Elian’s device was contained within a small, plain box made of the same polymer as the Tower itself. “Don’t open it until you’re within 10 yards of the portal,” he’d told Ajax, with more than a little anxiety. “It might help if Jehane is present.”
“It’ll be cool,” Ajax told Elian. The kid clearly needed some encouragement. But now that he was wandering the edges of the barricaded zone, that wasn’t as clear.
He didn’t have much trouble understanding the language; his mother and grandmother had both spoken Spanish with him regularly. And, eavesdropping on conversations, he was starting to understand just how hostile the ‘Hellgate’ was. There were multiple levels of barricades. Scientists and soldiers filled the space between the outer barricade, which kept the afflicted region mostly isolated from the rest of the city, and the inner barricade, which was an attempt to slow down the monsters steadily disgorged by the Hellgate. They seemed incapable of completely stopping the monsters at that point, because Ajax watched a patrol between the middle and outer barricade shoot down a rhinoceros-like creature.
Technically, only approved personnel were allowed beyond the outer barricade, but there were too many alleys and back streets, and too many people who weren’t willing to give up what little they had just because monsters had moved in. So in practice the area around the outer barricade, both in front and behind, was a gradation of inhabitants rather than a clear line.
“At least the monsters look like monsters,” Ajax overheard one soldier tell another. “At least there’s that small mercy.”
But the number of Awakened in the area had skyrocketed, too, and the men with guns were tense and very frightened. Most of them didn’t have the Awakened guardians he’d seen on the squads in Detroit and Ajax had to resist the desire to help them out. His giant scythe was ridiculously conspicuous. He was avoiding attention so far, partially by keeping his head down and walking like he knew where he was going, but mostly by not being an alien.
Unfortunately, after a few hours of this, he was pretty sure it was nearly impossible for him to get anywhere near the big portal. The outer edges of the problem zone were fluid, but the middle barricade and beyond was full of lights and scientists and big machines and even bigger guns. If he could steal a uniform— but none of the soldiers wandered around alone and unarmed. That was inconvenient.
He hadn’t seen Hatherly or any of Hatherly’s allies. Ajax wondered if they were blending in just like he was. He could see Hatherly doing that, but probably not the others. And yet— Hatherly was the one who mattered; Hatherly and his weaponized cambion, that walking field generator. It was like Hatherly was walking around with a bomb, and nobody knew it.
Ajax stood in the upper floor window of an abandoned building within the outer barricade and watched the activity beyond the middle barricade. They were trying to communicate with the Hellgate, as far as Ajax could pick up. It seemed crazy. Troops and scientists from many different nations were arriving constantly, and he wondered how long they had before the military started to expand the Absolutely No Civilians zone just to have room for the official people.
They were getting better at managing the wildlife projected by the portal, at least. Bullets worked, if they used a lot of them, and there was quite a pile of corpses under a tarp. They’d tried communicating with the wildlife at first, too, Ajax had heard, but after four savaged scientists they’d given that up as a lost cause. The entities created by the remains of Tower Effa were frightening, and Ajax found the thought of them as troops directed by a non-broken mind both terrifying and exhilarating.
His stomach growled. It was probably time to head back to one of the meet-up points they’d established, away from the poorly camouflaged gate right outside the third barricade. He could find out if Seth had encountered Natalie or Jehane, and if anybody else had found Hatherly.
But as soon as he stepped outside the building, he realized he was in trouble. Two long-barreled guns pointed at him, and a uniformed figure leaning against the side of the building straightened up. “And there he is. I knew it was him.” It was the leader of the fireteam he’d briefly worked with in Detroit.
Ajax glanced at the two soldiers pointing guns at him. He thought he recognized one of them, but the other was new. A fourth member of the team was facing outward, weapon readied but not pointed at anything in particular.
Raising his hands slowly, Ajax turned toward the speaker. Definitely the same guy. “Hey, Corporal. I never caught your name before, which is hardly fair, because I bet you know mine.”
The corporal snorted. “Yeah. Martin. So. Can’t say that I’m surprised that you’re here. What do you know about that?” He hooked a thumb at the portal.
“Should you be asking me these questions? I mean, shouldn’t you be hauling me into your superiors or something?”
“Well, you know, I’ll probably do that. But as soon as I do, there’s going to be a dogpile over who gets to actually ask you those questions, what with this being an international operation. Plus,” a chilly smile passed over Martin’s face, “We were brought in ‘cause last time we got results. So it doesn’t hurt to get ahead of the game. You can put your hands down, by the way. We know what you can do.”
Ajax did so. “I know a little about the portal,” he admitted. “But it isn’t the biggest thing I’m worried about. It was opened by the same guy we faced before, and he opened it so he could do something much worse than what he did to Detroit.”
“Some of the troops have spotted him,” said Martin. “He’s been impossible to approach. He’s still got that… thing he had last time. The weapon that made us all feel like blowing our brains out, when we could even concentrate enough to think. As far as we know, he’s staying close to the portal.”
Ajax thought about that. “For protection, I guess, if the monsters aren’t attacking him. Damn. That’s going to make it even harder to get to the portal.”
Martin’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you want to get to the portal?”
“Uh.” Elian’s box was nestled in Ajax’s pocket, and he was suddenly pretty sure it’d be confiscated if he mentioned it. “I want to go through it.”
“You know what’s on the other side?”
“Basically. Maybe you and your guys could get me close?” he suggested, without much hope.
“Not a chance. Ask again after we’ve dealt with the real target.”
“What, when I’m in the middle of the dogpile you mentioned?”
Martin stalked closer. “The thing I don’t think you understand, kid, is that this is it for your secret organization. We survive the latest threat, your group has to come out of hiding. This,” he waved a hand at the soldiers pointing guns, “is friendly in comparison to what you’ll get if you don’t.”
Ajax threw up his hands. “Fine. I’ll wave my magic wand and make it so.” Then Martin caught his hand and snapped something around his wrist. Almost before Ajax was aware of what happened, Martin was stepping away again, and the guns were suddenly very focused. “What the hell is this?”
“GPS tracker. You duck out on us again, like you did in Detroit, we’ll find you. In fact, please try. It’ll be nice to see where you call home.”
Ajax would have snickered, if he wasn’t so annoyed. Somehow he didn’t think a GPS would track him back to the Tower. But it would track him back to the poorly hidden gate, which had so far escaped notice. It’d track him back to the meet-up points and the others.
“I can see you’re thinking it over.” Martin pulled out another silver ring, this one a bit larger. “Look, I want to be on the same side. I don’t want to use any of these other toys. So why don’t you stick with us for now and we’ll go see what the status of our common enemy is, eh?”
“Fine,” Ajax snapped. If they could get him close enough to the portal— or close enough to Hatherly’s biomechanical cambion— that could be enough.
Seth started his search at the open market nearest to the outer barricade, where people were still going through the motions of daily life despite the alien portal occasionally visible through gaps in the buildings. People still needed to eat, after all. Life went on.
The market was very crowded, even though some stalls looked abandoned. Off-duty soldiers congregated at corners, and refugees clung to the stalls of friends and family to tell stories of what they’d escaped on the other side of the wall.
The latter were what Seth had come to the market to find. He had no expectation of finding Natalie herself in such a well-protected and populated region. But Natalie always stood out in a crowd, and she’d stand out even more in a world of monsters. If she was on the other side of the barricade, somebody would have noticed.
A whole mythology around the portal had sprung up, though. Seth heard about a devil drinking down all the bars beyond the barricade, and the Duke of Hell and the Consort of Hell and the King of Hell himself recruiting for their infernal domain. And he heard about why some people were remaining behind the barricade, or returning after picking up supplies from the market. It was a test from God, one they must endure. And they knew they were meant to endure it, because alongside the devils was the Lady, sent by Heaven to protect them.
Seth insinuated himself into some of these discussions, asking questions here and there. The Lady didn’t speak, which made sense; Natalie hadn’t studied Spanish. The Lady appeared and disappeared; she didn’t eat or drink, but only killed monsters. She was a ghost, she was a wraith, she was a lost soul trying to make up for something she couldn’t forgive herself for.
The last came from an older man, tall and with accented Spanish. He noticed Seth listening on the edge of the group, his gaze lingering on him.
Being noticed wasn’t part of Seth’s plan, so he ducked away and continued down the market. But the man followed him. “Boy,” he called, in English as accented as his Spanish. “I recognize you, boy.”
Seth stopped and let the man catch up. He walked with a limp, and he had a fresh cut on his face. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Ah, but I have seen the other one myself. The Lady. You look like her. I thought she was only human, and now I know. Just a girl, confused and angry. You are looking for her, yes?”
“Well, yeah,” said Seth, giving the man a wary look. He wasn’t used to this.
“I have encountered her,” said the man calmly, brushing his fingers across the wound on his face. “So has a family of my acquaintance. When I left them, she was sleeping on a blanket in their home.”
Seth’s hand flew out to grip the man’s arm. “Where?”
“I will take you there,” the man said. He hesitated, then said, “Boy, do you know what she has gone through?”
Seth blinked again. “Do you?”
“I have seen her eyes,” the man said gravely, as if this meant everything. Seth relaxed.
“If you get me to her, I’ll take care of her.”
“We will see,” he said, but he guided Seth down a narrow alley and through a crevice between two buildings, and down another alley, and so they made it into what might as well have been the first circle of hell. The man passed apartment buildings and abandoned storefronts, until he came to a collection of buildings that looked so poorly constructed that they should have fallen down in a stiff wind. Fortunately, they were all leaning on each other already. At a door of rust-red, Seth’s guide knocked.
The door was immediately opened by a young woman holding a baby. She frowned at the man before looking at Seth. Then she sighed and said, “She has already left.”
Seth was too cynical to be surprised. “When? Which direction did she go?”
“An hour ago?” the woman said, waving her free hand vaguely. “She woke from a nightmare, and the nightmare chased her away from us. I was not surprised. She was not meant to rest.”
Seth frowned and peered over the woman’s shoulder. The house seemed completely clean of Awakened, and he wondered if the woman meant that nightmares had literally chased her away.
“She had her holy sword out,” the woman volunteered. “Who are you?”
“I’m her brother,” said Seth, flashing a grin.
The woman recoiled and the older man put out a hand to steady her. “It’s as I told you. She may be chosen but she is only mortal.”
“What direction did she go?” Seth repeated, his smile fading.
The woman pointed over Seth’s shoulder. He nodded at the man, then turned and took off jogging in the indicated direction.
They’d played Hide and Seek when they were younger. He’d always preferred to hide and let her do the seeking. But he knew his sister. She wouldn’t stay someplace safe when there were people in danger. She would always fight, as long as she could. She wasn’t just his sister, she was everybody’s elder sister. He’d always teased her about that. So it wasn’t the direction that mattered as much as looking for the trail she left behind, and listening for the sounds of a fight.
But there was nothing: no monsters, no people. And given all the abandoned buildings around, finding her without any trail was like looking for a needle in a haystack. He couldn’t even call her name, not if what the bird cambion had said was true: She hides from the name she had before.
He needed Jehane. But he didn’t have Jehane, so he went for the next best thing: height. He cut the lock off the nearest tall building and ran up the internal stairs, scrambling up through a trapdoor to the roof. Then he laid down near the edge and looked down.
There. Movement in a half-collapsed shack. The source was unclear, but the area just outside the shack positively swarmed with Awakened. And in the center of them sat a familiar big-pawed cat, looking around with Natalie’s eyes.
He barely remembered his descent from the building. When he arrived at the ruined shack, many of the Awakened had vanished. But the cat still sat there. He looked at it warily, and it yawned at him then paced away. “She won’t see you,” it remarked. “She isn’t seeing anybody. She’s busy. But you’re welcome to make the effort. Maybe she’ll make up her mind.”
“About what?” Seth called after the cat.
It vanished behind a wrecked car, but its voice drifted back. “About who she is.”
There was a clatter from within the shack. The front half of the building had collapsed into a pile of rotten timbers and rusted metal, leaving the back half of the building fully open. Seth edged around the side, until he could see within.
Natalie was crouched on her heels. She stared intently at the anima weapon in her hand, while her other hand moved. She seemed to be coated in shadowy cobwebs, and as Seth watched, she twisted the cobwebs around her free hand and began to shape an Awakened, never once removing her gaze from her weapon. She had a long, raw cut on her face, from her eye to her chin.
Seth leaned on the broken edge of the wall. “That looks sticky,” he offered.
Her head jerked up. She stared at him, wild-eyed. Then she said, “No!” and flung the half-formed Awakened at him, before fleeing across the urban wasteland.
Sleeping had been a privilege Natalie couldn’t let herself enjoy. But the sound of the family she’d saved was comforting, and she was tired, and a few moments off peaceful oblivion had overwhelmed her.
But she fought back. She always fought back. She remembered the monsters. And when she’d woken up, she’d known the truth.
She couldn’t stay in the same house as the gentle family that had tried to save her. She was far more dangerous than any of the monsters outside. She was the mother of monsters.
She crouched in the shelter of a shack, away from the endless sky, and stared at the weapon in her hand. It was the monster of monsters, no different than the ones she’d made at Hatherly’s command. It mastered the darkness that shadowed her, and channeled the darkness inside of her. And it was always hungry.
The first of monsters Hatherly had drawn from her lurked at the door off her shelter, but she didn’t want to see it. The second one fluttered above her head, whispering, but she didn’t hear it. She concentrated on the blade in her hand, and the darkness dripping from her other hand. She could, if she wanted, shape it into one of the shadows. To be one of the true monsters she would have to put something of herself into it and she wasn’t sure what she had left to give it. Hatherly had made so many monsters and retained so much of himself. Maybe it was a learned skill.
Fascinated, she stared at the creature she was crafting. It seemed to grow more solid as she studied it. She could push her will inside it, shape it. She shaped it like loneliness, like responsibility, like despair, like meaninglessness. She shaped it like self-awareness. And it grew larger and larger. It started to pull something from her–
A voice, a human voice, spoke to her.
“That looks sticky.”
She looked up. A little boy flickered in front of her vision, before becoming a young man. She knew his face.
Panic exploded over her. She couldn’t—
The creature leapt off her hand toward the boy, and she fled, unable to watch the result.
The two Cambions she’d made kept pace with her. “Go away,” she threw at them, and the moth was caught by the wind and carried into the sky.
The cat, though, just smiled. “Not yet.” The boy was chasing her. “He wants to take you back to where you belonged.”
“They want what can’t be. Shut up.”
“Natalie!” the voice before her called, and it hurt. She remembered he was cunning as she fell to her knees. The cat moved in front of her. It didn’t want her to escape. Her own monster, her own servant and it wouldn’t let her escape this boy who looked like her and called her name.
“Seth,” whispered the cat. And the word made her feel better. She could stand up again. They were on equal ground, and it helped, although she was dreadfully afraid.
The boy approached her, and for a moment she thought she could see behind him a long line of people, all looking at her with their hands outstretched. But she couldn’t go back.
“Hey,” said the boy. “Don’t run. I’m better at tag than seeking.” She looked at him warily, the cat pressing against the back of her legs. He went on, “We used to play in the upper floors of the Tower, do you remember?” The moth fluttered over his head, then came to her head.
She remembered, rocking back on her heels as if struck. He moved forward, catching her arm. “It’s okay,” he said soothingly. “You can come back. ”
She shook her head wildly. “I can’t. I’m— I can’t save you anymore, Seth. I can’t be what I was. I can’t be your sister anymore.”
His expression froze. Flatly, he said, “Nothing can make you not my sister.” His fingers moved on her arm, and then he pulled his hand away, leaving her to steady herself.
The moth fluttered between them. Its name was Surreptition, Natalie remembered. It kept secrets away from Hatherly. But what secrets had she ever had from Seth? She raised her hand to the moth and let it light on her fingers. Then she watched, fascinated, as it crawled back into her anima.
And it brought her everything she’d left behind, she thought. Seth, her other siblings, her parents, her teachers, their hopes and expectations. But she still wasn’t what she had been. She could never be that again.
“I’m not her,” she told Seth. “Your sister.”
He stared at her, then reached out a hand to brush his fingers across her uninjured cheek, her ear, her matted hair. Then, his hand shaking a little, he touched his own pale hair. “You are.” But his voice was cracked and broken, as if it hurt him to say that.
Something dark surged inside. “I’m a monster too now,” she insisted.
“Too?” he inquired softly. “Then why does it matter? But you’re still my sister, in the end.”
The moth in the depths of her soul have one last flutter of its wings, and the darkness crashed over her. “You don’t want me to be your sister,” she said, knowing it was true.
Seth’s entire body, already tense, coiled as if to move, and Natalie responded, not sure if she was going to run or fight or do something else. But then his hands came up to thread through his hair in a remembered gesture of deep frustration, and his eyes when they met hers were full of anguish. “I can’t do this,” he muttered. “I was the wrong person for this. I’m not who you need right now. God, I wish I was. I wish–” He cut himself off, and fumbled in his jeans. “Don’t you worry, Natalie. I’m going to get you somebody too dumb to try and argue with you.” He spoke into a little walkie-talkier. “I need—” his voice broke again. “I need Ajax.”
She wondered who that was.
As Malachi stared at Jehane, the cambion bird blocking the door squawked, then warned, “They come,” as it hopped away from the door. A moment later, three figures moved through the door: Tainter, the wolverine cambion he called Rend, and Aya. The wolverine snarled at the bird, who looked away.
Jehane’s stomach dropped out through her feet. She felt like once again she’d been so close to getting things right.
Aya put a hand on her hip. “She’s not who we’re looking for, Malachi.” The bartender muttered something and grabbed at the gun on the bar. It clattered onto the ground behind the bar, and he ducked after it.
“Oh, my sweet,” said Tainter. “Mal has a special relationship with this bit of meat. She makes him all tingly. Doesn’t she, Mal? Have you been amusing yourself with her again? She doesn’t look as durable as your last bit. But I know she makes you rambunctious. We could play a game. Which one of us will kill her first? Aya can be the judge.”
Aya drifted over to the bar. “I’ve found another toy.” She peered over the bar, then reached over and pulled up first the gun, which she tossed into a corner, and then the bartender. “A wise old man. Maybe he can give me advice.”
Malachi reached out and pulled Jehane behind him. “You’re not going to touch her.” It was just like last time, except that it was suddenly a lot harder to run away. They were cornered.
“Oh, but I will. Sit down, my boy, if you’re not going to play my game. Remember how your Emily didn’t die? I think I still have a bit of her back home.” Malachi gasped and shuddered, and Tainter continued, “You aren’t strong enough. You’ve never been strong enough.” He fidgeted with a tiny device attached to his belt, like a second buckle. “Miss Emily was your strength before, and we took that apart. Very educational, I have to say. Do you remember her cambion calling your name?”
Jehane stepped around Malachi and placed herself between them. “I’m strong enough.” She wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t, she cried all the time— but she was used to dealing with monsters. She’d always been dealing with monsters. Her earliest memory was of a monster attached to the woman who cared for her, and how it grew bigger when she looked at it. Tainter was much more of a monster than that one had been: everything like a human, but blackened, feeding on withered bonds, the real devil.
But she wasn’t going to let him hurt Malachi any more. Maybe her entire childhood had been in preparation for this.
Tainter looked at her. “Nah, you’re not strong enough either.”
Jehane stared at him, listening intently to his shadow music. She realized, listening to the twang of it, that he was alone. Aya had arrived with him, but their music didn’t intermingle. He had no connections to anybody else that were not black, dark notes; nobody would mourn him.
She wasn’t alone. Even at her darkest moments as she struggled to rise past her handicaps and escape her solitary Tower room into a world of light and life beyond, she hadn’t been alone. Not since Malachi had come to the children’s ward, and maybe not before, either.
The realization made her fear of Tainter melt almost entirely away. She still wanted to live, oh yes— but in Seth and his family, and in Ajax, and above all in endless Elian, she would. And in Malachi—
But Malachi wouldn’t remember the Emily who had lived and laughed, only the Emily who was dead, a bleeding corpse. Tainter was doing his best to obscure the good memories with the bad, to destroy every connection Malachi had with what he once was.
“I am,” she said. “I’ve got something you don’t.” She half-turned to Malachi, who was staring blankly at nothing at all. “Remember her properly, Malachi. You’ve got to remember Emily as she was. It will help.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” drawled Tainter.
Jehane took Malachi’s hand. “Ignore him. Remember her when you first met her. The first time you took her hand.”
“I couldn’t save her,” he said flatly.
Jehane hesitated. “You can save something of her. You can save your memories of her. That matters.”
“This is some boring metaphysical bullshit right here,” said Tainter, and with no more warning than that, he leapt across the intervening space and smacked Jehane on the side of her head so hard it knocked her down. But she was trained, and she rolled with it and came back to her feet, her ears still ringing.
“Would you like a little girlfriend, Miss Aya?” called Tainter, watching her.
“Oh, please,” said Jehane, with real disdain. “You can’t push me over the edge. I went over the edge when I was six. And I can see what you’re hiding. I know your secret.”
His eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll have to deal with you as we dealt with Miss Emily instead.” He stepped forward.
“No!” Malachi’s shout preceded his sword, and Tainter scrambled out of the way, grinning.
And they fought. Malachi had very little of his usual grace, and Tainter was cautious, teasing. He was faster than Malachi, despite Malachi’s superior training, as if he had some personal version of the absolute focus field powering him. Jehane watched closely, her heart in her throat. She wanted to help, but should she? Could she?
Aya abandoned the bartender and sidled over to Jehane. “Hey, what’s his secret?”
Jehane spared the Echthros girl a split-second glance. She didn’t have her weapon out and she looked honestly curious. “He’s built on secrets. He hides everything. There’s nothing underneath, not even a him.”
Malachi and Tainter’s weapons crashed together. Aya said broodingly, “He showed me how useless hope was.”
“Aya, he lies.”
“If you can’t find the truth in darkness, it’s not going to be in the light either,” said Aya, her voice distant.
The swords clashed again, and Jehane realized that Tainter was suddenly pushing every advantage over Malachi that he had, as if he wanted the fight to end. Malachi stumbled, and Tainter grinned.
It was enough. Her long glaive in her hand, Jehane darted forward and stabbed Tainter’s exposed back. She felt the long curved edge slice into his flesh and catch against a bone. Tainter reared back, shouting in pain, and Malachi surged forward to take the opportunity. His own blade thrust into Tainter’s stomach, and up.
Tainter sagged to the ground, sliding off the blades. He looked scandalized. “You— you ganged up on me,” he gasped.
“Yes,” said Jehane. “That’s how we’re stronger than you. That’s how we win.”
Puzzlement crept across his face, and froze there.
Behind them, the wolverine cambion, which had been menacing the bird cambion perched on a table, roared. Malachi was still panting, but he looked at the bird. Its feathers were an intense blue now. It raised its head and met his gaze. Gracefully, it fluttered over to the wolverine and landed on its back. The wolverine roared again, spinning and throwing its head to the sky.
Then, the pair of them burst into incandescent flame. Malachi stalked over to the flame and pushed his sword into it up to the hilt, then drove his fist in after it. His face whitened, but after a moment, he pulled his fist out again. When he did, the fire went out, and both cambions were gone.
Jehane, holding her breath, gasped in relief. She was distantly aware that Aya had vanished out the door, that the bartender was crawling away, but all she could process was Malachi, looking at her with clear, familiar eyes.
He went past her, out the open door, and she followed him. He opened his fist. In his palm lay a slick curl of reddish hair. He regarded it for a moment, then blew on it. It flew off his hand and into the light breeze. The wind picked up and carried the coil into the sky.
He watched it for a moment, then turned to look at Jehane again. His eyes were no longer empty. Instead they were expressive and alive and sad. “She wasn’t always good to me. She wasn’t always kind. She liked to enjoy herself, and she liked to play, and she laughed every day. And she was everything I centered myself around since she danced into my life and demanded I follow her. She wanted that, and I tried to give it to her.” He showed Jehane his empty hand. “I’m not really sure what to do now.”
Jehane took his hand. “You’ll figure it out. I’ll help, if you want me to.”
His fingers closed over her own. “Hatherly’s still out there. He’s got Surge and Gate and the others. Nothing’s really changed.”
Jehane smiled at him through her tears. She was always crying, after all. “Everything’s changed. You’ll see. Everything.”
“Wear this,” said Martin, passing Ajax an earpiece. “And follow any instructions I give you immediately; they may save your life.” They stood behind a decaying tenement, just out of sight of where Seth had convinced Natalie to wait, and the soldiers weren’t happy. They hadn’t actually argued with Martin when he decided to allow Ajax’s ‘little date’, but they were holding their weapons in worrying ways. Ajax could have explained the situation in a way that made the whole event a little more relevant, but he didn’t want to take the chance of Natalie getting shot. There was no way he could have explained it which would have let him escape to meet her unmonitored.
Ajax peeked around the corner. He could make out the distant silhouette of Natalie, but between them was Seth, walking slowly down the street. The other guy looked ragged, and Ajax wondered what the odds were of the worried soldiers shooting him instead. “I’m going to go talk to my friend,” he announced. “Keep an eye out for monsters.”
“Like the one with the girl?” asked one of the soldiers, looking through a scope.
“What?” said Ajax. Even squinting he couldn’t make out more than a crouched and shadowed figure. “No,” he added, “I’ll handle that one if it’s necessary.” He went around the corner and met Seth across the street.
“You brought friends.” Seth gave him the same awful smile he’d worn for days on end after losing Natalie.
“They were going to follow me if I didn’t. I figured it was best to keep them where we could see them. What’s going on?”
“She started out by attacking me, but we got over that. She’s still shedding Awakened Darkness, though. Now she wants—” He shook his head. “I remind her too much of what she doesn’t think she can get back again. Maybe doesn’t want back again. There’s a lot she doesn’t remember right now.” He shrugged and stretched. “Over to you. She can have a future with you instead of just a past with me. What do you want me to do with your bodyguard?”
Ajax frowned at Seth, trying and failing to see what was under the grin. “Talk to them, I guess. Keep them from shooting Natalie. Look harmless.”
“Oooh, harmless. I’ll do my best.” And he strolled past Ajax without a second glance, waving at the soldiers as he approached them with his hands in the air.
Ajax went to Natalie. She was crouched down, her hands in the fur of the cat cambion Ajax had once wanted to kill so badly. The cat was cleaning its paw, but Natalie watched him approach. Her eyes widened as he got closer, and his heart thumped. Even filthy and injured, she was beautiful: a wild, ghostly dream.
“You’re a black hole,” she said, wonderingly. “I remember you. I remember failing you. Why are you here?”
Ajax had been thinking about this: not the immediate answer, but the deeper one. “I’ve been helping your people. You see, I didn’t need you in order to stay after all.”
She smiled, her face lighting up. She stood up and the cat sat down as she stepped around it. Then her smile faded. “You’re not alone.”
“Oh, you’ve seen those guys before,” he said, as airily as he could while trying to keep his body between the soldiers and Natalie. “They’re just here to deal with Hatherly.”
It was like he’d flipped a switch. Her entire demeanor changed. She wasn’t a ghostly wild thing, but something hard and angry. She looked around. “Is he here?”
“Nope. They’ll make sure he stays away.”
She studied him. “You’re tense.” She was shedding tiny monsters, her anima flickering bright and dark like a photonegative of itself. She could do anything: lash out, run away, break down, and anything unpredictable was even more dangerous. The soldiers didn’t like unpredictable.
“Just ignore them,” he suggested. “Soldiers are everywhere now.”
“Are they?” Her brow wrinkled, then she shook her head. “What do you want from me?”
He wondered, then, if she didn’t remember him, despite what she’d claimed. “Do you remember our talk in the darkness, during Nightfall?”
She bit her lip. “I could if I wanted to.”
He moved closer to her, slowly and carefully. She stood still, but her gaze darted from side to side, and her breathing quickened. “Why don’t you want to?”
“There’s a fence. The stuff on the other side of the fence is there for a reason, even if I can’t remember what the reason is.” But she frowned, and backed up a step.
Ajax stopped moving. “Would you like me to go away?”
“Just… stay there for now.”
He crouched down. “I’m right here, baby.” A voice in his ear buzzed at him, but he tuned it out, concentrating on Natalie. She pushed her fingers into the fur of the cat.
“Who’s your friend? I met it once before.”
“They all found me out here. I made this one when— when— when—” She stuttered to a halt, her eyes going distant. He waited, his fist clenching behind his back. Finally, softly, she said, “After I came out of the box, he wanted me to demonstrate what I did. He… insisted. He kept one.”
Ajax stood up. Alarmed, she said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to go kill him.” But he didn’t move, watching the way her hands fluttered, then wrapped around herself. “Unless you’d rather do it yourself. Ladies first and all.”
“Don’t go!” The words seemed to slip out and she stopped hugging herself and hugged the cat instead.
He crouched down again. “It makes me furious that he hurt you. But I’d rather stay with you.”
“What do you want from me?” she demanded.
He gazed up at her. “I want to see you smile.” She took a step closer. “I want to listen to you talk. I want to keep you safe. I want to set you free. ”
She stood right in front of him, close enough to touch. She looked down at him, one foot on a hunk of stone between them. Slowly, he stood up and looked down at her.
Then, without a word, she reached out, twisted her fingers in his shirt and pulled him in to kiss her. As she did, the cat cambion dissolved into glittering light. His hands came up to steady her on her perch, one at her waist, the other sliding up her spine. Her mouth was soft but insistent, salty with old tears and sweet with the urgency of her kiss.
And when she pulled away, her eyes were different. Tired, and older, but present. The ghostly wild thing was gone. She pressed a finger to his lips. “I think,” she said quietly, “that I would like to find Hatherly. He has something of mine.”
“All right,” Ajax said, but he didn’t move.
“Um,” she said after a moment, and a smile touched her old eyes. “You have to let go of me for that to happen.
“Oh. Do I?”
And then a voice squawked in Ajax’s ear: “Repeat, tango incoming. Wake up, kid. Get the girl over to us before—”
Seth shouted wordlessly behind them.