Seth slouched into the Council chamber, yawning widely. Even though he was almost late, the room wasn’t very full. In the wake of the dawn, everybody had things to do: walls to repair, shopping to do, picnics to have. He’d normally have better things to do himself, but he was trying to think in the long term.
Natalie narrowed her eyes at him as he strolled past. He flicked her in the forehead before vaulting onto the raised floor of the central table. Many of the comfy chairs up there were empty, too, everybody was that busy. So Seth dropped into one and put his feet up on the table.
The Tanist, sitting at the head of the table, cleared her throat. Seth put his hands in his pocket and looked at the ceiling.
“Seth, get your goddamned feet off the table,” growled the Tanist.
Seth smiled at the ceiling and swung his feet off. It obviously made her feel so good to boss him around. Natalie always accused him of not caring, but he was a kind soul, really.
The Tanist raised her voice. “All right. Everybody’s met Elian by now, right? He’s… taken the place of Kentigern.”
There was a shifting and muttering from the gathered Guardians. It sounded like more than just the Tanist was uncomfortable with the change.
In the false, cheery voice of a kindergarten teacher, she continued, “Well, there will be an adjustment period for all of us, but Elian has already spotted some interesting information. He reported a few hours ago that one of the other towers activated.” She dropped the saccharine tone. “I’m pretty sure that isn’t a coincidence, not after the last night.”
Natalie, still on the main floor, said, “What does that mean? I thought some of the towers have always been semi-active?”
Elian said, “It’s the difference between sleepwalking and waking up.”
One of the Councillors at the table said, “Is it, ah, as damaged as you— er, Kent—”
“Is it still crazy, you mean?” interrupted Elian. “I don’t really know. It isn’t talking to me or even using the shared network much. I detected its activity because it’s started managing portals.”
A murmur passed through the room. “Portals to Earth?” asked the Tanist.
“Oh yes,” said Elian. “I’m kind of worried that it’s going to hijack a latchkey signal and somebody who thought they were coming home will end up there instead. I have ideas on what to do about that, though.”
Jake, at the other end of the big table, said, “Can we intercept their signals, then?”
“Uh, theoretically. If there’s anybody sending them. But you can understand that I’m not real eager to have an unknown running around in here again.”
The Tanist said, “Can you tell if somebody is actually using the portals, or if it’s opening them at random?”
“It’s connecting to our emergence points. Which I’d kind of like to do something about, because I’m possessive like that. But I have to figure out how to encrypt a psychomechanical radio signal first. It’s a little like solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded.”
“That’s possible,” observed Seth to the ceiling.
“Yes, I know,” said Elian. “But it’s a little harder when you were born yesterday.”
People at the table shifted uncomfortably. “Yes,” said the Tanist. “Well. Savannah, what can you tell us about the tower in question?”
Seth sat up. Savannah was in her late twenties, tall and skinny with bright blue eyes and the weathered skin of a Prowler. She was pretty, too, with long chestnut hair that looked like it’d been recently brushed out of a ponytail.
“We call it Tower Di. It’s about 312 degrees along radial 4.4.” She pointed in what was presumably that direction. “I’ve been there a few times. I’ve even been inside. It was definitely hibernating. The core was barely lit up and the main structure was heavily damaged. Let’s see.” She considered. “It isn’t the closest tower to us, although it’s the closest one in that direction.”
“Close enough that the cambion could have gotten there?” asked Jake.
Savannah shrugged. “If it moved fast and didn’t mind interesting terrain, sure. I don’t know how it could reactivate the tower though.”
Jake said, “There’s a lot we apparently don’t know about cambions. And we know the invader was headed in that direction, so we have to assume that’s what it did. I just wish we knew why.”
The Tanist asked, “Elian, how many portals is Tower Di opening? Maybe we can work out how many enemies are moving back and forth.”
Elian said doubtfully, “It’s pretty early to start drawing those conclusions but I’ll see if I can figure anything out.”
Another Councillor said, “But why would they want a tower?”
“Why do we want a tower?” Seth said. “I mean, other than providing ourselves with a perfect secret hideout and an awesome transportation network.”
“That’s a pretty big advantage, wouldn’t you say?” said the Tanist. “Especially if they use it to attack us again.”
Seth raised his eyebrows at the Tanist. “It looks to me like they invaded us just to get an agent to the other tower. The attack on Kentigern was just taking advantage of an opportunity. For all we know, they just want to set up their own Guardian organization and get away from our despotic rules.”
Flatly, the Tanist said, “That seems extremely unlikely. We know how Echthroi work. They want to destroy their focus, which is clearly us. No, they’ll be attacking us again. We need to lock down the emergence points and the latchkeys, and we need to be prepared for an attack from overland.”
Savannah said, “Would you like us to go investigate Tower Di again? We can find out how it’s changed, and if it’s manufacturing again.”
“No, not yet. I don’t want them to know what we know, and I want you guys to stay safe. Let’s see what Elian can do first. If he isn’t as flexible as Kentigern, we’ll come up with scouting plans.” A crowded silence followed her words.
Seth leaned back in his chair again, putting his hands behind his head. “No pressure, Elian.”
Kwan sat halfway down the Portalry, at one of the monitoring stations. He looked like he’d been transferred from the set of a family sitcom, sagging armchair, worn carpet, newspapers and all.
He lowered the paper as Natalie and Seth approached. He’d asked them to meet him there an hour after class finished, when they’d normally have gone on patrol.
“The thing is,” he said, as if continuing a conversation, “Something’s definitely happening out there. There’s been a surge of Awakened in various cities, judging from the spike in violence both self- and other-directed.” He waved the newspaper he was reading.
Seth stuck his hands in his pocket. “I’d love to help, man, but the Tanist canceled all the student patrols and you’re right here, guarding the exits. Gotta keep us kids safe, you know.”
Kwan eyed Seth. “Yes. As I was saying, something’s going on. I’d like to use Jehane to confirm what’s going on but I’ve been having trouble running her down.” He scowled. “She keeps skipping class.”
Dubiously, Natalie said, “I haven’t seen her much either the last couple of days. I think she’s pretty upset about Elian. Speaking of which…”
“Yes, well. Elian hasn’t been much use at finding her either.”
“Rubik’s cube,” sang out Elian. “Inside out, upside down. Besides, helping you make a teenage girl cry more can’t possibly be what you want me to prioritize.”
Kwan pushed his fingers against his head as if Elian gave him a headache, and Elian added, “I said you’d have to learn to deal with me now.”
“Yes, yes. I’m quite aware. You and Jehane and the Tanist, and believe me, we’re going to deal.”
Natalie felt a rush of sympathy for her teacher. “What can we do to help?”
“I’m sending out patrols to the portal cities where the biggest surges are occurring,” said Kwan flatly. “The Tanist wants to turtle. She thinks normal operations are laughable until we’ve worked out how to handle Tower Di, and until Elian has worked out how to encrypt the signals. But I think— and I’m convincing her of this— that if we hide, they’ve already won. So you’re going out, and you’re going to be careful.”
Seth cracked his knuckles. “Careful. I’m good at that.” The scratch on his face was healing awkwardly, distorted by his constant grin. Natalie was pretty sure that, for reasons only he could understand, that he was hoping for a scar.
Kwan tossed the newspaper aside and stood up. “Where are we going?” Natalie asked quickly.
“My god,” said Natalie, appalled. “Just us?”
“I can’t send out all the student patrols at once, and you’re some of my finest,” Kwan said shortly. “Do your best. Even a marginal cull of the Awakened will help.”
Seth bumped Natalie with his shoulder. “We’ll be fine. It’ll be just like going out for lunch.”
Kwan continued. “It isn’t impossible you’re going to come across an Echthros or signs of its passage, given that you’re using the same emergence points and going to the zones where they’ve apparently been active. If you do, do not engage it. I’m serious.” His dark gaze swept across both Seth and Natalie. “Returning with intel is better than not returning here at all. And we need every scrap of information we can get on whatever they’re doing.”
Natalie said, “Understood. I’ll get us both back no matter what.” She flashed a wry grin. “I did last time.”
With a pained look, Kwan said, “And please, don’t bring any more puppies home. If you find a likely candidate, follow proper procedure— but honestly, I’d rather you not find anyone. The Tanist isn’t real enthusiastic about anything new right now.”
Casually, Natalie said, “Where is Ajax anyhow? He took off right after class.” She suspected she and Ajax were caught in some kind of ridiculous game, where actually talking to each other lost points. And whoever could look at the other the longest without being noticed won.
She was pretty sure he was winning, but only because more people wanted her attention in class. And just grabbing him and shaking him would probably make everything implode.
Seth gave her a look that told her she hadn’t been casual enough, but Kwan didn’t seem to notice. “I’m talking to Ajax later. He had some stupid idea about going out alone. He can’t seem to come to terms with the idea that he’s not going to be useful until he starts making friends.”
“Oh, I think he’s been making… friends,” said Seth, and snickered.
“I agree,” said Kwan, oblivious. “But he’s got to realize it. But I’ll worry about Ajax. You worry about Awakened. Off you go.”
Natalie turned toward the gate, then turned back again as Seth lingered. He said, “Kwan, did you really convince the Tanist? She didn’t say anything about this when I talked to her earlier. And my dad was pretty clear that we’re not sending any student patrols out.”
Kwan hesitated. “I will convince her, by the time you get back. We have a charter, and keeping up traditions is important to her.”
Seth’s faint smile flickered. “Be careful, man. She’s afraid.”
“I’ll take care of it. You two do what you’ve been trained to do, and I’ll do what I’ve been trained to do. Kiley and I have known each other for a long time. Get a move on.”
“Before we get caught. I understand all,” said Seth, and saluted Kwan with two fingers. “Natalie, let’s roll out.”
Behind them, the portal to Shanghai activated.
It was late afternoon in Shanghai. Natalie strode down a wide street lined by market stalls, counting Awakened and frowning. She never liked patrolling during the day. There were too many people around, especially in a place like this. But unfortunately, the Awakened seemed to gather here.
Seth wandered behind her. As he passed by the larger of the monsters, latched onto their prey like remora fish, he stroked their heads with his fingers and just a touch of anima. He was liked the Pied Piper, inviting the pests of the city to follow him. Of course, they followed him because they wanted to eat him. That was an interesting difference from the old story.
Natalie ducked into an alley, passing between one stall selling live ducks in wicker cages and another stall selling burnished steamed ducks. Seth skipped past her, pulling his train of hungry Awakened behind him. Natalie twisted her hand, brought out her katana— Seth was so lucky with his small weapons— and began the cleanup process.
After the mild exertion, she leaned on the edge of the alley. She listened to the bits of Mandarin she understood, and watched the people Seth had pulled Awakened off. Some of them straightened up. One of them, a grim old lady, suddenly smiled at one of her customers.
“You’re really much better suited to lurking in dark alleys,” she said over her shoulder.
“Power versus finesse, big sister. You’ve got one, I’ve got the other. Besides, it’s not as if you need me for anything other than luring them into alleys for you.”
“Yeah, speaking of finesse. What’s going on with you and the Tanist?”
Seth gave a well-practiced long-suffering sigh. “Why does nobody believe I’m finally straightening up?”
“Because you’re my brother. You’re playing some kind of game with her.”
“Could be! What game are you playing with Ajax? I mean, I thought it was the sneak-off-together-in-the-dark game and I was all ‘finally’! But now it seems to be the ew-cooties game and I’m all ‘oh God–”
“Shut up! It’s not like that. We didn’t sneak off together.”
Seth walked past her out of the alley, then paused to look at her over his shoulder, smiling sweetly. “Whatever you say.” He tilted his head. “Hear that?”
Slithering. Smacking. Snapping. All in that particular register of the Awakened. They followed the sound into the apartments beyond the market street, down an isolated, empty residential road and into another narrow alley. Laundry flapped from the balconies above. A swarm of Awakened fought each other on top of two human corpses. Without words, Natalie and Seth moved in, weapons flashing. It wouldn’t do to let them finish the fight.
After, Natalie inspected the long scratch on Seth’s arm. “You’re clumsy,” he chided her. “That one almost had you.”
“You’re the one who’s scratched,” she pointed out. Then she took a deep breath and turned to look at the alley again. Beyond the two corpses was a third figure, curled up into a ball and retching. She crouched down and saw that it was a delicate young man. “What happened?” she asked. “Are you injured? Let me see.”
His clothes were torn and there were already bruises rising on his face and arms. She touched his hand lightly and he sat up, still huddled against the wall.
“Natalie, these two were killed by a blade,” Seth called.
“So much blood,” moaned the young man. “I thought I was going to die— and then he came— and then I was sure. So much blood. Devils!” He pulled away from Natalie’s hand, and she stood up.
“Sliced up like he was playing tic tac toe,” muttered Seth.
“Who?” Natalie demanded. “We didn’t see anybody leaving.”
Seth looked up at the blue roofs, so close together that they crowded out the light. “Let’s find out.”
They helped each other climb the balconies. Some of the laundry was useful. Seth laughed as somebody shouted at them, but Natalie just climbed faster.
Once they attained the blue slate roof, it was easy to spot what didn’t belong on the consistent expanse. One roof over, a figure crouched, a curved, flame-shaped blade in his hand. It was Malachi.
He looked over at them, then raised his sword in a salute.
Natalie’s sword appeared in her hand. “He killed those people, Seth. Real people! Just like Tainter and those cops.”
“That’s what Echthroi do,” said Seth, far calmer. “Also, I’m pretty sure those thugs were attacking that kid.” He waved his weapon-free hands at Malachi. “He doesn’t look like he wants to fight us. Put your sword away. I’m going to go talk to him.” Natalie hesitated and he added, “Intel, remember.” She let her sword dissolve, and he said, “Good girl.”
“Hell with intel. I’m just not like him.”
Seth grinned at her, then ran to the edge of the building and launched himself off, landing cleanly on the other side of the gap. He turned, holding his hand out to her, and she landed beside him.
Malachi stood up as they approached, still holding his own weapon, but absently, as if he’d forgotten it was there. “He was praying. Isn’t that ludicrous?” Malachi’s voice was meditative, and so soft that the wind almost whipped it away. “What god was he praying to? I thought about sparing him, but I want so much—” He shook his head. “I was weak. A bit of light reflected from his eyes. I’ll watch him, instead. Check on him. Put him down when the light goes out.”
Natalie’s hands clenched and she tucked them behind her back and hoped Seth got his intel quickly.
“It’s tough,” said Seth, agreeably. “I think he’ll be okay, though.”
“What about you?” asked Malachi.
Seth spread his still-empty hands. “Oh, you know. Just killing monsters. You used to do that, yeah?”
And now he makes them and leaves them behind to make things worse, thought Natalie.
“The monsters come from inside us,” said Malachi. “We are the monsters.” A bleak smile crossed his face. “Is the Tower ghost doing well after his transition? I liked Kentigern. Who is it now? Elian? I saw him sometimes. Too gentle for this work.” He glanced down at his sword hand, splashed with human blood.
“He’s doing all right,” said Seth. “Transitions can be hard.”
Malachi’s mouth twisted into a line. A shadow passed overhead, and Natalie glanced up in time to see something large and orange swoop below the roofline. “Yes. Well, I’d best be off. Work to do, you know.” And he gave them a wary, self-aware look, as if he expected them to disagree.
But Natalie’s mouth was glued shut, and Seth just waved. A moment later, Malachi vanished beyond the next roof and Natalie unprised her lips. “So we just let him go? At the very least, he needs serious help, Seth.”
“I’m sure he does…” said Seth, distractedly. He turned to look at her, a wide grin stretching tight his face, his eyes glittering like he’d found a new toy. “But what I’m wondering about is how did he know about Elian?”
Jehane stretched across three of the seats in one of the media halls, ferociously concentrating on the novel displayed on her tablet. So far, she’d read four pages in the last two hours.
“Poor Elian,” said a girl’s voice drifting through the partially-open door.
“Why don’t you close the door?” whispered Elian, his voice rising from the floor. The media hall was currently arranged as a small theater, with a screen at one end. Tiny lights illuminated each of the seats.
“Because then people would know somebody was in here,” Jehane breathed, and shifted to listen.
“I heard that the Tanist was really upset,” said a second girl’s voice. They were distantly familiar but Jehane could only remember them by their shadow music, not their names.
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop. Read your book.” Elian wasn’t nearly as good as Kentigern at sounding stern, but he was trying hard.
“Yeah, but not because she didn’t expect this to happen.” The door slid open. “She knew somebody had to replace Kentigern. She just wanted it to be Jehane, because she hides all the time, and the system might have acquired her special abilities.” The speaker paused. “Elian, is this hall actually reserved? Nobody’s here. Are you still confused?”
“I said it was. Trust me. You don’t want to be here right now.”
There was an extended pause, somebody whispered something that almost sounded like Jehane’s name, and then the first speaker said, “Oops. Uh, sorry.” The door slammed shut.
Jehane sat and drew her legs up. The tablet slid from her fingers to the floor, and she stared blindly after it. “I knew it. And she was probably right! Oh, poor Rohan!” Elian said something but it was just meaningless syllables to Jehane. She sprang to her feet and fled the media hall, hearing nothing but the shadow music.
A few moments later, she stumbled into the third courtyard, following Rohan’s shadow music. An orchard occupied half the courtyard, but the other half only held well-groomed shrubberies, old oaks, and the markers of the dead. Tombstones set flat into the ground were crisply maintained by dedicated micromachines. Here and there crypts rose, of mixed Tower material and imported Earth stone. The names of Guardians past covered the walls of the courtyard, just as the alien writing filled the walls elsewhere in the Tower.
Rohan sprawled on the grass between the orchard and the cemetery, laying on his stomach with his cheek pressed against the ground. When Jehane sat down near him, he gave her a dull look before returning to his inspection of a blade of grass.
“How are you?” she asked, after a moment. She managed to keep the sob out of her voice.
“I haven’t been disintegrated, so obviously I’m fine.” He sounded dead.
“Please, Rohan,” said Elian, his voice higher than usual.
Words tumbled out of Jehane. “I’m so very sorry, Rohan. I took Elian to the core, and I left him there and it should have been me. The Tanist even wanted it to be me. Elian had just manifested his stage 3—” She managed not to sob, but she couldn’t stop the tears streaming from her eyes. She wiped them away, frustrated. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Rohan sat up, staring at her. “I wish that was true. The Tanist really meant it to be you?”
Angrily, Elian said, “Yes, she did. Does knowing that somehow improve things? Because I can tell you other things, too.”
Rohan looked up at the sky, then shook his head. “It shouldn’t have been anybody. It shouldn’t have happened.”
“I volunteered! ‘Shouldn’t have been anybody’. Yeah, right. In this ideal world you’re imagining, Kentigern wouldn’t have needed to exist. We have to work with what we get.”
Jehane didn’t trust herself to speak, and silence fell. After a moment, Elian said, “And guys? I wish I could knock Rohan upside the head, or tweak your nose, Jehane. Part of me is always asleep and dreaming now, of what happened, and of what will never happen. It isn’t exactly easy—”
Rohan sprang to his feet. “You said you were fine! Why are you making this even worse?”
“Because I’m still Elian, and I want my friend back! I will lie to the Tanist, and to Natalie, and to all our teachers, but I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t want to be alone. I’m not just a machine with a new voice. I’m still Elian. My body is just— gone.”
Tremulously, Jehane asked, “Did it hurt?”
“Kentigern put me to sleep first. I think that’s why— but no. It didn’t hurt me like it hurt him, anyhow. I can remember silence, and dreaming.”
Rohan crouched down, pulling hard on his hair. “I was just figuring things out, Elian. I don’t know what to do now.”
“We keep figuring things out. Just… don’t stop talking to me. Please. Even if you think I’m a monster now.”
Rohan’s hands opened, releasing his hair. “You’re not a monster. I just don’t know if you’re still Elian. I’m sorry.”
After a painful silence, Jehane finally found her voice. “When will this happen again? Kentigern said it happened because he was so old, so damaged by time. How much time did you buy us?”
His voice calmer, Elian said, “That’s a really interesting question. You see, the system absorbed Kentigern before he’d learned anything about anima. He learned it all afterward, inside. The structures that the system absorbed are different this time; I’d not only been luminated but I did achieve anima mastery, at least briefly. That’s going to change things. So it could be… this won’t ever need to happen again. If I can sort out a few details, like whatever’s happening with Tower Di.” His voice became meditative, Kentigern-like. “That could be problematic.”
Rohan wrapped his arms around himself, and as Elian’s voice wavered between his own and Kentigern’s, he shuddered. Jehane wished she could blame him, but she couldn’t. All she could do was wish for a way to make it up to both of them.
Ajax finally cornered Kwan in the Portalry, surrounded by newspapers. “Ah, there you are,” said the teacher, like it was Kwan who had been looking for Ajax.
“You’re right,” said Ajax. “It’d be no good to send me out alone. But I could be apprenticed or whatever it’s called, couldn’t I? I thought the main requirement of that was a Stage 2 weapon.”
Kwan regarded him with more pity than Ajax liked to see on somebody’s face when it was pointed at him. He flushed. “I guess I sound pretty desperate.”
“There’s a bit more to it than a Stage 2 weapon. But let’s go for a walk, and maybe you can demonstrate what you can do for me. It’s a bit harder on Earth, you know.”
“Yeah? I wondered. But that’s okay. It’s easier for me when there’s something real to fight.” He followed Kwan to one of the portal frames, noticed the newspapers on the shelf next to the portal, and stopped dead. “Not here, though.”
“You don’t want to go back to your hometown?” Kwan’s voice was mild.
“My dad told the cops I murdered his business partner, remember?” Ajax’s fists clenched. “He just assumed the worst. If you’re trying to arrange some kind of reconciliation or something, I’m just going to head back to the nursery and get my babysit on.”
Kwan gave him a steady look. “Has it always been bad?”
Ajax laughed. “Oh no, not always bad. I was always happy when he found somebody to send me away to. First it was his druggie little brother. I got a real education watching him with his string of girlfriends. Then it was Cousin Madeline.” He hesitated, until Kwan’s attentive silence sucked the words out of him. “She was okay, until she married an asshole who didn’t want a kid around.”
“And she sent you back to your father?”
Ajax shrugged. “There were others willing to help out my dad with his troubled kid. He’s really good at getting sympathy.” Guilt stabbed at him, and he added, “I think my grandmother— my mom’s mom— was on my side. She didn’t seem to like my dad very much. But she died less than a year after I moved in with her.” He tried not to sound bitter. He knew it wasn’t fair to the old lady who’d tried so hard to reform him. Then again, was it fair of her to have a heart failure when he was just starting to think he had a future? “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter. My dad never wanted me around, except as something he could use. I’m not going to talk to him again.” But he knew, he knew, that if somebody like Kwan showed up at his dad’s place, his dad would charm them, wrap them around his finger, convince them it was all a misunderstanding, these teenagers are hard work, haha. And somehow, Ajax would lose everything again.
But Kwan nodded slowly. “How about Athens, then?”
“Athens, Georgia?” said Ajax, bewildered by the subject change.
“Athens, Greece.” Kwan moved to another portal. “It’s actually a little outside our criteria for a permanent portal these days, between its location and its population, but there’s a historic attachment to the place…” The portal activated. “And there’s been unusual activity there, probably as a result.”
Ajax followed Kwan through the portal and onto the streets of Athens. The transition was much smoother when he wasn’t trying to ride the portal’s tail. The afternoon Mediterranean sunlight flooding the city dazzled him, and Kwan caught his shoulder as he stumbled. “It’s too early in the day to be drunk, kid, even for two tourists like ourselves.”
Ajax smiled, lifting his face to the sun. It was unreal how much he’d missed it. For a moment he could do nothing but revel in the light beating on his closed eyelids, and the salty-sweet scent of the air. Finally, he gave in to Kwan’s tugging and walked along beside him.
The street they’d emerged on was narrow, but Ajax soon realized it was a major thoroughfare through the city. Balconies jutted out from every building, filled with plants and draped with colorful fabrics. Green trees with spiky leaves crowded against crumbling walls of a golden stone that faded to grey in places. And high above the city on a flattened hill was a pillared white building he was sure he recognized.
The primary occupation of Athenians seemed to be arguing. Ajax wasn’t sure if that was normal or not. “Sometimes I can hear the Awakened. When they fight,” he offered to Kwan.
“A good skill,” said Kwan absently.
“Are we going to find and fight something, then?”
“Maybe. If I spot a good opportunity. I’m not the same kind of backup you’d get from a working pair, you know.” Kwan gave Ajax an amused look. “We retired Nightlights tend to be a bit rusty.”
“So what are you testing me on, then?” demanded Ajax. But Kwan didn’t answer. He just continued strolling down the street. Muttering, Ajax followed along, but soon he was absorbed in looking around.
When Kwan stopped dead, Ajax didn’t notice at first, distracted as he was by the scenery. But then he saw what Kwan had seen. Something odd had just stepped around the corner. It walked on two legs like a man, but goggles extruded from its face, and the hands that held a tablet computer had exquisitely long fingers. The face under the goggles was gargoyle-like, and the figure itself was earning plenty of attention, although everybody seemed to think it was in a costume of some sort. That, Ajax conceded, could just be possible. But everybody else couldn’t see the Awakened that paced around it.
Ajax had a cold flashback to his first cambion, Descry, and the pack of Awakened it had controlled. It had been the pack of Awakened that had murdered Leo, technically. And now there was another one, not at night, but during broad daylight, in a busy city street.
The gargoyle cambion looked up at the roofs, then did something with its tablet. Ajax’s world shuddered. The crowds of people staggered as if the ground itself was moving. When the traffic light turned green, the accumulated traffic didn’t move. A woman near Ajax sank to the ground, putting her head on her knees and closing her eyes.
Ajax spread his hands. He didn’t feel sleepy at all. He felt energized. He felt empowered.
“Ajax,” said Kwan, his voice strained. “Don’t move.” Ajax hesitated for only a moment. Then he darted toward the cambion like he’d been launched from a slingshot.
But the cambion took one look at Ajax and ran, leaving its pack of Awakened behind. Ajax plunged into the midst of them, swinging the glowing weapon in his hand. He could destroy all of them easily, and catch up to the cambion, pin it down, drag it back to Kwan. The first Awakened melted away at a brush from his weapon, he was that powerful—
The strength ebbed away like somebody had pulled a plug. The loss so shocked him that his weapon vanished. His knees wobbled with a wave of exhaustion. Four hungry Awakened surrounded him. Four. He hadn’t bothered counting before, when they’d been as blades of grass. Now, four seemed a bit… challenging.
He concentrated and brought out his weapon again, just in time to deflect a lunge from one of the nightmares. He let the momentum of another carry him down before he twisted and rolled away, getting out from the center of the knot with only a scrape down his back.
A sword, flickering like a badly-animated cartoon, flashed past Ajax and dispatched the Awakened who’d scraped him. Kwan lunged and caught another one with the edge of his strange blade before a flicker made the blade slide intangibly through the monster.
It was enough, though. The exhaustion left by the ebbing of the strength faded almost as quickly as the strength itself had. Ajax scrambled to his feet, brought his own weapon around and together Kwan and Ajax and finished off the remaining Awakened.
Afterward, Ajax leaned on his weapon, grinning at Kwan. Kwan kicked his blade. “Put that away before people notice even more.”
Only then did Ajax realize that the city street had returned to normal. Traffic moved again, with much honking of horns. The lady who had fallen asleep on the sidewalk rose to her feet, looking bewildered. The world had righted itself.
But Kwan wasn’t grinning. He looked grim. “Let’s head back to the Tower. I’m sorry, Ajax, but you aren’t going to be assigned a novitiate anytime soon. I gave you one command, in a moment of crisis, and you did the exact opposite. You, of all possible novices, need to learn to obey instructions.”
Ajax stared at him, unsurprised but angry all the same. He thought about running away again, losing himself in this beautiful old city. The temptation surged, climbing up his spine, almost overwhelming with the promise of freedom. He almost gave in.
But then he remembered Natalie’s face a few inches from his own in the gloom, and his rage drained away, just like the strength, just like the exhaustion. He ducked his head, and noticed the tension leaving Kwan’s shoulders as he did. Then, like somebody who had something to prove, he followed Kwan back to the tower.