Ajax leaned against a light post, watching Natalie and Seth stalk the Awakened he’d briefly engaged.
“Stay out of the fighting,” Natalie had ordered, as she’d deposited Jehane behind him and run off to join Seth. And as long as the situation didn’t get desperate, he was content to do so. If he was smacking monsters with a half-assed semi-weapon, he wouldn’t get to see what he really wanted to see: how Natalie and Seth used their Stage 3 weapons.
Natalie, tall and slim, held her katana in front of her, half the time with one hand and half the time with two. She moved like a candleflame, flickering, bending, dodging but always returning upright. Every time her blade lashed out, it bit into the Awakened lunging at her.
It was maddened by Natalie’s cuts. It moved in rapid bursts, the awful arms coming from its jaw waving and grabbing at whatever came close. Ajax knew from personal experience that once grabbed the Awakened’s grip was phenomenally strong. He’d been far too close to those gaping jaws when he’d managed to bash one of its eyes with his metal rod. The Awakened’s tail was just as dangerous as its arms, crackling with ice, and capable of slamming into the unwary like a speeding car.
But Seth was never unwary. He never stopped moving. When the Awakened got too close to his sister, forcing her back a step, there he was to pester it, poking his knives in its eyes, then vaulting over its low back to run down its tail and take off its tip. It turned after him, reaching for him, and he smacked the monstrous hands away in a blur of motion. Then he rolled backward, just avoiding its drive forward, and Natalie stepped in again to cut.
They were an experienced team. A few moments later, the monster, leaking water from a thousand cuts, shuddered to a halt. Natalie stepped in and swiftly decapitated it and the Awakened dissolved into a steaming puddle. Natalie and Seth weren’t even breathing hard.
Natalie looked over at Ajax and Jehane. “More?”
Jehane nodded and pointed. “Three streets over that way.”
“All right. We’ll be right back. Stay in the area.” Natalie turned and jogged down the street, Seth right behind her.
Ajax looked down at Jehane, who was giving him a nervous look. As soon as she realized he was looking at her, she ducked her head and looked at a smartphone in her hand. She was a strange girl.
“How good are they?” he asked her, tilting his head after the others. She gave him an inquisitive look. “I mean, they seem pretty good to me, but I’m new and I don’t exactly have a lot of experience evaluating monster fighting.”
“Oh! Natalie is very good, as good as some assigned Nightlights. She works hard at it. Seth is…” she frowned. “Erratic. He manifested his Stage 3 only a few days after Natalie did. But he doesn’t practice like she does and his anima isn’t as focused, and he doesn’t hit as hard.” It was the longest speech he’d heard from her, and her faint French accent was more noticeable. He realized suddenly that it probably meant she was from Earth originally, like him.
“Why do they bring you out here, if you don’t manifest your weapon reliably and you don’t like to fight?”
“My special gifts are so useful.” She looked away.
Like knowing where the Awakened are? But Ajax hesitated, listened to her tone of voice, and didn’t ask. Instead he said, “Do you like getting back to Earth? I can’t believe how much I missed it, myself.”
“No.” At first he thought that was all he was getting, but she added, “It reminds me of my life before the Tower. It wasn’t,” she paused, searching for a word, “It wasn’t nice. But it’s good that you like Earth,” she added hastily. “It probably gives you a solid foundation for… for everything else.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said vaguely, trying to come up with another, less troubling topic for small talk. He was just about to start on the weather when she spoke again.
“I wish I was like you.” At his startled noise, she explained. “You’re so strong. And confident. You just jumped through the portal, as soon as Seth suggested you could. You didn’t care that he was trying to get you into trouble. And you like Earth. Every time I try to do things the way other people do them, I mess up. They keep telling me, ‘You can do it!’ but I don’t know why they think I can.” She ran out of words and fell silent.
“It’s not very good encouragement,” he said, after a moment to reorganize his thoughts. That he’d been about to say those exact words to her was more than a little embarrassing. “You never know whether they’re brushing you off or trying to convince themselves or if by some craziness they really believe it.”
Jehane gave him a grateful look that made him feel ashamed. “Yes, exactly.”
The phone in her hand rang and she jumped, then answered it. “Yes? Oh. I can— okay. We’re six blocks west.” She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it. “That was Elian. He has a message from the Council for Natalie and Seth.”
A couple moments later, Elian ran up. He looked out of breath, and excited. “Where are they?”
“On their way back,” said Jehane. “They were tracking a monster down.”
Elian’s eyes narrowed. “Good. Why aren’t you with them?”
“I’m babysitting him,” said Jehane, pointing at Ajax. Ajax, who had rather thought of it the other way around, scowled.
“Oh. Uh, what’s he doing here?”
“Exploring,” said Ajax curtly. “Your turn.” He noticed Seth and Natalie strolling down the sidewalk from the other direction.
“The Council wants you all back immediately—” Elian turned and saw Seth and Natalie and waited until they were close enough to hear. “The Council wants you all back immediately. They’ve got a report of Malachi and they want to talk to you before they move in.”
Natalie shot Seth a look, then said, “Why?”
Elian spread his hands. “I don’t know. But I know who they’re most interested in talking to: Jehane.”