It started as a thickening in the air, and a strange, dusty taste in Ajax’s mouth. He first realized what was happening when he tried to wipe a film from his eyes and realized it was in the air. As it thickened, sound echoed oddly, and even those he stood near seemed on the other side of an unreachable gulf.
The garden outside his window was lit by a very few of Kentigern’s mobile light sculptures, just enough to turn the garden into a nightmare of shadows and fog instead of the starless blackness it would otherwise be. When lightning flashed overhead, the semi-visible canopy over the garden lit up, crackling with light. The air rumbled nearly constantly. Ajax didn’t know if it was thunder, or something else.
When Kwan showed up at his door to recruit him to help with some repairs, Ajax was watching the tendrils of mist swirl around his room. There seemed to be no way to keep them out, and he was glad for an excuse to get out of his room, even though it was the middle of the local sleep cycle. He was too adrenalized by the situation to rest.
“I thought you might not be sleeping. Everybody’s schedules get screwed up by Nightfall,” Kwan said. “Especially this one. Come on, you can hand me tools.”
“How is the mist getting in? I’ve never seen mist crawl inside a building like this before.”
Kwan hesitated. “Well, it’s worse than usual. Kentigern isn’t filtering the mist properly.”
“It’s not Earth mist,” Kwan interrupted him. “Trust me, you don’t want to think about it too much. We’re going to go help and supervise some of Kentigern’s assistant machines, and I’m going to work on fixing some old fans.”
Ajax helped Kwan push a laundry cart full of fan parts to the hall near the cafeteria, where a swarm of blocky polygons no larger than a child’s palm moved over a wall, taking it apart in some fashion. A few of the light motes chased the tiny machines around. The floating runes in the wall had fled away from the open part, crowding near the edges.
“We just need to be here,” said Kwan. “Find me a wrench, will you?”
Ajax dug through the toolbox he found half-buried in the cart. “So what’s this I heard about a possible breach? The Tower is like a castle, right? How could some wild animals break through it?”
“Really good engineering.” Kwan opened up a motor casing, then glanced up. “That’s not a joke. A long time ago, the wildlife in the land outside the Tower was heavily engineered towards assaulting the Tower.”
“Uh, and who did that?”
“The other Towers.” He grinned humorlessly. “Oh yes. There’s other Towers.”
“With other Kentigerns?”
“With other guiding minds, at least. Tower ghosts. There’s only one Kentigern. The other minds are barely aware these days, but at one point I understand they were wildly aggressive. A little screwdriver, please.”
Ajax found the screwdriver, then watched the machines on the wall, taking apart a square of casing down to a particulate level. “So… why?” One of the machines attacked the edge of the opening, where some of the glyphs clustered. For a moment, one of the symbols was caught, but with a struggle, it broke away and sunk out of sight behind the others.
“Why were they aggressive?” Kwan looked up again. “The Towers outlasted their creators, maybe by millions of years. And they had a mission. I think eventually they got a little confused about what their mission was.” His gaze went to the little machines. Three of them welded themselves together, and rolled out to the middle of the hall, then all of the machines stopped moving.
“Kentigern,” said Kwan gently. “What’s wrong?”
“Why bother?” said Kentigern. Then the machines on the wall jerked into movement again. “I’m sorry, that was a mistake. Where’s Lailoken?” The voice switched to a different language, liquid and beautiful, rattling off another question. Then, after a moment, Kentigern began to sing, a sad song in a liquid language that was like nothing Ajax had heard before.
The triple machine in the center of the hall started to roll down the hall. “Catch it,” said Kwan. Ajax took three long strides after it, but it stopped when it bumped up against Seth’s foot as he appeared at the corner down the hall. “Where are you going, little piece?” Seth asked.
It squeaked something at him, and Seth nudged it. “No, we’re not the invaders. Go back to work.” He kicked it gently, turning it around, then watched as it rolled back to its companions.
“Kentigern’s confused enough to think we’re unwelcome? That’s kind of… terrifying.” said Ajax.
“He’s reliving an old war,” said Seth. “And opening parts of his outer curtain voluntarily, I think. It’s a battlefield over there.”
“I can hear you!” announced Kentigern. “You know the other Towers are going to attack. You were just talking about it.”
“Well, it’s good to be aware,” said Seth, deadpan. “Hey, Rose, Kotone. Jolie.” Three girls strolled down the hall, dressed for a war. Ajax was pretty sure the older two were assigned Nightlights; he’d seen them with Natalie a couple of times. The younger girl was around his age, and he’d noticed her in class a couple times when she hung out with Elian and Rohan.
As soon as the girls had greeted Seth, he returned his attention to Ajax, his usual insolent smile back in place. “So what are you doing here, big guy? Training to be a Reader after all? Too scared to go fight?”
Ajax took a long step and pushed Seth into the wall. “You’ve got to find a safer form of entertainment, little brother.”
Rose said, “Oh, that’s not likely. You’ve got to learn to not take Seth seriously, and then he gets bored.” Ajax released Seth as Rose looked him up and down. “As for you, you need to relax. Why don’t you come with us? We’re going to go take out some trash.”
Kotone, who was carrying what looked very much like a shotgun, pumped the lever. “We’re going to help Kenny feel better. You do look like you have some energy to burn.”
“Yes, do come with us, Ajax!” said Jolie.
The two older girls were friendly, but the younger girl, Jolie, was giving him the kind of intense inspection that he associated with some of his ex-girlfriends.
“I’d love to but I’m helping Kwan,” Ajax said, refusing to look at Seth. Some things were important, and being called a coward by Seth wasn’t one of them.
“Didn’t you manifest a Stage 2 weapon earlier, when the Cambion came through?” asked Kwan, fitting a set of blades onto a rotor and tightening them down. “You’d probably be useful at the curtain if Kentigern is that stressed.”
“Ooh!” said Jolie, and stalked over, sliding her arm under his. “You have to come. It’s a lot more useful than standing around here.”
“What about Seth?” demanded Ajax. “He’s right here.”
Seth held up his hands. “I’m not supposed to be out. If you’re caught with me, you’ll get in trouble.” He appealed to Kwan. “You didn’t see me, did you?”
Kwan grunted, and turned the fan on. The mist blew away, crowding at the far end of the hall.
“Good!” said Seth. “Off you go, Ajax. It’s time you got to know some girls.”