Seth wanted to take the news of their encounter back to the Tower right away. Natalie wanted to finish their patrol first. As usual when Natalie really wanted something, she won the argument.
When they arrived in the Portalry, it was emptier than she expected, empty enough that she was really frightened. “Elian? Is everything okay? Where is everybody?”
“Working. Nothing new has happened here, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Oh,” said Natalie uncertainly. “Okay. Well, we have news.”
“Bad news,” said Seth cheerfully. “On the bright side, the Echthros likes you, Elian.”
“That sounds just dandy,” said Elian, with more than a trace of Kentigern’s dryness. “I’ll put that on a little card and look at it when I feel sad.” He paused. “By the way, Kwan didn’t convince the Tanist to approve the patrols. And some people are late coming back from the unapproved patrols. In the spirit of sharing, and all. You’d better go talk to her. She’s at your place.”
“Is Kwan in trouble?” Natalie asked.
“Well, you’re used to Seth, so you probably wouldn’t think so. She seems pretty content to let him hang himself with the late arrivals.”
“With a bit of twisting the knife, I’ll bet,” said Seth. “Come on, Natalie.”
They found the Tanist sitting at the Ward kitchen table, eating a sandwich. Jake sat across from her with his own sandwich, while Valeria leaned against a counter. Natalie entered the room warily; the tension when all three adults were in the same room was always thick enough to cut with a knife. It didn’t seem that bad this time, though. Her mother brightened when Natalie stuck her head in. “Natalie!”
Seth pushed past her, bounding into the room and throwing himself across a chair. “And me! Hi!”
The Tanist gave Seth an irritated look. “And how did you get into trouble?”
“Well, we didn’t engage the Echthros when we found him. We got information instead! I hear Kwan’s in disgrace so I don’t know if following his instructions means we misbehaved?” Seth cocked an eyebrow at the Tanist, who gave him a disgusted look and an indication to continue.
“He’s acting like a usual Echthros, you know, running around, slaughtering whoever pisses him off. He wasn’t aggressive toward us, though.”
“Which is kind of odd, really,” said Natalie thoughtfully. “Given how they sent the cambion in and all. If they’re interested in hurting the Guardians, it clearly isn’t all of us.”
“Or all of them,” said Seth.
“That’s true,” said Natalie. “Tanist, he knew about Elian. I didn’t notice at first, because we all know about Elian, but he hasn’t been home for a long time.”
The Tanist frowned. “Would he know about you from Tower Di, Elian?”
“I don’t think so. Not about me, Elian-me, even if it knew about the shakeup in the tower control system. I’m not Elian to other towers.”
“Well, he knew about you,” said Seth. “You, your name, who you were last week. And I think that means he has a source of information inside this Tower.”
An ugly, unhappy silence grew from Seth’s words. Finally, the Tanist wiped her mouth. “Aya and Slade still haven’t checked in. Maybe now we know why.”
“Jumping to conclusions isn’t the same as being decisive, Kiley,” snapped Valeria.
Red spots leapt to the Tanist’s cheeks, and Jake hastened to smooth things over. “Interesting idea, Seth. But we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that there’s other methods of finding out what’s happening within the tower. Datataps or spy cameras or something.”
Seth didn’t bother trying to hide his rolling eyes, so Natalie got involved. “It’s true. We don’t know how he got the information. We shouldn’t let the fact that he did divide us.”
The Tanist stood up, her cheeks still bright. “Thanks for the snack, Val. I’m heading back to the Portalry. Are you coming, Ward?”
Jake looked between his boss and his wife. Val shrugged, and Jake said, “Yes, of course.”
Natalie tagged along, worried. Aya was her age, another Tower native, and they’d known each other since toddler playgroup. The idea that she was informing on them to an Echthros was so ridiculous that Natalie didn’t think it was worth considering. Her partner, Slade, was Earthborn, but he’d lived here since he was adopted as an eleven year old foster kid. While Natalie didn’t know him as well, she didn’t think it would be possible for one of them to be a traitor without the other knowing and consenting. The whole idea was crazy. But clearly the Tanist was considering it, and Natalie wanted to be on hand to help redirect the Tanist if she couldn’t let go.
At the Portalry entrance, Elian announced, “Aya incoming.” They crowded through the door and the Tanist strode ahead, racing to the inbound portals. Natalie started running, too. She wanted to get to Aya first.
The mirrored surface rippled and parted, and Aya stood there. Her long dark hair dripped, slick and wet, and her face twisted in anguish. She held Slade in her arms, and darkness twisted around her legs as if pulling itself out of her flesh. “He told me to bring him back,” she said hoarsely. “He told me to bring him back and maybe our tower machine could absorb him, too.”
Natalie realized that Slade’s head dangled back more than was natural, and that his throat gaped like another mouth. A heartbeat later, she realized Slade had stumps instead of hands, that the backs of his legs gaped like his throat, and that what dripped from Aya was blood.
“Can you, Elian? Can you bring him back?”
“I’m sorry, Aya,” said Elian, quietly.
Rage warped Aya’s features. “I didn’t think so.” She let Slade slip from her arms and touched the darkness spilling out of her.
Foreboding raced through Natalie. She said, “Don’t let her go!”
But the portal behind Aya, not quite closed, opened again as a hand emerged from it. The hand grabbed Aya by the arm, dragging her back and down. Natalie leapt forward, trying to catch Aya’s other hand and pull her back. But the darkness, Aya’s newborn cambion, struck at her, moving like a snake.
Aya vanished into the mirror. For a moment, the dark cambion lingered, a still-forming shape. Natalie’s weapon appeared in her hand, but as she felt the comforting weight, the cambion shook itself. Then it turned toward the mirror like a dog following its nose, and vanished into the beyond, following the path of its maker.
They were gone.