Ten minutes into their patrol, and Natalie and Seth had already lost Jehane. It was a new record. Natalie stalked along the sidewalk, listening for anything that sounded out of place. “We should split up to look for her.”
Seth strolled along beside her, arms behind his head. “Why are you so worked up about it? She always finds her way back to us when she calms down. It’s a lot easier for her to find us than vice versa.”
Natalie set her jaw and didn’t say anything. Seth looked at her from the corner of his eye. “Tell you what. I’ll be kind for a while to make up for the way you rolled your eyes when she broke and ran.”
“I did not roll my eyes!” snapped Natalie. She hadn’t. But maybe there’d been a tiny sigh of exasperation. Tiny! Impossible for anybody to notice. But she knew, and Seth knew her too well. “It’s just— why does she run half the time? We’re not dragging her out here.”
“You’re not,” murmured Seth. Natalie gave him a sharp look and he started whistling as he walked along. Natalie heard something and put her fingers over his mouth as she tilted her head toward running feet. The stride was too long and heavy to be Jehane, though.
“Ajax,” said Seth, a delighted smile curving over his mouth.
Natalie gave Seth a puzzled look, and he pointed. Ajax rounded a corner a block ahead. As soon as he saw them, he dropped to a quick walk. He was holding a bent iron rod, glimmering with anima-light.
“Uh, hi,” he said.
“Naughty, naughty,” said Seth.
“What are you doing here?” Natalie demanded.
Ajax looked at Seth quickly, then back to Natalie. “Just getting some fresh air. Uh, there’s an Awakened back that way.” He hooked his thumb over his shoulder and Natalie noticed the abrasion on his inside arm. He looked dirtier than he had only half an hour ago, like he’d been rolling around in the street. “It’s a little… stronger than the one I tangled with at my house.”
“They are sometimes,” said Seth cheerfully. “Especially when they’ve just eaten. No proper weapon or backup? Running away was a smart move.”
Ajax narrowed his eyes, then shrugged. “Had nothing to look after but myself.” He looked around. “Where’s Jehane?”
“We lost her,” Natalie admitted.
“But don’t worry,” said Seth. “She’s really good at running away. I’m sure there’s no chance she’d dash straight into the arms of the Awakened you just left behind.”
“Arms,” said Ajax, in a haunted voice, then shook himself all over.
“Unless,” said Seth thoughtfully, “She was blinded by tears, perfectly aware that by running once again, she’d driven the kindest and most tolerant of mentors to give a tiny sigh.” He held up a thumb and a finger a centimeter apart. “Tiny.”
“Seth!” wailed Natalie.
He relented. “How about Ajax and I go harass this Awakened he found, and you make sure Jehane’s all right?”
“Fine!” Natalie dashed off down the street until she saw a building with a handy balcony she could catch herself on when she jumped up from a brick planter. She hauled herself up, then jumped for another balcony, and so made her way to the roof of the building, four stories up. From there she scanned the late night streets below, searching for a small figure either running or cowering against a wall. She saw neither.
But she did discover, after she leapt to another roof, yet another Awakened skittering down a narrow. This one had long, shadow-dappled pincers and a complex carapace with unpleasant evil light shining out of cracks in the exoskeleton. It crossed the street Natalie was on and headed down a blind alley on the other side, intent on something in the shadows.
It was Jehane. She’d fled into an alley with no easy escape. So much for her skill at running away. Instead, she just stood there, trembling, as the carapaced Awakened extended feelers that stroked her outline, tasting her anima.
Natalie quietly lowered herself down onto a fire escape above Jehane and the Awakened and hissed, “Fight, Jehane. You can do it!” Her katana was in her hand.
Jehane started, and the Awakened jerked, its many legs dancing backwards. Natalie went on. “Go on! Summon your weapon! I know you can do it!” and she infused her voice with as much faith as she could find.
And she knew Jehane could do it. The younger girl had enormous talents, but she spent so much time hiding from them. Students of far more mundane capacity than herself had achieved Stage 3, Natalie knew from her parents.
Instead, Jehane’s trembling grew worse, and a sob broke from her. One of the Awakened’s pincers closed around her arm and pulled her close, whiskers of light scoring marks all over Jehane’s skin.
Natalie did not sigh. But she did jump down, landing beside Jehane. “Pull your weapon out, Jehane,” she commanded, abandoning encouragement and resorting to orders.
With another sob, Jehane placed her palm on the other front pincher that was reaching for her, pushing it away. There was a long moment of struggle, and then Jehane pulled her hand away, as if pulling the bar of light out of the Awakened’s spectral substance.
The Stage 2 weapon flickered, then fell to Stage 1, a simple glow around her hand, then vanished.
“Good,” said Natalie, and cut off the pincher holding Jehane’s other arm. The Awakened squealed and backed away, and Natalie cut off three of its legs. Then it lunged at Jehane and Natalie knocked the girl behind her, turning her shoulder into the monster’s charge. The severed pincer regrew and Natalie swore. She dodged a hammer-like swipe of the larger claw, before driving her katana into its back. This it hardly noticed, and Natalie started to get nervous. Sometimes they healed like this, when they’d absorbed other Awakened recently. In her experience, the only way forward was to wear it down. That could be tricky, in the blind alley Jehane had so mysteriously chosen for her stand.
But Jehane, sprawled on her knees, whispered, “The eyes.”
Immediately, Natalie drew back her katana, assessed the monster, then slashed at the central eye on the tiny head.
The monster exploded into a huge splash of water, drenching both of them.
“Ew,” said Natalie. “And it’s just the beginning of the patrol, too.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Jehane. “I think I gave it power and made it stronger.”
Natalie paused, then said, “I don’t even know if that’s possible, Jehane.”
Jehane shrugged. After a moment she said, “This one was attracted to the other big one running around. They would have fought and combined. So it’s good that didn’t happen, right?”
Natalie slicked her hair back from her face. “This wasn’t Ajax’s big one? Great. Man, this neighborhood is going downhill.”
“Is Ajax with Seth?” Jehane looked around. She was suspiciously unsurprised to hear about Ajax’s presence, in Natalie’s opinion.
“He should be. But I think I’m going to make him sit with you while I help Seth.”
“Okay,” said Jehane, meekly.
“Um,” said Natalie. “Jehane, I’m sorry I push so much. You’ve already come so far that I know you can keep going.”
“You’re not pushy,” said Jehane, her voice low. “You’re very kind.”
Natalie hesitated. “Well, I’m glad you think so.” Awkwardly, she put her arms around Jehane to hug her. Jehane stood still and cold in her embrace for a moment, then sighed and relaxed into the hug. And afterward, she took Natalie’s hand to lead her to the others.
On the way there, Jehane spoke, in a more normal voice. “I don’t mind sitting with Ajax. He’s cute.” Natalie gave Jehane a startled, sidelong glance and Jehane went on, “Don’t you think so? I thought you liked him.” After a moment she added earnestly, “I could ask him what he thinks of you, if you want.”
To her horror, Natalie felt her cheeks warming. “This is not a conversation we’re having right now. And when did you start noticing that kind of thing anyhow?”
“I’m fifteen. I’ve gone through puberty, you know. I have boobs and all,” Jehane said, and now she sounded half like herself and half like Seth, if Seth were a strange French teenage girl.
Natalie made a strangled noise, then said, as solicitiously as she could manage, “Ah. Do we need to have a little talk?”
Now it was Jehane who blushed. “I’ll go sit with Ajax. And I won’t say a word.”