After laying out his observations for his father, Seth strolled down the hall in the general direction of home. He took the long way, passing by the infirmary again. There he looked in the door long enough to see Natalie curled on her side, her eyes open, watching the activity.
He smiled and let the door close without going in. They could talk later, when she was safe at home. If he went in now, she’d be tempted to get into trouble on his behalf. It was like she couldn’t stop herself— and normally he didn’t mind. But she still looked tired, and he felt generous.
He strolled on, pausing every so often to inspect the damage caused by the Cambion. The path didn’t lead home, except by the most flexible of definitions. Fortunately, Seth was very flexible in his thinking.
When he was near the Tower garage, he met Elian and Rohan. The taller boy was leaning heavily on Elian, and Seth ducked under his other arm. “Let me spot you there, Elian. Did you get in the way of the Cambion, Rohan?”
Rohan grinned painfully. “Maybe a little.”
“What are you still doing over here? The infirmary’s buzzing.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad.” Rohan gave him an embarrassed look. “Bruised ribs, you know.”
“He also hit his head on the wall,” said Elian, moodily. “Then he fell over while checking himself out. He’s probably got a concussion.”
“What are you doing over here, Seth?” asked Rohan.
“Oh, I pissed off the Tanist on our way back. This is a shortcut back to my place.”
Rohan and Elian exchanged looks. Elian said, “Really? What did you do to her?”
“I told her to get the hell out of my way,” said Seth calmly. “She was trying to make Jehane do something she really didn’t want to do. I had to protect my novice. You know. As one does.”
After a moment, Rohan said, “Right. So what was Mala— the Echthros like?”
Seth wondered how quickly gossip would spread about two Echthroi instead of one. That would be interesting to see. Would the Tanist try to control the news? Well, he could always break that effort later, if he wanted to. “I’m pretty sure he’s even higher on the Tanist’s shit list than I am. He’s not your garden-variety psycho with a sword. Can you guys make it to the infirmary from here? If I stick my head in there, it could be bad.”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Elian, giving him a narrow-eyed, knowing look.
Rohan said, “I’m really glad you’re all right. Wish I was.” He looked annoyed at himself.
Lightly, Seth said, “You’d better get your head looked at, because you’re talking crazy. I’m a bastard to you, Rohan.” Seth clapped Elian on the shoulder and took the direct route home this time.
Valeria, his mother, came out from the dining room when he slammed the door behind him. “Hi, Mom! Dad and the Tanist grounded me, so,” he spread his hands and grinned at her, “here I am. Natalie’s in the infirmary, but she’s fine.” Logan and Kaylee squeezed around Valeria and darted over to him.
Valeria inspected him, then said, “Yes, your father called me.”
Seth fended off his younger siblings, lifting his hands over his head and refusing to pick either of them up. “Can’t play now, brats. I have to get cleaned up and go my room. Grounded! No fun!”
Valeria gave him a suspicious look. He was always earning looks like that, but that was okay. He had his own look, and it was very innocent. “I’ve got to stay out of the way, Mom. The Tanist said. But I’ll do the dishes later.” He stepped over Kaylee and kissed Valeria on the forehead on his way to his room.
After a shower and clean clothes, Seth stretched out on his futon. Whatever energy that had both filled him and ebbed away while he stalked Malachi had left him tired, but not nearly as tired as it seemed to leave Natalie. Still, laying down felt good.
He put his bare feet on the wall. “Kentigern, old buddy, tell me what’s going on out there.”
“Seth, my young friend. Let’s see. Things are going reasonably well in the infirmary. The Tanist is meeting with the Council. The Readers are working on my repairs. There’s a storm forming; I can feel the lightning trembling in the air already. It will start the war.” Kentigern sounded almost exactly as he always did, but something was wrong.
Seth sat up. “That’s a little severe, isn’t it? One Cambion doesn’t make a war.”
“That invader isn’t my concern anymore. We drove him off. But there are others. I’ve got to prepare for the war. The darkness reminded me. I don’t know how I could have forgotten. I hope you’re prepared to help, Seth.”
“Hey, man, anything. Who are we going to fight?”
“They’re planning an assault. I’m not ready. I forgot. I’ll have to activate the emergency defenses.”
Seth wondered what the hell would qualify as Tower emergency defenses. As far as he knew, the human inhabitants were the only things that fit the bill.
Outside of his room, Kaylee screamed in terror. Then there was a thump.
His door dented the wall as he flung it open. His sister and brother had been playing at the coffee table, but now the table and the couch had both been flipped over by an elongated semi-person swinging elastic arms around.
Seth dived across the floor and scooped up his sister, rolling with her away from the monster. It was far more humanoid than any Awakened he’d seen before, like a clay man rolled out tall and thin. It didn’t have anything resembling a face, just flapping bandages that bound it at the place where eyes and mouth would be, and around the torso and arms and legs.
Valeria sprinted out of the kitchen, a glowing toasting fork in her hand. Seth threw Kaylee at her, looked around enough to find Logan cowering in the corner, then tackled the monster. It was easy enough to knock over, barely fighting back. It flailed and flopped like a fish out of water. As he pinned it down and tried to figure out what the hell it was, it twined its ludicrous arms around him.
“Intruder,” it hissed. Seth was already bringing his hand up when he felt the prickles on his back and torso. He slashed his knife savagely across what passed for a throat. Then he threw himself away from the pinpricks, scrambling out of its loose grip as it sprouted thorns all over.
It trembled and shook, and he stabbed it again in the throat, then in the place where eyes should have been, then where a heart would be.
At last, it stopped moving. But it didn’t dissolve into water, like an Awakened would have. It didn’t bleed like a man, either.
Seth looked up. His mother had both kids gathered in her arms, and her toasting fork still glowed with the light of a stage 1 weapon. “What the hell was that?”
“Kentigern said something about invaders. Was that an invader, Kentigern?”
“Oh. Oh yes. Yes, the invaders are proving… challenging to repel. We’ll endure, though. After all, we have before.” Kentigern’s voice was very calm, as if nothing at all unusual had occurred.