The first slither hit without warning.
A swarm hovered in the distance, marking the spot where Rex must be, but the flying snake seemed to come from nowhere, glancing off Jessica’s arm and leaving it buzzing like a hammer to the funny bone.
Her hand half numb, Jessica pulled her flashlight out.
“Unanticipated Illuminations,” she whispered, and turned it on. Power surged through her, and another slither flared up in its beam, filling the darkness with red flame and a shrill cry. Jessica swept white light across their path, igniting a handful more slithers before them.
“What’s this thing called?” Jonathan asked, squinting from the light and gesturing with his shield.
“Uh… Dess said to call it Brogdignagian Perambulation.”
“Is that English?”
“Yeah, it means ‘walking tall,’ sort of.” She touched the shield and said the name again.
As they descended, Jessica caught movement on the desert floor below. She pointed the beam downward, igniting a nest of crawling slithers that had been waiting for them. “They’re everywhere!”
“Trying to slow us down,” he said.
Something fluttered behind them, and Jonathan cried out as a slither struck him in the middle of the back. He stumbled as they landed, dragging Jessica down into the salt before she lost her grip on his hand, normal gravity draping over her like a lead blanket. She fell onto dead slithers, the reek of burned flesh filling her lungs.
Jessica rose to one knee and spun around, trying to point the flashlight in all directions at once. Things lit up in the sky around her, but she saw another flying streak hit Jonathan on his leg before bursting into flame.
“The flare!” he called, deflecting another slither with Perambulation.
She pulled Explosiveness from her pocket and tore it in half, crying its name. The flare burst to life, half blinding her and filling the desert with jittering shadows. Screams rose up on every side as she thrust it over her head.
Leathery wing beats faded all around them, carrying the screams away.
Jonathan shielded his violet-flashing eyes from the flare. “How long does that thing last?”
“Half an hour, I think. But it’ll go out if I drop it.”
“Don’t. I can’t see a damn thing, but it’s better than getting chewed to pieces.” He held out one hand, keeping the other across his eyes, favoring his right leg. “You navigate. Tell me when to jump.”
Jessica took his hand. Jonathan’s lightness buoyed her, mixing with the wild energies flowing up through her body and into the hissing flare. She calculated their next jump, tugging at his hand to indicate the direction.
“Three, two, one…”
They leapt, but Jonathan’s bitten leg buckled, sending them spinning around each other. Jessica corrected their flight with a twist of her shoulders, the second law finally and mystically becoming clear in her mind. Too late for any physics test, but maybe in time to save Rex…
They arced high above the desert, headed toward the swarm.
“Landing in five, four, three…”
Their feet touched down, and she pulled Jonathan into the next jump, perfectly this time. In midair she drew him close so that he wouldn’t cast a wedge of shadow into the desert sky and open up a line of attack. He buried his face against her shoulder, flinching from the sparks of Explosiveness that swirled around them.
“One more and we’ll be there,” she said at the peak of their jump. Already the cloud of slithers and darklings ahead was scattering, terrified of the brilliant flare bounding toward them. Jessica smelled her own hair singeing in the veil of sparks, but, like soldering at Dess’s house, the scent of combustion only thrilled her.
They landed and jumped again in perfect tandem, flying straight into the swarm.
* * * * *
It was like falling through a chorus of screams.
Flames spread in every direction as slithers too slow or too stupid to get away were ignited by Explosiveness. These flailed their burning wings and careened into others, carrying the inferno outward in an expanding sphere, like a great blazing eye opening around them. A darkling in the shape of a winged panther was caught by the spreading conflagration. It whirled in circles, trying to put itself out before tumbling from the sky.
“This sounds pretty intense,” Jonathan said, his eyes glued shut.
“Pretty,” Jessica answered. Her entire body hummed with the sputtering hiss of the flare.
They fell through the mass, a ring of fallen, smoldering beasts lighting the desert floor below them.
“We’re coming down,” Jessica warned, seconds before they landed and staggered to a halt.
At the center of the burning slithers—right at the spot Dess had predicted—stood three stiffs, frozen by midnight. One was Jessica’s stalker, handsome Ernesto Grayfoot, camera in hand. Another was a tall woman with blond hair, the third an old man, elegantly dressed in clothes that seemed decades out of date. Even from a distance Jessica could see the resemblance between Constanza and her grandfather.
A fourth figure huddled on the salt between them, small and naked and pale.
Jessica dropped Jonathan’s hand and ran to the trembling figure, carrying Explosiveness over her head, spitting demonic shadows in every direction.
It wasn’t Rex.
The girl was sickly and withered, her legs too thin to stand on. Clumps of leathery skin clung to her human flesh, which shone albino white from years in darkness.
“Bright…” she said with a dry throat, as blinded as Jonathan by the flame.
Of course, she was a midnighter still. A seer, Rex and Melissa had said. Jessica hid the flame behind her, and the eyes crept open a slit, flashing purple.
“You finally came for me.”
Jessica blinked. Finally—after fifty years. The girl couldn’t comprehend how long it had been.
“Yes. You’re okay now.” She didn’t look okay. She could barely hold her head up, her muscles wasted from years imprisoned in darkling flesh.
“I don’t know you,” she said softly. “I’m Anathea.”
“We’re new in town,” Jonathan said, limping up behind Jessica. “Anathea, we’re looking for a friend…”
“The other seer,” she said, nodding sadly. “They changed him and left me here.”
“Do you know where they took him?”
“I can look.” She pointed a thin finger at Explosiveness. “But put that out.”
Jessica turned and threw it into the darkness. The moment it left her hand, the flare sputtered, dying before it hit the ground. She pulled out Unanticipated Illuminations again, in case any slithers had dared to stick around.
The girl sighed with relief in the sudden blackness and opened her eyes wider. She swept her seer’s gaze across the horizon, then nodded.
“He’s flying that way.”
“Flying…” Jessica could barely make out a flock of shapes against the rising moon. Rex and his new entourage.
They were too late.
“We have to follow him…” she said desperately. “Try to save him.”
“If you can keep him aboveground until the sun comes up,” the girl said, “the darkling flesh will burn away, I think.”
“I’ve got my own sun,” Jessica said, her hand clenching Unanticipated Illuminations. “Come on, Jonathan.”
He paused, looking down at Anathea. Are you going to be okay?”
The girl shook her head. “I know why they let me go.” She sank back to the ground, exhausted.
“What if they come back and hurt her?” Jonathan said.
“They don’t want my flesh,” Anathea answered. “I’m one of them now.”
Jessica looked up at the retreating swarm, chilled by the words. If that were true, then Rex was one of them too. “We have to go, Jonathan.”
Jonathan paused, then took off his jacket and wrapped it around the girl’s frail shoulders.
“We’ll be back,” he said to Anathea, and then took Jessica’s hand.
Unanticipated Illuminations swept the night sky nervously, its beam clearing a path before them. A few flocks of slithers challenged the light but burst instantly into balls of flame, consumed as they streaked toward the ground.
Even with Jonathan half blinded, they gained on the swarm quickly. Soon Jessica could see why. At its center flapped a darkling in almost human form. Its flight was ungainly, the wings uncoordinated and the body twitching horribly, as if it were at war with itself. Its long spiked tail swung like a nervous cat’s through the air.
“Rex,” she whispered.
They grew closer, and the flashlight began to tear at the trailing edge of the swarm, igniting slithers and driving the rest into mad vortices.
Two darklings descended to join the thing in the center, taking positions on either side and trying to coax it forward, but Jessica saw its human arms flailing, fending them off.
At the peak of their next jump she pointed Unanticipated Illuminations directly into the swarm and said its name again, willing every ounce of her power into it.
The beam lanced through the mass, and the two darklings shrieked and veered away, the halfling bursting into flame.
“Rex!” she cried.
The blazing shape tumbled, gyrating toward the ground like a crumpled paper airplane. At the last moment it managed one billowing flap of its burning wings, bringing itself softly to earth before collapsing.
The swarm twisted around, transforming into a whirlwind that surrounded the fallen creature. Slithers broke off from the spinning mass, launching themselves into the path of her flashlight, disintegrating as they flew. The stench of the screaming, burning animals began to choke her.
Then one struck Jessica’s right shoulder, streaking in from below and sending an icy bolt of pain through her arm. She twisted the flashlight around, igniting burning slithers in all directions.
But there were so many of them, and she didn’t have another flare.
“Stop here!” Jessica cried as they landed, and Jonathan stumbled blindly to a halt. “There are too many!”
A shape loomed up before her, and Jessica reflexively brought her hand up to protect her face. The slither bounced from her wrist with a screech, leaving the charms on Acariciandote glowing. Through the darkness she saw sleek forms bounding across the desert, hunting cats carried toward them in thirty-foot strides.
She could burn them all one by one, Jessica knew, but in the meantime the swarming slithers would cut her to pieces. The darklings, however cautious and fearful after their long lives, were willing to sacrifice themselves to save their new halfling.
And kill Jessica Day in the bargain.
“What do I do?” she murmured.
“I’ve got you,” Jonathan said. Eyes squeezed shut against her darting white light, he wrapped himself around Jessica, protecting her back. “Just keep fighting.”
She felt his body jerk as a slither hit him from behind.
He groaned. “Just fight!”
There wasn’t time to argue. She turned Unanticipated Illuminations on the nearest darkling, which stumbled and howled as flame skated across its fur. She swept the light across a flock of slithers to reach another great cat. The beast leapt sideways, but she followed it with a flick of her wrist until it was reduced to a scattering of bright motes tumbling across the salt.
Jonathan flinched again as something struck him, pulling her off balance as he swung Perambulation blindly. Jessica clenched her teeth and ignored his cries of pain, aiming her flashlight at another panther, whose purple eyes flashed, then boiled from its head. The thing screamed, launching itself up into the air, wings bursting into flame even as they sprouted from its back.
It crashed to the ground close enough to shake the desert under her feet, thrashing up a cloud that rolled across them, filling Jessica’s eyes with stinging salt.
Another slither flared behind her as Jonathan fended it off with his shield.
A whistling sound came from overhead, a huge darkling plummeting through the air. But Illumination’s beam transformed it into a bright, shrieking meteor tumbling to the ground. It was headed right toward them, a flaming pin-wheel of claws and teeth and wings. Jessica struggled, trying to move out of its path, but Jonathan was wrapped around her, still blinded by the white light.
He grunted and dragged her backward while Jessica kept the light focused on the beast. The creature burned away as it fell and crumbled when it struck the earth before them, scattering glowing embers around their feet, like the remains of a dying campfire kicked across the desert floor.
Howls came from all around them then, awful sounds of defeat and terror.
Jessica cast around for another black shape in the air or on the ground, but her beam found nothing but a few stray slithers. The other darklings must have given up, their age-old fearfulness finally driving them back into the night. In the distance she could just make out the tattered remnants of the swarm fleeing across the flats.
“I think that’s it,” she said in the sudden silence.
Jonathan’s arms slipped from around her, and he fell to his hands and knees.
Jessica whirled around. His sweat-streaked face was twisted with pain. Jonathan!”
“I’ll live,” he panted. “Go get Rex.”
He raised his head and squinted across the desert, pointing to the crumpled, smoldering heap where the halfling had fallen.
Jessica bit her lip, scanned the sky again. Nothing.
“Okay. Stay here.”
She fell into a dead run across the salt, playing the flashlight’s beam across Rex as she drew closer. The remains of his darkling body burned away in great gouts of white fire, the wings disappearing into sheets of flame, the outer layer of skin blasted from him like dirt under a fire hose.
When it was done, she turned the flashlight off and ran to where he lay crumpled on the salt.
He looked up at her with wild eyes, hissing at her through clenched teeth.
“Rex, are you…?”
A shudder passed through his body. He looked down in amazement at his arms, pale and bare. His hair was half burned away, but his skin looked unhurt, as if Unanticipated Illuminations’s white fire had stopped at the limit of his humanity.
“Did you see her?” he croaked. “The other one?”
“Anathea? Yeah, she’s back there.”
“Take me to her.”
Jonathan ran up, limping horribly. “Are you sure you can…?”
Rex rose, not a stitch of clothing on his body, and said, “Quickly. She’s dying.”