Ajax stood in his father’s darkened bedroom, looking down at the gently snoring figure on the bed. “Bastard,” he muttered, and swigged from the bottle of whiskey. He wasn’t worried about his father waking up. His father never noticed anything unless it was something he could twist to his own benefit. He’d barely noticed the death of his wife, except as an inconvenience.
Ajax’s mom had died more than eight years ago and it was still painful to enter this room. There were traces of her left even now: the quilt his father slept under, the bookshelf with stenciled flowers that now supported his father’s trade magazines. Fading details. He always felt like a kid in this room, a kid with every landmark that defined his life washing away. Every time his father sent him to a relative for a while so he could ‘get his life together’ Ajax returned to find less and less of his mother left.
Only a few days before she’d stopped breathing, she’d breathlessly caught his hand and pressed it to her belly. He’d felt the kick of the new brother or sister with wonder. Her delight had overcome his worry over her lingering illness, for a day or so. Then it had become just another shade of grief and another angle on alone.
“I don’t know why she loved you,” Ajax whispered. “She thought you were so wonderful, but look at you. Look at what she put up with.” Ajax’s mother had hidden both her illness and her pregnancy from her husband as long as possible. They couldn’t really afford either, and she didn’t want to worry him— not when he had such big plans to work on. But she told Ajax it would all work out.
Love would make it work out.
Love was so stupid. Meredith had told him she loved him, too, and look where that had gotten her. And if he hadn’t driven her off, it would have gotten her worse.
A passing vehicle on the street outside sent a stray beam of light into the room, startling Ajax. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and thought of the monster. But it was only his reflection in the mirror over the dresser.
He thunked the bottle down on the dresser and leaned his face close to the mirror, studying his reflection. “I’m not a monster,” he told it. Then his eyes widened.
He was just like his father.
He shoved himself away from the dresser. Love was stupid, but he couldn’t stand the thought of turning into his father. He was already such a douchebag. If he didn’t end up dead from monster, where was he going to be in ten years? Twenty?
He picked up the whiskey bottle again, took another drink, found his answer. In ten years, he was going to be a drunkard who still lived with his loser father, if he wasn’t a loser father himself. Because he couldn’t walk away from this life anymore than his mother could. It was sick.
He walked out of his father’s room. Maybe there was a Losers Anonymous he could join? Probably not.
As he entered his own room, Ajax noticed the open window and the motorcycle parked outside before he noticed the girl. Natalie. She had the jeans he’d changed out of on her lap as she sat on his bed. Her sword was beside her, way too big for Ajax’s tiny room.
Natalie looked at Ajax as he entered the room. Or rather, she looked long and hard at the bottle in Ajax’s hand before transferring her gaze to his face. Under her stare, he flushed. “That’s fair,” he muttered. “I deserve that.” He sat down in his chair, and swiveled it to hide the bottle behind him.
“What’s this from?” she asked. She fingered the black stain on the jeans.
“Monster blood.” She raised her eyebrows, so he went on. It was the whiskey. “Big thing, caught me out in the street. Face like a baboon. Some kind of yeti? I don’t know.”
She was quiet a little too long, her eyes searching his face. Then, slowly, she said, “Have you seen other monsters?”
“What? No! That was the first time I saw a god damned monster in the streets. It was big enough to pick me up and hold me like a kitten.” He glared at her.
Her eyes widened and her face lost color. She bit her lip. “I really hope you’re wrong. But the Awakened don’t leave blood behind…” She turned her gaze down to the jeans again, then looked around. “Is your family well?”
Ajax was annoyed. She was the one with the vanishing katana, and she was disbelieving him? “It chewed on my arm pretty good.” He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to show her the bruises in a ring around his forearm.
She tossed his jeans aside and stood up, the sword vanishing again as she grabbed at his arm. “This is really not good.” Her fingers were warm, her grip firm as she turned his arm to look at the bite mark. Ajax had a sudden, drunken urge to grab her in response.
A voice from the window drawled, “Hope I’m not interrupting something.”
Ajax looked over, into a flash of bright light.
The light filled up his eyes, and then filled up his mind. It pierced a veil, not just over his sight, but his memories. His mind careened back into the past, familiar moments from his life leaping up at him, filled with horrifying changes.
In the new illumination, he saw memories of his home, filled with monsters. Memories of his room, filled with monsters. Memories of himself, crawling with vicious, toothy, twisted monsters. They had always been there. All the way back, as far as his memory reached, the light showed him the terrors that had always been there.
In his mind’s eye, he again looked at himself in his father’s mirror. This time the reflection he saw was slashed and bleeding from dozens of injuries. This time he was clinging to life by only a thread.
How can it be understood? What metaphor could bring as much clarity as a single flash of light? His whole life he’d ignored what was right there. When Ajax was a small child, they’d been on the fringes of his day to day existence. After his mother died, they’d moved in, filling up whatever home he’d been sent to. They nibbled on him, day and night, and he never noticed. They attacked the people around him and those people didn’t notice either. Nobody ever noticed, but they were there. He could remember them now.
He’d covered his walls in his sketches of the monsters, the creatures he’d seen but never processed except through his pencil. His father’s house was usually crawling with them. They devoured each other sometimes. Earlier, a big one had been eating Ajax alive when the girl showed up. It’d held him against the bridge and torn into him, and he’d barely noticed.
But now all the monsters were gone. They’d vanished from the house shortly after he’d come home.
“—a tall one, isn’t he?” said a boy at the window. He tucked away a device he’d been holding, the source of the bright flash. Then he flipped himself over the edge of the window into the room. His feet thudded onto the floor and he gave Ajax a sleepy smile. “It takes a while.”
“Seth, he saw a Cambion,” said Natalie.
The boy called Seth didn’t lose his smile, even as he shook his head. “Not mine. Yours, then?”
“Don’t joke, Seth! A Cambion running around means bad news!”
Seth brushed himself off. “We’re the only ones here. Who else could it be? Oh, I know— his!”
Natalie opened her mouth, then paused to peer closely at Ajax. She picked up his arm again, and he curled his hand around her elbow.
“Oh! You’re awake again already. I thought it took longer.”
Ajax’s throat was clogged, like he’d never spoken before. He coughed, then rasped, “Magic swords. Do you have magic healing, too?”
Natalie blinked at him, then lowered her gaze to the bruise. “Wounds are wounds. They all heal the same way.” She released his arm and turned back to the boy. “I don’t know, Seth. But I don’t think it works like that.”
Ajax tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling. “All right. So what just happened?”
Seth said, “I used this handy-dandy Luminator on you. Strictly against the regs, of course, but Natalie asked so nicely.” He was still smiling, as the situation was an ongoing joke.
Ajax finally really looked at the boy who’d appeared at his window. It only took a cursory examination to realize he was related to Natalie: the same build, the same face. His hair, the same pale shade as Natalie’s, had a carefully razored fringe constantly on the verge of covering his green eyes. He looked like the sort of clean-cut poser that Ajax traditionally scorned associating with.
“The Luminator does a couple of things,” said Natalie. “It activates the part of your brain that can see the Awakened, and it lets you put your anima to work.”
“The monsters are the Awakened? Awakened what?”
“Darkness. Awakened Darkness.” Seth looked up at the pictures on Ajax’s wall. “They’re called to a strong anima. Looks like they’ve been called to you for some time.”
“And what the hell was the point of waking me up to them? My memories are filled with nightmares now!”
“Hey, man, they were always there. Look at that nasty one.” Seth flicked a finger toward one of Ajax’s oldest sketches. A snake with a man’s hairy arms and a caged heart in its torso coiled across the paper.
“But now you can fight them,” said Natalie. “If you want to learn how.”
“Just pick up my magic sword and charge into the front lines, eh?”
Seth’s smile flattened, as if the joke had gotten dull. “Or don’t. Go back to your life. Draw your monsters. They’re mostly interested in kids, so when you get older, they might stop coming so often. Or, they might kill you.” He shrugged. “Natalie won’t always be around to save you.”
“Seth, don’t be a jerk.” Natalie moved between Seth and Ajax. “My sword is part of my own anima. Learning to shape a weapon is one of the first steps in learning to be a Guardian. So yeah, you’d start with a magic sword. There’s a lot of training before you end up on the front lines, though.”
Ajax eyed Natalie warily. “Guardians, huh? What exactly are the front lines?”
Seth rested his arm on Natalie’s shoulder, and his head on his hand. “Official name: Guardians of the Precipice. But we’re really just Nightlights, to chase away the darkness.”
Natalie shrugged out from under Seth, then elbowed him squarely in the stomach. He staggered back, and she ignored him. “We patrol. We fight the Awakened. They gather in places where humanity does, and without us, well… the darkness wins. Humanity doesn’t.”
Ajax leaned back in his chair again, looking away from Natalie’s earnest expression. His gaze fell on the monster he’d encountered in the street before. Descry, it’d named itself.
“What about this?” He tapped the paper. “I saw it before the thingamajig rewired my brain. It talked to me.” He thought back, remembered — now— the circle of Awakened that had watched hungrily as Descry had played with him.
“There’s another kind of monster,” said Natalie slowly. “Very rare. Intelligent and able to fully manifest. Anybody can see it, but it’s just as hard to hurt as the Awakened. You need an anima weapon to hurt those. I’ve never actually seen a Cambion before. They’re supposed to be utterly savage. Why did it talk to you?”
“It wanted something from me.”
“I don’t really know. I wasn’t paying close attention, because it was a goddamned monster in the street.”
Seth and Natalie exchanged looks, which Ajax didn’t like at all. Seth said, “There might be a bit of trouble over this.”
“I don’t care,” said Natalie. Then she tilted her head. “Listen.”
Something crunched outside. Then a voice roared, “Come outside, Boything!”
It was the Cambion called Descry.
Descry the baboon-faced monster loped down the street outside Ajax’s house. A pack of other monsters followed it, monsters that Ajax could now remember clearly. They were smaller than Descry; the largest was the size of a small bear while the smallest was the size of a small dog. But taken as a whole, the pack was a large mass of needle-tipped tentacles, dripping fangs, clawed feet and red eyes.
Ajax clenched his fingers on the windowsill, disgust roiling his stomach. All his life, these things had been chewing on him. Seth said a strong anima attracted Awakened Darkness, said Ajax had one of those. Had these things been responsible for the disintegration of every home Ajax had ever valued? His memories, while full of the monsters, weren’t clear enough for him to be sure.
“Boything,” Descry screeched, as it came to a halt on the curb right before Ajax’s house. “I smell the Guardians here! Not my intention, boything! They are not for you. Choose correctly, or I will eat you.”
“Didn’t you choke last time?” Ajax called.
“This time, I will start by ripping your arms off.” Descry stood up on his back legs.
Seth said, “I’ll be around,” and darted out of the room.
Natalie nodded and leaned out the window. “Hey, Cambion. Where did you come from? Who made you?”
It laughed. “Interesting questions, Guardian, but what good would answers do the dead?” Descry’s voice lowered to a purr. “Your only hope is if the boything chooses correctly. I will carry him away, hungry, to fulfill all his dreams.” It clapped its paws together and turned its gaze to the pack of Awakened around it. “A thought! Listen, seedlings. We will hold his eyes until we’ve ripped the arms off the Guardians. Then he can choose again.”
Natalie’s eyes were wide, and she was breathing fast. Ajax looked at her, concerned. “Hey, you fight these things all the time, don’t you? It’s just big talk. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“You don’t understand,” she whispered. “The Awakened don’t talk. They’re mindless. Like simple animals, or machines. And I don’t usually fight more than one, either. They don’t like to share territory. That you’ve had so many…” She shook her head, as if trying to dislodge a stray hair.
Ajax shrugged. “Monsters are monsters.” He looked out the window again. Descry was still inspecting his troops. Ajax thought there were more than there had been just a moment before. And something was dangling out of Descry’s mouth. Ajax just had time to identify it as a clawed paw before Descry slurped it down.
“What the hell?”
“Monsters are monsters,” said Natalie flatly.
Ajax raised his voice. “Hey, Apething. I gotta say, these Guardians aren’t very convincing.” Natalie gave him an alarmed look, and Ajax jerked his head in the direction Seth had vanished.
“And why should they be? What do they have to offer, except a lifetime of tragedy? But come with me and ah! Delicious madness and a chance to change everything.” It shuffled closer, batting aside an Awakened that got too close.
“What do you mean, everything?” Ajax asked, and he didn’t have to fake the note of curiosity in his voice.
“Oh, the power! To take what you want, destroy what you do not.”
“But there seems to be quite a bit of pain in hanging out with your little friends. I don’t know…” Ajax’s voice dripped with doubt and uncertainty.
“Oh, pain! What is pain to one of the chosen? A tool only. You do not regard pain. Look at how much you’ve endured already. Some it makes brittle but you are strong.” Descry crept even closer. “Still, we could do away with so much. They who would take away from you will know what it’s like to lose. They take your time, they take your pleasure, they take your family. Come with me and make a child, and turn it upon them. Take, as you were born to do.”
“Shut up,” said Ajax, without thinking. Natalie’s eyes were fixed on Descry, but her head was tilted toward Ajax, listening closely. He didn’t like it, didn’t want anybody listening in while this monster looked inside him.
He looked around his room, then grabbed a baseball bat from under his bed and pointed it at the Cambion. “I’m tired of this bullshit discussion. Time to go back to the nightmare you came from.”
As he stretched out his arm, the wound in his side started oozing again. Descry’s giant nostrils flared. “The Guardian taints you, Boything. Too bad. But more deliciousness for me!”
It leapt from halfway across the front yard onto the side of the house. At first it seemed to be trying to squeeze through the window, but it was much too big for that. So instead it tore the window off the side of the house. The pack of Awakened swarmed forward, crawling on top of Descry and squeezing past him. One, the size of a border collie, wiggled into the room then leap straight at Ajax.
Ajax swung his bat at the Awakened, and overbalanced as the bat passed through the little monster like it was made of mist. Then the creature was on him, and for all that it was insubstantial to the bat, its teeth were very sharp.
“Mine,” growled Descry, and bit off the back half of the Awakened. The remaining half exploded into clear wetness. Ajax stared at the baboon face as it chewed up another of its minions. The huge dark eyes seemed to fill the whole world, looking at him, looking in him.
Once again, there was no place to run.
Ajax’s artwork fluttered everywhere, freed from the shattered wall. Descry loomed in the wreckage of his room. The smaller monsters cavorted around the giant one, but stayed carefully away from Ajax.
Ajax, on his back, twisted his torso to kick up at the monster. It caught his leg in one clawed paw, looking down at him with a scholarly interest at odds with its proclamations of hunger.
Natalie’s sword, the blade marked with an unfamiliar character, cut across Descry’s arm. The monster casually reached out and flung her back. “Patience. I’ll get to you soon enough, Guardian.”
She sprang at Descry again. “But I want a turn now. Come outside and play.”
Descry sighed as it turned its bulk to avoid the slash. “Watch and understand, Boything.”
Natalie, her face intent and serious, nodded and dashed out through the broken wall, Descry leaping after her.
Ajax rolled to his feet and fumbled in the wreckage for his baseball bat. As he found it, an unwelcome voice behind him said, “This is why we don’t drink and drive, A.” Leo stood at the door of the room, his mundanity surreal in the presence of nightmares.
After staring a moment, Ajax turned away. Natalie and Seth were both outside, battling a swarm of monsters. He had no time for Leo. But Leo grabbed his arm. “You let your goddamned trashy friends run their car into our house, A.”
Leo had drawn himself up in the way he always did when he was drunk. With a bark of laughter, Ajax realized he was still drunk, too. How else could he be absorbing everything so easily?
“How could you do this to your father? I’m always having to clean up after your messes, A. Jim deserves a better son.”
Everything but that. Ajax’s breath hissed between his teeth. He took another breath, long and deep. A shout outside jerked his attention away. He shook Leo off and climbed over the remains of his wall.
There was a general melee in the street. Seth rolled away from an Awakened and came up under another one, driving in a pair of knives. The Awakened exploded into water, but Seth was already moving toward a third, low and fast. He kicked out, his foot connecting solidly enough to send the Awakened flying.
A ways down the street, Natalie danced around Descry, dodging in and out, her katana flickering. She didn’t seem to be hurting Descry much, but the monster didn’t seem to be hurting her either. Ajax watched her move. For somebody who had never fought something like that before, she seemed to know what she was doing.
Leo made it over the rubble in Ajax’s room and darted in front of Ajax to glare at him. “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you, A.”
Ajax stared at him. “You don’t see it at all, do you? You’re totally oblivious to all that.” He waved at the street battle.
Leo didn’t even look over his shoulder. “I see a couple of drunk kids playing in the street. Hoping another car comes by, gives them a taste of their own medicine. But I’m talking about you, A.” He shoved Ajax in the chest.
Ajax’s ears rang. It would be so easy to beat the smaller man bloody. So easy. So cathartic.
He ground his teeth together and said, “Sure thing, Leo. Tell you what, why don’t you call the cops or something and I’ll get my friends under control. Go on inside.” His response surprised Leo enough that Ajax was able to stride away from him.
But it didn’t convince Leo to leave off harassing Ajax and go inside. “Yeah, you might as well tell your friends to run off. But I’m not letting you get out of this that easily.” He trailed after Ajax, but at least he wasn’t actively in Ajax’s way any more. Maybe he’d be able to see Descry and that would scare some sense into him.
With that in mind, Ajax headed toward Natalie’s duel with the black and white monster, further down the street. He swung his bat idly back and forth as he approached the fight, looking for an opportunity to smack it. Maybe the bat didn’t help with the Awakened but he’d hurt the Cambion with his bare hands, earlier that evening. The black blood still stained his clothes.
Leo swore loudly behind him.
“See that, do you— Natalie, look out!”
For Natalie had noticed Ajax and Leo, and in her split moment of inattention, Descry caught her. Natalie only escaped the flurry of claws and teeth by rolling backward awkwardly. When she came up to one knee, she was panting and unsteady.
Ajax shouted and leapt at Descry, swinging his bat as hard as he could at the monster’s back. It impacted, oh yes, and broke, too, the splintered end flying past his head. He stabbed the remainder of the bat at Descry’s legs, then scrambled away as Seth called, “Look out!”
But Descry wasn’t interested in Ajax or Natalie at the moment. The back leg Ajax had struck twitched oddly but Descry was watching Leo like a cat watching a mouse. And all of the Awakened, from all over the street, were streaming over. They piled over each other, just outside Descry’s reach.
“Meat,” rumbled Descry. Leo, swaying and glassy-eyed, jumped at the word. Then he squeaked and turned to stumble away.
Descry yawned, and turned his attention away.
It was the cue the Awakened had been waiting for. They swarmed Leo.
Leo sobbed and fell to his knees. To Ajax’s horrified gaze, it was as if Leo split into two copies. The Awakened savaged one Leo, gory injuries opening up under their claws and teeth. It looked very much like they were eating him alive.
The other Leo clutched his head, yelling. A black bruise crept up his face. Then he fell over, shaking uncontrollably as the Awakened pulled his other self this way and that.
Ajax’s brain started working again. “No,” he croaked. “Stop!” He threw himself toward the mass of Awakened. They scattered away from Ajax’s rush, teeth and claws dripping with gore.
But it was too late. Leo gave a final gasping shudder, and stopped moving. His two selves merged together again, the one the Awakened had attacked becoming nothing more than a shredded shadow.
Leo was dead.
Ajax crouched down beside Leo, numbly checking for signs of life. A horrible bruise blackened Leo’s throat and half of his face. His eyes were half-open, staring blankly. He had blood at his mouth and nose.
Meat, Descry had said.
“Look sharp! They’re stronger than they usually are.” said Seth, as he zipped past on a skateboard, a knife slicing out at something coming up behind Ajax.
But Ajax couldn’t drag his gaze away from Leo. He realized that Leo couldn’t have known what was attacking him. He’d turned to run from a monster he could see and fallen to— what? Mysterious pain?
It was awful. He’d hated Leo passionately, but this was worse than he’d wish on anybody. It drove home the new nature of the world far more than the magical light altering his memories could. He’d seen but not understood as a child. Everything was different now.
Seth flew by again. This time Ajax looked up and distantly wondered where he’d found the skateboard. He shoved himself to his feet and stood over Leo’s body, watching as Seth moved among the monsters that had killed him.
The boy was fast and professional. He had a knife in one hand, and he seemed to use his feet and the skateboard as much as the blade. He was smiling again.
“Guardian!” bellowed Descry. He held Natalie with both his front paws. One of her arms twisted oddly, and a claw down her side had ripped a neat slash in her leather jacket and the shirt and skin underneath. One of Descry’s paws held the hand with the sword far away from him. She gasped as if the breath had been knocked out of her. “Look what I have, dancing Guardian. Your partner. Can you dance without her?”
Seth stopped his skateboard and looked at the pair of them. His smile never flickered. “Look at that. Why’d you go and do a crazy thing like that?” He kicked his skateboard up into his hand and started walking toward the two of them.
“But wait! There’s so much more. Go, little seedlings. Inside. Find us more of the nightblind. Wasn’t that one so tasty? Bring them out and we will have a little lottery.”
Moving half like puppets, fighting the control exerted over them, some of the Awakened trailing Seth peeled off and headed into the surrounding houses, passing through windows without opening them. A big one went into Ajax’s house.
Natalie caught enough breath to wheeze, “Don’t do anything stupid, Seth.”
Seth didn’t seem to hear her. His gaze never leaving Descry, he said, “Better get it together, new guy. If you want to save your dad, I mean.”
Ajax looked between Seth and Natalie, fresh dread clenching his gut. Seth was going to do something stupid.
Descry held Natalie out and pirouetted the stumbling girl. “Seth!” she yelled. “We don’t know what will happen, it’s controlling them, don’t you see…” She started coughing, breathless again.
Across the street, a window opened and a stumbling little girl climbed out it. An Awakened guided her steps, claws sunk into her shoulders, its muzzle close to her ear. She seemed to be sleepwalking.
Seth didn’t look away from Natalie and Descry. “I see,” he said softly. “I know.” He kept walking closer, the skateboard dangling from his fingers.
Inside his house, Ajax’s father cried out.
“Seth! You asshole, I can’t hurt them!” shouted Ajax.
Descry’s eyes slitted in glee. “I knew this would be entertaining.” He bent his head and licked the injury running up Natalie’s side. Seth’s smile broadened, even as his grip on the skateboard tightened. He and the Cambion’s smiles matched perfectly.
Another child appeared at the front door of the house down the street, his legs covered in scratches from the Awakened herding him. Ajax’s father yelled again, the incoherent cry of a man trapped in a nightmare.
Something brittle snapped in Ajax. He ran into his house, to his father’s room, grabbing the crowbar from beside the door as he went. One of the Awakened crouched over Jim, gnawing on one of his hands. It was a skull-headed wolf, with tentacles around the bone muzzle and a long, barbed, prehensile tail. Ajax recognized it. He’d drawn it only a few days ago.
It twitched, lunged forward to Jim’s face, and yanked itself back again, moaning. Jim was moaning, too, thrashing around trying to free himself from something that could only exist in nightmares for him.
Ajax swung the crowbar at the monster. Just as the bat had, it passed through the monster, although this time Ajax felt a little resistance. Encouraged, he swiped, over and over again, until his father whimpered and tried to sit up. He was still utterly asleep, his half-open eyes unseeing. Something had to be preventing him from waking up, because there was plenty of noise.
But Ajax wasn’t having enough of an effect. He didn’t have a magic weapon, after all. He flung the crowbar away. At least he could stop his father from going out to join the massacre outside.
Ajax pushed his father down, then smacked at the Awakened. It caught his hand and bit him. He yanked his hand away and punched it with his other hand. Somehow, impossibly, the punch missed. Because, of course, it could hurt him even though he couldn’t touch it. Life was fair like that.
Seth had used his hands and feet as well as his magic knife, though. There was a way, even without a magic weapon. There had to be.
Ajax stared down at his hand, looking at how his second self, his shadow self, barely visible, bled. It was biting that part of him. Maybe that was the only part of him that could touch it. He flexed his hand, looking how the shadow moved, even as he pushed his father down again.
Outside, Descry laughed, a terrible, grating sound. The Awakened went into a frenzy, jabbing and digging and biting at Jim.
Ajax’s hands moved again. The shadow-hand enveloped his flesh hand as he reached out. This time, he could touch the monster.
This time, he held on.