Ajax dragged the Awakened off his unconscious father and out of his bedroom. It fought him, and his grip was uncertain, but he manhandled it down the hall. The substance of the Awakened seemed to change under his hands: sometimes it was cold flesh under slithery skin, and sometimes it was like trying to squeeze a sack full of hot gel. Only with concentration could he resist an instinctive desire to pull his hands away.
He dragged it into his room and over the ruin of his wall. Outside, Descry was taunting Seth, while still holding a broken-looking Natalie. “Such a cold and careless Guardian. Oh, you know it. You don’t belong with them, you or the most talented Boything. Cold and hot, I’ll take the pair.”
The Awakened had herded three children together, drooling on their semiconscious forms. Ajax’s own Awakened surged and twisted, panicking as it was dragged closer to Descry. Ajax’s arms and chest bled from dozens of tears and scratches.
“What about her?” said Seth. The bastard was still smiling, as if this was all a game to him.
Descry shook Natalie, still holding her sword hand tight with the rest of her nestled against his huge body. “I do not think she will forgive you, so I will let her live. It will be such entertainment! I think she will break, and hunt you, and break again. The broken are so charming.”
Ajax looked between Seth and Descry, agonizing. Seth didn’t even seem to noticed the kids.
Descry continued, “Let’s end it now.”
The Awakened penning the children attacked.
Ajax shouted in frustration, released the Awakened he was holding, and dived across the street into the tangle of monsters. Passing through the mass of Awakened Darkness felt like being pierced by a thousand needles. But he couldn’t easily hit them, and so they couldn’t really stop him. He curled his body around the children, doing his best to shield all three of them from the fangs and teeth and tentacles of the monsters.
The Awakened fell back, shying away from attacking Ajax. Descry growled. Seth started laughing and Descry’s growl became a roar.
“You laugh, Guardian,” and Descry shook Natalie again. Her empty hand, previously wedged between her body and Descry’s, fell free. “Seedlings, end them all—”
Natalie opened her eyes and twisted in Descry’s grasp. The sword in her captured sword hand vanished.
And reappeared in her other hand, now free, now moving. It barely had time to gleam before she buried the sword to the hilt in Descry’s torso, slicing up, nearly bisecting the monster’s upper body. “I just needed to catch my breath. A break is not being broken.” She kicked Descry, hard.
Descry had just enough time for shock to pass across the big baboon face, before the monster dissolved into a flood of dark liquid. Color leeched out of the Awakened clustered around Ajax. As it did, they went wild, turning on each other and on Ajax.
A moment later, Seth was there, slashing and kicking. The disorganized and maddened Awakened scattered before him, and Seth gave Ajax a friendly nod before chasing down one of the fleeing Awakened.
Slowly, Ajax uncurled from around the three children. All of them whimpered, staring around with dazed, uncomprehending eyes. “Go home,” he said to the older two. He picked up the smallest and carried her to the window she’d emerged from, unceremoniously shoving her back inside again and closing the window behind her.
When he turned around, the two children were still in the middle of the street, but seemed on their way to at least waking up properly. A low fog rose from the street— not uncommon at night, but this time Ajax was sure it came from the sublimating remains of the Awakened.
Seth skated up the street and skidded to a halt on the edge of the puddle that was all that remained of Descry. Natalie was sprawled in the middle of it, as if her legs had given way beneath her.
“You look like hell,” said Seth, grinning.
“I feel like hell. Seth, what in the world were you doing?”
“Distracting him until you could get your breath back. What did it look like I was doing?” Even from down the street, Seth radiated innocence. “Oh, new guy. I got the one who was going after your dad.”
Ajax nodded sharply, still furious with the other boy. It was hard to trust anything he said with that little smile. He walked over to the two remaining children. The younger turned and scampered away as he approached.
Natalie said to Seth, “Are you hurt?”
“Maybe a little,” Seth admitted. “There were a lot of them. The Council isn’t going to believe this.”
“What happened?” said the remaining little boy. He lived three houses down, and he’d been born shortly before Ajax’s mother had died. Ajax and his mother had visited the new parents, and Ajax had held the newborn and thought of his own unborn sibling. But he didn’t remember the boy’s name.
“Nothing. This is a bad dream. Get on home before it gets worse.”
The nameless child pointed. “What happened to him?”
Ajax didn’t look.
“Nothing. Look, kid, don’t make me carry you home.”
“Is he sleeping?” The child’s eyes widened. “Is he dead?”
“Go home right now,” shouted Ajax.
The child jumped backward, and stared up at Ajax with terrified eyes. Seth limped past Ajax and put his hand out. “Come on, kid. I’ll take you home. If you’re good, I might even show you how I got rid of all those monsters.”
Still staring at Ajax, the boy let Seth guide him away. Ajax watched them go, unseeing. Then, drawing a deep breath, he turned around.
The monsters were puddles on the street, mist in the night. But Leo was solid and real on the pavement. No, not Leo. Leo’s body.
Drawn unwillingly, Ajax approached and stared down at it, willing Leo to wake up. If Leo came back to life, this could all be Ajax’s bad dream, too.
“Oh my God, Leo! What did you do to Leo?”
Ajax’s father, Jim, stood at the hole in Ajax’s wall, fully awake and completely aghast.
Ajax backed away as his father stumbled over to Leo’s body. Jim fell to his knees beside Leo, patting his face, shaking his shoulders. “No, no!” Then he glared at Ajax, his eyes bloodshot. “You did this?” He fumbled in his pants pocket as he looked around, and when he spotted the broken bat a few yards away, his eyes widened. “You did. Oh, Ajax…”
Ajax realized he was crouched down, hugging his knees. Numbly, he unfolded himself. “Not me, Dad.”
“It’s your bat,” said Jim grimly. “Jesus, Ajax, I knew you two had trouble getting along, but—
“Dad! It was not me! There was—” Ajax faltered, “—somebody else.”
Jim looked around and spotted Natalie trying to climb to her feet in the puddle of black blood. His eyes narrowed and he got that expression he always got when he was working something out, telling himself a story he could tell somebody else. Then, his mouth set into a line, he finally found his cellphone and opened it.
New horror blossomed from Ajax’s numbness. “Dad, listen to me—”
Jim paused. “I don’t want to hear it, Ajax. Directly or indirectly, you did this. Don’t lie, because I heard you fighting out here. I just wish I’d gotten out here in time…” He shook his head. “I can’t deal with you anymore. I can’t deal with your shit anymore. I’ve got to call 911 for poor Leo, and they’re going to send the cops, and I’m going to tell them what happened. If you’ve got two braincells to smash together, you’ll take your druggie girlfriend and get out of here.”
“Sir,” said Natalie, limping over, holding her side tightly. “It wasn’t your son. If you can be patient for a few hours, I can have somebody come explain what happened to you.”
Jim looked startled. “What? No! You’d damn well better not send anybody to my house, or they’ll regret it too.” He finished dialing and spoke into the phone. “A fight. I think somebody’s badly injured, maybe dead.” His whole demeanor shifted as he spoke, into the face he presented to clients: harmless, charming— and, this time, distraught. There was a shrill note in his voice that hadn’t been there when he spoke to Ajax. “My son came home, on something. The front of the house is wrecked. He brought a friend— friends. They attacked my tenant. No, ma’am, I can’t say that I do. He and his friends ran away but they said something about coming back again if I called anyone. But my poor tenant, how long will it be? He’s my business partner, too. My own son did this! I just don’t know what I’m going to do—”
Seth’s hand fell on Ajax’s shoulder. “We should get out of here, man. Are you going to stay?”
Ajax watched as his father turned his back on him and walked back inside the house. “So I can get arrested? No thanks.” He turned and started walking down the street.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and then behind Ajax the sound of a motorcycle. Natalie rolled up on the bike Ajax had noticed outside his window a lifetime ago. Seth skated up on his other side.
“Come with us,” Natalie said.
“Why should I?”
“Well, for one, we can make sure those cops will never find you.” said Seth.
“You’re not going to get very far on foot. We can explain once we get out of this part of town?” offered Natalie.
Ajax hesitated, then swung up on the bike behind Natalie. Natalie nodded, and Seth grabbed hold of a tow cable wound behind Ajax. “Whee!”
Natalie sped up and Ajax tiredly wondered if Seth was going to end up splattered all over the landscape. But both Natalie and Seth seemed to have experience traveling this way.
After only a few minutes, the bike pulled to the curb beside a tall building with mirrored windows and a bus stop out front. Natalie took the bike up to the sidewalk, parked it beside the bus stop, and dismounted. When she sat down on the bus stop bench and leaned back, Ajax said uneasily, “I don’t really think we’re far enough… are we really waiting for a bus?”
“No,” said Natalie. “I just want to get my breath back before we go on. I never knew riding a bike could hurt so much.” She probed her side and hissed between her teeth.
Seth sat down beside her and put his head in his hands, and Ajax realized both of them were even more beat up than he was, with his injured side and bruised arm and dozens of minor scratches and bites. Seth’s face and pale hair were crusted with blood. Ajax had never been able to see past the other boy’s annoying smile to notice.
Natalie burst out, “I can’t believe your father. Why wouldn’t he even listen to you? I’m so sorry. If I’d handled it properly, had somebody come talk to him first, this wouldn’t have happened.” She hesitated. “We can still do that. It could help.”
Ajax laughed. “You couldn’t pay my father to take me back again.” He considered, “Actually, you could. Pay him, I mean. Cold hard cash would probably work.”
Natalie bit her lip. “There’s a little bit of money involved—”
Seth raised his head, “You’re not helping, Natalie. Chill out.”
“But his father was awful.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “It isn’t polite to tell somebody how bad they have it.” He heaved himself to his feet and walked around behind the bus stop.
Ajax did his best to ignore the exchange. “So, let me get this straight. You guys are soldiers in some sort of war against invisible monsters, and you— what, have recruiters come talk to people?”
Natalie, subdued, said, “Some of us are born in the Tower. But we recruit kids who have talent, yeah. Somebody on the Council talks to their parents.”
Seth’s voice drifted around the bus stop. “It’s like a very special boarding school, with monster-hunting as a varsity activity.”
Ajax frowned. “What’s this Tower?”
Seth tapped something on the mirrored face of the building in front of them. Each tap rang louder, until a bell-like tone suddenly became deep and watery. The mirrored surface rippled and Seth pushed his hand into it. Light streamed around his wrist.
He looked over his shoulder at Ajax. “Come and find out.” Then he stepped into the moving surface and vanished.
Ajax stood stock still as Natalie got up and pushed the bike over to the mirrored portal. “Please do. You saved those kids. You belong with us.” She smiled at him, and waited.
It was a beautiful smile. With such enticement before him, and the sound of sirens behind him, how could Ajax say no? He didn’t know where the portal went, but he knew he didn’t have a future. It seemed like the only fitting way to move forward.
With a deep breath, he took a step forward, into the unknown.
The story continues in Nightlights: Guardians…