasn’t going to waste any time; Seth had assumed that some sort of dramatic scene would be required before the core question was asked. Instead, Valeria and Jehane were acting like they’d done all the talking previously, and Seth was just a prop Jehane was displaying. A trophy of her victory. He was almost irritated. But while his mother was talking to Jehane, she was looking at him. There was no room left for irritation, given everything else swirling around.

Valeria rubbed her face. “I don’t want to lose another child, and there’s so many ways to lose one out there. Especially this one, now. I mean, God knows, I’ve been there.”

“You have?” said Jehane in surprise.

Seth looked down at the carpet, then went and flung himself on the couch. He would not run away this time.

“Of course I have.” She closed her eyes. “Farther, actually. It isn’t something we talk about much. Nobody wants to drag things like that out from under the bed. But it isn’t an irreversible process, what happens when a Cambion is born. At least, not at the beginning.” She watched Seth. “Once new habits are set, I imagine it is.”

Eagerly, Jehane said, “How do you know?”

“I’ve been there. On the other side.”

“You actually made a Cambion?”

A moment of silence stretched into an eternity. Then Valeria put the book down and sat back on the couch, on the far side from Seth. “I suppose I have to say yes. Made and killed.”

Seth’s mouth was dry. “What was it like?”

“Like drowning inside myself. Like all the things I’ve ever avoided thinking wrapping their hands around me and pulling me down. And all I wanted to do was drag the world down with me so I wouldn’t be alone. And then… something came from inside me, determined to help me.”

“How did you come back?” Jehane demanded.

Valeria smiled, a funny little sad smile. “I wasn’t alone in the first place. There was someone who loved me and I couldn’t deny it, couldn’t avoid it.” Her gaze, focused on the middle distance, refocused on Seth again.

Anxiously, Jehane said, “Seth won’t be alone.”

“Does he believe that?”

With as much dignity as he could summon, Seth said, “You are all pests.”

Valeria scrutinized him. Then, very softly, she said, “Do you want Natalie back?”

Her voice, so quiet, cut through all the prevarications, all the complications he could offer anybody else who asked. “Yes,” he whispered.

She turned to Jehane. “Take him, then, with my blessing. And if you can, bring my daughter back to me. We can all find our ways together.”

Illumination 7.11: Scarecrow and Desperation

Jehane sat in the pumpkin courtyard, watching the scarecrow in the middle of the vegetable garden. Many years ago, Nightlights had been called Scarecrows, but over time popular culture had turned scarecrows into objects from nightmares and the patrolling Guardians hadn’t liked that very much. This scarecrow dated back to that time; certainly it wasn’t needed to frighten away hungry birds. It even had a name, John O’Field. And it wasn’t scary at all. It was a sack of straw, dressed in human clothes, and everybody ignored it except when it was falling apart.

Mascot.

Jehane tucked a knee up against her chest and rested her chin on it. The shadow music whispered to her. Seth and Ajax were coming down the hall. A small part of her mind squirmed and begged her to run away, that they would only come and take what they wanted and leave again. They were too lost in their own worlds to help her, or to let her be more than a bit player in their stories.

But there was John O’Field, looking at her with button eyes, joining the others into backing her into a corner. Seth always let her get into corners with no way out.

“There you are, Jehane,” said Ajax, stepping through the sliding door. “Why are you lurking out here?”

“I’m looking at the scarecrow,” she said, and watched the flicker of incomprehension on his face. She could have said ‘bees’ or ‘plibbity’ for all that it mattered.

He went on as Seth stepped in behind him. “Uh, we were just talking to Savannah. She says that Hatherly’s plan is to apply his machine to everybody, permanently— even other Nightlights, so he can make some kind of super-Nightlight. I’m trying to figure out what this means for Natalie. Is she just a test subject?”

Jehane watched as Seth circled around Ajax, then glanced around the courtyard before finally looking at her.

“What do you think, Seth?”

“I think you should take this as an important lesson,” said Seth severely. “You spend all your time trying to figure out how the echthroi can be brought back again. But how can anybody who wants to wipe out everything be anything other than irredeemably evil?”

Jehane shot to her feet. “Once you said you wanted to destroy everything.”

Seth grinned at her. “Yeah, well, that’s kind of my point, isn’t it?”

“How can you be like this? Abandon everything and laugh about it? Even if Natalie is dead, this isn’t what she would have wanted for you.”

“If she’s dead she doesn’t care. And if she’s alive, she’d probably be happy to see me this way.” Jehane stared at him and he went on. “Sometimes I play a little game. I try to figure out who would face Natalie and die instantly, and who would face her and have a chance of killing her. But I don’t want to have to include myself in that game, now do I? That would just be sick. Best to limit it to you, Ajax, Rohan. Kwan. Dad.” His gaze scanned the courtyard. “You’d all die.”

Jehane felt cold, then hot, then cold again. This couldn’t go on, any longer. She was trapped in a corner, all alone, and this time, Seth was the one trapping her. Her fingers closed around her stage 2 weapon. “Shut up,” she said, pointing it at him.

Seth’s smile flickered off. “Now, now, Jehane. Are you trying to get yourself on the list of people I’m avoiding? You don’t want that. You’d miss me.”

Ajax laughed without humor. “I told you so, man. And here I thought you were itching for a fight.”

Angrily, Seth said, “Dude, you want to screw my sister. Fighting you is easy.”

Jehane took two steps forward and swung her weapon. Both Seth and Ajax scattered. From behind the bench, Seth said, “Have you lost your mind, Jehane?”

“Maybe I’ve found it.” She pointed the weapon at him again. “You’re always playing games with me, Seth. Let’s play my game now.” Her weapon flickered, and she frowned. “You don’t want to go back to Earth at all, do you? You don’t even try.”

“Why should I? What’s out there that’s worth protecting? Even if Natalie is still out there, she always protected me.” His voice savage, he added, “And I will lose everything if I see her broken.”

“But you don’t want to fight me.” Jehane took three steps then leapt, hurling herself to the top of the bench and onto Seth, who didn’t get away fast enough. She knocked him down, landing with her knees on his torso. He goggled up at her, then faster than she could gasp, flipped her over and pinned her down for a few seconds. Then, just as she moved to find an escape, he leapt up and away.

She scrambled to her feet again, swinging the weapon that returned to her hand. He dodged and backed up. “Why won’t you fight me?” she demanded.

“Because it’d be unsporting,” he said. His mocking smile was back.

She swung again. “I think you’re afraid.”

He snorted. “Of you?”

“I think you’re afraid,” she repeated, and swung her weapon again. This time, the hot-cold focus traveled from her head down to her hand, and the stage 2 weapon flared and changed. The glowing grip acquired reality, mote by mote, even as it lengthened. The blade changed, too, becoming strange and curved and tri-part. It looked unpleasant, and it was much, much longer than her stage 2 weapon, and it sang in her hand, a song she’d never heard and always knew. The glyph on the blade read ‘Desperation’.

Behind them, Ajax laughed, but Seth stared at her in horror. “What the hell? Why would you get that out against me?”

The blade wanted to pierce him, hold him still, and tie a string through him. She thought, perhaps, and held it back.

“You’re afraid. Of hurting me. Of hurting your family. I think you still have things you want to protect. They’re just all in the Tower.”

He shrugged, watching her weapon in fascination. “You could look at it that way. So what?”

“So I’m going out again. And you’re coming with me.”

“I’m not Nightlight material, Jehane. I’m not… a good person like Natalie is. Like you are. I don’t care about people just because they’re people.”

“I don’t care!” she shouted. “I don’t care. Be my Nightlight. Don’t leave me alone in the dark just because you’re afraid.”

He stared at her, his expression as serious as she’d ever seen it. “I’m grounded until my mother thinks I’m not self-destructive anymore.”

“I can convince her. She’ll trust me, even if she doesn’t trust you.”

Seth looked away. “Of course she will.”

Her weapon melted away, and she suddenly felt a lump in her throat. “Seth? Do you trust me?”

He looked back at her, and a smile touched his eyes. “Can you do that again?”

She held out her hand and called on the song. The weapon came. It still wanted to pierce him, hold him down, make him listen, make him understand in blood. “Yes,” she said hesitantly. “Although it’s scary.”

His smile returned. “Keep calling that weapon and I’ll trust you forever.”

“Aww,” said Ajax, crossing the courtyard. “Time for a group hug.”

Seth said, “Back off, big guy. Go hug a blade.” But he hesitantly put an arm out to Jehane. She sent the weapon away and went to him, pressing her face against his shirt as he awkwardly patted her back. “I’m not what anybody wanted me to be,” he whispered. “I can’t make any promises. I can’t be who I was.”

“But you’ll fight.”

“That’s an evil looking weapon you have there, Jehane. What choice do I have?”

Illumination 7.10: Zap

“Only ten minutes before it turned back into gloop,” said Ajax, as he and Seth strolled along a corridor. “That’s not very long.”

“It’s longer than most battles against the Awakened,” Seth pointed out.

“But turning it into weapons isn’t important. We can all make weapons.” Ajax considered the adults who couldn’t, and added, “Or otherwise acquire them. Nah, it has to be useful some other way.”

“I’d like to see what Jehane does with it,” said Seth.

“She’s always your guinea pig, isn’t she?”

“More of a rat in a maze,” said Seth, but there was an edge to his voice.

Ajax looked at him, then finally said, “Be careful, man.”

“Or what?” Seth grinned. “You’ll kick my ass? Finally!”

Pushing a hand through his hair, Ajax sighed. Seth added, “Come on, what do you think will happen? You don’t know her any better than you know the rest of us.”

Ajax wondered if the ever-present desire to stomp on Seth’s skull meant he was a friend. The guys at his old school had never been half as irritating. “Not as well as I know you, at least. But Seth, man, you follow me around like a puppy begging for a kick. I think I know you pretty well now.”

Seth looked away, down the hall. “You’re the only person who doesn’t talk about Natalie like she’s gone.”

“Me and your mom, you mean.”

Seth scowled. “She doesn’t count. I couldn’t convince her she was wrong if I presented video evidence. She’s a mom.

Kick him! Grind his face into his ears! But Ajax ignored the little voice— he was getting quite good at it— and tried to think about what Seth said.

Seth suddenly darted down the corridor.

“Hey, where are you—?” Ajax went after him.

They ended up in the Tower core, Ajax barreling into Seth when he stopped suddenly. After a flurry of shoving and Elian’s “Not again,” Ajax disengaged and put a table between himself and Seth. Only then did he see what Seth had been chasing.

Kwan had frozen in the act of helping Savannah, the Prowler, into a chair. They both stared at Ajax and Seth. Ajax did his best to indicate, without pointing any fingers, that it was Seth’s fault, as usual. Then he noticed how pale Savannah was.

Seth threw himself into a chair at the table beside Savannah’s. “And what are you two doing?”

The look Kwan gave Seth suggested Ajax wasn’t the only person with persistent fantasies of hitting Seth, but all he said was, “Perhaps we should go someplace more private, Savannah? Away from long noses?”

Savannah shook her head. “No. Maybe they should hear this, too.”

“Ooh!” said Seth. “Is it a confession? I love confessions.”

“Shut up, Seth,” Savannah said. “I woke up this morning thinking about Hatherly. I remembered that I first got to know him years ago right after I joined the Prowlers. He was thinking about retiring from the Nightlights business, and wanted to take a vacation to explore the land beyond. So he came out with my team on a run, to check on some of the other towers. We went to Tower Di.”

“The first tower that re-activated?” Ajax asked.

“Yes. Hatherly was really interested in exploring the tower, and at one point, he got lost. We couldn’t find him for most of the day. I remembered that when he showed up again, he was… strange. Like he’d seen something, maybe a new kind of monster. But when we asked him about it, he laughed it off.”

“So he found something and he went back for it,” said Seth. “So?”

“It didn’t occur to me before, but— well, we get a basic data dump from the other Towers whenever they’ll let us. It’s nothing deep, nothing that would upset the Tower spirit, just a log of recent activity if they’ll share it. Tower Di usually does. So I went digging. There’s nothing from the most recent trip, of course— he convinced it to delete it or withhold it. But further back, from around the time Hatherly first visited the Tower, I found some things.” She paused, looking down at the table. Nobody said anything, not even Seth.

“It’s chaotic,” she finally went on. “Hard to parse, hard to translate. But there are references to a device. Many devices— Di’s engineering records must have been preserved quite well. But one in particular that Di didn’t like to talk about. It seemed to be designed to intensify light.”

Ajax frowned. “Like a laser? That doesn’t seem related.”

“No, it’s a… a metaphorical light.”

Kwan met Savannah’s gaze, and after a long moment, he said, “Ah. I see.”

“What?” demanded Ajax.

“The Antecessors called the monsters we face Awakened Darkness. The ‘light’ is our anima, or something related.”

“I think so,” said Savannah. “It’s a strange theory and I can’t tell how much of it is the creative interpretation of the Tower Di spirit. But they seemed to believe that there’s a great light hidden behind a great darkness. The light is blocked, but it seeps through cracks in the darkness. And there’s something about… sealing up all the little cracks, and a stronger light will force itself through the big cracks.”

“Light doesn’t work that way,” objected Ajax. “Does it?”

Seth started laughing. “I know a little about lasers.” He pointed a fingergun at Ajax. “Zap, zap. Oh man.” He laughed again. “We’re the lasers. The luminators activate us—” he caught Kwan’s eye and calmed down. “Sorry, sorry. Go on.”

“Somebody could probably make it work as a story but it’s really just a metaphor. And— it’s true. I’d dismiss it all as ravings but he’s got a machine that can partially shut down smaller animas and make, ah, activated ones stronger.” Savannah looked around, meeting everybody’s gaze one at a time. “But the device Di talked about wasn’t designed to make us better at fighting battles. It was designed to end the war. Focus the machine until there’s only one light left, completely shut down all other lights, and that light would be so strong it would destroy the darkness.”

Ajax said, “Uh, would there be anybody around after to appreciate it?”

Savannah shrugged. “Who knows?”

Seth said, “What we need to answer that is an Antecessor. Oh wait! They’re all gone.” He smiled. “Seems to me the question answers itself.”

 

Illumination: 7.9: Flexibility

Ajax stood in a storeroom near the curtain wall. Once, he’d waited here in darkness for monsters to attack, and Natalie had come to him instead. Although the damage from that nightfall had been repaired, when he closed his eyes, he could smell her hair in the still air.

He’d wasted what little chance he had to be close to her, get to know her, wasted it with his own self-centered idiocy. But it didn’t seem to matter; when he closed his eyes, he felt her close to him. He saw the curve of her mouth as she smiled, the fall of her pale hair, her long, slender hand as she held a weapon. Her warmth, her vulnerability. He’d been able to hurt her, and he could never make up for that.

He wanted very much to look at her again.

Seth was convinced she was broken, beyond hope. Ajax couldn’t understand it. It was, he thought, the only gift he could give to Natalie now: the faith brought on by his outsider status. He knew he could bring her home again.

If only he could find her.

If only he was right.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Seth peeked through the door into the storeroom. “There you are.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake— Elian!”

“I didn’t tell him,” said Elian defensively.

Seth said, “Trying to have a moment, are we?”

“Go away,” Ajax snapped.

Seth gave him a thoughtful look. “I’d say ‘make me’ but you’d just run away again. What are you doing here?”

“Trying to do something useful.”

“What a good boy!” When Ajax gave him a flat, cold look, Seth said, “Sorry. Is it dangerous, this useful thing?”

Ajax sighed. “I don’t know. Probably just frustrating. Did Natalie tell you about the stuff in these crates?”

Seth shook his head. “They’re full of the goop Kentigern used to repair some of the Tower with, though. Elian now, I assume.”

“Our own animas can shape it too,” said Ajax. “Natalie didn’t know that and it made it harder for her, but it was definitely possible.”

“Weird.” Seth opened up a box and poked his finger into the contents. “It’s like bread dough. Wasn’t it bricks before?”

“Yes,” said Elian crossly. “But we had to use a lot to repair the Tower.”

“What exactly is it?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

Startled, Ajax said, “What?”

“I’m still new to this! If you cut yourself open and something yellow comes oozing out, do you know exactly what’s going on?”

Seth quickly pulled his hand out of the box and wiped it on his jeans.

“But you can use it,” said Ajax stubbornly. “You use it now and you used it before you were Elian.”

“Ugh, I hate that phrasing. And my memories of that time are especially fragmented. Once I get everything filed, I should be able to access most of the knowledge of the time before the… change. But even then, stuff’s missing. When I— Kentigern— when the Tower spirit first reformed itself, it did so partially by rewriting some of its broken memories with human things. That’s why I don’t know as much about the Antecessors as I theoretically should. They were corrupted and repaired with a human overlay. Anyhow, I know how to use it and I know how to get more but some of the details are… missing.”

“Well, how do you use it?”

A cloud of motes drifted from the walls and settled on a lump of the stuff. It vanished, like the motes were devouring it, leaving a crater behind. Then the motes flew back to the walls. “And then I use it to build foundational things like the walls and the chassis and casings and more motes. And the motes make the stuff from natural materials gathered from outside, and… and dust and things.”

“Are we supposed to be able to use it?” Ajax demanded. Seth was staring at the dough, his gaze faraway.

“That’s one of those details I mentioned. This place isn’t like Earth. Things that are good for Nightlights are easier, things that are bad for Nightlights are harder. I think it— here— was custom-built to host Guardians. If so, maybe you’re supposed to be able to use it. But I don’t know!”

“What’s it called?” asked Seth.

“Agilica, but it’s actually a mixture of three substances: korlathi material, tashin substrate and quisting agent.”

Elian sounded so proud of himself for spooling off that gibberish that Ajax couldn’t help saying, “Good job.”

“Yeah. Agilica, huh?” said Seth. He put his hand on the dough again and concentrated. It bubbled under his hand and then he pulled one of his knives from the dough.

He held it out to Ajax. “Take it.”

Ajax stared at him, then took the knife. It stayed solid and real in his hand.

“Wow,” said Seth.

“Yeah,” said Ajax. “Wow.”

Illumination 7.8: The Box

Natalie refused to make it easy for them, because she had to fight back somehow. They were going to move her, and she had to be ready for any opportunity to escape. What she would do if she escaped into the labyrinth of the enemy Tower was beyond her. Run. Try to find the exit to the land beyond. It had worked for Surge when he’d invaded her home, after all.

But what was important was that she fought. She couldn’t make it easy for them.

She was careful with her food and drink, tasting it carefully and waiting. They wouldn’t drug her that way.

They didn’t.

She didn’t know how they’d slipped her the sedative. She only realized they had after the darkness started gently rotating around her head, black rainbows dazzling in the blind sky. And at first, she wasn’t even afraid. It took way too much energy to be afraid, and the spiral of ebony light was really interesting.

But then real light came, and Hatherly and Malachi and Surge, and a box. The sight of the box woke up her horror. It was a crate the size of a dishwasher, and she understood immediately what they intended on doing with her.

Malachi levered the top off the box, while Hatherly moved to Natalie with some cord in one hand. “Are you sleepy? Let’s tie you up anyhow.”

Natalie scrambled backward but as soon as she tried to stand up, she fell over. Her legs were tree trunks, and her arms were too long, and she wept. Surge stepped around the box and behind her, one clawed paw coming out to catch her. She turned and started climbing over his back, and Hatherly caught her foot and pulled her back again. Frantically, she tried to call her weapon, but nothing happened. She had the queerest sense she wasn’t herself; why would her weapon come to her? Then she lashed out wildly, her fist clipping Hatherly on the jaw.

He smiled, and pushed her to the ground, on her stomach. Surge’s paw settled on her back, holding her down as Hatherly tied her hands and feet. Then the men picked her up and dumped her into the box.

It was lined with several furniture pads, and not quite big enough for her to sit in. She remembered hiding under the dining room table with Seth when they were young, the tablecloth for the holiday dinner making a tent.

Then a hand reached in and pushed her head down, and they replaced the crate’s cover. The pleasant memory vanished.

She was in a box. It closed all around her. When something picked the box up, she fell against one side and started kicking the crate with her tied-together feet. Her kicks were weak, but it had to be making it harder for them.

She had to fight.

Hatherly laughed, and thumped the box back again. “Tick tock. Don’t wear yourself out too quickly.”

Natalie sobbed, and then panicked again, because her face was covered in snot and she couldn’t wipe it off. She struggled and twisted and fought her own body until she dragged her hands under her legs and she could scrub her face against her arm. Then she pressed her face against the single airhole in the side of the crate and dragged in a breath. The overwhelming panic receded, but the dreamlike wooziness rose in its place. It wasn’t better.

A moment later, she felt the void of portal transition. They were taking her through Earth to the new Tower. Hope flared. If she could do something— The Echthroi still used the same emergence points as the Guardians, as far as she knew. She had to come up with something to do, some way to leave a message near the emergence, so her friends would know she was still alive and sane.

She thumped into another wall as the box tilted, and Hatherly said, “Careful, Surge.”

Her weapon wouldn’t come to her. She couldn’t reach that place of focus. The dreams whispering in her head argued with her. But if she could, if she could hurt herself enough to bleed—

A few spots of blood on the pavement. It would mean nothing to a passing Nightlight, not even looking for her. Because they weren’t looking for her, were they? It was policy. Laurel had wanted them to look for Aya, and look what had happened there.

And here she was, utterly powerless and how far from a mirror could they be? In the dark, carried by a monster, in a box with the walls closing around her, and she couldn’t move more than a few inches in any direction and she was trapped.

She tried to scream, but what emerged was just a whimper.

From the depths of the dream came a memory. Malachi, standing beside the crate, looking at her. Calm, impassive. Empty. Void, the Cambions called him.

A breath of clarity blew through Natalie. Powerless. In all ways but one.

She could make a Cambion, too.

She tried to remember what Hatherly had said, and what Surge had told her about the process. But all she could remember was Malachi, after he killed the human attackers in the alley in Shanghai. How haunted and sad and anxious he’d seemed. How he hated and loved humanity at the same time.

Tears filled her eyes again, this time for Malachi the murderer. How could Hatherly consider him a failure?

Another memory emerged from the dream-depths. Soon after she’d been rescued by the Guardians, Jehane had asked them if an Awakened could ever be a friend, could ever do something productive. It had been a stupid child’s question at the time, but that was before Natalie saw soldiers with Awakened protectors, before she’d seen Surge’s inquiring intelligence. Now, she was desperate to make it true.

It was a horrible paradox: create a child of despair and madness to assure those who loved her she wasn’t beyond hope. Would it even be true? Could she even do it?

They won’t come, whispered a dream-Hatherly. You’ve dedicated your whole life to their ideals, carrying Seth along with you, pulling others into their service, but they won’t come. They have already given up. You are a monster, and Guardians kill monsters.

They loved me. They trusted me. I had more responsibility than anyone my age.

They loved the Nightlight. They loved the honor student. They loved the shield, the babysitter, the excuse, so good, so helpful, everybody’s darling. Such promise, squandered. But broken Natalie, who can’t exist without pacing like a caged animal, starving and lost and shattered, a snuffed star? Best to forget about her. You are already gone. You are already ours, one way or another. And they will never know otherwise.

They’ll never know I fought. They’ll never know I tried. They’ll bury a golden girl in a box while she’s still alive.

And they’ll secretly think that the mess left over is the weakness, and the weakness is the truth. That you were never good enough. That they were wrong to trust you. This all started when you brought Ajax home, after all.

They’ll never know. They’ll never care.

I am alone.

The thought filled Natalie, top to bottom. She felt herself split into two.