Natalie delivered the basket of supplies to the infirmary only to discover it was nearly empty. “We’ve sent ‘em all to the Portalry,” said the remaining medical assistant. She looked between Ajax and Natalie meaningfully and sniffed. Ajax gazed back at her blandly but Natalie looked away, trying not to blush.
He followed her as she jogged to the Portalry, his long strides keeping him only a few steps behind her even though he was only walking. Every time she looked back at him, he managed to convey that he was just wandering in the same direction as her. It could be true, she reasoned. He liked to hang out in the Portalry.
Her thoughts were so confused that she didn’t recognize the Portalry at first when she arrived. It was full of people, with several hospital beds in the midst of crowds. Seth and Jake stood next to Rohan as he sat up on his bed arguing with them.
“It’s just a bumped head,” Rohan snapped.
Seth laughed, and Natalie noticed a long, untreated scratch on his cheek. She joined them, punching Seth lightly in the shoulder. “What happened to you?”
He twisted his head to look back at her with a bright grin. “A battle scar, of course. Where have you been?” His gaze drifted past her to Ajax. “Aha! You’ve been busy, I see!”
Natalie punched him again, harder this time. “Shut up. We’ve been defending the Tower on the upper levels where it was open to the sky. What’s going on?”
“Well, Kentigern is dying, and our leader is kind of crazy.” Seth ducked away from her fist and spread his hands.
“Oh my God.” Natalie stared at him, then at her father. “Are we trapped here?”
“Nah, not yet,” said Seth. “It depends on Kentigern and our fearless leader.”
Harshly, Jake said, “She’s doing her best, Seth. Stop poking her.”
Seth gave their father a ghastly look, but before he could say anything, the lights went out.
It was different than the previous power flickers. The entire Tower seemed plunged into a pool of silence. The open portals vanished. The tablets went dim. Even the air stopped moving.
In the distance, the doctor started swearing, the only light the indicators on the beds he stood between. A moment later, flashlights started flickering on.
“Well, I guess that decision’s made,” said Seth. “Dibs on the reach gun.”
Ajax moved up beside them, holding his Stage 2 weapon. It gleamed in the near darkness. “We’re not without all hope, I think.” This time, the dim light made his face seemed angelic, not demonic. Maybe it was because he was smiling, and perfectly calm.
He was one of the only ones. A lot of people were shouting, and somebody was crying already. On the other side of the big room, Tanist Kiley’s voice was raised in an attempt to restore order. Jake said, “I should—” then he shook his head and dropped his hand on Natalie’s shoulder. “We got your mother and the kids out.”
“That’s… good?” Natalie thought rationally it must be good, but she really wanted her mother’s calm pragmatism right now. It was the right response, though, because her father squeezed her shoulder and moved away.
Jehane appeared beside Seth’s elbow. “I can’t—” she began worriedly.
All at once, the Tower came back to life. As the lights flickered on and the air started to move and the tablets lit up, Kentigern said, “Sorry about that. I needed to get some filing done.”
Natalie drew in a deep, gasping breath of relief. Seth frowned, though. “That’s not how Kentigern talks.”
The voice from the walls continued. “I think things are all right now. Or will be after physical repairs complete, but I’m on that now. Night should end in a few hours.” And as the voice spoke, it shifted in tone and register from Kentigern’s to someone else’s.
Natalie said, “What happened? Are you feeling better?”
“You could say that. It’s probably better if I don’t talk about it.”
Rohan half-fell off his hospital bed, his face white. “Why do you sound like Elian? Where is Elian?”
“Oh, crap.” The voice from the wall— Elian’s voice— paused for a long moment. A shocked silence engulfed the Portalry.
“Rohan, this is Elian. Kentigern is here… somewhere. He was ready to retire. I’ve taken his place, just like Kentigern took the place of the previous control system personality.”
Jehane cried, “No!” then covered her mouth.
Kiley, striding across the room, said, “Dammit! Well, I’m glad to see it worked, although it needn’t have been you, Elian.”
“From my perspective, I think I can safely say it did, ma’am.”
Kiley pursed her lips, then shrugged. “It’s done now, in any case.”
Rohan pushed himself away from the hospital bed. “This is stupid. Kentigern has gone mad. I’m going to go look for Elian, or whatever is left of him.”
Natalie shook her head. “Wait, Kentigern was… a human before he was the Tower?” It was an incredible idea, but she caught her father’s expression and knew that it was true. Cold, Natalie reached out for Rohan as he passed, but Ajax caught her hand in his own.
“Let him go,” he suggested quietly. “Elian will take care of him. Yes?”
“Yes,” agreed Elian, his voice low.
Natalie’s hand turned into a fist in Ajax’s. “Tanist, you were planning for this? For somebody to take Kentigern’s place in the core? You knew?”
Evenly, the Tanist said, “It was an option we were discussing.” Her gaze flicked to Jehane and away again, so quickly Natalie might have imagined it. “Not necessarily the most wholesome one, but…” she shrugged again. “What’s done is done. I’m grateful for Elian’s sacrifice.”
Elian said, “It’s all right. I wouldn’t have made a very good Nightlight, and now I’m getting lots of education, just like I always wanted. Of course, I’m not Kentigern. Everybody will have to learn to live with that.”