There were certain things Jaz would never forget.
The day she met Athamas.
The day Sadie died.
The day a certain man, while bleeding out on her floor, made a deal with one of Janus’ kind and was granted a new life in one of the other seven worlds.
And the day that Janus became trapped in The Defiant.
He’d looked different then. His hair was black. His square eyes were black tunnels in his head, instead of gray, with red sparks gleaming in their depths. His arms—all four of them—ended in six-clawed hands. Some of the claws were missing at that point, bloody tips remaining, and a few of the fingers had been sliced off. But it was him. The whole being of Janus, the godlike Lumenatra who had pulverized entire cities to dust. Cut armies to pieces. He’d even boiled a sea or two—
Or was that one of his own kind, one that he had betrayed?
Anyway, that was how the war on world Four—Thursday—had started. Janus and a few of his fellow Lumenatra had convinced the mortal denizens of the world that they’d infiltrated (or did they invade? Or maybe they were exiled from their own dimension…?) that two of them were too dangerous, destructive, to be allowed to roam free in the world. Janus and his brethren—they called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ though they seemed to also be in paired relationships—showed the mortals how a Lumenatra could be caught and sealed away in a mortal vessel.
Naturally the mortals, realizing how very powerful the Lumenatra were, decided that all of these beings should be sealed away for the safety of all. For a time the entire world was at war, some fighting for the Lumenatra, whom they considered patron gods; most fighting for the world they wanted to protect from the same gods.
Eventually, and at the cost of countless lives, the mortals succeeded in this effort. And Janus was one of the last to be sealed. Jaz remembered that moment particularly well: It had happened inside The Defiant.
Perhaps ‘well’ was an overstatement. She remembered…that it had happened. The exact memory was muddled and nonsensical in parts, like a dream that lingered in wakefulness.
Windows turning to black portals. A monster with four arms and claws for hands exploding out of the espresso machine. A pool of blood on the floor, forming into a smaller version of a vampiric woman who stood and sipped from a tiny teacup she’d pulled from inside her tall hat. The monster’s claws raking down Jaz’s arm as he was pulled, stretched by an invisible force toward a humanoid figure, his prison and vessel, outside. Herself, screaming at him, begging to be released from The Defiant. The monster stretching, thinning, snapping away. A vague shadow outline lingering in his place, then sinking into the floor.
She discovered what became of that shadow several nights later, when she found it gliding back and forth in the basement, wringing its hands and moaning like a proper ghost. The monster—the Lumenatra, rather—had managed to peel a tiny bit of his being away as he was being captured, and stick it in The Defiant. That bit was Janus. And he was completely useless.
Oh, he had power. Incredible power, even though it was just a fraction of what his whole being could access. He just couldn’t apply it to anything outside of The Defiant’s walls. And he could not apply it to any sentient being without its permission.
He had no idea what had become of the rest of him, but he guessed that the human vessel where his essence had been stashed might resemble the human form he often took when interacting with mortals: a man with a young face and white hair.
That was the only detail he and Jaz had to go on. That, and that the locations and identities of the vessels were probably recorded somewhere, by Sassacus scribes whose life goals were to record everything of note that happened anywhere in their world. That faction in itself was a neat little setup by one of Janus’ fellow Lumenatra before they, too, were sealed away. A few of the Lumenatra had little failsafes such as this in place. The Defiant had been Janus’ failsafe, but he was unable to escape before he was sealed. Now he was just as trapped as Jaz was.
“The collector collected by his collection.” Jaz muttered, as she bent over an open photo album cradled in her lap. The words weren’t hers, she was fairly certain. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard them. Still, they were accurate.
Jaz pushed the album onto the floor and stood. She paced, stepping over the other binders and photo albums that she’d brought from the storage room into the basement, where there was enough floor space to spread them out.
The photos in the albums spanned a long, long history of years, but hours of staring at them had brought Jaz no closer to finding the point in time that she had taken the photographs Bracken had discovered.
“I did not take those pictures. I didn’t…right?” She paused and looked around the basement. It was empty except for herself, the loaded shelves, and the large metal roaster that occupied its own corner to her right.
Janus, of course, was not to be seen, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t watching. Janus was an observer, and only showed himself when something was interesting enough to warrant the effort, or if there was something to be gained from it.
Jaz spoke as if he was somewhere nearby anyway. “Why didn’t you say something about the pictures, then? I’m sure you knew about them. We’re not exactly in team mode right now, but come on! You want out as much as I do…”
Jaz continued to pace, staring down at the open binders and albums, dragging her fingers through her hair repeatedly. “They probably didn’t have what you wanted. But why not? Or are they not complete? Did I start getting pictures and not finish? But when? When?! I didn’t get this book before, right? Right?”
Her shout filled the basement, then flattened into silence. Jaz growled and kicked at one of the albums, flipping it over. “Janus! Janus, answer me, dammit!”
She kicked another album, and it skidded across the floor, bumping into one of the roaster’s metal legs with a muted bang.
She stopped mid-kick and turned to see Bracken, standing in a disheveled state at the corner of his bedroom wall, blinking sleepily at her. She’d forgotten his room bordered the area by the roaster, and his bed was on the other side of the wall where she stood.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m great. Fantastic.”
Bracken rubbed his eyes sleepily and looked at the binders arrayed across the floor. “What are you doing?”
“Spring cleaning. What’s it look like?”
Bracken blinked at her, eyes wide and dark and so…sad. He’d covered his grief with anger and denial, but she was too familiar with grief to be misled by emotional masks. And she was too scared of how close she was to breaking down over Sadie’s death as well, even after—how many years, now? Five? And he’d only lost her a few months ago, by his time. She’d wanted to protect him from having to live with that pain. Stupid. He would have found out eventually. She’d only made finding out worse.
Jaz realized she was staring at him while these thoughts ran through her head. She checked herself and shrugged, gesturing at the envelope of pictures lying atop one of the photo albums. “Sorry. I’m…trying to figure out when I took those pictures. Or if I had someone bring them here, or…” She rubbed her fingers through her hair again, though it was already standing out from her head like a close blue cloud.
Bracken sighed. Then he edged forward and crouched by the envelope. “Can I see?”
“Sure. Whatever.” Jaz slid down against the wall and pulled her knees against her chest.
Bracken picked up the envelope and shuffled through the photos. “There must be a reason you hung onto them for so long.
I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
We. How long had it been since she’d heard that, outside of the context of herself and Janus? Not since Sadie. The thought made her heart ache. Of all the faces she was lucky enough to remember out of her long history, Sadie’s was one that still touched a deep emotional chord in Jaz, a static point along a blurred timeline, a point that no longer seemed attached to time, but to herself. A point she could never again see. A point that Bracken sometimes resembled, for all the chaos he caused since he’d arrived.
Jaz watched his profile as he squinted at a photo. He was so willing to help. And so damn polite. She’d forgotten how politeness permeated the Morphas as a species. Politeness, loyalty, curiosity—all qualities she didn’t possess in great quantity. That didn’t seem to matter to him, though. It certainly hadn’t mattered to Sadie.
She realized she was staring again and dropped her forehead onto her knees. “There’s probably nothing of use in those pictures. That’s why I forgot about them. There’s nothing there, and I’m never getting out. I am. Never. Getting out.”
Bracken frowned at the picture in his hand. “Jaz…”
“It’s just a game I play with myself, see. Just passing the time here. Endless time…endless…endless…”
“Jaz.” Bracken scooted back until he sat beside her. “There are pictures of more than one book in here.”
She raised her head and looked at the picture he held up. It showed the cover of a tome, but it was a different color than the one she’d borrowed, and the etchings across the cover were also different.
“I didn’t take time to look through all of them before. I just saw the ones that matched the book I was photographing, and the cover…”
Jaz squinted at the picture in her hand, then took the envelope from him and began to rifle through them. A few had been put in backwards. Jaz pulled one of these out and saw writing across the back. “Oh…”
Bracken straightened and looked at her. “Oh?”
Jaz glanced at him. “I didn’t take these. I think Sadie did.” She showed him the back of the photograph. “That’s her handwriting.”
Bracken sat up straight, grinning excitedly. “She did? Wow…when? And why? Was she looking for Mr. White-Hair too?”
“Who? Oh…no.” Jaz rested her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. “She was looking for a doorway generator.”
“That thing Oz mentioned. I remember. So it…”
“Creates doorways, to wherever. She was hoping it would create one I could use, to get out of here.”
“Okay…so, maybe this means she found it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m still here.”
“Oh.” Bracken lowered the pictures to his lap and stared down at them.
“I told her it was pointless. I told her so many times. But she was sure it was real. So sure. She searched for it right up to the day she died, and never—” Jaz’s throat constricted, cutting off her next words. She stood, shoving a binder out of her way with her foot. “Forget about the pictures. They’re pointless.”
“Jaz—” Bracken glanced up at her.
Jaz shook her head, rubbing away tears that stung her eyes. “I’m going to bed.”
“But there’s more writing on the backs of these. Don’t you want to at least—”
Jaz was already moving past him to her room. “Look through them if you want. Put the binders away when you’re done.”