How can it be understood? What metaphor could bring as much clarity as a single flash of light? His whole life he’d ignored what was right there. When Ajax was a small child, they’d been on the fringes of his day to day existence. After his mother died, they’d moved in, filling up whatever home he’d been sent to. They nibbled on him, day and night, and he never noticed. They attacked the people around him and those people didn’t notice either. Nobody ever noticed, but they were there. He could remember them now.
He’d covered his walls in his sketches of the monsters, the creatures he’d seen but never processed except through his pencil. His father’s house was usually crawling with them. They devoured each other sometimes. Earlier, a big one had been eating Ajax alive when the girl showed up. It’d held him against the bridge and torn into him, and he’d barely noticed.
But now all the monsters were gone. They’d vanished from the house shortly after he’d come home.
“—a tall one, isn’t he?” said a boy at the window. He tucked away a device he’d been holding, the source of the bright flash. Then he flipped himself over the edge of the window into the room. His feet thudded onto the floor and he gave Ajax a sleepy smile. “It takes a while.”
“Seth, he saw a Cambion,” said Natalie.
The boy called Seth didn’t lose his smile, even as he shook his head. “Not mine. Yours, then?”
“Don’t joke, Seth! A Cambion running around means bad news!”
Seth brushed himself off. “We’re the only ones here. Who else could it be? Oh, I know— his!”
Natalie opened her mouth, then paused to peer closely at Ajax. She picked up his arm again, and he curled his hand around her elbow.
“Oh! You’re awake again already. I thought it took longer.”
Ajax’s throat was clogged, like he’d never spoken before. He coughed, then rasped, “Magic swords. Do you have magic healing, too?”
Natalie blinked at him, then lowered her gaze to the bruise. “Wounds are wounds. They all heal the same way.” She released his arm and turned back to the boy. “I don’t know, Seth. But I don’t think it works like that.”
Ajax tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling. “All right. So what just happened?”
Seth said, “I used this handy-dandy Luminator on you. Strictly against the regs, of course, but Natalie asked so nicely.” He was still smiling, as the situation was an ongoing joke.
Ajax finally really looked at the boy who’d appeared at his window. It only took a cursory examination to realize he was related to Natalie: the same build, the same face. His hair, the same pale shade as Natalie’s, had a carefully razored fringe constantly on the verge of covering his green eyes. He looked like the sort of clean-cut poser that Ajax traditionally scorned associating with.
“The Luminator does a couple of things,” said Natalie. “It activates the part of your brain that can see the Awakened, and it lets you put your anima to work.”
“The monsters are the Awakened? Awakened what?”
“Darkness. Awakened Darkness.” Seth looked up at the pictures on Ajax’s wall. “They’re called to a strong anima. Looks like they’ve been called to you for some time.”
“And what the hell was the point of waking me up to them? My memories are filled with nightmares now!”
“Hey, man, they were always there. Look at that nasty one.” Seth flicked a finger toward one of Ajax’s oldest sketches. A snake with a man’s hairy arms and a caged heart in its torso coiled across the paper.
“But now you can fight them,” said Natalie. “If you want to learn how.”
“Just pick up my magic sword and charge into the front lines, eh?”
Seth’s smile flattened, as if the joke had gotten dull. “Or don’t. Go back to your life. Draw your monsters. They’re mostly interested in kids, so when you get older, they might stop coming so often. Or, they might kill you.” He shrugged. “Natalie won’t always be around to save you.”
“Seth, don’t be a jerk.” Natalie moved between Seth and Ajax. “My sword is part of my own anima. Learning to shape a weapon is one of the first steps in learning to be a Guardian. So yeah, you’d start with a magic sword. There’s a lot of training before you end up on the front lines, though.”
Ajax eyed Natalie warily. “Guardians, huh? What exactly are the front lines?”
Seth rested his arm on Natalie’s shoulder, and his head on his hand. “Official name: Guardians of the Precipice. But we’re really just Nightlights, to chase away the darkness.”
Natalie shrugged out from under Seth, then elbowed him squarely in the stomach. He staggered back, and she ignored him. “We patrol. We fight the Awakened. They gather in places where humanity does, and without us, well… the darkness wins. Humanity doesn’t.”
Ajax leaned back in his chair again, looking away from Natalie’s earnest expression. His gaze fell on the monster he’d encountered in the street before. Descry, it’d named itself.
“What about this?” He tapped the paper. “I saw it before the thingamajig rewired my brain. It talked to me.” He thought back, remembered — now— the circle of Awakened that had watched hungrily as Descry had played with him.
“There’s another kind of monster,” said Natalie slowly. “Very rare. Intelligent and able to fully manifest. Anybody can see it, but it’s just as hard to hurt as the Awakened. You need an anima weapon to hurt those. I’ve never actually seen a Cambion before. They’re supposed to be utterly savage. Why did it talk to you?”
“It wanted something from me.”
“I don’t really know. I wasn’t paying close attention, because it was a goddamned monster in the street.”
Seth and Natalie exchanged looks, which Ajax didn’t like at all. Seth said, “There might be a bit of trouble over this.”
“I don’t care,” said Natalie. Then she tilted her head. “Listen.”
Something crunched outside. Then a voice roared, “Come outside, Boything!”
It was the Cambion called Descry.