Ajax sat in the classroom with his arms crossed, glowering. His fellow students were even more disorganized than usual, because Kwan and the other room teachers weren’t paying enough attention to keep everybody focused. Instead, they were busy discussing the plans for retreat while standing in a corner. Kwan in particular looked exhausted.
As far as Ajax knew, no formal decision had been reached about just how far the withdrawal from Earth would progress, but everybody— at least everybody with any authority— agreed that at least a temporary, short-term withdrawal would be useful. And if the parents and families of Earthborn kids were invited to stay at the Tower for an extended visit— well, that was interesting and convenient timing. It gave the classroom a ‘last day of school’ buzz, which, in the circumstance, felt ominous rather than fun.
And despite everything, Ajax still wasn’t allowed out. None of the student Nightlights were, it was true, but it still felt personal. Like everything else, it wasn’t part of an organized plan, but a sort of side-effect of being too busy to really deal with the situation.
Kwan’s conference with the other teachers ended, and he strode past Ajax without a glance.
“Kwan!” called Ajax. “Why don’t we just luminate everybody?”
Kwan’s head pivoted to look at him. The teacher had been sharp with Ajax since their adventure with Natalie’s cambion, as if his otherwise endless reserves of patience had finally drained. But when other heads turned at Ajax’s question, he stopped and came back to Ajax’s table.
“What good would that do?” he inquired, as one administering a test.
“Make it harder for Hatherly to succeed? And allow people to defend themselves?”
Kwan stared hard at him for a moment, then said, “But most people cannot cope with lumination. They do not wish to see monsters everywhere. Civilization relies on the fact that the monsters are managed by a special class of people. And lumination attracts them. Lumination is not enough to help people. They have to be trained as well.”
“Oh, come on. You’re underestimating people.”
“Am I? But look at Jehane. She has survived, but most people born luminated on Earth do not.”
Ajax started to argue again, but recalled his own initial reaction to the flash of light. He’d wished it hadn’t happened, wished he didn’t know the truth of the shadows of the world.
Kwan nodded at him, and moved on through the classroom. But Jehane left her table and made her way over to Ajax. In a low voice, she said, “They’re trying to decide on which city to put the last active emergence point in,” and Ajax realized that from where she’d been sitting, she’d been able to eavesdrop on the teachers’ conversation.
“Because that will help. Giving up always helps.” He leaned forward. “I don’t want to be sealed in here when they finally give up entirely, how about you?”
Jehane shook her head. “I’m not giving up. I never have.” She glanced at the wall. “Elian won’t let us out, though.”
“Kentigern didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he’ll come around.”
Elian said flatly, “I’m not Kentigern.” Jehane and Ajax both jumped and looked at the wall closest, where Elian’s voice had emanated from. “And I’m not going to come around.”
Jehane said, “I bet we can convince you. Why are you being so strict, anyhow? You can’t let them convince you you’re in trouble.”
Elian said, “I don’t want to hear it! And listen to yourself, Jehane! You’ve been spending too much time around Seth and Ajax. You used to be…”
Jehane scowled. “Sweet?” She slouched in her chair. “It is wonderful, oh yes? I finally know what I want and seek it, and everybody wishes I was helpless again, because it is not what they want. It is Natalie who is everybody’s dream girl. So good, so helpful.”
Ajax said mildly, “She wasn’t a good girl when she saved me. I got the impression people were pretty unhappy with her over that.”
Jehane flushed. “I’m sorry. It is true, I think, that even Natalie can’t live up to what they want Natalie to be. They make of her an ideal, so nobody wants to know what has happened. Maybe I should have said…” and she stopped, glancing up at the wall again. Then she shook her head. “I wish, Elian, that you and the others would not wish me back in my bedroom.”
Elian said, his voice acidic enough to etch steel, “I’ve got wishes, too. And I’m not Kentigern”
“I’ve never wished you were,” said Jehane, with some dignity.
“Oops,” said Ajax. “Sorry about that.” But he was thinking about Jehane’s look to the wall, not really paying attention. It was clear there were some things they couldn’t discuss here, not with Elian becoming increasingly more hostile.
“Well, I’m not going to let you go out and get yourselves killed,” said Elian, sullenly. “Kentigern didn’t care the same way I do. And I don’t want to be him. And… nevermind. I have work to do.”
Ajax stared at the wall, and wondered where he could find a Prowler.
Natalie had a room with a bed and many shelves. On the shelves were toys: clay and blocks and paper and paint. Outside of her room was another room, much larger and nearly empty. Sometimes she went out there when the walls of her room closed around her, squeezing her small and breathless, but she didn’t go beyond. Where else would she go? She was waiting for something here, and she was very patient now.
Hatherly visited her often, several times a day. He brought her meals, and inspected how she’d been occupying herself and spoke with her. Twice now he’d evoked new Cambions from her. They were small things, and Hatherly had tried to disguise his disappointment in them, but she didn’t know why. They were small things, but they were what she needed now. One of them had escaped him, as had the cat who padded through a cold landscape. The other he caught and held. “All things have a purpose,” he told her. “We just have to find out what it is.”
“If,” she told him, as she lay on the floor, weak from the evocation. But he didn’t understand. That pleased her. She didn’t want him to understand. She followed where he led, because she was very patient, and she wanted to understand more than he did. And he didn’t try to make her remember why she hurt.
“Let it go,” she suggested. “I don’t like it here.”
Instead he tucked the tiny cambion away, into a box, and she shuddered and crawled back to her bed. “Why are you doing this?”
“I think if I told you, it would hurt you, as other things do.” He sounded regretful. “So I won’t. But you may trust me that together, we will work to reduce the pain all things experience.”
“How?” she demanded.
“We target the source,” he said calmly.
Later, he told her about the nature of the darkness and the light, and how the darkness was responsible for suffering. She curled up in bed that evening and thought about it. The cambions, she thought, were both darkness and light. They seemed to be very much like people, except that they took their light from the people who formed them. The idea made her sad. While Hatherly was vague, she knew that he intended to give her great power. He trusted that her light would make her strong, make the power mean what he wanted it to mean.
But although he inspected her artwork and her models carefully, he didn’t know what was happening inside her head. She was very careful not to let him know, no matter how he tried to dig inside her. She couldn’t let him know that she wasn’t going to use the power the way he wanted. She was going to use it to destroy him, instead.
He was dangerous. She’d known that from the beginning, and after he’d forced the little cambions from her—
She drifted off to sleep, wondering how exactly he’d die.
She woke up in the dimness of night. A dark figure, bigger than Hatherly, stood beside her bed. It was the one called Malachi. She knew them all from encounters in the outer room, as she took her exercise, but only Hatherly came to her room, and Malachi had never even spoken to her before. It was mysterious.
She sat up, and he crouched down. “Has he explained why you are a prisoner?” His voice was soft.
“Am I a captive?” she wondered. “I haven’t seen any locks.”
His mouth turned down. “There are people who care for you still.”
She twitched. He didn’t say any of the forbidden words, but they lay under the surface, the things she could not hear without screaming. “It doesn’t matter.”
Malachi’s brow drew together. “His plan will most likely kill as many people as it touches, you know. Possibly the entire human population.”
She drew back. “That’s ridiculous.”
“No. He found the plan in another Tower. I think it explains what happened to the Antecessors: they tried to win an ultimate victory over the enemy of sentience, and wiped themselves out in the process. Maybe all that’s left of them is the Awakened Darkness.”
Malachi’s words sent unpleasant tingles through Natalie, brushing as they did against a whole host of things she could not let herself think about. But she understood enough.
“He said it would do something else.”
“Reduce pain? Yes. Destruction isn’t his goal. He’d like to create a god to fill the void.”
Another voice said, “Not his goal, but it’s yours, isn’t it, kid?” It was Tainter, a black shadow in the open doorframe. He moved forward. “Tsk, tsk. Ruining his plan just because you can’t bear a world without your girl. Nihilism is quite the bandaid, isn’t it? But it’ll never take away your own role in what happened to her. To Emily.”
Fascinated, Natalie watched as Malachi’s face changed. Hatred crossed it, then ice, then stillness, and she understood that like herself, like Aya, he had things that he couldn’t think about either.
“Sorry, miss,” continued Tainter. “Can’t let this one without a leash these days, oh no. He really would like to destroy the whole world. It’s kind of an open secret. He did a naughty thing once, and he just can’t bear it.”
“Shut up, Tainter,” said Malachi, his voice absolutely flat.
“Try and make me. But not here. This sweet, blind thing might be damaged by our coarseness. And then Daddy would angry, and it wouldn’t be at me. I’m his golden boy these days. But I’d love a chance to help you cope with your little troubles, boy. We could extract them and look at them together. I’ve got just the place to do it.”
Malachi flowed to his feet, then stalked past Tainter and out the door. Tainter smiled at her and she narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like Tainter. He was on the list. But the difference between Tainter and Hatherly was that Tainter seemed to know it, and enjoy it.
As he stood in front of the exit, he said, “It’s true, you know. I think your little friends know, from the way they’ve been acting. Oh wait. They’re all gone, aren’t they? They’ve all gone away and left you, your—”
A red mist descended over her eyes, and she lunged, and he laughed and slammed the door behind him as he escaped.
That was when she discovered the locks.
“We’re not going to be out that long,” Ajax had protested, looking at the pack that Savannah had tossed him.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Everybody heading out of the Tower carries their own survival basics. Especially tenderfeet like you.”
“Better not argue,” Seth muttered. “They even put packs on the dogs.” It was true. Both the big mastiffs and the smaller spaniel that accompanied the Prowler patrol had lightweight packs attached to their harnesses.
Now, Jehane, Ajax and Seth tromped along in the wake of Savannah and her Prowler team. The air outside the Tower was crisp and dry. A light breeze carried a scent reminiscent of lemon and nutmeg from a distant grove of bulbous trees, while the aroma of sage drifted up from the hard-packed road. The Tower rose behind them, all lines and angles against the curves of the land and the trees. Although the glowing sky made all shadows fuzzy pools, the shadow of the Tower seemed to somehow stretch much farther.
“How far out do we have to go before we’re beyond the Tower’s oversight?” Jehane called to Savannah.
Savannah stopped and smiled. “So that’s why you had a sudden interest in the life of a Prowler.”
Jehane scowled. “Elian’s being a pain.”
“So are you, I hear. Just to be fair. There’s a lot going on.” Her smile changed. “But you aren’t the only ones who enjoy a chance to get out and away from Kentigern’s— or Elian’s— eyes. And I suppose Elian is a lot less neutral. He was a fellow student, wasn’t he?”
Jehane shrugged. “I thought he was a friend.” She looked away from Savannah’s expression. “So how far do we have to be?”
“Well, nothing can be casually overheard here. And we’re pretty sure no eavesdropping at all can occur past that clump of trees.” She added thoughtfully, “Unless there’s screaming. The trees themselves interfere with radio signals. If you want to head into the grove, you should be totally safe. Well, safe from eavesdropping. And mostly safe from wildlife. We keep that grove pretty clean.”
Jehane stepped off the road. The ground crunched underfoot, like new fallen snow: tiny lichen breaking apart to reveal the fine, dusty soil below. Then she looked over her shoulder at Ajax and Seth. “Come on.”
Ajax strode ahead of her, but Seth lingered, looking around. Then he shook his head and followed Ajax.
The clump of trees in the middle of the lichenous steppe seemed like it should surround a pool of water, but instead there was only a central trunk, swollen and enormous. The foliage of the trees was complicated: each twig ended in several sharp spines and a fall of soft orange and dark green fronds. The ground between the trees was filled with a variety of blade-and-feather-edged ferns, along large boulders covered with more tiny plant life.
The trees had their own shadow music, a slow see-sawing tone that Jehane seemed to feel through her feet. There was a buzzing in the air that reminded Jehane uncomfortably of the common room at the institution she’d spent her childhood in. It was like the sound of forgotten televisions.
Ajax leaned on one of the boulders. “I’m ready to get out. For good.”
Seth stuck his hands in his pockets. “Did you watch that video, man?”
A pair of Nightlights had staggered in the night before after an encounter with Aya and Tainter, and that morning, a Reader from Earthside had shown up with a compilation of security videos that had shown the pair of Echthroi on what could loosely be described as a shopping spree.
Ajax scowled. “Yeah. And we’re just running away, leaving them with the whole world. I can’t let that happen. I’ll spill everything to the military if I have to.” His gaze moved to Jehane. “What about you? Malachi wasn’t with the others.”
Neither was Natalie, Jehane didn’t say. “I think I can do more good out there.”
“It’s ridiculous that we’re even talking about asking the Earth authorities for help,” grumbled Seth. “We shouldn’t be in this position.”
Ajax shrugged. “The Guardians think they know everything about what they do. They’re wrong.”
Seth narrowed his eyes, then tucked his hands behind his head. “Guess so. Better you than me. Your family’s on that side still. But I’ll do what I can to help. Want me to acquire a luminator for you? It’d make talking to the guys with guns a bit more interesting.”
Jehane burst in. “That doesn’t matter, if Elian won’t let us out. He won’t even open portals if we’re in the Portalry now, have you noticed? How are we going to get around that?”
“Convince him,” said Seth.
“Or… use another Tower? Like Hatherly’s been doing?” Ajax suggested.
“I don’t think Towers are usually as functional as Hatherly’s found them,” said Jehane doubtfully. “He’s been doing something, maybe with one of his Cambions.”
Ajax gave Jehane a long, thoughtful look, until finally she flinched. “What?”
“You used that goo we found to sort of… project your anima into Elian’s system, didn’t you? When Elian found Natalie… Natalie’s…” He shook his head. “The other day.”
“So?” she said defensively.
“You could do it again. If we set it up right, maybe he’d open a portal. Or maybe you could… do whatever that Cambion is doing to make the other Tower ghosts more cooperative.”
Jehane gave Ajax a nasty look. “Just like that. You know, we’re not all like you. Gifted. 0 to Stage 3 in three months.”
He blinked at her, bewildered. “But—”
“Years!” she snapped.
Seth’s hand came down on her head, gently pressing. “Down, girl.” She whirled on him, and he grinned at her. “You do bring a different perspective to things, just like Ajax. How could it hurt to just take a look around?”
As soon as they were admitted back into the Tower, Elian spoke, his voice throbbing with sarcasm. “You came back. How nice.”
“Just out for a stroll,” said Seth. “Interesting world out there and it pays to get to know it if we’re going to be stuck here for the rest of time, don’t you think?”
“You must think I’m stupid. Part of me is a thousand years old. I know why you went out there.”
Jehane looked at the nearest light sculpture apprehensively. Elian sounded furious in a way Kentigern never had
Calmly, Seth said, “Be honest. You think you know why we went out there, and you’re angry you don’t know for sure.”
“I’m pretty damn sure you wanted to avoid me!”
“Well, you haven’t been very friendly lately, have you?”
“Friendly! How friendly would you be when you’re trying to figure out how to save up to six billion people from a madman with alien technology that you should be able to understand, and meanwhile, half of the people you actually care about are trying to escape back to Earth? And my mother—” Elian’s voice broke off.
Then, a desperate note in his voice, he said, “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been a little stressed. Please don’t do anything stupid just because I’m— Just don’t, okay?”
Ajax, Jehane and Seth exchanged looks. Seth shrugged and Ajax set his jaw.
“We all want the same thing,” said Jehane carefully. Seth rolled his eyes and Jehane scowled. “And actually, we were talking about helping you. Well, me helping you. Maybe if I shared my abilities with you again, that would be useful?”
After a long silent moment, Elian said, “Sure.” He sounded far too cheerful, all of the sudden. “I’ve been working on a better interface, too. It’s in the core.”
Jehane hesitated. If she managed to convince Elian to open a portal, how long would it last? Long enough for her to get to the Portalry and go through?
Ajax said, “You want me to come along?”
Chewing on her lip, Jehane said, “Yes. At least for the first time.”
Ajax narrowed his eyes, but shrugged. “Lead on.”
A chair had been constructed in the core, made of the same materials as the walls. The arms of the chair ended in deep, shimmering palm rests, and delicate bars curved out from the headrest like fingers.
“Pretty nice, huh?” said Elian, anxiously. “I hope it’s comfortable. I’ve had a set of machines working on it the last few days.”
“Just in case I stopped arguing with you?”
“Well, I like construction projects. And I thought— well, you’ll see. Take a seat.”
Nervously, Jehane settled into the chair. The headrest’s stone fingers bent toward her, resting lightly on her head. She placed her arms on the rests, and realized the palm rests were actually pools of goo. “I put my hands in this stuff?”
“Yep. And then you can send a bit of anima through it.”
At first touch, the goo was cold, but as she pushed her hands into it, it warmed up dramatically. Then she took a deep breath and flared her anima.
The shadow music that was a merging of Elian and Kentigern seemed to grow louder and then, floating in front of her was a translucent image of Elian. But it wasn’t Elian as he had been last time she saw him. His hair was white, and his dark skin was now ink black, with little flickers of light moving over it. One eye glowed a vivid blue, the same shade as the writing on the walls, while the other was covered with by a mirrored lens. On the other side of his image, she could see Seth and Ajax watching her curiously, but they seemed faded and distant. Lights moved around her, like the motes made large and colorful.
She jerked in the chair and he raised his hands. “It’s just a projection, so it’s easier to talk.” He hesitated. “Full disclosure: I can see pretty much everything in your mind from here.”
Jehane sat very still. No wonder he’d been so eager to get her in the chair. But at least he’d told her… after the fact.
He added, “I wasn’t sure if that would be true. I knew I’d see some of it— and it could be you still have secrets. But not among recent events.”
She said flatly, “That’s creepy.”
The image of Elian smiled ruefully. “I know, isn’t it?”
Jehane thought again about how it could have been her as the Tower ghost. How it should have been her. She was so glad it wasn’t, but she knew she’d never escape the thoughts of how it should have been her. Unless she could teach Elian what she could do.
Elian said, “That’s about the shape of it.”
“Stop it! If you won’t stop it, let me out of here. I need some thoughts to be my own, Elian.”
“Sorry,” he said, but she didn’t think he seemed very sorry. She really wanted some of her thoughts to be private, though. She remembered kissing Malachi, then squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could stop the thoughts.
“It could be,” said Elian idly, “that your thoughts are the only way I’ll ever experience some things now. Sad, isn’t it?”
“You are a bastard and I will stop being your friend.”
“You hadn’t?” He chuckled, a little, self-deprecating chuckle. “Well, now or later, it’s true. I’m figuring that out.” The glowing lights circling her dimmed, and Elian’s image flickered. “Ugh. Er. Hold on a moment, will you? Something’s wrong.”
Seth and Ajax became more real once again, each one standing on one side of her chair. Seth wasn’t smiling and Ajax had his hand under her wrist, as if preparing to pull her from the interface. With some effort, she shook her head.
“Augh,” said Elian.
Jehane tried to concentrate on his flickering image, and to extend her anima further. Maybe she could do something. “What’s wrong?”
“The other Towers… Surge is doing something. Some kind of search that is pulling on the substrate network. They want something inside of me.”
“Can I help?”
“Hell! No! Augh! Get out!” The chair collapsed beneath her abruptly, the smooth material springing apart into a collection of blocks. As her hands emerged from the goo, a sudden headache stabbed behind her eyes. The pain grew until she couldn’t see anything. She wailed, but Seth’s arms closed around her.
“I’ve got you,” he muttered, and with an effort of will, she forced the panic away. She couldn’t see, but it was just the pain from the disconnection. She concentrated on the pain. She knew a little about pain, knew how to make herself transparent so it would pass through her. Slowly, it started to ebb.
Distantly, she heard Ajax demand, “What the hell happened?”
“They were looking for her. For the imprint of her mind, I think. For… for something familiar?”
“Did they find it? Or did you get her out in time? What’s wrong with her?”
“The shock of the disconnection. I had to get her out fast! But I don’t know if it was fast enough. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s like they were waiting. I wasn’t expecting an attack over the substrate,” Elian repeated. He sounded dizzy.
“Why would they be looking for Jehane’s mind?” said Ajax, slowly.
Jehane knew, and tried to remember how to speak. At last she pawed at Seth’s hand and said, “Lailoken.”
Seth’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
“Tell me,” commanded Ajax.
Elian said, “The original ghost… the AI… it searched for Lailoken the Founder for a very, very long time before it found him. Naturally luminated minds create a disturbance, but it had to learn what the signature was.”
Seth said, “And then it opened the first gate.”
“But it can’t open a gate here, right?”
Elian was quiet for a moment. “I don’t think so. But now it knows what a naturally luminated mind looks like. It knows the ripples. They don’t have to rely on our gates anymore. They’re going to open their own.”
Apprehensively, Ajax said, “How long will that take?”
“Um. They’ve already worked out a way to target Earth, we’ve made that easy for them. It can’t possibly take as long as it did to find Lailoken. Now you really can’t go through the portal, Jehane. They’d find you immediately.”
Jehane nodded. The pain had faded enough that she could see again, but she closed her eyes as anguish overtook the physical pain.
“But minds like Jehene’s are unbelievably rare, right?” Ajax sounded like somebody looking for any bright side.
“Sane Jehane is unbelievably rare. Insane, dead young Jehane is estimated at one in a million. So I’d guess they have about 5000 potential targets if they don’t care about finding one who’s utterly broken.”
“But how long will it take?”
Elian’s voice rose. “I have no idea! I never tried it that way. I barely remember the algorithms for searching remotely without my transmitters. They must have reverse engineered them…”
Seth spoke up. “We have a little time, at least. There are still portals open, so they must want a specific location. Or kind of location.”
Ajax’s fists clenched. “But not much time. They’re ready to move.”
Elian said, “Guys—”
Natalie was surprised when Malachi opened the door to her room. “I didn’t think you’d be allowed to visit me again.”
He looked at her, flat and expressionless, until his eyebrows drew together. “Why wouldn’t I?”
It was such an unexpected response that Natalie wondered if there were two Malachis. But if they were, they shared a body, because this Malachi had the same faint scar on his cheek. And she knew better than to bring up topics that somebody didn’t want to talk about. So she only shrugged.
He came to her side. “It’s time. Hatherly asked me to bring you to the Portal Hall.” He put a hand under her elbow. Then, his mouth barely moving, he said, “It had to be me. He can’t trust Aya with you, or you with Tainter.” She looked at him quizzically, and he shook her elbow. “Are you ready?” he asked, in a louder voice.
Natalie glanced around the room, then down at herself. She didn’t quite know if she was ready for whatever Malachi was asking about, but she was ready for the waiting to end. “Yes.”
They moved forward. In a low voice, he said, “Surge and Hatherly are working on a portal. Tainter is planning something. He isn’t ready to stop playing yet, and he certainly isn’t ready to hand power over to you.”
“He shouldn’t be,” said Natalie, in satisfaction.
“Hatherly’s very… smug. Pleased.”
“Are you going to try something as well? You’re not as… off as the others.”
“I’m trying something right now, aren’t I?” He gave her a sidelong glance. “But you believe in his goal.”
She shifted uncomfortably, suddenly wondering where Malachi was taking her. His grip on her elbow tightened. “The spirit of his plan, maybe.”
“Of course. Who can argue with an ideal world? Certainly not the dead. But you haven’t tried to escape, even with the door unlocked.”
She whispered, “Where would I go? Out into the wilderness? There’s no place behind me to return to.”
“No place you want to return to,” he countered. It hurt, and she yanked herself out of his grasp and turned toward him, hand raised to strike. He neither flinched nor tried to stop her. Instead, she controlled herself, stepping away from him.
“I was born in a box,” she told him. “All alone. Maybe you’re thinking of someone else.”
“Maybe you could find that person?” he suggested, watching her.
She looked away. “I don’t think she exists anymore. Maybe she never did. Maybe other people just thought she did.”
“That’s what Hatherly wants you to think.”
She turned and went through the door, her chin up like a queen. She was wrong; he was as mad as the rest of them.
He strode past her at an intersection, taking the lead. This displeased her, but she realized that without his lead she would have returned to her room, returned to her waiting.
The portal room of the Tower wasn’t what she expected, although why she should expect anything, she didn’t know. It was circular and full of motes of light, so many motes that they made constellations and galaxies against the dark walls. The constellations made monstrous shapes, and embedded in the dark walls were the bodies of real monsters, like trophies encased in plastic.
A nebula swirled in the center of the chamber, cloaking Surge. Hatherly stood near him, talking quietly. Aya leaned against a wall, looking better groomed than she had last time, and Tainter stood near her. When he saw Natalie, he smirked and moved so that Aya was between himself and Natalie.
Hatherly glanced up, saw Natalie, and smiled. It was a proud, parental smile, and it hurt Natalie just as much as Malachi’s earlier implications had. The smile told her that she was hope, she was the future, she was the responsible one.
But she wasn’t. She was patience, and she was vengeance, and the only promise she contained was the promise of a world without those she hated. If she could achieve that and nothing else, it would make the world a better place.
“Well done,” said Hatherly to Malachi, as if praising a small child for a mediocre effort. He came to Natalie and took her hand. “My former brothers at the old Tower have been trying to thwart our plans by shooting themselves in the foot. But all that teaches us is that we must not rely on them to carry us.
“What are we doing, then?” asked Natalie. His hand was cool and she kept her own limp. It wasn’t time, yet.
“Opening our own gate. We could, of course build a network, but I think we’ll only need one. One gate to decide for everything. And then some setup time, and then… and then we shall see what sort of flower you will become, my little seed.”
Surge growled, then said, “We’ve found a target to anchor the gate.”
Hatherly’s smile flickered, and a memory bubbled up in the walled garden of Natalie’s mind: Hatherly, ragged and shattered, after another gate had been opened. Without context, it was a pleasant memory, and she miled.
Hatherly’s own smile returned as if in response, and he said, “Open the gate.”
Something flickered in the nebula surrounding Surge. Then the walls of the chamber shuddered. A light, eager voice said, “A portal! Ah! Time to move? I don’t know how to—” The cloak of stars compressed on Surge until he was glowing.
Then the whole world shook, and the walls seemed to drift soundlessly apart. Black emptiness opened up around them, devouring the room, the stars, and the Cambion in the heart of the Tower. Hatherly’s mouth moved but no sound emerged, and this was because the whole world was sound, a horrible ripping roar that swallowed everything and drove it into the black.
Malachi shoved her before leaping toward Hatherly.
Then the blackness swallowed Natalie, too, and she could see nothing, even though her eyes were open. The sound faded into silence, or maybe she’d gone deaf. The blackness became a grey mist, and Natalie was certain she was no longer in an enclosed space. The air moved around her, whispering of skies too high to touch.
She wondered if she was dead. Perhaps this was where she was before she was born. Or perhaps Hatherly’s event had taken place, leaving another hole in her memory and this hole for the world.
She put out her hand and summoned a sword. It was the action of a habit, not consciousness. But the sword glowed as it came to her hand, and her feet came into contact with the ground.
She was on a street. People pushed past her, ignoring the sword in her hand. Somebody was screaming, high and thin, and many people were shouting. They were fleeing, all of them, running away past her.
Slowly she turned around. Behind her was the wreckage of a large concrete building. It looked like it had exploded, but the dust cloud was — strange. Then she realized that within the cloud was a bounded grey vortex, six stories high and almost as wide. The greyness of the vortex formed into the faces of the monsters she’d seen in the walls of the Tower.
Then the monsters themselves stepped into the world, onto the broken stones and girders and bodies.