Ajax looked skeptically at the portal that Natalie and Jehane had already stepped through.
“Not coming back, big guy?” Seth grinned at him.
“Not in a hurry to get chewed out, at least.”
Seth pulled the latchkey away from the reflective window and the portal vanished. “It’s cool. I wasn’t going to head back right away either. Figured I’d finish the patrol. You sticking with us, Elian?”
Elian, looking down the street with his hands in his pocket, said, “Yeah.”
“Your mom lives around here somewhere, doesn’t she?” Seth strolled down the street and Ajax fell in beside him.
“Yeah, she does.” Elian caught up.
“You see her much?” Seth asked.
“Holidays.” Ajax shot a look at Elian and saw the self-conscious little smile on his face. “It’s easier for her if she doesn’t have to keep an apartment big enough for both of us, so I don’t go home on weekends except for dinner sometimes.”
Ajax imagined heading back to his dad’s place for dinner some weekend and felt sick. “Hey, what’s Jehane’s story?”
Seth’s gaze slid over to Ajax, and his everpresent smile flickered for just a moment. Then, lightly, he said, “She was born luminated. And you have no idea what I mean, do you?”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’d give a straight answer if I smacked you around first and asked the questions after.” Ajax showed Seth his fist, then his middle finger.
“Aww, so sweet. Work harder or get smarter and then you might have a chance,” said Seth. “You know how when we met, I’d just flashed a bright light into your eyes?”
“I remember what lumination is,” said Ajax impatiently. “But isn’t everybody born in the Tower luminated? What’s the big deal?”
“There aren’t any Awakened in the Tower,” said Elian.
“Jehane wasn’t born in the Tower,” said Seth. “It’s rare, like one in a million, but sometimes kids are born being able to see the Awakened naturally.”
“I guess that makes getting recruited easier to handle?”
Seth laughed. “Ajax, big guy, think about it. You grow up, always seeing monsters nobody else can see? That’s crazy, by definition. Most naturals are found as adults. Completely nuts, totally unreachable. And the Readers think a lot more die as children.”
Elian said, “The story goes that Lailoken, the guy who founded the Guardians, was a natural. That’s how Kentigern managed to open the first portal and contact him. But pretty much every functional natural we’ve recorded since, the Guardians have rescued as a very small child.”
“Jehane was eight. Not so small. The team that brought her in pulled her out of an institution where her parents had abandoned her.” There was an odd note in Seth’s voice and after a moment Ajax realized that the laugh that underscored under almost everything Seth said was gone. “This way,” he said, turning down a narrow street between two apartment buildings.
Ajax was confused for a moment, then heard the metallic slither he associated with Awakened.
“Now Ajax, you stand right here and try to look tasty. Brood a little. Think about Natalie, or those other girls you’re always drawing. Or your asshole father, if you must.” Seth pushed Ajax to one of the walls, under a balcony, then skipped out of Ajax’s reach.
“You’re using him as bait?” said Elian, disbelievingly.
“Better him than you.” Seth put a finger to his lips and winked. Ajax bared his teeth at Seth, then tilted his head to listen to the slithering. It sounded like it was coming from above them, somewhere several floors up. He wondered if it was nibbling on somebody. Little bites, lapping at that which leaked, drawing sustenance until at last it became so strong it could take big bites. The victim would become weaker and weaker, sicker and sicker, or might even just die. And medical science would find a reason for what otherwise would seem senseless and random.
“He can hear it?” Elian whispered, in the same tone of voice. “That’s just not fair.”
“Yeah,” whispered Seth. “It’s an advanced skill, unless you’re Jehane or Ajax.” He paused. “Okay, or me, but I wouldn’t want to brag.” He raised his voice. “Come on, Ajax, flare your anima a little, or it’s going to be up there all night.”
Throwing Seth a look of intense irritation, Ajax channeled his anima through his hand and smacked the wall. A line of light raced up the wall, following the jagged brickwork pattern. He had time to notice Elian’s amazed look before the metallic slithering became a crash, and then something skittered over the balcony and plummeted off.
It had an absolutely round torso, with several nested rings that rotated like a saw. Red light spilled from a hole in its center, and eyes blinked around the edge of another disc interlocking with the first. And it was small, much smaller than the other one Ajax had seen tonight, closer to the size of a dog than a giant crocodile.
Although he dodged, it landed on his back, digging into his skin with spindly clawed legs. He reached up with his glowing hand and threw it off, as hard as he could. On the other side of the alley, Elian swung his Stage 2 weapon like a baseball bat. He smacked the little monster down toward the main street to where Seth had run. Seth jumped, slashed up and around, and water drenched him as the Awakened dissolved.
Seth spread his hands and his daggers vanished. Then he pushed wet hair out of his eyes. “More fun than usual.”
Ajax reached around to touch the punctures on his back. “Okay, I’m damn glad I’m not Jehane. How the hell did she survive? No wonder she can’t manifest a weapon reliably, if these little shits were drawn to that kind of thing when she was a kid and she knew it.”
“Skills,” repeated Seth. “Special skills. Up for another?”