Illumination 2.11: A New Problem

“Vancouver emergence lock-on reaquired,” announced Kentigern. The Vancouver portal frame filled with light as it activated. Ajax ignored it, watching Natalie as she was wheeled from the Portalry. She didn’t seem injured badly, but she’d been so weak.

Something eclipsed the glow of the portal, growing. Kentigern said, “A new problem. Please remove the injured immediately.” Glittering motes streamed overhead to the portal. Ajax looked over, right into a bright flash. The afterimage burned into his retina: a creature, as big as Descry had been, with four legs and a flattened face pulling itself through a frame it could barely fit into. A scorpion’s tail waved over its back. The tail glowed like a firefly’s backside, the flash ebbing away.

The blindness cleared, although the stink of an electrical fire took its place. Ajax was already moving, away from the doctor working over the injured Prowler. The Cambion looked at him and growled again, a deep, throbbing snarl.

Ajax growled back. “Get out.” Instead, it leapt forward, shaking itself once it was clear of the portal. Its heavy mane jingled and chimed as it lowered its head to stare at Ajax with intelligent amber eyes.

Ajax didn’t back down. “Go back where you came from. The gate’s still open.” It shook its head again, then mid-shake dodged to one side, toward the doctor.

Ajax darted in front of it and a heavy paw slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around. When he whirled around again, he had a glowing bar of light in his hand.

He swung up at the Cambion and it flinched away. Then it spun on a single paw and leapt toward the Portalry exit. Ajax remained where he was for a moment, sure it was a feint and just as sure that Kentigern would do something to stop the Cambion from entering the main part of the Tower.

The scorpion tail glowed again and Ajax squeezed his eyes shut right before another flash turned his eyelids red.

“A-a-alert: enemy within Tower. Noncombatants, get out of corridors.” Kentigern’s voice crackled.

The Cambion squeezed through the open doorframe and vanished into the hall beyond. Ajax spared a look around. Natalie’s dad still stood with the doctor and the injured Prowler, and the other Prowlers seemed to be regrouping.

But Natalie was still in the corridor, on her way to the infirmary. Ajax didn’t know if the Cambion was bent on finishing some fight they’d had on the other side, but he’d be damned if he’d let the monster succeed.

He raced after it. It was fast, leaping down the corridor, but it paused at every intersection to look both ways. At the third intersection, where it seemed to be angling to turn, Ajax caught up. He noticed the scorpion tail actually dissolved into radiance at the tip, sizzling and sparking. It looked a little like the weapon he held, except his weapon didn’t make the air stink of ionization.

He swung his weapon at a point lower on the tail, and felt the connection through his wrist and up his arm. Disappointingly, the weapon didn’t cut the tail, or even make it bleed. But it did make the Cambion turn around and lunge at him. That flattened face, almost human, split open to reveal a maw of razor teeth, and he flung his arm up in front of his face, the corridor wall at his back.

The monster’s breath was hot and dry, like a desert wind. Blood ran down what he was starting to think of as his ‘Cambion-choking arm’, ahead of the pain. He brought his other hand up to press the stage 2 weapon against the monster’s throat, then screamed in its face as he pressed hard.

For a moment everything was a blur of agony and rage. Then he felt the weapon push through a barrier. He could actually feel the liquid running down the weapon, as if on some phantom limb.

The Cambion released him to roar in his face, and he had to grant that its roar was a lot better than his shout. By the time the burst of dizziness had faded, the Cambion was moving down the corridor again. Ajax gave himself just a moment to catch his breath before throwing himself after the Cambion again. “Kentigern,” he shouted. “Can’t you do anything?”

The voice in the walls didn’t answer. Ajax hoped that was a good sign. Then he realized they were in the hall leading to Kentigern’s core. “Kent, it’s heading to you!”

“I know. Preparing—” Kentigern’s voice cut out as the Cambion stopped outside the door to Kentigern’s core. Ajax had never even seen a door for the archway, but there was one now, made of the same pale material as the walls. The Cambion sat back, looking at it, then lifted a paw to score the wall with glittering metallic claws.

Ajax paused a few yards away, keenly aware of the burning ache in his arm and the blood slicking his hand. There were fully trained, healthy Nightlights with stage 3 weapons somewhere in the Tower. Somewhere. Where the hell were they?

He eyed the tail, prepared to make another attempt on it if he saw it about to flash again. He was certain that somehow the flash was doing something to Kentigern or his motes.

But after scoring the new wall, the Cambion drew his head back and bashed it into the scored surface. The wall, eggshell thin, cracked. Another blow shattered it. Then the great paws were pulling the fragments of the wall apart, ignoring the motes that swarmed around.

The Cambion oozed into Kentigern’s core, and paused again, looking around. The room was empty, all of its other exits still sealed. The beam of light in the center of the round bar glittered calmly, but the air around it was clouded with sparkling motes.

The Cambion’s tawny mane lifted, as if in a strong wind. It leaped onto the bar, balanced like a housecat for a heartbeat, then leapt through the beam of light.

It landed on the other side, stumbling and almost falling. With an angry growl, it righted itself and dashed around the room, wrecking the tables and chairs, and scoring the walls. Strands of its mane moved independently, shining like metal. Then it jumped through the central beam of light again, and a third time.

For a moment light seemed to drip from its mane, but Ajax was still more concerned with its tail. All of the new walls blocking the exits dissolved. Kentigern crackled, “G-g-g-get it out of here. D-d-d-disruptive.”

Ajax swallowed and ran after the Cambion as it balanced for a fourth jump. He let his Stage 2 weapon dissove and jumped to grab at the highest point he could reach on the tail, with a bloody, glowing hand. The Cambion whirled, batted him with a paw, then noticed the open doors. Its angry expression cleared, becoming a satisfied smile, and it pushed itself through one of the open doors.

Ajax pushed himself to his feet and limped after it. He was just in time to see it knock aside a Nightlight he didn’t know, sniff at the corridor, and continue on. As it moved, it became clear it wasn’t interested in fighting; it was looking for something and the Nightlights and their Stage 3 weapons who finally appeared were just obstacles to overcome. It turned at this corridor and that, had a tantrum at a courtyard where it destroyed the door and half the wall, and continued on before half a minute had passed.

Finally, it ended up in a hall Ajax had never been in before. A wide ramp leading down joined the hall to another level, but on this level it ended at a huge pair of double doors. The Cambion galloped heavily over to these doors, by now leaking from dozens of cuts taken from the Nightlights it had tried to trample over. It smacked one of the doors with a huge paw, and now, finally, a bright glow grew around the live end of the scorpion tail.

It flashed. When Ajax opened his eyes again, the great doors were opening slowly. Beyond was what he’d noticed Guardians tended to call ‘the land outside’. A breeze freshened, smelling of evergreen sweetness and rotting seaweed and nutmeg.

The Cambion squeezed out between the two doors as soon as it could, vanishing beyond. But the doors kept opening.

“It just wanted to escape?” said a Nightlight behind Ajax. It was Laurel, rumpled as if the emergency had woken her up. “I don’t like that. What could it want out there?”

But Ajax didn’t listen. He was staring at his first unfiltered view of an alien world. And the first thing he noticed was that it was much, much darker than in the pictures.

Kentigern announced, “Ann-n-nouncement: N-n-n-nightfall in ten minutes.”



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