When Ajax stepped through the portal to return to the Tower, he kept his head down and his hands in his pockets, with the vague idea of acting like he was exactly where he was supposed to be and always had been.
“—they don’t show up soon, Jehane, we—” said Jake. He looked at Ajax as soon as he appeared. “The truants return.” He was standing with a crowd of people, including Natalie and Jehane. Some of them had guns, which surprised Ajax enough that he stopped dead.
“I’m not truant, Dad,” protested Seth, dodging around Ajax easily. “I was the opposite of truant.”
Jake gave his son a dark look. “I’ll talk to you later, Seth. For now, you’re heading out with the team looking for Malachi. Keep the Awakened off the Prowlers. As for you, Ajax—”
“Ajax was useful, Dad,” said Seth, in an impression of Natalie at her most earnest. “As useful as Elian, at least.” He threw an easy grin at Elian. “No offense, man.”
“None taken,” said Elian. “Guy saved my life. Can’t grudge that.”
“It’s okay,” said Ajax. “How much trouble can I be in? What are they going to do, ground me?” He ran a cool gaze over Jake. “I don’t think I’m going to be beaten.”
Jake gave him a wry look but before he could answer, another man spoke. “Aren’t you the kid wanted for murder?” He was a lean older man with a weathered face and a big gun just visible under his jacket. “I can think of three disciplinary measures that would discommode you a mite just off the top of my head. Don’t push Jake just because he’s a nice guy. A lot of the rest of us aren’t.” The man positioned a floppy brown hat on his head and winked at Ajax before strolling over to another portal.
Ajax paused. Then he said, “Right.” He addressed Jake. “Sir, I just want you to know that what I absolutely dread is a firm scolding. That’s the worst. It’s even worse than kittens.”
Jake’s mouth twitched, but all he said was, “Later. I have to talk to Linc,” and turned to have a final conversation with the guy with the big gun, who was apparently the leader of the hunting party. Ajax took the opportunity to join Natalie, Jehane and Seth.
“You probably should sit this one out, big guy,” said Seth. “Endure your kittens.”
“I know. You guys are going after the guy who made the Cambion?”
“That’s the idea,” said Natalie. She frowned, her hazel eyes darkening. “They’re so sure.”
“Well, I’m sure that Cambion killed Leo. Broke things with my— Anyhow, so if this is the guy who’s responsible for that, you get him.”
Jehane sighed, never looking up from the spot on her shoes she was fixedly staring at. Ajax had never seen her this withdrawn.
“We’ll get him,” said Linc, strolling over. “With his Cambion destroyed, his most powerful supernatural ally has been removed. That’s going to help out a lot. He’ll be dangerous, but nothing we can’t handle if we’re smart and coordinated.” He raised his voice. “It’d be nice if we could take him down without killing him. We’d all feel better about that. But we can’t wait for that possibility to present itself. If we do, people will die. Keep that in mind if you end up facing him, and don’t hesitate.”
There was a chorus of agreement from most of the people gathered. Linc nodded, and raised his hand. When the portal opened, he put one hand on Jehane’s shoulder. “Come along now, little one. You’re going to help your friends stay safe.” He nodded at Natalie and Seth to precede him through the portal, then steered Jehane through.
Another Prowler went to step through, and the image flickered. Then dust billowed out of the shimmering image. The Prowler hesitated, and the image collapsed down to a point and vanished.
“I’ve lost my lock on the Vancouver gate,” announced Kentigern. “Something’s happened on the other side.”
“Oh hell,” said Jake, suddenly pale. He pointed at one of the Prowlers. “Our closest agent is in Seattle. Get through any American portal and call him. Tell him to open a portal immediately. The rest of you, as soon as the Seattle portal opens, get through and drive to Vancouver. No, I don’t care how you get a car!” The Prowlers were clearly used to reacting to a crisis, because after only a few seconds of shock, they scattered through the hall. The other Seneschals were slower, but after a moment, they too moved off in different directions. Jake remained, staring intently at the broken portal his children had vanished through.
Ajax’s fists clenched. “What’s going on?”
Elian stood beside him, as pale as Jake. “I don’t know. The mechanisms that generate the signal must have been damaged.”
“Don’t they have latchkeys? Can’t they use those?” Ajax stared at the mirrored portal frame. His own helpless, useless reflection stared back at him.
“Are they even alive? What did that plume of dust mean?” asked Elian in response.
Kentigern announced, “No incoming latchkey signals detected.” His voice was edged, the first sign of stress Ajax had detected in the entity.
Ajax ran his hands through his hair. “Could it be coincidence? Sunspots or something?”
Elian hugged his elbows. “Mighty big coincidence, or else the Echthros was waiting for them, to cut them off. Like a trap or something.”
“That’s what I thought it meant,” said Ajax.
Jake said grimly, “It means that if we didn’t know this was coming, there’s a lot more we can’t predict coming, too. This guy is far too organized to be an ordinary Echthros. Oh, my kids…”
The Vancouver gate had been located in a tiny terraced park nestled between office buildings, set into the freestanding triple arch that dominated the park. The air was was fresh and clean, and large trees grew at both ends of the park. The mirrored windows of the neighboring office buildings had provided hasty exit opportunities, but they were rarely used.
Had. They’d stepped through the portal into the late evening and as soon as Jehane’s feet had touched concrete, there was a rumble and a pop and a wash of heat behind her. The rumble grew into an unbelievably loud noise as Linc pushed her to the ground, culminating in a chorus of skysplitting cracks.
Even after the roaring, wailing nightmare of noise had faded, strange shadow music played on. A song played in glass wavered up and down, alien and frightening, and there were other songs, too. One of them was sickeningly familiar.
Jehane lifted her head from where Linc had pushed it down. The windows of all the buildings she could see were crazed with spiderweb cracks, although very few of them had actually shattered. A few feet away, Seth and Natalie had also hit the pavement, each with a hand over the other’s head.
Linc rose into a crouch. “Thank God for shatter-proof glass,” he muttered. Then he leaned forward, peering down the stairs to the bottom of the park.
Off to one side, in the shadow of a large tree, stood two figures. One was human, the other huge and lion-like, with a flattened face and a scorpion’s tail. “Now?” said a crackling voice.
“Not yet,” said the man, quietly. Malachi moved out from the shadow, holding his weapon. The flame-shaped blade curved organically, the hilt wrapping around his hand like a lover’s grip. He sprang halfway up the stairs. “Are you here to fight me?”
Seth and Natalie, back on their feet, peeled apart and took up positions on both sides of Linc and Jehane. The shadow music twanged and Jehane said, “He’s—”
An ugly laugh interrupted her and another figure bounced around the corner, followed by a dark low-slung shape. “We’re not here to fight, kid,” said the newcomer.
The lion-like Cambion purred, “Tainter.”
Linc’s breath hissed between his teeth, and his gun appeared in his hand. “We’re too exposed here. Down the other side of the hill. Find cover.” Then, without further ado, his gun roared.
Jehane let Seth yank her away, down the hill. She stumbled after him, utterly disoriented by both the shadow music and the mundane noise. One moment they’d been walking through a portal and the next everything was falling apart.
Seth pushed Jehane behind a dumpster beside a building. She pressed against the wall and put her hands over her ears, trying to sort out the new information she was picking up. A moment later, Linc joined them, panting. “Malachi blocked my shot with his sword. What the hell? But he didn’t follow me. I don’t know who the other fellow was. Can we open a gate back?”
“There’s a mirrored window down there that looks big enough,” said Seth, pointing down the street.
“People are coming to see what happened,” said Natalie, looking the other direction. “But not very many.”
“Then let’s move fast,” said Linc. And they did, hustling Jehane down the street so fast she would have tripped without their hands on each of her arms. At the bit of unbroken window, Seth angled until he could see his reflection then touched the latchkey to the glass.
It shattered into large shards. An Awakened bulled through the remaining splinters, right onto the edge of Natalie’s sword. As it splashed, Natalie said, “It’s an empowered Awakened. We have to get back to cover.” This time, they ran back to the dumpster.
“There are two,” Jehane whispered. “Two Echthros. Echthroi. Malachi and the other one. Their music is… broken. And I think two Cambions, but there’s so much noise!”
Linc said, “That’s good information. We need that information. All right, you two. We need to get Jehane back to the Tower. That’s now our first priority. Seth, you take Jehane and find a mirror. Natalie and I will distract them.”
“What do they want?” asked Jehane.
Linc hesitated. “I don’t know. When my partner fell, it was because of a murdered child. She… changed. After, she found the murderer and killed him. She tried to kill me, too. When we finally tracked her down again, she was setting her Cambion and the Awakened to driving people mad. Then she was killing them. We didn’t have you, then, Jehane. Just me.” He clenched a fist and looked at it. “The team who spotted Malachi earlier retreated. I’d guess he’s been waiting for us since then, with plenty of time to set up this trap. But I don’t know why.”
Seth said, “It sounded like Malachi wanted to fight.”
A few yards away, at the front of the building, the Echthros with the ugly laugh and the twangy shadow music said, “Yoohoo!”
Linc pushed Jehane at Seth. “Go! Be quiet, find a crowd somewhere.”
“Here come the authorities, Mr. Gunman. Come and see.”
Linc and Natalie stepped out from behind the dumpster, Natalie waving behind her back for Seth and Jehane to make a break for it in the other direction.
Instead, they watched. A patrol car pulled up outside the building where the Echthros loitered. For a long moment, the occupants within were still. When the doors opened and they emerged, the two cops moved slowly, as if stiff and tired.
The Echthros walked up to them. He wasn’t a very large man, and he looked like an accountant who’d stayed overnight at the office, not a monster in human skin. The Guardians hung back, because it never did to demonstrate their nature to the authorities, not when it was avoidable. It was a deeply-ingrained restriction.
It was a mistake.
He said something to the cops, and laughed. They looked at him with the stoic suspicion of policemen on a call. One of them said something. The Echthros laughed again. Then a weapon appeared in his hand, a short, dirty blade that barely qualified as a sword. It shimmered with light, somewhere between a Stage 2 and a Stage 3.
“No,” cried Natalie, springing forward. But she was too far and too late. The Echthroi thrust his sword, once, twice. Blood sprayed the wall as both cops fell against the vehicle.
“Time to go,” said Seth, and pulled Jehane away by the hand. They ran, leaving Natalie and Linc behind to face a psychopath.
Neither man had a chance to cry out. The murderer was that fast and that strong. But Natalie thought the horrible little gasp from one of the cops would stay with her for the rest of her life. It was the sound of helplessness, and it made her dizzy with rage.
As she sprang forward, the murderer stepped on the bodies of his victims then rolled across the hood of the patrol car. A heartbeat later, he stood on the top of the car, grinning.
“Those poor men! I must be some kind of bastard. Oh, you didn’t like that, little girl? Why didn’t you stop me?” He waved his weapon in glittering trails and it changed, bulging at the top and middle as it extended.
Linc’s gun boomed behind Natalie and the murderer wasn’t where he’d been. He stood behind the car. He stood only a yard away, a flail in his moving hand. He was too fast.
Still dizzy, Natalie wildly threw herself to one side as Linc took another shot. She wondered if the murderer was that fast or something was wrong with her own body. Then she hit the ground harder than she expected, and bounced, and rolled.
The murderer’s laugh bounced off the building. “You can’t hit me with your bullets. Not now. You might hit somebody else, though. And now I’m very close to you. And now–”
Natalie scrambled to her feet and stumbled. Her body wasn’t responding in ways she was used to. It was like she’d been carrying a hundred pound weight her entire life and now it had dropped away.
He was standing right in front of Linc, reaching out. Then Linc smashed him in the face with the barrel of his gun.
The murderer leapt backward, a spot of blood on his face, laughing again. His weapon vanished. He reached down to the bumper of the patrol car and tore it off. Then he hefted it in one hand and swung it at Linc. Linc ducked, but he was so slow.
The bumper clipped Linc on a shoulder, knocking him down. Natalie threw herself at the murderer, swinging her sword low. She was still off-balance, and he casually bent sideways to avoid her. He swung the bumper at her legs, sweeping them out from under her, then stepped on both her wrists. He looked down at her, his mouth open like a grinning dog’s.
“Who are you?” Natalie gasped.
“Seems like I’m you’re bad dream, doesn’t it? The monsters call me Tainter.” He paused and said reflectively, “Monsters see the world in a different way.”
Natalie wrenched at one of her hands and he ground his foot into it in response. Tears of pain sprang to her eyes. “Are you Malachi’s friend?”
“Him? We’re not friends, oh no. We’re something else.” He leered. “Would you like to be something else?”
Natalie rolled backward, kicking him in the chin so hard he staggered off her hands. Natalie finished the roll, pushing herself onto her hands then springing to her feet.
“Ow,” said Tainter, outraged. “That hurt!” Linc appeared behind him and hit him again with the gun. He staggered, then turned the stagger into a clumsy cartwheel, putting his back against the patrol car.
“You know what?” Tainter said, “It’s unfair. Two against one! But I do have a friend.” He whistled, low and breathy, then confided, “I had a dream once. I had a little puppy dog. He was so cute! He drooled and barked and jumped on me. And when I woke up, it was true!”
A low-slung dark shape appeared around the side of the vehicle. At first Natalie thought it was a dog but she realized that if it was based on any mundane animal, it was a wolverine, molded from shadow and stink and blood, and as large as a wolf. It snarled.
Tainter stood up, cupping his hand to his ear. “Listen to that little voice. Now, who will Rend play with?”
Linc leveled his gun at the Cambion, then twitched his hand and fired again at Tainter. The bullet shattered the patrol car window, but Tainter wasn’t there. “It’s like a rubber band,” said Tainter. “Before you even finish pulling the trigger, I’m not there. Maybe if you had one of those rat-a-tat-tat machine guns…” He pointed a finger-gun at Linc. “Fire that into a crowd and look at ‘em run. But you’re no fun. You wouldn’t do that. It’s got to be you.”
As one, the Cambion and the killer moved to Linc, that fast, flickering movement. Tainter pushed him forward as the Cambion lunged, and Linc’s gun fired once, twice, three times. Natalie saw the bullets pass right through the Cambion, trailing some shadow stuff but not slowing the monster down.
Then Linc was down, but Natalie was swinging her sword at Tainter’s exposed back. The blade bit into his shoulder with an ugly, unpleasant jolt, even worse than when she’d killed the Cambion hunting Ajax.
He screamed and threw himself away, the sword vibrating as it scraped against a bone, then twanging as he pulled himself free. Thick blood, shockingly red, dripped off the blade.
“How’d you get there?” Tainter rasped. He backed away. His Cambion backed in a different direction, dragging Linc, who was struggling feebly.
Natalie darted after Linc and the Cambion, and almost fell flat on her face. Tainter stood over her when she rolled, holding the bumper he’d torn off once again. His face was smeared with blood from where Linc had hit him in the nose, and his hair stood out in blood-slicked spikes. The blood from his shoulder ran down his arm to his hand, and dripped off the bumper.
“Oh, so cold,” Tainter rasped. “The cold shoulder.” He laughed hysterically and summoned up his strange, changeable weapon again just in time to block Natalie’s upthrust sword.
She made herself go still for a moment, stretching her toes and her fingers. She was stronger and faster now, just like him. She had no idea why. But if she could use it, rather than fighting it, stumbling over it—
He brought the flail down toward her stomach. She pushed a single hand against the street, bringing her whole body up in an arc. Almost delicately, she placed her foot against his injured shoulder and shoved.
He fell backward, rolling head over heels. When he came up again, he was grinning. “Learn fast, do you?” He jumped backward, and then up to a ledge on the building behind them. “Oh well. Next time we’ll have to change the game. Toodle-oo, pretty girl.”
He jumped up another ledge, and another. Natalie watched him until he was out of sight, fully expecting a trick. But when she could no longer see him, she turned and raced after Linc.
She found him a block down, near a small cluster of frightened, gabbling onlookers, clinging to each other for support. The Cambion had abandoned him, racing down the street, snarling at everybody it passed. The Prowler was a wreck, savaged across the face and throat and torso. Reason declared he had to be dead.
But he wasn’t.
Seth nearly wrenched Jehane’s arm from its socket when he skidded to a stop outside an unbroken window. Even as she caught her balance, he put the latchkey against the glass and flipped the switch.
Nothing happened. No portal opened. The window didn’t even break. The very lack of a response horrified Jehane. But Seth just shook his head and started running again, heading away from the place where they’d arrived. They passed a block of unbroken windows before Seth stopped to try again, with the same frightening lack of results.
On the third try, Jehane heard the old familiar shadow music again: the wind whispering across dark water, moaning up and down. She caught her breath, then curled her fingers on Seth’s sleeve. “Malachi is following us.”
“Yeah?” Seth shot a glance up at the buildings. One of them towered over the others. There was a large courtyard next to it, with a glimmer of water. A few shops nestled in the shadow of the building still glowed with light, but nobody came outside. “Go over there, out in the open. Try to draw him out and I’ll get behind him.” He looked at her face. “Don’t let him corner you, even if you think it will help.”
Jehane nodded. Draw him out. Excitement mixed with the panic nibbling at the edges of her self-control. She had no idea how to draw him out, but she very much wanted to try.
Blue tiles and spot lighting made the fountain an enchanted place. The water tumbled down a set of terraces into small pools separated by potted plants, before dropping to a large sunken pool below the surface of the courtyard. There was a second courtyard down there, leading to some of the lit shops and accessed by shallow steps. Jehane could just make out the reflection of the building she stood beside in the pool below.
She stood at the top of the stairs, then turned away. The shadow music was near. She tilted her head, trying to pinpoint it. But the water distracted her, chuckling, rushing, interfering. Then there was a splash behind her, louder than the flow of the fountain.
“Yes.” His quiet voice, flat and deep, seemed very close, but when she jerked around, he wasn’t there.
“I don’t want to fight you,” she said nervously.
“I know,” he said. “You’re the girl with the seeing eyes.” His voice moved around her. “Are you a hunter who doesn’t hunt, now?”
“I see, and hear. Malachi, what happened to your partner?” She stopped trying to see him and closed her eyes to listen.
“Haven’t you met him? Isn’t he charming?”
Blood splashed across her mind’s eye, and faint, sketchy songs ended. “No! Not him. What about Emily?”
Something crashed nearby and she jumped. A square trash can not six yards from her had fallen over, one corner sheared off. When Malachi spoke again, his voice was full of splintered ice. “She died. The center fell out of the world. I thought you didn’t want to fight, little girl?”
“No,” she gasped. Maybe that had been the wrong thing to ask.
“Don’t push that, then.” For a moment, Jehane saw a shadow against the wall across the street. It wasn’t Seth.
Malachi spoke again, in a tone of calm inquiry. “How are you a hunter who runs instead of fights? Have you tasted despair again? You had so much when I saw you as a child.” Jehane twisted her head, trying to find Seth instead of Malachi now. What if Seth tried to attack Malachi before— before it was necessary? She didn’t want them to fight either. “If only they hadn’t found you then. But it’s not too late. There’s hope.”
“How are you moving so fast?”
“It’s a secret.” Her long hair, tied back in a low ponytail, lifted off the back of her neck. She turned again, and finally saw him. He stood on the far side of the fountain, somewhere between the ragged boy of her memory and the well-groomed young man of the video. His hair was shaggy, his clothes worn, his long jaw dusted with stubble. In one hand he held his weapon; the other was upraised and closed. When he met her eyes, he opened his hand and blew.
Some of her hair flew off his hand, dancing into the breeze.
For a breathless moment, they stared at each other. His face was as empty as a statue’s but his gaze moved over her face. His eyebrows drew together, and he said, “How will you get home?”
Jehane’s internal paralysis broke, leaving her with a terror that overrode her curiosity and fascination. She whirled and ran across the street, fumbling out her own latchkey device.
When she smacked it on the window and thumbed it on, there was only the click of metal hitting glass. No portal opened.
There was no way home. She was trapped here, in this endlessly noisy world.
Malachi stood on the other side of the street and said, “The way is broken. But a new gate will appear. It’s already creaking open.” He tilted his head, as if listening.
Jehane could only hear Malachi’s music and the rushing of the fountain. She couldn’t hear Seth at all. She slid down the window, biting her lip so she didn’t blind herself with tears.
She was trapped here, and she was trapped here alone.
“Can you help?” Natalie demanded of the little knot of people. “If you can’t help me, get out of here!”
The people stared at her, looking dazed. She didn’t interact much with ordinary people, but this cluster seemed particularly out of it. They were mostly young and fashionably dressed, but one of them, white, distinguished and dressed in a rumpled business suit, seemed like he should be doing more than staring at her like a traumatized cow.
Then she remembered how slowly the cops had moved, and how unprepared they’d been for Tainter’s assault. He could come back again. She’d hurt him, but what could these people do to him? They were slower, not faster.
Natalie grabbed the businessman by the lapel. “You have to get them out of here.” She shook him, harder than she meant to, and he gaped at her and tried to push her off, no stronger than her baby siblings.
“All right,” said a woman quietly, standing behind the others. She was smaller than Natalie and dressed in a shabby blue dress. She dropped the scrubbing brush she’d still been holding and took hold of the businessman’s elbow, and another girl’s hand. “Come on now.”
Satisfied that they wouldn’t stand around waiting to be slaughtered, Natalie turned back to Linc. His chest was moving up and down, but barely. She knew basic first aid, and she did what she could for him, but he needed intensive medical care as soon as possible. She suspected he was only alive because of the same strength that had infused both her and Tainter; he had to be sharing in a part of that. But even with that strength, how long could he last?
She used her latchkey on the window, hopelessly and in vain, and tried to weigh the risks of calling for mundane help.
“The transmitter…” whispered Linc. His eyes were still closed. She threw herself on her knees beside him.
“What about it?”
“There should be a transmitter above the emergence. Can’t be broken, that wouldn’t stop latchkeys. Modified?”
The emergence point was three blocks away. “Do I just leave you here?” asked Natalie, agonized.
A smile ghosted across Linc’s face. “I’ll play dead.”
Natalie nodded and ran down the street. She could feel the strange strength surging through her legs, the same strength Tainter had, that he’d used to murder at least two men. It made her feel sick, but she had no time for such indulgences.
At the emergence point, in the miniature hilltop park, she stared intently at the portal arch. The arch was at least twice as tall as she was. If the transmitter was up there, somebody had needed a ladder to place it.
But one of the stone blocks framing the arch jutted out just a centimeter more than the others.
She looked around for a trash can or something else to stand on, but she saw nothing that wasn’t cemented to the ground. For a moment she wondered if she could tear the trash can from the ground like Tainter had torn off a car bumper.
Then she shook her head at herself, bent her legs and pushed hard. Easily, she caught the top of the arch with one hand and pulled out the loose block with the other. Behind it was the pale ridged cube of the transmitter, with something unfamiliar attached to it. She dropped the brick and pulled it out.
A small metal ring surrounded a soft plastic cup containing shards of glass. Wires led from the ring to a circuit board, a battery pack, and the transmitter, and a metal rod connected the ring to the transmitter as well.
She roughly yanked the makeshift device away from the transmitter, then tucked the device in her pocket and the transmitter back in its niche. Then she fell to the ground again.
Landing was less magical than jumping. But she didn’t break an ankle and that was what mattered. She dashed back down the street to where Linc still lay. After confirming his breathing, she smacked the latchkey against the window.
The window gave off that clear, wonderful tone and her faint reflection rippled. “Yes!” She grabbed Linc by the ankles and dragged him through the portal curtain.
As soon as she emerged on the other side, dizziness swept over her. The preternatural strength vanished. Her father said, “Natalie!” Bewildered, she tried to scramble to her feet to finish pulling Linc through, and fell over again. Her muscles felt watery and limp.
Then Linc was laying beside her, and Ajax was kneeling beside her head. He stared at her with such intensity that she wondered if he was dying. It was nice, though. Even when she inflicted herself on him in class, he refused to look at her if he could avoid it. Now it seemed like he was trying to memorize her face.
He had a nice face, too. Nice eyes. A nice smell. She wanted to push his hair out of his face, and tell him he didn’t need to look so serious.
Natalie blinked, and realized her mind was as exhausted as her body. Her father hovered just beyond Ajax’s shoulder. He’d asked a question.
She fumbled in her pocket and pulled out the device. “This was attached to the transmitter,” she managed to say. Her father’s eyes widened.
Then Dr. Pepperman appeared with two assistants and two wheeled stretchers. Was she going to be confined to the infirmary again? God, she hoped not.
Ajax helped to lift her onto a stretcher, his fingers lingering on her shoulders. Others pulled her away from him. She was wheeled away, while the doctor and his assistants did more work on Linc.
As she passed through the Portalry door, Kentigern said, “Vancouver emergence lock-on reacquired.” There was the hiss and rush of a portal opening.
Then, right before the Portalry door closed, there was the sound of a deep, rumbling growl.