What we worried about with Ajax, we actually had to face with others. It puts things in perspective, discovering real danger when all you’re used to is potential disasters.
“Announcement: Nightfall commences in approximately three hours.” Kentigern’s calm voice echoed in the main hallway outside the Portalry. Ajax paused, mid-step, and looked around. But the other people passing by did no more than glance at the wall and keep walking. One man nodded to himself and quickened his pace.
So Ajax did the same. When he’d entered the Portalry and settled in the corner he’d claimed as his own, he said quietly, “Is nightfall a big deal, Kentigern?”
“The animals in the land outside become much more aggressive at night, and sometimes there are storms. It’s best to be prepared, but nightfall is far more dangerous to those outside my walls than those within. Normal Tower operations are only interrupted in the worst storms.”
Ajax nodded, thinking about the ominpresent clouds he’d seen outside.
“Ajax! What a surprise, seeing you in the same place you’ve been lurking all week! You’re like a wolf in a cage, big guy.” Seth joined Ajax, followed by Jehane.
“You. I’d ask what you wanted but I kind of dread the answer.”
“Hey, we’re Nightlights. We have to patrol. Check out the nightlife. And the wildlife.”
Ajax gave first Seth, then Jehane a dubious look. “Her too?” She blushed, looking down, and he immediately felt bad.
“She’s our novice. We’re training her up.” Seth patted Ajax on the shoulder. “If you’re a very good boy, maybe you can get a novitiate too.”
Ajax grabbed at Seth’s hand and Seth dodged away, eyes dancing. “No, no, I still remember.” He put Jehane between himself and Ajax, and leaned on her shoulders while she stood there with her eyes downcast. “You spend a lot of time here watching the portals, man.”
Ajax shrugged. “Wolf in a cage.”
Seth leaned in, over Jehane. “Have you noticed how there’s kind of a bubble when Kentigern closes a portal? When the image is gone but they’re still open?”
Ajax narrowed his eyes. “No.”
“Well, you sort of have to flare your anima a bit. And the bubble catches on it and draws you in. Very useful if Kentigern isn’t supposed to open a gate for you.”
Ajax stared at Seth, bewildered. “Kentigern is listening to every word we say, isn’t he?”
Seth raised his hands and stretched. “Oh yeah, of course. But why would he bother getting involved if it doesn’t hurt the Tower? He’s got a lot on his mind. Nah, it’s the Council that’s all about restricting people. They’d totally be pissed if they found out.”
Ajax looked uncertainly at the walls. Seth pulled his latchkey device from his pocket, tossed it into the air, then strolled over to a gate a third of the way down the great hall. Ajax followed him.
Natalie ran into the Portalry, out of breath. “Sorry I’m late. I had to help somebody—”
Seth said, “No worries. We were just shooting the shit here with Ajax. Man, there’s nothing like the air Earthside. Can’t wait to breathe it again. It’s Boston tonight. Well, ready to go?”
He smacked the portal frame lightly, and it activated, showing a nighttime city street. Then he shook a finger at Ajax. “Now, you can’t come. The Council says you’re not allowed out.”
Natalie gave Ajax an apologetic look. “Sorry. I really wish—” she shook her head, and stepped through the portal.
Seth laughed silently, and said, “Come on, Jehane. We’ve got monsters to kill.”
Jehane passed by Ajax, giving him an apprehensive look. Seth draped an arm over her shoulder. “Now tonight, you’re going to—” and they vanished through the portal. Almost instantly, the image of the Boston street vanished.
Ajax darted over, poking at the portal. The mirror rippled under his fingers, sucking at them as he pulled away, but staying solid as he pressed. He took a deep breath and found the point inside where the Stage 1 weapon came from. As soon as glimmers of light gathered around his fingers, the surface under his fingers yawned open. It still looked like nothing more than a mirror, but now he could push his arm into it. The tugging was stronger, too.
Ajax looked around. Although there were a few people in the Portalry, nobody was looking at him. He shrugged. That was enough.
He surrendered to the pull.
Last time, when he’d arrived at the Tower, it had been like stepping through a heavy curtain. This time, it was like stepping across a gap that widened as he moved his leg to complete the step. There was enough time to be aware of the utter blackness he passed through, and the tiny glimmer of his anima threading ahead of him.
Then his foot came down and he stumbled onto a sidewalk. Lights danced in front of his eyes, and at first he thought something was wrong with his eyes. Then he realized that the street beyond the sidewalk was wet, and the bright streetlights were reflected in the puddles of water. The sky above was orange with the light haze from the city reflecting off the night clouds.
Ajax took a deep breath, tasting the cool, humid air. He smelled grease from a fast food place just down the street, and crisp smell of autumn leaves that had fallen that day from the naked trees dotting the sidewalk. It was amazing. He was in a city he’d never been in before, and he felt like he was home.
Dazed, with no idea where he was going, he wandered down the street. The street was well-maintained, and the buildings were old but carefully preserved. Near one, a red brick hotel with a low wrought-iron fence, there was a slithering sound that made Ajax freeze.
He’d heard that sound his whole life, all unknowing. But now he knew it. It was the sound of an Awakened. Ajax cut down the alley beside the hotel, and found the Awakened at the service entrance. As soon as he realized where it was, he looked around the alley, then picked up a short metal stave discarded from the hotel garden fence. Then he peeked around the corner again.
The sound came from two Awakened, and they were fighting.
Fascinated, Ajax watched. One was low to the ground, with short legs and a long tail like a crocodile, and slender humanoid arms jutting from its elongated jaws. The other one— the smaller one— had six insectoid legs, a cat’s body, and a spider’s pinchers. The fight between the two was grim and silent. Although the smaller one was clearly weaker, it showed no interest in escaping or even surviving. When the jaw hands of the larger Awakened finally caught the smaller one’s head and stuffed it into the jaws, the smaller Awakened’s six legs kept fighting as it was swallowed whole.
The remaining Awakened shuddered and visibly grew, then turned its hideous head. With a jolt of horror and excitement, Ajax realized it was looking directly at him.
He held out the fence stave, sending his anima out to wrap around the rod. He could do it easily, because this time, it was for real. “Yeah? But this time I’m ready.” He was finally going to get to do what he’d signed up for.