It was late afternoon in Shanghai. Natalie strode down a wide street lined by market stalls, counting Awakened and frowning. She never liked patrolling during the day. There were too many people around, especially in a place like this. But unfortunately, the Awakened seemed to gather here.
Seth wandered behind her. As he passed by the larger of the monsters, latched onto their prey like remora fish, he stroked their heads with his fingers and just a touch of anima. He was liked the Pied Piper, inviting the pests of the city to follow him. Of course, they followed him because they wanted to eat him. That was an interesting difference from the old story.
Natalie ducked into an alley, passing between one stall selling live ducks in wicker cages and another stall selling burnished steamed ducks. Seth skipped past her, pulling his train of hungry Awakened behind him. Natalie twisted her hand, brought out her katana— Seth was so lucky with his small weapons— and began the cleanup process.
After the mild exertion, she leaned on the edge of the alley. She listened to the bits of Mandarin she understood, and watched the people Seth had pulled Awakened off. Some of them straightened up. One of them, a grim old lady, suddenly smiled at one of her customers.
“You’re really much better suited to lurking in dark alleys,” she said over her shoulder.
“Power versus finesse, big sister. You’ve got one, I’ve got the other. Besides, it’s not as if you need me for anything other than luring them into alleys for you.”
“Yeah, speaking of finesse. What’s going on with you and the Tanist?”
Seth gave a well-practiced long-suffering sigh. “Why does nobody believe I’m finally straightening up?”
“Because you’re my brother. You’re playing some kind of game with her.”
“Could be! What game are you playing with Ajax? I mean, I thought it was the sneak-off-together-in-the-dark game and I was all ‘finally’! But now it seems to be the ew-cooties game and I’m all ‘oh God–”
“Shut up! It’s not like that. We didn’t sneak off together.”
Seth walked past her out of the alley, then paused to look at her over his shoulder, smiling sweetly. “Whatever you say.” He tilted his head. “Hear that?”
Slithering. Smacking. Snapping. All in that particular register of the Awakened. They followed the sound into the apartments beyond the market street, down an isolated, empty residential road and into another narrow alley. Laundry flapped from the balconies above. A swarm of Awakened fought each other on top of two human corpses. Without words, Natalie and Seth moved in, weapons flashing. It wouldn’t do to let them finish the fight.
After, Natalie inspected the long scratch on Seth’s arm. “You’re clumsy,” he chided her. “That one almost had you.”
“You’re the one who’s scratched,” she pointed out. Then she took a deep breath and turned to look at the alley again. Beyond the two corpses was a third figure, curled up into a ball and retching. She crouched down and saw that it was a delicate young man. “What happened?” she asked. “Are you injured? Let me see.”
His clothes were torn and there were already bruises rising on his face and arms. She touched his hand lightly and he sat up, still huddled against the wall.
“Natalie, these two were killed by a blade,” Seth called.
“So much blood,” moaned the young man. “I thought I was going to die— and then he came— and then I was sure. So much blood. Devils!” He pulled away from Natalie’s hand, and she stood up.
“Sliced up like he was playing tic tac toe,” muttered Seth.
“Who?” Natalie demanded. “We didn’t see anybody leaving.”
Seth looked up at the blue roofs, so close together that they crowded out the light. “Let’s find out.”
They helped each other climb the balconies. Some of the laundry was useful. Seth laughed as somebody shouted at them, but Natalie just climbed faster.
Once they attained the blue slate roof, it was easy to spot what didn’t belong on the consistent expanse. One roof over, a figure crouched, a curved, flame-shaped blade in his hand. It was Malachi.
He looked over at them, then raised his sword in a salute.
Natalie’s sword appeared in her hand. “He killed those people, Seth. Real people! Just like Tainter and those cops.”
“That’s what Echthroi do,” said Seth, far calmer. “Also, I’m pretty sure those thugs were attacking that kid.” He waved his weapon-free hands at Malachi. “He doesn’t look like he wants to fight us. Put your sword away. I’m going to go talk to him.” Natalie hesitated and he added, “Intel, remember.” She let her sword dissolve, and he said, “Good girl.”
“Hell with intel. I’m just not like him.”
Seth grinned at her, then ran to the edge of the building and launched himself off, landing cleanly on the other side of the gap. He turned, holding his hand out to her, and she landed beside him.
Malachi stood up as they approached, still holding his own weapon, but absently, as if he’d forgotten it was there. “He was praying. Isn’t that ludicrous?” Malachi’s voice was meditative, and so soft that the wind almost whipped it away. “What god was he praying to? I thought about sparing him, but I want so much—” He shook his head. “I was weak. A bit of light reflected from his eyes. I’ll watch him, instead. Check on him. Put him down when the light goes out.”
Natalie’s hands clenched and she tucked them behind her back and hoped Seth got his intel quickly.
“It’s tough,” said Seth, agreeably. “I think he’ll be okay, though.”
“What about you?” asked Malachi.
Seth spread his still-empty hands. “Oh, you know. Just killing monsters. You used to do that, yeah?”
And now he makes them and leaves them behind to make things worse, thought Natalie.
“The monsters come from inside us,” said Malachi. “We are the monsters.” A bleak smile crossed his face. “Is the Tower ghost doing well after his transition? I liked Kentigern. Who is it now? Elian? I saw him sometimes. Too gentle for this work.” He glanced down at his sword hand, splashed with human blood.
“He’s doing all right,” said Seth. “Transitions can be hard.”
Malachi’s mouth twisted into a line. A shadow passed overhead, and Natalie glanced up in time to see something large and orange swoop below the roofline. “Yes. Well, I’d best be off. Work to do, you know.” And he gave them a wary, self-aware look, as if he expected them to disagree.
But Natalie’s mouth was glued shut, and Seth just waved. A moment later, Malachi vanished beyond the next roof and Natalie unprised her lips. “So we just let him go? At the very least, he needs serious help, Seth.”
“I’m sure he does…” said Seth, distractedly. He turned to look at her, a wide grin stretching tight his face, his eyes glittering like he’d found a new toy. “But what I’m wondering about is how did he know about Elian?”