This piece of fic­tion is very raw. You’ll prob­a­bly notice typos and shifts in tone. As I write it, I’m also bring­ing fin­ished pieces to my week­ly writ­ing group, which will fur­ther influ­ence the text as it grows. As usu­al, the final, edit­ed, pol­ished copy will be avail­able for ebook down­load.

Please feel free to leave your com­ments and thoughts. what cap­tured your imag­i­na­tion? What fell flat? Did you get lost? Which char­ac­ter is your favorite so far?

–//–

001

When the study fell into omi­nous semi-dark­ness, Irily lit a ball of light in her palm auto­mat­i­cal­ly. The impulse went deep­er than instinct, it was a pure sur­vival reflex. The dark­ness con­tained hor­rors and demons while light meant safe­ty. Light meant life.

Light meant she was delay­ing schol­ar Victor’s exper­i­ment. The influ­en­tial man eyed her from across the small room, berat­ing her with his silent gaze. Irily’s heart choked her throat, but she closed her hand on the ball of light and let the ley run­ning through her fin­gers dis­perse. Without the ener­gy to sus­tain it, the light winked out and the study fell into deep­er shad­ow.

The dark­ness crawled up Irily’s spine with dex­ter­ous, clawed fin­gers. Her skin itched and she had to shake off the feel­ing of being watched. She pressed her back against the book­shelf behind her, as if that stur­dy wood and stone could keep the mon­sters at bay. They were com­ing. Something skit­tered loud­ly across the stone tiles. Irily jumped. She flicked her atten­tion around the room, seek­ing out the source, find­ing noth­ing out of the ordi­nary.

Victor stood with his arms crossed beside the heavy block of his desk, appar­ent­ly uncon­cerned. His eyes panned around the room in calm con­trast to the flut­ter­ing pan­ic beat­ing in Irily’s chest. The huge win­dows at Victor’s back, nor­mal­ly open to the three suns’ eter­nal light, were draped in lay­ers of dark cloth. It was unnat­ur­al to hide from the light, and their loom­ing dark shapes gave Irily the jit­ters long before the lights had gone out.

Rowiben was the only oth­er schol­ar in the room. She had built her­self a small cage of books and crates, lit dim­ly on the inside in order to take notes. The flick­er­ing oil lamp was now their only pro­tec­tion against the encroach­ing dark­ness. A weak sav­ior when the demons start­ed to rise.

Ley sud­den­ly moved through the emp­ty cen­ter of the room. Irily felt it like a weight in the fab­ric of the world. A heavy dip. Victor sensed it too. He read­ied both hands to weave his trap.

Fighting the urge to throw blind­ing light in all direc­tions, Irily took a steady­ing breath. She was a pow­er­ful bright, and so was Victor. They were only a few lay­ers of cloth away from the safe­ty of the triple suns. This was a con­trolled envi­ron­ment meant to sum­mon a low-lev­el demon for study. She had vol­un­teered to assist. Now it was time to prove she deserved this schol­ar posi­tion. There were few brights that were will­ing to try exper­i­ments with the demons, and even few­er that Victor trust­ed to work with him. Irily was­n’t going to let the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn more about ley slip away. She need­ed to remain calm.

Irily felt any­thing but calm.

The weighty ley gath­ered in the mid­dle of the rug, press­ing down down the triple sun motif like it might break through the stone floor into the library below. But while the pow­er con­densed, a demon did­n’t rise.

”Rowiben,” Victor said into the dark­ness. ”Put out that light.”

Irily clenched her fists. Victor’s assis­tant only hes­i­tat­ed for a sec­ond. She was prob­a­bly used to this kind of thing by now. The oil lamp winked out.

A demon rose instant­ly in the con­sum­ing dark­ness. The ley slipped from ether­al pow­er into phys­i­cal form, small at first. A class-one demon no larg­er than a cat, though with too many limbs to be con­sid­ered cat-like. It turned on the rug, scratch­ing with too many claws as its deep, glow­ing, blind eyes assessed its new home. It was black. A con­sum­ing dark­ness that seemed to absorb the dim, fail­ing light that the cur­tains allowed through the edges of the win­dows. There was­n’t any tex­ture to it, just a void, a lit­tle whispy at the edges as the ley man­i­fest­ed out of the air.

Irily’s throat closed on her breath. She dug her fin­ger­nails into her palms, fight­ing the scream­ing urge to light the stu­dio and save them all. In a moment the crea­ture would real­ize three peo­ple stood around it, just wait­ing to be devoured.

”Steady…” Victor said, per­haps sens­ing Irily’s urges.

She did­n’t under­stand how his voice could be so calm. There was a mon­ster in their midst, a demon of pure mag­ic!

The class-one stretched upward on too-many legs. They thinned out, allow­ing the crea­ture to stand taller than the desk. Taller than Irily. Then it dropped a sec­ond body seg­ment out of itself and the weight of ley Irily could sense became abrupt­ly larg­er. Some of the legs became arm-limbs with dead­ly claws at the ends. The num­ber of pur­ple-glow­ing almost-eyes mul­ti­plied and flowed down the crea­ture’s upright back. Two mouths, one on each body seg­ment, gaped wide enough to show off sharp, wet teeth. Class-two.

”Victor–”

”Easy,” he said, voice urgent. ”Let it grow. It’s almost ready.”

Irily was almost ready to run scream­ing from the room. There had­n’t been a class-two with­in the city wall in years, let alone in the heart of the Citadel. Not since the pub­lic light­ing sys­tem kept the entire city lit through­out the day and night. Between the triple suns and light­ing lamps, the Citadel had become a small oasis, a lit­er­al bea­con of safe­ty in the dark. That Victor had invit­ed this demon into the core of that light set Irily’s teeth on edge.

The class-two was far more agile than it’s pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion. This new demon inspect­ed the room around it with del­i­cate touch­es of each limb. It dis­cov­ered the read­ing chair and explored the shape, tear­ing into the fab­ric with the points of its claws. The pur­ple-set eyes could­n’t see, not yet. The ser­aphs said they could prob­a­bly detect motion, but Irily did­n’t think it mat­tered. If some­one was close enough to a demon to test their vision, they were prob­a­bly dead.

While the crea­ture moved from the read­ing chair to the low cof­fee table, it con­tin­ued to absorb the ley around it, gain­ing fur­ther weight and pow­er. Some of the pur­ple eyes spread across the chest-seg­ment and the limb ori­en­ta­tion shift­ed again. A third body seg­ment inflat­ed with large, gill-like pro­tru­sions. A sense of smell. The legs grew sparse, sen­si­tive hairs for detect­ing the world around it. The accu­mu­la­tion of sens­es denot­ed it had grown to class-three.

The demon crawled, like an insect, from the top of the table back to the read­ing chair, breath­ing deeply through its gills. It seemed to ori­ent toward Rowiben, and reached sev­er­al limbs to inspect her bar­ri­er of books and crates. The claws tap-tapped along. Rowiben made a small sound, soft and dis­tressed. The demon did­n’t seem to respond to it.

”Irily, light Rowiben’s lamp.”

She did so eas­i­ly. Irily sent the small­est spark of ley into the mech­a­nism. The lamp was turned to its low­est set­ting, but the sud­den burst of light star­tled every­one. The demon dart­ed away, some of its claws click­ing aggres­sive­ly against each oth­er. It could­n’t see, but the light burned, and it instinc­tive­ly pro­tect­ed itself.

As the crea­ture crossed the room, Victor wove his ley into the air. It man­i­fest­ed as a net of the faintest twi­light, a web that cap­tured the demon and formed a pro­tec­tive cage. The holes in the net shim­mered with dark­ness and for a moment Irily lost sight of the mon­ster.

”Light the room,” Victor said.

Irily let her ley burst into life, an exha­la­tion of relief. Every lamp in the study blazed and a fur­ther col­lec­tion of ley-pow­ered points ban­ished each and every shad­ow from the room. Irily did­n’t need the triple suns to save her. She had plen­ty of pow­er to draw from the very air around her. Irily took a deep breath and shook the jit­ters out of her mus­cles. Victor had caged the demon in a box of twi­light and the sim­ple exis­tence of the light around them would keep it con­tained.

She watched the demon test its new cage with a sin­gle clawed appendage. The bright light burned instant­ly and it snatched the limb back inside pro­tec­tive dark­ness, leav­ing on a wisp of smoky ley behind. Irily’s nerves set­tled a lit­tle more.

Behind her book-and-crate blind, Rowiben cleared her throat and began scratch­ing notes onto parch­ment. Irily admired the schol­ar for her nerve. Rowiben had no ley affin­i­ty, noth­ing to pro­tect her from the dark­ness but an oil lamp and the trust she held in her men­tor, Victor. Irily knew she could­n’t leave her­self in some­one else’s hands. Not even her sis­ter’s. Demons were sim­ply too big of a threat to risk it. She only con­sid­ered this assign­ment because she knew she could light her­self up at any time and save her­self. Without that assur­ance… well. Irily tried not to think about life with­out ley affin­i­ty. It was ter­ri­fy­ing.

With the mon­ster safe­ly con­fined in the twi­light box, Irily moved to Victor’s desk to review their list of exper­i­ments. The work had been get­ting pro­gres­sive­ly more inter­est­ing in the past weeks. The dark­ness gave rise to demons more eas­i­ly, and Victor was more and more con­vinced that they were man­i­fest­ed nat­u­ral­ly from the ley of the world. But if that was true, it raised more ques­tions. Why did­n’t light demons mani­ftest? Why were there earth and water sprites but not demons?

And a ques­tion that kept Irily up at night: did the demons mean ley was inher­ent­ly evil?

What did that make her, a bright who pulled ley from the very air to man­i­fest light and fire? Would she even­tu­al­ly turn to dark­ness? There were a lot of the­o­ries, and even more myths.

Irily rubbed her fin­gers of one hand, let­ting ley spark gen­tly between them. The pow­er always gave her a rush of ener­gy, and it did­n’t feel evil. But Victor was always remind­ing her that con­clu­sions had to be drawn from tests and observ­able results. Feelings and emo­tions could be tricked. Wasn’t the first thing a bright learned to con­tain their strongest emo­tions?

Victor inter­rupt­ed her mus­ing with a hand­ful of emp­ty, capped syringes. The schol­ar then set a full syringe on the desk next to his parch­ment list of exper­i­ments. The ves­sel swirled with dark ley, a glit­ter­ing black and pur­ple sub­stance that moved like a flu­id, but nev­er seemed to set­tle. He must have drawn it from the demon just now. The nee­dle still smoked, evi­dence of dark ley burn­ing away in the light. He said, ”Fill each of those with ten units.”

Thankfully unlike the demons, Irily was­n’t made of ley. She did­n’t have to stick her­self with six nee­dles in the name of sci­ence. Instead she unscrewed each cap, pressed her fin­ger­tip to the open ves­sel, and del­i­cate­ly fed sparks of light inside. They bounced around the syringe and each oth­er until there were so many motes that they could only vibrate in place. Irily kept push­ing. The light inside resist­ed, over­full. Then all at once, the motes col­lapsed into a shim­mer­ing, gold­en liq­uid of pure ley.

Capping the mag­ic was anoth­er issue. Given the chance, ley would burst out of any con­fine­ment and spread far and wide until the nat­ur­al pull of the world chan­neled it along rivers and eddies. So with her fin­ger still hold­ing the flu­id inside, Irily care­ful­ly slid a new nee­dle into place and screwed it shut. A small burst of light dripped over her fin­gers, but all-in-all she was get­ting bet­ter at keep­ing it con­tained.

Irily set the syringe on the desk, oppo­site the dark ley, and watched in fas­ci­na­tion as the two dif­fer­ent mag­ics syn­chro­nized their whirling motions. She and Victor sus­pect­ed that all ley types ger­mi­nat­ed from a com­mon source, a moth­er mag­ic that could shift into what­ev­er form was most use­ful. They want­ed to find that source, or per­haps ley could be revert­ed. There was so much they did­n’t know.

Six syringes, each filled with a spe­cif­ic vol­ume of light, hard­ly phased Irily’s pow­er. Ley was a volatile ener­gy, eager to exhaust any host that used it, and Irily had felt its effects more than once. She was nowhere near that lim­it now. Even so, the mag­ic was decep­tive. It gave a user ener­getic ambi­tion right to the very end. A bright could and had hap­pi­ly wear them­selves to the point of dehy­dra­tion and coma.

”Rowiban note one hun­dred units of dark ley tak­en over three min­utes. No vis­i­ble change to the class-three.” Victor tapped his chin with one of the full syringes. ”How long did it take to shift from class-two to class-three?” he asked.

Irily heard Rowiban shuf­fle parch­ment. ”One minute twen­ty sec­onds.”

”Hmmm. Does that mean fur­ther vol­ume is nec­es­sary?” he mused to him­self. ”Or is it some­how absorb­ing more to replace what I take?”

Irily cocked her head. ”Even when sur­round­ed by light?”

Victor ges­tured to the cor­ners of his twi­light box. ”It’s not a per­fect con­tain­er. There are edges and cor­ners full of dark­ness it can draw from.”

”But not enough to shift to class-four.”

”Not that I’ve ever seen.”

Irily cir­cled the box curi­ous­ly. It sat on the rug in the mid­dle of the room, a hazy grey­ish rec­tan­gle strapped with bands of twi­light. It kept the light out, which pro­tect­ed the demon, but it was only ley. They could walk right through it if they want­ed. A rather ephemer­al cage.

”Is it gen­er­at­ing new ley? Or using what is avail­able around it?”

”Another good ques­tion.”

Rowiban’s quill on the parch­ment paused. ”If it’s using a finite vol­ume around it, even­tu­al­ly it would run out… right?” Her voice was low.

Victor tipped his syringe in her direc­tion. ”An excel­lent hypoth­e­sis. Note that for a future study.” He con­sid­ered the demon. ”I doubt I have enough syringes to drain one entire­ly.” He clicked his tongue and added the syringe to the desk, bring­ing the dark vials up to four. All ten of them swirled in sync.

The demon test­ed its prison again, reach­ing a sin­gle clawed appendage beyond the edge of the twi­light box. Irily shied away from the ges­ture, even though the crea­ture retreat­ed imme­di­ate­ly. ”I won­der if it takes more ley to shift from two to three than it does one to two.”

”Yes…” Victor mused. ”And does that vol­ume increase geomet­i­cal­ly or expo­nen­tial­ly? Or is there no pat­tern to it?” He walked the length of his study, tap­ping his chin. ”Do high­er class­es take ley in faster? Does a demon gain the abil­i­ty to man­i­fest its own ley at some point? How pow­er­ful can they grow if giv­en unlim­it­ed ley?”

Rowiban took rapid notes with each of these ques­tions, her quill scratch­ing swift­ly as Victor fell into an entire theme of ques­tions. His voice rose with excite­ment, the ideas flow­ing faster.

Irily turned back to the syringes on the desk. While Victor’s line of think­ing was curi­ous, Irily was­n’t near­ly as invest­ed in learn­ing about the demons them­selves. She want­ed to know about ley. She picked up a dark ley syringe and noticed that its swirling pat­tern broke away from the group when she held it. After a moment it matched her inter­nal flow of pow­er instead. The heart­beat of her ener­gy. How close was dark ley to light? Could she use the dark ener­gy like she did light? Would it trans­form into light when she manip­u­lat­ed it?

”Irily,” Victor snapped.

She jumped.

”A light syringe.” He made a give it here ges­ture.

She passed the ves­sel in ques­tion. Victor approached the twi­light box, watch­ing the shad­ow of the demon shift inside. Due to the con­straints of its cage, it could­n’t move much. The light was a very effec­tive deter­rent. Still, with a sin­gle slice, those claws could do some seri­ous dam­age. Victor chose a posi­tion near the back of the beast and drift­ed both hands into the dark­ness. Irily could see the shape of his hands inside the box, near­ing the demon. When Victor made con­tact, the crea­ture rum­bled threat­en­ing­ly and its body arched. Victor plunged the light syringe in and squeezed its entire con­tents. He threw him­self back­ward.

Despite the burn­ing light, the class-three whirled on Victor, bel­low­ing. Claws sliced the air where his head had been only a moment before. Then the beast con­tract­ed inside the safe­ty of the twi­light box, grum­bling. Dark ley smoked in the study, leav­ing a haze behind.

”One dose of ten units light applied at… four-sev­en­teen, Rowiban. Specimen tol­er­at­ed full light expo­sure to react. Accurate attack despite lack­ing true eyes.” Victor looked at his emp­ty syringe as he caught his breath. ”Vocal com­plaints con­tin­ue through four-eigh­teen, but no longer risk­ing light expo­sure.”

Irily watched the demon shud­der and snap. What was the ley doing to the insides of that crea­ture? They knew light would burn away dark ley, boil­ing it to smoke in a mea­sur­able, con­sis­tent pace. No doubt Victor want­ed to test if demons were gen­er­at­ed from pure ley, as sus­pect­ed, or if they con­tained some core of mat­ter, like earth and water sprites. Demons gath­ered ley the longer they wan­dered in the world, and grew in pow­er as a result. Earth and water sprites were lim­it­ed by their mat­ter core, nev­er grow­ing, and only shrink­ing or split­ting if their core was dam­aged.

But if inject­ing pure light ley into a demon could hurt it, or even reduce its class… every­thing would change. Irily peered clos­er at the demon, eager to find evi­dence of dam­age. If light could be weaponized, maybe they just might stand a chance.

After ten min­utes of close obser­va­tion, the demon set­tled down. And after twen­ty, no fur­ther upset seemed to occur. Victor took anoth­er vial of light in hand, and nod­ded in Rowiban’s direc­tion. ”Applying vial num­ber two, ten units of light.” He plunged the con­tents in, dodg­ing out of the way in the same man­ner as before.

The demon roared as it turned on Victor, leg and arm seg­ments smok­ing in the light. Irily saw a patch of light glow­ing inside of the demon, like a lamp under too many blan­kets. Then it hid inside the twi­light box and whined.

”Did you hear that?” Irily asked.

”They can make a range of nois­es, it means noth­ing,” Victor said, eye­ing the box.

”No, that was a whine, like a dog. A sign of pain. The crea­ture feels pain.” Irily was sur­prised to find her­self empathiz­ing. She’d spent near­ly her whole life train­ing to be a bright specif­i­cal­ly to ward off the demons in the night. ”We have to recon­sid­er this, Victor.”

He glared at her over the twi­light box. ”I am not stop­ping this mid-project.”

Irily clenched her fists. ”You can’t tor­ture it!”

”Should I release it then?” His hand hov­ered over one net­ted cor­ner. ”When I do, it will eat all of us alive. It’ll suck the ley out of our very bod­ies and then swal­low us whole. It is a demon, Irily. A mon­ster.”

”It’s alive–”

”Is it?” Victor chal­lenged. ”We know they can man­i­fest out of pure ley with noth­ing more than a lack of light for a moth­er, no liv­ing crea­ture I know of sim­ply cre­ates itself into exis­tence. If it’s alive so is my rug. And that is what we are here to learn. What makes it go. What makes it stop. Why does it mim­ic liv­ing beings? Is it real­ly alive or just an imi­ta­tion?” He turned away from her to the box. ”We have so many ques­tions and true night is five days away. We need to learn as much as we can as fast as we can.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. ”Gods help us all.”

Victor glanced back at Irily. ”So it feels pain,” he ges­tured at Rowiben to take notes, ”so do fish. I eat them any­way. Pain does not make it intel­li­gent nor valu­able.”

Irily bowed her head and retreat­ed from the box, con­flict churn­ing in her chest. She was­n’t in the habit of advo­cat­ing for demons, not when they’d killed more peo­ple than lived in the city. She did­n’t know a sin­gle per­son untouched. Brothers, fathers, cousins. Everyone knew some­one killed by a demon, often sev­er­al peo­ple. Hell, Irily had been raised by her sis­ter after their par­ents were killed, she was hard­ly a shel­tered cit­i­zen her­self. But that whim­per­ing cry cut so eas­i­ly to her soul, like the bro­ken sound of a pup­py seek­ing its moth­er. She could­n’t help but wince.

When Victor select­ed his next syringe, though, Irily schooled her expres­sion. She may not agree with his meth­ods, but Victor was an influ­en­tial man who could remove her from this posi­tion at any time. And she need­ed to be here. She need­ed to learn every detail. True night was com­ing for the first time in gen­er­a­tions and no one knew how the demons would react. When the third sun fell below the hori­zon, the schol­ars said the entire sky would go dark. Blackness all around. Irily trust­ed the schol­ars knew what they were talk­ing about, but the very idea was keep­ing her up at night.

Dark ley and its demons assault­ing the city from every direc­tion, even above… Unless she could find a way to make a weapon out of light, rather than just a defen­sive wall, she was sure they would all per­ish.

Because Victor was right. If the demons became so pow­er­ful dur­ing true night that they could tol­er­ate stand­ing in the light… noth­ing would stop them.

Irily met Victor’s eyes and nod­ded. He did­n’t need or care about her per­mis­sion, but Irily would­n’t fight him on the sub­ject again. They sim­ply could­n’t afford the moral dilem­ma in the face of cer­tain death.

One by one Irily watched Victor inject the light into their cap­tured demon and recite his obser­va­tions for Rowiben to note. With each vial, the demon tried to defend itself, and fail­ing that, curled into tighter and tighter balls. Now and then it whined, its body vis­i­bly small­er than they start­ed.

”Interesting,” Victor mused. ”I would still clas­si­fy this as a three, but it’s def­i­nite­ly small­er than your aver­age two. Perhaps they can’t revert.”

After a moment, Irily piped up. ”Could the light you’ve inject­ed be pre­vent­ing any shift? Up or down?”

”Another pos­si­bil­i­ty,” he admit­ted, tap­ping his chin with the last emp­ty vial. Then he grunt­ed and paced back to his desk. ”There are sim­ply too many ques­tions to draw siz­able con­clu­sions from our data so far. We will need to test fur­ther.”

”You mean addi­tion­al demons?”

”Yes.” Victor pulled a pressed paper from his desk draw­er and scrawled a note across at an angle. Irily tried not to tense at such dis­re­gard for an expen­sive and labor-inten­sive prod­uct. Victor fold­ed the sheet, waxed it, stamped it, and hand­ed it to Irily. ”Deliver that to your sis­ter.”

”Now?” Irily took the paper note–what was so impor­tant that he had to waste a paper to write it out?–and blinked at Victor.

”Yes. We’re done here for the day.”

”What about…” Irily gesured at the twi­light box.

”I’ll dis­pose of it. That”–he point­ed at the paper–”is more impor­tant.” Victor flicked his fin­gers and that was the end of the con­ver­sa­tion.

Irily pursed her lips. It seemed to her there was so much more they could learn from this demon, even if it was already com­pro­mised with light. At the very least she felt the need to stop the pain it must be feel­ing. But she was­n’t in charge of this study and fur­ther argu­ment would­n’t endear her to Victor any fur­ther. It was hard enough to get on his good side as it was. If he had a good side. Irily turned toward the door, unset­tled and con­cerned, but not sure exact­ly what about. She gave Rowiben a final glance at the study door, but Victor’s assis­tant was deeply involved in her paper­work and did­n’t look up. Irily qui­et­ly closed the door behind her.

The Citadel was a tow­er of white stone direct­ly in the cen­ter of the city. It could be seen from any­where, and the light that burst from its win­dows every night helped keep the city safe. Travelers used it as a bea­con for miles around, know­ing secu­ri­ty was near at hand. Offices and hous­ing for sev­er­al city offi­cials filled the rooms of the tow­er, which kept traf­fic toward the city cen­ter at a bustling pace. Victor’s study was nes­tled into a cor­ner of the sec­ond floor, which meant Irily descend­ed the stairs into the library prop­er. The shelves and open cab­i­nets here were stuffed full of scrolls and parch­ment. More recent­ly, paper bind­ings had start­ed slip­ping into the col­lec­tion. While pricey and labor-intense, paper had proven to be more com­pact and much less main­te­nance for the library to keep. With luck, much of the col­lec­tion could be copied to paper and the bulky parch­ments would give way to the future.

Irily hes­i­tat­ed in a tow­er­ing aisle of musty records. A ley light descend­ed at her pres­ence, dis­miss­ing even the faintest of shad­ows. She knew this par­tic­u­lar aisle well. It was stuffed full of obser­va­tions and records of demons from the city ser­aphs stretch­ing back hun­dreds of years. There were few parch­ments here Irily had­n’t read. They cov­ered the gamut of top­ics from iden­ti­fy­ing class­es of demon to the most effec­tive defense when faced with a horde. And yet noth­ing was record­ed about true night or fight­ing back with light ley.

According to the schol­ars, true night had hap­pened before, long long ago. The third sun had set and thanks to an untime­ly eclipse of the sec­ond sun, true night had reigned for sev­er­al weeks. But there were no records of that time, and Irily feared much of human­i­ty had per­ished. She did­n’t even know if the pow­er of light ley had been dis­cov­ered yet. Without that his­to­ry, they were march­ing blind, and there was noth­ing she could do about it.

Irily ducked her head and hur­ried out of the library. She could­n’t waste time wish­ing for a bet­ter sit­u­a­tion when she had the pow­er to change it. There had to be a way to weaponize light. And by the time true night came, she was going to know how. Victor’s con­tin­ued study of the demons was crit­i­cal for the entire city, even if she dis­agreed with his meth­ods. She could­n’t stand in the way of that knowl­edge if it meant they all might be saved.

And come true night, Irily was deter­mined to ensure a record was kept this time. Preserved for the future.

With renewed pur­pose, Irily made her way from the city cen­ter to a cob­ble road just off the main street. It was qui­eter here, and she was less like­ly to stum­ble through a pile of horse drop­pings. Ley lights bright­ened as she approached, retreat­ing again as she passed, silent­ly reas­sur­ing each and every cit­i­zen that there were no demons hid­ing in these cor­ri­dors. It was the job of some fledg­ling bright to recharge these lights every after­noon. A bor­ing job, Irily knew from expe­ri­ence, but one that paid well when there was­n’t any­thing else a new bright knew how to do with ley. Out of con­trol mag­ic was­n’t the most in-demand com­mod­i­ty.

She spot­ted carts and trav­el­ers on the main road, snap­shots of the bustling city between bright­ly lit alley­ways. It had­n’t always been this way, but Irily hard­ly remem­bered a time before the pub­lic light­ing secured every inch of the city with­in its walls. Her old­er sis­ter remem­bered more.

Irily con­sid­ered the let­ter schol­ar Victor had giv­en her, intend­ed for Janetta. She did­n’t think the schol­ar was so close to her sis­ter that an entire piece of paper was war­rant­ed, but per­haps Victor intend­ed to get into her good graces. He clear­ly did­n’t under­stand Janetta if that was the case. She was far less impressed by shows of wealth than she was by com­pe­tence. Victor was sur­pris­ing­ly dim for how obser­vant he was.

Irily shook her head as she turned down an ally toward the main road. A white stone build­ing here bulged like a growth on the out­er wall, pocked with doors on both the bot­tom and upper lev­els. The on-duty ser­aph nod­ded her in and Irily slipped by a clog of cit­i­zens wait­ing for their turn to peti­tion for an escort beyond the city walls. It was safe enough dur­ing the day, the triple suns ban­ished all shad­ows, but fear was a pow­er­ful force.

There were no few­er peo­ple inside the guard­house as out­side, but these were all gild­ed and ranked ser­aphs. Trained war­riors with ley-touched blades and ham­mers. Strong and armored, each of them, and winged like their name­sake. Most wore the wings as emboss­ing on the back of their chest plates, but Irily spot­ted a few winged helms and some with sweep­ing paul­drons. The motif dom­i­nat­ed one of the white stone walls, a pair of wings cir­cled up around the ser­aph crest, illu­mi­nat­ed by a ded­i­cat­ed ley light.

Irily squeezed between ser­aphs prep­ping for the night’s shift, not­ing sev­er­al brights in atten­dance. They touched up weapons, gave a glow to armor and chain, and qui­et­ly reas­sured their war­riors before the eter­nal bat­tle. Nightfall was­n’t exact­ly dark with the triple suns. The first sun fell every night and rose every morn­ing, dic­tat­ing the days and cal­en­dar. But the sec­ond sun only set every week or so, and the third sun always remained low on the hori­zon. Rarely, the first and sec­ond suns set on the same night, leav­ing the dull red­dish glow of the third to illu­mi­nate the world. Those were the nights peo­ple feared. The third sun was weak, and her light was­n’t always enough to keep the demons at bay. On twi­light nights, the city locked its gates and many of the cit­i­zens who farmed and lived out­side the walls were left to fend for them­selves.

It was a harsh but nec­es­sary truth. The city sim­ply could­n’t hold every­one. Brights, serephs, and any­one who could afford to live with­in the walls were pro­tect­ed. Everyone else… well, Irily insist­ed on study­ing ley to give every­one a fight­ing chance. Not just the lucky few.

And in a few days, even the third sun would dip below the hori­zon and true night would be upon them.

Irily shook her head as she scaled the stairs and locat­ed her sis­ter’s office. As one of the senior ser­aphs, and favored for cap­tain, Janetta had more respon­si­bil­i­ties than the aver­age ser­aph. She han­dled squad assign­ments for sev­er­al shifts, spend­ing her own days off on wall repairs rather than at home. Between the two of them, the fam­i­ly house was rarely occu­pied. Workaholics, the both of them. Their moth­er would be proud. Their father would have pranked them into tak­ing days off. If either of them had lived, Irily was­n’t sure life would be far dif­fer­ent. Not with the kind of head­strong daugh­ters their par­ents had raised.

A low grum­bling growl met Irily at the door­way of Janetta’s office. She knocked any­way.

”Come in,” Janetta said, her tone indi­cat­ing she was only half pay­ing atten­tion.

Sure enough, her head was bowed over parch­ments and lists when Irily pushed the door open. Leodin, a giant, dark-col­ored dog, greet­ed Irily instead. She was the source of the huff­ing. On all fours, Leodin’s block head near­ly reached Irily’s chest, and Irily did­n’t think she was all that short. The dog made for an intim­i­dat­ing and effec­tive guard. When she was­n’t rolling onto her back and lolling her tongue out, that was. Irily crouched to give her a hearty bel­ly rub and grabbed the dog’s mas­sive plate-sized paws. Each claw was two inch­es long, every toe as long as Irily’s fin­gers. She wig­gled Leodin’s legs so her paws flopped and laughed when the dog tried to lean up and lick her. ”You giant softy,” she crooned. ”Who’s a good demon-hunter? You are. Yes, you are.”

”Keep doing that and she’ll think you’re going to take her on a w‑a-l‑k.”

Leodin’s jaw snapped shut and she sat up on one shoul­der, blunt ears perked at Janetta.

Irily laughed. ”I think she can spell.”

Janetta snort­ed deep in her chest as she set her parch­ment aside. ”That’s just what I need. A giant mag­ic dog that can spell. Next you’ll tell me she can read, too.”

”Hey, that would­n’t be so bad. She could find her own shift assign­ment.”

Janetta smiled. She leaned her cheek into one hand, elbow perched on the desk. ”I think she miss­es being out there. Ever since I start­ed this”–she ges­tured to the desk and office–”she has­n’t had a chance to real­ly stretch her mus­cles.”

Irily gave Leodin anoth­er pat and stood. She slouched into one of the hard chairs posi­tioned in front of Janetta’s desk. ”Here,” she said, hand­ing over Victor’s let­ter. ”Maybe you’ll appre­ci­ate this, then.”

”Is this paper?”

Irily rolled her eyes and let her sis­ter hang. She was­n’t going to try and explain the schol­ar. He was eclec­tic even for a bright. Janetta broke the seal and read.

”Oh, no. Nope. Absolutely not.”

Irily sat up in the hard chair. ”What? What does it say?”

”Victor wants me to take you beyond the wall tonight to cap­ture a class five. That is not hap­pen­ing. No.” Janetta put the paper down on her desk, squint­ing like she could­n’t believe the words.

”A class five?” Irily frowned. ”We had a class three in the study today.”

”What?” Janetta jerked her head up. ”There was a demon behind the walls? Was any­one hurt?”

”Yes–no, no one was hurt. We doused the lights–”

”On pur­pose?”

”Janetta, calm down. Nothing hap­pened and no one was hurt. We need to study these things–”

Janetta stood behind her desk, loom­ing in as much author­i­ty as Irily had ever seen. ”Not if you’re going to bring them behind the walls.”

Irily craned her neck up at her sis­ter and slumped back in the chair. ”Look, you’re afraid of them, I get it. We’re all afraid of them. I was­n’t exact­ly on board when Victor sug­gest­ed the idea, but he said he’d done it before and–”

”Gods above, pro­tect us,” Janetta sighed reflex­ive­ly. She closed her eyes and shook her head, then hung it low. ”So you doused the lights and let one man­i­fest in the study. Right in the heart of the city–”

”They feel pain, Janetta.” Irily inter­ject­ed, harsh­ly. She was tol­er­ant when Victor tried to roll over her with his opin­ions, but Janetta was her sis­ter, not her guardian.

Janetta leaned back. When she stood straight she was less the future cap­tain of the ser­aphs and more Irily’s blood. ”What?”

”We inject­ed it with light ley, right in the haunch. It freaked out, of course. But it whim­pered, too. They feel pain. They’re alive. We burned it down to the size of a two, but it kept it’s class three fea­tures. It was even will­ing to test the light to get to Victor. It knew Victor had hurt it. There was­n’t just ran­dom attacks. They can think and rea­son.”

Janetta sat down slow­ly and Irily knew she final­ly had her atten­tion.

”I think there’s a way to weaponize light ley to fight them.”

Janetta glanced at the parch­ments across her desk, but Irily could tell she was­n’t real­ly see­ing them. ”This does­n’t make sense. They can’t be alive, they’re not born.” She shook her head. ”They don’t breed they just… con­sume.” Janetta met Irily’s eyes. ”What if they’re just imi­tat­ing?”

”None of us in that room whim­pered. What would it have imi­tat­ed? But if it did, that means they’re smart enough to rec­og­nize a behav­ior and then recre­ate it. Isn’t that how every crea­ture learns? And what does it mean if they’re not imi­tat­ing? How did it learn? When did it learn? If they’re made of ley like we think, does that mean the ley itself is smart?” Irily sud­den­ly recalled the way both her light ley and the cap­tured dark ley had synced their flow in the vials on Victors desk. ”Can it com­mu­ni­cate with itself?” She asked qui­et­ly. Irily sparked ley between her fin­gers. ”Is it alive before it becomes a demon?”

”Oh, Gods,” Janetta groaned. She put her head in both hands, elbows splayed on the desk. ”I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t want to know.”

”That’s just fear talk­ing and you know it.” Irily stood, still thought­ful­ly spark­ing light in her hands, brow fur­rowed. ”You don’t have to take me out­side the wall. I’ll find a ser­aph on tonight’s shift.”

”Irily…” Janetta plead­ed.

Irily stopped at the door­way. ”What do you think is going to hap­pen dur­ing true night?” she asked with­out mal­ice. ”The third sun falls and… then what? Dark ley is going to sweep through the val­ley so fast, it’ll turn the fields for us. If I can cap­ture a class five tonight, what is going to come out of the woods in a week? A class sev­en? An army of class sev­ens?”

”Worse,” Janetta said soft­ly.

Irily dropped her ley abrupt­ly. ”I’m sor­ry?”

Janetta palmed a stack of parch­ments across the desk until she iso­lat­ed one. She tapped it. ”I’m start­ing to get reports of class tens at the edge of the for­est at the deep­est time of night.”

”Class ten…” Irily wracked her brain for the details. Fives could see. Sevens could mim­ic human voic­es. But tens… ”They look like peo­ple, don’t they?”

Janetta nod­ded. ”I’ve lost three ser­aphs already. Everyone on a shift knows to stay wary but we’re try­ing to keep a lid on it. If peo­ple knew…”

”The city would be flood­ed with pan­icked evac­uees. We’d be over­whelmed.”

”And then the accu­sa­tions would start,” Janetta agreed. ”If the demons look like peo­ple, any­one could be a demon.”

”Shit.”

Janetta made an agree­able grunt.

”I’m going out tonight,” Irily said. ”I have to. If there’s even a chance of learn­ing some­thing use­ful…”

Janetta eyed her. ”Don’t ask me to like it.”

Irily smiled. ”I won’t. Keep the lights on for me.”

”Always.”