Illumination 7.7: Uncomfortable Truths

Seth ambled along the corridor to the dining hall, keeping a sharp eye out for people he didn’t want to meet. His mother hadn’t been working her usual shifts in the Tower kitchen since Natalie was taken away, but he didn’t know when that would change. It was easiest to go get food during the shifts he knew she preferred to spend at home. Everybody in the dining hall knew him, of course; they’d watched him grow up. But they weren’t pests. His mom was such a strong-willed woman that nobody really knew what to do when her own son was avoiding her, but it was, they seemed to think, best to stay out of the line of fire.

Even alone, Seth smiled at the thought, or at least his face stretched along familiar lines. It was best. It was all for the best.

“There you are,” a voice growled. He jerked around wildly, then relaxed. It was only the Tanist, advancing on him with murder in her eyes. He’d sort of been avoiding her, too— not with the pathological precision he avoided his mother and siblings, but just skipping the mentoring meetings she kept trying to arrange.

“Hey, Tanist, where have you been? You never call, you never write. But oops, look at the time. I was just going to go get some dinner. I’m a growing boy, you know.”

Her hand closed on his arm. “Hell with that.” She dragged him into a side corridor. Bemused, Seth let her. A moment later they were at a small lounge looking out onto the conservatory. “What is with you and your attitude, boy? Don’t you ever learn?”

A little irritated, Seth said, “Hey, I haven’t mouthed off to you in weeks, lady. What’s your problem?”

She frowned at him. “You’ve been horrible to your family.”

Seth flopped into one of the overstuffed chairs and hooked a leg over the arm. “I’ve been perfectly polite to my father, so I don’t know what you’re worried about.”

“You treat your father just as you always do. By the way, I do know it wasn’t him that made you ‘apologize’ to me, so don’t pretend it was. But I’m talking about your mother.”

Frowning, Seth asked, “Why do you care about how I treat my mother? I thought you hated my mother.”

The Tanist looked astonished. “I don’t hate your mother at all.”

Seth yawned to cover his unease. “You fooled me. You’re a true bitch about her to my father, every time she comes up.”

A tiny smile flickered across the Tanist’s face. “I am often a bitch to your father. It’s the least I can do for him. But Valeria… it’s not her fault.”

“What isn’t?”

The Tanist hesitated, then shook her head. “You take after your father too much. Look, Natalie’s absence hurts all of us, kid. I had such high hopes for her. She was worth every damn.”

“Ouch,” he said mildly.

“You deserve it, just like your father does.” She sighed. “But look, I can’t threaten you anymore because Val’s been hurt enough. Just… make up with her. She deserves a better elder son, but what she’s got is you, and I will damn well find a way to make up for your father’s lapses if you don’t get your act together. And that’s a promise, not a threat,” she added.

Seth stared at the Tanist until suddenly two brain cells banged together and a new idea was born. “What the hell? And here I thought you had a thing for my dad.” He considered, or added thoughtfully, “Or maybe that Prowler, Linc. A guy, anyhow.”

She gave him a cool look. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And Linc? God, no. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“You were so upset when he was injured,” Seth pointed out. “You went jumping down everybody’s throats.” He considered. “You never really stopped, either.”

She gave him a funny look, then said, “And thus I have a ‘thing’ for him? I wonder if you’re listening to yourself. Have you noticed how upset you are about Natalie?”

Blandly, he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The Tanist curled her mouth like she’d tasted something unpleasant. Then the expression melted away and she sighed. “Once your mother and I were very close. I wanted to be closer than she did. But I don’t blame her.”

“You blame my dad instead? Because that makes sense. No, wait, it doesn’t.”

She shrugged. “I don’t deny that he loves her. But she doesn’t love him any more than she loved me. He won through virtue of being male, and I punish him for not being the man she could truly love.” She smirked at him. “Does the truth hurt, kid?”

“Uh. It’s certainly uncomfortable.”

“Well, you’ve moved out. You’re all grown up. You’ve earned your grown-up truths.” Her expression sobered. “But make up with your mother. She does love you, the moron.”

Seth narrowed his eyes. “Only because she gave birth to me. She’s always loved Natalie and the kids more.”

“Boohoo. You’ve always loved Natalie and your mom more than your father, haven’t you?”

“Hey, it’s not like he’s Ajax’s dad. He’s just… not my role model.” He eyed the Tanist. “Though I may have to reconsider. Hanging around you all these years, knowing how much you dislike him. That’s some premium provocation right there.”

Stiffly, the Tanist said, “I’ve always understood it to be an attempt to smooth things over. Besides, it’s not like we can avoid each other living in the Tower.”

“It’s not so hard. But you just keep telling yourself that.” Then, under his breath, he added, “Go, Dad!”

To his disappointment, the Tanist only rolled her eyes and blew out her breath. “You know, you’re too much like your father, but you’ve got your mother in you, too. More than I bet you realize. You can project whatever you want onto Jake, but he was the good kid. Valeria was the one who got into trouble. She made mistakes. And God, I can’t believe I just defended Jake.”

“I can’t, either. What kind of trouble did she get into?”

The Tanist smiled. “Ask her.” Then she blew him a kiss, and strolled away.

Seth stared after her. Then his face tightened and he muttered, “As if,” before returning to the hunt for dinner.

Illumination 7.6: Souls

Jehane, quiet and still, sat in her room. A tablet sat in her lap, the screen dimmed as she stared off into space. When the knock came at her door, she turned her head slowly to look at it, blinking as if she’d forgotten what a door was. “Come in.”

Ajax stood silhouetted in the doorframe for a moment, before Seth shoved him to one side. “You didn’t come to dinner.” Both boys pushed their way into her room. Or rather, Ajax stepped into the room, fending off Seth, as Seth tried to push him.

Jehane sighed. “I will leave if you two must fight here.”

Seth shrugged and grinned. “Hide and seek!” Jehane looked down at her tablet rather than at his face. She’d thought he would return to normal, return to the Seth she thought she’d known so well. They could hope for Natalie. She might be suffering, but they’d seen no evidence yet that anything had taken her beyond the point of no return. Whatever that point was.

But now she wondered if this was the true Seth, this creature, twisted and cracked, full of pain and rage and self-loathing. She wished she could teach him hope, but the concept seemed alien to him.

As happened so often these days, her thoughts drifted to Malachi. She wished she could talk to him as she could Seth, without weapons between them. She could reach him—

She covered her face with her hands, as if she could block out the insanity. Instantly, Ajax was at her side. “Are you sick? Why didn’t you come to dinner?”

“Not sick, no. I was doing research, and then… thinking.” She’d lost track of time, and neither her body nor Elian had reminded her.

Ajax sat back on his heels, his eyebrows raised. “Did you discover something exciting?”

“Lyman Waskin. PhD in neurophysics, among other things. From Los Angeles. Perfect driving record. He was suspended from his last research position for ethics violations. After investigating his home, police are looking for him so they can make inquiries connected to several missing persons. He vanished one day, apparently a few days before anybody noticed.”

After a moment of silence, Seth said, “Tainter.” Jehane nodded.

“So he’s, like, a serial killer or something. And Hatherly luminated him the same way Seth luminated me. What was his goal? His background?” Ajax stared at Jehane intently.

“Maybe he just wanted to see what happened when a crazy person was luminated,” Seth said.

“Maybe he was like me,” said Jehane. “Except nobody found him as a child and explained what was going on.”

Ajax frowned. “Is that why you’ve been digging into this? Are you feeling sympathetic to him?” He shook his head. “First that Malachi guy and now Tainter? I promise you, Jehane, Tainter is pure psycho.”

It’s a spectrum, she thought, but what she said was, “Not sympathy, no. Not exactly. I only wonder if I might turn into him someday. I was born insane, after all.”

Seth said, “Well, let’s see. Have you ever taken a secret pleasure in hurting other things? If so, you must keep it very secret.”

Startled, Jehane looked at Seth. “Not I, no.” And she looked into Seth’s eyes for a long moment, until she could no longer bear the green sparks kindled there. Seth understood Tainter too well.

“So a crazy person can become one of the bad guys. We already knew that, from Hatherly’s example,” said Ajax.

“I’d be interested in learning how he made a Cambion if he he was already insane,” Seth admitted. “Stark raving insane, I mean. Hatherly never seemed to lose touch with reality.”

“Maybe Cambions don’t come from being insane,” said Jehane.

Seth gave her a skeptical look, and she shrugged. “Did you understand the Awakened who fought for the soldiers in Detroit? We do not know everything, Seth. I’m just saying that maybe there’s something else that makes a Cambion, something unconnected to a supposedly irreversible personality shift.”

“This is about Natalie again, isn’t it?” Seth was suddenly savage. “And Malachi.”

Jehane’s fingernails pressed into her palm. “Everything is about Natalie for you, so what if this is? How would that be different?” She took a breath, then rushed on before he could interrupt her. “But it’s not, not specifically. It is about souls, Seth, and people.”

Seth shook his head, as if what she said couldn’t penetrate his blond skull. “I’m not going to stick around for this kind of talk. That’s the kind of thing Hatherly would talk about.” He slammed the door open, then slammed it closed behind him.

Ajax watched her warily. “Good job getting rid of him. I appreciate it.” When she didn’t say anything, he said, “Uh, are you going to cry? Because I can leave. Give you some privacy.” She looked at him, and he added quickly, “Or stay. You know. I’m good either way.”

She laughed, but only a small laugh, and curled her fingers around the tablet. “I’m not going to cry. I am a little hungry, though.” She stood up and moved to the snack pantry in one of the room’s alcoves.

“Oh, good. Hey, can I ask a question? Why do you always go on like you’re only one or two steps away from Hatherly’s crew? Or talk like you consider yourself insane? You’ve never seemed crazy to me.”

Jehane’s smile was tinged with sadness. “I’m still a juvenile so the term is ‘emotionally disturbed’. And it’s hard to escape your life as it was before you were eight, is it not?” Ajax didn’t say anything. She looked over her shoulder, and he was staring at the ground. “Would you like a snack as well?”

He looked up, startled. “No. I.. I think I’m going to head out, too. I’m glad you’re not sick.”

And a moment later, he was gone. Jehane looked down at her bowl of cereal, then sat down alone to eat it in silence.

Illumination 7.5: Sludge

The next time Natalie saw Hatherly, he was smiling. “My apologies for not visiting you again. I had work to do.” He sat in a chair Tainter had left behind, the light shining up into his face from its place at his feet.

Natalie rose to her knees, resting her hands on her thighs. She’d torn her fingernails to the quick, but she didn’t want him to see that. She watched him warily. She’d seen plenty of Tainter and Malachi by now, and even of the Cambion Surge. They’d become, if not safe, at least predictable. And they had no expectations of her.

“I understand you’ve been busy, too,” Hatherly went on. “All that physical activity. It’s smart of you to keep in shape. So many people locked away from the world let themselves fall apart. Would you like to hear what I’ve been working on?” He waited for Natalie’s response.

She slowly nodded.

“You and your brother seriously damaged Gate, but a clever man can always see an opportunity in every setback. In this case, Gate’s template needed tweaking anyhow. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it, until you damaged him.” Hatherly smiled again. “I’ve completed the basic updates, and he’s quite functional again.” He paused, apparently to see if Natalie had a reaction to this. But she felt dull and empty, as if his words were motes of dust in a vast chamber. “For the next stage, we need more korlathi material than this tower has on hand, but Surge has found another that should have a sufficient supply.”

Natalie stared at Hatherly for a long moment, until a question finally bubbled up from the sludge her brain felt trapped in. “Your cambions are part machine. How?”

Hatherly seemed pleased by the question. “Antecessor machines are strange things. Cambions aren’t too different from the creatures manufactured by the shattered towers. Once I understood that, everything else fell into place.”

Another thought crawled out of the darkness. “You think if you keep me here long enough, I’ll join you voluntarily, don’t you?”

“My girl, everybody voluntarily joins me. The problem is that most of them go too far. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t have what it takes. Maybe they weren’t strong enough.” He sighed. “But I’m always adjusting my training methods, just in case. Others will reach the point I’ve reached. It’s an evolutionary inevitability.”

A memory flashed and sparkled. Somebody had said something. “Whatever point you reached, I heard you aren’t there anymore.”

Hatherly’s face twitched. “That isn’t an appropriate topic of conversation!”

Natalie shrugged. “They’ve got to talk about something. None of us are watching the latest TV.”

Hatherly stared at her, his breathing heavy. Then it deepened, steadied. “The encounter in Detroit was challenging in more than one way. The Tanist’s betrayal, and the means we used to escape both hurt me. I don’t have the balance I had before. Sometimes punishing them seems very important, and my dream seems so hopeless…” He shook his head. “But I wrote everything down. I remember. Surge remembers, too. I have you now. I always knew I’d need more than myself.” He trailed off into silence, staring down at the light.

Natalie shifted uncomfortably, and brought her fingers to her mouth. When she tasted blood, she tucked her hand under her thigh.

Then he looked up, his eyes bright. “We’ll be moving you soon, to the new tower. I don’t think it would be nice to spring that on you, do you? But please don’t try to plan anything surprising, because we’re going to take all sorts of special precautions to ensure your safety.” He stood up.

Natalie remembered what Tainter said about anticipation and fear being important, and wondered if Hatherly believed what he was saying. She realized she’d much rather have Tainter in the room, not just because she was starting to predict him, but because of the way he treated her. It wasn’t pleasant, it was if she was a science experiment and he was a mad scientist. But when he watched her, he watched her. Hatherly seemed to be looking at a vision projected on an internal screen. No matter what she did, she couldn’t know how it would translate on the screen in his head. He would hurt her, and not even know that what he was doing caused pain.

She shuddered, and stretched out on the floor again, closing her eyes and waiting for him to go away.

Illumination 7.4: Round and Round

“We may have to get you plastic surgery before we let you out again,” said Elian. “A ski mask would be less suspicious than your face.”

Ajax, staring blindly at the book he was supposed to be reading, jerked out of his reverie. He sat at a table in the Tower Core. “What are you talking about?”

“I just finished processing the net dump an agent sent me. I don’t know if they did it on purpose, but there’s been a media leak containing some of the information the military forces picked up during the Detroit action. Your face is all over the place.” Elian stopped abruptly.

Ajax guessed. “Where did my father sell his story?”

“Nowhere respectable. It doesn’t matter. It’s not just you, either; they’ve got other faces.”

“But not stories to go with them.” Ajax frowned down at his book. “Was Natalie’s face leaked, too?”

Elian paused. “Yes.”

Ajax smiled. “That’s good. Just like a face on a milk carton.”

“If you say so.”

“Look, does it really matter that they know more than they used to? They don’t know enough. They can crack down on all the travel methods they want to but they don’t know about the portals.”

“I don’t have portals in every city, Ajax. A lot of assigned Nightlights rely on normal transit. But that’s not the real problem. People here spend their whole lives acting as secret protectors of humanity. Being considered terrorists is… demotivating.”

Ajax stared at the wall. “It must be horrible to have your movements restricted. Just awful to have everybody distrust you. I can’t imagine.” He paused, then looked down at his book again. It was a history of the Guardians of the Precipice during the sixteenth century. The historical accounts were as dull as history could be, but some of the actual documents reproduced were interesting, and the songs and folklore that referenced the Guardians were fascinating. None of it was relevant today. In the sixteenth century, the Guardians may not have had tablets and TVs, but they still had the portals and the latchkeys. Both provided an enormous advantage both logistically and in communication. Now, Earth had the advantage in communications in many regions. Studying the volume was nothing but busywork now.

“Seth is looking for you,” said Elian, his voice subdued.

Ajax snapped the book closed. “Of course he is.”

“Are you two going to break something again? If so, I’d rather you were back in the gymnasium.”

“No. That was an accident.” Ajax muttered, giving the column of light in the center of the room a sidelong glance.

“You could hide.” Elian didn’t bother trying to disguise his anxiety.

“That makes sense. Seth is hiding from his entire family, and I’m the only person he’ll talk to now. So I should hide from him.” He shook his head. “No. If nothing else, I owe it to Natalie.” All the progress Ajax thought he’d made with Seth had been destroyed by Jehane’s news that the echthros machine had been repaired. The consequences had been… messy.

“He’s not really talking to you,” pointed out Elian.

“I know.” Ajax stretched out his legs and leaned back to wait.

A few moments later, Seth appeared at the door. “How goes the book reports, big guy? I bet they just fill up the time like anything.” He peered at the book on the table. “Ancient history. Good choice. Very head-in-the-sand.” He clapped Ajax on the shoulder. “Man, I wish I had your ability to just ignore reality.”

“You just can’t let it go, can you?”

Seth’s glittering grin flickered in astonishment. “Let it go? We lost Natalie trying to destroy that fucking machine. Now, they’ve got her and their machine is working again. Well, I say ‘we’ but I don’t know why. You didn’t lose a damn thing. You never had anything to lose. She was pretty clear about that, wasn’t she?”

Ajax looked down at his fists on the table. It was like blood in the water for a shark, but he couldn’t help himself.

“What are you calling the machine now, Elian? Didn’t you come up with some snazzy name for it?” asked Seth.

“Absolute Focus Field Generator,” said Elian.

Seth snickered, then leaned over to look into Ajax’s face. “It’s so cute that they named it. Almost as cute as the good little boy you’re trying so hard to be. No wonder Natalie wasn’t interested in you.”

“No wonder,” said Ajax. “You’re lucky there’s people in this rock that care about you. I think it would be hilarious to toss you through a portal and watch your collapse.”

“Lucky? You call it lucky? You’re the lucky one. An only child, dead mom, dad who doesn’t care. I would love to be in your situation. Man, now I understand how you can just sit there—” Seth paused, waggling his eyebrows, as Ajax’s breath hissed between clenched teeth.

Maybe I owe it to Natalie to knock the shit out of him. But Seth wouldn’t let it stop at a brawl. As far as Ajax could tell, Seth wanted to commit suicide by Ajax.

“I’m so jealous of you,” Seth whispered. “Please, tell me how to get my own parents to leave me alone like yours have. You did it so well.”

Blood pounded in Ajax’s head. Elian said something, but the words didn’t make sense. He wanted to smear Seth’s face against the wall. Again.

He stood up. “Your mother cries enough because of you. I’m not going to make that worse by breaking every bone in your body, no matter how prettily you beg.” He found a smile. “I’ll let Natalie do that instead.”

As he walked out, Seth called, “You’re insane, you know that?” then muttered, “I wish I was.”

Illumination 7.3: Guest Starring

“Hey, look at these shoes!”

Jehane wasn’t the only novice out on patrol with Rose and Kotone. Jolie, a classmate, was along, too. She acted more like it was a shopping trip.

Rose walked back to the window Jolie had her nose pressed against. “Those straps are useless.”

Jehane goggled at the spikes. “Where would you wear shoes like that?”

Rose laughed at Jehane’s expression. “Not on patrol.”

Kotone said thoughtfully, “I’d wear those,” and pointed at a pair of open-toed lace-up heeled boots.

The other two girls admired the boots, and Jehane stared at them in amazement. Natalie and Seth had never, ever stopped to look at shoes while on patrol.

It wasn’t as if the girls were slackers, either. As soon as they’d come through the emergence point, Rose and Kotone had headed to an Awakened feeding point and dispatched the monster there with cool competence.

Rose smiled at Jehane. “Natalie’s still pretty intense, right? She always takes everything so seriously. She did that even when she was our novice.”

“Took,” said Kotone, soberly. She started drifting back down the patrol route again.

“Probably still ‘takes’,” said Rose, reasonably. “None of those bastards seem to have much of a sense of humor.”

Kotone shrugged, and crossed the street to look at a dress store.

Jolie fell into step beside Jehane. “Everybody copes in their own way, I guess. Speaking of which… how’s Ajax doing? You two are friends, right? Just friends?”

Startled, Jehane said, “Um, friends, yes, I think?”

“Was he close to Natalie? There were rumors for a while…” Jolie’s eyes gleamed as she watched Jehane. “Does he need… comforting?”

Jehane wasn’t sure what to say. Ajax was determined to rescue Natalie, but she didn’t really have a strong grasp on why. It seemed, though, that she ought to keep Jolie out of his way, if she could. “He doesn’t seem to need much comforting.”

A slow smile curved over Jolie’s face. “I’ll take that as a good sign, then.”

“Um…” The shadow music surged, interrupting Jehane’s thought. She turned her head, triangulating, then called to the others. “A cluster of Awakened is fighting in that direction.”

Kotone tilted her head, listening. “I can barely hear it.” She looked at Jehane like she was a nice pair of boots. “You are useful, aren’t you?”

An unexpected rush of pleasure passed over Jehane at the praise, and she sternly told herself, Not a dog. Not shoes! But it didn’t matter. Being appreciated just as she was, without pressure to become something else, was nice.

They approached the cluster together, until the older girls told Jehane and Jolie to stay back and safe. Then, they moved in to clean up the mess. Jehane watched their technique intently, until she realized Jolie was busy looking at her cellphone rather than watching the fight. “Is something wrong?”

Jolie shook her head. “Just downloading some updates while we’re out here.”

Jehane glanced back at the fight, now concluding. It seemed to have gone well, but what if it hadn’t? She wanted to say something, but as usual, words failed her.

Rose jogged over. “Did you get all your updates, Jolie?” Her voice was sharp and nasty.

Jolie laughed. “Still loading. Besides, you didn’t want me involved, did you? What good would watching have done?”

“You might have learned something.”

Jolie grinned, unstung by Rose’s tone. “Nah, not me.”

Jehane frowned at Jolie, irritated by her attitude. Seth went the devil-may-care route, too, but Seth was good at what he did. As far as Jehane could tell, Jolie was only moderately skilled, a perfectly average novice.

But then Rose laughed at Jolie, and snatched her cellphone away.

“Hey!” Jolie grabbed after it, too slow.

“Get faster.” Rose flashed her teeth and ran down the street. “You can have it at the end of the patrol. Or when you take it!”

Jolie pouted elaborately, then sighed and gave Jehane a rueful grin. “I’m not going to win that challenge yet.”

Jehane had the oddest feeling, like she was wearing a costume that made her look like a normal girl. She wasn’t a freak, or a problem, or a prodigy, or somebody’s project. She was an accessory in Jolie’s life. It was a stunning, liberating realization, and she responded to Jolie’s grin with a tremulous smile of her own.

“There you go,” said Jolie. “Let’s catch up!” She caught up Jehane’s hand and pulled her into a run.

Three steps into their dash, the rechanneling field activated. Their legs tangled together and they fell, rolling hard on the pavement. Half-healed bruises screamed in pain that then faded under the rushing current of the rechanneling field feeding strength into them. The field that Natalie and Seth had fought so hard to destroy, only a week or so ago.

“No!” shrieked Rose. “Dammit, no!”

Jehane looked up. Kotone stood over them, her face hard and grim. “Get up.” Jehane and Jolie scrambled to their feet. “We’re going home.”

“Kotone, no—” began Rose.

“We’re not fighting them again, Rose. Not alone, not like this.”

Jehane whispered, “But what about Natalie?”

“What about her?” Kotone gave her a swift look. “Can you sense her?”

The field was already fading, as if the creature that generated it was moving away. Jehane shook her head. “Not this far away.” She stepped backward.

“Kotone, we can’t just let this start up again,” said Rose.

Kotone turned to Rose, a hand on her hip. “Getting ourselves killed or captured is just going to make it worse.”

“Send Jolie back,” said Rose, stubbornly.

Jolie raised a hand cautiously. “I’m okay with that plan.” Jehane took another step backwards, towards the direction the field had moved.

Rose tossed Jolie her phone. Kotone grabbed Rose’s arm and shook her. “We are going home. I am not losing you and I am not losing me. Jolie, don’t let Jehane take another step backward.”

Jolie’s fingers closed over Jehane’s, and she gave Jehane an apologetic look.

Rose’s shoulders slumped, and she moved in the direction Kotone pushed. Jolie tugged Jehane after them.

“Think of it this way,” said Kotone, her voice brittle. “The less we know about what happened to Natalie, the more hope you can have.”

Jehane stopped, staring after Kotone until Jolie pulled her forward again. She thought of Malachi and his twisted set of priorities. They were twisted, but she almost understood him. And she realized she believed that if Natalie was alive, no matter what her state of mind, there was always hope.

Unfortunately, she was pretty sure she was the only person in the Tower to feel that way.

Illumination 7.2: “And one by one the stars go out.”

They kept Natalie in darkness, except for when they came to see her. Her cell was a larger closet now, with smooth floors and walls, and a rough facsimile of a toilet created by the belligerent Tower voice. The room was large enough to pace, and pace she did. The darkness swallowed her, otherwise. It was worse that having her eyes closed, worse than being blind. The Guardians called the monsters that stalked humanity Awakened Darkness for a reason, and even passive and sleeping, the endless darkness tried to creep inside.

One wall was clear, with a mesh at the top that let her visitors speak to her, and a small sliding door they used to pass her food. After a day in the dark, even oatmeal was a taste explosion. The visitors came with light more often than they came with food, to speak with her and inspect her. She didn’t want to cooperate. But she couldn’t look away from the light, and didn’t want to return to solitary silence.

Hatherly stood on the other side of the window, his hands behind his back as he watched her eat. They’d fed her three times now. Had it been a day? Two days? She wasn’t getting very hungry between meals, but once, when she’d stopped moving, she’d forgotten she had a body. She couldn’t trust its cues.

“It’s a shame you can’t be trusted yet.” Hatherly’s voice was pleasant, like they were back at home again. “But we can’t rush things. I’ve rushed things before and the results have been… unsatisfactory. Still, you do have an element of choice here, and I understand that boredom is a killer in times like these. And other things.” He sighed. “Striking a balance is hard.”

“What choice can I make, alone in the dark?”

“Even alone, you fight the darkness.”

“Isn’t that what you want?” Her voice cracked.

“No,” he said gently. “I want you to defeat it.” He left her again in darkness.

She stared at hands she couldn’t see. An hour into the darkness, she’d turned them into a stage 1 weapon, just to have something to look at. She’d watched the walls belch forth little horrors that came for her and dragged her down. Her hands burned them but they didn’t care. They’d held her until she let the light fade.

The Tower voice rasped, and the monsters faded away. “Next time,” came Hatherly’s voice in the darkness, “The tower will kill you. It presents a convincing argument that only monsters do not learn.”

Later, it was Tainter who brought the light. His Cambion came with him, and he stroked spiky fur as he crouched on the far side of the window and stared at her.

She stayed away. Even on the other side of a wall, he frightened her. She didn’t think he’d ever been sane; he was like an alien wrapped in a human skin, operating under different rules and different assumptions about the world.

He cleared his throat. “It’s a lot of work, changing the world. Nobody ever talks about the grocery shopping. It’s not all robbing banks and high security research facilities, you know. I picked up hamburger for the next meal. I do hope you like it.” He laughed. “There was a dog outside the store. It could smell Rend, I think. Poor little thing didn’t like that at all. But I gave it something else to worry about.”

Natalie gagged. Tainter moved closer to the window. “Are you sick? Would you prefer something else for your meal?”

“I don’t want anything cooked by you!”

He shook his finger. “No hunger strikes. We’ve got to keep you healthy.”

“Why? What do you want with me? What’s going to happen to me? Won’t you just tell me?”

“Oh, the boss has special plans for you. Aya was a target of opportunity, but he thinks you’re exactly what he’s looking for.”

“For what?”

Nuh-uh. Not going to spoil his surprise. Besides, isn’t the unknown so much more frightening? Being scared is important.”

“What are you guys doing now? We fought you, we destroyed your experimental machine.”

“You did fight me. I haven’t forgotten. I still have the marks! They hurt.” He grinned. “Make me feel tingly.”

Natalie stared at his feet. “What about your machine?”

“Well, it was an experiment. A prototype. One expects prototypes to break somehow. I’m a scientist, you know.”

He left, and took the light with him. She missed the light when he was gone, and thought of Seth, and threw up. She didn’t want Tainter to make her think of Seth. Seth was so much better than he was.

Was Seth even alive? He’d seemed pretty badly hurt, and she realized she didn’t know, didn’t know anything. She’d been telling herself they’d won, and she was just a final causality. But she didn’t know.

She started being unable to tell the difference between sleeping and waking. Even in her dreams, she was lost in darkness.

Aya brought her a sticky roll. It was crusted with a glazed topping, and the faintest hint of salt made the caramel almost savory.

Unlike Tainter, Aya wasn’t chatty. Natalie tried to ask her questions about Hatherly’s plans, but Aya just watched her eat.

Finally, Aya said, “I don’t know. I don’t care. I have to be here, and I’m supposed to talk to you, but there’s really nothing to say, is there?”

Natalie put down the roll. “Why are you here, Aya? Didn’t they kill Slade? You brought him back to us.”

“He’s better off dead,” said Aya. She sounded dead herself. “Hatherly still has hope. He found something. He told me we could strike at the source of the darkness.”

“Do you believe him?”

A flicker of expression passed across Aya’s face. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Natalie considered the other girl. “When we were nine, we used to play in the garden, you and I. Do you remember? We’d play tag, and hide-and-seek, and if we could get enough kids, we’d play that game where we made a chain with our hands and somebody tried to break it.”

“Shut up.”

“Your grandmother would stand with my mom and they’d talk about the babies, and how the primary school was going. Once, when we were playing hide and seek, you hid behind your grandmoth—”

Natalie wasn’t quite sure how it happened, what with the wall in the way, but somehow Aya was on her, knocking her to the ground, shrieking as she grabbed Natalie’s head and started banging it into the ground.

Two solid cracks, and a blossoming of pain and sparks, but Natalie still had more self-control than Aya. She managed to get some leverage, enough to get her shoulder under herself, and her hands up to defend herself. They rolled, and rolled again. Pain came again.

Then monsters chittered, and a shadow passed in front of the light Aya had abandoned. Malachi pulled Aya off of Natalie. Aya fought and screamed in fury. “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill your entire fucking family. I’ll kill them all, the babies and your brother and your mother, all of them.” Malachi dragged her beyond the window, which grew back into place behind him. They left the light behind.

It glowed for a few moments, before fading away. She might have slept. She might have dreamt.

Malachi was in the room, watching her. He didn’t say anything. She had no idea what to say to him. She hadn’t intended to provoke Aya into violence, just push her a little closer to who she’d been before. Now she was afraid of trying to connect again. Her head ached too much. She was afraid of him, bigger and older and far more enigmatic.

He pushed a tray through the door. “Painkiller for your head, too.”

She crawled over and took the pills, ignoring the meal. She felt too sick and afraid to be hungry.

“If you don’t eat, you won’t heal. You’ll lose your strength, end up as nothing more than Aya.” His voice was cool.

She closed her eyes. “Where is Aya?”

“She’s not allowed to come see you anymore. She’s too dangerous.”

“Did he want her for whatever he wants me for?”

“No. But what he got isn’t what he hoped for. Tainter enjoys himself too much.”

She thought the light went away, beyond her eyelids.

Time started to get strange. Conversations with different people flowed together.

Malachi said, “He wants somebody like himself. Like he used to be. Somebody who can generate many cambions.”

“It’s a sweet spot,” Tainter said. “Balancing on the edge of a knife.”

Behind closed eyes, she saw Seth, playing with his blades. He said, with Malachi’s voice, “I expect Hatherly to fail. His grand experiment will fail, and I want to see it. I know what will really happen. After all, what happened to the Antecessors?”

She opened her eyes to light. In the flare of light, she saw Ajax, a glow emanating from the curved scythe he held easily in one hand.

She blinked. It was a dream.

Somebody was watching her, but it wasn’t one of the humans. The Cambion called Surge sat on the other side of the wall, watching her calmly. Its tail was long, plug-like, and the claws on its paws were like the pins of a computer connection.

Amber eyes met her own. It spoke. “You aren’t as angry as my master. Nor as the girl Shard. I wonder if my master is right.”

Natalie shuddered, remembering the first Cambion she’d spoken to. Descry, it had called itself. They had names. She wondered if they chose them.

“Shard? Do you mean Aya?”

“Perhaps she was Aya once. I do not know. But she is Shard now. We see it.”

“What… what do you see in the others?”

The Cambion tilted its head. “In my master, I see the Ashlander. And then there is Tainter, and Void, as named by their children.”

She curled up on the floor. “If your master is angry, why are you so calm?”

“That is how I was born. First there was anger, then calm, and desire, and then there was I.”

She closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, Surge sat there. Had time passed? How could she tell?

“What do you see in me?”

After a moment of silence, Surge said, “At the heart of this world is a captured star. You and she have much in common. But it is not for me to name you. That is the task of your own firstborn.”

“Why are you visiting me? Hatherly makes the others come, I don’t know why. But why do you care?”

“I’m curious about you,” said Surge. “I’ve tasted many minds since setting out on my master’s mission. Each mind I touch seems to change the world. Isn’t that strange?”

Not an animal, Natalie thought.

The light went away. When it returned, it came with Hatherly. She sat up.

He looked at her, his hands behind his back. “I would like you to think about this. They did not come for Aya. Do you think they will come for you?”

She hadn’t been thinking about that, not at all. Not in darkness, not in light. She closed her eyes.

He went on speaking. “Sweet girl, you must remember this: now, we are all you have.”

She covered her ears.

After a moment, the light went away.

In the darkness, she began to cry.
**

Hi there and thanks for reading. If you’re on the story-only feed, I wanted to invite you to read my latest update on my upcoming novel Matchbox Girls. There’s some pretty exciting news.

Illumination 7.1: Practice, Practice

Ajax and Jehane sat together in the dining hall. Ajax was as restless and full of unfocused energy as he’d been for the last few days. His reckless plans weren’t getting the support he wanted; Elian kept stubbornly refusing to let him sneak out, and Seth was still strange and unpredictable. But Jehane thought that today she had something that would give his energy a more positive spin.

She hoped so, anyhow.

“Rose and Kotone have invited me to come along the next time they go on patrol.” She looked down at her ham and butter baguette. “It felt so odd. Like I was betraying Natalie somehow.” When she glanced up, Ajax was staring off into space. “But then I realized… you and Seth aren’t allowed to go out, but I am.” A nervous giggle escaped her. “They want me to go out. If I feel strong enough. Because I’m so delicate and fragile and helpless.” The giggle wanted to turn into a sob, so she rushed on. “I thought I’d go out and see what there is to see. Maybe it will help.”

Ajax looked at her, then nodded, his reaction so subdued that she wondered if he’d been paying attention to her. It was like he thought what she was doing was totally normal, absolutely what he expected.

It felt nice, she realized. He hadn’t been here long enough to absorb the general attitude most of the Tower took with Jehane, and even though he’d had to rescue her from Hatherly, he seemed to assume she was basically competent. She hoped she could show him how right he was.

Seth appeared as if out of nowhere and sat down beside her. “Did I hear you talking about two-timing us, Jehane? Natalie’s gone and I’m grounded, so you’re just moving on with new teachers?”

That stung, but not as much as expected. Seth’s current perspective on the world and other people wasn’t true, she’d seen that from her conversation in the gym with Ajax. So instead of answering, or arguing, she just stuck her tongue out.

Seth froze, staring at her like she’d grown a second head.

“What?”

Seth unfroze, leaning his arms on the table. “You’re normally such a good little girl. But tell you what, you go visit Earth, and Ajax and I will work really hard on his book reports. I hear if he earns enough extra credit, he can earn a whole range of prizes. Ice cream cones. Movie tickets. Echthroi latchkeys.”

Ajax raised one finger in Seth’s direction, without even bothering to look at him. “What city are you going to?”

“Minneapolis. That’s your hometown, isn’t it?”

Ajax looked away. “Yeah.”

“I bet we can go check on your dad. I mean, if you want us to.”

Ajax scowled. “Him? No way. I was thinking about the other people I knew. But I bet they’re better off now. Without me around, with my great big anima attracting all the chicks. Wait, no, I mean ‘monsters’.”

Seth said, “Awww. Hey, Jehane. I actually wanted to ask you a favor. If, while you’re out and about, you come across any of those bastards, do you think you could stab one of them for me? Well, I say ‘one of them’ but I’d like all of them. Many times. But I’ll take what I can get.”

Jehane hesitated. “Seth— I was right next to Hatherly after he killed Laurel and I couldn’t summon anything to stab him with. Even if I was in the position you want me to be in—” and she stopped. She didn’t want to commit to future incompetence, not now.

“I know. I was there.” His voice was surprisingly gentle. “Here.” He pulled a knife out from behind his back. It looked like one of his knives: subtly different in appearance, but glaringly silent against his shadow music.

Jehane recoiled, but he took her hand and put the knife in it, closing her fingers tightly. It was shockingly real against her palm. The blade was black and silver, and the grip was leather wrapped around the tang. “How in the world did you get this?”

Seth shrugged. “I bought it with my first paycheck. I wanted to see how it compared to my own weapons, see how well I could use it.”

“Why would you want to do that?” Jehane asked, bewildered.

But Ajax said, his gaze suddenly intense, “How well could you use it?”

Seth smirked. “Not very well. But you know what? Learning to use it made me better with my anima knives.”

“Huh.” Ajax’s gaze moved to the blade Jehane still clutched.

“Good luck finding a scythe, big guy.” And for a moment, Seth’s smile was his old smile. Then he looked at Jehane again, and it twisted.

“Is—is there a case for it?”

“Yes. You can put it on your back, and nobody will ever know it’s there.”

She stared at the blade, hypnotized by the light glinting off the edge. How often had Seth carried it?

“Don’t be afraid of it, Jehane.” His voice was soft. “It’s an answer, not a question.”

She dragged her gaze away from the blade and met Seth’s. Then, her fingers tightened on the grip. “All right. Show me how to hold it properly.”

Illumination 6.12: Water and Darkness

Natalie drifted in and out of a restless sleep. For a while she was aware of only three things: it was dark, she was in a confined space, and she hurt. But eventually, the insistent demands of her body became so severe that she woke up enough to feel fear.

She remembered fighting weakly against Hatherly’s hold, and then falling through a cold void. On the other side, a confusion of light and noise before another pair of arms wrapped around her. Something pressed over her face and nose, stealing her breath and replacing it with darkness.

Now her head hurt, and she was so thirsty. Her injuries ached and throbbed as she moved, exploring the space she’d been shoved into. There wasn’t much to explore. It was bigger than a coffin, but much smaller than a prison cell.

The walls of the closet felt familiar, the same smooth artificial material as in her own tower. She felt for the door iris and prodded it hopefully. It didn’t open, but the wall spoke to her, scratchy, creaky alien words that tumbled over one another far too quickly for sense.

She leaned her head on the door and tried to remember lessons. The Prowlers all knew a basic Antecessor vocabulary, because sometimes dangerously confused towers would respond to the alien words. But her head felt like a forest of seaweed and knives. Navigating back to half-forgotten lessons was impossible. And what would she do if she opened the door?

A dry sob, halfway to a laugh, escaped. She’d find something to drink, that’s what.

The door moved and opened beneath her. She stumbled and fell to her knees outside. It was almost as dim as inside the closet. Aya looked down at her.

“Not dead yet. Good, I suppose.” Her nostrils flared. “But you stink. Come with me.” Aya waited until Natalie pushed herself to her feet, then turned on her heel and stalked down a long corridor. Natalie looked around at the walls, then followed her.

“Are you all right, Aya?” Her voice came out as a croak.

“I’m fine.” Aya’s voice was flat and calm.

“Are the others here? Hatherly?”

“Yes.” Aya opened another door and stepped into the room beyond. Natalie hesitated. “Where are we going?”

“You stink. You need a shower. You can use mine.”

Natalie’s body, thirsty and filthy, didn’t even allow her to think. As she moved past Aya, she smelled the herbal shampoo Aya had used on her hair, and the plastic scent of the duct tape she’d used to patch her destroyed clothing.

“What happened to you?” she asked, even as she eagerly scanned the room for the promised shower. There was a large enclosure in one corner of the room, much larger than her closet, big enough for ten people. She could smell the water.

“I saw the truth,” said Aya.

Natalie snapped her head around to look at Aya warily. “What truth?”

Aya narrowed her eyes and pulled her lips back from her teeth. “The truth you all willfully blind yourself to.” Her voice was no longer flat and calm. “That death is everywhere. Nothing you do matters, nothing you do will last when you are gone. The truth that you have probably made the world worse by entering and then leaving it again. And if you don’t make the world worse by leaving it, it is because everybody you care about has already left you, and what life you have left is as meaningful as mud on a road.” Suddenly she was smiling, perky and cheerful. “But I hope you enjoy my shower. It’s really the only pleasure I have anymore.”

She stepped out of the room, the door closing behind her. Natalie moved after her, touching the door to see if it would open for her. It didn’t. But there was a shower, and maybe getting clean would clear her head, too. It was hope, and an immediate goal.

The water sprayed directly from all four walls, which might have been pleasant in another situation. At least it tasted how she expected water to taste. But cleaning her injuries turned dull aches into sharp agony, and the warm water made her aware of how restless her unconsciousness was. It cleared the fog from her mind, but what the clearing fog revealed was terror. She tried to fight it with reason, with sense, with hope, but she kept seeing Aya and Malachi. Maybe their transformations had begun with a shower, too.

After she was as clean as she could make herself, she stood in the spray and closed her eyes. She wasn’t helpless. She could still summon her weapon.

She could, couldn’t she? Sudden uncertainty took her. But how could they take that away?

She held out her hand and breathed. The katana flowed into her hand, just as always. She swung it once, and thought, Not disarmed, then. Just injured.

Then the walls started shrieking at her, the creaky voice elevated to a howl. The floor and walls boiled, birthing small monsters that swarmed toward her as the lights vanished utterly. She swung wildly as something grabbed her arm, and something else hugged her legs, and a weight carried her to the ground.

Less than ten seconds later, she was pinioned to the ground, arms spread and utterly unable to move. The shower pattered on above her.

She let the sword vanish, but the monsters from the walls didn’t move, nor did the light return. It was hard to struggle in panic when she couldn’t move any part of her body except her head, but she did her best.

The door outside the shower enclosure opened, and a faint light entered the room. It crossed to the shower entrance and stood there. It was Hatherly, with a dim corona of glowing motes swirling around his head. He clicked his tongue, and the monsters released Natalie. “I see you tried out your weapon. That’s not a good idea here. This particular tower ghost has some distinct opinions on that kind of behavior. You’ve made it think you’re the enemy, but as you can see, I’ve convinced it not to shred enemies summarily.” He made a sound, and the lights came back on.

Suddenly she wished she’d waited until she was out of the shower and dressed again before summoning her weapon. Being naked and wet on the floor in front of Hatherly was the stuff of nightmares. She wanted to go back to the closet, away from that bland expression and those old eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded instead as she rose to her feet. “What am I doing here?”

He held out a towel to her. She didn’t want it, didn’t want his decency. She hated him for putting her in this position, and hated herself for being so weak. But she took the towel anyhow.

When she’d wrapped it around herself, he said, “You’re here to get rid of the darkness. Aren’t you pleased? The true goal of every Nightlight and you, my dear, get to achieve it.”

Illumination: 6.11: Back In Session

“Dramatic events lately.” Kwan surveyed the silent, attentive class the next morning. Ajax lurked in his usual corner. “There are too many missing faces. Most of them will be showing up late, I imagine. But some of them won’t. You all know this. I know it hurts. I’m glad you’ve all decided to attend today.” A humorless smile flickered across his face. “I’ve long believed that nothing is accomplished by letting people sit around idle. So your projects are all still due the same days as before. Hard work, people!” He clapped his hands together and the spell was broken. Groans rose around the room, and a low murmur of conversation followed.

Kwan headed over to Ajax and dropped a book on his table. “Glad to see you’re here bright and early. This is a history of the founding of the Guardians until around a century ago. Read it.”

Ajax picked up the book. It was old, a couple of decades, at least, and library-bound. It looked indistinguishable from a dusty volume at a normal library. “Where did this come from?”

“Somebody wrote it. If you look there, right there, on the cover? Yeah, that’s what we call the ‘author’s name’.”

“Hah hah. You guys actually write your own books? And bind them? I mean, why? I thought everything was on those tablets. Books seem kind of old-fashioned.”

“It’s amazing what a good tool for passing on knowledge a book turns out to be. We’ve been here a long time, Ajax, and when you read that book you’re not going to see any mention of tablet computers or big screen tvs. You will see a lot of references to other books, though.”

Ajax blew out his breath. “Fine. Read and find out, right?”

Kwan nodded and turned to move on to another student. He paused, looking at the door, and Ajax realized Seth was trudging in beside Jehane.

Kwan hesitated a moment then turned to the student who’d been waiting on him. Ajax dropped the book on the table and moved to intercept the pair.

Jehane’s face was pale and tear-streaked, but she wasn’t currently crying. Ajax narrowed his eyes at Seth, wondering what he’d done to hurt her. The other boy couldn’t be allowed to wander around willfully hurting everybody who cared about him.

Then he reconsidered, looking at Seth’s hunched posture and Jehane’s calm. Whatever had happened, Jehane had dealt with it. He ought to give her more credit for being able to solve her own problems, he supposed. But he’d saved her the other day and it was hard to see her now without remembering the adrenalin rush of dragging her away from Hatherly.

Seth pulled away from Jehane, and when she turned after him, he turned her around and pushed her toward some of the other students. Then he darted away, a horrible smile on his face, to straddle a chair at the edge of the room.

Ajax followed him, placed a chair beside Seth’s and slung himself into it.

Without bothering to look at him, Seth said, “What do you want?”

“Let’s get Natalie back.”

“What, are broken girls your kink now?”

Evenly, Ajax said, “Could be.”

Seth shook his head. “Too bad. I think I’d kill her myself if she’s like Aya.”

“Didn’t Aya’s partner die? Brutally murdered in front of her? You’re still alive.”

“Have you thought about what they might do instead? Because I have.” Seth turned his ghastly smile onto Ajax.

“Do you think she’ll break that easily?”

Seth stared down at the floor. “I should say, oh no, not Natalie. But it depends, doesn’t it? We all have our buttons. Natalie… cares a lot more than I do.”

“Let’s get her back,” Ajax repeated.

“Do you even have a plan? Or is this just a conspiracy to wish her free?”

“Actually, I do. All we need to do is get one of their latchkeys, the ones from their own Tower. Tainter used Aya’s to come here. We could use his, or that other guy’s, to go wherever they’re going.”

Seth looked up, his face strange as the ghastly smile faded. “Would that work?”

“Elian will help us. Natalie will help us, too.” Ajax really hoped he was accurate on both statements. He wasn’t sure how far Elian’s help would or could go.

“If she can, you’re damn right she will.” Seth sat up and stretched his back.

“So are you in?”

“Sure, why not. As soon as you get me cleared to go back to Earth, I’ll head out there and beat some Tainter ass.” Seth smirked.

Ajax narrowed his eyes. “Cleared? What does that mean?”

“Elian’s declared that if I go through a portal before I’m declared ‘stable’, he’s going to have me chained to a bed somewhere. Enticing offer, but it’s probably not going to help you out much.” Seth smacked Ajax on the back. “But hey, big guy. I’m sure you can sort things out. Just trot along and convince my mother and the Council that I’m A-OK to get back to the big scary world.”

It was Ajax’s turn to stare at the floor. “Hmm.” He turned to look at Jehane, sitting awkwardly in a group of other girls, hugging a book to her chest.

Seth said, “What about you? I bet they’re not letting you out either, pretty scythe or not.”

“Oh, I’m just a troublesome student. I have extra homework. Probably book reports or something. But I really wasn’t thinking about going through the adults on this.”

Seth snorted. “Good thing you didn’t raise my hopes much, then.”

“It’s not as bad as that. We really just have to convince Elian, not the adults. He’s the gatekeeper, after all.” Ajax kept watching Jehane.

Seth looked pained. “Please don’t tell me about your plan to trick him. He is listening, you know.”

Surprised, Ajax said, “Trick him? Who said anything about tricking him? I’m thinking about how to prove you’re actually stable.”