Natalie perched alertly on the padded benches that lined the walls of the Council chamber, along with almost all of the other Nightlights present in the Tower. The roll-call had pulled in many more than usual, and the benches were packed.
The raised table in the center of the room was also crowded with senior Nightlights who opted for comfortable chairs rather than benches. Screens scattered around the room served as windows, displaying angles on the Courtyard and the land outside. It did a little— a very little— to lessen the grating pressure of so many animae in the same room. A magnificent light sculpture floated over the table, with hundreds of motes swirling the length of the room, Kentigern’s symbolic presence on the council.
The room buzzed with conversation as old friends caught up and passed on news. More than a few heads turned toward Natalie, and she smiled at the ones she knew and tried not to be rude to the rest. Two assigned Nightlights, Rose and Kotone, came and squeezed in on either side of her. She’d undergone her novitiate with them, and they were good friends.
But there was no time to talk before Tanist Kiley stood up and called for everybody to settle down. The leader of the Council was an attractive, fine-featured, middle-aged woman. Natalie’s father worked directly for her, and Natalie knew her as firm and no-nonsense.
So did everybody else, because the room silenced itself almost immediately. The Tanist looked over the room, unsmiling. “Most of you are back in the tower for one reason, and one reason only. So let’s deal with that before moving onto regular business. We initiated a roll-call, a full Nightlight check-in, because we had solid evidence that one of our number has fallen, turned Echthros. Now that the roll-call is complete, we can put a name to the shadowy face.
“A single pair of Nightlights failed to report in even by proxy. Today we confirmed news that one of the pair was reported as a Jane Doe in Vancouver. Her partner is MIA, and we’ve identified him as the Echthros.”
The Tanist paused to look down at a tablet. Murmurs and turning heads swept the room as everybody tried to figure out who was missing. Then Rose said, “Emily Lachlan and Malachi… something.”
The Tanist’s gaze settled on Rose, and she squirmed back, as if trying to hide behind Natalie.
“Correct. An Earthside Seneschal is claiming Emily Lachlan’s body now, while her partner, Malachi Kasparian, hasn’t contacted any Guardian for weeks now. ”
“Emily did all the talking,” Rose mumbled. “We went to school together. You never saw him without Emily.”
Kotone said, “I barely remember him. Emily, though, I remember her. She was fun. Damn, what a shame. How did she die, Tanist?”
A Reader said, “An interesting question. Did he break before or after she died?”
The Tanist passed her hand over her eyes. “Only relevant for research purposes. The important part right now is that he broke, and she’s dead. The details on how will have to wait.”
One of the Seneschals studied a screen, shook his head and said, “It looks like even his teachers didn’t know him well. It’s always the quiet ones.”
Hatherly, sitting at the table, gave the Seneschal a killing look. “No. It isn’t. But it’s always a tragedy.”
The room became very quiet.
The Tanist said, “And now we have to clean this horrible mess up.” She raised her voice. “Those of you who knew Malachi: you know him no longer. He is not who he was. He is an Echthros, an enemy, and the creator of an abomination.”
“I thought there was more than one Cambion?” said a voice in the throng.
Natalie’s father said, “We think it was a very fast Cambion.”
The Tanist said, “But we haven’t ruled out a second. If there’s another one, it probably belonged to Emily.”
“Do we know of anything awful he’s actually done? Or are we judging him Echthros entirely based on circumstantial evidence?” Natalie burst out.
The Tanist gave her a flat look. “You’re the one who reported a man’s death at the hands of the Cambion.”
“Which is gone now! What has he done, beside… besides something he probably couldn’t control? Who here really knows what goes into creating a Cambion?”
Again, there was that dead silence. Then the Tanist said, “I know it’s hard to deal with, my dear. But this isn’t a unique case; it fits a classic profile. Our goal must be to eliminate the Echthros before he leaves a trail of corpses behind him. He has the potential to do much more harm than a Cambion. Echthros can control and strengthen Awakened just as their Cambion can, and they can do other things as well, like ride in airplanes, or penetrate deep into government buildings. Cambions are man-killers, but a focused Echthros is a civilization-killer.”
“They’re rarely that focused,” said Hatherly. He met Natalie’s eyes and sighed heavily.
“We can’t take the risk. Protecting civilization is the foundation of the Guardians.”
One of the Prowler Chiefs, a lean man in his forties called Linc, said, “Yes. I’ll handle it once we have a lead on his whereabouts. I’ll need a few Nightlights to handle the Awakened, but you needn’t worry about the man himself,” he finished, addressing himself directly to Natalie. “You’re trained for fighting monsters, not people. It’s hard. But I’ll do my best for the man he used to be.”
Sharply, the Tanist said, “Echthroi are monsters. It’s best to think of them as Awakened in a human skin. Anything else and you risk hesitating at the wrong time. Do not take that risk.”
Linc’s mouth curved in a lopsided smile at the Tanist’s words. “Tarah, I’ve been here before. I know what I’m about.”
The Tanist looked annoyed. “Good. Our Earthside operatives are combing through the media looking for signs of his presence. If he continues to fit the profile, we should see signs of him soon. If any of you encounter him, please report in immediately. Linc will be standing by to direct the situation at that point.” She put the tablet down with a click. “And now, we’re going to take a brief break before going onto the normal business of the Nightlights monthly meeting. If you must, you can see me with questions after the session.” She sat down, rubbing her head again.
The council chamber dissolved into noise. Natalie pressed back against the wall, trying to think. Then she sprang to her feet and brushed past Rose and Kotone, heading for the exit.
She wanted to find Seth. She needed Seth’s cynicism right now. She kept imagining Malachi as Ajax, alone and with the core of his life in ruins. If she’d abandoned Ajax on Earth, or if he couldn’t find his place, would Linc be hunting him down, too?