Ajax slouched down the hall to the Portalry that evening. It had to be evening because evening was what happened after school devoured the afternoon, but he hadn’t been able to tell from the light streaming in his bedroom window. He’d closed the curtains before he left.
“All right, I’m here,” he announced, when he’d entered the huge room. A thin middle-aged man with pale wispy hair and a tablet stood nearby. He shifted the tablet under one arm and came over to Ajax with his hand out.
“Hi, Ajax. You probably don’t remember me from the other night, but I met you briefly right after you arrived.”
“Total blank,” Ajax admitted. Habits nagged into him by his father made him shake the man’s hand.
“I’m Jake Ward. Natalie and Seth’s father, and one of the Council administrators. Nice to see you doing better.”
Ajax snorted. “Yeah. Did Kentigern ask me to come here to meet you?”
Kentigern said, “No. I thought you might be interested in meeting some of the adult Nightlights. Several are expected to arrive soon.”
A flash of sullen annoyance was rapidly overtaken by curiosity. “Aren’t all the adults Nightlights? I mean this guy, and the teachers?”
Jake shook his head, a wry look on his face. “Not since before Natalie was born. We’ve observed that in most people, anima strength peaks between around sixteen and twenty-five. After that, we take on other roles within the Tower community. As I said, I’m an administrator now. I can still manage a Stage 1 summoning, but that’s about it.”
“Great,” Ajax bit out. “Hey, I’ve got experience in retail, maybe you can sign me up there.”
Jake looked taken aback. Kentigern said, “We’ll look into that. Ah, here comes Laurel.”
A portal at the far end of the room glowed then faded, silhouetting a woman. She strolled down the hall and joined them. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, medium-sized, and moderately cute. She had a gymnast’s muscle but far nicer curves displayed beneath slim jeans, tank top and windbreaker. “Hi, Jake,” she said. “Here’s my report.” She passed over a camera card.
“You make my life so easy,” said Jake.
Laurel grinned and stretched, looking over Ajax with interest. “I’m sorry, I’m sure we must have met at some point but I don’t remember. I’m Laurel.”
“I’m Ajax. And I’m absolutely certain we’ve never met.”
“Really?” She looked puzzled.
Jake said, “Ajax is a new student, Laurel.”
“Oh!” She peered closely at Ajax and he smiled at her, or at least moved his mouth into something close to a smile. Ruefully, she said, “I thought you were a recent graduate. A temporary partner for me to train up until you found a real partner. You know how it is.”
“Not a clue. I failed to read the invisible handbook.”
“I think there’s a brochure somewhere,” said Laurel. “Come to our beautiful alien campus! Fight off the plagues of humanity and get a first-class education at the same time! That kind of thing.”
Jake said, “Senior Nightlights— those are able to keep working as they mature— tend to work alone. But we require that junior Nightlights and senior students work in partners or groups. It’s safer.”
Another portal down the hall activated. Ajax said, “But not for senior Nightlights?”
Laurel grinned. “We’re pretty experienced at not dying, or— other things— and it’s a risk-benefit thing. The world is big and there’s not very many of us.” She paused and something dark threaded through her voice. “Eventually you come to see the benefits of spreading out. It’s hard but you learn to cope.” She shook her head, lapsing into silence, and Ajax wondered what was on that card she’d handed Jake. Then she turned her head. “Hi, Hatherly.”
Hatherly was an older man, with salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Like Laurel, he didn’t particularly stand out, dressed as he was in slacks, a button-down shirt and a blazer. Ajax thought he looked more like a college professor more than action hero. “Hello, Laurel,” he said, and he even sounded like a college professor. “Jake. I’m at your service later if you’d like to have a drink and debrief me. The Cambion represents disturbing news.”
“Well, that’s why we’re doing the roll-call. It’ll turn up something.”
“An Echthros can be so much more dangerous than their Cambion.” Hatherly rubbed his head, as if tired. “But I’m not looking forward to finding out who it is this time. Every time this happens, I hope the roll-call doesn’t tell us anything.”
“Handbook, please!” Ajax whispered to Laurel.
Laurel gave him a little smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “An Echthros is a Guardian who’s broken under the strain and turned on humanity. When they break, their anima generates a Cambion. That’s a kind of super-Awakened.”
“I know what a Cambion is,” said Ajax flatly. “One was determined to carry me off. Or eat me. It couldn’t seem to make up its mind.”
Hatherly finally looked at Ajax with more than passing interest. “Did it? I wonder why. Is this the one your children fought, Jake?”
“Yes. They saved Ajax here and brought him to us. Natalie thinks that with his naturally high anima, he’ll be a big asset to the Tower.”
“I think she’s probably changed her mind after today’s class. Sorry. But Kentigern tells me I’ve got a bright future ahead of me in retail!”
“Did you, Kentigern?” Laurel sounded surprised.
The bodiless voice said, “You know how I’m famed for my jokes, Laurel. Would you be so kind as to summon your weapons? Ajax requires a demonstration.”
“Says who?” demanded Ajax. “I saw plenty of demonstrations today.”
“Oh sure,” said Laurel. She held out her hand and a glimmer of light sparked from her palm, running up and down reveal a long polearm with a huge, elegantly curved blade. A glyph similar in style to the writing on the walls flashed on the blade. An unexpected, long-forgotten emotion rushed over Ajax at the sight.
At the same time, Hatherly pulled a sword as long as he was tall out of an invisible sheath. He pointed the blade at Ajax, and Ajax became aware of a humming, as if the air itself was vibrating. “It took me many years before I was able to master my weapon. But such a journey begins only with a single step.”
Ajax scowled. “I took that step, and fell flat on my face.”
“Shut up. Listen. If the first step doesn’t lead to the next, then you’ve started in the wrong place.” Hatherly and his sword moved closer to Ajax, the blade following him as he dodged and backed away. Then Hatherly reversed the blade and presented the hilt to Ajax. “Take it.”
Instinctively, Ajax obeyed. For the barest moment, he thought he felt the metal grip under his fingers. Then the sword vanished and his hand closed on nothing. The humming in the air faded.
Hatherly said, “You cannot. It is not your sword. You have your own weapon. If you listen, you will find where the path begins. If you have courage, you will follow the path, step by step.” His steel gaze held Ajax’s.
Then Ajax dragged his gaze away, grumbling. “All this for a magic sword…” But he said it quietly, more than a little wary of Hatherly’s magic sword coming out again. For a moment he’d really thought the elder Nightlight would cut him.
Laurel, her eyes shining, said, “Hatherly, you’re still so cool.”
Hatherly rubbed his head again and gave Laurel a distant, distracted smile. “I’d love that drink now, Jake.”
“Of course. Let’s go back to my office.” Jake looked over Ajax. “I’ll see you around.”
The two older men took off, with Laurel tagging along behind them, to Ajax’s total lack of surprise. When he was alone, he sank into a nearby chair and leaned his face against his arm. Only then did he he let himself identify the emotion he’d felt when Laurel and Hatherly had manifested their weapons: a deep, paralyzing yearning.
But no matter how he tried, he couldn’t figure out why.