Ajax crouched down beside Leo, numbly checking for signs of life. A horrible bruise blackened Leo’s throat and half of his face. His eyes were half-open, staring blankly. He had blood at his mouth and nose.
Meat, Descry had said.
“Look sharp! They’re stronger than they usually are.” said Seth, as he zipped past on a skateboard, a knife slicing out at something coming up behind Ajax.
But Ajax couldn’t drag his gaze away from Leo. He realized that Leo couldn’t have known what was attacking him. He’d turned to run from a monster he could see and fallen to— what? Mysterious pain?
It was awful. He’d hated Leo passionately, but this was worse than he’d wish on anybody. It drove home the new nature of the world far more than the magical light altering his memories could. He’d seen but not understood as a child. Everything was different now.
Seth flew by again. This time Ajax looked up and distantly wondered where he’d found the skateboard. He shoved himself to his feet and stood over Leo’s body, watching as Seth moved among the monsters that had killed him.
The boy was fast and professional. He had a knife in one hand, and he seemed to use his feet and the skateboard as much as the blade. He was smiling again.
“Guardian!” bellowed Descry. He held Natalie with both his front paws. One of her arms twisted oddly, and a claw down her side had ripped a neat slash in her leather jacket and the shirt and skin underneath. One of Descry’s paws held the hand with the sword far away from him. She gasped as if the breath had been knocked out of her. “Look what I have, dancing Guardian. Your partner. Can you dance without her?”
Seth stopped his skateboard and looked at the pair of them. His smile never flickered. “Look at that. Why’d you go and do a crazy thing like that?” He kicked his skateboard up into his hand and started walking toward the two of them.
“But wait! There’s so much more. Go, little seedlings. Inside. Find us more of the nightblind. Wasn’t that one so tasty? Bring them out and we will have a little lottery.”
Moving half like puppets, fighting the control exerted over them, some of the Awakened trailing Seth peeled off and headed into the surrounding houses, passing through windows without opening them. A big one went into Ajax’s house.
Natalie caught enough breath to wheeze, “Don’t do anything stupid, Seth.”
Seth didn’t seem to hear her. His gaze never leaving Descry, he said, “Better get it together, new guy. If you want to save your dad, I mean.”
Ajax looked between Seth and Natalie, fresh dread clenching his gut. Seth was going to do something stupid.
Descry held Natalie out and pirouetted the stumbling girl. “Seth!” she yelled. “We don’t know what will happen, it’s controlling them, don’t you see…” She started coughing, breathless again.
Across the street, a window opened and a stumbling little girl climbed out it. An Awakened guided her steps, claws sunk into her shoulders, its muzzle close to her ear. She seemed to be sleepwalking.
Seth didn’t look away from Natalie and Descry. “I see,” he said softly. “I know.” He kept walking closer, the skateboard dangling from his fingers.
Inside his house, Ajax’s father cried out.
“Seth! You asshole, I can’t hurt them!” shouted Ajax.
Descry’s eyes slitted in glee. “I knew this would be entertaining.” He bent his head and licked the injury running up Natalie’s side. Seth’s smile broadened, even as his grip on the skateboard tightened. He and the Cambion’s smiles matched perfectly.
Another child appeared at the front door of the house down the street, his legs covered in scratches from the Awakened herding him. Ajax’s father yelled again, the incoherent cry of a man trapped in a nightmare.
Something brittle snapped in Ajax. He ran into his house, to his father’s room, grabbing the crowbar from beside the door as he went. One of the Awakened crouched over Jim, gnawing on one of his hands. It was a skull-headed wolf, with tentacles around the bone muzzle and a long, barbed, prehensile tail. Ajax recognized it. He’d drawn it only a few days ago.
It twitched, lunged forward to Jim’s face, and yanked itself back again, moaning. Jim was moaning, too, thrashing around trying to free himself from something that could only exist in nightmares for him.
Ajax swung the crowbar at the monster. Just as the bat had, it passed through the monster, although this time Ajax felt a little resistance. Encouraged, he swiped, over and over again, until his father whimpered and tried to sit up. He was still utterly asleep, his half-open eyes unseeing. Something had to be preventing him from waking up, because there was plenty of noise.
But Ajax wasn’t having enough of an effect. He didn’t have a magic weapon, after all. He flung the crowbar away. At least he could stop his father from going out to join the massacre outside.
Ajax pushed his father down, then smacked at the Awakened. It caught his hand and bit him. He yanked his hand away and punched it with his other hand. Somehow, impossibly, the punch missed. Because, of course, it could hurt him even though he couldn’t touch it. Life was fair like that.
Seth had used his hands and feet as well as his magic knife, though. There was a way, even without a magic weapon. There had to be.
Ajax stared down at his hand, looking at how his second self, his shadow self, barely visible, bled. It was biting that part of him. Maybe that was the only part of him that could touch it. He flexed his hand, looking how the shadow moved, even as he pushed his father down again.
Outside, Descry laughed, a terrible, grating sound. The Awakened went into a frenzy, jabbing and digging and biting at Jim.
Ajax’s hands moved again. The shadow-hand enveloped his flesh hand as he reached out. This time, he could touch the monster.
This time, he held on.