So, Ajax. If we’d found him earlier, things might have been different. Instead, he’s so screwed up he’s facing front again, and convinced that all he had to worry about was the absolute wrong things. He’s dangerous all right, but the question is, is he more dangerous to us? Or himself?
Natalie sat in a bed in the Tower infirmary, staring straight ahead. Her father, Jake Ward, worked on his tablet while leaning against the nearby bed Seth had just escaped from. They hadn’t brought Ajax to the infirmary, even though Natalie had insisted he needed medical attention as well. Instead they’d taken him straight to a private room for a quarantined interview.
Jake looked up and flashed a quick smile at Natalie. “Is the painkiller finally kicking in?”
Natalie half-shrugged. The big pills the doctor had given her had smoothed the sharp pain in her ribcage and the ache of her arm to dull, distant twinge. But she couldn’t get the memory of Ajax’s face out of her mind: his startled expression and growing anger as he’d been hustled out of the Portalry by a crowd of brusque and efficient adults. It was more like a police booking than a debut at a magical high school.
Dr. Pepperman, working on his own tablet at his desk in the corner, spoke without looking up. “Any more drugs and she’ll pass out. Which I’m personally in favor of, but please do ask your important questions.”
“I’m fine,” said Natalie hastily. “Just worrying.”
Jake nodded. “I just want to ask you a few more questions and then I’ll let you sleep.” He gave Dr. Pepperman a rueful look.
Natalie sighed, then winced as her side twinged. Seth had been allowed to go home, to his own bed in his own room, because Seth had lied to Dr. Pepperman about the extent of his injuries. He hadn’t lied to Jake, exactly, but he was an expert in providing absolutely useless answers. Everybody knew that Natalie, as the elder sibling, was the responsible one and Seth took shameless advantage of that.
“Go ahead, Dad.” She stared across the infirmary, watching the blue glyphs drift below the surface of the pale walls.
“This Cambion…” Jake began. “Why do you think it was interested in Ajax?”
“The same reason I noticed him, I think. His anima is really strong, Dad.”
“But it was more interested in… recruiting him than devouring him?” Natalie nodded. The bewilderment in Jake’s voice was plain. “Recruiting him for what? No, I know you don’t know, sweetheart. Are you sure it was a Cambion?”
“How could I be sure? I’ve never seen one before. But other than being awfully talkative, it fit the textbook description. And what else could it have been? It definitely wasn’t one of the Awakened.” Natalie laced her fingers together.
The infirmary door opened and Kwan Tae Highsmith strode in. He was an athletic man around Natalie’s father’s age, with a scraggly beard. His usually-cheerful face, which she saw almost every day in class, was set into a frown. “I finished my evaluation of your friend. I thought you two might like to hear the results.”
Natalie’s breath caught in her throat. “Yes. Can he stay?”
Kwan pursed his lips. “He’s sullen. And really too old. But you knew that. I think if he could get over his attitude problem, he’d fit in here. But I don’t think he will.”
“He’s just lost everything, sir. He needs time, I’m sure. Maybe if we could fix his relationship with his father—”
Kwan held up a hand to cut off Natalie’s protest. “But given his specifics, I think sending him back to Earth would be murder. Especially since he’s already been luminated.” Kwan’s bright eyes bored into Natalie.
Natalie flinched. Jake, startled, said, “Not a natural?”
“Oh no,” said Kwan. “He said Seth shone a bright light in his eyes, and only then did he see the Awakened.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed and Natalie couldn’t help shifting uncomfortably and tucking her hands behind her back. Jake asked, “They failed to mention that to me. Natalie, where did Seth get a luminator from?”
“The closet where they’re stored, I imagine.” Natalie pulled herself together again and raised her chin. She wasn’t a little girl anymore.
“The locked closet. Of course he did. And did he luminate your recruit all on his own?”
“No. I asked him to do it.”
Her father gave her a long steady look. “Of course you did.” He turned his attention to his tablet again and Natalie turned to Kwan.
“So can he stay?”
Kwan ran his hand through his hair. “That’s going to be my recommendation, yes. But Natalie— you can’t bring home every stray dog you find, even if they’re really cute and pathetic. We have a recruitment process for a reason. Get some rest and we’ll talk about it later.”
He nodded at Jake and the doctor, and left again. When he was gone, Jake looked back at his daughter. “I’m disappointed, Natalie. Bringing home a sane natural is one thing, an amazing find. Sidestepping the entire recruitment process to luminate a random teenager is something else entirely. Petty theft from Seth I’ve come to expect, but you’ve always been more reliable.”
“I’m pretty sure I saved his life, Dad,” said Natalie, her voice brittle despite her best efforts.
“You save lives by destroying the Awakened, and notifying the Council of potential recruits.”
“It wasn’t a normal situation! There was a Cambion after him. I made the call.”
“I hope it wasn’t a mistake,” said Jake evenly. “Although it sounds like his relationship with his father has already been ruined. In any event, you’re in trouble. You can expect a rank demotion from the Council, and you’re personally grounded as well. No pleasure outings to Earth, just shifts and straight home.”
Natalie pressed her lips together, and did not ask about Seth. But her father knew her. “That goes for your brother, too.”
Through her teeth, Natalie said, “What about the Cambion?” Jake studied her quietly and she added, “Or does my demotion mean suddenly everything I say is suspect?”
“No. I believe you. You destroyed the Cambion, you said.”
“Yes! But we have to find out who created it. A Cambion means somebody has fallen, doesn’t it?”
“Usually,” Jake agreed. “I’ve already started the Nightlight roll-call process. We’ll find out who it was.”
“Good.” Natalie flung herself down in her bed and pulled her covers up, ignoring the rush of pain. “I’m tired. All my bad decisions in the face of legendary monsters wore me out. Good night.”
“Good night, Natalie,” said her father, and left.