Natalie woke up slowly, dragged out of a deep sleep by people talking over her infirmary bed. The nap seemed to have helped. At least, the terrible exhaustion had receded into a basic weariness she was far more used to. But she still felt every one of the ‘heavy bruising and abrasions’ that Doctor Pepperman had found when he looked her over.
It sounded like an impromptu Council meeting had convened around her bed. They were discussing Jehane, who had apparently disappointed the Tanist. Natalie knew what they were waiting for. As soon as she opened her eyes they’d want a report from her. Again. At least this time she didn’t think she’d get into trouble for anything.
She tried to organize her thoughts before opening her eyes, running the events of the expedition through her mind. But as soon as she got to the point where Tainter murdered the two cops, she flinched. That memory was swiftly followed by the disturbing memory of her weapon sliding against Tainter’s collarbone. She’d never wounded a human before, not like that, not seriously.
Her father’s hand stroked her hair. “It’s okay, Natalie. You can wake up.”
She opened her eyes. “I wasn’t really asleep. Just remembering.”
“You’ll feel better if you tell us about it.” The Tanist gave her what was meant to be a reassuring smile but was more of a ghastly grimace. “What happened to Linc?”
“Is he still alive? I tried so hard—”
“For now,” said the Tanist, her voice harsh.
Doctor Pepperman glanced at her. “He’ll be fine as long as nothing else exciting happens over the next few days.”
Natalie took a deep breath. “All right. There were two Echthroi. Malachi and another one. I don’t know what happened with Malachi, but the other one was… a psychopath. He killed two policemen before anybody could react.” She frowned. “They were slow, though. There was something… wrong with all of the ordinaries. They seemed half asleep, even when they saw the Cambion that dragged Linc off.”
The Doctor nodded, but the Tanist said, “What did the Cambion look like?”
“Sort of a dog-wolverine thing. It came when the psychopath whistled.” Natalie looked back and forth between the adult faces, questioningly.
Jake’s shoulders hunched. “At least two more Cambions, then. And you had no idea who the second Echthros was?”
“No. He was older than Malachi, and while he had a Stage 3 weapon, it was odd. It changed. And he was strange, Dad. He moved so fast that he could dodge bullets. That’s why he could hurt Linc so badly.”
“Why didn’t he hurt you, too?” demanded the Tanist, anger flitting across her face. Natalie stared up at her silently, astonished that she was apparently still going to get in trouble.
“Kiley, please.” said Jake quietly.
“Yes… yes. When I saw Linc—” The Tanist shook her head. “How did you two manage to escape him, Natalie?”
“I figured out how to move fast, too. I was clumsy but whatever power he had, I had too. He didn’t expect that, and when I stabbed him, he ran away. Then Linc helped me find the device attached to the transmitter that was blocking Kentigern’s portals, and we came home.”
“Dammit!” The Tanist started to pace. “They must have timed this assault to coincide with Nightfall, for maximum chaos. I can’t believe there’s a bloody they. We have to find out who the other Echthros is and where the excess Cambions came from.”
“Assault? I thought we found them?” said Natalie.
Kotone, standing beside Jake with a sling on her arm, said, “We found Malachi, yeah. It didn’t seem like a planned encounter at the time. But you slept through all the fun, Natalie. One of the Cambions came through the portal and attacked Kentigern before escaping.”
Jake said, “They had as much time to plan as we did, and the advantage that we didn’t expect what we found. But what’s the advantage of attacking at Nightfall?”
“Additional strain on Kentigern,” said the Tanist flatly. “That little device Natalie brought back is sitting in the Carta Lab waiting for the Readers to have time to study it. We should be prioritizing that, but we can’t right now. There’s just too much going on.”
“How’s Kentigern?” asked Natalie, tentatively.
“Stressed,” said Kentigern. “The wildlife is particularly aggressive tonight. I believe they’re being drawn to the Tower from a wider radius than usual. The storm is very large. I wish I could find Lailoken.”
Natalie, looking at her father, saw him lift his head in surprise. “Lailoken? Kentigern—” Lailoken had been the founder of the Guardians of the Precipice and the Nightlights, almost a thousand years ago.
Kentigern paused, then said, “I’m sorry. Did I mention Lailoken? I must have been confused. I’m a bit distracted by the repairs. A lot is happening. Can some people go outside to deal with the wildlife? That would help.” Kentigern paused, then said, “I do have emergency defenses.”
A small, wheeled utility table in the middle of the infirmary fell over with a crash. Nobody was near it. As the various diagnostic tools spun away, something pulled itself out of the pile of tools contained by the middle of the table, growing as it did so. Long arms waved as it balanced precariously on equally elongated legs, and a featureless face swiveled this way and that.
“Kentigern!” shouted the Tanist.
“Yes?” said Kentigern, barely audible over the clatter as the newborn monster swung its arms and knocked over another table.
“Is this an enemy or something of yours?”
“I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about?”
The monster looked around again. Natalie’s father pressed her shoulder and she realized she’d sat up, swinging her legs off the bed. Staff all over the infirmary scattered. Kotone grimly moved forward, placing herself between the Tanist and the monster.
But the monster didn’t move toward the Tanist. With an explosive burst of energy, it took a giant step toward the intensive care beds and flung medical shrapnel all over the infirmary. The lights flickered, making everything part of a slideshow. A tray of broken test tubes scything through the air. Everybody ducking except the Tanist. The monster hooking a hand around Linc’s bed to flip it. The Tanist standing behind the monster with a stage 3 weapon in her hand. The monster split from head to sternum, solid and artificial.
The lights steadied. The Tanist’s weapon vanished from her hand. Kentigern said, “Sorry about that. There was a lightning strike on the pinnacle, but I’ve managed it.”
The Tanist, panting, said, “The lightning strike brought that?”
“The flicker, yes. Didn’t you notice?”
“The monster, Kentigern,” said Jake, his voice a little shaky. “How did it get in here? Has there been a breach?”
“The wildlife will breach the outer curtain if they’re not managed, yes. And the mist will be severe. Please, help me. A major storm is coming.”